creativity and poverty
- rudeboy Jul 12, 2005 12:08 PM
A post on the general topics board reminded me of something that has been floating around in my subconsciousness.
I learned to cook back in college, when I couldn't afford to go out much, and when I worked in a very nice restaurant with a bad tip pool (i.e., improperly compensated = poor).
I didn't know any better, but I started out on ramen noodles, then I figured out that you could do things with them. Then to one pot meals, etc., soups, etc. I remember one time not having any money, no gas in the car, and just a can of hominy in the cabinet. A bouillon cube and some paprika saved the day.
Anyhow, now that I'm older and have a career, I've found that I spend tons of money on food - so much that it is almost cheaper to just go out to cheap and moderate restuarants. Things are so expensive.
It seems like I used to be able to cook better. It's easy to go buy fresh chanterelles and prepared demi-glace, but a night's meal can easily top $50, with wine and all.
I think that I had to get more creative in the past. Does anyone else have this experience? I think that I just need to leave my wallet at home, take a ten dollar bill to the grocery, and see if I can get creative again.
I've been annoyed, if not bitten, by the same bug lately. It explains my mayonnaise post further down the page - I wanted to make egg salad, but realized I was almost out of mayo, when it hit me - you don't have to make yet another separate trip to the grocery store which result in another $200 worth of "stuff"... You can MAKE it. Wow, what a revelation. (We had a similar revelation last winter when our furnace died during the holidays, and I realized - wow - the reason people have fireplaces isn't just for SHOW, it's because they heat the house. Is that an epiphany, or what?)
I have three kids, (one of whom is a 13yo boy - need I say more?), a husband with a metabolism that doesn't quit, and now I also shop for my mom, who recently underwent hip replacement surgery. And I'm finding myself increasingly galled at the way I spend money at the grocery store on everything from meats to "convenience foods". And we're talking "supermarket" not Whole Foods or Trader Joe's. Just your basic grocery store chain.
Lately, I find myself turning off the Food network and reading my Grandmother's old "Home Demonstration Club" cookbooks & the like in some attempt to reconnect to a time when things like "whole vanilla beans" or "2 bags Ceasar salad" didn't show up on grocery lists.
In short, I just think I've become incredibly lazy and spoiled, and I'm encouraging my kids to be lazy and spoiled. And is that isn't bad enough, irresponsible, as well.
Ugh. Maybe it's time to do some Chowhound challenge, eh?
For instance, "back in the day" one of the strangest things I used to make was a "tuna chili" that was totally born out of convenience, but was really good. Saute a bit of onion, throw in whatever canned beans are on hand (and they are still cheap), add some Rotel tomatoes & chilis, corn, and a bit of chili powder, then toss in drained tuna (like, from a can, whatever was on sale) and serve over rice. I probably haven't made that in 12 years.
l'm so enjoying this thread. . .when one of our college age kids was spending way too much on food, not to mention the occasional celebratory trips to the sushi joints, I had to put my foot down and offer some frugal tips such as those that most of you shared.
This was met with a comment. . "we can't all be like you and make a meal out of an onion and a potato"!
Its generational I think.
I guess my revelation came when going low carb and trying to get more salads into our diets. I am pretty much a from scratch cook and rarely buy any preprepared foods but I was buying those expensive bagged salads. I would also find myself picking over the greens because there was so much garbage in them too, all of those stems and less than lovely bits. When I started buying assorted greens, washing them and spin drying and wrapping loosely in a flour sack towel and storing in the fridge is an unsealed bag. I was getting enough greens for 2 weeks for what I would have paid for one and it stayed fresher and nicer that the bagged stuff too. Also it is good to pick over that bagged stuff, I have found dead insects in these supposedly washed and cleaned greens.
I hear what you are saying, but be careful what you wish for...or at least be careful what you are nostalgic for.
Living in a relatively poor area of a 2nd world country I experience a forced version of your "take $10 to the grocery store" idea. It's like regressing to my relatively poor childhood in the 1970's -- the toughest cuts of beef, little fresh seafood even though we live by the ocean, little in the way of "exotic" ingredients like spinach or mushrooms or grapefruit juice. It's not all bad, for example I can have mango for breakfast every day all year. But overall food shopping is indeed cheap but not that enjoyable.
So our strategy sounds like the opposite of yours. When we eat out it is at one of the 3 or 4 most expensive places in town, where the chefs have access to higher quality ingredients. My modest cooking is better than the most of the cheap-to-moderate places we've tried.
Although one happy outcome of the forced downscaling is that we've enjoyed dozens of wines that are expensive here (being imported) but cheap in the US. When we return to the 1st world we'll be thrilled to keep drinking Argentinian, Spanish and Portuguese wines at low prices - you really can take $10 to the wine store and get something delicious to drink with your chanterelles.
I hear you. I do the same thing sometimes. I think the $10 thing is a little extreme, for me. But what I've started to do is to take out a set amount of money for the week. That way, if you splurge at the beginning of the week on grocery, you'll just need to be more restrictive for the rest of the week. If I spend good money on steaks one night, I would do a basic pasta dish another night.
Another thing I have been doing is really pick stores that does not cost me an arm and a leg to get grocery. I've pretty much stuck with getting food exclusively from Costco and Trader Joe's. Both places carry good quality items but are generally cheaper than your regular supermarket chains.
For creativity, I watch a lot of cooking shows and just love to browse through cookbooks and cooking websites. I'm even on some recipe mailing lists.
Best of luck to you.
I totally understand. I agree with Anna about the supermarket prices. I am talking about Safeway, Albertson, etc. My strategy is to only buy their stuff on sale (which I think is closer to regular price) and stock up. I do my regular shopping at Trader Joe's (stay away from the prepackaged salads since they are way overpriced) and at Costco. Also consider buying fish at ethnic markets since they are consistently fresher and cheaper. Finally, I haven't been able to impress upon my kids to please eat their leftovers in the fridge! If some creativity can be used on how to "refresh" this food, the meals can actually be fun and tasty. I grew up with the "don't waste anything" ethics and it's very hard to impress upon the kids, who have such abundance in their lives. The kids have their own places now and when they feel the squeeze, all this nagging will make more sense ;0). Margret
Back in the days when I knew on Wednesday I would have nothing left by Friday I would plan a 'silver ball' dinner with friends.
Basically we would take out the 'silver balls' (foil was cheaper than plastic or tupperware) of frozen stuff in our freezers, gather in my tiny apartment, thaw everything and add more spices - if we had any, and create a meal (those with nothing left in their freezers were welcome but had to go on a cheap beer run with any loose change we had)
One of the best meals we came up with consisted of leftover frozen shrimp, a can of drained pineapple chunks, sliced onion, minced hot peppers, ginger powder, and spicy KC Masterpiece BBQ sauce all server over slightly overdone white rice.(I grew up with minute rice so I was still working on technique)
After that we would sometimes deliberately make the recipe and tweak it - but the 'silver ball sweet and sour shrimp' version always seemed to be the best.
I really don't miss those days for a lot of reasons but I think you are right that with less easy access to ingredients (or finances) it would force me to be more creative than I am now, and probably save some money in the process.
I do better with this sort of thing in the summer because I plant a rather extensive vegetable garden and after planting the seedlings indoors in February, replanting, tending etc. It really makes me appreciate the effort it takes so I don't want to waste any of my precious crop.
I'm getting a vegetable box this summer - never done that before. I think that another thing that brought this up is that I've been inundated with squash (see me post below asking for ideas), tomatoes (made a big pot of tomato sauce after fire roasting the tomatoes, and now okra (someone already asked about okra). That alone is feeding some creativity, and I realized how spoiled I am to be able to just go and buy whatever I want (if I want purple okra in february, I can get it 5 minutes away).
This veggie box makes you start thinking about pickling, freezing, storing for winter, and making huge casseroles. It also resulted me in inviting a bunch of friends over last week to help me catch up to my vegetables (my girlfriend was out of town, and I was getting behind)!
I tend to be frugal anyway, but joining a CSA last year definitely fueled both my creativity and my desire to get every last good bit out of my week's box, as well as to eat mostly what's in season locally. (Within reason, of course - I live in a cold climate, and I'm not ready to give up lemons). I learned how to make really good things out of, among other things, pea pods, dandelion greens, radishes, and turnip greens. All of those can be had cheaply at the supermarket if need be, so it's good to know how to work with them. I also started buying meat in large quantities directly from the farmer, which is much cheaper and indulges both luxury and frugality at the same time. You get a freezer full of pork loin chops and ham hocks, prime rib and bones, leg of lamb and lamb hearts. I'm having to learn about preparing all the cuts, and that's got to be good for my long-term budget. It's certainly good for my eating, which is more varied than before. I'm also hardly ever in the grocery store now - I've got my produce from my farm share, my meat from my farmers. I get my spices from Penzey's. I try to get both my eggs and my bread at farmer's markets when I can. So I can avoid the grocery store for long stretches, which definitely saves on money. Fewer trips means fewer impulse buys. And my menus get much more interesting during the growing season, because who wants to walk down to the store in the heat if you've got a fridge full of vegetables and a freezer full of meat? You work with what you've got.
Limits - seasonal limits, monetary limits - can certainly fuel creativity (within, ahem, limits). Think of the numebr of poets who have found inspiration in the rigid structure of the sonnet.
My sister - who lives two doors away from me also started in a CSA this year, this has also helped me become more adventurous as they always have more veggies than they can use. We made a great batch of rhubarb greens only later to find out that in large quantities this may be bad for you, oh well - what isn't
Thanks for this thoughtful and thought-provoking post. I know what you mean. I am on a sabbatical from working right now and am frequently appalled by what my husband and I spend on food. We hardly ever eat out, not least because in most cases we can rather easily make the same thing (or something better) at home (maybe a topic for another discussion sometime).
And yet...We go to two farmers' markets a week and buy virtually all of our fruit, vegetables, meat, milk and eggs from these vendors. Most of it is organic and all of it is local and far fresher than what we could get at a supermarket, including Whole Foods. Last night--just to illustrate my point--I made pork tenderloin with sour cherry sauce, sauteed zucchini, steamed potatoes with chives and peach ice cream. Every ingredient, except for the sugar, vanilla, ginger and drop of almond extract in the ice cream, including garlic and onions, came from either the market (where we know all of the vendors from whom we buy) or my own garden. And for better or worse we are hooked on these great ingredients, for reasons of philosophy, health and deliciousness.
For someone like me, raised on meat and potatoes and Stouffer's frozen dinners in the midwest, eating like this is a revelation. I don't think I can go back. But I try to focus on buying as little processed and prepared food as humanly possible, taking the time to make things from scratch whenever I can (easier for me at this point since I don't have a proper job) and using ingredients to the hilt (eg, composting rotting veg, cutting up whole chickens and using the backs/bones to make stock, etc). And it gets a little bit easier to be circumspect after the bounty of summer and fall!
It also helps to happen to like cookbooks that have a lot ot "cucina povera" dishes in them. I own every cookbook by Marcella Hazan, and I noticed it is quite a bit more economical to cook out of that one vis-a-vis a lot of other cookbooks I tried.
Also shopping for local produce on farmers market is a way to get top rate ingredients at gentle prices. And fresh peas in the summer beat truffle oil any time flavour-wise.
Interesting. Very interesting.
I spend a lot of money on groceries but I only buy organic products and I make everything from scratch so what I buy lasts longer and I know where the money is going. I save money (and get creative) by belonging to a CSA - whatever I get, I have to make. I enjoy this a lot.
It's interesting to me that another poster mentioned the mayonnaise epiphany. I've had this many times over the last 5 years or so, but in my case it's because of A) all the crap they put in pre-made products and B) why pay for someone else to make it when I can make it better? I make my own mayo, all my dressings, every sauce (why not make your demi?), bread, crackers, dessert toppings. It's really funny to me when my friends say 'you MADE these rosemary crackers?' and I know it only takes about half an hour from start to finish and they are way better.
My big moment came when I realized I was paying wads of cash for free-range, organic chicken broth but I could buy a organic chicken once every couple of weeks and make my own after we had dinner. Amazing change in my soups and sauces with homemade broth.
So now I look in the freezer and fridge, see what
I have, if I don't have any ideas (last night it was seared pork chops with maple, rosemary, orange and lime glaze and roasted potatoes, carrots, garlic, and apples - we had a simple salad to start with and the entire meal took about an hour to make) then I search epicurious or here or google the ingredients to get some ideas.
There are loads of ways to get creative. I think it helps if you rid yourself of pre-packaged items.
If you focus on the vegetarian cuisines of India (amongst other countries), after spending just $50 on pantry items, you ll find that whole meals are possible for $10 for 4 people. It's just a bit of work to make ginger paste, garlic paste, grind your own garam masala - but well worth the effort.
funny - I just picked up a very detailed book on indian vegetarian cuisine. Now, I haven't fully explored the indian market - not sure if I have a good one here. Just now getting into that. The recipes in this book are VERY detailed.
I've found that with thai food - I can buy prepared currys fro practically nothing that would take me hours to make. I do have my own lemongrass, galangal, ginger, and thai lime growing, but my lord, for $2 I can get an excellent prepared curry from the asian market.
Excellent post, Rudeboy. Most real Chowhounds experience an interesting dichotomy:
1. Once you raise the levels of your food expectations, most mid-level and even some high level restaurants fail miserably.
2. You find you can cook at home and make better food than most restaurants, but it's not any cheaper, just better.
So here's where the Chowhound demeaner kicks in:
1. Hispanic groceries: They have the best pork available because they don't trim the fat. Often they are an excellent source of seafood too. (With prices for spices half that of traditional markets.)
2. Asian markets rock when it comes to ingredients. Compare the pricing of basil or mushrooms at your local Asian grocery to any other store. You'll be amazed. Generally there is a better seafood selection including shrimp with the heads on--makes all the difference.
3. Begin to cook the old European dishes such as Oxtails, Veal liver, etc and you will never go to a franchise restaurant again.
Then blow all the money you've saved on good wine and you're back to square one....
Nice food for thought, rudeboy. There's alot that I could say in response since this topic resonates w/ me in many ways; however, I don't have the energy to go into a long-winded musing (thank goodness, everyone mutters).
Let me just say that I spend alot more $, time, and thought on food now than I did in grad school and have no problem justifying my purchases at farmer's markets or meat/seafood purveyors as long as:
1. I'm truly appreciating the quality of ingredients and not buying it b/c it's trendy or a status symbol.
2. I don't waste it by letting it spoil before I can use/eat it. We throw away too much in the US!
Just b/c I *can* buy better and more now, doesn't mean that I always should. I'm very thankful that I have the choice though...
PS. Pictured below was dinner last night. Grilled chicken breast marinated southern-style, roasted okra, and broiled muramoto (I think) tomatoes from my farmer's market. A simple down-home meal that was brimming w/ freshness and flavor! Cost for that plate of food (sans pantry ingredients): $3.50...$10 can buy a whole lot of deliciousness in my book.
I find my grocery bill is low when I buy my meat in bulk at Costco. I also shop at Chinatown a lot for fresh produce and fruits (prices are so much lower than regular stores).
I don't go the organic route, so groceries are cheaper right off the bat. I never waste food, so I only buy what I can use up in a day or two.
Also, how you stock your pantry makes a difference also. Have stables that can create simple, delicious yet cheap meals. Items like lentils, couscous, beans, and pasta. In the fridge I usually have Parmasean cheese, eggs, garlic, tomatos, herbs. Combining those things with a few defrosted chicken breast, or flank steak, or salmon (buy in bulk from Costco and frozen in individual protions) you've got yourself a ecnomical yet home cooked meal.
Well, of course budgeting can lead to creative solutions. That's something that's common in other fields, too, such as filmmaking.
However, I think there are really two types of creativity involved. One is just the enjoyment of creating a dinner where there was no dinner before, no matter the cost.
But the other element, which is I think what you're nostalgic about is the "figuring" aspect you mention. It's that "aha!" moment when you cleverly work something out on your own. And when that feeling starts to disappear, I imagine it needn't be solely a function of money (buying better food or prepared food), but can also be a result of your having become smarter, so that the solutions are now obvious to you.
I hear you. Both my husband and I work, and we have two children, ages 3 and 6. We spend a shocking amount on groceries (the downside of using Quicken is knowing the truth!). And, when we asked our friends what they spend, they invariably answered $200, which I know is a lie - I've seen the quantity of prepared foods in their homes.
When I'm feeling impecunious, I make simpler meals - brown rice with a can of rinsed kidney beans and some salsa, served with a little cheddar and sour cream. My kids love it. I didn't renew my CSA membership this year (share partner backed out), but friends have handed off kale and collards they can't use, and I've made simple stews I've packed for lunches and stored in the freezer.
A sure way for my grocery bill to skyrocket is if I'm making items - like the homemade granola from the Kripalu Cookbook that must have set me back $30. My, it was good, though!
I'll have to look into the ethnic markets for good fish - the prices at our local supermarkets are very dear.
I oscillate pretty frequently between spending lots of money for elaborate meals and trying to see how far I can spread a dollar. Lately it's a bit more of the latter. Some things I do when I want to save money:
Lavash pizza. I buy a three-pack of lavash ($1.50), a can of Muir Glen tomato sauce ($1.50), a half-pound of good goat cheese ($5), and an assortment of vegetables and salad greens ($10 at most). Occasionally I'll splurge for a good blue cheese or pine nuts or something, but that's not necessary. I make the pizza by rubbing the lavash with garlic, brushing on olive oil, then the sauce, then the cheese and toppings. During the 10 minutes it takes to bake on the pizza stone in the oven I throw together a salad. My wife and I eat this three nights in a row, varying the toppings to keep it interesting. So that comes to $3 per person for dinner! Heck, even if I have a beer and include the cost of the olive oil, vinegar, salt, and such that is used, we're still talking $5 to $6 each.
Another thing I like to do is buy a whole chicken and eat it over four nights. I usually buy organic, so the birds run about $12 each. Typically what happens is on Sunday evening I'll buy the chicken, cut it into pieces, throw them into a brine, and then put the backbone and neck into a "stock bag" in the freezer. On Monday I'll take two pieces out, stuff a bunch of seasoning under the skin (salt, pepper, dried herbs, lemon zest, garlic, whatever is around), and roast them in the oven. Serve with cheap sides like salad, rice, polenta, potatoes, carrots, peas, or some seasonal vegetable. After dinner the bones and uneaten meat go in the stock bag. On Tuesday we have the same, perhaps with different sides. But after dinner I take the bones from dinner and the freezer and put them in a large pot of water, setting the cooked meat aside in the fridge. I throw in the bits of leftover vegetables I always freeze (leek tops, carrot butts, onions, etc.) and make a stock by letting it cook over a low flame overnight. In the morning I quickly strain the stock and put in the fridge. Then in the evening I throw in some freshy chopped vegetables and herbs, along with the reserved meat, maybe some pasta, and have chicken (noodle) soup with toasted bread brushed with garlic and olive oil for Wednesday and Thursday. The cost here depends on the amount and types of sides, but the key point is that even with an expensive organic chicken at $12, we spend only $1.50 per person per day on the meat.
Some other things I sometimes do are stews with cheap cuts of meat (goulash is a favorite), tacos again with the cheap cuts (beef skirt/flank steak or chicken thighs), steamed mussels, and fresh sardines (about $3/pound around here and mighty good). I do try to stick to organic as much as possible, but trips to the cheaper ethnic grocers are not uncommon.
My husband and I married young. We were poor college students for the first four years of our marriage. When I mean poor, I mean really poor. We refused to take out loans so virtually every penny we had went to pay our perpetual tution bills and between us we worked six jobs.
This was 1991-1994 and somehow, we survived between the two of us on about $40 a week for food. I am really nostalgic for that time in my life despite the constant struggle.
It brought me back to my roots, so to speak, because we ate only the basics and staples. It was the point in which I really learned about seasoning, spices and herbs. I would watch whatever was on sale and cook from it. I cooked like my mother and my grandmother. There was nothing gourmet. It was rustic farm cooking.
We ate a lot of ramen. My husband had lived in Korea for a year and knows how to make it really, really well.
We ate a lot of pasta. I am not a fan of it anymore. In fact, it's the last thing I will ever consider on a menu.
I remember one time splurging on a half pound of shrimp. I thought it was SO expensive. I made some sort of shrimp pasta (of course) and carefully split the half pound between us. It was such a treat. I can still taste that meal. Now that my cooking skills have evolved, I can see that it was a basic, non-gourmet recipe, but it was so, so good for the time.
As I was reading your post, I couldn't help but think about one of our staples of noodles (what kind? ANY kind! LOL) tossed with butter and parmesean. There's nothing you could add (not even cream & more butter to make it an alfredo) that tasted as good as that meal. Butter used to be inexpensive (remember when) and parmesean from the green can was just fine... Fond memories for me, too.
We must have shared the same cookbook because that was also a staple at our house. We used to buy an industrial-sized can of the cheese.
I remember after we'd both graduated and established our careers - my husband was sitting at breakfast one day and said, "You know, I think we've finally made it." I asked him how he knew and he said, "You buy orange juice in a carton instead of in a can."
OJ (in the can) was a big treat for us. We used to do half juice, half water to make it stretch. I still do that though because I find it too think and acidic to drink straight.
Now, that's funny - I grew up dirt poor, but thought my mom made a lot of tuna-noodle casserole because it was so good, not because it was so cheap. My wife, OTOH, grew up eating her dad's cooking, mostly classic French, and never tasted tuna casserole until I made it for her. She now shares my adoration for it!
In college a can of tuna and a box of 65 cent mac and cheese and that was STYLING. My friends all thought I was a gourmet cook because I would add frozen peas, garlic and onion powder, extra slices of american cheese, and a bit of campbell's mushroom soup. Man, that was high eatin'.
Of course, other times (the days when we were using coffee filters for toilet paper or stealing rolls from the drama dept.) it would be just mac and cheese made only with butter (who could afford milk?) and a can of tuna - but still I was a hero because of that garlic and onion powder. Heehee.
Honestly I think that's where I started learing to experiment. I'll still make it but now it's all organic and a little more high-falutin': some sauteed mushrooms, cream instead of milk, sauteed garlic and onion, crumbled bacon. It typically ends up something I make about once a year when I need dinner quickly and the cabinets are bare - but there's always a box of Annie's and a can of tuna!
One weekend in college there were 6 of us to feed and buy beer for with a minimal amount of cash we had pooled together (none of us had credit cards then)
So we bought 4 boxes of generic powdered Mac n'cheese, milk, & lots of beer. Pete, whose house we were at had tons of spices so we experimented with which ones were best...to this day I still put celery salt on my mac n'cheese, so good.
Yes indeed. When I was still in school ('back in the old days' as my kids like to say) I even contemplated trying to make some money by writing a cookbook called 'The Food Stamp Gourmet'. Then, of course, I found out it had already been done (in a way)! In any case, I really enjoyed the creativity of making do, and particularly liked playing the 'how good can dinner be if I make it only with pantry staples and stuff on hand' game...In any case, your post certainly hit home tonight. Hubby has been doing most of the weeknight cooking, and is getting a bit fancier. I sometimes wish he would stick to basics. Tonight he made a pasta with scallops, veges and cheese and, well, it didn't quite work. After my first bite my first thought was that it wasn't balanced and would have been better without the scallops (this coming from a confirmed scallop lover).
again, what a great (& greatly) relevant post! in my college days, there simply wasnt enough time for any sort of gourmet fixins, but now that I'm out of school, i find that my food costs are going out of the roof! the more i read and learn about food, the more i tend to scout down the best ingredients, scout out ethnic markets and farmers markets, and visit not one mega-grocery store, but many (perhaps 3-4 places) just to get everything i need! not to mention that ethnic grocery stores arent so conveniently close and farmer's markets tend to only be 1x a week here... :(
at some point i scratch my head and wonder if all this time spent and energy expended on chasing the good stuff at different locales is worth the extravagant gas expenditure and time. it seems more often than not that my homecooked meals run = or > my economical restaurant ones.
here's a further kink to add in: the unpredictability of my job and hours makes it extremely difficult to plan meals ahead, ensure ingredients dont go bad, and that my budget is in check. oftentimes long hours at the office calls for a takeout. plus, im cooking for a single person... still trying to figure it all out!-- but often i feel that the usual cheap eats (pastas, ramen, etc.) that tend to have longer shelf lives, aren't my favorite thing to munch on every day.
the other problem is my recent obsessiona nd addiction to baking..it gets expensive buyign all those top quality ingredients!!! trader joe's helps out with that quite a bit though...
We also spend way too much on food and we don't eat at fancy restaurants very often. The worst spendthrift thing is when it has been a long day at work and there's nothing at home. So I go to our local fancy food hall place where everything is twice as expensive as elsewhere. I'm just too tired to go to the real market.
So I get a roast chicken and some salad greens and fresh fruit and it adds up. So I tell myself I'm going to plan more.....hahahahaha.
Actually, I do plan some of the time. Other times I plan and then something comes up and I lose food to spoilage. I REALLY hate that.
Here's a dish my husband made for me when we were courting years ago...he got it off the back of an egg noodle pckg. It's Java Tuna Noodles. I think I posted it here a while ago.
Mix together chicken broth, curry powder and chutney and heat while noodles are cooking.
When it has boiled, add a can of tuna (crumbled up). Turn off the heat. Pour over the noodles when they're done and serve with sides of currants, peanuts and sliced green onions. It is really delicious and cheap...of course you have to get the chutney, but it lasts a long time in the fridge.
I always make my own curry powder - it's very easy and keeps in a jar for quite a while.
very thought-provoking post. i'd just emphasize two points: first, the pantry. once you're stocked up on the spices, beans, pastas, oils, etc. that fit your preferences, dinner doesn't require much planning--you can get the fresh ingredients that are on sale or look good that day and make them into a meal easily.
second, ethnic cuisines like italian and indian can point you to great ways to make delicious food cheaply.
of course, none of this protects you from the impulse buy--the sudden, overwhelming feeling that you need that bottle of orange flower water or the tin of expensive smoked paprika--but i've found that i can hold the impulse at bay (mostly) by knowing roughly what i need before going to the store, and by not wandering too much!
good luck to you.
Great post - and I know what you mean! I found a wonderful book in a thrift store a year or two ago - "How to Eat Better for Less Money" by James Beard & Sam Aron - written in the fifties, then updated in 1970. It's pretty entertaining in the sense that it suggests how to set up a $50 wine cellar, but it has a lot of good ideas. It has a chapter called "The Instant Meal - A Guide to Impromptu Cooking".
We also spend far too much at the grocery store (and at restaurants), and I find that when cooking for two, I often have a lot left over. I've tried to become more creative in using up the left overs. Two low cost items are soup & eggs. Left over vegetables usually become soup the next day. I also have become more comfortable with substituting ingredients so that I don't have to go out and buy, say, a bottle of port, etc. Also, when I go to the store, I try to buy proteins that are less expensive - have discovered a lot of interesting fish that way. And, another way to reduce cost is to eat less of that protein - we probably end up eating 8 oz each - a lot more than the recommended 3-4 oz - at a meal.
As an example of the leftover thing:
Dinner 1 - those pork livers for my husband, marinated whole trout (2) stuffed with wildrice (leftover) and sauteed shrimp & scallops; sauteed baby egg plant halves with EEOV, garlic & parsley, and a salad.
Dinner 2 - leftover eggplant with slices of mozzerella melted on top served with leftover tomato sauce; cold left over trout served with pesto (leftover) mixed with mayonnaise, and a salad and a little cheese. Yes, a bit odd - but tasty.