Saturday, October 2, 2010

Day 229- Cheap Meal Building 101

For hundreds of years, give or take a couple thousand, people have built meals out of what they could afford and was available. If they were rich (and probably European, too) that'd mean piles of meat, sweets, and the odd over cooked veggie. Poor people? They had to get more creative.

The best part of creative poor food is that it mostly follows the same "recipe" when you think about it. Some cheap, filling carbs. A bit of protein, chopped up and spread out to last. All the veggies available from the garden, market, or root cellar.

Obviously some places swap this around a bit- there are still areas of New England and the Mid-Atlantic coast where shellfish are easy to find and cheap or free to collect. Or places waaay up north where hunting's *much* easier than growing plants or keeping even cows alive.

But for most places in the world, the cheapest (and often healthiest) recipes are made of a little protein (like tofu, beans, meat, cheese, eggs), some carbs (rice, bread, potatoes, oats, pasta, etc), and lots of fresh, cheap, local veggies. Seasonings if they're cheap or available.

My magic vat of Fried Rice is a good example of that.
  • protein= 1/2C TVP +2/3C soy sauce
  • carb= about 6 cups white rice (cooked)
  • veggies= carrot, 1/2 onion, yellow squash, 1/2 cabbage, ginger
  • seasonings= salt, vinegar, oil
I could make it healthier by using brown rice. I could make it cheaper by using less oil and soy sauce. I could even make it tastier by using either different protein or more (and interesting) veggies.

By the serving, purchased veggies and protein tend to be the most expensive actual food items in any kitchen. I think my TVP might be an exception to that, but I'm not totally sure (haven't run the numbers). No one should cut back on veggies- they're like food magic. Most Americans, though, could seriously afford to cut back on the protein.

I had this chat with my mom not too long ago, actually. What's the correct serving size for meat? 1 lb? 1/2 lb? 6 oz?

It's 3 oz, cooked. That's about 4 oz raw. For anyone out there who does metric, that's about 85 g of cooked meat. Some places list it closer to 2 oz cooked weight. How many people only eat 3 oz servings of meat?

Beans, of course, give a bit more space- it's 1/2 C or so. But tofu is 4 to 6 servings per pound. That's a lot more servings than *I* stretch it for. But a pound of chicken is that same 4 servings. If you use "chicken quarters" like my mom does, that's 4 servings of chicken for 50 cents or less. That might actually be *cheaper* than beans. I know it takes less time to cook. That's the *whole* protein section of that goofy food pyramid thing for two people for a whole day.

For veggies, of course, the price comes down when you buy in season. When you buy from rural local markets, when neighbors garden and *really* need to get rid of some zucchini. If you know what you're doing you can grow your own, or trade skills with someone who grows veggies. You can get permission to glean fields, pick fruit off neighbors "ornamental" trees, foraging wild plants and abandoned orchards. Some of those options require skills and knowledge, but there's plenty of that around. Both local and internet groups exist that organize or teach foraging, gleaning, or gardening. I don't do any of that- I'm too lazy, tho I won't pass up a chance at a decent looking berry bush.

So, what's your favorite "little protein, lotsa filler, plenty of tasty veggies" one dish-type meal? I admit I've got a soft spot (still) for chowders- potato, corn, onion.... Guess there's more old-school New Englander in me than I thought.

Just something I was thinking about while throwing together the latest batch of fried rice-o'-doom (+2 veggies).

Oh, yeah- I pulled day 226, it was forxing my page. sry.


  1. Calzone-ish things. I just turned about 1/2lb of pork into EIGHT empanadas. That's about 1oz of meat per serving. It's mostly peppers, tomatoes, onions, cheese, and bread.

  2. Ooh, that sounds good (well, not for me, but...). I bet no one ever says "wait, this needs more meat" either.

    Now here's the tricky question- can you stop yourself at one?

  3. Oh easily. It's never even a question, one is plenty. I can't really eat past the point of fullness, no matter how yummy it is.

  4. Pasta salad used to be something that I always kept in the fridge 24/7. Italian dressing, a bit of parm cheese over cooked noodles and a bag of frozen veggies (carrots, peas, brocolli and the like). Great during the summer when you don't want to slave over the stove. Make it once, lasts a good part of the week.

  5. I agree with MrsQ. Pasta salad type stuff can last forever in the fridge. I usually try to make a batch (about 5 days worth) of pasta. It's not even a single serving's worth, more like half a serving, but I combine the pasta with some toast or home made crostinis and it is a very fair lunch.

    As with Kim, most people won't notice the lack of meat if it's evenly divided amongst tons of veggies and cheese. The flavor of the meat is often infused into the bread/empanada, so as long as they're chewing into something, they're happy. As far as stopping after 1, the trick is not to eat it by itself; have rice, salad, or even dessert with it. The variety itself will make you feel fuller quicker than if you only eat 1 item.

  6. I'm probably one of those few people who eats the right size servings of meat. I'm not a vegetarian, but I have a hard time with meat. I can't cook it myself, the whole bloody/raw animal thing completely grosses me out. The smell kinda makes me sick and if I come across a vein or fatty bit while I'm eating I completely lose my appetite. But I'm iron deficient and my mom really gets on my case if I don't eat meat. So I never have any actual meat at home but when I go out or if I eat at my parents I always take a little bit to make her happy. Also, as a college student I can't really afford expensive, good quality meat. And that's the only kind I like.

    (Sorry for the late reply, I always wait until Monday to catch up on my favorite blogs from the weekend.)

  7. Granola- I have a handy chart + other information that might help you out with your iron nomming and help you avoid some of the meaty stuff if that's your goal.

    TJ- yeah, eating other stuff with it probably does make it go farther.

  8. That is an excellent find, thank you very much!