8 Budget-Friendly Dinners

Joanna Goddard of “A Cup of Jo” shares go-to weeknight dinner ideas that are quick, easy and affordable

Easy, fast, and cheap weeknight meals are like the unicorns of the recipe world: magical creatures that must exist somewhere, if only we knew where to look. Good news, believers: E.F.C. meals are real, they’re attainable, and—the best part—they get easier to figure out once you’ve got a few under your belt. 

It’s not so much harder than ordering take-out and—even if you splurge on pricey oil or a fancy spice every once in a while—is almost guaranteed to save you money (and probably taste better, too).

Here’s what’s in my roster of E.F.C. recipes:

1. Spiced Chickpeas With Yogurt

I always feel better with a can or two of chickpeas in my cabinet—they’re like my pantry security blanket. And my favorite way to eat them is not much more complicated than opening the can. I heat olive oil in a big skillet and add whatever combination of warm spices (like ground cumin, coriander, and turmeric) I’m feeling that night. As soon as they’re fragrant and starting to toast, I throw in a chopped onion and, when that starts to soften, the can of drained and rinsed chickpeas. I leave those undisturbed for a few minutes (even though it’s so tempting to stir) to allow the bottoms to crisp up. Next, toss them around and continue cooking until they’re browning all over. At the end, I’ll sometimes add a minced garlic clove, a squeeze of lemon juice, and any herbs in the fridge (thyme, dill, cilantro). These are great spooned over salted Greek yogurt—I’ll thin it with olive oil and the juice from the other half of the lemon.

2. Spicy Burst Tomato Sauce With Onions and Shrimp

Frozen shrimp defrost in about 15 minutes, which makes them the ideal backup protein for busy nights. For a jammy sauce you can serve over couscous, orzo, or rice (or eat straight from the pan), sauté a red onion in olive oil with chile flakes and, if you have it, a dollop of tomato paste, then add halved cherry tomatoes and wait for them to release their juices. Once the tomatoes have burst and the sauce has thickened slightly, add defrosted shrimp, stirring occasionally until they’re pink and cooked-through (it’ll take just a few minutes). Add chopped basil or cilantro right before you’re ready to eat. 

3. Brothy White Beans With Parm and Greens

A luxurious soup that comes from a humble can of white beans? It’s nearly magic. Heat olive oil in a pot, then add minced garlic and stir until it’s just golden. Drain and rinse your can of beans (two if you’re feeding a family), then cover them with chicken, beef, vegetable stock—or even water, if you’re in a pinch—and bring to a simmer. Add a parmesan rind, if you have one squirreled away in your freezer. Season with salt, bring to a boil, then cover the pot and let the beans simmer away for 8 to 10 minutes. At this stage, you can use an immersion blender, a regular blender, or a food processor to make the soup creamy, or you can go at it with a potato masher if you don’t mind a chunkier texture. Right before you serve, stir in a handful or two of greens (if they’re hearty, like kale, chop them first, but if they’re tender, like arugula, leave them whole) and shower with grated parmesan. And, personally, I always welcome a few thick slices of toasted, olive oil-drizzled bread for soup sopping-up.

4. Broccoli and Pesto Frittata

Eating eggs for dinner feels very normal to me—growing up, we had scrambled eggs almost every Wednesday night—but if your eggs need to be a little fancier to feel like supper, make a frittata (and load it with vegetables and cheese). In an ovenproof skillet, sauté chopped vegetables—I like to use broccoli, both florets and thinly-sliced stems, but you could also use leeks, carrots, mushrooms, or zucchini—in plenty of olive oil with some garlic. Add beaten eggs (two per person), seasoned with salt and pepper and enriched with milk or cream, if you have it. Dollop over pesto (or another flavorful sauce in the fridge—it could be leftover tomato sauce, harissa, or salsa, even). As the eggs cook on the stove, promote even cooking by using a spatula to lift up the edges so that the runny parts hit the bottom of the pan. When the eggs are set on the bottom, broil them briefly to cook the top. If you like bubbly, melty cheese (and, uh, who doesn’t?), add a generous sprinkling of grated parmesan or mozzarella right before you broil. 

5. No-Fry Fish Tacos

My cardinal rule of easy weeknight cooking: no frying. Ever. To make a satisfying fish taco, then, the solution is to bake: Rub a pound or so of white fish (haddock, cod, grouper,or pollack), cut ½- to 1-inch thick, with oil, chile powder, and cumin, then bake at 350° until just cooked through (only about 10 minutes). While the fish is doing its thing, char your tortillas (I like to do this over the open flame of a gas stove, but you can also use a cast-iron skillet) and prep the rest of your fix-ins. I like to add sliced avocado, lime wedges, torn cilantro, lots of hot sauce, and—to replace the crunch that normally comes from the battered fish—thinly sliced green or Napa cabbage.

6. Cold Sesame-Peanut Noodles With Tofu

Sesame-peanut sauce is something you have to taste a lot to get just right, but it’s so delicious that sampling is not much of a burden. As I cook the noodles I have on hand (a package of instant ramen, wide rice noodles, even spaghetti), I’ll get out the blender and purée peanut butter with a little bit of garlic, ginger, soy sauce, sesame oil, rice wine vinegar, Sriracha, honey, and lime juice. Since I find peanut butter to be a little sweet, I add tahini, which brings an earthy bitterness. After I’ve rinsed the noodles under cold water and tossed them with the dressing, I’ll sauté cubes of tofu, shred a carrot or slice a cucumber, and toss everything together. If I have peanuts or sesame seeds in my pantry, they’ll join the party, too.

7. Creamy Coconutty Lentils

Once I learned that food writer and cookbook author Julia Turshen boils her lentils in a mixture of coconut milk and water to make a creamy soup, I never looked back. Start by sautéeing aromatics—like leeks, garlic, and ginger—in a stock pot. Add spices (like chile flakes, coriander, cumin, fennel seeds, and turmeric) and the lentils, stirring so that all of the lentils are coated in the spiced oil. You can use red lentils, which will break down into a homogenous soup, or a mix of red and green or black if you want a dish with more bite. For every cup of lentils, add one 15-ounce can of coconut milk and then fill that can with water and add that to the pot, too. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer over low until the lentils are cooked through. Season with salt and lime juice, then serve over rice with torn cilantro and a boiled egg.

8. Goat Cheese and Mushroom Grilled Cheese

There’s something about mushrooms that takes a grilled cheese from a snack to a dinner. Before adding the ‘shrooms to the sandwich, you’ll want to sauté them. For the crispiest results, use a heavy skillet (like a cast-iron), wait for the oil to get hotter than you’re comfortable with, add the mushrooms in a single layer, and let them be (no stirring!) until the bottoms are golden. Once the mushrooms are cooked, assemble the sandwich: I smear mayonnaise on the outside of the bread for a really crispy, well-browned crust. Then, I spread goat cheese on the inside pieces, top one side with slice of cheddar or American cheese and mushrooms, and close the sandwich. Fry it in a nonstick or cast-iron skillet until the bread is brown and the cheese is melted, about 8 minutes total with 1 flip halfway. No one will be mad if you serve these with a heated-up can of your favorite tomato soup.

Joanna Goddard, Founder of "A Cup of Jo"

Joanna Goddard is the founder of "A Cup of Jo," a Brooklyn-based media company focused on authentically covering fashion, beauty, design, culture, travel, food, relationships and parenting.

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