How I cooked when we were poor

thrifty frugal vintage kitchen tools cupsToo poor for recipes: Often when I share those stories about how poor we were, people want my recipes. On that kind of a budget, I just experimented more than I used recipes, because most recipes called for ingredients we couldn’t buy.

Primarily, we just ate pinto and kidney beans six different ways, potatoes a dozen different ways, and added eggs to the mix from time to time. I don’t think it was the healthiest we’ve ever eaten, either, although we did live in milder clilmate then, so we could afford a surprising number of fruits and veggies. It wasn’t elegant or pretty most of the time,  but it fed us.

What variety we had was primarily in how I fixed the same few basic ingredients. Most of them are high carb, too. I suspect this is why many poor people are overweight- they can’t afford much protein, and the high carb foods are the cheapest (white bread, potatoes, pasta, rice, beans). But people who have never experienced this do not understand that sometimes you don’t have enough money to worry about that sort of thing. It’s all very well for people with more financial flexibility to talk about saving health costs in the long run, and it’s sensible and wise and quite reasonable. It’s just not always possible or practical for people who are struggling just to survive the short run.

To survive our own short run, I saved all leftovers, no matter how tiny, to use in soups and omelets. I had a container in the freezer where I scraped every single spoonful of leftover anything for ‘repurposing.’ It’s a funny thing, but one egg can make a fairly satisfying omelet with just a couple tablespoons of leftovers in the center. That same egg makes a pathetic little spoonful of scrambled egg.

To make a basic omelette you just mix your egg well with a bit of liquid. I used one tablespoon of water to each egg most of the time, adding salt and pepper to taste. If you have it, instead of water use around a teaspoon or two of mayonnaise per egg and mix this with your egg, beating it in until well blended. Mayo makes for fluffier, yet meatier omelettes. They don’t tear as easily when you scoop them out.

I would heat up about 1/4 a cup of those frozen vegetables and get out a spoonful or so of grated cheese if I had it. My husband likes horseradish, too, and that’s a nice quick spurt of flavor for those who like it. Make a bit of white sauce for ‘creamed’ vegetables if you like (melt 1 T fat, stir in 1 T flour until it’s a golden brown paste, add 1 cup of liquid, simmer, stirring continuously until you have a smooth, thickened sauce). Set these aside, keeping the veggies warm.

Then grease your skillet, heating it over medium high heat. Pour in the egg you’ve beaten well with a fork, tilting the skillet to spread it over as much of the pan as possible. While it continues to cook, use your spatula and lift up the browning edges of the omelette, turning the pan again to let the uncooked, runny top run down and under the cooking omelette. Keep doing this until the top is not longer completely runny. A real omelette maker will have the oven on broil and will put the pan in the oven for a minute just to finish the top. I just flipped it. It flips easier if you’ve made it with mayonnaise, but if it breaks when you turn it that’s not the end of the world. Just try to be gentle with the pieces so you don’t turn it into scrambled eggs.

To serve, slide it out of the pan onto a plate. Top with the grated cheese if you have it, or save this to garnish the top. Spoon the warmed vegetables down the center and fold the omelette in half. As I said earlier, it’s amazing to me how much more substantial one egg seems when cooked this way than when scrambled, even if you serve it with the same amount of vegetables and cheese.

Soup: Whenever I fixed frozen spinach, I saved the vitamin rich liquid from the spinach and mixed that with the white sauce (see above). I added more liquid if I wanted a ‘cream of spinach soup’ for a side dish. I used less to make a thicker sauce if I wanted a sauce for a ‘florentine omelette’ or to mix with pasta. You can do this with the liquid from any frozen vegetables, but frozen spinach has much more, and I think it made the best soup. You can have it as a clear soup if you just add a bit of minced onion (green onion is nice) and perhaps a pinch of nutmeg for a touch of elegance.  Almost all odds and ends of leftovers can be utilized to make a generic pot of soup.

Egg strips and stir fries: Sometimes I would combine an egg with a little salt, pepper, and flour, mix it well with a fork and then spread it thin in a hot, oiled frying pan, sort of like an omelette, only thinner. The addition of the flour also made it a bit firmer. Once it was cooked through, I would cut it in strips. We’d have stir fried veggies over it. The stir fry would be made of whatever odds and ends of vegetables I had- I didn’t use a recipe.

To make a tasty stirfry you want around two cups of fresh or frozen vegetables to fry, along with some garlic, ginger, and soy sauce- skip the ginger if you don’t have it. Add a bit of liquid (perhaps a cup or a bit less) mixed well with around two teaspoons of cornstarch to the vegetables at the last minute and cook on high, stirring quickly until the liquid thickens and then clears.

Wild foods: I sometimes tried wild greens in our stirfries and omelettes, even though we lived in the city at the time. Dandelion greens seemed bitter to me, but some people like them. Purslane is one of my favorites. Slicing the top off turnips and then putting that top in a shallow pan of water is another way to add a bit of free greens to your menu. Beet tops also work as well.   More on that here.

Fried rice is a great way to use your leftovers. You don’t need meat. You can use eggs for protein. It’s nearly infinitely adaptable.  there are other ways to use leftover rice as well.

Grow your own sprouts for fresh veggies that are nearly free.

You don’t have to eat like this forever.  But it’s a useful skill and discipline to have to get you over a tight spot, or let you build yourself a bit more of  financial cushion.

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  1. Diana
    Posted February 27, 2013 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    I love this, and your past articles on the same. Sometimes our ideas are just too inflated for our means, and we HAVE to adjust to present circumstances ! I’ve never thought myself affluent, but I have affluent assumptions, especially regarding food. We are currently in a time that calls for just such reductions in food costs, and I love getting the ideas. Thanks!!

  2. Posted March 5, 2013 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the mayo-in-the-omelette tip. I’d never heard of that before but I tried it this morning and it was perfect. I love omelettes but mine are usually so lousy that I give up and turn them into scrambled eggs. :-p

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