Eating better food for less and other tales from a no-moneymoon

Monday, December 6, 2010

A New Year, A Renewed Challenge

We've thrown another log on the fire. And not just because it's cold.

While we're holding steady with a food budget of about $40-50 per week (packing lunches does bump up the budget a bit), and we're still primarily eating healthy options, we're now also trying to cook for the week on Sunday. The occupants of Lemonville (Pop. 2 1/2) have fortunately gotten rather busy (thus the gap in posting -- oops!), and that means we have to counter the evil forces of the UTO (Urge-To-Order-in).

Cook for a Day, Eat For a Year

Lots of great ideas are out there for cooking one day and eating for a week!, month!, year!..ok, not a year, but you get the drift. I'd looked into this a while back when I was in lazy cooking mode and while the concept of only cooking one day really appealed, and the premise seemed doable, it didn't really fit with my type of cooking. I've found I like the *idea* of planning for a week, but really I want flexibility in my diet. Some nights I need Mexican, and other nights all I want is a light and lovely French meal. If Thursday is Turkey Soup night but I'm thinking Veggie Lasagna, I'm not going to be very happy.

So here's what I've come up with that works (at least since December): over the weekend, I turn out one convertible meal, one meal with straight up leftovers, and one dish that goes straight to the freezer, with some variations. So I'm gradually building up and cycling through my very own version of the Trader Joe's frozen food section. In terms of time, usually one dish take about 2 hours, so I cook the others in the interim and we do one round of clean up.

What Last Week's Sunday Cooking Looked Like

Convertible Meal: So far this means roasting a chicken, which I serve as is, reheat as leftovers, freeze the darker meat and white scraps for quick weeknight recipes, make and freeze stock. One chicken, two people, 3-4 meals. We ate the roast chicken for Sunday dinner, I made Cheater's Pan Sauce one night with stock and slices of breast meat, and we froze stock and chicken picked off the bones.

Straight Up Serve It: Beef Bourguignon. We rang in New Year's Day with something rich and satisfying (if deeply unhealthy.) After 2010, we needed it. The Joy of Cooking (new edition) recipe is brilliant. Reheated two days later, even better.

Direct to the Freezer: Cranberry Meatballs and Meatballs (without cranberry.) Confused? It's just one recipe for meatballs with or without sauce. Both freeze beautifully. Mom's recipe with my substitution of ground turkey.

For lunch, we've been packing a lightly dressed lentil salad. Make it once, dish it out throughout the week.

A post about posting. Really?

So here's what this means for Always Lemons. I'm still going to post recipes and photos (when they are decent), but they may not be chronological in part because some items will go and come straight from the freezer. Others will certainly be made the night of, and still others will be fresh but with components from the freezer. And the grocery bill will vary week to week, but still hover in the $40-range. One week in December I never made it to the store, but the previous week's $60 of cooking and freezing carried us through. If I cook up a good one, I will post some Sunday meal "creation" plans and keep posting new recipes during the week, since some well-worn and freezable favorites are already on the site.

And finally, a recipe...

Cheaty Ziti
Serves 4-6

1 box (1 lb.) ziti or penne, whole wheat works well
1 large jar tomato sauce
1 block low-fat mozzarella
1 package sweet Italian turkey sausage
1 clove garlic
some dried organo and basil, optional depending on sauce

Preheat the oven to 425F.

In a large saute pan, remove the sausages filling from their casing. Honestly, I squeeze out the filling since the casings are often slimy and hard to cut away. Fry turkey, crumbling until cooked through. Add one clove of garlic, minced or grated and the contents of the tomato sauce jar. DO NOT THROW OUT THE JAR. Allow the mixture to get hot, but not reduce, for about 3 minutes. Turn off the heat.

In a large baking or casserole pan, pour out the dry pasta. Add the turkey and tomato sauce. Take the tomato sauce jar and fill to the top with water and add that to the pan. Stir around so the water-sauce-pasta are evenly distributed. Grate a small block of skimmed mozzarella on top.

Cover tightly with foil. Place in the middle of the oven for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and bake another 10 minutes or until the cheese topping brown. Let site 5-10 minutes before cutting and serving. Cool completely before freezing.

Variations: You can add mushrooms and zucchini to the sauce. I frequently add half an onion to the turkey while it cooks. If I have Parmesan on hand, I sometimes grate a little on top of the mozzarella for some additional flavor.

Thrifty note: This is actually one of my pricier recipes since it includes not one but two ready-made items. I try to make this when I find a good deal on either the sauce or the sausage, both of which are frequently on sale. I can almost always find a sale on pasta. Mozzarella is rarely on sale, but I've tried generic and quite frankly if it isn't fresh mozzarella, there isn't a whole lot of nuance to mess up so go ahead and buy the store brand.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Stuffed Pork Chops Florentine

Sometimes I get bored, very bored, with my food. To switch things up I look to a new locale or a new ingredient, but sometimes I look in the fridge and decide it is time to deconstruct. So instead of adding spinach served on the side of the pork chops that I had picked up on sale, the green leafy goodness went right inside the main event. Add a little mozzarella (on sale, but of course), some garlic and some acid with a white wine and roast pepper sauce and it's a Florentine feast.

Stuffed Pork Chops Florentine
2 pork loin chops (there was no bone, but you could do this with bone in)
Olive oil
3-4 cups spinach
1 clove garlic
3 oz mozzarella, cut into thin slices
Salt and pepper
nutmeg, freshly grated
1 roasted red-orange-yellow pepper
1/3 cup white wine

Preheat oven to 375F.

In a saute pan heat 1 Tablespoon olive oil and saute 3-4 cups fresh spinach, chopped and dried along with one clove garlic grated. Cook until spinach has wilted down and is a dark green, but before it gets slimy. Remove from pan, drain on paper towel and squeeze out extra liquid.

Reheat the same pan with olive oil, about 1 Tablespoon, depending on how much oil is still in the pan. Turn it up high. Meanwhile, slice 4-6 thin slices of skimmed mozzarella.

Take two thick pork chops and make a deep pocket. Here's what this means: on the side that doesn't have fat, use a paring knife and make a thin slit. Then insert the knife and move back and forth on each side to make a larger space inside.

Stuff spinach and mozzarella into pocket. I placed the mozzarella in, then the spinach and closed the "gap" between sides with another thin slice. Season chops with salt, ground pepper and freshly grated nutmeg.

Fry those chops till they are browned on each side. That's about 3 minutes a side. Turn over gently with a spatula. Then transfer to a baking sheet and roast the chops in the oven for 15-18 minutes. I went with 18 minutes and was very happy with that decision.

Meanwhile, make a sauce: Chop some roasted peppers and cook them in the drippings and deglaze with about 1/3 c of white wine. Salt and pepper.

While stuffing pork chops with greens made them seem only a little bit healthier, it certainly made the evening meal a lot less boring.

A (Fridge) Harvest Feast

I had the chance to spend a lovely day upstate (up the river, if you will) and fall was definitely in the air. Being surrounded by the bright foliage and all-around-foodiness of the Hudson Valley put me in the mood for some fall harvest-y grub. But this harvest was coming directly from an overstuffed fridge.

For a dinner gathering the other week I'd found a New York Magazine recipe for butternut squash crostini which I'd subbed in as a salad topping for some arugula. Butternut squash roasted with olive oil, sea salt, honey, capers and walnuts. Yum. So I thought maybe some of the same flavors could be spread out over a whole meal. The acorn squash that had been hanging out in the fridge for a week got a little roasty-roast with some honey and olive oil and lots of sea salt. Capers' saltiness balanced out the bite of arugula and sweet orange sections in a salad. And for some added harvest festival feasting, I roasted potatoes with apples. Even though this was a veggie-only dinner, it was rich in flavor and left us happily full on this fall evening.

Roasted Acorn Squash With Honey

1 Acorn Squash (served 2 easily)
1 Tablespoon olive oil
2 Tablespoons honey
Sea salt

Heat the oven to 350F. Slice the acorn squash into slices. You need a heavy chefs knife. Be careful! Place into a baking dish and drizzle with olive oil and sea salt. Roast 20 minutes. Take out and drizzle with honey and bake another 30 minutes. Then turn up the heat to 400 and bake another 10-15 minutes until the tops of the squash look golden brown.

Roast Apples and Potatoes
3 red potatoes, peeled and chopped
1 apple, cored and diced
olive oil

With the oven turned up to 400F, toss the potatoes and apples with olive oil on a foil-covered baking sheet. Bake 20 minutes (while acorn squash is cooling for 5 minutes).

Arugula, Orange and Caper Salad
2 cups arugula, rinsed and dried
1 teaspoon capers, drained (I pull them out of the jar with a fork)
1/4 cup parsley, minced
1 orange
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
olive oil

Wash and dry the arugula. Toss in capers and parsley. Cut an orange in half and cut out the sections. Add the orange sections to the salad. With the two leftover orange halves, squeeze the juice into a small bowl. Add the Dijon mustard, olive oil, black pepper and salt and whisk. Toss the salad with the dressing.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Gougeres Means "Being Neighborly"

As we roll along in the no-moneymoon, I've learned that even when you're not feeling your shiniest, you can still share what you do have. What we have is the rental of a kind relative's apartment...with a terrace. Don't hate us. Blame the apartment fairy* and a market that no one wants to sell in.

And here is what you need of an evening for some fine terrace sitting: hearty nibbles. Dainty is all well and good when there's dinner on the stove or a roast in the oven. But for an extended terrace sit with friends, watching the sun go down and turn the landmark building to the east a lovely shade of orange, I try to make 2-3 heavier items and the like to go with the inevitable bottle of wine.

No matter how charming and elegant that may seem, I'm still me -- trying to stick to a budget, inserting veggies wherever possible to be "healthy" and making use of the ingredients I have on hand. The good news is that even some fancier nibbles are pretty thrifty. So here's what we shared with a lovely neighbor the other night:

Gougeres (aka cheesy poofs)
I used this Alain Ducasse recipe and would definitely add a little more cheese next time. Bonus, these were frozen from a previous entertaining venture and quickly reheated at 350F for 25 minutes. Perfect.

Potato & Leek Croquettes
4 small - medium red potatoes
1 large leek
3 Tablespoons olive oil, plus some more for frying
1 egg
Black pepper, lots of it, Salt, too

People make croquettes with leftover mashed potatoes, but since I loathe mashed potatoes, I have to start from scratch. That's where the microwave comes in to play. Wash and prick the potatoes with a fork, lay them on a paper towel in the micro and nuke 'em for about 5 minutes until they are very soft and the skin looks wrinkly. Set aside until cool enough to handle and then peel off the skin and cut them into 1-inch cubes

Meanwhile, in a medium-sized saute pan heat 2 Tablespoons olive oil. Wash and slice the leek (I always put them into a bowl of cold water to let the grit fall to the bottom of the bowl -- this really works!) and then saute until very soft. Turn off the heat and turn your attention back to those potatoes.

Start mashing the potato cubes. Then add in the leeks and all their cooking oil. Mash some more. Add lots of black pepper and salt (you have to season this a lot.) When the mixture is well mashed add in the egg. If the mixture looks like it isn't holding together you can add another Tablespoon of olive oil. I did, but it would depend on the potatoes I think. You could also add a little flour to boost the binding. I didn't.

In the same saute pan where you fried the leeks, heat some olive oil until hot but not smoking. Make little patties with the potato mixture and slide into the oil. Fry until browned on one side then flip to finish cooking. Keep warm in the oven until ready to serve.

Roast Pepper Nibbles
1-2 red, yellow or orange peppers, roasted
1 Tablespoon capers
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons rice wine vinegar
Black pepper and salt
1 onion bagel

Sometimes I find big bargains and recently I lucked into an assortment of sweet peppers on their last legs. Not ok for a grocery shelf or a salad, but totally fine as roasted (and skinned) peppers. These had been adding some zest to our dining last week, so I had them on hand. Here's how to make them from scratch: Turn oven up to 420F. Wash peppers and remove any soft spots. Place on a baking sheet and roast until the skin turns brown-black in patches and looks wrinkly, about 30 minutes. While still piping hot, use an oven mitt or tongs to place them in a brown paper bag. I *never* have brown paper bags, but I do have parchment, so I make a packet with that and it works fine. This is to steam the skins so they are easier to pull off. I let them sit until they are pretty much cooled. Not worth a burned finger tip!

With the skins off, you can put these in to the fridge with some olive oil and they keep nicely for about a week. To make nibble topping, take about 1-2 peppers and chop finely then mix with olive oil, rice wine vinegar and salt and pepper.

Meanwhile, make a little delivery system for it: bagel chips. I hate to pay for those expensive mini toasts, even though they are delicious! So I've come up with this solution. I slice an onion bagel cross-wise and continue slicing to produce coin-sized rounds. You can get about 20-25 thin slices from one bagel, and the weird triangles you are left with are a nice treat for the cook--eat them before you drink that wine and you prevent tipsy hostess syndrome. Bake at 350F for 5-8 minutes on a baking sheet. No oil needed and they are perfectly tasty and crispy. And better than baguette, these are truly bite-sized nibbles.

The only ingredients purchased for this fun evening: Gruyere, wine and one bagel.

*Don't believe in the apartment fairy? Ever visited a rent-controlled classic six on Central Park West? Apartment fairy. It happens but once in a lifetime, so put keys under your pillow and see what happens.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A Can, A Plan, A Curry

This is the tale of two cans, a plan, and some curry paste, in no particular order.

We were very fortunate to receive a present: some essential ingredients of Thai cooking that a friend (who is Thai herself) felt would be useful to me as a homecook. I was excited to start exploring and immediately broke into the oyster sauce, which I put with some dark greens for a delicious meal. But the small and potent-looking can of curry paste...well, it just sat there. I'm going to admit that it kind of scared me and so, it lingered on a shelf, taunting me.

But I had a plan for this can: some leftover chicken, some corn from a lonely old cob, the remnants of the hot chili and two cans: coconut milk and pineapple rings. Boil, boil, a little toil, no trouble at all.

Thai Curry with Chicken and Pineapple

1 1/2 teaspoons olive oil
Half an onion, chopped
1 red pepper, seeded and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 inch of chili pepper, seeded and membrane removed and cut fine
1 carrot, sliced thin
1 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon thai curry paste (which is fish + chili + tamarind + MSG...oh well.)
1/3 can of coconut milk, about 2/3 cups
1 cup chicken stock
1 cob corn, kernels cut off
2 1/2 cups cooked chicken, chopped into bite-sized pieces
1/2 can pineapple cubes or rings in juice, drained and cut into bite size pieces

Heat a large saute pan with some olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion. While the onion starts to soften chop your pepper (red and hot) and carrot. Add these veggies in and cook until softened. The carrots might still be a little hard, but that's ok.

Now, the fun: spice. Add in the spices and salt and stir into the vegetables. Cook for a minute or two. Add in the coconut milk and chicken broth and bring to a simmer. Add in the curry paste. I was trying to use only a little due to the MSG and it really went a very long way. I was relieved I didn't use more!

Cut the kernels off the corn cob and add to the pan along with the cooked chicken. Cook for 3-4 minutes. Drain and cut pineapple and add it to the mixture and heat through.

Mr. Lemon and I tasted it and threw away the Thai take out menu. It was seriously tasty, spicy and balanced savory with sweet nicely.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Root-ing Through the Fridge

We're in the final throws of our CSA deliveries and this means our fridge looks like a root cellar. Peering into the cold storage, we had some beets that I'd roasted but left adrift in the veggie drawer, an overflow of carrots, and miraculously two eggplants, each a week or more old, looking perky.

With that in mind, I thought this dinner might take root in the souk -- my favorite Moroccan carrot and beet salads, as well as the tabbouleh that pops up so frequently Chez Lemon.

The Baba Ganoush is hiding...can you find it?

And I broke out my version of baba ganoush. I love baba ganoush more than most and for years thought I was eating a healthy treat from my favorite falafel spot until I asked for the secret ingredient. What was it? Mayo. Yes, MAYO. Spoonfuls of mayo, I had been eating as my healthy afternoon snack and my "light" lunch option.

So, that said, I started making my own baba ganoush, and I didn't feel bad about subbing in ingredients. If mayonnaise could make it's way into a real falafel joint, then my consistent lack of tahini was not an impediment. Here's what I use instead: toasted sesame oil. It lasts a while in the pantry, I use it in Asian dishes and it gives a lot of sesame flavor with just a sprinkle or two. I also use it in my hummus. That's my secret ingredient.

Baba ganoush

1 medium eggplant, 2 Japanese eggplants, split in half
olive oil
1 clove garlic
1/2 lemon's juice
4-5 sprinkles of toasted sesame oil
1/3 cup plain yogurt
1/4 teaspoon cumin

Turn the oven up high -- 420F. On a lined baking sheet (tin foil works fine, parchment is nicer), place the split eggplants cut side down. If using tin foil, drizzle a little olive oil on the foil so it doesn't stick to the eggplant. With a paring knife, make a few shallow slits on the skin to release steam. Roast for 30 minutes, or until the skin starts to look really wrinkled. The time depends on the size of your eggplants. Remove and set aside to cool.

Once cooled, scrape out the eggplant flesh away from the skin. It should be tan colored and very soft. Discard the skin. If there are still larger pieces, run a knife through the eggplant. Usually it is pretty goo-ey by this point.

Mix in the minced or grated garlic, lemon juice, cumin, sesame oil and yogurt.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

A (Slightly) Steakhouse Dinner

This fall weather, and a bit of a lingering sniffle, made me think we needed some heartier--but no less healthy--fare in these parts. That's want sent us (bargain) hunting to the meat aisle for something beyond the usual lean cuisine.

As it turned out, the meat manager was smiling down on us and had put out an odd combo pack: a sirloin roast, cubes and thin sliced steaks. Three pounds of bright red beef for $10 at Fairway. Deal! Visions of restocking the freezer danced in my head and we were quickly on our way to a steak dinner -- or my mock version of one.

I wasn't sure what to do with a sirloin roast. It's a tender cut (so the meat manager said) and therefore not a good match for slow cooking. Said manager gave me his advice and it turned out pretty well, I think. Almost a roast beef consistency if I hadn't sliced it so thick. Also on deck: oven fries from our CSA potato supply and a low-fat version of creamed spinach using some bigs leaves also from the CSA that week.

Sirloin Roast Straight Up
2 pound beef sirloin roast

Salt and pepper the roast and place in a roasting pan with rack. Cook at 350F for 40 minutes, 20 minutes per pound. I guesstimated the weight (must get kitchen scale...) but it was a lovely dark pink inside so I think I guessed correctly. Two tips: 1. Let it rest for a while. 2. Slice as thinly as possible. Mine were a little thick which made the slices a bit less tender than anticipated.

Meanwhile...make those:

Oven Steak Fries
5-6 small-medium potatoes, red and yellow
olive oil
salt pepper

I'm usually very disappointed with "oven" fries. But I finally realized that it's all about the expectation. Oven roasted fries are not real fries. They are an approximation and if you give up the hope that they will be magically as crispy as real fries you will be way more pleased than you might imagine with the final product here. They were crispy, and soft on the inside, and full of potato flavor, but in a way totally different from a deep fried potato.

Cut the potatoes, skin on, into thin wedges. Coat on the baking tray with olive oil, a clove or two of minced garlic, salt and pepper. Bake 40 minutes at 350F along side the roast, then with the roast out turn it up for 20 minutes at 420F.

Now with the fries roasting, the roast resting, it's time to saute the spinach and make it creamy.

"Creamed" Spinach
1 onion, chopped
1 1/2 tablespoons butter
1 Tablespoon oil
1 1/2 tablespoons flour
1/4 cup milk, 1 %
Spinach, about a 1/2 pound
nutmeg, freshly ground
salt and pepper

What we're doing here is faking a bechamel sauce, since it's just a tiny bit of butter and flour, and a splash of low fat milk. In a medium saute pan, melt the butter and oil together. Add the chopped onion and stir around until the onions are translucent, but not brown. Turn down the heat and sprinkle flour right on top. Mix it around and let the flour absorb any liquid. Cook the floured combo for about a minute. Now dribble in some milk and stir. You don't want the milk solids to stick to the pan. Keep adding milk slowly until you begin to see a very little bit of white sauce. Now add the spinach and stir as it wilts. Grate some fresh nutmeg and salt and pepper. Done!

And of course, add a big glass of red wine.