Friday, August 22, 2014

Cheap, Quick and Easy Cooking for Those Without Much in the Way of Cooking Equipment, Ingredients, Time or Knowhow, and the Weekly Specials with Mary Anne

Aldi has avocados for 49 cents each. Seedless watermelons are $1.99 each and cantaloupe are $1.49 each. Strawberries are $1.49 per pound and blueberries are $1.49 per pint (about 12 ounces).

Kroger has boneless pork loin for $1.99 per pound. Milk is $2.69 per gallon. Indiana sweet corn is ten ears for $3.00, or 30 cents an ear. Bartlett pears, Gala apples, red and black plums, black seedless grapes, and Roma tomatoes are all 99 cents a pound.

Marsh has red, white and black seedless grapes and red grapes with seeds for 99 cents a pound. Large seedless cucumbers are ten for $10.00, or $1.00 each.

IGA in Ellettsville and Bedford has several things for 88 cents each – 24 ounce cans of pasta sauce, 12 ounce bags of frozen vegetables, 20 ounce bottles of mustard, 24 ounce bottles of ketchup, 12 ounce bottles of hot sauce, 18 ounce bottles of barbecue sauce. Cabbage is 59 cents a pound. Cucumbers and green peppers are 79 cents each. Zucchini and yellow squash are 99 cents a pound.

Did you know that you can exchange food stamps for twice as many Market Bucks to use at the Farmers Market? You can get exchange up to 18 dollars of food stamps for up to 36 dollars of Market Bucks, and then you can spend the Market Bucks like cash at the Market. That’s like getting the food from the Market at half price! And speaking of the Farmers Market, here are some prices. They vary from week to week, of course, and from vendor to vendor, but cucumbers, zucchini and summer squash are about 75 cents each or three for $2.00. Peppers are about the same. Tomatoes start at about $2.49 per pound, though you may be able to find “seconds” or “ugly tomatoes” or “canning tomatoes” for less, sometimes for half price. Green beans are about $3.50 per box, or two for $6.00. These are all guesstimates, as I haven’t been there for a couple of weeks.  

Lots of sales on produce, but not protein, so I can’t build my post around a sale item. I could do the chicken leg quarters for 69 cents a pound in a ten pound bag at Walmart again. I haven’t done that for a long time. Or I could build my post around something that’s happening now. Labor Day is coming up, and picnics, or just people wanting to get in picnics while they still can. And then there’s IU students moving back into town this week and classes starting next week. I’ve already given menus and recipes for picnics, so I think I’ll go with IU students coming back. Now to figure out what there is about that to talk about. Hmmmm.

What do college students lack? Time and money. And usually anything more than just the most basic ingredients and cooking equipment. And frequently culinary knowhow. That’s it! Let’s see what I can come up with that’s cheap, quick, easy, and doesn’t require much in the way of cooking equipment or knowhow or very many ingredients. Should be a snap, right?

There are a lot of cookbooks that deal with each of these constraints. Eating on a budget. Quick and easy recipes. 15 minute (or 20 minute or 30 minute or…) recipes. Cooking for dummies and/or idiots. 4 or 5 ingredient recipes. I think I even remember a cookbook along the lines of cooking when all you have is one saucepan. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a book of cheap, quick, and easy recipes for dummies and idiots who don’t have anything but the very most basic of ingredients and cooking equipment and appliances. Maybe I should write a book? Or maybe I should start with a few menus and see how far I get before I get too carried away.

I figure that to really qualify as a “meal” you need about three parts. Almost always a protein (meat, chicken, fish or eggs), and two of the following three – salad, vegetable, or fruit. Sometimes you can get by with two or three of them in the same dish – a casserole, for example, that has protein and vegetables in it, or a big salad with protein. And sometimes you can get by with just a protein and vegetable or salad, if the portions are big enough. But I usually aim for three parts to the meal. So I’m going to give some ideas for all three, give you the costs of the different meal parts (using this week’s prices, so the costs may not be valid any other time) and then some ideas for how to put them together into meals.

Pork loin is on sale this week. It’s not a great price, but because there is practically no waste on it you can start with a smaller piece than you would with, for example, bone-in and skin-on chicken legs, which is the other protein I’m going to talk about. The pork loin (a lean, boneless strip of meat from the back) is $1.99 a pound at Kroger this week, and I figure that one serving is about 6 ounces. That’s about 75 cents per serving. The chicken leg quarters are 69 cents a pound for a ten pound bag, or $6.90 a pound, at Walmart. I figure that a leg quarter, or at least the drumstick and thigh together, is one serving, for about 69 cents. That’s the usual price there, and I rely on chicken legs a lot. Higher price per pound for the pork, but the price per serving is almost the same.

 At $6.90 cents for a ten pound bag of chicken leg quarters, they’re a great deal. There are usually about 10 leg quarters per bag. A leg quarter is a thigh, a drumstick, and a piece of the back where the thigh and the back intersect. You can cut the leg quarters into the three pieces, but I’m going to assume you don’t have the interest and/or energy and/or time and/or knowhow to do that. No problem. I figure that a whole chicken leg quarter is one serving. I’ve found that if I take the meat off of the bones and measure it, it comes out to about one cup of meat.

Chicken legs are very easy, versatile, and forgiving. Because there is more fat in the legs, they aren’t as likely to turn out dry as chicken breasts are. I’ll start with some very easy, two ingredient recipes.

1.    BASIC ROASTED CHICKEN LEG QUARTERS. Just salt and pepper them, put them in a single layer in something that can go in the oven and that has sides at least an inch high (there will be some juices, and you don’t want them to spill in the oven or on the floor or on you), and bake them at 375 for about 45 minutes.

2.    BARBECUED CHICKEN LEG QUARTERS. That’s oven barbecued, not grilled. As in pour some commercial barbecue sauce over them after you’ve put them in that baking dish with sides, then bake them at 375 for about 45 minutes.

3.    TERIYAKI CHICKEN LEG QUARTERS. Same as barbecued, but with commercial teriyaki sauce instead of barbecue sauce. You could put the teriyaki sauce in a plastic bag, add the chicken, and smush it around so the chicken has sauce all over it, or you can just put the chicken in the pan and pour the sauce on the top.

4.    ITALIAN CHICKEN LEG QUARTERS. Use Italian dressing (the kind that’s based on oil and vinegar and is sort of clear, not the kind that’s thick like ranch or blue cheese or that orange French dressing) instead of the barbecue or teriyaki sauce. Again, you could do the plastic bag thing to get the dressing all over the chicken or you can just pour it on top.

5.    CHICKEN LEG QUARTERS MARINARA. At its simplest, it’s just chicken baked with pasta sauce instead of barbecue or teriyaki sauce or salad dressing. You can sprinkle it with some parmesan cheese if you want to, but it isn’t absolutely necessary.

So there are five quick and easy ways to fix chicken leg quarters, and you only need one ingredient in addition to the chicken. (I’m not counting salt and pepper as ingredients. I figure that everyone has those. Don’t they?) Actually, it’s more than just four, because there are so many different kinds of barbecue sauce and teriyaki sauce, or you can use a commercial marinade or sauce. There’s lots of scope there.

Assuming that you really don’t know what you’re doing, figure that it will take you about 10 to 15 minutes to prepare the chicken and get it in the oven, and then about 45 minutes for it to cook, while you don’t have to do anything. Be sure to turn on a timer, though, so you don’t forget to take it out. I’ve done that with more things than you can imagine, and it is really annoying for everyone who’s planning to eat whatever it is I just burned.

All of these recipes meet the quick-and-easy-recipes-for-dummies-and-idiots-who-don’t- have-much-cooking-equipment-or-many-ingredients test. But what about the cheap part? Well, a chicken leg quarter (a thigh and a drumstick plus a little bit more) will run you about 69 cents. A jar of barbecue sauce or teriyaki sauce or Italian dressing or pasta sauce will run you 88 cents this week at IGA and is enough for all ten of the leg quarters. (I’d suggest getting two or three different kinds, though, unless you’re feeding more than just yourself. They’ll keep in the fridge and you’ll be glad of the variety.) So that’s 78 cents for a leg quarter plus sauce, but let’s call it 80 cents. I like round numbers. They’re easier to work with and think about.

And now for what to do with a pork loin. It should run about 4 or 5 pounds and you’ll probably want to have the butcher cut it up for you. I’d suggest that you get half of it cut into pork chops and the leave the other half as a pork roast. Ask to have the pork chops cut about ½” thick. That way, one pork chop should be a serving.

The pork roast can be cooked pretty much the same way the basic chicken legs are cooked. Just rub salt and pepper all over it, put it in a baking dish with sides about one to two inches high, and bake it in a preheated oven at 350 for about an hour. Let it “rest” for about 10 minutes after you take it out of the oven. That means that you drape some foil over it and let it sit before cutting it so the juices get reabsorbed. It makes for a juicier roast. You can put some peeled carrots and onions around it while it roasts, and that takes care of your side dishes. Some potatoes, too, if you eat potatoes. Just don’t crowd the veggies.

As for the pork chops, you’ll want a heavy skillet. Turn the heat on under the skillet and let it get hot while you salt and pepper the chops, then put them in the skillet in a single layer. Let them cook for about 5 minutes, or until they’re nice and brown on the bottom, then turn them over and brown the other side. Turn the heat down to low and add about a fourth of a cup of water (you can use part orange juice if you want to), cover and cook them for about 30 minutes. The first time you cook pork chops you might want to check them after about 15 minutes and make sure there’s still some liquid in the pan. Now you have two choices. You can take the lid off and turn the heat up and boil off the liquid in the pan, which will make a nice finish on the chops, or you can take the chops out of the pan and cover them to keep them warm while you make gravy out of the drippings. To make gravy, put a tablespoon of flour in a small jar with a tight lid and add a cup of water. Shake it up really well so there are no lumps, then add it to the skillet. Stir it constantly as it thickens, and when it gets as thick as you like it, pour it into a bowl and serve it with the chops. An easier but more expensive way to make the gravy is to use condensed cream of mushroom soup. Carefully pour the juices from the skillet into a measuring cup and add enough water to make one cup. Pour it back into the skillet and add a can of mushroom soup. Stir it well so it doesn’t get lumpy and heat it until it just starts to simmer. Remove it from the pan and serve it as gravy.

If you’re trying to control your costs, you need to be aware of how big a serving is. A six ounce serving of pork will cost about 75 cents this week if you buy the pork loin at Kroger. That’s six ounces raw, not cooked. Weigh your roast and figure out how many servings you need to get from it, and then cut it into that many pieces. You should get five or six servings from a two pound roast, for example. The pork chops will probably be about 6 ounces each if you have them cut 1/2" thick, but weigh a couple of them to make sure. You may need to adjust the cost if they’re more or less than six ounces. There really isn’t any other cost to the pork, so just figure 75 cents per serving.

I had planned to talk about side dishes, but this is getting awfully long already, so I’ll do that another time. Just a few quick comments here.

First, plain lettuce makes a good salad. It’s usually 99 cents a head at Aldi and you should be able to get four to eight servings of lettuce from a head, depending on how big they are. (They vary a lot, so try to get big, heavy heads.) That’s about 15 to 25 cents per serving. Aldi has salad dressings for $1.29 for 16 ounces, and there are two tablespoons per ounce. A 16 ounce bottle of salad dressing is 16 servings of two tablespoons each, which is a reasonable size. That’s about 8 cents per serving. A simple salad of lettuce and dressing will run about 20 to 35 cents.

Roma tomatoes are 99 cents a pound at Kroger this week. There are usually four to five Roma tomatoes to a pound. Let’s say four of them, which means they cost 25 cents each. Tomato adds a lot to a salad. Figure on one Roma tomato, sliced or chopped, for two to three people.

Corn on the cob is ten ears for $3.00 this week at Kroger, or 30 cents an ear. If you have a microwave, pull off the silk that sticks out from the husks but leave the husks on. Set the ears of corn on a plate or a paper towel and nuke on high for about 4 to 6 minutes for two ears. Cook them one or two at a time. If you’re cooking very many, you might want to boil them instead of nuking them, but that takes a pretty big pot. Put enough water in the pot to cover the ears and bring it to a boil. Don’t add the corn until the water is boiling. Add about a tablespoon each of salt and sugar to the water and be sure it dissolves, then add the corn. Cook it for about 6 to 8 minutes. Remove it carefully, using tongs if you have them. Actually, if you don’t have tongs, you probably shouldn’t boil the corn because you won’t be able to get it out of the pan. You could get to the corn by pouring out the water, but you’re likely to (or I would be likely to) scald yourself with the steam and/or pour out the corn, too. I guess pouring the corn out too wouldn’t be too bad, as long as your sink is clean and you don’t splash yourself with the boiling water.

And finally, since I said I wasn’t going to talk about side dishes today, don’t forget fresh fruit. Whole seedless watermelons are $1.99 each at Aldi and cantaloupe are $1.49 each. You should be able to get a minimum eight servings from a watermelon and six servings from a cantaloupe, either of which would be 25 cents per serving. You may be able to get a lot more than that, depending on how big the melons are. You know how to fix watermelon, I’m sure. To fix cantaloupe, start by cutting it in half, then scoop out the seeds from the half you’re going to eat first. Cut that half into serving pieces. Cover the rest with plastic wrap. Frozen green grapes are a special treat. I don’t know why it’s just green grapes, but that’s what I’ve heard about. Just wash them and lay them out in a single layer on a plate or cookie sheet, preferably without touching. Freeze them for at least an hour and serve frozen.

So there you have it. You now know how to make Plain Roasted Chicken, Barbecue Chicken, Teriyaki Chicken, Italian Chicken, Chicken Marinara, Pork Roast, and Pork Chops. And know how to make a simple salad and corn on the cob, and how to fix watermelon and cantaloupe and frozen grapes. You can put together any number of three part suppers for under $1.50 per person by combining different meat dishes with salad and corn, or salad and watermelon, or corn and grapes, or whatever. You’re well on your way to becoming a chef!

Bon Appetit!

Mary Anne

PS – Wondering where the cheapest place to get groceries is? For general non-sale prices, I find that Aldi is usually cheapest. They’re across from Sam’s, just past the Steak ‘n’ Shake. Turn at the stoplight between Sam’s and Walmart. They don’t have a lot of variety – usually no more than one brand or size, and mostly just the basics. I do most of my shopping there. Walmart is usually next cheapest, and is usually cheapest for anything that Aldi doesn’t carry. For meat, I usually wait until Kroger or Marsh has it on sale. They sometimes have really good prices on fruit, too.

Check out the weekly specials online, and be sure to check the dates. Aldi’s sales run Wednesday through Tuesday, and Marsh and Kroger run Thursday through Wednesday. IGA (Bedford and Ellettsville) sales run Monday through Sunday.

Aldi – – the sales are posted shortly after midnight Wednesday morning.
Kroger – – the sales are posted early Thursday morning.
Marsh – – previews are posted about 8 Wednesday morning for the following week, starting Thursday. I’ve gotten burned by this when I wasn’t paying attention to what was the current week’s ad and what was the preview. – ads are posted Monday, but not sure when.

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