Recession Food: Emergency Recipes

So the economy is crashing and burning, and with oil pushing $150 a barrel, it’s unlikely that food prices will drop, or even plateau, anytime soon.  Most people are struggling to get by (link via What to Eat), and food banks are struggling to keep up with demand as hunger increases among the working poor.

As you might expect, the food media is following suit by publishing lots of money-saving tips.  We’re encouraged to pack our lunches, stop buying prepared foods, eat legumes instead of meat and use coupons wisely– good ideas all.  Our grandparents survived the Depression, and our generation has a lot to learn from them.

But what do you eat when you’re really, really broke?  When you’re down to the change in your couch cushions, what’s for dinner?  Is Taco Bell the only option?

Well, readers, my dear husband and I are card-carrying members of the Working Poor, and we faced this question very regularly in college and then during some lean years trying to survive in New York City.  Since Joe in particular is a master at making something from nothing, we’ve amassed some lovely food-emergency recipes to share with you.  Well… lovely might be pushing it, but they’ll get you through the day.   Here are our top five day-before-payday meals.

1. Hobo stew

This is definitely Depression food.  The principle is simple: Take whatever you have in the kitchen and put it into a pot.  Canned vegetables are particularly good for this.  They’re really cheap, relatively healthy, and almost everyone has a few in the pantry somewhere.  (Our last apartment actually came with two cans of corn– and yes, we used them.)  And the liquid the veggies are packed in can go right into the stew as broth.  Canned tomatoes, corn, and beans are all great for stew.  If you have any broth, add it– if not, use the can liquid and maybe some hot water.  Then it’s improv time: do you have a potato to chop up and add?  How about that last strip of bacon?  Some leftover chicken?  A clove of garlic?  Spices?  A cup of rice?  Throw it into a pot and cook it until it’s all tender enough to eat.  Ideally, you want liquid, a protein, a veggie, a starch, and some sort of aromatic, but there are no hard and fast rules.

2. Noodles with peanut sauce.

I learned this one from my lovely and talented college roommate.  Boil some noodles and drain them.  Put them back in the pot and add peanut butter.  Stir it in until it melts.  Add some cayenne pepper or hot sauce.  The end.  Sounds gross, but it’s actually really tasty.  Ideally this should be garnished with chopped scallions and peanuts, but it’s the day before payday, so probably not.

3. Fried rice with egg

This is a good way to use leftover rice.  The rice should be at least a day old.  Heat some oil in a pan and add the rice.  Break an egg into it and stir it over high heat until it’s cooked– make sure to mix it into the rice well.  Add any proteins or vegetables you have: diced leftover meat, crumbled bacon, nuts, be creative.

4. Beans and Rice

So many ways to make beans and rice, and they’re all so cheap and delicious.  This is a worldwide staple, with hundreds of variations across the Americas, Africa, Asia, the Pacific… who doesn’t eat beans and rice?  If you don’t keep rice and lentils in your pantry, I strongly urge you to get to your local Asian supermarket (where they’re about ten times cheaper than at Whole Foods) as quickly as possible and buy at least a five-pound bag.   Here is a basic dal recipe, and there are infinite variations on this, so don’t fret if you don’t have all of the spices.  Here’s a Lebanese dish that uses fava beans and some stew meat.  Here’s one from Serious Eats that involves bell peppers and an onion.  But if you’re really broke: take a cup of cooked rice, a can of black or red beans, and two cloves of garlic.   (A piece of pork fat would be great if you have one– in Southern US tradition this should have lard in it.)  Combine in a pan, salt, and heat until delicious.

5. Crepes

Yes, crepes.  We think of them as fancy and French, but they’re really easy to make, and all you need to have is a little flour.  Once you make a little stack, you can do lots of things with them.  Need dinner?  Take a potato, dice it finely, fry it up with whatever spices you have around the house and use it as a crepe filling.  (Sort of a bastardized American version of masala dosa.)  Looking for breakfast?  Smear it with peanut butter and roll it up if you’re in a hurry– if not, make a stack and pour maple syrup on it.  Dessert?  Fry them in butter and sprinkle on some cinnamon sugar.   Be creative.  Crepes can do anything.  Here’s Joe’s crepe tutorial:

Basic Crepe Batter

1 1/2 C. Milk (Vanilla Soy is good too)
1 Cup of Flour, sifted
2 Eggs
1 tsp. Melted Butter
Pinch of Salt

First, whisk together the eggs, salt and milk. Add the flour a little at a time with continued whisking to avoid lumps. The measurements above should be accurate but the consistency of the batter should be thin (thinner than pancake batter). Add the melted butter and vanilla and mix. Allow the batter to sit at least 15 minutes, then whisk again. Add more milk if the batter has thickened.

Heat a crepe pan or a heavy non-stick pan until it is very hot. A drop of water should crackle and evaporate. Coat the pan lightly with butter or vegetable oil. Quickly, before the butter or oil burns, use a ladle and drop some of the batter in the middle of the pan. The amount of batter is right when you can pick up the pan, swirl it around, and wind up with a thin coat of batter on the pan. When the batter bubbles you should be able to see through it to the pan. This just takes doing a couple of them to judge the right amount of batter. Use a spatula and turn the crepe and cook for about another 30 seconds. Remove to a plate. You can keep warm in a very low oven, just put waxed paper or parchment between each one. Crepes freeze very well if packed airtight.

I’ve made these gluten free with GF flour and they worked well.


7 Responses to “Recession Food: Emergency Recipes”

  1. Tina Says:

    I LOVE DEPRESSION FOOD!! I lived on ketchup soup and pickle sandwiches for a few weeks around Christmas when I was in Uni, before realizing the joy of peasant cooking. Grains and beans were the light of my life. My shame-worthy contributions that are actually really good when money is tight and you have no time:

    1. Peanut noodles – microwave the peanut butter instead of melting it with the noodles and it will combine better. Add a bit of ketchup, soy sauce, and the juice of 2 lime wedges that you scavenged from the bar last night (I WAS POOR, OKAY?!). Poor man’s Pad Thai…..

    2. Potatoes – any way at all. I ate a lot of twice baked potatoes where the filling was canned tuna and Dijon mustard.

    3. Quinoa – cheap grain and full of protein

    4. Indian food – when all you have left to eat is a rapidly sprouting potato, a dusty can of chickpeas, and the onion that you found behind the stove, you usually still have all of your dried spices and spice blends….and all of a sudden your foraged garbage produce becomes manna of the gods.

    LOVE the crepe idea!!

  2. B. Rae Says:

    A free fresh, soup bone, (beef!)or a cheap one from the butcher, OR a clean granite rock, (ours were from the Lake Tahoe area) smash it (protect your eyes) and take out a clean inner piece of rock, the size of a big potato. Wash either thing well, in cold salt water, rinse well in clear water.
    Put into a big pot. Add a couple tsp. salt and some black pepper. Cover it. Boil slowly for an hour. This gives your soup wonderful minerals!

    Strain into another pot. Discard the bone.
    Scrub and wash and rinse the granite rock in salt water, rinse in clear waters, then let dry to use again.)

    Wash in salt water, then rinse in plain cold water, AND ADD ANY or ALL or OTHER things like these:
    Any free outer leaves of wilted but not rotten stalks of vegetables you can find.
    (When my Dad was a boy, the grocer usually had boxes of those things set outside to be discarded, and you just had to ASK for them. ) (In today’s market, ask for their discarded veggies free for your pet Guinea Pigs to eat! because there are probably rules about not allowing discarded veggies to be given for human consumption.)

    Take them home and wash well in cold salt water and then rinse in several clear water rinses, and pat dry with a dishtowel. You will possibly have: The base of a bunch of celery, and the outer ugly stalks of celery and cabbage. Wrinkled onions that aren’t rotten. Parsley leaves that may be wilted. Beet Tops! outer Lettuce leaves! Wilted carrots! Scrub and rinse. Slice everything small! Maybe a beet…peel it and cut it up! A turnip, a rutabaga. Use only the best parts! Add a tomato, or a can of tomatoes, or rinse out the empty bottle of catsup and add the juice from that ! Add a couple cloves of garlic, peeled and finely chopped. (The garlic flavor is best that way) A couple old potatoes, or any potatoes, or some potatoes…peel them and cut in larger chunks. Bring to a boil, turn the heat down and cover with a lid, and simmer for 40 minutes more. Throw in a small handful of macaroni, or broken-up spaghetti, and simmer again for about 20 more minutes. And you have a healthy meal!
    My Grandma said none of her children were ever sick. with this recipe…in the days of poverty in 1918. And she said all her children’s friends wanted to eat at THEIR house!

    You can make this soup, too, with fresh vegetables, and a proper meaty soup bone purchased from the butcher. But wash the soup bone first, just the same as in the recipe!

    The leftover soup goes into the refrigerator, and the flavor will be even better the next two days!

  3. Gem Says:

    Loving the responses….

    Try Spaghetti Omelet….. its really filling!!!

    – Cook your pasta
    – empty water and place into a frying pan
    – pout over omelet mix

    If you really need it to go further add more milk so the mixture is even thinner!!

    Really tasty just like that – or add whatever you have in your cupboards, meat, veg etc.

    We sometimes do it with the pasta coated in pesto!!


  4. Maglayas Says:

    Recession food doesn’t have to be bad! Often, the best food is the simplest – whatever allows the true taste of the ingredients to shine. This is my personal favorite in these tough economic times:

  5. Amanda Says:

    This is the most useful thing I’ve encountered online for actual people who are actually broke. Thanks for this.

  6. The Permabear Says:

    I can’t wait to try the peanut butter and noodles recipe. I love Pad Thai this this sounds like a cheap, easy fix.

    Thanks for posting.

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