Monday, November 30, 2009

Can't cook? How to get started

This post neatly sums up all the obstacles new cooks face. Don't worry--no one is born a gourmet chef. Everyone on the Food Network had to learn how to boil water, once.

Spinach and ricotta gnocchi

2 lbs fresh spinach or 1 box frozen, thawed
2 T butter
1 small finely chopped onion
½ c finely chopped proscuitto
1 lb or 1 15 oz container ricotta
1 ½ c plus more flour
1 ½ c parmesan
2 eggs
¼ t nutmeg

Put spinach in a large pot (with nothing else), and cook 2 to 3 minutes until wilted. Drain and cool. Squeeze as much water as possible out of the leaves. Finely chop the spinach. Melt butter in skillet over medium-low heat, add onion, cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add proscuitto, then spinach. Transfer to large bowl. With a wooden spoon, add in ricotta, 1 ½ cups of flour, 1 cup parmesan, eggs, nutmeg, salt and pepper. The mixture will be soft. Spread additional flour on a dinner plate. Shape the mixture into small balls, roll in flour to coat, and set aside. Bring a large pot of cold water just short of a boil and add salt. Add gnocchi in batches, a few at a time. After they rise to the surface, cook for 1 min more and remove with slotted spoon. Repeat.

Drizzle with a sage butter sauce (1 stick of butter melted in a small saucepan with several sage leaves) and remaining parmesan.

Note: these are even better when made ahead and reheated just before serving. This dish is one of my favorites, and an entertaining staple.

Cost: 2 boxes of frozen spinach run about $1 each, if you catch them on sale. Everything else I buy in bulk; pennies for the onion, flour, and nutmeg, 17 cents each for the eggs, $3 or so for the ricotta, and let's say another $2 for the proscuitto and parmesan. The sage butter sauce is optional, but add another $1 for a stick of butter and some fresh sage. $6.50 or so for the entire batch, which will be big. It'll feed two adults as a main course for at least two, possibly three, meals, and will go much farther as an appetizer.

Things you can do with leftover turkey

I'm sure everyone is tired of turkey by now. But here are some things you can do to utilize all that leftover turkey.

1. Freeze it, and eat it in March when you're no longer sick of it.

2. Use turkey instead of chicken in common dishes--turkey salad instead of chicken salad. Turkey noodle soup. Turkey nachos. Add turkey to green salads and pasta dishes and pizza.

3. Be sure to turn the carcass into quarts and quarts of turkey broth, which you can use instead of chicken broth in future soups, risottos, etc. (You can freeze this too.)

4. Sandwiches. Duh. But try making the sandwich with thick pieces of homemade bread, layered with all the leftover mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and green bean casserole. It's like Thanksgiving dinner all over again.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Turkey gumbo

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Here's something to do with all that leftover turkey:

1 c vegetable oil

1 c flour

1 ½ c chopped onions

1 c chopped celery

1 c chopped bell peppers

1 lb andouille sausage (kielbasa also works), sliced

1 ½ t salt

½ t cayenne

3 bay leaves

6 c water or stock

1 lb turkey, cut into chunks

1 T file powder (powdered sassafras, used as gumbo seasoning)

1 T each Paprika, garlic powder, salt, oregano, thyme, pepper


Combine oil and flour in large cast-iron Dutch oven, over medium heat. STIR CONSTANTLY AND EVENLY for 20-25 min, until flour/oil mixture becomes the color of chocolate. This is a dark roux. Once the roux is the proper color, add onions, celery and bell peppers and continue stirring 4-5 min. Add sausage, bay leaves and spices. Continue to stir 4-5 min. Add water or broth, stir til well combined. Bring to boil, reduce to medium-low. Cook uncovered, stirring occasionally, 1 hour. Add turkey, simmer for 2 hours. Remove, add file powder and fresh parsley. Serve over cooked white rice.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Road food

As I prepare to go off into the wild blue yonder with my sweetie for Thanksgiving weekend ("wild blue yonder" = Joshua Tree National Park, Sequoia National Park, Yosemite National Park, and Big Sur), I'm preparing a lot of food to take with us. The plan is to be out seeing things all day long, sleep in cheap hotels, and not spend any more money than absolutely necessary. I spent much of the summer eating out and eating classic road food like beef jerky; I'm excited to be able to travel with "real" food in tow.

My family couldn't go shopping for the morning without bringing enough food for each person to eat at least two meals, "just in case." It's ingrained; my in-car road-trip food stashes are bigger than a lot of people's entire pantries. I fully expect to have more than enough food to feed two people 3+ meals for 3 days on this trip, with plenty to spare. It sounds like a lot of effort and planning, I know. Many people wouldn't bother, would take a bottle of water and eat a lot of fast food. But this food is way better than that, and guess what? cheaper. Plus, it really doesn't take long to assemble. How long would it take you to pull off the road, find a restaurant, and eat crappy food for 3+ meals a day? Times however many days? Wouldn't you rather spend ninety  minutes at the front end, before you leave, and not ever have to worry about it?

I'm taking the usual stash of non-perishables. Water, juice, powdered Gatorade, Emergen-C, tea (iced and hot), coffee. Granola bars, chocolate bars, nuts (almonds, pistachios, peanuts), dried fruit. A couple bottles of wine. Napkins, cups, silverware, trash bags. In addition to that stuff, here's what I've made:

A batch of blueberry muffins, for breakfast. Can be eaten cold or reheated in the motel room microwave.

Pasta salad: orzo, feta, black olives, sundried tomatoes, mint, basil, a little red onion, some olive oil and red wine vinegar.

Quinoa salad: quinoa, edamame, a little red onion, dried cranberries, some reconstituted dried mushrooms.

Potato salad: I left the skins on, for extra fiber.

Burritos: a big batch, filled with a combination of black beans, brown rice, corn, cheese and salsa, wrapped up in big flour tortillas and then individually wrapped in plastic wrap. These can be eaten directly out of the cooler or reheated in the motel room microwave for a quick, filling dinner.

Sesame noodles: just like the kind you get with Chinese take-out. Combine peanut butter, sesame oil, chili oil, soy sauce, a little fish sauce, cayenne pepper, and sesame seeds into a smooth sauce, and add cold cooked spaghetti. Garnish with more sesame seeds (and more chili oil, if you like it hot, like I do).

Between all of this, plus all the aforementioned non-perishables, we'll be able to road-trip for three days solid without purchasing one. single. thing.

Cost: in a sense, nothing, since I already had all the ingredients in my pantry and all I had to do was combine them. But if I had to guess, I'd say the entire stash didn't cost more than $10, and that's including all the granola bars and coffee and stuff (all purchased in bulk, natch).

Monday, November 23, 2009


In another round of "what-do-I-have-in-the-fridge-that-needs-to-be-used-up," I decided to make a big vat of minestrone to get lots of disparate things out of the fridge. Here's what I threw into the minestrone, all of which were hanging out in my refrigerator left over from other projects, needing to be used in some way:

a couple of Italian sausages
an onion that was about to go bad (plus some garlic, of course, and some chopped bell peppers from the freezer)
a can of white beans
the last jars of chicken broth in the fridge, plus two cans of beef broth from the pantry
a large Ziploc bag of fresh tomato sauce
two heads of fresh kale
a handful of fusilli
a few random cherry tomatoes, ripened on the window sill
cuttings from my herb garden (oregano; thyme; rosemary; plus a handful of dried Italian seasoning)
the last of a bottle of red wine
a few pieces of already-cooked bacon, chopped

The great thing about soup is that it can be pretty much whatever you want it to be, and you can add pretty much anything to it. I cooked the sausages first; added the onion and garlic and cooked that until it was soft and translucent; and then dumped everything else into the pot and poured broth over it until the liquid came up over the top of the pile of solids. Cook until the kale is limp and the pasta is cooked through. Serve with lots of parmesan. Delicious, filling, and made me feel like I'd managed to simultaneously cross off several items on my to-do list.

Cost: hard to say, since I had all the items anyway, and the whole point was to combine them in some fashion. You can use any kind of pasta, beans, produce, whatever, in this; if you make your own broth, like I do, the cost is so low as to be negligible. I'll guess the entire pot of soup didn't cost more than a couple of dollars total, and we're talking about at least 7 or 8 quarts of soup. That will feed four adults for at least two separate meals.

Squash gratin

In preparation for our big Thanksgiving trip, I'm in the process of cleaning out the fridge. Step one: use up all the summer squash I got in my last co-op produce box. I realize this is not a problem people are likely to have in other parts of the country (using up summer squash in November), but if you can get some, this would be a great Thanksgiving side dish.

I sliced the five squash I had into roughly 1/4-inch slices, then sliced up about three regular potatoes. The squash will cook faster than the potatoes, so I wanted the potato slices to be razor-thin--I used the side of my box grater for those. Next, I pulled out a bag of pesto I'd made a week or so ago, and added a little extra olive oil to it. I mixed the pesto with the squash and potato slices, and added about 1/3 cup of seasoned bread crumbs and a couple of big handfuls of grated parmesan cheese. I layered this in a casserole dish, added a layer of breadcrumbs on top, and baked at 400 for about 40 minutes. You can add more or less bread crumbs, as you desire.

Cost: Well, the squash and the basil for the pesto came in my last produce box...we'll say a couple of dollars for both of those. The cheese was bought in bulk, I already had the potatoes and the breadcrumbs...maybe a little over $2 total? Feeds at least four as a side dish, two or three as a main course.

San Diego Wine and Food Festival

This weekend I went to the annual San Diego Wine and Food Festival, held in Embarcadero Park, overlooking the ocean. First, let me just say that as far as I'm concerned, that is an ideal way to spend a Saturday. 70 degrees, sunny, on the water, wandering from booth to booth sampling great food, great wine, exotic liquors, artisanal chocolates and oils, cigars, craft beers, etc., not to mention collecting all the free swag (magazines, recipes, coupons, pens, blah blah blah). I discovered a lot of new and small wineries, and got some great ideas to apply to my own cooking (notable flavor combinations and ideas include: scallops with edamame puree, tuna tartare with lemon confit, gnocci with duck ragu, and hummus with pomegranate seeds).

I ate a lot, drank a lot, and took some great pictures of the water. Craft vodkas and tequilas were big, as were Mexican fusion flavors--I had at least twenty different variations of the classic fish-and-chile combination. I tasted a lavendar liqueur, wine jellies, and smoky mushrooms cooked in a Big Green Egg (which, FYI, I am seriously lusting after right now).

Favorite finds included:
Eclipse Chocolat. A local company specializing in some really awesome chocolates. Chocolate bar flavors include Sweet Basil-Mint, Gingerbread Crumb, Sea-Salt Nib, Blackberry Sage, Coconut Lime, Mango Masala, Orange Peel Anise, Espresso Walnut, Chile Hazelnut, Moroccan Spice, Macadamia Ginger, and Kyoto Green Tea. My favorite is the Sea-Salt Nib--big chunks of sea salt, with a hint of lavendar, spread throughout the chocolate bar. Sounds bizarre, but trust me, it is really really good. Especially for a salt fiend like me.

Temecula Olive Oil Company. Artisanal olive oils and vinegars, made from 100% California olives. Yum.

Forlorn Hope Wines. A small-batch Napa winery. Their La Gitana Torrontes is the only Torrontes I've ever had (including all the ones I had in Argentina) that wasn't cloyingly sweet. Phenomenal balance and fruit. The Mil Amores blend was also spectacular. I like wines like this--made from uncommon grapes, by a winemaker who's more interested in quality than quantity. The downside of that is that these wines will be hard to find--I'll probably have to break down and order them directly from the winery. But well worth it, in my opinion.

As an added bonus, the winemaker is really cute.

Peltier Station Wines. I'm not usually one for dessert wines. They also tend to be cloyingly sweet, and served with desserts that are already cloyingly sweet in themselves. But Peltier Station USB is one of the few fruity-but-not-sweet dessert wines in the world. I really liked this. It's 100% Zinfandel, technically a port, but called USB because a new EU rule dictates that wineries can't use the word "port" unless the wine was made in Portugal. So they called it USB instead...Get it? USB? Port? In another outstanding bit of geekery, the binary code on the front of the bottle translates to "Peltier Station." Awesome.

Caliza Winery. Azimuth: a blend of Rhone varietals, Syrah, Grenache, Mouvedre, Tannat and Alicante Bouschet. Very well balanced, and apparently Robert Parker's favorite of the bunch. Kissin' Cousins: another Rhone blend of Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, and Viognier.

Bonus points for their excellent font.

Vinni Bag. Why the hell didn't anyone think of this before?

Bledsoe Gallery.  Because I'm a sucker for good travel photography--and pictures of wine corks.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Bacon and almond quinoa

Quinoa is a wonderfully versatile (and gluten-free) grain. Here's last night's impromptu riff on it.

I took one cup of quinoa and added two cups of broth, and let that cook down until the quinoa was done (about 15 minutes). While that was going, I diced some bacon and cooked it, and toasted a handful of sliced almonds. When the bacon was done, I removed it from the pan, poured off all but about two tablespoons of the bacon fat (which I save in the fridge), and sauteed a finely chopped shallot in the bacon fat. When the quinoa was done, I added the bacon, shallot, toasted almonds, and a small handful of chopped chives, fresh parsley, and some fresh Thai basil.

On a whim, I jazzed up the final product by adding a fried egg on top and a whole bunch of fresh salsa. Yum.

Cost: bulk quinoa is $3.99 a pound, and for a cup...let's say 60 cents. Roughly half a pound of bacon at $6.99 a pound (I won't scrimp on bacon!), plus 17 cents for the egg, plus maybe 50 cents for everything else, including the salsa. $5.26 total, serves two adults as a main course.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Banana bread

Banana bread can also be filed under "cheap things for breakfast," though it can also be a lovely dessert. (Added bonus: you can reheat a slice and crumble it over vanilla ice cream. This is particularly yummy with a raspberry sauce.) I like my bananas a little underripe, when the ends are still green. Once they turn fully yellow, I don't want them anymore. The problem is that a bunch of green bananas has maybe a day or two after they make it home, before they're too ripe for me. Either I have to eat a lot of bananas all at once, or find another use for overripe ones.

Enter the freezer. Now, the freezer is the greatest thing to happen to food since salt. It's usually vastly underutilized. You can freeze just about anything. Milk, bread, cheese, fruit, many different vegetables, chopped onions and garlic, cookies, juice, chocolate chips, broth, any kind of meat, nuts, you name it, you can put it in your freezer. Got half a gallon of milk or a few slices of bread about to go bad? In the freezer. You buy butter and cheese in bulk but can't use it quickly enough? Put it in the freezer. Love cooking but hate chopping onions? Do a bunch, put them in the freezer, use as needed. Bought a bunch of peppers/blueberries/spinach/whatever on sale? Use some, put the rest in the freezer for later. Got a bunch of overripe bananas? Put them in the freezer.

Don't peel them. Just throw them in there, whole. They'll turn black, but they're supposed to. Leave them there until you're ready to make banana bread (or banana muffins, or banana ice cream, or banana smoothies, or whatever). Let them thaw, then slice off one end and squeeze out the banana goo. It's not pretty, but it tastes great, especially when baked into something. So much more banana-y than fresh bananas.

3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups mashed thawed banana
3 tablespoons lemon juice
3 cups sugar
3 eggs
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup melted Crisco
1/4 cup milk

Sift the dry ingredients and set aside. Add the lemon juice to the banana, mix a little, set aside. Blend sugar and shortening until fluffy; add eggs one at a time, blending well after each. Add the flour mix and the milk slowly, then the banana mix, until well blended. At this point you can add walnuts, or pecans, or cranberries, or chocolate chips, or anything else you see fit. Pour into two greased loaf pans, bake at 350 for one hour. Let cool 15 minutes before removing from pans.

Cost: 17 cents each for eggs, maybe 15 cents each for 3-4 bananas, the other ingredients bought in bulk and already in your pantry... I estimate maybe $1.25 total for two loaves.

Breakfast muffins

I gave up cereal a long time ago. It's expensive, it's full of added sugar, and most damning, it's not filling. After eating a bowl of cereal, I'm usually hungry an hour later. Plus, cereal requires me to keep milk around, which I don't usually do. (For recipes which require milk, I generally use powdered milk. I don't have to worry about it going bad, and there's no noticable taste difference.) But I still required a simple, portable, cheap breakfast I could take to work and eat there.

Enter the muffin. I make a batch every week (10-12 muffins), and take them all to work. Two muffins each morning, reheated, is a warm, comforting, very filling breakfast that will take me through till lunch. Note: These are regular-size muffins, made in a standard size muffin pan. Don't picture those 1,000-calorie monstrosities at Starbuck's. Those muffins aren't muffins, those are an excuse to eat half a cake.

Almost anything can be added to the basic recipe. Fresh fruit. Frozen fruit (I'm partial to frozen blueberries.) Overripe bananas, mashed up. Nuts. Raisins. Cranberries. Pumpkin puree. Chocolate chips. A combination of any of the above. Just stir into the batter recipe below. If you have some berries that are going to go bad soon, chop them up and throw them in the freezer. You can retrieve them later to put in these muffins. I've made multi-berry muffins before, with bits of frozen strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, cherries, whatever I had floating around in small amounts in the freezer.

I also like to make jam muffins. Double the recipe below, and fill the muffin cups up halfway with half the batter. Add a big spoonful of jam to each cup, then top with the other half of the batter. If you don't have any fruit available, you always have jam in your fridge.

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 egg
1/4 cup vegetable oil
3/4 cup milk (I usually use powdered milk, reconstituted)

Mix, add whatever you're going to add, and place in a greased muffin tin. Bake at 400 for 20 minutes.

Ingredients in bulk, plus jam (homemade, free, thanks Mom!) or whatever leftover yummies I have available: maybe 10 or 15 cents each? Let's say a quarter, every morning, for breakfast. The calorie count is pretty minimal (you can scale back the sugar further if you want), and these are homemade, so you don't have to worry about preservatives. 30 seconds in the microwave every morning, eat at your desk. Done.

If you have kids, you can make two or three batches at once, of different varieties, and let them pick. A better breakfast than cereal, and while some kids balk at oatmeal, everybody likes muffins.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Crème brulee

And now for something totally different. Crème brulee.

The blog so far has been a lot of basics, and not a lot of gourmet. This is definitely gourmet. Crème brulee (which is French for "burnt cream," and is essentially a custard with a caramelized sugar crust) is decadent, fattening, and guaranteed to please any guests. Plus, it's healthier than a pint of Ben & Jerry's. (Really!)
I have a love-hate relationship with crème brulee. I love it, but I hate the version I usually get in restaurants. Restaurant crème brulee is generally served in a long, flat ramekin, and is about 50% custard and 50% solidified sugar crust (if you're lucky). I've often gotten crème brulee where the crust is so caramelized, it's virtually impenetrable. It's this hard, thick candy crust that I have to beat repeatedly with a knife in order to break it apart. It's barely even edible. Seriously? Not cool. That's not crème brulee, that's an excuse to eat sugar.

So I started making it at home, the way I like it--in a deep ramekin, with a sugar topping that's just barely burnt. No hard caramelization, and 98% custard. I like it that way so much, I got a crème brulee torch. Essentially it's a mini-blowtorch for your kitchen. Great fun to play with. But you can make this without a torch, and it's surprisingly easy, given that most people think it's terribly complicated and something one can only get in a fancy French restaurant. I will say this is one of the few recipes I follow by the letter. Usually I play fast and loose with measurements, proportions, seasonings, and even the basic ingredients, substituting willy-nilly, but this is not a dish that brooks substitutions.

2 cups heavy cream

3 large eggs

½ cup sugar

¾ teaspoon vanilla


Heat cream almost to a simmer. In a bowl, stir the eggs and sugar with a wooden spoon until just blended. Gradually stir into the cream, and add vanilla. Pour into ramekins and place them in a larger baking dish (I use a big Pyrex casserole). Add water to the large dish until it’s about halfway up the side of the ramekins. Bake at 250 until slightly quivery in the center, 1 to 1 ½ hours. Remove ramekins from water bath, let cool to room temperature. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 8 hours. To serve, unwrap, blot off any moisture, then caramelize by adding a dusting of sugar to the top of each one and either burn with a crème brulee torch or place under the broiler for a minute or so. Serve immediately.

Cost: I can get a big thing of heavy cream at Sam's for $2.98. Two cups of cream is somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of that, so let's say $1.50 for the cream, 17 cents each for the eggs, pennies for the sugar and vanilla. Call it $2.15 total for 8 large ramekins of crème brulee, which is less than you'd pay for one distinctly inferior version in a restaurant.

Plus, you get to play with a blowtorch.

Pasta puttanesca

Pasta puttanesca is one of my old stand-bys. It can be made completely from canned ingredients, meaning I can whip it together at a moment's notice (since I always have these particular ingredients on hand). It's cheap, it's tasty, it has a world of flavor that pre-made sauces just can't touch, even if you are making this sauce from canned ingredients.

several swirls of olive oil
<BR1 oil
1 2oz can anchovy fillets, undrained
4 peeled garlic cloves
<BR4 cloves
1 35oz can tomatoes, drained (or 2 16oz cans whole tomatoes, drained)
1 2 1/2 oz jar capers, drained
1/2 c chopped black olives

Place the first three ingredients in a saucepan, and mash to form a paste. Add the rest, simmer medium-low for 30 minutes to one hour. Serve over any kind of pasta (I like linguine or penne with this). Top with plenty of freshly grated parmesan.

Don't let the anchovies throw you. They've gotten a bad rap, but they add a great depth to any sauce. There's no fishy taste at all, just a wonderfully complex

Cost: a tin of anchovy fillets typically runs about $1.50, a small jar of capers maybe $2.50, a can of black olives $1. I buy canned tomatoes in bulk at Sam's for about $0.57 per maybe $7 total for the sauce, and another dollar for the pasta, depending on what kind you use. Depending on your sauce/pasta ratio, this will feed at least four hungry adults for dinner.

I do have cheaper spaghetti sauces, which I'll cover. But this is a great dish to make in the dead of winter--filling, savory, and made entirely from the back of the cabinet.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Super-easy no-fail pie crust

Forget cutting butter or shortening in. Forget lard. Forget complicated 12-ingredient recipes that ask you to chill the dough first. This is the only pie crust recipe I ever use. It uses 4 ingredients, which can be added in any order, and always turns out a perfect, flaky pie crust. Even if the recipe calls for a different kind of crust, I use this one. It's good for pies, tarts, quiches, whatever. Learn it. Know it. Live it.

2 cups flour
1/2 c milk
1/2 c vegetable oil
pinch of salt

That's it. Mix together until a ball of dough forms. This makes one pie crust, top and bottom, for a standard-size pie pan. If you're making more than one pie, or have deep-dish pie pans, you'll need to increase the recipe. If you just need half (say, you're making a lemon meringue pie and don't need a top crust), you can split this recipe in half--or freeze the extra half. Take your ball of dough and divide in two. Roll out one half, with a little extra flour, and press into your pie pan. Roll out the other half and decorate/cut out shapes as you see fit for the top half.

Cost: maybe 25 cents?

Monday, November 16, 2009

My story

I firmly believe that anyone can cook, and more importantly, that everyone should cook. It seems intimidating at first. Believe me, I know--I did not spring fully formed as a gourmet chef from my mother's womb. In fact, in my early adulthood (read: college), I actively avoided cooking. Gradually I realized that I didn't like eating crap, that I wanted my food to taste good, that I could make something that tasted better than fast food. What cooking knowledge I have has been hard-won, built from years of forced frugality and experimentation. Yes, I too have purchased and eaten Hamburger Helper and Kraft Mac n' Cheese (though not for many years, thank God). I too have cooked with dull knives and tin pans. I too have mangled recipes, burnt dinner, been forced to eat my mistakes because I couldn't afford to throw it away. Somewhere along the way, cooking turned from something I did because I couldn't afford to eat out to an actual passion.

Tastes change, people change. Despite an advanced degree in theatre, and years spent freelancing as a theatre critic, at some point theatre had ceased to be the draw for me it once was. Instead, I was spending all free time and brain power thinking about food—cooking, collecting cookbooks, experimenting with recipes, eating at restaurants, reading about wine, going to wine tastings, etc. I planned my vacations around cities with a vibrant food culture and cuisine—Rome, Buenos Aires. I threw elaborate dinner parties for my friends, just because I liked entertaining. I sought out underground restaurants, and started hanging out with people who considered liquid nitrogen machines to be standard home kitchen equipment. I daydreamed about winning the lottery and opening a seaside barbecue shack somewhere. Yes, folks—I had become A New York Foodie. Even on my limited budget. (See above re: theatre.)


The roots of my food obsession were deep. I grew up in the rural South, which meant I spent my childhood eating from scratch. My father and brother were avid hunters, so most of our meat came out of the woods—venison, squirrel, rabbit, wild turkey, fresh fish. Everything could be cooked in bacon grease, even the bread. (I never knew a household that didn’t keep an old coffee can on the stove, full to overflowing with bacon grease, until I got to college.) My mom kept a backyard garden that was almost an acre, and canned or froze the bounty. Fresh corn, tomatoes, all manner of beans and potatoes and squash and melons, greens, cabbage, peppers, okra, and of course an enormous herb garden. We lived so far back in the country that my parents still can’t get cable or wireless internet; which meant that growing up, I was mostly a stranger to the luxuries of color TV, dishwashers, automatic dryers or junk food. (Well, until adolescence anyway, when we got a color TV, dishwasher and automatic dryer. Still no cable, though.)


I was bored stiff, at the time, and like most teenagers thought it grossly unfair that we couldn’t afford MTV or Froot Loops. I didn’t begin cooking in earnest until well into my twenties, largely as a reaction against my rural childhood; but when I did, it came naturally to me. And I’d grown up in the cooking school of “take two handfuls of flour and add enough butter ‘til it looks right,” so experimentation came naturally as well. While my pantry contains many staples my grandmother’s never heard of (miso, truffle oil, anchovy paste, couscous), my cooking still depends heavily on bacon grease, homemade bread, and fresh vegetables. I have the most adventurous palate of anyone I know (“Tripe soup? Bring it on!”), but I would no more eat Hamburger Helper again than I would stab myself in the eye with a rusty fork. My father and brother still consider Twinkies and Mountain Dew to be a perfectly acceptable breakfast; I didn't want that to be my fate, didn't want to squander my calories on bland, sugary, overly processed junk. Why eat Twinkies, I reasoned, when foie gras tasted so much better?

So, what does this mean for you? It means that anyone can teach themselves to cook. At its most basic, cooking is just following directions. Anyone can follow directions. Get a good cookbook, find a recipe that sounds good, try it. If you make a mistake, if something doesn't turn out right, make notes in the margin. Try again. It will take time and effort, at first. But once you get the hang of it, conjuring dinner from scratch will take no more time and effort than Kraft Mac n' Cheese does now. My best-loved cookbooks are falling apart, cracking away from the binding, pages littered with all manner of stains, some pages literally loved out of existence. They all have notes in the margin--"More garlic," "ground pork not ground beef," "25 minutes!!," "try cranberries instead?" Once you get the basic recipe down, it's easy to start experimenting with it, to play with the seasonings, to substitute other things.  

The cost of accumulating a real kitchen--cookbooks, good knives, exotic spices--is daunting. I know, I've been building mine for years. But once you start getting the good stuff, its cost amortizes. Think of how much money the average family spends on lunches at work, pizza, Lean Cuisine dinners, processed crap. Think how much you'll save when you stop buying all that stuff. Now you can put that money--slowly--toward building a pantry. Cost of knives and pans aside, I spend less than $200 a month feeding two people. I can spend that little because I spent so much over the years buying good kitchen stuff on sale, on eBay, on craigslist. And practicing, practicing, practicing.

This is my gospel: that anyone could cook. That everyone should cook. Even if you're poor. Even if you don't know the difference between sugar and flour. Even if you work three jobs and have twelve kids. Cooking from scratch tastes better. It's cheaper. It's better for you. Most importantly, it tastes better.

Now that I know what I'm doing, cooking is fun. It's relaxing. When you're cooking, you can only think about cooking. The rest of the world fades away. I can spend a couple of hours banging around in the kitchen, wielding my knives, singing along to good music, trying things out, and at the end, my brain has been cleared out. And I have this really great thing to eat. That's so awesome.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Chicken fingers

You're probably thinking, "Now why are you extolling the virtues of 25-cents-a-serving soup, when you've just told the world you have a kitchen full of truffle oil, imported sea salt and good wine?" Well, my food dollar only goes so far. I'd much rather spend it on good wine, to drink with my bean soup, than spend it on pre-processed anything.

Case in point: chicken fingers. Even the pickiest child will eat them, but they're usually little more than a breading delivery system. The chicken is suspect, they're full of preservatives, and more often than not they taste like breaded grease. So, confronted with a picky ten-year-old, who can turn his nose up at a peanut butter and jelly sandwich ("The peanut butter and jelly came from separate jars! I like it when they come from the same jar!"), I decided to try my hand at homemade chicken fingers.

The key here is panko--Japanese breadcrumbs made from a special kind of crustless bread. They're very airy and crispy, and will give the chicken fingers that great crispy crackly crust. Regular breadcrumbs usually just turn soggy.

2 chicken breasts or 3-4 chicken thighs (I used the thighs and noticed no taste difference)
2-3 cups panko
Seasonings as you see fit (I seasoned the panko with paprika, salt and pepper)
3 eggs, beaten

Cut the chicken into strips, and roll each strip in the egg wash before coating it with panko. Lay each strip on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper. Bake at 350 for 20-25 minutes.

The adults ate theirs with Thai peanut sauce; the child ate his with ketchup (naturally). For once, he did not turn up his nose.

I used chicken thighs, bought in bulk and on sale (5 pounds for $11.99). A pound of chicken = $2.40, plus most of a box of panko at $2.99, plus 3 eggs at 13 cents each. A grand total of $5.78 for close to 40 chicken strips, which is around 14 cents each.

Bar Basics

Once again, this is just what I consider to be essential. I know plenty of people that wouldn't consider a bar complete without Midori and Kahlua, but I think of those as strictly optional. Then again, I'm the only person I know that considers Tuaca essential, so there you go.

Plenty of red and white wine and champagne/sparkling wine


Vodka (Grey Goose)

Gin (Hendrick’s)

Rum (Gosling’s and a white rum)

Bourbon (Woodford Reserve)

A good scotch

A good tequila

Vermouth (sweet and dry)

Triple sec




Eau de vie



Grand Marnier

St. Germain


Bitters (regular and Peychaud’s)









Cassis, framboise, amaretto, or Frangelico

This is a great website that breaks it down:

Bar supplies:
Cocktail shaker
Wine stoppers, champagne stopper
Red and white wine glasses
Highball glasses
Champagne flutes
Dessert wine glasses
Martini glasses
Shot glasses

Kitchen Basics

This list is not intended to be completely comprehensive, as it represents my kitchen. For example: I don’t own cookie cutters, because I don’t have kids. I never saw the point of a breadmaker, and I use my food processor instead of a blender. If you make a lot of mixed drinks or smoothies, a blender will be more useful for you. I use an egg separator, because I’m no good at separating them by hand. I also have a lot of specialty devices (deep fryer, ice cream maker) that other people may not find nearly as useful. So adapt as you see fit.

A really, really good set of knives – I have the Shun Ken Onion set. You can’t pay too much for knives.
KitchenAid stand mixer (I have the pasta making attachments as well)
Coffee maker
Espresso machine
Toaster oven
Food processor
Crock pot
Deep fryer
Ice cream maker
Waffle iron
Coffee grinder
Immersion blender (a.k.a. stick blender)

Pots and Pans
Cast iron skillet (various sizes)
One good big all-purpose skillet
Saucepans, with lids, of various sizes
Large stockpot
Large Dutch oven

For baking
Lasagna pan (this doubles as a roasting pan, with removable roasting rack
Casserole dishes of various sizes
Crepe pan
Cookie sheets/baking sheets, various sizes
Tart pan
Pie pans (2)
Cake pans (3)
Soufflé pan
Pizza stones (2)
Springform pan
Muffin pan
Ramekins (12)
Bundt pan (fluted and plain)

The little stuff
Baster and a basting brush
Bottle opener
Butter dish
Cake server
Can opener
Champagne stopper
Corn holders
Creamer and sugar dishes
Crème brulee torch
Cutting boards, various sizes
Decorative pie cutters
Egg separator
Extra squeeze bottles
Flour sifter
Gnocchi paddle
Gravy boat
Icing palette
Instant thermometer
Kitchen scissors
Kitchen towels and washcloths
Measuring cups and spoons
Meat tenderizer
Melon baller
Metal skewers
Microplane, hand grater, six-sided stand grater
Mixing bowls of various sizes
Pasta cutter
Pastry bags and tips
Pastry wheel
Pie weights
Pizza wheel
Pot holders
Potato masher and potato ricer
Rolling pin
Rubber spatulas of various sizes
Salad tongs
Salt and pepper grinders (or a salt pig)
Serving trays, olive tray
Spatulas of various sizes, and a fish spatula
Steak knives
Tea ball
Tongs of various sizes
Tupperware (lots and lots)
Vegetable peeler
Whisks, flat whisk
Wooden spoons and serving spoons of various sizes

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Pantry Basics

My pantry is more than just food storage. A good pantry takes time (and money) to build, so don’t try to get everything at once. Get what’s most important to you to start, gradually adding things as they’re on sale, and gradually phasing out all the crap (junk food, sugary cereals, soda, etc.). There are probably several things on here that are unfamiliar (fish sauce, for example) or that other people would never consider essential (Nutella, truffle oil). Again, feel free to adapt this list to your own purposes. I have all these things because with this pantry, I can make or fake almost any recipe out there.

Here’s what I consider to be essential:

Flour (all-purpose; bread; White Lily Self-Rising, for biscuits; semolina; whole wheat and rye flours)
Sugar (regular, brown, confectioner’s)
Baking soda
Baking powder
Powdered milk
Baking chocolate (cocoa powder; semisweet; bittersweet; chips)
Bread crumbs
Karo syrup (light and dark)
Graham crackers
Croutons (homemade)

Spaghetti and/or linguine
Elbow macaroni
Lasagna noodles


Grains and beans
Black beans
Black-eyed peas
Garbanzo beans
Red beans
White beans
Pinto beans
Grits (the slow-cooking kind)
Israeli couscous
Lentils (green and red)
Steel-cut oats
Pearled barley
Bulgur wheat

Dried fruit (apricots, raisins, cranberries, blueberries, assorted other)
Sundried tomatoes
Dried peppers, various kinds
Dried mushrooms, various kinds
Vanilla beans

Almonds (whole and sliced)
Pine nuts

Oils and vinegars
Apple cider vinegar
Balsamic vinegar
Champagne wine vinegar
Chili oil
Grapeseed oil
Olive oil, the best you can afford
Peanut oil
Red wine vinegar
Rice wine vinegar
Tarragon vinegar
Truffle oil
Walnut oil
Vegetable oil
White vinegar
White wine vinegar


Sauces and Condiments
Fish sauce
Hot pepper sauces
Maple syrup (REAL maple syrup)
Memmi sauce
Oyster sauce
Peanut butter
Peanut sauce
Soy sauce
Sriracha chili sauce
Worchestershire sauce
Thai curry paste (green and red)

Allspice (ground and whole)
Barbecue seasonings (a variety)
Bay leaves
Cardamom (ground and whole)
Cayenne pepper
Celery salt
Chili powder
Cinnamon (ground and whole)
Cloves (ground and whole)
Cream of tartar
Cumin (regular and whole)
Curry paste
Curry powder
Dried mustard
Dried pepper flakes
Fennel seeds
Filé powder
Garam masala
Garlic powder
Ginger (ground, crystallized and whole ginger root)
Ground pepper
Liquid smoke
Mustard (ground and whole mustard seeds)
Old Bay
Onion powder
Paprika (regular, Hungarian sweet, and Spanish smoked)
Poppy seeds
Salt (sea salt, regular table salt, and various flavors of smoked salt)
Sesame seeds
Star anise
Wasabi powder
Whole peppercorns

Canned items
Anchovies (in tins and anchovy paste, in tube form)
Beef broth (as a backup)
Coconut milk
Evaporated milk
Tomato paste (also in tube form)
Tomato sauce
Whole tomatoes

Tea and coffee
Black tea
Cold-brew iced tea bags
Green tea
Peppermint tea
Various herbal teas
Whole bean coffee

In the fridge
Bacon fat
Cornichons (little French pickles)
Cream cheese
Duck fat
Feta cheese
Goat cheese
Gorgonzola or other blue cheese
Jalapenos or other hot peppers
Lemon juice
Lime juice
Mustard (regular and Dijon)
Plain yogurt
Sour cream

In the freezer
Andouille sausage
Broth (chicken or vegetable)
Frozen corn
Frozen peas
Frozen spinach
Ground beef or turkey or pork
Italian sausage
Peppers (green or red, chopped, plus chopped hot peppers)
Puff pastry
Whole chickens
Chicken parts (whatever's on sale)

A good supply of dish towels and dish rags
A good supply of jars/Tupperware (to put homemade broth into)
Disposable latex gloves, for chopping hot peppers
Kitchen matches
Paper towels
Ziploc bags
Parchment paper
Wax paper

Friday, November 13, 2009

The only bread recipe you'll ever need. Really.

This one right here.

This is the infamous "no-knead" bread recipe that has swept the foodie community ever since Mark Bittman published it in the Times in 2006. I've made it, it works, it's the only bread recipe I ever use.

Two notes: proportions aren't critical here. You can add more yeast and salt; in fact, I encourage this. (It tastes better.) Second, you can let the dough rise for as long as 24 hours without harm. Also, I usually end up using more water than the recipe calls for. Keep adding until all the flour is incorporated and you get the shaggy, sticky dough the recipe calls for.

Time is the key factor in this recipe. Yes, you'll need to mix the dough the day before and let it sit. But really, it takes three minutes to mix the dough. 24 hours will pass whether or not you want to make bread, and this recipe does all the work for you. No kneading, no KitchenAid bread hooks, a bare minimum of yeast, and it's virtually fool-proof.

I say "virtually" because once I forgot to put in salt and the bread tasted weird. So don't forget the salt.

Also, good equipment will make or break this bread. I already had a big cast-iron Dutch oven; if you have one, or similar (Le Creuset, a big ceramic pot), you're all set. If not, you won't get that great crispy shattering crust that is the envy of amateur cooks everywhere. Also, if you do, and you get that great crispy shattering crust, you'll then need a really good serrated bread knife in order to cut it properly. But don't let that stop you. Both these items are essential to a well-stocked kitchen anyway.

I use this crusty peasant loaf for everything. Sandwich bread. French toast. Regular toast. Croutons. I see similar round crusty artisanal loaves going for $3.99 or $4.99 apiece in fancy markets; considering the cost of bulk bread flour ($8.99 for 25 lbs), you can make this bread at home for...15 or 20 cents' worth of flour? Plus the cost of running the oven? You can't buy bread anywhere for anywhere near that price. And considering the amount of time and effort it takes to make this bread, I think it would take more time and effort to order sandwich bread online and have it delivered.


Ah, pizza. Kid-friendly, cheap, quick, and available in infinite varieties. And, like Refrigerator Soup, a great way to use up all those random bits of things hanging out in your refrigerator.

Now, do not wuss out on me and use store-bought pre-frozen pizza crusts. Gross. Here is a fail-proof homemade pizza crust, which can be made ahead and frozen for when you feel lazy.

1 package dry yeast
1 cup warm water
Around 3 cups of flour (all-purpose white or bread flour work best)

Add the yeast to the warm water, and add a pinch of sugar. Wait for the yeast to get foamy (around 5 minutes). Add a couple teaspoons of salt and 1 cup of the flour, stirring to loosely incorporate. Add another cup of flour and stir until you can't stir any more and an obviously dough-like substance has emerged. Dump this out onto some more flour on the counter, and knead it for a couple of minutes, incorporating as much additional flour as you can.

A couple of notes on this process: technically, you should knead the dough for much longer (say, 10 minutes), until the glutens in the flour start to break down and the dough becomes shiny and pliable. However, I've done this and never noticed a taste or texture difference between a properly kneaded pizza crust and a quickly kneaded pizza crust. So I don't bother. All you really need to do here is get a lot of flour in there until it forms a ball of dough. Don't worry about getting in exactly three cups. Stop once the dough ball is no longer sticky to the touch, and, you know, it looks like a dough ball.

Once you have a recognizable dough ball, stop. Put a towel over it and let it rise in a room-temperature-to-warm place for 45 minutes or an hour. Go have a glass of wine and watch some TV. Take the risen ball of dough and mash it out until it fits your pizza receptacle. I use a pizza stone, but a baking sheet will do fine. Put a little flour or cornmeal in the bottom of the pizza receptacle first. This recipe makes one pizza stone's worth of crust, so feel free to double or triple if you want a big batch. (Also, I like a thick chewy crust, so this recipe will go a little further if you like a thin crust.)

Once the crust is in place, preheat your oven to 475 and begin assembling the toppings.

Now, wasn't that easy? About three minutes of actual work and maybe an hour's worth of waiting. I usually start the crust as soon as I get home from work, then run around cleaning or whatever until it's time to assemble.

Pizza toppings are infinite in their variety. I usually start one of two ways: traditional, meaning I lay down a layer of spaghetti/tomato sauce first; or white, meaning I skip the sauce and just lay down some olive oil. Or pesto, if I have any. Once you have one of these bases, open your fridge and see what presents itself. Most commonly I'll do a white/cheese pizza (ricotta, mozzarella, parmesan) because I always have those cheeses on hand, and only occasionally have tomato sauce already made. But I've also used pretty much every imaginable combination of the following, either on a tomato sauce base or an olive oil or pesto base:
fresh tomatoes
sundried tomatoes
fresh herbs (basil, oregano, thyme, parsley, etc.)
onions, peppers, garlic (fresh and roasted)
roasted peppers
artichoke hearts
spinach (fresh or frozen)
sausage, bacon, pepperoni, ground beef, ground pork, ham, chicken, turkey, tofu
roasted pine nuts
barbecue sauce
clams (fresh or canned)
other cheeses (goat cheese, blue cheese, leftover stinky cheese, etc.)
fresh or roasted veggies (zucchini, broccoli, winter squash, golden beets, cauliflower, sweet potatoes, etc.)
already cooked winter greens (kale, chard, collard green, beet greens)

It's basically whatever you've already got. Don't be trapped into standard cheese/pepperoni combos (unless you're feeding kids, of course). Once you've assembled, top with grated mozzarella and parmesan and a sprinkling of Italian seasonings. Bake for 20 minutes, or until the cheese on top is really good and brown.

Make sure you let it sit for a few minutes before digging in, or you'll burn all the skin off the roof of your mouth. Nobody likes that.

Cost: if you buy flour and yeast in bulk, like I do, the crust costs literally pennies. The toppings are whatever you have you're trying to use up, plus the cheese. I buy ricotta, mozzarella and parmesan in bulk as well, so let's be very generous and assume the average cost of one of my pizzas is 75 cents, which yields four very big slices. Meaning one will feed two adults as the main course. Not bad for 75 cents. And let's be honest: by the time I locate the appropriate pizza take-out menu, call them, place an order, and then wait for them to show up, I could have had all of the above already done. For 75 cents.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Butternut squash and chard risotto

Risotto is another great way to make a little bit of something go a long way. Arborio rice is more expensive than the regular kind, but it's an absolute must in my kitchen.

1 butternut squash
1 bunch swiss chard, stripped off the stems and chopped
1 chopped onion
1 cup arborio rice
chicken broth, warmed
maybe some white wine
freshly grated parmesan

Chop the squash in half and scoop out the seeds with a spoon. Roast, cut side down on an oiled baking sheet, at 400 degree for around 45 minutes or so. Take out and let cool. You can do this part the day before, and throw the squash into the fridge until you're ready to make the risotto. Once it's cooled, peel and chop. Start the risotto by sauteing the onion in a little olive oil in a good big saucepan over medium heat. When it's soft, add the cup of uncooked rice. Deglaze with a little white wine, if you have it. Slowly add the warmed chicken broth a cup or so at a time, stirring almost continuously. I say "almost" because a traditional risotto is made by stirring constantly, which allows the starch in the rice to break out, creating a very creamy dish without the addition of actual cream. But I've found I can step away for a minute or two at pretty regular intervals without detriment. As the broth is absorbed, add more. Add the squash after about 10 minutes. After another 5 minutes or so, add the chard. After 25 minutes or so, the rice should be cooked through and the broth should be mostly absorbed. Add a handful or two of parmesan, stir in, and serve.

Cost: 80 cents or so for the squash, maybe $1.50 for the chard. Maybe $1 for everything else, depending on how much cheese you use. (I buy a two-pound block in bulk, then grate myself in my food processor. Pre-grated cheese tastes like preservatives.) Let's say $3.25 total, and it serves 3-4 as a main dish.

Butternut Squash on FoodistaButternut Squash

Dirty rice

Dirty rice is a New Orleans classic, one I like to make (and eat) on a regular basis. Southern cooking evolved by making a little bit of fat go a long way; and while that's a definite liability at times (note the obesity rates in Mississippi), it's also a cuisine perfectly suited to frugality.

2-3 Italian sausages
1 container chicken livers
equal amounts (maybe 1 to 1 1/2 cups of each) chopped onion, celery and green pepper
4 c cooked rice

Squeeze the sausages out of the casing and let brown in a big skillet, breaking the chunks up as they cook. Rinse and chop the chicken livers, and add. Add the onion, celery and green pepper, and let this mixture cook down for maybe ten minutes. Meanwhile, start the rice. (Any kind will do. The traditional recipe calls for plain old white rice, but I've also used brown and basmati.) Add seasonings to the meat mixture (salt, pepper, cayenne), and when the rice is done, stir it all together. Add lots of chopped parsley. Eat.

Cost: $2 for the chicken livers, maybe $1 for the sausages, maybe 50 cents for everything else. $3.50 total, serves four to six, depending on whether you serve it as a side or a main course. I bought the sausages in bulk at Sam's (3 packages of 8 for around $6, or 25 cents each) and the peppers on sale (10 for $10; I chopped them all and put them in the freezer for future cooking). Naturally, the rice was a bulk purchase, as well.

I generally serve one thing per meal when I'm just cooking for myself. Some people like two or three things per meal, a meat and a couple of sides. That's fine, but the more items you add to a meal, the more the cost goes up--especially if meat is involved. One thing means you just have to cook (and clean up) one thing.

Short rib ragu

OK, short rib ragu is not exactly the most economical choice, given the average cost of short ribs these days. But I discovered that Sam's here carries both short ribs and oxtail in bulk. I used to make this ragu with lamb shanks, but since short ribs are cheaper here than lamb shanks, hence short rib ragu.

Start by searing 2-3 lbs of short ribs on both sides in a little oil in a big cast-iron Dutch oven. You then remove the ribs, and saute a chopped onion, a couple of chopped shallots, and a few diced carrots and celery ribs in the same pot. When soft, deglaze with 1/2 cup or so of ruby port, and then add 2 cups of red wine. Let the wine cook down to about half, and add beef stock, several peeled whole garlic cloves, and seasonings (rosemary, bay leaf, thyme, etc.). Put the short ribs back in, and cook in a 325-degree oven for about three hours. Remove to the stovetop and remove the short ribs, letting them cool. Meanwhile continue cooking the sauce on low. When the ribs are cool enough to handle, strip the meat off the bone and add back to the pot, along with pasta of choice (penne or papardelle works well). When pasta is done, serve with lots of freshly grated parmesan cheese.

It's certainly not a light meal, but it's very filling and you get a lot of entertaining bang for the buck. Depending on how much you pay for the short ribs, you could conceivably get 2-3, possibly 4, quarts of ragu for under $10.


Pâté is one of those dishes that sounds impossible to make, but is really pretty easy and inexpensive. I like to make it when I'm entertaining, and when I'm having a particularly bad foie gras jones. And no, it doesn't taste like liver.

1 container chicken livers, rinsed and patted dry
1 apple, peeled and grated, with all the juice squeezed out of the shavings (I like Granny Smith)
2-3 shallots, diced
2-3 T Calvados (or other brandy, preferably apple brandy or applejack)
2 T heavy cream
1 stick frozen butter, in pieces

Saute the shallots and apple in a tablespoon or so of butter, until soft. Dump this into a food processor. In the same pan add a little more butter and the chicken livers, cooking til brown on both sides. Add the Calvados and flambe until the fire is gone. Add the chicken livers to the shallot mix in the food processor (pouring off any excess liquid) and add the cream. While pureeing, add the frozen butter a piece at a time, letting it incorporate. Salt to taste. Pour this into a Pyrex loaf pan, cover with plastic wrap so that the plastic wrap touches the top of the pate, and let sit in the fridge for several hours. Serve with crackers or fresh crusty bread.

Chicken livers run about $2 for a container, another 80 cents or so for the apple, and the other ingredients I always have on hand. So for $3 or a little less, you too can have delish homemade pâté. It makes a particularly decadent breakfast.

Zucchini "crab cakes"

I found zucchini on sale last week, so I bought a few. This week I realized I still had the zucchini, so it was time to eat them. Broke Foodie Tip #12: Don't throw food away. Try to use it up before it goes bad.

So I decided to try a new recipe--essentially I was making crab cakes, but substituting shredded zucchini for the crab. They were much better than I thought they would be--and except for the obvious green of the shredded zucchini, I may have been hard-pressed to know these weren't crab cakes at all. Proof positive that if you add enough Old Bay to anything, it will taste like crab.

Start with 2 cups shredded zucchini, with all the water squeezed out. Add 1 cup breadcrumbs, and mix together. In another bowl, mix together 1 egg, 1 T Dijon mustard, 1 T plain yogurt or mayo, 2 t Old Bay (I added more, I like Old Bay), 1/3 cup milk (I substituted slightly diluted cream, as I was out of milk), and chopped parsley (I used cilantro instead, I use cilantro in regular crab cakes and also I was out of parsley). Stir into the zucchini mix, form into patties, and fry just like you would crab cakes. Which is to say over medium heat, 3-4 minutes per side, in olive oil and butter.

Total cost: I doubled the recipe, to use up all the zucchini, and it yielded 8 big patties. $1.50 for all the zucchini, 13 cents each for the eggs, pennies for the additional ingredients...let's say $2.00 for everything. That's 25 cents each for the fake crab cakes. I served them plain, though you could serve with a variety of sauces or salsa, with a pear cobbler for dessert (to use up all the pears I got on sale).

Roast chicken, and resulting chicken broth

I consider a whole roasted chicken one of the easiest things to cook, with the most bang for my buck. It's versatile; it's cheap; the carcass yields plenty of homemade broth; and it invariably impresses guests. Usually I get something like, "You cooked a whole chicken, just for me?" I try to refrain from telling them just how easy it really is.

Between shopping at Sam's and working the sales, I can usually get a whole chicken for $2 or $3. Compare that with the usual price of boneless skinless chicken breasts here: $6.99/lb. Keep in mind these are chicken breasts that have been pumped full of water, and harvested off Frankenstein genetically-modified factory farm chickens, to make them seem bigger and more impressive than they actually are. Whole chickens at least are not pumped full of water, and I think they're easier to cook than chicken breasts. Really. When was the last time you cooked a chicken breast that didn't taste at least a little dry? (It's because all that water they pump in evaporates during cooking.)

So, here's my standard recipe. First, put the chicken breast-side-up in a roasting pan. Stuff the inside of the (thawed) chicken with half an onion and half a citrus fruit (lemon, lime, orange). Save the other half of the onion for something else, and squeeze the other half of the lemon/lime/whatever over the top of the chicken. Next, add some liquid, maybe 3/4 cup or so, to the pan. The liquid can be white wine, red wine, any kind of juice, red/white wine/cider vinegar, vodka, rum, beer, whatever. The possibilities are endless. Essentially it's whatever you have on hand. Then add some seasonings to the top of the chicken. Again, it's whatever you have on hand. It can be some combination of green herbs--parsley, basil, oregano--or spicy herbs--paprika, chili powder, cayenne pepper--or a prepared mix, like steak or Thai seasoning. Whatever. Don't scrimp.

Throw the chicken into a preheated 375-degree oven. In an hour, flip the whole bird over in the pan, so the breast is now soaking in the liquid. In another hour, flip the bird back over. Wait 15 min or so, long enough for the breast to re-crunchify, and take it out. Let it sit for another 15 min or so before carving. Eat.

That's it--maybe 3 minutes of prep work, and 1 minute's worth of doing something to the bird while it cooks. Total cost: $3, or however much you paid for the chicken, since the other ingredients can be cobbled together from what you already have. After you cook it, you can serve it whole; or pull the meat off and use it in any number of other things (chicken salad, soup, gumbo, etc.).

Be sure to save all the bones, and the liquid inside the roasting pan, for chicken broth. To make the broth, just throw the carcass (and the onion from inside the chicken) into a large stew pot. Add bay leaves and salt. At this point you can cook on low for several hours until the broth is a pleasant medium-brown color. You can also add vegetable leavings (peels, onion ends, celery leaves, pepper insides) for a more full-flavored broth. I keep a Ziploc bag in the freezer for the vegetable leavings--you can throw everything into the broth frozen, and you don't have to worry about your trash can smelling like onions. When the broth is appropriately brothy, strain out the chicken bones and pour the broth into something. I save old jars, but you can also use Tupperware or Ziploc bags. The added bonus of Tupperware/Ziploc is that you can freeze the broth until you need it, freeing up room in your fridge. The broth tastes so much better than ready-made versions, and it doesn't have all the sodium/preservatives.

The same broth can be made with any bones--lamb, beef, pork, etc. Sometimes your friendly neighborhood butcher will give you "soup bones" for free; sometimes he'll charge you, albeit a low price.

Beef stew

Are you sensing a theme yet? It's "soup." Even though it's 75 degrees here, I'm still craving winter foods. I guess it's that time of year.

Prep work for beef stew involved taking some frozen stew meat out of the freezer. (Stew beef, bought in bulk at Sam's Club and broken down into roughly 3/4 lb pkgs for easy freezing.) Standard soup procedure, I threw an onion and some garlic in bacon fat and let that cook down. Then I added the thawed beef and let that sear a little while I added seasonings (BBQ rub, salt, pepper, chili powder, cayenne, dried red pepper flakes, cumin, etc.). Add one big can of tomatoes and some broth. I also added about 3/4 cup of dried mushrooms, reconstituted in some Long Island red wine (I threw the wine in, as well). Let cook maybe twenty minutes. Add about three handfuls of frozen peas and half a box of orzo. When the orzo is done, so is the soup!

I could also have added carrots and celery to the first step, but I didn't have any. They're nice additions to soup if you have them on hand, but if not, I usually find the soups don't suffer.

Cost: the beef was $2.99 a pound, and I probably used about a pound. So $3 for the meat, another $1 or so for the big can of tomatoes, let's say fifty cents for the onion, garlic, peas and seasoning, half a box of orzo would be about 75 cents, and let's say another $2 for the dried mushrooms and wine. Roughly $7 total, which is one of the more expensive soups I make, but it also made six servings. A little over a $1 per serving.

Black bean soup

Last night this was actually black bean soup with venison, thanks to a packet of venison from my mom. Thanks Mom!

A local grocery store here, Henry's, sells a lot of bulk drygoods. I can get quinoa and dried beans there in bulk, which is nice. I usually start a bean soup a couple days in advance. Day 1: soak the beans overnight. Day 2: rinse beans, cook them all day in a Crock Pot on low. Just add water, no seasonings. If you cook them twice, it cooks out all of the, shall we say, undesirable side effects of beans. Two days of prep sounds like a lot, but really it involved about three minutes over two days, two minutes of which were getting the Crock Pot down.

So, Day 3: standard soup preparation. I sauteed an onion and some garlic in bacon fat, added a jar of canned tomatoes and the venison, and all the beans. Add stock and seasonings (in this case, chili powder, cumin, red pepper flakes, cayenne pepper, smoked paprika). Let cook on low for, oh, let's say, 20 minutes. Serve with sour cream. Total prep time: about 30 minutes. I've also made this same soup with ground beef or sausage; just add the meat to the onion and garlic and let cook before adding the tomatoes and beans.

Total cost: tomatoes and venison were free. Black beans: maybe 75 cents worth? Pennies for the onion, garlic and seasonings, all bought in bulk. Broth: homemade. Sour cream: actually also free, as it was leftover from an office lunch meeting (burritos). So total cost of soup, being generous: maybe $1.00. At least six servings' worth.

Refrigerator soup

I've had a lot of people ask me how, knowing my tastes and proclivities for things like fine wine and foie gras, I can feed myself on less than $100 a month. First, you have to have a fully stocked pantry; my food costs right now are higher than that, because I'm in the process of building the pantry. Oh, and because I'm feeding two people instead of one. Second, you have to eat your leftovers, all your leftovers, and not be afraid of things like beans and soup. Third, no liquid calories (other than alcohol). I'm continuously amazed at how much people spend on soda, juice, Red Bull, Gatorade, etc., and also amazed at how these same people usually wonder about how much weight they've gained/how much their dentistry costs. I'd rather save my calories for the food. Fourth, and most important, you have to know how to cook.

Which is usually the sticking point for most of the people I know. But it's easy, it really is. The human race survived for millenia without convenience foods, and in the amount of time it takes a Lean Cuisine meal to heat in the microwave (5-7 minutes), I can throw some things into a pan on the stove and serve up a hot, fresh, homecooked meal. Without a lot of preservatives and chemicals I can't pronounce. So I'm starting this new blog in which I'll share all my favorite (cheap) recipes.

So, one of my standby recipes: Refrigerator Soup. This is a catch-all term for "a soup which uses up all those random, seemingly unrelated things hanging out in your fridge." I call it minestrone when I make it for other people. Obviously, what goes into it will vary, but the basic shape remains the same. Saute a chopped onion and some garlic (maybe some carrots and celery if you have them on hand) in olive oil or bacon fat. Then add a can of tomatoes, a couple of handfuls of beans (any kind), a package of frozen spinach, and whatever else you have handy. Last night I threw in some leftover spaghetti sauce, a handful of dried fusilli, and a handful of quinoa. Any vegetables you have that are in danger of going bad can be added. Then add broth to the pot, about 1 inch to 1 1/2 inches above the food line, and whatever seasonings seem reasonable. (Sam's makes an all-purpose Italian seasoning mix that I like to use for soups. I put in that, plus bay leaves and salt, last night.) Cook till everything's heated through and the pasta's done, maybe 15-20 minutes.

There! You've made soup. Easy as pie and very cheap and filling. Serve with freshly shredded parmesan on top. I guarantee it tastes far better than anything Campbell's or Progresso ever made.

Total cost: Let's see...maybe .50 each for the cans of tomatoes and beans (bought in bulk), pennies for the onion and garlic, about $1.00 for the frozen spinach. Call it another $1.00 for everything else (handful of pasta, spices, etc.). The broth was homemade. So $4.00, max, for eight servings of soup. That's fifty cents per serving.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


Welcome to my blog! Here, I'll be sharing recipes and techniques for enjoying great food and wine on a minimal budget.

Cooking is not and should not be intimidating. If you don't have any experience in the kitchen, well, now's a great time to get in there. Like someone once said, "First, start by facing the stove." At the beginning, cooking is really just following directions. Any decent cookbook (I particularly enjoy The Joy of Cooking) should provide a plethora of recipes and inspiration. Start by making a few simple things that you know you'll enjoy (spaghetti, cookies, burgers) and branch out from there. Most of my cooking experience has been of the improvisational nature, and you'll notice from my recipes that I don't pay much attention to proportions. Don't let that throw you--it's nearly impossible to over-season a dish (with the possible exception of hot peppers).

I try to use only whole foods in my cooking. And no, that's not a reference to the grocery store chain. Processed food and processed ingredients are just that--processed. If you've ever had a tomato fresh off the vine, still warm from the sun and slowly ripened, you know that it bears absolutely no resemblance, in either taste or texture, to a supermarket tomato purchased in January. Compare the taste of wild strawberries to supermarket strawberries, of fresh green beans to canned, of free-range, grass-fed beef to a prefrozen fast food hamburger.

The only canned food I use on a regular basis are canned tomatoes (whole and organic when possible). I use frozen corn, peas and spinach, but all other fruit and veggies are purchased fresh. There is a substantial and noticeable taste difference, as well as a sizeable nutrition difference. Fresh veggies are full of vitamins; canned veggies are not (with the exception of tomatoes). Plus the canned ones are full of preservatives and added sodium. I'm not a health nut by any stretch of the imagination; I just want my food to taste good. Here, my brother would say, "But McDonald's tastes good. And they have a dollar menu." It's true, McDonald's is engineered (literally) to press all our evolutionary buttons for fat, sugar and starch. But again, if you've ever had a burger made from fresh grass-fed beef, with fresh tomatoes and lettuce, on a freshly made sourdough bun, then any McDonald's burger will forever after taste like dirty dishwater. Throw in some hand-cut home fries, ideally fried in duck fat, and you'll be glad you spent that twenty minutes making your own burger instead of going through the drive-thru.

You may think, "I don't have time or money to deal with fresh veggies! I barely have time to heat my frozen Lean Cuisine meal every night for dinner!" Which is what this blog is all about--sharing my tricks and recipes to get healthy, simple, yummy-good meals on the table. It takes no more time to make biscuits from scratch than it does to open a can of biscuits, peel them apart, and put them in the oven. Seriously. It doesn't. Plus it's cheaper. And they taste better.