Thursday, April 29, 2010

Budget Savers

Anyone want to know the real reason I can cook?
No? Fine, be that way.
Okay, okay, I'll tell you anyway.
I'm cheap. Broke too, but mostly cheap.
Here's the scoop with that. About three years ago, my husband and I went from DINKs (Dual Income, No Kids) to single income parents. The bills went up; the means to pay them went down. Sound familiar, America? After a few weeks of eating store brand mac n' cheese, it occurred to me that some real person makes the delicious pizzas, pasta sauces, and desserts I missed. Someone in a factory, making minimum wage or worse, cranks out frozen things in a factory. Someone putting himself through college peels potatoes and debones fish in the back of a restaurant. And before that, some poor peasant woman in Europe, Asia, South America, wherever, with no supermarket or food processor, INVENTED the dish being copied by the factory worker and the cook, making do with what resources she had to feed her family. It then came to my mind that I am just as smart and capable as the peasant. Since then, it has become a fun game for me to see what yummy things I can come up with on a very small budget. It seems that convenience has replaced skill in the kitchen, and our collective waistlines, wallets, and tastebuds are suffering. Here are a few tips for keeping your family's meals delicious and inexpensive:
1. Do it yourself. Someone knows how to do it. Why can't that someone be you? Example: storebought pita bread is usually about $4 for six, and somewhat stale even straight from the package. It costs about 40 cents to make twice that many, and they are fresh and wonderful.
2. Cut back on meat. If you learn your way around a produce section, you won't miss it and your body will thank you. Example: Veal parmesan and eggplant parmesan both get their distinctive flavor from tomatoes, basil, and parmesan cheese. Veal is generally $4-6 per pound, and the quality is kind of a crapshoot if you get it from the supermarket. Eggplant is less than $1.50 a pound, and quality is fairly consistent.
3. Make the cheese you choose count. Good asiago and feta are pricier than the store-brand taco blend, but they last a heck of a lot longer. A little bit of a strong hard cheese will flavor a whole dish. Plus, those types of cheeses tend to last longer in the fridge without going moldy.
4. Go to farmer's markets in the afternoon. Things might be a bit picked over, but the vendors are ready to go home and will practically give you farm-fresh fruit, veggies, honey, etc. You can negotiate them down to almost nothing. Farmers markets are open in most communities April-November.
5. The internet is your friend. If something sounds good, but you don't know how to make it, look it up. It's usually easier to make than you think. A good place to start is, because they have user reviews of recipes. You can find out if a recipe is any good and what ways to tweak it before you even start. Plus, most chain grocery stores have their weekly ads and coupons on the internet. You can plan your menu on sale items very conveniently.

Anyone else have budget foodie tips? I'd love to hear them! Post them in the comments section.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Must Have

In my first attempt to inform and entertain, I want to let you know what my kitchen can't do without.

1. Bacon - The universal food. As Bubba waxed poetic about shrimp, I could name hundreds of ways to use this amazing food. There is a reason when you order something “deluxe” or “supreme” it always comes with bacon. Come to think of it, Heather can check, the Latin root of supreme is bacon. My favorite bacon recipes to follow.

2. Paula Deen’s House Seasoning – This amazing blend of salt, pepper, garlic powder and onion powder has replaced the salt and pepper shaker. I use it to season meats, potatoes and veggies. What I didn’t expect is how terrific it is on omelets and scrambled eggs. The downside is that it comes in small spice sized containers which is why I have tried to make my own version. I’m close but getting the right mix is tricky. I’ll let you know how it goes.

3. Italian Dressing – A high quality Italian dressing can be a great marinade or finishing sauce for meats. One of my favorites is a product called Garlic Expressions, a specialty item that can be found at most local grocery stores, that I like to put on a summer tomato and cucumber salad.

4. Extra Virgin Olive Oil РNothing is better to cook with than E.V.O.O. Put some e.v.o.o. in the pan and saut̩ your veggies with the previously mentioned seasoning and they come out amazing.

5. Chicken Stock (low sodium) – Switch out water with some chicken stock and your dish takes on a whole new life. Many uses include soups, stews, chicken and noodles.

So, there you have it. Let me know what you think.


I ran across this pic on Jorge Garcia from Lost's blog. (Yes, I'm one of those nerds, but that's not what we're discussing here.) It got me thinking about lard. I have this to say about it- don't knock it til' you try it. If you pan or deep fry things, it's amazing. Nothing crisps like lard. It's also fantastic as a substitute for butter or shortening in savory pie crusts (like for pot pies or quiches), or biscuits, or in any kind of cheese pastry. It gives a really great hearty flavor.
It's also better for you than many of its vegetable counterparts. Lard has NO trans fats. Yep, none. It's high in healthy monounsaturated fat. It's also not some kind of greasy chemical Frankenstein like vegetable shortening. It's natural and easily produced in your own kitchen from items you can purchase from your local butcher, if you want to. Conveniently, it also comes pre-made.
I will admit that it's not as versatile a flavor as, say, butter. However, when it's used right, it is absolutely divine. I'd rather have fried foods made in lard than any "healthier" option any day.
Need an idea of something easy to make with lard? Here's one of our favorites:
Sweet Potato Fries
4-6 fresh sweet potatoes, peeled
3/4 c. flour
1 1/4 c. water
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/4 tsp cinnamon
salt and pepper to taste
2 lbs lard

1. Heat lard in deep fryer or large pan to 360 degrees.
2. While lard is heating, cut sweet potatoes into 1/4 to 1/2 inch strips, or whatever fry shape you want.
3. Whisk together remaining dry ingredients. Add the water gradually, until it makes a thin batter (you may need more or less).
4. Dip sweet potato pieces in batter a few at a time, and add them to the hot lard. Cook until golden brown. Be careful not to put too many fries in at once, as they will stick together. Drain fries on paper towels, and enjoy!