Old-school economizing still makes great cents

03/07/2009 12:57 AM

03/10/2009 6:06 PM

It may seem small consolation in these rough economic times, but our country has been through this before. And each time, food writers and cooks have offered up their wisdom for keeping food affordable.

To see how many of those lessons still apply today, we peeked at some cookbooks from years past for timeless tips on how to stretch a dollar.

The great food writer MFK Fisher is among those who navigated the tricky culinary territory that marked the end of the Great Depression and the start of World

War II. At a time when rationing was de rigueur, Fisher suggested creative economizing. To save energy and time, she suggested cooking twice the amount of rice or pasta needed. The energy cost of cooking a double batch is about the same as a single, plus you have leftovers for easy meals later.

She even suggested saving the starchy water leftover from cooking pasta. Simmer it with onions and stock to make a "nutritious broth that would shame nobody," she says.

Fisher's recipes in her 1942 book, "How to Cook a Wolf," use cheap, available ingredients, yet still have a culinary dignity to them. She reminds us of the value of slowly savoring what she calls simple, honest foods, such as her Parisian onion soup and Chinese consomme.

Food legend James Beard and his friend Sam Aaron filled their 1953 book, "How to Eat Better for Less Money," with practical tips for eating well without spending a lot. And much of the advice holds today.

Buy in bulk, but only if you'll actually use everything you buy. Put your competitive side to work and do plenty of comparison shopping. And buy store brands whenever possible.

Rely on 'food bank'

The two also praise what then was still a novel concept at home — the freezer. They called it a "food bank" for making creative meals from leftovers, saving money by cooking in large batches and saving time by cooking in advance.

Most cooks today would find the sections on making gourmet hamburgers and "instant meals," such as quick tamale pie with canned chili, beans, olives, a box of corn-bread mix, an egg and some tomato juice, entirely approachable.

Beard and Aaron also are fans of a cost-saving technique that really should come back in vogue — using whole birds.

The economic slowdown of the early 1960s gave us Sylvia Vaughn Thompson's "Economy Gastronomy" and Ann Rogers' "A Cookbook for Poor Poets and Others." In this case, the poets fare better than the gastronomes.

Thompson, the daughter of a screenwriter and actress, grew up in Hollywood and had a privileged sense of what it meant to economize. According to the jacket copy, she uses "wit, flair and enthusiasm" instead of costly cuts of meat.

Entertaining, perhaps, but probably not particularly filling. But she does include an economical recipe for pot-roasted brisket from her friend Groucho Marx, and has lots of good advice for dressing up humble food with simple garnishes, such as using pimientos, capers, citrus slices and jellies.

Which brings back that old adage that we eat as much with our eyes as our mouths. A little effort spent gussying up a plate can go a long way to making affordable food feel like an indulgence.

Rogers focuses on creating elegant, satisfying meals from inexpensive foods, while always striving to keep enough of the budget left over for good bread and wine.

One tip that still holds true — if you don't already have a pantry stocked with seasonings, it can be cheaper to buy pre-seasoned ingredients, such as many canned beans, soup bases and sauces.

Her recipes — such as the red flannel hamburgers made with mashed potatoes and pickled beets — are humble, appealing and feel right as our nation once again veers toward comfort foods.

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