Thursday, July 29, 2010

I Have Arrived

Do you remember how I used to post a lot complaining about how hard it was to strike a balance among food I like, food John likes, food that is good for me, and food that I can afford?

A few days ago, John made dinner for me. It was very simple -- boiled potatoes with lots of toppings. One of those topics was chicken from one I roasted last week. John picked the meat off the bones, something I was more than happy to do, because chicken picking is one of my least favorite kitchen jobs. (Second only to pots and pans.)

I went into the kitchen after dinner and saw my casserole dish, the one that had held the chicken carcass and about an inch of delicious drippings, sitting in the sink empty. John had thrown away my chicken carcass. He thought that my delicious basis for a wide variety of soups was garbage.

Well, I did (eventually) (mostly) forgive him. I realize that to some people, a chicken carcass is just a pile of bones, good for nothing. And the drippings in the pan are just waste. But these days I waste nothing.

The anger I initially felt, however, proved to me that I have finally made my food methodology my own. Instead of grudgingly trying to extract some watery stock out of leftover bones, I now prize that carcass like gold and fill my daydreams with soup possibilities. (I had planned carrot soup and broccoli-cheddar soup from this carcass.) I enjoy making dinner, I enjoy eating it, and I am proud of the money I save, to the point of indignation when John suggests just eating a frozen pizza. (Though I still do like going out to eat every once in awhile, or ordering pizza like we did last week. But I would hate to do that all the time.)

The average chicken I buy is about five pounds and costs me about $4.50. I roast it on the first day, and we each have a leg (with rice and a vegetable on the side). For the next two days, I use a breast apiece to make some kind of rice or pasta dish. Recent ones have been pesto pasta, pasta with cream sauce, and a curried rice pilaf. These are my favorite meals, and I tend to please myself with them. I know they're a bit gourmet for John, but he doesn't complain.

The next two days are SOUP, the soup that I did not get to make with this particular chicken. I make it in the crock pot nowadays. I have a huge crock pot for this. I start by putting the carcass and all the drippings into the pot, along with half an onion and a carrot, both roughly chopped. (Over the year I've been doing this, I've found that these two vegetables are indispensable. Celery is a nice addition but not absolutely vital. Without onion, the stock is bland; without carrot, it's rather colorless and unappetizing.) I add two or even three quarts of water, a small splash of cider vinegar and soak that a bit before I set the crock pot on low. It cooks all day and is DELISH by dinner. All I need to do is defat it. (I do this by ladling off the first quart out of the top, and putting that in a jar in the fridge for the next day. What's left in the pot generally has no significant fat left. (A little fat is fine though.))

One carcass used to just make one soup, but now that I do it in the crock pot and know how much water I can add without weakening it, it easily makes two. Favorite soups include chicken and rice, chicken corn chowder, and broccoli-cheddar. I can even do chicken noodle soup now, now that I've realized how vital carrots are. It makes my soup look and taste a lot more like the canned version, only better.

I do something similar with beef. This is a beef week; I'm using a 3-lb. ground beef roll from Aldi. I guess it's around $5, maybe almost $6. Since it comes deep-frozen, I have to defrost and use it within short order. Generally one beef roll can make four of the following: tacos, chili, shepherd's pie, beef stroganoff, spaghetti. Out of all of those, only one (shepherd's pie) I am not really thrilled about, but it's okay and it is also John's favorite, so I make sure to make it every week. (I made it last night -- perhaps I should post my recipe, seeing as I made it up.)

With this system, I rarely make a dinner that costs more than a dollar. And it often yields leftovers for lunches, too! The tacos I made on Monday made two dinners and two lunches for me (though the second lunch was a "taco salad" because we were out of tortillas). The meat, which is the big expense, is eked out with lots of cheaper ingredients like potatoes, beans, and rice. With this savings, we are still only spending $60-70 every two weeks, even though I'm buying more vegetables than I used to.

Sure, our variety isn't stellar. Every two weeks or so, the entrees repeat. But I keep myself entertained with new vegetables and trying to think up new things to do with noodles and a chicken breast for those "creative" meals. And I like everything on the menu. John really likes some of it and is okay with everything else. Soup is always a hit, as is the roast chicken on the first day and the shepherd's pie. Really anything that can be eaten out of a bowl. Even when I make meals with several dishes, he will sometimes load them all into a bowl together and eat them that way. (Blech. Not my style. I don't like my food touching.) Many of the foods of my childhood (stir fry, teriyaki, enchiladas) are never going to fly around here, but some of them (beef stroganoff, green noodles, southwestern chicken casserole) work quite well. Plus, I'm making new things that we both enjoy.

Just as I foresaw, now that I can stay home and have the energy to make good dinners, I'm saving money and eating better. Just in time for Marko to get old enough to start complaining about what I make ... that will come all too soon, I'm sure!


Heather said...

I'm really impressed (not that I expected less of you, but I am trying to imagine myself being able to do that)!

I think my weakness is portion size. What is the average portion size for you and John from these meal plans?

Enbrethiliel said...


Congratulations! I'm still not my own family's cook (though I'd love to slide into that role), but I can relate to your system. Whenever I get to bake chicken, everything has to be done a certain way--and if someone throws away the drippings or the carcass before I can get to it, woe to him!!!

Sometimes I read the blogs of mothers who have been doing this for years. They have their hands on all the ropes and I feel so intimidated--especially since my mother and grandmother aren't exactly happy housekeepers themselves. And even these mommy bloggers' helpful hints about how to plan menus and organise shopping lists can frustrate me, because their systems are something they worked out for themselves and what I really want is not immediately to know the best way of doing things, but to get to work things out for myself, too. I think that's why I really enjoy your cooking and housekeeping posts, Sheila, because you're just starting out and yet doing well. =)

Sheila said...

As far as portion size goes, we have some good-size bowls, and each of us eats about one bowlful of soup or casserole-like things. John used to always eat the leftovers, but now he doesn't -- maybe because he's not biking so much anymore. I try, however, to make lots of starch in case we're still hungry -- generally about 3 potatoes or 1 cup of rice for the two of us. I always make sure to have enough that we're really satisfied, but I try not to make more than we're likely to want either, because if it's there, we'll eat it. ;)

Thanks, Enbrethiel! You've been along for the whole journey, pretty much, so you can see how far I've come.

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