Posts Tagged ‘poverty’

Nothing like nothing in the larder

July 7, 2010

If there are any notable challenges to the creative cook, poverty probably ranks the highest. There’s nothing like nothing in the larder to truly inspire a cook to new levels of culinary greatness.

Take this evening, for example. Still waiting on payments from a web site which shall remain nameless, I found myself rummaging through the refrigerator looking for something to make for dinner. Last night, I made a pretty tasty sweet potato and chickpea soup (which included green apple, shallots, corn, cilantro, garlic, and jalapeño) with a pan of corn bread but after eating the soup for lunch today, as well, I wasn’t really in the mood for another helping.

Actually, photographing the damned noodles and fussing with the lighting was probably more difficult than actually making them.

What else was available? Not much. Then I remembered I still had a couple of eggs in the refrigerator. I had flour. And olive oil, and capers, and sage growing on the windowsill in the kitchen. There was still a chunk of Romano cheese, too. Dinner just sort of presented itself.

I learned how to make handmade pasta several years ago but I’ve been making it with more frequency in the past couple of years. In fact, just a few weeks ago, I spent a couple of hours with the kids at my temple teaching them how to make noodles from scratch. It’s a useful skill to have and, anyway, few things rival the simple pleasure of fresh, homemade pasta.

It took me about 20 minutes to make a batch of fettuccine using my hand cranked pasta machine. Before I threw it into the pot to boil, I picked several leaves of sage from my windowsill herb garden and then, after cutting them into a fine chiffonade, I tossed them into a skillet filled with about three tablespoons of olive oil heating up over a low flame. I rinsed off a couple tablespoons of the salted capers I bought while I was in Italy and added those to the oil, too.

While the herbs sizzled gently in the pan, I dumped the noodles into the pot of boiling, salted water I had going on the other side of the stove, stirring them to prevent them from sticking together (unless you hang the freshly made noodles on racks or toss them with flour, they have an annoying tendency to cling to one another as severely as if they were suffering from abandonment issues). Fresh noodles, of course, take very little time to cook. That gave me just enough time to grate about half a cup of Romano cheese and to crush some black pepper.

In a few minutes, the noodles were done. I drained them, returned them to the pot, and then poured the hot oil and herbs over the pile of pasta. I added the pepper, and then – stirring the noodles all the while – added the grated cheese, bit by bit.

Dinner was ready. Inexpensive? Oh, yeah. I figure about 45 cents for the flour, 33 cents for the eggs, 16 cents for the olive oil, and another 40 cents or so for the cheese – as well as for the capers –  and the whole meal probably cost me $1.74.

Being broke doesn’t mean one has to eat badly but eating well on a budget running in negative digits does require a certain amount of skill.

A Sign of Good Things To Come

February 4, 2010
At the moment – at this very moment – I’m broke. Like freelance writers everywhere, I am dependent upon the whims of editors and their bookkeepers to ensure I receive payment for my work. Unlike many freelancers, I know how to cook and that makes my life a little easier.

Part of the beauty of knowing how to cook, even in the face of abject poverty – whether it is temporary or long term – is knowing how to make the best of sometimes very limited ingredients. If I have staples on hand, I feel secure. Even in the direst of circumstances, I can at least turn out a solid meal that will not only sustain me physically – hunger is hell on the body – but emotionally. Dreary food is hell on the spirit.

Tonight, I made one of the dishes I grew up with, pinto beans and corn bread. I love beans and I make damned good corn bread. What I love about beans and corn bread, even more than its tiny impact on my budget, is that even when I’m feeling flush, I still love to cook it. Even when money is the very least of my worries, a pot of beans simmering away on the stove top with a ham hock or two bobbing about amidst the legumes is remarkably reassuring. It is comforting in the way a warm house is comforting when one comes in from the cold, or comforting as the return of a loved one is after a long, unsure absence.

Corn bread, too, baking in the oven is a source of surety. Pouring the batter into a scalding iron skillet – hearing it sizzle and watching it bubble around the edges of the pan as it hits the melted fat – is a call not only to the taste buds but a wealth of scents and sounds. Corn bread is enveloping comfort at its best. Simple to make with none of the fussiness of yeast breads, corn bread’s gritty bite is substantial with flavor and nourishment and reliability.

Once the bread is done and the beans are finished simmering, I love to dunk the buttery slices of bread into the pot liquor, letting them soak up as much liquid as possible while still being able to get the piece into my mouth before it disintegrates from the weight of the juices. I always eat too much corn bread when I serve it with beans; the combination of flavors is irresistible.

I wasn’t aware that not everyone felt as highly about beans, or corn bread, until I was living on my own. A woman with whom I was friendly and I met on the street. This was in my hometown, Fayetteville, Arkansas, and I must have stepped out to pick up something because I had beans cooking on the stove at home and in the course of chatting, I invited her over for dinner.

“Oh, no,” she insisted. “I’m planning on making curry. Come to my house, instead.” I remember, too, she was from Illinois, or someplace like that, and like many of my friends was a student at the university. I did have dinner with her at her house, but I was disappointed she seemed so uninterested in what I had planned. Beans and corn bread, I came to realize, was not a dish highly prized by everyone.

Nearly 25 years after that encounter, though, I still prize them and tonight, even with an empty checking account and a sense of impatience as I wait for the mail carrier to push those highly anticipated checks through the mail slot in the door to my flat, I feel that same sense of satisfied pleasure that only comes with a meal one truly enjoys. Beans and corn bread mean everything is, and is going to be, just fine.