Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thanksgiving Leftovers

Happy Thanksgiving! We’re getting this out early this week because the Hub will be closed on Thursday and Friday for Thanksgiving.

I’ll start with this week’s specials, and then give you some ideas of things to do with your Thanksgiving leftovers. By the way, did you hear that the average cost of a full Thanksgiving dinner for is under $50? And, according to the news story, that’s without using sales prices! I find that hard to believe. I had a hard time keeping my Thanksgiving dinner for 12 under $50 and I DID use sales prices.

But anyway, on to the sales. Watch the dates that the sales are good for. They’ve changed some because of Thanksgiving.

Marsh has “over 20 different varieties” of Washington or locally grown apples for 98 cents a pound in half peck bags. I’m not sure how big that is, but based on the size bags you usually see I’m assuming somewhere between 3 and 5 pounds. They have pork chops for $1.29 a pound and fresh ground beef (73% lean) for $1.99 a pound. Cucumbers and green peppers are 88 cents each. There are five $1 off “write your own coupons” that are good with a $10 purchase. I assume that requires at least $50 to use all five coupons. These prices are good Friday through Wednesday. They also have a deal on select gift cards – you get $20 off your next grocery purchase when you buy $100 or more in select gift cards. I don’t see any special dates for this, so it’s probably also good Friday through Wednesday.

Aldi still has 3 pounds of sweet potatoes for $1.49, a pound of baby carrots for 89 cents, 10 pounds of russet potatoes for $1.89 (Did you get a chance to try the roasted root veggies that were demoed last week? They were fantastic! Ask for the recipe the next time you go in.), a head of celery for 89 cents, and a 3 pound bag of onions for 99 cents. A 15 ounce can of pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling, just pumpkin) is 89 cents. Cans of cream of mushroom and cream of chicken soups are still 49 cents each. Aldi’s prices are good from last Sunday through next Wednesday. They’re closed on Thanksgiving Day. They had some beautiful poinsettias when I was there on Monday. I think they were $1.99 each, but maybe they were $3.99. I wasn’t really paying attention. Eggs had come up to $1.49 a dozen on Monday.

Kroger has boneless pork loin for $1.77 a pound. That’s all I saw in their ad (which was very small). Their prices are good from 7 a.m. Friday through next Wednesday. One thing that may be good for other shopping – they’re giving 4x fuel points for gift card purchases. This deal is good now through December 11. Don’t forget that fuel points usually expire at the end of the month, so unless you need gas between now and Saturday, you might want to wait until after the first of the month if you plan to buy gift cards there.

OK, so what do you do with your Thanksgiving dinner leftovers? As I said in my earlier THANKSGIVING column, I had eleven people for Thanksgiving dinner a couple of weeks ago. There were lots of leftovers. Dinner plus the leftovers cost $47.21. My goal was to make a total of at least thirty meals from the ingredients for Thanksgiving dinner. Eleven of those meals were Thanksgiving dinner itself, so I need to come up with another nineteen meals. I didn’t quite make it. Sixteen meals for sure, but you’d have to squeeze pretty hard to get the whole nineteen. Unlike my usual columns, my Thanksgiving menus do include bread (in the dressing) and potatoes.

Let’s start with what I have to work with. I had the following leftover ingredients:
A dab of whipping cream – about a fourth of a cup or so
Half a head of celery
6 pounds of potatoes
A cup of chopped walnuts
4 eggs
3 onions (a pound and a half)
4 ounces of cream cheese
More than half a liter each of diet and regular cranberry soda

That’s the leftover ingredients themselves. There were lots of leftovers, too. Things that had been cooked or otherwise prepared but not eaten:
About 12 cups of TURKEY (it’s hard to believe that there’s that much, but I measured it into freezer containers and that’s how much there is)
A couple cups of CREAMED SPINACH
Most of a pound of frozen peas (they weren’t very popular this year)
About 4 cups of MASHED POTATOES
A cup or so of SWEET POTATOES
About a cup of GRAVY
A couple of cups of drippings and broth
About 3 cups of CRANBERRY SAUCE (I forgot to put it on the table)
A couple of cups of STUFFING
About 2 cups of WHIPPED CREAM

The first thing to do is to make WALDORF TURKEY SALAD. This makes a good lunch dish. Make and eat this the day after Thanksgiving, because the apples don’t last very long once they’ve been cut.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with just plain leftovers. For four servings, reheat about 4 cups of leftover TURKEY and two cups each of MASHED POTATOES, STUFFING, and peas. If there’s not 2 cups, just use however much there is. Reheat the GRAVY, too. Each serving is 1 cup of turkey, and half a cup each of mashed potatoes, dressing, and peas, plus some gravy. Serve with the CRANBERRY SAUCE.

Next make TURKEY, BROCCOLI AND SPINACH CASSEROLE, using some of the turkey and the leftover creamed spinach, plus the last of the whipping cream and cream cheese.
The last thing to do with Thanksgiving leftovers is to make CARCASS STEW. It uses up the leftovers that you haven’t done something else with, so make it after you’ve made the other turkey leftovers meals. It's soup or stew made with broth from the turkey carcass and any leftovers you have left. A similar thing to do is to make TURKEY AND NOODLES. Like Chicken and Noodles, but with turkey instead of chicken. 

I just ran across this recipe for SHAKER CHICKEN PUDDING, which should work just as well with turkey instead of chicken. You do have to buy the mushrooms, but you should have everything else left from Thanksgiving. You’d have to make this instead of something else, of course. But it does sound good.

So there you have it. Sixteen or more servings made from just the leftovers plus a few carrots and a pound of frozen broccoli. The carrots cost about 35 cents ($1.39 for 2 pounds, or about 12 carrots, at Aldi) and the broccoli 99 cents (at Walmart). Which brings the total cost of Thanksgiving dinner for eleven plus sixteen more meals to $48.55. Twenty or more meals if you add a package or two of noodles. There’s still some leftover pumpkin pie and whipped cream, too, which you can add to any of these meals. And lots of potatoes that you can use to stretch any meal, and some eggs and celery and onions.

The only way I was able to stretch the holiday budget this far was because it did include a lot of carbs or “fillers” – especially the dressing and the potatoes. But then, they’re part of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, too, right?

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving, and thanks to you for reading my columns!

Friday, November 22, 2013

Thanksgiving Dinner for 12 (and Lots of Leftovers) for under $50

I’m going to do something a bit different this week and next. Since most of the ads are about Thanksgiving anyway, this week I’m going to tell you how I put together a Thanksgiving dinner for twelve last Saturday for under $50. And next week (watch for it early, since the Hub will be closed Thursday and Friday for Thanksgiving) I’ll tell you how I can make four complete meals for four people each with the leftovers, a bag of broccoli and a few carrots. Altogether, that comes to 28 meals for under $50, and twelve of those meals are Thanksgiving dinner! Spoiler alert – because it’s Thanksgiving, I do include mashed potatoes and bread stuffing, which, as you know, I usually don’t.

But first, this week’s specials. Mostly Thanksgiving related, of course.

Aldi’s ad looks a lot like it has the past couple of weeks. Frozen Butterball turkeys for 99 cents a pound. Fresh Butterball turkeys for $1.29 a pound. Hams ranging from 99 cents a pound to $1.99 a pound. Three pounds of sweet potatoes for $1.49. Three pounds of onions for 99 cents. Ten pounds of russet potatoes for $1.89. Celery for 89 cents a head and cranberries 99 cents for twelve ounces. Baby carrots for 89 cents a pound. Butter $1.69 a pound and cream cheese 99 cents for 8 ounces. Stuffing mix for 69 cents a box, and instant mashed potatoes for 69 and 99 cents. (Though real mashed potatoes are so easy to make I don’t know why you’d want to get the fake kind in a box.) Canned gravy (in a jar) for 89 cents, though again, it’s so easy to make why get the fake stuff.

Marsh has frozen Butterball turkeys for 99 cents a pound and Norbest and Honeysuckle frozen turkeys for 69 cents a pound, but you have to buy $25 of other stuff to get them at that price. There’s a limit of one each. Fresh pork picnic roasts (the best tasting cut of meat as far as I’m concerned, though it’s got a big bone in it) are $1.29 a pound. “Jumbo” cauliflower is two heads for $5 or $2.50 a head, and bunch broccoli is 3 for $5 or $1.67 each. Frozen veggies are 4 for $5, or $1.25 each. Sour cream is $1.29 a pint (16 ounces) and heavy whipping cream is $1.39 a half-pint (8 ounces). Campbell’s cream of chicken or cream of mushroom soups are 5 for $5, or $1 each. I have no idea how good a price this is, but Maxwell House coffee is $3.99 for 29.3 to 31.5 ounce cans, if you buy $30 of other stuff. A 9.7 ounce bag of Splenda Granular (for baking) is the equivalent of 5 pounds of sugar and costs $5.99. (A lot more than sugar costs, but if you can’t eat sugar…)

Kroger has their store brand frozen turkeys for 77 cents a pound with $25 of other purchases. There’s a limit of two turkeys. Fresh Honeysuckle turkeys are $1.29 a pound with $25 of other purchases, again with a limit of two. Bob Evans breakfast sausage is two packages for $4, and the packages range from twelve to sixteen ounces (a pound). Various canned vegetables are two for $1, or 50 cents each. Fresh sweet potatoes are 59 cents a pound. Hams range from $1.29 to $1.99 a pound. Frozen vegetables are ten for $10, or $1 per bag, and the bags are 10 to 12 ounces each. Sour cream is ten pints for $10, or $1 per pint (16 ounces). Whipping cream is two pints for $4, or $2 per pint. Campbell’s cream of chicken and cream of mushroom soups are ten cans for $10, or $1 per can. I think you can buy just a single item of any of these for the sale price; you don’t have to buy ten of them, or two, or whatever.
Thanksgiving dinner was last Saturday at my house. I had a bunch of guests, most of whom were associated in some way with IU, and many of whom will be out of town the week of Thanksgiving. So, since I like cooking special meals like Thanksgiving and I wanted to have them over, I decided to have it early.

Since I’ve been doing the Weekly Special blogs and a Food Stamp Challenge (I took a break on that for a couple of days while I had Thanksgiving dinner), food budgets and the cost of food have been on my mind a lot. So I decided to cost out my Thanksgiving dinner. There were eleven of us (there was supposed to have been twelve, but there was a last minute cancellation). Here’s what we had:

Mashed potatoes
Sweet potatoes
Cranberry sauce
Creamed spinach
Apple/celery/grape/nut salad (aka Waldorf salad)
Pumpkin pies with whipped cream
Cranberry soda

It came to a grand total of $47.21. Whew! I was really trying to keep it under $50, and I just made it. In the interests of full disclosure, though, and just to keep things honest between us, this isn’t exactly what I had. If you’ve been reading my weekly columns, you know that I don’t eat grain of any kind, and that I’m diabetic and only use artificial sweeteners. So for my own dinner, I substituted sausage for the bread in the dressing, made the pie crusts out of nut flours instead of out of wheat flour, and used artificial sweetener instead of sugar. But other than that, this really was my menu.

Here’s what I bought (adjusted for the bread and sugar and such). As it happened, I had to buy almost everything specifically for Thanksgiving dinner, and I’m including the whole cost of what I bought, whether I actually used it all or not. The only exceptions were salt and pepper and some spices (estimated at 50 cents for all), half a cup of mayo, three and a half cups of sugar, and three cups of flour. I’m assuming that you have these on hand and won’t have to go out and buy them for this dinner.

From Walmart -
17 pound turkey - $15.04
1.5 pounds frozen spinach - $1.98
3 apples (1.58 pounds) - $1.58

From Aldi –
3 pounds sweet potatoes - $1.49
2 boxes stuffing mix - $1.32
1 head celery – 89 cents
12 ounces cranberries – 99 cents
10 pounds potatoes – $1.98 (I only needed 4 pounds, but the 10 pound bag was cheaper than buying 4 pounds)
1 pound butter - $1.69
8 ounces cream cheese - 99 cents
1 pound frozen peas 99 cents
8 ounces walnuts - $3.99
1 dozen eggs - $1.29
3 pounds of onions – 99 cents
2 cans of pumpkin - $1.78
3 pints whipping cream - $5.94 (I use whipping cream instead of evaporated milk in the pumpkin pies. Evaporated milk would be cheaper. You could get two cans of milk and a pint of whipping cream for about $4.00.)

From Marsh –
Half a of pound grapes – 65 cents (Actually, I don’t know if I could have gotten just half a pound. I got a few pounds to take to church and used some of them for dinner. But then, I could have included them under the section for things I had on hand, so I guess it all comes out the same in the end)
2 liters of cranberry soda – 98 cents (I bought these a few weeks ago)

All of this comes to $45.31. As I said, I’m assuming you have some mayo, salt and pepper and spices, flour and sugar on hand. I used the current prices on these, adjusted for the quantities used, and came up with a total cost of $47.21. To feed twelve people. With lots of leftovers. For less than $4 per person.

What leftovers did I have? Well, to begin with, I had some ingredients leftover.
A dab of whipping cream – about a fourth of a cup or so
Half a head of celery
6 pounds of potatoes
A cup of chopped walnuts
4 eggs
3 onions (a pound and a half)
4 ounces of cream cheese
More than half a liter each of the cranberry soda – one liter is diet and one isn’t

That’s the leftover ingredients themselves. There were lots of leftovers, too. Things that had been cooked or otherwise prepared but not eaten.
About 12 cups of turkey (I actually measured it out as I put it in freezer containers)
A couple of cups of creamed spinach
Most of the peas (they weren’t very popular this year)
About 4 cups of mashed potatoes
A cup or so of sweet potatoes
About half of the apple/celery/grape/nut salad
A couple cups of gravy
All of the cranberry sauce (I forgot to put it on the table)
A couple of cups of dressing
Most of a pie
About 2 cups of whipped cream

This is getting a bit lengthy (I know, I know – I’ve always been wordy!), so I’m just going to briefly tell you how I fixed things. The only thing that actually had a recipe was the pumpkin pie, so mostly it’s just going to be explaining what I did. Then I’m going to do another column next week telling you what I did with the leftovers, or what I could do with them. Mostly I put them in the freezer. I’m not quite ready to face them again just yet!

So there’s my Thanksgiving dinner. For twelve. For less than $50. With lots of leftovers. And mostly from scratch. And a delicious dinner it was, too.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Cheap Fish and the Weekly Specials with Mary Anne

I found a great deal on fish at Kroger’s last week, and since I haven’t talked about fish before, I’ll give a few recipes using it. But first, on to this week’s specials, which are mostly geared to Thanksgiving.

Aldi has Butterball turkeys again for 99 cents a pound, and hams ranging from 99 cents to $1.99 per pound. Sweet potatoes are $1.49 for three pounds, and potatoes are $1.89 for a 10 pound bag. That’s a lot of potatoes for $1.89! Celery is 89 cents a head and onions are 99 cents for 3 pounds. Fresh cranberries are 99 cents for twelve ounces. Candied yams are 99 cents for sixteen ounces, and yams in syrup (not as much sugar) are $1.29 for 29 ounces. Cranberry sauces are 89 cents a can and pumpkin (just plain pumpkin, not pumpkin pie filling) is 89 cents a can. French fried onions (like to put on top of a green bean casserole) are $1.99 a can. Six ounces of pecans (about a cup and a half) are $2.99. Stuffing mix is 69 cents a box, instant mashed potatoes are 99 cents a box, and condensed cream of various things soups are 49 cents a can. But I hope you’re not using any of these, but making your own, instead! Cream cheese is 99 cents for eight ounces and butter is $1.69 a pound. These are pretty much all the same as they were last week.

Kroger has their store brand turkeys for 77 cents a pound with $25 in additional purchases. Eggs are 4 for $5.00, or $1.25 a dozen. Sour cream and cottage cheese are both $1.00 for a pint, or 16 ounces. Hams range from $1.29 to $1.99 per pound and chicken drumsticks and thighs are 99 cents a pound. They have most of the same things on sale for 50 cents off if you buy at least ten of selected items, mix-or-match that they did last week. Various cheeses are $2.99 a pound. Frozen veggies are $1.00 each for 10 to 12 ounce bags.

Marsh has seedless red or black grapes for $1.28 a pound. Yum! Norbest and Honeysuckle turkeys are 69 cents a pound and Butterball turkeys are 99 cents a pound, if you buy at least $25.00 of other stuff there. Libby’s canned vegetables are 29 cents a can if you buy at least $30 of other stuff. You can get $10 off a half ham or $20 off a whole ham, but they don’t say how much the hams cost originally. That always makes me nervous, though sometimes they really are good deals.

And now, back to the fish. I accidentally stumbled across a great deal on Swai nuggets at Kroger. It’s 99 cents a pound on sale, and the regular price is $1.39 a pound. I asked if they would be having it on a regular basis and was told that they were just trying it out to see if there was any demand for it. So go demand it! If you can’t find it, ask for it. That is by far the lowest price I’ve seen on fish in a long time. In fact, the next cheapest has been about $2.50 a pound for quite a while, and $4 or $5 is more usual. And up. Way up!

But what is Swai? It's basically catfish that are farmed in the rivers in Vietnam. It can be substituted for several other kinds of fish. HERE'S a list of them. You can use catfish or Swai in any recipe that calls for any of the fish listed, though of course you need to consider the size of the pieces, too. Substituting Swai nuggets for a halibut steak, for example, wouldn’t work, though you could use the same seasonings and adjust the cooking time and method for the smaller pieces.

The traditional way to cook catfish is to roll it in cornmeal and fry it in bacon grease and serve it with hushpuppies or cornbread. It’s delicious that way, but cornmeal is out as far as I’m concerned. CRISPY BAKED CATFISH NUGGETS is a grain-free alternative. It’s probably gluten free, too, but check the ingredients for yourself if you’re sensitive to gluten. I know it shows up in the strangest places.

If you use olive oil and bottled lemon juice, this will cost you about $3.60 for four servings, or about 90 cents per serving. Serve the Crispy Baked Catfish Nuggets with TARTAR SAUCE and COLESLAW. A serving of catfish, plus a fourth of a cup of tartar sauce and a big serving of coleslaw will cost about $1.20. An unbelievably low cost for a fish dinner!

The next recipe is for ITALIAN FISH SOUP, which is kind of like a Manhattan (tomato based) clam chowder, except with fish instead of clams. The original recipe called for fish and scallops, but I always just use fish. It’s a lot cheaper that way, and the one time I did use scallops, I couldn’t tell the difference. This is a full meal in itself and makes four good servings. The total cost, if you use Swai nuggets, is about $4.75, or $1.20 per serving. If you happen to have a bit of extra room in your budget, COLESLAW would go well with it, and would bring it to about $1.45 per person. Some raw veggies and maybe some dip would be good with it, too.

The final recipe is for BROILED CATFISH WITH MUSTARD. You can use pretty much any kind of fish for this, but it’s especially good with catfish or Swai. And it’s really easy, too, which is another big bonus! There is basically no cost to this except for the fish, if you use the onion and bottled lemon juice alternatives. The whole recipe costs just a few cents over $2.35, or about 60 cents per serving. COLESLAW would go well with this (I think coleslaw goes well with just about all fish, except maybe salmon.) and would bring the cost to about 85 cents per serving. Add a couple of cans of green beans (half a can per person) and that brings it to $1.10 per person. Everything else is so cheap that you might as well splurge and get a real lemon or two. They generally run about 50 cents each. 

Friday, November 8, 2013

I Hate to Cook Chicken! and the Weekly Specials with Mary Anne

Thanksgiving specials are starting to appear. The problem is, you never know whether they’ll get better as we get closer to the big day. My guess is that turkey and ham prices will go down, but that’s just a guess. Other things, maybe, maybe not.

Aldi has Butterball turkeys for 99 cents a pound, and hams ranging from 99 cents a pound to $1.99 cents a pound. Fresh sweet potatoes are $1.49 for a 3 pound package, or 50 cents a pound. Celery is 89 cents a head. Candied yams are 99 cents for a 16 ounce can, and yams in syrup (not as much sugar as the candied yams) are $1.29 for a 29 ounce can. Watch the blog and the Hub for a handout on fixing your own yams and sweet potatoes, that are cheaper and healthier and, if I do say so myself, better! A 14 ounce can of cranberry sauce is 89 cents, but, again, watch for my handout for how to fix your own. Canned pumpkin is 89 cents for 15 ounces, which is a good price, and cheaper than if you have to go out and buy a pumpkin to make your pie out of. Pie crusts are $1.49 for two, but they’re not hard to make yourself. All they take is butter (or lard or margarine) and flour.

Other advertised prices at Aldi - Red onions are 99 cents for a 2 pound bag, or 50 cents a pound. (Regular yellow onions were $1.99 for 3 pounds, or 67 cents a pound.) Baby carrots are 89 cents a pound. (Regular carrots, the kind you have to peel and cut yourself, are usually $1.39 for two pounds, or 70 cents a pound.) Cream cheese is 99 cents for 8 ounces, which they say is the new regular price. A pound of butter has come down from $2.49 two weeks ago to $1.99 last week and $1.69 this week! Their holiday catalog says that they have cream of mushroom and cream of celery soups for 49 cents each. (See last week’s blog for how to make your own from CREAM OF WHATEVER SOUP MIX.) Pineapples are 99 cents each.

This seems to be Aldi’s week for bargains. They still have eggs for $1.29 a dozen, and their 8 ounce blocks of cheese (Colby; Mozzarella; Cheddar in mild, medium, sharp or extra sharp; Swiss; and I think Jack) have come down from $1.79 each to $1.49. I got the impression from the signs that this is the new price for cheese, though I don’t know for sure.

For the holidays, Marsh has Norbest or Honeysuckle All Natural Turkeys for 99 cents a pound, and 40 ounce cans of yams for $2.50 each. They also have eggs this week, $1.99 for 18 eggs, or $1.33 per dozen. Butter is 2 pounds for $4.00. Boneless, skinless chicken breasts are $1.99 a pound for a “family pack.” One pound bags of frozen vegetables are 48 cents each if you buy $30 of other stuff.

Kroger has boneless, skinless chicken breasts and thighs for $1.97 a pound. There are several things that are a pretty good price if you buy at least ten mix-or-match. Mostly these are brand names, if that matters to you. It usually doesn’t matter to me. Among these are Hunt’s or Ro-tel tomatoes for 49 cents a can (watch the sizes as the cans vary from 10 to 15 ounces), Campbell’s Cream of Chicken or Cream of Mushroom Soup for 69 cents a can, Ocean Spray Cranberry Sauce for 99 cents a can, Swanson broth for 49 cents a can (but it’s better if you make your own), and Green Giant green beans for 69 cents a can. They also have bags of various frozen vegetables for $1 each, but they’re only 10 to 12 ounces per bag.

There really isn’t much here to work with when it comes to planning inexpensive meals, unless you want to start eating turkey now. I was going to go ahead and do that, but I just can’t bring myself to talk about turkey and turkey leftovers this close to Thanksgiving! So I’ll go with the ten pound bags of chicken leg quarters that Walmart has for $5.90 a bag, or 59 cents a pound. This comes to about 59 cents (let’s call it 60 cents) a quarter, or about 60 cents per cup of cooked meat. I’ve talked about chicken several times already, here and here and here and about turkey breast, which can be used interchangeably with chicken in most recipes that call leftover or cooked chicken. I talk about chicken a lot because it’s about the cheapest meat there is, on a regular basis. (Though I just this morning realized that I got about two and a half cups of cooked hamburger per pound of 73% lean ground beef, which cost me $1.87 per pound, and that comes out to about 75 cents a cup, which isn’t all that much more than the chicken, and I think it has more calories (energy dense foods are good, as long as they are also nutritious) and nutrition than the chicken. I’m going to have to reconsider my idea that chicken is cheaper than ground beef! But that’s for another day.)

I don’t know if it was real or not, but they used to say that a lot of families had a pretty regular rotation of menus. Maybe a roast on Sunday, chicken on Monday, spaghetti on Tuesday, pork on Wednesday, meatloaf on Thursday, fish on Friday, and pizza on Saturday. Or whatever. We didn’t, when I was growing up, but I have seen cookbooks built around this theme. It wasn’t always exactly the same – there might be two or three different recipes for spaghetti or maybe it would be lasagna instead sometime – but “Mom” had a lot of the meal planning down pat. A similar type of arrangement that I’ve heard about more recently is to come up with 28 menus and then to rotate them. You’re eating each menu once a month. Or sometimes it’s only 14 menus, and then you’re eating each one every two weeks. Whichever way it goes, people have been eating the same thing over and over and over for a long, long time!

Anyway, here are some ways of cooking chicken that you probably never even thought of. The first couple are from Peg Bracken’s The Compleat I Hate to Cook Book. Most of her recipes are very easy and (almost, at least) fool-proof, even for you who don’t like to cook or don’t know how. The problem that I have with her recipes is that a lot of them use processed foods. Which makes sense, of course. If you hate to cook, you’re going to want to take shortcuts where you can. Unfortunately, those shortcuts usually involve processed foods with lots of unpronounceable ingredients and too much salt and sugar. For all of these recipes, you can pull the skin off before you cook the legs, if you don’t like flabby skin on your cooked chicken. Because all of these cook in sauce and/or are covered, you’re not going to get crispy skin. If you do pull of the skin, be sure to make GRIBENES out of it.

5 MINUTE CHILI CHICKEN calls for a fourth of a jar of Chili Seasoning. Or you can make your own CHILI SEASONINGReally, the only significant cost is the chicken, if you make your own seasoning mix. Those tiny dabs of herbs and spices will cost next to nothing, and the same with the vinegar. (Be sure to buy the herbs and spices at either Walmart or Aldi. You can get most of them at Walmart for 64 cents a jar, and the others you can get at Aldi for 99 cents a jar. And a jar will last a long long time.) Let’s say 65 cents for two pieces, a thigh and a drumstick. How about half a can of green beans (49 cents a can at Aldi, or 25 cents per serving for two servings) and some COLESLAW to go with it? The cost of the meal per person comes to about $1.20, and it’s a lot of food. Or use your own favorite coleslaw recipe, or just lettuce with some dressing. It should come to about the same cost per serving.

The next recipe, COCA-CHICKEN, also from Peg Bracken’s The Compleat I Hate to Cook Book, sounds even more unlikely. But we’re looking for something different, right? Anyway, it’s cheap and it’s easy and you probably have all the ingredients on hand, except for the chicken. Sorry, but I don’t know of any way to make the Coke or ketchup this one calls for! How much is a can of Coke these days? A lot, if you just buy a single can, not so much if you buy a case or a liter bottle. Let’s say 50 cents for the Coke, shall we? And about 20 cents for the ketchup ($1.29 for 40 ounces at Aldi, the last time I looked), plus 60 cents each for the leg quarters or $2.40 for the chicken. So that’s a total of about $3.10 for the whole thing, or just under 80 cents per serving. We’ll just call it 80 cents per person. And what do you serve with Coke and ketchup besides French fries, which we’re not doing? Darned if I know! How about green beans again, and lettuce with Thousand Island dressing? Or whatever kind of dressing you have on hand. 25 cents per person for the green beans, and another 30 cents each for a quarter of a head of lettuce, and another 10 cents for the dressing brings it to $1.45 per person, though you could probably get away with smaller servings of the lettuce. Depends on how big the heads are.

Why not go all the way with Peg Bracken? One more recipe from that same book. Which, incidentally, is really a conglomeration of The I Hate to Cook Book, Appendix to the I Hate to Cook Book, and The I Hate to Cook Almanack. Hence, The Compleat I Hate to Cook Book.  SOUPERCHICKEN is a more conventional sort of recipe, calling for condensed soup. There are a lot of recipes like that out there. Her recipe calls for 2 to 3 pounds of chicken pieces, a can of condensed mushroom soup, a can of condensed onion soup, and 2/3 cup of dry white wine. I’ll give my own version of it, making my own condensed cream of mushroom and cream of onion soups.

The chicken comes to $2.40, plus another 50 cents or so for the sauce, assuming you use homemade chicken broth and use water instead of wine. Figure another 50 cents if you’re using canned chicken broth or wine. Say $3.40 for it all, or 85 cents a serving. You’re going to get a good 4 cups of sauce out of it, by the time the juices cook out of the chicken, so a thigh, a drumstick, plus the sauce will be a lot of food. You’ll want something to go with it, though. How about serving it over a bed of broccoli? Half a pound of broccoli per person is 50 cents (99 cents at Walmart for a pound of frozen broccoli cuts), which brings it to a total of $1.35 per person.

So there you have it. Three new ways to cook chicken legs, plus a recipe for Chili Seasoning (which you can make ahead and have on hand for making chili) and three menus for big, satisfying, healthy (mostly!) and nutritious meals for between $1.20 and $1.45 per person.

Happy cooking and eating!

Monday, November 4, 2013

Budget Basics and the Food Stamp Challenge

Some of my friends have said that there's no way they could ever eat on as little as I spend when I'm doing a Food Stamp Challenge. A Food Stamp Challenge (FSC), the way I do it, lasts for a month. I have only $132.42 to spend on food for the whole month, or $4.40 per day. That was the average monthly food stamp benefit per person received in Indiana in 2012. Not the maximum possible, but the average that was actually received per person. With this, I have to buy all of my food. I assume that I started out with absolutely nothing – not even salt and pepper.

I try to make the Challenges as realistic as possible, but I know that I have a lot of advantages that many people who live on food stampsbecause they have to and for long periods of time don’t have. For one thing, I know that it’s just for a month and that I can quit any time I want to. Just knowing that is a big help when I get tired of it or want to eat something that I “can’t afford.” I also have the advantage of not working, so I have lots of time to cook. And I have transportation and can go around to the different stores to get stuff wherever it’s cheapest. And I have lots of small appliances and freezer containers and pots and pans and things like that. And I have lots of cookbooks and the time to look through them and to look on the internet to find recipes that use what’s on sale.

I do have a couple of disadvantages, too. The biggest one is that I am diabetic and I really limit my carbs. That means nothing with sugar in it, and no processed foods. More important from a budget point of view, that means nothing with any grain in it (no pasta or noodles or rice or bread or ramen, etc.), no potatoes, and no dried beans. These are all the “fillers” that seem to be at the heart of most “budget” menus and recipes. And no processed foods means very little of the stuff that’s on sale. The good thing about this is that I’m already used to not eating junk food, so I don’t have that bad and expensive habit to break. I eat almost exclusively meat, eggs, vegetables and a little bit of dairy, and, as you know, these aren’t cheap.

Here’s what I told my friends recently, when they said they could never live on just $4.40 per day.

The first Challenge I ever did, which was several years ago, was hard, but each one has gotten easier. The first menus were very clunky and stilted and unimaginative. Over time, though, I've gotten together a set of recipes that use stuff that's often on sale or priced unusually low (around here that's chicken leg quarters from Walmart, whole fryers/roasters at Aldi, and frequent sales on pork and sometimes hamburger). I have basic menus that I eat over and over. Fortunately, I don't mind leftovers, and in fact have them a lot whether I'm on a FSC or not. I still eat full, healthy, satisfying meals, but I stop when I've had enough. I know that if I eat too much today, I might not have enough left for the end of the month. 

Here are a few tips, not just for a FSC, but for eating more cheaply in general. These are the same tips you'll get from just about anyone who's trying to tell you how to save money on food, but it helps to have them repeated sometimes. 

First, take a look at your meat sources. Do a thorough job of this once so you know what the regular prices are, then do it again periodically to see how they change. WRITE DOWN THE PRICES! If something goes on sale, write that down too. 

For example, I know that around here, Walmart's regular price on chicken leg quarters is $5.90 for a 10 pound bag. That comes out to about 59 cents for a leg quarter (thigh, drumstick, and bit of back). That's my basic, go-to budget meat. But I have to remember to budget for the whole $5.90 because that's what I have to spend. It doesn't make sense (and more importantly doesn't work!) to figure on just one or two leg quarters. I have to plan to eat, and to actually eat, the whole bag during the month or other budget period. Aldi's regular price on whole chickens is 89 cents a pound, and I've gotten some really big ones there. The biggest, I think, was almost 9 pounds, which made a delicious roaster. Again, it was the whole price of almost $8 that was important. I got a lot of meals out of that one bird, but I had to plan for them all. Because I know these prices, I know that I can get the meat for a meal for 59 cents, and I compare all other meat prices against that. 

Hamburger is usually between $2.25 and $2.50 a pound, if I buy it in 5 pound chubs. I figure that about half a pound of hamburger is a "serving" for me (remember, I eat just meat and veggies), so that's well over $1 a serving. It sometimes goes on sale for just under $2, and when it does, I buy some. Not a lot, because even at $1.87 (the last price I bought it at), that's still almost 95 cents a serving. Hamburger always goes into a soup or casserole so I can stretch it way out. 

Pork frequently goes on sale. Marsh sometimes has pork combo packs (ribs, chops and roast) for 98 cents a pound, but you have to buy at least $25 worth of other stuff. Their other prices are higher than Walmart or Aldi, so I haven't been getting them. I should go ahead and do it anyway, even if I do have to pay more for the rest. The usual sale price on pork is about $1.97. Even at 98 cents a pound, though, that’s between $10 and $15 for the pack, and I have to be able to work that whole amount into my budget. If it’s at the end of the month, when I’ve spent most of my money, I’m out of luck.

There are definitely kinds and cuts of meat that I wish I could get. I would love to have a beef roast. Even chuck would be good. But even on sale it's between $2.50 and $4.00 a pound, and that just doesn't work. I would continue to get the cheap leg quarters even if I preferred the white meat, because it's so much cheaper. Fortunately I prefer the dark meat anyway. 

I do the same thing with eggs and dairy. Aldi's regular price on cottage cheese is $2.29 for 24 ounces. Sour cream is $1.29 a pint. Butter just came down from $2.49 to $1.99 a pound. Cheese is $1.79 for an 8 ounce block. These are the best non-sale prices in town, and I compare sale prices to them. Whipping cream, on the other hand, is $1.99 a pint at Aldi and around $3.76 a quart at Walmart and Sam's. I get my cream at Walmart or Sam's, if I'm going there anyway. If not, I go ahead and pay the few cents extra at Aldi, because I know that if I go to Walmart or Sam's I won't get out with just the cream. Eggs are a different matter. They seem to vary a lot even when they're not on sale. I figure that the "regular" price is about $1.49 a dozen. When Aldi has them for $1.29 I really stock up. I think I bought 10 dozen the last time they were that price. 

And the same with vegetables. My basics there are cabbage, carrots, onions, and frozen broccoli. Frozen spinach used to be one of my basics, but Walmart's price on that jumped from $1.99 for 26 ounces to $1.58 for 16 ounces, so I don't get as much of that. I prefer fresh broccoli, but it's a lot cheaper frozen. And I prefer chopped broccoli, but what Walmart has for 99 cents a pound is broccoli cuts. Oh well. I make do. Aldi has the cheapest canned veggies by far, so I always get them there. Not much variety - just canned green beans and canned tomatoes. I would rather have more variety when it comes to veggies, especially fresh ones, but these are what's affordable. I seldom do the FSC during the summer when there are so many wonderful veggies at the Farmers Market! They're not cheap, but they're good.

Other than that - the basics like mayo and seasonings - when I'm on a FSC I usually have mayo, salt and pepper, cinnamon and chili powder, mustard and salad dressing. And that's about it. That's because I usually start with absolutely nothing when I do a FSC. It would be more realistic to start with whatever I had left over at the end of the last FSC, at least in terms of things like a part of a jar of mayo, some mustard, a few seasonings, etc. Then the next month I wouldn't need to buy them and could buy a few other staples, instead, or stock up on something when it’s on sale.

So there's the shopping part of doing a FSC. It's pretty much what you've read everywhere else, though the foods are probably different. No potatoes, pasta, bread, dried beans, or ramen. Instead, lots of the cheapest meats and veggies, and a little bit of dairy that I buy at the cheapest places. It's not necessarily the kinds of meat and veggies that I prefer, or the cuts that I prefer, but it's the cheapest kinds. I don’t know what I really spend on food, when I’m not doing a Challenge, but I’m sure it’s way more than $132.42 most months. I am fortunate to have a deep freeze so I can really stock up on meat when it’s on sale, which means that what I spend fluctuates wildly, depending on what the sales are.

As for actual menus, breakfast is usually eggs. Lunch is usually either soup or a salad, and the protein is usually either tuna, chicken or eggs. Supper is usually meat and veggies, sometimes separately and sometimes in a casserole or soup or stew. Sometimes I have a salad to go with it, but usually not, except in summer. No desserts, but then I don’t eat them anyway.

And that’s it. I don’t have any special secret to how I do it. It’s the same sort of thing you find in Good Housekeeping or other magazines when they talk about how to cut your food budget. I think the things that really make it work for me are that I don’t mind leftovers and that I have access to lots and lots of recipes. The fact that I like to cook really helps, too!

Friday, November 1, 2013

Chicken Thighs and the Weekly Specials with Mary Anne

There are some good prices this week, in both meat and produce. Seems like that doesn’t happen very often. Pumpkins aren’t advertised, but there’s a good chance that there will be some left at the stores and they may be discounted. It’s worth taking a look, anyway.

Marsh has pork combo packs (ribs, chops and a roast) for 98 cents a pound. It all comes from the loin, so it should be pretty lean. Unfortunately, it comes in big packs, around 10 pounds or so, or $10 or more for the pack. There’s a limit of 2, and you have to buy $25 of other things to get the 98 cent price. I didn’t see $25 worth of other stuff in their ads that I want, so I may have to pass this up. It’s a shame, too, because it’s a great price. They also have fresh pork picnic roast, or the shoulder, for $1.29 per pound. The shoulder is my favorite piece of pork, though there’s a great big bone in there that means you get fewer servings per pound than usual. If you back out the cost of the bone that you’re buying with the shoulder roast, you’re probably looking at about $2.00 per pound for the meat itself. But it sure is good eating!

Kroger has chicken drumsticks, thighs or whole fryers for 87 cents a pound. The thighs at that price are probably comparable to the leg quarters at Walmart for 59 cents a pound, since there’s more meat on the thigh than there is on the drumstick or the bit of back that’s on the leg quarters. It depends, too, on how you’re going to be eating them. If you’ve got people who want “a piece” of chicken and are happy with either a drumstick or a thigh, then the leg quarters that you cut into individual pieces are a better deal. But if you’ll be taking the meat off the bone anyway, then the thighs may be better. They’re definitely less work. Kroger also has eggs 4 dozen for $5, and celery for 99 cents. Mini carrots are 99 cents a pound. Cream cheese is $1 for an 8-ounce block, and sour cream is $1 per pint.

As usual, Aldi’s best buys are for produce and dairy. They have sweet potatoes 3 pounds for $1.49, or 50 cents a pound. Multi-colored peppers are $1.49 for a three pack, or 50 cents per pepper. Celery is 89 cents a head, and baby carrots are 89 cents a pound. Red onions are 99 cents for a 2-pound bag, or 50 cents a pound. Broccoli is $1.49 for a 1-pound package, which isn’t a bad price, depending on how much stalk there is and how much of the crowns. Don’t forget to save the stalks. If you peel them, they’re very good. Other than produce, their regular price for butter is back down to $1.99 per pound, and cream cheese is 99 cents for 8 ounces. Canned pumpkin (plain canned pumpkin, not pumpkin pie filling) is 89 cents a can, which is a great price. Ricotta is $1.79 for 15 ounces, and the Aldi brand of condensed cream of celery soup is 59 cents a can. (As far as I’m concerned, you can use cream of celery soup, cream of mushroom soup, and cream of chicken soup interchangeably in casseroles. They’re mostly there to bind the casserole together rather than to add any flavor. But that’s just my opinion.) 

Speaking of condensed CREAM OF WHATEVER SOUP, did you know you can make your own? I don’t know how much a batch of this mix costs, but I’m guessing it’s less than $2. It makes about 3 cups of mix, or about 9 cans of soup substitute. So figure probably about 20 cents per “can,” versus usually a dollar or more if it comes in the red and white cans.

I like the price on chicken thighs (that’s my favorite piece of chicken), so I’ll go with that today for recipes. Check out the chicken and turkey recipes in my previous columns here, here, here, and here. You can use the chicken thighs in any of these recipes.

The first recipe, AFRICAN CHICKEN VEGETABLE SOUP, or MAFE, and the last recipe, CARIBBEANCHICKEN AND SQUASH, both call for skinned chicken thighs. Save the skin to make CHICKEN CHIPS or CHICKEN CRISPS, which is just chicken skin that's been baked to a crispy crunchy treat. If I’m roasting or baking chicken or turkey, I usually leave the skin on. It’s best cooked on the meat. But if I’m cooking chicken or turkey in the crockpot or stewing it on top of the stove, or making something that calls for removing the skin, then I always take it off and make Chicken Chips out of it. Actually, I think I’ll call it by its other name, GRIBENES. It sounds better, doesn’t it? Fancier, more elegant. But don’t knock it till you’ve tried it! Isn’t the crispy skin on fried or roast chicken the best part? Well, here you get just that best part all by itself.

AFRICAN CHICKEN VEGETABLESOUP, or MAFE, uses those thighs that you just yanked the skin off of. Like most soup recipes, it’s pretty flexible. I’m calling for thighs, but you could just as easily use a whole chicken, cut into serving pieces. Or whatever your favorite pieces are. You can vary the vegetables, too, but do use the onion and sweet potatoes. Assuming that your four thighs weighed two pounds, you didn’t use the optional turnip, and you ground your own peanut butter at Bloomingfoods, the total cost of this is about $5.00, or $1.25 per serving. They are big servings, and a bowl of this should be a meal in itself. You could add a green salad if you wanted to. A head of iceberg lettuce has been running between $1.00 and$1.25. Let’s call it $1.20 to make the math easy, and say it’s 20 cents for a sixth of a head. Add a couple of tablespoons of dressing (Have you ever tried peanut butter on lettuce? It’s delish!) and you’re up to about $1.55 per person, for a big bowl of the stew, a good chunk of lettuce, and some salad dressing.

This next recipe, for CHEESE-CRUSTED CHICKENWITH CREAM, is really rich. But scrumptious! It makes four servings for about $3.60, or about 90 cents per serving. Serve it with broccoli, and pour the sauce over the broccoli, too. It will help cut the richness. Two 1-pound bags of broccoli cuts cost $1.96 at Walmart, or 49 cents per serving for an 8 ounce serving, which brings the total to $1.39 per person. You could add a carrot for each person, either raw or cooked, and bring the cost per person to just about exactly $1.50, or less if you cut back on the broccoli.

The final recipe, CARIBBEAN CHICKEN AND SQUASH, uses the butternut squash that Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard has at the moment. I have been making a point of not using foods from the Hub, because not everyone is eligible to shop there, and as sure as I say to use something, they won’t have it anymore. But Kayte said that they have lots of butternut squash, so I’m going to go ahead and include the recipe. This costs about $2.75 for four servings if you use squash from the Hub, or about 70 cents per serving. Serve it with a green salad and some fruit and you can still keep it under $1.50 per person. If you have to buy your own squash, figure an extra 50 cents per serving.