As omnivores, our diets are incredibly flexible, the most stubborn part of our foodculture is the culture. We become accustomed to certain foods, tastes and textures, but we can also acclimate our taste buds to a new custom. Temporal diets don't work because food is culture, and we cannot easily stick to an imposed foodculture for a period of time, any more than we can pretend to be from a different ethnic culture for a short time. But we can adopt a new culture over time. My three years of homesteading has gradually acculturated me to a very different relationship to food than I ever had, an inherently intimate relationship to food and it's proportions.
A frugal diet makes sense, not only in the kitchen, but in the garden and barnyard as well. We have been shifting our diet to the types of foods we can easily grow ourselves, even if we are not growing them yet. Meats, fat, eggs and diary are the most resource intense foods to raise, so we use them frugally and seasonally. Grains, storage vegetables and fruits make up the bulk of our diet. Fresh greens are abundant in season, but we are working on keeping a small supply of greens coming most of the year. When fresh greens are not available, we rely on a good dose of herbal tea, including dried alfalfa, stinging nettle and mullein, to provide us with a spectrum of vitamins and minerals. Even common culinary herbs and spices provide the body with various vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. Food is life, it is the best preventative medicine.
So here's some of the frugal cooking techniques I have been practicing in the kitchen. First it helps to buy in bulk, and ration your usage. I don't mean to the point of deprivation, just have an idea of how much you use in a month, watch your use throughout the month, and stick to it. Experiment with cutting expensive ingredients or substituting ingredients that are difficult or impossible to grow locally.
In deserts, I cut the sugar and fat in half, sometimes only using 1/4 of the amount. I usually use one egg in a desert recipe, substituting for the rest with applesauce, pumpkin puree, or milk. I often substitute oats for part of the flour, oats are generally less expensive than flour, they add sweetness to the desert as well as texture and bran. Dried fruits, applesauce, pumpkin puree, milk and oats have a certain amount of natural sweetness, and replace some of the sugar I cut out of the recipe. Even chocolate cake tastes great with oats, by pouring boiling water over a cup of rolled oats, and mixing in a tablespoon of butter, fat or oil, you can replace a couple of eggs in a cake recipe, and maintain the moist texture. You can even cut the amount of cocoa to 3/4 or 1/2, and add up to a tablespoon of cinnamon (depending on the recipe), along with your favorite spices like ground clove, cardamom or even coriander (one of my favorite desert spices), or if you love spice, a dash of cayenne goes great with chocolate. The spices add complexity to the desert, and you wont miss the reduction in cocoa. Fiddling with desert recipes takes some experimentation, but even if they are not the perfect cookies the first time, you can't go too wrong with flour, oats, sugar, fat, egg, milk and dried fruit, no matter the proportions. If you cut the sugar too far, spread with jam. If you make something with a truly inedible texture, break it up and toss with cubed bread and make a bread pudding out of it.
Meat: We can our meat, which I find to be a surprisingly versatile way to preserve meat. It is also easy to ration. If you are keeping meat in the freezer, either wrap it in small portions, or keep a strict practice of only serving your pre-determined ration once the meat is cooked, reserving the rest for leftovers and subsequent meals. We keep our meat consumption to 10 lbs a month, excepting a few feasts at butchering time. This comes to 1/3 lb a day, between the two of us. Meat is never the main course on our plates (except those few exceptions which can be planned for holidays or family celebrations). I often make a meat sauce or gravy to accompany grains and vegetables. Use a small amount of meat with a good meat stock in a soup, the flavor is rich and intense, as well as nourishing. I make meatballs with the canned meat, flaked like tuna, and mixed with rolled oats, sauteed onion, a bit of flour and milk and/or egg, and spices/herbs. Try some vegetarian meatloaf recipes, with a bit of meat in addition. Pastry or shepherds pies are another frugal use of meat. Frugal meatballs on a bed of Faux Carrot Kraut.
Grains: The least expensive grains (at least in our area) are barley, oats and peas and we incorporate a lot of these three grains in our diet, they are also easy for us to grow and do not require a lot of fertility. Next comes wheat and beans, followed by lentils, millet, rice and quinoa. We are growing more and more of our grains at home each year, but we still purchase what we don't grow in bulk. When poor populations go hungry, it is usually due to grain prices being too high, the manipulation of grain prices in the commodities market is a criminal action. Purchasing your grains locally, from small farms or mills who buy from local farmers is the next best thing to growing them yourself. If you have the space for a large potato patch, you probably have room to grow some of your grains, they require less fertility than potatoes, and in my experience, one pound of cooked grains replaces 3 pounds of potatoes, and provides higher protein and nutrition. For a few reasons, one being that we cannot grow rice, another being the strong impression that last summer's food riots made on us over the doubling of rice prices, we decided to stop buying rice, and have found two substitutes, both at half the cost. Whole oat groats cook up to a similar consistency of rice, and goes nicely with stir-fries. Barley makes a great pilaf substitute. A great way to prepare it is to toast one pound of pot barley in oil, fat or butter until beginning to brown, then covering with water as you would rice, boil until water is absorbed and grain is tender. At this point you can add herbs, spices, onion, garlic, and even vegetables (diced or grated carrot, green beans, etc.), and your frugal portion of meat. Mix all the ingredients, cover and put into a hot oven to finish cooking, this way the barley does not burn on the bottom, and the whole dish has a chance to steam together. It is delicious, can be eaten with a tomato sauce and bread, or you can keep the vegetables for a side dish. Millet can also be prepared like this. Peas, beans and lentils are of course high in protein, and can substitute meat for the day. Toasted pot barley and green beans.
Toasted millet and green peas.
Fruits and Vegetables: Frugal is homegrown and preserved. If you have a foodculture that does not match your climate in this department, than perhaps your most frugal option would be to adjust your diet to the types of vegetables and fruit that you can grow yourself, and then start planning the garden to fulfill those needs.
Dairy, eggs, fats and oils: Use sparingly and seasonally. Be creative.
The trick is to find a balance, being frugal and sticking to your food budget, but also leaving room for creativity and celebrations. Plan celebrations at certain times of year. I always keep a treat for us during the months of March, April and May especially, after living out of the pantry for 4-6 months and before the garden is even planted. We have a few great feasts, celebrating our harvests in the fall. We splurge on each food when it is in season, getting our fill of fresh blueberries in July and broccoli in September, then bidding our time for the next season, nibbling on dried blueberries to remind us of summer's flavor.
For inspiration, here's a few of our spring meals, inspired by Mr Fritillary. He comes into the kitchen when I get into a rut, and spices things up (not because he's not willing the rest of the time, but because I keep the key to the kitchen and pantry, it's MY space! If you've ever lived in 300 sq ft with another human being through 5 months of lock-down winter, you'll appreciate our little islands of space).
Organic Tater-tots: 5 medium potatoes grated fine (Yukon Gold is especially nice), mix with 1/4 cup yellow pea flour (or substitute with whole wheat flour, but the pea flour adds a great flavor, as well as protein), salt and curry spice (or spice to your liking). Form into small patties and fry in 1/4 inch of high-temperature oil or fat in a cast iron skillet until browned on both sides. Could be baked, but these were intended as a treat, comfort food.
Samosa and spicy apple mint sauce.
Samosas: Dice 3 medium potatoes and 2 medium carrots, steam until tender, drain. Heat 2 Tbsp fat, oil or butter in a heavy bottomed sauce pan, add tsp each of cumin seed, caraway seed and anise seed, 1 tbsp curry spice, and mix until the spices are heated through and just beginning to brown (do not burn!). Combine mixture with cooked vegetables and 1 cup canned or frozen (or fresh, lucky you:) green peas, and 1 tbsp salt. Set aside. Mix your favorite pastry recipe, enough for 2 double-crust pies. Roll out as for pie crust (1/8 inch) and cut out 6 inch rounds (I used the lid of a small sauce pan to cut the shapes). Make at least 12. Wet the outer edge of pastry, 1" wide, with water and spoon vegetables into the center of the pastry (not too full). Fold over, keeping the vegetables in the pocket, and press edges together with a fork, pierce tops. Place each pastry on a greased cookie sheet, when all are filled, brush tops with butter, oil or fat and bake in middle rack of oven, 325 for 25-30 minutes until browned.
Samosa filling in pastry.
Sauce: I made apple mint butter last fall, and it made into a delicious sauce atop the samosas. Empty one pint into sauce pan (or use applesauce and dried mint or other fruit sauce, local fresh fruit etc), heat and add cayenne pepper to your own taste, and a touch of sugar or honey to balance the heat if needed.