I think the key to sticking with a wholesome eating routine is to keep the food you cook at home fun and slightly luxurious, but with lots of whole grains and vegetables. That, and to be poor and have lots of time to cook, i.e., unemployed.
Here’s some dishes that have kept me going–staying in a tight budget while being relatively healthy, varied, and fun. I haven’t chosen the cheapest option and sacrificed nutrition–I don’t always go for the white potatoes and white rice because they are the cheapest, or the factory-farmed chicken. To be honest, sometimes I do. Some dishes are best with white rice and others brown. Taste is always foremost! If it doesn’t taste good, doesn’t give you a feeling of being a little decadent, you’ll pig out on nachos at the pub the first chance you get.
1. Homemade pita & tortilla chips
I never buy store-bought chips anymore–I’ve usually got a bag of corn tortillas and a bag of whole-wheat pitas in the freezer. Even more thriftily, I save the tortillas (folded in half, wrapped in foil) from Mexican takeout. I break them in pieces while still frozen, toss generously with olive oil & salt, and bake at 350º for about 10-15 min until slightly browned and crispy. They have a different texture than store-bought chips but I have learned to prefer them, and they have a rich taste from the olive oil. Using another oil like vegetable, corn, or peanut will make them crispier but I prefer the taste from the olive oil–it’s roastier.
For pita chips, it’s much the same process except I dry them in the oven first, so they are twice-baked. I haven’t thought of doing that with tortillas, but I must try that.
Think about it, a bag of tortilla chips is about $3 while a fraction of a bag of tortillas, at least in an area with a Latino population, will run you about 25¢. Free if you get them with takeout and don’t use them. The same with pita chips–a bag of those is at least $4 and half a bag of pitas is just 75¢. Plus, they’re wholesome, homemade, certainly better for you than anything deep-fried. And you can use leftover homemade tortilla chips for…
2. Tortilla soup
I make this about every other time as part of the roast chicken aftermath. After the carcass has been ravaged for sandwiches, I pick all the hidden bits of meat off (like le sot l’y laisse), reserve, then make a stock from the bones. I also make sure people throw back the bones of the legs and wings instead of tossing them out because you want the wings for extra gelatin in your stock. For a Mexican broth you want to add some mint and thyme, but I usually make an unflavored, unseasoned stock and simmer 1 qt of it with herbs later to make this soup. There are many recipes for tortilla soup, but the basic idea is to saute some garlic and tomato in olive oil on high heat, then puree and add back to the soup and squeeze a lot of lime juice in at the end. I’ve built on this recipe with inspiration from Rick Bayless–I now add one or two soaked pasilla peppers into the puree, and add shreds of either chard, kale, or spinach. I also throw in a handful of rice, then at the end, add the bits of cooked chicken and crumbled tortilla chips. Some leftover black beans, too, if they are handy, and a bit of hot sauce if it lacks punch. Cheese is traditional but I skip it. And if I don’t have tortilla chips already made, I skip those too, so is it still tortilla soup…? If you haven’t roasted a chicken, you can always poach one and strip ALL the meat, which you will then be able to save for many different meals and you’ll have a great stock as well. I just poached one for tonight’s aji de gallina. I get my chickens at a halal market for about $3. I choose to believe since they are halal, they are better for me than a factory-farmed chicken.
3. To serve with your homemade chips, some homemade guacamole! I can get avocados here depending on the season for $1 or less a piece. 2 avocados makes a nutritious special treat for 2 or 3 people. Yes, they are full of fat, but it is good fat, and they contain a natural antidepressant! So if you lost your health insurance, eat guacamole when you are blue. In the summer I make them with fresh tomato and red onion, lime juice, hot sauce and cilantro. In the winter, when I don’t buy tomatoes, I try to have some tomatillo salsa (salsa verde) on hand and I use that plus red or green onion, lime juice and cilantro.
4. For another dip that is wonderful with either of the homemade chips, but which I eat more often with carrot sticks, I developed a homemade spinach dip. I wanted to capture the flavor of a classic potluck spinach dip, the kind you’d serve in a bread bowl, but made from fresh ingredients. I sautee onion, garlic and celery, then puree that with a combination of dairy products–mostly drained lowfat yogurt (I get a really tasty, tangy Indian brand at the halal market) plus a bit of either labeneh (a cross between thick sour cream and yogurt), sour cream, and/or mayonnaise, for richness. To that I add some leftover cooked greens, either spinach, chard, or kale. If you don’t have leftovers, just add the greens to the sauteed aromatics and cook until wilted. I always keep a bunch of dark leafy greens in the house. Swiss chard is my favorite but all winter it is kale, kale, kale! It’s not hard to eat in season when you have no money. Zip it all in the food processor with salt, pepper, and coriander powder or another spice of your choice, and there you have it. Trust me, it is so much better than those potluck dips, and you know everything that’s gone into it–not like a packet of dried soup mix full of additives and preservatives.
5. Lentils and split peas. Yes, the classic staples of the poor! But I won’t hold for any tasteless mush. Adding flavor is key. And it doesn’t always have to be in the form of a smoked pork product, though sometimes it does. One soup (from Marcella Hazan) I make all the time is the epitome of thrift. One half a bag of green split peas, 2 potatoes, 1 cup of beef stock or a bouillon cube, 4 cups of water. The key, and all the flavor, comes in at the end when you saute 2 Tb of chopped onion in a mixture of butter and oil, then puree that in with the soup. I also love her lentil soup, with lots of garlic, tomato, bit of bacon, pasta and crushed red pepper. I make another lentil soup–with many variations–to which I generally add smoked paprika in lieu of a smoked pork product. I don’t have anything against smoked pork, by the way, in fact I very often use bacon as part of a soup base, but cooking for two I don’t make whole hams so I don’t have leftover ham hocks. You can buy them of course (though that doesn’t seem very thrifty), and I’ve also heard good things about using smoked turkey wings in soups. I just picked up a package of them but haven’t used any yet. My Algerian friend also makes an amazing lentil soup with a bit of lamb on the bone. I’ve been trying to get her to teach me how to make it so stay tuned…
Then there are the multitudinous combinations of lentils, dark leafy greens, and rice/pasta. They can easily stray into the “I’m eating this just to stay alive” camp, which is where we don’t want to be! A judicious use of spice and/or meat will fix that. My favorite lately uses a bit of Italian sausage and seasons the greens with a pinch of anise seed, served with pasta. The anise works so well with the lentils and greens–delicious!
6. Turkish-ish greens w/ rice. Thanks to Halime, who runs the halal shop across the street from my apartment and taught me how to make this one day. I make it often for lunch and I’ve altered the recipe a bit by adding garlic and cinnamon (which is more of a North African touch). You sautee some onion & garlic, add a tiny bit of ground meat and cook for 10 min, then add fresh or canned tomatoes or tomato paste, cook it down, add lots of greens and a small handful of dry rice, water to cover, simmer until rice is done. I sometimes make this with leftover rice; brown rice is good and makes this a very nutritious meal but you do want it to be at least par-boiled when you start. If I’m using dry rice, I’ll usually hold out on adding the greens until it’s half-cooked. It’s a personal thing; the Turkish way has you cook the greens until they are soft and brownish, which is not always as bad as it sounds and can be quite yummy. Their version is also mostly greens with a tiny bit of rice while I like to do more half-and-half. Add a dollop of yogurt or labeneh to serve. Mmmmmm.
7. Root vegetables. For a favorite side dish of mine, I take half sweet and half white potatoes, chopped, tossed w/ olive oil, s+p, smoked paprika and cumin (sometimes a bit of cayenne too). Roast at 400º for about 40 minutes. Optionally you can squeeze lemon juice over, sprinkle w/ chopped parsley or cilantro, or serve w/ an aji or chipotle dipping sauce. This is my go-to side dish with burgers, be they lamb, beef, or turkey. The sweet potatoes are extremely nutritious and anti-inflammatory–it might be my imagination but I get a feeling of well-being every time I nom one.
I’m also a huge fan of celery root, which I use in purees (with roast chicken) and soups (with parsnips, potatoes and dark leafy greens) all winter. Turnips and rutabagas, likewise, can be turned into a rustic mash with carrots, sweet potatoes and roasted garlic, or into a soup with bacon and dried mushroom. All of them have a lot more to offer nutritionally and taste-wise than white potatoes.
8. Hummus. 1 can of chickpeas = 89¢. 1 cup of premade or good deli hummus = $4-5. Yeah. The only thing that will cost you is the tahini. I can get it for less than $4 here but I live in a Middle Eastern neighborhood. I remember paying $11 in the suburbs. In that case, you might want to try experimenting with almond or cashew butter, if you can get them cheaper, but even for $11 you will save money in the end because you’ll get lots of batches out of one tub. I make my hummus the traditional Lebanese way, with a generous amount of tahini and lemon juice, few Tb of water, salt and ½ clove garlic. (Though to be really traditional I’d have to soak and cook my chickpeas, which would save me even more money, but I never think ahead.) The only addition I sometimes make is a squirt of Sriracha. Drizzle a good olive oil over and top with a dusting of either sumac, smoked paprika, chopped parsley, or Aleppo pepper. Serve w/ pita chips or just plain whole wheat pita.
There are a lot more ideas out there of course, like fish cakes (which I love to serve with the tortilla soup), grated veggie latkes, which I’d like to do more of, casseroles, gratins… what are your favorite nutritious, cheap, fun, slightly decadent dishes or tips?
Personally, I hope that after I transition off unemployment (which I’m in the process of now), I’ll be able to keep some of the good habits I’ve learned. Not only with cooking, but in general, relearning the joy and inspiration in the simple and the cheap.