The Artifice of the $5 Dinner

Okay, now that we’re in the homestretch of the $5-per-person dinner menu week, it’s occurred to me that this is both art and artifice.  Cooking and eating is always (or should always be) an artistic endeavor, even if it’s just grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner; there’s the creativity of it, the act of MAKING something from raw ingredients, the act of experiencing something with all of your senses.  These are the fundamentals of art, which is why a frustrated creative type like me can be so wooed by the kitchen.

But then, there’s artifice too, and that comes in the inflation I’ve been doing to REACH the $5-a-head mark each evening.  Certainly there are some dinners each month that probably stretch to this level of expense, but I tell you quite sincerely that it’s just not natural for a home cook like me to spend that much.  If we ate more meat, and more expensive cuts of meat, then perhaps we’d find ourselves spending this much money all the time; but in the practical sense, a $5 per person outlay for every single dinner would mean $140 of our grocery budget GONE before we’d even addressed lunches, snacks, and breakfasts.  It’s just an outrageous number, if you do the math.  (Which, I should say, is sort of the point so many of us real-food advocates are trying to make — sure, the $5 value meal SEEMS like a value, but only because you’re not actually adding up the total expenditure over a period of time, and only because you’re not actually subtracting and dividing properly when you price real ingredients.  That $3.50 jar of spices and the $10 bottle of olive oil will LAST you.)

Anyway, tonight’s dinner needed some inflation to make the $5 mark, which I guess is good news — if you chose to omit a few things, which you could easily do, it would come in probably more around the $3 range.  Totally affordable.  Plus, tasty, healthy, and reasonably easy, especially if you do a little advance prep work and roast the veggies ahead of time.  Also, we had two dishes together on our plates, but each could stand alone as its own light meal, making this even more budget-friendly and weeknight-friendly.

Tonight’s Dinner: Beet and Corn Panzanella, Apple Salad with Crispy Prosciutto and Greens

Local Beets: $4
Local Corn: $2.40
Organic Goat Cheese: $2.30
Organic bakery bread: $3
Local basil: $0.50
Organic greens: $0.75
Local apples: $0.85
Prosciutto: $3.10
Dressing components (olive oil, lemon juice, vinegar, honey, maple syrup): $2.50 (estimated value)
TOTAL: $19.40 (with tons of panzanella left over)

Now it’s time to look ahead to Saturday, and the BIG $5-a-head challenge.  I’ve got taco fillings to make, tortillas to roll, and beans to simmer…it’s almost taco party time!  I’ll see you all back here after the big event to recount how we did and kick off our $4-per-person dinner week.  I hope each of you will also consider making this Saturday a day to eat at home and focus on real food with your families (though I’m sure most RRG readers already do).  Take your own challenges and report back here — I’d love to know what you’re up to in your own kitchens.

Before I sign off, here’s a sample of one of the taco party menu items:

Slow Cooker Apple-Barbecue Pork Shoulder
3-4 lbs. boneless pork shoulder
Salt and pepper
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1 1/2 cups chicken stock
1 cup water
1/2 bottle (very scientific, yes) of ketchup, preferably organic (or at least free of HFCS)
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon cumin
2 teaspoons dry mustard
1 teaspoon cloves
1 teaspoon allspice
3 medium apples, quartered and cored (don’t bother peeling them)

Place the pork shoulder in a slow cooker and sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper.  Pour the vinegar, stock, water, and ketchup over the pork.  Add the brown sugar and spices.  Nestle the apple chunks around the pork shoulder.  Cover and cook on Low for 12-14 hours.  Remove the pork from the sauce and shred with two forks.  If desired, either strain or quickly puree the sauce in case there are any apple skins left in it (they tend to break down completely, but you can check).  Return the pork to the sauce, toss to coat, and serve warm — it’s especially great in a whole-wheat tortilla with apple-cabbage slaw.
Apple-cabbage Slaw with Honey Lime Dressing
3/4 head of red cabbage, shredded
2 medium apples, julienned
6 green onions, finely sliced (whites and light green parts only)
Juice of 2 limes
1 teaspoon honey
1/4 cup plain yogurt
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper

Combine the cabbage, apples, and green onions in a large bowl.  Whisk together the lime juice, honey, yogurt, salt, and pepper, and pour over the salad.  Toss to coat.  Let stand at least 15 minutes before serving.