Food for Thought

Going to the grocery store? Take out a bank loan

I know I’m in trouble when I see the note.
The note is written on red paper. It’s stuck to the refrigerator door with a magnet, in a spot where I can’t help but see it, since I find myself in front of the refrigerator much of the time.

“Karl, look at this!!! Do not get distracted!!! Read this!!!”

Stuck next to the piece of red paper with yet another magnet (a ceramic facsimile of a fluffy, little dog of indeterminate origin) is a sheaf of receipts, with another note, this one written on bright yellow paper.

“Grocery receipts, Aug. 1-14 … $342!!!!!!!!!!!!”
There may have been a few more exclamation points.

Hmmm. That’s a lot of money.

Not that I went overboard, or anything like that. I blame it on the food industry.

Check it out, if you are too dense to have realized it long ago: Your grocery bill has continued to climb. Depending on whether you are goofy enough to require nothing but organic produce and meats, the tab has skyrocketed in recent years.

Heck, it’s gone through the roof.

It’s like we’re buying, and eating, gold, which, in the case of some gold-leaf additions to desserts, is not entirely a bad idea. I know for a fact some residents of Dubai have gold-lined intestines.

Kathy lurks behind me, watching me read her notes.

She pounces. “What have you been getting at the store that costs so much money? I had no idea we were leaking cash like this.”

“Well, it seems like a lot,” I reply. “But, might I remind you: You have been eating what I cook. With very few complaints.”

“Karl, at this pace, you are spending almost seven-hundred dollars a month at the grocery store. You are frittering away what little we have that could supplement the two-hundred dollars a month you’ll get from Social Security.”

I restrain myself just before I blurt out that the grocery receipts do not include the money I spend on wine. I’m not the brightest bulb in the marquee, but I do not have a death wish.

I review what I purchase. If I am not having someone over for dinner, I keep the menu items to a mild roar. And, since I almost never have anyone over, mild roar is the rule of the day.

I decide to check the receipts more carefully. What they reveal is stunning. In a nutshell: You don’t have to be eating tenderloin every night to hit the bank account square on the jaw. To knock it out, in fact.

A hunk of cheese, and nothing spectacular at that: $5.47.

A piece of “fresh” fish — enough for two, with small portions: $7.38. Want halibut? Thirteen fifty.

Two boneless, half chicken breasts — the good kind, absent antibiotics, etc.: $8.95.

Want your fruits and vegetables to be organic? You are going to need a second job.

I pore over the receipts. It’s unbelievable.

I make a resolution.

Actually, I make the resolution after Kathy threatens me and tells me what I am going to do.

The regimen is going to change.

I am putting on the brakes; I am going to try to cook at least two meals per week using whatever I find in pantry and fridge.

That, of course, involves knowing what lurks in these environs.

Step one: Ferret through the freezer.

Wow. There’s a half ton of frost-frizzed stuff in there that is unidentifiable. I suppose, someday, I should get rid of it. I push most of the frozen crud to the back of the compartment and examine what seems viable, foodwise.

There’s a pack of salmon fillets — the fish still recognizable. And a plastic bag containing Malay curry powder, courtesy my pal, Ming. It’s still good. Likewise, some Espanola red in another ziplock.

I find a couple large hunks of some kind of flesh. Kind of an odd color, but potentially usable.

There’s a huge pack of shredded cheese, left over from Ivy’s wedding buffet and most of it is fine, since the frost line has made its way but an inch or so past the opening of the bag.

I find five or six half-full packs of frozen veggies — peas, haricots vert, etc. — the contents of which are not hopelessly freezer-burned. There’s one pack of peas that will fit in the plan somewhere.

I move to the fridge.

Right off, I see a need to consolidate some things. For example, I have five small plastic containers with two or three olives in each. Some day I need to put all the olives in one container.

There are four small batches of demi-glace — three of them incredibly old. Some day I need to get rid of them; a mistake there could be fatal.

The vegetable drawer is a sedimentary riot. At the top of the pile, half a head of fairly fresh romaine and a bunch of relatively fresh Italian parsley. There are two carrots that seem unharmed by neglect. One layer down things start to get a bit nasty. You’ve seen lettuce when it starts to get soggy? If not, come on over and I’ll show you some. Layer three … unspeakably disgusting. Compost. I suppose I should get a scoop of some kind and remove the mess of rotting vegetable matter. Some day, I’ll do that.

The cheese drawer?

A Petri dish, of sorts. There’s plenty there that needs to go, someday. There are, however, some swell items in the drawer. Cheese, after all, depending on the type, is pretty sturdy. And unwanted mold can be cut away. I find a container of shaved Parmesan, a round of Mexican asadero, a small, still-sealed hunk of sharp cheddar someone sent as a Christmas gift. Which Christmas, I can’t say. This is all good stuff. As is a pile of not-yet cruddy corn tortillas.

I find some heavy cream with a use-or-perish date a couple days in the future, and a dozen eggs. There’s a stick of butter on the shelf. I discover a bonus: two paper-thin slices of prosciutto that have avoided the scourge. They’re starting to gray out a bit, but I think the pig is still in the race.

A scan of the pantry reveals a mess of exotic condiments — little tins of Thai curry pastes, a jar of Patak’s best vindaloo, several cans of fire-roasted, crushed tomatoes, several cans of beans — pinto, kidney, garbanzo. There are two boxes of chicken broth and a box of bucatini. The search uncovers half a package of panko crumbs and two cans of pink salmon — items that can combine, with egg, onion, parsley and tarragon, into some mighty fine salmon cakes. Some day.

On the counter, thanks to gardener friends … zucchini. And lemons. Beneath the counter … a bag of organic onions my brother gave me a month ago, all still good. There’s garlic in a bowl on the counter and a full shelf of herbs and spices. And I have plenty of olive oil.

I’ve got wine in the cellar.

I’m ready to give it a go.

I decide to build the first budget meal on a pasta foundation: the bucatini
— hollow spaghetti, if you will — and one of my faves.

I set a pot of water on high heat and throw in some salt.

I dice half an onion and mince four cloves of garlic. I chop a bunch of parsley. Since the zucchini have been grown without nasty agribusiness additives, I merely wash one of the squash, trim the ends, halve it and cut it into small half-moon pieces.

I open a can of tomatoes and a can of garbanzo beans. I drain and rinse the beans.

I chop the prosciutto and set a heavy sauté pan over medium high heat. When the pan is hot, I add some oil and, when the oil begins to shimmer, I toss in the meat and the onion and stir, cooking until the onion is translucent and the pork gives up its fat and begins to brown a bit (or, at least, turn a darker shade of gray). In goes the zucchini and it is tossed around for a while. In goes half a can of the tomato and I let the mess cook until the tomato gives up most of its moisture and begins to caramelize. I pop in some herbes de Provence, some salt and pepper and the garlic. The beans go in as well, along with half the parsley. After a few minutes over the heat, I splash in a bit of chicken stock and I let the mix reduce, adjusting the seasoning with more of the herbes de Provence. I plop in a knob of butter. Why not?

The bucatini goes in the pot and, when firmly al dente, it comes out and is drained. (Do you rinse your cooked pasta? If you do — with very few exceptions granted — you should be punished, in public.) A splash or so of heavy cream into the sauce mix and the pasta is put into the pan and tossed with the ingredients.

I add a bit of the Parmesan, saving the rest of the cheese to be served on the side. I slosh in a bit of fresh lemon juice, for brightness.

The pasta is served with a side of torn romaine, dressed with a lemon juice and oil vinaigrette, the dressing amped up a bit with some stone ground mustard and tarragon.

Mighty fine. And not a cent spent at the store.

Next up are those salmon cakes, with a bit of old couscous I found in the cupboard, behind a box of stale crackers.

In two days, if the tortillas hold up — I’ll employ the Espanola red, the onions, the non-frosty wedding cheese, some broth (if it hasn’t gone bad) and stack up some cheese enchiladas, ranchero style — with a poached egg on top of each pile. Pop open a can of pintos, dress ’em up a bit with some cumin, oregano and broth, then cook ’em down to near mush.

Beyond that … I wonder if there is anything you can do with the fuzz that grows on old fruit?


What's Cookin?

Fresh Raspberry Pie

1 15-ounce refrigerated pie crust, softened as directed on box
1 cup granulated sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup water
4 cups fresh raspberries
1 tablespoon butter
1 cup whipping cream
1 tablespoon powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla

1. Heat oven to 450 F. Make pie crust as directed on box for One-Crust Baked Shell using 9-inch glass pie pan. Bake 9 to 11 minutes or until light golden brown. Cool completely, about 30 minutes.