Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Pasta, Rice, and Potatoes

A couple of days ago I mentioned how pasta, rice, and potatoes can really stretch your food dollars. I have found that those three items go a lot farther than most people would think.

Let's take pasta first. When most people think of pasta, they think of spaghetti or other Italian dishes with a tomato or cream sauce. But there is a lot more to it than that. You can use pastas of different shapes and sizes for just about any meal. Egg noodles are one of our favorites.

You can seriously cut down on the amount of meat you use for a meal with a simple meat gravy over egg noodles. The noodles are great because they don't take very long to cook, are very inexpensive, and exceedingly versatile. One of the easiest meals that I make with them is a ground beef gravy. Brown about 1/2 pound of hamburger meat and drain off the fat, add your favorite seasoning salt, chopped onion, chopped peppers, mushrooms, whatever you and your family likes. Pour in 2 1/2 cups of water or beef broth (if you use water, add a couple of beef bullion cubes to give it flavor) and bring it to a boil. In 1/2 cup of water, stir in 2 heaping tablespoons of cornstarch. If you have any Kitchen Bouquet, add that to the cornstarch mix (it enhances both the flavor and the color). When you have a good boil going in the meat, slowly add the cornstarch water to the pot, stirring constantly so you don't have lumps. Continue to boil until it is almost thick. It will continue to thicken as it cools so don't worry if it looks a little thin. The thing to remember is that the cornstarch has to boil to cook it or it will taste kinda gritty. Serve over egg noodles. This will make around 3 cups of meat gravy, so if you consider a serving to be 1/2 cup, then that is 6 servings out of 1/2 pound of ground beef. Just make sure you have plenty of noodles. If you don't have any hamburger, you can use round steak or chuck cut into thin strips and cook it the same way. Just remember that it doesn't take a lot of meat. The meat is for flavor, the pasta is the meal.

Another good thing about pasta is that it can be just as good cold as it is hot. Take a pasta salad. That is a wonderful meal for the summer months. You can make it up ahead of time and just chill it in the fridge until dinner. One that we like is almost an antipasto type. Boil a package of rotini (the spiral ones) until soft but not mushy. Drain. Mix in chopped onion, chopped pepper, a shredded carrot, mushrooms, sliced black and green olives, whatever you have handy. You can add leftover chicken (chopped) or pepperoni slices, or summer sausage, or whatever tidbits of meat you have hanging in the fridge. A crumbled hamburger patty is good too. Toss it all with Italian dressing and cover it. Stick it in the fridge until you are ready for dinner. Sprinkle it with Parmesan cheese. This is good with a salad and fresh fruit. Keep in mind that 1 pound of pasta will serve about 8, so if you don't need that much, don't cook the whole pound of pasta.

These are just a couple of our favorites, but they give you the idea. It lets you feed a family a good meal that is also inexpensive. This is also good when you have company coming and not a lot of cash to feed every one. Just make a double batch. Still cheap, but it doesn't look or taste that way.

Rice is another way to spread the meal around. Whether it is steamed, boiled, baked, in a stir fry, risotto, as a pilaf, in a pudding, whatever, rice will seriously stretch out your food dollar. When you consider that a pound of rice is about $1, and it will almost (but not quite, 1 cup of rice will make about 1 3/4 cup cooked) double in size when it is cooked, adding rice to a dish is a great way to bulk out a meal. Add a handful to a soup pot to add texture. Whip up a quick stir fry for lunch. Make a rice pudding for dessert. Drop a couple of bullion cubes to a pot of boiling rice for flavor. Use it as a base for meat gravy instead of pasta. Or just boil some up for breakfast, served with butter and sugar.

You can find a zillion recipes that use rice on the web. It isn't just for Chinese food. And because it is a grain, that is healthy for you. Using brown rice is even better since it is whole grain.

For a meal on the cheap, baked potatoes are probably one of the best. A little butter, some shredded cheese, a few bacon bits, add a salad and dinner is served. Roasted, boiled, baked, fried, steamed, grilled, in a casserole, hash browns, scalloped, au graten, potato salad, mashed, etc, there are enough ways to make potatoes that you can have them every day for a year and never have them the same way twice. They are low fat, high fiber, and best of all, generally cheap. Adding potatoes to a meal will allow you to serve less of everything else since potatoes will bulk out a meal. My general rule of thumb is 1 medium sized potato per adult, 1/2 for each child under the age of 10 or so. This doesn't always work, you have to take family preferences into account, but it is a good general idea. For instance, for fried potatoes, I usually peel 6 for my family of 4 because we really like them. But for mashed potatoes, I only use 4. The plan is to make enough, but not too much. Unless it is potato salad, potatoes don't really reheat well, so to save on waste, only cook what you actually need.

An easy way to roast potatoes is to wash them really well and cut them into about 1 inch chunks. In a large ziplock bag, add about 1/4 cup olive oil, salt and pepper to taste, and 1 tablespoon of Italian seasoning. Add the potatoes to the bag and shake it up really well to cover all of the potatoes with the oil and seasoning. Pour it all out onto a cookie sheet and bake at 375 for about 30 minutes or until the potatoes start to brown. You may need to stir these around a couple of times to keep them from sticking to the pan, but I promise, they are wonderful.

Pasta, Rice and Potatoes...great ways to spread out your food dollars without your family thinking they are being cheated. Cheap, versatile, and really really good.

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