Every culture has its own peasant food staple: a low-maintenance dish that turned cheap ingredients into a wonderfully flavorful meal that almost cooked on its own while the entire family worked in the fields. Today, cheaper cuts of meat and less expensive grains, beans, and vegetables are typically full of delicious flavor for a frugal and satisfying meal that can be cooked in a slow cooker while you’re at work, or made enmasse on a weekend and saved for later. It also provides those who are into food storage with a way to cycle through dried and canned foods that need to be replenished.
Here is a collection of what I call unrecipes inspired by traditional peasant foods through history that can be made by busy parents or the budget-challenged among us. An unrecipe is more of a cooking guide than a hard-and-fast list of ingredients that must be manipulated in a particular order. This allows you to make the most of local sales, family favorites, and whatever happens to be languishing in your refrigerator, cellar, or cabinet.
These dishes become easier when you add unrecipe food anchors to your kitchen. Food anchors are staples you can keep in your kitchen on a regular basis and use at-will for meal preparation, and which give these dishes desirable tastiness. Examples of food anchors are rice, barley, or other grains; beans such as lentils, pintos, garbanzos, and more; taste boosters like olives, garlic, and ginger; herb and spice mixes to reflect Mediterranean, Mexican, French, Cajun, or other flavors you enjoy; or liquids like lemon and limes, vinegars, wines, tomato sauce, or broths.
The trick to peasant cooking is looking at it more as a method than a list of ingredients. It’s true that peasant food historically was made up of cheaper foods (at the time) like ox tails, beef stomachs, pork shoulders, beans, potatoes, or rice. But it was also the layering of flavors with multiple, well-chosen ingredients and letting these cook for a long time to break down tough meats and starches, which was the core of satisfying peasant food dishes that were light on the family budget. And since peasant foods typically are low on fats and meats (which have generally been expensive and reserved for upper classes), these dishes are also very healthy for you and your family.
This is where it all began. We have been making pottage since man had fire and a pot in which to cook food. Pottage was basically throwing whatever was around in a pot and letting it cook…sometimes for weeks on end…adding to it as a new ingredient came along. The main ingredients are vegetables and grains, with fish or meat thrown in whenever possible, though this was the exception rather than the rule. Here are the basics:
Choose three vegetables for your pottage. Look at what you have in your kitchen, root cellar, or garden, and consider what is starting to look a little on the high side of fresh; pottage is a great way to use what you would otherwise toss. Cabbage or other greens that are looking a little wilted, carrots that are starting to dry out a bit, or root vegetables that you aren’t sure what to do with are great options. The addition of onion or garlic helps to boost flavor, too. For all of your vegetables, remove any rotten/soft bits and wash and chop the rest. Throw everything into a pot or a slow cooker.
Select fresh or dried herbs and spices to add to your mix. Some great herb and spice combinations include oregano, basil, marjoram, and parsley for an Italian flare; parsley, thyme, tarragon and chives for a French taste; or garlic, cumin, oregano, cilantro, jalapeno, and coriander for Mexican.
Next, add a grain to the pot, such as barley (a personal favorite), brown rice, or even steel cut oats. Try to keep your grains to about 25 to 30 percent of your vegetables. At this point you can also add meat products like soup bones or ham hocks. Lastly, add stock or water to the pot, making sure everything is covered with about an inch or two of liquid.
If you’re using a slow cooker, set it to low and let it cook all day. When you get home, taste everything and add salt and pepper if needed. You may need to increase the heat (set it on the stove if you’re able) to boil off any excess liquid, depending upon if you feel like something that is more like a soup or a stew (the choice is yours). If you’re cooking the pottage on the stove, simmer until the vegetables and grains are cooked through, stirring occasionally to avoid burning.
Serve in bowls with grated cheese or a spoonful of yogurt or sour cream. Bread is a wonderful traditional and wonderful accompaniment to pottage.
DRIED BEAN MEAL
The name says it all: dried beans are the basis for this unrecipe. I make this a lot using all manner of bean and adjusting the anchor ingredients depending upon what mood I’m in. Dried beans are high in protein, low in fat, extremely nutritious, and very cheap; they should be a common staple in everyone’s kitchen.
From pinto beans to lentils to split peas, there is a version of a dried bean meal to fit any mood. And they can be either slow cooked in an oven, as is the case with New England baked beans or a French cassoulet, or cooked in the form of a soup such as chili or split pea soup.
For a serving of 6 you need about a pound of beans. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different beans here; lentils, garbanzo beans, black beans, and split peas are wonderful choices, along with your own personal favorites. Rinse your beans and throw them in a slow cooker or on the stove in a large pot (feel free to soak the beans in water overnight if you wish).
To your beans add a selection of vegetables you might have on hand, including things like sliced carrots, celery stalks, onion, and garlic. Keep in mind that you want to the focus to be on the bean, so keep your vegetable usage simple and no more than, say, one whole chopped onion and a few stalks of celery or carrot. You can also add a grain like rice (think the famous red beans and rice from Louisiana).
To your pot add herbs and spices, but keep these simple; beans have much flavor on their own. Options include a few whole cloves, a bay leaf, sprigs of rosemary, dried thyme or sage, and salt and pepper to taste. You can again add soup bones or ham hocks if you like.
Cover everything with water by an inch or two. If you’re using a slow cooker, just set the pot to low and let it cook all day. If you’re cooking this on the stove, let it simmer several hours until the beans are cooked through and soft–it is preferable to cook the beans long enough to allow them to begin to break down. In the case of lentils and split peas, they will disintegrate into a lovely smoothness.
I make this dish quite a bit, the main reason being that I love it and it is very simple. And cheap. I favor barley as the grain of choice in my kitchen, but brown rice (a hearty mix) is always appreciated, too. Try making larger batches of the grain one day a week, and have it on hand pre-cooked in the refrigerator to throw together a tasty, delicious, and cheap meal after a long work day. Here’s how it works:
Take your pre-cooked grain out of the refrigerator and place the amount you need in a bowl. How much you need depends upon the other ingredients you plan to add, how many people you are feeding, and how hungry you typically are. I tend to use about 1/2 cup cooked grain per person.
Using a fork, break up any clumps of grain; the starches in the grain can cause them to stick together in the chilly refrigerator.
To the bowl add chopped garlic and onion. You can also try things like ginger root, or even horseradish root, which is not as nose-singeing fresh as it is prepared.
Cook in an oiled frying pan set to medium heat. Add to this a chopped green such as spinach or kale, and fresh herbs and spices. A favorite herb of mine is rosemary, and just some salt and pepper. Cook until the green is tender; if you’re using kale place a lid on the pan to allow the kale to steam a bit until cooked.
To individualize the meal, add things like shredded cheese, chopped olives, bacon bits, leftover cooked chicken, a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, or hot sauce. You can even do things like add beans and Cajun spices for a quick red beans and rice. This can be handy because the dish can be served in individual bowls, and each person can add what they like.