Sunday, December 05, 2010

Having a plan

In September, Real Simple magazine ran a feature which included four weeks of weekday meals. In October, I decided to give the plan a go. Following someone else's meal plan was an interesting experiment. First of all, it relieved me of the task of coming up with what to make for dinner after a long day of commute-work-commute. It definitely got me back into cooking, which I hadn't really been doing previous to embarking on the four week meal plan. It also introduced me to some new recipes that I might not have tried if I hadn't been trying to stick to the menu options. There were some recipes I omitted or altered because they either included foods I don't eat (i.e. pork) or foods that were out of season. And I did spend a lot more money than I do usually because four of the five meals per week involved some kind of meat (which I, of course, buy organic).

Since then, I've come to be a fan of the planned-out-week-of-meals. After a month of eating well without having to really think about it, I reverted back to frozen pizza, boxed mac and cheese — or worse, eating out. So instead of coming up with my own weekly menus, I've been combing the internet, looking for other people's menu suggestions. I've gotten some great ideas, but I've also hit a few hurdles:

• Most menu suggestions involve a lot of meat. My favorite so far, Epicurious' Dinner Rush, features one no-meat option a week, much like that of Real Simple. Which means spending more money than I really want to — and eating more meat than I really want to.

• What makes Epicurious my favorite, though, is the variety of recipes and of flavors. And the fact that it's a little more gourmet than other sites. Many menu suggestions feature pretty blah food — what I often (unfairly) call "midwestern." Corn and bean burritos, slow-cooker spaghetti sauce, and stir-fried greens are delicious, but I'm looking for new, exciting, yet inexpensive and quick recipes. More along the lines of Thai squash curry, Brie and sweet potato flatbread, linguine with clams, and apricot-glazed chicken legs with roast potatoes.

• Other people's meal plans are definitely not going to follow my local/seasonal/organic diet. Which is how chicken paprikash, during week 3 of Real Simple's menu plan, turned into chicken stroganoff. (Tomatoes, which I don't buy once they're out of season, were swapped for a mushroom dish.)

• I've also searched for budget menus and vegetarian menus. Both put me back in the "blah food" category. Budget food suggestions always end up centered around casseroles or pasta, while vegetarian menus tend to involve a lot of beans. (Perhaps I should just start cooking Indian food all the time, which can be budget, vegetarian, and not at all boring.)

Of course, my challenges would be easily solved by planning my own weekly menus. At the moment, I don't really fancy the idea of putting in the extra effort. I have so many cookbooks and read so many food blogs — I never know what I want to make for dinner in the upcoming week. I want someone else to do the planning for me. So I think I'll stick with Dinner Rush, tweaking it as I go to reduce the meat (and the cost). And while I haven't been blogging much, I've been photographing what I've been cooking in the hopes of posting it. We'll see how that goes!

Meanwhile, if you haven't been sold on the idea of weekly menu planning, maybe this blogger will convince you.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Pumpkin quesadillas

Tonight I canned three quarts of raw-packed San Marzano tomatoes. And then I slow-roasted some more. But that's not the story I'm telling right now. Not after being on my feet for a couple hours (after work even!), diligently removing the skins from many, many tomatoes.

After all that hard work, I made dinner. Two corn tortillas with cheddar cheese, canned pumpkin, and a sprinkling of cumin. On the side, yet more tomatoes — turned into salsa, in this case — and a dollop of organic sour cream, which is so tasty I want to eat it plain with a spoon. (And occasionally, I do.)

Then I sat down, dinner on the table and the canning pot bubbling away behind me.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Trick or treat?

This year, I bought my trick-or-treat goodies from Whole Foods. And not just because I'm a food snob. Even though it would have been easier and cheaper to grab a bag of mini Hershey bars or Tootsie Pops from Target, I opted to go the route of Annie's organic fruit snacks and Snyder's pretzels. Both came in smaller, "fun-size" versions, just right for little kids in costumes who might come knocking on my door. Was I trying to impose my healthy, organic lifestyle on some unsuspecting neighborhood kids?

Not really. What I was trying to do was avoid buying chocolate. The largest producers of chocolate, including Hershey's and M&M/Mars, use cocoa sourced from West Africa, where child slave labor is used in the plantations. Seeing as I'm against child slave labor, I am therefore against chocolate (or anything!) produced by child slave labor.

There are a few companies, particularly ones that make organic, fair-trade products, from which I'm happy to buy chocolate. Dagoba, Green and Black's, and Endangered Species are my favorites. Yes, these bars are more expensive than your typical Mr. Goodbar. But isn't it worth spending the extra money to ensure that your chocolate comes from socially responsible sources?

The one child who stopped by my apartment with her father got a little packet of bunny-shaped fruit snacks on top of her mini Reece's Peanut Butter Cups and snack-size Milky Ways. Is it fair to impose my anti-conventional-chocolate beliefs on an innocently trick-or-treating child? Well, is it fair to the child about her age who was forced to work in the cocoa fields just to produce some inexpensive Halloween candy?

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Chili con veggies

Tip of the day: Keep the price down on a meaty dish by adding a lot of vegetables.

Starting this week, I'll be once again embarking on the journey that is full-time employment, which will mean coming home to make dinner at the end of a long day of work. I'll also be faced —for a little while, anyway — with the challenge of being between paychecks, which happens to follow a non-paid vacation. Will this drive me in the direction of cheap, boxed convenience food for the next couple of weeks? Not a chance.

Take tonight's chili, for instance. Most people will tell you that chili is either beans or meat and beans. And that's it, they'll say: anything else is sacrilege. But when you're broke — or don't really feel like just eating a big bowl of meat — adding veggies can really give you more bang for your buck, both nutritionally and wallet-wise. You'll still get your spiced ground beef, but you'll also be able to make a larger amount of the dish with less of it. The added vegetables will also add a lot of flavor.

I often feel like I'm preaching to the choir with tips like this. My readers (all four of you) are either vegetarian or understand and embrace the value of fresh produce. You are not the target audience of V8's most recent ad campaign, which promises two servings of fruits and vegetables in their juice to those who "just don't like the taste of vegetables." But I want to continue to emphasize the value of vegetables in a healthy, frugal, seasonal and organic, not-from-a-box diet — in case it's not already obvious that it's the cornerstone of the way I eat and the way I would like to see everyone eat! And in case you happen to be a reader who hasn't been won over quite yet.

One of the highlights of this chili is that it's a fairly quick and easy dish to throw together. After doing the prep work of chopping the veggies and browning the meat, it cooks mostly unattended. It's also cheap — and that's even if, like me, you're using some grass-fed meat from happy cows, which can sometimes be pricey. Furthermore, it lends itself nicely to doubling or even tripling, to use as lunches later in the week or to freeze for future occasions.

Chili con veggies
serves 2

1/2 lb ground beef, preferably grass-fed
1/2 onion, diced
1/2 red bell pepper, diced
1 or 2 carrots, diced
1 large clove garlic (about 1 tbsp), minced
1 tomato (about 1/2 c), chopped
1 (14 oz) can kidney beans
1/2 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tbsp chili powder
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
salt and pepper, to taste

In a large pot or skillet, brown the ground beef. In a separate pan with a little olive oil, saute the onion, bell pepper, carrots, and garlic. When the beef is done, add the vegetables, along with the tomato, beans (and liquid), and the spices. Stir and bring to a simmer over medium-low heat. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, for 15-25 minutes. (The longer it cooks, the more the flavors develop.) Serve with lime wedges, plain yogurt or sour cream, or your favorite chili toppings.

And vegetarians, it goes without saying that you can swap out the meat for more beans. Try pinto or black.

grass-fed ground beef - $3.00
organic onion - $0.50
organic bell pepper - $0.55
organic carrots - $0.25
organic garlic and tomato - from the garden
can of organic beans - $1.09
spices - I buy in bulk, so the small amounts needed for this recipe are very inexpensive, as well as difficult to calculate

total: $5.39 (without spices)
per serving: $2.70

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Cellophane noodles with sunflower sprouts and egg

Tip of the day: Learn to cook.

This may seem like obvious advice, being that this is a cooking blog, but I don't just mean be able to read a recipe and put all the ingredients together to make a meal. I mean really get to know your food. Learn what goes with what — which herb goes well in what sort of dish, which sauce can go on which pasta, what flavors taste amazing with other flavors. Learn cooking times and cooking methods until what you're doing in the kitchen when preparing a meal is almost entirely automatic. Doing this can really help when you've got an odd assortment of food in your fridge or your cupboards are feeling practically bare — it'll save you the expense of going out to eat!

The dish pictured above was made up entirely out of my head. No recipe, other than the vague memory of recipes that inspired the final outcome. I've had some leftover mung bean noodles sitting in the fridge for about a week, and it was high time I got around to using them up. I'd originally used the noodles to make pancit, a Filipino noodle dish, but I hadn't been entirely happy with the results. (It's hard to get food to taste just like your mom's!) So I wanted to try something new.

The noodles were a little firm from being in the fridge for so long, so I refreshed them with some boiling water. Then I stir-fried them in a pan to cook off any remaining water. I mixed up a sauce that I normally use to dress stir-fried asparagus or long beans, from Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, which involves oyster sauce, patis (fish sauce), and sugar. I didn't measure — I just added different amounts till it tasted good. After removing the noodles from the pan, I threw in some sunflower sprouts and wilted them with the sauce. I added that to the noodles, but then decided there weren't enough greens in there, so I just dumped what little was leftover of the sprouts, uncooked, and mixed them in.

Something seemed missing. One of my favorite breakfast foods is a bowl of rice with a fried egg on top, sprinkled with a little oyster sauce. An fried egg seemed like the perfect topping for this very simple, light noodle dish.

It was really good. 

I've been doing a lot of cooking like this lately: taking whatever I've got around the kitchen and throwing it all together to make something delicious. I'll write more in the future about the kinds of things I've been whipping up, so that you can learn to do this, too.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Do the can-can

I've had Meyer lemons coming out the ears the last couple of months. First, my tree, which is container planted and has been living at my mom's, was full to bursting with fruit. Then I acquired several pounds of the stuff when taking a walk around the neighborhood in which, up until a week ago, I used to work. What's a girl to do with so many lemons?

After making lemon bars twice, squeezing and freezing plenty of juice, and contemplating making limoncello, I decided it was high time I tried my hand at canning. I'd never done it before, though I'd definitely been wanting to. I even had a canning cookbook sitting on my shelf. But it was my new favorite book, The Urban Homestead, that finally convinced me with its no-nonsense instructions — and its insistence that you don't need a ton of fancy equipment to do it.

You can buy a canning pot, which is a really big pot with a lid that can hold several quart-size jars, depending on its size. You could also use a stock pot, if you've got one. I don't, and sells an inexpensive canning pot, which is what I went with. It comes with a jar rack, which is meant to prevent the glass jars from touching the bottom of the pot. It only fits quart jars, though, and seemed flimsy anyway. So I did what the Urban Homsteaders recommended and put a kitchen towel at the bottom of my pot.

I also purchased a jar lifter to move those boiling hot jars in and out of the pot, as well as a wide-mouth funnel, which made a huge difference when ladling steaming marmalade into the jars by preventing a big drippy mess.

Last but not least, I needed canning jars. (For those of you who don't know, you need to buy jars specified as canning jars. They come with special two-part lids, which create the hermetic seal that will keep them fresh in storage after processing.) I didn't want to buy them online for fear that one or two would crack in transit. One evening, my good pal L-Train and I searched high and low for jars, going everywhere from Home Depot to Ross to Michael's. No luck. I finally found them at Ace Hardware, though — and I didn't have to wait for them to be shipped!

If you're interested in canning, too, I would recommend getting a book like the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving. It's really important to read up on how to properly process the jars in a hot water bath, if you want to avoid getting food poisoning — or poisoning someone else if you plan to give the goodies away as gifts.

For the Meyer lemon marmalade, I followed the recipe on Simply Recipes. It includes a step for turning into pectin the seeds, ends, membranes, and anything else that isn't going into the actual marmalade. It also does not include a water bath canning process at the end (she heats her jars in the oven and just lets them cool after filled, and I don't know if that'll preserve the goods for up to a year the way water canning does) — which, again, is why I recommend you do your homework before you begin your canning adventure.


Some challenges: I have a candy thermometer, so I was able to keep an eye on the temperature as the marmalade boiled. But I couldn't get a hang of the "wrinkle test," in which a little bit of marmalade is poured onto a frozen plate and then pushed with a finger to see if its set. My marmalade was liquid every time I tried it — and I tried it numerous times. It boiled away at 220°F, the temperature it's supposed to set, while it continued to fail the wrinkle test. It was finally when I noticed that the wooden spoon I was using to stir the marmalade, when allowed to cool on the counter, was developing a film of jelly, that I decided the marmalade was ready.

Also, that kitchen towel at the bottom of the pot only sort of worked. It kept the jars from touching the scorching hot bottom, but the corners flew up under pressure from the bubbling water, knocking some of the jars on their sides or tilting them to that they touched the side or bottom of the pot after all. Righting them with the jar lifter took some maneuvering. I was uncertain if the fact that a couple of them had been on their sides would affect their ability to process properly, but upon final removal, all the jars eventually gave off satisfying pops as the lids created vacuum seals on each jar. I decided, though, that next time, I would just use a washcloth.

The marmalade turned out to be a combination of sweet, sour, and bitter that goes really well with butter and toast. I also think it would go well with vanilla ice cream. I'm looking forward to experimenting more with canning, and I hope to make lots of jam and pickles this summer. I also think that the next time I come into a boat load of Meyer lemons, I'll see about making some of that limoncello.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Easy as pizza pie

Those of you on Facebook saw me post this photo the week I made it: a Valentine's heart-shaped pizza. Made with pizza dough from the refrigerated section at Trader Joe's, it took a little work to convince the yeasty mass into the form of a heart — which it vaguely held onto as it puffed up during baking. Hidden under a generous layer of cheese were mushrooms, anchovies, and a thin layer of homemade tomato sauce.

That Valentine's Day was the first time in ages that I'd made a pizza. The Anthropologist loves pizza (who doesn't?), and we'd had our fair share in India, as well as in sports bars and from delivery before and after the trip. But since making it myself last month, I never want to call for take-out ever again. Pizza made with Trader Joe's dough is really that good. It has become by go-to dish when I don't have anything else planned for dinner, especially since I now keep canned tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, and pizza dough as staples in the kitchen.

I'm not opposed, of course, to making my own dough. I suppose I'll eventually start making large batches to keep in the fridge or freezer. Maybe I ought to start making my own mozzarella, too, so that I can have pizza made entirely from scratch. Once in a while, that might be fun, but I enjoy the ease of cutting open the plastic pouch that holds the dough, throwing some tasty toppings on, and sticking the whole thing in the oven for ten minutes. It's faster than delivery — and at $1.29 for a ball of dough, it's much cheaper.

As with anything homemade, one of the best things is that you get to control what you put into a dish. You can top your pizza with veggies straight out of your garden or from the farmers' market, pepperoni or sausage without nitrates, and maybe even some cheese made by a local dairy. I love that I can open up my fridge and invent some creative and tasty toppings — like the above slice, which has asparagus and cheese with a pesto bechamel sauce. At this very moment, I've got a pizza in the oven with some frozen corn under sliced (rather than shredded because I was feeling lazy) mozzarella, since I'm out of fresh veggies right now.

I don't think I need to convince you any further to take on the task of making your own pizza. Just do it! You can thank me later.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Bulk up

Tip of the day: Buy in bulk.

I may not have to tell you that the bulk aisle is a great place to save money while buying organic. Taking a little extra time to scoop out your own dry goods means you buy only what you need, which can result in a lower grocery bill. If you reuse your bags, it also cuts down on packaging. Plus, there are all sorts of interesting things in the bulk aisle that you may have never thought to try before, from different kinds of beans and grains to a wide range of dried fruits to vegan gummy bears — and again, because you get to choose how much you buy, you can test run a serving or two instead of immediately committing to an entire box of something you might not like.

I love the bulk section for spices. Don't let the price on the container scare you. It might say $12.45/pound of whole peppercorns, but are you planning on buying an entire pound? This past weekend, I bought "0.11 lb" (according to my receipt) of organic peppercorns for $1.37, which filled up my pepper grinder with more to spare. If bought prepackaged in a jar, 2.65 ounces can cost as much as $14. My favorite spice to buy in bulk is whole nutmeg — which gives you better flavor when you grate it yourself, rather than using already-ground. Two organic nutmeg seeds, at $17.99/pound, cost me a grand total of eighteen cents.

Buying in bulk means you need to have places to store all these goodies. Leaving them in their plastic bags is an option, if you plan to use up the contents quickly. I would recommend getting some plastic, glass, or ceramic containers, which will last longer, keep your foods fresher (and sealed away from pests), and free up the plastic bags to be reused on your next shopping trip. Buying containers can be a little costly, depending on where you buy them and what they're made of, but it's an up-front investment that will serve to benefit you and your wallet over time. Alternatively, you can also reuse jars from spaghetti sauce (if you're not making your own yet!) or mayonnaise, although they won't be big enough to hold items you'll want to have large amounts of, like flour or sugar.

But you don't have to take my word for it:
Buying from the Bulk Bin Saves More Than Just Money, from Eat.Drink.Better.
Save Some Money in the Bulk Aisle, from Let's Be Green Together
Bulk Food: A Simple Way to Save, from The Co-op Food Store

Monday, March 01, 2010

Quest for the perfect pancake

Weekends are good for breakfast foods that require some effort. During the week, I generally stick to cold cereal, oatmeal, or, on the odd occasion, hard-boiled eggs. Weekends, when breakfast doesn't usually happen until noon, allow more time for things like omlettes, muffins, and pancakes.

We've been eating a ton of pancakes around here lately. Which is funny because I'm not the biggest fan of them. Don't get me wrong: I'll eat a stack of pancakes if they're there. I'm just not over the moon about them. To be honest, I could take or leave most breakfast foods. I realize that breakfast is the most important meal of the day — but it's not my favorite meal.

Being not from a box, I make my pancakes from scratch. Why use a mix when it takes just a couple extra steps to make your own (without all the preservatives)? I'd been using the basic recipe from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything, when one day, the Anthropologist commented that my pancakes seemed chewy. Determined to make a fluffy version, I attempted Bittman's "light and fluffy" recipe, which requires more effort in the form of beating the egg whites separately before folding them into the batter. The verdict? Still chewy — and tasting more of egg than cake.

Well, what was the problem? I'm not Alton Brown, so I didn't know. But I decided to try an entirely different recipe: the one on the side of the package of Baker Josef's (Trader Joe's) all-purpose flour. What makes it different from Bittman's recipe is that it calls for both baking soda and baking powder (Bittman only uses powder), as well as melted butter and a smaller amount of flour. This all apparently aids in losing some of the chewiness of my previous pancakes.

In the last couple months, I've made strawberry pancakes, nectarine pancakes, and yogurt-flaxseed pancakes with nectarines (all made with fruit I had in the freezer from last summer). Pancakes are so easy to fiddle with, and since they're incredibly easy to make, you really could eat different kinds of pancakes every day and (probably) not get sick of them.

A final note: When melting butter in the microwave, keep en eye on it. Butter melts very quickly in the microwave, so it only takes about ten seconds or so — and if it doesn't, it's easy enough to add another five seconds of cooking time. Even though I know this concept very well, I somehow manage to forget it whenever I stick some butter into the microwave. I punch in "45," and let it rip. This typically results in a popping sound and melted butter dripping from the ceiling of the machine. Let this be a lesson to you!

Baker Josef's Light n' Fluffy Pancakes

1-1/2 c all-purpose flour
3-1/2 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 tbsp granulated sugar
1-1/4 c milk
1 egg
3 tbsp butter, melted
1 tsp vanilla (optional)

In a large bowl, mix the dry ingredients together. In a measuring cup, measure the milk, then add the egg and butter (and vanilla, if you're using it), and beat until well combined. Pour into dry ingredients and mix until smooth.

Heat a lightly oiled griddle or skillet over medium heat. Add batter by 1/4 cupfuls for each pancake. When edges look dry and small bubbles begin to form on top, turn and cook till brown.

Makes about 6-8 pancakes.

- Substitute plain yogurt (thinned with a little milk if very thick) or buttermilk for milk.
- Add chopped fruit, such as strawberries, peaches, or apples, to the batter with the wet ingredients.
- Substitute half the flour for whole wheat flour or cornmeal.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Ode to the chocolate chip cookie

I love cookies. If it's got chocolate or is from Bakesale Betty, it's destined for my mouth. Lately, I've been on a crazy cookie-baking kick. I make cookies at least once, if not twice, a week. I come home from work, and I want a cookie. After dinner, I want a cookie. While watching a movie, I start getting cravings for — yep, that's right: cookies. I'd probably eat cookies for breakfast if I didn't have this crazy notion that normal people simply do not eat cookies first thing in the morning.

Chocolate chip cookies are my go-to cookie when I want to bake. They were the very first thing I ever learned to cook all by myself, at the tender age of ten or eleven. At our school's book fair, I'd bought a book called The Best Cookie Book Ever, in which a parade of anthropomorphic teddy bears in late 80's garb instructed me on how to make a variety of cookies. The recipe for "Teddy's Favorite Chocolate Chip Cookies" is splattered with bits of batter that had gone flying off the electric hand mixer nearly every time I baked.

Back then, I used margarine in my cookies because... well, didn't everyone? Many years later, throwing together a batch of chocolate chip cookies while vacationing in Austin, TX, I found only butter in the fridge. I was hesitant to use it. Butter had always seemed too decadent for the average cookie, and besides, it was expensive. Those cookies turned out to be the best I'd ever made — and so I only ever used butter from then on. (I now think spending the money on organic butter is totally worth it, as you can probably guess.)

 I used to have a problem with my cookies being too cakey, and they would practically retain their shape after being scooped out of the mixing bowl, instead of spreading in the oven. I haven't quite figured out the science of cookie baking, though I do know that a slight reduction in the amount of flour and a larger brown to white sugar ratio (á la the recipe on the bag of Trader Joe's chocolate chips) has helped create cookies that are still soft but more traditionally cookie-shaped.

They're damn good, if I do say so myself. The Anthropologist agrees.

All this talk of cookies is making me want one. I think it's time to whip up another batch.

The only chocolate chip cookie recipe you'll ever need
(courtesy of me)

2 1/4 c flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 c firmly packed brown sugar
1/2 c white sugar
1 c softened butter
1 tsp good-quality vanilla extract
2 eggs
1 package semi-sweet chocolate chips
optional: chopped nuts, dried fruit, or whatever floats your boat (I put cranberries in the ones above)

Preheat oven to 375°F.

Combine flour, salt, and baking soda in a bowl, and set it aside. Using an electric hand mixer, cream together the sugars, butter, and vanilla. Add eggs and beat. Add dry ingredients and continue to mix. (At this point, my ancient mixer — the one I found abandoned at the back of the cupboard when I was moving out of my freshman year apartment — can no longer handle the work, and I switch to a wooden spoon.) Stir in chocolate chips and any additional add-ins.

Drop by rounded teaspoonfuls onto a non-greased cookie sheet. Bake 8 to 10 minutes, until golden. Transfer to a wire rack and cool.

As Teddy likes to say, "Did you turn off the oven?"

Makes about 2 dozen.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The best tomato sauce ever

I'm not the biggest fan of tomato sauce. Even on pizza. I think it goes back to college, when practically everyone I knew ate pasta with jarred tomato sauce like it was going out of style. I realize that it's a cheap and easy dish for poor and not necessarily culinary-savvy students to prepare — but I wish someone could have told them there's more to life than penne with Classico marinara.

When given a choice, I'd rather eat my pasta with cream, Parmesan, and lots of vegetables. An open jar of tomato sauce in my refrigerator is almost guaranteed to grow moldy before I'd used even half of it.

Last month, I read about a recipe for tomato sauce on one of my favorite blogs, Smitten Kitchen. This sauce was apparently so good that other Big Names in the food blogging world had been raving about it for years. So were Smitten Kitchen's readers: while typically her posts get around 150 comments, the tomato sauce post generated 500+ comments.

Then, inexplicably, I found myself craving this sauce. Driving home from work one day, I began to daydream about how the sweetness of an onion really could vastly improve a mess of tomatoes. So I went home and threw it together. It's ridiculously easy to make, considering that all that goes into it is canned tomatoes, halved onions, and butter. Open a can, peel and cut an onion, unwrap a stick of butter. Dump it all in a pot.

I really wish someone had told my friends about this recipe when we were in college.

It is surprisingly good, perhaps even the best pasta sauce I've ever had. For dinner, I threw in some peas and topped it off with Parmesan. But for lunch, it was just the sauce over rigatoni — it's delicious even without cheese. I never thought I'd like a red sauce that much. It must be the butter.

To be honest, I'd never made tomato sauce from scratch before. But now that I've made this, I definitely don't plan to buy jarred ever again.

Marcela Hazan's Tomato Sauce with Onions and Butter
(courtesy of Smitten Kitchen)

28 ounces canned tomatoes (SK used whole, but I use diced)
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium-sized yellow onion, peeled and halved
Salt to taste

Put the tomatoes, onion and butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a simmer then lower the heat to keep the sauce at a slow, steady simmer for about 45 minutes. Stir occasionally. Remove the onion*, add salt to taste.

*You can toss this out, but why waste perfectly good food? Eat it with crusty bread or in a scramble. Or straight out of the container you've put it in after removing it from the sauce.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Grand re-opening

I'm back and ready to cook! Actually, I've been cooking quite a bit since returning from India and moving into a new apartment with more counter space. The trip has left me in quite a bit of debt, but I still want to stay true to the food values that I try to stick to: buying locally, eating organically and ethically, and cooking sustainably. This is generally perceived as something that requires a lot of money to do. Just look at a place like Whole Foods ("Whole Paycheck") or New Leaf ("New Thief"): it really can be extremely expensive to do your shopping there. When I looked for sites that gave advice on eating local, seasonal, and organic (LSO) when on a budget, I discovered that there's not a lot out there (apart from this interesting site).

But it doesn't have to be. It shouldn't have to be! And I'm here to show you how to do it.

If you want to eat LSO with limited funds, you have to be willing to not eat certain foods. Meat is a big one. I haven't bought meat in the seven weeks since reacquiring a kitchen because ethically-raised meat is damn pricey. (Ground buffalo goes for $8.50/lb at the farmers' market!) Junk food and convenience foods are also out. You know why Whole Foods is so expensive? It's because they charge an arm and a leg for pre-prepared meals and frozen processed food. If you stick to the perimeter, like you're always hearing you should do, the prices are a little more reasonable. So, really, you can follow a lot of advice for people who are eating a conventional diet on a budget — with just a few tweaks here and there.

To start: Buy store brands of canned or frozen organic foods, such as beans, peas, or corn. (For beans, it's even cheaper to use dried.) Cook in batches and freeze extra portions for lunch or dinner another time. Grow herbs, lettuce, tomatoes, or whatever you have room for. Spend more time thinking about food and cooking it, instead of eating out all the time, eating mindlessly, or being "too busy" to eat well and eat LSO.

Also, I've come to the conclusion that I'm not a food photographer. The whole food porn thing has never really worked for me, since the lighting's always poor, my camera's not fancy enough, and the close-ups are rarely visually satisfying (or out-of-focus). Which isn't to say I'm not going to take photos. I'm just going to go about it in a less traditionally food blogging manner.