I never used to pay attention to food prices. We live a frugal life, have old cars, go on cheap holidays, cut our own hair, and wear second-hand clothes. And because of that, I’ve always given myself licence to buy whatever food and drink I want, without restriction or consideration of cost. Five leva (roughly £2.50) for a small bag of hemp seeds, just to sprinkle on my porridge? Don’t mind if I do. Drinking lattes at home even though plant milks are hella expensive here in Bulgaria? Yup, that’s me. Luxurious tahini habit? Also me.
This Marie Antionette attitude to food (‘Let them eat hemp seeds!’) combined with my penchant for maintaining a full pantry at all times (we’re talking multiple tins of chickpeas and beans, plus loads of dried lentils, quinoa, rice, seeds, nuts, etc.) has always meant food is one of our biggest outgoings. I never minded. That’s our one extravagance. (Well, that and having nine cats.) But things started to get silly towards the end of last year. Even I was feeling the need to tighten our belts a bit, and, as established, I’m a money-spaffing truffle pig when it comes to food.
Well, not any more. I’m turning over a new leaf. I’m no longer maintaining a pantry so full it could double as the village shop. I’ve given up sprinkling hemp seeds on my porridge (I’ve gone back to good old sunflower seeds, like an errant husband slinking back to his wife after a midlife crisis). I pay attention to food prices for the first time in my adult life, and if something seems extortionate, we go without it. I spread out purchases of expensive items (alcohol, for example, or olive oil) across different weeks. These are all obvious things to most people. But it’s new to me. I used to just buy everything all at once and then say, ‘Blimey, that was a bit expensive, wasn’t it?’ As I strolled out of the supermarket with a trolley full of hemp seeds, cachaça and Kahlua…
(Yes, I may wear second-hand jeans and sleep in nightwear that someone probably died in, but I have a liquor cabinet that would make any hipster bartender nod in approval.)
Anyway, it’s working, my new-found food thriftiness. Our food bills are lower than they’ve been for years. And, as we’re coming into gardening season, they should get lower over the next few months.
The downside is having to plan – even more than usual – the meals that I want to cook. I was leafing through a cookbook the other day and decided, on a whim, to cook something new. But the recipe called for raisins, which I no longer keep in the pantry ‘just in case’. Ordinarily I’d wing it with dried apricots or dried cranberries instead, but I didn’t have any of those either. I didn’t have any dried fruit in the house. So I gave up and cooked what I was planning to cook all along. There’s a little less room for spontaneity, basically. In the words of Marie Antionette, ‘Let them eat the thing they said they were going to eat all along, and already bought the ingredients for.’ Yes, that sounds like her.
Recipe for a gently spiced carrot and coconut soup
Shall I leave you with a recipe? I’ve made this soup a lot this winter because a) carrots are cheap, and b) I almost always have the other ingredients lying around. And it feeds us for a few days, which is welcome.
But don’t feel you have to buy ingredients especially for this soup. Use whatever spices you have and like eating. If you don’t have fresh ginger, just leave it out or use ground ginger. (Although I will say it’s worth buying fresh ginger and storing it in the freezer. You can grate it straight from frozen.)
And if you haven’t got coconut milk – which I know is expensive, but one tin will make a meal that lasts us several days, so I consider it decent value – you could use a little plain yoghurt instead (add a ladleful of warm soup into the yoghurt to combine before you stir it into the soup). Or even just some milk. It won’t have quite the same silkiness, but it’ll still be delicious.
(Makes enough soup to feed two hungry people for three meals.)
8 (ish) large carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
2 large onions, roughly chopped
3 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
Fresh ginger, an inch or two, grated
1.5 litres veg stock (or use 1 litre for a thicker soup)
1 cup red lentils, rinsed (no need to soak)
1/2 teaspoon each of ground cumin, ground coriander and cinnamon
1 teaspoon turmeric
Sprinkling of chilli flakes or chilli powder (to your taste)
1 tin of coconut milk
Salt and pepper to taste
And a squeeze of lemon juice to stir in at the end
How to make it
Bung everything except the lemon juice in a big pan, bring to a boil, then simmer for 25–30 minutes, until the lentils and veg are cooked. Blitz until smooth (I use a cheapo stick blender). Add a squeeze of lemon juice, then taste and add more seasoning, lemon and spices if you think it needs it.
Top however you like, but in the picture I did a swoop of tahini (I’m not giving up my beloved tahini) and some toasted seeds. You could do a swirl of yoghurt, or just a drizzle of oil.
Over to you: how are you keeping your food bills down this year?