News | Sunday, 03 January 2010

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Save €2,010 on food

In the wake of spiralling energy costs, DAVID DARMANIN proposes a €2,010 cut for households by simply approaching the fridge with a different mindset

Making ends meet is no mean feat at the end of the month, as the fat piles of bills for water and electricity, mobile telephony, pay TV and internet never seem to get any thinner. Capping it all off is the fact that suppliers are setting prices for convenience foods in a very self-convenient manner: as people shun the mobile vegetable hawkers, supermarkets cover their own costs for their prime locations by transferring overheads onto consumers with no time to browse for three carrots and an iceberg lettuce.

Grow your own
Fresh herbs used to be sold at a pittance from greengrocers, while parsley and celery were thrown in as a freebie. Times have changed: even basil costs between €1 and €2 for a small plastic container that only lasts a few days in the fridge. So growing your own basil is practically free of charge. Just buy a basil pot once, keep it in the sunlight and water it every day. Other basic ingredients that easily grow on Maltese windowsills include sage, thyme, rosemary, mint, oregano, parsley, chillies and cherry tomatoes. Now do the math. Let’s say you buy two types of fresh herbs and a container of cherry tomatoes weekly and your cost amounts to €4 weekly – that’s €208 yearly. Round up the number to the occasional chillies you buy throughout the year, and that takes us up by another €12. We’re at €220 – this month’s water and electricity bill.

Wine and pizza: cheap and easy
There’s nothing like a take-away pizza and a bottle of wine for vegging at home on a cold winter night. But do we stop and think how cheap it is to make our own pizza – and why it’s still profitable for your local pizzeria to pay a delivery man and fuel to bring just one pizza to your doorstep at the usual price? Take a rough yearly estimate of eight cold winter nights at which you feel like snuggling: ordering two pizzas and opening a bottle of wine at a conservative €15 for the food and €5 for a cheap Australian cabernet. Your yearly spend on cuddly evenings is a hefty €160 per year – equivalent to eight months of internet payments. Instead, run a Google search on recipes for DIY pizza and you will not only discover that your food-cost has gone down from €15 to less than €5, but that your partner might see your miserly gesture as an effort to participate in house chores and as a new resolution to being romantic. Just make sure not to burn it.
Forget buying foreign wines from the supermarket: it’s high time we end the boycott of the local wine industry. Maltese wines have substantially improved over time. A €3 cabernet is equivalent in quality to most Australian wines worth €10, especially when taking into account Malta’s small yields, favourable climate conditions, and short distances to transport the raw material and the packaged product – all factors resulting in better winemaking. The bottom line: for your eight ‘go-local’ wine and pizza parties with your love, you get to save the tidy sum of €96 per year. We’re at €316.

The great poor dishes
Take a leaf out of the book of your nearest restaurant and never, ever throw away any food. Southern Italy built a reputable tradition for sublime cuisine thanks to poverty. Its culinary tradition is largely based on what Italians call ‘piatti poveri’, which literally translates into ‘poor dishes’ but practically means ‘dishes made out of scrap’: hence the birth of lasagna, the Carbonara, the Amatriciana and many other flagship recipes we have corrupted after adopting them from our nearest neighbours. Replicating the originals faithfully cost the earth because in Malta we don’t get proper Pecorino Romano, seasoned pork cheeks and pine nuts at the same prices as at a food market in Amatrice.
But get into the mindset of post-war Italian destitution, with an appetite for all things scrumptious, and apply it to indigenous ingredients. It’s Saturday, and you’re out making grocery errands. You usually stop for a quick €10 lunch for two on your way home. Forget it. While you’re out enjoying your snack, the chicken in your car is in the temperature danger zone – which means harmful bacteria are multiplying every time you take a bite of your pie.
Save your money, and only after you pack your shopping in the fridge, slice half a loaf of fresh Maltese bread (€0.30), sprinkle some extra virgin olive oil over it (€0.50), rub a local juicy tomato into the slices of bread (€0.20), season, take a few basil leaves from the pot on your windowsill and spread them over your delicious snack. Invariably, local produce is cheaper, fresher and generally of a higher standard. You have just saved €9 on your weekly habit – that’s €468 per year. We’re at €784.
While you crave the foregone Cornish pasty (which you’ll have for dinner on Sunday anyway), make a generous amount of stew using onions, carrots and celery as a base and add beef chunks, potatoes, diced turnip and simmer in beef stock – Saturday dinner. Reserve some leftover stew. Reduce the liquids on a flame and use as filling for your Cornish pasty for the morrow’s dinner. On average, the preparation of two dinners in one session will save you a cumulative 25% on ingredients and energy cost. Calculate two dinners for four people costing a total of €20 and discount 25%. You have just saved €5 - €260 per year.

Sunday hunch, office lunch
We’re half-way through our target. Sunday lunch is Sunday lunch. If you’re used to splashing out then go for it, but try to make it a carvery. Reserve some slices of turkey, pork, chicken, beef or whatever you’re roasting – there’s always some left anyway. On Monday morning, use those slices as filling for the sandwich you’ll be having at lunch. With the remaining roast potatoes, you can make a Tortilla de Patatas, a Spanish favourite of which you can look up the recipe on the internet.
Had it not been popular for office workers to buy readily prepared lunches, Malta would not have had half the snack bars and cafes that keep mushrooming round every corner. Meanwhile, you just saved €3.00 on your chicken baguette. That’s €150 per year. Make a habit out of using your dinner leftovers for your working lunch the next day and there you have it – €750 in saved pennies over a span of one year.

Take the junk out
There’s no two ways about it, children love junk food. As parents, the best we can do is disguise more nutritious food into burgers, chicken nuggets and chips. Just stop buying frozen, chemically enhanced and ready-made goods and make the chow yourself. It’s easy and cheap as chips. For beef burgers, all you need is mince, onion, Worcester sauce, parsley, eggs and olive oil. Total cost for eight burger steaks – €5.00, compared to €6.00 for the frozen variety. You will save more on chicken nuggets. A box of chicken nuggets weighing 200g costs €2.00. At the same price, you can make double the weight using fresh chicken breast (pureed once cooked), flour, egg and breadcrumbs. Chicken bites are first rolled in flour, then dipped in egg, and then rolled in breadcrumbs.
Ask your kids to join the fun before frying. When opting for fresh potatoes instead of the frozen variety, you will only save around €0.50 on every 2.5kg, but at least it’s fresh. Keep in mind to buy the local red-eyed potato variety and make sure to heat the oil before frying. Calculating on burgers for dinner once a week, chicken nuggets also once a week and French fries twice a week – our total savings on junk food amounts to €125 per year.

Piece of cake
Saving the rest of the €91 is a piece of cake, literally. It is likely for a family of four to buy six cakes per year – one for every birthday (including nannu and nanna’s). At €20 per cake, that’s €120 a year if you buy them in. Making six cakes at €29 is very possible. Banoffi Pie costs nothing to prepare. Grape crumble in September (when local grapes are in season) is dirt cheap. Carrot cakes, pear and yoghurt tarts or nut sponge cakes are all easy to prepare and are very cost-friendly.

We have now reached our €2,010 target, but one major thing to keep in mind is seasonality. At this time of the year, consider recipes such as Jerusalem artichoke soups (€1.50 per kilo) and the host of available recipes using on beetroot, spinach and pumpkin. Job done!


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