Friday, March 22, 2013

Cheap Meals...Seniors, Families and the Poverty Striken

Many Italian meals are very inexpensive and simple.  But, when you go out for a meal in Italy, you can spend a bloody fortune.  You end up with Antipasto, Pasta, a meat dish, a Contorno or side dish, possibly a salad, a sweet for dessert, or nuts, fruit, cheese and wine.
A simple night out takes on the dimensions of a Thanksgiving meal.  Food is among the more expensive things in Italy.  The advantage is that it is of exceptional quality.
It would be easy to get a simple meal by just having a well chosen pasta dish, or perhaps an antipasto.  This is difficult because the waiter stands there looking all crestfallen if you do not order the whole thing.
Here in the US, we do not have quite the same attitude toward food as in Italy.  We do not sit as a family(at least most don't anymore) to really enjoy our meals together.  We do not spend hours with a series of little dishes.  It is not a social event like a meal in Italy.
The first thing to do, to lower the cost of your food, is to make food yourself.
 It is nice to keep chickens, of course.  Fewer bugs in the yard etc.  But it is not necessary.  You do not have to keep goats...though it is a good thing to do.  You can lower your costs just by making your own sausage, bake your own bread and cakes, do not buy pre-made foods.
Buy the components of food and put them together for yourself.  It does not take THAT much time to do so, and by making it a task of pleasure, and doing it as a family, it can greatly improve your life, both socially and in the quality and cost of food.
You will need to keep staples well stocked in your house.  Not just plenty of ketchup and mustard, you need to keep plenty of FROZEN vegetables, sale and reduced coupon meats, flour etc.

I find that as I grow accustomed to less meat, that I can buy or roast my own tiny chicken.  For me, this will make about five meals, not including a couple of cups of soup made from the leftovers.  So...$1.00 a meal.  The dog also gets all the leftover scraps of skin etc that I do not eat.  It is quite plain, so it is not bad for him a tablespoon a meal.

When you see a suggestion for bread crumbs as a topping, they could be fine crumbs like you find in the supermarket, or coarsely crumbled bread sauteed in garlic, salt, pepper and oil. ( Like peanut size)

Lets do a simple recipe for a good meal then I can continue.

You will need to do a pan of baking powder biscuits, rolls or doughboys(see recipe) to go with any simple soup meal, or like the Italians, serve a little meat dish to go with it, as this is a vegetarian meal.

Cauliflower Soup

Chop one medium onion(yellow or white only).
Peel and chop about two cups of potato.
Thaw about two cups of Cauliflower florets. (of course fresh works well) You may use stems, if the outer, woody, skin is peeled off.(this is a good use for the stems and pieces.  Perhaps it would be good to do several meals with cauliflower, saving the stems in the freezer for this later use)
You will need chicken broth or vegetable broth...Make your own and save the chicken for chicken salad or pot pie the next day.  For vegetable broth, save all the NON moldy trimmings from several days of vegetables in a plastic bag in the freezer(include things like the onion skins) and simmer them all for half an hour or so.  Strain.  If particles exist and you want a clear broth, strain through a coffee filter or cheesecloth inside a strainer.  Cook all vegetables with the cover on to conserve vitamins.

Saute the onions in butter.  Do not allow the onions to color.  A bit won't hurt, but you are trying to have a white soup when you are done.  The onions should be starting to soften.  Add the potatoes and cauliflower and cover with broth or water.
Simmer until all the vegetables are cooked through and starting to soften.  Do not cook to a mush as it may become bitter, but make sure there are no hard parts.

In a separate pan, make a roux of three tablespoons of flour and three tablespoons of butter.  Melt the butter and add the flour stirring to mix.  Continue to cook over a low temperature till the flour is cooked but not colored.
Stir the roux into the boiling broth and cook briefly till very thick. 
Add milk till it is thinned to the consistency you like, perhaps a bit thinner than you want, because you will puree the veggies to thicken.

Use a slotted spoon to place the veggies in a food processor and puree.  Remove about half a cup of the veggies when just chopped if you want more texture.
You can also just use an immersion blender right in the cooking pan.
Return the puree to the liquid.
Add salt, pepper(white maintains the color, but don't be too fussy) and a pinch of nutmeg.  Stir and reheat just till bubbling.  cayenne would give the soup a little bite.

The measurements are just a suggestion.  Use what you have and adjust accordingly.
This soup would be wonderful with ham,bacon or any of the Italian pork products cooked along with the onion or cooked separately and crumbled on top at the end. 

Save cooking water from vegetables in a big container in the refrigerator till you are making a broth or soup. 

Satay Soup.

You have left-over sweet potatoes, squash, carrots or pumpkin(or even a can of pumpkin pie filling you do not know what to do with)...Hmmm...what to do...

Caramelize one medium onion in butter on a low temperature till sweet, very soft and well colored.
Mash the precooked vegetables in the bottom of a pan along with the onion.  Add a big dollop of peanut butter, mashed chestnuts or other pureed nuts(There are always a handful in a nut dish after a holiday meal.  Just be careful of salt afterward.  Puree the nuts in a food processor with a bit of milk or broth till very smooth).
Mix with the vegetables and thin with vegetable or chicken broth and puree as above.  Simmer till all flavors are blended.  Add milk, cream, yogurt etc and more broth till the consistency of a cream soup.  Add cayenne, ginger to taste,  salt and pepper to taste. (sage optional)

Back to business:

You don't really need the cheese on the burger.  I love cheeseburgers, but one of the first things you learn as a frugal cook, is that you don't need to gild the lily.  The hamburger is a good meal without the cheese, you are only spending extra money and a ton of extra calories on a perfectly acceptable dish without the cheese. 
This is a principle that you must apply to all of your cooking.  You do not need to buy Salad dressing when a simple oil and vinegar is healthier and cheaper.  Or use plain balsamic vinegar alone.  You don't really need grating cheese  on your pasta, just saute some bread crumbs with a few herbs, garlic, pepper...whatever, and use that.

Remember that an adult only needs about three ounces of meat a day!  That is about the size of a deck of cards.  And Meat is not even necessary  at all.  Becoming a vegetarian however, will make it hard to go back to meats, as your system will no longer be accustomed to the meat.  You can get plenty of protein from other sources.  My partner seems determined to ruin us financially and calorie wise.  I looked in the refrigerator today, and there were two pounds of boneless pork chops thawed for the next meal ...There are only two of us!
Yesterday, I used one pound of hamburger to make a large hamburger for the meat hog, a smaller one for me and I had enough to make small meatballs for soup for two days,
Remember that eggs have plenty of protein, and many of the fears that media planted in our brains have been disproved.  Eat the whole egg, but use moderation...Three or four at a time are definitely too much yolk fat.

Go out in the yard in the early spring and gather dandelion leaves before they get too big.  Find swampy areas and the land along streams in the early spring and pick fiddleheads.  Do a search on the computer for wild edible plants in your area.  Avoid mushrooms unless you get expert help the first time out.

Make the cheaper choice when buying the little luxuries.

You absolutely do not need Extra Virgin Olive oil.  Use less expensive lighter color oils for everything.  If you can afford to, buy a small container of EVOO to use in salad or drizzle on vegetables instead of butter.
You do not need Parmesan.  Use less expensive grating cheeses, Pecorino Romano, Asiago, Grana, Ricotta Salata are all perfectly useful, and are sometimes less expensive or on sale.  Check the price of cheese in jars instead of in blocks or grated in bags.  I like Pastene.  They can be less expensive.  Use the best cheese when the mother-in -law is coming for dinner. 

Meatball and Veggie soup.

If I was doing this with a healthy budget, I would use grated cheese in these meatballs, but instead, try heavy seasoning in the meatballs instead.  Extra salt and pepper, a finely crushed bouillon cube or two or Lipton's onion or other dry soup(just a tablespoon or so) in a small amount of meatball mix.  This will provide some of the flavor that you miss without the cheese.

Mix six ounces of ground beef, chicken or pork with an equal volume of bread crumbs, a few tablespoons of water, minced garlic, parsley and one egg salt and pepper.(Do not salt if you have put bouillon cube or Lipton's in the meat.)

Finely grate one carrot and a small onion into a pan with olive oil.  Cook slowly to caramelize and then pour in your choice of broth and cook till the vegetables virtually disappear.(always covered pan)  You may add garlic about half way through the sauteing process.

Form into hazelnut sized balls and drop into the simmering vegetable or chicken broth.  Add carrots in tiny dice or shaved with a vegetable peeler.
Diced onions, celery, zucchini,Green beans, tomato(seeds removed or canned leftover) chopped greens(chard, dandelion, arugula, collard, kale, etc.)..After cooking a few minutes, add peas, mushrooms...whatever is fresh in the refrigerator,  left over in the Tupperware or freezer bags.  Cauliflower, spinach and broccoli may be too strong a flavor.

Simmer covered till all is cooked through and then add about half a can of well rinsed Kidney beans, Cannelini beans or Chick peas.
Add fresh herbs(Parsley, basil etc.) from your garden or dry from the bottle  salt, pepper.

In a separate pan, cook 1/3 of a pound of your favorite macaroni(penne, shells, elbows, Orzo, etc.)leave slightly under done. When cool, add to the soup. Or use rice(brown or white.)  Use leftovers when you have them.
This is a complete meal.

You do not have to use expensive meats like pepperoni or sausage on your pizza(see recipe elsewhere)  Try potato sliced thin, chopped leftover hamburger, chopped onions, frozen or left over peas or broccoli.  Buy the tiny cans of mushroom stems and out the moisture and use.  If there is left over chili, taco meat etc....use that.  If there was a sale on canned chili, use that instead of tomato sauce.    Again, clean out the refrigerator.  Use smaller amounts of cheese, but salt more if using plenty of vegetables.  Vary the type of cheese to match with the toppings

Use ground pork when chicken and beef are too expensive.
Go to the frozen case or ask at the meat counter to see if there are frozen hamburger or pork packages at much reduced cost.  Also, ask if they take the ends of deli meats and cheeses and sell them at a reduced cost.  Always check for reduced vegetables.  Take home and roast, cook or freeze immediately to avoid spoilage. You often find beloved ethnic vegetables in the reduced section as they do not have as large a following as the more conventional vegetables.  There were trays and trays of small eggplants in an unusual shape and color at my market today, for pennies on the dollar.
Do not rule out the unusual vegetables or the ones you hated as a child.  Preparing them in sauces, gratins, roasted, in soup or with lots of seasoning, can change the experience entirely.  I hated my mother's versions of many vegetables that I now love cooked in other ways.  And she was a great cook!

Roman Broccoli with Pasta.

One of the three worst meals I ever had at restaurant was in Rome a few years ago.  We were wandering around rather aimlessly waiting for the time to go to the train to get our flight home. 
We stopped at a little trattoria on Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, not far from the Tiber and the end of the bridge that crosses to Castel St. Angelo.  This had the potential to be a great light meal, but the vegetables were so over cooked, that it was bitter and mushy at best.

Soooo Simple.  It would be perfect with a slice of meatloaf or a hamburger,  Or, just saute a few thin slices of chicken breast or a couple of baked chicken drumsticks or a roasted chicken thigh.

All you have to do is divide a head of broccoli or thaw a couple of cups of frozen broccoli in small pieces.  Saute the florets(and thinly sliced stems that have been peeled to remove the fibrous skin) in a generous amount of olive oil till tender, similar to an Asian stir fry.  If available, finely mince and add a quarter cup of red pepper for color more than anything.  Add the peppers about half way through the cooking time, along with two crushed and minced garlic cloves, salt and pepper.  When just tender, toss with pasta of your choice and grated cheese or seasoned, sauteed bread crumbs.  Frozen vegetables are a real saver here.

Substitute any vegetables that respond well to stir fry.  If you use frozen vegetables, be especially sensitive to the tender crisp nature of well cooked vegetables.  Use left over vegetables just warmed through when available.
Whole wheat pasta will increase the nutrition.    If you make a three bean salad with canned or steamed green beans or yellow beans, chick peas and Cannelini or Kidney beans, and serve on the side, you really do not need meat with this.  Such a salad with just the three cans of legumes would be good for about nine half cup portions.  It would also be good with a half cup of tuna salad, or just white solid tuna, broken up and dressed in oil and vinegar. 
If you have them in the garden or they are on sale, this pasta dish would be great with slim asparagus spears cut in one inch pieces.  Do not try canned, the experience will not be pretty. 

Cheap Corn Chowder

Corn chowder is an example of taking a nice healthy vegetable and turning it into a heart bomb.  That is with traditional recipes.  This version is not without sin, but it is certainly better than cream and butter together.  Cream in general, is not for me except perhaps with company coming.  This is the same with any number of milk based meals.  Cream is a wonderful product, and I love it, but you do not really need to be feeding it to your family on a regular basis.

Cube and boil two or three small potatoes, drain and set aside. 

So, lets get a little healthier.  Mince a medium onion and cook in 3 Tablespoons of butter in a large saucepan.  I know, butter, but you can use a light healthy oil or olive oil(the NON GREEN kind) 
When the onions are just softening, stir in 3 Tablespoons of white flour, and cook on low heat till just barely starting to color.  Stir in one can of cream style corn.  When smooth(as smooth as possible with cream style corn) stir in salt, pepper, a pinch of cayenne and a couple of cans of any milk you are comfortable serving and simmer very low till it thickens.(preheating the milk will hurry this along).   Add more milk and simmer till the non-solid consistency is like a light cream soup.  

Stir in the potatoes. 
If you like a little color, try minced red and/or green pepper or minced carrot along with the onions.  Not too much green pepper, as the flavor will overpower.  An alternative would be Jalapeno pepper.
Serve this with fresh baking powder biscuits with paper thin slivers of leftover ham and/or strong cheese inside.  Tiny amounts will do.  Remember that you only NEED about 3 oz of protein a day
If you have fresh corn on hand, take about five ears of corn that have been peeled of their husks and the silk removed.  Stand them on on the butt end in a plate and cut the kernels off into the plate.  Then turn the knife over so the back, dull edge, is against the ear of corn.  Scrape all the liquid and any solids that will come off into the plate as well.  You should have about the same amount of corn as the can, but adjust as necessary if there is more or less.

If you live in an area where they have Christmas Tree Shops, buy their discounted luxury foods there.  There are very inexpensive spices as well.  Whole peppercorns, vanilla(imitation) olive oil and exotic pickles are available there, as well as affordable jams and jellies.  There are similar discount or job lot stores all over the country.

Pasta with Peas, Mushrooms and Onions.

People think that Italian food has to be spicy or just plain hot.  But that is not true.  There are regions of Italy where long, skinny peppers, fiery hot, are well loved.  That is usually in the deep south.  the rest of Italy has any number of very mellow food, including this combination on pizza.  There is a little bit of hot pepper in any number of dishes, and this, like here in the States, is up to the cook.  I love hot food, but my system is beginning to rebel, so I find myself doing lots of mild dishes as well.

Slice a cup or so of mushrooms, or use a can of stems and pieces.  Make sure that the mushrooms are very dry.  Brown them in a generous amount of olive oil or butter.  Remove from the pan.  Saute a medium, chopped onion and a finely minced or crushed garlic clove in the same type of fat till just starting to go clear. 
Return the mushrooms to the pan and drop in a cup or so of thawed frozen peas. 
Meanwhile, cook a pound of small shell pasta or any pasta of choice.(Rice or steamed, cubed or New potatoes are good for many of these recipes)  Toss the pasta with the veggies in the pan, along with about half a cup of pasta water, or more if needed. 

This is good with crumbled bacon,  browned.Pancetta(If you can afford it) or slivers of ham.  Try the sandwich ham at the supermarket discounted end cut section, or ask for end cuts.  Cube and add in time to dry and heat it through before adding the pasta.
A pinch of red pepper flakes would not hurt.
Top with grating cheese or sauteed and seasoned bread crumbs or croutons.  Buy stuffing mix in bags at the dollar store for the croutons.


Search in the box at the top of the page for lentils.  Lots of protein from the legume, added grain products like pasta or rice, make the protein complete.  Very inexpensive, can be just soaked, barely cooked, drained and tossed in a vinaigrette with veggies for a salad.  Make the vinaigrette with lemons.  Lemons are surprisingly inexpensive at some times of the year.

Buy bags of frozen fruits instead of fresh.  The big bags can be really cheap.  Berries or peaches can just be tossed with sugar and left to thaw in the refrigerator till marinated.  Add a little liquor or liqueur if you like.  Tequila?  Serve over your own cake, baking powder biscuits, cookies or muffins.   Make into smoothies, or search for the berry "Ice Cream" in the search box above.

Search for my grandmother's biscotti recipe(Anise Toast) in the search box.  This is a very inexpensive and easy recipe.  It impresses people too.  Just a scoop of ice cream with one or two of these stuck into the cup, makes an impressive display when you cannot afford something grander.  Of course, it is also something that is satisfying and nostalgic with good strong coffee or mocha all by itself.  Try other flavorings if you do not like anise.  Orange zest biscotti and coffee...a real natural.

Tomato paste is available for less than a dollar most of the time, but sometimes you can pick up tomato paste for pennies a can on sale.  I have mentioned this method a couple of times in the blog, but here it is again.
Saute, or brown anything you like in olive oil.(Onions, meats, other vegetables)  Add a can of tomato paste and cook briefly in the oil.  The paste will color a bit.  Add a can of chicken or other broth to thin the paste.  Add water if more dilution is needed.  Substitute water or water and bouillon cubes if you do not have broth.  Simmer for about twenty minutes.  Add fresh or dried basil or other appropriate herbs for the last few minutes.
Use almost anything in the sauce:
Beef, cubed or ground
Chicken..legs, thighs, wings, breasts(extra seasoning as this sucks up the flavor)
Pork all parts except regular ham(extra seasoning as this sucks up the flavor too.)
Summer squash
Green beans
Black olives
Chick peas
Pepperoni(Don't use mellow and extremely expensive cured is a waste)
Canned shellfish
Roasted  or fresh garlic
Capers(usually with fish)
Left overs
Game of all kinds
Poach eggs in it.(eggs in purgatory)
Combinations of the above.

Add brown sugar and vinegar(cinnamon. cloves and ginger) to make a simple barbecue sauce.

I do not really like this next one, but it does work.  My mother would turn over in her grave!!!!!!  When you see Campbell's tomato soup on sale, snap it up.  It works as a good base for tomato sauce.   It is sometimes available for next to nothing, and it is already cooked, so it takes no time at all to cook a sauce.
Use cream of mushroom, cream of celery, cream of whatever soup as a sauce with any number of meats and vegetables to pour over potato, rice or pasta. Bake meats in the soup.

Pasta with Fresh (nearly) Vegetables

Pour two tablespoons of oil in a frying pan.  Saute several cloves of crushed fresh garlic in the oil till soft and not over browned.   Add chopped onions(let cook a minute) or in rapid succession, scallions, chopped peppers, chopped tomato(or halved cherry tomatoes) capers,green beans, peas, fresh corn kernels, etc. to the pan.  Cook only till the vegetables are barely heated through or in the case of the onions transparent.  They should be tender crisp.  Use anything you might eat in a salad and in any combination.  Even cukes are good cooked(perhaps without the seeds)  Salt and Pepper, and a pinch of pepper flakes.

Toss with cooked shells, orichetti, tubetti, etc..
Add a splash of good quality vinegar of your choice if you like.
serve hot, room temperature or cold.

Look up Pizza and Focaccia in the search box above.  There are tons of options to try when baking bread.
Serve bread with Italian cheeses and vegetables in oil and garlic on top. 
Crack an egg per person into depressions on the top of the bread and bake.   Press an oiled cup into the surface to make the depressions. 
Put a layer of grated cheese of any melty type on top of  oil and garlic, and chopped FRESH tomato or other vegetable on top.  Drizzle with oil before baking and after.
Be creative.

ABOUT BREAD AND BISCUITS.(search for recipes in the search box at top)

Baking is an ART rather than a SCIENCE.  Rather, the slavish measuring is the science, but knowing when to alter the measurements is the art.  It is not difficult work(unless you are doing a huge bowl of bread dough) and indeed it is rather Zen like... meditative... a connection to the past.  It can be.... discouraging though.  You have to follow directions to the letter a few times,  learn what makes a better bread by making mistakes.  The bottom line is:  You cannot really ruin the doughs and biscuits as far as nutrition is concerned.  You may end up eating a majority of the mistakes....but then that is your little punishment for not following directions.
Eventually your bread will be good most of the time...there are too many variables beyond your control to make it perfect every time.  Temperature, humidity, yeast freshness, baking powder and soda freshness and quality...slightly bigger eggs or slightly smaller eggs(for some recipes) all play a hand.  You will eventually FEEL the bread as you knead it.  You will know if your dough is right from experience.
It really is worth the effort....there is nothing like spreading butter over warm bread and biscuits made by your own hands...melting cheese, jam and fruit on them...OH MY GOD!!!!  And think of the money saved!


A good way to hide leftovers?  Perhaps, but in spite of  being something of a calorie bomb, this is a good way to make simple ingredients seem special, and like Mary Poppins with her spoon full of sugar, a good white sauce makes the plain and uninteresting go down.
If you have a ton of leftover veggies in the refrigerator, just butter a baking dish...a pretty one is an added advantage...arrange your veggies on the bottom, and pour a white sauce, a cream sauce, an onion sauce or cream over the contents and put it into the oven or broiler to heat and brown.  Cover the sauce with bread crumbs, or Parmesan cheese, cheese of any variety, crushed crackers or chips, paprika, etc.
I am always trying to make Bechamel according to the recipe, and I am always having to add more liquid, or find that it is too thin. 

a few seconds too long in the frying pan means that the roux will thicken less efficiently.  Too many variables.  So...Just keep the milk in the container, and pour and stir till it is the consistency you like.

Just put 3 tablespoons of butter or oil in a small pan.  Melt the butter, and add 3 tablespoons of flour.  Stir and cook for a minute or two on VERY low heat, and start adding milk(hot is best) and stir till smooth.  Add milk till you have the thickness you want.  Add cheese, if you like, a pinch of cayenne and a pinch of mustard(mustard from a jar will do, but it may have vinegar in it and could curdle the milk.

Saute any aromatic veggies you like in the butter before the flour is added, and continue once it is soft.   Onion, garlic, minced carrot etc.  You could stir in a tablespoon of tomato paste and basil pesto.  Pour over fried zucchini or eggplant with Parmesan.  Curry powder or jarred curry in the sauce would be good, but start by toasting the spice in the fat first.

Pour your chosen sauce over meat, veggies, potato, and bake or broil till browned on top

With fruits for dessert.
Pour a sweetened cream sauce with flavorings or spices in it.  You could use just cream, sweetened and boiled to thicken slightly with a little sherry, dessert wine or liqueur, over sliced fruit or thawed berries and place in the oven.  If it does not really have to COOK, just broil it and top with crushed Amaretti, or sugar cookie, chopped nuts or shredded coconut.

One of the biggest ways to save is to include lots of Legumes into your diet, and less meat.
Buy plastic bags full of .kidney beans, chick peas, soldier beans, cranberry beans, black beans, lentils of all colors, split peas.
Follow package directions to cook, and use them ALL THE TIME!  Once you get into the habit of doing this, it will seem easy, and there will be much more money in your pocket at the end of the week.

Vegetable Meatballs(with egg and bread crumbs)

in food processor, any combination of the following for a total of about 3 cups or less: 
one carrot, chopped 
one small chopped onion, or a leek
one small zucchini, chopped
one chopped red pepper
one clove garlic, minced
one small eggplant
black olives pits removed

Mince finely but not a paste, the size of split peas

Pour olive oil in pan and saute the veggies till soft, adding salt and pepper.

drain one can of chickpeas and rinse them briefly.

Food process till they form a paste.

Put the cooked vegetables and chick peas together in a bowl and wait till all is cool.

Thoroughly mix in one large beaten egg

form into balls about 1 1/2 inches

Beat two eggs thoroughly and roll the balls in the egg,

Roll in bread crumbs, or perhaps Panko

Deep fry in olive or canola oil, a few at a time. Do not use extra virgin olive oil....light oil is cheaper and is not so strong a flavor.

Serve with tomato sauce.

If you do not want to deep fry, you could make patties instead and fry in frying pan instead.

I am not a fan of deli ham, but I really love Rosemary Ham.  The trouble is, it is very expensive.  So, buy it anyway.  But buy a quarter of a pound.  Use very neutral bread cut in thin slices.  Pumpernickel or rye might be overpowering...make intelligent choices.  Make a sandwich with a thin sliver of the meat, and a scraping of your favorite spread.  I hate Mayo in general, so I use butter..Use what you like.  Bean puree with a bit of garlic, or cooked mushroom puree with garlic and sage, can be very good.  But, do not overpower a delicate meat like the Rosemary Ham with a strong spread like mustard. 
Two thin slices of bread, a thin slice of the ham...that is all you need with a bowl of soup, or a salad.
Make a thin sandwich with a deli or home sliced meat, a paper thin slice of tomato, an single leaf of lettuce, cucumber etc.  Cut into finger sandwiches and dip the edges into chopped herbs or paprika.
When you go to the deli in the US and order a Panini, you get this really stuffed sandwich.  In Italy, you get a scraping of Mayo(sometimes) a thin slice of tomato, a thin slice of meat and/or cheese and a leaf of lettuce.  Maybe a couple of basil leaves or pesto will appear.  That is then goes on the grill  There is very little in it, but who really needs it.  This philosophy is:...if you have good flavorful ingredients, you do not need a ton of meat and cheese in a sandwich...and they are right.
Make a sandwich and grill it at home like a toasted cheese.
Make sandwiches out of your own home made rolls, rounds of baguette, home made biscuits etc.....very elegant. Cucumber sandwiches are great, as are typically English things like cheese and chutney, bacon and onion...even paper thin sliced raw onion sandwiches are great.  If you have left over soft cheese or mozzarella, make cheese, tomato and basil or pesto(pesto can be very cheap if you buy it in plastic tubs near where they sell Hummus...tons of flavor with just a thin scrape of it...make it last)  Use olive spread or olives in cream cheese.  Olives in jars can be very cheap.   Cut off crusts and nibble on them in the kitchen while you do other chores.  Then you can eat less at the table and appear very virtuous!
There are many people that would look at you funny if you brought in a pile of really skinny sandwiches, but make a show if it.  Cut off the crusts, make finger sandwiches, make them creative and put some time into them...then defy them to make a comment!
Remember that we are CHRONIC OVER-EATERS in this country!
Search for Egg Salad and Bean Spread in the search box above.

Search for "sausage" in the search box above....much cheaper than store bought.

Poor Man's Saltimbocca

I love Chicken Saltimbocca, but it does not like my pocketbook.  First you have to have sage leaves...not a big deal in the summer, but a bit difficult other times of the year.  Then you need Prosciutto.  This is the big ticket item.  A good Prosciutto is a bloody fortune, and to do it right, it would be something more substantial than a tiny, paper thin scrap of meat.  Then there are the mushrooms... The expensive cheese and the wine.

I have found that, like I said earlier, you can get away with the basic recipe without the gilding.  You could substitute baked ham or sandwich ham for the Prosciutto, or just leave it out and over season slightly to mimic the salty taste of the expensive ham.  Also, you can do this without the wine and without the expensive mushrooms.
Here it is boiled down to the absolute essentials.  The main draw to this dish is the velvety coating on the chicken. 

Cut boneless chicken breasts, or thighs into uniform pieces about 2 oz. each.  Pound the pieces with a tenderizer till flattened slightly and the fibers are broken.
Stack on a plate.

Slice a half pound of plain button mushrooms, on the thick side, and brown them in a mix of olive oil and butter on medium heat.  If they exude a lot of water, raise the heat to boil it away and continue to brown.  Set aside.

In a plate, mix one cup of flour with three tablespoons of sage powder(like Bell's), salt and pepper.  Be a bit generous with the salt to mimic the saltiness of the ham as it will not be there.
  You may also mix in a bit of garlic powder if desired.  A little extra seasoning will help you forget the missing elements of the meal. 
Dredge the chicken pieces in the flour mixture.  Shake thoroughly as you do not want an excess of flour.  As they are dredged,  lay them into a large pan with olive oil and butter mixed together.  The initial foam of the butter should have subsided before the chicken is added, but try to keep the temperature moderate so you do not get terribly dark butter or flour on the chicken. Allow the chicken to color on both sides till about 3/4 done, and remove to a baking pan in a single layer.  
When all the chicken is fried, remove the pan from the heat while you assemble the dish.
Spread the mushrooms evenly over the chicken.  Lay a slice of Swiss, Gruyere or Fontina cheese on each slice.  You should just use a mild cheese for this.  It is not necessary to use an expensive cheese unless you are trying to impress....mild and slightly nutty is best.  Even something like Mozzarella would do.
Heat up the two pans again.  Deglaze the mushroom pan with water, white wine or broth.  Pour the deglaze and liquid into the chicken frying pan to deglaze that.  Scrape the bottom of the pan. Add a cup of cream and a knob of butter, and stir to combine and reduce slightly(you absolutely do not need the cream if you do not want or cannot afford it)   Allow to cook till the flour taste is gone and slightly thickened.  Pour over the chicken and put in a moderate oven to finish cooking and melt the cheese.  It will not take long as the chicken will cook as it rests a bit and it is rather thinly pounded.  Squeeze a half lemon over the chicken before serving if you like.(again not necessary if the budget is tight).  Again, if there is alittle money, you might jazz this up with finely minced red bell pepper sprinkled on top as you place it in the oven.  You have been very good about not wasting money so this might be a pretty addition.  Chicken Saltimbocca is very pretty though not colorful.
Serve with pasta or rice. 

Pasta alla Norma

I have to say that I am not a great fan of Eggplant.  Most of my relatives would inhale eggplant three times a day, but not me.  I also should say that eggplant is fairly versatile.  It can be fried, casseroled, Caponata-ed.  It takes on the flavor of almost anything you want.  People tell me I do not like it because it has a bitter flavor, which can be removed by salting and draining it.  That is not the problem.  I do not like the texture.
Sooooo, I get around the problem that I have with it by cooking it a little less than most people do, or over cooking it to the point of either disappearing completely, or frying it hard to the point of crispness. 
But that is my problem, not yours.

Pasta alla Norma is fairly simple, and when you find great mounds of eggplant on sale in the reduced produce section, it can make for a wonderful meal.  In fact, buy a lot, because you could make Eggplant Parmesan, Caponata, Eggplant Caviar and Pasta alla Norma on successive days and not tire of it.  The Caponata and Caviar will keep well for days after making it, and will only improve.

If you buy smaller eggplant, there will never be a problem with bitterness, and also, there are no seeds to contend with if you buy very small.  If you have to buy large, simply salt the sliced or cubed eggplant and let drain in a colander for an hour or two and rinse.

Start with a large can of crushed tomato, or a pile of fresh chopped tomatoes(skins removed is best, but I don't bother.  The fiber will do you good.)  Saute a medium, finely cubed onion in olive oil till clear.  Add a couple of cloves of garlic about half way through the process and continue to cook till all has colored a bit but not burned.  Pour in the tomato, and let simmer for about 15 minutes.  Add salt and pepper to taste and a generous handful of torn Basil leaves(you may use dried at the end of the onion frying stage if you don't have or cannot afford fresh.)  Continue to simmer very low for a few minutes then remove from the heat.  (I might add pepperoncino at some point in the onion frying...but that is just me.)

Meanwhile, chop a couple of small eggplants(about three cups will do, but a bit more is better) into cubes about 1 inch(this is good for me, you may wish to use larger chunks).  Dry them thoroughly on paper towel or a kitchen towel.  The dryer the better for browning. 

In a frying pan, coat the bottom generously with olive oil.  Fry the eggplant till golden brown over moderate heat, on all sides.  Do not crowd the pan as it will only get damp and stew instead of browning.  Do this in batches if necessary.  Drain off the oil on paper towels.

When all is done, return the sauce to the heat. 
Option 1. When just bubbling, add the eggplant to the sauce and stir to coat and serve over pasta. 

Option 2. Better still, add the sauce to the pasta, and pour the plain fried eggplant over the top of the sauce.  
Cover all with Ricotta Salata.
If the cheese is not available, use the grating cheese of your choice: Pecorino, Parmesan, drained Ricotta, Feta, or make your own cheese using the recipe in the blog by searching for it in the search box at the top of the page.  This would be just as good with sauteed bread crumbs as described elsewhere.

To remove skin and seeds from the tomato, just bring a saucepan of water to boil and drop the tomatoes in one at a time.  When the skin splits, remove with a slotted spoon to cold water.  Peel off the skin and cut the tomato horizontally.  Scrape out the seeds with your finger into the garbage or a bowl.

This recipe would work quite well with zucchini, mushrooms...any number of vegetables.
You might also do this by flouring the vegetables and frying them in oil.(That would be my choice.)

Cheap Rice Dishes

Buy rice in huge bags.  As long as you keep it dry, it will keep. 
Of course, brown rice is much better for you than white.  Very little has been stripped away to get that nice white that we see most of the time.  It does however, take a bit longer to cook.  I cannot get John to enjoy it though.  I do not know why, I really love it.  It may not be that neutral foil for other foods that white rice gives you.  Especially if you have very delicately flavored food to go with it, Brown Rice is not the best choice. 
Risotto is a great dish.  It seems difficult on the surface, but it really just requires a little tending to come out right.  It is a bit harder to come up with the nice Arborio Rice, and you will pay much more for it.  Of course one meal is not an issue, but if you plan to use it often, the cost will add up.
Sooo...I am advocating white rice for this One Pot Rice Method.

Have standing by, hard boiled eggs, cubed left over meat(like from the end cuts at the supermarket), yesterday's roast chicken, roast beef, slivers of steak, ham or even tuna.

You might serve on a bed of greens with eggs sliced around, or with a mound of tuna in the middle etc., or mix cubed meat into the rice before serving.

As this is the entire meal, I am making a big batch, and it stores well for another meal.  You can cut the whole thing in half though.

Saute a chopped onion and a couple of chopped ribs of celery in olive oil or butter, till just tinged with brown on the edges.  Add 2 tablespoons(or more) of Chili Powder, a teaspoon of oregano, minced garlic(or powder) a teaspoon of cumin 1/2 teaspoon of ground pepper.(Use other cubed vegetables that you might have in the refrigerator as well). 
Pour in 4 cups of vegetable or chicken broth, or use four bouillon cubes.
Bring to a boil.
Add 1 3/4 cups of white rice.
Allow to come back to a boil and add 1/2 cup of crushed tomatoes, or chopped fresh tomatoes and a bit of tomato sauce to make it a bit richer. 
If you have a little left over salsa, that works well also.
When the water boils, cover the pan and reduce the heat to a very low simmer.
Simmer for 15 minutes.  Taste the rice to see if the grains are almost cooked through.  It may be resistant in the middle, but not hard.
Cook up to a couple of minutes longer if needed.
You are not trying to absorb all the liquid as in regular white rice.
Remove from the heat and leave covered for several minutes.
It should be creamy with plenty of sauce, but not wet.
Stir in meats if desired.

Change this to any other ethnic mix that you like.  Oregano and Basil  with sausage for Italian......chopped apples, raisins, curry powder, etc for Indian...Soy sauce....Paprika....Be imaginative and experiment with combinations till you settle on a few combinations that you like.  Bacon and beans stirred in at the end would be good.
Cheese......Need I say more?
Try light sauces instead of tomato, like Campbell's soups as a flavoring.

Pea Soup

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Sausage Including Aeolian Style 2

My Grandmother, Mary Rose (Cincotta) Cafarella (center) with Uncle Joe in her lap,(I assume) Aunt Jennie (Cincotta) Vasquez, Possibly Onofrio Vasquez or one of the Cafarella brothers on right.  This could be on Summer Street in Malden or in Hyde Park Ma..  Notice the silvery sheen at the top of the photo.  This is a silver print.  This is an indication of how fleeting these images are.  It is a good idea to scan all the old photos you have to preserve them.  Put them of several kinds of media to insure their survival, including new prints.  Send family things to me to be posted in family blogs.

I use the word sausage alone, because I just do not have the time or energy to make the sausage links.  It is not terribly difficult to do; it is just not something I have time for.  Basically, you have to find and buy hog's or artificial intestines(perhaps others are available), soak the real one in salt water, rinse a couple of times by holding the end open over a faucet, so the inside basically inflates with the water.  If there is a hole anywhere, you just cut the casing there so that you do not have sausage meat coming out that hole.  Then you have two pieces of casing instead of great tragedy.  When all is rinsed and soaked, you just slide the end of the casing over a sausage stuffer or stuffing attachment on your mixer, till it is all on the funnel, like a knit sleeve pushed up on your arm.  Then pull out a couple of inches of the casing, and start the stuffing.  Do not over fill.  After you have some meat in the casing, tie off the end by just knotting it, or tie it with cotton string or thread(COTTON!). 
Continue stuffing till you get to the end of the casing or you run out of stuffing.  Force the remaining meat out of the stuffer by using a couple of slices of bread in the grinder till all the meat is out. 
  You can tie the spaces you want between links with the string, or just give the casing a twist to separate them.
Do not get artificial casings wet.

Use only the freshest of the fresh meats.  If you want the sausage to hang around for a day or two in the refrigerator, it cannot be infected by anything...Fresh!...Clean!...Clean Bowls!...Clean work surfaces!...Unblemished Vegetables!...Boil anything you plan to have touch the meat!  Scrub your hands or wear gloves.
Ground meats are not known for stability.  Do not allow ground meats to hang around unless it is frozen, or you really know how to keep everything CLEAN!!!!!!
This is the only great warning!

With any meat, or any food for that matter, the more cut surfaces on the meat, the more opportunities to be contaminated.  Ground meats can be very contaminated.  It is always better to buy a large block of meat, and grind it yourself with extremely clean machinery, implements and surfaces.

Here is your opportunity to adjust your intake of fat, salt etc..  Breakfast foods are so often just horrible for you.  All that salt and fat are just waiting for you...attack that heart...attack those vessels send that blood pressure through the roof.  Here, too, is an opportunity to add fiber, by just mixing in some of the dietary fiber powders available on supermarket shelves.

Breakfast Sausage.

1 lb ground pork
2 Tablespoons of bells stuffing seasoning or fresh, finely pulverized Sage from the garden.  Use twice as much fresh.
3 teaspoons of salt
3 teaspoons of freshly ground pepper.
 Mix all together.
Take out about 1 teaspoon of the mix.  Fry in a small pan and taste.

Optional other seasonings:
Thyme, Rosemary, brown sugar, maple sugar, Cayenne, Paprika, Red Pepper flakes, Nutmeg, Cloves, powdered Bay Leaves.  Use any or all of these in breakfast sausage.  Make your own favorite blend by trial and error.  You will not ruin the sausage by trials with any of these.

When you have made the sausage a few times, you will have a better handle on how much salt and pepper to use, as sage will vary in strength depending on how old it is, you will get to know how much will be necessary by the smell of the uncooked meat.

Store overnight in the refrigerator in a container that fills right to the top with the meat.  Do not allow a lot of air in the container or press plastic wrap on to the surface of the meat to exclude air.  Make patties and fry as usual.  You will not have very much fat in the sausage, so you may have to oil your cooking vessel.
You may cook the sausage immediately if you like, it just blends flavors more if stored overnight.
Make sure that the storage container is VERY CLEAN too.

You can put all kinds of things in Italian sausage, as long as it is Italian.  So lets try a basic recipe and see what we can add to it.

Start with 2 pounds of Pork Butt or two pounds of ground pork. 
With the Pork Butt, chop up in 1/2-1/4 inch pieces, then grind or place in food processor to grind in small batches.  Pulse a few times only and do not make a paste out of the meat.

1. Mix in 2 teaspoons of fennel seed or anise seed.  Toast it in a dry frying pan if desired.  This will increase the flavor of the seed. 
2. Add 1-2 teaspoons of salt or 2-2 1/2 teaspoons of Kosher salt or sea salt.  Sea salt would be typical of the islands.
3. Add 1-2 teaspoons of black pepper.

Stir all together thoroughly, and fry a teaspoon of the meat mixture in a small frying pan to taste.

Stuff into casings or form into sausage shapes to fry.

Like cookie dough, roll a quantity of meat in waxed paper and form a long cylinder.  Freeze for a couple of hours and slice to fry as patties.

Additions and combinations: always include salt unless the ingredients are already heavily salted.

A. Sicilian/Aeolian 2  see other posts for 1
Sun dried tomatoes in oil(minced), chopped bitter greens of your choice, Pecorino, parsley, fennel seed, black pepper, pepperoncino (chopped), white wine.  In the islands, this sausage is quite delicate, with just specks of the seasonings in it.  The recipes from Sicily tend to be very heavily seasoned with lots of the greens and tomato.

B. Fennel, pepper and red pepper flakes.

C. Fennel and cayenne or paprika.

D. Pecorino Romano,freshly mashed garlic and white wine.

E. Black pepper and powdered bay leaves.

F. Fresh tomato finely chopped(seeds removed), Capers, Parsley(black or green olives).

G. Roasted red and green peppers chopped into 1/4 in pieces, mashed garlic, Pecorino.

H. Ground cooked mushrooms, oregano and mashed garlic.  (or sage instead of the oregano) (minced onions can also be included). 

I. Pistachio, pine nuts, almonds, walnuts, chestnuts.  Leave in pieces about the same size as the pine nuts.  Don't make them so small that their character disappears,  salt and pepper.  Try raisins or other dried fruit with the nuts, minced into the meat.  You might try a splash of sherry or spirits.

J.  Paprika.

K. Curry and apples or pears(Minced)

L. Black olives

M. Cooked chopped mushrooms, nuts(like Pistachio) and white wine.  Oregano or Nepitella would season this well.

Make your own combinations based on your family's favorite flavors.

In all cases, start with conservative amounts and fry to taste.

You can buy Curing Salt to make your sausage.  This will affect the color of the meat, but you can wrap your sausage and refrigerate it for about a week max or less.  It will look like the meat in a hot dog.   Again...CLEAN!!!!
Sodium Nitrate is the difference.

One more warning.  When doing sausages in general, texture can make or break the product.  I have made the Aeolian Style sausage a number of times.  I have had to work at the texture.  The ingredients are just the same, but you have to be careful of the size of the additions to the meat.  Make sure that the greens and tomatoes are roughly the same size or grind as the meat.  It will taste OK, but if you get large pieces of the greens mixed into a finely ground meat, it will seem odd to eat.  If you have found roughly chopped meat for your sausage, you might get away with coarser bits of greens as well.  If you are grinding your own meat, it might be a good idea to grind the other ingredients along with the meat to get a similar texture.

Search also for Papetta(i) or Polpetta(i)...

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Making Cheese

I have this elsewhere in the blog within a recipe, but here is the general idea.  This can be dried over a couple of days, to make it a harder version.  This is good if you have goats, but whole milk from any of the usual animals will work.

Heat one quart of milk in a large saucepan til it reaches 185 degrees. 
Add 1/3 cup of lemon juice or white vinegar and stir in.  Allow to sit for about ten minutes and you will see that the milk has curdled.   
Strain the milk through a couple of layers of cheesecloth in a colander or sieve.  Allow to drain thoroughly.

Draw the cloth up into a purse, and tie closed with a string.  Hang high over a bowl from a wooden spoon to continue draining over night.

Always use stainless steel, ceramic or glass vessels for anything like this.

Squeeze to dry more if desired.

Stir in herbs, garlic or chopped cooked vegetables to make spreads.  Roll into a log in waxed paper or cheesecloth, chill and slice into disks to serve on top of a salad, etc.
You could roll the disks into cracked pepper, Paprika, chopped herbs, seeds, etc to coat the outside.