Recently, I posted about my $50 per month grocery challenge. It's a personal challenge to myself to cut our grocery budget right down to the bone. I've been following this challenge for three months now, and I didn't make it in either May, or June, or July. But I came somewhat close each month. I know that may sound completely infeasible to many people, so I thought I would offer a few of the recipes I often fall back on for extremely cheap but tasty meals. Let's be clear: I like saving money, but there's no question of us going without wholesome, healthy, and tasty meals. We like to eat far too much, and I take too much pleasure in cooking. We may have ramen noodles once in a while, but we don't subsist on them.
So here are four recipes for cheap, filling, and yummy meals. All of them are flexible, in that they can accommodate a huge variety of ingredients. Each one of these recipes is easily tailored to your own tastes, to what you happen to have on hand, and they can all be made suitable for vegetarians. Most importantly, they're complete meals that are easy to make.
Strata - I think of this dish as a more homely, crustless version of quiche. I like it because we tend to have the basic ingredients on hand nearly all the time. It's easy to make, and can be served for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. If you have access to day-old bread at a reduced price, this is a great way to use it up. Leftovers are decent, but not my favorite.
Toast enough slices of bread to make at least one complete layer in your casserole dish. Slightly stale bread is fine to use. If you wish, rub the toasted bread with a clove of garlic. Spray your casserole dish with cooking spray, or butter it. Layer in the toast and any leftover cooked vegetables or cooked meat that you have. If you have an onion, it's especially nice to slice it up and caramelize it, adding the cooked slices over the bread. Add some shredded cheese and stewed tomatoes if you have some. Grind some pepper over the ingredients. Beat two eggs and add a cup of milk. If this is obviously not enough liquid to cover the ingredients you have, add more eggs and milk in roughly this proportion. But if you have only one cup of milk and three eggs, that'll work just fine. I've made this with milk mixed up from dry milk powder and it's fine so long as there are whole eggs in the mix. Add some salt to the egg mixture and pour it into the casserole dish so that it mostly or completely covers the ingredients. Top it with any fresh herbs you have around that need to be used up. Bake it in a 350 degree oven for at least 45 minutes, until cooked through.
Make ahead option: You can assemble strata up to 24 hours before cooking it. Cover it with plastic wrap and refrigerate. If the bread is floating in the egg mixture, weight the top of the plastic wrap with another casserole dish or a plate to keep everything submerged. When ready to cook, proceed as above. I think strata actually benefits from sitting in the fridge for at least a few hours before being cooked.
Stir-fried rice - If you've already got leftover rice, this dish can be prepared very quickly. You can make it taste very good with the simplest ingredients, including frozen vegetables. So this dish is good to make year round, or whenever the budget is tight. Leftovers are great.
You'll need soy sauce, a beaten egg or two, frozen peas and/or other vegetables, freshly ground pepper (preferably white). If you have hoisin sauce or oyster sauce, and ginger, garlic and scallions, you're in for a treat. Small quantities of fresh or leftover cooked meat can be added, but it's not necessary. If you want to add raw meat, make sure that it is cut into very thin slices or small cubes. If you've made rice freshly for this dish, put it in a bowl and spread it out to cool and lose some moisture for at least an hour. Leftover rice is actually preferable. The best thing to cook in is a large cast iron skillet. Non-stick pans aren't great, because they can't take the pre-heating.
Heat your largest skillet over high heat for 8-10 minutes before you begin to cook. You want the skillet very, very hot in order to simulate the heat of a wok. When the skillet is smokin' hot, add some cooking oil and swirl the pan to coat the cooking surface. Add whatever seasoning vegetables you have, such as onion, garlic, ginger or scallions. Stir them only for a few seconds and then immediately add any uncooked meat you want in the dish. If adding raw meat, stir it only until it begins to lose its raw color and then add the cooked rice. Stir the rice around so that it heats through, scattering the ground pepper over it liberally. If you have cooked meat to add, add it now along with the vegetables. Continue stirring until the ingredients are warmed. Then make a well in the center of the pan, pushing the ingredients to the edge of the pan. Pour the beaten egg into the middle and allow it to sit for about 10-15 seconds undisturbed. It will begin to set. While the egg is cooking, pour soy sauce and hoisin sauce or oyster sauce (if you have some) over the ring of rice and other ingredients. Then stir all the ingredients back into the egg, mixing in the added sauces and continue cooking for about 1 or 2 more minutes. Serve warm.
Make ahead option: See to it that you already have leftover rice on the night you want to prepare this dish. If you're still ordering take-out or eating in restaurants, you'll often get far more rice than you need. If you're practicing more frugal dining habits, just put the rice on to cook the night before you plan to eat stir-fried rice.
Soup - This has got to be the ultimate frugal meal. Soup leftovers are generally better than the first servings. There are so very many soups that can be made with so many different ingredients, that I'm not going to bother to give an example here. Chances are high that just about any ingredient you have on hand, cooked or raw, can be made into a soup. Dry pantry goods (like rice and beans) and long storing vegetables (like potatoes, cabbage, and parsnips) are excellent foundations for soup. If you have any leftover ingredient, whatever it may be, try entering its name along with the words "soup" and "recipe" into google to get some ideas. It would be the rare ingredient that didn't return some results.
Plan ahead ideas: Keep your pantry stocked with liquid broths and bouillon cubes, as well as a variety of beans and grains. I especially like whole spelt in vegetable soups. It gives a lovely nutty, chewy quality to thin broth-based soups. In Italy, many simple vegetable soups are garnished with extra virgin olive oil and a little bit of grated parmesan cheese.
Korean Vegetable Pancakes - Of the four recipes I'm listing here, Korean pancakes are not the fastest to make. But they're fantastic when you have a lot of fresh vegetables coming in from the garden. The batter is incredibly quick to mix up, but they take a little time to cook on the stovetop. I include them here especially because this is an easy recipe that would be ideal for training a child who is of age just to start learning how to cook. Also, their versatility is a godsend to gardeners coping with an overflowing garden.
You can buy a mix at a Korean grocery store, or make up your own mix at home. Use just about any vegetable you enjoy, and incorporate some of those spicy condiments you have lying around in the fridge. You can add meat if you want it or have it on hand, but it's really not necessary. All you need is the pancake batter and some cut up or shredded vegetables to make a complete meal. Panfry the batter and you've got a hot and filling lunch or dinner. Leftovers are best if eaten within about 24 hours.
To make your own mix, combine 1 cup of flour, 1 well-beaten egg, and 1/2 teaspoon of baking powder. Next add in your sliced or shredded vegetables. I like to add ginger, garlic and some sort of onion. Cabbage and other thick greens are best when blanched with a little boiling water before being added to the batter. Zucchini and carrots can be grated in. Corn cut right off the cob is nice too. If you like spicy foods you can add some hot sauce directly to the batter, or plan to serve that as a condiment with the pancakes. If the mixture looks too thick, thin it with a tablespoon of water at a time until it looks right. It should be at least as thick as normal pancake batter. When the ingredients are thoroughly mixed, heat a skillet over medium heat for two minutes. Add a little bit of vegetable oil, and scoop about 1/2 cup of the batter into the oil, flattening it to a disk no more than 1/2" high if it mounds up in the center. Cook it for 5 minutes on one side, then flip it and cook for an additional 5 minutes on the other side. You may need to add more oil when you flip it.
Minding the pancakes while they cook is an ideal task for a responsible child, say age 9-10 and up. They only need to set a timer, flip the pancake, and possess a little common sense. Serve warm with any condiment: soy sauce, Thai spicy-sweet dipping sauce, ketchup, or anything else you enjoy.
Make Ahead Option: The pancakes are acceptable as leftovers, and will keep for up to three days, fully cooked, in the refrigerator. But they will lose their crisp exterior texture. To speed up last minute preparation, keep the prepped vegetables you'll use for the pancakes in a grab bag in your refrigerator. Buy the packaged mix to make things go faster.
Bonus Round: Easy and Economical Desserts
Bread pudding - This is basically a sweet version of the strata recipe given above. If you have some jam, you can make butter and jam sandwiches and fit those into your casserole dish. Otherwise, just use the bread on its own. Add some dried fruits like raisins, apricots, or whatever you have on hand. Add a couple tablespoons of sugar, and a small amount of cinnamon to the egg and milk mixture. Then assemble and cook as directed in the strata recipe.
Kheer - This is an exotic sounding but simple dessert that I like to prepare when I have too much leftover rice. It hails from India, where it is usually made with basmati rice, but any rice will work. All you need to do is heat milk gently in a pot and add the cooked rice. Stir in some sugar and powdered cardamom if you have any. If you want, you can add raisins. The consistency is usually quite soupy, so it's okay to dilute the milk with a little water. The starch from the rice will add body to the liquid. Just let everything warm up together and the sugar dissolve, and the cooking is done. In India they often include toasted almonds or pistachios in this dish. I omit them just because nuts are pricey, and I don't miss them. Kheer is commonly served cold as a refreshment on hot days. Hot or cold, this simple dessert pleases just about everyone. I've made it with condensed milk, well diluted, and that works fine.