Cook in bulk and give the chef a night off!
In an earlier post, Tracy Coenen noted the incredible savings that she reaped by cooking at home. Her specific example was a pot of chili. Tracy pointed out that, were she to eat chili at her favorite restaurant, she would pay $8 a bowl. However, by cooking it herself, she reduced the cost to $2.94 per meal. Thus, by preparing her own food, she saved over $5 per serving and probably ate far better.
Although she didn't directly address it, Tracy also highlighted another key money-saving tip: you can save a lot of time and money by cooking in bulk. Although we don't usually count labor among our food expenses, the cost of cooking a meal can be considerable. While it's not as if you have to pay someone to cook your food, after coming home from a long day of work, the last thing that most of us want to do is spend time in the kitchen. If you have to do it night after night, there's a pretty good chance that you'll find yourself falling back on expensive convenience foods, TV dinners, and carry-out food. Sure, you'll start off with cooking every night, but before you know it, you'll fall off the wagon and find yourself settling down to a pizza or Stouffer's and wondering where the money went.
What if, instead of slaving over a stove, you merely had to defrost a meal that you had previously cooked? Many foods will keep for a considerable period of time in the refrigerator or freezer, and will reheat almost perfectly. For that matter, increasing the yield of a recipe is usually just a matter of doubling (or tripling, or quadrupling) the ingredients. Most importantly, by cooking in larger batches, you can spread your time investment out over a lot of meals, vastly increasing your efficiency and leaving you with more time to relax.
Admittedly, this isn't rocket science: most of us usually save leftovers in the fridge and return to them at our convenience. The difference is probably one of perception: rather than looking at bulk cooking as a meal with a lot of leftovers, you might want to see it as a lot of meals, all prepared at once. That way, instead of seeing a freezer full of unwanted food, you will gaze upon a cornucopia of epicurean delights, all awaiting your rapt attention (OK, that's probably a slight exaggeration).
A few warnings, though: when cooking in bulk, you might want to reduce the salt; for some reason, large quantities of foods sometimes seem to need less salt. Also, meat tends to dry out in the refrigerator, so you will probably have the best results with dishes that include a sauce. For this reason, you will probably want to increase the sauces more than you increase the meat or vegetables that they accompany.
Finally, while you're looking at your recipes and thinking about getting started, here's one of my favorite bulk meals. Brunswick stew is a classic Southern soup and barbecue side dish. Essentially, it's a spiced-up version of chicken soup that's loaded with vegetables. I find that it's particularly good for kicking out colds and generally beating away winter misery. It freezes well and will last for about a week in the refrigerator. If it starts to get too thick, simply thin it out with water.
A 5-pound chicken, cut up
Light olive oil for frying
1 cup chopped onions
1 cup chopped celery
3 cups frozen Lima beans
2 cups smoked ham (Virginia style is best), cut into 1/4 inch dice
2 cups canned peeled tomatoes, chopped or broken up by hand
1 cup tomato puree
1 cup chicken stock
3 or 4 cloves of garlic, pressed or finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon red pepper
3 cups frozen corn
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
Red wine vinegar to taste
Salt, pepper, hot sauce, and Tony Chachere's Creole Seasoning*
Wash and dry chicken parts. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a large soup pot or dutch oven over medium-high heat until they sizzle when water is dripped on them. Working in batches, cook the chicken in olive oil until lightly browned on both sides. Set aside the chicken. Fry the onions and celery in the olive oil and any chicken drippings, adding more olive oil as needed. When the onions and celery begin to soften, add the tomato puree, lima beans, ham, tomatoes, stock, garlic, red pepper, and bay leaves. Bring to a boil, cover the pan, and reduce to a simmer. Cook for 45 minutes, or until the chicken is tender. Remove the chicken, allow to cool, throw away the skin, remove and discard the bones, break up the meat into bite-sized pieces, and return it to the pot. Add the corn and Worcestershire sauce. Put in a few shakes of hot sauce, and add salt, pepper, and wine vinegar to taste (I usually go with about 1/4 cup). Serve with Tony' seasoning.
* I'm not much of a brand junkie, but I really love Tony's seasoning. If you wish, you can substitute a seasoned salt, but I wouldn't suggest it.
"Cook in bulk and give the chef the night off!" is part of a series on nutritious, inexpensive foods. If you enjoyed it, you might want to check out "Peasant food: How potatoes saved the world," "Peasant food: Behold the lowly bean," and "Peasant cuisine: Using traditional tricks to cut your food budget." Alternately, if you have any suggestions for future "Peasant food" topics, please contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.