FOOD WISE: Save money in the kitchen and eat well!

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Tomato Jam

By CHEF RENEE MORGAN

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Whatever the reason, it seems like a lot of folks are getting back to basics. Maybe it’s the higher prices at the grocery store, or maybe the higher prices all over. Practically every week someone asks me about money saving ideas for their kitchen, so I thought I would share some of my favorites with you this week. In addition to saving money these ideas really help me feed my family better meals and even save me time in the long run too.

My philosophy about saving money in the kitchen really boils down to a couple of things. The first has to do with planning. Depending on what source you read, Americans simply throw away between 15-27 percent of the food they purchase for consumption each year. Of course, some of this is table scrap. But how many times have we all thrown away the cantaloupe that we thought looked great at the grocery store but never got around to cutting and eating at home. What about those danged strawberries that were so tempting because they were on sale? Then, when you take them out of the fridge the next day, they are already bruised and growing mold. Oh, and the absolute worst is putting all that effort into carefully preparing that beautifully home-cooked meal only to find that you’ve overestimated how much you needed to make and now have a bunch of leftovers no one wants to eat.

When this kind of waste goes down, what it really means is we didn’t do a very good job of planning our grocery shopping. The best thing to do is start with writing out a menu. It doesn’t have to be super detailed. Just start with a main entrée for each evening and then fill in with a veggie and maybe a starch. I usually also check my coupons and my grocery store circular. That way I can save even more money by planning meals around extra savings available to me.

The next step is to use your menu to build a grocery list. Write down all the ingredients needed for each meal you’ve planned. Then inspect your fridge and pantry to see what other staples or snacks you may need to add to the list. The most important thing about this idea is to stick to the list. Don’t get seduced at the grocery store. Grocery stores are laid out according to a carefully thought out marketing plan designed to get you to buy extra things you don’t need. For example, don’t assume the product displays on the end-caps are always the best deal. Take along a calculator and do some price comparison based on unit pricing. Some grocery stores even post the per unit pricing in the tiny print on the shelf tags.

Another money saving idea I use is to plan menus around the protein loss leader at the store. We’ve talked about this before. Here’s how it works: every week grocery stores feature a product that they are selling at a loss. Sounds crazy, right? Why would they do that? Well, they are hoping to draw you in with the loss leader and convince you to buy more with their nifty displays while you are there. Tricky, huh? If I check the grocery store flyer on Wednesday and see that chicken thighs are on sale for $1 a pound, you better believe we’re having chicken thighs on that week’s menu. While I’m at it, I’ll usually stock up on the sale chicken thighs for future dishes. As you get into this habit, you’ll see that the next week, you’ll be able to stock up on a different loss leader protein, like maybe pork chops, pork tenderloins, beef ribs, chicken breasts, etc. I find I can easily put a great dinner on the table using this method for around $10 or less.

When you are putting away your groceries, whether in the fridge or the pantry, simply move all the things that were already on the shelf to the front and put the things you just brought home behind that. This way, you will be more likely to use the older items first, avoiding the risk of an item passing the expiration date before it could be used.

I also find that I save a lot of time and money by cooking in bulk. I mean, as long as I have to dirty up the kitchen, I may as well cook a bunch of stuff at once and be done with it. This way, I always have meals already in the freezer for when I don’t have time to cook or unexpected company stops by. I just set aside a Saturday afternoon and get after it. The trick to this is to do all the like tasks together. For example, if you are making a couple of lasagnas, spaghetti sauce and a couple of different soups that all require chopped onions, just go ahead and chop all the onions you will need for all the dishes. This will save lots of time. If you also use this as a time to plan and cook menus around all those loss leaders and sale items, your total savings will be even greater because you won’t run the risk of the bulk items you bought going bad.

You can also save money by utilizing everything. Let nothing go to waste. Probably a result of my mother’s “starving children in the world” speeches when I was a kid. I like to inspect my pantry and refrigerator every couple of weeks to see what may be nearing the expiration date.

For example, I recently made antipasti and had a lot left that would go bad soon. I also noticed I had some really ripe lemons – one had already started to mold. And I also had an over abundance of tomatoes.

Time to pull out my canning jars. I sterilized the jars by briefly dipping them in boiling water. Then I put the antipasti in jars, tightened down the lids and collars, put them back in the boiling water for 15 minutes and viola! I have antipasti that will keep for up to a year. As for the lemons and tomatoes, I made preserved lemons, which is just cut lemons packed in kosher salt and is so good with Mediterranean and Moroccan food, and tomato jam, which is yummy on hamburgers and grilled fish.

This all sounds like a lot of work, but actually I had it all done on the same Saturday that I did all my bulk cooking. I just did it in between dishes I was working on for the freezer. A good timer will serve you well here. I feel a lot of satisfaction in having this done. I’ll have the food that would have otherwise gone to waste to use throughout the year now.

Another way I make sure to utilize everything I can is to be familiar with what will freeze well. One thing that typically does freeze well is cheese. Another is dried herbs. Freezing is a really good way to keep them fresh and potent longer. And what about that stale bread that is a day away from the garbage can? Run it through the food processor to make your own breadcrumbs. Takes five minutes and it is so much tastier than the store bought stuff. They can be stored in a zip type bag in the freezer up to six months.

Here is one last idea – learn to cut up a chicken. It really isn’t that hard, it doesn’t take that much time (again about five minutes once you get the hang of it), and it’s cheaper to buy a whole chicken than a cut one. Also, if you de-bone it, say for boneless, skinless chicken breasts, you can save the bones in the freezer until you have enough. Then combine the bones with the parsley stems and end of onions, carrots and celery you’ve been saving. Cover with water. Simmer several hours while you are already doing your bulk-cooking day. Strain and store in the freezer until you need chicken stock. You can do the same thing with shrimp shells. I use the shrimp stock I make in my gumbo. Yum!

Just in case you think I’m totally over the edge with this saving money stuff, even the stuff that I can’t figure out a way to cook still doesn’t get thrown away. I feed it to my chickens who are fat and sassy as a result, or I put it in the compost pile so I can grow more vegetables. Once you start getting into the hang of it, you’ll be surprised at all the ways you can save money in the kitchen and still eat well too. Have fun!

Tomato Jam

Makes 4 1/2 to 5 pints

Depending on the year, the tomatoes and how long you cook it down, the yield will vary a great deal.

5 pounds tomatoes, finely chopped

3 1/2 cups sugar

8 tablespoons lime juice

2 teaspoons freshly grated ginger

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1 tablespoon salt

1 tablespoon red chili flakes

Combine all ingredients in a large, non-reactive pot. Bring to a boil and then reduce temperature to a simmer. Stirring regularly, simmer the jam until it reduces to a sticky, jammy mess. This will take between 1 and 1 1/2 hours, depending on how high you keep your heat.

When the jam has cooked down sufficiently, remove from heat and fill jars, leaving 1/4 inch of headspace. Wipe rims, apply lids and twist on rings. Process in a boiling water canner for 20 minutes.

When time is up, remove jars from water bath and allow them to cool. When jars are cool enough to handle, test seals. Store jars in a cool, dark place for up to one year.

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