Cooking for Tight Times


Sticker-shock isn't relegated only to the gas pumps these days. Just take a walk around your local supermarket. According to reports, these higher food prices may be here to stay. One reason is that the operating costs of farmers, which include energy, fertilizer and equipment, are skyrocketing. For consumers, layoffs and bonus cuts add to the ripple effect. The result? Home cooking is looking more desirable than ever!


Keep in mind that whatever you prepare at home will almost always be cheaper than store-bought goods. For example, on a recent supermarket trip, I found an 8-ounce jar of Crusty Topping for use on meat, fish or poultry for $4.79. Make your own instead for about $1.50 (recipe below). And in a half-hour or so the night before, dinners can be prepared, refrigerated and ready to cook when you get home (make a little extra for the next day's lunch).

To start, savvy shopping is essential. Here are tips to keep food costs within your budget.

· Buy local at farmer's markets and roadside stands. We're now in a season where fresh produce is being distributed locally. Usually, there's less waste, and prices are lower than in supermarkets, where fruits and vegetables have been expensively trucked cross-country.

· Check prices. In off-season, frozen or canned items may be cheaper than fresh.

· Avoid frozen items such as vegetables with added sauces, butter and seasonings. They are higher in fat and sodium than you would prepare at home. It doesn't take much to add a knob of butter, a splash of tomato sauce, and some salt and pepper on your own; plus, it's much cheaper.

· Precut, prepackaged produce saves preparation time, but becomes expensive. Wash and cut fresh vegetables ahead of time, and store in a plastic bag or tightly lidded container in the refrigerator. These will keep for at least a few days. Wash salad greens in lightly salted water, then in fresh cold water and spin dry. You'll have at least twice the quantity at half the price.

· In general, generic brands or store brands are cheaper than recognized name brands.

· Reduce the portion sizes of meat and fish. Four to six ounces per person is recommended.

· Try new protein sources, like beans and tofu, instead of expensive meat cuts.

· Make your own chicken stock. Freeze in quart containers to use as needed. (See recipe below.)

· To cooked rice, add oils, herbs, seasonings and nuts to taste, instead of buying packages with seasonings that only serve four.

· Powdered black or white pepper in a container is cheaper than freshly ground pepper, although freshly ground is more flavorful.

· Instead of lemon juice (lemons are about 50 to 80 cents each), use cider vinegar to add acidity to a dish.

· No need to spend dollars on bottles or cartons of premade iced tea. For a summer cooler, fix a pitcher of low-calorie, sugar-free tea. Use six tea bags to nine or 10 cups of water, brew a pot of tea and remove tea bags, squeezing to release flavor. You can add a splash of juice, for sweetener and flavor, if you like. Chill and pour over ice cubes to serve.

Chicken Stock 

For best flavor, use a hen if you can find it. Overripe vegetables and those past their prime will intensify flavors — don't hesitate to use. Place all ingredients in a tall pot to limit evaporation and skim often. The meat and vegetables may be used for chicken salad or a chicken pot pie.

1 hen or chicken (31/2 lbs.) 
3-4 chicken thighs 
2 medium onions, quartered 
2 large carrots, sliced thickly 
3 ribs celery, sliced thickly (include leaves) 
1 medium parsnip, cut in pieces 
5-6 parsley stems with leaves 
2 bay leaves 
6 peppercorns 
1/2 tsp. dried thyme 
1/2 tsp. dried rosemary 
1 tsp. kosher salt or to taste 
4 quarts cold water

Place the hen or chicken, chicken thighs and all remaining ingredients into a large stockpot. Bring to a boil over medium high heat. Skim off fat and foam.

Reduce to simmer. Cook, covered, for 2 to 3 hours, adding more water if some water has evaporated.

Skim the fat off the surface with a spoon or by dragging a paper towel over the surface. Strain through a strainer into a large saucepan.

Let stand for a few minutes at room temperature, then refrigerate to chill. Pour into tightly lidded containers. This may be refrigerated for up to 5 days or last 3 months in the freezer. Before using, bring to boil any refrigerated or frozen stock.

Remove the meat from cooked chicken carcass and from thighs, discarding skin and bones.

Transfer the meat to a tightly lidded container. Store in refrigerator or freeze.

Place the cooked vegetables in a container and refrigerate. Do not freeze. Use for soups, or chicken pot pie.

Makes about 4 quarts. 

Red, Black and White Chili

I make this huge pot of chili so that there's enough for two or three meals. This dish freezes well. Thaw overnight in refrigerator or in microwave as needed. For pareve, use a package of soy ground round, crumbling into the chili at the end of cooking time. Bring to simmer to serve.

2 Tbsps. vegetable oil 
12 oz. ground turkey or beef 
1 cup barley 
1 can (28 oz.) stewed tomatoes 
11/2 cups tomato juice 
large onion, thinly sliced 
2 tsps. chopped garlic 
1 Tbsp. chili powder or to taste 
1 can (15.5 oz.) red beans, drained 
1 can (15.5 oz.) black beans, drained 
1 can (4 oz.) green chilies, drained and coarsely cut

In a large pot, heat the oil over medium heat.

Add the turkey or beef, and the barley. Cook until all pinkness has disappeared from meat, stirring often.

Add the tomatoes, tomato juice, onion and garlic. Cover and simmer 30 minutes.

Stir in remaining ingredients.

Bring to a simmer.

Cover and cook 25 minutes, or until barley is tender.

Serve hot, spooned over cornbread or baked potatoes.

Serves 10 to 12.

Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 196; protein, 11 g; carbohydrates, 27 g; fat, 5 g; cholesterol, 22 mg; sodium, 360 mg.

Broiled Haddock With Sunflower-Seed Topping

Use fresh or frozen haddock or other fish fillets. Thaw frozen fish before cooking. For topping, may substitute Crusty Herb Topping (recipe below).

Sunflower-Seed Topping:

1/3 cup low-fat mayonnaise 
1/4 cup hulled dried sunflower seeds, chopped 
1 Tbsp. sweet pickle relish 
2 tsps. cider vinegar 
4 pieces (4-6 oz. each) haddock fillet 
2 Tbsps. vegetable oil 
garlic powder, salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

In a small bowl, combine the mayonnaise, sunflower seeds, pickle relish and vinegar. Set aside.

Preheat the broiler. Spray a broiler pan with nonstick cooking spray.

Rinse the haddock and pat dry.

Arrange in one layer on the prepared broiler pan.

Broil for 4 minutes, or until fish is almost opaque. Spread the topping over.

Return to broiler and cook until topping is bubbly, 3 to 4 minutes longer.

Serve hot with fluffy rice or mashed potatoes and a salad, such as iceberg lettuce wedges.

Serves 4.

Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 268; protein, 28 g; carbohydrates, 8 g; fat, 13 g; cholesterol, 81 mg; sodium, 314 mg. 

Crusty Herb Topping

Before using, crush dried herbs in your hand to release flavors.

3 slices day old pareve bread 
2 tsps. dried rosemary 
2 tsps. dried parsley 
1 tsp. dried oregano 
1/4 tsp. garlic powder 
3/4 tsp. salt 
1/4 tsp. black pepper or 1 tsp. freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 300°.

Cut bread into 1-inch chunks.

Arrange in one layer on a small baking sheet or ovenproof dish.

Place in oven and leave in for 2 hours, or until completely dry. Cool.

Place in food processor. Process to chop finely. Transfer to a bowl.

Add the remaining ingredients. Stir to mix. Store in a tightly lidded jar in refrigerator.

Makes about 11/2 cups.

Approximate nutrients per tablespoon: calories, 10; protein, 0 g; carbohydrates, 2 g; fat, 0 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 93 mg.

To Use: Brush the meat or fish with olive or vegetable oil.

Sprinkle Crusty Herb Topping over and cook according to recipe directions. 

Garden Mint Pesto

Mint is the herb that may possibly take over your garden. Toss this refreshing pesto into hot pasta. Pesto may be frozen to use as needed.

2 cups firmly packed mint leaves 
1 slice brown bread, cut in 6 to 8 pieces 
1/2 cup walnuts or other nuts 
2 Tbsps. shredded Parmesan cheese 
1 Tbsp. cider vinegar or lemon juice 
1/3 cup vegetable oil 
1/3 cup olive oil 
salt and pepper to taste

Place the mint, bread, nuts, cheese and vinegar in the food processor. Process until coarsely chopped.

Pour in the oils gradually through the feeding tube, pulsing to a coarse paste. Transfer to a bowl. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Use at room temperature.

Makes about 11/2 cups.

Approximate nutrients per tablespoon: calories, 75; protein, 1 g; carbohydrates, 1 g; fat, 8 g; cholesterol, 0 mg; sodium, 15 mg. 

From-Scratch Salad Dressing 

You can use a near-empty mustard or mayonnaise jar to mix the ingredients.

1/4 cup vegetable oil 
3 Tbsps. olive oil 
3 Tbsps. vinegar 
1/4 cup orange juice 
1 tsp. lemon-pepper seasoning and salt to taste

Mix ingredients together in a glass jar or airtight plastic container. Cover and shake well.

Refrigerate. Bring to room temperature before using.

Makes about 3/4 cups. 

Chicken Pot Pie

Use the chicken meat and cooked vegetables from the chicken stock (see prior recipe) for this pie.

2 Tbsps. vegetable margarine 
2 Tbsps. all-purpose flour 
1 cup low-sodium chicken broth 
21/2 cups cubed, cooked chicken 
1 package (10 oz.) frozen mixed vegetables, thawed 
2 cups frozen tiny onions, thawed 
1/2 tsp. dried tarragon or 11/2 tsps. chopped fresh tarragon 
salt and pepper to taste 
1 prepared 9-inch pie crust

Preheat oven to 400°.

Melt the margarine in a large pot over medium heat.

Blend in the flour. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly until smooth and bubbly. Cook for 1 minute.

Stir in the chicken broth. Heat to boiling, stirring constantly.

Add the chicken, mixed vegetables, onions and tarragon. Return to boiling. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Transfer mixture into a deep 9- or 10-inch pie dish.

Cover with the pie crust, crimping the edges with a fork. Cut 3 one-inch slits in top.

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

Serves 4 to 6.

Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 329; protein, 20 g; carbohydrates, 22 g; fat, 18 g; cholesterol, 45 mg; sodium, 635 mg. 

Raisin Rice Pudding

4 cups milk 
1/2 cup long- or short-grain rice 
5 Tbsps. sugar or to taste 
1 Tbsp. butter 
1/3 cup raisins 
1/8 tsp. (scant) powdered nutmeg

Pour about 11/2 cups water into the bottom pan of a double boiler (just enough so that the top pan touches the water).

Pour the milk, rice, sugar and butter into the top of the double boiler. Stir and cover.

Cook over medium heat to bring the water to simmer.

Reduce heat to simmer. Cook for 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Stir in the raisins and nutmeg. Partially cover.

Cook for about 1 hour longer, until the pudding is thick and creamy, and rice is tender. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Note: The mixture may be cooked in a 11/2-quart baking dish in a preheated 325° for 11/2 to 2 hours, or until rice is tender and pudding is thick and creamy. Stir occasionally.

Serves 6 to 8.

Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 182; protein, 6 g; carbohydrates, 26 g; fat, 6 g; cholesterol, 23 mg; sodium, 69 mg.

Ethel G. Hofman, author of the recent Mackerel at Midnight, is also a past president of the International Association of Culinary Professionals.


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