Saturday, January 31, 2009

Beef Barley Soup

There is something about barley in a soup. It provides this thick, buttery texture to the whole broth. In fact, if you want to get really crazy, start a barley soup with a butter roux. The barley will incorporate the butter and make something truly awesome.

I made this soup with venison because it was in my freezer, but it is actually even better with ground beef. It is also really good with no meat at all and more vegetables. In fact, years and years ago when I was working at a restaurant, we got a huge bag of jicamas delivered by accident. They are usually eaten raw in a salad or in a stir-fry, but we used them in a soup with barley. Wouldn't you know, we actually had to start ordering jicamas because people went wild for the soup. And this was Bel Air, MD in 1996. Ceasar salad was considered ethnic food.

Ingredients: 3 quarts broth, 1 lbs 1/2 inch cubes of beef or venison, flour to coat, oil, 2 diced carrots, 2 diced celery spears, 1 diced yellow onion, 1/2 lbs chopped mushrooms, 3/4 cup barley, 2 tbs. thyme, pepper to taste (after it's done)

  • Toss meat lightly in flour and brown in a hot oiled pan
  • Remove meat and put aside, throw in vegetables
  • Cooke vegetables until soft
  • Add meat, barley and broth
  • Bring to a boil and then cook on low for 2 hours (or overnight in slow cooker, as I did)
Serves 8 (1.75 cup portions)

Note: Especially with the slow cooker, browning the meat and sauteing the vegetables is not so crucial.

Frugal Factor: I would pay $4.50 for grass fed beef or $2.25 for supermarket beef, $2 for the mushrooms at discount produce (maybe $3.50 at the supermarket), and I'm guessing $0.75 for the carrot, onion, celery, and barley. So that's $5.00-$8.75 or $0.63-$1.10/portion. Either way, it's cheaper and better than a can.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Red Beans and Rice

First thing I ate in New Orleans after a 20-hour drive w/ Gene during spring break of 1998. Went to some place Adrienne took us to by Tulane where they didn't card me for the Turbo Dog. Nothing tastes as good a spicey food and cold beer after a 20-hour drive. This actually tastes pretty close to the real thing. It's not a hard dish to make and it's pretty forgiving as to the specific ingredients, as long as the beans are red and the cayenne pepper pours freely. I might just have to go to the distributor for a case of Dog and listen to Tom Waits*

Ingredients: 1 lbs dried kidney beans, 1/2 lbs diced smoked sausage , 1/4 lbs diced ham, approx. 3 cups stock (ham is good), 1 diced onion, 4 diced celery stalks, 5 diced or pressed cloves garlic, 2 tbsp paprika, 1 tbsp thyme, 1 tbsp cumin, 1 tbsp sugar, hot sauce, cayenne pepper, salt and black pepper to taste (I like lots), 2 cups rice (cook separately), 1/2 bunch scallions

  • Soak beans and cook until soft (I put them on high in the slow cooker for a couple hours)
  • Drain beans, place back in slow cooker or pot
  • Add all the other ingredients (except the rice and green onions), pouring in stock to cover about an inch over the beans (more if cooking on stove)
  • Cook on medium (auto shift on mine) overnight in slow cooker or for a couple hours on stove, stirring often.
  • Blend 1/3, either in a blender or by just lightly using an immersion blender.
  • Taste, season if needed. Add stock if it gets too thick.
  • Serve with cooked rice and garnish with green onions.

Serves 6 (not 5 for once)

Notes: I like to do the presentation shown above with the beans in a shallow bowl w/ a 1/2 cup mould of rice on top, but when I freeze portions I just throw them together because you end up just mixing it all up anyway. If you don't want to deal with the blender, another method is to season a little more heavily and use a little more stock and add a can of unseasoned refried beans to get the right consistency.
I used your basic smoked sausage or kielbasa at the supermarket because I had some in the freezer, but to do this right use andouille would be authentic and Niman Ranch has one but the only price I could find online was $10/lb - maybe cheaper in Whole Paycheck store or something at TJ's. For the ham, tasso is authentic but I don't like it. Dry hot Capicola sliced extra thick from a deli would actually be great.
This can also be a good vegan dish too, but that's a completely different recipe I'll offer later on. If you want to try and let me know, I would think you would want to use a chipotle pepper for the smokey flavor, double the onion and celery and slow-cook it, maybe with some red peppers for texture, and use some extra spice

Frugal Factor: Beans, $1.50; Sausage, $1.50 as prepared but maybe $4 to get good stuff; Ham, $1 as prepared but $2 if using capicola from Shop Rite or something; Rice, $0.50; onion, celery, scallions and spices, $1.00. So, $5.50 as prepared or $9.00 as recommended. That's $0.92-$1.50/serving.

*I'll drink you under the table, be red-nosed, go for walks,
The old haunts what I wants is red beans and rice
And wear the dress I like so well, and meet me at the old saloon,
Make sure that there's a Dixie moon, New Orleans, I'll be there

Italian Meatballs

I hate nasty factory meatballs, with their spongy rubber ball texture. I know I said in my last recipe not to worry about making everything as authentic as an ethnic grandmother. When it comes to meatballs, I take it back a little. There is an art to meatballs that you shouldn't mess with too much, and it took me many failed attempts to arrive at this technique.

In image of meat in the bowl below, I photographed the meat mixture with the garlic and onion on top so you could see the consistency of all three but usually I would mix all together at the same time.

Ingredients: 1 lbs ground beef, 1 lbs ground pork, 2/3 cup bread crumbs, 1 cup milk, 2 eggs, 2 tbsp Italian seasoning, 5 cloves of garlic, 2 tbsp olive oil, 1 tbsp. salt coarse/kosher salt, 2 beaten eggs, 1/2 cup grated Parmesan, 1 red onion or a few shallots.

  • In a small bowl, combine bread crumbs and milk and let rest (this is called a panade)
  • Wrap garlic in foil and roast at 350 for 30 minutes. Squeeze garlic from cloves and make a paste with the salt and olive oil (the coarseness of the salt helps grind up the garlic) - I use a mortar and pestle but a bowl and a wooden spoon would work too.
  • Grate onion on a cheese grater - the one you would use to grate cheddar. Place in bowl and soak in vinegar and water for 15 minutes to reduce the onion burp factor and then rinse in strainer
  • Wash your hands
  • Combine everything in bowl and work it gently into a uniform texture with your hands (see, aren't you glad you washed them?). Don't overwork these or they will become bouncy balls
  • Get out your broiler pan and spray the top insert. Put a little water in the bottom part - this keeps the grease from burning and the steam helps the meatballs cook on the bottom faster so they lose their shape less. Preheat your broiler.
  • Make meatballs. I like them medium size, which is 2 tbsp of meat mixture, or 36 meatballs in this recipe.
  • Place pan on a rack one up from the middle and broil 15 minutes (as always, broilers vary so keep an eye on them)
  • Remove and flip over to brown other side.
  • Break one open and see if it's done. If it's fully cooked, go ahead and eat it.
To freeze these, put them on a cookie sheet lined with wax paper so they don't touch and pre-freeze, then put in bags. This way, they don't stick together and you can grab just a few for soup, spaghetti dinner, sandwiches, etc. To reheat, just toss in sauce and cook on the stovetop.

Note: Frying meatballs in olive oil is mighty tasty but it's a pain and not worth the effort and extra fat in my book. If you do choose to fry, lightly coat the meatballs in flour first. These are great not only in tomato sauce (aka gravy) but in my favorite food in the world, Italian Wedding Soup, which is basically a chicken soup to which you add escarole (found w/ the lettuce in some supermarkets), little meatballs (these are a little big but that's okay), cooked rice and plenty of grated Parmesan on top.

Frugal Factor: I spent $4.50/lb for the local grass-fed ground beef. I am not buying factory pork due to the horrendous cruelty and environmental impact, so I would pay $4.50/lb for that too if I hadn't had some pork chops from an Omaha Steaks box I got for Christmas and a meat grinder. Shoprite sells 85% lean ground beef for $2.59/lb and ground pork for $1.62/lbs. The cheese is probably $1/worth, and figure $1 for everything else. So that's $6.21 w/supermarket meat or $11 for local pastured meat. I think 4 meatballs is a nice portion (a little light for some), so that works out to 9 portions @ $0.69 - $1.22/portion.

Ham and White Bean Soup

When I divided up a spiral ham into portions to freeze a while back, I wasn't too stressed about getting all the meat of the bone. I froze that too. Used it today in this super-simple soup. Sorry, this is more eyeball than recipe. ALERT: TWO DAY RECIPE (as written - if you are a better fat skimmer than I, maybe not)

Ingredients: 1 ham bone w/ lots of meat on it, 1 32 oz can diced tomatoes, drained, 1 halved onion, 1 diced onion, 2 spears celery, 1 lbs dried white beans (cooked separately to a slightly al dente state), 1 shredded cabbage, 2 russet potatoes, 1/2 tbsp. each of rosemary, sage, thyme, and savory (savory is optional but helps in the digestion of beans and cabbage, which is helpful if you don't live alone in the woods)

  • Put ham bone in a pot and submerge in water with the halved onion
  • Cook on medium low until meat has fallen off the bone
  • Pour into another container through sieve. This is your stock
  • Separate bones from meat and refrigerate meat (throw bones away)
  • Refrigerate stock overnight, remove fat from top and discard (or save it it that's your thing)
  • In pot, pour defatted stock over all the other ingredients (if you have more stock than you need, save some for something else... like red beans and rice)
  • Cook until everything is tender. Add more salt, a hit of better than bouillon or whatever to taste. You can scoop out some of the beans and potatoes and mash them up for a richer texture.
Serves 12

Frugal Factor: Off the charts but here's my best estimate: $4 for the ham bone (prorated from the whole 3.99/lb ham); $1.50 for the beans; $1 tomatoes; $1 cabbage; $1 for everything else. $8.50 total, 12 servings $0.71/serving.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Money Saving Tips? Maybe

Even Epicurious is getting in the frugal bandwagon. Their top-10 money saving ingredients is both obvious and limiting, largely indicative of the diet that already puts poor people at risk for obesity and diabetes.

Here's the list:

  • Potatoes - Duh, everybody knows it's cheap.
  • Rice - See potatoes
  • Pasta - Okay, we get it - load up on raw carbs. Diabetes takes years to develop.
  • Chicken - Sure it's cheap, as long as you don't buy white meat trimmed tenderloins. You might as well pay someone to chew it for you at that point.
  • Beans - Duh, but with a better glycemic index. One note though - every time I get dried beans from the supermarket - usually Goya brand - they never get soft after hours of cooking, probably because they are too old. Perhaps I am just the only person who buys them. I have had much better luck with the ones from the discount produce store that appear to be packaged locally.
  • Apples - They quote $1.50/lb for Red Delicious, but the recipes they list call for more expensive apples that are actually edible and might stand up to cooking something other than apple sauce. Red Delicious apples, bred for their unnaturally red skin rather than taste, represent everything that is wrong with the last 50 years of the American diet and food system. Supermarkets sell the better apples for $2.50/lb or more, but Trader Joe's has honeycrisps and other great varieties, $4 for a 3 lb bag.
  • Canned Tuna - Canned tuna, like Spam, is convenient but it's not actually all that cheap, especially considering a can of tuna is half water. Obviously Starkist paid to be listed in this list. But it is tasty, and you know you don't get enough mercury in your diet. Cheaper, however, is canned salmon. It's half the price of tuna by weight, and much lesswater. Some bones though, which they say you are supposed to just eat. I can't bring myself to do it though.
  • Eggs - Yup, eggs are cheap.
  • Cheese - Cheese is not all that cheap these days. $5/lb for cheddar is optimistic.
  • Flank Steak - Yum, flank steak, and also skirt steak, are delicious and one of the main reasons to visit Whole Paycheck (better if I ordered from a CSA, but I am lazy)

They are all fine ingredients, but they are mostly basic staples that can form the basis of expensive or cheap dishes. Better advice would be listing cheap nutritious vegetables that are a good value in winter, such as cabbage, broccoli, and squash in all its varieties.

One thing I did find interesting was that they got prices for these ingredients from the Bureau of Labor Statistics survey. The bureau seems to be finding good deals on dry beans, but $7.29/lb for flank steak is a little high - Whole Paycheck sells if for $6.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Bhindi Masala w/ Chick Peas and Kidney Beans

Great, authentic Indian food is hard to come by. Horrible Indian food is everywhere from West Philly buffets to cans and pouches in the Co-Op or Trader Joe's. Happily, "pretty good" interpretations of Indian favorites are easy to make at home.

I made this vegan dish entirely with things from my pantry and freezer. It was light, tasty, healthful and frugal. Many recipes will explain that for truly authentic Indian cooking, you must collect a variety of fresh, exotic whole spices, grind them by hand and fry them up in a paste of ghee, a type of clarified butter.

Maybe that's true, but they sell a ground garam masala spice mix at the Indian grocer and I bought it. In fact, I bought it years ago. Any good chef would tell me to throw it out. But it was delicious. I did fry it into a paste, but I used corn oil.

Don't hold yourself back from cooking something just because you can't cook it like someone's grandmother. Authenticity is a wonderful thing, but cuisine also changes all the time. Cooks from Italy to India make authentic dishes with tomatoes and beans, neither of which were available until Columbus pillaged the Americas. To paraphrase Duke Ellington, if it tastes good, it is good.

Ingredients: 1 14oz can diced tomatoes, 1 16oz can kidney beans, 1 16oz can chick peas, 1 cup chopped okra (frozen is fine and more is fine too - okra, aka bhindi, is tasty in any language), 1 diced onion (I used a sweet vidalia), 3 cloves crushed garlic, 2 tbs corn oil, 1 tbs masala spice mix, 2 tbs Goya Recaito (optional), and fresh cilantro to finish (optional - I didn't have any).

  • Start cooking 1 1/2 cups of basmati rice to serve with the meal (don't you hate when they save that part for last?)
  • Heat oil in skillet, stir in masala and cook for 30 seconds on high
  • Add diced onion a stir in to combine with spice paste
  • Add garlic
  • Thoroughly drain diced tomatoes, reserving the juice
  • Add the tomatoes and okra to the pan. Stir and cook for a couple minutes - you want everythingcarmelize just a little
  • Add the reserved tomato juice and deglaze the pan
  • Drain the beans and add them too, along with the recaito if using
  • Cover and cook on low for 30 minutes
  • Serve over rice. If you have cilantro, chop some up and toss it on. If you have chutney, serve it on the side.
Serves 5 (why do all my recipes always serve 5?)

Frugal Factor: Hard to say. I actually used dried beans that I had cooked previously and okra I forgot to put in a stir fry a few months ago and threw in the deep freeze and ancient spices. But at today's Shoprite prices, here goes: All three cans, $1.50 (wait, is the can can sale still on?); 1/2 bag cut frozen okra @ $1.67/bag, $0.83; 1 oz recaito @ $2/12oz jar, $0.16; 1 1/2 cups basmati rice (12 oz) @$6/4lbs bag, $1.08. If a supermarket sells garam masala, it will be in a $5 jar that holds 1.25 oz but a spice store or Indian store will have it waaaay cheaper. Let's just say $1. That's $4.57 for 5 servings, or $0.92/serving.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Turkey Tamales w/ Red and Green Salsa

When I visit friends or family back in Maryland, I often come up Rt. 1 to save the $9 in tolls. Of course, I usually spend that $9 by stopping at El Sobrero in Avondale, PA, a fantastic Mexican restaurant on Rt 41 just off the exit. They sell the most wonderful tamales frozen in packs of a dozen.

When I found a pound of cooked frozen turkey leftover from Thanksgiving, I decided use it to make my own tamales.

For the dough, I followed this recipe for a crockpot. I didn't have any corn husks so I used parchment paper. I didn't have any Crisco or lard, so I used peanut oil. Maybe that's why my dough didn't float no matter how long I beat it. For the filling, I just reheated the turkey w/ a can of supermarket enchilada sauce and mixed in leftover creme fraiche (a suitable substitute for Mecican creme).

I was a little worried because turkey was dry after reheating w/ the sauce but after cooking inside the tamales, it was moist and delicious just like the ones from El Sombrero. The tamale dough wasn't as good as theirs, I think because they must use something some coarse cornmeal in addition to the regular masa. However, these were a lot better than the ones at Trader Joe's.

I was not so sure about the crockpot part - usually tamales are steamed, which is a lot faster. However, on high for several hours, these got a little bit caramelized and crusty around the edges, which I liked a lot. And I have to to assume that helped the dry turkey end up tasting like somebody's abuelita cooked it from scratch.

I froze portions topped with grated mozzarella cheese I had left over from something and red and green Mexican salsas. They tasted great reheated, which is good because I have 8 2-tamale portions.

Frugal Factor: Everything in this dish has been in my pantry or freezer forever, but it must be insanely cheap. Definitely under $1/portion

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Meat Loaf Muffins

Meatloaf is delicious, but mine always falls apart when I try to cook it, whether I use a loaf pan not. Cooks Illustrated claims to have the perfect solution, involving gelatin and a panade of fresh bread crumbs and milk. Sounds like a pain. Instead, I solved the problem by making meatloaf muffins. Easy to portion, fun to eat. However, halfway through they were bobbing in watery grease so I had to take them out of the tins and finish on a cookie sheet, which was good because then I could fully glaze them in BBQ sauce instead of just doing the tops. Next time I'll try just molding them w/ my hands or these little silicon prep bowls I have and bake them on a broiler pan.

Thanks again to Marquita for sending Rudy's Original BBQ Sause from San Antonio - a light-bodied sauce rather than the thick sludge sold in supermarkets seemed to be a good fit in this recipe. The best thing about using a really tasty bbq sauce is that it provides all the needed seasoning, but feel free to add stuff too.

Meat Loaf Muffins

1 1/2 lbs ground venison (or other lean meat), 1/4 lbs pork breakfast sausage, 1 cup BBQ sauce plus 1/4 cup set aside for glazing, 1 cup dried bread crumbs, one finely diced onion, 1 tbsp thyme, 1 egg

  • Mix everything together.
  • Scoop into muffin tins. Mine filled 10 of the 12.
  • Bake at 400 for 15 minutes
  • Transfer meatloaf muffins from muffin tin to a foil-lined cookie sheet and brush them liberally with BBQ sauce.
  • Put cookie sheet on middle rack and switch to broil. Keep an eye on them - in five minutes they should done, with just a few tiny burn marks on them. But gas broilers vary and I've never used an electric, so your results may vary.

serves 5 (two muffins each)

Serve with mashed potatoes. Really, that's the only acceptable way to enjoy them. Or maybe mac n' cheese. I made my mashed potatoes with buttermilk, which cuts down on the fat. But that's hardly a recipe, so I'll leave it to you to figure out. The only vegetable I ghas was a block of frozen chopped broccoli I was saving for a casserole, but sauted over incredible high heat in garlic and olive oil, it tasted okay.

Notes: I made these with venison and pork sausage, but you could substitute any ground meat- lean meat with sausage or fatty meat with no sausage (or fatty meat and fatty sausage - go nuts). Different meats may yield different results but all will be delicious. Definitely don't stress about equal parts veal, beef and pork or whatever - those pre-packed meat loaf mixes at the supermarket are often overpriced and tend to stick around on the shelves past their prime.
If nobody sent you any Rudy's BBQ Sause, the closest thing widely available in supermarkets is Stubbs. You could try using Kraft or something, but the liquid smoke might be overpowering. Or make your own: equal parts vinegar, molasses and tomato paste (one can) w/ a pinch or two of , paprika, cayanne, thyme, salt, pepper, garlic powder, mustard powder, celery seed and allspice would work great. Ketchup

Frugal Factor: Again, the venison was a gift, but for comparison, ground buffalo is $5/lb so this is $7.50 worth of meat. BBQ sauce also a gift, but Stubbs brand is $4/bottle and I used 1/3 so $1.35 . Onion and bread crumbs, $0.50. Total, $10.25 for 5 servings or $1.87 per portion (two muffins). Not really all that frugal, especially since the mashed potatoes and frozen veggie add another $0.75 per portion for a total of $2.62/portion.

Dried Lima Bean Casserole w/ Ham and Potato

This is a winter meal if I ever had one, and beans are the most frugal of foods. It doesn't look like much and at first, I wasn't even going to blog about it, because it was too dry and bland. However, I thinned the leftovers out with some water and portioned them for freezing and, when I ran out of most everything else, I ate some. It was good. It just needed some more time, water, and reheating. Stewed things are like that sometimes. Borrowing a little from a French cassoulet, I made the beans in a crock pot, microwaved a potato to slice up and stir in, and baked in a skilled w/ some torn-up bread tossed in butter. I used a bouquet garni of leek, fresh thyme, fresh rosemary and whole peppercorns but the directions below just call for throwing in the herbs and grinding in the pepper at the end.

Serves 5.

Ingredients: 1 lbs dried Lima beans (or any white bean), 1 leek, 1 onion, 1 spear celery, one carrot, 1/4 lbs ham, 1 12 oz can chopped tomatoes, 1 tbsp. fresh thyme (or 1/2 dried), 1 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary (or 1/2 tsp dried and crumbled if whole), Add salt and pepper and olive oil to taste after beans are cooked and one baked/microwaved potato, sliced w/ skin removed.

  • Pick through beans in case of rocks (I really did find a rock once), rinse and place in a pot.
  • Pour in enough water to that there are two inches above the beans (if possible, use filtered water - the minerals and such in tap water can make the beans harder)
  • Bring to a boil, turn off heat and rest one hour.
  • Drain beans, rinse and return to the pot (or transfer to a slow cooker)
  • Dice all the other ingredients and add to pot (except salt, pepper and potato)
  • Add 1 cup filtered water to pot
  • Cook on medium heat until beans are soft, stirring when neccesary and adding a little more water if needed*
  • Add potato
  • If desired, top with fresh bread chopped finely or pulsed in food processor and tossed with melted butter and/or olive oil. If you used a dutch oven or a shallow slow cooker insert to cook your beans, you can transfer it right to oven. Otherwise, use an ovensafe skillet, pie plate or casserole.

*Beans may soak up more or less water depending on exact heat, the tightness of the lid, humidity and age of the beans.

Note: Slow cookers have apparently come a long way and have all sorts of settings and timers. Mine is from the 70's, however (I found it its original unopened box in a South Philly Goodwill years ago) and has three settings: low, high, and "autoshift". The latter gets to the highest temp than cycles to low so you don't have to stir. The low setting does not work for dried beans.

Frugal Factor: $1.50 for the beans, $1.25 for the ham (I bought a whole spiral sliced bone-in ham for $3.99/pound at Thanksgiving and froze individual portions of ham), $1 for the leek, $1 for all the other vegetables. The herbs I grow, but dried would be about $0.25. That's $1/serving. Yup, beans are cheap. I like beans.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Product Reviews: The Almost Perfect Travel Mug and Water Bottle

I have been waiting 14 years for the world to develop a travel mug that can be sipped, then sealed securely in a backpack filled with important papers and electronics. They finally did it.

When I started high school, the bus came at some ungodly hour. 7 a.m., I think. Thankfully my bus driver let us bring our travel mugs on the bus. It always frustrated me that you could not just throw your plastic 7-11 coffee mug in your bag. Even when I thought it was empty, my homework still ended up stained in Lavazza (this was before a couple years before Starbucks arrived in Bel Air. After the weird German store closed in the ghostly wreck of a mall, you actually had to go "to the city" for whole bean Arabica.) I had a traditional Thermos with the little plastic cup that clicked on the top, but try drinking that at 7 a.m. on a school bus, especially when the usual one was in the shop and our bus driver had to remember how to clutch.

I have been crushed by false hopes before. There was the Nissan, which claimed to be leakproof, with a nifty little toggle button you clicked open or closed. It worked okay for a while, but then the button wore out and coffee went everywhere.

Now the good folks at Target, the BoBo Wal Mart, are selling the Thermos E5 Travel Mug. It is an elegantly simple solution to a problem that has vexed overthinkers for decades. Unlike other pretenders, it has no moving parts. The sippy lid screws on and off is just like a regular old thermos lid. However, it has two silicon gaskets instead of one. If you unscrew it halfway, one gasket is released and coffee can be come out of the sippy holes in the middle. The second gasket seems to keep the coffee from dribbling out the side when you sip. You can sip left handed or right handed - the sippy lid is 360 degrees of flavor. Genius! Once you close the lid tight, you can shale it, hit it, drop it or put it in a bag with your laptop with no worries.

In fact, you can keep it in the bag for hours, because this thing keep jot beverages hot. I made a mug for a drive from Philly to a suburb of DC and even with the lid in the sip position, the coffee was too hot to drink until I passed through Baltimore.

There are a few downsides: The opening to pour your coffee is too small to stick a standard ice cube to cool things down a little. The mug does not fit in a standard automotive cupholder and it looks like something you should probably not try to pass through a security checkpoint. Overall, however, the best mug ever.

Notes: The Thermos E5 line also includes a 20-oz container that is NOT a travel mug, just a traditional cup-on-top model that also happens to looks like WMD. Also, upon further research it seems the Nissan brand might be using this lid design too, and in a much less bulky product but as they say, "fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice er... won't get fooled again." Of course, some Nissan mugs are co-branded with Thermos of vice versa, so I don't know who owns who or if it's just a licensing thing. But whatever is out there was not on sale at the City Line Target, so I dunno.

Frugal Factor: $20 is a lot for a mug. But you could spend more for a worse one (I have). Frugal isn't always about cheap. If you use this mug 15 times instead of hitting up the coffee shop, it pays for itself and if it keeps you from spilling coffee on something (or someone) important, it's priceless.

Thermos must be on a role, because they also have what I think is the world's best water bottle. Unlike the crude simplicity of the mug, this "Intak" bottle (the a has an accent I can't type so it's ponounced "intake") is more like an iPod - stylish and innovative in its design. The plastic one is BPA-free, and there is a stainless steel version too. One-handed uperation and no nipples to suck on. I was so impressed with this product after finding one at Goodwill (I know - eww - that's the last thing you want to buy there, but bleach and boiling water takes care of that) that I bought all my coworkers their own for Christmas.

It has this little clicker on it to count how many times you have emptied it into your thirstly gullet. I thought it was stupid, but my coworker Kristin, a military wife and a bit of a control freak, loves it. She also read the directions. Do you know anyone who reads the directions on a plastic water bottle?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Rant: A Beef with Bittmann

I'm sure I'm not the only one who read "The Minimalist" Mark Bittman's relatively stupid column in the New York Times. It's bad enough this guy gets paid to show you how to stir fry a vegetable in oil and garlic. He also has to make you feel bad about not being able to spend the day finding that vegetable at your local farmer's market in season. I share some of his philosophy about simple food from scratch. After all, that's what this blog is all about. I even agree you should stock your pantry, but many of his recommendations are odd, particularly what he thinks you should throw out. The whole point of a pantry is to have stuff you need in a pinch.

He wants you to get rid of your packaged bread crumbs and make your own. Well, sure. If I happen to have a stale loaf of bread, I do in fact make bread crumbs. However, it's pretty likely I'll need bread crumbs more often than I have uneaten bread. Therefore, I always keep a can of unseasoned bread crumbs in the pantry.

Out with canned broth or bouillon cubes? Well, sure, those are worse than water but I've already discussed Better than Bouillon, which, while not better than a fast homemade broth, is in fact a lifesaver - and takes up very little space.

No more canned beans? Again, in principal I would like to use dried beans and save a big pile of money, and I often do. But really, in a pinch (such as the time I added one CAN of chipotle peppers instead of one canned pepper and had to quadruple the recipe), you should always have canned beans.

Bittman says "out with bottled lemon juice." Last time I checked, lemons were up to $1 each and go bad in a couple weeks in the crisper, while lemon juice is $3 for a quart and lasts for a year. Fresh lemons are nice, but when you suddenly want a light salad dressing, lemonade, or whatever, you need a jug of lemon juice in the fridge. Of course, that means I'm more or less with Bittmann on avoiding pre-made salad dressing, except sometimes I'm lazy so I have some of that too. It also keeps for a year.

Mr. Minimalist says dried basil and dried parsley are "worthless." He's absolutely right. But then he says dried dill is great. I've tried it... it's not. I keep some frozen dill in the freezer. It keeps pretty good, and imparts wonderful flavor. As for rosemary and thyme, they are indeed useful dry, but rosemary grows indoors in a pot (albeit in strange shapes) and my thyme is still going strong in the garden.

Out with imitation vanilla? Well sure, just the real vanilla extract for me. But no, Bittmann, I am not buying vanilla pods in bulk.

Out with tomato paste in a can so you can use it in a tube? I'm with the guy in principal - it's a pain opening a can when you only need a tablespoon. But in reality, a can of tomato paste can be had for about $0.33 while those tubes cost $4 for half of what's in a can. You're better off throwing away the rest of the can than using the tube. Better bet though is to freeze tablespoons of tomato paste on a piece of wax paper, then put them in a bag to save.

Okay, rant over. I agree with Bittmann that you should always have real maple syrup, bacon, whole chunks of Parmesan (although Regiano has been a bit steep lately), anchovies (to his "in olive oil, please" I will add, but the ones that are rolled up in the jar, since you can't close those weird cans), and winter squash.

Rant over, back to recipes. I'll have to come up with my own pantry list soon.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Black Bean Stir Fry Sauce

I love black bean sauce. No, not like Mexican black beans, I mean the stir fry sauce made with salty fermented soybeans found in those Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants that are authentic, upscale or both. The recipe below is enough for one four-serving dinner, but I like to quadruple the recipe and freeze portions in little containers (or zip lock snack bags) so I can make a quick stir fry any time.

That's what I did the other night. I had some frozen chicken breasts and green beans, so I fried them up and threw in a frozen cup of black bean sauce. I had to thin out the sauce with a little more water and soy sauce.

Here is the recipe for one portion of the sauce:

2 tbsp peanut oil, 2 tbsp fermented black beans (rinsed and drained), 1 tbsp garlic (minced), 1/2 cup chicken or veg. broth (or sub. soy sauce for half the water), 1 tbsp soy sauce, 2 tbsp rice wine, 1 tsp sugar, 1 1/2 tsp cornstarch

  • Heat a wok or heavy skillet over medium-high heat (or, if making in bulk, use a saucepan).
  • Add the oil, the black beans and garlic. Stir-fry about 12 seconds.
  • Dissolve the corn starch in some of the stock then add it and the rest of the ingredients
  • Bring to a boil, sauce will thicken.
Makes about 3/4 cup sauce.

Notes & Substitutions: If I don't have rice wine, sherry or vermouth do the job. Fermented/Preserved Black Beans are sold in small jars and cans at most Vietnamese/Chinese Groceries but I've never managed to find them in the Korean supermarkets, even though the Korean soft tofu restaurant I go to includes them among their many pickled specialties. Sometimes I can only find them mixed chili peppers, which can be too spicy. However, if I get them without any chili peppers, it's not spicy enough and I add pepper flakes or chili sauce. Here is a place to buy them online, although I have never ordered from them:

Monday, January 5, 2009

Venison and Butternut Squash Stew with Dried Cherries over Quinoa

I haven't posted here for a while as I have been eating through the last few months of frozen food to make room for the 1/2 hog that I am splitting with my uncle (so that's 1/4 hog... good thing Marquita mailed us BBQ sauce for a Christmas present). So as a heritage hog somewhere in Lancaster County whiles away his last free-ranging days (perhaps occasionally looking over his shoulder) I'm back with some more recipes.

Speaking of free-range, my uncle also recently brought over a few pounds of venison from his wife's nephew in Virginia. Some people may blanch at eating Bambi's mother, but hunted meat is probably the most humane solution to "the omnivore's dilemma." I won't subject you to further ranting on the subject (that's Ted Nugent's job) but I will share an easy slow-cooker recipe.

The ingredients, if not the preparation, are based on a wonderful meal I had in New Orleans in November of 2004. My wife and I got tip from a staffer at Tipitina's to go up the street to this Dick & Jenny's. We arrived at the tucked away clapboard restaurant just as they were opening. Jenny led us to a pine table with mismatched wrought-iron chairs. Dick was in the kitchen. They had a few New Orleans-themed dishes on the menu but it was a cold night and I ordered the special, a seared venison loin over acorn squash with a cherry wine reduction.

Our meal arrived on mismatched plates with a cruet of wine, and I was so engrossed in my meal's surprising melding of flavors that I did not notice the crowd forming in the waiting area, a shed/indoor patio packed with folks on lawn chairs drinking wine and having a good time. Apparently Dick and Jenny's was a poorly-kept secret among the locals and they didn't take reservations, so we were lucky to get there early. Dick and Jenny apparently sold the place soon after the flood. Some say the magic is lost. (For all you Philadelphians, think Django).

Recipe: Venison and Winter Squash Stew over Quinoa (six servings)

Long hours in the slow cooker make the venison fork tender and the squash nearly falls apart. That, along with the dried cherries and spices, makes the dish reminiscent of a Moroccan tagine, so I served it over quinoa, a super-healthful whole grain that cooks up very similar to cous cous and stands up to a heavy sauce better to boot. Those without a slow cooker can instead use a dutch oven or a deep skillet with a tight-fitting lid. Just put it in the oven at 225 and check it a few times and add some water if needed. Even more than other stews, this tastes better the next day. In fact, I got a late start so the meat in mine was still a little tough at bed time Sat. night. I was too tired to let it cool long enough to put it in the fridge, so I just left it in the pantry overnight (this being winter, my unheated shed pantry was 34 degrees).

Ingredients: 1 1/2 lbs. venison roast, 1 butternut squash, 1 red onion, 1 apple, 1/4 lbs. raw sage breakfast sausage; 1/4 cup dried cherries, 1/2 cup port; a 2" cinnamon stick, 2 tsp. dried thyme, 1 tsp ground allspice, ; 1/2 tsp paprika, 1 tsp. salt.
1 1/2 cups quinoa, cooked with dried fruits (cook like rice - use 1:1 ratio of quinoa to water on stovetop, 1:3/4 in a rice cooker)

  • Peel squash, cut in half, scrape out seeds and slice into pieces about a half inch thick and one inch long and toss in the crock.
  • Slice onion coarsely and toss that in too, along with the cherries, port and seasonings and toss .
  • Cube the venison and place on top of the vegetables. Break up the sausage and put it on top
  • Chop venison into 1" pieces and put it on top of the squash (don't stir it in).
  • Break up the sausage and crumble over the venison and. Cut the apple in half and put both halves on top, skin up.
  • Cook for 6 hours on low, 2 hours on your slow cooker's highest no-stir setting (the long, slow heat cooks the meat, while the squash requires higher heat). When done, the squash should be almost falling apart and the meat fork-tender
  • Salt to taste and serve over cous cous or quinoa. When cooking either one, toss in a few more dried cherries for added yumminess.
Notes and Substitutions:
  • If nobody has hunted you some venison lately, you have two choices. You can spend a little extra to buy some from a tempermental man with antelope blood on his apron or you can use stewing beef or lamb from the store. In either case, if the meat you buy has fat, you may want to then omit the sausage - it's needed to provide to baste the venison, which is quite lean from running around the forest, not often a problem with farm-raised meat. Add some more of the herbs and spices to compensate for those in the sausage though.
  • If you don't have any port, any light-bodied red wine (like pinot noir or Beaujolais) will work with a tsp. of sugar. You could even use Manischewitz (without the added sugar!).
  • Dried cherries are hard to find and rather pricey, but their deep flavor and tart nature are worth it. However, you could substitute other dried fruits such as prunes, currants and raisins.
  • Many slow-cooker recipes ask you to brown the meat and sometimes saute the veggies before placing in the slow cooker. However, simply keeping the meat on top of the vegetables in the crock serves much the same purpose without dirtying another pot.
  • By the way, although it would be a very different dinner, a can of chick peas (liquid and all) could actually substitute for the meat and make this vegetarian.

Frugal Factor: The venison was free for me, but supermarket chuck roast is running $3.29/lbs at the right now so let's say $5 (I have no idea what Sonny's charging). The squash could have been got cheaper but it was $2 at the co-op where I also spent $5 on a bag of cherries and used about 1/4 of the bag, so that's $1.25. Everything else I already had, but I would overestimate the cost at $2.50 for the apple, onion, port, quinoa and spices. At six servings, that's $1.79/serving (or $0.96 with the free meat).