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Frugal Living: Picadillo For Dinner Tonight
Frugal living in this day of continually rising food prices is not easy. In an effort to save money and still eat well, I'm presenting a series of recipes for dinner tonight that are easy and easy on the budget.
My father was a depression era baby, as was my mother. As the depression was ending, World War II was beginning and with that came the rationing of meat, eggs, butter, cheese, milk, tea and chocolate. My father never really discussed what dishes were served while he was growing up, but my impression was that scarcity defined his childhood. He always had an eagle eye for how much butter we spread on the white bread that accompanied our every meal and I know that this was not meanness, but a remnant of his depression era youth. My mother grew up on a farm, so dairy products and meat were more readily available, but the cooking was heavy and bland. She became a mother and housewife during the fifties and her cooking was informed by Betty Crocker and by the advent of the casserole. The casserole has made a comeback, but not in my house. I have too many memories of noodles with hamburger and some kind of creamy sauce, weird chicken liver bakes, wieners and noodles, Hungarian ghoulash, tamale pie. On nights that pennies were short, and my mother was in a particularly bad mood, there was no casserole, but creamed tuna on toast. We didn’t say a word.
Having said that, I am prepared to eat my words and a bit of casserole. Or what I like to think of as the modern casserole, which is actually our return to the recipes from our past, that we are tending with a lightened hand (read, less fat). The truth is, the price of groceries has risen to such a degree that I can no longer afford to eat like I was a couple of years ago. Having all but banished restaurants from the repertoire (and not happily…) I have been attempting to put together meals that allow for leftovers for under ten dollars and that you could serve to company. After all, shouldn’t we treat our family like company?
In Part I, I am focusing on the classic meal stretcher, hamburger. Ground meat has been around since, well.., forever. The English ground or chopped beef for pasties (small pies filled with minced meat), the Lebanese for kibbe (minced meat with bulgar and spices), the Puerto Ricans for pastilles (turnovers), the Spanish for empanadas (stuffed pastry) and the Cubans for picadillo (a delicious blend of ground beef, olives, peppers and raisins.) Ground beef, or hamburger, as it is frequently referred to, is still the most frequently consume beef product in the United States. In part, that is because of the heralded status of the “Burger” in our culture. It’s also because we rely heavily on ground beef as a filler in spaghetti sauce, meatloaf, chili, and innumerable casseroles. We parted ways with ground beef only briefly during the Mad Cow disease scare of February 2008 and then the Ecoli scare of August 2008. It’s hard to scare us away from one of our favorites forever.
What should scare us, if only briefly, is the fat and caloric content of most casseroles, especially those that are pleasing to the palette and the budget. If cheese is the main ingredient, then you are in deep trouble with both fat and calories. Hard cheeses like parmesan-reggiano, pecorino, asiago, sbrinz, and grana padano, all offer pungent flavor for fewer fat calories than soft cheeses that proffer up little flavor when mingled with other ingredients in a casserole. And since we are talking about ground beef, it’s important to look at a few ‘fat’ facts. Most ground beef in this country is called “70 percent”, which means that it is 30% fat. Look for at least ‘80%’ or ‘90%’ so that you can cut down on fat.
Tonight, I offer you the ethnic Cuban Picadillo which is healthy, delicious, within budget, and non-casserole. Serve it on white rice, perhaps with a side of black beans, and you will have a delicious recession era proof meal.
2 lbs. lean ground beef
1 onion finely chopped
3 garlic cloves finely minced
1 red bell pepper chopped
1 yellow pepper
1 12 oz. can tomato sauce
1 12 oz. can chopped tomatoes
1 cup raisins
1 cup green olives chopped
1 tsp. oregano
2 tsp. cumin
Make the sofrito first by sautéing the onion, garlic, spices and peppers together. Add the tomato sauce and the tomatoes and cook until well blending with the vegetable mixture. Then add the hamburger, crumbling it into the mixture and cooking it all until bubbly and the meat is done. Then add the raisins and olives and simmer for another ten minutes until the flavors are blended. Serve on white rice with a side of black beans.