Sunday Almanac: Stretching Our Dollars

Wilmington, North Carolina, Saturday February 12

Some years ago a post popped up in one of my social feeds, an image of a pair of running shoes with a clothes iron wedged between them, business side up, and on top of it a stovetop-style espresso maker, captioned simply Cuba Linda. Hat tip to the Cubans: Are there any more resourceful people? They’ve had to be all kinds of inventive to make do with so little, for decades. I’m not sure any nation on the planet is better at it.

I thought of that at the beach yesterday when we had to use a doggie poop bag to gather seashells, a clean one, mind you. The forecast said sunny and 71, but the temperature never got quite that high, and the sky was mostly overcast. Still, it was a beautiful day for a long walk on the beach. A little earlier, I had gathered together the accoutrements for our outing, including my big girl Nikon, a small mesh bag for seashells, water bottles for humans and dog, and the obligatory poop bags. When we pulled into the parking slot at pier 21, I realized I’d forgotten everything save the water. I always keep poop bags in the car console, so no big deal there. The Chef said, bring two and we’ll use one for seashells. Perfect.

As for the camera, which was back home in the front hallway where I left it while I was wrestling Scout-the-Goldapeake-Retriever into his seatbelt harness, I said, no big deal, I’ll just use my cell phone. Which I did, to capture that header shot up there. Turns out the camera would have been a hassle anyway. There were too many people, unleashed dogs, and errant children on the beach, and two of three of those demanded our full attention. And somehow, a small prickly pear with enormous spines found Scoutie’s left heel, poor guy. After it stabbed me when I tried pulling the irksome thing out, The Chef stepped in and appropriated the shell-poop bag to use as a little protection while he removed the offending barbs. He is one resourceful man, Chef David. All is well this evening with Scout.

We also visited two groceries this weekend to get all the basics and some extras, and suffered a wee bit of sticker shock at one of them. Maybe you have, too, in this here inflated economy. This got me thinking about good peasant food: satisfying, unpretentious, flavorful cuisine that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. My absolute favorite is fried rice, the stuff of college, grad school, and a few lean years after that, and The Chef and I have definitely lived through some. But lately I’ve wanted to be a tad more inventive with fried rice, a dinnertime basic in this house at least once every couple of weeks, and so I’ve been experimenting with peanut satay-style sauces, perfect for fried rice.

You can find recipes easily enough online. I used one with simple ingredients; the only thing I had to put on the shopping list was fish sauce, which I usually keep in the fridge, but when we moved from Vermont to North Carolina last September, into the trash it went.

The recipe called for crunchy peanut butter and we had smooth in our pantry, so I emptied what was left in a bottle of roasted, unsalted peanuts and smooshed/chopped them up, and then added them to the mixture.

The result is this creamy, wonderful, peanut-y sauce. Make it and set it aside. Next, start the rice.

My ex-sister-in-law-but-still-my-sister down in Charleston always spoils us with unusual/upscale pantry items at Christmas time. This Christmas she sent us some of this exquisite rice, which we’ve now reordered in bulk:

Do not use fancy rice like this to make fried rice. This rice is so fancy, it takes the spotlight on your plate, as it did one night last week when Chef David made this for supper:

Instead, use store brand brown jasmine rice, which is inexpensive but still flavorful.

When it’s the weekend and I’m not in a hurry, I like to toast the rice before it goes into the pot to boil. There are scientific reasons to do this, but suffice it to say the result is a less starchy, more flavorful rice. Start by rinsing it.

Because I was aiming for a Thai-inspired fried rice, I used a small amount of sesame oil in the wok. You don’t want a ton—I used a capful, and then made sure it was well distributed in the pan. Then add the rice for just a short amount of time, on medium-high heat. Enough to toast, not burn, the rice.

I transfer the rice into a bowl with a spout, like this vintage bowl I love, because when I try to transfer it directly to the boiling pot (which is waiting for the toasted rice), I make a big-ass mess and Chef David face palms. Chef David can do it in one fell swoop, showoff.

Also, I like to use chicken broth instead of water for the additional flavor it imparts to the rice. It does not need to be fancy, but I recommend low-sodium broth. The satay sauce will have some sodium in it already.

About 25 minutes later, you’ll have fluffy, moist, flavorful rice. Meanwhile you’ll have chopped all your vegetables. Another thing I love about making fried rice is how you can use whatever you have in the fridge, and also how the less desirable/slightly past-its-prime vegetable will work just fine.

nutritionists tell us to eat the rainbow; I give you, the rainbow

I’m not a trained chef, like David, but I generally start with onion and garlic and let ’em sauté until they’re kind of glassy, and then add the other vegetables I’m using one by one and let each of them cook for two to three minutes, starting with the most dense and finishing with the ones that cook the quickest (today that was scallion).

I also chopped up what was left of a store-bought rotisserie chicken we had one night last week. You could add any kind of protein you want, or none at all. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, you could add any kind of meatless protein that sounds good to you.

A while back David suggested the egg part of the stir fry should be scrambled separately. When I’m in a hurry on a weeknight, I just add the egg directly to the wok with the other ingredients. Right now I’m using egg whites because my doc says my cholesterol number is stupidly high.

I added that delectable peanut sauce near the end. I also added a few roasted, unsalted peanuts just to underscore the peanutty flavor.

It’s not really a tweezer-and-fog presentation, but that’s not really who we are, anyway. It’s just good, flavorful, nourishing (and healthy!) food. And it costs very little to make. The Chef came home from work this afternoon and pronounced it delicious. Boom.

A coworker once referred to this phenomemon as “Best Friend O’Clock.” Scoutie is always in the kitchen when good things are happening there, as he was in this photo earlier in the week when David was making salmon, and as he was today while I was making rice.

After I finished cooking I rinsed the shells we collected yesterday. I’m not particular about seashells. I love all of them, even the broken bits. Chef David once lived and worked in Bonaire and also went SCUBA diving there, and has an incredible collection of specimen shells. He is a Seashell Snob. I am not. These shells will join the others on my desk at work. Eventually the entire East Coast will be on my desk.

The soundtrack for my morning in the kitchen was the 50th Anniversary edition of George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, a gift from my dad, the consummate Beatles fan and also the consummate fan of all the Beatles’ solo careers after the breakup. You will find no two individuals who geek out more on Paul, John, George, and Ringo than my dad and I. After that I finished up my kitchen experimentation to Paul’s Egypt Station, another gift from dad. Thanks, dad.

I leave you with two of my favorite things: George’s What Is Life, and a pair of San Francisco Ballet dancers. Have a great week.

One thought on “Sunday Almanac: Stretching Our Dollars

  1. My son#1 was just waxing poetical about fried rice and his use of Fish Sauce. His newest obsession is Peri-Peri sauce mixed in Mayonnaise. I think he has put it on nearly everything… My sister lives on the gulf and refuses to take her expensive camera to the beach – the wind picks up sand and she doesn’t want her precious camera ruined!


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