Monday, January 9, 2012

Frugal and Fancy Free: Monday Night Beans

One of my "resolutions" this year is to continue to make the most of what I have. Sometimes it might not seem like I have much. And most of the time even what I have isn't very fancy or inspiring. But this season in our lives has certainly made me more creative. And slightly crazy...but that's for another post.

This week I want to do a series of posts on what I do when the grocery budget is tight (or non-existent). There are tons of websites on frugal cooking. And frugal living. I am not going to tell you anything you haven't heard before. But trust me. There is nothing like trying to make something from almost nothing. If I can do can you. Grocery shopping and meal planning has become sort of game for me. Sometimes it's infuriating. What do I fix for supper if all I have is a can of tomatoes and a few potatoes? Most of the time it's a challenge. How do I fit everything in my pantry that's the size of a Chinese takeout container? (I use space underneath my bed!)

Here is the dilemma. You have limited funds, but you want to create a healthy dinner for your family. The trick is to be creative with what you have. My goal for creating meals for my family is pretty simple. I want it to be tasty, healthy and pretty. It takes a little more effort to do it on a budget...but I have to say I get kind of a rush out it! 

Tonight's Dinner: Some Kind of Bean Thing In  A Pot

Beans are the absolute best food for Frugal Foodies. You can make large quantities. You can use them in a variety of ways. They are good for you. And let's face it...In my part of the world nothing beats a big ole pot of beans and ham, cornbread and greens. But I didn't make that tonight. I found a recipe that used canned beans (which I have in abundance).  I also have lots of dried beans as well, but I needed something quick I could stick in the crockpot. Mondays are swim lesson days and we always get home a little late in the evening.

The recipe I found uses a can of black beans (which I have), a can of kidney beans (which I couldn't find) and a can of baked beans (which I didn't have). It also called for a can of corn, tomato puree, an onion, some garlic and spices. Here is how I recreated the recipe (along with a few things to consider along the way). Everything I used (except for the meat) I had in my fridge or pantry from another trip to the grocery.

1. Don't be afraid of the Marked Down Bin! Embrace the Cheap! I  know when my local grocery store typically marks their stuff down. And I have been known to hover around while they are doing so. The guy who usually marks down the dairy aisle wasn't in today. I missed him. I hope he's not sick. I wonder if I should send soup. 

Today I found this in the meat aisle. And because I am married to a Carnivore I knew that it would be a perfect little taste to add to any bean dish I made this week.

2. Braising meat before you add it to any crockpot recipe really brings out the flavor. It only takes a minute...You don't cook it all the way through. Just brown it a little. Of course, if you are in a hurry just throw everything in the crockpot.

3. Don't be afraid to substitute ingredients. The original recipe called for different kinds of beans and tomato puree. I have some other tomato kind of things, but I am saving them for another meal. I brought out a thing of BBQ sauce (purchased from a Discount Grocery for .69) to help give the dish that BBQ flavor because I didn't have any canned baked beans. Everything shown here I had underneath my bed (except for the onions. And the garlic...'cause that would be just strange).

 4. Do not fear the spice! I love cooking with herbs and spices. My parents used to have a huge herb garden and while there is nothing like using fresh herbs the budget doesn't allow it right now. I also get my herbs and spices from The Dollar Tree, off the Dollar Aisle and pretty much anywhere I can save a buck. The white faded bottle is ground cumin. I love the smell of cumin! Eating cheap doesn't mean you can't eat tasty.

5. Don't be afraid to subtract from the recipe. It calls for a whole onion, chopped. But because I could only buy a few onions this week I just used half of an onion. This way I have another onion for another meal. I could have used a little bit of chopped celery for some extra crunch, but decided I would rather save it for another meal. I used 2 cloves of garlic. I buy it fresh. It costs next to nothing and there is nothing like fresh garlic. Of course, my hummus recipe is so garlicky it just has been known smack random people...

6. Get the family involved in meal preparation. You want to know how I learned to cook? By helping my Momma. She can make soup with a stalk of celery and a few handfuls of rice.  I've learned from the Master. I'm just passing it along.

7. Be sure you have the right tools for the right job. I tried to stuff everything into this little crockpot. I like to use it because it's easier to clean. But obviously I misjudged something. It looks like I might need to duct tape the lid down. Sigh. Oh well. So much for less to clean. Time to drag out the Big Dog!

9. Make each recipe your own. After lugging down my big crockpot (aka The Big Dog) I started adding my ingredients. I drained my beans to cut down on the sodium. I used about 1/2 cup of the BBQ sauce and about 1/2 cup of beer. Yep. You read it right. Beer. We don't drink. Not even a nip. But I like cooking with it and when a whole liquor store was discovered in the barn on a farm my parents purchased it was put to good use. Okay. So it wasn't a liquor store, but there were literally 100's of bottles of beer (on the wall!). We've used it in bread, stews, sauces...It gives some recipes a wonderful richness. If you are squeamish about using alcohol to cook with you can use other ingredients and methods to make a recipe your own. Adding brown sugar or Worcestershire sauce would have been another option for this recipe.

I knew that when I took away the tomato puree I was removing some of the acidity from the dish. By adding the BBQ sauce I was putting some that tanginess back in. I also knew that crockpot cooking produces more fluids...not less. The pork, beer and BBQ sauce would help create a nice sauce just by simmering all day. I wasn't worried about the dish drying out.

*One of these days I will have to tell you a funny story about the beer and my parent's Rottweiler.

10. Add a few flavorful sides....To be honest I really wanted Zucchini. I had a hankering for it. But I let Josiah pick out the veggie and Zucchini is outrageous at the store. I know. It seems kind of odd to have corn as a side as well as part of the main dish...but I try and let Josiah help me decide part of the menu. That particular practice is supposed to help picky eaters...The jury is still out on that one.

Rice is always a good side. It is really inexpensive...I have a really easy way to cook it. Also because the bean dish relatively rich and spicy the rice is a nice foil. Sometimes I add a few things to my rice. Josiah likes it naked so most of the time I oblige him by leaving it alone.

Tomorrow night - I'm going to address my Asian Cravings with some kind of Beef Stir fry. Yum!

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