The Most Versatile Budget Foods That Belong In Every Jewish Kitchen
By Ilan Preskovsky
In these uncertain times, the financial stability of people around the world has seldom looked quite so unstable. The fact that it’s a situation whose effect on most people around the globe may well have made the truism “we’re all in this together” relevant as almost never before doesn’t make it any less scary. Frankly, the ever-increasing cost of living in South Africa was high enough to begin with long before the arrival of COVID-19 and the coming months are undoubtedly going to be an even greater strain on so many people’s livelihoods.
People are, undoubtedly, going to need to carefully budget in a way that many of us may never have had to before, and, aside for mega-expenses like school fees, insurance, and medical aid fees, food is one of the biggest expenses for all of us. Certainly, between years of having the Rand in free fall and the already exorbitant price of kosher food, simple grocery shopping has been a serious cash drain for years.
Here, then, is a selection of food items that should act as a solid foundation for any kosher kitchen on a budget. They’re versatile, reasonably cheap ingredients that can be built upon according to your disposable income, but even alone can be combined into any number of different meals for your family.
Not the most slimming choice, perhaps, but pasta is cheap, filling, easy to prepare and incredibly versatile. It can be used as a base for any number of recipes and between the wispy capellini and the chunky rigatoni, they have an intrinsic variety that should help to keep meals fresh. And, if you’re looking for healthier options, a variety of types of pasta also come in whole-grain varieties at a similar price.
Canned Beans and Tomato/Onion Mix
There is plenty to be said for canned vegies in general, but these canned goods are both cheap and far more versatile than one might think. Along with being a popular and filling side to any number of dishes, canned beans are also great on their own, on toast, or as a filling to be used to bulk up, say, a mince recipe.
With even more uses and of a no higher financial cost, cans of tomato and onion are an absolute must in any kitchen, regardless of budget. It’s impossible to count just how many recipes use tomato and onion as their base and just how many varieties of sauce can be made from these simple ingredients. Plus, like all canned goods, they last forever when unopened so you can buy a boatload of them when they’re on sale and keep them safely tucked away in your pantry until you need them again – which will, undoubtedly, be both often and soon.
Sugar and Spice
If spice is the variety of life – and it is – then it cannot be more vital to have a decent selection of spices at your disposal in your kitchen. Keeping more limited meals on a budget attractive and appetising – especially to fussy kids – ensuring maximum flavour and freshness is key. This is, obviously, where spices come in. Salt and pepper are the basics, but spruce them up with paprika, crushed garlic, or mixed Italian herbs to keep things interesting. And chilli, if you can handle it.
Sugar is currently public enemy number one in terms of nutrition, but it – or at least a sugar substitute like xylitol – is no less crucial than spices for all sorts of recipes, especially in baking. And, let’s be fair, some comfort food is never a bad idea.
Packets of Soup and Tomato Sauce
Not only is soup one of the easiest and tastiest things to make as we go into winter, soup packets are brilliant as a base for making sauces for meat or chicken and are very reasonable. Similarly, tomato sauce isn’t just a favourite condiment for most people, it’s an affordable base for sauces and can be as versatile as just about any other item in cooking.
Milk and Butter
Unless you’re a vegan, milk and butter are entirely essential for all sorts of cooking or even to have on their own. The trick here is to use long-life milk or the even more adaptable milk powder, which are often actually cheaper than fresh milk (if, not necessarily as tasty or, arguably, nutritious) because if you buy boxes of it when it’s on special, they can sit in your pantry without the fear of them going off. As for butter, which is a surprisingly pricey item, you may need to shop around a bit, but it’s so essential for giving life to your cooking and baking that it’s well worth working into your budget for the month.
Admittedly, some veggies are more expensive than others, but some of the most nutritious, useful, and tasty vegetables like butternut or gem squash are pretty easy on the wallet. Frozen, canned, and fresh vegetables are of fairly similar prices, so you can mix and match them according to your needs. Remember, though, these items are virtually always on special at most supermarkets (Woolworths is known for being expensive, but they’re one of the most reliable shops for excellent specials on fruits and vegetables) so definitely look out for those.
While jury is still out on the health effects of eating large quantities of maize, there’s a reason why mielie meal is such a staple for so many South Africans living in poverty. It’s extremely cheap and it can actually be used in all sorts of ways. Along with good old fashioned pap, it can be used as porridge or even baked as a tart. If you have the time and patience, it’s also a great base for baking cornbread or other such baking goods. Plus, though it’s better not to overdo it, it’s both very filling and reasonably good for you in moderation.
OK, this is a complicated one. Kosher meat in South Africa is, for various reasons, seriously expensive. There’s no getting past that. And yet, let’s be honest, unless you’re one of those poor souls who are vegetarian or, heaven help us, vegan, most of us just love our meat and it’s one area that most of us are most reluctant to compromise. Fish isn’t really an option, even if you happen to like it as much as actual meat (apparently such people do exist) because it is usually more expensive than all but the most pricey cuts of beef – especially if you want the really good stuff like salmon or linefish.
There are, however, ways to mitigate this mortal conundrum. For a start, keep the better cuts of meat for Shabbos or Yom Tov and make plenty of use of the ever-versatile mince meat (which can be stretched a bit further by adding a bit of flour, matzah meal, or even crushed up rice cakes). Cheaper cuts like side bolo are also a great option, but because it’s easier to mess up a side-bolo roast than a scotch fillet, be sure to prepare it properly. Slow cookers and tons of marinade are your friends here. You can also make excellent stews with all sorts of cuts of meats and you can greatly enhance their flavour with super-cheap marrow bones.
Making good use of these basic items on top of smart shopping and dining practices (loyalty cards/apps, maximising specials, leftovers) can go a long way in easing the burden even in these most trying of times.
Special thanks to Adrienne Bogatie for her invaluable help in providing some much needed information for this article – check out her website at http://kasheringyourlife.co.za/