Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Chick Peas with Okra & Eggplant

Eating well does not need to be an expensive endeavor. But some people think that eating inexpensively is all about rice and beans!

Not true -- though beans and rice are an inexpensive meal option.

Beans, legumes, and peas cooked badly deserve the negative rap they sometimes get as the cheap food of poor college students. On the other hand, prepared creatively, they are delicious.

When I was cooking in Courcheval in the French Alps, beans, legumes and peas were a great energy staple for my chalet guests. The French guests in particular loved them, because believe it or not, French cooking incorporates pulses, elevating something like the humble chic pea to lofty gourmet heights.

Yes, it can be a bit of a pain to soak beans overnight, but last month I suggested trying the power soak which cuts down soaking and cooking time significantly.

Once cooked, legumes can be stored in the fridge (covered) for several days, and used in a variety of ways.

For instance, you probably know that the middle-eastern spread, hummus, is simply cooked chic peas whizzed up with tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and water.

Chic peas are also a delicious snack on there own. Grab a handful on the run for a great energy boost.

And you don't need to serve rice with chic peas; they can stand on their own as a protein-rich meal or you can serve them with a spicy vegetable side, as I'm proposing in the following meal idea.

Chic Peas with Okra & Eggplant

Chic Peas
1) Power soak chic peas, then boil till they're tender.
2) Drain and toss peas into a bowl with whatever veggies you have in your fridge. Using items from the March 19th shopping list, I've added a few chopped cherry tomatoes, some onion, feta cheese, olives, and cilantro.
3) Then toss the lot in a pan with a little oil & garlic, turn the hot plate to low, (the idea is to warm them), and put a lid on while you make the side of vegetables.

Okra & Eggplant
1) Saute chopped onion and garlic in olive oil till transparent.
2) If you have any eggplant left, chop and add to onions, stirring over med-to-high heat till eggplant starts to brown.
3) Add a teaspoon of cumin (and or coriander) stir it through onions & eggplant. Turn heat to low.
4) Toss in some sliced, frozen okra and put lid on pan so veggies cook slowly in their own juice for about 20-30 mins.

To serve: Onto a plate, spoon a good portion of the warm chic peas, next to it, a spoonful of spicy veggies. If you have any cooked polenta leftover, you might slice and warm it, then drizzle it with a little olive oil -- it'll make a delicious accompaniment to this meal.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Curried Shrimp with Vegetables

Cooking, like life, is an experiment in creativity. And when you're on a budget, grocery shopping and managing your food for the week requires unabashed creativity.

You'll note that the methods I share to prepare the meals I post on this blog are not recipes, in as much as I don't offer exact amounts and measurements.

Rather, I use "dollops" and "blobs," "chunks" and "bunches." And I "toss," "throw," "saute," "whisk," and "whiz."

You see, my cooking style is not complicated, it used to be but my lifestyle and budget has changed the way I cook and eat.

Today cooking is a creative exercise for me, one that's dependent on common sense, gumption and taste-testing as you go.

So I encourage you to become recipe-independent by trusting your instincts and creativity and your ability to taste-test your way to creating a delicious meal -- cooking is way more fun when you throw caution to the wind and experiment.

Curried Shrimp with Vegetables
(using ingredients from March 19th shopping list)
1) Remove remaining Whole Catch frozen shrimp from freezer and unfreeze.
2) Saute some onions and garlic in olive oil till transparent. Add a blob of curry paste (I like Pataks. It comes in mild and hot, I think.)
3) Stir the onions, garlic and paste into the olive oil over a med to low heat.
4) Toss in any leftover eggplant, chopped into cubes, a cup of frozen okra, and a cup of frozen peas. Stir into onion and curry paste mix.
5) Turn heat to low and let the veggies gently cook in their own juices for about 20-30 mins.
6) Toss in all the remaining shrimp, stirring them through the veggies. Cook slowly for another 10 mins.
6) Taste-test. You might find that it needs salt, or that it could do with a little tomato, if so add any leftover cherry tomatoes.

To Serve: Spoon over boiled rice. Or if you have any leftover cooked polenta, toss it about in a pan with a little butter or oil till lightly browned and serve this as a side with your curried shrimp. Curry is always delicious with condiments like sliced banana and yogurt (on our last shopping list), and or shredded coconut, and chutney.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Sunday Brunch Polenta Cake

I think this is probably the first dessert-like dish I've shared on this blog.

I made it for a brunch on Friday, and I have to tell you, it was a huge success!

It's a semi-sweet polenta cake which I served with buttered apples and yogurt. I say semi-sweet because there's no sugar in the polenta, only black cherry conserve.

And the beauty of this semi-sweet polenta cake is that if you have any leftover, you can pan-fry pieces of the cake, say with eggs and bacon (exactly what I did this morning), which means it can also be the basis of a savory meal.

Sunday Brunch Polenta Cake:
(using ingredients from the March 19th shopping list)
1) Boil 4 cups of water and gradually pour in a cup of polenta.
2) Whisk briskly so polenta takes on the water on med-to-low heat. Continue stirring for about 30 mins with a wooden spoon.
3) As polenta is cooking add a big dob of butter and about a cup of fruit jam, whatever you have on hand, i.e. cherry, strawberry, apricot, marmalade. Stir thoroughly, mixing jam through cooking polenta.
4) Chop a couple handfuls of almonds and add to the cooking polenta, and you might add a little salt too, it will bring out the flavors. (You can also add half a teaspoon of cinnamon and or nutmeg if you like.)
5) At the 30 min mark, pour polenta into a large greased bowl or onto a plate, and let it cool.
6) Now peel and slice several apples. Bananas are on the last shopping list too, so you could add some sliced banana too.
7) Melt a big chunk of butter in a pan, add the apples and bananas and stir them about in the butter till they brown. Squeeze some lemon juice over the fruit, put a lid on the pan and remove it from the hot plate.

To serve: Plate sliced pieces of polenta cake, spoon some buttered apple and banana over the cake, and then add a large dollop of yogurt. If you have any almonds left, sprinkle a few over the top, and for total decadence drizzle honey or maple syrup over the lot!

A delicious flavor-pal beverage is Tulsi Rose Tea, or chai or a good cuppa English breakfast tea.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Savory Bread Pudding & Asparagus

It's Friday, and once again, I want to offer readers an easy-to-make, family-friendly meal.

Savory bread pudding is a clever adaptation of the old-fashioned dessert favorite, sweet bread pudding.

Making use of any stale bread on hand, leftover vegetables such as chard, eggs and milk (ingredients from the most recent grocery list), this is a delicious dish that will take about an hour to make.

Savory Bread Pudding & Asparagus
1) For the bread pudding: Chop into chunks any leftover baguette you have, or for that matter, any stale bread you have in the fridge or freezer (unfreeze bread first).
2) Saute all the leftover chard (wash it first, and remove woody stalks) in olive oil with a little garlic.
3) Halve all the leftover cherry tomatoes.
4) Set aside a cup of frozen peas to defrost.
5) Break 4 eggs into a bowl & add a cup & a half of milk, beat with a whisk till eggs are thoroughly mixed into milk.
6) Now toss bread & veggies into a baking dish. If you have dried herbs, i.e. basil or thyme or oregano, add about a teaspoon & stir through. Season with salt & pepper, stir again.
7) Pour egg & milk mix over the bread & veggies & gently press the lot down with back of a spatula.
8) Pop into a 350 degree for about 40 mins.

Grilled Asparagus
1) While bread pudding is cooking, break off woody ends of asparagus.
2) Heat olive oil in a skillet and toss asparagus in, stirring it about -- it will brown as it would if over an open-flame grill.
3) Cook for about 5-7 mins, or till it turns bright green.
4) Remove skillet from hotplate and drizzle some olive oil over the asparagus, season with ground black pepper and salt.

To Serve: Dollop a heaping spoon of bread pudding onto a warm plate with a side of asparagus. A bright, slightly dry, chilled white wine would be a fab flavor pal with this simple-gourmet, Friday-night dinner.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Flounder with Polenta & Chard

When I upload photos I've taken of meals I've made for this blog, I'm often woefully disappointed with the way the pictures look.

Disappointed, because I know how absolutely gorgeous food can look when it's staged for the camera.

In my professional cooking days in Australia, I had a friend who worked in the kitchens of Kraft.

Kerry called me one week and asked if I'd be interested in helping her stage food for a photo shoot for Kraft's latest cook book.

I jumped at the opportunity. And what an eye-opening experience it was!

I discovered that because cooked food looks kinda limp, tired, and unappetizing, great food photography takes advantage of partially-cooked or raw food (particularly if vegetables are in the shoot) even if it means the final photograph is a big fib.

The truth is, oftentimes a picture of a dish that is supposedly cooked (like a veggie-rich casserole) is not a photo of cooked vegetables at all, but a manipulated image of par-cooked vegetables.

After all, who would be enticed to read or buy a cook book featuring limp and tired-looking food?

So, in defense of my amateurish food pics, I'm just a girl with an iPhone, a laptop (not a Mac), on a mission to show you real food in all its cooked, and sometimes limp-looking glory.

So with that in mind, let me tell you about the above meal:

Flounder with Polenta and Chard

(Ingredients are from the March 19th shopping list)

1) Add about a cup of polenta to a pot of (3-4 cups) of boiling water. Stir with a wooden spoon, letting the polenta simmer for about 30 mins or until it turns porridge-like. Turn polenta out onto a plate and let it cool and set.
2) Meanwhile, remove woody stalks from chard and chop it into pieces.
3) Saute some chopped onion and garlic in olive oil, toss in chard & a cup of frozen peas, turn heat to low so that veggies stew slowly in their own juice.
4) Cut polenta into chunks and toss it in with veggies.
5) Lay flounder fillets over the top of polenta and veggies, season with salt and pepper and put lid on. Flounder will steam cook in about 5 minutes.

To Serve: Spoon a portion of vegetables and polenta onto plates, top with a piece of steamed flounder, squeeze half a lemon over the lot and serve with chopped cilantro.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Realize your Economic Limits When Grocery Shopping

At the request of one of my friends, this Sunday we met at Whole Foods.

Catherine wanted to shadow me and learn how and why I make the choices that I make when I do my grocery shopping.

Talking through my choices with Catherine made me aware of two things:
  1. It's important to realize our economic limits around food purchases and consumption.
  2. It's possible to buy your weekly groceries for less by staying away from packaged foods and purchasing whole, unprocessed produce, protein and dry goods in bulk.
As Catherine and I stood at the check-out, ahead of us were a couple who'd spent $86 on a bag of groceries which included over $10 worth of carob treats. Spending that amount on sweets is fine if your budget allows for it, but if it doesn't, don't buy expensive sweets!

It's a simple formula: If you can't afford it, don't buy it -- realize your economic limits!

I'm not suggesting that if you're on a budget you should never treat yourself -- since I buy myself a small treat every week -- rather, treat yourself within your means.

Oftentimes I'll buy a bar of chocolate, or something sweet from the bulk section, like maple-covered pecans, or dates, or chocolate covered almonds and at the most, I'll spend 2-3 dollars because that's within my budget.

As for the second point, I spent the amount I usually spend on my weekly groceries, approximately $60, and my carry bag was larger and overflowing with whole foods compared to the couple ahead of me who'd spent $86 on less food.

As we all feel the pressure of living during leaner times, it makes sense to spend within your means by making healthier, whole food choices at the grocery store.

Today I have a simple meal suggestion using items from the March 19th shopping list.

Spicy Buffalo
1) Over med-to-high heat, saute big chunks of chopped onion and eggplant in olive oil with garlic (1 or 2 cloves).
2) Once eggplant has browned toss in buffalo, stir it around, breaking up ground beef, then turn heat down, low-to-med.
3) Add half a jar of the 365-brand salsa, stir into beef and veges.
4) Once mixture starts to bubble, turn heat to low and put lid on. Cook slowly for about 15 mins.
5) Do a taste-test and if you want it spicier/hotter, add more salsa or if you have 'hot sauce' on hand, add that.
6) At the last minute, toss in lots of chopped cilantro, stirring through before serving.

Asparagus, Chard & Cherry Tomatoes
1) Break off woody part at the bottom of asparagus spear.
2) Boil rapidly in an inch or so of water for 3-5 mins. with a couple of chopped chard leaves.
3) Strain greens, drizzle with olive oil, season to taste.
4) Toss through some cheese, letting it melt.
5) Chop cherry tomatoes in half and serve on the side with greens.

To Serve: Spoon spicy buffalo and asparagus into separate serving bowls for the most effective presentation at the dining table. You might like to include a small bowl of extra grated cheese for sprinkling over the vegetables, and additional salsa to serve with the buffalo.

Living the M2M Principle

One of my creative-foodie friends, Carolyn, a travel writer for Lonely Planet, prompted me to share some thoughts on living the Market to Mouth principle, that is, grocery shopping and eating well on a budget.

Based in Chile, Carolyn has stayed with me on numerous occasions while on assignment in the U.S. We have much in common; in particular, we've both been trying to eek out a living as writers.

Writing romantic comedy, and now food blogging (me) and writing for one of the most successful budget-travel publications (Carolyn) -- is wonderfully creative and challenging and so on, but living the Artist's Way has meant forgoing a steady & regular paycheck.

However, Carolyn and I do it anyway because we love it!

When you follow your passion and work at what you love, oftentimes you have to make sacrifices. And out of necessity to our craft, C and I have consciously chosen to live thrifty lives because we've had to.

This means pre-recession, we were living on a budget, counting our pennies while grocery shopping, and still eating well despite our thrift.

Because we both love our food and because we're both creatives, we've learned the art of whipping up stone soup (minus the stones) again, because necessity is the mother of invention.

The conversation amongst my friends these days is the economy, and that conversation is tinged with fear. We are indeed living in interesting times necessitating that we all tap our inner resourcefulness and inventiveness.

Whether you're already counting pennies or realizing that you need to be, follow me as I walk my talk, grocery shopping on a budget, and managing my food for the week, cooking up delicious and nutritious meals applying my no fuss, no waste approach to simple-gourmet cooking.

Really, If Carolyn and I can do it, you can too!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Red Curry & Coconut Milk Shrimp

This is a fabulously easy and tasty dish that can be whipped up in minutes.

Using ingredients from the shopping list I posted yesterday, here's the method ....

Red Curry & Coconut Milk Shrimp
1) Chop an onion (or several spring onions) and toss in a pan with olive oil and some garlic. Saute on medium till onion is transparent.
2) Add a teaspoon of Thai Red Curry Paste (or more, depending on how spicy you like your food).
3) Wash several leaves of red chard, trim woody stems off then chop into pieces. Add to pan, along with a handful of whole or halved, grape tomatoes.
4) I added a yellow bell pepper, though they're not on this week's grocery list, but if you have a yellow pepper or even carrot, add it for the color.
5) Toss in a half bag of thawed Whole Catch Pink Shrimp or the whole bag, depending on how 'shrimpy' you want to make this dish. Stir around and coat shrimp and veggies with curry paste and onions.
6) Pour in a can of coconut milk and lightly simmer for about 10-15 mins.

To Serve: Spoon curry over boiled rice, or noodles, or even over toast if you can't be bothered cooking rice. Top with chopped cilantro and the juice from half a lemon or lime.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Transition from Winter to Spring

Today, I'm putting together a new grocery list.

My Feb 28th post offered several tips on writing a weekly grocery list. You might want to check it out again.

I also added a couple of links (see sidebar) to sites that will help the grocery shopper in your household become more skilled with writing grocery lists.

As I write my list, I'm taking into account that it's getting warmer and that spring officially starts next week. Because of the change in the weather, my preference recently has been for lighter meals with an emphasis on more vegetables, particularly green veggies.

Green foods are a great way to make the transition from winter to spring because their phytonutrients help the liver detox after a winter of heavier, richer food.

I'm also taking into consideration that this week, I'm having a group of friends over for brunch.
I'm going to prepare butter apples and top them with vanilla yogurt drizzled with honey and toasted almonds, accompanied by Tulsi rose tea!

I perused WFs Good Stuff For Less flier online and saw that bags of mixed apples are on sale this week, as are baguettes, which will a great for my brunch and last week I picked up the Tulsi tea when I noticed that it was on sale.

So here's my list: (Remember, my budget is around $60 a week and I manage to stick to it by sticking to my shopping list.)
  1. Red Chard (2 for $3)
  2. Asparagus ($1 off)
  3. Organic grape tomatoes
  4. frozen peas & sliced okra
  5. cilantro
  6. egg plant
  7. bag of apples ($1 off)
  8. bananas
  9. buffalo ($2 off)
  10. flounder (frozen vacuum pack)
  11. Whole Catch frozen shrimp
  12. 365-brand coconut milk
  13. eggs (365-brand large white)
  14. 1/2 & 1/2
  15. 365-brand yogurt
  16. almonds (from bulk section)
  17. chick peas (from bulk section)
  18. polenta (from bulk section)
  19. Wfs bakery baguette ($1 off)
  20. Tortilla Chips (2 for $4)
  21. 365-brand salsa
  22. Cheese from olive bar
This week, I'll share as many different and interesting simple gourmet meals as I can prepare from my grocery list above -- including the brunch I make reference to.

As always, I want readers to see that it is easy to shop on a budget at WFs and then once home, just as easy to prepare at least 6 main meals, plus some yummy lunches with leftovers.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Cooking for a Thousand

Yesterday I wrote about the economy of buying in quantity at Whole Foods. My reader, Erica, posted a comment in response. Feel free to add your comment(s)

After all the talk about
buying in quantity, I have a story about cooking in quantity:

When I worked as a chef for Melbourne's then top catering company, Peter Rowlands, we catered a 3-day, weekend wrap-up party for The Man From Snowy River. Between the crew, actors, extras, hangers-owners etc, we were cooking for about 1000 people. And our managing chef was away, so at 22-years young, I was at the helm!

I have vague recollections of not sleeping for about a week leading up to the cook-a-thon due to daily, major panics over ordering the right massive quantities required to prepare the food we'd planned for the event.

Then during the actual cook-a-thon, my days ended around midnight and started again around 5 a.m. It's no wonder I was a bit foggy-brained and stressed.

Because Rowland's hadn't catered such a large function before (our big events were a couple hundred people not a thousand), I ordered containers to hold the planned butternut pumpkin soup and fancy salads. The containers were 30 gallon, plastic trash cans.

I'd proposed the butternut pumpkin soup because it's so easy, so delicious and the color is beautiful -- I knew the party-goers would love it. (It was a simple version of the recipe I posted on February 16th for Spicy Butternut Pumpkin Soup.)

As each batch of soup was finished, we poured it into one of the trash cans. At the end of that day, the lids went on 3, 30-gallon cans after which, we hauled them into our walk-in coolers for the night.

The following morning I rolled up half-dead with exhaustion but ready for another day of marathon cooking. With only a couple more days left before the weekend, we were on schedule and doing great work.

Shortly after my arrival the kitchen crew straggled in, made coffee, eggs, toast and hung out while I wandered through the walk-in cooler checking on our previous-day's work, lifting the lids on the trash cans.

When you cook large quantities of say, soup, it needs to cool slowly so that the temperature falls evenly on the outside and the inside. If the outside cools fast and the inside maintains it's temperature, the inside continues to cook and bubble and ...

I don't remember the superlatives that came roaring out of my mouth, suffice it to say I'm sure they were colorful. You see, the soup was bubbling. Furiously!

It had begun to ferment!

At least one, 30-gallon trash can of soup had to be tossed and made again.

Despite the behind-the-scenes drama, our food and the event was a huge success. Though, I have to say, I would never commit to putting myself under that kind of stress again!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Saving on Your Groceries

Today, I went on Whole Foods value tour and gathered information for my reader Erica who has three hungry, carnivorous men in her family to feed.

My intention was to find out if Erica could shop at Whole Foods for her family and not spend more than she's already spending on groceries at the big box stores.

On the value tour, I learned that like the big-box stores such as Costco, you can purchase WFs meat, fish, bulk items, tinned, bottled and frozen goods as well as fresh produce at a 10% discount when you buy large quantities.

In fact, you can buy just about anything at WFs for a discount if you buy in quantity:

1) Note the picture above of brightly-packaged frozen tuna, salmon and halibut -- a 10% discount applies on cases of frozen fish. In one case there are 12 packets of 12 ounces of fish, so a case contains 24 pieces of top-quality frozen fish. Cost that out, and you'll find you're paying a mere $3.50 per piece of fish. Ask your fish-counter team leader for help.

2) At the meat counter, ground beef is always .50c off each pound over purchases of 3lbs. The pre-packaged family packs of chicken and steak are also .50c off each pound over 3lbs. Cryovac packs of NY steaks are available with the 10% discount as are 40lb cases of meat. Ask your meat-counter team leader about the "beef in the bag" program. With the 10% discount, WFs prices on their fresh meats are comparable (within a few dollars) to Costco prices.

3) In the bulk section (pic above) note the sacks under the self-help containers. The 10% discount applies when you buy sacks of commodities like flour, sugar, salt, oats, rice and beans. Dried fruits and nuts come in boxes rather than sacks. The weight of the box is indicated below the PLU number on the self-help containers. For instance, cranberries are 9.99 per lb and they're available in 25lb boxes. When you buy a box, the 10% discount applies.

4) Over in the frozen foods department, the 10% case-discount applies on all frozen goods. Check the yellow price label; it will indicate how many packets are in a case. For instance, the 365-brand sliced okra comes in cases of 12 packets.

5) Then over in the fresh produce department, everything can be bought in a case and the 10% case-discount applies.

If you're grocery shopping for a family on a budget, and you have a good freezer and a pantry with room to store dry goods, consider buying your groceries in bulk and making use of WFs 10% discount program.

Obviously the thing to do would be to stagger your bulk purchases so that you're not spending an enormous amount all at once. One week buy a case of fish. The next week buy a sack of rice. The next week buy a case of acorn squash. And so on.

I hope this has been helpful for readers like Erica, who have hungry carnivores at home, and who need and want to be mindful of saving dollars.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Budget-Wise Grocery Shopping Tips

Erica, mother of two hungry boys and wife to an equally hungry husband, emailed me saying that she could never afford to grocery shop at Whole Foods for her carnivorous family of men.

I've taken on Erica's challenge, which means this week I'm going to offer some cost-saving suggestions for families like Erica's who are curious to learn how they can shop on a budget at a grocery store like Whole Foods.

To start with here are 4 simple budget-wise tricks to consider:

  • Note that I don't buy processed or packaged foods, other than the occasional frozen meal which I keep on hand for emergencies. My cost-saving preference is whole, unprocessed foods because simply, they're healthier and cheaper.
  • I always buy my dry goods, like whole, unprocessed grains in bulk. If you buy boxed and brand-name rice, beans, pulses, nuts, chocolate, etc. you will pay for the pretty packet. Instead, buy flours, grains, nuts, dried fruits, trail mix, beans, lentils, chocolate in bulk; there's no packaging to toss away and you'll save.
  • Buy fresh produce in season, i.e. don't buy expensive soft summer fruits in the middle of winter! In fact, go without produce that is not in season; it makes economical and health sense to avoid foods that are not in season. In winter, those veggies and fruits harvested in the late fall are in season and abundant and they're price will reflect that.

Meanwhile, today I'm posting the eighth meal suggestion from ingredients listed in the Feb 28th shopping list, a list of groceries I bought for just under $65.

It's a chunky, green veggie and corn soup, one that uses leftovers from the 2/28 shopping list, and one that would suffice as a main meal for light-eaters, but probably only as a lunch snack for fellas like Erica's boys.

Chunky Green Vegetables & Corn Soup

1) Recently I posted a meal using a turkey breast so you may have scraps of leftover meat. Hopefully, as a result I've my posts on stock making, you were inspired to made a stock by tossing the remaining meat (and any bones) in a pot of water and simmering it for about an hour or two.
2) To the strained stock, add leftover broccoli, zucchini, celery, some frozen corn, season to taste and voila, a delicious, nutritious green soup made from leftovers. For a more substantial soup, add a cooked grain, i.e. rice, millet or quinoa, or add chunks of cooked potato.
3) From the Feb 28th shopping list, you might have a leftover piece of salmon. For a more complete meal, pan fry it in a little olive oil and lemon juice and serve it with this soup.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Pasta with Red Bell Pepper Sauce & Greens

Today I'm offering the seventh meal suggestion from the Feb 28th shopping list.

It's a simple, hearty meal. One that'll take about 15 minutes to prepare which means it's great for evenings when you're too tired to fuss with food -- like Friday nights!

Pasta with Red Bell Pepper and Greens
1) Chop and saute red bell pepper, onion, garlic in olive oil over med heat.
2) Bring pot of water to boil for pasta.
3) In a separate pan saute additional onion in olive oil, then toss in unfrozen spinach, chopped broccoli florets and chopped asparagus. Turn hot plate to low and put lid on so that veggies stew lightly in their own juice.
4) Add pasta to boiling water and simmer until pasta is soft but still slightly chewy (al dente).
5) At this point, add a big blob of olive and caper tapenade to the red bell peppers, onion and garlic. Put the lot through a food processor to create a thick sauce or if you can't be bothered, just spoon it over the pasta as a chunky sauce.
6) Once pasta is cooked to your liking, strain, and then run strainer w/pasta under the hot water tap to flush out starchy pasta water. Return pasta to pot, drizzle olive oil over pasta and stir through with pot on hot plate, though don't over heat and fry pasta.

To serve: Spoon pasta onto plate, top with red bell pepper sauce, and some zesty cheese if you have any. Add side of greens to create a colorful and nutritious meal.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Top Reasons to One-Stop Shop

In my March 9th post, I mentioned that I practice 1-stop grocery shopping. I do so because driving around looking for the best deal on single items is a time, energy, gas, and ironically, a money zap.

Let's face it, if you were to put a dollar value on your time, energy, and gas, how much would you really save buying "X" for less at that other store.

When Whole Foods introduced their value-pricing strategy last summer, it encouraged me to try 1-stop shopping at my local store. And here's what I discovered:

1) Their "Good Stuff for Less" and 365-generic brand prices are comparable, if not lower than other grocery stores.
2) Their 10% case-discount on any product in the store (plus it can be a mixed case of any 12 items) is a great deal.
3) Their .50c off each additional pound of meat over a 3lb purchase is a great value-added for me (I freeze what I'm not going to immediately use) and it's particularly great for families.
4) Their Whole Deal value guide contains lots of money-saving coupons.

When I buy groceries at a discount, I want to know that I'm still purchasing quality. I don't want to feel concern that I'm paying less because:

a) It fell of the back of a truck or
b) It's beyond its use-by date or
c) If it's meat or fish, it's full of antibiotics, hormones and dyes.

At WFs, I don't have these concerns because I trust their core values, plus I've shopped their long enough now to know that their product really is excellent.

Growing up in rural Australia, we knew where our beef, lamb, chicken came from. We bought from the local butcher who bought from the local farmers.

When I lived and cooked in France, I noticed it was similar, in as much as you could go into a butcher and see a drawn map of where the meat had been farmed. But I don't live in rural Australia or Europe, I now live in the middle of America.

Having had the above experiences, I want to feel like I can trust that the meat and fish I purchase has been ethically sourced. Whole Foods Meat standards gives me reason to trust that their meat is top quality.

Good value to me isn't just about my groceries being cheap. Good value includes knowing that while the food I'm buying is well priced, it's also good for me to the extent that's been grown and sourced according to a set of ethics and guidelines that parallels my desire to eat food that is as clean as it can be.

For all these reasons, I choose to 1-stop grocery shop at Whole Foods because during these economic times, I can buy my groceries there at a reasonable price and feel comfortable that their values are aligned with mine.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Thai Vegetables with Sardines

Having blogged about the benefits of keeping good quality condiments on hand, today I'm offering a meal idea using a couple of my favorite condiments plus ingredients from the Feb 28th shopping list.

Thai Kitchen Pad Thai Sauce and Premium Fish Sauce are fabulous for adding to stewed or stir-fried veggies.

They add interest to vegetables in particular, and the Fish Sauce infuses dishes with a real, Thai-like flavor.

Thai Vegetables with Sardines
1) Chop half an onion and saute in pan with olive oil. Add one smashed clove of garlic.
2) Chop some carrot, bell pepper, potato (into small cubes), celery, spinach. Toss in with onions and garlic. (Looks like I added some grape tomatoes too. They weren't on the shopping list but if you have them on hand, they are a nice addition to this meal.)
3) Stir over med heat, then plop in a heaping spoon of the Pad Thai sauce. Gently stir all ingredients.
4) Turn heat down and cook veggies slowly for about 10-15 mins. Add a little water or stock if you need more moisture to keep veggies from sticking to the pan.
5) Boil some rice (which isn't on the Feb 28th list, but it was on the previous list so maybe you have some on hand).
6) Once the veggies are cooked to your satisfaction, slurp some Fish Sauce into the pan. Do a taste-test and see if you need more fish sauce.

Note: I don't tend to use really hot sauces in my cooking -- probably you noted their absence from my condiment list -- but if you have a favorite hot sauce in your pantry, go ahead and add it at this point.

To Serve: Spoon rice onto a plate, top with a portion of vegetables and then top with a big fat sardine!

I use sardines for this dish because of their oiliness and the smokey, fish flavor. Both compliment the Thai vegetable concoction so well. And good quality sardines in olive oil are incredibly economical while also being highly nutritious.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Stocking your Condiment Pantry

One of the tricks to creating delish and interesting meals on a budget is to keep quality condiments on hand.

And one of the best ways to build your pantry of condiments is to buy these items when you see them on sale.

At Whole Foods you can also purchase bottled and packaged goods in bulk at a discount. For example, if your family consumes large amounts of pasta sauce, you'd be better off buying a discounted case versus one bottle on sale. Check your local store for details.

Because I'm a proponent of the economy of one-stop-shopping, I won't drive from store-to-store looking for the best deal on items, I'll simply stay alert when doing my weekly shop and buy my favorite tinned & bottled sauces, jams, mustard, oil etc. when they're on sale.

And because I collect condiments over time (when I see them on sale), I don't spend a lot on these items regularly. Obviously if I were to add six condiments to my grocery list every-other week, purchasing them at full price, my grocery bill would go over budget.

So the key is to add one or two of your favorite condiments to your shopping cart periodically. Following this simple rule means I generally have on hand:

1) 365 Olive Oil
2) 365 Pasta Sauce
3) 365 bottled Salsa
4) 365 Fruit Spread
5) Patak's curry paste, and or sauce
6) Thai Kitchen Red Curry Paste, Pad Thai Sauce, Premium Fish Sauce
7) 365 Coconut Milk
8) 365 Mustard: seeded & Dijon
9) 365 Organic Brown Rice Vinegar & Red Wine Vinegar
10) Braggs Liquid Aminos (like Soy Sauce only free of wheat)
11) And maybe ketchup, mayonnaise, pickled ginger, olives, capers etc.

And with these condiments in my pantry and fridge, I can jazz up just about any dish that might otherwise be quite ordinary.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Combining Foods and Flavors

In Becoming Recipe-Independent, I talked about my budget-conscious preference for using recipes as little as possible or not at all.

I do draw on my culinary training when grocery shopping and cooking, so rather than assume that everyone can easily do without their recipe books, I'm going to recommend a book-- though it's not a cookbook.

A number of months ago, a foodie friend introduced me to The Flavor Bible by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg.

It's a big, encyclopedic-like book, and in that regard it's a phenomenal resource, particularly for anyone interested in learning about mixing and matching food and flavors.

Knowing what foods and their flavors go with other foods and flavors goes a long way when you're doing your grocery shopping and thinking about what meals you might like to prepare.

For instance, using the turkey, apples, spinach and walnuts from the Feb 28th grocery list, I made a meal (pic above) that might seem like unusual food/flavor combining, but let me explain, though first I'll share my method for making this delicious meal.

Turkey, Spinach and Apple
1) Saute a chopped apple in a saucepan with some butter.
2) Toss in a handful of thawed, frozen spinach; maybe add a little more butter since the spinach will soak up all the moisture in the pan.
3) Having baked a portion of turkey breast in tinfoil in a 350-degree oven for a couple of hours, slice the cooled meat.
4) Gently toss the turkey meat, spinach and apples together and serve in a bowl topped with walnuts.
5) Serve with crusty bread and olive oil for dipping and if you have any cheese on hand, say feta or something with bite, serve alongside bread.

Now, spinach is a bitter green, so it lends itself well to sweet, and apple is sweet as are walnuts which are also astringent, and oily, as is turkey.

Given that turkey and walnuts are oily, the bitterness of the spinach cuts through the oiliness. It's always good to combine a bitter with an oily because the latter helps digest oils and fats.

So this is a small example of how The Food Bible cross-references foods and flavors to indicate creative ways of mixing and matching when cooking.

And as I mentioned above, once you have a sense of what goes with what, you can begin to do-away with using recipes because you'll feel more confident grocery shopping and then once home in the kitchen, more confident combining the groceries you've purchased.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Are you a Foodie or a Gourmand?

I copied this fun-facts passage from Andrea the Gastronaut's blog:

Wikipedia says, “…foodies differ from gourmets in that gourmets are epicures of refined taste who may or may not be professionals in the food industry, whereas foodies are amateurs who simply love food for consumption, study, preparation, and news.

Gourmets simply want to eat the best food, whereas foodies want to learn everything about food, both the best and the ordinary, and about the science, industry, and personalities surrounding food.

For this reason, foodies are sometimes viewed as obsessively interested in all things culinary.”

Which are you, a foodie or a gourmand?

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Potato Latke and Roasted Vegetables

Tonight I have a couple of friends coming for dinner. I'm making a dish that is easy to prepare, low in cost, and one that I think looks incredibly good on the plate.

It's my version of a potato latke or potato pancake, topped with chunks of baked salmon, apple sauce and parsley (pic left).

With the latke, I'm going to serve baked vegetables (below) because they'll be a colorful addition, adding eye-appeal plus flavor and texture to the meal.

The ingredients needed to make this meal are listed in the Feb. 28th shopping list.

Potato Latke & Roasted Vegetables
1) Cut up a couple of apples (you can peel them or not) and put into saucepan with a little water. Simmer for about 15 mins, or until apples are soft. Squish apples with a fork, then set aside.
2) Grate 2 big russet potatoes in a bowl. Squeeze potatoes of liquid (discard liquid). Add two eggs to potatoes, stirring in with fork. Add couple spoons of flour (rice/wheat, rye), enough to bind potatoes.
3) Meanwhile, put one fillet of salmon in oven @350. Bake about 15 mins or until salmon is cooked to your preference: rare/med/well done.
4) Now chop into chunks onion, zucchini, bell pepper, carrots, asparagus. Scatter veggies on a baking tray, drizzle with olive oil and put in oven with salmon. Bake about 30 mins. or until veggies are soft and lightly browned.
5) While salmon and veggies are cooking, heat olive oil in a pan or skillet, drop heaping spoons of potato/egg/flour mix into pan and shape with spoon, patting the top and sides. Cook over med heat, browning the latkes on both sides. When sufficiently browned, remove latkes and put on plate lined with paper towel (towel will soak up excess oil). Cover with foil until you've browned all the latkes.
6) If you're uncertain about whether the latkes are cooked all the way through, cut one open. If it's not properly cooked, once you've pan fried all the potato mix, continue cooking the latkes in the oven.

To Serve: put one or two latkes on each plate, top with flaked pieces of baked salmon, pop a spoon of apple sauce on the salmon, and to the side, place the roasted vegetables. If you've any parsley or green garnish on hand, top the lot with a sprig.

If you fancy serving dessert, wash a box of blackberries, spoon into small bowls, top with yogurt, sprinkle with maple granola and drizzle with honey -- so easy and delicious. (These items are also on the Feb 28th shopping list.)

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

More Meal from your Frozen Favorites

I tweeted recently with medical blogger, Kristie McNealy, on the convenience of frozen meals.

Kristie had just posted this tweet: "Gross, March is National Frozen Food Month... Do we really need a month for junk food?"

My response: "I make great dishes using Amy's frozen dinners as starters, adding fresh veggies to create a nutritious meal."

Not that I'm an advocate of eating frozen meals on a regular basis, not at all, however, I find they have their place, particularly if you're running short on time, inspiration, or you simply can't be bothered making a whole meal from scratch.

When Whole Foods has Amy's organic frozen meals on sale for under $4, I'll buy a couple. You'll note I added them to my Feb. 28th grocery list, I wanted to demonstrate the value of having good quality frozen meals in your freezer for the reasons I mention above.

Usually I look out for Amy's vegetarian Indian meals because they have the most flavor. I prefer not to buy frozen meals with meat in them because to me the texture of meat in frozen meals resembles soggy cardboard.

One of the ways I make use of Paneer Tikka (pic to left) is with leftover chicken or fish.

The tomato masala sauce is yummy over white meat or a delicate fish like sole, flounder or tilapia and the chunks of soft cheese in the sauce add a delicious creamy texture.

Adding your own roasted cashews gives crunch factor (since frozen meals can be quite soft in texture) and because it comes with spinach and rice this is a well-rounded meal.

Amy's "Rice Mac and Cheese" (pic at top) does very well with the addition of any green veg you might have in your fridge or freezer, i.e. spinach, peas, broccoli, etc. This is important because a meal without color is lacking essential nutrients; and for crunch-and flavor-factor top with a little turkey bacon.

The "Broccoli Pot Pie" (pic at top) is a great side for a spicy protein like a pan-fried, peppery piece of salmon, and if you can be bothered add an additional side of garlic mash or roast potatoes.

So as you can see from my suggestions, frozen meals lend themselves well to jazzing up. I wouldn't chose to eat an Amy's (or any other frozen meal) straight out of the box; I think I'd be very disappointed and still hungry once I'd finished.

Let me know what you add to your next frozen meal in the effort to create a more delicious, nutritious and colorful convenient meal.