It’s a recessionary January, and I came into this new year wondering how on earth my credit card balances has mushroomed like they have? With the state of the economy being what it is, and layoffs happening right and left, I find myself in a bad position. A position that all this LivingSmall stuff was supposed to protect me from. So I’ve been drawing up budgets, and it’s a good thing I have full freezers and pantries and a garden that will eventually thaw out and come back to life, because if I’m to get out from under this terrifying debt, I’m going to have to live very very small indeed for the next year or so.
I first learned to cook in New York City when I was working as an editorial assistant for a book packager. Publishing in general pays very badly, and this job, working for a tiny company, paid even worse. I had absolutely no money, but I was working in cookbooks, and so had access to a lot of information. And I was living in New York, where even broke, a girl had to eat, and where there were all sorts of interesting markets. I went up to the Indian markets on East 28th street, and down to little Italy where the delis smelled of sausage and cheeses and the miraculous proscuitto bread. I found a tiny store a few blocks south of my apartment that sold only olives and fresh mozzarella. I once had a long conversation in an Italian bakery about the proper biscotti to take to a performance of Tosca in Central Park. But mostly, I haunted the Union Square Greenmarket on Saturdays, as much to assuage my gigantic loneliness as to buy food — the greenmarket was like a lifeline to me — it was filled with vendors who came from places outside the city, places where you could dig in the dirt and grow things. I only lasted two years in NYC because it turns out that I was not a city person. I moved to New York only to discover that I was suffocating without woods and fields and nature. But for those two years, the Greenmarket, where I could buy real apples and cheese made by hippies in a panel van, a place where, when I pointed to a beautiful stack of cranberry beans and asked “what are those?” a lady next to me not only told me they were cranberry beans, but that one used them to make pasta fazul (and of course, she said it in that tone of voice that meant I was an idiot for not knowing that already. Everyone knows you make pasta fazul with cranberry beans! sheesh!).
I had never heard of pasta fazul but I found in our cookbook library at work a spiral-bound book called American Gumbo: Affordable Cuisine for the Everyday Gourmet. It’s been out of print for years, but I still have my copy (which I guess I must have pinched). I have it because it’s the kind of book you can go back to when you’re in financial trouble, and get a refresher course in how to cook and eat well on very little money. American Gumbo has a recipe for “Pasta Fazool,” but more important it is full of the kinds of hints that someone like me, someone living on no money at all, but who still wanted to eat well could use. Cooking and eating were, after all, my only entertainment. I was too broke to go out to bars or to dinner. I was often too broke to go to the movies. But I had to eat, and if I had to eat, I was certainly going to eat well.
American Gumbo has many great recipes — for years the Poulet Bonne Femme (essentially a white version of coq au vin) was my standby dinner party or first dinner date recipe. Men in particular loved it — stewed chicken with potatoes and carrots and bits of bacon. But what I’ve found myself going back to in the era of the New Austerity is her concept of dividing the week into seven categories for seven types of dinners: Fish, Pasta and Rice, Chicken, Vegetarian Entrees, Red Meats, Beans, Eggs and Cheese. The author, Linda West Eckhardt (who now writes the Fight Fat with Fat blog) had little kids when she wrote this book, and what she wanted was a way to think about her grocery shopping that would allow for serendipity and bargains and discovery. Dividing the week into categories like this allows you to eat enough different things that you don’t get bored. It’s also becoming more and more clear that we should all be abstaining from meat a day or two a week, not only for our health, but for the health of the planet (see this interview with Mark Bittman on the subject).
“Abstaining” is such an alarming word, but when you think of it as adding categories, rather than taking them away — when you think of it as adding some great options like frittatas or pasta with clam sauce or even Pasta Fazool, then it’s less like leaving something out than it is like adding a whole bunch of delicious options that just happen not to be based on meat. We all know, I’m hardly a vegetarian, but I have found myself cutting back, in part because I’m avoiding, whenever possible, meat that wasn’t raised by (or hunted by) someone I know. I’ve been looking at my plate and trying to load it with at least three times as many vegetables as there is meat, and I’m finding that is working out really well. It’s more interesting than the boring old meat-and-two-veg dinner plate, and I’ve been sort of using Eckhardt’s categories as a way to break out of the box of the same-old dinners. Last night I did a braised ham slab with cream and carrots and peas over a baked potato, and tonight I think it’ll be pasta with bolognese sauce. Tomorrow, who knows? A piece of frozen meatloaf with turnip greens from last summer’s garden? Ham and bean soup? Lentils with a little home-cured pancetta and a lot of carrots and onions and celery? Or pasta with sautee’d veggies and a fried egg on top? Just because we’re all broke doesn’t mean we have to eat badly, in fact, I’d like to hope that being broke might bring people back to the basics, and back to a realization that cooking your own dinner is more delicious, healthier, and certainly easier on your wallet than eating out or eating those horrible frozen meals from the grocery store. And although the recession is a real problem, I don’t think it’s necessarily so terrible that we’re all reminded that there’s a wisdom to living within our means, and that paying attention to the details of daily life is the way to do that.