Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Recipe: Roasted Beet & Farro Salad with Feta and Caramelized Onions

Having just come off of last week’s Hunger Challenge, one would expect that I would go all out and have some elaborate meals to celebrate my return to “normal” eating. Trust me, that’s what my tummy was asking for! Ironically, I am faced with another paltry couple of weeks in which I will probably be forced to keep my daily food budget close to the $4 we Hunger Challengers were allotted (gotta love rent time!). Though I would have loved to enjoy some crazy cheese-filled concoction or something equally evil, I have made my peace with having to stick with more Bare Bones type meals for a few more days. Especially when I know I can make Bare Bones meals far more interesting than one would expect, which is exactly what I did with this fun hybrid of a recipe.

Just a few days ago I would have called anyone who tried to roast anything – beets or otherwise - utterly crazy, since most of California was roasting just fine on its own and needed no help from local ovens. Alas, autumn has finally made its presence known with a little crisp nip in the morning air and fiery colored leaves on all the trees, so it seemed like a good time to reacquaint myself with my oven. A few fresh beets still lingered in my fridge from my final farmers market foray for awhile (choir season’s back in full swing, so farmers markets are few & far between *sob*) and I planned on roasting them for some random recipe. As I was trying to come up with said random recipe, another idea popped into my head and I decided to combine my idea with one that I saw on epicurious.com a couple years ago.

My original idea was to somehow incorporate beets into a nice warm farro salad, but as the idea of sweet roasted beets combined with smoky caramelized onions and chewy farro began to take shape, I was reminded of a similar farro-less beet recipe that I’m almost a fan of. Because I find the flavors of that particular dish completely unbalanced when made as written, I haven’t really gone back to it. However, the idea of the whole thing seems genius and I’ve wanted to play with it for some time now, just to get it to where I think it should be flavor wise. With a little tweaking here & there, I knew I could turn into a deliciously healthy meal that will not completely assault your palate with salt.

You can certainly use canned beets if you don’t find any worthy fresh ones to roast. The dish will still taste great and you’d only need about 1 can tops to yield the same amount as the roasted ones do. It might be fun to try sautéing the beet greens and adding them to the whole thing, something I would have done if they had been worthy of saving. Let me know how it turns out if you try it that way!

Roasted Beet & Farro Salad with Feta and Caramelized Onions (serves 3-4; total cost per serving: ~ $1.70)
3 medium beets
2 c cooked farro
1/2 large yellow onion, sliced into thin strips
1/2 c fresh spinach, cut into ribbons
3 T olive oil
1/2 t salt
3/4 t sugar
2 oz. crumbled feta

3 T rice vinegar
2 T Dijon mustard
1 T honey
1/2 t salt
2 T olive oil

Preheat the oven to 400. Rinse the beets very well and pat dry. Wrap each beet individually in foil. When oven is heated, place the beets inside and roast for about 25 minutes. In the meantime, prepare the dressing by combining all ingredients and whisking together well. Divide into two separate bowls and set aside.

While the beets are roasting, heat the 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet. Add the onions, salt and sugar, and cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes, or until the onions become a deep caramel brown. When the beets are done, carefully remove the foil wrappings and place in a bowl with cold water. When they are cool enough to handle, rub off the peel with your fingers. Cut any stems or root ends that may remain, then chop into 1” cubes.

Pour one of the bowls of dressing onto the beets and toss together. Place the farro in a large bowl and pour the rest of the dressing on top, along with the caramelized onions (you may want to reserve a bit of the onions for garnish). Add the spinach and toss together well. Place a bit of the farro & spinach mixture on a plate, top with plenty of beets, crumble a generous amount of feta on top, and enjoy!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Hunger Challenge Days 4 & 5 and a recipe!

As a Virgo it pains me not to compartmentalize these last two days into individual posts; it’s in my obsessively organizational nature to put everything into sections, boxes, compartments. Alas, Day 4 was so uneventful that it didn’t really warrant its own post, so rather than bore you, I thought I’d just do a grand finale post.

Day 4: As I said before, it was rather uneventful. With the new choir season starting this week, as well as the wonderful blogging event I was invited to be a panelist for by the Sacramento Press, not to mention one of “those” weeks at work, I’ve been a very busy little bee. Fortunately (and because of my master planning skills), I had plenty of leftovers, so I was good to go. I started the day off with another Scrambled Egg & Tomato Sandwich, followed by a lunch of leftover Curried Garbanzo Beans with rice. Though the spread at the Sac Press blogging event looked fabulous, I was a good girl and waited to have dinner afterwards, which was a nice plateful of the Seitan Stir-fry with Quinoa. A buffet of leftovers, my day’s total came to about $2.75. Not bad, not bad at all. The only thing worthy of remarking is the discomfort of hunger. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like this is the first time I’ve felt it; but except for those moments when I was trying to remain painfully thin (around a size 2/4), I have not felt hunger this badly. In fact, I haven’t felt it this badly since I started PGEW (which proves I eat well, lol), and with the whole hypoglycemic thing, it’s been more uncomfortable than I remember. Still, I was able to remain alert enough to not answer questions stupidly on the blogger panel! That’s good enough for me.

Day 5: The last day!!!!!

I never thought I would be looking forward to the end of this. The hunger had finally become a constant, but it was not something I could ignore. Because of my regular frugal habits the hunger challenge was probably easier for me than for most folks, but it was still very hard. I wanted to make sure to stick it out until the bitter end, though (which technically isn’t until today, but I chose the workweek approach to my hunger challenge), and I did. For breakfast I continued to use my never-ending pot of quinoa and made a breakfast bowl with some mixed berries and almonds. Not only was it beautiful to look at, it was really tasty and filling. I think I will just add some sort of spice like nutmeg next time I make it, just to kick things up a bit. The total for the whole bowl came out to about $0.85; a very good start to the day.

When I looked to see what I had left in my fridge, I noticed there was still a bit of hummus left in the last little tub I’d bought, so I was all excited to make an H.S.A.T. Then I realized I didn’t have spinach or avocado, nor could I afford to buy them, so I improvised and made a hummus, lettuce, and tomato sandwich instead (and H.L.T.). Not quite the same as the best sandwich ever, but still very yummy. I had it with about half of my yogurt cup, so lunch came to around $1. For dinner, I made things really easy for myself and just had the rest of Day 4’s dinner, the Veggie & Seitan Stir-fry with Quinoa. I went all out and had some pomegranate-berry yogurt with mixed berries for dessert, so the evening meal came out to $1.65. Grand total for the day: $3.50. Way to go, me! I actually made it through the whole week. :)

I wanted to thank all of you for supporting me this week. It was harder than I thought, though obviously not impossible to do, as there are thousands that live this way day in, day out. Thankfully, everything I’ve preached about for the past year helped me survive this week without having to resort to having a couple of carrot sticks every couple of hours. Hopefully this exercise has opened your eyes and mind about hunger as much as it has mine. One thing is eating on a very small budget because that’s all I have; another is having to live like so many people who go to bed feeling those uncomfortable pangs of hunger because there’s just no other choice. I highly recommend doing this even if it isn’t during the Hunger Awareness month of September. It’s a wonderful way to put things into perspective for yourself and to really reassess your daily spending habits. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t enjoy the things that you can afford to get; by all means, enjoy it! You earned it. It’s just good to remember that we should be extremely grateful for what we do have, never forgetting that there are others out there who somehow find joy with so much less, people that we can help by being conscious of not wasting valuable food and keeping local food banks well-stocked for the people who need their services.

Now for one last Hunger Challenge recipe:

Mixed Berry & Almond Quinoa Bowl (makes 1 serving; total cost: $0.85)

3/4 c cooked quinoa
1/3 – 1/2 c frozen mixed berries
1 T sugar
Couple drops of lemon juice
1/2 T butter
1/8 c almonds, roughly chopped

Melt the butter in a small saucepan. Add the berries, sugar and lemon juice, and cook over medium low heat, until the berries begin to soften and a light syrup is created with their juices & the sugar. Add the quinoa and cook until heated through. Serve in a large bowl with plenty of chopped almonds on top, and enjoy!

Hunger Challenge Recipe: Veggie & Seitan Stir-fry

When I was a kid and we were either pressed for time or money, my mom would make what she would call a “mess” for dinner. Messes usually consisted of some sort of veggie, some sort of meat (usually ground beef or turkey) and it was all cooked together and served either with a salad or some rice. She called them “messes” because she just threw a whole bunch of random things together and cooked it up into something that may not have been food porn-esque, but delicious and very filling.

This particular stir-fry is inspired by the idea of the “mess”. I had some leftover quinoa from that one cup I had cooked that morning, a tiny bit of frozen mixed veggies, and half a package of seitan. With some soy sauce and a little bit of garlic, the whole thing turned out quite well! I used mixed veggies & pepper strips, along with some leftover Swiss chard, but feel free to make your own “mess” with whatever veggies you have on hand! This is a great way to make use of all those pesky little bits & pieces that may be lurking in your fridge & freezer.

A quick note for those who wonder how this can be something you can have when you’re extremely strapped for cash: this can be done. Yes, seitan is not easily found in regular grocery stores, but with the help of some research and reader comments, I’ve learned that even places like Trader Joe’s and the Co-op will accept the EBT (food stamps) card, so it is possible to purchase it. It is also the type of food that is added to other ingredients, not eaten on its own, so it will yield quite a bit more of the finished product than it appears it will. I used half a package and was still able to make enough for 2 large servings of this. You could also make this with tofu (especially if you have wheat allergies) and cut your cost WAY down. The other important thing to remember is that if you shop smart you will eat smart. Just because you’re struggling does NOT mean that you cannot change your shopping habits to benefit you! From spices to seitan, as long as you shop wisely and have a working stove or even a little buffet burner, you can make great, delicious food.

Veggie & Seitan Stir-fry with Quinoa – (Serves 2; total cost per serving: $1.07)

5 oz. seitan, cut into small strips
¼ c frozen mixed vegetables
¼ c frozen mixed bell pepper strips
2 T soy sauce
½ t granulated garlic
1 T cooking oil
¾ c cooked quinoa

In a large skillet heat the oil over medium high heat. Add the seitan and granulated garlic and brown quickly, about 1-2 minutes. Add the frozen veggies & peppers and cook until heated through. Lastly, add the chard and soy sauce, and cook until the chard has barely wilted. Serve over a nice bed of quinoa and enjoy!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Hunger Challenge Day 3

Day 3.

I’m not sure why, but the 3rd day of the Hunger Challenge was tough for me. Everything started out just fine: I decided to cook a big batch of quinoa in the morning so that I could make different meals with it throughout the day. I’m sure some of you have noticed that I’ve done that with different ingredients this week, like the ham from Day 2, etc. This can be a very good way to help keep costs down while experimenting with different foods. Sure, having the same type of food all day long may seem boring at first, but it forces you to get creative no matter what.

I happen to love quinoa and everything about it, so it was easy for me to use this as my base ingredient. A lot of people have asked me why I use such an “expensive” ingredient if I’m so broke. That’s because quinoa is not that expensive if you buy it in bulk and consider how much it yields. I used one cup of dry quinoa and was able to get about 2 ½ cups of cooked product. Because cooked quinoa also fluffs up well like cooked cous cous, you end up with quite a bit of it when all is said and done. From that one cup – which costs anywhere from $1.25 to $2, depending on where you buy it – I was able to make 3 different meals and still have leftovers to make more dishes later on. Even at the $2/cup price, if you’re able to make 3 meals that can make at least 2 servings, you can see how cost effective eating quinoa can be. The biggest bonus (aside from how versatile it is) is the fact that it’s nothing but easy calories & nutrition! That’s a way better deal than any Twinkie, Pop Tart, or other scary, overly processed junk food you can find! When you think about it in terms of something like the Hunger Challenge, you can see how eating quinoa is actually a very good option for those who can’t afford to spend too much on food.

For breakfast, I returned to my first recipe post of 2009, Warm Breakfast Quinoa with Cinnamon Apples & Almonds. Though it’s quite sweet, it still packs some good nutrition from the apples, almonds & quinoa. At lunch, I combined leftover Chipotle Corn Chili from Day 1 and added it to about ½ cup of quinoa (which really helped calm the heat of the chili!). And for dinner, I got all sorts of creative with the tiny amounts of frozen veggies left in my freezer and made a nice little seitan stir-fry that was also served with quinoa. Each meal was $1.25 or under, making my daily total just $3.55!

HOWEVER………….. Poor Girl’s slight case of hypoglycemia started to kick in around 3pm and by the time I got home from work I was cranky and a little woozy. So I succumbed to temptation and ate an entire pack of that super thinly sliced turkey. It has about 10 paper thin slices in a pack and is only 90 calories for the whole thing, so it’s not entirely evil. But it cost $0.79! :( It made me go over my budget by 34 cents. *sigh*

This really made me wonder how those who have similar medical issues but not enough money get through the day. When I worked at crisis houses for people with mental illness way back in the day, I had several clients who had physical health issues like hypoglycemia, diabetes, etc., which were sometimes hereditary but a lot of times due to their psychotropic medications. Making sure they ate decently was easy for staff members to do because the crisis house provided their food, but when they went back to living on their own, their tiny SSI stipend (and lack of knowledge on the matter) made it very difficult for them to eat right.

Once again, even if Poor Girl is constantly struggling, this hunger challenge really puts one into hypermode, magnifying everything that real hunger can bring about. I know I will be far more conscious of these matters from now on!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Hunger Challenge Recipe: Curried Garbanzo Beans

I’ve mentioned before that I love Indian food but have no clue how to cook it properly, since I have not yet been taught all the proper spice combination secrets. However, it doesn’t mean that I don’t try to make something Indian-esque from time to time. Though this is far from authentic, it’s still full of the flavor and aroma that Indian cuisine is known for, making this a delicious and healthy option for anyone to try.

Though the spice issue can be a problem for some, especially if you’re not able to afford or find some of the more exotic spices out there, one good thing about food from this area of the world is that it’s based in what I call “bare bones staples” (things like grains & legumes). This makes it easy to make some pretty basic recipes at the very least, and you can find most of these items in most grocery stores. If you are lucky enough to have a decently stocked spice pantry, you can play around with aromas and flavors as much as you like. That’s exactly what I did with this simple dish. What if you find spices to be too expensive? Check out my tip on how to Find Your Spice Staples for some cost-effective tips on how to stock your spice pantry. Even with a very, very limited income, (which I, myself, am definitely feeling right now), you can still have access and afford some of the things that can make even the most ordinary food really tasty.

Curried Garbanzo Beans – Makes 3 servings; Total Cost for Recipe: $1.22; Cost per serving (with rice): $0.51
1 can of garbanzo beans, drained, with liquid reserved
½ medium tomato, diced
½ yellow onion, diced
1/8 t curry powder
1/8 t ground nutmeg
1/8 t sea salt
1/8 t granulated garlic
1/8 t cayenne pepper
2 T cooking oil

Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté until they begin to soften and become translucent. Add the beans and about half the reserved liquid, as well as the diced tomatoes and all the spices. Cook over medium low heat for about 10 minutes or so, allowing the garbanzos to soften and absorb the flavor. The sauce should thicken on its own during the cooking process. Serve over white rice, add some fresh cilantro if you like, and enjoy!

Hunger Challenge Day 2 + Recipes

Day 2 of the Hunger Challenge proved to be a bit more difficult than the first day. This was largely due to the fact that we had our Staff Appreciation Luncheon yesterday, and the rules of the challenge do mention that you can’t accept food that’s been offered to you, so that left me out of the food portion of the festivities. It wasn’t too hard to resist, though; I didn’t even go by the food table to see what they had, so there was not too much temptation. The little I could see people having looked fabulous though, so I’m glad my coworkers got to partake in some delicious looking Hawaiian style food. (One of my coworkers had seconds “in my honor” though, which was nice, lol.) Of course, the fact that I wasn’t eating became a topic of conversation at my table, and it gave me a great opportunity to share the challenge with others, as well as remind them about hunger awareness, so that was good. Our newspaper may look into featuring me in a story later regarding the whole thing, and considering their reader audience, I think it will make a fabulous feature. We’ll see how that goes.
Before I go on, I wanted to point out that a lot of folks have asked me why the rules for this challenge are so strict, especially in light of the fact that work function food can sometimes be a means of survival for those who cannot afford to buy too much food. However, I realized that in the scope of this challenge, it would be too easy to “cheat” so to speak. The whole point is to get an idea of not just how difficult it can be to spend $4 or less on food everyday, but what it’s like to feel that. Hunger isn’t a very comfortable feeling and most of us are not aware of what that’s like. Getting free food from work or friends will definitely help you fill up, and that defeats the whole purpose of the challenge. At least that’s how I’ve interpreted it.

Anyway, I started out the day with a small breakfast burrito made with a couple of eggs and half a package of the thinly sliced ham that I got at Safeway the other day. Wrapped in a whole wheat tortilla and accompanied by a simple tomato & green onion mixture, this was really quite satisfying without being overly filling (nothing worse than food coma at the beginning of the work day!). For lunch I had half of my leftover pasta & tuna salad from the day before, along with a simple ham, lettuce & tomato sandwich. People kept on offering me leftovers of the very lovely cupcake “cake” they had made for dessert earlier, but I was very good about resisting. It’s funny, though; it really puts everyone’s eating habits into perspective when you’re doing something like this. Sometimes we just don’t realize how much extra food we consume throughout the day just because it’s there, even if we’re not really hungry; food that others could probably use. Food for thought, so to speak.

Dinner was fun because it made my kitchen smell incredibly delicious and I was able to make the entire recipe for about $1.50. Granted, I had the help of some clearance priced ingredients, but when you’re living on a tight budget the clearance section can be your very best friend. I made a fabulous little dish of curried garbanzos which I served over some leftover rice from the night before, which helped to cut the cost of the meal. Though I wanted to have a small salad with it, I found this was more than enough on its own and decided to save my greens for another day.

All in all, this hasn’t been too much of a hassle for me. Perhaps it’s because I’m pretty much used to doing everything I can to stretch my food budget as much as possible. Still, when I did some very generalized calculations of my food intake in dollars, even at PGEW level I can eat about $6-7 worth of food per day (especially if I’m getting all exotic). Those couple extra dollars really add up, especially when you don’t have them to spend on food. The whole thing has made me even more conscious of my kitchen habits, so even though I’m really good at eating on a tiny budget, I could always do better. Don’t worry, though! I won’t stop posting the good stuff! I’ll just eat more frugally on my “off” days. :)

And now, for a super easy breakfast recipe (Dinner to follow in a separate post. Lunch was just a sandwich, so you should be able to figure that one out on your own, lol):

Ham & Egg Burrito – Cost for 1 burrito: $0.65

1 whole wheat tortilla
2 eggs
4 slices deli-thin ham (like Buddig, etc. Bigger brand names will cost WAY more!)
1 T chopped tomatoes
1 green onion, chopped
Salt & pepper to taste

Slowly heat the tortilla in a large skillet. Chop the ham into bite sized pieces. Scramble the eggs in a separate pan and add the ham towards the end of the scrambling process. Spoon the egg & ham mixture into the tortilla, add the chopped tomatoes & onions, and season with salt & pepper. Wrap into a burrito and enjoy!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Hunger Challenge Recipe: Chipotle Corn Chili

As I prepped for the challenge last night, I took stock of what was in my cupboard. It was modestly well stocked in the grains department, but all I had in the way of my beloved legumes was a can of dark red kidney beans. Granted, they were organic Whole Foods beans (a great deal at $0.89), but I like having variety. My inward pouting stopped when I saw the little can of chipotle peppers beside it. They already seemed to like being together, so why not turn them into a dish? With a couple other canned ingredients and some spices, this turned out to be way better than I expected it to. The best part is that it can be made by anyone; even if they're limited in the spice department it will still be tasty and nutritious.

Chipotle Corn Chili - Makes 4 servings; total cost per serving: $1.33

2 c cooked white rice
1 can dark red kidney beans, undrained
1/2 can sweet corn
1/2 can diced tomatoes
1/2 yellow onion, diced
2 T cooking oil
1/4 T chili powder
1/4 t cumin
1/4 t salt
1/4 t granulated garlic
1 chipotle pepper and its adobo, finely chopped
Small handful of cilantro (optional)

Heat the cooking oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the diced onion and sautee for about 2 minutes, until they begin to soften. Add the beans, tomatoes, chipotle pepper and all the spices, and stir together. Cook over medium heat for a couple of miuntes then reduce heat to medium low and simmer for about 10 minutes.

Serve over white rice or on its own. Garnish with chopped cilantro to cool the heat of the chipotle a bit, and enjoy!

Hunger Challenge: Day 1 + Recipes

Today I began my Day 1 of the San Francisco Food Bank’s Hunger Challenge. Though the challenge officially started yesterday, I chose to use the Monday through Friday workweek as my challenge timeframe.

Oddly enough, this challenge coincides with the return of my uber tight living, now that my rent is due again. For those of you who are new or don’t remember, I had prepaid a couple months after I received my tiny little windfall this summer, so I was able to have a little breathing room and catch up on other bills for a change. Now, the evilness of rent looms before me once more, and because I am a temp at this new job – meaning no real benefits or cushy things like holiday pay – paying for everything will just be that much harder from now on. I knew I’d be facing this, so the Hunger Challenge will actually be helpful to me, as it will keep me more mindful of using my bare bones recipes more often.

I only bought a few things for the week, partly because I still had a decent amount of food from when I'd last gone shopping, and partly because I currently have $18 to my name and have to feed the cats, too. I have been very good about keeping the grain portion my Bare Bones Staples well stocked, so I had a good starting base. As usual, I surveyed what I had before I went shopping so that I wouldn’t waste my precious few dollars on any duplicates, and because of transportation & time issues I had to head to my local Safeway for my shopping trip. Of course, I would have preferred to go to Trader Joe’s or even Food Source, but I’m not certain that TJ’s accepts EBT cards (California’s food stamp card) and Food Source was just a bit too far & expensive to get to, since the transit fare hike started this month.

Still, if you really pay attention to prices and keep an open mind, you can do wonders with very little. I spent $10.37, $4.50 of which was actually cat food (my babies need to eat too), and I was able to get:

~ 2 cans sweet golden corn (on clearance at 50% off)
~ 1 can garbanzo beans (also 50% off)
~ 1 yellow onion
~ 2 packets of thin sliced deli meat
~ 2 tomatoes
~ 2 containers of yogurt

With the grains and few veggies I still had at home, I know I’d be just fine this week.

The trick was just finding the right combination and being mindful of serving sizes (something that actually ends up helping you out in the long run to ensure healthy portion control). As you can tell by the picture of my lunch today (Pasta & Tuna Salad), I packed it in my ridiculously adorable bento box, which holds about 1 ½ cups of food. That’s actually a pretty decent size amount that definitely satisfies you, and I was able to make that one dish last a little longer by not eating as much. Gotta love that. So far, I saw this as a great exercise even for someone as frugal about things as I am. But that’s not the point of the exercise, and I became very aware of that today. Even though I cut costs and calories, which is always awesome, today I also realized that those who are receiving the very limited assistance that’s available to them need to do this all the time just to make sure they don’t go hungry. I go through moments when I have to do that myself, so I know what this is like. But I never go through it for more than 2 or 3 days. Five days will definitely be a challenge.

Day 1 hasn’t been bad at all, except for the not-being-able-to-have-coffee thing. Though I don’t do it for the caffeine and only have what’s at work (which is quite good for an office), I love my morning coffee routine at work. But it’s against guidelines (you’re not allowed to take food people offer you either). Other than that, I think I fared okay. Here was today’s menu:

Breakfast: Scrambled Egg & Tomato Sandwich
Lunch: Pasta & Tuna Salad
Dinner: Chipotle Corn Chili and Rice
Dessert: Pomegranate Raspberry Yogurt

I ate about $3.30 worth of food when all was said and done today, and that was with a tiny serving of dinner seconds (seriously, that chili turned out really good!). I did feel hungry throughout the day, as I’m used to grazing during work hours (grazing… I just made myself sound like cattle, lol); having to stick to my 3 squares again was a little rough. But I made it through with my incessant water drinking, which I normally do anyway but will definitely be stepping up this week to help feel satisfied.

I do have to admit that it was tempting to wait until payday to get the kitty food and get a few more items to bring a couple more elaborate recipe ideas to life now. But I remembered the rent, rent, evil rent, and did the prudent thing, knowing I could do just fine without the fun stuff. It’s kinda fun to be a little less impulsive every now and then and really appreciate the little one does have.

Don't forget to check in tomorrow for Day 2! And now, here are the recipes for breakfast & lunch. Dinner tonight will be the spotlight recipe, so it gets its own post. Enjoy!


Scrambled Egg & Tomato Sandwich - Cost per sandwich: $0.82

2 eggs
1-2 T chopped tomatoes
2 slices whole grain bread
1 T butter or margarine, divided

Toast the bread and spread 1/4 T butter on each slice. Heat the remaining butter in a small skillet. Whisk the eggs together briskly and pour into the skillet. Scramble together until light & fluffy but not too dry. Add the tomatoes and mix in well. Spoon the egg mixture onto the bread, put sandwich together, and enjoy!

Pasta & Tuna Salad - Makes 2 1-cup servings; total cost per serving: $1.10

1/2 c rainbow fusilli (regular is also fine)
1 can chunk light tuna in water, drained
1 Roma tomato
3 green onions
3 T Italian salad dressing

Cook the fusilli according to package instructions. Drain and rinse under cold water until cool. Add the tuna, tomatoes, green onions and salad dressing, and toss together until completely combined. Throw some crumbled feta on top if you've got it or have on its own, and enjoy!

Friday, September 18, 2009

PGEW joins the San Francisco Food Bank's 2009 Hunger Challenge

Okay, PGEW fans - it's time to get a little serious for a moment.

For just over a year now, I have shared my personal struggles and solutions to some of my problems here on Poor Girl Eats Well. Though it's become quite the creative outlet for me, the bottom line is that this is for real. I don't pretend to be "poor" because it's the plight du jour and will gain a lot of readers like some folks have done. I truly have a hard time making ends meet most of the time; I sometimes count change to buy some tomatoes and cat food; and I make the most of every single ingredient I'm lucky enough to have in my kitchen. In fact, I'm already cringing at the thought of the next few weeks, as my lovely couple of months of pre-paid rent has come to an end and I am feeling the pains of being a temp. Sure, I make everything look and taste really good on my little site, but I do have to work quite a bit to get to that point within my limited means.

The sad part is that I'm one of the lucky ones. There are millions of Americans who struggle each day with real hunger, the kind that cannot even be calmed with creative recipes because there just is nothing to get creative with, nor the means to get it. In fact, 35 million Americans are currently receiving food stamps, which are not always easy to get due to income restrictions. Though 5.3 million Californians alone live below the federal poverty line, which is just a little over $21,000/yr for a family of four, a single person like me would only qualify for food stamp assistance if my income amounted to $14,079 or less (statistics courtesy of http://www.hungerchallenge.com/). That's $7.33/hr. That's not even the state's minimum wage, and certainly not enough to cover the cost of living in California. You can see that there is not only a huge amount of people who are unable to afford all the costs of living, including food; it is also plainly evident that there is a huge gap in the system that doesn't even cover what those in financial limbo face everyday.

Because of my own difficulties; because of the touching emails I've received from real readers who are truly appreciative of PGEW and the info I share because it's helped them get through serious rough patches; and the attention from local community organizations that have requested my help in speaking at conferences dealing with issues that eventually deal with hunger & how to help overcome it, I have decided to join the San Francisco Food Bank's Hunger Challenge, a one week challenge to see if one can live on just $4 per day. From September 20-26th, bloggers, chefs, and even a San Francisco TV news personality will do their best to live on $4 a day, which is what food stamps would cover for an average Californian. This event helps to bring awareness to others about the hunger epidemic in our country, which is desperately needed in this day & age. So many have been facing these challenges - and worse - for years, and many more are joining them so that it seems there is not an end in sight. There is a definite problem here.

Again, I consider myself extremely lucky. I have a job, temporary or otherwise. I have relatively permanent shelter. I have the resources & confidence to make sure I don't go hungry. Not everyone in this state, or even the nation, can say the same. But because I'm like a lot of Americans nowadays, just a paycheck or less away from needing assistance that I probably won't qualify for, I know a little bit of what it can be like. And I want to be able to help others see that if they do have a few resources, they can also make life a little less bland by at least enjoying a meal or two. Plus, it helps to keep things in perspective. Things may seem bad, but sadly there's always someone who might be going through worse. It's good to try and truly enjoy what you have.

What does this mean for PGEW.com this week?
Since I can't start on Sunday, I will start the challenge on Monday the 21st and try to do it for the whole week. I'll probably update daily about what I've had for the day, which will, of course, include a few of the lower cost PGEW recipes, and I may post at least one new recipe - if I can make it work within my $4 budget. I'll also update on Facebook & Twitter regularly.

If you'd like to join the Hunger Challenge so that you can also help bring awareness to this important cause, you can visit http://www.hungerchallenge.com/ for more details.

Thanks for reading, everyone! I'm off to San Jose for a visit with mom (which will include a belated birthday sushi lunch on Saturday - yay!), and then it's time to buckle down and see what so many people have to live through each day.
Thanks in advance for your support on this!


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Recipe: Quick & Easy Seitan Fajitas

My vegetarian readers have always graciously thanked me for the meatless recipes I post on PGEW, and for that I am very grateful. However, I do have to admit that I do it as much for myself as I do it for them. It's obvious that I'm quite the omnivore with a healthy appreciation for meats & seafood, but I always appreciate the lightness of meals without meat. There are ways to get the best of both worlds though, and that's where seitan comes in. Also known as the vegetarian "white meat".

For those of you who are unfamiliar with this super versatile meatless product, seitan is basically cooked wheat gluten that has been marinated in tamari sauce, soy, ginger, and a whole bunch of other good stuff. The result is a chewy, "meaty" alternative to chicken or pork (I have yet to meat seitan that reminds me of steak). I wouldn't necessarily say it tastes like chicken (because according to some folks EVERYTHING does, lol), but you can fool around with spices & herbs to make it taste pretty interesting. Seitan is extremely high in protein too, making this a wonderful source for those who do not eat meat for one reason or another. Though it still hangs out in places like health food aisles or natural food stores, seitan is gaining a bigger following so you will see it crop up in stores more often. Technically you can make your own seitan too, but I've heard it's an extremely long, involved, and boring process, so for now let's just stick to the prepared seitan.

As I mentioned before, it's really versatile so feel free to get really creative with it. I am just starting to branch out from my standard stir fry seitan dishes myself, but I've had these fajitas numerous times and enjoyed them tremendously. As you can see by the photo, you can add as many of your favorite fajita accoutrements to this dish as you like! Salsa, avocados, sour cream, you name it -you're having the same delicious basic, just with a different protein source.

So what's it cost to get this fabulous faux foul? A 10 oz. package at the Sac Natural Foods Co-op will run from $3.99 to $4.99, and you will be able to get enough for four people from one package. Not a bad option when you're craving meat & it's just too expensive, or if you're just trying to cut back on extra calories by eating a more vegetarian type diet. Altogether - excluding fixin's - you're only spending about $10 to serve 4 people with these super simple fajitas. That works out to around $2.50 per serving! Make these for a fun weeknight meal and rest assured that you will be able to make something all of your guests will eat, without having to take out a 2nd mortgage on your 2nd mortgage. :)

*Note: If you have any wheat or gluten related allergies such as celiac disease, please, PLEASE use real chicken. Or some very well marinated tofu. Or don't make this at all and choose from one of the other 88 recipes (can you imagine!?) on the site! I don't want you getting sick!

Quick & Easy Seitan Fajitas (serves 4; total cost per serving: $2.50)

1 10 oz. package of seitan
1 c bell pepper strips
1 small yellow onion, cut into strips
1/2 t salt
1/2 t cumin
1/4 t chili powder
1/4 t ground black pepper
1/2 t cayenne pepper
2 T canola oil
4+ flour tortillas
Salsa, sour cream, guacamole, etc. (optional)

Cut the seitan into 1 1/2" strips of a moderate thickness. Add the salt, cumin, chili powder, and both types of pepper, and toss together until evenly coated. In a large skillet heat the canola oil. Add the onions and pepper strips and stir fry quickly over medium high heat until they barely soften. Add the seitan and cook for about 2-3 minutes, or until seitan is warmed through! Do not overcook! Because seitan is already "cooked" all you need to do is just add it at the very end.

Warm the tortillas and keep them covered so they don't cool off & dry out. Serve these buffet style with a wide array of items like sour cream, salsa, guacamole, chopped cilantro, beans, etc. As always, enjoy!

Recipe: Super Simple Tomato & Corn Salad

I've been a bit under the weather the past couple of days (I'll spare you the gory details) and haven't been too into the idea of cooking for myself. However, my frugality usually overcomes my lack of motivation when it comes to these things, and instead of ordering some take out, I figured I'd hobble to my kitchen and make myself something relatively healthy to go with some leftovers. As I peered in my fridge I saw I still had like a basket & a half left of organic grape tomatoes that needed to be used quickly. I didn't really feel like getting into anything elaborate though, so I decided to add some veggies to make a quick side salad dish.

It amuses me that this is something I probably would have thrown together at work. As I was making this I giggled to myself that this was nothing but another “ingredient assembly,” that little mess of ingredients that makes me feel all guilt-ridden for not having done anything to them but combine them.

Again, this is a complete no-brainer and certainly not genius, but it’s a fabulous example of how to use produce that might go bad if not used soon enough. I know a lot of you deal with this at some point, and you may agree that it’s an unfortunate waste of money and food when you just don’t get around to using that chard; that tomato; that bunch of asparagus. It’s one of the main reasons people give me for not eating more fresh fruits & veggies: “I never use it” or “It goes bad too fast” or “No one eats it”. Putting things together in a non-traditional way and playing around with flavors will make things interesting enough even for some finicky eaters, and when it comes to the fresh stuff, it can save you a lot of money.

Granted, I've used canned or frozen corn for this dish and there is certainly nothing wrong with that. But if have access to fresh corn, or if you’ve found a fabulous deal on the fresh stuff, use that instead! The flavor will be much more distinct. It’s also not imperative to use grape tomatoes; any ripe tomato will do for this recipe. There’s not much to the dressing either; I have been known to make something like this with only a couple dashes of my favorite Italian dressing, so if you can’t make the dressing in the recipe just use what you have! Cilantro-phobes, just omit the cilantro and you, too, will be as happy eating this as everyone else. :)

Tomato & Corn Salad (serves 3 as a side; total cost per serving: $2.17)

2 c chopped tomatoes
1 1/2 c sweet yellow corn (fresh is preferable, but frozen or canned will do in a pinch)
5 large green onions, chopped (greens & tops)
Small handful of cilantro, chopped (optional)
3 T olive oil
3 T rice vinegar
1/8 t sea salt
1/8 t granulated garlic
Plenty of fresh ground pepper

Prepare the dressing by combining the last 5 ingredients and whisk together well. Combine the sliced tomatoes, corn, chopped green onions and chopped cilantro in a large bowl and toss together. Add the dressing and mix well. Refrigerate up to an hour, serve by itself or as a nice side, and enjoy!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Recipe: Roasted Eggplant & Hummus Pizza

Oddly enough, there has been a severe lack of hummus in Poor Girl’s fridge lately. An oversight for the past few weeks, I had finally had enough of my accidentally self-imposed hummus fast and picked some up at Trader Joe’s while I was there to get StuKitty’s beloved Tuna for Cats (kitties love Trader Joe’s too!). I got my industrial size tub of course, as the value is much better ($2.99 for 8 oz. vs. $3.49 for 16 oz.), and because one can never have enough hummus. After digging in with a few carrot sticks, I set about making a giant H.S.A.T. for old time’s sake. But like a bolt of lightning, inspiration struck me hard and I decided to switch gears and have a hummus pizza, which I haven’t had in a long time.

The beauty of pizza in general is its versatility. From regular red sauce to pesto, creamy garlic sauce to barbeque sauce; from pineapple to Italian sausage to artichoke hearts – you name it and it will probably top a pizza. This opens a world of possibilities to the creative and the picky, and I’m sure you all have your own favorite combination of flavors for your pie. Using hummus as the “sauce” or base for a non-traditional pizza is always a fun alternative since it allows you to kill two birds with one stone: flavor & nutrition. Often times it’s hard to pack a bit of protein into a pizza without loading up on the fat. Hummus will definitely give you some protein while offering a delicious base to build on. You can add almost any veggie topping you can imagine and it will taste great (good way to use up leftover bits of vegetables instead of letting them go to waste!). Since I cannot get enough eggplant these days, I decided to combine that with some mushrooms, caramelized onions and feta for a nice, light dinner.

It occurred to me while making this that one could make a few of these in advance, wrap them individually in plastic wrap, and pop one in the oven whenever you’re in a hurry for a quick, healthy meal. I’d be interested to see if this works well in the freezer too, since I’ve never frozen hummus before (if you have and gotten good results, let me know!). However, I do advise doing this for other more traditional homemade pizzas if you have some time. It’s a great way to get the family involved in the dinner-making process; it solves the problem of meal planning for at least one or two meals of the week; and is a far healthier & more cost effective alternative to delivery or frozen pizzas. Made ahead of time or on the spot, I’m sure you hummus & veggie lovers will like this one as much as I do.

Roasted Eggplant & Hummus Pizza (serves 1-2; total cost per pizza: $2.05)

1 large whole wheat tortilla
1-2 T hummus
1-2 thin slices of eggplant, cut into wedges
3-4 white mushrooms, sliced
2 T caramelized onions*
2 T crumbled feta
Mixed dried herbs (optional)

Preheat oven to 425. Spread the hummus onto the tortilla in a thin, even layer. Arrange the eggplant and mushrooms on top, followed by the crumbled feta. Place on a cookie sheet and bake in the oven for 12-15 minutes, or until the eggplant has lightly roasted and the feta has begun to melt. Remove from oven, top with caramelized onions and extra feta, sprinkle with rosemary, basil, or your favorite dried herb mix, serve with a nice salad, and enjoy!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Recipe: Mushroom Asiago Omelette

This weekend was a time of random thunderstorms and lightning shows in my neck of the woods. I was rather pleased that the weather had turned a tad ugly since it went well with my case of the lazies. I did manage to get a little bit of housework done, however, including the dreaded cleaning of the fridge. While working on that little chore I was stoked to find I still had a wedge of asiago cheese to play with, as I had a few things that could benefit from this delicious cheese. Though I knew I would use some of it to make an asiago alfredo sauce for some pasta, I decided to start off by using it with some mushrooms in a nice fluffy omelette.

Now, those of you who are new to PGEW may be wondering how in the world asiago cheese can be part of a Poor Girl’s menu. It isn’t exactly a cheap cheese, though it is moderately priced compared to some other varieties. But by grating & shredding it as opposed to using pre-cut slices, I am not only able to increase the amount of usable cheese available to me, I also give myself a chance to use the cheese in a variety of different ways. One 4-5 oz. wedge will yield over 2 cups of shredded product, giving me ample room to use it or store it as I see fit. From this single wedge of cheese, I was able to make a couple of cups of a delicious alfredo sauce, a very cheesy omelette, and I still had enough left over to store for another day when asiago could be used. As I mention in my Do It Yourself tip, taking that extra time in the kitchen can end up saving you a bundle in the long run.

Flavor wise, this omelette is another fun one for either brunch or Breakfast for Dinner. The combination of lightly sautéed mushrooms and sharp asiago are complemented perfectly by the caramelized onions that are added right at the end. If you have a few leftovers of the caramelized onions, use them as a fun topping for another dish. Whether you have this or with some roasted potatoes or fresh tomato slices, either way you’ve got yourself quite the little omelette for less than half of what you’d pay for something similar at a restaurant.

Mushroom & Asiago Omelette (serves 1; total cost per omelette: ~ $3)

3 large eggs
¼ c sliced white mushrooms
¼ c grated asiago cheese
1 medium red onion, thinly sliced into 1 ½” long strips
3 T olive oil
½ t sugar
Pinch of salt
1 T butter, divided
Salt & pepper to taste

In a medium skillet heat the 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions, sugar, and salt, and cook for about 15 minutes or until the onions turn a deep brown (but do not burn), stirring occasionally.

In the meantime, lightly sauté the mushrooms in 1/2 tablespoon of butter with a little salt & pepper. Set aside. Beat the eggs in a small bowl and season lightly with salt & pepper. Heat the remaining 1/2 tablespoon of butter in a skillet and add the eggs when butter has melted. Add the beaten eggs and cook over medium high heat until most of the egg has dried around the edges & middle (for flawless omelettes, follow this procedure). Add the grated cheese and cover for about 45 seconds, so that the cheese will melt. Add the sliced mushrooms and a generous amount of caramelized onions and fold over the other half of the omelette. Serve with tomatoes, hash browns, or the side of your choice, and enjoy!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Recipe: Shrimp & Angel Hair Pasta with Sweet Yellow Pepper Sauce

Although my current food obsessions are the eggplant and the red potato, my crazy need to put sweet bell peppers in everything is still going strong. The incredibly gorgeous (and huge!) red and yellow bell peppers that were being sold throughout last weekend’s farmers market certainly helped to continue fueling this obsession, which made this a prime opportunity for recreating a dish I am still drooling over after 2 months.

This dish is inspired by the Butter Poached Shrimp with Yellow Peppers & Housemade Cavatelli that I had the pleasure of enjoying at Hawks Restaurant in Granite Bay a couple of months ago. I was so taken by the sweet yellow pepper sauce made by Chef Michael that I just knew I had to recreate it at home. Though I cannot remember all of the steps to the lengthy sauce process described to me by Chef Michael, I feel I did a decent job at bringing back that smooth, slightly sweet & spicy flavor that I fell in love with. For the Poor Girl version, I used angel hair pasta versus cavatelli (I can never find it in stores and have not gotten around to teaching myself how to make it; yes, I am lazy) and added red & yellow pepper strips for more color and texture. I also used regular cooked shrimp as that was all I had at my disposal and wanted to cut back on the amount of fat in the dish, but if and when I have a chance to buy some fresh shrimp again, I will definitely try the butter poached approach (hey, that rhymed…).

I was very pleased to know that this can easily be made at home for two people for about the same price as that of my light rail day pass. Though good quality sweet yellow peppers can sometimes cost up to $2 apiece (don't worry, you can find them way cheaper most of the time!), the recipe will yield close to 2 cups of sauce and the rest of the ingredients are fairly inexpensive. It requires a bit more work than some of my other dishes do, and offers a lovely alternative to standard pasta dishes and sauces. Not that I don’t enjoy a good marinara, alfredo, or puttanesca sauce; it’s just nice to have some non-traditional options available. This would definitely be a great dish to serve at a nice dinner party, as the colors are gorgeous and the flavors so different. Vegetarians, simply omit the shrimp and add some zucchini (that’s how I had originally planned to make it) and you will have an amazing dinner!

Just goes to show that just because you can’t get to the restaurant doesn’t mean you can’t bring the restaurant to you. :)

Shrimp & Angel Hair Pasta with Sweet Yellow Pepper Sauce (serves 2; total cost per serving: $3.50)

2 large yellow bell peppers
½ small yellow onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
½ c chicken or vegetable broth
3 T + 1 T olive oil
½ t cayenne pepper
1 cup angel hair pasta
20 large cooked shrimp
1 small red bell pepper, cut into strips
Salt & pepper to taste
Parsley for garnish (optional)

Rinse the yellow bell peppers well and slice in half. Remove the stem & seeds and rinse once more to make sure no seeds remain. Chop the pepper into 1” pieces. In a large skillet heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic & onions and cook until the onion begins to soften. Add the chopped yellow peppers and sauté until they become very soft, about 5-6 minutes. Remove from heat and cool for a couple of minutes. Place the cooked pepper & onion mixture into a food processor with the ½ cup of broth and cayenne pepper and puree until smooth.

Cook the angel hair pasta according to the package instructions. When cooked, drain, drizzle with a tiny bit of olive oil to prevent it from sticking together, and set aside. Lightly sauté the red bell pepper strips and shrimp in the remaining tablespoon of olive oil and salt & pepper to taste.

To serve, add a generous amount of the yellow pepper sauce onto a plate. Add a neat bundle of angel hair pasta on top of the sauce, then add the shrimp & peppers. Garnish with parsley & fresh ground pepper if desired, and enjoy!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Newsworthy: PGEW on the 5 O'clock News!

Yesterday marked the day when the little news spot CBS13 did on yours truly would air on the 5 o'clock news feature, "Save With Dave" with Dave Bender, and boy was I a ball of nerves! Though I knew we had captured some pretty good footage of me babbling incessantly about one topic or another (as if I didn't already talk enough; stick a camera in my face and apparently that increases by about 85%), I didn't know exactly what would be used in the final story. Alas, my worrying was in vain because the feature was really well done and I think I did okay for being my first time on TV. I love that they showed how much a family of 4 could save by eating in with one of my recipes! I don't think I've ever calculated things that way before, so that was interesting to see.

Anyway, to those of you who are just stopping by for the first time because of the news feature, welcome to Poor Girl Eats Well! I hope you enjoy the recipes and tips I share with everyone, as well as the occasional restaurant review. If you have any questions at all on tips, recipes or site navigation, don't hesitate to email me.

For those of you who are never home in time for the 5 o'clock news, and especially for those who live nowhere near Sacramento, click on the following link to watch the video of PGEW doing what she loves best.

And now, back to your regularly scheduled programming. :)

Recipe: Chicken & Guacamole Wraps

I spent this Labor Day weekend hanging out with my mom, who came to visit me from San Jose. We had a great time taking walks through Midtown, finding random vintage vinyl & book deals, and of course, cooking and eating (I’ll do a full recap of my recent late summer restaurant forays - to celebrate my birthday, friends’ birthdays, etc. - in a later blog). She headed back to San Jose yesterday and I spent the rest of the day preparing to get back to the daily grind and blogging. After playing around with a new veggie pasta recipe that will be coming up in the next few days, I set about looking into my lunch options. I’ve been seriously craving chicken and avocado and figured I’d make a little wrap out of those and some lavash bread I’d been meaning to use. However, upon inspecting my avocado supply from this weekend’s farmers market, I found that they were all extremely ripe and definitely not in the slicing category anymore. Once again I scrapped the original wrap idea, but not the chicken and avocado part. When life gives you overripe avocados, you make guacamole, and I knew exactly how to put it all together.

Guacamole recipes abound and it’s always great when you find one that really works for you. I’ve tweaked mine over the years and am rather pleased with the result, as are most people who try it. Depending on my mood, I will also add tomato to it, but I find this tastes great either way. If I can afford it, I try to serve it with things like my Spicy Shrimp Quesadillas to make the most of the condiments that can go with that dish, especially if I have friends over. Generally speaking, though, I could eat guacamole everyday if I could afford the avocados; I love it that much. Alas, that is not the case, so I try to make the most of it when I do have it. As fun as it is to do the traditional “dip” method of consumption, I do like to play with my guacamole options, and I’ve used it in a number of non-traditional ways in the past. One of my favorite ways to use it is as a spread on sandwiches and wraps. A lot of folks do this with regular mashed avocado, which is very tasty; I just feel that using guacamole takes things a step further in the flavor department.

If you barbequed this weekend and have any leftover chicken, by all means use it instead of cooking more for this recipe. This is a fabulous way to make use of leftovers to cut back on the cost, and I imagine the barbequed flavor of the chicken (not BBQ sauce, lol) will add a nice kick. Though I used lavash bread for mine, this is sure to be delicious on a flour tortilla or some regular pita bread. This is very easy to make and makes a good, healthy, portable lunch, or can work very well as a nice lazy weeknight meal. If your making this on a flour tortilla or lavash bread, you will definitely have enough to make two meals out of one wrap, since you have plenty of delicious filling inside. And it’s affordable! You only use a couple tablespoons of the guacamole on each wrap, so you can make several these or do half with chicken, half without for a nice vegetarian option, stretching your savings to the max.

Chicken & Guacamole Wraps (makes about 4 wraps; total cost per wrap: $2.25)

1 c cooked, sliced chicken (breast or thigh meat, whichever you prefer)
4 large slices of lavash bread (or 4 flour tortillas)
1 tomato, cut into wedges
1 c baby spring mix or chopped lettuce

2 large ripe avocados
½ medium red onion, finely diced
1 serrano pepper, seeded & deveined and finely chopped
1 T finely chopped cilantro (leaves and stems)
2 T diced tomato (optional)
Juice of 2 key limes (the secret ingredient, though you can also use regular limes)
¼ t sea salt

First, prepare the guacamole. Cut the avocados in half, remove the seed, and gently scoop out the avocado flesh. In a medium bowl, combine the avocado, diced onion chopped Serrano pepper, chopped cilantro, key lime juice and salt, and mash together with a fork. Check for flavor and adjust the lime juice and sea salt accordingly.

Place the lavash bread or tortilla on a plate and add two heaping tablespoons of guacamole. Using a small spatula spread the guacamole around evenly, not quite to the edge. Add a small handful of greens or lettuce then top with a generous handful of chicken and about 3 wedges of tomato. Carefully roll everything together as tightly as possible. Cut into individual slices or into two large halves, serve with tomato slices and extra guacamole if desired, and enjoy!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Review: Pancho's Cocina Mexicana - Sacramento, CA

My new job has been going pretty well so far. Though it's definitely an adjustment, I am thoroughly enjoying all the new things I'm learning, as well as finally being able to use my multilingual abilities in the workplace (and get paid for them, lol). I also love my new commute of just a 10 block walk to and from work, as opposed to my former commute of about 2 hours each way. I vary my route every day just to keep things interesting, but I inevitably find myself passing by Pancho's Cocina Mexicana everyday, as it's really close to where I work. I'd seen it plenty of times before but never really bothered to go in since I was always on my way to someplace else. Seeing as I pass this place every single day now and am sometimes too rushed to remember to pack my lunch for work, I thought it was high time to try what I've been told is a "pretty good little restaurant."

Located at 2026 Broadway, Pancho's is one of several ethnic restaurants that lines this long avenue in Sacramento. It appears a bit uninteresting from the outside as most of them do, but inside the decor is warm, cozy, and inviting, its murals and traditional Mexican accents tasteful but not overdone. The clean interior is colorful and lively, but not to the point of needing sunglasses, which I've almost had to put on in other Mexican cocinas. I also love the personal touches that they've added, like autographed pictures of Sylvester Stallone in his Rocky days; it makes it feel more homey and cozy. However, the first thing that I always notice at Pancho's is their incredibly friendly staff: they seem truly happy to see you and end up making you feel like a regular almost immediately. During lunch (I have yet to go there for dinner) you can pretty much seat yourself and your chips & salsa and ice cold water appear almost immediately in the hands of a smiling staff member. The first time I went to Pancho's and experienced such genuine hospitality, I knew I was already a fan and probably would have forgiven them for serving mediocre Mexican if that's what they actually served. Fortunately, mediocre is not the case when it comes to Pancho's.

I've only tried a few things so far and everything I have had has been truly delicious. From their a la carte quesadillas (an absolute steal for just $3.25, which includes a nice little salad) to "Pancho's Salad" (plenty of crisp lettuce and cabbage, a generous amount of marinated chicken breast and grilled mushrooms, all garnished with guacamole & salsa), the food is fresh, tasty, and light, not laden with lard as some Mexican restaurants' food can be. This time around I tried their Carne Asada Quesadilla lunch special, and once again they did not disappoint. Although I'm not of Mexican descent, I'm a bit of a carne asada snob; to me there's nothing worse than to be expecting deliciously seasoned and tender steak, only to be presented with tough little nuggets of blandness. Pancho's does it right and they do not skimp on the meat portion like a lot of other restaurants will. This quesadilla was cheesy without being overly so (though you know there's no such thing as too much cheese in Kimberland) and filled to the brim with hot carne asada, and the fact that they grill the tortilla to a slight crisp adds a fun texture that you don't usually find in quesadillas. All of Pancho's lunch specials are served with Spanish rice, refried beans, a small salad, and warm flour tortillas, all of which are freshly made and tasty. About the only thing that I found was lacking in flavor was their guacamole, though it's easily salvaged with a dash of salt and a bit of their salsa.

As I mentioned before, the amount of food you get - even in a lunch special - is generous almost to the point of obscene (you can tell by the picture), and I found I am actually able to get about 3 meals out of one lunch special! I had the quesadilla at the restaurant and took the rice, beans, tortillas and leftover salsa with me to make some no-meat burritos for lunch at work. Not bad for just $5.95! That's right, I got all that food for just a bit over $6 after tax. That comes just $2 for the three mini meals I was able to have out of one lunch special! Which brings me to the other "best part" about Pancho's: price & value. I can't stress just how Poor Girl friendly this place is! Their lunch menu ranges from $5.95 to $7.95, the short order items running from $3 to $5. Don't let the "short order" moniker fool you either. The first time I went there I ordered a bowl of their homemade soup ($3.25), fully expecting to get a regular sized bowl or cup. What I received was this giant bowl of delicious, hot soup, with plenty of rice and perfectly seasoned broth; probably a good 2-3 cups worth of soup for just $3.25. Other short order items like tacos de carnitas or a chicken quesadilla will come with a small salad and only cost about $3.75. A lot of local taquerias will charge you the same for just the one item, so I do appreciate that they try to give you a decent amount of veggies with every meal.

Other Pancho's perks that I fully intend to try one day when I have a slightly larger disposable income include their nice selection of sipping tequilas and glasses or full pitchers (!!!) of Mai Tais, margaritas, or Piña Coladas. They offer things like pozole during the regular work week, which is practically unheard of at most Mexican restaurants (though their menudo is only served on weekends like other places), and take very special care of their To Go customers, ensuring that their food is made fast & fresh so one can get going quickly. This is a huge plus for those of us who are pressed for time, especially during lunchtime.

Overall, I'd say you can't go wrong with Pancho's if you want tasty, affordable Mexican food that's obviously made with a lot of care & pride. I highly recommend them for lunch as you can get some incredible deals on real food for about the same price as a fast food "value" meal. Pancho's is a far healthier, tastier option, and you will always feel like you just ate an old friend's.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Recipe: Chicken with Summer Melon-Nectarine Relish (a.k.a. "The KOVR13 Special")

As I mentioned in "What's In Store for September" your very own Poor Girl is going to be featured on the local news. KOVR 13, our local CBS affiliate here in Sac, has a feature called Save with Dave, which highlights the best in money saving services & products. Today was the shoot (don't worry, it won't be on until next week and I'll give you the link then), and though I was a little nervous (you can tell in how babbly I am), I still had fun. I rather like having a camera around, as long as I don't have to look directly into it; that's when I start to get a little anxious.

Anywho, I have been wanting to do a chicken & fruit recipe for a couple of weeks now, and thought now was as good a time as any to try one. Though I had considered doing comfortable and safe for the shoot, I decided to be bold and experiment a bit with this one anyway. I already knew it would be a pretty tasty dish, especially considering how delicious fresh fruit has been lately. The combination of sweet & tart fruit, crisp cilantro, and spicy Serrano peppers atop some lightly seasoned chicken seemed impossibly easy and potentially delicious. And I love that the folks from KOVR 13 went along with the whole thing and watched with curious, but encouraging faces as I chopped and threw stuff together.

Once again I'm focusing on simplicity, as I thoroughly enjoy the remainder of summer fruits and veggies. Don't get me wrong, I love complicated sauces and soups and stews, but I will have plenty of that coming up as the colder weather sets in. Right now I not only want to keep the actual gruntwork in the kitchen to a minimum due to the heat, but remind myself - and others - how delicious some foods can be without a lot of fanfare. All this recipe boils down to is some chopping and some pan frying, yet you'll end up with an elegant looking, fresh tasting dish that would cost a lot more if you were to order this at a restaurant. And as I mentioned before, this dish is very healthy and low in calories, so those of you who are watching your weight can definitely throw this on the menu. The most fat you'll find here comes from the little bit in the chicken and a tiny bit of olive oil, and the melon & nectarine add an interesting texture and some unexpected fruit fiber, which is always good. In terms of the relish, I would definitely suggest preparing it as written but ahead of time (day before would be awesome), as the fruit will naturally release its own juices and you will end up with a juicier relish. I had prepared this on the spot, so this didn't end up happening for the finished product that will be shown in the shoot, but it was still very tasty.

The best part of the whole thing was letting the producer and photographer try some when the dish was finished. If I could have gotten a good shot of their faces when they tried it I would have definitely posted that because it was so fun to watch them enjoy this! The best compliment a cook can get is that look of utter satisfaction on her diner's faces, and even if I look silly on TV next week, I know I made some new fans. :)

Chicken with Summer Melon-Nectarine Relish (serves 3-4; total cost per serving: ~$2)

4 medium boneless, skinless chicken thighs (or breasts, if you prefer)
1/4 t sea salt
1/4 t ground black pepper
1/4 t ground ginger
1/4 t granulated garlic
1 T olive oil or just a few sprays of olive oil cooking spray
2-3 cups baby spring mix or spinach

1/2 cantaloupe, diced
1 small nectarine, diced
1/2 c diced red onion
1 medium Serrano pepper, seeded, deveined, and finely chopped
Small handful of cilantro, chopped
Juice of 6 key limes
1 T agave nectar (or honey)
1/4 t sea salt
1/4 t granulated garlic

Combine the garlic, black pepper, salt and ground ginger, mix together, and lightly season the chicken thighs on both sides. In a large skillet heat the oil or cooking spray over medium heat, add the chicken, cover and cook for about 6 minutes on each side, or until the chicken is no longer pink on the inside.

While chicken is cooking, combine the cantaloupe, nectarine, Serrano pepper and cilantro, and toss together lightly. In a small bowl, whisk together the key lime juice, agave nectar, salt, and garlic, then add to the fruit mixture and mix well. Allow the cooked chicken to cool for a few minutes before slicing and serving. Arrange a large handful of greens on a plate, add some of the sliced chicken, followed by a generous amount of the melon-nectarine relish. Enjoy!

Note: If you like a juicier relish, simply prepare up to a day ahead of time and store in the fridge.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

What's In Store for September

September? Seriously? If it's true that the years go by faster as one ages, I am fairly certain I will blink my eyes when I'm 58 and be 72 the next time I open them, that's how fast things seem to be flying these days. Regardless, here we are, approaching one of my favorite seasons, autumn. It's still sunny & bright out, the weather not quite as warm, and the anticipation of cozying up with cold weather foods & activities begins to tickle you. I love my sunny days, but I truly enjoy the crispness of fall.

Unfortunately, I live in Sacramento, so I will not only have to wait until late October to really start experiencing this wonderful season, I will also have to be content with the fact that autumn lasts about 4.7 seconds in this area. Leaves on trees start doing their thing whenever so inclined, it's still warm & balmy outside, and there is no point in trying to bake anything because the extra heat would just be torture. Still, I can't complain too much? Where else could I still enjoy dinners al fresco throughout the month of September and beyond, without having to drown in atmospheric humidity?

Anywho, my point is that it's September and doesn't feel like it to me. But that means I still have a few more weeks of potential BBQing and other outside dining activities, and tons more salad opportunities. Besides all that, here's what's in store for September:

~ Eggplant. And red potatoes. I am obsessed with the two right now and you will just have to allow yourself to be subjected to this. If I can combine the two in a tasty, interesting, and cheap fashion, you'll be the first to know. For now just know that more eggplant and red potatoes are in your near future.

~ Chicken with fruit. Or meat with fruit in general. Why this took so long to become a superhuge, in-your-home trend, I will never know, but I'm glad it is and I'm having fun playing with my food again. Look for a couple of those recipes very soon.

~ PGEW To Go seems to be doing fairly well and I definitely appreciate the support of everyone who has ordered one. I sincerely apologize for the delays in shipping, too. I'm the only one who gets these printed and shipped, and I was definitely not expecting the kind of response I had, so things got very backed up! I'm pretty much caught up now, so if you've been holding off on buying one, feel free to take the plunge and get one. I'm well-stocked right now.

~ Yours truly will be featured on KOVR 13's Save with Dave feature next Wednesday at 5pm! If you're a Sac local be sure to tune in, and if you're not, sit tight and I will post a link to the story the minute they send it to me. Here's to hoping the camera won't add 246308279 pounds!

That's all I have planned for now, but that doesn't mean that's all that will happen this month! I have a ton of dried goods I need to use, as well as some fun dessert ideas up my sleeve, so there'll be plenty to keep both you & me busy! Happy September!


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