Friday Frugal Challenge: Pick a Recipe–and Here’s How

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Today’s Friday Frugal Challenge: Make a new recipe using your loss-leader savings.

You save money by cooking at home, but you can definitely get into a rut. For awhile there when my son was young we alternated between about three ground-beef dishes in any given week. My son still won’t eat pot roast after overdosing on it during his youth. But my sad fate need not be yours! You can find great recipes to try at home, and your Friday Frugal Challenge is to do just that.

How do you know if a recipe will work for you? The plain truth is, some just won’t.  Here’s how you know:

Read the ingredient list. You hate garlic. You love the dark meat of the chicken, not the white. You don’t eat red meat. Tomatoes don’t agree with you. Does the ingredient list appeal to you? Be honest, but leave a little room for flexibility. I didn’t like spinach till I tried it in a chicken Florentine recipe—everything else that went into the recipe sounded great and the result was excellent.

Level of difficulty. There is no shame in not knowing the intricate ins and outs of cooking. If you can make a tasty, nutritious meal, you’re in a pretty good place. I’m willing to try some new techniques, maybe once or twice a month, but in general my life right now is too crazy to spend hours pioneering something I’ve never tried before with no guarantee of success. Choose a recipe that looks like something quite do-able for you.

Can you tinker with it? These days, with only two of us at home, I just don’t cook anything with more than four servings. I usually divide the recipe so that it makes two or three helpings. This hack saves us money because we’re not crazy about leftovers. Can you tinker with the recipe to make it work even better for you? Play with the spices and seasonings, maybe, or experiment with cooking it in the slow cooker instead of on the stove? I’m enjoying adapting recipes to use with my pressure cooker.

Develop trust. I absolutely love, love, love RecipeTinEats.com. The recipes are right at my level, they include a nice blend of new recipes for old favorites of mine and innovative ideas. Maybe you are intrigued by SeriousEats.com or delish.com. There are so many recipes to choose from that if you find a good source for tasty stuff that you enjoy making you should freely experiment from that source.

So this week I found chicken breast on sale for a delectable $1.49 per pound and a fine pork butt roast for just under a dollar a pound. This week looks like carnitas and schnitzel (found a great recipe for it on my go-to site!) with some barbecued pulled pork sandwiches and stuffed chicken breast. Looking forward to trying something new (the carnitas) and using a tried-and-true recipe (the stuffed chicken.)

Bon appetit!

 

 

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Score du Jour: It’s National Donut Day!

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Happy National Donut Day!

Here’s a great round-up on the sweet, sweet deals that won’t leave a hole in your wallet. (I’ll show myself out now…)

 

How Your Pressure Cooker Can Save Dinner (and $$)

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Sure, you’ve heard the stories about the explosion in Granny’s kitchen back in 1978. Your dad regaled you with his tales of scraping the liver and onions off the ceiling and the windows when Gran’s pressure cooker went kablooey. You swore you’d never try that in your kitchen.

Well, my friend, put aside your fears along with that scraper and get ready to save money and eat well. I was just like you, unsure about pressure cooking and afraid to try. I got over my fears, and you should, too.

For one thing, pressure cooking isn’t hard at all. I mastered the stove-top pressure cooker in exactly one try after consulting Chef Google for the basics of technique and thoroughly reading the instruction manual. I cooked a pork loin roast to delicious perfection without batting an eye. If you’re squeamish about the whole stove-top thing (cue the flashback to Granny’s horrified face…) you can use an electric pressure cooker, which takes the guess- work out of the process and lets you set it and forget it.

But the real proof is in the paydirt premium. A pressure cooker can save you money in a few different ways.

First off, my pressure cooker helps me with really good home-cooked meals faster than the oven. The pork roast I cooked my first time out was a two-pound roast, and in the oven it would’ve taken about fifty minutes to cook. It took thirty minutes in the pressure cooker and bringing the cooker to pressure took about half the time that preheating the oven takes. Bottom line: I’m a lot less likely to say, “Screw this cooking at home thing. I’m tired and I don’t feel like cooking. Let’s go out to eat.” Some meals that taste delicious–I’m talking about you, pot roast–cook so much faster in a pressure cooker that they are a viable after-work option. I don’t have to wait till my day off to cook this type of meal.

Another way my pressure cooker saves me money is by allowing me to buy cheaper cuts of meat for my main dishes. I scored the pork loin for $1.25 a pound as a loss leader although it’s a fairly tender cut of meat. Most loss leaders are a tougher, cheaper cut than the pork loin. This is where the pressure cooker comes through. Tough cuts of meat emerge from the pressure cooker tender and tasty and absolutely delicious.

Pressure cookers save you money by using less energy than heating up the whole oven. Okay, it’s not a major ka-ching thing, but every little bit helps, right?

I also find that I save money because the pressure cooker helps me to eat real food and cut back on the processed stuff. I can control what I put into my pork roast by seasoning it myself. No strange chemicals injected into my pork roast to enhance flavor–that’s why God made rosemary and sage. My dinner cost less than the fancy pre-packaged version and I controlled the amount of salt. I recognized everything I added to the dish–no diphospate oxide chemicalchloride paste here!  My health will ultimately thank me.

I chose the stove-top pressure cooker partly because of its lower cost and partly because I knew that I wouldn’t use most of the features on a multi-cooker. A stove-top pressure cooker is significantly cheaper than an electric pressure cooker (aka Instant Pot or multi-cooker) but if you will use the additional features in the multi-cooker, by all means go for it. A friend with the multi-cooker tells me that she uses it at least three times a week and feels that it was a great investment for feeding her family. She also makes yogurt in hers, and so her kids have breakfast once or twice a week from the multi-cooker, too. More power to them!

So reconsider the generational curse of Granny’s Liver and Onion Explosion. A pressure cooker can save you money and make cooking at home easy and quick.

First-Timer Pork Loin

Ingredients:

1 pork loin (mine was about 2 pounds)

1 cup chicken or beef broth

1 tsp. dried rosemary OR 1 tsp sage OR 1/2 tsp of each mixed together

1 tbsp olive oil (canola oil or any other oil you choose will work, too.)

Salt and pepper

Salt and pepper your meat and rub the spices over the surface. Heat the olive oil in the cooker. For stove-top cookers, just use the big pan to brown the meat on your stove. For multi-cookers, use the saute feature. When the meat is browned, set it aside and drain off the oil. Pour the broth into the cooker; if your cooker comes with a trivet, put the trivet into the cooker and rest the meat on top. Put the meat in the cooker and follow your pressure cooker’s instructions for cooking. For the 2-pound roast, my stove-top cooker took 30 minutes; it may take a little longer in the multi-cooker because the stove-top cooker generates a little more pressure than its sophisticated cousin and therefore cooks faster.

You can let the pressure cooker come down to room pressure naturally or–if you’re hungry like I was!–you can run cool water over the stove-top cooker to cool it off quickly.  Your multi-cooker will have instructions on how to use the quick-pressure release.

Check the temperature of the meat using a meat thermometer. You’re looking for about 160-165 degrees; the meat may look a little pink at first but if you let it sit for 10 minutes before you carve you’ll find that it cooks a bit more and it’s juicy and tender.

If your meat isn’t done yet, all is not lost. Put it back in, bring the cooker back to pressure, and cook it for another five to ten minutes.

I made some basil carrots–carrots cooked in butter until tender, then sprinkled with basil–as a side dish. Fresh pineapple for dessert made a healthy, really tasty meal.

 

 

 

 

Friday Frugal Challenge: Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad

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This week, take the Two Out of Three Challenge.

Each day for lunch, instead of hitting the fast food or grabbing some Fritos out of the vending machine, eat a soup, salad, and/or sandwich. Here’s how you do this week’s Challenge.

Take a little time to stock up with soup (love that homemade, and with my new pressure cooker I may just make some tomorrow when I’m off), salad fixings, and sandwich supplies. Each day you’ll pack a lunch consisting of two of these three delicious items.

Tonight, for example, I’m taking a salad and a sandwich to work. Tomorrow I’ll play with my new pressure cooker and make some homemade potato soup on my day off. Then on Sunday when I work again I’ll take some homemade potato soup, a leftover corn muffin from tomorrow’s rib cookout, and either a salad or a sandwich.

Because there are only two of us, I make a big salad using a head of lettuce, cukes, peppers, and onions. We also use the pre-made salad during the week with dinner. Because I’ve taken ten minutes to make it in bulk, I save money all week long and save time on my lunch prep. Grab and go makes for a happy morning!

I’m looking forward to simplifying my lunch routine, which tends toward the “Oh good grief, what in the world will I eat?” I’m also looking forward to eating nutritious home-cooked food, customizing my salads, and saving some money.

Bon appetit! Let me know how your Two Out of Three Challenge treats you this week!

Taco Tuesday: Better Living Through Cheap, Easy Recipes

Taco Tuesday. Because you need some deliciousness that won’t break the bank…

Cheap Tacos at Home. Make up your own taco seasoning mix at home (thanks, BudgetBytes, for the recipe!) Estimated cost of 5 cents per serving beats that pre-packaged stuff you pay a buck for at the grocery store. Consider making your own tortillas with the recipe below, which will bump down your cost even more. Use shredded leftover beef or chicken and you have frugal dining bragging rights for at least a week.

Cheap Tacos Away from Home.  Del Taco has budget tacos (a little smaller than the full-size version, and oh-so-tasty). $1.29 buys you three.

Fresh Tacos. Try making corn tortillas at home–this 3-ingredient recipe includes a photo tutorial over at Isabel Eats. The only thing I do different? I don’t have a tortilla press, so I use big fat books and wax paper to squoosh the tortillas flat. Doubles as cheap therapy, too. Check out the ethnic section of the supermarket for the masa flour.

So Easy Taco-ish Nachos. It’s Tuesday, I want the tacos but I’m too tired to even blink let alone squoosh tortillas. I cook and season taco meat then layer it on Doritos with the fixings, including sour cream and salsa and grated cheese. It’s trashy but effective in taming the cravings.

Super Easy Quesadillas. Two flat tortillas. Cheese. Some kind of meat if you like it, some veggies if you wish. Cook it like a sandwich until the cheese is melted inside. Way easy, nice and cheap. A salad on the side? You’ve got this.

Taco Tuesday Social Club. Yeah, you know your friends want Taco Tuesday and you know you want your friends over. You know what to do.

What’s YOUR secret for better living through Taco Tuesday?

 

The I-Hate-Leftovers Guide to Brown-Bagging

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I hate leftovers.

Maybe it’s a remnant of my childhood in a family of eight kids. Maybe I’m just a snob for fresh. Whatever the reason, leftovers are not my favorite thing in the world. So when I realized that a critical piece in my food-saving budget involved cutting waste and not eating lunch out, I had to get creative with my yummies, reframe a few self-defeating attitudes, and spend just a little bit of cash to make it all work. Here’s what I did.

Cooked strategically. The plain truth is, some meals make much better leftovers. Give me a gooey Italian marinara/cheese dish to reheat any day! Leftover chili with crackers and a little cheese to melt on top after the microwave? Delish.

Some foods just taste better the second (or third) time around. Anything with a tomato base will like taste great reheated. Something with a creamy base, not so much. Roasted meat? Mine always tastes dry and stale the next day unless there’s gravy involved. When you’re planning meals, purposely make bigger batches of foods that taste great for future meals.

Garnished.  So what to do with the roast chicken, the steak, the leftover veggies? I made ‘em into sandwiches, soups, or salads with plenty of flavor added so that the meat doesn’t taste so…second meal. It’s easy to add roast chicken to a nice chicken broth and bring homemade-tasting soup on a cold day. It’s great to include some beef with a rich blue-cheese dressing on a homemade salad—maybe add a corn muffin left over from last night’s dinner as a side dish?

Splurged (but just a little bit!) Okay, the whole point of using up my leftovers is to avoid waste and ultimately save money. I discovered that if I include high-quality additions to my brown bag, everything tastes better. For example, I can make homemade sandwich rolls using the Dough feature on my breadmaker  that taste amazing. I like to make my own ranch dressing and I use real butter and mayo. I love rich Gouda cheese and I find that a little bit goes a long way with some sliced ham and some crackers for a light lunch.  Sure, you don’t want to go overboard on the fat and rich stuff, but a little bit goes a long way.

Try a little homemade aioli (garlic mayonnaise) on your sandwich. You’ll never look at leftover roast beef the same way.

What are your brown-bag secrets?

 

 

Score du Jour: 99-Cent Chicken Breast (A Love Story)

I love loss leaders, and this week’s 99-cent chicken breast couldn’t be beat (Winn Dixie was the benefactor, but I’ve seen it at other stores). I picked up two big packages. These chicken breasts were from a national brand name which advertises no hormones.

Here’s how I plan to use my chicken-breast bounty:

*I made a comfort food favorite, chicken cheese chowder, to carry in my thermos for class tomorrow night. This used up one of the massive chicken breasts, with three servings left for lunches or for a repeat on Thursday night, when I have my second class. (1 chicken breast, four servings).

*I’ll make chicken parmesan later this week. Each breast will easily make two servings, so we’ll have dinner plus lunch the next day. I have some leftover spaghetti for a nice side dish when the times comes.

*I’m going to broil one of the chicken breasts and use the meat for a chicken pot-pie (four servings total.) I have some frozen pie shells from a buy-one-get-one deal last Christmas and some mixed veggies to throw in. This qualifies as Eating Ourselves Out of House and Home.

*Two more chicken breasts will go nicely on the grill, with leftover meat to make chicken salad. I may get all fancy and make chicken kebabs with onions, green peppers, and tomato. There will be plenty of chicken. I anticipate using about half of it for the meal–one breast will be enough for two people if I make the kebabs or if I have some hearty side dishes. (Three total servings. Let’s be conservative here.)

The final chicken breast will make a lovely chicken and rice casserole. Four servings, one chicken breast, what is not to like?

So there you have it. 19 servings for $9.03. Of course, chicken’s not the only ingredient. Most of the stuff needed for my meals is in the pantry as a result of prior stockpiling shopping trips, and it’s pretty cheap. Noodles for a stir fry, rice for chicken and rice casserole, eggs for the chicken salad, these things are pretty economical if you’re on a budget. My big splurge? Mozzarella cheese for the chicken parm was a store brand plus it was on sale, so I spent a whole $2 on it.

For less than a dollar a pound, I’m good with boning these breasts and using the bones to make chicken stock. I’m experimenting with all the good pan sauces I can do using stock, and this will come in handy.

I’m looking forward to getting tired of eating chicken.

Chicken Cheese Chowder

1 chicken breast (boneless or bone-in, either will work)

1 teaspoon oil

1 can condensed cream of chicken soup

1/3 cup onions

1/3 cup chopped celery

2/3 cup water

1 1/4 cup milk

1 can corn or creamed corn

8 oz mild cheese (American, mild cheddar, whatever you like).

Heat the oil in a skillet or a large saucepan and add the celery and the onion, cooking until the veggies are soft and tender. Add the chicken and cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes (for boneless breast) or 15-20 minutes (bone-in breast) or until the chicken is no longer pink. Cut the chicken into small-bite pieces and return it to the pan with the soup mix, corn, and milk. Stir it all together until it’s heated through and add the cheese, stirring until it melts. Cook it over medium heat for ten minutes, stirring frequently to prevent it from sticking.

Enjoy it with cornbread, a salad, or a crusty French loaf.