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Originally published Wednesday, April 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Nancy Leson

How to stretch food dollars in tight financial times

Excerpts from her blog, All You Can Eat. I'm not a big spender, but I do spend a disproportionate amount of money shopping for high-quality...

Seattle Times food writer

Nancy Leson on KPLU

THE SEATTLE TIMES writer's commentaries on food and restaurants can be heard on KPLU-FM (88.5) at 5:30 a.m.,

7:30 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Wednesdays, and 8:30 a.m. Saturdays.

This week: Cheers! Restaurants that know your name.

Excerpts from her blog, All You Can Eat.

I'm not a big spender, but I do spend a disproportionate amount of money shopping for high-quality foodstuffs. Reading my pal Karen Gaudette's front-page article April 21 regarding the precipitous rise in food costs got me thinking.

With money buying less at the market these days, which home-cooked meals do I consider a delicious bargain? A recent night's dinner came quickly to mind.

For my family of three, I roasted a whole Washington chicken ($7) basted with a couple of tablespoons of bacon drippings leftover from breakfast. I served the chicken with Yukon Gold potatoes ($1.49) which benefited greatly, flavor-wise, from being chunked and browned in the bottom of the roasting pan with the chicken drippings. And I splurged on my family's favorite green vegetable, Chinese long beans (for which I paid about $4).

Bottom line: for just over four bucks a head, we had an incredibly delicious dinner. One that took little effort to prepare and provided enough leftovers to make two thick chicken salad sandwiches for lunch.

So I asked my blog readers for their favorite inexpensive cook-at-home dinners. Here is a sampling of their great ideas:

Stocking up on leftovers

"Last night, my husband and I roasted a chicken, and had mashed potatoes and a spinach salad. The leftover chicken will become a chicken potpie (topped with homemade drop biscuits) tomorrow. The water I cooked the potatoes in is the basis of a bread I'm rising at this very moment, which will accompany a cioppino with mussels, cod and shrimp. I save the shrimp shells in the freezer, and when I need a fish stock: voilà!

"Elsewhere in my freezer: chopped leftover roast lamb, which will become a Scotch broth with barley and vegetables, and homemade chicken and vegetable stocks. I chunk up leftover French bread (we can never get through a whole loaf before it goes stale), and freeze that as well: it becomes either croutons, or a breakfast strata on the weekend. Little bits of veggies end up in soup, or in omelets and frittatas. We're not poor, but when I throw food away I can hear my French mother spinning in her grave with a mournful 'oh la la!' "

Cooking for the week

Another reader wrote:

"Last night it was roasted chicken, mixed taters and veggies with a separate pan of roasted poblanos and tomatillos, and sliced fresh fruit for a mixed fruit platter with lime and honey sauce. Later this week we'll enjoy stacked salsa verde chicken enchiladas, a veggie frittata, and the fruit will top Greek yogurt and granola for breakfast.

"If not enchiladas, then it could be chicken curry, chicken gumbo, chicken crêpes, chicken tortilla soup, chicken and white bean chili, arroz con pollo, garlic chicken and rosemary pizza bianca ... the list goes on for cooked chicken.

"I call it cooking forward (my husband doesn't DO leftovers) and refer to a helpful cookbook, 'Cooking for the Week: Leisurely Weekend Cooking for Easy Weekday Meals' by Diane Morgan (Paperback, June 1999). Without relying on mystery-ingredient casseroles or processed- and canned-food staples, the book lists 13 menus for weekend cooking with ideas for 3 or 4 really tasty weekday meals. No menu planning stress, tasty meals with more variety, and more economical ... what's not to like?"

Beyond chicken

If sardines are your thing, a reader said:

"OK, not to hog the whole commentary, but here's a great cheap meal: pasta with sardines. Pasta; ½ cup toasted bread crumbs; ¼ cup currants soaked in water and drained; 2 cloves gently sautéed chopped garlic; one can sardines WITH oil; dried red chili flakes. Throw some chopped broccoli in with the pasta when it's almost ready. Drain pasta, mix in everything else. Serves two."

If lamb is a favorite here's an idea worth trying: "Dinner from last night was lamb patties served with salad. For two people patties made with 0.52 pounds of ground lamb from Whole Foods ($4.15) + 1 clove of garlic ($0.05) + one mushroom ($0.10) + parsley (garden) + 1 egg yolk ($0.30). The salad is made with half a head of lettuce ($0.50) from QFC. Vinaigrette with homemade wine vinegar (free) + olive oil ($0.20) + salt + pepper.

"Total for two persons = $5.30.

"Price per person = $2.65.

"Add a fruit for dessert and a slice or two of bread and you might also reach $4 per."

Que sera, quesadillas

For really quick-fix items a reader noted:

"We always keep flour tortillas and Tillamook cheddar cheese in the fridge. Whatever is left over from last night's dinner (i.e. roasted lamb, chicken, sautéed shrimp, that last bit of steak or most recently a few scraps of braised Mangalitsa pork shoulder) goes into quesadillas. Frequently we add leftover roast potatoes, spinach or mushrooms. This is even easier than making leftovers into a pasta dish and really stretches the food budget."

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or nleson@seattletimes.com. To read her blog, go to www.seattletimes.com/allyoucaneat.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Nancy Leson
Seattle Times food writer Nancy Leson serves up the best info and tips on Northwest food, cooking, dining and restaurants. Check her latest thoughts in her All You Can Eat blog. Her column appears each Wednesday. Her restaurant roundups appear monthly, on Fridays, in the Restaurants and Entertainment sections.
nancyleson@seattletimes.com | 206-464-8838 | Blog

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