AUTHOR’S NOTE: I’ve been meaning to write this kind of article for years. It seems appropriate at this time, what with the current economic situation. It’s a little long, though, so if you want to skip to particular areas, here they are:
Budgeting Meat | Stocks | Vegetable Stock | Meat Stocks | Good Staples to Have | Organizing Your Freezer.
While it seems our overall economic situation is improving and the more successful grocery stores are managing to reduce their prices, the fact still remains that many of us are struggling, affected by the deep recession that has cost hundreds of thousands of jobs and launched the biggest rash of home foreclosures in decades.
In the midst of this, we are left with things we still have to do: pay rent or be evicted; pay our heating and cooling bill or either die of heat (to coin a phrase) or freeze to death, depending on the season. Most of all, we still have to eat. The question for many becomes, how to do that nutritionally while staying on a tight budget? How do we make food choices that are economical but still tasty? The secret lies in good food management, and meal planning.
One of the current trends is leading towards home gardening, growing our own vegetables, at least. This helps offset a trend we haven’t seen in years: the increased price on meat, especially beef. That old standby, ground beef, is at exorbitant prices we probably haven’t seen in thirty years, making a pasta sauce with meat more of a luxury than the cheap, quick meal it has been in the past.
Other items are really quite inexpensive, though, if you know what to look for. Chicken can be found for 99 cents a pound. Even skinless & boneless chicken breast, the very best for making many meals, can be found at a decent price. Right now my local grocery store is selling it for $1.99/pound, which seems pricey but isn’t, because you’ve gotten rid of all the bones, and you can make a decent meal for 4 or 5 out of only one or two breasts.
Here in the south, another favorite seems to be pork neck bones. They put in a lot of flavor to a meal (even not smoked or salted), give a little touch of meat to a meal, and can easily be prepared. Simply put in a pan in the oven with some salt and pepper (or any other seasonings you like) and cook in the oven at 350°F for about an hour. You don’t even have to think about it. Or do the same in the crockpot, a great way to cook without overheating the house too much, especially in the summer. (In the winter, simply take the removable crock and use in the oven instead. That cooks your food and heats your house at the same time, killing two birds with one stone.)
Likewise, chicken can be simply put in the oven for an hour or the crockpot for however long it takes and cooked in advance.
If you find a good deal on meat, one of the very best things to do is to cook a lot of whatever you have (say, ground beef) with a generic set of seasonings: salt, pepper, onions, bay leaf, for instance. For chicken, I would do salt & pepper, carrots, onions, celery or celery seed. Then you divide up and freeze whatever you’re not using for the next meal, seasoning the rest for whatever you have planned (for instance, save back a cup or so for your pasta sauce, simmer that with your tomatoes and Italian seasonings, and serve for dinner). Next time you want a home cooked meal but don’t feel like doing all that cooking, simply pull out a meat pack and incorporate it into your meal, adjusting the seasoning to fit whatever it is you’re making.
While you’re chopping and dicing and all, keep in mind that many of the things we usually discard (vegetable skins, chicken skins and bones, that little stump you cut off the carrots and parsnips) make a very easy, very quick stock. Before you think compost, think stock! Here are a few examples:
To make a vegetable stock, you can use:
- onion skins and trimmings (yes, the root part can go in just fine!) or anything else in that family (leek, scallions, chives, shallot, etc) if you have them
- garlic clove skins
- carrot peels and ends
- parsnip skins and ends
- celery leaves and trimmings (such as the root end) and members of that family (such as celerac if you happen to have it)
- turnip trimmings
- parley stems, or really the stems of any other herb you happen to be using, though maybe got moderately with basil and rosemary
- mushroom stems! (they add a very special dimension to any stock)
I would NOT include
- potato trimmings
- tomato bits of any kind
- any of the cole family (cabbage, kale, greens, broccoli, cauliflower)
While you’re cooking, use a plastic storage bag to keep and freeze trimmings until you have enough to make a stock. A quart sized bag chock full of all those elements will easily make two cups of very good stock. Simply take all the trimmings you’ve stored, put in 2 1/2 cups of water and simmer for about an hour. Salt and pepper to taste if you like, then use as you would any canned stock. Moreover, you can expand that to any chicken, beef or fish/shrimp stock by simply adding the appropriate trimmings and bones.
Once the stock is done cooking, simply strain out the solids and store the stock in a mason jar or even in a Ziploc® freezer bag (see below for proper Ziploc storage usage) in the freezer.
For meat stocks, simply keep back any bones or skins you’re not using in a recipe. You can buy things like neck bones, any cheap cut of gristly beef (oxtails if you can afford it is absolutely to die for!), ham hocks, turkey or chicken neck bones, (chicken’s great because most whole chickens come with a little packet that includes the neck bone). The key here is gristle and gelatin.
In a similar vein, if you use chicken wings (another very cheap cut of meat), cut off that end tip (the one that’s almost no meat and all bones) and save them back. They’ll go in a chicken stock in a heart beat and add tons of flavor.
Do NOT use chicken innards of any kind: that will make your stock very muddy and unappealing. They’ll also add another flavor that isn’t multi-purpose.
If you live in an area that has a quality, international farmer’s market, or where there are a lot of Hispanics or Asians, the odds are good you will also find more “unusual” cuts, such as pig ears and chicken feet which, again, being full of gristle, make a terrific and inexpensive stock!
Worried about doing a lot of cutting and trimming of meat? Many supermarkets (such as Kroger) will gladly trim away what you want for free. Simply pick a pack of wings, for instance, and ask them to cut them up into pieces. Make sure they give you back the wingtips! Freeze those separately for later use.
Good Staples to Have
Have you noticed how expensive rice has gotten lately? Shortages over the last year are contributing to the rise in prices, good old supply and demand. The solution is to learn how to stretch out rice.
Pearled barley is still fairly cheap and makes a great rice stretcher. A few things to keep in mind, though: it takes longer to cook than your standard white rice, and the grains are smaller than your normal long grain (let alone my favorite, Jasmine rice, or my second-favorite, Basmati rice). However, it blends beautifully with brown rice, and is nice with a medium grain rice, too.
I would suggest making a large batch of barley in advance, only reducing the cooking time to 30 minutes. Separate into one cup portions and freeze. Then, when you make rice, reduce the recipe to three cups of water, and stir in the frozen barley before adding the rice.
Beans of all kinds are also inexpensive and help you create easy dishes in a snap. Simply cook a pound or two at a time, seasoning very simply (use bacon or smoked meat for red, kidney, and pinto beans, salt for all others, and a little pepper). Beans are ideally suited for the slow cooker: put on in the evening, and by the time you wake up put a cup or so in the fridge for tonight’s dinner, which you can spice up for a chili, refried beans burritos, soup, beans and rice or even an easy salad addition. Pack the rest in Ziploc bags and freeze for use at a later time.
Speaking of burritos, did you know that beans and corn tortillas, beans and grits, and beans and rice are an almost perfect food? Keep that in mind when you consider beans. Also know this: home cooked beans taste NOTHING like the mush you get in the cans, which are over salted and over cooked. I promise, if you’ve never tried home cooked beans, this will be a much different experience.
Flour tortillas are a great way to do wraps. Again, if there happen to be a lot of Hispanics around, your supermarket may have them at a decent price. And don’t be afraid to try out the Hispanic stores, either: their prices are likely to be better.
Pasta, of course, is a must. It’s great in summer salads, quick Italian dishes, soups, and all kinds of fancier-looking meals, without the big hit to your wallet. The easiest pasta ever is simply cooked, buttered (or olive oiled, if you can), and sprinkled with parsley. Yummy, and ready in 15 minutes. A little chicken on the side makes it an easy meal. They’re also a great way to use up last night’s leftover’s: green peas, chopped chicken, pork or beef, and/or beans tossed in the pasta and maybe a can of tomatoes if you want to add color, and you’re done!
Finally, potatoes complete the basics. Now those have gotten awfully expensive too, so the trick here is to use potatoes wisely. One pot meals are a great option here: Potatoes O’Brian make a terrific side-dish, for instance, for breakfast or anything other time. If you have leftover meat of any kind, chop them up and throw them in there, as well. Shepard’s pie is another great way to stretch both your ground meat (which, btw, doesn’t have to be beef…), and your potatoes.
Like mashed potatoes? I had a friend who would make the mashed, then add a raw egg to the mix while mashing. That should get the egg warm enough to offset any worries about salmonella, while making the potatoes heartier, therefore requiring a little less use of the spud.
Still worried about salmonella poisoning? Another alternative, use one sweet potato for every 4 large potatoes, or use two or three carrots (about a cup’s worth or so) to stretch it out. Delicious and much more nutritionally complete, and sweet potatoes are actually at a decent price. Parsnip is also nice, as is rutabaga or turnip, none of which change the color much while adding some serious nutritional bang for the buck. These are all great ideas in a Shepard’s pie, too, while adding a new flavor dimension. Additionally, adding those means you can reduce the butter and eliminate the cheese (which is highly expensive these days!) at the same time.
Organizing your Freezer
Ziploc® bags are you friends!
I’ll say it again: Ziploc® bags are your friends!
They are inexpensive (especially if you use a store brand), but more importantly they allow you to organize your food in nice, flat packages that stack up smoothly in the freezer, no matter what size it is. I would, however, recommend being old-fashioned and washing out the bags whenever possible for reuse. Yes, it’s a pain, but it’s better for the environment, better for your pocketbook, and allows you to treat the bags the same way you would treat Tupperware (or other types of reusable container). Also, make sure you use the type designed for freezers, as they will reduce freezer burn.
To use these bags properly, fill them no more than 2/3 of the way up with whatever you are freezing, zip most of the way leaving a space an inch wide. Through this opening, suck out as much air as you can. You can do this to separate out meat (cooked or not), divided into meal-size portions; vegetables; stocks; pre-cooked beans; pre-cooked pastas; and anything else you might want to save back for later use in a fuller meal.
Take the time to also get yourself a roll of freezer tape (although masking tape will work well, it might not hold as well in the freezer) to mark your items with the date and exactly what’s inside.
I think next thing in this series will be to put out a few recipes of basic “start-up” items you can pre-cook and turn into meals at a later time. Got any suggestions? Feel free to post a comment! Until next time… from the kitchen.