Cooking on the cheap


POSTED: Wednesday, April 29, 2009

This is the typical advice you get when you go hunting for ways to feed your family for less:

» Buy in bulk; portion your purchases and freeze.

» Buy large, cheaper cuts of meat and slow-cook them (then portion the leftovers and freeze).

» Grow your own vegetables (and freeze the excess). Or learn to make preserves.

» Cook from scratch (bread can be baked for pennies, for instance).

» Plan your menus out a month at a time and make one big shopping trip instead of many small ones (don't forget coupons).




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        » Last Wednesday: Substitutions for gourmet ingredients

» April 15: Supermarket Web sites offer savings and tips


Do all this and you will save money. Problem is, it's hard, and it requires great devotion of brain power and kitchen time. These days, not only is money short, but time, as well, as we work extra hours, or extra jobs or partake of other time-consuming pursuits meant to save cash (ride the bus, for instance).

Our object today is to combine cheap with easy, without relying too much on convenience foods than can be high in fat and sodium. Canned condensed soups and soup mixes, for example, are inexpensive time-savers, but the trade-off isn't good. Besides, that old standby—chicken thighs or pork chops baked with cream of mushroom soup—is so well known, who needs help with that? (If you do: http://www.campbellsoup.com.)

Instead, here are some tips and recipes that you can make your own by incorporating the foods and flavors your family likes best.

Important to remember: The idea here is not to spend lots of money on pantry items you don't normally keep handy. If you'd like to try the Ramen Asian Slaw but don't have rice vinegar, for example, use whatever type of vinegar you do have, or lemon juice. Interchange those acids. Cooking on the cheap means smart substitutions.

At the same time, though, a little stretching of the taste buds can also be thrifty, so consider the dishes or the key ingredients listed below. Even if they are a bit outside the norm for you, in the interests of economy, you might want to try something new.

Tuna Okara Cakes

1 12-ounce container seasoned okara (soybean meal, sold near tofu; see note)
2 5-ounce cans tuna packed in oil
1/2 cup panko (Japanese bread crumbs)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Combine okara with one can of tuna with oil. Drain oil from second can and add tuna to okara. Mix gently. Form into 8 patties. Coat on all sides with panko.

Heat oil in skillet over medium heat. Place patties in skillet and cook until lightly browned and warmed through. Serves 4.

Note: The common brand of okara is Kanai, which is flavored with carrot, burdock and sweeteners. If you use plain okara, use about 2 cups, and you might need more oil or an egg for moistness.

Approximate nutritional information, per serving: 500 calories, 11 g total fat, 1 g saturated fat, 25 mg cholesterol, 350 mg sodium, 45 g carbohydrate, no fiber or sugar, 61 g protein

Make it your own

» Use canned salmon instead of tuna (pricier, but just as easy).

» Use homemade bread crumbs instead of panko.

» Add aromatics such as minced onions, or boost the veggie content with corn kernels or grated carrots.

» Add fiber by mixing in 2 tablespoons of wheat germ.

» Cut the fat a bit by baking or broiling the cakes instead of pan-frying.

» Add a sauce: Try ketchup, salsa or aioli, which is basically mayonnaise mixed with a flavoring (to keep it simple, mix mayo with mustard, Worcestershire sauce, sambal or soy sauce and a squeeze of lemon juice).

Ramen Asian Slaw

1 8-ounce bag coleslaw salad mix (see note)
1/2 of 10-ounce bag bean sprouts
1 3-ounce package dry ramen noodles, soup packet discarded
1 green apple, cored and cut into matchsticks
» Dressing:
1/4 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 teaspoon minced ginger
1 clove garlic, minced

Combine dressing ingredients; whisk to incorporate.

Toss salad mix with bean sprouts and apples. Add dressing; toss again.

Break up dry noodles into small pieces. Sprinkle over salad and mix. Chill salad at least 30 minutes, to allow flavors to combine and noodles to soften slightly. Serves 4.

Note: Taro brand makes a salad mix using green and red cabbage, usually found near the bean sprouts.

Approximate nutritional information, per serving: 180 calories, 6 g total fat, 2 g saturated fat, no cholesterol, 1,000 mg sodium, 29 g carbohydrate, 4 g fiber, 10 g sugar, 4 g protein

Make it your own

» Add thinly sliced white or green onions.

» Make your own salad mix from a head of cabbage. Add shredded carrots, thinly sliced broccoli stems or celery. Total volume should be about 8 cups.

» Substitute lemon juice for the vinegar, or add a splash of fish sauce (patis).

» Substitute another fruit for the apple, such as slightly underripe mango, canned mandarin oranges or even dried fruit such as cranberries.

» Sprinkle with sesame seeds.

» Top with shredded chicken or steak, cold cuts or cubes of tofu, for a main-dish salad.

Nutritional analyses by Joannie Dobbs, Ph.D., C.N.S.