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Economy.Class III: What’s For Dinner?

So I made a list and checked it twice, and it looks like I can feed us pretty well within the iron-clad budget this week. Nothing fancy, no culinary exotica, but certainly not a drab and soul-killing rotation of variations on the same two or three ideas.  [A side note: interestingly, the same sort of dishes that nearly led to mutiny while I was working full time and throwing things in the crock pot appear to be the same sort of things generally proposed as “cheap eats” recipes. As near as I can tell, the crossover is that the proteins that are well-suited to the “throw and go” school also tend to be tough, and therefore fairly inexpensive].

Here, without further ado, is what we’re eating next week on Forest Street:

Saturday

We will be out to dinner, celebrating my father’s 80th birthday. This is a double bonus since it’s not only a “free” night in terms of buying dinner ingredients; we’re eating at one of the only “serious” restaurants in town, which will give me something to write about. I will be making the carrot cake for dessert, and I am deeply touched to have my own humble baking trump the potential offerings of an upscale Pan-European bistro.

Sunday

Pot Roast, Mashed Potatoes and Carrots

Both Chuck and Round roasts are on sale, so I’ll buy two (you’ll see why in a bit) and make them into pot roast using this recipe. I will buy Yukon Gold potatoes, which are not on sale, and which are more expensive than regular old potatoes, but which are, in my personal opinion, so good that they are worth the cost. Additionally, since they start out with such a nice flavor on their own, they require much less in the way of butter and other additions, so they may really be thriftier in the end, in addition to being delicious.

Monday

Pea Soup and Homemade Bread

I’ll make this pea soup, but instead of the usual ham I’ll use thin slices of smoked sausage, which is on sale. Pea soup is one of those dishes where magic is clearly involved – a bunch of things are put in a pot and simmered, and in a few hours there is a dense, flavorful, comforting meal. Served with a slice of warm homemade challah or oatmeal bread with sweet butter, I’m betting this won;t even taste remotely like “thrift.”

Tuesday

West Indian Crispy Pork Bits, Rice and Pureed Butternut Squash with Ginger

The pork recipe is Mark Bittman’s, and calls for pork shoulder. Pork shoulder is on sale, winter squash is always relatively inexpensive and I always have rice and all of the necessary spices.

Wednesday

Beef Pot Pie and Green Salad

Remember the extra pot roast? Tonight it gets trimmed of anything yucky, cut into small pieces and incorporated into my version of pot pie. I may or may not make my own crust; I have a great and allegedly “foolproof” Dorie Greenspan recipe for pie crust, but I still have a deep, abiding and irrational fear of failure in the pie crust department. We’ll see….

Thursday

Crunchy Curried Chicken Breasts, Rice Pilaf and Citrus Salad

Chicken breasts are on sale, and I have what seems like a gross of oranges on hand already as the result of last week’s buy-one-get-one-free deal. The chicken dish is another Bittman recipe which basically involves adding curry powder to breading mixture, coating chicken and frying.

Friday

Baked Pastina Casserole, Homemade Bread and Green Salad

This recipe is Giada’s, and looks cheap, filling and cute in a teeny-tiny pasta sort of way.

Economy.Class II: A Rant, Of Sorts

I have embarked on the project of feeding my family interesting, relatively healthy, definitely tasty food without straying from our Recession Budget. Since I’m working from home again these days, convenience/ease is not a huge issue; I am, after all, making all of our bread, our cookies and (as soon as I find a decent recipe) the granola bars that my son consumes by the gross.

The problem is finding new things to make that fit the budget without making me feel like I am employed as the mess cook at a federal penitentiary. While I sometimes wish to make Mr. Annie and (particularly) Sam feel a bit penitent, I would never choose to punish them with dinner. I find that a little passive-aggressiveness with a little bellowing thrown in for variety does the trick with great success.

First I looked through my own recipe collection, which has many good “cheap eats” choices; split pea soup, mac and cheese, spaghetti, dishes made with cuts of meat that are tough and/or unloved like chicken thighs and bottom round steak. I do not, however, want to be consigned to making the same 10 dishes in a cycle until we win the lottery. (If we did win the lottery, a prospect made unlikely by the fact that we don’t actually buy lottery tickets, I would immediately book tickets to Italy to eat in restaurants, anyway). Next, I looked for recipes on-line, beginning with sites having to do with frugal living and eating inexpensively. With few exceptions, these recipes appear to have been selected and approved by the kitchen staff of the earlier-referenced penitentiary. Not much variety, not much spice, lots of variations on meatloaf and tuna noodle casserole using inexpensive extenders like breadcrumbs and canned soup.

In desperation, I turned to my new issue of “Bon Appetit.” I knew it might be a little like looking at “Vogue” when one has a $100.00 clothing budget, but I thought it would at least inspire me. Recipe #1 for “Wok-fried Edamame with Garlic and Chives” sounded great, but required the purchase of oyster sauce, which I do not routinely use and would not, reliably, use often. Recipe #2 was for lamb which is expensive, and we don’t eat it. recipe #3 was for duck which is expensive and no one but me eats it (and even if they might try it, they sure as hell wouldn’t try it with bacon-date puree). Recipe #4 was for salmon which is expensive, and the recipe called for fresh thyme and fresh rosemary which, while lovely, would set me back $5.00 all by themselves at this time of year.

Undaunted, I pressed on. Recipe #6 – Conch Fritters. Oh, please. Recipe #7, lamb, recipe #8 clams (fresh), recipe #9 salmon, and recipe #10 Macaroni and Cheese with Caramelized Shallots which sounds really nice, but involves goat cheese which is despised by Mr. Annie. More recipes required a variety of foods from the un-cheap department (much like the un-dead only less popular with the media at the moment) including chantarelle mushrooms, something called “speck,” and Vin Santo. I am still a card-carrying foodie, I would seriously love to get down with some chantarelles and speck, but I can’t buy ingredients the individual cost of which is equal to 10% of my budget for the week.

I will not make tuna noodle casserole. I will not buy $2.50 packages of out-of-season herbs. I will continue to scour the earth for recipes that fit my budget, appeal to my gentleman eaters, and give me something to live for in the kitchen. I am thinking that perhaps Indian and Mexican cuisine may have some good options, and I know there are a lot of great, simple Italian dishes that require little more than pasta, a can of tomatoes, garlic and cheese.

Tomorrow I’ll let you know what I found.

Economy. Class.

2008-recession

Today it became official. For those lacking a keen grasp of the obvious, the feds have issued a decree that we have formally entered A Recession. (This is not to be confused with a recessional,  which is the part of the wedding when one is rather closer to being able to go to the bathroom, remove ones stiletto heels, or stop pretending not to be sending and receiving text messages). For those of us living in Michigan, the land where the Big Three teeters on the brink, and we top the nation in home foreclosures and unemployment, this is really not news; we have been receding for some time.

Money is tight on Forest Street, too. Nothing dire, although a plumbing emergency just wiped out much of the Christmas savings. We are safe and warm and clothed, we have weekends in Cleveland rather than weeks in Mexico, one (cheap) meal out a week instead of four, library books instead of book store books, and Netflix instead of first-run movies in the theater. In the cooking department, some rigorous stewardship of resources is required. I have always worked my menus based on what was on sale, and rarely buy expensive proteins, but when cash is flowing with relative freedom, I can buy the best extra virgin olive oil, the “good” vanilla and Caillebaut chocolate from Williams-Sonoma, and a little creme fraiche to complete a recipe. I can, without thinking about it, buy the organic vegetables, the imported jam and the imported, steel-cut oatmeal. Often, during periods of relative economic bliss, I can start out planning a mostly sensible menu, become obsessed with a recipe for, say, a salad with pine nuts, jicama and gold leaf, and I can say to myself “go ahead.”

The recipes I favor, of course, although I am not exactly into molecular gastronomy or cooking the Julia Childs canon, tend to involve exotic ingredients, and lots of them. These ingredients are, axiomatically, never on sale. Anywhere. I have yet to see a sale (in my Midwestern grocery emporium) involving Arborio rice, fresh Tarragon, French cheese, Greek yogurt or truffle oil (okay, I have yet to see any truffle oil). Sale prices exist only for food purchased by normal folks, like ground beef, canned soup and Corn Pops. I buy those things, too, but it’s difficult to come up with the ingredients for a recipe from “Bon Appetit” or a decent cookbook without buying at least one non-sale priced, budget busting item of culinary exotica. I understand that there are places in this country where meat approaching it’s “use by” date is deeply discounted, and I would be thrilled to pick up a package of short ribs or a pork shoulder on the cheap in exchange for using it (or freezing it) quickly, but I have never seen that practice in my neck of the woods.

So, in these lean times, what’s a cook to do? The most important part of the answer is that it’s a damned good thing that I can cook, and that I actually like to cook. It’s a challenge to confit duck legs, or make pasta from scratch, but it’s also a good game to figure out how to make something interesting and satisfying using what fits in a categorically inflexible food budget.Of course, I must also work around what these people (my family, that is) will actually eat, spicy for my boys, not-spicy for my parents, meaty for Mr. Annie, not-so-meaty for me, and indentifiable-ingredient-oriented for Sam.

This week, I got good deals on both ground beef and pork loin, and loaded up on sale-priced russet potatoes and broccoli. The result is that we had meatloaf and mashed potatoes, and half of the ground beef was turned into meatballs which will be served with spaghetti and homemade marinara. The pork loin was cut in half; 50% is becoming a Thai version of fried rice, and the remainder will become pulled-pork sandwiches. A homemade broccoli-cheese sauce topped baked potatoes for one “veggie” night, and we’ll have macaroni and cheese for another. I’m also making cookies and bread like a mad fiend.

I’ll get better at this; I’ll start to find recipes in my own collection and in the interworld that make the most out of the cheapest. I still have a turkey carcass just waiting to become soup, and a strong will to tame the cheapest, toughest meats with careful cooking, and get maximum mileage out of my remaining treasures such as truffle oil, bottarga and fleur de sel. You may get sick of hearing about this, but hey, if you were coming around looking for cutting edge recipes and mouth-watering photographs…well, you are probably not even reading this. Stick with me, and we’ll navigate this recession thing – one great dinner at a time.

Like Living Inside a Brussel Sprout…

brussels-sprouts

Thanksgiving dinner was good, if I do say so myself.  The highlight was stuffing that was so supremely delicious that Mr. Annie told me that if I ever made it another way, he would divorce me. An odd endorsement, but a resounding one nonetheless. The company was good, the mood relaxed, and the cleaning up done by someone else. Heaven.

The only flaw in this otherwise idyllic holiday scenario were the Brussels sprouts. I had bits and bobs and recipes in my mind, and decided that I could just “wing it.” I remembered reading that boiling them would leave them sulphurous and repulsive, that bacon was a good addition, and that caramelizing was a good way to bring out the vegetable’s inherent sweetness. I also had a vague memory of eating Brussels sprouts I really enjoyed in a restaurant in Boston about 20 years ago. I think they were roasted. I don’t actually like Brussel sprouts; I just thought we needed a green veg and they seemed more interesting than green beans and more sort of authentically Early Americanesque.

I started out dicing and frying the bacon, then trimming the sprouts. removing the bacon, and adding sprouts to pan. My intention was to cook them low and slow until they were beautifully caramelized, then add the crispy bacon pieces at the last minute before serving. Alas, they cooked and cooked and stayed hard as a rock. Desperate, with 45 minutes left, I added broth and simmered them until they were, well, mushy. I served them, way past al dente, tossed with the bacon. Taste: 8, Texture: 2. It’s impossible to tell whether they were left largely uneaten because they were particularly unappetizing as I had made them, or generally unappetizing because no one likes Brussels sprouts.

Today we launched into leftovers. We all ate the things we loved best: I am inexorably drawn to sweet potatoes and stuffing, Mr. Annie likes everything but the cranberry stuff, and Sam likes nothing but mashed potatoes (hot) and turkey (cold). No one was eating the Brussels sprouts. I hated to waste them, so I came up with the wizard idea of Brussels Sprout Bacon Soup. I pureed the sprouts and bacon, mixed in broth and about a cup of half & half I had left over from making the pumpkin pie. It was okay, but no one else ate it, either. I had a cup for dinner out of a sense of guilt. I left it simmering in the vain, vain, hope that someone would have a conversion and try some.

About an hour ago, Mr. Annie said that he wasn’t feeling very well, and had lost his appetite. He suggested, in an off-hand sort of way that it might because the house smelled like we were “living inside a Brussels sprout.”  That being clarified, the pot went onto the porch, the windows were opened, and I gave up on the sprouts. Next year, we’re having a salad.

Low-key Tur-key

dscf2238

A while back I heard a woman interviewed about a project in which participants went as far back in the process of “getting” food as they possibly could – growing their own rice, growing and grinding wheat for flour, raising, slaughtering and butchering animals and growing and harvesting fruits and vegetables. She was not proposing this as a lifestyle; the purpose of the project was to “get in touch” with where our food really comes from. Last Thanksgiving, while I did not create a cranberry bog in the yard or raise a turkey and wring it’s neck (I didn’t even pluck it) I did make everything that was served, and I made everything “the hard way.” The reasons for this were a combination of competitive show-offery (my ringtone is Ethel Merman singing “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better”), a new found obsession with cooking, and my longstanding need to do everything the hardest possible way because it feels immoral to me if things come too easily (I would have made a great Puritan, actually).

This year, I am mellower, more comfortable with the fact that I can cook just about anything, and not particularly concerned about dazzling the world with my culinary skills. All through October and November I scanned articles and blog posts about new ways to cook turkey, cutting-edge side dishes and plans for vegetarian, Southern, and Asian-influenced feasts. In the end, I filed away anything that sounded interesting and decided that I wanted to cook the dishes my family has always enjoyed, cook them well, and spendthe rest of the holiday enjoying the people I love instead of wearing myself to a frazzle shaving 800 fennel bulbs or roasting my own Anaheim chiles and getting to Thanksgiving dinner bitchy, exhausted and focused on endurance until naptime rather than pleasure.

dscf2235

My mom is feeling well enough to make the turkey this year, and it makes sense to have her cook it at her house because we’re eating there. I fought back my initial panic – would she really brine it? would it be really as good as if I brined it and massaged it with Italian olive oil and stuffed it with herbs? – and reminded myself that she is highly competent, and was cooking fabulous meals before I was born. Furthermore, if it is not perfect, so what? Just. so. what? She also bought some kind of cranberry sauce that looked interesting to her (I think from Williams Sonoma) so I will not be making that, either. It will come out of a jar, and it will be just fine.

I am making everything else, but I’ve set the bar pretty low. Today I’m making whipped sweet potatoes with butter and brown sugar, mashed potatoes with butter and cream, and a pumpkin and a pecan pie. I am not using a recipe for anything except the pecan pie (because I can’t remember how to make one) and I am not making anything the least bit edgy. I will make garlic mashed potatoes and sweet potato wedges with cayenne pepper another time; tomorrow is just about what tastes good and pleases people. Tomorrow I’ll make an apple pie (we like pie), stuffing, and Brussel sprouts. The stuffing recipe is a slight variation on our standard bread stuffing – James Beard’s by way of Mark Bittman, and I’ll play with the Brussel sprouts, probably caramelizing them in bacon grease and serving them with tiny, crispy bits of bacon. Good slab bacon. Maybe I’ll make rolls, but probably not; we’re already approaching Def-Con 5 in the starch department. I’ll make pan gravy, and we’ll have a really, really great dinner with family and neighbors, a visiting baby for good measure, and a hungry dog under the table.

If things change next year, who knows? If my mom can’t handle brining an 18 pound turkey, I’ll do it. If I get obsessed with a variation on the sweet potatoes, I’ll try something new. Right now, this year, it feels good to be hanging out with my boys watching movies and getting up occasionally to take something out of the oven or off a boil. I suspect it will feel just as good tomorrow to get to my parents’ house relaxed, hungry, and proud of what I made but not expecting a standing ovation or photographers from “Food & Wine.” Maybe I’m growing up.

I hope you all find yourselves with much to be grateful for, surrounded by people you love, and lifting a glass to family and friends separated from you by distance or mortality.

Mixed Reviews for Rocco & A Great Quick Meal

I am still cooking from Rocco DiSpirito’s cookbook Flavor, although this will be the last night of the adventure for a while. We loved the Aromatic Cauliflower Soup, but the Bucatini with Summer Vegetables & A Tomato-Anise Broth was a complete bust. The former highlighted DiSpirito’s sour-salty-sweet-bitter flavor combination theory at it’s best; the latter was just plain weird and unpleasant. Psychologically, it was the equivalent of biting into one of those faux foods made to look like something other than what it is – meatloaf that look like a cupcake with mashed potato frosting, or candy that looks like sushi.

Tonight was my last night with Rocco, and I am pleased to say that he ends up with a 75% success rate in these parts. I made his Quick Miso Chicken, which gives a great hit of flavor with ridiculously little effort, and his Soubise, which is really nothing but a boatload of butter and onions cooked until they are sweet and silky. Cous cous was a great foil, and I would happily eat just the Soubise and cous cous as a meal…probably tomorrow for lunch. The chicken, by the way, was a favorite with fans of all ages and could easily be pounded and combined with the marinade and frozen until you need a quick dinner that doesn’t taste like a quick dinner. Thaw it in the refrigerator during the day, and in about 10 minutes you could have the chicken cooked and some cous cous made…add a salad and you’re a hero of modern day kitchen battle. (P.S. I have noticed that many of my pictures look the same – in my defense, I am not a food stylist, I cook a lot of similar-looking chicken dishes, and I can’t find the batteries for the Fuji so I am taking pictures with my phone…bear with me…).

quick-miso-chicken

Quick Miso Chicken

  1. 4 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves, about 6 ounces each
  2. 2 tablespoons medium-colored miso
  3. 2 tablespoons orange marmalade
  4. salt and ground pepper to taste
  5. 1 tablespoon vegetable, canola or corn oil

Place chicken breasts between 2 sheets of plastic wrap or waxed paper and pound thin with a mallet.

in a small bowl, whisk together miso and marmalade. Sprinkle chicken breasts lightly with salt and pepper and brush all over with marinade. Let stand 30 minutes. (I put the pounded chicken and marinade in a plastic zip-top bag and left it in the fridge for several hours while I did other things. I also doubled the marinade and put half in a separate bowl for later basting).

Warm a nonstick saute pan with the oil over medium-high heat. When hot, add the chicken. Cook on first side 3 minutes. Flip. Baste tops with any remaining marinade. (Kindly do NOT use marinade that the raw chicken has been sitting in, or you may not live to see my next post). Cook on second side 3 minutes or until meat is no longer pink. Flip, cook 15 seconds and transfer to plate.

Onion Soubise

  1. 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  2. 1 pound sweet (such as Vidalia or Maui) or spring onions, peeled and thinly sliced
  3. Salt to taste
  4. 1 tablespoon chopped, fresh chives (I completely and totally forgot to buy these; besides, I wouldn’t have wanted to add calories from the chives on top of all that butter)
  5. Ground pepper to taste

In a wide saute pan or saucepan over low heat, melt butter. Add onions, season with salt and stir to coat with butter. Cover pan and, stirring occasionally, cook until softened, 20-25 minutes. Uncover and cook just until most of the liquid has evaporated. Look for the viscous texture of a marmalade. Stir in chives (or don’t) and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Rocco DiSpirito’s Aromatic Cauliflower Soup

cauliflower

As I’ve mentioned, I am cooking most of this week from Rocco Dispirito’s cookbook entitled Flavor. Last night was my first Rocco-curian experience, and while it started out pretty…Roccy…the meal ended up a smashing success.

The main premise behind Flavor is that most dishes worth eating have elements of sour, salty, sweet and bitter. Dispirito goes to some lengths to teach the home cook which flavors come from which sources, and to identify in his recipes which ingredients provide which kind of taste. Although many of the dishes in the cookbook will never be made in my kitchen for a variety of reasons (Rocco is a much bigger seafood fan than either member of my audience), the “Aromatic Cauliflower Soup” looked like a relatively healthy, interesting twist on regular cream of vegetable soup (the kind where you cook the vegetable with onions and seasoning and broth, then puree it and add cream).

There were two issues right off the bat: in the photograph in Flavor, the soup has enough body to support a picturesque circular drizzle of basil oil and toasted pine nuts; mine was so thin that the additions sunk to the bottom. That has a great deal to do with the size of the cauliflower one uses, and while I don’t think it affected the flavor, it certainly was not quite as lovely as I had expected.

Second, if you are a competent cook and follow Rocco’s instructions in order, it will take you twice as long as necessary to make this soup start to finish. I see no reason not to multi-task and make the sugar-basil oil and the toasted flavored pine nuts during the periods when the cauliflower and onions are doing their thing on another burner. I didn’t strain the soup, either, but I did take the step of straining the basil-simple syrup mixture. Although it might be interesting if the basil pieces were left in…maybe next time.

My final caution is that, if one is accustomed to the standard method of making cream soup from vegetables, one may be as horrified as I was after making the cauliflower base for this recipe, tasting it, finding out that it basically has no flavor, seasoning the hell out of it tasting it again, giving up and deciding I would put it all together and then throw it out and order pizza. DO NOT GIVE UP. There is some kind of alchemy, quite probably having to do with DiSpirito’s flavor theory, that makes the sum of the parts a glorious thing in this recipe. Everybody loved it, even the kid, and it was all eaten so fast that there is no photographic evidence that the meal ever existed.

Aromatic Cauliflower Soup

(From Rocco DiSprito’s Flavor)

  1. 3 tablespoons plus 1/4 cup corn or vegetable oil (do not use olive oil)
  2. 1 large Vidalia onion peeled and chopped
  3. Salt and pepper to taste
  4. 2 quarts cauliflower florets (from about 1 large head)
  5. 1/4 cup sugar
  6. 3 cups fresh basil leaves
  7. 1/2 cup pine nuts
  8. 2 tablespoons ground coriander

Warm 3 tablespoons of the oil in a large soup pot over low heat. Add the onion, season with salt and pepper, cover pan and sweat onion for 10 minutes. Add the cauliflower, season, and stir well to coat. Increase the heat to medium and cook another 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add 1 quart water and increase heat to high. When water reaches a boil, immediately reduce heat so that soup simmers. Simmer 20 minutes or until cauliflower is completely tender. Working in batches, transfer soup to a blender and puree until smooth. (I just used an immersion blender in the pot). Pour the soup through a wide mesh strainer into a clean pot. (Or do as I did, and just leave it where it is).

While soup simmers, make a simple syrup out by heating sugar with 1/4 cup water until sugar is dissolved. Transfer syrup to a blender.

Bring a small pan of salted water to a boil. Submerge thge basil leaves and boil for three minutes. Drain basil in a colander and immediately run colander under tap water until leaves are cool. place basil in blender with sugar syrup and puree for 2 minutes. strain, sprinkle with salt and set aside.

Heat the remaining 1/4 cup corn oil in a shallow pan over medium-low heat. Add the pine nuts and cook, shaking the pan frequently until nuts turn golden brown, about 1 minute. Place pine nuts on a plate lined with paper towels to drain. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and coriander. Whisk 2 tablespoons of the pine nut-flavored cooking oil into the basil syrup.

To serve, ladle the hot soup into bowls. Drizzle a few spoons of basil syrup around the perimeter and pile some pine nuts on the surface of each bowl of soup. Serve hot.

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