Sunday, December 18, 2011

Food, Glorious Food

I love all things food: planning, cooking, eating, discussing. Where does this come from? I know people who gag at the thought of eating anything green and would rather write punitive sentences on a blackboard with squeaky chalk (how dated is that?) than eat something new or unusual.

Parents have a lot to do with it.  When I was growing up mealtime often held surprises, especially on weekends when Mom and Dad would introduce a new or unusual recipe. There was something about a cold and rainy Sunday afternoon that would inspire Dad to buy a bag of clams, and whip up his specialty, Manhattan clam chowder. Then there was the first time they made Cuban black bean soup, replicating a meal they'd enjoyed on a trip to Puerto Rico. It was rich and hearty, garnished with chopped hard boiled egg and onion. A fresh lemon slice lay on the bottom of the bowl, a wonderful tart surprise that added zest and character to the soup when discovered. Oh, and the paella! We would make paella from scratch, a family affair because the chopping and dicing and sauteing was labor intensive. My parents weren't wealthy, so the saffron was a big deal and I have no idea how they came up with the chorizo.

Moules Frites at Leons de Bruxelles
And that's continued with my family. An appreciation for good food has been passed on to my kids who have always, even when young, appreciated flavor and texture. When they were 10 and 12 we went on a very special trip to France, celebrating my parents' 40th anniversary.  The only (and I mean only) place the children wanted to eat was at Leons de Bruxelles, a chain that serves buckets of mussels any way you like 'em, accompanied by a pile of crisp french fries (moules frites). It was almost frightening, how many mussels they could tuck away.

Now that we're on a fixed income, I've created a personal challenge. It goes something like this. First, there's a budget. According to the USDA, the October 2011 average moderate weekly cost to feed two people was $130.00. This is well above the thrifty level of $89 and comes to just under $20/day. My challenge is to match this amount. But there's more, which has to do with quality.  The meals have to be fresh, healthy and delicious, so most processed foods are excluded. I'm not a big fan of them anyway, but have been known to fall back on a jar of spaghetti sauce or a can of Progresso soup. And trust me, I'll never make my own tomato paste and think the convenience of store-bought chicken stock is a bargain.

Here are a few strategies:
  • Review supermarket flyers and shop the specials. This week Publix has fresh salmon on sale for $7.99/pound, which is a really good deal. We love salmon, so that's on the meal plan.
  • Get multiple meals out of one.  This is easier to do with a family of two, when that roast chicken easily turns into chicken salad or soup and marinara sauce can be doubled and frozen.
  • Plan ahead. Know what you're going to buy and how much it will cost.
  • Don't skimp on quality. If you need to buy saffron, go ahead and do it. Just know that another meal is going to compensate for the luxury.
  • Know what you're spending.  I'm setting aside $130 each week that is just for groceries. It isn't used for paper or cleaning products or anything else you might find in the supermarket.
  • I rarely shop with coupons, preferring to buy the almost always less expensive supermarket brand. I'll use coupons for products I regularly use, but that's about it. Shopping the specials and BOGOs are usually a better deal.
  • Breakfast and lunch is included in the budgeted amount, but I don't really plan them. I just know I need to have the goods on hand to throw them together. Dinner is really where my head is at.
Here's an example of a low-cost but delicious and healthy meal I made last night.  It was split pea soup, and the recipe was modified from one I found in The Eat-Clean Diet Cookbook by Tosca Reno. It's a great collection of recipes I just discovered a couple of months ago and is well illustrated. Here's the modified recipe:


  •  2 cups dried split peas
  • 12 cups water
  • 4 bay leaves
  • Sea salt
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 large onion, peeled/chopped
  • 4 ribs celery, trimmed/chopped
  • 3 large carrots, peeled/chopped
  • 4 cups chicken broth
  • 2 cups water
  • 1/2 tsp dried thyme
  • 1/2 lb cubed cooked smoked ham steak
  • Lemon wedges
  • Cover dried peas in large saucepan with 12 cups water. Add bay leaves and sea salt. Cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes. Drain in a colander and set aside. 

Drained peas and bay leaves
  • Heat olive oil in a large heavy pot (dutch oven) over medium heat. Add onion, celery and carrots. Saute until onion is translucent.
  • Add chicken broth, 2 cups of water, peas, thyme and bring to a boil.
Bring to a boil
  • Add the ham, reduce heat and cover. Simmer for about 1 1/2 hours. Remove bay leaves
  • Remove about two cups of the soup and place in a blender. (try to avoid the ham chunks, but it's fine if a few end up in the blender) Blend until smooth and add back to the soup.
  • Serve in soup bowls. Squeeze fresh lemon juice on each bowl of soup. 
  • Serve with french bread or garlic toast.
Dinner is served!
This made at least 4 or five servings, so now you know what I'm having for lunch today!

Are you interested in joining me on this cost-controlled culinary journey? I'd love to hear how you manage your food budget - let me know.

Bon Appetit!

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