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Thursday, March 24, 2011

How to Save Money on Vacation Meals

A couple of weeks ago we decided, quite on the spur of the moment, to take a four-night trip to Cancún. We've been there many times before and knew that we'd have an excellent mini-vacation, which for us means one thing: lounging on a beach, books in hand.

We got a great deal on the trip, but we knew from experience that our great deal would quickly be spoiled by hotel gouging if we ate breakfast and lunch at the place we were staying. As it happened, our hotel sat on a fairly undeveloped (for Cancún) stretch of land, with few nearby restaurants or grocery stores. But over the years we've learned how to avoid forking out for hotel food.

On our first evening in Cancún, we rode a bus into town and loaded up at our favorite supermarket. For US$19 (roughly the cost of a single trip to a hotel buffet) we bought a quart of milk, a quart of yogurt, two bags of granola, a box of pistachios, two liters of water, three quarts of fruit juice, two beautiful mangoes, a bunch of small bananas, and half a papaya.

We'd packed plenty of Starbucks VIA, instant coffee granules that can be mixed with hot or cold water or milk. In the past we'd traveled with our own coffee machine (much to the amusement of less-coffee-obsessed friends), and although we were at first doubtful whether VIA would be able to match the taste of freshly brewed coffee, we had to admit that it is really good. And it saved us lots of packing and mess. Thank you, Starbucks!

So we were well set for breakfast. While our fellow tourists trooped down to the overpriced dining room, we laid around in our underwear, reading, eating luscious fruit, and enjoying the sunrise on the ocean.

For lunch, we visited a taco joint across the street. But we easily could have eaten in our room: sandwiches, improvised tortilla wraps, fruit and veggies. Our friend Paul Spring has an even more ingenious solution: He searches out a nice piece of fish and marinates it in lime juice and tomato for his own ceviche.

To eat in your hotel room, you need a few helpful items:

* Sharp knife (checked through with your bags and not carried onto the plane, obviously)
* Corkscrew (ditto)
* Unbreakable coffee mugs
* Forks and spoons
* Unbreakable plates or bowls
* Sugar, salt, and pepper
* Paper towels
* Collapsible cooler

We filled our cooler with ice twice a day, and our milk, yogurt, and fruit stayed fresh.

Although we began eating in our room years ago to save money, we now prefer it. It's great not to have to get dressed, go downstairs, and wait to eat; who wouldn't rather enjoy their breakfast sitting up in bed or on a beautiful balcony?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Bargain Wine of the Week: Larrikin 2006 Barossa Valley Shiraz

There are certain consumer products that are bargains right now. Home repair contractors (because there isn't any work and every builder has turned to remodeling to keep the doors open). Clothing at department stores (because it's all made in Asian and nobody's buying much of anything). And wine.

Spain continues to be a stupendous bargain. You can buy good Spanish wines for $10, and great Spanish wines for $20. Chile has been a bargain wine location for many years — and its wines are getting better. And Australian wines can be a great deal, as well.

We found a Barossa Valley Shiraz online for $10 that was not rated, but frankly we're wondering why it was not noticed by someone. The Larrikin 2006 Barossa Valley Shiraz is incredibly well-balanced and full of black and blueberries, with some hints of chocolate and nutmeg. Barossa Valley wines are well thought of and can be expensive. But this one is not costly, and it is worth putting in the shopping cart if you run across it.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Crunchy Indian Salad

First off, we have to acknowledge that this salad isn't for everyone. Some people (mystifyingly) just don't like Indian food, and others might have trouble finding some of the ingredients. But if you love Indian flavors, you'll be willing to track down what you need, either at an Indian grocery or online.

The good news is, this has only a handful of ingredients and can be whipped up in about ten minutes. It would be especially good on a hot summer night, either as part of a bigger meal or all by itself. With complete protein, it offers all you need nutritionally.

The chief ingredient is bhel mix, which is more or less an Indian version of Chex Mix, with puffed rice, chickpea-flour crunchies (known as "sev"), and assorted spices. Indian stores usually have a gigantic selection of these bagged mixes, in varying levels of hotness. We've had good luck with the Gujarat blend, which is not overly spicy but provides a nice warm buzz.

We first had this in a restaurant (listed on the menu as "Bhel Puri") and were able to duplicate it pretty successfully at home.

Crunchy Indian Salad*

2 1/2 cups bhel mix
2 Roma tomatoes, diced
1/4 cup onion, diced
1/4 cup cilantro, minced
1 hot chili pepper, minced
3 T. tamarind chutney (or more, depending on dryness of salad and how much you like this sour flavor)
Lime quarters

Mix all ingredients. If you're feeling fancy, you can mold it into a small bowl and upend on a plate before serving. Squirt each portion with lime juice before eating.

Serves two gluttons, or four people as an appetizer.

* Some recipes call for about a half a cup of mashed potato, and although we haven't tried this, we bet it's good.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Favorite Kitchen Utensils: Another Small Whisk

We've written about our beloved mini-whisk, which we use almost every day. A few years ago you could walk into any dollar store and find one, but they seem to have disappeared—at least, we haven't seen them for a long time. As our present whisk is beginning to show its years of service, we've been worried about replacing it.

But the other day, browsing in the implements section of Crate & Barrel, we found this long-handled cocktail whisk: It's only slightly bigger than our present whisk, so it will do a good job of mixing salad dressings, egg yolks, dry baking ingredients, and everything else a mini-whisk can do. The long handle makes it even easier to use. Best of all, it was only five dollars! (Unfortunately, it's not on the Crate & Barrel website, but we see that Amazon sells them for half of what we paid.)

Relieved that we've found a replacement for our old little utensil, we can now look forward to years of happy whisking.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Quick Sauces for Fish

From left to right, chipotle mayonnaise, teriyaki sauce and wasabi mayonnaise.

We mostly grill our fish — unless it is blizzarding outside. And we don't sauce it up too much, because good fish is, well, good fish, and you don't need to smother the taste.

When we grill, we usually just top it with a squeeze of lemon and a tiny bit of olive oil, which keeps it moist on the hot grill. See our earlier post about prepping fish for the grill.

But sometimes we want to add just a touch of taste, particularly when we have guests who might not see heaven in a piece of unadorned fish the way we do.

So here are three great sauces — or toppings — to serve with any fish, whether grilled, broiled or pan fried. Two are spicy and one is on the slightly sweet side.

Wasabi Mayonnaise. Wasabi mayonnaise is available at Trader Joes, but you can make it quickly and very inexpensively by merely adding wasabi powder or wasabi paste to mayonnaise. Wasabi is often available in the Asian aisle at supermarkets. We start with 3 Tablespoons of mayonnaise and add 3 teaspoons of wasabi. If you like it really hot, add more wasabi. But be careful. This is not tartar sauce. A little goes a long way, and so it accompanies the fish rather than masking it.

Chipotle Mayonnaise. For those who like a southwestern taste rather than an Asian flavor, chipotle mayonnaise is made by adding 3 teaspoons of the adobo sauce that comes in a can of chipotle peppers. If you want it really hot, add a chopped up pepper from the can, but only add a small one and be careful, because these canned peppers are really hot.

Teriyaki Sauce. Not everybody likes spicy food, even a little sauce on the side, so serve a little teriyaki sauce on the side for those who like just a hint of sweet. You can buy it in bottles at the supermarket, or you can make it at home. Mix 1/3 cup soy sauce, 1/3 cup Mirin or rice wine, 1/3 cup sake and 2-1/4 teaspoons of sugar. This makes a very liquidy sauce that you would use if you were to glaze the fish while it was on the grill, but it's not thick enough to serve as an accompanying sauce.

We add 2 teaspoons of arrowroot and heat it in a small pan on the stovetop. It will quickly thicken to a syrupy consistency.

Your guests are sure to love one of these little sauces with their fish.