Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Maybe things ain't so bad after all...

...if CBS thinks $35 is a "shoestring" budget for a home-cooked dinner.

The menu?
  • Beet Salad with Crushed Pistachios & Soft Goat Cheese
  • Lamb Ragu with Rigatoni and Fresh Ricotta
  • Greek Yogurt with Blood Oranges, Honey & Mint

Ahem. Let's start with the premise: that in a time of economic downturn, recession, financial catastrophe - take your pick - $35 constitutes an acceptably low dinner budget for a family of (I'm guessing, based on quantities) four. As several commenters in the (now closed) comment string point out, this dollar amount totals almost $13,000 a year - for dinners only. Whew! Some shoestring.

And next, the food choices: First let me say that I'd eat this dinner - oh, yes. It sounds delicious. But it doesn't sound like the way to train a palate, particularly a palate on a budget. When I say "train," I'm not talking about training someone to be a food critic, or an Epicure (God help us all if that horrible heresy is returning); I'm talking about raising children who will eat things. All kinds of things. This menu has, I freely admit, "all kinds of things" - and for every child I've ever known, would result in an awful dinner debacle and nonstop post-dinner begging for a "snack," because the child wouldn't eat half enough to feel satisfied until bedtime. Fights all night? Not my idea of a great evening, no matter how much this menu tries to promise that budget constraints needn't mean any kind of pain.

Here's a problem we have with our children: one "doesn't like bread." "It's too dry," he says, but won't use any kind of condiment or moist filling in a sandwich. Hence he rails against sandwiches for lunch. Of the three, only one eats macaroni and cheese in any form; the other two want, respectively, plain noodles with nothing on them and noodles with butter and grated Parmiggiano. All will eat lettuce and certain other salad veggies - but only one will eat only one kind of dressing. All will eat certain hot veggies - but none with any sauce whatsoever (except the butter their grandmother considers God's gift to all foods, no matter how often I tell her they actually like plain vegetables). The point: they all expect ALL food to be delicious, by their own standards, and have trouble downing anything they don't "love." What happens when they eat with a friend? Same thing that happens at our house when friends of theirs come over for dinner: as often as not, we have one of the Big Three, pizza, hot dogs, or chicken.

We are in a now two-year campaign to introduce them to the concept that you eat what you're given, always with the idea that a new palate-pleaser may be on your plate.

The way to accomplish this goal is NOT - repeat NOT - to give them an entire meal of "interesting" flavors. It's to give them a meal they can and will eat without complaint, with one or two twists. The CBS menu stinks for this purpose.

Furthermore. I was disappointed with some of the commenters because they proudly stated that they'd be happy with spaghetti and a can of tomato sauce, etc. - at which the CBS people will snort, roll their eyes, and immediately dismiss their underlying point, which is that CBS has no clue about a "budget" dinner. An alternative:

Make your own sauce. It's cheaper than jars, it's easy, a good tomato sauce can be made in the time it takes to cook the pasta, and if you have a windowsill for herbs you can really up the taste ante with those. A little olive oil, some crushed or whole plum tomatoes from a can, some crushed garlic, a little red wine if you have some that's been open, dried or fresh oregano and basil - I minced my summer basil and froze it in olive oil and now use that as the basis of any winter red sauce; dead easy.

If you're going to eat an expensive entree (or salad, or dessert), make the other courses simpler and cheaper. Spread that budget.

Don't eat dessert every night unless it's fruit (this one is, sort of). As for Greek yogurt? We referred to my hips as "tzatziki" for a good year after our long-ago trip to Crete because that's right where it went; I LOOOOOVE Greek yogurt. But lowfat yogurt, drained in a paper-towel-lined strainer, is a great substitute. And (everybody now) lots cheaper.

CBS, still bringing you quality stories... right?

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