Austerity food: Fresh from the back of your fridge

Britons waste more than three tonnes of food a year. It's time to find a happier home for those curled-up old lettuce leaves

I've always been a "scavenger" cook. Of course it's great having fabulous, freshly bought ingredients but there's nothing quite as satisfying as rustling up a really good meal from leftovers or assorted odds and ends from the fridge or cupboard – a skill a lot of people are finding they have to learn in the tough economic climate in which we find ourselves. Of course, we've been here before. Or, rather, not us but our parents and grandparents, most notably during and after the Second World War when rationing was in force. But 2008 is not 1948; is it still possible to cut down on what we spend on food without reliving the past? I believe it is.

Cooking thriftily is creative, and exploring the vast array of independent and ethnic shops – with bargains that are much better than those found in your average supermarket – can be richly rewarding. I don't mind admitting I've learnt a lot in the process of writing my book, The Frugal Cook.

'The Frugal Cook' by Fiona Beckett is published by Absolute Press. To order a copy at a special price of £13.49 with free p&p to UK mainland addresses please call 08700 798 897 or visit independentbooksdirect.co.uk. Read more at thefrugalcook.blogspot.com

Thai beef salad

It might sound surprising, but steak can make a frugal meal, and this is a great way of stretching a steak you might normally think of serving for two to serve four. There are, admittedly, quite a few other ingredients, but if you're into Thai flavours you should be able to find good use for them.

Serves 4

1tbsp Thai jasmine rice or basmati
1/2tsp crushed chillies (or 1/4 tsp hot smoked pimentón)
A thick slice of lean rump steak (about 400g/13oz), trimmed of any fat
1tbsp sunflower or light olive oil
11/2-2tsp golden or white caster sugar
The juice of 2 limes, preferably unwaxed (3-4 tbsp)
2-3tbsp nam pla (fish sauce)
1 large clove of garlic, crushed
4 small peeled shallots (or 3-4 spring onions), very finely sliced
1-2 small fresh red chillies, deseeded and finely sliced
3 heaped tbsp fresh coriander leaves, chopped
2 heaped tbsp fresh mint leaves, chopped
125g/4oz cherry tomatoes, quartered
Rocket or mixed salad leaves, to serve

Heat a ridged grill pan over a moderate heat, add the rice and dry fry, stirring occasionally until golden and fragrant (about five minutes). Take off the heat, allow to cool for a couple of minutes, then grind with a mortar and pestle or the end of a rolling pin. Toast the crushed chillies the same way for about a minute and set aside.

Wipe the pan, turn up the heat and then, when the pan is almost smoking, rub the steak with a little oil and cook for about one-and-a-half minutes each side until charred but still rare. Set aside to cool while you make the dressing. Dissolve the sugar in the lime juice, add garlic, two tablespoons of the fish sauce, two tablespoons of water and half the roasted chillies or pimentó and taste. Add more fish sauce and chillies if you think the dressing needs it. Finely slice the steak with a sharp knife. Tip the steak strips and any juices into a bowl with the dressing and add the sliced shallots, fresh chillies, chopped coriander, mint and cherry tomatoes and toss together. Scatter a large handful of mixed salad leaves or shredded iceberg lettuce over a large platter and top with the beef salad. Sprinkle with the toasted rice.

Thrifty tip

Your limes will yield more juice if they're at room temperature.

Portuguese-style salt-cod bake

Not a dish to be attempted if you're short of time, but it has the advantage of being able to feed substantial numbers for a very modest outlay. Note that you need to soak the salt- cod for 24 hours before using it.

Serves 6-8

400g/13oz salt cod (available from various ethnic shops)
4tbsp olive oil
40g/11/2oz butter
500g/1lb onions, peeled and thinly sliced
2 large cloves of garlic
25g/1oz plain flour
600ml/1 pint whole milk
1 bay leaf
1 heaped tsp capers, finely chopped if large
900g/13/4lb potatoes, well scrubbed and thinly sliced
2tsp white or red wine vinegar
3 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and cut into 8 wedges
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Soak the salt cod in water 24 hours before you intend to use it, changing the water two or three times. Cover it with fresh cold water, and bring it slowly to the boil. If the water is still salty, repeat, then leave it to simmer over a very low heat for 7-8 minutes until tender. Reserve a little of the cooking water, drain off the rest and set the cod aside to cool.

Meanwhile, heat three tablespoons of olive oil in a large frying pan, add half the butter and fry the onions over a low heat until soft and translucent. Add the garlic and cook a couple of minutes more. Stir in the flour then gradually add the milk and cook until thickened. Add the bay leaf and capers and leave to infuse over a low heat. Bring the sliced potatoes to the boil and drain. Flake the fish, removing any bones and add it and the vinegar to the onions, adding a little of the reserved water to thin the sauce. Remove the bay leaf and season generously with pepper. If you've soaked the fish thoroughly it may also need some salt.

Generously oil a large, rectangular ovenproof dish. Put a third of the potatoes in the base, cover with half the eggs and half the fish and onions, then repeat the layers, finishing with a layer of potato. Brush the top of the potatoes with the remaining melted butter and bake in a moderately hot oven (190C/375F/Gas 5) for 45-50 minutes, until the filling is bubbling and the potatoes are nicely browned. Serve with a sharply dressed green salad.

Thrifty tip

Salt cod is a useful ingredient to have to hand because it keeps for weeks.

Banana chiffon cake

Serves 4-6

75g/3oz broken walnuts (optional)
200g/7oz plain flour
1tsp baking powder
1/4tsp bicarbonate of soda
A pinch of salt
3 medium-sized ripe bananas
2 medium eggs
125g/4oz butter at room temperature
100g/31/2oz unrefined caster sugar, plus 1tsp extra
1/2tsp vanilla extract
Icing sugar for decoration (optional)

A lightly greased baking tin, 20cm in diameter

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4. If using the walnuts, tip them on a tray and crisp them for a few minutes in the oven as it warms up. Sift the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda and salt and set aside. Peel and mash the bananas. Separate the egg whites from the yolks. Beat the butter, sugar and vanilla until pale and fluffy, add the egg yolks one at a time and beat until incorporated. Mix in the banana, whisk the egg whites to a stiff peak, add the remaining teaspoon of sugar and beat again. Take a heaped tablespoon of the egg whites, lightly mix into the mixture, then fold in the remainder of the egg whites. Fold in the flour and walnuts. Carefully pour the mixture into the tin and bake on the middle shelf of the oven for 30 minutes until the cake is golden. '

Thrifty tip

For a recipe like this, use bananas when they're just beginning to get black spots.

Sheep's cheese, olive and oregano bread

Flavoured breads always command a premium in smart delis and bakers but can actually be a great way of using up leftovers, so play around with different combinations depending on what you have to hand – Stilton, thyme and crisp fried onions, or mature Cheddar, sun-dried tomatoes and basil. This is a simple soda bread that doesn't need kneading.

Serves 4-6

200ml/7fl oz sheep's yoghurt or low-fat bio yoghurt
1 level tsp clear honey
225g/71/2oz self-raising flour
225g/71/2oz plain wholemeal flour (not bread flour), plus extra for dusting
1/2 level tsp cream of tartar
1 level tsp bicarbonate of soda
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
50g/2oz strong sheep's cheese (such as Berkswell), rinded and finely sliced
60g/21/2oz marinated olives with herbs, stoned and finely chopped
1 tsp fresh or dried oregano, finely chopped

Measure the yoghurt into a measuring jug and add enough water to bring it up to the 275ml/9fl oz mark. Tip into a pan with the honey and warm very gently until the honey dissolves. Stir well then take the pan off the heat and cool until you can comfortably hold a finger in the milk.

Combine the two flours, cream of tartar, bicarbonate of soda and salt in a large mixing bowl. Pour over the milk and honey mixture and mix with a wooden spoon until it comes together. Tip the cheese, olives and oregano into the dough then work the mixture with your hands into a ball, adding a little extra water if necessary. The dough should be soft but not sticky. Shape the dough into a ball about 16cm wide and place on a floured baking tray. Cut a deep cross in the centre of the loaf, dust with a little more flour and bake for 35-40 minutes until the bread is well-browned and the bottom of the loaf sounds hollow when you tap it. Transfer to a wire rack and cool for about 20 minutes. Serve while still warm.

Thrifty tip

It's generally cheaper to buy olives with their stones still in, although pitted olives are obviously quicker to chop – whatever you have in the fridge or cupboard, really.

Lessons from the past: five fantastic leftovers – and what to do with them

By Fiona Beckett

Anchovies

Anchovies can be used to top pizzas, added to a salade niçoise or pasta sauces, such as the punchy puttanesca. Dissolved in a pan with a little oil, they also add a mysterious smoky flavour to a creamy pasta sauce. Save any leftover oil for drizzling over pasta.

Beer

A good robust beer makes a great addition to a gravy or stew, or can be used as a marinade for dried fruit (which could be made into a loaf). Unlike wine, it won't keep for more than 24 hours once open though.

Cabbage/greens

Try shredding and stir-frying cabbage and spring greens with oil and garlic (remove the central leaf first) or slow braise with spices such as juniper or caraway. Finely shredded leaves can also be added to soups as a replacement for parsley. Crisper varieties can be turned into a good coleslaw with chopped onion, grated carrot and sliced green pepper and apple (soak the leaves in iced water first). Cooked cabbage can be turned into bubble and squeak.

Lettuce and salad greens

Outside leaves are often thrown away, but if still in reasonably good condition can be added to a pea soup or a French-style dish of peas cooked with onion and bacon. Hold on to the stalks of leafy salad greens such as watercress and spinach and add them to a vegetable soup.

Yoghurt

Yoghurt is one of the most frequently chucked-out foods, but if you buy plain yoghurt, it's hard not to find a use for it. Mix it with a puréed fruit for a smoothie. Stir it into a cooked fruit compote. Serve dollops on spicy food such as curries. Make a raita or a tandoori marinade for chicken. Add to salad dressings or cold soups. Use as the base of ice-creams. Yoghurt goes particularly well with bananas, berries, mango, cucumber, mint and lamb.

The way we were: 'wasting food was illegal'

By Marguerite Patten OBE

Marguerite Patten OBE, 93, was a food adviser for the Ministry of Food during the Second World War, educating the public about surviving on rations. She also presented the BBC radio programme Kitchen Front, and has written 170 books. Her latest is Marguerite Patten's Best British Dishes, published by Grub Street at £25.

Patten says: "Rationing from the First World War had ended only in 1921, so my mother could remember exactly how they'd managed, and taught me. By 1942, I was demonstrating wartime cookery and went on to become one of the many advisers to the Ministry of Food. All over Britain there were centres staffed by home economists, dieticians and nutritionists: it was essential that we made people realise we could manage. We had to manage.

"Meat was rationed by price – one and tuppeny's worth a week – which would get you two very small lamb chops. If you bought mince you'd get more for your money, though sometimes there wouldn't be enough, so the butcher would make it up with a few slices of corned beef. We taught people to make their meat go further by making a stuffing with leftover bread to eke it out or by filling their plates with vegetables.

"We were also allowed two ounces of cheese per week per person; one egg, if you were lucky; two ounces of butter and four of margarine and, sometimes, cooking fat. We stopped getting tomatoes in the winter, so we'd bottle them when they were fresh and teach people to make a 'winter salad' instead, with grated beetroot, carrot, turnip and parsnip. We used to say, 'Now isn't this a lovely-looking salad?'. We couldn't say, 'I'm awfully sorry, but there aren't any proper salad things – you'll have to make do with this' – we had to be very positive.

"It was not only immoral, but illegal, to waste food. We knew and respected how hard farmers worked. Wheat often came from Canada and merchant seamen risked their lives bringing it to us. I remember the front page of my local paper highlighting one respectable local lady who had been fined five shillings for wasting bread. When I hear about waste today I am shocked, because I know just how careful we had to be."

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