Friday, April 30, 2010

Pickles - Cheap, easy, fresh, delicious!

Oh, pickles. How yummy you are!

I seriously destroy these as soon as I make them. They are so good! Notice how I ate half the jar in order to arrange this photo? Well, at least they're low-calorie! I'm on the point of picking up cukes every time I'm at the farmer's market now, and the pickles make a quick snack. These are not truly fermented pickles, but rather a marinated type of pickle. These don't have lovely probiotics, unless you are using raw, unfiltered cider vinegar and raw honey.

I found the original recipe here on Tasty Kitchen. However, I detest sweet pickles, and the original recipe was far too sweet. Here is the recipe with my modifications:

  • 2 whole Cucumbers (this is if you are using full-size standard grocery store cucumbers. I vary with what's available, and have used 8-10 Persian cucumbers, or 3 Japanese long seedless ones. Be certain to get the ones that are not waxed - for this reason, go to the farmer's market and get organic ones. I say Organic, because you won't be peeling them, so whatever pesticides are on the cukes will stay on the cukes. Fair warning.)
  • 4-8 cloves Garlic (depending on size, and how much you like garlic. I like garlic a lot.)
  • 1 3/4 cup Vinegar (I used white vinegar, but apple cider vinegar would work well also)
  • 1/4 cup Water
  • 1 Tablespoon cups Sugar (or honey, or sucanat, or 1 teaspoon ground green stevia)
  • 1 Tablespoon Salt (some people swear that you must use pickling salt, or your pickles will discolor. Mine have never lasted that long! I used raw sea salt. Feel free to use more or less salt to your taste.)
  • 1 teaspoon Dill, Dried OR a few sprigs of fresh Dill
  • 1 pinch Red Pepper Flakes
  • 1 pinch ground Coriander or 4-5 whole coriander seeds
  • 6 whole Peppercorns
The original recipe stated to slice the cukes into fine slices, like those found on hamburgers. To that, I say "Nay!" and cut them in long quarters. But these are YOUR pickles, so cut them how you like.  I trim mine to the approximate length of the jars. If you are keeping the cukes whole, poke holes in them with a fork so that the brine will penetrate the skin. 
Smash the garlic cloves a bit. If they are large, then cut them into halves or quarters. 
Put cucumbers and garlic in a bowl or jar. In the photograph, I have used two pint size wide mouth canning jars, and stuffed them to capacity. Since I used two jars, I split the garlic between them. If using fresh dill, split that between the jars also, or put it in the bowl with the cukes and garlic. The reason I use the jars is that they keep the vinegar smell in the jar, and the jars are much less likely to spill. DO NOT make these in plastic. Just saying.
Heat vinegar, water, sugar, salt, dill (if using dried dill), red pepper flakes, coriander and peppercorns in a small sauce pan until sugar and salt are dissolved. The mixture should not boil, but be a touch warm. If you are using raw vinegar for the probiotics, then heat everything else in the water ONLY, then add the vinegar once you have taken the mixture off the heat. 
Pour the heated mixture over the cucumbers and garlic (and fresh dill, if applicable).  Cover and put in refrigerator for at least two hours. Then, eat them whenever. And you will. Often. Nummy.
The organic cukes cost about $3
$.15 for vinegar
$.50 for fresh organic garlic
$.25 for spices
$.10 or less of sugar/honey 
$.25 of organic dill from my CSA
So that's $4.25 for two 16 oz. jars of fresh, organic pickles, or $2.13 each. 
They took about 5 minutes to make, and I can make them how I like (spicier, garlicier, saltier, etc.). Not bad.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

CSA box for April 24

Yay, fava beans! But what to do with baby turnips? Hmmm...

The oranges on the right were free extras. The flowers are actually chamomile, and the basket has a bunch of loose chard. More potatoes and broccoli, and I still have all the 'taters from the last 3 weeks. I need to jump on this a bit more. Nothing's really going to waste yet, but my fridge is becoming a minefield of veggies. Perhaps it's time for potato leek soup and a French leek soup.

On the bright side, we are eating a ton more greens and lettuce. This is very, very good.

We've eaten from a couple of quality food trucks lately, but no fast food. We ate at a great sushi place the other night, and that was the first time we've eaten in a restaurant since our Vegas vacation three weeks earlier. This is good! Saving money is both tasty and healthy!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Miso salmon lettuce wraps and udon noodles

Ok, soon I will start taking better quality photos, but you don't know how hard it is to STOP long enough to take a photo before eating. These were delish!

The noodle dish was the first thing cooked in the new Cuisinart pan. It works beautifully for stir-fries!

My idea for the miso salmon lettuce wraps came from a restaurant called Twist in Atlanta. I love that place! It's a mix of tapas and sushi, and it has a most excellent bar! It was also across the street from where I worked for a year and a half, so I ate there two or three times a week. It's an addictive place!

So, last time I was there, the Miso Salmon Lettuce Wraps (tapas, not entrée) was $8 for some lettuce, some house-made pickle slices, and a piece of salmon about the size of one of these in the photo above. It's possible the prices have gone up in the past four years. 

This version I made broke down to:
$5.50 for the wild-caught Alaskan coho salmon at Trader Joe's
$.50 for a bit of the organic miso paste at Follow Your Heart (local health food store)
$1.38 for the half-package of organic udon noodles also at Follow Your Heart
$.15 worth of soy sauce
$1.00 worth of Thai kaffir lime chili sauce from Whole Foods
$.50 worth of organic CSA leeks
$.50 worth of organic CSA stir-fry mix
$5.00 for the bag of wild/foraged baby shiitake mushrooms 
$1.00 for the head of organic butter lettuce
This was cooked in the last of the duck fat that I rendered from my organic pastured duck some 5 weeks ago, and I also used a spot of white pepper on the salmon.

All told, that was $15.53 for dinner for two, mostly organic, wild, and super-delicious. Also, I cooked WAY too much in terms of noodles: there's another meal for two from the leftovers. Plus, Gabriel didn't finish his salmon, so he added it to his other leftover fish to become his lunch salad tomorrow.  

That rounds out to $7.76/person for two plus meals for each person, or about $3.89 a meal. And people say that you can't eat well or organically for fast food prices! Here's PROOF of the opposite! And no, it wasn't hard or time-consuming. Total prep/cook time was 23 minutes. I had the salmon in cold water to defrost it for about a half hour, but while the salmon was defrosting, I did the 10 or so minutes of noodle time: boil water, cook noodles for 5 minutes, drain, rinse, and set aside. Since this is a Sunday night, I would not expect to be able to get in a restaurant and be served in less than 20 minutes. Hell, I wouldn't even expect to have my drink by then.

As much as I love Twist, two orders of these wraps would have been $16, plus drink, plus tax, plus tip, and that doesn't even account for noodles and veggies, nor does it account for a possible price increase. We'll leave the two round-trip plane tickets to Atlanta out of the equation. ;) 

The salmon was very simple:
-pat salmon dry and cut into serving portions
-lightly oil pan and heat to medium
-mix 1 to 2 tablespoons of water into 1 tablespoon of miso paste to thin it: you want it thinly spreadable, but not runny, so start with less water and add more as needed
-sprinkle salmon with white pepper
-coat top of salmon with miso/water mixture
-place salmon in hot pan on oil, and wait 30 seconds. Then, nudge salmon to dislodge it from the pan so it doesn't stick
-cover pan and let the salmon cook for 5-7 minutes for thinner cuts. If the salmon is a thicker cut, reduce heat slightly and add 2 tablespoons of water to the pan before adding the lid. Let cook for 7-9  minutes, or to your desired doneness.
-plate and serve with washed, chilled lettuce leaves
-to eat, place a chunk of salmon in a piece of lettuce and eat it like a taco. 
-sigh with contentment

-- Sent from my Palm Prē

Friday, April 16, 2010

Ooooh, shiny! : The cookware post

These are my new lovelies! I got them on sale at Macy's this morning. The pans were $19.99 each, and the the spatula and bowl scraper were around $4 each. The pans are stainless with glass lids, and the spatula and scraper are silicone. The scraper has various measurement conversions on it. The pans have riveted lids and heavy bottoms. They do not have non-stick interiors. Everything has a hole in it or a loop on it so it can be hung on a pot rack or utensil rack.  One pan has a glass lid that's OK to use in the oven, while the other lid is not good for that. The pans were originally $60 or $50. Comparable Calphalon or All-Clad stainless pans run $80 and up. Mostly up. I've always needed more than one pan of this size group at once, so I bought two different ones. I lucked into two additional items which fit my needs and requirements, and had additional markdowns off the clearance prices - but note that I have already decided on my requirements.

These are the sorts of things I think of when I buy kitchenware. I went yesterday to Macy's to see a few items, and I researched the sale items on the web. I reviewed my budget, and decided what to buy. What sort of questions do you ask yourself? Or do you even know to think of these things? Do you think they are important to you? 

I've had so many friends ask me for help with how to cook these past few years. My generation and the one after it are very sadly undereducated in how to do one of the most basic things in life: get food in one's belly. I realize that I'm something of a weirdo among my coworkers, many of whom are twentysomethings whose parents do not cook either. Good food is expensive, obesity is rising, and our health is on the decline. Unfortunately, no one's really all that happy with their food either. Then, there's the whole organic vs. conventional produce debate, the GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms, or genetically altered foods) arguments, and a reduction in Home Economics classes. Add to that a massive gap in basic preparation knowledge, and my friends are at a loss. 

Most of my family is fine, since both sides have super-cook grandmothers and their children continued cooking. Everyone in my family values food, so I have much in the way of knowledge and skill passed down. That doesn't help some of the kids I work with, those from single-parent, multi-job families whose parents were never home enough to cook, let alone teach their children how. Even with the advantages of a massive garden at my grandmother's house, my grandparents' generation still bought into the prepared foods trap as sold by the government post-WWII. Even with such amazing cooking skills, my grandmother still served fish sticks, and my mother still served canned English peas (yuk!). 

So, I'm taking up arms against this crap. It begins here. I will help my friends learn how to cook healthily, affordably, and well. 

Um, but my friends don't have any tools to speak of. Pots and pans with potentially toxic liners, tons of paraben-laden plastics, and a microwave is about as far as most of them have gotten. Not good.

So, we begin here: cookware. For you, my friends, I will highlight some of the basics in cookware buying, some guidance on where to buy, and a good way not to spend a zillion dollars. The items here are fantastic places to start!

Here's the Martha Stewart pan I bought today. It's on Amazon also, and Amazon is matching Macy's price. That's handy if you don't live near a Macy's or if you can't get there quickly enough to take advantage of the sale. But just so you know, full price is still a good price for this item. You'll use it FOREVER.

Here's the Amazon link for the Cuisinart pan. This is the one that CAN be put in the oven up to 500 degrees F, lid and all. If you have to choose between the Martha Stewart pan and this pan, pick this one.

But THIS is the pan I use constantly.

It's a Tools of the Trade 12" sauté pan. I've only ever seen it at Macy's, and I got it seven or eight years ago for $10. They have stacks of them at every Macy's I've ever been to. I use mine DAILY. It is the world's best pan for bacon, it has enough room for asparagus, it can pan-cook a whole cut-up chicken, and it gives sautéing mushrooms plenty of room to brown. This is the pan that I always have to wash because I used it cooking my last meal, and it's still dirty. I LOVE this pan. It's one of two pans that made the cross-country move to California. It's on special this weekend at Macy's for $14.99. :D

Note the blackening on the bottom: that's a good seasoning coat built up from years of use. You can see that blackening inside the pan also, in the scratches in the corners of the pan. This is good. Seasoning from built-up coats of carbonized cooking oils creates a non-stick surface which is natural and safe. Basically, nothing will stick in the edges of this pan. If I wanted to, I could season this whole pan and make the whole thing non-stick. I still might. But that's another post.

So all of these pans have one thing in common: they're shiny stainless steel. Why stainless steel? Well, there are apparently lots of possible ways for non-stick coatings to poison us. Since manufacturers are under no obligation to label a manufactured item with potentially nasty chemical coatings or additives, you just don't know what's in the non-stick surface, or if it's truly safe to use with food. The other, more important thing is that non-stick coatings are NOT designed for high-heat cooking. The compounds in the coating are known to break down above 500 degrees F, and that temperature can come and go in a real hurry. I didn't know that before, so these new pots are for me to replace my lovely Calphalon dutch oven for higher-heat uses. I'm going with the better safe than sorry route, personally, but here's a nice article that talks about cookware materials. It's your choice, but there are green and safer non-stick surfaces available. Anodized aluminum is the best choice for non-stick, but it is pricier.  For the most part, I'll stick to stainless steel and cast iron, but you don't have to.

Basically, stainless steel pans with heavy bottoms cook more evenly than cheapo pans. They're easy to clean up. They're pretty. They can be affordable. Many professionals choose stainless. For these reasons, I'm sticking with stainless when I'm not using cast iron.

It's beginning to look like cast iron needs its own post.

Another thing: notice the all-metal construction? That means they can go from stovetop to oven. This is a very useful feature. You may not realize it now, but you'll need that feature someday, at least on one pan. Trust me.

To summarize, if you have $35-$40, you can get the Cuisinart pan and the Tools of the Trade big sauté pan. You'll be able to make most everything you need with these two pans. They'll serve you well for many years.  They're easy to clean, they can be on the stovetop or the oven, and you'll love them. You'll see them in many upcoming posts.

Check back for posts on cast iron, utensils, and updates on good places to purchase cookware, not to mention recipes and cooking tips on tasty, inexpensive food.

Until then, sayonara!

-- Sent from my Palm Prē

Roasted chicken, seasoned fries, and baby green salad

This was my lunch yesterday.

Roasted chicken leftovers, pan-cooked in organic butter to warm it up, organic baby green salad, and homemade seasoned french fries.

The organic, pastured, happy roasted chicken originally cost $16, but I so far have gotten 4 meals from it, and still have 1/3 of the carcass to go. 
The greens cost about 50 cents.
The organic potato for the fries was from my CSA box, so I estimate about $1 cost. 
I used Trader Joe's 21 Seasoning Salute and some Trader Joe's Sea Salt. 
I fried the potato in lard that I rendered from organic, hormone-free pork fat trimmings that I got from the butcher.

I'll overestimate and call it a $4.50 lunch. It took about 22 minutes to make, and it was super tasty. 

-- Sent from my Palm Prē

Tuna with pancetta weapped asparagus

Super-easy dinner! 

Pancetta from Whole Foods, about $4 worth, and still have some left.
Organic asparagus from my CSA, about $2 worth.
Wild-caught hormone-and-nasty-stuff-free tuna from Trader Joe's freezer section, $3.94. 
Organic lemon from the tree over the fence, free.
Olive oil for the tuna pan, maybe 15 cents worth. Also a bit of salt and pepper.
Total cost for 2 people: $10.25, with a bit of leftover fish for Gabriel's lunch salad. Compared to what we usually would spend at a fast food place, that saved us $4. Compared to a restaurant, about $25 saved, aside from drinks and tip. Total prep and cook time: 18 minutes, or about what it would take for me to get to a restaurant and get my drink, but not yet place my order. 

Makes you think, huh? 

I'll be doing how-to's on simple, delicious dinners like these. I hope you will find them helpful.

-- Sent from my Palm Prē

Thursday, April 15, 2010

This is one of those books that sticks with you.

A long time ago, I was having a rough time of it.

I was eleven. My parents are both different sorts of people, neither of which quite knew how to deal with me in a tough point in their lives. I'd been in a religious cult for most of my life. I was socially awkward. My parents had split only two years earlier, and my "stepdad" Bill had just died. I had been told he was murdered. My mom and I were rendered homeless by his death. We had to give away both dogs and all the cats, since we had nowhere to live. I was in the unenviable position of keeping the homelessness issue under my dad's radar and outside his knowledge. My mom was unbalanced. We were staying in a shack in the woods, which belonged to a "friend" who turned out not to be. I wanted to die. I wanted to die every single day.

But in that shack were these two books by Anne McCaffrey: Dragonsong and Dragonsinger. They were very short books, and I read them repeatedly. I was a fast reader even then, but mom never figured out I was re-reading the same two books. Mice ate holes in my last pair of jeans. We were living off sea rations, showering under a tree amidst scorpions, and heating water on a Coleman stove. We slept on the floor. Mom would kick me in the head when I snored. I never knew I snored before then. But I stopped caring about all that, and lived in these two books.

They are about a girl named Menolly, a fourteen-year-old on a distant world, and she loved music more than anything else. The one person who understood and protected her had just died, and her parents were cruel. It resonated with me, as you might expect.

I can't really reveal too much plot, since the books are so short, so I'll say this: since I read these, I have been a life-long Anne McCaffrey fan. I met her once, and I do hope she forgives me for bursting into tears. I certainly will never forget her hugging me, even though she didn't know why I cried. She saved my life, and I just couldn't voice that. These stories got me through when I had absolutely nothing else to look forward to, and I managed to stop thinking of ways to die.

Is there any wonder I grew up wanting to be a writer?

Dragonsinger (The Harper Hall Triology)
The Harper Hall of Pern (Dragonsong; Dragonsinger; Dragondrums)

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Pork pita and cheddar

This is the leftover pork stuffed in a homemade pita, with baby greens and a few slices of grass-fed New Zealand Cheddar on the side. NUMMY. I should note that I spent $12 on two large organic, hormone-free pork chops, and that was stretched into 5 servings, plus bones for stock. Not bad at all!

Making pita at home is really easy. I followed this basic recipe on one of my favorite food forums. Sniff around, and I'll bet you'll find something fantastic! Anyway, Gabriel and I destroyed the first batch of pita very quickly, so I made another batch two days later. For the time invested, it is a very good bread to make. I'll likely make some more soon, but with whole wheat. 

I should also note that I tend to make my doughs overwet and knead them via a method called French folding. You can find a video here on the folding technique. I don't have a Kitchen Aid mixer with dough hook (yet), so I do all of my kneading by hand. I've been trolling estate sales for a mixer, but I might have to wait and get one via my wedding registry. At any rate, a mixer makes the kneading part easier, but kneading itself is kind of relaxing, and I don't mind it so much.

If you haven't baked much before, give the pita a try! 
-- Sent from my Palm Prē

Green garlic soup with port wine whole grain bread

I used this recipe, but I didn't quite have enough chicken stock. I also doubled the potato, and used a bit of extra half-and-half, since what I had was about to expire. My potato was also a russet potato, because that's what I had on hand. At any rate, the soup was fantastic. Keep in mind that spring garlic or green garlic doesn't nearly have the spicy bite or scent that mature garlic has. The result was phenomenal. It made two very generous bowls and two cups left over. In fact, I'm going to go have those leftovers. Right. Now. 

Total cost for the soup was maybe $4, including the half-and-half that was about to be trashed and the rather expensive chicken broth concentrate I had on hand. Not bad at all!

The port bread was sliced and grilled in a pan with butter. Gabriel destroyed five slices, it was so good. However, it deserves its own post. That will come soon. Very soon!

Eat well, my lovelies!

-- Sent from my Palm Prē

Swordfish dinner with homemade fries

Not pictured: baby greens salad. Total cost for dinner for two: $7.50. For freaking swordfish. Long live Trader Joe's! 

The potatoes were part of the CSA delivery this week, greens purchased inexpensively at the farmer's market, the pan-fried lemon was pulled from the tree branch over the fence in the yard, and the wild-caught swordfish was in the frozen section for a few cents under $6. 

The potatoes were cooked in organic, hormone-free lard which I rendered from free trimmings saved by the butcher at Whole Foods. The trimmings also yielded about a pound of free pork bits, which are ideal for stock or stir-fry. Can't argue with free! 

Yes, lard. Animal fat gets a bad rap

-- Sent from my Palm Prē

Saturday, April 10, 2010

CSA box for April 10

Just ignore the two massive leeks on the left - they weren't even in the box! They were free additions. Well, I wanted to make leek soup, so here we go!

So, everything else was slightly less than $20. All organic, all tasty. I've never cooked artichokes before, so I suppose I better figure those out pretty quickly.

This week, I added eggs, some celery, some onions, pears, and baby greens to my farmer's market bags. I've been eating the greens like chips lately, even so far as to taking some in a bowl for the drive to work. Talk about fast food! But I am certainly feeling better lately, so I must be doing something right.

So far this week, I have made swordfish steaks with french fries and roasted chicken with a herb I've never tried before called za'atar, which is kind of like oregano on steroids and an attitude. I baked potatoes smeared in bacon fat again, and they were delish! I've started buying a pasture butter for table uses like these, and I think I'll keep on with that.

I need to put up my photo from last week, which has my green garlic soup and grilled slices of my port wine whole grain bread. SO tasty!

But the best news is this: ALBUS IS BACK!!
Albus is my kitty who got out a couple of days after Isis died, and we didn't trap him until Saturday. Oh, he is skinny! He is malnourished, dehydrated, and coated with fleas (yuk), but he's back, and I'm happy about that.

-- Sent from my Palm Prē