Tuesday, February 16, 2010


Déja vu. Back in 1994, when Spain was in a deep recession, I wrote an article entitled “Economy Gastronomy.” (It appeared in Lookout, an English-language magazine published in Spain, for which I wrote a monthly food column for nearly 30 years.) I offered a number of tips for eating well in recessionary times. Since the budgetary crunch has come round again, I looked back at my own advice. Here’s one of the tips :

IN PURSUIT OF A BULL MARKET, grab it by the tail. What’s your biggest food expenditure? Probably meat. Meat prices are high and rising. You can save money by eating less meat. Try Chinese-style stir-fried dishes and Spanish stews in which meat is only a small part of a many-starred cast of ingredients. Choose less pricey cuts and know how to exploit big flavors. For example, rabo de toro, bull’s tail (also known as oxtail), will keep you solvent and well-fed.

I put in an order for the oxtail with the village butcher. Weighing about 2 ½ pounds, the tail came packaged and already split into segments. The price for my bargain cut? € 9.60, almost $13.00! A tail is mostly bone, fat and cartilage, providing only two to three servings. “Why is it so expensive?” I shrieked at the butcher. He shrugged. “The animal only has one tail.”

I bought it anyway and enjoyed it immensely. Rabo de toro is a classic of Spanish cooking. Slow-braised meat on the bones in a deeply satisfying red-wine sauce. Perfect for cold-weather dining. But not easy on the budget! The recipe is below. But, first, here are my other (recycled) tips—some of which, unlike the oxtail—are still valid.

TIME IS MONEY. If you’re earning thousands of euros a week, this article isn’t for you. If you’re not, you can save piles of dinero by spending more time in the kitchen. Eschew convenience foods, pre-cooked and pre-packaged. You pay for it—in  marketing studies, advertising, processing, packaging, transport, shelf display. Make it from “scratch” and you’ll save money. At the same time, you gain on the gastronomy side of the ledger, for home-prepared foods, from soups to sweets, show a flavor profit.

SPECULATE IN PORK BELLY FUTURES. You’ll save on meat purchases. Pork in Spain is the most economical of meats. Spare ribs, bacon, sausage, scraps of ham add high venture flavor for little cost. If you’re splurging, go for solomillo, pork tenderloin, a bargain compared to beef tenderloin.

FAIR WEATHER FOWLS. Eat chicken in a thousand and one ways.  It’s cheap, it’s versatile. It speaks Spanish, French, Chinese, Hindi, Italian, Arabic, Russian and more. (2010 note—but, organic, free-range chicken is NOT cheap.)

MILK ‘EM FOR ALL THEY’RE WORTH. Dairy foods—milk, cheese, eggs and the rest—pack a lot of protein for low cost. Use as a meat substitute for main course dishes. Substitute olive oil for butter, quark for cream, to compound your gains.

OFFSHORE INVESTMENTS. Fish and shellfish are more expensive than meat on the Spanish market. But there are also some superb seafood buys to be had. One good one is mussels, mejillones. They’ll cost you extra in kitchen time, for scrubbing and steaming, but provide excellent lean protein and lots of flavor. After steaming them open, shell them, then cook in a tomato sauce to mix with pasta; or, combine with a mustardy cream sauce for a gourmet starter. Also economical are blue fish such as mackerel, bonito and sardines. Bonito, in particular, packs a whopping big return on investment—a fish weighing under two pounds is so meaty it will feed four people very nicely and from six to eight if the fish is combined in casserole dishes. Other budget choices are conger, congrio (good in fish stews, paella); cazón, dog fish, a kind of shark, (substitute it for swordfish or batter-dip and fry with chips); grey mullet, lisa, (a sea bass look-alike, almost as good, bake or grill it); cuttlefish, sepia  (stewed with potatoes or grilled). (2010 note: I can verify that cuttlefish is a bargain—I just bought a pound of cleaned cuttlefish for $1.80.)

FROZEN ASSETS. Buy low, cook high. If lamb’s on special offer this week, buy lots and freeze. Purchase a big fish, cut into portions and freeze them. Buy strawberries at the height of the season, freeze with a little sugar for high-yield mousse all year round. Use cheap tomatoes (in season) for sauce and freeze. When freezing foods, take care in packaging to keep out air. Wrap meat or fish first in plastic wrap, then in freezer bags. Use uncooked frozen foods within two months for premium flavor.

DIVERSIFY YOUR ASSETS. In other words, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Get rich with lentils and beans, complex carbohydrates such as rice, potatoes and pasta. Gastronomically speaking, you’ll also win high rates for carbs served with pizazz—herbs, spices, volatile seasonings.

HIGH RISK VENTURE. Dare to be different. Serve your guests Sherry or Montilla-Moriles instead of whisky; chicken livers instead of steak.

GO FOR GILTS. As in stocks. As in soups. Great budget stretchers, soups. If you serve an especially good soup as starter, you can scrimp on what comes next because your guests already feel well-fed. A seasonal pumpkin soup might fill the bill here. Then, too, hefty soups with legumes and sausage or meat make the whole meal—just add salad and crusty bread.

MARKET ECONOMY. It’s about supply and demand. Buy what’s in season and you’ll save money. Citrus is peaking and is local, but those melons in the market are imported from Chile on the other side of the equator (trailing a large carbon footprint). Cabbages are a bargain, but artichokes are early and pricey. 

. So, what about wine?. Now’s the time to go out on a limb and investigate some of those lesser-known regions and wineries. This isn’t even risk investment! Spain offers some knock-out wines you’ve never heard of, for prices far less than the usual. Look for value for money in wines from Valdepeñas, La Mancha, Manchuela, Jumilla, Rueda.

TIGHTEN YOUR BELT. Go on a diet and save money on food.


Serves 4.  

1 whole oxtail, cut crosswise into 3-inch segments
3 tablespoons olive oil     
1 onion, chopped
1 leek, chopped
3 carrots, diced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
4 slices bacon, chopped
5 tablespoons brandy
½ cup red wine
1 tomato, peeled and chopped
1 bay leaf
sprig of parsley
sprig of thyme
salt and freshly ground black pepper
red pepper flakes, to taste     
pinch of ground cloves
chopped parsley

Wash the pieces of oxtail very well, then blanch them in boiling water for 5 minutes and drain.

In a large pot or flameproof casserole, heat the oil and add the onion, leek, carrots, garlic and bacon. Sauté until the onion is soft.

Add the pieces of oxtail and brown them on a medium-high heat. Add the brandy, set it alight, and stir until the flames die down. Then add ½ cup of water, the wine, tomato, herbs, salt, pepper, red pepper flakes and cloves. Cover and simmer until the meat is very tender, about two hours. Add additional liquid as needed. The sauce should be fairly reduced.

This can be made in advance, refrigerated, skimmed of fat and reheated before serving.

Serve sprinkled with chopped parsley.

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