Monday, September 17, 2012

The George Lucas School of Cooking

Why is it that I’ve become a better and more creative cook the more our income shrinks?

I’ve been pondering that lately as I find myself cross-referencing my favorite recipes as I try to find ways to stretch what we buy. This works well when you’re cooking for three (or another small number) because many recipes are often written with larger amounts in mind. I can often cut a recipe in half, or at least 2/3, and still have some ingredients leftover. Then it becomes a creative task to try to connect the dots – what other meal can I use the remaining ingredients in? Sometimes I forget all that and just make extra of whatever I’m making – especially if it will freeze well. But sometimes I like the challenge, and my frugal Scotswoman self  loves feeling like I’ve gotten two meal possibilities out of one food item.

This week, for instance, I decided to make a pot of wedding soup. Again, I’m cooking for three, so there’s no way I’m going to start with 12 cups of broth. By cutting the recipe nearly in half, I realized that I was only going to need about half of the ground turkey for meatballs in the soup. The other half I could brown and put away and we could have them with pasta and sauce and a salad later in the week.

The soup also calls for kale (there’s that good “marriage” or “wedding” of meat and greens that gives the soup its title). I got a good size bunch, again knowing we wouldn’t need it all for the soup. Then I started thumbing through the index of the wonderful Recipes from the Root Cellar (a cookbook that never fails me) to see what I could do with a small amount of leftover fresh kale. Why not mashed potatoes and greens? Add a bit of soy sausage to the side and we’ve got another meal this week.

The irony is not lost on me. Years ago, back when I was working full-time for a fairly decent salary and had health insurance coverage and lived near scads of really good grocery stores, I was buying Stouffer’s frozen dinners. (Okay, not all the time, but when we first got married, I relied a lot on convenience foods and frozen foods for the two of us, and only slowly began to learn some tried and true “from scratch” sorts of recipes.) Now that I’m an insuranceless work-from-home mom with a family attempting to do ministry in a tiny urban area that only recently got a small grocery store within easy walking distance again, I count every nickel and dime (sometimes quite literally). And now, of course, I want to buy fresh veggies and fruits and good grains and flours and I want to cook real food.

But maybe it’s not too odd that limitations can make us more creative. Witness the vibrant original Star Wars trilogy (Lucas on a budget) versus the tepid, bloated second generation Star Wars films (Lucas run amok with money). If you don’t want to waste anything you find something interesting to do with it.

Of course sometimes limitation and lack, especially when they dip down to serious levels, can just become exhausting. We’ve been there sometimes – not quite with food (though I’ve had weeks I’ve wanted to bang my head in frustration over eating yet more peanut butter or more beans) but in other ways. There is a fine line, in all levels of life, between limitations that push you to find creative ways to do more with less and actual lack that frustrates you, tires you out, pushes you in the direction of anger and fear.  Dancing close to it sometimes has given me deeper empathy for people who have gone over that edge and live in that place regularly.

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