When money is tight, she turns the cuisine of her Italian roots

|    Joy Manning    |

MAY BE you are one of the hundreds of thousands of people not getting your paycheque, thanks to the government shutdown. Maybe you feel squeezed after a holiday spending frenzy, or you’ve been watching the stock market the past few weeks and are worried about your 401(k). Right about now, a lot of us are feeling anxious about money.

I know I am. As a freelancer in the gig economy, I try to be prepared for money hiccups. When I lost my biggest client late last year, I told myself not to panic. This is what my emergency fund is for. Then a surprise five-figure tax bill slipped through my mail slot and swallowed that money, six months of living expenses, whole.

Like most Americans, when I look at my expenses, most of them are fixed. I can’t cut back my monthly mortgage, health insurance or student loan costs. I don’t have cable TV or other low-hanging fruit in my budget, so the need to save money leaves me staring down one big adjustable line item: food.

After taking the obvious first step of cutting way back on restaurants and prepared food, I had to look at my grocery receipts. As a writer and recipe developer, food is central to my work. But even if it weren’t, I would still spend a lot of time in the kitchen because I love to cook. And when I’m not careful, I can really overspend on groceries. Last year, USD14-per-pound exotic mushrooms, USD20 pastured chickens and USD50 bottles of olive oil were not uncommon purchases. Coming into 2019, I know this can’t go on.

In America, we don’t have what the Italians call cucina povera, or poverty cuisine. “There isn’t a long history of famine here. But most other places in the world, across Europe and China, people know how to eat well with less,” said Andrew Coe, a food historian and co-author of A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression.

During the Depression, he said, most Americans, accustomed to a bland, meaty diet, followed the advice of the new Bureau of Home Economics.

“They advocated a whole new way of eating that focused on getting the most bang from your buck nutritionally,” he said. Flavour, however, was not a consideration. Recipes published by the bureau included baked onion stuffed with peanut butter.

Immigrants, on the other hand, leaned hard on their traditional food cultures to enjoy meals even without much cash for ingredients.

“Italians gathered wild dandelion greens from vacant plots, stewed them with olive oil and garlic, and served them over toast,” Coe said. Sounds like a 2019 restaurant dish to me.

I’ve always been inspired by my Italian roots. My mother-in-law recalls her own Italian grandmother foraging for greens. So it’s no surprise that as I started meal planning on my new budget, the dishes I made skewed toward cucina povera.

Mushroom and kale pizza
Vegetable frittata

Though my food budget has, ahem, changed, I don’t feel deprived at mealtime. Fancy ingredients are wonderful, but I haven’t always had them. As I started to shop on a newly strict food budget – USD80 a week for my family of two, the US Department of Agriculture’s “thrifty plan” – it brought me back to my first journalism job, when my husband and I moved in together.

We lived on our entry-level salaries making those early, painful student loan payments. We were on the thrifty plan without even knowing it, and it never occurred to me to feel deprived.

This was the time I first fell in love with food, in fact. We shopped at discount grocery stores and cooked special dinners from scratch together.

When I started to cut grocery spending in late 2018, I reverted to meal plans that mirrored what I cooked in my first kitchen back in 2003: simple, mostly vegetarian comfort food.

Back then, our date nights revolved around homemade pizzas. Everyone loves pizza, but it is a special favourite of experts in thrifty treats, including Beth Moncel, author of the blog.

Budget Bytes and the book Budget Bytes: Over 100 Easy, Delicious Recipes to Slash Your Grocery Bill in Half.

With a degree in nutritional science, Moncel said healthy cooking and budget cooking overlap more than most people think.

Pizza is the perfect example. “You want to really control how much of the expensive stuff you use,” she said. “With homemade pizza, you can use half the usual amount of cheese and not even notice.”

My homemade pizza indeed calls for less cheese than many other recipes I’ve seen. The dough I make is nearly half whole-wheat flour, and I like plenty of vegetables for toppings. All these choices make pizza night an affordable, wholesome way to splurge.

Here are other ways to cook well on a budget:

1. Cut down on food waste. It costs the average American USD38 a month. When it comes to making pizza, I strategise to ensure that any leftover ingredients are portioned for long-term storage. For example, I buy decent mozzarella by the pound from a cheesemonger. I cut the block into five roughly three-ounce pieces, using one for pizza now and wrapping the remaining four tightly and storing in a zip-top bag in the freezer for later.

I start with a 28-ounce can of whole tomatoes, blitz them with my stick blender, and divide into five one-cup containers, using one and freezing the rest. Even my dough recipe makes a spare ball to freeze for later.

Over the years, I have come to refer to this as “the pizza system”.

It means I almost always have what I need to put a cheese pizza on the table without a trip to the store, and I never throw ingredients away. I try to apply this systematic, use-it-up thinking to all my meal plans.

2. Be flexible. Pizza is adaptable, and if you have stray veggies in the fridge, chances are they will taste good on a pizza. But if I don’t have anything on hand, I follow Moncel’s advice in the produce section. “Stick to hearty vegetables that don’t spoil fast,” she said. Delicate, tender basil, arugula and baby spinach are out; robust kale and stout button mushrooms are in. But a bunch of kale and an eight-ounce package of mushrooms are more veggies than even I can fit on a pizza.

3. Enter the frittata, a dish that will run you about USD1.25 per serving. This easy, economical, open-faced omelet rescues a wide variety of crisper rejects from the compost bin. Frittata is good for breakfast, lunch or dinner; hot or cold; alone, with a salad, or in a sandwich. I don’t think one bite of frittata has ever gone to waste on my watch. Almost anything you like on top of pizza, you will like married with eggs in frittata form. – Text & Photos by The Washington Post

Mushroom and kale pizza

Overview: Whole-wheat flour adds fiber and a nutty flavour, but you could use all bread flour or even all-purpose for this pizza dough. The fennel seed is optional, but it suggests sausage in such a way that makes this meatless meal seem more substantial. It’s helpful to use a pizza stone, but a rimless or overturned rimmed baking sheet can work.

Make Ahead: The pizza dough needs to rise in the refrigerator overnight. Leftover pizza can be refrigerated for up to two days.

Ingredients:

Two cups bread flour (may substitute all-purpose flour), plus more for rolling

1 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour

2 1/4 teaspoons (one packet) instant dried yeast

One teaspoon salt, plus more as needed

One teaspoon sugar

1 1/2 cups warm water

One tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for the container

Cornmeal, for dusting

3/4 cup pureed canned tomatoes

1/4 cup diced onion

1 cup sliced button mushrooms

1 cup stemmed, chopped kale leaves

1/4 teaspoon fennel seed (optional)

Three ounces mozzarella cheese, grated (about 3/4 cup)

Two ounces sharp cheddar, grated (about 1/2 cup)

Steps:

1. Combine the bread flour, whole-wheat flour, yeast, salt and sugar in a food processor.

Pulse a few times to mix. With the motor running, gradually add the warm water and oil. Continue processing until a ball of dough forms. (It’s OK if some dough sticks around the edges.)

The dough will be sticky at this point.

2. Grease the inside of a large, lidded container with a little oil, then transfer the dough to the container. Cover and let the dough rise in the refrigerator overnight.

3. About an hour before you want to make pizza, place your pizza stone on the middle oven rack; preheat to 500 degrees.

Also, remove the dough from the refrigerator. Divide the dough in half (about 14 ounces each). Put one dough portion in a zip-top freezer bag and store in the freezer for another time. Form the other half into a ball and return it to the lidded container and leave it on the counter.

4. Dust the work surface and your rolling pin with flour. Place the ball of dough on the counter; roll it out into a 12- to 14-inch round. Dust a pizza peel with cornmeal, and place the dough round on top.

(If you aren’t using a pizza stone, assemble the pizza directly on a rimless baking sheet that has been lightly dusted with cornmeal.)

5. Spread the tomato sauce on the round of dough, then season it lightly with salt. Scatter the onion, mushrooms, kale leaves and fennel seed evenly over the surface. Top with the grated mozzarella and cheddar.

6. Place the tip of the pizza peel toward the back of the pizza stone; use a fast, confident yanking motion to slide the pizza onto the stone. (Or place the baking sheet into the oven, at this point.)

Bake for 15 minutes, until the cheese is bubbly and starting to brown and the crust is crisp. Transfer to a wire rack and cool for at least five minutes before serving.

Vegetable frittata

Overview: Consider this recipe a weapon in the fight against food waste, because it will take in almost any vegetables overstaying their welcome in your crisper. Replace the mushrooms, kale and onion here with about three cups of whatever ingredients you need to use up. You can also toss in any type of cheese you have instead of the pecorino. Leftovers can be refrigerated for up to three days.

Ingredients:

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Five ounces red potatoes, cut into small dice (unpeeled; 1 cup)

1/2 medium onion, cut into small dice

Two large kale leaves, leaves and stems separated and each finely chopped

Three ounces sliced button mushrooms (1 1/2 cups)

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 clove garlic, minced

1/4teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

One ounce pecorino Romano cheese, finely grated (1/4 cup)

Four large eggs, beaten

Steps:

1. Position a rack about four inches from the broiler element in your oven; preheat your broiler.

2. Add half the oil to a well-seasoned eight-inch cast-iron or other ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. Add the potatoes; partially cover and cook for five to eight minutes, until they are just starting to soften and brown.

Add the remaining two tablespoons of oil, the onion, kale stems, mushrooms and 1/4 teaspoon salt, stirring to coat. Cook for five to eight minutes, until the vegetables are tender. Add the kale leaves and cook for one minute, or until just wilted.

3. Stir the garlic, the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt, the pepper and half the cheese into the eggs.

Pour that mixture over the vegetables in the skillet and stir briefly to incorporate. Reduce the heat to medium; cook, undisturbed, for about five minutes, until the edges appear set. Scatter the other half of the pecorino on top of the frittata.

4. Transfer the skillet to the oven rack; cook for three to five minutes, rotating for even browning, until the frittata is cooked through and browned on top. Watch closely so the frittata does not burn.

5. Let stand for five minutes before slicing and eating.