My late sister Beth was an awesome cook. If I needed culinary advice, I called her up, and she'd tell me the best way to do something. She also wrote a cookbook for her special-needs child, so he could cook his own meals without risking the fire hazard of stovetop preparation (see NoStoveCooking.com), but most of the recipes in that book are more effort than I'm willing to spend on feeding just myself. She's gone now, so I decided I should write down some of the things she told me before I forget. I didn't get all of these from her, but these are the things I do to eat reasonably healthy on a low budget without spending a lot of time at it. Some of these involve extra preparation, but I enjoy them so I fix them once every two or three months. Making salad is also a lot of work, but I need the veggies, so it happens more often.
I sometimes tell people "I'm on a sea-food diet, I see food, and I eat it." When I was young, we lived in a part of the world that had no electricity, so we had no refrigeration, no way to preserve food after it was taken out of the can or cooked. I didn't know it at the time, but finances were tight and we could not afford to throw anything away. So at meal time, it was "Come on Tom, finish it up, we don't want leftovers." When this happens at a particular Piaget time in the kid's life, it becomes an ineradicable part of him. I suspect moral values happen that way too, which is why so many American atheists have Christian (or Jewish) values, even though their chosen religion does not support it. That's a good thing for the rest of us, it's why the USA has not (yet) devolved into the kind of anarchy that pervades the former Soviet Union. Anyway, the result is that when there's food in front of me, I'm hungry, and when it's gone, I'm full. It's terrible at church potlucks. So I need to be careful not to prepare more than one meal size at home. I need to make sure there are no candies or high-fat, high-carb munchies around for me to see and (therefore) eat. I still eat too much, and it all goes to waste (my waist). So I buy reduced fat cheese (mozzarella and swiss) and low-fat turkey meatballs and pepperoni and fake bacon. Maybe it helps. I seem to be stable at +30 pounds over what my friend's endocrinologist wife said I ought to be. I walk to church (about a mile each way) and sometimes the post office or library (ditto) when the weather is nice. Maybe it helps.
Growing up poor I think also made me a tightwad. I can live well below the so-called "Federal Poverty Level," which is a good thing, because I tend to make people unspeakably angry at me and get myself fired, most recently in a manner that makes me unemployable (one of those laws with "unintended consequences" like the Environmental Protection Agency laws that lead to "Shoot, Shovel, and Shut up" rather than protecting endangered species). Anyway, so these recipes generally all weigh in at under $2 per meal, sometimes closer to $1, but less often than when I was in Misery where the Red-State politics keeps the cost of living down, and also less often than before the Obama tax on low-income people (also known as inflation) kicked in.
I eat fresh produce several times a week, and I try to balance protein+carbs+veggies+fruit, but I don't worry too hard about keeping that balance precise every day because God made the body able to balance it out. Once a week I try to eat somebody else's cooking. You won't find any reference to "organic" here (except in this paragraph) because my research shows that it costs more but adds no discernable nutritional value (see "Thanking God for Factory Farms and Processed Food"). I stay healthy by eating variety with vitamins and minerals, not by spending more money on products grown with noxious chemicals approved by the FDA as "organic" instead of noxious chemicals approved by the FDA without that label. And yes, that's the only difference. Anyway, I didn't die young from eating junk food, and the people my age I see around me usually eat with every meal a handful of FDA-approved chemicals far greater than anything ConAgra puts in their TV dinners -- and I am generally healthier than they are.
Beth put me onto the idea of not wasting the broth that comes with every canned food -- well, olives are packed in brine (colored salt water) which probably isn't that good for you, so I throw it out, but everything else -- I save it in the fridge until I need to cook some rice or pasta, then use the broth instead of plain water. Beet or cherry juice is especially fun, it makes the rice pink. I always use only as much liquid as the pasta or rice needs, so there's nothing (think protein & vitamins) going down the drain. Rice is easy: I measure the rice (usually a quarter cup for one serving) and use twice as much liquid. Heat the liquid up to boiling, then stir in the (unwashed white) rice and cover it and lower the heat to "med-lo" for 20 minutes. Don't take the lid off until it's done. Before I was comfortable with the heat level, I would listen to the pot, which should be tinkling, but not steaming or burbling vigorously. I burned it a few times (too hot) and had liquid left over (not hot enough) before I got the setting correct. This only works for white rice, I never succeeded with brown rice.
Pasta is about the same, but I use curly egg noodles for everything, and they have a lot more air between the noodles, so the proportions are reversed. Also the noodles tend to stick, so I stir them from time to time. Leaving the lid on while it cooks distributes the fluid (as steam) around all the noodles, not just those under water, but stirring also helps with the balance. Really thick broth (like the "heavy syrup" that comes with canned fruit) I use extra, or I mix in some canned vegetable broth or plain water. The broth gives the rice or pasta an interesting flavor, different every time (depending on which canned foods I most recently opened). The broth will keep in a covered jar in the fridge about a week, sometimes two, before it starts to grow. If it gets moldy, I throw it out and wash the jar in very hot water (to kill any lingering spores) and try to remember to use it up faster next time.
Maximum preparation time in these recipes is about a half hour, sometimes requiring less of my attention. If I'm in a hurry or lazy (which is most of the time) I open a can of soup or a TV dinner instead. A peanut butter sandwich is slightly quicker, but more effort. Or a hot dog warmed in the microwave, bun toasted in the toaster oven, with mustard and relish, a little more time and effort than a PBJ, but it's variety. Variety is good.
For the Big Splurge, I bake a medium potato (3-4 minutes in the microwave,
then 5-10 minutes in the toaster oven) while I heat up a can of beef stew
in a covered microwave ("zap") dish. The stew usually has more gravy than
lumps, so I eat the beef and veggies with a fork, then break open and mash
the potato onto a plate and spoon or pour the leftover gravy over it. The
20-24oz cans of stew are enough for two meals, so I divide it into two
zap dishes (one for the fridge) and use a smaller potato. Different brands
of stew have more or less gravy, so it takes some practice to guess correctly
what size of potato to use.
Spagghetti & Meatballs
Not all fresh veggies are created equal, some (like lettuce) will go slimy in less than a week, others (like cabbage or cauliflower) will keep in the veggie drawer of the fridge for a month or more. So I buy cabbage and broccoli and cauliflower ("cruciferous" veggies are supposed to be good for you) and not lettuce.
If I buy too much broccoli or cauliflower, or my carrots are getting slimy, I cut out the dark slimy parts of the broccoli, then cut it and the cauliflower up into chunks about the size of the carrots. I take a half-dozen slimy carrots and line them up side-by-side on one hand and roll them back and forth bewteen the palms of my two hands under running faucet water, which washes all the slime off. Everything goes into a covered zap dish in the microwave, mixing it up every minute or so, for about 3-4 minutes (until tender the way I like it, or less for crunchy the way the French like it), which is one serving, and less filling than the same amount of veggies in a salad. I butter mine, but you can also ladle on a couple dollops of Alfredo sauce for the last 30 seconds in the microwave.
The cabbage keeps better uncut, so I cut the head in half and work my way through one half. By then the other half has turned brown, so I slice off the brown surface, then work through the second half. Excess cabbage, I can take a whole quarter head cut into chunks, plus a quarter can of South American corned beef -- it comes in that almost-square can with a turn-key to open it; I pop the block of meat out and cut the whole block into quarters and freeze the rest for next time -- nuke it together for 3-4 minutes (until the cabbage is tender), mixing it up it every minute, and you have Corned Beef & Cabbage, which is pretty tasty even on days other than St.Patty's.
Anyway, for salad I shred a 1/4" to 1/2" wedge off the cabbage head, then turn the shreddings so they line up left-to-right and cut them into half-inch or one-inch-long strips. That way they mix well with the other ingredients.
Three broccoli florets are usually about right for one salad. I break them off the (previously washed) crown, then peal the tougher skin from the stem of each, and cut them into smaller (about a half-inch) florets, then cut the remaining stem into 1/4" pieces. When most or all of the florets from the main stem are used, I use a sharp knife to peel the woody skin from the stem, then cut it into 1/4" strips, which (without the skin) taste good enough to eat straight, or else I cut them up into 1/4" cubes and add them to the salad. The florets are bitter, so they always go into the salad, or else I eat them with veggie dip when I'm too lazy to make a full salad.
Unlike broccoli, cauliflower is mild enough to eat straight, but sometimes I cut it up (like broccoli) for the salad.
The quality of celery varies a lot in the grocery stores, depending on season and location of the farms. The small darker stems tend to be bitter, and the wide lighter stems sweeter. It doesn't matter so much in the salad, because the bitterness gets drowned out by the dressing and the other ingredients, but if you are eating celery straight off the stalk (optionally with peanut butter or pineapple cheese spread on it), the lighter stalks taste better. Anyway for salad, the first time I wash the whole stalk and trim off (and discard) a quarter inch from the top (the ends that have turned brown). Then for each salad I split each wider stalk end into half-inch-wide strips, to about an inch down from the end (only as much I will use that day, because it keeps better uncut), then slice off three or four quarter-inch layers from the end. This gives pieces about the same size as the cabbage and the broccoli stems. As you cut down into the stalk, you get to the inner young leaves. Even the young leaves tend to be bitter, so I always cut them into the salad, or else eat them with dip.
Roma tomatoes have more solid material and less water than other varieties, and are usually cheaper; I find they keep almost two weeks, but they get a little soft the second week. One tomato for one salad, quartered lengthwise then sliced into 1/8" slices.
One cucumber is too big for a single-person salad, so I cut off a quarter of the whole cuke, then jam the open (cut) end of the remaining cuke onto a flat surface like the bottom of one of my zap dishes to seal it off from drying up in the fridge. The quarter I'm using, I peel and quarter and slice it into 1/8" slices. Sometimes, when I don't feel like spending a whole half-hour making a full salad, I peel and slice an unquartered segment of cuke and eat it straight.
I buy 16oz bags of baby-cut carrots. The reason is that I grate 3-5 of these carrots into one salad, so the remaining carrots are getting slimy (well past their nominal use-by date) before I've eaten them up. The smaller ones are more delicate (easier for me to chew without my new crown complaining) dipped in veggie dip or even eaten straight. The bigger ones tend to be more woody, so I grate them into the salad, or cut them up for cooked veggies (see above).
I could add other things, like avocado -- but I like it so much straight that it seldom lasts long enough to get into the salad. I once got a couple hand-me-down bags of outdated frozen cooked shrimp -- the pull-dates on most foods are very conservative, so it's usually safe to eat long after the expiration date, but some poeple worry more than I do; that's how I got these shrimp -- so I rinsed some of the shrimp (to thaw it) and cut it into smaller pieces and had shrimp salad.
So far the fresh stuff. Now I take a couple slices of swiss cheese and dice it into 1/4" squares -- I guess I could use a 1/4 cup of fresh shredded Parmesan or a half-cup of grated Moz (some people prefer cheddar, but not me) for the same effect -- and add a small handful of (shelled) sunflower seeds and maybe some turkey bacon bits (less fat than real bacon) and a handful of dried cranberries. I buy pitted olives and pour the whole can into an empty relish jar (glass is easier to keep clean than plastic), then take out a half-dozen olives and slice them into my salad. I often use seasoned poultry stuffing cubes which are cheaper than salad croutons, and finally add dressing from the bottle. Sometimes I rotate different flavors, or even mix up two different dressings for variety.
Everything goes into my bowl, and I take a fork in one hand and a large spoon in the other, and slowly rotating the bowl as I do this, I dig the fork and spoon down opposite sides of the bowl and lift, dig and lift, turn, dig and lift, until the whole salad is tossed and well mixed, usually about two full turns of the bowl.
Total prep time is about a half hour. The salad is a whole meal. Sometimes
I cube up and add some summer sausage for additional protein.
Groceries often have this half-off shelf or baskets, and I picked up some pesto seasoning packets that I guess they couldn't sell, so sometimes I use Alfredo sauce instead of tomato-based sauce, and mix in some pesto (or other) seasoning before adding it to the meatballs. One of these pesto packets is good for four or more servings, so I roll down the open end and pinch it shut with a small binder clip to keep it in the fridge until next time.
Total prep time is a little less than a half hour.
Aldi in Misery sold a half-dozen different frozen pizzas for $2 each. They weren't as yummy as Domino's or Pizza Hut, but I could eat half for a meal, enhanced with extra Moz and some turkey pepperoni on top, all within budget. There's no Aldi here, and while Domino's tastes better (and costs much less) than most of the local stuff, its prices are higher than they were in Misery, so I do it less often than I did there. Consumer Reports once did a study on the nutritional value of various fast foods, and found that most of them were a reasonably balanced diet, just a little high in salt and fat. Pizza was up there near the top. So I don't feel bad. But making my own is a lot cheaper than getting it at a pizza place. I'd prefer the take-out pizza any day -- Beth told me it's because their ovens are hotter than you can get your home stove, so take-and-bake doesn't cut it -- but my own recipe is better than none.
You can use ready-made pizza crusts you buy at the grocery, but they are pricey. I use pita bread, preferably "Greek pita" which is larger and has no pocket. One of them just fits in the toaster oven; put the rest in the freezer for next time. Because the toaster oven does not get as hot as a good pizza oven, I put the crust in early to (thaw and) slightly brown it. Then I spread on a couple or three spoons of whatever spagghetti sauce I happen to have open -- I used to use catsup, which gave my pizza a vinegary tang -- but now I mostly have spagghetti sauce available. This tends to be too wet, so I sprinkle on dried onion and dried grated Parmesan to soak up the moisture, then spread out sliced olives -- I cut pitted olives into three or four slices, then dot 12 around the edge, and six in a circle within that, then one or three in the middle -- and cover it over with a layer of shredded Moz. WalMart here sells shredded Moz in 5# bags for a little less than $3/lb, more than the $2/lb I paid in Misery, but that was also before Obamanomics kicked in. Anyway, I use only a quarter pound or so (the rest goes in zip-bags in the freezer) so the total cost of my pizza is still under $2.
I put this into the toaster oven at medium-hot to melt the cheese, about 8-10 minutes, then take it out and dot turkey pepperoni (much less fat) around the top, six around the edge and one in the middle, then put it back in the oven at the hottest setting until the cheese starts to brown around the edges, another 8-10 minutes. Finally I take it out and dab a paper towel over the top to soak up any excess fat -- there's not as much as on store-bought pizza -- and cut it into six slices between the pepperonis and sprinkle some more dried Parm on top.
Total prep time is a little less than a half hour.
I'm not much into cheddar cheese (you don't want to know why), but I
hate to waste food, so if I get some (like a gift this last Christmas),
I cut it into very tiny 1/8" cubelets and freeze it. Then any time I'm
going to use Moz -- like on pizza -- I sprinkle a dozen or so of these
tiny cheddar cubelets among the Moz. It's not enough to taste, but pretty
soon the cheddar is gone, and I didn't waste any.
Total prep time is about 7-10 minutes for the quesadilla or first taco;
the second taco finishes in another couple minutes after you've eaten the
The ingredients on the can say "salmon, salt" (no added water, except in the lower-quality brands), but there is a lot of fish broth in the can, so I save it off to cook my pasta or rice in (it gives a very fishy aroma and taste, which is sort of fun). They use the whole fish (except the head and fins/tail), so the first thing I do is scrape the skin off and pry open the body to remove the backbone. The bones are soft, like in sardines, so I just eat them for the calcium, but I prefer not to get even soft bones in my sandwich.
I think I break off maybe three ounces of fish meat into a mixing bowl and put the rest into a jar in the fridge for next time. Then I add about half or a quarter as much pickle relish as fish (to taste) and a dollop of mayo -- I use thousand-island dip or salad dressing -- stir it up to a uniform mix and spread it on my bread. Sometimes I slice up a half Roma tomato under the fish. I think once or twice I added a layer of sliced olives. I like olives. Sometimes when I'm slicing them to go in salad or on pizza, several olives get eaten before they come under the knife. Anyway, if I made too much fish mix for my bread, I spread the rest on crackers. I like Triscuit (or a house-brand clone), which is just wheat + oil + salt.
Total prep time is 5-10 minutes, depending on if I'm opening a new can.
Total prep time is a little over a half hour, most of it waiting for the noodles to cook, and then for the baking to set.
Substitute Moz (or if you like it, cheddar) for the fish and leave out
the peas, and you have mac & cheese.
A month or so ago I went to the dentist for a crown, and this guy was not as old and skillful as the dentist who did the crown on the other side (and it cost twice as much too, probably Blue-state politics again), and my jaw ached for weeks -- still does when I chew hard (even if it's all on the other side) -- so I wanted to eat soup and soft foods, and thought of deviled eggs. WalMart sells a half-dozen (rather small) "large" eggs for less than $1. All six fit in the bottom of my small saucepan, which I covered them over with cold water out of the tap -- the plumbing in this house (like the electrical) is badly done, and the hot water takes several minutes to arrive at the kitchen tap, so I mostly use cold water for everything -- and bring it to a boil on the stove (with the eggs in it: by heating them slowly, they don't break and make egg-flower soup), then cover it and turn the heat down to med-low (enough to keep the water burbling lightly) for 15 minutes. I like my eggs and meat really dead, but 15 minutes is overkill (the yolks have started to turn gray), I'm going to try 10 next time; you might go for even less for public consumption. I think back when I did a dozen eggs for the potluck, the Texas eggs were bigger and needed the extra time.
When the time is up, I take the pot over to the sink and slowly fill it with cold water from the tap, then pour most (not all) of it off and refill with cold water again and repeat. This cools the eggs slowly and under water, so as the eggs shrink a little from cooling, they draw water in through the porous shells, leaving the egg-whites moist and slippery, so they peel easily. When I cook six eggs for my own use, I leave them under water in the fridge, taking out two at a time for my meal, so even the last two eggs still peel easily. After the water feels cool, put the pot into the fridge to cool the rest of the way -- or if you are doing only six, you can transfer them to a large jar or small covered bowl to cool in the fridge. The next day (or a minimum four hours later) I take out as many eggs as I'm preparing, one at a time, and tap them on the counter to break the shell, which then slides right off. Watch for small shell fragments still clinging to the egg.
Because my eggs are overcooked and starting to turn gray, I can see through the egg-white the darker area where the yolk is closer to the shell. If you cut through that region, the rim of the white will be extra thin there and break easily, so I always try to cut it so the darker region is centered in one of the halves. That way one of the yolk halves will be slightly larger, but otherwise the circles will be centered in the whites and look better. Maybe if they're not overcooked you can still see the yellow-orange through the white, but I wouldn't know. When deviling a dozen or more eggs, if one or two whites tear, not to worry: Beth told me she always adds one or two half egg-whites (use the torn ones, or else cook an extra egg to sacrifice its white) to the yolk mixture for better texture. Me, I get the same effect with extra pickle relish, but it tends to turn the yolk mixture gray and less beautiful. Anyway, after you cut each egg in half and popped out the yolks -- gently press on the back side while holding the egg cut-side down over your mixing bowl, and the yolk pops right out -- you can arrange the whites on your serving tray.
To the yolk mixture you need to add some mayo (or thousand island dressing) equal in volume to one yolk half for every three or four deviled eggs you are making -- I usually eyeball it, but I guess you could weigh the yolks then weigh out 1/4 to 1/3 that much mayo -- and about half that much yellow mustard (more if you want it spicier), then mash everything together with a fork. You only need to mash through each yolk half once or twice, then stir it up. Me, I like a lot of pickle relish, slightly more than the total mayo+mustard, but I think it contributes to the mixture looking gray, so you might use less, perhaps as much as you have mustard. Some people omit the relish, but I think it tastes better.
Now, depending on how many egg-white shells you have, you want that many equal-sized portions of the yolk mixture. If you have too much variability, then some of them will look puny and other will seem overloaded. I try to form the mixture into an even circle, then divide it into exact quarters (if you aren't good at eyeballing this, see Half below). If I'm doing only one serving (two eggs, four shells) I'm done, one quarter for each white shell, so I gather that quarter into a round ball with a spoon and place it into the hole on one of the shells. If I did a dozen eggs (22-24 deviled eggs), then I reshape each quadrant into another round circle and subdivide it into sixths; if you have fewer than 24 shells to fill, you can apportion the remaining wedges among the finished shells, adding a little dab to each one that looks a little small, until the remainder is used up. I sprinkle a dash of paprika on the mounded yolk of each deviled egg for added color.
Not counting boiling the eggs, total prep time for a single serving is about 10 minutes, probably closer to a half hour (perhaps a little more) for a whole dozen eggs suitable for a potluck. If you put the finished (and covered) platter back in the fridge to chill for an hour or more, they will keep better out on the serving table at the potluck (the eggs are not a problem, but the mayo should not be left unrefrigerated).
Full disclosure: the church I went to in Texas had a potluck every week
most of the time I was there, and I didn't make eggs every week. Usually
I bought a pint or quart of deli salad from the local grocery, because
the preacher's wife was a vegetarian. I quickly learned always to put it
in a serving bowl: it goes faster (fewer leftovers) if it doesn't look
store-bought. That's less of a problem with deviled eggs (because there
are never any leftovers) or the Colonel's chicken, because the leftovers
can be frozen.
Cook up one serving of rice, and while that's cooking, take out one or two frozen chicken strips (already breaded and cooked, WalMart sells them cheap) and heat them up to serving temperature in the toaster oven. Meanwhile get out about 1/3 cup of cashews (halves and broken pieces are cheap) and dice up some fresh celery (as for the salad above, or maybe a little less) and mix them with maybe another 1/3 cup of S&S sauce in a zap dish, then warm it all in the microwave (1-2 minutes at 70%). Cut the chicken into bite-sized chunks and stir that into the hot S&S sauce mix; sometimes it needs a little more microwave to get hot. Spoon or pour the rice onto a serving plate and pour the steaming S&S mix over it and enjoy.
Total prep time is a little less than a half hour.
Cook up one serving of rice, and while that's cooking, open a 6oz can of chicken meat -- Aldi had a selection of flavored chicken, which worked very well -- and save half in a jar in the fridge for next time. If I plan ahead, the extra chicken broth is part of the liquid for cooking the rice. I mix the ckicken meat with a 1/4 cup of curry (or some other spicy southern Asian, less if it's really spicy) sauce and a 1oz box (or half) of raisins and a salad-size helping of cubed celery and nuke it for a minute or so at 70%. Then I stir in a 1/4 cup of roasted peanuts and a 1/4 cup of shredded coconut and nuke it another minute or so, until hot. By then the rice is ready, so I spoon or pour the rice onto a serving dish, then pour the chicken mix over it and enjoy.
Total prep time is a busy half hour, but I really like the flavor.
Any other kind of stick, mark your start and end on it, then take a guess at the middle (it doesn't need to be correct, we will fix that in the next step) and mark that. Then on a piece of paper, hold the stick down and mark the paper to match the marks on the stick. Now pick up the stick and turn it end for end and set it back down on the paper with the ends lined up with the marks on the paper. If your guess at the middle also lines up, it is correct and you are done. If not, choose a point about halfway between the mark on the stick and the mark on the paper, and make that your new guess (mark both the stick and paper), then flip the stick over and repeat until the guess on the stick lines up with its mark on the paper.
To find the middle of a (round) pie, use your stick or string to find the widest measure of the pie, then use the procedure above to get the half of that. Put the stick back onto the pie where you made the measurement, and stick a pin or toothpick or something where your stick tells you is the middle. Then rotate your stick or string halfway around so it's crossways to where you started (it doesn't need to be exact), but touching the toothpick, and if it's not already there, move the toothpick to be where the middle mark is on the stick. That is the middle of the pie. Now any straight line -- like a large knife straight across the pie in any direction -- if it touches the toothpick it will exactly divide the pie in half.
Dividing the pie in exact quarters is a little trickier, but not much if you are using a string (if you have a straight stick for measuring, see Quarters below). You already know where the middle of the pie is. If you are using a string, wrap it around the outside of one half, measuring to the cut on both ends, then find the middle of your string, then put it back against the edge of the pie and mark where the middle is on that edge. Cutting from there to (or through, in a straight line) the toothpick in the middle gets you exact quarters.
After you have quarters, subdividing them into eighths and thence to sixteenths is just a matter of measuring the middle (half) from corner to corner (on the edge) across the pie wedge, then cutting from the toothpick at the middle of the pie through the middle of that wedge.
This looks a bit complicated, but after you've done it a few times,
you will learn to be able to eyeball it and get pretty close.
Quarters can be found with a straight
stick after you have divided the pie into sixths,
you subdivide any pair of opposite sixths in half,
then then combine each of those halves (12ths) with their neighboring sixths,
which will turn them into quarters.
First Draft: 2019 May 31