July 27, 2008

Elegant and Affordable


Today's food prices can suck the joy out of cooking when you're trying to toe the family budget line. The good news is that you still can cook a nutritious and delicious meal without cashing in your retirement fund.

The not-so-good news is that keeping a rein on the food budget means you need a plan.

Without one, advise Michelle Rico and Mickey Rumic-Cox, nutrition educators with the University of Arizona/Pima County Cooperative Extension, you'll rely on memory when you shop, opening you up to impulse buying and wasting food dollars.

You're also likely to forget something and have to make extra trips to the grocery store, they said. And every trip makes you vulnerable to more impulse shopping and more money spent. And with high gas prices, even a short trip can add a couple of dollars to the cost of the meal.

We asked three local chefs - James Beard Award winner Janos Wilder, owner of two restaurants, Janos and J Bar Latin Grille; Jennifer English, another James Beard Award winner and the owner of Flavorbank; and James Walsh, executive chef of Pastiche Restaurant - how to do delicious and nutritious on the cheap.

Specifically, their assignment was to plan menus for four people for $10 or less.

(The $10 was to cover the cost of the meal's main ingredients only. It does not include the cost of staples such as flour, rice, potatoes, milk, eggs, spices.)

And boy! Did they succeed.

Wilder, a strong proponent of buying locally grown foods, planned an all-vegetable menu.

English decided on a "luxury steakhouse experience" to show that you can cook on a budget and still treat yourself to a meal that looks - and tastes - extravagant.

Walsh opted for exotic - an Asian chicken dinner that includes vegetables, a good way to cut costs and maintain flavor.

Today we give you their menus, special recipes and tips to help you tame rising food prices.


Chef: Janos Wilder

Meal: Locavore vegetable platter, heirloom poached eggs and garlic toast.

For desert, mango paletas.

Total cost: $9.08 (main dish $7.98; dessert $1.10)

Comments/tips: Wilder chose a vegetarian menu not to boost that lifestyle, but to advocate for "locavores."

"I didn't make that up," Wilder assures. "It's an accepted word."

Locavores know where their food comes from and, as much as possible, eat food produced locally.

His aim with the Star's challenge was "to demonstrate that eating locally is a way to provide meals that are extraordinary. Not too difficult to create and yet delicious."

There's nothing wrong with vegetables from major stores, Janos said, but they come from miles away - thereby cutting into their freshness. And they were grown with pesticides.

The vegetables Janos used come from small farms and growers in Southern Arizona, and the eggs are from heirloom chickens raised in central Tucson.

All the items are available at the St. Philip's Plaza farmers market, at North Campbell Avenue and East River Road, on Sunday mornings.

"When you have a chance to eat foods that are so fresh because they're grown locally and heirloom foods not generally found in chain stores, you see how delicious the flavors can be," Janos said.

Locavore Vegetable Platter with Heirloom Poached Eggs and Garlic Toast

The egg plays a very important role in this dish, Janos Wilder said. Not only does it provide protein, but it also becomes the sauce when you cut through the yolks and let them run onto the vegetables and into the garlic toast.

Servings: 4

* 1/2 pound assorted beets

* 1/2 pound Yukon Gold potatoes

* 1 pound garden tomatoes

* 1 pound baby carrots

* 1/4 pound green beans

* 6 tablespoons olive oil

* 4 ounces garlic

* 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

* 4 heirloom eggs

* 2 ounces basil leaves

* Kosher or sea salt

* 4 slices French bread cut 3/4 inch thick


Fill two 2-quart bowls with heavily iced water.

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees, and bring 3 quarts of heavily salted water to a rapid boil.

Meanwhile, rinse vegetables in cold water and prepare for cooking:

Cut potatoes in half lengthwise.

Cut tomatoes into 8 wedges.

Peel carrots and cut tops off carrots, leaving a little tuft of the green.

Cut tops off beets, leaving a little of the tuft.

Peel and finely mince garlic.

Pour 3 tablespoons olive oil into a medium bowl with 2 ounces garlic.

Cooking the vegetables


Brush cut side with a little garlic and olive oil. Place cut side down on baking pan and roast in oven until just done. About 15 minutes. Remove from oven and reserve.

Green beans, carrots and beets:

Blanch separately - but in the same boiling water - for the following times: green beans, 1-2 minutes; carrots, 2-5 minutes (depending on size); beets, about 4-6 minutes for baby beets, 30 minutes or longer for large beets.

(The green beans should still have some snap, while the carrots and beets should be tender enough to be pierced easily by a knife but not mushy.)

Use a strainer to remove green beans and carrots from boiling water and immediately submerge in ice water - a minute or two for the beans, three minutes for carrots. Remove.

Remove the beets from the boiling water and, while they are still hot, peel them under cold running water. Then immediately plunge them into the ice water for a few minutes. Remove from water and cut into two-bite wedges and reserve.

Poached eggs:

Add the two tablespoons of distilled vinegar to two quarts of water and bring to a simmer.

Crack one egg at a time into a small bowl, keeping the yolk intact and the white confined close to the yolk.

With a spoon, stir the water in a circular motion. Carefully slide the egg into the water and poach for 2 minutes, 45 seconds. Using a slotted spoon, remove each poached egg from the water and reserve. Repeat with each egg.

Garlic Bread:

Pre-heat griddle or broiler. Mix the remaining olive oil, minced garlic, half of the basil leaves and 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt in a blender. Puree until smooth.

Place remaining basil leaves between damp paper towels and refrigerate. Discard stems.

Brush bread slices liberally with garlic/basil oil. Toast under the broiler or on a griddle until bread is slightly browned.

To assemble the dish:

Turn oven to 220 degrees.

Sprinkle the potatoes with a little salt and place them on a baking sheet.

Toss the green beans in a little basil oil, sprinkle with salt and place on the baking sheet next to the potatoes. Repeat the process with the carrots and beets.

Add the tomato wedges on the baking sheet and drizzle them with the remaining olive oil.

Put the baking sheet in the oven and warm the vegetables for 3-5 minutes. Next, warm the garlic toast for a minute or two.

Arrange the vegetables and toast decoratively on a serving platter and keep warm.

Meanwhile, carefully slide the eggs back into the simmering water for about 15 seconds to warm them. Then, using a slotted spoon, pull them from the water and decoratively place them on top of the vegetables.

Place the basil leaves decoratively among the vegetables.

Sprinkle a little salt on the eggs and serve immediately.

Chef: Jennifer English

Meal: Luxury steak dinner with baked potatoes, iceberg lettuce wedge salad topped with homemade blue cheese dressing, and a side dish of creamed spinach.

For dessert, lemon crepes.

Total cost: $9.98.


The real challenge for anyone trying to stick to a food budget, English decided, is doing it "without feeling like you're giving something up."

Is it possible, she wondered, to re-create a luxury steakhouse dining experience for a family of four for $10?

So she shopped the sales, sought the help of a butcher at Fry's, and, armed with his advice, bought a 7-bone beef chuck steak that offers a steak on a par with the best a steakhouse can serve.

The chuck comes from the shoulder area. Beyond that are the ribs, an area that produces cuts such as rib roasts - with bone or boneless, including prime rib - and rib-eye.

Rib-eye, whether cut as a roast or into steaks, is the best and most tender part of the rib section. For that reason, it's also expensive.

But butchers know there is no set "boundary" between chuck and rib sections and that the meat in that transition area is quite similar.

So English requested a cut from the 5 pounds of chuck steak she purchased, which was on sale for 99 cents a pound. That gave her a 2- inch thick chuck-eye steak that would feed four, plus about a pound and a half of other meat that could be used for other meals - a soup, perhaps, or stew.

English chose this menu assuming that everyone has potatoes, spices ingredients to make a crepe.

The lesson learned from her experience is "to become friends with the people you trade with," she said. Then, you have somebody you can trust to give you correct information.

Steakhouse Chuck Eye

Jennifer English's company, Flavorbank, 6372 E. Broadway, sells this rub, but here's how to make it.

Menu ingredients:

* 2-inch thick chuck-eye steak (plan for about 4 ounces of meat per person)

* 1 head iceberg lettuce

* 2 slices deli pepper bacon

* Wedge gorgonzola cheese

* 1 16-ounce package frozen leaf spinach (store brand)

From the pantry:

* 4 baking potatoes

* 1 tablespoon fresh ground pepper

* 1 tablespoon kosher sea salt

* 1 tablespoon smoked paprika

* 1 teaspoon granulated garlic

* half-and-half cream

For the steak rub, blend the pepper, salt, paprika and granulated garlic together. Liberally rub it on all sides of the chuck steak 15 minutes prior to cooking and let the meat come to room temperature for more even cooking.

Grill or broil steak.

Baked Potatoes

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Scrub potatoes and place - unpierced - on cookie sheet with a layer of kosher salt. Bake for 20 minutes, prick and continue baking till done.

Blue cheese dressing

Cook bacon till crispy. Reserve one-third of drippings for spinach dish.

Crumble half of the gorgonzola cheese into the remaining bacon grease and turn heat to low. Stir with wooden spoon until cheese is melted.

Remove from heat and serve over a quarter-wedge of iceberg lettuce. Crumble a little bacon and a bit of the gorgonzola on the top.

Creamed spinach

In a sauce pan over low heat, warm the reserved third of the bacon drippings. Add the frozen spinach. Once the spinach is warmed, add the remaining gorgonzola, crumbled. Warm until melted.

Add 2-3 tablespoons half-and-half cream to enhance the creamy texture.

Lemon Crepes

Servings: 4

* 4 cups whole milk

* 3 eggs

* 2 cups all-purpose flour

* 1 teaspoon sea salt

* lemon

* powdered sugar

Combine ingredients in blender and blend on high speed for 45 seconds. Refrigerate batter overnight to rest. Remix batter briefly before preparing .

Heat a 9-inch nonstick pan on medium heat. Pour in 2 ounces of batter and rotate quickly to coat the pan with batter. When edges start to dry and curl away from the pan's sides, turn over.

Serve one or two crepes per person with a wash of butter, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and a sprinkle of powdered sugar.

Chef: James Walsh

Meal: Asian chicken skewers with mushrooms and peppers on fried rice.

For desert, apple crisp.

Total cost: $8.87.

Just because you're cooking on a budget, it doesn't mean you have to accept blah and boring, believes Walsh.

Don't be afraid to experiment, he said.

"Try something different" is his advice.

Walsh's offering for the Star's $10-or-less meal for four not only is in keeping with his advice, it also is right there with another food pro - Maureen Callahan, writing for allrecipes.com.

In her Cheaper Meal Planning column, she says "dining globally" is one of the simplest ways to cut a family's meal costs.

"You'll learn fast what most foreign cooks already know: Cooking with lots of vegetables and grains keeps food costs low," she wrote.

Specifically, she advises:

* Adopt an Asian mind-set toward meals and fill the plates with vegetables and starches (exactly what Walsh's menu is all about).

* Play around with spices (an echo of Jennifer English's advice).

* Focus on whole grains.

* Adopt a more vegetarian eating style, at least occasionally (think Janos Wilder's locavore vegetable platter). That, Callahan says, is the biggest way to reduce food bills.

Walsh agrees.

"Fresh vegetables are always great," he said.

But the biggest bit of advice Walsh has for harried cooks looking to ease the strain on their checkbook is really simple:

* Check out the specials at the grocery stores.

* Shop around and see what's out there. "I couldn't believe I could find chicken that cheap - 87 cents a pound - but I did," he said.

* Find your main ingredient first and go from there.

Walsh's recipes are not overly involved, but the flavor-feast they promise might just make them menu repeats for your family.

Asian Chicken Skewers with Fried Rice and Peanut Teriyaki Glaze

Chef James Walsh presumes that most home pantries have cooking oil, soy sauce, garlic, peanut butter and rice.

Servings: 4 (2 skewers per person)

* 2 pounds chicken breast

* 1 bell pepper

* 1 medium onion

* 8 button mushrooms

* 8 metal or bamboo skewers

Cut chicken, pepper and onion into pieces before marinating with mushrooms lightly in oil, salt, pepper, garlic and soy sauce.

Assemble on skewers, grill or bake until chicken is cooked through.


* 1 teaspoon chopped garlic

* 1 tablespoon oil

* 2 tablespoons peanut butter

* 4 tablespoons water

* 1 cup soy sauce

* 1/2 cup vinegar (any type)

* 1 cup granulated sugar

Combine all glaze ingredients except the sugar in sauce pan and bring to a boil. Add the sugar and boil until thickened.

Fried rice:

* 1 cup white rice

* 2 cups flavored stock (chicken, beef or vegetable)

* 1 small carrot diced

* 1 small onion diced

* Any other frozen or fresh vegetables desired

* 2 eggs beaten and scrambled separately

Saute rice and vegetables in a little oil until rice is slightly browned. Add stock. Reduce heat and cover.

When liquid is cooked out, remove from heat.

Add scrambled egg and season with salt and pepper to taste.

To serve:

Prepare the rice and glaze first and keep warm. Then place the rice on a platter or in a large bowl with the skewers on top. Drizzle sauce over dish and serve.

Apple Crisp

Again, the presumption is that most home pantries have spices, oats and brown sugar.

* 1 stick cold butter

* 1/4 cup sugar

* 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

* 1/4 cup light brown sugar

* 1/4 teaspoon salt

* 1/2 cup oats

* 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

* 1/2 cup flour

* 4 Granny Smith apples

* 1/4 cup sugar

Cut butter in small pieces and add all ingredients except the apples and sugar.

Rub in butter until it resembles coarse meal. This is the crumble topping. Chill while preparing fruit.

Peel and slice apples and toss in sugar. Place the apple slices in a pie plate or in individual dishes. Spread the crumble on top.

Bake at 350 degrees for about 50 minutes.

Michelle Rico and Mickey Rumic-Cox, nutrition educators with the University of Arizona/Pima County Cooperative Extension, offer some shopping tips to help you save food dollars:

* Plan a week's worth of menus, then make a shopping list based on what you have on hand and what you need.

* Be flexible. A plan is a must, but be ready to change depending on sales. Example: You plan green beans for dinner but asparagus is on sale and cheaper. Go with the asparagus. Just don't substitute strictly on impulse.

* Don't shop when you're hungry.

* Look up and down - at the upper shelves of your supermarket and at the lower ones.

Remember, "advertisers pay lots of money to have their merchandise at eye-level," Rico said. Bargains likely are on the top or bottom shelves.


You can find bargains at Value Food Store, 3003 S. Country Club Road. Operated by the Community Food Bank, it is open to the public 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays and 9 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Saturdays.

It offers fresh produce, meats, canned items, pasta, frozen vegetables, dairy products and personal-care items at prices 30-70 percent lower than most grocery stores.

And once you've spent a dollar at the store, you're entitled to whatever is being given away free that day.

For more information, call Value Food Store, 622-0525.

Mango Paletas

Paletas are the Popsiclelike, coarse fruit purees popular in Mexico. You can find them in a variety of tropical flavors at paleterias here in Tucson or, with this recipe, you can make your own.

Buy inexpensive plastic molds at discount stores or mold in paper cups with wooden sticks.

Servings: 4-8 paletas (depending on size of mold)

* 2 ripe mangos

* 1/2 cup water

* 2 tablespoons juice from Mexican limes

* 2-4 tablespoons superfine sugar

Peel the mangos and cut fruit away from the seed. Chop roughly.

Puree with water and lime juice until fruit is just a little coarse. Add sugar to taste.

Transfer puree to a measuring cup or small pitcher.

Pour the puree into molds, leaving about a quarter-inch on the top of each mold to allow for expansion and place in freezer.

If you are using cones or paper cups, let the mixture freeze for about 40 minutes then put wooden sticks in the center of each mold.

Freeze for about 6 hours or until paletas are completely set.

Unmold and enjoy.

Janos Wilder

* Contact reporter Rosalie Crowe at 573-4105 or [email protected]

Jennifer English

James Walsh


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