Buying lots of things to cook one

Have you ever been at the grocery store and been seduced by a great deal on, say, a fresh August tomato? And then have you decided you just had to go and get some fresh mozzarella and some fresh basil and a new vinaigrette dressing to go with it?

Well, if you haven’t, then you’re better than me because I totally have. I used to frequently get excited about $2 worth of tomatoes and end up spending $12 just to eat the tomato.

I don’t do that any more for one reason and one reason only:

When you do that you end up with a lot of odds and ends you can’t use in anything else.

Amirite? You know, you feel guilty about the other half of that mozzarella, but what are you gonna do? Make a lasagna? Well, you can’t, because you just blew your food budget on making one day’s worth of salad. And truly fresh mozzarella doesn’t last that long.

Plus, what if you’re not in the mood for lasagna? You’ve just had a glorious salad caprese. (And that salad – tomato, mozzarella, and basil – is one of my very favorite things to eat in this whole wide world.) What if you don’t want to follow it up with more Italian food? What if you want Chinese? (Very little dairy in Chinese cooking.)

And then there’s the whole spending $12 on one meal thing. I just keep coming back to that. It gets me down.

Here’s what I now tend to do instead:

If I have a great ingredient fall into my lap, like a nice fresh tomato right about now, I might buy ONE other ingredient to go with it, but it had better be an ingredient that will store, and everything else that goes with it has to be pantry stuff – things I get out of my pantry, not buy. Things that I just store anyway because they’re versatile, delicious foods and they store for a long time, thus providing me with options but not going bad in my kitchen while I hold them on hand.

So let’s buy that tomato for $2 (it’s a doozy) and then let’s buy a red onion for another, oh, 70 cents? What do red onions go for in your neighborhood?

Red onion is sweeter than yellow or white and perfectly good, in fact almost required, in salad applications. But red onion CAN be cooked just fine, a point we’ll make use of in a minute.

So now what am I going to do with that tomato? Let’s say I take it home and dice it up and add it to:

A can of black beans
A can of green beans
Some diced red onion
Some of the shredded cheddar cheese I keep in my fridge
Some Italian dressing

Now that is a tasty salad. I might add some pasta, or some tuna, or on a day when I go totally crazy, both pasta and tuna. If you want it to keep well for more than a day you might not want to add the tuna – but then fresh tomato doesn’t last that well in the fridge anyway, so you judge. But if not meals for two days, you can certainly get a meal for two people this way. (Or more, depending on the size of your Unexpected Tomato.) If I have them, I will also add chopped olives. Because I looooooove olives. You can get as crazy as you like with ingredients you like.

Now that’s all well and good, but let’s say I only used a half or a quarter of that red onion in my salad. (Because it doesn’t take much. It IS a salad.)

On day 2, I might dice up half of whatever is left, and make an omelette with a couple of eggs, some more of that cheese, and maybe a couple of the olives if any are left.

Still got any onion? Maybe it’s time to make a batch of chili and quit messing around with this one-meal stuff. Not enough onion for a whole batch of chili? Well maybe not, but if you throw in a little extra onion (in addition to a smallish yellow onion suitable for a batch of chili), then who’s going to know?

You can also dehydrate the onion and save it for later, or even chop it and throw it in the freezer in a baggie, expecting to throw it in something (a soup or a stew – even, say, chili!) at some later date.

If you do freeze it, spread the diced onion on a cookie sheet and freeze it that way, THEN toss the frozen pieces into a baggie or lock n’ lock, so you’ll have little individual pieces of onion, not an Onion Wad, when you go to use it again. This could be a happy Stash of Ready Onion that you toss onto a baked potato, or a bowl of chili, or hamburgers or hotdogs, as the need arises.

See what I mean? You can go broke taking advantage of a sale or seasonal windfall – but only if you go seek out special recipes and end up buying lots more expensive ingredients to go with what you got cheap. I’m not saying that a salad caprese isn’t a grand reason to buy mozzarella and basil and a really nice vinaigrette. It is a great reason. But if you’re just trying to eat well, not throwing yourself a Yummy Salad Party for some reason, then try to mix what you already have plus maybe ONE more ingredient into the windfall ingredient. If you are going to the grocery store with a list of ten things to buy to make Orange Glazed Chicken, you may eat some yummy Orange Glazed Chicken, but you won’t cook it cheaply.

(By the way, a note on tomatoes: refrigerating fresh tomatoes turns off some of their flavor compounds permanently. Store them on the counter till you’re going to use them, and use them within a couple of days. But once they’ve been cut up, they need to be refrigerated, eaten, cooked or frozen within two hours. Personally when I’ve gotten a seriously big tomato that cannot be eaten all at once, I’ll refrigerate half for a salad the next day rather than toss it, and while the flavor may not have been as delicately fulfilling to the average gourmet, it was perfectly fine.)

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