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The frugal cook: start with the empty fridge

Categories: Expert guidance

Food writer and editor Malou Herkes on using leftovers and back-of-the-fridge items to plan your meals and minimise waste

If we’re going to talk about cooking frugally, it seems wise to start at the beginning. Before we get to the cookpot and even before we get to the greengrocers or corner shop, it all starts at the empty fridge.

All too often we base our meals on habit or a hungry stomach. We tend to make hasty shopping lists, cram our shopping baskets with the weekly regulars and pile them in the fridge. Sometimes our meals fall into a series of quick-fixes, grabbed from the shop on the way home from work. But rarely does our meal-planning begin with that half-empty jar of curry paste or floppy celery stick lurking in the back of the fridge.

Changing our approach to cooking right from the start is the best thing we can do to eat well, waste less and ultimately save money. Planning our weekly meals at all is a good way to keep track of how we spend but reassessing the way we plan and how we cook is key. If we start to think about our meals based on what’s already in our fridge and cupboards, it will soon feel like second nature to find inspiration in the most basic and simplest of ingredients.

Do as the Lebanese do
When all you have are a few dusty onions, finely slice and cook them slowly in a pan until sweet and caramelised, then pile them on hot toasts with a crumbling of cheese or a drizzle of good olive oil. Or do as the Lebanese do and stir your sweet onions through a seasoned bowl of lentils and hot grains for mujadara. That leftover rice, your last handful of frozen peas and an egg will soon become egg-fried rice.

Cook a handful of dark greens or a forgotten stub of broccoli with garlic until really tender, then blitz it into a sauce and toss it through hot pasta with plenty of olive oil and gratings of cheese. If your cupboards are home only to a can of chopped tomatoes, melt butter in a pan with garlic, add your tomatoes and a pinch of salt and sugar, then simmer slowly before cracking in an egg and eating it with that last crust of toasted freezer bread.

Cooking itself is simple and it’s crucial to do if we want to eat well in a way that is affordable. It’s only in cooking that we can create the building blocks we need to allow meals to topple one into the next, so last night’s potato curry can fill tomorrow’s Indian dosa, or Sunday’s roasted veg can bulk out Monday’s meagre omelette.

Begin now at your fridge, pull out a few random ingredients and experiment: the more you do it, the more it will feel like second nature.

A few ways to get you started:
—Take another look at the miscellaneous jars of half-finished curry pastes and pestos, pickles and sauces that line your fridge. Add a dollop of mustard to leeks as they slow-cook, then stir them through cooked grains or pasta. Flavour chicken thighs or vegetables with a little curry paste before roasting. Chop a spoonful of capers or gherkins with garlic and a few fresh herbs, muddle in olive oil and drizzle it over eggs or plain rice. These are flavour capsules worth saving.

—Stock up on a few quality staples that will brighten the most basic of dinners: quality olive oil or butter, a healthy bulb of garlic, a block of parmesan, a few of your favourite spices and decent salt are all worth having at home, and can transform a slice of bread, a bowl of plain rice or days-old soup into a tasty meal.

—Eggs make a meal out of anything. If not for frying, boiling or poaching, then at least for binding grated odds and ends of veggies into lovely spiced fritters, or for making savoury pancakes, or for beating into an omelette with yesterday’s leftover vegetables or shredded roast meat.

—Keep a stock of hardy root vegetables like potatoes, squash or onions; they keep for ages and will provide the backbone to a last-minute fridge raid. Caramelise red onions with a teaspoon of your favourite yeast extract spread, then toss through hot pasta with plenty of butter. The best back-of-the-fridge dinner there is.

—Love your freezer. Root around for that last handful of frozen peas to bulk out a stir-fry or to blend them into a ‘pea-sto’ with a grating of hard cheese, lemon juice and any nuts you find in the cupboard. Keep a stash of sliced bread in there and flour tortillas too; perfect for making quesadillas with yesterday’s chilli.

—If nothing else, throw everything in your fridge into a pan, season well, and add something to bulk it out if necessary; carb (rice, potato, pasta) or protein (eggs, bean or pulse). See what happens. It might just be delicious.