Food & Drink

Thrifty chef: Great meals that won't strain the pocketbook

Apple Crisp on Thursday, March 14, 2018. (Colter Peterson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)
Apple Crisp on Thursday, March 14, 2018. (Colter Peterson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)
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Once again, I mysteriously failed to win the lottery.

That means one thing: back to having a food budget. But I want the food I cook to taste good, no matter how little it costs.

So this week, I set out to make a handful of great-tasting dishes that were not a strain on my wallet.

The idea was to use inexpensive ingredients, but in an artful way. I cut out pricey frills and kept to classic combinations of flavor. I made sure that I got my protein. And I cooked dishes that made me smile. They may not be fancy, but they’re awfully good.

Also, they’re kind of fancy. One is a traditional Italian dish, one is based on a dish I saw at a wonderful restaurant, one is hearty German fare and the dessert is a traditional, all-American favorite.

Not only are they inexpensive, but they are all easy to make. In fact, the hardest part for me was figuring out how much each one cost me per serving.

I’ll admit to cheating a little in this respect. I did most of my shopping at a store in my neighborhood that is noted for perfectly decent-quality food sold at particularly low prices. If you go to one of the better-known grocers, your mileage may vary. But not by much.

I bought the size of each item that I typically buy, keeping in mind that my pantry is small. For instance, I used a 4-pound bag of sugar instead of a less-expensive (per ounce) 10-pound bag, however I used a 5-pound bag of flour instead of a 2-pound bag. I prorated only the amount of each item that I used.

The results are in, and I spent no more than $2.09 per serving on any of the dishes.

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The cheapest of all was the Italian dish, spaghetti al tonno, which I made for a paltry 73 cents per serving. I wouldn’t call it elegant, necessarily, but it was delicious.

The “tonno” in spaghetti al tonno means “tuna,” and this particular tuna comes out of a can. That’s how they serve it in Italy, too. There is nothing wrong with frugality when it tastes this good.

For the sauce, you just saute garlic in olive oil and add canned tuna. The sauce comes together in less time than it takes to boil the pasta. It will be a little dry, so simply add a bit more olive oil and a dash of butter to the mixture.

No one needs to know how inexpensive it is.

I went vegetarian for my next entree. This is the one that was inspired by a description of soup I didn’t even try, the kale and garbanzo soup at Union Loafers.

When I’m counting my pennies, I look to polenta. I look to polenta when I’m not counting my pennies, too, because it is so deeply satisfying that it gratifies the soul.

I particularly love polenta cut into wedges and fried. It takes more work and fills you with more calories, but that is nothing when the result is so sublime.

I fried some wedges of polenta and topped them with a garlic-scented mixture of wilted kale, garbanzo beans, diced tomatoes and onion. People raved about it, and it only cost 98 cents per serving.

But I couldn’t keep up the sub-$1 servings forever, not when I wanted to make bratwurst and sauerkraut with apple. And I did, because it’s bratwurst and sauerkraut and apple. In Germany, that’s as classic as it gets.

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Bratwurst and sauerkraut with apple has one more ingredient that makes all the difference: caraway seeds. The lightly crushed seeds bring a sharpness to the mixture of flavors that adds a much-needed high note to the stick-to-your-ribs meal.

It all came out to $2.09 per serving. It’s still extremely reasonable, but I wish I’d bought a cheaper apple.

Dessert was an apple crisp, and, buying in bulk, I did actually pay less for the apples.

Apple crisps turn out not to be as old as I had thought; they have not been around for nearly as long as their cousins apple cobbler, apple brown betty and apple pandowdy. The first reference to them in a cookbook was only in 1924.

Like pandowdies, brown betties and cobblers, apple crisps begin with a layer of stewed apples lightly sweetened with a mixture of sugar and lemon juice. On top of this is a baked topping, and here is where the differences are to be found.

Apple pandowdy is baked with a pie crust on top. Apple brown betty mixes the apples with pieces of bread, sort of like a bread pudding. Apple cobbler has a biscuit-based topping.

And apple crisps use a streusel-like topping, with oats and brown sugar and cinnamon and lots of butter, all mixed together with flour.

You simply can’t beat it, especially when you add a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top.

The total cost? Just 61 cents per serving, without the ice cream. But add the ice cream. I bought a grocery-store brand that went perfectly well with the apples and the topping, and it didn’t break the bank.

Even with the ice cream, it was still only 89 cents per serving.

I saved enough money to buy more lottery tickets.

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