I remember my mom being a pretty good cook when I was little. That is, until she joined Weight Watchers. Don’t get me wrong: I think that as weight loss programs go, Weight Watchers is a pretty sensible one. It’s just that they preach the practice of substitution. That’s not such a bad thing either. I frequently substitute one ingredient for another if I’m looking to make a recipe more healthful. It’s just that my mom, bless her heart, had no idea which ingredients made suitable substitutes. She didn’t lack in creativity but her tofu dog chow mein with its sauce made from watered down low calorie ketchup and cornstarch was a turning point for me: It was the exact reason I realized that I had to learn to cook. It was a matter of self defense.
By the time I moved out on my own, I’d mastered the basics of putting a meal on the table. My dishes were simple and my repertoire small, but at least my meals were palatable. I found that I liked to cook. The process of preparing a meal was soothing to me and the act of stocking my cupboards gave me a sense of security in what were, for me, very uncertain times.
I decided to expand my cooking horizons and, in doing so, discovered a couple of things: First, that I could tell what a dish would taste like just by reading a recipe and, second, that when I cooked for others, they enjoyed my food enough to want to put their knees under my table again and again. It was very gratifying. I started to look for recipes everywhere. I bought women’s magazines in thrift shops. I clipped recipes from newspapers. I brought home cookbooks from the library.
All this took place in the days before computers were commonplace, even in offices. I know that some of you cannot imagine such a time, but it did exist. I learned to type on an ancient Royal typewriter given me by my granny. It had a cast iron body and a key movement so stiff that I nearly sprained my baby finger every time I typed an “A.” Photocopies were out of my price range so, unless I was clipping from a magazine or a newspaper, I transcribed my recipes using that old typewriter and the yellow, inexpensive typing paper commonly used for rough drafts at that time. The finished sheets were compiled in a binder, in the order I transcribed them. No sorting or index here: I found—and continue to find—the recipes in that book purely by spatial memory.
As my confidence in the kitchen grew, I came to realize that—despite being scarred by the tofu dog stir fry experience—living on a budget meant embracing the art of substitution. I couldn’t just run out to the grocery store every time I came upon a recipe that called for an ingredient I didn’t have. I learned to shop mindfully, to build a pantry, and to adapt my recipes to the ingredients I had on hand.
One day, while searching through a magazine from the library, I came across two chicken recipes. Both were made with a yogurt marinade that later became a coating for the chicken as it baked in the oven.
I knew for a fact that there was no chicken in my fridge, nor would there be until payday, but there was a blade steak. I went home, cut the blade steak up into cubes, made the marinade, put it all together in a Ziploc bag, and popped it in the fridge.
The next morning, I emptied the bag into my slow cooker, and that night I served the beef over egg noodles.
My husband is no fan of yogurt but he loved this dish and asked what it was. I told him it was called Beef Tzigane, and that it was cooked in a Hungarian style sauce. He had a second helping at dinner and then finished the last of it for lunch the following day.
I thought no more about that blade steak in yogurt marinade until he asked, while we were grocery shopping one day a couple of months later, “Can we have beefs again?”
"We had beef just a couple of days ago,” I replied.
"No!” He exclaimed, “I mean that beef dish in the Hungarian sauce.”
“Ah!” The penny dropped. I added yogurt to my cart.
The dish has remained a favourite at our house ever since. It may not be the prettiest girl at the dance but it turned out to be the one that came home to meet the family.
I made Beef Tzigane last weekend. I served it with short grain brown rice, roasted carrots and turnips, and cabbage and apple slaw.
If you’d like to try this recipe, you’ll need:
2-1/2 lbs of lean beef blade steak or roast, cut into cubes
2 c. yogurt
2 cloves of garlic, finely minced
1 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. cayenne (adjust the amount to your own taste)
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. paprika
1 tsp. powdered ginger
1 thinly sliced onion
Place the beef cubes in a Ziploc bag.
Put the yogurt in a bowl and stir it a bit so it loosens up. Mix in the garlic, salt, cayenne, cinnamon, paprika, and ginger. Pour the yogurt mixture into the bag, zip the bag closed and then use your hands to move the ingredients around in the bag so that the beef is evenly coated with the yogurt mixture. Marinate the beef overnight, in the refrigerator.
In the morning, place the beef and marinade in the slow cooker and add the onion. Stir to mix the onion through the beef. Put the lid on the slow cooker, set it on low and cook it for 8 to 12 hours. Don’t open the lid because heat will be lost. It doesn’t need stirring and the longer it cooks, the more tender the beef will be.
That’s it. When it’s supper time, serve it with your choice of side dishes and enjoy.