Meal plans in the red line zone

I open the large envelope, slowly.

I don’t want to open it; I know, in general, what I’ll find. But, I need specifics, so I forge ahead.

Inside the envelope is the latest report on the status of my investments. I need to know how dismal things have become. I have, after all, followed the advice of my investment counselor and kept money in the market — an ever-diminishing amount of money — based on the assertion that “at some point, things will get better.”

This, I don’t doubt, even now, with the financial wreckage piling high around me.

What I am beginning to doubt, however, is that I will live to experience things getting better.

There is an intro page in the packet, which I skip. There is nothing more discouraging than a letter from the president of the company, acknowledging the trying times, and promising that the company is working day and night for my benefit. Well, maybe there is something worse: the fact the cover letter is sent from an address in the Cayman Islands.

I don’t get past page two. Page two contains a graph. The red line on the graph plummets down as it moves right across the page. I assume the line then moves off the bottom edge of the page, to my lap, off my lap to the floor, through the floor to the basement, through the foundation, finally stopping somewhere two to three thousand feet below the surface of the earth.

I sit in the large chair in the living room, the document from the investment firm slipping from my lap and falling to the floor. I have a vision: I am dressed in a pair of bib overalls. I have no shirt and I am wearing a seedy, large straw hat. I am standing in the middle of a dusty field, a harsh sun beating down on me. I have developed a number of troublesome lesions on my forehead. I have rickets. I carry a long stick, with which I attempt to unearth mutant, moldy potatoes from the dry soil.

A painfully thin youngster — let’s call him Clem — limps across the field to my side. Clem carries a stick and he begins to dig. As we work, I regale Clem with stories of the good old days, before bundled bad mortgages and zombie banks, before failed bailouts and golden parachutes, before ruined industries and deserted cities in the Rust Belt, before the Great, Great Depression.

I lean on my stick. “You know, kid, there was a time I had a nice house and money in the bank. That was before all the banks collapsed. Had me a car, too, before gas prices got so high you couldn’t afford to drive — back when they still made cars here in the USA. Had investments, too.”

“Huh. Whas investmens?”

“Never mind. Oooh, look, you missed one. It’s little, but the bugs haven’t got to it yet.”

I snap out of it. A tsunami of despair surges toward my emotional shoreline, and I head to the grocery store. Whenever I feel down, I make tracks to the market, if for no other reason than the bright lights, zippy music and bold colors perk me up.

Food does that, as well, but as I wander the aisles toting the baggage of my financial distress, I am more prone than ever to check prices.

Geez. The Farm Bill, the “let’s-grow-more-corn” high fructose corn syrup lobby and OPEC continue to push prices higher. And quality down.

The bright lights and bold colors have little effect on my mood.

My nasty attitude deepens, and I decide to craft a less-is-more dinner menu. Practice makes perfect, you know.

I came to the store thinking I would cook up a load of snazzy chicken cutlets — the skinless breasts halved, the halves pounded out to a thickness of a quarter inch or so, the cutlets dredged in seasoned flour, dipped in egg wash and covered with seasoned breadcrumbs before being sautéed.

I check out the price of boneless chicken breasts and the idea evaporates. Instead, I find a pack of what is, allegedly, ground chicken breast meat — at half the price.

That’ll do. It’ll have to.

I check out the price of organic greens. Unbelievable.

I find a pack of prewashed slaw blend, instead. Cheap, good roughage. Cabbage, after all, got the Russians through World War II.

Lemons are still reasonably priced. I snag two.

Spuds? Why not? After all, I am destined to end my life in an utterly miserable way, scratching tubers from the dead soil with a stick, in the company of morons.

I buy two large russets and one large sweet potato.

Onions are still cheap. I get one. As I put it my basket I remember my Dad telling me about the onion sandwiches he ate in the ’30s, when times were tough.

Everything else I need for this modified Depression-era meal, I have at home. Some of those things — capers and shaved Parmesan cheese, for example — are expensive, and once I use up my stock, they will be mere memories. Like my investments.

When I get home, I take the ground chicken from it’s sleek petroleum-based plastic tub and put it in a bowl. I add some finely minced white onion, salt, pepper and dried tarragon.

There are two problems with ground chicken breast meat: a general lack of flavor (which I have mitigated with the onion and seasoning) and the tendency to quickly dry when cooked. This I deal with in a simple way: I add a couple tablespoons of mayonnaise, one egg and half a teaspoon of Dijon mustard. I sprinkle in some panko bread crumbs and Parmesan as a binder and mix everything well. Into the fridge goes the mix, for fifteen minutes or so.

In the meantime, I assemble a breading station: a pan with seasoned flour (salt, pepper, some tarragon and a pinch of Espanola red), a pan with egg wash, and a pan with seasoned panko (salt, pepper and a healthy measure of the Parmesan). And I prepare the potatoes.

I peel the russets then chop them into half-inch cubes. I do the same with the sweet potato, keeping the two spud piles separate. I chop half a white onion.

I heat a cast iron skillet over medium high heat and, when it is hot, I add olive oil. When the oil is hot, in go the russets, with some salt. I spread the spuds across the surface of the pan, and I leave them for at least five minutes. I turn them, spread them and leave them for five minutes more, browning the surfaces. I repeat this one more time. Then, in go the cubes of sweet potato and the process is repeated. (I happen to like slightly charred sweet potato — the intense carmelization brings out the sugary quality of the potato. If you are not partial to this, and want to merely brown the potatoes, turn the heat down a bit). More oil is added, if necessary. Finally, in go the onions, and the heat is turned down to medium. I turn the mix periodically during the half hour or so it takes to reduce everything to a properly soft state. At that point, I add a clove of garlic, chopped and mushed, a bit more Kosher salt, black pepper, some ground cumin and dried oregano.

Then, it’s on to the chicken. I form large patties, take each patty and dredge it in the flour, dip each patty in the egg wash, then put the patty into the crumbs, patting it down to ensure an even, heavy coating.

I heat another pan (stainless, not cast iron, because I intend to add acid) over medium high heat and, when it is hot, I put in olive oil and butter, and allow the butter to brown just a bit. In go the patties. I sauté them until they are golden brown on one side, then flip them. When both sides are toasty good, I take the patties from the pan and put them on a warm plate at the back of the stove. I add a touch more oil to the pan, throw in half a white onion, minced, and stir constantly until the onion softens (I don’t want it brown). Then I hurl in a couple cloves of garlic, mushed, and deglaze with chicken broth and a splash of dry white wine. I squeeze in the juice of two lemons and reduce the liquid by half. At that point, in go rinsed and chopped capers, chopped parsley, a bit of salt and some pepper, and a half cup or so of leftover green peas (waste not, want not). I allow the liquid to reduce a bit more then flop in several gobs of butter, adding the chicken patties and turning the heat to low, flipping the patties after a minute or so.

Oh, yeah. The chicken is moist and flavorful (the toasty breading adding a nice flavor undertone) and the sauce is great dribbled over chicken and spuds.

For crunch, the slaw mix, with the addition of a little minced onion, a bit of mayo, a splash of lemon juice, some mustard, salt and pepper.

While I have cut costs, this meal is not going to come in at less than ten bucks — my hard times’ standard. No way. And, with trends continuing, this could be an extravagant meal in a couple years’ (or months’) time.

Certainly way too expensive for me and Clem.

But, I can tell him all about it, right after I regale him with stories of orderin’ that there fancy French wine over the Internet.

“Huh, whas the innernet?”