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Thursday, May 1, 2014

Cooking Intelligence

"Making ends meet," is a common cliché for paying the bills, putting food on the table, and saving up a bit for a rainy day. Unless you're rich—and few enough of us are—making ends meet is life itself. If your mortgage is too high you can try refinancing. If your power bill is too high you can make your family irritable by setting the air-conditioning to 75 in the summer and 60 in the winter...and then enforce those temperature standards by installing a clunky acrylic locking grate over the thermostat. If your cable and internet bills are too high...well I'd just watch out if I were you. We're coming up on the Ides of March and "et tu brute" should serve as words to the wise.

One thing that is hard to control is the food bill. Oh sure I could serve our six person family—me, wife, four boys—nothing but Ramen noodles and bologna sandwiches, but just understand that this would be no way to really live. Food is more than fuel for the body, it's kind of like a celebration. We look forward to it. When the kids find out it's going to be homemade fried chicken for dinner, they literally bounce around in an ecstasy of jubilation! As for myself, I find that as the long day wears on, my thoughts turn to home, and soon thereafter to what might be served at supper time. It holds me together and gives me something good to look forward to. Having understood all of the foregoing, you say we're having bologna sandwiches ... again? I don't think so, mama!

I've presented a couple of recipes here and here on this blog in the past, but today I want to focus more on a concept. Food has gotten incredibly expensive lately, especially meat. Therefore, making ends meet, and planning to have a weeks worth of nutritious and delicious meals for the whole family is quite a challenge. Plenty of people have their own strategies for accomplishing this. I call my strategy: "Cooking Intelligence."

Consider the famous Thanksgiving dinner. A feast of dishes is prepared and a host of family gathers to partake thereof. At the end of it all there is a veritable mountain of leftovers. Often plates of leftovers are pressed on family and friends to take home for later. What about that turkey? You just know it's going to be turkey sandwiches for days. Cooking intelligence is a way of looking at not just this dinner, but at least one more. Feast today, turkey sandwiches tomorrow, turkey and rice gumbo the day after.

Often, food purchased in larger sizes, containers, or "in bulk" is cheaper per pound than the smaller sized offerings. At my local Kroger grocery they always sell the five-pound "chub" pack of ground beef, and often it's as much as a dollar less per pound than the fancy Styrofoam backed rectangular packages that look so perfect sitting there in the display case. Unfortunately, I don't plan—nor would it be healthy—to serve a pound of meat to each family member for dinner. Optimally, that one "chub" pack will supply meat for three meals. Those meals could be hamburgers, tacos, spaghetti, beef stroganoff, meatloaf, chili, shepherd's pie, or a million variations and permutations thereof.

Have you ever noticed that when we think about what to have for dinner, our thoughts flow through the same old ruts. Maybe it will be Mexican, Italian, Chinese, or Cajun. If not that then fried chicken, pork chops, hot dogs, or hamburgers. Sometimes, we consider simpler things like soup, grilled cheese, tuna, or chicken salad sandwiches. Rarely, but every now and then the dads will fire up the grill and all of the above plus the possibility of a juicy medium rare steak really gives the family something to look forward to. Lately however, as food prices have soared, I've started considering ways to make a little meat go a lot further, using the idea of staple foods.

A staple might be beans, corn, potatoes, wheat, or rice. It's a high starch food which is reasonably cheap and goes best with some meat.



In the above example, the staple was maggoty bread, and the meat was ork. This isn't a recipe I'd recommend by the way. As time goes by and I experiment with staples, my plan is to submit to you for your consideration some of my successes in this area of budgetary cooking intelligence. My first success in this area was actually last night's supper. This is already a family favorite after only serving it for the second time ever. The staple is ... did you guess ramen noodles?—and the meat is ground beef. This recipe makes twelve large servings—seconds for everyone!—so you might want to reduce ingredient sizes accordingly.

[10] packs of beef-flavored Ramen Noodles
[2] pounds of ground beef
[2] 12 ounce packages of your favorite frozen vegetables. I prefer the stir-fry veggies and the pepper and onion blend (see pics below)

Brown the ground beef. Boil water in a big pot then add noodles. Wait till water is boiling, then remove and cover with lid. Let noodles sit for a few minutes. Be careful not to overcook the noodles! Drain noodles and set aside. Pour two cups of water into big pot, pour ingredients of ramen flavor packets in. Bring broth mixture to a boil. At this point you can add further spices to the broth. I like garlic, salt, pepper, and tarragon. Next add two packages of frozen vegetables to the boiling broth. When mixture returns to a boil, return the noodles to the pot along with the ground beef. At this point a little elbow grease is required to mix everything together with a steel spatula. Chop the noodles with the spatula a little to help with the stirring. Serve right away.

My total cost to feed six hungry people two servings was just a little over ten dollars.

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