Last night, my wife, daughter and I had a three-course meal that cost around $4.75—not per person but for the whole meal. Now this frugal meal wasn’t ramen surprise; it was a spinach turnover, cucumber salad and an apple tartine for dessert. On a forum I participate in, a discussion was going on about food and I mentioned this fact, 3 course meal for 3 people for $4.75 or $1.58 per serving, which they found hard to believe. The fact is that if you’re willing to spend a little extra time (and I mean a little) in the kitchen, you can save a ton of money on preparing meals. So here’s the meal along with some thoughts on cooking cheaply.
Before I get into the meal, I want to disclose upfront that for some ingredients, I don’t have an accurate way to determine the cost and so the cost was not included. One example is the ¼ tsp used in the pie crust. It’s a tiny amount and were I live, salt is sold in 1kg bags for a little over one dollar US.
The spinach turnover is basically a spinach and cheese filling, wrapped in a pie crust. Some of the people on the forums noted that the cost of the spinach would be equal to the cost of the entire meal where they live. Where I live, 500g (1/2 pound approx.) is anywhere between $1.00 and $1.58. My wife happened to get lucky and picked up some for $1.00. Spinach is one of those vegetables that seems like a lot when it’s fresh but when cooked really shrinks down. To combat the high cost then, you could opt for frozen spinach. To get more filler though, I diced two onions at 19 cents a piece. The takeaway, use cheaper vegetables to “fluff” up or stretch, more expensive produce.
2 cups/280g flour…..$0.56
¼ tsp salt
½ tsp sugar
6 ounces COLD fat and by that I mean butter or shortening. Butter provides the best flavor but shortening is a lot cheaper. Here, you can get away with using the shortening or mixing the two. $0.70
⅓ cup cold water
Cube up your fat into small pieces and place in the flour. With both hands mash the fat into the flour until it is fairly well incorporated. It will make a rather rough mixture, nothing smooth at all. Then add about half of your cold water and work that into the dough. It will be very stiff and crumbly. Keep adding the cold water in very small amounts and continue mashing in all the crumbly stuff until it changes to a slightly yellow color and the flour starts to disappear. That’s your pie crust. You can either rest it in the refrigerator, freeze it for another day or use it right away. Since this is the most time consuming portion, it might make sense to prep it on a day off to have ready during your busier days.
For the Filling
Spinach 500 g (prepped as below)
2 onions diced
2 slices of bacon diced
3 tablespoons of parmesan cheese
Garlic powder to taste
Chili powder to taste
Dash of Nutmeg
Salt to taste
For the filling, wash the spinach really well—that is unless it’s frozen than you can skip these next couple of steps. Spinach can be really sandy/dirty so wash it again. We’re now going to blanch it which means give it about a 3 minute bath in boiling water. After three minutes remove and dunk it in cold water to stop the cooking. When cool, drain your spinach. While the spinach is draining, put some onions and bacon in a skillet with about a tablespoon of oil and let it sweat until the onions are clear. Sweating is done on really low heat. We don’t want anything crispy. After that, give the spinach a good squeezing to make sure as much of the water is out as possible and rough cut it. Then mix with the onions/bacon and parmesan cheese. You could also add a dash of garlic powder, chili powder and nutmeg too. Your filling is ready.
On a well floured surface, roll out the pie crust with a rolling pin turning a quarter of a turn each time. Make sure you keep the surface well floured or it’ll stick. The final thickness of the rolled dough should be about ¼ of an inch thick. Once you get it there, trim the dough to make a rectangular shape but save your trimmings.
Next, you’ll need two egg washes. One is a yolk only wash and the other is the whole egg beaten plus one tablespoon of water. For anyone that doesn’t know, a wash is a liquid applied, usually to baked goods , to alter the texture, color or both of the final baked product. Other washes are things like milk, cornstarch, salt water etc., And in the case of the egg yolk wash, it’ll help seal the turnover.
Transfer your giant rectangular pie crust to a slightly oiled baking sheet. You’ll want to have half of it laying on top of a piece of wax paper. We’ll use this paper to turn over the pie crust later. Next, brush the ENTIRE pie crust with the egg yolk ONLY wash. On the half of the crust, NOT on the baking paper, place your filling, making sure to keep it well away from the edges.You want to have your filling pretty squared up and flat. Now comes the fold over. With the help of the baking paper, fold the pie crust over the filling. It probably won’t reach all the way to the other edge. Now crimp the two edges with a fork to seal them. Do this all the way around the three sides of the crust.
With the scraps of pie crust left over from making the rectangle, roll it fairly flat to cut some thin ribbons of crust. We’ll use these to decorate the turnover. Brush the turnover all over with the egg and water wash. Then lay your thins strips of pie crust in a pattern that’s attractive to you. A diagonal lattice is traditional or do nothing at all. Brush again with that same egg and water wash, prick some holes in the crust with a fork to let off steam and pop it into the oven.
350 degrees F/180 degrees C for 40 minutes or until the crust is nice and brown. Cut with a serrated knife and enjoy!
Some facts about the Spinach Turnover:
Fat i.e., butter/shortening $0.70
2 onions $0.38
2 Slices of bacon $0.74 (Bacon may be cheaper where you live. In Japan, 8 slices costs $2.98)
I won’t figure the eggs in here because once I’ve finished using them, I’ve only used a negligible amount. The left over yolk gets mixed with the other wash, both are well beaten, and scrambled to use for scrambled eggs the next day. You’ll probably have a little bit of spinach mix that you can mix in when you scramble the eggs.
Total Cost…..$3.69 or a $1.23 per serving.
Super Simple! Two cucumbers peeled and sliced on a slicer. The sauce is about a tablespoon of mayo, ½ tablespoon of vinaigrette, ½ tablespoon of water, mixed until smooth. When smooth toss with the cucumbers to coat. You can get as fancy as you want with this, red pepper, red onion whatever, but after all the prep work of the turn over I was ready for the super easy.
Main Course and Salad Total…$4.17 or $1.39 per serving.
Total Time Spent in the Kitchen approx. 45 minutes. Total Cooking Time….1.5 hours.
In Japan, one vegetable that is super cheap is cucumbers. If you don’t mind them not being straight, you can get 6 for $1.00. Also I have to admit that I’m talking out of my ass on the cost of the mayo and the vinaigrette because 1. I make them both from scratch, 2. I don’t really measure them and 3. I don’t have an accurate way of calculating the cost. Most likely though, it’s cheaper than what I’ve reported.
Final Thoughts on Frugal Meals:
This meal is a bit over the top for what I usually cook for the evenings meal and was inspired by a spinach turnover done by Julia Child. Sadly a lot of TV chefs use ingredients that make frugal cooking nearly impossible. Unsalted butter is expensive to use in the amounts suggested. Astronomical mushrooms, costly hams, are not only anti frugal but take a gastronomic sleuth to hunt down. In college, I once tried to make a “gourmet” dinner to impress a girlfriend of mine. The food bill alone for that single meal was $70 (2001). The recipe, from some snooty wine magazine, required me to go to three different stores to hunt down all the ingredients.
Excellent, healthy and economical meals can be made with basic ingredients. What should be taken away from the cooking shows are the techniques used—not the recipes. To recap though, use cheaper vegetables to augment or stretch more expensive one. Use basic ingredients. Simplify recipes from cook books and tv shows. Side dishes that are cheap also make the main dish stretch. In this case, a salad and dessert means the main dish can be a little bit smaller. Remember too, that meat doesn’t always have to be the center of attention. I love a great steak and I don’t really believe in man-made global warming but the truth is those nuts are causing the price of meat to go up. Here, meat has been used as a seasoning. Finally try not to waste anything. My egg washes became scrambled eggs. The stems from the spinach became Japanese pickles and with the cucumber peels, also fed my rabbit. Here’s to your frugal cooking!
Oh and the apple tartine… I made that one the day before but… it’ll be in another post.