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


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.






Pan Sauce Gravy Basics–YUM!


You’ve got meat—beef, chicken, maybe a nice pork chop. You want it to go beyond Good into Delicious territory. Congratulations—you’re ready to make a pan sauce!

Pan sauces are an art, not a science. You can vary the ingredients, play around with them, innovate. Here are the basics, though.

Fat from meat. Sear the meat you’re going to use. Perhaps you’ll sear the meat with a little olive oil, or some canola oil, or clarified butter, or a combination of butter and oil. Sear the meat and pour off the excess fat from the pan. You want about 2 tablespoons of fat. Cook the meat to your desired doneness and remove from heat.

Liquid. You want to add some liquid to the remaining fat in the pan. This could be wine, broth, bouillon, you name it. For beef or pork, use beef broth or bouillon or red wine. For poultry, use chicken broth or bouillon and red wine or light red wine (maybe a nice rose?)

Aromatics.  You don’t want a boring sauce! Add something to kick it up a notch—fresh herbs, dried herbs, garlic, mustard, you decide. The Stinking Rose (aka garlic) is the house brand around here, but I keep spices handy. If I want a Tex-Mex flair, I might use chili power or cumin. If I want a nice Italian flavor, I have Italian seasoning herbs at hand.

Thickening. Who wants a runny sauce? You can thicken it two ways—by reducing it with heat or by using a roux. To thicken it using heat, just mix together the ingredients above, turn up the heat, stir frequently and monitor carefully. The sauce will eventually thicken, but there will not be as much of it. Still, it’s delicious!

Thickening with a roux. For a long time I was intimidated when cookbooks mentioned a “roux”. I shouldn’t have been, though. A roux is just flour and butter mixed together and plunked into the sauce. Melt 2 tablespoons butter and add 2 tablespoons flour to it. Stir it till the texture is uniform. Plunk the mixture into the sauce, stir well, keep stirring, and watch it thicken. Trust the chemistry—it works

Final touches. Melt a tablespoon of butter into the sauce for a decadent taste and texture. Another option: Flavored oil. Pour the sauce over the meat and serve immediately.

Add it back. Either pour the sauce over the meat and serve immediately, or add the meat to the sauce, stir to coat, and then serve.

Bon Appetit, chef!

Money Saver: Whipped Butter


I enjoy whipped butter–the spreadable stuff, with the rich butter taste but without the cold hard butter un-spreadability.

Here’s my recipe for whipped butter at home:

2 sticks butter

6 TBS canola oil

Soften the butter and then, in a bowl, add the four TBS of canola oil to the butter. Whip until it is well combined, then turn into a refrigerator-proof container.

At the store, this whipped butter costs $3.32. At home it costs $1.58.





Frugal Toolbox: Freezer Inventory


I buy lots of loss leader meats. When it’s on sale, I buy it–usually in the large “family pack” serving, although there are only two of us at home. Most of the time I bring it home, plan weekly meals around it, and freeze the excess. What happens when the freezer’s full?

I took inventory today. Long overdue…I should be doing this monthly, but the last few months of full-time work and evening graduate school kept me way too busy. But I’m not busy now, and here’s what I found in my freezers…(we have a fridge with a freezer compartment, but we also have a chest freezer which saves us a lot of money on good meat deals.)

When I took inventory today, I found some things I’d forgotten: some frozen meatballs I bought buy-one-get-one-free. I love to make my own pasta sauce, but sitting on my pantry shelf I have some ludicrously cheap spaghetti sauce I picked up on sale. Voila! Spaghetti and meatballs, and the pasta jars can be repurposed to hold my future batches of homemade pasta sauce.  I also have a 10 pound bag of chicken leg quarters. We will barbecue, have friends over for dinner, and do all kinds of cooking with those chicken leg quarters. Some steaks I bought on sale which will be wonderful for Father’s Day and for those days when we feel deprived and want a treat but don’t want to blow the budget by going out to dinner. We’re stocked!

My inventory isn’t at all complicated. I just list the item and the serving size. I like to update it once a month or so.

The good news? I won’t have to shop for about a month–and when I do shop, it’ll be for add-ons to my main dishes. Some rice, maybe some beans, refill my cumin stash, some buy-one-get-one-free pasta. I have plenty of food to last us for a good long time.

How about you? What’s in your freezer?

Score du Jour for Tomorrow: Half-Price Cheeseburger from Sonic Drive In

Image may contain: food and text

June 6–one day only!–Score your half-price cheeseburger at Sonic Drive-In!

Check out  Sonic’s Facebook Page for details. Here’s your Locator to find a Sonic near you.

Bon appetit!