Introduction: Little Miss Hubbard
If you're like us, you enjoy cooking -- or want to -- but too many recipes seem insurmountable, with ingredients you've never heard of and preparation times that would stress June Cleaver. Sure, we want the gourmet dinner, but there are some major obstacles between us and our three-course meal, like our long day at work, our half-empty refrigerators, and our rumbling stomachs, which will not wait.
We all want the good stuff, and we're all tired of spending half our paychecks at the deli counter or on I'll-just-be-really-cheap-tomorrow dinners. We expect gourmet fare, but we don't have the time to baste and caramelize. We're too nutrition-savvy to subsist on fast food, and we need meals that are quick, simple, and inexpensive. Jello Biafra, front man of the iconic '80s punk band the Dead Kennedys, astutely summed it all up when he said, "Give me convenience, or give me death." We want it fast, and we want it now. And there's no way we're moving in with our mothers.
Lucky for us, cooking for ourselves can be cheaper than going out and as easy as heating up a TV dinner. Homemade meals are a lot better for our bodies than the nuclear yellow powder that comes in commercial mac and cheese -- and taste better, too. You may still have a futon, but you don't have to live on ramen noodles. Even if you're a lazy Susan.
When you're your own short-order cook, you're in control of how much oil, butter, and sugar make it onto your plate -- and you can relax about the ingredients you don't want in your meals, like animal fats for vegetarians and anything you're allergic to or just dislike. No more snooty maître d's: your living room is the perfect setting for a gathering, and you'll be in charge of the menu, the music, and the potential for mischief. So cancel your reservations, crank up the stereo, and get your home fires burning.
Girl, meet spatula.
The recipes in this cookbook are brought to you by two women who created it out of necessity -- we wanted good, fast meals on the cheap and easy. We live about ten blocks from each other in downtown Brooklyn. Alexis's studio is near DeKalb Avenue, which bustles with a restaurant row where you can eat in Paris or Cape Town by just crossing the street. Along Fifth Avenue, where Sandra's apartment is, the street is lined with cafés, and the talk and tables spill out onto the sidewalk. When we became friends, we would visit one or another of the local gems, exploring the areas around our homes and enjoying crisp brunch salads, fruity sangria in the evenings, and dizzying desserts on relaxing Sunday afternoons. But we were digging deep craters in our savings accounts, and we needed other options.
Alexis has worked in hot restaurant kitchens and as a caterer to the rich and cranky. She was once a home chef for caloriephobes who refused to eat anything with added fat but kept a closet full of Ding Dongs and Ho Hos hidden away in the basement. Her Key-to-My-Heart Lime Pie makes grown men swoon, and an invitation to brunch at her apartment is like a backstage pass to food heaven. Sandra has been a vegetarian for more than ten years and cooks with a variety of produce, beans, and whole grains. As a cookbook editor, she learned from cooks with whisks in their left hand and pens in their right about translating from the kitchen to the page, how to tell if wine has gone bad, and how to make the perfect omelet.
We had always cooked for ourselves, but then we started cooking for each other. At Alexis's studio, she'd putter in the kitchen while Sandra sat on a barstool cataloging and asking questions. We went to the market together, and Sandra ogled the purple potatoes and the yellow beets while Alexis swooned over the baguettes. Sandra finally bought a hand blender at Alexis's urging, and she can now make olive tapenade (see Olive You, page 71) in less time than it takes to toast a piece of bread. Alexis learned that a bland block of tofu can be prepared to satisfy the finickiest carnivorous taste buds. We stirred and we tasted and we learned what we each did -- and did differently -- to get fantastic feasts on the table. These banquets and conversations developed into the recipes you are reading now. Together, our cooking styles reflect a fresh, healthy sensibility -- perfect for vegetarians and meat eaters alike -- that won't make you sacrifice your day or your budget for a fine plateful.
We make these dishes in our homes (our friends always go for seconds), and they were inspired by the selections we order in restaurants, the ingredients on our local grocer's shelves, and meals we've been treated to in the homes of others. Bloody Murray was inspired by an accidental vacancy in our own cupboards. Mark's Breakfast Burrito was created for a cute fireman who just can't say no to a little salsa on a Saturday morning. This cookbook grew out of our own needs, and our own experiences, which we'll share along the way. And you can learn more at www.cheapandeasycookbook.com.
After gathering our recipes, we called for backup. We turned to our friends, who turned to their friends, and more than fifty women (and a few token guys) offered their time and their kitchens to make sure these were recipes for perfection and not for disaster. Cries of "so refreshing!" and "so easy!" flooded our e-mail inboxes. "My boyfriend does all of the cooking in our apartment, but I had no trouble at all with these recipes," said one tester. Another suggested that we "consider putting a warning on the recipe for Love in a Time of Sangria. 'Warning: Too much sangria may lead to love and/or headaches.'" At ranges and counters from the hood to the hills, from Brooklyn to Berkeley, our test drivers let us know what was right -- and wrong -- with the recipes.
We went back to the kitchen, where we fixed and we fussed, and Cheap & Easy evolved into the handy little book you're holding. These recipes are delicious, elegant, and user-friendly. The dishes are fun and healthy, the ingredients are easy to find, and the techniques are simple enough for the most uncoordinated chef. We conquered our kitchens, and you, too, will soon be the master of your culinary domain. Because being prepared means never having to say, "Do you deliver?"
Copyright © 2004 by Sandra Bark and Alexis Kanfer