Kitchen Focus

With everyone heading back to school and back to work after vacation season, two things suddenly seem like rare commodities: time and money. September is an excellent time to focus on stretching your meal dollar. That challenge often begins in the grocery store and ends at your dinner table. So, first, here are some ideas about saving up front:

  • Don't "crisis cook." Shopping after work for the day's dinner gets expensive. Plan a weekly menu before shopping and watch your grocery bill shrink.
  • Don't waste money on prepared foods. Instead, prepare meals ahead of time and freeze them, or double a recipe when cooking, and freeze the second for a hectic day coming up.
  • Take the farmer's market approach: Buy produce that's fresh, inexpensive and in season. With less middlemen involved, you get good buys and your family gets the freshest food.
  • The highest markup items on the shelves are at about chest level. Reach up or kneel down to select the cheaper house or generic brands.
  • Try to shop when you're alone. Those little helpers can quickly boost your bill.
  • Avoid shopping for food when you're hungry; you'll buy more.
  • Don't grocery shop when you're tired, you'll buy more sweets, more high-carbohydrates. When you're angry you go for crunch food, the junk food.
  • Buy on the markdowns and save as much as 20 percent.
  • Read your newspaper's weekly food section for local grocery sales and menu ideas.
  • Clip coupons. You'll also find coupons in women's and general-interest magazines.
  • Take advantage of in-store coupon displays and the machines that spew them.
  • Seek out supermarkets that will double -- some super stores even triple -- the face value of manufacturers' coupons.
  • Try for triple plays. That's when you use a manufacturer's coupon and a store's own coupon.
  • Avoid purchasing nongrocery items, such as painkillers, contact lens solution, etc., at a grocery store. You usually pay more.
  • Know when your store marks down goods that expire, like meat and bread. The deal: Use them that night or freeze them.
  • Check your store for a small section where they discount products that aren't as popular as the manufacturer had hoped. This area can be a gold mine for bargains.
  • Shop with a calculator. That way, you can figure whether the unit price for a case lot is really cheaper than buying one of the same item.

Beyond trying to save up front with your grocery shopping, there are ways to make the most of the ingredients you get for your meals. Some low cost items are particularly flexible and others can be used in ways you might not have thought of. Some of my favorites include:

  • Eggs: At home in everything from frittatas to omelets, eggs might well be the world's most perfect food. Packed with great nutrition, they bring a lot of flavor to a party. And they are for more than breakfast! Remember to make egg salad for lunch or add some egg to your favorite stir-fry.
  • Rice: At home in a wide variety of meals, rice is a staple the world over. Used creatively, rice can be more than a standby filler. Enjoy it in casseroles, stir-fries and layered dishes. It's a particularly good base for ethnic foods as well.
  • Beans: Beans aren't just for having alongside Tex Mex. They are a great source of fiber and are happily at home in everything from salads to soups. Try including a variety to keep things interesting.
  • Chicken: Chicken can be a very intelligent choice when you buy the whole bird. Use it all -- roast a whole bird and use the carcass and leftovers to make soup. Split the chicken breasts for use in a special dish and save dark meat for stews since it will hold up to longer cooking times better than white meat.

One of the keys to stretching your dollar is to remind yourself that meat and other proteins, which tend to be more expensive, don't have to be the centerpiece of your meal. Instead, use them to compliment less expensive and more flexible ingredient choices like rice, pasta, potatoes or greens. And just in case you are worried about figuring it all out, here are a few recipes to get you started. Enjoy!

Chinese Chicken in a Bag

Save any leftover cooking liquid after skimming the fat from it. You can use the chicken the next day in salad or soup. You also can mix the chicken with the liquid and serve it over pasta, rice or a baked potato. The defatted cooking liquid can be mixed with a little rice vinegar for a delicious salad dressing.
  • 1 T. flour
  • 1 frying chicken (3-4 pounds)
  • 1 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp Chinese five-spice powder
  • 3 green onions, cut into 3-inch pieces
  • 3 T. hoisin sauce
  • 3 T. honey
  • 2 T. dry sherry
  • 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

Put the flour in a large (14- by 20-inch) oven bag and shake well. Leave the flour in bag to protect it against bursting and set aside.

Wash the chicken and pat it dry. Combine 1/2 teaspoon of the salt, the ginger and the five-spice powder; mix well. Rub the mixture into the cavity of the chicken and place the green onions inside the cavity.

Combine the hoisin sauce, honey, sherry, remaining salt and the pepper; rub all over the outside of the chicken. Place the chicken in the bag, pour in any remaining sauce. Place the bag in a baking dish at least 2 inches deep. Close the bag with the nylon tie packed in carton of bags; cut six 1/2-inch slits in the top of bag. If possible, refrigerate for at least 4 hours before baking to allow the chicken to marinate.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake the chicken until the legs can be easily pulled away from the sides, about 1 hour.

Remove the chicken from the oven and allow it to stand for 10 minutes. Carefully cut the bag open using scissors. Remove the chicken from the bag, and pour the cooking liquid into a medium bowl. Place the bowl in the freezer until the fat congeals on top and remove it. When the chicken is cool enough to handle safely, cut off the wings and legs. Cut down the center of the chicken lengthwise and cut each half, crosswise, right through the bone, into many pieces.

To serve, place all of the chicken pieces on a serving platter. Pour the defatted liquid over the top.

  • Yields: 6 servings
  • Preparation Time: 5 hours

Barbeque Pork Roast

  • 3 lb. pork roast
  • 1/2 c. chopped onion
  • 1 T. sugar
  • 1 tsp. dry mustard
  • 2 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. pepper
  • 2 tsp. paprika
  • 1/4 c. cider vinegar
  • 1 T. Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 c. ketchup
  • 1 c. water

Mix all of the ingredients but the meat in saucepan over medium heat. Simmer for 3-5 minutes. Pour the mixture over the roast in the roasting pan. Roast in a 325 degree oven for 3 hours. Baste frequently. Shred the roast after it has cooled. Serve with rolls or on noodles. The roast will just fall apart - juicy and tender.

  • Yields: 6 servings
  • Preparation Time: 3 hours and 10 minutes

If there's a topic that you'd like to see covered in this column, let me know. You can always post comments in the discussion board using the forms provided in the articles or email me directly at .

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