Stephen is a former dinner theater actor, waiter, salesman, handyman, and all around DIY enthusiast!
I'm a former student of southwestern cuisine, and I love teaching folks the basics of cooking. In this article, I spill the beans on cheap and healthy ways to dine on the dollar. Learn how to cook the basics for cheap!
Staple Foods You Should Know How to Cook
- Flour Tortillas
- Beef Wellington
I've spent a lot of time searching for the correct recipe for tortillas and have settled on one that's become a family favorite and taco night centerpiece.
- 3 cups white, unbleached flour
- 1/2 cup of manteca or lard
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
Mix the flour, lard, salt and baking powder all in a bowl and work the flour into the lard until it resembles a cornmeal texture. I do it by hand with the blunt side of a spoon, but a mixer works too. Combine well.
Begin slowly adding water as you stir. Pour a little at a time and stop adding water once the flour all clings together and forms a firm dough. Knead either on a floured counter or in a mixer for 5 minutes so the dough begins to become firm and set aside in a bowl covered with a damp towel for 2 hours or so.
Split off pieces of dough about the size of a golf ball and roll them out on a floured counter. A rolling pin works great, but a wine bottle works nicely in a pinch. Heat a skillet to medium heat and when it's good and hot, throw the 1/8 to 1/16th inch thick tortilla into the skillet and turn it over once it bubbles up a bit. You'll develop a knack for knowing when they're ready after the first one or two. The second side cooks faster than the first side.
Place them in a covered dish if you're eating them now or, for extras, I like to throw them on the rack in the oven while its not heated. This lets them cool and dry a tiny bit before I bag them up for the future so they don't get soggy overnight. These keep well for a few days.
Alternatively, look for masa flour in the baking aisle at the store for good corn tortillas. I suggest following the directions, but also adding lime juice for a flavor explosion.
Canned beans are passable sometimes, but for what you're getting they're overpriced. You can buy dry beans, prepare them yourself and end up with several times the amount for the same price and they'll have less preservatives and taste better. Use them just the way they are, or use them for dips, side dishes, or for chick peas make them into hummus or falafel. The possibilities are almost endless with beans.
- 1 lb of dry beans
- an onion
- a couple celery stalks
- some garlic cloves, either whole or minced in a jar
This works with pretty much any bean, be it a pinto, kidney, chickpea, white bean, black bean or what have you.
First, pick through the beans in an otherwise empty pot to be sure they weren't packaged with any little pebbles or anything in them. It happens. Afterward, put some water in with them, just enough to fill a couple inches above the top of the beans (optional, really, but a good idea). Let them sit overnight in the water.
When you're ready to cook, saute some diced onion and celery in a skillet and while that's going, pour off last night's bean water. Add in about 6 cups of fresh water into your pound of beans and bring them to a simmer.
When the onion and celery soften some in the skillet, put some minced garlic in as well and turn the heat off. We just want the garlic to sit in there long enough to get sweaty.
Dump the garlic, onion and celery mixture into the freshly watered beans and bring the whole shebang to a boil with the lid on the pot. When a boil begins, reduce the heat to a simmer. Add any additional seasonings. I make a lot of Mexican food, so I favor a couple tablespoons of chili powder, or any of a wide variety of hot peppers along with cumin, cayenne, black pepper and paprika. Stir every 30 minutes or so to make sure the ones on top are getting nice and soaked.Give them about 1.5 to 2 hours and taste them to make sure they're nice and soft.
If you want to make them refried beans, add some lard and beans with some of the remaining liquid into a food processor and add broth from the beans as need to get the desired thickness. Mmmm.
Be it Asian, Indian, Mexican or Thai, rice is pretty much ubiquitous. There are a few variants that have differing cook times, but when you boil it down, the concept is about the same.
Let's focus on two very different types, as far as the cooking goes: White and brown rice.
- Uncooked white rice
Figure out how much uncooked rice you want and put twice that volume of water into the pot.
2:1 water to rice ratio. Very easy stuff.
Bring it to a boil with the lid on, because a) the volume won't be partially lost due to steam and b) putting the lid on makes it heat faster. Add the rice, and a dash of salt. If you're doing a cup of rice, a teaspoon of salt is plenty. I also like to add about a tablespoon of cooking oil, just so it comes out silky and flavorful.
Give it a whirl with a spoon, put the lid on and don't bother it. Don't even look at the pot. Just adjust the heat to a simmer and set a timer for 20 minutes. In exactly 20 minutes, the rice will be piping hot and fluffy, and should not be dried out which will keep it from sticking to the pot.
Easy cook, easy cleanup.
For brown rice, do the same thing, but cook it for 35-40 minutes. You have permission to bother it at 35 minutes, just to be sure it's tender and not finished cooking prematurely. Remember, adjust the heat to a simmer after the water boils and you add the rice in.
- Don't put the rice in before you bring the water to a boil. That leaves plenty of room for error.
- Remember to put the lid on the rice when you simmer it. Otherwise, it gets dry really fast.
- Make plenty of it. Rice keeps great for up to a week or more and if you have some rice getting a little old, use it to make stir fry or fried rice before it goes bad for a tasty treat.
Sounds boring, right? Wrong! You can make broth way cheaper than you can buy it, homemade broth comes out better tasting and you can use it in pretty much anything. Use it in the beans or rice recipes in place of water for extra flavor, use it as a stock base for soups. Feed it to a sick person just the way it is. The uses are endless.
Yes, there's a recipe for broth, though I consider broth one of those free-form recipes to use up any extra veggies I have that I know are going to hang around until they go bad.
Ingredients (May Include, but Aren't Limited To)
- The leftover bones, skin, and difficult bits of meat from a baked chicken, turkey or other animal.
- Veggies like onions, celery, garlic, carrots, green beans and really anything that isn't starchy so it doesn't accidentally turn into soup
- Fatty trimmings
- Herbs like parsley, sage rosemary and thyme, pepper.
Throw in salt to taste and some pepper and you have a serious broth, made from water and the things you were going to throw out anyway. I make about a gallon at a time in my big stock pot any time I accumulate any of these things.
Just pile them in, bring to boil and reduce to a simmer for an hour or two. Let it sit until cool with the stuff still in the broth, then strain out everything. I like leaving in little onion, celery and carrot bits if possible. You can always add more when it becomes soup or gravy or whatever you dream up.
Broth is just great stuff to have in the fridge. If you don't have a use for it right now, you can portion it out into ziplock bags and freeze it for later cooking projects and it keeps really well.
Just kidding, it's steamed vegetables. I know what you're maybe thinking: Won't eating steamed vegetables, you know... suck? Aren't they a pain in the ass to make?
Definitely no and no! Certainly easier than beef wellington, both in prep and cook time as well as on the waistline.
Simply get something good to steam. I like broccoli, green beans, kale, yellow squash/zucchini, carrots, asparagus. The possibilities are pretty wide open. You can even do a sliced up potato, though I prefer a different technique for those.
I'm in love with microwave steaming. It takes all of 2.5 minutes for most things, and less for some.
First, break them into fork-size bits. Fill a tupperware or bowl with about an inch and a half of veggies and sprinkle them lightly with water. Wet your hands and sling the moisture across them a couple times. Not very much water at all.
Season them to taste. I like a dash of garlic salt. It gets the job done quick and easy. Place a lid on top loosely. My preference is setting a small plate on top of the bowl, all microwave safe of course. This works fine in plastic tupperware too if you want to steam some veggies on the go.
Now cook em. Here's the cook times I like for getting nicely steamed but still firm veggies.
On high, 1.5 mins for kale, collards and leafy greens
2.5 minutes for broccoli, green beans, asparagus or other fibrous ones. Works good for potatoes and turnips too if you slice them into 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick coins of potato/turnip.
3 mins or so for carrots, because carrots are tough bastards.
Careful, the bowl and plate are going to be soldering iron hot