Help me, FD

Dear Faye Delicious,
I can’t shop for food. I have the good intentions of a pack of girlscouts trying to get a badge–sometimes I even make it to the grocery store. But as soon I have the basket, I sweat and I don’t breathe well. I leave the store with a pack of candy cigarettes, a pint of Chunky Monkey and a liter of Diet Coke.
Signed, Can’t Cook

Dear CC,
we gotta get you off those cigarettes. Make a list for yourself. Put something that you really want right at the top. Try chocolate. Forget shopping for the week; shop for a meal. Open up any of your cookbooks, and pick something really easy. (I suggest Jacques Pepin–”Jacques’s Sauted Chicken Maison” from Julia and Jacques, Cooking at Home. If you need a cookbook, you can get this one on ebay for less than $6.00) Write down all the ingredients, including the chocolate and bring it all back home. (Skip boning the chicken and buy it in parts already skinned). Brown the chicken in a little olive oil, saute an onion with a few whole mushrooms and baby carrots (no cutting) throw in some whole cloves of garlic, a leek and some white wine, get some rice going on the side, and that’s it. Pour some of the wine into a glass, slice up a loaf of fabulous French bread and have somebody else make the salad. You’ll feel so good you’ll be running to the store, ready for more.

The look

The night before last I boiled 6 eggs when I was making dinner, just because they give me one more game piece to play with. It takes about 32 seconds to drop the eggs into a pot of cold, covered water and turn on a flame. (bring them to a boil, then turn off the heat and leave them in there for 10 minutes). And Voila–I have cooked food in the fridge. You know those pictures of women on the front of old cookbooks, all satisfied with themselves, with that look of “I have my kitchen act together?” These are the kinds of things those women did. I am not saying we should go back to wearing high heels when we cook and feeling loved when Daddy brought home TV dinners on a Saturday night, I am just saying they had something going on with the extra boiled eggs.
If the child won’t eat what you’re making–offer boiled eggs with a side of celery and carrot sticks and whole wheat toast.
Chop them up for a salsa verde to serve with chicken.
Mash them for an egg salad with your own mayo and a tiny bit of curry powder.
Or slice them up for a nicoise salad. Get a little piece of fresh tuna (look the fish monger right in the eyes and tell him you have heard the news that some people are trying to pass off other fish as tuna; if he starts to sweat, find yourself another fish monger). Season it with a little salt on both sides, and rub it with the best olive oil you have. Put another drop of olive oil in a heavy pan, and when the pan is hot, sear the fish without touching it, until it starts to go a paler color along the bottom edges. Flip and sear the other side. I like it medium rare. Remove from the pan.
Braise a few string beans, removing only the end that was attached to the plant. You want a little resistance when you bite into them, but not alot. Season them well with olive oil, pepper, and salt. Cut up a gorgeous ripe tomato and season it the same. Pick out your favorite black olives (it would be good to try nicoise here), and I like a little pile of boiled potatoes, seasoned with olive oil and salt as you did the rest. Arrange everything in its own little pile on a plate, and serve it with a one of the new bag-in-a-box wines, no shoes and a baguette.

How do you really feel about fresh?

Do you ever walk past a perfectly innocent pile of corn and feel just a tiny bit of anger/resentment. Maybe even an “I SEE you! And I KNOW you’re all FRESH and SASSY. I have NO TIME!” went through your head. This is normal.
Fresh vegetables are everywhere right now. Just how many times are you supposed to be able to think of something brand new and exciting to whip up with all those peppers, eggplants, zucchini and tomatoes, not to mention the corn.
I’m not saying I don’t love a little bit of “ooh, baby, what was that?!!, but nothing moves me like deep down soul stirring classics, and I see no problem with serving a good corn chowder every Monday night.

This will use up at least five ears of corn you may have felt pressured to buy after all.

5 ears of fresh corn
Half a small onion
1 leek, rinsed of sand
1 carrot
2 inside stalks of celery
olive oil and butter for sauteing
salt and pepper
a few sprigs of fresh thyme
1 tablespoon of chopped parsley
2 cups vegetable or chicken stock
1/4 cup cream

Slice the corn off the cob. Dice the onion, leek, carrot, and celery finely. Saute all of diced vegetables in a little olive oil and butter with a pinch of salt enough to make it delicious, and a grind of freshly ground black pepper. Cook until they are absolutely soft, about fifteen minutes, over a low flame. Add the corn with a few sprigs of fresh thyme and the parsley. Cook for another minute. Remove half of what you have in the pan and puree with a hand held blender. Add 1 cup of stock and 1/4 cup of cream. Taste for salt and pepper. Heat very gently. (If you love potato, you can dice up a yukon peeled potato as well in the beginning, and saute along with the other vegetables. Be sure to do a small dice.) This is delicious with chicken and sausage skewers that have a few onion wedges in between and a platter of roasted red peppers on the side.

How do you potato?

I am in the same fashion valley that I have been in since the 8th grade.
A potato has more ways of dressing up than I could ever hope for; it’s like having the Cher doll and all the outfits. You could go Classic American with chopped egg and mayo, a little pickle, onion and celery, Evening Wear Spanish with green olive, red pepper, garlic, onion and parsley, or a German Day Suit, with dill, onion and vinegar. You could mix it up with a garden party theme–fried potatoes with bacon, fresh peas and fried scallions, or roast them and toss with tiny fresh mozarella balls, grape tomatoes and fresh basil. If you just can’t decide and too many choices start blocking the fashion/food highways go for the straight and narrow. There is nothing I love better than Tuscan–warm potato salad dressed with fried garlic and finished with a squeeze of fresh lemon. Or knock their skins off and go nearly naked–creamy homeade mayonnaise, and nothing else.

Tropical Storm Fay

They forgot the “e”, but I can take a hint. I know I’m hot and moody, but you know all is forgiven when you know how to cook. As a child I baked to ensure my place in the family. And I would bet that more than once my marriage has survived because my husband would struggle thinking about life without my cooking. I’m not proud–sometimes it comes down to making it through a few critical minutes of indecision–quiet or that meat sauce full of love from the deep down depths of my heart and good enough to move mountains and men. So far it’s always been the meat sauce.
In the summer–same technique–different menu. Pesto with basil that has been grown in the earth finished with the tiniest bit of heavy cream, over pasta that you persuade to transform from a pile of flour into silk. On the side a warm string bean salad with slivers of garlic, and the tiniest, ripest tomatoes. And for dessert a peach crisp, heavy with the sweet scent of sunny days, sultry nights, and a little bit of sugar. To make the crisp, slice about 8 peaches. Smell them first to be sure they are ready. Toss them with less than half a cup of granulated sugar and set them in a baking dish to make a full layer. In a medium bowl, rub together 1 stick of cold, unsalted butter cut into tiny pieces, 1 cup of brown sugar, and 1 cup of all purpose flour. If cinnamon moves you, give a tiny shake to the flour before you add it to the mix. Bake at 400 degrees until the topping is golden brown.

Put your dancing shoes on

Let’s not pretend that being on a budget is just as much fun as no budget. Filling up old water bottles from the tap and thinking up 10 new ways to make dinner from a bag of cornmeal and a can of beans is good for a laugh for about as long as it takes to start your third dinner of a bag of cornmeal and a can of beans. If you are on a budget for a reason like, there is no other option, then there is only one way forward. Dancing before dinner doesn’t cost you one red cent, and to make it even better, it only costs one cent short of a dollar to buy a new song to dance to.
Once you have worked up a sweat and life feels good again, get out the cornmeal. Make a polenta using one part cornmeal to 3 parts water. You want to bring the water to a boil, add enough salt to make it taste seasoned, and then in a thin stream, as if you were making a vinaigrette, start adding the cornmeal. Whisk constantly, until it’s all in. Turn the heat down to a simmer and switch to a wooden spoon. Now here’s the thing about cornmeal. For about a dollar more, you can buy the best and you should. It will take longer to cook and it’s the difference between strawberry shortcake flavored cheap ice cream and eating ripe red strawberries that you picked on a hot day, layered between the top and bottom of a biscuit fresh from the oven with a little heavy cream whipped just enough to thicken it.
When the cornmeal starts to pull away from the sides of the pan, it’s ready. Turn off the heat. No more stirring. Now you are going to fold in about 3 tablespoons of unsalted butter, salt to taste, and a small handful of parmesan. Taste for salt and pepper. Dampen a sheet pan with water, just so that it’s damp, not wet, and then pour the polenta onto the sheet to cool. Meanwhile, cut a zucchini, an eggplant, a red pepper, and a red onion into a small dice. Start with a heavy frying pan (it’s cheaper than getting the oven on and roasting everything). Drizzle the pan with olive oil and then add 2 cloves of garlic that have been cut in half. Add the onion and cook over a medium heat, adding salt and a sprig of rosemary until completely softened and delicious (about 15 minutes). Cook everything else in batches, in the same pan, but only one ingredient at a time. When it’s all done, combine everything, give it a dribble of balsamic, a squeeze of fresh lemon and another bit of olive oil. Taste for salt and pepper. Add a little of whatever fresh herbs you have in your garden, your neighbors garden, or that you saved from the garnish at your last dinner party. If you like it spicey, you can add a few red pepper flakes or one whole pepperoncino to the pan when you are sauting the onion. Black olives, green olives, salted capers (that have been rinsed and dried), are all good in this as well.

One heck of a song to forget the budget blues and start cooking dinner with: I Wish, by Mr. Stevie Wonder.

People at the door

One of my friends just wrote and told me that she has 4 people coming for 9 days. This could be a challenge to sticking to a budget.
A. If you are in the planning stages of redecorating you could take a sure bet route to minimize long stays. I didn’t knock all doors but bathroom doors down in my apartment for nothing. B. Get rid of that money guzzling giant of a coolbox and switch to a college size fridge–they’re on sale now for back to school. Nobody could expect you to be anything more than a designated snack station. C. Start making menus.

1. Roast a turkey breast set over a bunch of rosemary, a few heads of garlic, quartered onions, tossed with olive oil, salt and a splash of white wine. Baste with olive oil at the start, season well with kosher salt, and then drizzle every 20 minutes wine or water until cooked through (sear first then roast at 375 degrees). Great for leftovers sandwiches.

Warm Bread and Tomato Salad with garlic

String beans with garlic, shallots, small black olives and lemon

2. Veal shin with white wine, thyme and garlic (same technique as above, but it cooks longer)

Roast potatoes

Peas with pancetta and onion

3. Your favorite sausages

corn on the cob smeared with a garlic lemon mayo

tomato salad

lentil salad with wilted spinach and balsamic dressing

4. Salad of chicken breast, arugula, parmesan shavings and toasted pine nuts or walnuts, lemon, and olive oil
Pasta with pan roasted tomatoes, garlic and fried basil

5. Homemade Corn Chowder
Turkey or Lamb meatballs on skewers
Grilled Bread
Broccoli Rabe with garlic

6. Roast pork sandwiches with caramelized onions and homemade mayo
waldorf salad

7. Spaghetti with Mussels, white wine and garlic
salad of green beans, peas, fried parsley and homemade croutons
white beans with garlic and garden tomatoes

8. Tortillas with cheddar and jalapeno (fold in half and heat up in the frying pan)
Flank steaks with roasted peppers and onions
Corn on the cob with lime cilantro butter

9. Polenta with meat sauce
shredded carrot salad with balsamic, lemon, garlic, pignoli and raisins
roasted zucchini with red pepper flakes and mint

Don’t forget that FAYEFOOD (the cookbook) has loads of menus with all the recipes for just this kind of situation

Superstar food on a budget

You shouldn’t really be shopping at Whole Foods when you are trying to save, unless you are a Superstar who just fired her staff and wants to try to cook her own veggie burgers, but isn’t ready for flourescent lighting. I go only when I need to buy the now cheap and chic but what started out as standard rations of the Roman legions. I love farro.
Nobody checks my cash supply to get in; I walk through those double doors like anybody else, help myself to a couple of bites of organic muffin samples and soft cheese and then make a bee line for the grains. I resist the island fruits and the maple syrup and the salad bar, all singing to me in their full-of-the-good-life-tones; the cost of any combination could threaten my life as an independent. Don’t get the spelt–spelt is not farro, but a mere mushy cousin. If there is any confusion I whip out my classy Latin and ask for triticum dicoccum. Exit.
At Trader Joe’s, a few blocks away–still wearing my big hat and Jackie O’s just because I can–I get my tin of plum tomates, fresh garlic, olive oil (I am dying a slow death without my La Macchia–but a budget is a bugdet) fresh basil and tiny balls of fresh mozzarella. At home (staffless) I pick over the farro (1/2 pound) for any weird foreign objects, give it a good rinse with cold water, and then soak it overnight in the fridge. Rinse again and in new water with a good spill of olive oil, salt to make the water taste seasoned, a clove of garlic and a sprig of thyme, bring it to a simmer for about a half hour until slightly chewy and softened. Drain well. In a heavy saute pan, drizzle some olive oil and add three to four slivered cloves of fresh garlic and eight to ten fresh basil leaves. When the leaves are dark green and the garlic a little golden, turn off the heat and add a 1/4 teaspoon of red pepper flakes or one whole pepperoncino. Squish the tomatoes with your hand and add to the oil. Turn the flame on, season with salt and simmer for five minutes. Combine with the farro. Taste for salt. Toss the mozzarella balls with a little olive oil and a teeny bit of raw minced garlic and freshly ground black pepper, and add those as well. Serve with shavings of Grana Padano (or Parmagiano Reggiano of you have been saving). Serve with a pickled zucchini salad, a bowl of black olives and red wine. All of a sudden, a poor man’s grain is no longer just a poor man’s grain.

Olympic Nuts

Day 2 of my cutting back marathon. I am not new at this. I grew up feeling flush when my mother cut the Carnation Powdered Instant with a 50% pour of fresh milk; I have hidden talents in the frugal department.
Let’s say it’s lover appreciation day (I call mine husband) and you want to make something special for the two of you, but steaks are out of the question. Grind up 1 cup of pignoli, 1 cup of walnuts and 3 cloves of garlic. If you have a large food processor, smash and mince the garlic first to make it uniform. Heat up a few tablespoons of olive oil and saute over a medium heat until a darker green but not browned, 2 tablespoons of fresh oregano. Add the nut mixture and continue to saute, stirring nearly constantly. Don’t ever leave it. When the smell of toasted nuts and garlic is getting the blood to pump through your veins just that much faster, let them go for one more minute. Turn off the flame and season with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. Zest a lemon and add just enough to taste. You are looking less for the taste of lemon and more for popping up the flavors of what you already have in the bowl.
Hook up a pot of boiling water with salt to make it delicious. When it is at a rolling boil, add about 9 ounces of orchiette or penne. Cook until al dente. Drain, reserving a few tablespoons of the cooking water. Combine with the nut mixture and add a drizzle of your best olive oil or a few tablespoons of unsalted, room temperature butter. Taste again for salt and pepper, and if it needs it, add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and a tiny bit of finely minced flat leaf parsely. Serve with a side of pan roasted ripe tomatoes, a simple arugula and parmesan salad and chilled white crispy wine.
It will take you all the way to the finish line.

Eat Cheap

If it were feeling left out of the loop before, my credit card is in full demand and feeling really good right now. It is no longer living a dull, dark life next to the scissors in the junk drawer, and instead is the life of the party. It feels the love at the grocery store, at the back to school store, and even enjoys a quick swipe through the metrocard machines.
Mama has got to cut back. However, I refuse to believe that eating well and spending less is an oxymoron, and so I am dedicating this week to prove my point.
Here is what I am trying:
Drink less juice and more water. No more soda. Carbonation inhibits the absorbtion of nutrients anyway, so I’m doing myself a favor. Cut meat portions in half. The average American portion is 6 ounces or it just doesn’t look right. I am going to try for 3. Use more beans, (inspiration for investigating international recipes). Instead of buying potato chips and Veggie Booty, I am going to make my own popcorn. I buy a baguette every morning. The second half often gets forgotten until I either throw it away, or keep it as a potential bat. Slice up yesterday’s bread pretty thinly, and bake in the oven once the oven after roasting a turkey or making cookies (to save energy). Drizzle with olive oil and a dust of parmesan and bake til crisp. I love, love, love really good ice cream and I eat it every single day. It costs 4.99 a pint. I am reserving it for Fridays. I was born with the cholesterol of a smoking 80 year old man that moves himself from his bed to the couch and back; it won’t hurt me.
I am buying a goat and I am going to keep it in the backyard for milk and cheese. (only kidding)