People with money like to pretend that cooking meals with fresh vegetables and ethically sourced meat is cheap, easy and accessible to all. Those of us in the real world are aware that life really doesn’t work that way. Whether it’s budget or dietary restrictions, I’ve put together a list of ’essential’ products that make life less stressful for me, and will hopefully help you, too.
1. Spices (and dried herbs)
To quote my favourite fictional preacher (Firefly’s Shepherd Book), “The important thing is the spices. A man can live on packaged food from here ’til Judgment Day if he’s got enough rosemary.” You really can’t have enough spices. I’d probably die without paprika. I add it to almost everything, so it’s probably the only thing in my spice rack that needs replacing regularly. Don’t pay attention to people who turn their noses up at garlic or onion powder - they’re cheap, they’re convenient, and they last.
It’s more of an on-the-spot expense, but if you buy a big bag it works out cheaper in the long run and lasts longer. Discount supermarkets (Lidl, Aldi, etc) often have them at a lower price than most mainstream supermarkets so if you can get to one without too much trouble, you might want to do that. Some people seem to think that you can’t cook rice without a dedicated rice cooker. They’re wrong. Rinse your rice first, to remove excess starch. Then, in a pan with a tight-fitting lid, combine between one and a half and two cups of water for every cup of rice. Bear in mind that more water makes a softer, stickier rice that’s good for stir-fries or egg-fried rice. Bring the water to a boil on a high heat, then reduce to a lower setting until the rice has absorbed the water (about 12 minutes). When the rice is cooked, remove the pan from the heat and leave it to sit between 5-30 minutes. Fluff with a fork or chopstick just before serving.
3.) Dried pulses (lentils, chickpeas, beans)
Lentils aren’t just for hippies. If you’re any good at planning your meals ahead, or remembering to do food preparation the night before, lentils are fantastic. Put them in water and leave them to soak overnight so they’re ready to cook with the next day. They’re cheap, provide added bulk to soups, stews and curries and are a great source of protein for vegetarians and vegans. You might feel a bit like Neil from The Young Ones when you call your friends to the table for a lentil casserole, though. Sorry about that.
4.) Stock cubes
Stock cubes are great. They’re cheap, they add flavour, and they last ages. There’s not really a lot else to say about them, is there? Fine, here’s a bit of stock cube trivia: The predecessor to the modern stock cube was known as Pocket Soup and is described as far back as the 16th century. Weird to think that the stock cube was around before the smallpox vaccine, right?
5.) Tinned everything
Tomatoes, sweetcorn, baby carrots, peas, chickpeas, kidney beans, various fruits, tuna, corned beef, lots of soups. They all come in cans. Of course, you don’t want to be too reliant on tinned food for too long, but it does help to have a couple of cans around in case you’ve forgotten to soak something or you’re short on time.
6.) Cornflour (or corn starch, if you‘re American)
Most people have a seemingly ageless pack at the back of their cupboard that occasionally gets dragged out to thicken a sauce, but did you know it makes fantastic gluten-free brownies? I’ll have that recipe written up and some pictures to show you before too much longer.
7.) Cocoa powder
I’m a self-confessed chocoholic, and I’m very prone to late-night baking. You can also add a couple of teaspoons to some warm milk or milk-substitute (I really like oat milk at the moment, but I know some folks swear by hazelnut, almond and coconut milks).
8.) Long-life milk or milk substitute
Tying into number five a little, I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve gone to the fridge and discovered I’m out of milk. So, now I keep a carton of the long-life stuff around just in case. Try it, you’ll thank me when it‘s 2am and you just want a cup of tea or a bowl of late-night cereal. It also has the bonus of often being cheaper than fresh. It’s usually a little more expensive than powdered milk, but IMHO powdered milk just tastes like cloudy water.
9.) An extra small bag of sugar or the sweetener of your choice (or if you can, just buy a really big bag)
Seriously, just do it. Same reasoning as #8. If you or your partner(s) use it in your tea or coffee, you don’t want to run out. I’ve woken up, stumbled into the kitchen and fumbled for coffee only to discover that I used the last of it the night before (likely while thinking “that is a problem for future-me” because past-me is a selfish little shit) more times than I want to admit. Don’t be like me. Don’t condemn yourself to a sad morning because you didn‘t think to keep an extra bag of sugar squirreled away.
Oats are great. I really like oats. You can get ones that are explicitly gluten free (oats are naturally gluten free but due to farming methods there’s a big risk of cross-contamination, so play it safe). Perhaps it’s the Northerner in me, but porridge on a bitterly cold winter morning is one of those small pleasures that makes an English winter worthwhile You can make flapjacks. You can add a cup to your bath and your skin will be super soft afterwards (especially soothing for eczema sufferers). The possibilities are endless.