Eats: Good eating on a stretched budget — thrifty can be tasty

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LEWISTON — Similar to the segment on the “CBS Early Show” called “Chef on a Shoestring,” St. Mary’s Nutrition Center of Maine recently hosted a class by personal chef Justin Liudvinaitis. Simply titled “Meals for $20 or Less,” Liudvinaitis showed class participants how to get the most out of one 6- to 8-pound chicken without spending more than $20. True to his word, his shopping list came in at $19.18!

The menu covered a broad spectrum: Simple barbecued chicken drums and wings with a homemade sauce, old-fashioned chicken soup and chicken fajitas on homemade tortillas. “It’s a double message, actually. It’s not just the economics of it — it’s how to save money and eat well, too,” he said.

Everyone was pleased to discover how easy the tortillas were to make. The group was also enjoyed watching Liudvinaitis demystify the making of chicken cordon bleu, and was surprised to find such a fancy-sounding meal included in a class about “thrifty” cooking.

First things first: Liudvinaitis demonstrated how to prepare and cut up a whole chicken, something I’ve never done. The biggest key to easy chicken preparation, it appears, is the knife! He said your knife should be very thin and very sharp, which he demonstrated with his boning knife. “Don’t use a chef’s knife,” he said, “because it will be too bulky. You need to make sure you have control over it.”

As a tip, he advised you gently follow the lines of cartilage in the chicken meat. With hardly any effort, the chicken flesh literally fell off the bones as he deftly maneuvered his sharp knife in and around the different sections. (See his demonstration at www.sunjournal.com.) One class participant, apparently a bit squeamish about touching raw chicken meat, cleverly donned a pair of clear plastic disposable gloves, which made me wonder where I might find a few of those myself.

The chicken was separated into breasts, wings, drums and thighs, thus giving us the starting points for three of the four meals. Liudvinaitis put the group to work at seven work stations.

The chicken carcass was rubbed with olive oil, sprinkled with salt, and roasted for approximately 20 minutes in a 375-degree oven. This became the basis of the fourth meal, chicken soup, by adding the roasted carcass to two quarts of water. Any remaining bits of meat are removed and put into the soup broth, along with a few spices and other ingredients. Liudvinaitis used a combination of both fresh and frozen vegetables, along with a few spices and alphabet noodles.

To make the lovely sauce for the chicken cordon bleu, Liudvinaitis began with the all-important white sauce. (Note to self: If you want to sound more like a fancy chef, feel free to call your white sauce “bechamel.” It’s the same thing, but perhaps you will feel more professional.)

“White sauce is used in many different recipes as a thickener,” he said, “and can be adapted to whatever you are making. I encounter it a lot.” Plus it’s remarkably simple to make: Take equal parts butter and flour, cook slightly in a sauce pan, and thin with milk, cream or half and half. For the chicken cordon bleu, he replaced the milk with the reserved cooking liquid instead.

“I have at least 20 or so different recipes that are possible with the leftovers of a chicken.  I think there could be 100 or so more, too,” he said. Since there are so many, I asked Liudvinaitis to share a few alternate suggestions. Using minimal additions to the meal, he offered up:

— Chicken Salad: with a bit of mayo or sour cream, with a bite from a little vinegar or lemon juice

— Chili: start with a base of tomato paste and water, add beans or vegetable of choice and chili spices to taste

— Nuggets: dredge in egg then bread crumbs mixed with seasoning (salt and pepper or Italian seasoning)

— Stuffed peppers: replace the usual ground beef with shredded chicken

— Chicken stir fry

— Curried chicken

— Chicken lasagna

Enough to keep everyone in the family happy!

Liudvinaitis also said this concept of preparing multiple meals from other large cuts of meat is possible, suggesting you could try it with a beef roast, ham, turkey or lamb. “Learning the fundamentals of meat cuts and the methods of cooking them is the advantage to this kind of ‘large cut meat’ meal planning,” he said.

“Everyone is a cook and everyone has a memory and experience with cooking. Learning and practicing with the fundamentals of cooking builds a base of confidence to quite possibly let go of the recipe card and just cook for the flavor and texture you want,”  he noted.

With a roast beef, he said, you might carve out a section of the roast, wrap in a pastry crust and call it beef wellington. “The ubiquitous meat pie seen everywhere in L-A is another use of leftover beef, as is shepherd’s pie. Or try it in your next spaghetti sauce.”

“It all sounds simple,” he said, “but you need to practice. Don’t ever stop. And trust yourself. You can do it!”

Liudvinaitis lives in Lisbon Falls. He cooks for Holy Family Church in Lewiston and also works as a personal chef. With his company, Sam’s Own Good Cooking (named in honor of his 3-year-old son) he aims to use all locally grown or produced items on his menu. “I want to stay as close as I can to the source of where the food comes from.”

For more information about classes held at St. Mary’s Nutrition Center of Maine, located at 208 Bates St. in Lewiston, call 513-3848 or email nutritioncenter@stmarysmaine.com.

For the class, personal chef Justin Liudvinaitis put together the following shopping list and price breakdown at www.Hannaford.com. “It’s designed to show what items would be necessary to complete a dish in the most basic and tasteful manner,” he said.

He calculated the cost of each item using an iPod conversion calculator app called ConvertBot. Since the full quantities of each item are not utilized in this menu, you get to store the remaining items in your pantry, and are then prepared for future meal plans. The breakdown includes the purchase size of each ingredient and the cost for the amount used for the four meals presented.

He pointed out that because items change in price, this list could change slightly when you do your own shopping.

Heinz Tomato Ketchup, 1 bottle: $0.24

Ham and cheese, 1 deli slice of each: $2

Hannaford Light Brown Sugar: $0.17

Flour, 2-lb bag: $0.09

Wesson Canola Oil, 24-oz. bottle: $0.22

Organic yellow onions: $0.58

Green bell pepper: $1.20

Carrots: $0.20

Hannaford celery hearts: $0.79

Hannaford Alphabet Pasta: $0.44

Hannaford frozen peas & carrots, ½ bag: $0.49

McCormick Recipe Inspirations Quesadilla Seasoning: $1.99

One 6-lb. Hannaford Grade-A Fresh Roasting Chicken, at $1.49 per lb.: $8.94

Hannaford 9-inch Flour Tortillas, 17-oz. package: $1.77

Heinz White Vinegar, 32-oz. bottle: $0.06

Grand total: Cost of the portions used for this menu: $19.18 (Spent for all ingredients: $29.54)

Recipes

Chicken Cordon Bleu

15 minute prep time; about 20 minutes cooking time

Serves 2, per chicken breast used

Ingredients:

1 to 4 chicken breasts,

1 slice deli ham per breast (variety is your choice, boiled ham is common choice)

1 slice deli Swiss cheese per breast (provolone is an alternate)

1/4 cup flour for dredging

1 teaspoon paprika

1 chicken bouillon cube (or use salted chicken broth as a substitute)

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup dry white wine

1 tablespoon butter

1 tablespoon flour

Tools needed:

3 feet of kitchen twine (16-ply cotton twine, or use barbecue skewers or toothpicks)

Mallet or other heavy object for pounding

Heavy, flat-bottomed skillet and a cover of some sort

Instructions:

Butterfly one chicken breast at the thickest part and pound to about 1/4-inch thickness.

Place slice of ham on top of pounded chicken breast and top again with cheese slice,.

Roll or wrap all the layers together (the best you can) to enclose the ham and cheese within the outer chicken layer. Secure with kitchen twine or by using skewers.

Dredge secured chicken breasts in mixture of flour and paprika. Set aside.

Dissolve bouillon cube in water (or just 1/2 cup salted chicken broth), then combine with wine and pour into skillet. Bring to a boil.

Place secured chicken breasts in skillet. Reduce heat to medium high and cover for 10 minutes. Uncover and turn breasts; cook another 10 minutes. Remove cooked chicken breasts and set aside; reserve all remaining liquid,

In small sauce pan melt butter and combine with flour and a dash of paprika, then slowly add the reserved liquid to this, whisking to create a smooth sauce. Pour over chicken breasts and enjoy.

B.B.Q Chicken Drums and Wings

10 minutes prep time; about 30 minutes cooking time

Makes 2 to 4 servings

Ingredients:

Drums and wings (skins on or off) from one or more whole chickens

1/2 cup ketchup

1/3 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup white vinegar

1 teaspoon corn starch

1/4 cup water

Tools needed:

Foil or other available oven-safe pan

Whisk or other utensil to stir with

Small sauce pan

Instructions:

Remove drums and wings from whole chicken, set aside in oven-safe pan.

In separate small sauce pan combine ketchup, brown sugar and vinegar to create a BBQ sauce.

Heat on medium-high until it simmers, whisking while it comes to temp.

Pour BBQ sauce over drums and wings and place in a 375-degree oven for 30 minutes or until chicken pulls away from the bone.

Remove chicken to serving platter and reserve liquid to small sauce pan.

Create a slurry with corn starch and water, add to BBQ sauce liquid to thicken into a BBQ sauce.

Enjoy!

Chicken Fajitas and Homemade Tortillas

20 minutes prep time;  about 20 minutes cooking time

Makes 2 to 4 servings

Chicken ingredients:

Thighs from 1 or more whole chickens, deboned and cut into small strips.

1 green pepper, chopped,

1/2 yellow onion, chopped,

Vegetable oil

Spice mix (cumin, lime, cilantro, hot pepper)

Salsa and other toppings (optional)

Tortilla ingredients:

2 cups flour

1 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons shortening

1/2 to 3/4 cups lukewarm water

Corn starch

Tools needed:

Heavy-bottom skillet

Wooden spoon

Rolling pin

Instruction:

Prepare tortillas by combining all ingredients (except cornstarch) and rolling into about 10 one-and-one-half-inch balls. Roll each in a small amount of corn starch, then flatten and roll with a rolling pin into 6-inch diameter.

On an ungreased skillet, heat on medium high and place a tortilla in when hot. Flip when tortilla begins to form brown spots. At this point wait for additional browning spots and the tortilla is done. Repeat until all are prepared.

Prepare chicken by combining with spices and then heating in skillet until meat is tender and juices run clear. Set aside.

In a clean skillet, add oil, then saute onion and green pepper until tender. Remove and set aside,

Prepare fajitas by laying one tortilla on plate, topping with chicken and pepper mix (along with other toppings if available), roll up, seal one end and enjoy.

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