For most of us, food is the biggest expense after housing and possibly transportation if you’ve got one of those big old car payments. With budgets getting tighter and tighter, more and more of us are looking at the old grocery bill with eager scalpel in hand, looking for places to nip and tuck our way to financial glory.
The biggest help I’ve found in reducing my grocery bill has been to look at everything I buy and ask myself what it really is. We pay a hefty price for the convenience of having someone else do things for us, a price that is not always worth the premium; and we have become so accustomed to essentially being spoon-fed finished products that we don’t even realize there is an alternative.
Take tortillas. An eight-count package of burrito-sized tortillas runs $3.65, or 46 cents per tortilla. With each Denizen slamming down two or three tortillas in a sitting, we can run through two of those packages a day without even getting a meal out of it.
So: What is a tortilla? Flour, salt, shortening and water. That’s it. Add some shaping and some heat, and you’re on your way.
When I make a batch of tortillas from scratch, it takes two cups of flour ($0.14), a quarter cup of shortening ($0.25), a dash of salt (less than a penny) and 3/4 cup of warm water. That makes about a dozen large tortillas, for $0.40…around three cents each, plus some time.
Potato chips: Potatoes, salt, and either an oven rack or a couple inches of hot oil. A pound of potatoes is around forty cents, a bag of potato chips is $5 for a 16 ounce bag. Oh, but you want the “special” flavors…check out the specialty salts, both in the ‘seasoning’ aisle and around the popcorn. A jar of BBQ-flavored salt designed for popcorn runs about a buck, and will season at least six batches of home-fried potato chips. Just about any potato chip flavoring you can imagine is also made in a “sprinkle on your popcorn” form.
Add a sharp knife to a whole pork loin, and you’ve got boneless pork chops. I pay about two bucks a pound for the whole loin, versus $4.99 and up for a pound of boneless pork chops.
When you’re in the supermarket about to buy The Usual, take a second to really think about what you’re paying for, and how big a deal it would really be to make it from scratch.
A boxed chicken-flavored rice dish for $2.40, with three servings? How about 1.5 cups of rice ($0.60) plus three chicken bouillon cubes (~ $0.30)? (Dissolve the cubes in a little hot water, stir it into your water and make the rice as usual.)
It’s just a matter of stopping to actually think about what, precisely, you’re paying for…and then making a call about whether or not it’s worth the premium you’re paying for it. I’ll be frank, a lot of times when I add in the freshness and “custom flavor blending” I get when I make my own Spanish rice or refried beans, the crack-a-can convenience just isn’t worth the 100% or more price increase.
And now, because too many people have said, “But isn’t making tortillas really hard? Don’t you need special equipment and some junk?”…here’s how to make a batch of about twelve 9” tortillas.
2 cups flour
Dash of salt
1/4 cup shortening
3/4 cup warm water
Cut the shortening into the flour until thoroughly blended. A pastry blender is awesome for this, but a fork or two knives works just as well. Add the water and knead until you’ve got a smooth, elastic ball – you can do this with the dough hook on your stand mixer, or by hand. You want the gluten to really break down so that you’ve got a dough with a lot of stretch to it.
Set it aside, cover with a clean cloth (because a dirty one would be gross) (seriously, why do they always specify a “clean” cloth? Would anybody out there actually say, “Eh, this garage towel will do!” and put some greasy gross towel over their food?!) and let it rest about fifteen-twenty minutes.
Take a non-stick frying pan big enough to accommodate your desired tortilla and heat it up over medium-high heat. You don’t need to add anything to the pan. Dust your working surface with a little flour (and be prepared to do this again and again and again), take a small handful of the dough and roll it into a ball.
Using the flour as needed to keep it from sticking to your board, roll it out to the size and thickness you want. We like them kind of thin around here, but a little thicker is better if you’re doing soft tacos.
You can either roll them all out and then start cooking, or you can cook as you go. In either case, you’ll want to flip it over halfway through cooking – only about one to two minutes on each side. These are super-easy (and lots of fun) to flip without the aid of a spatula. Great for making you feel awfully clever, and if you miss, no big deal – they don’t coat your kitchen in raw dough if they fall out of the pan half-cooked.
Repeat until you’re out of dough.
Wrap around your favorite fixin’s and enjoy…for a lot less than the store-bought version.
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