Terrific food, cheaper checkout
With grocery prices up, we offer three delicious meals that won't break your budget
By PEGGY GRODINSKY
Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
• Oatmeal for pricey breakfast cereal
• Portobello mushrooms, beans, tofu and peanut butter for meat
• Canola oil for olive oil
• Buy cheap, flavorful cuts of meat and use the bones to make stock.
• To avoid expensive takeout food or delivery, freeze homemade meals for days when you're too tired to cook.
• Recycle leftovers into the next day's meals (steamed rice into rice pudding, mashed potatoes into shepherd's pie).
• Keep track of leftovers so they don't migrate to the back of the refrigerator and go bad.
• Rescue old ingredients, such as sour milk and stale bread, in recipes that call for them, such as buttermilk pancakes and bread pudding.
• Make a list and stick to it.
• Clip coupons.
• Watch for store sales and plan your week's menus based on them.
• Get to know your grocery store; wandering the aisles can lead to impulse purchases.
• Don't go shopping when you're hungry.
• Avoid the "gimmes" by leaving the kids at home if possible.
• Buy whole chickens and cut them up at home.
• Forget brand loyalty and use generics, which often are packaged by the same manufacturers.
• Buy organics when it makes a difference: strawberries yes, pancake syrup no.
• Check unit pricing and buy good deals in bulk.
ABOUT THE RECIPES
In these recipes, we classified certain items as pantry staples and did not include them in our budget calculations. They are: salt, pepper, most spices, garlic, vinegar, butter (in small amounts), oil, flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and vanilla extract (a single recipe uses tiny amounts of the last three). So check your cupboards first; then you're ready to cook.
The goal: three affordable meals that serve four to six people.
The context: rising food prices.
The parameters: delicious food at reasonable prices without hours in the kitchen. We want the Ikea of food, inexpensive yet stylish.
And nothing drastic, like the Sludge from M.F.K. Fisher's 1942 How to Cook a Wolf. That recipe, in brief: Borrow 50 cents, mix ground beef and mix it with whole-grain, bulk cereal and "wilted or withered" vegetables. Add water. Boil; simmer for three hours.
"It it obvious to even the most optimistic that this Sludge, which should be like stiff, cold mush and a rather unpleasant murky brown-gray in color, is strictly for hunger," Fisher wrote.
Thankfully, we are not that hungry. Perhaps food prices will stabilize long before we are.
While planning, shopping and cooking these three meals, I encountered or recollected common-sense lessons, real but with metaphorical echoes.
Waste not, want not.
Recycle. Corncobs add wonderful flavor to stock. Pasta water thins and rounds out pasta sauces. The salsa from last night's takeout Mexican dinner will perk up today's pot of beans.
Eat locally and seasonally when possible. Consider how much fuel it takes to jet an off-season grape from Chile to Texas.
Be flexible. You planned on buying a watermelon; you could practically taste it. But at the store, watermelon is dear — and mangoes are a steal. Buy the mangoes.
I also ran into an embarrassment of resources. I ran a Google search on "cheap eating" and got 385,000 hits, from "Las Vegas on 25 cents a day" to a news article on how rising food prices will make Americans even fatter.
A tip from a colleague sent me in search of Whole Foods Markets' "Meals for 4 Under $15" program. Once I got over my shock that the company many call "Whole Paycheck" offers bargain menus, I checked out the recipes: Black Beluga Lentils with Endive Citrus Salad, Coconut Red Pork Curry, Fish Po' Boy with Tartar Slaw and Sweet Potato Fries. Unsurprisingly, the program steers you toward in-store products. No matter. The recipes look promising.
It was hard to tear myself away from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's curious Recipe Finder database (recipefinder.nal.usda.gov), intended "to help families spend less and eat healthier."
First I searched for recipes that would appeal to an American Indian parent of a teen. Two hits: Carne Adobado, a spiced pork, and Misickquatash, an Indian succotash. The recipe for Misickquatash called for frozen lima beans. Does any teen like frozen lima beans? Does any grown-up?
Next I asked the database for toaster-made recipes that would appeal to Hispanics and use whole grains. Zero hits. Just as I was about to look for desserts low in saturated fats, trans fats and cholesterol and tempting to a Southerner, I remembered that this story was due. I moved on.
University of Houston business-school graduate student Jamie Waldron, described to me as "the frugal gourmet," outlined in detail her own meticulous system for saving money. Lately, rising prices have forced her to adjust her food budget up, but she isn't griping.
"People are getting really frustrated by the increasing prices for gas and food. At the same time, the cost is going up for the companies that are putting that stuff out there," said Waldron, who is 26. "I think people need to be a little more understanding. Hopefully, people's employers will be understanding, too, and maybe give their employees an increase."
Even without that unlikely increase, do splurge occasionally, if you are able. For me, that means top-quality bread and cheese. I won't scrimp when I'm buying those items.
For Waldron and her Ph.D.-student husband, a big night may mean frozen tilapia fillets with garlic, lemon and herbs and accompanied by rice pilaf. Because she's saved by using frozen fish, she allows herself to splurge on fresh vegetables. Then the pair rent a movie and enjoy a reasonably priced bottle of wine.
For a couple of grad-school students, she says, "That's a really big deal."
You can buy a smaller car and save on gas. You can take better care of yourself and, with luck, save on medical bills. But putting dinner on the table, you have some degree of daily control.
Menu 1: Pasta With Garlic, Parsley and Chickpeas; Green Salad; and Strawberries With Balsamic Vinegar
1 lemon half, strawberries (tempted, I bought more than I needed)
PASTA WITH GARLIC, PARSLEY AND CHICKPEAS
A fast, satisfying, inexpensive dish made with ingredients you probably have on hand.
* 1 (14.5-ounce) box whole-grain rotini pasta
* 3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
* 3 to 4 garlic cloves, minced
* 1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas, drained
* 1 large bunch parsley, minus the stems, chopped coarsely
* Hot red-pepper flakes
* Lemon half
* 3 ounces grated Parmesan cheese
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add the rotini. Cook until al dente. Drain, saving some of the pasta water.
Gently heat the oil in a sauté pan. Add the garlic and cook over very low heat for about 1 minute. Stir in the chickpeas, parsley and red-pepper flakes to taste. Warm all ingredients over low heat.
Combine the chickpea mixture with the drained pasta. Season with salt to taste.
Squeeze the lemon over. Drizzle in a bit of pasta water, if needed, to make the sauce silky.
Divide among 4 plates. Sprinkle each with Parmesan.
Combine torn lettuce leaves with 2 tomatoes, in wedges, and an oil-and-vinegar dressing.
STRAWBERRIES WITH BALSAMIC VINEGAR
Slice about 4 cups strawberries and divide among 4 bowls. Drizzle a scant amount of balsamic vinegar over each portion. Serve immediately.
Menu 2: Spicy Baked Beans, Cornbread Sticks, Creamy Coleslaw and Watermelon
Watermelon, most of a bag of cornmeal, most of a jar of molasses, beans for two more meals, several carrots, an orange (minus zest), 1/4 head cabbage, several tablespoons cumin seeds
SPICY BAKED BEANS
I often put the beans in a slow oven and let them cook while I'm sleeping. You can also make them in a slow cooker on low, which will keep the kitchen cool.
* 1 cup dried kidney beans
* 1 cup dried cannellini, Great Northern or navy beans
* 1 tablespoon cumin seeds
* 1/2 pound smoked slab bacon, diced
* 1 large onion, chopped
* 1 carrot, chopped
* 2 jalapeño chiles (or more)
* 2 garlic cloves, minced
* 1 1/2 cups whole canned tomatoes, with liquid
* 3 to 4 tablespoons molasses
* 1 dried bay leaf or a handful fresh
* Grated zest of 1 orange
* 1/4 cup cider vinegar, plus more if needed
* 1/3 cup chopped cilantro
Soak the beans in plenty of cold water overnight. Toast the cumin seeds in a large, dry dutch oven for about 1 minute until fragrant. Remove and set aside. Preheat the oven to 225 degrees.
Heat the bacon in the dutch oven for about 1 minute; add the onion and carrot and sauté for about 10 minutes, until vegetables are softening. Add the cumin seeds, jalapeños and garlic and sauté another 1 to 2 minutes.
Crush the canned tomatoes with a fork, reserving their liquid with enough water to total 3 cups. Drain the beans. Add to the pot with the tomatoes, molasses, bay leaf, orange zest and tomato-water mixture. Bring to a simmer. Cover. Place in the oven and cook, stirring 2 or 3 times, for 2 hours. Stir in the vinegar and salt to taste. Cook for another 2 hours until the beans are tender but not mushy and the liquid has mostly been absorbed.
Taste for seasoning. Add more vinegar if necessary. Stir in the cilantro.
You can also make this in a 9-inch iron skillet.
* 3 tablespoons butter, plus more for pan
* 1 1/2 cups cornmeal
* 1/2 cup flour
* 2 teaspoons baking powder
* 1 teaspoon baking soda
* 1 teaspoon salt
* 1 to 2 tablespoons sugar, to taste
* 2 eggs
* 1 1/2 cups buttermilk or sour milk
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Put the cornbread-stick pan in the oven; melt the 3 tablespoons butter in a saucepan on the stove. If you are using a skillet, melt the butter in the skillet.
Whisk together the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and sugar.
In a different bowl, whisk together the eggs and buttermilk. Add the melted butter to the liquid ingredients. Melt 1 to 2 tablespoons extra butter on the stove and use it to brush on the stick pan.
Pour the liquid ingredients into the dry. Stir with a wooden spoon until just mixed. Pour the batter into the hot stick pan (or skillet). Bake 10 minutes for the sticks, about 25 minutes for the skillet, until golden and crispy. Eat warm!
Makes about 18 sticks.
Adapted from Good Housekeeping Great American Classics Cookbook (Hearst Books, $25)
* 1 lemon
* 1/4 cup mayonnaise
* 2 tablespoons plain yogurt
* 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
* 1/4 teaspoon celery seeds
* 1/4 teaspoon caraway seeds
* Salt and ground black pepper
* 1 1/2 pounds cabbage, shredded (about 6 cups)
* 2 carrots, shredded
* 1 green pepper, julienned
Zest and juice the lemon. Combine the zest and juice with the mayonnaise, yogurt, sugar, and celery and caraway seeds. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Place the vegetables in a large bowl. Pour the dressing over and toss. Chill for an hour to let the flavors meld.
Menu 3: Savory Bread Pudding With Corn, Green Salad With Jicama and Mango and Crazy Cake
One ear corn, 4 ounces cheese, eight eggs, 1 1/2 cups milk, heel of a loaf of bread
SAVORY BREAD PUDDING WITH CORN
Adapted from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone (Broadway Books, $40). The original calls for bread without the crusts, but why waste them when they enhance the rustic nature of bread pudding? You can spice up the recipe with chopped jalapeños, a spoonful or two of salsa or a shake of hot sauce.
* 2 2/3 cups whole milk
* 4 cups corn kernels (from about 5 ears fresh corn; reserve the cobs)
* 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
* 1 bunch green onions, sliced into rounds
* 1/2 teaspoon chili powder
* Salt and ground black pepper
* Bunch chopped cilantro (about 1/2 cup)
* 4 eggs
* 5 cups 1-inch cubes of stale bread
* 1 cup grated sharp Cheddar cheese (about 4 ounces)
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 3-quart gratin or casserole dish.
In a medium-size pot on the stove, scald the milk and as many corncobs as will fit in it. Turn off the heat and let the milk cool and infuse. When the milk has cooled, remove the cobs; reserve 1/3 cup milk separately and set remaining milk aside.
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the corn kernels, green onions and chili powder. Sauté a few minutes until the onions have softened. Season with salt. Stir in the cilantro.
Whisk the eggs with the larger portion of cooled milk. Place the bread in a large bowl. Pour the milk mixture over it. Stir in the corn mixture and the cheese. Season with salt and pepper. Scrape into the prepared casserole. Drizzle the remaining 1/3 cup milk over the pudding. Let stand 15 minutes before baking. Bake for about 45 minutes, until puffed and golden brown.
Julienne 1 jicama. Cube 1 mango. Combine in a salad bowl with torn leaves from 1 head lettuce. Dress with an oil-and-vinegar dressing of your choice. If you like, sprinkle with toasted pumpkinseeds.
As a girl, I delighted in making this homey eggless, butterless cake, also known as Wacky Cake. Sure enough, I unearthed the recipe on a 3-by-5-inch card written in my childish script. It's said to date to the Depression, when it was an affordable treat. It's "wacky" because it's made in the baking pan by stirring three liquid ingredients into three "holes" in the dry ingredients.
* 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
* 1 cup sugar
* 1/4 cup cocoa powder
* 1 teaspoon baking soda
* 1/2 teaspoon salt
* 2 teaspoons white vinegar
* 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
* 5 tablespoons vegetable oil
* Confectioners' sugar, to dust
Grease an 8-inch square baking pan. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
In the baking pan, whisk together the flour, sugar, cocoa, baking soda and salt. Poke 3 holes in the dry ingredients with your index finger. Into 1 pour the vinegar, into the second the vanilla, into the third the oil. Pour 1 cup water over all (or 1 cup cold, leftover coffee) and mix thoroughly, taking care to stir in the dry bits at the edge of the pan.
Bake for about 25 minutes until the cake is springy, just pulling away from the edges of the pan, and the batter is domed. Cool. Cut into squares. Dust with confectioners' sugar.
SOUTHERN PULLED-PORK SANDWICHES
Prep time: 10 minutes
Total time: 2 hours, 40 minutes
Pork shoulder, a well-marbled cut available at most supermarkets, turns tender after long, slow cooking. Ours is especially succulent with a spice rub and vinegar.
* 1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
* 1/2 to 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
* Coarse salt and ground black pepper
* 3 pounds boneless pork shoulder (Boston butt), cut into 4 equal pieces
* 1 1/2 cups cider vinegar
* 4 garlic cloves, minced
* 8 soft sandwich rolls, split
* Store-bought barbecue sauce, for serving (optional)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees, with racks in lower and upper positions. In a small bowl, combine sugar, cayenne, 1 tablespoon salt and 1 teaspoon pepper.
Place pork in a 5-quart dutch oven or large heavy-bottomed pot; rub with spice mixture.
In a medium bowl, combine vinegar, garlic and 1/2 cup water; add to pot. Cover and place on oven's lower rack. Bake until pork is very tender and separates easily when pulled with a fork, 2 to 2 1/2 hours.
Transfer pork to a work surface, reserving pan juices. With two forks, shred meat. Transfer to a large bowl and toss with pan juices to moisten (you may not need all the juices). Pile pork on rolls and top with barbecue sauce, if desired.
Makes 8 servings, each 416 calories, 14.2 grams fat (4.7 grams saturated), 29.4 grams protein, 40.7 grams carbohydrates, 2.1 grams fiber.
BAKED POTATOES WITH CHEDDAR SOUR CREAM
Prep time: 10 minutes
Total time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
* 1 cup reduced-fat sour cream (8 ounces)
* 1 cup shredded white Cheddar cheese (4 ounces)
* Coarse salt and ground black pepper
* 8 medium baking potatoes, scrubbed
* 1 tablespoon olive oil
* 4 green onions, thinly sliced, for garnish (optional)
In a small bowl, stir together sour cream and cheese; season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. On a large rimmed baking sheet, rub potatoes with oil. Bake on upper rack until tender, about 65 minutes.
To serve, cut a deep cross in each potato; push ends together to open. Season with salt and pepper; top with sour-cream mixture and, if desired, green onions.
Makes 8 servings, each 298 calories, 10.3 grams fat (5.6 grams saturated), 9.8 grams protein, 43.2 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams fiber.
CUCUMBER AND SWEET-ONION SALAD
Prep time: 10 minutes
Total time: 10 minutes
* 3 English cucumbers, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced on the diagonal
* 1 medium sweet onion, such as Vidalia, halved and thinly sliced
* 1/2 cup fresh dill, coarsely chopped
* 3 tablespoons olive oil
* 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
* 2 tablespoons white-wine vinegar
* Coarse salt and ground black pepper
In a large bowl, toss together cucumbers, onion, dill, oil, lemon juice and vinegar; season with salt and pepper and serve.
Makes 8 servings, each 70 calories, 5.2 grams fat (0.8 gram saturated), 0.9 gram protein, 6.2 grams carbohydrates, 0.8 gram fiber.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Total time: 15 minutes, plus cooling
It takes only 10 minutes to create a colorful ice cream topping that makes the most of a well-loved warm-weather combination: sweet strawberries and tart rhubarb.
* 1 pound strawberries, hulled and quartered
* 2 rhubarb stalks, cut into 1/2 -inch pieces (2 cups)
* 1/2 cup sugar
* 2 pints vanilla ice cream
* Store-bought shortbread cookies, for serving (optional)
In a large saucepan, combine the strawberries, rhubarb, sugar and 1/4 cup water; bring to a simmer over high heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the rhubarb begins to break down, 6 to 8 minutes.
Refrigerate until the sauce is cool, at least 1 hour and up to 1 week.
Spoon strawberry-rhubarb sauce over scoops of ice cream; serve with shortbread, if desired.
Makes 8 servings, each 269 calories, 12.8 grams fat (8 grams saturated), 4.2 grams protein, 35.5 grams carbohydrates, 1.5 grams fiber.
DARK CHOCOLATE COOKIES WITH SOUR CHERRIES
Good-quality cocoa powder is quite dark and makes the cookies almost black. It can be difficult to tell when they're done, so keep a close eye on them. These will bring serious chocoholics to their knees.
* 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
* 1 1/4 cups Dutch process cocoa powder
* 2 teaspoons baking soda
* 1/4 teaspoon salt
* 1 1/4 cups (2 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
* 1 1/4 cups sugar
* 3/4 firmly packed cup dark-brown sugar
* 2 eggs
* 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
* 12 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
* 1 1/2 cups dried cherries
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line 2 baking sheets with Silpat or parchment paper.
Sift together the flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt. Set aside.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugars until fluffy. Add the eggs and vanilla; beat until well combined. Add the flour mixture and mix until just combined. Stir in the chocolate and sour cherries.
Form balls of dough or drop blobs of it onto the cookie sheet from a spoon. Bake until puffed and cracked, 9 to 11 minutes, rotating the cookie sheets partway through. Cool on a rack.
Makes about 3 dozen cookies.