Notes About the Ingredients
I have tried to avoid using ingredients that are difficult to find and hard on the budget. I’ve also included recipes that use foods that are popular, some of which tend to be kind of pricey, and that use items that are a little out of the ordinary but are tasty and inexpensive. I don’t have a grand philosophy for cooking. I like to do it because I like to eat—well. Preparing food is a way to feed yourself in a way that nourishes your body and that pleases you. Eating really is a matter of taste, after all, and tastes vary. I am a big fan of experimentation, particularly when it’s aimed at using what you have on hand and avoiding ingredients that are hard to find, expensive, or really bad for you. So, if you need to vary some ingredients, it’s okay. I don’t believe your meals will be doomed if you can’t use a particular ingredient I call for in the recipe. And if what you do doesn’t work for you—too much cilantro, not enough mustard, etc.—try it again another way. I have provided below some specific notes on ingredients and approaches to the recipes that have worked for me and that I think might be helpful to you.
Spices. Use them. They will enliven your cooking and decrease the need to season your food with excessive amounts of salt. Unfortunately, spices do tend to be expensive, so try to find them at ethnic or discount markets where they are far less pricey than the name brand versions at grocery stores. Yes, the fancy spices from gourmet shops and on-line stores that grind the spices fresh tend to be better. Nonetheless, if you can’t afford them, or they cost more than your dinner, what’s the point? Buy the spices you can afford (that 99 cent chili powder is pretty good!), season your food with them, and enjoy the taste for a lot less money.
Fresh herbs. Again, use them when you can. They will help the taste of your dishes. That said, fresh herbs are quite pricey at many grocery stores and, unless your recipe calls for a large quantity of them, take care that they don’t go to waste before you can use them. Fresh herbs tend to be especially expensive during the winter, even at ethnic and discount markets. As an alternative to the fresh, go for dried herbs (but use a little less). The dried herbs will help flavor your dishes, are easier to store, won’t spoil as quickly as fresh herbs, and don’t need chopping, like the fresh ones.
Eggs. When the recipes I provide call for eggs, I mean large ones, which are what I generally use. I say generally because, if extra large ones or medium ones are on sale for considerably less than the large eggs, I buy those and adjust my recipes accordingly. Last week, for example, one of my usual grocery haunts had extra large brown eggs on sale for 99 cents for 18 eggs. The large white eggs were 99 cents for 12. I bought the extra large brown eggs. They were good. If you can afford them and want to use the organic, cage-free hen eggs, feel free. I don’t buy them (unless they’re on sale for less than the other eggs).
Bacon crumbles. I use bacon crumbles--the real ones, not the artificial bits--in a variety of recipes for flavor and convenience. I buy the bacon crumbles in a large, resealable bag at big box stores and store the opened bag in the refrigerator. When I need a tablespoon or two of bacon, I take out the bag, measure out what I need, and put the bag back in the refrigerator—no need to fry up bacon, plus the crumbles aren’t as fatty.
Salt. Don’t use much. Salt is salt, regardless of the type—table salt, kosher salt, sea salt, or the various new salts (such as Himalayan) on the market. Also keep in mind that prepared broths and bullion—even the lower sodium versions—have a lot of sodium as do various condiments. I know that a variety of research says that salt isn’t as bad for you as the experts once thought. Other research counters that idea, advising you to avoid too much salt. I think the key is “too much.” So the recipes I provide go low on the added salt. If you’d like to add more salt and your cardiologist is okay with it, feel free. Be careful, though, because the recipes should taste of the key ingredients in them, not of salt. Generally, I use kosher salt for cooking meals and regular table or sea salt in baked goods.
Broths. Unless you make your own, broths tend to be super salty or tasteless. The cans and packages also can be expensive (not to mention heavy to bring home from the grocery store). When I can, I use leftover broths from meats that I cook, but most of the time I don’t have broth on hand or only need a small quantity. Rather than open up a can or package, I use reduced sodium “Better than Bullion” and reconstitute it. I think it’s as good as the stuff in the cans, less expensive, and it’s easier to store and use. Whatever type of broth you choose to use, make sure you adjust your recipe (decreasing the salt) to take the extra salt in the broth (or “Better than Bullion”) into account.
Dairy. I’ve focused on using mostly lower fat dairy items in recipes—low or non-fat milk, yogurt, sour cream, cream cheese, and cottage cheese, for example. I sometimes use lower fat cheese, but my preference is to use regular cheese but less of it. Butter tastes good. I don’t use it much (see below). I do like ice cream. A lot. You’ll notice that I suggest it as an accompaniment for many desserts. Nonetheless, I generally opt for the lower fat version of ice creams and frozen yogurts or make my own, using lower fat ingredients and limiting the amount of sugar I use. I also try to limit my ice cream intake to once a week (okay, maybe twice, sometimes).
Fat. The latest research is confusing regarding what types of fat are good, bad, or indifferent for you. Nonetheless, almost all the research says avoid transfats, so I take that as good advice. My preference is to use canola oil (better if you’re sautéing something), olive oil, Smart or Earth Balance spreads, and occasionally a little butter. I also like to use avocados. That said, fat is fat. It’s loaded with calories, and a little should go a long way. Yes, fat can help you feel full, make your recipes taste good, and help you absorb nutrients. No, you don’t need much.
Meat. It tastes really good, but you don’t need much. Limit your portion sizes, enjoy it for special holiday meals, and otherwise go heavy on the vegetables.
Sugars. Sugars—white, brown, and raw—have calories but not much nutritional value, so I try to limit the amounts I use. I like dark brown sugar for its taste. I use it more frequently in recipes than light brown sugar, but either will do. Nutritionally, honey isn’t all that much better than sugars, and it’s also expensive, so I try to be conservative with it. Molasses and maple syrup are a little better nutritionally, but they aren’t health foods. Use them sparingly.
Fresh verses frozen ingredients. I like fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats, but frozen often is less expensive, more convenient, and nutritionally quite good. Go for whatever you like, can afford, and is most convenient.
Prepared foods. Try to steer clear of them. That’s hard with condiments. Just be aware that many of the condiments you use have added sugar and salt in them. I use canned soups in recipes, just not often. When I do, I cut back on adding salt to the recipes. I also occasionally use prepared mixes—for cakes and muffins, for example. The mixes generally turn out good products and are often on sale. That said, I prefer to bake from scratch as I can better control what goes into my baked items.
Ovens. They aren’t all the same. Microwaves also vary in terms of wattage and how they cook. The times given in the recipes are what work for me with my oven (which tends to be a little slower than the norm) and microwave. You’ll need to check your foods to ensure that you’re getting the degree of doneness you want. Also use a food thermometer for meats, if you can. It’s the safest option, and you can get inexpensive food thermometers at many stores or online.
Calories. They aren’t bad. They are a way of measuring the food—or fuel—your body needs. I intended to include calorie counts for each recipe and then decided against it. My fear is that people will be guided by calorie counts and not by the nutritional value of the foods themselves. Also, depending on the ingredients you use and the amounts of them, the actual food you make may have a somewhat different calorie count than what the recipes describe. If you’d like to find out the number of calories in a dish, a large number of websites make that easy (such as www.caloriecount.com). You plug in amounts of items used and servings to get the counts. Nonetheless, rather than counting calories, I suggest limiting your portion sizes and including a variety of foods in your diet, with more emphasis on fruits, vegetables, and grains and less on meats and sweets.
Alcoholic Drinks and Cooking With Alcohol. I don’t drink much. In part, I don’t like the fact that alcohol is nutritionally empty and addictive. Plus, I’m not much of a connoisseur and would rather spend my money on food and other things (ice cream and books come to mind). Nonetheless, I do like mulled wine and sometimes make it or liqueurs for others, or, as my son (a cross-fit addict and non-drinker) once noted at Christmas time, “Mom’s making hooch.” I also periodically use alcohol in cooking. When you cook with alcohol most, but not all, of the alcohol will evaporate. The longer you cook a dish, the more the alcohol will evaporate.
Nonstick cooking spray. I use it routinely so that foods don’t stick. I also use a “misto” filled with olive oil. The “misto” lets me add a light coating of oil to pans and foods rather than glugs, saving money and calories.
Parchment paper/aluminum foil. I often line pans with parchment paper or foil. Yes, it’s more expensive than just using nonstick cooking spray. Nonetheless, foil and parchment paper are useful for quick food release and cleanup. Foil also can do double duty. If I line baking pans with foil—for banana bread, for example—I wrap the baked goods for storage in the same foil I used to line the pans.
Kitchen gadgets. You don’t need many gadgets or even a fancy stand mixer. I mostly use a whisk, wooden spoon, and spatula when I bake. I do use a hand-held electric mixer to whip egg whites (although you can do it with a whisk or old fashioned egg beater) and a microplane zester to zest citrus fruits. My “misto” comes in handy to spray light coatings of olive oil. A food processor or blender are helpful, and I use my food processor routinely. The other kitchen item I use often—not really a “gadget,” in my view—is a slow cooker, primarily because it can turn tough cuts of meat meltingly soft and because meals can be prepared in advance and left to cook while you do other things. Bread and ice cream makers are great, but they aren’t essential (well, maybe my ice cream maker is). Although you need to wash lettuce and other vegetables carefully, a salad spinner isn’t necessary. I do enjoy playing with mine (I need to get a life, I know), but spreading the greens on a paper towel to dry will work fine.
Bread. I like it. Eating bread is a great pleasure, and bread has long been essential to life. Nonetheless, eat bread in its whole-grain, less processed forms. And don’t eat too much of it; a little whole-grain bread goes a long way toward filling you up. For breadcrumbs, I sometimes use the kind that come in a can, either whole-wheat or seasoned. I also use stale bread—whole grain—that I crumble up. The stale stuff isn’t “frou frou,” but it’s often available (especially if I have ends and pieces loitering in the refrigerator), avoids waste, and turns into something pretty good on top of casseroles and in meatloaves.