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The upside of high gas prices?

(post, Ronnie Fein)

Everyone I know is talking about gas prices. I live in Fairfield County, Connecticut, a notably swell place with more than its share of rich people, so you wouldn’t think that this kind of conversation would come up around the office latte machine. But most of us here are not among the well-heeled you read about in Forbes magazine, so gas prices and all of the other current economic problems are as real for us as they are for everyone else out there.

If you’re kosher, the money problem can be even worse. Cooking certain kinds of kosher meals is expensive. Although everyone pays the same prices for the thousands of everyday grocery items that are kosher (most people are probably not even aware that products as diverse as Heinz ketchup, Quaker Chewy Granola Bars, Bonne Maman Strawberry Preserves, and even Iron Chef’s General Tso’s Sauce are kosher), kosher meat costs more. How about boneless and skinless chicken breasts for $7.98 per pound? Or even a pound of the humble lean ground beef at $8.98? Add to that the extra gas mileage it sometimes takes to find kosher meat. We are fortunate; in my area, kosher meat is locally available. But that’s not true everywhere.

[%image reference-image float=left width=400 caption="A satisfying combination of bulgur wheat, lentils, caramelized onions, and mushrooms."] 

In order to qualify as kosher, meat must come from specific types of animals (ones that have cloven hooves and chew their cud). That’s not the end of it, though. Slaughtering the animal must also be done by a shochet, a trained professional, in a way that will inflict minimal pain and the least amount of suffering to the animal. After slaughter, the organs are inspected for specific deformities; if the meat passes muster, it is then soaked and salted to extract blood, which is prohibited by the dietary laws.

The entire process that guarantees the meat is kosher — which means “fit and proper” — is what also makes it so pricey. So be it. For kosher cooks, this is a given, but in times of economic hardship we have to find ways to economize.

Belt-tightening in the kosher food budget, just as for everyone, means eating less meat. Using leftovers effectively. Using more grains and produce.

Come to think of it, this all sounds a lot like the modern healthy diet that is touted as beneficial for everyone. Cut down on meat, surely. Eat more healthful whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables. This kind of eating is not only cheaper, but better. 

Main dishes that feature grains can be entirely without meat or contain only small amounts of it. One of my family’s vegetarian favorites is a Middle Eastern recipe called mujadarah. According to some historians, this is the savory dish that was delicious enough to tempt the biblical Esau into giving up his birthright. It’s a combination of bulgur wheat and lentils with sautéed onions on top, though in parts of the Middle East it is made with brown or white rice instead of the bulgur. I’ve served mujadarah with crispy fried onions on top, but frying onion shreds is a lot of work, and they add fat and calories, so now I usually make the dish with sautéed Vidalia onions, which are sweet and mild and don’t fight the hearty flavors of the other ingredients. 

I think I could prepare mujadarah in my sleep, because I’ve made this dish so often. I never actually had a recipe until recently, because each time I cooked it I did something different. Sometimes I add bits of leftover meat, and sometimes I use beef or chicken stock instead of water when cooking the wheat and lentils. Occasionally I include leftover or freshly cooked vegetables, such as broccoli, peas, or carrots. But one time I added lots of sautéed mushrooms and it turned out to be the family favorite. That’s the version of the recipe I included in Hip Kosher; Bulgur Wheat with Lentils, Caramelized Onions, and Mushrooms is a filling entrée. I serve it with a salad or sautéed spinach, sometimes tomato salad or, if it is a dairy meal (the mujadarah made with vegetable stock or water), with tzatziki, a yogurt-cucumber dip. 

Mujadarah is healthy and cheap. At our house, it’s well-loved, too. 

In addition to grains, I rely on eggs often when I am trying to save money and serve less meat. Sure, eggs contain cholesterol, but even the American Heart Association says they’re OK for the occasional meal. For the money, you almost can’t beat eggs for their nutritional value. They’re quick and easy to cook, too, so you can be done with dinner fast.

Somehow simple scrambled eggs or sunny-side-ups never satisfy my family at dinner, even when I include bread and hash browns. We prefer eggs in dishes that have some body or substance, like frittatas, omelets, and quiches. But it’s another recipe from the Middle East that usually ranks as our first choice for dinner. Called shakshouka,_ this dish contains tomatoes, hot chile peppers, onions, and garlic that simmer together until their flavors melt into one another. When the vegetables are soft and have become sauce-like, you crack some eggs on top and steam them by covering the pan and cooking the ingredients a bit longer. 

When you eat shakshouka, it’s best to cut into the still-runny yolks and let them ooze into the vegetables. Your mouth can’t make up its mind which is more fabulous: the spicy sauce, which makes your tongue tingle, or the rich yellow and the tender whites, which calm it down. Everything comes together as a perfect whole, satisfying every part of your mouth and your mind. 

We usually eat shakshouka with a green vegetable, typically sautéed spinach or Swiss chard, and as an accompaniment I serve a wonderful bread. Warm pitas are perfect, but ciabatta also works well because the chewy crust and airy insides allow the sauce to cling but not make the bread soggy. 

Who says meat has to make the meal? Even your heartiest, hungriest eaters will be satisfied with a good dish that’s meatless or nearly so. And you’ll save money to boot. That can’t hurt when gasoline prices, at least where I live, are well over $4 a gallon.

reference-image, l