Tomatoes & Rice

My freestanding pantry

January can be a difficult time of year for most of us, financially, owing to the one-two punch of the holidays and the fact that most companies no longer provide any kind of Christmas bonus (and, no, Jelly of the Month clubs don’t count). It was particularly tough for me this year, owing to the dual facts that (1) getting divorced is rather expensive and (2) working at an alt weekly – while magical and fulfilling in many ways, including in the way they let us drink beer at work – means that I make very little money.

More destitute than ever, I’ve been hoarding the gift cards I received at Christmas – a $5 Chick-Fil-A card here, a $5 Starbucks card there – knowing full well that there will be dry periods when a chicken sandwich and a grande coffee materializing out of seemingly thin air will make me feel like a triumphant prince among men. Or princess. (It doesn’t have the same ring to it, really.) And I’ve been lucky recently to have meals paid for by thoughtful friends getting me back for a meal they owed me – a great system, I suggest everyone invest in it – or generous friends treating me to a night out for helping them with a project or just because we haven’t caught up in a while.

And while I’m sitting pretty today with $172 in the bank after all my bills have been paid, the shadow of being in debt as I have been so many times before and in much fatter, richer times looms overhead constantly. So on nights when I’m not working or going out, I patiently stare at my refrigerator, my little pantry and wait for ideas to spring to mind from ingredients that I already have on hand. It should be noted that I’m not very good at this. I’ve written about this process (and its accompanying failures) before. And tonight wasn’t all that different.

Tomatoes & rice in a bright green bowl

Tonight’s meal was Basmati rice with stewed tomatoes, cooked down in a little olive oil, garlic, balsamic vinegar and red wine. Not terribly interesting. Not particularly inventive. Not going into any recipe books any time soon. But it was tasty, it filled me up, it gave me leftovers for lunch tomorrow and it made me happy.

This isn’t some hoary argumentum ad lazarum where I’m going to try and convince you that I’m happier now because I’m poor. Am I making far less money now than I ever have? Yes. Am I more satisfied with my life now than I’ve ever been? Yes. Cum hoc ergo propter hoc? No. But it is one of the things that’s making me happier these days. I’m living on less and making more of myself and more of my life. I’m not living on anyone else’s money but my own these days. I don’t have to answer to anyone but myself. And I’m more accountable and aware than ever. And there is a quiet, calm beauty in that.

And in a little bowl of tomatoes and rice.

9 thoughts on “Tomatoes & Rice”

  1. I’m like this with a humble bowl o black beans, maybe a little cheese if I’m feeling flush, frozen spinach. cumin. salt. cheap bowl o’ goodness.

    also, you used Latin in this post. so f-ing awesome.

  2. I LIVED on this when I was in college and grad school. Great, cheap and fast dinner. You can add feta or ricotta salata to it, or if you have some, a little bacon or proscuitto.

  3. Poverty forces the thorough evaluation of one’s circumstances for simple survival. As you say, there’s a certain peace that comes with being forced to reevaluate one’s priorities and getting that overall fundamental reality check.

    Even so, I’ll readily acknowledge that being poor sucks, overall. However, eating well when you’re poor doesn’t always have to suck. It looks like you’ve got the fundamentals of that worked out already. I was raised poor, but we ate pretty well: when it comes down to it, dumpster diving the farmer’s market; eating gov’t cheese and peanut butter; making your own bread, pancakes, and porridge (OK, so we called it “mush”) from home-ground chicken feed (out of 50 lb. sacks from the feed store); and (of course) scouring the grocery for bargains aren’t such terrible things. The social stigma we got out of the deal might have been the worst part, but the nutrition wasn’t bad and neither was the cooking most of the time.

    My main intention here is to share my perspective and hopefully to cheer you by the fact that you need not resort to the tactics we employed during my childhood in order to eat.

    However, I also mean to convey the fact that, though they may seem drastic removed from their context, those are realistic options should they ever need to be exercised.

    Further, it strikes me that the idea of putting your dinner (and others like it) in a recipe book really isn’t a bad one. In late days a large number of people who had never previously been are now in tough financial straits; those people will need to find ways to adjust their lives to fit their new circumstances. That fact coupled with the recently increasing awareness surrounding the questionable nature of the American food supply could develop into a market for a book of frugal, easy-to-prepare, wholesome, tasty recipes. There will always be rice and beans on the menu of poverty, but that menu need be neither short nor of limited nutritional value, nor, truly, need it be humble.

  4. I’ll leave aside the commentary about stretching your food dollar for the moment – but we DO need to catch up sometime 🙂 and I’m dying to know what’s in the corner behind the Pam and next to the green tea and Barilla that we can’t see – it’s like a jigsaw puzzle! – but I’ll try and write one complete sentence at a time.

    You misspelled “domatorizo”. This is a classic staple of Greek home cooking. Comfort food at its best. Close your eyes and you can feel the Aegean breeze running through the olive grove. I especially like your modern deconstructionist take of adding the tomatoes to the cooked rice rather than cooking the rice in the tomato liquid. (See if you can spot the food critic fluff in that paragraph.)

    The point? It can be made interesting, with the right point of view. If it’s not inventive, then it’s a classic – and with a few exceptions, so much of any cooking is a rehash of old recipes. It’s already in plenty of recipe books. And, I’m glad it makes you happy.

  5. I know it doesn’t really help you this month and I know you had to be somewhere else that night, but I was sorry you couldn’t make my Christmas dinner!

    If you haven’t seen the Eat on $30 challenge in your food blogs, give it a Google–there are a lot of really innovative ways to eat cheaply and well. there’s a good place to start.

    And if you should get the urge to make bread, I’ve got a jam bonus for you. 😉

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