Soup: the most perfect food?
Soup is ridiculously easy. Easier by far than most people think. There are two essentials to remember when making soup: always use good, fresh ingredients, and don’t forget to season the broth!
Others have mentioned roasting whole chickens, but I find bone-in, skin-on parts to be cheaper. My new favorite cut? Thighs with legs attached, bone-in, skin on. As a bonus, it comes with extra fat you can render! Yesterday I got 6 of these delicious chicken pieces for less than $5 (not pasture-raised, but I can’t find that anywhere around here). After roasting them, I’ve been not only rendering the extra fat (removed before roasting) into schmaltz, I’ve been saving the skin, bones, and all the pan juices. Each time I do, they get thrown into the freezer, where they can wait until freezing weather to get roasted again and create delicious, super-rich chicken broth.
Soup can be as simple as chicken or bone broth (roast marrow-rich beef bones until dark, then simmer) with slices of stale bread soaked in it (panade, in French) or as I often prefer, chock full of seasonal vegetables. Last night I made chicken and corn chowder with local red potatoes, yellow storage onions, carrots, and sweet corn on the cob from just down the road. A little milk and some egg dumplings plus salt and pepper, with bread made from locally raised wheat (in NY! I know!) and fresh butter. The soup maybe cost $7 total ($3.50 for chicken, $1.69 for 6 ears of sweet corn, $0.75 for potatoes, $0.50 for two storage onions, and $0.10 for one carrot, plus about $0.25 worth of milk) and it fed the two of us with probably three or four more meals out of it waiting in the fridge.
Another favorite soup is French onion. If you buy storage onions in bulk (usually $2-3 for 3 lbs) and make your own beef stock, it can be ridiculously cheap. Split pea and other bean soups with a smoked ham hock or two for flavor (and a little meat) are also super-cheap if you buy dried beans. I vote we adopt the Swedish tradition of split pea soup every Thursday! With black bread. Yum.
Other favorite soup ingredients include super-cheap cuts of beef, beef neck and knuckle bones, smoked ham hocks or neck bones, smoked turkey legs (LOTS of flavor, although the meat is a pain to get off the bones and tendons), all of which are available at my local grocery market for pretty cheap (those of you without such amazing markets, check out ethnic markets or ask the butcher). Delicious vegetable ingredients include all alliums, leafy greens (even lettuce!), root veggies, cabbage, peas, beans, etc. Homemade dumplings or biscuits (cream biscuits are ridiculously easy and cheap: just flour, baking powder, salt, sugar, and heavy cream) thicken the broth and make soups even better. A little vinegar or lemon juice is also great for finishing bean soups.
I will say this about cooking slow and cooking nutritiously: you have to have good cooking skills and you have to have a well-stocked pantry. I am not someone who generally plans ahead more than a day for meals, so it is important for me and my creativity to have all the items on hand that I need. Having a well-stocked pantry also means you can easily cook from scratch. It’s hard to make homemade dumplings or biscuits when you don’t have flour or eggs or sugar or butter or cream. And it’s hard to make a delicious soup if you only have some wrinkly potatoes and a shriveled carrot languishing in your crisper (hard, but not impossible!). Although I will admit that “eating down the cupboards” does force you to use your creativity and skill in a way that is often very satisfying.
One last thing: when I go grocery shopping, I always keep an eye out for local, seasonal produce (which is nearly always cheaper) and I always have a meal or recipe in mind when I buy it. That way, I usually don’t have piles of produce rotting on my counter (I said usually…) because I already have a plan for what to do with it!