The Dirty Secrets–Pantry Meals, Cheap Meals, Canned Meals, and More for Tips for Your Quarantine Kitchen

Ok, I think we can all agree that food media and culture as a whole has changed in the past 20 years. We now have easy access to blogs, recipes, information, and research. Meanwhile, Michael Pollan and other researched-based advocates opened our eyes to the less-than-desirable aspects of processed foods and ingredients. We get to be seasoned foodies without ever having attended culinary school.

But the reality is that many people do not have the luxury to be selective about ingredients and methods, pandemic or not. They may live in food deserts with no access to fresh products (what would you do if the only store you could reach was Dollar General?), they may have inadequate funds, limited equipment, and lack the basics we take for granted, like reliable internet access for help.

When I first got married, I had recently birthed the Demon-Baby. My husband worked endless hours of overtime to keep us afloat, and I stretched our meager budget as far as it would go. And you know how I did that? Lots of processed products, canned products, protein stretching, and shortcuts. No shame in my game.

Those meals represented my efforts to provide us some semblance of “homecooked” meals, even if it was just a medley of frozen and canned ingredients hastily tossed together. Even before we got married, our college garage apartment produced many memorable bargain meals that we still recall with fondness: Bisquick cinnamon rolls and casseroles, sautéed chicken with Rice-a-Roni pasta, cheese omelets, and that time my husband and one of his best friends learned that splattering hot oil next to boiling liquid was a very, very, very bad idea.

As we all face uncertain weeks ahead, I thought I would dust off some of those meals and ideas. They are not really recipes per se, but ideas based on how I stretched our budget, made the most of processed foods, fresh food, and managed not to kill any of us.

  • Easy and Cheap Chicken Pot Pie: Stir together 2 cups cooked chicken (I often only used one chicken breast), 1 can cream of celery soup, 1 cup milk or half-and-half, 1 tsp. seasoned salt, 1/2 tsp. black pepper, 1 can drained peas, and 1 can drained corn. Using a box of refrigerated pie curst, line the bottom of pie plate with 1 roll of the crust. Pour in chicken mixture, top with the other roll of crust, crimping edges. Cut a hole or two in the top to vent. Bake at 400 F 35-40 minutes until top begins to brown. Rest 5-10 minutes before serving. (Or use any combo of canned veg you have).
  • Under $5 Corn Chowder: Stir together 1-1/2 cups milk or half-and-half with one can of cream-style corn into a saucepan over low heat. (The regular size can of corn, not the 7-oz baby size). Add 4 slices chopped ham from the deli (or 1/2 cup chopped diced and browned smoked sausage, or some cooked bacon), 1 can of sliced or diced potatoes, drained, 1 can whole kernel corn, drained, and salt and pepper to taste. Heat about 10-15 minutes, and stir in 1 cup grated cheddar until melted. Serve with bread or rolls if you can.
  • Chicken Squares: Combine 6-oz of room temperature cream cheese with 6-oz of room temperature margarine, 4 TBS milk, 2 chopped green onions and add 3/4 tsp. salt and 1/4 tsp. black pepper. Add 3 cups shredded cooked chicken, mixing well. Separate two tubes of crescent roll dough into eight squares (which is two of triangles still together for each). Press the perforated seam of each square together firmly to create a solid square of dough. Place a spoonful of the chicken mixture into the center of each square. Bring the dough corners to the center, pinching all the edges to seal. Bake at 350 F for 20-25 minutes until golden brown.
  • Pantry Spicy Tomato Soup and Grilled Cheese Sandwiches: For the soup, combine 3 cups Spicy V-8 juice, 1 can condensed tomato soup, 1 can condensed cheddar cheese soup, and 1 tsp. dried basil in a saucepan. Heat on medium, whisking occasionally until hot and combined. For the sandwiches: Combine one can of condensed nacho cheese soup with 1-1/2 cups fiesta blend shredded cheese. Spread a couple of TBS of cheese mix between two slices of bread, and brush outside of sandwiches with melted margarine or butter. Cook the sandwiches grilled cheese-style until golden. Slice on the diagonal and serve with the soup. *If you can get your hands on a baguette or sausage buns, make mini sandwiches for optimal dipping, which makes picky eaters happier. They like to dip stuff*
  • My Spaghetti Casserole was a staple and continues to be a go-to. I would serve it with frozen or canned green beans that I seasoned with what I had on hand. You can make garlic bread using the ends of a bread loaf or sandwish bread you need to use up. Brush bread with a couple of TBS of butter mixed with a 1/4 tsp. garlic powder and 1/2 tsp. dried parsley. Toast in the oven.
  • Chicken Fajita Chowder relies on mostly pantry-ready ingredients and you can reduce the chicken to stretch it further (the beans add plenty of protein). If you don’t have chips, cornbread is a good side, or even crackers.
  • You don’t get any more affordable than Salmon Croquettes. We would serve this with boxed mac and cheese and canned peas.
  • When I Was in a Bind: I often would throw together a couple of diced, cooked chicken breasts with sautéed diced onion and minced garlic, add a can of cream of celery soup, 2 TBS. lemon juice, 1 TBS Worcestershire sauce, 1/2 cup of milk, 1 tsp. seasoned salt and one 1 tsp. paprika. If I had any dried parsley or thyme, I added some. I’d simmer it for a bit and serve over wedges of cornbread.
  • Top Some Potatoes: Potatoes are affordable, and last if you store them properly. If you can bake potatoes, you can top them endlessly, like with shredded chicken or beef, BBQ sauce, and cheese (maybe chopped onion or even slaw for the adults). How about cooked chicken, broccoli, and cheese sauce (maybe with some bacon bits)? Cook frozen breaded chicken strips, dice them, toss with ranch dressing, top potatoes, and drizzle with hot sauce (and sprinkle of blue cheese if you can find it). Try potato tacos, with all the usual ground beef and taco fixings on top. Potatoes are the ultimate affordable canvas to stretch protein.

Other tips:

  • Bisquick and other pre-made mixes are often very cheap, and versatile for pantry cooking, especially if you are short on time. I’ve made many a casserole from on-hand cans and a mix.
  • Combo meals that combine proteins with starches and/or veggies allow you to stretch ingredients further. Think pot pies, Shephards Pie, casseroles, breakfast scrambles, hashes, stews, soups, etc. Eggs are the often least expensive per-serving protein there is.
  • Nearly anything can be transformed into hand pies/meat pies. If you need to clean out the fridge of leftovers, use refrigerated pie dough or frozen bread dough to create a “sweep the kitchen” hand pie night. Use leftover protein, starches, and vegetables, and convince your kids it’s like personal pizza night, but better. Same goes for grilled sandwiches/panini.
  • Ask yourself if what a recipe calls for is TRULY necessary. It may call for three cups of shredded chicken, but you could probably fake it with two. Out of fresh ginger? You could probably scrape by with a fraction of that amount of ginger powder. Will it be just like the recipe? No, obviously, but it could help you try and hit closer to the flavor profile than nothing at all. I frequently substitute fresh herbs with dried (decreasing the amount by half). Some skipping and substitutions can get you by, but remember, don’t be that butthole who goes onto a website and gives terrible recipe reviews after you do so. While being a pantry MacGyver can keep your family well-fed, it’s not fair to compare a hacked recipe to what the writer intended.
  • The good-looking chicken breasts in the refridgerated case are going to be the most expensive. For now, I’d go for the frozen bags (which are often smaller and less-than-neatly cut), or if you have the time, grab the cheap cuts like legs or leg quarters and cook and shred the meat for later.
  • When in doubt, trust dishes like Red Beans and Rice, Jambalaya, Stewed Chicken and Rice, Beef Tips, Meatloaf, etc. They are classics for a reason.

So, these are just some basics from the early days extreme budget eating that I hope inspire anyone struggling under quarantine frustration or scarcity. If you have questions about this post or how to stretch what you have, leave a comment, or if you prefer to ask a question privately, drop me an email (check my profile for the address).

Keep calm and drink on, my friends.

 

 

 

Community Cookbook Throwback Thursday–“Carrot Fritters”

**If this is your first visit, here’s the intro to my CCTT project.**

So, this week’s CCTT recipe comes from Talk About Good! which was published by the Junior League of Lafayette in 1967. Since it’s original publication, it has undergone 31 additional printings, with nearly 800,000 copies sold. This was another book I remember from Mom’s collection, and I managed to snag it at a local bookstore, giving me hope that I can recover some of that history. It definitely embodies the time period, with recipes that are staples, as well as curiosities that definitely show their age. In these recipes, I am learning more about my Mom and grandmothers, because they showcase a generation on a bridge. The rise of processed foods clearly has an impact, yet I can still see the traditions that stood the test of time. For example, my mom was convinced margarine was way better for you, but Hamburger Helper was for sad people who just didn’t know any better. In essence, she was a total purist with a blind spot for convenience foods that made life easier (I’m looking at you, canned biscuits). On to the matter at hand…

The devil-cold I thought I beat last week came raging back this week with the vengeance that only a secondary infection can bring, so I selected an easy recipe for this week. That’s also the reason I’m a day late with this post. Give me a demerit, with a chaser of decongestant, please. And alllllll the whiskey.

These “Carrot Fritters” were submitted by Mrs. Avery G. Landry and Ida Moran. The Heathen’s like carrots, and the husband can put a serious hurting on a traditional carrot soufflé, so I figured this was a safe bet for continuing to ease them into the prospect of regular kitchen experimentation.

The verdict? See the notes.

**Remember, I will copy the recipe exactly as written and provide my own notes, alterations,  and observations after**

Carrot Fritters

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Ingredients

  • 1-pound bag of carrots
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/4 cup milk (scant)
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 2 tsp. butter
  • 1 egg

Procedure

  1. Boil scraped carrots until very tender. Chop hot carrots with dough blender until smooth, adding sugar and butter while still warm. Add egg and vanilla, blend in flour and baking powder and mix with a spoon. Add scant amount of milk, so that batter has consistency to be dropped by spoonfuls into hot cooking oil (this is not deep fat frying). Browning takes about 5 minutes.

My Notes

  • Ok, so to make this recipe clear, you want to cook your chopped carrots until tender (scraped just means peeled, but I don’t peel my carrots, so take that for what it’s worth). After that, I streamlined the recipe as follows:
  • After reading the recipe, I decided the food processor was the tool for the job. I put the butter and sugar in the Cuisinart, then added the cooked and drained carrots. I pulsed it briefly, then left it alone for about 5 minutes to cool off. (I did not want the egg to scramble in the hot mixture)
  • Next, I added the egg and vanilla, pulsed about three times, then added the flour and baking powder, and pulsed a couple of more times. Finally I added the milk a few tablespoons at a time (to be careful), but I ended up using all the milk. The result is a batter on the thicker side, and is cross between a fritter and a thick pancake.
  • I used a pretty large non-stick skillet and about a 1/3 to 1/2 cup of vegetable oil, which I heated on med-high heat. I dropped about an ice cream scoop-size spoonful of batter into the oil and browned the fritters on both sides, about 2-3 minutes per side.
  • These definitely taste like carrot soufflé fried like a pancake or fritter, which my husband loved. If you like carrot soufflé, you will love them.
  • The sugar content in these makes them brown fast and easily burn. You have to keep an eye on them and cook them at a slightly lower temp than you would cook traditional pancakes or fritters.
  • I thought they were a little too sweet, but everyone else loved them. Next time, I would add a pinch of salt to balance the sugar content, and I would try them with brown sugar instead of granulated to add a depth of flavor.
  • Finally, this recipe made about 5 decent-sized fritters for our family of 5, but they are so rich, this was PLENTY. I was worried, but one per person is a safe bet.
  • If you try a CCTT recipe, let me know! Also, if you have a vintage recipe to share, let me know too!

What’s for Dinner? A Link List of What We Are Eating This Week

I spend quite a but of time looking for new dinner inspiration, because my house full of picky eaters must find a balance with my need to try different recipes while also having a modicum of variety in my diet. The Heathens have come a long way, (and the Hubs, if less so), but I still often find myself fighting the need to stab someone with a fork when my answer to “What’s for dinner?” is met with the pained groans of children who think my lovingly prepared meals are a direct and premeditated form of torture.

So, I decided to throw up my plan for dinner this week, just in case you need a little inspiration.

Today: Slow Cooker Korean Beef with rice and sugar snap peas. (This recipe can easily be made in the Instant Pot, and she may have even posted a how-to on that. Kroger had chuck roast on sale this week, so this was a no-brainer for me. The savory-sweet-mild spice of this recipe offers a good compromise for everyone. As for the peas, I just steam them and toss them with a little butter and plenty of salt.)

Tuesday: Glazed Pork Chops with Crash Hot Potatoes and lima beans. (The glaze for the pork chops for this recipe is wayyyyyyyyyy too much, and read the reviews if you don’t believe me. I cut it down by half, which is good for the 6 chops I make with some leftover if needed.)

Wednesday: Sticky Apricot Drumsticks with rice and a yet-to-be determined veggie, probably something for the CCTT post. (Rather than use drumsticks in this recipe, I am going to use boneless, skinless chicken thighs to make it easier for the kids to eat.  This recipe seems weird, but trust me, it works.)

Thursday: Maple-Mustard Flat Iron Steaks with Blue Cheese-Pecan Confetti and Butternut Squash and Caramelized Onion Galette. (Yep, not really kid friendly, so I may add a more appealing side and leave off the blue cheese and pecans on the kids’ plates. However, every once in a while, the person doing the cooking gets to cook something she wants. Using pre-cut butternut squash in the air fryer cuts the prep time on the galette way down).

Friday: Probably going to try this version of Indian Butter Chicken for the Instant Pot. (I am fairly sure skepticism will cause Heathen bitching, but I at least know the husband likes Indian food, or at least what version we can get in NW Louisiana. This recipe seems to have great reviews, so maybe it will be a good gamble.)

So, there ya have it. A few ideas that may be worth checking out, but remember, if you are doing the cooking, it’s ok not to be the picky eater caterer on occasion. They will live, I promise.

OMG They Actually Ate It–Chicken Ramen Stir-Fry

imageIt’s a truth universally acknowledged that, if all of my family were to agree on a dinner selection, we would eat the same seven meals for the rest of our lives. Likewise, trying new meals is met with groans, skepticism, and the wailing and gnashing of teeth. However, every once in a while, I try a new recipe that actually squeaks by and gets added to the rotation. I first saw this recipe on Food Network, and after making it a couple of times, I adjusted the proportions to better suit the consistency that they wanted.  While the Heathens pass on the final squeeze of lime and the Sriracha drizzle, I promise that you really should try it as it brightens up the whole dish.

Chicken Ramen Stir-Fry

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup low-sodium soy sauce
  • 1-1/2 Tbs. grated ginger
  • 1-1/2 Tbs. honey
  • 1-1/2 Tbs. white wine vinegar
  • 2 large or 3 medium garlic cloves, minced
  • 1-1/2 Tbs. canola oil
  • 5 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cubed
  • 2 carrots
  • 1 yellow onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 cup sliced purple cabbage
  • 1/4 cup water or chicken stock (preferably the stock but no biggie)
  • 3 packages ramen noodles (just throw out the seasoning packets)
  • Sriracha for serving
  • lime wedges for serving
  • (Note–The recipe originally called for a few green onions in addition to the yellow onion, but my husband says green onions are the devil’s playthings, so there goes that)

Procedure

  1. In a bowl, whisk together soy sauce, ginger, honey, vinegar, and garlic. Add the chicken and let marinate 15-30 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, use a vegetable peeler to peel the carrots into ribbons and set aside. Also, get a medium pot of water boiling. You will use this to cook your noodles, but since they only take a two minutes to cook, you want the water ready when you get toward the end of the recipe.
  3. Heat 1-1/2 Tbs. of canola oil in a large skillet over med/high heat (or a wok if you have one, fancy pants). Remove chicken from marinade, reserving marinade. Cook chicken until done (5-6 minutes). Remove chicken to a plate. Add onion to the skillet and cook two minutes, then add carrot and cabbage and cook an additional minute (while this is cooking, cook your ramen noodles now in your pot of boiling water and drain). Add 1/4 cup water or chicken stock to deglaze the pan while your noodles are cooking. Add the cooked noodles to the pan, the chicken, and the reserved marinade. Bring to a serious simmer for at least four minutes.
  4. Dish up in bowls and serve with Sriracha and lime wedges for squeezing over the top.