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Cheap Eats at Home. Sweet.

By Bonnie S. Benwick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Peter Smith is one cool customer. While many of us have been grappling with growing receipt totals at the grocery checkout, he's got things under control.

"It's how you use things," explains the 38-year-old chef, who opened PS 7's in Penn Quarter a year and a half ago and has worked in kitchens for most of his life. "Everything costs money, and I hate throwing food out. It kills me. I like to take something and extrapolate it as far as I can."

The man who describes his restaurant food costs as "freaky low" turned out to be the perfect match for a timely revival of the Food section's Chef's Challenge series (the last installment ran Oct. 29, 2003, with chef Susan McCreight Lindeborg).

We asked Smith to devise a family-friendly weeknight menu for four costing as little money as possible. Last week, he invited us to watch it come together in his comfortable Foxhall Village home in Northwest Washington. Total time: 1 hour 7 minutes. Total tab: $11.22.

Understandably, Smith doesn't cook much these days for his wife ("a lawyer who cooks only to survive," he jokes), 3-year-old daughter and 10-month-old son. With only Sundays off from work, he would rather spend the time "just hanging." So the family eats at neighborhood spots such as Cactus Cantina. Meals at home, he says, often involve simply sauteed fish and the vegetables his daughter is "into right now: broccoli and green beans. And we definitely do pizza, grilled cheese, quesadillas."

Smith is careful with resources, but he's also a risk taker. He's laid back and funny but loves to compete. That may account for his four consecutive wins in "Iron Chef"-type contests at L'Academie de Cuisine, his alma mater. In the kitchen, he's fast and neat.

He doesn't have time to clip coupons, so his meal strategy began with this mind-set: "When you go to the store now, you have to go with half a plan, because there's so much stuff on sale or in deals that are two for one."

At his local Safeway, a space-challenged store in the Palisades, Smith had kept to the outer aisles, where the fresh ingredients are, to pick up a sale package of thinly cut bottom round steak, a few nuggets of loose crystallized ginger from a basket in the produce department, a pound of asparagus, a single ear of corn, an onion, two button mushrooms, three baking potatoes, three Fuji apples and a few Roma tomatoes.

Was he relying on a big pantry to round out the ingredient list? Not really. Just canola oil, sugar, vinegar, ground cinnamon, salt, pepper and a few herbs taken from his neighbor's garden, with permission.

With Bob Marley tunes playing in the adjacent family room, Smith began extrapolating, with a dude-like patter ("awesome," "wicked," "giant") peppering the proceedings. First, he prepped the vegetables, with a plan for all the parts and pieces. A fair amount of oil went into a pan to fry thin slices of onion for a frizzly first-course garnish.

The onion ends were added to a tidy pile of trimmings as he sliced and diced. Those bits would be used to build a vegetable broth, the base of a quick, pan-braised stew. The asparagus spears, deemed tender enough not to need peeling, were thrown into a pot of lightly salted boiling water.

Smith drained the onions and strained the oil; once it cooled, the lightly flavored oil would be used in the vinaigrette, to pan-fry a rosti (potato cake) and to brown the steak. "I do stuff like this at work," he said. Asparagus heels, pieces of corncob, tomato cores, onion ends and mushroom stems browned in the flavored oil and soon were covered with water to cook into a broth; on his tight budget, there was no way Smith was going to spring for the store-bought kind, and this way, he was making the amount he needed.

Only thin strips of potato peels went into the garbage disposal -- and they could have headed for a compost bin, if he owned one.

"You might as well peel the potato as thinly as possible," he said. "I learned this from Jeff Buben at Vidalia," where Smith worked for 11 years. "And from a chef a long time ago; he'd pick through my prep station and ask, 'Why are you throwing this out?' The idea is to get the most out of everything you can."

With the blanched asparagus wrapped in a towel and refrigerated, he then shredded potatoes to make the rosti, capturing the liquid potato starch in a bowl beneath the grater. It was saved to thicken the stew. "Potato starch is more heat stable than cornstarch," he said. And it was another item he didn't have to buy.

The rosti took only a few minutes to get nicely browned and crisp on the bottom as the flavored oil kept it from sticking to Smith's Calphalon skillet. (Pans of choice for the chef? "I won them a while back in a Taste of the Nation competition," he said. "Sweet.") When it came time to flip the potato cake, the chef completed a perfect pan toss. "The first time I tried this, it was not pretty," he said. Mere mortals can use a plate to invert the rosti.

With the second side done and the pan off the heat, Smith quickly browned the meat in a separate skillet and transferred it to a plate while he added corn kernels, diced tomatoes and mushrooms to the same pan for a brief saute. Then he strained the vegetable broth into the skillet and returned the meat to create the stew, which would bubble away while he made the one-pan dessert.

Apples are not Smith's usual fruit of choice at this time of year, but they looked better than the strawberries and plums he found at the market. He peeled all of the apples, but then grated one into pulp so its juices (a surprising almost-one-third cup) could be reduced with some sugar to make a syrupy glaze. Another cost-cutting maneuver; no need to buy a jug of cider.

Except there was no granulated sugar. Smith's family and mother-in-law had gotten up and out of the house early and had used the small amount he'd had on hand. "I even checked the sugar bowl for dregs," he said. No problem; the chef improvised with confectioners' sugar instead.

Soon, the glazed apples went into the oven, their slices kept neatly in four groups. He added a tablespoon of collected potato starch to the stew, added the chopped fresh herbs and tasted for seasoning. "Not bad," he declared.

Then he plated the first course with a chef's artful arrangement of casually crossed cooled asparagus spears, the chunky vinaigrette, a scrunch of fried onion strings on top and a finishing sprinkle of salt and black pepper. By cooking the crystallized ginger in a little vinegar, he had created a mellow vinaigrette base, which was completed with the onion-flavored oil. "The crystallized kind is not as spicy as fresh ginger, and that's why I chose it," Smith said.

The resting rosti was cut into eight wedges, with two headed for each portion.

Generous spoonfuls of the stew, light yet rich in flavor, with beef that was tender, softened the rosti edges and filled the center of each bowl. As people sit down to dinner, Smith said, the dessert can remain in the oven or it can be pulled out for easy serving afterward -- ideally with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. "Everybody's got that in their freezer," he said. "If you really wanted to, you could put a dab of butter on those apples in the oven, too."

Tasting the finished dishes, the chef was impressed: "All right then! I would make this for my family. Kids would eat it." At that point, he revealed that this was a meal he had never made before -- not even to test before the photo shoot. "I saw it in my head. I've tasted the components, and I had a pretty good sense of where this was going."

Awesome.

For more budget-conscious ideas, go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/mightyappetite, where Kim O'Donnel has compiled a list of tried-and-true money-saving kitchen tips from readers of her blog, "A Mighty Appetite."

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