As I perused the grocery flyers last week, I was amazed at the disproportionate number of marked down prepared foods versus fresh. The average store had three or four pages of frozen dinners, deli meals and packaged meats, but less than one page of fresh fruit and vegetables.
It must be difficult to pass by the two-for-a-dollar pizza pups, or whatever the kids are begging you for, and go for the bag of fresh brussels sprouts or green beans that would only go on sale if they were turning brown.
Don’t get me wrong. I love a bargain as much as you do, but I also shop with a menu in mind for the week. The trick is being flexible enough to substitute whatever fruit, vegetable, fish or meat that is on offer at the best price.
Some dishes just don’t lend themselves to substitutions, but this week is about those that do, and mastering some basics will allow you to take advantage of those specials. So, if you have chicken on the menu this week but pork is cheap, this column is for you.
Master dinner salad
This is the perfect salad for any occasion — delicious, tantalizing, a little spicy, a little sweet and amazingly flexible. Use pork, turkey, beef, salmon, scallops or even canned tuna for a completely different dish, or leave out the meat and double up the beans (whatever type you have on hand in a can) to make this a vegetarian dinner. Mango, peaches and plums easily substitute for the pineapple. Use grapefruit instead of oranges for a sharper note — or leave out the fruit altogether. Lemon juice works as well as lime, and if you can’t get cilantro, use fresh basil, parsley or tarragon. This amount serves 4 to 6.
1 head romaine or other lettuce, or salad greens, washed, completely dried, and coarsely torn or chopped
2 cups canned black beans, rinsed and well drained
2 large oranges, peeled and cut into sections
1 sweet red pepper, diced
1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced
1 cup snow peas, halved
1 cup fresh diced pineapple (or canned, drained)
1 cup fresh cilantro, coarsely chopped
1/2 to 3/4 lb. cooked and cooled chicken, thinly sliced
1/3 cup orange juice
3 tbsp. lime juice
1/4 cup olive oil
4 or 5 drops hot pepper sauce (or to taste; optional)
1/4 tsp. each salt and freshly ground black pepper
Combine greens, beans, oranges, red pepper, onion, snow peas, pineapple, cilantro and chicken in a large bowl. Combine orange and lime juice and whisk in olive oil. Add hot pepper sauce, salt and pepper and pour over salad mixture. Toss to coat and serve immediately.
Anything you can grill benefits from a brisk rub first. For ribs, pork chops, chicken and beef, use enough of this mixture to cover all sides of the meat.
For salmon and other firm fish, combine equal quantities of the rub, lemon juice and vegetable oil and brush it on liberally.
For cod or other delicate fish, or veggies, cooked in foil or some kind of basket, sprinkle on a little of the rub — it goes a long way.
Depending on your mood, bump up the heat with an extra pinch of cayenne, or add brown sugar if you’re going for the sweet side. A sprinkle of fresh thyme and parsley before serving really brings out the flavours.
This amount makes quite a bit—buy in bulk to save money. Store for months in a resealable bag in the freezer and you’re good for the entire grilling season. As an added bonus, this recipe works great with whatever you’re roasting in the oven or stewing on the stove.
2 cups brown sugar
1 cup smoked paprika
1/2 cup each garlic salt, onion salt and celery salt
1/4 cup chipotle chilli powder
1/4 cup coarsely ground black pepper
2 tbsp. lemon pepper
1 tbsp. dry mustard
1 tbsp. Old Bay seasoning mix (optional)
2 tsp. each dried thyme, coriander, sage and rosemary
1 tsp. each allspice and cayenne pepper
Stir everything together, adding a little extra of what you like best.
Master tomato sauce
If you have an easy and delicious tomato sauce recipe in your repertoire, you are never far from a freshly made — and fresh tasting — meal. When canned tomatoes go on sale, I stock up so I can fill my freezer with containers of magic. This sauce is perfect as is on fresh filled pastas like ravioli or tortellini, and makes a great side dish simply tossed with any cooked pasta and drizzled with a little olive oil. Fry ground beef, chicken, turkey or pork, or a mixture, add some chopped fresh veggies, a spoonful of dried Italian seasoning and some of this sauce and you have the best Bolognese ever.
Add it to the same meat and vegetable mixture but substitute chili powder for Italian seasoning, throw in a can of beans, and you have chili. Stir into plain vegetable soup for a minestrone makeover, or braise your pot roast in it for fabulous gravy.
6 large onions, diced
4 stalks celery, thinly sliced
1/4 cup olive oil
1 bulb garlic, broken into cloves, peeled and chopped
2 small cans (or 1 large can) tomato paste
3 tbsp. each dried oregano and basil
2 tsp. red pepper flakes (more or less to taste)
2 cups dry red wine
4 28-oz. cans whole or diced tomatoes
2 28-oz. cans crushed tomatoes
8 bay leaves
2 to 3 tsp. salt (depending on how much is in the canned tomatoes — add slowly and taste)
4 bunches fresh basil, coarsely chopped
2 bunches fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
1 tbsp. freshly ground black pepper
In a large, heavy pot, fry onions and celery in oil until soft. Add garlic and tomato paste and cook, stirring, until mixture is darkening a little and the vegetables are very soft. Add oregano, basil and red pepper flakes and cook another minute. Stir in wine, canned tomatoes, bay leaves and salt and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, partially cover and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring often. Remove from heat and add basil, parsley and pepper.
Cynthia Stone is a writer, editor and teacher in St. John’s. Questions may be sent to her c/o The Telegram, P.O. Box 86, St. John’s, NL, A1E 4N1.