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Frugal: The New Chic?

money-tree

“Happiness is making the most of what you have.”

–Rosamunde Pilcher

I have been dying to find an angle for writing about a fascinating phenomenon related to the Nation’s economic crisis. The problem was that it never appeared in a food-related context, and it would have been a real stretch to blog about it here. Today, in my inbox, I got what I needed.

The phenomenon as a whole has to do with the fact that while newspapers, magazines and television “news” are practically bursting with information about “cutting back” and “living well with less,” many of us were already living that way. Not one, not two, but three magazines that I read on a regular basis have had articles about “shopping your own closet.” Models are photographed wearing Target earrings and Nine West bags with their Miuccia Prada dresses and Manolo heels. We are told that we can get our hair cut at a beauty school, buy from consignment stores and (get this) borrow movies and DVDs from the public library in order to get through tough times.

I have been burning, simply burning (in my garage sale chair, wearing my $25.00 jeans) to write about the fact that, for many of us, this paradigm shift is a complete and total relief. I am not happy that people are hurting, or losing jobs and homes, or watching their 401Ks plummet. I am delighted that frugality is suddenly “chic.” On Forest Street we have a job-and-a-half, a house that we share with the bank, and two (really old) cars; all things considered we are doing quite well. However (and it’s a big “however) I have been “shopping my closet,” shopping at Target, and getting my hair cut at a beauty school FOR YEARS. I have not bought a hardback book for myself for so long I can’t remember the last one. I borrow, I go to the library, and when there’s a cookbook that I simply can’t live without I put it on my Christmas list.

I love beautiful and expensive things, and I can assure you that I have many of them. This particular rant is not because I want to eliminate every Balenciaga gown and Vuitton trunk from the world and replace them with stretch jeans and brown paper bags. My point is that we have lived in a culture of competitive acquisition and excess for a long time, and that it is a refreshing change to see some value put on thrift, and on the idea that we waste our time aching for the late model car, the new living room furniture, or (in my case) the Coach bag that we see in someone else’s possession. It is a real, genuine pleasure to see “the media,” even temporarily, stop trying to manipulate us by  celebrating greed, envy, and entitlement.

Whew. So, about the food. I received, in my inbox this morning, a newsletter from “Epicurious,” a foodie site that belongs to Conde Nast, publisher of both “Gourmet” and “Bon Appetit.” The article that galvanized me was entitled “The Top Ten Money Saving Ingredients.” Imagine, no imagine my surprise when I learned that potatoes, rice, pasta, chicken, beans, apples, canned tuna, eggs, cheese and flank steak were good, inexpensive things to buy and cook. Imagine!!

What were people buying and eating before they received this valuable information? Seriously.

I have a $120.00 weekly grocery budget, and with that amount of money I feed three people, two dogs and three cats, and buy dishwasher soap, paper towels, Bounce sheets, shampoo and pencil leads. In the past week, we have dined on omelets and potatoes, bean soup, tuna sandwiches, a pasta dish, and a chicken stir fry with rice. I try to make things interesting, and I often buy a luxury ingredient when they are on sale (a little Bleu Cheese, a fresh pineapple, avocados) to make things more interesting, but…that’s how we eat. I read, and will continue to read “Gourmet,” “Bon Appetit,” “Food and Wine” and “Saveur” because I find them beautiful and inspiring, but there are many recipes that I reject immediately because the protein alone would cost a third of my food budget. In the alternative, by the time I bought the cardamom pods, the pink sea salt or the cheese produced by Armenian virgins living in a hut, I would be unable to send Sam to school with anything for lunch besides two slices of bread and a generic juice box.

If you have the income and the interest to buy fillet, fresh salmon, $75.00 olive oil, and truffles, I am happy for you. Really. (Also I would love for you to invite me over for dinner some time soon). You are supporting the economy and, if you are really cooking with those things, you are creating wonderful things to eat.

If you  have been eating out and/or buying processed convenience foods for years, and the increasing need to shop and cook frugally at home is a huge challenge, I am here to help. Embrace the change. Teach your kids to cook and let them help you. Surprise yourself with what you can do in the kitchen, even if you only have 30 minutes and you’re dog tired.

As for me and my house, we have been eating frugally for a long time, and as far as I know, it has never been perceived as a sacrifice. Maybe we are now vanguards of Frugality Chic. Perhaps restaurants will now offer “Poverty Tasting Menus” that feature roast chicken, mashed potatoes and scalloped apples. That sounds pretty good, actually….

Meat Dreams.

carnitas-2

Emboldened by the inventiveness and eccentricity of my new boyfriend, Kenny Shopsin, I bought a pork shoulder. I really had no idea what to do with it, although I had just seen someone on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” Do some sort of fabulous, authentic Mexican thing with a gigantic hunk of shoulder that looked like it was five times bigger than mine. He rubbed it with all kinds of dried spices, cooked it really slowly, and then made what I believed to be carnitas. They looked fabulous, but I dithered. I had no recipe. I had never cooked a pork shoulder. What if it all went terribly wrong?

That night, after reading my installment of Kenny’s book (is it presumptuous of me to call him Kenny?) I honest-to-God dreamed about how to cook the pork shoulder. The guy on TV poured on garlic powder, cumin, chili powder…all dried things, no diced peppers or onions. Then he cooked it low and slow. Kenny said you could invent ethnic cuisine based on your understanding – I had cumin, five kinds of dried chile powder, and (although I hid it) garlic powder. I envisioned crisp tortillas, tender shreds of spicy pork, a topping of cool, fresh Queso Blanco, and a side of pickled Mexican vegetables.  And then I woke up. (Note: this “I was really dreaming” device gets a bad rap when misused by 8th grade boys who have been forced to write essays with themes like “I am a Lost Penny.” If one is an adult woman and really was dreaming, and really did wake up, it’s okay to say so).

That afternoon, I addressed the pork shoulder. Nothing in my dream prepared me for the fact that the meat on my cutting board was fatty, had what appeared to be a thick slab of, well, pig skin on it, and had a huge bone running through it. Undaunted, I cut off the offending hunk of skin (which I probably wasn’t supposed to do) and browned the thing thoroughly. I then poured maybe a half cup each of garlic powder and chipotle chile powder onto it, followed by about a quarter cup of cumin (ground) and a good amount of salt. I massaged the spices in, covered the pan, and put it into a low (300 degree) oven. Hours later, when a fork pierced the meat easily and it smelled like heaven, I ventured out into a blizzard to buy corn tortillas, Queso Blanco, and a can of pickled vegetables.

Even after cooking, the meat of my dreams was not an easy prospect. The “two fork shred” that works with boneless meat was blocked by the juxtaposition of bone and flesh. Rob fried up the tortillas while I gouged out hunks of the fragrant pork, shredded them, and went back for more. When I had a good bowl full of meat, we assembled the sort-of-carnitas, which were amazing. I probably did twenty things wrong, and Rick Bayless may not want the recipe for his next cookbook, but we loved them. The next day I removed the rest of the meat from the bone, added it to spaghetti sauce, and gave the bone to the dogs who are still carrying around the remaining pieces and hiding them from each other.

Follow your dreams. They may lead you to a great dinner.

carnitas-1

I Heart Kenny Shopsin.

I am in love with someone who doesn’t know I’m alive, and who probably wouldn’t like me if he met me. My husband introduced us, at Christmas. There is no anguish, and no yearning in this triangle: my new object of affection is oblivious, and my husband gets fed fabulous meals on a daily basis.

On Christmas morning, I received four books about food. Two of them I had requested (Ina Garten’s newest, and Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From My Home to Yours. One, an autobiography of Chef Marco Pierre White, I had been interested in reading for quite a while. The fourth, a bright yellow hardback titled Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin looked to me, honestly, like something selected to bump the amazon shopping cart to the “free shipping” level. I didn’t know who Kenny Shopson was, I couldn’t tell whether it was a cookbook or a biography, and the only thing that prevented me from burying it immediately under the pile of books that people lend me so that I can pretend to read them was the fact that the foreward was written by Calvin Trillin.

big-eat-me

In the days immediately following Christmas, I went through the Garten book and the Greenspan book with my pad of Post-Its, and my husband immediately snatched the White book and started to read it, so I was left with Kenny. The Trillin forward (actually a 2002 “New Yorker” piece) painted a picture of an opinionated, outrageous man who didn’t want publicity for his Greenwich Village restaurant, routinely ejected customers who didn’t suit him, and had a number of rules for dining in his establishment including prohibitions on parties larger than five and cellphone use, and the requirement that all diners order “at least one entree.” He also disdained customers who dithered over what to order from the 12-page, small-print menu (reprinted in the book).  On the other hand, Trilling wrote about a man who loved his wife and children passionately, valued human interaction and creativity above fame and fortune, and was loyal to his friends and his values. That was honestly when I started to realize how I felt about Kenny. I was certain that I, a mommy from Flyover who went to his restaurant because I’d read his book, would be a an immediate and reflexive object of his scorn. On the other hand, a man who loved family and food and generally “thought outside the box” was quite possibly my soulmate. I kept hope alive.

Eat Me is both a cookbook and a biography. It is not a good choice for anyone who has issues with profanity,  wishes to cook healthy foods, or sniffs at cuisine that is neither “haute” nor “authentic.” The recipes I have tried have been uniformly excellent, but the thing that makes me love it (and Kenny) is the insight it gives into the brain of a really original thinker. Kenny Shopsin invents ethnic dishes based on ingredients and flavor combinations that, in his opinion, reflect a given cuisine. He uses purchased pancake batter to make “Slutty Cakes,” “Ho cakes,” “Spinach Walnut” and “Pear Pignoli” pancakes. He rejects the canon law of making soup, and, instead “deconstructs” soup by cooking the non-broth ingredients and adding broth at the end. He has no menu item that takes longer than 5 minutes to prepare, because he has a freezer full of prepped ingredients. He is open to ideas, against orthodoxy, and is whatever is the opposite of a Food Snob.

Although he had me at the deconstructed soup, I wasn’t ready to pack all my black clothes and head to Manhattan until I read these passages:

Among the many things I hate about the media is that they have eliminated people’s ability to think and to judge for themselves. People rely on the media to tell them what is ‘the best’–the best vacation, the best ice cream, the best toilet paper — as opposed to deciding for themselves based on their own tastes or their own satisfaction.

One of the sites I visit regularly is Chowhound, where food-obsessed people like to talk about where they ate last night or where they are going to eat or where they can go for a specific food. It seems as if the majority of the entries read something like ‘I’m going to such-and-such restaurant. What’s the best thing on the menu?’ When I read that, I think: Why would you give a shit what the best thing on the menu is? Maybe you don’t like the best thing on the menu. Maybe the so-called best thing is deep-fried yak brains, and maybe, just maybe, deep fried yak brains don’t appeal to you. Why don’t you just order what sounds good to you? Well, I already know the answer. It is because people are afraid of being mediocre, of being ordinary.

This was, to me, a revelation. Always afraid of what other people (peers, readers, fellow food bloggers, fellow diners) think about my choices, I have pretended for years that I like everything touted by “Bon Appetit” and “Gourmet,” and discounted any of my impulses or preferences that contradicted the passing deification of offal, truffled everything, micro greens or sous vide. If I didn’t like it, couldn’t afford it, had no practical use for it, I kept my mouth shut, joined the chorus of adulation, and hoped that the next trend would be “cooking things kids eat,” or “recipes that require no $30.00 ingredients available only on line.” It’s okay to cook what you actually want to eat! It’s okay to make stuff up! It’s okay to order Katsu Curry in a sushi restaurant instead of sushi! I don’t have to drag my husband, kicking and screaming, to Alinea even though he will hate it! What a colossal relief.

If this book sound good to you, buy the book. I am cooking heavily from it’s pages lately, but (because of our relationship) I don’t feel right giving his recipes away in the interworld. I have already shared his corn chowder, but I have since cooked an amazing sandwich called an Edmonton (garlic bread, tuna, tomato, avocado, jalapenos, that’s all I’m saying), and tonight I’m making his “Patsy’s Cashew Chicken.” More important, I have been inspired to go out on a limb, do my own thing, and stop pretending that I have the means or the motivation to serve my family and friends food that they don’t like, but “should.”

Kenny says in the book that he “is addicted to the Internet,” and likes to see what people are saying about him. Kenny, if you read this, please understand that, like any 46-year-old teenager in love I am probably exactly the kind of fauning sycophant that you didn’t want in Shopsin’s, but I can change. I really can.

Basic Bean Soup: Waste Not, Want Not

In the beginning there was a ham bone with a good chunk of ham, left over from a family feast. (“Give it to Ann; she’ll do something with it”). Then there was the rich and delicious pan of scalloped Yukon Golds, cheese and ham, which I exploded in a display worthy of a low-budget Fourth of July spectacle. Today the ham goes to it’s heavenly reward as a pot of bean soup, to be served with corn bread. It is basic and unsophisticated, but does justice to the ham, uses good Michigan beans, and may even help us to face the cold weather – 12 degrees and dropping, as I speak. Not only is this good to eat; if you have a ham bone with some meat left on it, it’s as cheap as it gets – just a bag of dried beans and some vegetables.

There were even two beautiful hunks of bone after I removed the ham hock from the soup, which means that we will dine to the satisfied crunching of two well-pleased dogs.

bean-soup

Basic Bean Soup

(Adapted from allrecipes.com)

INGREDIENTS

* 1 pound dry great Northern beans
* 8 cups water
* 1/2 teaspoon salt
* 1 ham hock
* 1 cup chopped carrots
* 1/2 stalk celery, chopped
* 1 cup chopped onion
* 1 teaspoon minced garlic
* 1 teaspoon mustard powder
* 2 bay leaves
* 2 cups chopped ham
* 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper

DIRECTIONS

1. Rinse the beans, sorting out any broken or discolored ones. In a large pot over high heat, bring the water to a boil. Add the salt and the beans and remove from heat. Let beans sit in the hot water for at least 60 minutes. While the beans are softening, chop vegetables and (if necessary) remove ham from the bone and set aside.

2. After the 60 minutes of soaking, return the pot to high heat and place the ham bone, carrots, celery, onion, garlic, mustard and bay leaves in the pot. Stir well, bring to a boil, reduce heat to low and simmer for 60 more minutes. If you like, you may keep the soup simmering over low heat for longer; just add a little water if it looks more like stew than soup as the beans absorb the water.

3. Remove ham bone and discard. Stir in the chopped ham and simmer for 30 more minutes. Season with ground white pepper to taste. If you’ve added water, you’ll definitely need to season again.

If it ever crosses your mind to take a Pyrex dish out of the oven and heat it over a burner to reduce the liquid in your Scalloped Potatoes,

Don’t:

exploding-pyrex-1

Fictional Fried Chicken

As a child, I was “good” to the point of pathology, except for my reading habit. I had to be called multiple times to set the table, come to dinner, empty the dishwasher…you get the picture. I also tried, unsuccessfully, to develop a method of reading a book while eating dinner with the family. I got caught every time, and reminded fairly sharply that I was being incredibly rude. (It is a great pleasure of my adult life that, when I eat alone, I can read unrepentantly as I graze).

Of great interest to me in much of what I read was the food the characters ate. I didn’t really want the odd bits of the pig that the Ingalls girls ate in the “Little House” books, and “porridge” (I read a lot of books about orphaned English children) sounded unpromising.  On the other hand, there were plum puddings, apple dumplings, tea sandwiches, and various Japanese and Indian foods courtesy of Rumer Godden. I can still become fixated on things consumed by fictional characters, and this week I’ve been reading a novel in which  a man returns to his “homeplace” in the Deep South. Fried Chicken is mentioned, and when Sam said he would like fried chicken for his birthday dinner (this is the standard order of the past 6 years) I decided that rather than going the tedious recipe-reading route, I’d see if I could reconstruct the fried chicken described in the book.

fried-chicken

Here’s what I “knew:”

  1. The chicken was deep fried in some type of fat
  2. The chicken was soaked in buttermilk
  3. The chicken was not battered, but coated with flour with unidentified spices

I also really knew that, despite the Crisco ads of my youth (remember Florence Henderson?) I would be frying in Canola oil instead of shortening, and that it would take about 25-30 minutes for the thickest breasts to cook through on high heat. Below is my “adapted from fiction”fried chicken, and may I say that it was AMAZING. Tender. Crisp, Flavorful. Addictive. Who knows what I could do if I hadn’t been cheated out of all the time I spent doing chores or being polite company instead of reading?

Fictional Fried Chicken

  1. The bone-in, skin-on chicken pieces of your choosing, allowing at least two pieces per person – I bought mixed fryer parts and an extra package of drumsticks because that’s what Sam likes best.
  2. 1 pint buttermilk
  3. 2 cups all-purpose flour
  4. About 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  5. About 1 Tablespoon Sweet or Hot Paprika, depending on whether you want a kick
  6. Enough oil to come about halfway up the frying pan(s) you’ll be using.  (Note: you may need to fry two pans of chicken at the same time if you are feeding a crowd and want it served hot; in the alternative, you may set your oven to 250 or so and fry a batch and keep it warm while you cook the second batch).

At least 8 hours before you want to eat (overnight is even better) wash chicken and place in a large, zipper-type plastic bag with the buttermilk. Turn it over whenever you think about it, so that all the chicken is well-buttermilked.

When you’re ready to cook, put the chicken in a strainer in the sink and drain off excess buttermilk. (Chicken will still be wet).

Pour oil into frying Pan(s) over high heat.

While oil heats, place flour, salt, pepper and spices in a second plastic bag, add chicken and shake to coat VERY thoroughly. If you have more than 5 pieces of chicken, flour it in separate batches.

Oil is ready when a bread crumb dropped in sizzles and quickly browns. If the bread burns quickly, turn your heat down a notch and try again until you get browining, not burning.

Add the chicken to the pan (be careful!) and cook 15 minutes on one side. Turn and cook about 10 minutes on the second side. Thick breasts may take a little longer; I started the breasts five minutes ahead of the wings, drumsticks and thighs so that they cooked for a total of 30 minutes.

When chicken is mahogany colored and has a fairly resilient crust, remove from oil, place briefly on paper towels, and serve. (As of today, I know that this is also really good cold).

Corn Chowder and Buttermilk Cheddar Biscuits

chowder

Where I live, it is very, very cold. There are icicles on the trees, cars must be started at least 10 minutes before one actually wishes to make the first foray of the day, and everyone has boots with tread, a shovel, and backup pair of gloves. This morning, sidewalks and streets were covered with a sheet of ice, and we semi-seriously contemplated getting to church by sliding down the hill from our house. (Not that my life is all that Norma Rockwell-ian, but we actually do live at the top of a hill, and our church is more or less at the foot of said hill).

On a Sunday night when it’s been gray and cold forever, and the promise of the holidays is gone along with the first, unsullied snow, dinner needs to provide more than fuel. Demoralized persons (particularly those returning to school tomorrow after a blissful vacation) require something to lift the spirits in a way that cannot be accomplished with meatloaf or macaroni. Saving the demoralized requires something a little more interesting, a little more labor-intensive, and definitely farther outside the box.

Tonight, therefore, I used two of my Christmas gift cookbooks and made Corn Chowder and Buttermilk Cheddar Biscuits. The Corn Chowder recipe, quite different from my standard chowder-making routine, is from a strange and wonderful book called Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin, about which more later. The Buttermilk Cheddar Biscuits are from Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa: Back to Basics.

Cook this stuff. I suppose that if you are languishing in tropical heat somewhere you may not want chowder and biscuits, but no matter where you find yourself physically, if it’s wintery in your soul, this meal will make you strong enough to live another day and like it.

Corn Chowder

(from Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin by Kenny Shopsin and Carolynn Carreno)

Ingredients

  1. 6 slices bacon
  2. 1 baked potato, cut into 3/8 inch cubes
  3. 1/4 cup clarified butter, regular butter or ghee
  4. 2 cups froze corn
  5. 1 big yellow Spanish onion, finely chopped
  6. 2 carrots, finely chopped
  7. 3 tablespoons masarepa (Hispanic cooked cornmeal) or cornmeal
  8. A pinch of Pumpkin pie spice
  9. 3 cups chicken stock or any stock or broth
  10. 1/2 cup shredded cheese
  11. 3/4 cup heavy cream
  12. 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese, or more to taste
  13. salt and pepper

Cook the bacon until very crisp in a heavy saute pan over very high heat. Remove the bacon from the pan. Add the potato cubes to the rendered fat and cook, shaking the pan occasionally, until they are very crisp and brown on all sides.

Heat the butter in a large saucepan (I used my soup pot) over high heat. Add the corn, onion, carrots and (if you like) other vegetables like arugula, spinach or green beans. Cook on high heat for about 1 minute, but don’t let anything burn. Add the cornmeal and pumpkin pie spice and stir. Add the stock, cheddar cheese and cream and bring the soup to a simmer. Reduce thge heat to low and simmer until the carrots are tender, about 5 minutes.

Just before serving, stir in the Parmesan, potato and bacon. Don’t stir too much or wait too long to serve thge soup so that the bacon and potatoes will stay crisp. Season with salt and pepper, if desired.

Serves 4.

buttermilk-cheese-biscuits1

Buttermilk Cheddar Biscuits

(from Barefoot Contessa: Back to Basics by Ina Garten)

Ingredients

  1. All-purpose flour
  2. 1 tablespoon baking powder
  3. 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  4. 12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) cold, unsalted butter, diced
  5. 1/2 cold buttermilk, shaken
  6. 1 cold extra-large egg
  7. 1 cup grated extra-sharp Cheddar
  8. 1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water or milk

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Place 2 cups flour, baking powder and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. With the mixer on low, add the butter and mix until the butter is the size of peas.

Combine the buttermilk and egg in a small glass measuring cup and beat lightly with a fork. With the mixer still on low, quickly add the buttermilk mixture to the flour mixture and mix only until moistened. in a small bowl, mix the Cheddar with a small handful of flour and, with the mixer still on low, add the cheese to the dough. Mix only until roughly combined.

Dump out onto a well-floured board and knead lightly, about 6 times. (It’s normal that it will not stick together at first). Roll the dough out to a rectangle 5 x 10 inches. With a sharp, floured knife, cut the dough lengthwise in half, and across in quarters, making 8 rough rectangles. Transfer to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper (I just used my silicone pan liners). Brush the tops with the egg wash, sprinkle with sea salt, and bake for 20-25 minutes, until the tops are browned and the biscuits are cooked through. Serve hot or warm.

Serves 8 in theory, but 4 in reality.

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