Feeling the pinch…

Like most people on low, fixed, incomes – like benefits – I’m feeling the pinch right now, with the price of pretty much everything moving remorselessly upwards. I’d love to shop at discount stores like my local Aldi, but it’s such a soul-destroying experience I avoid the place when I can. Every time I go there, I have to get the manager to go and find out where the checkout girl has buggered off to – every bloody time. It’d be nice if the guy did his job and kept the kid at her post – that’s what she’s paid for. And, while they have some excellent frozen fish (if you’ve never eaten tilapia, get yourself to Aldi without delay), and the frozen burgers are pretty good, especially the ones with Stilton, overall the choice of food is pretty limited compared to the Sainsbury’s store across the car park. They used to sell excellent Bratwurst, but not any longer, it seems.

I normally shop at the Sainsbury’s superstore a few miles away, but I couldn’t get there this week, so I went to my local branch, by Aldi. As the store had gone through a lengthy makeover a little while ago, I was expecting good things. Ha! Nothing of the sort – think Netto, but with Sainsbury’s prices, and you’re getting close to the hell-hole it’s become.

The fresh veg area has been decimated, quite literally, being a fraction of its former size, with a very poor choice of veg, not helped by the same pathetic cabbages being displayed in three different places. I like cabbage, but in recent years it’s been impossible to buy any that taste of anything. Yesterday I wanted two baby cabbage, in the hope of getting some flavour (young veg is tastier than mature veg, on the whole). Didn’t sell them – which set the pattern for the entire trip. Baby sweetcorn? Nope. Sandwich steaks? Ditto, and so it went on. I also wanted some braising steak – you’d think they’d have something so basic, but no, not a trace (and none of these things were sold out, you understand, they’d never been there, despite what their website claims). In the end, I got a pack of Basics Irish Frying Steak.

The Basics range is, allegedly, good quality, but less than cosmetically perfect, and with the minimum of packaging (excellent idea, the latter). Normally, the only Basics item I buy is peeled plum tomatoes – as good a canned tomato as you’ll find anywhere, as long as you don’t mind trimming off the odd bit of skin, or a bit of green from the stalk end (and you can get that no matter what you pay), which are unbeatable at 18p a tin (tip – never buy chopped tomatoes – the quality is less than wonderful, no matter how much you pay, and don’t pay for added herbs and suchlike – add your own).

During the Baked Bean Wars, about 10 years ago, when beans were down to about 3p a can for a while, I bough Basics beans – same price as the toms now – and they’re pretty good, too. True, not every bean is perfect – some may have been broken or squashed – but so what?

Anyway, back to the meat. I’ve never been fond of fried steak, much preferring fish, but I wanted this for braising. Had I fried it, it would have been disappointing, as two steaks were quite thin, and one thick (the cosmetic thing again), but at the price of £3.03 for 456g, which makes it £1.70 a kg cheaper than the braising steak they didn’t have, I wasn’t complaining. And it wasn’t suspiciously wet, as cheap meat can be. I cut it in suitable pieces, and fried it off with almost no spitting, fried the onions in the same pan (tip – when frying onions for a dish like this, don’t stir them around too much in the pan – let the bottom layer brown, then toss them in with the meat – the mix of fried and almost raw onion will give you a better flavour; that’s something Delia won’t tell you!), then I deglazed it with boiling water, so not a bit of flavour was missed.

I simmered it very gently, with carrots, peas and and a garlic clove finely chopped, with a stock cube and a squirt of HP sauce (an excellent addition, as long as you don’t overdo it – you shouldn’t be able to taste it in the finished dish), with some herbs and, you know, it’s excellent. Not just excellent for the money – excellent, period, and tender enough to eat with a spoon.

It should be even better tomorrow – casseroles, stews and soups, and braised steak, all benefit from 24 hours in the fridge, once they’ve cooled down, to give the various flavours time to snuggle up to each other, and smooth out any rough edges. By the way, I think the steak may well have been fine fried, as long as it was left a little rare – just a touch of pink.

So in future, I’m certainly going to pay closer attention to the Basics range (Tesco’s version is called Value, and prices are much the same as Sainsbury’s), as there are substantial savings to be made. And Basics eggs actually taste eggy – a rare event these days. I’d forgotten about them.

OK, there are some things I just won’t economise on – sausages and bread, for example, and beer (though I’ve switched to a pub where the beer is £2.20 a pint, and excellent, and perfectly fine fish and chips is £2.95, and as a bonus the barmaid has blue eyes and freckles! – £2.60 and £5.95 where I usually go) – but overall I think I can eat better for less – probably quite a bit less, buying Basics. Check back in a week or two for a progress report.

A word of warning – the Basics range also includes ready-meals. As Sainsbury’s normal (and more upmarket), ready-meals leave rather a lot to be desired, treat the Basics meals with caution. They won’t do you any harm, but it’ll be a joyless experience.

By the way, if you’re a regular reader and you’re wondering what’s happened to my vegetarianism, it’s been absorbed into a much more varied diet – I just couldn’t face it full time. I still don’t eat a lot of meat, 3 or 4 ounces in a meal is ample, and not at every meal – I wouldn’t thank you for a 12oz steak – veggie meals have mostly lost their appeal, though I’m perfectly happy with meat-free soups.

One final thought – save money by buying fruit and veg in season, that hasn’t been air-freighted half-way around the world, and eschew produce that has already been prepped for you (unless, through disability, you have no choice), as you’ll pay dearly for it. Check out www.eattheseasons.co.uk to see what’s in season.

Update: Having to shop for my groceries online this week, I decided to try Tesco’s Value Frying Steak. It’s dog food (fried, it would be uneatable, I’m sure). In 400g of meat there was 140g of inedible gristle, veins etc., and that’s not acceptable. Clearly, then, if you want good quality cheap steak, avoid Tesco. I tried simmering the scraps, as there was far too much to waste completely – something I often do – but the smell of the resulting stock was terrible. The meat itself, which had a very loose texture, went into a pan of scouse where, hopefully, it’ll hide among the spuds and veggies!

I also brought some braising steak from Tesco at the same time, in the freezer for now, and that looks to be excellent quality. Anyway, hopefully, I won’t have to shop online for a while – being a fussy sod I prefer to do it in person when I can.