Several months ago, some of my Facebook friends began posting recipes from budgetbytes.com. I printed five recipes on my first visit to the site -- and I'm usually not much of a food-blog reader. But many of these recipes seemed to be the kinds of things I like to cook: reasonably priced ingredients, often one-dish meals, with international influences or at least some decent spices to give a little kick.
So when an e-mail about a "Budget Bytes" cookbook hit my inbox, I recognized the name immediately and figured I'd better check it out.
In the book, I got the fuller story about Beth Moncel, who found herself living in a crummy little New Orleans apartment and skimping on everything to try to pay off the student loans from her two bachelor's degrees.
As told on the back cover: "Sick of trying to choose between buying toilet paper and filling her car's gas tank, Beth decided to cut down on the only expenditure she could: food."
Although those degrees were the cause of her financial woes, they also were part of the solution. She earned her first bachelor's in nutritional science and dietetics, and much of her coursework focused on financial aspects of the food business, such as buying ingredients on budgets and working with low-income populations to create healthy, low-cost meal plans. So she mined that experience first to help herself reduce her own food costs, and then to create her blog.
The blog started out as "something to keep me busy because I didn't have enough money for the usual hobbies," she said in a phone interview. Her friends seemed interested in what she was doing, so she started the blog in 2009 for fun and for them, but it quickly took on a life of its own.
Now, she's had to reduce her full-time job as a hospital microbiologist to part-time because the blog and related writing projects are taking up so much of her time.
She managed to compile the cookbook, however, within six months while she still was working full-time at the hospital -- and 80 percent of the recipes are new ones that weren't posted on the blog. There are recipes for breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as salads, sides and desserts. Some are more traditional while some are more original (Chorizo-Sweet Potato Enchiladas). And she developed, tested and photographed the dishes all on her own.
"Those were probably the most stressful six months of my life," she said.
CSA Fair: Meet local farmers, sign up for community-supported agriculture subscriptions and enjoy family fun. 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, March 29, at Pittsburgh Public Market, Strip District. Free.
Cystic Fibrosis Brewer's Ball: Local-beer tastings, food, silent auction. 7 p.m. April 4 at the Wyndham, Downtown. $75 in advance; $85 at the door. 412-321-4422 or cff.org/Chapters/wpa.
Let Them Eat Cake: 1920s-themed cake competition with judged and people's-choice voting, Champagne tasting, beer and wine bar, appetizers, silent auction and live music by the Boilermaker Jazz Band. 7:30 p.m. April 5 at Pittsburgh Opera, Strip District. $45 in advance or $60 at the door; proceeds benefit The Midwife Center. midwifecenter.org.
Empty Bowls Hunger Banquet: Students, faculty and friends of Chatham University have crafted clay bowls representative of the amount of food a homeless individual receives in a day; diners will enjoy soup and take home their bowls. Noon on April 5 at Chatham University's Eden Hall Campus in Richland. $15 in advance; $20 at the door; all donations go to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.
Celebrity Pasta Dinner: Pasta dinner served buffet-style by Pittsburgh celebrities, including comedian Jim Krenn, Mayor Bill Peduto, actor David Conrad, former Pirates pitcher Jim Sadowski, former Steelers Dwayne Woodruff and Eric Ravotti, and more. 4 to 7 p.m. April 6 at Sieb's Banquet Hall in Ross. $17. Pay by Friday, March 28; proceeds benefit North Hills Community Outreach (nhco.org).
A Garden Primer: Learn the basics of vegetable gardening. 7 to 9 p.m. April 3, 10 and 24 at East Liberty Presbyterian Church. $50 for Grow Pittsburgh members; $60 for others. growpittsburgh.org or 412-362-4769.
Chicken tamale pie
I used an 11-by-7-inch baking dish. Also, I needed to cover the dish with foil and continue baking for an extra 20 minutes to cook the cornbread through completely.
-- Rebecca Sodergren
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons chili powder
1/4 cup tomato paste
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 large boneless, skinless chicken breast (about ¾ pound), cut into 1-inch cubes
15-ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 cup frozen corn kernels
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 recipe Jalapeno Cornbread Batter (below)
In a medium saucepan, combine the vegetable oil, flour, and chili powder and whisk them together. Set the pan over medium heat and cook until the mixture begins to bubble. Continue to cook and whisk for 1 minute more.
Whisk in the tomato paste, cumin, garlic powder, cayenne pepper, and 11/2 cups water. Bring the mixture to a simmer; it will thicken slightly.
Add the cubed chicken to the sauce, making sure the pieces are mostly submerged under the sauce. Cover the pan and bring the mixture back to a simmer. Reduce the heat to low and continue to simmer for 30 minutes. Use 2 forks to shred or break up the chicken pieces in the sauce. Add the black beans, corn kernels, and salt to the pot with the chicken and sauce. Stir to combine.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
Pour the chicken mixture into an 8-by-8-inch casserole dish or a 10-inch cast-iron skillet. Pour the Jalapeno Cornbread Batter over the chicken mixture in the casserole dish, making sure to cover it evenly.
Bake for 25 minutes or until the top of the cornbread is golden brown on the edges and the sauce is bubbling up from below. Cut the casserole into 8 pieces and serve. Serves 8.
Jalapeno cornbread batter
If you want only the cornbread without the tamale pie, this batter can be poured into a greased 8-by-8-inch baking dish and baked for 25 minutes at 425 degrees.
-- Rebecca Sodergren
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
1 cup milk
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 medium jalapenos
In a large bowl, combine the cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt and stir until well combined.
In a small bowl, whisk together the egg, milk and vegetable oil.
Cut the jalapenos in half and scrape the seeds out with a spoon. Alternatively, leave some seeds in if you want extra heat. Dice the peppers and stir them into the egg mixture.
Pour the egg mixture into the cornmeal and stir just until everything is moistened. Do not overmix.
-- "Budget Bytes" by Beth Moncel (Avery, Feb. 2014, $13.76)
Rebecca Sodergren: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @pgfoodevents.