When I got home from the grocery store the other day and turned on the computer to read my Google Reader news feeds, several “food-is-getting-expensive” articles popped up: Web wire with “Rising Food Prices—Gather Your Family Back Around The Dinner Table,” about Martha’s Vineyard restaurateur Carol McManus’s new cookbook, Table Talk: Food. Family. Love. A Cookbook. And a Las Vegas chef offers Greek mezze, small plates of food cheaper than full plates, apparently good for both one’s health and one’s wallet.
It’s one thing to be a chef or a cookbook author. It’s another thing to be part of a culture where the majority of eaters farms out cooking to experts, no pun intended.
What can you do, you who have to eat every day, facing not only financial pressure but time pressures, too? You, the person with teenagers eating you out of house and home. You, supporting your aging parents and two college students living in the spare bedroom to save on student housing costs. And especially you, young people starting out in jobs, making next to nothing, with most of your money going for rent and car payments.
The Great Depression taught the Greatest Generation a thing or two about frugality. And I’d like share with you something that my grandmother shared with me.
A card-carrying member of the Greatest Generation, my grandmother sat down one day with me to look at a bunch of old pictures. Like she always did, she started telling me stories about the old days, especially when payday didn’t come fast enough, how she fed five kids and a husband during some of the bleakest days in American history. Although Grandma tended to be a Fannie Farmer kinda gal, she would have approved of the other Mrs. Child, Lydia Maria Francis Child, who wrote The Frugal Housewife, Dedicated to Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy. (Boston: Carter and Hendee, 1830).
American frugality is nothing new, is it?
I’ve condensed the gist of some of Grandma’s stories into the following guidelines (with a few additions and adjustments to accommodate modern times!):
- Make a shopping list and stick to it.
- Buy house brands when possible.
- Check the advertised specials; buy meat (if you eat it) in quantity and freeze it in portions. Buy other items, too, in quantity if you have storage space AND if you will truthfully use the stuff. If not, you’re just wasting money.
- Plan menus based on your haul at the grocery store, NOT the other way around. In other words, don’t go shopping with set menus in mind. Buy foods in seasons and rely on frozen vegetables, too, which can be great buys most of the time.
- Surf the Internet for recipes and cooking tips. Watch FoodTV if you can still afford cable.
- Haunt thrift shops and yard sales for cooking equipment.
- Getting back to meat: use meat as a condiment, adding small amounts to rice pilafs, tomato sauces, bean soups, etc.
- Grow herbs on your windowsill, yes, even in winter. Rosemary does OK if there’s plenty of sunshine.
- Get a copy of the More With Less Cookbook, as well as Simply in Season (both part of the World Community Cookbook series). While you’re at it, pick up a copy of Living More With Less, too.
- Above all, LEARN HOW TO COOK. Buy yourself a decent multi-purpose cookbook like the latest Joy of Cooking or Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything: Simple Recipes for Great Food.
By following most, if not all, of my grandmother’s suggestions, you will be able to save money. Lots of it. Instead of paying $15.00 for a delivery guy to drive to your apartment or house with a cold pizza, you can eat for several days with some simple menu choices.
Grandma’s basic message was clear, now that I think about it: cooking empowers you, giving you control over what you put into your body.
It’s a brave new world out there, but you don’t have to eat soylent green, for heaven’s sake! Bon appétit and happy eating!
And one more thing, for courage in the kitchen, and a laugh or two, take a look at Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking. Especially the chapter titled “Kitchen Horrors.”
Makes about 5 cups
I’ve adapted this recipe for a basic Puerto Rican sauce from The Complete Book of Caribbean Cooking, by Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz. It’s very similar to the recipe used by the mother of the Puerto Rican family I lived with during Peace Corps training in Ponce, Puerto Rico. I use this to season eggs, vegetables grilled meat, soups or beans.
¼ cup lard
½ pound salt pork, diced
2 tablespoons annatto seeds
4 onions, finely chopped
12 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 medium green bell peppers, seeded and finely chopped
½ pound ham, diced
1 pound tomatoes, peeled and chopped or 2 cups drained, canned
1 tablespoon fresh cilantro, finely chopped, or to taste
1 teaspoon dried oregano
Salt, freshly ground pepper
Fry the salt pork dice in a heavy frying pan over medium heat, stirring from time to time, until they have given up all their fat and are crisp and brown. Lift out of the fat with a slotted spoon and reserve. Add the annatto seeds to the pan and cook, stirring occasionally, over medium heat for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, strain, discard the seeds and return the fat to the pan.
Add the onions, garlic and green peppers and sauté until the onion is tender but not browned. Add the ham, tomatoes, cilantro, oregano, ham, and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Simmer over low heat for 30 minutes stirring from time to time. Season to taste with salt. Cool and pour into glass jars, cover tightly and refrigerate until needed. Use as directed in recipes.
Red Beans and Rice
Beans and rice go a long way and can be sided with small amounts of meat, fruit, and vegetables.
2 cups dried small red beans, cooked until just tender (or for a change, use black beans)
2 cups sofrito/recaito
1 ½ cups long-grain white rice
Salt to taste
Chopped fresh cilantro for garnish
Add the recaito to the beans and bring to a simmer; cook abut 30 minutes for flavors to meld.
Cook the rice by bringing 3 cups of water to a boil in a medium-sized saucepan. Add 1 teaspoon of salt or to taste. (Remember that the recaito includes the salt from the ham and the salt pork.) Pour in the rice, slowly, reduce the heat to simmer, and cook until rice is tender, about 20-25 minutes. When the rice is tender, turn off the heat and let the pan sit until you are ready to serve the rice.
© 2008 C. Bertelsen