Eating Well While Eating Frugally Pt 2: Cooking and Recipes!
Now that I'm in stage three COPD and am constantly fatigued I don't cook every day. I'd like to, simply because I really love cooking but it's not possible. My husband and my 14 year old son also cook so that helps. And sometimes we break down and have easy pre-made stuff from the store like macaroni and cheese. I prefer cooking, though, and I've discovered some good easy meals that help feed us well and don't take too much energy. When I have to sit down on a stool just to stir a simmering soup because it tires me out to stand for 20 minutes, I know recipes better be simple.
Besides the fatigue factor, another challenge is the price of groceries. I like eating real food (described by food authors as either five ingredients or less, or as ingredients your grandmother would recognize) but because I am on Social Security disability, where the average pay isn't even as much as minimum wage, I also need to eat cheaply. So not only did I relearn how and where to shop, but I relearned how and what to cook. I've come up with some really good – and tasty – easy dishes.
Obviously, not everyone can do the things we do to save money but hopefully our strategies can give others some ideas of their own. A sample of my recipes is included; may you find some of these meals or snacks helpful, delicious, and right for you..
How We Save Money
In the first article of this two-part series I addressed where and how we shop to get the most for our budget. In this article, I'm going to explain what we buy and how we cook it.
With the current store price of an average loaf of bread being nearly $4, we decided to save money by baking our own bread. I can bake two loaves of much tastier and healthier bread for under $2. I use a dough hook attachment on my Kitchen Aid so I don't have to knead the dough, which makes it doable. Another way of making bread that is gaining popularity is a dough that rises very slowly overnight and requires no kneading whatsoever (see Kneadlessly Simple, by Nancy Baggett, 2009 or Google “no knead bread”). Bread machines are even easier and require very little work at all.
We like buying in bulk and we buy 20 lbs of flour at a time since we use so much.
We also, to go even cheaper, buy a five gallon bucket of wheat at time. We have an electric grinder so we can pour in one cup of wheat at the top and two cups of flour come out of the spigot at the bottom, and then repeat. When I feel good enough to do that I will use the fresh ground wheat instead of store bought. It makes a delicious bread.
Another way we save a lot of money is by gardening. I can't really help with the physical work, but I am able to pick the produce and, on good days, preserve it. My son and husband also help here, doing the heavy lifting and a lot of the vegetable chopping, if needed. I'm teaching my son the process because it's a good skill to have. I can a lot of vegetables, or dehydrate them, or freeze them. That gives us tasty food all year round.
Frozen produce from the store are great too because they are frozen fresh and taste wonderful. Canned fruits and vegetables are another good option because they are viable in the cans for years and don't take up much space. Foods such as dried beans and rice (not the Minute Rice edition but bagged rice) are also on our pantry shelves as inexpensive options.
One thing that we do splurge on is the more expensive cheeses. We buy them at our local health food store and we can also find some at Sam's Club. We do this because not only is the cheese better, but the flavor is so much more intense that we use just a little of it whereas with the cheap cheese we'd use a lot for the same amount of flavor. In the end, it is actually less expensive and we don't eat as much. You probably have some items that are the same way for you.
How We Save Time and Energy
We got an Instant Pot because we had heard how quickly they cooked meals and how easy they were to use. I have to say, the rumors were right. This is a pressure cooker, not a pressure canner. You use it to quickly cook, not quickly can. Ours is delightful. It cooks perfect rice. It cooks dried beans, without soaking them, in minutes. It's wonderful. There are a lot of recipes online for great meals and a lot of new cookbooks for them. I would definitely recommend an Instant Pot.
Another appliance I use for easy cooking is my crock pot.
They are especially nice in the summer since they don't create a lot of heat, unlike an oven. I also like the crock pot because it's super easy to just dump in the ingredients and press “Low” or “High” and not worry about it until it's done. Since it cooks slowly, the flavors really meld. My mother once cooked a ham in hers and the meat was falling off the bone, it was so tender. Delicious. Again, there are very many great recipes online and a cookbooks specializing in crock pot cooking and its specialties.
As for other ways of cooking, we like grilling, but with the smoke we very rarely use the outdoor grill. Instead we use an electric indoor grill. It produces no smoke and is super, super easy to use. It heats up, we put our hamburger patties, etc., in it and in a few minutes they're done. I brush a tiny bit of Liquid Smoke on the hamburgers and it helps them taste really grilled. I also use my cast iron grilling pan. It can produce some smoke but it tastes better, in my opinion, than the electric one. Yum!
Quick and Inexpensive Recipe Ideas
Here are a few easy recipes I use and my family loves.
1. Recipe for Roasted vegetables
Use as a side dish or even a main meal. It's very easy, versatile, and absolutely delicious. Preheat your oven to 500 degrees (yes, extremely hot). Slice or cube your preferred vegetables, coat them lightly in olive oil. I put the vegetables in a large Ziploc bag, drizzle some olive oil in it, and shake it to coat them. Then place them on a cooking sheet (we use our cast iron round pizza pans) and let them cook for 45 minutes to an hour, depending on the type of vegetables. They should be browned and soft, but not burnt. Our favorites are potato cubes, chopped onion, minced garlic, fresh green beans, carrots, broccoli, zucchini, yellow squash, eggplant, and the like. Even brussel sprouts.
Sometimes I will use a simple balsamic vinegar marinade, such as is used for steaks.
- 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
- 1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
- 2 teaspoons minced garlic
- ¼ cup olive oil
- salt and pepper to taste
Simply mix the ingredients together and let the vegetables marinate for 30 minutes to an hour before roasting.
Sometimes I will also grate a little bit of Parmesan cheese (not the Kraft powder) and sprinkle it over the vegetables.
2. Recipe for Potatoes
There are so many easy and versatile ways to cook potatoes. The easiest is to cook them in the microwave: pierce the potato with a fork several times, then cook in the microwave for 5 to 10 minutes or longer. It's easy, but it's not the best tasting. To go a step further, I like to bake them whole in the oven by preheating to 500 degrees, piercing the potatoes with a fork or knife several times, then coating them lightly in olive or vegetable oil and salt (optional). Then I bake it for one hour. These are so good I don't even need butter or sour cream on them. I also sprinkle some rosemary on them for extra flavor.
Of course, you can cube them and roast them as in the recipe above.
I also make an easy au gratin kind of dish. In a 9 x 9 pan I layer thinly sliced potatoes, then a thin layer of cheese (we prefer cheddar), then potatoes, then cheese, until the pan is full. Then I pour an undiluted can of cream of mushroom soup over it, which sounds weird but tastes good. I bake it in the oven at 400 for about an hour, until the potatoes are soft and the cheese is slightly browned.
3. Recipe for Smoothies
Oh, my gosh, do we love smoothies. Especially in the summer when we don't feel like eating a hot meal. The smoothies are also cooling and delicious. We use frozen fruit usually, unless there are sales on fresh fruit. If we use bananas, we also use those fresh and not frozen. Frozen fruit also helps make the smoothies cold. These are servings of fruit, grain, and dairy, but a lot of people like to add spinach or carrots to add some vitamins, or a little bit of uncooked tofu for protein.
- ½ cup quick oats
- 2 cups milk (we love almond and/or coconut milk)
- 2 to 3 cups fruit (our favorite is a tropical blend of mango and pineapple)
- full tray of ice
- sugar to taste
In a blender, drop in the oats and milk. Then blend until the oats are finely ground. Add the fruit and sugar and ice, then blend until all ingredients are mixed together well and it looks and feels like a thick milkshake. You can add more fruit or milk as needed. The ice should be in little tiny slivers when you're through blending. Do not over-blend because it will melt the ice completely.
4. Recipe for Tortellini
This one seems fancy and is good to make for guests, but is really actually easy. If you are cooking for guests, you can add half again or double the ingredients for a 9 x 13 pan. Sometimes we'll use a jar of Alfredo sauce instead of the red sauce for a really decadent dish.
- 1 package dried or frozen tortellini
- 1 24 oz. jar spaghetti sauce
- 1 cup grated cheese (we use Parmesan and Asiago)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Coat a 9 x 9 cooking dish lightly with olive oil. Pour in one package of dried or frozen tortellini. You can cook the dried tortellini first, but I don't. [If you are using dried without cooking it, you need to add extra liquid. I usually take the jar of spaghetti sauce after I've added it, pour water in it until it's half full, swish it around to capture all of the left over sauce, and then add that to the pan.] Add the jar of spaghetti sauce. Mix in most of the grated cheese, leaving some to sprinkle over the top, covering most of it. Then bake it for an hour, or until the tortellini is soft and the cheese is browning.
5. Recipe for 3 Can Chili
- 1 can chili beans
- 1 can black beans
- 1 can diced tomatoes (or tomatoes with green chilies if you like it hot)
- Cumin, oregano, chili pepper, salt and black pepper to taste
Chili is such a great comfort food. Hot, thick, healthy, and flavorful, it's a popular one at my house. We like to eat it with either cornbread or tortillas. Even though this is a super easy recipe, it actually tastes really good. You can experiment with it and add ingredients, such as corn or extra spices, as you like.
In a saucepan or stock pot, combine all ingredients and let simmer on low until thickened.
6. Recipe for Hummus
I really like hummus. It's full of protein, and full of flavor, especially garlic. We like to eat it with pita bread or naan. You can buy it at the store, of course, but making it is less expensive and tastes better.
- 1 can chick peas (garbanzo beans), drained
- ¼ cup lemon juice
- ¼ cup tahini (optional)
- 2 garlic cloves (we love garlic so I actually add 5 or 6 cloves)
- 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
- salt to taste
- paprika (optional)
If you are using tahini, you will first blend it together with the lemon juice until smooth. If not, add all ingredients together in a blender or food processor, using only ¼ to ½ of the beans. Blend until well mixed, adding the rest of the chick peas a bit at a time. Blend until smooth and creamy. It shouldn't be runny. If it is too thick, you can add a little bit of water. If it's too thin, add some more drained chick peas. Add salt to taste. Remove from blender and serve in a bowl. You can add a drizzle of olive oil and paprika to taste on the top of the hummus for extra flavor.
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