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February 26, 2013

The first couple of months of the new year are always the hardest when it comes to budgeting.  And due to a few major setbacks, this year has been especially tough.

We love food. We cook adventurous things and dine out on a whim. I’ll readily admit frugality goes out the window at the slightest temptation or craving.  I am completely aware of how spoiled we’ve been by this luxury but during the month of February we’ve been getting creative in stretching our food budget.  It’s meant not being tempted by lunch specials at a nearby café and instead sticking to a packed lunch every day.  It’s meant no fast food on those nights when I’m too tired to cook.

A lot of this is common sense, but I thought I’d share some of the techniques and recipes that have kept us going.

1 –Track your receipts (I use a simple budget spreadsheet in Excel) and just LOOK at where you’re spending your money.  It’s easier to make cut-backs when you can see exactly how much you’re spending on certain items.

2 – Set a budget.  Decide how much you want to spend on each meal or over a certain time period.  Eating a few extra cheap meals will allow you to splurge on something nice elsewhere.

3 – Plan plan plan!  I use a spreadsheet where I can plan my meals, grocery lists and estimate how much items will cost. This gives me a good idea of how much I’ll be spending on ingredients, an entire meal, a full week of meals, etc. Make a cell for every meal and plan for every one of those meals.

4 – Low & slow – try to make a large amount of food at once to hold over for several days. Get creative with your cooking. If you’re a meat-eater, one of the foods that will sustain you longer than anything else is a whole chicken.  I dry roast it low and slow to make a delicious chicken dinner. Two of us can get a couple more meals of chicken sandwiches or something similar and once it’s picked it over pretty well, throw it in a pot of water and make stock.  From the stock make a soup with good fillers like noodles, barley, greens, root veggies and you have a bunch of hearty meals.  These can even be frozen for later.  A local, free range chicken should set you back about $10-$12 and you can get at least 10 meals for two people.

A humanely raised 3 pound pork Boston butt roast will probably set you back close to $30, which is a lot of up-front cost – but you can get several meals out of it.  I made one recently.  We ate 8 sandwiches and I still have a fair amount left.  Tonight I’m going to use the leftovers in macaroni and cheese. I’m going to soak the macaroni in my homemade bbq sauce before mixing in the cheese sauce and pulled pork.  We’ll get at least 8 more meals out of this.  Yes, the additional components of cheese, milk and macaroni cost money, but it’s still a minimal investment.

While Drew is not opposed to the taste of black beans, he is not fond of the side effects.  After a bit of research I found a great bean soaking method that really gets rid of whatever it is in beans that causes gas. I’ve recently made two black bean-centric dishes and neither of them caused any ill effects.  The hot soak method from this website works wonders:

For each pound of California dry beans, any variety, add 10 cups hot water. Remember, beans will rehydrate to at least twice their dry size, so be sure to start with a large enough pot. (Note: Up to 2 teaspoons of salt per pound of beans may be added to help the beans absorb water more evenly.) Heat to boiling, let boil two to three minutes. Remove from heat, cover and set aside for four hours or more. The longer soak time is recommended to allow more sugars to dissolve, thus helping the beans to be more easily digested. Whether you soak the beans for an hour or several hours, discard the soak water.

I haven’t used the salt (which I think will also keep your beans from splitting) and each time I’ve done this I’ve let it sit for 6+ hours.  After draining and rinsing the beans I add enough water to cover them by an inch or more and boil them for about an hour and a half.

I’ve been using a one pound bag of dried beans in recipes that call for 2 15-1/2 oz cans of beans.

I found this amazing recipe on Serious Eats for a Chipotle Slaw.

I took my cooked beans, mashed them with some vinegar, cumin and Arizona dreaming spice and made soft shell tacos with the beans, chipotle slaw, feta cheese, cilantro and a squeeze of lime.  We got 12 tacos out of that.  It probably cost $12 to make everything.  Instead of tacos, you could also take these same ingredients, plus a few others, to make awesome black bean burgers.

It’s all about taking cheap ingredients and finding different ways to use them; kind of in the same way as Marge Simpson and her bargain basement Chanel suit.

I found Daniel Berman’s Cooking Out the Cold recipes to be hugely inspiring.  I went to Parivar and bought a big ass bag of dried garbanzos and have now even made a more from-scratch style of Chana Masala.  His recipe calls for a box mix of spices, but I usually have everything on hand you’d need to make it properly. It’s only a couple more steps and tastes better.  A meal like that probably costs less than a quarter per serving and is incredibly satisfying.

Lately, we’ve been working our way through a Mrs. London’s country loaf every morning for breakfast. It’s pricey upfront, but it works out to a pretty cheap breakfast when spread over a week.  But to save us on even that, I’ve been developing a sourdough starter and am going to take a stab at the Tartine loaf in a few weeks.  I’m also making my first chevre cheese which we can use on bagels or in a cheesecake or on a salad.  I adore chevre and despite the outrageous price of goat’s milk, it’s a lot cheaper to make than buy and I cannot believe how easy it is.  I say that now, but the test will be how it holds up after I bag it tonight.

Like I said, a lot of this is common sense, but hopefully it provided a bit of inspiration. What do you do to trim your budget in the kitchen?  Please feel free to share your ideas in the comments.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. February 26, 2013 5:01 pm

    The recipes all sound fantastic! I am making a turkey carcass soup as the rain/sleet outside the window is turning to snow.
    The house smells wonderful.
    I will definitely try the bean de-gassing trick.

    • February 28, 2013 9:18 am

      So when do I get to come over for some of that soup? A turkey carcass makes the BEST soup.

      The bean de-gassing trick really works. I am shocked that I’ve been able to eat meals centered around beans and I haven’t been doubled over in pain hours later.

  2. February 26, 2013 6:34 pm

    I’ll have to try to remember to try that bean idea — I have a jar of Arizona Dreaming but haven’t really figured out what to do with it (seems like when I cook with it, the results aren’t very good).

  3. February 28, 2013 8:09 am

    I’m not sure what your feelings are on soy. Nor can I remember if I’ve ever written up the tofu scramble. But it’s a buck a pound at the Asian Supermarket for non-GMO tofu. Add some toast, a spoonful of Greek yogurt, and it’s a cheap protein powerhouse that will stick with you for hours.

    It’s also a good use for the Arizona Dreaming. I still have some of that jar from the Penzeys giveaway too.

    • February 28, 2013 9:16 am

      I like soy but am a little apprehensive about the negative health effects (when I go to my annual well-woman exam they now ask how much soy I consume…kind of freaks me out). But that does sound like a nice breakfast, just not for every day. :-)

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