The $50 a Week Gourmet

Just after new year's, I was having a festive drink with my friends Rod and Joyce when the talk turned—as the talk so often does these days—to budgets. I mentioned that I had never in my life made one until now, a fact that has driven my father, who considers me the soul of extravagance, crazy for at least 30 years, and might also have contributed, now that I think of it, to the current less-than-lavish state of my pocketbook. Anyway, as part of my new, more prudent approach to things, I thought it might be interesting to see if my husband and I could dine—pretty well—on $50 worth of groceries per week. If I were the irritating Julie Powell, I might blog about it; instead, I made a bet.

Rod wagered it would be impossible—for me—and we agreed that whoever lost would buy a fittingly extravagant dinner. What Rod didn't know is that I've long lived like an accidental survivalist. All I needed to win was to shop my own pantry.

The good news about being formerly extravagant is that you have some pretty swell stuff lurking around. There was pasta I'd toted from Italy three trips ago; ditto balsamic vinegar of every conceivable age. There were anchovies and capers, olives, and pickled figs, three colors of lentils, and four kinds of rice. Why, I wondered, had I bought two bottles of walnut oil and one of blood-orange vinegar? I don't know, but it turns out they work really well together on a salad of watercress and endive. Does pasta have a shelf life? Supposedly it's two years, but my four-year-old pappardelle was just fine. Is it too gross to make a meal of the runny Epoisses my mother left at Christmas? Yes, but I found an Epoisses soufflé recipe from Anne Willan that made an elegant supper with a salad.

In college, there was a period when I was so broke that the only items in my fridge were a jar of mayo and pimento-stuffed olives, and I became rather fond of olive sandwiches; now I can enjoy a slightly more sophisticated cheap meal of spaghetti with the black olives, capers, and anchovies on my shelf—add some chopped canned tomatoes, and I have puttanesca.

Cook the lentils in the crucial foursome of garlic, onions, carrots, and celery, and with a splash of olive oil and one of the vinegars, and I've concocted a marvelous salad; add stock instead, and it's soup. Braise a blessedly inexpensive veal or pork shoulder in the same foursome with thyme and more stock and tomatoes and serve it with pickled figs or mostarda, an excellent chutney of cherries or berries, balsamic vinegar, and mustard seeds, which I happen to have four jars of.

Now is also clearly the time to enliven all that rice with the packets of saffron that every friend who goes near the Mediterranean feels compelled to bring me. I will still have plenty to share with Joyce, who has also gotten in on the act. Right after our initial conversation, she called in a panic over what to do with the forest of leftover celery she had from her New Year's Day party—or, more precisely, from the Bloody Marys (it takes a lot of bunches to get enough leafy garnish). Ordinarily she'd have left them to languish in the produce drawer, but she'd already made a vat of cream of celery soup and my terrific recipe for celery and Parmesan salad. Rod suggested we extend the theme and shop only our libraries before buying any new books, which means I'll finally be forced to crack Pevear and Volokhonsky's translation of War and Peace I bought and meant to read three years ago. I have also vowed to lose 10 pounds so that I may be able to shop my own closet. I have to. I need something chic to wear to the big dinner I'm about to win.