Cheap eats

September 9, 2015

FEB15_EatDrink.inddAs National Hunger Month continues, it occurs to me it might be well to talk about a few of my tried-and-true favorites that will feed a family at a fairly low cost. It’s not really easy to feed a couple a full meal on five bucks, or a family of four on $10, but it can be done.

Meat is, obviously, the big expense factor in most meals. Often, the meat in a meal for one will top the $5 price tag. The keys to an inexpensive meal, then, are to make meat go further, use a more inexpensive meat, or explore alternative protein sources. All those can be done without sacrificing flavor.

A couple of tips: Check supermarket meat counters for sales or what my kids used to call “used meat” — cuts that have been marked down because they’re near expiration dates. If you don’t want them right now, you can freeze them, effectively stopping their expiration date. A 3 pound chuck roast at $1.49 a pound on sale will handily feed a family of four, plus providing leftovers for a great pot of vegetable beef soup. A five-pound Boston butt at  $1.99 a pound will provided enough slow-cooked pulled pork for one evening of tacos for four, another evening of pork-and-sweet-potato hash, and enough left over for Cuban sandwiches. Chicken breasts and thighs also often go on sale.

Don’t overlook fish. Frozen fish can be pricy, but you can catch tilapia or even salmon on sale. But don’t look past canned tuna and salmon, either. And of course, there’s always our old standby — dry beans.

One of my favorite on-the-cheap meals is Tuscan White Bean and Sausage soup. I make it at least two or three times a winter. It’s cheap, and filling, and warming, and makes you want to curl up under an afghan and watch football or read. Or both.

This stuff. Make it soon as it gets cool. Tastes like fall.

This stuff. Make it soon as it gets cool. Tastes like fall.

Tuscan White Bean and Sausage Soup (serves 4)

  • 1/2 pound navy beans, dry ($0.50)
  • 1/2 pound Italian sausage, taken out of casing ($1.50)
  • 1 onion ($0.25)
  • 1 tbsp minced garlic ($0.10)
  • 1/2 pound carrots ($o.45)
  • 1 can diced tomatoes ($1.00)
  • 1 pint chicken broth (made from carcasses of chickens I’ve cooked, so I don’t count the cost)
  • Salt, pepper, oregano, basil, thyme, fennel to taste (pantry staples)

If my add-it-in-my-head math is working, that’s a total of $3.80 for a pot of soup that will feed four. You can add a box of frozen spinach to it, thus upping the nutritional value and still staying under the cost ceiling, but I don’t like cooked spinach, so I don’t.

Soak your navy beans overnight or all day. You can use Great Northern, as well; your choice. A white bean of some description.

Dice the onion and carrot. Saute it in oil in a sizeable Dutch oven,  until the onion is translucent and limp and the carrot is starting to color a bit. Add the sausage, and cook until it’s browned. Add the garlic, and saute until it’s fragrant. Add the drained, rinsed beans, chicken broth and can of tomatoes and juice. Bring it all to a boil, cut it back to a simmer. Add about a teaspoon each of oregano and basil, and a sprinkle of thyme, some black pepper and a bit of salt. Let it simmer for an hour. Taste the broth for seasonings. Adjust as needed (it should need more of everything). Cook until beans are tender and some of liquid has cooked down. Remove some beans and sausage, draining off liquid, to a wide, shallow bowl; mash them roughly with a potato masher or pastry blender. Return to pot to thicken the soup.

If you’re using spinach, add it about 15 minutes before you serve the soup. It’s great with either cornbread or some crusty French bread.

You can double the recipe, obviously, but I like to do it in halves so I won’t have so much left over. What I WILL do is make up a full pound of sausage, and double the carrots and onion and garlic, and then take half of that out and freeze it for another batch of soup on another day.

Another good cheap eats meal that kids and adults alike love is enchilada casserole, aka Mexican lasagna.

Enchilada casserole (Serves 4)

  • 1/2 pound ground beef or leftover cooked chicken ($1.50)
  • 4 10-inch tortillas, either corn or flour ($0.10)
  • 1 24-oz can enchilada sauce ($2.00)
  • 1 8 oz block Co-jack or monterey jack cheese ($2.00)
  • 1/2 cup chopped black olives ($0.50)
  • 1 can whole kernel corn ($0.90)
  • 1 can black beans ($0.90)
  • 1 onion, diced ($0.25)
  • 1 tbsp minced garlic ($0.10)
  • Chile powder, cumin, allspice, salt and pepper (pantry staples)

For a total of $8.25.

Saute the diced onion until it’s translucent; add the garlic and saute’ until fragrant. Add the ground beef and brown. Cook until completely browned, and drain on paper towels.

Grate the block of cheese. Open corn and drain. Open black beans, rinse, and drain.

Spread a couple of tablespoons of enchilada sauce on the bottom of a deep dish pie plate. Put a tortilla on top. Sprinkle 1/2 the ground beef mixture on top. Sprinkle 1/4 of the corn and 1/4 of the beans. Add half the black olives, and top with 1/4 the cheese. Pour over about 1/3 cup enchilada sauce. Repeat that layer and top with a final tortilla. Spread enchilada sauce thickly over that tortilla and top with another 1/4 of the cheese. Save any leftover enchilada sauce for huevos rancheros later on in the week.

Put casserole in oven to bake at 350 for 35 minutes or so. Meanwhile, take remaining corn, beans and cheese. Add some chopped roasted red peppers, if you have any handy,  some chopped tomato or bottled salsa, a little lime juice, some chile powder, some salt, and some vegetable oil. Stir that all all up together and sprinkle the last of the cheese on top. Serve as a pico de gallo on the side.

You could put together some Mexican rice to go with this if you wanted a bigger meal (see my recipe a week or so ago), and have a pretty well-rounded meal for four for under $10.

Here’s one more. I haven’t made this in ages, and since I have chicken in the fridge that needs to be used, it may be dinner tonight.

Cheesy chicken noodle casserole (serves 4)

  • 1 pound chicken thighs with skin and bone (or 12 oz cooked chicken) ($2.50)
  • 8 oz. egg noodles ($0.60)
  • 1 cup chicken broth (n/c)
  • 1 cup milk ($0.20)
  • 4 oz grated cheese ($1.00)
  • 8 oz frozen green peas ($0.50)
  • 8 oz. carrots ($0.45)
  • salt, pepper, onion powder, garlic powder, paprika
  • 2 tbsp flour and 2 tbsp butter
  • Bread crumbs and grated parmesan ($0.25)

For a total of $4.50.

If you’re using chicken thighs, put them on to boil in about 3 cups of water with salt, pepper, onion powder and garlic powder (or a real onion and real garlic, if you prefer). Cook until they’re done; remove, cool, discard the skin and bones, and shred the meat. Save the broth!

Put egg noodles on to cook in a pot of salted water  with diced carrots. In a large saucepan, make a roux with flour and butter; when flour starts to smell nutty but hasn’t browned, add chicken broth and milk. Whisk until smooth and add spices. Cook until it starts to thicken. Add cheese and whisk until it melts. Set aside.

Drain noodles and carrots and return to Dutch oven. Add chicken, peas and sauce. Stir to mix thoroughly. Add more chicken broth or milk if needed; you want it pretty juicy. Pour into a buttered baking dish and top with a mixture of bread crumbs, parmesan and paprika. Bake at 350 for 25-30 minutes, until browned. Serve it with a green veggie — I love roasted broccoli with it — for a nicely balanced meal, again under the $10 limit for four people.

You can also portion this casserole out into individual freezer-to-oven containers and freeze it before the baking step, a good move if you want to double the recipe.

Chicken pot pie. Guarnateed kid favorite.

Chicken pot pie. Guarnateed kid favorite.

A final one, a favorite of all my children when they were growing up, as well as of their mama, because it’s so danged easy.

Chicken Pot Pie (serves 6)

  • 1 pkg Pillsbury pie crusts from dairy case ($2.50)
  • 8-10 oz cooked chicken ($2.50)
  • 1 1-pound bag frozen mixed vegetables ($1.90)
  • 1 can cream of chicken soup ($1.00)
  • 4 oz. grated cheddar cheese ($1.00)

For a total of $9.00.

Line your deep-dish pie pan with one pie crust.

Mix together the chicken, the soup, the vegetables, and the cheese. Resist the urge to add liquid. Put the mixture in the pie shell. Top with the other pie shell, crimp the edges and slash some steam vent holes in the top. Bake for an hour at 350, covering top crust edge with foil if it gets too brown.

You can get cheaper pie crusts, or make your own. But there are times it’s worth it to pay for quality and convenience, and in my book, this is one. You could also make your own white sauce to replace the cream of chicken soup. I’ve done it. Not worth it, either, to me; you’re saving maybe three bucks, but you’re taking up an hour or more of your time ON TOP of everything else you need to do. Part of cooking smart is knowing when to make accommodations.

It takes thought. It takes time. But you ‘n y’mama ‘n ’em can eat well, cheaply.



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