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.