The Nickel Pincher: Simple, Satisfying Savory Snacks

March 19, 2009

Next time you’ve got a craving for something crisp and salty, don’t reach for something that’s unhealthy, over packaged, and overpriced. Below are three of my favorite tasty, easy-to-make snacks; you can whip them up yourself without bankrupting your weekly food budget. And because you know exactly what went into them, you can feel good about serving these homemade snacks to family and friends.

My first snack suggestion is perhaps the easiest and most healthful snack around: Popcorn. It’s also super cheap if you know a few simple tricks (which Orville and his ilk would probably prefer you didn’t know). When microwave ovens invaded most of the kitchens in America, the food industry pulled one of their greatest boondoggles ever and convinced us that: 1. Popcorn is too complicated and messy to make the old-fashioned way and 2. You can ONLY make it in a microwave oven if you use the special bags that microwave popcorn come packaged in (with way too much salt, chemically altered oils, artificial preservatives, artificial flavors, and some weird chemical coating on the inside of the bag).


Super Simple Microwave Popcorn
When I was a kid we popped popcorn on the stovetop in a heavy-bottomed pan, or occasionally over a fire in a special long-handled pan. Either way the finished snack cost just a few pennies a bowl. Popcorn pops because its seed coat is strong and watertight. When the insides—mostly water and starch—are heated, they expand until the pressure is enough to pop the coat. All you need to make this happen are intact kernels and heat: no oil, no salt, no special “heat-concentrating” bag.

1. Put 1/4 cup of unpopped organic popcorn kernels into a clean brown paper lunch sack, fold the top over a few times, and stand it in the center of the microwave oven. (You can also make in a microwave-safe bowl loosely covered by a lid or towel.)

2. Microwave on high until the popping slows to about one pop every two seconds. In my microwave this takes about 5 minutes—yours may take more or less time.

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3. Remove the bag and eat. Or pour the popcorn into a bowl and flavor as desired. If you’re in a decadent mood, toss it with a couple of tablespoons of melted organic butter and some sea salt. For a lighter snack, spray the warm popcorn with a little all-natural cooking spray (to make the seasonings stick) and sprinkle on your choice of spices and flavorings. One of my favorite combos is brewer’s yeast and Spike seasoning. The Mrs. Dash products are also good. Or try Parmesan cheese, or chili powder and cumin, or Old Bay seasoning, or curry powder, or even cinnamon sugar… Save the paper bag; you can reuse it several times.

Crunchy, Oven-Baked Potato Sticks
When I was perhaps 8 years old, a teenage friend of the family stopped by on his way back from a trip to Philadelphia by bicycle. This occasion is etched into my memory for two reasons: I was absolutely astounded that anyone could ride that far on a bicycle (about 50 miles one way), and because he brought me a can of potato sticks–tiny, deep-fried, salt-encrusted, crunchy snacks I had never encountered before. You can make your own crunchy and much healthier version for a few nickels, anytime you want. (Great with our homemade healthy snacks pretzel recipe!

1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet (or two) with parchment paper or a silicone sheet for easy cleanup.

2. Scrub and rinse some potatoes (and/or sweet potatoes, carrots, or other starchy root veggies); dry them and slice into thin strips the size of matchsticks. Pat the cut surfaces dry with a clean tea towel.

3. Toss the sticks into a bowl, drizzle with olive oil to coat, sprinkle on the seasonings of your choice (sea salt or any of the savory seasonings listed above for popcorn are good ideas), and toss well.

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4. Spread the sticks on the baking sheet(s) in a single layer (not touching each other much, or they will steam rather than crisp). Place in oven. After 10 minutes, and then every 5 minutes, use tongs to turn the sticks, until they are as crispy as you want. You can eat them as soon as they are sizzling on the outside and soft but cooked in the inside—like a french fry (that takes perhaps 20 minutes, depending on your oven and the diameter of your sticks). Or you can keep baking them until they are a little brown (my preference).

Crispy, Crunchy Kale Chips
This last snack may sound less than totally yummy, but it’s surprisingly good—even my kids say so, and they wouldn’t eat kale any other way even if I bribed them. Bonus: Kale is packed with nutrients.

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone sheet.

2. Tear half a pound of fresh kale into 2- to 3-inch squarish pieces, reserving the thick ribs for another use; rinse if needed and spin dry.

3. Put the kale in a bowl and drizzle with 2 tablespoons of Italian dressing or other oil-plus-vinegar salad dressing, or with 1 tablespoon plain olive oil. Toss to coat evenly, and sprinkle with sea salt and any other seasonings you like (see suggestions for popcorn above).

4. Spread the pieces on the baking sheet and bake until crispy. Timing depends on the size and thickness of your kale and desired crispness. The chips are sweetest when still green, and will be just a tiny bit chewy in the thickest areas. If you let them get too brown they may turn bitter, so taste a piece every few minutes once they start looking crispy. Adjust seasoning if needed and serve immediately. Yum!

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So there you have it: Three great snacks to please your family, your guests, or just yourself! Experiment with your own flavor combinations, and try similar treatments with other vegetables or fruits. If you come up with something especially tasty be sure to let me know!

Farm gal, library worker, and all-around spendthrift Jean Nick shares advice for green thrifty living every Thursday on