Sunday, February 6, 2011

New Series! How To Eat Groceries, Pt. I: Building a Basic Pantry

This evening I was reading back through some old Xanga blog entries.  I thought this one very appropriate as a reprint and it has inspired a new series I'll post to over the next few weeks.  Some of the information here may be slightly repetitive but I really think this series is the perfect followup to "How To Buy Groceries", because after all, what's the point of knowing how to buy groceries if you don't know what to do with them when you get them home?

From February, 2009:

While eating dinner with a friend the other day, she commented on a signature salad she makes.  "I never make it the same way twice and I'm always increasing the ingredients...but it's so expensive we can't have it often!" 

Having been given the recipe, I looked over the list of ingredients.  Nothing upon the list was expensive in and of itself.  If the items were bought on sale then the costs could be reduced by about 1/3, but if, as she insisted on doing, I increased this ingredient and that, bought all the ingredients only when they were full priced,  then I'd have felt the recipe was very expensive as well.

This brings up the question of how to eat well and reduce the food budget at the same time.  It can be done, but it takes thought and care.
Once upon a time, when I was very poor indeed, a visiting friend having looked into the pantry and found it rather bare as it often was towards end of pay period, offered to buy our dinner from a local restaurant.  "Nonsense," I told her. "I've plenty of food here and we'll have a nice dinner in no time!"  That night's meal may not have looked like much when the raw ingredients were assembled on the counter,  but the meal that resulted  proved both delicious and satisfying.  I well remember the menu that evening: Cream of Potato Soup, Tuna Salad plates and homemade muffins.  I whipped up a pan of my famous brownies for dessert.  My friend left the table groaning about how good it had all been, and I earned my reputation for 'creating something from nothing.'

While there are many recipes which call for exotic, expensive ingredients, there are just as many that call for nothing but good basic ingredients.  I find that I still fall back on those recipes that are general, rather than fancy, when it comes to ingredients.  I have a large and varied group of recipes that I've made for my family and I rotate them, recycle them, shelf them and drag them out again, according to financial and seasonal needs. 

What do I consider basic ingredients for a pantry?  

Tuna, Salmon,  a variety of pasta shapes (spaghetti, elbow and bowties), rice, and plain old fashioned canned vegetables and fruits. Peanut butter is a must in our home. Mayo, ketchup and mustard are standard in our pantry.   A few cans of condensed soup don't hurt, but aren't necessary.  Dried beans are always welcome.

In the baking pantry: flour, cornmeal, cornstarch, baking powder,baking soda, yeast,  cornmeal, sugar, brown sugar, shortening, oil, raisins, dry powdered milk.

In the cereal cupboard: oatmeal, corn flakes

In the spice cupboard: cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper, salt, chili powder, cumin, oregano, bay leaf, chives, vinegar, worcestershire sauce, soy sauce.

In the fridge: butter, eggs,cheddar, parmesan and cream cheeses,  milk, carrots, celery, lettuces, bell peppers: green and any other color that is well priced, garlic.  In season: squashes, cabbage, tomatoes, green onions, grapes.

In the freezer: sale priced cuts of meat, chuck roast, chicken, ground beef.  Some fresh frozen vegetables: green beans, green peas, lima beans.  And a few bags of nuts, chocolate chips and extra butter and milk. In my freezer you will also find some frozen berries, coconut and ginger root, which I buy fresh and slice into quarter sized pieces and freeze.

For fresh produce: onions, potatoes; apples, oranges and bananas or stone fruits, all bought in season.

With these basic ingredients your family may eat well and satisfactorily.
Variety is the spice of life and it's herb and  spice that drives the appetite of most families. Learn to use spices and herbs to season your meats and vegetables.  Certain spices and herbs have an affinity for certain fruits and vegetables.  Just as bananas and nutmeg go together, or apples and cinnamon, then so too  tomatoes with oregano, or beef with garlic and rosemary (I have a rosemary bush at my back door).  Oregano also is excellent with mushrooms and nutmeg is a perfect pairing with spinach or cheese dishes.

Some herbs and seasonings evoke a certain food culture.  Chinese dishes for instance, usually contain one or all of the following: soy sauce, garlic, citrus juices and ginger.  And many Mexican American foods contain  chili powder, cumin and cilantro, while Italian dishes often feature oregano and garlic, basil or rosemary.

I used to use a very heavy hand when I was adding cheese to a dish.  I love cheddar cheese and my theory was always that if a little was good then a lot was better.  I've learned that in order to make our food less costly, it's best to stick to the amounts called for in a recipe or even to reduce it, but because I love the flavor of cheddar I'll use extra sharp rather than mild, which for the same cost, gives far more flavor.  Parmesan is another cheese that is often called for in pasta or pizza dishes, but Romano costs the same and has more flavor.  I can use less of the Romano and get all the flavor of twice the amount of Parmesan.

Butter is another area where you might think a heavy hand is better.  But butter has a delicate flavor and too much of it in a dish seems to kill the flavor of it somehow.  I've found that just a tablespoon or two will impart far more flavor in mashed potatoes and vegetables than 1/2 a stick. 

Whenever possible use real ingredients.  Butter is something that is standard even when the budget is knocked to rock bottom.  So is sharp cheddar.  We never substitute margarine or processed cheese for these products.  The flavor is well worth the extra cost and I'd rather have a little butter than three times the amount of tasteless margarine.  I prefer olive oil, but if necessity demanded I could substitute a good vegetable oil.

Some of my secrets for keeping food costs trimmed: 
Set a limit for the highest you're willing to pay for meat and stick to it.  At one time, no meat in our menu cost us over $2/per pound.  I've increased that to $3/pound in the past four years, because  we were relying heavily on pork, which I dislike in quantity for both health and taste reasons.  Whenever I can find meats for less than our limit I purchase them, provided I have room in my freezer.  Seldom do we purchase a piece of meat that is not reduced in price or on sale.  And don't assume that you'll never eat steak or shrimp or a good piece of fish at that limit.  Often if you look you'll find these items for $3 a pound.  Or if you're a wise shopper, you'll find enough meats at less than $2/a pound that you can easily buy a single pound of higher priced options and be well within budget! 

When my children were younger and drank lots of milk, we bought whole milk on sale and froze it.  When I thawed the milk, I mixed it half and  half with an equal amount of dry powdered milk, shook well and chilled thoroughly.  My kids never complained about the flavor of the milk nor questioned me about it. We always had two full gallons of milk in the fridge and no one ever asked how I magically made one appear as two, lol.   We used skim milk (which I made in a glass container)  to make pudding, cream soups, and any other recipe that called for milk and reserved the half and half gallons for drinking purposes.

Dry powdered milk has many uses.  It can also be made into buttermilk, yogurt or sour milk, and whipped topping.  I've attempted sour cream with it but found it too thin to suit me, but if you like 'natural' sour cream, you'll like the homemade sour cream just fine.  I have not had experience making yogurt, but have made buttermilk and whipped topping and they were suitable for our needs.

Nearly all salad dressings and condiments may be made at home with the pantry basics.  In times when our income was severely stretched and we had more eggs than we had cents, we even made our own mayonnaise.  And we liked it very well.  However, mayonnaise as a rule may be bought inexpensively enough these days and thankfully the dollars stretch to cover it.  I prefer homemade barbecue sauce and salad dressings over most store bought varieties.

Eat seasonally.   Seasonal fruits and vegetables are always the better priced option when it comes to eating fresh produce. 

Experiment with store vs. name brand items.  For years I wouldn't touch generic or store brand products because the quality was so poor, but that has changed.  Many stores have vastly improved their store brand (which is usually a name brand that is specially packaged in the stores own label).  Try them.  Some store brands are superior to others.  I've had very few complaints, my own or from family, over store brand items.  Odds are if the packaging is similar you can easily tell which big name company has packaged the product.  And if you're really unsure, ask a store department manager.  Most have visited the plants where products are produced for the store line. 

As well, many generic items are now produced for stores under the 'best value', 'finest value', 'quality' labels.  If you don't know if you'll like it or not, buy the usual name brand, but substitute one can or box of the value priced item.  If you like it, buy more.  If you don't, you're out only a few pennies.  I bought the 'best value' butter at one store until they switched companies and I found the product quality had decreased.  Now I buy the store brand which is comparable to the big name butter company.

Learn how to properly store and keep foods so that you get full value from them. Flour, meal, and cereals are best refrigerated (or frozen for 48 hours) to kill the larvae of insects.  There's information all over the web about how to store, preserve, freeze, etc.  Use the information at your fingertips to save your food products.

Try homemade over convenience products.  You'll be amazed at the difference in flavor.  True some things are more difficult than others to prepare.  I'm not above using a cake mix bought on sale but golly there's nothing better than a homemade cake!  There are recipes online for make your own cake mix, pudding mix, etc.  One of the current culinary crazes is making homemade marshmallows.  Just about every big name  chef is making their own.  I'm told the taste is far superior to the store bought marshmallows.  I prefer the homemade version of chocolate syrup I make to Hershey's syrup.  And hot fudge sauce from scratch is so good you'll wonder why you ever settled for a jar of the stuff from the store.

Learn to make reasonable substitutions for pricier ingredients.  Remember my bought on sale cake mix?  I can't name the number of times I've skipped adding oil and added an equal amount of water instead, in addition to the water already called for.  Not one cake ever failed, either.  In fact, no one noticed the subtraction of that oil.  Now when I make a cake from a store bought mix, I always skip the oil.  Why add to the cost of an item that turns out just fine anyway?
Toasted nuts have more flavor punch than  untoasted so when  recipe calls for chopped nuts, use half the amount of toasted nuts.  Try making your favorite cookie recipe with half shortening and half butter instead of the full amount of butter called for.  If the recipe turns out less than ideal, then make a note that the substitution didn't work and return to the original recipe. 

Slowly decrease ingredients until the recipe results are less than good.  I've gradually reduced the sugar called for in my bread dough and starter without noticeable changes. 

Learn to provide a variety of textures, flavors and temperatures in a menu.  While my family may love a pot roast wtih mashed potatoes and gravy and steamed carrots and biscuits, they eat less and are better satisfied when I balance the roast and mashed potatoes with a crisp salad and a green vegetable and chilled fruit or dessert.  Remember that poor pantry dinner I served my friend? It was the hot creamy soup paired with the chilled tuna salad on crisp bed of lettuce that made the meal a hit.
And don't forget eye appeal.  Any meal plated prettily is a hit right away.  Ellie Krieger often says "We eat with our eyes first," and that is so true.  Had I served the tuna salad that day as a sandwich on white bread with that white potato soup it's doubtful my friend would have found the meal memorable.  But because the lovely inexpensive pot of soup was served in a blue enamel bowl, and the salad was presented with a surrounding of sliced tomatoes and slivers of carrot on a bed of green lettuce, it was stellar without being costly.


Dawn said...

A very informative post of valuable information. I am leaning more toward homemade, whole foods rather than pre-packed, processed foods. Marshmallows are on my wish list of foods to make this year. If they are anywhere near as good as homemade yogurt, I will be spoiled.

Peggy Lorenz said...

I'm so excited to see a new series! I always look forward to reading what you've is always informative, and entertaining! Thank you.