### Running the numbers

06:36 pm

Our house has a pretty cool way of tracking who spends what on groceries and household items. We have a whiteboard with three columns, one for each housemate, and as you spend you just keep a running total, like this:

50
+ 25 = 75
+ 40 = 115
+ 35 = 150

(We round to the nearest five dollars, as you can see.) Over time, we just try to keep them fairly balanced. If someone’s falling behind, it’s their turn to do grocery shopping. When you run out of vertical space on the board, you erase the column and start at the top, carrying over the total.

Today we ran out of vertical space and started fresh, and I took the opportunity to calculate how much we spend on groceries. We’re averaging around the \$800 mark, since October 10th last year when Connie moved in. That’s about 15 weeks, so that’s \$800/15 = \$53 per person per week.

All the figures I can find online say that the average for Australian adults is about \$100/week, but I’m not sure whether that includes eating out or not. My housemates buy their lunches most days, and I have a meal out out once or twice a week, depending on schedule, plus we each have dinners elsewhere from time to time. We order pizza for dinner a couple of times a month, so that’s another thing that’s not counted in our grocery bill. We also don’t count special/fancy/gourmet/snacking food that we buy outside of the regular grocery run, for instance fancy tea or chocolate. If we don’t count any of these, that could be part of the reason our figures are so low compared to the average.

On the other hand, we cook for other people fairly often, when they come round for meals. We also give away some of our food, especially when Emily’s baking a lot, or in the summer when we’re making lots of preserves and handing them out to anyone who comes by at the right time. Those factors probably aren’t enough to balance out the extras I listed above, but they must do so to some extent

Even so, \$50-ish per head per week seems low, and I’m quite pleased with it, so I thought I’d take a look at what factors went into that figure.

We mostly eat — or at least shop — vegetarian. Our usual weekly meat purchase is a few rashers of bacon, or maybe a couple of sausages. Most of our meals rely on legumes, tofu, eggs, and dairy for protein, which are cheaper than meat. Every couple of weeks we have a bigger meat meal (like a roast chicken, or the Christmas ham that kept going forever) but the leftovers usually stretch out into multiple dishes. (I think we’re more likely to eat meat when we’re eating out, or at least I am.)

We make a lot of things from scratch. The freezer has a stack of tubs of frozen stock and a bag of scraps for the next batch, so we probably save a few bucks a week right there over people who buy those containers of UHT stock. Connie and I eat home-made muesli, made from rolled oats and whatever fruit and nuts we feel like, which is cheaper than buying it. We bake — not everything, but usually anything sweet like biscuits or cakes are made here, as are many of the bread-like things we have with our evening meals. We buy plain yoghurt in big tubs and add fruit and flavourings if we want them. We make many of our own sauces and condiments, either on the spot (as for pasta sauces or salad dressings) or canned/preserved (chutneys, pickles, ketchup, salsa). We also have lots of whole spices from which we can grind up blends as needed, so we almost never buy packets and jars of flavourings.

We buy in bulk. We’re lucky to have enough room to store a big 3L can of olive oil, 5kg of basmati rice at a time, onions and potatoes by the big bagful, and lots of big jars of beans and grains and dried things. We mostly buy our dry goods at the market where they’re cheap, minimally packaged, and somewhat fresher than the dried stuff at the supermarket. We buy spices this way too, and have our own containers for them. Typically we spend about \$2 for a bag of spices that has four times as much in it as one of those little supermarket jars.

We shop locally and seasonally, in moderation. We’re not 100% anal retentive about it, but we do tend to adjust our eating based on the time of year and what’s cheap. By the time winter comes round, I’ll actually be looking forward to cabbage and root vegetables, but right now it’s all stone fruit and tomatoes and zucchini. We keep an eye out for fruit and veg that are around \$2/kg at the market and focus on them, sometimes taking the opportunity to preserve or can them if appropriate.

We have a vegie garden, and we have friends with vegie gardens and fruit trees. Our own garden doesn’t do much more than supplement our weekly market run, but it’s often enough to make a salad or turn a couple of eggs into a meal. Herbs from the garden are way cheaper than buying them, of course. Yes, the vegie garden costs us money, but we include the consumable items like seeds and bags of compost in our grocery calculations. Our friends also supply us, from time to time, with whatever they have in surplus. We’ve made preserved lemons from donated fruit which, with chickpeas/tomatoes/stock from the freezer/herbs from the garden, all served over couscous, make a great meal. Over Christmas a bag of warrigal greens turned into a really amazing quiche. Giant mutant zucchini go into stews or get grated into cakes. Emily’s mum’s kumquat tree yielded jars and jars of marmalade.

We’re pretty good about food waste. I won’t say we’re great, but we’re not awful either. I already mentioned that we keep scraps and bones for stock. We also have lots of meals based on leftovers. For instance, last weekend we had friends round for a taco party, and (after a week of nachos) last night we ate the very last of the leftover beans, ground up into vegie burgers along with rice from Tuesday’s stir-fry and salsa from Wednesday’s lunch. We’re good at using the tail ends of legumes, grains, or sauces in other dishes. Overripe fruit gets turned into smoothies or baked goods, either immediately or after a stretch in the freezer. Stale bread (if it’s not too grainy or full of weird extras) gets dried in the oven then ground into breadcrumbs. Parmesan rinds get saved for minestrone. Occasionally we have to chuck something out that’s gone strange in the back of the fridge, but with so many people cooking so regularly, things don’t have much chance to fester back there, and if they do, they get fed to the worm farm.

We count our household cleaning supplies in with our groceries, including laundry detergent, toilet paper, and all that. For most of those we buy inexpensive eco-friendly brands, and we tend to shy away from uni-tasker cleaning products, preferring dish soap, baking soda, and vinegar for lots of our cleaning. We don’t use fabric softener. We use re-usable dishcloths and cleaning rags, and buy toilet paper in bulk if it’s not too awkward to carry home.

For all our cheapness, we eat some pretty nice stuff, and I don’t think we feel like we’re being self-sacrificing or particularly ascetic in our tastes. We buy fancy cheese, organic eggs, and delicious butter from an independent dairy. When we buy meat we try to go for the kind that comes from happy animals, or at least from independent butchers, and choose it based on tastiness not budget. We buy icecream and biscuits and soft drinks in moderation (lately we’ve been buying lots of tonic water that goes in G&T’s, which we buy in small glass bottles that get reused when we make our own sauces and ketchups). Our fancy tea shelf is overflowing. Our pantry contains macadamias and dried cranberries and the best balsamic vinegar we could find. We’re doing okay.

I know I’m probably sounding a bit smug, and yeah, I guess I am smug. It’s actually something I’m proud of, and that I’ve worked for and continue to work for. Between planning and shopping and making things from scratch I put a few hours a week, at least, into this. I probably couldn’t do it if I wasn’t working from home (and, previously, unemployed), or at least not to the same extent. So that’s something to be thankful for, along with the fact that I have the space and ability and support for all this, excellent food vendors nearby, and the collaboration of my excellent housemates.

In conclusion: here’s to our hippy/nanna house, and long may it prosper!

(PS: we’re looking for a new housemate. Is it you?)

Mirrored from Chez Skud. You can comment there or here.

### Tomato chutney like Nanna used to make

07:09 pm

Mirrored from The OEconomist. You can comment there or here.

We’re definitely getting to that time of year when everything’s \$2 a kilo and you need extra arms to carry it all home from the market. The tomatoes were looking pretty good the other week at Preston, and so I got enough to make chutney.

I wanted to use an Australian Women’s Weekly recipe that’s in their big “COOK” book, but that’s in a box somewhere between San Francisco and here, so I had to go googling to find a copy of it. Here it is.

• 1kg (10 medium) ripe tomatoes, peeled, chopped
• 2 large (400g) apples, peeled, chopped
• 2 medium (240g) onions, chopped
• 1 ½ cups brown (malt) vinegar
• 1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
• ¼ teaspoon chilli powder
• ½ teaspoon dry mustard
• ¾ cup sultanas
• 1 clove garlic, crushed
• 2 teaspoons curry powder
• 2 teaspoons ground allspice

Throw everything in a big pot and bring to the boil, then keep it going til it reduces in volume and thickens up. I find that’s usually a couple of hours, though that might be in part because I make double or triple batches. A smaller batch in a wider pan will presumably thicken up quicker. (If it’s just not thickening and you’re getting impatient, you can stir a spoonful of cornstarch into a bit of water, then mix it through the chutney.)

Nine jars of tomato chutney; this is a double batch.

I canned my chutney in recycled jars of various sizes, using new lids from Green Living Australia. Because the chutney has so much vinegar and sugar in it, it doesn’t need heat processing. I just make sure the jars are really clean (the dishwasher’s good for this because of the high heat) then when I’ve closed the jars I turn them upside down on the counter and let them cool standing on their lids. The heat of the chutney sterilises the lids, and the poptops on them all popped in like they’re meant to.

If you’re a bit aghast at the lack of heat processing, all I can say is that generations of my family have done it this way and it’s always been fine. In fact, heat canning’s almost unknown in Australia. The worst I’ve ever seen with this method is an occasional batch with mold growing on top (which you should throw out), but I haven’t had one of those in years. Anything that’s heavy on the salt, vinegar, sugar, and/or alcohol should be fine to do this way. It’s only when you have things that you’re trying to keep without these natural preservatives — for instance, tomato sauce, or canned fruit and vegetables in juice or water — that you really truly need to do the heat thing.

(That said, use your common sense and judge your own risks; I don’t want to be sued for giving you bad advice. If you’re wary, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) have some good books with details on how to heat can things, and I’ll be doing some of that later in the summer and will post about it here when the time comes.)

The best thing about this chutney? The whole house smelled like I remembered from summers at my Nanna’s house. This is the authentic Nanna chutney recipe, guaranteed. Nanna and Poppa would have had it with sausages or rissoles, but I’ll most likely be eating it with cheese and crackers, or on fried egg sandwiches, all year round.

### Preserved lemons

06:35 pm

Mirrored from The OEconomist. You can comment there or here.

How have I never blogged this before? I probably did it on some prior blog and didn’t bring it across. Oh well.

Preserved lemons! They are amazing things and not well enough known outside Australia. I mean, they’re not all that well known inside Australia, but I can safely assume that anyone here who has even half-assed foodie pretensions knows about them, whereas in San Francisco I once found them in a hip foodie type shop and got all excited only to have the proprietors ask me to explain to them what they were and how to use them, because they’d never encountered them before. Sigh.

Anyway, preserved lemons are salty lemon rindy things that you use as a flavouring in Mediterranean-ish, especially North African, food. They are also a great way to put away a big pile of lemons if you have a productive lemon tree and aren’t sure what to do with them, and they’re one of the absolute easiest kinds of preserved fruit, since they don’t need any special processing nor even a sterile container. (No bacteria would last a moment in this much salt.)

What you need:

• A lot of lemons
• A lot of salt
• A big jar
• Some spices: a cinnamon stick, some peppercorns, a bay leaf or two for example

Choose lemons that have unblemished skins. Dirty is OK, but actually blemished isn’t. Give them a gentle scrub in the sink with some cold water and non-toxic dishsoap (I just use a little squirt of the environmentally safe stuff we wash dishes with) then rinse them well.

Make sure your jar is a) big — a litre/quart or more, ideally, and b) clean. The lid should fit well. If you have a jar with a plastic lid that’s great, because a metal lid will end up rusting and not be any use afterwards. (If you’re OK with sacrificing the lid, then don’t sweat it, and use whatever you’ve got.)

Pour yourself a bowl full of salt. You want to work from a bowl rather than from the bag or jar of salt because you’ll get lemon juice all through it. I prefer kosher salt in the US/Canada, but you can’t get it as easily in Australia, so basically any reasonably fine, non-iodised salt is what you’re going for. You’ll want a lot of it — a cup or two, at least — so buy a big bag.

Next, cut the lemons. The simplest is just to quarter them, which is what I did this time. Start packing them into the jar, and sprinkling a generous spoonful of salt after each layer. Pack them tight, and press them down as you go. Every so often, drop in a bit of cinnamon stick, bay leaf, or whatever spices you’re using. Keep going til you get to the top of the jar, then press hard and squish everything down and keep adding more lemon pieces until you simply can’t add any more.

Squishing the lemons firmly into the jar

At this point, the salt should be starting to draw out the lemon juice, and it should be rising up to the top of the jar as you press. If you’ve got hangnails or cuts on your fingers, you should be feeling it about now. (Ouch!)

When the jar’s as full as it can get, put the lid on.

Lemons in the jar. There's a little bit of air space at the top, but this will disappear as the lemons soften, and no harm done as long as you keep turning them regularly.

Store the lemons in a cool dry place (i.e. the pantry) for about a month, turning them over and giving them a shake every few days, to make sure everything’s well mixed.

When they’re done, the rinds will be soft right through, and you can start to use them in things. At this point, you might want to decant into a few small jars and give away some to your friends (perhaps pointing them here so they know what to do with them). I find that 1-2 small jars are sufficient for my needs for a year, so I usually give away about half of what I make.

So, what do you do with them? Basically, you fish out one lemon-quarter, scrape off the flesh and dispose of it, then chop the rind small and use it to flavour things, such as:

Moroccan chicken tagine with preserved lemon and olives: Brown bone-in chicken pieces, add a sliced onion, preserved lemon rind, green olives, moroccan spices, and some chicken stock. Stew and serve over couscous.

Chickpea tagine, ditto: chickpeas, onion, a can of tomatoes, preserved lemon, olives, spices, veg stock.

Lemony tabbouleh: bulgur, parsley, preserved lemon, currants, toasted almonds. You could also substitute other whole grains eg. brown rice, wheat berries, farro.

Spinach: sauted with garlic, preserved lemons, and currants.

With fish: I don’t cook fish often, but this is an obvious companion. You could bake a fish in tinfoil with preserved lemon and lots of herbs.

Marinated olives: take good olives, some olive oil, chopped preserved lemon, and some strong herbs like fresh oregano and leave them to sit for a bit. This would be good with pita bread.

Yoghurt dressing: Greek yoghurt, finely chopped preserved lemon, mint. Use as a sauce for grilled/barbecued lamb.

Tomato salsa: fresh tomatoes, coriander (cilantro) leaves, mint, finely chopped preserved lemon. Serve with chicken or fish.

The last two ideas there are from this list of uses, and there are a bunch of other suggestions there that you might like to try. Looking around, I also found this recipe for lentils with spinach and preserved lemon that sounds like it’d be right up my alley, though I haven’t tried it yet.

Basically, anywhere where salt and lemons would be good, preserved lemons are even better.

If you’ve got other uses for them, let me know.

### Recipe: pickled beet(root)

04:15 pm

Mirrored from The OEconomist. You can comment there or here.

Here’s my recipe for pickled beetroot/beets. In Australia we call it beetroot, and in the US they say beets, but it’s the same thing.

• 1 bunch beets (about 3 medium sized ones)
• about 750mL apple cider vinegar
• a couple of teaspoons of salt
• 1 bay leaf, broken in half
• a few allspice berries

Peel and slice the beets. I like doing them in some shape other than round slices, perhaps wedges or matchsticks, just to make them different from the bought ones.

Throw everything in a pan of appropriate size. You want enough vinegar to just cover the beets. Apply heat. You can adjust the flavour of your pickle juice by tasting. I basically tend to taste it and go “yeah, that tastes like pickle juice” and maybe adjust if I feel the urge. It’s not an exact science.

Simmer the beets until they’re “al dente”. You want a fork to go into them but they shouldn’t be soggy.

Pour the results into clean jars. Seal and keep for a few weeks before opening. After opening, refrigerate.

A note for Americans in particular: YOU DO NOT NEED TO DO ALL THAT CANNING RIGMAROLE WITH THE HOT WATER. Americans have been brainwashed into thinking that they have to do this hot water thing with all kinds of preserves. This is untrue. You only need to do it for preserves which are not intensely a) sugary, b) vinegary, or c) salty. Any of those preserving agents will prevent bacteria from setting up shop in your preserves. You only need to use the heat-canning technique for things like Italian-style tomato sauce or plain canned veggies. For sugary/vinegary/salty stuff, all you need are clean jars (a run through the dishwasher or even just really hot tap water will suffice, or you can put them in an oven at around 100C for 10 mins or so while the preserves are on the stovetop) and a bit of common sense. A small number of your preserves will go manky, but you can usually spot it. If you have a jar that’s cloudy, furry, or unexpectedly green, then don’t eat it. My forebears and I, going back at least 500 years, have been doing likewise and we’ve made it this far. Australian and English cookery books also talk about preserves using the no-hot-water-bath technique, so it’s not just me.

skud

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