EconoChef: $4 Fried/Baked Ravioli

This is going to be my last recipe for awhile.  Food costs money and since I don’t really have any of that right now, all of these recipes (even the cheap ones) are hurting my pocketbook.  It’s also taking a toll on my waistline.  Looking back over the recipes I’ve had Mac n’ Cheese, Hot Dogs and Top Ramen, and with the ravioli that I’m doing today I have developed quite a bit of a pudge in my lower torso.  Also, I’m running out of ideas.

Now this one was a tad hard for me because Chef Boyardee Ravioli holds a special place in my heart.  For years, a guilty pleasure of mine has been to eat this stuff cold and straight from a can.  I usually have to be alone when I do this because when people see it they feel sick.  Even just talking about it makes some people heave.  I know you are because I can hear you through the internet.

Just like the Six-Million Dollar Man, I have the technology.

But try I must, so I put myself to the task on making this better and after a few weeks of failures I decided to just do the one thing that makes everything better: Fry it! 

The special ingredient for this dish will be bread crumbs in the style of your choosing.  I opted for the cheapest I could find, which were Italian bread crumbs.  You could also take some old bread you have lying around the house and break it into crumbs with your bare hands or, if you don’t have that kind of time, with a food processor.  If you don’t have that either, then I don’t know what to do with you.  Trying knitting, I heard that’s fulfilling.  For this recipe, I tried both store bought and homemade.

Start by opening the can and dumping everything into a bowl.  Carefully take out each ravioli, scrap off the sauce and place into another bowl.  If you’re frying, heat some oil in a skillet, and then in another bowl beat one egg.  If your baking, preheat your oven to around 400.  While you’re waiting for things to heat up, pour your breadcrumbs into yet another bowl, and if you’re baking, pour in a little olive oil and toss the crumbs around a bit.  All in the bowl.

I only have bowls in my kitchen. No plates, cups or spoons. Just bowls.

Once everything is ready, place the ravioli into the crumbs and dredge.  If you’re frying, put the ravioli in the beaten egg first.  Once the ravioli is thoroughly coated, place into the oil/onto a cookie sheet.  It won’t take that long to fry, so keep an eye out and once the ravioli are nice and brown go ahead and take them out.  With baking it will take about five minutes, at which point you might want to move them to the broiler just to crisp the tops a bit.  Once they’re done, wait until they are cool to the touch and then plate (or bowl).

Just because I really suck at frying (by the end they looked like I had buried them by the ocean for a couple of days), I liked the baked ravioli more.  I also preferred the larger bread crumbs that I had made over the store bought, but they both still worked.  What I also liked about the baked ones was that you could sprinkle on some parmesan cheese before putting it into the broiler.  And while the ravioli is cooking, you could take the left over sauce from the can, add some garlic, olive oil, black pepper and red pepper flakes, heat it up in the microwave for 30 seconds and then use it as a dipping sauce.

Strangely enough, all the Chef Boyardee products were the same price.  Even the “over-stuffed” ravioli, which is what I used, were the exact same price as the normal ones.  I wish all of life worked like this; if it did I would be sleeping on a King-sized mattress.  It was about $1.40 for the Boyardee, and then another $1.80 for the bread crumbs.  This is great finger food for a party or some kids.  Enjoy!

EconoChef: $3 Hot Dog (with sounds!)

Ahhh, the good ole’ American hot dog.  Its exact origins unknown, it is labeled simply as “Meat” while we grill, boil, or microwave these suckers into cheap tubes of instant gratification.  But the normal hot dog is also bland yet salty, with no culinary depth whatsoever.  Sure, you could pile up some onions, make some chili, or cover it with cheese, but that doesn’t change the fact that the normal hot dog itself is nothing of worth and shall always remain thus.  But I say, “NAY!” to such disparities, for our patriotic meat tubes deserve more than to be drowned in $5 chili and yellow mustard.  Behold!  The Roasted Pepper Stuffed Hot Dog!

Now this dish calls for some hot dogs, some buns, and two Serrano chili peppers per dog.  Is this dish going to be spicy?  Can I get an AMEN?  Of course it’s going to be spicy!  If you’re one of these people who are scared of spicy food, or if you don’t like spicy food in general, then you, sir (or ma’am), are a no friend of mine!  A coward, a sissy, a scaredy-cat!  And if you’re one of those people who can’t eat spicy food because of some intestinal or heart condition, then . . . then . . . well, I don’t have an insult for you.  But man the fuck up anyway (after consulting with your doctor)!

Out of all my recipes so far this is by far the easiest.  1 – Roast Peppers (aka, stick under broiler until charred on each side). 2 – Cut hot dogs only half way through length wise, and then with a small spoon gently scoop out a little meat from either side of the dog.  3 – Once the peppers are roasted, stuff into dogs.  4 – Cook on a George Foreman Grill, the mightiest kitchen appliance for the unemployed who may or may not have enough money to pay the gas bill.  5 – Toast the buns if you can, otherwise spread some mustard on and eat!  The roasting will take some bite out of the peppers, but the dog is still going to pack a wallop!  If you wanted to get fancy you could also stuff the dogs with some roasted garlic as well, and maybe squeeze some lime over it.  Enjoy!
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Oh God, are you still here?  What?  You really don’t like spicy food?  Sigh.  Fine.  If spitting fire and being awesome is “too much for your senses,” here’s another way to go.  Instead of roasting peppers, take a ¼ of a small apple.  In this case I used a Granny Smith, but any apple will do.  Dice the apple up and then stuff that in the hot dog before you cook it.  If you wanted to go a little further, mix the diced apple with brown sugar, cinnamon and black pepper before stuffing, and then opt the mustard out for a dab of barbeque sauce.  The dog will be sweet and savory at the same time, as the brown sugar will caramelize on the grill.  If you don’t have a George Forman Grill, your broiler/oven will work.  If you don’t have that, then you can use an actual fire, I’ve heard fire works pretty well for cooking food.  Just don’t use a microwave.

Are there multiple applications for this?  You bet!  Sun-dried tomatoes and basil, grapes and fennel, oranges and dill, the list goes on.  But each of those items will up the price, and part of these recipes is to keep the budget small.  Speaking of which, this entire endeavor barely cost me $5.  The cheapo hot dogs were $1.50, the chiles cost about 12¢, the apple about 40¢, and I got some discount buns for 79¢.  Cheap but delightful!  But be warned!  The low cost of the dish is counteracted by how delicious they are and how fast they are eaten.  Still, not a bad way to spend $3.


EconoChef: $3 Kraft Mac n’ Cheese

“But making Kraft Mac and Cheese better is easy.  Just add real cheese!”  But that’s wrong.  Anyone can add cheese to something but that doesn’t automatically make it better.  Pour melted cheese over a brick and see if your friends will eat it.  I’m trying to surprise people over here and the argument “JUST ADD MORE CHEESE” is insufficient for these purposes.  Let’s learn something, eh?  Let’s try to become better cooks if we can, all right?  Besides, I don’t remember asking for your opinions.

Hmm?  No, I’m not going to apologize for my tone.  I’m unemployed with no money, and all I have left is my condescending tone.  Asking for an apology isn’t very supportive of you.  Can’t you at least just give me my condescending tone?  LET ME LIVE, WHY WON’T YOU LET ME LIVE?!

To make Kraft better, you have to know how authentic macaroni and cheese is made.  If you’ve ever tried to make mac n’ cheese by cooking noodles and then adding cheese, you know that there is something more to it.  Mac n’ Cheese is not about noodles or cheese.  The key ingredient is the sauce and it’s important to note that it’s not just milk and cheese, which would make a kind of . . . cheesy . . . milky . . . substance that, although may serve as a sauce, isn’t thick and creamy nor will it hold together very well.  No, what you need is a roux.  A roux is a mixture of equal parts flour and fat that is the base for most gravies and sauces.  You can see how to make one here.

The roux is made with butter and flour, and then milk is added and then the mixture is reduced.  Introduce noodles and cheese and thus Mac n’ Cheese is made!  But Kraft and other boxed dinners take the roux out, relying on smaller amounts of milk, larger amounts of butter, and the liquid remaining in the pasta to create a pasty sauce.  It’s good but not awesome.

I’m not going to have you make a roux. Instead, forget the 2% Milk the box suggests using and replace it with heavy whipping cream.  The whipping cream is going to make a luxurious sauce and will add tons of flavor to the party.  Is it fattier?  Hell yes, but if someone ever asked me for healthy Mac n’ Cheese I’d alert the authorities because I’m pretty sure that’s illegal.  Once your noodles are cooked and back in the pot, your butter melted in, go ahead and pour in about 1/3 cup of Heavy Whipping Cream along with the Packet of Cheese Powder.  You’ll be amazed!

Now I know I said at the beginning that adding more cheese doesn’t make things better, but I was just saying that to make you focus on the sauce.  The cream will make this taste much better, but real cheese will put it over the top.  I suggest using about 4 oz of cheese as any more than that and the delicate union of noodles and cheese will topple.  Make sure it’s shredded, make sure you only add in one handful at a time, stirring until completely incorporated, with the pot off the heat.  Don’t do it slowly and you’ll have globs of melted cheese instead of a sauce, and do it on the heat and your cheese will get stringy and tough.  Take your time with this, it makes a difference.

But Mac n’ Cheese is extremely customizable, and it’s simple to take it to the next level.  Try different cheeses.  Before adding your noodles back into the pot, melt the butter and sauté some garlic and Serrano chiles for an angry Mac n’ Cheese.  Add some bacon and grilled chicken for glorious protein.  Or put it in a baking dish, sprinkle on some bread crumbs, and broil until it comes out looking like this:

The basic dish has a total price of $3, assuming you already have butter.  If you want real cheese, it gets bumped up to $6, but I only used half of the cheese and cream, so you could easily do this again and again if you bought everything in bulk.


EconoChef: $3 Top Ramen

I'm trying to get a new camera, okay?

It’s not that I’m cheap (which I surely am), it’s that I prefer to save my money to buy certain things I enjoy and go without other amenities that may befit someone in this day and age.  For example: I will spend a pretty dollar on high quality food for my culinary adventures, but I will not throw away my black dress shoes that I found near a dumpster in 2001 and that has many holes in it for a new pair.  Or I will spend a lot of money on my drinking hobbies (dependencies? Who invited you, Freud?), but I won’t buy a new bed so that my feet aren’t current dangling off the mattress. It’s a give and take situation.  But with the current state of the economy we all must find ways to cut corners and food is usually one of the first places to cut from.   But you would be surprised at all the good food you can make with what you already have in your kitchen.  So in a series that I am calling EconoChef, I will take something that is cheap and unfulfilling and just by changing/adding an ingredient or two will change that 98¢ bargain bin rice cake into a meal that will have your friends offering to pay you money to cook for them.  If that does happen, I would ask you give me a cut.  I’m trying to start a racket here.

The only thing in the picture that matter are the Ramen and the Beef Stock. Everything else I already had.

After a summer where I ate nothing else (seriously, breakfast, lunch, dinner) I could not even smell Top Ramen and keep from gagging.  And after revisiting it so many years later, I can still understand why.  It is a thin, measly meal, one that offers no nutrition and will fill up your stomach but never really satisfy you.  This is because they have taken out half of the equation that can make authentic ramen so yummy: the broth.  Instead of a broth that has been cared for and cooked for hours, we get this:


BEGONE, FOUL DEMON!  Instead, go out and get yourself some chicken, beef, or vegetable broth and use that instead.  You could also use stock instead (broth is made from boiling meat and is clear and clean, stock is made from boiling bones and it is hearty and rich).  Suddenly you will have the beginnings of a culinary delight!  I say beginnings because now you have to go and make your broth/stock taste good.  This leads me to the first hint at cooking on a budget: Spend all your of money on condiments, and know what they all taste like.  Make sure you’re up to your elbows with herbs and spices, keep all the shelves on your fridge door stocked with goodies from all over the store.  Study and see how each of them is used and what tastes they bring to the party.  In this case salt and pepper can work, of course, but so can soy sauce, hoison sauce, chili sauce, sesame seed oil, chili oil, wasabi, red pepper flakes, etc.  Crushed garlic and ginger always do the trick in Asian dishes, and they come pre-crushed in jars if you want to save yourself the time.  Hell, you could even use the packet that you took out of the Tap Ramen package, just don’t use too much as the broth/stock is already salty.  Instead of ending up with saltsoup, you’ll have a broth that is deep, rich and enjoyable.  And cook your noodles in the broth, too, goddammit!  We’re banging on all cylinders over here, get with the program.

And it doesn’t have to stop there!  After it’s all finished, additions like corn, eggs, seaweed (if you already got it) and actual meat will put the dish over the top.  I used thin (and cheap) beef strips cut for stir-fries, and some cut up green onions as a garnish.  I also used a more expensive beef broth to start with, but there are some that cost less than a dollar. Not counting the meat and my hoity-toity food preferences, the meal would cost me less than $3.  With three dollars, you don’t have shitty, pre-packaged Top Ramen anymore, you have a meal that will fool your friends and yourself.