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Column Sun Mar 29 2009
I'm not sure whether I should blame the ugliness of this winter, the lack of time I've had due to work and other commitments, people, or The Recession, but I've not felt like cooking lately. I've cooked, I've eaten, but I've not been inspired. Arrival of a fresh cooking magazine would typically inspire at least a stolen hour of time thinking about how I could do things better, but lately they've sat unread. I wander the grocery store and try to figure out what to cook that takes little effort.
But then a friend invited me to a potluck dinner party recently that had a twist. Instead of bringing a dish to pass the night of the party, she asked us to essentially cook a dish that yielded 8 servings. The dishes had to be freezable and all of the costs for the meal had to come in under $15. Seemed easy enough so I was spending a lot of time thinking about ways to keep the meal as cheap as possible. I felt horribly competitive and wanted to "win" the cheapest dinner. And then I realized that I was following the letter, but missing the spirit of the dinner. So I went back through my recent round of food bloggers who had written something that sounded inspiring to see what would encourage me to go write something on my own, and to get excited about cooking again. Lucullian delights is one of the more inspiring food sites I visit. Not because she makes overly complicated dishes, but because her dishes are often made from seasonal foods and they're prepared simply. It helps that she is somewhere in the Tuscan countryside, but I imagine this limits her options as much as it provides her with some lovely food items that aren't available here.
I like that she often combines very common elements in different ways, and this combination is what often draws me to her dishes. I've yet to follow one of her recipes word-for-word, and few of her recipes involve measurements, weights, or thorough instructions. One she had up recently was for a Creamy Cauliflower Pasta Sauce. It sounded way too simple to be delicious, but I was tempted to try it at the same time. Just because I wanted to see what type of mouth-feel the sauce had and how bland the taste was.
I was correct in my thought that the texture of the sauce had a thick cheese-sauce texture (with none of the fat!) but I was so very wrong on the taste. It was earthy and subtle, but delightfully delicious. So delicious that I found I needed more on my pasta because I was eagerly scooping up as much sauce as I could get with each bite. (I'll definitely be trying this on little kids who claim they don't like cauliflower.) The batch easily made enough for 8 servings, even with my extra scooping.
Of course I couldn't follow the recipe as it was, and I had to add a few different ingredients to my sauce because I thought it needed something slightly extra (even though her recipe is perfectly fine as it stands). And once I had the sauce, I began to think of other things I could do to use the sauce. So aside from just a regular pasta sauce, along with a pan-fried chicken breast to go with it, I've also given you instructions on how to turn this into delicious vegetarian lasagna. And even though the recipe calls for anchovies or cheese, I'm sure they could be omitted to turn this into a creamy vegan sauce. And the sauce is so good on its own that it could also serve as a dip with vegetable sticks or pita chips.
Creamy Cauliflower-Potato Pasta (and more) Sauce
1 small head of cauliflower (or half of a large head)
2 thin-skinned potatoes
1 teaspoon of salt
1 tablespoon of anchovy paste (or 3 anchovy fillets, or ¼ cup of parmesan cheese)
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1 tablespoon of white wine or champagne vinegar
salt and pepper to taste
1 pound of pasta that has a lot of surface to grab the sauce (fusilli, corkscrew, shells, etc.)
2 cloves of roasted garlic
½ - 1 teaspoon of chili powder (omit the vinegar)
3 tablespoons of fresh oregano or parsley
Place a large pot of water over high heat and add 1 teaspoon of salt to the water. Trim the leaves and stem ends from a head of cauliflower and break the cauliflower florets into large chunks. Cut the remaining stems into 1" chunks and add all to the water. Cover and let the water come to a boil. Rinse the potatoes and cut out any eyes. Cut the potatoes into 1" cubes. Once the water has boiled, add the potatoes and cover again. Let it cook for 10-15 minutes. When you can pierce a potato with a fork and it will fall off, you know it is done. Use a large slotted spoon to transfer the potatoes and cauliflower and ½ cup of the cooking water from the pot into the bowl of a food processor or blender. Fill it up halfway and begin pulsing to get a thick slurry. Add another batch of the remaining cauliflower and potatoes and pulse again. Add the final batch of vegetables along with the anchovy paste, olive oil, vinegar, and one of the optional ingredients. Pulse several times and then turn it on until you have a fine puree. You should get a thick sauce, not a paste, so you can add more of the cooking water if you need it. You can add the pasta to the cooking water as soon as the vegetables are removed and cook it according to the package directions.
Spiced Chicken Breast
2 pound of chicken breast or tenderloins
1 tablespoon of olive oil
½ teaspoon of salt
2 teaspoons of Chinese five-spice (or 1/2 teaspoon each of ground cinnamon, ginger, cayenne pepper, and nutmeg)
1 tablespoon of olive or cooking oil
Rinse the chicken breast and cut it into four even pieces. Pat the breasts dry with paper towels and then rub with olive oil. Sprinkle the spice mixture onto the chicken and let it sit for about 20 minutes. Place a skillet over medium-high heat. Add your oil and your chicken to the skillet. Let it cook for about 6 minutes on the first side before using a pair of tongs to turn the chicken to the other side (If you're using chicken tenderloins, let them cook for 2-3 minutes before turning.) Let it cook on the second side for 2-3 minutes. To test for doneness, use a sharp knife to cut into the thickest part of the meat to see if the meat has turned an opaque white clear through instead of pink.
Creamy Vegetable Lasagna
Potato Cauliflower Sauce
9 lasagna noodles
2 small zucchini
2 small yellow squash
1 red bell pepper
2 tablespoons of olive oil
3 teaspoons of dried oregano leaves
¼ cup of parmesan or mozzarella cheese
Preheat your oven to 350-degrees F. Grease a large casserole dish that is long enough to hold the noodles. Cook the noodles according to the package directions. Slice the zucchini and squash lengthwise, and then make ¼" slices. Remove the seeds from the bell pepper and cut the pepper into ¼" strips. Place a skillet over medium heat and add the vegetable oil. Once it is hot, add the vegetables and sauté them while stirring frequently for about 5-6 minutes. The vegetables should just start to get soft. Place one layer of noodles in our dish, and spoon about 1/3 of the sauce over the noodles and sprinkle with oregano. Sprinkle ½ of the vegetable mix over the sauce, layer with noodles, then more sauce, more oregano, the remainder of the vegetables, then more sauce, more oregano, and then sprinkle with the cheese. Place the dish in the oven and let it bake for about 40 minutes. The sauce should be bubbly and the cheese should be melted and golden brown. Remove it from the oven and let it sit for 10 minutes so it is easier to cut.
Now the goal was to spend $15 or less. And I made it, but only because the only things I needed to purchase was: cauliflower, potatoes, pasta, and chicken breast. I had everything else I needed already. But I know that many people don't keep a tube of anchovy paste or a jar of anchovy fillets in their refrigerator, and I'm often surprised by the number of people who don't have a variety of vinegars on hand. But I was willing to accept that my larder is stocked differently than the larder of many others so I decided to price out all the ingredients I needed to make this dish. And because I was curious, I also decided to price out the ingredients at my local Dominick's. I expected a difference but I was shocked at how much of a difference it was. And to make it even better (in my eyes) I was more able to purchase items by bulk so I only had to buy what I needed, instead of buying larger packages of items that would more likely go to waste. For example, I rarely eat potatoes at home, so investing in a five-pound bag of potatoes is an exercise in frustration as I always end up feeling guilty when I throw away a couple of potatoes that have gone bad. And I realized how much more packaging I would have purchased if I'd bought at Dominick's. Most of the vegetables came already wrapped in plastic, and I was able to skip the plastic bags on all my produce at my local store.
Indie grocer--$ 1.70
Yukon Gold potato:
Indie grocer--$.59 for 1 lb.
Dominick's--$3.99 for 5 lb. bag
($.80 used in this dish)
Tube anchovy paste
1 lb. pasta
1 garlic head
1 oz fresh oregano
Dominick's--$2.49 (for ½ ounce)
12 oz vinegar
2 lb. chicken breast
Now the Dominick's price is slightly inflated because I got a five-pound bag of potatoes, instead of just the one pound of potatoes I needed for this dish. The anchovy paste and vinegar were different brands, but the pasta (Barilla) was the same brand. I omitted the Chinese five-spice from my list because I couldn't find it at either store, and I think most people would have the other spices on hand to serve as a substitute.
Not only did I find this a fun exercise in truly thinking about how much I spend on each dish I make, I was delighted to know that I made 8 servings for $1.16 per serving (since I had all the spices, herbs, vinegars I didn't include them in this accounting). And it was a dish that doesn't feel like a recession-busting dish--this will go into my permanent rotation. And I know that I can cook dishes for much, much cheaper while still using fresh produce and meat and ingredients that I enjoy eating. Dishes that involve lentils and beans are often my cheap-eats fallback, and I enjoy eating them. But I think I'm going to be spending some time in the next several weeks finding dishes that are inexpensive to make, but that keep a high flavor and variety profile.
Feel free to share your recession-busting recipes in the comments.