Sunday, February 22, 2009

Cheapest Eats

A lot of people are cutting expenses to the bone so they can pay off their debts. Here are some cheap survival foods that can keep a person healthy.

Corn and beans. It's what we feed to pigs to make bacon and ham. It builds muscle. Corn is cheapest on the cob, but you have to walk a field after harvest and glean what ears remain underfoot to get it for free. Field corn is very chewy - not like sweet corn, which we eat off the cob. It is rigorous. Once it has dried, a person can shell the kernels off the cobs. You can grind the kernels using an old hand-cranked food grinder or a pricy bread mixer with a grinder attachment. What you get is corn meal. Blow the chaff off it and you'll eat a while.

Corn meal is so primitive a food that it should cost very little, but it does not. Why it costs a lot on the shelf is hard to see.

Put a couple of heaping tablespoons of corn meal into a cup of cold water in a pan on the stove and stir it in. Turn the heat on under the pan and as the water comes to a boil, keep stirring. Put in a tiny pinch of salt. Keep stirring as it thickens, so that it doesn't stick. After it is creamy thick, pour it into a bowl. Add some sugar, add some milk.

You have just made breakfast. For pennies. Remember your vitamin C pill.

If any corn meal is left over, just pour it into a cookie tin. It will solidify there, and you can cut it into squares with a pancake turner and fry it. If you mix in a little oregano and pour it into the holes in a muffin tin, you can make little disks that can be used in an elegant entree. You can make cornmeal flan.

Beans can make bean sprouts and fake steak. Make a sprouter out of an old Christmas cookie tin by drilling holes in the lid. Try sprouting mung beans first. Rinse a couple heaping teaspoons of them twice a day for a week. You will have a quart of real live bean sprouts. Add them to spaghetti, to omelets, to veggie stews, to salads. It has cost you almost nothing. Two teaspoons of dry mung beans makes a quart of sprouts.

Ordinary dry beans are easy to cook if you soak them first overnight in very salty water. In the morning, pour off the salty water and fill the pan with fresh water. The salt goes into the beans and pulls the fresh water in afterwards. They can soak in that all day. When you come home at night and cook the beans, they will cook very quickly. Add a little sliced onion toward the end for gourmet appeal.

As Woodie Guthrie sang, "Well, them beans, bacon and gravy, it almost drives you crazy. I eat 'em til I see 'em in my dreams..." For those who still eat animals, pig meat is supposed to go well with beans. (But the hard fat will kill you, and it makes a tired dragger of you first.)

Beans 'and' - what? Just about anything. Grains all work well: brown rice, white rice, barley, the exotic grains you always wondered about. Just add onions and it will all work out fine. Beans combine into soups. Beans make burritos.

Add chopped spinach and onions to black beans and cook them down to make a marvelously rich, nourishing stew. Once it is cooked, add olives and some cross-sliced onion slivers for a party dish. It will work as a dip (especially if you add a tad of garlic) or as a spread. And it's oh-so-friggin' cheap.

Beans and rice if you are a Southwesterner. So many rices, so many beans. Onions are cheap and will keep you healthy.

I cook up a couple quarts of this stuff in my slow cooker, freeze it in decades-old frozen-food dishes that sit inside foldover sandwich bags, and at this moment I have twenty entrees in the freezer awaiting the right wine.

The right wine. Strawberry Kool-Aid without sugar is remarkably like red wine. Same sourness, same bite on the back of the tongue. Sprinkle just a little of the powder into a glass of water and have it with your greasier meals. Get the kind of KoolAid that needs sugar - and skip the sugar.

You can find spices in big bags cheaply in Spanish-American and East Indian grocery stores. Cumin, cinnamon, oregano, curry powder, a different flavor every day.

Soybean fried rice. There is said to be an edible soy bean. It is, somewhat. In poor times past, I and friend ate Italian soybean fried rice, Mexican soybean fried rice, Eastern Indian soybean fried rice, and Thai soybean fried rice. Very nourishing.

For dessert, mix a little instant oatmeal in a cup with some cake mix and just a little water. Nuke it into a candy bar or muffin, depending on the water. For a thrill, mix some grapes in and shove them to the bottom of the cup. A little orange peel shaving goes a long way here, too.

Grapes on sale go in the freezer and make for mini-nibbles as I pass by.

Greens - three leaves of Romaine lettuce a day will surprise you with a new lease on life. You can also sprout your own alfalfa sprouts using a Mason jar lid with a mesh. These are usually for sale in the health food store next to the alfalfa seeds.

A carrot a day gives you vitamin A. So do sweet potatoes. Cut them in half and nuke them. The tomato is nice, but catsup may suffice. An orange will give you vitamin C and you can shave the peel into your porridge.

Coffee, gourmet - add just the teensiest bit of baking soda to a cup to reduce the acidity. Makes the cheapest coffee much easier to drink.

Wheat. Cheap as can be. Massively grown. To get the best food value, process your own. You can buy "wheat berries" - wheat kernals - at the health food store, or you can buy wheat from a farmer. Ask him to save a bushel or two for you the next time he harvests, and you'll drive out to get it. You will eat all year. Call the local organic farmers organization for directions.

Soak wheat, poach it gently until it splits, serve it as cereal with milk. It will make everybody want to brush their teeth afterwards, and that's good. It is also delicious. As the little kernals break in your mouth, flavor explodes.

Fry the cooked wheat. Grind it into paste, sprinkle in some flour,mix it with beans and bean sprouts and onions and garlic into little patties and fry. Don't forget the cumin from the bodega.

Poor people know how to live.


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