For Christmas my boyfriend received a very thoughtful gift from some friends – a book called The Frugal Foodie, by Alanna Kaufman and Alex Small. Of course, I got my grubby little paws on it as soon as I could. Consider this not so much a review, but thoughts inspired by it.
The “Foodie” part of the title is apparent. Flip it open and what do I see but “Quinoa-Stuffed Summer Squash” and “Ratatouille Niçoise”? Everything looks tasty.
But there’s a larger problem here. “Frugal” apparently brings with it a lot of assumptions. That Ratatouille is $20 for 8 servings. Problematic. I need to serve one or two people for about $12 or less. With minimal leftovers, since I eat lunch and/or dinner at home only about every other day. Furthermore, I have serious doubts that I could purchase these ingredients for $20. Am I expected to buy an entire bunch of parsley in order to use 1/2 cup of it? And are the authors aware how much Parmesan costs? This calls for 1 cup grated, and forgive me if it’s been a while since I bought Parmesan, but that could easily be 1/5 of the budget right there.
And it’s not just this recipe…there’s no list of what it’s assumed you have on-hand, and if you don’t have something (say, two eggs, or three slices of bacon) there’s a failure to take into account that you’re going to have a much higher upfront expense, because in most places you can’t buy just two eggs or three slices of bacon. This isn’t a complaint I have just about this cookbook in particular, but most “frugal” recipes in general. Theoretical price per serving is not really how these things work; there’s a larger context.
When it comes to planning frugal meals, the vague definitions of “staple” seem to get in the way. It’s okay to assume that most people have dried cinnamon. And probably a can of tomatoes of some variety. And pasta. Other than that, all bets are off. I consider dried cranberries a staple, and boxed chicken stock, and garlic, and there’s always walnuts in the freezer and OJ in the fridge and several bloated bags of instant, bulk couscous in the cupboard. But no eggs. No potatoes. No milk. No fresh parsley, that’s for sure. Why? They go bad, that’s why, so if I buy them it’s for an immediate cause.
Isn’t the best kind of frugal recipe one in which most of the ingredients are non-perishable, and therefore have a high likelihood of being found in the pantry? It’s the combined cost of the perishables that is then important, with the possibility taken into account that us cooks on a budget might have to, yes, buy a half-dozen eggs so we can use two. Or an entire bunch of parsley, because they still don’t sell parsley in 1/4 c. measures. (Oh for the day.) And of course, we’ll be out of at least one of the staples, or just won’t have it in our repertoire yet. (There was a day when I switched from being a cook without coconut milk to a cook with coconut milk. It was a good day.)
So what recipes do you have for when you’ve got just yourself to feed, or yourself and your significant other, and about $10 or $15 in your pocket? I’m keen on this one (pictured at the header of the post) which recently cost me about $6.75 for the meat, noodles, bok choy and ginger. If I’d had to buy chicken stock, it might have been $9.75-ish – but still, a deal.
Beef and Star Anise Noodle Soup
An altered version of a recipe that originally appeared in Sunset magazine.
- 1 pound stewing beef, cut into bite-sized chunks
- 1/4 c. soy sauce
- 2 T. minced ginger
- 2 T. minced garlic
- 4 whole dried Thai chiles (or other dried, unsmoked chiles; I use Chiles de Arbol)
- 4 star anise pods, broken
- 3 T. vegetable or olive oil
- 1 quart beef or chicken stock
- freshly ground black pepper
- 8 oz. baby bok choy, chopped
- one or two packages fresh udon (7 to 21 oz. depending on your taste)
In a shallow baking dish, toss beef with soy sauce, ginger, garlic, chiles, and star anise. Cover and chill at least 1 hour and up to 1 day, stirring occasionally.
In an large soup pot, heat oil over medium-high heat until very hot. Pick out anise and chiles from the beef; discard. Transfer beef and any remaining marinade to soup pot.
Cook beef, covered, until almost entirely cooked all the way through. Stir frequently!
Add broth. Bring to boil. Add udon and bok choy; let boil for 2-3 minutes until bok choy is wilted and noodles are cooked. Adjust seasoning with pepper; serve.
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