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Category Archives: budget meals

Let’s chat about marinara.

Let’s chat about saucicus marinaricus.
My folks know it by its common table name, spaghetti sauce.
Others affectionately call it red gravy.

Whatever we call it, I think we should ask why we are buying this basic recipe starter premade and hauled across the country in heavy glass jars.
I started asking myself that question after often enjoying my friend’s homemade sauce.
Once upon a time, I took it upon myself and our budget to buy the “premium label sauce” made with olive oil. When couponing failures and budget demands picked for me a cheaper sauce, I turned to ‘ole stand-by: Kroger Traditional Spaghetti Sauce. It has all the tomato, soy oil and cornsyrup a gal could ever want poured on her $1.00 a bag rotini.

But I had tasted another way, and I was determined to follow it.

For our family, I’ve been making a batch that yields a little more than 3 1/2 quarts.  I use it right away for pasta sauce and save some to use for pizza sauce on our every-Friday-pizza-night.  The rest can be happily frozen and used next week.

The original inspiration came from Giada De Laurentiis’ recipe.  The following is my spicier and smoother textured version.

Chop 3 carrots, 3 stalks celery, a couple of onions and 3-4 cloves of garlic.  I aim for roughly 2 cups each of the carrots, celery and onion, but I am not going to take the time to measure if I went over by 1/4 c. of carrots.

Saute veggies in 1/2 c. olive oil until tender; you can put on the pot lid, leaving it just a bit askew and the vegetables will steam up.  I love how this method of cooking brings out the sweetness of the carrot and onion.

Now pour in three big 28oz. cans of crushed tomatoes.  Over the past months I’ve experimented with 3 different brands:  Walmart Crushed Tomatoes (too watery),  premium Cento tomatoes from Italy (the taste didn’t justify the expense and the sauce was so thick it would explode tomato bubble bombs all over the stove–adding a cup or more of water helped hold down the explosions) and Kroger Crushed Tomatoes (great consistency.)

If you have them, toss in a few bay leaves.  Also add salt (about a tsp of coarse salt works for us) and 1/4 tsp of crushed red pepper.   Tonight, though, I am out of red pepper, so I squeezed in some Harissa paste, a gift from my friends sojourning in North Africa.

Simmer.  How long?

I don’t know.  Honestly, I just let it go until the whole house smells like marinara or people start crying for supper.

Last step:  puree with my handy-dandy stick blender, which I think is the best electric kitchen appliance I own.

This sauce is great on pasta.  It’s great for pizza.

The cost:

At the most expensive price, I pay $1.39/can for Kroger tomatoes.  That adds up to $4.17.  I use 1/2 c. olive oil (.76), let’s guess about 12 oz of carrots (.56), 4 oz celery (.44), onion (.99) and garlic (.25).  Spices? Let’s not dicker over pennies here.  At the MOST expensive, I think my sauce costs about $2.04 for a quart jar.

That is, in fact, more expensive than paying $1 for Kroger sauce on Super Sale. Of course, there’s also my time and the gas for the stove.

But now that we’ve tasted and enjoyed our own sauce, now that I can make our own sauce without soybean oil, corn syrup and “natural flavorings,” I’m quite happy to pay a bit more and spend a bit more time at the stove.

I would love to hear your thoughts on homemade sauce.  Would you try it?  What’s your recipe?

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Mapleine. She deserves her very own song.

There are three ways to avoid dependence on high-fructose-corn-syrup-pancake syrup.

1) Enjoy expensive, tapped from the tree maple syrup, naturally fortified with iron and other vitamins.

2) Top pancakes with applesauce and peanut butter instead.

3) Put on your apron and pearls and take a two-step back in time to….

A few times I remember my mother making Mapleine pancake syrup.  She’d say, “We’re out of syrup, so I’ll just make some.”  I thought she was just amazing, stirring up syrup out of nothing.   I think I can also picture a bottle very much like this one up in my Grandmother Helen’s spice cabinet, right next to the milk glass, red metal lid spice jars.  Perhaps it’s the nostalgia that’s flavoring my Mapleine, but nonetheless, I wanted to share the wonder of it with you.

Mapleine is inexpensive.  I bought this bottle at a Walmart for just over $2.38.  Following the instructions printed on the label, I can make 3 gallons of syrup.  The end cost will be lower than purchasing even the lowest cost HFCS pancake syrup.  Plus, if I can make my own syrup right there at home, I don’t have to say, “Sorry, kids, no pancakes this morning because we’re out of syrup.”

And this is a child, herself, making the syrup.

Mapeleine doesn’t taste like real maple syrup.  Mapeleine doesn’t taste like Kroger corn-syrup-pancake-syrup-with-imitation-butter-flavor.  Mapleine is Mapleine.  You’ll have to try it to see.  Let me know if you do, and what you think of it.

Get Your Black Belt in Black Beans

The house is filled with the aroma of cumin and bay.  Oh.  So lovely, it is.

I’m cooking black beans this morning and I thought I’d share the how-to with you.

Last night after supper, I rinsed a big bag of black beans and started them soaking.   No way would I want to try the quick-boil method with black beans; they are too firm for that.  After breakfast, I dumped out the soaking water, rinsed them, added them back to the pot and filled up the pot with fresh water.  I’m cooking my 2 lbs. of beans  with 4 bay leaves and a heaping tablespoon of cumin.  Hopefully you can find inexpensive bay leaves and cumin in the Mexican food section of your grocery store.  Both those items will be cheaper there than in the spice aisle.  When the beans are tender in a few hours, I will add salt, but not before.  Be prepared to be patient with your black beans.   For my 2lb. bag of dried beans, I will have a yield of about 3  quarts of cooked beans.  The eight of us will eat up one big jar for a meal.  The rest I’ll put in mason jars to keep for weekday lunches.

Here’s the thing about black beans:  they are firmer than other beans.  It’s that firmness that makes them perfect for veggie burgers, bean salsas, or any other bean dish where you’d like to see an intact bean.  I very much enjoy their meaty flavor.  I also really like the thick, dark bean broth you get when you cook black beans.  Poured over rice, it’s a savory sauce.  When someone smiles and says, “I’m having black beans and rice,”  she’s thinking about black beans nestled on top of a bed of hot rice, black bean gravy making rivers down the pile, black beans topped with yogurt for tartness and salsa for spiciness.

Black beans cooked with cumin are so good.  So, so good.  I think you’ll enjoy both the cooking and eating.

Happy aromas to you!

Lentils are kid food.

Brown lentils, red lentils, red lentils with curry, lentil soup–my kids just love lentils.

Last night at supper, Margaret was singing the praises of brown lentil gravy, which is more accurately called the bean broth.

Does someone in your family love lentils?  Post a pic here.

Do you like lentils?  Go out today and tell someone.  Show someone how to cook lentils.  Serve lentils to someone you love.  Post a lentil recipe on your facebook page.  Ask your grocery store to carry lentils.  Go to an Indian market and swoon over the many colors of lentils.

Or you can just stop by here for lunch–we’re having lentils.

Too Simple Fancy Pants Artisan Bread. No Knead. No $Dough. Just great bread.

There is nothing like homemade bread.  This past year, I’ve learned how to make really fabulous bread for my family.  We mix up a batch of dough and keep it in the refrigerator.  And when we need a loaf or a ball of dough for pizza crust, it’s waiting for us.  It’s so good, we’re not buying processed bread at the store anymore.  Say hello to easy crusty, golden artisan bread and say goodbye to 42 ingredients you can’t pronounce.

Stirred-not-kneaded, refrigerated dough didn’t originate with me.  Grab this book—Artisan Bread in Five Minutes A Day —- and Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois will show you how to make bread that will wow your taste buds with a minimum of prep.  You can also check out their recipe here on Mother Earth News. If you would like to watch a video of them mixing up a batch of whole wheat dough, they’ve posted a link on the Amazon page for their second book, “Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day.”

As if making bread with 4 ingredients and doing it in 5 minutes isn’t quite zippy enough, I’ve tailored their recipe to make it slightly more budget friendly on start up costs.  Hertzberg and Francois recommend using a pizza peel, preheated-baking stone and cornmeal, but stones and pizza peels are an investment, cornmeal smokes and worst of all, it’s no fun to shatter a $45 baking stone making a .50 loaf of bread.  I also modified the salt content and I like the results.

Of course, most normal people will start with the regular recipe, but we’re feeding a crowd, so I make the big one.  I also have given up trying to count cups of flour (I lose count somewhere between 3 and 13) and just invested in a scale.  Scales are so handy.  And fun.

The recipe

13 cups of UNBLEACHED flour:   You won’t need bread flour, but do pick out an unbleached variety.     Hertzberg and Francois will tell you their method for scooping the flour; too little flour and your dough will be too moist.  I however, just measure out 4lbs. 4oz.  So yep, that is almost an entire sack of flour.  My favorite unbleached flour is found at Kroger.  It varies through the year from 1.99 for 5 lbs. to about $2.39.

3 tablespoons of yeast:  If you enjoy this bread, you will want to buy yeast in bulk.  You can purchase 4 lbs. of yeast for about $13 on Amazon–and less if you use Subscribe and Save.  My friends who shop at Sam’s can also find a great deal on yeast there.

2 tablespoons of sea salt:  I really like Kroger’s Coarse Mediterranean Sea Salt and the price is better than the Morton brand I find at Walmart.  Word to the wise:  sea salt is not as salty as plain ‘ole salt.  I think that coarse kosher salt is also a good choice.  If you have a choice about what to use, though, consider avoiding iodized salt.  My grandpa Connie thought it tasted bitter and I agree with him.

6 cups of hot water:  I use it very hot from the tap.  (Edited on 9/21/14 to say this:  I’VE STARTED USING 5 3/4 CUPS WATER the last 6 times I’ve made the bread AND I LIKE THE RESULTS.   I think this recipe has a lot of wiggle room.   Please don’t be afraid to try.  It’s a minimal investment of dough, I  mean $, so just keep at it.)

Here are the easy directions:  Mix the dry ingredients into a really, really big bowl.  If you don’t have a big bowl, use a very large stock pot.  Pour in the water and stir very well.  Make sure all the flour is incorporated because it will not magically mix itself.  Cover with a lid, plastic wrap or a damp towel.

Let rise for 2 hours in a nice, warm spot.  The dough rise up to eat you like the Stay Puft Giant.

Punch the dough down so the lid will fit again and put the dough into the refrigerator and let it chill out for a couple of hours (at the very least).  The secret to getting this loose dough to form a proper shape is to have it well-chilled.  I have, in a pinch, chilled the dough in the freezer.  The dough will keep, refrigerated, for up to 2 weeks.

Heat your oven to spit-fire hot.  The goal is to get your oven to 450 degrees, but of the 4 ovens I’ve spent lots of time with, only one of them would be at 450 when I set the dial just so.  Even with my brand new oven, I find I need to set it on 470 for regular baking and 440 on convection.  Set a broiler pan on the lowest rack to heat up along with the oven.

Now prepare your baking surface.  Pick one:  cast iron pan, cast iron dutch oven, pizza pan or baking sheet.  I like to use parchment paper, but I’ve also just simply greased my pizza pan with olive oil.  You can also try the cornmeal/wooden pizza peel/hot baking stone trick, but make sure you have an exhaust fan.

Take your well-chilled dough  and shape into a boule or flattened ball.  Tuck the edges underneath and it will be smooth.  You can use a little flour if your dough is sticking.  Place it on the baking surface and let rise, covered with a damp towel, until your oven is truly hot.  When the bread and oven are ready,  cut a few slashes on top of your loaf with a serrated knife.  Pop into the oven, dump a cup of water into the broiler pan to give the bread some steam, and bake for 35-40 minutes.

The loaf is done when it is very golden brown and there aren’t any soft grayish spots near the bottom.  Err on the side of very done, as a dough ball is just plain yucky.  After you’ve made 50 loaves, you’ll be able to look at the bread and tell if it’s done.  This bread doesn’t look quite done to me.  And no wonder–I forgot to set the timer, so I am guesstimating.  My best bread is usually tends toward dark brown on top.  Don’t be afraid to let this bread cook over 45 minutes.  Really.

Let cool on a rack and then slice.  The steam makes for a really crusty loaf of bread.  If you want a softer loaf, avoid the steam.  If you want a really soft loaf, let the bread completely cool and place it in a plastic sack for a while.  It will be very easy to slice then.  One note: I overexposed this picture, and really, the actual bread came out much darker.  Darker is OK.

Bread.  Homemade bread.

Lunch today.

Today we cleaned out the refrigerator. Ed got an odd. I got an end. The kids divvied up the middlins.

Cost: 1 minute and 40 seconds of microwave reheating. Also time invested in deciding who gets what.

Payback: The creative part of your brain gets a gold star. The delayed gratification part of your brain will get a gold star……on Friday when you go to the store and have enough money left in the budget to buy a nice end of the month splurge.

Bon Appetit!

That creamy sauce.

Every home-ec student of yore learned how to make white sauce. Chefs learn how to make bechamel sauce. The rest of us typically run to the store and buy a .99 can of Cream of Blech soup, the low fat version. But good heavens! Have you read what’s in the can? I’ve been delivered from Cream of Blech soup. Please let me deliver you from being a slave to the fake soup aisle.

White Sauce/Bechamel Sauce:
While your 12 ounces of pasta is bubbling on the stove, get out a saucepan.
Heat 3 tablespoons of real butter and while you are watching your butter glisten, heat up 2 cups of milk. Any kind of milk will do. If you need Timmy to milk the cow, you might want to start that before you start the pasta.
Your butter is melty–now stir in 3 tablespoons of flour and just stir long enough to thicken. You won’t be browning this flour. Pour in your hot milk and whisk. Cook until your sauce thickens.  I’ve found that using hot milk keeps the sauce from tasting gritty or lumpy. Add salt and pepper to taste. I love to add fresh herbs as well and just as it is finishing, a clove of freshly minced garlic. I’ve also added cheeses at this stage.
Drain pasta, pour back into the pot or into a big bowl. Pour your thickened sauce over the top and stir.

The bottom line:

Here is what you spend, here is what you save:
Cream of X Soup:  Open and go anywhere from .99 to $1.50. For that price you get the ready made convenience of dumping the contents directly into the pasta pot. You still have the  expense of adding in milk and cheese. You also take into your body all of the unpronounceable ingredients from the BPA lined can. Don’t forget the teensy hassle of rinsing out the can and putting it in the recycle bucket or the guilt of knowing that you just made the landfills one can taller.

White sauce: +1 on the hassle factor. Yes, you have to wash an additional pan. But here is what you get in return: 1) Most likely, you have butter, flour and milk on hand, so you are just minutes away from a smooth creamy white sauce. No need to run to the store to buy Cream of Mushroom soup and American cheese slices. 2) You know what you are eating. 3) Three tablespoons of butter is $ .38, three tablespoons of flour is $ .08 and 2 cups of milk will run you about $ .50. Have your second grader do the math on that one.  4) You can sing, “I’ve Got The Power,” as you whip up a pasta dish from scratch.

My kids beg for this pasta.  They love it. 

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