Monday, April 27, 2015

This Is What $29 Can Actually Buy You

I know, I know. I wasn't going to do this. I'm not sure there's really any point in doing this, but last night when I saw the headline, "I lived on $29 and it almost killed me," a little something snapped (oh my gosh--SNAP--no pun intended there) in me and I just did it. This article, I should warn you, is long. I tried to be thorough, honest, and then more thorough.

I'm going to say with a healthy dose of humility that $29 didn't buy nearly as much as I thought it would. I desperately wanted to include a whole chicken ($4.15), a 3 lb bag of apples ($2.99),or a couple grapefruits ($1.18), but I couldn't. No matter how I jerked the numbers around, I just couldn't make it happen without sacrificing some essential item (though I maybe could have sacrificed that jelly if you can eat peanut butter sandwiches without the jelly).

However, I must say in all non-humility that this is a perfectly sustainable, fairly healthy, fairly tasty spread. Yeah, it'd get a little boring if you had to do it every week, but you wouldn't. Next week you'd still have some of this left and to that you'd add that chicken and some other things. Besides does eating the McDonald's dollar menu get boring, or buying the same dollar freezer meals over and over? I should think so.

So this is what we got. These are Aldi prices. In a bit, we'll talk about Walmart pricing and what that will get you.

The highlights are the $29/30 worth of stuff; the rest is what I bought additionally for my family of 6 since the $29 is a per person amount (and an estimate that varies from state to state as well). The small numbers to the right are estimations for what those food items would have cost at Walmart. 

eggs: .99
2 lb spaghett: 1.59
spaghetti sauce: .99
3 lb bananas: 1.33
mushrooms (sale): .79
tuna: .65
100% whole wheat bread: 1.39
colored peppers: 1.49
baby carrots (sale): .69
5 lb. yukon potatoes: 2.99
2 lb sweet onions: 1.89
quick oats: 2.29
gallon milk: 1.79
8 oz cheddar: 1.79
tortillas: 1.49
cream cheese: .99
refried beans: .79
can diced tomatoes: .59
can knock off Rotel: .59
grape jelly: 1.45
Natural creamy peanut butter: 1.69
tomato soup: .59
brown sugar: 1.19

In perfect honesty, this takes you to $30.03. To make budget I'd have to have bought the smaller oatmeal and/or the smaller spaghetti. This is the type of thing SNAP gets criticized for--forcing the poor to buy the smaller items that are more expensive ounce for ounce. But in reality, SNAP gives you a month's (not a week's) worth of food money at a time, so it would actually be quite easy to buy the larger sizes and spend about $1-3 extra this week. I'm not talking Sam's Club. I'm just talking picking the big thing of oatmeal that will last you through the month instead of the small one that will only get you through the week.

Also, this assumes you have salt and some kind of fat on hand. If you really really really don't and your cupboards are utterly bare, then you're going to have to sacrifice that tuna and/or carrots and buy yourself some salt and margarine/vegetable oil (not my favorite, but it'll get the job done).

Now what are you going to make with it? 
-For breakfast you'll be having oatmeal, brown sugar, and milk. Every day. I apologize for the monotony, but it IS pretty tasty. I used to crave this meal when I was in college. It was like dessert to me. Also, you can add a dollop of PB to it and that's just lovely. I make mine in the microwave (been doing it that way since college--use a big bowl to avoid spillage) and it takes less than one minute to prepare.
-For lunch. You'll be having PBJ's and a banana and/or carrots. Or peanut butter banana sandwiches. Or cheese sandwiches (with carrots on the side). Or a grilled cheese. Or a quesadilla once in a while (you can add a few mushrooms). And there's that tuna you can make into a sandwich. You get the idea.
-For dinner:
Day 1. Spaghetti with sauce (and maybe a bit of cheese) (15 minute meal)
Day 2: Peppers, onions, tomatoes (Italian diced--1/2 can), cream cheese (I call this Sunday supper) on tortillas (25 minute meal)
Day 3: Stuffed mushrooms (mushrooms, cream cheese, cheese) (30 minute meal)
Day 4: Tomato soup and grilled cheese (8 minute meal)
Day 5: Refried beans, tomatoes (Rotel knock off--1/2 can), cheese on tortillas (5 minute meal)
Day 6: Omelet with peppers, tomatoes (1/2 can), and cheese (8 minute meal)
Day 7: Fried potatoes with onion, egg, cheese, and any veggies you've got left (15 minute meal)

*Are you eating like a king? Well, no, but it's good food. I eat all these foods on a regular basis and they're pretty delicious. 
-Also, I could have gone cheaper on some items. I could have gotten the non-natural peanut butter, the russet potatoes, the beans I had to rehydrate instead of the canned, plain tomato sauce instead of a "spaghetti" sauce. There are ways to pinch even more, but I was able to add these things in for somewhat tastier (and often easier) options. 

*Are you eating your five fruits and veggies a day? Nope, not always. But you've got a solid three, sometimes four. And that's better than the average American. If you want to add another veggie each day, swap those potatoes out for a bag of sweet potatoes and add one in every day--that'll take you to four or five each day. Not good enough per the ideal, but silver star per the average.

*Are you too busy to make these meals? If you are, you're too busy to stand in line and then wait for your food at McDonald's because most of this food takes the same amount of time or less.

*Can you be on an unusual diet and make it with this budget? Maybe. But you'd have to work really hard at it. However, I think this would be just fine for many diabetics--yes, there's some bread and pasta, but very few sweets. You might have to skimp on that brown sugar or jam. To go gluten-free, you could go with more rice and more potatoes. Dairy-free--beans beans the magical fruit--load up on the garbanzo and bean salad it up. Again--it wouldn't be easy. But are special diets ever easy? Is the purpose of SNAP to make every single person's life a perfect food bliss or to provide a reasonable amount of food for those without?

*Would you be hungry? You shouldn't be unless you are used to eating a ton of food or working a very manual job (possible). But most of these foods are heavy lifters--filling and satisfying and caloric--think oatmeal, peanut butter, cheese, beans. Those things can really fill a person of normal weight and activity up just fine. Also, if you get hungry with this menu, you can add another potato to your meal or eat a sandwich or tortilla for an evening snack.

Let's talk about urban deserts. Everybody who ever writes an article about food always always talks about them. And they always always make some comment about how they in suburbia might have a car and access to grocery stores, but those poor among us who are in "urban deserts" will have to buy food from convenience stores and/or be forced to rely on fast food. It's one of those weird arguments that always makes me kind of scratch my head. Because they don't put major grocery stores out in the middle of nowhere. They put them near the fast food and the gas stations. (Or visa versa, but at any rate these things are always found in clusters.) I thought about several McDonald's in my town. Each and every one (that I could picture--five or six) is less than ONE mile away from a MAJOR grocery store--many within two or three blocks, one across the street, and many near a discount style grocery store. Also, even in a city with lousy bus access (like mine), the buses always go to the grocery stores and the downtown areas. It's like the one place in town you can actually take the bus. Is it easy or fun to take your two kids on the bus to Walmart? Heck no. (Is it easy or fun to take your kids to Walmart anytime ever. No.) But if you're headed to McDonald's anyway.... My point being that if you can leave your house to get food of any kind, then getting your butt to a grocery store is not the hardest thing to do. And if you cannot leave your house at all for food or otherwise, then you have bigger problems than food insecurity and those need to be dealt with.

Now, let's be honest. I admit that I got this food from a cheap grocery store--cheaper than Walmart. Not everywhere in the U.S. has an Aldi. But many cities have a Save a Lot or Ruler Foods or some discount grocery store. And these are often located nearer to poor parts of town. That said, they aren't always an option. I estimated some Walmart prices for what I got, and the honest truth is that several things had to go. I had to leave out the mushrooms, one can of the tomatoes (so you'd be stretching that can pretty thin, the bell peppers, tuna, the cream cheese, the gallon of milk (you'd have to go 1/2 gallon or quart), and maybe those tortillas (swap them out for an $.85 bag of rice). Your meals would definitely be more boring and repetitive. Again this isn't fun--whee--but it is possible.

picture of what I could get (estimate since I didn't actually go to Walmart today)

ALSO. And I consider this an important also--you're going to have some foods left over. This is what you could expect to have stretch into next week.
-a bit of peanut butter
-jelly, oatmeal
-brown sugar
-maybe some milk
So next week, you can add in that whole chicken (which will feed you two, maybe three times and provide some stock if you'd like for a potato soup). You could buy rice and a bag of dry beans (which can go incredibly far and are extremely filling). You can have that bag of apples and maybe some spinach or, if you're lucky, a cheap bag of chocolate chips. Again--I realize it's not perfectly easy, but it's possible. And most of these foods don't take intense culinary skills or planning power--hmm, I'll just throw that sauce on that spaghetti. Can you be a diva and live on this budget? Eh...Can you be an idiot and live on this budget? Eh... But you can be a moderately intelligent person, a person with little time, little transportation, little creativity, and live on this budget. Yes, you can. (But you can't buy 7 limes. And no I couldn't resist. The end.)

Monday, April 20, 2015

White Cheesy Bean Dip

Several months ago, I posted a cheesy bean dip, which is super simple, cheap, and which we love. It uses pinto beans (in their refried form). But not everybody loves pinto beans. In fact, I've found in my vast study of people's bean preferences (and by vast study I mean just watching various family members), that pinto beans rank a little low on the bean favorites list. Perhaps you've met these folks--they'll eat a white chili, but won't touch one with pinto and kidney beans. White beans do tend to have a milder flavor and a thin skin (as opposed to, say, a kidney bean). Or maybe it's a psychological thing--those white beans just tend to blend in better. When your loved ones eat them, they don't have to confront the fact that they are eating something from the magical fruit food group; all they see is cheese. Whatever the reason, there was a need for a cheesy white bean dip. I, my friends, have answered that call. I have to say that I like this one even better than our last bean dip (although--in all fairness, Kip says the original bean dip is his favorite, and the truth is we both like both).

I realize that dips often get relegated to the appetizer or "super bowl foods" categories, but I like to pluck them from their aperitif status and knight them into full main course glory (best metaphor ever). Bad metaphors aside, however, dips really are a great, easy dinner. All you need is a bag of corn chips (and maybe something cruciferous on the side if you want to be all righteous about it) and you've got a fairly healthy dinner on the table. Think of it as a casserole if it makes you feel better about things.

White Bean Cheesy Bean Dip
adapted from Heartbeet Kitchen
Servings: 4-6
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 20 minutes
Cost: $8.00 with chicken and peppers; $6.500 without (about $1.00-1.50/serving)
beans: 1.25, sour cream: .70, lime: .25, chicken: 1.00, corn: .50, cheeses: 3.00, peppers: .50, salsa verde: .80

2 14 oz. cans white beans, drained (or about 2-2 1/2 C of your homemade white beans)
2/3 C sour cream
2 cloves garlic, minced
juice of a lime
1 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp salt
1 C shredded, cooked chicken (optional--it's good with or without)
1 C corn (1 can, drained works for this, or fresh or frozen)
2 Tbsp cilantro, minced
1 C mozzarella cheese
1 1/2 C cheddar cheese
2/3 C red peppers, diced (optional; I love them, but Kip hates them, so I skipped this time around; they make it pretty though)
2/3 C salsa verde (note: I was running out when I made this and only used about 1/2 C--the world did not stop spinning)

Preheat oven to 375. Brush oil onto the bottom and side of a casserole dish (or a cast iron skillet--about 12-inch or an 8x8 inch square pan)

Add beans, sour cream, garlic, lime juice and cumin to a food processor. Puree until smooth. Taste and salt if needed. Stir in chicken (if using), corn, cilantro, and 1 C of cheese.

Spread this on your casserole pan. Then sprinkle on red peppers (if using) and top with the salsa verde. Cover this with the remaining cheese. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until it's bubbling and just browned on top.

Serve with corn chips or carrot sticks or whatever sounds good to you.


Monday, April 13, 2015

Two-Minute No Knead Pizza Dough

So apparently Gwyneth Paltrow is now on the food stamp budget bandwagon. She's gotten plenty of push back too and, while I admit that in some ways, she seems perfectly oblivious to the plight of some of us commoners, the push back is sometimes annoying to me too. One thing I read recently criticized her because she can go to the store and buy food as opposed to the poor who, apparently, cannot go anywhere at all ever. Except McDonald's. The article pretty much said that poor people can't make it to the store, that's why they have to eat fast food. Because as we all know, grocery stores are millions of miles away from poor people, but Taco Bells just sprout off of their poor people trees.

Listen. I don't think there's anything wrong with a person (poor or otherwise) going out for fast food now and again, but when journalists start talking about the poor as though they're destined to live off of cheeseburgers and Big Gulps, it gets my little britches all in a wad. It's just so unempowering (spell check says this is not a word), and in this unempowerment (also not a word), it's super insulting. If you're poor, then I guess you'll just be stuffing your face with cheap hamburgers.

Well, not today. Today we're making pizza. Beautiful, homemade pizza. We can do it if we're poor because it's inexpensive, delicious, and easy to make. Or we can do it if we're not poor because it's inexpensive, delicious, and easy to make. We can do it if we're anywhere in between because it's inexpensive, delicious, and easy to make. Oh sure, I hear you, Mr. Condescending Journalist--the poor don't have time to make homemade pizza. Well today they/we do. The dough takes two minutes--TWO minutes--of assembly time and can be thrown together (almost literally) the night before, the morning of, or that afternoon depending on your needs. (Note: It will need rise time, so some planning is necessary. Please don't tell me the poor cannot plan.) Add to this some 5-minute marinara sauce (or a can of $.99 Hunts if you will), and some mozzarella and you've got yourself a perfectly respectable poor man's meal that tastes like a rich man's meal. All together, a 15x12 inch cheese pizza with this dough will cost you about $3.50. In fact, you've got yourself a poor man's meal for 6--that's about $.60/serving (teenagers not yet included). Yes, you could go to Little Caesar's. And, again, I'd like to point out that there's nothing inherently wrong about that. But this dough tastes better. And has less sodium and sugar than a fast-food pizza. It's also a little cheaper and a little bigger (it can feed our whole family whereas a Little Caesar's pizza can't). And has been prepared by your very own hands. You can personalize it with any toppings you wish if you've got the cash and inclination for that.

You do have to get your booty to the grocery store at least once a year for these pantry stable ingredients, but I'm pretty sure if Gwyneth can do it, you can too.

Two-Minute No Knead Pizza Dough
adapted from Smitten Kitchen
makes enough dough for one large pizza
Cost: $.40
flour: .35, yeast: .05

Note: You'll use 1/8 tsp yeast for a 24-ish hour dough,
1/4 tsp yeast if you make your dough the morning of (12-ish hour rise time),
1/2 tsp yeast if you make it around lunch time (5-6-ish hour rise time),
3/4 if you make it a few hours before dinner (3-4-ish hour rise time).
I believe this dough is tastier and chewier the longer you leave it to sit, but I don't always plan ahead enough, which is why you have the higher yeast adaptations (and it's still yummy made that way too).

3 C flour (I used 2 1/2 C all-purpose and 1/2 C of white whole wheat for righteousness' sake)
1 1/4 tsp salt
1/8, 1/4, 1/2, or 3/4 tsp yeast depending on how long you want to let it sit (see note)
1 1/4 C water

Combine dry ingredients. Add water and stir. It'll look like a lump of craggy dough (different than kneaded dough).

Cover and let sit for up to a day.

Take it out  (it will now be slightly sticky, and less firm than that craggy dough was originally). Fold it a time or two into a ball. Spread it on your pan and top it as you will.

Bake at 400 degrees until your cheese is bubbly. (Note: Pizza pros often cook their pizza at much higher temps. You can. Sometimes I do too, but usually I make a medium-thick crust and keep it at 400 or 425. I'm not a pro, but it comes out pretty tasty nevertheless.)


Monday, April 6, 2015

Dumb Easy Homemade Ricotta

The last few months I've been thinking about my blog and wondering if, perhaps, it has departed a bit too far from its original platform--cheap, delicious food that isn't too hard or too fake. I'm not opposed to the occasional pricier recipe, though lately I do feel that I've justified it a little too much. I'm inclined to think, "Well, it's cheaper than eating out; it's cheaper than buying boxed food." Which it absolutely is. But home cooking is always that, so any old recipe I give to you is likely to be cheaper than its restaurant equivalent. Point being that I hope to pull the old blog back more to what it originally was meant to be--a resource for those looking to eat super cheap, but super well.

Today's recipe kind of nails it. It's so cheap. And so so easy. It's the perfect solution for milk that is nearing its expiration date (but not sour) when you know you just won't be able to drink it all before it sours. This, I believe, is one of the principles of cheapskatery--finding ways to save/eat the foods you've bought.

Here, perhaps I should note, that it's kind of a cheater ricotta. Real ricotta is made after you've made some other cheese. You then take that whey, curdle it, and strain out the last little bits of cheesiness--and that is your ricotta. It is cheapskatery at its finest. However, making a real cheese with rennet and/or bacterial cultures, and love and time is not what this post is about today. It's more about making an inexpensive, wicked good spreadable cheese when you've got milk that needs using.

And it is the most delicious ricotta I've ever eaten. It is creamy (almost as creamy as cream cheese) with sweet-ish overtones (as opposed to plain yogurt with its tanginess). It's satisfying and perfect. In fact, I find that I want to go get myself a scoop as I write this. In short, it's the kind of ricotta that you could put on lasagna, but you might not want to because why would you waste it by hiding it among all that pasta and sauce when you could just eat it straight up out of a bowl. It'd also be lovely on bagels or crepes, or served in a bowl with fruit or honey or on the side of some sauteed vegetables.

It takes only 3 cups of milk (that's about $.30 if we're talking about our cheap Aldi milk), another $1.00 for the cream, and $.25 for the lemon. For this $1.55 you get about 1 1/2 C of ricotta. That's not a bad price for the best ricotta you've ever eaten. And--again--this is a very good way to use up milk that needs to be used.

Also it's about as easy as you can get when we're talking about making your own cheese (which we are). You will need a thermometer and a tea towel for straining, but otherwise it's crazy easy--heat the dairy products, add lemon juice, let sit, strain. I made it this morning while I cleaned my kitchen.

As an added bonus, the rich, creamy protein-filled food is a nice foil for the candied weekend that was Easter for us. Today at lunch I wanted something simple and not sweet.

If you'd like to use the whey, you can use it in most baked goods the way you'd use milk or buttermilk (muffins are my go to for whey). Or you can try this lovely.

Dumb Easy Homemade Ricotta
adapted from Smitten Kitchen
makes about 1 1/2 C
Prep/cook time: 15-20 minutes
Strain time: 1-2 hours
Cost: $1.55
milk: .30, cream: 1.00, lemon .25

3 C milk
1 C cream
3 Tbsp lemon juice (I used fresh squeezed)

In a saucepan, heat milk and cream to 190 degrees (Fahrenheit), stirring occasionally so it doesn't scald on the bottom of the pot (I heated mine on medium--you can heat it faster on high or slower on low, depending on how much attention you want to give it--you just can't let the bottom burn onto the pan).

When it hits 190, take it off the heat, and stir in lemon juice.

Let it sit for 5 minutes. It's going to curdle; it's supposed to curdle; that's part of making cheese.

Now line a strainer with a tea towel (or several layers of cheese cloth) and set that strainer over a bowl of some sort (so the whey can drip into that bowl instead of all over your counter). Pour the contents of your pot into the tea towel and let sit for 1-2 hours. At an hour, it will be runnier, but still definitely ricotta (also, it will firm up somewhat as it cools completely--at an hour, it will still be slightly warm). I let mine go for two hours because I wanted a firmer spreadable sort of ricotta. It was fabulous.

Eat it. I ate mine with a few blueberries and guys--you'd be surprised how wonderful and satisfying it was. Better than anything I've ever had from the store.



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