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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Shopping Bargains: The Warehouse Club

Derided by many for their laughable, ludicrous quantities—remember Homer Simpson and the Mrs. Butterworth bottle?—warehouse clubs like Costco, Sam’s Club, and BJ’s offer equally large savings . . . for those who can control themselves.

Though it is ever-escalating, our annual membership fee at Costco — now $50 — is a bargain as long as we avoid expensive and caloric temptations. So we avert our eyes from the tantalizing bags of Terra Chips and Atomic Fireballs and stick to the basics: coffee, olive oil, mustard, baking yeast, sugar, nuts, basmati rice, juice, fresh fruit and vegetables, dried fruit, canned tomatoes, cheese, and whatever other quality staples can be gleaned. Even with this fairly short list, our membership pays for itself several times over, as we also buy vitamins, detergent, and other household basics at Costco.

We generally do a warehouse run once or twice a month. Here’s what we got on our trip this week:

4.5 lb. raisins                           $6.89
2 lb. pecans                               8.89
3 lb. almonds
                            9.49
1 lb. organic salad mix
              4.79
2 lb. grape tomatoes
                  4.99
15-lb. bag grapefruit
                  9.99
1.5 lb. Parmigiano Reggiano
  15.83
1 lb. goat cheese
                        4.49
2 lb. queso fresco
                       5.49
2
 loaves whole grain bread       4.49
2 lb. coffee
                               10.39

For less than $90, we got a big pile of groceries that in some cases will hold us for months. We’ll use the raisins and nuts for homemade granola and freeze part of the goat cheese and queso fresco. One of the bread loaves will go into the freezer. The costliest single item, the parmesan cheese, will last at least a couple of months.

A one-pound box of salad mix can be tricky to manage, as it’s sometimes hard for the two of us to eat that much lettuce before it goes bad. Although this low price justifies a certain amount of spoilage, we really hate to waste, so we’ll make a few salad-based meals to keep on top of things. (One reason these mixes spoil quickly is that they’re crammed too tightly into the containers; if you shake up the plastic box every time you take some salad out, the leaves will last longer.)

Costco offers some of our favorite seasonal items, such as the $8 one-pound boxes of chanterelle mushrooms that appear in the fall. Other products, like organic sugar, come and go, so if you see something you like and can stockpile it, you probably should load up.

If you have the patience to winnow the quality buys from the towering aisles of junk, and have the room at home to store your purchases, the warehouse club is one of the best deals out there. 

Recommendation: Elissa Altman has written a book on buying, storing, and preparing bulk foods, titled, appropriately, Big Food. Check it out!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Guest Recipe: Too-Tired-to-Cook Curry


Jeanetta Miller submitted this recipe in the comments, but we think it merits its own post. As the name indicates, it’s a recipe that comes in handy when Jeanetta and her husband are too worn out to try anything fancy and just want a reliable dish that they know will make them happy.
Recipe
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs
2 T. olive oil

14-ounce can diced tomatoes, with juice
3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
½ t. ground ginger
2 t. garam masala*
½ t. chili powder
½ cup plain yogurt
handful of chopped cilantro
1. Cut the chicken thighs into bite-size pieces and brown them in the oil, using an oven-proof pan with a lid.
2.  Heat the oven to 375 degrees.
3.  While the chicken browns, blend the tomatoes, garlic, ginger, garam masala, and chili powder in a blender or food processor.
4.  Add the sauce to the chicken in the pan, bring it to a boil, cover, and bake in the oven for half an hour.
5.  Remove the lid from the pan, and let the chicken cool for a few minutes. Stir in the yogurt and cilantro.
Jeanetta suggests serving this dish on brown rice cooked with a tablespoon of wild rice: “It makes a huge difference in the texture and taste of the rice.” This is a great suggestion for stretching wild rice, which is as expensive as it is delicious.
* Garam masala, an all-purpose Indian spice mix, can be found in the ethnic section of some supermarkets or online. If you’re lucky enough to have an Indian market in your area, go there, and not just for garam masala—these stores have the freshest, cheapest spices for all kinds of dishes.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Never Waste a Flavor: Parmesan Rinds

Many meat eaters say they can’t become vegetarians because of bacon—its smoky deliciousness trips them up every time. Ruth has a similar dilemma: she can’t become a vegan because of parmesan cheese, which lends depth, breadth, and bliss to everything it touches.

Our Costco membership allows us to get Parmigiano Reggiano for a relative bargain—$11 a pound—but we still strive to make every crumb count. Once we’ve scraped the rind nearly bare, we freeze it. Later, when we’re making a batch of minestrone or other vegetable soup, we toss in the rind and let it simmer. It turns into a gummy wad that looks awful but tastes wonderful (if a glamour puss like Nigella Lawson can admit to gnawing on hers, we can, too) and dramatically amps up the flavor of the soup liquid.

If your parmesan rind gets moldy, just scrub it with some white vinegar. Once frozen, it will keep indefinitely. 

Monday, April 27, 2009

Favorite Quote: Carl Spackler

“In order to conquer the animal, I have to learn to think like an animal. And, whenever possible, to look like one.”

We’re learning how to think like groundhogs. The fattest, greediest, most fleet-footed groundhogs on earth have taken up residence in our backyard and are now waiting for this spring's lettuce crop. Last year we caught five of these varmints. So far this year, we’ve just caught squirrels.

(Relax, animal lovers; we use a Havahart trap.)

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Waste Not Challenge: Red Mole Black Bean Soup


This month there’s a contest at the Fine Cooking site that’s perfect for the likes of us: Ellie Krieger’s Waste Not Challenge to create a dish from refrigerator leftovers.
The contest only runs through April 30, and we only got around to reading the rules on Saturday, but as it happened, we had a few items that really, really needed to be used up.

These included an aging batch of vegetable stock, an ancient but apparently immortal jar of Trader Joe’s red mole paste, part of a can of tomatoes, a rapidly ripening avocado, and some black beans, cilantro, and queso fresco left over from a recent Friday night dinner.
With a few contributions from the spice and onion drawers, these ingredients all came together in a dish that falls somewhere between soup and chili.
Will we use this recipe again? Definitely. But what we enjoyed most was the challenge to make do with what we had—to add this, tweak that and in the process come up with something entirely new and, for all practical purposes, free.
Recipe
1 small onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 T. olive oil
7 cups vegetable stock
2 cups cooked black beans
1 ½ cups diced canned tomatoes, with juice
2 T. red mole paste
1 t. ground cumin
1 t. dried oregano
1 T. mild chili powder
1 T. Bragg’s Liquid Aminos* (optional)
salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste
four small corn tortillas, shredded
Garnishes:
diced avocado
chopped cilantro
crumbled queso fresco**
1. Saute garlic and onion in oil until soft.
2. Add stock, beans, and tomatoes. Bring to boil, then reduce to simmer.
3. Add mole paste; stir until paste dissolves.
3. Add cumin, oregano, chili powder, Bragg’s, salt, and pepper. Simmer for 15 minutes.

4. Add shredded tortillas; simmer until they fall apart, about 20 minutes.
5. Serve with garnishes.
* If you ever find yourself with a flat-tasting vegetarian dish, this product adds depth of flavor without adding a lot of salt. It’s available in many supermarkets (near the vinegar), or in any health food store.
** Although you can substitute feta cheese for queso fresco, the Mexican cheese adds a nice meaty texture to the soup. Available at Costco as well as Hispanic markets.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Wine Bargain of the Week: 2007 Bogle Chardonnay and Petit Syrah


OK, OK. We know: Everybody who’s ever unscrewed the cap of a bottle of supermarket wine knows that Bogle is a reliable brand. But let us tell you a story about why it’s important to know some wines you can always count on—any time, any place.

Every autumn Tim (and sometimes Ruth) goes to a ranch/farm near West Tallgrass, South Dakota, for an extended-family reunion, where 30 to 40 relatives gather to hunt ring-necked pheasants and catch up with one another.  Last year Tim and Ruth and two of Tim’s nephews were responsible for the big Saturday night meal. As luck would have it, the case of featured wine didn’t arrive despite UPS’s best efforts to find its way from East Tallgrass.

Tim’s brother forgot to mention that the wine hadn’t arrived, so when we realized our predicament late Saturday afternoon, we called the two attendees who were still driving across what could best be described as land that had been rejected by the director of Dances with Wolves as too desolate and unpopulated. We were in the proverbial middle of nowhere. We needed six Pinot Noirs and six Chardonnays.

Luckily, the cell phone tower out on the highway was working just enough that day so that we got through to niece Amy, who stopped in a town east of Tallgrass (pop. 500) that is considered “the City” by everyone within 150 miles. She went to the only liquor store and gave us the names of six wines. What else, we asked. No, THESE ARE THE ONLY SIX WINES IN THE STORE, she answered. We know enough about wine to be able to buy over the phone, but this was clearly going to be a challenge. The first five were so bad the local drunks wouldn’t touch them. The last of the six was Mark West Pinot. Bingo.

But no Chardonnays, period.

Then caller No. 2 checked in from 30 miles west of West Tallgrass, where the local hooch establishment had a grander selection. But still, we’re talking about a store that my brother doesn’t consider worth a visit—and he lives in Fort Pierre, South Dakota.

Fortunately, caller No. 2 knew a bit about wine, and we knew the hunt had been pared to Chardonnays, so she began reading the blanc list. Bogle Chardonnay! Bingo twice in the same hour. Bear in mind that we were sitting in the wine equivalent of the nosebleed bleacher seats of the bingo hall. Truth be told, the only reason the store had Bogle was that the label depicts a ring-necked pheasant, the peacock of the local tourism economy. But never ask why when you find yourself holding a lottery winner.

Bogle wines, particularly the Chardonnay and Petit Syrah, consistently get high marks despite their under-$10 price. They are both great everyday wines and perfect for large gatherings where you want a quality wine that won't bust the budget. The ’07 Chardonnay is buttery and spicy and smells like pear and apple. The Petit Syrah is jammy, with lots of red-berry fruit color and taste.

If you're having a party, there's no need to spend $15 to $20 on wine you're not sure about. Just put out the Bogle. The hunt need not necessarily be difficult.

Thought: Why does man kill? He kills for food. And not only food: frequently there must be a beverage. Woody Allen said that.

"Can We Afford to Eat Ethically?"

There's a great article* on Salon today by Siobhan Phillips, who conducted a monthlong experiment to see if it's possible to eat organically, locally, ethically, and affordably. She concluded that it is, as long as you also eat frugally and thoughtfully.

Best quote: 
Eating sustainably and frugally forces you to challenge preferences and resist ruts, since you pretty much have to buy any available item that's cheap and well-grown. Thrifty habits thus helped my husband and me to dine more adventurously, and we felt pleasantly surprised more often than deprived.
*If you don't subscribe to Salon, it's worth going through the site's day-pass procedure to read this piece. 

Friday, April 24, 2009

Make It Yourself: Vinaigrette Dressing

Look inside your refrigerator door. How many bottles of salad dressing live there? How many of those bottles do you actually use?

You can free up valuable refrigerator real estate—and save lots of money—by making your own salad dressings. We’ll be posting our favorite recipes in the coming months; for starters, here’s an excellent mustard vinaigrette that holds its own with strong-tasting greens like arugula and livens up even the most boring supermarket lettuce (we’re looking at you, soggy head of red-leaf!). It’s also good brushed on sliced vegetables before you grill them.
Courtesy of Nora Ephron:
Recipe
2 T. Dijon mustard
2 T. good red wine vinegar 

6 T. olive oil


Whisk the mustard and vinegar together, then slowly add the oil, whisking all the while. 
You’ll have about half a cup of thick, golden dressing.

Favorite Kitchen Utensils: Wine Vacuum

Sometimes you just can’t finish a bottle of wine. Maybe it’s late, maybe you have to work in the morning, or maybe you just want to avoid the spirit-crushing malady known as “wine head.” 

Whites will keep fine if you cork them and put them in the fridge, but reds demand a little more care—even an overnight stay on the kitchen counter will change the flavor of an opened bottle for the worse.

Fortunately, there are devices you can buy to vacuum out the air in the bottle and preserve the leftover wine for another day or two. There are many different models; we’ve used the VacuVin’s rubber stoppers for years with good results.

Depending on where you buy it—many liquor stores carry it—a VacuVin set usually costs between $10 and $15. 

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Calling All Cheapskates: Got a Budget-Friendly Favorite Recipe? Fork It Over!

What we love about this dish is that it requires only a few pantry basics. There’s no need to shop, labor in the kitchen, or wait a long time for your delectable dinner to be ready.

Do you have a favorite recipe that turns humble ingredients—or small amounts of costly ingredients—into restaurant-quality fare? Send it in!

If you use a cookbook or magazine recipe, you don’t need to give us the whole recipe; just tell us where we can find it, and we’ll do the rest . 

If you've been reading this blog, you know that we eat a lot of fish and vegetarian dishes. That doesn't mean we're opposed to good recipes for chicken and meat. If you've got them, send them!

Smashed Red Potatoes with Parmesan

Although Ruth has always been interested in eating, she only became truly serious about cooking when she turned vegetarian and was faced with the challenge of coming up with meals that would appeal to her omnivore spouse. 

Feeling a bit like Scheherazade, she would rack her brain for interesting menus that would not be obviously “vegetarian,” with its wretched implications of lentil loaf and clumpy brown rice. She studied her favorite cookbooks and magazines and found not only that she could easily adapt many meat dishes but that many side dishes could serve perfectly well as main courses.

This is one of those dishes, combining elements of two recipes from Fine Cooking (an excellent magazine with an excellent Web site): Crispy Smashed Roasted Potatoes* and Gratinéed Red Potatoes with Chives. Although both Fine Cooking recipes call for baby potatoes, we used quartered Red Bliss potatoes ($1.99 for a five-pound bag at Shop Rite), and they worked very well.

Recipe

2 pounds red potatoes, either baby or adult
½ cup olive oil
salt, fresh-ground pepper
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1.   Boil the potatoes until soft. If you’re using full-size spuds, leave them whole; it takes longer to cook them, but they’ll be less mushy.

2.   If using full-size potatoes, cut them into quarters.

3.   Heat oven to 425 degrees.

4.    Drizzle about two-thirds of the olive oil over the bottom of a baking pan. Arrange the cooked potatoes in the pan, then smash each one nearly flat (a flat-bottomed drinking glass works well for this).

5.   Top the smashed spuds with the remaining oil, salt and pepper to taste, and the grated cheese.

6.   Bake until cheese is golden-brown, about 25 minutes.

Serves at least four as a main dish, eight as a side dish.

* The crispy roasted potatoes article was written by Susie Middleton, whose first cookbook, Fast, Fresh, and Green, a collection of 150 vegetable side dishes, will be published by Chronicle Books in March 2010. Everything of Susie's that we've ever made has been wonderful—keep an eye out for this book!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Guest Post: Make Your Own Soft Drinks

From Jean-Paul Vellotti, combining frugality and ingenuity on his Trinidad vacation:

Since I’m down in the Caribbean, I can certainly relate to the idea of eating well cheaply. It’s not so much that I need to save money, since the exchange rate favors the U.S. dollar, but here in Trinidad there are only two real options for dining: pay high prices at American-style resturants or eat locally on the cheap. I almost always choose the latter because the flavor profiles are much better; also, since the ingredients are bought from local markets, they are fresher and more sustainable than the products flown in that supply the chain hotels here.

The room I’m staying at in this monastery guesthouse is quite far from any markets, and since it’s so high in the mountains, traveling to one can take a good hour. That’s why I keep simple products, like bottles of seltzer water, in my closet. The other day I was thirsty for something sweet and remembered that I’d picked up a bottle of guava juice a few days before—a lightbulb moment. But I was short of a cup  . . . until I also remembered I had an empty beer bottle from the previous night.

By adding a few ounces of juice to the seltzer, I had my own Caribbean cola, for less than the cost of a bottle deposit. Quite simple, and something that I’d forgotten I used to do back home in lieu of consuming the chemicals and high-fructose corn syrup found in store-bought sodas. In fact, I have found that a great variety of organic juices can be bought at Trader Joe’s, and seltzer water at my local supermarket. Although a bottle of organic blueberry juice, for example, might sell for $5 or $6 at Trader Joe’s, when used as a spritzer, it costs pennies on the dollar compared with a commercial blueberry soda (and has no harmful additives).

In many instances, necessity is the mother of invention. But this time, laziness ruled, and my taste buds and wallet benefited.

 

The Frugal Pantry: Chili-Garlic Sauce


We just call it “rooster paste.” Vietnamese in origin and similar to the Indonesian sambal oelek, this thick red sauce will add depth and spice to anything you’re making, from a salad dressing to a marinade to a stir-fry. Although you don’t have to be a five-alarm-food lover to appreciate it, bear in mind that even a quarter-teaspoon difference dramatically affects the heat of the dish. Experiment to see what works for you.
Chili-garlic sauce is available in many supermarkets’ “Oriental” sections (though we really wish they’d stop calling them that; aside from offending a lot of people, the word brings back disturbing memories of our childhood Chun King dinners). You can also get it at Asian markets. An 8-ounce jar costs about $2.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Spicy Asian Salad with Scallops (or Tofu)


Writing this blog has made Ruth realize how much tofu she eats. It’s kind of embarrassing. But the beauty of these recipes is that nobody else has to eat tofu—they’re free to substitute whatever they like. In this case, Tim sautéed scallops, and they were delicious.

This recipe was adapted from Ellie Krieger’s The Food You Crave. Ellie’s recipe features beef; we’ve used all kinds of fish, but chicken would also work. It's become one of our favorite quickie dinners, especially when we have a lot of lettuce we need to use up.

We got the scallops on sale at our local supermarket, the ridiculously named Big Y: half a pound for $4.49. (An advantage of the fancy-salad dinner is that you can really stretch an expensive protein by using much less than you would if it were a straight entrée.) Big Y also had a sale on organic lettuce mix: two five-ounce packages for $4. 

Recipe

1 ½ T. lime juice
1 ½ T. soy sauce
1 ½ T. peanut oil
1 T. sugar
1 small garlic clove, minced
1 t. minced ginger
¼ to ½ t.
chili-garlic sauce, or to taste

1 five-ounce package mesclun or other salad mix, or 1 smallish head of lettuce
½ cup chopped cilantro (more if you're a cilantro freak)
1 shallot, sliced and separated into rings

your choice of protein, grilled or sautéed

1. Whisk together lime juice, soy sauce, peanut oil, sugar, garlic, ginger, and chili-garlic paste. You may need to whisk a few times to dissolve the sugar.

2. In a good-size salad bowl, mix greens, cilantro, and shallot rings. Toss with dressing. 

3. Top with grilled or sautéed protein of your choice, or serve as a side salad. Serves two, generously.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Wine of the Week (Under $10): Les Rials 2008 White

It’s rare to find a white wine that pleases the wine aficionados as well as the casual sippers—and works with lightweight summer fare as well as spicy dishes.

Last week our local wine merchants, John and Kevin at New Milford Spirit Shoppe, (at the end of Grove St. in New Milford, CT) walked Tim over to a display and said, “This is the best white wine under $10 that we get in the store, and it only comes once a year—in spring.”

The wine was Les Rials 2008 from Domaine de la Chanade in the Cotes du Tarn (Gaillac region) of southwestern France. If you want good French wines under $10, you pretty much have to look for the Gaillac, Minervois, or Languedoc regions. But there are some terrific bargains from these areas of southwestern France.

At the Spirit Shoppe, Kevin and John sell twice as much Les Rials each spring as they have sold the previous year, and online you’ll see most wine merchants saying something very similar: “Best-selling white wine every summer.”

The Les Rials is from a 1,000-year-old white varietal grape named Len de L’el, which has a long stem, so the label also says, “Loin de l’oeil,” meaning “far from the eye”. This is a fruity, but not too fruity, wine with orange and lemon aromas.

This bottle typically sells for $8.99, but sometimes you can find it on sale. Do not hesitate to buy it. We served it with a very spicy salad, and it stood up very well to the aggressive flavor in the food. It also worked marvelously with our guacamole appetizer.

 Domaine de la Chanade Les Rials White 08 750ml 2008  $8.99

Shopping Bargains: T.J. Maxx, Marshalls, Ross


Believe it or not, you can find real food bargains at these discount retailers, which usually have “gourmet” aisles tucked somewhere in the back of their stores between the cheetah-print bras and the clearance Buddha heads.

These stores are a lot like flea markets—if you go looking for a specific item, you’re likely to be disappointed, but if you have the patience to browse, you can find some genuine steals.

Our T.J. Maxx is a good source of marked-down oils, vinegars, dried herbs, mustards, olives, and preserves. It’s the only place we buy walnut oil: a 17-ounce can of the excellent Tourangelle brand is $6.99. There’s always a lot of tea and chocolate, too. And, in case we’re worried that the food on the shelves is as stale as last year’s fishnets, a banner over the aisle proactively assures us that everything they sell is fresh. This is true; we’ve never had a problem with T.J. Maxx’s food (and that's more than we can say about Williams Sonoma's).