2010-12-01

My Take on Newsweek's Dinner Divide

Newsweek's November 29 2010 issue's cover story was about the great differences between rich, nutrition and environment-conscious eaters and poor, nutrition and environment-oblivious eaters in America.  It was an interesting article, but I have some comments.

I object to the divisive and sensationalist language, such as the comment that "America is a place of extremes, and what you eat for dinner has become the definitive marker of social status..."  That is ridiculous.  Like pretty much everything, America is a place of relatively normal distributions.  Sure, the ultra-rich have gotten ultra-richer over the decades as they manipulate our government, but the overwhelming majority of citizens are in the big middle of the bell.  Secondly, there is no way that dinner is the definitive marker of status.  A third party looking at my great dinners and small apartment compared to someone with a six-figure income who owns a big house but eats fast food is not going suggest that I am of higher status.

The article talks about 50 million Americans living in food insecurity, one third of whom are have very low security, and ties this phenomenon in with poverty, but then goes on to point out that poverty and reliance on food stamps linked to obesity, but it fails to discuss the connection between food insecurity and obesity.  The connection is not obvious, and any astute reader should ask "how are so many people obese and not getting enough food at the same time?"  There is no talk of metabolism.  When a person does not eat regularly, even within the course of a day, that person's metabolism slows down, burning fewer calories and storing more as fat because the body (hypothalamus) worries that the irregularity of food intake is a sign of impending starvation for a time.  The body wants to build up fat stores and use as little energy as possible so that the person can survive until food is available again.  When a person on supplementary nutrition assistance (SNAP, not really food stamps anymore) squanders the rations before the next month, eating a lot for a while then having too little food for some time, the metabolism drops and much fat is created during the weeks of plenty.  A problem is impulsive shopping and impulsive eating when assistance is renewed, or when a paycheck comes in, instead of thoughtful planning and rationing.

The article does point out that "Lower-income families don't subsist on junk food and fast food because they lack nutritional education.... Lower-income families choose sugary, fat, and processed foods because they're cheaper -- and because they taste good."  This is key.  Education is not the problem.  The problem is that the kind of person who is likely to be poor (impulsive, poor planning, poor insight) is also the kind of person who insists on buying unhealthy food.  Cost is a red herring.  I prove constantly that a SNAP budget is adequate for healthy eating.  When SNAP recipients are given the opportunity to buy discounted healthy food, they do not buy more than they usually do, but instead use any savings to buy more unhealthy food.  They don't want more healthy food.  People Like Us showed that whole grain bread could not be given away in a poor neighborhood.  There is not enough demand, and that is why there are so few stores in poor neighborhoods that sell good food.

The author follows a single mother SNAP recipient and her two kids and their eating habits.  The mother spends $100/week on food, which is less than the maximum SNAP allotment for a family of three, so I'm guessing that the mother makes more money than the poverty line.  $100/week for three people is not great, but it's doable to get healthy food.  A super healthy breakfast can be made in two minutes for less than $1, but instead the mom takes the kids to a bodega each morning to buy processed foods and soda at many times the price.  The mom only recently stopped getting doughnuts and lattes at Dunkin' Donuts because of the calories, totally oblivious to her massive daily waste of precious money.  Several nights each week she gets fast food takeout for dinner.  She makes homecooked meals on the weekend when she has more time and energy, but the article doesn't explain why she doesn't make enough to last the whole week.

The authors (Ian Yarett and Jesse Ellison) only skim the issue of a soda tax, though they present a snippet of each extreme side of the argument.  I am absolutely in favor of massive taxes on soda and other "foods" that directly contribute to health problems.  I am also in favor of prohibiting SNAP funds from being used to buy them.  It is appallingly stupid to use tax money to help people develop health conditions that more tax money will have to go towards treating.  Let's instead sensibly tax the harmful actions, and use the revenue to treat the damage they cause, at least.  Nudge people away from harmful decisions, prevent harmful corporate manipulation of people, and behave efficiently with our money in ways that actually serve the American people.

If we have a more self-aware, patient, and thoughtful population, we will have fewer issues with poverty, obesity, violence, and nearly any other problem. The real sources of the problems we have here are the materialist and capitalist drives for immediate gratification of desires, insensitivity to our own internal states, and the lack of conscious monitoring of the ramifications of our actions.

2010-11-04

Fettuccine with Gorgonzola Sauce and Scallops

I went a little fancy last night, but still without breaking the bank.  I made some fettuccine while making other pasta, and Trader Joe's continues to be a good source for Gorgonzola at $5.79/lb.  The local supermarket had sea scallops for $8/lb, which is a special treat for me, and asparagus for $2/lb.  I won't pay for heavy cream, and I turned all my milk into yogurt, so I used yogurt in the sauce and it worked just fine.

Whole Wheat Fettuccine:
1 cup flour, 1 egg, 2 Tbsp milk
$0.50, 500 calories

Gorgonzola Sauce:
1/3 lb Gorgonzola cheese - $2 - 500 calories
2 Tbsp butter - $0.19 - 200 calories
1 Tbsp minced garlic
2 Tbsp flour - $0.02 - 50 calories
1 cup plain yogurt - $0.37 (organic, homemade) - 80 calories
splash of lemon juice
splash of sake (or whatever white wine is lying around, optional)

Scallops:
8 sea scallops, 1/2 lb - $4 - 200 calories
1 Tbsp butter - $0.10 - 100 calories (not all consumed)
pepper

Asparagus:
1/2 lb asparagus - $1 - 30 calories
1 Tbsp olive oil - $0.05 - 100 calories (not all consumed)
pepper

Read all this first.  You'll be juggling around the stove.  Start cooking the pasta, frying the asparagus in oil with pepper in a skillet, and frying the garlic in butter in a small pot.  When the garlic is browned, whisk in the flour to make a garlicky roux.  When the roux is foamy, whisk in the yogurt (cream, milk, whatever) and bring to a simmer.

Remember to drain the noodles when they're done, and set aside.  Also set aside the asparagus when it is done.  Toss a tablespoon of butter on the skillet when the asparagus is off, turn up the heat, and sear the scallops for about 2 minutes on each side.  Crumble up the Gorgonzola and whisk it into the sauce until it melts.  The scallops will have slightly crisp golden ends, and be so tender in the middle.  I used Alton Brown's method, but I may go for longer time at a lower heat in the future.  Do not use a non-stick skillet.

The pasta and sauce alone run under $3.50 and about 1400 calories.  This whole decadent meal ran $8.50 and 1800 calories, or $4.50 and 900 calories per stuffed person.  Even after breakfast, a hearty PB&J, and an apple in the afternoon, we come in comfortably at the average daily budget for someone receiving supplementary nutritional assistance.

2010-11-03

Ricotta: Ravioli and Pumpkin Pie

Ricotta was on sale, so I bought some and decided to make it into a ravioli and a pie.  After learning from my mistakes while making pasta, I have settled on a method that has been working pretty well for me:

1 cup whole wheat flour
1 egg
2 Tbsp milk

This ingredient set doubles well, also.  Most pasta recipes that I have found use less fluid, but they also tend to use AP flour or special pasta flour that I don't see at my supermarket.  Whole wheat flour seems to be thirstier, and if I use any less liquid, I end up with a crumbly dough that falls to pieces.  Mix up those ingredients (I just use a fork and my hands on a cutting board) until you get an evenly-moist wad, roll it into a ball, cover and let rest for half an hour (I put a big mug upside-down over it).

For each cup of flour that you used, tear your dough ball into three pieces, if you are using a pasta machine instead of a rolling pin.  Pound down a piece and roll it out.  On my machine, I rolled the sheets down to a size 2, except for one piece that I rolled to a size 1 as an experiment.  A ravioli that I made with size 1 dough broke in the boiling water, so I recommend using size 2.  You may have to experiment, too, since I don't know how to communicate that thickness.

I used a drinking glass to cut out circles from the dough sheets, and kept rolling the scraps together until all the dough was used.  I took a circle, brushed it with a mixture of egg and water (1 egg was more than enough to brush all the ravioli).  Then I put a heaping tablespoon of ricotta in the middle of the circle, covered it with another circle, and crimped the edges together all around with my fingers.  As an experiment, some I just pushed down, others I dug in with my fingernails, and others I folded over the edges to make a stronger seal.  None of the raviolis opened around a seam, so it didn't seem to matter how each was sealed, except aesthetically.

I made some spaghetti, too, and draped it over a dowel rod to dry.

The ravioli sat out for a while before it was time for dinner, and I don't know how that affected their cooking.  I carefully dropped them into boiling water until they were all floating, about six minutes.  I took out the ravioli with a skimmer.  I used an 8 oz can of tomato sauce that I heated in a pot with minced garlic and spices, and I dusted everything with some Parmesan (just Kraft).

They were pretty good.  Whole wheat pasta is an acquired taste, and ricotta cheese has very little flavor.  I am sure that they would be better with different kind of cheese inside, or some spices.  This was a very basic experiment, and I think it worked out well enough.  All the ravioli together cost about $1, and had about 700 calories.  Quite a bargain for dinner for two.  Add some green veggies.

The pie cost about $5 to make:

2 eggs - $0.20 - 140 calories
1 cup ricotta - ~$0.60 - 320 calories
3/4 cup brown sugar - $0.30 - 540 calories
1/2 tsp salt
nutmeg
cinnamon
16 oz canned pumpkin - $? - 175 calories
Pre-made graham cracker crust, store brand - $1 - 880 calories
4 oz Pecans - ~$1.25 ($5/lb) - 800 calories

Beat the eggs in a bowl.  Beat in the ricotta.  Stir in the pumpkin, brown sugar, salt and spices.  Pour into the pie crust (yes, I am so lame for using a pre-made crust).  Put pecans on top.  Bake at 375 F for 45 minutes.

Very easy to make.  Each slice (1/8th of the pie) costs about $0.60 and has about 360 calories.

House Cleaning Soup

Sometimes you find yourself with a fridge, freezer, or pantry full of small amounts of things or old things that you have any particular idea for, and that might head to the compost heap if not used soon.  Those are the times for House Cleaning Soup.  Chuck it all in a pot, spice it up, and simmer for a few hours.  I just made about a gallon of delicious soup, and I think it ran me about $5.  Here's what I had lying around:

Cauliflower, half a head on its way out chopped
a quart of chicken jelly
a little bit of leftover rice
3 carrots, finely chopped
3 celery ribs, finely chopped
spinach, a few ounces frozen in a brick at the back of the freezer
some button mushrooms
some scallions
a big can of diced tomatoes
a cup of water
7 ripped up dried arbol chili peppers
minced garlic
a little S&P
2 frozen cod fillets, chopped (added towards the end of cooking)

You could use anything, though.  Just about any vegetables or meats can get thrown in a soup.  It's better than wasting food.  My co-eater did not like the spinach, though.

2010-10-15

Salmon Cakes with Sake Cream Sauce

Doesn't that sound like something you'd get at a fancy restaurant?  It was pretty inexpensive and easy to make, and delicious!.  I saw a 1.75L bottle of sweet, unfiltered sake for $7, and figured I would be able to find recipes to use it in.  I also had some canned salmon in the pantry from a sale once upon a time, and the canned stuff is no good to eat my itself.  Canned salmon has to be mixed with other things, and you'll need to pick out some vertebra and skin, but it's about a quarter the price of fresh salmon.  Wild Alaskan salmon is on the list of sustainable, environmentally sound commercial fish.

1 14.75oz can of Bumblebee wild Alaskan pink salmon, remove the bones and skin - forgot the price ($2.50-4?) - ~600 calories
1 cup breadcrumbs - about a quarter of a $1 can = $0.25 - 330 calories
1 onion, small, finely chopped - ~$0.50 - 70 calories
1 tsp cayenne pepper! - $0.07
mix that all up in a big bowl until the salmon pieces are small
2 Tbsp soy sauce - negligible 
2 eggs - at $1.29/dozen (Trader Joe's) = $0.22 - 140 calories
mix that into the salmon mixture until everything is moist

in a small pot:
1 Tbsp oil - $0.06 - 100 calories
1 Tbsp minced garlic - $0.05
sautee, turn heat to low
2 Tbsp butter - at $3/lb = $0.19 - 200 calories
2 Tbsp flour - at $3/5lb = $0.03 - 50 calories
add the flour slowly while stirring, let it dissolve and the mixture start to turn brown (a roux)
add 1/2 cup plain homemade yogurt or milk - at $6/gallon (organic, TJ's) = $0.20 - 40 calories (skim)
1/2 cup sake - ~$0.50 - ~150 calories
1 Tbsp lemon juice (from concentrate) - ~$0.06
stir for a bit on heat, then set aside off heat

Pack the salmon mixture into cakes.  I made six that were almost an inch thick and 3.5" in diameter. Heat some oil on a skillet at low-medium heat.  Fry the cakes for about 4 minutes on each side, until the contact area turns golden brown.  

If you make six cakes, each will have about 200 calories plain, plus 90 calories with sauce if the sauce is evenly distributed.  This is a tasty dinner for three for $5-6, depending on how much the can of salmon is.

This recipe reflects what I did last night, with two fixes: I used 2 Tbsp of oil to start the sauce, which was more than I needed, and I splashed in too much lemon juice, which overwhelmed the other flavors.  The recipe I found online called for a cup of cream, but cream is expensive and essentially milk with 18% fat, so I had no qualms about making a little roux and adding skim yogurt to get a little thicker and richer sauce.  Milk would do too, but I've been turning all of my milk into yogurt and using it on cereal, burritos, and soups just fine.  I bet that you could use any white wine instead of sake, and I've had cream sauces with Chardonnay and Champagne.  Cayenne pepper rocks in any fish dish!  Use it!

I should take more pictures of what I make.  

2010-09-27

What is a Food Stamp Budget?

Every once in a while some group or other challenges its members to eat on a food stamp budget for a time to raise awareness of food security issues.  How much money is in a food stamp budget, and how do we evaluate if it is the right amount?

Let's turn to the USDA's FAQ for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).  Scroll down to the bottom of the FAQ.  A person whose net income is at or below the poverty line ($903/month for a single person) gets $200/month worth of benefits, which is about $6.67 per day.  Each additional person in the household increases the poverty threshold by about $312/month, and results in an another $150-167/month in benefits, depending on how many people there are in total.  The decrease in benefits per additional person makes sense because of economies of scale.  I happily feed two of us for less than twice the cost of feeding just myself.  A family of four gets about $5.56 per person per day.

My immediate reaction is not only to say that it is easy to live at the poverty level of income, but also that SNAP benefits are extremely generous.  I spent years supporting myself below the poverty line, and I still spend less on food for my household of two than SNAP would allot.  Besides my experiences, let's look at some statistics from the USDA.  A two-parent and two-child family earning less than $56,870 (average $36,380) in 2008 spent an average of $9000/year/kid.  I would love to see the standard deviation for that, and the average for families earning less than $13,000, or even $13,000 to the top of the bottom overall national quintile if none of the study participants were in poverty.  A family with $56,000 inflates these averages with its discretionary spending, so we don't know what amounts of money are actually necessary.  An average of 18% of the $9000 went to food, which comes to $1620/year/kid, or $135/month/kid.  So, the amount of SNAP benefit for each additional kid in a family is roughly 11-23% more than many families spend on average.

A single parent spends about 2/3 as much on the kids per year, which probably gives us a much better approximation of what amount of spending is actually necessary, but we don't see in the report what percent of this smaller amount of money goes to food.  If a kid costs $6000/year, or $500/month, a family in poverty will see progressively larger problems with more kids, since the poverty line only gets bumped up by $312/month/person.  Except that the $6000/year figure includes a bunch of assumptions that fit the USDA model for families who are not in poverty.  About $2000 of that would be housing, and people below the poverty line tend to qualify for housing assistance such as Section 8.  Health care might be about another $500, and people below the poverty line tend to qualify for Medicaid, and children for SCHIP.  There are pieces of information missing from the puzzle, but overall I can find few complaints with the poverty cut-offs and SNAP benefits allotments.

The complaint about SNAP benefits is of course that they are too high on average.  And there is evidence that people with more SNAP funds than they need may use them to buy more unhealthy food that damages their health and unnecessarily burdens our health care system and country.

My other complaints are that the system seems too rigid, and does not obviously take into consideration differences in cost of living by geography.  As seen in the USDA report, rural areas are cheaper to live in than urban areas, and the urban south is cheaper than the urban northeast.  Perhaps the SNAP benefits are high because they have to be able to feed people who live in expensive areas, and people who live in cheap areas just get a big windfall of steaks and whatnot.  The USDA does say that "Eligibility levels are slightly higher for Alaska and Hawaii" because food costs more in those states due to transportation.  I am only looking at the federal maximum allotment levels, and different states may have different policies that better reflect their costs of living by area.  In the future, I will look into the policies of my state and select other states.

2010-09-10

Potatoes Anna

This five-ingredient potato dish turned out quite well.  I got it from What Einstein Told His Cook, but I had to change a couple things.

First, clarify some butter.  I did this the day before.  I only clarified a half pound.  Just toss some butter sticks in a pot on the lowest possible stove setting.  When it is all melted, spoon off the top foam (and keep it as a flavorer for popcorn or potatoes), then pour the center clarified butter into a storage container.  On the bottom will be some white milk solids, and I don't know what they're good for.  It may be easier to separate the layers if they are cooled and solidified, but I didn't do that.  The reason to clarify butter is that it raises the smoking point by about a hundred degrees F, so you can cook things in butter at higher temperatures without burning it.  It also removes a lot of lactose, which you care about if you're lactose-intolerant.

2 lbs white potatoes (Yukon golds, whatever)- ~$1.20
4 Tbsp melted clarified butter - ~$0.35
salt, pepper, garlic powder - $0.05

Slice the potatoes into 1/8" slices (just eyeball it or use a machine).  Preheat your oven to 450 F. Use about a third of the butter to coat the bottom of a cast iron skillet. Put down potato slices in concentric rings or a spiral in the skillet, slightly overlapping or not.  Brush with butter, then sprinkle with salt, pepper and garlic powder.  Repeat layers of potato/butter/seasoning until you are out of potato.  Pour on any remaining butter.

Turn a stove burner up to medium.  When you hear sizzling, turn off the burner and put the skillet in the oven.  Cooking time will vary.  Mine took about 70 minutes.  The potatoes will be golden on top, and make sure to use a spatula to check that the bottom later is crispy and brown.
Ideally, you're supposed to be able to flip the whole thing onto a plate.  I don't have a plate that big, and it was not a big deal to cut into slices, spatula out, and flip the slices over onto plates.

This is a great side dish for six for about $1.60 and 1000 calories, or about $0.27 and 170 calories per person.  Very tasty.  Do NOT put ketchup on this.  It's great how it is, which is covered in butter.

The original recipe called for 4 medium potatoes in an 8" skillet for 30-35 minutes, but I used 4 enormous potatoes in a 12" skillet, and mine took twice as long.  The original also said to have the lid on, but this trapped so much steam from the potatoes that dripped back down that they were getting a little mushy instead of crispy, so I took the lid off.

2010-09-09

Homemade Yogurt

I've mentioned that I eat Dannon Light & Fit yogurt pretty often, and I buy it only when it's on sale at $0.50/6oz. I came across instructions for making yogurt in a slow-cooker (one of my favorite appliances) and figured I'd try my hand at it.  It was remarkably easy.  I used a three-ply aluminum core stainless steel pot to speed things up, but you'll want something that holds on to heat well, not a cheap thin pot.  I found other information online (Wikipedia) to corroborate and refine the technique.  You will need a decent thermometer.

1 qt of milk at ~$4/gal = ~$1
1 Tbsp yogurt

Heat the milk to 180 F and maintain that temperature for 10-30 minutes.  A longer time should result in a thicker yogurt as the heating process makes the proteins play nicely with each other.  Let the milk cool to about 115 F, then whisk in 1 Tbsp of yogurt. The goal is to integrate the yogurt "starter" at 113 F, but adding it in will reduce the overall temperature of the mixture.  So, if you're adding cold yogurt, maybe do it when the milk is at 117 F, but room-temperature yogurt can be added at 115 F.  I don't remember enough from physics to figure it out exactly.  There are 64 Tbsps in a qt.  Ideally, you will hold the temperature at 100-110 F for the next four hours.  I just put the lid on my pot, wrapped it in a towel and put it in my oven.  Every couple hours I turned the oven on low (170 F) for twenty seconds.  Since I wasn't maintaining the right temperature, I left the pot in for six hours, and some people leave it for 8-10 hours.  Then I moved the pot to the fridge.

The yogurt was quite tasty.  I had a bowl for breakfast with Grape Nuts cereal and honey.  The yogurt will be thicker at the top, and will be much thinner and less sweet than grocery store yogurt overall because most American commercial yogurts add starches, sugars, and gelatin that thicken, preserve and sweeten it.  This picture was taken after half the yogurt was eaten.  You may see the difference in thickness between the glob of top-yogurt and the surrounding bottom-yogurt.


There are many things you can do with yogurt besides stirring in some honey or fruit jam.  It can be used in dips, sauces, and in some drinks and entrees.  I will try to find some good dishes to make.

Save a bit of the yogurt you make to be the starter for your next batch.  You can make as much as you want in a batch, but keep the 1:64 ratio of starter to milk.  The milk turns to yogurt as the bacteria from the starter eat lactose and poop lactic acid, which brings the milk proteins together.  The acidity helps protect the yogurt from unwanted bacteria.  The yogurt should keep well in your fridge for about 10 days.

Depending on what yogurt and milk you buy and what your price thresholds are, making your own could cut your yogurt expenditures to 1/2-1/6.

2010-09-01

Food Stamp Nudges

Back when food stamps actually were stamps (they may still be in some places, but there has been a change to magnetic strip cards), I had an idea for a possible nudge.  I had read that there was a problem with people using too much of their allotment at the beginning of each month, then running short of food at the end of each month.  I thought that if the stamps were printed in four different colors, people would be subtly encouraged to spend them proportionally by week, with more stamps of one color for the extra days at the end of months over 28 days.  Of course, this wouldn't be applicable to cards.

Another problem with buying most groceries at the beginning of the month is that fresh produce and meats would spoil before the later part of the month.  The food stamp program, as implemented, encouraged people to buy processed foods that would last longer.  This is nutritionally sub-optimal, contributing to health problems that already plague the American poor.

Now, Western Massachusetts is doing an experiment to see if offering a 30% discount on fresh produce will encourage food stamp users to buy more healthy food.  That may be a substantial incentive, but it does not overcome the challenges of impulsivity and spoilage.  This plan may also have negative unintended consequences, as we already have evidence that making healthy food cheaper just encourages food stamp users to use the savings to buy more junk food, increasing caloric intake and not improving nutrition.  If this experiment reproduces the earlier findings that cheaper healthy food worsens obesity or health outcomes for food stamp users, we will have to consider other options, such as making unhealthy food more expensive.

Also, of course, there is the more effective paternalistic approach, which would be to only allow food stamps to be used for healthy foods.  Food stamps can be seen as an investment that taxpayers are making into the overall health and well-being of citizens, and indirectly into productivity.  If food stamps are being used in such a way that increases health care consumption, such as treatments for diabetes, heart disease, etc..., also on the taxpayer dime through CMS and state-reimbursed uncompensated care as well as increasing health care costs for everyone as hospitals shift costs to other payers, then we are all seeing a smaller and smaller return on the investment.  If food stamps were used to help people be healthy, and minimize health care consumption, we are all getting a better return on the investment, and the people using food stamps will have better lives, even if they complain about not being able to buy the junk food they want.

2010-08-28

A Real American

This has been a great year for gastronomical innovation.  KFC really threw the gloves down when it came out with the Double Down, a sandwich that uses fried chicken for the bun, with bacon, cheese, and sauce inside.  Though initially subjected to ridicule, the DD has endured well by being tasty and healthier than much of its competition (unless evaluated per calorie).  Eventually, more sandwich innovation appeared.  Friendly's introduced a hamburger with grilled cheese sandwiches for buns, the Grilled Cheese BurgerMelt.  Denny's now has a Fried Cheese Melt, a grilled cheese sandwich with fried Mozzarella sticks in it.  At some fairgrounds you might find a cheeseburger topped with chocolate-covered bacon in a Krispy Kreme donut bun.  Inspired by all this inventiveness, I decided to build an homage to the American spirit of sandwich creation.  I give you the Real American:

What you see here is a burger with cheeseburgers for buns, and each cheeseburger has bacon for buns.  Yes.  Go ahead and read that sentence again.


Step 1: Construct the buns
I cut Tyson hardwood smoked thick-cut bacon in half (use any kind you like, I just got what was on sale for under $3.50/lb and looked meatiest), then wove the halves together.

Step 2: Cook the buns
I microwaved the buns between paper towels for 6 minutes, two buns per plate.  I have experimented with many ways of cooking bacon, and microwaving is fast and easy to clean up while producing evenly-cooked, flat, crisp bacon.  These buns held together great, were nice and crisp, and not too greasy on the hands.

Step 3: Make burger patties
I used Laura's 92% lean ground beef because it was marked down for sale before expiration.  Of course, use whatever you want.  I mixed in garlic powder, pepper flakes, and Worcestershire sauce, then hand packed the patties to be thin and fit the buns after cooking shrinkage.  The Worcestershire sauce added a really great flavor.  These patties are about 3 oz each and some change.

Step 4: Cook the burger patties
They cooked up great in my cast iron skillet, and I thought I took a picture, but it looks like I forgot.

Step 5: Assembly
Assembly was a piece of cake.  First sub-bun:
Bottom "bun" (Colby-jack cheese):
The burger, topped with sautéed mushrooms, caramelized onions, and chevre:
Top "bun":


Step 6: Eat that mammer:

This was absolutely delicious, and I will make it again.  Worcestershire sauce, caramelized onions, and goat cheese rocked out on this sandwich.  The Real American was dinner for two people.

Broken down:
6 slices of bacon - about 240 calories - about $2
10 oz of lean beef - about 400 calories - about $3
1 oz Colby-jack - about 110 calories - about $0.25
a mushroom - negligible
some onion - negligible
.5 oz goat cheese - 35 calories - $0.25
seasoning - negligible - about $0.10
7 paper towels - about $0.10

Total: about 800 calories, about $5.70 not including utilities or equipment.

2010-08-25

Coupons

Coupons seem like they would be a major part of grocery gaming, but they really haven't managed to become a significant factor for me.  I only end up using coupons a handful of times each year.  Coupons come to me in my primary grocery store's weekly flyer and in an envelope and a magazine of coupons in the mail aggregated by a third party company.  Newspaper subscribers typically get coupons on Sundays, unless that's changed over the years.  I've looked into websites such as coupons.com, but I just do not find enough useful coupons to justify the time it takes to find them.

On these internet sites, which typically require registration with some personal information that they will sell in exchange for giving you access to the coupons, I find many coupons of negligible value for products I don't want.  Sugary cereals, heavily processed foods, total junk I don't buy.  The coupons provide savings along the lines of $0.75 off if I buy 3.  So, not only do shoppers only get about $0.25 off each item, they have to buy three items to get the discount.  Lame.

In our modern information age, as newspapers lose readership and grocery stores use membership cards to track shopping patterns and direct incentives, I get good prices for the things I buy due to periodic store discounts without coupons.  For example, Dannon Light & Fit yogurt is usually marked as $1.05 for 6oz.  That is a crazy price that I will not pay.  But for about a week each month the store marks down the price to $0.50 for 6oz.  Then I buy 20 of them.  When I see coupons for that product, it's remarkable for them to give me $1.00 off for buying two 4-packs.  The 4-packs are priced differently than individual cups, and even using the coupon when the 4-packs are on sale rarely brings the price down to $0.50 per cup.

What cognitive phenomena go on when we see coupons?  Anchoring is definitely taking place, in which the regular price (artificially inflated) serves as the anchor to which we compare the discounted price so that we feel like we're getting something for a lower price than it's worth even when the discounted price is higher than the product's worth if we stop to really think about it.  I think also that the coupons serve as advertisements that cause us to think more about the product than regular advertisements do, and that thinking activates more parts of the brain that contribute to purchasing decisions.  It has been found that we get more neurologically excited (dopamine in the anterior cingulate cortex, for example) at the expectation of how satisfying a product will be than when we actually have it.  It takes a lot of mindfulness to recognize that you won't really be as happy as you expect you will if you buy a freezer-full of frozen pizzas with a dollar coupon.  Off the topic of coupons, this is a contributing factor to obesity as people try to eat until they are as satisfied as they expected they would get.

So, my experiences trying to find a good source of useful coupons have led me to generally avoid such a waste of time.  I tend to rely instead on the grocery store's weekly sales.

2010-07-14

Love Summer

From June to October each year you will probably find that prices drop radically for whatever produce is ripe at the time.  A local farmers' market should not be necessary to enjoy the low price result of massive spikes in supply, but it might help.  Each week's shopping brings me delicious, healthy, and inexpensive treats.  Last week saw cherries for $2/lb.  Blueberries have been $5/qt, sometimes dipping to $4.  Strawberries have been $2-2.50/lb.  Watermelons are $4-5.  A head of romaine is $0.69.  Tomatoes, usually quite expensive because they are costly to ship safely, are getting cheaper, and it will soon be the time when people put bags of them out in front of their houses with collection cans for money.  Corn on the cob is popular now.  I always look forward to September when the orchards give us over a dozen kinds of fresh apples.

Do not be afraid to buy produce that is almost too ripe.  My local non-chain market has an area for "seconds", and I have gotten some real bargains.  I just bought four acorn squash for $0.50 together, and made a 10-bowl batch of squash soup for $3 (halve and bake the squash for 40 min at 350 F, then peel; add a pint of chicken stock from the last chicken you cooked, a half-pound of cheese (I used colby-jack), two onions, and some spices, then puree in a food processor (adds maybe $0.25-50 amortized depending on how often you use your processor)).  I also get piles of tomatoes on their way out, and make fresh salsa (great for chips, chicken, or fish) and gazpacho.  When November rolls around, it'll be applesauce time!  Also there will be more squash in the fall.  Overripe bananas are present all year, and can give you a quick and cheap banana bread.  I also got a big bag of discounted but delicious grapes just because they had fallen off their vines.

Cold Winter leaves us with roots, old gourds, a pantry of cans and bags of grains and nuts, but Summer is a wonderful time for a rolling variety of inexpensive and healthy fresh fruit and vegetables.  My only food complaint about Summer so far is that the heat ruined the sourdough starter I had out.  Sourdough seems to just be my Spring treat.

2010-06-02

Pad Thai


This quickly became a favorite in my home, and I am asked to make it when we have guests.  I am sure that this only vaguely resembles an authentic pad thai, but I use what is easily available and we enjoy it.  This is easy to make, but can take some preparation.  I find white rice noodles at Trader Joe's for $1.39/12oz, and brown (whole) rice noodles at the regular grocery store for about $4.  It's an uncommon enough item that there's little selection or competition.  Use a big saute pan or a wok.

Base:
Rice noodles, flat like fettuccine - 8 oz - 800 cal - $0.92-3.00
Eggs - 3 - 210 cal - ~$0.36
Scallions - 4 - 30 cal - $0.46
Bean sprouts - 1 can or a handful - 80 cal - $1.00 
Peanuts, maybe chopped - 1 oz - 160 cal - $0.16
Oil - 1 tbsp - 100 cal - $0.03

Sauce:
Ketchup - 3 tbsp - 45 cal - $0.06
Sugar - 2 tbsp - 120 cal - $0.02
Vinegar - 3 tbsp - ~$0.05
Lemon juice (or lime) - 1 tbsp - 5 cal - ~$0.05 (from concentrate)
Worcestershire Sauce - 1 tbsp - 12 cal - ~$0.10 (supposed to be fish sauce, but I have none)

Meat (pick one or more as you like):
Chicken, diced breastmeat - 8 oz - ~400 cal - $1.00 
Tofu, diced - 8 oz - ~340 cal - $0.90
Shrimp - 8 oz - 240 cal - ~$3.00-4.00


I like to slice my scallions longways so that they match the beansprouts, but it's more work than necessary if you don't mind them chopped.  Saute your scallions in the oil.  Start a pot of water to boil for the noodles.

Throw your meat in with the scallions and get it cooked.  Cook the noodles according to the package.  Mix up the sauce and set it aside.

Scramble your eggs and fry them up with the scallions and meat.  Add the bean sprouts.

Add the noodles when they're done and drained.  Add the sauce.  Mix everything up and cook for a few minutes.  

Serve onto plates and garnish with peanuts.  Shreds of purple cabbage are also good.  Rooster sauce (Srirachi) is a nice topper for those who like the heat kicked up a notch.

This easily serves four at about 500 calories (with chicken) and $1.60 per person if you get the expensive noodles, and $1.06 per person if you find cheaper noodles and use tofu.  I usually make a 1.5x batch so I'm using a whole package of noodles.  Smaller portions work well too, combined with a vegetable soup appetizer. 

2010-05-27

Kitchen Staples

There are some things that I try to always have on hand in my kitchen.  Sometimes there are no exciting sales, or I find myself cooking for guests on short notice.  By keeping a few things constantly stocked, I give myself some flexibility to make a decent variety of dishes with whatever other random ingredients are lying around.  Some of these are generally inexpensive, and others I buy piles of when they're on sale.  They also tend to have decent shelf-lives.

* Mirepoix is the fancy French word for chopped carrots, onions, and celery.  These are three good veggies to have around, and are commonly tossed into soups, salads, stews, roasts, and stock.  Carrots and celery are also good alone as a snack.  Onions are very versatile and fit in fresh or sauteed with meats or grains.

* Potatoes are easy to bake, roast, boil, or microwave, and go well with most meats.  Sweet potatoes are even better.

* Eggs are versatile and necessary for most baking.

* Rice

* Cheese

* General baking supplies: flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, oils, butter, salt

My pantry is full of other things, canned veggies, dry beans, pasta, tuna, but I don't consider those essential, and I do not necessarily rush to replace them when they run out.  I do not even have milk most of the time because of its relatively short lifespan.  I usually have some chicken breasts in the freezer, but not always.  Between my staples and whatever else is lying around, I am generally equipped to feed people easily.

2010-04-06

Sourdough

Sourdough is a tasty, interesting, and fun food.  It's a great project for kids, like a Tomagochi, except cheaper and edible.  All purpose flour is $1.59 for a 5lb bag right now, and whole wheat flour is maybe $4 for 5 lbs.  There are many resources online for learning about and how to make sourdough.  I've tried a few, and I'm writing about what has worked well for me.  I encourage you to delve deeper.

Quick Explanation: Naturally occurring yeast and other wee beasties are in the air around us all the time.  If you create the right environment, the ones you want will thrive and the ones you don't want will die.  The process takes a while, but a good strain can be maintained indefinitely.  Some bakeries have strains over a century old.  Use this instead of store-bought baker's yeast for your baking, and enjoy a slightly sour flavor unique to your location and technique.

Finicky Stuff: Sourdough has some weird rules to follow to foster your organisms without screwing anything up.  I don't know which are strict and which are lenient, and I'm really just repeating what seemed to have convergent validity from what I've seen.
* Use a glass bowl or jar for your starter.
* Keep the lid loose (or else gas will build up and pop the lid off for you).
* Avoid metal utensils (lenient, but avoid extended exposure to metal).
* Keep the temperature generally between 70 and 80 F.
* Throw it out and start over if you see mold.
* A mix of rye or whole wheat flour with all-purpose flour may result in better flavor or development due to organisms that come in the flour.
* Sourdough starters tend to produce hooch, which is a slightly alcoholic brown liquid.  It is totally harmless; you can stir it back in or throw it out depending on how you feel.  I wouldn't drink it.
* Spring might be the best time to make a starter because there's so much stuff in the air.
* Different factors will affect the consistency of your starter.  Typically, it should be slightly thinner than pancake batter, but at different stages as it fills with bubbles it can resemble a fluffy sponge.

Making the Starter:
Day 1: Mix 3 Tbsp water with 1/4 cup (4 Tbsp) flour in your glass container.  Keep a loose lid on.
Day 2: You probably won't notice anything neat yet.  Throw out half.  Mix in 3 Tbsp water.  Mix in 1/4 cup flour.
Day 3: It may start to smell bad.  That's okay.  It will eventually smell like vomit, but only for a few days.  That is a normal part of the process.  Throw out half.  Mix in 3 Tbsp water.  Mix in 1/4 cup flour (see a pattern?).
Day 4-6: You should see bubbles a few hours after each feeding.  Ignore bad smells.  Each day, throw out half, mix in 3 Tbsp water and 1/4 cup flour.
Day 7 and beyond: Your starter should be good by now.  It should have a slight sour smell, and not smell like vomit.  Now, instead of throwing out half, you can store that half in another container and keep it in the fridge.   This will add up over the days and let you make some good stuff later.

Sourdough Bread:
I love that the ingredients are just flour, water, and a pinch of salt.  I've had great success with the 1-2-3 recipe for sourdough bread.  The trick is that those are the ingredient ratios by mass, not volume.  Use 1 part starter, 2 parts water, and 3 parts flour.  I have a small scale, and I make small loaves using 2 oz starter, 4 oz water, and 6 oz flour (2/3 whole wheat).  What the volumes look like are 1/3 cup starter, 2/3 cup water, and 3/2 cups flour.  That is 1/3 of a recipe I found for a 2lb loaf.  Below is the full recipe:
* Make a "sponge", which is just starter you're going to use for your bread.  The night before the day you'll bake, mix 1/3 cup starter, 1/3 cup water, and 1/2 cup flour.  Those are approximate volume measurements.  You will find what works best with experience and experimentation.
* In the morning, use the 1-2-3 ratio (starter-water-flour by mass) and a bit of salt to make your dough.  Mix the ingredients in a bowl, then leave the dough to sit for half an hour.  If I had to guess on volumes, I would say 1 cup starter, 2 cups water, 4.5 cups flour.
* Kneed the dough for five minutes or so.  Maybe you have a stand mixer.  I use a wooden spoon and keep the dough in the bowl.  I don't kneed by hand because it takes extra flour, makes a mess and throws off the ingredient ratio.
* Let the dough sit in a loosely covered bowl for about 8 hours (like while you're at work).  If you're around, use a silicone spatula to gently fold the sides of the dough onto the top after a few hours.
* When you're done letting the dough rise (it should have at least doubled in size), gently fold the sides up, shape into a loaf, and put it with the "seam" side down on a baking stone or sheet.  There are videos online showing how to do this far better than I will describe here.
* Put your loaf in the oven. Bake at 400 F for 30 minutes.  I spray a little oil on the loaf to brown the crust.  When it's done, it should sound hollow when you tap it, and crackle a little when you take it out of the oven.
* Let it cool in the open for a couple hours.  If you put it in a container right away, steam will condense inside and make the crust soggy and increase the risk of mold.

Sourdough Pancakes:
These are DELICIOUS!  This will use up all the starter you have collected in the fridge over time.  They are extremely light and fluffy, and will be thin like crepes. This makes about 15 pancakes; good for 2 people for about $1 total and 450 calories each.
* In a bowl, mix 2 Tbsp sugar, 4 Tbsp oil (or applesauce), 1 egg, 1/2 tsp salt
* Mix in 2 cups of starter
* Get your griddle up to 350 F
* In a cup, mix 1 tsp baking soda and 1 Tbsp warm water, then mix it into the rest and wait a minute
* Pour 1/4 scoops of batter onto the griddle.  They will spread a lot because the batter is thinner than for regular pancakes.  When bubbles stop rising, flip the pancakes.  They'll take maybe 2 minutes on a side.

These are extra good with 1 mashed banana and 1/4 cup chocolate chips added to the batter.

2010-03-31

Amortization and Utilities

You may be unfamiliar with the term amortization.  Its root means death, and the word refers to killing the cost of something on a balance sheet gradually over time instead of all at once at the time of purchase.  Amortization is relevant to our game when calculating true costs of meals.  So far, I have only included the costs of food in my write-ups, and this is typical of reports of the costs of meals.

Electricity and gas costs for cooking are not amortized.  They would be recorded in full at the time of cooking.  Unfortunately, you would have to know how much gas and electricity you use during cooking, and how much you pay per unit.  Electricity prices change according to time of day and your peak use, depending on your supplier.  I think I pay about $0.05 on average to run my microwave for 15 minutes.  You may also find out about how much water, heating, and soap cost you for washing dishes, since those costs are also related to your meals.

Electricity costs for refrigeration should be distributed.  Fridges use a lot of juice.  If you are really motivated, you can keep track of everything you refrigerate and figure out exactly what proportion of your fridge electricity cost can be attributed to each food, but that is a lot of work.  Maybe estimate the monthly cost of running your fridge and flatly divide by the number of meals you make that use refrigerated items, then add that amount to the cost of each meal.  A quick search suggests that a typical fridge costs $8-12 to run per month.  That adds about $0.10-0.30 to each meal.

Cookware!  Quality cookware, the stuff that turns food out properly, can cost piles of money, but lasts generations if you take care of it.  Non-stick cookware generally needs to be replaced every few years (or not used).  Investing in durable equipment that you will use more can result in lower per-use costs.  Suppose you drop $100 on a sweet stainless steel pot with an aluminum core.  That's a lot of money, but it makes nicer meals than a $20 pot (there is a significant difference).  If you use it once a week for 20 years, that's about $0.10 per use, which can be a fraction of that per meal.  Good, maintained cookware should last a lifetime.

Appliances are also investments.  A Sunbeam blender may only cost $15, but when it breaks after a few uses and has to be replaced, you'll realize you would have been better off with a $60 Oster.  A $20 slow-cooker may do bad things to your food that a $100 slow-cooker with a timer and higher-quality construction would not.  Whatever your decision, think about the amortized cost over the lifetime of an appliance.  Maybe you can look back on your buying behavior and realize that you have a tendency to buy things that you end up not using much.  In the store you think "I'll use this so often!" but things sit on your shelves while you eat frozen dinners and fast food.  Know yourself, be conservative, and think about how much you're spending on a per-meal basis.

You can see that the variance is very high among amortized and utility costs for your meals depending on what equipment you buy and how you use it.  Based on the numbers I threw together for this post, I estimate that these costs add an average of $0.50 each time I cook, which is about $0.10 per meal over all.  Seemingly trivial, but it can add up, and wise, big one-time equipment purchases can be daunting to someone with few financial resources, confusing the value of saving up for a purchase.

2010-03-18

Gorgonzola Sauce

I found some reasonably priced Gorgonzola cheese, more expensive than my regular cheese threshold, but fine for a rare treat at $6/lb.  I've had good Gorgonzola sauce in a restaurant, so I decided to try to make my own.  My default source for recipes is allrecipes.com.  This means I tend to end up with a half dozen highly reviewed and widely different recipes.  Which is best?  I won't know because I am not going to try them all.  I just take a loose average adjusted to my taste.  I ended up with a good (and rich) dinner for two for about $3.50.

Gorgonzola cheese, 1/4 lb @ $6/lb = $1.50 (~400 calories)
Milk, skim, 1 cup @ $3.45/gal = $0.22 (80 cal)
Butter, 3 tbsp @ $2/lb = $0.19 (300 cal)
Flour, 1/2 cup = $0.08 (200 cal)
White wine, 1/4 cup, optional = $0.20-0.50 (45 cal)
Nutmeg, pinch, optional = ~$0.05
Spaghetti, whole wheat, 1/4 lb dry @ $1.29/lb = $0.32 (420 cal)

Served with 1/2 lb frozen green vegetables on the side @ ~$1.50/lb = $0.75 (50 cal)

Start boiling your water for the pasta.  Melt the butter in a quart pot on low.  Stir in the flour until it's foamy.  Add the pasta to the water when it starts boiling.  Stir in the milk to the butter-flour mixture (like a roux) and turn the heat up to low-medium.  Keep stirring the sauce as it gets warmer and thicker.  Add the wine if you are using it.  Crumble up your Gorgonzola and stir it gradually into the sauce the minute before your pasta is done.  Drain your pasta, put it on plates, and pour the sauce on top.

The Gorgonzola should melt quickly, and also thicken quickly as it cools, so be ready to eat when the pasta is done.  I honestly did not notice the nutmeg flavor, nor the bottom shelf chardonnay that I used, but recipe comments suggested that the wine is added to keep the Gorgonzola from forming a bad texture, and lemon juice (something acidic) would also work.

About $1.75 and 750 calories for each person.  Takes less than 15 minutes start to finish.  Serves two Americans.

2010-03-05

$3/day Diet - A Retrospective

I lived for years on a grocery budget of $20-21 per week, and it was not difficult.  It was also not terribly unhealthy, though not exactly healthy either.  My diet was heavy on carbohydrates and practically meatless.  I almost never went out to eat (and got the $2 chili when I went out with friends), and did not buy alcohol.  I was never hungry, and actually overate, maintaining an unhealthily high body weight.

In the beginning... there was ramen, and it was bad.  Those little packages of ramen noodles are just processed flour, salt, and fat, but they're six for a dollar.  I wouldn't eat them alone, though.  For the one year that I ate a package of ramen daily, I added a couple turkey-dogs (also predominantly fat and salt) and either three sliced carrots or some frozen broccoli.  Actually, it was just carrots for a few months, and I switched to broccoli when my skin turned orange.  Broccoli is maybe the second healthiest vegetable in the world, right after spinach, and may be responsible for protecting me from the rest of my diet.  Besides the big bowl of ramen'n'at each day, I also ate cookies.  Yes, store-brand cookies are a very cheap source of calories, and sometimes some nutrients.  A friend recently reminded me that I once figured out how to live only on lemon cookies, but, fortunately, I never tried.  I did not have any notable health problems during this year that I recall, but I was young.

The other years were better.  I typically had a bowl of cold cereal for breakfast, often corn flakes or frosted flakes with non-fat milk.  These were huge bowls, easily three servings or more.  I made myself two sandwiches for lunch, using whole grain bread, all natural peanut butter, and strawberry jam.  These sandwiches were maybe around 800 calories each.  Dinners were usually spaghetti with Prego sauce and broccoli, and when I lived in a place with a stove I often sauteed fresh onions and bell peppers in olive oil to add to the spaghetti.  I may have been cheap, but Ragu is just too nasty to eat.  My portions of spaghetti were also huge.  Depending on sales, I would sometimes buy Tropicana orange juice, bananas, or fancier cereals (Oatmeal Raisin Crisp, Honey Bunches of Oats, Life).  I no longer bought cookies or ramen, and I still did not buy meat.

I ate in the neighborhood of 3500 calories each day, and weighed 230-240 lbs.  Since then, I have significantly broadened the variety in my diet, and reduced how much I eat, with very good results.  I also spend twice as much on food, but because I can and I enjoy it, not because I have to.  But I still hold on to the gamer mentality at the store, follow my rules, and try to optimize my gastronomical enjoyment to cost ratio.

A huge problem with eating healthily on a poverty-level budget is not that healthy foods are too expensive, but that unhealthy "foods" (cookies, candy, frozen pizza, etc...) are cheap and easy.  Someone has to be knowledgeable and motivated in order to make healthy choices and do some preparation and cooking instead of taking the lazy and immediately gratifying road.  It would probably be good for national health to raise the prices of unhealthy foods, and not lower the prices of healthy foods, motivating the highest risk groups to buy better food, especially for their children.  Childhood obesity and type II diabetes are serious health and economic issues with some straightforward solutions.

2010-02-13

Chicken Soup for the GI

When the big roasting chickens are buy-one-get-one-free, I grab two.  A 6-7lb chicken fits right in my slow cooker.  I throw in some rosemary, a couple carrots, onions and celery ribs, then cook on low for 6-7 hours, until the little plastic gauge pops up.  The chicken meat easily serves 8.  But this is a post about soup.

Slow cooking or roasting a chicken results in three usable byproducts.  After the chicken is removed from the pot or pan, you will have chicken drippings and various debris at the bottom.  I scoop out the big chunks (eat the veggies), and pour the drippings through an old threadbare hand towel (I don't have cheesecloth) into a bowl.  That bowl goes into the fridge where the fat will rise to the top and solidify.  The drippings, full of gelatin, will gel.  I call the fat "chicken butter" and sometimes use it sparingly to add flavor to noodles.  I am sure it is not healthy.  I call the supercooled liquid drippings "chicken jelly" and use it in soups and stews.

When the chicken has cooled for maybe 20 minutes, I cut all the meat off the bones.  There are good small pieces of meat between the ribs and along the back that are easy to get with your fingers.  The legs, breasts, and wings are usually served for dinners with sides of vegetables and rice or noodles for about $1.75 per person.  All the bones, skin, giblets, neck and wingtips go back in a big pot with carrot, celery, onion, rosemary, and garlic.  I use the celery heads and roots that were cut off earlier, and any carrots or onions that are getting on towards bad shape.  You probably won't eat these vegetables after using them for stock.  Bring that pot up to a simmer for a long time.  Since I tend to cook the chicken for dinner, I end up at this step in the evening, and just put everything in the slow cooker on low over night, then deal with it in the morning.  Again, scoop out the chunks and toss them.  Pour the  remainder through a threadbare towel into bowls.  From one chicken I can get a good 5 pints of stock.  It can be safely refrigerated for a few days, or frozen for weeks.

This stock will be a little cloudy.  I don't mind.  This isn't fancy cuisine.  There may be a way to clarify it by slowly and carefully whisking egg whites into warm stock, then filtering through the cloth again, but that's more work and wasted eggs to me.

I had never made a chicken soup before yesterday, and it turned out to be the best chicken soup I've ever had in my life.   I have no idea how many calories are in the homemade chicken jelly or stock.  This ends up being a thick and rich soup. This made 6 quarts for around $6.  This is a delicious meal for no more than $1 per hungry person.  Total time was three hours, but only half an hour or so of it is work, and it can cook in two hours easily.  This is something a 10-year old could make.

All of the stock from one chicken.
All of the chicken jelly from one chicken, with the fat removed.
1 lb carrots, sliced
8 celery ribs, sliced
10 scallions, chopped
2 medium-big onions, largely diced
2 tbsp minced garlic
1/4 lb noodles, spiral, whole-grain, dry
1/2 lb diced chicken meat (I diced the pieces of rib and back meat and part of a leg)
rosemary, oregano, salt, pepper to taste

Note: I also added some navy beans because they are very nutritious.  I made 1 cup of dry beans in a separate pot, then added them to the soup when they were soft.  The beans were the only not-delicious part of the soup.  They did not ruin the soup by any means.  The soup was still incredible, but if I add beans in the future, I will add half as many and prepare them even further in advance.

Put all of the stock and chicken jelly (no fat) in a 6+ qt pot.  Bring to a boil for a minute or two.  Add the sliced carrots and celery and spices and garlic.  Let rise to a boil again, then reduce to a simmer.  After an hour, add the onions and scallions.  20 minutes before serving, add the dry noodles and diced chicken.  That's it.

2010-02-03

Catfish Dinner

I was pleasantly surprised to find catfish on sale for $2.29/lb.  I never see fish this cheap.  It was in chunks marketed as "nuggets", though each piece was maybe a quarter of a full fillet, many times bigger than a fast food chicken nugget.  There was also a great sale on veggies and bagged salad.  I buy when the sales are on.  Here's the writeup for a substantial dinner for two, $2.45 and 660 calories for each person:

Entree - $2.92 - 630 calories:
catfish, 1 lb - $2.29, 240 calories
flour, 1/2 cup - $0.08, 100 calories (half gets eaten)
eggs, 2 - @ $1.80/dozen = $0.30, 140 calories
breadcrumbs, 1 cup - $1/can = $0.20, 150 calories (half gets eaten)
paper towels, 2 - $0.03
aluminum foil, 16" - <$0.02

Garlic Bread (or Toast) - $0.61 - 400 calories:
bread, "French", 1/4 loaf - @$2/loaf = $0.50, ~300 calories
butter or olive oil, 1 tbsp - $0.06, 100 calories
garlic powder, 1/2 tsp - <$0.05

Salad - $1.38 - 290 calories:
baby spinach, 2.25 oz - @$1/9oz bag = $0.25, 15 calories
salad mix (mostly iceberg), 3 oz - @$1/12oz bag = $0.25, 15 calories
mushrooms, 2 oz - @$1/6oz = $0.33, 10 calories
walnuts, crushed, 2 tbsp - @$4.50/lb =  $0.15, 100 calories
cheese, 1 oz, diced - @$4/lb = $0.25, 90 calories
dressing, 2 tbsp, light - @$3.50/24oz = $0.15 , 60 calories

Stir the two eggs together in a bowl.  Lay a sheet of aluminum foil on a large baking sheet.  Optionally spray oil on top.  Set the oven to 425 F.

Dry the fish between the paper towels, coat in flour, dip in the egg, then coat in bread crumbs.  Place on the aluminum foil with a little space between each. Bake in the preheated oven for about 18 minutes.  Season with black pepper, thyme, or cayenne as you like.

The fish is a nice treat that should be a more common part of the American diet.  It is usually expensive, though.  You can use chicken instead, cutting the cost of the meal by at least $1.  Just set the oven to 350 F and increase the baking time a few minutes.  Chicken should be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 F, and juices should be clear.

This salad is something I make very often, but the price is usually higher.  Even with sales, this salad for two people usually costs me closer to $2.  The difference is in the prices for bagged spinach and salad mix.  If you buy your own greens, you may cut your cost a bit, but do more work.  Mushrooms are often $3/lb, though they've been $3.50/lb lately.

2010-01-22

Pizza

I make a lot of great pizzas which easily each feed two hungry adults.  Use the bread dough recipe I posted earlier, which makes 3 pizza crusts and keeps well in the fridge for two weeks (I am sure it freezes for longer, but I have never done that). A plain cheese pizza costs about $1.75 and has about 1060 calories ($0.88 and 530 calories per person).

Dough - $0.45; 533 cal
4 oz Mozzarella, shredded - @ $4/lb = $1, 320 cal
1 tbsp olive oil - @ $10/101floz = $0.05, 100 cal
1 tbsp ketchup (Heinz) -  @ $3/32oz = ~$0.05, 15 cal
3 tbsp corn meal - @ $3/75tbsp tube = $0.12, 90 cal
1/2 tsp garlic powder - ~$0.03
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes - ~$0.03
pinch of black pepper

I don't have a pizza peel, so I just use one of those flexible smooth plastic cutting boards that come in a pack.  I recommend the ones from Bed Bath and Beyond way over Walmart.  The extra thickness and durability is worth the additional couple of dollars per pack.  I have not tried others.  Dust your surface with flour, plop on your dough, flour the top of the dough and roll it out.  I use a wine bottle because I won't pay for a rolling pin.  My pizzas are constrained to the 11" width of my cutting board, but I don't make perfect circles, so they're often longer ovals.  When it's all rolled out, I put the whole thing with the cutting board into my freezer.  I never time it, but about 8 minutes in the freezer is probably good.  Set your oven to the highest non-broiler temperature setting (e.g.: 550 F) with your pizza pan or stone inside.

When you take your crust out of the freezer, it should be a bit stiff.  This helps you lift it up off of the cutting board without deforming it so you can spread corn meal underneath the crust.  The corn meal acts as ball bearings so the pizza will slide easily off of the cutting board.  Spread olive oil over the surface of the crust.  The oil prevents water from the ketchup and topings from making the crust mushy.  Sprinkle the spices on top of the oil.

The ketchup is next.  I am sure some of you may be appalled that I would use ketchup instead of tomato sauce or paste.  I did buy some tomato sauce once when the smallest cans were on sale.  I found, though, that even the smallest can had enough sauce for 4 pizzas, and the sauce would not keep well enough for the amount of time it would take me to put that many pizzas on our menu.  Ketchup is cheaper, keeps nearly forever, and works well enough at the small quantities used.  Spread the ketchup over the crust, but leave the edge bare for a half-inch to an inch.  I firmly state that Heinz is the best brand of ketchup, and is worth the extra pennies over the competition.  Heinz does not pay me.

Put on your toppings.  Sprinkle the mozzarella on top, and avoid the outer edge.  Any cheese on the outer edge will burn, and a clear edge makes a good place to grip slices for eating.

Now your pizza is getting softer.  Shake your cutting board or peel gently to make sure that the pizza slides smoothly on it.  If it sticks anywhere, try to carefully lift that area and put corn meal under it.  When your oven is preheated, slide your pizza on to the pan or stone.  Your pizza will be done when the cheese on top starts to turn brown in a few spots.  This may take 8-10 minutes, depending on what toppings you used.  Keep an eye on your pizza to make sure you don't burn too much cheese, especially if you are just making a cheese pizza.

I recommend letting the pizza cool for a bit, then transferring it to a plate or cutting board to slice.

2010-01-14

Beef Stew

I tried something new, and it didn't come out perfectly because of my weak searing and dredging skills, but it is okay.  Roasts were on sale.  Don't stress about exact amounts.  This will take refining.

Serves four people at about 650 calories and $2.00 each, but takes about 6 hours to make (you don't have to do anything for 5 of those hours).

1.7 lbs chuck roast - @ $2.39/lb = $4
1 cup all-purpose flour - @ $3/5lbs = ~$0.17
1/2 lb carrots - @ $1/lb = $0.50
3 stalks celery - @ $1.50/head = ~$0.50
6 red potatoes - @ $3/5lbs bag = ~$1.80
2 onions, regular - @ $1/lb = ~$0.50
1 tbsp garlic, minced - 1/42 of a jar @ $3/jar = $0.07
2 tbsp vegetable oil - @ $4/96tbsp bottle = $0.08
1 tsp oregano - @ $1/bottle = ~$0.05
2 tbsp red wine vinegar - @ $2/25tbsp bottle = $0.08
1/4 cup red wine - @ $15/5L box (Almadine Cabernet Sauvignon) = $0.19
splash of Worcestershire sauce - ?
2 paper towels - @ ~$1.00/roll = ~$0.03

Prep: Cut the beef into chunks 2-3" on each side.  Take this opportunity to cut off the chunks of fat from the beef, and discard them.  Slice up the carrots, celery, and onions.  Dry the beef chunks on paper towels.

Cooking: Heat the oil in a skillet or pot.  Brown the dried beef chunks for 3 minutes on each side (this may take 2-3 shifts as all the beef won't fit in the skillet at once).  Dredge the beef in flour to coat, then return to the skillet for a couple more minutes to cook the flour on.  Put the beef in your slow cooker or dutch oven.  Put the sliced carrots, celery, onion, garlic, and oregano in the skillet.  Stir fry the veggies together for a few minutes, then dump them on top of the beef.  Mix your wine, vinegar, and Worcestershire sauce together in the skillet to deglaze it, then pour the liquid on top of the veggies.  Add the potatoes, cover, and set to cook at low temperature for 5 hours, 325 F if using an oven.

Notes: I would absolutely use more wine.  That was just all I had.  Almadine boxed wine is surprisingly good for the price, and keeps well. Smaller potatoes will cook through and be soft, but larger potatoes will still be firm.  I inadequately seared and dredged my beef, and some of the chunks were dried out after cooking.  Water will cook out of the vegetables and meat.  You may option to pour out all the liquids after cooking, and mix in a little flour or corn starch to form a gravy, but I do not have good instructions for that.

EDIT:
After some research, I believe that my trouble browning the beef was related to my use of a low quality non-stick skillet. I think this has caused several problems with my cooking over the years, and I am just now finding out about the benefits of aluminum-core stainless steel cookware and cast iron. Unfortunately, great cookware from All Clad or even Cuisinart is expensive beyond the theme of this blog. Perhaps the Salvation Army or similar facilities can provide low-cost decent-quality cookware. Lodge sells a very highly reviewed 12" cast iron skillet for $19, as well as other relatively inexpensive cast iron cookware, but these require careful use and maintenance. I will return to this topic in the future.

2010-01-13

The Staff of Life

I've been asked for my bread recipe.  My approach is very minimalist, and I am sorry to say that the quality of the bread I make is not very high.  I welcome your favorite bread recipes for the oven.  I do not have a bread machine.

I got my recipe here: Fresh Baked Bread in Five Minutes.  I use a fraction of the recipe because of the size of my bowls.  I usually use:
2 cups whole wheat flour, ~$0.33 @ $3/5lbs
2 cups all-purpose or bread flour, ~$0.33 @ $3/5lbs
2 cups water
1 tbsp yeast, $0.67 @ $8/jar
1/2 tbsp salt

That's it.  I mix the flour and salt together in a big bowl.  I heat the water in a small bowl to 100 degrees F, then add the yeast and wait a few minutes.  Then I stir the yeast and water into the flour with a big wooden spoon until evenly mixed, but I do not knead the dough.  Let it rise a couple hours and do whatever you want with it.  I usually put the bowl (loosely covered) in the oven, set the dial to "warm" for a couple minutes, then turn it off.

This stuff makes great pizzas.  I'll post about pizzas later.  One batch is good for three pizzas at $0.45 each.  It makes two medium loaves of bread at $0.67 each.  I spray a little oil on the dough before baking bread to help the crust, and bake at 375 for 30 minutes.  The bread tends to be dense and dry compared to store bread.  It makes a really good PB&J, but it is not very good by itself.

Could it use oil?  Sugar?  What makes a light, soft, tasty bread at low cost without filling it with junk?

2010-01-12

The Most Important Meal of the Day

Among stereotypical breakfast foods is one that provides a great opportunity to eat healthily at a low cost: oatmeal.  This is a whole grain food that should keep you feeling full through the morning, and it is very inexpensive.  I typically buy the big store-brand canister of quick oats, which is $3 or less for 30 half-cup servings.  That's 10 cents per bowl.  It takes less than two minutes to prepare.

Now, you might say, "But I don't like the taste of plain oatmeal, and I'll go insane if I have to eat it every day."  Here are some things I often add to my oatmeal to help it taste better, and you can mix and match for variety:

Cinnamon  - zero calories, costs a penny per breakfast
Apple, half, sliced - 40-70 calories,  ~$0.40 (varies by size & price)
Honey, 1 tbsp - 60 calories, ~$0.20 (highly variable)
Walnuts, chopped, 1/8 cup - 50 calories, ~$0.18 (@$4.50/lb)
Grape Nuts, 1/8 cup - 50 calories, ~$0.16 (@$2/box)
Flax Seeds, 1/8 cup - 90 calories, ~$0.15
Banana - 90-130 calories, ~$0.25 (@$0.69/lb)
Sugar Substitute - 0 calories, a few cents per packet or free

So, you can have a variety of pretty healthy and tasty breakfasts for $0.50 or less.  I even splurge sometimes and have a $0.75 bowl of oatmeal with banana, honey, and walnuts.

Even throw in an 8oz glass of delicious Tropicana orange juice (they do not pay me) fortified with calcium and vitamin D for $0.40 or less.  I refuse to pay more than $0.05/oz for juice, and it goes on sale often for less than that.  There's a nutritious breakfast for less than $1 per day per person with only a couple minutes of preparation that even a child can handle.

This is a great option for those of you with kids.  This kind of breakfast will help your children concentrate at school and be healthy.  It doesn't make sense to pay more money for junk cereals that are half sugar, or Pop Tarts, or whatever else, which lead to poor concentration, obesity, and potentially type II Diabetes.

2010-01-11

Price Guidelines

I long ago established some hard rules for myself as far as how much I am willing to spend for certain foods.  Despite inflation, I have not changed these limits since setting them about ten years ago.  Though these are strict rules for me, you may find them to be useful guidelines when you are at the grocery store.  If something costs more than my limit, I just don't buy it.  There are many foods that I can only buy when they are on sale, and I have found that foods go on sale often enough that I do not go deprived of the foods I like.  I often find food for less than my limits.  I shop at a regular Albertson's chain store for most products.

Steak (rare occasions)- $5.00/lb (I am still sometimes able to get tenderloin and T-bones)
Chicken breasts, boneless, skinless - $2.00/lb
Cereal - $2.00/lb
Cheese - $4.00/lb
Mushrooms - $3.00/lb
Carrots - $1.00/lb
Onions - $1.00/lb
Tomatoes, canned - $1.00/32oz
Pineapple, canned (Dole) - $1.00/20oz
Yogurt (Danon Light & Fit or Yoplait  only) - $0.085/oz
Granola Bars (Kashi or Nature Valley) - $0.50 ea.
Orange Juice (Tropicana only) - $0.05/oz
Spices - $1.00/1.3oz (buy these at a drug store or hardware store; not McCormick)

I do go to Trader Joe's for a few things, and I am lucky that one is very close to me.  They have very inexpensive all natural peanut butter, honey, tea, tree nuts, fine cheeses, and chocolate. 

Besides those limits, I tend to buy things only when they are on sale, but without strict limits in mind.  Canned vegetables, tuna, potatoes, bagged salad/spinach, fish, bacon (typically buy 1 get 2 free deals).  Once or twice per year I've been able to buy 101 fl oz jugs of extra virgin olive oil for $10-12, which is a steal.  Every once in a while canned veggies are 42-50 cents per can, and I stock up.  A small local market sometimes has grapefruit 6/$2, so that's when I get to eat grapefruit.  I make my own bread, which is fun and cheap; yeast comes in an $8 jar that can make approximately 32 loaves or 48 pizzas.  I love the summer for berries, and the fall for apples and squash.  Local, seasonal foods are better quality and the prices are reasonable even to me.

Some prices are rising and causing me to reconsider my shopping behaviors with regard to them.  Brown rice, which I can only find in 2lb bags, is getting more expensive.  It's up to $2.50 per bag now, and I've been using barley as a replacement in some meals.  Canned tuna is rising, so I bought piles of it the last time it was $0.50/can, and I don't think I'll ever see that price again.  I will gradually adapt to changes in the market, but always strive to optimize my grocery habits.

2010-01-08

Pineapple Pork Stir Fry

Ingredients:
4 Pork chops, center cut, boneless, thick; about 6oz each @ $3/lb = $4.50
1 can of pineapple chunks (Dole is best); 20oz @ $1
1 cup of rice, brown, dry; 1/5 of a 2lb bag @ $2.20/bag = $0.44
2 tbsp vegetable oil; should be @ <$0.05/tbsp = $0.10
1 lb bell peppers, sliced, frozen @ $1.69/lb
1/2 tsp thyme (avoid McCormick); should be @ <$0.10/tsp = $0.05
1/2 tsp ginger, fresh, shaved (store root in freezer); should be ~$0.05
1 tsp soy sauce; $?, I'm guessing ~$0.05
1 tbsp garlic, minced; 1/42 of a jar @ $3/jar = $0.07
2 paper towels @ ~$1.00/roll = ~$0.03

This recipe serves four at about $2 and 600 calories per person. Cooking time is about an hour.  The spice amounts are estimated, and salt and pepper can be added to the thyme at a negligible cost.

Prep: In the morning, sprinkle the thyme on the pork chops, and marinate them in a sealed nonreactive dish or plastic bag with the juice from the canned pineapple.  Let marinate in a refrigerator throughout the day.  Store the pineapple chunks in a nonreactive container in the fridge, also.

Cooking: Boil 2 cups of water in a small pot, add the rice, and reduce heat to a simmer.  The rice will take 45 minutes to cook.  Put the oil in a skillet or large pot that has a cover.  Put that pot on the stove top at a little less than medium heat.  Remove the pork from the marinade, and pat them dry with paper towels.  Discard the marinade.  Set your oven to preheat to 325.  When the oil in the skillet starts to smoke a little, put the pork in to brown 2-3 minutes on each side (may have to do two at a time), and be careful of oil splatter (use the cover).  Put the browned pork in a covered cassarole (or keep in the pot, if you used a pot), and put in the preheated oven for about 30 minutes (advised internal temperature is 160 F).  While the pork is baking, put the peppers, pineapple, soy sauce, ginger, and garlic in a skillet (the original skillet if you used one) at low heat (one quarter turn of the knob).  The peppers and pineapple can be set to simmer when they're hot, since they will probably get hot before the pork is done.  When the pork is done, there will be juices in the bottom of the pot.  Put the pork aside, then skim the fat off the top of the juices (or soak it off with a paper towel).

Serving: Each plate will have a pork chop, and some peppers and pineapple on a bed of rice.  Drizzle the degreased pork juice over the chop and rice for moisture and flavor.  I made this last night, and it was delicious.  I am looking forward to the leftovers tonight.