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.
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
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.