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Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Frugal College Cooking: Practice

(Continuation of yesterday's post by Frugal Son)

I began by arranging all of the ingredients and cookware around me (my mise en place) and I soon ran into my first snag. None of the pots was large enough to contain the quantity (three cups) of rice I needed to cook and there was no saucepan or skillet large enough to fry the rice and vegetables together. Undeterred, I split the rice-making duties between two smaller pots. Interestingly, even cooking the rice was enough to elicit fascinated stares from my friends who had never cooked rice from scratch! With the rice cooking away, I cut up the vegetables (two bell peppers, four carrots, four bunches of scallions, half an onion, a tiny bit of fresh ginger, and paper thin slices of lemon for the fish) on a minuscule cutting board using my three-inch pocketknife, the only knife available.

There is something really beautiful about a pile of freshly chopped vegetables: the red of the bell peppers, the creamy yellow onions, the burst of orange from the carrots, and the subdued green scallions all neatly delineated in their tidy piles. Even the smell of fresh vegetables—sharp onion scent, earthy ginger and faintly sweet carrot scent blend in the kitchen air—is satisfying and transforms the dingy kitchen, garishly lit by fluorescent lights, into a sort of alchemist’s laboratory where the most mundane ingredients come together to form something wonderful.
As the rice cooked, I threw the vegetables onto a skillet with some canola oil to stir-fry them. By the time the rice was done, the onions were translucent and lightly browned and even the carrots had softened up. I transferred the vegetables to a large mixing bowl so I could begin to fry up the rice (remember, there was no cookware big enough for rice and vegetables at the same time). I added a bit more canola oil to the skillet before scooping in half of the rice. I stirred it around occasionally to make sure the rice fried evenly and after about four minutes, I cracked two eggs into the rice and stirred it around until little wisps of cooked egg white and yolk were evenly distributed throughout the rice. Once this batch of rice was done I transferred it to the large mixing bowl with the vegetables and started on the second batch. The second batch followed the same plan, although this time I only added one egg.

With the fried rice finished (all I needed to do was mix up all the veggies and serve it), I turned my attention to the salmon, which was sitting patiently on the counter fully defrosted in its vacuum-sealed package. Daniel, my former roommate, wanted to bake the salmon, which is not a fish cooking technique I have experience with—so we preheated the oven to 350 and cleaned off a baking pan. We rubbed each piece of salmon with a bit of olive oil and under each filet we put a few of the thin slices of lemon. Before putting the pan in the oven I sprinkled a tiny bit of salt over each piece. With the fish cooking and out of the way, I turned my attention to the last piece of the meal, the sauce.

The sauce is actually incredibly simple, consisting of only four ingredients: butter, canola oil, lemon, and capers. I first melted about three tablespoons of butter (although in hindsight I realize I only needed about one and a half tablespoons) with a little canola oil to raise the smoking point. Once the butter had foamed and subsided, I turned off the heat, added the capers, and squeezed a bit of lemon juice into the pan. A very spiffy and professional looking sauce done in less than five minutes! The sauce was finished a minute or two before the fish was done so I took the extra time to put all of the plates in the oven to warm them, a sort of homage to my grandfather, who always likes to serve meals on warmed plates.
The salmon was perfectly cooked after just five minutes (the filets had been thoroughly defrosted in a bowl of lukewarm water) so I removed it from the oven and began to plate everything. I stirred up the rice with the vegetables and spooned a generous heaping portion of rice onto one side of the plate while a tender pink salmon fillet graced the other side. The heated plates were fantastic and kept everyone’s food at the right temperature until all the plates were on the table and we began to eat. Before everyone began to eat, I went around to each plate and spooned some of the sauce on top of their fish.

It was a truly magnificent meal and, given the state of the kitchen and my limited equipment, I was ecstatic that everything had turned out so well. The fish was moist and flavorful and the sauce, a combination of the sharp tastes of lemon and capers with the rich subtleties of butter, was the perfect complement. The surprise hit of the night, however, was the fried rice. I am convinced that people in general, and college students particularly, are deprived of the simple pleasures of fresh vegetables that aren’t smothered by other powerful flavors. The simplicity of the rice and vegetables, accentuated with a dash of soy sauce, was irresistible and the four of us managed to finish almost all of the rice. So, dear readers, you have now seen that even a college student using an underpowered electric stove, minimal ingredients, and cheap cookware can make a meal fit for a true gourmet. Go cook! What have you cooked recently?

The breakdown:
1lbs Salmon, vacuum sealed, frozen: $4.88
3c Rice: $1
½ pound carrots: $0.50
2 Bell Peppers: 1.64
½ Onion: $1
3 tbs. Butter: $0.50
Lemon: From garden ($1 in store)
Scallions: $1
Capers (used about 1/16 of jar that cost $3.88) $1
Soy Sauce (can be reused): 0.50
Canola Oil (can be reused) $0.25
3 Eggs: $0.50
Total: $15.14 including tax or $3.79 / person

At restaurant: 17.95 + 10% tax + 15% tip = $22.44 / person or $89.76!
Save $74.62!


Logan Leger said...

Wow, this looks delicious. Congratulations on doing the seemingly impossible. It looks fantastic, and you're right about the beauty of fresh vegetables. Maybe they should hire you for the cafeteria!

Chance said...

Wow! You can write some serious foodporn, Frugal Son, I'm droooooling for that sauce. And so healthful and inexpensive. Hit a homerun on all accounts.

SLF said...

@ Logan: I'm doing these recipes on a small scale at first (just to work out the particular peculiarities of working in a college apartment kitchen) but I hope to do them on a large scale one of these days too. As weird as it may sound, I would love to cook for 12 people and I always feel bad that I'm limited to just two or three guests for the time being.

@ Chance: Thank you for the comment and compliment as always! Maybe one of these days I'll get the nerve up to send something off to a magazine. Keep your eyes out for some articles I'm working on for the blog now that I think will appeal to your localvore ethos.