It Was on Sale…Now How Do I Cook It?
One of my favorite ways to save money on groceries is to shop based on what’s on sale in the meat and produce section. Although this requires a little more creativity, I find that I end up buying a wide variety of healthy foods for cheap. Instead of shopping for ingredients based on a new recipe (have you noticed ingredients are never on sale when you need them?), cook based on what’s on sale.
Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to cook unfamiliar produce and cuts of meat. To help those of us who are trying to eat well on a budget, here are a few simple ways to cook food items that often go on sale. (See also: The Produce Worker's Guide to Choosing Fruits and Vegetables)
Broccoli and Cauliflower
Broccoli crowns go on sale often throughout the year, and this healthy cruciferous vegetable is not only full of vitamins, but it helps prevent cancer too. For a simple salad, blanch the florets of two crowns in boiling water for 30 seconds, shock them in cold water, and then dress them with sliced almonds and a vinaigrette made with 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar, 2 tbsp olive oil, 1 tbsp sesame oil, salt, and 1 tsp sugar.
Cauliflower is also very good for you and is almost as versatile as broccoli. I like to toss boiled broccoli or cauliflower with pasta, cooked chicken, and a few tablespoons of jarred pesto sauce for a quick meal. Cauliflower is also delicious in gratins and casseroles.
A staple of budget diets the world over, cabbage is nutritious and cheap, but may not seem to be the easiest vegetable to use. Actually, cabbage is very easy to cook; the hardest part is cutting it up. Try cooking it over high heat in a cabbage stir-fry with soy sauce and hot sauce. Or shred it for coleslaw or to top tacos (which is much more authentic than using shredded lettuce). Shredded red cabbage makes a delicious side dish when slowly braised with red wine, vinegar, and sugar.
Aside from eating fruit whole, there are a variety of ways to use up inexpensive sale fruit in cooking. When peaches are in season, buy a case of them and make a few peach cobblers. Plums are delicious in plum cakes, and extra bananas can be used up in banana bread, smoothies, or super-simple banana ice cream. Grapes, pears, strawberries, and figs are delicious when cut up into salads. Fruit can also be used up easily in pies and tarts. Try a rustic free-form pear tart, a classic apple tarte tatin, or a decadent cherry pie. Serve up melons in their rinds, scooped into balls and doused with rum, or wrap melons in prosciutto for a classic appetizer.
Try using fruit mixed with savory ingredients to make sophisticated canapes. A whole-wheat cracker topped with goat cheese, a basil leaf, and a sweet peach slice is unexpected and delicious. A cracker topped with Brie, thinly sliced apples, and a drizzle of honey is just as good.
Bags of potatoes often go on sale, but make sure they haven’t gone green before buying. Store them in a cool dark place to prevent them from sprouting before you can eat them. They’re comforting, filling, and believe it or not, they are also a healthy low-fat food, as long as you don’t add tons of butter and fat. Try them in a potato salad with a vinaigrette dressing, or have a seasoned baked potato with a dollop of plain yogurt. Be sure to eat the skins too if they’re tender enough — they are packed with vitamins and fiber. Sweet potatoes are also cheap and can be cooked the same way.
Spaghetti, acorn, and butternut squash are almost always on sale in the fall and are a great way to feed a whole family on a small budget. Squash are healthy, filling, and versatile. To cook squash with a minimum of fuss, prick the squash all over with the tip of a sharp knife, and then place it whole on a baking sheet. Bake it in a pre-heated oven at 375°F for an hour or more, until squash is very tender when pierced with a knife.
Once the squash is cooked, you can cut it apart and simply serve with salt and pepper and a little butter. In the case of butternut squash, you can mash it or make it into a flavorful soup seasoned with a pinch of curry powder. Spaghetti squash can be served with marinara sauce as a pasta substitute, and I love pieces of acorn squash topped with brown sugar and butter and re-baked until glazed.
Squashes like zucchini and summer squash are cheap all through the summer and are delicious grated into zucchini pancakes or zucchini bread, shaved into ribbons for zucchini salad, or stir-fried with strips of meat.
In general, the big chunks of meat go on sale more often than smaller, neatly cut-up pieces. So avoid the pre-cut stir-fry strips and go for a piece of flank steak instead, freezing what you don’t need for later (flank or sirloin steak makes a great beef and broccoli stir-fry). Roasts tend to go on sale often, especially during grilling season when steaks are more popular, which gives you a chance to stock up on rump roast or round roast, which are perfect for roast beef. When it comes to stew meat, although pre-cut stew meat is inexpensive, it’s usually made up of bits and pieces of several cuts of beef, which will take on inconsistent textures when cooked. Instead, buy an inexpensive piece of beef chuck when it’s on sale and have your butcher cut it up for free. Then make a simple beef stew and serve it on top of potatoes or egg noodles for a hearty meal.
Chicken Legs and Thighs
These less-popular cuts of chicken often go on sale, and they are delicious when prepared well. Unlike breast meat, thigh and leg meat stays moist when roasted and is almost impossible to overcook. Bake them with apples for Chicken Normandy, or add paprika, vinegar, and soy sauce for a simple chicken adobo. Marinate chicken legs in BBQ sauce and grill them for a fast meal.
Whole chicken is often on sale, and you can make the entire chicken last for several meals. Roast the chicken with a stuffing of lemons and onion, and after you’ve eaten all the roast chicken you can hold, use the leftovers for chicken salad and chicken noodle soup.
Tilapia and pollock are cheap white fish options that often go on sale. Sole and mahi-mahi are also relatively affordable (go for mahi-mahi from the U.S. Atlantic that has been pole-and-line or troll caught), as are cod and haddock. For white fish, I usually dredge the seasoned fillets in flour, pan-fry them, and make a pan sauce out of melted butter, lemon juice, and parsley. When I can find salmon on sale I like to grill a large salmon fillet with a gingery marinade. Often you can find frozen fish on sale that is pretty good quality, but make sure it has not been thawed and refrozen.
Although it may be hard to think beyond pork chops, many other cuts are cheap and just as delicious. Pork shoulder (picnic roast and Boston butt) benefits from slow cooking in a stew or in a crock pot and makes a great pulled pork. Pork loins and tenderloins are inexpensive but are easy to cook and can feed several people — a friend of mine roasts pork loin slowly with a couple of cans of mushroom soup thrown over top for an easy meal. Ground pork is a cheap substitute for beef in pasta sauce or chili and makes a mean pork burger.
Canned food periodically goes on sale, and when it does, stock up on beans, tuna, diced tomatoes, and soups. A can of garbanzo beans can make a salad a balanced meal by adding protein and extra fiber. Toss a can of beans into a pot of chili, or mix with enchilada filling to make meat stretch further. Creamy soups can be mixed with pasta for an easy dish like tuna casserole. Diced tomatoes are the foundation for a variety of dishes, and in a pinch, can be tossed with pasta, salt, and pepper for an inexpensive pantry meal.