Joanna McQuillan Weeks: Jessica Fisher creates frugal, fabulous recipes

By Joanna McQuillan Weeks

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Jessica Fisher knows what it’s like to be mired in debt.

After years of frugal living, she and her husband slowly dug themselves into a hole, taking on a mortgage, running up credit card balances, and drawing down their savings.

Luckily they pulled back from the brink in 2007, about a year before the Great Recession struck. They righted their financial ship and returned to living within their means, eschewing credit buying and sticking to a budget.

This new lifestyle motivated Fisher to cook creatively and thriftily, while also satisfying the “foodie taste buds” of her family of eight.

The most recent outgrowth of her pennywise cookery is “Good Cheap Eats: Everyday Dinners and Fantastic Feasts for $10 or Less,” published by Harvard Common Press (320 pages, paperbound, with color photographs, $16.95).

It contains 200 appealing recipes, arranged in menus, as well as 101 money-saving tips to help meet the $10 target for a meal serving four.

Chatting by phone from her San Diego home, Fisher said that her food budget - even with four sons and two daughter between the ages of 6 and 17 - is $800 to $1,200 a month, though “We could make it work on much less if we had to.”

She agrees that strategic shopping is key to serving up frugal, delicious fare, taking steps such as buying staples on sale, taking the time to plan menus, and making a list so that you can shop just once for the week.

A couple of times a year, she holds what she calls a “pantry challenge”: using up ingredients that she has on hand and limiting purchases to dairy products and produce. “This helps you not just clear out what you have, but learn to shop better” by not buying items that have been languishing in the cupboard.

Cooking from scratch rather than buying processed foods is another necessity. But Fisher makes that easy by sharing recipes for such menus as Salisbury Steak with Mushroom Gravy accompanied by Roasted Green Beans, or Zesty Baked Shrimp with Panko teamed with Bryan’s Broccoli and Onions, and Colorful Herbed Couscous.

Her youngsters, she said, have “a varying range of interest and ability” in cooking, but “are all really willing participants.” Fisher’s 17-year-old son, who is an athlete, has become particularly interested in nutrition. When vegetarian nights come along, for most of the kids it’s not an issue, but “he wants to make sure he gets enough protein.”

One of Fisher’s favorite meatless recipes is pictured on the cover of “Good Cheap Eats.”

“You will not miss the meat,” she promises, because her Poblano Chile Enchiladas are “so rich and so filling and so satisfying.”

One chapter of recipes is devoted to “Stretching It.” Fisher has created recipes that use meat as a flavoring or an accent, not the center of the plate. For example, Mac (and Ham) and Cheese Casserole, which serves four, contains 2 cups of diced ham. Arroz con Pollo, calculated to serve four to six, includes 3 cups of chopped cooked chicken.

Fisher also is the author of ”Not Your Mother’s Make Ahead and Freeze Cookbook” and “Best 100 Juices for Kids.” In addition, she authors two blogs: Life as Mom, which she began six years ago, with Good Cheap Eats following a year later. She said the cooking blog, with the great slogan “Eat well. Act your wage. Enjoy life,” evolved out of her mom blog when she realized that it was becoming too food-centric.

At www.goodcheapeats.com/printables you’ll find some additional resources, such an inventory checklist and a meal-planning calendar.

In the introduction to her cookbook, Fisher assures readers that if they use her recipes and follow her tips and shopping strategies, “they will enable you to stretch your dollar, eat well and really enjoy your life.” That’s hard to argue with.

Meanwhile, here are some recipes to try.

About this supper dish, Fisher writes: “I serve these eggs several times a week, adjusting the type of greens or other additions depending on what’s in the fridge. Sometimes I add mushrooms and bacon, sometimes onions and kale. Feel free to mix it up with whatever you have on hand.”

SKILLET POACHED EGGS WITH SPINACH

Serves four. From “Good Cheap Eats” by Jessica Fisher, used by permission of The Harvard Common Press.

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 leeks, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced crosswise into half-moons

5 ounces baby spinach

8 large eggs

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

In a large skillet with a lid, heat the oil over medium heat until shimmering. Add the leeks and sauté until tender, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the spinach. Stir gently and cook until slightly wilted.

Spread out the spinach mixture to create eight small wells. Crack an egg into each well. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Cover and cook until the desired doneness is reached for the eggs, 5 to 8 minutes.

VEGETABLE, BEEF, AND BARLEY SOUP

Makes 8 to 10 cups. Serves four. From “Good Cheap Eats” by Jessica Fisher, used by permission of The Harvard Common Press.

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 pound chuck steak, cubed

1 cup chopped onion

1 cup chopped peeled carrot

1⁄2 cup chopped celery

1⁄2 cup pearl barley

4 cups vegetable broth

1 (15-ounce) can tomato sauce

2 cups cooked or canned chickpeas (rinsed and drained if canned)

1⁄2 cup chopped green bell pepper

1⁄2 cup frozen petite peas, thawed

1 teaspoon herbes de Provence

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1⁄4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

In a large stockpot over medium heat, heat the oil until shimmering. Brown the steak cubes on all sides for 5 minutes.

Add the onion, carrot, celery, and barley to the pot. Cook until the onions turn translucent, 5 to 7 minutes.

Stir in the broth, tomato sauce, chickpeas, bell pepper, peas, herbes de Provence, salt, and pepper. Simmer until the barley and vegetables are tender, 20 to 30 minutes.

MAKE IT AHEAD: Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to four days or in the freezer for up to one month.

Here are ideas from Fisher on how to use the following recipe: “This meaty chili comes together quickly and easily on the stovetop. It’s great for chili dogs but is equally delicious atop baked potatoes, pasta, and nachos, or folded into burritos.”

SPICY NO-BEAN CHILI

Serves four. From “Good Cheap Eats” by Jessica Fisher, used by permission of The Harvard Common Press.

12 ounces ground beef, turkey, pork, or chicken

2 tablespoons finely chopped onion

2 tablespoons finely chopped seeded jalapeño

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce

1 tablespoon Mexican Spice Blend

In a large skillet over medium-high heat, cook the meat, onion, jalapeño, and garlic until the meat is browned and the onion is translucent, 10 to 15 minutes. Spoon off any fat. Stir in the tomato sauce and spice blend. Simmer for 10 minutes.

MAKE IT AHEAD: Store the chili in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to four days or in the freezer for up to two months.

“This all-purpose taco seasoning mix can be used in place of any commercial blend. I use it to season meat and rice dishes as well as chilis and casseroles. The cinnamon adds a unique flavor twist; omitting it will give you a more traditional ‘taco’ flavor.”

MEXICAN RICE BLEND

Makes about 1⁄2 cup. From “Good Cheap Eats” by Jessica Fisher, used by permission of The Harvard Common Press.

3 tablespoons chili powder

1 tablespoon fine sea salt

1 tablespoon onion powder

1 tablespoon garlic powder

1 tablespoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional)

1⁄2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Combine all of the ingredients in a small bowl. Transfer the mixture to an airtight plastic container or zip-top plastic bag and store in the cupboard.

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