MAKING ECONOMICAL MEALS

For most of my married life, which was for 26 years, we were scrimping to get by, raising four sons on an often non-existent income. My then-husband was self employed for most of those years, and it was generally feast or famine. I tell you this only because I learned early on how to really stretch a dollar. For 12 of those years I was also a stay-at-home mom. I shopped carefully with coupons when we did have some money, and made the most of the supermarket sales. Meals were often planned around the best of those weekly sales. I also did a lot of refunding along with some of my penpals, so we often exchanged refund forms and the proofs of purchase, as well, if we had extra. Refunding was collecting proof of purchases from groceries and sending them, generally with the cash register receipt included and a form – to a manufacturer who then, in turn, sent you cash rebates or coupons good for free groceries or other premiums. I was not above taking my sons with me to dumpsters behind Laundromats to get the proofs of purchase from empty boxes of detergent and laundry softeners. I saved all the cash rebates for an entire year to pay for a trip for all of us to Cincinnati, our home town. Often there were really great rebates for things like basketballs or dolls or other toys that I’d pack away for birthday and Christmas presents. When we did have some money for groceries, I stocked up on staples—rice, beans, cereals, spaghetti, canned goods, powdered milk—things you could always make a meal out of, when there wasn’t much in the refrigerator or freezer. One of my sons says, today, that he loathes spaghetti dinners; he feels like that’s all we had when they were growing up. I’m not that crazy about spaghetti myself, anymore.

What I learned back then, though, is to make the most out of a small amount of meat which led to a lot of really good recipes such as Beef Burgundy or Pepper Steak – both made from London Broil or flank steak purchased when it was on sale. The Beef Burgundy became a favorite to serve to unexpected guests; over noodles or rice it was a very fine dinner. It really wasn’t a foreign concept; my mother raised her family in the depression and war years, and we grew up on many one-dish meals. A few years ago I read somewhere how these one dish meals are much healthier for you. Who knew?

My sons often brought friends home with them for dinner—and so did my husband. It was not unusual to have up to half a dozen unexpected guests. You can generally handle this easily with one dish meals, sometimes just by adding a few more potatoes or carrots.

There is a cookbook titled “STORIES AND RECIPES OF THE GREAT DEPRESSION OF THE 1930s by Rita Van Amber and one of her recipes is something called Garden Casserole, which the author says was made by the roaster full when she was growing up and there was seldom any left. The following is a reduced recipe:

GARDEN CASSEROLE

Grease a casserole very well. Slice
2 onions into it
Add: 4 potatoes, sliced thin then add
2 cups corn, canned or fresh
1 lb pork sausage, fried and drained
1 tsp salt
¼ tsp pepper

Pour 2 cups canned or fresh tomatoes over all. Buttered crumbs can be added as a topping. Bake, covered, 30 minutes. Uncover and finish baking until done and a crusty brown.

The following is ANOTHER LAYERED GARDEN CASSEROLE. Season with a little salt and pepper between each layer:

1 layer potatoes
1 layer onion rings
1 layer dry rice (3/4 cup)
1 layer peas
1 lb ground beef, fried and drained
1 quart tomatoes
3 slices bacon

Bake 2 hours in a slow oven or until done. Cover first half hour, then continue baking uncovered.

The following is my recipe for pepper steak; I think I have been making it for well over 30 years. It’s one of those recipes you know by heart and can throw together on short notice. If the meat is partially frozen, you can make very nice thin slices. This recipe makes a lot – but it reheats very well for a leftover dinner.

TO MAKE PEPPER STEAK you will need

2 – 2 ½ lbs London broil or round steak, cut into thin slices
½ cup solid shortening such as Crisco
2 cans (16 ounce total) tomatoes
2 ½ cups water*
1 chopped onion
2 small cloves garlic, crushed
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
4 tsp Worcestershire sauce
6 TBSP brown roux**
4 large green bell peppers (or a mixture of colored peppers if they are plentiful and inexpensive
2 cups carrot strips
1 cup sliced fresh mushrooms (optional)

Brown meat in Crisco; drain off excess. Drain tomatoes, reserving liquid. Add reserved liquid, water, onion, salt and pepper to meat in skillet. Cover and simmer 1 hour or until meat is tender (if sliced very thin it will cook faster). Uncover. Add Worcestershire sauce. Stir in roux. Cook until thick and bubbly. Cut green peppers into strips and add to meat with drained tomatoes. Add partially cooked carrots (I precook them for about 5 minutes in the microwave). Simmer 5 minutes. Add mushrooms, if using. Cook a few more minutes until mushrooms are tender. Serve hot over cooked rice or noodles.

*Sandy’s Cooknote: The original recipe calls for 2 ½ cups of water. I like to replace at least half of the water with some Burgundy wine. The alcohol cooks off; it just gives your Pepper Steak a richer flavor.

**Sandy’s Cooknote: To make a roux: Blend 1 cup solid shortening Crisco with 1 cup flour until smooth. Stir in 2 TBSP Kitchen Bouquet. Keep refrigerated in a covered container until needed. To use the roux, use 3 TBSP roux for each cup of liquid and cook until thickened. Roux will last indefinitely in the refrigerator. (it will keep a long time on a pantry shelf, too). A roux is one of those neat little tricks for making a good gravy every time. You’ll find it’s indispensable.
~~
Another long-time favorite main dish recipe is Beef Burgundy. Like Pepper Steak, it can be tossed together on short notice; once you have the dish mixed and cooking, you can make up a salad and get water boiling for the noodles or rice. I could generally get this meal on the table in about an hour.

TO MAKE BEEF BURGUNDY you will need

1-2 pounds of top sirloin or London broil or flank steak*
1 small onion, chopped fine
1 8-oz can tomato sauce
1 8-oz can Burgundy wine**
½ lb sliced raw mushrooms
salt, pepper, pinch of oregano and marjoram
Rice or noodles

Slice meat very thin (it will slice thin if you have it partially frozen). Brown the meat in a small amount of butter or oil, along with the onion. Add tomato sauce, wine, and seasonings. Cover and simmer 1 hour. Fifteen minutes before finishing, add mushrooms. Serve over rice or noodles and sprinkle with a bit of parsley, if you wish.

*Sandy’s Cooknote: Watch for sales on London Broil, flank, or top sirloin. That’s when I stock up on this cut of beef.

**Burgundy wine is fairly inexpensive. I buy a big jug of it for under $10.00 and keep it on hand just for cooking. Personally, I don’t like to drink red wines but I love to cook with them.

WORLD’S EASIEST POT ROAST

You probably know this – I can’t imagine anyone not knowing how to do this simple pot roast. You just tear open a couple long sheets of heavy duty Reynolds Wrap. Set a pot roast – any kind of beef roast such as chuck or 7-bone – in the center. Pour a package of onion soup on top. Then peel and slice carrots and potatoes and put them around the meat. Bring the ends together to make a tight fitting ‘envelope” and put it on a baking sheet or set it into a large baking dish. Let it bake most of the day at a low temperature. Voila – you have dinner. But here’s where you can get really creative. It’s the main reason I like to cook a BIG pot roast, just to have the leftovers.

NEXT DAY BEEF STEW

Cut up the left over beef discarding any visible fat or bone. Put it into your crockpot. If you have some left over carrots or potatoes, cut them up and add to the pot. Pour on any leftover gravy from the roast. Add a package of frozen mixed vegetables. If you happen to have any other leftover bits of things, like corn or peas or tomatoes – almost anything can be added. If it seems too dry, add some water or even a little Burgundy wine. Cover and let it cook on low until dinner time. I have a son who thinks this smacks too much of a soup and isn’t “right” for dinner – but if I have cooked noodles to be served with it, he’s fine. The noodles make it acceptable. If the stew doesn’t seem stew-ish enough or there isn’t enough gravy, toss in a can of cream of mushroom soup. You can also thicken it a little with some Kitchen Bouquet roux.

Another recipe using leftover pot roast is

SECOND DAY BEEF MUSHROOM BURGUNDY

You will need:

1 cup beef gravy
2 cups diced leftover pot roast
¼ lb fresh mushrooms, sliced
2 TBSP Burgundy wine
Hot cooked noodles
Chopped parsley

Mix and heat all except noodles and parsley. Pour over noodles and sprinkle with parsley.

Another great recipe for using up some leftover meat (which can be turkey, chicken, ham or crumbled cooked pork sausage) is my

STUFFING AND “WHATEVER” CASSEROLE

You will need:

¼ cup butter or margarine
½ medium onion, chopped
¼ cup diced celery or green pepper
3 medium zucchini, cut into ¼” slices
1¾ cups water
1 (6 oz) package chicken flavor stuffing mix
¼ cup chopped nuts, optional
2 cups diced cooked turkey, chicken, ham or crumbled pork sausage

In a 2-quart microwave safe casserole, combine butter, onion and celery. Microwave on high for 3 minutes or until veggies are barely softened. Add zucchini, water and herb seasoning packet from the stuffing mix box. Microwave on high to boiling, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in stuffing mix. Cover and let stand 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork. Gently stir in diced cooked meat. Microwave on defrost or medium, uncovered, 12 to 15 minutes or until heated through. Makes 6 to 8 servings. To cook in a conventional oven; drizzle about 2 TBSP butter over the surface of the casserole and bake uncovered at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until heated through.

Years ago, I thought I was inventing something new the first time I made what I labeled “Mexican Lasagna” using leftover taco meat, flour tortillas or leftover tortilla chips, some salsa and whatever else I had on hand at the time. Nowadays I can find a host of similar recipes, sometimes labeled as enchilada casseroles. One favorite is this simple vegetable casserole dish:

VEGETABLE ENCHILADA CASSEROLE

You will need:

1 TBSP vegetable oil
2 cups diced zucchini
1 cup chopped onion
2 cups packed coarsely shredded spinach
1 cup frozen corn
1 jar (17.5 oz) enchilada sauce
12 corn tortillas
2 cups shredded Monterey Jack or Cheddar cheese
chopped fresh cilantro (optional)

Preheat oven 350. In 10” skillet over medium high heat, heat oil. Add zucchini and onion and cook 5 minutes or until golden brown and tender. Add spinach and corn. Cook and stir until spinach wilts.

In a 3 qt shallow baking dish, spread ½ cup enchilada sauce. Place 6 tortillas, overlapping as needed, to cover the bottom of the dish. Spread with half of the remaining enchilada
Sauce. Top with vegetable mixture and half the cheese. Top with remaining tortillas and enchilada sauce. Bake 20 minutes. Top with remaining cheese and bake 5 minutes or until cheese melts. Cut into 6 squares and garnish with cilantro.
~
One of my absolute favorite (and easy) dinners is roasting a small whole chicken. There is almost nothing to it – I place a whole defrosted young chicken on a large piece of foil, having washed it out and removed any giblets (which you can cook to make some chicken stock). I pat it dry and then spray it with Pam. I put a sprig or two of rosemary and a couple slices of lemon into the cavity, then sprinkle lemon pepper seasoning over the outside of the chicken. You can add peeled and cut potatoes and carrots at this time.
Wrap it all up and seal; place it on a rimmed cookie sheet or a shallow baking dish and bake it in a hot oven – I generally start at 375 degrees and lower the temp to about 350 when it’s well into becoming roasted. Or if I have a lot of time, I put it into a slow, 325 degree oven and just let it cook most of the afternoon. The last half hour, uncover the top to let the breast brown. Baste if needed. About this time I siphon off a lot of the liquid to make into gravy. You can mix it with your chicken stock and thicken it with corn starch.
It makes a nice, easy dinner – and we generally have leftovers that can be used for another meal.

Leftover cooked chicken can be used in many different ways – for enchiladas, tacos,
Taco salad, chicken salad. Another really easy recipe that uses leftover cooked chicken is:

CHICKEN & TORTILLA ENCHILADA BAKE

You will need:

1 jar (17.5 oz size jar) enchilada sauce
9 corn tortillas (6” size)
2 cups chopped or shredded cooked chicken
2 cups shredded Mexican cheese blend

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In the bottom of a 9” pie plate, spread ¼ cup of the enchilada sauce. Pour remaining enchilada sauce in a shallow dish. Dip 3 tortillas into sauce to cot. Place them into the pie plate, overlapping as necessary. Top with half of the chopped cooked chicken and ½ cup cheese. Dip 3 more tortillas into the enchilada sauce and place on top of the chicken/cheese. Top with remaining chicken and ½ cup cheese. Dip the last 3 tortillas in enchilada sauce and place on top. Spread with remaining enchilada sauce. Bake 25 minutes. Then top with remaining cheese. Bake 5 minutes or until cheese melts. Cut into wedges.

Don’t have any enchilada sauce where you live? Here is a simple recipe to make your own:

ENCHILADA SAUCE

¼ cup cooking oil
2 TBSP flour
¼ cup California chili powder
1 8-oz can tomato sauce
1 ½ cups water
¼ tsp ground cumin
Salt, pepper, and garlic powder to taste

Heat oil in skillet; stir in flour and chili powder; turn down the heat and cook until slightly brown, stirring constantly to prevent burning. Gradually stir in the tomato sauce, water, and all other ingredients and cook until smooth and slightly thickened. You could easily double this.
**
Sandy’s Cooknote: I have a whole bunch more recipes for making economical and easy entrees but will have to continue this train of thought in another post. Happy Cooking!

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