Eating Well Cheaply
When I first started this blog, it was because I had just been laid off, and wanted my savings to last as long as possible. So I undertook this project, trying to stretch leftovers in creative new ways. Just reheating was a cop-out. But now I'm re-employed, so it'll have to be a bit different. The cheap meals will more likely be lunches from now on, but I still intend to keep up my old habits. More money for the expensive dinner parties we like to throw!

A note on costs: in general, I don't keep track of how much things like flour, sugar, salt, and so forth cost. When I list costs, it's usually just the items I had to buy specifically for that meal. Not always, though. If I buy a bunch of some type of fruit, and use a couple pieces here, a couple pieces there, I'll try and fill in the per-fruit cost or an estimate. Also, I usually just list costs for the first time I buy something. After that point, it counts as leftovers, since I've paid the price for it for some other dish, and the fact that I get to re-use it is a bonus.

Just Married
Saturday, April 26, 2003
Melissa and I are off on our honeymoon. Check back in mid-May for renewed efforts at eating cheaply, after we splurge in France and Italy.

In the meantime, here are some other blogs I read on a regular basis, to keep you occupied until we return.

Wherein a New Goal is Set
Sunday, April 13, 2003
As the wedding and a crunch at work dovetail (of course!), my lunchtime cooking efforts have been slammed pretty hard and I've done no dinner cooking. Still, I managed to get in some dishes last week.

When I made the polenta terrine last week, I had both some leftover polenta and some leftover filling. So I put the rest of the polenta into a separate loaf pan and let it chill overnight, just like I did for the terrine.

For my lunch on Monday, I grabbed half the little chunk of Val d'Aosta we had left after our cheese fest on Saturday night, a slab of the chilled polenta (which I should point out was filled with a lot of appenzeller, so the nutritious aspects of this lunch can certainly be argued), and the rest of the filling.

The polenta slab I grilled on the George Foreman grill we have, first covering it with slices of the Val d'Aosta. The filling, which was a beautiful and yummy combination of lightly wilted spinach and red onions, I just reheated.

When I lifted the lid on the George Foreman, I quickly realized that I had miscalculated. The cheese slices I had laid on top of the polenta slab had melted and stuck to the seemingly nonstick surface of the grill. A nice thin surface of cooked cheese. I was dreading some horrible cleaning episode, but the cheese film came off in a single peel. Which gave me an idea. I put my grilled polenta slab on the plate, topped it with the red and green topping, and then rolled the cheese film into a little cone which I placed on top for garnish.

Maybe I should take my camera to work. Though that would possibly be even more pretentious than making myself gourmet lunches.

On Tuesday, I reheated a few slices of terrine for myself. Not very exciting, but definitely cheap.

Wednesday was the first time I spent any extra money on lunch. I bought some asparagus, salted almonds, and a tamale at the farmer's market. Microwave steam the asparagus and the tamale, make a little Lincoln Log structure out of the asparagus, lay the tamale on top, and garnish the whole thing with salted almonds. $3.50 for the asparagus and tamales, and $5 for a hefty bag of salted almonds.

And that, sadly, was it. As I went to Togo's for the second time this week, I was kicking myself. I have amply demonstrated to myself that I can cook vastly better food for sometimes a little more but usually less money. It seems like a waste to go out (though even when I'm at my best I try and leave a day to make time to go out with my coworkers; it's a convivial thing to do.)

So I have made a resolution. When we get back from our honeymoon, I am determined to plan out lunches for the week and do shopping in advance. That way I can plan ahead to reuse my leftovers in creative ways. And not have to rely on Togo's and the only marginally better Safeway deli. But until then, I'm going to be scraping by as best as possible.

cradle to cradle
Saturday, April 12, 2003
It may seem odd to review a book about a philosophy of industrial design here on a website devoted to eating well cheaply. But in many ways, the philosophies embodied in Cradle to Cradle are a larger version of my own thoughts about how to eat well cheaply, and how people have done so for years.

Briefly, their philosophy is that the byproducts of industry should feed new products, or be easily digestible by the environment, just as I try and make even the side effects of my cooking experiments be the seeds of new recipes and idea.

While this seems like a good idea, and not so radical, it differs significantly from modern environmental thought. In fact, the authors suggest that the modern environmental movement is trapped in the same deadly spiral as modern industry. Reduce, reuse, recycle, the mantra of the Green movement, merely delays the inevitable death of materials, perpetuates the cradle-to-grave ethos which is the traditional province of industry. The recycling processes themselves introduce new chemicals, often harmful ones, and lead to materials which are inferior to the originals. A more sweeping rendition of the reluctance to reheat leftovers which is one of the driving motivations of my cooking.

Okay, so the metaphor is a bit stretched. Nonetheless, the book is an interesting read. The authors envision a utopia where even industrial factories are boons to the environment, not banes. And they've started to put those dreams into practice. Most visibly with Ford's River Rouge plant. The CEO of Ford gave them carte blanche to convert the factory from a major violator of EPA regulations into a laboratory for their ideas.

And according to them, it worked. One only gets to see one side of the story, but they came up with a lot of really innovative ways to turn it around, and to make it someplace to be proud of. Of course this cost money, but they make a compelling argument that the initial overhead was nothing compared to the longer term savings realized by a more efficient factory, a way to circumvent the costly cleanup the EPA would have mandated.

It's easy to get swept up into the romance of their vision. The waste products of industry feeding natural processes in a healthy way. Office buildings with beautiful natural light and rooftop gardens. Innovations which make one proud to be human.

It's hard to imagine how their isolated experiments scale, however. Converting a factory is impressive, but what about a city? Or a country? At what point do their ideas break against the realities of the world? It's hard to know. But I hope they get the chance to get to that point. Their world sounds much nicer than ours.

Dinner for Two
Tuesday, April 08, 2003
While Melissa and I are off the entertaining map until after the wedding and honeymoon, I still have to scratch the cooking itch more than my lunches will allow me. And I have to try and keep it in a reasonable budget, especially as the wedding gets closer.

So Sunday featured a nice three-course dinner for just the two of us. It was not only a chance for me to cook and a chance for us to spend some time together; it afforded me a chance to try out some ideas I had or explore recent inspirations on my own. And while the menu may not seem cheap, there aren't any real high-cost items in it. Each of the dishes was pretty reasonable, though the total cost was higher than I might have preferred. Still not bad, though. And it's providing lunches for a few days.

The salad course was from art culinaire and featured roasted beets larded with anchovy fillets, served with a horseradish ice cream. The flavor combination worked very nicely, though the art culinaire recipes, aimed at restaurant chefs, don't necessarily work right in my home equipment. In particular, there was such a small amount of ice cream that most of it froze to the bottom and sides of the canister in my machine, leaving it very unscoopable. Probably less of a problem for a commercial ice cream maker, or one designed to make smaller batches, but I think for my own use I'll need to adjust the quantities up a bit. And really, it's biggest impact was on my presentation, so it wasn't the end of the world.

To drink with this, I opted for an unusual route. For me at least. I served a bottle of Moinette, the signature beer of Brasserie Dupont in Belgium. It went quite well, and reminded me that I should pair more food with beer.

The main course

For our main course, I made chicken legs stuffed with rosemary and garlic (there's some name for it when you try and squish it into a ball and cook it that way, but it's escaping me at the moment). I made sure to try and french my bones to make them all pretty. A ways to go, but it's a start. The dish also included a polenta-appenzeller terrine with a spinach-onion filling, and, obviously, asparagus. The little green dots around the edges are rosemary oil, which mostly made it to the table before starting to slide down the slopes of the plates.

To accompany this, I chose a Roero Rosso from the Piedmont. Perhaps our very last bottle of this wonderful wine, but we made sure to get the most out of it.

Finally, our cheese course. I served Fontina Val d'Aosta along with a cheese whose name I don't remember (the woman at the Cheese Board, who knows Melissa, kept offering us samples of cheeses, which we kept adding to our order). What I do remember is that it was a truffled sheep and cow's milk cheese, and it was amazing. We'll be ordering more of that (asking for it by description, perhaps, rather than name).

To go with that I actually served the rest of the red wine. Normally an advocate of white wines with cheeses, these had enough body and were firm enough to do well with the red.

Sunday, April 06, 2003
If the last few weeks have been asparagus weeks, this last week was gravlax week. Gravlax, a salt-cured block of salmon, is a wonderful thing to have sitting around. I took a piece of salmon that I might have served two people for dinner, and it stretched for three different lunches, and I have some left. The intensity of the salt and sugar cure means that you can't eat all that much. Well, I can't, anyway.

The most impressive thing I did was an open face sandwich; I toasted a big slice of sourdough bread, and then laid some gravlax on top of that. I steamed some chopped fennel stems and put those on top of the gravlax, and finally sprinkled some capers on top. It looked gorgeous, a medley of different shades of green on a lush pink surface. And it tasted great too.

While that was the most impressive and the most successful, I also had some leftover mayonnaise from our artichoke dinner last week, so used that for some gravlax-mayonnaise crostini.

And making gravlax is a cinch. Smear a 50-50 mix of salt and sugar all over the salmon (leave the skin on), cover with saran wrap, and put a big heavy weight on top (I use an 8-lb. weight sitting on a plate, which is probably excessive given the very flat gravlax I ended up with). Other flavorings can be used. Alcohol (gin) and dill are pretty standard in its homeland of Sweden, as is cracked pepper.

I flip the gravlax after a couple days, sometimes apply more cure, and then pull it from under the weight after 4 or 5 days. Wrapped, it keeps for a good long time, and probably freezes pretty well. I have a tiny bit left, but I've been trying to figure out what to do with the skin. It's a pretty salty piece, so I may have to soak it a bit. It just seems like a waste to throw it away.

A Midweek Dinner
Thursday, April 03, 2003
My co-workers, until relatively recently, have always assumed that I come home every night and cook us a gourmet meal. If only. Usually I get home so late that it's not worth the effort, and anyway, lunch is usually enough to keep me going through the day (the extra calories I get from the frightening amount of soda I drink).

But last night I got home early, and decided to make dinner for Melissa and me, a prospect she is usually happy about. I swung by the market, and picked up two (mostly) boneless trout and two artichokes, which are of course in season.

Even getting home early though does not mean that dinner is ready to go at 7:00. Or 7:30. Because first, if you're going to have artichokes, you need mayonnaise. And I don't eat jarred mayonnaise, so that means you have to make it. Not a very time-consuming process, admittedly. In fact Melissa pointed out that it takes more time to clean up from it then to make it. I used a splash of verjus, an ingredient I picked up after reading a big article about it in art culinaire (maybe I should start a contest, with a prize for the person who correctly guesses the number of times I mention that magazine in the next couple of months; can you tell I'm enjoying it?). Anyway, then I minced and pureed some conserved lemon (the last of my first batch; the second batch is just now ready to use), and dredged the fish in flour. Put those in the fridge, then start some rice and get the artichokes steaming.

About 15 minutes before the rice finished, I dredged the fish again in a flour-cornmeal mix, and filled their bellies with the conserved lemon paste I made. I pan-fried them just before the rice and artichokes finished, and though the crust was a little on the blackened side, the meat inside the fish was fantastic. I served each of us an artichoke, heaped the rice next to it, and laid the fish on top of the rice. I put the mayonnaise into a bowl between us.

To drink, there was only one choice. Only one type of wine can be paired successfully with artichoke, and that is Grüner Veltliner, Austria's signature grape. We opted for a Salomon, one of my favorite producers, and it was fantastic.

The only new costs for dinner were the trout--$8.39 for two--and the artichokes, which cost $4.40. Verjus is a pricey ingredient, but I only used a splash, and the oil I used for the mayonnaise was corn oil, not exactly very pricey. So a pretty cheap and delicious dinner for the two of us.

Sunday, March 30, 2003
While most of this week consisted of eating leftovers and–I know this will come as a shock– asparagus, I did make a couple of interesting dishes for a company potluck. Thwarted in my efforts to make pâté for the potluck (see Obsession with Food), I decided to take my inspiration from an article about Charlie Trotter in art culinaire and make a vegetable terrine. The original version used tomatoes, but since those have a couple more months before they start appearing in earnest, I used mostly root vegetables.

The gist was to line some small loaf pans with plastic wrap, and then lay in planks of blanched carrots in a single layer. Then perhaps some blanched parsnip planks, then some blanched potato planks, progressing thusly until I had several stacked layers of vegetables. Then I poured in some vegetable stock in which I had dissolved some gelatin, and put the whole thing in the fridge with weights on top. The idea to make a nice pretty aspic which would look beautiful when cooked.

And it did look impressive when I unmolded it, but not exactly how I wanted. See, I had also added roasted beets to the layers. So when I poured in the vegetable stock, it got infused with beet coloring, which then dyed every other vegetable in the mix. Only the carrots were recognizably carrots when I cut it into slices; everything else ranged from dark pink to vibrant red. Sigh.

Since we have a couple of vegetarians in the office, I also made a brioche terrine, this time almost directly from a recipe in art culinaire. This was essentially just a savory bread pudding, with the brioche and spinach-cheese layers covered by a custard before it went into the oven. This was the bigger hit at the potluck, though most acknowledged that the vegetable terrine was very good but looked a little weird. Ah well.

But both dishes were easy to make and fairly cheap, the terrine containing mostly root vegetables, and the brioche in the other terrine being homemade.

I'm also very excited to have a back issue of art culinaire which has a whole article on what to do with stale bread. So I'll probably be making some loaves soon so I can try some things out.