What’s in a word? A few thoughts on lessons learned

Frugal: Adj. “Not wasteful; not spending freely or unnecessarily; thrifty; economical. Not costly or luxurious; inexpensive or meager.”

Frugal. That’s the current word of the year, the new attitude of 2009, and a new way of life for thousands upon thousands of Americans who, up until a few months ago, may never have given one thought to the meaning of the word.

Frugal is the opposite of “Put it on the credit card; let’s eat out tonight”; “Let’s get that new Wii game the kids have been talking about”; “Honey, how about a quick trip to Vegas, spend a weekend having a little fun, maybe hit the slots?”; “Let’s go look at new cars, we’ve been driving this one for two years or more”; and many more scenarios I’m sure you can think of.

Frugality, which is the noun version of frugal, is a whole new way of life for most of the boomer generation and certainly, I suspect, for their offspring.

But there is a very large group of people out there, mostly all older than 60, who grew up with and understand very well what it means to be frugal, and I’m part of that group.

As a post-Depression baby, born to parents who married at the height of, and in spite of, the Great Depression, there was no other way. I don’t recall ever feeling deprived or “poor,” but I also don’t remember a time when I was not aware that money was scarce, not to be taken for granted, and certainly not to be spent on anything that was not food or some other necessity.

They say the lessons you learn during your childhood stay with you forever, and frugality is one of those for me. Not miserly, not cheap; just frugal, careful, cautious, thrifty. No matter how much money I made, I could never bring myself to splurge, just go out and spend it all. Some of it always had to be put by, “in case.” And later, after I married and my then-husband and I combined were earning far more than either of us had imagined back in our college days, I still couldn’t spend what we brought in. My childhood wouldn’t let me. Neither could he.

Saving was a way of life; not buying what you couldn’t pay for at the time (with the exception of a house) was a way of life, and yes, we drove “previously owned” cars much of the time. Bills had to be paid, in full, the day they were due, including any credit-card charges. Credit cards were dangerous, too easy and too treacherous if you ever let them get even one month ahead of you, so we didn’t. It’s the same today; even though the husband is different.

I do not intend to sound condescending, nor am I bragging. I’m simply talking about the differences between we who grew up living with frugality as a way of life because we couldn’t help it, and those who never even heard the word “frugal” until a few months ago.

But, I am so glad, now, that this old dog doesn’t have to learn the new trick called “being frugal.” She learned that one many years ago.


Frugal cooks seldom throw anything away, which is why our refrigerators always need careful monitoring and frequent weeding out. That’s when it’s time for the ultimate frugal meal, soup.

If there’s any way to stretch a food dollar, it’s by turning it into soup, one of my favorite meals under any circumstances; hot in the winter, cold in the summer. This could be called a “base” soup, because you can add many other ingredients, depending upon what’s in your fridge. It’s a healthy, hearty soup that needs only a fruit or green salad and perhaps some sturdy bread to make it a complete meal.


1 cup pearl barley (organic if you like)

9 cups beef or vegetable broth (homemade if possible; canned if necessary)

3 T. olive oil

2 carrots, finely chopped

1 large onion, finely chopped

2 celery stalks, finely chopped

1 leek, thinly sliced

1 large potato, finely chopped

1 t. ground cumin

½ cup diced leftover ham (or chicken, or pork, or beef or whatever leftover you have, including cut up hot dogs).

1 bay leaf

3 T. chopped fresh parsley

1 small sprig of fresh rosemary

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Freshly grated Parmesan cheese, for garnish

Rinse the barley under cold water. Drain and place in a large saucepan or soup pot; add the broth. Bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer for 1 hr. Skim off any scum.

Stir in the oil, all the vegetables, ham (or whatever meat you’re using), spices and herbs. The ingredients should be covered by at least 1 inch, so add more broth or water, as necessary. Bring to a simmer and simmer soup for 1 to 1½ hrs., or until vegetables and barley are very tender.

Taste and adjust seasoning as necessary. Serve hot with grated Parmesan. Serves 6-8.

Note: If I have a handful of fresh spinach on hand, I often stir it into the soup during the last 15 min. or so; if you want to vary the flavor, add some canned diced or stewed tomatoes; if you wish to make this vegetarian, use only vegetable broth and leave out any meats. If you have red or green pepper in the fridge, finely chop some and add it as a garnish when you serve the soup. A small dollop of sour cream is also a nice addition occasionally. If it’s soup, it’s open to the addition of whatever works.

When zucchini are on special at the market, I always buy too many because there are so many good zucchini things I’d like to make. This soup not only takes care of the “too many” but is another healthy but simple soup. Again, if you have some leftover chicken, shredded pork, ham, feel free to add it, if desired.


2 T. butter (or olive oil, if preferred)

1 onion, finely chopped

2-3 cloves garlic, minced

1 lb. small zucchini (probably 4-5, depending on size) trimmed and chopped

3 cups chicken or vegetable broth, preferably homemade

1/2 cup light cream, plus some extra for serving

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Melt the butter in a large pan (or heat pan then add olive oil). Add onion and cook over low heat about 3 min., then add garlic and cook an additional 2-3 min., until onion and garlic are softened but not browned. Add zucchini and cook, stirring occasionally for about 2 min.

Add the broth; bring to a boil over med. heat and simmer for about 5 min., or until the zucchini is just tender.

Strain the soup into a clean pan, saving the vegetable solids in the sieve. Place solids in a food processor and process until smooth, then add them back into the pan. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Stir the cream into the soup and heat through very gently. DO NOT LET IT COME TO A BOIL OR IT WILL CURDLE. Ladle into warmed bowls and serve immediately with a little extra cream swirled decoratively in to garnish.

Do you like lasagna but hate the time it takes to assemble? How about a bowl of lasagna soup; ready in less than 45 min. and full of good things.


1 lb. bulk Italian sausage

2 cups chopped onion

1 cup diced carrot

2 cups sliced mushrooms

2 T. minced garlic

4 cups chicken or vegetable broth

1 can (14 1/2 oz.) Italian-style stewed tomatoes, chopped

1 can (10 3/4 oz.) tomato sauce

1 cup mafalda pasta (like mini lasagna noodles, or use campanelle or penne)

2 cups fresh spinach, chopped

1 cup provolone cheese or fresh mozzarella, diced

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

4 t. thinly sliced fresh basil

Brown the sausage in a large saucepan or soup pot over med.-high heat. Add onions and carrots; saute 3 min., Stir in mushrooms and garlic and saute another 3 min.

Add broth, stewed tomatoes and tomato sauce; bring to a boil. Drop in pasta and simmer until cooked, about 10 min., or according to pkg. directions. Stir in spinach and cook until wilted.

Place 1/4 cup cheese into serving bowls and pour the soup on top. Garnish with Parmesan and basil. Serve with a tossed salad and, if desired, garlic b read. Serves 6-8.

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