When some friends and I started monthly “Frugal Feasts” last fall, it was admittedly a bit of an experiment. We’re an idealistic, opinionated lot, and we were committed to the idea that being on a budget didn’t have to mean eating only processed or fast food—instead, we believed that we could go out and buy fresh, seasonal, and sustainably produced ingredients and cook meals for each other for no more than $5 a person. But at the end of the day, I’m a woman of data. And while we all had an inkling that it was possible, we had yet to deliver any actual proof.
It’s hard to believe, but last weekend marked a full year of our Frugal Feasts. Twelve gracious hosts, twelve gatherings of new and old friends, and twelve successful dinners: delicious, healthy and hearty meals prepared on a $5-per-head budget that honestly seemed a bit implausible at the outset.
So what have we learned?
Well it turns out that two key things “unlock” the Frugal Feasts budget, so to speak, and make the entire idea not only possible, but entirely plausible.
First, when you don’t put meat at the center of your plate, you suddenly free up a whole lot of money to buy higher quality ingredients across the board, including many of your fruits and vegetables organically grown. [Organic food may have found itself at the center of some trumped up controversy last month, but the truth is, the organic standard is no gimmick, with solid evidence that organically-produced foods are far less likely to be contaminated with pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. More on that here.]
Second, when you make eating a community affair, “economies of scale” kick in and make great, home-cooked meals entirely affordable.
As I discussed here, we quickly noticed that 10 Feasters seemed to be the “sweet spot” in terms of the number of guests you need in order to raise enough of a total budget to prepare a great meal. With roughly $50 bucks in hand, our hosts found, the possibilities were endless.
On both counts, I'm thrilled to be part of an ongoing demonstration that buying low-impact, fresh ingredients and cooking them at home can be simple, affordable, and enjoyable. And it is my sincere hope that in some small way, Frugal Feasts help push back against the notion that safe and healthy food can't or shouldn't be accessible to all Americans.
But as we settle into the fall, I’m inspired to add a third lesson. For all their delicious fun, I’ve noticed that our Frugal Feasts have also helped mark the passing of the seasons, as hosts have largely chosen to prepare seasonal dishes. Even without a specific focus on eating seasonally, staying within a budget naturally nudges you towards the foods that are most abundant in your region at any given time, connecting us to time and place in a beautiful way.
This was certainly true for Lauren, our hostess last weekend, who prepared a meal perfectly in sync with the New York fall. Lauren took advantage of the mountains of different squashes, eggplants, peppers, and dark leafy greens being sold at farmers markets around New York City, as well as the equally impressive bounty of pears.
Here’s Lauren’s full menu and recipes in her own words, as well as her disclaimer:
“Most of these were half improvised which is why the directions might sound a bit casual.”
No worries, Lauren, we don’t mind.
Roasted squash seeds:
- Squash seeds
- 1 tbsp olive oil
Separate seeds from pulp and toss with olive oil and salt. Place on pan and roast in oven. Many online directions will have you heat the oven to 275 degrees F but in case you too are trying to also cook acorn squash and crackers and other things in a 400 degree oven, the seeds can go right in there too, and just come out extra crispy. After ~10-15 minutes they should look browned. If you opt for conventional directions, they should be baked for ~15-18 minutes, until they start to pop.
Olive oil crackers (adapted from here):
- 3 cups whole wheat graham flour
- 1 cup warm water
- 1/3 cup olive oil
- Salt, pepper
Whisk together flour and salt in a bowl. Add water and olive oil and mix until incorporated. Knead the dough. Separate into 12 equally-sized balls and rub each with olive oil. Cover with towel and let sit for 45 minutes-hour. Roll out dough into crackers, as thinly as possible. Place on pizza stone (or foil) coated with flour to prevent sticking. Poke holes with fork to keep crackers flat. Add salt/pepper/whatever you want your crackers to taste like. Bake for ~10 minutes in 450 degree oven until they look crispy or “deeply golden.”
Smoked eggplant dip (adapted from here):
- 2-3 small to medium eggplant
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 lemon
- 1.5 tbsp olive oil
- Salt, pepper
- ½ tsp paprika, dash of chili powder
Place eggplant over open flames of stove burner and char skins. Rotate to make sure all sides are charred. A little ignition is not a bad thing, as long as you are cautious. Make sure the kitchen is well-ventilated. Place charred eggplant in 375 degree oven for ~20-25 minutes, until soft. Remove and let cool, and peel off the skins. Chop and sauté garlic in bit of olive oil. Place garlic and eggplant in food processor. Add oil, lemon. Puree. Add salt and pepper and other seasonings to taste. Serve with crackers or carrots or celery or all of the above.
Butternut squash soup* (adapted from like five different recipes):
- 1 large butternut squash
- ½ large onion
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- ½ can coconut milk
- Salt, pepper, dash paprika or sage
Peel and cube butternut squash. Toss with olive oil and salt and roast in 300 degree oven for ~45 minutes, until soft. Peel and chop onion and sauté in olive oil until translucent. Add squash and continue to cook. When both are soft, puree to desired smoothness. Add some coconut milk. Put in large pot over stove and boil and then simmer, adding remainder of coconut milk. Add salt and pepper and other seasonings to taste.
*Note: this could’ve been doubled. Portion sizes were a little small for 9 people.
Stuffed acorn squash (adapted from here):
- 5 acorn squash
- 1 cup (uncooked) wild rice
- 1 package firm tofu
- 1-2 small bell peppers
- 5 oz shiitake mushrooms
- Other half of large onion
- 2 shallots
- 3 tbsp butter (earth balance vegan butter if you want)
Halve squash, remove seeds, and rub in olive oil (or melted butter) and salt (and heck, pepper too if you want). Bake at 450 degrees for 25 minutes.
Cook wild rice. Chop onion, shallots, sauté in olive oil, add salt and pepper. Chop bell pepper and add to pan. Cook until soft. Chop and add shitake mushrooms. Continue cooking. Cube and add tofu. Add some seasoning. When veggies are done cooking, add them to the rice and mix. Add some more seasoning.
Spoon mixture into roasted squash halves, and drizzle with remaining tbsp melted butter. Return to oven and cook for another 20-25 minutes, until edges have browned and filling is cooked through.
- 2 large bunches of rainbow chard
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 shallot
- Salt and pepper
Wash and chop chard, separating stems from leaves. Chop garlic and shallots, and sauté in large pan with salt and pepper. Add chard stems. Cook for ~5-7 minutes. Add leaves and cook until wilted and they and the stems have reached desired level of tenderness. Season with some more salt and pepper (and maybe some lemon if you have any leftover from the eggplant dip!).
Pear tart (adapted from Patricia Wells’s Bistro Cooking, via here):
- 7-8 bosc pears
- 6 tbsp butter (or in vegan case, earth balance vegan buttery sticks)
- ½ cup sugar
- Pinch salt
- 1 recipe pâte brisée (see below)
- 1 cup flour
- 8 tbsp butter, chilled
- 3 tbsp Ice water (or, in my case, vodka and triple sec. it evaporates more readily and makes the crust flakier—it’s science.)
Mix flour and salt together in food processor. Chop chilled butter into cubes. Add to food processor and pulse a few times. Add liquid and continue pulsing until dough starts to come together into a ball. Be careful not to over process. Turn out onto wax paper and shape into disc. Refrigerate for at least an hour.
Peel, quarter, and core pears. Melt butter in pan over stove. Add sugar. Add pears. Cook at medium-high heat for 20 minutes. Turn up heat to high and continue cooking until pears are deep golden-brown, about 15-20 more minutes. Watch closely, as the cooking accelerates as the sugars caramelize and too much acceleration can lead to burning. Which is bad. But stopping too soon is also bad so make sure the pears are actually golden.
Dump golden, cooked pears into round glass 10-inch baking dish (or tart tatin pan, if you should happen to have one). Roll out pâte brisée and place on top of the pears, tucking excess crust into the corners between the pears and the pan. Bake at 425 degrees for 35-40 minutes or until the crust is golden-brown. Remove from oven and flip over onto plate. If pears still remain in the dish after you remove the tart from the baking dish, take them out and tuck them back into their lost compatriots, making the tart look as pretty (yet rustic) as possible.
I don’t know about you, but I think Lauren got it just right:
So Happy 1st Birthday, Frugal Feasts, and here's to many more to come!
And just in case you're still skeptical, Lauren kept all her receipts. She had 9 guests for a total budget of $45. Here's how she faired: