Updated: Apr 3, 2020
Cooking at this time is very different to normal cooking. Not only is there a restriction on what you have access to (just look at the empty shelves of bread to see what I mean), but regular shopping is a thing of the past. Popping out just for a bulb of garlic can hardly be classed as an essential journey. On top of this, money is tight for many people. I have friends in France and abroad who have taken a financial hit because their business is no longer able to operate. So many expats in France run their own businesses so this is a very challenging time.
What happens during any time of change or uncertainty is that the food we cook and eat changes. So much can be told about the state of a society just by the food that is eaten at home. Food historians trawl through recipe books, Q&As in women's magazines and weekly shopping lists to find what people are buying and cooking. I wrote my Master's thesis on changing cooking and skill from the 1960's-2010's. So seeing changes in food is of huge personal interest of mine.
But I realise my academic history won't help anyone here so that's all by the bye. What I want to do here is give some ideas and tips for flexible and economical cooking. I won't use the term recipe. Partly because a prescriptive list of ingredients will likely contain something that's unavailable to some people, and also, what's needed now is a change of mindset to allow for creativity and flexibility.
1. Don't be afraid of substitutions
This is probably the most important thing to be aware of. Just because you don't have one or two ingredients, it doesn't mean you can't try the recipe. Just go for something similar. If you don't have fresh greens, use tinned or frozen. I planned to make tofu and pepper in black bean sauce but my last pepper had gone soft. Instead I just tinned green beans. It's a completely different type of vegetable but it still tasted amazing, and is something I'll make on purpose next time! If you want to make a curry but don't have the right spices, missing one out or using a curry powder mix will give you the flavours you're looking for. Likewise for something Asian themed. If you don't have rice vinegar/lime juice/black vinegar, just use another type of vinegar. If you don't have the right type of soy sauce, use whichever one you've got in. Chilli paste/oil/powder will all give heat and it's likely no one will notice the difference. Purists might wish to shoot me now, but desperate times call for desperate measures.
2. Waste nothing
There is so much information on the web. You can find recipes for just about anything (apart from satay beef ho fun, which is disappointing). If you've got some odds and ends that need using up, just type the names into the search bar with "recipe" at the end and it will come up with thousands or millions of suggestions. This way you can use up your ingredients, and try something exciting at the same time.
3. Stretch meat
Meat and fish are expensive enough in France, so any sort of hit to salary will make this seem even more out of reach. It can still be enjoyed as an occasional treat, and if you're smart with how you use it. A bolognese can be made with 50% minced beef and 50% red lentils, or a stir fry with lots of veg will make chicken go further. Likewise, including lots of root veg and mushrooms in a stew will cut down on the amount of meat needed, without anyone noticing the difference.
Starting with inexpensive cuts also helps. Chicken thighs or a whole chicken will work out cheaper than chicken breast. Obviously the filet de beouf or filet de porc are out, but beef brisket and pork belly can be in. Beef brisket can be slow cooked, and pork belly can be slow roasted or braised. You might just want to skim the fat off before serving.
4. Make stock
Fresh stock is practically free to make, and is something we don't always remember to do. Meat, fish or vegetable stock is easy to make. Just cover your meat or fish bones with water and boil for a few hours. Feel free to add carrot, celery, leek, onions or bay leaf. For vegetable stock I save my vegetable offcuts and keep them in a box in the freezer. Once the box is full, I simmer it for a few hours like meat stock. Once cooked, it can be frozen or chilled. I mainly use stock for soups and risottos, which are both great for using up whatever you've got left. If you have a few bits of your roast chicken left, make stock from the bones, then risotto from the stock. Throw in the leftover chicken, plus some frozen/tinned veg and dinner is served. It makes chicken go further and it doesn't look like leftovers!
5. Be organised
It goes without saying that cooking this way requires time and organisation. Luckily, many of us have more time on our hands than we know what to do with. Write down what needs using up, and plan meals around that first. You can make raw things last longer by cooking them, too. For example, if your carrots are starting to go soft, saute them to use in a few days. You can roast meat for a future meal. When it comes to the freezer, freeze ingredients in portions so not only do they take up less space, but you can take out only what you'll need. And don't forget that something that has been frozen and then cooked can be frozen again afterwards.
These tips have helped me create something different every evening so far without having to go shopping often. It's also helped to cut down the cost of our food bill (although not being able to eat out has also helped with that!). If anyone has ideas to cut down my wine bill, however, I'll be all ears! If you're looking for some recipe ideas to get you started, check out our recipe share section. There are lots of store cupboard recipes on there. Feel free to share your own.
Unfrench Leah x