Meat on a budget…

Meat on a budget – I’ve come at this from the perspective of buying cheaper meat before, but I’m currently tending increasingly towards the following, as a way of whittling down my food budget. This could just as well be called “Buy better meat, just eat less of it.”

Some years ago, I read a book by a guy called Colin Tudge called, I think, Future Food. In it, he put forward the idea that meat, rather than the centre-piece of a meal, should more of a garnish, with vegetables taking on a more central role. I was a veggie at the time, and not a great meat-eater when I wasn’t, as now, and that made perfect sense to me at the time. Still does.

The average person needs only 50-60 grams of protein per day, from all sources, so a 12oz steak is overkill, in every sense. Almost everything you eat in the course of a day contributes some protein, which makes a protein heavy meal (i.e., meat), an indulgence more than a necessity. And these days, it’s an indulgence that neither budgets nor the planet can sustain indefinitely.

The classic “meat and 2 veg” meal could so easily become 3 or 4 veg, and a bit of meat, as one’s protein intake is spread over the course of a day. Many people get their entire daily protein requirement before lunch – I certainly used to, when I worked; breakfast at home, coffee and biscuits when I reached the office, plus elevenses, which was often soup and a ham or cheese sandwich. By lunch time my protein needs were close to maxed out. It didn’t stop me eating lunch, I was still hungry** but it wouldn’t have mattered if I’d eaten no meat at all, I was well supplied with protein.

**In actual fact, I wasn’t really hungry at all – it was little more than habit, evidenced by the fact that lunch always made me drowsy. Had I really needed refuelling, it would have had the opposite effect. For the last 4 or 5 years, I’ve had just one small meal in the evening, plus, during the course of the day, a little cold meat or cheese, or maybe soup in the winter, and a little something – usually a slice of toast – at bedtime; it helps me sleep.

I flirted, recently, with a return to vegetarianism, but didn’t really take to it this time round. I did, though, remember Colin Tudge, and set about putting his ideas into practise. Today, as I mentioned here, I’ve made a large pan of excellent Irish Stew with just 300g of meat – lamb leg steaks in this instance – plus lots of carrots, onions, swede, peas, potatoes, garlic and rosemary (for those who’ve read the previous post, sorry to be repetitive).

Anyway, it smells and tastes bloody fantastic, and will yield 4 moderate portions, with a hunk of good bread, or 3 large, from meat which, if used in the normal way, would have provided just 2 meals. I’ve saved money, the planet benefits a tiny bit (but tiny bits mount up), and I’ve got food that’s going to be a real pleasure to eat – what’s not to like?

Similarly, chicken breast, cut into strips and gently stewed with butter-beans, onions, garlic, parsnips and lemon zest, and served with potatoes, is pretty damned good. Serve it with noodles and you get an extra protein hit without more meat – wheat and pulses have the ability to improve each other’s protein content. One breast provides enough meat for 2.

Eating this way, of course, reduces the need to buy very cheap meat, because you only need a little, so live dangerously, and buy free-range chicken breasts.** Don’t buy expensive steak for casseroles, though – the middle-range stuff has more flavour.

**I wrote that in 2008. Currently (August 27 2012), free-range chicken breasts, at Tesco, are £14.99 a kilo (a whole free-range chicken costs £3.32 a kilo), so we’re definitely in rip-off territory.

Traditional dishes like, say, braised steak, can be given the meat-light treatment, simply by reducing the meat and ramping up the veg, or adding pulses – butter beans go well. Use canned by all means, though if you really want to soak and cook your own, don’t let me deter you – but frankly, buying the best canned beans you can – Napolina in my view – is cheaper than soaking and cooking your own when you factor in fuel costs. (Based on the drained weight).

As well as just eating less meat, it’s also cheaper to buy meat in larger portions, than in ready-prepped form – say half a leg of lamb, which can be boned out (easier than you might think – the bone is very close to the surface on one side), cut into steaks and/or diced and frozen in portions, rather than buying pre-packed lamb, which will surely be of poorer quality.

Cut down on waste, too. Whenever you prepare beef, lamb or pork, there’s nearly always some trimmings – fat, gristle, sinew, skin – which is usually binned. I put in a pan over a low heat and render it down so it gives me a little melted fat to fry off my meat and veg, before adding the stock (even the non-fatty parts will fry and add flavour). I always do that with trimmings, so nothing is entirely wasted; it can contribute a little fat and flavour, even if, of itself, it’s inedible.

I have come unstuck, just once, in trying the leg of lamb principle with beef, buying a nice – and cheap – piece of brisket, unrolling it, and trimming and dicing it. I made what should have been a great beef stew with it, starting with the trimmings, as above (this was before I started cutting back on meat), and, indeed, it tasted fine. The meat, however, had the texture of straw. I don’t understand it, but in future brisket will be casseroled or pot-roast as usual, and served sliced – it’s one of the very best cheap cuts of meat as long as you trust your butcher (it’s amazing how much crap an unscrupulous butcher can hide inside a rolled piece of brisket). Supermarkets, especially, are given to rolling it around scrappy off-cuts, or lumps of fat to bump up the weight.

If you’re wondering why I’ve not mentioned pork, it’s because I’m not particularly fond of it – I find it’s a bit dry no matter what you do with it, though NOT pre-frying it, in a casserole, helps there, a little. Anyway, if you do like pork, the same principles apply.

On the odd occasion I have eaten pork, I tend to buy loin steaks and treat them as I did the lamb leg steaks, without the spuds, but with a diced eating apple and maybe a splash of cider, if you have it. The trimmings from the pork may well yield more fat than you need, so pour the excess into a ramekin for future use or, as I often do, add it to the oil in the deep fryer – improves chips no end. Pork also responds well to the chicken treatment, above.

Eating less meat, then, is a win-win situation for all but the most obstinate carnivore (and veggies and vegans), and as well as making dishes that use less meat, there’s absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t make normal meat dishes and simply eat less – not rocket science. If the thought of a stew with just 300g of meat makes you worry about going short of protein (if you’re eating a normal diet, you won’t), then toss in a can of butterbeans, or cannellini or pinto beans near the end. And if the thought of all that good karma doesn’t enthuse you, your household budget should…