Friday, September 10, 2010

The Value of Stretching

Stretching is something of a lost art.  Your grandmother or great-grandmother did it during the Depression and WWII, taking a little bit of rationed foodstuffs and turning it into enough food to feed a family.  In fact, home cooks throughout history have primarily stretched their food -- making do with the scarce or expensive items and adding in cheaper or in-season items to add bulk, volume, taste, or nutrition.  Cookbooks from most eras explicitly or implicitly refer to stretching; it is only modern cookbooks that seem to imply that you can't make dinner unless you have the exact quantities asked for, down to the last bay leaf and quarter teaspoon of lemon zest.

Some of my favorite stretching tips:

To Stretch Meat
  • Meat is the most often stretched foodstuff, because of scarcity in earlier eras and expense in all eras.  The best way to stretch meat is grind it up; buy a less expensive cut and grind it, or buy pre-ground chuck, turkey, or the like.  Stretch by adding approximately one egg per pound of ground meat and up to a cup of oatmeal, bread crumbs, rice, or cracker crumbs.  Behold, meatloaf!  Meat balls!  Just season according to your recipe.  This is the stretching tip you most likely remember from your granny, and it is the one you are most likely to still use, even if you don't think of it as stretching.
  • Slice your meat.  With a better cut of meat, prepare it and then slice it and use it as a garnish on pasta, rice, or salads.  You will want less meat when it visually takes up more room, and this also means fewer calories in your diet.
  • Use the scraps.  We keep a "stock bucket" in our freezer to collect trimmings and bones.  When it is full, I make stock and use that for a hearty soup.
  • Make a casserole from leftovers.  If you have a few trimmings from a roast or even a few hot dogs from your last cook out, you can add them to a casserole for a little extra protein and a meal with less meat.
To Stretch Carbohydrates
  • Carbs, like pasta, rice, or bread, are usually the thing we use to stretch.  However, in some seasons, they are the most expensive item on a very economical table.  When the garden is in full swing, suddenly that $1 box of pasta is your big expense for the meal.
  • Stretch pizza crust and most baked goods by adding shredded zucchini.  I like to take a Jiffy boxed pizza crust and add about a cup of shredded zucchini (about one medium) and decrease the amount of water called for.  Add a little extra flour if the dough seems watery.  Often, this makes a small box of pizza crust mix become enough for two pizzas.
  • Likewise, put a shredded zucchini in your next batch of bread and decrease the liquid a bit.  You will get more bread, and you have found a way to get rid of a zucchini and add some nutrition to your diet.
To Stretch Dairy
  • Dairy is expensive, especially if you want hormone-free or organic varieties.
  • Make yogurt.  Yogurt can take the place of many sauces, and it becomes a good way to get calcium without having to drink a lot of milk.  While an ounce of milk makes an ounce of yogurt, so no real change in volume, you tend to be happy with four to six ounces of yogurt and some fruit instead of an eight ounce glass of milk.
  • Buy stronger flavored cheeses.  That way, you will use less and still be satisfied.
  • Use cheese as a garnish on veggies, not as a main ingredient.
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