A gourmet meal for a deal

Culture Food | Drink

Often, people make New Year’s resolutions to lose weight, whether it be to eat less or exercise more. I, however, vowed to make 2014 my year to learn how to cook, and, unintentionally, gain weight. I pledged to try one new recipe per week, which has given me enough time to seek out appropriate dishes and acquire the proper ingredients, without becoming so overwhelmed that I give up altogether. Even though we are only just two months into 2014, I am already adopting a more inventive approach in meal preparation and my pantry is transforming from bachelor student to epicurean adult.

Cooking, as I’m sure many of my UVic colleagues would agree, is sometimes a stressful prospect. When you get home from a day of lectures, whether you’re rushing to work or recharging before tackling a paper, “quick” and “cheap” are the words that come to mind when deciding on dinner. And for those of us that grew up with a stay-at-home mom, cooking a well-balanced dinner involved visits to the butcher and farmer’s market, followed by slaving in the kitchen. Now, mix starving student with equal parts exam week and “just-like-mom-makes-it” expectations, throw it all into the pressure cooker, wait until frustration bubbles over, then order a pizza and taste the failure.

My resolution to cook has been centred on recipes that are not only delicious but also easy and inexpensive. Thai Beef with Basil (taken from Bon Appetit website) is a low-calorie dish with all the food groups to make this a weekly dinner staple: fluffy starch, fragrant greens, spicy protein, and a twist of citrus. I should note that the majority of the ingredients are inexpensive; the most expensive items will be the fresh basil and the ground beef. The grade of beef you choose doesn’t matter much, and if the price of fresh basil seems steep ($2.99 per bunch), consider cutting it with spinach. This colourful dish offers an exotic punch of flavour while only requiring basic stove knowledge, and if at first glance it looks difficult, don’t worry. You’ll do just fine if you take note of my tweaks and tips.

Thai beef with basil
(from Bon Appetit)

(Serves two to four, left-over friendly)
30 ml (2 tbsp) vegetable oil, divided (I used olive oil, or you can use a bit of butter in your skillet and skip it in the slaw)
6 garlic cloves, thinly sliced (mince it for speed)
2 red chillies, thinly sliced, seeded (or not), (I used a millilitre (¼ tsp) of cayenne pepper instead—it really depends on how spicy you want your beef)
450 g (1 lb) ground beef
125 ml (½ cup) low-sodium chicken broth
750 ml (3 cups) fresh basil leaves (I bought two bunches, and it seemed like too much)
2 medium carrots, julienned or coarsely grated (grate for speed, julienne for looks)
2 green onions, thinly sliced (use kitchen scissors for speed)
60 ml (4 tbsp) fresh lime juice (use ReaLime for speed)
30 ml (2 tbsp) soy sauce (preferably low-sodium)
15 ml (1 tbsp) fish sauce
5 ml (1 tsp) sugar (I used brown sugar, because I like to live life on the edge)
Steamed rice (I used brown rice—to keep with the theme, obviously)
Fresh lime wedges (only for looks)

Heat 15 ml (1 tbsp) oil in a large skillet over high heat. Add garlic and cayenne pepper and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add beef and cook, breaking up with a spoon and pressing down firmly to help brown, until cooked through, eight to 10 minutes. Stir in broth, 500 ml (2 cups) basil, until basil is wilted (I suggest covering your skillet to help trap the broth and speed the wilting process).

Toss carrots, scallions, 15 ml (1 tbsp) lime juice, a few dashes of cayenne pepper, 250 ml (1 cup) basil leaves, and 15 ml (1 tbsp) oil in a small bowl.

Mix soy sauce, fish sauce, sugar, and remaining 45 ml (3 tbsp) lime juice in another small bowl until sugar dissolves.

Top rice with beef and slaw, and drizzle with soy dressing.