Saturday, June 30, 2007

a week of cheap meals: friday, saturday

Well, the week ended and overall I feel pretty good about what we ate and how much it cost. On Friday I intended to use the baby yukon gold potatoes we bought as a side for a simple meal of boiled bratwurst and salad, but the week proved exhausting for the whole family, so I caved in and bought two monster burritos from the street vendor who often parks his mobile burrito kitchen about two blocks from my house. They were friggin' good, but his prices have gone up (from $6 to $7 for one burrito). I guess you pay for convenience.

As expected, we cooked the brats and potatoes this afternoon for an early dinner. I still had three spring onions left, so I steamed the potatoes whole and tossed them with butter and sliced onions. I'll post the recipe asap.

Friday, June 29, 2007

recipe: spaghetti with tomatoes, chives and basil

*Serves 4 (dinner portions) or 8 (first course portions)
*I copied this recipe from
Mario Batali's "The Babbo Cookbook."


  • kosher salt
  • 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 8 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • 2 pounds small tomatoes (the best you can find in season)
  • 1 bunch chives, cut into 1-inch lengths
  • 1 bunch basil leaves, finely shredded with a knife
  • black pepper
  • kosher salt
  • 2 pounds spaghetti
  • optional: leftover zucchini or other summer vegetables

1. Bring 6 quarts of water to a boil and add 2 tablespoons of salt.

2. In a large saute pan, heat the olive oil over high heat until almost smoking. Lower the heat to medium-high and add the garlic cloves. Cook for 2 minutes, or until softened and slightly browned. Add the tomatoes, chives and basil and cook over high heat until the tomatoes are just beginning to burst. Season with salt and pepper.

3. Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti in the boiling water according to package directions until it is tender yet al dente. Drain the pasta and add it to the pan with the tomatoes. Toss over high heat for 1 minute, then divide evenly among four warmed pasta bowls and serve immediately.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

a week of cheap meals: wednesday, thursday

Pasta offers another simple way for single income families to eat well. While the traditionally American "spaghetti with jarred tomato sauce and hamburger" is tasty enough, and very inexpensive, pasta also can be a great vehicle for leftovers or random vegetables hiding around the kitchen. Despite the recent trend away from pasta and other "high carb" foods, it's important to remember that dried pasta, in moderation, is a cost-effective way to eat well on a tight budget. This makes sense, as the Italian countryside is not a particularly wealthy place - people eat pasta because it is inexpensive, has a long shelf life, can be used with an infinite number of sauces and, least important, it tastes great.

For dinner on Wednesday, I cooked a simple spaghetti recipe starring the tomatoes we purchased at the farmer's market, some leftover grilled zucchini and herbs from the garden. The end result was a super-cheap meal for two, with ample leftovers to serve as dinner on Thursday.

I'll post the recipe shortly.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

a week of cheap meals: tuesday

With the chicken totally gone, we chose to cook the pork steaks on Tuesday. To be honest, I haven't cooked this cut of pork before, but I was eager to try it given its very low cost - we bought three for $6.00 at the farmer's market.

Regrettably, the recipe we used did not turn out as delicious as I had hoped. A few months ago Mark Bittman, who I trust and respect as a food writer and recipe author, featured a recipe for pork steaks braised in red wine. The recipe was so simple there didn't appear to be much room for error; however, the meat was bland and the sauce was overly acidic. For that reason I won't post the recipe here. It was a bummer, but we choked it down for the sake of our budget... Next time I'll try steaks from a another producer and use a different recipe.

a week of cheap meals: monday

Since only two members of our family eat solid food at this point, we decided to use the leftover chicken to make a dinner salad topped with sliced grilled chicken. It's essentially the same salad and dressing as the previously posted green salad with egg and bacon, except with chicken. Feel free to top it with other goodies, such as olives, capers, cheese, pickled peppers or anything else you have around.

We typically eat a salad like this once per week, as a way to stretch the budget and use any leftovers well suited to salad. At first glance, many people (especially men) don't consider a salad to be an adequate meal, but with the right amount of tasty protein, it can be very delicious, filling and healthy. Such salads have the added benefit of requiring zero cooking, so you don't have to heat up your kitchen on warm summer nights or hot afternoons.

Monday, June 25, 2007

recipe: charcoal grilled chicken alla diavola

*Serves 4
*This is an easy recipe to make, but since you have to brine the chicken, I recommend making it for an early weekend dinner.

Before lighting coals, make sure that the grill is cleaned of residual ash from previous use; if left in the bottom, residual ash catches fat drippings and causes flare-ups that can singe the chicken. For this recipe, we prefer the even, slower heat generated by charcoal briquettes over faster-burning hardwood charcoal.

Chicken and Brine:

  • 2 medium garlic heads
  • 3 bay leaves, crumbled
  • 1/2 cup salt
  • 1 whole chicken (3-4 pounds), butterflied and pounded (see below)
Garlic-Pepper Oil
  • 4 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed through a garlic press (about 4 teaspoons)
  • 2 teaspoons ground black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • vegetable oil for grill grate
  • 1 lemon, cut into wedges, for garnish
Use kitchen shears to cut through bones on either side of backbone, then remove and discard backbone. Flip chicken over and use heel of your hand to flatten breastbone. Cover chicken with paper towels to protect skin, then pound flat using meat pounder or rubber mallet.

*Note: This may seem tedious the first time you do it, but you'll get much quicker after making this recipe a few times.

Combine garlic heads, bay leaves, and salt in gallon-size zipper lock bag; press out air and seal bag. Using rubber mallet or meat pounder, pound mixture until garlic cloves are crushed; transfer mixture to large container or stockpot and stir in 2 quarts cold water until salt is dissolved. Immerse chicken in brine and refrigerate until fully seasoned, about 2 hours.

While chicken is brining, heat garlic, black pepper, pepper flakes, and oil in small saucepan over medium heat until garlic is fragrant and sizzling and mixture registers about 200 degrees on instant-read thermometer, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature, about 40 minutes. Measure 2 tablespoons garlic-pepper oil into 2 small bowls and set aside.

Remove chicken from brine and thoroughly pat dry with paper towels. Loosen the skin around the breast and thighs. Apply two tablespoons of the pepper oil underneath the loosened skin.

Ignite about 6 quarts (1 large chimney, or about 6 pounds) charcoal briquettes and burn until covered with thin coating of light gray ash, about 20 minutes. Empty coals into grill and bank half of coals on either side of grill, leaving midsection of grill free of coals. Position grill grate over coals, cover grill, and heat grate until hot, about 5 minutes; scrape grate clean with grill brush. Lightly dip small wad paper towels in vegetable oil; holding wad with tongs, wipe grill grate. Position chicken skin-side down on grill grate over area with no coals; cover grill and fully open lid vents.

Cook until instant-read thermometer inserted into thickest part of thigh registers 170 to 175 degrees, 30 to 45 minutes. Transfer chicken to cutting board; let rest 10 minutes. Carve chicken into four pieces, drizzle with remaining pepper oil and garnish with lemon wedges.
*For a quick side, place some fresh vegetables over the coal banks on each side of the grill during last 10 minutes of cooking.
*This recipe appeared in its entirety in the July/August 2003 issue of Cooks Illustrated

Sunday, June 24, 2007

a week of cheap meals: sunday

Inspired by the pile of produce and fresh meat we brought home from the farmer's market, I decided to put our $32 worth to the test. Could we eat for an entire week using what we purchased, plus a few pantry items? I believe so. The next several posts document exactly what we ate on each particular day of the week, and how we prepared it.

We tend to cook our biggest meal of the on this day, so I decided to put the chicken and zucchini on the grill, Italian style.

What we ate/drank:

Chicken alla Diavola (spicy devil chicken)
You're really missing out if you haven't ever grilled a whole chicken before. It's such a bargain, the meat stays incredibly moist and you can use the leftover scraps to top a green salad or to make chicken salad. Also, you can use the carcass to make delicious chicken stock. Recipe to follow....

Grilled Baby Zucchini
This is too friggin' good and easy. Just slice them length wise (1/2 inch slices), brush with olive oil and grill until lightly charred...

You can warm this up on the grill.

Red Wine

Have you heard of Tisdale? This stuff is a godsend. At about $2.50 per bottle, you'd think it'd be dumpster juice, but this stuff is actually palatable. When asked to guess how much Tisdale costs after tasting it, several of our friends thought it was worth perhaps 8 or 10 dollars. Strange enough, the Tisdale winemakers don't have a web site that I can find, but a quick Google search did pull a few online wine shop sites that sell it. The cabernet is particularly good.

We intended to have strawberries with whip cream for dessert, but we decided to save it for later in the week... Stay tuned for recipes from the week.

recipe: green salad with egg and bacon

We were starving upon returning home from the market, so I made one of my favorite salads with some the the items we purchased. Eating a "main course" salad is an excellent way to eat healthy and save money, and this one makes a great weekend lunch or a light dinner.


  • 2 eggs
  • 4 strips of bacon (or 4-6 oz slab bacon)
  • lettuce
  • parmesan cheese (or any other firm white cheese)
  • olive oil
  • red wine vinegar
  • dijon mustard
  • 1 garlic clove
  • coarse salt (kosher or sea)
  • pepper

Wash, trim and tear the lettuce into small pieces. Dice the bacon into small pieces and fry in a small nonstick frying pan until crisp - place bacon in a small bowl and wipe out pan.

While bacon is cooking, make the dressing:
Smash the garlic clove with your hand or a chef's knife and place in a small cup/bowl. Add one ounce of red wine vinegar and set aside for 15-30 minutes. Then add 1 teaspoon mustard and whisk vigorously. Then slowly drizzle olive oil into vinegar (while whisking quickly) until desired consistence/taste is achieved. Set aside.

Fry the eggs:
Add 1 tablespoon olive oil to the pan and heat until shimmering. Crack both eggs into the pan and fry until the whites are cooked, but the yolks are still runny. Remove pan from heat.

Assemble the salad:

Divide the greens evenly between two dinner plates. Drizzle some dressing on each salad and use two forks to toss (important). Top each plate with bacon pieces and one egg. Crack pepper and sprinkle salt over each salad. Using a vegetable peeler, shave a little bit of cheese over each plate. Eat.

*Makes 2 servings
*Serve with a glass of red wine and bread for a complete meal.

a trip to the market

Where we live, prime season for Farmer's market shoppping begins in about mid-May and ends in late September. You can shop there year around, but the shopping during the fall/winter is typically limited to meat, cheese, eggs, squash, potatoes and onions. We visited the market this morning and were pleased to see so many delicious vegetables and other products at a relatively low cost. Since implementing our new grocery budget ($60.00 per week), we've aimed to spend about $20-$30 at the farmers market, and spend the remaining cash at the grocery store for milk, dry goods and other less perishable items. We were out of town last weekend, so we spent the entire budget at the supermarket.

Today's trip was fairly typical. Before leaving the house, I spent a few minutes trying to plan out our meals for the week, which makes shopping at the market a little easier (it's tempting to buy too much, since it all looks so fresh and good). With $40 cash in hand, we purchased the following (see picture):

  • 4 lb free-range chicken ($8.86)
  • 3 sirloin pork steaks ($6.16)
  • dozen eggs ($3.00)
  • 1# baby zucchini/squash ($2.00)
  • 1 bunch spring onions ($1.00)
  • huge bag of mixed lettuce ($2.00)
  • 1# plum tomatoes ($3.00)
  • 3# baby yukon gold potatoes ($3.00)
  • 1# strawberries ($4.00)
Total cost: $32.02

Now, I haven't yet done an empirical price comparison of farmer's market produce vs. the supermarket, but many of the farmer's market products are obviously a better deal. If money were no object, I would prefer to buy organic/natural/free range products exclusively, but at the supermarket this is typically cost-prohibitive. That said, I feel such products are a for the most part a better deal at the farmer's market, and there's the added benefit of buying from local producers (rather than agribusiness).

The main challenge to shopping/eating this way is you have less choice and unpredictable supply, so you have to be willing to create meals based on what's available, rather than what, exactly, you prefer or want to cook. I prefer this approach because I have to make less decisions about what to buy - they're made for me by the season and growing conditions. This takes a while to get used to, but I believe it's the most practical/frugal way to cook, especially for the single-income family, and your family learns more about where food comes from and when.

The best example of a good deal at the farmer's market is chicken. The fresh, free-range bird I bought today was killed just a few days ago and it cost about $2.25 per pound for a total cost of $8.86. By contrast, I saw an organic free range chicken at the supermarket last week for $18.00 ($4.50 per pound!). This represents exactly double the cost of the farmer's market chicken. Enough said. I'll be back again next week - it's a no-brainer.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

recipe: corn chowder


  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced6 shallots (or 1 small onion), chopped
  • 1 fresh jalapeno pepper, roasted (over a stove flame), peeled, seeded and minced
  • 2 cups chicken stock (if not homemade, use Swanson organic)
  • 6 cups corn kernels (frozen or fresh)
  • pinch of salt
  • 2 cups cream
  • chopped cilantro (for garnish)
  • sour cream (for garnish)
Melt the butter in a large saucepan and saute the garlic and shallots until tender. Stir in the jalapeno pepper and cook a minute longer.

Add the stock and corn to the saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes.

Using a potato masher, mash the soup to soften and break up the corn mixture. Season with salt and add the cream. Reheat thoroughly but do not allow the soup to come to a boil. Serve hot topped with cilantro and a dollop of sour cream.

*makes 4 dinner servings
*for a complete meal, serve with good bread and a simple green salad vinagrette

Martha Stewart Living Cookbook

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

shopping update: actual cost of groceries

We just returned from the store and I am pleased to report that we actually spent less on our groceries than predicted. The following table shows the estimated cost of each item (from my last post) next to the actual price. Note: We omitted the cherries since they now seem to be out of season and were cost prohibitive.


est. cost

actual cost

head of lettuce






eggs (2 dozen)



limes (2)



garlic (1 head)



bananas (6)



shallots (5)












milk (gallon)



sour cream



natural peanut butter



sandwich bread (2)



baguettes (2)



Total cost



We also purchased a few additional items:

tortilla chips


greek olives




This brings our adjusted total cost to $47.66, which is well below our allotted $60. This is good news, as I'd like to swing by the farmer's market for a few items this weekend.

Honestly, I was a bit worried about hitting our budget, but our experience today leaves me further convinced that you (whether a single-income family or not) can make wholesome, nutritious dinners on a tight budget.

That's all for now. I'm going to celebrate our sensible grocery run by making the corn chowder I mentioned last night. I'll post the recipe and some pictures later tonight.

Monday, June 18, 2007

the challenge: one week of groceries for $60 or less

Tomorrow we're due for a small trip to the grocery store. I've put together a short list of items that, in combination with what's already in our pantry and fridge, should get us through the week. As mentioned in an earlier post, our grocery budget is $60.00 per week for our family of three. Even though our baby is only weeks old and doesn't eat solid food, I still count her because the breast milk she eats is a result of the same grocery budget. While we've been on this budget for a few weeks, the new baby hasn't allowed for much of a routine (and Stay-At-Home Mom just stopped receiving paychecks). As a result, we haven't exactly made sure we're eating within budget until now. I hope to keep closer tabs on this as the weeks pass.

Since I can't accurately list the cost of each item on the grocery list, I've taken a good guess and will post the actual costs when I return tomorrow. Should be a good test of cost estimation and perceived value....

head of lettuce - $2
mushrooms - $2
eggs (2 dozen) - $4
limes (2) - $1
garlic (1 head) - $.50
bananas (6) - $1.50
cherries (1 #) - $4.00
shallots (5) - $2.00
cilantro - $1.00
celery - $1.50
tortillas - $2.00
milk (gallon) - $4.00
sour cream - $2.00
natural peanut butter - $4.00
sandwich bread (2 loaves) - $4.00
baguettes (2) - $4.00

Total: $39.50

I'm hoping to make three big meals this week, with enough leftovers to cover most of the week's lunches and dinners. Here's what I'm planning to cook:

  • white corn chowder (2 dinners)
  • ground turkey burritos (2 dinners)
  • egg salad sandwiches (3 lunches)
I'll post the recipes as I make each meal. Stay tuned.

save money: ride a bike

Riding bicycles is an easy way for the single-income family to save money. Lately I've been trying to learn more about fixed gear cycling, and I came across an interesting blog by a bike shop called Cars R' Coffins, which featured a great post and pictures about moving your household possesions without the use of gasoline or motors.....

Here's a photo from the Cars R' Coffins blog:


Wednesday, June 13, 2007

grow your food

Given our new, poorer existence, I promised myself I would try to grow a small vegetable patch to supplement our produce supply and reduce grocery spending for at least one month (likely August). I've wanted to do this for some time, but haven't been able to make it a habit, which seems to be the key.

Coincidentally, we received a $25 gift certificate to a local greenhouse, so I decided to dedicate all of it to seedling vegetable plants. Starting your own plants from seed is definitely the most cost effective way to garden, but since I know next to nothing about gardening I thought it would be smart to start with some healthy plants grown under expert care.

As is, the space I have set aside for vegetables isn't much, but if this goes well, I'd like to expand the operation and include a wider variety of plants and a more graduated harvest. Rather than have too many vegetables in August, I've heard it's possible to plant different things at times, which results in a more steady supply of produce over a longer period.

Anyhoo, here's what I decided to plant:

(2) "beefmaster" tomato
(2) japanese eggplant
(6) sweet banana pepper
(1) hot red chile
(1) butternut squash
(1) rosemary
(1) mint
(1) basil

In addition to the new plants, I also have an existing chive patch and a small head of rhubarb. And I intended to have some lettuces, but the greenhouse didn't have any. Maybe I'll find some elsewhere... I also should mention that I tried to plant things that tend to be expensive at the grocery store - I'd rather not waste time with potatoes, onions, etc. since they usually cost less than $2 per pound.

Like I said before, it's not much, but I'm hoping the crop will help with a few meals, and, more importantly, inspire me to crank it up next spring. I'll keep adding pictures and updates as things progress, as well as some recipes from the resulting meals. So far so good. In fact, my red chile plant just sprouted a few tiny pepper/bud things (they come out of the flowers)...

Sunday, June 10, 2007

all-nighters: part trois

In all honesty, I have really enjoyed certain aspects of cosleeping with our baby. It is wonderful to see your child sleeping softly right next to you, particularly first thing in the morning. Moreover, it is also very convenient for nursing and other matters of comfort. However, as a tall/large individual, the thought of rolling over my child is certainly top of mind. And, since the baby is laying between you and your spouse, it eliminates and possibility of cuddling, etc.

To ease our worries, we decided to order an Arm's Reach Co-sleeper. It's essentially a mini-bassinet that attaches to your bed and allows for all the advantages of co-sleeping without the worry (even if there isn't a risk, depending on what you believe).

We've been using this product for several days now, and I must say, it's given us convenience and piece of mind. We ordered one online for about $120.00 and I think it's well worth the price, which seems quite competitive for a high-quality new bassinet.