Hospitality on a Budget


So our small group from church was going to be meeting for our biweekly shared meal, and I was in the middle of an experiment: I was trying a series of menus to see how many meals I could get from one four pound ($3.21 on sale) chicken. I had used some of the stock to make broccoli soup for eight the night before and now would be serving nine children and six adults.

The following dish was enough for everyone to enjoy with seconds and at least two servings left over for the next day’s lunch. And still in the freezer: 12 ounces of boneless breast meat and almost 3 cups of stock.

Budget Chicken Cacciatore

1 to 1 1/2 c chopped onion—one medium
1 c celery, sliced
1/2 large green pepper, diced
Canola oil and/or chicken fat (see NOTE)
2 26 to 28 oz cans or jars spaghetti sauce
1 lb whole-wheat spaghetti
Mixed herb seasoning
Approximately 1 T Worcestershire sauce
2 c coarsely cut cooked, boned chicken
1 to 2 15 oz cans garbanzo beans, including liquid
Seasoning salt, to taste

Sauté the onion, celery, and pepper very slowly, over medium low heat, in a little bit of canola oil or chicken fat.
Meanwhile, break the spaghetti into 3 to 4 inch pieces and cook until just barely tender. Drain, reserving liquid.
Combine the pasta with all remaining ingredients and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes to allow flavors to blend. Add some of the reserved pasta water if the mixture is too dry. Taste for seasonings and adjust as necessary. Serve with grated Parmesan or mozzarella cheese and freshly ground black pepper.
NOTE: If you have cooked the chicken ahead of time and chilled or frozen it, there may well be some fat that has hardened on it. Use this instead of oil for browning the vegetables for a little more chicken flavor.

You may have seen some attempts to stretch the meat in main dishes that end up saving very little money because of the cost of other ingredients. However, for only $6.50, I had enough food to serve 15 people with leftovers. Even if we divided the “little people” into half servings, this would have been enough for 12 or so adults for barely 50 cents a serving.

Obviously, prices change continuously and will not be the same in different parts of the country, but the ingredients in this dish all can be budget friendly with only a little effort. For example:

  • Watch for grocery store specials on onions and stock up. That hearty country kitchen look in decorator magazines, with a crock or basket of onions piled next to one with oranges or other fruits? That’s not just for looks; it’s the best way to store these; they will usually last far longer on the counter than in the refrigerator and should never be kept in plastic, where they will quickly get soft and moldy.
  • Spaghetti sauce—again, watch for sales and stock up. And don’t feel you have to buy the pricey name brands for dishes like this one. Adding a few fresh ingredients like the onions, celery, and pepper here will make the final outcome as tasty with the 79 cent can of sauce as with the $2.98 gourmet brand jar.
  • Garbanzos—another stock up item; I used canned beans, but you can save even a little more money by cooking up some dry beans.
  • Whole-wheat spaghetti—if your budget is really tight, you can use plain spaghetti, but I have been finding the whole grain varieties on sale almost as often as the other. For this dish, I probably spent 30 cents more for the whole-wheat option, and that seemed worth the price.

For more details, here are my costs to prepare the dish in Minnesota in May 2009:

Onion $.18
Celery $.20
Pepper $.35
Spaghetti sauce $1.58
Spaghetti $.99
Garbanzo beans $1.00
Chicken $2.00 (I am going to assume about 2/3 of the $3.21 chicken went into this dish)
Seasonings $.20 (this is probably far more than the actual cost, but I buy the dried herbs and Worcestershire sauce in large quantities so am going to guess on the high side)
Total: $6.50

But of course, the main dish needs some sides. For this shared meal, I prepared fresh string beans in a light cheese sauce. The sauce was especially for the kids, since I have discovered that almost any vegetable has a better chance of being eaten if it comes sitting in a cheesy base that reminds them of macaroni and cheese. Then one of our group made a light salad of lettuce and some of the strawberries that have been on sale for a few weeks. A loaf of good whole wheat bread topped off the main course. The budgetary theme continued here too, as the lettuce, green beans, strawberries, and bread were all featured sale items for the week, and cheese continues to drop in price in our area.

For dessert, another group member brought her own experiment: a chocolate two-layer cake with butter cream frosting and fondant decorations. She wanted to “practice” before using the fondant for a graduation cake she will be making for her niece in two weeks. Her own particular budget secret is that she uses cake mixes for her cakes, buying them when on sale, and then adds her artistic expression to the decorations themselves.

Perhaps you shudder when you think of inviting others for a meal when your budget is already tight, especially if you feel you must spend a lot of money on these company dinners. But our group of friends ended the meal feeling as if we had feasted luxuriously—as we had, compared to so many in the world.

And so we sat for an hour or more, watching the kids playing on the lawn made bright with an afternoon rain, enjoying coffee and conversation—and after all, isn’t that what you really want your shared meals to accomplish?

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