Yes, Virginia, there IS real food somewhere in there! This lovely little display of ooey-gooey chicken guts-ness, veggies and aromatics will eventually become one of my favorite cooking items in the world — chicken stock. Simple, versatile, and capable of enriching even the simplest of recipes, chicken stock (or turkey stock, or heck, even veggie stock, which is just as easy to make and totally vegetarian / vegan) is the backbone of that “Mmmm, this tastes like something my Grandma made” flavor. If you’re looking for homey nostalgia in a dish, this is your (no longer a big) secret weapon.
In the spirit of Sandra “Semi-Homemade” Lee, this “Budget Eats” entry focuses on taking things you can easily find in a grocery store (dry mixes, spice packs, sauces, and even pre-cooked meat products like chicken sausage) and turning them into something totally dynamite. Can you do it? Can it be done on a budget? Heck yes.
I’ve constructed this post with 3 categories: Mixes & doughs, meat products, and sauces. Each has its own tips and ideas for how to use those products in a pinch for dinners, desserts, snacks & more. Please (seriously!) feel free to leave comments with other ideas — this is a place to share what we’ve all learned, especially the shortcuts that keep us sane on a hungry weeknight!
MIXES & DOUGHS:
- Take a standard mix — Bisquick, Jiffy mixes, etc — and play around with their use. Bisquick, in a pinch, is a killer ingredient in a single-breaded or double-breaded chicken dinner. And Jiffy mix? Jiffy is a whole nother ballgame of multipurpose cooking. My favorite use for Jiffy mix is Savory Corn Muffins — Prepare Jiffy mix as noted on box; add garlic powder, frozen corn kernels (up to 3/4 cup), chopped fresh chives & freshly grated black pepper; bake as usual and serve with chili, tacos or other Tex-Mex cuisine. See the above picture, or this one:
- Biscuit dough — like Pillsbury Grands — is incredibly versatile. For example, you can make Easy-Peasy Cinnamon Donuts with a tube of Grands biscuits: Separate and lay biscuits out on a baking sheet; Using a shot glass or medicine cup, cut circles out of the center of each biscuit; either bake as directed or deep-fry in vegetable oil until browned; sprinkle with cinnamon sugar. NOM NOM! Here’s a great recipe (with actual measurements) from Make and Takes.
- Pizza dough — either Pillsbury or a store brand — can be used for its obvious purpose (pizza, kiddies), or for calzones, strombolis, or even mini-pizzas. Or, try these Holiday Hors d’Oeuvres — Cut the pizza dough into 1″ X 1″ squares; top with pesto, chopped roasted red peppers, and feta cheese crumbles; bake as directed for pizza dough. (These also make a great light supper.)
- Got Spice Cake Mix and a jar of pumpkin? (Of course you do, lovely GKG readers — you wouldn’t go anywhere without your trusty can of pumpkin!) Combine the two, bake according to the cake mix package’s directions, and poof. Instant Pumpkin Cupcakes. Top with store-bought cream cheese frosting with a splash of maple syrup mixed in, and WOWZA.
- Those bags of frozen Tilapia filets? Seriously your best friend. Use them to create Single Serving Foil Packs — stuff a packet of tinfoil with Tilapia, a splash of cooking liquid (broth, oil, butter or white wine), sliced veggies & spices to your liking; bake at 350 degrees F for about 30 minutes, or until fish and veggies are cooked through. Win! This method also works for chicken and beef equally well.
- Got frozen chicken nuggets? How about turning them into Chicken Parm Bites? Top individual nuggets with tomato sauce and dried basil, baking according to package directions; then, add shredded mozzarella cheese on each nugget and return to the oven for an additional 3-5 minutes, or until the cheese is melted, bubbly and brown. Mmm!
- Pre-cooked chicken sausage is incredibly versatile. Use brands like Al Fresco to whip up a Healthy Pita Pizza: Top individual Greek-style pitas with pesto or tomato sauce, shredded mozzarella, sliced chicken sausage, and shredded kale (thawed and formerly frozen is great!); Broil for 5-10 minutes or until cheese is melted and sausage is heated through. Mmm!
- Got jarred tomato sauce? Doctor up that boring blend with a few extras that you may have hiding in your pantry or spice cabinet: dried basil, dried oregano, dried parsley and a bay leaf. Add sauteed chopped mushrooms and peppers to create an instant Cacciatore sauce for chicken and spaghetti. Or, stir a little store-bought pesto into a jarred tomato sauce. Serious good eats. (I even used this method on my chicken parm! Shhh. Don’t tell the aunts and grandparents! 🙂
- I’m counting mayonnaise as a “sauce” here, because it’s one of the most versatile condiments on the planet. Add some Sriracha for Spicy Mayo; stir in some pesto for a dee-licious Pesto Mayo on your panini; or crushed cloves of garlic (use a sprinkle of salt and a fork to turn garlic into a mushy, incredible paste) and a drizzle of olive oil to DIY your own aioli. Mmmskies.
- If we count cake frosting as a “sauce,” too, then your possibilities are pretty much endless. As I mentioned above, add a drizzle of maple syrup (and a dash or two of cinnamon) to frost fall desserts. Or, try stirring mashed strawberries or raspberries into a whipped vanilla frosting for a light, fruity flavor to top your cakes and cupcakes. I’m also experimenting with adding — you guessed it, lovelies — some jarred pumpkin. I’ll keep you posted on how that turns out.
Here’s to getting creative! Using some pre-made, store-bought ingredients can save you time, energy and money. Wallet-friendly and fun? Sign me up! What are your favorite ways to add to what you’ve already found at the grocery store?
One of my best friends from college is starting a new graduate program at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. (Shout-out to Laura, the woman who first introduced me to the wonders of kimchi. You are amazing – miss you so much!) She and I were chatting recently about the big move – how a Minnesota girl like her was going to adapt to a slower, Southern pace of life in Tennessee.
As we were chatting, she posed a question to me and to my blog: How can a grad student – or, really, any young professional who’s just starting out on a somewhat limited budget – afford to feed herself semi-nutritious food, using some prepared items (frozen foodstuffs, canned and dried goods, etc.) and some fresh ingredients? Are there tasty, filling recipes that suit this kind of budget and lifestyle? What’s a food-loving girl to do?
Determined to rise to the challenge, I’ve started writing and testing a Budget Meals series. I’ll post meal ideas with average pricing based on my market research, including tips for stretching a dollar, basic nutrition advice (hey, a girl’s gotta get those vitamins) and ideas for multipurpose cooking. (I.e. how can I creatively twist one recipe into 3 or 4 different dishes?)
Today’s topic: Scrambled Eggs, an easy master recipe that we’ll be converting into 3 different budget meals: Egg Panini, DIY Fried Rice, and Breakfast Burritos. How yummy does that sound?
Grocery List (prices according to Peapod.com)
- 1 dozen eggs – $1.93
- 1 quart skim milk – $1.49
- 1 loaf of wheat bread – $2.50
- 1 pkg tortillas – $2.09
- 1 pkg sliced deli cheese – $3.59
- 1 jar salsa – $3.00
- Produce (tomatoes, frozen veggies, carrots, 1 bag spinach) – $8.20
Total Cost (excluding condiments, oil/butter and spices): $22.28
How doable is that? 3 meals and then some, using these ingredients in 4 different recipes listed below. Check ‘em out. Happy eating and happy shopping, my budget-friendly friends!
Scrambled Eggs Master Recipe – serves 1 (easily doubled, tripled, quadrupled, etc.)
- 1 tsp oil or butter
- 2 eggs
- 1 tsp milk
- Salt, pepper & spices to taste
Here’s what you do:
- In a small bowl, lightly beat together eggs, milk & spices. I recommend garlic powder, dill, or even some cumin.
- Heat oil or butter in a small sauté pan over medium-ish heat (4 or 5 on your stovetop). When the oil is hot, add the beaten egg mixture. Using a rubber spatula, stir egg mixture constantly, folding it over onto itself and “scrambling” the contents. Cook egg mixture this way until completely cooked through, about 1-2 minutes (Max.)
- Use your rubber spatula to additional “chop up” or “scramble” the egg contents if any pieces are too large or chunky for your taste.
Variation One: Egg Panini – serves 1. This sandwich is a delicious way to use those scrambled eggs for lunch or dinner. Dried herbs – great to stock your budget pantry – really take this to the next level.
- 1 Master Scrambled Eggs Recipe
- 2 slices Swiss, Cheddar or Provolone Cheese
- 2-3 slices tomato
- 3-5 basil leaves or baby spinach leaves (optional)
- 1-2 tsp butter or margarine
- 1 tsp dried oregano or basil
- 2 slices bread (whole grain is great, but buy what you can afford)
Here’s what you do:
- Butter both slices on one side; sprinkle the buttered slices with dried herbs. On one slice’s unbuttered side, stack one slice of cheese; basil or spinach leaves; scrambled eggs (spoon gently onto bread); tomatoes; and your final slice of cheese. Top with 2nd bread slice, buttered side out.
- Heat 1 tsp oil in a small skillet over medium heat. When pan is hot, add sandwich. Cook until pan side is golden brown, about 4-5 minutes. Flip, and cook until other side is also golden brown. Remove from pan, slice along the diagonal, and serve.
Variation Two: DIY Fried Rice – This is great for using leftovers lurking in your fridge. It can also be as gourmet or as simple as you like.
- 1 Master Scrambled Eggs recipe
- 1 cup cooked rice (type and grain are totally your choice)
- ½ to 1 cup frozen or fresh veggies (I like broccoli, peas, and carrots)
- ½ cup cooked meat (chicken, pork, beef), if desired. (Leftover pork chop or steak, perhaps?)
- 1 tsp vegetable or olive oil
- 1 tbsp soy sauce
- Additional spices to taste (salt, pepper, garlic powder, red pepper flakes)
Here’s what you do:
- Heat 1 tsp oil in a medium-sized sauté pan over medium-high heat (7-ish on your stove dial). When hot, add the rice and frozen vegetables. (If your veggies are fresh, cook them first for 5-7 minutes, or until cooked through to your liking.) Stir the mixture frequently for 3-5 minutes, or until all frozen veggies are warm and rice is heated and starting to brown.
- Add scrambled eggs, cooked meat, and additional spices as desired. Continue stirring the fried rice frequently with rubber spatula; drizzle with 1 tbsp soy sauce, and continue cooking for another 3-5 minutes. Scoop the mixture into a large bowl, and enjoy.
Variation Three: Breakfast Burritos – This is as easy as it gets. Take a tortilla; fill it with scrambled eggs, deli cheese, salsa, and anything else you feel like adding (whatever’s in the fridge). Give it a quick nuke in the microwave to melt the cheese / reheat the eggs, roll it up Chipotle-style, and you’re off!
Next time in Budget Eats, we’ll talk about making a big batch of something economical – like vegetarian or turkey chili – and storing / freezing individual portions to eat throughout the week. Nom nom nom!
When you experience power loss on a major scale (see: DC region. See: my sweatbox apartment, which lost power for 5 and a half days last week), one frustrating clean-up task is tackling your refrigerator. Your first instinct, if you’re like most of us, is likely to begin wildly throwing every possible item into the garbage. Toss baby, toss! No tainted mayonnaise for me, thank you very much!
If you’re anything like the History Teacher and myself, your first instinct is to pray that you won’t have to throw away every. Single. Item. When you’re cooking and shopping on a budget, the prospect of spending a few hundred dollars restocking your fridge is about as appealing as eating that 5 day-old tainted mayonnaise.
But take heart! After furiously Googling “How can I save my poor condiments?” I uncovered what might be the most useful government web site in the history of the interwebs: Foodsafety.gov. According to this page, you can actually save more items than you might think.
Top Nine Tips from Foodsafety.gov:
- Toss any kind of raw or cooked meat, fish, or poultry if the item has been above 50˚F for more than two hours. Unless you preserve it in a cooler with ice (or dry ice, apparently) soon after losing power, meat is a no-go.
- While you should toss soft, shredded or low-fat cheeses, hard cheeses, processed cheese (who’s surprised that Velveeta could essentially survive a nuclear holocaust? *crickets*) and cheeses like Parmesan that come in jars or plastic containers are fine. (She said, mourning the block of New York Extra Sharp Cheddar that she tossed, as it decomposed in some lonely landfill.)
- The only kinds of dairy that you should save are butter and margarine. Milk, yogurt and their other dairy brethren should be thrown out.
- Unless your fruit has already been sliced, you can save whole, dried or canned fruits (even open cans).
- Eggs, I’m afraid, are goners. Whether cooked or raw, toss ‘em.
- The only condiments that need tossing are creamy dressings, oyster / fish sauces, and open jars of spaghetti sauce. Makes sense.
- Basic breads, rolls, muffins, and wraps are fine, but refrigerated dough, cooked rice / pasta, and fresh pasta are out.
- Keep your fruit pies! Custard and cream pies, however, should be tossed.
- Raw veggies, mushrooms, and fresh herbs can stay (hurrah!), but cooked and prepared veggies are out.
For the complete chart, check out the link above. As for me, I’ll be having a mustard, cheddar, butter, fruit and apple pie sandwich. With a side of fresh vegetables, of course.