Cheap Eats

From a Herald-Sun column published 5/16/2012
Mario Battali, an iron chef and successful restauranteur, is participating in an interesting, touching experiment. For one week, he, his family, and others in the food community are eating on $31.00. The amount is the maximum of one person’s food stamps.
That’s $1.48 per meal.
The object of the exercise is to illustrate how tough this can be. And, to persuade the government to stop cutting food aid in this very precarious economy.
This started me thinking about trying to put meals on the table for practically pennies.
It ain’t easy.
Free-range, organic, hormone-free? Forget it. That stuff automatically adds about 50% to the price. Frozen meals, pre-fab boxes, and prepared food is also out.
Think simple, think from scratch. Think starch.
Pasta, rice, and potatoes. They’re cheap and filling. But, as far as nutrition goes, they’re lacking.
So, that leaves meat and vegetables for vitamins and minerals. But generally, meat, dairy, and veg are the most expensive things in your cart. So, what to do?
You have to shop the bargains. Cheap cuts of meat, store brands of dairy, and look for sales.
As for vegetables, canned will be the bulk of them. Occasionally stores will have sales in the produce section, but not often. An eagle-eye and some luck will score fresh veggies, but it’s an uncommon occurrence.
All of this made me think about some dishes that I make which are inexpensive. Things that can stretch to feed extra mouths. Filling satisfying meals that don’t cost much.
Starches are great for bulking up a dish. Use meat more as an accent, rather than the main food of the meal. Or buy a cheap cut, say a pork butt, and it can be eaten for days, in different dishes.
One dish that I make, is cheap, and stretchable. My mom’s version is called porcupine meatballs. But I can’t cook a meatball that stays round and pretty. So I make the same thing into patties, and we call it “roadkill”. It’s actually one of our family’s favorite dishes. We all look forward to roadkill day.

1 pound ground beef (or turkey)
1 1/2 cup uncooked rice
1 egg
1 head garlic
1 can tomato sauce
2 cups beef stock (or water)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary or 1 teaspoon dried
1 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
2 tablespoons cooking oil
salt and pepper

Roast the garlic: cut the head in half, and put both pieces into a piece of tin foil. Drizzle with a bit of oil, and sprinkle with salt, pepper, and a little thyme. Close tightly, and bake at 350 degrees for 50 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool, still in the foil.
In a large bowl, put rice, the roasted garlic cloves, hamburger, the egg, a tablespoon of oil, the herbs, salt and pepper and a tablespoon or so of the tomato sauce, reserving the rest. Mix well, and form into patties about the size of a hamburger patty.
Heat a large heavy pot with the rest of the oil. Brown the roadkill on both sides and remove to a plate.
Into the hot pot, pour in the rest of the tomato sauce, and the beef stock or water. Replace the burgers, and when it comes to a boil, reduce the heat, cover, and cook on medium low for about an hour. The rice takes longer to cook than the meat, so when the rice is cooked all the way, the roadkill is done.

The great thing about this dish, other than the flavor, is you can add more rice if you need to. I usually use about half of the amount of rice to meat. But you can change the proportions depending on cash and diners.
As cheap as this dish is, it would still probably be a treat on a food stamp budget. And the people that have to rely on food assistance are your neighbors and co-workers, not some mythical “welfare queen”.
The next time you go grocery shopping, try to imagine feeding your family on $1.48 a piece. Frankly, I don’t know how it’s done.
I talk a lot about being broke. But, I am spoiled. I don’t really know what it’s like to be broke or look into my hungry child’s eyes, and have nothing in the cupboard.
So take a moment, and realize just lucky you are. Because for most of us, it could be a lot harder.
Thank for your time.

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