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!


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