Friday, September 16, 2011

Eating on the cheap

The Beet

Express Staff Writer

Everyone is talking about money lately. Whether it's the stock market, the federal budget crisis or just trying to figure out why you can't get out of the grocery store for under $40, money (or lack thereof) seems to be at the forefront of everyone's mind.

Luxuries are the first thing to go when times are tough. Gone are the days of buying the latest gadget, upgrading your ski gear or splurging on that new pair of hiking boots. Last year's sweaters are pulled out of their boxes and deemed "good enough" for another fall season and filling the gas tank has to wait until after the next paycheck.

"Tightening the belt" often has a more literal meaning as takeout and dinners at restaurants become fewer and farther between. It's hard to justify spending upwards of $30 for dinner when that same amount of money could keep you in canned soup for a month. Even $6 for a sandwich can seem too much when a sack lunch costs a fraction of that.

When my finances get really tight, I start to eat more like a college student and less like the young professional I supposedly am. Ramen, toast, apples and cheese become my mainstays, with the occasional scrambled egg thrown in for protein.

There's nothing wrong with eating a cheese omelet for dinner, of course, but after the fourth night in a row, I feel my arteries are clogging with each bite. I finally broke down on day five of omelet-eating, vowing to find out if it was possible to eat well on a budget.

Oatmeal is cheap (and cholesterol-lowering, thank goodness), but all the raisins and walnuts in the world can't turn a bowl of what is essentially horse food into a satisfying dinner. Baked potatoes are a good option, especially topped with Greek yogurt and broccoli or canned chili if you're feeling fancy.

But as I'm too cheap to buy a microwave and usually too hungry to wait an hour for an oven-baked potato, this option just wasn't going to work for me.

So I turned to beans. We all know them as "the magical fruit," but they really are a superfood when it comes to making a meal that's healthy, cheap and filling.

My absolute favorite thing to do with beans is to take a can of black beans, simmer it with half of a chopped onion and two cloves of minced garlic until the juice thickens, and serve it over cornbread, grits or rice. But that's not worthy of a recipe, and not really the type of thing to impress a guest.

The following recipe also originates in a can, but by the time the tomatoes are done stewing with the onions and butter, it's impossible to detect any trace of that distinct "canned" taste. It does take almost an hour, but it's easy to freeze and use whenever you need a cheap, easy meal. For under $10, you can make a full, hearty meal for four that hardly sacrifices taste in favor of price.

Tomato sauce with butter and onions

Adapted from Deb Perelman of

1 28-ounce can of whole peeled tomatoes

5 Tbsp. butter, unsalted

1 medium yellow onion, peeled and halved

Dump tomatoes, onion and butter in a heavy 3-quart saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and lower heat to keep the sauce at a steady simmer (uncovered) for 45 minutes.

Mash tomatoes against the side of a pan with a wooden spoon or a potato masher, or use an immersion blender to achieve desired level of chunkiness.

Remove sauce from heat, discard the onion and season to taste. Serve with pasta and a fat loaf of crusty bread or a side salad if you're averse to that many carbs in one meal.

Katherine Wutz:

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