There are only 17 items on the $25 Mastercheap Raw shopping list, so in a sense every one of them is a "hero ingredient": take one out and the whole week would instantly look a lot bleaker. But if I had to pick a single vital element that shows up in almost every meal, it would be the humble container of table spread (that's margarine to most of us).
Breakfast: 1/3 cup of quick oats, cooked with 1/2 cup milk and served with 2 spoonfuls stewed apple
Lunch: 2 boiled eggs, bean and carrot salad
Dinner: Mashed potato, fried potato, mixed vegetables with chilli and onion
Snacks: 3 pieces shortbread
Hot drinks: 7 cups black tea
Where It Gets Used
"What do you need margarine for?" a colleague asked me. "It's not like you have any bread." That's true enough, but actually it has three quite distinct uses:
- For frying food (potatoes, eggs, onions, chillis). Yes, I'd get a nicer result if I used butter or simple olive oil, but they're more expensive.
- As a flavouring. Condiments are expensive when you're starting with an empty pantry. Aside from the chilli and onion, melted table spread has been a constant flavour booster, popping up in every second serve of vegetables I've had.
- To make shortbread. Almost half the container got used as "shortening" to make a batch of shortbread I've been snacking on throughout Mastercheap Raw.
Speaking of which, I promised earlier in the week that I'd share my shortbread recipe. It's already a standard item in my repertoire, being extremely simple to make and good for keeping people happy in the office. This is how it goes:
- 250 grams butter (chilled)
- 110 grams caster sugar
- 350 grams plain flour
Preheat oven to 190°C. Mix the butter and sugar together with your hands until well combined (but not for too long, or the butter will start melting). Tip in the flour and work it together for a few minutes. It doesn't have to form a cohesive dough, just be reasonably combined. Place evenly in a flattish baking tin, and flatten with your hands if necessary. Use a knife to score the segments where you'll separate the shortbread when cooked. Sprinkle some extra sugar on the top. Chill for at least 20 minutes in the fridge. Bake 20 minutes or so in the preheated oven, until nicely browned on the top. Remove from oven and cool.
For the purposes of Mastercheap Raw, I substituted table spread for butter and raw sugar for caster sugar. I foolishly forgot that you can potentially emulate caster sugar by putting raw sugar in a blender, but it didn't make a huge amount of difference. Let me be clear: the proper version made with butter and caster sugar is much nicer, with a pleasanter texture and a richer taste. It also cooks faster (different reaction of the butter versus the margarine, I imagine).
But on a tight budget, this was a dessert/snack option that made sense, and which I knew I could cook reliably. If I wasn't doing the 'basic ingredients' option, I'd have gone with a packet cake mix and then not needed to buy the raw sugar at all. But I wouldn't have passed up the 'table spread', no matter how unappealing the name.
Playing With Potatoes
On my original meal plan, I was down to have a steamed potato with mixed veg, chillis and onions this evening. However, after getting all depressed about carbs yesterday, I decided it made more sense to stick with something I was going to enjoy. So I mashed one potato and sliced and fried the other.
A fixed plan like this doesn't often offer flexibility. One advantage of potatoes is that you can prepare them in a variety of ways, even if you don't have a lot of flavouring options. Almost the only option I haven't explored this week is roasting, which seems like a criminal waste of electricity to me
One day to go! But it's a day with a ludicrous challenge in the middle: a visit to one of Sydney's most exclusive restaurants.
Lifehacker’s Mastercheap Raw experiment sees editor Angus Kidman living for a week with a food budget of just $25 and only basic ingredients.