On Tax Day, Cheap Is on the Menu

Whether you’re early, late or hosting a tea party in protest, you know that today is Tax Day, aka Pay the Man Day. Even when I break even or anticipate a refund, inevitably I feel wrung out, much like that dingy sponge on the sink, exhausted by the process of crunching numbers, foraging for receipts and working myself into an irrational lather about meeting Uncle Sam’s deadline.

Maybe you can relate, but the only thing that seems to ease my financial vertigo -- other than pretending to win the lottery -- is to pull out the cheapest tricks in the book and be as spend thrifty as possible for a few weeks, if not longer.

Here in this space, I’ve sung the praises of the frugal and versatile egg, and you’ve shared some great ideas for keeping an eye on the ka-ching factor in the kitchen.

But the drama of today may require some extra hand holding, and for that I sought the counsel of my frugal inner circle, a posse of unique individuals who possess extra-special powers in the dollars and cents department. I like to think of them as wizards. In response to my e-mail plea earlier this week, here’s what the Oracle has served up:

Erin reports that she has a thing for breakfast for dinner. “I'm a huge fan and it barely costs anything,” she writes. “Some bread, a couple eggs, pancake mix, and maybe throw in a vegetable to round out the nutritional value. We call in "brinner" or "brupper" in our house.”

Naomi shared what resembles a twecipe (a recipe in 140 characters or less) or a haiku:

Easy: hummus and crudite. One can (preferably glass bottle, bpa-free) organic chickpeas, lemon juice (free from tree), olive oil (buy in bulk), salt & pepper, parsley (free from garden), mix.
Carrots, broccoli, radish.
Throw in a few organic tortillas from Whole Foods (about a dollar a pack) and you've got a stunning and delish lunch. Plus, it's veg.

Chip writes: “When I hear cheap, I think of beans, and this chickpea pantry pasta [his business partner] Brys blogged about a while ago is one of my favorites.”

Julia waxed eloquent about “black bean and ham hock stew, flavored with toasted cumin, red pepper flakes, fresh coriander and lime juice.” In fact, she got so excited she’s shared her recipe; have a peek further down on the page.

Karl was the most prolific; he shared a treasure trove of his cheapest tricks, some of which I’ll save for another rainy, cheap day. I like how this man thinks:

Rediscover roasting chicken and making chicken-based soup the next day. Roasting hens can be found at well under $1 per pound. Brine for 30-60 minutes in a solution of two quarts water, 1/3 cup salt, 1/3 cup sugar. Drain. Fill the cavity with aromatics: Lemon slices, onions, rosemary, garlic, marjoram. Rub with olive oil and black pepper and roast in a slow oven until the button pops (or cook low & slow on your smoker/grill). Meal #1 is succulent roasted chicken. Serve with (affordable) mashed potatoes and steamed vegetables. Meal #1 is going to run you more like $7-8, depending on the size of your bird. But ...
After you've carved your chicken, remove the aromatics from the carcass. Cover the carcass and wings with water and simmer for a couple of hours. Strain out the meat and bones and you've got amazingly rich stock to make soup with.
Pea soup is my favorite. Split peas run less than $1 per pound, are high in protein and fiber and loaded with vitamins. They're less fuss than beans, because you don't need to soak them ahead of time, and they only take 60-90 minutes to cook.
While your pea soup is simmering, let the bones from the stock cool down and pick off the remaining meat (there will be more than you expect). Chop up some onions, carrots, garlic (or any other root vegetables like parsnips, turnips, rutabagas) and add them in when you see the peas just starting to disintegrate. Season to taste with salt, pepper, thyme, marjoram or whatever other herbs tickle your fancy. Now enjoy the heartiest, tastiest pea soup you've ever had.
If you spread your costs out across your roasted chicken and pea soup meals, you're at well under $5/meal.

And he shared one more for the road…

We called this one Red Stuff when Mom made it. Brown one pound of ground beef in a large pot. Add 1 cup rice, 8-ounce can of tomato sauce plus enough water for a smidge more than 2 cups liquid. Season to taste with black pepper, red pepper and salt. Cover and simmer for 25 minutes. Hot, stick-to-your-ribs homey food with little preparation and only one dirty pot.

I’m feeling better already.

Julia’s Black Bean and Ham Hock Stew
2 cups black beans (dried or canned)
1 ham hock
1 bay leaf
3 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1 medium onion, peeled and diced
1 tablespoon cumin seeds, toasted
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes or to taste
Juice of 1 fresh lime + 1 fresh lime cut in quarters
1 bunch cilantro, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper to taste (after addition of ham hock)

Soak dried beans overnight in water if using dried, then discard water and bring to the boil in 6 cups of water, simmering till al dente -- still with some bite. Drain.

Soak the ham hock, tasting the water after two hours on your fingertip. If it's very salty, discard the water and soak the hock some more and repeat until the water is sweeter. Drain.

Gently bring the ham hock, the bay leaf and the drained beans (canned or the reconstituted dried beans) to a simmer in water to cover. Once the beans have softened but aren't mushy, drain, reserving 2 cups of the water. When cool enough to handle, roughly tear the ham meat into lumps.

Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a saute pan. Add half the garlic and the onion and soften. Add the beans, the ham, its bone, and the remaining garlic, the cumin and red pepper with 3/4 cup of water and simmer, stirring frequently for 10-15 minutes. If necessary, add more water to keep the mix a little loose. Season to taste.

To serve, remove the bay leaf and the ham bone, pour the beans and ham meat into a warmed bowl, squeeze the lime juice over, toss over the cilantro, along with the lime quarters, and serve, with a bottle of hot sauce on the side for those who want to keep the chill of the economy even further at bay.

Goes well with a green salad and some crusty hot bread.

Serves 2 big portions.

By Kim ODonnel |  April 15, 2009; 8:30 AM ET Cooking on a Budget
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Love the ideas--I am always looking for some good ideas. I usually skip roasting the chicken. Instead I cut off the breasts to use in a dish requiring raw chicken, then I cook the rest of the meat and carcass with carrots, onions, celery, etc., in my pressure cooker under pressure for 20 minutes. Let it cool, take the meat out, put the bones back in and cook under pressure for 45 minutes. The yield is usually about 8 cups stock and 3-4 cups cooked chicken. The cooked chicken can be used in chicken curry, mexican confetti rice, creamed chicken, chicken corn casserole, any number of soups. I've begun pairing chicken with white beans. Last week I made a white stew with one small potato, three small parsnips, one cup dried white (navy) beans, corn, 3/4 cup cooked chicken, and some stock--just enough to make it spoonable, but not quite soupy.

So from one big roasting chicken, I get 5-6 meals. I often buy fryers, which are usually less per lb and smaller.

My biggest cheap trick is to use dried beans instead of canned. They are half the price and easy to make in the pressure cooker (my favorite kitchen tool). Also, making meat a condiment/flavor enhancer and not the main dish. Thus the deemphasis of roasting the chicken.

Posted by: janedoe5 | April 15, 2009 9:15 AM

Re Red Stuff:

What you're describing is very close to something my mom used to make. It's in the 1961 Betty Crocker cookbook as "Texas Hash." It's a lot better if you add some chili powder and a little cumin.

Posted by: millioninprizes | April 16, 2009 8:04 AM

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