Budget-beating basic foods

Stock up on food that is versatile and cheap

139610787Food editor Catherine Hill has come up with a list of budget-beating basics that are versatile and will also keep your food costs down…

Gammon joints

After a lifetime of making packed lunches, I’ve finally wised up to the beauty of buying gammon joints instead of tiddly packs of ham! One large kilo joint takes no time to cook in the pressure cooker, it’s often less than a third of the price of the equivalent amount of pre-sliced packed ham and I reckon I can get at least three meals out of one joint, such as ham and lentil soup, ham and leek risotto, ham carbonara, ham and onion rosti…

Chicken thighs

Pound for pound, chicken thighs are almost half the price of chicken breasts or fillets – and, for me, the flavour is worth far more. Fantastically moist and flavoursome, chicken thighs are almost impossible to dry out by overcooking (and believe me, I’ve tried!). They readily take on flavours when marinated and are great skewered and grilled, sliced and stir-fried or used with the bone in for a classic coq au vin or gutsy slow-cook casserole.

Garden peas

Garden peas are one of those basics that pretty much everyone has stashed away in their freezer, and while they’re a great instant side veg they’re also perfect as the star in lots of other dishes. Add to creamy risottos towards the end of cooking along with fresh herbs and a good sprinkling of Parmesan. Add to light stocks flavoured with softened leeks and then whizz to a vibrant soup, adding crème fraiche to finish for a velvety texture. Very lightly steam and whizz with Parmesan, pine nuts, basil and garlic for a delicious pea pesto – great spooned over hot pasta and potatoes.


Outdoor-grown rhubarb has bags of flavour and is fantastically versatile. Delicious in traditional crumbles and fools, it also makes for a great ice cream. Simply cook until tender with plenty of sugar and then use as the base in your favourite ice cream recipe. Its wonderful sharp flavour also works brilliantly with rich roast pork dishes. Simply roast the chopped rhubarb with sugar and serve instead of apple sauce.

Bulgur wheat

This cereal seems to have taken a bit of a sidestep since couscous hit the shelves, but it really shouldn’t be overlooked. This wholewheat grain has a wonderful nutty flavour and texture, can be enjoyed hot or cold and can be used instead of couscous, rice or quinoa. Simply soak in boiling water for 15 minutes before draining well and piling on the flavour. Try it with olive oil, lemon juice and plenty of seasoning to accompany roast chicken or fish. Or why not stir in your favourite roast veggies, lots of fresh herbs and griddled halloumi?


With its firm meaty texture and lovely rich flavour, this fish is still relatively cheap to buy. But as its an oily fish it’s really important to only use the freshest fish you can, as the oils are quite quick to spoil. Try marinating fillets in Teriyaki sauce and sesame seeds, then barbecue or grill until cooked through and lightly seared. Delicious with a crisp green salad dressed with a fiery wasabi dressing of oil, soy, sugar and a tiny bit of wasabi paste.

Stale bread

Left with a few thick slices of day-old bread that won’t quite do for a sandwich? Don’t throw them away – instead, try this clever little Southern Italian dish called pangritata. Tear the bread up into little chunks, the rougher the better. Place in a bowl, drizzle with olive oil, season well, add a little chopped rosemary and a chopped garlic clove and combine well. Gently pan fry until crisp and aromatic. It’s delicious served traditionally over hot pasta or pan-fried veg.

Pork ribs

A rack of pork ribs is always great value and delicious barbecued. Simmer in a pan with plenty of apple juice and water for an hour or so before marinating – it makes the meat wonderfully tender and it’s cooked through before barbecuing. Once simmered, drain and marinate in a mixture of soy, marmalade, crushed garlic and fresh ginger. Chill until needed, then grill on both sides until sticky and charred.

Butternut squash

Pound for pound you can get a lot out of a butternut squash and there are so many ways to make the most of their lovely intense sweet flavour. Try peeling and roasting with a little chilli and sage and then toss with hot pasta, butter and Parmesan for a really simple supper. Their sweetness is delicious married with aromatic spices such as cumin and coriander in curries or keep it simple and make a rich velvety soup flavoured with thyme and garlic and top with crispy bacon pieces just before serving. Buy them when you see them, as they keep for weeks if stored somewhere cool and dark.

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