Peasant food: The prep equation

Recently, as I was trying to figure out ways to spend less money on groceries, I had a big "well, duh!" moment. Wandering through my local grocery store, I realized that, the more work that the food companies and store had to put into my food, the more money I had to pay. I realized that, by buying foods that were convenient for the store and doing more of my own food-prep work, I could save a large percentage of my weekly food bill. These changes individually amounted to a few cents here and there, but they quickly added up.

Fresh Food

One of the first things that I discovered is that fresh produce is really expensive. The reason is obvious: fruits and vegetable require special packaging, considerable amounts of shelf space, and a lot of TLC. Once the food gets to the store, a significant amount will have to be thrown away because it has gone bad or has been damaged in transit. When it's finally put on the shelf, it only has a limited time before it starts to rot and has to be weeded out. This means that, not only does it require special equipment and a lot of space, but it also requires trained laborers to care for it. All of that expense gets factored in to the price of the food.

One solution to the fresh food problem is pre-packaged vegetables, like bagged salad, pre-cut broccoli, and peeled, cleaned baby carrots. Because of the pre-packaging, these fresh foods sometimes have a longer shelf life. However, because they require more preparation on the part of the food purveyor, they often cost even more than standard fresh food.

Frozen food, on the other hand, is often processed at factories located near farming areas. The food is packaged in easy-to-transport containers that just need to be loaded onto refrigerated trucks. Once they get to the store, they just have to go on the shelf; barring a power outage, they can stay there for an almost unlimited amount of time.

With frozen food, you're still paying for the cost of refrigeration and special transportation, which is why canned food is even cheaper. Earlier canning methods were touch and go, leading to the occasional botulism outbreak. Nowadays, however, canning is incredibly simple and very safe. Unfortunately, a lot of nutrients and a fair amount of flavor are lost in the heating that accompanies canning; this is why it is somewhat unpopular, particularly with green vegetables.

Here are some concrete numbers, based on a price comparison at my local supermarket. Right now, fresh broccoli is $1.69 per bunch. After cutting and prep work, this works out to about three quarters of a pound of broccoli florets, which end up costing over $2.10 per pound. By comparison, a bag of frozen broccoli florets goes for $1.58 per pound. Obviously, the fresh broccoli is more attractive, but it is much more expensive.

Spinach is also quite telling. Bagged spinach at my market goes for $1.50 for a 6-ounce bag, or $4 per pound, while a loose bunch of spinach costs about half as much, or $1.99 per pound. Frozen spinach costs significantly less, $1.58 per pound, and canned spinach bottoms out at $1.53 per pound. While the bagged spinach is cleaner, fresher, and easier to use than the loose spinach, that convenience comes at a premium. For any dishes in which I cooked spinach, I would probably go with the frozen food, which is easier to store and a lot less expensive.

Admittedly, these prices are a little high (my local supermarket, which is an Associated, is something of a ripoff joint!). However, a price comparison at your market will probably show comparable differences.

Prepared Food and Mixes

Another major cost increase lies in the premium that you pay for prepared food. For each food preparation step that a manufacturer or grocery store does, you can expect to pay a significant jump in price. I think that the best way to show this is through vanilla pudding. At my local grocery store, Jell-O brand vanilla pudding cups are $3.89 for six, which works out to just under $.65 for each four-ounce cup.

If you take away one step of preparation and buy a box of Jell-O pudding mix ($1.19) and two cups of milk ($.60 or so if you buy a half-gallon), the price goes down to $.45 for a five-ounce serving. If you decide to skimp and go for four-ounce cups (comparable to the pre-packaged pudding), the price drops even more, to roughly $.36 per serving. This, by the way, is almost half the price of the pudding cups.

Now, I always thought that pudding could only be made from a box, but a little research revealed that basic vanilla pudding is a combination of milk, sugar, salt, cornstarch, and vanilla. If you were to take two cups of milk ($.60 or so), add in 1/3 cup sugar, 2 1/2 tablespoons of cornstarch, 1/8 teaspoon of salt, and 2 teaspoons of vanilla, cook it until it thickened, and pour it into four or five ramekins, you would produce the same amount of pudding as the Jell-O mix. Better yet, it would be slightly cheaper, a lot tastier, and would have fewer chemicals.

The secret to all of this, then, lies in learning how to do a few of those minor food preparation steps, rather than paying someone else to do them. This, in turn, will help you keep some money in your pocket, eat a lot fewer chemicals, and generally have healthier food. A good first move is to buy a copy of The Joy of Cooking, which has recipes for just about everything and can be found for around $14 through ABE Books.

In the meantime, here's a recipe that requires almost no fresh ingredients. In fact, that's how it got its name. Spaghetti Alla Puttanesca, which can be politely translated as "streetwalker pasta," is a delicious, spicy Sicilian dish. There is some argument as to how the name relates to the dish itself, but my favorite explanation is that working women didn't have the time to garden or haggle in the market, so they had to rely on preserved foods. This dish is rich and flavorful, and its use of canned ingredients makes it perfect for working people, regardless of their professions!

Spaghetti Alla Puttanesca

1 pound spaghetti (I prefer angel-hair)

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

3 cloves garlic, minced or pressed

1 small dried red chili or 1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes

1 cup oil-cured black olives, pitted and chopped

4 or 5 anchovy filets, drained and chopped

1 28-ounce can peeled tomatoes in sauce

3 tablespoons minced parsley (preferably flat-leafed)

2 tablespoons capers, drained

Prepare spaghetti according to the directions on the box. While the spaghetti is boiling, heat olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and red pepper, until garlic darkens to a light yellow. Add olives and anchovy filets, stir to mix, and add tomatoes. As you put the tomatoes into the pan, break them up with your hands. Simmer, uncovered, until the sauce thickens slightly (5-10 minutes). Add parsley and capers, heat through. Season with pepper and salt to taste (recipe probably won't need much salt). Toss with cooked, drained spaghetti and serve with grated Parmesan or Romano cheese.

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and co-author of Military Lessons of the Gulf War and A Chronology of the Cold War at Sea.

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