The Frugal Foodie: 1789’s Daniel Giusti

Mom put up with years of gifts created from dried macaroni. This Mother’s Day, show her you’ve taken your culinary skills up a notch without breaking the piggy bank. Daniel Giusti of 1789 shows you how by dishing up brunch for less than $20.

“I’m not used to looking at prices in the grocery store,” says Daniel Giusti, the chef at 1789, explaining his deliberations over asparagus. “I do at the restaurant, but that’s different.”

For this Mother’s Day Frugal Foodie, Giusti agreed to dust off his price-comparison skills and whip up a Mother’s Day brunch for four for less than $20—not including standard pantry items such as sugar, flour, and olive oil. He may have been out of practice, but he comes in under budget, scoring eggs, pancetta, rhubarb, and the other necessary ingredients for $19.24.

At my apartment, he dices the pancetta, chops the garlic, and tosses it all in a pan. The bacony smell of pancetta fills the air as the fat renders in the sizzling pan. I ask Giusti how he first became interested in cooking. He tells me about his aunt, who lives in New Jersey and makes some of the best dishes he’s ever eaten. Even though he’s at the helm of a Washington institution, he’s still amazed by her many jars of marinara, made from home-grown tomatoes, that she stores in the basement.

Giusti blanches the asparagus, which means he boils it briefly before rinsing it in a cold-water bath to stop the spears from overcooking. As he layers a bread-crumb/pancetta mixture and the asparagus in a casserole dish, I ask him if he cooks for his mom on Mother’s Day. He’s been working in restaurants since he was 15, he says, and his family often spends the holidays at the restaurants where he’s working. Most family photos feature Giusti in his chef coat.

While the asparagus gratin bakes, Giusti cuts the rhubarb into baton-like sticks and cooks it in water and sugar for a yogurt-and-rhubarb dessert. Then he poaches eggs for the top of the asparagus gratin, explaining that the delicate task is something even professionals sometimes struggle with. He suggests breaking one egg into a bowl first, then lowering the bowl to meet the water and gently sliding the egg into the pan. Dropping it from high up can cause the egg to break apart.

As Giusti carefully places the poached eggs on top of the asparagus, he points out that everything can be made in advance, including the eggs, which can be reheated in a pot of lightly boiling water or in a steamer. That way, you can spend more time at the table with Mom.

All recipes serve four.

Asparagus Gratin Topped With a Poached Egg

4 ounces pancetta
5 cloves garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
2 sprigs marjoram, chopped
1 tablespoon herbes de Provence
2 cups bread crumbs
1 bunch asparagus, ends snapped off
4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
1 tablespoon vinegar
4 eggs
Olive oil  as needed
Salt to taste

Set the oven to 325 degrees.
Dice the pancetta and sauté it over medium-high heat. Add the garlic to the pan. Cook the mixture until the pancetta is crispy and the garlic is soft.
In a large bowl, combine the pancetta/garlic mixture with the marjoram, herbes de Provence, bread crumbs, and enough oil to moisten the mixture. The mixture should be the consistency of wet sand.
Set a large pot of salted water over high heat and bring to a boil. Set up a bowl of ice water.
Add the asparagus and cook 3 to 4 minutes. Plunge it into in the ice bath.

Spoon half of the bread-crumb mixture into the bottom of a casserole pan. Layer the asparagus on top. Top with feta and the rest of the bread-crumb mixture.
Bake for about 45 minutes.

Heat a pan of water until it’s just about to boil. Steam should be coming off the edges, and there will be small bubbles in the bottom. Add the vinegar.
Break the egg into a small bowl, bring the bowl to the edge of the water, and slide the egg into the water. Poach until desired doneness. For a harder poached egg, cook about 5 to 6 minutes. For softer eggs, cook 3 to 4 minutes.
To make the eggs ahead of time, poach them and then put them into an ice bath to stop the cooking. To reheat the eggs, put them back into water or steam.

Rhubarb and Yogurt

3 stalks rhubarb
¾ cup sugar
1 cup water
1 large container vanilla yogurt
2 tablespoons honey
Granola for garnish

Cut the rhubarb into baton-like sticks. Set a pan over low heat and add the sugar and water. Cook the rhubarb in the water until it’s soft, about 10 to 15 minutes. Remove rhubarb the from pan but not the liquid. Add the honey to the leftover liquid, set the heat to medium-high, and let the liquid reduce into a syrup. Spoon the yogurt into four bowls. Top with rhubarb, rhubarb syrup, and granola.

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