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Friday, October 29, 2010

Love Potatoes? Don't Try This

Sorry for the scant postings of the past week, but it's been crazy around here. We'll try to catch up over the weekend. In the meantime, here's a hilarious if disturbing story about the executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission, who in a misbegotten attempt to prove the deliciousness and versatility of his product, went a bit too far. Reading it, you may never want to eat potatoes again. We hope he recovers soon.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Bargain Wine of the Week: 12 90s under $10

We don't really care where you buy your wine. We like buying ours from the local wine store. We happened to have good ones in both of our most recent places of residence. In Connecticut, it was a little shop that loved wine so much it had two big tastings for charity every year. In Virginia, we go to a big Mid-Atlantic chain that has a huge selection.

But we also buy a lot of wine online. We buy from an Internet outlet when we find a good bargain that we can't find anywhere else. We've already told you about the convenient way that you can search for bargains at most of these online retailers.

We're getting low on under-$10 reds (thus not many reviews here lately), so today we went to two of our online regulars and threw the dice. First we went to and asked for all of their under-$10 wines that were rated 90 or higher by a wine magazine. The results were pretty much a bust. Nada.

The advantage of doing this is that it takes a lot of the guesswork out of wine buying. Very seldom will you dislike a wine rated 90 or higher. And if you can find such wine for less than $10, you can figure you're getting a good-to-great wine at a bargain price.

Next we tried, another of our online faves. Jackpot. The results listed about 20 highly rated wines selling at less than a 10-spot. We knocked out the sparkling wine and all the other rosés and whites but one. That left us with about 15.

One we recognized because we've written about it before and remark how great it is every time we open a bottle. Bodegas Sabor Real 2006 made from 80-year-old vines in Toro, Spain, $9.95. We just drained our last bottle a week ago. So we ordered a case of that.

We put together 12 individual bottles for another case. We'll write about each as we open them, but here's what we ordered. Again, all rated 90+ and all selling for less than $10:

Las Rocas de San Alejandro Garnacha 2007, delightful Spanish red we've had before and loved, $9.95.

La Mano Mencia Roble 2008, another Spanish red, $7.90.

Red Knot 'Zork' Shiraz 2007 from Australia, $8.45.

Di Majo Norante Sangiovese 2008, a Tuscan-style from the Molise region of Italy that we've had before and loved, $8.95.

Odfjell Armador Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Wine Enthusiast Top 100 Best Buys, $8.45. This is a crazy value.

Yalumba Y Series Shiraz Viognier 2008 from South Australia, $8.95.

Urban UCO Malbec Tempranillo 2008 from Mendoza, Argentina, $9.45.

Bodegas Lan Rioja Crianza 2006 from Rioja, Spain, $9.95.

Pillar Box Red 2007, a blend of Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from Australia, $9.95

Bodegas Olivares Monastrell Altos de la Hoya 2008, inky purple with smell of Indian spices from Jumilla, Spain, $9.95. Another crazy value.

Montebuena Tempranillo 2009, "a sneak peak of the great 09 vintage in Rioja and Northern Spain," $9.95.

Chateau Ste. Michelle Chardonnay 2008, the lone white, but we know we like it, $8.45

We think that this is a smart way to buy great bargain wine. We'll let you know if there are any clinkers in the box. 

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Fast and Easy Appetizer: Spiced Nuts

Most people have a favorite quick-and-dirty recipe they pull out when they need to make a fast cocktail snack or party appetizer. For us, it's spiced nuts. We found this recipe years go in Martha Stewart Living, adapted it a bit, and have been relying on it ever since. As Costco shoppers, we always have big bags of nuts on hand, so this is very easy for us to pull together.

Any kind of nut works in this recipe, but we've found that nuts with lots of nooks and crannies, like walnuts and pecans, deliver the best results, as they can hold a lot of spices.

Spiced Nuts

1 large egg white
1/4 c. sugar
1 t. chili powder
1 t. salt
1/2 t. cumin
1/2 t. cayenne pepper*
1/4 t. allspice
2 1/2 c. mixed nuts (though they don't have to be mixed; if all you have are almonds, those will work fine)

1. Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

2. Place the egg white in a medium-size bowl and rapidly whisk by hand until it is foamy.

3. Stir in the sugar, chili powder, salt, cumin, cayenne, and allspice.

4. Fold in the nuts, taking care to cover each nut with the spice mixture.

5. Spread on a baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes. Remove the pan and stir up the nuts with a spatula, then return the pan to the oven, reducing the temperature to 250 degrees. Bake for an additional 10 to 15 minutes, until the nuts are lightly brown and no longer wet.

6. Remove the nuts from the oven, stir, and let cool. They will keep for a couple of weeks in a covered container. They also freeze well.

* The amount of cayenne pepper is really a matter of taste. This amount works well for an average group of people with average heat preferences. Heat lovers will want more spice, though, so feel free to add more—Martha's recipe calls for 1 3/4 teaspoons!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Another Reason to Avoid Fast Food

Yep, we're bashing on fast food again. But how can we not, when we read stories like this? (Check out the photo gallery!)

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Rave Review: "Artisan" Lettuce

OK, first off—we don't much care for the term "artisan," which is to this century what "gourmet" was to the 1970s and likewise is indiscriminately applied to everything from mass-produced bread to gummy Costco cheeses. Nonetheless, the sudden appearance of "artisan" lettuce, as it is obnoxiously labeled, in our local stores and, yes, Costco, has dramatically improved our salads.

Our longtime problem with pre-mixed salads is the high spoilage rate: the mixture of lettuce varieties always means that some leaves decay before others, forcing us to either pick out the slimy deadbeats from the remaining crisp leaves or toss the whole package, an act we find unacceptably wasteful. Still, because these packages are often economical despite the spoilage, we've continued to buy them.

But a few months ago, packages of "artisan"—sorry for the quotes, but this term really grates—lettuces began to appear in our local supermarkets: tight-packed whole heads of red and green varieties. Not only did these cost less than the typical mesclun mix, they had a much longer shelf life.

Last night we apprehensively opened a two-week old box with one remaining head, which had been neglected on the back of a refrigerator shelf. Astonishingly, the lettuce was crisp and entirely usable.

A one-pound box of lettuces runs less than $4 at Costco.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Summer's Over — Time for Soup!

Fall not only means the onset of cool weather—sweet relief to those of us who broiled in a summer heat wave—but truckloads of ripe vegetables. The harvest is in, the leaves are turning, the nights are chilly, and it's time to make soup. 

RoAnn Redlin offers this simple but delicious menu for a fall dinner, using classic seasonal ingredients. 
She says: "I had a great dinner last night. I made the quiche lorraine from the New York Times Cookbook and a new soup: cream of carrot/parsnip. I had to make a dessert out of what I had on hand, so I sautéed some apples in butter and brown sugar. Then I threw the leftover pastry from the quiche on top of the apples with cinnamon sugar. Voilà! A great meal. I loved the soup." 

Cream of Carrot Soup

4 T butter
1 package baby carrots, chopped
1 pound of parsnips, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
2 32-ounce boxes of chicken stock
1/3 c. uncooked rice*
1/3 c. half-and-half
Sage leaves (optional)
1. Sauté first butter, carrots, parsnips, and onions for 15 to 20 minutes. 

2. Add the broth, and bring to a simmer. After about 40 minutes, add the rice. 

3. Once the vegetables are soft and the rice is cooked, purée the whole thing with a hand blender or in a food processor. Add warm half-and-half. Garnish with chopped sage leaves. 

All I had was wild rice, and it added an exotic flavor.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Frugal Pantry: Fermented Black Beans

"Fermented black beans" probably sounds better in another language,* but despite its unappetizing moniker, this Chinese staple (also known as "salted black beans") gives a quick and cheap flavor boost to any stir-fry.

This week we were too busy to shop or plan meals, and in any case we had no energy to cook them. One night we wrapped up work late and wondered what we could quickly make for dinner. We had little in the way of produce except some elderly green beans, onions, garlic, tofu . . . and ginger! The ginger tipped the balance: we would make a stir-fry.

We've learned how to make an all-purpose stir-fry sauce from oyster sauce, soy sauce, sesame oil, mirin, and chili paste. Still, with our lackluster vegetable lineup, we knew we needed something else. So we reached for the fermented black beans. A couple of tablespoons, quickly mashed with the side of a heavy knife, tossed in with the garlic and ginger at the outset of the stir-frying, made all the difference, lending a flavor that was earthy, pungent, and unmistakably Chinese.

Don't make the mistake many before you have made and substitute canned black beans; you'll end up with something completely different. Fermented black beans are dry and velvety and can be found in any Asian grocery. One bag will last a long time; as far as we can tell, they last forever . . . except in our kitchen.

* Actually, it's douchi, but to our immature minds that is hardly an improvement.