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Creative Cooking on a Budget


Diane Phillips knows her way around a pork shoulder. The local cooking instructor and author of the new "Slow Cooker: The Best Cookbook Ever With More Than 400 Easy-to-Make Recipes" loves the cheap meat for its plethora of possibilities — money saving and flavor-wise.

"Pork shoulder is cheap and is one of my favorites," Phillips said. "It yields an incredible amount of meat. It's melting and tender and takes on other flavors really, really well."

She was inspired to write her latest book when faced with a fridge full of leftovers that seemed to have multiplied. The book further inspired her to teach a "Cheap Eats" class at Great News! Cooking School.

"I thought, what if you made one meal in the slow cooker on a Sunday and had all these leftovers? What would you do so they didn't taste like what they started out as?"

That's where the pork shoulder came in. Under Phillips' culinary ministrations, Sunday night's slow cooked meat became Monday night's pork shoulder ragu with pappardelle, then Tuesday night's sesame noodle salad with pulled pork shoulder, then Wednesday night's carnitas and Thursday's pulled pork barbecue sandwich.

She did the math.

"I took a 5-pound piece of pork shoulder from Costco. It comes two five-pound shoulders in a package for $20.

"From (the leftovers of one) $10 pork shoulder, I got 8 cups of meat, and for each one of the dishes I created, I needed 2 cups of meat. Divide that $10 investment into five meals and (with other ingredients like pasta and veggies) you are in the $5 range for meals."

With the Great Recession still wreaking havoc on household budgets, getting creative in the kitchen today means mixing more of that kind of pragmatic arithmetic with culinary imagination.

And while Phillips knows how to stretch her cooking dollars, Melissa d'Arabian, the ebullient host of Food Network's "Ten Dollar Dinners" has a treasure-trove of shopping strategies for feeding her husband and four daughters under the age of 5 on pinched pennies.

In d'Arabian's case, talk isn't cheap. She grew up in a poor family and relishes telling the story of how her mother once made dinner for the entire family for 32 cents using chicken wings, "not drummettes, but the leftovers from the butcher," she said.

"I am a firm believer in not overspending," said d'Arabian. "It's in my blood. Sometimes it's been out of necessity, but honestly, I feel good about saving. I like being a good steward of my resources."

Her philosophy on grocery shopping is that the more a consumer is willing to do her research and pay attention, the less she will spend. To help others cut their grocery bill, she offers these tips:

Go meat: The meat department operates on a loss leader system — a store will advertise certain cuts "really cheap" to draw customers in. If you can manage it, d'Arabian says, buy more than what you need of the advertised product and stick it in the freezer. "You will never pay full price for meat again," she says.

"Bean Night": Also called "Inexpensive Protein Night," this weekly ritual stars eggs, protein-fortified pasta or homemade pizza as the entree.

Luxe cheap: Buy a few wild mushrooms from the bulk bin and add to gently scrambled eggs. "It will cost you less than a dollar and your omelets will seem so fancy."

Dairy queen: If you drink lots of milk, find out from the store's dairy manager when milk nearing its expiration date will go on "manager's special." It's not advertised, so you have to stay on top of it, d'Arabian says. Ditto yogurt.

Drugstore cowgirl: Again, the loss leader comes into play. Check out the drugstore fliers for sale items designed to attract customers. "I can always get canned salmon for $1.59 on a drugstore sale."

Speaking of canned fish: Buy some expensive types of tuna now and then, d'Arabian said. Save the cheap stuff for lunchtime sandwiches, but try the tuna packed in oil or marinated with spices if it's going to headline the evening meal. An expensive can of tuna is rarely 75 cents more than a regular can of tuna, but it elevates the meal.

Eat out of the larder: Money extra tight? Eat out of the pantry, fridge and freezer before shopping again. Use all those accumulated crazy canned goods before buying more food.

Cheap, cheaper, cheapest: Even inexpensive ingredients can cost less. A 10-pound bag of potatoes can cost 99 cents on sale, but those same russets, loose in a bin, can cost 99 cents a pound. Canned beans are cheap, but dried beans are cheaper still.

Fridge management 101: Once a week, scan the contents of your fridge for any wilting veggies and open perishables (such as half-full sour cream containers) and leverage those ingredients into your menu. "I don't care how cheap it was," d'Arabian said. "If you throw it out, it was expensive."

CARNITAS TACOS WITH AMERICA'S FINEST CITY GUACAMOLE

4 cups pulled or shredded pork

1Ú2 cup chicken broth

10 (about 6-inch size) corn or flour tortillas

Cilantro Onion Relish (see accompanying recipe)

America's Finest City Guacamole (see accompanying recipe)

6 servings


Turn the slow cooker onto the high setting, and place the pork into the bottom of the slow cooker, adding 1/2 cup chicken broth. Cover the cooker, and cook for 1 hour.

Wrap the tortillas in aluminum foil, place over the pork in the cooker, and continue to cook for 1 more hour till the tortillas are warmed. Remove the tortillas, and serve the pork from the slow cooker. Serve with America's Finest City Guacamole and Cilantro Onion Relish.


AMERICA'S FINEST CITY GUACAMOLE

1 cup frozen corn kernels, defrosted

1 jalapeno, cut in half and seeded

2 cloves garlic

1Ú2 cup coarsely chopped onion

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

1Ú2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 large ripe avocados, peeled and pitted

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

2 tablespoons bottled tomatillo salsa (such as Frontera brand)

1Ú4 cup chopped fresh cilantro

6 shakes of Tabasco sauce

Makes about 2 1/2 cups


Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with a silicone liner, parchment paper or aluminum foil.

In a small bowl, toss together the corn, jalapeno, garlic, onion, olive oil, salt and pepper. Spread the mixture over the prepared baking sheet and roast until the vegetables are lightly browned, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the roasted mixture from the oven, and when cool enough to handle, peel and chop the jalapeno and squeeze the garlic from its skin. (At this point, you can cover the mixture and refrigerate for up to two days.)

In a medium-size bowl, mash the avocados with the lime juice. Stir in the roasted mixture, and then add the salsa, cilantro and Tabasco, stirring until blended. Taste for seasoning, transfer to a serving bowl, and press plastic wrap onto the dip. (At this point, refrigerate the guacamole for at least four hours and up to 12 hours to let the flavors develop.)

CILANTRO ONION RELISH

1 cup packed cilantro, finely chopped

1Ú2 cup finely chopped sweet yellow onion

2 tablespoons finely chopped Italian parsley

1 teaspoon salt

1Ú2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

In a small bowl, combine the ingredients, cover and refrigerate for at least two hours, or up to 24 hours. Serve the relish with the condiments for fajitas.

—From Diane Phillips

Caroline Dipping writes about food for The San Diego Union-Tribune.
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