Saturday, January 26, 2013

Baked Pasta with Tofu Ricotta

This baked pasta with tofu ricotta recipe is good enough to serve to company, special enough to impress someone with very little effort, and cheap enough to make often.

This is my favorite recipe to make for guests, because of its wide appeal (who doesn't love pasta?) and because it can be made well in advance and baked in the oven while I socialize. My friends and family request this one often - "Make that pasta thing again! Will you? Please?" - and so does my husband. It doesn't require any knife skills, since the only knifework is lopping a lemon in half, which pretty much anyone can do. Another bonus is that all the ingredients (except for maybe that lemon) will keep for a long time in your pantry or fridge, so you can easily have everything you need on hand to make this when company shows up and you don't have time to go to the store.

Baked Pasta with Tofu Ricotta:
Serves 6
Time: 45 minutes
Cost: $7.15 total / $1.19 per serving

You will need:
  • 1 pound of small pasta (I like to use whole-grain penne)
  • a 24 oz. jar of your favorite pasta sauce (I like Prego)
  • 1 package of firm tofu
  • a 10-oz. package of frozen chopped spinach
  • 2 Tbsp nutritional yeast
  • 1 lemon
  • 1 tsp. dried oregano
  • 1 tsp. dried basil
  • 1/2 tsp. garlic powder
  • red pepper flakes, to taste
  • salt and pepper, to taste
How to do it:
  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Cook the pasta according to the package directions.
  3. While the pasta is cooking, make the tofu ricotta and spinach mixture. Cook the spinach in the microwave, according to the package directions. Drain the tofu, place it in a large-ish bowl, and mash it with a fork until it is the consistency of ricotta cheese. Add the nutritional yeast, the juice of the lemon, and the oregano, basil, and garlic powder. Season with salt and pepper and taste. It should be salty and slightly tangy, like ricotta cheese. Mix in the cooked spinach, taste, and adjust the seasoning.
  4. When the pasta is cooked, drain it, return it to the pot, add the pasta sauce, and stir to coat the pasta with the sauce. Add red pepper flakes, to taste.
  5. Lightly grease a casserole dish or lasagna pan (or use nonstick spray). Add half of the pasta-and-sauce mixture to the dish, covering the bottom of the pan. Spread the ricotta and spinach mixture on top of the pasta. Then, add the rest of the pasta on top, spreading it out into an even layer.
  6. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes or until the sauce starts to bubble and the pasta on top begins to crisp. Remove from the oven, let cool for five minutes, then serve!

If you want to get really fancy (and not-so-cheap-and-healthy), you could top the whole thing with Daiya cheese before you bake it. It's also very nice served with a green salad and some garlic bread on the side.

For a "fancypants" meal, it's remarkably cheap - just $1.19 per serving. Served with homemade garlic bread, you could expect around $1.50 per serving. Here's the breakdown:

Ingredient Estimated Cost
Pasta $1.50
Sauce $2.00
Tofu $1.80
Nutritional Yeast $0.10
Spices $0.25
Lemon $0.50
Frozen Spinach $1.00
TOTAL $7.15

Monday, January 21, 2013

Loaded Baked Potato Soup with Chickpea "Bacon Bits"

Have you ever found yourself with a bunch of leftover baked potatoes, wondering what to do with all of them? This. This is what you do.

Vegan Loaded Baked Potato Soup with Chickpea "Bacon Bits":
Serves 4
Time: 30 minutes
Cost: $5.90 total / $1.48 per serving

You will need (for the soup):
  • 4 good-sized leftover baked potatoes, chopped into chunks
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 4 green onions, sliced, keep white and green parts separate
  • 4 cups vegetable broth, or use water + bouillon
  • 1 tsp. cajun seasoning
  • 1/2 cup nutritional yeast
  • 1/2 tsp. turmeric
  • liquid smoke, a few drops
  • salt and pepper, to taste
You will need (for the chickpea "bacon bits"):
  • 1 fifteen-ounce can of chickpeas, drained
  • 1/2 tsp. smoked paprika
  • 1/2 tsp. cajun seasoning
  • 1/2 tsp. cumin
  • liquid smoke, a few drops
  • chipotle hot sauce, a few drops (optional)
  • salt and pepper, to taste
How to do it:
  1. In a large pot, saute the onion, the white parts of the green onion, and the celery on medium heat in a little olive oil, vegetable broth, or water, until the onion is translucent and the celery is soft. Add the garlic and saute for another minute or so.
  2. Add the baked potato chunks and stir, breaking the potatoes up a bit with your spoon and coating the potatoes with the vegetables and garlic, about another minute.
  3. Stir in the vegetable broth, cajun seasoning, nutritional yeast, turmeric, and a few drops of liquid smoke. Season with salt and pepper, and bring to a simmer.
  4. Reduce the heat to low and let the soup simmer while you work on the chickpea "bacon bits."
  5. To make the chickpea bacon bits: Turn on the broiler in your oven. Spread the chickpeas out on a baking sheet and lightly coat them with nonstick spray or a small amount of oil. Sprinkle on the smoked paprika, cajun seasoning, cumin, liquid smoke, chipotle hot sauce (if using), and salt and pepper, and stir to coat the chickpeas with the spice mixture. Place the chickpeas under the broiler and cook until the they are fragrant and slightly crispy, about 10-15 minutes. Watch them carefully so they do not burn!
  6. Check the soup. To make it more creamy, you can thicken it by breaking up more of the potato chunks with the back of a spoon, or just go in with a potato masher or immersion blender. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
  7. Serve the soup hot, garnished with the green onion tops and chickpea "bacon bits."

This soup is great on a cold winter night, served with homemade beer bread. It will fill you up and warm you up without emptying your wallet. Plus, it's a great way to use those green onions that you've been regrowing on your kitchen counter.

Here's the cost breakdown:
Ingredient Estimated Cost
Potatoes $2.00
Celery $0.25
Onion $0.50
Green Onions $0.25
Vegetable Bouillon $0.75
Spices $0.25
Nutritional Yeast $0.65
Sauces $0.20
Garlic $0.05
Chickpeas $1.00
TOTAL $5.90

As always, these are my rough estimates for the cost of ingredients. Your mileage may vary!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Cheezy Beans and Rice

Is there anything that compares to beans and rice when it comes to cheapness, tastiness, and nutrition?

Beloved by vegans and frugal people alike, beans and rice are a big, comforting bowl of awesome. They are the perfect vessel for all sorts of flavorings - some of the usual suspects are cajun seasoning, pickled jalapenos, and various types of hot sauce.

In this case, the beans and rice are made extra creamy, comforting, and savory with the addition of a healthy,  vegan "cheese" sauce. Corn, green peppers, and onions provide just enough sweetness to balance out the heat from the smoky chipotle hot sauce and cajun seasoning.

Cheezy Beans and Rice
Serves 8
Time: 45 minutes
Cost: $5.86 total / $0.73 per serving
You will need:
  • 1 one-pound package of uncooked white rice (2.5 cups)
  • 4 cups of cooked beans, (or two 15 oz. cans of beans), any kind will do
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1/2 of a green bell pepper, seeded and chopped
  • 1 package frozen yellow corn
  • 1 cup plain soymilk
  • 1 and 1/2 cups nutritional yeast
  • 1 Tbsp. yellow mustard
  • 1 Tbsp. ketchup
  • 2 Tbsp. barbecue sauce (I like Stubb's)
  • 1 tsp. soy sauce
  • 1 tsp. garlic powder
  • 1 tsp. cajun seasoning (I like Tony Chachere's)
  • 1/2 tsp. smoked paprika
  • 1/2 tsp. turmeric (optional, adds a nice yellow color)
  • 1 Tbsp. cornstarch
  • a few drops of liquid smoke (optional)
  • chipotle hot sauce, to taste (I like Cholula)
  • salt and pepper, to taste
How to do it:
  1. Cook the rice according to the package directions.
  2. While the rice is cooking, in a large pot, saute the onions and green pepper in a little olive oil, vegetable broth, or water, until the onions are translucent.
  3. Add the corn to the peppers and onions and cook on medium heat until the corn is soft, about 5-10 minutes. Stir in the beans and reduce heat to low.
  4. In a small saucepan, make the "cheesy" sauce: Combine the soymilk, nutritional yeast, mustard, ketchup, barbeque sauce, soy sauce, garlic powder, cajun seasoning, smoked paprika, turmeric (if using) and 1/2 cup of water and stir. Heat on medium, stirring occasionally, until the sauce begins to bubble. In a small bowl, mix the cornstarch with 1 Tbsp. cold water. Pour the cornstarch mixture into the hot cheese sauce and stir for a minute or two. The cornstarch mixture will thicken the sauce. Reduce heat to low. Taste and adjust the seasoning of the sauce.
  5. Add the cooked rice and the prepared cheese sauce to the pot of beans, corn, and vegetables. Gently stir everything together to combine, coating the rice and beans with the cheese sauce.
  6. Add salt, pepper, a few drops of liquid smoke (if using), and hot sauce. Continue to heat on low until all the ingredients are hot. Taste, and adjust the seasoning. Serve hot.

This recipe makes a lot of food! You might be inclined to freeze half of it for later, or halve the recipe, according to your needs.

You could also use brown rice in this recipe. If you do, you should allow some extra cooking time, since brown rice usually takes around 45 minutes to cook. And, if you aren't vegan and you can't find nutritional yeast (although it's less expensive than real cheese!), you could, of course, use your own favorite cheese sauce recipe.

This meal is one of the cheapest main dishes in my arsenal, coming in at around $5.86 for the entire dish, and just $0.73 per serving, using pinto beans cooked in my slow cooker. If you use canned beans, you'll probably be looking at around $0.85 per serving. Here's the breakdown:

Ingredients Estimated Cost
Rice $0.80
Beans (cooked from scratch) $0.75
Onion $0.50
Green Pepper $0.45
Corn $1.00
Soymilk $0.31
Nutritional Yeast $1.00
Various Sauces $0.50
Various Spices $0.50
Cornstarch $0.05
TOTAL $5.86

Keep in mind that these are just rough estimates and that your mileage may vary. Still, you can usually count on beans and rice to be good and cheap!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Quick and Easy Cornbread

Mmm, cornbread. Sweet (sometimes spicy, too), warm, and substantial cornbread can take a relatively light meal, like a bean soup, and make it more filling and hearty. It's cheap, it's quick, and it's ridiculously easy.

This version gets its sweetness from maple syrup. It's important not to cheap out on your maple syrup! There are instances where a cheaper version of something makes little or no difference, but real maple syrup blows the fake stuff out of the water. Invest in a jug. It will last you a long time, and real maple syrup is one of nature's most delicious gifts.

This cornbread is totally vegan, uses only whole grains and natural sweeteners, and it's very nearly fat free, since it doesn't use any oil or margarine.

Quick and Easy Cornbread:
Makes 9 pieces
Time: about 30 minutes (mostly unattended)
Cost: $2.57 total / $0.29 per piece

You will need:
  • 1 and 1/3 cup yellow cornmeal
  • 2/3 cup white whole wheat flour
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 3 and 1/2 tsps. baking powder
  • 1/2 cup plain applesauce (I like to use the single-serving cups, which are around 1/2 cup each)
  • 1/4 cup pure maple syrup
  • 1/2 cup plain soymilk
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup water, as needed
  • nonstick cooking spray
How to do it:
  1. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Lightly spray an oven-safe 9 x 9 pan with cooking spray.
  2. In a mixing bowl, stir together the cornmeal, white whole wheat flour, salt, and baking powder until well combined.
  3. Add the applesauce, maple syrup, soymilk, and 1/4 cup of the water. Stir to combine. If the mixture seems too dry, add another 1/4 cup of water.
  4. Pour the batter into the 9 x 9 pan, and place in the center of the preheated oven. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
  5. Let cool for 5-10 minutes. Slice into squares and serve warm.
Variations to try:
  • Add 1-2 tsps. of diced fresh or pickled jalapenos
  • Add 1/2 cup of shredded zucchini or yellow squash
  • Add 1/2 cup of thawed frozen corn kernels or fresh corn
  • Reduce the salt to 1/2 tsp. and add 1 tsp. of cajun seasoning - I like Tony Chachere's.

This recipe ends up being very inexpensive, even with the use of that sweet, liquid tree-gold (maple syrup). If you bought pre-made cornbread at the grocery store, you'd pay a lot more , and it would probably be packed with a lot more preservatives and a lot less maple syrup - and good luck finding a low-fat, whole grain, vegan version at your local supermarket!

Here's the cost breakdown. I've included the cost for both one- and two-piece servings, since I generally like to have two pieces with a meal. But then again, I really, really like cornbread.

Ingredient Estimated Cost
Cornmeal $0.67
White Whole Wheat Flour $0.20
Kosher salt $0.02
Baking Powder $0.05
Applesauce $0.28
Maple Syrup $1.13
Soymilk $0.17
Nonstick Spray $0.05
TOTAL $2.57

*This recipe was inspired by the cornbread recipe from The Happy Herbivore Cookbook.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Cheap Thrills: Regrowing Green Onions

I read on the internet that you can regrow green onions by putting the root ends in a glass of water.

While not everything you read on the internet can be believed, below is photographic proof that this actually works. You can see the place where I had cut the green onions, with the new growth sprouting out of the top. This photo was taken after about four days.

This is the easiest thing in the world, it's fun, and you can cut your green onion budget at least in half (maybe more), saving you tens of dollars each year! If you love green onions as much as I do, this is actually a pretty exciting prospect.

All you have to do is put your green onion ends (you need a couple of inches' worth) root-down in a glass of tap water. I used a shot glass. Change the water once a day and put the onions in a sunny spot indoors. In about a week, they'll be ready to harvest and use in dishes like Udon Noodles with Tofu and Green Onions.

Best of all, you'll feel a bit like a mad scientist or a wicked witch watching them grow. "Yessssss, excellent, grow, my lovelies! Grow nice and tall so that I may cut you down again! Mwahahahahaha!" It is acceptable to wring your hands in an evil manner while saying this to your green onions.

Tomato Soup with Lentils, Rice, and Pasta

This week, I challenged myself to see how long I could go without making a trip to the grocery store. One of the best dishes that resulted from cleaning out my pantry was this hearty tomato soup with brown rice, lentils, and pasta.

I had planned to go on Sunday, but then I realized that I had ingredients to make spaghetti with marinara sauce, with a green salad on the side. That sounded pretty good, so I didn't go to the store.

The next day, Monday, I thought I was really in trouble, but I had ingredients to make some awesome sandwiches on toasted bread, so I didn't go to the store.

On Tuesday, I was convinced that I was out of ingredients. But when I really looked carefully, I found a cup of lentils, some leftover cooked brown rice, a big can of tomato sauce, an onion, a few cloves of garlic, a couple of carrots, some veggie Better than Bouillon, and half a box of whole wheat pasta. The obvious solution was - soup! The only thing I wished I'd had was celery, but hey, sometimes you work with what you've got.

Tomato Soup with Lentils, Rice, and Pasta
Serves 6
Time: about 1 hour
Cost: $4.90 total / $0.82 per serving

You will need:
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 2-3 carrots, diced
  • 1-2 stalks celery, diced (I didn't have any, but that doesn't mean you should deprive yourself!)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 big can of tomato sauce (28 ounces)
  • 4-6 cups vegetable broth, or use water + bouillon
  • 1/2 cup nutritional yeast (optional)
  • 2 dried bay leaves
  • 1 Tbsp. dried basil
  • 1 tsp. dried oregano
  • 1 tsp. dried thyme
  • 1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes (optional)
  • 1 cup uncooked brown lentils, picked over and washed
  • 1 cup of uncooked, smallish pasta like elbows or shells (I used whole-wheat spiral pasta)
  • 1-2 cups of cooked brown rice
  • Salt and black pepper, to taste
How to do it:
  1. In a large pot, saute the onion, carrots, and celery in a little olive oil, vegetable stock, or water until the onion turns translucent and the veggies are soft. Add the garlic and cook for one additional minute.
  2. Add the tomato sauce, vegetable stock, nutritional yeast (if using), bay leaves, basil, oregano, thyme, red pepper flakes, and lentils to the pot. Stir to combine, and bring to a simmer. Taste the broth and adjust the seasoning.
  3. Simmer the soup until the lentils are beginning to soften, about 15 minutes. Then, add the pasta and continue to simmer until the pasta and lentils are cooked and tender, another 15 minutes or so.
  4. Stir in the cooked brown rice. If the soup seems too thick, add more stock or water. Taste and adjust the seasoning again. Remove the bay leaves. When all the ingredients are hot and cooked through, the soup is done!
  5. Serve hot. Toasted bread or a vegan grilled cheese sandwich make a nice accompaniment.
This soup is incredibly versatile. If you had split peas instead of lentils, you can use those. If you have lots of rice, but no pasta, you could just use extra rice. It can accept pretty much any vegetable odds and ends in your fridge or pantry, including potatoes, cabbage, spinach, green peas, sweet potatoes, leeks, zucchini, or whatever you've got.

This nourishing and filling meal costs an unbelievably cheap $0.82 per serving because it uses mostly very cheap pantry ingredients, like rice and lentils. Your mileage may vary, but here's my breakdown of the cost:

Ingredient Cost
Onion $0.50
Carrots $0.25
Celery $0.25
Garlic $0.05
Tomato sauce $1.25
Bouillon $0.50
Spices $0.50
Lentils $0.50
Pasta $0.75
Brown Rice $0.35
TOTAL $4.90

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Hoppin' John

I didn't appreciate black-eyed peas when I was a kid. Every year, on New Year's Eve, my mom would cook black-eyed peas and serve them with stewed tomatoes and chow-chow (if you've never had chow-chow, go out and get some right now-now). Mom said that if I ate a lot of black-eyed peas, I would make a lot of money in the new year, because the peas kinda sorta look like coins. I remained unconvinced for years.

This year, though, in light of a resolution to live more frugally and eat more cheaply, I decided to fix some black-eyed peas on New Year's Eve. For good measure, I also made some collards, since collards kinda sorta look like dollars and eating a lot of them is supposed to be good for your bank account.

Stewed black-eyed peas served over rice is a dish called Hoppin' John. I don't know why southern dishes have such fantastic names, but they're delicious. Here's the recipe.

Hoppin' John (Black-eyed peas over rice):
Serves 4
Time: about 45 minutes

You will need:
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 fifteen-ounce cans of black-eyed peas, drained (or cook your own)
  • 1 fifteen-ounce can of stewed tomatoes
  • 1 tsp. cajun seasoning (such as Tony Chachere's)
  • hot sauce, to taste
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • chow-chow, for garnish
  • 4 cups hot, cooked brown rice (cooked according to the package directions)
How to do it:
  1. Start cooking the brown rice. Use the directions on the package. It usually takes around 45 minutes.
  2. In a large pan, sautee the diced onion in a little oil, vegetable stock, or water until the onion is soft and translucent. Add the garlic and cook for one minute more.
  3. Add the black-eyed peas, tomatoes (with their juice), cajun seasoning, hot sauce, and salt and pepper to the pan. Stir to combine and bring the mixture to a simmer.
  4. Simmer the black-eyed pea mixture low and slow while the rice cooks, for around 20-30 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasoning as needed.
  5. Serve the black-eyed peas and tomatoes hot, on top of the cooked brown rice. Garnish with a big spoonful of chow-chow. Enjoy!
This dish can start your year (or your week, or your month) off right. If you sautee the onion in vegetable broth or water, this Hoppin' John is nearly fat free, and it's cheap, too. 

The brown rice only costs around $0.50, the onion is another $0.50. The beans were on sale (a fancy brand of canned beans) for $1.00 each, and the tomatoes were $0.75. The remaining ingredients only cost a few cents, with the exception of the chow-chow. My husband loves the stuff, and we wound up eating half of a $2.00 jar.

For those of you keeping score, that's $4.75 for the entire dish, or $1.18 per serving. If you want to get the cost down even lower, you could cook your own black-eyed peas rather than using canned. It's a great stand-alone dish, but for a few dollars more, you can add a side of tasty collard greens (often less than $1.00 per pound) and cornbread (my favorite cornbread recipe costs $0.29 per piece). Yum!