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Saturday, May 29, 2010

Saturday Throwback: Frugal Food Hacks - 10 Tricks to Simplifying Online Recipe Searches

Earlier this year, Casual Kitchen (my new favorite blog) posted a stupendous essay called How to Tell if a Recipe is Worth Cooking with Five Easy Questions. A phenomenal guide to recipe analysis, CK’s tips are invaluable whether you’re reading a cookbook, browsing the web, or picking through Grandma’s age-old dessert file. The post was so good, in fact, it inspired me to write a sequel of sorts – one focusing on simplifying online recipe searches.

See, combing the web for recipes can be a tricky venture. Between quasi-independent monsters (AllRecipes, Chow), corporate mega-sites (Cooking Light, Food Network) and neato personal blogs (The Wednesday Chef, A Good American Wife), there are literally millions of dishes to pick through. As taste is totally subjective, and reviews range from right-on to catastrophically misleading, there’s no easy way to discern the bad from the good.

Since I tend to take most of my food from the ‘net, I had to learn how to pick through the labyrinth quickly and efficiently. What follows, then, are a few self-spawned tricks to navigating the endless internet recipe abyss – guidelines to help you choose the cheapest, healthiest, er, good-est recipes ever. Hope they help. (And feel free to add more in the comments section!)

1) Be specific. Whether you’re googling a Coq au Vin or trying to pinpoint a butternut squash soup on AllRecipes, specificity is key to finding exactly what you want. Lots of the larger sites have some method of narrowing down the parameters of your hunt – an Ingredient Search, a Collection Search, or some way of marking off categories (Healthy, Course, etc.). If you’re starting big with Google or Yahoo, try to enter particular terms – the ingredient list, the preparation method, “light,” etc. The more specific you are, the more accurate the results will be.

2) Check the number of reviews. A recipe with 1,436 reviews and 1228 comments is infinitely less scary than one with two reviews and no comments. A large pool of reviewers means the dish has been around awhile, and it’s at least vaguely working. Helpful serving suggestions and/or useful substitutions are likely included within the comments. (This isn't to say, "Don't try new things," but rather, "If you're looking for a sure bet...")

3) Choose a recipe with a high rating. I find regular ol’ people (as opposed to high-falutin’ pro critics) are much more lenient on food. They’re just as likely to give five stars to a merely edible dish as they are to a meal that really knocks their socks off. So, when sampling from the AllRecipes, Epicurious, or Food Network sites, try not to use a recipe that has less than four stars / three forks. If you’re entertaining, make sure it has at least 4-1/2 (but it’s never a good idea to try a dish for the first time on guests, anyway).

4) Follow all Casual Kitchen’s advice. Once you find a tantalizing-looking recipe, read through it. Make sure you like and/or are willing to experiment with all the ingredients. Then, check to see if each one is readily available, either on hand or at the local store. After that, ensure you’re comfortable with both the prep time and the techniques employed. Finally, consider price and ease of big-batch cooking. If your potential meal hits all of these qualifications, it’s probably a winner.

5) Take suggestions to heart. If two-thirds of 254 reviewers think the sugar should be halved in a certain dish, go for it. Recipe writers can make mistakes sometimes, and reviewers are just the folks to correct them. But remember – majority rules. If Megdoodle from Monkeybutt, Kentucky likes quadruple the amount of red pepper in her chili, but 200 other commenters say the spice is just right, side with the 200.

6) Read/consider the available nutrition information. No one wants to serve their kids a lard casserole. When you’re scouting recipes, check to see if the calorie, fat, and fiber readings are included on the webpage. AllRecipes and Cooking Light do this consistently now, and you can occasionally find them on Epicurious and Food Network (with Ellie Krieger and Kathleen Daelemans, in particular). If dietary info isn’t available, try scanning the list for key words – “stick of butter,” “1/4 olive oil,” “fried,” etc. It’ll do your health better in the long run.

7) Stick with a chef you trust. If you’re a frequenter of the Food Network site or a big fan of Lidia Bastianich’s online collection, hang out with her cuisine for awhile. Make her classics. Work your way through her oeuvre. The same goes for personal blogs. I love and dream of emulating Orangette’s writing and cooking skill, and her food photos are absolutely to die for. Yet, I’ve tried a few dishes from her site (Butternut Squash Puree, Chickpea Salad, and Green Beans) and I don’t think our palates quite match up. On the flip side, Deb from Words to Eat By totally works for me. Her Amazon Cake, Pumpkin Bread, and alternate glaze for Barefoot Contessa’s Turkey Meatloaf put me squarely in her culinary corner. The moral is: all in all, finding a cook you trust is worth his/her weight in meatballs. That said …

8) Maybe avoid Sandra Lee (and other cooks who use too many prepared ingredients in their recipes).  Um ... Kwanzaa Cake. 'Nuff said.

9) Link baby, link. Cooking bloggers, in particular, are excellent sources for … yep, finding other excellent cooking bloggers. Once you find a chef/site you like, scroll through their link list. Odds are, someone just as awesome lies at the other of that URL.

10) Bank recipes. Find a recipe you like, but don’t have the ingredients on hand right that very minute? Start a Word file. Over time, you’ll amass dozens of dishes that caught your eye at one time or another, and it’ll make for easier rummaging down the line.

Have more ideas or suggestions for simplifying online recipe searches? The (comment) lines are open! We’re waiting for your call advice!

(Photo courtesy of Flickr.)

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Veggie Might: How to Care for Cast Iron Cookware

Penned by the effervescent Leigh, Veggie Might is a weekly Thursday column about the wide world of Vegetarianism.

Yesterday, Kris floored us with her Top 10 Kitchen Items list. So much good stuff—I use 6 of the 10 (pepper grinder, kitchen scale, food processor, bulk storage containers, tongs, and slow cooker) weekly, if not daily.

My choice of skillet, however, is cast iron all the way, and if I keep treating them properly, the two I have will be my nonstick pan of choice forever and ever, amen.

Growing up Southern, every kitchen I knew had a cast iron skillet for frying chicken and baking cornbread. It’s a versatile piece of cookware, which makes it great for tiny New York apartment. Once I started cooking again, after a long hiatus of take-out and junk food, the cast iron skillet was my first purchase.

Seasoning a Cast Iron Pan
If you’re starting out with a new cast iron pan, you’ll need to “season” it. Seasoning is essentially baking on a layer of oil to fill in any nicks or divots in the surface of the pan and create a protective layer that prevents rust. Season your new pan, even if it is “pre-seasoned.” If you’re salvaging an antique, seasoning will restore the beauty to its former glory.

The InterWeb is rich with tips for seasoning your cast iron pan. My tried and true method is a combo of Grandma/Dad/Mom’s and a trick I picked up on What’sCookingAmerica.com.

1) Clean the pan with a mild soap and hot water. Use a fine-grade steel wool, salt, baking soda, or this handy potato method from TheKitchn to remove rust. (See below.) Rinse and dry completely.

2) Pre-heat the oven to 350°. Line the bottom of the oven with a baking sheet or foil.

3) Coat the entire pan, inside and out (Thanks, WCA!), with vegetable shortening (or any neutral cooking oil). Wipe off the excess.

4) Turn the pan upside-down and place it in the oven. Bake for 45 minutes.

5) Remove the pan from the oven and wipe off the excess oil. Give the cooking surface (and sides) another coat of shortening, wiping off any excess. Return to oven for another 30–60 minutes.

6) Turn off the oven, open the door, and allow to cool a bit before removing the pan.

7) Again, wipe off the excess oil. Your cast iron pan is ready to use.


Seasoning can be repeated anytime your pan is getting a little sticky or funky. Acidic foods, like tomatoes, break down the coating. Also, water is the enemy. Case in point:

Last week, I left my 5” cast iron skillet on the counter next to the sink for a couple of days. In that time, I washed a couple of sink-loads of dishes and made several pots of tea, which I spilled repeatedly. (I’m a klutz.)

When I went to use my little pan for a quick egg breakfast, the entire underside was covered in rust. I cut a potato in half, sprinkled a little baking soda on the rusty area, and gave it a scrub. Seriously, I don’t know what it is about the potato, but combined with baking soda, it only took about three passes (slicing off the used bits of potato each time) and 10 minutes for all the rust to disappear—even from those little grooves. (Tip: If you’re in the market for a cast iron pan, don’t get one with little grooves on the bottom.)


Even though the cooking surface looked okay, I re-seasoned the pan anyway (coating the inside AND outside). Now it’s back in action, and the outside is way more rust-resistant.

Cleaning and Maintaining a Cast Iron Pan
There is much debate over whether or not to use soap on a cast iron pan. It all depends on your comfort. I am squarely in the no-soap camp, but do what feels right for you. You just may need to re-season more frequently.

1) Clean your cast iron pan immediately after cooking. Letting food sit, particularly acidic foods, will break down the coating you’ve worked so hard to build.

2) Rinse with hot water and remove any debris with a natural fiber or plastic scrub brush. Do not use metal on cast iron—scrubbers or utensils. You can prevent metal on metal crime.

3) Dry immediately and thoroughly. Lingering water = rust. I usually put the pan back on the stove for a minute to cook off any renegade droplets.

4) Since it’s back on the stove, apply a thin, thin, thin layer of oil to the cooking surface. Heat for a few minutes; wipe off the excess; and store in a cool, dry place.

Cooking with Cast Iron
The more often you cook with your cast iron skillet, the more nonstick it will become. Eventually, you’ll only need a little bit of oil for even eggs to just slide right off the pan.

Plus, as I said before, cast iron cookware is versatile. It can go from the stovetop to the oven and handle both like a champ: sauté up a mess o’ greens and then bake a batch corn bread. You can pretty much do anything with a cast iron pan.

Cast iron cookware may seem like a lot of work, but the investment in time and care is worth the return you’ll get in durability, functionality, and longevity. This is cookware you can pass down through generations.

Can I get an Amen?

~~~

If you liked this ditty, you may like

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

10 Essential Kitchen Items for the Healthy Cook


A healthy cook’s kitchen is much like any other. There are probably some pots, a few pans, a spatula, and, mysteriously, 48,000 whisks. There might be a chef’s knife among the cutlery, and a splotch of tomato sauce on the floor. Somewhere, maybe behind the spice rack or in a rarely used thermos, lies a king-sized bag of guilty pleasure M&Ms.

However, upon deeper inspection, there are differences between the two galleys. Foremost among the cookware lies a large nonstick skillet. Claiming places of prominence in the utensil drawer are a zester and pack of wooden skewers. Bizarrely, there’s a food scale in the liquor cabinet. (Because seriously, where else do you put that thing?)

Lighter cooking doesn’t have to involve a lot of pricey additional gear, but there are a few pieces of inexpensive, multi-purpose equipment that can undoubtedly make the venture a bit easier. These are my ten picks, garnered from eons and epochs and ages (Note: a coupla years) of healthy-type meal prep. Some would appear in any well-stocked kitchen. Others are specific to us nutritionally-minded folks.

Readers, what would you add? What would you leave off? Aren’t microplane graters the best? Seriously, I could run away to Tahiti with one.

1) Large nonstick skillet with lid
I love Calphalon pans, but they require a good amount of oil and butter to prevent food from sticking. On the other hand, my 13-year-old, 12-inch nonstick barely needs any at all. A little dab of olive oil is enough for most veggies and meats. Not to mention, its sheer size is perfect for a plethora of healthy one-dish meals.

2) Pepper grinder
An important part of healthy cooking is creating maximum flavor without adding too much extra fat or too many calories. For this, salt and pepper are absolutely vital. And while there isn’t a huge difference between mass-produced salts, the same isn’t true for their black-n-gray partners. Freshly ground peppercorns are far superior to dusty, pre-ground supermarket pepper, in both taste and intensity. Find a durable, inexpensive, hand-operated grinder online (Amazon is a good place to start) and get cranking.

3) Microplane zester/grater
Along the same lines, a handheld microplane zester is fantastic for upping your flavor factor. Mulched garlic, grated nutmeg, finely shredded parmesan, and rasped citrus all have a place on its resumé, and it’s really fun to hold. Having one makes me feel like Mario Batali. (Note: Minus the hair.)

4) Food scale
Owning a food scale may not seem useful outside a regimented diet, but hear me now and believe me later: they’re spectacular for gauging portion sizes, no matter how you eat. Four ounces of meat can be difficult to eyeball, but stick that baby on a food scale and *poof*, you’re good to go. Plus, scales are great for measuring exact weights for more accurate recipe reproduction. Grab a cheap-o mechanical version, and you’ll never puzzle over half a pound of penne again.

5) Stick blender
Let’s talk about blender explosions. You know the drill: you ladle a few cups of hot soup in for a puree, you hit the “chop” button, and BLAMMO, there’s butternut squash all over your counter, your walls, and *ouch* your now-blistering hand. Don’t worry, sweet reader. A stick blender will make all that badness go away. Spectacular for healthy soups and purees, it does all the work of a regular blender, without the hospital bills. Cleanup is way easier, as well, and bargain buys tend to perform as well as pricier pieces in reviews.

6) Steamer basket
Soggy vegetables are the bane of humanity. Boiling or over-nuking them can have this unfortunate effect. BUT. Imagine chowing down on crisp, tender, colorful vegetables less than five minutes after turning on your stove’s burner. A $10 metal steamer basket will perform this miracle, and cure your cat of lockjaw. (Note: Only one of those last two statements are true.)

7) Food processor
When you think “food processor,” what’s the first image that comes to mind? Is it a 20-cup monster used for commercial baking? Is it an impossible-to-clean leviathan that takes up 70% of your counter space? Is it an airplane propeller? (Er … weirdo.) Never fear, my friends. Essential for light sauces, dips, salsas, pestos, and other flavorful mixtures, these champions of chop can be found small, cheap, and well-made online. A few minutes (seriously, that’s it) of searching will give your knife calluses a much-needed rest.

8) Bulk storage
Whole foods (as opposed to processed ones) are the cornerstone of healthy eating. Frequently, this means cooking and baking with grains, dried beans, lentils, whole-wheat flour, and a multitude of other items that can be purchased cheaper en masse. Subsequently, having convenient, airtight, bug-resistant storage at hand is highly suggested. You don’t have to buy 20-gallon bins or anything, but a few good OXO or Snapware jars can be just the ticket.

9) Skewers
Fast, high-heat methods of cooking like broiling and grilling don’t generally require a boatload of extra cooking oil, which is nice. Usually, you need just enough to keep food from sticking to a grate. Beyond that, skewers are nice to have. Because:
  • They make smaller cuts of meat look gigantic.
  • They promote even cooking.
  • They’re cheap as heck.
  • It is proven scientific fact (by me) that everything tastes 200% to 300% better when stuck on a stick. Give a kid a tomato, he’ll throw it at the dog. Put a tomato on a stick, and he’ll ask for seventh helpings.
Note: I use metal skewers, but mah friend Rachel prefers wooden. If you buy the latter, be aware they tend to burn at the ends unless you soak ‘em first.

10) Tongs, kitchen shears, and a slow cooker (TIE).
These three items are common to most kitchens, but I’m listing them anyway. Why? Well, I use the first two almost everyday, for everything. The latter is helpful when I’m in a rush and need big portions of light food with little effort. I suspect families might use it pretty frequently, too.

And with that, sweet readers, I leave it to you. Is there anything about this list you’d change? I dare you to comment on it. (MUHAHAHAHA!)

(Photos from Sur La Table [zester], Skillet Cookware [skillet], Amazon [food scale and canister].)

~~~

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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Ask the Internet: How to Handle Food Cravings?

This week’s question comes from reader Elizabeth:

Q: I try to eat healthy as much as I can, but after a long day at work, I sometimes crave something sweet and/or want take-out. I try to do this in moderation by limiting how often I eat them, but I'm never sure if I'm indulging too often.

I've learned where I can alter a recipe to make it a lot healthier, but there are some things that just aren't the same made light or in small portions (chocolate chip cookies come to mind).

So, how do you handle cravings?

A: Good question, Elizabeth, and thanks for writing in. Cravings are tricky little things, and I use a few different strategies to vanquish them. Sometimes, I straight up indulge. Healthy eating is great, but it should never turn into deprivation, and if I really want some M&Ms, I’m gonna eat a small bag. Waistline be danged.

Other times, I try to find a lower-calorie substitute. For example, Asian-style noodles are my lifeblood, but I know they’re not really meant to be a snack. Instead, I prep a small bowl of Mark Bittman’s Oatmeal with Scallions and Soy Sauce, and sprinkle it with a little toasted sesame oil. It sates my cravings for salt and carbs without going overboard with calories and fat. Fruit is wonderful for this if your cravings tend to be a little sweeter.

Finally, when during shopping trips, I avoid foods I tend to crave. ‘Cause I know if that carton of Ben & Jerry’s gets into my freezer, it’ll be gone by week’s end. (Note; This is much harder with wine.)

Readers, how about you? How do you claim victory over your cravings? Do tell.

(Photo from Sharkride.)

Want to ask the interweb a question? Post one in the comment section, or write to cheaphealthygood@gmail.com. Then, tune in next Tuesday for an answer/several answers from the good people of the World Wide Net.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Grilled Portobello Mushroom Burgers and Me

Today on Serious Eats: Lemon Yogurt Mousse. You’ll like it better than the finale of Lost. At the very least, it will make you cry less.

Last night, like every other island-obsessed J.J. Abrams acolyte on our big blue marble, the Husband-Elect’s television (and by proxy, mine) was turned to LOST. We had a few friends over, as well – all LOST fans, all of whom were overjoyed by the re-appearance of a certain … er, no spoilers here. But, needless to say, I’ve never seen people react like that to anything besides A) the 1980 U.S.-Russia Olympic hockey final, B) the birth of their children, or C) V-E Day.

I’ve only caught on to LOST in the last year or so, and only because Husband-Elect lets me change it to Biggest Loser during the commercials. So, while my friends and future spouse were alternately jumping for joy and wiping away tears, I was all like, “Who’s that lady?” “How did they all get guns?” and “Why is that guy wearing so much eyeliner?” It’s a tribute to my associates’ great humor and infinite patience that nobody punched me in the neck.

Before the beginning of the end, the five of us had a pre-summer cookout. There were hot dogs, Greek Orzo Salad, White Bean Dip, and perhaps most importantly, Grilled Portobello Mushroom Burgers. I’ve been on a huge Portobello kick lately, for a few different reasons:
  1. We’ve been buying less (and better) meat, and need substantial substitutes. Since they’re meaty and adaptable to just about any flavor, Portobello caps make excellent stand-ins.
  2. Though pricier than other veggies, Portobellos are still cheaper than most meats. 
  3. They cook lightning fast, so dinner is on the table in a few minutes.
  4. Oh man, are these things ever healthy.
  5. So … I carry my groceries home from the supermarket. And I have a great tendency to overestimate my upper body strength, which is roughly that of a malnourished pygmy marmoset’s. The mushrooms are nice and light, and they compensate for the 40 cans of tomatoes I trick myself into believing I can muscle home.
Last week, it was Blue Cheese Portobello Mushroom Burgers. This week, I wanted to try something where the cheese wasn’t the star of the show. Hailing from All Recipes, this highly rated dish fit the bill. It used a simple marinade of Balsamic vinegar, olive oil, garlic, dried herbs, salt and pepper to create a savory, striking flavor. Reviewers didn’t seem to make many changes, either, so I prepared the ‘shrooms exactly as prescribed.

Happily, all four of the LOST fans loved it. If they were stuck on a weird tropical island with a polar bear, a smoke monster, and a troupe of curiously clean and un-injured airplane crash survivors … well, honestly, they’d probably go with a machete over a mushroom, but the burger would be a close second.

Speaking of which, where did they get all those weapons? And how did they eat? And what did that Ben guy do to deserve all those beatings? And...

~~~

If you like this recipe, you might also enjoy:
~~~

Grilled Portobello Burgers
Serves 4.
Adapted from All Recipes.


4 Portobello mushroom caps, stemmed and wiped clean
1/4 cup Balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 whole wheat hamburger rolls
A few sliced tomatoes (optional)
Lettuce leaves (optional)
Reduced-fat crumbled feta cheese (optional)

1) In a small bowl, whisk vinegar, olive oil, garlic, basil, oregano, together. Salt and pepper to taste.

2) Preheat grill.

3) Spread out caps, gill-side-down, in a 9x13” glass baking dish. Pour marinade over mushrooms. Brush caps with marinade to get any spots you missed. Let sit 15 minutes, flipping twice, brushing both times.

4) Grill mushrooms 10 to 16 minutes over medium-high heat, flipping once halfway through. When cooked, pile on toasted rolls with lettuce, tomato, and feta cheese if desired.

Approximate Calories, Fat, Fiber, Protein, and Price Per Serving
96 calories, 7 g fat, 1.5 g fiber, 2.3 g protein, $1.28

Calculations
4 Portobello mushroom caps, stemmed: 87 calories, 0.7 g fat, 5 g fiber, 8.4 g protein, $4.40
1/4 cup Balsamic vinegar: 40 calories, 0 g fat, 0 g fiber, 0 g protein, $0.30
2 tablespoons olive oil: 239 calories, 27 g fat, 0 g fiber, 0 g protein, $0.23
1 tablespoon minced garlic: 13 calories, 0 g fat, 0.2 g fiber, 0.5 g protein, $0.12
1 teaspoon dried basil: 2 calories, 0 g fat, 0.3 fiber, 0.1 protein, $0.02
1 teaspoon dried oregano: 3 calories, 0.1 g fat, 0.4 g fiber, 0.1 g protein, $0.02
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper: negligible calories, fat, fiber, protein, $0.02
TOTAL: 384 calories, 27.8 g fat, 5.9 g fiber, 9.1 g protein, $5.11
PER SERVING (TOTAL/4): 96 calories, 7 g fat, 1.5 g fiber, 2.3 g protein, $1.28

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Saturday Throwback: Picky, Picky - Frugal, Healthy Menu Ideas for a Fussy Crowd

Every Saturday, we post a sweet little piece from the CHG archives. This week, we journey back to September 2007...  

Recently, my old roommate R and I had a few friends over for dinner and Game Night. (Apples to Apples! It’s the funnest.) Problem was, we didn’t know what to serve. Here’s why. (This is not a joke.)
  • H is a vegetarian, and was pregnant at the time.

  • F is mostly vegetarian, with some exceptions. He hates ginger, cake, and honey.

  • D loathes vegetables, and eats pasta almost exclusively.

  • S won’t touch an endangered animal. (This actually rules out a lot of fish.)

  • R is allergic to dairy and was on Weight Watchers.

  • K (that’s me!) was also on Weight Watchers, and in descending order of disgustingness, will not eat/drink: mayonnaise, anise, figs, scallops, cauliflower, radishes, ginger ale, sloppy joes, or any casserole with crunchy onions on top.

  • J and M are easygoing, normal people who will generally consume anything, up to and including dolphins.
Planning a thrifty, nutritional meal for this crowd was harder than listening to a Yoko Ono album, but we managed using a few hard-learned, easily-executed strategies. From classy dinner parties to impromptu barbecues, here’s how you can too:

IF YOU’RE D.I.Y.

Start with starches. Inexpensive, versatile, and low in fat, pasta, rice, potatoes, and noodles can be the starting point and main component to hundreds and hundreds of dishes. Relatively flavorless, they’re not too scary, either. Make a big, plain pile and give your guests three different sauces/broths to choose from. And on that note …

Sauce it up. Whether it’s penne, pork, or potatoes, sauces make everything infinitely more delicious. Cook a single base food, like chicken, and present your friends with multiple sauce options. Maybe a tomato concoction? Or a low-fat pesto? How about something a little more lemony? Pair it with a starch and a simple veggie, and voila! Victory.

Needless to say, have a buffet. Make five big plates of food, including at least two main dishes. They can be as simple (mashed potatoes, honey-roasted carrots) or as complicated (Basic Beef Stew with Carrots and Mushrooms) as you like, and friends can pick and choose their favorites. Planned carefully, it’s a please-everybody healthfest for a nominal price.

Sweat the small stuff. Main course add-ons like bread, olives, cut-up vegetables, and small blocks of cheese can round out a plate and fill guests up without putting a massive dent in your wallet. Since they’re relatively free of seasonings and fancy preparations, finicky diners will be less afraid, too. In fact, if you’re big into finger foods, maybe …

Try a tapas-type meal. Instead of a few large dishes, give a bunch of smaller ones a shot. This way, you can satisfy your cooking jones, appeal to the Choosy Ones, keep several dishes in the Healthy Zone (not unlike the Twilight Zone), and blow as little or as much as you like. Some suggestions: bruschetta (the real stuff), melon wrapped in prosciutto, fruit skewers, finger-sized sandwiches, chicken mini-bites, or slices of turkey or chicken sausages.

Get fruity. Even the pickiest of eaters might go for a banana. Serving melon salad, homemade applesauce, or fruit salsa is a low-risk, high-reward venture, like sleeping or swimming in jello. Buying in season keeps it under budget, and it works wonders for dessert, too.

Set out some soup. One of the easiest, classiest, thriftiest ways of sating a battalion of visitors is ladling soup into their gaping maws. For choosy eaters, keep it simple or provide a selection of two. Butternut squash soup and egg drop soup are just a pair of delectable, low-priced ideas.

Load up on condiments. Ketchup, mustard, barbecue sauce, brown sauce, fat-free mayo, relish, soy sauce, wasabi, teriyaki sauce, fat-free dressings, chutneys, honey, honey mustard, peanut butter, hummus, duck sauce, and dipping sauces give guests an inexpensive range of options without forcing them into a decision. Really, it’s like supporting democracy.

Make breakfast. Maybe it’s not the classiest meal option, but a morning-themed dinner could excite less demanding taste buds. Eggs, omelets, healthy muffins, light casseroles, toast, hash browns, turkey bacon, and fruit salad are healthy building blocks of a growing boy/girl/hermaphrodite’s diet. (Nix on the cereal, though. There are limits.)

Tell them it’s BYO (Build Your Own). Whether it’s Sandwich Night, Pizza Night, Salad Night – really, any Night – people like food better when they have a say about what goes in it. Have a Burrito Night and pretend you’re Chipotle. Put out bowls of chopped tomatoes, diced green peppers, shredded lettuce, refried beans, low-fat shredded cheese, crumbly meats, salsa, rice, mole sauce, and let partakers construct their own repast. Everyone will think you’re a genius.

Cook crappy foods differently. “Many picky eaters choose high-calorie, low-nutrient foods and little else,” say experts. If your guests are fans of cheap, fatty foods like pizza, french fries, and hamburgers (see my friend D), try making healthier versions. Baked fries, lean burgers, and coal-oven style pizza are delicious, easy, and frugal.

Win points with creativity. Whether it’s planning a theme (Oscar Night), giving your foods silly names (Dame Judi Dench’s Supporting Rolls), or making a special drink (Roberto Benigni-tini), simple imagination can jazz up a frugal meal and goad finicky company into trying new things. Sound ridiculous? Maybe it is, but what works for kids often works for adults. Check out In Style Parties or Amy Sedaris’ I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence for ideas.

IF YOU DON’T MIND SOME HELP

Try a potluck. Friends and family will bring their favorite foods, and it doesn’t cost you a dime. Make sure to coordinate the menu items though, or you’ll end up with five plates of brownies and no main dish. For a healthy twist, have a make-your-own salad station to go with everything.

Have guests bring the wine. For me anyway, alcohol is fundamental. When Trader Joe’s is closed and you haven’t thought far enough in advance to use Wine.com, there’s no shame in asking attendees to provide the booze. If there’s a concern about health issues, make a non-alcoholic alternative or read this article: Researchers Say Pigments Make Red Wine Helpful to Hearts.

Do a Progressive. Really, this is more of a group effort and significantly easier for folks who live within walking distance, but if each participant hosts a course (appetizer, soup, main course, dessert, etc.) everyone saves cash and eats something they like. Plus, it’s a neat experience and your dish can be as healthy as you want it.

Remember: ordering out is not a sin. In some cases, it defeats the whole purpose of frugality and cooking. In others, it’s a valuable crutch for when you don’t have the time, inclination, or extra ingredients lying around. Go ahead and grab a quart of wonton soup. Don’t fear (the reaper) the pound of edamame. Embrace the take-out naan. As long as it’s within reason, it’s not cheating.

EXTRA TIPS

When in doubt, don’t mention it’s healthy. While the Weight Watchers fans will love you for it, choosier folks automatically equate nutritious food with having a mouth enema. If you can pass off tofu cheesecake, tomato guacamole, or tomato sauce rife with pureed bell peppers, for the love of god, keep quiet.

Look for sales. Devising a group meal around sales in Supermarket Circulars can save you a bundle of cash, and the produce section is particularly helpful for economically-priced seasonal dishes.

Start planning early. Last-minute smorgasbords for selective people are incredibly difficult to pull off without spending a bundle. It tends to be when health concerns go out the window, as well. The sooner you map out a menu, the better. If your company has religious or allergy-related food restrictions, this is a helpful guide from the Butler’s Guild (!).

But don’t go nuts. Picky and special-needs eaters are used to having low-to-zero dining options, so any effort made in their direction will most likely be welcomed. When push comes to shove, your pregnant vegan friend can make do with a fruit salad, and the onion-hating cousin is just fine with roasted sweet potatoes. Making 46,000 different dishes to satisfy an equal number of tastes is expensive overkill. However, remember …

Be frugal without being a cheap bastard. Frugal is passing on the caviar while looking for a deal on the pork. Cheap is buying coal grey meat packaged during the Carter Administration. While saving money is admirable, cutting too many financial corners will have a negative affect on both your food and your friends’ regard for you.

Sources

Friday, May 21, 2010

Top 10 Links of the Week: 5/14/10 – 5/20/10

The links today are like David Bowie, my friends. They start out groundbreaking and a little offbeat, get better as you go along, begin experimenting with androgyny and heroin, eventually marry Iman, and then remain hot well into their '60s. (Um ... lost the metaphor in there somewhere.)

1) Get Rich Slowly: What You Can Learn From Baby Boomer Blunders
It’s pretty rare that we highlight a post that’s not really about food, but I think this one’s important. I’m at the tail end of Generation X, and my parents are Boomers. Sometimes, it’s difficult to convey to their peers how personal finance has changed for my age group over the last ten years. Pensions, guaranteed health insurance, and fail-safe home equity are largely things of the past. This post takes a nice step towards explaining the shift, the consequences, and how they affect everybody.

2) Woman’s Day: 15 Most Bizarre Diets in History
Remember the good ol’ days, when Lucky Strikes, tapeworm, and not living near a swamp were promoted as legitimate methods of weight control? I don’t. But mark my words, that damn cookie diet will be on this list in a few years. (Photo from Wikipedia.)

3) Get Rich Slowly: Busting the Myths - Why Coupons Are a Valuable Part of Your Financial Arsenal
In this smart guest post, Deal-Seeking Mom Tara Kuczykowski tears down your long-held mental barriers to couponing. Favorites include: Buying generic is always cheaper (FALSE), you save more at warehouse stores (FALSEY FALSE FALSE), and you can’t be brand loyal and save money (FALS … hmm … okay, FALSE).

4) Mark Bittman: Want Sustainable Sushi? Follow the 4-S Rule.
It ain’t cheap, but sushi is healthy, good, and a much-loved occasional treat in our household. (Mmm … mackerel.) These quartet of terrific tips will help you choose raw fish that’s a tad more environmentally friendly.

5) New York Times: A TV Cook’s Next Serving? Cuomo Family Style
On one hand, Sandra Lee is a self-made, smart, hard-working woman, who as New York’s first lady, would undoubtedly make a good fundraiser for my financially-strapped home state. On the other hand, NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

6) Casual Kitchen: How to Get the Benefits of Organic Foods Without Paying Through the Nose
Really liked this whole post, but #2 intrigues me the most: “Don't assume that food lacking an organic label is grown unethically or unhealthily.” While we should still be pretty careful about washing and such, if you’re buying from local sources or favorite farmstands, you might not have to worry about as many (or any) harmful pesticides.

7) Dude, Where’s the Stove: Finding Low-Cost Recipes
Lookin’ for blogs with inexpensive recipes? (HERE. WE HAVE THEM HERE.) Dude’s compiled a sweet little roundup that should sate your cheap eats needs. (Thanks to Casual Kitchen for the link.)

8) The Atlantic: Today's Food Companies - The Quick and the Dead
Have you heard the news? Major players within the food industry have pledged to cut 1.5 trillion calories from production over the next five years. While this is a nice gesture, argues author Hank Cardello, it’s a drop in the bucket. 69 trillion is a better target. (Photo from Logical Science.)

9) HuffPo: Meatless Monday - The Meat People Hit Back
The beef and pork industry is hitting back against Meatless Mondays. Fuh real. Who knew that avoiding meat one day a week could be considered transgressive? (Er … haven’t these people heard of Lent?)

10) BlogHer: Weekend Menu Planning - Grilled Pizza for National Barbecue Month!
Nice link comp/tutorial for grilling pizza. The season is here, folks. Get outcher flatbreads.


HONORABLE MENTIONS

Food Politics: What is a Small Farm? Can it Survive?
Did you know: “Although most (91%) of U.S. farms are small, farms earning $250,000 and above account for 85 percent of the market value of agricultural production.” I did not.

The Kitchn: Sofa to Bedroom - Tips for Photographing Food at Night
Fellow food bloggers who primarily cook in the evening! Heed this, and never be tripped up by yellow light again!

LA Weekly: Top 10 Fictional TV Food and Drink
From Colon Blow to Scooby Snacks, it’s (almost) all here. (Alas, there’s no Vitameatavegamin.) The #1 pick might surprise you.

The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Grilled Chicken Pineapple Quesadillas
I want this in my mouthhole right now.

Real Simple
18 Easy Convenience-Food Upgrades
Guide to Buying Frozen Food
Link #1: Ingenious ways to jazz up frozen pizzas and the like.
Link #2: How to choose the best quality cold goods for your cold, hard cash.

stonesoup: 7 tips for full-flavoured vegetable stock
You’ll never have weak broth again. MARK MY WORDS!

UK Telegraph: Dieters 'underestimate how many calories they are eating'
I don’t know if it’s news that most diets fail because we’re not often sure how to approach them, but it’s interesting to see the figures to back it up.


AND ALSO

My Food Looks Funny
Hee. Arty food.



Tales of Mere Existence: Typical Conversations With My Mom
Hee. Talks with Mom about food.



Thank you so much for visiting Cheap Healthy Good! (We appreciate it muchly). If you’d like to further support CHG, subscribe to our RSS feed! Or become a Facebook friend! Or check out our Twitter! Or buy something inexpensive, yet fulfilling via that Amazon store (on the left)! Bookmarking sites and links are nice, too. Viva la France!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Veggie Might: Neglected Cookbook Library—Super-free Carrot Cake

Written by the fabulous Leigh, Veggie Might is a weekly Thursday column about all things Vegetarian.

A couple weeks ago, I was waiting for CB at Cowsheds & Stately before seeing a movie at the nearby cinemall. I tried to resist the magnetic pull of the New Cookbooks table, but its power was too strong. I drooled over one in particular: Terry Hope Romero’s Viva Vegan, an animal-free tribute to Latin food (and what I’ve been craving mucho lately).

The book was gorgeous, and it took all my strength to leave it there on the table. But I did (though I’m still thinking about it two weeks later) because I have too many cookbooks I never use.

You would never know that I have over 30 cookbooks. My weekly cooking repertoire revolves around a few well-honed favorites, Internet inspirations, and whatever Mark Bittman or Madhur Jaffrey tell me to make by closing my eyes, letting one their books fall open, and putting my finger down on a recipe.

Among the cookbooks on my kitchen shelf, at least a dozen of which I have never used, are odes to nutrition I purchased with hopes of eating healthier or adding some variety to my cooking. A couple of prettier books (and their novelty cousins) were presented to me as gifts. But much of my collection was left behind by former roommates, and a smattering are pamphlet-length tracts or user manuals with recipes.

However, I can’t bear to let them go, no matter how ridiculous or out-dated. What if lurking inside the Matoon (Illinois) United Methodist Women cookbook is a glowing gem of a casserole that will change my life? What if I can revamp a Mrs. Fields cookie recipe into something healthy and delicious? But that’s just silly; my kitchen square-footage is at a premium.

Over the next few months, I plan to plumb my Neglected Cookbook Library for its hidden jewels. Along the way, I will feature recipes from my quarry. You’ll still hear from Mark Bittman and Madhur Jaffrey; you’ll just get a taste of other visionaries too, like Isa Chandra Moskowitz, the Moosewood Collective, and George Foreman.

If a book doesn’t earn its shelf-space, I will cast it off to the thrifty to make room for others more worthy… like Viva Vegan. Let’s get it on.

Title: Babycakes: Vegan, Gluten-Free and (Mostly) Sugar-Free Recipes from New York’s Most Talked-About Bakery by Erin McKenna
Acquisition Info: Received as birthday gift, 2009 from the lovely Miss T
Recipe: Carrot Cupcakes and Vanilla Frosting/Vanilla Sauce
Reason for neglect: Specialty ingredients
Treasure Rating: 3 out of 4 Fistsful of Jewels

Babycakes’ reputation preceded my experience with this book. I have several friends with various dairy, gluten, and sugar sensitivities who all sing the praises of Ms. McKenna’s downtown bakery. My expectations were high and met.

Since first trying the vegan, gluten-free, and sugar-free carrot cake recipe about a month ago, I’ve made it twice more for potlucks, and it’s been met with wild accolades—rare for “alternative” baked goods. Seriously, this is one of the best things I’ve ever shoved in my mouth.

A caveat at the beginning of Babycakes instructs against ingredient substitutions, and for the most part, the warning should be heeded. Ingredients like coconut oil and xanthan gum are often crucial to gluten-free baking. But of course, I am me.

Take one: I replaced the (expensive!) coconut oil with canola oil in the cake recipe, upped some of the spice amounts, and made my own vegan (but not sugar-free) frosting. It was phenomenal. The cake was moist and light, and hardly needed frosting. (I ate it without for breakfast a couple of times.) CB, the roommate, and I could not get enough. I had to make it again.

Take two: Emboldened, I made the carrot cake with canola oil again and attempted the book’s vanilla frosting recipe with the same substitution. Oh Nell Carter, no! After leaving it overnight in the fridge to set, I had vanilla soymilk—oily vanilla soymilk. The frosting recipe must have coconut oil.

I slapped together my own agave-based frosting for that evening’s potluck, and everyone was nice enough to say it was good. The cupcakes were delicious, but my sugar-free frosting was a drippy, gritty, sticky mess. I have the best friends.

Take three: Another potluck on the calendar, and I finally went by the book. I plunked down the cash for the coconut oil (on sale!) and it was worth it. The carrot cake was just good as before, but the frosting was SO much better. It’s smooth and creamy—definitely more like a cream than a traditional frosting, but delicious and sweet without being cloying. Every single person went back for a second slice.

Babycakes stays.

~~~~

If you dug this article, you may dig
~~~~

Super-free Carrot Cake
Adapted from Babycakes by Erin McKenna
Yields 24 pieces


3 cups gluten-free baking flour (Note: I used Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free All-Purpose Flour per cookbook recommendation.)
1 tbsp baking powder
1 tbsp baking soda
1 tsp xanthan gum
1 1/2 tsp salt
2 tbsp cinnamon, grated
3 tbsp ginger, powdered
1/2 tsp nutmeg, grated
2/3 cup canola oil or coconut oil (melted)
1 cup agave nectar
1 cup almond milk
1 tbsp vanilla
1/2 cup hot water
3 cups carrots, shredded

1) Preheat oven to 325°. Grease 9” × 13” baking pan with oil or cooking spray.

2) Combine all dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl.

3) Mix in oil, agave nectar, almond milk, and vanilla. You will have a thick batter. Gently stir in hot water. Fold in carrots.

4) Pour batter into 9” × 13” baking pan or fill cupcake cups with 1/3 cup of batter. Bake cake for 35–45 minutes or until a toothpick comes clean. Bake cupcakes for 20–30 minutes. Depending on your oven, you may want to turn the pan and/or cover with foil halfway through baking. The former prevents uneven cooking; the latter keeps the top from burning before the insides are good and done.

5) Allow cake to cool before frosting with Agave Vanilla Frosting or Vegan Buttercream.

6) Serve to the adoration of all who encounter your genius.

Agave Vanilla Frosting
Adapted from Babycakes by Erin McKenna
Yield: 3/4 recipe will frost 9”x13” cake; whole recipe will frost 24 cupcakes

1 1/2 cups unsweetened almond milk
3/4 cup dry soy milk powder
1 tbsp almond flour
1/4 cup agave nectar
1 tbsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups coconut oil (melted)
2 tbsp lemon juice (Note: Use exact measurement rather than a whole lemon, which is likely too much.)

1) In the blender or food processor, combine almond milk, soy milk powder, almond flour, agave nectar, and vanilla extract. Zap it for two minutes.

2) Drizzle in coconut oil and lemon, alternately, until fully incorporated into mixture.

3) Pour into sealable container and chill for at least 6 hours to achieve a spreadable consistency.

4) Your cake should be cool by then too: frost, eat, enjoy the rapture.

Alternate frosting—vegan and gluten-free, but not sugar-free

Vegan Vanilla Buttercream
3 cups confectioner’s sugar
1/3 cup (5 tbsp) nonhydrogenated vegan margarine or shortening (softened)
2 tbsp almond milk
1 tbsp vanilla

1) Combine sugar and shortening in medium mixing bowl.

2) Cream together with spatula, adding almond milk to help it along. Add vanilla and continue to mix until smooth. Add another splash of almond milk if necessary.

3) Spread on cooled cake and serve to adoring throng.

Approximate Calories, Fat, Fiber, Protein, and Price per Serving
Carrot cake with canola oil: 148.5 calories, 6.8g fat, 1.7g fiber, 1.6g protein, $.34
Carrot cake with coconut oil: 145.7 calories, 6.6g fat, 1.7g fiber, 1.6g protein, $.39
Agave frosting: 109 calories, 11g fat, .6g fiber, .9g protein, $.27
Buttercream frosting: 83 calories, 2.7g fat, 0g fiber, 0g protein, $.10

Calculations

Super-free Carrot Cake
3 cups gluten-free baking flour: 1200 calories, 12g fat, 36g fiber, 36g protein, $2.15
1 tbsp baking powder: negligible calories, fat, fiber, protein, $.04
1 tbsp baking soda: negligible calories, fat, fiber, protein, $.04
1 tsp xanthan gum: negligible calories, fat, fiber, protein, $.04
1 1/2 tsp salt: negligible calories, fat, fiber, protein, $.02
2 tbsp cinnamon: negligible calories, fat, fiber, protein, $.04
3 tbsp ginger: negligible calories, fat, fiber, protein, $.04
1/2 tsp nutmeg: negligible calories, fat, fiber, protein, $.02
2/3 cup canola oil: 1320 calories, 149g fat, 0g fiber, 0g protein, $1.28
[or 2/3 cup coconut oil: 1253 calories, 145g fat, 0g fiber, 0g protein, $2.52]
1 cup agave nectar: 960 cal, 0g fat, 0g fiber, 0g protein, $2.56
1 cup almond milk: 40 calories, 3g fat, 1g fiber, 1g protein, $.50
1 tbsp vanilla extract: negligible calories, fat, fiber, protein, $1.00
3 cups carrots: 45 calories, 0g fat, 3g fiber, 1g protein, $.33
TOTALS WITH CANOLA OIL: 3565 calories, 164g fat, 40g fiber, 38g protein, $8.06
PER SERVING (TOTALS/24) with canola oil: 148.5 calories, 6.8g fat, 1.7g fiber, 1.6g protein, $.34
TOTALS WITH COCONUT OIL: 3498 calories, 160g fat, 40g fiber, 38g protein, $9.30
PER SERVING (TOTALS/24) with coconut oil: 145.7 calories, 6.6g fat, 1.7g fiber, 1.6g protein, $.39

Agave Vanilla Frosting
1 1/2 cups unsweetened almond milk: 60 calories, 4.5g fat, 1.5g fiber, 1.5g protein, $.75
3/4 cup soy milk powder: 330 calories, 15g fat, 18g fiber, 27g protein, $.48
1 tbsp almond flour: 40 calories, 3.5g fat, .75g fiber, 1.5g protein, $.00
1/4 cup agave nectar: 240 calories, 0g fat, 0g fiber, 0g protein, $.64
1 tbsp vanilla extract: negligible calories, fat, fiber, protein, $1.00
1 1/2 cups coconut oil: 2818. 5 calories, 327g fat, 0g fiber, 0g protein, $5.68
2 tbsp lemon juice: 10 calories, 0g fat, 0g fiber, 0g protein, $.20
Totals: 3498.5 calories, 350g fat, 20.25g fiber, 30g protein, $8.75
PER SERVING (TOTALS/24): 145 calories, 14.6g fat, .8g fiber, 1.25g protein, $.36
PER SERVING (TOTALS/32): 109 calories, 11g fat, .6g fiber, .9g protein, $.27

Vegan Vanilla Buttercream
3 cups confectioner’s sugar: 1440 cal, 0g fat, 0g fiber, 0g protein, $.96
1/3 cup (5 tbsp) nonhydrogenated vegan margarine or shortening: 550 cal, 65g fat, 0g fiber, 0g protein, $.39
2 tbsp almond milk: 5 calories, .4g fat, .13g fiber, .13g protein, $.13
1 tbsp vanilla extract: negligible calories, fat, fiber, protein, $1.00
TOTALS: 1995 calories, 65.4g fat, .13g fiber, .13g protein, $2.48
PER SERVING (TOTALS/24): 83 calories, 2.7g fat, 0g fiber, 0g protein, $.10

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

10 Ways to Eat Less Meat

Today, we continue our May Top 10 series by addressing a popular topic in both the food and personal finance blogospheres: eating less meat.

“Why in the good name of Bea Arthur would I want to eat LESS meat?” some might ask. “I don’t get enough bacon as it is. Plus, humans were meant to be carnivores, right? Otherwise, how do I explain the dead alpaca in the fridge to my kids?”

Well, sweet reader. We come not to demonize meat, but to praise consuming it in moderation. Because when raised right and chomped sensibly, beef, chicken, pork, lamb - maybe even that alpaca - can be pretty good for you. What’s more, it’s good for your wallet, your children, the Earth, the moon, the universe, other universes, the multiverse, the Rebel Alliance, Hoth, Dagoba- … Sorry. Got carried away there.

Following that line of reasoning, here are 10-plus strategies for reducing your meat intake. Some are well known. Others, less so. But all told, it’s a pretty decent list, if I do say so myself. (Note: And I do.)

Of course, if you’d like to change anything or add your own suggestion, the comment section awaits. That’s what it’s there for, after all. (Also: quoting Glee.)

1) Have one or more meatless nights per week.
It’s hard to say whether the movement began with bloggers or Johns Hopkins’ Meatless Mondays. Either way, this 15% reduction in your weekly meat can have a massive positive impact on … well, everything we just mentioned (the environment, your heart, Tatooine, etc.). The options aren’t as limited as you think, either. Vegetarian burritos, pizza, chili, and pasta are so tasty, you won’t miss the extra eight ounces of pork.

2) Buy less meat. And when you do, only purchase pricey, delicious, humanely raised meat.
You have three grand and a choice: You can go to McDonald’s every night for a year, or Babbo every night for a month. You’d choose 30 days catered by Mario Batali over 3,000 stupid chicken nuggets, right?

Buying farmer’s market meat is kind of like that. You purchase less overall (because it’s pricey, yo), but what you do buy is so delicious, it’s worth the wait.

Not to mention … imagine a world where the chicken tastes like chicken. I’m not talking about the wan, watered-down, quasi-poultry we know and tolerate. I’m referring to genuine, robust fowl that screams, “I am bird! Hear me cluck! Or roar! Or roarcluck! Whatever.” That flavorful planet is attainable, if you’re willing to go for it.

3) Don’t eat meat before dinner.
You may have heard of Mark Bittman’s “vegan before 6” diet. Essentially, the New York Times writer doesn’t eat any animal products before dinner. (Um … that may have been somewhat self-explanatory from the name of the diet, in which case, I apologize.)

While restricting cheese and eggs might be a little too much to take, dude’s definitely on to something. How simple would it be to cut the bacon out of your morning feast? Or to swap grilled eggplant in for grilled chicken on your panini? Or to buy the deli’s awesome, overlooked Italian Bean Soup instead of their admittedly lame Chicken Noodle? Try it for a few days, and see what happens. Could be easier than you think.

4) Don’t make meat the focus of your meals.
There’s nothing like a good cheeseburger, but eating one every night takes its toll. Relegating meat to side dishes or secondary ingredients ensures you still get a decent helping of beefy goodness, without the egregious bad things. Chilis and soups are particularly wonderful for this, as is everything in Joy Manning and Tara Mataraza Desmond’s Meat Lite column on Serious Eats.

5) Go ethnic.
Mediterranean, Indian, Chinese, Thai, and even Italian and Mexican food rely much less on meat than traditional American cuisine. Throw your family a culinary curveball by having a World Kitchen Night, and preparing a few simple recipes from around the globe. Beyond the obvious benefits, you’ll also open minds and create adventurous palates. Sweet.

6) Filet or pound your cuts.
The recommended serving for meat is four ounces, which is about the size of a deck of cards. If you put that in front of my brother, he’d laugh maniacally and then shove a fork into his thigh, a la Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein.

There’s a way around that, though: Take a large piece of meat – chicken breast, let’s say – and A) slice it in half through the middle, or B) pound it super-thin. This creates the illusion of a big cut, even though the piece is essentially missing its bottom half. Bonus: it’ll cook more evenly, as well.

7) Learn to make more vegetable, grain, and pasta-based meals.
Baked Ziti. Falafel. Pizza. Easy Vegetarian Bean Chili. Lasagna. Quinoa Soup with Avocado and Corn. Ratatouille. Macaroni and Cheese. Pasta Puttanesca. Black Bean Burrito Bake. Veggie Lo Mein. Stuffed Peppers. Tomato and Bread Soup. Pumpkin Orzo with Sage. Roasted Veggie Sandwich. OH MY SWEET HEAVENS, BUTTERNUT SQUASH RISOTTO. All substantial. All delicious. None will make you crave a hot dog.

8) Find substitutes you dig.
Not everybody likes tofu. I get that. Bean curd is an acquired taste. Still, have you ever tried seitan? Done correctly, it’s scrumptious. I’m not kidding. Leigh makes these barbecue seitan bites that are practically crack.

Meat substitutes scare people off sometimes, but flavor- and texture-wise, they’ve come a long way since Tofurky. If you’re open to the idea, the trick is finding one (or two or eight) that works for you. Whether that’s Portobello mushrooms or tempeh or Morningstar Farms Chix Patties (Which? Mmm.), odds are it’s a better option than many commercially available meats.

9) Make your vegetarian friend(s) cook for you.
Two of my friends have been vegetarians for nearly 20 years each. (One is aforementioned Veggie Might genius Leigh.) Both are among the best cooks I know, presumably because they’ve been forced to experiment with a wider variety of foods to compensate for the lack of meat. If you have similar pals, watch them cook. Ask how they get by. Eat with them. Vegetarians are experts at non-meat lifestyles, and you can learn a lot just by hanging out in their circles.

10) Do the math.
Save your next four grocery bills. Add up the totals. Subtract half the money you spend on meat. (That other half will be spent on more grains, vegetables, and beans, presumably.) Imagine saving that every month, for the rest of your life. Not too shabby, eh?

BONUS: Avoid the meat areas of your supermarket.
Out of sight, out of mind, right? It works for me.


REALLY GOOD IDEAS FROM OTHER PEOPLE

These four tips are pretty sweet, and I didn’t see them anywhere but the cited sources.

Forget about protein.
Mark Bittman: “Plants have protein, too; in fact, per calorie, many plants have more protein than meat. … By eating a variety, you can get all essential amino acids.”

Use it all.
Planet Green: “Try not to throw anything away, and look around for cheaper, more interesting cuts of meat at your butcher.”

Adapt old meaty recipes.
Diet Girl: “Back when I first shacked up with Dr G, I started by taking my old standard meat recipes and finding veggie substitutes. This meant lots of beans and lentils.”

Make extra helpings of your side dishes.
Owlhaven's Mary Ostyn makes only 1 to 1-1/2 small servings of meat per person, but cooks extra veggies, grains, and such. It keeps costs down, and ensures her kids don’t go overboard.

And that’s it. Sweet readers, the comment section awaits. Oh, and don’t forget: next week, our 10 Series is tackling storage and leftovers. If you have tips for maximizing either, I’d love to hear.

~~~

If you enjoy this post, you might also like:

(Photos provided by Wheatbridge [chicken], Baby-Halloween-Costume.com [cow], and BuyCostumes.com [pig])

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Green Kitchen: Hot and Sour Soup with Baby Bok Choy

Green Kitchen is a bi-weekly column about nutritious, inexpensive, and ethical food and cooking. It's penned by the lovely Jaime Green.

After three years of farmers market shopping, I still don’t have a great handle on when fresh vegetables start showing up. I've got a history with this seasonal amnesia, too: when I was little, I would be surprised every year when it was cold at Halloween. I got that one to stick, just in time to outgrow trick-or-treating, but then I spent years expecting trees to have leaves by mid-March.

And now, for the last few weeks, I've gone to the farmers market with no idea whether I'd find bountiful produce, or just more of last year's apples.

For several spring weeks, it's still been those dang apples (okay, and asparagus), but this past weekend I was finally met by a variety of veggies at the market. Following the rules of Barbara Kingsolver's Animal Vegetable Miracle, it's mostly leafy greens – baby spinach, broccoli rabe, incredibly abundant bunches of stinging nettles. (I may be desperate for inexpensive fresh veggies, but I'm not ready for greens that can hurt me.) Maybe prettiest of all: a few big bins of light green, lovely baby bok choy.

They had the same oval leaves as grown-up bok choy, but rather than merging at a thick white bulby stem, they were gently joined at their bases, and just an inch or two tall.

So, a plan started to form in my mind.

The boyfriend and I had talked about maybe ordering in soup that night, and what is one of the most basic rules of eating cheaply, healthily, and kindly-to-the-environment? Make it yourself! I remembered a recipe with vinegar-spiked stock and lots of mushrooms and ginger, with room for the addition of just about any vegetable. Enter baby bok choy.

To refine it, I hit the internet and read through several additional hot and sour soup iterations. Some called for exotic dried mushrooms from a Chinese market; some called for supermarket mushrooms. Ultimately, I went with a one that saved me the hour-long trip to Chinatown. I also replaced sriracha with hot pepper flakes. After a few more tweaks, we had soup! And ohmygoodness, was it good!

I think the magic was this: inspired by Ask the Internet: Best Cooking Fat?, I sautéed the mushrooms and ginger in coconut oil on low heat. The soup doesn’t taste like coconut, but there’s a richness in flavor that belies how very low-calorie this is. It’s also kind of astonishingly filling.

If you're not a vegetarian, add some pre-cooked meat after sautéing the mushrooms, and cook that for a few minutes before adding the stock. Make it hotter or not, more or less sour, however you like your soup. (And might I recommend enjoying your leftovers with a poached egg? Kind of amazing.)

~~~

If you like this recipe, you might also enjoy:
~~~

Hot and Sour Soup with Baby Bok Choy
Adapted from Serious Eats and All Recipes.
Serves 6


1 tablespoon coconut oil
1 10-ounce package crimini or baby bella mushrooms, sliced
2 tablespoons minced ginger
2 cloves garlic, minced
A few shakes of hot pepper flakes (or more or less to taste)
6 cups broth (I used Better Than Bouillon)
2 cups water
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 eggs
1 package tofu, pressed, cut into cubes (I would recommend against extra-firm)
1 can bamboo shoots, drained
4 cups baby bok choy (or other greens)
6 scallions, chopped

1) Put a soup pot (4qt or more) over medium heat. Melt coconut oil. Add mushrooms, ginger, garlic, and hot pepper flakes. Sauté until the mushrooms are soft and have given up their liquid.

2) Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk together soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, and black pepper. Set aside.

3) Once mushrooms are cooked, add broth and water. Add soy sauce and vinegar mixture. Taste, and add more pepper flakes, vinegar, or soy sauce, to your taste.

4) Bring soup to boil. Whisk the eggs together in a measuring cup. While stirring the soup, pour in the eggs in a slow stream.

5) Reduce heat to a simmer. Add bamboo shoots, tofu, and bok choy. Simmer for five minutes.

6) Serve topped with scallions. Try not to burn your mouth.

Approximate Calories, Fat, Fiber, Protein, and Price Per Serving
133 calories, 7.8g fat, 2.2g fiber, 11.3g protein, $1.69

Calculations
1 T coconut oil: 117 calories, 13.6g fat, 0g fiber 0g protein, $0.40
1 10oz package crimini (or baby bella) mushrooms: 42 calories, 0g fat, 1.9g fiber, 6g protein $2.99
2 T minced ginger: 3 calories, negligible fat, fiber, protein, $0.16
2 cloves garlic: 9 calories, negligible fat, fiber, .5g protein $0.04
a few shakes of hot pepper flakes: negliglible calories, fat, fiber, protein $0.02
6 c broth (I used Better Than Bouillon): 30 calories, negligible fat, fiber, protein, $1.11
2 c water: nothing!
2 T soy sauce: 22 calories, negligible fat, fiber, 3.8g protein $0.21
2 T rice vinegar: negligible calories, fat, fiber, protein, $0.16
1 t sugar: 16 calories, negligible fat, fiber, protein $0.02
1 t black pepper: negliglible calories, fat, fiber, protein $0.01
2 eggs: 155 calories, 10.6g fat, 0g fiber, 12.6g protein $0.66
1 package tofu: 365 calories, 22g fat, 5.8g fiber, 39.8g protein $1.79
1 can bamboo shoots: 25 calories, .5g fat, 1.8g fiber, 2.3g protein $1.19
4 c baby bok choy: 27 calories, 0g fat, 2.5g fiber, 2.5g protein $1.25
6 scallions: 11 calories, 0g fat, 1g fiber, .5g protein $0.11
TOTALS: 797 calories, 46.7g fat, 13g fiber, 68g protein, $10.12
PER SERVING (TOTAL/6): 133 calories, 7.8g fat, 2.2g fiber, 11.3g protein, $1.69

Ask the Internet: LOST Finale Recipes?

Today’s question comes from Husband-Elect, who is still curled in a fetal position in the corner after watching the whole submarine thing go down.

Q: The finale of LOST is this Sunday. This makes me depressed and itchy. I would like to eat LOST-themed food to ease the pain. Please suggest something. NO SPOILERS.

A: We at CHG aim to please, sweet LOST fan. Here are a few Island entrees, appetizers, and Sayid dishes (say it out loud) for your viewing pleasure. We promise, they won’t make you want to Hurley.

(Readers, add your own ideas in the comment section! It'll be punnerific!)

Shephard’s Pie: This upstanding concoction of fish and Dharma potatoes should sustain and heal the party until about halfway through the meal, when your friends experience a philosophical flip-flop and reassess the meaning of the pie. (Thanks to Little Kitchen Mouse for this one.)

E-Clairs: Happily, this dessert starts off sweet and presents well. Sadly, with the addition of nuts, it quickly degenerates into a visual crapheap. (Serve with a side of bonebaby.)

Sun Jin Fizz: Warning: prolonged mistreatment of this pretty, pleasant cocktail will result in explosions, being caught in a bear trap, and a humbling journey through time and space.

Miles to Go Before I Dip: At first, you won’t understand the function of this sharp, rather disagreeable onion dip. But it’s served in a bowl where you can see the ghosts of other onion dips, so that’s cool.

WAAAAALTed Milkshake: While this youthful drink initially seems promising, it will be kidnapped by pirates, at which point it will quickly age out of its usefulness.

Juliomelet: This capable, attractive dish will quickly become your favorite meal, until it’s inexplicably sucked down a mineshaft. Then it will become someone else’s favorite dish on the show right after this one.

Lady Lockes, Stock, and Two Smoked Muensters: Imagine your favorite chicken broth topped with pungent frommage, served with creampuffs for dipping on the side. Does it make sense? No. You will eat it anyway.

Kate Flambé: This isn’t actually a recipe, but the Husband-Elect assures me that many would like to see it happen.

Readers, whatchoo got? The comment section is awaiting your ideas for LOST-themed food. We need something for Sawyer, Desmond, Charlie, Ben, and all the rest, brotha.

Want to ask the interweb a question? Post one in the comment section, or write to Cheaphealthygood@gmail.com. Then, tune in next Tuesday for an answer/several answers from the good people of the World Wide Net.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Pasta with Mushrooms, Peppers, and Onions: My Favorite T-Shirt of Pasta Recipes

NOTE #1: Today at Serious Eats: Blue Cheese Portobello Mushroom Burgers. Simple, quick, delicious, and easy on the environment. I’m drooling a little just thinking about 'em.

NOTE #2: A quick update on CHG's technical problems: It looks like we have an Explorer issue to fix. Thanks for the responses, everybody! (P.S. If somebody has a screen capture of the expanding ad, it would rule.) But first...

I’m guessing you have a favorite t-shirt. Odds are you don’t wear it outside, because it’s not in the best shape. Maybe you’ve owned it a few years. Maybe it has a few holes around the collar. Maybe there’s an ugly fish on the front, and a big ol’ picture of Michael Bolton on the back.

You may not sport that shirt in public, but given the chance, you’d wear it and nothing else – not even underpants – for the rest of eternity.

(Incidentally, is there a funnier word than “underpants”? They’re pants you wear under other pants! Why do we need so many pants?)

My favorite tee is dark blue and at least a decade old. You can see my bra right through the fabric. It says “Schlumberger” across the left breast, which I long assumed was a cool German industrial band, like Kraftwerk or, uh … some other group like Kraftwerk. (Note: Nope.) I don’t wear it on the street anymore, because I don’t want to be arrested for scaring the children.

Despite all this, I will never, ever throw it out. I love it more than any other piece of clothing, with the possible exception of my wedding dress. And I only bought that because Ma would kill me if I got married in a Schlumberger t-shirt.

What do crappy-yet-beloved short-sleevers have to do with Pasta with Mushrooms, Peppers, and Onions? A lot, actually. You see, this recipe is the culinary equivalent of my favorite t-shirt. To be totally honest, I debated posting it, because it’s so easy that it’s barely a recipe.

Then, I thought of a few things:
  1. I’ve eaten this dish (or some slight variation) every week for years.
  2. It’s one of the first dishes I learned to prepare without a cookbook.
  3. It’s one of the first dishes I learned to prepare when I started eating healthier.
  4. It contains a ton of vegetables, but still feels indulgent.
  5. It sates my pasta cravings without going overboard on calories.
  6. It’s one of Husband-Elect’s favorite meals, and he requests it fairly often. (Note: He’s making it himself as I type this on Sunday night.)
  7. It can be doubled, tripled, or octupled with little extra effort.
  8. The leftovers rock my face.
Still, I’m a little embarrassed at the simplicity here. But if this dish makes you as happy as it makes me … well, then it’s worth it, Schlumberger and all.

What about you, sweet readers? Do you have favorite recipes you’re almost embarrassed to share? What about t-shirts? Or both? Do tell.

~~~

If you like this recipe, you might also become quite fond of:
~~~

Pasta with Mushrooms, Peppers, and Onions
Serves 3


8 to 10 ounces medium-sized pasta (rotini, penne, etc.)
1/2 tablespoon olive oil
8 ounces button mushrooms, cut into quarters
1 medium green bell pepper, cut into bite-sized pieces
3/4 medium onion, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 to 1-1/2 cups prepared pasta sauce
1/4 to 1/2 cup grated parmesan
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

1) Bring a medium pot full of salted water to boil. Add pasta and cook until al dente. Drain.

2) Meanwhile, in a large nonstick skillet, heat olive oil over medium high. Add mushrooms, peppers, and onions. Saute 8 to 12 minutes, until mushrooms are cooked through, onions are soft, and peppers are crisp-tender. Salt and pepper to taste.

3) Add pasta to skillet. Stir thoroughly to combine. Heat through if necessary. Add pasta sauce. Stir to combine. Kill heat. Salt and pepper to taste.

4) Spoon into bowls. Add a healthy helping of parmesan to each. Delight in the easiest thing you’ve ever made.

Approximate Calories, Fat, Fiber, Protein, and Price Per Serving
492 calories, 9.2 g fat, 5 g fiber, 19.9 g protein, $1.52

Calculations
NOTE: For range measurements (8 to 10 ounces, 1/4 to 1/2 cup, etc.) I used the average of the high and low numbers (9 ounces, 6 tablespoons, etc.).
8 to 10 ounces medium-sized pasta: 947 calories, 3.8 g fat, 8.2 g fiber, 33.3 g fiber, $0.56
1/2 tablespoon olive oil: 59 calories, 6.7 g fat, 0 g fiber, 0 g protein, $0.06
8 ounces button mushrooms: 50 calories, 0.7 g fat, 2.3 g fiber, 7 g protein, $0.99
1 medium green bell pepper: 24 calories, 0.2 g fat, 2 g fiber, 1 g protein, $0.87
3/4 medium onion: 35 calories, 0.1 g fat, 1.2 g fiber, 0.8 g protein, $0.19
1 to 1-1/2 cups prepared pasta sauce: 231 calories, 7.5 g fat, 1.3 fiber, 6.1 g protein, $0.83
1/4 to 1/2 cup grated parmesan: 129 calories, 8.6 g fat, 0 g fiber, 11.5 g protein, $1.05
Kosher salt: negligible calories, fat, fiber, and protein, $0.01
Freshly ground black pepper: negligible calories, fat, fiber, and protein, $0.01
TOTAL: 1475 calories, 27.6 g fat, 15 g fiber, 59.7 g protein, $4.57
PER SERVING (TOTAL/3): 492 calories, 9.2 g fat, 5 g fiber, 19.9 g protein, $1.52