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Chowhound on Budget...Help!

I am a teacher who has only been out of college for just over a year and I have a lot of bills to pay! I want to start cooking at home more to save money but: 1) I like GOOD food. I'm not satisfied by microwavables/"cheap eats". It's not that the food has to be super expensive but I do like quality food. 2) I don't have too much time/energy to cook extravagant meals. Does anyone have suggestions for fairly easy but delicious recipes and/or food items to buy as home staples that are pretty versatile? Thanks!

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  1. Go to your local Asian market and pick up a 10lb bag of rice, Oyster sauce, Hoisin sauce, Rice wine, Rice wine vinegar etc. You can mix these with any fresh meat and veggies that you happen to have to make a great stir fry..They keep for a long time so they are always on hand.

    1. When I worked retail, my hours were crazy and my budget tight. I survived by cooking a lot on my last day off, my "Sunday" which was actually Tuesday. I'd make a big pot of beans and some rice, and make variations on that all week, adding sausage, or putting the beans, mashed, in steamed tortillas with cheese, etc. I also ate pasta, since it was quick when I hadn't prepared. I cooked chicken ahead, deboned it, since it was often cheaper to buy a whole bird. I shopped the sales, and could do amazing things with potatoes--baked, gratins, scalloped, latkes, etc. (Although 10 pounds of potatoes get boring when you're single!) Roast vegetables in quantity--cauliflower, squashes (winter varieties are nice now), onions, carrots, and parnips, etc. Add the roasties to canned soup or broth and add barley or leftover rice. Buy good bread, and make panades with anything you had to freeze before it went moldy.

      Think of things that taste better after a day in the fridge--jambalaya and gumbo, chili mac, soups, etc. Get cookbooks from the library and find recipes that way. It's much less expensive, and you'll know which ones would be a good investment after trying several recipes, if you decide to buy a few. If not, you can always copy down the ingredients for reference. Good luck, and let us know what you find works for you!

      1 Reply
      1. re: amyzan

        Yes, take some time to make really authentic red beans and rice.

      2. Buy a ham. Inexpensive with many variations.

        I just made a Nigella Lawson recipe for ham cookied in cider--and it's fabulous with boiled potatoes, carrots, leeks, etc. You can do gruyere and ham omlette for a great sunday night kitchen supper to follow, split pea soup (it is January the only time of year you'll ever want this) using the ham hock on another and even a quiche lorraine. Any kind of a roast will allow you many variations for a few days to follow with a great stock to boot. Just buy cheesecloth a habit I used to be too lazy to get into--to strain the gunk on the top.

        Learn how to bake tarts. Joy of Cooking easiest recipe to follow. Get the crisco and the rolling pin and you can do a lot. Leek tart is sublime. pair it with a tart salad and you won't feel strapped.

        1. A cookbook you must have, which I've mentioned before: The Mennonite Central Committee's old "More-with-Less Cookbook." It's a book devoted to eating simply but well. There are recipes, then there are notes in the margins that offer variations on the recipes or other dishes that are so simple they don't really merit a formal "recipe," and at the end of each chapter are suggestions what to do with the leftovers. It's just a wonderful cookbook and one that finds its way to my counter on a regular basis. You have some basic, old-timey, American country recipes, but there are also numerous recipes from around the world.

          1. Sounds like you need to pick a couple of things that you know you like and start by learning to get a couple dishes into regular rotation. What do you like, you didn't say at all.

            A good idea is to make 'dividends' out of a main meal. Like if you roast a chicken throw a few veggies (potato, carrot, onion) in the pan and have that for dinner the first night. Make a white or black bean chili with some of the shredded leftovers one day (freeze part of it right away for another time.) Make a Chinese Chicken Salad, maybe with peanut noodles and sliced cucumber another day. This way you can eat for a week with lot of variety for little effort.

            Here's a super simple dish with a lot of flavor-Kelly's Asian Chicken. It's tangy with some smooth mellow sweet garlic. I taught my college age daughter to make it and it's her signature dish. It's good right away and the leftover reheat well but I like them cold just as much. Saute or steam something green with it (pea pods, broccoli, green beans.)

            I always make it with Chinese egg noodles that you find in the fresh case next to the tofu, but you can used dried Chinese noodles or thin spaghetti. The sauce is reduced till it just moistens the noodles and that is enough. Don't be scared by the garlic.

            1. Establish a relationship with a local butcher -- you can get chicken backs for free which is perfect for stock-making (hence, cheap soups that will feed you for weeks) as well as the occasional ham hock.

              I literally survived on $15 a week this way. Going to the local farmer's market every week, I would buy veggies for soup to go into my stock, a carton of milk, and a loaf of bread. Having beans and rice in one's pantry can feed someone for days and days. Also, can you find an Asian market nearby? Their pork pieces are incredibly cheap and can go a long way. I would slow-roast an 10-pound butt that would cost less than $5.00 and that pork, added into beans or rice or ground into meatballs could last a long, long time.

              1. Eggs: Cheap and versatile. You can transform it into so many things - omelettes, sandwich, quiche, ice cream, deviled eggs, salad, stir fries, dressing, souffle, custard... sorry I can't finish the list...

                Pasta - Cheap again, just need some creative thinking about the home-made sauces

                1. You don't mention in what city you reside, but here are a few suggestions for a busy schedule and a tight budget using the following assumptions:
                  Costco nearby (with chicken roasted on-site)
                  Honey Baked Ham store near by
                  Curry is a good spice
                  You don't mind some "boxed" preparations
                  You eat meat

                  For giggles and grins, and to help me test recipes, I make lunch for a small group of colleagues (all guys)in between my regular work. The key is planning and preparing 24 meals for $60. Yes, do the math and you can see the challenge. I also prepare meals for the freezers (heat and eat) of friends and family whenever I visit - a good time saver for the hectic weekdays.

                  Stock items for cook ahead meals:

                  Roasted chicken (preferably Costco - a bargain at $4.99)
                  Ham 'bone' (from Honeybaked Ham $4.99 for a bone with enough meat for a few sandwiches and soup)
                  Beans (grocery stores have 1-1.25 pound packages of 15-bean soup mixes - about $2.00 - makes about 3 qts of soup for under $8.00)
                  Rice (good staple)
                  Barilla pasta, get a variety (normally on sale for $1.00 for a 1-pound box)

                  I debone the chicken and make enchiladas (can be frozen in small portions), chicken salad, and save some for just eating. While assembling the chicken dishes I make a stock from the carcass and then make a chicken vegetable soup (also can be frozen). When I am making enchiladas in volume (2 chickens) I can make enough stock for a great soup recipe from the Barefoot Contessa in Paris book (lentil sausage soup). It makes a HUGE batch of soup (good for the freezer as well).

                  The 15-bean soup is SOOOOO easy. Follow the directions on the bag. However, I make my stock with the ham bone and use most of the abundant amount of meat on the bone for the soup. I cool the stock overnight (congeals the fat for easy removal, leaving a very nice stock) and remove the meat the next day, then make the soup. Very easy. It's flavourful and hearty. My family loves this. I serve it with grilled sour dough or pugliese that has been dressed with EVOO, or corn bread if I have time to make it (a box mix is okay in a time and budget pinch!).

                  Make your own favourite pasta sauce (or get one from the wonderful CH's!) and freeze in small portions for the quick reheat during the week.

                  Keep lots of fresh veggies around - precut them for easy stir fry preparation during the week, for a quick snack, or unexpected entertaining.

                  I have been experimenting with freezable homemade preparations and it's becoming a popular gift item for my hard to shop for family and single friends.

                  Good luck!

                  1. Thanks for all your suggestions so far! I should mention-I don't eat pork. Sorry I didn't mention this before. I am going to try the Chinese Chicken Salad mentioned as well as some of the stir fry, soup, and other meat ideas. I live in the Miracle Mile area near La Brea. In terms of my favorite foods I would have to say I really like beef, pasta dishes, and interesting ethnic foods in general. Thanks again, and I welcome any other suggestions you have!

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: highforpie

                      I'd get very familiar with the Asian markets in Monterey Park/San Gabriel Valley as well as the Costco (where you can pick up staples and convenience foods). I'd also pick up some solid "ethnic" cookbooks which focus on home cooking if possible. Often they focus on coaxing maximum flavor our of simple ingredients and more inexpensive cuts of meat. I'm also fond of the Moosewood cookbooks for a more vegetarian or seafood oriented slant.

                      More specifically, I know when I was starting out I tended to make lots of soups (you can do a lot with chicken backs and necks, as well as the leftover carcass from a roast chicken) and stews which were easy and could be made with inexpensive ingredients. I made lots of lentil soups and other bean soups. Vegetable curries were also pretty simple and inexpensive to make.

                    2. This is going to gain me absolutely zero respect in chowland, but please don't forget that frequently "rustic" equals "easy." (I kind of feel like a redneck-Bourdain, honestly.)

                      For less than $6 (including the marginal amts of seasoning/butter/milk) I fed 5 BIG appetites well tonight. No, there were no cans of cream-of-anything, no dried pasta, no ramen noodles anywhere to be seen.

                      I bought a 5lb bag of chicken leg quarters at .49 a lb the other day, cut the legs from the thighs, drizzled some olive oil on a jelly-roll pan, heated the oven to 375 and sprinkled a bit of Montreal Steak Seasoning on half of the thighs and legs (the remaining 2.50 worth of chicken went into a ziploc into the freezer for another use later). Baked for roughly 30mins, basted & reduced the heat to 350, and started the rest of the dinner.

                      Cut 4 potatoes ($1.00worth) into large cubes and boiled in salted water.

                      Dumped a big handful (about a buck's worth of) green beans (which take about 3 minutes to trim) into a pot with about a half inch of water and a slice of bacon ( toldya I was a redneck at heart), S&P, and brought to a boil.

                      Smashed the potatoes with a bit of butter, milk, S&P, and blue cheese (nirvana), and squeezed a .10 lemon onto the chicken pieces before serving.

                      As Ina Garten (sorry, sorta-but-kinda-non-redneck-moment-here) would say, "How bad could it be?" It was delicious. The most annoying and time consuming part of the meal was cutting legs from thighs, and all in all it was on the table -- and again I stress, for FIVE -- within less than an hour.

                      Another favorite of ours *does* use dried pasta, but is so quick and cheap and fabulous that it must be mentioned here -- pasta puttanesca with bruschetta. (Bruschetta ala Venetia, I suppose - never got around to naming it properly.)

                      Just saute a clove or two of garlic (chop it or smash it, your choice) in some EVOO, add a bit of anchovy pasted or a couple of jarred anchovies, rinsed, and some red pepper flakes and saute until the anchovies melt away. (The anchovy paste is a bit low-brow - but trust me, is still awesome in this recipe.) Brush a bit onto a few slices of a cheap grocery baguette (roughly .99 at most grocery stores) and let it wait while you prepare your pasta and sauce. (Then, bake for about 5-9 minutes or until the smell is making you curious enough to consider tasting the anchovy paste out of the damned tube. Word to the wise... don't.)

                      Meanwhile, dump some canned tomatoes into the remaining EVOO/anchovy/red-pepper mixture, add a bit of butter if desired, and adjust seasoning as you see fit. (We tend not to mess with it much. And y'know - San Marzanos aren't available in our neck of the woods and - gasp - plain old canned tomatoes work just fine. It's kind of an alchemy thing when you add anchovies, I think.)

                      Cook your favorite (ie, least expensive) pasta, pop your bruschetta in the oven, then just toss your ridiculously delicious sauce with the pasta and enjoy.

                      Tell me Bourdain wouldn't happily dine on that! ;-)

                      I'd say to always keep all-purpose flour, yeast and sugar in your pantry at all times - when the mood strikes, google Brother Rick Curry Brother's Bread recipe.

                      Anchovy paste is made from the "bad" anchovies - but can be VERY good in a pinch - and don't ever decide you "hate" them until you try them in a tomato sauce, btw. Canned tomatoes are your friend, as are dried beans. Oh, the soups you can make with tomatoes, beans, bacon or 'saltpork' and imagination - which will feed you for a while.

                      1. if you're in the NY/NJ region, Shop Rite is having its CanCan sale. You can stock up on lots of pantry staples like tomatoes in their juice, tuna in oil, et cetera...

                        1. also you can braise cheaper cuts of meats...short ribs, shoulders, pot raosts, etc..

                          1. You'll find a lot of professionals in the same boat visit this site. Great recipes and suggestions abound thru the CH search engine.

                            I cook on Sunday for the entire week with the exception of fresh salads, produce items. My freezer became the greatest gift for saving time, $ and energy.

                            Good luck!

                            1. The beloved Bittman/Lahey no-knead bread takes almost no active prep time, and costs next to nothing to make, even if you're using expensive flour. I wrote about my experience with it here: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/... but there are many other threads.

                              Chick peas. Fry onions, cumin, pepper, (and whatever else you want-- mustard seed, cinnamon, etc) add some tomato, chickpeas, and you've got a delicious quick meal. Zap in a blender or food processor with tahini, the juice of one lemon, some garlic, salt and pepper, and eat with whatever bread you have handy or crackers.

                              Also fantastic is egg variations. Toast, good butter, and a poached egg is a cheap, simple perfect meal as far as i'm concerned. Or the Zuni fried egg over bread crumbs: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/... .