Budget Cooking

Last week I wrote about New Year’s resolutions for healthy eating.   I’ve taken a good look at the prices of food at the grocery store and decided that it’s time to write a column about budget cooking.

For the first twenty years of married life I lived on a very strict budget for groceries.  I once had a friend who wanted me to take her with me grocery shopping and she put the same things in her cart that I did and said her grocery bill was always 10% less then when she went alone. I raised four children, three of them boys who grew to well over 6 feet and played every sport known to man.  Our daughter liked to eat, too, so I couldn’t skimp on amounts of food.  Nobody in our family would have been happy to eat low-quality food, either, so the challenge was on.

I took to that challenge.  I really enjoyed figuring out how to feed the family on x number of dollars and make them feel well-fed and happy.  It looks like this is a good time to polish up those skills for the two of us.

The best friend of budget cooking is a lot of freezer space.  Of all the investments I have made over the years on kitchen equipment, the freezer is the hands-down favorite.  Whether it is saving you money or providing you with convenient “fast food” for pennies or stocking up on the farmer’s market bounty to use in January, it is the dream appliance.  When my children were at home, I had a 22-square-foot freezer which really holds a lot.  We usually bought our beef by the quarter and other meat, poultry and seafood in large quantities.

I learned early how to shop well and made a once-a-month trip to a warehouse grocery store when there were only two in the Twin Cities—both of them Cub stores—the closest being 15 miles from my house.  I never took my children.  Since it was only once a month, it was my day out and I used a baby sitter.  It definitely saved me money.  The distraction that young children create and their ability to wear you down on unnecessary purchases would cost more than the price of the sitter.

Of course, I had to make a few trips in between the monthly trek.  However, I really did keep them to a minimum since every time you walk in the store, you buy something you could have lived without (at least I did).  Milk and produce were the only two categories that I really had to go out for.

I always used powdered milk for cooking (still do).  It’s easy to mix and for all cooking purposes, it has the added advantage of being room temperature or warm (add warm water when mixing).  If you want to use it for drinking, it isn’t as bad as you might think.  Just mix it very well way ahead of the time you want to use it and chill it to ice cold.

The day wasn’t over when I arrived home from the grocery store.  Putting all that food away is a big job, too—but only once a month made it bearable.  I suggest that you prep food as you put it away.  Any large size packages of meat or other goods that you bought for economy should be divided into usable quantities right away.

Wash or otherwise prep produce and put into the crisper drawer.  If you have time, cut up carrot sticks (whole ones are much cheaper than those baby carrots at the store; usually have more flavor, too), other veggies for snacks and have them ready to grab for snacks.

Waste is costly.  Everyone is guilty of having to throw away food—either fresh foods that you didn’t use until they’re limp and sad or leftover dabs that were forgotten in the back of the refrigerator.  Here, again, the freezer comes to the rescue.  Put dabs of veggies or rice or pasta and leftover meat, poultry or fish in a large plastic container to use to make wonderful soups.  Remember to label and date the container so you know what you have.

Here is a family pleasing meal and the ways that you can make it into many more.

The Magic Pot Roast

2 Tbsp. canola oil
3-4 pound chuck, round or other cut for pot roast beef
4 large potatoes
4 large carrots
1 large onion
Salt and pepper
1 cup water
1 cup beef broth

In a large Dutch oven, brown roast in oil over high heat until brown on all sides.  Remove beef from pan.  Add water and broth and stir, loosening all the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Bring to a boil and add roast. Turn heat to low, cover and cook, checking to see if you need more liquid, for 2 hours.  Add peeled and cut-up potatoes, carrots and onion. Cook, covered for 1 more hour, adding liquid if necessary.

From the leftover pot roast, three more meals for 4 can be made:  Chinese beef and rice, barbequed beef on buns and Beef-vegetable soup.  You can prepare them immediately and freeze or make them in the next few days, keeping leftover beef in the refrigerator.  The recipes for Chinese Beef and Rice and Barbequed Beef on Buns can be found on-line.

On-line recipes:

Chinese Beef and Rice

1 cup raw rice
1 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 ½ tsp. salt
2 cups boiling strong beef broth (preferably homemade)
1 Tbsp. soy sauce
1 medium onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
1 ½ cups diced cooked beef

Cook rice in hot oil over medium heat until golden brown.  Add salt, water bouillon and soy sauce. Cover; simmer 20 minutes.  Add the rest of ingredients.  Cover tightly and simmer 10 minutes more.  All water should be absorbed at end of cooking time, If not, remove cover and allow liquid to evaporate.

Barbequed Beef on Buns

8 oz. bottle of chili sauce and an equal amount of water
2 heaping Tbsp. brown sugar
1 Tbsp. vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 clove garlic, pressed or minced
Juice of ½ lemon
2 tsp. soy sauce
2 cups shredded cooked beef

Combine all ingredients except meat.  Stir thoroughly and over moderate heat, cook for 30 minutes.  Add the meat and cook another 3 minutes.  Taste and adjust seasonings.  Serve on hamburger buns.

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