Let's play a game. Put out your hand. I'm giving you two $2 coins. Now I want you to make me dinner. What are we having?
This may seem impossible to some, but for Sacred Heart Mission, they manage to do this 400 times a day, providing free meals for Australians experiencing homelessness, 365 days a year.
As a chef, the idea of anyone going without food absolutely breaks my heart, so I decided to try and do something about it. If Sacred Heart Mission can get a plate of food out for four bucks, then I'll be damned if I can't! And if I can, then so can you.
Over the past year or so, I've been posting little cooking videos on my Instagram stories to show what and how I cook at home. They're nothing fancy, but the response has been surprising. People seemed genuinely interested in learning the basics – simple techniques and tricks that as chefs we often take for granted. Who knew that peeling a piece of ginger with a teaspoon would get over 150 comments?
When I signed on to be the chef ambassador for Sacred Heart Mission's Dine with Heart campaign, I decided my plan of attack would be through these cooking videos. I mean, cooking shows are the new porn, right?
Four dollars may not seem like much, but I'm telling you, if you learn a couple of cooking hacks and shop well, it's more than enough. I promise. Let me give you a rundown of how this challenge works. You know those annoying chain letter messages you get on Facebook from your distant aunty? It's kinda like that, but good. I started it off by making a corn and shiitake congee. Once I costed out the ingredients, it came in at a ridiculous $1.40 a serve! The next step in my crazy plan was to nominate a fellow chef or cook to create and post their own $4 recipe. See where I'm going here? Before I knew it, I had more than 20 chefs putting up their hands.
I chose ingredients you can find pretty much anywhere, and costed everything out using a supermarket website. It's based on $4 a person, to make a meal for four people (so, $16 in total). Because let's be honest, food tastes better when shared with people you love.
So if my $1.40 congee doesn't impress you, may I present to you a list of chefs and food industry people who are getting involved? Duncan Welgemoed (Africola, Adelaide), Analiese Gregory (Franklin, Hobart), Dan Hong (Mr. Wong, Sydney), TV presenter Melissa Leong, pastry chef Andy Bowdy, Joe Jones (Romeo Lane, Melbourne), Monty Koludrovic (Icebergs, Sydney), cake queen Katherine Sabbath, Jerry Mai (Annam, Melbourne), Lauren Eldridge (Stokehouse's group pastry chef) – I could keep going, but that would just be showing off.
The result is basically a masterclass in cooking on a budget by some of Australia's top food people.
What we're trying to show here is that healthy and delicious food can be affordable – more affordable than you may have thought possible. And the more money we can save by following these amazing tips, the more money we all have to give to those less fortunate.
To give you an idea of the things that help keep the food costs down but the deliciousness up, here are a few of my hero ingredients and tips.
1. Dried mushrooms
These little guys add an incredible amount of flavour to dishes, last for years in your cupboard and are about one-eighth of the cost of fresh mushrooms. Think risotto, stir-fried noodles, soups.
2. Rice and noodles
In my opinion, a day without rice or noodles is a terrible one. But by keeping your pantry stocked with these two foundation blocks, you can create meals where the bulk ingredient is not just cheap, but healthy and delicious.
3. Shop smart
Did you know that if you head down to your local market at the end of the day when all the vendors are packing down, you can pick up the last of the day's produce for next to nothing? Bags of fresh produce for one or two dollars and even trays of fresh fish and other meats that can go for as little as five bucks! This is the perfect time to buy up and stock your freezer.
So, do you think you can whip up a meal that beats my $1.40 congee? Go on, show me what you got!
Melissa Leong's cheat's mapo tofu with mushroom XO. Photo: Kristoffer Paulsen
Shannon Martinez's corn and shiitake congee (vegan), $1.40 a serve
Joe Jones' cacio e pepe gnocchi, 90c a serve
Melissa Leong's cheat's mapo tofu, $3.50 a serve
Duncan Welgemoed's ham, bean and red capsicum soup, $2.30 per serve
Shannon Martinez's banana and blackberry bread, 60c a slice (vegan)
Shannon Martinez's apricot crumble cake (vegan), 65c per serve
Serve up a donation:
Homelessness has reached crisis point in Australia. One in 200 people are experiencing homelessness. Sacred Heart Mission works with some of the most vulnerable in our community, its services sustained by community generosity. Every $4 raised allows Sacred Heart Mission's Dining Hall to provide a meal for someone experiencing homelessness and food insecurity.
You can help raise funds by recreating one of these meals, hosting a dinner party, barbecue or even breakfast. Create an "@ Home" event and ask guests to donate by registering at mycause.com.au. School and work events are also encouraged.
Shannon Martinez is the chef and co-owner of Melbourne's Smith & Daughters and Smith & Deli.