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Onward and upward with pantry clean-out 2012!

I had one random cup of dried black-eyed peas hanging out, and I do think I made the best of it. First, I soaked them overnight in a pot covered by a couple inches of cold water. I drained the water, re-covered them with about the same amount of water, and brought them to a boil. Lowered the heat to a simmer, tested one, and once they got a bit tender, I added a generous amount of salt and some black pepper, a glug of olive oil, three crushed garlic cloves, 1 medium jalapeno, sliced, and a bay leaf. I left the pot partially covered and simmered (a low gentle bubbling) for probably a bit over an hour. I tested them frequently, tasted the broth, and continued seasoning as necessary. Once they were nice and creamy, I took them off the heat.

And now this is where the brilliance of pre-cooking veggies comes in: I had some fennel and kale that I’d sauteed yesterday. I put most of the beans in a jar with their liquid to cool, but left one serving in the pot and added the kale to heat up. Meanwhile, I poached an egg and made some toast and my goodness, that was one delicious lunch!

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Brown rice + a bit of cheese + greens, pick your favorite + spicy sausage, pick your favorite = delicious. Is it weird? I feel like it is weird. I’m not sure rice with a bunch of crap in it counts as a casserole, even if you do top it with cheese and put it in the oven for a little while. But I’m not sure what else to call it. I also have no recollection of how I started making this dish, which I’ve made in many variations over the past couple of years. I don’t think anyone ever fed it to me. Maybe I officially made it up?

This is a fabulous use of leftover rice (or newly cooked rice, in this case), and you’ve got your whole grain, protein, and dark leafy green all in one dish. You could also top with sliced almonds for a little crunch. Of course you could sub out chicken, turkey, or veggie sausage.

And lest you think I have completely abandoned the budgeting thing, this is a very inexpensive meal. It makes 6 servings for just about $1.30 a serving — and that’s with fancy Whole Foods chorizo and farmer’s market kale. Huzzah!

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After my successful first week of feeding 2 people 3 meals a day for $50, I’m off to a rocky start.

Sunday was fine — I made more brown bread, and the lentil recipe I listed before. It made even more leftovers than I expected, so that is great.

Monday I made Jamaican Jerk Chicken (I used the other half of the bone-in, skin-on chicken I’d used for the Arroz con Pollo last week) and Fried Plantains (yum – and only 3 for a dollar). There was a enough left over for Brian’s lunch.

Then Tuesday was a little weird. I got a free lunch from work, and after work we went out to The Young and Hungry launch party, which featured some yummy food and drink. Also free. (Thanks guys, it was a blast!) Then at 10 pm, a group of us went to Broome Street Bar and ate Nachos. Aah, a healthy dinner. At least it only averaged to something like $6 for the two of us, so I guess it came out OK.

Tonight I plan on making a cold noodle salad with spicy peanut sauce — it’s way too humid out to be using the oven. Then because of the holiday weekend, there are going to be parties and outings, and I just don’t know if I’m going to have a solid meal plan that will work. I have other dishes I planned on making, but now the days are all screwed up and my three day weekend is beckoning to me.

Sigh. It really does feel like extenuating circumstances are more the norm than the “norm” is the norm….whatever that means. Noodle salad recipe plus prices for the jerk chicken & plantains to come later…

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Friday, Saturday and Sunday this week are excellent examples of how even the best laid plans can get derailed. By Michael Jackson.

Well, moreso if you work at a magazine, which Brian does. Friday was a marathon day for him due to the King of Pop’s untimely passing (rest in peace, Michael), and while he forgot to bring his leftovers, his office also ordered in food (pizza, I’m told). So I ate grits gratin all day, using up the rest of the leftovers and not cooking anything new. I can’t really calculate what he spent, or count it against my total – extenuating circumstances! But I guess it would be unnatural to assume that we could get through an entire week with no emergency meals, changes of plans, or unexpected circumstances. We’re busy, and we live in New York.

Total for the week plus 4 recipes after the jump!

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I apologize for the blurry picture. The added effort of all this “paying attention” to what I am “spending” on my “meals” has made me lazy about actually taking pictures. But how can I prove the food was edible without photographic proof??

Actually, I’m not so sure this picture proves it was edible, but I promise, Mark Bittman’s “Grits Gratin with Arugula and White Beans” was quite delicious. And the grits weren’t even packed with butter and cheese!!

Today I made the mistake of taking the train to work that drops me off in the middle of the Union Square Farmer’s Market…it was all I could do to not buy bunches of green garlic and golden beets. It made me question the validity of my budgeting, after all, if I CAN afford to buy from farmers and support local agriculture, don’t I have a responsibility to do so? More on this later…

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Day 3: Here’s where explaining things gets a little confusing. I still had black bean soup and some rice left over Wednesday, so that’s what I had for lunch, along with some cornbread. How does that factor into my serving price? I have no idea…it’s like a 1/2 serving of each, but they also had more servings than I originally thought, so my other servings cost more than they should have….oh hell, who cares. No one said this was an exact science.

Also, my linguine for dinner was supposed to have shrimp in it. But when I got to Trader Joe’s, the frozen shrimp I wanted was $8.50 a bag. Even using half the bag would ruin my per serving price. I stood there, holding the bag of shrimp, putting it back, picking it back up again. Finally I put it back and hurried to the line so I wouldn’t change my mind. Suddenly though, I had to come up with something to go with the pasta, which I feared would be too plain all by itself, and the chicken breasts I had in the freezer would take too long to thaw.

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Perhaps it’s a little premature to be doing any sort of reflecting, given I’m 3 1/2 days into my 4 week budgeting exercise. I guess realization number one is that it might be a little obnoxious to call it an “exercise” given I am privileged enough to call it that and not just “life”. It has always made me feel pretty icky, this question of privilege, and while on the one hand I can be judgey mc judgerpants (THOSE shoes with THAT dress? puh-lease) I also fear judging that which I do not understand. Like the choices faced by millions, nay, billions of people across the planet, not about “what should I eat for dinner tonight” but “can I eat dinner tonight?” I’m trying to find the sweet spot between being empathetic but not patronizing, and also living and enjoying my own life. I’m not really there yet, and this endeavor has highlighted that for me.

On the flip side, I feel a bit like the next four weeks are going to be somewhat…editorially boring. Even though the point of this blog is not to impress people (ok, who am I kidding, I want to IMPRESS YOU), “cheap” dishes feel a little inadequate in these interwebs full of amazing food blogs. Is this a personal hang-up about feeling like my food is “rustic” and therefore not “gourmet” enough? Maybe. But then again, I would prefer to leave the molecular gastronomy to the experts and cook eggs the good old-fashioned way.

I think as much as anything, these next few weeks will reveal my personal relationship with food and cooking, and how it may be a window to other things. And I hope along the way it will offer some advice and observations that are useful to anyone who likes to eat or cook mindfully.

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So, official Day 1. My daily allowance for 2 people is $7.14 to equal $50 for the week.

Breakfast: Brown Bread = $.23 x 2 servings = $.46
Lunch: Leftover Arroz con Pollo = $1.58 x 2 servings = $3.16
Snack: Orange (already accounted for cost in scone recipe)
Dinner: Black Bean Soup = $.74 x 2 servings = $1.50

Total: $5.12

The Arroz con Pollo recipe, which I made for dinner Sunday, was supposed to serve 4, but definitely came out to 6 servings (and I think I put in 1/2 the chicken it called for!). So that brings my per meal price down significantly. Here are the recipes and prices:

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Starting Monday, I am embarking on an intensive 4-week food budgeting exercise. For anyone who loves food, loves to cook, and / or reads or writes about food all day long, resisting that amazing $10 triple creme cheese or $6 box of fresh farmstand berries is nearly impossible. These days, however, it’s necessary. My goal is 4 weeks, $50 / week, 3 meals a day for 2 people. This is not the most ambitious goal out there — but I think it’s realistic. I am not trying to set myself up for failure, rather, to reorient my thought process when I hit the grocery store or farmer’s market. Ask myself not just “do I want it?” but “do I need it?”. Force myself to be more creative to create delicious food, because if there’s one area I’m not willing to compromise on, it’s taste. Here are my ground rules:

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IMG_2036One of the best ways to maximize a small budget is by making food that is all about big flavors. Extreme subtlety is best left to dishes that contain ingredients of the utmost quality — something you’re not going to get as easily on a budget. That being said, this dish is no compromise. A light, healthy take on Sweet & Sour Chicken, a classic Chinese-American restaurant staple, usually sticky and dense.

This recipe comes courtesy of Jaden Hair of Steamy Kitchen (a great resource for everyday Asian recipes), via Simply Recipes. I, for one, always have a hunk of ginger on hand, and the ingredients here are so simple it’s almost hard to believe! I used chicken breast, but you could save even more by using boneless, skinless thighs. I would have taken more process pictures, but to be perfectly honest, chunks of chicken doused in egg white and cornstarch look kind of revolting, and don’t do justice to the deliciousness of the finished product! The only other modification I made was to add a small diced onion to the mix. You could definitely throw in any veggies hanging out in your crisper.

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