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Parsley Doesn’t Count

It’s nearly June, the big northeast snowfest that lasted into April is pretty much over, and all the May and June issues of the big food magazines are showing…almost no fresh vegetables on the covers. Or inside. Oh, you do see some green–but it’s garnish. Flat-leaf parsley, a little cilantro, a sprig of basil maybe, chopped or torn over the cover dish to make it pretty. But very few actual vegetables–take a little walk with me down the newsstand for a sec.

magcovers

All magazine cover thumbnails shown have been lifted shamelessly–they’re not mine, they’re the property of their respective publishers–and pasted together here solely for parody value and critical review of the food literature.

Saveur? Fried chicken. Seriously. Cooking Light? Hotdog special–one with a slice of pickle and tomato, another with avocado, to represent Vietnamese and Mexican, respectively.  Whoo-don’t you feel like a world traveler now. Food and Wine? Burgers by Bobby Flay. Bon Appétit? Another burger. Food Network? They don’t even pretend. Ice cream cone. With whipped cream and a cherry on top. On a cone.

The women’s mags are leaning toward desserts: Martha Stewart–cake. Southern Living, Allrecipes–pie. Better Homes & Gardens and BHG Diabetic Living both feature watermelon and ice cream or sorbet assortments. All of it very pink.

Eating Well cover Vegetarian Times cover

But even EatingWell and Vegetarian Times aren’t doing all that much vegetabalia on their green-looking covers. EW has a vegetable serving platter with a nice looking bunch of raw green beans and tomatoes at the bottom, but more than half of the platter is canned  beans or dip. Not that I’m against those, but they really aren’t fresh veg.  VT has a grilled veg and quinoa salad platter that looks wholesome enough, but if you zoom in for a closer look you realize it’s not mostly veg either. If you took a quarter of it for yourself, you’d only get 3 or 4 thin slices of pepper and zucchini on your plate along with the grain. Most of the green you see in the picture is a token sprinkling of arugula and basil sprigs strewn over the top–a strategy that’s being used and abused in the less veg-forward pubs to make steak or pork loin or mac ‘n’ cheese look like they have something fresh and healthy about them.

Lucky Peach and Cook’s Illustrated both go for graphics rather than photos. LP has a cartoony poster graphic of garden lushness for “The Plant Issue”–do they really have vegetabalia inside? Cook’s Illustrated has a pastel of radishes.

It’s as though they all decided to try to look summery without  including actual bulk greens–the signature of summer (well, other than watermelon). I’ve complained about this before, I know, but back then I was talking about friends who don’t cook much and are somewhat veg-phobic, not about upscale food media. For years the food glam world has been touting local sourcing, farmers’ markets, heirloom this and that, Provençal and Spanish and Italian and Middle Eastern cuisines, which are full of vegetables one way and another. But they really are no longer practicing what they preach. They’ve shrunk their focus down to the meager American fast food paradigm while pretending otherwise. And charging you between 4 and 10 dollars an issue.

But vegetables are so easy to ruin, you say. The green ones turn brownish olive if you hold them too long after cooking. If you’re going to hang around a whole hour waiting for the photographer to get the right shot, you’re going to have to cook a couple of batches in a row. Strewing a couple of sprigs of cilantro or parsley over something is so much easier!

The other reason we’re not seeing vegetables on the magazine covers: editorial production lag. Monthly magazines typically take anything from 2-6 months to produce from start to finish, so they work ahead. The May and June issues probably went to press two months ago, when it had barely stopped snowing in the northeast (per my mother and sister). Summer vegetables are not bountiful in March and April under those conditions–at least not in New York and Boston. But the editors could have put together something decent and thematic for the covers if they wanted to–I’m pretty sure I could have sent them a likely looking CARE package from my local greengrocer’s if they’d only asked and were willing to foot the overnight shipping.

A weekly haul from my greengrocer's comes in under $30 even with coffee, spices and special items.

Eat your heart out, foodie magazines! Time to gloat. A typical weekly haul from my greengrocer comes in at under $30 even with a pound of coffee or tehina or yogurt (not shown, obviously), bagged spices, dried beans, and  specials on fruit or nuts. When the tomatoes are better I stagger out the door with 5-10 lbs. at a time, but on the other hand the snow peas were a serious bargain this time around.

There are plenty of good vegetables around. Fresno tomatoes are back in my Armenian grocery (for which, oh! be joyful), we have green and romano beans, we have lettuces and purslane and bunches of fresh basil and dill and mint and za’atar (and yes, parsley, Continue reading

Leftover Logic

Two weeks ago The Guardian‘s business section published the following salvo against glam-food waste: “Food’s latest hot trend: leftovers”. Some of the interviewed chefs, who grew up eating leftovers in the ’70s, have apparently joined forces with the Women’s Institute in York (shades of “Calendar Girls” and Helen Mirren’s shaky attempt at a Yorkshire accent) for a project to reduce food waste as supermarket prices continue to rise and rise.

Some interesting quotes in the article, and interesting questions on frugality–the columnist claims household food waste is down about 13 percent in the UK since last year, which is pretty telling about the economy. She and the people she quotes attribute the current lack of knowledge on how to use leftovers to a sharp decline in cooking skills that coincides with the surging popularity of perfect, coffee-table-worthy food fantasy cookbooks.

Is it really the fault of photo-heavy cookbooks, food magazines, blogs and tv cooking shows that only perfect produce makes the cut, and everything with a blemish on it must automatically be thrown out? Possibly…but the article also cites another trend–the heavy push of boxed microwave-meals-for-one that leads so many people to fear cooking and believe they could never be talented enough to cook from scratch.

Of course, if you never touch an uncooked bulk vegetable or a piece of raw meat, you never risk making a mistake in the kitchen. But the other side of the coin is that the produce in the magazines will never show up on your table. Because the frozen tv dinners really don’t come out looking or tasting as good as the pictures in the magazines.

If you do cook, the idea of using up what you have in the fridge can be nearly as daunting as having to pay for fabulous (and expensive) first-rate pre-sorted extra-polished pre-cut vegetables. In a branded bag. Can you eat less-than-perfect-condition food mag-quality decorator vegetables and still be safe?

Yes, you can. Obviously, when you go to buy vegetables, you want the best and freshest ones you can get for a reasonable price. Nothing you buy should be leaking or moldy or worm-ridden or otherwise clearly spoiled. But short of that, quite a lot of produce can be eaten just fine without having to be picture-perfect.

No one in the professional or amateur food enthusiast world ever talks about how to handle imperfect, wrinkled or slightly old vegetables, but they should. Because no matter how they look when you buy them, if you actually buy enough vegetables and enough variety for a week, some of your produce is going to start drying out or going a little less crisp or whatever in the later days. And you don’t necessarily need to throw it out because of that. Most of it you can probably still use and it will still be fine.

Local corner greengrocers often sell the oversized, undersized, riper or otherwise less-perfect-looking vegetables for a fraction of what they go for in big chain supermarkets. Customers at my local Armenian grocery routinely stagger out with huge bags of red peppers, onions, green beans, cabbages, eggplants, zucchini…all at a dollar a pound or less. Probably most of those vegetables are less than shiny-perfect. It doesn’t matter. The customers who lug them home are going to cook them up in large batches and short of actual spoilage, they’ll use them up.

And I myself did it today–foraged around in the fridge for the eggplants I bought last week. They were just starting to show brown dimples at the flower end. Not lovely but not a disaster. Then I found the less-than-great winter Roma tomatoes, a few of which were already starting to show little smudges of black at the stem ends because I’d had to store them in the fridge–no room on the counter, and I had them in a plastic bag that kept the moisture in more than was really good for them. Damn! I weeded out two that were clearly beyond saving–cracked and leaking slightly, not good–and took the others out to inspect. How bad were they?

Now the eggplants were only a little bruised or dimpled in a few places. Peeling off a little of the skin at those points revealed that the flesh inside was still okay. No worse than a bruised apple. Cut them up, microwave them, drain off the juices and fry them for eggplant-and-chickpea stew, and they’re just fine.

The tomatoes are a little scarier, no question. No one wants mold on their vegetables. But except for showing the tiny beginnings of mold at the stem ends, the six tomatoes I had left seemed fine and firm, dry and uncracked. Throw out six tomatoes at this time of year? I decided not to. I washed them carefully on the theory that the peel, if it’s unbroken, is working hard to seal out dirt and contamination and any mold spores on the surface can therefore be washed off. I sliced off the tops about half an inch below the stem ends–giving them a margin of safety at least in my mind.  Then I dared to taste a bit of the tomato below that. Also fine–or as fine as winter tomatoes get, anyhow. No sight, smell or taste of bitterness anywhere, and not mushy or discolored, and they tasted reasonably fresh. So I cut up the tomatoes and put them in the stew.

And everything was fine, and no one got sick or started convulsing (or screeching at the top of their larynxes) like Robert Plant at the height of his Led Zep days. This was fortunate, because we don’t yet have the larynxes back in shape after Losangelitis week, not to mention the stomach muscles, the tight jeans (well, the jeans are a little tight but not on purpose–we’re workin’ on it! hate those sit-ups) or the massive and tossable hairdo. Then again, neither does Robert Plant these days. So I don’t feel that bad about it. And neither should you.

Cannoli that won’t bust the carb count

Cannoli paste my way

This is a story about frugality–of the serendipitous sort.

The other week my daughter was with me at the supermarket (sometimes a mistake, sometimes an inspiration), and asked if we could get a packet of sugar cones to go with a drum of Dreyer’s ice cream. This was a trade-off for forfeiting Baskin-Robbins, whose ice cream is consistently higher in fat and carb than Dreyer’s or Breyer’s.

(Shakespearean aside #1) The B-R nutrition brochure is worth a pretty serious look for calories, fat, carbs, the total picture. You can definitely eat a days’ worth of calories–upward of 1500–in a single sitting if you order one of the fancier items. Skip the soft serve and stick to the single cone, for sure.

Not that we never stop in for a cone, but we never knew what the sugar cones were worth carbwise so Abby was limited to a paper cup or a cake cone. And of course for the price of two modest single cones at B-R, you could buy a 1.5 qt. carton at the store and scoop about 10 servings out of it yourself.

In the supermarket, the box with the sugar cones says 10 grams for Keebler and 11 grams for the Ralph’s (Kroger-affiliated) store brand, which is on sale, and about 50 calories per cone. The sugar cones have surprisingly simple ingredient lists for a processed food–wheat, brown sugar, vegetable oil, oat fiber (Ralph’s version) and a bit of salt (though not much–20 mg/cone) and maybe a little caramel coloring and malt flavoring.

But of course the ice cream tends to run out a bit sooner than the cones. And then what? Here’s where the “frugality” comes into it again (okay, I’m sort of rolling my eyes too, but still.)

I had about half a quart of ricotta left over from manicotti (same idea as for the microwaved stuffed shells, only using a plastic baggie with a corner torn out to pipe the spinach and cheese filling into both sides of the parcooked pasta tubes–worked pretty well actually). And ricotta, even on sale, is kind of expensive if you just let half of it sit in the fridge until it goes bad because there isn’t quite enough for another batch of pasta and you don’t know what else to do with it.

So anyway, the availability of leftover ricotta (I’m too cheap to do it with a brand new carton) plus the leftover cones added up in my head the other night to “Hey! Impromptu cannoli! Right now! And I don’t even have to go back to the store!”

I should probably explain.

The first cannoli I ever had were also the best. The parents of one of my sister’s high school friends ran a tiny Italian deli and specialty shop way out near the airport of our town, and what can I say–it was worth the schlep. In addition to imported pastas and olives and pickled peppers and salami and so on, you could buy a tub of their own fresh cannoli paste and a box of carefully packed pastry tubes so you could assemble the cannoli yourself at home and not risk sogginess or breakage on the way.

The D’Elicios’ cannoli paste contained ricotta, of course, sugar, and something else that I finally pinned down as lemon (and possibly orange) rind. And it was heaven on a spoon. So good I asked my mom to bring a box of their cannoli instead of a birthday cake to my college dorm  for my 18th birthday.

How was I to know that would be the last of the really great cannoli for decades? Continue reading

Cooking (and other important) Resolutions

(Of course)–I couldn’t leave 2010 on such a bitter note as the one in my last post, even though I think bitterness is a good, energizing, creative thing. Or as the great Eric Burdon once–or actually, quite any number of times–told an interviewer about his ordeal with getting paid for House of the Rising Sun, “I’m not bi’eh. I’m bi’ehsweet.” I have a thing for Burdon’s early stuff–voice like a hammer, great blues timing, pure nerve with a sense of humor, and clearly, a good appetite.

So I wish you all a Happy New Year, good eating, good cooking, good reading and good company, and thank everyone who’s visited and especially those who have taken the time to subscribe to Slow Food Fast. For myself, I’ve come up with about 11 new resolutions for 2011 (but as usual for me, it may will definitely run longer, since I’m terrible about following directions, even my own, whether cooking or resolving):

1. Learn the Dirty Dozen a little better and plan the weekly budget (see #3) to include buying these vegetables and fruits organic only. (I’ve got celery, potatoes, pears and strawberries down so far, but I know there’s gotta be at least 8 more, right?) Find places to buy them cheaper than Whole Foods.

1a. Learn to garden? Umm. Learn to schnorr backyard fruit from friends? More likely, ain’t it? Ok, ok, make more friends, schnorr backyard fruit and veg. And rosemary, which some people grow as a hedge here in Pasadena. Envy, envy, envy–turn it to a good purpose and offer to take some of the excess off their hands.

1b. Exercise basic civility towards other people’s food choices–your eat local is my eat kosher is his eat organic is her eat affordably. Everyone’s got different priorities, and you don’t know who is eating a particular way because they feel like it and who really needs to so they don’t end up in the hospital. Food shouldn’t be too huge a source of personal arguments. I mean, really, people, save some energy for the real issue–dark or milk chocolate?

2. Get the weekly food budget back down under $100 a week (holidays take it outta me). Make a list and (I cannot believe I’m saying this) check it twice. With a calculator. Include toilet paper and napkins and so on.

3. Use all the vegetables I buy sometime in the same week I buy them. This goes triple for any herbs. No brown broccoli (not usually a big problem in my house, actually) or rubbery carrots (didn’t mean to confess that). And NO cilantro or fresh dill left until it turns slimy while I dither over what to use it in… when in doubt, make soup (see #4), or with herbs, wash and freeze in baggies.

4. Make one big batch of soup each week (see #3 if necessary for motivation) and eat it.

5. Make one pound of beans each week and eat it in fabulously creative ways, or at least edible ones. Eat them as a substitute for, not addition to, fish or meat at least one dinner per week.

6. I’m stumped. Maybe I should make each of the previous resolutions count twice? Naaah. Put on some blues and think again.

The real #6: Eat vegetables at breakfast, Israeli-style.

7. Wash fewer dishes–make my kid do them! (oh, yeah, I’m rollin’ now!)

8. Reduce my dependence on oil–starting by using cocoa powder instead of a full-cocoa-butter chocolate fix…damn those holiday gift boxes. Hate See’s, hate it with a passion (unfortunately, not really)…

9. In the same vein–cut down to half-caf this week, decaf in two or three weeks. Start today. Too much hoppin’ around after midnight (or maybe just too much listening to Eric Burdon on YouTube–wait. Is there such a thing as too much, at least of his early stuff?).

10. Shop my neighborhood greengrocer’s first instead of the big box market. Buy and try a small amount of one new Silk Road ingredient each month (red pepper paste? knoug resin? green almonds? sea buckthorn nectar?)

11. Get a few new implements as long as they have a real multifarious use and a small kitchen footprint: stick blender? I hear it calling my name. Pasta machine? not so much–the box instructions say not to immerse in water. How are you supposed to wash it then? (see #7)

12. Make bread at home again.

13. Revamp a classic every so often, preferably with the intelligent use of a microwave to help speed things up where it will actually help. Like choux paste (at least for heating the liquid ingredients before adding the flour and eggs–that’s actually been done before, and not by me) or pretty-good fake-smoked whitefish salad (which is mine, see the end of this post). Continue reading

Why All the Mealy Peaches?

A lot of recent visitors to this site have come in desperate need of ways to redeem the disappointing peaches that are all you can find in the supermarkets these days. Even in peach season. The best I can tell them is that you can microwave the fruit with a little sugar and lemon juice to bring back some of the flavor, but of course it’ll be cooked, not raw. For a couple of suggestions on how to do it and what to use it for, see my original post.

I decided to take this topic up again because the idea of microwave peach jam as your only option is probably not what most of you were hoping for. Me either, frankly. I want great, aromatic, incredibly juicy height-of-season peaches, and I want to be able to eat them with no further ado. Cooking them runs a distant second as far as I’m concerned (though the jam and compote weren’t bad, to tell you the truth–and I just made another batch in about 5 minutes yesterday with some much better peaches from my father-in-law’s backyard trees).

But back to the more usual reality for a moment:

I really don’t think you can get a crummy, mealy unripenable peach to be juicy and fabulous and still raw by nuking it–though I might be wrong; I haven’t tried the lower-power settings or “defrost” yet, and I haven’t tried a shorter time than 3-5 minutes. If you’re determined to try one of these, at least take the poisonous pit out first–you really don’t want to risk infusing the flesh (the peach’s or your own!) with cyanide.

But all that begs the real question–

Why all these @#$*Q#R&*@F….etc. etc…. mealy peaches at the height of summer in the first place?

OK, I know that’s not a dignified way to phrase it, but it calms me down without actually specifying swear words for a situation that clearly deserves it. (And I do have some decent enough swear words beginning with “R” and “F”, but “Q” is going to be a challenge. I’ll have to work on it–get out the Scrabble Cussword Dictionary; it’s probably going to be something in Latin.)

The reason I get so upset about this is I remember looking forward to peaches every summer as a kid–you couldn’t get them in winter (for that matter, it’s debatable that what you get in winter now actually qualifies as peaches). They were so good, so reliably good when they did arrive that my mother once assured my younger brother, who was little enough at the time to worry about the fuzzy peel, that they tasted “like heaven”. She was right. You wouldn’t hear angels or anything insipid like that when you bit into one. You’d get a stream of juice down your chin and flavor so intense you wanted to take it somewhere private to eat so you wouldn’t embarrass yourself.

But things have changed. My post on microwaving unripenable peaches came out last summer, when I bought what turned out to be mealy peaches so many times in a row I started wondering if it was just me or were the peaches really a lot worse than I remembered in childhood. Maybe it was just a one-year blip, a bad crop, some kind of exception in the history of peach-harvesting.

Turns out, probably not. Crummy peaches are back in stock this year–judging from the visitors’ log, my experience, pretty much everyone’s. Even here in California where they do grow peaches.

So blithely scouting the web for answers I come up with two possibles:

Either all the good peaches are being shipped overseas for astronomical prices and our supermarkets are buying the good-looking but deceptive dregs and we’re allowing it by not returning the unacceptable goods and demanding refunds

OR

All the big supermarket chains are buying imported peaches from South America and the combination of long distance storage requirements and import quarantine protocols is ruining the peaches’ ability to ripen.

Of the two, I think the idea that all our domestic peach growers are sending their entire stock of acceptably good produce overseas is unlikely. We do export some fruit but the countries that were likeliest to buy from us ten years ago (Japan and Russia come to mind) have fallen on harder times and there’s more competition from sources that are geographically closer.

On the other hand, there’s a good bit of evidence to suggest the supermarket chains have been cheaping out by importing most of their summer fruit from Argentina and Chile even when it’s summer here–and winter down there. The stores have gotten used to importing all kinds of stone fruits from Chile when it’s winter here, and they may have decided to issue longer term contracts with their distributors. It’s probably cheaper than domestic fruit even after transportation and quarantine.

And that brings us to the main find: Continue reading

Prunes and Lentils II: Prune Sauces for Savory Dishes

Following on from Sunday’s post (have you recovered yet? Should I be selling Tums futures?) I should add that NOWHERE in Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg’s The Flavor Bible can a mention be found of prunes paired in any way, shape, or form with lentils. Don’t have the faintest why not. They do state that plain old green lentils have more flavor than red or brown.  They also pair prunes with olives, mushrooms, gorgonzola and walnuts as well as sweet spices and red wine. Somewhere in that crossroads there’s got to be some confluence of flavor, but wherever it is, they haven’t considered it.

Others have, however–notably Nathan Lyon of the Discovery Channel, ABC’s “Beat the Chef” show in Australia from a few years back, Hello! magazine (OK, copying straight from the California Prune Board’s UK division–wait a minute, they HAVE a UK division?!–and borrowing its press photo)…Oh well.

The benefit to considering prune sauces is that you can serve them with a lentil dish if you’re ready for that or to lift a more familiar savory dish with meat, fish or poultry.

Pan-seared tuna steak with microwave prune and wine chutney

Pan-seared tuna steak with microwave prune and wine chutney

And yes, I said “lift”. Make of it what you will, but any one of the sauces below is better than whatever Hello! magazine has to offer, even if it were original.

Stéphane Reynaud’s Prune Sauce (excerpted for consideration from French Feasts, 2009)

This was designed to go with a simply pan-fried foie gras for six–probably 3-4 oz per person, which seems like a hefty kind of serving, even though I do like liver.  But the sauce–why 18 prunes? 3 per person? and it seems a heavy load of spice for a small amount of wine. Also he has you rest the stuff overnight at room temperature before finishing it. Not sure why–to thicken up, probably, like Elizabeth David’s recipe for peach jam, which also sits out overnight after the first boil-up before resuming.

  • 18 pitted prunes
  • 1 c red wine
  • 1 t ground cinnamon
  • 1 t quatre-épices
  • 2 star anise pods
  • 2 T light brown sugar
  • 2 1/2 T butter, chilled

Boil the prunes 5 min with the wine, spices and sugar, cover and leave O/N at RT. Remove the prunes and reduce the spiced wine to a syrupy sauce. Whisk in the butter, then return the prunes to the sauce.

Microwave Prune Chutney with Wine

My microwave version started out as Reynaud’s wine-based sauce and suddenly morphed, as I was grabbing things out of the fridge for it, with a half-remembered cranberry chutney recipe my mother-in-law served a number of years ago at Thanksgiving. This turns out to be a potent combination, aromatic and sharper, no doubt, than Reynaud’s sauce, with a definite suggestion of saltiness about it–but no actual salt. I don’t recommend eating it straight–too pungent for me, though it’s uncannily close to the relish my mother-in-law served and pretty decent with poultry and stuffing or rice and so on–but cooking 5 minutes or so extra in a saucepan over direct heat or with the food you’re saucing and some extra wine turns it into something pretty special. The whole cloves in particular (which you can take out before using the sauce) do something incredible for any meat or steaky fish you cook with this sauce. Like brisket but just…better, more sophisticated, elevated to the level of cuisine. In fact, put some of this prune sauce with cloves in your next brisket too. 

Makes about 1 cup

  • ½-1 c leftover dark red wine–syrah, aglianico, something inexpensive but rich
  • 8-10 pitted prunes, quartered
  • grating of fresh ginger (1/4 t)
  • grating of 1/2 decent-sized clove garlic or 1 small clove
  • 1/4 red onion, chopped
  • 1-2 t. wine vinegar
  • sprig of thyme
  • pinch of fennel seed
  • 4-5 whole cloves, loose if you can stand picking them out or else stuck through a scrap of onion

Toss the onions with the vinegar and let sit a few minutes while chopping the prunes into quarters–it cuts down on the bite. Mix the onions, prunes, and the rest of the ingredients except the cloves in a soup bowl with a microwaveable lid that can placed on with a gap for steam to escape. Poke the cloves into a larger scrap of onion and add that to the bowl so you can fish them back out easily after cooking. Microwave 1-2 minutes loosely covered on HIGH or until it’s boiling, let sit 5 minutes, stir, microwave again. The prunes will have taken up a lot of the liquid, the onions should be cooked through and garnet-colored, and the wine should be reduced and a bit syrupy.

.  .  .  .  .

From France to China, then:

One year I was determined to make a low-sodium substitute for fermented black bean sauce with roast salmon. I soaked some prunes in a little boiling water and mashed them to a paste, then dressed them up with garlic, ginger and a few other things. It turned out, to my surprise, like homemade hoisin–-dark, glossy, tart and aromatic, less sweet than the commercial stuff, a little smoky from the sesame oil and scallions, with the suggestion of salt Continue reading

Prunes, Lentils, and “Cookin’ Cheap”

When I was a kid, PBS, which had made a gourmet name for itself with The French Chef, decided that if one chef was good, six or seven had to be better. Suddenly the public and cable airwaves were  bursting with the Frugal Gourmet, the Galloping Gourmet, Yan Can Cook, Cookin’ Cajun, various shows with Pierre Franey and Jacques Pépin, and one…ummm…less glamorous show called Cookin’ Cheap.

This was hosted by Larry Bly and Earl “Laban” Johnson, Jr. out of Roanoke, VA–-not too far from where I grew up–and featured two viewer-submitted recipes per episode, which the guys bravely cooked and sampled on the air. At the end of each show, just like Julia Child, they sat down at the table for the tasting… and decided whose recipe had come off worse.

Now, Cookin’ Cheap was not for tenderfoots–if you couldn’t handle ingredient lists that included whole sticks of margarine and self-rising flour, or bring yourself to shop in one of the ordinary supermarket chains that had never heard of organic anything (this was the South in the ’80s), you would have done better not to watch. But if down-home cooking delivered with a touch of schadenfreude was your thing, it was a great little show.

Unfortunately, my favorite early episode doesn’t seem to be available anywhere on the ‘net. But the clip above, the Cookin’ Cheap 2.0 (YouTube) version of about a third of Episode #609, will give you some idea. (see copyright disclaimer below…)

In my actual favorite episode, Bly and Johnson hit their personal limit with a recipe that had them both making faces and apologizing to the audience that “there’s cheap… and then there’s too cheap.”

The dish in question was “Lentils ‘n’ Prunes” (you can guess the entire ingredient list). And it was indeed cheap. Unfortunately lentils, though incredibly cheap and nutritious, cook up kind of gray, especially on a semi-rural public TV station with early-’80s (i.e., yellow-ocher) set lighting. Trust me when I say the addition of mashed prunes did nothing for them aesthetically or otherwise. How on earth could they have put this on the air?

Of course, these guys didn’t have to take the blame for the recipe, and it was great entertainment to see some of the strange things your neighbors might be cooking at home and writing in to the show about with high hopes of being selected. I understand the Food Network is now copying Bly and Johnson’s reality-cooking formula shamelessly for the fall lineup…

[Actually, I didn’t realize the show had such a good run, but it started locally in 1981 and only ended its nationally syndicated run in 2002. Johnson passed away a few years before the end, but he managed to publish the Cookin’ Cheap Cookbook in 1988. Bly kept the show going with Johnson’s friend and successor Doug Patterson and has since made a couple of rescued episodes available on DVD. And the show still has fans on YouTube and — surprisingly just this March–in the New York Times.

Disclaimer: YouTube removed the first clip I linked to for copyright violation–so my apologies to Bly; the intent in linking here isn’t to rip anyone off but to highlight a too-little-known show. Because the original Roanoke station managers were too shortsighted to save the episodes (they apparently trashed them!), Bly was only able to rescue a couple of episodes for the DVD, and I think some of the others posted at this point were recorded at home from TV.]

Ah, well. Times change, horizons broaden, and we aim to challenge our palates in a sophisticated world beat kind of way even with limited cash and ingredients. The wolf may be at the door, we may be on the rice and beans yet again to make up for unreimbursed conference travel, but we are determined to do it in style–that means Indian, Moroccan, Mediterranean–French? Well, at least by not mixing plain lentils and prunes together in a hideous gray mash.

…I’m not actually sure how the French feel about lentils with prunes, or what they’d do about it if you suggested it. But I have a huge bowl of cooked lentils to deal with from a 1-lb. bag at $1.29. And a 1-lb. bag of non-sorbate pitted prunes at $2.99. Less than $5 total. And a number of ideas about how to deal with each of them, separately or together. Enough ideas that I’m probably going to have to split this post so it doesn’t turn into War and Prunes.

This, I think, is going to become my How to Cook a Wolf Challenge, 21st Century Edition.

Because I have fantasies (not many, and relatively tame though entertaining) of the Iron Chef America and Top Chef hosts announcing, for the next quickfire competition, a challenge to find three or four good ways to combine lentils and prunes in dishes where they’re the main ingredients and for which the total bill for the tasting menu comes to something like $10, including spices (prorated as used…) Can’t you just see the contestants’ faces? Take a moment to enjoy their obvious panic. The restaurant industry hasn’t trained them for this.

But seriously. What was actually behind this Cookin’ Cheap dealbreaker, other than the obvious frugality factor plus the even more obvious digestive humor that follows prunes and lentils wherever they roam?

Is there any way on earth that prunes and lentils could really go together?

Well…yes, as a matter of fact. You don’t run across prune and lentil recipes everyday, but good-tasting and intriguing variations, or at least the components of them, exist in a number of respected cuisines around the globe. Even French. For very little more than it cost the Cookin’ Cheap guys, Continue reading

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