On Wednesday I bought a chicken on sale for 99 cents a pound, and cut it up, shaving off the breasts to reserve the back for stock. It left two hearty chicken breasts nearly 14 ounces each, or about eight servings in all. I cut up the back, roasted it to a dark brown, then added it with half an onion, all the skins from the onions I’ve used in the past week, a garlic clove, a carrot and a celery stalk in an eight-quart pot to yield about three quarts of stock after a few hours simmering.
Here’s what I made with the rest of the chicken:
Chicken braised with apples: I kept the legs and thighs intact, and braised them with a simple mirepoix and a diced apple and potato, and two cups of the chicken stock. Cost: $3.60 for four servings. (Lunch Wednesday and Friday)
Thai chicken curry with cabbage, asparagus and cherry tomatoes: We used the remainder of the coconut milk and curry paste plus started to clear out the remainder of our vegetables plus eight ounces of diced chicken breast. Served with leftover brown rice, cost: $2.78, four servings. (Dinner Wednesday, lunch Thursday)
Sautéed chicken with garlic, with risotto with lemon and peas: I thinly sliced the breast into four-ounce servings and lightly sautéed with some garlic and seasoned it with some of the cajun spice I bought earlier this week. Since I knew I’d have stock, I bought 1 ½ cups of Arborio rice and made risotto. I had bought a bag of peas for the week, so I added that along with 1 ½ quarts of the chicken stock and a quarter of a bunch of parsley. I didn’t use parmesan cheese, and instead flavored the end result with the juice of a half lemon (25 cents). Cost: $4.22 for four servings. (Dinner Thursday, risotto will be part of lunch Saturday).
Chicken pot pie. I made a biscuit-style crust (with a bit of Italian seasoning bought in bulk), made my own cream of chicken soup and the rest of the stock along with a package of frozen mixed vegetables ($1.50) and another bit of the parsley. In the bulk section, you can buy flour as needed, which is good for budgets but also good if you don’t bake often. Cost: 3.92 for four servings, although we ate all of it since we skipped breakfast. (Lunch Friday)
Observations: You can do a lot with a whole chicken, especially if you know how to cut one up. But this challenge — especially with a budget of $12 a day — isn’t necessarily that challenging for someone like me. I have a car, time to plan, ready access to a grocery store, quality pans and utensils, plus – this is crucial – I know how to cook.
If I couldn’t cook, to stay in budget I might be more likely to graze the dollar menus at fast food places, or buy what seem to be inexpensive boxed options at the grocery store. Yes, ramen is cheap, but it’s not exactly nourishing. Even more challenging is that the average person receiving food assistance in this country doesn’t receive the maximum possible ($7 per individual, $12 per couple), but rather $4.43 per day, or a bit more than $1 per meal. (I kept that as a goal for all of my chicken-based meals.)
In my project for the next book, one of my volunteers was on food stamps. She didn’t have a car and lived nowhere near a grocery store, and she had poor cooking skills. When I first met her, a common dinner were frozen mini pizzas on sale at a grocery store outlet. Cheap? Yes. Nourishing? No. Realistic what people on food stamps eat if they can’t cook? Absolutely.