06 April 2009

My frugal kitchen

This winter I have been focused on cooking frugally. For us, this means creatively using what we have grown and preserved, as well as stretching the ever elusive dollar in the kitchen. We have squirreled our grocery bill down to $50 (or less) a month, for two adults. This includes organic coffee, tea and sugar, salt and spices (not herbs), and bulk dry goods. But I've also learned the old Depression or War Ration Era art of stretching the more expensive or difficult to grow ingredients. Now, when I look at some basic recipes in modern cookbooks, they look over-extravagant and too rich when it comes to items like meat, fats and sugar especially. We had both been accustomed to a rich diet, we were up to our eyeballs in butter, and full-cream milk when we kept a Jersey cow, and ate up to 2 dozen eggs a week when we kept a larger flock of chickens. But feed bills were getting high, and we cut down to a dairy goat and 6 hens, which we can feed with grain and hay from our own homestead. Since making that switch last fall, we have both become healthier, lost that 15 lbs of extra weight that hangs on through the winter, and cut our food bills. And by gradually shifting our tastes, have come to prefer our frugal diet.

As omnivores, our diets are incredibly flexible, the most stubborn part of our foodculture is the culture. We become accustomed to certain foods, tastes and textures, but we can also acclimate our taste buds to a new custom. Temporal diets don't work because food is culture, and we cannot easily stick to an imposed foodculture for a period of time, any more than we can pretend to be from a different ethnic culture for a short time. But we can adopt a new culture over time. My three years of homesteading has gradually acculturated me to a very different relationship to food than I ever had, an inherently intimate relationship to food and it's proportions.

A frugal diet makes sense, not only in the kitchen, but in the garden and barnyard as well. We have been shifting our diet to the types of foods we can easily grow ourselves, even if we are not growing them yet. Meats, fat, eggs and diary are the most resource intense foods to raise, so we use them frugally and seasonally. Grains, storage vegetables and fruits make up the bulk of our diet. Fresh greens are abundant in season, but we are working on keeping a small supply of greens coming most of the year. When fresh greens are not available, we rely on a good dose of herbal tea, including dried alfalfa, stinging nettle and mullein, to provide us with a spectrum of vitamins and minerals. Even common culinary herbs and spices provide the body with various vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. Food is life, it is the best preventative medicine.

So here's some of the frugal cooking techniques I have been practicing in the kitchen. First it helps to buy in bulk, and ration your usage. I don't mean to the point of deprivation, just have an idea of how much you use in a month, watch your use throughout the month, and stick to it. Experiment with cutting expensive ingredients or substituting ingredients that are difficult or impossible to grow locally.

In deserts, I cut the sugar and fat in half, sometimes only using 1/4 of the amount. I usually use one egg in a desert recipe, substituting for the rest with applesauce, pumpkin puree, or milk. I often substitute oats for part of the flour, oats are generally less expensive than flour, they add sweetness to the desert as well as texture and bran. Dried fruits, applesauce, pumpkin puree, milk and oats have a certain amount of natural sweetness, and replace some of the sugar I cut out of the recipe. Even chocolate cake tastes great with oats, by pouring boiling water over a cup of rolled oats, and mixing in a tablespoon of butter, fat or oil, you can replace a couple of eggs in a cake recipe, and maintain the moist texture. You can even cut the amount of cocoa to 3/4 or 1/2, and add up to a tablespoon of cinnamon (depending on the recipe), along with your favorite spices like ground clove, cardamom or even coriander (one of my favorite desert spices), or if you love spice, a dash of cayenne goes great with chocolate. The spices add complexity to the desert, and you wont miss the reduction in cocoa. Fiddling with desert recipes takes some experimentation, but even if they are not the perfect cookies the first time, you can't go too wrong with flour, oats, sugar, fat, egg, milk and dried fruit, no matter the proportions. If you cut the sugar too far, spread with jam. If you make something with a truly inedible texture, break it up and toss with cubed bread and make a bread pudding out of it.

Meat: We can our meat, which I find to be a surprisingly versatile way to preserve meat. It is also easy to ration. If you are keeping meat in the freezer, either wrap it in small portions, or keep a strict practice of only serving your pre-determined ration once the meat is cooked, reserving the rest for leftovers and subsequent meals. We keep our meat consumption to 10 lbs a month, excepting a few feasts at butchering time. This comes to 1/3 lb a day, between the two of us. Meat is never the main course on our plates (except those few exceptions which can be planned for holidays or family celebrations). I often make a meat sauce or gravy to accompany grains and vegetables. Use a small amount of meat with a good meat stock in a soup, the flavor is rich and intense, as well as nourishing. I make meatballs with the canned meat, flaked like tuna, and mixed with rolled oats, sauteed onion, a bit of flour and milk and/or egg, and spices/herbs. Try some vegetarian meatloaf recipes, with a bit of meat in addition. Pastry or shepherds pies are another frugal use of meat. Frugal meatballs on a bed of Faux Carrot Kraut.

Grains: The least expensive grains (at least in our area) are barley, oats and peas and we incorporate a lot of these three grains in our diet, they are also easy for us to grow and do not require a lot of fertility. Next comes wheat and beans, followed by lentils, millet, rice and quinoa. We are growing more and more of our grains at home each year, but we still purchase what we don't grow in bulk. When poor populations go hungry, it is usually due to grain prices being too high, the manipulation of grain prices in the commodities market is a criminal action. Purchasing your grains locally, from small farms or mills who buy from local farmers is the next best thing to growing them yourself. If you have the space for a large potato patch, you probably have room to grow some of your grains, they require less fertility than potatoes, and in my experience, one pound of cooked grains replaces 3 pounds of potatoes, and provides higher protein and nutrition. For a few reasons, one being that we cannot grow rice, another being the strong impression that last summer's food riots made on us over the doubling of rice prices, we decided to stop buying rice, and have found two substitutes, both at half the cost. Whole oat groats cook up to a similar consistency of rice, and goes nicely with stir-fries. Barley makes a great pilaf substitute. A great way to prepare it is to toast one pound of pot barley in oil, fat or butter until beginning to brown, then covering with water as you would rice, boil until water is absorbed and grain is tender. At this point you can add herbs, spices, onion, garlic, and even vegetables (diced or grated carrot, green beans, etc.), and your frugal portion of meat. Mix all the ingredients, cover and put into a hot oven to finish cooking, this way the barley does not burn on the bottom, and the whole dish has a chance to steam together. It is delicious, can be eaten with a tomato sauce and bread, or you can keep the vegetables for a side dish. Millet can also be prepared like this. Peas, beans and lentils are of course high in protein, and can substitute meat for the day. Toasted pot barley and green beans.

Toasted millet and green peas.

Fruits and Vegetables: Frugal is homegrown and preserved. If you have a foodculture that does not match your climate in this department, than perhaps your most frugal option would be to adjust your diet to the types of vegetables and fruit that you can grow yourself, and then start planning the garden to fulfill those needs.

Dairy, eggs, fats and oils: Use sparingly and seasonally. Be creative.

The trick is to find a balance, being frugal and sticking to your food budget, but also leaving room for creativity and celebrations. Plan celebrations at certain times of year. I always keep a treat for us during the months of March, April and May especially, after living out of the pantry for 4-6 months and before the garden is even planted. We have a few great feasts, celebrating our harvests in the fall. We splurge on each food when it is in season, getting our fill of fresh blueberries in July and broccoli in September, then bidding our time for the next season, nibbling on dried blueberries to remind us of summer's flavor.

For inspiration, here's a few of our spring meals, inspired by Mr Fritillary. He comes into the kitchen when I get into a rut, and spices things up (not because he's not willing the rest of the time, but because I keep the key to the kitchen and pantry, it's MY space! If you've ever lived in 300 sq ft with another human being through 5 months of lock-down winter, you'll appreciate our little islands of space).

Organic Tater-tots: 5 medium potatoes grated fine (Yukon Gold is especially nice), mix with 1/4 cup yellow pea flour (or substitute with whole wheat flour, but the pea flour adds a great flavor, as well as protein), salt and curry spice (or spice to your liking). Form into small patties and fry in 1/4 inch of high-temperature oil or fat in a cast iron skillet until browned on both sides. Could be baked, but these were intended as a treat, comfort food.

Samosa and spicy apple mint sauce.

Samosas: Dice 3 medium potatoes and 2 medium carrots, steam until tender, drain. Heat 2 Tbsp fat, oil or butter in a heavy bottomed sauce pan, add tsp each of cumin seed, caraway seed and anise seed, 1 tbsp curry spice, and mix until the spices are heated through and just beginning to brown (do not burn!). Combine mixture with cooked vegetables and 1 cup canned or frozen (or fresh, lucky you:) green peas, and 1 tbsp salt. Set aside. Mix your favorite pastry recipe, enough for 2 double-crust pies. Roll out as for pie crust (1/8 inch) and cut out 6 inch rounds (I used the lid of a small sauce pan to cut the shapes). Make at least 12. Wet the outer edge of pastry, 1" wide, with water and spoon vegetables into the center of the pastry (not too full). Fold over, keeping the vegetables in the pocket, and press edges together with a fork, pierce tops. Place each pastry on a greased cookie sheet, when all are filled, brush tops with butter, oil or fat and bake in middle rack of oven, 325 for 25-30 minutes until browned.

Samosa filling in pastry.

Sauce: I made apple mint butter last fall, and it made into a delicious sauce atop the samosas. Empty one pint into sauce pan (or use applesauce and dried mint or other fruit sauce, local fresh fruit etc), heat and add cayenne pepper to your own taste, and a touch of sugar or honey to balance the heat if needed.


Pampered Mom said...

Very interesting post!

Chiot's Run said...

We love barley and oats much more than rice as well. We're also huge bean eaters, more than meat. We don't eat much meat at all, we buy 3 chickens each year from the local farm and my dad gets a deer for us each year. That's pretty much all the meat we eat in a whole year (except for some bacon & sausage purchased occationally throughout the year).

We have found that the simpler you eat the healthier you eat as well. I also always cut sugar at least in half in recipes, and often substitute half whole wheat flour or oat flour as well.

We don't have room to grow our own grains or shelling beans, but we try to buy them locally if we can. Good bread wheat is difficult to find in Ohio, I got some local that's great for quick breads but not enough protein for yeasted.

Great post! We're hoping to grow even more of what we eat this year, I'm hoping for a bumper crop of cabbage for sauerkraut - YUM YUM.

ChristyACB said...

Great post and one that is inspirational.

I've really been trying..really..to change my diet to reflect my values and not my city life. I grow a lot and can or dehydrate and use those things, but a great deal of what I eat isn't grown locally and I know it.

While some things are easier, like cutting sugar in half (tastes better to me) other things are far harder, like substituting wheats.

Going against me here is that I have no food budget. That may sound great but it makes it double hard to change my habits. And I'm hoping to retire soon, which will drastically change my income.

Your accomplishments are pretty darn impressive in this arena. Any chance of more frugal recipes making a regular appearance for those of us still floundering about trying to figure it out.

hickchick said...

Very inspirational post, thank you! Our family eats way too much protein, it's part of our culture as you say. And as Christy mentions- hard to change because right now we don't HAVE to. I know it would be healthier for us all, so I will continue to baby-step our way to a healthier diet.
I have read somewhere that there are cultures which exist in good health on 10-20 grams of protein daily. That's one serving of cottage cheese!
I second the request for more day to day recipes, or perhaps 'a day in the life' post, ala Not Dabbling in Normal.

mandi said...

great post! i am interested to hear about when dairy is in season. we get our milk from a farmer nearby and it comes weekly. however, butter is not as plentiful.
thanks for the samosa recipe- they are my daughter's favorite!

Robbyn said...

Oh, I'm just back on my computer and stopped in...I LOVE this post! We really need to learn these skills around here...thanks for the details and continued inspiration :)


Ellen said...

Thanks for inspiring me to take another look at our diet. We eat rather healthy, but I would like to incorporate more grains and less meat. I like baking a lot and I am sure going to try substituting sugar and fat partly with other things.
I too would love some more recipes.

Freija and Beringian Fritillary said...

Pampered Mom, thank you.

And thank you all for the interest, I can tell this is a hot topic, and I will write some more on this.

Chiot's, I agree about eating simply. Homegrown, or Well Grown, food tastes better, and simple preparation methods bring out the true flavor of the raw ingredients. And then the accent of a few herbs or spices, makes a simple and healty meal into gourmet!
I'm hoping for a good cabbage harvest too!

Christy, voluntarily changing habits takes discipline, and discipline can be harder to cultivate than a garden. I will continue to post up recipes as the seasons change.

hickchick, my cooking repertoire is really seasonal, so right now it is mostly grains, storage vegetables and canned goods, but we are starting to get some extra eggs, and we will have excess milk to process into dairy products soon. So as my menu changes I will continue to post up some of my favorite in season frugal and healthy recipes.

mandi, yes there will be more dairy posts, especially come May when our goats get their first taste of pasture. Nothing like pasture to bring the milk production on, we don't push her to produce too hard with grains. I don't expect to get a whole lot of butter from one dairy-cross goat, but I will relish every bit! Hope those samosas are tasty!

Robbyn, well thanks, glad you liked it so much.

Ellen, if you already enjoy baking, then you shouldn't find it hard to start playing with your favorite recipes. Or search for some of the Depression Era or War Ration Era recipes when they had to make do without much sugar, fat, milk, eggs or refined flour.

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I love it ! Very creative ! That's actually really cool Thanks.

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