Eating better food for less and other tales from a no-moneymoon

Monday, December 6, 2010

A New Year, A Renewed Challenge

We've thrown another log on the fire. And not just because it's cold.

While we're holding steady with a food budget of about $40-50 per week (packing lunches does bump up the budget a bit), and we're still primarily eating healthy options, we're now also trying to cook for the week on Sunday. The occupants of Lemonville (Pop. 2 1/2) have fortunately gotten rather busy (thus the gap in posting -- oops!), and that means we have to counter the evil forces of the UTO (Urge-To-Order-in).

Cook for a Day, Eat For a Year

Lots of great ideas are out there for cooking one day and eating for a week!, month!, year!..ok, not a year, but you get the drift. I'd looked into this a while back when I was in lazy cooking mode and while the concept of only cooking one day really appealed, and the premise seemed doable, it didn't really fit with my type of cooking. I've found I like the *idea* of planning for a week, but really I want flexibility in my diet. Some nights I need Mexican, and other nights all I want is a light and lovely French meal. If Thursday is Turkey Soup night but I'm thinking Veggie Lasagna, I'm not going to be very happy.

So here's what I've come up with that works (at least since December): over the weekend, I turn out one convertible meal, one meal with straight up leftovers, and one dish that goes straight to the freezer, with some variations. So I'm gradually building up and cycling through my very own version of the Trader Joe's frozen food section. In terms of time, usually one dish take about 2 hours, so I cook the others in the interim and we do one round of clean up.

What Last Week's Sunday Cooking Looked Like

Convertible Meal: So far this means roasting a chicken, which I serve as is, reheat as leftovers, freeze the darker meat and white scraps for quick weeknight recipes, make and freeze stock. One chicken, two people, 3-4 meals. We ate the roast chicken for Sunday dinner, I made Cheater's Pan Sauce one night with stock and slices of breast meat, and we froze stock and chicken picked off the bones.

Straight Up Serve It: Beef Bourguignon. We rang in New Year's Day with something rich and satisfying (if deeply unhealthy.) After 2010, we needed it. The Joy of Cooking (new edition) recipe is brilliant. Reheated two days later, even better.

Direct to the Freezer: Cranberry Meatballs and Meatballs (without cranberry.) Confused? It's just one recipe for meatballs with or without sauce. Both freeze beautifully. Mom's recipe with my substitution of ground turkey.

For lunch, we've been packing a lightly dressed lentil salad. Make it once, dish it out throughout the week.

A post about posting. Really?

So here's what this means for Always Lemons. I'm still going to post recipes and photos (when they are decent), but they may not be chronological in part because some items will go and come straight from the freezer. Others will certainly be made the night of, and still others will be fresh but with components from the freezer. And the grocery bill will vary week to week, but still hover in the $40-range. One week in December I never made it to the store, but the previous week's $60 of cooking and freezing carried us through. If I cook up a good one, I will post some Sunday meal "creation" plans and keep posting new recipes during the week, since some well-worn and freezable favorites are already on the site.

And finally, a recipe...

Cheaty Ziti
Serves 4-6

1 box (1 lb.) ziti or penne, whole wheat works well
1 large jar tomato sauce
1 block low-fat mozzarella
1 package sweet Italian turkey sausage
1 clove garlic
some dried organo and basil, optional depending on sauce

Preheat the oven to 425F.

In a large saute pan, remove the sausages filling from their casing. Honestly, I squeeze out the filling since the casings are often slimy and hard to cut away. Fry turkey, crumbling until cooked through. Add one clove of garlic, minced or grated and the contents of the tomato sauce jar. DO NOT THROW OUT THE JAR. Allow the mixture to get hot, but not reduce, for about 3 minutes. Turn off the heat.

In a large baking or casserole pan, pour out the dry pasta. Add the turkey and tomato sauce. Take the tomato sauce jar and fill to the top with water and add that to the pan. Stir around so the water-sauce-pasta are evenly distributed. Grate a small block of skimmed mozzarella on top.

Cover tightly with foil. Place in the middle of the oven for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and bake another 10 minutes or until the cheese topping brown. Let site 5-10 minutes before cutting and serving. Cool completely before freezing.

Variations: You can add mushrooms and zucchini to the sauce. I frequently add half an onion to the turkey while it cooks. If I have Parmesan on hand, I sometimes grate a little on top of the mozzarella for some additional flavor.

Thrifty note: This is actually one of my pricier recipes since it includes not one but two ready-made items. I try to make this when I find a good deal on either the sauce or the sausage, both of which are frequently on sale. I can almost always find a sale on pasta. Mozzarella is rarely on sale, but I've tried generic and quite frankly if it isn't fresh mozzarella, there isn't a whole lot of nuance to mess up so go ahead and buy the store brand.