So, we’re kinda broke.
I know, I know, I just said the other day that I had a pretty good year as a writer—and I did, as far as my career goes. But here’s the thing nobody mentions when you sign up to write a cookbook: Once you get past the thrill of “ohmygodsomebodywantstopublishMYcookbook!” you discover that it’s the most financially challenging project you’ll ever do. Unless you’re a supahstah your advance will be, let’s say, less-than-substantial. You’ll get a chunk of it at signing (minus agent’s fees), and then nothing more until completion. All that time you’ll spend testing recipes and writing the book will be, basically, on your own dime. Maybe that should be on your own thousand dollar bill, since creating recipes isn’t like writing a novel, or narrative nonfiction: You’ve got to spend money on ingredients—sometimes quite a bit of money, since certain recipes will take multiple iterations before you’re satisfied. You won’t have anywhere near as much time as you’d like to devote to projects that might have a more immediate effect on your bank account. The only way you’ll keep your sanity, in fact, is to think of the period between signing and completion as an investment. Once the book is out, you hope, you’ll be rewarded in multiple ways.
So, we’re kinda broke. One way I’m dealing with that is by cooking even less meat than usual. Normally we’re a twice- or thrice-a-week family when it comes to animal protein, but lately it’s more like once a week. And when we do have meat, it’s more of an accent than the star—I’ll make Whaddya Got Fried Rice, which can use even the smallest scraps of meat, or a batch of Little Gram’s Meatballs to spread one pound of ground meat across three meals. Red Wine Braised Short Ribs of Beef, perhaps my favorite recipe of the hundreds I’ve created for you, is not currently on the menu (not as long as short ribs are hip and sell for $6-10 per pound).
There are times, though, when I pass through the farmers’ market and gaze longingly at the offerings from Arcadian Pastures, our organic, grass-fed, heritage breed meatery. And occasionally, a $20 bill will burn a hole in my pocket and simply demand to be spent on something special, like their out-of-this-world merguez, the North African-spiced lamb sausage. It’s peppery-hot, it’s juicy, it’s luxurious, and it’s $13.50 a pound. Buuut, if I use it as an accent, like in the couscous recipe that follows, I can stretch just six ounces to feed four. That makes it downright wallet-friendly—and Weight Watchers-friendly to boot, since an abundant amount of sausage would pretty much obliterate my day anyway.
If you’re like us, feeling the financial pinch, give this recipe a try. It’s like a vacation in a bowl, for well under five bucks a person. And if you’re like us, I’d love to hear how you’re feeding your family on a tight budget. Cheap Healthy Good is full of fantastic ideas; but I know you’ve got some too. What’s your best tip for stretching a buck?
(I won’t even bother mentioning Harry’s response to this dish. He wouldn’t touch it for all the money in the world.)
Couscous with Merguez, Fennel, and Golden Raisins
Weight Watchers: Each serving is 10 PointsPlus (Note: the WW database doesn’t include merguez so I calculated this recipe with andouille, the closest option)
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 red onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 large carrots, cut into 1/2-inch chunks
2 large ribs celery, cut into 1/2-inch chunks
1 large fennel bulb, halved vertically and thinly sliced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/4 teaspoon ground chile powder (I used ancho, but cayenne would be fine, too)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 cups reduced-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
1 cup whole wheat couscous
2 tablespoons golden raisins
6 ounces fresh merguez sausage
chopped parsley, for garnish (optional)
harissa or hot sauce, for serving
- In a large, heavy saucepan, heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over medium heat. When it shimmers, add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft. Add the garlic and cook another 30 seconds, just until the aroma fills the kitchen. Add the carrots, celery, and fennel, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables begin to soften, another 5-7 minutes.
- Add the salt and all the spices and cook, stirring, 30 seconds to 1 minute, then stir in the tomato paste and cook another minute or two, until it darkens. Pour in the broth, bring to a boil, then reduce heat, cover, and simmer 8-10 minutes, until vegetables are cooked but not mushy. Reserve 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid. (This portion of the recipe can be done hours ahead; just refrigerate it if it’ll be more than two hours before you serve.)
- Now, make the couscous: In a small saucepan, heat the remaining tablespoon of oil. Add the couscous and cook, stirring frequently, until all the grains are coated with oil and beginning to darken. Stir in the raisins, and add the reserved cooking liquid plus enough water to follow package directions (my package calls for 1 1/4 cups of liquid per 1 cup of couscous). Be careful when adding the liquid—it may sputter, and will likely start bubbling almost immediately. Taste the liquid, and add salt if it’s too bland. Cover, remove from heat, and set aside.
- While the couscous is absorbing the liquid, cook the merguez: I like to do it in the broiler, about 5 minutes a side (cut slits in the sausage every inch or so, to keep it from bursting), but you could also grill them, or split them down the middle and fry them in a nonstick skillet, tossing the fat that releases.
- Fluff the couscous with a fork before transferring to a serving bowl. Top with the vegetables and the merguez, cut into chunks. Sprinkle with optional parsley, and serve with harissa or hot sauce.