Thursday, May 31, 2012

Other ways to save money around the house

1. Don't use so much electricity. Put everything on power strips, and turn the power strips off when you're not using the item in question. Don't leave lights on when you're not in the room. Don't leave computers running overnight. Either turn the AC way up, or turn it off entirely; just open all the windows and let a circulating fan keep things cool. Don't use the dryer--hang clothes outside, or around the house now that all the windows are open. It doesn't sound like much, but turning things off/using power strips saved me 70% off my bill.

2. Run the washer and the dishwasher only when they're full.

3. Take out the trash only when the bag is full.

4. It goes without saying, but don't buy things you can make yourself. (Coffee; sandwiches; bottled water.)

5. Move the soap out of the way of the shower stream. If you keep the soap dry when you're not using it, it'll last 40% longer.

6. Cut open bottles/tubes to get the very last of whatever it is out. Toothpaste, shampoo, etc.

7.  Don't use so much toothpaste/shampoo/dish detergent/whatever to begin with. A pea-sized dab of toothpaste gets your teeth just as clean. The detergent pit in the dishwasher is twice as big as it needs to be, so only fill it half full.

8. You can get anything clean with bleach, water, and/or baking soda. No need for cleaning supplies.

9. Fresh air and a book of matches will kill weird odors way better than commercial air fresheners.

10. Run errands in batches, not one at a time.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

$0 grocery budget update

Still $0. I've spent a grand total of $3.53 on groceries in the last three weeks (eggs; tonic water). Between the pantry stores--rice, beans, lentils, spices, pasta--and the supplies in the freezer--milk, cheese, butter, extra broth, extra tomato sauce, various kinds of pesto--dinner has not become boring. It helps that things are supplemented with what I can scrounge at work.

On Memorial Day, I had a few people over to hang out, which was awesome. I whipped up a quick seafood pasta, cobbled together from work leftovers. Other people brought some things to grill. Gin and tonics were enjoyed by all. Total expenditures for the party: $0.

A friend of mine is leaving to move to Montana today, and yesterday she let me clean out what was left of her pantry. I got sliced almonds, sundried tomatoes, various vinegars, half a bottle of vodka, a bag of arborio rice, a canister of oatmeal, and a few other goodies.

I'm also having a yard sale this weekend, and I plan to sell everything I can. I've been selling some furniture here and there on craigslist; that's bringing some extra money in. DH has filed for unemployment; I don't know yet how much we'll get, or when that will kick in, but it'll help.

So we're hanging in there. Eating a lot of french bread pizza, variations on eggs, and homemade ice cream.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Rhubarb Cooler

Using some leftover rhubarb compote, I made rhubarb simple syrup. (1 cup water, 1 cup sugar, stirred over heat til the sugar dissolves, add rhubarb compote, let steep. Strain.)

Then I used that to make this drink:

1 1/2 oz gin
1/2 oz lime juice
1 oz rhubarb syrup
Some crushed mint

Shake, strain, serve over ice. Delicious!

Monday, May 28, 2012

Lime and mint-infused mezcal

Just in time for summer! Lime and mint-infused mezcal! Happy Memorial Day, everyone!

Mezcal is a sort of smoky tequila (smoky in the same way that scotch is smoky), and infusing it with lime and mint plays off the smokiness in a really fun way. Squeeze out one lime into a jar and drop the squeezed-out lime quarters in. Add a couple of big sprigs of fresh mint. Pour in tequila. Let sit a couple of days. Strain and enjoy.

So far the best use I've come up with is sipping over ice, but I'll create a cocktail yet!

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Corn chowder with jalapeno and cilantro puree

It's essentially this corn and bacon chowder, with no potatoes, and no whole bacon (I did use saved bacon grease). At the end, I stirred in some frozen jalapeno pesto and some cilantro pesto (which was more cilantro puree than pesto).

Even though it's soup, it still tastes nice and summery: corn, cilantro, hot peppers.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Irish whiskey smash

The whiskey smash, but made with Irish whiskey instead of bourbon (since my bourbon supply is perilously low). Add a little more ginger syrup to counterbalance, since bourbon is sweeter than Irish whiskey.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Rhubarb puff pastry tarts

Mmmm, rhubarb.

These are just rhubarb compote, drained of all liquid, on puff pastry squares.

Thaw two sheets of puff pastry, and cut each into four squares. On each square, place a few tablespoons of drained rhubarb compote. Fold the edges over, to make a triangle pocket, and seal the edges with a little water and a fork. Bake at 350 for about 30 minutes.


Thursday, May 24, 2012

Crab cakes

A well-made crab cake is a beautiful thing. It should be mostly crab, with just enough mayo/other to keep it from completely falling apart; with enough fried coating to give it texture, but not so much as to disguise the crab flavor.

I got a container of crab meat from the restaurant the other night (they were going to throw it out! Can you imagine?) and used it to make some yummy crab cakes. I use a combination of oil and butter to fry mine; you can go all oil if you'd rather. I also coated mine in panko instead of bread crumbs, to make the outside crispier, but bread crumbs are fine too.

1 lb crab meat
1/2 cup finely diced onion
2 tablespoons butter
1 egg
1/4 cup mayo (or less)
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
Old Bay seasoning
1/4 cup minced fresh herbs (parsley, cilantro, dill)
Fresh bread crumbs or panko

Saute the onion in 2 tablespoons butter until soft. Set aside.

Mix the crab meat with the egg, mayo, Dijon, Old Bay to taste, and fresh herbs. You can up the amount of Dijon and cut back on the amount of mayo if you'd like a less mayo-y crab cake, like me. Stir in the sauteed onions.

The mixture should just barely hold together at this point, still very loose. Form into loose balls, coat with bread crumbs or panko, and place on a sheet of wax paper. Refrigerate for a couple of hours (this will help them hold their shape).

Fry in 1/4 cup butter/oil, a few minutes on each side or until browned, over medium heat.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Fava beans

Fava beans, along with rhubarb, fiddlehead ferns, ramps, soft-shell crabs, and morels, are one of the great harbingers of spring. They look like big lima beans.

I got a big container of cleaned, uncooked fava beans from work, so I cooked them down.

In a saucepan, warm a little olive oil. Add half an onion, chopped very small, and a tablespoon of fresh chopped parsley. When the onion is soft, add the fava beans (I used about 3 cups of shelled beans), 1/2 cup chicken stock, and salt and pepper.

Bring to a boil, then cover and simmer 10 - 20 minutes. The favas are done when they're soft, and when most of the liquid has evaporated.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

French bread pizza

You wouldn't know yesterday was Day 1 of $0 grocery spending. We ate very well, thanks primarily to work leftovers.

French bread pizza with prosciutto for lunch, then crab cakes with fava beans and rhubarb tarts for dinner. All with ingredients that I scavenged from work.

I'll start with the French bread pizza. I've talked about getting free stale bread from work before, and usually it's all rolls. But sometimes there are long, skinny baguettes as well, that we serve with the cheese plate. I took one of those baguettes, along with some rolls, and cut it in half both ways. (Down the middle, then across, so I had four long, skinny halves.)

On each piece of bread, I layered a thin smear of ricotta, a smear of tomato sauce, and a few thin slices of prosciutto. In the oven at 400 degrees for 10 minutes or so, just until the prosciutto starts to turn up at the ends.

An excellent use of both stale bread and ricotta that was about to go bad.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Grocery spending = $0

It's been a financially and emotionally trying week. Long story, but in the short term we are going to be living off one paycheck (mine), and there's a decent chance we are breathing down the neck of financial apocalypse and may have to sell everything we own and move in with one or more of our relatives. Now, hopefully not, I'd rather stab myself in the eye with a rusty spoon than sell everything and move, so let's all keep our fingers crossed.

What does that mean for this blog? It means, for the time being, our grocery costs will go down to $0. Because I won't be buying any groceries. Or booze, or desperately-needed summer clothing, or stuff at the drugstore, or anything. All money will go directly to either paying bills or shoring up the emergency fund.

So, for a little while at least, we'll be living off the pantry stores, supplemented by fresh spinach and herbs out of the container garden, and whatever free leftovers I can scrounge at work.

Also, because there is a small chance we'll have to sell everything and move, I won't be replacing things as we run out of them. If we get through this temporary crisis unscathed, then I'll replenish the pantry. Not before.

Look for lots of creative uses of pantry staples: pasta, dried beans, lentils, grains, and rice. I'll also be using stuff out of the freezer--pesto, jalapeno/cilantro puree, frozen broth, those will all get thawed and used.

This is why it's a good idea to a) have an emergency fund, and b) have a well-stocked pantry. If we have to, we can eat for at least a month and possibly six weeks before we start feeling the pinch. I could probably stretch it to two months if I had to.

Tonight I think I'm making pizza.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Cilantro-infused gin

Remember that drink I made last week, like a mojito, but with cilantro and gin instead of rum and mint?

This is a great shortcut to that drink.

And, in fact, this makes for a really nice summery gin and tonic.

I had an overload of cilantro (cilantro being one of those things you either have too much of or none at all). I also had half a bottle of lime-flavored gin, and half a bottle of regular gin. I combined the two gins in a big Mason jar, and added an overflowing handful of cilantro. That's it, just let that sit for a couple of days and then strain it.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Roasted asparagus

I had a few stalks of asparagus from my mom's garden, so I roasted them.

All I did was wrap them in a piece of foil with a little butter. I put the foil packet in a 400-degree oven for five minutes, then took it out.

The asparagus was cooked but still a little crunchy, with a lovely butter coating.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Panko-breaded soft-shell crabs

I've written about soft-shell crabs before; they're one of my favorite harbingers of springs, right up there with rhubarb and morels.

Whole Foods was running a 50% off sale on soft-shells the other day, so naturally I picked up a couple. Instead of dredging them in flour and Old Bay seasoning, like I usually do, this time I dredged them in panko.

They came out really deliciously crunchy. A hit, a very palpable hit.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Beet-and-potato salad

Using some of the beautiful baby beets my mom brought me from her garden, and a few gold fingerling potatoes, I made a really nice potato salad.

4 medium gold potatoes, cut into pieces and boiled
4 medium beets, roasted and peeled and cut into pieces
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
3/4 cup chopped onion (optional)
1 tablespoon capers
1/2 cup mayo
cayenne pepper
1/4 cup peas (optional)

Combine the beets and 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar, and let sit for 30 minutes. Drain. Combine with the rest, mix until well blended, and adjust seasonings to taste.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Garden bounty

My parents came to visit this past weekend, and it was a lot of fun. My mom brought me a tote bag full of goodies from her garden: several bags of young lettuce and spinach, a bag of mixed heartier greens (mustard, kale, chard), a bag of beautiful gold and white baby beets (none bigger than a golf ball), a few stalks of asparagus, a bag of cilantro, and a few baggies of dried herbs.

I spent yesterday turning all that into stuff. The spinach and lettuce became salads. I roasted all the beets, put some in the salads, and turned the rest into tomorrow's post. I'm working most of this week, so all those pre-made salads will really come in handy.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Rhubarb compote

It's that time of year again: fresh rhubarb!

But I'm not yet excited about the strawberries I'm seeing. They're still the giant, flavorless, hard varieties, shipped in from who-knows-where. I'd rather wait for the fresh, local version.

So instead of making strawberry-rhubarb pie, which is my favorite rhubarb use, I made rhubarb compote and ate it over vanilla ice cream.

Take 3 big stalks of rhubarb and cut them up. Combine them with 1/2 cup sugar in a saucepan. Let the rhubarb sit for about 15 minutes, with the sugar, until the pieces begin to exude some juice. Heat over medium-high heat until boiling, stirring frequently. Cover and simmer on low until the rhubarb is tender, another 10 to 15 minutes.

At this point the compote will look largely like pink mush. That's okay. Cover, turn off the heat, and let cool without stirring. Refrigerate for at least two hours (it'll thicken as it cools).

Serve over ice cream, cake, or eat all by itself.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Crab omelet

Best of all, you don't need fresh crab meat for this.

Canned crab works fine--in fact, better, as the stronger taste comes through more.

I first had this in Annapolis, MD, and I've been making it at home periodically ever since. It's your standard omelet--eggs, maybe some milk or cream, seasonings like fresh parsley and/or chives. With a can of drained crab meat mixed in, as well as some Old Bay seasoning.

Cook just like a standard omelet. But it'll have a wonderful crabby flavor, like a breakfast crab cake.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Beef broth from marrow bones

My parents are visiting this weekend, and to celebrate, I took them out to dinner at my restaurant Friday night. We got burgers, duck fat-roasted fiddlehead ferns, and bone marrow. It was all delicious; there were plenty of leftovers, as those are filling burgers, so we all took doggie bags home.

I also brought home the cleaned-out marrow bones, to use for broth. Three big marrow bones, plus assorted vegetable scrap, plus a little salt, plus water. I let it simmer on low all day, and was rewarded with a deep, rich broth, the color of French onion soup. And man, the house smelled good.

I'll freeze that broth and use it for soups and the like. Close to a gallon of beef broth, for the cost of just taking the bones home.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Knockwurst from Hewtin's Food Truck, Providence, RI

While walking around with my parents yesterday, showing them the city, we happened upon Hewtin's Food Truck, run by Chez Pascal.

These guys make their own sausages and charcuterie, so naturally I had to get something. We pooled our meager cash and collectively bought a knockwurst, topped with baked beans, cole slaw, and a strip of bacon.

Naturally, it was delicious. The crunch of the cole slaw and the tang of the baked beans went really well with the sausage, and of course, you can't complain about anything topped with bacon.

So, A+, Hewtin's and Chez Pascal.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Cilantrojito

A mojito, but with gin and cilantro instead of rum and mint.

That's what The Cilantrojito is.

Take a few sprigs of fresh cilantro, and chop very fine. Combine with 2 oz gin, 1/2 oz simple syrup, and shake well over ice. Strain and serve over ice, and top with soda water.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Wine from my collection: Montlouis-sur-Loire "Les Bournais,” Fran├žois Chidaine 2008

Another bottle of wine chosen from my restaurant's wine list; at cost, $20, so around $40-45 in stores and $60 in restaurants.

My notes: Crazy acidity; really well-balanced, a first burst of fruit which is then wiped away by the acidity. A great food wine.

Notes from a fellow server:

"Like Scarlett O’Hara this wine is a demure little Southern belle with an undercurrent of determination and power. It is definitely feminine and it has a delicate honeysuckle bouquet. It starts with a touch of sweetness that bobs like a flower petal on a raging river of riveting acidity. It tastes of honey and peach skins with a tinge of bitterness like citrus pith and a dense stone minerality.

This wine is all about the subtle balance of opposites: it may be the perfect Chenin Blanc. It is an amazing wine at $63."

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Mushroom and prosciutto pizza

I had some button mushrooms that were starting to look a little shriveled, so I used them to make a mushroom and prosciutto pizza.

Mushroom storage tip: don't store them in plastic. Plastic makes mushrooms slimy. Take them out of the plastic as soon as you get them home, and put them in a brown paper bag. They'll last for weeks that way (although they'll start to look a little shriveled after a while).

I sliced the mushrooms and browned them in a little in some butter. I used half on a spinach salad, and the other half on a pizza.

This pizza crust + tomato sauce + a smear of ricotta + cooked mushrooms + a few pieces of prosciutto, torn into bits + healthy sprinkle of parmesan + dried basil (in that order); bake at 475 for 15 minutes.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Seafood pasta

I discovered another perk to working in the restaurant on Sundays (in addition to the free leftover food, which I'll write about in a minute).

I usually work doubles on Sundays, brunch plus dinner. For brunch, they bring in a selection of newspapers for people to peruse, including the New York Times and the Boston Globe. They throw away the inserts, so I helped myself to the coupons and the sales flyers.

Between the coupons and some judicious shopping at CVS, making full use of the ExtraBucks program, I scored $120 worth of stuff for $45. So you can bet I'll be snagging the coupons from now on.

(Disclaimer: I don't usually shop with coupons, because generally coupons are for over-processed name-brand crap food; the kind of stuff I don't buy. But, if you can combine a coupon with a store sale, and/or some other sort of store promotion, like Double Coupon Day or CVS' ExtraBucks, you can walk away with some amazing deals. So I'll start using coupons and watching sales for things I'll buy anyway, like shampoo and toothpaste. Don't worry, I still won't buy frozen pizza or Lucky Charms, even if I can get it for free.)

The other good part of working Sundays, as I've mentioned, is that they throw away all the unused food on Sunday nights, and I'm welcome to help myself to any of it. This week was an especially good haul. I got three large pieces of Tasmanian sea trout, a container full of cooked mussels and whelks, a container of squid ink anchoiade, some scallions, some lemon juice, and some ramp puree.

So I whipped together a seafood pasta, using all of those things.

I cooked some penne and caramelized an onion. To the onion I added a little of the squid ink anchoiade and some of the pasta cooking water. To that I threw in the mussels and whelks, then the pasta. When everything was mixed together, I added the Tasmanian sea trout, cut into large pieces. Then I turned the heat off, added chopped parsley and scallions, and waited until the sea trout was just warmed through.

Then I ate it. It was awesome. Free food never tasted so good.

Monday, May 7, 2012

A trick to make your bread dough rise faster

There are a couple of ways to make sure your bread dough rises in a timely fashion. Warmth is the key; you can set the bowl on the counter above a running dishwasher, set the bowl on top of a recently-used stove burner, set it inside a recently-warmed (and turned off) oven. Of course, using a burner or the oven is tricky. You want just enough warmth to jump-start the rising process, not enough to start cooking the dough. I've accidentally cooked the dough before.

The best way to gently warm rising dough is to wrap a microwaveable muscle wrap around the bowl.

My mom calls these things "Maggies." I'm not sure why. You can make your own homemade version by filling a long (clean) tube sock with uncooked rice and tying off the end. Then you have a muscle wrap that can be either microwaved or frozen and wrapped around any sore part of your body, and reused over and over and over.

For this, microwave it about two minutes, wrap it around the base of the bowl, and cover the whole works with a towel. Your bread will rise much faster, and higher.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Ricotta pudding

Like spoonbread, only cheesy!

3 eggs
1 egg yolk
2 cups whole-milk ricotta
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
1 1/2 teaspoons thyme
Salt and pepper

Whisk together eggs, egg yolk, and ricotta. Add rest, mix together. Pour into a buttered 9-inch square baking dish, cover with foil, and set inside a larger baking dish. Pour tepid in, about halfway up the sides of the 9-inch dish, to form a water bath. Bake at 350 for about 1 1/2 hours, or until the middle is set.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Mint julep

In honor of the Kentucky Derby today, I'll be drinking mint juleps!

While I used to live in Louisville, KY, approximately nine thousand years ago, I never made it to the Derby itself. Too expensive, too hard to get tickets, not enough parking. But the city would basically shut down for about a week beforehand, as everyone partied.

And naturally, there were a lot of mint juleps floating around. Mint juleps are the signature drink of the Derby, and often, are really just a cover for cheap-ass bourbon. Originally, they were made with muddled fresh mint, sugar, and bourbon, poured over crushed ice, and topped with powdered sugar and more mint.

Well, crushed ice ruins a bourbon drink, in my opinion (melts too fast, waters the whole thing down), and frankly, I'd rather drink good bourbon neat than bad bourbon with mint sugar-water. However, made properly, a mint julep can be a lively and refreshing thing.

So here's my julep recipe.

1/4 cup bourbon
A splash of mint syrup

Mix, serve over one large ice cube, and top with fresh mint.


Chimichurri is an Argentinean meat sauce, made mostly from parsley and olive oil. It's great with grilled meats and vegetables. I served mine with the last of the roasted whole fish.

1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 small onion, minced
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 cup finely chopped parsley or cilantro (I used some of each)
1 tablespoon oregano
Salt and pepper to taste

Combine and let sit for 2-3 hours before serving to let the flavors develop. If you can't chop everything super-fine, just run it through the food processor to get a better consistency.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Tasmanian sea trout

As the restaurant was emptying the kitchen on Sunday night after work, I managed to score three very nice pieces of Tasmanian sea trout. (I love free leftovers!)

Tasmanian sea trout is similar to salmon--it has that same orangey-pink color, and the same sort of texture and flake. However, the flavor is much creamier and more intense than salmon.

I did nothing more than gently sear one side in a little butter and olive oil; just enough to warm the entire thing up a bit. Slice, bit of salt, done. A wonderful mid-afternoon treat. If you find some, I highly recommend buying it; it's much tastier than salmon.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Gardening update: the tomatoes have sprouted!

I planted some lovely cherry tomatoes, which will go outside as soon as they're big enough. Also starting to show signs of life: peppers, dill, basil. All very exciting.

The outdoor spinach and mint are still going bonkers. Another couple of weeks or so and I hope to be able to move most of the indoor herbs outdoors.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Chocolate chip sour cream cake

You can substitute nuts, raisins or dried cranberries for the chocolate chips if you want.

5 tablespoons butter
2/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup sour cream
1 egg
3/4 teaspoon each baking powder and baking soda
1 1/2 cups flour
3/4 cup chocolate chips

Add the melted butter to a mixing bowl and mix in the sugar, vanilla, salt, sour cream and egg. Add the baking powder and baking soda. Stir the flour in until just combined. Stir in the chocolate chips, and pour into a greased and floured (or lined with parchment paper) loaf pan.

Bake at 350 for 40-45 minutes. Let cool in the pan 10 minutes.