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The Farmers Market Files: Preserving the Red Pepper Bounty

Red Bell Peppers, Bought Bulk

My $7 farmers market score!

I know I just spent my entire last post waxing eloquent about how much I adore the peak-of-summer ripe tomato, but it’s possible that I love red bell peppers just as much. Unlike picked-ripe tomatoes, you can actually get good red bell peppers year-round. However, they’re SUPER expensive – $6.99/lb. at my food co-op for organic ones, imported from Mexico or somewhere, which can work out to be about $3 for a single pepper. Since I generally try to keep my meals to somewhere between $2.00 and $3.50 per serving, a single red bell pepper can eat up a significant chunk of my budget for a meal. For this reason, I used to only use red bell peppers in my cooking in August and September, when they were fresh and abundant locally.

Tiny Red Bell Peppers

Unusual sizes or shapes = a great opportunity to save money!

Then I discovered that, just like tomatoes, you can buy entire buckets of them at farmers markets in the summer. Like tomatoes, these peppers often differ from the ones that get proudly displayed on market tables – they’re either a tiny bit overripe, or damaged, or often just smaller than the big, fat bell peppers that go for a buck each. But they’re just as delicious, and they’re a FANTASTIC deal – if you can figure out what to do with them!

The first time I found one of these buckets for sale, I snapped it up immediately, without having any idea what I was going to do with all those peppers. I probably could have sat down and eaten them all over the course of a week or so, but I wanted to keep some of them to brighten up that sad and entirely-too-monochrome period from late October to early May, when there isn’t a single fresh, locally-grown vegetable to be found. So I trimmed the bad parts, cut them in half, and stuck them in my freezer – and enjoyed ripe, red peppers all winter long! (Because freezing damages the pepper’s cell walls, these peppers are best used in a dish where they will be cooked; sadly, frozen vegetables are a bit too floppy to be used raw.) 

Last year there were almost no red bell peppers to be had at farmers markets, due to awful growing conditions, and man, did I miss having them in my freezer! So this year I’m going to double-up on my pepper freezing. I’d hate to be caught pepperless again!

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To Freeze Red Bell Peppers

Cut each pepper in half from top to bottom. Remove the stems and inner seeds, and trim away all bad parts.

Lay peppers cut-side-down on a baking tray.

Freezing Bell Peppers

Line up half-peppers on a baking tray to freeze them

Stick it in the freezer. After 24 hours, move peppers to a freezer bag to store all winter!

ALL the peppers

Now I have ALL the peppers.

To use: thaw in a bowl of hot water for ~10 minutes, prepare as usual, and enjoy!

Placeholder for a real post, plus a cool tip

Ohai, internets, long time no see. I’m in the middle of putting together some absurdly complicated applications for research grants to fund my Ph.D. work, so I’ve had absolutely no time to devote to cooking this week, let alone blogging about it. However, I’m cooking up a wonderful-smelling Ethiopian lentil stew even as we speak (this recipe is SUPER easy, so it’s great when things are hectic), and hopefully I’ll have time to post that and some other good stuff later in the week when things calm down a bit.

So, to hold you over until then, here’s a LifeHacker tip about creating a refrigerator “triage box” to help you identify which foods are going to go bad soon so you can eat them and not waste as much money. (This tip is compliments of one of my friends, who saw it and thought of this blog. 🙂 )

Beans!!! (And a Flowchart!)

Beans!!!

Beans!!!

Okay, beans!! I love beans so much that I once read an entire book about the history of beans. They are cheap. They are tasty. They come in about a billion varieties. They show up in basically every regional cuisine on earth.

They are also a bit more involved to cook than some other things, like lentils. And there’s a lot of conflicting advice out there in internet-land about what you should do with them. I have cooked, and eaten, a LOT of beans since I started cooking for myself, so I feel qualified to weigh in on the topic.

Here is the Culinary Cheapskate’s Very Authoritative and Official Guide to Cooking with Beans™, with an emphasis on doing beans on the cheap while still keeping things (relatively) quick and simple.

1. Use dried beans.
Canned beans are super quick and convenient, but they’re about twice as expensive, as well as bulkier to store, and they lack the cooking liquid of home-cooked beans that adds flavor and nutrients to soups and stews. Canned beans are fine in a pinch, but I recommend getting in the habit of cooking your own dried beans over the long run.

Depending on the type of bean and age, dried beans can take anywhere from 45 minutes to three hours to cook. If you stick with the quick-cooking types (including black/tuttle, kidney, lima, adzuki, canelli, and navy beans, all of which should cook up in under an hour if relatively new, assuming they’ve been soaked) and spend the time during which they’re cooking to get your other meal prep done, cooking with dried beans won’t take that much longer than using canned.

2. Soak.
I’m a big advocate of soaking beans. It’s not necessary with beans that cook extremely slowly (such as chickpeas and pinto beans), because the beans will absorb enough water as they cook. However, quick-cooking varieties will generally not absorb their full capacity of water during cooking (particularly if cooked in a pressure cooker), and can turn out dry and mealy.

It might be tricky at first, but if you get into the habit of remembering to throw beans in a bowl to soak in the morning when you’re planning on cooking with them in the evening, soaking your beans is pretty much no harder than not soaking your beans. (If you end up not using your beans that day, you can toss them in the fridge until you’re ready to use them.) Dried beans need four to six hours to fully rehydrate.

However, if you do find yourself making a quasi-last minute decision to use beans in a meal and don’t have any soaking, the quick-soak method is a big help. Wash and sort your beans, and put them in a pot covered by two inches of water. Bring this to a full boil and keep it there for one minute, then shut off the heat, cover, and leave your beans to soak for one hour. They will absorb water more quickly this way.

3. Use a pressure cooker and/or a slow cooker.
If you’re going to cook a lot of beans, particularly the slow-cooking varieties (chickpeas, pintos, and anything that’s been sitting around in your cupboard for ages), then it might be worth investing in a pressure cooker. Pressure cookers cook food at a higher-than-boiling-point temperature, which results in the food cooking faster. The upshot of this, for beans, is that you only need to cook your beans for maybe 20-30% of the time required by regular stovetop cooking. This makes a huge difference when cooking slow kinds of beans like chickpeas and pintos. I recommend soaking beans before you pressure cook them (even though a lot of sources say you don’t have to), as they tend to come out dry and mealy otherwise.

Slow cookers provide another potential way to simplify the process of cooking beans. Most slow cookers reach about 300 degrees on the high setting, which is plenty hot enough to cook beans. However, the food in a slow cooker does take quite a while to reach this temperature, so beans will still take several hours to become fully cooked this way. In my experience, fast-cooking varieties of beans cook in about 3-4 hours in a slow cooker; if you leave them cooking all day, however, they can get overcooked and fall apart completely. Slow-cooking varieties of beans can take from 6 to 8 hours to cook fully in a slow cooker, making this a nice option for cooking slow varieties of beans during the day while you’re at work. Generally, you don’t need to soak beans before cooking them in a slow cooker, which makes this a bit simpler as well.

4. Freeze ’em.
Beans freeze and defrost beautifully, so a good way to simplify your life as a bean-cooker is to cook more than you need and freeze the excess in small containers (1- or 2-cup sizes). I generally just cook as much as I can fit in my pot/pressure cooker/slow cooker and freeze what I don’t use in the meal at hand.

5. Don’t be finicky.
I often encounter recipes that instruct you to keep a close eye on your beans, lest they tragically begin to break apart. I think that this is the kind of finicky nonsense that makes cooking a chore rather than a fun activity. There’s nothing wrong with beans that are breaking up a bit, and in soups and stews, this adds thickness and texture to the dish. (Plus, in my experience, beans that are cooked enough to start breaking apart are less likely to result in epic farting.) So don’t sweat it too much.

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Okay. I love beans so much that I actually made a flow chart about how to cook beans. Click for the full-sized image.

How Should I Cook My Beans?

Affording Naturally-Raised Meats on a Tight Budget

Cedar Summit Farms Cow

Moo.

I want to address the issue of affording meat on a tight budget before I get into anything else here, because meat plays such a large role in the diets of so many Americans. In the interest of full disclosure, I will…well, disclose that I was a vegetarian for the majority of my years eating well on a teensy budget. And I will admit that yes, it is quite a bit simpler to eat well on a tight budget if you eschew meat completely. However, this doesn’t mean that becoming veg is the only way to manage to eat well cheaply, or that I will never post meat recipes here.

I recently fell off the vegetarian wagon (one word: BACON), and, after a brief period in which I ravenously devoured every meat item in sight, tried my hand at some really fancy meat dishes that I could never eat before, and routinely ran up $60-70 weekly grocery bills (ouch), I began to settle into a more moderate state of omnivory. This has involved seeking out ways to include meat in my dishes (and my budget) without making it the focus of every meal. I am still very much in the experimental/learning phase, but I am finding that it isn’t actually too tricky when I apply the same principles to cooking with meat that I’ve applied to my non-meat cooking endeavors all along – basically, figure out what’s cheap and look for recipes that call for that (or adapt recipes that call for something more expensive), and use only small amounts of things that are expensive.

If you are a big meat eater, the main constraint that budget eating will place upon your meat consumption is that it probably won’t allow you to eat meals that feature meat as the main component very often. So people like my grandfather, who stubbornly refuse to eat anything but a big slab of beef or a chicken breast at every single meal, will probably do poorly at reining in food costs. However, if you are open to replacing some of your meat with legumes or eggs, and to trying some recipes that include but don’t feature meat, you’re absolutely on the right track. Read on!

Meat is expensive compared to other protein sources, such as beans and lentils, for two reasons. First, meat just straight up costs more per pound (because it is more expensive to produce). And second, meat loses mass, often a substantial amount, when cooked because it releases some of its fats and water – so the weight of the meat you buy is greater than the amount of mass it will actually add to your food. Dried beans and lentils, on the other hand, actually gain mass and volume when cooked, because they absorb water and expand, so they end up being even cheaper per rehydrated pound than what you pay for them (magical, I know). For these reasons, eating beans and lentils is always going to be cheaper than eating meat.

However, meat really does add something to a dish that is hard to achieve without it. I was actually kind of dismayed, when I started eating meat again, to discover just how bloody tasty it is. The experimentation I’ve done so far has indicated that you don’t actually need that much of it to make a huge taste difference – browning some ground beef or sausage (removed from its casing) at the beginning of a soup or stew, or boiling a big pot of beans with some slab bacon or a ham hock does really make a HUGE difference (take it from someone who has been eating these things sans meat for the past seven years). So you can reap the taste benefits of meat without actually purchasing much of it.

But sometimes you might actually want to eat meat in larger quantities. And this is also do-able, but there are  cheap ways and expensive ways to go about this.

Here are three general strategies for working meat into your meals cheaply, from the least meat-intensive to the most.

1. Use meat as an accent.
As discussed above, sometimes including even a tiny bit of meat, like a ham hock or ¼lb. of bacon, can make a huge flavor difference, and can significantly impact how satisfied and full a dish makes you feel. Mark Bittman’s cookbooks include quite a few recipes that fit this bill, as do cookbooks on various ethnic cuisines (meat has traditionally been far less abundant than today, so culinary traditions from around the world have developed recipes that call for it in small amounts). Or, you can adapt vegetarian recipes by adding a small amount of meat. I will be posting recipes like this in the future.

2. Use meat as a replacement for something else in a dish.
Recently, I cooked chickpea and chicken dish that suggested, as a possible variation, replacing the chicken with eggplant. My first thought was that it would obviously be cheaper to cook the dish with eggplant, but upon inspection at my food co-op, I realized that free-range chicken thighs and organic eggplant are approximately the same price per pound, so in this case, it’s actually no more expensive to cook with meat! You can swap one or more vegetables for meat in virtually any recipe.

3. Focus on cheaper meats.
At this point in my evolution as an omnivore, I have only the most rudimentary grasp on all the different kinds of meats out there and how much they each cost. However, I have noticed that there seems to be a lot of variation in price (I’m incredibly astute, I know). Free-range organic boneless skinless chicken breasts, for example, cost a whopping $7.29/lb at my food co-op (I almost died when I saw that), where as chicken thighs, from the exact same chickens, are $2.29/lb. Upon making this discovery, I set out to find recipes that either called for chicken thighs specifically, or could be adapted to work with chicken thighs, and this has suited me just fine. I’m sure there are all kinds of properties that boneless skinless chicken breasts have that boneful, skinful chicken thighs do not, but I have yet to feel deprived over it. In my mind, this is no different from rejecting recipes that call for expensive cheeses, bizarro varieties of olives, etc.

Bonus strategy: Splurge occasionally.
As with all things in life, keeping up good food and money habits is a lot easier if you occasionally give yourself a break. Craving a huge, juicy steak? Treat yourself to one, if you can afford it. It will make it easier in the long run to maintain a lower level of meat consumption.

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Alright, I’ll leave you with this final thought: There’s been a lot of buzz in recent years over the health benefits of eating less meat and more plants – including not just veggies but also things like beans, lentils, and whole grains. Which means that cutting back on your meat consumption to save money can actually provide you with a healthier, more nutritious (and more environmentally-sound) diet in the process. It’s not very often that life works out so conveniently, eh?

Next up: another great recipe for yummy, cheapo cooking.