Grilling on a Budget

First off, I am an omnivore. Seriously. Okay, there are certain things I am squeamish about eating, but I enjoy eating meat and veggies and bread (I REALLY enjoy eating bread) and grains and fruits and all sorts of food. And grilling, I have to say, is an omnivore’s delight. So, my apologies to vegetarians and carnivores alike for the next month. *grins*

While grilling might be an omnivore’s delight, it is not fun for the tight of budget. Thick t-bone steaks, lovely jumbo Gulf shrimp, tasty brined pork chops, and brats bursting with flavor – TA$$$TY! How do you participate in all the grilling goodness without spending a week’s budget on a single meal? Well, as with all budget discussions, this one is all math.

First, let’s talk substitution. DON’T buy the most expensive cut of meat. Top sirloin can be just as tasty as filet with proper seasoning, and costs a fraction of the price. Chicken thighs have more intramuscular fat than breasts, but they cost half the price and that fat will help the thighs keep moist on the fire. I love shrimp, absolutely love it as only a Gulf Coast girl can. But my choice is U-12 count shrimp, large and succulent at $10 per pound, or 30-36 count shrimp, medium sized but much more budget friendly at $3 per pound (shrimp are designated by the number of shrimp you get per pound).

Now, let’s talk addition. Grills are wonderful cooking surfaces, but they are not just for meat. If you are a meat lover, consider downsizing your steak to the more appropriate size of 3-6 oz. per person, and grill skewers of bacon wrapped mushrooms to go with it. Spice up your chicken thighs with some Latin flavor, grill an assortment of pepper quarters and onion slices, and then slice everything thinly and wrap in tortillas for fajitas. Fill half your grill with some lovely firm fish, and the other half with fruits and peppers to make into a yummy fruit salsa to top the fish.

Next up, the lowest common denominator.  Know why burgers and hotdogs are the most commonly grilled food in the country?  Because they are beautifully suited to the method, and so cheap that any carnivore can find room in their budget for some.  Your burgers don’t HAVE to taste cheap just because you didn’t pay a lot for them.  when you go shopping for ground beef, go ahead and get the big pack of really fatty beef – 80% is perfect.  I can find this for an everyday price around $2.50/pound where the 93% lean is over $4.  The fat is actually a good thing for grilled burgers.  There is nothing worse than a hockey puck masquerading as a burger because someone cooked all the moisture out of it.  The fat that renders out will drain automatically (unlike pan seared burgers which stew in their own grease).  Now that you have your 5 pounds of ground beef, season it up!  Salt, pepper, garlic and onion are all the basics.  Then decide if you want Cajun flavored, North African spiced, Asian influenced, or replicating a certain establishment that sells them small and by the bag.  If you like add up to 10% binder (bread or cracker crumbs, egg, etc.).  Shape into patties that are about a third of a pound – I find this amount fits best on a bun after cooking.  Freeze most of them, or throw a Fourth of July Barbecue!  And the hot dogs?  Me, I prefer brats grilled slow, then soaked in an oniony beer bath for hours. *grins*

Finally, let’s talk equations. The US government has come up with kinds of cute graphics over the years to show us how much of which kinds of foods to eat: pyramids, plates, building blocks of all kinds. Personally, I think of it in terms of equations: 1/6(protein) + 1/6(dairy) + 1/3(fruit/veggie) + 1/3(starch) = 1(meal). My fractions can change, but this is my usual equation for dinner. Keep this in mind when planning a grilled dinner. For instance, you could have 3 oz. grilled chicken + 1.5 c. caesar salad + 1 or 2 slices toasted french bread = grilled caesar salad dinner. Or 2 pounds barbecued pork ribs + 4 ears corn on the cob on the grill + 1/2 to 1 pound potato salad (which is a starch. Yes, really.) = Memorial Day lunch for 4. Or my favorite: 1 skewer grilled shrimp + 1 skewer grilled bell pepper chunks + 1 skewer grilled baby onions + 1 skewer mushrooms + 1 skewer grilled cherry tomatoes + 1 c. couscous = Kabob dinner bowl for 1. Meat can certainly be the star of the day, but don’t neglect the side dishes, as they are often cheaper and feature in-season produce and healthy grains.


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