Save money on meals without having to work too hard at it

Dinners for the Desperate Cook

by Ann Miller

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I hate to cook; I'm single; and I'm lazy and busy at the same time. These characteristics can be obstacles to a frugal lifestyle. A couple of years ago I became desperate to find a way to save money on meals without having to work too hard at it, of course.

Like many singles, I usually picked up my dinners from take out or fast food joints. Lunches were often eaten out, or were comprised of cardboard-encased, fatty, frozen heat 'n eat slop.

After one of those "where does my money go" soul-searchings that we've all suffered, I realized that a huge chunk of my take-home went to take-out. It was obvious that I had to begin forcing myself to cook something more than frozen pizzas. If they weren't easy to throw together, I knew I'd get discouraged and give up. And my culinary efforts had to be tasty, or I'd resort to buying the microwaveable barf boxes again. PLUS these make- it- yourself concoctions had to bring down my food bill.

I was fortunate enough to stumble upon a couple of very simple recipes that used just a few ingredients. Few ingredients = less expense. This chow cooks up fairly quickly, and usually requires you to dirty only one dish.

(Before we start, two cheapskate points: Why preheat your oven? Save some pennies on electricity. Modern ovens heat up soon enough if you turn them on moments before your dish goes in. And why purchase a crock pot? Put your chili on the stove or your roast in the oven at a low temperature and leave it go all day. Super-slow cooking works as well as a crock pot, costs the same electricity-wise, and you don't have to find a storage place for the big old thing, either.)

Chicken Pot Pie

1 can (10-3/4 ounces) low fat condensed cream of chicken soup
1 can (15 ounces) mixed vegetables, drained
Plenty of chopped-up cooked chicken (or tuna, or meat substitute)
1 small tube of refrigerated biscuits, or your own biscuits

Mix undiluted soup, vegetables and chicken in a 9-inch pan baking dish until well blended. Add salt and pepper. Bake at 350 F until the mixture is good and hot (15 to 20 minutes).

Top with the biscuits, and follow the can's instructions, baking the entire potpie till the biscuits are lightly browned.

Cedric's Casserole

I make lots of "comfort food" casseroles and split them into several containers for freezing. They make for a filling, balanced lunch. If I didn't have access to a microwave at work, I'd heat my lunch in the morning and pack it in a wide mouth thermos.

Pizza Bagels or Muffins

I'm sure you already know how to make this snack which works as a meal. Take a bagel or English muffin, spread a little pizza or spaghetti sauce over it, sprinkle low fat mozzarella or Parmesan cheese over it; top with pepperoni or sausage. Place on baking sheet and bake at 425 degrees for 12 to 15 minutes, or till hot and bubbly.

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I found two books extremely helpful in my search for easy meals. They were Recipes 1-2-3 by Rozanne Gold and Cooking with Three Ingredients by Andrew Schloss. The recipes I relate here neglect vegetarians, but these elegant books sure don't. These recipes are adapted from Cooking with Three Ingredients:

Chicken with Molasses-Mustard Glaze

4 pounds chicken parts, rinsed and dried
1/3 cup molasses
1/3 cup spicy brown mustard

Meanwhile, mix the molasses (your sugar nuance) with the mustard (your spice nuance). Spoon off any excess fat in the pan. Pour about two-thirds of the molasses mixture over the chicken and turn to coat. Bake for 25-35 minutes for thighs, basting with some of the sauce in the pan every 5 to 7 minutes. When you place the chicken on a plate, spoon a portion of the remaining sauce on each piece. 4 servings.

Pecan Chicken

4 pounds chicken parts, skinned
1 cup creamy garlic dressing
5 oz. ground-up pecans (or enough pecans to coat the chicken).

Roll the chicken in the garlic dressing. Cover and refrigerate for 1-24 hours. Now roll your marinated chicken in the pecans and arrange them in a single layer in a baking dish. Bake at 450 degrees F for 40-45 minutes.

To ensure juicy chicken, I usually bake it at a lower temperature for a longer period than printed above.

Honey-Garlic Glazed Carrots

1 pound carrots, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch-thick diagonal slices
1 tablespoon minced garlic in oil
2 tablespoons honey

In a large nonstick skillet, toss the carrots and minced garlic in oil over medium-high heat until thoroughly mixed. Add 3/4 cup water and bring to a boil. Add the honey and salt and pepper to taste. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until all but a thin film of honey glaze is left, 7 to 10 minutes. Watch the carrots carefully, since as the glaze reduces, its tendency to burn increases. 4 servings.

A cheap classic is pasta of your choice, necessarily flavored with a rich sauce. This sauce is adapted from the exquisite Recipes 1-2-3:

Two-Ingredient Tomato Sauce

Never did so little produce so much intense taste! Easy on the butter or margarine, though -- you might find this too rich.

6 ounces unsalted tomato paste
1/3 to 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter or margarine

Put the tomato paste in a heavy small saucepan and add 1/4 cup water. Heat gently. Cut the butter into small pieces and add to the tomato mixture. Stir with a wooden spoon over low heat. Season with salt and pepper and other ingredients of your choice.

Take this pizza as an hors d'oeuvre or entree to gatherings, and it'll be the first plate to empty. It's awesome at room temperature, but after I arrive at the party, I like to zap it in the microwave for a minute before serving.

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Ham and Swiss Pizza

1-1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1-1/2 medium onions, thinly sliced
1/2 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary OR 1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary
5-6 slices of Canadian bacon
Lots of shredded swiss or Gruyere cheese

Heat olive oil in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and rosemary. Reduce the heat to low; saute the onions until very soft, about 20 minutes. Put the bacon on the pizza shell, then spoon the onion mixture over the bacon. Top with the shredded cheese. Bake on pizza pan in preheated 450F oven for 8 minutes until crust is golden, top bubbly.

If I have time, I stock up on pizza crusts by making them myself. When hungry and/or in a hurry, I use a store-bought brand that costs $2 for two.

The beauty part of these recipes is that when they come out just right, your family or guests will swear you spent the whole day slaving over their food. Fat chance. (Some people are even be convinced I'm a gourmet, which is your laugh for the day.)

My favorites here are partly to serve as examples; with a little research, you'll find it easy to come up with your own "desperation dinners". When good food is this simple and this cheap, there is no reason to be desperate when it comes to stretching your feedbag dollar.

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