Wednesday, March 31, 2010
I suspect these won’t be nearly as cheap for you as they are for me if you don’t have an Asian grocery near you, but I also suspect that more people have an Asian grocery near them than think they do. Your local Asian grocery probably doesn’t have a website, so try old school and check the phone book — the Asian grocery in my neighborhood is conveniently called “Asian Grocery” — or the next time you’re in your local Chinese restaurant, ask if they know of any local retail grocery stores that sell Asian ingredients.
Even if you don’t have a cheap Asian grocery near by, this will still be cheap because it’s one of those recipes that uses tiny little bits of food to make you feel really full. Sort of a loaves and fishes thing.
You can put all kinds of things into these spring rolls but I’ve decided that the best (and simplest and cheapest) combination is rice noodles, cilantro, peanuts, and carrots. I’ve also made them with shrimp, when I was serving it as more of a meal than an appetizer, and one recipe I have calls for basil and mint, but I don’t think anything is better than just those four.
Regardless of what you put inside the spring rolls, the key is the dipping sauce.
My favorite is the Spicy Sweet-and-Sour Dipping Sauce (nuoc cham) from Nina Simonds’ Asian Noodles cookbook.
Spicy Sweet-and-Sour Dipping Sauce
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
juice of 3 limes or 2 lemons
1/4 cup fish sauce
3 Tablespoons sugar
1 Tablespoon minced garlic
2 Tablespoons grated carrots
In a medium bowl, soak the crushed red pepper in the lime juice for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the fish sauce, sugar, and garlic and stir to dissolve the sugar. Just before serving, add the carrots. Refrigerated, in a covered container, the sauce will keep up to 5 days. Makes about 2/3 cup.
And my notes…
Unless you’re making a giant number of spring rolls, 2/3 cup is probably at least 1/3 cup more than you need, so I nearly always cut this recipe in half. Also I love garlic as much as anyone, but even to me a tablespoon of garlic seems like a lot. I usually use less.
I’m not really sure how to give the recipe for the rolls, since how much filling you need depends on how many rolls you’re making. If you live alone, you should definitely do this for a party, because the minimum number of rolls you’re likely to end up with is about 20, and they don’t really keep. (They keep for a day or so but they’re not nearly as good the next day because they dry out.)
But in general, you want to chop up the peanuts and cilantro and grate the carrots. While you’re taking care of that, you should soak the rice sticks (also called dried rice vermicelli — basically you want the really thin rice sticks that cook up like thin spaghetti) in hot water, but you won’t need nearly as much as you think. I buy it in 16 ounce packages and feel like I should put in about 1/4 of the package but it’s always way too much. I think you really need closer to 2 ounces. But the noodles are totally cheap and you can always eat the ones you don’t use in the rolls, so it won’t hurt to prepare too many. While you’re soaking the noodles, also put on a pot of water to boil.
When everything is ready, set up a little assembly line with a tray for the completed spring rolls, a plate to roll them on, your bowls of filling ingredients, and a large bowl into which you poured the boiling water.
According to Vegetarian Planet, where I got the basic technique for this recipe, you ideally want to have two different sizes of rice paper wrappers, 14-inch and 8-inch, but there’s only one size at my Asian grocery and that works out fine. Just get whatever you can get.
Now dip one wrapper in the bowl of hot water to soften it, then put it on the plate. Take out a second wrapper and do the same thing, putting it on top of the first wrapper. The hot water should soften them and make them pliable and slightly sticky.
Put a small amount of filling in a strip across the lower third of the wrapper — a little bit of noodles, some cilantro, some carrots, and some peanuts — then fold the bottom half of the wrapper up over the filling, fold in the sides, and roll it the rest of the way up.
The first few times you’ll put way too much stuff on and they won’t roll up properly because they’ll be too stuffed. After that you’ll get the hang of it and they’ll come out fine.
Make as many as you feel like, and serve with the dipping sauce. Your friends will love you forever.
Monday, March 29, 2010
However I realized during my trip to the store today that I’m feeling a bit low-energy food-wise, so I think we’re going to start the re-start with a lowest common denominator approach — the cheapest and simplest foods that are moderately healthy that require as little thought as possible for me to prepare. Which is likely to be not at all impressive, but could potentially be useful to others who want to eat well for not much but don’t want to work too hard.
Recipes from before the break coming soon, and in the meantime, you can check out this link that a friend sent about someone inspired by all the $1 a Day projects last year to try to eat for $365 for the year. Will she make it? Only time will tell…
Hope everyone had a good week. More soon.
Saturday, March 20, 2010
We have now reached the point in our program where we take a brief intermission.
Friday 3/19 through Sunday 3/28 will be blog-free for me, including not tracking meals or expenses, and (most likely) not responding to comments. I’ll add some time to the end of the project, so hopefully no one will feel short-changed.
Will be back the week of 3/29 with recipes for hoisin chicken (with eight (!) cloves of garlic), and the things I cooked for my little dinner party — Vietnamese-style spring rolls and a classic American version of hot and sour shrimp that’s really good and easy.
Hope everyone (including but not limited to me), has a good and productive week.
Back in a few.
Friday, March 19, 2010
I was talking to a friend this week about writing and how it always seems to take me so long, and she said when she writes blog posts, she sets her timer for twenty minutes and writes, and when the timer goes off, she’s done. Twenty minutes! I’m so jealous.
I think this is the week everyone has been waiting for — when I spend half my monthly budget in one week. My mom was in town, which requires a bit of an upgrade, and also I had people over for dinner on Sunday, so that throws things off even more. Not sure how I’ll count that. In terms of my normal budget, visitors and meals for others are generally treated separately from my regular food budget, as I try not to subject my friends and family to my usual level of parsimony. It’s a bit of an acquired taste, not so easy to pick up in a weekend.
I have yet to get a handle on my work situation, so was happy to have some leftovers to start the week with — Lone Star Chicken and also the cranberry-peach pancakes I made on Sunday. I actually really like leftover pancakes straight out of the fridge, not heated up or anything. No syrup either, just on their own, like a muffin or bagel or something. It sounds weird but it’s actually really good. I also still had yogurt and some of Bryant’s granola.
So Monday I had yogurt with granola and banana, and a piece of toast with peanut butter, and then I went out and worked and got back very late and probably should have had the chicken but had pancakes instead. It felt too late for chicken.
Tuesday I had the end of the pancakes for breakfast and Lone Star Chicken over pasta for dinner, and some Nutritious Uncooked Candy for dessert.
My mom was coming on Wednesday, so Tuesday evening I went to Whole Foods to get stuff for Wednesday dinner and Thursday breakfast and lunch.
I had decided to make ham and bean soup with cornbread and a green salad for dinner, because it’s a long drive for her and difficult to time dinner precisely, so better to make something that will be fine no matter what time it’s eaten. I wasn’t sure what we were going to do about lunch but figured I’d get some sandwich stuff and fruit and we could take it from there.
So I got some mixed greens by the pound (Lettuce Spring Mix), which was great, you can get just a little bit, and some cornmeal (Organic Yellow Corn) for the cornbread. I splurged on some $13/lb roast beef (In House Roast Bee) because that’s my favorite thing for sandwiches and I make them so infrequently it’s worth it to me to get what I really like.
I bought a two pound bag of carrots (Carrots 24/2# Og) and some bananas (Banana Yellow CV). I got a small baguette (Wheat Demi) for the sandwiches and some English muffins for breakfast (WFM Eng Muffins Or). I also got a dozen eggs, because I was out (Large Brown Eggs, G).
I got a red onion (Organic Red Onions) because I like onion on my roast beef sandwiches, and also a tomato (Tomatoes Roma Cv).
I bought a pear that was supposed to be on special but when they rang it up, it wasn’t on special, so it looks like they gave it to me for free (which is the store policy). That actually happens fairly regularly, but I’m not always paying attention. With the pear, I only bought it because it was on special, I prefer Bosc pears, so I was looking to see if it came through with the special price and it didn’t. So that’s what the two entries for Red D Anjou Og is all about.
I bought a jar of peanut butter (Cruncy Peanut But) because I was out, and also a Bosc pear. I brought multiple bags to get my haul home, so that’s the three bag refunds. And some ham (Pork Ham Steak) and beans for the soup (Bulk Organic Great), as well as some cream cheese, and some bulk flour since I used the last of my flour with the pancakes and needed more to make cornbread. It’s totally not cost-effective to buy bulk flour, but since I walk to the grocery store I have to schedule my flour purchases. Getting home with a normal load of groceries plus a five-pound bag of flour is a challenge sometimes
So Wednesday dinner was very good — mixed green salad with a vinaigrette dressing and ham and bean soup with cornbread. I also made some Plain Jane Sugar Cookies while I was waiting, and then my mom brought cookies that she had made, plus Girl Scout cookies that I had ordered from my niece, so there was definitely no shortage of cookies in my house during Week Ten.
For breakfast on Thursday, my mom had fruit and an English muffin and I slept. Once I got up, we went to King’s for a country ham for my mom to take back home to my dad and the man behind the counter was mixing up this giant batch of country sausage so I decided to get some of that while I was there. Figured we could have it for breakfast on Sunday.
Then we went to The Scrap Exchange so my mom could shop and she could see what was new, then we came home and had a quick lunch of roast beef sandwiches on a wheat baguette and apples and cookies. Then my mom went off to her conference and I went on about my business. (She comes down every year for a conference and stays with me one night, then stays at the conference Thu. – Sat., then is back with me Sunday, then drives home on Monday.)
For dinner I had soup and cornbread, and yogurt with banana and granola for dessert.
On Friday, I had more yogurt/banana/granola (I think this blog is especially fascinating when I eat the same thing for like five days in a row) and then in the afternoon went to Compare, mostly for some cabbage because I wanted to make coleslaw to go with the rest of the roast beef.
So that was fruit to eat (oranges, tangelo, grapefruit) plus the cabbage for coleslaw and some limes and cilantro for Sunday’s dinner. Total $4.23. Gotta love Compare.
Along with the roast beef sandwich and coleslaw, I made oven fried potatoes with a russet potato I bought a while ago. For dessert, I had a grapefruit which I think I thought would dissuade me from eating more cookies, but to no avail. So then I had the real dessert, more cookies.
On Saturday, I made these fabulous cream cheese empanadas from the More-with-Less cookbook that are primarily shortening. They’re basically like homemade pop tarts. I fill them with cream cheese and jam so they might even be better than pop tarts. After the pop tarts I had a bagel with cream cheese and an orange. And a lot of cookies. And was thinking I’d be really glad when the cookies were gone.
And I don’t have any notes about what I ate for dinner on Saturday and I think that means I felt so icky from the empanadas and the cookies that I didn’t really eat dinner. Not sure about that.
On Sunday, my mom was back so I headed back to the store for stuff for breakfast and also for dinner, since I’d invited people over.
I bought a small container of fresh-squeezed orange juice because I wanted juice but I didn’t want a whole quart so I decided it was worth it to pay almost the same amount for a quarter the amount of juice so I would get the amount I wanted. Un-American, I know.
Also I had used up all the flour on the empanadas and the cookies and the cornbread, and decided I wanted to make biscuits so I had to get more of the not cost-effective flour (Organic White Flo).
So for breakfast, we had biscuits and scrambled eggs and country sausage with orange juice.
Everything else was for dinner.
I was planning on making spring rolls and hot and sour shrimp, with sautéed pears and vanilla ice cream for dessert.
So I bought shrimp (EZ Peel Shrimp Raw) and pears (Pears Bartlett Og) and peanuts (Unsalted Peanut Bu) (for the spring rolls) and ice cream (Vanilla 14oz) and celery.
And I attempted to buy dry sherry to marinate the shrimp, but it was before noon and I did not know this but you cannot buy alcohol before noon in North Carolina. Even alcohol you are using to marinate shrimp.
So later in the day we went to the Asian Grocery to get some Shaoshing cooking wine, which is what I usually use to marinate my stir fry meats, but I had recently run out. So I got a refill of that for $2.34.
Guests provided salad and some fizzy nonalcoholic drinks, and I took beer and wine from the Scrap stash. Also Bryant was one of my guests, and she brought some crackers, which she’s been making because she can’t buy crackers because they all have a plastic liner or are wrapped in plastic. And I decided that Bryant’s new art form should be crackers, they were killer good.
So that was it for Week Ten. Something different and exciting — and way more expensive than usual. We’ll have to see how the totals come out. There’s always creative accounting if things are too high. I’m not above that
And this post took way more than 20 minutes to write. Clearly my friend is not documenting her life in quite the level of detail I have committed myself to.
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
Okay the Week Eight run-down was a bit out of control, I’ll try to rein things in for Week Nine. And I know I’m still behind. Welcome to my world.
I started Week Nine (3/1 – 3/7) with a breakfast of a bagel and an orange, followed by a trip to Whole Foods to get things for my Monday night recipe (look! an actual recipe!) of Tofu and Broccoli with Peanut Sauce. This was a Mollie Katzen (of Moosewood fame) recipe I saved from the paper a long time ago that I’d never made and wanted to try.
I had gotten broccoli at Compare on Sunday 2/28, so just needed tofu (Og Firm Tofu 14oz) and peanuts (Unsalted Peanut Bu) for the recipe. I wasn’t sure what the ginger root situation was in the freezer so I got some of that (Root Ginger CV). I also bought some refills for the pantry: a pound of brown rice (Short Grain Brown), a quart of canola oil (Canola Oil), and a few pounds of rolled oats (Bulk Organic Rolle). Total $11.48 with the bag refund.
So I made Tofu and Broccoli with Peanut Sauce for dinner and served it over brown rice. It was pretty good, though not sure if I’ll be making it again any time soon, mostly because it’s much better the first night than it is leftover. Maybe I’d like it better if I was cooking it for someone and wasn’t going to have leftovers. I’ll have to think about that. But not worth posting the recipe I don’t think.
For dessert, I had some Trader Joe’s cookies and Trader Joe’s chocolate.
On Tuesday I had an egg sandwich (scrambled eggs with bacon and cheese on a rosemary bagel) along with fried apples and a glass of milk for a brunch-ish meal and then went out and worked and got home late and just had some late-night snacks — cheese and crackers and dried figs and peanuts for dinner. Not such a stellar day.
On Wednesday, I had an epic adventure in search of a burger.
I had been talking with a friend over the summer about Only Burger and we were supposed to go but we never managed to make it, one thing or another kept coming up, and then she was in Guatemala for six weeks learning Spanish and I kept seeing the Only Burger truck. Every time I’d see it, I’d think about how Rowan and I never had our Only Burger and that we’d have to go when she got back. So she was back on Monday and I told her I’d take her out for lunch but I was having trouble figuring out when the Only Burger truck was going to be in our neighborhood. Seems like they announce its location only one or two meals ahead which makes advance planning difficult.
But once I mentioned the prospect of Only Burger to Rowan, she became moderately obsessed with it. (She decided that their strategy of not telling people where the truck will be is designed to get people to get a burger any time they see the truck, since they don’t know when they’ll have another chance … she could be on to something.) She decided we should just go to where the truck was, even if it wasn’t in our neighborhood. So on Wednesday we went in search of the Only Burger truck but it was not where the website said it was going to be. So we ended up going to Five Guys at Southpoint instead, and eating at a mall food court does seem a little weird at this point in my life, but I have to say that for Five Guys, it’s worth it.
I had a Little Burger with lettuce, onion, ketchup, mustard, pickle and a Coke, and we split a large fries. And it was good, good, good.
For dinner I had a no-sodium meal of oatmeal and a grapefruit and half a pear, to try to make up for lunch a little bit.
On Thursday, I had a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast, along with a soft-boiled egg and half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. For dinner I had what was left of the tofu and broccoli with peanut sauce over sushi rice. I also had some cheese and crackers and some almonds as a snack, and for dessert had the last of the Trader Joe’s cookies and the last of the Trader Joe’s chocolate. Glad to be done with those.
On Friday I had a bowl of oatmeal and an apple for breakfast, then off to an afternoon meeting in Cary. After my meeting I bribed myself into doing more work with a trip to Foster’s for a late lunch/early dinner. Usually I get the Greek Grilled Cheese but decided to do something different this time and had a Cubano with some potato chips and an iced tea. I also got a cup of coffee, and bought some chocolate-covered espresso beans on the way out, to help get through my work. Worked pretty well, I did get some things done.
On Saturday, I had half a bagel with peanut butter and an orange for breakfast, then went out to do some errands. I’d been thinking about getting a chicken for a while but things kept coming up. Finally it seemed like the right time.
I got a whole chicken (Whole Broiling CK) and a pound of pasta (Spaghetti Pasta 16) and a can of tomatoes (Whole Peeled Tomat) so I could make Lone Star Chicken. Bryant had dropped off some more granola, so I got some yogurt (Plain FF Yogurt 32) and bananas (Yellow Bananas CV) to eat with that. And also some apples (Apples Empire CV) because they were exceptionally cheap. And a bottle refund and two bag refunds, though I’m not sure I used two bags. Cheater. Total $12.80.
I had some cheese and crackers and almonds while I fixed dinner, and then had Lone Star Chicken over pasta for dinner. For dessert, I had a little bit of yogurt with half a banana and some granola.
On Sunday, I made cranberry-peach pancakes (with cranberries and peaches from the freezer) and ate those with homemade syrup (2:1 ratio of sugar to water plus a little bit of molasses), and then had round two of the Lone Star chicken for dinner, with yogurt/banana/granola for dessert, along with some chocolate-covered espresso beans.
And that was it. Week Nine Over.
Monday, March 15, 2010
I don’t think this necessarily meets the criteria I set initially for cheap healthy food (whole grains and vegetables) but this has been on the list to write about since I started and I decided it was time. All you vegetarians should look away quickly and come back some other time.
This is another one of those things that seems fairly basic to me but I know is not basic to a lot of people.
I usually buy a whole chicken and cut it up rather than buying a cut-up chicken or a package of pre-cut chicken pieces (i.e., a styrofoam tray with legs, wings, breasts, backs shrink-wrapped to it).
I used to almost always buy a whole chicken, because a whole chicken was the cheapest per pound, but then chicken legs started being cheaper than whole chickens. Legs have gotten a little more expensive, but drumsticks are still usually cheaper. So lately I’ve been buying drumsticks if I want a little bit of roasted chicken or to use in some other recipe.
But if I want to make something with chicken breasts, I will always buy a whole chicken and cut it up and use the breast meat in the recipe and then wrap the other pieces and put them in the freezer for later use. Boneless skinless chicken breasts are crazy expensive, and usually not very good; I think the meat tends to be dry and has less flavor than meat you get from a whole chicken. Also if you get the ones with the bones you can use the bones to make stock that you can keep in the freezer and use in soups, casseroles, pilafs, etc. It’s just much better buying a whole chicken.
Also you can then use the non-breast pieces in nearly any recipe that calls for chicken parts. You can poach them and take the meat off the bone and make chicken salad or chicken soup or freeze for later use, or you can make chicken and dumplings, or you can make yourself some good old-fashioned fried chicken and have one of the best meals ever created, fried chicken and mashed potatoes with milk gravy. Yum. Mee.
I think the thing that gets a lot of people is the idea of cutting up a chicken. I think it seems harder than it is. But if you have a reasonably good knife, you can cut up a chicken without too much trouble. When I started, I followed the instructions from the Better Homes and Gardens (plaid) cookbook, which I will include here in their entirety for those of you who prefer visual aids.
I’ve done it enough that I can do it without instructions at this point, but for those of you who find the idea intimidating, you should know that it’s one of those things you will definitely get better at the more you do it, and also know that it doesn’t matter too much if you do it wrong the first few times. After a few attempts where you feel like you’re randomly hacking away at the poor bird, you’ll eventually figure out how to tell where the joints are and where you can cut that will go through easily (or relatively easily at least, sometimes you just have to hack, there’s no way around it).
Just do it a few times for yourself and people who will not think less of you for cutting up a chicken badly before attempting to do it for an important dinner party. You’ll get the hang of it.
Last week (or the week before? I’ve lost track) I bought the chicken pictured at the top and used it in one of my easiest and most favorite chicken recipes, Lone Star Chicken.
This recipe is from Marion Cunningham, and is in both The San Francisco Chronicle Cookbook, where I first saw it, and also in her great cookbook The Supper Book. You could use the whole chicken if you want — or you could buy just get drumsticks or legs or whatever is cheap — but I nearly always use the legs (drumsticks and thighs), wings, and back from a whole chicken I’ve cut up, and use the breasts in a different recipe.
Next week I’ll give my favorite recipe that calls for chicken breasts. But for new here’s…
Lone Star Chicken
1 can (18-3/4 ounces) solid-pack tomatoes
1 large onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 bay leaves
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1-1/2 teaspoons dried oregano, crumbled
2 tablespoons wine vinegar
salt and pepper to taste
1 chicken (2-1/2 to 3 pounds) cut into 8 pieces
Put the tomatoes and their juices into a large, stove-top casserole and break the tomatoes into bits. Add the onion, garlic, bay leaves, cumin, oregano and vinegar; stir to blend. Season with salt and pepper. Simmer on top of the stove, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Add the chicken parts, pushing them down into the sauce. Cover the casserole and bake for about 1 hour.
And a few notes…
I usually get a larger can of tomatoes and use less than a whole chicken. I also use less cumin because I have a weird thing about cumin. I’m not sure that it matters exactly how many pieces the chicken is cut up into; I think the point is to not put the chicken in whole but to cut it into pieces. I think this would work in a slow cooker, but I don’t have enough slow-cooker experience to give instructions.
I serve it over pasta, though I think it would also be good over rice. If I get tired of it before it’s gone, I take the chicken off the bone and freeze together with the sauce. It’s great to be able to cook some pasta and have some nice chicken and tomato sauce without having to do anything.
Sunday, March 14, 2010
Well February was even more under budget than January, but I suspect things will start to even out in March. One of the reasons I wanted to do this project for a little longer than the Dollar a Day thing is that my food expenditures tend to ebb and flow — sometimes I spend hardly anything because I’m living out of the freezer and pantry, and sometimes I spend a lot because I have to restock everything, or I have people over for dinner, or whatever. I’m figuring March will likely be a bigger month.
For February, total expenditures for cook-at-home food was $66.01.
Breakdown is as follows:
Whole Foods $52.69 (80%)
Compare $10.10 (15%)
Bruegger’s $3.22 (5%)
I made seven trips, all of them on foot, with an average expenditure of $9.43. The cheap trips to Compare are dropping my average.
I also spent about $5 on chocolate at Trader Joe’s, of which half was for The Scrap Exchange gallery opening and half I ate here. So that’s another $2.50. I’m not taking a hit for the other Trader Joe’s stuff because I’m considering those leftover freebies. Cheater.
Not including my trip to Charlotte at the beginning of the month, which was covered by per diem money, I spent $26.79 on snacks and meals out. I also spent $49.22 on work-related meals out, which is higher than usual because I took someone to lunch at Rue Cler to help me with some things and paid for her meal as well as mine. Otherwise pretty standard.