Edible Monterey Bay

DINNER PARTY

LOCAL AND ORGANIC FOR $5 PER GUEST

A fine-dining chef uses creativity and local knowledge to entertain six for just $25

By John Cox 

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Many of the most memorable home-cooked meals I’ve experienced were not the ones that were planned in advance to feature expensive truffles, foie gras or whole roasted filets. Rather, they were meals that came about spontaneously, when a few fresh ingredients serendipi- tously converged at just the right moment. And luckily for those whose finances are tight, these are also the sorts of meals that can be put together on a rock-bottom budget.

I had just this kind of meal in mind one day late last summer, when I left my house with no shopping list or recipes. In six hours, I would be serving a three-course dinner for six people, prepared in a kitchen I’d never seen, with ingredients I’d picked up that day. Beyond a few pantry staples—sea salt, olive oil, butter, black pepper and flour—I would need to provide everything.

My budget was $25, which wouldn’t even be enough to buy my guests dinner at McDonald’s. Making things even more challenging, I would try to only shop at locally owned stores and purchase as many organic ingredients as possible.

One of the most important things to remember when cooking on a budget is to not buy too much! Even dry items such as grains, flours and spices are perishable, and can be picked up in small quantities as you need them for specific dishes, rather than stockpiled in your pantry. That way, you’ll always know your ingredients are fresh—and you won’t end up throwing them away after they’ve hidden in your cupboard for months or even years. (See sidebar, p. 29, for more such tips.)

So with that in mind, my first stop was Cornucopia Community Market in the Carmel Rancho shopping center. I remembered that they have a good variety of grains in bulk bins, allowing me to buy only what I needed. Even though I had no idea what proteins I might serve, I figured an interesting grain would be an economical way to start. After a few minutes, I found organic red wheat berries for $1.85 per pound. I picked up a few ounces for fifty cents.

The next stop was a farm stand in Moss Landing. As you drive north past Marina, there are several farm stands, advertising their daily produce deals. It is not uncommon to see colorful signs advertising nine ears of corn for $1, or 10 artichokes for $1. On the back table of the stand I went to, there are usually a few bags of even further discounted products, like tomatoes so ripe they are ready to explode, large containers of bruised strawberries and grab bags of assorted apples and greens—all for $1. After digging through a bin of overripe and bruised avocados, I found 10 perfect cocktail avo- cados for $1. Further exploration yielded 10 baby artichokes for $1, local apples for eighty-five cents per pound, seven ears of corn for $1, a pint of perfect local blackberries for $1.50, three beautiful heir- loom tomatoes for $1.50 per pound and a few other miscellaneous items. My bill came to $10.25 for two large bags of produce, most of which was local and organic.

Many of the fruits and vegetables come to this stand because they fall short of bulk buyers’ expectations—they might be discolored from water damage or too ripe to transport, or the crop might have simply been too large for the demand. The important thing to remember is that looks aren’t everything, and a slight blemish on the skin of a fruit will have no impact when it’s sliced into your final dish. Some items that are too ripe, like soft heirloom tomatoes or bananas that are starting to blacken, are actually preferable for making certain dishes, like tomato soup or fresh banana bread.

When you’re working with a budget of less than $5 per person, you might think fresh seafood is out of the question. It is true that you won’t be able to afford wild king salmon or sashimi-grade tuna, but there are plenty of other economical options if you know where to look. My search took me to the end of Municipal Wharf No. 2, where Monterey Fish Co. operates a small retail counter. They frequently have fresh squid and sardines on display for just $1 per pound. These local delicacies take some time and practice to prepare, but are both well worth the effort. When I got to the counter, I was pleased to see they had both. (Locally caught mackerel at $3 dollars per pound and whole rockfish for $6 per pound were tempting, but too much of a stretch for my tight budget.)

Seaside has a number of ethnic markets and produce stands. Several offer Latin American specialties, and others feature the foods of counties as far-flung as Japan, the Philippines and India. I started my search at Mi Tierra, a Mexican market that has been one of my long-time favorites. Unfortunately on this visit, the meat case was a bit disheveled, and left me uninspired. A few blocks down the street I tried my luck at Mi Pueblo, which is much larger and was more organized. I picked up a couple of limes, a cone of unprocessed cane sugar, a pound and a half of pork loin, a few ounces of asadero cheese, one cinnamon stick and a bunch of cilantro for about $10.

I drove through Monterey and was disappointed to find that my favorite Eureka lemon tree, which flourishes in an unlikely public courtyard flanked on both sides by a busy road, didn’t have any ripe fruit. My destination was Carmel Valley, and as I continued on my way, I made a quick stop at the pedestrian tunnel near the barnyard to search for edible herbs and flowers. Fresh herbs are a great addition to any meal—but can be quite expensive unless you grow or forage your own. Even though it was late in the season, I found a healthy stand of radish and mustard blossoms and a few vibrant nasturtiums.

It was almost 4pm by the time I arrived at my friend’s house, and we quickly got to work on dinner preparations. For the first course we planned an heirloom tomato and seafood salad. We first peeled and cleaned the squid, then scored it on a steep bias using a sharp knife. The scored squid tubes and tentacles were then dipped quickly into a pot of barely simmering water, which was seasoned with salt, lime and crushed garlic. I scaled and filleted the sardines and marinated them with garlic, cilantro, olive oil, salt, pepper and lime juice before flash-searing them. We dressed the tomatoes and avocados with charred jalapeño dressing made with cilantro, garlic and lime juice and then topped them with the squid and sardines. A couple of wild mustard and radish flowers finished the plate.

For the next course we seasoned the pork roast with salt and pepper, then slowly roasted it in a heavy covered pot (a Dutch oven is good for this purpose) on the stovetop. The red wheat berries were started with water and then finished with fresh grated corn and the asadero cheese, resulting in a creamy risotto-like mixture enhanced by the firm texture of the wheat. We cleaned the small artichokes and then sautéed them in olive oil until tender. Before assembling the plates, we thinly sliced the pork loin and drizzled it with a spoonful of the olive oil from the roasted artichokes. A couple of wild nasturtium and fennel flowers added color.

For dessert we combined peeled and sliced local apples and local blackberries with grated sugar and cinnamon. This mixture was cooked down until well glazed and starting to caramelize. As the mixture cooked, the blackberries colored the apples a beautiful shade of rose. We pressed simple pie dough into a glass pan and then layered the apples around a pile of the cooked blackberries in the center. Forty-five minutes later, the pie was ready to be removed from the oven.

Even though the dinner was delicious and I was careful not to buy too many ingredients and to stay within budget, we still had a few leftovers for the next day. Cooking like this requires both time and flexibility—the corn and tomatoes I used would have to be substituted with other produce in winter or spring—but the whole point is to be creative with the best of whatever happens to be available. This kind of cooking is also easiest if you either have some cooking experience or the patience to learn. But it rewards imagination and a sense of adventure—especially when you combine it with a couple bottles of delicious local wine and the company of good friends.

For suggested inexpensive ethnic markets in Santa Cruz and San Benito Counties, go to www.ediblemontereybay.com and click on the “LOCAL FOOD GUIDES” tab.

John Cox is executive chef at Post Ranch Inn’s Sierra Mar restaurant in Big Sur. He is a frequent contributor to Edible Monterey Bay and has also writ- ten for several other Edible titles. See his personal blog at www.postranchkitchen.blogspot.com. 

Eleven Tips for a Frugal Gourmet

  1. Only buy ingredients at the peak of their season.

  2. Don’t be discouraged by a few cosmetic blemishes.

  3. Shop at the last minute to take advantage of stores and markets practically giving away ripe produce.

  4. Start by identifying your proteins and then fill in the less expensive ingredients.

  5. Only buy what you need.

  6. Think about incorporating more expensive items into the appetizer course rather than the main (for example, serving an ounce of beef carpaccio as a first course instead of an 8-ounce filet entrée).

  7. Invite your friends. As your number of guests increases, your price per person will go down.

  8. Allow plenty of time—often the least expensive and most flavorful items require hours of preparation. (Nothing beats a great pot roast.)

  9. Familiarize yourself with your urban foraging environ- ment. (Take note of the neighbor’s rosemary bush and the lemon tree down the street, for example.)

  10. Shop around.There are certain markets that will always offer high-quality ingredients when time is short. But if you have time to comparison shop, you may find the best prices at ethnic stores and at farmers’ markets in high-traf- fic areas and low-income neighborhoods. And note that prices can vary considerably, even at the same farmers’ markets.

  11. Never sacrifice quality—great food is about great ingredients. You’ll find an abundance of wholesome, inexpensive local products once you learn where to look! 

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