It’s a fact repeated so often that it’s become slightly cliche: that great cuisines are forged in poverty. It’s no secret that people who are forced to do more with less every day tend to get really good at that thing. It’s easy to forget that throughout human history, and for much of the world population now, the ingredients you had at hand were first of all dictated by geography and climate and secondly by your level of poverty. Cooking processes all developed in the various regions of the world in order to maximize limited fuel resources. Dishes that we often call ‘comfort food’ are enjoyed because they underwent a process of refinement through being cooked and served to hungry people almost every day of the week, generation after generation.
A look at any high-end restaurant menu will show that many of the dishes and ingredients we celebrate now as ‘gourmet’ were once considered subsistence food for the poor people of the world. Polenta is just a simple mush that has fed Northern Italians since Roman times (when it was usually made from chestnuts; corn didn’t arrive until the colonization of the Americas). Lobster used to be fed to French prisoners. Slow-food staples like Pot-au-feu are all about stretching a few simple ingredients into something otherworldly.
I bring this up because I’ve been poor as shit lately. Not to the point where I’m eating clay in order to gain nutrients, but certainly at a point of more limited resources than I’ve been since I was much younger. Fortunately I know way more about food and cooking than I did in my teens and early twenties, so my lack of disposable income (especially when it comes to food) has become a really excellent opportunity to stretch my skills to the limit.
Because of this I’ve been cooking a lot of Italian food. Making bread and pasta completely from scratch is something I’ve dabbled in from time to time, but having to make it day in and day out in order to have a meal outside of work has been a crash course in developing technique. I’ve extended the noodle making to Chinese food as well; rolling out hand-cut noodles and stir-frying them with ginger, garlic, scallions and soy.
I feel I’ve been eating better than when I had a hundred extra bucks every month to have someone else bake my bread, make my pasta or roast my chickens. The money I save is nice, but what really feels great is the calorie burn. When you spend the better part of the day putting serious energy into what you cook; you can go a little heavier on the extra bread and butter.
I’d like to give you a recipe for some of these things I’ve been working on, but the truth is I’m still trying to formulate a system for myself. Plus, I’m not eating like this every day. Sometime I just want something kind of terrible to eat while I watch another terrible Cowboys game.
I want Queso Dip. So I make it myself from scratch without any processed cheese. Here’s the trick:
You will need:
- 2 Cups Whole Milk
- 3 Tablespoons Butter
- 3 Tablespoons Flour
- 1/2 Teaspoon Salt
- 1 1/2 Cups Cheddar Cheese* (shredded)
- 1/2 Cup Parmesan Cheese (shredded or grated)
- 1/4 Cup Chili Garlic Sauce or Sriracha
*I used a red-wine cheddar from Tratante Jose’s and I highly recommend you find something similar. It may sound weird, but the red wine note with the sharp cheddar does a pretty good job of imitating Velveeta’s sharpness without the nasty chemical components.
Here’s what you do:
In a medium sauce pan; melt the butter over medium-high heat.
As soon as it’s melted; whisk in the flour and salt.
Keep whisking until the flour is lightly toasted; about three minutes.
Add the milk and whisk constantly over high heat until it begins to boil.
Turn down the heat to a simmer and whisk it every minute or so till it reduces by a quarter and begins to thicken up.
At the point where it’s roughly gravy-consistency; begin whisking in the cheese a couple tablespoons at a time; make sure each batch you throw in melts completely before you add the next.
Once all the cheese is melted in, quickly whisk in the chili sauce/siriacha and remove from the heat. Pour into a bowl (or even a small slow-cooker set to low), dip some chips in that sucker and wonder aloud to a compassionless universe why Dallas can’t beat Eli Manning at home.
So as I progress with my experimenting; I’ll keep you updated. If you’re curious about specific dishes that you want me to write up in the future; let me know in the talkbacks.