Living a Big Life on a Little Budget


Okay, so this is not ideal. I obligated myself to work again tomorrow, sanding drywall. Which is itself not ideal, but it is a paycheck and one thing I don't do at this point in my life is turn down work - at least not work that is in harmony with my consummate values. And as a rule I am wholly against poorly finished drywall.


What this means is that I'm writing against the clock to get this post in. I'm writing with the pressure of a deadline and a drive to finish something rather than make a particular point. Which it should be obvious by now, I don't have. This just makes the pressure of getting this done and on time (a self imposed restriction to be sure) all the more...pressing. There's nothing like only having a few minutes to say something you're not all that clear on.


The above photo is from our Sunday morning breakfast. While the weekend was busy we still found time for a leisurely Sunday morning which included ham and eggs and fresh baked biscuits. I think this speaks to the point of today's blog. Which I have just decided is another treatise on frugality and living a big life on a tiny budget.


Sunday afternoon while on a call with a business associate to discuss a future enterprise he mentioned how much he enjoyed my M.F.K. Fisher post. As almost an aside he also said that he was surprised to realize that I'm not rich. It took me a full five minutes to regain my composure. Once I had stopped laughing (and yes, maybe crying, just a little) I realized he was serious.

We've only ever corresponded via email or on the phone and what he sees of my life is purely through the lens of social media, but it never occurred to me that anyone would mistake me for rich, especially given my content. Now, of course, I am by no means poor and aside from financial considerations do, in fact, consider myself quite rich, just not so much that I'd turn down a day's wages sanding drywall or pass up on a whole ham at $0.79 a pound.


And that brings us back to breakfast. I'm a big fan of ham. Even more so since I recently discovered that the ancient Celts are credited its creation and distribution around the world. The ancient Celts were salt miners and, in my opinion, the salt cured ham their greatest contribution to the world.


To get the most out of your ham, though, I suggest going for the real deal. A whole ham encompasses the better part of the hind leg, including the hip joint and sometimes even the knee. If your appetites perhaps run short of mine consider a half ham.


Here's what I look for when choosing a ham. First off, I want bone in. You already know I have a thing for stocks, but the main reason I want it bone in is that meats cooked on the bones simply have more flavor. Secondly, I don't want a spiral cut ham. I know, they've been all the rage since the 80s at least, but a spiral cut ham just ends up dry and relatively tasteless. A spiral cut ham may well be the reason you're not as enthusiastic as I am about this most noble of meats. Yes, you will have to cut it yourself and yes, you will have to learn how to navigate the bone. But I consider these good things. Carving a roast, a turkey, or a ham is a fundamental culinary skill. Practice makes perfect.


I've already mentioned how cheap they can be. I bought my last ham, a good sized 20 pounder for the aforementioned $0.79 a pound. Hell, you can't get Ramen noodles for $0.79 a pound!


Hams are already cooked, so the prep process is really just a matter of reheating. My best practice, so far, is to put it on a rack in a pan with about half an inch of water in the bottom. Cover this tightly with foil and bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes a pound. If your ham comes with a glaze packet I suggest you do as I do and promptly toss that in the trash. A good ham doesn't need a glaze and a bad ham can't be fixed by one. Besides glazing limits future uses by forcing a sweet quality you might not want in later dishes.


Red Eye gravy is made once the ham is re-heated by removing the liquid from the bottom of the pan, mixing in equal parts of flour and fat and cooking until it takes on a little color, then whisking back in a little bit of the meat juices at a time. The gravy will loosen with each addition of liquid and then thicken back up as it cooks. Taste as you go to adjust for seasoning. Somewhere along the way add in a little of your leftover morning coffee. Just enough to add flavor and color. If you like you can add parsley or other fresh herbs.



The ham itself can be used in all kinds of ways. I use it in pastas, on sandwiches, sliced and fried on the griddle, in soup, or in fried rice. Many a night it is a simple time saver. With the main protein already accounted for dinner can be made by simply pulling together some vegetables and frying up some slices or dicing the ham and adding it to a salad and whipping up a dressing.


Here, I think, is the key to living a big life on a little budget. Everything in life has a price. You're going to exchange something in the pursuit of your needs and desires. The secret is to trade that which you have in abundance for that which you have little. Often I will trade labor, or effort, instead of cash. The whole ham takes a little more effort. It's easy enough to cook, but unless you're feeding a large group it's going to be with you for a minute or two. That means storage, handling, and ultimately creativity in use. It's that latter quality that's the true price. It doesn't matter how much you save if you or your family approach the table with "What? Ham again?" Luckily, that hasn't happened for us yet and we're four hams in since Christmas.


Biscuits

By far the best accompaniment for a ham is biscuits. Good ol' Southern buttermilk biscuits. I'd say like Grandma used to make, but I don't ever recall my mother's mother ever making biscuits and my father's mother's (Granny) biscuits were hard little pucks. Tasty but not the big, soft, fluffy clouds I'm about to describe.


First, preheat your oven to 400 degrees.


I like to use bread flour. King Arthur has a nice unbleached bread flour that we usually keep on hand. Bob's Red Mill also has passable gluten free flours that will also work, but the best biscuits are made from wheat flour. Measure out two cups. Add a healthy pinch of salt and two tablespoons of baking powder. Mix the dry ingredients.


In order to make good biscuits I do think you need to have a pastry cutter. I've seen recipes that say you can use a couple of butter knives or a pair of forks but they're not particularly user friendly. A pastry cutter looks kinda like a culinary brass knuckles. In a pinch, I think I could defend myself using one or two. It's basically a handle with four, slightly rounded, parallel blades that wrap around the outside of your knuckles. The blades are curved and you use it with a rocking motion.


Cut the cold butter into cubes and add to the flour. How much? Enough. I would start with about three quarters of a stick (if you use stick butter.) Using the pastry cutter you want to cut the butter into the flour. Basically you are making little chips of butter covered in flour. Keep cutting or adding butter and cutting until the mix resembles corn meal. Next add buttermilk. Add it slowly and mix as you go. You want a slightly sticky dough that pulls away from the bowl. Too wet? Add more flour, this ain't rocket science.


Turn the dough out onto a floured board and knead lightly. The key word here is lightly. Granny's biscuits were hard because she, in my opinion, overworked the dough. But who am I to say? She may have liked those biscuits. Just like Granny, you do you and make your biscuits the way you like them.


Another tool I find useful here is a bench scraper. This is just a thin square of metal with a handle on one side. It's great for scraping up and turning dough. Basically you want to fold and turn the dough several times until you get a a nice smooth exterior. If the dough is too sticky, sprinkle on more flour. I don't use a rolling pin. I just pat it into a rectangle a good inch or so thick. Biscuit cutters are nice, but a drinking glass works just as well. Just dip the rim in flour to keep it from sticking. Arrange the biscuits on your cookie sheet so that as many of the edges are touching as possible. A Silpat is also nice to have here. If you don't have one use parchment paper or be sure to grease the cookie sheet so your biscuits don't stick. Brush the tops with butter and put in the oven. Once the tops are nice and brown they are done.


I think I got 10 biscuits out of my last batch, which given that was just breakfast for Sam and I was easily four too many. I say too many because I have no idea how well these keep. In addition to being delightful with ham, they also go spectacularly well with just a smear of butter and some local honey. I needed a good 20 minutes of just sit there and do nothing before I got my overstuffed ass up to begin my chores. You have been warned.

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