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Living in Bulgaria: Cheap Cuts for Tough Times

Even in Bulgaria meat can be a relatively expensive way to feed the family and those looking to cut costs in these strapped-for-cash times are buying less. But for those who still crave their daily portion of meat on the table, there are ways to manage with a limited budget. Today's generation has lost the skills of how to make meat go further. Our grandmothers new something we do not - you can feed meals with meat to a great number of people at very little cost.

We were at friends for dinner the other day and our host told us, with some pride, that the entire meat course of the meal had cost only 9 leva, which fed six of us. Just 1.5 leva a head! We'd been fully satisfied by a tasty beef casserole with fresh local vegetables and heaps of buttery fluffy mash. The meat was rich in flavour and melted in the mouth. We'd have been delighted to be served this in any top-notch restaurant. In Britain, undoubtedly, this meal could not have been made for less than double, and more likely triple, the cost. The key to this financial and food success lay not only in the low cost of living in Bulgaria but also in the cheap cut of meat he had used, cheap cuts which have been much neglected in recent years as everyone headed down the quick and convenient food route.

With endless supplies of different cuts of beef, pork and lamb in Bulgaria (because we have old fashioned butchering methods), this is the time to look out braising and stewing recipes. Slow cooking is not only cheaper on the purse but it's also making a comeback and indeed is becoming positively trendy.

Over the past years, nearly everyone rushed home with frozen burgers or expensive fillet steak for quick meals which meant mealtime became reduced to an odd half hour before the kids rushed off to their computers or the television. In these economic times, fillet steak is often out of the question. The focus has shifted as purses are stretched to the fact that eating well is more important than eating quickly. In times of economic hardship, comfort food is hankered after, as it is good, homemade, filling and reminds you of your childhood.

Meat meals for less than 1 leva a person

So, how to satisfy your family's craving for meat yet also satisfy your pocket? When times get tough, the tougher cuts of meat can offer the solution. Ask your gran if you are still lucky enough to have one around, failing that ask your Bulgarian neighbours about how to braise meat. Long before ovens were invented braising was around. This slow method of cooking at low temperatures gives wonderful tasty dishes full of flavour with tender melt-in-the-mouth meat.

Although much rejected by people on the basis that it is time-consuming, this is actually one of the most convenient ways to cook meat with minimum effort and hassle. Also having the added advantage of "cook once, eat thrice". With simple braising you can have a superb family meal, the remainder of which can be frozen down and simply warmed up for future meals at a later date.

Braising is really straightforward. Take your cheap cut of meat and brown in a little fat. Add in vegetables to be browned (carrots, celery, onions, garlic). Liquid in the form of wine, beer, stock or even just water is added. Put the lid on, then place the pot with everything in it into the oven and cook at a low temperature. The low temperature is critical as it is this long, slow cooking which will break down the meat so that it becomes succulently tender. This may be anything from two to even eight hours. Plenty of time to go off and do other things whilst you are waiting for the dish to develop a rich amalgam of deep flavours - and the home will fill with the most enticing aromas.

Go for the cheap cuts

Forget expensive sirloin and pork chops. Go for brisket, chuck, shoulder, hocks, etc. I'm not suggesting you go as far as pigs trotters, unless you want to, but ham hocks are delicious if cooked so that the meat is falling off the bone. Your local Bulgarian butcher or meat market is a rich source of cheap cuts of meat and if in any doubt, just ask your butcher how to cook it. Watch what the Bulgarians buy from the counter, it will show you just how cheaply they can prepare gorgeous family meals on just a few leva.

It has to be admitted that long, slow cooking methods do require a new appreciation for thinking ahead and planning meals. However, there is a huge payoff in savings and more flavoursome meals - and the planning alone can slash your weekly food bill - we waste such a lot. 

Braising used to be a regular staple with our mothers and grandmothers. In our rush for convenience foods in western Europe we have lost sight of the fact that cheaper cuts serve a lot of people for very little money. The Bulgarians have not.

Money saving tips for meat

Make enough in one go for three meals for the family and freeze down two meals worth for really easy meals later

Pad out meat dishes with pastry or dumplings, beans, other vegetables and particularly potatoes

Buy a larger roasting joint. The outlay will be more but the price per meal less

Be creative with leftovers from a roast... sandwiches, shepherds pie, chicken pasties, curries

Mince is very cost-effective. Two kg (14 leva) will feed a family of four for four nights with a different meal every night: spaghetti, lasagne, burgers, savoury mince - at less than 1 leva a head

Don't be afraid of liver. A liver and bacon casserole, healthy and cheap can be made for as little as 4 leva to feed six

Check out the cooked meats at your local deli. They offer excellent value and 1 leva of cooked ham is enough for four big sandwiches