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There’s Chow Mein, the authentic dish of stewed vegetables and meat served over noodles, and then there’s the Chow Mein I grew up with, beloved by Midwesterners: Chicken and Vegetables in a thick sauce, served over rice. Strange as it sounds, this dish is “comfort” food by many; a classic in the same way our Goulash is made of hamburger and macaroni and our Swedish Meatballs are served in a sour cream sauce.

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My recipe, passed on to my Mom in the 60’s by my Aunt, started out with stewing chicken as an ingredient. I’ve simplified it enough to whip out on a week night – and I’ve kept it as I’ve always known it, served over rice as our family always did.

Oddly enough, we never served it over noodles as the name implied, nor did we serve it with the dry, fried bags of noodles sold in the store…feel free, however to add them as you wish. They’ll add to the price, though – I’m figuring about $2.80 for the Chow Mein in the photo on the top and another 15 cents or so for the rice – making this truly a budget dish!

Chow Mein, serves 4 to 6 generously

  • 2 Chicken Breasts, about 12 ounces
  • 4 stalks celery, leaves included, sliced into 1/3″ pieces
  • 4 carrots, sliced diagonally into 1/3″ pieces
  • 1 small onion, sliced pole to pole, 1/3 inches
  • 1/2 red bell pepper, sliced into 1/3 inch pieces, then cut into thirds
  • 3/4 teaspoon garlic salt
  • 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon sugar
  • 3 1/2 cups of water
  • Your choice of other vegetables, mix or match, to measure about 2 cups: A small can of Chinese “fancy” vegetables, well-drained, a can of sliced water chestnuts, a can or bottle of mushrooms, or fresh mushrooms, sliced and sautéed in oil or butter, bamboo shoots or baby corn.
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce (or to taste)
  • 3 tablespoons cornstarch (or more, to desired thickness)
  • thinly sliced green onion for garnish, if desired.

In a saucepan, add chicken breasts, celery, carrots, bell pepper and onion and garlic salt. (see note, below, on controlling the degree of doneness for the vegetables.) Cover with the water and bring to a boil then reduce to a gentle simmer. Cover the pan partially with a lid, and cook for about 10 to 15 minutes. Cook until chicken is done and vegetables tender, but still have some body. Remove chicken and shred, set aside.

In a small cup, place the cornstarch and add the soy sauce, slowly, stirring to form a slurry. Add a small amount of water, if needed.

Bring vegetables up to a gentle boil and add the cornstarch slurry, stirring constantly. Cook for about a minute until sauce thickens. If you prefer a thicker sauce, simply make a bit of additional slurry and add. If you feel the sauce is too thick, add a tablespoon or so of water. Make a note of this so you can make it just as you wish in the future.

Add the shredded chicken back in, along with the two cups of the vegetables you’ve picked as your choice. Taste and adjust the amount of Soy Sauce to your liking. Turn down the heat and simmer a moment to warm through the chicken and additional vegetables. Serve over rice, noodles, or store-bought fried Chow Mein noodles.

Notes:

  • I often add the peppers a few minutes later than the carrots and celery as I prefer them a little more crisp.
  • If you prefer, you may cook the chicken and remove, then add the vegetables so it is easier to control to what degree of crisp/tender they are cooked.
  • Depending on whom I’m serving, I adjust the thickness of the sauce and the types of vegetables, as well as how long the vegetables are cooked. Below, the same recipe, but the sauce is a bit thinner as I prefer it.
Chow Mein - same recipe, but here the vegetables a little crisper, the sauce thinner

Chow Mein – same recipe, but here the vegetables a little crisper, the sauce thinner

Let’s talk about how to save money/time on this recipe:

  • Use a coupon matching site! One of my favorites in my area is Pocket Your Dollars, but every store has a group of enthusiastic Coupon Matchers. Do not discount the savings! I check their site every week, even if I don’t “need” to go to the store and often find bargains I can’t pass up.
  • Follow my Strategies – You’ll see them all explained on the upper left tab of every page and how I apply them, below.
  • Don’t get discouraged if your prices don’t match mine! Keep shopping at the best prices and your fridge/freezer and pantry will be stocked with sales priced ingredients.
  • Read below for additional tips as well as throughout the recipe, for saving time and managing food.

Strategies Applied

There is a generous amount of chicken in this dish – about 8 times as much as the canned La Choy version. (See my Rant about La Choy Chow Mein) In terms of cutting cost, the amount could be reduced by half. In terms of saving cost, it makes sense as well to serve the more inexpensive vegetables. This is also a great recipe to use left over chicken in – simply use a home-made frozen (or boxed if you use it) broth.

If you’ve opened a can or jar of vegetables and choose not to use the whole amount, think of another recipe, like Fried Rice, where they can be used. They can also be strained, reserving the liquid, then whatever isn’t used may be frozen in a Ziploc with the liquid for a later time.

If you have left over vegetables in the fridge, consider whether they could be added to this dish – alternatively, make left overs for another meal or lunch, or perhaps make extra rice for Fried Rice later in the week.

  • Chicken:  I never buy full price chicken – it goes on sale too often.  Some sales are better than others, but usually every few weeks it will drop to 99 cents a pound, and I stock up then. I prefer bone in breasts over boneless (see Bone-In Chicken Breasts, How to Deal with in a Frugal Manner) but I’ll buy either bone in or boneless at this price. I portion the chicken in Ziploc bags, a breast per person for meals and freeze. If breasts are super large, I’ll trim them down to about six ounces and make tenders for the kids or use the bits for stir fry. Cost:
  • Carrots: An inexpensive item even not on sale – but it keeps so well I buy a couple of packages if it is cheaper. $1.00 a pound is standard in our area, but the larger packages of 5 pounds are often on sale for $2.50 – that’s 50 cents a pound, or about 20 cents for four. Carrots will keep longer if you rotate the package, which is so often on the bottom of the drawer, so they don’t sit in condensation.
  • Celery: generally inexpensive, but does go on sale from time to time, so I buy extra when it does. Celery keeps so well, there’s no reason to not buy when it’s not on sale. Remember to use your leaves, they’re full of flavor, and if you don’t use them in your cooking, save them, along with the bottom parts for soup or stock.  Always wash your celery extremely well. To keep longer, slip a plastic bag loosely over the exposed top of the celery. A good price in my area is 98 cents a sleeve, with about 15 or so stalks in a sleeve. Cost for four was 26 cents.
  • Bell Pepper:  There are two types of sales, per pound or per pepper.  I usually look for the per pepper pricing; in my area it’s generally cheaper – I’ll then buy the biggest, most gorgeous ones I can find.  The peppers are often bagged and sold by a unit price, too.  A really good price in our area is about a seventy cents a pepper for the red, yellow or orange ones, and 50 to 75 cents for the green bell. In full winter, my red pepper was on sale, $1.29 a pound, 1/2 was 40 cents.
  • Onion:  They keep well, so try to buy on sale. Aldi’s is a good place to find reasonably priced onions. Always less expensive in the fall/winter months, the pricing in my area runs from 33 to 66 cents a pound. Store them in a dark, cool place but not near potatoes. If you’ve bought too many onions, don’t let them go bad.
  • Slice or dice them, saute and portion into Ziplocs labeled “onions” and freeze. You’ve just saved yourself a step for next time you make a dish. If you have enough, consider making French Onion Soup. If you use half an onion, consider if you can sauté the rest and put it in a Ziploc in the freezer. If not store in the door where you’ll see it when you’re cooking next. 1 small onion (at 56 cents a pound) about 15 cents.
  • “Fancy” Chinese Vegetables: I used a 14 ounce can of La Choy, which drained measured about 2 cups. The same strategy applies when shopping for many Asian items: Look for big sales around the appropriate “New Years” when sales and coupons apply. Check the websites and coupon matching sites for coupons. Look in the Ethnic Aisle as well as the section where the more American type products are sold and compare prices. If you have an Asian market near you, you may be surprised at how inexpensive many items are compared to the grocery store. I paid a dollar for the can I used.
  • Water Chestnuts and other vegetables: The same strategy applies when shopping for many Asian items: Look for big sales around the appropriate “New Years” when sales and coupons apply. Check the websites and coupon matching sites for coupons. Look in the Ethnic Aisle as well as the section where the more American type products are sold and compare prices. If you have an Asian market near you, you may be surprised at how inexpensive many items are compared to the grocery store. Water chestnuts are often no cost with sales and coupons because they are relatively inexpensive to start with. The other items are often considered specialty items and you could pay enough for them to up the price of the recipe.
  • Mushrooms: They are often on sale at my grocery for about 1/2 price, especially around holidays. I pick them up when they run 89 to 99 cents a package. I’ve seen them at Aldi’s for about the same price. Turns out, according to the World’s Healthiest Foods, the simple button mushroom as many good qualities as it’s more expensive siblings! Go underdog! I didn’t use mushrooms, but a handful for the recipe isn’t expensive at all.
  • Soy Sauce: Often on sale during the Asian New Years, and often with coupons – Soy Sauce is an item I normally am able to pick up at no cost. Even without coupons, three tablespoons is just pennies.
  • Sugar: Negligible
  • Green Onion: I try to buy on sale for about 50 cents a bunch (usually during Holidays) then put the white tips in a jar of water in a sunny window to regrow. Kids love taking ownership of the project. I only need to replenish every few months. Cost is so minimal that I don’t even count it.
  • Rice: Always inexpensive, there are two ways to buy rice: Either go for a smaller, name brand box or bag and use a coupon, which with a good sale can net you rice for free or just pennies, alternatively: Look for the largest bag you can find on sale that you will use in a reasonable amount of time. Check the Rice/Pasta aisle, the Mexican Aisle and the Asian aisle (or markets) and do a little comparing of price/weight. Once you figure what is least expensive, you might want to recheck now and then. I jot down what I paid for rice in my price book or even on the bag, so I have an idea of how much I paid originally. I figure a good price in my area is about 8 cents a cup (uncooked.) I made two cups, 16 cents.

Put Your Own Spin on It:

See notations in recipe!

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Recipe made and priced February 2014