Interesting meals do not have to be expensive and choosing lower-cost foods does not necessarily mean lowering your standards. Mix a little imagination into your meal presentation and your dinner can still look a million dollars.
Spend some thought on plating because the way food is presented affects peoples' perceptions of how it will taste. Plan for variety of shapes and forms and select vegetables or accompaniments that add colour and interest.
Garnishes can also transform a dish. Add a creative drizzle of sauce from a squeeze bottle with a nozzle and embellish with fresh herbs.
If you watch Masterchef you may have seen sauces being brushed on to serving plates - you can do this with ordinary tomato sauce.
Even mince can be presented in a variety of appealing ways such as: in taco shells, flour tortillas, vol au vents, individual ramekins or chunky coffee cups; or on hollowed-out vegetables or baked potatoes, crispy noodles, pizza bases or corn chips.
Many inexpensive ethnic and vegetarian recipes include a combination of spices and herbs that turn ordinary ingredients into memorable taste treats. Initially it may take a few dollars to buy the spices and herbs, but stored in airtight containers in a dark place their flavours can add character to meals for many months.
Cheaper cuts such as gravy beef and blade steak have much better flavour than more expensive cuts. They take longer to cook, so cook double quantities and freeze half for another meal.
Slow cookers are ideal for the economical French beef carbonade, bourguignon and cassoulet - all traditional casseroles with loads of character. Pasta, rice and potatoes help stretch meat dishes.
Check out Indian, Chinese, and Moroccan recipes. many of which are light on meat but rounded out with healthy veges and rice or noodles.
I've priced the recipes this week to show how innovative ideas need not cost a fortune.
Some of the items were on special, some weren't, and other basic ingredients were from my pantry. The amount used was included in the costings.
DEVILLED HOTPOT WITH PARSLEY CRUMBLE
3/4 cup risone pasta or other small pasta
1 tbsp canola oil
1 onion, diced
500g lean minced beef
2 tsp each: prepared mustard, Worcestershire sauce, chilli sauce
1 tsp mixed dried herbs
400g can Mexican-style tomatoes or similar, chopped
3 cups diced green vegetables: eg, broccoli florets, cut beans, peas
Parsley Crumble: 3 toast-thick slices bread, crusts removed
1/2 cup parsley leaves
1 clove garlic crushed
1 tbsp olive oil
Cook the pasta according to the packet instructions. Heat the oil in a frying pan. Saute the onion and beef, pressing the meat with a fork to break up any lumps. Cook until lightly browned then add the mustard, sauces, herbs and tomatoes. Stir well. Cover and simmer for five minutes.
Add vegetables and simmer for 10 minutes. Stir in the drained pasta.
To make the crumble, process the bread, parsley and garlic to make crumbs. Toss together with the olive oil.
Spoon the meat mixture into six individual heatproof bowls. Sprinkle with the crumble. Reheat through in the microwave if necessary. Serves 6. Cost each serve: $2.25
Kids love these wraps. Add your own selection of raw salad ingredients or stir-fried veges. Keep some paper towels handy.
4 tbsp brown sugar
2 tbsp each: smooth mustard, tomato sauce
8 beef, pork or chicken sausages
4 large flour tortillas
2 cups finely shredded cabbage or lettuce
4-6 tbsp each: mayonnaise, chutney
Preheat a grill. Combine mustard, tomato sauce and sugar. Line a grill tray with baking paper and top with a rack.
Grill the sausages on the rack for about four minutes each side. Brush liberally with the sauce and continue cooking them for another two minutes. Turn them over, brush again with the sauce and grill until cooked.
Combine the cabbage and mayo. Warm the tortillas briefly in the microwave or oven. Cut in half. Spread the wraps with a little chutney and the cabbage. Top with a sausage and roll up. Secure with the toothpick. Serves 4. Cost each serve: $3.25
THAI-STYLE MUSSELS WITH RICE
Mussels make a delicious economical meal for friends.
48 fresh mussels in their shells
1 & 1/2 cups jasmine rice
2 tbsp each: canola oil, Thai red curry paste
2 cloves garlic, crushed
400ml can coconut milk
1/2 to 1 cup fish or chicken stock
1 tsp each: brown sugar, fish sauce, optional
2 tbsp lime or lemon juice
1 cup frozen peas, slightly thawed
Scrub the mussels in cold water. Cook the rice according to the packet instructions.
Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large wok or saucepan. Stir in the curry paste and garlic. Cook, stirring for about one minute. Slowly add the coconut milk, a 1/2 cup of stock, and brown sugar and fish sauce, if using. Stir well. Add the lime or lemon juice and the peas.
Add the mussels. Cover and cook for about five minutes, until the mussels are opened. Add more stock or lemon juice and fish sauce if you're using it. Discard any unopened mussels.
Serve the rice in the centre of four wide soup bowls. Arrange the mussels creatively to one side of the rice. Pour the sauce over the mussels allowing it to run around the edge of the rice.
Can be garnished with fresh herbs such as coriander, mint or basil or chillies. Serves 4. Cost each serve: $3.50.
The surprise is that these vegetable pies are great served in large, chunky coffee mugs. Alternatively, cook as one dish in a microwave-proof casserole.
Topping: 3-4 medium potatoes, peeled and diced
1/2 cup each: milk, grated tasty cheese
Filling: 1 tbsp canola oil
1 each: onion, garlic clove, diced
2 & 1/2 cups mixed frozen veges eg, corn, peas, diced carrots
425g can chilli beans, undrained
1/4 cup tomato sauce
1/2 tsp ground cumin
Freshly ground black pepper
Cook the potatoes in boiling water for 15 minutes or until tender. Drain. Add the milk and mash until smooth. Stir in half the cheese. Meanwhile, heat the oil in a saucepan. Add onion and garlic and saute for two minutes. Add frozen veges and saute for two more minutes. Stir in the chilli beans, tomato sauce, cumin and pepper. Bring to boil.
Spoon the bean mixture into four large coffee mugs. Top with mashed potatoes and sprinkle with remaining cheese. Cover and microwave for three minutes or until bubbling. Tops can be sprinkled with paprika and chopped parsley.
Serves 4. Cost each serve: $1.60