Car Yogurt and Cheap Eats

I’m going to be making a series of postings on “Eating Cheap”. The son of a friend is off to college on a shoestring and I’d mentioned that I grew up cooking cheap foods (both parents were Great Depression kids) and knew how to make some good meals cheaply. The content of any one posting will be pretty variable, so some short, some long. The common theme is just how to make good food cheaply.

The goal is to have a meal for under $1 per person (though “average”, so a higher cost meal that is balanced by a ¢50 meal would also fit the model).

As a “starter”, I made yogurt in my car a couple of days ago. Here in Florida, it generally stays under 110 F in the car if parked in a partly shaded spot (as most of them are). So I scalded some milk that was nearing expiration, poured it into a 1 qt mason jar and let it cool to room temperature. Then stirred in a tablespoon of yogurt from a commercial product as “starter”. Let it set in the car (on the floor with a hat over it) while at work. After work, had a nice jug of yogurt!

Right now I’ve started scalding a second pan of milk, that will be allowed to cool in the pan, then poured into the not-quite empty jar and stirred. End of work tomorrow, I’ll have another quart of yogurt. Cost, instead of being $1 for 6 ounces, is more like $4 / gallon. Stir in honey or jam for fruity flavor.

To scald milk you bring it to a bare simmer. Not a boil. The purpose is not to cook or burn it, just get it hot enough to kill off the natural bacteria.

The “traditional” home made yogurt maker was a cardboard box and a light bulb. Add or remove towels around the outside to hold at about 90 F to 110 F (nice warm feeling, but not hot). With the demise of real light bulbs, all the places where they are used for their heat are now in need of new solutions. You could likely use a 25 Watt bulb in a small box, or two 25 Watt bulbs in a larger box (they are still easily found.) I may need to do that when winter comes ;-)

I use Mason Jars (canning jars) for all sorts of canning, preserving, canistering, etc. They are well worth buying a few. BUT, to be really really frugal, you can buy pasta sauce or pickles or whatever in glass jars and once used up, just wash them. They make fine canisters and storage tubs and cost nothing. Some of the pasta sauce jars are even labeled “Mason” and can be used for canning. I’ve also seen such jars with Jam at Whole Foods.

Bonus Recipe

You can make quesadillas easily with any large frying pan or grill. I splurged and bought a comal (sheet steel grill pan) for $8 or so at Walmart. It makes it a bit easier to turn them as the sides are very short. The comal comes in two sizes. I got the small one for “on the road” but have used the large one at home. Either one is fine.

No, there’s nothing wrong with the color. This is one of those green “health food” tortillas. It was the only one I could find that didn’t have the horrid “hydrogenated” in the ingredients list. Trader Joe’s has nice totillas without “hydrogenated oil” in them, but I’ve not found a Trader Joe’s in Orlando. (yet…)

A Quesadilla being made on a comal

Comal with Quesadilla

Put a tortilla on the comal / grill / pan. Sprinkle one half with shredded cheese, leaving one side empty. Dot with whatever else you want ( I use a spoon of canned refried beans and any leftover meat, shredded. Sometimes I’ve used olives or even pepperoni bits.) Dot with Mexican hot sauce to suit your taste. Sprinkle on a bit more cheese. Fold the other half of the tortilla over the top. Repeat for the other side. (So you have one large circle made of two tortillas, with a fold gap down the middle).

Turn on the burner. I use about the 1/2 way point on a GE Electric range. Adjust hotter if it doesn’t toast fast enough, or cooler if it gets brown in less than 30 seconds. After about a minute, the cheese will be melting on the down side. Using a spatula (or just your fingers if brave ;-) turn the quesedillas over (and swap sides if you need to do that to make them fit on the pan). Let the second side toast too. You can flip them back and forth again if you didn’t get it browned enough the first time, so feel free to turn a bit early the first few times while you learn the time and temperature to use.

Quesadilla after the first turn, nicely browned with melted cheese.

Quesadilla after the first turn, nicely browned with melted cheese.

Once getting brown spots, and with the cheese melted, take them off the comal / grill / pan and place on a cutting board. Cut into 3 wedges each. Enjoy.

You can also place chopped fajitas in them. Especially useful for leftovers. How to make fajitas? Slice up some onions, bell peppers, and bits of meat into long pencil like strips. I like chicken, but beef works well too. Put the strips on a hot comal / grill / pan with a bit of oil to coat the bottom (cast iron works better as you want it hot and Teflon is prone to decomposing if you get it too hot). Let them brown and sizzle. Once sizzled to your liking, serve and eat. Apply salt, pepper, and / or hot sauce to suit your preference.


You can get the fajitas down to about $2/ pound if you shop carefully. Adding more onions and vegetables can drop the cost even more. Think potato or carrot strips. A bit more if you go for beef and buy small sizes or fancy kinds of produce. A 1/2 pound of fajitas with some refried beans, rice, and a tortilla will fill most folks. Any leftovers can be chopped and put in the fridge. Add them to quesadillas the next day.

Notice that very little other than chicken bones hits the garbage can. Even there, the bones and onion trimmings can be used to make stock; but that is for another day…

If you have a favorite “cheap eats” or simple DIY way of saving money in the kitchen, feel free to share it here. There’s a “Starving Student” or two hoping to learn how to make something more tasty than boiled rice for not that much more cost ;-)

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About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
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20 Responses to Car Yogurt and Cheap Eats

  1. Delicious! Another inexpensive way to increase the nutrition in the Quesadilla is to sprinkle black beans onto the melting cheese, and add a few dollops of salsa. Sliced avocado is a delicious and nutritious filling, but may run them over budget.

  2. anthonyvenable110 says:

    Reblogged this on anthonyvenable110.

  3. Gail Combs says:

    It depends on what you have for a kitchen/freezer. I lucked out as a single and found a mini freezer (about a 2 1/2 ft cube) for $50. This meant I could shop at Sam’s club and get a large package of meat on sale. I would either pre-cook it or cut into single portions or chopped up into bite size pieces to add to later dishes.

    Onions are usually cheap and so are bell peppers or other veggies in season. I cut up and fry onions, mushrooms, peppers and sausage and dump two to three heaping tablespoon fulls onto a square of saran wrap over a square of foil. Fold neatly and stuff a bunch of these packets into a ziplock freezer bag. When I do not feel like cooking I grab a packet, a couple of eggs maybe some cheese and make an omelette for dinner.

    I will also fry up onions, or mushrooms or eggplant (For Moussaka) and place them in a container for later use. Same goes for bell peppers, they can be frozen raw. Carrots, bok choy and potatoes are best kept in the frig. Again as a single I kept diced veggies and diced raw meat in a marinate in the frig. (Each in an individual container) For dinner I would cook up rice or ramen noodles and stir fry (in a reg. frying pan) hand fulls of the various veggies and meat. Seasonings can be anything from soy sauce to what ever you find in the Chinese section of the store.

    Kraft Mac’n sleaze is another stand by. Add chopped ham and onions. Liption’s beef stroganoff or noodles alfredo also gets veggies and chopped meat added although those are an expensive way to go.

    Hardy soups/stews are another useful item for the single. Make a big pot and freeze.
    Beef + potatoes, carrots, parsnips, onions, leeks…
    Chicken + rice, celery, onions, mushrooms, bok choy…
    pork +/or sausage + lentils/17 bean + oinons, celery…

    I hate to cook so I really like one pot meals.

    OH and don’t forget the salads. Add chopped boiled eggs, cheese and meat to your raw veggies and lettuce and you have a meal. You can cook up elbow macaroni and add it to cooked chopped chicken, celery, onion, tomatoes and whatever for a cold salad or use canned tuna instead of the chicken.

  4. Gail Combs says:

    One thing a starving student needs to learn is to by-pass the junk food. Often a loaf of bread cost as much or more per pound as a cheap cut of meat. Sodas, chips…. a worthless money drains. Look at the cost per pound/oz and use that to figure out what to buy.

  5. omanuel says:

    Glad to see that E.M. Smith is alive and well, already addressing issues that will become increasingly important for the middle class if present trends continue.

  6. Ralph B says:

    I am not a big yogurt fan, but doesn’t your car end up with a special scent after yogurt making?

    In my younger years I scrimped as much as possible on food to allow for more beer and cheap booze (brand/type didn’t matter…proof only). Ramen noodles, Mac and cheese (not Kraft, the store had a special “economy” brand that came in a white box). Healthy eating was never a thought. I can see myself using your ideas now a days though. I think Bob Segar had it right in Against the Wind, “wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then”

  7. Paul, Somerset says:

    Time of year in this part of the UK when you’re likely to find windfall apples at the roadside or left behind in orchards. They might be bruised or burrowed in by insects, but there’s always a few usable slices remaining. Here’s one of my favourite uses:

    Cup of dark lentils soaked in water for a couple of hours. Aargh! Not vegitarianist lentils, I hear you cry. But wait. The secret to lentils, I’ve found, is that they need fat as part of the cooking process. So, Add the soaked lentils to an equal volume of water in a saucepan and bring to simmer (and only simmer, not a raging boil. As you do so, stir in small chunks of SPAM. This provides the fat for taste, the salt for seasoning and the meat for nutrition. Leave to simmer for 20 mins, stirring occasionally.

    Shortly before serving cut up your usable bits of apple, including the peal. Leave this as late as possible to avoid browning. Stir the apple into your lentils, They will quickly heat up and soften almost to a sauce in this warm environment.

    You now have a dish combining the taste of pork and apple sauce, with some genuinely tasty and nutritious pulses. You can stir in the apples earlier, if you like, but I prefer them a bit lumpier.

    I suspect offcuts of pork would be cheaper, but I’m trying to be practical. A student leaving home is going to find the task of sourcing cans of SPAM on special offer and stocking up simpler than negotiating with a butcher on a daily basis.

  8. philjourdan says:

    My wife likes using the Queso cheese, just sliced. We throw in ingredients as the mood strikes. But hot sauce is de rigeur!

  9. punmaster says:

    @ Gail Combs:
    My wife likes bell peppers, too. I can’t figure out why. They don’t add flavor to anything, just green color. Is that to balance out the orange of carrots? :-) Mind you, I am not a fan of really hot pepper.

  10. Lynn Clark says:

    When I was a broke college student and for many years thereafter, my then-wife and I used to make what we always called “Hicken Special” (named after the college friends who introduced us to it). Cheap, easy and surprisingly yummy.

    2 russet potatoes
    1 lb (454 g) ground beef
    1 small can (~10-1/2 oz, 298 g) of Cream of Mushroom soup (Campbells or store brand)
    1 small can (~10-1/2 oz, 298 g) of Vegetable Beef soup (Campbells or store brand)

    Dice potatoes into ~1/2″ cubes, spread in bottom of casserole dish or metal pot
    Brown ground beef, drain off fat, spread on top of potatoes
    Spread cans of soup on top of potatoes and ground beef
    Don’t add any water

    Bake uncovered at 375 F (190 C) for 45-60 minutes, it’s done when potatoes are soft when poked with a fork.

    Before we had kids, this was enough to feed the two of us, usually with enough leftovers for a second meal. YMMV. The recipe should be easy to scale for larger batches.

    If you’re allergic to mushrooms (as I discovered after many years of eating this at least once a month), you can substitute Cream of Celery soup for the Cream of Mushroom soup.

    My daughter says she sprinkles cheese on top when serving, although I’ve never done that.

  11. Speed says:

    Coincidentally, a link to this landed in my inbox this afternoon …
    That’s why, as part of Hunger Action Month, I decided to take the SNAP Challenge. For one week, beginning Saturday, September 14, 2013, I will live on just $4.50 a day, the average daily benefit per person provided by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP; formerly known as Food Stamps).

    I start many one-pot meals with Ramen. Add what ever vegetables (uncooked) and/or meat (cooked) to the bowl along with enough water to cover the noodles. Between 1:30 and 2:30 in the microwave is plenty to “cook” the noodles/heat the meat/soften the vegetables. Frozen peas/corn/carrots/etc. work quite well and store brands are frequently on sale for a buck a bag (16 ounces). Or slice up a sweet onion. Add flavor and spice with soy sauce, Worchestershire (I spelled it right the first time!) sauce, Pickapeppa or others to taste. Top with what ever cheese is on sale. NOT PASTEURIZED PROCESSED CHEESE FOOD! Shredded cheese can be bought (relatively) cheap in giant bags and kept in the freezer.

    All of the above can be adapted to rice. Cook the rice and put the extra stuff in a couple of minutes before the rice is done.

    A package of Red (or Black) Beans and Rice is good for two big meals. I cook it with a sliced onion and sometimes with some sausage cut in pieces — the hotter the better. Cheese and sour cream (if it’s in the budget) on top are a treat.

    Chili based on ground meat or Veggie Crumbles (Morningstar Farm is one brand) with onion, canned tomatoes, tomato sauce, tomato paste and spices can make many meals (eat some and freeze the rest) and is also enhanced by cheese and sour cream.

  12. E.M.Smith says:

    @Ralph B:

    It is inside a closed jar. No “scent” makes it out of the jar at all. Not that yogurt has much “scent” anyway…

    Got another nice jar made today ;-) Makes a nice cheap substitute for sour cream in a lot of cases. So, for example, with the Fajitas above, or as part of Indian food (it tends to kill the heat from too much hot sauce ;-)

    @Paul Somerset:

    Nice, very nice. SPAM is fairly cheap (at about $2 / can or about $4 / lb if I remember the weight of a can right… ) and with the seasoning in it, you need less to make a tasty meal.

    Like that recipe, then again, I like SPAM and lentils … Had not thought of adding apples. Nice touch.

    It also works well as a baked potato “topper”. Small cubes of it go a long ways. Also does well in Kraft Mac & Cheese.


    I’ve never tried the Mexican Queso cheese. Yes, it’s just a fresh “Farmers Cheese”, but somehow never got around to it. Maybe I’ll make some some day ;-)


    Bell peppers do add some flavor. (Not one my spouse likes though 8-( so I rarely get them.) It isn’t very strong, but it’s there.

    They also add color, as noted, and also some vitamins.

    @Lynn Clark:

    Nice idea. Kind of like a Sheppard’s Pie theme, but with gravy from the soup…

    I’d be tempted to try it with some chopped onion added, or with a sauted onion bits as a topper.

    FWIW, I’ve generally found that any of the “Cream of Mushroom Soup” recipes can have a “change up” by changing to a different “Cream of” soup. Seems to work with any of: Mushroom, Golden Mushroom, Chicken, Celery, Broccoli. There may be others to try too.

  13. Terry Jay says:

    College meals. Ahh, memories.

    After the Humboldt floods I wandered down to the student housing cafeteria and bummed whatever the residents did not want, salads, veggies, rolls. One of the guys got a bear, so there was a lot of sweatabrow, highly seasoned bear stew.. Some of them smoked salmon, and one guy had cases of smoked and canned Columbia sturgeon.. Pinto beans and whatever was available was tolerable.

    Scavanging has its merits. The chantrelles are in season in the PNW, and King Boletes are available in many places, as well as other edible fungi. Abandoned orchards stilll produce. A lot of cool to cold season veggies can be planted now for harvest well into winter. Bits of lettuce and radish and kale can be hidden in the campus landscape. New dandelion leaves make a salad. Hit the markets about 10am, by then they are marking down the out of date expiring meat. Look at the date codes on the display items and know when to come back.

    Fred Meyer in Soldotna, AK had chicken packs for $0.79 per pound over the summer. Skin on, bone in, but a $10 package fed 8 people for three meals.

  14. Graeme No.3 says:

    What about a crock pot? You would need a refrigerator and/or freezer available. I am thinking shared house type arrangement.

    Cheap cuts of meat extended with root vegetables (even greens like kale and cabbage). Admittedly you would need some herbs/spices but would not need to add much (at first).
    Cook a basic stew (5Litres) and store; change the flavourings when reheating part. e.g. meat, vegetables, tomatoes (can, fresh or pasta sauce), onions, garlic. Throw mushrooms in for one go, chilli sauce another time, green bell peppers with potatoes and paprika another time.

    Heat pot on low (with liquid overnight) and half an hour preparation in morning for base.

  15. dearieme says:

    Here’s a favourite of ours using windfall apples, plus potatoes, a few scraps of streaky bacon, some black pudding, and onions: “Heaven and Earth”. (if you find windfall pears too, so much the better.) Filling, delish, nutritious.

  16. Jason Calley says:

    Sounds like your yogurt recipe is about the same as mine. Instead of putting the jar in the car, I place it on top of my hot water heater for 24 hours. My water heater in a small closet; i use it for yogurt and kefir — and an occasional jar of kimchee as well just to get the fermentation kick started.

  17. H.R. says:

    One cheap meal I haven’t seen mentioned is roasted chickens from the supermarket. In my small patch of heaven in the mid-west, all of the chain grocery stores have fresh-roasted chickens in a warming tray. They are $3.99 or $4.99. Costco and Giant Eagle have the largest birds and they are $4.99. I cannot buy and cook those chickens at that price.

    I have always haunted the grocery stores for the mark-downs on meats that need to be cooked that day or the next day. It’s no good if you can only hit the store once a week, but if there is a grocery right on the way home, it’s cheapest to have lot’s of the building block ingredients on hand that E.M. and others have mentioned and let the mark-down section of the meat case determine the main dish.

  18. CompuGator says:

    H.R. says (21 September 2013 at 2:44 pm):

    One cheap meal I haven’t seen mentioned is roasted chickens from the supermarket.

    For a while when Mountain-West-based Albertson was operating groceries in central Florida (they pulled out ca. 2 years ago), their deli departments marked down their roasted chickens to about half price about half an hour before each store closed. A small nearby meat market once did the same.

    Altho’ hours under a heat lamp had arguably overcooked much of the chicken meat, it had also rendered fat (i.e.: schmalz) into a convenient puddle of oil at the bottom of the plastic container.

    One way to take additional advantage of those deli-cooked chickens and their great-bargain prices, and compensate for the overcooking, was to make chicken and (optionally fried) rice [#].

    If there weren’t a pot of left-over rice available, it’s simple enough to cook a new batch, which could be upgraded with various seasonings [*], e.g., to arroz amarillo (yellow rice). Cooking a new batch of rice would also provide time to hand-strip the bird, much of whose meat would already be falling off its bones. The rendered fat could be used either to flavor the rice directly, or as cooking oil for sautéing, e.g., garlic and onions. Stirring green peas (petit pois) into the new batch of rice (more to be warmed than cooked per se) is a classic Floridan addition. As soon as the stripped chicken meat, rice, and any saut#233;ed veggies are all ready, tossing them together allows the rice to restore some moisture to the chicken meat. If the meat had been stripped into small-enough pieces, and the saut#233;ed veggies cut to a compatible size (e.g.: Chinese wedges), it was most sensible to dish it up into bowls, and eat it with soup spoons instead of forks.

    Note #: To buy the San Joaquin Valley’s (California) tasty whole-grain brown rice (e.g. Komura’s “Tsuru Mai” brand, marketed as “medium grain”) in central Florida, one needs to shop in Asian groceries, which stock packages of various sizes (sometimes even the 50-lb. sack); the supermarket chains here simply don’t carry it.

    Note *: Tampa (Florida, U.S.A.)-based Vigo produces convenient packets of yellow seasoning, including paprika and a wee bit of saffron, that’re sold in supermarkets as “FLAVORING & COLORING for Yellow Rice and Chicken (Arroz Con Pollo)”. Altho’ it was commonly used in my family, further review regrettably shows that their ingredients include MSG, plus the industrial food dyes “FD&C red #3” “FD&C yellow #5”, while omitting turmeric and cumin. Instead of pretending that expensive threads of genuine saffron can be squeezed into a student budget, the rice can be more affordably and healthfully colored & flavored using more-or-less 3:1 turmeric (typically powdered, and good to have on hand anyhow) and cumin. These spices are placed into the rice pot before heating the water to a boil; see, e.g., <;.
    Achiote a.k.a. annatto (a central/Latin American seasoning, later also Filipino) is apparently an alternative customary spice for arroz amarillo, altho’ I’ve never deliberately used it; I saw it in an ethnic grocery today, sold in split-pea-sized chips or powdered. There’s no reason why students couldn’t further substitute seasonings; e.g.: if, instead of those above, one uses Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning (compare its ingredients-list with other brands of “Creole seasoning”, and it’ll become clear why Chachere’s is repeatedly recommended in recipes), the result will be some approximation to “dirty rice“.

  19. CompuGator says:

    [Chiefio p]osted on 10 September 2013

    I use Mason Jars (canning jars) for all sorts of canning, preserving, canistering, etc. They are well worth buying a few. BUT, to be really really frugal, you can buy pasta sauce or pickles or whatever in glass jars and once used up, just wash them. They […] cost nothing.

    Which introduces an example of when price ain’t everything: It’s not unusual for me to buy higher-priced products when they’re packaged such that when I’ve used up its contents, I’ll have a glass jar with a metal top/cap and a built-in o-ring equivalent seal on its inside. That’s much preferable to being left with a plastic container with a substantially nonreusable cardboard seal inside a plastic top/cap, whose most frugal–arguably greenest–future is simply being tossed into a plastics-recycling bin.

    Don’t overlook jars of the simplest formulations of peanut butter (“Ingredients: peanuts, contains 1% or less of salt”, e.g: J.M. Smucker Co.), free of contamination by overt or deviously addicting forms of sugar (cf. JIF), and customarily sold, in the U.S.A., in robust dishwasher-friendly straight-sided glass jars.

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