Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Food math

Yesterday I started doing some wedding-related math. Specifically, food math. One of the reasons I'll be cooking the vast majority of the food is because, well, it's me, and I can't NOT cook. But the other reason is to save money. It's far cheaper to cook my own food than to pay a caterer to do it for me, and I daresay my food will taste better, anyway. I don't have a choice at this point--we're eating beans every night, spending no money, and I've slashed all household expenditures to the bone, saving every penny for the wedding. I quit feeding quarters into the laundromat dryers and I'm drying clothes on racks in the living room, for God's sake, and I still fear we'll come up short.

So, food math. I started with dessert. An assortment of homemade cookies, brownies and fudge, supplemented by ice cream and sundae fixings at the wedding, and several pounds of bacon chocolate. Let's assume 75 people at the wedding, 75 people at the rehearsal dinner (although probably less), plus 15 people staying in the house for a week. Let's also assume 3 cookies (or whatever) per person, per day. That's a total of 600 cookies and brownies, leaving the bacon chocolate out of the equation.

Now let's assume 15 cookies (or whatever) per batch. That comes to a grand total of 47 sticks of butter and 5 dozen eggs. Plus flour, sugar, brown sugar, vanilla, chocolate chips, etc., etc., etc.

Then I moved on to the bread. (Yes, I'm baking all the bread. I can make a loaf of bread for less than a quarter. Even at Sam's Club, the bread isn't that cheap.) 3 loaves of white sandwich bread for the kids, 4 loaves of bread for croutons, and baguettes for everything else. 15 people in the house for a week--toast, sandwiches, French toast--plus bread for 75 on Friday with the gumbo. I came to an estimate of 30 baguettes for the week. Flour, whole wheat flour, salt and yeast.

However, bought in bulk, the ingredients for 600 cookies and 30 baguettes come to about $150. It's entirely possible we'll end up spending more on booze than on food.

(Alcohol math: 75 people on Saturday, 75 people on Friday, undetermined number for Sunday brunch, plus 15 people in the house for a week: three cases of wine, one case of champagne, two cases of assorted beer--my brother-in-law-to-be is bringing nine gallons of homebrewed oatmeal stout, but we'll still need a little extra--plus giant bottles of gin, rum, bourbon, scotch, tequila and several giant bottles of vodka. Plus mixers--OJ, cranberry juice, tonic water, soda water, bitters, Coke, Diet Coke, triple sec, lemons, limes, blah blah blah--plus my own personal stash of the good stuff. Even if I spend only $10 per bottle on the wine and bubbly, factoring in 15% case discount, that's close to $1000 on booze.)

Isn't math fun?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Using the no-knead bread recipe to make baguettes

Recently I've been experimenting with the no-knead bread recipe. I've started substituting a cup of whole-wheat flour, meaning I've been using two cups of bread flour and one cup of the whole wheat. (One of the reasons homemade whole-wheat bread often turns out hard and dry is because of the lack of gluten in the flour. The bread flour contains enough extra gluten to balance out the whole wheat.) Pretty soon I'm going to increase that to half and half and see what happens. White flour, as we all know, is little better than sugar when it hits your bloodstream. I'd also like to start experimenting with rye flour, flaxseed, that sort of thing, to maybe one day produce a loaf of no-white-flour-at-all bread.

But one thing at a time. The addition of a cup of whole wheat flour didn't change the texture or the flavor of the final bread at all. The color darkened a bit (to beige rather than white), but so far this seems like a great way to sneakily introduce whole wheat. The dynamics of the recipe didn't change either.

So I decided to experiment yet further and see if I could produce a baguette. My husband-to-be is a big fan of baguettes (aren't we all?) but at $3 a pop locally, I knew I could make a healthier cheaper one.

So far, I haven't produced anything worthy of a French boulangerie, but I wasn't really expecting to, either. My best results have been to recreate the original recipe right up until the point when it's ready to go in the oven. Then I divide the risen dough into half (use a knife or a bench cutter) and quickly shape two vaguely oval loaves on a baking sheet. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes. They're more like Italian bread than baguettes, but they're softer than the round peasant loaf the original recipe produces and they seem to be more versatile. I can make several at a time and leave them on the kitchen table during the week for breakfasts, snacking, garlic bread, sandwiches, whatever. And even with the addition of whole wheat flour (which I can't buy in bulk), the cost per two loaves is about a quarter.

Monday, March 29, 2010


It was a red-letter day in my household on Saturday. My soon-to-be stepson actually requested to bake something, then picked out the recipe himself. Maybe there's hope for him yet.

We made snickerdoodles, which, despite the funny name, are pretty awesome cookies. Sort of like a soft, vanilla-y, cinnamon-y sugar cookie. I have this old Betty Crocker Junior cookbook from my childhood, which is horribly 70s--everyone in the cookbook is dressed in orange jumpers and makes things like "Jello Fruit Salad" and "Pigs in a Blanket" using canned biscuit dough. But it has a couple of gems in it, including this one.

1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup butter, softened 
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla 
2 3/4 cups flour
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt 
Cream the sugar and butter, and then add the vanilla and egg. Mix the dry ingredients in a separate bowl, then add to the butter mixture. Shape the dough into small balls, and place 2 inches apart on an ungreased cookie sheet (I used parchment paper). Mix additional sugar and cinnamon, and sprinkle over the top of the cookies. Bake at 400 for 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from the sheet immediately.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Wine from my collection: A to Z Pinot Noir

In my last stint waiting tables at a fancy-pants restaurant, A to Z Pinot Noir was one of my go-to wine recommendations. Whenever anyone asked for a recommendation, I had three or four bottles committed to memory that I knew a) we always had in stock, b) were reasonably priced, and c) were likely to go with pretty much anything on the menu. A to Z never failed me. Bonus: screw-top cap, so no fiddling with a corkscrew table-side.

Actually, I like all the A to Z wines. The pinot gris is especially lovely, along with the pinot noir. They're also all priced under $20.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Wine from my collection: La Crema Pinot Noir

This is another wine bequeathed to me by an ex. Many years ago, I briefly dated a bartender from Vancouver/turned actor in New York. (And, P.S., never date actors--though I had that rule before him. He just confirmed it.) But Vancouver is perfectly situated for wine, with easy access to all the great American West Coast wines (California, Oregon, Washington) plus the amazing wine industry in British Columbia. Had I been thinking, I would have plumbed him for further wine recommendations. Alas, I wasn't that smart at the time.

La Crema is another library standard for me, a clean, crisp pinot noir. It can be a little hard to find, but it's another one of the very few wines I'll consider paying over $20 for. When I can find it, it hovers right around the $20 mark, sometimes $21-22.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Wine from my collection: Acacia Pinot Noir

I'm a big pinot noir fan. Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of really most any kind of wine, but I find pinot noir goes with about everything, especially in a Southern California climate. Merlots and cabernets are often too heavy for a 75-degree-day, I often forget to have a bottle of white chilled and ready, so a nice, light, well-balanced pinot noir will save the day.

Acacia is one of my favorites, one I keep in my mental library of wine. Several years ago, I dated a real jerk. My friends still speak longingly of throwing him off a bridge. This wine was the one good thing I got out of that relationship (that, and an ability to spot a real jerk). This was one of his standard wines, as well. In the early, good days between us, I have fond memories of cracking open a bottle of this and having actual conversation on the sofa. Fortunately, I've managed to erase the mental connection between him and this wine, because it really is a good one, and doesn't need to be sullied by the association with assholes.

It's also one of the very few wines I'll consider paying over $20 for. I've found it for anywhere between $18 and $26, depending on the market, and is worth it every time.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Wine from my collection: Martin Codax Ergo Tempranillo Rioja 2005

My method of wine selection isn't very scientific. Basically it's "What's on sale?" followed by "What looks interesting?", shored up with whatever the salesclerk/wine shop owner recommends. When I lived in Brooklyn, I frequented a neighborhood wine shop that had been there for a couple of generations. The owner knew me (well), and I could walk in and say things like, "I need a mixed case of Italian red, slightly dry, slightly fruity, good structure, nothing over $15." He'd say, "OK," then have the case delivered to my apartment in 20 minutes. Here in San Diego, so far I've been frequenting the exact opposite of that--BevMo, a huge chain store with several locations. In BevMo's defense, they have an excellent selection. And a couple times a year, they have a buy-one-get-the-second-for-five-cents wine sale. So I loaded up, purchasing enough wine all at once to last me most of the rest of the year--using the "What's on sale/What looks interesting?" formula.

I know enough about wine at this point to know what I like, and how to figure out what I'm likely to enjoy from a rack of new-to-me wines. So I have surprisingly few misfires with that method. There are a few wines that I know and love and always circle back to, but it never occurs to me to keep them in stock, since there are so many wines out there I haven't had yet.

This bottle, the Martin Codax Ergo Tempranillo Rioja 2005, was part of the BevMo extravaganza. Retails for $11.99, plus five cents for a second bottle. It's not the greatest tempranillo I've ever had (that honor was reserved for an $80 bottle at Artisanal, though I fear all the great cheese I consumed on that visit completely wiped out the name of the wine from my memory...I think it started with a C), but it's certainly not the worst, and for $12, this is a perfectly serviceable bottle of wine. Goes down easily, holds up well to food, and looks pretty on my counter. Really, you can't ask for much more from a bottle of wine. Oh, I've had the $400-a-bottle wine, and yes, it was transcendent. But you can't be transcendent every night, and you certainly can't expect it from something you're using to wash down leftover red beans and rice.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Scientists prove that high-fructose corn syrup is really, really bad for you

Well, duh. You can read the whole post at The Kitchn here.

I especially like the part where they point out that eating a candy bar will do more damage to your waistline than eating an entire tray of homebaked cookies right out of the oven.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

More deep-fried fun

Yesterday I mentioned two of my favorite garnishes, made super-easy by my deep fryer: fried collard greens and fried sage.

Yes, you can fry collard greens, which just proves my theory that you can fry anything. That particular piece of genius came about while looking for a creative garnish for a dish of bitter greens ravioli (sorrel, dandelion greens and arugula with a creamy ricotta sauce). Simply slice one or two collard green leaves into thin strips and fry for about thirty seconds. They're almost like vegetable chips, except softer and still retaining a nice leafy flavor underneath the fry. Warning: do NOT try this with a skillet. They spatter something awful. I'm not sure why, maybe the water content in the leaves, but this should only be attempted with an actual deep fryer. With a lid. You'll get a softly fried nest of greens, which P.S., would also make an awesome snack. Great with pasta dishes, hearty vegetable dishes, and poultry or pork.

Fried sage leaves operate on the same principle. Just drop the whole fresh sage leaves, three or four at a time, into the hot oil and fry for a few seconds. This you can do with a skillet. Also great with pasta dishes, hearty vegetable dishes, and poultry or pork--especially anything featuring sage.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Hush puppies and other deep-fryer adventures

Sorry for being AWOL this weekend. I spent Saturday lounging around La Jolla Beach (I know, life is hard in sunny SoCal, isn't it?) and I couldn't be bothered to do any real cooking this weekend since we had a fridge full of leftovers that needed to be eaten.

I did, however, bust out the deep fryer for its inaugural whirl. I bought a small countertop deep fryer some months ago, whereupon it sat in the pantry until I could remember to pick up a three-gallon bottle of vegetable oil at Sam's. Hard to fry things without enough oil. It worked great--no mess, no splatter, just deep-fried goodness. I'll be utilizing it on a fairly regular basis, I think (but don't worry, I'll mainly be using it for fun garnishes like fried collard greens and fried sage. My diet isn't very fry-heavy.).

The first thing I tried were beignets, the official breakfast of New Orleans. Well, maybe not, but they should be. Beignets are little square French doughnuts, served coated with powdered sugar. I had a couple of boxes of beignet mix, courtesy of my last visit to the Big Easy. They didn't poof up as much as I would have liked, but I think I just overworked the dough a little. Still entirely servicable and very delicious. Probably still better than pan-frying them would have been.

Next, I tried hush puppies. I made them with stone-ground blue cornmeal I picked up in New Mexico last summer, so they turned out a very fun shade of blue (ignore the picture; it's hard to find stock images of blue hush puppies). The hush puppies were the win, and I discovered that served with sweet chili Thai dipping sauce, they make a very fine lunch.

2 cups cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 cups milk
1/2 cup water
1 beaten egg
1 cup finely chopped onion

Mix the dry ingredients together, then add the milk and water. Mix, then add the egg and onion. Drop by spoonfuls into 375-degree oil and fry for approximately two minutes on each side, flipping them to ensure even browning.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Wine from my collection: Domaine St. George Reserve Chardonnay 2004

I got this as a Christmas gift, but never fear--research shows it retails for under $10. Free, of course, is the best wine, but under $10 is the next best thing.

I'm usually leery of domestic chardonnays--more often than not, they taste like raw oak soaked in five pounds of butter. Plus, I tend to drink more red than white, 'cause I'm a red wine kind of gal. But the recent warm weather prompted me to cast my glance to the white wine side of the wine cabinet, and this is what I got to first.

For under $10, it's pretty darn good. Clean, bright, a nice long finish. It's not spectacular, but it goes down easily enough, and it's rare I find a chardonnay I don't hate. It's fine by itself, and it was fine with a bowl of spicy pinto bean chili.

A word of caution--normal refrigerator temperatures are way too cold for white wine. Wine is best served (and drunk) around 55 degrees, red and white. Straight out of the fridge, a bottle of wine will be in the mid-30s. If you take the wine out and let it sit around for about a half hour before drinking it, it will taste much better, as cold blunts flavors and especially sweet flavors. (This is why American beer tastes like piss if it's not ice-cold--because it has no flavor to begin with.)

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Wine from my collection: Brooklyn Oenology 2007 Viognier

When I moved from Brooklyn to San Diego, I made sure to first buy a case of Brooklyn Oenology wine to take with me. BOE make some of my favorite wines, not least because they're made in Brooklyn (with grapes grown on Long Island) and feature local art on the labels, which can be peeled off as stickers. Wine with stickers! Anyway, sadly, I'm down to the last bottle of that case, as much of it got redistributed as Christmas gifts. And, of course, Brooklyn wine is something you can only buy in Brooklyn. So, all my friends in New York: if you're looking for a good wedding gift, consider a bottle or two of this.

Their 2007 Viognier (retails at $17.99) is my favorite domestic viognier; crisp, well-balanced, lovely fruit. (But I can also stump for all their wines; their Motley Cru and Social reds, both blends, are excellent.)

I knew I should've bought two cases.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Hoppin' john

Hoppin' john is a traditional Deep South dish made with rice, ham and black-eyed peas. It's supposed to bring you good luck if you eat it on New Year's Eve. I'm guessing it brings good luck on the other 364 days of the year, as well.

My mom always made it with leftover ham, but any pork product--bacon, tasso, sausage--will do. First I cooked down half a bag of dried black-eyed peas. In a big soup pot, I sauteed an onion, some garlic, a cup or so of chopped celery, and another cup of chopped peppers, along with a package of chopped tasso. As that cooked down, I added the black-eyed peas, chicken broth and a bay leaf.

In another pan, I made a batch of rice. In yet another pan, I started a batch of stewed tomatoes. I know it sounds weird and possibly gross to serve stewed tomatoes on top of black-eyed peas, ham and rice, but trust me--the stewed tomatoes pull the dish together. Beans and ham alone are a little bland, the tomatoes give the whole thing a nice acidic pop. To stew tomatoes, just dump two or three cans of tomatoes into a casserole dish, and add salt. Cook down for 20 minutes or so at, let's say, 375. My mom would add leftover bread or croutons to the tomatoes, but that's optional.

Once the rice was done, I drained off the beans a bit and mixed the whole thing together. I put that into another casserole dish and let it bake with the tomatoes, just long enough to blend all the flavors together. Serve with the tomatoes on top, a big wallop of good salt, and a cold Abita beer.

Cost: the beans and rice, bought in bulk, would run about 50 cents each. Another $2 for the ham/pork product/sausage/whatever, 50 cents each for two cans of tomatoes, plus another 50 cents for everything else. Around $4.50 total, for at least 8 full servings. That's about 55 cents per serving.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Making soup out of nothing at all

I'm halfway through my buy-nothing Pantry Challenge, and the pantry is beginning to show some holes. All the fresh veggies from my last CSA box have been used up, and the mega-lasagna I made this weekend is making me tired of both lasagna and pasta. So I pulled together a soup out of nothing.

Well, not nothing--but it was comprised of a bunch of little leftover bits and a couple of pantry staples. Viewed separately, you would never have thought all those things could add up to a big, steaming, delicious pot of soup. Here's what I used, in order:

two links of Italian sausage, broken up
an onion
several cloves of garlic
a handful each of chopped celery and carrots
some frozen chopped peppers
a third of a bottle of white wine
a can of tomatoes
about half a can of tomato sauce, age indeterminate
two handfuls of white beans
a handful of Israeli couscous
a box of frozen spinach
the rind from a big hunk of parmesan cheese
lots of vegetable broth
seasonings (Italian blend, bay leaves, salt and pepper, chili flakes, chili powder, dry mustard)

Cooked down, it added up to a lovely minestrone-type soup. I served it with half a homemade baguette and felt proud that I'd emptied my refrigerator of all those little things that needed to be used up. Other things I could have added or substituted: Pasta. Barley. Frozen broccoli. Other kinds of beans. Other kinds of meat (I had at my disposal andouille sausage, turkey sausage, a ham hock and tasso, but the Italian sausage needed to be used up first). Anchovy paste. Quinoa. Frozen peas. Which just goes to show you that a properly stocked pantry can yield up all sorts of different dishes.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Stop washing your dishes twice

The New York Times had a great article this weekend, about why you're probably using too much detergent.

Dishwasher technology has changed a lot in the last twenty years, but people still adhere rigorously to the Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt pre-rinse thy dishes. Vigorously. With any dishwasher made in the last twenty years, this is completely unnecessary, and in fact harmful to your dishes. Dishwashers are meant to scrub off food--if there isn't any food to scrub off, that scrubbing action gets turned on your glassware instead. This is why your glassware is coming out all scratched. Also, P.S.--if you wash off all the food before you put something in the dishwasher, then why do you have a dishwasher? It's completely superfluous. There's no need to waste the water, time and soap to wash everything twice.

This Christmas, I watched my hubby's family put all their dirty dishes in a sink full of hot soapy water, scrub them clean, wash them off, then put them in the dishwasher. Complete with an overflowing cap of dishwasher detergent. Then at home, I watched my hubby scrub all his dirty dishes completely clean, "load" the dishwasher with a maximum of about nine things, pour at least a pint of dishwasher detergent in, and walk merrily away. Then he wondered why all those dishes came out with a white film of dishwasher soap. When I pointed out to him that both pre-rinsing and a pint of detergent were unnecessary, he looked at me as though I'd turned into a giant cockroach and then insinuated that somehow I'd been raised wrong.

So, to recap the Times article, here are the New Commandments of Your Dishwasher:
1. Do not pre-rinse. Anything. Ever. Leave the food on there. Really. I'm serious.
2. Pack it tight. If you can fit one more thing in there, go for it. Dishwashwers are like freezers--they're most efficient when they're full. (That means FULL. Anything else is just wasting water.)
3. You need about two tablespoons of detergent, MAXIMUM. Most of the time you can get away with one tablespoon. Pay no attention to the little fill space on the inside of the dishwasher door. That is not a measurement. If you must use it as such, fill that up halfway. Most people fill that space to overflowing, and sometimes add more detergent on top of that, usually in the Jet-Dry space. But that doesn't get your dishes cleaner. It just a) wastes detergent, and b) leaves a soap scum on your glassware from too much detergent.

If you don't believe me, or the Times, go read your dishwasher's instruction manual. Yes, that instruction manual, the one you tossed in a drawer as soon as it was installed and never looked at again. It will tell you all the same things.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Black quinoa salad with avocado and lemon-cumin viniagrette

One of the things I got in my CSA box was a group of four fresh-off-the-tree avocados. Not wanting to waste such goodness on mere guacamole, I opted instead for a quinoa salad.

I used black quinoa, but red or white will do just fine. To the quinoa I added the four chopped avocados, a few chopped dried apricots, some sliced almonds, and a little garlic powder. In a separate bowl, I zested one lemon, then added the juice from half the lemon, along with cumin and smoked paprika. I whisked in a few tablespoons of olive oil, and poured that onto the quinoa salad and mixed it all up well, along with salt and pepper to taste. Some fresh scallions or chives would have gone very nicely, as well. I also added a handful of edamame (but quinoa, since it has all eight amino acids, is a complete protein--so adding edamame was nutritional overkill. Tasty, though).

Cost: 40 cents for the cup of quinoa, let's say 50 cents each for the avocados (those are California prices), another 50 cents for the handful of edamame, and 50 cents for everything else. Around $2.00 total, for two full adult servings. Bonus: SUPER-healthy.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Wine from my collection: Cedar Creek 2006 Reserve Meritage

This is another gem I picked up on last summer's travels, purchased in British Columbia--Cedar Creek 2006 Reserve Meritage. It's a fruity, almost jammy blend of Merlot (43%) Cabernet Sauvignon (38%), Malbec (9%), Cabernet Franc (8%) and Petit Verdot (2%), aged in 70% new French oak. It drinks quite well by itself--in fact, I think I prefer it by itself to drinking it with food, food masks a lot of the sublteties.

One of these days I will definitely go back for a longer British Columbia wine tour. All the wines I had while in Vancouver were superb, and none of them can be found or purchased in the US. I'm not sure why that is, but it tells me that another road trip is in order.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

One-person cooking for people who hate leftovers

I’m not one of those people, as you’ve probably noticed. But many are. For those of you out there who need variety on a daily basis, here’s a way to do it: I call it batch processing.

Essentially you’re preparing a set of base ingredients, that can be used in a number of different recipes throughout the week. You can do this all at once, say on Sunday, or you can do it one ingredient at a time. As that one is used up, you start another. For example:

One roast chicken: the chicken itself, chicken salad, chicken fajitas, any number of soups, pasta with chicken, salad with chicken.

Black beans: chili, soups, enchiladas, black bean dip.

Red beans: pasta fagioli, red beans and rice, chili, soups.

White beans: chili, soups, minestrone, pasta fagioli.

Flank steak: steak, fajitas, steak salad, beef stew, steak sandwiches.

And so on. Most of the soups I make are vats, designed to feed two people for at least two or three meals. But you can make soup in one-serving batches, too. You can also make large batches and freeze the remainder for those nights you don’t feel like cooking—does freezing count as leftovers?

Here’s another way to look at it, using the contents of my own refrigerator/pantry as an example, putting together only one serving at a time; these are all the possible combinations, yielding much more than a week’s worth of options.

Omelet (using cheese, canned crab, bacon, lunch meat, any number of fresh or dried herbs, spinach or fresh greens) or a one-ramekin baked egg dish such as baked eggs with leeks. You can also poach single eggs in a serving of soup for a quick hit of protein.

Salad (incorporating standard items like croutons, nuts, carrots, meats, cheese, olives, etc., using balsamic vinegar and olive oil for dressing)

Grain salads (using quinoa or barley for the base, then incorporating other vegetables, edamame, cheeses, olives, and oils)

Risotto (can be as plain as cheese risotto; you can incorporate any vegetable—spinach, winter greens, beets, asparagus, mushroom, peas and tomatoes are just a few examples)

Pasta (spaghetti, linguine, penne, etc., with any number of sauces—tomato, meat, pesto, puttanesca, al fredo, etc.) Even for leftover-haters, you can make different spaghetti sauces in batches and freeze them in one-servings amounts.

Pizza (your imagination is the limit) Make personal size pan pizza using pretty much anything. Cheese, tomato sauce, whatever veggies or meat you have on hand. White pizzas, barbecue chicken pizzas, Thai curry pizzas…one batch of pizza dough will make several small pizzas. You can make several different kinds of pizza at once, eating one for each lunch during the week (for example).

Potatoes and sweet potatoes (baked potatoes, fried potatoes, fries, filler for soups, potato soup, mashed potatoes, scalloped potatoes)

A baguette (toast, garlic bread, French bread pizza, French toast, sandwich bread)

Let’s say you start your week on Sunday with one whole roast chicken, half a bag of dried white beans, two boxes of frozen spinach, a bag of salad greens, some tortillas, a jar of salsa, some cheese, a bag of spaghetti, a bag of potatoes (regular or sweet potatoes), a bag of carrots, three onions, and a dozen eggs, in addition to standard pantry items like spices and flour. From that you can produce this:

On Sunday, do this: roast the chicken. Soak the white beans for at least 8 hours, then cook on low (or in a Crockpot) overnight. In the morning, put them in a Tupperware container in the fridge. Place the spinach in the fridge to thaw.  Slice and cook the onions until very soft or until caramelized, then place in Tupperware in the fridge. After the chicken is done and cool enough to handle, pull off all the meat and place in Tupperware in the fridge. Add the carcass to a big soup pot, fill with water, add some salt, and cook on low overnight to produce chicken broth. In the morning, strain out the carcass and add the broth in Tupperware in the fridge.

Sunday night: roast chicken and green salad with a baked potato

Monday breakfast: breakfast burrito with egg, cheese, spinach and salsa
Monday lunch: Chicken and white bean enchiladas
Monday dinner: BBQ chicken pizza (on one half) and cheese and spinach pizza (on one half). Eat the BBQ chicken half.

Tuesday breakfast: baked eggs with onions
Tuesday lunch: cheese and spinach pizza half
Tuesday dinner: spaghetti with cheese sauce or tomato sauce with salad

Wednesday breakfast: chicken and potato hash (maybe with a fried egg on top) with salsa
Wednesday lunch: white bean puree with spinach
Wednesday dinner: scalloped potatoes with spinach, glazed carrots

Thursday breakfast: cheese and egg omelet
Thursday lunch: baked potato with salad
Thursday dinner: chicken noodle soup with white beans, spinach, carrots, onions, and spaghetti (broken into pieces)

Friday breakfast: scrambled eggs
Friday lunch: potato soup with garlic
Friday dinner: white bean and chicken chili with spinach

Saturday breakfast: pancakes with hash browns
Saturday lunch: carrot salad with spinach soufflé
Saturday dinner: pasta fagioli with the remaining beans, spinach and carrots

Of course, there are a billion other possible dishes. Chicken salad, chicken tettrazini, frittatas, fajitas, other kinds of pizza. You could use some of the onions to make a batch of caramelized onion-jalapeno waffles, then serve those with the leftover chicken and some BBQ sauce, for an upscale version of chicken n' waffles. The more you have in your pantry, the more you can vary what comes out of it.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Chickpea soup

Because we're saving for a wedding, this month I'll be shopping from the pantry. I won't buy any groceries at all, all month long. Between the fully stocked pantry and the box of fresh fruits and vegetables I get every two weeks, this isn't nearly as much of a challenge as it sounds. It's good to use that stuff in the back of the freezer sometimes.

In keeping with the Pantry Challenge, last night I made chickpea soup. I used dried chickpeas, soaked overnight and then cooked in the Crockpot for a while before being added to the soup. Despite being cooked twice, they were wonderfully firm and flavorful, not slimy and mushy like canned chickpeas. Nevertheless, you can use canned in this.

Saute one chopped onion and a few cloves of garlic in olive oil until soft. Add 3 cans (or the equivalent) of chickpeas, 1 can of tomatoes, 3 cups or so of chicken or vegetable broth, and seasonings. I used fresh rosemary, salt and pepper, smoked paprika, and a little cumin. Let this simmer down on low, covered, for about 30 minutes. Puree part with your stick blender (or remove about half, puree in a food processor, and return to the soup). Serve with more salt and a little fresh parmesan.

Cost: using dried chickpeas purchased in bulk, 3 cans' worth was about...45 cents? Another 50 cents for the can of tomatoes and maybe another 15 cents for the onion. The broth was homemade. Total cost: a little over $1, for 4-6 adult servings, at around 20 cents each. When your soup costs twenty cents, you can afford to drink the good wine with it.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Wine from my collection: Eden Vale 2003 Claret

I use the term "collection" loosely, as it is really just "several boxes of whatever was on sale." I have about a case left from the various wines I bought on last summer's road trip, plus another four or five cases of assorted miscellaneous, thanks to BevMo's buy 1, get 1 for 5 cents sale. Woo hoo!

Anyway. Last night I decided to pull something from the road trip case, and thought I would start sharing what I'm drinking with all of you. First up: Eden Vale 2003 Claret, purchased at a wine shop in Ashland, Oregon last July. It's 67% Merlot, 18% Cab Franc, 11% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 4% Malbec, and retails for $29. (Okay, not the cheapest wine in my collection, but what's left of the road trip wines are going to be the high-end purchases.) Very silky, very fruity, aged in new/neutral French oak. It went surprisingly well with my leftover mac and cheese (made with stinky cheese, of course!).

Monday, March 8, 2010

Chicken and sweet potato chowder

This turned out to be one of my favorite new recipes. This is definitely going into high rotation.

2 tablespoons butter
1 pound chicken (I used four whole bone-in thighs, but any sort of chicken, cut up or not, will do)
1 medium onion, chopped
3 medium or 5 small leeks, sliced
2-3 large sweet potatoes, peeled and diced
3 cups chicken or vegetable broth
2 bay leaves
seasonings: I used salt and pepper, Italian (combo of rosemary, parsley, sage, thyme) and smoked paprika
1 cup whole milk

Melt the butter and cook the chicken for about two minutes on each side, until lightly golden (it will definitely not be cooked all the way through, don't worry about that). Remove the chicken and saute the onion and leeks until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the sweet potatoes and cook for another three minutes. Return the chicken to the pan, and add the broth and seasonings. Cover and simmer over medium-low heat until the potatoes and chicken are cooked all the way through (10-25 minutes, depending on what kind of chicken and how many sweet potatoes).

Using a nifty stick blender, puree part of the soup (or remove about half to a food processor, puree, and stir back in). Add the milk and reseason to taste. Serve.

Cost: Sweet potatoes run about 79 cents a pound; I had three large ones, which I'll estimate at two pounds for $1.58. Estimate another $1.25 for the chicken (bought in bulk) and another $1.50 for everything else (the broth was homemade, but I also threw in about a cup of white wine to deglaze). $4.33 total, and I'll get at least 8 adult servings out of the batch, for 54 cents per serving.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Tomato soup with Israeli couscous

I'll admit you can't really expect culinary greatness from a Crockpot. But on a rainy day, when you don't feel like cooking, this is a great way to get a good, hot meal on the table using standard pantry ingredients.

Saute one chopped onion and a few minced cloves of garlic in a little olive oil until soft. Add that to the Crockpot, along with three cans of tomatoes, a couple of bay leaves, a couple cups of chicken or vegetable broth, and a handful of the grain or pasta of your choice. I used Israeli couscous (that's the big kind), but you could use rice, regular couscous, pasta, barley, you name it. Set on low for 6 to 8 hours or high for around 4 hours.

The couscous/pasta/rice/whatever will soak up all the liquid, so add more about halfway through the cooking process (if you like a soupy soup) or leave it alone for more of a stew. Season to taste when it's done--I added salt and pepper and fresh rosemary, parsley and oregano.

Cost: three cans of tomatoes in bulk run about 50 cents each. Add another 50 cents for the onion and the couscous. $2.00 for 4-6 adult servings.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Cheap wines from Argentina

When the world economy finally implodes and/or as soon as the zombie apocalypse is over, I'm moving to Argentina. It remains my most favorite of all the places I've ever visited (Warm? Check. Cheap? Check. Good food and wine? Check.), and has become my retirement dream. One day I'll drop off the grid completely, and go raise pigs on the pampas or something.

In that vein, here's a great post about the excellent wines of Argentina from the awesome folks at BrokeAss Gourmet.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

How to clean, reseason and care for cast-iron skillets

My cast-iron skillet is one of my most useful--and most used--kitchen implements. In fact, I only ever use two skillets--my cast-iron one, and a ginormous 14-inch All-Clad Copper-Core Professional. (Breathy sigh of admiration.) My cast-iron skillet is a hand-me-down, as the best ones are, but you can find new ones very easily. In fact, it's also very easy to find one at the Salvation Army or a yard sale, since most people aren't sure what to do with them. A good cast-iron skillet, properly cared for, will last for several generations.

You know it's a good one when it's a glossy black and food just sliiiiides off it. That's the beauty of cast-iron--it's a natural nonstick non-fat surface, so you never have to worry about a) chemical Teflon residue in your food, b) using fats to cook with (unless you want to), or c) your food sticking. It can go from stove to oven and back again, and it heats very evenly and strongly, which is why you should never fry anything in a pan that ISN'T cast-iron.

The downsides of cast-iron: because it heats very evenly and strongly, it will stay hot for a long time. I've pushed it to the back of the stove before, forgotten about it, and then burned myself on it twenty minutes later. And (here's the sticking point for most people) you can never, ever, ever put it in the dishwasher. That will ruin it.

Fortunately, cleaning a cast-iron pan is a snap. If there's extra grease/residue in the bottom, wipe it out with a paper towel or cloth towel. Then wipe it down with a damp sponge. That's it. Make sure you never leave it wet--wipe it down with a dry towel, or put it back on the warm stovetop to dry. Some people will use a very small amount of dish soap while wiping it down, but the whole point of a cast-iron pan is to absorb all the grease and fat from the food you cook in it--that's what creates the nonstick coating. The grease fills in all the ridges of the pan and gradually cooks in, creating that shiny black coating. Soap will remove the grease, and if you're not careful, will make the next thing you cook taste faintly of soap. Over time, all the leftover bacon fat/butter/olive oil/whatever will bake into the pan, creating the nonstick qualities. (In fact, back in the day, many people had a cast-iron skillet they NEVER cleaned, at all. If you use it every day, you don't have to worry about the leftover fats turning rancid, and the best cornbread I've ever had was baked in a never-cleaned, bacon-fat-laden cast-iron pan.)

Occasionally, even I don't clean it properly and a rust spot will form. If you see a rust spot, or your food is sticking to the pan, it needs to be reseasoned. You can use Crisco for this (or lard, if you want to be really authentic). Simply coat the pan, inside and out, with a good quarter-inch layer of Crisco. Spread some foil inside your oven and lay the pan upside-down on top of the skillet. Set the oven to 300 and leave the pan in there for an hour. Turn the oven off after an hour, but leave the pan in there until it's cooled to room temperature. When you pull it out, it will have that primo glossy black coating. Repeat as necessary.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Fried plantains

I L-O-V-E love plaintains. For those of you unfamiliar with plaintains, they're those big black banana-looking things. They are in fact closely related to the banana, but need to be cooked to be edible. They manage to be sweet and savory at the same time, and can do double duty both as breakfast and as a side dish.

Fortunately, frying up a mess of plaintains is quick, simple, and super-yummy. You want the outside to be black all over and soft. If they're mostly yellow when you buy them, just let them sit out on top of your microwave for a couple of weeks until they ripen. When they're ripe, they'll peel like a banana. Cut them into slices and fry in about half olive oil and half butter, until golden-brown on both sides. Sprinkle a little sea salt on top and enjoy.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Beet and beet greens risotto

I've always had a troubled relationship with beets. My mother used to make me eat pickled beets as punishment, so for most of my life, I loathed beets. (For good reason--pickled beets are gross.) I veeeeeerrry sloooooooowwwwly came around to non-pickled beets. For fellow beet-haters, I recommend starting with golden beets. They're less, you know, beet-y, and they're a lovely golden color that doesn't stain nearly as much as regular beets.

Yes, beets stain. Therefore I also recommend peeling them before you roast them--unroasted beets won't stain your hands, your knife, and the rest of your kitchen bright red. (But fun fact--if you eat too many beets, you'll pee purple. There's a dye in beets that your body can't process.) There are many fun things you can do with roasted beets--add them to a salad with a little goat cheese, or mash some up with your potatoes to produce pink mashed potatoes, or turn them into a risotto, as here. I added the beet greens along with the beets, because the bitter greens help cut the beet-y sweetness of this dish. That, and the three handfuls of parmesan cheese.

Saute one chopped onion in a little olive oil, then add a cup to a cup and a half of arborio rice when the onion is soft. Let the rice toast for a minute, then deglaze with a couple cups of white wine. Keep stirring. When the wine is absorbed, start adding chicken or vegetable broth, a cup or so at a time, and let each addition mostly absorb before adding the next. About ten minutes into this process, add the chopped roasted beets (I had four small ones) and the chopped beet greens. Another ten minutes should produce soft, tender rice. Add three handfuls or so of parmesan cheese and stir in. (That's FRESH grated parmesan, not the cheese-flavored dandruff that comes in the green Kraft can. Cheese is too good to eat fake cheese.) Add a healthy dollop of freshly grated pepper and sea salt.

Cost: a bunch of beets will run maybe $1.50. Arborio rice is around $6.00 for a large box, and the good parmesan in bulk is about $12.00 a pound. The amount of rice used would be about $1.00, and maybe another $2.00 worth of cheese. The broth was homemade, and the onion (bought in a twenty-pound bag, in bulk) would be another, what, 10 cents? Around $4.50 total, and this will easily feed four adults as a main course, at $1.13 per serving.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Kale gratin

Unfamiliar vegetable? Cover it with cheese and breadcrumbs. Mmm...cheese.

1/4 cup breadcrumbs
1/4 cup Parmesan
1 bunch kale, roughly chopped
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
1 cup grated gruyere or Swiss
salt and pepper to taste

Boil the kale until bright green (about 1 minute) and drain. When cool enough to handle, squeeze out all the extra water and add to a mixing bowl with the cheeses. Mix loosely. Meanwhile, bring the cup of cream to a boil and then reduce to low immediately. Let reduce for a minute or two. Add the salt and pepper and garlic to this and remove from the heat. Add the kale mixture to a shallow casserole dish and pour the cream mixture over it. Distribute the breadcrumbs over the top and bake at 400 for 20-25 minutes.

Cost: A bunch of kale runs approximately $1.50 at the supermarket. The cream and cheese I purchased in bulk, so around $1.50 for those. $3.00 total, will serve two as a main dish or four as a side dish.