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Cynthia Stone: Small splurges make a big difference

These beef-stuffed flatbreads are based on an Indian breakfast dish. — Cynthia Stone photo
These beef-stuffed flatbreads are based on an Indian breakfast dish. — Cynthia Stone photo

A reader took me to task last week for using too many expensive ingredients. In the sense that I do invest in some luxury items, it’s true. But I’m also respectful of the food and try to waste as little as I can.


Most of us cook the same handful of dishes week in and week out, but if one small splurge can turn an ordinary supper into a great table experience, it’s worth it.

Beef-Stuffed Flatbreads
A dinner party doesn’t have to cost a fortune. I pad the expensive stuff with a course that wows but not because of the money I spent. An ordinary family dish from another part of the world is exotic right out of the gate. Look up Keema Paratha to check out the authentic Indian breakfast dish on which this recipe is based.
These are just about the most frugal appetizer you can make. The spices are inexpensive, you don’t need a large amount of meat per serving, and the dough costs mainly elbow grease.
The splurge is fresh cilantro. Even a small amount makes a huge difference. It is quick and easy to grow here in the summer so if you like Indian, Thai or Mexican food I can’t think of a better investment.
This amount makes 8 stuffed flatbreads, and one is plenty as an appetizer. Cut them into triangles and serve alone or with plain yogurt for dipping.

Dough:

2-1/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling out

1 cup lukewarm water

1 tsp. salt

2 tbsp. vegetable oil

Filling:

1 tsp. vegetable oil

1 tsp. each ground cumin and coriander

1 tsp. garam masala (Indian spice mixture available in most supermarkets)

1/2 tsp. each salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes

1 small onion, minced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 thumb-sized piece fresh gingerroot, peeled and grated or minced

1/2 lb. extra-lean ground beef

2 tbsp. fresh cilantro, finely chopped

For the dough, combine all ingredients and stir to moisten. Knead for 5 minutes or so, until the texture is smooth and satiny. After a couple of minutes of kneading if it still sticks to the work surface add a little more flour — not too much, though, or it will be difficult to roll out. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least an hour but up to a couple of days.
For the filling, heat oil over medium in a non-stick frying pan and add cumin, coriander, garam masala, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes. When sizzling hot and everything is coated in oil, add onion and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and ginger and cook another minute. Add beef and fry, stirring frequently to break into small pieces, until brown and cooked. Stir in cilantro and place in a paper towel-lined bowl to absorb moisture and fat. Refrigerate until cold.
To make the paratha, divide dough into 8 pieces. Roll each into a 6-inch circle and place a spoonful of meat in the middle. Gather up the edges to form a little sack and twist them together to completely enclose the meat. Flatten between the palms of your hands then roll out again to get a disk about 6 inches across and 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick. Fry in a non-stick pan in a little oil over medium-high heat until golden brown on both sides. Keep hot in a low oven while frying the rest.

Black Bean Veggie Burgers
Having a selection of dried and canned beans on hand is key to cooking frugally. They are nutrition bombs and cost next to nothing.
I’ve included the instructions for dried but I don’t think a can of black beans could be considered a luxury item and is a good shortcut. Two cups of dried beans yields more than 6 cups cooked — now that’s frugal. They are great in the fridge for days and freeze perfectly.
My splurge for this dish is the fresh mushrooms. They add amazing flavour and are well worth the pennies, time and effort. Canned will work but won’t be nearly as good, in either texture or taste.
Count on 4 meal-sized patties from this recipe along with 4 cups of leftover beans for the fridge or freezer.

Stewed Black Beans:

2 cups dried black beans

10 cups cold water

1 small onion, halved

1 clove garlic, smashed but left whole

1 stalk celery

2 dried bay leaves

2 tbsp. ketchup

2 tsp. each salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 tsp. white vinegar

Patties:

2 cups fresh mushrooms, finely chopped, any varieties you like

2 tbsp. vegetable or olive oil, not the expensive extra-virgin kind, divided

1/2 cup finely chopped yellow onion

4 cloves garlic, minced

2 cups cooked black beans (or 1 can, rinsed and drained)

2/3 cup dry breadcrumbs

1 tsp. smoked or regular paprika

1/2 tsp. ground cumin

1/2 tsp. each salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/4 tsp. hot pepper sauce

1 egg, lightly beaten

Wash beans, discarding any shriveled ones. Place in a large, heavy-bottomed pot and cover generously with boiling water. Allow to cool then refrigerate overnight.
Next day, drain and rinse the beans and return to the pot. Add 10 cups cold water along with onion, garlic, celery and bay leaves. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer about an hour or until the beans are tender. Stir the pot every now and again. Drier or older beans take longer so be patient.
If there is still a lot of liquid left remove the cover and boil it away. Remove onion, celery, garlic (unless it has disintegrated) and bay leaves. Stir in ketchup, salt, pepper and vinegar. Refrigerate until ready to use.
For the patties, fry mushrooms in half the oil until they give off their moisture and it evaporates. Continue to cook until dark golden brown — you don’t want any liquid left.
Add onion and continue to cook until soft. Add garlic and cook another minute.
Place in a large bowl. When cool, add 2 cups of the cooked beans. Mash with a potato masher but leave it a bit chunky. Stir in crumbs, paprika, cumin, salt, pepper, hot sauce and egg.
Squeeze a bit of the mixture in your palm. If it doesn’t hold together add more breadcrumbs.
Divide into 4 portions and form into patties. Refrigerate up to overnight but at least an hour. This helps them hold together while frying.
Heat the remaining 1 tbsp. oil in a non-stick pan over medium heat and gently lay in the patties. Cook about 5 minutes on one side, until crusty and brown, then flip and brown the other side.
Serve on soft buns with your favourite toppings. Mine are raw onion, pickles, a slice of tomato and a smear of hot mustard.

Cynthia Stone is an information manager and writer in St. John’s. E-mail questions to her at cynthia.stone@nf.sympatico.ca.

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