Eating well with little money

by Jacquelyn Hargis

This month’s column has been written by Jacquelyn Hargis of Munising. Jackie is one of the area’s finest cooks, mostly in the French manner. She studied some years ago at Cordon Bleu in Paris, and I tasted the results many times.
When the Hargis family was starting out with five kids, not much money but a lot of imagination, she took head-on the problem of eating well on a short budget. She was so good at that I asked her to write a column telling us what it was like. What made her different in those days was her philosophy of eating with economy, but avoiding junk food. It looks as though our future might require some of these skills, and certainly such a philosophy of cooking.
— Don Curto

After we were married in 1953 and my husband was drafted in 1954, our first child was born. When Duane returned from military service to a good job, but at low starting pay, my objective was to keep our house and family going while my husband worked and went to school.
Our entertainment was what we could find to do at home—for free, if possible. We had picnics in the backyard and storytime. We played lots of Monopoly and other games. Sometimes we would make up stories. Children have wonderful imaginations.
After reading Green Eggs and Ham for the nth time, I made it for breakfast. It did not go over well. It was pretty hard to get those kids to eat green eggs.
I soon began trying to stretch the dollars. First, I tried making bread…great door stops when wrapped in foil. My husband was ever encouraging and ate it with gusto and told me to keep trying; each time it was better. Eventually, I found myself making four loaves every other day. About 1960, I got into eating better for less. The family was growing fast and hungry all the time.
About this time, I began watching Julia Child on TV and was fascinated with the recipes and thought to myself: “I can do that.” The first was Poule Saute ala Bordelaise—sautéed chicken with shallots and artichoke hearts. We loved it, and the kids did too. Duane began buying the Time-Life series of “The Foods of the World.” We decided we could afford one fancy meal a month. It was fun looking through recipes to see which to try next.
We not only watched our food budget closely, but our entertainment budget as well. Homemade gorp (M&Ms, peanuts and raisins) accompanied our Sunday walks in the nature areas while we learned the names of the wildflowers and trees. Dad took the lead quizzing the kids while consulting his guide book.
Cross-country skiing was an inexpensive way to get our exercise in the winter. At that time, drive-in movies were available and inexpensive. Our summer vacations were tent camping in the state parks. That is when we discovered the U.P. We never camped in the Lower Peninsula again.
We camped in the summer, skied in the winter, everyone became an avid reader and when TV was watched, we limited the programs. “Lost in Space” was a favorite and, of course, the weekly Disney show. When we camped, we tried to cook meals over an open fire. One of our favorites was Canuck stew—cooked bacon, potatoes and onions, thickened with a roux and water. We baked biscuits on an iron skillet over the fire. What a feast. The kids liked it so much they asked to have it at home. One Saturday, I served it for lunch. No one liked it. The fresh air and sunshine must have added the good taste.
One summer, our town had a baking competition at the fair. Each of our girls entered a different category. They pestered me to enter the bread category. Two of the girls won first prizes and one won best of show. The bread? Don’t ask.
Here are a few ideas for using leftovers to make a whole new item:
• Leftover rice can be made into rice callas, which are lovely round balls of rice-filled doughnut dough, which is a little chewy and slightly sweet. So pretty with 10X (confectioners) sugar sprinkled over it.
• Inexpensive but tasty cheese sticks made from slightly stale “coarse” bread sliced into one-by-four-inch fingers. Spread with one jar of sharp cheddar cheese mixed with one stick of “cheap” margarine. Bake in a 450-degree oven for ten minutes or until brown. These are great with soup.
• Leftover roast beef diced and arranged in a baking dish. Be sure and add some of the pan drippings. Mix two eggs with one cup of flour and one cup of milk, salt to taste and pour over beef, bake in a 350-degree oven for about thirty minutes. It is good with gravy over all.
• Roast root vegetables coated with olive oil as a side dish with any main dish and if you have any left, dice them and make a frittata and green salad the next evening. Serve with the cheese sticks.
• Serve your favorite breakfast…perhaps waffles and sausage, and sautéed apples for an interesting dinner one night.
• Try making your own salad dressings with a three-to-one oil-to-vinegar ratio. Add any herbs you like.
I had a cookbook that gave all kinds of herb and spice mixtures to duplicate bottled salad dressings, so I made good use of that. Visit E-cookbooks.net to find a treasure trove of online help.
Breadmaking gets a bad rap sometimes: “It takes too long to make; I don’t have time.” Well when you think about the actual time it requires your attention, it’s laughable. Fifteen minutes to mix the dough and a couple of five-minute punches and voila. Your bread is in the oven and making the whole house smell good.
When preparing pasta, serve the pasta, sauce and/or cheese in separate bowls. Then, if there are leftovers, each can be used in a different dish.
• Did you know almost everything can be frozen? Pasta is a great example. Cook a large quantity and freeze in portions in freezer bags. When you wish to use it, simply drop it frozen into hot water, not boiling, and it will be ready to use in a few minutes. If the water is too hot, it will make the pasta starchy and mushy.
• Make large batches of cookies at a time, drop the dough on a cookie sheet and freeze. When hard, bag the globs and leave directions on the bag, so when you want a few cookies, remove a few at a time and bake. Not much needs to be added to the baking time. This is a good way to control your weight by limiting the number of cookies available. Using a small toaster oven eliminates heating up the large oven.
• Always clean fresh vegetables when you get them home from the grocery store. Pat dry and place in Ziplock bags. This makes food prep faster and easier and is another good munchie that helps keep us thin and healthy.
• Growing your own herbs is easy and much cheaper than buying them in those little plastic boxes. They can be harvested and frozen in large sprigs in a box container. I strip the leaves of larger plants like basil and flash freeze on cookie sheets, then transfer to the box. As you need them for a recipe, just reach in and take a handful, crush and drop in the pot. They are good in dressings and salads. Biscuits can be handled the same way.
Time is very important to people these days. I was a stay-at-home mom, but I used timesaving tricks so I would have a little more time for myself. I needed to recharge my batteries once in a while.
Meatless meals can be wonderful and inexpensive and very healthful. We always had a “Graze Night”: all the week’s leftover food that was left by Saturday was placed on the kitchen counter and everyone helped themselves. A little of this and a little of that. It was a popular meal. The children could eat what they liked the best and didn’t have to eat what mom chose.
When using only yolks of eggs for a recipe, save and freeze the whites in a jar. Keep adding to this jar and making a mark on the lid as you go. You will be surprised how fast you get to the number twelve, just the right amount to make an angel food cake. Let the whites come to room temp before beginning your cake.
Even though our food budget was limited, we were able to prepare good, nutritious food for the family. Our children never felt deprived eating homemade food. In later years, it became more difficult as the fast-food industry convinced kids there was nothing better than a calorie-laden hamburger and fries. All five of our children are excellent made-from-scratch cooks.
Having five children and a limited budget made me resourceful and I fell in love with the challenge. Cooking is my passion to this day, fifty-five years later.
I always looked at the food item with the thought in mind, “How many servings can I get out of it?” In the 1950s, $2 was my limit on the main course. I learned the four food groups in high school and tried to keep them in mind when planning my menus. I planned food for the week before shopping; the list was quite detailed. I planned for five “meals” per day—breakfast, lunch, after-school snack, dinner and bedtime snack.
I used three breakfast menus in rotation. First day was eggs, toast and juice. Next was hot cereal, toast and juice. Third would be either pancakes, waffles or French toast again with juice. I didn’t use mixes or dry cereals. Even then, dry cereal was expensive. Bacon only was served on the weekend. Lunches were packed with a sandwich, fruit, cookie and raw veggies—the veggies to be eaten last to clean their teeth of the sugary cookie.
After-school snacks were a challenge. Jell-O with fruit was easy. Sometimes I used leftover pancake batter to make tiny pancakes, filled them with jelly, rolled them up and sprinkled powdered sugar on them. Or I took homemade English muffins and used them to make faux pizzas using leftover bits of meat or just cheese. The kids, of course, preferred cookies. I remember once the kids came home from visiting a friend and announced “Did you know that you can buy cookies at the store?”
Dinner was meat, a starch, veggies and bread or a roll to help fill them up. As the girls got older they began making the rolls, muffins and biscuits, always from scratch. We ate a lot of “hockey pucks” in the beginning. Because of the numerous baked goods, I bought flour in twenty-five-pound bags. Everything we made was cheaper that way. I never used coupons, since they almost always were for prepared foods and too expensive even with the coupon.
We had a brilliant idea at one point to help fill up the kids with an inexpensive dish by making homemade soup and serving it as the first course. When the meal was over, the boys asked whether there was any more soup! Oh well, nice try.
Our evening snack often was our dessert: cake, pie, ice cream or maybe popcorn the old-fashioned way, with the kids taking turns shaking the maker.
I never threw leftovers away. They all could be recycled and appear as a new dish—and that was the challenge. I loved it and still do. My husband has learned over the years to ferret out that small bit of leftover in the dish, however. Years of practice.

— Jacquelyn Hargis

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