Budget-friendly meals from chef Kathy Gunst — who says rising food prices don't mean declining tas
Food prices are rising. Recent reports indicate that food costs are at least 8% more than they were this time last year — and expected to rise even further during the year. The reasons? Let me count the ways: The price of wheat and corn is skyrocketing due to the Russia-Ukraine war. Both countries are producers of much of the world’s wheat as well as vegetable and sunflower oils. The pandemic, supply chain issues and the ongoing drought throughout California have also contributed to soaring prices. And then there’s an avian flu outbreak that has hiked the cost of eggs.
Despite all the reasons to despair, there are many ways to eat well without breaking the budget. These three dishes — that take influences from Spain, France and an American classic — will not make you feel that you’re giving up good taste in order to reduce your grocery bills.
The first dish is my very simplified take on a French cassoulet, a bean and sausage dish. Here I use canned white beans, Italian sausage, herbs and breadcrumbs for a quick, satisfying dish. The second recipe is for a Spanish tortilla made with eggs, potatoes and onions. Three humble ingredients that transform into something beyond the sum of its parts. And the third dish is a new take on the classic American comfort food, mac and cheese. In this version, crispy sauteed broccoli is mixed into the pasta and cheese sauce and the dish is topped with toasted walnuts.
Sausage and white beans with crunchy breadcrumb-herb topping
This is my highly simplified version of the French dish, cassoulet. Canned white beans are sauteed with onion and thyme and then topped with sausage (I used sweet and hot Italian but you can use any variety). The beans and sausage are then topped with breadcrumbs and more herbs and placed under the broiler until crispy and golden brown. The recipe can easily be doubled for a larger family or gathering.
Serves 2 to 3
- 1 tablespoon olive or vegetable oil
- 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1 ½ teaspoons dried thyme, or 1 ½ tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped
- 3 large sausages (I used sweet and hot Italian), about 1 pound, each sausage cut in half
- One 15.5 ounce can white cannellini beans, drained, rinsed in cold water, and drained again
- ½ cup fresh parsley, finely chopped
- 1 ½ cups chicken broth, beef broth or vegetable broth
- ½ cup Panko (coarse breadcrumbs) or breadcrumbs
- 1 tablespoon butter, cut into small cubes, optional
- In a large, ovenproof skillet (about 10 ½ inches), heat the oil over very low heat. Add the onions, salt, pepper and half the thyme and cook, stirring for 5 minutes. Increase the heat to medium and add the sausages; cook about 6 minutes or 3 minutes per side until lightly browned. Add the beans and stir them into the onions and add half the parsley; cook for 1 minute. Raise the heat to high, add the chicken broth and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and cook for 10 minutes.
- Preheat the broiler.
- In a small bowl mix the breadcrumbs and remaining thyme and parsley, and salt and pepper to taste. Place the seasoned breadcrumbs on top of the sausages and beans, patting down slightly. Top with the butter, if using. Place under a hot broiler for about 2 to 5 minutes, or until the entire dish is bubbling and the breadcrumbs have turned a golden brown. Serve hot.
Spanish potato and onion tortilla
A Spanish tortilla is not like a Mexican tortilla. Here, it refers to an egg dish. How can three humble ingredients — potatoes, eggs and onion — transform into something this tasty? This Spanish classic is like a cross between a potato-egg frittata and a “cake.”
In Spain, a potato tortilla is traditionally served as a tapas with small glasses of sherry or local wine. The tortilla can be served for breakfast, brunch, lunch or dinner with a small green salad and crusty warm bread.
If you think this dish sounds unexciting, watch Penelope Cruz prepare a potato tortilla in the brilliant new Pedro Almodóvar film, “Parallel Mothers.”
Serves 4 to 6
- 1 ½ pounds potatoes, peeled and sliced between ¼ and ½ inch (½ inch is a bit too thick)
- 2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
- 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
- Salt and pepper
- 7 eggs
- Place the potatoes in a medium saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce and cook for about 8 to 10 minutes, or until the potatoes are just tender when tested with a small, sharp knife. Drain under cold running water; drain again.
- Meanwhile in a large, ovenproof skillet, about 10 ½ inches, heat 1 tablespoon of the oil over low heat. Add the onions, salt, and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes, or until the onions are tender and golden brown. Remove from the heat.
- In a large bowl vigorously whisk the eggs with salt and pepper. Gently add the potatoes and the onions and mix, being careful not to break up the potatoes. The trick here is to let the eggs soak up the potatoes and onions for about 15 minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
- Add the remaining tablespoon of oil to the skillet and place over medium heat. Add the egg/potato mixture and cook for 1 minute. Transfer to the middle shelf of the preheated oven and bake for about 10 to 15 minutes or until the eggs are fully set and the potatoes tender. Remove from the heat and let cool for 5 minutes. Use a flat kitchen knife to work your way around the edges of the skillet to loosen the eggs and potatoes. Place a plate on top and carefully flip the egg/potatoes onto the plate. Serve warm or at room temperature cut into wedges.
Broccoli and walnut mac and cheese
In this version of the comfort food classic, broccoli plays a starring role alongside macaroni and a basic cheese sauce. With almost equal parts pasta to broccoli this budget- conscious meal is green and “good” for you. A simple cheese sauce is made and blanketed over penne or elbow macaroni and then crispy bits of sauteed broccoli are mixed in and the whole casserole is topped with toasted chopped walnuts.
Avoid buying broccoli crowns, which tend to be more expensive; look for whole broccoli so you can also cook the stalk.
- ½ cup walnuts
- 1 ½ tablespoons butter
- 1 ½ tablespoons flour
- 2 cups milk
- Salt and pepper
- ½ cup plus 2 tablespoons grated cheddar or your favorite cheese
- 1 pound broccoli, ends of stalk trimmed and then florets separated into small pieces and stalk cut into small pieces*
- 1 ½ tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil
- 1 clove garlic, chopped
- ½ pound penne or elbow macaroni
*Florets are the little “tree” shaped top part of the broccoli. If they are large, cut them into smaller ½-inch size pieces.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to boil for the pasta.
- Toast the walnuts: Place the nuts in a dry skillet over medium-high heat for 5 minutes or until you can smell the nuts and they are just beginning to turn a richer brown. Remove and finely chop until almost finely chopped; set aside.
- Meanwhile, make the cheese sauce: In a medium saucepan heat the butter until sizzling over moderate heat. Stir in the flour and cook for 1 to 2 minutes. Slowly add the milk, whisking and cook for about 5 minutes, until thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add the ½ cup grated cheese and reserve the remaining 2 tablespoons.
- Make the broccoli: In a large skillet, bring 2 cups of water to boil over high heat. Add the broccoli florets and stalk pieces and cook for 4 to 5 minutes or until almost tender, but still slightly undercooked. Drain under cold running water and drain again. Place the same skillet over high heat, add the oil and then the garlic and cook, stirring, 10 seconds. Add the broccoli and cook for about 5 to 7 minutes, or until the broccoli is blistered and begins to brown.
- Cook the pasta according to the package, about 11 minutes or until al dente. The pasta should not be quite fully tender; drain.
- In a large gratin dish (about 14 inches) or a shallow casserole, toss the pasta with the cheese sauce. Stir in the broccoli and garlic from the bottom of the skillet. (The dish can be made several hours ahead of time up to this point. Cover and refrigerate.)
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Top the mac and cheese with the walnuts and the remaining 2 tablespoons of cheese. Bake on the middle shelf for about 20 minutes, or until the cheese and sauce is bubbling hot. Serve hot.
More budget-conscious ideas:
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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