Food is probably the most danger-prone area of our household budget. Once upon a time, we lived in a really fun neighbourhood full of amazing restaurants. I cringe thinking about the thousands of dollars we spent on Thai takeout and burritos. Thankfully, we tend to be a bit more conscious of our spending (and our caloric intake) these days.
When we first started living together, we shared a really tiny apartment. And I was really terrible at cooking. I mean, I made an effort, and whatever I made usually tasted good in the end. But I really didn’t know how to make anything without a very specific recipe. Sometimes I would spend hours scouring the internet for a promising recipe that I could make with the ingredients I happened to have in my ill-stocked pantry. Other times, I would choose whatever sounded appealing and rush to the grocery store to buy $60 on condiments I would only use once.
The truth is, this is the way most of us cook. It’s the reason why we end up buying things like frozen pizzas and pre-made soups just to make life a little easier. Finding a recipe that matches the ingredients we have on hand is stressful and time-consuming. Rushing out to buy specialty ingredients is stressful, time-consuming and expensive.
After a few years of wasted time and money, we have finally figured out what works for us in terms of stocking our pantry and planning meals:
- Buy a deep freeze. We resisted this for so long, because we thought we would hoard food and never eat it. But once we finally got a small chest freezer, we couldn’t believe how much time and money it saved us. We freeze a lot of meals, so the freezer compartment of our fridge gets full pretty quickly. Check kijiji—you might find a great deal.
- Only buy meat on sale. When you don’t have the freezer space to store your meat, you end up buying it at whatever price the grocery store is charging that week. Don’t spend $6.99 on chicken breasts. Just don’t. Spend $200 on a simple chest freezer, and I guarantee it will save you $200 within a few months.
- Stock your pantry. A [well-stocked pantry] has been key for us. We buy non-perishable food in bulk or on sale, and keep an eye on which things are running out. We don’t clutter our cupboards with premade garbage (like canned soups, Kraft dinner, etc.), so it’s pretty easy to see when we are running low on diced tomatoes or flour. It helps to keep a good supply of spices and herbs on hand. Pro tip: the international food section of big box grocery stores often sell larger packages of common spices for much cheaper than the little glass bottles in the spice aisle.
- Stop following recipes to the letter. I understand that this is a really tough one when you’re just learning to cook. It really is worth picking up an authoritative cooking reference book so you can learn basic cooking techniques.
- Shop your pantry. Running to the grocery store for the specific type of cheese a recipe calls for or for another type of dried herb is a waste of your time and money. Once you learn to cook without a recipe, it gets easier to substitute ingredients and avoid unnecessary errands.
Basic Formula for Meat Stew
We make a lot of stew. It freezes great and is usually a welcome supper after a busy day of work. Plus, making your own rich stocks and broths is a fantastic way to use up leftovers like meat scraps, bones, and even vegetables that have passed their prime. After a lot of trial and error, I have finally cracked the code on improvised stew.
- 1 ½ to 2 ½ pounds of meat (Cheap, fatty cuts are fine, but trim any excess fat)
- Salt and pepper
- ¼ to ½ cup white flour + more as needed
- 3 tbsp of olive oil or butter (or a combination)
- Onions (as many as you have or can stand to chop. Onions are non-negotiable)
- Aromatics (try shallots, garlic, ginger, leeks, etc)
- 6-8 cups of base liquid (Try a combination of beer, wine, homemade or store-bought stock, a couple of shots of whiskey or cognac, etc. You can also use water in a pinch)
- Something spicy (try cayenne pepper, red pepper flakes, sriracha, etc.)
- 30 mL of something acidic (I usually just use white vinegar, but try lime juice, white or red wine vinegar, a tiny bit of balsalmic vinegar, etc.)
- Something sweet (Try a tablespoon of brown sugar, white sugar, maple syrup or even ketchup)
- Something “umami” (Try a combination of Worcestershire sauce, tomato paste, parmesan cheese/rinds, white or red miso paste, or gochujang (Korean fermented chilli paste), mushrooms, yeast extracts like marmite, celery, fish sauce, soy sauce)1
- Herbs (Try oregano, rosemary, sage, summer savoury, basil, etc. Summer savoury is my go-to)
- Root vegetables (Potatoes, turnip, carrots, parsnip, sweet potato, etc.) Quantity depends on your taste.
- Cut meat into bite-sized cubes (I usually do 1-inch cubes), sprinkle with salt and a generous amount of pepper, and dredge in flour. It’s helpful to use a big ziplock bag for this step.
- Chop onions. No need to be too picky about the size—they will cook down into the stock.
- Heat oil/butter in the bottom of your stock pot. Brown meat (in batches if you need to), and remove to a bowl with a slotted spoon.
- Add a little more oil to the pan, and sauté onions until golden
- Add other aromatics and sauté another minute
- Return meat to stock pot
- Add your base liquid.
- Add your spicy, acidic, sweet, and umami ingredients, followed by the herbs.
- Simmer forever. Seriously, give it 2+ hours on low, until the meat is fork-tender and the gravy is thick. Depending on the cut of meat you used, this could take more or less time, but eventually the low, slow heat will break down collagen, which is what makes meat tough. If the gravy is still too thin, mix some flour with a little water to make and whisk it in.
- Peel and chop your root vegetables into bite-sized pieces and add to the pot1.
- Bring stew back to a boil and cook until vegetables are tender2.
1 “Umami”, or the “fifth taste” after salt, sweet, sour and bitter, is the key to good stew. Have you ever spent a day making stew only to find it tasted bland? Ever tasted a really great stew that tasted somehow meatier and more savoury than usual? You can thank glutamates. In the simplest terms, umami actually comes from glutamates and ribonucleotides and a group of chemicals called ribonucleotides, which also occur naturally in many foods. When you combine ingredients containing these different umami-giving compounds, they enhance one another so the dish packs more flavour points than the sum of its parts. So don’t skimp on the umami ingredients. Your stew will taste just as delicious as a Big Mac at 3 am, except without the chemicals and the grease hangover.
2Carrots and turnip take longer to cook than potatoes and sweet potatoes. You may want to add these first and let them simmer a few minutes before adding the rest of the vegetables.
3If you won’t be eating the stew right away, keep in mind that the vegetables will continue to cook and soften in the gravy as the stew cools. To avoid soggy disappointment, try removing your stew from the heat earlier, before the vegetables are fully cooked. This is especially important if you’ll be freezing the stew as we often do. If you’re freezing the stew, potatoes are a poor choice. For freezer meals, you can always freeze the meat and liquid separately and keep a baggie of chopped, raw vegetables in the freezer so you can toss them together quickly in a saucepan when you’re ready for it. It all depends on how much you hate overcooked root vegetables.