Frugality. So far, it seems to be the catchword of 2009, with journalists everywhere falling over themselves and rushing to tell us how to eat more cheaply, travel more cheaply, get by with less. It makes me wonder whether our grandchildren will see our generation as that quaint set of old people who conserve bits of tin foil and tut-tut about the Wastefulness of Youth Today. My grandparents lived through the Great Depression (let us hope that some day it will not be known instead as the Relatively Small In Comparison to 2009 Depression) and it was clear in every move my grandmothers made in the kitchen. Although my Austrian grandmother never stinted on buying the best cuts of meat for her roast, she knew how to get the most out of the cheap ones too. Potato peels, onion skins and chicken bones were never thrown in the garbage before being used to create the most flavorful chicken stock on this side of heaven. My Irish-American grandmother planted a large vegetable garden every year until she was in her eighties. As she got older, she recruited grandchildren to help out with the planting and weeding, but she kept going. And although these habits had their roots in the difficulties of the 1930s, the result wasn't second rate food. It was so much better than the food that anyone else I knew in my childhood prepared. This was undoubtedly helped by 60 or more years of experience in the kitchen. But even more than that, it was thanks to a lifetime of habits that used the best ingredients and then extracted every last bit of flavor out of them. I am grateful to them both, because they gave me a living example of how to cook well and - as a by-product - frugally.
One of the most frugal recipes I inherited from my Austrian grandmother was her lentil soup. When I was at university, I could throw together a huge pot for my starving fellow students for under three dollars, including the meat. Dried lentils, an onion, a couple of carrots, a bouillon cube, a bit of garlic and a couple of smoked sausages were all I needed to make a half dozen friends extremely happy. These days, I usually reserve my lentils for Margaret's Chicken and Dumplings, because I know that it's something the Critic, his daughter and my boys will love. But a few days ago as I contemplated the remnants of a bag of brussels sprouts at the back of the vegetable bin, I decided to make a departure in the lentil soup game. In the name of frugality, of course. And the resulting soup was hearty, full of vitamins and flavor and gobbled up by my youngest son. My grandmother would be so proud.
(A note on the photo for this post: I inherited this Christmas ornament from my mother, who told me when I was a child that it dated from the Depression, when people were hungry and so decorated their trees with the humble foods they were missing. It's one of my most cherished possessions and I find it miraculous that it has survived nearly 80 Christmases.)
Not Grandma Liebezeit's Lentil Soup (six servings)
This is a great way to sneak some leftover brussels sprouts into your family without them really being aware of it. (Another good one is a stir fry: just slice them in thin lamelles and no one will ever be the wiser.) We only buy sprouts once a year - for Christmas dinner of course - and so every January I need to find a few ways to use them up.
260 g dried green or brown lentils
1 medium onion, chopped
1 clove of garlic, minced
2 medium carrots, cubed
8-10 brussels sprouts, cubed (cut in 8ths or 12ths)
4 slices of bacon (streaky/American style)
2 liters of home-made broth or the best salt-free store bought stock you can find
2 tsp mustard powder
1/4 cup sherry
Cut the bacon across the streaks in thin strips. Fry them in the bottom of a large soup pan until crisp and cooked through. Add the onion and garlic and sweat them for a few minutes, until the onions are translucent and soft. Add the brussels sprouts and cook another five minutes, until they have wilted. Add the sherry and use it to deglaze the bottom of the pot, using a spoon to scrape up any browned bits and stirring. Add the rest of the ingredients and simmer for 30-35 minutes, or until the lentils are tender. Taste for salt and mustard powder as it may need a bit more of each to give it a little edge. You might even want to throw in a tablespoon of vinegar, depending on your tastes.
Weight Watchers points: 3.5 per serving. (Yes, I have gone on the wagon food-wise and will try to post the points in the Weight Watchers system for the next three months. Happy New Year Resolutions, everyone!)