Food & Drink

Expert advice for stretching your protein dollars while cooking at home

This Lemon Orzo-Veggie Salad with Chicken recipe can be stretched even more by doubling pasta, vegetables and dressing ingredients.
This Lemon Orzo-Veggie Salad with Chicken recipe can be stretched even more by doubling pasta, vegetables and dressing ingredients. jleonard@newsobserver.com

Today is tax day, and you may be wincing a bit if you had to write a bigger-than-expected check to the state or Uncle Sam.

Moments like these make many of us ponder belt tightening, especially how we can save a few dollars on our food budgets.

First off, the easiest way to save money on food is to cook more of it at home. Second, the most expensive items on our shopping lists are often animal proteins: filets of fish, hunks of meat, cuts of poultry. So how can we save money and still get our protein fix?

Linda Watson of Raleigh, who offers frugal, healthy recipes on her Cook for Good website, says: “The most expensive protein you eat is a protein you don’t need.”

The typical American consumes too much protein, said Jennifer Anderson, a registered dietitian with the heart and vascular institute at Novant Health in Charlotte.

Most adults need between 46 and 56 grams of protein a day. Keep in mind that two large eggs have 12 grams, a 4-ounce piece of chicken has 36 grams, and an 8-ounce cup of skim milk has 8 grams. Eat all of those in a day and you have consumed the recommended daily limit.

“We can get our needs met without having meat at every single meal,” Anderson said.

Fish, meat and poultry are not our only sources of protein. Think of financial guru Dave Ramsey’s oft-given advice to those trying to save money: Eat beans and rice and rice and beans.

You don’t have to be that spartan, but beans are a good starting point for frugal, protein-packed meals. Many other vegetables are excellent sources of protein: potatoes and green vegetables such as peas, broccoli and leafy greens. And don’t forget protein powerhouse Greek yogurt.

Another idea is to stretch the animal proteins that you do buy with other ingredients. Instead of a hunk of meat on your plate, use meat to season a vegetable stir fry or a bean soup. One chopped chicken breast can go a long way in a pasta salad filled with vegetables. Ground beef goes farther for tacos if tortillas are also filled with grilled peppers, onions and squash.

When you do shop for fish, meat or poultry, only buy it on sale, advises frugal blogger Jessica Fisher, author of the Good Cheap Eats blog and a new cookbook by the same name.

Fisher has a lot of experience stretching protein dollars, feeding her family of eight. She combines ground turkey and black beans for a simple taco dinner. She makes lasagna with only a pound of ground meat, and sloppy Joes instead of hamburgers. She notes that today’s chicken breasts are so huge that she often cuts them into four portions.

Less meat doesn’t leave her or her family hungry.

“We feel satisfied,” Fisher said. “We don’t feel deprived.”

The cheapest sources of protein

We compare some of our favorite sources of protein by price per ounce.

Dried Beans: $1.87 for 32 ounces, which when cooked equals about 96 ounces; 2 cents per ounce.

Canned Beans: 77 cents for 15.5-ounce can; about 5 cents per ounce.

Kale: $1.99 for 2-pound bunch; 6 cents an ounce.

Eggs: $1.89 a dozen for large eggs, which are each 1.75 ounces; 9 cents an ounce.

Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breast: $1.99 a pound on sale at meat counter; 12 cents per ounce.

Canned tuna: 90 cents for 5 ounce can; 18 cents per ounce.

Ground Pork, 90 percent lean: $3.99 per pound; 25 cents per ounce.

Ground Beef, 93 percent lean: $5.99 per pound; 37 cents per ounce.

Source: Prices based on Harris Teeter Express Lane.

Take Wildly Good cooking challenge

Raleigh cookbook author Linda Watson is offering a four-week webinar to help people cook more at home. For $99, you get a copy of her cookbook, “Wildly Affordable Organic,” a set of four cooking DVDs, new recipes, streaming online cooking classes and a month of inspiration. It runs Thursday-May 11. Details: cookforgood.com/challenge/

More recipes for stretching protein dollars

Italian Tuna and White Bean Salad: Combine 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon minced garlic, 1/4 teaspoon each kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper and Dijon mustard in a large bowl and stir with a whisk. Add 1 cup halved grape tomatoes, 1 cup sliced red onion, 2 (6-ounce) cans tuna packed in oil (drained and broken into chunks), 1 (15-ounce) can cannellini beans (drained and rinsed) and 1 chopped head green leaf lettuce. Toss. Divide among four plates and top with grated Romano or Parmesan cheese.

Peanut Butter Chicken and Pasta: Whisk together 1/3 cup each rice vinegar and vegetable oil, 2 tablespoons each peanut butter and soy sauce, 1 tablespoon each honey and toasted sesame oil, 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger and 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes. Heat 2 tablespoons vegetable oil in a large skillet until hot. Cook 1 peeled, shredded carrot for 1 minute, stirring. Add 1 pound chopped skinless, boneless chicken breasts and 1 cup chopped green onions, stirring constantly, about 10 minutes or until chicken is cooked. Bring large pot of water to a boil; cook 1 pound linguini or thin spaghetti according to package directions. Drain, toss with sauce and 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro. Divide noodles among four plates and top with chicken.

Check out more recipes, such as Tuscan Beans with Olive Oil and Aromatics, Chick Pea Stew and Down East Baked Beans, and on our new site, The Recipe: nando.com/therecipe.

Sources: Recipes adapted from “Cooking Light The Complete Quick Cook,” by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough (Oxmoor House, 2011); “Good Cheap Eats,” by Jessica Fisher (Harvard Common Press, 2014).

Vegetable Bibimbap

Adapted from “The Complete Vegetarian Cookbook,” by the Editors of America’s Test Kitchen (2015).

4 ounces (2 cups) bean sprouts

1 carrot, peeled and shredded

1 cucumber, peeled, halved lengthwise, seeded, and sliced 1/4-inch thick

1 cup plus 1 tablespoon and 2 teaspoons rice vinegar, divided

1 cup short-grain white rice

2 cups water

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided

12 ounces shiitake or portobello mushrooms, stems removed, and sliced 1/2-inch thick

3 garlic cloves, minced

10 ounces (10 cups) baby spinach

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil

Salt and pepper

4 large eggs

Combine bean sprouts, carrot, cucumber and 1 cup rice vinegar in a bowl, pressing to submerge vegetables in vinegar. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to 24 hours. Before serving, strain vegetables, discarding liquid.

Bring rice, water, 2 teaspoons rice vinegar and salt to a boil in a medium saucepan over high heat. Cover, reduce heat to low, and cook until liquid has been absorbed, 7 to 9 minutes. Remove rice from heat and let sit, covered, until tender, about 15 minutes.

Heat 1 tablespoon vegetable oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until just smoking. Add mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, until they release their liquid, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in spinach, 1 handful at a time, and cook until wilted, about 3 minutes. Off heat, stir in soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, and remaining 1 tablespoon vinegar, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to platter and tent loosely with aluminum foil.

Crack eggs into 2 small bowls (2 eggs per bowl) and season with salt and pepper. Wipe out now-empty skillet with paper towels, add remaining 1 tablespoon oil, and heat over medium heat until shimmering. Working quickly, pour 1 bowl of eggs in 1 side of pan and second bowl of eggs in other side. Cover and cook until whites are set but yolks are still runny, 2 to 3 minutes.

To serve, portion rice into bowls, top with vegetables and fried eggs, and serve with pickled vegetables.

Yield: 4 servings.

Simple Bean Tostadas with Homemade Refried Beans

You can stretch this dish even more by topping the tostadas with grilled peppers and onions. From “Good Cheap Eats,” by Jessica Fisher (Harvard Common Press, 2014).

1 tablespoon vegetable oil, plus more for frying

1/4 cup chopped onion

1 teaspoon minced garlic

4 cups cooked (or 2 15-ounce cans) black beans (rinsed and drained, if canned)

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

12 corn tortillas

2 cups shredded cheddar cheese

1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved

2 cups shredded lettuce

1/2 cup sour cream

Tomato salsa, optional

Heat oil until shimmering in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and sauté until tender, 5 to 7 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add half the beans to the skillet, mashing them with a potato masher or the back of a large spoon and mixing them with the onion mixture.

Stir in remaining beans, cumin, and salt and pepper to taste. If too dry, add a bit of water. Cook until heated through and adjust seasonings to taste. Keep warm if using immediately. (These can be made ahead and stored in refrigerator for up to 4 days and in freezer for up to 2 months.)

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. In a small skillet, heat 1/2 inch oil over medium-high heat until very hot. A small bit of tortilla will sizzle when the oil is ready. Fry tortillas until stiff. Place tortillas on a rimmed baking sheet and bake until brown and crunchy, about 5-7 minutes.

Spread beans over tortilla shells. Top with cheese, tomatoes, lettuce and sour cream. Serve with salsa.

Yield: 12 tostadas.

Lemon Orzo-Veggie Salad with Chicken

You could substitute bulghur, quinoa or brown rice for the orzo. This recipe can be stretched even more by doubling pasta, vegetables and dressing ingredients. Recipes adapted from “Cooking Light The Complete Quick Cook,” by Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough (Oxmoor House, 2011).

3/4 cup uncooked orzo

1/4 teaspoon lemon zest

3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon minced garlic

1/4 teaspoon honey

1/8 teaspoon freshly grated black pepper

1 cup shredded, cooked chicken breast

1/2 cup diced cucumber

1/2 cup chopped red bell pepper, seeds and stems removed

1/3 cup thinly sliced green onions, about 2 onions

1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill

1/2 cup crumbled goat cheese or feta cheese

Cook orzo according to package directions. Drain and rinse with cold water. Drain and place in a large bowl.

Combine lemon zest, lemon juice, olive oil, salt, garlic, honey and black pepper in a small bowl, stirring to fully combine. Drizzle dressing over orzo; toss to coat. Add chicken, cucumber, red bell pepper, green onions and dill. Toss to gently combine. Divide among four plates and top with cheese.

Yield: 4 servings.

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