Saturday, May 21, 2011

Pasta e Ceci and How to Lower Your Grocery Bill

Ah, yes, cheap food. It seems everyone is looking for "budget meals" these days, and while technically this fits the bill, I tend to subscribe to the idea that everything can be a budget meal if you actually take the time to budget.

A day doesn't pass that I don't see some new list on the internet of ways to save money by cooking your own food, and of course they make excellent points, but they're pretty common sense, if you ask me. I can sum up my budgeting tips in five words: plan ahead and don't waste. But, of course, magazines and websites have to at least try to sell you some bits of knowledge.

Here's how I plan ahead and plan not to waste:

1. Plan your meals for the week, and do it ahead of your big weekly grocery shopping trip. Obviously, this means you'll need to plan on getting everything you will need on one shopping trip, which really isn't as daunting as it may sound. Every now and then I forget an item or two on my list (I have a habit of crossing an item off before I reach the item's grocery store location, only to be distracted by shiny things) and have to make a second trip during the week, but I find that the amount of time I spend planning in my down time more than makes up for the time I save not running back and forth to the store throughout the week when I don't have time. It's also useful to plan ahead since you can take stock of what is already in your refrigerator and not about to spoil. If you are planning on tacos, sandwiches, etc., it's helpful to know what kind of condiments you already have sitting in your fridge, and if you need a specific spice, your spice rack will thank you for thinking of it ahead of time.

2. Stock up on and keep note of your staples. Rice, pasta, grains, beans, flour, sugar, etc., are not only handy to have for those days you need to improvise, they are also the most powerful tools in your arsenal. I plan around the levels of my staples, so if I'm close to running out of pasta, I plan a pasta dish that will use up the remainder and then include a new pasta supply on my grocery list. If you are constantly buying a new staple (quinoa one week, bulgur the next; brown rice one week, jasmine rice the next) instead of using the abundance in your cupboard, you are likely wasting money. I keep a list on the fridge and check it weekly--when supplies are low, I make a note of it and buy more on my next shopping trip.

3. Plan meals that can be stretched out, and/or plan meals with ingredients you can use throughout the week. Most people know that if you buy a whole chicken and roast it, you'll have chicken for sandwiches, salads, soups and snacks throughout the week, but this rule really applies to many other ingredients. If I buy a big ol' bag of red bell peppers in bulk, I might use a couple in a stir fry one night, and then roast the remainder for a roasted red pepper pasta sauce and as a topping for panini or salads throughout the week. Likewise, if you make a batch of marinara sauce for spaghetti and meatballs, you can freeze the rest or use it on pizza or eggplant parmesan later in the week. Lentil chili one night easily becomes an awesome topping for baked sweet potatoes. Chicken and herbed rice one night becomes chicken fried rice the next.

4. Don't rely on coupons. Not only are most coupons a rip off (who really wants to buy two huge jars of crappy pasta sauce when even on sale, the homemade stuff is cheaper...and tastier). There might be sales offered in the produce department, but coupons never cover produce, and most of the crap that coupons entice you to buy or things you would likely not buy without a coupon. Stick to whole foods that you can cook and generate multiple recipes with rather than processed foods for 20 cents off.

5. Don't waste food. Obviously, eating leftovers or repurposing leftovers into other meals will help you reduce waste in your household, but there are other ways people waste than throwing out five day old chili. Those ends to the celery with leaves? Vegetable peelings that usually go into the trash? Save them in a container in the freezer, and the next time you feel the urge to make soup, reach in and grab your veggie scraps, throw in a pot, add water, salt and pepper, and your vegetable stock is ready to go. Same thing goes for beef or chicken bones--throw them in the freezer and when you have time (while you're folding laundry or doing chores over the short and crazy weekend), make beef or chicken stock. You won't have to buy packaged broth, which will cut down on your grocery bill, but it will also get you in the habit of finding creative ways to reduce waste in other areas. Even if it's using that last tiny handful of pine nuts in a pasta dish or keeping the hard rinds of Parmesan for an Italian soup or pasta sauce, you can find a way to not only save money, but also liven up your menu.

These are just the basics, and here is a basic recipe that I often refer to as "midweek staples purge" for its usage of tiny pasta, beans, and chicken stock. Since all three of the aforementioned are staples, I tend to make this a lot, and the actual price per serving comes out to around $1.33 (even cheaper if I grow the rosemary myself in the garden). Still think that $5 footlong for dinner is a bargain now?

The following recipe calls for canned garbanzo beans, but to keep the serving price super low, I usually use dried beans. I also cannot find ditalini pasta in these parts, so I usually sub with a Mexican pasta brand that carries small, star-shaped pasta.

Pasta e Ceci
(from Serious Eats)

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 stick of celery, trimmed and finely chopped, plus celery leaves if available
1 clove of garlic, peeled and finely chopped
Extra virgin olive oil
2 sprigs fresh rosemary, leaves picked and finely chopped
2 14-ounce cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
3 cups chicken or vegetable stock
3 1/2 ounces ditalini or other small soup pasta
A good handful of fresh basil or parsley, leaves picked and roughly chopped
Juice of half a lemon

1. Heat a large skillet or soup pot over medium-low heat, and add the olive oil. Saute the onion, garlic, celery, and celery leaves, covered, until soft and colorless, about 15 minutes.

2. Add the chickpeas and stock and bring to a gentle boil. Simmer for 20 minutes until the chickpeas are soft. Remove half the chickpeas with a slotted spoon, and purée the soup in a blender, through a food mill, or with an immersion blender. Return the purée and reserved chickpeas to the pot, and add the pasta.

3. Cook until the pasta is tender, adding boiling water if necessary to loosen. Season to taste with salt and pepper and the lemon juice. Serve with parsley or basil leaves and a drizzle of olive oil.


  1. Looks great! Will definitely give it a shot soon. Also, I'm crazy about your photos.

  2. Thanks, Melissa. I wish I had real photography skills, but until then, lots of lighting and my silly old Nikon point-and-shoot will have to do!