The art of being frugal
There aren’t many of us who couldn’t do with saving a bit of cash, especially around this time of year when, leading up to Christmas, money seems to fall between the gaps in your fingers like water. For us this year, the count down to Christmas is also taking on another meaning as we’re about to become parents. It’s an exciting time but the thought of also not being paid for the next six months or so is daunting, to say the least.
So we’ve started a bit of an experiment. A bit of belt-tightening. An attempt to save a bit of money, to see if we can live on less than half what we were spending on food before we realised that a baby and one less income might not be a good combination for our bank account.
The challenge means spending very little on food, but without sacrificing the food choices that we prefer: organic, free-range, seasonal, whole and the least-processed options available, when possible.
- It means I’d still rather spend $3 a litre on unhomogenised, biodynamic milk than $1 a litre for anonymous, standardised supermarket milk. But on the other hand, eating seasonally means you can take home a kilo of fruit for $1 if you make the right choice.
- It means planning meals at the beginning of the week and trying to shop once for essentials to avoid shopping several times a week and inevitably falling into the trap of buying extra things that we don’t really need.
- It means using up the things in the pantry and the freezer that have been sitting there, forgotten. How often is perfectly good food thrown away because it’s been ignored for too long?
- It also means making a lot of things, especially staples, at home: bread, muesli, jam (that’s what those $1 bags of ripe fruit at the market are great for) and good stock. If only we could make our wine and olive oil at home too, we’d be truly set up! We have a paved courtyard, but we have been able to plant seeds for things like salad leaves, peas, herbs and tomatoes in pots. There’s nothing like being able to get your food from right outside your window.
When it came down to meal planning, we sat down and made a list of the week’s main dinners that we could make with our small budget. A funny thing happened. I realised that what we had jotted down was a list of traditional Tuscan dishes. Things like uova al pomodoro (eggs poached in tomato), farro and bean soup, minestrone and lemon tagliolini. Things that literally cost a few dollars to make and things that stretch also more than your dollar. Being eight months pregnant, I need nutritious, low GI, high protein food that can get me through the day.
Looking back to the traditional dishes makes a lot of sense, really. The cooks of the past were experts at frugality and la cucina povera, ‘peasant’ (or literally ‘poor’) cooking. They knew how to get flavour and nutrients out of the smallest or most unassuming of things: the cheapest of cuts (tripe make the best meatballs), yesterday’s bread, last night’s leftovers, the old rinds of Parmesan cheese (essential in adding extra flavour to dishes like ribollita), in some cases, even rocks pulled out of the sea (from Molise’s pesce finto sauce to Tuscany’s Livorno’s brodo dei sassi)! In other words, they knew how to get bang for their buck and how to not let anyone go hungry.
Another great example is the Florentine tradition of dishes that are rifatti, “recooked”, usually meaning that the leftover ingredient at hand (either cooked meat or vegetables) is being given a second life by passing it through a simple tomato sugo. The recipe I wanted to share with you is called braciole rifatte, literally “remade” or “recooked” braciole, thinly sliced beef. It’s a classic Florentine dish, one of those ones that will resonate with many Tuscans (my friend Giulia said that this dish is the equivalent of her ‘madelines’, referring of course to Proust’s famous food memory). Made with yesterday’s leftover meat, perhaps from some bollito (boiled meat) or milanese (crumbed and fried meat slices), it’s the sort of thing you find in a mensa (canteen) or in a really old school trattoria, one of the those that are only open at lunch time and never on the weekends. This recipe in fact is a slight variation of the one from the kitchen of one of Florence’s best and most traditional trattorie – Trattoria Mario, just outside the Central Markets.
This is, of course, a dish that changes from household to household and that largely depends on what you already have on hand. If you have leftover crumbed meat, just skip straight to the tomato sugo part; if you have leftover tomato sugo, just go with the meat part – you get the idea. If you want to skip the tomato and breadcrumbs all together and have something even simpler, this is a very similar dish, braciole al burro.
Inspired by a recipe from Trattoria Mario, Florence
The beauty of this dish is that cooking the crumbed fillets of meat in a tomato sugo makes them turn into sponges, soaking up the flavours like nothing you can imagine. In fact, for the perfect braciole rifatte, you want very thin slices – pound them with a meat mallet if you like to make them even thinner and larger-looking – and a generous dose of good quality breadcrumbs (simply whiz up some stale bread in the food processor). The bread here, both in the breadcrumb mixture and in the obligatory scarpetta that follows, when you sop up the leftover sauce on your plate, is what traditionally filled up the hungry diners, allowing for the clever cook to satisfy many with a relatively small amount of meat.
Serves 6 people
- 6 thin slices of lean veal or beef
- 1 egg, beaten and seasoned with salt and pepper
- A handful or two of homemade breadcrumbs (use sourdough for a lower GI)
- Extra virgin olive oil
- A couple of cloves of garlic
- 1 tin of peeled tomatoes (or 500 gr of very ripe tomatoes in season)
- Some homemade beef stock or water
- Plenty of fresh herbs (parsley or basil are the favourites)
- Salt and pepper to taste
Begin with some good beef – they don’t need to be huge and they don’t even need to be from the best cuts, thin ones are best.
Pass the slices of meat first in the egg, then in the breadcrumbs, pressing down and adding on an extra generous coating if desired. Fry them in plenty of olive oil and when golden and crispy, set aside while you prepare the tomato sauce.
Squash the garlic cloves and, over a moderate heat, gently sauté them in a skillet with some olive oil until golden. Add the tomatoes (if using fresh, skin them by blanching first, remove seeds and chop the flesh) and a bit of stock or water to thin it out, then season as needed with salt and pepper.
Add the crumbed meat slices to the tomato sauce, covering completely. Allow to simmer over a moderate heat until the crumbed meat takes on a marvellously spongy effect. If they’re doing too well soaking up the sauce and it begins to dry out, you can add more stock as necessary.
Once the braciole look appropriately spongy and the sauce is just the right consistency, serve immediately, with fresh herbs scattered over the top and plenty of sauce, along with some crusty bread to wipe your plate clean.