This guest post is from Donna Freedman, a former MSN Money staffer who now writes for Money Talks News and a number of other websites and magazines, and who blogs about money and midlife at DonnaFreedman.com. She’s also my mom, which is why I’m breaking my”no guest post” rule.
I am nuts about the Food Network show “Chopped.” The premise: Four chefs are given baskets of “mystery ingredients” and tasked to create appetizers, entrees and desserts within 20 to 40 minutes. A panel of food professional tastes and critiques the results. By the dessert round, only two chefs are left.
The “chef” concept is fairly malleable. Sometimes these folks work at highfalutin big-city restaurants that even I’ve heard of (and believe me, I have a very proletarian palate). But there’s also a heapin’ helpin’ of other job titles: diner cooks, personal chefs, caterers, even taco-truck entrepreneurs.
The mystery ingredients aren’t always mysterious. You’ll see heirloom vegetables, beautifully ripe fruits, gorgeous cuts of steak and sleek slabs of salmon. But sometimes the poor bastards are given ingredients like duck testicles, stinky tofu, goat brains, sea cucumber, durian and a whole canned chicken that slid out of its can in such a disgustingly gelatinous way that it appears in the show’s preamble.
My friend Linda B. always DVRs the show for our weekly meet-ups. She and I sit on the couch cheering like dudes watching football: “She’s still plating and there’s only six seconds left! He didn’t include the rosewater – ooohhh, are they gonna take points away from him! Is she kidding, mixing poblano chiles into the sorbet?!? Hey, somebody’s bacon is on fire!”
Lately I’ve been chopping our own kitchen. I think you should, too.
That is, you should look for new ways to use what you have rather than calling out for a pizza or picking up takeout. This can save you some serious coin: According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 43.1 percent of our food spending is for meals consumed away from home. What could even some basic cooking do for your bottom line?
Yes, I know that some people (including the author of I Pick Up Pennies) have perfectly good reasons for not cooking. But plenty of us simply get used to the convenience of Thai takeout, frozen PBJs, even cups of precooked rice that work out to almost $5 a pound).
If you’re able to cook and interested in saving money, don’t think of it as drudgery. Consider it a chance to get creative.
At first glance the odds and ends in the fridge and pantry might seem not to want to play together. Just think of them as your very own mystery ingredients.
If you’re the kind of person who just reheats and eats leftovers, well, I hope you’ll be very happy. But augmenting and/or repurposing them might take you a little further. That small piece of chicken can be diced and mixed with that last little bit of lettuce, a sliced hard-cooked egg and a few scraps of cheese to make a chef’s salad.
Or cut it thinly and heat it with drained canned black beans (hint: always keep canned beans on the shelf), a bit of salsa, some grated cheese and wrap it in a tortilla, or serve with a side of rice.
Or turn it into a stir-fry with whatever vegetables and spices/sauces you have on hand, adding leftover rice at the very end. It must be leftover rice – freshly cooked rice is no good for a stir-fry. (Whenever I cook rice I make more than we need, in case we want a stir-fry later on, a bowl of rice and milk for breakfast, or simply extra grain to reheat for the next day’s meal. You could also make extra and freeze it for fast future meals.)
Googlewhacking your palate
Of course, sometimes what’s in the house really is mysterious:
- Unusual canned goods from a previous (and short-lived) “we really should cook more” phase
- Exotic spices (ditto)
- That foil packet of instant masala nobody remembers buying
- Unidentified frozen objects from waaaay in the back of the freezer, so coated with frost you can’t tell whether they’re fish or fowl (or sherbet)
The easiest way to chop your kitchen and pantry is to Googlewhack those ingredients. Type whatever you have on hand into a search engine, e.g., “peanut butter and ramen.” Up will pop recipes like “Easy Peanut Sauce Ramen.” Then get busy chopping.
Don’t have the soy sauce the recipe calls for? Check the fridge and you may find those extra packets from your last Chinese takeout order. (You knew there was a reason you saved them.) No fresh lemons? Use some of the juice from that lemon-shaped plastic container that your former roommate left behind.
No cayenne? Check the fridge again, for packets of red-pepper flakes that came with a previous pizza. Substitution is one of the most interesting parts of cooking.
Fresh out of garlic powder? Substitute garlic salt – it’s okay, because this particular recipe requires you to throw away the salt-saturated “flavor packet” that comes with the ramen. (Although personally, I’d hang on to it for some future chopping adventure.)
No such thing as “bad” food?
Some recipes really do require slavish adherence. For example, deciding to substitute baking soda for baking powder will create some really weird biscuits.
But often you can make up your own rules. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Abby’s husband, Tim, came up with the idea of adding barbecue sauce to turkey chili. The result is quite tasty.
My partner, DF, once turned a playing-card-sized bit of leftover beef into a satisfying meal for both of us. He started by sautéing onion – many of the world’s best dishes begin this way – and added the beef, sliced very thinly. I’m not sure about what else got tossed in (he did this while I was meeting a deadline, bless his heart), but I know it included an Asian sauce packet from the cupboard, curry powder, dried kale from last year’s garden, maybe a little peanut butter, a bit of yogurt whey and some vegetable cooking water from the freezer.
He cooked some ramen (without the flavor packet) separately, and added the drained noodles to the sauce. The result was absolutely delicious. He could probably never repeat it, but that’s one of the things that makes cooking so interestingg. Every day is an adventure once you’ve decided to stray off the path, i.e., to close the cookbook.
Will all your chopped “recipes” turn out well? Maybe not. Recently I got the brilliant idea of marinating chicken thighs in some of the liquid from the Koolickle jar. While the liquid itself is brilliant (an eerie, fluorescent red), the result was less than inspired.
Then there was the evening that DF decided to start us off with consommé but all we had was tomato soup. He heated it up and added some of that dried kale. (We’ve got bags and bags of the stuff to use, and a little goes a long way.)
I won’t say that either recipe was an outright failure. As the saying goes, “There’s no such thing as bad food – only recipes you’re not going to make again.”
Do you ever get creative with available ingredients? What’s your favorite happy discovery or your most epic food fail?