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Here's a Tip for Tough Times: Home-Cooked Meals Save Lots o' Money

January 15, 2009 By:
Ethel Hofman, JE Feature
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Take heart. The Wall Street slump, which is affecting everybody's lifestyle, need not be all gloom and doom.

There's a silver lining: Save money by returning to home-cooked meals, which will also provide a chance for the family to sit down together. It's a good time to discuss what happened at school and work.

Besides, cooking at home is healthier. You can control what goes into the dish besides saving considerable amounts of money.

Anything high in carbs and covered in cheese qualifies as comfort food. But pastas, such as spaghetti and meatballs, also fit the bill. Control portion sizes, then add a vegetable, salad and fruit, and you have a well-balanced meal.

No matter what, these dishes are easy to make at home and much less expensive than takeout, packaged or frozen. Calories can also be shaved by substituting low fat dairy ingredients for the full fat kind.

Unfortunately, children's taste buds have become accustomed to the packaged food. But if you serve up the real cheese dish, as I did with my 8-year-old grandkids, they'll be searching for seconds -- and even thirds. And you'll be doing them a lasting favor in exposing them to real food.

Mac-and-cheese is one of the easiest and cheapest dishes to make. It can be prepared ahead of time, refrigerated and popped in the oven to heat through when you get home from work. It also freezes well, so you may want to double the recipe. Below are two kinds, one with a quick basic sauce, and the other simply hot macaroni with milk and cheddar cheese folded in.

Then comes meatloaf. A one-pound meat loaf from the take-out counter costs as much as two pounds of ground beef or turkey that will yield two good-sized loafs.

Save even more by purchasing ground meat in bulk. Divide it into one-pound packages and freeze until ready to use. It can be defrosted in the microwave or transferred from freezer to refrigerator the night before. Use an ice-cream scoop to fill muffin tins with meatloaf mixture; bake and frost with fresh-cooked (pareve) mashed potatoes. (The kids love these.)

What happened to Tuna Noodle Casserole? When my boys were toddlers and we were living on a student stipend, it was a weekly favorite. I haven't seen it on a luncheon menu for years. But it's tasty, satisfying and won't break the budget.

Horn and Hardart's, of blessed memory, served a wonderful, nutmeg-scented rice pudding. Growing up, my mother topped her version with a dollop of fruit preserves or compote, the juice puddling over the surface -- that was dessert on Thursday. Other days, we had tapioca pudding, custard or semolina (farina), all cooked with creamy whole milk.

Use a double boiler and the milk pudding is fuss-free, needing only an occasional stir. (But if a mixture is watched carefully and stirred often, a heavy-bottomed saucepan can be used.) A double boiler is a double-pan arrangement where two pots fit together, with one sitting part way inside the other. The lower pot holds simmering water, which heats and cooks the mixture in the upper pot.

Another rule of thumb in difficult economic times: Buy smart. Stock up on the basics, and buy in bulk when you can -- it's cheaper. Wrap in smaller packages to freeze what you can't use immediately.

These recipes are all warm and comforting, especially in a winter when we're discontented. Making meals like this could become a routine you won't want to give up -- even when the hard times are over.

Quick Macaroni-and-Cheese

(Dairy)

Although this calls for cheddar cheese, other cheeses, such as cottage cheese, Parmesan or whatever you prefer, may be folded in.

8 oz. elbow macaroni
2 Tbsps. unsalted butter
1/2 cup hot milk
1 Tbsp. Dijon or salad mustard
3 cups shredded cheddar cheese
salt and pepper to taste
1 tomato, cut in thin wedges (optional)

Cook the macaroni according to package directions. Drain well. Return to pot.

Add the butter, and stir until melted and combined. Stir in the milk, mustard and cheese. Mix well. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve hot.

Variation: Spoon into a greased baking dish. Top with tomatoes and bake in a preheated 375° oven until heated through and bubbly at edges, about 20 minutes.

Serves 4 to 6.

Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 418; protein, 23 g; carbohydrates, 27 g; fat, 24 g; cholesterol, 72 mg; sodium, 427 mg.

Traditional Mac-and-Cheese

(Dairy)

Don't be intimidated by sauce-making. This takes minutes and makes for a richer, creamy casserole. You may use low-fat milk if desired, but don't skimp on the cheese.

8 oz. elbow macaroni, cooked and drained according to package directions
3 Tbsps. butter
4 Tbsps. all-purpose flour
2 cups milk
salt and white pepper to taste
3 cups shredded cheddar cheese
tiny pinch nutmeg (optional)

Cook the macaroni according to package directions. Drain and keep warm.

In a large saucepan, melt the butter over low heat. Stir in the flour. Cook until smooth and bubbly, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and briskly whisk in the milk.

Return to medium heat. Bring to boil, whisking constantly. Cook for 1 minute, stirring.

Season to taste with salt and pepper.

This whole process should take only about 8 minutes.

Stir in the cheese and nutmeg (optional). Stir to melt the cheese and until the mixture is smooth.

Correct seasonings.

Heat through and serve.

Note: This may be transferred to a baking dish, dotted with a tablespoon butter and baked in a preheated 375° oven, for about 30 minutes, or until heated through and bubbly at edges.

Serves 4 to 6.

Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 489; protein, 26 g; carbohydrates, 33 g; fat, 28 g; cholesterol, 86 mg; sodium, 394 mg.

Meatloaf

(Meat)

This is an updated version of the old-fashioned meatloaf. I make this with ground turkey, but any ground meat or combination of meats, such as chicken and beef, may be used.

1 medium onion, cut in chunks
1 large carrot, cut in chunks
11/2 lbs. ground turkey
1 egg
1/4 cup barbecue sauce
1 tsp. minced garlic
1 tsp. lemon-pepper seasoning or to taste
1/3 cup snipped fresh parsley
1 cup matzah meal

Preheat oven to 350°.

In the food processor, chop the onion and carrot coarsely. Add the turkey, egg and barbecue sauce. Pulse to mix.

Turn into a large bowl. Add the garlic, lemon-pepper seasoning and parsley. Mix well.

Add enough matzah meal to make a stiff mixture. Spread in an ungreased 9x5x3-inch loaf pan.

Bake about 11/4 hours until no pink appears when cut into with a sharp knife.

Serves 4 to 6.

Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 278; protein, 23 g; carbohydrates, 20 g; fat, 11 g; cholesterol, 125 mg; sodium, 290 mg.

Variation 1: Spoon half the meat mixture into the loaf pan. Arrange two or three hard-cooked eggs lengthwise along the middle of the mixture. Spoon the remaining meat mixture over, smoothing to cover. Bake as above.

Variation 2 (For Kids): Fill muffin tins with the meat mixture. Bake in preheated oven for 35 to 40 minutes, or until no pink remains in center.

Tuna Noodle Casserole

(Dairy)

Make this for a family of four. Pack any leftovers in a microwave container for a brown-bag lunch. Heat it up at the office.

8 oz. noodles
2 cans (6.5 oz. each) chunk tuna in water, drained well
1 cup light sour cream
3/4 cup skim or low-fat milk
11/2 cups canned sliced mushrooms
1 cup frozen peas and carrots, thawed
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup soft whole-wheat breadcrumbs
2 Tbsps. vegetable oil
paprika to dust the final dish (optional)

Preheat oven to 350°.

Spray a 2-quart casserole with nonstick cooking spray.

Cook the noodles according to package directions. Drain well.

Stir in the tuna, sour cream, milk, mushrooms, peas and carrots, and salt and pepper to taste.

Pour into prepared casserole.

In a small bowl, mix the breadcrumbs and the oil.

Sprinkle over the tuna mixture.

Sprinkle with paprika (optional).

Bake, uncovered, for 35 minutes or until heated through and bubbly.

Serves 6 to 8.

Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 306; protein, 21 g; carbohydrates, 33 g; fat, 10 g; cholesterol, 59 mg; sodium, 266 mg.

Settlement Rice Pudding
(Dairy)

The spine is broken, the pages smudged and dog-eared but my copy of The Settlement Cook Book, which dates back to when I was a young bride, is one of my most treasured cookbooks. This recipe is fuss free and fail-safe -- the original, old-fashioned comfort dish.

1/2 cup rice (not instant rice)
1/2 cup sugar
pinch salt
4 cups whole or low-fat milk
1/3 cup raisins (optional)

Place all the ingredients, except the raisins, in the top of a double boiler.

Stir and place over the bottom pot, which should hold just enough simmering water to touch the bottom of the pan containing the rice mixture.

Cover and cook for 2 hours, stirring occasionally or until mixture is thick and creamy. Add more boiling water to bottom pan as needed.

Add the raisins after about 1 hour (optional).

Serve hot or at room temperature.

Note: If you don't have a double boiler, pour into a heavy-bottomed saucepan, and stir frequently, or pour into a baking dish and bake at 325° for about 11/2 hours, or until thick, creamy and rice is soft. Stir often.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 189; protein, 6 g; carbohydrates, 31 g; fat, 5 g; cholesterol, 19 mg; sodium, 111 mg.

Microwave Baked Apples

(Dairy/Pareve)

In the oven, these might take about an hour to cook. But not in the microwave! Choose baking apples, such as McIntosh, Golden Delicious or Winesap.

4 medium apples, cored
2 Tbsps. brown sugar
3-4 Tbsps. raisins
4 tsps. butter or margarine
cinnamon to sprinkle
2 Tbsps. orange juice or water

Slice a band of skin, about 1/4-inch wide, around center of each apple so that the steam can escape and prevent apples from bursting.

Stuff the core cavities with brown sugar and raisins. Top each with a teaspoon butter and sprinkle with cinnamon.

Arrange in a circle in a 9-inch glass pie plate. Sides should not be touching.

Drizzle with orange juice.

Cover with a paper towel. Microwave on high for 6 to 8 minutes, or until apples are tender. Let stand at room temperature for at least 5 minutes before serving.

Makes 4.

Approximate nutrients per serving: calories, 134; protein, 0 g; carbohydrates, 27 g; fat, 4 g; cholesterol, 10 mg; sodium, 2 mg.

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