As promised in the previous installment of the Good Food Project, this week I tackled the challenge of shopping at Whole Foods on a budget. I gave myself $25, a fake family of four, and no preconceived notion of the type of meal I hoped to cook as I walked through the door.
Whenever I step into Whole Foods, I can’t help but think of one of my favorite clips from Parks & Rec (Hint: it involves Ron Swanson). The cleanliness, for whatever reason, is the first thing I notice. That and the post-modern approach to stacking bell peppers.
Since I was coming into the store with no dish in mind, I hoped to be whisked away by the extensive variety of in-season, fresh ingredients.
Sadly, the first thing I saw as I approached the produce section were pineapples. Then some tangerines. I scouted the apples for a good long while, but saw they were all grown in Mexico. As were the strawberries. This wasn’t what I expected, so I penetrated the vegetable isle and searched for something fresh and good and not from outside the U.S.
Alas, I stumbled upon a small stand that was labeled with a big poster of a smiling lady that said “Good Food From Here.” Jackpot.
While the stand wasn’t as large as I would have liked, I knew it would have to serve as the basis of my dish. The produce was reasonably priced, and because it was locally grown (one farm in Maryland, another in Pennsylvania), I felt good (or better, at least) about buying it. The produce happened to come together perfectly as I picked it out. I grabbed a carton of very fresh cherry tomatoes, two yellow squash, one large heirloom tomato and a bunch of fresh basil.
These would be the basis of a classic, simple pasta dish: Capellini with tomato, basil and [insert protein here].
The protein was my biggest worry coming in to the Whole Food adventure. I knew that to find an organic, non-frozen, hormone free protein that fit my budget would be difficult. I scoured the fish section for a while, and while they did have a number of “fresh caught” offerings, I couldn’t settle on any of them. I moved on to the butcher counter, where I saw a package of air-chilled, hormone free, organic chicken. Three sizeable breasts for $9.09. I knew they would be my most expensive item, but I also knew that I couldn’t skimp in this area. After tasting last week’s chicken, I was hoping I could taste the difference in the natural chicken.
Happy with my picks so far and only an eighth of a way into the store, I needed only a few more ingredients. I popped into the pasta aisle and grabbed a bunch of capellini (which was surprisingly cheap for being organic at $2.99). The only other thing needed to complete the dish (not counting spices and olive oil, which I already had at home and am assuming most readers do as well) was some cheese. I went with an asiago stravecchio, which is an aged cow’s milk cheese similar in taste and texture to parmesan.
Happy with everything I had in my cart, it was time for the moment of truth. The checkout.
I tried to do some math in my head as I shopped, but also didn’t want to limit the items I was choosing too much. After all, taste is still most important, but I thought I came pretty close to my $25 limit.
Here’s the rundown, as copied from the receipt:
Montebello organic capellini: $2.99
Organic air-chilled chicken: $9.09
Organic cherry tomatoes: $1.25
Asiago stravecchio: $5.20
Organic fresh basil: $2.99
Organic yellow squash: $2.45
Organic heirloom tomato: $1.27
Are you kidding me?! Twenty-four cents short. Oh well. It was a valiant effort, and I was happy with what I was able to grab. And the family of four could probably all pitch with the change they find from under the couch to make up for that 24-cent differential.
At any rate, I arrived home and began cooking. I removed the chicken from the packaging and coated it liberally with salt and pepper. I then added a decent amount of dried oregano, basil and savory. I like cooking with savory. I feel like it’s an underutilized spice that packs a lot of punch. A bit peppery, like a bad-ass parsley. (Coincidentally, I was out of parsley).
I added some extra virgin olive oil to a pan and brought it to medium-high. Hot enough to get a nice crust on both sides of the chicken breast.
Once the pan was hot enough, I added the chicken and allowed the spices to meld into the outside of the chicken and create the crust. Probably about three minutes on each side.
I flipped the chicken and popped it into a pre-heated oven (300 degrees) in the same pan I used to sear it. Hopefully, you’ve got a frying pan that is oven safe, but if not, just add some more olive oil to an oven-safe dish and throw that in there. The idea here is to sear the juices into the meat in the pan with olive oil, then finish cooking the chicken in the oven, low and slow. I’d say I let the breasts sit in the oven for another 10 minutes or so, but to be safe, you should always use a meat thermometer to check the doneness of chicken. At this point, I put on water and brought it to a boil for the pasta.
Once the chicken was done, I pulled the pan out of the oven and placed the chicken on a plate to cool. Don’t cut the chicken at check if it’s done, because all the juices will run out. Use the meat thermometer. While the chicken was in the oven, I cut the squash into thin circles, cut the cherry tomatoes in half, and mashed the heirloom tomato into a thick sauce. I added salt and pepper to the heirloom. I then returned the pan that the chicken was in to the stovetop on medium and threw in the squash. All the great juices and olive oil and spices that were melding together in the oven now would incorporate into the flavor of the vegetables and create the base for a phenomenal, yet light, sauce.
When the squash was beginning to tenderize, I tossed in the cherry tomatoes. They only need to cook for a very short period of time because you don’t want them to fall apart. It’s much better (and much more appealing) if they hold their shape. Once the pasta was ready, I tossed that into the pan with a dash of the pasta water to help thicken the sauce. I also added the basil and the heirloom tomato “sauce” and let everything cook together for another minute or two. Once that came together, I removed some of the dish, put it on a plate and topped it with the asiago. I then cut the chicken into small strips and laid that next to the pasta. You could also toss the chicken into the pan if you want, but for this one, I wanted to let the flavor of the chicken stand alone and use the backdrop of the pasta and squash and tomatoes as a nice sauce. The final result was, well, read for yourself in the next section.
The Verdict: The best part about this dish was that it all came together at the store. I loved coming in with no preconceived expectations and executing at a nice level. The other awesome part about the dish was the ease of preparation. I really enjoy cooking with bold, strong flavors and letting the beauty of the ingredients stand for themselves. Especially since they were high-quality ingredients. The other great thing was, oh yeah, the taste.
The freshness of the cherry tomatoes was instantly noticeable. A huge hat tip to Hummingbird farms. They bust with flavor with each bite and added a great sweetness to the dish. Coupled with the mild, yet fresh, crispness of the squash (which absorbed all the great flavors from the pan), the veggies in this dish were can’t miss. The pasta was decent, but I might go with a different brand next time. It was a bit gluey. The basil was fantastic and once it hit the heat of the pan, wilted just enough to release its pungent flavor throughout the dish.
What blew me away, perhaps even more than the vegetables, was the chicken. It was unbelievably juicy and tender. There wasn’t much fat on it and there were no veins running through. No toughness. The crust on the outside was very flavorful and played nicely off the delicious texture of the chicken. I really can’t stress enough how amazing this chicken tasted. And not because of what I did to it, I think it was the way it was raised and packaged. If you have the chance, I would highly recommend trying organic, hormone-free, air-chilled chicken. And I can confidently say those are words I never anticipated coming out of my mouth.
What I learned: Aside from learning that the chicken was fantastic, it is possible to cook a meal for four people (there was plenty left over even after I had seconds) for a budget of under $25 at Whole Foods. All I needed to do was buy a slightly smaller block of cheese and we would have been golden. I also learned that few ingredients with bold flavors is the way to go if you’re buying locally. So simple, so easy, so delicious.
After last week’s piccata received a B+, this week’s dish is an A. I hate giving myself an A, but considering I (all-but) met the price requirement and the flavor of those tomatoes, it's hard not to. Highly recommend this one, folks.
Up next: Fish. My longtime nemesis. I try to tackle the best place to get fish in my area and a good, healthy way to prepare it. I never liked fish as a kid, but have really learned to love it lately. This should be fun.
Images courtesy of the author