The Chicken and the Egg

Last night, I blew through my daily budget. Luckily, it was only by $0.12 and I think I charged myself too much for the bread (we’ll see if I actually go through all of the dough I made by the end of the week or not). I’m pretty sure it was because of the parsnips from last weekend’s farmer’s market. But, it was well worth it. Here’s what I had for dinner:

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Roasted chicken with a herby-salt rub ($1.09 for free range drumsticks), parsnips ($0.75) and creamy polenta ($0.71) with a smidgen of Parmigiano-Reggiano. It wouldn’t be a lie to say that I licked the plate clean, and although it would have nice if there were something green on there, I think it was quite a lovely dinner for $2.55. It is also crazy easy to make… rinse and dry the chicken well, then dust with the herbed salt. I have a little tin of it that I keep by the stove whenever I need a little sprinkle, and it only comes to $0.07 per teaspoon (I used less than that on these two drumsticks). The parsnips just get thrown into the pan you use for the chicken along with a tiny drizzle of oil (I used grapeseed this time, but usually would use olive oil). Start roasting the parsnips at 400F about 15 minutes before you add the chicken to the dish. Then, add the chicken (sitting on top of the parsnips is fine) and roast until the juices run clear, about 30 minutes depending on the size of your chicken pieces. This is basically the same technique I use for roasting a whole chicken which I would have done this time too except I’m eating on my own this week. The benefit of the whole chicken (beyond being a bit cheaper) is that I also can just turn the carcass into stock.

For lunch today, I decided on an egg salad sandwich… a simple one with a vinaigrette instead of a mayo based dressing. In fact, it’s pretty much the same dressing that I had on yesterday’s salad… a bit of shallot, grapeseed oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. But this time I also added about 1/16th teaspoon of dried mustard and a few chili threads. Chili threads, if you haven’t seen them before, are amazing. They look quite a bit like saffron and pack a tiny little punch. A whole bag of them is only around $1, and that contains some crazy number of threads (somewhere around 2000 I’m guessing). I used about 5 in my egg salad.

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The other thing you’ll probably notice here is the punch. I LOVE this punch and it’s one of the cheapest and simplest things you can make. It’s simply steeped dried hibiscus. You can set out a pitcher with the hibiscus petals in water and let it steep like you would sun tea (or, you can put the kettle on and start it off with hot water). If you like it sweetened, you can add a bit of sugar and lime like Matt does, but also I like it just as it is. It reminds me a bit of cranberry juice and is a lovely way to take a break from water.

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My dinner plans tonight are still up in the air… but I did manage to find a lovely piece of Tilapia for a little less than $2 and I’m thinking about that with a simple risotto.

For those curious, here’s my running total so far:

Monday $7.12 Total
Macchiato $0.19
Bread (for the day) $0.72
Salad $2.19
Dressing $0.73
Apple $0.75
Polenta $0.71
Parsnips $0.75
Roast Chicken $1.08

Tuesday $2.44 Total
Macchiato $0.19
Bread (for the day) $0.72
Egg salad $1.23
Hibiscus Punch $0.30

  • Tommy

    While I truly appreciate your recipes (and your column in general), it seems to me that what you’re doing is far from the spirit of the program. While you may be only using a few cents worth of grapeseed oil, you need to consider the following: if a person on foodstamps is standing in an aisle needing cooking oil will that person ever consider buying grapeseed oil (which usually runs about $10 for a 16 oz bottle) when generic vegetable oil can be had for about $2 (for the same 16 oz)? Likewise with the salt, even though herbed salt may be pennies per teaspoon, if you really were shopping with food stamps I’d think you’d be more likely to buy a large tub of iodized table salt and leave it at that.

    I understand your dilemma regarding the use of foods already in your pantry. You obviously can’t be asked to buy a whole new batch of staples but, at the same time, I think you should be using staples that you would realistically buy if you were on a budget of $7/day. Although I’ve never been on foodstamps, I have gone through some lean times and you’re listing of ingredients that a person on a very restricted budget would never consider buying.

  • L

    Hi Tommy – thanks for your comment. However, with these two dishes, I think I actually have kept things quite reasonable.

    Grapeseed oil doesn’t have to be expensive… in fact, in my case it was cheaper than my olive oil, which is why I’ve used it here (my bottle is 1 liter for $10… yes, it is a bit more than generic vegetable oil, but doable on the budget, and it works equally well for cooking as well as salad dressing).

    For the herbed salt, I bought a little pre-made mix that I’ve had on hand now for 6 months without going through all of it, but I could just as easily have pulled together the mix from a garden or from bulk herb bins at Madison Market for the same $ amount or even less. It’s just salt, rosemary, chile flakes and a few other dried herbs. I personally don’t see that as a huge extravagance, even on a budget. I’d give up chips, ice cream, pop or any number of prepackaged foods before I’d give up spices.

    I guess my point is that if people are interested in cooking, it is possible to create some pretty great stuff and do it on a strict budget… and I’m trying to show a few ideas that might help people explore different ingredients that they could buy. I’m sure this isn’t for everyone, but at the same time, not everyone on food stamps is the same, and I think it’s a mistake to assume that just because someone doesn’t have much money it means they don’t like to have fun in the kitchen.

    I appreciate that you have a different take on this challenge, but I do think that my recipes stick to the spirit (with of course, my already noted exception of my espresso machine which while it may technically be within the rules, I think is “cheating” a bit).


  • Lauren

    I think the point Tommy was trying to make is that, the ability to spend $10 to buy the grapeseed oil, while keeping within the $7/day limit is, well, limiting. I think that’s why they suggested not using things from your pantry (except salt and pepper). It’s too easy to forget to account for the initial purchase of the item.

  • L

    I checked in with the volunteers running the challenge on that very point… and the main reason that they didn’t want people using items from their pantry was that they aren’t free, not because of the upfront cost. I’ve added the pro-rated cost in for everything I use to account for that (which they agreed was a fair thing to do).

    While I understand that initially stocking a pantry on that amount of money would be difficult, I don’t think that the spirit of the challenge is really about how little you can create a pantry on. If that were the case, I’d just go eat Pho every day for the week and call it a day.

    I think that the spirit is more about someone in an ongoing situation… and in that world, I think it is important to consider things long term, not just what the upfront cost is. What sacrifices would I make? (eating out is one for me, as is alcohol including cooking with it, cheeses that I love, bars of chocolate). What things get hard? What things are easier than I thought?

    A large bottle of a good, flexible oil (be it grapeseed oil, olive oil, rice bran oil) that adds something to the flavor of the dishes you cook and/or is healthy would be a good investment for someone on a limited budget. In my case, it would be anyway.


  • L

    btw – Lauren & Tommy – I’m loving the discussion here! Thanks for posting your thoughts, even if we don’t agree!

  • KT

    These various perspectives are very interesting. I agree with parts of each… but, I appreciate, L, that you are demonstrating “from-scratch” cooking on a tight budget. Usually the “money saving” tips we get in mainstream mags & other media are about saving time and using coupons to buy inexpensive prepared foods.

  • Tea

    I’m just impressed you stayed within your budget and still bought meat. My first thought was to go veggie.

  • Yuri

    As someone who works for United Way of King County and helped plan part of Hunger Action Week, I have a slightly different take on what the Hunger Challenge is about.

    The whole reason we’re doing this is to raise awareness around the cause of hunger in King County (though, in times like these, you can replace “King County” with your own town/county/state). We wanted to bring it to the forefront of people’s minds and get them talking about the difficulties that come with living on a tight budget and how we can change that as a community.

    It’s impossible to say that, after these five days, you’ll know what it’s like to live in poverty or on food stamps. Instead, we’re trying to get people to empathize. What kind of lifestyle changes did you have to make on such a tight budget? Were you no longer able to get coffee? Could you not catch dinner with friends?

    Obviously, food bloggers and the like have the advantage of time and skill in order to prepare great meals on the $7/day. We wanted them to have fun and be creative about it.

    As long as the end result is people thinking about hunger, recognizing how much of a problem it is, we are happy with that.

    It seems like Lara is doing that. Also, she’s making this challenge-taker very hungry! (I ate pasta 2 nights in a row.. I can’t cook, lol)

  • jak

    L- These are thoughtful and creative ways to have some delicious meals in an economical way… the hibiscus tea/punch looks and sounds amazing. And as always, your photos sparkle. Thanks for posting your ideas and creations.

  • Lauren

    I agree that this challenge is a great way to get us all to think about how difficult it is to eat on a tight budget. Tommy’s post was interesting to me as my husband and I have discussed the very problem of someone not being able to stock a pantry due to the upfront costs. As I’m typing this – it makes me realize that perhaps the donations I give to the food banks should include more pantry items as opposed to the cook and eat items I tend to include. Good job all!

  • matt wright

    rocking stuff. Loving the chicken, polenta and parsnips. I can never get enough roasted root veg with chicken. Great photos of the dish – very elegant and clean.

    It is really good to see someone that has a true love for cooking attempting something like this. If anything you are certainly showing that it is possible to eat very well, with a creative and diverse menu and a pretty low amount of cash. Love the little touches like the herb salt, which really costs almost nothing, but adds a good sum of flavor.

    I saw a little while ago that Big Johns PFI has whole dried hibiscus flowers, which I have actually never seen – most of what I see is the shredded petals. Hibiscus is rapidly becoming one of my favorite little “spices”.

  • elizabeyta

    I have found this challenge very interesting. One of the reasons why is that I came across it two years ago at $3.00 a day for a single person. I asked myself and my husband how would we eat on $3 a day. At the time, we had a gluten and soy (strong enough that eating animals fed soy was causing reaction) allergy in the house and our food budget reflected trying to deal with that ($1200 a month for two).

    I came across an article written by a man who had done the challenge. He was a Friend and chose to live a simple life. Choosing organic vegetables and fruit, bulk grains and spices, and very little dairy, he was able to feed himself and server his co-workers lunch on $21 for a week.

    I chose to take the challenge but making it $50 for a week’s worth of groceries for two due to the allergies. That was two years ago and it is still our current budget. It reminds me everyday what other people may be facing. I have skills in the kitchen that allow me to make a creative varied menu. Without those skills, it is difficult to eat for that little.

    Lauren, I appreciate what you are doing here. It shows that you can eat well for very little.

  • L

    Eliza – wow, $3 per day is really a challenge, especially when you are on a restricted diet. Bulk foods can be particularly hard if you have severe allergies, since you can’t guarantee that the bins haven’t been contaminated (wheat is particularly bad for that I understand).

    How great for you that you’ve managed to do that, and keep up with it! I know I won’t be sticking to $7 per day forever… but I do think that this challenge has inspired me to reduce my food costs overall which should enable me to donate more to others who really need it.

    Matt – I can’t believe I haven’t been to PFI yet. What am I waiting for????

    Lauren – Yes, although I think that food banks really prefer to get things like canned soup or other cook and eat items. But, maybe by providing those things through the food banks, that can free up some of the food stamps for things like other pantry items.

    Thanks Jak!

    Tea – yeah, I thought so too. But, then I found no shortage of meat, free-range even, at reasonable prices. It’s no Skagit Valley, but I’m glad there are some good, budget-conscious choices out there.

    KT – yes… my experience with those “coupons” are that they are usually for things I wouldn’t normally buy… so they aren’t really saving me any money. I understand the appeal though!

    Thanks all!

  • LizCrain

    It’s still cook enough to roast a chicken! I guess that’s the sunny side of all the grey days in the Pacific Northwest lately. I think I’m going to make some sorrel pesto this weekend. That would go really well with roasted chicken. Thanks for the lovely post.

  • Gabriella

    looks great!

  • Murasaki Shikibu

    Let me first say that I like what is being done in this blog because the author is resourceful and tries to make the best of what he can purchase on the restricted budget.

    We are currently on 400 euros/month which comes to about 13 euros/day and it’s for two people. It’s pretty much 6.50 euros/day per person. Things like shampoo, dental floss, toothpaste, soap, etc. come out of this budget too. It really depends on where you live how restricted this budget will make things for you. It would be impossible to eat like we do in Spain if we lived in Japan on this same budget.

    We buy extra virgin olive oil in 5 liter containers for about 15 euros and bake our own bread, make our own pizza crust, flour tortillas, tomato sauce, etc. all from scratch.

    We look for vegetables that are in season and will buy things like artichokes going for 1 euro/3 kg or oranges for 1 euro/2 kg. If you make a huge vat of tomato sauce – it can really go a long way and it’s much cheaper than ready made tomato sauce and will taste much better. I made my own starter so all we need to buy to bake bread is flour and a little honey and salt. The starter gets fed whole wheat flour, but we bake bread with AP flour. Natural sea salt is luckily dirt cheap in Spain and you can buy 1 kg for something like 50 cents. Herbs? We try to buy potted plants for 1 euro each and keep them alive for as long as we can. We use lots of spices and it’s painful when we have to restock.

    Sometimes there are certain fresh foods that are cheap in one area that aren’t in others. I think it’s important to know what these are. Radishes for example cost 4 times more in Spain than in Germany. Ice cream costs 2-3 times as much in Spain than in Germany.

    We don’t buy organic vegetables because we can’t afford to. We do not buy steak very often (twice a year?) because it messes-up our restricted food budget. It’s basically impossible to eat out on 6.50 euros/day. I will also try to walk somewhere instead of taking the train if I can to save a few euros.

    That said I can’t know what it’s like for people on food stamps because I do have some savings and I know I can fall back on this should an emergency come-up. That said I’m not eligible for welfare in any social system so if my savings ran out I would not be eligible even for food stamps. That’s why I’m on this self-imposed budget.

    Sorry – I really wrote way too much!

  • Mozaik

    Let’s resolve the salt issue. Buy regular salt that you can afford and while walking back home with your groceries pick some rosemary leaves in the street. There is a lot of ignored and neglected rosemary in Seattle so it shouldn’t be an issue. If you are concerned of the liberate picking of the herb, you might politely ask a neighbor if you could pick a little bunch if they are stingy then ask for few sprigs which is plenty to flavor salt and even oils.