About Cooksmarts

Two years ago, I could not cook anything more complicated than boxed Mac n’ Cheese. I was also the pickiest eater I knew. Those things sound mutually exclusive, but trust me, they’re not. Frustrated, I decided to learn to cook. Turns out, I wasn’t picky - I was just eating bad food. I fell in love with cooking, put my existing life on hold, went to culinary school, and currently I cook and work at a recreational culinary school in Chicago. This is not a course I would recommend to most people, but I don’t regret it one bit. When I’m not working, extolling the many, many virtues of bacon, I’m eating as much as I can make excuses for, playing with my puppy puppies in the park, cooking (one would hope so, eh? I am steering this crazy ship), reading, listening to NPR, wandering around Chicago, and indulging in an occasional bout of navel gazing, just so I can say I have not lived an unexamined life. There’s a quiz at the end of it, right? And now a return to writing. Huzzah. I’ve gathered quite an arsenal of delicious recipes in my time at culinary school and more culinary school. I don’t want you eating boxed Mac n’ Cheese. I like you too much to let that happen. I’m happy to share what I’ve learned. Here. Now. Let’s go. Are you still reading this? Go on. Get you some recipes. Questions about recipes? jaimepodgorny@gmail.com

So Much Has Changed

It’s been a crazy year and change. I graduated culinary school. I left my job as Assistant Development Director at the synagogue where I was working while writing this blog. I took a job at a recreational cooking school, where I have been for the last year (and small change). I got a puppy. Belly.

My dog loves bows. What? She does. Don't hate. (I took them out after the picture, but I swear, she was disappointed)

I have literally had no time or energy to write. But I’m ready now to start writing again.

In working with a lot of great chefs, teaching a great deal of students (who also taught me), and experimenting with many regional cuisines, new ingredients, and new methods, I have changed my focus.

I still want to make great food on the cheap. The typical wages of a chef don’t support the culinary rock and roll life style we’d all like to live, so cheap is definitely the order of the day. However, I may not be able to spend the time to calculate costs/calories for each meal 3 times a day.

As I build my new blog – Cooksmarts– I will transfer information as relevant, and will hopefully complete the month-long project soon, but I’m going to need a lil’ more leeway and freedom for my new blog because, frankly, working in the actual culinary world is kicking my tired butt just a little bit.

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Old-Fashioned Recipes

A lot of these recipes are based on things I’m learning in culinary school, i.e. classical French cooking.  You will see hollandaise and hollandaise-based sauces in restaurants these days, but you would seldom see the veloute.  It’s “old-fashioned”.  But it is pretty delicious and one of the mother sauces for a reason. 

The thing about classical french cooking is that it can still be economical.  One of the students at my school just won a contest with a bacon-wrapped halibut with cherry puree and potato polenta recipe.  It was delicious for sure, and very modern, but there’s no way I could price that one recipe out at $10, let alone a day including it.

Butter, flour, stock, oil, cream – all these ingredients are pretty affordable still.

Even taking a simple classic comfort food like macaroni and cheese, I need to stick to the more economical cheeses in order to fit it into the project.  Emmenthaler, Gruyere, Stilton, Drunken Goat – these cheeses are all delicious, but very expensive.  Most of them are pungent enough that you would only use a small amount for flavoring, but if that small amount costs a couple bucks, that certainly ratchets up the price of what could be an economical dish. 

This project is all about striking a balance between affordable, fresh, healthy(ish), tasty, and feasible for everyday cooking.  So there will be no Ahi Tuna Crusted in Almonds with Orange Flavored Foam but also there will be no “mac-n-cheese” out of a blue box made from reconstituted powder. 

Speaking of which – nailed it:

Cheddar and Edam Shells with Roasted Balsamic Tomatoes and Bacon

You could make this for @$2.00 a serving if you skipped the tomatoes, but in my humble opinion, they make the dish.  Especially if they’re cold.  The contrasting temperatures, and the acidic tang of the tomato really complements the rich cheesiness of the sauce. 

Bacon isn’t essential, but anywhere I can work in cured pig flesh is an opportunity I’m not going to pass up.  Bacon is magic.  Bacon is all purpose. Bacon is the little black dress of food.

Full Recipes Now As Links Only

The pages can get kind of crowded if I post full recipes with each day, especially if I’ve already posted it once.  It’s also easier for me to look things up alphabetically when I want to refer back.  To this end, all full recipes will appear as links in the days they occur from now on.

I wish the nesting was designed a little different, and I may at some point pick a different theme, or learn how to edit the code so the nesting is not all visible all the time.  So crowded.  But for now, I just want to get through the first month.

Mac and cheese and orange chocolate souffle

Still trying to doctor that souffle recipe, with marginal success.  Got a decent chocolate souffle the other night that aspired to be a chocolate orange souffle.  But it didn’t have citrus notes.  I’ll keep trying.

Failed at making mac and cheese.  Failed. Twice.  Ok, the first one was creamy and pretty delicious, but white, instead of orange. 

Second one was grainy and inedible.  A waste of cheese.  But I will have a good recipe posted in the next week if I put ten pounds on trying.

There was obviously some time and money and cheese sacrificed to the cause which will not make it into the official tally.  In theory, if I had nailed it the first time, it would have been economical.

Sorry, cheese.  It’s not you.  It’s me.  You’re wonderful.

Sandra Lee and other bargain sites

So lately I have been paying closer attention to bargain cooking shows and sites like Sandra Lee’s Money Saving Meals or $2 Chicken Dinner from All You. Maybe things are significantly less expensive in other areas of the country (I live in Chicago), but holy geez.

Here’s one on Sandra Lee’s last show –
White Bean Hummus that she priced out at $3.00

1 head garlic
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus 1 teaspoon
2 (15-ounce) cans white beans
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

The cheapest olive oil I could find was Trader Joe’s brand at $0.25 an ounce. Their garlic is 2 heads for 1.69, or $0.85 a head.  I saw garlic on peapod is $0.69 a head before taxes.  And trader joe’s garbanzo beans (chick peas) were $0.89 a can.  If I shopped only at TJ’s, (and I’ve had good experiences with their brand), I’d be at 3.17.  If I shopped mostly at TJs and bought the garlic on peapod (forgetting the delivery cost), I’d be at 3.01.  That’s close though still over, but I think pretty ambitious for most people. 

Maybe she shops at some place where the generics are cheaper.  Still, I find those shows often stretch the limits of believability to present the most attractive bottom lines.  However, based on that research, I am going to try TJ’s olive oil and garbanzo beans…

Here’s one from All You –
1 (3-4 lb.) whole chicken, cut into pieces
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
2 cups buttermilk
2 cups self-rising flour
Vegetable oil

They priced this out at $0.65 cents per serving with 4 servings…

For real?? That’s 2.60 total. Where can you even get a whole chicken for $2.60, and who would want to eat it if you did? Wow.

I don’t think the entire price of the menu should be contingent on sale prices. I look for sale prices on meat and produce at WF. It’s not every day I see steak for 5.99 lb. It was a lucky find and the only reason I ate steak for a week. But I did actually find that, and could find a protein within that range easily. I don’t understand the pricing structures of some of the bargain media, but my site operates from the standpoint that most ingredients in the recipes are not on sale.

So there will be no $0.65 cent dinners. Because that’s just crazy talk.

In unrelated news, I’ve been cooking like a mad woman and have many new meals to post (some new things have been showing up in the alphabetical recipe list), but it will take some time to get them up. I have one more day up and will have a few more by the weekend.

Week – 1

The first week is almost done, and I’m discovering that this is deceptively time-consuming.  Not so much the cooking. Cooking is, weirdly, the least time-consuming part.  The time-consuming part is writing about the cooking.  And getting the food to hold still for the pictures.  I’m all, “You blinked again!  I counted down from three…And quit fussing, your lettuce looks fine.  Sheesh.” 

Also, although I will be $4.00 under budget for the week, (or so), I added up my tally on groceries, and it was $137.  Some of this was the gougy prices on Peapod.  But I used those prices as a guide for most of my breakdowns, unless I knew I regularly pay less somewhere else.  The $137 didn’t even include staples like vinegar, honey, and dijon.  It did include 1 bottle of red wine and 1 bottle of white.  I know.  Ye of little faith. You’re like, “What the hell – she just spent $140, and that’s just for the week” that you have to bear in mind that there are 6 scones left in the freezer, half a loaf of bread, 7 slices of apple cinnamon coffee cake, 2 kinds of frozen berries, 2 servings of fried chicken and 3 of biscuits, homemade mayonnaise, pesto, and caesar dressing to get through, carrots leftover, milk, etc.

This project is, by design, labor intensive up front to get variety.  Who wants to eat cranberry scones every morning for a week?  Ok, maybe you do, and if so, that’s cool.  They are delicious. But I’d rather eat one or two every week for a month, month and a half.  For every $137 bill I have, I’ll have 2 or 3 $40-50 bills. I know that $40-$50 even seems pricey for one person, but consider that even if I went to McDonalds and ate off their dollar menu every meal for a week, I could only get 2 items each time for $40.

I have tested all these recipes, and they are all delicious, although to varying degrees.  Least delicious was probably the orange souffle – I’ll work on it – because while it was tasty, it was eerily reminiscent of fruit loops.  The best so far was the pizza maybe.  Hot damn.  It was just as good cold.  So if you only try one recipe, I’d say that one is a good one to try.

I’m hoping that the posting gets easier now that I have a base started, but no promises.  It may take well over a month to get this “month-long” project logged.

Tomorrow is Easter.  Off to see the family and step away from the stove and computer.