One of my household’s more painful end-of-summer rituals is the annual review of spending. Not nearly as much fun as the last swim of the year or a big bike ride out Huron River Drive. This year it became apparent that our grocery spending was a little, ahem, out of hand. Even when adjusted to reflect that we were eating out a lot less because of increases in a) our dissatisfaction with the local restaurant scene, b) experimentation in our own kitchen and c) mobility of young Nick who has little patience for restaurants these days (oh for the days when he slept in his carrier while we sipped wine at the Earle) the food bill was still pretty extravagant.
There’s been a lot of talk in the food world in the past couple of years about the way in which Americans underspend on food, certainly relative to the rest of the world and probably in some sort of absolute ethical terms. We expect to eat well and eat cheap, and our national spending on food averages out to around 9.7% of post-tax income (these numbers can vary depending on whether you look at just eating in or a combination of eating in and dining out; approximately 55% of our food dollars are spent on food for our kitchens and 45% on food from restaurants, mostly, I suspect, of the fast food variety.)
The ever-eloquent and ever-intelligent Michael Pollan, argued in Unhappy Meals, a popularly quoted piece in the New York Times Magazine (that he later expanded into the book In Defense of Food) that we should:
Pay more, eat less. The American food system has for a century devoted its energies and policies to increasing quantity and reducing price, not to improving quality. There’s no escaping the fact that better food — measured by taste or nutritional quality (which often correspond) — costs more, because it has been grown or raised less intensively and with more care. Not everyone can afford to eat well in America, which is shameful, but most of us can: Americans spend, on average, less than 10 percent of their income on food, down from 24 percent in 1947, and less than the citizens of any other nation. And those of us who can afford to eat well should. Paying more for food well grown in good soils — whether certified organic or not — will contribute not only to your health (by reducing exposure to pesticides) but also to the health of others who might not themselves be able to afford that sort of food: the people who grow it and the people who live downstream, and downwind, of the farms where it is grown.
After spending a while with my budget analysis pain, I decided to console myself that I was at least Doing The Right Thing and spending a higher proportion of my income on food because I was making Good Choices — good for me and good for the environment.
Until I ran the numbers. In fact, even though our monthly grocery and dining expenditures sometimes, er, often, creep close to four figures for my family of four to five people (the size of our population varies throughout the year),with a couple of dinner parties a month thrown in, our percentage is close dead-on for the American averages. Actually, it’s a bit low, since it works out to a little over eight percent. If you look more narrowly at income brackets, we are again, right on target for the average. The more affluent you are, the smaller the percentage of income spent on food. Since two fairly senior white collar professionals (that would be me and my man) bring in more than the national average income we are off to one side of the curve a bit. It’s pretty depressing, if commonsensical, that poor families spend 35% of their income on food while the rich spend minuscule percentages.
I suppose the cheerful side of this in terms of my personal economy is that even though we’ve made a big shift toward organic and local eating in the past couple of years, relative to the rest of American eaters we’re not actually taking an unusual hit in terms of our overall budget . This could be influenced by our simultaneous shift to eating at home more; only about twenty percent of our food budget goes to eating out and food dollars go a lot further at home even if you’re spending them on nice wine and classy extra virgin olive oil.
Nevertheless. Gas has gone up, we’ve got two mortgages to pay and two kids to send to college some day, ya da ya da ya da. Some belt tightening is in order. (And, you know, if we don’t stop eating so well, that belt-tightening might get harder).
So, I’ve been focusing a lot these days on cooking with what’s on hand rather than my more usual pattern of being inspired by an ingredient or two that’s in-house and then going on a sometimes expensive hunter-gatherer foray to get the rest. Saves on fuel too! So far, I don’t think any of us have been deprived, except maybe Nick who enjoys trips to the store and often asks, first thing in the morning, “are we out of something?” in the hope we’ll make a shopping expedition. Admittedly, the current state of pantry satisfaction is probably colored by my former spendthrift ways. It’s easier to cook well with what’s on hand when that includes five different kinds of sea salt and bags of Rancho Gordo beans, not to mention the farm share arriving every Wednesday. But cut me a break; I’m trying, I’m trying.
To that end, last night’s dinner, and it was a nice one. I would make this again, even if I had to go out and buy the stuff. But I didn’t, and that was the beauty of it. Look in the CSA box, dig out a leftover sheet of puff pastry dough (isn’t there always one left?) from the freezer and see what odds and ends are around. Last night, this was supplemented by a couple of ears of fresh corn (get it before it’s too late) and a handful of halved cherry tomatoes with oil and balsamic vinegar. Plus a glass of (cheap, really) Trader Joe’s wine. We felt good about ourselves. And just plain good.
(Self-Satisfied) Leek Tart From Leftovers
1 sheet frozen puff pastry (I used Trader Joe’s “Artisanal” puff pastry which was very good. It’s about ten inches by ten inches and fed two nicely as main dish. Other brands come in large rectangular sheets and would feed more. You would just have to use more toppings or spread them thinner).
A few slices of bacon (4-6?) sliced into half-inch strips
1 T butter
2-3 medium leeks, roots and green tops removed
1/2 cup grated gruyere (or other cheese that has a bit of backbone without being overwhelming; the nuttiness of the gruyere was particularly pleasant here)
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Clean the leeks and cut into quarter inch slices. In case you haven’t cooked with leeks before, be aware you have to rinse the heck out of them to get out the grit. You can either slice them in half lengthwise and rinse under running water, folding back the layers to get at the dirt, then slice, or slice them first, put them in a colander and rinse, rinse, rinse until the grit is gone. Set aside.
Fry the bacon over medium heat until it is a little crisp and lift out of the pan with a slotted spoon. Set on paper towels to drain. Assess the amount of bacon fat in the pan. If it seems a bit intimidating, drain some off, but make sure to leave a little slick of fatty goodness.
Add butter to the fat in the pan. When it has stopped foaming, add the leeks and give a good stir. Turn the heat down to low and cover. Cook until thoroughly softened and beginning to melt, 20-30 minutes. You want the leeks to be totally relaxed without browning. In the middle of this process take the puff pastry out of the freezer and leave to defrost on a sheet pan for ten-fifteen minutes.
When the leeks are finished, tilt the pan a bit so that you can get at some of the butter in the bottom of the pan. Dip a brush in this and brush the pasty sheet all over. Then layer on the leeks, the bacon and the cheese. Leave a little bit of bare pastry around the edge to form a crust. Pop the tart into the oven for 20 minutes or so, until the cheese is bubbly and the crust is golden brown.
You can probably imagine that this preparation is easily varied with a different vegetables, meats and cheese. I would just advise not overloading the shell to avoid sogginess, and if you eschew fatty meats, you may want to add a little more butter or olive oil to your saute pan to keep things moist.
Spend dinner calculating your savings and wondering whether it justifies buying some expensive cofee this week. Old habits die hard.