RECESSION MOOD FAVORS BASIC FOOD

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Something happened to many of us during the materialistic 1980s. Somewhere between eating the goat cheese and duck sausage pizza and driving the BMW, we forgot how to be smart grocery shoppers.

We were too busy. Too sophisticated. Too trendy.

But guess what, folks? We spent as if there was no tomorrow, and tomorrow has arrived. Gasoline prices are skyrocketing. Inflation has awakened from its Rip Van Winkle nap. And talk of "recession" and "new taxes" has replaced the "where should we go out for dinner" conversation.

Now, instead of going to the grocery store to buy what we want to eat, many of us are going to have to start looking for what we can afford. This new conservatism may mean the return of the shopping tools of leaner times -- from making shopping lists and clipping manufacturers' coupons to meatless meals and tuna noodle casseroles.

Advertising Age magazine says grocery manufacturers are already bracing for recessionary changes where cost and basic food values will be more important.

Adweek says brand loyalty is softening and "value" will be the new buzzword.

So, where do we begin making these tough food choices for even tougher times? We can't just go back to the way we used to do things the last time we tightened our budgets because our lives are more hectic than they were 15 or 20 years ago. One of the biggest challenges is how people today will balance the shrinking dollar with their shrinking leisure time.

More households today have dual-career families and many spend as much as three hours a day commuting to and from work, according to Connie Pergerson, registered dietitian and extension agent with the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service in Anne Arundel County.

"All this has cut back on the available time we have in the day and has made us turn to convenience foods, fast foods and so-called treats as a means of saving time," she says. "We have used eating out as a way of saving time and being together with the family and have not done the basic day-to-day preparation of foods."

The result: When we go to the supermarket, we often go without two of the best tools for saving money -- a shopping list and manufacturer's coupons. And instead of heading for the whole chicken that has to cook in the oven for a couple of hours we grab the more expensive skinless, boneless chicken breasts that we can broil in minutes.

"We don't have the time, and we aren't making the time," Ms. Pergerson says. "If we are going to cope with inflation, increasing taxes and higher gasoline prices, we have to find time go back to some of the preshopping concepts."

Manufacturers are offering more coupons than ever before -- 276.6 billion in 1989, compared with 23.4 billion in 1972. But redemption rates are down -- from 7.1 percent to 2.7 percent in the same time period.

Although even a novice shopper can save 10 percent to 15 percent on his grocery bill using coupons, a five-year study done by Southern Methodist University showed that people use coupons for psychological rather than economic benefits.

Shoppers say they use coupons because it makes them feel smart, says Ambuj Jain, assistant professor of marketing at SMU's Edwin L. Cox School of Business and creator of the study. But he predicts a shift in attitude as the economy changes.

"You have to stretch your dollar somehow," he says. "The more financial constraints, the higher the benefits people see in coupons."

Coupons are offered for everything from paper products and laundry soap to coffee and cereals. On a recent trip to local supermarket we saved $17.60 on a bill of $125.76 by using manufacturers' cents off coupons that were doubled in value by the store.

But it's rare to find a cents-off offer on fresh foods such as meat and produce. And that's where the shopper has to watch the specials.

"The one thing that ends up being costly is lack of flexibility," hTC says Wells Willis, national program leader for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program, a program geared to teaching low-income people how to stretch their food dollars.

"If you go to the store and find that broccoli is high and spinach and green beans are a good buy, you should switch. A lot of stores will have unadvertised specials that will fit in with your meal plan."

Linda West Eckhardt of Ashland, Ore., author of "Good and Cheap" (Texas Monthly Press, 1983), says the best way to save money in the grocery store is to shop as few times as possible to avoid temptation.

"We should all strive for a broad and varied diet of unprocessed foods," she says. "Shop the perimeter of the store [where the produce and the meat and dairy products are]. Make a path by the dried beans and rice. Then get out of the store."

And the shopper of the '90s who is too harried to make a shopping list can use Ms. Eckhardt's 7-Day Plan. She goes into the store and looks for the best buys that fit into her seven categories -- 1. Fish; 2. Pasta or Rice; 3. Chicken; 4. Vegetarian; 5. Dried beans; 6. Eggs, and 7. Cheese.

Another way to save money is to use leftovers -- those remnants of meals that too often disappear in the refrigerator and reappear topped with green and white fuzzy stuff.

"Leftovers really can be quite delightful," according to Larry Bly, native Baltimorean turned Virginian and co-star of "Cookin' Cheap," a PBS cooking program.

"I grew up on a farm with an aunt who used to cook for 60,000 people and there were only three of us. I was stuck warming up the food. It was a great way to learn how to cook. I could bring

leftovers back to life."

He says he approaches leftovers as if they were a new food. His goal: To make sure his guests don't recognize that they are eating recycled food. One of his favorites is making leftover mashed potatoes into potato cakes. He adds chopped onions and egg, flattens them, flours them and frys them.

"Don't go over budget," advises Ronald Johnson, a poet and cookbook author who compiled many of his money-saving recipes from his starving artist days in "Simple Fare: Rediscovering the Pleasures of Humble Food" (Simon and Schuster, $19.95).

"If you can't afford steak, find some lovely hamburger dishes. Everyone loves meatballs, and a good meatloaf is hard to beat. . . . Just because the food doesn't cost a lot of money doesn't mean that it isn't wonderful food. Hamburger can be every bit as satisfying as roast beef, oysters or salmon steak."

Pasta e Fagioli

Makes 6 servings.

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, chopped

2 carrots, sliced into half moons

2 celery stalks, sliced

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 small zucchini, sliced into half moons

1/2 pound spinach (or 5 leaves of chard, tough stems removed, and coarsely chopped)

3 cups chopped plum tomatoes with liquid (28-ounce can)

1 can (15 ounces) cannellini (white kidney beans) with liquid

1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil leaves (1 teaspoon dried)

oregano, optional

freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 pound short, chunky pasta (ziti, spirals or shells)

grated Parmesan, optional

olive oil, optional

Heat the olive oil in a large pot. Saute the onion, carrots and celery for a few minutes. Add the garlic, zucchini and any dried herbs you are using. Saute, stirring occasionally. A few minutes later add the spinach or chard and cook until just wilted. Mix in the tomatoes and the white beans. Add water to make it the consistency you like. Flavor with parsley, fresh herbs, and black pepper. Simmer gently for 15 to 20 minutes while you cook the pasta.

Cook the pasta al dente in a large pot of boiling water. Drain.

In individual pasta bowls, serve pasta topped with the "bean soup." If desired, top with grated Parmesan and drizzle on a little olive oil.

Note: Substitute or add any fresh vegetables you like: green or red bell peppers, summer squash, green beans, etc. Also, the addition of fresh tomato at the end is nice. And use fresh, rather than dried, herbs when you can. From "Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant" (Fireside Books, $16.95).

Lamb shanks

with orzo and feta

Makes 4 servings.

2 lamb shanks

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped canned tomatoes

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

freshly ground pepper

water

1 cup orzo (rice-shaped pasta)

1 cup slightly crumbled feta cheese

1/4 cup minced parsley

1/2 cup dry white wine

Pat shanks dry with paper towels. Put olive oil in a frying pan and saute shanks over medium-high heat until golden. Place them in a casserole and saute onion and garlic over low heat, in the same fat, until onion softens. Pour over shanks and add tomatoes with their juice, oregano and pepper to taste. Add 1/2 cup water (no water is needed if a pressure cooker is used). Simmer, covered, for 3 hours in the pan or 1 hour in a pressure cooker. Check now and then to make sure they still have liquid. Add some if needed.

When tender, remove shanks and strip meat from the bones. Skim as much fat off the vegetables as possible. If there is too much liquid, boil down so it evaporates. Add meat to the pan and discard bones.

Meanwhile, cook orzo in lightly salted water 10 to 15 minutes or until almost tender. Drain in a colander. Add orzo to the pot along with feta, parsley and wine. Simmer 5 minutes, stirring, to make sure it doesn't stick to the bottom. Serve on warm plates. From "Simple Fare" (Simon and Schuster, $19.95) by Ronald Johnson.

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