I shared a flat for a while with a girl who's boyfriend was a professional chef. I became fascinated with his tips for cooking. He explained to me that very cheap ingredients could be transformed into a very tasty treat with almost minimal effort and costs. For instance, a cheap tin of own brand baked beans could be brought to life by the simple addition of a small pinch of hot curry sauce. One packet of such curry sauce could bring dozens of tins of beans to life, with a massive net saving. He also persauded me of the value of growing your own herbs and foraging for them as well.
I thought I'd put together a list of my top ten.
1. Salt. This may sound absolutely bleeding obvious, but for me it is the way you use it. I love to salt the crusts of jacket potatoes. To do this dissolve a small amount of salt in water, and when your jacket potatoes are piping hot, pierce the skin and roll around in the salty water, then just put back in the oven. I rarely salt vegetables, so it is a treat.
2. Bay leaves. About 30 years ago, I planted a bay tree in my front garden. I cook a hell of a lot of soups, and a couple of bay leaves makes a world of difference to the flavour.
3. Good parmesan cheese. I don't do dairy, but I love the taste of cheese. A good parmesan (not the pre grated muck you get in supermarkets) can make all manner of bland things taste wonderful. You can grate a tiny amount of a good parmesan and on the aforementioned jacket potato, a cheap pasta or just a few steamed vegetables makes a world of difference. Although it is an expensive product in the UK, it can be very cost effective when used sparingly.
4. Wild Garlic. This grows all over Barnet in the spring. It is delicious in soups and pasta's and is free. You can wash and freeze it.
5. Black pitted olives. At the Mill Hill Food centre, they sell large jars of pitted black olives at very reasonable prices. They last and you can chop up a few to add to a cheap tin of chopped tomatoes and some wild garlic. It makes it far better. Also good in soups.
6. Apples. At this time of year, there are all manner of apples that can be collected and used at home. Good, wholesome puddings can be made and you can make batches of apple puree to freeze and use later. Freezers are most efficient when full.
7. Chives. You can grow chives almost anywhere. A handful of fresh chives can spice up most cheap pasta meals, sandwiches, etc
8. Capers. These are another strongly flavoured food that can add a real tang of flavour to soups and pasta's.
9. Mustard powder. Most dishes will taste better with a tang of mustard powder. It is far cheaper to use powder in cooking than pre made mustard. When making nice wholesome dishes like cauliflower cheese, half a teaspoon of mustard power will make it taste far better.
10. Thinly sliced mushrooms. This was a great tip that my chef friend gave me. He said that mushrooms taste best when sliced as thinly as possible and you don't been many of them. In a soup, one mushroom sliced extra thin will actually add more mushroom flavour than four chopped into quarters. If you know what you are doing, there are plenty of local mushrooms that can be foraged, but I'd only do that if you know your fungi!
One of my favourite treats is top take a piece of toast, put a thinly chopped mushroom on top, with some chives and some parmesan, and grill it until the parmesan melts. As a general hint, even if you only have a window sill, you can grow herbs in it. Another window sill plant is chillies. You save a few seeds from any fresh chillies you like the taste of. You will never need to buy chillies again, if you have a few plants on your window sill!