Fresh Paint
Sunday, February 15, 2009
I Am a Good Cook
I have no idea how it happened. Poverty has asked me to step up to the plate (the dinner plate, that is) and I have accepted the challenge.

Latest creation is a meatless stew with tomatoes, lentils, eggplant, peppers, and macaroni. You laugh at the last ingredient, and you may. You may prefer to substitute brown rice, or something equally healthy.

This is how the stew happened:

Since my goal is to survive this recession without succumbing to malnutrition, have been buying stuff from the "seen better days" rack at the grocery store. I say "grocery store" since it's not a supermarket -- the tiny rack of junk food is never on sale. No one in their right mind buys a 12 oz bag of potato chips for 4.69 US. But you can get several pounds of mixed red and green peppers for 69 cents, bananas just aching to be made into banana bread for 29 cents, etc.

I'm really not fond of peppers, but for the right price I'll become fond. An eggplant was mixed into the pack this time. The store often assembles quite interesting mixtures of stuff that you ordinarily wouldn't buy at the going price (e.g., 2.69/pound for peppers).

So, chopped the mushiest of the peppers and half an eggplant (in case it didn't work out I had a backup) and an onion up and threw it in the frying pan with a little oil (regular, cheap oil. Who can afford olive oil? My mother's trick was to use regular oil then just a few drops of the lush stuff to fake us out if she was cooking something vaguely Italian. This was before we were aware that olive oil is supposedly better for you so you should spend several bucks a day consuming it.)

But I digress.

While it was sauteing, threw a half a cup of lentils and the nearly half can of tomatoes (left over from the last batch of chili) into my favorite big microwave bowl, added a cup of the chicken stock and enough water to bring it up to a 4 or 5 to one ratio. I nuked it for about 10 minutes on high, then realized I should probably throw in some salt and pepper and spice (rosemary -- about a half tsp).

By this point the stuff in the pan was looking good -- not completely cooked, but the onions were transparent. Needed something, so tossed some oregano and red pepper flakes in the pan and stirred it around. Contemplated putting in some garlic (it's been very cheap at market lately), but since I'm really not too big a fan, decided against.

Transferred it all to the big microwave bowl, and started nuking it again for about 10 minutes.

Once again, decided it needed something, so threw in what remained in the bag (maybe a half cup, a little more?) of dry macaroni and cut up into chunks a Roma tomato (which was on sale this week for 49 cents a pound).

I'd never just put dried macaroni into something before -- always boiled it separately. But why, after all? Why?

Reduced the microwaving to 60 percent and set for 15 minutes (judging it from how long the lentils would take to be edible). Added more salt and pepper too.

When done, was perfect. Made several quarts -- nice and thick. The macaroni overcooked a bit, but contributed to the thick stewyness.

Served it up in my favorite soup bowl and added a few spoons of freshly grated Parmesan cheese. This sounds like a luxury, but is cheaper than the horrible Kraft stuff -- and has no fake-out fillers and rodent fur either.

Nearly became hysterical when the horrible Kraft stuff rose in price to 4.99 for an 8 oz. shaker but knew of no reasonable alternative, since the supermarket only sold Kraft or else imported Parmesan for $13.99 US a pound.

The refrigerated section of the grocery store I go to has parm (and Romano too) already grated for 5.99 a pound, sold in convenient half-pound containers. Yummy, sharp, buttery, melt-in-your-mouth. Can't believe I've lived my whole life not knowing what actual Parmesan cheese -- even cheap stuff -- tastes like. You will never ever go back. You will never ever leave a neighborhood that doesn't contain a store that sells it.

Trying to add up how much I spent on the whole thing -- 15 cents for the lentils. Another 15 for the macaroni. 50 cents for the canned tomatoes -- my big splurge. 10 cents for the fresh tomato. Chicken stock -- had been made with cheap chicken legs, so maybe 20 cents worth. 30 cents for the vegetables. Cheese is optional, but tasty.

OK, maybe $1.50 in ingredients (spices do, after all, cost something). Made a good 2 quarts of dense stew that can be watered down more and morph into all kinds of good stuff. Would be excellent with Italian sausage and a cup of cooked beans.

Has been a successful weekend -- the banana/pumpkin bread with sunflower seeds and mulberries is about the best I've made so far -- a good thing, since I'd bought the cans of pumpkin several years ago when they were 3/a buck and forgot about.

It basically follows my general banana bread recipe: a couple of mashed bananas, a cup or so of mashed up other stuff (apple, carrot, etc.) 2 cups flour, 2 eggs, 1 tsp baking soda, 1 tsp salt, 1/2 cup sugar). Added 1/4 tsp cloves and 1/4 cinnamon, and reduced the whole wheat flour to 1 3/4 cups, keeping in mind the sweet potato experiment of several weeks ago. Will try to remember exactly what I did and post it some other day.

That's all for now. I should go put the leftovers in the fridge.


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