Helpful cooking advice for using what you've got!
By now, most American households have hunkered down. What do we cook during this uncertain period when it may be hard to find the supplies we need? Here are 10 inexpensive, easy-to-prepare recipes from a few readily available ingredients—plus a few helpful tips.
As of this writing, one in three families are at home. It's an uncertain period of self-quarantine and physical distancing (staying six feet from another person or persons.)
So you’re not going out. Perhaps you’ve eaten all the fresh salad greens, broccoli, eggs, fresh meat, poultry, and fish. Perhaps your area doesn’t offer food-delivery services.
Maybe you’ve been creeping out to shop in the early morning, hoping to get in and out without encountering many others, but you’ve found limited supplies of most of the items on your list.
Instead, you hastily pick up some canned and frozen foods you’ve never tried. (When it comes to COVID-19, see a few food safety precautions.)
Or maybe, like us, you've decide to stay in a while longer and manage with what you still have on hand.
So, what to cook? 10 Simple Recipes
My siblings and I grew up with frugal parents who’d lived through both the Great Depression and World War II. They brought a lot of the family menus of their day to our family table. I’ll share some here.
Notice the features all these recipes share: They’re inexpensive, easy to prepare from a handful of readily available ingredients, amenable to additions or subtractions, nutritious, and filling.
(Apologies for the New England bias here; you can probably find similar family recipes from your own region.)
- Welsh rabbit (rarebit): Cheddar cheese sauce with a dash of Worcestershire sauce over toast or saltines.
- Tuna wiggle: Cheese sauce with canned tuna and fresh or canned peas over crackers or toast.
- Mac and cheese: Of course! Many variations. Ours was pretty simple. Small elbow noodles mixed with a thick cheese sauce
- Succotash: Shell beans and sweet corn—our local version of succotash— was my dad’s favorite food. We had a big garden, and did lots of home canning.You could easily replicate it by mixing a can of shell beans with a can or frozen package of corn. Salt and pepper to taste.
- American chop suey: This stovetop dish of ambiguous origin generally combines ground beef sauteed with a chopped onion (and maybe a green pepper), some kind of cooked pasta, and a well-seasoned tomato sauce.
- Scalloped potatoes: Our family dish featured unpeeled potatoes sliced thin (not peeled) tossed with a handful of flour, seasoned with salt and pepper, then added to a baking dish in layers, topping each layer with a cheesy sauce. Bake at 350° until potatoes get soft and brown on top and around the edges.
- Pea soup: Extremely simple: Split green or yellow peas, mixed with sauteed diced carrot, onion, maybe a stalk of celery, then simmered—often with a meaty ham or shoulder bone—on low heat until thick; salt and pepper to taste. Note: If you’re new to pea soup, watch for allergies.
- Meat loaf: Ours usually contained half hamburger, half other ingredients: e.g., bread crumbs or half a cup of rolled oats, a chopped onion, an egg, a grated carrot/beet/potato, or leftover cooked vegetables. You can find many vegetarian/vegan options on the web.
- Clam chowder: Our recipe called for diced potatoes and onions—sauteed until tender—a can or two of clams with juice, and enough milk to serve everyone a full bowl. Sometimes, mom made a roux to thicken the milk. She seasoned the chowder with salt and pepper before serving.
- Sausage and White Beans: Drain can of cannelloni beans but keep half liquid. Brown sausage in oil; Cook half bean liquid and garlic, onions, canned tomatoes, some herbs for five minutes. Add beans and a can of tomato paste, and simmer a little longer.
A few hot (and cold) tips
- While stores near you may lack fresh vegetables, meat and poultry, most of them, especially convenience stores in rural areas, will still have eggs and milk. The local hens keep laying eggs, and the cows keep giving milk.
- Around here at least, even convenience stores usually sell fresh bananas. They’re cheap and nutritious. Peel and eat, whirl into a banana and peanut butter smoothie, use in a simple dessert, or freeze them. Freeze bananas? Yes! Peel and freeze in chunks or slices. Slimy when thawed, but so what. Thaw and add frozen banana slices to your morning oatmeal. Following the instructions for the oatmeal you’re using, mix oats with half water/half milk, add a bit of maple syrup or brown sugar, and a few frozen banana slices, and cook it over slow heat.
- Speaking of oatmeal, it’s also cheap and nutritious, not to mention filling and extremely versatile. It keeps well for a long time. Have it for breakfast with frozen bananas stirred in. Add it to pancake batter. Among frugal cooks, it’s a well-known “extender,” filling in for bread crumbs, bulking up a meatloaf or a casserole.
- If you do have fresh food you think might go bad before you can finish it, try freezing it (yes, even cooking and salad greens). Cut well-washed food into uniform-sized pieces, blanch in boiling water for two or three minutes, drain and cool immediately, then package and freeze. Don’t fuss over which containers to use: washed yogurt, cottage cheese, or butter containers with covers, doubled up plastic storage bags. Also don't worry about the precise blanching times; just add your frozen veggies to your next soup or casserole.
- By the way, you can also freeze hard cheese. And butter, too! If it's packaged in plastic, just toss a block of cheese into the freezer as is. Remove to the refrigerator a couple of days before you want to use it. You probably won't be able to tell that it was frozen. As for butter, remove the quarter-pound sticks from the package, leaving the paper wrapping on. Then wrap each stick tightly in foil, or put them all in an airtight freezer bag, and freeze.
- Got pinto beans? I discovered this recipe for pinto-bean pie, inspired by the numerous Depression-era "mock" pies. I think you could eat it for any meal.
If you have a favorite quarantine recipe or a meal tip, please share it with us!