Subpar Sub Rolls

Things have been grim here financially, and then I got sick and we had a blizzard warning on top of it. I’d bought two big packs of on sale ground beef at Market Basket, super fresh and tasty 85%, and the first of them had been partly used and partly frozen. The other sat in the fridge until the day after I’d normally have preferred to use. With everyone having suffered through fending for themselves the day before, and the burger needing to be used unless it had gone bad, I decided to make meatballs. Universally loved by all five of us, but not a meal I consider very frugal. The burger turned out to be as fresh as if you’d just bought it at an ordinary store. Given that it was well over 3 lbs, the amount that normally goes into meatballs, and that it wasn’t right on the edge, I made a big patty to freeze and at least got some freezer fodder out of it. While I was sick, with a blizzard expected, the wife went to the store and got a couple bags of ice to top off the freezer and help it keep should the power go out. Also, as a preventative to losing power, which worked. The alternative to meatballs was chili, but I could have done that on a pound of burger.

When I make meatballs, I usually make gravy and either egg noodles or potatoes. Neither were on hand. Sometimes we have them as meatball subs, for anyone who wants them that way, with red sauce (or just ketchup) and optional cheese. But there were no rolls, either! And not much bread, for that matter. I haven’t been buying sub rolls because I haven’t been buying cold cuts, because that’s expensive. When I could afford it, every 2-4 weeks we’d have subs for supper. If I’d planned the meatballs and been able to time a trip to Market Basket appropriately, I could have bought sub rolls, but would probably have bought egg noodles or potatoes instead.

Well, I’ve been experiementing with making bread, and in one case dinner rolls, so why not sub rolls? I focused on two recipes I came across, comparing what they involved if you made the batch size the same. This one looked tasty but looked like it might be too crusty compared to the result I wanted. This other one purports to be a way to match the rolls you would get at Subway. Now, I don’t know from Subway, but the picture looked like what I’d buy at Market Basket six for $1.50. With some trepidation about the volume of oil and lack of sugar compared to the other recipe and other breads I’ve made or looked at, I went for it.

This was not an entirely smooth process, given that I forgot to melt the butter before everything else was in the bowl, and that I don’t have a stand mixer. I could make a case for always moving on from recipes that assume you have a stand mixer. I usually do, but how hard could it be to just do things the old way?

Everything through the first rise and dividing the dough into eight rolls went fine. It rose enthusiastically enough not to provoke concern. The rolls, though… they would have taken hours to rise to where I thought they should be, at the rate they were going. After an hour and a half, I put them in the oven.

They tasted OK, if more like sourdough than the bread and rolls I am used to. You could definitely tell the lack of sugar. They were flat, though, completely unsuited to being a sub roll, especially for meatballs. Their best use seems to be as garlic bread, or cheesey garlic bread. Because it didn’t rise fully, the texture is pretty heavy.

I won’t make that recipe again, at least not without modifying it into something of my own. I don’t have enough bread making savvy yet to parse what went wrong without researching. Which, come to think of it, I had meant to do right afterward. “Why does second rise fail” or something like that fed to Google might give me insight. Or perhaps something on the science/principles of bread baking. That’s how I learned gravy. Best thing I found was something that described the principles of what you were doing, rather than trying to be an exact recipe, and gave insight into various types of gravy. Sometimes I have an imperfect batch, but in general I have never had gravy as good as what I make.

Pinched

I’ve been neglecting things basically since work got intense during our peak season, then haven’t picked it back up now that work is unusually light. Between that and having spent through our tax refund and what savings I had, largely to supplement the grocery budget, we’re in a particularly tight spot. Voila, stuff to write about! Stretching the money is the whole point, here.

I’ve done some baking and meals I hadn’t normally done, and even taken a few pictures. But this post is about money itself, and tracking what we’re spending.

I started a Google spreadsheet for this year to track grocery purchases. It’s cruder than I’d like, since many purchases are mixed. Partly I can filter by figuring if it’s taxable, it’s not groceries. There are some items that are neither.

January is over, and the grand total came to $626.85. We’re a family of five. Mind you, this amount made everyone feel like they were put upon compared to normal, which suggests to me that our spending had been running a couple hundred a month more. Given that back when we were getting SNAP of about $500, I was supplementing it by about $300, that fits. The thing is, what I spent this past month was at least $100 more than I could afford.

The metric of taxable items and tax coming off for a measure of actual food makes it $543.86, but the receipts contain over $30 in non-taxable non-grocery necessities. Call it about $510, then. I’d say that we depleted the cabinets somewhat, but there’s stuff that’s been added to balance it out. Still, while cranberry sauce was inexpensive, I accumulated cans of it, and when the dust cleared there were 14 cans. We’ve used two, and probably won’t need to buy any for a few months, depending how often kielbasa or roasting chickens are on sale. The main uses are for sweet and sour kielbasa or as a side with roast chicken.

Today was the first entry for February; $68.55 total, of which $27.30 was meat on sale. Pork loin for $1.69/lb for the win. It was a trip to get cheese and butter where the price is lowest, frozen veggies for the lowest price and that are also the best, and ingredients like flour and sugar at the best available prices. Flour at the two loacal stores is $1.99 and $2.49, versus $1.69. I’d run out entirely, making bread multiple times.

We’ll see how it goes. I’d like to have the family on board with keeping this up, even when funds are more available.

The Great British Baking Show

I saw The Great British Baking Show on Netflix (later I noticed it was also on Amazon Prime, which might have saved me having the audio and video getting unsynchronized so badly) and couldn’t resist checking it out. Unusually for me, I watched all ten episodes within a few days. By comparison, I have yet to finish the second set of Chopped episodes. It was called The Great British Bake Off originally. Apparently, they thought American audience couldn’t handle Philosopher’s Stone Bake Off and needed it to be Sorceror’s Stone Baking Show instead. And it’s oh so British.

The contestants were great. I especially loved Martha, Chetna and Richard. Under its British name, that was season 5, while it was the first season shown under the American name.

Early on, I noticed the worshipful way contestants mentioned Mary Berry. “Who?” I looked her up, since I had never heard of her. Or Paul Hollywood, for that matter.

Highly recommended, if you haven’t watched it. It made me want to bake, and I learned some things.

Baked Ziti

I had never made baked ziti. I had only had it when others made it, now and then. The kids had never had casseroles of any kind. Between wanting to try making new things and adding variety to the parade of meals, and thinking that casseroles might be some low cost menu items, I had wanted to spring casseroles on them. Baked ziti seemed like a good, passingly familiar place to start.

Having never made it, I had a misconception of what the dish entailed. My metal image was make meat sauce, make pasta, mix them together, put them in a casserole pan, throw some cheese on top, bake. I found myself thinking that it was pasta, but cooked redundantly.

Wednesday I looked at recipes online. They vary, but I was surprised to learn that many include ricotta cheese. I had never cooked with ricotta. While I happily ate completed lasagna when my sister or mother made it during my latter youth (until my father left, we never had things like that), I always thought the ricotta mix during the process looked disgusting.

I was also surprised it called for mozzarella cheese. Weirdly enough, I had already bought a pound of that. My oldest wanted to try it, since she loves string cheese. I had thought some of it could go on top of the ziti, since I knew I wanted cheese on top. My daughter hated it. I was shocked. It’s delicious! Nothing special; Market Basket store brand whole milk mozzarella. My perception of mozzarella had always been that it’s almost completely bland, and is used on pizza due to its melting properties. Having tasted pre-shredded mozzarella did nothing to change that notion. Having tasted mozzarella cheese sticks, fried and not, didn’t do enough to change that perception, though now I can see why they taste better than I’d have expected.

OK, so Thursday I stopped at Hannaford for ricotta so I could make baked ziti for supper. Bottom line: Success! Main lesson learned: Use less cheese next time.

Per usual, I followed no one recipe. Many of them call for sausage. That would be fantastic, but I had ground beef. I cooked the ground beef, slightly seasoning it, and got rid of most of the excess oil. That was perhaps 1.5 lbs before cooking. I added a jar of Francesco Rinaldi, my favorite sauce as well as the lowest cost name brand in jars. Unfortunately, the one jar left on the shelf was tomato and basil. I’d have preferred meat flavored or original for this. I added a small can of tomato paste to extend it and to modify the flavor of the sauce. A small can of generic tomato sauce would have been better. I adulterated the sauce with seasoning and brown sugar, so it wasn’t much different from what we would normally have on pasta.

Meanwhile, I cooked two boxes of ziti with lines. That was intentionally extra, to save some plain pasta for kids who wouldn’t want the baked ziti. I used something approaching 1.5 boxes in the actual casserole.

In keeping with many but not all of the recipes I had perused, I layered the bottom of a deep stoneware casserole pan (thank goodness for gifts or I’d not own something that nice) with the sauce. Not half. It took well over half to make an acceptable layer. On that I put some chunks of mozzarella and cheddar. The amount of cheddar used was modest. The amount of mozzarella was most of a pound.

Per some of the recipes, but not all, I mixed 16 ounces of ricotta with the ziti. I also mixed in a bunch of small chunks of mozzarella. That went in on top of the meat sauce layer, filling the casserole almost completely.

I dabbed the rest of the sauce onto the top of the ziti, sprinkled a generous amount of parm cheese on it, and completed it with more mozzarella and a lesser amount of cheddar.

It baked at 400 degrees for 20 minutes or so, in keeping with one of the recipes I’d referenced. It looked fantastic, but in retrospect could have used a bit more time for a crispier top.

The two kids who tried it liked it, though one of them picked out the meat. I thought it was great, but it lost a lot of appeal when it cooled down. The wife thought it needed more cooking time and less cheese, but really enjoyed it. As leftovers, the flavor actually improved. It’s tasty cold, and was better nuked hot than it had been fresh.

I’ll definitely make it again, as modified. Now I need to figure out what to make with the leftover ricotta. It was almost as cheap to get 32 oz as it would have been to get 16 oz, and I wasn’t sure just how much I’d actually need.

Gloves?

I had no idea glove requirements were a thing. As someone who loves to cook, I can’t imagine wearing gloves to touch the food. Worse, it would be like a crutch. Instead of my obsessive hand washing during food prep, I could see being tempted to rely on gloves as a crutch, even as they get dirtier and dirtier. Conversely, doing the equivalent of obsessive hand washing could mean dozens of pairs of gloves per day. That’s crazy!

Allergy Fakers

Fascinating article about the havoc raised in restaurants by allergy fakers. I would never think to say I was “allergic” to something I simply didn’t like, or was slightly sensitive to. It includes a look at the history of allergy and celiac recognition and diagnosis, and at the backlash starting to grow in response to people who use the A word to bludgeon restaurants into providing special treatment they don’t actually need.

Poor Kids

Using the other half of a large pack of kielbasa, yesterday I made “kielbasa and cabbage.” This was inspired by my grandmother having served that now and then. It was kind of an alternative to boiled dinner.

I included a cabbage, potatoes, carrots, and seasoning. I loved it. Two of the kids wouldn’t touch it, even though all three kids love kielbasa in the form of sweet & sour, and one of them loves potatoes and carrots. The one who tried it liked it OK, except I gave her just a bite of cabbage and it apparently had a piece of red pepper flake or something else strong in it. Two of the kids have eaten salad at school that included cabbage along with lettuce, so they weren’t as weirded out by cabbage as they might have been. Just by it being cooked.

The wife has yet to try it. She snacked too close to supper, too much to be hungry. She enjoyed the smell, though.

Sweet & Sour Kielbasa

Is this frugal? Maybe, or maybe not, but it is something I make regularly, much beloved by everyone in the house. It’s a rare meal that all three kids eat. I don’t have a recipe, but it’s straightforward. I was inspired by a dish of the same name by my sister, as more of a party appetizer, using whole berry cranberry sauce. Mine is more savory.

I put a tiny bit of water in a saucepan, and add a can of jellied cranberry sauce. Brand makes no difference, so I’m always delighted to get store brand for 99¢, or less in the case of an extended sale Hannaford had last fall. I like to use a small whisk to break it up, as the goal is to reduce it back to liquid. For a heavier batch, you can use a second can of cranberry. For thinner sauce, more water.

I add ample dry mustard (tablespoon?), some ginger and plenty of allspice. To be honest, between the flavor of cranberry sauce and kielbasa, I am not sure how much influence the seasoning even has. I think the mustard helps make it more savory, and I can tell the allspice is there. Ground cloves could probably sub for allspice, but I’d use less. They go well in homemade cranberry sauce, so it makes sense.

The other ingredient for the sauce is brown sugar. A lot of it. That’s the sweet. The cranberry without it is pretty tart. It also acts as a thickener, but too much would need to be balanced back out, if only by more mustard.

To the sauce I add pieces of kielbasa, thinly sliced coins, as much as I can manage. Cooked kielbasa! Obviously if you were starting from uncooked, you would want it to cook before saucing and finishing it off. I like the kielbasa to simmer on low heat in the sauce for long enough to darken and add its flavor to the sauce. How the sauce tastes before adding kielbasa is nothing like how it will taste, so use caution when you taste it before adding the meat and want to panic. The kielbasa, after a while, almost candies in the sauce.

I serve it over white rice. The beauty of this is you soak the rice with lots of sauce and put limited kielbasa on top, then the flavor is all in the rice and the rice becomes like eating meat. To add some kind of veggie, I normally have corn as a side. Tonight I also made butternut squash. I love this time of year! Butternut for 79¢ a pound yesterday.

I use Hillshire Farm kielbasa. One package, 14 oz, will do, but I generally use 1.5 to 2 packages worth. The beef kind can be used but has a different taste and texture. This has gotten rather high in price. Before Market Basket essentially shut down last year, it was routinely $2.99 and sales could be less. Once they opened, it was one of the things that was higher, be it because of supplier issues or needing to make up for the cost of being closed. Now a rare sale is $2.99, but they have large packs, equivalent to three regular ones, that are a much better buy. That makes it easier to make larger amounts.

Rice is cheap and overall it’s a reasonable, easy to stretch meal. It’s also quick and easy to make, and hard to mess up.