By Bonnie Fishman
As if we didn’t have enough to worry about these days, what about the skyrocketing price of food? Yikes! I have never seen it like this before. As a former restauranteur, I was trained to watch food prices, a skill that has come in handy my whole life, especially today. Watching them go through the roof is not what anyone wants to see.
As you might have guessed, the pandemic is at the root of things. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics last August: “Demand shocks and problems with supply chains contributed to increased volatility in import, export, producer, and consumer prices in the months following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. Meat, fish, dairy, and eggs were especially affected by the shifting economy brought on by the pandemic.”
In April, the U.S. Department of Agriculture forecast that prices for food this year would rise 2 percent to 3 percent from 2020 (which were already up 3.4 percent from 2019). Prices in March 2021 in fact were up a stunning 3.5% from March 2020.
It’s not only having grocery items that increased. Have you been to a dine-in or carryout restaurant lately? Geez, “fast food” used to be synonymous with “cheap food.” Not so anymore. Fast food prices have undergone the highest rate of inflation since 2008, and are steeper than they were a year ago. The cost of food and higher wages have compounded the problem. Unfortunately, these price increases seem to be here to stay. This a good reason to begin to or continue to cook at home.
Here’s the rub: those of us who want to eat healthy foods, especially organics, find ourselves in a different stratosphere. Eating good food is actually more expensive than eating, well, junk. Produce and high quality proteins, the basics for any healthy eater, cost lots of money. There has got to be a solution somewhere. if you occasionally shift your balance to eating more breads, rice, noodles or beans, you can cut your budget.
Enter the the humble, all-purpose casserole. Casseroles have been around for years in many countries, usually cooked in earthenware dishes. They are basically the whole meal baked in one dish, usually containing a protein, vegetables, a starch such as rice, beans, potatoes, or noodles, and often a binding sauce or cheese. They became really popular in the United Sates during the ‘50s when good quality glass dishes and lightweight metals came on the market.
Besides being a dollar stretcher, casseroles have a lot of positives. For starters, you usually mess up only one pot. Once it’s in the oven, you’re done cooking and you can turn to other tasks or just relax before dinner! You can make them in larger quantities to eat for a couple of meals or even to freeze. Lastly, a casserole screams homey comfort food. Who doesn’t love that?
Unfortunately, by the 1970s, the casserole had a low-rent image. I say it’s too bad because some of the most delicious food is a melding of pasta, cooked vegetables, and protein topped with gooey cheese. Lasagna, macaroni and cheese, tuna noodle casserole, shepherd’s pie, Mexican beans and rice.
The beauty of this baked dish is that the creative possibilities are endless. Casseroles can be made ahead of time, and importantly, they can save on grocery money. Casseroles are also a portable meal to share with others. Years ago, when an older gentleman lost his wife, a string of single women would often parade through his front door, casseroles in hand, hoping to be the next companion for said widower. Maybe this tradition still exists!
Besides shifting the proportion of types of food in your repertoire, by using less protein and increasing the less expensive “fillers,’ one can also shop with a little more thought. Watch the weekly grocery store circulars. Find the “loss leaders” (items that are being sold below cost to lure you into the store), and work with those. Enroll in every frequent buyer program in your local stores.
I personally compare one store’s sales to another and even though it seems silly to go to two places, I do it to get what I want for less money. Lastly, buy seasonal products when they’re in season. Many vegetables, such as asparagus, cauliflower and eggplant, greatly fluctuate in price depending upon the growing season.
Today, in celebration of the versatile casserole, I’m offering Mexican Rice and Beans, vegetarian style. I’m using soy chorizo sausage from Trader Joe’s. You can always substitute real chorizo if you’re a meat eater.
Mexican Rice and Beans (Vegetarian)
Yield: 8 servings
2 Tbs. olive oil
1 c. small diced onions
1/2 small diced zucchini
1 small jalapeño, seeds removed, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. oregano
1/2 tsp. coriander
1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
12 oz. soy chorizo (can substitute with real chorizo)
1 poblano pepper
1 1/4 c. basmati rice
2 c. water
1 small can diced tomatoes with juice
1 c. corn kernels
1 can kidney beans, drained
1/2 c. chopped cilantro
1-1/2 c. shredded sharp cheddar
4-5 plum tomatoes, sliced into thin rounds
Extra shredded cheddar for garnish
1 Tbs. chopped cilantro for garnish
In a 4 qt. Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions, zucchini, jalapeño, and garlic. Sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Blend in the spices. Crumble in the chorizo. Cook for 5 minutes. Add the rice and cook for 1 minute.
Pour on the water and canned tomatoes with their juice. Stir pot. Bring to a boil. Turn down to a simmer, covered, and cook for about 15 minutes. Do not stir.
While the rice is cooking, char the poblano over an open flame until blackened on all sides. Put in a plastic bag. Allow to sit for 10 minutes. Run under cold water, peeling off the skin as you go. Blot dry. Remove and discard the core and seeds. Cut pepper up into 1/4” dice. Reserve.
When the rice is done, blend in the diced pepper, corn, beans, cilantro, and cheese. Adjust the seasoning.
Spray a 3-quart casserole with pan release. Pour the rice mixture into the pan and smooth the top. Arrange the sliced tomatoes overlapping in columns. Sprinkle with cheddar cheese.
Bake, uncovered, in a 350° oven for 30 minutes. Sprinkle with cilantro.
Note: if making casserole ahead of time, and you are reheating from the fridge, cover the pan with foil. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove foil and bake for another 20-30 minutes.
Bonnie Fishman attended the Cordon Bleu Cookery School in London. Later, she owned and operated Bonnie’s Patisserie in Southfield, Mich. and Bonnie’s Kitchen and Catering in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. She has taught cooking for over 35 years and created hundreds of recipes. She is now living in Northern California.