You may remember the recession in the early ’90s, an economic decline that lasted about a year. It was during that time that I asked readers who had survived The Great Depression to participate in a recipe contest. Their letters jammed my mail cubby; favorite recipes from that time along with memories flooded in. Everyone it seemed, wanted to share recollections.
I expected sad tales filled with misery. What I received were remembrances of what each contributor described as one of the best times of their lives. Many recalled three generations packed into tiny houses or apartments, working together as a team to survive the monetary crisis.
It was different from what we are experiencing now with sheltering in place to prevent the spread of the virus, but I find comfort in their words. Fran Slater of Santa Ana, one of our top three entries, sent her recipe for Pimiento Cheese Spread along with her account: “The Depression as we saw it from our little town in northern Mississippi could be summed up with a line from Charles Dickens — ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’
“My dad owned a general store, but this was lost because of his credit customers. Families were held together by economic glue. Everyone worked. My little brother and I sold Grit newspaper, magazines, and vegetables from Mother’s garden. We combed the woods for things growing wild — grapes, plums, pecans, and hickory nuts. In the spring, dewberries and blackberries grew along creek banks and in vacant fields. We fished and Daddy shot game.”
Of course, Southern California isn’t rural Mississippi — and The Great Depression wasn’t a global pandemic, but somehow those heartfelt words of courage are reassuring.
Jacques Pepin, award-winning cookbook author and PBS star, wrote “Cuisine Economique” (William Morrow, out of print) during the ’90s recession. His goal was to make food dollars go further without sacrificing taste. Here are three of my favorites from his penny-pinching recipes. If you are feeding four or less, the savory dishes can be stretched to serve at two meals.
Sweet and Spicy Curried Chicken Legs
Yield: About 6 to 8 servings, cook extra rice to stretch it
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon canola or vegetable oil
6 to 8 chicken drumsticks, skin removed, see cook’s notes
2 large yellow onions, diced, about 2 1/2 cups
1 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons curry powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
5 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
1 large Granny Smith apple, unpeeled, cored, cut into 1-inch chunks
1 banana, peeled, cut into 1/2-inch slices
1 large tomato, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 tablespoons shredded fresh mint or 1 teaspoon dried mint
Optional: Hot sauce to taste
For serving: Cooked rice or pilaf
Cook’s notes: I like to use a wide pan, 14 inches across and 4 inches deep, so that I can saute 8 chicken legs at a time. If using a smaller pan, use 6 chicken legs. Or cook chicken in two batches. My local supermarket often has bone-in chicken thighs on sale in large packages. You can substitute bone-in, skin-off chicken thighs if you wish.
1. Heat butter and oil in large skillet. When hot, add chicken and cook over medium-high heat, turning as needed to brown on all sides, about 8 minutes. Transfer chicken to a plate. Discard all but 2 to 3 tablespoons of accumulated fat in the skillet (usually I don’t need to discard any because that is about the amount that I have in the pan.)
2. Add onions to the pan and cook on medium-high heat for about 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in flour, curry powder, cumin, cayenne, pepper, salt, and garlic. Add 1 cup water and stir; bring to boil. Return chicken to pan, spooning some of the onion mixture on top.
3. Add apple, banana and tomato; bring to boil. Cover, reduce heat to medium-low and gently simmer for 30 minutes; check to confirm that chicken should be cooked through and tender. Sprinkle with mint. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. I like to add some hot sauce to taste. If you plan to prepare this ahead and reheat it at serving time, cook only 25 minutes initially instead of 30. By the time the dish is reheated, it will be cooked through.
Source: “Cuisine Economique” by Jacques Pepin (William Morrow, out of print)
Vegetable and Pasta ‘Stew’
Don’t be put off by the designation of “stew” in the title of this delicious dish. The concoction is delicious and packed with veggies (you can add more if you wish). My grandchildren love this mixture and it’s a scrumptious way to happily get vegetables down their gullets.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium eggplant, unpeeled, cut into 1- to 1 1/2-inch pieces, about 3 1/2 cups
1 medium red onion, coarsely chopped
10 green onions, trimmed of roots and dark green stalks, white and light green portion cut into 1-inch pieces
1 red bell pepper, seeded, cored, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 head of cauliflower, cored, divided into florets
1 medium zucchini, trimmed, cut into 1-inch pieces
1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 pound small dried pasta, such as penne, ziti, bow-tie
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus additional for garnish
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1. For vegetables: Heat olive oil in large deep skillet. When hot, add eggplant and cook over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes, or until browned on all sides. It will absorb most of the oil. Add red onion, green onions, bell pepper, and cauliflower (add a tiny bit of oil if needed); gently toss. Cover and cook over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add zucchini and cook, covered, for another 2 minutes. Add salt and pepper. Gently toss and set aside.
2. For pasta: Bring about 4 quarts of salted water to a boil in a large pot. Add pasta and cook al dente according to package directions. Reserve 1/2 cup of cooking water. Drain pasta.
3. In large bowl, place reserved pasta-cooking water, 1/4 cup Parmesan, 2 tablespoons oil, salt and pepper; stir. Add pasta and toss. Stir in reserved vegetables. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed. Pass some Parmesan cheese for optional topping.
Jacques’ Old-Fashioned Rice Pudding
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
4 cups whole milk or fat-reduced milk, plus additional milk if needed
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup long-grain white rice
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest (colored portion only)
3/4 cup diced dried fruit, such as apricots, raisins, cherries, cranberries, figs, or apples
Garnish: sweetened whipped cream, sour cream, plain yogurt
Optional garnish: fresh mint leaves
Cook’s notes: I find if I refrigerate these before serving, the pudding thickens up. I stir in a little milk or cream to give it a creamy texture. My grandmother always put a tiny sprinkle of ground cinnamon on top of rice pudding before serving, so that’s my favorite little tweak.
1. Bring milk, sugar and vanilla to a boil in a saucepan. Add rice and mix well. Bring mixture back to boil. Cover and reduce heat to very low and simmer for 40 minutes, or until rice is very soft. The mixture will be soupy at this point; if it is not, stir in enough milk to make it so.
2. Add lemon zest and dried fruit to pudding; stir to combine. Set aside, uncovered, until cooled to room temperature. Spoon into dessert dishes. Garnish each with a good dab of whipped cream, sour cream or yogurt. Add a small mint leaf if desired.