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Frugal foodie

Feeding your family a good meal is easy. Just go to the grocery store and empty out your pocketbook.

But what if you aren’t so flush? What if your wallet is looking a little lean? What if times are hard and money is short?

Everybody has to eat, right? And it is better to eat good food than bad.

So I decided to cook some delicious and even elegant meals to feed a family of four for less than $7. It is not difficult to do; all it takes is a bit of imagination and an inexpensive protein — no steak or lobster for these meals.

Even ground beef and chicken have become so expensive they can no longer be relied upon for a cheap meal. If you are looking to stretch your budget, you’ll need to stick with the essentials: beans, eggs and pasta.

First, the ground rules. In determining the price of each meal, I took into account only the cost of the amount of the food that I used and put the rest aside for future use.

My 25.4-ounce bottle of olive oil cost $5.99, so two tablespoons of oil was about 23 cents. One tablespoon of butter, at $3.50 a pound, cost 11 cents. A dozen large eggs cost me $2.09 (you can find them at least 20 cents cheaper elsewhere in town), so six of them was $1.05.

In addition, I kept to items that most or many people would ordinarily have in their pantry. No foie gras, no weird spices, no truffle-infused honey. I did buy some items on sale, but only if I needed them for my recipes — I did not alter the recipes to use sale items. And I counted the actual cost of everything I used, but only the amount I used.

All of the dishes were surprisingly good. The most elegant meal I created was a slightly adapted version of Marcella Hazan’s justifiably famous recipe for Spaghetti With White Clam Sauce. I made mine with linguine. I also had to cut back on the amount of clams, because clams aren’t cheap, and I substituted an onion for shallots, for the same reason. Still, the classic Italian dish had a marvelous flavor.

Part of the reason for the meal’s success is the judicious use of dry white wine. Of course, good wine will cost more than our budget could handle, and bad wine will ruin a dish. The standard culinary dictum is to cook only with wine you would drink, but in this case you should use the cheapest wine you can stand. In this case, a bottle of Yellowtail chardonnay for $4.99 did the trick nicely.

Even with the clams and the wine, the tab came in at $6.23 for a family of four.

Somewhat cheaper, and just as delicious, is a bean stew that you make in the slow cooker. This is a vegetarian option (unless you use chicken stock, as I did), and it is ridiculously easy to make. Just throw all the ingredients into a slow cooker, set it on low, and come back to eat it six hours later. And because it is a slow cooker, you don’t even have to soak the beans first.

It is remarkably good, and it is also quite good for you. And all of this will only set you back $5.11 for six servings.

And naturally I had to make an egg dish. Eggs are cheap. Eggs are good. Eggs are full of protein. And, it should be repeated, eggs are good.

I made a Spanish omelet, which is said to be one of the most popular dishes in Spain. It’s certainly filling and addictive. But despite its name, it isn’t really an omelet at all; it is more accurately a frittata, in which the egg and vegetables are mixed together and are flipped once in the pan, rather than folded over.

Spanish omelets always use sliced potatoes and onions, and I added a green pepper to mine for extra flavor and because I felt like splurging. I heated this combination until it was cooked through — because of the potatoes, this took several minutes — added it to my beaten eggs and then poured it into a pan coated with hot oil. The oil is necessary to create the distinctive brown color of a Spanish omelet. I flipped it once, using a plate on top of the pan, cooked it for a couple of minutes more, and then served it.

Wow, that was good. So good, it is hard to believe you could feed a family of four with one for just $4.27.

LINGUINE WITH CLAM SAUCE

Yield: 4 servings

2 (6 1/2-ounce) cans chopped clams

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 cup finely chopped onions

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper

1/2 cup dry white wine

1/4 cup finely chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley

1/4 cup coarsely grated Parmesan cheese

1 1/2 tablespoons butter

12 ounces (3/4 pound) dried linguine, cooked and kept warm

1. Strain clams through a fine sieve, reserving juice.

2. In a medium saucepan, combine oil and onions over medium heat and sauté until the onions are translucent, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add garlic, oregano and 1/4 teaspoon of the crushed red pepper, and sauté for 2 minutes.

3. Pour in the wine and bring to a boil over medium heat. Cook until reduced by half, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add the reserved clam juice and boil until reduced by about one-third, about 3 to 5 minutes. Taste, and add more crushed red pepper if you want it spicier.

4. Reduce heat to low, stir in the clams and cook for 2 minutes. Remove the sauce from the heat and stir in the parsley and grated Parmesan. Stir in the butter until it melts. Pour over the cooked linguine, toss and serve.

— Adapted from a recipe by Marcella Hazan in “Classic Italian Cooking”

SLOW COOKER BEAN STEW

Yield: 6 servings

6 cups chicken or vegetable broth

1 cup dry beans, picked over and rinsed

2 medium carrots, peeled and finely diced

1 small onion, finely chopped

2 ribs celery, finely diced

3 tablespoons uncooked white rice

2 tablespoons minced garlic

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon ground pepper

Add all ingredients to a slow cooker and cook on low for 6 to 8 hours.

— Recipe from Stockpilingmoms.com

SPANISH OMELET

Yield: 4 servings

4 medium potatoes, peeled

1 medium yellow onion

1 green pepper, diced

6 eggs

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

Hot sauce (if desired)

1. Cut the peeled potatoes in half lengthwise, then cut each half into crosswise slices about 1/8 inch thick (do not use a food processor). Chop the onions into 1/4-inch pieces.

2. In a large skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of oil over medium-high heat. Add the potatoes and cook, stirring occasionally (covering the pan with a lid will make this go quicker). After about 5 minutes, add the onions and green pepper and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes and peppers are tender, about 5 more minutes. Season heavily with salt; potatoes require a lot of salt. Remove from heat.

3. In a large mixing bowl, lightly beat eggs. Add the potato-onion mixture and stir until well-mixed.

4. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil to a large skillet over medium heat and swirl to coat bottom of the pan. Add the egg-potato mixture and cook without stirring until the egg has set around the edges. Check, by lifting an edge, to see if the egg is beginning to brown on the bottom. When it starts to brown, place a large plate over the top of the pan, invert the pan and plate so that the omelet falls onto the plate, and then slide the omelet back into the pan, browned side up.

5. Cook until the egg is completely set, about 1 or 2 more minutes. Cut into wedges to serve. This goes especially well with hot sauce.

— Recipe by Daniel Neman

Linguine with Clam Sauce is one of the affordable meals the author uses to demonstrate family meals for the frugal. Even with the clams and the wine, the tab came in at $6.23 for a family of four. Cristina Fletes-Boutte/St. Louis Post-Dispatch