Friday, February 21, 2014

Meal Plans for the Non-Planner

Look, I hate planning things as much as the next guy, or maybe more. Because things are going to go all wonky anyway and nothing will go according to plan, so why even bother? Yeah. HOWEVER.

Even more, I hate the pressure of being stumped on the question of What Shall We Eat. HATE IT.

So I do meal plans so that I can have in the house ingredients for a week's worth of dinners. That's all. If things Go Sideways, I'm okay with that. The tuna in the cans will sit quietly for next week. The red sauce in the jars won't fuss about not being used on Thursday as I'd marked on my schedule. The veggies in the freezer won't storm out of the house in a huff, though maybe the chocolate chips did when I didn't make cookies as I'd planned. At any rate, I can't find them.

Everything else, though, remains pretty much where I put it. As far as meals other than dinner, I just need to remind myself to remember to replenish the oatmeal and eggs from time to time, as well as non-meal things like tea or Tang. I keep a running list on a magnetized pad on the fridge. Well, I MEAN to keep a running list on a magnetized pad on the fridge. What I mean is, I USED to have a magnetized pad on the fridge in order to keep a running list of things we ran out of (white vinegar, milk), things we needed to replenish (salsa, chicken broth, cream of mushroom soup, pasta) and things we wanted that we don't usually buy (sausage links, waffles, cake mix, lettuce). The pad has wandered away, as such things tend to do in my home.

This is an ongoing problem, a manifestation of the Too Muchness that stuffs itself into my Life. Those people who claim they 'have no life'? I wish they'd take some of mine, as I seem to have more than I can handle. I could whinge about this all day for a series of months, but even I'm tired of listening to me, so. One day, my home will be organized and tidy. Until then, I can at least make the food in the kitchen behave itself.

This week's shopping list:
White vinegar (you thought I was kidding? It's a cleaning supply.)
Red sauce
Shredded moz cheese (remember my issue with spelling that word? ...I give up.)
Frozen mixed veggies
Frozen stir-fry veggies
Carrots, loose if I can find them (I only ever use 2 or 3 carrots. The rest go limp, moldy or mushy.)
Ground turkey or turkey sausage
Italian loaf or maybe two
and a Wish List item is seaweed in some form.

Rough approximation of this week's Plan:

Sunday: Chicken stew in the crock pot and maybe noodles; I won't be home much on Sunday
Monday: CORN, or we might go out because it's Pugsley's birthday on Monday
Tuesday: Tuesday Surprise. I have no idea.
Wednesday: Tuna Melt or White Pasta or Salmon Cakes, depending on what I feel like cooking.
Thursday: Pugsley's Pasta Bake
Friday: Wednesday Salad and Soup (she wants to make borscht, but won't EAT borscht, so maybe not.)
Saturday: Burritos or one of the things I don't make on Wednesday.

So you see, my Plan, it's not Rules or anything. It's really more of a Guideline.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Premise #8: CORN For Many Reasons

CORN For Many Reasons has nothing to do with actual corn. Well, it could, maybe. Sometimes. If you have leftover corn.

The idea of Clean Out Refrigerator Night is to Use What You've Bought and to Know What You Have. It is also to eliminate accidental science projects. I like to have CORN on the night before Garbage Day. It just makes sense.

This is intrinsically different from Eating Leftovers. I've nothing against that, naturally, but if I let them, the kids will just Eat Leftovers without actually doing CORN. CORN involves pulling All The Things from the fridge and setting them on the counter. Little bits of stuff are judged to be Something or Not Anything. Moldy things go in the trash. Dried out things might go in the trash, or they might go in soup stock, if I'm planning soup stock. They might INSPIRE soup, if there are enough of them.

Tonight is supposed to be CORN (it's Monday) because Garbage Day is Tuesday, which is tomorrow, if memory serves. However, the family believes itself to be Off The Hook because a) they Ate Leftovers yesterday, so they think their weekly CORN has been fulfilled and b) Gomez wants to make Beanie Weenies, using real-for-sure-expensive Bush's Vegetarian Baked Beans and the Nathan's hot dogs he tossed in the cart while we were at Costco. (It seems no one likes MY baked beans- "It's like eating clown," Pugsley said. "They taste funny.") He hasn't purchased them yet, so who knows what will happen. There are enough leftovers that they could all Eat Leftovers again without even making a half-assed pass at CORN.

But anyway, CORN is supposed to also provide a surprise meal. When we were doing the $21/week grocery plan, on Monday nights I would go through, find bits of Something and create a surprise meal of them, and all the little bits and bobs of stuff that weren't going to be Tuesday Surprise were consumed as CORN or thrown away as Not Anything, spoiled or both.

People who simply Eat Leftovers are missing out on two-thirds of the tri-pronged point of CORN.

Another little bonus of CORN (in my opinion) is that it's a meal I don't need to plan or cook.

Once in a VERY long while, there isn't enough in the fridge for CORN, (usually when we've been out at mealtimes more than once during the week, or when Gomez hasn't been home, because when he's home I cook for 8 or 12 or 170, but when he's not home, I've more or less gotten the hang of cooking for 3), so when there's nothing to eat for CORN, we have soup and cheese & crackers. Because Easy! No Thinking! is another of the many reasons for CORN.

Here is my universal sample template of mealplans:

Sunday: Something I think of, crock pot
Monday: CORN
Tuesday: Tuesday Surprise
Wednesday: Something I think of, meatless
Thursday: Pugsley's meal
Friday: Wednesday's meal
Saturday: Something I think of

On the advice of a few wise friends, I'm instituting a new thing: teen cook nights.  Starting next week, Pugsley is responsible for making Thursday's dinner and Wednesday will cook on Friday evenings. They'll make something they already know how to do, be limited either by an $8-10 ingredient budget or what we already have in the house, feed all four of us and not use EVERY utensil in the kitchen.

Because it isn't just the refrigerator that needs a cleaning.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Premise #7: Convenience, Carryout and Fast Foods

Premise #7: Convenience, Carryout and Fast Foods

This week's premise is dedicated to the Anonymous commenter who challenged me on the issue of taxing prepared foods. The popular idea is that people who are on restricted budgets can't afford to eat well because "good" food is expensive, and since low-income people may work more than one job or live in a food desert, they have little alternative to reliance on prepared foods. This would unfairly levy a Prepared Food tax on lower income folk who are least able to afford the increased expense.

I have no desire to see lower income people paying more for their food. This blog is all about investigating the possibility of eating well for less.

The problem with 'convenience' foods is that they are expensive, offer mediocre nourishment and often leave the consumer still feeling hungry.

I'd like to suggest that eating 'real' food doesn't need to require a huge investment of time. I mean, I think I've made it pretty clear that cooking is one of my least favorite activities. I therefore spend as little time doing it as I can get away with while still feeding the family.

The other night, after I taught a theater class downtown, I washed some sweet potatoes, put them in the microwave, opened a couple of cans and had dinner ready to eat in 15 minutes. This includes washing, can opening and spooning things out onto plates. We had black beans, corn and sweet potatoes with lots of butter. I have no idea about the caloric value of this meal, the amount of fiber or fat or, really, anything other than that it's nutritionally sound, delicious and filling. It's also colorful on a plate.

A frozen pizza takes 7 to 12 minutes in the oven, not counting the 9 1/2 minutes it takes me to wrestle the plastic packaging off of the stupid thing. An hour later, everyone is looking for something else to eat.

The food advertising industry has conditioned us into a state of 'learned helplessness'. We have grown, as a community, to believe that cooking for our family is time-consuming, costly and for gourmet cooks only. I call bullshit. Eating is something so simple any idiot can, and through the centuries, has, managed to do it for himself and often his family.

Rice doesn't take very long to cook and is dead cheap. Even the Uncle Ben's boxed rice isn't terribly pricey,  but Wal-Mart sells brown rice for about 77 cents for a one-pound bag. Frozen veggies aren't expensive, though they're sometimes harder to find in food deserts. Cans are heavier to carry, but three cans of veggies at under a dollar each, plus a can of beef or chicken broth, with or without rice, is a nourishing soup, much cheaper than prepared tinned soup ($1.79/can? what the hell, man?) feeds several people, and doesn't take much longer than the canned version. I mean, yeah, you're operating the can opener four times instead of one, but the actual heating in a pot on the stove is about the same. Slice up some cheese and open a package of crackers- or toast some bread, whatever- and you've got yourself a meal.

The food advertising industry has conned us into believing that your meatloaf NEEDS two veggies and a starch, plus a sauce on top, to be a 'real' meal. This is not true. One veg with that meatloaf is FINE, and if it comes from a can or a package, there is nothing wrong with that. Tomato soup and grilled cheese for dinner? Go for it. Actually takes about twice the time of YamN-BeansN-Corn, but is still quick. Boxed mac and cheese is WAY more expensive than it needs to be, but in a pinch, it's quick and cheaper than drive-through.

I can't imagine ever being convinced that soda, marshmallows or Doritos qualify as food ("food" = nutritive substance, all others being, in my opinion, "edible matter") and so I'm okay with those things being taxed. If people wish to eat those items, they, like smokers, should be prepared to admit to the non-health-enhancing nature of their personal preferences.

Okay. I will step down from my soap-box now.
(Probably not really.)

Last Night

Everyone (read: the rest of the family) wanted chicken pot pie. I was going to make it. We bought one from Costco instead. I probably never need to make pot pie again. It was ~$16, and we only ate half of it.

So, one of those serves 8. We did not even bother with salad.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Food, Fast (ish)

Red Beans And Rice, February 13

1/2 bag brown rice, .50
olive oil
2 cans red beans, ~$2
1 onion, chopped (the whole bag was ~$2)
3 slices turkey bacon, diced (I have no idea how to calculate this)
bacon grease
black pepper, sage, parsley, chives, bay leaf

Salad- Romaine lettuce $2, sprinkle of Parmesan cheese, croutons $1.50, Ceasar dressing $2.00

So, I cooked the rice like I cook rice. (I told you about this already, right?) Then I put a lump of bacon grease in a large saucepot with the onion and the turkey bacon. When that got all cooked, I added the beans and the seasonings. Except bay leaf. I seem to be out of bay leaf. But I'd've included it if I'd had some.

Serve with cornbread, garlic bread, salad, whatever. Season with hot sauce (like Tabasco) to taste.

Fed the four of us, with leftovers, so we'll call it six (maybe eight).

Oh, and... the turkey bacon is tasty and cheap and I buy it in bulk at the Costco. But it has almost negative fat content, so I neeeeeed the bacon grease. Besides, I LOVE bacon grease. It's tasty and it's a free byproduct of pork bacon, and adding fat to a meal makes it more satiating. I am a big supporter of fat, the good 'food' sort of fat, like olive oil, bacon grease, butter, fish oils and so on. Without enough fat, you feel hungry enough to put just any junk in your face. Whatever the grease is that's in cheez poufs, that can't be 'food'.

~$4.00 for beans and rice
$5.50 for salad, but we only ate half, and didn't finish the croutons or dressing
 Total: $9.50ish

Prep time: half an hour on the rice, ten minutes on the beans, but no one was hungry so it all sat around for an hour before we ate. The rice stayed warm, but the beans needed to be warmed.

 Pasta Bake, February 14

11/2 of pasta- ziti, bowtie, rigatoni @$1ea = $1.50
1 3/4 jar red pasta sauce @ $1 ea =$1.75
Grated Parmesan or Romano cheese, if you have it
Italian Seasoning, $1 (I didn't use all of it, of course.)
Shredded Mozzerella cheese (ok, after 3 attempts I give up on spelling that) ~$3?
   (not sure, bought it in bulk @ Costco)
Olive oil

Cook pasta til al dente. Drain, then toss with olive oil and Italian seasoning. Place a layer of pasta in a large glass baking dish. Dust with Parmesan cheese. Layer red sauce on top of pasta. Cover with shredded moz. Repeat. Bake at 350*F for 35-45 minutes. Serve with garlic bread and leftover salad. Fed the four of us. I didn't put away dinner, but I think there were leftovers for lunch for 2, so 6ish servings.

Garlic Bread

1 stick butter ~.50
I Tbsp garlic powder or minced garlic
Italian seasoning
loaf of Italian bread $1.50

Total cost: ~$10.

Tonight I plan to make chicken pot pie. I'll post that soon. Well, soon-ish.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Jambalayah and My Mother's Rice Pot

Jambalayah is one of those dishes which is nearly impossible to do "wrong". Okay, start with rice. Broth is good. Whatever bits of meat you have, unless you don't want meat. Yes, it's possible to have Jambalayah without bacon fat, though my Inner Deep Southern Woman shudders at the idea. Y'all do yours however you want. Here's how I did mine last night.

1 can chicken ~$3
1 tin smoked oysters ~$2 (I think. I bought them intending to just eat them on crackers, then didn't.)
1/2 package turkey sausage ~$2.50
1 can diced tomatoes ~.80
1 chopped onion
bacon grease
seasoned salt
black pepper
cayenne pepper
olive oil

In my kitchen is yellow crock that has been mine for 20 years, but which I still refer to as "my mother's rice pot". When I was a little girl, she cooked rice in it. Occasionally other things, but mostly rice. When I was a teen or young adult (still living with her), she bought a replacement. It's an enamelled iron thing with a lid on it, I guess Dutch Oven is its actual name. I claimed the old one. Over the years, I've cooked Frito Pie, Spaghetti Pie, Ravioli Bake, stew, roast, soup and spoonbread in my mother's rice pot. It's still my mother's rice pot, and I never cook rice in anything else. Well, for awhile I tried: Gourmet Sister gave me a rice steamer. It was supposed to cook rice "perfectly every time". It made the rice soggy and was a pain in the ass to clean and after about six months, I went back to using my mother's rice pot. I'm not great at everything, but I'm finally pretty good at cooking rice.

I have no idea if anyone else puts olive oil in their rice pot and heats it before adding the rice. I don't watch cooking shows, generally, and when I go to people's homes, it's usually potluck, so things are prepared already. But my mother always heated olive oil, added rice, sauteed it awhile, then added water, a lot at first, and more gradually as the rice needed. So that is what I do, too. Except this time, I opened my cans first, and added the liquid from the can of chicken and the can of tomatoes before adding water. The recipe books said I should use broth, but I didn't. You can. I save my broth for things that NEED broth, and this doesn't, really.

While my rice was cooking, I chopped the onion and the turkey sausage (three fat bratwurst-sized things) and browned them together with bacon fat in my large iron skillet. When they were cooked, the rice was about halfway done, so I added the chicken, they oysters and their liquid, the tomatoes and the spices along with more water.

When the rice was nearly done, I added the onion and sausage and some more liquid- I rinsed the cans, rinsed the skillet, dumped that water into the pot. I turned the heat off before all the liquid was absorbed, gave the pot a few good stirs and let it sit, covered. Then I steamed some broccoli.

The four of us each had 2 servings, and there are leftovers for the boys to have lunch.
 Roughly $9.50 for the meal  divided by 6 (where is my division symbol on this keyboard??) so that's what, $1.90 per serving or so.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Back, With Recipes

7 February 2014

My apologies. I got discouraged.

What I discovered was that while I can buy groceries for $50.00 a week, "feeding the family" is another story. The teens want money for pizza and chips. The husband buys 7-11 hot dogs, and spends about $2.50 every day for those Giganto-Gulp cups. Once in awhile, I ignore my wincing and spend $7.50 on a cafe au lait and fancy pastry in a frou-frou internet coffee shop.

However, my intrepidididity (? ,)   wins after all. I will post recipes and their corresponding costs. You can figure out for yourselves (if there are any of you left at all) how to budget your grocery money.

OH! AND! Super tip: adding refried beans as a thickener also adds fiber, extends the 'meat' of the meal and is Very Nearly Invisible to the eater.

For example:
Shredded Chicken BBQ

2 cans chicken ($3 each)
1 bottle BBQ sauce ($3)
few tablespoons pineapple salsa, mango chutney, other fanciness, or not, if you don't have some
1 can refried beans (.80)
1 bag Torta rolls (Costco, $5.50)

Slice the Torta rolls. Set aside, or heat if you wish.
Heat wet ingredients together in crock pot. Make sure chicken is well shredded and beans are well blended. It sort of gives it away if there are lumps of grey-brown goop in the sandwich. Scoop onto rolls and enjoy.

My goal always is to serve a salad with this meal. It rarely happens.

So, total meal cost: Roughly $12.50, which sounds high to me, except it feeds the 4 of us (2 teenagers, remember) WITH leftovers for lunch. And my husband has occasionally walked in the house with a bag of fast food just for himself that bears a receipt in that very neighborhood.  We'll say ~$2/serving and call it good.

Michael's White Bean Soup

2 cans Lima beans
2 cans White Northern beans
2 cans Butter beans
4 cans Cannellini beans
2 cans refried beans
(.80 each, x 12 =$9.60)
3 cubes Knorr's vegetable bullion, or 3 Tbsp Better Than Bullion, Vegetable (no idea)
1 Tb chopped garlic (from a jar)
1 Tb ground tumeric
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground sage
1-3 Tbs ground black pepper
chives ($2)

Serve with hearty rolls, shredded cheese, pumpernickel croutons, blue tortilla chips or whatever. And a salad.

I made this to take to a SuperBowl party, where my friend Michael, who has allergies to many common ingredients, would be a guest as well. I tried calling it White Chili, but that was weird: Michael's allergic to chili powder, so it had none in it. I'd say it served 6 to 8 people at the party, then the kids & I had it as CORN on Monday, and then I froze about 4 servings of it. We can call that 14 servings. That seems right. If I was to halve the recipe, I'd guess it would serve 6. Considering that I had most of the seasonings and didn't buy any of them special for the recipe except the chives (which, to be honest, I wanted as garnish anyhow), I would say this meal cost $~12.00, and certainly is under $1/serving.

Okay. More of these, but later.