Chef's Challenge

Cheap Eats at Home. Sweet.

Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 23, 2008; Page F01

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.

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