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Thursday, August 4, 2011

Tasty on a Buget

Hello from Cape Town, and welcome back to Everything Tasty.

I've been here in South Africa for just over 7 weeks now (well, technically I was in Malawi for 8 days of that) and have overall had a really good time. The city is lovely, and when I haven't been at the office I've managed to get out and see some really terrific places, and--of particular interest to readers of this blog--gone to some excellent restaurants. Those I intend to cover later this week in a 2-part review of Cape Town food, which should be a lot of fun. However as good (and comparatively inexpensive) as restaurants have been here, I realized pretty quickly my first few weeks that I was going to have to start cooking more at home, at least where dinner is concerned. (I still eat lunch out [at the cheapest places I can find], in large part because we don't have a fridge or microwave available for office use.)

Now, any of you know very much how I love to cook--it's an almost meditative experience, and a wonderful opportunity to be creative. Here though, I've been presented with some things that have made cooking a challenge in ways I haven't had to deal with before. I've been cooking all my meals for one, for starters--my housemates all came to the decision that, for the sake of keeping track of money, each person should buy their own groceries and cook their own individual meal. Being used to cooking at least for two, if not for more, it's required an adjustment in what I cook as well as how much. Secondly, there's been the fatigue factor, and the repetition; most of the cooking I've done for this blog, for example, has been more special-occasion sort of stuff, where I (or, very often, Anne and I) have planned a menu multiple days in advance, and devoted a whole day to shopping and cooking. Now I was faced with buying ingredients for a week, and then coming home at 6:30, exhausted from work, and trying to fight the urge to be lazy--quite often in the first weeks I simply gave up and ate out, or bought prepackaged stuff, and when I did make something from scratch, it tended to be macaroni and cheese (which, hey, I love, but a guy can't live on it).

Finally, there is the matter of money. I was fortunately able to get a grant to cover my time here, but the airfare killed a majority of it right off the top, and then for the first 3 weeks I got bled dry by an exploitative housing agency that was charging us more than triple what a comparable place in that neighborhood would cost. Add to that transportation, utilities, internet cafe spending when the wifi at the first place went out, and there isn't exactly much left over for food. It's required I completely change the way I act at the grocery store--not my usual "oh, that looks interesting. What could I make with it?" but rather "what is the maximum number of decent meals I can wring out of this?"

These past 2 weeks though, I hit my stride. With cheap ingredients and a little bit of inspiration, I managed to make things that were cheap, healthy and--dare I say it--tasty, and didn't seem to miss the ingredients (like, in this instance, any substantial quantity of meat) that I didn't want to spring for. Instead of fighting my normal tendency to cook for 4, I embraced it--making a big pot on the weekend and reheating on work nights to save energy. This particular recipe cost me something like $4 (not counting the pasta, which I already had), fed me for 3 days, and managed even to sneak in a good amount of protein, despite dodging the meat counter completely. Hopefully, it will inspire your own ideas for food that will please the palette and the wallet in equal measure.

Pasta with Tomato Sauce and Smoked Mussels
Serves 4

1 pound pasta
2 large tomatoes, finely chopped.
1 white or yellow onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic
1 8oz tin smoked mussels
1/2 cup chick peas, cooked or par-cooked (cover with water and heat in microwave for 1 min)
1/8th cup diced green olives (opt)
1/4 cup red wine (I follow the Alton Brown rule for cooking with wine--if you don't have some lying around, and aren't picking up a bottle to drink, don't spend more than $5 on it).
Liberal quantities fresh ground black pepper
Liberal quantities of Oregano
Balsamic vinegar, to taste
Salt, to taste
Olive oil
Grated Parmesan cheese, for garnish (opt)

1. Heat olive oil in a pan on high, and add onion and garlic. Sauteé until onion begins to caramelize
2. Add tomato. Stir frequently to assist breakdown process and prevent sticking.
3. When tomato begins to break down, add wine and oregano. Reduce heat to medium high, and cook for ~2-3 additional minutes
4. Bring water to a boil and add salt, along with a few drops of oil. Add pasta and cook until al dente.
5. Add the chick peas. Avoid tasting too soon after this point--they will taste odd until the soak up flavor from the sauce, but will work well eventually.
6. When tomatoes have completely broken down, add mussels (after removing as much of the packing oil as possible) olives, and some cracked pepper. Cook until flavors are well balanced, ~10 minutes.
7. Season with salt, pepper, and more vinegar as required. Serve over pasta, and top with grated parmesan if desired.
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  1. Hey: great recipe! And welcome back to blogland. I'm glad your SA adventures are providing so much culinary inspiration.

  2. Sounds so good, and the traveling chef adds interesting spice to the recipe. I'm waiting for the sequel w/great anticipation!! Thanks Colin.


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