27 - 2009

Our cheap okonomiyaki dinner takes on NPR’s “How Low Can You Go”

Did anybody check out this series this month on NPR’s Web site? The radio network solicited gourmet meals for a family of 4 for less than $10. Viewers submitted recipes in the comments section, now 318 strong (and closed to new submissions): How Low Can You Go? Submit Your $10 Meals : NPR

I think it’s a great concept. A while back, my local natural foods store had a series of fliers boasting that customers could use their weekly dinner plan for 4 with an average cost per dinner under $20. Now, to me, if dinner is going to cost close to $20 (or more!), I’m going to get lazy and go out — after all, some people argue that eating out can be cheaper than cooking.

But does home cooking — even organic — need to be pricey? Last night, we had a pretty luxurious meal. It was the first day back after a three-day weekend; I knew Mr. Cheap would be exhausted after a celebratory day at an amusement park with 90 fifth-graders; and it was the last in a lengthy string of dark, gloomy, rainy spring days (and we Coloradans start to get morose when that happens — we’re used to our sunshine!). I put an (organic) beef pot roast in the slow cooker, along with some potatoes, onions, carrots and tomato soup. We ate it with slices of leftover baguette spread with a little onion-chive cream cheese. The total cost for the three of us was about $15 if I round up, and $11 of that was the roast.  (It was delicious.) We could have fed four; I suspect leftovers went to lunch with Mr. Cheap today. But that’s not a bargain dinner to me, nor is it the norm — that’s a splurge at our place (to Mr. Cheap’s dismay, admittedly).

And now for our favorite …

If I were to pick our family’s favorite cheap, satisfying dinner, it would have to be the Japanese savory cabbage pancake, okonomiyaki. Mr. Cheap and I discovered it as we cooked our way through the recipes in Japanese Vegetarian Cooking: From Simple Soups to Sushi while we lived in New York. It’s a mixture of shredded cabbage, carrot, pickled ginger, egg, flour and water, left to soak for a few minutes and then grilled/steamed until just brown and delicious. Then it is topped with mayonnaise, Bulldog sauce and furikake (dried seaweed rice seasoning) to the diner’s taste. We make a big batch, one pancake per person. Altogether, our cost is perhaps $6 for the family ($2 per person), and that’s with a rough, high estimate for the condiments.

And that’s just our take, based on our cookbook. Okonomiyaki has as many variations as there are neighborhoods in Japan, it seems. Scan the Web for your favorite version. 101 cookbooks published a mushroom version of this “Japanese pizza” that might be a good place to start.

If you are a literature lover, also note that I was pleasantly surprised a few years ago to come across okonomiyaki as a part of Mary Yukari Waters’ wonderful short story, “Mirror Studies.”

What’s on your dinner table?

Do you have a secret recipe for a cheap, delicious dinner? We’d love to know about it!

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