Okay, so I know this blog has begun to be (like me) rather obsessed with food. I spend a lot of time cooking it, and probably even more time planning what I will cook. Then there's the time I spend looking up recipes and food blogs.
But there's a reason I spend so much time thinking about food. First, of course, I like food and I like cooking. But second, I have a ton of limitations to work around.
First, the budget. It's low. Every penny we can spare goes into my I'm-quitting-my-job-in-the-spring fund. This means I can't shop at Whole Foods, I have to shop at Aldi -- where the variety is sometimes quite underwhelming. I also have to make due with the kitchen implements I have, and not zip out and buy a ricer, a wand blender, or a food processor just because a recipe demands it.
Second, time. I am that busy creature, the working wife. I can safely say that I don't want to be that forever, at ALL. There isn't time for fancy things on weeknights, and considering that John often comes home ravenous, it really ought to be done when he walks in. However, it mustn't suffer by being held awhile, because he is sometimes held awhile himself, at work.
Third, John's tastes. He is not exactly a picky eater. That is to say, he will eat whatever I serve him, and generally not complain about it either. However, I'm not aiming for toleration when I have an audience of one for my art. I'm aiming for rave reviews.
To get the rave reviews -- which, in John language, come in the form of no leftovers -- I have to follow some very strict rules.
1. No "ethnic" food. He is okay with Italian and Hispanic food, if neither is too heartburn-inducing, but my usual tendency of doing Indian curry one night, Asian stir-fry the next, does not appeal.
2. Spices are kept to a minimum. Salt and pepper, garlic and onion, are pretty much the limit. An occasional use of adobo is okay. But my containers of dill, tabasco sauce, and curry aren't getting used much.
3. Soups are great, but they should be thick. Otherwise "it's like water with food floating in it." So, cream soups and stews are the best, but there are a lot of other interesting thickeners I've been using.
4. Meat shouldn't be hidden away in a casserole, but shining on center stage. I am not a huge fan of most meat, so that's counterintuitive to me.
5. There should be at least one side dish. This is more for economy than for anything else -- otherwise, he will eat a whole chicken and leave no leftovers.
When we first got married, these limitations seemed overwhelming. I mean, I was looking at a future of cooking chicken and ground beef, rice and potatoes, every single night, without the possibility of varying things by giving it a different "ethnic flavor" every night like I used to do. I thought the menu would look like this:
Day 1. Chicken with rice on the side.
Day 2. Ground beef with potatoes on the side.
Day 3. Chicken with potatoes on the side.
Day 4. Ground beef with rice on the side.
John would actually probably be fine with this. I wouldn't. I hate eating the same things all the time, and I really hate cooking the same things all the time. Cooking is an art to me -- having no room for creativity would take all the fun out of it.
Well, we've been married for close on six months, and I have to say I am getting the hang of it. Better yet, I'm coming to enjoy the things I've been making. It took my palate awhile to adjust to the milder flavors -- after all my strong ethnic cooking, shepherd's pie seemed pretty boring. But when you get used to it, all the subtler flavors of the ingredients come through instead of being masked by the seasonings. I think this is the appeal of English and Irish cuisine -- the ingredients, rather than the spices. If the ingredients aren't really fresh and cooked just right, the whole thing will be ruined, whereas with Italian food or Indian food, you can generally hide the faults of the ingredients.
So, a few of the delicious meals I've conjured up lately:
Meatloaf and meatballs -- made on the same recipe. I made two meatloaves and one set of meatballs, so one day's cooking lasted for three meals. I should do this again soon.
Chicken soup. My solution to the "thin soup" problem was to add a whole lot of rice to the soup. That way, it's almost like a damp chicken-and-rice mix or a stew, rather than a really brothy soup. The budget-friendly part of this is that I can use the chicken bones or carcass from our last time having chicken to make the stock. With real stock in it, I can get away with having very little actual chicken -- generally just the giblets and a bit of leftover chicken. The stock provides the vitamins and protein.
Beef stew. I've tried this a half-dozen different ways. The slow cooker helps a lot. The very best stew so far was the time I used Dr. Thursday's excellent Chianti in it. Normally I might call that a waste of Chianti, but this way I get to have some. I am awfully careful about consuming alcohol otherwise.
Fish. I got a bag of fish fillets for $4 at Aldi. I thought this was a big expenditure on my part, something to be a special treat. Turns out the bag lasted us for four or five meals. Some days I baked it with butter and lemon, but the day they really got the rave reviews was the day I breaded and panfried them. We both really loved them that way, and it didn't take a lot of time to make, either.
Salmon burgers. Unfortunately, I tried to eat the leftovers for breakfast right when the morning sickness was bad. So I can't make myself eat them again, even though they were good.
Split pea soup. Not my favorite, but John loved it. I thought that huge pot would last forever, and it lasted about 24 hours.
Lentil soup. Those legumes sure do go a long way for cheap! I made this one in chicken stock, with some veggies in it, and that was pretty much it. I put sour cream in my bowl, and can testify that sour cream definitely makes every soup better.
Potato-garlic soup. Another nice thick one. For lack of a blender, I use a potato masher for blended soups, and it works great.
Carrot soup. This was mostly just onions, carrots, and roux. I think I put potatoes in there too. John will never mind more potatoes, and they make the soup go much further. As it was a Friday night, I left the chicken stock out. I used the Chianti in this one as well, and it definitely added something!
Broccoli-cheddar soup. Oh so good! Again, potatoes make a huge budget difference, as well as helping the texture. I made this last night, and had the last of it for lunch. Yum!
Roast chicken. I buy chickens whole now, because they seem to be cheaper this way, and because it's a good way to cook once for several days. The last time, I cut off the wings and drumsticks to try fried chicken. (It was okay, but I still like KFC's better, and it was kind of a lot of work.) Then I roasted the rest. Today I'm going to pick the last of the meat off the carcass and make stock.
Shepherd's pie. Always a big hit with John, and you can use pretty much whatever vegetables you have.
Beans and rice. A little dull, but I add cheese and sour cream, plus lots of salsa on my helping, and it makes a nice cheap meatless protein.
So, turns out I'm not living on the same four meals over and over again after all! Varying the vegetables is a big part of it -- you can make different things depending on whether you have carrots or broccoli or whatever. Legumes are also a real help.
But the really big surprise is how much I'm enjoying this. Cooking under my limitations is like writing a sonnet: the strict limits are actually really freeing, because you aren't dealing with every conceivable possibility, but with the few you have open to you. Also, it keeps me creative. I can't just borrow my mother's recipes (though I've been using quite a few!) as I thought I would; I have to invent a lot of things from scratch.
I am learning so much about cooking from this husband of mine. He's teaching me that "highbrow" cooking isn't always the best -- sometimes, it's a cop-out. I read on food blogs about the fancy things other people did, and feel like they're almost cheating: of course you're going to wow the crowd if you have some new ingredient none of your guests have had. But when you're limited, it all depends on your own ingenuity. I'm also learning to enjoy simple, homely food, without a lot of fanfare or surprises. It's just simple good cooking which everyone can enjoy. And, of course, I'm learning a skill I will use all my life: the ability to cook nourishing food on a budget and a timeframe, food which everyone is likely to enjoy.