A well-stocked larder is essential to the thrifty cook. Fill your cupboards and rest easy that you'll never be far from a delicious home-cooked meal. With a few strokes you can pep up ordinary ingredients and stretch expensive ones further.
How to be master of your own kitchen
Real home cooking isn't about expensive perishable ingredients. They might be delicious, but when looks and flavour fade they will leave you with very little. Larder essentials, on the other hand, are versatile, will stand the test of time, and provide the background to not one but many meals.
Tinned or dried pulses are essential weapons for saving money. Added to soups, stews or sauces they provide bulk and a good source of low-fat protein. For an inexpensive, nourishing dinner, which is also quick to prepare, braise green lentils in chicken stock and dress with a squeeze of lemon and a drizzle of olive oil. This dish can easily be jazzed up with whatever happens to be in the fridge: a dollop of Greek yoghurt, a handful of crumbled goat's cheese, flakes of cooked salmon or roasted vegetables.
Tinned tomatoes, meanwhile, have endless uses. Cook in a little oil, over a fairly rapid heat until most of the liquid has evaporated. This can then be used as a pasta sauce, spread over a pizza base or added to a curry.
A selection of spices will add interest and versatility to your culinary repertoire. For maximum freshness, buy whole spices where possible. Store in an airtight container, away from direct sunlight and only grind to a powder as needed.
While it is well worth purchasing a decent extra virgin olive oil, you shouldn't use it for cooking. The strong flavour of extra virgin is often lost when heated and using copious amounts of this expensive ingredient to fry vegetables (for example) is simply a waste of money. Use groundnut or vegetable oil instead and save extra virgin olive oil for finished dishes; combine with Dijon mustard, vinegar and a spoonful of honey (all larder staples) to make a delicious salad dressing.
Recipes straight from the store cupboard
Anchovy and caper pasta (Serves 2)
Pour 100ml of extra virgin olive oil into a pan and place over a medium heat. Add 6 chopped anchovy fillets and leave for 3-4 minutes; they will dissolve into the oil. Remove from the heat, stir in 50ml more oil, 2 tablespoons of capers and the juice and zest of half a lemon. Season with black pepper. Add cooked spaghetti to the pan, mixing well to coat. Serve.
Add a finely chopped garlic clove at the beginning
Add a tin of tomatoes and handful of black olives to the anchovies and cook until slightly reduced
Add a splash of cream along with the capers and lemon
Rather than serving with pasta, drizzle the sauce over warm new potatoes
Basic risotto (Serves 4)
Heat a tablespoon of oil in a pan, add a finely chopped onion and two finely chopped garlic cloves. Cook for 4-6 minutes until softened but not coloured. Stir in 350g risotto rice and a handful of chopped rosemary leaves. Add a ladleful of stock, season with salt and pepper and turn the heat down to a simmer. Add more stock to the pan as the liquid becomes absorbed, stirring frequently. You will need around 1-1.2 litres of stock in total. When the rice is ready, it should be tender, with a bit of bite, and the risotto should have a thick, creamy texture. A few minutes before you are ready to serve, add a couple of handfuls of frozen peas to the pan. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in 50g of finely grated parmesan. Divide between four warmed bowls and serve.
Add leftover cooked chicken or salmon to the pan towards the end
Sauté sliced mushrooms and chopped thyme leaves with the onion and garlic
Stir raw broccoli or asparagus into the rice and cook until tender
Add a couple of tablespoons of mascarpone cheese or crème fraiche for extra creaminess.
Use pearl barley for the base instead or risotto rice
Recipes that stretch
To cut food costs, it makes sense to adopt a mindset whereby an expensive ingredient (such as a joint of meat or whole fish) is used for not just one meal, but for several. That way, the cost is justified. So, if you have roast chicken at the weekend, buy a larger bird than normal; the leftover meat can then be made into a pie (with pastry from the freezer), stirred into cooked spiced rice or made into an Asian style salad.
Once the meat has been picked off the carcass, it really pays to make stock from the bones - this goes for all meat, not just chicken. Stock costs only fils to prepare and has a multitude of uses - it forms the basis of soups, broths, risottos and stews. Extra stock can easily be frozen and defrosted when needed.
Heat a couple of tablespoons of oil in a large deep pan over a medium high heat. Add the carcass or bones and cook for 4-6 minutes, stirring frequently. Next add a couple of handfuls of roughly chopped leeks, carrots, onions and celery. Don't worry if you don't have all the vegetables and you can use the scraps (ie the leek tops or carrot ends) which would otherwise be discarded. After 2-3 minutes, fill the pan with water and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and add a bay leaf and a handful of parsley stalks, should they be available. Skim off the scum that rises to the surface and leave to simmer. Poultry stock will be ready in about 1 hours, while lamb or beef stock will take longer, around 3-4 hours. Strain and store in the fridge or freezer until needed.
See more recipes for easy ways to make a main ingredient stretch further. Don't worry if you don't have the exact quantity of beef specified in the recipe, simply increase the amount of vegetables. For maximum taste, use homemade stock made from the bones.
Cottage Pie (Serves 4-6)
400g leftover beef, roughly chopped
2 teaspoons groundnut oil
2 onions, peeled and chopped
3 carrots, peeled and diced
4 sticks celery, diced
few sprigs thyme, leaves chopped
Worcestershire sauce, to taste
salt and black pepper
1kg mashed potato (made from floury potatoes/milk/butter)
Tip the leftover meat into a blender and pulse until minced - take care not to over blend. If you don't have a blender, finely chop the meat instead.
Heat the oil in a large pan, add the onions and cook for 8-10 minutes, until soft and lightly browned. Add the carrots, celery and thyme and stir well. Cook for 4 minutes before increasing the heat slightly and adding the meat.
When the meat is lightly browned, add the Worcestershire sauce and stock, season with salt and pepper and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove from the heat and leave to cool completely before transferring to a pie or casserole dish. Spread the mash over the top, using a fork to rough up the edges. Bake in a preheated oven (200C/fan 180/gas mark 6) for 35-40 minutes, until the mash is golden and the sauce bubbles up around the edges.
This recipe works just as well with leftover roast lamb - it simply becomes shepherd's pie.
Asian style broth (Serves 4)
Providing you've already made your stock, this broth is extremely quick and easy to put together, which makes it a great mid-week dinner. It is also light, healthy and packed with flavour. Vegetables such as broccoli, asparagus and mushrooms could all be added to the soup to bulk it out.
1 litre beef stock
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2cm by 4cm piece ginger, peeled and cut into matchsticks
1-2 red chillies, thinly sliced
4 spring onions, shredded
100g pak choi, roughy chopped
Leftover beef, cut into thin slices
Handful of coriander, leaves chopped
Pour the stock into a large saucepan and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and add the garlic, ginger and chilli. Cook for 10 minutes, before adding the spring onions and pak choi. Simmer for 2 minutes, add the juice of one of the limes, a splash of soy sauce and the leftover beef. Slice the remaining lime into wedges.
Cook the noodles in boiling water. As soon as the noodles are ready, drain and divide between four bowls. Pour the soup over the noodles, garnish with chopped coriander and lime wedges and serve.
Roast beef salad with Yorkshire pudding croutons (Serves 2)
6 thin slices roast beef, torn into pieces
5 small red beetroots
200ml crème fraiche/cream
Horseradish sauce, to taste
4 leftover Yorkshire puddings*
Handful of rocket leaves/ frisee lettuce
Extra virgin olive oil
Rock salt or coarse sea salt
Preheat the oven to 180C/fan 160/gas mark 4. Wash and dry the beetroot and slice off the tops. Spread a layer of salt over a square of kitchen foil. Place the beetroot in the centre and fold up the edges to enclose. Bake in the oven for 30-40 minutes, until tender when pierced with a knife.
Allow the beetroot to cool slightly, before peeling with a knife. Be warned, the pigment will stain your hands (briefly), so if you happen to have a pair of plastic gloves handy, it's a good idea to use them.
While the beetroot is cooking, put the crème fraiche or cream in a small bowl and stir in the horseradish sauce to taste. Whisk together until thickened.
Place a dry frying pan over a medium heat. Tear the leftover Yorkshire puddings into piece and toast until crisp.
To serve, cut four of the beetroots into quarters and drizzle with olive oil. Slice the remaining beetroot into thin rounds. Divide the horseradish cream between two plates. Arrange the slices of beef and beetroot around the cream, scatter over the Yorkshire pudding croutons and top with a few lettuce leaves.
* If you don't have any leftover Yorkshire puddings, then croutons made from slightly stale bread that has been drizzled with olive oil and baked in the oven, work just as well.
Oil: Extra virgin olive oil for dressing and light olive, groundnut or vegetable oil for cooking
Pulses (tinned or dried): Cannelloni beans, butter beans, flageolet
Vinegar: Balsamic and white vinegar
Mustard: English and Dijon
Pasta: Spaghetti, penne
Grains: Couscous, bulgher wheat, pearl barley
Lentils: Red and green
Rice:Risotto, Basmati and long grain
Flour: Self-raising and conventional
Spices: Sea salt and black peppercorns, chilli powder, garam masala, coriander and cumin seeds, paprika, cardamom pods
Fresh: Lemons, onions and shallots, garlic, ginger, potatoes, parmesan/feta cheese, butter, eggs, fresh herbs (parsley, basil, rosemary and thyme)
In larder and refrigerator
Tinned tomatoes, honey, soy sauce, anchovies, capers
Bread / breadcrumbs, homemade stock, peas, ready-made pastry