I'm amused when I read gourmet cooking magazines and read the menu in some restaurants and see polenta. If you've don't know about polenta, the simple definition is a thick, cornmeal mush. What does that have to do with dog food? Well, growing up as a poor kid on a farm with numerous dogs, my Mom often made food for the dogs. She'd start with some leftover grease in a big cast iron skillet, pour in milk and when it was hot she'd start adding cornmeal. Milk was cheap most of the year since we had a milk cow. We grew corn, shelled and ground it by hand. So corn was inexpensive too. As it cooked, the cornmeal mush thickened and table scraps were add. My dogs knew the meaning of the words, "Mom cooked." They sometimes turned their noses up at commercial dog food.

Years later, I moved to the Pacific Northwest and encountered polenta in restaurants. It looked familiar and made me chuckle. Here was a basic simple food being served in restaurants accompanying expensive entrees. It looked familiar. A bit more jazzed up that what Mom used to cook but basically the same thing.

Polenta is simple. It consists of water, cornmeal, maybe some salt and other flavorings. Spice it up or dress it down. It's simply boiled, allowed to set up and then baked or fried.


3 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup cornmeal

Spray a loaf pan with nonstick cooking spray.

Bring 3 cups water and the salt to a boil. Reduce the heat and gradually add the cornmeal. Pour in a thin, slow stream while whisking constantly so that lumps don't form. Cook, stirring frequently, until thickened, 5-10 minutes. If you want to spice it up, stir in a 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes.

Spread the polenta in the prepared loaf pan and smooth the top. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, at least 30 minutes.

Remove polenta from the loaf pan and slice in 1/2 inch slices. Place slices on the baking sheet. At this point you can add as many calories as you'd like by buttering the polenta, or topping with cheese, or leave it plain. Bake uncovered at 350 F for 20 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 F. Lightly spray a baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray. Bake until polenta develops a nice color.

Another cornmeal mush type dish comes to us from Africa. It is called Ugali. Ugali is made with a white maize flour. Although many recipes suggest that grits or yellow cornmeal may be substituted. Ugali can vary in consistency from a soupy porridge to a thicker dough. Since ugali is traditionally eaten by rolling it into a bite-size ball, creating an indention and using it to scoop up a stew or curry.


4 cups water
1 tsp salt
2 cups white maize flour

Over high heat, bring water and salt to a boil. Add the flour slowly, 1 tablespoon at a time, while stirring constantly with a whisk to avoid lumps. Continue until all the flour is used.

Reduce heat to medium-low and cook until mixture reduces and thickens, and pulls away from the sides of the pot, about 5-6 minutes.

Let sit for about 5 minutes, then remove from heat. Let sit another minute, then serve.

Makes 4 servings.

There used to be tales of elderly people buying and eating canned cat and dog food because it was what they could afford. Those canned foods have gotten expensive. I think we can eat more nutritiously without resorting to canned pet foods. Just stir up a batch of polenta or ugali. I wonder now if the family pets knew what wonderful things my mother was cooking up for them. I think they did since they often rejected the store bought dog food.

Bargains in Bulk

While watching the evening news, I caught a segment on how to eat on a budget. It was good segment that extolled the virtues of brown rice, eggs and beans. However, the lovely lady shopping grabbed the box of brown rice and the carton on eggs. Perhaps she didn’t want to be seen lugging a 25 lb bag of rice or beans. But the real value in these foods can be found by buying in bulk. For the price of two cartons of eggs, you can purchase 5 dozen eggs in a bulk package. That’s like getting three dozen eggs for free. Just ask neighbors to save egg cartons for you and repackage them when you get home.

If your pantry won’t hold a 25 or 50 pound bag of rice or beans and you must store it in the garage, be sure to find a food safe container to hold your grains and beans. I hear that in Utah, Wal-Mart carries food safe buckets and lids. You can also find food safe buckets at restaurant suppliers or online at places such as Emergency Essentials. If you’re cheap like me, visit a local Chinese restaurant. Why Chinese? Soy sauce comes in 5 gallon buckets. Chinese restaurants use lots of soy sauce. These buckets often go into the trash. I find that, after a wash with bleach and a good airing, that the smell of the soy sauce is negligible. So you can accomplish several goals at once. You can save a plastic bucket from the landfill and provide safe storage for your big bag of rice or beans.

Many people, whether because of their religious or political beliefs, have decided to keep at least a year’s supply of food. Long before the government decided that the country was in a recession, I decided that extra food was a good thing to have on hand. After going organizing my extremely deep pantry shelves, I discovered that many of the cans of vegetables had gotten lost and were out dated. The texture and color of cans that were opened just wasn’t appetizing…even if they retained any nutritional value. This experience made me begin to look for foods that remain appetizing, edible and nutritious during longer storage times. Beans, grains, and dry pasta all met those requirements. So we know that these products store well and most of us know how to cook pasta but what about those dry beans and whole grains? First let's talk about those whole grains. If you decide to stock hard red or white wheat, you are going to need some method of grinding or cracking the wheat. Hand mills for grinding the wheat range in price from $75 to $400+. You should take this cost into consideration before you decide to store a supply of wheat or other grain. I've found that 1 cup of wheat berries as they are called will grind out to 2 cups of whole wheat flour. This is also a good workout for the arm muscles. There are electric mills but that seems to defeat the purpose of also being prepared for an emergency. I'd prefer not to be dependent on electricity to grind my wheat into flour.

Why stock whole wheat berries? Whole grains retain their freshness and nutrient content better when they are in their original form. Once ground into flour, the wheat berry has many surfaces which are exposed to the air where nature begins the process of decomposition. It is always better to store the products as whole grains rather than flour or cornmeal. Of course, for value and savings, I buy 50 lb bags of flour and store it in 5 gallon buckets. Flour has many uses in cooking, from breads to thickening gravies. When most of us think of bread we think of fluffy white bread. However, there are many delicious flat breads that are easy to make. These include naan bread, tortillas, and a camp favorite called bannock. All of these breads are basically flour, water, salt and perhaps a bit of yeast or baking powder to get a rise and fat in the form of oil or bacon grease. Simple stuff and easy to make over a fire with some cast iron cookware.

Since we're talking about buying in bulk and saving money, I have to let the folks on the West coast in on a great place to get bargains in bulk. Cash & Carry Smart Food Service looks like a restaurant supply business, which it is, however, it also caters to the general public. Their sign says wholesale only, don't let that scare you away. Just take into account that most things are packaged in bulk quantities for restaurants. You won't be able to walk in and buy a couple of onions...you can buy a 10 pound bag of onions. Now this next special doesn't fall into my no electricity emergency food supply category, it is a great buy. FlavorPac frozen vegetables in a 5 lb bag for $3.48. Frozen mixed fruit in a 5 lb bag 6.49. Shredded Cheddar Cheese 5 lbs for $7.97. Cash & Carry is also a great place to pick up the 5 dozen egg packs, milk and cream. These are the specials for my local store. The store in your area may be featuring different items. When looking for bargains, don't be afraid to venture into different types of stores. The worst that can happen is that you walk around and leave without buying. The upside may be some terrific bargains.

I also stock buckets of beans in various varieties. I've found that a one cup of dried beans will expand to a 2 1/2 cups when soaked and cooked. Many recipes call for 1 lb of a particular bean variety. For kidney beans, this is approximately 1 1/2 cup. For lima, navy, and soy beans, this is about 2 1/3 cup. One pound of split peas is equal to roughly 2 cups. For lentils, you'll need 2 1/3 cups to equal one pound. A 15 or 25 pound bag of dried beans contains a lot of servings. You can overcome some of the inconvenience of cooking with dried beans by soaking them, draining and then storing in the refrigerator. If you have time, you can go a step further and cook until tender and then store in the refrigerator. Think of lentils as the convenience food of dried beans. A lentil dish can be prepared in about 30 minutes. Dried beans do require a little more effort on your part but time is money. Do you want to pay someone else to prepare your beans or would you rather have that money to buy more beans?

As promised, I'm stopping back by with a few tips and recipes for beans. Most recipes simply state to cook beans until tender. Some will give an estimated time but the cooking time for beans will vary based on factors such as size of bean and time of storage. Older beans take longer to cook. Peas and smaller beans take less than an hour. Larger beans may take longer; lima beans are an exception to the large bean rule. Lima beans may tenderize in less than an hour. Soy beans while small, may take 3 to 4 hours to tenderize. Since the cooking times are longer for beans, for efficiency, cook more than one pound at once and freeze or refrigerate those not needed for your recipe.

Mexican Chili Beans

1 lb dried red kidney beans
2 qts water
1/4 lb bacon, finely diced
1 onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon pepper
2-4 teaspoons chili powder
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon cumin
3/4 cup tomato paste
1 cup tomato sauce

Soak the kidney beans in the water overnight or use the quick method. (Quick 'soak' method: bring water and beans to a boil and cook 2 minutes. Cover, remove from heat, and let stand for one hour. This is equivalent to an overnight soak.)

After soaking overnight or quick soaking, bring the beans and water to a boil. Simmer until just tender, about 40 minutes.

Fry baon in a Dutch oven. When crisp, add the onions and garlic and saute until golden.

Add salt, pepper, chili powder to taste, oregano, cumin, tomato paste and tomato sauce. Simmer for 15 minutes.

Drain beans, reserving liquid. Add beans and 2 cups of the reserved liquid to the tomato mixture in the Dutch oven. Cover and simmer for 1 hour.

Serves 6

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