Thursday, January 1, 2009

Dinner Looking Sad Lately? Getting Beyond Gutfill

If the recipe calls for yellow onions, I have red. I have yellow onions when green onions or scallions are asked for. Let's not discuss pasta shapes. But what do you do when the cupboards are bare?

I had a friend who ate ramen until his rings fell off. In front of real food he was helpless, and a lousy dinner guest. Once, I slaved over an Italian sausage lasagna with a white sauce, a red sauce, three-cheeses and many, many layers. It was a bountiful Buick of food. I made the mistake of inviting him to share with us. He flattered me with asking for seconds. He ticked me off when his fourths were larger than the seconds. I was infuriated when he brought up the topic of a doggy bag. My Buick was all but totaled. What was worse was that my food budget was tight, but my solution had been: satisfying homemade food would keep me out of restaurants. My discovery: If Piggums was sitting at the table, my budget was blown.

My lasagna involved resources that would have been difficult to sustain -- it wasn't cheap even without Piggums. I still believe satisfying meals lead to better grocery store decisions. Along with every convenience food purchase is the success of the marketing concept -- "because you have so little time, we'll make it easy." It's rare when convenience doesn't come at the expense of wholesomeness or food value. I'll confess to eating Cheetos, but good cheese doesn't leave a hole in my stomach.

Cookbooks celebrate food. Unfortunately, in these books one often comes across "use only the extra virgin olive oil available from my favorite Italian mail-order . . ." or some other truly painfully expensive ingredient (PEI). We're assured that without the added quality from the PEI, the dish won't cut it. Certainly, there are 101 Meals under $__ cookbooks out there. But most writing about saving nickels and dimes is grim. I don't wish to contribute to the discount bookstore table. The economy is forcing more of us to rein in our budgets. So when is a PEI crucial to success and when is it just foodie snob bunk? Compromises?

I eat ramen once in a while, more for convenience than economy. I don't pretend it is good food, but a few modifications (toasted sesame oil, vegetables, chicken broth) take it a step beyond the sad soggy gutfill it is alone. I won't write ramen recipes, but there is good food between ramen and PEI's. If you care about food and the axe is about to fall on your grocery bill, consider the following:

  1. Don't give up variety. If you get some crazy idea like an all ramen diet, I guarantee you will wind up in one of three places: An ER, a psychiatric ward or a restaurant. It defeats the point of saving money when you have to face one of those bills.
  2. Packaging is typically 50% of the cost of food. No kidding.
  3. Skip snacks, not meals. My mom didn't tell me this, but she should have.
  4. Be realistic about "economy sizing" at the grocery store. A 20 lbs. bag of rice might work for your family, but see point 1. Also consider: A year is about the longest shelf life you should expect from any food (including cans). You're inviting nasty things like infestation and food poisoning when you set up your kitchen with a C-rations bomb shelter mentality. Besides, shouldn't you be thinking that the austerity plan will end some day?
  5. Stop drinking soda. It isn't good for you anyway.
  6. Look in your kitchen garbage can and ask yourself why you didn't finish the chicken fried rice. Cook too much? Didn't store it right? Buy too much? If you never throw out anything your fridge is either empty or full of really gross food.
  7. Eat what's in season locally (as possible). Air freight for Chilean grapes is a luxury. I live in Minnesota. Five months out of the year no produce is in season locally. When it is in season, take advantage of it.
  8. Make peace with your kitchen. Is it too cluttered to cook?
  9. Don't cook foods to be "good." Make the foods you like fit other agenda items e.g. weight loss, diabetes, etc. If you don't like it, you'll waste it (see point 6).
  10. Starchaholic and need to get away from rice/ramen? Get a little nutrition in the bargain with yams or sweet potatoes.
  11. Eat your vegetables. My mother didn't tell me this either, but she should have.
  12. Vegetables, butter, salt and pepper. It almost always works.
  13. Americans are fanatical about their preference for white meat from poultry. Russians prefer the dark. We actually export dark meat to Russia, but much of it isn't practical to try to export. Shop like Boris or Natasha and your poultry bill will drop dramatically.
  14. Cook bacon once in a while and save the grease in your fridge. Mmm. Southern cooking.
  15. Don't buy herbs and spices in cute little jars (see point 2), try ethnic groceries. I've found a pound and a half of oregano for about $8. I doubt you'll need that much of anything, but for the herbs and spices you use, you'll save a bundle.
  16. Learn stores' strengths and weaknesses on price. Big box stores are typically great for toilet paper and shelf stable items. Super Targets are miserable on produce and meat.
  17. Flour, water, salt, yeast = bread. It's in the Bible so I know it can't be too high tech. Ninety percent of the bread in the grocery stores is gutfill compared to amateur homemade bread. There is a wealth of baking advice out there, the ingredients are cheap and the product is lovely. Don't deny yourself this.
P.S. A few days after I published this I ran across this Mark Bittman piece. He has more advice about how to take care of a pantry, and also warns against the evil green cylinder!


snogglethorpe said...

A tiny nit: real ramen (the the kind they make in ramen shops) can be mind-bendingly delicious. Maybe a term like "instant ramen" would better capture your intent...

Bruce Harrington said...

Yes. I got lazy. I should have been more explicit. My wife lived in Japan for three years, you'd think from her stories of food I would have learned!