Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Eggplant Parmigiana with Okra & Crimini Mushrooms

You'll notice a theme to the vegetarian meals I've posted this week simply by looking at the pics.

So far all 3 meal ideas have been variations on these abundant, and thus priced accordingly, summer vegetables: eggplant, tomato, zucchini, onions and garlic, bell peppers, okra, and today's addition- -crimini mushrooms.

When I was sixteen, my family hosted a South African exchange student of Greek heritage. Helen fit right in at the Ross household; she loved food and she loved to cook.

Helen navigated our kitchen with ease, cooking up a memorized repertoire of traditional Greek dishes -- not South African. (It was obvious she and her family, closely identified with their roots even though Helen had a stash of Rooibos tea in her suitcase.)

My mother was so impressed with her cooking, and the flavor of Helen's dishes, she dashed out and bought a book on traditional Greek cooking. And therein began my love affair with baklava and moussaka.

This was back in the late '70's and the eggplant purchased then for the moussaka was always very organic. I have vivid recollections of cutting into eggplant only to find a worm or two. One simply cut around the worms or picked them out.

The eggplant I buy now is always so perfect: perfectly shaped, beautiful color, minimal marks on the skin, and no worms inside. And it's not bitter! We used to cut our eggplant, sprinkle it with salt, and then let it sit to sweat which drew out the bitter flavor.

I do wonder why even organic vegetables are so perfect these days?!

Eggplant is a versatile veggie because it will soak up flavor due to its sponge-like texture. I love it tossed in the pan with lashings of good quality olive oil.

Both Monday's ratatouille, and today's parmigiana, call for browning eggplant in a pan or skillet with olive oil, and again, because of it's spongy quality, eggplant will lap-up oil, and taste better for it!

Eggplant Parmigiana
1) Wash, trim and slice two large eggplant length-wise.
2) Heat good quality olive oil in a skillet or pan and place eggplant slices into hot oil, turning to brown slices evenly.
3) Once browned, drain eggplant on a paper-towel lined plate.
4) Meanwhile, chop onions, a smashed garlic clove, some red or green bell pepper, and slice a tomato or two.
5) Saute, garlic, onions & bell pepper till soft.

To assemble:
Line a baking dish with a layer of eggplant, dot eggplant with a layer of the sauteed onion, garlic and peppers. Add a layer of sliced tomatoes (or you could use a bottled or tinned tomato sauce if you wish), then dot with crumbled feta.

Begin again with a layer of eggplant and finish with a layer of crumbled feta or grated cheese of your choice. Bake in a pre-heated 350-degree oven for about 30-40 mins or until the parmigiana is hot through.

While parmigiana is cooking prepare a side of:

Okra & Crimini Mushies in Vermouth & Cream
1) Wash and slice a portion of fresh okra and one large white onion.
2) Either wipe crimini mushies clean of dirt and organic bits or peel them with your fingers by gently taking a piece of flesh from the under-side of the mushroom, and peeling it up and over and off the top of the mushroom. (I do this because I find I like the white flesh under the top skin to be exposed and because I find it very Zen peeling mushrooms -- what I can say!)
3) Toss okra, onion and mushies into a pan or skillet with a big dob of butter, stir around over med-to-high heat until veggies have softened and taken up all the butter.
4) With the heat on high, pour in a good slurp of Vermouth. The liquid will bubble away furiously, and the alcohol will evaporate.
5) At around the 5-min. mark, reduce heat to med. Add a slurp of pouring cream, gently stirring it into veggies and vermouth. Allow to simmer gently on low for another few minutes, then season to your liking.

To Serve: Pour okra & mushroom combo into a serving dish and place on the table with the hot parmigiana still in its baking dish for family-style table service. You might also like to serve a side bowl of hot elbow or shell noodles tossed with olive oil and chopped parsley.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Baked Tomato Polenta and Garlic Okra

Continuing this week's theme of cooked vegetarian meals, today I'm featuring yet another idea that lends itself to the addition of a side salad.

As I mentioned yesterday, I'm not a big fan of cold salads as my main meal of the day; they just don't satiate my appetite.

I prefer the internally-warming properties of a hot, cooked dish, even in the summer.

Actually, the meal ideas I'm featuring this week I made this time last year when living in the sweltering heat and humidity of Miami-- hence the addition of baked okra in today's dish.

Okra is everywhere in the south east of the U.S. and I learned to love it, even that weird slimy texture, so odd to my Australian palate.

You may be aware that in many hot, tropical climates the preference is often not flimsy salads, but hot, and spicy food. Think Indian, Thai, Cajun.

The spices are used intentionally to promote sweating, because moisture on the skin ultimately cools the body. I think we have the wrong idea completely, erring on the side of light salads and iced drinks in summer; they sure don't make you sweat!

The afternoon cooking smells coming from neighboring apartments in the complex where I lived in Miami spoke to the ritual of cooked evening meals. Often it was the grandmothers of immigrant South American families who were at home in the afternoon cooking.

Chances are the meals being made were not vegetarian though, since meat features front and center in many South American cuisines.

In Australia we're not that big on spicy food, even in the tropical zones of the country, but that's changing because of our immigrant Asian population. Think fabulous Thai cafes and restaurants.

In the rural area where I grew up, there were lots of Southern Italian immigrants and my mother would often shop at the local Italian warehouse-style grocer. So I was exposed to a Mediterranean diet early, which includes eat substantial hot meals all year round.

Today's dish is a combination of my learning to love okra and my love of Mediterranean-style cooking, and my preference for cooked, hot meals in summer:

Baked Tomato Polenta and Garlic Okra
1) Follow steps for cooking polenta. Pour onto an olive oiled, foiled-lined baking tray.
2) Meanwhile, saute a couple smashed cloves of garlic in a little olive oil. Add a chopped brown onion, and 4-6 ripe tomatoes. Turn heat to low and allow veggies to gently simmer in their own juices for about 15 mins.
3) At the half-way mark, add a big blob of tomato paste, a slurp of balsamic vinegar, and a pinch of sugar.
4) To finish sauce, season with salt and pepper and stir in chopped fresh herbs like basil or lemon basil or oregano or Italian parsley.
5) Slice fresh mozzarella and place pieces over cooked polenta, then over the cheese spoon the tomato and herb sauce, topping with your choice of olives (a hot spicy olive would add piquancy).
6) Wash fresh okra and place around the polenta. Top with whole cloves of unpeeled garlic. Drizzle with a little olive oil.
7) Place tray into a 350-degree oven and bake for about 30 mins or so.

To Serve: Spoon portions of the polenta and tomato onto plates, adding a side of the baked okra with whole garlic pieces. The garlic will easily slip out of the skin when gently squeezed, either eat it with your polenta or spread it on crackers or crusty bread.

A side or peppery arugula coated in a little olive oil and lemon juice would be a great accompaniment.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Red and Green Ratatouille

This week, I'm going to focus on the budgetary benefits of weaving vegetarian meals into your weekly menu plan.

It goes without saying that if you buy less meat protein, you'll spend less at the grocery store.

One thing to be conscious of when buying fresh vegetables is the produce that's best bought organic, and the conventionally grown produce that's safe to eat.

You might like to review Food News' Shopper's Guide to Pesticides and familiarize yourself with the good, the bad and the ugly news.

Summer is the season of abundant fresh produce, which means summer veggies are priced reasonably and soft fruits are often on sale.

I bought two-for-one bunches of baby red chard the other day -- delicate little leaves with an equally delicate flavor and the bunches were huge! So keep your eyes peeled.

Despite loving salads in summer, I prefer them as a side to a hot dish. That's why my meal idea today is ratatouille, which by the way, can be served cold if you don't fancy a hot Italian vegetable casserole in the middle of summer.

Red Ratatouille (pic at the top)
1) Chop one large eggplant, one brown onion, one or two cloves or garlic, one red or green bell pepper, two zucchini or one pale-green giant courgette, and 4 juicy tomatoes.
2) Heat olive oil in a skillet, add eggplant and toss about until pieces have browned slightly. Remove from pan and slide eggplant onto a paper-towel covered plate (paper towel will absorb any excess oil).
3) Add more oil to pan, this time tossing in garlic and onion. Stir about till onion is transparent.
4) Add bell pepper, zucchini, stir veggies on med heat until they begin to soften slightly.
5) Add browned eggplant and then chopped tomatoes, turn heat to low.
6) Put a lid on the skillet and gently stew veggies in their own juices until they're soft (about 15 mins)
7) At around the half-way mark, you may like to enrich the flavor of the red ratatouille by adding a big dollop of tomato paste or a tinned or bottled tomato sauce -- enough to moisten, but not flood your veggies. You may even like to add a slurp of red wine to further enrich the flavor.
8) Cook gently a little longer, and taste test, adding salt and pepper if you wish.

To Serve: Toss chopped fresh basil over the lot, and drizzle with olive oil. You may like to grate fresh Romano, Parmesan or your choice of hard Italian cheese over the ratatouille or serve the cheese in slices on the side with crusty Italian bread. A crisp, green side salad, and perhaps a side bowl of quinoa or millet with pine nuts will complete this vegetarian meal.

You're probably most familiar with the red-based ratatouille above, the color of which comes from tomatoes. But a friend gave me lots of basil and a pale-green giant courgette from her garden last week so I decided to create a green ratatouille which takes its color from the pesto I made from the basil, and subsequently mixed into the ratatouille.

Green Ratatouille

1) Follow points one through six, leaving out the tomatoes.
2) While veggies are gently stewing, make pesto:

1) Toss a washed bunch of basil into a blender with a couple cloves of smashed garlic, a big handful of either walnuts or pinenuts, a handful of washed parsley (parsley diffuses the intensity of the raw garlic), and a handful of grated Romano or Parmesan or your choice of hard Italian cheese.
2) Turn blender on and begin pouring in about a half a cup of olive oil or enough to create a smooth paste, or less if you prefer a chunkier pesto. Salt and pepper to taste.

To Serve: Add a couple big spoons of pesto to your skillet and stir into veggies. Test taste, add more pesto if you prefer a richer flavor. And then follow the serving suggestion for the Red Ratatouille.

Because green ratatouille is absent tomatoes, you might like to serve it with a side of sliced tomatoes, sliced mozzarella and sliced cucumber. Decorate a plate with slices of the three, and drizzle with olive oil and a little balsamic vinegar.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Noodles with Garlic Shrimp & Lemon Tabouli

Continuing this week's theme of the budgetary benefits of vegequarian versus meat-based meals, I'm sharing a meal idea made by Julie, my Market to Mouth video pilot guest.

Julie tells me she's been more mindful of making choices within her budget when shopping at Whole Foods, adding that she's less likely to impulse purchase now that's she more conscious of how to shop within her means.

Then once home, she says she's more adventurous in the kitchen, trying her hand at cooking up what she's purchased without recipes or cookbooks, improvising and being creative without fear of "stuffing up."

In fact, she told me she now understands what I mean by recipe-independence.

I was with Julie at WFs recently when she purchased marinated shrimp skewers on sale for $1 per skewer. I think there were about 5 shelled shrimp on each skewer. I nudged her to buy two skewers -- one marinaded in garlic and herbs and the other in Cajun spices.

Later she called excited to share what she'd created (pic above).

Here's her recipe:

Soba Noodles with Garlic Shrimp & Lemon Tabouli
1) Boil a portion of your favorite noodles, i.e. soba, whole wheat, buckwheat, rice, plain wheat.
2) Meanwhile, chop a big handful of parsley, add a chopped tomato, spring onion, a chunk of cucumber and the juice of half a lemon, some olive oil, then season with S&P.
3) Now either grill the skewered shrimp, or as Julie did, remove shrimp from skewers, & toss into an oiled, hot pan, stirring rapidly for about 5-7 minutes or until shrimp are done.
4) Drain pasta (refer here for my technique on prepping cooked pasta), oil and season.

To Serve: Add pasta to a serving bowl, pour in lemon tabouli (which you will have noted is absent the soaked, cracked wheat or bulghur wheat), stir well, then toss in cooked shrimp. Spoon portions into individual bowls. Top with cracked, black pepper.

Note: If you prefer, for convenience and or for budgetary reasons, rather than buying skewered shrimp for this dish, you could use WFs Whole Catch pink shrimp, a Seafood Watch sustainable seafood.

Simply thaw a portion of the frozen pink shrimp, then marinade them in olive oil, chopped garlic, and your choice of dried herbs such as tarragon or oregano or an Italian mix or herbs de Provence.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Grilling a Vegequarian Meal

Do you remember my tongue-in-cheek comments a couple of weeks ago about Brian and his love of grilling?

Grilling is perhaps the only thing about cooking that Brian enjoys.

Though I can't identify with that, I have been enjoying the ease of cooking whole meals on the grill lately--in fact, the ease and the flavor of grilled food.

The topic this week is the budgetary value of vegetarian and or vegequarian cooking and eating, and as you can see from the pics above, my meal idea today is grilled vegequarian, or fish with veggies on the barby.

The four pieces of fish on the grill come from one $8.99 pack of Whole Foods Whole Catch fresh-frozen mahi mahi. There are two, 6 oz vacuum-packed fillets to a pack and I cut those fillets in two again creating four, 3 oz portions of fish. This is one way to stretch two pieces of fish further.

Another way to stretch your fish meals (any meal for that matter) is to include lots of veggies and or sides so that your protein item, in this case fish, is not the main 6-10 ounce feature, but a 2-3 ounce portion.

Marinated Fish with Fried Polenta & Grilled Veggies

1) Into a bowl, squeeze the juice from a couple of limes or lemons; add some tamari, soy or Braggs and some olive oil.
2) Chop a smashed clove of garlic and either chop or grate some fresh ginger, add to lemon/lime juice mix and stir well, creating enough marinade to coat several 2-3 oz pieces of fish, i.e. salmon, mahi mahi, tuna, halibut or other firm-fleshed fish that will remain intact once you grill it.
3) Cook 1 cup of polenta in 3-4 cups of water for 30 minutes. Pour cooked polenta onto a dish or into a small baking tray and let it set.

Optional: You can add chopped garlic and ginger to the cooking polenta for additional flavor, or once the polenta is cooked, some chopped fresh herbs like cilantro and or parsley or Thai basil.
4) Prep your choice of veggies for grilling i.e. whole corn cobs, baby bok choy, sliced zucchini, bell peppers, halved tomatoes etc.
6) Light your grill and if corn is one of your veggies, pop cobs on the grill first, leaving the shucks on till the last minute, removing them and silk (as best you can) to brown the kernels (see pic above).
7) If you're cooking delicate veggies like bok choy or tomatoes, you might consider using a layer of foil over the grill bars (pic above) and cooking the veggies on the foil, dobbing them with a bit of butter or a drizzle of olive oil.
8) While veggies are cooking, turn polenta out onto a chopping board and cut into portions. Heat olive oil in a pan and lay polenta portions into pan, gently browning on both sides.
9) Meanwhile, add fish pieces to grill, achieving a nice cross-hatched effect on both sides, cooking for about 10 mins (not much more than that otherwise fish will dry out).

To Serve: Pop a piece of fried polenta onto plate, lay portion of grilled fish on top of polenta. To the side add a selection of your choice of grilled veggies. You might like to serve a salsa over the fish. I made a green salsa to serve with the meal above.

Green Salsa
Chop cilantro, skinned cucumber, red onion or spring onion, put into a bowl and douse with organic rice-wine vinegar. Let sit till flavors infuse. Optional: You could add chopped tomato to this combination or mango or peach or pineapple.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Omnivore in Relationship with Vegetarian

I had an interesting conversation with the associate who sold me moisturizer at the Origins counter recently.

Karen is vegetarian and her husband is a steak chef, a challenging combination when it comes to meal times, she told me.

"Completely understand," I responded.

You see, I'm a meat-eater, an omnivore, to be precise. And up until recently, I was in a relationship with a vegetarian who ate fish a couple times a week, and an enormous amount of fruit. I'd say he's a fruitarian with vegequarian overtones.

We did most our grocery shopping together at Whole Foods; that alone was a challenge given that I'm an stimulus-sensitive introvert who dislikes shopping and he's an extrovert who is energized by the stimulation of shopping.

However, we managed: I with my list and 40-minute in-and-out strategy, and he with no list and a tendency to impulse purchase.

I say we managed, but really we compromised:
  • I sometimes sat in the car and snoozed while he did the shopping.
  • He sometimes followed me about, collecting the items as I read them off my list.
  • In other words, one week we did it my way, one week his way.
Either way, we always came in on budget, around $120 for two for a weeks worth of groceries.

That was possible because I tended not to buy meat for me. Instead we bought fish for us, and then, enough for maybe 3 meals.

So our grocery bill was on the lower side (given that one of us was an impulse shopper), because we weren't buying meat, not even less expensive cuts of meat, only fish: tinned, fresh, and shellfish.

Ultimately, I made the bigger compromise, eating meat protein only when we ate out.

Karen, whom I mention above, confirmed that something like that happens in her family too. At home, her vegetarian diet dominates and her husband eats his steak at work.

I'm no longer in the relationship I mention above, and by the time it was over, I was under-weight and my health-care practitioner suggested I increase the amount of meat protein in my diet because I was a bit anemic.

I have to confess that was easy for me to do because I really do enjoy small portions of meat and poultry several times a week and obviously my body needs it too.

In retrospect, it really was challenging, living with someone with very different dietary and metabolic needs than mine. If the relationship had continued, my health would have required that I reintroduce more meat protein into my diet, but I'm not sure how I would have done that, other than cook two separate evening meals.

I'd be very interested to hear from others on this topic. Do post a comment if you have feedback, observations, and or ideas on how to manage in relationship when you consume very different diets.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Macaroni Noodle Lasagna

When I went back over the pics I took of Bruce shopping for groceries last week, I was impressed with the food choices he'd made.

He did of course shop from the master list that he and Jane use, but he could of detoured from their list and shopped impulsively.

However, he didn't. And wine isn't available in CO Whole Foods, so no chance of a repeat of theRaleigh shopping experience!

Perhaps it was because I was hovering, helping him focus and locate the Good Stuff For Less and WFs 365-brand products, both of which offer the best value.

Additionally, I always have success staying on-budget, on task, and under-whelmed when ...
  • I shop with a grocery list,
  • buy produce in season that's plentiful and priced accordingly
  • and when I buy generic brands rather than high-priced brands.
And as per my top tip, Bruce did buy at least 80% of the family's groceries from the edge of the store as whole, unprocessed food such as fresh produce, meat, fish, dairy and dry bulk items.

His $240 worth of purchases included:
  • lettuce, chard, broccoli, cucumber, cilantro, lemons, peaches, apples, tomatoes, zucchini, potatoes, avocados, garlic, ginger,
  • cheddar cheese, goat cheese,
  • beef burgers, chicken thighs, pork sausages, 2 packs Whole Catch frozen fish.
  • 365-brand: pink frozen shrimp, milk, soy milk, grated Parmesan, yogurt, orange juice, canola oil, macaroni noodles, crackers, tea & coffee.
  • Bulk nuts, dried fruit, rice and a few other miscellaneous items.
This week Bruce and Jane have their hungry, 16-year old nephew staying, and Jane tells me he eats as much as their two tweens, so in essence she's cooking for six.

With that in mind, and given the items Bruce purchased, I'm proposing a meal idea of hearty lasagna:

Macaroni Noodle Lasagna
1) In a pot gently simmer 2 cups milk with 2 peeled & smashed cloves of garlic for about 10 mins. Set aside.
2) In another pot, melt two heaped tablespoons butter, add two heaped tablespoons flour, stirring with a wooden spoon over med heat for 5 mins.
3) Pour garlic-infused milk over roux (butter and flour mix), stirring with wooden spoon. You can use a whisk at this point to help mix the roux through the milk and to keep the milk from lumping. (If it does start to lump, pour the lot into a food processor or blender, whizzing it till lumps have dissipated.) Cook gently for about 10 mins. season with S&P and a dash of nutmeg.
4) Saute a chopped onion, zucchini, and half a bunch of washed chard.
5) Slice 4 large tomatoes and grate a chunk of cheddar cheese.
6) Meanwhile, boil a pot of water, add two cups of macaroni and cook. When macaroni is al dente, drain in a colander--running colander under hot water tap--return macaroni to pot and hot plate, allow any residue moisture to evaporate then add a couple tablespoons of butter.
7) To assemble: Layer a large baking tray with buttered macaroni, top with a layer of Bechamel sauce (white sauce), layer with sliced tomatoes and dot with sauteed greens, drizzle with grated cheddar cheese.
8) Repeat layers, and top with grated cheese. Bake in 350 degree oven for about 45 mins or until lasagna is hot all the way through.

To Serve: Lasagna can stand on its own as a vegetarian meal served hot or cold, accompanied by a side salad or sauteed greens or grilled meat or fish or a combination of any of the above. Be as creative as you want with this versatile dish.

If you prefer fish or shrimp in your lasagna, add chunks of raw fish, or unfrozen shrimp alongside the sauteed greens (fish will cook when you cook lasagna).

And if you prefer meat in your lasagna, add chunks of sauteed sausage, or hamburger.

Again, be creative. You can't go wrong experimenting with lasagna so long as you have a good Bechamel sauce, your choice of pasta, and either fresh tomatoes, or a bottled (or home made) tomato sauce.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Becoming Seafood-Sustainability Conscious

One of the things I enjoy about shopping with other people is the chance to learn something from them.

Usually it's friends and acquaintances that ask me to help them figure out how to shop on a budget at Whole Foods and despite that I'm more often in the role of teacher, invariably my friends have something to teach me too.

For instance, when I shadowed Bruce, this week's guest, offering tips on how to avoid impulse shopping, we went from produce to seafood, where he pulled a Seafood Watch flier from his pocket.

I asked about the flier and Bruce replied that it was a Consumer's Guide to Sustainable Seafood for the central region of the U.S.

He'd printed out the pdf version (now also available as an iPhone app) and was referring to it while considering what fresh, then frozen fish to purchase for his family.

I was not aware of Seafood Watch, but I've since read the "about" section on their website and noted that if we all make informed, conscious choices, apropos the fish we buy, our oceans will be better off.

Seafood Watch's mission is "to empower consumers and businesses to make choices for healthy oceans."

After I perused the Seafood Watch website, I went to Whole Foods' website and read their pages on Seafood Sustainability, including a blurb about their commitment to empower WF consumers to buy seafood from responsible, certified fisheries.

Apparently, a good place to start when at the fish counter in WFs is to look for the blue Marine Stewardship Council sticker. When you purchase seafood marked with the MSC sticker, you can be assured that this fish was not over-fished or harvested in ways that harm the ocean.

Thinking consciously about the fish you buy and consume may feel like yet another thing to worry about, but this is the reality of the world we live in and the world we're leaving to our children.

It's not an option to be an ostrich any longer -- be informed and make sustainable choices that benefit the long term health of our oceans!

That said, Bruce decided not to buy any fresh fish, choosing instead 2 packs of the Whole Catch frozen halibut, as per his Seafood Watch flier.

Sticking to my recommendation that he buy the bulk of the family's groceries from the store's edge, he scanned the meat case for good deals.

Chicken thighs were on sale for .99c lb so at my nudging he bought two, asking for one pound to be marinated in a garlic-herb marinade and the other in barbecue (the marinade service is free). I reminded him that he could freeze one pound and keep the other out for immediate consumption.

With fruit, veggies, fish, meat, dairy (including an enormous chunk of cheddar cheese, which he methodically cost-compared to other cheddar brands, determining the sale price to be an excellent deal), we headed to the bulk aisle for nuts whereupon Bruce said, "Right, this is where I start to loose it!"

Between finding the item he wanted, grabbing a bag, a twisty, and then identifying the item number, which then needs to be written on the twisty, Bruce was clearly not having fun and probably if I'd not been there, he would have skipped bulk altogether and maybe grabbed a higher-priced bag of pre-packaged nuts or no nuts at all.

He mumbled that Whole Foods needs to come up with a more efficient method of dispensing and pricing their bulk items, i.e. a weighing station and touch screen with printer that would enable customers to put their bagged item on the scale, call up their item on the screen, and print out the price.

Once into the middle aisles for pasta, chocolate, and a few bottled items, Bruce definitely started to loose it. He couldn't find the things on his list. They were on the shelves, but he simply had trouble visually locating them.

As I mentioned yesterday, as a stimulus-sensitive introvert, this is where I start to have trouble too. The middle aisles are so jammed packed with product, I go into overwhelm and have difficulty spotting, then differentiating packaged and bottled product due to colors, patterns, similar shapes and sizes.

Though it really wasn't funny, I quietly giggled watching Bruce go up one aisle then down the next, then back up the aisle he'd just come down looking for one or two things, getting more and more frustrated.

Then I came up with an idea:

Because Bruce managed to navigate the periphery of WFs, locating great deals without too much trouble, I suggested as a solution to his loosing it that on his shopping days, he pick up the whole foods (produce, meat, fish, dairy), and on the days when Jane shopped, she pick up the middle aisle items from their shopping list.

I guess I'll hear in due course if that suggestion is a workable solution.

In spite of the middle-aisle moment, Bruce checked out 4 large bags of groceries for $240, happy with his shopping experience.

With a 16-year old nephew (who apparently eats for two) staying with them, Jane tells me she's essentially cooking for 6, and therefore she's grateful Bruce bought more than she might usually buy for a week's worth of meals for four.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

6 Tricks for Introverts who Hate to Grocery Shop

Bruce, my guest this week, is husband to Jane and dad to two tweens.

He willingly met me at Whole Foods in Boulder to learn how to shop on a budget.

I say willingly, because as I mentioned yesterday, Bruce apparently admitted to Jane that he needed help navigating WFs and overcoming his tendency to impulse purchase.

Jane works part time and Bruce, a geology professor with flexible work hours, wants to do more to help Jane with household responsibilities, like the grocery shopping.

When I asked him about impulse purchasing, he said plain and simple: "I hate shopping so I go in and grab whatever, then get out!"

With that in mind, I thought it really big of him to offer to do the grocery shopping in the first place!

Thing is, I can totally identify; I find shopping overwhelming and thus it often feels like a real chore. It has something to do with being an introvert and finding a big grocery store too stimulating.

The noise, the people, the bright lights, the choices -- it all adds up to sensory overload, if I let it.

Paradoxically, being an introvert, is also the very trait that makes me such a good budget shopper because, like Bruce, I tend to get in, grab what I need, then get out fast.

But unlike Bruce, my getting in and out fast isn't an exercise in impulsive shopping, rather, as a stimulus-sensitive introvert, I've learned to employ the following 6 tricks to keep me on task, on budget and under-whelmed:
  1. I shop the least busy time of the day, i.e. early morning. I find Saturday or Sunday mornings the best.
  2. I one-stop shop and then only once a week.
  3. I write a list and stick to it.
  4. My list is made up of whole, unprocessed foods like fresh produce, fish, dairy, meat, bulk items, which I collect easily and quickly from the edge of the store.
  5. I avoid the middle aisles as much as possible because that's where I tend to feel overwhelmed by the choice, the patterns & colors of the boxed, bottled and packaged products, and by the people and their carts.
  6. I give myself about 45 minutes to collect my groceries and check out. More than that and I start to feel annoyed or agitated, which is a sure sign that I'm moving into overwhelm.
Because Jane and Bruce both work at a distance from where they live, actively co-parent two busy tweens, and live in the mountains above Boulder, they have to be very organized when it comes to buying their groceries from a store that's 40 minutes away.

When they lived in the UK (where they're from) Bruce happily shopped online for their groceries (an introvert's definition of the perfect shopping experience) and the groceries were delivered for free.

For Bruce it was easy, organized and convenient.

So it's no surprise that during our pre-shop conversation outside WFs, while Bruce browsed the Good Stuff For Less sale items and the Whole Deal for coupons, already looking somewhat overwhelmed, he commented, "I wish Whole Foods had an online shopping service."

Bruce might not enjoy shopping, but he does enjoy cooking, and like a true scientist, he follows recipes diligently. With that in mind, he added to the above comment: "If Whole Foods had an online shopping service, I'd use our master shopping list plus their online recipe guide to help me make my grocery selections."

I mentioned Whole Foods free personal shopping service to Bruce, but he preferred the idea of shopping online over using their concierge -- again, for an introvert, you can't beat the convenience of navigating a pick-and-click screen.

Tomorrow, I'll talk about how Bruce managed grocery shopping for the family while I shadowed him, emphasizing the 6 tricks above in an effort to keep him on task, on budget, and we two introverts from becoming overwhelmed.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Vacation Food Shopping

It's great to get away on a vacation, but once you've arrived at your destination, it's a given that at some point you'll be confronted with that constant in life: seeking out food for the next meal.

Obviously it's much easier if your vacation is accommodation with meals included, then it's just a matter of showing up at a designated time and place with an appetite.

However, if, like friends of mine, you have a family, and you're on a budget, then an all-inclusive package is probably not an option for you. On the other hand, renting a vacation house and cooking your own meals might be more like it.

Three months, ago, right around the Easter holiday, I featured Jane and her family of four, and it's Jane and family that rented a house on one of the barrier islands off North Carolina for their annual beach vacation.

Eating every meal out wasn't an option for them, so once they arrived in Raleigh, picked up their rental car, and before driving the two hours to the coast to the catch the island ferry, they thought ahead and realized a grocery shop in Raleigh (versus the island store) would be budget-wise.

Bruce, Jane's husband, used his iPod touch to google grocery stores and found a Whole Foods Market in Raleigh, and because Jane shops successfully on a budget for the family at Whole Foods in Boulder, the decision was easy -- they went to Raleigh's WFs to stock up on food for their island getaway.

Jane relayed that for $110 she bought:
Bulk: rice, pistachio nuts, dried apricots & cranberries, granola.
365-brand packets: cereal, peanut butter, jelly, crackers, long life soy & chocolate soy, orange juice, mineral water, lemonade, marinara sauce, pasta and olive oil.
Fresh: bread, pitta pockets, potatoes, garlic, peaches, green beans, apples, bananas, onions, cilantro, cucumber.
Dairy: grated parmesan, fetta crumbles, mozeralla, 365 orange juice

Once on the island, they bought fresh, locally caught fish for 3 dinners, they ate leftovers for several meals, and they ate out several times.

Despite how ideal, and within budget, Jane's vacation food shopping sounds,we have a bit of a running joke going between us; you see, Bruce had done a little shopping at Whole Foods in Raleigh too: approximately $80 worth of wine!

You can't buy alcohol in grocery stores in Colorado, and having shopped at WFs in Florida--both South Miami and Boca Raton--I know the fabulous selection of wines WFs stocks. Consequently, I understand only too well that Bruce, confronted with an extensive selection of good wines in WFs, might have concluded, what the hell, we're on vacation!

However, the upshot of Bruce's splurge is that Jane returned from North Carolina with the tongue-in-cheek request that I go with him next time he grocery shopped at Boulder's WFs and "show him how to stick to our budget," she said. "For example, perhaps you could help him curtail his tendency to impulse purchase!"

Regardless of the ribbing, Bruce actually agreed to let me shop with him. He volunteered that he wants to help Jane with the grocery shopping, but that he also needs help navigating WFs and finding the best deals.

Late last week I shopped at WFs with Bruce, and this week I'll be blogging about the experience.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Bratwurst and Summer Soup

It seems everyone I know has either gone on vacation, is about to leave, or will be going away soon.

This year, I'm going on vacation vicariously: I'm staying at home and hearing wonderful stories about friends' trips, and on my beside table is The Geography of Bliss, a great armchair travel read.

I'm also doing a lot of simple, easy, summer-vacation style cooking, along lines of the two dishes I posted earlier in the week -- an entree with a salad.

And after all the talk of grilling last week, I picked up continental, fully cooked bratwurst (pic below) shopping at Whole Foods yesterday, with the intention of grilling them for the evening meal.

I loved continental brats when I was a kid. But I don't tend to buy them these days (I avoid veal for ethical reasons), however the disclaimer on the back of the pack caught my eye:

"Veal Certified Humane, raised with shelter, sufficient space & the ability to engage in natural behavior."

I decided to buy the brats, despite that they contained veal, because of the happy, natural existence the calves had had before they were slaughtered for human consumption. (I hope you read irony in that comment.)

Anyway, I grilled the brats and a couple corn cobs, removing the shucks at the last minute to slightly brown the kernels.

I made a simple side salad of greens, tomatoes and olives, dressing it with olive oil and lemon juice. The brats, which I dipped in grain mustard mixed with ketchup, plus the succulent corn coated in ghee were delicious.

This weekend it's the major holiday of the American summer: The fourth of July. A wonderful picnic day and a big grilling day.

If you're grilling, I can highly recommend the meal above, and if you're entertaining at home this year, you might like to try my colorful, July 4th watermelon soup, especially since watermelons are abundant and often on sale at this time of the year.

Watermelon-Cucumber Soup with Vodka
1) Scoop flesh from 2 mini or 1 regular-sized chilled watermelon(s).
2) Toss flesh into a blender with a few sprigs of mint and a peeled, pitted and chopped cucumber.
3) Pour in a shot of iced Vodka per person.
4) Whizz ingredients in blender till smooth.
5) Serve immediately, otherwise watermelon will separate.

To Serve: Pour soup into individual shallow bowls, top with a scoop of plain yogurt, a few blueberries and or raspberries, plus a couple thin slices of cucumber, garnish with a sprig of mint.