Saturday, March 21, 2009

Saving Money in an Economic Downturn

I'm sure you've noticed by now, our economy has been healthier. We aren't totally screwed yet, but things have been better; I am noticing a lack of lubricant on the store shelves.

What can we do in this time of crisis? Well, we can all stick together, for one thing: the closer you are to your neighbor, the easier it will be to slash their throats when the time comes to eat them.

Well, learning to cook and to sew are both ways to save money. Sadly, they're also skills that have fallen by the wayside. (Learning to sew also takes in initial start-up cost, and takes up both time from your schedule and room in your living space. So if either of those is at a premium, sewing may not be for you.

(Incidentally, if you do buy new clothes, check the label. If it has special washing instructions, that should, by itself, be a reason to reconsider buying it: it's going to cost more in the long run.)

Cooking isn't actually that difficult, but it scares some people. (Best recommendation: watch Good Eats on the Food Network for a while. It's interesting, relatively funny, and you'll learn something at the same time.)

Eating healthy will also help you in the long run: those pesky medical bills can really eat into your wallet.

Some things just don't save you any money at all. I take the bus to work. For the last part of last week, I passed a sign advertising a yard sale (strange by itself, since it pointed into a group of apartments, but never mind). The sign was attached to the outside of a cardboard box (fairly common). But to weigh down the box, you know what they'd used? Not rocks or bricks - that would have been too ordinary.

There were three quart-sized jars of applesauce.

Sometimes, you need to give the kids very specific instructions before you turn them loose to do something for you.

(By the way, if you're shopping at Walmart, remember that, while you may be saving money in the short run, but most of your cash is leaving the country. So in the long run, you're hurting the economy. Things aren't going to get better over here anytime soon. But the people of China thank you. (OK, the people in charge in China thank you. Nobody else is really making more than slave wages. But, hey, it's your money. Do what you want.)

But really, anybody can cook. And if you do it for a while, you eventually get to the point where other people will eat it, too.

Now, let's look at how you can eat decent food, and still save money. First, let's go steal a recipe. We're going to a site called "," where we find:
Beef Stroganoff With Brandy

2 tablespoons olive oil
3 pounds beef tenderloin, trimmed, cut in 3 inch x 1 inch x 1/4 inch strips
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 medium onions, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
16 ounces fresh mushrooms, sliced 1/4 inch thick
1 cup low sodium beef broth
1 1/2 cup low fat sour cream
1/2 cup brandy
6 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced

In a large nonstick skillet, heat the oil over high heat.
Brown the beef for 2 minutes, transfer to a warm platter, and season with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper.
Melt the butter in the skillet over moderate heat.
Add the onions and garlic and saute for 2 minutes or until onions are tender, then stir in the mushrooms, cover and cook for 3 minutes.
Uncover and stir in the remaining salt and pepper, and add the beef broth.
Bring to a boil, stirring to scrape up any browned bits, and boil, uncovered for 2 minutes.
Remove the skillet from the heat and whisk in the sour cream until smooth.
Stir in the beef and any juices that have collected on the platter.
Add brandy and place over low heat and stir constantly just until heated through (don't let the sauce boil).
Turn heat off and place Stroganoff in a serving dish and sprinkle with parsley.
Serve over whole grain pasta cooked al dente.
Now, let's break that down.

olive oil - OK, let's be real. You're frying meat in oil. And then it's going into a cream sauce. You aren't going to notice if the olive oil is changed with canola oil.

beef tenderloin - Oh, shut the hell up. Go look at the price per pound, and tell me how quickly you're going to change to a lesser cut. Now, the more fat you see on a cut of meat, the less of it you really want to buy for anything except stew. In fact, any part of the meat that isn't openly red and meaty, you only want it for stew. Or braising. Basically, any long, slow cooking method, where the non-meat stuff has a chance to melt and be absorbed into the food.

brandy - now, again, it's going into a cream sauce. The brandy is there because the meat (and some of the herbs) have some flavor compounds that dissolve best in alcohol, and not water. (Actually, tomatoes have more of those compounds, but this recipe doesn't have any of those, so go figure.) You don't have to use your best brandy. Trust me on that.

And as for mushrooms, you don't have to buy the best ones, either. White button mushrooms do just as well as portobello mushrooms (unless you're my wife, but she has taste buds and stuff).

Serve over whole grain pasta cooked al dente - OK, the standard is actually egg noodles, but serve on whatever pasta you like.

Now, have we cut the price enough?

OK then, here's a cheaper version. Replace the beef with ground beef, and everything else with a can of cream of mushroom soup (made with half the liquid). Dump it over some cooked noodles, drained. (If you really want to save money, serve it over ramen noodles, cooked without the flavor packet. (You might be able to use the flavor packet if it's beef ramen. And then you wouldn't need to add salt, either.)

While it isn't nearly as good (and it definitely doesn't have a whole lot of health benefits), it costs about a 27 cents a serving.

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