Apparently, I don’t spend ENOUGH time on the internet, because I’m adding a new feature to TNS: Cheap Ass Monday. My grocery bills have, uh, been nudging ever so slightly upward for the past few months; I have no idea why that might be. No matter the reason, I need to figure out a way to offset some of the more obscene Smackdown costs, and I know lots of us are looking for quick, less expensive meals so we can save our money for blowout trips to the French Laundry. Or, you know, to pay the mortgage or utility bill (thanks a lot, heat wave).

So Monday will no longer merely be “Monday” but “Cheap Ass Monday,” where we endeavor to make a tasty dinner for two gluttonous adults for $5 or less. Play along at home! The rules are:

  • You (me) have to actually MAKE dinner out of actual whole, fresh ingredients. The Wendy’s 99-cent menu does not a Cheap Ass Monday make. I mean, technically it does, but that’s not gonna fly around here.
  • Normal pantry items that right-thinking people should have in their homes (salt, sugar, olive oil, etc) do not count toward the $5 limit.
  • I am the arbiter of what constitutes a “normal pantry item” and reserve the right to stretch the definition thereof in order to meet my self-imposed dollar limit.
  • Some Mondays may be skipped without prior notice if I am feeling lazy.

Cheap Ass Monday kicks off with a refreshing, raw cucumber and peanut salad. Not only is it too hot in New York to even think about entertaining the idea of considering turning on the oven, it is also too hot for humans to effectively digest complex foods. Also, the knobs on the stove may well be too hot from the ambient temperature to touch; I can’t say for sure because I didn’t want to chance it.

Cucumber: $0.53

I at first toyed with the idea of chopping up some peppers, carrots and baby bok choy and tossing them with a creamy peanut dressing, but the very concept of “creamy sauce” made my stomach turn a little in the heat. I wanted something light, refreshing and crisp, so I went with a combo of cucumber, radish and Asian pear with peanuts for protein and fat, all simply dressed with rice wine vinegar and mirin.

Bag of radishes: $0.99

Luckily, I’d stored my knife in a dark, cool location* and the kitchen counter is closer to the AC unit, so I was able to dice all the ingredients comfortably.

I’m sitting in my living room with the AC on, and am getting a little sweaty from typing this. Just thought you should know. Thank god for homemade ice cream.

*My soul.

Asian pear: $1.99. A splurge item!

There was a lot of chopping. Chop chop chop. I can’t make everything interesting for you.

Half of a $1.58 container of peanuts: $0.79

When I was little my parents and I would take lots of road trips, most frequently a 9-hour trek to West Virginia where my sister’s family was living while my brother-in-law went to culinary school at the Greenbriar. My mother would always bring a big jar of peanuts on these trips, correctly thinking that they’d be a good hunger-sating snack for road-weary travelers. I always thought the peanuts were just a prop she used to justify refusing to stop for yummy, greasy road food; I don’t remember ever actually eating any of the peanuts. Looking back, it occurs to me that they may also have been a prop to justify her (entirely rational) fear of stopping for anything in West Virginia.*

Anyway, I added peanuts here because (1) I didn’t want to be hungry again in 7 seconds and (2) peanuts taste good. Cashews would also be acceptable, albeit pricier.

*Sorry, West Virginia, but you make it too easy.

One-tenth of a $1.66 knob of fresh ginger: $0.16.

Sugar, salt, rice wine vinegar and mirin are all normal pantry items as far as I’m concerned; if they’re not for you, they should be. I also tossed in some cilantro from the backyard. If you want to be picky, it was one-fifth of the growth from a seedling that originally cost $1.99 but which has not been appraised to determine it’s current worth given the ensuing growth. But I’m counting it as “free” because now we’re getting into complex math. There’s a reason I studied philosophy, religion and law, and it’s not my love of a good equation.

Final cost: $4.46, or $2.23 per serving.

The finished product was everything I wanted it to be. Crunchy from the cukes; fresh from the cilantro; a little salty from the peanuts; a little sweet from the mirin, pear and sugar; a little tingly from the fresh ginger; a little bracing from the vinegar and radishes. Every ingredient was wonderfully crisp in a slightly different way. The crunch and texture made it satisfying to eat, and it was perfectly suited to this meltingly hot day. Methinks I will turn to this often as the summer wears on, either as a stand-alone like this or as a side dish.

And now, a Monday bonus:

It’s Brian’s grandma!

Just kidding, it’s cake. I mean, it’s true that Brian’s grandma is in the photo, but I know that all you care about is cake. I made this ice cream for her 88th birthday, and I must implore all of you to immediately make an ice cream cake featuring layers of chocolate and Vietnamese coffee ice creams from David Lebovitz’s Perfect Scoop. Do you not have this book? That’s a serious problem.

Here’s an actual conversation I had with Grandma:

Grandma: Michelle, I washed the pan from the cake. (a springform pan)

Me: Oh, you didn’t have to do that; I would have made Brian do it!

Grandma: Well, I was licking it.

Me: In that case, thanks for washing it.

Grandma is awesome.

Cucumber & Peanut Salad for a meltingly hot day
Keep all the ingredients in the fridge prior to prepping this to make it extra-refreshing
1 cucumber, seeds removed
6-10 radishes
1 Asian pear, core hacked out
1/2 c. roasted, salted peanuts
2 inch knob fresh ginger, peeled
3 tbsp. rice wine vinegar
3 tbsp. mirin
1 tbsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 c. cilantro

Dice the cucumber, radishes and Asian pear into evenly-sized chunks and dump into a bowl. Mince or finely grate the ginger over the bowl (I recommend using a microplane). Add the peanuts, vinegar, mirin, salt and sugar and toss to combine.

Finely chop the cilantro and sprinkle on top. Adjust the seasoning and serve immediately.