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The idea behind the “comfort course” is of a dish that can be made easily and cheaply, but provides a hot and filling update of a classic favorite. These can be one-dish meals, with just a salad on the side, and they are generally based on the easy-to-make, satisfying, and cheap classic sides like pasta or rice, though included here are some tips for avoiding high-carb content, if that’s your bag.
WONDER BREAD PIEROGI
In the Williamsburg-Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn, a community that’s recently been made world famous by its population of artists and hipsters, there are a plethora of Polish diners serving hearty pierogi breakfasts to the hungover and inexpensive pierogi dinners to the hard-up. Greenpoint was and is primarily a Polish neighborhood, and like many trendy urban enclaves, it originally attracted both immigrants and artist with its low rents.
Of course the pierogi you get at a diner is made from a traditional Polish recipe. The Starving Artist, however, does not have time to be kneading pierogi dough and has adapted the tools of modern living to the creation of delectable pierogi at home. Remember as a kid when you used to take your slices of bread and mush them and roll them up into little balls? Well, here’s an adult way of playing with and recrafting your food to make a creative and tasty dinner on the fly (the combination of childhood behavior and Polish culture is one that Polish artist Zbigniew Libera used to effect in his controversial Lego pieces). The filling can be many things, but try this classic Polish favorite: mushroom and sauerkraut.
WHAT YOU’LL NEED FOR A SINGLE PORTION
Olive oil or butter, for cooking
1 garlic clove, chopped
1/4 cup finely chopped mushrooms
1/2 cup sauerkraut, drained
salt and pepper
4–5 slices sandwich bread
1/4 cup sliced onion
Lemon juice, maple syrup, chopped chives;
or applesauce and sour cream, for serving
Sauté the garlic and mushrooms for a few minutes over medium heat to soften the mushrooms, but avoid burning the garlic. Mix with the sauerkraut and season with salt (if necessary—your brand of sauerkraut may be salty already) and pepper.
Take a slice of bread and place on your cutting board. Cut off the crusts and gently press the center of the slice to compact it, leaving a spongy margin of about b/c inch all around. Enjoy the sensation of playing with your food. Put a tablespoon of filling into this pressed area. Lightly moisten the edge of the slice by dipping your fingertips in water and running them over the b/c-inch border. Fold the slice in half, encompassing the filling and pressing around the dampened edge with your fingertips to seal it shut. Make the remaining pierogi in the same manner.
Heat a large pan to medium-high with more oil or butter, then toast the pierogi on both sides until lightly browned. Fry the sliced onion (you can do this while cooking the pierogi in the other half of the pan) and serve pierogi topped with several onion slices. Drizzle with a dressing of one part lemon juice to one part maple syrup and chopped chives or the traditional applesauce and sour cream.
Don’t forget to use the cut-off crusts of the bread for croutons (cut into bits, toss with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and bake in a hot oven for 10 minutes until crunchy). The Starving Artist wastes nothing.
PEANUT BUTTER CURRY CONSPIRACY
Peanut butter curry is one of the Starving Artist’s best tricks of the trade. The “conspiracy” referred to in the title is a glorious culinary secret, actually unrelated to 1960s psychedelic rock. This dish can be whipped up in moments and tastes rich, satisfying, and delicious. It’s exotic and comforting at the same time, although if you get to thinking about William Pope L. and what he did with peanut butter, you won’t feel as relaxed, so maybe wait until after dinner for talking art. This recipe is for a vegetarian version of the curry, as peanut butter is luxurious and decadent enough without meat, but you can adapt the recipe to include your choice of carne, if you so desire.
Curries are generally made with a blend of spices, commonly turmeric, cumin, and coriander, sometimes cinnamon, mustard, and others. This unconventional recipe for peanut curry includes yellow prepared mustard from the jar (this ingredient comes courtesy of musician Stephen Barnard—also check out his risotto recipe later in this book). The yellow pigment in mustards is turmeric, which is also the main ingredient in curry. Mustard contains some additional, generally unspecified, curry spices (like mustard seed itself) as well as vinegar, so it’s a quick way to add curry flavors to this dish without having to stock a huge array of ground spices.
You can use any brand of peanut butter that you have—they all work. Some are pre-sweetened, and if you use that kind don’t add any other sweetener to the dish. If you use sugar-free peanut butter, you’ll want to include the honey from the ingredient list.
Cook some rice if you want it. You can do this according to the directions your mother gave you, or the ones on the package. On the other hand, this is an example of a recipe you could serve over shredded lettuce or cabbage just as easily and avoid the extra starch, so prepare a heap of lettuce if you want to go that route. Then, prepare your ingredients.
1/2 onion, diced
2–3 garlic cloves, chopped
2–3 teaspoons chopped fresh ginger
1 tablespoon olive or sesame oil
1 red bell pepper, diced
2 cups chopped broccoli
10–12 mushrooms, chopped
1 zucchini, chopped
1–2 carrots, chopped
1 cup peanut butter (I prefer crunchy)
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup yellow mustard
Hot sauce to taste
1/4 cup honey (you won’t need this if you use a sweetened brand of peanut butter)
1/4 cup water, or as needed
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1/4 cup chopped scallion
Sauté the onion, garlic, and ginger in the oil in a hot pan until all are coated and the onion is beginning to brown. Stir in the vegetables, cover the pan, and turn the heat down to medium. Give the contents a stir every minute or so and then re-cover while you prepare the sauce.
Combine the peanut butter, soy sauce, mustard, hot sauce, and honey and whisk together. Stir this mixture into the pan of vegetables, add as much of the water as you need to make the mixture stirrable, and turn the heat down to low. Leave uncovered while it simmers for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add more water if the sauce gets too thick. Check the broccoli for doneness and then remove from heat. Garnish with cilantro and scallion.
This will serve 4 to 6 people, depending on how hungry or greedy they are. While eating a peanut butter meal, discussion should flit around the subject of the aforementioned artists, as well as Wim Schippers and his peanut butter carpet. Food for the mind as well as the body . . .
There is one grand secret to Thai cooking, a cuisine that while seemingly exotic can be captured pretty accurately if you only know the code words, fish sauce. That’s all. Anything you’ve got—any vegetables, any meat, any starch—will magically become a Thai meal with this addition. Fish sauce is sold in Chinatowns and Asian markets all over the country. Go get a bottle now, and it will last you forever, as you use only a splash at a time. If you can’t find it, though, the Starving Artist can offer the following alternative:
Fish sauce is made from anchovies, sugar, salt, and water. Anybody can get anchovies, as they are a cross-cultural condiment and they come in little cans and bottles available in any supermarket. To make your own fish sauce, you’ll want to mash or blend a 2-ounce can of anchovies with a teaspoonful of sugar (or honey) and 1ž2 cup water. Since these canned anchovies are not live fish you needn’t worry that you’ll find yourself in a Danish courtroom, though anyway Peter Meyer got let off in the end. Anchovies are generally pre-salted, which is part of the point of fish sauce, so don’t be alarmed by the salty, fishy taste of this liquid. It smells pretty fishy, too, but you won’t smell it once it’s been added to the other ingredients. You can keep this homemade fish sauce for quite a while in the refrigerator, and a couple of tablespoons at a time will do the trick.
Canned tuna is the way to go for a cheap at-home feast. You can serve it over salad, rice, or just straight up. You can swap out the vegetables to your own taste, though it’s best to have a combination of bright colors or it won’t look as good (and as a result, won’t taste as good, if you follow my logic). The fresh cilantro just makes this dish delicious-er and Thai-er, but if you can’t find it, so be it—you might try fresh basil instead, also a favorite component in Thai cooking, or even fresh parsley, if need be. Just don’t forget the fish sauce.
Cooking oil, such as olive, sesame, or peanut
1 small onion, chopped
1 6-ounce can tuna, drained
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh ginger
1 garlic clove, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 small carrot, chopped
1 cup chopped mushrooms
2 cups chopped any firm green vegetable, such as zucchini, broccoli, and/or string beans
2–3 tablespoons fish sauce
Several sprigs cilantro
1 lemon, quartered
Begin with a hot pan and your choice of cooking oil. Cook the onion for a minute or two to brown and then add the tuna. Toss these together and continue to cook for a minute before adding the ginger, garlic, and vegetables. Cover the pan for 2 or 3 minutes. The lid will allow the vegetables to cook in their own moisture. Stir the pan, add the fish sauce, and re-cover for another 2 to 3 minutes. Check the vegetables—they should be firm, but tender enough to eat. Turn off the heat, toss in the cilantro sprigs, and serve immediately over your choice of rice or salad with lemon quarters. What a lovely Still-life with Fish. Braque would be proud.
Serves about 4.