Even in the midst of impending bankruptcy, one must find ways to treat oneself.
Last year, shortly after gaining (temporary) full time employment again, I started a post on surviving the financially lean times through shopping at Dollar Tree.
This first post will focus on the almighty fuel of writers, cooks, and busy ‘forced to be a morning person’ folk everywhere: coffee and tea.
2015 did a lot to shape views and goals and outlooks on a lot of things. Heading into 2016, I’m coming out of a clustermess of a final three months of the last year trying to remember who I am and who I want to be. Along those lines, food has either been a gluttonous feast or just shoving whatever I can into my face to keep going.
These aren’t so much recipes as my throwing together items I have around or bought at a store on a whim and decided to ‘make something’ of them.
Sometimes in cooking, just like in life, you take what you know and wing it from there. In this instance, it worked out very well.
I was hunkered down toward the end of a stressful day, trying to hit my daily word count goal. I was writing a dinner scene between two characters and one of them brings dessert — a chocolate raspberry tart. No sooner had I typed those words than my mouth began watering. I froze. I couldn’t move on with the story. I needed that food, and I needed it now.
Or: How I Stopped Checking Pinterest for Every Recipe
1 lb Steak of your choice, cubed into about 1 inch pieces
2 handfuls of baby Carrots, halved
2 handfuls of tiny grape Tomatoes
1 Tbsp chopped Garlic (or more if you like more… I like more)
½ Yellow Onion, diced finely (or use onion powder if you’re out of onions like I was)
A dash or two of seasoning salt (see below photos, I’m a sucker for Dollar Tree’s Memphis BBQ Seasoning)
⅓ can of Guinness
2 Tbsp Butter
1-2 Tbsp Tapioca Starch (or flour of your choice)
4 Puff Pastry Sheets (large squares)
3 cups(ish) Mashed Potatoes (fresh, from a box, half and half with cauliflower, all cauli, all turnips, whatever works for you)
3oz finely shredded sharp Cheddar Cheese
favorite ‘greasers’ (I used cooking spray for the baking pan and a bit of bacon grease on a well-seasoned skillet)
Fork and/or tongs
Skillet (preferably cast iron)
Baking ban (square or smaller rectangle)
Stove, oven, broiler
Make the mash ahead of time, either using leftovers, or just before. Whatever. I’m easy.
Put your greaser of choice in your skillet and turn on medium heat. Cut up your meat and add to pan once it’s hot. Turn pieces once browned. After 1-2 minutes, turn heat down to medium low and cook for about 5 minutes, turning pieces a bit if necessary. Add garlic, onion, and spices. Let simmer for a couple minutes. Then add veggies and beer. Scrape the pan to loosen any sticky bits of meat/fat. Let everything cook together while you prep the baking pan.
Preheat oven to 375. If you start this now, it should be ready once you are done assembling.
Spray the pan (or coat it with butter, or vegetable oil, or lard. I’m not here to judge). Arrange pastry sheets to cover the base and sides. You’ll probably have to cut 2 squares to cover the sides, and should have a bit left over. Eat it. Enjoy it.
Turn the heat on the skillet down to low. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the solids to the baking pan. Add butter and let it melt. Stir. Add starch/flour and stir until all is combined in a gravy-like manner. Turn off heat and pour gravy over meat and veggies. Use spatula to get all that tasty goo in there and spread it around to evenly coat everything.
Rinse spatula and then use it to scoop the mash on top, spreading and coating evenly, making sure all the filling is covered and nothing peeks through. Place in oven and cook for 30 minutes (I initially did 20 and it wasn’t quite enough). Removed and sprinkle cheese over top evenly. Broil on low for 5 minutes (ish… see ‘What I Learned” below — just keep an eye on it) until top is browned and crispy. Remove and let sit 5-10 minutes to cool.
Things I Learned:
- Surfing Pinterest for the perfect recipe sometimes just results in your giving up entirely. Don’t be lured by the concept of following a recipe with all the precise ingredients (especially in cooking — baking is somewhat another story).
- I could have added the garlic/onion/spices, Guinness, and veggies sooner. A lot of recipes call for cooking the meat fully, then removing it from the heat, draining the juices/fat, and then cooking the veggies and making the gravy. I did it all together, and so didn’t really need to wait for the meat to be mostly cooked before adding other stuff.
- Puff pastry squares are a great pie crust substitute, and work way better shaping in square/rectangle pans than circular pie crusts.
- Time the damn broiler. I’ve made this mistake before. Often, if I’m honest. Broiling to brown the top of something happens fast and I tend to forget things if the timer doesn’t beep at me.
- Quality cheese and steak, and fresh veggies, make up for using boxed potatoes. It would’ve been better to have the cauli-tater mash mix, and I would’ve had leftovers of it, but what I had was just enough and everything else inside oozed quality.
- If one likes more gravy, one could probably use half a can of Guinness (and/or some broth/stock like many recipes called for). What I made just covered the spread in the pan, but I’m not much for tons of gravy.
I’ve been in a cooking rut. When you’re unemployed for five months, with only having money set aside for three, and being in the throes of a massive depression relapse, it can happen. Now, I’m not one to abstain from eating when depressed. I don’t tend to gorge, either. I just kind of stop worrying about what I’m putting in my body. I need food, and I crave it, but most of what I crave I can’t afford, and the effort required in making other things is… well, let’s just say staring into space and contemplating the inevitable cessation of my existence sounds better than cooking
most some days.
Also, summer in the valley in LA? Not exactly a place you want to be running multiple burners and the oven for long, if at all. And if I hear one more ‘just make a salad’ comment I’m going to scream. I’ve grown to like various lettuces, kale, and spinach, but my taste for those has limits.
Since becoming employed again (albeit temporarily), I’ve been trying to figure out my food life — more specifically how to shop with something that resembles an actual budget and allows for buying more than essentials at Dollar Tree and supplementing where I can with bits from the local grocery store. It’s rough. Part of me wants the convenience of, well, convenience. I mean, Trader Joe’s has some damn tasty prepared foods, and I can afford some of them now, but not enough to make daily meals out of them. I can finally buy cheese and non-manager’s-special meats a bit — but not a ton, and nothing too fancy. I can afford more than just greens to make salads when I want them. I can afford the occasional delivery of food directly to my face — and THAT is the dangerous path. In the heat, with the depression, with newfound income, there’s the impulse to just have someone else bring me food after a long day of work. Even when it’s decently healthy food, it’s expensive, and I know it, but… convenience. And so the war rages on…
So when I get an impulse to actually cook something, now that I have a bit of money, I’m going to try and follow that impulse over the one that says, “Well, yeah, but you could also order a burger and fries — because fries are a treat since you don’t keep potatoes in the house now (yes, I know the recipe used potatoes. Those were boxed ones I had leftover from before the moratorium.) — and you deserve a treat. You could have In ‘N Out delivered!”
I’m not going to tell you which voice has been winning out more than the other. The head of cauliflower I tossed because it was just too black and moldy should give you a clue. RIP cauliflower I had every intention of eating when I bought it.
And here’s where the battle continues: I had intended to make shepherd’s pie, or a variation thereupon, with steak and pie crust and a blend of boxed potatoes with cauliflower mash. I bought the steak and non-dairy milk to mash things, refused to spend $4 on premade pie crust, had to toss the cauliflower, and didn’t have the tomato paste and a few other things recipes told me I ‘needed.’ That convenience fighter, she wanted In ‘N Out at this point. What saved me? Well, there’s a bunch of internal arguing about choosing what I wanted even though it might be harder and other such existential shit. Then there’s the basic reality: I had steak. I had potatoes. I had puff pastry squares in the freezer. I had carrots and tomatoes. I had some really good cheeses to consider for the very top. And I had some tiny spark of energy and motivation to make something for myself. This last one is such a rarity, and it’s even more rare I follow through. This time, I did.
The result? A damn tasty piece of meaty, starchy goodness with minimal effort, and a cheese crust that is bangin’, slammin’ and all other hyped kinds of “in'”
As you may have noticed in the recipe, there’s not a lot of exact measuring. I don’t do that often when cooking. I eyeball. I taste. I look at texture and I smell. And I trust the handful of knowledge and skills I have to at least make something edible. I also trust the cast iron. I have yet to make anything in it that doesn’t come out tasting pretty damn great.