Recently I’ve been thinking about what I would feed my family if I were tremendously limited economically. According to the “food stamp challenge,” food subsidies average about $5 a day, or $35 per week. You may have seen a story that made the rounds not too long ago on social media about how Gwyneth Paltrow failed the challenge, apparently due to an over-budgeting for limes and avocados. Let me preface this by saying I do not think I would be especially good at this challenge, and due to good fortune, I have never had to try. But I have nonetheless learned quite a bit from watching my mother-in-law, who cooked for her family on a very tight budget, while never sacrificing on good eating, and from lots of experience purchasing and cooking dinner for my own family. And I do try to keep my week night dinners budget friendly because grocery store bills can easily get out of hand!
I decided to compile a list of “peasant” dishes that we might say make something out of nothing, or at least are much greater than the sum of their parts. These are supposed to be meals you could make even when you haven’t gone grocery shopping, and the raw materials are limited to pantry basics. Of course, all cuisines of the world are filled with these genius recipes, and this list became far too long and unwieldy. I soon found myself stalled with this post. So I am instead going cut down my ambitions and simply offer a few ideas and recipes on the subject.
First, I present my list of some of the biggest bangs for your buck at the grocery store: Dried beans and whole grains (lentils, rice, barley,etc.); wheat flour; root vegetables including potatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes, turnips, rutabaga, etc.; cabbage and other cabbage greens; onions; celery; chicken drumsticks; canned tuna; pasture-raised ground beef; high quality hotdogs; eggs; peanut butter; and tofu; bananas; apples.
A couple of other things to consider :
1) Processed foods can actually be more expensive in the end than whole foods, for the simple reason that they are a marketed product. Food companies are constantly inventing new products because the margins are much higher on these items than on things like oatmeal. The less processed a product is, the more in line it will be with the baseline cost of the food itself. So instead of buying little packets of instant flavored oatmeal, buy a large container of plain oatmeal and add the sweeteners and/or cinnamon yourself. Healthier and cheaper. Win win. Instead of buying microwave popcorn, buy bulk popcorn and pop it in a microwave safe bowl with a loosely fitting lid (Nordic Ware makes a great one).
2) Focus on fresh foods that last the longest. This saves on unused food that has gone bad too quickly in the refrigerator. Also, perishability is somewhat associated with cost. Since the handling and shipping of something like raspberries is much more complicated than, say, apples, the consumer is going to see that reflected in the cost of the item. Similarly, very perishable items like fish and raspberries are going to be much more affordable frozen or canned.
3) Don’t forget about the glorious “mirepoix”, (a broth made from the trio of carrots, onions and celery) which, in spite of the aristocratic mouthful of a name of its supposed namesake – Duke Charles-Pierre-Gaston François de Lévis, duc de Lévis-Mirepoix, is about as humble and cheap as one could ask of the foundation of one of the great sauce traditions of the world (oh, yes, France has a sauce tradition! They even have a name for the cook in charge of sauces- le saucier). When chopped and sautéed in a bit of oil or butter, these 3 ingredients can turn any liquid into a sauce or soup and make any ingredient sing. Simply add salt, pepper, a bit of water and/or a bouillon cube or broth, and any other ingredients you have around (for example, add frozen shrimp and a couple tablespoons of wine and serve over pasta; add diced chicken, water, and any small pasta and you have homemade chicken soup), and you have yourself a meal fit for a kind…or duke or whatever.
So here are a few good cheap recipes that you may never have tried!
Vidalia Onion Pie
When I told my mother about this recipe, she referred me to a passage in a novel by Paul Auster, who happened to be the brother of a close childhood friend of hers, in which he made an onion pie. Sure enough, I found it in the Red Notebook:
In the end, we had nothing left but a bag of onions, a bottle of cooking oil, and a packaged pie crust that someone had bought before we ever moved into the house…. Given the paucity of elements we had to work with, an onion pie was the only dish that made sense.
After our concoction had been in the oven for what seemed a sufficient length of time, we took it out, set it on the table, and dug in. Against all our expectations, we both found it delicious. I think we even went so far as to say that it was the best food we had ever tasted….
- 1 1/2 cups crushed ritz-style crackers (check for no partially hydrogenated oils)
- 3 large onions, sliced
- 4 eggs
- 1/2 cup whole milk or light cream
- 1/2 cup shredded cheese
- 3 tbsp butter
- dried thyme
- salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 350 F. Mix crackers with melted butter and press into the bottom and sides of a 9-inch cake pan. Bake for 5-7 minutes or until lightly brown. Meanwhile, preheat a heavy frying pan. Add butter and then sliced onions. Cook the onions over medium heat, stirring occasionally until they begin to turn golden. Remove from heat and allow to cool for 5 minutes. Next add milk and cheese, then eggs, thyme, and salt and pepper. Pour into prepared pan and bake until golden and bubbly.
Chinese Egg Tomato Soup
This is a really unusual but delicious soup that uses a similar technique to egg drop soup. If you keep a few Asian pantry items on hand, this is a meal that can be put together with only things you would have around. The ginger, sesame oil, and cooking wine could be eliminated but the Chinese flavor would obviously be lost.
- 3-4 medium size tomatoes
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
- 1 inch piece of ginger
- 1 tbsp sesame oil
- 1 tbsp sweet cooking wine (or 1 tsp sugar)
- 1 tbsp chicken bouillon powder
- 3 eggs, beaten
Heat the sesame oil, if using, or vegetable oil in a saucepan. Add tomatoes, onion, garlic, and ginger and cook on medium-high heat for 2 or 3 minutes. Next add 2 cups of water, or a bit more depending on how much water the tomatoes gave off, cooking wine, and bouillon. I am especially fond of the Vietnamese broth bases that can be found in any Asian market. Allow to simmer for 10-15 minutes or until the tomatoes break down. Finally, remove from heat and stir in eggs. Allow to sit for about 5 minutes and then serve.
Central African Greens with Peanut Sauce
- About 1 1/2 lbs collards, mustard greens, kale, spinach or other green, washed, trimmed and roughly cut
- 3/4 cup peanut butter
- 1 red onion, roughly chopped
- 1 tomato, roughly chopped
- 1 tsp soy sauce
- chicken or vegetable bouillon powder/cube
- 1 tbsp butter
- Fresh ground black pepper
Boil a generous amount of water, enough to submerge your greens. Add salt to the water and add the trimmed, cut greens. Boil the greens until they begin to lose their bright green color, or until tender. This will be longer for larger, sturdier greens than for smaller, younger ones. Once cooked, remove greens and all but 2 cups of liquid from the pot. Add tomato, onion, bouillon, and soy sauce and simmer for 5 minutes. Next add the peanut butter and simmer for another 5-10 minutes. Adjust seasoning.
Simple Apple Sauerkraut
This dish reminds me of dishes I’ve had in Alsace, the part of France that has a strong German heritage. It is traditionally made with pork odds and ends, but I have made it with regular smoked hotdogs and added apples for a bit of sweetness.
- 1 24-oz package of sauerkraut, rinsed
- 1 large onion, sliced
- 2 apples, peeled and sliced
- 1 package of high quality hotdogs (I like Oscar Meyer Selects No Nitrate Angus Beef Franks)
- 3 tbsp butter
- 1 can beer (not a dark beer)
- 1/2 cup water
- 1 bay leaf
- 1/2 cup brown sugar
- salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 325 F. Melt 2 tbsp of the butter in an enamel pot or other oven-safe pan. Add sliced onion and cook until translucent. Next add the rinsed sauerkraut, beer, water, sugar, bay leaf, and salt and pepper. Cook for about 10 minutes over medium heat. Remove from heat. Next, bury the hotdogs in the sauerkraut mixture and disperse remaining butter in little pieces over the top. Transfer to the oven and bake uncovered for 30-40 minutes or until the liquid is mostly evaporated. Serve.
Denis’ Pâtes au thon (Pasta with Tuna)
This is a dish that was made famous in our house by my husband Denis, who used it to survive a lean period while he was in school. It is a simple combination of canned tuna and cream, but it’s quite good. If you’re feeling rich, substitute Boursin for the cream.
- 1/2 lb dried spaghetti or other pasta, cooked according to package instructions
- 1/4 cup heavy cream
- 1 can solid tuna packed in water
- 1/2 cup frozen peas
- pinch of each salt, pepper, and garlic powder
Drain cooked pasta and then add all the other ingredients to the pot. Return to a low heat for 2-3 minutes and then serve.
Lastly, for a quick and delicious dessert, try frying bananas. If you haven’t tried this, you really should. I’m not actually a big banana-lover, but once caramelized in a pan, they become truly delectable. You want to be sure to get a nice golden color on them before flipping.
- 3 bananas, sliced in half and lengthwise
- 2 tbsp butter
- 1 tbsp brown sugar
- dash of salt
Melt the butter, sugar, and salt in a nonstick pan. Add bananas and fry on each side until golden. Remove from pan and serve warm, with vanilla ice cream if desired.