Good and Cheap
Just before I sat down to write this, I made myself a lunch of a grilled cheese sandwich and a cup of warming tomato soup. Let’s face it—I needed a break from the culinary excesses of the holiday season. Something like that lunch, or breakfast for dinner (i.e. eggs), is about all I’ve been cooking these days. Perhaps you’re also ready to simplify and slimify. (Is that a word?) I am reminded of all the dips, ribs, dressings, cakes, Christmas cookies, and the like I’ve been sampling the past several weeks. “A minute on the lips, a year on the hips,” they say. Shedding some pounds sounds like a January/February plan. Besides, cooking feasts takes time—and bucks. And I’ll bet you’re as busy as I am opening those ominous envelopes that you know contain the post-holiday bills, so saving on groceries is also a good financial plan.
So, the plan might be to forgo fancy cuts of meat for a while and find dishes that are good and cheap. Hmm, I thought, didn’t I have a cookbook by that name around this joint? I searched and found Leanne Brown’s Good and Cheap, published in 2015 by Workman and a prizewinner to boot. The book fell open to a toasted cheese and tomato soup spread. What a serendipitous moment! I read the recipe (it’s down below a bit) and found it good—easy as well as inexpensive.
Ms. Brown’s book has a subtitle: Eat Well on $4/Day (maybe I could pay off the credit cards, I thought). That’s four bucks per person, of course, and she explains how she came to this figure. The dollar amount refers to a federal guideline for the program once known as food stamps. In addition, the author emphasizes, her work is “more than a book of recipes, this is a book of ideas.” I’ll buy that. And to get to the dollar figure—or thereabouts—her dishes focus on vegetables rather than meat.
I sat down, and in a couple of hours I had devoured this user-friendly book. The back cover includes a blurb by the eminent food writer/activist Michael Pollan: “A beautiful book full of recipes that fit a food stamp budget.” I read as well this encomium from Time: “This could change the way you shop, cook, and eat (by) busting up the myth that eating healthfully entails spending a ton of money.” Let’s take a closer look.
She Made a Little List(s)
Possibly the most important parts of the book are the many full-page lists, ones such as “Groceries You Won’t Regret Buying,” “Supermarket Strategies,” and “17 Tips for Eating and Shopping Well.” Along with most food writers these days, Ms. Brown emphasizes buying and cooking ingredients when they are in season (it’s cheaper that way, and better quality), and includes a handy chart from apples to winter squash.
Then come the recipes, organized by type of meal. In “Breakfasts” she not only gives a basic recipe for oatmeal (so welcome on these cold mornings), but adds nine variations. The apple-cinnamon sounded appealing, and, for the youngster who snarls at the thought of oats, try her chocolate version. You make this by mixing one cup of milk, one cup of water, one tablespoon of cocoa, one tablespoon of sugar, plus a quarter teaspoon of salt. Prepare all this before adding to a saucepan containing one cup of rolled oats. Stir the whole thing well and then bring it to a boil on medium heat. Immediately turn the heat to low and cover the pan. Cook five minutes or until most of the liquid is evaporated. The author and I agree: “Who needs Cocoa Puffs?”
And now for that killer lunch (or dinner):
The Tomato Soup
- 1 Tbsp. butter
- 2 medium onions, chopped
- 3 or 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped (see my note* below)
- 2 (28 oz. total) cans of whole tomatoes (such as Hunt’s or Muir Glen)
- 6 c. low-sodium vegetable broth (Brown says bouillon cubes dissolved in water are okay. I prefer the canned variety.)
- Salt and freshly-ground pepper to taste
- 1⁄2 c. heavy cream
- Leaves from 2 sprigs fresh thyme
- 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh basil
- Zest of 1 lemon (love my Microplane)
Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onions, stir them to coat, then place a lid on the pot and leave it for 5 minutes. Remove the lid and stir the onions. *My note: use the now very available Microplane—a Darth Vader sword-like handled grater—to reduce the garlic to a puree. Watch your fingers. Add the garlic and cover again until the onions are soft and just starting to brown, another 2 minutes. Crumble tomatoes to a puree with your impeccably clean hands (I might add that the author uses a blender or food processor to puree whole tomatoes.).
Add the almost-pureed tomatoes and their liquid plus the vegetable broth to the pot and stir, being sure to scrape any sticky onions off the bottom to keep them from burning. Bring the soup to a boil, then turn it down to low to simmer for about 10 minutes.
Taste and add salt and pepper as needed. If desired, add the cream, herbs, or lemon zest, if using. For smooth soup use an immersion blender to quickly purée the onions into the tomato mixture. If using a standard blender, wait for the soup to cool before you blend it.
Far be it for me to tell you how to make a toasted cheese sandwich, but, despite the risk of courting ridicule, I’m telling you anyway.
- Softened butter, for the bread
- 10 slices good bread of your choice
- Dijon mustard (optional but I think essential)
- 2-1⁄2 c. grated cheese (a great use for bits and pieces of leftover holiday cheese)
Lay all the bread slices on your counter and then spread the butter on one side of each slice of bread, all the way to the edge. Flip over 5 of the buttered bread slices on waxed or parchment paper. Top each with mustard and then with approximately 1/2 cup of the cheese. Place the other bread slices butter-side up on top. Heat a frying pan or skillet over medium heat and add the sandwiches. Brown the bread to the lovely golden color that pleases you, and make sure the cheese is nicely melting. That’ll take about 2 minutes. Press down gently on the top of each for even browning. Flip the sandwiches over with a spatula and repeat on the second side.
Once the sandwich is golden and the cheese is melted in the middle, serve it up with the soup. As Ms. Brown says, “Dunking is optional.”
The Egg and You and Toast
I just typed that subhead and then I thought “Yikes.” How many remember that 1940s book The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald? It’s a charming chronicle of a woman who marries and finds herself on a farm and in the egg business. She would have been appalled by the trials and tribulations of the egg. A few years ago, the nutrition police declared more than a few eggs a week a resounding no-no. It was too bad, too, because eggs, priced around thirty-three cents each, was a heck of an inexpensive way to pack in the protein. As you might have read, eggs are now back to being shining stars in the diet. I have friends of a certain age bragging that they never listened to the dieticians and ate one or even two almost every day. Yes, I plead guilty. (“Does egg salad count?” I used to joke.) Turn to page 137 of Brown’s book and learn eight ways to fill deviled eggs (surely one of my favorite foods). I never thought of stuffing the hard-cooked whites with feta and dill, or chili (diced, seeded jalapeno) and lime, nor, minced chorizo sausage and paprika.
Then Brown lists a dozen “Things On Toast.” I started salivating when I got to avocado mashed with chili flakes and a squeeze of lemon, then caramelized onions and cheddar, and sautéed mushrooms and garlic. Only a little more work is the mashed cauliflower, the winter squash puree, or mashed celery root (another big favorite at my place).
I must add that Ms. Brown seems to never have heard of a microwave oven (or even a slow cooker). Personally, I love the microwave, and all of the above mentioned “mashes” are far easier when the vegetable is cut up and steamed in minimal water (for vitamin retention). Hmm. But to be positive, each mash lists many additions you can choose from to make the vegetable more of a meal. I just might add raisins to my squash next time.
Another hunger-slaking but non-wallet-emptying food is popcorn. Here again there is a list of great add-ins for basic popped kernels—there’s Parmesan, of course, but add to that crumbled dried oregano. Great. Maybe minced cilantro and scallion for the adventurous?
Back to that wallet. One heavy expense for many people, especially families, is packaged drinks. Agua fresca, Brown’s answer to this, is a concoction of fresh fruit and good spring water. Refreshing and hydrating and easy on the finances. Again, she gives many ideas for additions and variations. Personally, I haven’t had one of the usual carbonated beverages—with the exception of ginger ale and club soda–in at least fifteen years, and I am still able to talk, move, and take nourishment. I’ve been known to get my bubbles from an Italian wine such as Asti Spumante or the hottest thing around now, Prosecco. Now, that’s different.
Where’s the Beef?
I mentioned when I started this review that the author suggests cutting back on meat, and nowhere in the book is this better illustrated than in the recipe for half-veggie burgers. She uses 3 cups of cooked lentils or beans to 1 pound of ground beef or other ground meat. (I’d love to try this with lamb.) To give more taste she adds a cup of finely chopped bell pepper or other vegetable. (Cooked celery root is what I’m rooting for.) Add an egg if you are grilling this on a—yup—grill. That’ll keep the patties from falling apart. Cook about 5 minutes on each side, whether in a skillet or on the grill. Lay cheese on the patties after flipping them once. Voila—cheeseburgers. This combination serves about 8.
One look at this recipe and I knew I’d be making it. Why? I love the seafood version, why not the veggie? (And seafood can sure be pricey.) Brown has a great description of jambalaya. To her it’s a “throw-everything-in-the-pot, spicy and savory” kind of meal. It reads long but it’s a matter of gathering ingredients and measuring. I couldn’t resist adding some comments of my own.
- 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil or butter
- 1 medium-sized onion, chopped
- 1 green bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, and chopped
- 3 stalks of celery, chopped
- 3 to 4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped (or pureed with a Microplane)
- 1⁄2 small green chili, finely chopped
- 2 large tomatoes, chopped (I use canned in winter)
- 2 bay leaves (make ’em large so you can fish ’em out)
- 1 tsp. paprika (preferably imported Hungarian)
- 1 tsp. cayenne pepper
- 1⁄2 tsp. crumpled dried thyme
- 1⁄2 tsp. dried oregano
- 1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce or soy sauce (no soy for me)
- 3⁄4 c. long-grain rice
- 2 c. vegetable or chicken broth
- Salt and freshly-ground pepper to taste
- Additions/options: slices of fried sausage, shrimp, leftover meat, tofu, or cooked beans
Place a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat and add the oil. After it gets hot, add the onions, bell pepper, and celery (the “blessed trinity” of Southern cookery) and cook for about 5 minutes, until they become translucent but not brown.
Add the garlic, chili, tomatoes, bay leaves, paprika, cayenne, thyme, oregano, and Worcestershire. (A bit of the salt and pepper would not be amiss: taste.) Let everything cook until some of the tomatoes’ juice releases, about 1 minute. Add the rice and slowly pour in the broth. Lower the heat to medium and let the dish cook until the rice absorbs all the liquid, 20 to 25 minutes. (I partially cover the pan with a lid to speed things up. You can always uncover and let the excess liquid float off to wherever steam goes near the end of cooking.) If you are using any of the additions, throw them in to cook with the rice after 15 minutes have passed.
Taste and adjust the salt, pepper, and any other spices. Is this perfect for a wintry evening—or what?
There aren’t many desserts in Good and Cheap, though I’m certain to kick up my next dinner’s taste quotient with Brown’s easy caramelized banana recipe. But it’s time I kicked myself out of these pages. Keep warm and keep well.