Perfect pinch: Saving pennies by cleaning out the pantry

A little over a year ago, many of us took on the Penny-Wise Eat Local Challenge and found ways to minimize our food spending for one week. When I started the challenge, I felt pretty confident that I could stick to the spending limit since I still had an ample supply of frozen and canned local foods as well as local grains and potatoes. By the end of the week, I learned that the other necessary ingredients for frugal local eating were a willingness to cook more simply and to avoid waste wherever possible, "recycling" ingredients from one dish to the next.

Now, as anyone who has seen me shop at the farmers market or my favorite local grocery stores can attest, I'm usually oblivious to frugality in buying food. I've been able to make food the second largest portion of my monthly budget, and if I want to eat satisfying meals and share them with others, I tend to approach Bonnie's "pound-foolish" philosophy and purchase quality ingredients with little concern about expense. I'm far from wealthy (by American standards), but I do make good food a priority.

Lately, though, even my blissful disregard for price labels has taken a few blows from the rising cost of food. Local eggs, formerly around $1.65/dozen, now cost over $2/dozen. The price of lemons and limes (two of my few fruit purchases in the winter) has nearly doubled, while broccoli (one of the non-local vegetables I can't do without) has seen almost a 50% price hike. And in what may be the cruelest blow to someone who loves to bake and often makes her own pasta, the price of unbleached flour (organic, bought in bulk at the local co-op) has steadily crept up by almost a third. These increases have taken effect gradually over the past six months, and if I'm just now noticing them, I can well imagine that other people with tighter food budgets have been hurting for some time.

For that reason, I feel fortunate and very thankful that I spent so much time last summer and fall filling my pantry and freezer. While I didn't compile an exact inventory of how much of each fruit, vegetable, and preserve I put away, I've had to buy very little added produce over the winter and spring — and I still have ample stores left to get me into this year's harvest. Still, the specter of higher costs at the market have caused me to approach my pantry more thoughtfully this year, causing me to revive those Penny-Wise lessons of simplicity and frugality in how I cook.

A jarring realization

During the winter, I'm more than happy to pull bags of vegetables from the freezer, potatoes or squash from cold storage, and possibly a jar of canned tomatoes to throw together an easy but satisfying soup or stew to chase away the chill. From my mother's vegetable soup recipe (below) that calls for whatever you have on hand to some of my favorite Indian dishes and improvisations like a cross between chili and dal (recipe at the link), I find it very easy to rely on my pantry for cold-weather comfort food.

By mid- to late March, though, it gets more difficult for me to resist fresh greens and other vegetables at the grocery store, despite the fact that they're usually conventionally grown and transported across the country — two factors I try to avoid as much as possible. It's then that I have to force myself to continue to eat from the pantry and the freezer, and I become more creative in how I use the foods I'm already sick and tired of eating.

Let's take the typical example of tomatoes. I cannot bear to buy fresh tomatoes in the middle of winter (and I know I'm not alone in that) because they usually taste like starchy foam instead of a real food. But right now I'm really craving that fresh, brilliant, juicy tomato taste that is still at least three months away for those of us in northern Ohio — and my home-canned tomatoes aren't really a satisfying substitute. That's what I have on hand, though, so I remind myself that until I can get fresh tomatoes off the vine, I can make do with homemade shahi paneer (an Indian dish with spiced tomato sauce and homemade cheese, though I used tofu in the version pictured here) or a simple marinara sauce for just a while longer.

Or how about squash? My taste buds burned out on squash by the time I had used the last from cold storage, so whenever I look in the freezer and see a couple bags of cubed, blanched butternut squash waiting to be used — well, I tend to blanch, too. Still, spring has its chilly days when something like a "three sisters" stew of squash, corn (also local, from the freezer), and beans has its appeal. And on warmer days, squash works reasonably well in a tropical sort of curry (recipe) with dried local red peppers, kale leaves (from my windowsill pot), banana, and pomegranate molasses (neither of which are local, but who’s perfect?).

Even my baking at this time of year incorporates pantry items when possible. When warmer days return and I start craving summer fruits, I inevitably make blueberry muffins or raspberry bread. Applesauce cake makes an easy dessert for at home or for friends, and you know how I feel about baking with jam. And while my stores of locally-milled flour are running low — the whole wheat recently ran out, and the spelt is getting close — some of my lesser-used grains end up finding a useful spot in loaves of hearty yeast bread.

It's a freeze country

No, none of this is the same as enjoying the fruits and vegetables in question in season, and believe me, I can hardly wait until I can do that again. But when you're not fortunate enough to have such produce growing year-round, you learn to make do. You learn to stretch what you've put away for the winter, and you learn to use it respectfully, making damn sure you don't waste a single bit of the delicious produce and the hard work that came together in your kitchen months ago.

There are many other ways to make your food budget go farther, even in these times of rising prices, and others have covered the topic better than I can. I'm a passionate believer in the need to build my own pantry with locally-grown produce, an effort that takes the long view beyond the initial seemingly high cost and endless hard work. I'll be doing that again this year — complete with a detailed inventory, I hope, of quantities and varieties of preserved foods based on what I used this year. And after last year's resurgence of home canning and food preservation, made trendy by even the mainstream media, as well as this year's economy, I'm sure there will be even more people joining me in that effort.

Mom's (and My) Vegetable Soup

My mother often made a version of this soup for me when I was sick, and I am convinced that it was part of the cure to make me feel much better. It's an easy recipe and easily adapted to what vegetables you might have on hand as well as to what spice and herb combinations you might choose. Because of that, there's no accurate yield for this recipe, but Mom says it makes "lots"!

1 quart tomato juice or 1 quart plain tomato sauce
1 or 2 pints chopped tomatoes
1 to 2 pints vegetable stock (recipe) or water (to rinse out above jar)
1/2 head green cabbage, chopped OR 1 c dried cabbage
6-8 carrots, thinly sliced
4-6 ribs celery, sliced
1 or 2 red peppers, diced OR 1/2 c dried red peppers
3 turnips, diced
1 c corn, fresh or frozen
2 bay leaves
2 T fresh parsley OR 1 T dried
3-5 cloves garlic (roasted is excellent)
salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in a large soup pot or slow cooker and simmer between 2 and 4 hours.

Other vegetables that work well: broccoli, diced onions (green or white), artichoke hearts, potatoes, sweet potatoes, peas, beans (any sort, cooked). You can also add pasta or rice, though you may need to increase the amount of liquid.

To give the soup an ethnic twist, you may want to sauté minced onion and/or garlic in olive oil with selected herbs and spices before adding the remaining ingredients. Examples:

Southwestern: Add 1 tsp ground cumin, 1 tsp ground coriander, 1/2 tsp dried oregano, 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper to sauté.

Indian: Add 1 tsp ground cumin, 1 tsp ground coriander, 1/4 tsp turmeric, 1 punctured dried chili pepper to sauté. Omit bay leaves and parsley from soup. Add chopped cilantro to finished soup.

Italian: Add 1 tsp dried basil, 1/2 tsp dried oregano to sauté OR drop a cube of prepared pesto into the soup 15 minutes before serving, swirling it into the mixture. Top with grated Parmesan cheese, if desired.

4 Responsesto “Perfect pinch: Saving pennies by cleaning out the pantry”

  1. Shannon B. says:

    Great article about sticking to a plan you've set out for yourself. Every time you buy something, aren't you making a promise to yourself you're going to consume it and not let it go to waste? I think I underestimate the power of freezing items for later.  I'll work on that.

  2. tai haku says:

    That soup recipe is wonderful - tried it yesterday. Our only variation was spinach for cabbage (cabbage ain't popular in our corner of the caribbean for some reason).

    My favourite soup recipe yet - straight into the saved recipes folder!

  3. Shannon, you're right, it's a promise we make, whether consciously or not.  I'm still trying to remember to be conscious about it.  Freezing works well for some of the early produce -- or for when you're in a rush to get some other preservation done -- but this year I want to focus on drying more produce (like the cabbage) as it stores well, is lightweight, and works well in soups and stews.
    Tai haku, I'm glad you enjoyed the soup.  Spinach or other greens would be an excellent substitute, and I applaud your use of what's truly local for you.

  4. Steve says:

    Local eggs are between $5 and $7 a dozen at Seattle area farmers markets. Makes we want to get my own chicken!