The Cheap Lazy Foodie: 3 Frugal Dishes Without Compromise

By Christina Willis on 14 January 2010 13 comments
Photo: loooby

If you're like me, you like to eat, and you like to eat good stuff — no frozen, re-heated, preserved, fast, or junk food (if you can help it). But again, if you're like me, you're also broke. Paying at a restaurant for all the scrumptious delicacies you crave isn't in the cards (or your wallet). And, quite possibly, you can cook, but you're not up for anything elaborate, time consuming, or, well, hard.

You are a cheap, lazy, foodie and you don't want to compromise. Period. I understand. And I'm with you. In fact, I am here to help. I shall be your guide, your fairy foodie godmother, and I will walk you through three easily prepared delicious meals, designed to keep your tummy and wallet happy (no compromises involved).

Meal #1: Baked Garlic Chicken and Vegetables (serves 4)

Total preparation time: about 20 minutes

Total cook time: 1 hour 20 minutes

Total cost: first time ~$14.70 ($3.66 per serving), subsequently $8.85 ($2.21 per serving)

First stop will be the produce section. Pick out a head of garlic (< 50 ¢), a large onion (or two, ~$1.30 per onion), one summer squash (< 50 ¢, one zucchini (~$1.00), and a few small potatoes or one larger one (~75 ¢).

In the seasonings area, pick out a nice Italian blend (cost $2.69 for a 1.43 oz jar), which will contain a mix of rosemary, basil, sage, thyme, marjoram and oregano. (If you want to get fancy, you can buy those individually and come up with your own mix.) Next you'll need some oil. I prefer olive oil — it has a bit more flavor — but vegetable oil will do the deed just as well (cost $3.09 for a 8.5 oz. bottle of olive oil or $2.15 for an 16 oz. bottle of vegetable oil).

Finally, pick out some chicken. I typically go for whole chicken legs, but drumsticks, breasts, wings, or Whatever Suits Your Fancy (WSYF) will work. Get four whole chicken legs, or an equivalent amount of other parts (cost ~$3.50; $1.19/lb and up).

Preparation for this meal mostly means chopping vegetables. Chop up the onion(s), squash, potatoes and zucchini into bite-size pieces. Slice the zucchini and squash into half inch thick pieces, and slice the potatoes to quarter inch thickness. If you cut the potatoes too thick, they won't be cooked enough when your dish is finished.

Set the veggies aside and peel some garlic. You're going to take the peeled garlic and insert the cloves into small incisions in the chicken. Peel as much garlic as you care for. Garlic fiend that I am, I typically use most of the garlic head, but moderate as you see fit. For those less garlic inclined, I advise cutting the cloves into smaller pieces for insertion into the incisions. Once your garlic is peeled, make the incisions into the meatiest parts of the chicken with a sharp knife and push the garlic into them.

Preheat the oven to 400 F. While the oven is heating, lay the chicken in the bottom of a large baking pan. Push the vegetables into the spaces in between the chicken pieces and cover with the rest. Pour a generous amount of oil, and sprinkle the seasonings evenly over the entirety of the pan.

Bake the dish in the oven for 30 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and stir/flip its contents. Return it to the oven for another 30 minutes. Once the second 30 minutes is up, set the pan out to cool a bit. (Then its chow time.)

Meal #2: Thai Curry with Rice (serves 3)

Total preparation time: about 20 minutes

Total cook time: about 35 minutes

Total cost: first time $12 ($4 per serving), subsequently $8.05 ($2.68 per serving)

In the produce section, pick out a green bell pepper (~$1.00), an onion (~$1.30), a head of garlic (< 50 ¢), and about a half pound of smaller tomatoes (about 4), as they tend to be cheaper by the pound than large ones (~$1.00).

Next, head over to the ethnic foods section. Pick up a can of coconut milk ($1.00 for 13.5 oz.), and a small jar of curry paste. If you want to be exact, you can get the red Thai curry paste by Thai Kitchen ($3.89 for 4 0z.), or you can go the hybrid route and buy Patak's curry paste. Patak's is technically Indian, but it’s not a huge difference for the dish and it is cheaper by volume ($5.75 for a 10 oz. jar). You may need to find an ethnic specialty store to locate it. As an aside, ethic stores tend to be cheaper and locally owned, which can appeal to any locavore tendencies you may have.

In the grain and pasta aisle pick out some rice: white, brown, basmati or WSYF ($1.00 and up for a 1 lb. bag of rice).

Now, pick out some meat. Here you have a lot of flexibility. Any cut of meat that can be cubed will do, so get WSYF. I typically use either chicken or beef. And depending on the store, you can ask the staff to cube it for you at no extra charge. (Beef stew meat is $4.49/lb.: ~$2.25 for a half pound.) Or if you want to make a vegetarian curry you can pick up some extra firm tofu, often located in the produce section ($3.00/lb), or just skip it all together and go the all veggie route.

As you begin preparing, start with the rice. If you're the ultimate in lazy, you have a rice cooker, so get that going. Otherwise you've got to kick it old school with the pot. Put one cup water for every cup of rice you want to cook. Brown rice takes more, one and a half cups of water per cup of rice. The trick to cooking rice in a pot is stirring it occasionally until it gets boiling. Don't make the mistake of just turning the heat on and walking away; the rice on the bottom will burn to the pan and then you'll be in trouble. Once it starts to boil, then you can put a lid on it and leave it alone. Check the packaging on the rice for cook times. Most requires at least 20 min, but sample it occasionally and stop when it is cooked to your liking.

Next chop all your vegetables, cube your meat or tofu into bite size pieces, then peal and mince several cloves of garlic. Put them all together with a little bit of butter or oil into a deep pot. Turn the heat to medium, and sauté them for a few minutes. Pour the coconut milk into the pot, and let it simmer until the meat is cooked, somewhere between ten and fifteen minutes, depending on the size of the meat pieces.

Now add the curry paste and some salt, stirring in little bits at a time and tasting often until you're happy with the dish. You can let the dish simmer a little longer and reduce itself, densifying the flavor. Once it’s cooled enough, serve it over the rice.

Meal #3: Pasta with Cream Sauce, and a Pink Variation (serves 4)

Total preparation time: about 15 minutes

Total cook time: about 25 minutes

Total cost: $8.66 ($2.17 per serving)

Okay, this is the laziest of the three.

Off to the dairy section! You will need butter ($1.59 for two sticks, 8 oz.), whipping cream ($1.69 for 8 oz.), and milk ($1.59/quart). If you want to be extra cheap, you can skip the whipping cream. Garlic is, of course, always an option (< 50 ¢).

In the baking section, pick up some flour ($1.29/lb), and in the grains and pasta are pick out some pasta. Any pasta will do, but I typically prefer short pastas, like rotini or bow tie ($1.39-2.19 per lb), instead of longer noodles. But as always, WSYF.

In the kitchen, start the pasta cooking first. Add a little bit of the salt to the water and let it boil. The packaging on the pasta should tell you how long it will be until its ready, but sample and stop cooking when it tastes the way you want. While the pasta is cooking, you'll make the sauce.

If you chose to include garlic, peal several cloves and mince them finely. Set a skillet to medium heat. Melt a quarter stick of butter in the pan and add the garlic. Once the butter has melted entirely add a tablespoon of flour, stirring with a spatula until it is entirely dissolved. Add about a cup of milk and a half cup of whipping cream. The flour dispersed in the butter will absorb the water in the milk and expand, thickening the sauce, so the more milk you add the thinner your sauce will be. You can continue adding milk if your sauce is too thick.

Once your sauce has achieved the desired thickness season it with salt and pepper to taste, then move the pan off the heat. Either serve the sauce over the pasta, or toss the drained pasta with the sauce in the pot before serving.

A variation on this dish is to make pink sauce. The recipe is identical, except stir in a half cup of marinara sauce before adding the milk. You will need to reduce the amount of milk in the sauce or you will make it too thin. And your ideal amounts of salt and pepper will vary according to the sauce you select. The trick here is to taste a lot as you go, optimizing for your enjoyment.

This concludes our foray into cheap tasty cooking. I hope you enjoy these dishes as much as I do. So go forth; spend frugally, eat royally, and don't work too hard.

This is a guest post by Christina Willis.

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Guest's picture

I make Thai Curry about twice a month and if you have a good ethnic store you can find larger containers of authentic curry paste for super cheap.

I also use a different method, which I think is easier. You fry the curry paste in a bit of vegetable oil for a minute or two, add the coconut milk and wisk to combine. Add everything else and simmer until everything is tender. I also like to add a bit of fish sauce, chopped chiles, and fresh herbs like basil, cilantro or mint. I normally make veggie curries, but if using meat I'd brown it before adding the curry paste to the oil.

It's also beneficial to try out different brands of coconut milk. Some are really wonderful and others are awful.

Guest's picture

Using a whole chicken or chicken on the bone is much, much les expensive than using boned pieces. After you've eaten the chicken, put the bones in just enough cold water to cover them. Bring them to a boil, then reduce the heat to the lowest possible temperature (for best energy savings, use a crockpot for this step.) Leave it there two days. Yup, 48 whopping hours. After two days, add a carrot, a piece of celery and a slice of onion. Leave it cooking another day. Strain the bones and veggies out and you have the most amazing chicken stock. You can use it to make soup, cook rice or just drink by the cup.

It costs pennies, uses what would otherwise be trash and gives you amazing health benefits. Collagen for wrinkle reduction, glucosamine for smooth joints, calcium for strong bones, it's all in there!

Guest's picture
Russel G.

Pasta with pink sauce is a favorite in our family.

Rather than marinara, I take a can of stewed tomatoes and simmer and mash until most of the liquid is gone. Then add the cream and grated parmesan cheese. Simmer the sauce until hot, and toss with the pasta.

Guest's picture

Tomatoes + pasta + something else (usually bread) = cheap, frugal meals that are easy to prepare!

Guest's picture
Kathy F

You only use 1 cup water per 1 cup dry rice??? To cook regular long grain rice, I use 2 (two) cups of water per 1 cup of rice. And for brown rice, you will need about 2 and 1/4 or 2 and 1/2 cups water per cup of rice.

Guest's picture

Gotta love mushrooms and pasta.

Guest's picture

Pasta with pink sauce is something new for my family! I hope they will love it and they will not be scared of tasting it.

Guest's picture

$1.19 a pound for chicken? Man, tell me where you get your chicken at.

I thought I was getting a good deal at $1.99 a pound.

The recipe looks tasty!

Guest's picture

Thanks, Christina, for the great recipes. I am trying your Garlic Chicken and Vegetables, tonight. Fun post!

Guest's picture

Rice typically has 2 parts water to one part rice, and you're not supposed to stir it - stirring it breaks up the rice, which ruins the texture and can lead to gummy rice. Also, you should bring it to a boil, then turn heat to the lowest setting and cover (don't just bring to a boil and leave it there).

Guest's picture
Amy K.

I'm with Kathy F and Guest: 2c water to 1c rice, more water for brown rice. I use a rice cooker, but guest's directions are spot on for stovetop cooking. White rice is, if I recall, 20 minutes after reducing to lowest setting and brown rice is 40.

Guest's picture

Thank you for your help! Exactly what I was looking for:)

Guest's picture

You've used a word incorrectly. "Peal" means to ring recurrently (as in the pealing of the bells), while "peel" is to strip the skin off (as in your garlic cloves).

Guest's picture

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