What can you do with $5?

This weekend, I took Slow Food USA’s $5 Challenge.  The gauntlet laid down: to create a delicious home-cooked meal that costs $5 or less per person.

To commemorate the occasion, I wrote a poem.  It’s called Ode to the Chinese Takeout Place Near My Old Apartment:

You seduce me, you know

with your glossy nuggets of floury meat

and your vegetables, crisp then yielding

like a starchy executive in a big-screen comedy.

Day after day you whisper

down the street and around the corner

to the white-walled living room with the anemic lightbulbs

and jaundiced molding

where I’ve collapsed fresh off the train.

“Come back to me,” you murmur,

entrancingly,

as I wonder if the kitchen wouldn’t mind just one more day of disuse.

IT’S A TRAP.

Fact is, cooking is often more economical than eating out.  I’m not going to get sanctimonious on this point–I know that there are many, many people in this country who live in places and conditions where reasonably-priced, fresh and safe-to-eat groceries are out of reach.  But for those of us who have a grocery store close at hand, and the means to buy raw materials within, there is no reason that cost should be a factor in avoiding home-cooked meals.

For the Slow Food USA challenge, I went to the nearest ordinary grocery store–no produce stand, no farmer’s market, no Trader Joe’s.  There I found:

  • spaghetti squash for the same price as a box of pasta
  • end-of-season raspberries at a steep markdown
  • half-price ground turkey
  • scallions and garlic at 50 cents a head
  • an inexpensive half-dozen organic eggs

So I did a little mental stretchery, splurged on some milk and cream and shiitake mushrooms, and came up with a menu of spaghetti squash with scallions, mushrooms and butter…

…turkey and scallion meatballs…

…and, for dessert, creme anglaise with fresh fruit.

In addition to clocking in at almost exactly $4 per person, this was a meal where each dish had no more than six ingredients, was completely gluten-free, and didn’t send everyone home in a comatose stupor.

Now, was this the most fabulously gourmet meal I’ve ever made?  No.  The spaghetti squash was undersauced (the recipe below has double the amount), and the meatballs were decidedly meh.  The creme anglaise was fabulous, though–think melted French vanilla ice cream, for less than the cost of a carton.  And was it a whole, nutritious meal, and plenty of food for twelve hungry people?  Yah, you betcha.

Sorry, Chinese takeout place.  We’ll meet again some other time.

Spaghetti Squash with Scallions, Mushrooms and Butter (serves 6–this is double the proportion of sauce I made)

Inspired by Top Chef, by way of my friend Kate

1 spaghetti squash

10-12 shiitake mushroom caps, thinly sliced

5-6 scallions, thinly sliced on a diagonal

3-4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

2 tbsp unsalted butter

1 tbsp olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 375° F.  Pierce the spaghetti squash all over with a knife (so’s it doesn’t explode), and place it on a foil-lined baking sheet.  Bake for about 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until the squash is completely tender.  Let cool for 20-30 minutes, then cut in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds, and use a fork to separate the flesh into spaghetti-like strands.

In a large skillet, heat olive oil over medium-high heat.  Add mushrooms and saute for 5-10 minutes, until the mushrooms are starting to soften and take on a little color.  Add butter, scallions and garlic, and saute for another 5 minutes or so, just enough to take the edge off.  Add the spaghetti squash and toss it all together.  Season with salt and pepper, as you please.

Turkey and Scallion Meatballs (makes about 24 meatballs)

About 2 1/2 lb ground turkey

2-3 scallions, minced

1-2 cloves garlic, minced

1 egg

1/2 tbsp fresh minced tarragon, or 1/2 tsp dried

Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 375ºF.  Combine all ingredients in a bowl and mix thoroughly.  Shape into balls and place on foil-lined baking sheets.  Bake for 30-35 minutes, until the meatballs are cooked through.  (Alternately, pan-fry them in batches over medium-high heat.)  Serve warm with pasta.

Creme Anglaise (serves 10-12)

Adapted from The Minimalist

3/4 cup sugar

1 1/2 cups milk

1 1/2 cups heavy cream

6 egg yolks

1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Whisk all ingredients together in a saucepan.  Put over medium heat and cook, whisking continuously, until the mixture thickens to the point where it coats the back of a spoon and a line drawn with a finger down the spoon stays put.  Don’t let the custard start to boil, or it’ll seize, and you’ll be left with vanilla-flavored scrambled eggs.  I speak from experience.

Remove the custard from the heat, and strain it through a fine mesh strainer to catch any untoward egg lumps.  Voila–luxurious, eggy, sweet, velvety vanilla sauce.  Serve with fruit, or cake, or whatever you damn well please.  This is great warm, slightly cooled, or chilled.  It’ll keep two or three days in the fridge–if you can keep your mitts off it that long.

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