The Austerity Pantry Revisited

About a year and a half ago, I posted on an an experimental approach to food in Austerity Measures and the Simplified Pantry.

I had challenged myself to pare the contents of our pantry down to 35 items including herbs, spices and beverages. It still seemed extravagant in the face of this family’s meagre week’s worth of groceries.  Having switched to a vegan diet for ethical reasons with comparative ease and a minimum of fuss 20 months earlier, I was keen to see what other possibilities opened up:

  • To eat a nutritionally sufficient, wholesome diet at a much lower cost
  • To eat a delicious diet without recourse to rare and exotic ingredients
  • To align our diet to global norms rather than those determined by our gluttonous society
  • To prove it possible to eat well on £15 per head per week
  • To save money by buying ingredients in bulk that would definitely be used
  • To cultivate an enjoyment of a simpler palette of tastes
  • To remove fatty and processed foods from the menu altogether
  • To flirt with the tantalising possibility of going fridge-free
  • To minimise trips to the supermarket

Well …

I have to admit a number of additional ingredients and indulgences have crept back onto the shopping list in the intervening months due to bad habits and convenience,  but not due to necessity. I also discovered a couple of new delicious dishes that didn’t fit the restricted pantry. Nevertheless, there seemed to be something attainable here that just slipped away.

Three particular areas were especially challenging:

Bread – I wanted to commit to only consuming bread that I had baked myself. The plan was to get a sourdough going that would not require yeast to be replenished as one of the 35 items. In reality, sadly my life is too hectic for sourdough and bread products on supermarket shelves proved irresistible.

Spices – These are relatively cheap and add instant variety, and 25g of most things lasts a good while, so the spice rack was never really reduced.

Staples – Under the heading of  “rice”, I managed to sneak in four different varieties (that’s cheating), and I  started exploring quinoa. I have since decided that quinoa is a “no-no” because it has become stupidly expensive and the poor Bolivians who grow it can’t even afford it.

However …


Bean Slop and Polenta
Bean Slop and Baked Polenta

I was recently summoned to view the multicoloured spreadsheet of household finances that my wife painstakingly keeps in order. It was there in black and white (or rather pink, green and blue) that I have failed on numerous promises to bring the wayward grocery bill under control. A few hours later, my reflection in a shop window provided an unwelcome reminder that the mirror on our landing is unreliable and distorts my wayward girth in a flattering way, too.

It is time to recommit to “The Austerity Pantry”.

This time, I am anchoring it to a rolling menu of eight or nine basic evening meals with porridge for breakfast and  soup or jacket potatoes for lunch. For the curious, this is how it looks at the moment:

  1. Lentil hotpot
  2. Pasta and sauce (generally prepared with leftovers)
  3. Chilli beans with rice
  4. Savoury rice (pilau)
  5. Chick pea curry (type and strength varies)
  6. Roast vegetables with polenta or couscous
  7. Bean slop (this is somewhere between a soup and a casserole and goes well with leftover polenta)
  8. Lentil dal
  9. Risotto (with mushrooms or whatever vegetables are to hand)

In theory, this regime can be sustained on a monthly bulk-buy of pulses, staples and spices, supplemented with a weekly selection of local organic veg … and a fridge is not really needed …



Food Hacks: easy ways to make an average food awesome

Here are four of my favourite “food hacks”, easy ways to make an average food awesome …

Pimped Beans

Baked beans … meh …

Arizona strawberries, bullets, whistleberries, the musical fruit – a simple instant food that never quite shed school dinner associations until I decided to posh them up with fried onions and stuff.

  1. Fine chop a medium onion and fry in a saucepan with half a tablespoon of oil until golden
  2. Grind some black pepper and drop a pinch of mixed herbs and a sprinkling of paprika over the top of the onions and stir them in
  3. For extra awesomeness, add a couple of teaspoons of bouillon powder if you have some
  4. Add the beans from a tin and heat through, stirring all the while
  5. If you want them HOT, this is the moment when a couple of drops of Tabasco wouldn’t go amiss
  6. Ladle onto hot toast and enjoy

Hacked Hummus

As a vegan, I eat a lot hummus. Supermarkets sell their fancy red pepper, caramelised onion, carrot and coriander and morrocan-style variations, but any one of these stirred into bog-standard hummus will blow your tastebuds:

  1. A heaped teaspoon of lime pickle – with lumps of lime in it
  2. Mango chutney
  3. Two drops of Tabasco
  4. A tablespoon of salsa dip
  5. A teaspoon of curry powder


WP_001190A biscwich is that particular kind of a biscuit where you do have two biscuits and something to spread between them. Here are a few of my favourites:

  1. Hobnobs and marmalade – oaty orangey
  2. Ginger nuts and peanut butter – go nuts: add a few raisins, too
  3. The Oreo club biscwich – two Oreos with peanut butter between them
  4. Ryvita and hacked hummus

Garlicky Pea Rice

Don’t just boil your fairtrade basmati: add two cloves of chopped garlic and a fist full of frozen peas while it is bubbling on the hob.

Go and hack your food and let me know if you come up with any more awesome combos …

Recipe: Soffritto Quinoa Bake

How did I ever come this far in life without knowing about the sacred amalgamation of onions, celery and carrots? It has changed my culinary world forever. The colourful combination, known as “soffritto” in some parts and “mirepoix” in others, drives the flavour of this baked quinoa sensation that offers all the comfort of chicken soup or fish pie without requiring the inclusion of any animal flesh or secretions.


I have adapted it from a friend’s recipe that was adapted from another recipe that was probably adapted from a non-vegan version at some point in its genesis. This will feed four, but even when I make it for the two of us, there are never any leftovers.

  • 2 cups of vegetable stock/bouillon
  • 1 cup quinoa
  • 8 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tsp cornflour dissolved in 1 cup water
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 4 celery sticks, finely chopped
  • 2 carrots, finely chopped
  • 1 tbsp mixed herbs (Italian)
  • 1 cup plain vegan yoghurt (Alpro) – if this is not available it is possible to sour soya milk with a little lemon juice or vinegar
  • 1 tbsp squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 tsp ground black pepper
  1. Bring the vegetable stock to the boil and add the quinoa, turn down and simmer on a low heat for about 20 minutes.
  2. Preheat the oven to 180° C (350° F) and wipe a thin coating of olive oil onto the sides of a rectangular baking dish.
  3. Heat the olive oil at a moderate temperature and gently sauté the carrots, celery, onion and garlic, adding them in that order at 2 minute intervals and then giving them another 15 minutes.
  4. Take the quinoa off the heat and thoroughly stir in the dissolved cornflour, yoghurt, mixed herbs, lemon juice, black pepper and the sautéd vegetables.
  5. Empty the mixture into the baking dish and bake in the oven for about 45 minutes. You are looking for the top to brown nicely, so check it after about 45 minutes and finish it off under the grill, if needed, to make sure it is evenly crisp without being burned.
  6. Serve hot or cooled, cut into slices.

Vegan Mushroom Stroganoff

A wonderful vegetarian alternative to the popular “Beef Stroganoff”, this version goes one better and gets rid of the dairy element to make it suitable for vegans, too.

I finally hit on using coconut milk as a substitute for cream which means I can once again enjoy a dairy-free version of this classic dish. This is a simple and quick dish that should feed about four people and takes less than 30 minutes to prepare.

Image via Wikipedia


1 tablespoon Olive Oil
1 Large Onion, roughly chopped
400g Mushrooms, sliced
2 tablespoons Flour
2 tablespoons Paprika
1 cup Vegetable Stock
2 tablespoons White Wine Vinegar
4 tablespoons Red Wine
1 tablespoon Vegan Worcester Sauce/Mushroom Ketchup
3/4 cup Coconut Milk

1. Fry the onions in a large saucepan or wok on a moderate heat until they are limp but not browning.
2. Add the mushrooms and stir for a couple of minutes.
3. Sprinkle the flour and paprika into the mixture and turn several times until they are coating the mushrooms and onions evenly.
4. Add the vinegar, wine and Worcester sauce and stir again to thoroughly coat the ingredients.
5. Keeping on a moderate heat, add the vegetable stock and simmer for about 10 minutes.
6. Pour in the coconut milk and stir, reducing to a low heat and cook gently for a further two minutes.

Serve immediately on a bed of basmati rice or with noodles.

Mahatma Gandhi and the Experimental Approach to Life

Deutsch: Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948), polit...
Great Soul

I’m currently working my way through Louis Fischer’s “Life of Mahatma Gandhi”. I say “working my way through” because it is impossible to simply read about such a life without being forced to look long and hard at one’s own. One of the many things that strikes me about Gandhi’s life is his unending experimentation.

Many of his contemporaries found this a very frustrating aspect of their Mahatma. As much as they loved him, it was difficult to keep up with his ever evolving attitudes and approaches. Just when people thought he had nailed something down, he would move on, backtrack, repent, try something else. This champion of non-violence and enemy of the British System, nevertheless supported the British war effort by recruiting and serving in an ambulance corps. During his lifetime, Gandhi completely reversed his opinion on inter-caste marriages within Hinduism – from complete disapproval to virtually insisting on it. And he never stopped radically changing his dietary habits in line with his evolving view of human health and ethical vegetarianism.

He was a slippery fish – you never quite knew how he was going to respond to something, but he was always ready with a reasoned answer to his surprised and exasperated followers. This apparent inconsistency was not a weakness but appears to spring from a humble openness to change and learn, make mistakes and experiment.

In spite of all this it appears that three things remained fixed, two of which were phenomenally practical. He maintained a lifelong commitment to Khadi (homespun cloth), he never gave up his focus on integrating the “untouchables” in society (he renamed them “Harijans” – children of God), and he was unashamedly religious. Khadi, Harijans, and God – these were the forces he believed in for the transformation of India.

I admire the clarity with which he was able to pick the issues he would die for (as he nearly did on a couple of occasions due to self-imposed fasts). But, I am also determined to learn from the humility with which he was able to try new ways of aligning his convictions with his actions, and to say, “I got that wrong” and move on to try another approach.

Gandhi’s own body and soul, his surroundings and his sphere of influence were a laboratory in which he was prepared to constantly refine and improve his methods in search of the truth. He reminds me that our goal in life is not to become an increasing point of stability and so-called “reliability” but to be dynamic beings, adept swimmers in a sea of change, lifelong experimenters and unashamed modifiers of our selves.

Austerity Measures and the Simplified Pantry

Before we got rid of our TV, I was becoming weary of the amount of hours dedicated to cookery programs which encourage people to “fetishize” food and slaver over exotic culinary preparations. Historically, an unhealthy fascination with gourmandise seems to have proliferated in civilisations on the cusp of decline and I think we are no exception.

It was this extraordinary photographic project from the book “Hungry Planet” that gave me the impetus to embark on my next experiment in simplicity.

Not only do I feel convicted about the excesses of our western diet but it has become a matter of financial importance to rationalise our grocery bill. I have also noticed that the only times I have been successful in losing weight and enjoying the benefits of a healthier diet where when I pursued a simple and fairly repetitive “ethnic” diet in the past.

Previously this consisted of a “raw” porridge of soaked oats for breakfast (with salt or honey), miso soup for lunch and simply prepared vegetables for tea (usually stir fried with rice or noodles). Knowing that the majority of people in the world do a full day’s work on a bowl of rice or some other staple, with some sort of garnish, convinces me that it must be possible to flourish on a much simpler diet.

Only eating our own baked bread has helped me to cut down a bread addiction.

I think it was Mahatma Gandhi who said the table fork is the most destructive weapon wielded by humans. For ethical reasons, meat and dairy no longer make an appearance on our plates but I have noticed how I have still clung to the pursuit of a rich and exotic palate. After paying our mortgage, it is our grocery bill that consumes the next greatest segment of our household income. No small contributor to this is the tendency to need a specific, exotic ingredient for a particular dish, that usually prompts a trip to the supermarket where a number of luxury “treats” also tend to be put in the basket before the checkout is reached.

For the sake of austerity and health and in order to bring our pantry more into line with the simple food of our fellow humans in poorer parts of the world, the next step was to cut the number of ingredients available.

Initially I have opted to limit the entire grocery stock to 35 items. This is still incredibly generous in world terms and I think we will still be enjoying a richer and more varied diet than most global citizens. However, it is just an experimental step in the general direction of a simpler existence. At the same time I hope to cut the weekly grocery bill to £30 a week for the two of us. I think that is realistic.

So, for the curious, here is the new stock list:

1. Rice (at the moment this is white basmati rice)
2. Pasta (dry fusilli)
3. Rolled Oats (jumbo organic – for raw porridge and the occasional flapjack)
4. Wholemeal Flour (for bread making and other baking)
5. Maize or Plantain Meal (African staples that are filling and nutritious and hopefully making more frequent appearances as I learn how to prepare them)

Pulses (Our core source of protein – I adore all beans but had to pick my favourites)
6. Lentils (for bulking up soups and preparing dhals)
7. Butter Beans (I usually use in stews or mash)
8. Mung Beans (for sprouting and other uses)
9. Chick Peas (one of the most important items in our diet of curry, hummus and falafel; also delicious roasted as a snack)
10. Red Kidney Beans (mainly end up prepared with chilli or refried, Mexican style)

11. Olive Oil (only used sparingly for dipping and dressing)
12. Rapeseed Oil (absolutely my oil of choice, a great “butter” substitute in most recipes and doesn’t burn easily)
13. Salt (of course)
14. Agave Nectar (trying to switch refined sugar out for this)
15. Vinegar (prefer cider vinegar for most purposes but it will be a case of what is available)
16. Cocoa Powder (Probably one of my most useful ingredients, not just for hot chocolate and baking projects but I have it on my oats and am currently exploring other uses)

Seasoning (these tend to be ones that are easily and cheaply bought in bulk)
17. Chilli Powder
18. Paprika
19. Coriander
20. Cumin
21. Black Pepper
22. Mixed Herbs

23. Dessicated Coconut (for baking and dhals and other curries, can be soaked and blended for use as “creamed coconut”)
24. Almonds (appearing a lot these days, I’m learning to prepare my own almond milk)
25. Dried Dates (use as a sweetener and a snack)
26. Tinned Tomatoes

27. Tea (for drinking but also makes rice more interesting, just as toasted rice makes a cup of tea more interesting …)
28. Ground Coffee
29. Rooibos (also known as Red Bush Tea, can be used as a herb in cooking)
30. Peppermint Tea

31. Garlic (I’m not ashamed to say we eat a lot of it and I believe in its medicinal properties)
32. Onions (everything starts with onions)
33. 3 Other Seasonal Vegetables

I don’t expect to be either bored or malnourished … but I’ll let you know how we get on.

Beating the Blues with Oats

Rolled oats
Happy Fuel

I tend to get the blues every October. It sneaks up on me. I’m half way through the month and wondering why my energy levels are shot and I’m going round in circles feeling quite miserable and unmotivated. Then I remember: it’s just October. Usually I’ve pulled things around come November. However, this year I had an exciting and productive month. The secret, I believe, is oats. So here I’m republishing something I originally put up on Triond a long time ago.

Small Changes for Health

People who are successful at making lasting improvements to their health are those who have good habits father than a tendency to go “all out” for one thing or another without being able to sustain it in the long run. It is the simple things you do every day (like brushing your teeth) that have a cumulative beneficial effect on your ability to fight infection, maintain a safe body weight, and stay well. It is said to take 21 days to form a habit and just 4 to break it so you need to be determined. However, most of us try to bite off more than we can chew and change too much in one go – setting ourselves up for a fall .There are simple things that you can introduce gradually into your daily routine to reap lifelong benefits. Pick just one to do every day and when you have got that down, add another one into your daily practice.

Start the Day with Oats

Oats are a natural antidepressant. When I was growing up, many of my wider family were polo players. A couple of days before a polo match, the ponies’ feed would be switched from barley to oats. Those stable boys knew how to make a horse lively! It worked, the horses would be as high as kites. We can enjoy the beneficial effect of oats every day. Oats work in three ways to improve your mood:

  1. Regulating bowel function by providing a source of fibre. Most of us don’t realise how miserable our bowels make us when they are not working properly but they have been consistently linked with mood. Even if things feel alright down there, your body can still be under unnecessary stress when digestive processes are sluggish.
  2. Boosting up the production of serotonin – one of the “happy” neurotransmitters. Many antidepressants work by acting on the serotonin system. Oats are a natural answer. Vitamin b6 found in oats is an essential raw material for the production of Tryptophan, an amino acid that is an essential stage in the manufacture of serotonin. Low levels of serotonin are associated with depressive symptoms, interrupted sleep and craving for carbohydrates and can be a particular problem when you are not getting enough sunlight.
  3. Balancing blood sugar and energy levels. While oats are being digested they release energy to the body on a slow and sustained curve for several hours and so provide a more useful supply of energy through the day. This is preferable to a “sugar high” that causes stress to the body’s systems and results in those cravings for more carbohydrate. In my own experience, if I have a decent bowl of oats at about 9am I can easily last until 2pm before feeling that I really must have something to eat again.

It doesn’t matter how you get your oats, raw by the spoonful, as porridge or even by switching to oatmeal based bread and other cereal products. Of course, big organic rolled oats with bits of hull stuck to them would be my ideal choice. For me, the best practice is to start the day with a bowl of oats and to redouble the benefit you can receive from this, take a tip from ancient tradition: Ideally oats should be soaked overnight in water (or a non-dairy milk). This makes them more digestible as enzymes will have begun to get to work by the morning and a tiny bit of fermentation enhances the nutrient content.

Try a daily dose of oats for a week and see if you notice the difference in your mood.