I wrote the original post 6 years ago, long Ms Jack Monroe appeared on the scene, just sharing my long experience of living on benefits and eating cheaply but well.
I’m not one of those who resent Monroe’s success, by the way, in fact I quite like what she’s doing, but I do very much resent the way that the media present her, as if what she’s doing is in some way unique. It’s not – many of us, forced by similar circumstances, have done the same thing.
I’ve been doing it since the mid 80s, when I had to quit work to look after my wife, who had extremely severe MH problems, and we were both, at the time, on the dole. Monroe, however, was lucky and caught the breaks, surfing the wave of the zeitgeist to success. She also, with her book, put in the work.
The original post wasn’t, I’m sad to say, particularly well written, since how well I write depends on how well I feel – looking at the original it must have been a pretty bad day – so it seemed like an opportune time to revisit the subject with a major re-write.
I’ve made, as you might know, several abortive attempts at reverting to vegetarianism over the past few years, but I can report that the latest attempt has actually worked, and I’ve stuck with it quite successfully.
When I made the change I had quite a lot of meat-based dishes in the freezer, which I had no intention of wasting – this is about getting the maximum value from your food. not binning it because it’s suddenly become inconvenient. So, the meat has been eaten, and I’m now I’m a veggie full time.
So, then, while this post is largely based on the original, it will diverge into vegetarianism here and there.
For a couple of days I’ve been delving into the subject of protein for a veggie friend who clearly doesn’t get enough. If you eat what one might describe as a “normal” omnivorous diet then protein isn’t a subject you’re ever likely to fret about, as meat and fish, dairy products, cereals and pulses, provide all you can possibly need – and then some (a normal adult needs just a couple of ounces of protein a day).
However, it gets a bit complicated. Your digestive system breaks down your food – even the proteins in prime steak are dismantled, not used as they are and, from the resulting sludge, it builds, among much else, amino acids, from which it goes on to create proteins at the cellular level (no, not in your phone, do keep up). And that’s where it gets complicated.
The body can create 12 of the 20 amino acids it needs to build proteins. For a meat eater that presents no problems, as the other 8, known as essential amino acids (as without them we will sicken and maybe die), are naturally present in the diet, and in the correct proportions. For a veggie, they are not.
The 8 essential amino acids are isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine, and their proportions in veggie foods can vary quite a lot. For veggies (and vegans), the two amino acids that are critical are lysine and methionine, and combining the foods which are rich or deficient in those two fixes the problem. It also has a bonus – by reinforcing each other, they also ramp up the amounts of the other amino acids.
For example, pulses are high in lysine and low in methionine, while grains are the opposite. About 30 years ago, in Diet for a Small Planet, Frances Moore Lappé put forward the theory that veggies HAD to combine pulses and cereals (or cereal products, like bread), at every meal, to maintain the amino acid balance. This idea still persists (beans on toast is the perfect veggie meal), despite the fact tha Lappé has long since admitted that she was wrong. As long as your diet contains both pulses and cereals then your body will break them down and sort out the amino acids for itself.
I mean, you can eat both at the same time if you wish – I’ve just had a bowl of roasted cauliflower and cannellini bean soup (amazingly good), with sourdough bread – but you don’t have to. You can have toast for breakfast and pulses in the evening, it’ll be just s beneficial as a bean and vegetable curry with rice.
(NB: That was, of necessity, simplified, but covered the essentials – for the minutiae of the subject I recommend a copy of Diet for a Small Planet; it should be essential reading for any veggie.)
Before leaving the subject of veggie protein, the Vegetarian Society website has this gem “Potatoes eaten in quantity also provide useful amounts of protein.”. That “in quantity” bit really matters! According to the nutrition panel on a bag of Sainsbury’s King Edwards, they are a mere 1.8% protein, and that’s not counting the occasional slug. Spuds, then, do not make much of a contribution to your protein intake unless you eat a lot. They don’t even contribute much in the way of energy, either, yielding just 0.79 kcal per gram. They do have a role to play in the average diet (they’re filling, and a good vehicle for other flavours), just make sure it’s not a major one.
Anyway, the original post dealt with lowering the cost of meat-eating without sacrificing quality – so let’s have another look at that. (Vegetarianism, as long as you stay away from meat analogues, and there’s not one of them that’s really successful in my view, is naturally cheap.)
Years ago, I read a book by a guy called Colin Tudge called, I think, Future Food (it seems to have gone through several incarnations since and tracking down the original has proven impossible).**
**Until now – just bought a used copy on Amazon.
In it, he put forward the idea that meat, rather than being the centre-piece of a meal, should more of a garnish/flavouring component, with vegetables, and pulses, taking on a more central role.
I was a veggie at the time, and not a great meat-eater when I wasn’t, and that made perfect sense to me at the time. Still does – I have a recipe for a lamb stew with chickpeas, dates, sour and sweet cherries, black olives and Harissa which is fantastic, but the amount of lamb is relatively tiny(400g), used mainly as a flavour note rather than the heart of the dish. It eats just as well as the original version which contained a kilo of lamb. I’m toying with the idea of a 100% veggie version, using diced and marinated, deep-fried, tofu instead of lamb.
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), more an indulgence 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 at 08.30, plus elevenses, which was often soup and a ham or cheese sandwich. By lunch time (13.00), 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. For the last 10 years or so, 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, from time to time, with a return to vegetarianism, but didn’t really take to it. I did, though, remember Colin Tudge, and set about putting his ideas into practise. Around the time I first wrote this, as I mentioned here, I 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.
Anyway, it was bloody fantastic, and yielded 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 saved money, the planet benefits a tiny bit (but tiny bits mount up), and I had food that was 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 from the beans and wheat, without needing more meat. One breast provides enough meat for 2. I also make this as a soup, with more water, beans and veg. The parsnips cook down and thicken it.
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 (this was 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 – costs about the same as soaking and cooking your own when you factor in fuel costs. (Based on the drained weight). If Napolina are on offer – they often are – then it’s cheaper.
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 are usually thrown away. Instead, 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 – bits of skin and gristle – will brown 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.
The trimmings from the pork may well yield more fat than you need, so pour the excess into a ramekin and refrigerate for future use or, as I often do, add it to the oil in the deep fryer – improves chips no end. You can’t use solid fat in an electric fryer, but up to about 20% of beef dripping or other animal fat (not lard unless you render it yourself), added to the oil makes much tastier chips. Pork also responds well to the chicken and butterbean 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 normally, you won’t), then toss in a can of butter, cannellini, or pinto beans near the end. And if the thought of all that good karma doesn’t enthuse you, your household budget should…
Addendum: Since 2008 my meat-eating has changed, after I discovered that up to 10% water can be added to meat quite legally, and doesn’t have to be declared on the label. So I now buy ( or used to, pre-veggie), organic meat, on the basis that it’s free of contaminants, including water. Organic costs more but you get less water and more meat for your money, so the price differential isn’t that great.
However, if money really is tight, you can eat much better as a vegetarian than you can as a meat eater, and for less money, which is why the recipes I post on here are developing a veggie slant.
And now, a caveat:
I said at the beginning I’m now totally veggie, but there’s a perennial problem with vegetarianism – there’s a chronic shortage of the meat-eaters’ equivalent of tossing a few sausages, chops, or a steak in a frying pan for a quick, easy, meal. And there are days when I’m so ill that any food that requires preparation is simply out of the question (which is why I live mostly on casseroles and soups that I cook in bulk – when I’m able to cook, that is). To cater for that eventuality there is always fish in the freezer, which can be tossed in the fryer for a meal in minutes – no mess, no prep. Not veggie, either, but needs must…
And yes, I do know that there are veggie convenience foods – they are universally crap. The manufacturers seem not to have grasped the basic principles of flavouring and seasoning.
I’ve eaten most veggie convenience foods that are available in supermarkets (even when I wasn’t a veggie, I still ate lots of veggie food), and there are very few of them that I would willingly eat twice. Tesco** or Sainsbury’s soya burgers are an exception, not fried, but braised. Recipe here. With hindsight I wouldn’t bother freezing them with potatoes or peas – takes up too much space. Just use individual foil dishes (from Sainsbury’s or Tesco), and freeze two burgers with onion gravy in each. With spuds and peas added later, that’s ample for a good meal for one.
**Tesco’s used to be better than Sainsbury’s, but now seem to be discontinued. The Tivall brand works well too, if you can find them.
And back at home, all is not lost as home-made Vegetarian sausages are on the agenda, just as soon as I’m well enough – watch this space…