Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Recipe: Chicken In Chipotle-Wild Mushroom Sauce

I'm not quite sure how this happened, but somehow I've found myself without a single green vegetable at home. No spinach, no lettuce, no baby spring mix. Not even a single green pea can be found in my refrigerator, and that is a very strange, evil thing for me. Over the years it's gotten so that I don't feel I've had a complete meal unless some green leafy vegetable on my plate. It's not quite as bad as my tomato worship, but it does make me get a little anxious, like I'm going to be missing something major in the way of nutrition if I skip a day of greens.

Faced with this dilemma and a hungry appetite last night - not to mention a pretty barren fridge - I decided I would have to get uber creative, no matter how lazy I felt because of the 100-degree weather. I had some dried wild mushrooms from TJ's that I was going to use in a pasta dish, but the near-perfect chicken breasts I had scored at last week were calling to me as well, so I figured I'd put the two together. Then my eyes fell upon the can of chipotle peppers in adobo that I had also gotten (for a phenomenal price) at La Superior. I started to think: could I? Could I make these two very different foods work together? Since I wasn't cooking for guests or anything, I decided now was the time to take some major experimental action.

This turned out better than I expected it to. Truthfully, I haven't cooked with whole chipotle peppers before (I've used their adobo but that's about it), so I had to play around with the flavoring & heat scale before I was satisfied with the result. Fortunately, chipotles are right on the Hot Enough point of the KimberHeat scale, so I felt I'd be okay with a couple of the peppers' seeds and veins here & there. Unless you're a true spicy food afficionado, I recommend deveining as many of the peppers as possible, lest you overwhelm your tongue and palate with heat and miss the other flavors. Interestingly enough, the smokiness of the chipotle peppers combined with their tangy adobo goes really well with the woodsy flavors of the wild mushrooms. Though this might work just fine with regular white mushrooms, I'd recommend nothing more "normal" than a portabello or crimini mushroom for this dish; I think the chipotle peppers would be too much for a regular mushroom. If you're using dried wild mushrooms, follow the hydrating instructions on the package as closely as possible to ensure that you have the most flavorful, tender mushrooms possible.

A couple of other things to note: Be sure not to overcook your chicken breasts so that they're not tough and dry. Part of the beauty of this dish, aside from it's amazingly full, spicy flavors, is the tenderness of the chicken. It's easier to appreciate the sauce and mushrooms when you're eating juicy chicken rather than a piece of cardboard. Lastly, don't be intimidated by this recipe (someone at work told me it looked like it was "too restaurant-y", ergo, too much work). It's slmost embarrassing how easy this is to prepare! Just arrange it nicely on your plates and it'll look like you slaved for hours. ;)

PS - This is NOT for the faint of heart or palate! Definitely serve this with some rice to help with the heat of this dish. If you are sensitive to spicy foods, stay away from this one, or add more broth & cream to even out the heat. Otherwise, the spicier the better!

Chicken in Chipotle-Wild Mushroom Sauce (serves 4; total cost per serving: ~ $2.50)

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut in half crosswise
1/2 12 oz. can chipotle peppers in adobo
4 oz. wild mushrooms (or crimini/portabello)
2 T heavy whipping cream
4 T olive oil, divided
1/3 - 1/2 c low sodium chicken broth
1 clove of garlic, minced
1/4 t ground cumin
Salt & pepper to taste
Cilantro sprigs for garnish

Remove all of the chipotle peppers and reserve as much of the adobo as possible in a medium bowl. Take about 1/2 the peppers and cut in half lengthwise. Remove as much of the veins and seeds as possible, and chop the peppers into 1/2" pieces. Add to the reserved adobo. Lightly season the chicken breasts on both sides with the salt, pepper, and cumin. Heat 2 T olive oil in a large skillet. Place the chicken breasts in the skillet and cook over medium high heat for about 3 minutes on each side. Remove from heat and set aside on a covered plate.

In the same skillet, heat the remaining olive oil and garlic over medium heat. Add the mushrooms with just a dash of salt & pepper, and sautee for about 2 minutes. Add the chipotle peppers and adobo and stir together. Remove about half of the mushroom & pepper mixture with its liquid, place in a blender or food processor, add the cream and 1/3 c chicken broth, and puree with a hand blender until smooth. In the meantime, return the chicken breasts to the skillet with the remaining chipotle peppers and mushrooms, cover, and allow to cook for about 4 more minutes, or until the chicken is no longer pink on the inside (but not dry).

Arrange your chicken breasts on a large dish. Spoon the mushroom & chipotle pepper mixture on top of the chicken, followed by a couple generous spoonfuls of the creamy sauce, garnish with a couple sprigs of cilantro, and enjoy!

Monday, June 29, 2009

Review: Hawks - Granite Bay, CA

After the Sacramento News & Review article about PGEW back in March, fun little things started to happen. I was contacted for other, smaller interviews; people started emailing me for cooking advice; and I received a wonderful invitation to visit a rather reputable restaurant by the name of Hawks. I was very excited to know that a restaurant like Hawks would want me to come and check them out; they’ve received a number of excellent reviews in the past and a glance at the photos on their website was all I needed to know this was a must-visit restaurant. Unfortunately, I knew it would be awhile before I could actually take them up on their offer because Hawks is located all the way out in Granite Bay, which is nowhere near this car-less, city mouse's house. But things have a way of working out; I've scored a part-time gig that gives me access to a car every so often (this weekend included), so I figured it was the perfect time to head out to the suburbs and join the folks at Hawks for one of their Sunday Suppers.

On Sundays, the chefs at Hawks give the regular menu a rest and create a special, 4-course dinner that changes weekly. Served family style, these meals offer diners a chance to experience something different from the usual menu at a wonderfully affordable price. Priced between $35 and $40, Hawks has made it possible for folks to have a fine dining experience at prices that won't completely break the bank. From the subtly elegant décor of soft blues with classic, dark woodwork and lovely views of the patio and reflecting pool, to the impeccable service offered by their friendly and knowledgeable staff, you’re guaranteed a sophisticated, yet unpretentious atmosphere in which to enjoy Hawks’ best feature: the food.

I'd seen some sample menus in the past and they looked absolutely incredible, so I knew I'd be in for an excellent meal. And yesterday's dinner did not disappoint one bit. Our menu for the evening:

~ Arugula and Local Figs, Pecorino, and White Balsamic Vinaigrette
~ House-made Cavatelli, Butter Poached Tiger Shrimp, and Yellow Peppers
~ Kobe Beef Sirloin Steaks, Swiss Chard, and Roasted Shallots
~ Lemon Panna Cotta with Silvergreen Orchard Plums

We started out with a couple of drinks before our amuse bouche was brought to us. My friend ordered a house pilsner, and I ordered their Meyer Lemon Limoncello Lemon Drop. I was torn between getting that and having their vodka martini with bleu cheese stuffed olives (you know how I feel about my vodka martinis); however, the idea of enjoying a homemade limoncello was too good to pass up, so I treated myself to something new. It was a phenomenal drink that was not too sweet and not too sour, and it reminded me to add how to make homemade limoncello to my To Do list.

Our amuse bouche was a lovely little mango salad with just a touch of paprika and fresh herbs, just the right touch for such a hot summer day. It was followed by the arugula salad, the sweetness of the fresh figs and sharpness of the pecorino complementing each other beautifully, the vinaigrette light and perfectly balanced. Some restaurant vinaigrettes lack that balance, some being far too oily, others almost impossible to eat because the amount of vinegar is too overwhelming, so it was nice to be able to enjoy a properly prepared vinaigrette. The second course was the house-made cavatelli with butter poached shrimp and yellow peppers. Since I’m on a sweet pepper kick these days, I was looking forward to this dish quite a bit. The menu was a bit misleading since the peppers were actually a sauce, but what a deliciously lovely dish! The shrimp were cooked to perfection, tender and sweet with just a kiss of butter, the cavatelli delightful, and the yellow pepper sauce simply scrumptious. Beautiful, light, and bright yellow, this sauce was full of flavor with only the tiniest kick of spiciness in the background. I plan on recreating this at home at some point, as it’s a great departure from the traditional red tomato or red pepper sauces commonly used on pasta.

Our entrée proved to be yet another exquisite dish. Seldom does one find such beautifully cooked steak without having to tell your server the exact way one likes it. The Kobe beef sirloin steak was so tender it practically melted in our mouths, seasoned just enough to enhance its flavor without overwhelming it. Accompanied by the sweet roasted shallots and the deliciously prepared Swiss chard, this entrée was satisfying yet light, leaving plenty of room for the most important meal of the day: dessert.

I’ve never really been the biggest fan of panna cotta, so I was a little hesitant to try this dessert. The few times I’ve had it at other restaurants it seemed far too heavy and bland, with an almost chalky aftertaste. Perhaps I was not meant to have a properly prepared panna cotta until now, and I’m happy to report that my opinion of this creamy dessert has officially changed. The panna cotta was light and fluffy, the lemon flavor a lovely enhancement to the creamy texture. For me, the star of the dessert show was the lovely addition of locally grown red plums. A gorgeous ruby red, they were the right balance of tart and sweet, jazzing up the mild panna cotta for a simply delectable ending to an amazing meal.

After dinner, we briefly spoke with Chef Mike Fagnoni, who kindly let me in on some of his preparation techniques (because truthfully, my shallots would have probably never turned out the way his did without some explanation). As he was one of just two people working in the kitchen that evening, he had to leave quickly; however, it gave us a chance to let him know we’d both noticed how this menu format is actually quite good for a restaurant of Hawks’ caliber. Not only do the Sunday Suppers give their patrons a change from the norm in addition to the price break, it also allows the restaurant to cut back a bit without having to change much in the way of schedules and prices. In this struggling economy, it seems to me that more fine dining restaurants should look into something similar to these Sunday Suppers. With many restaurants suffering from a decrease in clientele, this is a wonderful way to attract new customers and keep their devotees.

Overall, I highly recommend Hawks as a Must Visit restaurant for the greater Sacramento area. The food and the ambience are beautiful and elegant, but never do you feel as if you're out of your element. Their staff has a way of making you feel truly welcome, a refreshing change from the attitude at most restaurants. It’s not a restaurant I can visit daily, but I couldn’t be more grateful to them for making it possible for anyone – even a Poor Girl with ridiculously expensive taste - to enjoy fine California cuisine without breaking the bank. Now, if they’d only open a second location Downtown…

Hawks on Urbanspoon

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Recipe: Kamut Berry Salad

Because the weather has been so fickle this year, the sweltering heat that makes up a Sacramento summer hasn't made itself known until this week. Sure, there were the random 100-degree days in May, but overall, this has been a very mild June. All good things must come to an end, though, and we are now being assaulted with 150-degree weather (okay, it's only 107. I just like to round up). Like most people, my appetite and cravings change during the summer, and cool salads seem to top the craving list. And as I'm sure you're all aware by now, a salad – even hot summer day salad - doesn't have to mean just lettuce and tomatoes.

This is another recipe inspired by the deli salads at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op. Though the Davis Food Co-op will always hold a special place in my heart (it's a lot more quirky and offers regular national brands and conventional produce in addition to the organic nut & twig stuff), the Sac Co-op's deli is truly superb. Some of my favorite things to eat have come from this deli, and I get a ton of great ideas from checking out their selections. Their Spelt Berry Salad has always been in my Top 5 from their deli, and I figured I could make my own version at home to cut back on the costs, just as I did with my Mediterranean Style Tuna Salad. It was very easy to prepare and just as tasty, with a few little additions of my own.

This is an awesome way to bring more whole grains into your diet. However, please don’t feel like you’re bound to using spelt or kamut berries for this recipe. It will taste lovely made with farro or even regular brown rice. Granted, the brown rice won’t offer the same great, chewy texture that the other grains do, but it will still be tasty and healthy. Most of these whole grains can be cooked with the same water-to-grain ratio and timing as brown rice; however, you may need to use a bit more water for kamut and spelt, so be sure to keep an eye on the grains while they’re cooking. The dressing is meant simply to coat the salad, not drench it, so if it seems a bit dry, don’t worry. Lastly, even though this falls under the uber-healthy category, be very careful when choosing your whole grains. If you have celiac disease it’s best to stay away from farro and spelt as they’re in the same family as wheat. Kamut berries are well tolerated by most folks with food allergies, but it’s probably best to err on the side of caution if you do have a wheat allergy. Other than that, here’s a nice, easy salad that you can enjoy all summer long!

Kamut Berry Salad (serves 4; total cost per serving: ~ $2)

2 cups cooked whole grains like spelt, kamut, farro, barley, brown rice, etc. (at room temperature)
1 small cucumber, diced
1/2 red onion, diced
3 Roma tomatoes, diced
1/4 c dried cranberries
1/4 c golden raisins
2 T finely chopped parsley
4 oz. crumbled low-fat feta cheese
3 T balsamic vinegar
3 T Dijon mustard

In a small bowl, prepare the dressing by vigorously whisking together the vinegar and Dijon mustard. Set aside. In a large bowl, combine the grains, cucumber, onion, tomatoes, cranberries, and raising and toss together. Add the dressing and mix until well coated. Finally, crumble the feta cheese on top and fold into the rest of the salad. Serve with a side of greens or by itself, and enjoy!

Tip #8 - Like exotic foods? Head to your local ethnic foods stores

I've always considered myself very lucky to have been raised by the type of parents I had. They were all about teaching me, exposing me to as many new & different things as possible, only leaving out things that were obviously age inappropriate. As a result, I've learned a little bit about a great many random things, and that, of course, includes food. I've been a fan of spicy Thai and Indian food since the age of 6, watched how sugar and coffee is picked & processed into the products we're familiar with when I'd spend summers with my family in Colombia, and have been to a huge number of restaurants in the South Bay Area and Peninsula. Many of these things have been a part of my life since I was very young, so it's been nice to see more Americans joining me in a bit more adventurous eating. Gone are the days of the boring 1950's Jello molds, constantly present at any major function, and eating healthy is no longer considered to be reserved for vegetarians only, opening the door to the amazing world of fruits and vegetables more widely than just coconuts or cilantro.

I can tell this not only by perusing the menus of any restaurant I happen by, showing titles of very creative-sounding dishes, but by what I see in the stores. These days something like a mango is considered a rather commonly-found fruit, whereas 15 years ago it was still a novelty in large grocery stores. There was a time when most fresh herbs were only sold in gourmet stores; now they have their own little section in the produce department. Americans are eating naan and quinoa and porcini mushrooms, they cook by making port wine reductions and beet & feta salads for everyday dinners. We've woken up to the idea that all food is fun. Of course, this will inevitably require some exotic ingredients, and many of these can be found at regular grocery stores. However, it will cost you, and very dearly. If at all possible and you have one near you, make an extra trip to save some money and head to your nearest ethnic foods store.

Those of you who live in larger cities probably have one within a 20 minute drive, so you know what I'm talking about. They're the little hole-in-the-wall establishments that don't look like much and smell way different when you walk inside. The amazing stores that carry a cornucopia of things we could never find at Safeway, Trader Joe's, or even Whole Foods. Six to seven brands of soy and fish sauce, an endless supply of curry pastes, exotic teas, and a variety of Asian cooking staples abound at your local Asian market. Things like curtido, a Salvadoran side made of pickled cabbage and carrots with lots of oregano (served with pupusas), ten different types of chipotle peppers from one brand alone (I didn't realize you could do so much with them!), and a wide assortment of drinking and cooking chocolates are among the many things you'll encounter at a Mexican & Latin foods store. Produce at prices that will astonish you, cuts & parts of meat & poultry you can't find at a regular store; I could go on forever about the wonders of these great little markets. And the best part is that all of this "ethnic" stuff is sold for way less than you'd think.

Granted, this doesn't apply to everything in these stores, so don't go in thinking you'll save a bundle if you do a full cart of groceries. However, if you're like me and love making foods from all over the world, take the time to go to one of these stores to get your "weird" ingredients. It's also a good place to save on certain produce, so if you don't have access to a farmers market, you can grab a fair amount of fruits & veggies of amazing quality for next to nothing. Case in point: my trip to La Superior yesterday after work. Because of one of their recent mail circulars, I noticed they were having some great deals on produce and, since it had been awhile since I'd been there, I figured I'd check out the rest of the store. For a mere $20, I bought:

~ 2 lbs key limes
~ 3 bunches cilantro
~ 1 giant mango
~ 3 lbs roma tomatoes
~ 2 Braeburn apples
~ 2 cucumbers
~ 1 large can of chipotle peppers in adobo
~ 3 lbs large chicken legs & thighs
~ 2 lbs large boneless, skinless chicken breasts

My bill was $20.22. Incredible! Especially when you consider the amazing quality of the meat & produce. I left that store happy as a clam, knowing I had some great food and didn't even hit the $25 mark.

Again, not everything is so well-priced in these markets, so shop wisely. National brand name products will usually come in smaller sizes than you're used to and for a lot more. Some things cost just a couple pennies less than they would at a regular grocery store. But if you want to get good spices and other staples like beans and rice, in addition to your fun ingredients, this is a great way to shop. In fact, I found full-sized cans of sweetened & unsweetened coconut milk at one of the Asian food markets near me a couple months ago for just $0.69/can! Usually it costs about $2 or more. Just think of how many batches of tom kha gai or sweet, creamy curries you can make with those prices!

So if you're an adventurous foodie and love to cook different foods, take the time to Google your nearest stores and go enjoy your little budget shopping adventure!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Recipe: Shrimp with Warm Pepper-Pineapple Relish

I seem to be on this pepper kick lately. I’m not surprised, since I have a tendency to obsess over certain ingredients for a few weeks (or months… remember the cheese problem? I’m so glad to be cured!). Though I’ve never been a fan of green bell peppers, I do love all the sweeter ones like red, orange, and yellow peppers. I love their bright colors, their light but distinct flavors, and most of all, I love that they don’t seem to take over an entire dish like their green cousins can. Instead of dominating a dish with their flavors, the sweeter bell peppers add just a little something extra, and that is what I was looking to do last night when I was trying to figure out what to have for dinner.

This was another one of those fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants dishes that I hadn’t even planned on having – or creating. I was thinking of working on a couple older recipes I’ve been meaning to post, but due to my limited decision-making skills, I couldn’t decide which one to make. All I knew was that I wanted something with peppers in it. Out of frustration, I decided to make something up instead, and I truly love it when that happens. Some of my favorite dishes have come about this way, and it’s always fun to see what happens when you play with your food (in a non-food-fight way, of course). This time I figured I’d play with those beautiful large shrimp that I’d scored at Whole Foods on my last $25 Shopping Cart run.

I cook shrimp all the time and have a couple tried & true recipes in my arsenal, but I haven’t really done anything new with them in quite some time. I thought the red, yellow, and green pepper blend from Trader Joe’s would go nicely with the shrimp (I always choose the bags w/the fewest green peppers), but I wanted a kick of sweetness as well. I had some frozen pineapple chunks and decided to make a little relish out of the two, along with plenty of fresh garlic for extra flavor. I ended up with a light, yet flavorful summer dish that works well both as an appetizer and a main course when served over rice or noodles. If you’re not a fan of having to peel your shrimp once they’re cooked, go ahead and peel them ahead of time. The only thing you need to watch is that you don’t overcook them, since they can become tough and chewy. However, if you’re serving this as an appetizer, it’s more aesthetically pleasing to leave the peels & tails on. Other than that, I don’t have much to note! This is quick, delicious, and very inexpensive, yet it will still make you look like you’ve spent either a ton of money or a lot of time in the kitchen. But don’t worry, your secret’s safe with me. :)

Shrimp with Warm Pepper-Pineapple Relish (serves 2 as an entrée, 4 as an appetizer; total cost per entrée serving: ~$2.95)

30-35 large fresh (or fresh frozen) shrimp
1/2 c frozen pineapple chunks, thawed
1/2 c bell pepper strips
2 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
2 T olive oil, divided
1/4 t sea salt
1/4 t crushed red pepper flakes
~ 1/4 t fresh ground pepper
2 green onions, chopped

Heat 1 T olive oil in a medium skillet over medium high heat. When oil is hot, add the thawed shrimp and quickly stir-fry until they turn pink. Remove the shrimp from the skillet and set aside on a separate plate.

In the same skillet, heat the remaining tablespoon of olive oil. Add the chopped garlic and cook for just about 30 seconds or so. Add the peppers, pineapple, and seasonings, and reduce heat to medium low. Allow the peppers & pineapple to cook for about 4-5 minutes, or until they begin to soften slightly. Return the shrimp to the skillet and cook for another minute or two. Garnish with chopped green onions and extra crushed red chilies, and enjoy!

Note: if serving as an appetizer for guests, arrange a few of the shrimp on individual plates and spoon a bit of the pepper-pineapple relish on top. It’s a little less messy this way, especially considering they have to deal with the peels! :)

Friday, June 19, 2009

Recipe: Drunken Game Hens

Drunken game hens? "What in the world is Poor Girl doing now?" you may be asking yourself. Don't worry, I haven't completely lost it by giving tiny chickens shots of Patron and sitting back to see what happens. However, I have been giving them wine so that they may produce some of the juiciest, most tender chicken you will ever taste. Ever? Yes, ever. Hear me out a bit.

I'm sure most of you know of a store or in your area that sells whole rotisserie chickens. Most of these cost between $6-$9, depending on the store, and come lightly seasoned. One of the biggest virtues of these rotisserie chickens is their versatility. With a whole, pre-cooked chicken, you can do wonders in the kitchen, making anything from chicken salads to soups to stir-frys. They do have their drawbacks, though: they're relatively small chickens, much smaller than the usual whole fryers they sell in the poultry department; sometimes they're a bit over or undercooked; and sometimes they're just bland, with hardly any flavor at all. It's hit or miss with them.

A great way to get around most of these issues for less than what you'd pay for one of those whole rotisserie chickens is to make this recipe that I stole (with permission) from my mother. The key to making this affordable, however, is to shop very wisely. Most Rock Cornish game hens tend to be very expensive if purchased fresh from a butcher or fine meat & poultry department, there are other less expensive game hens out there. They may not be the ultra-swank tiny birds the gourmet shops sell, but brands like Tyson offer some very tender, healthy sized game hens that are just slightly smaller than some of the pre-cooked regular chickens we've been talking about thus far. If you hunt around, you can find some incredible deals on these at your local grocery store. I have seen places like Safeway sell them for as low as $0.99/lb, and for two of these great little birds I've been able to pay as low as $4.98. Costco will also sell these in 2 or 4-packs for about $8-10, once again making these an incredible deal. Keep in mind that this recipe works for regular chicken, so don't feel bound to the game hen. But make sure to wait for sales on either so you can get the best deal for this meal.

However, a lot of folks are wary about cooking game hens because of their small size. If one isn't careful, one can end up with some very dry, overcooked hens that are tough & flavorless. My mom, however, taught me how to get around this: marinate them in wine & just a few herbs & spices (note: this is also a great way to use up any leftover wine you don't feel like drinking). The trick to this is the timing: you really need to let your game hens marinate at least overnight, if not 24 hours, to get the perfect, juicy meat you're looking for. I learned this the hard way: I'm not always the most patient person, so the first few times I made these I only allowed them to marinate a couple of hours, and was very disappointed to find that the game hens tasted nothing like my mom's. A couple quick phone calls later I found out I'd been too hasty and the next time I made these they came out just like hers! So definitely be patient with these. Follow the instructions as much as possible on this one and you'll be surprised at how tender & flavorful these game hens will be. Then serve them however you like: individual halves with a nice rice pilaf & salad for dinner, or use the breast & thigh meat in place of the rotisserie chicken meat that just won't taste the same. You won't be disappointed!

Drunken Game Hens (serves 3-4 if serving individually for dinner; total cost per serving: $2.50)

2 game hens
1/2-1 bottle dry white wine
1 t garlic salt
1 t cumin
1/2 t fresh ground pepper
1/2 t thyme

Rinse the game hens and remove any giblets that may be inside the chest cavity. Pat dry. Combine the garlic salt, cumin, pepper, and thyme in a small bowl and mix together. Sprinkle each hen generously inside and out with the herb mixture, then place in a large bowl breast side up. Pour the wine over the game hens until they are almost completely submerged. Cover and refrigerate up to 24 hours, turning the hens breast side down about halfway through.

The next day, preheat the oven to 375. To avoid a very messy clean up, line your broiler pan with foil and spray a broiler rack lightly with cooking spray placing it on top of the broiler pan. This will ensure that the backs of the game hens will not get stuck to the pan. Place the game hens on top of the rack, cover loosely with tented aluminum foil, and place in the oven. Cook for about 20 minutes at 375 then reduce heat to 350. Continue to cook covered for about 35-40 more minutes. Uncover the hens and allow to cook for about 10 more minutes, or until their skin becomes a golden brown. Test the doneness of the hens by cutting on the inside of one of the thighs. If still pink, you will need to cook for a few minutes longer, but be sure to cover them so that they do not dry out & burn.

When the game hens are done & meat is no longer pink on the inside, remove from oven and allow to cool for about 5 minutes. Cut in half and serve with a nice salad or your favorite side, or use the meat for salads, soups, you name it! Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Recipe: Grilled Chicken & Sweet Pepper Soft Tacos

I came up with this one on the fly last night. Since I’m heading to my 15-year high school reunion this weekend, I have a lot of packing & housework to get through. Not being a fan of either, I curled up on the couch with a cat and a good book instead. I realized a couple hours later that it was getting a bit late and should probably make something quick to eat. It started out very simply: just some quick grilled chicken wrapped up in a soft tortilla with some salsa on the side. Yummy, but not all that exciting. Then I remembered I had a little frozen pepper blend and figured I’d add some color & flavor to my lonely little chicken thigh. It went on from there and I ended up with a fun little soft taco that I thought would be fun to share.

Though the peppers & chicken were plenty flavorful, I still wanted to add a little sauce to my tacos, and I thought a spicy, yet creamy sauce would be a fun addition. The addition of cumin & crushed red chilies gave the sauce some depth & smokiness that I felt went well with the rest of the ingredients. In fact, it would probably go well with shrimp (perhaps on the Black Bean, Shrimp & Corn burritos from last month) or fish, so keep this little recipe handy for other dishes. Other than that, there’s not much to note on this one! It’s a great dish for weeknight dinners because it’s quick and very simple to prepare. And if you don’t feel like grilling your chicken, this is also a good way to make use of some rotisserie chicken leftovers.

Speaking of which, stay tuned for a delicious, easy way to make your own “rotisserie” style chicken that tastes way better than anything you’ll get from a store! But first – tacos!

Grilled Chicken & Sweet Pepper Soft Tacos (serves 4; total cost per serving: ~$1.90)

4 soft taco size flour tortillas
4 small chicken thighs
1 c red & yellow bell pepper strips
1/2 c chopped green lettuce
1/2 t sea salt
1/4 t fresh ground pepper
1/4 t Mexican oregano
1/4 t cumin
1 T olive oil
Cooking spray

1/4 c non-fat sour cream (or plain yogurt)
1/4 c your favorite salsa
1/4 t cumin
1/4 t crushed red chilies
1/8 t crushed garlic

Combine the last 5 ingredients in a bowl and mix together well. Cover and set aside in the refrigerator until tacos are ready to serve.

Heat the grill. Combine the sea salt, pepper, oregano, and ¼ t cumin in a small bowl and mix together. Sprinkle both sides of the chicken with the seasoning and grill until juicy but no longer pink inside. Allow to cool for a couple of minutes then cut into 1½” long strips. Heat the olive oil in a small sautee pan and add the bell pepper strips and just a dash of the remaining seasoning. Spray a medium skillet with cooking spray and heat over medium high heat. Place the tortillas in the skillet individually and heat for about 30-40 seconds on each side, or until they begin to puff up a little bit.

To assemble your tacos, place a small handful of the chopped lettuce on one half of the tortilla. Add the chicken strips, followed by a bit of the sautéed bell peppers. Drizzle a bit of the creamy salsa on top, fold the other half of the tortilla over all the goodies, grab a couple napkins, and enjoy!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

The $25 Shopping Cart, Version 4.0

I don't usually like to toot my own horn about how good I am at cheap shopping, but at the risk of sounding a little cocky, I think I deserve an award for this edition of The $25 Shopping Cart. Or at least a small round of appreciative applause. Going only $2 over, I was able to grab a nice selection of groceries out of which I can make a few great meals at.... *drum roll, please*

Whole Foods Market.

That's right, ladies & gentlemen! I went on a mission and conquered the "whole paycheck" beast that is Whole Foods. I have been dying to do a $25 Shopping Cart at this wonderful store for quite some time now, but the closest one to me is not that easily accessible by public transit and it's rather far away. However, this weekend I had access to a car and due to an odd twist of fate requiring me to drive for a long time to recharge the battery properly, I was able to head all the way out to my WF.

It had been almost 2 years since I'd last been to Whole Foods, so I was really excited to see how things had changed. Not much had: same great products, same amazing selection, same beautiful quality of produce and fresh meats & seafood. But one very important thing had changed, and very drastically: the prices. Now, they've never been that good to begin with; there is a reason why I lovingly call the place Whole Paycheck. However, it was astonishing to see just how high their prices had climbed, and for smaller quantities to boot. I used to be quite fond of this little pupusa packet that they sold in their refrigerated foods section (pupusas are a traditional Salvadorean corn sort-of-"quesadilla", if you will; I'll definitely be making them here soon, so I'll have a better explanation of what they are later). It came with 4 cheese pupusas, curtido, and salsa, and it only cost $4.49. Now they have this tiny little 2-pack of pupusas with no trimmings for $6.99! Granted, it has been 2 years since I’ve checked things out at Whole Foods, but that just seems like a pretty big price jump for a lot less product. Small, 6 oz cups of yogurt used to go for $1.19 and are now $2.29 for certain varieties. Other outrageous prices included the $6.99/lb asparagus, $4.99 bagged spinach, and $7.99/lb blackberries (!!!). Of course it was lovely, organic produce, but I can get lovely, organic produce for a lot less at the farmer’s market. I could see that most of the produce would be off-limits this time.

Not all things were as scarily priced. Though it was super crowded (they were having some sort of sample promotion in each department of the store), I took my time and went through each aisle, carefully scanning prices and products for some good deals. I refused to believe I couldn’t find something affordable at Whole Foods! Patience was definitely a virtue in this case, and I was able to score some pretty good stuff. Though I don’t have the receipt with me to give you the exact breakdown on each item’s price, I can tell you that the best deal I got besides my Jarlsberg Swiss was a 41-50 count bag of large, fresh frozen shrimp for just $6.99! I can’t even say that TJ’s has a better deal, since their fresh frozen shrimp (not the cooked) starts at $8.99. As much as I love the cooked shrimp, I prefer the fresh frozen because I’m able to play around more with marinades & seasonings that will actually infuse the shrimp with more flavor, so I’m really excited about this score.

Anyway, here’s the list of everything I was able to get (with as many prices as I can remember):
41-50 count bag large, fresh frozen shrimp - $6.99
1 can organic garbanzo beans - $0.89
1 can organic, low-salt black beans - $0.89
1 can organic canellini beans - $0.89
~ 1/2 lb French green lentils (in bulk)
~ 1 lb Israeli cous cous (in bulk)
~ 3/4 lb Jarlesberg Swiss cheese - $3.50
1 carton Good Belly Probiotic Mango Drink - $2.50
1 (very large) bunch organic arugula - $1.99
2 green plantains (not pictured)
1 16 0z. box organic chicken broth
1 16 oz. bag organic tomato & spinach fusilli - $1.89
1 16 oz jar organic mushroom marinara sauce

Grand total: $27.90!

I didn’t get as much as I’m usually able at less expensive stores, but I got some great items from which I can build several different meals, which is the key to making the $25 shopping cart a success. I can’t wait to share some of the great dishes I plan to make with some of this stuff! I already had a lovely dinner of pasta with mushroom marinara and an arugula salad over the weekend, and paired with a glass of wine, it truly looked like I was having a much more expensive meal than I was having. Black bean & plantain soup, a fun little lentil & Israeli cous cous salad, and another shrimp creation will be on the horizon very soon, thanks to Whole Foods. Just goes to show that it really isn’t necessary to leave one’s whole paycheck there to end up with some great meals.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Recipe: Steak & Asparagus Omelette

Who doesn’t love breakfast for dinner? (If you raised your hand you need to have your head examined immediately!) It’s filling, usually easy to prepare, and is a fun way to depart from the usual weeknight dinner fare. Though I haven’t posted very many omelette recipes, omelettes are probably my favorite breakfast meal, and I’ve been craving one in a serious way for the past couple of weeks. The Caprese omelette I posted a couple of months ago is still one of my favorites, but I wanted to have something heartier this time around. And as much as I still want to share my seafood omelette recipe with all of you, it’s a lot easier to make if one actually has the crucial ingredients available (like the seafood, haha).

Faced with this dilemma tonight, I decided to take stock of the remaining ingredients in my fridge & freezer. I was going to have a hearty omelette and nothing was going to stop me! Luck was with me, as I noticed I had some leftover steak and leftover asparagus. I had been saving them to make some more Grilled Steak, Asparagus & Red Pepper wraps, but again, I was missing some of the crucial ingredients for that little meal too. So, in classic PGEW form, I improvised and decided my hearty omelette was going to be different take on steak & eggs.

Though we’re still in asparagus season, you can definitely go the frozen route like I did if you can’t find a good deal on fresh ones (like that $0.99 score from a month ago!). Like the steak sandwiches, making this omelette is another great way to make use of any leftover meat you might have had earlier in the week, helping to cut costs a bit by making the most of every ingredient you buy. Because this is a 3-egg omelette with steak, it runs the risk of being very high in calories and cholesterol. For this reason, I made sure to use 2 eggs and 2 egg whites, so that I could have the same amount of egg mixture without all the guilt. Also keep in mind that this is a meal in and of itself, so there really is no reason to add the usual omelette trimmings like hash browns or toast, unless you split it with someone else. You will definitely get full on this one! I imagine this would taste even more amazing with some mushrooms to go with the sautéed onions, but one makes due with what one has. Lastly, as much as I believe cheese should be involved in every omelette, this is tasty & hearty enough without it. But I’m not one to deny cheese to anyone else, so if you’ve got it, use it!

And now, a big ol’ omelette…

Steak & Asparagus Omelette (serves 1-2 depending on appetite; total cost per serving: ~$2.85)

2 whole eggs
2 egg whites
Salt & pepper to taste
1/4 -1/3 c thinly sliced, seasoned steak
6 asparagus spears, cut in half
½ small yellow onion, chopped
2 T olive oil, divided
½ t salt
Tomato slices for garnish

In a small skillet, heat 1 T olive oil. Add the chopped onion and salt and sautee for about 4 minutes, or until the onion is just beginning to become translucent. Remove from heat and set aside.

Beat the eggs & egg whites together with a couple drops of water (for fluffiness) and lightly season w/salt & pepper. Heat the remaining tablespoon of olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. When oil is hot enough (test by carefully flicking a few drops of water into the pan; if it pops & spurts, you’re ready), add the egg mixture. Swirl around in the skillet to make sure the omelette is even in thickness and cook for about 3 minutes, or until edges just begin to dry. Add the sliced steak and about ½ of the asparagus spears, then add a spoonful of the sautéed onions. Fold the omelette over, slide onto a plate, serve with fresh tomato slices, and enjoy!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Recipe: Goddess Chicken Salad

Though I truly love making my own dressings & sauces, I also have my fair share of favorite bottled dressings. My very favorite bottled dressing ever is Wish Bone Italian, the original one, not the Robusto or the other varieties. My mom likes to poke fun at me by saying I put it in everything, including my cereal (not true!!!). I'm also a huge fan of Trader Joe's Creamy Cilantro and the Champagne, Pear & Gorgonzola dressings. But one little dressing that tends to get ignored a lot, even by me though I love it, is Goddess dressing. Not to be confused with Green Goddess dressing (another amazing little dressing), this is made with all sorts of good stuff like tahini, lemon juice, garlic, and spices. It's a wonderful departure from the norm and offers a such a full flavor that you don't need to use too much to get the full effects of its flavor. It's not hard to find, either; you can find brands like Annie's Naturals in the organic section of most major grocery stores, and there's always the trusty Trader Joe's version (just $1.99!).

Unfortunately, I've never played around with this dressing very much, so I have probably been missing out on a lot of great dishes that can be made with it. But luck has a way of stepping in, and it did so in the form of another one of my crazy cravings: I wanted chicken salad one day, and I had neither mayo nor tzatziki, let alone any of the other yummy sauces or dressings I'd throw into a bowl of chicken. I peered into my fridge and found the Goddess dressing and thought I'd give it a whirl. It was divine! The tangy nuttiness of the dressing really went well with my leftover chicken from the night before, and the whole thing was simply delicious on a sandwich with some greens & sliced tomatoes. I decided I would play around with this a bit more and see what I could come up with. It definitely needed some texture, so I added some crunchy celery and onion. Tossed in some fruit for a sweet kick and I was on my way. Though my first version was good, this is by far a much better salad, and can be served in a pita pocket or on top of some fresh greens. And, just like my Tzatziki Chicken Salad, it's a great way to make use of some leftover chicken & veggies!

Goddess Chicken Salad (serves 4; total cost per serving: $1.99)

2 c cooked chicken (breasts or thighs, your choice), chopped
1/2 c celery, chopped
1/2 sweet white onion, chopped
1 mango, chopped
1/4 c dried apricots, chopped
3/4 c Goddess dressing
Small handful of cilantro, finely chopped
1/4 c chopped almonds
Fresh ground pepper

Combine the first five ingredients in a bowl and toss together. Add the Goddess dressing, almonds, and cilantro and mix well. Garnish with plenty of fresh ground pepper, serve over a nice baby lettuce mix or in a pita pocket, and enjoy!

Friday, June 5, 2009

Recipe: Black Cherry & Apricot Crisp

With summer approaching, there’s a veritable plethora of delicious fruits & vegetables that are just begging to be picked, cooked, and eaten. Fortunately for me, one of the managers at work has a black cherry tree that is bursting with cherries that truly are begging to be picked & eaten, and I’ve been the lucky recipient of some amazingly sweet, juicy ones. I’ve been eating them like crazy and simply cannot get enough! However, halfway through one of the giant bags he’d given me I realized that I was missing out on some great recipe opportunities, so I figured I should probably slow down on the cherry consumption. When you have fresh, tree-ripened fruit at your disposal, it’s definitely time to start cooking! From juices to desserts, one can make a great variety of foods and it seemed a crime not to put these cherries to good use. Especially since they were free.

I’m trying to do more with seasonal produce, since it just makes sense and is actually another good way to save money. Mother Nature really does make things easy for us when it comes to food: eat what is currently growing and you’ll never run out of tasty options. Plus, there’s no need to be paying more for things that aren’t available. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t eat anything that’s not seasonal; it’s just one more way to help cut costs a little, and you can enjoy things like cherry season or citrus season just a little bit more.

Another fruit that’s starting to come into its season is the lovely apricot. It’s a little early for most trees, but some of them in this area are just excited and producing some deliciously sweet apricots. I thought it would be fun to combine the two in a dessert and played around with several different ideas before I settled on an easy little fruit crisp with a simple, yet tasty streusel. I haven’t had a fruit crisp in ages, so I definitely let my craving decide this dessert recipe. There’s not much to it, really: just some great fruit and a little patience. In terms of the streusel topping, I used almonds in mine, as that was the only nut I had at my disposal, but this would also taste lovely with some walnuts or pecans. As for the fruit, if you don’t have access to fresh cherries, you can definitely use frozen ones; just be sure not to thaw them beforehand, so you don’t end up with a mushy result at the end. I made mine in these adorable little ramekins my mom got me, since I like little desserts and have always been a fan of individual portions (must be an only-child thing). However, if you don’t have ramekins, you can bake this in a square glass baking dish instead. Lastly, though it’s not pictured, you can certainly serve this with some French vanilla ice cream or some fresh whipped cream! If I’d had some, I would have definitely added a large dollop of either. Or both. ;)

Black Cherry & Apricot Crisp (serves 4; total cost per serving ~$1.85*)


3/4 c flour
1/2 c sugar
1 T nutmeg
1 stick of butter (room temperature), cut into small pieces


1 lb sweet cherries, pitted
1 lb apricots, pitted & chopped into 1" pieces
1/3 c sugar
3 T butter
Juice of 1 lemon

Preheat the oven to 375°. Prepare the streusel by whisking together the first 3 ingredients in a medium bowl. Add the butter pieces and mix with a fork until crumbly. Set aside.

In a large skillet, combine the butter, sugar, and lemon juice and heat over medium high heat until the sugar has dissolved completely. Reduce heat to medium and add the cherries. Cook for 3-4 minutes, until the cherries have begun to soften and release some of their juice. Remove from heat. Combine the apricots with the cherry mixture in a large bowl and mix gently.

Lightly grease the ramekins. I like a lot of streusel, so I added a bit on the bottom of each ramekin first. Add a couple large spoonfuls of the fruit mixture until each dish is full. Sprinkle extra streusel on top and place in the oven. Bake for about 25 minutes or until the fruit is bubbly and the streusel has browned. Cool for a few minutes, add a scoop of ice cream or some whipped cream, and enjoy!

*Note: the price includes the cost of cherries at the store, since not everyone has the chance to have free ones!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Recipe: Mini-Mart "Taco" Salad

So I’ve been dealing with some rather scary stuff lately (can we say Peeping Tom? EEK!!!), and I haven’t been all that inspired to eat, let alone write. But this actually worked to my advantage so that I could finally bring you the mostly mini-mart meal that I’d talked about last month. When you’re dealing with life’s problems, making fun new creations in the kitchen isn’t top priority; you just want to eat and get it overwith. As I’ve mentioned in the past, there have been some readers that have grumbled about not having access to places like Trader Joe’s or local farmers markets (which should be a federal offense, in my opinion), making it more difficult to access the low food prices I’m able to find. I try to make sure I feature different types of food stores when I do the $25 Shopping Cart, and I also use major grocery store prices when calculating most of my meal costs so that I reflect costs more fairly, though one can still do some great, low-cost grocery runs at any store, if one shops wisely.

However, that doesn’t really address the issue of accessibility. Let’s face it: not everyone lives in places that have major chain grocery stores, or even a Costco so that one can do some bulk buying. Sometimes the only available store is the corner store, and we all know they don’t often have the lowest prices or the best selection. Still, I don’t believe that this means one would be forced to make a meal of Twinkies & some orange soda (ugh, I think I got a cavity just typing that!). Again, if you stay creative and build around what you may already have at home, you can have a tasty, relatively healthy meal.

I’m lucky enough to have one of these mini-marts around the corner from my apartment. Like with most neighborhood stores, you get to know the folks that work there, so it’s always fun to pay them a visit. This time around, I came armed with the knowledge that I had some lettuce at home that I wouldn’t mind turning into a salad, with some help from extra fixings, of course. As I wandered through the store, I scoped out some cans of Herdez Salsa Casera, this amazing Mexican salsa that could only be more delicious if they’d prepared it at my table; a fine assortment of beans; Salsa Verde Doritos….. Presto! I decided I’d be having my favorite “taco” salad. I picked up a can of pinquito beans (small pink beans in cumin, garlic, and other spices), some of the Herdez salsa, a bag of the Doritos, and a small block of pepper jack cheese. The grand total was $7.96, which seems a little high for such a small amount of groceries on first glance. But with my giant head of green leaf lettuce (on sale at Safeway for just $1/head!) and the fact that I wouldn’t need to use all the cheese, I knew I could make at least two giant salads out of this stuff, if not three. Not bad at all, especially when you consider the “prep & cooking” time for this meal is all of 5 minutes. This is a quick, cheap, tasty no-brainer of a meal that you can definitely modify by adding chicken or beef, or a different type of bean. And it’s only a tiny bit bad for you because of the chips, but we all need a little treat now & then!

PS – this is also the first cheese I’ve had in *drumroll please* SEVEN WEEKS! Hope you’re all as proud of me for my cheese detox as I am! :)

Mini Mart “Taco” Salad (serves 2-3; total cost per serving: ~ $2.75)

3 c green leaf lettuce, chopped
1 can pinquito or black beans
6 oz. your favorite salsa
3 oz. pepper jack cheese, shredded
Couple large handfuls of your favorite tortilla chips (I like to use Salsa Verde Doritos because they have a nice spicy kick)
Chicken or beef (optional)
Sour cream & guacamole (optional)

Rinse & dry the lettuce and chop into bite size pieces. In the meantime, lightly drain the beans and heat over medium low heat for about 4 minutes, or until completely heated through.

Assemble your salads by placing about a cup of lettuce and a large handful of tortilla chips into bowls. Add the beans and top with shredded cheese, salsa, and a small dollop of sour cream or non-fat yogurt, as well as any meat and extra garnishes. Sprinkle with a little extra cheese in my honor, and enjoy! :)

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

What's In Store for June

It's always fun to see one's work not only appreciated, but put into practice. Some of the guys at work have started their own little club: Poor Guys Eat Good. Though it's a grammatical nightmare, I think it's super cute that they've all started to bring their own ingredients and making something, as opposed to just microwaving a Hot Pocket or going out to the roach coach for some deep fried fat with a side of lard. They started out a little oddly with a giant restaurant-size can of nacho cheese sauce and other nacho fixings (they ate nachos solidly for 2 weeks), but they've moved on to healthier fare like salads & tuna sandwiches. When I asked them what made them make the switch, they all admitted it was a huge waste of money to be eating solely from the roach coach and that they were starting to feel "fat & sluggish". They'd seen me eating better food and not waste money, and figured they could do the same.

My mission there is pretty much complete!

I just thought it'd be fun to share that little tidbit with you fine readers. Though I love creating my own recipes and sharing my School of Hard Knocks lessons with you, my main goal is to encourage everyone to make little lifestyle changes to help both your health and your wallet. These guys will probably never have Rainbow Chard & Roasted Beet Fettuccine of their own accord, or a Breakfast Tofu Scramble. But they've found their own ways to eat a little healthier and save themselves money, and they got it from watching my crazy antics in our breakroom kitchen. Now, the fact that you're all enjoying my recipes is really amazing (and flattering!), but it's so wonderful to receive emails from readers saying that they've been able to slash their grocery bills by a third, or those who have renewed their love for cooking after many long years away from the kitchen. And today I found a new little feature on PGEW's Facebook Fan Page with a ton of fan comments, one of which thanked me for posting recipes that are both budget-friendly AND good for folks with celiac disease! I try to post things that will allow people with different tastes & food philosophies to join in the fun, but I've always felt like I wasn't doing enough for folks with special diets. Now I know I'm helping those that need to be gluten-free and that is awesome to me! Hopefully I can work on foods for those of you who have other dietary concerns.

Anyway, the point of all my babbling is that the only thing in store for the month of June is just more of the same good stuff. Rather than list what I have in mind for this month in detail (though CHERRIES are playing a huge role!), and not having time to get to all of it (mini-mart meal's a-comin'!), I just pledge to bring you more great food and more tips on how to stretch your dollar as much as possible. Trust me, this has been as much a learning experience for me as it has been a creative one, so I also benefit, and I have you great folks to thank for it. Hopefully it's a little of both for you as well!

In the meantime, here are a few shots of some of the food my mom & I made over the Memorial Day weekend. I may feature some on the site at some point after a little tweaking. We shall see, we shall see.

Happy June!

Salmon & Veggie Skewers

My first homemade sushi! (Not half bad for an amateur, eh?)

Ahi Tuna, Mango, etc., etc. Salad ;)


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