I’ve always liked cooking. I’ve always cooked on a budget (we’ve had only one income for most of our married years). I’ve always considered myself pretty creative when it comes to cooking. And I keep a well-stocked pantry and freezer. But I’ve got to admit that even I have found myself a little flummoxed more than once lately, looking at what I’ve got on hand and wondering, “What do I make with that?”
The coronavirus crisis is challenging the cooking strategies of many. A quick Google search tells me that (at least of couple of years ago) 56 percent of Americans eat out 2-3 times a week and only 27 percent cook on a daily basis. Whether you are part of the majority or have been an outlier, the reality is we all are dealing with food shortages, temporary closures of restaurants, and (in many states) mandated shelter at home orders. Which means collectively as a nation we’re cooking more.
On the one hand, that’s a good thing! Americans are alarmingly overweight (one site put it at 83% of men and 72% of women in 2020). As a country we’ve also come in dead last among the nations for chronic health conditions several years running now. Much of this is due to our poor eating habits. Cooking from-scratch foods is a fabulous start toward better nutrition. So though we’re stuck inside our homes with strange food items in our pantries and refrigerators, let’s look on the bright side! This unfortunate global health crisis just might be a tiny step forward in America’s own health problems. On the other hand, we’re still stuck in our homes with strange food items in our pantries and refrigerators. Over the years I’ve found four foods to be a fabulous solution to cooking with odds and ends. This discovery was born out of necessity. I’d get toward the end of the month and have spent already all my grocery money, which meant scrounging the cupboards to see what I had on hand that I could combine into something somewhat passable. I also hate waste, so I am continually keeping an eye on what’s in the fridge that might need used up before it expires or goes bad. Not that I never have to throw out what I term “science experiments,” but I do try to keep that to a minimum. Which gets me back to those four fabulous foods.
Each of these dishes is extremely versatile. Combine a couple of always-on-hand staples and you’ve got a good base. Toss in whatever meats and/or vegetables are languishing in your fridge and voilà—instant, delicious meal. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve done this. I’ve earned the reputation for inventing recipes. Half the time my “inventions” are lucky accidents that came about because I was desperate. Granted, it does take some cooking savvy to know what spices combine well (more on that later) and how to pair and cook ingredients to create the best blending of flavors (sautéing, roasting, and boiling all create different nuances of flavor). But I promise you, anyone can follow these four formulas and come off like a pro!
So what are these fabulous four? Glad you asked! Drumroll please…
Soup is not only delicious and nutritious, it is the ultimate ingredient (and, therefore, budget) stretcher. You can start with prepared broth (chicken, beef, vegetable, or seafood) or make your own and go from there. Personally, I love homemade stock. It not only, has better flavor, in my opinion, it is arguably lower in sodium (something we all could use a little less of) and, if you’re making bone broth, has the amazing healing benefits of that come from animal bones. (Don’t believe me? Do a quick search on the benefits of consuming bones.) So let me break down my soup formula for you step-by-step.
Step 1: Make your broth. If you’re using boxed broth, easy peasy (though I do cut it with some water to reduce the sodium level—about a 2:1 ratio of boxed broth to water works well.) To make your own broth, chop and lightly sauté a vegetable base (see below) in a large stock pot. Then add meat bones if you are creating a meat based stock (a whole chicken with most of the meat cut off, a ham bone, some shrimp shells, you get the idea) or other vegetables if creating a vegetable stock (especially root vegetables and leafy greens) and cover with water. Add 1-2 tsp. salt and ¼-½ tsp. black pepper. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for 3-10 hours. The longer you simmer the more flavorful your stock will be. If you’re making meat stock, be sure to remove the bone(s) or shells. But don’t discard them—there’s good meat on them thar bones! Let them cool slightly, then pick off every last bit of meat you can. Save the meat for your soups; toss the bones. (Or reuse them…old wives tales tell of reusing bones multiple times to make bone broth until the bones are “spent.”) If you plan on using your stock within the next week, you can just refrigerate it. Otherwise, let it cool, then put it into pint sized freezer safe boxes or bags and freeze for later use.
Vegetable base: Personally, I think onion is a non-negotiable for soup. But if you’re having a hard time finding some at the store as I have lately, you can substitute onion flakes (though not nearly as good) or omit it altogether and up the other robust vegetables in the base—celery and garlic. Regarding celery, use the flimsy little inner stalks and all the leaves—though not very tasty on a relish tray, they work great in soup. As for garlic, you can use cloves that are starting to sprout, have a brown spot (just cut it off), or are so little they’re annoying to work with. Crush them or leave them whole. Either way, the sautéing and simmering will infuse your stock with flavor. If I have it on
hand, I also add fresh parsley (can substitute dried, but it’s nowhere near as tasty) to the vegetable base as well.
Step 2: Get creative. Once you’ve got your stock (either homemade or from a box), you’re ready to make soup! Of course, if you know you’re going to use your stock right away, and you need a big pot of soup (say 8 servings or more), you can combine your stock making with your soup making. Just add the other ingredients along with the meat bones, and you’re good to go. The few exceptions include any pastas or grains (such as rice or barley) that you’re adding to your soup and frozen or canned peas. They tend to get too mushy if cooked all day. So what do you add? Anything really. Below I’ve listed some ingredients I commonly add to my soups and stews. Like I said, soup is a good way to use up odds and ends, so don’t’ be afraid to throw in that one potato, the half cup of fresh spinach, and the somewhat wrinkly tomato or pepper you’ve got in the bottom of your vegetable bin. They’ll all combine nicely and come out just fine, despite their questionable appearance before entering the pot. (Just don’t put in something moldy! Though I have been known to cut the bad part off, chop up the other half, and put that in the soup pot.)
Step 3: Season the soup. Besides salt and pepper (which are a must), the sky’s the limit. A good cottage style soup often has 1-2 bay leaves and some rosemary or thyme. Want an Italian flavor? Add oregano and basil. Mexican? Cumin and chili powder. Middle Eastern? Curry powder. Greek? Dill, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Oriental? Ginger and soy sauce. If you’re unsure, a quick online search will net you the recipes to several ethnic spice blends. But honestly, I used to just open spices and sniff until I found a combination I liked. If I wasn’t quite sure if I liked the combo, I’d put a dash of each in my hand and sniff the blend before committing. Half the fun of cooking is experimenting, so don’t be afraid to try!
Step 4: Add the extras. About 40 minutes from serving do the following:
Casseroles are about as American as it gets. These one dish wonders feed a crowd almost as well as Jesus fed the five thousand. Maybe that’s why they’ve long held a place of prominence at church potlucks! In any case, enterprising mommas have baked these delicious concoctions for decades now, relying on pasta (usually) or some other wonderful carb such as stuffing to stretch the other ingredients and fill bellies. Like a soup, just about anything can go into a casserole, and also like a soup, it’s an easy 4-step process.
Step 1: Pick your pasta (or other filler). This base is the magic when it comes to casseroles. Grains tend to be inexpensive, and they bulk up when cooked (which you’ll need to do before assembling the casserole, with the exception of bread), really stretching budget dollars. This is what feeds a crowd on pennies. With a few well-chosen extras (i.e. protein and vegetables), the cooked grain becomes a complete and well-rounded meal. Some ideas to consider:
Step 2: Add vegetables and/or meat. Ground beef and chopped or shredded chicken are perennial favorites in casseroles, but you can also add cooked legumes or even chopped tofu. Adding a protein gives the casserole staying power nutritionally. These can be stirred into your pasta/grain or layered in a baking dish. Some proteins to consider:
Step 3: Moisten everything with a sauce. Casseroles are typically baked, which means without a sauce the pasta or grain that serves as the base can dry out, making the whole thing less than palatable. Sauces not only ensure you won’t have to choke down an overcooked mess, they also give the casserole its delicious and distinct flavor. Years ago chefs and housewives alike made all their sauces from scratch, but modern cooks often turn to canned or bottled premade sauces, making casserole construction a snap! Some popular sauces to consider:
Step 4: Bake (usually at 325-350° F) until set. Top with cheese or another topping (such as French fried onions or crushed cornflakes) if desired—many casseroles call for this finishing touch—and return to the oven for a few minutes (long enough to melt the cheese or brown the crunchy topping). Remove from the oven and allow to rest for 10 minutes before serving (many casseroles benefit from this rest; it allows them to set up a bit). Enjoy!
What is a hotdish? Well…a casserole basically. But most casseroles include pasta while a hotdish relies on rice to bulk it up. (At least that’s the distinction I’ve always made.) And while a casserole is baked in the oven, a hot dish is served straight out of the pan in which you cooked it, reducing the time from prep to table—a great advantage when you’ve got a family turning hangry on you. Really, you can follow the same ingredient suggestions for a casserole when making a hotdish, just put rice in place of the pasta and skip the oven! In addition to the sauces listed for casseroles, try these delicious options which pair well with rice:
I might be stretching things here, but a one-pot pasta dish is the pasta equivalent of a hotdish—at least for the purpose of this list. Like a hotdish, it is served straight from the pot, eliminating the need for the oven as well as the extra time that baking requires. (Yes, I know there are many delicious pasta dishes which require baking—lasagna, stuffed shells/manicotti, etc. But we’re leaving them out for now.) Generally, we tend to think of pasta as Italian fare, so home cooks often get stuck in a rut when it comes to the combinations of ingredients and sauces they pair with their pasta. But pasta can be found in cultures as diverse as Asian and African, and these flavors can open up a whole new world for those cooking on a budget. By changing the combinations of ingredients, sauce bases, and seasonings, your family can tour the world while you save money and stretch pantry stapes! Some ideas (beyond the obvious, of course):
Cooking from scratch is having a renaissance. My hope is that by providing you with four basic formulas, you will find the process of creating daily meals not only easier but more enjoyable. With a little practice, you’ll be creating your own recipes in no time while feeding your family home-cooked meals and stretching the budget and your pantry contents to boot!
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Aimee Fuhrman is a full-time homeschooling mother of four (some of whom are now grown) who moonlights as an author. She loves Jesus, encouraging others, books, knitting, and coming up with delicious allergy-friendly recipes. She lives at the foothills of the Colorado Rockies with her husband of 25 years and their brood.