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On certain Monday nights, my sister and I play a game. We call it Something from Nothing. The rules? Comb through your nearly bare fridge and cupboards and see what you can rustle up for dinner. “What did you find?” she’ll phone me to ask as I stand at the stove stirring a pot of risotto with mixed last-legs vegetables.
“You’re not going to believe what I made!” I’ll call her to say the next week, as I ladle a soup of leftover chicken and pasta in bowls. We come from a restaurant-business family, a family in which food waste was verboten. Making something from nothing is in our blood.
When I became a chef, my natural sense of frugality was pushed further. I’ll never forget my chef-instructor calling me out in front of the whole class for failing to run a spatula around a bowl that had held choux paste. “That’s a whole extra profiterole you wasted!” he roared.
With grocery prices across Canada skyrocketing, thrifty kitchen habits are more important than ever. According to Statistics Canada, Canadians paid 8.7 per cent more for food in stores in March compared to a year ago, including 17.8 per cent more for pasta and 8.5 percent for dairy and eggs. There’s never been a better time to be mindful and deliberate in the grocery store, as well as the kitchen.
Still, a little frugality doesn’t have to take the fun out of cooking, and there’s no need to deprive yourself of deliciousness. Many key ingredients often cost less than you’d expect, can be stockpiled when you find a good sale and then stretched to make several meals. Keep reading for seven nutritious, balanced dishes you can put together for less than the price of a loaded latte*:
Farro with Fried Egg and Crispy Shallots: While farro, a high-protein whole grain, cooks in water (or chicken stock for more flavour), slice a couple of shallots thinly. Heat a few spoonfuls of vegetable oil in a skillet to medium. Cook shallots to desired crispiness and remove with slotted spoon. Fry eggs in shallot oil one or two at time. Serve farro in bowls with a drizzle of oil and wine vinegar, salt and pepper, one egg per person and a few shallots. A handful of arugula is nice, too.
Parmesan Broth with Lemon and Orzo: Create a rich veg broth by saving Parmesan rinds until you have several (1/2-1 lb). In a large pot, sear a halved onion in oil until lightly coloured. Add Parm rinds, a strip of lemon peel, two whole cloves of garlic and a 1.5 litres water. Simmer for one hour; strain and discard solids. Season broth with salt and pepper. Add a big squeeze of lemon juice and cooked orzo. Serve with fresh spinach on top, if desired.
Tomato Bean Stew: Lightly cook two cloves sliced garlic in a glug of olive oil over medium. Add 1 can stewed tomatoes, chopped, 1.5 cups stock and 1 can drained and rinsed white beans (any kind). Simmer 10 mins. Remove one Italian sausage from casing and roll meat into small balls. Add to pot, along with chopped greens such as kale, and cook 10 more mins or until done.
Tuna Melt: Remember this old stand-by? Dress it up with Gruyere cheese and a tomato and feta salad to accompany.
Quick Chicken Bolognese: Lightly coat the bottom of saucepan with veg oil. Add one pound ground chicken. Season and cook until lightly brown. Stir in good quality Italian cherry tomato sauce and cook over low until fully combined; 30 mins or so. Add fresh or dried herb, if desired, and serve over freshly cooked pasta.
Luxury Spuds: Bake large russet potatoes in their skins. Split and serve with an array of toppings: shredded cheese, sour cream or Greek yogurt, sautéed ground beef or sausage, chopped roasted broccolini, etc.
Tofu and Snap Peas: Dry a block of firm tofu with kitchen towel. Cut into cubes and season with soy and touch of sesame oil. Add a spoonful of veg to a non-stick skillet and heat to medium high. Clean peas and stir-fry until blistered and brown in places – a few minutes. Remove peas, add more oil, if needed and fry tofu until crispy. Add peas back to pan until just heated. Serve with Sriracha and sesame seeds.
5 More Tips
Make it yourself: Pre-seasoned or precooked foods are pricey. Plan ahead and do your own marinating, thawing, slicing and chopping.
Watch your waste: Make a list and avoid impulse buys. If you don’t know what you’re doing with that cauliflower, it’ll end up in the compost.
Clean your fridge: Like me and my sister, plan to cook from what’s already in your fridge at least once a week. Trust me, it’s very satisfying.
Stock up: Meat, in particular, freezes well and one cut or another is always on sale.
Avoid boneless: Boneless, skinless chicken thighs are double the price. It’s easy to take the skin and meat off the bone (try YouTube if you’re not sure how) and you’ll have bones for stock.
* per person, approximately. Exact prices will vary depending on region and timing.
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