Monday, September 22, 2014

Jalapeño Glazed Chicken | Smoked Tomato Squash Pappardelle | Caramelized Onion Puree

Cost per person: $1.62

Nutritional Info:
              Cals   Protein   Fat    Carbs
Chicken       353    43        18     3
Pappardelle   129    6         5      16
Onion Puree   125    1         12     5

Saturday's dinner met the 'low cost' requirement of this blog, coming in at well under $2 per person, but it fell short of its goal to elevate budget food to gourmet levels. When Omeed sat down for dinner and I told him the dish was going on the budget blog, he immediately blurted "It LOOKS low cost." Fail.

I guess there's only so much you can dress up chicken drumsticks!

It tasted alright at least. I roasted the chicken drumsticks in the oven and glazed them with a homemade jalapeño sauce.  For the vegetable, I put a Mexican twist on on of our current favorite dishes.  Normally we make veggie pappardelle with smoked tomato sauce, corn, roasted red peppers, and feta cheese. I replaced the roasted red peppers with sautéed tomatillos and swapped out queso fresco for the feta. The garnish was cilantro, lime zest, & a puree of caramelized onions.

Overall it was a little more carby than we typically like to eat (from the corn & from the breadcrumbs on the chicken), but still inside an acceptable range!

Jalapeño Glazed Roast Chicken
Serves 2

5 jalapeño peppers, stemmed & seeded

1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1 tbsp lime juice
1 cup tagatose or sugar

Chicken pieces (enough for 2)

2 tbsp garlic powder
4 tbsp bread crumbs
1/2 tsp salt

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Puree jalapeño peppers in a food processor; put in a small pot with vinegar, lime juice, and sugar.  Bring to a boil and boil for about 15 minutes until peppers are cooked and liquid is somewhat reduced. Pour into a cup through a strainer basket (to remove the pepper pieces) - the spicy flavor will have infused the liquid. Set aside.

Mix together garlic powder, bread crumbs, and salt. Lightly coat the chicken and place in a greased roasting pan.  Roast for 45 - 50 minutes, turning once during cooking.  Immediately on removing from the oven, use a pastry brush to coat the chicken piece with the jalapeño glaze.

Squash 'Pappardelle' with Smoked Tomato Sauce - Mexican Style

Serves 2

2 medium sized squash (Zucchini, Summer, or grey)

2 tbsp butter
1/4 cup tomato sauce
1/2 tsp liquid smoke
1 tomatillo, sliced or diced
1/2 ear of corn, cooked & kerneled
1 oz queso fresco, crumbled
Salt to taste

Using a vegetable peeler, peel long flat 'noodles' lengthwise from the squash. Continue to peel, rotating the squash to take evenly from each side, until you reach the seeds. (You can set the seed part aside for use in a different dish if you like - it would make a great addition to quiche!) Microwave the 'pappardelle' for 2 minutes to soften them up. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large sauté pan.  Add the tomatillo and cook until it softens & begins to change color.  Add the corn and sauté until heated through.  Add the tomato sauce and liquid smoke and heat thoroughly.  Stir in the pappardelle and heat briefly (1 to 2 minutes only), remove from heat.  Salt to taste.  Sprinkle the queso fresco on top immediately before serving (or mix in prior to serving if you prefer it to melt a bit.)

Friday, September 19, 2014

Our Top Ten New Tricks for Frugal Cooking

Since its been a while since I've been active on this blog, I thought I'd start back up with a list of the top ten 'tricks' I've learned in the past year for eating frugally with gourmet tastes and dietary restrictions (i.e. low carbohydrate, ketogenic diet.)  We haven't been sticking too assiduously to the $6/day rule but I do try every once in a while to whip up a frugal gourmet dinner.  I've learned a few neat tricks, and while I'll probably cover all of them in more depth as I get this blog up and running again, I thought it would be fun to 'tease' them here first.

  1. Spend at least $1/week on garnishes. 
  2. Zucchini Pappardelle is amazing. 
  3. Queso Fresco is also amazing. 
  4. Cream cheese & ricotta are damn expensive in SoCal. 
  5. You don't need a metric crapton of meat at every meal. 
  6. Smoking, braising, and slow roasting are our friends. 
  7. Bone Marrow is the cheapest way to get something 'gourmet' onto your plate. 
  8. Anything involving cabbage and/or mayonnaise is just generally magical.  
  9. Learning how to make sauces and soups is time well spent.  
  10. Grocery Outlet is my new jam. 


Trick #1: Spend at least $1/week on garnishes. 
You can get a lot for that dollar! Most of the stores in our area sell parsley and cilantro for between 16¢ and 33¢ per bunch, and a bunch lasts 2-3 weeks. Limes are usually about 8 cents each & lemons are often 15 cents each on sale. Red peppers go on sale every few weeks for 33¢ - 48¢, and can be roasted or frozen so they last longer. Cheap onions can be 'quick pickled' to last longer; garlic can be sliced and deep fried for a tangy crunch; corn is cheap; beans are cheaper. What takes a dish from 'tasty' to 'restaurant quality' is the care that's put into its composition and the little garnishes and sauces that add to the complexity of the taste. Its worth it to us to spend a little extra money on the touches that will help our dishes look and taste top notch. After all, its just a dollar!

Trick #2: Zucchini Pappardelle is amazing. 
We've branched out in how we've been using these vegetable 'noodles' in our cooking.  Instead of just being an afterthought substitute for pasta, we've been incorporating them more into the actual dishes. The favorite so far is zucchini pappardelle with roasted red peppers, corn, and feta cheese, with a smoked tomato sauce. We used to boil these, leaving them limp and easily torn apart - now we roast or microwave the "noodles", which tastes better and looks a lot better on the plate as well.

Trick #3: Queso Fresco is also amazing. 
Freshly made Queso Fresco is available at our local Mexican grocery for $2 - $3 per pound, but you rarely need a full pound. A quarter or half is usually enough to liven up a few dishes that week.

Trick #4: Cream cheese & ricotta are damn expensive in SoCal. 
Seriously! Why is it so expensive here? Cream cheese is like 2x the price it was on the East Coast, and ricotta is 4x-5x the cost. I guess this is more of a cautionary tale than a 'trick', but it has dramatically affected our cooking habits so its staying in here!! Its definitely more cost-effective to make ricotta from scratch (which I guess I shouldn't complain about). Cream cheese seems a bit more complicated, though I've seen a few recipes promising to transform plain yogurt into cream cheese that I may test out.

Trick #5: You don't need a metric crapton of meat at every meal. 
Sometimes you want a big pile of meat, but other times smaller portions are just fine. We've been making a lot of meals recently that involve pounding a small amount of meat wafer-thin and then lightly breading & frying it.  These meals seem to be just as filling as the ones featuring giant piles of meat. So, while the beef might be $4.99/lb, we'll use a lot less of it and the overall cost will still be low. We've also been doing the same preparation on the fish specials at our local grocery store - they'll have a few dover sole filets on sale for $2.50 total, not very many 'ounces' of fish at all, but it will be more than filling enough at dinner.  We've learned to focus on the total cost of the portion that will satisfy us, and not solely on the cost per pound. Its a great way to get some of the more costly proteins onto our dinner plate on a budget.

Trick #6: Smoking, braising, and slow roasting are our friends. I love slaving over a meal, but many days I just don't have the time or the patience. These three methods of cooking are great, because you do some prep work in the morning and then the food gets delicious on its own over the course of many hours.  And you can change the taste of the final product by altering what goes into the braising liquid, what wood you put in the smoker, or what rub you put over the meat you're roasting. Brilliant! These methods also often involve large cuts of meat.  There are inevitable leftovers, which can be creatively put to work in the next day's breakfast and lunch creations.

Trick #7: Bone Marrow is the cheapest way to get something 'gourmet' onto your plate. 
The local Mexican grocery sells giant cuts of bone marrow. Presumably the bone marrow is intended to be used for seasoning soups, but its just as good roasted as an appetizer or an enhancement to a meal (or scooped out and spread on top of a steak even!)  The cost is usually around $3 for what amounts to three app-sized portions, as its quite rich and very filling. Chicken livers are another inexpensive option, though they do seem to require a bit more preparation to seem 100% gourmet. We'll also occasionally see good deals on beef cheeks, sweetbreads, beef tongue, and kidneys, but these are hit or miss and often require buying *a lot* of the ingredient in question.

Trick #8: Anything involving cabbage and/or mayonnaise is just generally magical.  Omeed has sworn many times that he would eat my apple-bacon coleslaw "literally at every meal." This is because things involving cabbage and things involving mayonnaise are both magical. It is known.

Trick #9: Learning how to make sauces and soups is time well spent.  
Both are incredibly cheap and both kick a meal up to the next level.  The basic sauces I recommend are: gastrique, hollandaise, beurre blanc, demi-glace, béarnaise, béchamel, veloute.  They sound super-fancy, but look them up online, pick the simplest recipe, and try it, and you'll see they're actually pretty simple once you get used to them.  Our favorite inexpensive soups are mushroom, moqueca (more like a stew, usually serves as the whole meal for us!), 'kitchen sink' (leftovers), and various vegetable puree themed soups (butternut squash, carrot, cauliflower, jerusalem artichoke.)  Vegetable puree soups are a great way to stretch a pricier ingredient (like asparagus or jerusalem artichoke.)

Trick #10: Grocery Outlet is my new jam. 
They are my go-to place for dry goods, canned goods, frozen items, and breakfast ingredients. They feature tasty (but discontinued) Ben & Jerry's pints for $1.99, and halfway decent wines for $1.99 as well. Their frozen meat and seafood are extremely low priced. And they are also the only place in Southern California that I've been able to find inexpensive shredded Swiss Cheese. (I'm not sure why I have an insatiable need for shredded Swiss Cheese, but now that my need is met I don't worry too much about it anymore.) Plus, there are so many weird, poorly-named Mexican and Canadian off-brand products in the store that a trip there is always good for a few giggles.  

We're baaaaaaack!

It's been two lovely years of living high on the hog in sunny San Diego, but Omeed & I are ready to jump back on the frugal dining bandwagon. We're both 'in between' employment opportunities now, and while we have enough money saved up to not be super-stressed, being more frugal in our dining habits will certainly make our reserves last a lot longer.

I'm still working out our menus for the coming week, and trying to clear out all the non-frugal food from the before times (buffalo filet mignon anyone?) but here are some highlights from our first "back-to-frugal" shopping trip:
  • Fresh chicken drumsticks for 59¢ per pound
  • 10 jalapeño chilis for 30¢
  • Onions for 8¢ each
  • Tomatoes for 49¢ per pound
  • Tomatillos for 33¢ per pound
  • Grapes for 69¢ per pound 
  • Carrots for 49¢ per pound
We also picked up an enormous pork shoulder - my favorite frugal meat! Its large enough that we can cut pork chops out of it, cut some additional meat out for grinding into sausage, and divide the remainder into two big pieces (one for smoking/BBQ and the other for roasting.) One of my favorite challenges is planning a weekly menu that makes one type of meat seem varied enough from meal to meal that we don't get sick of it. 

As in the past with this blog, I probably won't be focusing too much on breakfast or lunch unless I make a new dish or something bonkers delicious. Our breakfasts are usually under 50 cents anyway, and I don't even always eat lunch, just a couple snacks throughout the day. The real challenge in being frugal, for us at least, comes at dinner - where Omeed's default request is steak & asparagus & foie gras (not cheap, folks, not cheap!)  

I'll also be trying to pay more attention to the regional differences in food costs. I'm nostalgic for Boston and its delicious $1.99/lb bottom round roast, but I guess 33 cent avocados is a fair exchange. But on certain weeks we might buy our groceries according what's frugal in *other* cities, so that our recipe suggestions aren't only relevant to Southern California residents. 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Sweetbreads 3 Ways (Smoked, Grilled, & Pan Fried)

Cost per Person: $2.93

Net carbs: 4-5 g (from the carrots and black soybeans)

Sheesh, its been a while since I've posted here.  I've been hopping back and forth between the West Coast and Boston, and have been really bad about exercising (my exercise bike time is usually when I write up these blog posts.)  Since you've waited so long for the blog posts to start back off, I thought I would start out with something that is either awesome or horrifying depending on how culinarily adventurous you are: sweetbreads!  I'm really loving our ability to get more exotic (and often considered 'higher end') meats on a budget out in CA.

OK, the basics for the uninitiated: sweet breads are not bread.  Oh my no.  They are various delicious organs of the cow, typically the thymus and pancreas.  They have a velvety, slightly sweet taste with just a hint of minerality.  Its difficult to describe the texture and taste.  Definitely a much milder taste than liver, and the texture is also smoother and less chewy.  But the texture is more similar to liver than, say, to steak. Its kind of like if you mixed foie gras and a little bit of beef flavor and then somehow cooked it so it was a little firmer than foie gras normally is, but not as firm as beef liver.  Anyway, I am a huge fan.  If foie gras is goose butter and uni is sea butter, then sweetbreads are beef butter.

I was lucky enough to find a big old pack of sweetbreads at the local Mexican carniceria, on sale for $2.29/lb.  Apparently they are often grilled and eaten in tacos.  Way to go Mexican cuisine, you're doing it right.

Since I had an ungodly amount of sweetbreads, and most of them would need to be eaten at a single meal as they go bad very quickly, I decided immediately that I would try to cook them three different ways: pan-fried, grilled, and smoked.  That part was easy to figure out...picking vegetable accompaniments to each was a little tougher.  I had some spinach in the fridge that I'd bought for $0.49, and I remembered a delicious spinach salad my favorite wine bar used to make with bacon & smoked asparagus.  So I decided I'd make the same salad, but sauté the asparagus and get the smoky flavor from some smoked sweetbreads. For the pan-fried sweetbreads I thought a more traditional New England-y vegetable accompaniment might go well, and there were some carrots and radishes in the fridge that were on the bubble... so I decided to roast those up.  For the grilled sweetbreads, I wanted to stick with the Mexican theme, so I planned to chop them up and mix them with various fillings (beans, enchilada sauce, zucchini blossoms, chiles, etc.) and stuff some peppers with them.

So, let's start with the losing recipe.  The stuffed peppers had some flaws.  First of all, the filling I made was so flavorful that it overwhelmed the sweetbreads.  Also, we ended up just grilling them on the foreman grill, as our charcoal had gotten wet and we were too lazy/pressed for time to buy new.  So all the flavor that the grill would normally put on the sweetbreads was lost.  They ended up tasting like just another bland, soggy ingredient in a decent but not amazing stuffed pepper.  I think it would have all tasted a lot better if I'd just made a simple chile relleno stuffed with adobera cheese and grilled sweetbreads.  Oh well, hindsight is 20/20.

The runner up recipe was the pan-fried sweetbreads.  The roasted carrots & radishes were a big hit with Omeed (he really likes when veggies are roasted - especially how they get that dry and caramelized outside and then the inside is delicious and gooey.)  The pan-fried sweetbreads were pretty similar to how I've always had them cooked in restaurants... though they probably could have benefitted from either a higher frying temperature or some breadcrumbs/pork rind crumbs mixed in to the batter.  The outside breading wasn't as super crispy as I'd hoped, but I do tend to be a little bit shy about how long I leave things in the frying oil.

The clear winner, however, was the smoked sweetbread spinach salad.  To smoke the sweetbreads, I just threw them in our smoker for an hour at 275 degrees, with a cup of applewood chips in the hopper.  They reduced to about half their size and got a lovely dark brown color on the outside.  I chilled them for about 10 minutes in the freezer and then sliced them and put them on the salad, which was just spinach, sautéed asparagus, and crumbled bacon dressed with a basic balsamic vinaigrette.  There were some really good flavor and texture combinations going on there, especially the crunch of the bacon and asparagus with the silky smooth texture of the sweetbreads.  I really don't want to eat sweetbreads any other way now.

So, unfortunately, all this dining victory does come at a little bit of a price.  Sweetbreads are a bit of a bitch to prepare.  If you are up for the task, here's what you need to do *before* you get to the part where you're actually cooking those puppies:

  1. Remove the sweetbreads from their packaging, put in a bowl, cover with cold water, and let soak for 2-3 hours.  This will whiten them and help get some of the blood out.  If you notice any large blood vessels near the surface of the sweetbreads, it is a great idea to give them a little poke with the tip of a knife, this will make a small hole for any residual blood to get out through.
  2. Wash the sweetbreads off, toss the water, and repeat step 1.  Gotta make sure all the blood is out of those suckers!
  3. Wash the sweetbreads off, put them in a deep saucepan or stockpot, and cover with water.  Bring the water to a boil and boil the sweetbreads for 5 minutes.  This will help firm them up.
  4. Drain the sweetbreads and put them in the freezer for 10 minutes to cool them off.  Remove from freezer, and using a paring knife or poultry knife carefully remove as much of the tough outer membrane as you can.  The membrane is tricky and seems to be all over the place, so in the process you may end up dividing one big sweetbread into several smaller pieces.
  5. NOW you are ready to cook that sucker.
So, not a super intense preparation process, but definitely a long one.  And the membrane can be slightly annoying at first.  Just be patient and work at it slowly.  These are best made on a weekend when you have the time to be popping into the kitchen every few hours.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Chicken Fried Steak | Roasted Radishes & Jerusalem Artichokes | Brussels Sprout Slaw

Cost per person: $3.49
Total net carbs: 6-8 g

This was not one of the cheapest dinners we've had, but for it being steak the price wasn't too bad! And our food purchases were under budget overall for the week, which means at some point soon we're going to have a dirt cheap dinner or two!

Like many of our dinners, this particular plate came together as the result of a few needy ingredients and a culinary idea I'd read about and wanted to try.

In this case, the needy ingredients were the jerusalem artichokes (they had been in the fridge for a couple weeks and were starting to look sad and tired) and the steak (which had a sell by date of the day before.)  The steak had come as two giant top sirloin slabs, and one I'd already used on steak tartare, so I had to cut one in half to make our individual steaks.  I was worried that the cut side wouldn't look quite right if just pan seared it.  So I decided to chicken fry it instead.  Its a simple process involving salting & peppering the meat, dredging it in flour, dipping it in egg, and dredging it in flour a second time.  Then the meat is pan fried on each side until the breading is golden.  It would have been even better with some gravy, but I was tired and didn't have it in me to put a third pot on the stove!

The jerusalem artichokes I simply peeled and boiled in water with salt and a little leftover white wine.  I paired them with the culinary experiment of the week: roasted radishes.  I have never been a fan of radishes.  I just don't get them.  Seriously.  I don't understand why anyone would eat them.  The only type of radish I have any type of appreciation for is pickled daikon, and even that is more tolerance than enthusiasm.  At the same time, I *want* to like radishes, because they are so darn cheap.  Radishes often sell for $0.50 a bunch, and this week they were on sale for $0.33 a bunch.  Somewhere, on one of my "what is the point of radishes" web searches, I came across a claim that roasting radishes turns them into something totally different, mellowing out the taste and taking away a lot of the peppery taste.  So I quartered some radishes, coated them in truffle oil and salt and thyme, and roasted them at 425 degrees for 30 minutes.  And wouldn't you know, they didn't even taste like radishes. I'm not sure exactly how to describe what they *did* taste like... I guess the closest thing would probably be al dente parsnips.  Basically they ended up tasting like a sweet, mildly firm root vegetable, which was just fine with me.  I love root vegetables.  Pretty exciting to now be able to eat radishes without being grossed out!  Also, they look quite pretty on the plate!

The brussels slaw I have covered on this blog in the past, but rest assured it was just as delicious this time (and the several other times I have made it since.)  As Omeed said: "I could live in this stuff."

Friday, March 29, 2013

Holy Food Deals, Batman!

Another "look what I bought!" photo - lots of pretty produce in this one.  I can't believe how low produce gets at some of the local stores.  I spent only $2 at Seafood City for a big bag of produce! Four broccoli crowns, two chinese eggplant, six baby bok choy, a bunch of green onions, and a bunch of radishes.  Crazy!  I think even the cashier was surprised when she rang me up.  All of the stores seemed to have some ridiculously good deal on produce - from 50-cent artichokes at Northgate, to $0.19/lb oranges and $0.19/bunch cilantro at Pancho Villa, to $1.27/lb asparagus and $0.99/lb brussels sprouts at Stumps (the discount grocer in the new neighborhood we're moving to).  I bought everything in the photo for only $40... Planning on spending the $28 'extra' on some treats!  Stumps has lamb shank for $3.99/lb and bur rata is only $2.99 there, so you can bet those are going on the list... other possible treats include heirloom tomatoes from Sprouts ($1.99/lb) and some of their 'mini' cheese wedges (perfect for a cheese plate!)

I love how healthy the whole table looks.  I like to compare each new shopping trip photo with our first 'budget grocery shopping' trip from back in 2011.  Our first efforts just look so sad by comparison!  The funny thing is that the photo above actually has about 5x as much meat as the photo on the right... but it looks like relatively little meat because of all the extra produce!

Friday, March 8, 2013

Smoked Chicken | Mole | Jicama Salad

Cost per Person: $1.34

Some of you regular readers may remember that about two years ago we bought an electric smoker, with elaborate plans to smoke our own cured meats and make our own bacon.  Well, for about a year and a half it sat in our basement unopened, as we got distracted by work and friends and life in general. Then when we moved, it made its way out onto the patio ... a promising step in the right direction.  I'm proud to report that a few weeks ago, the smoker was christened at my birthday/housewarming party with great success.  We're hoping to use it a great deal more often now that we know how it works and that using it is so easy.  It runs off of 120V AC, has an automatic thermostat and timer, and produces a nice amount of smoke.  Much better than the reviews had led me to believe. Best of all, with a little advance planning it is an excellent way to produce a very flavorful main course with a minimum of effort.

Case in point: these very well priced chicken drumsticks that I bought at Northgate Farmer's Market.  $3.37 bought me 14 drumsticks, of which more than half are currently chilling out in the freezer because, lets face it, who needs 14 drumsticks in one sitting?!  All it took to get these drumsticks into insanely delicious territory was a quick dry rub made of equal parts paprika, pepper, salt, and garlic powder, then 1 hour 10 minutes in a 275 degree smoker with 1 cup of applewood chips.  I didn't even use a mop (oil & vinegar mixture used to keep outside moist.)  I served the drumsticks on top of some store-bought mole that I'd improved with a little cream, butter, garlic powder, and some smoked salt.

Our side dish was a little bit of a treat - I'd found pea shoots at Seafood City for the incredible price of $1.99 for a giant container (usually we pay $3.99 for a container about half the size.)  So I made a tasty salad of jicama, red pepper, pea shoots, and avocado, tossed with an orange sesame dressing and a little bit of yuzu juice.  (Lime, yuzu, or other bitter citrus helps jicama taste a lot better.)  I think it I made this salad again, I'd try and have it be more along the lines of the polynesian crab stack that I used to make - mostly for presentation.  It just looks so damn impressive.