Budget gourmets

Today's student won't settle for baked beans, says Lucy Hodges. Luckily for their wallets, a new cookery book opens up a world of taste at budget prices
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The Independent Online

It may sound unlikely, but a book for students called Beyond Baked Beans has become a bestseller in some of the country's bookshops. Delia Online calls it "brilliant", and the chef Antony Worrall Thompson wishes it had been around when he was a student.

The author, Fiona Beckett, is cashing in on the huge market for affordable meals that students can cook up in their flats or houses, and which are healthy and nutritious as well as tasty and interesting. She has, at the same time, brought the student cookery book into the 21st century by including today's tastes and ingredients - fresh coriander and Thai flavourings, for example - and cheap recipes that aren't based solely on tinned tuna and sweetcorn. She appeals to today's sophisticated 19-year-old, who may have spent her gap year travelling in central America, and who has almost certainly eaten in ethnic restaurants with her parents.

"The book has been really successful due, I think, to the fact that it treats students like anyone else," says Beckett. "I like to feel that students are grown up - which they are. They're not some special breed of halfwit. Sometimes they don't have time to cook; sometimes, like us, they have to do a juggling act and cook for people with lots of different tastes; sometimes they even do it for pleasure."

To keep up with new products and prices she has now supplemented the book with a website, containing a monthly feast (this month's is hot chilli butternut squash soup) for those who feel confident enough to cook for their friends, and a guest recipe (the current one is baked beans with spring onion sabji).

There is also information on what is in season, shopping tips and a regular booze section. Currently, Beckett's website is highlighting the top 10 British beers. Good beer is one of life's affordable luxuries, she maintains. You can buy some of the best beer for the price of some of the cheapest wine on the market. "It is worth students getting into good beer," Beckett says. "We make fantastic beers in this country. An interest in good drink should go hand in hand with an interest in good food." The book's "booze" section, meanwhile, tells students what types of wine are good value, and gives essential tips, such as how to open a bottle of champagne.

Shopping is as much a part of good eating as being able to cook well, Beckett says. But shopping on a budget takes ingenuity. On a budget of £26-£27 a week, which is the average for a student, you need sharp eyes and a lot of low cunning. You should steer clear of fashionable ingredients, she advises. Buy dried pasta and frozen spinach because they are cheaper than the "fresh" varieties. Substitute Caerphilly for feta cheese and pearl barley for risotto (see the recipe below). Products from unglamorous Germany, moreover, are cheaper than those from sexy Italy.

Students should accustom themselves to checking the unit price on shelf stickers. They should use local shops, especially Afro-Caribbean grocers for cheap vegetables, and they should learn how to plan. Half-a-dozen eggs can make three meals - scrambled egg, spaghetti carbonara and a big egg-and-cress roll.

Students who are on an even tighter budget can pick up tips from Beckett, too: she shows them how to survive on £10 a week. You can buy pasta for 20p a bag. Cook that with a home-made tomato pasta sauce made of oil, garlic and a 20p tin of tomatoes. If you want more in the sauce, add some mince or vegetables.

Save half the pasta and turn it into a salad the next day with peppers, sweetcorn or tinned tuna. Save half the sauce and fill a baked potato with that and a little chilli flavouring.

A few weeks on Beckett's student diet should ensure you eat well, and don't get into too much debt.

Mushroom barlotto, or how to feed four hungry students for £1.20

"Mushroom Barlotto": from the "favourites" section in Beyond Baked Beans

Weird name, but this is basically a cross between a risotto and a pilaf, only made with pearl barley which is a fraction of the price of Arborio rice. I could have called it barlaf but barlotto sounded better. This meal won't cost much more than 30p a head and will feed four hungry people. And it's OK for vegans and the wheat and dairy intolerant. How virtuous can you get?

Serves 4

2 tbsp sunflower or olive oil

2 medium or 1 large onion, peeled and chopped as small as you can

2 cloves garlic

About 150g mushrooms, rinsed clean and roughly chopped

3 sticks celery, trimmed and finely sliced

250g pearl barley

1/2 a 400g tin chopped tomatoes

1 tsp each ground cumin and coriander

1/4 tsp hot paprika or cayenne pepper

salt

1/2 large bunch or packet fresh coriander or coriander and parsley, roughly chopped.

Heat the oil over a medium heat in a large saucepan. Add the chopped onion, stir and soften gently for five minutes. Add the celery, chopped mushrooms and garlic and continue to cook for another five minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the spices, pearl barley and chopped tomatoes and stir, then pour in 500ml of boiling water. Bring to the boil, then cover, turn the heat right down and simmer for 25-30 minutes, stirring occasionally until almost all the water is absorbed. Season to taste, chuck in the chopped herbs and serve.

'Beyond Baked Beans' is published by Absolute Press, price £8.99; further tips and recipes can be found on www.beyondbakedbeans.com

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