March 17, 2009

Dishes that defined a generation are back

A new kind of retro is taking hold in today's kitchen — cooking the way that baby boomers' parents did during leaner times.

A new kind of retro is taking hold in today's kitchen — cooking the way that baby boomers' parents did during leaner times.

There's a reason meatloaf and tuna casserole are comfort foods: They're the dishes that helped our parents or grandparents stretch food dollars and keep families fed. They had places on the family dinner table long before prosperous times brought prepared gourmet takeout foods and exquisite fruits and vegetables.

If you're looking to save money, ask yourself: What would Grandma do? And then think about ways you can give it a modern twist, using the same principles. For example:

 1   Look to cheaper cuts of meat.

Meat can be a big-ticket item on the grocery bill.

The least expensive cuts are whole chicken or chicken legs and thighs; pork steaks off the shoulder, ham or whole pork loin divided into specific cuts by a butcher in a package deal; ground beef and chuck steak (the chuck eye is best).

A small serving of good-quality red meat also may be more satisfying than a big hunk of a cheaper cut. Smaller portions are a great way to save money, as well as inches around the waist. Carve

meat into thin slices to stretch it. Serve it with a rich sauce to enhance flavor and make a modest portion more filling. A split chicken breast becomes a meal with a pan sauce. Use the slow cooker to cook and tenderize the least expensive beef cuts.

 2   Stretch meat with grains and legumes.

Buy ground beef when it's on sale.

You can stretch ground beef with texturized vegetable protein, or TVP. If you use small quantities in meatloaf or hamburger, your family may not even notice.

Look for TVP in natural food markets and grocery stores. It's usually about the same price as a can of beans, and it looks and tastes like meat when cooked in chili, stew and spaghetti sauce.

Stretch meat with rice or beans, which also can be excellent sources of protein, said Judy Mayer, a nutritionist. One cup of cooked lentils or beans offers 14 to 18 grams of protein, while a cup of cooked brown rice has 9 grams.

Soups, stews, chili and slow-cooker dishes are great candidates for adding beans, rice, lentils and pasta and are healthy and tasty ways to stretch your serving size, Mayer noted. Purchasing these dried items in bulk can save money because you aren't paying for packaging and you buy only what you need.

Hearty and savory dishes can be fortified by adding canned or frozen vegetables. Chili with beans easily makes two or three meals from 1½ pounds of ground beef, Mayer said. Serve it over brown rice to stretch it further. Similarly, spaghetti and meat sauce easily makes two meals from one pound of ground beef.

Or simply make your favorite chicken and rice casserole with less chicken and more rice.

 3   Regularly incorporate vegetarian meals, maybe a couple of times a week.

Quinoa has 21 grams of protein per cup. A 3.5-ounce chicken breast or 3.5 ounces of 85 percent lean hamburger has the same number of grams of protein. That's an inexpensive and nutritious trade-off.

Beans are a great source of protein and a more familiar protein ingredient to meat eaters than, say, tofu.

Or if "vegetarian" doesn't appeal to your family, try serving breakfast for dinner, Mayer suggested.

Eggs are a terrific and affordable way to bring high-quality protein into weekly meals, she said. They provide a rich source of stress-busting B vitamins, she added. Scrambles, frittatas, omelets and quiche are just a few suggestions.

 4   Keep it simple.

Choose recipes with fewer ingredients and simpler seasoning profiles, sticking to seasonings already in the pantry when possible.

 5   Cut down on food waste.

Save leftover vegetables and meats from one meal to incorporate into another.

Freeze leftover ingredients in pre-measured portions. Chicken or beef broth can be frozen in ice trays. Measure out 1-tablespoon dabs of tomato paste into a small, shallow freezer container and freeze for use later.

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