What Not to Eat

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

I was in graduate school at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School from May 2014 to May 2015 and I took the TTA bus (since rebranded as Go Triangle) from Durham to Chapel Hill almost every day. The grocery shopping strategy I had used for the prior 16 years, from when I relocated from Arlington, Virginia to Durham, North Carolina in 1998 and began working from home, was no longer an option. No more shopping every few days getting a few things at a time. No more  waiting until I felt like cooking something to look in the fridge and see what I had then go to the store to get what I needed.

My life was changing. I needed a plan.

The perfectly sensible plan I came up with was that I would shop and cook on the weekend to make food for the week. I would take my lunch, and I would try to keep on hand simple things I could eat for dinner.

This is what I had recommended to other people who couldn’t shop and cook like I did due to schedule constraints. Try to be organized and take care of it on the weekends.

This is a good plan.

Did this plan work?

Let’s start from the beginning.

My first day of school was on a Tuesday, which was also the day when I did my Scrap Exchange bookkeeping work. So I got up at the butt-crack of dawn and got myself over to UNC and figured out how to get from home to the bus and from the bus to KFBS and did orientation and all that and then figured out how to get back to the bus and back home. And then once I was home, I got my stuff together and rode my bike over to The Scrap Exchange and did my bookkeeping.

It was a long day.

I was riding my bike home from work, happy and relieved to have made it through this Olympic decathlon of a day, and I had a moment where I was very proud of myself for going through what I had gone through to make it all happen. It was the culmination of a long process that had been a lot of work. But I had done it. I had taken the initiative to find out about the program, to call and talk to the admissions people to find out if this was something I should even think about doing, to figure out how you even take GRE’s these days, to study for them and sit for them and do well enough on verbal section that the first thing the admissions counselor said to me when I walked in to her office was “Wow, you did great on your GRE!” (Which I hadn’t actually, I did great on one part and terrible on the other but if she wanted to just look at the part I did great on then that was fine by me.) I had put together the application, gotten letters of recommendation, scheduled the interview. Actually showed up for the interview. And I got into a program that is very competitive, it is one of the top accounting programs in the country. None of that was easy, especially when you are 47 years old and your last (and first, and only) experience with higher education ended in 1989. And when  you don’t actually want to work as an accountant (separate story there…).

So at the end of my first day of school, I’m riding my bike home down an empty Main Street, past the fancy restaurants that had sprouted in downtown Durham  over the prior few years, and I think to myself, I’m really proud of you. This was a lot of work, and you didn’t have to do it. You had a lot of hoops to jump through, but you did them all, you got accepted into the program, and you did what you needed to do to enroll, and you actually  enrolled.  And then after all that you actually went to school — you got up early and got dressed in real clothes and made it to school on time and made it through the day, got yourself back home to Durham, and then went and got your other work done. That’s a big accomplishment, you should be proud of yourself.

And then I had this sudden, awful realization that this was the FIRST DAY.

This was not the end of anything, it was just the beginning. And I was going to have to do the same thing over and over again, every day,­ for the next 11 months. And I didn’t cry, but if I had had any idea how hard the year would turn out to be, I would have.

So anyway, I made it through the first day, and the second too, and the rest of the week. I got up a few minutes earlier  to  put together a nice lunch in the morning, using  a bento box I got at Crate & Barrel a few weeks before school started. (As any kindergartener can tell you, there’s nothing like a new lunch box to make you feel excited about going to school.)

I felt very competent and on top of things. Cutting up carrots and an apple then heading off to the bus stop.

We were in class for three-and-a-half hours in the morning, 8:30 to noon, and then an hour break, and then afternoon class from 1 to 4:30 p.m. For unknown reasons, KFBS is FREEZING. It was so cold in that building. So after three-and-a-half hours of sitting in a classroom that was approximately the temperature of a walk-in cooler, for lunch, I would go outside the back door, near the cafeteria, and sit on the little brick divider wall  that ran along the stairs and try to absorb whatever heat I could from the hot stones I was sitting on and the humid air hanging around me. Like a skink sunning myself on a rock, trying to raise my body temperature back up to something that made me feel like I wasn’t dead.

It was nice and peaceful back there and I brought good food. Fruit and vegetables, and chicken or some other protein, and maybe a cookie or some other sweet.

I shopped on Sunday, got food for the week, cooked it up, got everything ready.

This all sounds lovely, no? And how long did this last?

Well, in the middle of week three, I got sick and missed part of one class and a night of studying, which seems like it shouldn’t be a big deal except it is when you are in class seven hours a day, five days a week.  Every day is like a week — we did financial management in six classes, which included a quiz, a midterm, and a final exam. Missing anything is no bueno. You are hanging by a thread to start with, anything that disrupts the routine could easily be the end of the line.

So it turned out the organized shopping/cooking/eating strategy lasted exactly three weeks.

The weekend leading into week four, I was like okay I can spend three hours shopping for food and cooking or I can try to catch up and pass my exam. Given how much I had gone through to get in to the program, I decided that studying was more important than cooking. And I never fully recovered. That was the end of the shopping and cooking on weekends.

For a while, I was able to keep it rolling by making things like empanadas (recipe from the More-With-Less Cookbook), which are simple and put everything (meat, vegetable, carbs) together in one convenient package so you can make a batch in half an hour and have week of grab-and-eat meals.

But slowly I began the inexorable slide to eating out more, and eating more packaged food. Take-out Chinese, Clif bars, Pop-Tarts. Usually once a week I would time my trip home so I could bike to Franklin Street,  go to Cosmic Cantina for a burrito, then catch the bus back to Durham.

As the weeks wore on, it became harder and harder to figure out what I even wanted to eat — nothing appealed to me, whether I was fixing something at home or buying something at the grocery store or going to a restaurant. When that happened, I would go to McDonald’s and get a McChicken sandwich and a yogurt parfait for $2.14. Food problem solved.

Unfortunately that happened a lot.

I also started drinking soda, much more than I had been. I drank pop when I was younger, in high school and college, but I stopped almost entirely when I was just out of college making $15,000 a year at my first job, because I had so little discretionary income, I couldn’t afford to spend any of it sugar water. And after that, I would tend to drink it when I was on a trip, but not as part of my regular life.

Bit that changed when I was in school. I’d drink coffee in the mornings — which I never had before — and Coke or Pepsi in the afternoon and evenings.

During the fall and spring when class started slightly later than they had over the summer, I’d still take the 7:30 bus, which gave me time to get breakfast before class. I’d get a bacon, egg, and cheese bagel, which was one of the only things I liked in the cafeteria. Every now and then I would drive, and I would take the route that took me past the Biscuitville on Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd and I would stop and get a sausage and egg biscuit. (I love love love Biscuitville.) In the spring, I became hooked on the spicy chicken sandwich in the cafeteria, the combo meal with a large Coke and fries.

I read recently about a study that showed that sleep-deprived people experience food cravings similar to those of marijuana users. And I was like oh, hey, that would explain the bacon egg and cheese bagels, and the fried chicken sandwiches.

The few times I did try to cook during that year, I found that the smell of food in my house made me feel sick. It was sensory overload, I couldn’t handle it.

And all of this felt like it was a cumulative problem. The longer school went on, the worse it  got.

At some point during the spring term, I was discussing my food problems over email with a friend who is a corporate lawyer and has a crazy busy work schedule. Her suggestion was sandwiches —she said you can get a bunch of sandwich stuff at the grocery store, it keeps for a long time, and you can almost always make yourself eat a sandwich. Also it doesn’t use hardly any dishes, all you really need is a knife and a paper towel, you don’t even need a plate.

That made sense, so I stopped at Trader Joe’s on one of my trips back from Chapel Hill and bought deli ham and turkey and cheese and lettuce and tomatoes and wraps and that’s what I ate if I hadn’t eaten at school and was hungry when I got home, a sandwich wrap. My friend was totally right,  it’s pretty easy to eat a sandwich, they are filling, there were no dishes, and it didn’t make my house smell.

This definitely helped get me through to the end.

I also broke down and started buying boxes of Clif bars and jars peanut butter and dried fruit and nuts and things I could keep in my locker, so I could have something not terrible without having to spend quite so much money. And I stopped feeling bad about buying meals out, because at that point I was going for survival. How much I spent and what I spent it on didn’t really matter.

I did manage to survive school … barely … but the experience was so mentally exhausting that it took me nearly three months before I could cook anything more complicated than scrambled eggs.

I was finally starting to get back on track with shopping and cooking when I started studying for CPA exams, while also working at Scrap Exchange and working with a few of my long-time Filemaker clients (both of which I had also continued to do while I was in grad school) which more or less derailed me all over again.

At first, I started to revert to my in-school pattern of eating out more, but that comes with its own challenges — first you have to figure out where to go, and then once you’re there you have to figure out what to order. And of course it takes time to actually get there and get your food and eat it. This initially led me down the McChicken/yogurt parfait road — all of the decisions are already made, and you only spend $2 — but I decided I didn’t want to do that again, I needed to figure out something else.

And then I made a slow-cooker barbecue pork for a Scrap Exchange Boot Camp lunch, and I realized that this was the solution to all of my problems: you cook a five-pound pork shoulder, it takes about 20 minutes of prep time and 8 or so hours in the slow cooker and you end up with two weeks of meals. (If you live by yourself … much less, obviously, if you are feeding other people in addition to yourself.)

I cooked one pork butt, ate it every day for two weeks, then tried to move on to something else for some variety but gave up after a week and cooked another one. And then another one when that was gone.

I ate it on slider buns, so I could eat one or two or three, depending on how hungry I was, and I bought full seeded watermelons at King’s, and that’s what I ate all summer. Pork barbecue sliders and watermelon. For breakfast I’d fry eggs and eat them on a tortilla with the barbecue. For dessert I’d eat watermelon.

I couldn’t decide if this was fine, because who cares if you eat the same thing every day for weeks on end, or bad, because what is wrong with you, you’re eating pork barbecue for every meal. My god.

But I did it anyway, because I didn’t have to decide what to eat or think about what I felt like eating, I didn’t have to shop but once every few weeks, I didn’t have to do hardly any dishes, my house didn’t smell like food (except for the first day when I cooked the pork), and I didn’t have to spend $12 a day on prepared food. And the pork barbecue is really good, and it’s REALLY easy to make. If you have a slow cooker you should make it. (And if you don’t have a slow cooker, you should think about getting one, they are cheap.)

Here’s the recipe, which I found by googling “nc barbecue slow-cooker pork” , or something like that,  and got from The Domestic Front, and adjusted slightly:

Slow-Cooker Pork Barbeque
(Eastern North Carolina style)

4-6 lb pork butt
1 or 2 onions
1 Tbsp liquid smoke

2 Tbsp brown sugar
1 Tbsp paprika
2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground pepper

1 cup cider vinegar
1/3 cup Worcestershire sauce
1-1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
2 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp dry mustard
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/4 tsp cayenne

Combine ingredients for the spice rub and coat all sides of the pork with the spice rub.

Combine all ingredients for the sauce and stir to mix.

Quarter the onion(s) and place in the bottom of a slow cooker.

Place the spice-rubbed pork on top of the onions. Pour the liquid smoke over the pork. Reserve 1/3 of the sauce to serve when eating; pour the remaining 2/3 of the sauce over the pork. Turn the cooker on low and cook for 8-10 hours.

At the end of the designated cooking time, take the cooked pork out of the slow cooker and, if desired, drain off the fat. Pour the sauce out of the slow cooker and allow the fat to separate. When cool enough to handle, chop or shred the pork. Pour the de-fatted sauce  over the shredded meat and stir to mix.

Serve on sandwich buns, with the reserved sauce

Whether or not you have to remove fat from the pork and from the sauce depends on how much fat is on the pork to start with. The first time I made it, I didn’t drain the fat and it was very greasy. However other times I’ve made it, there was hardly any fat to drain off. So I think that just depends on your pork. (With one round, I saved the fat and later used it in a batch ginger snaps. They were good.) You could also try to brown the meat and drain off some of the fat before you put it in the slow cooker, but that adds complication so it’s hard for me to recommend that since the point of this is that it’s extremely simple and takes hardy any time.

I’ve made it with fresh garlic and without garlic, because I never have granulated or powdered garlic around, and I’ve made it with various kinds of paprika (half-sharp, smoked) and haven’t noticed a difference between any of them. The original recipe calls for smoked paprika.

This freezes very well. Though you will have to get yourself to stop eating it before it’s gone in order for that to work.



On Grocery Stores

Monday, January 16, 2017

Both of my parents grew up in Seattle, Washington. I was born there and lived there until I was 8, and went back fairly regularly after we moved away to visit relatives. My parents had gone to high school on the south side of the city, at Cleveland, but after my father got out of the service and my brother was born, they moved over to the north side of town, near the University, first in Laurelhurst and then in View Ridge.

When we lived in Seattle, we shopped at a small neighborhood grocery store owned by a close family friend of my grandparents named Walt Landis. The store was on N.E. 45th, just before it turns into Sand Point Way, and I have many fond memories of spending time there as a child.

Walt was a joker, he liked to tease me. He’d bring me and my brother in to the back warehouse area of the store give us the freshest, juiciest strawberries. After we’d been there a little while he’d say, “I think your mother is calling you.” So I’d go out to find my mom, and she’d say, no, I’m still shopping, you’re fine. I’d go in back and tell Walt that she hadn’t been calling me and he’d say, “Oh, okay.” Then a minute later he’d say, “I think she’s calling you now

My grandparents had moved to Seattle in the 1940s and my grandmother lived there until 2001 when she was nearing 90, at which point she moved to Western New York to be near my parents. At the time I was living there, she lived in the same area we lived in, first in a house in Hawthorne Hills and then, after my grandfather died, she sold the house and moved to  in an apartment off of Sand Point Way.

My grandmother sometimes shopped at Albertson’s or the Tradewell on Sand Point Way, but usually she went to the QFC in University Village. The QFC was originally on the west side of the shopping center and it was more or less a standard grocery store, but in the 90s, University Village went upscale and took the QFC with it. The store got very much larger and moved over to the east side, near the Burgermaster.

Usually when I would visit my grandmother, we would do some activity in the late morning — run errands or visit someone or do some out-of-town-visitor type activity — and then we’d go back home to eat lunch, rest for a bit and watch her shows (“… like sands through the hourglass, these are the days of our lives…”). Then in the afternoon we’d go out to get what we needed for dinner. At this point in her life, my grandmother shopped for groceries almost every day.

I remember one time when I was visiting, when the QFC was in its fancy-dan iteration, and we had gotten what we needed and were ready to check out, my grandmother looked at each of the lines to she if she could find the checkout person she liked.  She spotted her and said, “Oh! Here she is. Let’s get in this line.”

When we got up to the head of the line, my grandmother introduced me to the cashier. “This is my granddaughter Becky,” And the cashier seemed genuinely pleased to meet me, which I think surprised me a bit. I think I expected my grandmother to like this checkout person more than the checkout person liked my grandmother, that the checkout person was trying to act  friendly because it was her job. But it seemed like she actually enjoyed seeing my grandmother, and she was happy to get to meet me, as if she had heard about me and was pleased to be able to put a face to a name. My cousin Deanna had recently visited (and of course my grandmother had been in the store with Deanna) and the cashier commented on how lucky my grandmother was to have both of her granddaughters out to see her, one after the other like that.

When we were leaving, my grandmother said, “Most of the ones who work here, they don’t even look at you, they just run the groceries through. You know …” she put a blank look on her face and moved her hand as if she were running groceries across a scanner. “But she’s really nice, she always talks to you, asks you how you are.”

When I was self-employed and working from home every day (from 2002 to spring 2012),  I shopped pretty much just like my grandmother — I went to the store almost every day. [I’ve written about my shopping strategy in a few places, like here and here.] I definitely recommend this approach if you work from home, especially if you have a store that is within walking or biking distance from your house. It gives you a break from working, gets you out of the house, and gives you something to look forward to so you don’t feel like you are trapped for the rest of your life in your office with a bunch of work you don’t want to do. Not that I ever felt like that.

Also you can spend much less money on groceries, because you can check to see what in your refrigerator is about to go bad and then buy what you need to make something to go with that. You will hardly every throw anything away, and you can train yourself to spend small amounts of money at a time at the store. Because you are walking or on your bike and you can only carry so much home with you, and also you know you will be back in a few days, you will stop feeling the need to walk up and down every aisle and buy anything you ever might use. You will just buy what you need for right now (and maybe tomorrow or the next day) and that is all.

That’s what I used to do. It was great.

I shopped mostly at Whole Foods, because it was a nice walk from my house and also it was a nice store, and very shoppable. The way I shop when I’m shopping multiple times a week, and walking to the store, is to get the necessary items first, then fill in with optional items until one of two limits is reached: either (a) I hit my price ceiling (which at the time was about $12) or (b) my basket is getting too heavy for me to carry home. This approach works much, much better in a smaller store than in a giant supermarket. You can’t be wandering back and forth willy-nilly through all the aisles in a store the size of an airplane hangar until you decide you have what you need.

The local Whole Foods (in Durham, Raleigh, and Chapel Hill) started out as a locally owned chain called Wellspring. The Durham store was originally on the north end of Ninth Street, in a space later occupied by Magnolia Grill (my father’s favorite restaurant in Durham) and now by Monuts. It outgrew that space and moved up Ninth Street to the space later occupied by George’s Garage and now home to Panera Bread and Juju (the area my friend Ann and I now refer to as “Cary Durham” because you feel like you’re in Cary when you’re there) and then in the early 90s moved over to Broad Street, across from Duke’s East Campus, taking the place of a very sketchy A & P that had been there in the 80s.

Whole Foods bought the Wellspring chain some time in the 90s and promised to keep it all just the same. Which it  pretty much did, for a number of years.

I remember when I did my food projects in 2009 and 2010 and wrote about shopping at Whole Foods, and people were totally down on me for that. But I liked my Wellspring/Whole Foods then, I liked the people who worked there and I was there all the time and I knew where everything was, they had lots of specials and you could almost always find something at a good price. It was a good store.

Some time around 2011 or 2012, they renovated the store, taking over the storefront adjacent to them and bumping out the bike shop that was there, which was fine by me as the people who worked in that bike shop were the worst kind of sexist bike snobs. I hated that store.

After the expansion and renovation, the store went from feeling like Wellspring, the store it had always been, to feeling like every other Whole Foods in the country. That was obviously on purpose — of course they want to make their branding and everything consistent — and I’m sure it did what they wanted it to in terms of bringing in new people, but around that time, I stopped shopping in the store the way I had been.

Part of the problem was that they changed all the aisles around — and then right after I’d finally figured out where the things I actually wanted to buy were, they changed it around again. The first time I was willing to work through it; the second time I was like okay no.

The store got much bigger, but most of the additional space was devoted to expanded prepared foods and seating area. The actual shopping area was almost the same size as before (except for the cheese counter which was all the way down near prepared foods) so that part wasn’t a problem, but it seemed like their prices went up. I could no longer find things on special that were within my very tight price range. This caused me to start shopping at other stores, which then started a downward spiral of not shopping there enough to see any deals, which meant that even when I did go to the store, I only bought very specific things, because I wasn’t engaged enough to see what was on special and was actually affordable.

In spring 2012, I started working two part-time jobs, in addition to my self-employment work, which made my shopping and cooking schedule somewhat more complicated. Whole Foods was in the direction of one of my part-time jobs, but they changed their hours to close an hour earlier (at 9 p.m.) and often I worked until later than that, so I couldn’t stop on my way home, and it didn’t work for me to stop on my way to work. Also because my schedule was so erratic, and because one of the part-time jobs came with a fairly regular supply of leftover catering food, I wasn’t cooking at home as much.

During that time, I started shopping more at Compare Foods, which is a New York-based grocery chain catering to Hispanic customers. It  has very good prices on produce, and pretty good quality, and I generally like shopping there. There is a Compare that is walkable from my house, though it is not as nice a walk as to the Whole Foods. Near the Compare is a small independent grocery called King’s, which is very Southern and very local, and which reminds me of Walt’s grocery store where we shopped when I was a child. I love King’s.

So I gradually switched from shopping mostly at Whole Foods to shopping mostly at King’s and Compare, and from walking to shop a few times a week to driving and shopping once a week or every other week. If you’re shopping infrequently, it’s much harder to walk, because you can only carry so much.

These days I’m going to an office 5 days a week, so typically I shop on the weekend (King’s and/or Compare) or I stop at Food Lion after work or the Durham Co-op Market on my way home.

The Lakewood Food Lion (or Food Dog, as one of my friends likes to call it) was renovated last year and I now completely love that store. It’s always clean, it has very nice looking produce, and it has really great prices on almost everything. Also it is mostly neighborhood people, there is usually very little sign of the  hipster apocalypse that has invaded Durham in recent months, so that is nice. I feel like I’m actually in Durham, not some bizarre place that used to be Durham but is now a place that fancy people want to live in. (Ann and I were driving around town a few weeks ago and saw yet another sign proclaiming “Luxury Apartments — Coming 2017.” We started joking that we’re going to start a band and call it Luxury Apartments Coming 2017.)

I have mixed feelings about the Co-op. It’s a nice store, it’s locally owned, everyone who works there is really nice, and they have a great ice machine. (Seriously, they do.) But I can’t do my regular shopping there because the selection is limited, the prices are high, and I don’t need organic gluten free everything. I think it’s probably good for people who either have enough discretionary income that prices don’t matter or who are willing to spend whatever it takes to get certain kinds of foods (organic, local, etc.). And I know there are plenty of those people around, I am just not one of them.

I do not regularly shop at Whole Foods these days, but I do go there for specific things. The main thing I go there for is the “Can’t Commit? Try a little bit!” cheese basket, where they have small quantities of fancy cheese for less than $3. This is perfect because when I buy a regular amount of cheese I don’t always finish it before it gets funky. So this gives me the amount of cheese I should be buying, and it’s much better cheese than I would buy if I were buying a larger quantity, and I get to try all kinds of new varieties depending on what’s in the basket. This is hands down my favorite part of the store.

I also buy nuts and some bulk items (oats, popcorn), and I make a special trip for the 365 brand tonic water because it is much better than regular grocery store tonic, and almost the same price. If you like gin and tonics, you should definitely try it. It’s really good.

For a while I was going to Target for certain things that they sell super cheap — cereal, peanut butter, juice, brownie mix (and Aim toothpaste for 89 cents!). But recently they installed self-checkout kiosks, and the last time I was there they had only one or two lanes open, way down at the other end of the store. It was like they wanted everyone with groceries to go through the self-checkout, and I find the self-checkout experience generally unpleasant. I’d rather have a person with a job checking me out than using a machine that grates on my nerves … place item in the bagging area … so I only use those when I have to, or if I have one or two things and all of the lines are long. Target isn’t convenient, so between the hassle of getting over there and the pain of the self-checkout kiosks, I decided I should just pay extra and go to Food Lion for the items I used to get at Target and be done with it. (I may make an exception when I run out of toothpaste.)

I shopped at Costco recently for some things we needed for a work-related event, and I know that Costco has very good prices on high-quality items, but I find shopping at Costco a completely soul-crushing experience. The combination of walking in and immediately being faced with enormous piles of enormous televisions, and all of the food packaged, and everything in such huge quantities. There’s just no life there. It’s like everything that depresses me about the world today, everything I hate, shrink-wrapped and piled high, aisle after aisle, in one cavernous retail establishment. Also it seems to me that the prices aren’t always better, especially since you might have to buy way more than you need, so even if the unit cost is lower, the total amount you’re spending is more than you would spend in a regular store.

I’ve tried to like you, Costco. I really have. But I just can’t.

So that is the current state of my feelings on grocery stores: pro Food Lion, con Costco, and a true believer in King’s and Compare. I’m sure you are all happy to know that.


Writer’s Block

Monday, May 25, 2015


Wait, what should I do here?


Well I survived my year-long provisional existence, where every day lasted a month and the year was over in two weeks.

I had a nice visit with some new friends at the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County Oregon, and got to spend a few days wandering around Portland.

All good.

And I had on my list of things to do before leaving “write blog post” but it didn’t happen, so that is still on the list.

And now I’m back but I have NOTHING TO SAY.

But in a desperate attempt to get this crossed off my list, I’m writing anyway.

My parents came to visit for my graduation, my mom said that it had been a while since I’d given them a new recipe. She said I was due. I said, “Hmm… I don’t have any new recipes because I haven’t cooked anything.”

I said here’s my recipe for the year: you can get a McChicken sandwich and a yogurt parfait for two dollars at McDonald’s. Cheapest meal around. You can’t even get food at a convenience store for that.

She was nonplussed by this bit of wisdom. Nor has anyone else I’ve shared it with been much impressed.

Go figure.

Nonetheless, I stand by it. This works especially well when you leave your house at 7:15 a.m. and return at 9 p.m. (or later) every day. There is a McDonald’s every half-mile in this country, and if you have two dollars ($2.15 if you’re in Durham, sales tax is 7.5%), you can stop thinking about what you might or could or should eat and just go get a chicken sandwich and yogurt parfait and be done with it. And no dishes either.

Problem solved.

The last new recipe I gave my parents was Marion Cunningham’s version of mahogany chicken. It meets all of my key recipe criteria: easy, cheap, good. And it makes good leftovers, all that yummy sauce. And if I ever manage to get back to cooking actual meals again, it will be one of the first things I make.

(For the record, I have moved past the McChicken sandwiches and on to scrambled eggs, but that’s as far as I’ve gotten. One step at a time.)

So this post won’t help my mom, she already has this recipe, but maybe someone else will like it.

Mahogany Chicken Legs with Fresh Ginger
from The Supper Book by Marion Cunningham

4 Tbsp peanut oil
8 chicken thighs and legs
1/3 cup peeled and sliced (1/4 inch thick) fresh ginger
1/3 cup soy sauce
1/3 cup sherry
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup sliced scallions [optional]
1/2 cup whole cilantro leaves [optional]
4 cups steamed long-grain white rice

Put the peanut oil in a deep skillet over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the chicken pieces, skin side down, and the ginger slices. Brown the chicken for 10 minutes, then turn over and brown for 5 more minutes. (It is important to use a deep skillet because the chicken tends to spatter while browning.) Reduce the heat if necessary to keep the chicken and ginger from burning. If the ginger slices brown too quickly, remove them to a paper towel and put them back in the skillet when you add the soy mixture.

Mix together the soy sauce, sherry, and sugar. Pour the soy mixture over the chicken, cover, and cook for about 2 minutes. Transfer to a serving dish and garnish with the scallions and cilantro leaves. Serve immediately with the rice.

Universal Pilaf, Legume Version

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Back when I was doing a series of pantry-cooking posts, I wrote about my favorite recipe that I turn to when (a) I’m hungry (b) I need to fix something at home, going out is not an option and the food fairy is not coming, and (c) I feel like I have nothing in the house to make a meal out of.

It is the Universal Pilaf recipe from Amy Dacyczyn’s The Tightwad Gazette.

Typically I end up at this recipe when I’m thinking about how hungry I am and I start going down my mental list of what I can make and multiple items have to be abandoned due to a lack of key ingredient.

Omelettes? … no eggs. Tacos? … no beans no chicken. Quesadillas? … no cheese. Scrambled eggs and cheese grits? I JUST SAID NO EGGS NO CHEESE. Are you even listening to me?!?


Sometimes the part of my brain that can keep track of what is in the pantry/refrigerator/freezer gets cranky with the part of my brain that just wants to eat. And once I get to that point, it’s time to head for the pilaf options.

Usually I have either cooked chicken or ground beef in the freezer, so I think of this as a recipe for chicken or ground beef. But the last time I went through this mental exercise, I had neither. But I did have a can of chickpeas in the pantry, one that I had bought to make a large batch of hummus with but ended up making a smaller batch and reserving the second can for future use.

Okay then. The future is now.

We have grain (rice), vegetable (spinach and/or peas, carrots), aromatic (garlic), and protein (chickpeas). We always have chicken stock, because I buy whole chickens and poach them and freeze the chicken stock, and I can’t imagine ever not having some kind of fat (butter, olive oil, coconut oil, bacon grease) somewhere.

We can make pilaf.

As I was pulling the vegetables out of the freezer, I ran across a small container of chicken fat, and that seemed like a good option for the fat.

So I put the frozen chicken stock and frozen spinach on the stove to thaw, peeled and sliced carrots, and heated a tablespoon or so of the frozen chicken fat.

When the fat was hot, I added minced garlic, then added a cup of rice and coated the grains with fat, then put in the rinsed and drained chickpeas, then the two cups of chicken stock. Covered and returned to a boil, then added the carrots and spinach along with a little bit of salt and fresh ground pepper. Covered, turned down the heat, and let it simmer. When most of the liquid had been absorbed, added about two teaspoons of Penzey’s Hot Curry Powder. Kept on the heat until the liquid had all been absorbed, then turned off the burner and let it sit for a few minutes, then moved off the burner entirely and let it sit for a few more minutes.

While it was finishing up and steaming, I chopped some dried coconut flakes and some cashews (roasted, unsalted), and put into a dry skillet and toasted them lightly.

Put the pilaf on a plate, sprinkled on the coconut and cashews, mixed it all together.


Makes two large servings, four small ones, or one large-ish and two small-ish ones. (Usually when I make this recipe, I eat it once for dinner and twice for lunch, so I think of it as three servings.)

Not bad for a dang I am hungry and I have nothing in the fridge night.

The Forty Dollar Burrito Revisited

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Okay I know all of you have been anxiously awaiting this recipe for the past FOUR YEARS. Well here it is, the wait is over.

A long, long, time ago, I wrote about making a burrito recipe that my dad had sent me from the New York Times. Because it was the first time I had made it, I decided to follow the recipe pretty much exactly (though I did cut it down a bit, it called for four pounds of steak, there was really no possible way for me to make that work) and I spent more than forty-five dollars getting groceries for that one recipe. This is not a viable recipe for me given my meager food budget of $90-$120 per month.

However they were really quite delicious and I said I’d work on a revised edition, to see if I could come up with something that wouldn’t require me to take out a payday loan to make it happen.

And I did actually figure all of this out a couple of years ago, and even wrote it up, but never managed to post it. So I’m sorry it’s taken so long, but I made these the other day and they are just darn good, and not too expensive, especially when you get everything at the Hispanic grocery. Even the meat (I used flap steak) was affordable, at around five dollars per pound.

Because they are so good, and because burritos happen to be one of the things that I could eat every day for the rest of my life,  it actually seems worth the trouble and expense for me to make these occasionally and have the exact same thing every day for a week, until, with sadness in my heart that it is all gone, I scrape the last re-heated leftover drop of sauce out of the pan and lick it off my finger.

The Twenty Dollar Forty Dollar Burrito

3-4 servings

1 to 1-1/2 lbs skirt steak, hanger steak, or beef flap meat
1/4 cup mild taco sauce or tomato marinade (see recipe below)
garlic powder or fresh garlic

approx 1 Tbsp oil for pan
1 clove garlic
1/2 cup diced onion
1 yellow pepper, diced
1 chipotle chili pepper in adobo sauce, chopped

1 to 2 Tbsp adobo sauce
1/2 cup prepared salsa
4 to 6 oz. beer
1/4 cup water

1/4 to 1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 to 1 tsp ground chili peppers
salt and pepper to taste

Tomato Marinade
the original recipe calls for mild Old El Paso Taco Sauce — if you have that or can easily get it, feel free to use it (it’s not very expensive). If not, here’s a homemade substitute

1/2 tsp vegetable oil
1/4 tsp minced garlic
2 T onion
1 can tomato sauce
1/2 tsp vinegar
1/4 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp chili powder

Heat oil in small saucepan over medium heat. Saute garlic and onion in oil. Add tomato sauce. Stir in vinegar, sugar, chili powder. Simmer for 5-10 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375F. Rub garlic over both sides of steak, then coat with taco sauce or tomato marinade. Cook for 10 minutes, turn over, and cook for another 10 minutes. (This is like a fast-track marination process; it tenderizes the steak.)

While the steak is roasting, heat oil in large skillet. Saute garlic and onion until onion is translucent, then add the pepper and cook until softened.

When the steak is done roasting, remove from the oven and slice across the grain into strips of about an inch wide.

Add the sliced steak to the skillet, along with the chopped adobo pepper. Stir to combine. Season with cumin, ground chili, salt and pepper.

Add the adobo sauce, salsa, beer, and water to the skillet. The sauce will be quite thin. Stir to combine. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat to low and cook at a lively simmer, uncovered, until the sauce has cooked down, about 30 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings, adding cumin, chili powder, salt, pepper, as needed.

Serve in warm flour tortillas with any or all of the following accompaniments:

grated cheese, sour cream, salsa, rice, beans, chopped cilantro.


For some of my recipe testing I bought beer, but in one of them I remembered that I had some leftover beer that I had saved to cook with and I used that and it worked fine. So if you don’t always have beer around, I recommend sacrificing a few ounces of a beer that you or someone else is drinking to save for later use in the recipe. I did make it once without beer, and I thought it was not as good. A friend suggested using malt vinegar in place of the beer but I never got around to trying any versions with that.

You can buy a can of chilies in adobo sauce, use what you need for the recipe then freeze the rest. You’ll be able to make it a bunch more times before having to buy another can.

The original recipe includes a jalapeño with the onion and yellow pepper, but the first time I made it, I included the jalapeño and it was extremely hot. The next time, I took the seeds out and it was still very hot. The last time, I decided to leave the jalapeño out entirely and it was still plenty hot. If you like things very spicy, or if you are using very mild salsa, then you might want to add the jalapeño, but I’ve found it to be fine without it.

That’s it.


Peppermint Heaven

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

bowl with marshmallows glass jar with cocoa mix and mug

Peppermint Marshmallows + Cocoa Mix = Yum

For Christmas this year I gave my nieces hot chocolate mix, made with Droste chocolate and vanilla sugar (sugar that sits in a jar with the spent husks of vanilla beans), and peppermint marshmallows that I made using Alton Brown’s recipe with peppermint extract substituted for vanilla.

It was reportedly a big hit, with special kudos from their cousins who declared it “better than Starbucks” and “peppermint heaven.”

[A friend of mine made marshmallows a few years back while I was visiting her, otherwise I’m not sure I would have attempted these. I don’t think I even knew you could make homemade marshmallows before that. But they are not difficult. They are especially not difficult if you have a stand mixer, but even if you don’t, it’s not bad.

My friend and I were discussing recipes etc. in December when I was trying to decide whether I should make them. She said she wasn’t sure if she would do them without a stand mixer. I decided to try it anyway and see how it was. It was fine. It does take a little while but it’s easy — as I said to my friend, you’re just standing there holding a mixer, it’s not like you’re trying to hold a Volkswagen over your head. I looked at it as quiet time, like meditation. I was busy that week, it was a nice break.]

Because of the rave reviews, and because we are in the thick of hot chocolate season, I decided to post the recipes.

Peppermint Marshmallows

3 packages unflavored gelatin
1 cup cold water, divided
12 oz granulated sugar (approx 1-1/2 cups)
1 cup light corn syrup
1/4 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp peppermint extract
1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar
1/4 cup corn starch

Prepare the pans.

Combine confectioners’ sugar and cornstarch in a small bowl. Lightly coat a 9×13 pan with oil, or use nonstick cooking spray. Sprinkle the sugar and cornstarch mixture into the pan and shake the pan to completely coat the bottom and sides. Return the excess mixture to the bowl for later use.

Place the gelatin into a large bowl along with 1/2 cup of water.

In a small saucepan, combine the remaining 1/2 cup water, granulated sugar, corn syrup, and salt. Place over medium-high heat, cover and allow to cook for a few minutes, until the sugar has melted. Uncover, clip a candy thermometer onto the side of the pan and continue to cook until the mixture reaches 240 degrees F, approximately 7 to 8 minutes. Once the mixture reaches this temperature, immediately remove from the heat.

[No candy thermometer? Here’s how to tell what stage it’s at the French chef way.]

Turn the mixer on low speed using the whisk attachment if you have one (if not, regular beaters will work fine), and, while running, slowly pour the sugar syrup down the side of the bowl into the gelatin mixture. Once you have added all of the syrup, increase the mixer speed to high. Continue to whip until the mixture becomes very thick and has cooled to lukewarm, approximately 12 to 15 minutes. Add the peppermint when the mixture looks to be about done, and continue mixing for another minute or so to incorporate.

Pour the mixture into the prepared pan, using a lightly oiled spatula for spreading evenly into the pan.

[Note: The mixture will be VERY sticky, and the process of getting everything out of the pan and smoothed will be somewhat challenging. Just do the best you can and happily enjoy the batter that is stuck to the beaters and the bowl and the spatula as a special bonus for the cook. That’s all for you. Yum.]

Dust the top with enough of the remaining sugar and cornstarch mixture to lightly cover. Reserve the rest for later.

Allow the marshmallow to sit uncovered for at least 4 hours and up to overnight.

Turn the marshmallow out onto a cutting board and cut into 1-inch squares using a pizza wheel dusted with the confectioners’ sugar mixture. Once cut, roll each square in the confectioners’ sugar mixture to coat all sides. Store in an airtight container.

Alton Brown says these will keep for three weeks, but I’m here to tell you they will keep pretty much indefinitely. They will dry out somewhat, but will still be edible, and will taste fine.

I looked up a few cocoa mix recipes online, and the one that looked best was from Martha Stewart, so I went with that. The only problem was that it makes a huge amount, 92 eight-ounce servings, so I cut the recipe in half.

Hot Cocoa Mix

1 and 3/4 cups sugar
1 and 1/4 cups cocoa
1 and 1/2 tsp salt

Combine ingredients in a bowl or jar, and stir to distribute evenly. Store in an airtight container.

To serve, heat one cup of milk per serving. (Whole milk will taste good. Whole milk with a tablespoon of cream or half & half will taste better. Other forms of milk are an acceptable substitute. Do not attempt with water.)

To each mug, add 1 to 2 tablespoons of cocoa mix. (For a less sweet version, use two teaspoons of mix plus one teaspoon of straight cocoa.)

Pour a tablespoon or two of warm milk into the mug, and stir to make a slurry of milk and cocoa. Then slowly add the rest of the milk, and stir to thoroughly combine.

Top with peppermint marshmallows.

Share with your cousins to make them jealous that you get to drink this all the time and they only get it when they come over to your house.

Alternative Holiday Treats

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

plate with granola bars and Santa

Santa Treats

If you are looking for something to give to whoever you might want to give holiday treats to — friends, neighbors, clients, coworkers, teachers, hairdressers, doormen, elevator operators (everyone needs to go read the John Cheever story “Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor” when you’re done here) and of course, Santa — and you would like something other than butter-laden, chocolatey-ness to send out into the world, I am here to remind you of the delicious granola bars that smitten kitchen posted a recipe for in 2009 and that I made a few times in 2010 but never got quite right.

I came back to the recipe this year because I was looking for something I could eat in the morning shortly after getting up, on days when I had to be up and out of the house on an accelerated schedule. (The problem with not being hungry for an hour or two after you get up is that if you have to actually get up and get out of Dodge, you get really hungry right in the middle of whatever it is you had to leave early for. And then you are trapped somewhere with no access to food. And that is a bummer.)

After a few more tries with the granola bars, I am now completely in love with them. (I gave some to a friend a week or two ago and told her I was still working on the recipe but that they were pretty good, I hoped she liked them. She emailed a few days later and said she thought I could stop working on the recipe, and could I please send it to her.)

So here’s the latest version, and what I learned.

The first thing I learned is that you should definitely get quick-cooking oats; the ones I made with old-fashioned oats pulsed in the blender or food processor, as the original recipe gave as an alternative to quick-cooking oats, did not hold together. The ones with quick-cooking oats worked much better.

The second thing I learned is that you should follow the instructions and use parchment to line the pan.

I feel like every cookie or brownie recipe I see these days tells you to use parchment, which just seems like a waste of paper to me, just oil the pan like they used to do back in the olden days. But because of the falling-apart problem, I’m going with parchment, because you can pull the whole thing out of the pan and then cut it, which keeps it from falling to pieces when you try to put a spatula under individual squares and pull them out.

So after making those two changes, I ended up with actual granola bars, not granola bar crumbles. Hooray.

And in terms of ingredients, you can mix and match and put in whatever strikes your fancy.


Fruit and Nuts and Seeds

The main downside of these is that nuts are expensive, and some oils and sweeteners too. You feel like you spend a million dollars getting everything together. But if you get a bunch of different things, you don’t use that much of any of them, so you can make a whole bunch of batches with a whole bunch of different things in them. Just keep them all in the freezer until it’s time for the next round. And also you can mix in lower-cost options — sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, raisins, coconut — and that helps.

The last batch I made had coconut oil and safflower oil as the oils; honey, molasses, and agave syrup as the liquid sweeteners; dried apricots and raisins as the fruit; cashews, pecans, almonds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, and coconut flakes as the mixed nuts and seeds; and peanut butter as the nut butter. (The previous two batches had pepitas, which I missed in this last batch; I didn’t realize I’d used all of them up.) And I made it with 1/4 cup of brown sugar, instead of 1/2 cup, because the first few batches felt too sweet for breakfast.

They are much better than store-bought granola bars, and maybe even better than cookies (well, for breakfast, at least). Enjoy!

Granola Bars

1-2/3 cups quick cooking oats
1/3 cup oat flour (or oats processed into flour in a blender or food processor)
1/4 cup to 1/2 cup sugar (brown or white)
1/4 tsp cinnamon (optional)
1/4 tsp salt

1/3 cup nut butter

1 cup dried fruit
2 cups mixed nuts and seeds

6 Tbsp oil, or melted butter
6 Tbsp liquid sweetener
1 Tbsp water

In a large bowl, combine oats, oat flour, sugar, cinnamon (if using), and salt. Stir to mix.

Chop nuts and fruit into small pieces.

Over low heat, combine sweetener, oil, and water and stir to combine.

Pour combined oil and sweetener mixture over oats. Add nut butter. Stir until everything is mixed together and the oats are coated with oil and sweetener. Add nuts and seeds and stir until everything is coated and uniformly distributed.

Place a sheet of parchment in the bottom of an 8 x 8 inch pan, with enough overhang on the sides to use as handles when removing.

Spoon the mixture into the pan and, using a sheet of plastic or waxed paper between your hand and the batter, press press press until it is all packed into the pan.

Bake at 350 degrees until the top is evenly brown.

Remove from oven and let cool. When completely cooled, remove from pan using parchment overhang, peel off parchment, and cut into squares.

These keep well in a closed container (e.g., plastic storage container or cookie tin) for at least a week. I don’t know how they freeze because I’ve never been able to keep them around long enough to need to freeze them.