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Critic-Turned-Cook's Top 5 Cheap Meals

Being broke absolutely stinks. Former food critic Ed Murrieta wrote a gut-wrenching piece for The Seattle Times on Sunday about scraping by on food stamps. This is no experiment, no episode of Morgan Spurlock's "30 Days." It's the cold shock of a post-newspaper reality and I feel Ed's pain.

It's been more than a year since our family took a gut punch when the Seattle Post-Intelligencer went down in flames. My husband was a page designer, who has reinvented himself and is now an elementary school teacher. Yay Mr. Nelson!

This has been a lean year, but not necessarily a mean year. I've learned a lot about doing more with less. I still think "budget" and "economize" are dirty words, but cold reality transformed the way I shop and cook and, guess what? I'm up to the challenge.

Here are my top five super cheap meals, after the jump.

Roast Chicken

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[Flickr: vauvau]

Roast chicken. Barbara Kafka is my roasting guru. She cooks the bird in a super hot oven, starting at 500°F and then dropping it down to 450 after 15 minutes. It's done in an hour and I make soup with the leftovers.

Sardine Pasta

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[Flickr: rockyeda]

Tuna noodle casserole. Just joking! But it's not such a huge leap to Mario Batali's satisfying sardine pasta dish from his new book, Molto Gusto. Sardines are a great value and good for you, and aren't as strong as you might think when you toss those itty bitty fishies with pasta. (Along with homemade bread crumbs from the baguette ends you've squirreled away. Skip the optional fennel pollen.)

Flageolets and Risotto

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[Flickr: cbertel]

Rice and beans doesn't have to be boring. Flageolets and risotto, anyone? Dried beans are best baked, low and slow. Don't season or stir until the end. And while you've got the oven at 300°F...

Braised Pork Shoulder

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[Photograph: Leslie Kelly]

Braise a pork shoulder. Cover it in tomatillo sauce and cook it covered for four to five hours, depending on the weight. I can get three meals out of 4-pound roast.

An Omelet

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[Flickr: roboppy]

I'm not crazy about breakfast for dinner, but an omelet easily makes that transition from day to night, especially if you serve it alongside a bottle of $6 Argentinean Torrontes.

Good things can come from eating on the cheap. I've become an expert on where to find the best happy hours and while I don't skip farmers markets, I've learned to spot bargains. I've even done some bartering—on Twitter, no less. A follower recently gave me some rhubarb from her yard and I swapped her some jam I made from it.

Good things are going to happen for Ed, too. After his story appeared, he heard from agents drooling for a book and was interviewed for Splendid Table.

Here's hoping that everyone who struggles to put food on the table has the same kind of happy ending.

About the author: Former Seattle Post-Intelligencer restaurant critic Leslie Kelly has been apprenticing in professional kitchens since the newspaper folded in March 2009 and chronicling her culinary journey from pen to pan for Serious Eats. Inspired by Michael Ruhlman, she recently started a new project on her personal blog, exploring "An Egg A Day".

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