The Frugal Foodie: R.J. Cooper of Vidalia

Can you ring in a new president without ringing up a shocking bill? We challenge Vidalia’s chef, R.J. Cooper, to whip up a celebratory inauguration feast for $20 (ish).

R.J. Cooper doesn’t want to play by the rules. When the Vidalia chef accepted our Frugal Foodie challenge and agreed to cook a festive inaugural-themed menu for four, we told him that the supermarket bill couldn’t exceed $20 (not counting standard pantry items such as sugar and olive oil). But the first thing he tells me when we meet at the grocery store is that he brought a few things with him—including the main course, oxtail ragoût.

As we wander through the store picking up a cans of smoked oysters, Vienna sausages, and other sundries, Cooper tries to excuse skirting the rules. He says the ragoût takes several hours, and he didn’t think we’d have the time to make it. He wasn’t sure the grocery store would have oxtail (it didn’t) and that he usually gets it at Eastern Market. But all of these are casual asides. Cooper isn’t too concerned about the rules.

At the cash register, the bill comes to $22.27. I ask Cooper how much he spent on the oxtail ragoût. Oxtail is $3.50 a pound, he tells me, so probably an extra $5.

Back at my apartment, Cooper walks me through the menu and the inspiration behind each dish. “I just watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” he says, explaining that the Vienna-sausage-in-a-blanket is a nod to Barack Obama’s Chicago ties: “The Sausage King bit is great.” The smoked oysters in a lemon aïoli connects to the Chesapeake Bay area. The oxtail ragoût and grits is a rich, elegant dish but much cheaper than celebratory entrées such as steak or lobster. And the pineapple sorbet with caramelized pineapple pays homage to the President-elect’s Hawaiian roots.

Cooper ties an apron on over his Harley Davidson T-shirt, then tells me to grab one. I start dicing an onion, but he quickly takes my knife away to sharpen it. He tells me he could hear how dull it was and suggests sharpening my knives after each use. After I finish the onion, we tackle a container of mushrooms together. I slice two in the time it takes Cooper to whiz through eight. He is kind about my poor knife skills, reassuring me that he’s had more practice.

With each new assignment, Cooper shows me something new. The trick to crepes, he explains, is to remove the pan from the heat before you pour in the batter. When you’re buying oxtail, ask for the middle section. If you don’t have a rolling pin, use a bottle of wine. When making almond brittle, cool it on the back of a Teflon pan so it won’t stick when you peel it off. He’s a good teacher. I’m certain I’d be a horrible line cook.

My cooking lesson complete, we dive into a four-course meal. Considering my teacher’s disregard for the rules, I do a quick tally and suspect that the meal cost closer to $30. But sometimes it’s worth breaking the rules.

All recipes serve four.

Vienna Sausages in Blankets

1 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup butter
¼ cup ice water
2 cans Vienna sausages
3 tablespoons pickle relish
2 tablespoons mustard
Salt to taste

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Make the dough: Place the flour in a mixing bowl. Using a fork, cut in the butter, then add the water. When the dough starts to form, turn it onto a floured surface and knead it together. Form into a disk, wrap in wax paper or plastic wrap, and chill for an hour.

Roll the dough into a thin sheet. Cut it into 2-inch long pieces, then into triangles. Place a sausage on a triangle and top with mustard and relish. Wrap the dough around the sausage and sprinkle with a little salt. Repeat with the desired number  of sausages. Bake for 20 minutes.

Smoked-Oyster Tartar With Lemon/Chive Aïoli

4 garlic cloves
1 egg yolk
Juice of ½ lemon
¾ cup olive oil
1 can smoked oysters, chopped
1 tablespoon minced chives
Salt and pepper to taste

In a blender, grind the garlic and yolk together, then slowly drizzle in the olive oil and lemon juice to create an emulsion. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside and keep chilled.

Chop the oysters. Mix with chives and aïoli. Adjust seasoning and serve on crackers or crostini.


Sweet-Onion-and-Smoked-Bacon-Crepe with Chicken-Liver Fondue

Prepare the onion/bacon filling:

2 tablespoons butter
3 sweet onions, thinly sliced
1 teaspoons chopped thyme
½ teaspoon chopped rosemary
Salt and pepper to taste
4 slices bacon, small-diced

In a heavy-bottom sauce pan set over medium heat, melt the butter until it bubbles. Add the onions, herbs, and salt. Slowly cook until the onions are a deep caramel color, about 1 hour. Reserve in a bowl.

Meanwhile, render the bacon in a sauté pan set over medium heat. Pour the bacon with its fat into the bowl with the onions and combine. Adjust seasoning and chill.

Make the crepe batter:

1 egg
1 teaspoon oil
1 cup milk
1 cup flour, sifted
Salt and pepper to taste
Nutmeg to taste

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

In a mixing bowl, beat together the egg, oil, and milk. Add in salt, pepper, and nutmeg to taste. Add the flour and mix until smooth. Pass the batter through a fine-mesh sieve.

In a nonstick pan set over medium heat, add about 2 tablespoons of batter and swirl the pan to coat the bottom evenly. Cook for about 1 minute and flip. Cook for another 15 seconds. Place the crepe on a clean work surface. Make three additional crepes and store the remaining batter for later use.

Place some of the onion mixture on top of a crepe, fold the outer edges over the onions and roll into logs. Repeat with the others. Place the crepes in a baking dish and bake in the oven for 20 minutes.

Make the chicken-liver fondue:

½ pound chicken livers, cleaned and chopped into small pieces
1 tablespoon minced sweet onion
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon dry white wine
1 cup cream
Vegetable oil as needed

In a small heavy-bottom sauce pot set over high heat, add some vegetable oil and heat until smoking. Sauté the chicken livers about 3 minutes. Add the onions and garlic and continue cooking for 1 minute. Add the white wine and reduce by half. Add the cream and simmer for 20 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

To plate the crepes, spoon the fondue into the bottom of a bowl (use enough to cover the surface). Place a crepe on top of the fondue. Serve with Riesling.

Oxtail Ragoût with Pearl Onions, Grits, and Creamy Mushroom Bouillon

Make the oxtail ragoût:

3 pounds center-cut oxtail
1 carrot, small-diced
½ sweet onion, small-diced
3 garlic cloves, smashed
½ rib celery, small-diced
2 cups dry red wine
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 cup beef bouillon
3 cups water
½ cup flour
2 sprigs thyme
½ sprig rosemary
½ bay leaf

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

In a heavy-bottom sauce pot set over medium-high heat, add enough vegetable oil to cover the surface. Season the oxtail with salt and pepper and dust with flour. Brown the oxtails on all sides, remove from the pan and set aside. Add the carrot, onion, garlic, and celery and sauté until golden brown, scraping the bottom of the pot. Add the tomato paste and continue to sauté for three minutes—the vegetables and tomato mixture should start to caramelize. Add the oxtail and red wine, reducing the wine by one-third. Add the herbs, water, and bouillon. Bring to a boil, place a lid on top of the pot, and place in the oven, braising the oxtail for three hours or until the meat falls from the bone.

Remove the meat and bones and strain the liquid into another pot. Reduce the liquid over medium heat . When the oxtail is cool enough to handle, pick the meat from the bones and add it to the red-wine reduction. Continue to reduce the liquid until the meat has absorbed all the moisture. Set aside.

Prepare the mushroom bouillon:

¼ sweet onion, finely chopped
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
¾ pounds cremini mushrooms
1 sprig rosemary
1 sprig thyme
2 cups water
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Salt and pepper to taste

In a medium sauce-pot set over medium heat, sauté the onions, garlic, and mushrooms. Add the rosemary, thyme, and water and simmer for 1 hour. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve into another pot. Whisk in the butter. Season to taste.

Make the grits:

3 tablespoons unsalted butter
¼ onion, minced
1 cup grits
1 quart cream
½ cup water
Salt and pepper to taste

In a medium saucepan set over medium heat, melt the butter until it bubbles. Add the onions and sauté for 1 minute until translucent. Add the grits and mix well. Add in the cream and water in thirds, stirring continuously. The grits should never boil. Cook for about 20 minutes or until tender. Season with salt and pepper and finish with more butter.

For the ragoût garnish:

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
8 cipollini onions
1 sprig thyme
8 cremini mushrooms, quartered

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

In a small sauté pan over medium heat, add the butter and melt until bubbly. Add the onions and thyme and sauté for 2 minutes. Place the pan into the oven and roast for 20 minutes or until the onions have glazed. Add the mushrooms and roast for 10 minutes more. Reserve.

When ready to serve, place a mound of grits in the center of a plate and top with the oxtail. Scatter the onions and mushrooms around the plate and pour the sauce around it.

Braised Pineapple With Honey-Pineapple Sorbet, Basil Coulis, and Almond Brittle

Braise the pineapple:

1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 pineapple cut into 4 2-by-4-inch rectangles (chop and reserve the rest for sorbet)
1 cup distilled water
½ cup white wine

In a sauté pan set over medium-high heat, caramelize the sugar. Add the vanilla extract, pineapple, water, and wine. Turn the heat to low and braise the pineapple for 20 minutes or until it takes on the golden color from the caramel.

Make the basil coulis:

1 bunch basil leaves
1 cup simple syrup

Blanch the basil in boiling water, then shock in ice water. Ring out the basil leaves and place into a blender with the simple syrup. Blend until smooth.

Make the almond brittle:

½ cup almonds
1 cup sugar
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper

Toss the almonds and cayenne pepper together in a zip-lock bag, and crush with the back of a knife to desired size. In a sauté pan set over medium-high heat, caramelize the sugar until golden brown. Add the almond mixture to the caramel. Pour onto a cool work surface to cool. Chop brittle to desired thickness.

Prepare the sorbet:

Pineapple reserved from braising recipe
2 cups simple syrup
2 tablespoons lime juice

In a blender, purée the pineapple, simple syrup, and lime juice. Pass through a fine-mesh sieve. Place into an ice-cream machine and spin according to manufacturer’s instructions.

When ready to serve, drizzle the basil coulis onto a plate. Place the pineapple and almond brittle over it, and top with the pineapple sorbet.


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