Back to basics . . . and childhood.

My parents used to make what they would call a “hamburger hotdish” for dinner a lot of the time while I was growing up.  It was a dish similar to hamburger helper that was made on the stove top in a big ass skillet.  It was pretty simple, ground beef, onions, celery, macaroni and canned tomatoes from my dad’s garden.  We’d eat that with peanut butter and jelly on white bread with big glasses of milk.  It was a pretty standard meal at our house.  I never really used to think about why we’d eat that so often.  I’d just scarf down the hotdish so I could have more peanut butter and jelly.  But now I realize why it was on the stove at least once a week.

It’s cheap.

Dirt.  Frickin’.  Cheap.

Because of several money issues in the last month or so, I’ve been forced to cut my food budget roughly in half.  Which means no more exotic, organic foods from the co op, no more specialty mail-order vegan products for a while either.  I’m back to supermarket veganism . . . well, Target veganism to be more precise.  Problem is . . . I don’t really know how to cook that way.

I’m used to having interesting vegetables, artisan breads, imported pasta, and organic canned goods.  Granted, the generic cheap stuff is still vegan (more or less), I worry about chemicals used during farming and in the processing of the food.  Cest la vie, I guess.  I do still buy and voluntarily eat Oreos from time to time, so I should probably stop bitching.

Anyway.  I didn’t even know where to start with making cheap food.  So I went back to the classic meal I’d seen my parents make hundreds of times: Hamburger Hotdish.

I’ve been toying with “skillet meals” for a while now.  Mostly because I had some weird craving for hamburger helper.  As a freshman at college, during my vegetarian years, I started eating hamburger helper on a regular basis and just subbing out the ground beef for some veggie crumbles.  It was a comfort food.  Warm and salty and squishy.  At first my aim was just to recreate that feeling with my food while keeping everything vegan.  Then I realized what sort of potential skillet meals had.  You can make just about any dish in a vegan skillet version.  Vegan Beef-a-roni, vegan cheesburger helper, vegan chicken ala king, even vegan tuna casserole.  I started making them all the time because they were easy, complete meals, that only used one pan.  It was as if I’d discovered the secret to college cooking.

But now, I see that not only are they fast, easy, tasty, and leave you with less cleaning . . . they’re cheap, as long as you use the right ingredients.  In my original days of coming up with these meals, I’d use expensive, frozen, meat analogues:  Morningstar chik’n strips or boca crumbles or whatever was on sale at the co op.  But as a better, cheaper source of protein, now I’m using tofu.

I recently discovered that in a nonstick skillet, you can treat crumbled tofu sort of like ground beef for these sorts of things.  Just heat the skillet to medium high heat, add about 2 tablespoons of canola oil, crumble in the tofu, let it saute for a minute or two, and then drizzle it all with a healthy amount of soy sauce.  Then you just have to let it fry until it’s starting to brown.  TA DA!  The perfect protein base for skillet meals.  And coming in at about $2 a pound, it’s economical and vegan.

So the next hurdle was making my parents’ hamburger hotdish concept healthy.  I mean, macaroni and meat with some tomato sauce isn’t exactly what I would call good-for-you.  The meat became tofu.  The noodles became whole-grain pasta.  The sauce got some herbs added to it so it wasn’t so damn boring.  And the whole thing got an injection of vegetables for the sake of nutrition.

At the end of it all, I did all the math.  I got three BIG servings out of the recipe for less than $4.  Dinner tonight, and lunch and dinner tomorrow.  SUCCESS!  Just for my serving tonight, I made some toasty crumbles for the top and sprinkled on a little bit of nutritional yeast for flavor.

here's a cruddy picture of it I took with my webcam

A Basic Skillet Meal

Ingredients:

  • 2 Tablespoons canola oil
  • 1/2 Pound of firm or extra firm tofu
  • 3 Tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon oregano
  • 1 teaspoon basil
  • 1 15-ounce can of tomato sauce
  • 1 1/2 cans of water
  • 1/2 of a 13.5 ounce box of whole grain pene pasta (a generous 2 cups)
  • 1/2 of a 16-ounce bag of frozen, cut green beans
  • salt and pepper to taste

What to do:

Heat a large (12-inch), nonstick skillet over medium high heat.  While that’s heating, wrap the tofu in some paper towels and gently squeeze out some of the water.  Don’t worry about getting it too dry, most of the excess will cook off.  Once hot, put the oil in the skillet and crumble in the tofu.  Fry this for 1-2 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Then gather all the tofu into the middle of the pan and drizzle the soy sauce over it evenly.  I just pour it out of the bottle, so 3 tablespoons is an estimate.  Don’t stir for 2 minutes, just let it sizzle.  The soy sauce is reducing a bit in the pan and that’s what you want.

Now stir the tofu occasionally for the next 5 minutes, or until it starts to get golden brown on the parts that aren’t covered in soy sauce.  Add the onion and garlic to the pan and saute, stirring occasionally, for 3-5 minutes.  Just until the onion looks cooked, but the tofu isn’t too browned.  Add the oregano and basil and stir.

Add the tomato sauce.  And then add 1 and 1/2 cans full of water, making sure to get all that good tomato sauce into the pan by swishing it out with the water.  Bring the pan to a boil.  Once boiling, add the pasta.  Cover and simmer for 10 minutes (or as long as the pasta calls for), stirring occasionally.  After the 10 minutes is up, check to see if the pasta is cooked.  If it’s a little firm yet, that’s okay.  Add the green beans and bring the pan back to a simmer.  You may need to add a little extra water to loosen things up a bit.  But if it looks like there’s a nice sauce in the pan, you don’t have to.  Simmer the whole concoction for 5 to 7 minutes, or until the green beans are hot.

Put it into a bowl (or on a plate, if you prefer) and eat it on up!

This is a basic outline for skillet meals, using this format, you can make a bunch of different variations.  Judging by my bank account, I’ll probably have the opportunity to post some more in the coming weeks.

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