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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Five Delicious Ways to Eat Tofu—No Joke

We've been waiting for a good time to write this post because, let's face it, there are few quicker ways to turn people off than to mention tofu. The soft soybean curd become so thoroughly entwined in the popular mind with the worst kind of vegetarian cooking that some people say they could never give up meat because of all the resulting tofu.

We realize there are few things less appealing than flavorless white mush. We don't like that either. But we love tofu's nutritional value—it's low in fat and high in protein and iron—so we've found a number of delicious ways to add it to our diet.

Yesterday our beloved Giant Asian Market was selling a six-pound box of "restaurant tofu" (whatever that is) for $3.99. Only when we got home with our heavy box did we stop to look at the expiration date: March 4. So we're thinking about ways to use it up, and we figure now's as good a time as any to write our long-deferred tofu post.

Tofu does not have to be boring, and you don't have to be a vegetarian to eat it. Maybe you simply want to cut back on your meat and egg consumption—tofu can help you do that. Here are five good ways to use it.

1. Sautéed tofu. Many people are turned off by tofu's mushy texture, but if you sauté it, you end up with something closer to meat. Be sure to use extra-firm tofu, available in any supermarket. Cut it into one-and-a-half-inch cubes or quarter-inch slices, and sauté in a little olive oil or peanut oil (the latter if you're making an Asian-flavored meal). One tablespoon of oil is plenty for a package of tofu. Once the pieces are sizzling in the pan, dribble a little soy sauce on all sides, and pepper liberally. Let them fry until they're golden brown. You can eat them plain, but the fried cubes are great in a stir-fry.

2. "Ground" tofu. If you freeze tofu, then thaw it and squeeze out the water, it takes on a ground-meat texture that works well as a substitute for hamburger, turkey, or chicken—think tacos, shepherd's pie, or the Thai salad larb. And because tofu soaks up spices and flavorings better than meat, you'll get more bang for your protein buck. Yesterday we immediately froze half of our giant box of tofu, knowing that we'd never be able to eat six pounds before the expiration date. 

3. Scrambled tofu. Want to cut back on your egg consumption? Mix tofu in with the egg mixture when you scramble it. Squeeze it in your hands before adding it to the pan for a more "scrambled" texture. Or you can eat scrambled tofu all by itself; we like it mixed with sautéed onions, garlic, and peppers.

4. Barbecued tofu. Again, extra-firm is key here. So's marinating. Slice the tofu into half-inch pieces—nothing too slim, or they'll slip through the grill!—and let them soak for a good hour (overnight would be even better) in a marinade of your choice. For an Asian marinade, you could mix soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, rice wine vinegar, and ginger; for a Mediterranean marinade, try olive oil, red wine vinegar, lemon juice, garlic, oregano, salt, and pepper.

5. Smoothies. Add a chunk of tofu to the blender with your berries or banana to give your smoothie an easy protein boost and a creamy texture.

Try these recipes—you'll see that tofu doesn't have to be a joke. And if anybody else has good tofu ideas to share, please send them along!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Secret to Good Thai Curry: A Good Recipe

We've been making Thai coconut-milk curries for years, with mixed results. Sometimes they're too heavy and greasy, sometimes they're too spicy, sometimes they're too bland. Sometimes they're pretty good, but we've never stopped searching for a better recipe. We've scoured Thai cookbooks and the Internet. It never occurred to us to simply consult the curry paste jar.

Thai Kitchen curry paste is widely available in supermarkets—just check the Asian aisle. We use both the green and red varieties, bearing in mind that the green is much hotter. For most dishes, we prefer the red. Actually, we own many different brands and colors of curry paste, but we tend to reach for the Thai Kitchen most often, simply because the glass jar is easier to deal with than a can. Little did we know that the jar label offered the best curry sauce recipe we've found so far.

Here's the version we made:

Thai Red Curry

1 t. peanut oil
1 1/2 T. red curry paste (spice lovers may want to use more)
1 can coconut milk
2 T. fish sauce
1 T. brown sugar
1/2 cup vegetable stock
1 package fake-chicken strips*
1 red pepper, seeded and sliced into quarter-inch strips
1 handful sugar snap peas
6 ounces cooked wheat noodles**
Cilantro, basil, or both to garnish

1. In a good-size saucepan, heat the peanut oil, then fry the curry paste for a couple of minutes. Add the coconut milk and let the mixture simmer for about five minutes.

2. Add the fish sauce, sugar, and broth, and bring back to a simmer. Add your protein, red pepper, and snap peas, and let them cook for a few minutes.

3.  Add the noodles and heat through.

4. Garnish with herbs and serve.

* Any protein would work well with this sauce, including real chicken, tofu, shrimp, or meat.

**Normally, we would serve the curry over rice, but we're once again trying to draw down our pantry stockpiles, so we used a package of curry-flavored noodles we bought a long time ago at Trader Joe. They were wonderful. Rice noodles would also be good.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Never Waste a Flavor: Don't Toss That Bean Cooking Water!

Frankly, we debated whether to write this post, fearing that readers would find it pathologically frugal. But one undeniable fact proved the deciding factor: this cheapskate habit has given us many pots of delicious soup and stock. (Also, we come by our frugality rightfully: Ruth's late father left behind a box of batteries carefully labeled "not completely dead.")

As we've reported almost ad nauseum, we cook a lot of beans—black, white, pinto, chickpeas—and eat a lot of lentils. This results in a great deal of rich cooking liquid that we use to boost the flavor of soups and stews. Last week we made a pot of vegetable soup, adding a quart of frozen black-bean cooking liquid; the soup ended up with a velvety richness it would not otherwise have had. Lentil liquid would have been even more velvety.

If you find yourselves with a few cups of leftover bean or lentil cooking liquid, freeze it for later use; if you aren't cooking soup, add it to your homemade stock. You'll be glad that you made the effort.

TWO IMPORTANT THINGS TO REMEMBER: Although the cooking liquid from beans is wonderful, don't confuse it with the soaking liquid you use to soften the beans before you cook them. That liquid should be discarded and replaced with fresh water before cooking. If you don't, you'll end up with an indigestible bunch of beans and a nasty batch of cooking liquid.

Also, this tip should only be used with homemade beans. Don't use that slimy goo that comes with canned beans; although canned beans are great in a pinch, the liquid they come with is full of salt and God knows what else.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Food Label Lies

Here at Eat Well, Eat Cheap we're all about eating healthy, so we're always on the lookout for helpful tips that make it easy to buy, cook and eat healthy food.

Bicycling magazine writes a lot about healthy eating. The advice is usually very good because avid bicyclists need a fair amount of food, but they try to eat well. Imagine going on a 100-mile bicycle ride after you've eaten a Quarter-Pounder, large fries and a Big Gulp. It's not pretty.

Bicycling suggests reading food labels to help with healthy eating. Today, it gives a quick overview of what to believe and what nine labels should be relegated to the Bullsheet.

Here's the Bullsheet:


Here is a link to the article about the five labels you can trust.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Bargain Wine of the Week: An All-Purpose Cheat Sheet

Eat Well, Eat Cheap gives you all sorts of great wines for less than $10. But then you walk into your local wine store, and you can't find one of our recommendations for wine values at a bargain price. We've tried to give you some universal pointers on brands that are consistent enough to be reliable, but what's a person to do when faced with aisles of anonymous labels?

Wine Enthusiast magazine, arguably the most trusted wine magazine, has come to the rescue. In its new issue (March 2011) it published a reliable wine bargain cheat sheet for the wine store, supermarket or wine discount store.

Wine Enthusiast divided its bargain list first by country. Then it listed the labels that have proved to be the most reliable in its "Best Buy" listings over the years. After each label, it lists the specific regions and varietals that are the pick of the label's bottles — by varietal but not by year.

So, for example, for Chile, it lists eight wineries that consistently produce great bargains. Santa Rita, Concha y Toro, Casa Lapostolle and Los Vascos are among the eight. Under Casa Lapostolle, it lists the winery's Rapel Valley wines, and specifically its Rapel Cabernet Sauvignon and its Carmenére. The winery imports many more wines than those two, but Wine Enthusiast says that those are the two that are consistently good and consistently bargains.

For American wines, it offers separate categories for California, Washington and Oregon.

The magazine offers this invaluable "Cheat Sheet" as a three-page pdf for download, so that you can take it to the store the next time you shop for wine. You might want to leave it in the car for those times when you pop into an unknown and untried store (or even for restaurant wine lists).

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Why Go Out for Your Valentine's Dinner?

The weather's still cold in most places, and restaurant (not to mention gasoline) prices are high—why not take a fraction of what you'd spend on a fancy dinner out and treat your Valentine to a home-cooked meal? This menu relies on inexpensive ingredients and simple preparations that leave you plenty of time to spend with your loved one. Who knows, maybe your loved one will be grateful enough to do the dishes . . .

First course (main course for vegetarians): Pasta with Silky Squash Sauce

Main course: Easy Peasy Roast Chicken 

Vegetable dish: Tian with Winter Vegetables

Dessert: Pavlova 

Wine: See our previous post

And for those of you who don't have a Valentine this year—who, in fact, have had it uptohere with all the red hearts and doilies and saccharine commercial crap—why not make yourselves a good dinner? Why not set a nice table, turn on your favorite music, pour yourself a delicious glass of something, and toast your own fine company (and your own good sense in not having settled for a jerk)?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Bargain Wine of the Week: Valentine Values

So, you're entertaining your sweetie on Valentine's Day. What appropriate wine to serve? Something tasty, low-cost, and with a hint of romance. Here are three that we suggest.

A white wine to go with seafood, or with a pre-dinner salad, or with dessert, or just for sipping and kissing? How about a nice wine for your cupcake?

The Cupcake Vineyards 2010 Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough region of New Zealand is a winner, because it is a wine of conviction. That is, it celebrates the uniqueness of its region and the taste it imparts to sauvignon blanc grapes.

We found this wine at Costco for $7.89. It has strong hints of Meyer lemons and Key limes, but it is not sweet. It's perfect for shrimp or pasta with cream sauce and yet will hang in there with your not-too-sweet dessert. (BTW, it's won a bunch of awards. Not bad for less than $8 for your little cupcake.)

Now Valentine's Day is associated with red: red hearts, red pajamas, red sweets. Here's a solid, all-purpose red wine: Ménage a Trois 2009 California Red Wine. Now maybe a name like this will scare the faint of heart, but this wine will win over your partner or partners, no matter how many you have.

As the label says, "surrender to the seduction of dark, rich berry with a hint of pepper, a lush, lingering finish leaving you wishing for more..." Does that not make you think of love?

This wine was also only $7.89 at Costco. A real bargain for the hearty side of Valentine's Day. "Three saucy grapes make up the blend," the winery says. "Zinfandel adds a juicy character. Merlot mellows and Cabernet adds backbone. Forward, spicy and soft, this delicious dalliance makes the perfect trio."

Our third wine is from the Alexander Valley in Sonoma County, California. It's also a spicy red with a hint of romance: Sin Zin Zinfandel. You might have trouble finding it for less than $10, but you shouldn't have trouble finding it for about $12. It's got spice and pepper and will stand up to any food or any rough treatment you might suggest.

Easy, Low-Fat Mustard Sauce Tastes Good on Everything

Just as we feared, yesterday's appointment with the doctor brought unwelcome news about our cholesterol. Even though we tried to blame the insanely rich egg nog we stupidly but delightedly drank just before our bloodwork, he didn't buy the excuse and ordered us to clean up our dietary act in the next three months, or else.

So we got home and leafed through our vegan cookbooks. Our experience with vegan recipes has been mixed—some are great, some are OK, and some taste strictly like penance—but Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero's Veganomicon has been pretty reliable. Isa and Terry understand that new vegans walk a tough road, so they load up on flavor and encouragement (also, they're a lot of fun to read). Their recipe for mustard sauce caught our eye, partly because it used only one tablespoon of fat: a single dollop of olive oil.

Could it possibly be as good as they said? We hauled out the ingredients and whipped it up in a matter of minutes, and we had to agree: this sauce is amazing. Packed with mustard and lemon flavor, it would be great on anything from roasted vegetables to pork loin to fried tofu. (We ate it over sautéed seitan and wild rice, and meat-eating Tim thought it was great, possibly because it disguised the seitan.)

Here's the recipe:

Mustard Sauce

2 T. cornstarch (we used arrowroot)
3/4 c. vegetable broth
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 t. dried thyme
1 T. olive oil
1/2 c. sherry (we used sake)
1 T. soy sauce
1/4 cup whole-grain Dijon mustard (we used regular)
1 T. lemon juice
2 T. capers (with brine)

1. Mix the cornstarch with the broth and set aside.
2. In a small saucepan over medium heat, sauté the garlic and thyme in the olive oil for about a minute.
3. Add the wine and soy sauce, and raise the heat to high. Once the mixture is boiling, lower the heat to medium and simmer to reduce, about four minutes.
4. Add the vegetable broth mixture, mustard, lemon juice, and capers, and whisk. When the sauce is bubbling, lower the heat and simmer for about three minutes. The sauce should be on the thick side. 

Let cool a bit before serving; this sauce tastes great just above room temperature. 

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Five Easy Super Bowl Snacks

Yep, it's Super Bowl time once again, which means newspaper food sections are scratching their heads trying to come up with new ideas. Well, some are; others, like the Washington Post, are throwing in the creative towel: today the Post seriously compares the nutritional value of Doritos and Utz cheese balls.

But it's possible to have a fun Super Bowl without spending a fortune or loading up on junk. Here are five snacks that can be easily and inexpensively made at home:

1. Fried cheese. Both of these recipes can be made in minutes and will deliver more flavor than a whole tub of Utz cheese balls.

2. Spiced nuts. We talk about these a lot because they are so easy and fast to make, and cheap if you buy nuts in quantities at places like Costco. Here are two good recipes.

3. Sunflower snappers. Easy, fast, delicious, and because you make them yourself, you control the salt.

4. Tapenade. You can spread this pungent olive paste on toast, scoop it up with vegetables, or add it to a salad dressing. Loads of flavor and little fat.

5. Kale chips. We're still getting grief over our many kale-chip recipes of a few summers ago. But kale is abundant in the winter, and these chips make a fine accompaniment to fried cheese. Don't knock them until you've tried them!

Now, what to drink? A Riesling would work well with salty snacks; look for Jacob's Creek Reserve Riesling, which can still be found for less than $10. And for a good red, you can't go wrong with the 2008 Red Diamond Merlot we discovered at last weekend's wine tasting. You can find it at Safeway and Trader Joe's, among other stores.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A Saturday Wine Tasting Party

Note: On Saturday night we went to a wine tasting party held by our friends Chuck and Sandy. They're enthusiastic and curious about wine, but they are by no means snobs. This is why their wine tastings are fun. They gather about ten friends; set out a few disguised bottles and some delicious, absorbent snacks; pass out ratings sheets and pens; and let everybody decide what they like best. Part of the fun, for us, is watching people who are initially shy about their wine-tasting abilities develop confidence in their own palates—before long, everybody's tossing out opinions and asking for second tastes. There's no right or wrong about wines; there's only what you like. A wine tasting party lets you and your friends decide what tastes best to you. 

Here are Sandy's tips for hosting a party:

All you need to host a successful wine tasting party is a couple bottles of wine and friends game to sip and learn. The impetus for our most recent wine tasting was the acquisition of an intriguing red from an unlikely source: a little winery in South Dakota making wines from hybrids of grapes native to northern climes.
Since Frontenac, St Croix and Valiant grapes are not widely crushed, we decided the likeliest matchup for our Dakota Red was Merlot, typically a soft medium-bodied red. The four contestants were:

1. Dakota Red NV, Schade Vineyard & Winery, Volga, SD, $10.
2. J. Lohr Paso Robles 2007, chosen because Jerry Lohr grew up in South Dakota before making his wine fortune in CA, $17.
3. Red Diamond Merlot 2008, Washington State, $10.
4. Stonehedge Napa Valley 2007, $12.
We invited friends to a blind horizontal tasting, which means the bottles were disguised in brown paper bags and we judged each Merlot on its merits. (A vertical tasting is similar to what you get at a winery, starting with whites and working your way up to reds and dessert wines.) The number of wines is up to you and your friends' patience. Three is probably the minimum; we've had seven, which was too much alcohol and took forever. We usually aim for geographic diversity. If you're tasting Chardonnays, for instance, try them from several countries, or several states, or several different California regions.
We used a wine tasting form from Epicurious and asked guests to judge the wines on a scale of 1 to 5 in these categories: color and intensity; aroma; flavor/acidity/sweetness; tannins/body/alcohol; and finish/complexity.
None of us are wine experts, but we had a wonderful time guessing at aromas (cinnamon, earthy, pepper, currant, and to our merriment, coconut). Alas, the Schade wine stood out for its sweetness and ranked dead last when the scorecards were tallied.* First place went to the Red Diamond, judged smooth, complex, long finish, and simply "my fave."**
We served an assortment of non-spicy hors d'oeurves, hot and cold, and simply warned wine tasters that a radish or really stinky cheese might affect their palate. But as our friend Ruth pointed out, one of the best pairings she ever had was a Sauternes with an extremely ripe American blue cheese.
We learned something about wine, without the snobbery or intimidation of a real wine connoisseur on hand. Then again, who's to say we're not connoisseurs? The definition of connoisseur is "an individual with a discriminating taste."
For professional tips on a wine tasting party, go to:

* While it's true that the Schade is a bit sweet for most food combinations, in our opinion [we hasten to add!], it has a nice sherry-like flavor and would make a good aperitif or even dessert wine. 
** Check out the price on the Red Diamond! Best of all, you can find it many places, including Trader Joe's.