Tuesday, August 19, 2008

City Kitchen Chronicles: Eggplant Mini Pizzas for One Sad Poor Little Girl

City Kitchen Chronicles is a bi-weekly column about living frugally in Manhattan. It's penned by the lovely Jaime.

It’s been a rough week around this City Kitchen here. When I started this column, part of the premise Kris and I worked out was that it would be my personal take on my personal quest to live cheaply and well in this very expensive city, chronicling my cooking *and* financial adventures as I try to pay off my credit cards and not subsist on ramen.

This weekend my mother asked, “Are there any better-paying jobs you could have?”

“Tons,” I answered. “But I want to work in theatre.”

Later in the same car ride and conversation I said, “I’m kinda having fun, actually, learning how to cook healthy and cheap.”

And it’s true. But sometimes I wish I didn’t have to be quite so cheap.

Last week a friend was in town from California. Dinner out.

Next week I’m joining friends for a dinner party (and Risk tournament, because we are dorks). I’m bringing dessert – that’s a pile of ingredients I wouldn’t normally buy.

Oh, and did I mention the mysterious $90 electric bill? This is with a mere 2 nights of air conditioning all month. Are fans really so expensive?

So, yeah, things are really tight these days. For those reasons and who knows what else (okay, this is where not strictly budgeting and tracking my money starts to be maybe not the best thing), this past week was the first of a month of extra tightness. There just isn’t any cash to spare, and every dollar counts. Buying coffee one afternoon might mean I’m short of cash for eggs or cereal or whatever other cheap food I’m subsisting on this month. (My poor sister just got a mix CD for her birthday. An awesome mix CD, but a mix CD nonetheless. The piece of paper it was wrapped in? That doubled for her card.)

For all that I’m eating super-cheap, though, I’m still eating healthy. When I planned out my food purchases for the month – beans, soy milk, bread, peanut butter, etc. – money for vegetables was the first item on the list. It’s not very flexible – every Saturday I spend $10 a week at the farmer’s market, give or take a dollar, and that’s not negotiable. I’ll get my protein from beans rather than tempeh, stretch out my stir-fry with rice, eat a few extra pb &j’s, but my local, seasonal vegetables are not up for debate.

Yes, part of that is psychological. I’ve got my Saturday morning routine, my sense of eating healthily and kindly to the earth. But it’s also the foundation of a healthy week for me, filling up my fridge with local zucchini, green beans, collards or chard. (Come fall it’ll be winter squash, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts.) If that food’s there – and frugal me is loathe to let it go to waste – then all week I’ll be eating right. (Kale also counteracts too many pb & j’s. Totally undoes the damage.)

The farmer’s market also gets me to try new vegetables all the time. Old Jaime might try to live on string beans, carrots, tomatoes, and red peppers from the supermarket, but red peppers are expensive (they get cheaper later in the summer) and kale is pretty cheap. Even cheaper? Wild greens like purslane or lambsquarter, which have been popping up at the market a bit. Off the top of my head, some vegetables I’ve tried and come to love, since starting to shop at the farmer’s market: purslane, lambsquarter, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, collards, beet greens, chard.

Also: eggplant. I know, they’re not adventurous or weird or rare at all. But other than breaded and fried and smothered in marinara and cheese, I’ve never been a huge fan. I stir-fry a lot, and any time I’ve stir-fried eggplant it’s either undercooked or dissolved into mush. My friend K. makes fantastic eggplant, but any time I’ve tried to duplicate her dish, I’ve been sorely disappointed.

Until this week. At the greenmarket last weekend I saw a lovely little single-serving eggplant, so adorable I couldn’t resist. Eggplant is blessedly light, so per-pound prices give you happy surprises, like a 25 cent vegetable that’s enough to anchor a dish. I brought it home determined to make something good, and, lucky me, I did.

The answer came, as answers often do, in the form of pizza. In the form of pizza, but (you low-carbers will be familiar with this trick) using the eggplant as the base rather than topping. I raided my pantry and fridge and came up with tomato paste for the foundation of the sauce, and happened upon a remnant from less stringently frugal days, a slice of goat cheese at the back of the fridge just begging to be used. With a little seasoning in the paste and some toaster oven broiling for the eggplant, I ended up with a plate of adorable mini-pizzas, full of vegetably goodness, and blessedly cheap.

Eggplant Mini Pizzas
(serves 1)
1 small eggplant
½ t olive or canola oil (or a few spritzes of cooking spray)
salt and pepper, to taste
2 T tomato paste
1 oz goat cheese
dried basil, to taste
dried oregano, to taste
dried chili flakes, to taste
fresh basil, to garnish (I took a few leaves from my anemic windowsill plant)

1) Slice eggplant into thin rounds, about ½ inch.

2) Salt eggplant and let sit in a colander 20-30 minutes. (This step leeches out the bitterness.)

3) Mix tomato paste and seasonings in a small bowl or mug.

4) Rinse eggplant and pat dry with paper towels.

5) oss eggplant with oil, salt, and pepper. (You can also spray your baking sheet with Pam, which I sadly don’t have on hand.)

6) Set oven or toaster oven to broil.

7) Arrange eggplant slices on baking sheet (covered with aluminum foil, if you like.)

8) Cook eggplant until lightly browned.

9) Flip the eggplant, and top each with some tomato paste mixture and goat cheese.

10) Cook eggplant pizzas until goat cheese is melty and ever-so-slightly browned.

11) Top with chiffonaded fresh basil, if you have.

12) Feel a little richer than you are.

Approximate Calories, Fat, and Price per Serving
155 cal, 10.9g fat, $1.06

1 small eggplant: 20 calories; 0.2g fat; $0.25
½ t oil: 20 calories; 2.2g fat; $0.05
salt and pepper, to taste: negligible calories and fat; $.02
2 T tomato paste: 12 calories; negligible fat; $0.09
1 oz goat cheese: 103 calories, 8.5g fat; $0.60
dried basil, to taste: negligible calories and fat; $0.02
dried oregano, to taste: negligible calories and fat; $0.02
dried chili flakes, to taste: negligible calories and fat; $0.01
fresh basil: negligible calories and fat; free! (I took a few leaves from my anemic windowsill plant)
TOTAL: 155 calories, 10.9g fat, $1.06


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