Malaysian beef curry: $2.11/serving

A word of warning: This dish (adapted from one in Bon Appetit) calls for a slow-cooker. Normally, I’m not a slow-cooker kinda gal. I bought a cheap-ish one a couple years ago to keep mashed potatoes warm during the frantic, stove-cluttering prep of Thanksgiving, and I’ll occasionally use it for stock if I’m in a hurry, but otherwise I find it pretty useless.

Back in Ye Olden Days of slow-cookers you could throw some stuff in the pot before you left for work, turn it to low, come home, and, eight or nine hours later, the original contents would be perfectly cooked. With my slow-cooker, the contents are boiling—BOILING!—within about three or four hours on low. An Internet search confirmed this is an extremely common problem, as most slow-cookers nowadays—if not all—aren’t really “slow” cookers at all thanks to FDA intervention over potentially unsafe food temperatures. It pretty much defeats the purpose of using one at all, especially for anything more delicate than huge chunks of beef. Thankfully, this dish involves huge chunks of beef, but the cooker still had to be plugged in at noon and unplugged promptly at 5 pm.

If you don’t yet have a slow-cooker and for some reason would like to own one, DO NOT just go to the nearest big-box store and buy one. Get a real one, an old one, at a garage sale or Goodwill, preferably with a hideous ’80s or early-’90s floral motif so you know it’s legit.

Anyway, this is one meal that truly highlights the value of careful, diversified shopping and planning ahead. If I hadn’t been able to find beef chuck for under $2.50 a pound or an Asian market that sells things like inexpensive Chaokoh coconut milk and huge bundles of lemongrass with the stalks attached for 50 cents, this post wouldn’t exist. If you yourself are trying the $35 a week plan and don’t have access to a variety of grocery stores or the time to seek them out, it’s up to you to decide whether this meal is worth it as a splurge. (If you like Thai curries, odds are it will be.)

It makes 4 good-sized servings.

Curry paste:
4 large dried New Mexico chiles (double this if you like incendiary heat): 20 cents
4 lemongrass stalks: 20 cents
1/2 cup chopped shallots (from a 99-cent bag of French shallots): 10 cents 
6 garlic cloves, smashed: 12 cents
2 tsp ground coriander: 4 cents
1 1/2 tsp ground cumin: 5 cents
1/2 tsp ground ginger: 2 cents
3 T fish sauce: 9 cents
1 T brown sugar: 5 cents
TOTAL: 87 cents

8 kaffir lime leaves: 30 cents
2 whole star anise: 5 cents
1 cinnamon stick: 3 cents
2 T tamarind paste (from a block frozen in the freezer), soaked in 2 T of boiling water, seeds and husk material removed: 5 cents
2 lbs. boneless beef roast (cut from a larger roast that was marked down to 50% off at Safeway), cut into large cubes: $4.60
1 can coconut milk: $1.99
salt to taste: 1 cent
TOTAL: $7.03

For serving:
Chopped cilantro: 13 cents
4 cups steamed rice: 40 cents  
TOTAL: 53 cents

GRAND TOTAL: $8.44/4 = $2.11/serving

De-stem and de-seed chiles, tear them into large pieces, cover them with boiling water and soak for 45 minutes to reconstitute. Drain and chop.

Cut off bottom 4 inches of lemongrass stalks, reserving the tops. Chop the stems finely and transfer them to a large food processor. Add shallots, garlic, and spices, process finely. (Be sure to get the lemongrass as finely ground as possible; it may take a few times of scraping down the bowl.) Add 1/2 cup water, chiles, fish sauce, and sugar. Process to a paste.

Smash reserved lemongrass tops, bend them in half and tie with butcher’s twine. Mix the beef cubes and the spice paste together in the bowl of the slow-cooker, stir in the coconut milk, lime leaves, star anise, cinnamon, and tamarind. Add the lemongrass tops and press down to submerge.

Cook on low until meat is falling-apart tender; for my “slow” cooker it was about 4 1/2 hours. Remove excess fat from the top, pick out the lemongrass bundles, lime leaves and hard spices, and serve over rice, sprinkled with chopped cilantro.

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