budget talk

Cooking Shortcuts

I ask myself the same question every week, how can it be Friday already? If you’re on a budget and/or hate relying on convenience foods, you have to think of cooking shortcuts, ways to prepare meals and sneaky little tricks that can get you in and out of the kitchen when time’s not your friend.

Here are some tips I’ve found to help me make it through the week-

Prepare Ahead of Time
I’ve recently gotten into the habit of preparing vegetables and salads on the weekends. Most of the recipes I use call for onions, carrots and celery. Now I chop and slice extra, put them in zip lock bags and store in the fridge. It’s really cut down on meal prep time. I also wash extra salad and fixings. I was putting everything together in one large bowl but found that if just one thing spoiled or lettuce started to brown, it ruined everything. Now I put the lettuce in one bowl and everything else in separate containers, things like radishes and shredded carrots.

Give Vegetables a Head Start
I love roasted vegetables but sometimes they (seem) to take forever to cook in the oven. My tip is to parboil them for about five to ten minutes while you warm the oven and then add them to the pan.

Have Ingredients Ready and Waiting
Another trick I’ve found to make meal preparation that much easier is to put everything out on the countertop along with the recipe. Anything that doesn’t spoil like canned vegetables and spices can even be sitting there ready for when you get home at night.

Smelly Foods
I love to use garlic in just about everything but I hate chopping it and I really dislike the smell that lingers on my hands. One local supermarket sells chopped garlic in jars for just a dollar and now I wouldn’t be without it.

Make Clean Up a Breeze
I always think that aluminum foil is the best thing to happen to a cook. When I’m cooking dishes I know are going to stick to pans or maybe even drip in the oven, I use foil. Easy clean up and once again it’s an item you can find at the dollar store.

The Microwave Comes to the Rescue
One appliance that does so many jobs is the microwave oven. Not only for heating foods, but also for melting things like butter and chocolate. And yes, even softening things like squash for easy cutting. I microwave it for about a minute and it makes the job so much easier and no more cut fingers.

Budget Gourmet
And yes, we all have to cheat now and then. I buy the packages of fried rice made my Michelina’s. They’re the Budget Gourmet line and cost just a dollar a piece. I keep these in the freezer all the time. I used a couple of them the other night to accompany some grilled salmon and for a quick vegetable side dish, edamames. And do check out the company’s Web site. They have lots of great articles on budgeting. www.michelinas.com

When All Else Fails
My favorite I’ve got no time to cook, or what’s for dinner rescue meal is soup and sandwich. Last Sunday I had to interview a source for an article I was working on and made this soup to accompany grilled cheese sandwiches. It’s quick but to make it even simpler I used an immersion blender. Saves time and not to mention clean up.

Spicy Black Bean Soup (Serves 4-6)

1 large onion, chopped
½ chopped roasted red pepper
2 tablespoons oil
2 cans (15 ounces) of Kuner’s Southwestern Black Beans with Cumin/Chili Spices (do not drain them)
I can (14 ½ ounce) diced tomatoes with mild green chilies, undrained
4 cups vegetable or chicken stock
3 tablespoons chopped cilantro
1 teaspoon (or more or even less depending on how much heat you can tolerate) crushed red pepper flakes

In a large pan, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until lightly golden brown. Stir in the beans, broth, roasted red pepper, tomatoes, pepper flakes and cilantro. Reduce heat and simmer for 15-20 minutes. Remove from heat and cool mixture slightly. If you’re using a regular blender, add half the soup and blend then add it back to the pan. If you’re using an immersion blender, you just need to break up about half of the beans and mixture to thicken it. Reheat and serve with more chopped cilantro and sour cream.

This soup is spicy hot and pairs perfectly with the grilled cheese sandwiches.

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