More Bang for Your Buck

Sticker shock doesn't just occur at the gas pump these days. Food prices across the nation are rising at an alarming rate. On a recent shopping trip, for instance, I wound up spending $2.29 for three oranges and 29 cents for a single banana. And that's conventionally grown, not organic!

But take heart. There are ways to pare down rising food costs, though be prepared to change your buying habits a bit. Do you really need to purchase frozen vegetables with a butter sauce or meatloaf from the "meals to go" section? They're just too costly, even several times higher than cooking from scratch.

By all means, buy frozen veggies — which sometimes represent better quality and less waste than fresh — and add your own seasonings to them. Or share perishable bulk items, like a head of lettuce or a 2-lb. bag of carrots, with a neighbor.

Home-cooking doesn't always have to be complicated. See the recipes below, and keep in mind these tips as you walk the grocery aisles.

· Ditch preconceived menu plans. Work around best buys for the week, but beware of lost leader items (those ads that woo customers into the stores). You may end up with higher food bills on most other items.

· Be flexible. If you set your heart on a watermelon, which may cost as much as $6.99, check out other fruits. You may be better off buying canned or frozen. A fruit salad is a combination of items, so buy seasonal ones on sale or whatever else the store has priced to sell quickly.

· Check expiration dates on bags of salad greens. Avoid bags where you can't see the condition of the contents; there should be enough clear space to note any browning or softening. And even if the label says "triple-washed," rinse again in cold salted water, then spin dry in a salad spinner.

· Purchase heads of lettuce rather than pre-cut. You're paying extra dollars for ready-cut and washed greens. Opt for iceberg lettuce, the "chiffonade" fashion of the 1950s; it's about half the price of Romaine or other greens.

· It's false economy to buy dried herbs and spices in large quantities. These quickly lose pungency after four to six months. However, you can buy pepper and garlic-based mixtures, such as lemon-pepper seasoning, in large containers. These keep well in a cool, dry place.

· Stretch expensive salad dressings by adding oil, orange juice and rice vinegar. Or make your own. The best "skinny" secret: Drizzle salads and vegetables with seasoned rice vinegar (no calories).

· Overripe fruits? Whirl in the blender with some yogurt or cream — and mint leaves — for a refreshing chilled soup.

· Refrigerated vegetables beginning to soften; sauté in olive oil and garlic, then toss with hot cooked rice or pasta.

· Bake cookies at home. Make larger batches. Freeze the excess.

· Instead of dinner rolls, whirl four ingredients in blender to bake a dozen popovers for less than a dollar.

· When using the oven, plan on cooking several items that will cook at the same temperature. This saves time, money and energy.

· Save a bundle by planting a variety of fresh herbs. Even for a nongardener like me, it's easy to plant in a pot, window box or make a fragrant herb garden in your yard.

· For flavored cream cheese, chop a slice of smoked salmon and stir it into 8 ounces cream cheese, or snip fresh herbs such as chives, parsley and a dash of lemon-pepper seasoning and mix in.

· Transform leftovers like fish, poultry or vegetables into a lunchbox salad for the following day.

Here are some easy recipes to start; they are both flexible and forgiving. Fruits and vegetables may be substituted with whatever happens to be in your fridge at the time or what's priced attractively at the market.

Refreshing Peach Soup


Other fruits may be substituted. Try plums, melon, or mixture of plums and banana. Brush the banana with lemon juice to avoid browning.

3-4 peaches, pitted
1 cup low-fat milk
1/2 cup part skim ricotta cheese
1/4 cups nondairy vanilla creamer
8-10 mint leaves
1 Tbsp. honey or to taste
mint sprigs to garnish (optional)

Cut the peaches into 1-inch chunks. Place in the food processor or blender with remaining ingredients.

Process or whirl in blender until peaches are finely chopped.

Sweeten with honey to taste.

Serve chilled.

To Serve: Pour into small glasses or wine glasses. Garnish with mint sprigs (optional).

Serves 4.

Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 153; protein, 6 g; carbohydrates, 20 g; fat, 5 g; cholesterol, 14 mg; sodium, 71 mg.


Russian Vegetable Salad


Three cups leftover cooked vegetables may be substituted for a package of frozen mixed vegetables. When serving baked potatoes at a meal, bake an extra to use in this salad.

1 package (10 oz.) frozen mixed vegetables
3 Tbsps. oil-and-vinegar dressing
1 Tbsp. low-fat sour cream
1 cup diced cooked potato
2 Tbsps. thinly sliced scallions

Cook frozen vegetables in microwave according to package directions. If using leftover vegetables, no need to cook. In a cup, whisk salad dressing and sour cream.

Place the vegetables, potato and scallions in a bowl. Pour dressing over top. Toss gently to mix.

Serve chilled or at room temperature.

Serves 4.

Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 101; protein, 3 g; carbohydrates, 18 g; fat, 3 g; cholesterol, 1 mg; sodium, 130 mg.


Daikon Iceberg Chiffonade With Chive Vinaigrette


Daikon is a white Asian radish, from 8 to 15 inches in length. Unlike the small peppery red radish, this is crisp, juicy and sweet. It's usually one of the cheapest vegetables in supermarkets or pick some up at ethnic markets.

Chive Vinaigrette:

3 Tbsps. olive oil
3 Tbsps. seasoned rice vinegar
2 Tbsps. finely snipped chives

Salad Ingredients:

4 cups shredded iceberg lettuce
2 cups diced zucchini
2 cups shredded daikon

Whisk the vinaigrette ingredients in a small bowl. Set aside.

Toss the lettuce and zucchini in a large bowl. Top with the daikon.

Drizzle with the chive vinaigrette.

Toss at the table.

Serves 4.

Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 113; protein, 1 g; carbohydrates, 5 g; fat, 10 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 160 mg.


Pasta Primavera


4 cups fresh or frozen broccoli and cauliflower florets
1/4 cup olive oil
3 small cloves garlic, each cut in quarters
2 cups frozen sugar snap peas, thawed
1/3 cup sliced black olives
1 lb. pasta, cooked according to package directions
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

If broccoli and cauliflower are frozen, place in a microwave-safe dish with one-quarter cup water.

Microwave for 5 minutes at high or until beginning to soften. Broccoli should remain a nice bright green. Drain, reserving liquids.

For fresh vegetables, rinse in cold water. Pour 3 tablespoons water over. Microwave at high for 5 minutes or until barely tender. Drain, reserving liquids.

Heat olive oil in a large pot.

Add the garlic, and sauté over medium-low heat until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the broccoli, cauliflower, sugar snap peas and olives. Remove from heat.

Add the cooked pasta and reserved liquids. Toss together with the vegetables.

Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve warm.

Serves 4 to 6.

Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 371; protein, 10 g; carbohydrates, 57 g; fat, 11 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 54 mg.


Sima's Gravlax


My friend Sima taught me how to make this. Buy from the mid-section of a salmon fillet so that you have a piece of even thickness. Divide into one-quarter pound portions, wrap in wax paper and plastic wrap. May be frozen. Depending on the market or sale price of salmon, total price may be as low as $10 for nearly 2 pounds.

11/2 lbs. boneless salmon fillet
1 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 bunch dill

Rinse the salmon in cold water. Pat dry. Set aside.

In a small bowl, mix the salt and sugar.

Cover the bottom of a shallow glass dish, such as a 9-inch square baking dish, with plastic wrap. Sprinkle with half the salt mixture.

Place the salmon on top. Cover with remaining dill and press the remaining salt mixture into the salmon surface.

Cover with a double layer of plastic wrap or a thick plastic bag. Weigh down with a 5-pound weight or a 5-pound bag of sugar or flour wrapped in plastic. Refrigerate for 2 days, turning once.

Unwrap the salmon. Run under cold water to thoroughly remove the dill and salt. Pat dry.

With a sharp knife, slice the salmon paper thinly, on the diagonal.

Serve with bagels and cream cheese.

Makes about 2 pounds.


Puffy Popovers


When cooked, these may be filled with preserves and/or ice cream for dessert, grated cheddar to serve with fish, or in place of bread or rolls at any meal. Can't beat the cost. Using store-brand products, total cost approximately $1, less than 9 cents each!

1 cup milk
1 cup all-purpose flour
5 Tbsps. vegetable oil, divided

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Spray tray of muffin tins with nonstick cooking spray. Pour 1 teaspoon oil in each. Set aside.

Place eggs, milk, flour and remaining oil (1 tablespoon) into a blender jar. Whirl at high for 15 seconds. Scrape down sides to remove any unmixed flour.

Whirl again for 25 seconds. Pour into prepared muffin tins.

Bake for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 375°. Bake 25 minutes longer, until nicely browned and puffy.

Note: If browning comes too quickly, place a sheet of aluminum foil loosely on top.

Makes 1 dozen.

Approximate nutrients per popover: calories, 113; protein, 3 g; carbohydrates, 9 g; fat, 7 g; cholesterol, 38 mg; sodium, 21 mg.


Quick 'Strudel'


1 sheet (about 81/2 oz.) frozen puff pastry, thawed
2 Tbsps. strawberry jam
1 apple, peeled, cored and shredded
3/4 cup raisins
2 Tbsps. shredded coconut
cinnamon to sprinkle

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Unfold the puff pastry and lay on a flat surface.

Spread with a thin layer of jam coming to within one-quarter-inch of edges. Cover with the apple, raisins and coconut. Sprinkle lightly with cinnamon.

Roll up as for a jelly roll, pressing ends to seal. Place on a baking sheet, seam-side down. Prick surface several times with a fork.

Bake for 30 minutes, or until pastry is golden-brown and risen.

Cool on a wire rack. Cut into slices on the diagonal.

Note: May sift powdered sugar over top before serving.

Makes 8 to 10 pieces.

Approximate nutrients per piece: calories, 189; protein, 2 g; carbohydrates, 25 g; fat, 10 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 69 mg.


Biscuit Mix


10 cups all-purpose flour
7 Tbsps. baking powder
2 tsps. salt
1 cup (2 sticks) chilled margarine, cut in 12 to 16 pieces

In a large bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder and salt.

Cut margarine into flour mixture until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Transfer to a tight-lidded container.

Refrigerate up to six weeks.


Classic Biscuits


If cutting into rounds, make sure to use a biscuit-cutter, which is deeper than a cookie-cutter, allowing the biscuits to rise.

2 cups biscuit mix
3/4-1 cup milk

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Sprinkle about 1 tablespoon flour on a baking sheet.

Measure the biscuit mix into a bowl. Make a well in center.

Stir in enough milk to make a soft, not sticky, dough.

Turn onto a floured board. Pat into a square about three-quarter-inches thick. Cut into 12 pieces. Place on prepared baking sheet.

Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, or until pale-golden and risen. May also be patted into a three-quarter-inches thick round and cut out with a 11/2-inch biscuit-cutter.

Makes 1 dozen.

Approximate nutrients per biscuit: calories, 113; protein, 3 g; carbohydrates, 17 g; fat, 4 g; cholesterol, 2 mg; sodium, 303 mg.

Variation: To make cheese biscuits, stir in one-quarter cup grated Parmesan cheese and 1 teaspoon fresh ground pepper into biscuit mix. Follow the directions above.


Seasoned Breadcrumbs


6 slices bread
1 Tbsp. salt
2 tsps. black or white pepper
1 Tbsp. dried parsley

Preheat oven to 250 degrees.

Cut each bread slice into quarters. Arrange in one layer on a baking sheet. Bake for 1 hour or until completely dry. Cool.

Place in a heavy plastic bag. Crush with a rolling pin until finely ground or process in food processor to make fine crumbs.

Transfer to a bowl. Stir in the salt, pepper and parsley.

Keep in a tight-lidded container in a cool, dry place. Do not refrigerate.

Makes about 2 cups.



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