Wednesday, April 27, 2011

creative suppers on the cheap (I)

Since going down to one income, our family has had to do some budgetary adjustments.  We are much more conscious of what we are spending on groceries and much less willing to throw out leftovers or produce.  I won't say we perfectly use every last morsel, but we do try a lot harder to waste very little.  Whereas I used to plan my menus around what I wanted to eat, now I plan them around what is on sale.  However, I find that I can always find something delicious to make, even with more budgetary constraints.

Food is important to me.  While I never starved as a kid, there were years when food wasn't the most plentiful.  I tend to stock up enough food so that I never have to worry about being hungry.

But food doesn't just inspire sad memories in me.  Some of my happiest memories are about food too.  I just got a book from the library called What I Eat: Around the World in 80 Diets.  One essay in this book asks the question, "Why do we cook, when it's not necessary for life?"  The answer the authors come up with is that cooking is something that is simply very human.  It adds a powerful dimension of creature comfort to our lives.  It separates us from the animal kingdom.  I would add that it is a powerful burst of creativity.  It even brings some meaning to our lives.  My favorite quote from an interview during my freelance writing days was when a cook told me that she felt cooking was one of the most intimate things you could do for another human being because when you cook something, it becomes a part of them.  Cooking means sharing in community, sharing in creativity, bringing something of beauty to the lives of those around you.  It brings people together.  It brings joy into my heart.

All this to say, I don't know if I could live on a diet of rice and beans.  Cooking and food are too important to me.  If there is a way to seize up life and experience it with gusto for each person, cooking and eating are my way.  So, one of my biggest worries as our budget got tighter was that it would mean very, very boring eating. 

Boy, have I been shocked.  We eat good.  We eat so good. 

And like I said above, one of the biggest helps is wasting less.  This means not only eating leftovers, but also not always having to follow a recipe.  Which is new for me.  I have almost always been a recipe cook, afraid to venture outside the boundaries of the known, the defined.  But when we have a bunch of veggies about to go bad in your fridge, when you have a hankering for something wonderful to eat, you bring these two elements together and you make something that makes sense to you.  That's how I came up with my Roasted Vegetables with Maple-Balsamic Glaze (which I made for friends this Easter and they loved it).  I am finding that if I have a well-stocked refrigerator and pantry (thank you, Costco!), if I understand some basics about technique when I cook (the why, not just the what), I can put together some lovely food.  Of course, I have to be willing to fail a little bit.  Not everything I create or adapt will turn out perfectly.  Sometimes there will be a great big flop.  Am I willing to fail?

One recent meal which decidedly did not fail came about because we had been given some beautiful lake trout caught by a local fisherman.  It was from a smaller fish, so the meat was a gorgeous pink, almost the color of salmon.  I decided not to mess too much with what God had made so beautifully, so I simply salted and peppered the filets, coated them in Dijon mustard, caked them in panko breadcrumbs and fried them in extra virgin olive oil in a cast iron skillet.  They came out crunchy and browned and almost buttery, melting in my mouth.  It was easily some of the best fish I had ever had.  I paired it with an adaptation of a recipe I had found in Cooking Light magazine, Mediterranean Barley with chickpeas and arugula  (I adapted this to Mediterranean Bulgar with chickpeas and spinach; spinach always makes an excellent substitute for arugula and is often easier to get.) Altogether, it was truly a beautiful meal.

I am learning to take what I have been given and make something beautiful out of it.

Hm, maybe that's a lesson to learn from life in general...


  1. Beautiful! I love to hear your cooking adventures, partially because I also enjoy trying to be more experimental and making more with what I have on hand.
    Of course, you know that I have an obsession with baking bread and such.
    I am very excited about my garden for this summer. My huge garden last year got hailed on (not once, but twice) so I was unable to do my usual canning and freezing. I was fortunate the previous year to have put up enough tomatoes to feed a small army, so we made it through most of this year, but I will be buying canned ones in the next weeks or two, I'm sure.
    It's amazing what you can do when you try. I have been wanting to make an effort to eat as much food locally as possible, weather it is farmer's market or my own garden. This year we bought a beef and a pig at the butcher, so while we don't know the exact farmer who raised it, I know it came from withing 50-100 miles of me. This year, we will feed one of our own steers and have it butchered.
    Part of me enjoys the fact that I then have smaller grocery bills and as I get more produce frozen and canned, as I learn how to cook with what I have. All of this becomes an adventure too.
    Blessings on your foodie journey.

  2. I am learning the same thing in my cooking! And I'm nervous about having to learn it even more. I've already got my menus which of course I think are fantastic. :) But I'm slowly changing my ways. You need to give me some tips on how to plan menus around what's on sale.

    Glad you pan-fried the fish. The way you did it is the best way to do fresh lake fish, which is the best fish to eat!

  3. Kati, the biggest key to planning menus around what's in sale is to be well versed in what is in your cookbooks and favorite cooking websites and magazines. That way when you see something is on sale, it hearkens you back to a certain recipe. Also, using ingredients in several different recipes throughout the week can help (such as herbs). And finally, knowing what the standard price is for an item and what is a great sale and being willing to stock up on the item when it goes on sale. When you stock up, buy things with a specific idea in mind of how you could use it in a meal. You may not use it right away but you will eventually.


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