I will be the first to admit that though following your dreams is an amazing thing to do, dreams don’t necessarily pay bills. Being freelance is hard but this is the life I chose (much to the despair of my parents) and with the good you take the bad. The exhilaration of writing up a review about a meal greatly enjoyed, say about Noma, is often counteracted with being faced with the harsh reality of some frozen peas and a stock cube for dinner.
Okay, maybe this is an exaggeration, this is me we’re talking about, after all – I always have some meat in the freezer and some arborio rice or some form of starch in the pantry; but the fact is that when you live in the city and your money comes in dribs and drabs, it can be incredibly demoralising. There have been days when I’ve opened the fridge to see only a tiny knob of butter and some old eggs, deciding that maybe that evening I’d rather just not eat.
The term ‘thrifty’ had a bit of a negative connotation attached to it when I was a child. It was grouped along with ‘stingy’ or ‘miserly’, conjuring up images of Ebeneezer-Scrooge-like characters; but these days I’ve learnt the value of thrift, particularly when it comes to store cupboard favourites being spread across many meals. So let’s talk about money, saving and let’s talk about these fried polenta triangles.
1. Buy only what you need.
When we were kids my brother and I loved shopping with our father more than we liked shopping with our mother. I mean, dad was cool; dad would pick up the strange smoked ham flavoured processed cheese tube and exclaim, “oooh! This looks interesting! Did you see this?” Then drop it into the shopping trolley and meander on. We could buy anything and often forgot to buy the things we actually needed, necessitating yet another trip by our mother. But this was a terrible habit as we’d come home with bags and bags of shopping, food that sat in the fridge for weeks, untouched until we had to don rubber gloves and clothes pegs on our noses to rid the fridge of the horrible and disgusting cheese tube, or the Dairylea Lunchables that tasted like sawdust and sweat and were just as perfect two months later as they were the day we bought them.
These days I do my shopping online (shock, horror). I know, it sounds like a lazy habit but it forces me to write out a weekly meal plan and only buy what I actually need – I can’t browse the aisles like I do in the supermarket and sure, they may try to tempt me with an offer here or there, but for the most part I stick to my groceries, check the cupboards for existing ingredients and watch my spending. With a machine adding up the costs as I go, I always know when I’ve reached the limits of my budget. Check for deals, too – it’ll help you cut down on your spending. Bear in mind: you don’t have to shop every week! Check your cupboards, check your fridge – how much food do you really need?
2. Be creative.
I have a million ways to eat potatoes. Seriously. I could probably write a book on those million ways to eat potatoes and it really doesn’t involve a whole lot more than what I already have in my fridge/cupboard. As such, I usually buy a large bag, keep it somewhere cool and dark and slowly use them up over the month. When I get bored of potatoes, I have pasta, when bored of that, rice – different kinds, jasmine and arborio being my two favourites – and when I get bored of that I have polenta (Italian cornmeal), but we’ll get there in a minute. I keep these on standby in my store cupboard all the time and have so many different ways to use them all up that though I may eat polenta straight for a week, it’ll be different every time. Even better, because these are all dried goods they keep really well; I’m pretty sure the bag of polenta I currently have is the same I bought when I moved in a couple of months ago.
Variety is the spice of life, as they say.
3. Know your cupboard staples.
Along with rice, pasta, polenta and potatoes, I always have a box of stock cubes and some passata/chopped tomatoes handy. I can make an entire meal with two of these things and maybe some frozen peas or sweetcorn in the freezer. It may not be amazing but it’s not bad and, more importantly, means that I can save a few pennies to fund my next trip around the world, or superb meal out. Stock up on these cupboard staples at the beginning of the month, or even for a few months – it’s well worth the investment.
4. Get to grips with your portion sizes.
Much of the time when I’m cooking, I’m really only cooking for one. My housemate and I do separate shopping and when she comes home late after work she wants to throw together something quickly, eat it and go to bed. It is very rarely that we’ll manage to eat together during the week which, for me, is slightly unknown territory as I’m usually always cooking (and shopping) for at least two. When we first moved in, I was cooking obscene amounts of food as I was so used to making enough for three. Hilariously, I don’t actually eat huge portions and I never have seconds. I also don’t snack a whole lot, but for some strange reason there I was, buying bags of crisps and enough food to feed an army.
I now know what’s going to fill me up and I exercise much better portion control, but it took me a while – there was a lot of waste at the beginning for which I am rather ashamed. Ask yourself this: how much can you really eat? What can you freeze and keep for another meal?
5. Ask your guests to contribute to costs or return the favour.
I love company. Love to cook for my friends, love to be able to show my appreciation for them through food… but dinner parties are not cheap. Where I may eat something simple by myself at home, when my friends come over I pull out all the stops and provide a 3-course meal, usually all from scratch, which is not only time-consuming, it’s expensive. It may be quite embarrassing to ask friends to contribute to a meal, it’s often why I don’t, but maybe next time they could host dinner? Don’t feel that it is always upon you, the “foodie” to have to provide for everybody else. Your friends love you with or without your culinary prowess! Besides, they may relish the chance to be the chef for once!
So there are five tips on how to cut down some of your costs in the kitchen. Every meal doesn’t have to break the bank – sure, it’s nice to have fresh vegetables and meat but sometimes you can make do with your cupboard essentials and still prepare a superb dish.
Now let’s get onto these fried polenta triangles. Whenever I make risotto or polenta I always make a tiny bit more, just so that I can make arancini from the risotto and fried polenta triangles.
Polenta sets when cool which means that the best time to start preparing your triangles is after you’ve portioned out your meal’s worth. It’s so simple, easy, delicious and it keeps really well. Not only is it a lovely accompaniment to another dish (try smothering in chopped tomatoes, topping with mozzarella & baking until the cheese is golden and bubbly or simply serving alongside meat or white fish), it also makes an awesome bar snack, especially sprinkled with a little extra salt (I used a delicious garlic salt my brother brought me from Cornwall). Fried polenta triangles and a beer? Amazing combination. Altogether, from one polenta meal I potentially have at least another three (as long as I manage to not eat them all as I’m cooking them!). To store, simply place the cooled triangles in an airtight container in the fridge until ready to fry and serve.
FRIED POLENTA TRIANGLES
For the polenta:
About 250 ml water, per person
1 stock cube
About 60 g quick-cook polenta, per person
A handful cheese of your choice – Parmigiano Reggiano gives it a lovely saltiness but you can really use anything. I used some shredded mozzarella this time because it was what I had in the fridge.
Knob of unsalted butter
Milk or single cream, optional
Salt and freshly ground black pepper – mine was garlic salt from Cornish Sea Salt
Vegetable/canola or a light flavoured olive oil – I used lemon olive oil
Large flat baking tray, preferably with sides
1. Cook the polenta: bring the water to the boil and add the stock cube, whisking until dissolved. Pour in the polenta in a steady stream and cook according to packet instructions – about 10-12 mins or so. You’ll see the polenta absorb the liquid and thicken – be careful of volcanic eruptions! Continue to whisk constantly – if you want to add a little milk or cream, now is the time to do it. At the end of cooking, add the cheese, butter and season to taste – you can under-season a little at this point.
2. Portion out the polenta for your meal, then pour the rest onto the baking tray and spread evenly with the spatula. Season again with freshly ground black pepper and salt. Leave to cool completely, cut into triangles and store in an airtight container until ready to serve.
3. To serve: in a large frying pan heat about 2 tbsps oil, turn down the heat, then lay the polenta triangles (in batches) into the pan carefully. It may spit – stand back! Now here’s my handy tip: don’t crowd the pan and let the polenta be. Seriously. If you let the polenta and the pan do its stuff you’ll have the most beautifully browned little polenta babies. Moving them around and checking them constantly just means that they don’t have the opportunity to brown. So let them be! You’ll be able to tell when it’s time to flip them over as the edges of the triangles will be starting to turn golden. When it’s ready to flip them, slip the palette knife beneath – it should feel crispy – and carefully turn them over.
4. Drain on paper towels and try not to eat them all in one sitting – be thrifty, remember!
That’s all for now. Remember: a little goes a long way! Until next time, peace and love.