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.