The non-work side of self-employment
I saw this tweet the other day:
I cook for us every day, I’m happily married to a woman, and I’m not keeping any secrets, so one of us is wrong. I’ll let you decide who.
But anyway. One of the challenges/opportunities of working remotely, flexibly, and for myself is figuring what to do in my personal life with the efficiencies that opens up. (Another challenge is figuring out where my personal life actually begins, because everything can potentially become work-related, as this piece shows!)
One of the things I’ve been trying to do is cut down on the processed food we eat, and I started by seeing if I could clone the Trader Joe’s frozen pasta dishes we like to have for lunch.
They come in a bag, with loose pieces or nests of pasta, and little blocks of sauce. You add a dash of water and/or oil and throw it all in a pan until the sauce is melted and starts to bubble. As frozen food goes, it’s not bad, nor is it particularly unhealthy. But they’re $3 or $4 a bag, only really feed one person (two if you want a very light lunch), and fairly simple. Spicy tomato sauce, mushroom fettuccini, little bowtie-type pasta in a pink sauce, etc. It’s just pasta pieces and sauce blocks.
So I took an assembly line approach and tried it myself, with the mushroom one:
The oil floated to the top because I didn’t add any starch to emulsify it; but the pasta will do that for it. For that, I boiled and froze a few portions (nests for fettucine, a sheet pan to individually freeze pieces of penne). You boil them till they’re almost al dente. That way, by the time they’re reheated, they’re just right.
Now this might look like a mountain of work, and it might not look like a huge cost savings. But the work is fun, productive work—cooking, like writing, is creating—and let me walk you through my numbers.
Four blocks of sauce is enough for two ounces of pasta, the standard serving size. So one tray of sauce and half a pound of pasta makes four lunches.
What’s in the sauce is very simple: a small container of baby bella mushrooms, thrown into a food processor and then fried/simmered ($2.69 or thereabouts), a little olive oil and butter, a little mushroom bouillon (optional), water, and a quarter cup of cream (less than half a pint of heavy cream, which goes for $3 or less.) A half-pound of pasta is at most $1. (Oh, and a fun fact: white button mushrooms, baby bellas, and portobellos are all the same exact mushroom, just picked at different stages.)
So the ingredients that go into a tray of sauce cost under $5, and with the pasta you’re maybe at $6, for four lunches. The Trader Joe’s packages are bigger, so perhaps portion for portion you’re only saving a couple of dollars. But it’s all homemade, and you know what? We’ll eat what looks and feels like a portion. So if I bag up these little lunches, they’ll satisfy me or my wife. But if I open a frozen bag from the store, we’ll finish that too.
It reminds me of something my dad said. Back when he was a kid, they sold little six-ounce bottles of Coke. One bottle was enough. It had to be. What were you going to do, buy two bottles? But now a bottle is more like 20 ounces. And it’s also enough. Too much.
Honorable mention: back after Christmas I went to our local Lidl—a German small-format supermarket very similar to Aldi—and they had some 'njuda, a spicy, soft, spreadable salami, on deep discount.
I bought a piece, and when I tried it, I double checked to make sure it didn’t advise you to cook it first. It was very fatty, and very soft, just like I’d imagine eating a raw hot Italian sausage to be. The flavor was pleasant, but it was not really good enough quality to eat as a charcuterie item.
So my wife had a great idea: make spicy meatballs. I’ve never actually made spicy meatballs, but I guess they’re a thing, because the Italian guy/actor playing an Italian guy in the famous Alka-Seltzer commercial said “Mama mia, that’s a spicy meatball!”
So: into a bowl went the log of spreadable hot salami (7 ounce, I think), one pound of ground beef, two eggs, roughly half a cup of Italian breadcrumbs, some minced garlic and parsley, and a dash of salt and grated parmesan. I have never seen red meatballs before!
I have very fond memories of being a child and cooking or baking with my mother. Spending slow afternoons in the kitchen, that sense of unbroken time that is so elusive today. I’ve carried that on in doing most of the cooking now in our home, and in trying to replace instant lunch items with homemade alternatives. I don’t do it for some ideological reason, like the people who make an online career of being homemakers of some vague traditionalist political persuasion; I just enjoy it. And the good is better for you.
The fact that it also provides “content” for this newsletter? I don’t exactly like that, to be honest. But I’ll take it.
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