perfect 10: ingredients to live by (part i)

some people out there are living all alone.  some are living on a budget.  some people are doing both.  and this week, pmk is all about you guys.

close your eyes, and do a quick tally.  how many times in the past week or so have you thought something along the lines of, “i’m tired and cranky, and i think i am in desperate need of some food within the next thirty minutes,” only to go to your kitchen and discover that all you have is saltines and ketchup.  you don’t need to be exact, just ball park it.  one time?  two?  five?

let’s say you answered five or more.  i won’t allow that.  ok, let’s say you answered two.  that is not acceptable.  even if you answered one, i just won’t have it.

and so pmk’s theme this week is what i have dubbed “perfect 10.”  with a no small amount of help, i did my best to develop a list of ingredients which are ideal for any person living on a budget.  low in cost, high in versatility, and easy to use within their expiration dates, all ten of these ingredients are kitchen staples.

here are the first five, in no particular order:

pasta

first thing is first.  it doesn’t go bad, and all you need to cook it is a pot and hot water.  that being said, pasta epitomizes versatility.  pasta and a homemade sauce can feed a single person for a week, and if you add in a basic meat dish and an easy appetizer, you can go to bed every night with a fat wallet, a smile on your face, and an uncomfortably full stomach.

the key to pasta lies in its myriad forms.  spaghetti, especially angel hair, is easy to handle, easy to plate, and cooks quickly and evenly with correct technique.  orzo can be used as a substitute for rice in dishes like doria or risotto.  pastas similar to penne and rigatoni retain sauce better than most other shapes.  lasagna can be layered, making it ideal for baking once boiled.  the list goes on.

pasta carbonara, penne with pesto sauce, spaghetti bolognese, chicken doria, and minestrone are just a few recipes that come to mind as extraordinarily delicious, mind-numbingly easy to make, and poverty friendly.

spinach

let’s get the negatives out of the way first.  it wilts.  it wilts if the refrigerator is too cold, it wilts if you don’t put it in the refrigerator, it wilts if you cook it, and (let’s be honest) sometimes it just wilts if you look at it askance.  and if you buy the stuff that isn’t baby leaf spinach (i.e. real spinach that has stems and comes from a field instead of a hydroponic lab somewhere), you have to wash it vigorously on account of it being chock-full of sandy soil.

but it is delicious, soft, and crazy nutritious when fresh.  and cheap.   a nice big bag of a few bundles can go for trifles in the grocery store.  if you can find a good farmers market, they practically give the stuff in away in quantities that a normal human being who lives alone could never use.

but why spinach as opposed to the other myriad leafy greens?  it is ubiquitous, but more than that is a staple both raw and cooked.  spinach obviously makes excellent salads, but it makes great soups, an excellent compliment to sauces, a beautiful appetizer when appropriately seasoned, and a colorful garnish.

as roughage on sandwiches, a stuffing component for baked or grilled meats, or a quick snack when running out the door, spinach is the obvious choice.

chicken breasts

“but they are dry and they have no flavor.”  yeah, well, that is because you don’t cook them right.  a well prepared chicken breast can knock the socks off of even the most tenacious food scrooge.

remember, the cost is directly proportionate to the amount of work you want to put in.  a whole chicken is going to have a cheaper price per 100 grams of meat, but is going to be a pain to break down into the requisite cuts you want to use.  conversely, a deboned, skinned, tendon-free chicken breast cut into tenders is going to be more expensive because (unless you have some confidence issues) literally all you have to do is put it in a pan with some oil and not burn it.

chicken breasts are on this list because the unboned chicken breast with the skin still intact is the meat when it comes to a balance of price and prep work required.  the succulent texture (when cooked correctly) and basic taste allow chicken breasts to take on all kinds of flavor profiles that pork, beef, and more exotic (and expensive) meats cannot.

sliced teriyaki chicken, pulled chicken breast sandwiches, japanese-style chicken, chicken breast battered and deep fried…  i can keep going if you want.

french bread / baguettes

bread is a surprisingly deceptive item to add to any grocery list, mainly because of how hopelessly vague it is.  sliced white bread is the death of flavor and texture, and yet (for most people) it tends to be the single most common bread that comes to mind when picking out groceries.  i am of the (well-informed and entirely experience-based) opinion that if a bread isn’t good enough to eat by itself, you probably shouldn’t be buying it.

that being said, i’ll be the first to admit evaluating bread can be tricky.  there are many breads out there that taste perfectly fine, but have no identifiable texture.  conversely, there are all kinds of breads that boast a fantastic texture, but taste like air.  and i know that each and every person has run across that loaf of bread which looks like it probably tastes like god himself, and then sulked away with their head hung in sadness once they laid eyes on the price tag.  and so, in much the same vein as chicken breasts, a clever middle ground is the key to this ingredient’s inclusion in the perfect 10.

french bread has an interior that is soft, beautifully porous, and an absolute delight when toasted.  but honestly, so does italian bread, sourdough, kaiser, and almost any whole grain or wheat bread.  it is the crust of the french loaf which sets it apart from its competitors.  the crust, which exists somewhere between the hard shell of sourdough and the soft squishiness of the kaiser roll, is probably the key factor in the versatility and overall appeal of french bread.  the crust provides a contrast of texture that prevents the bread from becoming uninteresting over the course of the meal, and the tough crunchiness make it ideal for toasting and dipping in sauces.

and just in case you weren’t convinced yet, i am now going to spoon-feed you my opinions as heavy-handedly as i can.

this is between you and the bread.  there is no need to involve some fancy serrated bread knife in the affair.  people in the dark ages had the right idea.  just tear off a chunk and dig in.  french bread is one of the only breads which might actually be better unsliced. toast the whole loaf as is if you can.  if not, rip it apart with your bare hands and then throw it in the toaster oven. when it comes to this style of eating, i think the only type of bread that can hold a candle to a baguette is russian black bread (and that is saying quite a lot seeing as black bread might be the single most rustic, hearty, and soul-nurturing flavor known to mankind).

italian butter with toast, tuna melt grinders, bruscetta crackers, and cheese fondue are only the first few things i could think of which seem to be engineered specifically for french bread.

eggs

a friend once asked me, “if all the animals we eat for meat were going to die tomorrow, and you could only save one, what would it be?”  i thought about it long and hard.  the obvious decision for me was to say i would save our good friend the pig because of the deliciousness and variety of his many cuts of meat.  but i responded that i would save the chicken.

i admit, i love chicken breasts and chicken legs and chicken thighs, but it is the eggs of the chicken in which i place my undying faith and adoration.  each egg is a perfectly contained, naturally produced 80 calorie meal.  in their unaltered form, eggs can be boiled, poached, fried, used as a thickener in sauces, and implemented as a source of richness and smooth texture in otherwise dry dishes.  when altered, the possibilities become nearly endless.

eggs are an obvious inclusion in the perfect 10 because they are cheap, keep for a reasonably long time, easy to cook, and incredibly versatile.  but the real reason i included them is because they are, without a doubt, one of the most amazing and nutritiously beneficial adaptations in the history of the living world.  as verbose as i am, i am well aware that any attempt i could make at doing the egg justice in this post would fall short.  the egg deserves a post of its own, and perhaps someday in the future when i have time to research, collate, and cook for a few days straight, it’ll get its day in the sun.

until then, i hope i am forgiven.

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