Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Tip #4: Never underestimate the power of soup

Clam chowder, minestrone, gazpacho, avgolemono, chicken noodle… who doesn’t like a nice steaming bowl of delicious soup? (Well, my friend Kristal doesn’t, but she’s got some weird thing about not liking hot liquids like soup, coffee, etc.) Being wintertime, it’s the perfect meal to chase away all that cold, even though for me it’s a year-round thing. But my favorite thing about soup has to be its elasticity and ease. From the simplest consommé to a big & hearty stew, you toss together just the right combination of liquids, chopped stuff, and spices, and voila! Dinner – or lunch – is served. Granted, there are some recipes that require a bit more effort and patience, but overall you’re not going to be slaving away for hours. And if you’re like me and don’t really have a lot of time, here are a few ways I get around to having delicious soup with minimal effort and maximum taste, without breaking the bank.

~ Noodle soups: Everyone remembers living on ramen at one point or another, and there’s no shame in continuing to indulge in the long noodles swimming in salty broth. But ramen can get boring, so by all means, jazz it up! I’m sure most folks have done this and I would love to hear your ideas, as I’m sure I haven’t explored the entire spectrum of ramen possibilities. Sometimes I add mixed veggies and chopped chicken or diced tofu; other times I go very old school and throw in a whole egg and let it poach in the broth, adding chopped tomato at the end; and when I’m really feeling exotic, I make my famous Curry Shrimp Ramen Soup (recipe coming soon!). I have a lot of other ideas, but this should give you a general idea of what you can do with the old college kid staple. For those of you Trader Joe’s fans, head to the soup section and invest in their $0.99 Rice Noodle Soups (available in Garlic, Spring Onion, and Mushroom flavors). They are AWESOME, affordable, and contain all-natural ingredients in the flavor packets. Absolutely preservatives, MSG, or junk like that. Goes to show that you can make great “instant” food without loading up on the chemicals. I sense several new soup combos in my future with these!

~ Use a good base: Got some chicken or veggie broth handy? Maybe a simple cream of tomato soup or some vegetable or squash bisque? Some frozen or canned vegetables, or perhaps some beans? Throw some of these together with some good spices, simmer, and you’re done. If you have a bit more time on your hands and like creamy v. brothy soups, take about 2/3 of what you’ve cooked, puree w/a hand blender, and add the remaining ingredients to get a nice hearty soup. As long as you have a good starting base and not just plain old water, you’re almost halfway there.

~ Combine leftovers w/the aforementioned good bases for a satisfying lunch: When I'm pressed for time, I'm a big fan of the boxed soups that Trader Joe’s carries. They’re all very basic and delicious on their own, in flavors like Sweet Potato Bisque, Creamy Tomato and Roasted Red Pepper, Butternut Squash, Creamy Corn & Roasted Pepper, this apple one whose proper name escapes me right now… they have a great variety. But I see them as the beginning of a great meal and the end of stashed leftovers. Today, for example, I had a little bit of my mom’s Arroz con Pavo still lurking in the fridge here at work and added it to the Creamy Tomato and Roasted Red Pepper, and it was such a yummy and filling lunch! Another extremely simple combo is to add frozen veggies to the Vegetable Bisque, nuke, and add some crushed red pepper flakes and you’re on your way to a very fast and easy work lunch. They run between $2.29 to $2.49 for 16 oz. I know I’ve seen similar boxed soups at major chain grocery stores for a bit more, but if you can’t afford those, even a regular old can of cream of tomato soup can become a monumental affair.

There are endless possibilities in the land of soup and for those of us on a tight budget, this is wonderful news because that means there’s always something delicious and filling on the horizon. You know how much I preach about creativity in the kitchen (or the office break room), and I will continue to harp about it now: think outside the box, and you’ll never feel like you’re missing out, just because money’s tight.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Recipe: My Mom's Arroz con Pavo

It gives me great pleasure to finally feature one of my mom's recipes, since she's one of the best cooks I know. Almost everyone says that about their moms because it's MOM, but if my mother were to open up a restaurant, I'm sure it would be bursting at the seams all the time. This particular recipe is one that brings up great memories because we've been making this dish for as long as I can remember. Every Black Friday, while the brave (or the idiotic, depending on your point of view) would be battling crowds at the malls, my mom and I would tackle our giant turkey and start cooking.

I suppose I should have posted this a couple weekends ago when Thanksgiving had just ended and everyone had turkey coming out of their ears, but this recipe is pretty much good year-round. It's one of the best ways to get rid of all that leftover turkey and takes the boredom out of said leftovers, since it deviates from the sameness of all those dry turkey sandwiches. The most time-consuming part is just shredding all that turkey by hand, but once that's over this is one of the most ridiculously easy dishes to make. It's a balanced meal on one plate and is just really pretty to look at!

When my mom makes this, she always starts with homemade turkey stock (someday I will post her consomme recipes - they are to DIE for!), but a good quality chicken broth will also do. This is definitely a recipe that requires broth or stock, not water; that is a huge part of why this tastes as good as it does. Don't be frightened by the large amounts of ingredients; since we always get a huge turkey, and because this is something that we like to freeze and save for later meals (so quick and easy for a lazy night's dinner), we make a lot. This recipe is easily halved, so just adjust accordingly.

My Mom's Arroz con Pavo (serves a small army)

3 c long grain white rice
6 c turkey broth
4-6 c shredded turkey (white & dark meat)
1 2-lb bag of frozen mixed vegetables (green beans, corn, carrots)
2 4-oz. jars diced pimentos, drained
1 8-oz jar Spanish olives

In a large pot, cook the rice with the broth/stock. When rice is cooked, transfer to a very large tray or bowl (we actually use the same type of roasting pan used for the actual turkey - there's plenty of room in there) and let cool to room temperature. This is very important, as the whole thing will turn to mush if you use hot rice. While rice is cooling, defrost the veggies and slice the olives. Add the turkey to the rice and mix well. Next, add veggies & mix together. Finally, add the olives and pimentos and incorporate them into the mixture. Serve with a nice salad or on its own, and don't forget to freeze the leftovers! You will have several days of a great, healthy meal just ready to pop into the microwave after a long day's work. Enjoy!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Recipe: Black Bean, Chicken and Mango Stew

There are times when I look in my fridge & cupboards I think to myself, WHY don't I just succumb to the call of Taco Bell's value menu or something equally cheap & bad for me? It truly would be a lot easier than trying to think of what to make out of some canned goods and frozen fruit. However, it's not a very satisfying meal that one gets from fast food places serving tons of empty calories. And with fruit showing up all over the place in savory dishes, as well as the added good fortune of having a perfect blend of savory ingredients and the proper fruit, I knew I could save myself the money and potentially clogged arteries by getting super creative.

I want to apologize once again for the lack of a decent picture to go w/this recipe (not anymore! The picture's finally here!). Once it's finished the colors are truly gorgeous and you can almost taste the explosion of flavors just by looking at a bowl of this stew. This is probably the most exotic & creative I've gotten w/a couple cans of beans, but as I've said before a little imagination and a well-stocked spice pantry go a long way when you're on a limited budget. A couple of things to note: I had frozen mango on hand (I like to use it in smoothies) but if you have an actual fresh mango or two, by all means use it! I also tend to prefer thigh meat over breast meat since it has more flavor, but if you're like most Americans and can only do white meat, it will also work out just fine. (Trader Joe's offers a great deal on fresh frozen boneless, skinless thighs for $6.49 for 2 or 3 lbs worth. I highly recommend them!) This stew is definitely hearty enough to stand alone, but it also goes really well on top of some rice, cous cous, or any other yummy grain you can find. And without further ado, here's the recipe.

Black Bean, Chicken and Mango Stew

2 cans of black beans, lightly drained
2-3 large boneless, skinless chicken thighs
2/3 c fresh or thawed frozen mango, chopped
1/2 small yellow onion, finely chopped
1/2 red bell pepper, chopped
1 T crushed garlic
1/2 T sea salt
1 T garlic salt
1 heaping T cumin
1 t cayenne pepper
2 T brown sugar
1/3 c chicken broth (water will also do if you don't have broth)
Splash of olive oil
3 green onions, chopped
1/4 c cilantro, chopped

Sprinkle part of the garlic salt & cumin onto both of the chicken thighs while heating a healthy glug of olive oil in a skillet. When oil is hot (not burned), add chicken and reduce heat to low; cover chicken. Cook for about 7 minutes on each side or until chicken is no longer pink when you cut its thickest parts. While chicken is cooking, toss mango in brown sugar and set aside.

In the meantime, lightly drain the beans but reserve at least half of the liquid so that there is enough for the actual stew. In a large pot heat 2 T olive oil and brown the garlic and onion, cumin and cayenne pepper, remaining salts and bell pepper until onion is clear, but not burned. Add beans and reduce heat to medium low to let all flavors incorporate. When chicken is completely cooked, set on a plate and allow to cool at least 5 minutes (or until cool enough to handle) and cut into bite sized pieces (I do this after cooking as opposed to before, to ensure the meat has had the chance to cook w/enough juices; otherwise, it will be too dry). Add mango and chicken to bean & spice mixture and let simmer for at least 10-12 minutes. Add green onions, then toss in cilantro at the very end. Serve over cous cous or brown rice, or in a large mug on its own. Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Recipe: Farro & Red Beans with Caramelized Onions

So I've been a bit MIA from PGEW lately, largely due to the fact that I've been sick as a dog with this raging flu. I was starting to get sick long before the big performance at the Cathedral a couple weekends ago but was fortunate to fight it off until the day after. Poor Girl wasn't eating much of anything until recently, and this being an extremely lean bare bones week, I really had to get creative w/the few things I had left in my cupboard. I'm glad I did though, because I had been meaning to try something like this for awhile and was pretty pleased with the results.

I borrowed the idea from some traditional Italian farro recipes I've been scoping out. Not having a lot of the ingredients called for some of these farro soups, and wanting to add a bit of smokiness to the dish, I veered away from the Italian, tomato-based ideas with success. Cumin and a tiny bit of chili powder added the depth I was looking for and went very well with the nuttiness of the farro and the sweetness of the caramelized onions. Flavors aside, this is also a great protein and fiber-packed dish that makes a hearty one-dish meal.

PS - Please pardon the lack of photo for now. It seems that I've lost the charger for my camera somewhere in Evil Closet, and it's just not coming out right on the old camera phone! I'd rather wait til I can get a decent shot and I will get one, since I will be making this again. :)  Picture is posted!  Still not perfect, but at least now you can see what this looks like... :)

Farro & Red Beans with Caramelized Onions

4 oz. Umbrian farro (or spelt)
1 can of red kidney beans, drained (not rinsed)
1 medium yellow onion, diced
Couple splashes of olive oil
1 t garlic
1 heaping T cumin
1 t chili powder
Salt & pepper to taste
Couple sprigs of cilantro for garnish (optional)

Cook the farro per package instructions; or if you've bought in bulk, simply add the raw farro to a large pot of boiling, salted water for about 15 minutes. Drain the farro and set aside.

In a large skillet or frying pan, heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil over medium high heat. Add the diced onion and a couple of pinches of salt and cook slowly until the onions become translucent and browned (about 15 minutes), making sure to stir frequently so that they don't stick to the pan. Add the garlic, drained kidney beans along with the cumin and chili powder and stir to combine all the flavors. Reduce the heat to medium. At this point your mixture will become a bit soupy or stew-like, which is the goal. Add the cooked farro to the beans & onions and mix together. Heat for about 3 more minutes, or until the farro has absorbed most of the liquid. Serve with a couple sprigs chopped cilantro, and some shredded cheese if desired (I had some pepper jack lying around and it actually went quite well). Enjoy!

Monday, October 27, 2008

The $25 Shopping Cart, Version 1.0

It's scary week this week, and not just because Halloween is on Friday. It's the week before payday, when the money's pretty much run out and one is eagerly awaiting that paycheck, even though it might already be virtually spent because of bills and the theft that is rent. Last Thursday, however, I got a nice little surprise in the mail from my Aunt Matilda in New Mexico: a cute little Halloween card with a goth kitty on it and inside, a $25 gift card to my beloved Trader Joe's! I don't know how she knew it was the perfect gift at the perfect time but I knew it was also the perfect way to introduce The $25 Shopping Cart series. And in my world, there is no better place to get some bang for your buck than at Trader Joe's. Of course, you can do this at any grocery store if you know how to shop wisely. And that's what I'm here to teach you, with the added twist of having something a little "fancier" to eat than standard college dorm room fare (which one should always remember fondly... one gets so resourceful in college). Some may call me cheap but picky, I say I'm just a smart shopper who likes to eat something better than the $0.79 frozen burrito that you can buy in mass quantities.

The key to making your $25 shopping cart a success is to shop for options, not for convenience. There is a higher price to pay for things that are pre-made and pre-packaged, so think of what you can make with several ingredients rather than focusing on a few yummy pre-made meals. Sure, the Bertolli pastas and DiGiorno pizzas of the world can be super tasty and easy to make, but think about it: how long does that really last? One, maybe two scant meals? If you're going to make your tiny budget stretch, you really have to think ahead and think creatively. Try to look for items that you can combine in a variety of ways, stuff from which you can squeeze 2-3 different meals. Since I speak from experience, here's my most recent example of how to do that:

1 bag of baby spinach (which I normally get in a larger size for the same price, but they have been out of that size lately, sadly) - $1.99
1 jar of Traditional Marinara Sauce - $1.99
1 package of potato gnocchi - $1.99
1 0.64 oz block of mild cheddar cheese @ $4.49/lb - $2.87
1 container of Creamy Corn & Roasted Pepper Soup - $1.99
1 bag of large frozen cooked shrimp (~40 per package) - $5.99
1 dozen large eggs - $1.79
1 bottle Charles Shaw Cabernet Sauvignon - $1.99
1 5-pack of roma tomatoes - $1.99
2 cans of Tuna for Cats (for the furry members of my family) - $0.49/each

Grand Total = $25.57
Now, consider your options if you had absolutely nothing else at home to augment your list:

Shrimp & Cheddar omelettes
Cheese-only omelettes
Gnocchi with Marinara sauce & a glass of red wine
Simple salad with spinach, egg, and tomato
Spinach & tomato scramble
Gnocchi with cheddar skillet
Creamy Corn & Roasted Pepper soup with tomato & spices
And so on and so forth......

You can see that the possibilities here are endless, as long as you're creative and open to different food pairings. I could go on but I just wanted to illustrate how shopping for options over convenience can make your life both easier and tastier during Scary Week. You can even have a glass of wine or two to make things a bit more classy every now & then - how many people can say they can do that and have a week's worth of different meals and feed your cats on such a tiny budget?

Granted, you can make your dollar stretch a lot more at a place like Trader Joe's, but don't discount your regular grocery stores! A lot of the major chains have club cards or other types of sales that can make shopping for good stuff a lot more affordable (more on how to get the most of those programs in a future blog). And in a lot of places, major grocery store chains have "outlet" type stores that sell things for a lot less because they're either sold in bulk or because they have you bag your own groceries (eg. Safeway's Pak N Save, Raley's Food Source, etc.). You can stretch your budget really well at these places, though you won't get all the fancy schmancy stuff that a place like Trader Joe's will offer. Still - and I harp on this a LOT - as long as you can break free from the standard mold & get creative, you can make anything fancy schmancy.

Next stop for the $25 Shopping Cart will probably be a major grocery store or its outlet cousin, just to break away from my Trader Joe's obsession and show you that it can be done at other places. Hope you've enjoyed today's lesson! Now for some yummy gnocchi & marinara with a spinach & tomato salad and some vino..... Bon Appetit!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Recipe: The Easiest 3-Bean Chili Ever

This past weekend autumn officially announced its presence with blustery winds and super-cold nights. I had to pull out my heavy comforter and start sleeping in sweatshirts again, and StuKitty took full advantage of the new warm spots on the bed. I figured this was the perfect time for me to make something hearty that would warm me up from the inside, and since this is a bare bones week for me, what could be more convenient to make than a nice hearty chili?

I love making all sorts of chili varieties, experimenting with this & that. Not only can it be extremely tasty, if done right (meaning w/o too much oil or grease), it can also be a very healthy one-dish meal since it’s packed with fiber and protein. And it’s so versatile! You can serve it with yummy cornbread, with a nice salad, and top it with just about anything – or just serve it by itself in a giant bowl or mug. The best part is that you can make a really great chili without breaking the bank – so long as you have some good spices and some patience for letting it simmer long enough before digging in (like I do… once the aromas start filling my kitchen, I just can’t resist!).

I call this particular version “The Easiest” because there’s really not much work involved at all. Even the most inexperienced cook can make this and it would turn out okay. I used black, red kidney, and garbanzo beans primarily because that’s what I had in my cupboard, but also because I’d been meaning to combine these in something other than a salad. I’d never tried garbanzo beans in a chili before either, so I was eager to see how their texture would add to the standard beans usually used in chili. Feel free to mix it up with different beans, and if you want to toss in a 4th or 5th variety, have at it. It can only get better. Lastly, remember spices are key; I tend to make mine explode with flavor because I like that sort of thing, so if it’s a bit much for you, go ahead and tone it down by adding some water or a light broth. You’ll get a soupier chili but it’ll still be good.

The Easiest 3-Bean Chili Ever
1 can of red kidney beans
1 can of black beans
1 can of garbanzo beans
1 can of diced tomatoes (salted or unsalted are fine)
1 medium tomato, chopped
2 T crushed garlic
3 T cooking oil
1 t garlic salt
1 t cumin
2 t chili powder
1 t ground black pepper
1 t crushed red pepper flakes
pinch of oregano
Shredded cheddar cheese, sour cream, chopped green onions, etc. for garnish (if you have it)

Combine garlic salt, sea salt, cumin, chili powder, black pepper, and oregano in a bowl. Mix together and set aside. Drain each can of bean in a colander, but keep the tomatoes in their juice.

In a large pot heat the oil & garlic over medium high heat until garlic starts to brown slightly (don’t burn it!). Add about half of your spice mixture and stir together so that the garlic starts picking up some of the flavors. Add the beans, then the tomatoes in their juice and the rest of the seasonings; stir well. Let simmer for about 3-5 minutes then reduce to medium low heat. Cover and let simmer slowly for about 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Test for flavor and consistency; if it’s too thick and spicy, add ¼ cup of water and stir. Add the chopped fresh tomato at the very end (gives it a little zip and extra texture) and remove from heat.

Ladle into bowls or big soup mugs. Garnish with shredded cheese, chopped green onions or scallions, sour cream, etc. Serve with breadsticks or cornbread, or on its own. Enjoy!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Tip #3: Find your "Bare Bones" staples

I’m not going to mince words here: when you’re struggling financially, sometimes there isn’t much left to eat but rice, pasta, or beans. Not even some salad greens and a tomato to liven things up with some color are possible when things are super tight. Some of you may not be familiar with this concept just yet; others are probably nodding your heads in agreement as you read this. I’m at the grains & beans only point this week (though I might have enough eggs to treat myself to at least one more omelette over the weekend, woo hoo). I have a couple “bare bones cupboard” recipes in mind to share with you, but before I do that I want to give you an idea of what I try to have on hand for those scary few days (or weeks) before the “good” payday – you know, the payday that doesn’t have to completely go towards rent & utilities.

The key here is variety. I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that my palette is a little ADD and I like to mix things up. This still applies even when I have nothing much left in my cupboards other than cat food for Hana & Stu. Fortunately, I’ve become a sort of grain connoisseur over the past few months, incorporating whole grains like farro, kamut berries, and quinoa into my grain repertoire of brown rice & couscous. I try to keep about ½ pound each of the following on hand for the “scary” days that inevitably happen: long grain brown rice, whole wheat couscous, quinoa, brown rice pastas, and farro. I like these because of their flavor and versatility. You can make soups, salads, sides – you name it! The possibilities really are endless. I store them in airtight containers so they don’t go stale & random grain-loving creatures get to it before I do. Because all of these require different water measurements & cooking times, and because a lot of recipes call for the already cooked version of these, I make sure to clip the cooking directions for each and keep them in the containers with their respective grains. This way I don’t mess up and waste anything.

On the nutrition point, I try to leave as many refined flour products out of my diet in general. Whole grains have a lot more flavor and have more nutrients than the refined stuff. Even standards like fettucine, penne, and spaghetti are now being made out of such healthy things as brown rice & flax. Now, I’m not trying to make everyone a health nut here (yes, I am); what I’m trying to show you is that there’s a lot more out there than just white noodles and rice, which means you can do more with the simple stuff. And whole grains are nutritional multi-taskers: you’ve gotta love something like quinoa which packs about 10g of fiber and 22g of protein per cup! Sure, it’s calorie rich but when there’s not much left to eat, calories can be your friend. The last thing I want people in perpetual financial hell like me to deal with is declining health due to poor nutrition!

So how do you buy good-for-you-grains so that you don’t go broke? Buy in bulk. Most things like couscous, quinoa, kamut berries, spelt berries, brown rice, wild rice, etc., can be found in the bulk section at most food co-ops or good grocery stores. The beauty of bulk buying is that you choose what you want, how much of it you want, and you’re paying for the food, not the packaging. About the only thing I haven’t been able to find sold in bulk in the Sacramento is farro. However, I have been able to find it in an 8oz. bag for about $4.95 at the Co-op, and considering you can make several 1 dish meals or a couple of big ones out of a single bag, that is a very small price to pay for such a tasty, nutty, grain (more on the joys of farro in another blog).

Legumes make up the other half of my bare bones supplies, and I don’t know of anyone that doesn’t like at least one type of bean. They’re extremely versatile and very healthy, depending on how you prepare them. Some of my favorites include: black beans, red & white kidney beans, garbanzo beans, navy beans, lentils…. okay, I pretty much like them all. I try to keep at least a can of each of the aforementioned on hand at all times. I’m trying to look into dried beans and experiment with those, as the flavor of those really can be much better than what you get in a can (and I figure if I buy them I can con my mom into making me some of her famous lentil soup next time she visits), but let’s face it: canned can be very convenient, not to mention, less expensive. As you’ll see in my next blog, sometimes a few cans of this & that can turn into an amazing meal.

With these essentials in your cupboard and some creativity – and a little help from yours truly – you’ll be able to weather even the stormiest of times. Not that you should only eat quinoa and black beans when you’re having a rough time; trust me, some of my favorite everyday meals include these healthy basics. However, having a little bit extra on hand “just in case” is always helpful. I know, I know, I’m starting to sound like I grew up in the Great Depression, but we paycheck-to-paycheck folks could use a lot of their tips. Just don’t buy 32 tomato plants right before winter just because it was a “good deal”. ;)

(NOTE: Many of the things I mentioned are wheat derivatives and I’m lucky enough to be able to eat them without any problems. I understand that there are many people out there with food allergies, so please use caution when choosing your grain products. Just because it’s listed here as a good ingredient to keep on hand doesn’t mean that you must have it. There are plenty of alternatives that we can explore later!)

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Recipe: Brown Rice, Lentil, and Feta Salad

It’s not that I don’t adore my hummus & tomato sandwiches for lunch. But after having them for two weeks straight, I was starting to get a bit bored. I had just scored some Black Beluga Lentils at Trader Joe’s, and I figured they’d go nicely with a few other ingredients that I had at work for random lunches.

Besides being a ridiculously healthy and tasty lunch, this is totally dirt cheap to eat. A Trader Joe’s meal from beginning to end, here’s the breakdown on the ingredients: the lentils cost $1.99; the pre-cooked brown rice, also $1.99; low-fat feta cost about $2.29; the 6-pack of tomatoes & bunch of green onions, $1.99 and $1.19, respectively. Even if I’d used all these ingredients in their entirety, this is still a great deal for a healthy meal. However, when you’re trying to make lunch for one, you don’t need all that food – it’s just too much! Instead, I split the packages of rice & lentils and had plenty for three days worth of lunch. Of course, this probably means I’m going back to hummus & tomato sandwiches by Thursday, since my palate does get bored w/the same thing very easily, but I’m still loving the simple guilt-free flavors of this dish. You could probably jazz it up a bit by making an actual dressing for this, but I found that the fresh tomato, green onions, and lemon juice blended together nicely with the rice & lentils. The feta just adds that extra zip to the dish, and of course, you can’t go wrong with plenty of fresh ground pepper.

I’ll stop babbling now and give you the easiest recipe ever. :)

Brown Rice, Lentil, and Feta Salad (serves 3-4)
1 bowl Trader Joe’s pre-cooked brown jasmine rice
1 package Trader Joe’s black beluga lentils (any black lentil will do)
2 small Roma tomatoes, chopped
4 green onions, chopped
2 oz low fat feta cheese
Juice of one lemon
Pinch of salt
Lots of fresh ground pepper

Cook the rice & lentils in the microwave per package instructions. Add the rice, lentils, onions and tomatoes in a bowl and toss together. Add the lemon juice and stir until well coated. Crumble the feta cheese on top (you can either toss it into your salad or leave it on top for garnish). Finish with plenty of fresh ground pepper. Enjoy!

(PS – You don’t have to use Trader Joe’s rice & lentils, it just makes it that much easier to make a quick lunch at work.)

Friday, October 3, 2008

Trader Joe's 101

(NOTE: I do not work at Trader Joe’s, nor do I hold any stock in their company because they don’t sell it. I’m just a really big fan. Please do not take this as an advertisement for their store, but as a lesson in how to shop well for less. – K. A. M.)

Few places in this world make me as happy as Trader Joe’s. For those of you who don’t know about this fabulous place, it’s technically a grocery store but not the type you’re used to. Rather than being a huge supermarket that becomes almost overwhelming in choices and brands, Trader Joe’s is a nice user-friendly, foodie-friendly store that no proper cook should ignore. For me it’s my little food mecca: affordable, beautiful, chock full of all sorts of things you can’t find at the big food giants, most of it geared towards health conscious folks. Sure, you’ll find things like ice cream and potato chips, but you’ll find that their “junk food” is surprisingly not that awful for you. About the only thing I find lacking at Trader Joe’s would be their produce department: there is not a very large selection and most of their produce is already pre-packaged – great for things like baby spinach and other salad mixes, but not so much for other vegetables and fruits that you might like to choose yourself. I’ll admit I’m a bit of a produce snob, so I do prefer to pick it myself. If you don’t care as much and like to save time, then TJ’s produce would work well for you.

I could probably write an entire book about this place. But this is a blog, so what I’ll do instead is post different blogs on each department’s best features in the coming months. Trader Joe’s carries some fine wines & cheeses; a wonderful array of nuts, dried fruits, and other natural snacks; great deals on fresh, organic cruelty-free meats, fish, and poultry; quite a variety of pasta and other cooking and dipping sauces (stuff that makes even the most cooking-challenged person appear like a gourmet chef); a variety of vitamins and other health & beauty aids; and a rather nice selection of conventional and unconventional breads and grain products. They also cater to the typical American who is rushed for time, by offering excellent pre-made salads (the Fiesta Chicken & Vegetable or the Roasted Beet & Gorgonzola are always winners) and other pre-packaged lunches & meals in their refrigerated section. And Trader Joe’s frozen food section alone is worth a trip and the eternal fight for a parking space.

Now, there is a common misconception that Trader Joe’s is a very expensive place to shop. I’m afraid folks that think this might be confusing it with Whole Foods and other natural grocers whose prices are quite a bit higher (no offense to these establishments at all; I adore Whole Foods, it just takes up my whole paycheck to shop there). It’s true that one does pay a price for wanting to eat well, but as a very poor girl who does do so, I can guarantee you that you will save quite a bit of money if you are able to do most of your shopping at TJ’s. In the next few weeks I will do some comparison shopping at both Trader Joe’s and Safeway so that you can see the difference in prices. I would be willing to bet that you can save about 40% on the exact same shopping list, so stay tuned for that. For now, here’s an example of one of my recent jaunts to Trader Joe’s, with a bunch of “splurge” items that I probably didn’t need. It’ll give you an idea of what I mean about this place:

2 bags of baby spinach salad (18 oz., not 8 oz like you get at regular stores) - $1.99/ea
2 bottles of “2 Buck Chuck” (Charles Shaw wine, great for wine drinkers on a budget): $1.99/ea
Box of Roasted Gorgonzola Crackers - $1.99
1 bag frozen Marinated Teriyaki Chicken Breast - $5.09
Box of Vegetable Samosas - $3.49
TJ’s Extra Virgin Olive Oil Spray - $2.99
Alfredo Pasta Sauce - $2.99
“Mangolicious” frozen fruit blend (mango, blueberries, raspberries – SO good in a smoothie!) - $2.69
Sweet Chili cooking/dipping sauce - $1.29
TJ’s Lobster Ravioli - $2.99
Roma tomatoes - $1.99 for 5
Loaf of Complete Protein Sprouted Bread - $2.99
Block of mild California Cheddar - $3.09
Organic Vegetable Foursome (frozen) - $1.69
Dozen large eggs - $1.79
4 assorted cups of nonfat yogurt - $0.79/ea
Hummus - $2.19
5 Bananas (which they sell individually at only $0.19/ea, not by the pound – genius) - $0.95

Very yummy stuff and I spent around $45 after tax. Not bad, eh? I don’t even want to know how much this list would have cost me at a regular grocery store, not to mention the fact that they wouldn’t sell a lot of this stuff anyway.

Stay tuned for the next Trader Joe’s 101!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Recipe: Roasted Potato and Seared Steak Salad

I’m fairly certain there’s not an omnivore out there who doesn’t enjoy a nice meal of meat & potatoes. An American staple, it’s the type of meal that satisfies the even the pickiest of eaters. I’m definitely a fan, but a lot of times I don’t have the standard steak & starch for dinner because it bores me a little, both visually and taste-wise. I’d scored a great deal on a thick, lean steak and had half of it marinating in the fridge, intending to use it as easy protein to take to work and add to some greens for lunch. But with some beautiful new potatoes I picked up at last week’s farmers market eyeing me the past few days, I was tempted to have the great American meal. But I felt like having it all tossed together like a salad, with a light but flavorful dressing… perhaps wine based…… and veggies…… a summer version of an old stand-by, if you will. The idea forming in my head seemed like a good one, so I got to work.

There are a couple of keys to making this dish work well, the first being tender, well-marinated steak. My thick slab of London Broil had been marinating overnight, so I knew it would be extra-tender and tasty. The second key to making this right is to have lightly roasted potatoes, seasoned with just the smallest pinch of salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper. Roasting the potatoes helped them maintain their structure during the final tossing with the steak and dressing, rather than have them turn to mush. Since my gas oven heats up my place very quickly I wanted to cook these nice & fast, so I decided to use a higher heat than is normally use for roasting, cranking up the heat to about 450. The end result was perfect: they were golden & crispy on the outside, tender on the inside.

The veggies are totally up to you. I had originally hoped to toss in some fresh baby spinach into the dish so the warmth of the meat & potatoes would just barely wilt them. Unfortunately, I realized I had already used it all in some past salads so I decided to lightly sauté some fresh vegetables and use those as a side (I just can’t do meat & starch only… my meals feel naked without vegetables!). Next time I fully plan on trying it with the baby spinach with a side of sliced beefsteak tomatoes. If you try it that way, let me know how it works out.

A final note: I was using an old standby marinade for the steak. However, the end result of the dressing turned out very nicely, and it can definitely be used to marinate the steak by doubling the dressing recipe if you prefer to do that.

Warm Roasted Potato and Seared Steak Salad (Serves 2)

Steak Marinade:
½ c bottled Italian salad dressing (I like to use Wish Bone’s classic, but I guess Kraft will do in a pinch. Don’t use Best Foods or any kind that has cheese in it; ruins the flavor)
¼ c soy sauce
2 T Worcestershire sauce
1 ½ T garlic salt

½ c olive oil
¼ c red table wine
¼ c red wine vinegar
2 T finely chopped fresh garlic
½ shallot, minced
½ T sea salt
1 t freshly ground pepper
1 t Herbes de Provence

6 oz. London Broil (or other thick cut steak)
4 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, quartered
3 T olive oil
1T butter
Pinch of salt
Freshly ground pepper
Your choice of salad greens or sautéed vegetables

Whisk together all marinade ingredients in a large bowl. Add steak, cover and refrigerate overnight (or 2-3 hours, if you can’t wait a day), turning the steak once to ensure the whole thing gets marinated.

Preheat oven to 450. Line a broiling tray or cookie sheet with foil paper (easy clean up!) and set aside.

In a small bowl, whisk together all dressing ingredients. Cover and set aside. Wash and quarter the potatoes (cut quarters in half if the pieces are too big). Toss the potatoes with the olive oil, a pinch of salt, and lots of freshly ground black pepper, making sure they are completely covered on all sides. Arrange the potatoes on your foil-lined tray in a single layer and roast in the oven for 10-15 minutes, or until golden & crispy on the outside, tender on the inside (test w/a toothpick or fork).

While potatoes are roasting, melt the butter in a skillet or fry pan over high heat. Since this is a thicker steak, sear for 3 – 3 ½ minutes on each side (you’re looking for rare meat, not steak tartare. NOTE: For those who are squeamish about meat that isn’t well-done, don’t worry: steak will usually continue cooking for a bit on its own after it’s removed from the heat). Remove from heat and set aside on a plate to cool for just a couple of minutes. Cut the steak into bite sized chunks, about the same size or smaller than your potatoes.

Combine the steak and potatoes in a large bowl. Drizzle the dressing and toss everything together lightly until the dressing has coated both the meat and taters. If you’re using fresh baby spinach, throw this in with everything else; if using sautéed veggies, serve on the side. Serve with a nice glass of red wine (I had a random Carinena sitting around and it worked out nicely). Enjoy!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Tip #2 - Find your spice staples

Part of what allows me to have tasty food no matter what is that I have found what works for me spice-wise. Granted, I am always looking to add to my collection because you can never have enough herbs & spices. However, I've found a way to make sure I have the bare essentials while I work with my limited means. Combining these few things adds pizzazz to your meals no matter how simple they may be, and you'll learn to find what works for you. Here are just a few of my absolute must-haves:
  • Sea salt
  • Garlic salt (I prefer Lawry's over Schilling or Morton’s or McCormick because it has far more garlic, while the others use more salt)
  • Cumin
  • A good curry powder
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Black peppercorns & a grinder (ground pepper is fine but you'll get a lot more flavor from freshly ground peppercorns)
  • Lemon pepper (I get the one from Trader Joe’s because it’s made with real lemon rind, sea salt, and black peppercorns. WAY better than the synthetic powdered stuff. And it comes in a handy li'l grinder!)
  • Oregano (when I'm really rollin' in it, I make sure I have both Mediterranean and Mexican, as their flavors do vary)
  • Thyme
  • Rosemary
  • Red chili pepper flakes
  • Cinnamon (both ground and whole sticks)
  • Chinese Five Spice powder
Again, this is just the absolute bare-bones minimum that I ever have on hand. On a good day, I'll also have:

  • Herbes de Provence (if you’re lucky, you can find some good blends at your local farmer's market.  Or you can just make your own.)
  • Saffron (both ground and in threads)
  • Nutmeg
  • Allspice
  • Paprika (regular & smoked)
  • Coriander
  • Tarragon
  • Mustard seed
  • Dill
  • Fennel seed
  • Vanilla extract (and when I'm really lucky, whole vanilla beans)
  • Etc, etc, etc.
I also make sure to keep plenty of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and either white or red wine vinegar on hand. I am a big dressing maker and prefer to make it from scratch (though my dressing weakness, I will admit, is Wish Bone Italian), so it’s important to have these on hand. Good olive oil should always be in one’s pantry anyway because it’s used in many ways, from actually cooking to making dressings, aiolis, etc. Unfortunately, good olive oil is also worth a pretty penny, so I recommend heading to Trader Joe’s and getting one of their bottles of oil. A small bottle of their extra virgin olive oil will run about $5.99, an absolute steal compared to the $9-15 most grocery stores will charge. Trader Joe’s also carries other for cooking and for health, such as grape seed and flaxseed oils.

Herbs and spices can be expensive if you go the prettily packaged, name-brand route. There are a couple ways to get around this. When it comes to herbs, I prefer buying them fresh at the farmer’s market then drying them on my own.

Spice-wise, instead of buying bottles and jars that can run from $4-7 each, head to the “Hispanic foods” aisle of your grocery store. There, you will find a ton of the same spices in little plastic packets for about $1-2 tops. They’re the same spices you’d find in a jar, sometimes fresher and of a better quality and larger quantity.

You’ll also find random stuff you might not usually find in a regular spice aisle, and for such tiny prices, you can afford to experiment with stuff you’ve never tried before. Don’t worry, most of these packages have the names of the spices in English as well, so you will know what you’re buying. Taking a trip to your local Latin American/Mexican food market will also uncover a whole new world of very inexpensive spices. Don’t have a place to store ‘em? If you’re really in a pinch, keep each opened package in it’s own little Ziploc bag. Otherwise, head to a thrift store and invest in some cute jars & bottles. You might even score a nice spice rack in the process!

Anyway, the whole point is: build your spice pantry. Salt and pepper are great, and ketchup is too; but if you want to eat more “gourmet” or “grown up meals”, start experimenting with herbs & spices. You’ll be pleasantly surprised at the new flavor combinations and will also be eating a wee bit healthier if you start substituting them for the standard salt or fatty/sugary condiments that line the store shelves. Simplicity can sometimes be your best friend when it comes to cooking.

What are some of your go-to herbs & spices?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Review: My Birthday Dinner: Iberia Restaurant, Menlo Park, CA

Yesterday was my birthday, so my mom & I decided to celebrate it over this past weekend, as Monday is a pretty awful day for a birthday. She absolutely outdid herself spoiling me this year, getting me a total of 32 gifts, one for every year I’ve been around. Aside from a gorgeous Swarovski crystal watch (I cried when I opened it), some other beautiful jewelry, girly stuff like lotions & make up, and a great new purse, she gave me a very cute new digital camera/video recorder which I hope to make great use of for PGEW once I figure out how to use all its features (we’re still getting to know each other). It was wonderfully overwhelming to see everything she’d gotten me, as I thought we were just doing dinner! We usually like to treat each other to dinner at a nice restaurant for special occasions, and she asked me to choose what I wanted to have. I really felt like having Spanish food, the idea of a good paella and some sangria making my mouth water for the past 2 months, and we both toyed with the idea of trying some of the newer tapas bars in Downtown San Jose. Instead, we decided to stick with going to Iberia, a Spanish restaurant in Menlo Park, as it had been years since either of us had been there and we knew we liked the food and ambience.

We were running a little late, but with an amazing display of Mario Andretti-like driving skills from my mom, we arrived on time for our reservation. We were seated in the front room, as it was getting a little nippy outside and we both wanted to enjoy our meal, not shiver. They started us off with some warm bread and these amazing little cheese biscuits that were flaky and rich at the same time. I kept looking for the assorted olive and almond platter that they used to serve at the very beginning but it never came. We figured they might have moved the serving time to something later and went ahead and ordered their sangria. I am a huge fan of sangria, having tasted some excellent (virgin) versions in Colombia as a child, as well as some spiked ones here in Sac. But I can honestly say I’ve never tasted a sangria this amazing! It had a lot of different liquors in addition to the standard red wine (vodka, triple sec, some other stuff I can’t remember), giving it a lovely reddish-pink hue that is different from the standard deep red of a typical sangria. I didn’t even miss the fact that there wasn’t much fruit in it (I think I only had one slice of peach in mine), it was that tasty. We also ordered a couple of glasses of Jerez, a sweet port wine that goes well before or after a meal.

Mom and I were looking forward to trying the escabeche de mariscos for our appetizer; unfortunately, they were all out. The gazpacho, though it appeared appetizing (garlic and almond, mmmmm), was not what my mom was looking for, so we settled on the ensalada tibia con tomates, pan y queso. What an amazing dish! It was a rich and cheesy bread pudding baked to a perfectly crispy golden brown, topped with warm cherry tomatoes and fresh basil, drizzled with olive oil & garlic. I probably gained about 40lbs just looking at it, but will gladly do some extra workouts just to experience those flavors again. At this point I was really jonesin’ for my olives & almonds, so we asked our waiter if they had discontinued serving them. He said they had, but would serve them upon the customer’s request. I am not sure if we needed to put that in writing or something because we never did get them, so that was a disappointment.

Finally, after being served two excellent glasses of wine (a Chenin Blanc for Mom, a gorgeous Malbec for me), they brought out our incredible paella tipica served in the traditional cazuela. The aroma was almost as intoxicating as our drinks, saffron and spices tickling out noses. It was beautifully presented and I just had to use the new camera to take a shot of it. The paella was cooked to perfection, the rice moist in the middle, yummy crispy edges. This particular kind came with chicken, shrimp, scallops, pork, clams, mussels, and prawns, along with the traditional peas that Spaniards so adore in their food. We thoroughly enjoyed the dish but needed room for dessert, so we ended up asking for a box for leftovers.

Dessert was very difficult to choose as almost everything sounded incredible. We eventually settled on the higos rellenos, dried figs soaked in port wine and stuffed with chocolate, walnuts, and pistachios, drizzled with a port wine reduction and topped with an amazing pistachio whipped cream. It paired very nicely with the Malbec and was just light enough to avoid feeling replete & uncomfortable. I would have taken a picture of it because it looked beautiful, but by that time they had dimmed the lights too much and I had not yet figured out how to use the flash on my new camera. You can just take my word for it that dessert was scrumptious! The only downside of the evening other than the olive issue was the bill: the menu is very misleading when it came to the price of the paella, and we ended up having to pay twice the price we were expecting. If the waiter had at least pretended to be sorry, we probably wouldn’t have felt so misled and downright cheated, but he ended up acting very snobby about it, after being the perfect server the rest of the evening. Nevertheless, my mom and I didn’t let it ruin our fun girls day & night, and we decided that next time we would try one of those new tapas bars in San Jose instead.

Iberia on Urbanspoon

Monday, August 25, 2008

Recipe: Sick Person Soup

So I’ve been dealing with these horrible ear,nose, and throat issues for the past month & a half. Nothing has really helped me much in terms of getting rid of these awful clogged ears (apparently I will need to have tubes in them, oh joy) or the chronic congestion. Normally, I try to deal with these systems by getting a huge bowl of Tom Kha Gai, my very favorite Thai soup. It’s a spicy, sour, salty soup with either shrimp, chicken, or tofu (sometimes all 3, sometimes) and the version I love the most is made with coconut milk. Lacking the funds or energy to head out to the nearest Thai restaurant, or at the very least to get the coconut milk and other key ingredients to make this taste authentically Thai, such as lemongrass and fish sauce, I figured I could just make my own soup inspired by this delicious dish. I was looking for the basics to help unclog my sinuses, and with my new batch of fresh Thai chilies and some juicy key limes still hanging out in the fridge, I knew I could make this happen.

Now, I should probably be posting this after my post regarding the importance of spices and other staples (coming in the next couple of blogs), but I’m just ready to share a recipe. However, I want to reiterate that creativity is essential in cooking – not just in general, but for those of us who can’t always afford to get the good stuff. There is no reason why you can’t use some of your favorite restaurant dishes as inspiration to make a dish of your very own, and absolutely no reason to stick to a recipe word for word. I am the type that uses recipes as a guideline for most dishes, adding my own spin on things by taking out ingredients here, tossing in new ones there. The only time I don’t do that is for baking, as that is definitely all about precision. Hopefully I can get to the point where I can share some baked goods recipes with you in the future. For now, remember it’s okay to let your imagination lead you down different paths.

With this in mind, I also want to note here that my “using recipes as a guideline” method will probably show up in the recipes I create. I will do my very best to be as precise as possible and not use “pinches”, “handfuls”, and “smidgens” of things, but I am warning you now that it’ll probably happen! I managed to do okay this time around though, so without further ado, here’s my recipe for Sick Person Soup.

Sick Person Soup (serves 4)

3 T canola oil
1 small yellow onion, diced
1 heaping teaspoon crushed garlic (or 2 cloves)
1 small handful fresh basil (Thai basil, preferrably)
3 Thai chiles, chopped
6 cups water or vegetable stock
2 medium carrots
1 large red bell pepper
6 white button mushrooms
Juice of 6 key limes (or regular limes)
1 oz. extra firm tofu, cubed
A handful of grape or cherry tomatoes
Salt & pepper to taste
Other fresh veggies (optional)
Cayenne pepper (optional)
Couple sprigs of cilantro for garnish

In a large pot saute the oil, garlic, and onion over medium high heat until the onion is clear. (I like to combine these two at the very beginning to make the most of their flavors and sometimes add salt & pepper here at the beginning to further enhance the flavor). Next, throw in two of the 3 chiles, sauteeing for a minute or so. Add the basil and saute for another minute, following with the carrots. Pour in the water or vegetable stock with the key lime juice and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and let simmer for approximately 3 minutes, giving the carrots a chance to cook a bit before adding the rest of the vegetables. You'll also want to check your seasoning at this time, making sure there's a good balance between salty, sour, and spicy. Add the bell pepper, mushrooms, pea pods, and any other veggie you feel like throwing in there and let simmer for another 5-7 minutes. Check the flavors again, adding more lime juice if needed (I like my soup nice & sour), or cayenne for added spiciness without it being overwhelming. Throw in the tofu and the remaining chile pepper and simmer for about 2 more minutes. Finally, add the cherry tomatoes (no need to keep simmering, the broth will heat them up nicely). Ladle into a big mug or bowl, garnish with cilantro and & serve w/a wedge of lime. Prepare to have your sinuses unclogged! :)
PS - If you're not a tofu eater or happen to have chicken or shrimp on hand you can either substitute that for the tofu. Or put them together if you like them both. I just happened to have some extra firm tofu on hand, so I used that this time around. I'm sure I'll be making this with some chicken very soon.
PPS - pardon the crappy picture. I have been without my digital camera for awhile, so I had to use my phone. Fortunately, my mom has gotten me an amazing new camera, which means much better photography! More on THAT later...

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Tip #1: For the best produce, head to your local Farmer's Market

It's a lazy Sunday and I had made some stuff yesterday, so I'm not recipe-ready right now. But I wanted to, at the very least, start off with some good tips for eating healthy & well without spending too much money. This is, after all, a site devoted to eating well for less.

Tip #1: The Farmers Market.

I know, I know, those of you who know me well are wondering why Trader Joe's wasn't the very first place I posted about. That's only because I intend to feature a series of Trader Joe's lessons in the future; and I just didn't feel like heading back out today, after a fun stay at the farmers market under the freeway and some quality time at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op for some bulk grain-buying. I recently moved to this apartment and still haven't figured out all the decorating & window treatment schemes for it, so it takes up some time to do all that. Time that you can't spend frolicking amongst fresh produce.

If you have access to a farmers market in your area, GO. No ifs, ands, or buts about it, you simply must GO. You are all probably aware of the increasing cost of food these days, so it should be no surprise to you that places like Safeway and Raley's are marking up their food by more than the parts counter at work does. I know good, fresh produce doesn't come free, but it is simply ridiculous to be paying $1.99 per avocado, or $.99 for an anemic bunch of cilantro, let alone $3.99/lb for heirloom tomatoes. What you are paying for here, folks, is good ol' business & capitalism. The stores have to make a profit somehow, and marking up the prices is how they do it. Not to mention the fact that you have to pay for all the fluoridated water that is sprayed on said produce about 5X per hour, guaranteeing initially aesthetically pleasing produce, but notsomuch once you've brought the soggy mess home.

At a farmers market or a flea market where fresh produce is featured, you have a much better chance of getting fresher produce than you would at your favorite grocery store for a whole lot less. Sure, the stuff at the store looks prettier, but again..... what is it you're really paying for? Your tomato or the wax on it so it looks all shiny & new? Is the tomato even worth it anyway, considering it was picked the instant it turned pink, just so it would still "look good" in the store? Don't get me wrong, large chain grocery stores really do make a strong case for their veggies & fruits, polishing & moistening them so that they look enticing and new. The fact of the matter is, you're just not getting the quality you deserve for the price you're paying. I can't think of anything short of cereal that has gone up so much in price without getting anything extra. When you're at the farmers market, not only are you supporting locally grown foods that are, 9 times out of 10, organic (something everyone knows you're charged a LOT more for at a regular store), but you're getting food as it was meant to taste. Vegetables & fruits that were allowed to grow & ripen on their respective plants until they were ready to eat, not ready to go to the treatment plant for processing. Tomatoes ripened on the vine, root veggies allowed to reach their full potential, herbs that haven't been bred out of their scents & flavors. In short, you're getting REAL FOOD, and for a fraction of what you would pay at the grocery store.

Case in point: Today. In my 2nd weekly trek to the Farmers Market under the freeway on 8th & W Streets here in Downtown Sac, I was working on a much smaller budget than I had the previous week. I did a great job last week, spending around $35 for a ton of food that I am still working through. Today I only took with me $20, and I knew I would have no problem buying a great deal more than I could at my local Safeway. For $19.40 I was able to get:
  • 3/4 lb button mushrooms
  • 5 Freestone peaches (2 white, 3 yellow)
  • 3 lbs HUGE tomatoes
  • 3/4 lb cherry tomatoes
  • 1/4 assorted fresh Thai chiles
  • 5 ripe Haas avocados
  • 10 squash blossoms
  • 3 oz. fresh goat cheese w/Herbes de Provence (my one "splurge" at $5 b/c it was ohsotasty)
  • 1 evil apple & cream cheese pastry (I really need to stop buying these but they're so good they're impossible to resist!)

I'm positive that the same shopping list at a regular grocery store would have cost me about 1.5 to 2x more than I paid. There is no way in hell I'd even be able to get the tomatoes for less than $7-8 these days, not to mention the avocados!

My point, dear people, is that you get better food for what it's SUPPOSED to cost you, not for what big business says it should. Your veggies will taste delicious without any seasoning (which most grocery store produce begs for...... ever have a real heirloom tomato straight off the vine? Not even salt is needed!), your fruit will be ripe right now, not 5 days later because you put it in a paper bag. AND you're supporting the local farmers that work so hard to bring this food to your table. No matter how you look at it, you win. For those of us on a strict budget who just can't afford what a regular grocery bill would be, you will go absolutely nuts at not just the savings, but the quality of what you will buy from your local farmers.

Now, I know there are many places that do not have farmers markets available to them, nor the variety of produce that is always so plentiful here in California (I have to admit that living here spoils you, foodwise). If you're unable to find such a gem, or even a flea market that features fresh produce, your next best bet will be a natural foods co-operative (Co-op). Yes, they will mark up the food a bit more than you would pay for at a farmers market, but you have the advantage of getting less commercial produce, and the added advantage of an organization owned by regular people (you), NOT big business. For a list of natural foods co-ops nationwide, visit

Lastly, let's not forget the fun you can have at one of these markets! People from all over flock to these and you'll find some sort of local performer or political activists nearby, so if anything, you'll be entertained AND well-fed. :)

Well, hello there....

Welcome to the very first edition of Poor Girl Eats Well, not the first of many food blogs out there, but hopefully one that will help out those who are on a tight budget but still like good food. I probably won't do much in the way of recipe-posting this first time around; instead, I'd like to introduce myself and why I want to add my voice to the rest of the foodie blogs out there.

My name is Kimberly, I'm just 2 weeks shy of turning 32, and live in Sacramento, California, the capital of the greatest state in the country (some may argue with me on this, but if you're a California native or have spent enough time here to savor the flavors, sights, and sounds of this incredible state, you will SO agree with me). I'm originally from the Bay Area, San Jose to be exact, and hope to return to the Bay someday, preferrably to San Francisco (if I can manage to live there without selling my spleen). However, Sacramento is not without its many high points food & entertainment-wise, which I hope to highlight often in the future. I work a day job that I can't say is my dream job but is definitely a learning experience, and the economy being what it is now, will probably be getting a second job very soon. With this in mind, I hope to be able to update PGEW as often as I can..... call it an exercise in follow-through, but it's really more the joy of seeing my work online.

I grew up surrounded by food and everything that comes with it. Both my parents were in the restaurant business for as long as I can remember, my mother primarily in catering & management, my father in hotel & restaurant management. I'm a little biased, of course, but they are both two of the best cooks I will ever have the pleasure of knowing, and I look forward to incorporating some of their recipes & techniques here from time to time. Our favorite family pastime (besides irreverent people watching) was definitely restaurant-hopping, trying new & different places for the simple enjoyment of the food, company, and experience. Coming from a Latin American background - my mom is from Cali, Colombia, my dad from San Salvador, El Salvador - food is definitely an important part of our culture & daily life, and some of my fondest memories are of me with my mom in the kitchen, or watching my dad as he would concoct one of his many inspired creations (only he wouldn't let me help.... he was always in charge if he cooked).

So it's with great pleasure, love, and a little experience that I bring my versions of delicious food to everyone. But what makes this site different? Why should you stop by & visit when there are so many incredible food blogs out there?

Money, honey.

I'm the first to admit that I'm not the best financial manager. I'm getting better and really have improved certain bad habits, but because of a job that doesn't pay as much as I wished it would and the uncanny ability to have Murphy's Law apply to me ALWAYS, I don't always live my life the way I feel I deserve to. Aside from living on my own w/o human roommates (there are always the cats), I live very humbly, wishing I could do more but always enjoying the little I have. I truly believe that my philosophy of always eating well no matter how tight things get money-wise helps me do that. Food is at the root of many cultures' social & economic structures, bringing together family & friends, making new friends out of strangers, creating work & industry where there was once none. I figure something this fundamentally important might as well be enjoyed to its fullest potential, and that is what I do everyday.

It's not just about eating for less, it's about eating well for less. I don't care if I'm working with a pack of ramen noodle soup, if I have something else to add to it and can get a little creative, I'm going to do it. Mind you, this results in some rather unorthodox food combinations, but that's how things like pesto and guacamole came about anyway. On this site I hope to feature tasty, relatively easy to prepare meals that will make you seem like a pro without having to take out a 3rd or 4th mortgage. I literally live paycheck-to-paycheck and sometimes even not that well, so there are times that I don't get the chance to eat what I might be craving at the time; but with a little inspiration & creativity, great food can happen. Everything I feature will be made from regular, everyday things that you should be able to find just about anywhere, with a few fun, exotic additions for variety. You don't have to be the most gourmet chef out there to learn how to combine ingredients in a way that makes you happy, and that's a key thing to remember. I happen to be rather good at cooking, thankfully, but what I post should be something anyone can make. I also plan to feature tips on how to shop on a ridiculously small budget ($25 or under!!!) and still have something better than just mac & cheese (which I adore and will probably feature here as well).

I look forward to sharing some of my own creations as well as those tried & true recipes from other books, sites, and people, that I could never live without. It's time to get back to my Parmesan cheese grating which will probably be used in something later today. Stay tuned for my first recipe posts, and once again, WELCOME!!! I look forward to getting to know you all. And remember, just because you don't make much doesn't mean you have to be stuck with the 99-cent value menu at your local fast food restuarant. You, too, can eat real, GOOD food!

Friday, July 11, 2008

Poor Girl Eats Well FAQs

People are always curious about certain elements of PGEW and yours truly. You can quench that thirst for knowledge right here. :)

So are you really "poor"?
Yes. Though I am extremely lucky to still live above the poverty level and have basic shelter and a relatively steady job, I do struggle. I am single, live paycheck to paycheck (or on borrowed time), and don't have any real financial cushions to fall back on.

Are you ever going to fix that?
Slowly but surely, I'm trying to repair my financial life. These things take time and I have to do what I can when I can, but I know it won't last forever.

If you're so poor, why do you have cats?
I have cats because they're my kids and I love them. They keep me centered and offer me unconditional love I couldn't get anywhere else. Some people have human children and are not questioned constantly because they do. I have feline children and they should be treated with as much love and responsibility as the human kind.

If you're so poor, how can you afford a laptop and cool little camera?
Because I wasn't always this poor.

Are you a chef?
Nope! I'm just really creative in the kitchen because I grew up with parents who were both in the restaurant business. But ever since I started, I've been encouraged to take this to a higher level. I'm keeping all my options open right now.

Who does the photography on your site?
Me! I'm no professional, but I enjoy learning how to take better pictures as I do more with PGEW.

How do you come up with your recipe price breakdown?
I basically use simple math to figure the actual amount of each ingredient I'm using based on the total cost of the whole ingredient. For example, if I use 2 eggs from a dozen eggs that cost $1.49, the cost for the eggs I'm using will come out to $0.12 apiece or so. Once the total amount of ingredients is added up, I divide that by the number of servings the recipe yields and voila! Price breakdown. NOTE: because I do shop at Trader Joe's or discount stores quite a bit, I always inflate the prices of most ingredients by a few cents each to reflect the prices that regular grocery stores would charge for similar products. This way I can give more of an average cost that will apply to most people.

You seem to be quite obsessed with Trader Joe's; is it really that much cheaper to shop there?
For the most part, yes! I am constantly amazed by the prices that major chain grocery stores offer versus Trader Joe's everyday prices. I'd say that 90% of the time you can save at least 35% off your whole bill compared to shopping at a different store. Granted, certain things like their meats will be slightly higher in price because TJ's sells mainly organic, humanely treated meats. But overall, if you can get to a Trader Joe's I would highly recommend you do so. You get wonderful quality for affordable prices, and they even pay attention to their grammar in the signs they put up throughout the store (a HUGE plus for a grammar nerd like me!).

Does Trader Joe's pay you to say this stuff?
No. They actually shoo me away most of the time when I tell them I pimp them out regularly on my site, something I could take personally but don't. I just happen to enjoy promoting things and places I believe in, and Trader Joe's is one of them.

What's this about a $25 Shopping Cart?
The $25 Shopping Cart is a great PGEW feature that comes out on a roughly monthly basis. Because I am literally left with $35-$40 to live on after I pay my rent most months, I have had to get really strict with myself in how I shop for food (I am a HUGE impulse buyer, so this was definitely a difficult process). Through some savvy shopping and exercises in restraint, I have become quite good at going to almost any store and spend around $25 (give or take a few bucks) on food that will last me about 10-14 days. Of course, the price of your shopping cart may need to go up if you are feeding more than 1-2 people, but the general principles still apply and you can definitely get more bang for your buck if you follow the $25 Shopping Cart M.O.

I have a couple of kids and a very hungry husband; will your recipes still satisfy everyone's appetite?
You'll need to read carefully to see what each recipe yields since they are all different. However, all of my recipes are very easily doubled or tripled, so you should have no problem making these dishes work for your family.

What is this about a book?
I have self-published and self-printed a mini-book called Poor Girl Eats Well - To Go! It's not an official book but more of an appetizer for what's to come in the actual Poor Girl Eats Well book that should come out in early 2010. PGEW - To Go! features 13 recipes, 3 of which are not on the site, as well as a few of the most popular tips from There is also a bonus tip on How To Have a Successful $25 Shopping Trip that is not featured on the site, so if you want to get on the fast track for that exercise in smart spending, you'll want to pick up the mini book! It is available through or directly through me (if you're a Sac local), costs $10 + $2.50 shipping, and usually ships within 2-3 weeks.

Why does it take so long to ship?
I am doing this all by myself and making sure I keep my full-time job and update, and there are, unfortunately, only 24 hours in a day! Don't worry... if you are wondering where your copy is, simply email me to check in and I'll let you know its status.

What will you do if you ever end up with a lot of money? Will PGEW end?
No, I don't think so. Things may change a bit, but I have learned a lot during this journey and will definitely be using all of the tips and recipes I share with you fine readers, no matter what my financial situation is.

Do you do any catering?
Ummm.... not yet, but I've been getting a lot of requests for that lately, so you never know. ;)

Poor Girl Eats Well in the News

I've been lucky enough to gain the attention of some great newspapers and websites, as well as the evening news! Check out what the press has to say about your favorite food blogger...

April 6, 2010 - PGEW shows News10 that you CAN eat healthy fruits & vegetables on a shoestring budget.

November 21, 2009 - PGEW is featured in the special "Giving Back" section of The Catholic Herald (the official newspaper of the Diocese of Sacramento).

October 16, 2009 - PGEW speaks on Capitol Public Radio's Insight program regarding the Child Action, Inc. Conference, "Caring for Children in Stressful Times" (my piece begins at 08:19 minutes, but the whole segment was pretty interesting)

September 8, 2009 - Watch PGEW help you save up to $32 on dinner for 4 on CBS 13's Save with Dave!

May 27, 2009 - PGEW featured in the Food & Wine section of The Sacramento Bee.

March 16, 2009 - Camille from Venus Zine loves PGEW! (And PG loves her, too.)

March 5, 2009 - PGEW featured in the Sacramento News & Review as "The Rachael Ray of Blogging"

January 30, 2009 - PGEW got some coverage on from an iReport written by yours truly on how to eat healthy on a budget.

February 6, 2009 - PGEW gets featured in the article, 10 Meals for $10 or Less

About Poor Girl Eats Well

I created Poor Girl Eats Well in August of 2008 as a fun way for me to share how I make it possible to eat quite well despite my limited means. After some bad financial moves of my own and several strokes of really bad luck over the past few years, I ended up in one of the worst personal recessions I have ever been through and though I've always been pretty frugal when it comes to food, I really had to buckle down and force myself to stick to a budget and get really creative if I wanted to eat.

There are a lot of "cheap eats" and "budget food" websites out there and most of them have something interesting to offer. Poor Girl Eats Well is quite different from other blogs in that I try to make most of my meals as healthy as possible, with a sinful treat thrown in here & there for good measure. I'm not the type who is satisfied eating cheaply the "easy" way, which is usually through fast food or fat and salt-laden, pre-packaged meals. Though I don't avoid fast food entirely, I have never liked the idea of having to subsist off the 99-cent menu, especially considering that most of the menu items would be really unhealthy for me to eat on a regular basis. I also do not believe that it is "too expensive" to eat healthy food and try to show that in most of my recipes. There have been a couple of folks who have created very similar sites, but PGEW is different and more unique for a couple of reasons.

On Poor Girl Eats Well, not only do I share mostly original recipes (there are a few restaurant adaptations and guest recipes from time to time), I also share different tips and philosophies that will help you think a bit differently about eating on a budget. I consider what I do on PGEW to be a lifestyle, and lifestyle changes always come with a bit of theory to mull over. From shopping tips to what to look for in your local newspaper, I try to share with PGEW readers a few of the pearls of wisdom that I have picked up throughout my school-of-hard-knocks life. For fun and a bit of a change here & there, I also post the occasional restaurant review, spotlighting quality restaurants and any money-saving items they may offer. Unlike other budget food blogs, I actually do write this from the point of view of someone who is broke and who struggles constantly to make ends meet, so what I talk about is what I actually experience. I am brutally honest (sometimes to the point of slight embarrassment) and mince no words when it comes to how I come up with a new dish or what new plight has made me even more broke than before. In short, what you see is what you get on PGEW. Nothing fancy, nothing special, just me.

As I mentioned earlier, the recipes you will find on PGEW are mainly on the "good-for-you" side of things; I simply refuse to fall into the "It just costs too much to eat healthy" trap. I also make sure each dish features ingredients you can find practically anywhere and that you can actually afford. Though it would be nice to blog about Serrano ham and $18 bottles of wine, that does not really fall under the category of being on a tight budget. Let's face it: if you're really scrimping and scraping your way through life, the last thing you need to be worrying about is how to afford that one ingredient that will make your dish a little fancier. The way I see it, things do eventually get better; for now, I try to see what I can do with what I can truly afford. With the current state of the economy, I'm sure this is a philosophy that most people are trying to embrace and stick to so that they, too, can make ends meet.

Although PGEW has only been around for a little over a year, it has gained a wonderfully loyal following of readers as well as some notable press. Featured on, local newspapers, and the local news, PGEW has struck a chord with many folks who are looking to save money and stay healthy at the same time. (For a full listing of newsworthy PGEW moments, please click on the PGEW In the News tab.) In August of 2009 I also self-published and printed a "mini-book" of sorts, with some of my readers' favorite recipes and the most popular tips on the site. Poor Girl Eats Well - To Go! is a great way to be introduced to the general concept of PGEW and is available to purchase through this site and directly through me.

I hope you like what you find here on Poor Girl Eats Well and that you're able to find something that works for you, whether it's a recipe, a tip, or a review. I am always open to comments and suggestions, so please feel free to contact me. I'll stop babbling now and let you get back to your PGEW perusin'.

And as I always say... enjoy! :)


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