The thrifty cook: great food at a low cost
Once again, I mysteriously failed to win the lottery.
That means one thing: back to having a food budget. But I want the food I cook to taste good, no matter how little it costs.
So this week, I set out to make a handful of great-tasting dishes that were not a strain on my wallet.
The idea was to use inexpensive ingredients, but in an artful way. I cut out pricey frills and kept to classic combinations of flavor. I made sure that I got my protein. And I cooked dishes that made me smile. They may not be fancy, but they’re awfully good.
Also, they’re kind of fancy. One is a traditional Italian dish, one is based on a dish I saw at a wonderful restaurant, one is hearty German fare and the dessert is a traditional, all-American favorite.
Not only are they inexpensive, but they are all easy to make. In fact, the hardest part for me was figuring out how much each one cost me per serving.
I’ll admit to cheating a little in this respect. I did most of my shopping at a store in my neighborhood that is noted for perfectly decent-quality food sold at particularly low prices. If you go to one of the better-known grocers, your mileage may vary. But not by much.
I bought the size of each item that I typically buy, keeping in mind that my pantry is small. For instance, I used a 4-pound bag of sugar instead of a less-expensive (per ounce) 10-pound bag, however I used a 5-pound bag of flour instead of a 2-pound bag. I prorated only the amount of each item that I used.
The results are in, and I spent no more than $2.09 per serving on any of the dishes.
The cheapest of all was the Italian dish, spaghetti al tonno, which I made for a paltry 73 cents per serving. I wouldn’t call it elegant, necessarily, but it was delicious.
The “tonno” in spaghetti al tonno means “tuna,” and this particular tuna comes out of a can. That’s how they serve it in Italy, too. There is nothing wrong with frugality when it tastes this good.
For the sauce, you just sauté garlic in olive oil and add canned tuna. The sauce comes together in less time than it takes to boil the pasta. It will be a little dry, so simply add a bit more olive oil and a dash of butter to the mixture.
No one needs to know how inexpensive it is.
I went vegetarian for my next entrée. This is the one that was inspired by a description of soup I didn’t even try, a kale and garbanzo soup.
When I’m counting my pennies, I look to polenta. I look to polenta when I’m not counting my pennies, too, because it is so deeply satisfying that it gratifies the soul.
I particularly love polenta cut into wedges and fried. It takes more work and fills you with more calories, but that is nothing when the result is so sublime.
I fried some wedges of polenta and topped them with a garlic-scented mixture of wilted kale, garbanzo beans, diced tomatoes and onion. People raved about it, and it only cost 98 cents per serving.
But I couldn’t keep up the sub-$1 servings forever, not when I wanted to make bratwurst and sauerkraut with apple. And I did, because it’s bratwurst and sauerkraut and apple. In Germany, that’s as classic as it gets.
Bratwurst and sauerkraut with apple has one more ingredient that makes all the difference: caraway seeds. The lightly crushed seeds bring a sharpness to the mixture of flavors that adds a much-needed high note to the stick-to-your-ribs meal.
It all came out to $2.09 per serving. It’s still extremely reasonable, but I wish I’d bought a cheaper apple.
Dessert was an apple crisp, and, buying in bulk, I did actually pay less for the apples.
Apple crisps turn out not to be as old as I had thought; they have not been around for nearly as long as their cousins apple cobbler, apple brown betty and apple pandowdy. The first reference to them in a cookbook was only in 1924.
Like pandowdies, brown betties and cobblers, apple crisps begin with a layer of stewed apples lightly sweetened with a mixture of sugar and lemon juice. On top of this is a baked topping, and here is where the differences are to be found.
Apple pandowdy is baked with a pie crust on top. Apple brown betty mixes the apples with pieces of bread, sort of like a bread pudding. Apple cobbler has a biscuit-based topping.
And apple crisps use a streusel-like topping, with oats and brown sugar and cinnamon and lots of butter, all mixed together with flour.
You simply can’t beat it, especially when you add a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top.
The total cost? Just 61 cents per serving, without the ice cream. But add the ice cream. I bought a grocery-store brand that went perfectly well with the apples and the topping, and it didn’t break the bank.
Even with the ice cream, it was still only 89 cents per serving.
I saved enough money to buy more lottery tickets.
SPAGHETTI WITH TUNA (SPAGHETTI AL TONNO)
Spaghetti with Tuna (Spaghetti al Tonno)
Yield: 4 servings
10 ounces tuna, preferably preserved in oil
2 cloves garlic
12 ounces spaghetti
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1. Fill a large pot with salted water for pasta and heat to a boil. Meanwhile, drain the tuna. Peel and crush the garlic.
2. Add spaghetti to the boiling water. While it cooks, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a pan and add the crushed garlic. Sauté until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Flake the tuna and add to the pan. Cook a few minutes, stirring constantly.
3. When spaghetti is cooked al dente, drain and add to pan with tuna. Stir in remaining 1 tablespoon oil, butter and parsley. Add salt and pepper to taste, and serve.
Per serving: 569 calories; 20 g fat; 4 g saturated fat; 30 mg cholesterol; 30 g protein; 65 g carbohydrate; 2 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 290 mg sodium; 34 mg calcium
Adapted from a recipe from giallozafferano.it
POLENTA WITH KALE AND GARBANZO BEANS
Yield: 6 servings
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups yellow corn meal, preferably medium or coarse
3 1/2 tablespoons butter, divided
1 ounce grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
Leaves from 1 pound kale, chopped
1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes
1 (16-ounce) can garbanzo beans, also known as chickpeas
2 lemon wedges
Note: If you want to fry the polenta, begin making it a few hours before serving, or overnight.
1. Make the polenta: Add the salt to 3 cups of water in a medium or large pot, and bring to a boil. Have another pot with at least 6 cups of water simmering nearby. Slowly sprinkle corn meal into the salted water, stirring constantly. Lower the temperature to a very low simmer.
2. Stir frequently and add the simmering water, a ladle at a time, whenever the polenta starts to become stiff and dry. Cook until smooth and tender, about 30 minutes. Stir in 2 tablespoons of the butter and the Parmesan cheese until well-mixed.
3. If frying the polenta: Pour into a large, well-greased skillet or wide bowl to a depth of 1 to 1 1/2 inches, and smooth the top. When cool, cover with plastic wrap and place the skillet or bowl in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours or overnight to allow the polenta to set. Slice into 6 wedges. Melt the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons butter in a large skillet. When very hot, add the polenta wedges so there is at least some room between each wedge (do this in batches if necessary). Cook wedges, without touching, until they start to turn brown on the bottom. Flip and cook until brown on the other side. Remove to a platter.
4. Make the topping: In a large skillet, heat the oil until shimmering. Add the onion and sauté until soft, about 3 minutes. Add the crushed garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the kale and cook until wilted. Stir in the diced tomatoes and cook until hot. Stir in the garbanzo beans and cook until hot. Add juice from lemon wedges and mix.
5. To serve, place polenta on a plate, either fried or in semi-liquid form, and top with the vegetables.
Per serving: 416 calories; 16 g fat; 6 g saturated fat; 21 mg cholesterol; 13 g protein; 58 g carbohydrate; 7 g sugar; 10 g fiber; 1,043 mg sodium; 211 mg calcium
Recipe by Daniel Neman
BRATWURST AND SAUERKRAUT WITH APPLE
Yield 4 servings
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 quart sauerkraut (2 pounds), preferably from bag or jar, washed and drained
1 small onion, sliced
1 large apple, peeled if desired, cored and sliced thin
1 tablespoon caraway seeds, lightly crushed
1 tablespoon butter
1 pound bratwurst, cut into thick slices
1. Heat oil in a large pot over medium heat. Sauté sauerkraut, onion, apple and caraway for a couple of minutes. Cover and continue cooking over low heat about 20 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, heat butter in sauté pan. Cook bratwurst in butter until it browns on all sides. Pour off excess fat.
3. To serve, arrange sauerkraut on platter, surrounded by bratwurst. If desired, serve with Dijon mustard.
Per serving: 579 calories; 49 g fat; 21 g saturated fat; 51 mg cholesterol; 2 g protein; 23 g carbohydrate; 11 g sugar; 6 g fiber; 1,774 mg sodium; 122 mg calcium
Adapted from a recipe by Marian Burros in the New York Times
Yield: 6 servings
6 baking apples such as Granny Smith, peeled, cored and cut into wedges
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 1/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, divided
1/2 cup old-fashioned oats
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoons salt
12 tablespoons (11/2 sticks) butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
3 cups vanilla ice cream, optional
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. In a large mixing bowl, toss together the apples, lemon juice, sugar and 2 tablespoons of the flour. Drain, and pour the apple mixture into a buttered 2-quart baking dish, and set aside. This may be done the day before baking, and kept refrigerated.
3. In a large mixing bowl, mix the remaining 11/4 cups flour, oats, brown sugar, cinnamon and salt. With a food processor, pastry blender or your fingers, work the butter into the mixture just until it comes together and large clumps form. This may be done the day before cooking and kept refrigerated.
4. Sprinkle the topping evenly over the fruit. Bake until the fruit is bubbling and the topping is golden brown and crisp, about 45 minutes. Serve topped with ice cream, if desired.
Per serving (not including ice cream): 532 calories; 24 g fat; 15 g saturated fat; 61 mg cholesterol; 5 g protein; 76 g carbohydrate; 45 g sugar; 6 g fiber; 106 mg sodium; 34 mg calcium
Adapted from a recipe by Kelsey Nixon via Food Network