Frugal Chef Tricks
Conversations with five Maine chefs reveal that during tough economic times, “eating low on the hog” can still pay delicious div
- By: michael sanders
- Photography by: Russell French
If you’re like me — a middle-class Mainer who has seen the recession take a bite out of the family income — going to the grocery store, the butcher shop, and the farmers’ market has become a newly painful experience. Off the table are the last-minute, quick, easy, and often more expensive choices: the thick steaks to broil, the pork tenderloin to sauté, and those more exotic, often imported ingredients like the Chilean asparagus in February. Yet many of us today have grown up a generation distant from farmhouse cooking, from doing more with less.
Hard times may be a new challenge for some of us, but there are other Mainers who have to be resilient as a fact of life, and they’re probably not the first people you’d expect. They are Maine’s chefs.
“We have a mini-recession every year,” says Rob Evans, one of Maine’s top chefs and co-owner with his wife, Nancy, of Hugo’s in Portland. “It’s called winter and spring. Food cost is the one aspect we can really control. So we source locally for rabbit, chickens, pork, sometimes beef, fish from New England waters. Starting in September, that expensive rib eye is gone off the menu! Instead, in the fall in Maine, braising comes to mind, with a cheaper cut of meat and root vegetables coming into play.”
Evans is talking about two frugal ideas even home cooks can use — buying food produced locally (it’s less expensive since it doesn’t have huge transportation costs attached), and adapting your cooking to use less expensive cuts of meat. Braising is cooking “low and slow” in chef lingo, cooking a protein in liquid, sometimes wholly submerged, sometimes only shallowly so that the top of the cut gets caramelized, and for a long time at a low heat, usually in the oven.
“Beef short ribs,” Rob continues, “you can get everywhere. You get more flavor out of the braising bottom cuts like that, and they lend themselves to all different preparations — sweet and sour, savory, in red wine and herbs. At the restaurant almost all of our braises are done overnight at two hundred degrees in the oven. But at home, in the winter, one of our favorite meals is oxtail stew made in the Crock-Pot. The way to think of it is, you invest a half an hour in prep in the morning or the night before.” When you get home from work, “you’ve made sauce or stock, you’ve cooked your meat, you threw in some large-cut pieces of carrot and onion so you’ve got your vegetables. With a bag of rice, you’ve got your whole meal right there.”
Jeff Landry, chef-owner of the new Farmer’s Table, in Portland, also sings the economic benefits of buying locally. “We just opened a few months ago,” he says. “We don’t have a lot of money to bring in tenderloins and foie gras.” His approach is to get several meals out of the same, reasonable cut of meat and thus avoid any waste. “We get Caldwell Farms all-natural beef brisket to make beer-braised corned beef,” a main course one evening, “which can go into a hash for brunch,” the next day. “That’s 100 percent yield. All our chickens we buy locally as whole birds,” which can cost half as much as buying pre-packaged breasts, for example. “We’ll stuff them and roast them. What we don’t sell one day becomes a chicken salad over romaine at lunch the next day.” Not even the picked-over carcasses go to waste because “those we use for stock as a base for soups and sauces,” he says.
At El Camino in Brunswick, chefs Eloise Humphrey and her sister, Daphne, use a variety of tricks, mostly based on planning ahead, to serve a full plate of Cal-Mex food for about $11.50 — using mostly organic and all-natural locally sourced ingredients. Though Eloise, who devises the menus, also uses braising and inexpensive choices for beef, chicken, and pork, to keep costs down, she cooks with so many vegetables that she has had to find clever ways to economize here, too. She uses two techniques in particular, both easily adaptable for the home chef.
“Except for avocados and citrus, which don’t grow here,” Humphrey says, “I never buy something that’s not in season. I buy as much as I can at the height of a vegetable’s abundance,” when it is least expensive, “and either pickle it or freeze it, or make it into a sauce, or somehow preserve it. It works for the farmers because someone is buying all of their ugly vegetables, like their #2 tomatoes, which I can get for a dollar a pound. I separate yellow and red heirloom tomatoes, roast them, then freeze them so I can offer a beautiful yellow heirloom tomato soup — in February!”
Humphrey also takes inspiration from what she calls “the amazing Mexican diet. Rice and beans are complementary proteins,” basic nutritional building blocks that are a part of almost every El Camino plate. “So you don’t need a large — and expensive — serving of animal protein at the center of the plate,” she says. “Four or five ounces are plenty.” Because she already has those non-meat proteins, too, she can get the diner focusing on, say, a fabulous roasted squash taco with wilted chard, caramelized onion, roasted pepper, and tomatillo salsa. “And I don’t think anyone ever leaves here hungry, either,” she says.
Of course, we all need a break now and then from cutting back, and here in Maine that often means a lobster dinner, particularly when out of town visitors arrive. But even in that big bowl of lobster bodies and legs and empty shells at the end of the meal, Josh Mather sees pure gold. Chef-owner of Joshua’s on Route 1 in Wells, he can sell scores of portions of his rich lobster pie each week. The recipe leaves lots of shells and legs after the picking.
“We make all our own stocks,” he tells me, “and the biggest one is lobster stock,” which is made by simmering the shells in water with a few vegetables, herbs, and sherry. “We leave it brothy, and then we’ll take haddock scraps,” left over from preparing another main course, “and maybe a shrimp or two, simmered in the lobster broth with fresh basil and parsley added at the end. People love that soup — and in all the years it’s been on the menu, no one has complained that there’s no lobster meat in it.”
At the Badger Café and Pub on Main Street in Union, the motto is: “Nothing fancy, just good, honest flavors from locally sourced providers.” Michael Greer and his wife, Christy, opened the Badger two years ago. Their challenge, says Michael, has been to make a living with a restaurant in “a small community a bit away from the coast. So we cater to people in the area versus catering to people coming through the area. We’re open year-round, five days a week, and we need our community, which means simple food, things people recognize.”
Like the other chefs, Greer saves by buying locally — all his vegetables in season, pork and beef from Caldwell Farms in Turner and Luces in North Anson, sauerkraut from Morse’s in Waldoboro, bread from Atlantic Baking in Rockland. He’s got to be very versatile within a smaller repertoire of dishes.
“I try to use ingredients and preparations that I can multi-task with, so there’s no waste,” he says. The mac ’n’ cheese sauce (whose recipe is on page 57), for example. “That cheese sauce is a sauce for breakfast, lunch, and dinner dishes. For burgers and sandwiches, I serve it as a dip, and at breakfast it goes over what we call the ‘Badger in the Hole,’ a slice of hallah bread with the center cut out and filled with a mixture of cheese, eggs, bacon, scallions, and tomatoes. The great thing is, people can go to most delis, even Hannaford’s, and they’ll sell you cheese scraps that are close to half the price as regular cheese.”
All of these chefs pointed out different side benefits to “going frugal.” It could be the opportunity to get the family and kids around the table shelling peas, hulling strawberries for jam, or shucking corn. Or perhaps it’s the discovery — or rediscovery — of the pleasures of making something as simple as a good flavorful stock. Or even just the sense of accomplishment and pride in feeding your family with ingenuity and saving money in the process.
Frugal Farmer tips
Smart chefs also take advantage of economies of scale, according to food supplier DeeDee Caldwell, who together with her parents raises beef and pork on four hundred acres of pasture in Turner. She points out that, with a little planning and a freezer, you don’t have to sacrifice your desire to eat healthily in hard times.
“If you buy direct from farm producers,” she says, “you don’t pay retail mark-up. I have customers who call ahead. I’ll pack up the meat they order and they pick it up right from my walk-in cooler. And there are coops, too, like Blue Hill and Belfast and Rising Tide.” Such groups require every member to give of their time as a condition of belonging, but in return “you don’t pay what you would at a higher end market and you’re supporting local agriculture because they buy from small farmers and producers like me.”
Don’t have a group of like-minded friends in your area who want to share a whole or half-animal with you? Jeff Landry points out that, through organizations like Slow Food and the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), “it’s not so hard to go on-line to find other people who want to share a whole pig with you. The producer tells you when your animal is ready, they butcher it exactly how you want, cut the chops, make the bacon, grind so much for sausage. You can get really high quality you’d be paying nine dollars a pound for at Whole Foods for less than half.”
Rob Evans’ Crock-Pot Braised Oxtails
Hugo’s Restaurant, Portland
3 lbs. oxtail
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup canola oil
1 carrot, chopped into 1-inch pieces
2 celery stalks, chopped into 1-inch pieces
1 onion, chopped
1 tbsp. tomato paste
1 cup dry red wine
2 qts. chicken stock or water
2 whole bay leaves
3 sprigs fresh thyme or sage
1 tsp. ground allspice or 10 whole allspice
2 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
1 tsp. grainy mustard
3 tbsp. sugar
Salt and pepper to taste
This recipe starts on the stovetop but can be finished either in the oven or in a Crock-Pot. If finishing in the oven, preheat to 300 degrees and use a Dutch oven or enameled cast-iron pan. Season oxtail with salt and pepper then toss in flour until lightly coated. Place pan over high heat, add half the canola oil, turn down to medium, and fry oxtails until golden brown on both sides, adding oil to pan as needed. Remove oxtails from pan. Drain all but 2 tablespoons of the oil then add carrots, celery, and onion over medium-high heat. Sauté until brown. Add tomato paste and stir until vegetables are evenly coated. Add wine and scrape up browned bits with wooden spoon. Reduce the liquid to a syrupy consistency. Add stock, bay leaves, thyme or sage, allspice, balsamic, mustard, sugar, and oxtail, and bring to a slow boil. To finish in the oven: turn off the heat and place pan in a 300 degree preheated oven uncovered for approximately 3 hours or overnight at 200 degrees. To finish in the Crock-Pot: cook in a covered Crock-Pot about 8 hours or until meat is falling off the bone. Remove from the oven and let cool in liquid for at least 10 minutes or unplug Crock-Pot and let sit for 10 minutes. Pull oxtail from liquid. Strain braising liquid, saving the liquid and vegetables to eat with oxtails but discarding spices. Reduce liquid in a saucepan if it is too watery. Reheat vegetables and oxtail in a low oven and serve with sauce over your favorite starch and little coarse sea salt to taste. Short ribs, veal shank, lamb shank, and beef cheeks are all good substitutes for oxtails.
Eloise Humphrey’s Squash Soft Tacos
El Camino, Brunswick
1 buttercup or butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1-inch pieces
1/2 cup olive oil
1 red onion, diced
1 red pepper, seeded and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 medium poblano pepper, seeded and cut into 1-inch pieces
4 cups spinach, swiss chard, or your favorite green washed
20-24 small soft corn tortillas
salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Toss squash with half the olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast in a heavy-bottomed pan until tender and slightly golden, about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Combine onion and peppers in a bowl. Toss with remaining olive oil and salt and pepper. Roast in the same oven as the squash until onion has become soft and brown, and peppers have lightly browned edges, about 45 minutes.
Mix squash, peppers, and onions together. Sauté greens briefly and add to squash mix.
Heat tortillas by laying them on a kitchen towel moistened with water so that they are not overlapping, then roll it up, and place it in warm oven for 5 minutes. When warm, double tortillas, fill with squash mix, and garnish with salsa and sour cream. Refried or black beans and rice make a healthy and tasty complete meal.
Josh Mather’s Squash Soup with Balsamic Roasted Beets
Joshua’s Restaurant, Wells
2 tbsp. olive oil
1/2 yellow onion, minced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 shallot, minced
1 medium butternut or acorn squash, about 3 cups peeled, seeded, and chopped
7 cups chicken stock
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 sprig fresh thyme leaves
6 tbsp. unsalted butter
Salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
Heat oil in large heavy-bottomed pot, add onion, garlic, shallots, and squash. Lightly sauté on medium heat for about 5 minutes, then add stock. Bring to a simmer and maintain for about half an hour or until the squash is soft. Add salt, peppers, and thyme. Remove from heat and transfer soup to a blender/Cuisinart in batches that just half-fill the bowl, blending on high and adding the butter as you go. Strain through a fine strainer.
Balsamic Roasted Beets Garnish
1 large beet
1 cup balsamic vinegar
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Put beet in a small oven-ready pan with vinegar. Cover with aluminum foil and roast at least a 1/2 hour at least depending on the size, until easily pierced with a knife. Remove beet and peel and slice it into small dice, then add it back to the balsamic vinegar, which should be reduced to a thin syrup. Garnish soup with as many dice as you like, and swirl a little of the reduced balsamic over the soup to make an appealing design.
Michael Greer’s Mac & Cheese Cheese Sauce For Any Pasta
Badger Café and Pub, Union
1/2 cup butter
1/2 small onion, diced
1/4 cup flour
3 1/3 cups half & half (whole milk or cream may be substituted)
1 tsp. dried thyme (1 tbsp. fresh)
4 cups (about 2 lbs.) cheese ends and scraps grated
1–1 1/2 lbs. of your favorite pasta like elbows, shells, rotini, etc.
1/2 cup breadcrumbs, if baking as a casserole
salt and pepper to taste
On the stovetop, heat butter over medium heat and sauté onions until translucent, but not brown. Turn heat down, stir in flour and cook another 2 to 3 minutes. Slowly stir in half and half and bring to a simmer. Stir in thyme. Reserve 1/2 cup of cheese if baking, otherwise add the cheese a little at a time and allow to simmer until all of the cheese has melted. (I prefer four different cheeses rather than all one, and you can often get a package of cheese ends for very little just by asking at your local deli or supermarket cheese counter.) Add salt and pepper to taste.
For a baked casserole, combine 1/2 cup reserved cheese with 1/2 cup breadcrumbs and sprinkle over surface of oven-ready filled pan, then heat in 300 degree oven until top is bubbly and brown, about 20 minutes.
Once the sauce is done, stir in your favorite pasta and whatever else you may want, leftover (cooked) shredded chicken, beef, veggies. This also works well as a baked dish.
Jeff Landry’s Beer-Braised Brisket
The Farmer’s Table, Portland
1 1/2 tablespoons pickling spice
4 tbsp. kosher salt
4 tbsp. brown sugar
1/2 cup molasses
3 lbs. beef brisket
1 12-ounce bottle medium ale beer
1 cup water, more as needed
In a bowl mix pickling spice, salt, sugar, and molasses. Put brisket in a covered pan just larger than the meat and add beer and water in equal amounts until the meat is just covered. Simmer, covered, over low heat about 2 hours or until the meat falls away in shreds on your fork. Serve over braised or boiled cabbage as a main course. For a breakfast hash, chop fine and add chopped, sautéed onion and small diced fried potatoes.
- By: michael sanders
- Photography by: Russell French