When the times get tough financially, my instincts kick in and the survival mode becomes default. But I don’t really change my modus operandi, as frugality is somehow ingrained in me, and I just keep on doing what I do best: digging through my pantry and my freezer and putting healthy, nutritious, appetizing food in front of my girls, playing with ingredients, pimping up the leftovers, and offering colorful and enticing meals that would make them appreciate all aspects of the culinary world.
Sometimes the prompts come from them, if they feel inspired and creative—in the rare moments when they are not entranced in a fantasy play or a puppet show. But most of the time it takes a few minutes poring through the contents of my legume drawer or taking inventory of every refrigerator shelf to come up with a perfectly balanced meal that would be cost-effective, creative, flavorful, and overall nutritious.
It breaks my heart when I see food being wasted. I collect the tough asparagus stems, cauliflower stalks, celery leaves, and lettuce cores to make a vegetable stock. I salvage the roasted chicken carcass with all the gelatinous deposit on the bottom of the pan and make a hearty chicken stock. I collect egg whites for a future angel food cake, and pork fat for the day I feel inspired to render lard. I place parsley and cilantro stems in bags and add them to stews and soups, reluctant to waste even a smidgen of the goodness they impart.
My freezer is a repository of oddly shaped bags containing fish heads, shrimp and lobster shells, chicken gizzards, and stock. There are labeled plastic containers with leftover tomato sauce, chopped herbs, and duck fat, along with neatly wrapped packages of beef and lamb bones destined for a soup.
The girls rarely know what they will have for breakfast or dinner, because I employ all my resources when I start to contemplate it. They are adventurous and open to new culinary challenges, which makes my thought process much easier.
School lunches are limited in creativity as they have to be stored in a locker for hours, eaten within fifteen minutes and relatively easy to handle. They eat outside and have no access to a microwave. I smuggle a Ferrero Rocher treat or a square of dark chocolate in their paper bags to give them a sense of adventure.
This week they had state testing and school let out earlier, which allowed me more freedom with their mid-day repast. They arrived from school famished and I had a perfect meal for them every single day, taking advantage of the amenities I had at home, excited to offer them something different than the usual sandwich or wrap fare.
True to my nature, I had to be frugal, and most days the lunches were spruced-up leftovers. But every single time their faces lit up and they brought the plates to the kitchen licked clean.
These tostadas elicited a whole lot of squeals. I loved how my girls’ faces alighted with excitement when I poked the eggs and released the yolks. This lunch did not cost me anything, but a few minutes of my time and some kilowatts of energy. But it made my daughters feel special, loved, cherished, and adored. And in the times when every dollar spent has to be spent wisely, that’s the only thing that matters to me.
LEFTOVER TOSTADA WITH POACHED EGG
- Corn tortillas
- 1 Roma tomato, diced
- Jack cheese, shredded
- Remoulade (recipe below)
- Poached eggs (recipe below)
- Black bean and corn salsa (recipe below)
Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Place corn tortillas on a cookie sheet. Spread remoulade all over the tortilla. Spoon salsa and diced tomatoes on top. Sprinkle with cheese and place in the oven. Bake for five minutes until the cheese is melted. Take out of the oven and place each tortilla on a separate plate. Place a poached egg on top, sprinkle with cilantro and serve.
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise
- 1 teaspoon capers
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- Pinch of salt
- 1 tablespoon chopped dill
Mix ingredients together.
Black Bean Salsa
- 14 ounces (one can) rinsed black beans
- 1 cup frozen corn kernels
- 1 jalapeño, chopped
- 1/2 onion, chopped
- Lime juice
Mix ingredients together.
- 1 egg
- 1 tablespoon white vinegar
Heat the water in a small stainless steel pot until it boils. Turn the heat down to simmer. Add 1 tablespoon of white vinegar. Break an egg into a ramekin and pour it carefully into the boiling water. Fold the egg white over the yolk with a spoon and cook for 1 minute. Using the slotted spoon remove the egg and place it onto a plate covered with a few layers of paper towels to absorb the moisture.