Monday, January 30, 2012

from East to West

A few weeks back, I tried a novel money-saving strategy that paid off-- quite literally: I spent $90 on a bunch of ingredients to create a huge mess of Korean soup-- three different types, in fact-- then I ladled the soups into single-serving Ziploc bags and froze them. I had enough to last me a little over three weeks, which was pretty damn cool, and since I was eating roughly two servings' worth of soup per meal (when I'm teaching, I eat once a day, and that one meal functions as two meals), my $90 came to about $1.80 per meal.

I'm about to try a similar stunt, but this time I'm going Western: I went to Costco and bought $62 worth of groceries-- mostly pasta, Italian sausage, a huge container of Kraft Parmesan, and some sweets to stretch over a several-week period. The biggest dilemma was the sauce: bottled sauces are more expensive (even the higher-end, Costco-sanctioned brands), but they're convenient, whereas starting with a tomato sauce or paste means work. All the same, I opted for work when I saw that a nearly gallon-sized can of Contadina tomato paste was under $3. None of the bottled sauces came close in value.

So last night and this afternoon, I set about creating my huge load of spaghetti sauce. Since it was a taste-as-you-go method, I don't have a recipe for you, and I doubt I could replicate this exact sauce ever again. But based on a tasting from a few minutes ago, the sauce came out quite well for a humble suburban version of the glorious Italian original.

My secret: Korean beef dashida. A good Italian tomato sauce normally starts with pork as its base, and you're supposed to build on that over the course of many hours, patiently allowing the simmering process to remove excess water and thicken the sauce naturally. Since I was starting with tomato paste and didn't have the budget for ideal ingredients, I was working with what I had in my pantry. For the sauce, there was no need to go through any thickening process: instead, I had to thin the paste out with water. I added the dashida, little by little to avoid making the sauce into a salty mess, added powdered garlic, powdered onion, some crushed red pepper, dried thyme, basil, Italian seasoning, marjoram, white pepper, black pepper, celery seed powder, and of course-- bay leaves. Four, in this case, because I was making a ton of sauce. I added a bit of sugar later in the process, and was delighted that the flavors all seemed to be marrying well. Having kept the herb and seasoning input understated, I allowed the flavors to combine without becoming overpowering (always a danger with dried herbs, which can become surprisingly bitter if cooked too long). I let the sauce rest for the night, and was delighted, this morning, to discover that it tasted even better than it had the previous night.

I reheated the sauce, added about a cup of grated Parmesan for more savor, then broke out a huge brace of Premio Hot Italian sausages (Costco sells them in packages of 24 for $14). These I skinned, plopped into the massive turkey-roasting pan I'd inherited, and cooked for a half-hour at 350 degrees-- far easier than doing this on a stove top. I then drained the meat of most of its fat (what's more disgusting than spaghetti sauce with grease blobs?), used meat scissors to cut the sausages into manageable chunks, and mixed the meat into the sauce. Right now, the sauce is undergoing the final steps in its preparation as the meaty pork flavor adds its own spin to the beefy dashida. At this point, I've probably got enough sauce to feed a party of fifteen to twenty-- two servings each. Along with my eight pounds of pasta, I'd say I'm ready to last out the month of February.

But what about vegetables? I hear you roar. That's a legitimate question. Well, since my shopping trip was a Costco run, and since I live out in the sticks, I'm not much of a fan of the local Costco's vegetables. At best, I'd buy potatoes in bulk from Costco, and that's about it. Costco's variety is fairly limited, anyway, and it makes little sense for a single guy to buy perishables in bulk. When I made my Korean soups, the cost was a bit over $90; this time around, I've managed to make never-ending spaghetti for two-thirds of that price, which leaves me with money to buy vegetables as needed from the local grocer.

Had I done the sauce my normal way, I'd have used fresh basil, added ground carrots and minced green peppers, tossed in a pile of chopped mushrooms of several types (portobellos, criminis, oysters, buttons), and would have started with something less processed than tomato paste-- probably a combination of sauce, paste, canned whole tomatoes, and skinned fresh tomatoes. Wine might have made an appearance as well, and real meat would have replaced the dashida. But we work with what we have, within the constraints of the budget that's available to us, and for all intents and purposes, I think I've come up with a pretty good sauce. My switch from East to West is going to work out just fine. That was Zen; this is Ciao!

Wish you were here.



Maven said...

Here's an interesting bit. I love oxtails and neckbones. I love pressure cooking. I love paprikash. From pressure cooking a batch of oxtails and neck bones a la paprikash, I can THEN doctor it into chili or beef bolognese.

I feel it to be my moral, culinary imperative to implore you to explore pressure cooking, especially somewhat less desirable boney cuts (cheaper) of meat, because the end product is so luxurious, the collagen breaks down from the bones and cartilidge (which is very good for your joints and skin, by the way), and the gravy it produces is full bodied.

On a related note, I also have a great, foolproof recipe for pumpkin (or sweet potato) gnocchi which pairs wonderfully with paprikash or the bolognese in question.

John McCrarey said...

So, I read this post and immediately thereafter came across this:

Now, I'm not making a critical observation, but it seemed so symbiotic I couldn't resist sharing...