Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Soup for (under) a buck

Can you feed a group of 15 on a buck?  Total.

This was the challenge presented to my Food, Faith and Sustainability group last week.  Our homework was to bring food for our group potluck.  Majority of us were given a dollar budget.  Only $1.00 to feed a group of 15.  A few people were given larger sums ($3.00 and $5.00) while one person could spend as much as she liked.

The easy way out as one of the $1.00 folks would have been to go to the Dollar Tree, pick up some snack food, and call it a day.  But I can't eat most packaged food (and if I can, it is triple the price of its wheat and milk bearing cousins) and I would like to eat, too.  I toyed with a few ideas (the ever popular rice, beans, and lentils; the ever tasty meringues; the super easy scrambled eggs and/or fries) before deciding on soup.  If I used homemade broth that has been hanging out in my freezer, the cost would be free!  I made my broth when cooking a whole chicken, so any ingredients that went into that were for flavoring the chicken and were already consumed.  The water was saved from being poured down the drain, so I should get a few gold stars for rescuing something so tasty.

I am financially fortunate and blessed that none of my meals require me to measure out how much this will cost (carrots were going to make an appearance, but at 4 cents each, they were passed up for the super pricey (all things considered) lime for a dime).  My ingredients come from a total of four grocery stores.  I live in a fantastic neighborhood - the Asian grocery stores have dirt cheap prices on things that are naturally gluten free (CARTS full of food there can cost around $100.00 - includes lots of protein).  A nearby market that sells limes for a dime each - and other produce and protein for rock bottom prices.  And then there is Dominicks - my source for everything else, including items that need to carry the gluten free label, where my dollar does not go too far.

This recipe was more of a math equation than I am used to.  I would have loved to add some carrots, mung beans, and cilantro, but then I would have had to sacrifice the noodles, which is pretty much my favorite part.  

Is it doable?  More importantly, does it taste good?
I did it for 98 cents.  It tasted delicious.  It did not feel like soup for a buck, but it was a great way to stretch a dollar on a restricted diet, eat healthy empty out my freezer from all my stock, introduce people to some new foods, and flex my math skills in the kitchen.  The lemon grass and fish sauce, although only appearing in small amounts, make their presence known, marrying the flavors together.

In college, I learned about this triangle.  It carries over in a lot of decision making in my everyday life.  If you want something to be cheap, it can be either good or fast.  You can never have all three.  Since I wanted good and cheap for my soup, I had to sacrifice fast by shopping around, carefully planning and cooking the soup myself.  Worth it?  Yes!

Lemon Grass Chicken Soup with Rice Vermicelli
Makes an impressive 15 servings.
11 cups homemade chicken broth
2 ribs of celery, thinly sliced
1 stalk of lemon grass, bruised
2 teaspoons of fish sauce
Salt and pepper to taste
9 oz rice vermicelli
1 lime
1 green onion, thinly sliced for garnish

Heat a nonstick pan and add 1/3 cup chicken stock.  Add celery and stir until softened (about 5 minutes), adding additional stock as necessary. 
Add remainder of chicken stock to a large pot.  Bring to boil.  Add celery, lemon grass, and fish sauce.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Bring to boil then reduce heat, simmering uncovered for about 10 minutes. 
Add water in a large pot.  Bring to boil.  Add rice vermicelli and cook for 4-5 minutes (or per package directions).  Rinse with cool water.  Set aside.
Spoon rice vermicelli into bowls, then add soup (discarding the lemon grass).  Add green onions as garnish.  Zest the lime over the soup and add a squeeze of the juice to the soup.

Here was my cost breakdown.  Salt, pepper, and chicken broth were my freebies.
How far do you stretch your dollar?

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