Cooking on a budget

slice of bread
Between buying a new house and preparing for baby #2, my husband and I decided a few weeks ago that it wouldn’t hurt to keep a close eye on our spending. We’re grateful that we’ve always had more than enough to live comfortably, but buckling down now and then never hurts. So we budgeted a conservative amount per week to spend on food/gas/miscellaneous, and went from there.

Since I do the majority of meal prep in our house, I’ve been particularly keen on cooking budget meals and finding ways to save on groceries…without sacrificing on taste and nutrition (having both a growing toddler and a pregnant lady to feed). Constraints often force the discovery of new ingredients and preparations, and this has definitely proven true even just a few weeks into this exercise. A few principles — none new, but diligently practicing them is another ballgame — have helped with belt-tightening:

Practice portion control
This has less to do with how much we eat per meal, but with how much we prepare and buy. I’m finding that for our family of 2.5, preparing food for 4-6 leaves us with enough for dinner, plus a couple lunches. That’s plenty. If there are too many leftovers, they inevitably hide out in the back of the fridge and go bad. Similarly, while buying in bulk is sometimes cheaper, the savings are canceled if you buy more than you can use.

Stretch meat
We do enjoy meat and are in the habit of buying less expensive cuts (think chicken thighs and certain Asian market cuts of beef), but we’ve also taken to using just a little less per meal — for example, using just two sausages in a soup instead of the called-for four. On-sale meat is something I do buy in bulk, then freeze in ~1 pound portions (butchers will often portion it out for you if you ask).

Rediscover rice and beans
Rice has long been a staple in our house, but we are learning to appreciate different types of beans and legumes. I have to say, the Instant Pot has really helped out here as it takes only ~20 minutes to cook up a batch of beans instead of a couple hours! We’ve also started trying more dal recipes using different types of lentils, and they’ve been a big hit. Fresh spices are key here; and this is another instance where I’ll buy from the local bulk store — not because I can buy a whole bunch but because I can get just the amount I need — 30 cents worth of tumeric, for instance.

Plan meals
I’ve never been much into weekly meal planning before; and I’ll probably never be the type to detail everything I’ll cook in the coming week. But I am trying to plan out at least the main courses several days in advance now, rather than just a couple. Mainly this is to cut down on unnecessary trips to the store where inevitably extraneous groceries make it into the shopping cart. I am in the habit of shopping the weekly grocery ads (the Flipp app is super helpful), which definitely helps determine what we’ll be eating.

I’m also trying to be more regular about preparing things that can be quickly thrown together for nutritious breakfasts/lunches — for example, boiling a dozen eggs and baking up a batch of granola at the beginning of the week; chopping up cheese cubes; baking a batch of muffins and freezing a portion. And of course a loaf of sourdough bread is almost always available.

Shop your pantry and freezer
One of the first things I did when we started this exercise was to take stock of what we already had at home. (Favorite rice vermicelli recipes, anyone? Because I have a lot…) Since we’re moving soon anyways, it makes sense to try to use up what’s in our pantry and freezer. I’m pretty good about knowing what meats we have in stock, but not so great at remembering our dry goods stash. (This ties back in with the first principle — don’t buy more than you can [remember to] use…) So I’m trying to do a better job of working in the wealth of neglected pantry items into meal planning.

Eat seasonally
Fruits and veggies get a bad rap for being expensive. If you’re buying strawberries in December, sure…but as long as you eat with the seasons, fresh produce is very affordable. (Plus, in-season always tastes better.)

What are some of your favorite budget recipes? Here are a just a few we’ve used for inspiration:

Recipes

Pad Thai

padthaiEarlier this week, I had a hankering for Pad Thai. It’s one of those dishes I’ll occasionally order out, but had never bothered to try making myself. My method for attempting new dishes usually consists of reading at least a half dozen recipes, noting the ingredient and method similarities, and then adapting to personal taste and what is in the fridge. For example: pad thai typically contains firm tofu (which I love), but I had a smidgen of ground pork that had to be cooked. So that went in. I also had a bunch of mint and cilantro from some other dinners we’d eaten earlier in the week, so that got added. Finally, I am a firm believer in pre-seasoning proteins (in this case, shrimp and pork), so that step was added as well.

One ingredient I didn’t substitute was the tamarind (some recipes call for lime juice, but I don’t think it’s an adequate substitute). I’ve never worked with tamarind before, and the only tamarind the local Asian market had was the whole pods. I used the instructions here to turn it into a pulp. It was a fairly messy process, but the flavor was definitely worth it.

Pad Thai

Adapted from Saveur | Serves 4

Ingredients

  • 8 oz. dried flat rice stick noodles
  • 3 tbsp. tamarind pulp
  • 3 tbsp. palm sugar or light brown sugar
  • 2.5 tbsp. nam pla (Thai fish sauce), divided
  • 1 tbsp. rice vinegar
  • 1 tsp. Thai chili garlic sauce
  • 2 tsp soy sauce, divided
  • 2 tsp sugar, divided
  • White pepper
  • 3 tbsp. vegetable oil
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 medium onion, peeled and sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
  • 8 oz. medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 3 oz. ground pork
  • 2 tbsp. dried shrimp, soaked and chopped if large
  • 6 stalks Chinese chives or 4 scallions, green part only,cut into 2″ pieces
  • 1 1/2 cups bean sprouts
  • 1/4 cup roasted unsalted peanuts, chopped
  • 1 lime, quartered
  • 1/4 c mint leaves, chopped
  • 1/2 c cilantro, chopped
  • Sriracha

Method

  1. At least 1 hour before cooking, marinate shrimp with 1/2 tbsp fish sauce, 1 tsp soy sauce, 1 tsp sugar, and a pinch of white pepper. Marinate ground pork with 1 tsp soy sauce, 1 tsp sugar, and a pinch of white pepper. Cover and refrigerate.
  2. Dissolve tamarind pulp in 1 cup hot water in a small bowl, then strain through a sieve into a medium bowl, pressing on pulp with the back of a spoon to push most of it through. Discard seeds. Stir sugar, fish sauce, vinegar, and chili garlic sauce into tamarind liquid and set sauce aside.
  3. Soak noodles in a large bowl of hot water until pliable, about 10 minutes. Drain and set aside.
  4. Heat 1 tbsp. oil in a wok or large skillet over high heat. Cook shrimp until pink but not completely cooked through, about 1 minute. Remove and set aside.
  5. Add remaining 3 tbsp oil to hot skillet. Add onion and garlic and stir-fry until soft, about 10 seconds. Add ground pork and saute until mostly cooked, about 1 minute. Move ingredients over to the one side of the pot and add the lightly beaten eggs. allowing to set slightly and then stirring to scramble. When eggs are about halfway cooked, add dried shrimp, chives, half the bean sprouts, half the peanuts, the noodles, the sliced omelette, and the reserved sauce and stir-fry, tossing constantly, until noodles absorb most of the sauce and sauce thickens, 2-3 minutes. Garnish each serving with the remaining bean sprouts, mint, cilantro, and peanuts and serve with limes and sriracha.

Creamed Corn Chicken

creamstylechickenThis is one of those simple, homey dishes that is a snap to put together when you don’t have much time to cook / feel like spending a lot of time in the kitchen. While the taste is best if you can marinate the chicken ahead of time, you’ll still get good results if you do it even just 1/2 an hour before cooking. Serve with plenty of rice and some variety of Asian veggies, and you’ve got yourself a Hong Kong cafe-style meal.

Creamed Corn Chicken

Serves 2-3

Ingredients

  • 4 boneless skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 large onion, sliced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 slices ginger
  • 1 can cream style corn
  • 1 T soy sauce
  • 1 T oil
  • Salt, to taste
  • Sugar, to taste
  • White pepper, to taste
  • 1 egg, beaten

Marinade Ingredients

  • 1 T soy sauce
  • 1 1/2 t sugar
  • 1 1/2 t shaoxing wine
  • Dash of white pepper
  • Dash of garlic powder
  • 1 t cornstarch

Method

  1. At least an hour before cooking (or overnight), combine chicken pieces with marinade ingredients. Cover and refrigerate.
  2. Heat oil in medium sized pot over medium-high heat. Add onions and stir fry for 2-3 minutes. Add garlic and ginger, stirring frequently, and season with salt, sugar, and white pepper.
  3. When ginger and garlic become aromatic (~2-3 minutes), add chicken. Cook, stirring occasionally, until all sides are browned and chicken is nearly cooked through (~4-5 minutes).
  4. Add cream style corn and soy sauce. Lower heat to medium low, and let simmer for 5-10 minutes.
  5. Remove from heat. While stirring constantly in one direction, add beaten egg. Adjust seasonings to taste. Remove ginger slices. Serve over rice.

Southwest Pork and Bean Stew

I love making stews in winter. They’re easy, hands-off, and they make the house warm AND delicious-smelling. What’s not to like?

southwest pork and bean stewWhile back in Seattle we ran across a brand of heirloom beans called Rancho Gordo. I used their Rebosero beans (a Mexican variety that is sort of a cross between red and black beans) for this recipe, and they worked great. (I prefer the texture of freshly cooked beans, but you could easily substitute canned for this recipe if you’re short on time.) What I really liked about this recipe was the use of molasses and orange zest, which provided a complex sweetness that wasn’t overpowering or cloying. You can adjust the heat to taste by raising/lowering the amount of cayenne or jalapenos. Rice/tortillas and guacamole make fine accompaniments for this hearty one-pot meal.

Southwest Pork and Bean Stew

Adapted from Simply Recipes
Serves 4

Ingredients

  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 pounds of pork shoulder or butt, trimmed of excess fat, cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 1-2 jalapeƱos, more or less to taste, seeded, stems removed
  • 2 Tbsp cornmeal
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons molasses (I used blackstrap)
  • 2 long 1-inch wide strips of orange zest
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 15-ounce can black or red beans, liquid included OR ~2 cups cooked beans + 1/2 cup water or bean broth
  • More salt to taste
  • Juice from 1 – 2 limes
  • Cilantro for garnish

Method

  1. Sprinkle 1 teaspoon salt over the pork pieces and let sit while you prep the other ingredients.
  2. Heat 2 Tbsp olive oil in a thick-bottomed stew pot on medium high heat. Add the pork pieces to the pot and brown them on all sides.
  3. Once the pork pieces have browned, add the chopped onions to the pot with the pork. Lower the heat to medium and cook until the onions are translucent, about 7-10 minutes more.
  4. As the onions are cooking, work on the garlic spice mixture. Place the garlic and the jalapeƱos in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until minced. Then add the oregano, cumin, cinnamon, cayenne, and cornmeal and pulse everything until ground.
  5. Once the onions are cooked, add the spice mixture to the pork and onions. Add the molasses, orange zest, and water to the pot. Bring it to a simmer and then reduce the heat to the lowest setting. Cover and let cook until the pork is completely tender, about 2 hours. Stir occasionally and scrape up any browned bits stuck to the bottom of the pot.
  6. When pork is tender, remove the orange zest and add the beans to the pot and cook for 20 minutes more on low heat. (Note: if using freshly cooked beans, add ~1/2 c. water or bean broth.)
  7. Remove from heat, and stir in the lime juice. Add more salt to taste.
  8. Serve garnished with fresh cilantro. Great with rice and fresh guacamole.