$5 Challenge for Fall: Vegetarian Value Meal

I really love these $5 slow food challenges. Slow Food USA challenged chefs and food bloggers to “take back the value meal” by demonstrating that buying fast food, usually for about $5 per person, might seem like it’s saving money in the short-term, but is worse for us in the long run. Of course, slow food doesn’t cost more than fast food, it’s just … well, slow.

In the past, I have blown away the $5-per-person goal with an epic slow-cooked smoked chicken posole and a simple beef phô that anyone can make. Although both of those recipes can be adapted for vegetarians by eliminating the meat, this recipe is a bit more seasonal and spicy, and frankly, it’s wonderful. It’s so thick and hearty and spicy, you won’t miss the meat. The other two challenges were also crock-pot recipes, and this only takes about 30 minutes — 45 minutes to an hour total active and inactive time, if you include the time it takes to roast the pumpkin.

Pumpkin-Potato Curry (Or Soup)

(Try it as a rice dish or as a creamy soup … or both.)

Ingredient list and cost breakdown:

  • about 2 medium-sized cooking pumpkins: $0.35 per pound, about $2.00 total*;
  • 3-4 large russet potatoes: about $1.00 ($3.99 for a 5-lb. bag);
  • 3-4 large carrots, peeled and chopped, about $1.00 ($2.50 for a large bag);
  • 2-3 tablespoons of green or red Thai curry paste; about $1.00 ($3.75 for a 4-oz jar);
  • 1 large onion, chopped; about $0.70;
  • 2 granny smith apples, chopped: about $1.50;
  • 4 cups cooked rice; about $1.00 (about 1/2 of a bag that cost $1.99)**;
  • 32-oz vegetable stock; $2.50;
  • 1 can of coconut milk; $2.59;
  • about half a bag of frozen green peas; about $1.40 ($2.79 for a whole bag);
  • about a cup of brown sugar; about $0.45 ($1.69 for a 4-cup bag);
  • fresh chopped ginger; about $0.50 ($1.76 for a big chunk of ginger root, use about 1 tablespoon of peeled, chopped ginger);
  • salt and pepper (you should have this in your kitchen already, but if you need to buy a set of pre-filled salt and pepper shakers to make this dish, it’s $2.19 for the set)

As you can see, most of these ingredients are available in packages that will allow you to still have potatoes, carrots, rice, etc., left over after this meal. If you just go by what this meal actually costs, i.e., the portion of ingredients you use out of the whole package, then it costs a total of $15.64, or $3.13 per serving. If you buy all of these ingredients in money-saving packages and go by what it all costs, total, including a pack of salt and pepper, the total is $29.95. That’s still $5.99 per person. Lots of you probably have a half-bag of rice, or a sack of potatoes, or an extra couple of apples lying around, or a chunk of ginger root in your freezer, to use in a recipe. I would recommend buying the larger packages if you have the means, especially for things like a jar of curry paste, which lasts a long time and is a great addition to lots of dishes. Also, if you make your own vegetable stock (try this easy way using kitchen scraps), you can save that money as well.

(*A couple things about pumpkins: First, make sure these are the smaller cooking pumpkins, not the big jack-o’-lantern kind. The big ones will still work in a pinch, but the smaller ones have more flesh, and they are more tender and sweet than the big ones. Secondly, obviously this price is for autumn, when fresh pumpkins are in season and available at your local grocery store, farmer’s market, or pumpkin patch, and they’re pretty cheap. If you MUST, and you can’t find a real pumpkin anywhere, use canned “pure pumpkin” puree for this recipe, which you can get year-round for $2.99 for a 29-oz. can. Just make sure it’s pure pumpkin, without added sugar and spices and whatnot.)

First, prepare the pumpkin. This part is fun.

I took this very easy pumpkin-preparing tutorial from the Pioneer Woman’s blog and basically eliminated the last step of pureeing the pumpkin. Essentially, you slice it, scrape the seeds out (don’t forget to save them for flavoring and roasting later!), and roast the slices over high heat. Let it cool so you can handle it with your bare hands, then the rind comes off very easily and you can take the pumpkin for all of its tasty meat inside.

This is delectable for pureeing for pies, tarts, desserts and pumpkin fruit butters, or for keeping in chunky form for curries, stews, and, as Ree Drummond explains, just for eating by itself. (It is very difficult to handle a chunk of freshly roasted, slightly warm, sweet pumpkin flesh and to NOT just pop a chunk of it in your mouth. Try to save enough for the curry.) The day I made this recipe for the first time, I roasted a few pumpkins and used some for this curry and the rest for a fabulous spiced pumpkin apple butter.

While the pumpkin is roasting, chop the potatoes, carrots, apples and onion, and start it cooking in a large pot with a bit of oil. Add the coconut milk, about half of the container of stock, frozen peas, curry paste and brown sugar, and let simmer until vegetables are soft. By this time, the pumpkin should be nice and soft as well, so let it cool off a bit after you take it from the oven, then peel the rind off, rough-chop the pumpkin, and toss the chunks into the pot. Add a bit more stock at this point, as well as the salt and pepper to taste. Be sure to taste it … you might want to add a bit more sugar or pepper or stock. Then let it simmer for another 10 minutes or so, so that all of the flavors mix in together.

** Rice vs. Soup: I served this on a bed of cooked white rice, but you can also stop here, and simply puree or blend these cooked ingredients into a liquid for a sweet and spicy soup. (In fact, if you aren’t feeding a house full of people on this meal, you may want to do both, just so you don’t get tired of the same dish multiple times. Even fabulous leftovers get old after you have to eat them a few days in a row.) This is delicious as a smooth, creamy soup, or as a thick and chunky curry and rice dish.

$5 Slow Food Challenge: Phô for the Lazy American

I think I’ve outdone myself this time.

My last $5 Slow Food Challenge, a phenomenally good smoked chicken posole, seriously knocked the $5 per-serving idea out of the park … I ended up with a cool $3.24 per quart. Not serving. QUART. Awesome. This is a little more ($4.91 per quart) but it can be stretched to make a dozen meals if you have a little imagination.

As usual, I have adapted this recipe both to my own lifestyle and tastes. I don’t have a family to feed, and (knock on wood) I no longer have to struggle with affording a decent meal for less than 5 bucks. So I do things like cook a huge crock pot full of soup, invite a bunch of friends over, and after dinner, I send each of them home with a tupperware container full of leftovers.

Vietnamese phô is one of those dishes than can be made a variety of ways, with any sort of meat or vegetable you have on hand. Traditionally it is made with beef broth and rice noodles, then the diner adds sriracha sauce and soy sauce, diced cabbage and bean sprouts, and if desired, jalapeños or other peppers.

Phô is also a great dish for newcomers to certain types of Asian cooking. With the exception of a few sauces and perhaps the fancy noodles, all of the ingredients are familiar to American cooks. This is a great way to start experimenting with Vietnamese dishes and to familiarize yourself with how wonderful it is. If you haven’t enjoyed a big bowl of phô and a bânh mí (Vietnamese sandwich on crusty bread), you’re seriously missing out.

I changed mine a little because I wanted to make mine a little heartier and added fresh sliced mushrooms and tofu chunks as well, I enjoy water chestnuts and usually have a can of sliced ones in the cupboard, and I happened to have a London broil steak that I made on the Fourth of July and may have accidentally overcooked on the grill. (Ahem.)

The cost breakdown:

  • $5.75 … a slab of London broil steak
  • $2.19 … 32-oz. of vegetable broth*
  • $0.99 … pack of sliced fresh mushrooms
  • $1.59 … package of extra-firm tofu
  • $0.49 … small head of cabbage
  • $0.50 … bunch of cilantro
  • $0.99 … bunch of basil
  • $1.69 … 1 lb. package of bean sprouts
  • $1.29 … can of sliced water chestnuts
  • $2.39 … bottle of sriracha**
  • $1.89 … package of rice noodles
  • $2.10 … bottle of soy sauce
  • $2.69 … jar of hoisin sauce

Total: $24.55

For a 5-quart crock pot, that works out to $4.91 per quart.

* Vegetable broth is simple to make using scraps of leftover vegetables. If you can make your own, it will obviously save you more money, plus you’ll be able to control the sodium, etc.

** You should already have this in your kitchen. Seriously; there’s nothing it cannot do.

Again, this recipe started out as a way to save a wonderful marinated London broil that I accidentally mangled on the grill, but if I were you, I’d keep it rare. I sliced the steak very thin and put it in the crock pot with half of the cilantro and basil, the vegetable broth, water chestnuts, and an additional few cups of water to fill the pot. I added a few tablespoons of hoisin, and a few dashes of soy sauce and sriracha.

If you use a rare steak instead of one that you also mangled, leave it out.

After the broth has been simmering for at least 5-6 hours, add the sliced mushrooms and cubed tofu. From then on, any additional simmering is just adding extra flavor.

When serving, put the (uncooked) noodles in the bowl, and cover with a handful of diced cabbage and some bean sprouts.

Garnish with the rest of the fresh cilantro and basil. Then pour the soup on top (it will cook the noodles) and add more sriracha.

My last $5 challenge was a traditional Mexican stew that can be made with a variety of types of ingredients, and can be stretched to feed a huge party if necessary, and this is very similar.

You can make this recipe even cheaper by eliminating the expensive steak and using only fresh veggies (like shredded carrot, diced zucchini or fresh corn), or by making your own stock from leftover vegetables or meat scraps. You can stretch this recipe by adding extra water and broth (plus extra spices), and padding the sides with the cheap diced cabbage.

… Or maybe, you’re like me, and after eating phô for a couple-three days, you start to think of ways to use what’s left.

1) Maybe you’d like to split the tofu and steak between a pot of soup and a nice sandwich? Traditionally, bânh mí is served on a crusty French roll (a nod to the Vietnamese/ French colonial fusion cuisine), but you can make it any way you like.

Prepare the tofu as I have described below. While it’s cooking, slather two slices of bread or a roll (I like sourdough) with mayo spiked with sriracha. Layer the tofu (and thinly sliced steak if you like) on the bread and add a layer of sliced cucumber, mushroom, and shreds of carrot (peel the carrot, then when it’s peeled, go right on peeling slices off with your vegetable peeler).  Sprinkle with soy sauce. Top with fresh basil leaves and enjoy.

2) Maybe you’d like something heartier, using the broth from the delicious phô?

Prepare a cup of white or brown rice according to package directions. Pile it in a bowl with shreds of carrot, cabbage, some bean sprouts, and whatever else you have left. Pour the phô on top. Don’t forget the fresh basil and a few dashes of sriracha.

All in all, this recipe, plus a few extras that cost very little (bread for sandwiches, a cucumber and a carrot, a cup of rice), made multiple meals over multiple days, with very little grumbling at the repetition.

As a side note, I want to share a new way to cook tofu I learned recently — well, new to me. I don’t know about you guys, but it’s hard for me to find a good way to cook tofu that doesn’t make it taste terrible. (Amirite folks?) Anyway, my neighbor is from Korea, and when she let me into her kitchen for an impromptu vegetarian lunch one day, I was blown away at the ease with which she turned the tofu into slices of deliciousness. (Please note that this was not the tofu she made, her slices were much prettier. She’s obviously a tofu expert of some sort.)

She cut the (extra-firm) tofu into thick slices, about 1/4 to 1/2 an inch. Then she warmed a pan with sesame oil, and after the tofu was cooked on one side, she flipped it and added soy sauce to each slice. Of course, I added a spot of sriracha to each slice.

This is the single easiest and tastiest way to cook tofu that I have yet discovered. There are many tastier, but none so easy and fast.