Friday, 31 July 2009

Poor Man's Beef Bourguignon

After the fiasco with the beef in my last post, I thought I should have a second shot at doing a dish involving beef and mushrooms. This time round though, I've done things differently.

Believe it or not, Sainsbury's actually has a Basics range of alcoholic drinks. The quality level and hence their drinkability isn't very good, but you get what you pay for. Of particular amusement in my uni days was the Spanish Red Wine. My flatmate has a particular disdain for spanish wines, so seeing his reaction on trying the Basics one was particularly entertaining. "It's Spanish, and it's Basics. Ugh. Good only for making sangria."

But the wine is good for cooking. I've made pretty good Coq au Vin using this. Furthermore, it's slightly acidic. Which is a good thing, since I'm working with tough cuts of beef.

The other item I've added is bacon. Sainsbury's recently added cooking bacon to their line of basics products in this category, which include unsmoked and smoked back bacon (as an aside, you might find that the British prefer back bacon, and so streaky bacon is going to be quite expensive). £1.52 for 670g is a pretty good deal, especially when you consider that the Basics back bacon is £1.48 for 300g.

Obviously, there is a downside. the cooking bacon is sold as whole chunks, ie, they are not sliced into rashers for you. So don't think that you can use this for your bacon sandwiches or bacon and eggs. It's great for stews and possibly things like carbonara though.

The end result is pretty good, if I may say so myself. The addition of bacon and red wine certainly helped, since it turns out that the beef isn't very flavourful.

DescriptionPrice per UnitNo. of servingsTrade-up PremiumTrade-up Benefits
Diced Beef£2.502+£0.50, incl bulk discount (2 for £6)Richer tasting beef
Spanish Red Wine£2.534+£variable (750g)
Better tasting wine. Recommended. Unless you're using for cooking.
Cooking bacon£1.52variable, 670gN/ANot Applicable, no other alternative

Friday, 24 July 2009

Black Pepper Beef with Mushrooms

So I finally got round to doing some actual cooking for this blog. Unfortunately, things did not turn out well.

Whilst studying in London, the most affordable cuts of beef that you would find are the casserole beef, and the Basics frying steaks. The former is available both in regular and basics varieties. Having been here for some time now, I'm quite familiar with dealing with casserole beef, and have used it successfully for group dinners on a number of occasions. However, I've yet to try the Basics version, because I can't find it in myself to serve low-quality food to my guests and friends. Besides, the regular one is only 50p more...

The existence of this blog has given me an excuse to try it out. While I was at it, I thought I would also take the opportunity to experiment in another area. One of the main problems with casserole beef is that if not handled and cooked properly the meat can be very tough. Tenderising the meat was often done either physically with a kitchen utensil, or through the use of appropriate marinades, such as wine or vinegar (both are acidic). More recently I've discovered that the use of Bicarbonate of Soda works too, although they can significantly alter the flavour of the food, and has to be washed before use.

This time round, I thought I might try to use Basics sparkling water, which is effectively carbonic acid, to try to tenderize the meat. It turned out to be a disaster: The sparkling water was dyed red, and when I poured it away I also lost whatever juice/blood/liquid that gave the beef its flavour. Setting it in lashings of black pepper and garlic did not do much to help the situation.

This blog post will also be the first one involving rice. Sainsbury's stocks Basics long grain rice, which is American long grain, as opposed to the Thai long grain that we're familiar with. The rice is broken, so you won't get whole grains. You might think this is a small point, but it seems to add to the enjoyment of the meal. Somehow.

Photos showing the cooking process...

Other than the silly mistake with the beef, everything else was okay. The onions taste just like the regular ones, as do the mushrooms, so if you're not fussy about sizes it could be worth the price. The garlic tasted a little sharper than what I am used to, but that could be due to my steeping it in the beef overnight. The rice, other than being broken, is a little starchier than what we are used to.

DescriptionPrice per UnitNo. of servings
Trade-up Premium
Trade-up Benefits
Diced Beef

2+£0.50, incl bulk discount (2 for £6)
Not known, this time anyway
Mushrooms£1.466 (700g)

+£0.54 (750g)
More consistently shaped mushrooms

Onions£0.67many (1.5kg)

+£0.33 (1kg)
More consistently sized mushrooms
Garlic£0.39variable (2 odd-sized bulbs)
+£0.21 (2 loose bulbs)
Bigger, more consistently sized bulbs
Black Pepper
Better tasting pepper. Recommended.
Sparkling Water
Mineral water vs Distilled water
Long Grain Rice
Broken vs Whole grains, higher quality. However, both are American; get Thai rice from Chinatown instead.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Chicken Curry Instant Noodles

So here's the blog post about the Basics instant noodles as promised. Since it's mind-numbingly simple to prepare, I'll spare you that and go straight to my opinion. The soup is bland, the noodles are actually not bad in terms of texture, so you might want to combine this with other condiments/ingredients to make a better-tasting meal. But if you're going to do that, you might as well just buy your favourite brand from Singapore in Chinatown!

DescriptionPrice per UnitNo. of servingsTrade-up PremiumTrade-up Benefits
Chicken Curry Instant Noodles


Sunday, 19 July 2009

Baked Beans with Minced Beef

I remember when growing up as a kid, when my mother would cook a variety of dishes prior to receiving me from primary school for lunch. One of these was Heinz Baked Beans cooked together with minced pork and onions, served with bread. As the years wore on, I grew into teenhood, and the memories of lunch at home faded away as I spent more afternoons in school.

When coming up with material for this blog, I wanted to do an item which featured the Basics Minced Beef (I'll explain why later). My thoughts went back to my childhood days, and then I remembered that my mom supposedly said that she used to cook this for my dad when they were both overseas. This would then be a good example of what one can do with the things found in the UK.

I first encountered the Basics Minced Beef in first year, and one of the first things which struck me was its high fat content. This post is hence meant to warn readers about the dangers of buying this, and what measures one can take if one is forced to use this.

To remove the fat from the minced beef I borrowed an idea from Top Secret Recipes. In their recipe which copied the chilli (as in chilli con carne) from world's 3rd largest hamburger chain Wendy's, the site noted that the meat in the chilli is derived as follows: burgers which are left for longer than a specified time are disassembled and the patties boiled for an extended period of time to extract it of fat, before being made into chilli.

So this was what I did. After cooking the beef thoroughly and pouring away the fat, I subjected the mince beef to an extended period of boiling, roughly for one hour. The end result can be found in the photos. I've also included a shot showing the amount of fat I extracted through initial cooking.

By this time I was tired of cooking any more, so I just dumped the baked beans into a microwavable bowl, mixed the meat in, and microwaved for about 6 minutes. The end result was passable: The beans are acceptable, if the sauce is a little thin, something that could be remedied by boiling off the water. The beef by this stage tasted very bland, and is definitely not worth the effort.

The trade-up premium for the minced beef is for the standard minced beef. I'd strongly suggest that you spend a little more and get the lean steak mince.

DescriptionPrice per UnitNo. of servings
Trade-up Premium
Trade-up Benefits
Minced Beef

Leaner, better tasting meat, no need to resort to above-described measures. Recommended.
Baked Beans

+8% content in beans.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Crabsticks and Fish Fingers

I love night snacks. Who doesn't? They are an integral part of university life, more so in the days running up to the exams, when they provide an extra source of energy and comfort. One popular hot snack is instant noodles, which are quick to prepare and consume. One of the problems, however is coming up with extra stuff to go with the noodles which are just as quick and convenient to prepare.

So Friday night I was on my way back on foot from the first night at the Proms when I realised that I would probably need to eat something to make up for my lack of eating anything substantial prior to the concert. Obviously instant noodles was going to be one of them. Since I was passing the local Sainsbury's on the way back, I thought I would revisit a couple of university memories.

When I was still rooming with my excellent roommate, we ate instant noodles quite a bit. My poison of choice to go with my noodles was the fish fingers. I discovered something similar in my first year - Tesco Value Fish Fingers, and bought them regularly, since they were only 19p per pack. Sadly, Tesco stopped stocking these a while ago, and Sainsbury's raised the price of their Basics Fish Fingers from 39p to 47p.

My roommate meanwhile had the crabsticks regularly. These were cheap and filling, and did their job well. Note that in the UK people usually call them seafood sticks, since technically they aren't actually made of crab, but of surimi.

Overall, a very pleasant meal, with nothing to complain about. The smell of the crabsticks may initially be a bit overpowering, but it's crabsticks, what do you expect? It helps that I'm not actually having the Basics Instant Noodles. Several people I have spoken to have noted that those are really bad, and not worth the 10p per packet you pay for; you are far better off finding your favourite brand in Chinatown and buying either a few packets or an entire box, depending on how much of it you're planning to eat throughout your academic year. I will not bother trying to review the Basics Instant Noodles unless pressured to do so or if I can find the time and the gut to stomach it.

DescriptionPrice per UnitNo. of servingsTrade-up PremiumTrade-up Benefits
Fish Fingers£0.47 (£0.188/ 100g)2-3 (10 fingers)N/A; Taste the Difference is £1.99 for 6 fingers (+£0.365/ 100g), Standard ones are £2.99 for 20 fingers (+£0.309/ 100g)Firmer texture, crispier crumb coating.
Seafood Sticks£0.684+£0.41+11% surimi content, not much else.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Crunchy Peanut Butter

Having a whole loaf of wholemeal bread leftover from the post on sandwiches, and acting on a tip-off from the MoneysavingExpert Forums, I bought a jar of Basics crunchy peanut butter. I was thinking that I could do with making sandwiches for breakfast instead of spending at the canteen at work, and I definitely wanted more variety than just cream cheese, also thanks to the post that I've linked above.

The nice thing about peanut butter is that it lasts and lasts. I remember that I bought a jar in my first year at university and I don't remember ever finishing it, and yet it didn't spoil during my time there. Indeed, the cap of the jar I just bought indicates that its expiry date is in Jun 2010, and there are no indications that one has to consume it within a certain number of days once it's opened.

The nasty thing about peanut butter however is also the thing that makes it nice. If it's bad, you will still feel obliged to keep it, because it lasts long anyway, so you wouldn't have to eat it that often, and still not let your money go to waste.

I regret to report that the ingredients that make up this peanut butter makes for a very bland peanut butter. It still tastes of peanuts, but is not near the more expensive brands which taste rather more luxurious, possibly from being more generous with the peanuts. This Basics item however would probably make you obliged to keep it well past its expiry date.

Then again, for £0.69, you would expect the peanut butter to contain rapeseed oil instead of the more expensive peanut oil. Those of you who prefer smooth peanut butter are out of luck; there isn't such an item in the Basics range. I suppose it costs more to finely crush the peanuts. That said, do you seriously want to skimp on the extra money it costs to get the regular peanut butter? I did mention that it lasts didn't I? Surely the cost would be borne out over a longer period of time?

DescriptionPrice per UnitNo. of servingsTrade-up PremiumTrade-up Benefits
Crunchy Peanut Butter
Fewer calories (59.4 vs 61 per serving), 4% higher peanut content, peanut oil instead of rapeseed oil. Recommended.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Baked Tuna Spaghetti

Having had some leftover tuna sweetcorn sandwich filling from the previous blog post, I planned to combine this with spaghetti and some peppers that I bought the last time, and chucking the whole lot into the oven. Quick, easy, filling.

One main problem with the peppers is that the size of each pepper can be variable. Sainsbury's sells the Basics peppers in bags of 750g each, as opposed to their regular peppers which are sold in bags of three. This may make portioning a bit of a problem when it comes to preparing for food. Perhaps the Basics peppers are best used when cooking diced peppers in bulk or when presentation doesn't matter, or if you're planning your meals ahead.

The spaghetti tends to stick together quite badly when cooking, which may be a problem if you don't usually add olive oil. It also tastes starchier compared to regular pasta. From past experience, the same can be said of their Basics penne.

Costing table is found below. Keep in mind that the peppers is slightly more difficult to compare per se, since the next better product isn't served in the same proportion. If you have trouble reading this, please leave a comment and I'll keep this in mind in future blog posts. Information on the tuna sweetcorn sandwich filling can be found here.

DescriptionPrice per UnitNo. of servingsTrade-up PremiumTrade-up Benefits
Peppers£1.59 for 750g (£2.12/kg)typically 3-4N/A; £1.34 for 3 (+£0.86/kg)More regularly shaped peppers






+£0.30 (or +£0.17 for quick cook spaghetti)
Better quality pasta which does not stick so easily when cooking and tastes less starchy, possible quick cook, although the Basics pasta range cooks quite quickly already. Recommended.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Tuna and Sweetcorn Sandwiches

Most students may find their university canteens or cafeterias quite expensive, and so they resort to packing food from home for lunch. Sandwiches are popular because they are easy to prepare and do not require reheating before consumption. A problem with making sandwiches though is that the supermarkets tend to sell the ingredients in larger portions than needed to make one meal's worth, and if one is not careful one may end up eating the same thing for several days.

Tuna and Sweetcorn is the focus of today's post as it tends to be a common filling, but is useful for other purposes too, like pasta. The idea for this post (and this blog!) came from the MoneysavingExpert Forums; they've also pointed out that the Sainsbury's Basics mayonnaise is not very good and suggested cream cheese as a substitute. Given that a jar of mayo will take some time to finish, and my flatmates already have their own jars and will most certainly not touch the Basics one, I've decided not to include it in the post for today.

Making the filling isn't exactly rocket science (just blend the cream cheese, sweetcorn and tuna together), so we'll go straight to the photos.

Overall, I've had no qualms with today's recipe. The sweetcorn was a surprise; I was getting firm whole corn kernels and nothing less. My only major gripe would be with the carbohydrates for this. The texture of the wholemeal bread feels more like white bread, without the visual presence of wholemeal.

And now, costing. Since this is the first post, I'll give a brief explanation of the table. Price per Unit is the price you pay to buy, for example, one can of tuna. The trade-up premium is the extra amount of money you have to pay to buy the next better item of identical serving size, unless otherwise noted. The benefits of the trade-up are in the column after that.

Prices correct as of time of this posting.

DescriptionPrice per UnitNo. of servings
Trade-up Premium
Trade-up Benefits
Canned Tuna£0.59

Tuna with brine or sunflower oil
Canned Sweetcorn£0.344+£0.07
+12g in extra drained weight.
Cream Cheese£0.454+£0.06
Black Pepper or Chive flavour
Bread Loaf£0.5022 slices
More moist bread, option to have long-life bread, varying slice thickness. Recommended.

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