A couple of weeks ago on NPR.org, I read about a challenge they issued to chefs and then to their general audience called "How Low Can You Go? Submit Your $10 Meals":
"The challenge: Feed a group of four for under $10. Bonus points for dishes that seem more expensive."
Many news stations and sites have been running the topic of "these tough economic times" into the ground with story after story of how this downturn has affected different segments of the population, but they haven't often really captured the plight of the people who are affected most - those living at or below the poverty level and the working poor. Seriously, I remember listening to the radio as I was driving somewhere a couple of months back and NPR themselves ran some story about siblings who were "struggling" to figure out how to invest their money because they were no longer going to be able to rely on their trust funds (or some such equally ridiculous problem). Oh, boo-hooooo. (For a good article that echoes this sentiment see a recent NYT piece by Barbara Ehrenreich [famed author of Nickel and Dimed].) So, looong story short, I was happy to see this $10-meal challenge that seemed to be acknowledging that practical solutions to everyday problems are needed if we are really going to help those hit hardest by the current economic climate.
I had to fight my every instinct to make this recipe because it reminded me too much of a deep-dish pizza, and we all know that real pizza has a thin, crispy crust! (Yes, I'm goading my friends from the Midwest to protest here. You like how I did that there? Goad? Goad - "to drive [as cattle] with a goad"? Livestock? Midwest? Oh never mind.)
Once I stopped thinking about the pie as any kind of pizza and focused on how much I LOVE tomatoes, I got kind of excited about this dish. I broke out my hand-dandy mandoline (you know how much I love using that) and had a neat pile of slivered tomatoes and onions in no time. Preparing the handful of ingredients and constructing the layers was super easy. . . . It was baking the crust that proved difficult.
The recipe suggests either using baking beads or another pie plate on top to keep the crust from getting too puffy. I didn't have baking beads, so I used another pie dish. Seemed like a reasonable solution, but I quickly noticed that the second dish was keeping the middle of the crust from cooking properly. I removed the second dish and then had to bake it a little longer. The problem was that then the bottom and the edges got a little overdone and the middle, that did end up cooked, ended up too puffy - just what I was trying to avoid. I'm wondering if the author of the recipe actually tried the 'second pie dish' alternative herself before recommending it . . . After the crust cooled off a bit, I had to moosh it down by hand so I could fit in all the layers of onion and tomato, but it worked okay.
Despite the crust debacle, the final product came out pretty good. (Both my husband and I had seconds.) That said, though, I probably will make some adjustments next time I make this, and maybe this advice will help you make a better dish your first time around with this recipe:
One obvious adjustment I'll make will be using baking beads, but I'll probably also try heirloom tomatoes for a richer tomato flavor and texture, a little less onion, and a LOT less mayo. (Seriously, an entire cup of mayo is far far too much.) And I'll probably only make it again when I am indeed cooking for at least four people (as the challenge suggests) - you don't want leftovers because it's not a dish that's that great reheated (because the texture of the crust won't hold up). Which isn't to say it's not a great dish. Plenty of really great dishes don't make good leftovers. . . . But I might argue that this dish should not have been one of the winners of the NPR contest because leftovers are a mealtime staple for the financially strapped. Not saving leftovers is wasting food and money, and eating subpar leftovers just isn't fun for anyone.
Got any favorite vegetarian or vegan recipes?? Please share!
To see other "How Low Can You Go?" challenge-winning recipes, visit www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=104709974.
Other Meatless Monday posts