Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Frugal Food: Making a Menu (plus my favorite Dessert)

You may or may not have noticed that I updated my "Up This Month" side box a couple weeks ago and mentioned that I'm working on saving money with one of the cutbacks being groceries. So far, so good. With smart shopping you might be surprised how much $25 a week will get you in produce. Since I do have an impressively (obsessively?) stocked pantry by almost any standards, pretty much all that money is going to fresh produce and anything that is left will be saved to buy staples as I start to run low. In addition to the $25 a week we are also still receiving our bi-weekly CSA basket and my garden is still putting out some tomatoes in addition to greens and herbs. 

In an effort to maximize this limited budget and what I have on hand I started making a weekly menu. I have resisted menu-making in the past because I felt it stifled my one creative outlet and I felt at a loss trying to come up with that many meals at once. However, I also know that I've thrown out entirely too much produce that I've found buried in my crisper drawers, forgotten until it has started to turn into some unidentifiable puddle, and I need to actually be using all the variety I've built up in my pantry supplies. As I see it, making a menu has several major benefits: 

1) Money saved because
- you'll use what you have, making the most of what you do spend
- you can take advantage of what is on sale or in season
- you can use dried beans and grains since you'll know when you need to soak them or otherwise start them in advance
- you can use homemade convenience foods, making them when you have time
- you will be less likely to eat out if you have a plan (better for your wallet and your waist)
2) No agonizing over what to make for dinner twenty minutes before you planned to eat. 
3) Less repetition, or more, if you want (because we all fall back on bean burritos when it is 9:30 and we are famished and have no plan).
4) Training your significant other and/or children to look at the menu will forever silence the whining "what's for dinner tonight?" question (maybe, no promises)
5) You get to look forward to eating all the delicious meals you thought up!

After three days of using this I am actually pretty excited. Making a menu need not take a great deal of time, although for me it probably will, since it gives me an excuse to pour over my myriad of cookbooks. All you need is to make a list of whatever fresh food you need to eat, know what is in your pantry, and have some sort of menu template. I searched and searched but didn't find anything I liked - I wanted one that started on Sunday, had a place for each meal, and allowed for input (as opposed to handwriting it). So I ended up just making my own. If you like it feel free to email me, I'm happy to send it to you! You don't have to plan every meal, just plan dinners if you prefer (the days I work I eat every meal at work, so plan them all) and if something comes up, no worries, you can just move that meal to a different day or the next week.

Given how resistant I have previously been to menus I am surprised at how much I enjoy the process. It actually is allowing me to try more new dishes and get to the recipes that I've been meaning to work on. I've also noticed that my anxiety level is reduced since I know what I need to do for each day and knowing that I am making better use of my money. 

On the menu this week: Pumpkin-Curry Surprise Soup
(recipe forthcoming after a bit more tweaking)

A recipe in progress: Low fat Oatmeal Raisin Coconut Cookies

Possibly my favorite dessert of all time.

Tipsy Peaches with Lemon Sorbet
My grandparents have a peach tree and every year Grandma slices and sugars peeled, pitted, super ripe peaches and freezes them. Grandpa then doles out a few precious bags to each of us. I hoard mine like the gold they are. This is my favorite way to eat them, I know the combination of flavors might sound strange, but you must try it I think you will love it.

Peaches, fresh or frozen and thawed, pitted and sliced (peeling is optional)
sugar, to taste but you should use at least a little to draw out the peach juice
Lemon sorbet, as much as you like
Almond liquor (I make my own - more on that later - but commercial is fine too)

Toss peaches and sugar together in a bowl and allow to stand at least an hour, you want it nice and syrupy. Top with lemon sorbet (I view it more as a flavoring than the dessert itself, so I only have a small scoop). Drizzle (or liberally pour...) almond liquor over the top. Try to keep the moaning down as you eat it.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Snobby Done Easy: Gastrique

This is a fancy-pants dish that gives you a lot of bang for your buck, both nutritionally and presentation wise. Plus the name is fun.

Traditionally, a gastrique is a reduction of sugar, vinegar or wine, and fruit juice usually served with meat or seafood (thank you Wikipedia). Despite the sugar it is not necessarily sweet. But it is extremely pretentious :)

I deviated from the "traditional" with this because cranberry juice is so tart all on its own that additional vinegar is unnecessary. Also, I chose to thicken it with arrowroot instead of reducing it, but you can do either. This is a very versatile sauce, it would be just as delicious pair with roasted or pan-fried seitan or tofu as it would be spooned over vanilla ice cream.

If you have never made homemade caramel before this would be a great recipe to practice with. It has very little sugar so you will not have to wait long (impatience is the downfall of many a caramel) and it is very forgiving since the caramel is a background flavor and not the star.

I use sweetened dried cranberries here because I like the little bursts of sweet against the slightly bitter chard and tart gastrique, but you can use unsweetened if you prefer.

Sauteed Swiss Chard with Cranberry Gastrique
Make sure you read the notes following the recipe. This serves 4-8, but you will probably have extra sauce if you use arrowroot instead of reducing it. Make the gastrique first, it holds very well. The directions may seem a tad long, but really this only takes 20-30 minutes total (longer if you reduce it, but that is pretty hands off) and you can make the gastrique in advance, further reducing cooking time right before serving. It will seem like a great deal of chard, but it will loose a significant amount of volume when you cook it, so trust me.

For the Gastrique
2 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp water
1 cup 100% cranberry juice *
1/4 - 1/2 cup sweetened dried cranberries (if you reduce your gastrique you'll probably want to use closer to 1/4 cup since you will have less sauce)
1 tsp arrowroot powder (optional)
1 tsp water (if using arrowroot)

Pour the sugar and tablespoon of water in a small, light colored, high sided sauce pan over high heat (it needs to be light so you can watch the color progression and it needs to have high sides because the mixture will bubble vigorously when you add the juice). Make sure all the sugar is moistened and then you wait. Once the sugar has all melted swirl the pan gently until you see large, slow bursting bubbles, like this:

From now on you do not remove your eyes from this pan. This will go from perfect to a burned mess in a matter of moments, so stay put! Once it has progressed to a nice medium caramel color (you should also start to smell it) carefully pour in about half the juice. There will be hissing! There will be steaming! There will be much bubbling and general commotion! Stay calm, this too shall pass. After the mixture has settled down you will notice that the caramel has hardened up on the bottom of the pan. That is okay. Resume your swirling until you see that the caramel has loosened its death grip on your pan and melted into the juice.

Add the remaining juice and bring mixture to a rapid simmer. At this point you have a decision to make. You can either keep it simmering until it reduces by a half to two-thirds or you can speed things along with arrowroot. If you opt for arrowroot, mix it with the remaining teaspoon of water until completely smooth. While stirring constantly, pour it into the juice. Bring back to a bubble and stir until thickened. Add cranberries and cook one minute longer (also wait until a minute before it is done if you are reducing it before adding the cranberries). Remove from heat and set aside. 

For the Chard
2 tsp olive oil
1 1/2 - 2lbs swiss chard, washed, stemmed, leaves chopped **
salt to taste

Place a strainer in the sink or a bowl.***

Preheat the olive oil in a very large skillet, wok, or stockpot until you see wisps of smoke. Add the chard all at once. (Again, there will be much hissing and steaming!). Using tongs, toss the chard, folding up from the bottom so that it all gets a chance to dance with the heat. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt. As soon as it is all just lightly wilted and still bright green (2-3 minutes, tops) remove from heat and dump into strainer. Tent with foil or a plate and allow to drain 5 minutes.

Place chard on serving plates and spoon gastrique on and around the greens (doing this individually will give you much better presentation). Eat, enjoy, smirk at your haughty cuisine skills!

* It is imperative you use 100% pure cranberry juice and not cranberry juice cocktail or cranberry juice blend. If you have a Trader Joe's they carry 100%, otherwise check your health food store. (Yes it is more expensive, but it is *a lot* better for you - very little sugar, more antioxidants. I like it mixed with club soda.)

** I used swiss chard from my garden which was huge and had giant stems. If yours is more reasonably sized you probably only need 1 1/2 pounds since you will have a greater leaf to stem ratio. Also, if the stems are fairly small and tender you can chop them separately and start them in the pan a couple minutes before you put in the leaves. Mine were too tough and stringy to bother.

*** I strongly encourage you to drain your greens. I like them just barely wilted, but since they are not cooked to death they will continue to loose some water after you remove them from the heat, creating an unappetizing puddle on your plate if they are not drained. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

First Real Post of the 2009!

Okay, I'm offically having blog withdrawal, so settle yourself in, this is a long one! I still have not found my camera. I'm about ready to resign myself to the fact that it is gone :( But that is okay, I do have a recipe for you, one I have been meaning to post for awhile, and it is a two-fer! Mom and I took pictures in New Orleans, but they are all on her camera, so I'll tell you some about the trip here and post pictures later. Fair warning: in my N.O. narrative I do talk about dairy and eggs, so if you are very sensitive you should skip to the recipe.

New Orleans
As predicted, vegan fare was sparse, to say the least; vegetarian food was not much more available. We stayed in the French Quarter and except for an excursion on one of the street cars, we did not really stray far from that area. Quite frankly, N.O. is not a very safe city, especially outside the tourist areas and since it was just Mom and me we did not feel comfortable getting too adventurous.

We did not get in until nearly midnight on Wednesday night, so not much that night. Mom and I shared a plate of vegetarian nachos (and drinks) at the airport during our layover in Vegas. We slept in a bit on Thursday and then found a place down the street from our hotel where we shared beignets and a veggie omelet. My presentation was that afternoon, so we went back to the hotel so I could finish up my powerpoint and meet my co-presenters. That evening we went to Dickie Brennan's Steakhouse for dinner. Yes a steakhouse. This ended up being one of the best veggie experiences of the whole trip! The cocktails were yummy and we shared a bottle of wine (I fear you will be appalled at our alcohol consumption by the end of this post...). I don't recommend ordering the Tomato-Blu Cheese Napoleon unless tomatoes are in season, an instinct I should have listened to! They have several other vegetarian salads as well. I let our server know that I was vegetarian and he was kind enough to not only provide some guidance on the menu, but also checked with the chef about whether or not they had already creamed all the fresh spinach. They had not, so I got yummy spinach sauted with garlic in addition to the sauted veggies. Mom and I also shared a baked sweet potato (order without pecan butter for a vegan version). To finish we ordered the Banana's Foster Bread Pudding, not vegan and not the slightest bit healthy, but absolutely delicious. Mom enjoyed everything she ordered (definitely not vegetarian).

Friday was the first day we didn't have to be anywhere, so we slept late (again) and then gave ourselves a tour of the south French Quarter. We had breakfast at Cafe Du Monde, beignets and cafe au lait, of course. I'm not big on coffee, but theirs is delicious. We wondered around the French Quarter for the better part of four hours. Nearly half that time we spent looking for a market where we could get fresh fruit. No joke, it was a freaking scavenger hunt. Fresh fruit and veggies are just not pervasive down there. Nope, if you can find them they are smothered in sauce, cooked to death, and/or fried. It was a bit of a shock for this California girl who always eats more than the recommended daily servings of fruits and veggies. We finally found the market and then enjoyed our grapes in the nearby park. After a bit more wondering we stopped at an oyster bar where we both had a glass of wine and Mom had a snack. We eventually made it back to our hotel where we showered and got ready for dinner. 

Emeril's was our pick for dinner on Friday. We got there at about a quarter to six (it was early, but we'd only had a small breakfast and a snack, so we were famished) at which point we learned they didn't actually open for dinner until six. So obviously we had a cocktail at the bar while we waited. When we were seated we saw they had bar seating overlooking the kitchen and asked if we could be seated there. It was a great choice. We ended up staying for three (!) hours, eating, sharing a bottle of wine and watching the chefs. It was SOOO much fun! Anyone familiar with Emeril knows his affinity for all things porcine. The menu at his restaurant reflects this love, with almost every dish containing something pig-based. However, they also make pretty much everything on site and to order, so while eating vegan is tricky, vegetarian is definitely doable since they are happy to accommodate special requests. I had a yummy salad and then for my main course I ordered the appetizer dish of Smoked Exotic Mushrooms with Angel Hair Pasta and Cream sauce (ordered without the ham). It was sublime - complex, smoky but not predominately so, creamy but light. If you are a big eater you'll probably need another dish, but between the salad and dessert it was just enough for me. I want to figure out how to recreate this at home. For dessert we had the chocolate souffle, which while very good was a bit much. I prefer my chocolate souffles to be accompanied by a fruity thing as something of a foil to the richness but this only had a chocolate sauce. Still, not much of a complaint in our fantastic dinner. Again, Mom enjoyed everything she ordered. This was our favorite food experience in N.O. Afterward, we went to a jazz bar down the street from Emeril's for an hour, but when by 10pm the jazz players had not even started setting up (it was just a piano player while we were there), we decided we were both ready for bed so we headed back to the hotel.

Saturday morning we got up a bit early and decided to go to The Courtyard of Two Sisters for their jazz brunch. Don't. In the hour we were there we hear approximately three songs and the food left a lot to be desired. That day we hopped on the St. Charles streetcar and rode it to the end of the line, through the Warehouse and Garden districts and over near the river. We hopped off for a bit and took a stroll through Audobon Park. Impulsively, we decided to go to the nearby zoo for a couple hours (I know many animal rights activist abhor zoos; I have mixed feelings which I won't get into at this time). After taking the streetcar back to the Quarter we walked around a couple more hours, shopping for gifts and trying to pick a place for dinner. We decided to go to Bacco (another Brennan family restaurant) since we both wanted a respite from heavy food and pasta sounded good. We were disappointed, especially after how pleased we had been with their steakhouse. The food was only okay, definitely not very vegetarian friendly, and the place lacked anything even resembling atmosphere. Plus it gave both of us an upset stomach, which meant we went back to our hotel right after, instead of finding some music as we wanted. 

Our flight left Sunday morning at 10:30, which means we ate all our meals that day in airports (more veg nachos and drinks during the lay over in Denver). We both had a boatload of fun. It was our first trip just the two of us and we plan to make it an annual thing, finding a foodie place where we've not been and eating our way through. Eventually we would like to go back to New Orleans and eat some more, although we would both seriously entertain the possibility of eating every dinner at Emeril's!

On to the recipe. This is one I came up with a while ago. I call it a two-fer because you can make it without the optional ingredients and you have a saucy Indian dish, perfect over fluffy brown rice. Or you can add in the optional ingredients and you have a delicious one-pot dinner (the pictures here are of the latter). This is cheap, healthy, and makes use of seasonal veggies for this time of year. According to SparkPeople recipes it is just over 200 calories per serving for the soup variation (about 2 cups). I'll try to remember to put it in MasterCook to see what it says (I really need to remember to be using that program, it is really neat).

Coconut Curry Chickpeas and Kale (and maybe Butternut Squash Soup)
While this dish is definitely spicy the level of heat in this dish is entirely dependent on your curry powder and therefore completely up to you. If you want more heat than your curry powder has simply add some cayenne pepper to taste. 

1 med onion, diced
1 tsp minced garlic (2-3 cloves)
1 tsp minced ginger
2-3 tbsp curry powder (or to taste)
1/2 tsp gram masala powder
1 cup tomato sauce
1 cup lite coconut milk
4 cups water, optional
1 15 oz can chickpeas, drained and rinsed (or 2 cups homemade)
1 1/2 lbs butternut squash, peeled, seeded, cubed and cooked (roasted, microwaved, or sauted), optional
1 large bunch kale, stems removed, leaves chopped
salt and pepper to taste

Spray a large saute pan (or soup pot if making the variation) with nonstick spray or a tsp of light oil and heat over medium. Add the onion and sweat until translucent, about five minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic and ginger and cook 30 seconds, stirring constantly. Add spices and salt and pepper and stir until everything is evenly coated.

Add tomato sauce, coconut milk, and water, if using, while stirring constantly to evenly incorporate. Bring to a bubble. Stir in chickpeas and squash, if using, and return to a bubble. Now add your kale. This may require working it in in a couple stages if it doesn't all fit in at once. Stir in, working it down into the liquid until you have it all worked in and wilted. If you are making the first variation simmer until the liquid has reduced to a very thick sauce. If you are making the soup simmer about five minutes, until kale is tender and flavors have melded. Taste and adjust salt and pepper as desired.

Serve hot over rice or quinoa if you made the first variation, or as is for the soup. Naan would be a nice accompaniment for either.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Oy Vey!

I came down hard with B's cold on New Year's Eve. Way to usher in the new year huh? We were a sight to behold, sprawled on the couch surrounded by tea mugs, snotty tissues, tangerine peels, and kitties. Can you say p-a-r-t-y! :)  I'm still not feeling fantastic, but I'm working hard at getting better by Wednesday!

In other news, I still can't find my camera and I feel like a blogger who has lost her voice. I mean, I can just describe food to you I suppose, but let's be honest, everyone wants pictures. So I will continue the hunt. Ideally I want to find it before Wednesday so I can take it with me!  If I actually find vegan food in New Orleans I think it will be worth documenting, I am a little apprehensive at even finding many vegetarian offerings. But I shall not let that deter me. I will eat! I will drink! (Oh yes, and I will attend the conference which is the whole "reason" for going in the first place, of course...)

Hope everyone had a Happy New Year.