Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Let's drink to thriftiness

Brrr! I said it's cold in here!
There must be a recession in the atmosphere!Link
It's not even Halloween yet, and already it's colder than a witch's tit. Before you crank up the thermostat, only to be left in the cold when your heating bill soars, consider warming up with a hot toddy. This drink is a miracle: it's super cheap to make, packed with antioxidants, and guaranteed to clear sinuses and cure scurvy, shingles, smallpox, gout, dropsy, dysentery, dyspepsia, diptheria, and the consumption. At the very least, it's liquid Prozac for anyone who suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder.

The traditional hot toddy consists of about two parts tea, one part brandy, a tablespoon of honey, and a slice of lemon, but you can also make a delicious bourbon hot toddy. Drinkable bourbon, however, tends to be a lot more expensive than drinkable brandy, but the Washington Post has lots of suggestions on how to recession-proof your liquor cabinet (thanks, Sanders!).

I make my hot toddies with E&J's XO Brandy. It may not be the very cheapest you can buy, at around $12 for 750ml, but it's certainly palatable, and it lasts the whole winter as long as you don't develop a major habit. I also cut corners and save money by skipping the lemon and honey and using instead honey lemon black tea or, in a pinch, lemon ginger green tea. I've also used pomegranate white tea and plain Earl Grey (with no honey or lemon added) to good effect. And, to save more money, as well as brain cells, calories, and myself from hangovers, I add just one shot of brandy instead of the recommended two. After all, it's the kind of beverage you consume while reading a good book with a cat on your lap, not the kind you use to play Flip Cup. On second thought...

Recipe: The Cozy Cat Lady's Recession-Era Hot Toddy
Serves 1

1 tea bag (can be lemon ginger, honey lemon, pomegranate, Earl Grey, or any fruity tea, really)
1 mug of boiling water
1 shot of brandy

Brew the tea. After it has steeped about 5 minutes, add the brandy. Cure what ails ye.

What if you buy brandy and find you don't like the hot toddy? Make mulled cider!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Peasant Food, Truly

So I hear there's a financial crisis/likely-recession-possible-
depression-to-be. Why haven't I posted more lately?

Possibly because I have not been following recipes: they tend to require too many ingredients I can't afford.

I personally have not yet been hit by Wall Street's great fall, nor by the terrifying credit crunch, but I still feel a constant pressure to not buy. Where weather changes normally would've sent me to Loehmann's in search of a few new sweaters, I've been staying in most nights and spending a surprising amount of time fretting over the hypothetical costs of my upcoming heating bills. And, compared to so many people, I have it easy. It has been easy for me to feign frugality, when in reality I'm pretty self-indulgent. I go out to eat and travel frequently. I have more clothes than anyone who calls herself "Economical" should have. And I am pretty confident I will always have a safety net (though, clearly, confidence doesn't count for much).

In short, my so-called economical food repertoire has not changed a whole lot. Still eating a fried egg sandwich for breakfast almost every day; still eating bean- or grain-centric leftovers for lunch; still occasionally grabbing a cookie or four at Baked & Wired in the afternoon; and still munching on whatever's around or testing something new for dinner. Or going out. And let's not forget all the beer and wine I still consume (I gratefully scored five bottles for free last night at the Montgomery County Humane Society's Wines for Canines and Felines event. Volunteering at benefits that rich people attend is quite possibly the most economical thing one can do).

One recipe I have been using, and which is definitely worth posting in light of the global economic crisis, comes from Nepali and North Indian peasants. Seems melodramatic enough to compare my own very lucky financial situation to that of destitute farmers in a frequent war zone. In any case, the real working poor know how to get by in unusually tough times.

Recipe: Dahl Saag (lentils with spinach)

Adapted from a variety of internet sources for the sake of being as cheap to make as possible; spelling remains creative. If you ever come across a used copy of any Julie Sahni book, please buy it for me and I will pay you back in curry.

Traditionally, it pairs with ghee (clarified butter), though it is still tasty enough without. Please scroll to the end of this post for a recipe for ghee. Additionally, it is great in a pita or sopped up by roti or naan or served over rice, but still good on its own when extra carbohydrates are a luxury.

My own version is meant to be easily modified depending on what ingredients you already have; the only real necessities are lentils (or, really, any legume) and spinach (or, really, any green).

Serves 6 and reheats well in microwave.

1/2 bag of lentils
1 lb spinach (for your wallet's sake, please don't buy the bagged version)
1 small onion
1 /2 t ground turmeric
1 t mustard seeds (I used 1/2 t dijon mustard, which complicates the dish a bit with additional ingredients like vinegar, but which still worked well)
1/2 t cumin
1 t garam masala (optional, but highly recommended if you already have it.)
1 t salt
1 t chili powder
2 T ghee (see recipe, following; if you don't have butter to make ghee, use vegetable oil)

Rinse the lentils and chop the spinach. Boil 3 cups of water and add the lentils, turmeric, salt and chili powder. Cook for 5 minutes and add the spinach. Keep on a medium heat till most of the moisture has gone.

Meanwhile heat ghee and in it fry the onions, mustard seeds and cumin seeds till golden. Stir into the lentils and spinach along with the garam masala. Keep on a moderate heat till cooked. The dish is dry, but add a little water to prevent catching.

Recipe: Ghee (best word ever)
Adapted from Alton Brown's recipe

1 stick of butter

Place butter in medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring butter to boil. This takes approximately 2 to 3 minutes. Once boiling, reduce heat to medium. The butter will form a foam which will disappear. Ghee is done when a second foam forms on top of butter, and the butter turns golden. Approximately 7 to 8 minutes. Brown milk solids will be in bottom of pan. Gently pour into heatproof container through fine mesh strainer or cheesecloth. Store in airtight container being sure to keep free from moisture. Ghee does not need refrigeration and will keep in airtight container for up to 1 month.


-If you don't have the exotic ingredients required to make a true dahl saag, don't fret: even with just salt and pepper, this dish is more than edible.

-Allegedly, quinoa is a "superfood," meaning it has enough nutrients to on its own sustain y0u for years. Consider serving this dish over quinoa.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The best cookbooks are (practically) free

Despite its mostly well-deserved reputation as a seat of snobbery and high-end retail chains, Georgetown offers a few delightful surprises for the Economical Epicurean--that is, on the rare occasion she can escape her overworked thesaurus and wretched iBook long enough to take a leisurely lunch break. One such surprise is Baked & Wired, her latest frenemy, who once forced her to order not one but four cookies and eat them all in the same brief sitting. Thanks, Baked & Wired, for introducing four new cookie varieties that the Economical Epicurean just HAD to try immediately. Including a small coffee, the check came to about $10. Economical, indeed.

By the way, though I disdain the cupcake fad of late, I would like to add that Baked & Wired beats the frou-frou Georgetown Cupcake at its own game -- and never has that inexplicable line out the door.

ANYWAY, this post is supposed to be about cookbooks, not cupcakes, which brings me to my next great Georgetown discovery, Bartleby Books, on 29th Street near the Canal. What drew me in was a used copy of Pam Anderson's How to Cook Without a Book in the display window. Inside, the store is musty and cramped, full of first editions and other rare treats. Behind the cash register hangs a collection of old maps, including a small 1650 rendering of North America, with California an island hovering to the left of the continent. At $1,300, it is something the Economical Epicurean can only dream of hanging in her house. Alas, used cookbooks are a much more practical pursuit! In addition to the rather ironically titled but nonetheless very helpful How to Cook Without a Book (great for amateur cooks like me who are still shaky with certain techniques), I came across a mint condition copy of Deborah Madison's famous Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. With its hardcover, 700+ pages, and beautiful photography, this book retails at $40, but Bartleby was peddling it for $10. I snatched it up real fast.

The lone employee at Bartleby explained that some serious epicurean had just donated his or her entire cookbook collection. In the pile where I spotted Vegetarian Cooking, Alice Waters' Chez Panisse Vegetables and Dorie Greenspan's Baking with Julia also beckoned to me, though on this rare occasion the Economical triumphed over the Epicurean.

Probably half the cookbooks in my own collection came from used bookstores or book sales. I'm not sure how people can bear to give these up, but thanks to their poor judgment I've acquired dirt-cheap copies of The Silver Palate, The Silver Palate Good Times, a New York Times cookbook from the Craig Claiborne years, Barbara Kafka's Food for Friends, Marian Burros's Cooking for Comfort, and Mollie Katzen's Moosewood Cookbook, as well as a few other less notable titles.

One of my favorite finds has been Recipes and Reminiscences of New Orleans Volume II: Our Cultural Heritage, compiled in 1981 by staff and parents of the city's Ursuline Academy and dedicated to the nuns who ran it. I bought it for 50 cents at a Friends of the Library book sale in Rockville a few years ago. Spiral bound and slightly stained, it is classified not by course but, somewhat archaically, by cuisines special to each major ethnic group of New Orleans, such as the "Creole," "Acadians," "Germans," "Black People of New Orleans," and "Oriental and Polynesian." At the beginning of every section is a brief (but certainly lengthy for a cookbook) history of the particular group's role in New Orleans' culinary heritage. Though these histories occasionally take on a patronizing, essentialist tone -- "As the Black cook prepares it, it is unforgettable" -- the recipes themselves are short, simple, and all derived from local (i.e., authentic) sources. Below, my slightly modified and renamed version of Shrimp Creole, which is much easier than you would expect. If you want to spring for fresh shrimp, great -- but Trader Joe's frozen does the trick.

Recipe: Nun-on-the-Run Shrimp Creole
Adapted from Recipes and Reminiscences of New Orleans Volume II: Our Cultural Heritage.
Serves 4.

1 lb. shrimp, cleaned
1 small onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
4 T (half a stick) butter
1 green pepper, chopped
1 T flour
1 8 oz. can tomato sauce
1 c water
1/4 t dried thyme
2 T fresh chopped parsley
1 t salt
1/2 t ground pepper
dash of tabasco
1/2 t lemon juice
1 bay leaf

In large saucepan, saute onion, garlic, and green pepper in butter for 8 minutes over medium heat. Blend in flour for one minute. Add shrimp, tomato sauce, water, thyme, parsley, salt, pepper, Tabasco, lemon juice, and bay leaf. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Serve over rice.