from The New Jersey Star-Ledger
October 8th, 2008
Friends take on the challenge to make good and budget-conscious meals
By Beth D’Addono
In these tough times, a chicken in every pot just doesn’t cut it. That chicken has to stretch to two pots, or even three.
As talking heads drone on about the failed economy and the presidential election looms, the reality for most families is a food budget that has to stretch thinner and thinner every week. Home cooks are constantly looking for new and creative ways to feed their families nutritious meals without cutting too many corners.
The question is, can we have our comfort food and eat within our budget, too?
What could be more comforting than chicken at times like these? If you’re like most people, you’ve bought chicken at places like Costco, which sells two-packs of chicken for $.89 a pound, averaging around $8.50 for about 9 1/2 pounds of poultry. Instead of doing the usual — roasting one chicken to feed a family of four, why not see just how many meals you can get out of those two bargain birds?
We went to a couple of savvy home cooks and asked them to take on the experiment.
Alison Bermack gleefully took on the challenge. When it comes to stretching the family food budget, the busy Upper Montclair work-at-home mother of three feels your pain. Bermack spends much of her time dreaming up nutritious and cost-efficient ways to feed her active brood, a quest that led her to rediscover the communal cooking of her childhood.
“I cooked with my father and friends when I was a kid,” said Bermack, 39, whose children are 3, 8 and 11. “Cooking with friends makes what can be a chore more fun.”
And when it comes to figuring out new ways to pinch pennies, two heads are better than one. Bermack recently launched www.cookingwithfriendsclub.com, a website designed to create a community of like minded home cooks eager to feed their families well and save money while they’re at it.
For the chicken smackdown, she enlisted the help of good friend Suzy Goodman, whom she calls ” a great thinking friend in the kitchen.” The challenge? Just how many meals for four could come out of that two-pack of Costco chickens?
Would you believe 10?
Rough cost analysis
The two women came to their cooking “date” with items they already had, and then made a list of what they needed to buy. “Using what you have in your pantry saves money,” said Bermack. “And be flexible. If you don’t have black beans, but you have kidney beans, use them. Don’t be afraid to adapt recipes and play with flavor combinations.”
The pair spent just under $46 on their groceries, which included the chicken, canned goods, like black beans, chipotle peppers and roasted tomatoes, store-bought pie dough, produce and cheese. In their combined pantries, they counted herbs, salt, pepper, lemons, flour, pasta, mayo, corn tortillas, Romano cheese and olive oil.
Once the cooks got started, they surprised themselves at just how far those chickens went. “Times are tough, and I’m used to thinking outside the box,” said Bermack. “But we were pretty astonished.” Ten meals to feed a family of four for under $50, an average of $5 total per main dish, is pretty tough to beat.
Cutting down on the protein serving size was key. Considering that FDA recommended portion size for protein is about four ounces, and a four-pound bird should deliver a 50 percent yield of about two pounds of usable meat, that’s a minimum of eight four-ounce servings. Add in the stock created from boiling the carcasses, and you’re getting somewhere.
Roasting the spice-rubbed birds came first, which they did in their respective kitchens. Then it was meat-picking time — every shred was harvested, about 10 cups of chicken total. Boiling the bones delivered a rich stock for soup. All this happened on Sunday, then the duo got together for two hours Monday and two hours Tuesday and got cooking.
They got five meals out of each chicken. One delivered tortilla soup, chicken and black bean chili, chicken and cheese soft tacos, southwestern salad with shredded chicken and corn and Monterey Jack cheese empanadas. The other bird yielded herbed chicken and vegetable soup, chicken pot pies, chicken Caesar wraps, pesto pizza with herbed chicken chunks and fresh mozzarella and herbed chicken salad in tomato cups. The emphasis was on simple globally inspired recipes that were family-friendly and chock full of flavor.
Chef James Laird was impressed. “Ten meals? Really? That’s great,” said the chef, who owns the toney Restaurant SerenÃ¤de in Chatham with his wife Nancy. Now Laird really isn’t a Costco chicken kind of guy. “Spend a little more, get a better chicken,” says the chef, who is known for his artful presentation of seasonal and locally sourced ingredients in a contemporary French culinary context. An upscale eatery, Restaurant SerenÃ¤de does offer chicken on the menu, an organic grilled breast and braised thigh with wild mushroom duxelles, potato gnocchi and baby turnips for $27.
But Laird is quick to say that there’s more to a chicken than a single meal. “Save all the bones, and you can make a twist on grandma’s chicken soup with root vegetables, and maybe some cilantro to jazz it up. Two carcasses will deliver soup for four people.” Leftovers can be used to make summer rolls or an apple cucumber salad with dill and orange zest. “When you’re stretching a dollar, think of vegetables instead of just protein,” said Laird. “They’re cheaper. And if they’re in season, they’re cheaper still.”
“This really made us focus on portion control, without feeling at all like we were cutting way back on flavor or satisfaction level,” said Bermack. “A portion is a half-cup of chicken. And in these recipes, like pesto pizza, that worked perfectly. The tortilla soup doesn’t have any chicken in it at all, except for the rich chicken stock. And it’s delicious.
“This was a really fun exercise,” said Bermack. “It proved to us that stretching our food dollars could actually be fun.”