If there’s anything I want for my children, it’s good health, happiness, and financial stability. When I was growing up my family’s fortunes rose and fell and then fell some more. As children, much of this was hidden from us. We just moved on a great deal. Never owning a house, just renting. Every time we moved I’m pretty sure we left behind unpaid rent and sundry creditors. This was before credit cards as we know them today, when greengrocers, fishmongers, and butchers alike sent their bills out monthly to customers, keeping a tab on who owed what. An overheard whisper of a conversation between my mother and grandmother ran something along the lines, ‘We must keep ordering from them, or they will think we can’t pay’. Which of course was true. We left debt behind us and moved on to another part of the country. Consequently, financial planning and budgeting was something I didn’t learn about until I was much, much older.
For many people, it’s divorce that puts a strain on finances, especially if there are children involved. Childcare, after-school clubs, school trips, packed lunches, swimming lessons, etc, etc. Children grow and they do it in unreasonable spurts, not in a measured way that budgets like. Those football boots you bought for little Johnny at the start of the year can be too small even before you reach half term. So, if there is ever a time that budgeting reaches its tightest point it’s after divorce.
I’ve been through this process twice in my life, juggling finances and learning the hard way how far I had to make the money stretch. It was an interesting and valuable lesson. How to stretch a food budget to feed four hungry mouths as well as the ‘live in au-pair/mother’s help/nanny’. If there is one thing I’ve learnt about selecting child carers it was to never hire the skinny ones with high energy and fast metabolisms or the too plump ones who loved to cook – your food bill would double. One formidable German girl thought to make a good impression by telling me that a nourishing hot meal would always be awaiting me when I got home from work. Instead of feeling pleased, it scared me. What if I wasn’t hungry? What if all I wanted was a glass of wine? Would I feel obliged to eat what was put in front of me with an expectant air? I gave the job to a sociable Italian who could only cook pasta. I don’t think I ever saw her eat in the six months she was with us. She was out a great deal.
Rightly or wrongly, I did involve the children in our ‘money is scarce adventures’. Eldest daughter added up our purchases as we went around the supermarket and, as an exercise to improve her mental arithmetic as well as mine, we competed to see who was closest at the check out. Youngest daughter was strapped into the trolley so that she couldn’t sneak in unaccounted-for purchases of chocolate biscuits or sugared cereals. Menus were kept simple – for the main pasta and rice dishes, with occasional forays into polenta, baked potatoes, and the kids’ favourite, filled ‘taco’ shells.
The cooking ability of the au-pairs varied, but they could all produce ‘tuna and sweetcorn with pasta’ with at least a fresh tomato or two thrown in. Vegetables – seasonal ones that were cheaper – took centre stage, whilst the amount of meat, fish or chicken was reduced. I do remember my son bringing university friends home one weekend and telling them at Sunday lunch, ‘Mum always goes overboard on vegetables’. But they didn’t seem to mind as long as there were enough carbs to soak up the alcohol from the night before.
Now as we get older and the children are feeding their own, I am able to buy better quality food, but instinctively seem to need less of it. Man’s parents were Dutch. They lived through the great famine at the end of the war – the ‘Hongerwinter’ that took place in German occupied Netherlands. That food isn’t wasted is important to him as it is to me. One of our favourite dishes is a stir fried rice dish. For me, it is comforting convenience as I can empty the fridge of all leftovers, but it reminds Man (a palaeontologist), of a dish that’s often reproduced at field camp in Kenya, where all food is precious as it has to be flown in.
Everything in the Fridge Rice – Feeds two and takes 30 mins to prepare.
NB: Apart from the rice, there are no exact measurements, it’s just what you have in the fridge and this is what I had last left last week.
125 gms Basmati and wild rice mix
Approx. 10 slices of chorizo cut into quarters
1 onion – a bunch of spring onions will also do, or leeks – chopped finely
1 or 2 cloves of garlic, smashed or finely chopped
20 or so chopped cavolo nero stalks (Collected from 2 or 3 bunches) but broccoli stalk works well too
1 or 2 eggs beaten
4 or 5 cherry tomatoes
1 or 2 medium to large carrots (grated raw)
A spoonful or two of Indonesian Sambal or your favourite chilli sauce to taste
A handful of coriander -scissored into bits.
Cook the rice first. Everybody has a preferred way of doing this, so you can do your own thing or, like me, boil a kettle of water, put the rice in the pan and add loads of boiling water. Boil with no lid on for 20mins. At 18 mins throw in the cavolo nero stalks. Drain and leave in a sieve.
Meanwhile, tackle the egg(s). You can either cook it in a frying pan omelette style and then cut it into thin shreds to be added with carrot. Or add the raw egg later when everything with the exception of carrot has been added, so that the egg can cook on the warmed rice.
In a deep frying pan, sauté the onions and chorizo, stirring regularly. This should take about 20 mins on a medium to low heat so about the time it takes to cook the rice. After about 10 mins add garlic. Then add the rice to the frying pan, and stir until warmed up. At this point if you haven’t made an omelette, stir in the beaten egg. Then add chopped tomatoes and season with salt and your spoonful(s) of either Sambal or your preferred chilli sauce. Lastly add the grated carrots, stir it all through and serve it sprinkled with coriander.
I can’t think of anything more satisfying than emptying a fridge of bits, but this is also a simple, comforting and warming supper. I have been known to sprinkle salted peanuts on top, added capers, used up a tin of corn – the possibilities are endless. You don’t have to use chorizo either, any cooked meat could be used. I just happen to always have a piece in the fridge.