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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We're going to talk this morning about how to be a bit more frugal in the kitchen. With the economic downturn, there's increased interest in inexpensive, home-cooked meals. Chris Kimball is a cooking coach of sorts for MORNING EDITION. He hosts "America's Test Kitchen" on PBS, and often helps us plan holiday meals.

He's also a fan of culinary history. And today, he's plotted out a little time travel for us. There was a time when the American kitchen was, by definition, a frugal place. So Chris Kimball has revived some dishes from that era, all requiring just a few simple ingredients.

And Chris, welcome to our studio here at NPR West.

Mr. CHRIS KIMBALL (Editor, Cooks Illustrated): A pleasure, as always.

MONTAGNE: The studio has never smelled better, never smelled more like a kitchen.

Mr. KIMBALL: That's why you invited me back, right? Because you were hungry.

MONTAGNE: Yes, but talk to us about going back in time - culinarily speaking.

Mr. KIMBALL: Well, before 1850, all the ingredients were local and they were actually fairly expensive, because food, as a percentage of the total expenditure of a household, used to be quite high. So you had this whole industry around taking large pieces of food, breaking them down, preserving them and reusing them. And the food was really good.

MONTAGNE: But you're talking about going back that far in time. I mean I'm thinking some of this frugal spirit would have lasted well into the 20th century.

Mr. KIMBALL: It did, and that what we're doing this morning is picking up those threads to see those things which did last to the 20th century, but go back to their roots.

MONTAGNE: So why don't you point out some of the things we're looking at here?

Mr. KIMBALL: Like the best example is oatmeal, because that shows the progression. You know, early on in the 19th century, they actually took the whole grout, the fruit of the oats and grain, and they cook it six hours, eight hours - some recipes say cook it 24 hours. So that was where it started.

And then they took the grout, they cut it into pieces, and you got steel cutouts. I have some right here, and they have - you know, they're course. They're not rolled oats, so they're very coarse. And those can be cooked in under half an hour.

And then over time, more and more processing - which is the story of the late 19th and the 20th centuries - they would do rolled oats, where they would roll them - steam them and roll them, and then they had quick oats, which were actually rolled thinner, and then instant oats, where it's actually precooked.

MONTAGNE: And when they'd - by that point, they'd gotten really tasteless.

Mr. KIMBALL: It's good spackle to fill holes in your wall or something, but you don't want to eat them. And so all we did was go back to these, you know, these steel cut oats.

And there's a little trick, though. You take one cup of them, saute in a tablespoon of butter, just for a couple minutes, and then you add that to three cups of water, one cup of milk and you simmer it for about 20 minutes and you have that really nutty taste. And you also have texture.

MONTAGNE: Well, we have several meats here, moving on to what might be a main course for a lunch or a dinner. You pick.

Mr. KIMBALL: Well, let's do meatloaf.

MONTAGNE: Meatloaf?

Mr. KIMBALL: Meatloaf is fascinating. In the 19th century, no one had ground meat. There was no refrigeration that was consistent. And there also weren't a lot of meat grinders around. So what they made was a meatloaf made with leftover cooked meat, because they had a lot of leftover meat.

Dinner was the meal at noon, and for supper you use leftover cold meat. They'd dice it up, chop it up, put it in a loaf and bake it with some other ingredients. So that was really the precursor. It was called a cannelon.

When the 20th century showed up and there was refrigeration, the big food companies decided through the women's magazines that this is a great way to use onion soup mix and ketchup and everything else, so as sort of a dumping ground for commercial products. So over the years, this great, simple concept was diluted with all these other things.

There was a wonderful recipe from the former governor of Arkansas's wife. She put cottage cheese in it and sour cream and onion soup mix and chili sauce and, you know, everything went into it. But the simple meatloaf is just a great recipe.

And the - there are two secrets. One is you want a mix of beef - meatloaf mix -veal and pork. Veal has gelatin in it, which keeps it very moist and tender. If you just use beef, you can use half a teaspoon of powered, unflavored gelatin. It makes the proteins. It doesn't - you know, sometimes meatloaf is like a bad overcooked hamburger, because you don't cook it to medium rare. You cook it until it's cooked, and either using a meatloaf mix or that little bit of powdered gelatin gives you the same effect, which it's moist, it's tender.

MONTAGNE: This, now, here in front of me, this is clearly some sort of a stew.

Mr. KIMBALL: Well, this is the ultimate frugal dish. It's called a burgoo. We sent one of our reporters down to the Moonlight Barbecue Inn in Owensboro, Kentucky. And after a few beers, she got people livened up a little and she asked, you know, what goes into the stew? And the answer was anything that's free. So that's a frugal as you can possibly get. So they used…

MONTAGNE: Okay, let me guess. Let's look real quickly. Lima beans?

Mr. KIMBALL: Lima beans, yeah.

MONTAGNE: White beans?

Mr. KIMBALL: Well, that's corn, actually.

MONTAGNE: Oh, oh, sorry, corn. Right, you're right.

Mr. KIMBALL: Yeah, corn, potatoes.

MONTAGNE: And then the meat, what's that?

Mr. KIMBALL: Well, they had two kinds of meat. First of all, Owensboro, Kentucky is known for using mutton, because you know, sheep were a very big deal in the 19th century, even in New England. But, you know, if you had squirrel and actually in our neighborhood in Vermont, I've had squirrel more than once. I've had woodchuck.

MONTAGNE: I'm reaching for the spoon to test the gaminess of it.

Mr. KIMBALL: Well, yeah, but gaminess in a nice way.

MONTAGNE: Oh, my gosh, that doesn't taste - well, I don't know what I think gamey is supposed to taste like.

Mr. KIMBALL: Well, you should have gone for the squirrel, Renee, come on.

MONTAGNE: Well, which is the squirrel? The pale meat?

Mr. KIMBALL: No, it's lamb meat.

MONTAGNE: Oh.

Mr. KIMBALL: No, there's chicken, and then there's lamb chops. So there's no squirrel in this.

MONTAGNE: Oh.

Mr. KIMBALL: I - you know, squirrel - many of our neighbors actually, especially this year, 'cause it's a tough year, there'll be a lot of venison and bear meat in freezers this year, and squirrel. And it's good, as long as you don't tell people what it is.

MONTAGNE: There's one item on this table that I can't tell - I can't tell if this is a breakfast item, if this is - I thought it was gravy for a minute when we walked up to it. Maybe it's a dessert.

Mr. KIMBALL: Maybe it's Indian pudding. When the first sellers came, there was no wheat flour. And so they had corn meal and corn. And so when you see the word Indian in a recipe, it usually refers to the fact that it has corn meal. That's why it's called Indian pudding.

And instead of simply doing what they used to do, which is to take water, salt and cornmeal and they'd make hoecakes or Johnny cakes - originally called journey cakes 'cause they last forever in a saddle bag. It was pretty awful stuff, but over time, Indian pudding was really more of a custard. It has eggs in it, and it has milk in it, and maple syrup in it. It has molasses in it. And it's cooked for about two hours in an oven. It's the most inexpensive desert you can make using essentially cornmeal, which was the ingredient for about 200 years in America.

As all the sudden white flour and cake flour and the soft flours came along in the 19th century, for the most part in the North, they ditched cornmeal and they went to white breads, which is what everybody wanted. And that's the history of food, really, in the 19th century is going from sort of courser, healthier foods to more refined foods, because more refined meant for most people more expensive, more desirable. And that's what happened.

MONTAGNE: Chris, thanks very much.

Mr. KIMBALL: A great pleasure.

MONTAGNE: As always.

Mr. KIMBALL: I hope you're well fed.

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MONTAGNE: Chris Kimball is editor of Cooks Illustrated magazine. All of his recipes are at npr.org, plus some extras like French chicken in a pot.

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MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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