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Dinner (and a good one) for 5 bucks a head

The finished dish -- Chicken and Ricotta Meatballs, handmade pasta, salad. (Photo: Joy Manning)
The finished dish -- Chicken and Ricotta Meatballs, handmade pasta, salad. (Photo: Joy Manning)Read more

Many conversations about food and health these days come down to a single questionable assumption: Healthy food costs more than junk food.

For example: When Anthony Bourdain recently called Paula Deen the most dangerous woman in America, thanks to her lavishly buttered and fried recipes, she defended herself by saying that her food is for "struggling working families," who are unable to indulge, as Bourdain surely must, in a diet based on pricey steak and vintage wine.

Never mind that Paula's dishes, many of which include the most expensive stuff at the supermarket (meat, cheese, and prepacked ingredients) are no more cost-conscious than they are weight-conscious, or that Bourdain often spotlights the affordable ethnic cuisines that America would do well to eat more of.

After their initial kerfuffle, other food writers chimed in on the problems of foodie elitism, but the debate continued to swirl around a familiar theme: rich versus poor, snobs versus salt of the earth, Dixie versus NYC, red versus blue, us versus them.

Meanwhile, with significantly less fanfare, Slow Food USA issued a challenge that can prove that real food is accessible to everyone. They put out a call to their supporters to invite friends and family over for a $5 per person supper this Saturday, Sept. 17, to draw attention the delicious economy of real, homemade food.

It's a way of taking affordable eats back from the fast food industry: $5 is the average price of the typical fast food value meal. If we can do it better ourselves, who needs the drive-thru?

Slow Food calls this project the $5 Challenge. And though I immediately jumped on board, I didn't take the "challenge" part very seriously.

I don't closely monitor my household food budget, but I know a weekly bill for my family of two is about $100. I shop at a fancy grocery store, buy mostly organic, and limit my meat purchases to the pastured, hormone-free variety, and still spend less on groceries than anyone I know. I chalk this up to the fact that, as a slow-food enthusiast myself, I buy no frozen pizzas, organic cookies, boxed cereal, crackers or anything of the sort.

For this reason alone, I assumed that almost everything I typically make is a $5 meal. I decided for my Value Meal dinner party I'd make chicken-ricotta meatballs with fresh pasta and tomato sauce. Also, a salad: Escarole with pickled onions in honey vinaigrette. Without checking a single price, I included the menu in my email invitation.

I make these meatballs a lot -- they're kind of my signature dish. And even though I've written a cookbook, I've never jotted this one down.

So for the sake of planning and accounting, I wrote it from memory, guesstimating the quantities and prices. I saw right away that my cheap, homey dinner wasn't quite as economical as I hoped. Suddenly I doubted that I could make it work. I decided to do a practice run to make sure my supper would be on budget and delicious, too.

First, I trimmed ingredients that seemed, all of a sudden, outrageously priced. Fresh basil? Maybe if I had it growing in the yard. Imported Pecorino Romano? Not at almost a buck an ounce. A splash of Sangiovese for the sauce? I'll make due with H2O. But other ingredients were non-negotiable — mass-market chicken and growth hormone-laced cheese weren't an option. And I have to use my organic Muir Glen tomatoes because they are they only ones I know of that don't contain BPA, a resin used in most cans that is an endocrine disruptor. But I promised my friends that these meatballs and had to make it work, on budget.

With price now a concern, I googled the words organic coupons (something I've never once thought to do before) and found enough clippable saviors to make my meal feasible more or less as planned.

I saved 50 cents per can of tomatoes, and $1 off the ricotta and butter I use. I also snagged savings on spices. It felt awkward at the checkout line saying, "I have coupons!" and handing over the not-so-neatly clipped vouchers. I worried about delaying the line and getting a hard look from the Main Line-looking shopper behind me.

Even when I set all my ingredients out at home, scale and spreadsheet close at hand, I feared that the bottom line wouldn't hold up, that I wouldn't be able to make a value meal that reflected my food values.

I never actually made this dish by a written recipe with measurements before, and I wasn't sure it would turn out. I had planned on one pound of meat feeding four people, but after mixing all the ingredients and rolling my meatballs, I saw that the number lined up on my tray — 28 —was enough to feed six people, not four. The spaghetti strands, too, unspooled from my machine more plentifully than I thought.

When everything was weighed and recorded, and dinner had been cooked, plated, and eaten, I had come in a buck under my $5 per person budget, enough to make a chocolate cake for dessert for the main event this Saturday.

I breathed a sigh of relief: my precious meatballs are a decidedly thrifty 27 cents each and just as good as ones I've shelled out 20 times as much for in fancy restaurants.

But in the process I also realized that money is just one resource that goes into the making of a meal that is wholesome, delicious and a good value for your dollar.

Most people can afford to spend $5 on a meal, though many can't also afford the time to grind their own chicken for meatballs and crank out pasta from flour and eggs the way I did.

But with some practice, most people can learn to put affordable meals on their family table that are healthier and far more delicious that what you get at a fast food chain. Cooking is a skill worth learning whether you're motivation is culinary or budgetary.

Or, like most of us, both.

For more info on Slow Food's $5 Challenge, click here.

Serves 6 (makes approximately 28 meatballs)

For my money, chicken thighs are one of the best buys at the fancy supermarket. I often buy a bulky family pack and freeze them in pairs so a quick dinner is always close at hand. They aren't just cheaper than chicken breast, the dark meat resists overcooking and just plain tastes better, too.

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1-inch cubes

8 ounces (1 cup) ricotta cheese

1/4 cup (1 1/2 ounces) dried bread crumbs

1/2 cup minced onion

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 egg, beaten

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Arrange the chicken cubes on a large sheet pan and chill in the freezer for 15 minutes. Feed the chilled chicken cubes through a meat grinder or pulse in a food processor until minced.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the ground chicken, ricotta cheese, bread crumbs, onion, garlic, egg, salt and pepper. Using your hands, mix gently until well combined.

Form into meatballs the size of ping pong balls (about 30 grams) and arrange on a silcone mat or parchment-lined baking sheet and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, turning after about 15 minutes, until golden brown in spots. Transfer to a pot of tomato sauce, and serve with cooked spaghetti.

Makes enough to sauce the above chicken and ricotta meatballs

It doesn't seem very Italian to me to start this sauce in a pool of butter, but it makes a huge difference in terms of flavor. If you're a butter-hater, substitute olive oil, but it won't be the same.

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter

1 small onion, minced (1 cup)

1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon dried oregano

2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 32-ounce can whole tomatoes and their juices, preferably Muir Glen fire roasted

In a large heavy stockpot over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the onion, red pepper flakes, salt and oregano and cook, stirring frequently, until the onions are soft and the spices fragrant, about 10 minutes. Add the tomato paste and fry it until it begins to stick to the bottom of the pot a bit, about 3 minutes. Stir in 1/2 cup of water, scraping the bottom of the pan to pick up any cooked-on bits, and add the tomatoes. Simmer for 30 minutes and then mash any whole tomato pieces with a potato masher or blend with an immersion blender.