Budget-stretching family meals

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Food column by Sarah Berkshire

By Sarah Berkshire

A budget-stretching tasty meal is a real treat as grocery prices continue to creep up.

With a couple substitutions, Vegetable Lasgna is one of those meals. I first loved this dish for its taste but have a new appreciation for it as my family puts more demands on each grocery dollar.

I discovered this recipe when  preparing for my older son’s first birthday party. We were hosting my family and my husband’s family. I needed something I could prep in advance and I needed something that would accommodate my vegetarian in-laws.

It was definitely a crowd pleaser. One relative, who is a foodie and intimidates me any time I cook, even said it was the best lasagna he’d ever tasted. The spinach, cheese and tomato sauce blend very well.

There are a couple tips to keep in mind.

First, squeeze as much of the moisture as possible out of the spinach. If time allows, you should even let it air dry a while. That keeps the lasagna from getting watery.

Also, I always have had to increase the covered bake time from 30 minutes to 45 minutes.

Now, about economics. Substituting pre-shredded mozzarella cheese for fontina cheese really brings down the cost of this dish.

The fontina — four cups can cost about $16 — is delicious, but the substitution still makes a pretty good lasagna. Regular lasagna noodles often are less expensive than the no-boil variety and work well in this recipe, too.

Using these substituitions and selecting store brands, the ingredients for this dish cost about $10.

Along these cost-cutting lines, my new favorite slow cooker meal is Cacciatore-Style Chicken. The ingredients list is long and it’s not necessarily a cheap meal, but it does call for one of the least expensive items in the meat department: chicken drumsticks.

Still, it’s not just the price I like. I love to throw something in a slow cooker in the morning or during my lunch break and come home to a dinner that’s already underway, especially a dinner that’s going to fall off the bone and melt in your mouth.

Cacciatore-Style Chicken is a great addition to the slow cooker repertoire, which can tend to get a little heavy with chili and roasts.

This dish is great with penne, but the recipe also suggests rice.

Sarah Berkshire can be reached at 270-505-1745 or sberkshire@thenewsenterprise.com.Vegetable Lasagna
32 ounces whole-milk ricotta cheese
2 large eggs
Salt and fresh ground pepper
2 packages (10 ounces each) frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed to remove excess moisture
6 cups store-bought or homemade tomato sauce
12 no-boil lasagna noodles (8 ounces)
1 pound fontina cheese (4 cups), shredded

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a medium bowl, whisk together ricotta cheese, eggs, ½ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Add spinach and stir well to combine.

Spread a small bit of tomato sauce in the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch glass baking dish or dishes. Arrange a layer of lasagna noodles on top. Spread 1/3 of the ricotta mixture over the noodles, followed by 1/3 of the remaining sauce; sprinkle with 1/3 of the grated cheese. Repeat to make two more layers, ending with cheese. If freezing, cover tightly with plastic wrap. Before baking, defrost in the refrigerator overnight.

Cover with aluminum foil. Bake 30 minutes. Remove foil; continue baking until top is golden brown, about 15 minutes more. Let cool slightly before serving.

Source: Everyday Food

Cacciatore-Style Chicken

2 cups sliced fresh mushrooms
1 cup sliced celery
1 cup chopped carrot
2 meidum onions, cut into wedges
1 yellow, green or red sweet pepper, but into strips
4 cloves garlic, minced
12 chicken drumsticks, skinned (about 3½ pounds)
½ cup chicken broth
¼ cup dry white wine
2 tablespoons quick-cooking tapioca
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon dried oregano, crushed
1 teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 14½-ounce can diced tomatoes, undreained
1/3 cup tomato paste
Hot cooked pasta or rice

Shredded basil (optional)

In a 5- to 6-quart slow cooker, combine mushrooms, celery, carrot, onions, sweet pepper and garlic. Place chicken drumsticks on vegetables. Add broth, wine, tapioca, bay leaves, oregano, sugar, salt and pepper.

Cover and cook on low-heat setting for 6 to 7 hours or high-heat setting for 3 to 3½ hours.

Remove chicken and keep warm. Discard bay leaves. If using low-heat setting, turn to high-heat setting. Stir in undreained tomatoes and tomato paste. Cover and cook for 15 minutes more. To serve, spoon vegetable mixture over chicken and pasta or rice. Garnish with basil.

Source: Better Homes and Gardens “Slow-Cooker Meals”