Peasant food: Gourmet cooking, recession style

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The history of cuisine is pretty fascinating stuff. It's amazing to realize that, with a slightly different climate here, a different trade route there, and a different economy over there, many great foods might never have developed. I can even see this process over the course of my lifetime; for example, America's economic recession in the 1970's sparked a home cooking revolution that was absolutely revolutionary, changing almost every aspect of the culinary landscape. Even now, decades later, it is still playing out.

When I was a little kid, my parents worked and studied in Georgetown, a ritzy district of Washington, DC. The fact that we spent so much time there, combined with my parents' healthy incomes, meant that we ate at upscale restaurants three or four times a week. As inflation increased, however, I noticed that my family spent more and more time sitting around the dinner table. My mother, who had learned a few dishes while living with my father in Korea, started out by cooking either the bulgoki that we loved or a pasta recipe that she had picked up from her Italian godmother. As time went on, though, she got subscriptions to Bon Appetit and Gourmet, picked up a copy of Julia Childs' Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and began stretching her skills in the kitchen. I don't think that her original goal was to replicate the fine dining that she and my father were used to, but that is what she ended up doing. Although they couldn't afford to eat at their favorite Georgetown restaurants, my parents discovered that they could easily afford to make top-notch gourmet food at home.

At the same time that my mom was experimenting in the kitchen, something else was happening: a wide range of ethnic foods, many of which de-emphasized meat, were cropping up all over the D.C. suburbs. I still remember going out with my father to Casa Maria, one of the first Mexican restaurants in the area. Later, when taco shells and tortillas made their way to the local supermarkets, taco night became a weekly tradition at our house. Combined with mom's other experiments, this meant that the 1980's were a great time for gastronomic experimentation. As a wider range of fresh ingredients became available to us, we discovered that we could make sushi at home, butcher our own filets mignon, and even develop our wine palates, all at a fraction of the prices that we would have paid in restaurants.

The more things change, the more they stay the same: nowadays, I find myself with a small child and a foodie wife, living in a major urban center, and watching the price of food go through the roof. Luckily, I have been able to rediscover a few of the little tricks that my mother developed over thirty years ago. I've even added a few of my own!

Pasta: In the seventies, pasta had a major renaissance as people realized that it was delicious, dirt cheap, and somewhat exotic. Nowadays, however, it's become old hat, a tired meal to pull out when the larder's empty and you're in the last week before your paycheck.

It doesn't have to be like this: although pasta, in and of itself, is not the most exciting of foods, its incredible versatility makes it the perfect base for experimentation. To begin with, the pasta possibilities stretch far beyond spaghetti and red sauce. For example, if you haven't already tried pesto or gnocchi, this is the perfect time to give both of them a shot. While you're at it, you might want to try playing with your old fashioned red sauce; even this most basic of sauces allows plenty of room for playing around. Here's a simple marinara recipe that you can use as a base for numerous dishes:

Basic Marinara
4 28-ounce cans of peeled whole tomatoes
2 12-ounce cans of tomato paste
Black pepper, salt, dried red pepper flakes, dried basil, dried oregano, minced garlic, and fennel seeds; all to taste.

Pour tomatoes and paste into a large pot, breaking up the tomatoes by hand; stir until completely combined. Add other ingredients; personally, I like to use six to eight cloves of garlic, five tablespoons of fennel seeds, three tablespoons of red pepper flakes, three tablespoons of basil, three tablespoons of oregano, one tablespoon of black pepper, and two teaspoons of salt. Cook on a low simmer until thickened, about three hours.

In addition to playing with the sauce's spices, you can play with the ingredients that you add. Depending on your spices, this makes a good base for ground beef or sausage, pancetta, cream, sauteed mushrooms, or a variety of other foods. It is good on almost any type of pasta, and works well in lasagna or other baked dishes. Best of all, since it is so inexpensive, a failed experiment won't cost you a fortune!

Ethnic cooking: Just as the seventies recession brought about a renaissance in international cuisine, this one offers almost infinite possibilities for new tastes. To put it bluntly, hundreds of cultures around the world have learned the art of thriving on small amounts of cheap food; using their hard-earned knowledge, you can eat well and even try something new. For example, if you haven't already played around with Thai and Vietnamese cuisines, you should definitely give them a shot. You'll find that their combination of a few simple, fresh ingredients creates multi-layered, intense flavors that will blow your mind. By the same token, you might want to test out Peruvian food, which does things with fish that make sushi look dull.

Even lesser-known European cuisines like German, Polish, and Czech offer cooking methods that will help you save money while trying something new. For example, German sauerbraten uses some of the cheapest, toughest cuts of meat to make a dish that is incredibly delicious and tender. Similarly, Eastern European dumplings transform lowly potatoes into delicious, flavorful accompaniments to many meals.

Another massive benefit of ethnic cuisine is that many of the ingredients are available in international supermarkets. As these stores are often geared toward lower-income ethnic groups, their foods can be very reasonably priced, particularly if you're used to shopping in mainstream grocery stores. This post has a few tips for maximizing the international supermarkets in your area.

Organ meats: In all likelihood, most of the readers of this post have just stopped reading, which is why I put "organ meats" at the end. However, kudos to those of you who are still here; this is where it gets fun. You see, organ meats are the ultimate recession food. Many food historians argue that there are basically two reasons that organ meats were originally consumed. The first is the fact that they are packed with vitamins and minerals, which came in particularly handy in the dark old days when fresh fruits and vegetables were only available in the summer. For many medieval gourmands, organ meats could mean the difference between sickness and survival.

Later, when rich people began to have access to a wider variety of vitamin-rich foods, organ meats maintained their popularity among the lower classes simply because they were so cheap. Over time, inventive cooks used inexpensive organ meats to create some incredibly tasty foods, including kielbasa, pepperoni, sausage, pâté, sweetbreads, and liverwurst. Of course, once "fine dining" chefs got their hands on these delicious ingredients, the possibilities (and prices) skyrocketed. Luckily, you don't have to go to a top-end restaurant to taste some great organ meat dishes.

Today, organ meats still tend to be really cheap and, with a little bit of careful cooking, they can be very tasty. For example, chicken liver pâté is a very inexpensive dish that is quite easy to make. While you build up your courage to try out haggis, you might want to take a peek at some of Epicurious' many recipes for pâté. One of my favorites is their bourbon chicken liver pâté. It's fairly easy to make and tastes outstanding, particularly when served on french bread with sliced figs or drizzled honey.

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. He didn't mention steak and kidney pie, as he considers it to be a cruel practical joke.

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