Insights from The Frugal Cook

As an antidote to the cheap budget Christmas food I’ve been sampling, I’ve been chatting to food writer and cook Fiona Beckett about how to save money in the kitchen, as well as cutting costs on festive grub. If you’re stuck for a Christmas present, then I can recommend her new book The Frugal Cook. It’s got some great affordable recipes, plus brilliant tips on cooking affordably. As reader Kerri pointed out to me in an email last week, there are a lot of frugally-titled books about at the moment, but this is actually a useful one. Click here to visit Fiona’s blogThere’s also the chance to win a copy of her book, so read on!

Fiona – how long have you been a cook and what first got you interested in devising your own recipes? I’ve cooked all my life but have never done any professional training (along with a number of our top chefs – Heston Blumenthal and Raymond Blanc so I don’t feel too bad about that!) I taught myself to cook from cookery books and that’s the way I cooked for years until I realised that you didn’t have to follow recipes precisely – they were only a guide. 

Where did the idea for The Frugal Cook come from? Did you realise how timely it would be? I’d already written three student cookbooks in a series called Beyond Baked Beans so I was already into budget cooking. My publisher and I thought it would be a good idea to do a similar book for people who weren’t students and were having to cook on a budget, but we had no idea when we started that the financial situation would deteriorate as fast as it has. We also had this idea that I should write a blog to track my progress, which has been great as I’ve had some fantastic feedback and tips from readers and fellow bloggers along the way.

What are good ways to save money in the kitchen? For me it starts with shopping – that’s where the biggest savings can be made. Unless you’re fantastically well organised and can plan a whole week ahead and stick to it I wouldn’t do a big weekly shop. It’s so easy to buy more than you need. I like to shop on a Friday or Saturday for the weekend, then take stock on Monday and see how much we have left and how much we’re actually going to be in and top up with what we need. I also try and have at least one day a week when we live off what we have in the fridge and the store cupboard. The other big way of course is to use up your leftovers. It sounds dreary but it’s actually a creative way of cooking and you can make some really delicious meals.

Do you think too many people waste money on ready meals etc. and don’t learn to cook when it could save them cash? I think a lot of people are scared of cooking. They see all these programmes with celebrity chefs and think “I can’t do that”. But if they realised just how easy it was and how much they could save, I’m sure they’d cook more. It’s all a question of confidence. If you can get a couple of good recipes under your belt you’re away. The nicest thing people have said about my books is that they look at my recipes and feel they can cook them.

What are some of your own favourite frugal meals from the book?  Ooo, difficult! I was really pleased with the stalky spinach pea and mint soup – stalks are a great addition to a soup – broccoli is great too. And pea and ham soup made with a ham hock bone (a real bargain!) is wonderfully warming. The linguine with stilton and onion (a creamy pasta sauce based on stilton – recipe below) is very tasty and good for Christmas leftovers, as is the chicken and mushroom pasta bake which can be adapted for leftover turkey. I love the Mexican salsa chicken – a great recipe for kids and the lovely lamb and leek stew and there are lots of yummy puddings – try the empress of puddings which is like a queen of puddings with extra raspberries! 

I’ve been trying out budget brand Christmas food this week. What suggestions would you have for keeping the Xmas food budget in check? Yes, I’ve been following that – good for you! You can certainly save a lot by buying from discounters like Aldi and Lidl. In general my advice would be – just don’t go mad buying all sorts of stuff you don’t need. People tend to get a siege mentality over Christmas and behave as if the shops are shut for a month rather than a couple of days. It’s the extras that mount up – the cheese, the nuts, the dried fruits – you can certainly cut back on some of that.

What would be your frugal spin on the Christmas meal? Could you share a good recipe with us? I think most people don’t want to cut back on the meal itself. Everyone loves a good turkey and I couldn’t advocate buying an intensively reared bird. But you can definitely cut back on the meals around Christmas and make them more economical. 

So far as the recipe is concerned I’d probably suggest the linguine with stilton one as it’s easy and people are likely to have stilton leftover.


A scratch meal from the fridge that worked out surprisingly well. I know stilton doesn’t sound as sexy as gorgonzola but it tastes just as good and it’s quite a bit cheaper.

Serves 1

1 1/2 tbsp olive oil or butter

1 medium onion, peeled and chopped

100g linguine or spaghetti

40g Stilton or other blue cheese, crumbled

1 tbsp double or whipping cream, crème fraiche or Greek yoghurt

2 heaped tbsp finely chopped parsley

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Grated grana padano or parmesan to serve

Heat a frying pan, add the oil or butter then once it’s melted tip in the onion, stir and leave over a low heat to fry.  Pour a kettle of boiling water into a large saucepan, bring back to the boil, add salt, then add the pasta, stir and cook for the time recommended on the pack. Before you drain the linguine set aside 5 tbsp of the water you’ve been cooking it in. Add 3 tbsp to the onion and tip in the crumbled cheese. Leave over a low heat to melt then stir in the cream or yoghurt. Drain the pasta and add to the pan along with the parsley and toss well together, adding the extra water if needed. Season generously with black pepper and sprinkle over some grated Grana Padano or Parmesan.

Variations:  If you’re a garlic fan you could fry a crushed clove of garlic with the onions or fry up a couple of rashers of bacon or lardons to make the dish more substantial. You could also sprinkle the finished dish with finely chopped walnuts instead of cheese.

WIN A COPY OF THE FRUGAL COOK. Are you a frugal cook?  How do you save money in the kitchen? Leave your best frugal cooking/food shopping tips and let me know. The best tipster will receive a free copy of Fiona Beckett’s book.


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5 Responses to Insights from The Frugal Cook

  1. Carole says:

    My best frugal recipe is also one of the easiest and quickest to make – I got it in an \’easy suppers\’ recipe book last Xmas and as I live on my own it\’s one of those that makes two suppers. I haven\’t worked out the cost but it must be circa £1/portion. It\’s also ideal as it\’s packed full of flavour and nutrition!Harissa chickpeas with spinach and halloumi1 onion, finely chopped1 clove garlic1 tablespoon oil100 g spinach1 x 400g tin toms1 x 400g tim chickpeas (or any other pulse you like!)150g halloumi cheese, diced.1 tablespoon harissa paste (lasts for ages and is in most supermarkets).Fry onion and garlic til soft (about 5 mins). Add chickpeas, toms and harissa paste. Bring to boil and simmer for 5 mins. Add halloumi and spinach, cover and simmer for 5 mins. Add a dash of lemon juice and salt/pepper to taste and bingo, it\’s done!

  2. C says:

    I pick up the free magazines when I\’m in the supermarket (Somerfield, Morrisons and Tesco all have one) and take out any recipes I\’m interested in, as well as ones from the papers and internet. Then I put them in a folder, and if I\’m stuck for ideas I can easily find something new to try .Something I\’ve found that helps the most is learning to make a couple of recipes – for me it\’s curry, and pasta sauce – that you can experiment with once you get used to them. That way you\’ve got a couple of cheap meals to fall back on no matter what\’s in the fridge. Now I can make my own curries from scratch. It\’s really easy, and you can get such a wide range of flavours just from varying the spices or ingredients you use. I can get veggie or meat, mild or spicy, Thai or Indian, just from varying the same basic recipe.

  3. Unknown says:

    I check my fridge and cupboard regularly to try and use things up before they go off; one of my faves is for tomatoes. cut them in half, chuck into a baking tray with chopped onion, garlic, olive oil and salt and pepper. If you\’ve got any peppers lying around about to turn to mush, you can add those too. roast for about half an hour, until the tomatoes are just turning slightly brown. take it out, tip in to the liquidizer and whizz until smooth. That can be used for pasta, pizza, the base for curry, enchiladas. you can add whatever flavourings you want, so it\’s very versatile. I also have a poly box in my freezer, and left over stale bread (including the crusts) gets whizzed up in the processor until they are crumbs, and then added to the box. when I make pasta bake (which can use up leftover veggies), I finely grate a little cheese, mix it with a couple of spoons of breadcrumbs straight out of the freezer box, and sprinkle it over the top. makes a lovely crunchy topping. it also means if you\’re making burgers or falafel, or stuffing, you\’ve already got the breadcrumbs, so not only does it save the leftover bread, but it saves time as well.Finally, if you have any specialist stores, I would reccommend having a look to see what they have. In my area, we\’ve had a lot of stores open in recent years that import foods from Turkey, Poland, Israel and various other places. I got a jar of whole cloves of garlic in brine for £1, and you can sometimes pick up large bags of rice, pulses, nuts and spices cheaper than the big chain supermarkets.Lisa

  4. piper says:

    Hi Lisa alias no name – could you get in touch by sending me a message through the website or leaving a comment here with your email address? I wanted to contact you about something but your communication preferences are set to private. Thanks, Piper xxx

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