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

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.

Spicing Up Chicken Soup

I like spicy food, but real chili peppers put me in a panic. Small, cute...dangerous.

So sure enough, the grab bag that is our CSA turned up a red hot chili. Remaining calm, I carefully picked it up by the stem, dropped it in my "market" bag (a Domino Magazine R.I.P. freebie) and then forgot about it for a week.

As part of the freezer swap (we are loading in anew, but first the hoarded treasures must come out), I had two chicken breasts, bone in skin on, perfect for some soup. I also had a couple late summer ears of corn that needed to find their way into a meal, stat, and that darn little chili. Soup, spicy, chicken, corn...Mexican.

I won't pretend this is a Posole stew, since I didn't have hominy. But fresh corn subbed in nicely.

Spicy Mexican Chicken Soup

Olive oil
1/2 larger onion, diced
1/2 inch of hot red chili, seeded and minced
2 chicken breasts, bone and skin on
Salt and Pepper
2 corn cobs, cut off kernels and reserve cobs
5 cups water
1 lime
1/2 tomato
1/2 avocado
4-5 sprigs cilantro

In a dutch oven (or any big heavy pot) drizzle olive oil to cover the bottom (about 2 Tablespoons) and turn the heat to medium-high. Chop up half an onion and mince a very small part of a red hot chili. Saute until they start to look translucent.

Push aside the onion and chili, place the chicken skin side down in the center of the pot. Season the chicken with salt, pepper and a sprinkling of cumin. Cook for about 4 minutes. The skin will begin to look brown. Do not turn it! But add in the two corn cobs and 5 cups water and more salt.

Turn back the heat and cook the chicken at a simmer about 8-10 minutes. Pull a piece of the chicken out and check to see if it is cooked through (white) inside. If done pull out chicken and set aside to cool.

Turn the heat back up and bring the broth to a boil. Cook for 5-8 minutes until it has reduced about an inch down the side of pot. Remove the corn cob and scrape off any corn bits and put them back into the pot.

Meanwhile, remove the skin and shred the chicken into bite-sized pieces. Add the corn kernels in to the soup along with the chicken and turn off the heat. The heat of the broth will cook the kernels perfectly. Squeeze in the juice of one lime. Taste and adjust flavors. I added a little more salt.

Spoon the soup into bowls and add on top tomato, cilantro and avocado.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Layers of Fun, and Collards

I've got certain tv-watching habits that fill a need. Hoarders? Inspires me to clean. Martha? Keeps me crafty. (Yes, I worship at the Church of Martha.)

And then there's my pal Guy Fieri. You heard me. Guy, the Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives dude. With the hair. He provides me with the emotional face-stuffing I no longer participate in. Now I do it virtually. I watch him do my over-eating for me. I hope he feels good about it.

Aside from his total worship of very indulgent comfort food, triple-D dude gets line chefs to fess up their signature recipes. And while I'm sticking with my healthier eating ways (there have been results afterall...but more on that when I'm feeling brave), I've been thinking a lot about how so many of their recipes boil down to a ton of ingredients roasted/cooked and then blended into sauces with layers of flavors.

Which brings me, magically, back to collards. Yep, got more of them from the CSA. And in the past I've had some nice success in keeping them simple. But why not build them into something more, something with layers, both literal and figurative.

With some leftover tortillas, home-made chorizo from the freezer (part of a freezer swap that's mid-stream), and some lovely red peppers, I thought I'd make dinner a mash up: Portuguese Chorizo and Kale soup meets veggie pizza.

Next time, I'll add cheese to hold things together, but this was crunchy, salty and smoky, filling and full of collard-goodness. Guy might have done the "hunch" to fit it all in to one big bite. We used a fork.

Chorizo, Collard and Pepper "Pizza"

1 red pepper
6 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
olive oil
1/2 pound chicken chorizo
6-7 collard leaves
3 tortillas

Heat oven to 420F. Rinse off red pepper and place on baking sheet. Roast for 25 minutes or until the skin is wrinkly and brown in spots. Remove from oven and steam in paper bag. I never have a paper bag so I create a little pocket by folding over parchment paper. In fact, if I'm feeling bold I toast on parchment and then carefully fold it over. (Watch those fingers!) When it is cool enough to touch, peel of skin and scrape away stem and seeds.

Place the red pepper in a mini Cuisinart along with 2 cloves garlic, 2 Tablespoons olive oil, salt, pepper and 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar. Blend until very smooth. Add more olive oil if you need to.

On a baking sheet lined with foil (for easy clean up) drizzle a little olive oil. Slide your tortillas in the oil on both sides to be lightly coated. Bake on the sheet for 10 minutes at 320F. You don't want them to burn, but you do want them to get a little stiff. Pull them out and set aside.

Meanwhile, in a medium saute pan, heat some more olive oil and throw in chopped collards. Mince 4 cloves garlic and place on top of collards. Let it wilt and then stir around until collard are softer but still a nice bright color. Remove and set aside.

In the same pan add the chorizo. I had homemade loose chorizo that I made with ground chicken, but any uncooked chorizo would work. Crumble with a fork as it begins to cook. You'll also pick up some bits of collard, which is fine. Cook fully.

Now, time to layer. Spread the red pepper sauce on the tortilla, then the collards, then the chorizo with a little more pepper sauce on top. Into the oven for 10-15 minutes and you've got some big flavors, high fiber and lots of leftovers in one meal.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Beets Beeter Beetest

I love beets. Mr. Lemon does not. So when beets crop up in the CSA line up (a little agri-humor for you), I get excited, but know that there's a dinner challenge ahead. Hearts and stomachs must be won over with some creativity:

Beet this.

What's great is that in one lovely fresh bunch of beets you've got two veggies with two different flavors. So off come the tops to become the centerpiece of a quiche and into the oven the pretty magenta roots go for an hour of roasting to make them soft and sweet.

I've made quiche before with swiss chard and liked how the creaminess of egg and the nutmeg worked out the kinks of a bitter green. So the beet greens were an experiment. Also an experiment? A potato crust. I've wanted to try one of these out for a while and I would definitely make it again. While I am quite familiar with my rolling pin, sometimes make a pastry crust seems a little fussy to me. And with the potatoes, there's starch for sure, but not the fattiness of a full butter crust.

And as it turned out, this us an unbeetable combo for a healthy, but filling veggie dinner.

Potato Crusted Beet Green Quiche
4-5 red potatoes, medium, peeled and grated
2-3 Tablespoons olive oil
1 bunch beet greens (tops), washed and rough chopped
3 cloves garlic, grated
1 leek, sliced thin and soak to get out any grit
4 eggs, beaten
1 cup low fat milk
freshly grated nutmeg
salt and pepper

Heat oven to 425F. Grate 4-5 medium sized peeled red potatoes. Mix this with olive oil to coat (about 2 Tablespoons) and add salt and pepper. In a cake pan or tart pan with a solid bottom, brush lightly with olive oil and press the potato mixture into the bottom and up the sides. Mine was pretty thick (about 1/2 inch thick) but I'm betting you could cut down on the potato. Bake for 30 minutes. Mine could probably have gone longer in order to get the "crust" out more neatly. Next time I might also add a little flour or egg to glue the potato together better.

In a saute pan, add a drizzle of olive oil and the beet tops, rinsed thoroughly and chopped into 1 inch pieces. Saute over medium high heat and add 3 cloves of grated garlic. When the greens are wilted and the stems look day glow bright, pull them off the heat and into a bowl or plate to cool. In the same pan add a little more olive oil and add 1 leek, rinsed and sliced into disks. Over medium high heat, these leeks will cook quickly and any brown bits on the bottom will come up and combine with the leeks. Cook until soft and add to the greens.

In a separate bowl, whisk 4 eggs and 1 cup low fat milk. Grate fresh nutmeg (more than you might expect) and some salt and pepper.

Scatter the greens and leeks into the potato crust and pour the egg mixture over it. Pat down any stems that pop up and pop the whole thing in the oven at 350F for 30 minutes until a knife inserted in to the middle comes out clean. Let sit for five minutes then slice and serve!

Meanwhile, there are those lovely pink globes of goodness roasting away...

Roast Beet and Arugula Salad
5-6 beets, tops trimmed
2 cups arugula
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
2 Tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper

Trim off the tops and rinse the beets. Wrap each individually in tin foil and put on a baking sheet. Roast these at 425 for 45 minutes, while you're baking the potato crust and then a bit longer while the potato crust is cooling. Let cool in the tin foil and use a paper towel to rub off the skin. Slice and dice and add to a vinaigrette of 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard + 2 teaspoons red wine vinegar and 2 Tablespoons olive oil plus salt and pepper. Serve over arugula.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Happy Sunny Tacos

Maybe it's because I associate them with sunny California and all my fun West Coast visits, but when I need a little cheering, tacos can go a long way.

Directions: Pile. Fold. Stuff face.

Long before they were in fashion, I was mildly obsessed with taquerias, specifically those that are mobile and a little dirty looking. The first time I visited California to see a college friend who'd moved home, we were in search of cheap eats and, naturally, we hit a taqueria. I wish I remembered where we went (someplace in LA, how's that for vague?), but I fell in love with the soft tortilla, the salty meat and the fresh mix of cilantro, onion and lime. And there were surprises, too: cabbage was a revelation, fish tacos, radishes, tomatillo's tangy green sauce. This was not the Old El Paso!

So for a little mood elevation, I pick up tortillas and the ingredients for any number of taco combos that are a dependable part of the Lemon menu. In this case I found a deal on beef eye round slices. I'm not a big fan of thin sliced beef because it is such a challenge to keep it moist, but for a quick dinner these worked out perfectly. Cook 'em fast over high heat on one side then turn off the heat and they'll cook themselves while you assemble the rest of the taco fixings. And oh what fixings: Add some black beans and sliced avocado, shred a little leftover cabbage, throw together some pico de gallo and a happy memory comes to the table.

Sliced Beef Tacos with The Works

1 can Goya black beans, low sodium
1 teaspoon white vinegar
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 package small flour tortillas (you can find them trans-fat free)
3-4 thin-cut beef round eye
chili powder
1/2 large tomato
1 bunch cilantro
1/2 red onion, diced
1 lime
1/2 avocado
1 cup green cabbage, shredded
2 ounces cheddar, thin sliced or shredded

In a small saucepan, add one can of black beans with their "juice" plus 2 cloves grated or minced garlic, a teaspoon of white vinegar and sprinkling of oregano (maybe a 1/4 teaspoon if you're measuring) and a pinch of salt. Heat over medium heat and move on to the beef...

Heat a nonstick pan over high heat and add a little olive oil. When it's very hot, add your sliced beef and sprinkle with 2 cloves minced garlic, salt, pepper, chili powder and cumin. This is one of the only times I use the sprinkling-cover (what is it called??) that comes with most grocery store spice bottles. Just a little, not too much. When the edges of the beef look brown, flip it over and turn off the heat.

Now for the rest of the fun: throw together in a bowl some chopped cilantro, onion, tomato and the juice of one lime. Slice some avocado and shred some green cabbage and if you've got it, cheese. Take the beef out of the pan and slice in strips. We used three rounds and saved the other half for the next night (with some Chimichurri.)

Pile it on a flour tortilla (heat them in the microwave if you are so inclined) and fold it over. Stuff face and feel the joy of a warm sunny California afternoon (ignoring the smog and traffic, naturally.)

Great use of half-used vegetables (tomato, onion, cabbage, avocado!)
A touch of beef makes this not too unhealthy, not too pricey
Taco happiness lifts the mood on an ordinary night
Leftover toppings + leftover beans = lunch the next day

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Temptation of Two (Chicken) Breasts

A few weeks ago, a dear friend walked down the aisle. In and of itself, this has nothing to do with chicken.

BUT, pre-nuptials, we were recently talking about what changes once you're cohabitating, shacked up, etc. Here's what I've noticed: topics such as What's For Dinner become a looping dialogue. You know, the "What do you want?" "No, what do you feel like eating?" on repeat, every night, week after week, forever and ever amen. Really, someone making a decision on dinner should be part of the marriage vows.

The answer, so often in Lemonville (population 2.5) is not chicken. When do we ever say I want CHICKEN? Nearly never. (The Canine Taste Tester, our .5 member, would argue this but rarely has the vote because all we would eat is chicken if she could choose!) But we might come up with a regional cuisine, a flavor description or more often a shrug. Chicken is just, well, boring. It's the stuff you add to it that makes it special, or at least flavorful.

And that's what inspired this bi-cuisinal exploration -- two huge chicken breasts, staring me in the face this week. We'd had a holiday weekend of dietary debauchery (Ribs, Burgers, Hot Dogs, S'mores, in no particular order) over Labor Day, and we needed healthier dinners stat. And skinless, boneless chicken does offer a lean protein. Our local grocery was selling a "family pack" of two enormous chicken breasts for $5. Seriously, they were at least B cups, possibly C. But in my eyes they were a tempting call to action: let's divide and conquer, let's raise the bar here, let's make chicken a little more interesting than a dinnertime cliche.

So here we go:
Chicken with Yogurt and Cumin: No really, that's the recipe. Cut up one large chicken breast into bite-size pieces and marinade in 1 cup plain yogurt + 1 Tablespoon Cumin +Salt +Pepper.

Grill or saute in a non-stick pan until the chicken is white on the inside, about 3 minutes then turn it. It's spicy, tangy and very tender on the inside. I served it with a melange of veg: yellow squash, onion and broccoli. Yes, this was the bottom of the vegetable drawer

Chicken with Olives and Thyme
Cut one large chicken breast in half lengthwise. It will STILL be abnormally large. Salt and Pepper.
Heat a medium saute pan and drizzle in olive oil to coat lightly. Get it hot. Throw in your chicken, salt and pepper it, and do not turn until it has made a golden crust on one side, flip over and turn the heat back a little. Add 1/4 cup sliced, pitted mixed olives and 4-5 fresh stems of thyme with the leaves pulled off if the stems are woody. Cook until white on the inside. Mine were still very thick and took 8-10 minutes a side.

The olives will get a little crunchy and offer a salty kick that goes well with the mellow flavor of the chicken and thyme.

Alternate ending: Yes, this recipe has an alternate topping for the chicken. I also sauteed up three medium leeks, cleaned and sliced, in 1 Tablespoon butter. Cook until the leeks are very soft and add salt and pepper to taste. I originally made this as a side dish, but scooped up with the chicken, it was a wonderful silky sauce for the meat's browned outside and tender inside.

Two huge breasts make two yummy dinners
Affordable lean protein gets some new flavors
Canine Taste Tester approved

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

A Plumy Good Time

Plums, I love. Mealy plums, I can't abide. And since the baking needed to stop with the zucchini tart (and some nut cakes that I am too ashamed to feature here, although they were delicious!), no pies or pastries could be used to break down my recent CSA supply into the tart and silky delights that are cooked plums. But a sauce-- a plum sauce! That's the ticket.

I wasn't sure that my plum sauce would really resemble what you get at the local Chinese restaurant. I'm always wary that recipes for Asian foods are missing some secret restaurant ingredient (um, MSG?) And already mine would most definitely be missing something -- since star anise is not in the Lemonville spice rack. We'd spent enough last week on groceries, so I figured maybe some leftover fennel stalks could sub in. And boy did they ever.

Serious Eats (a great food hub!) had the same thought about plums and had posted a recipe from Sherri Brooks Vinton's book Put 'Em Up. Aside from the star anise, this was an on-hand recipe list I could deal with and it turned out beautifully. Imagine a tart and spicy ketchup in a gorgeous shade of magenta. And best of all -- it keeps up to three weeks in the fridge. This plumy good sauce will be gracing chicken, vegetables and anything else I can think to put it on.

Fresh Chinese Plum Sauce
Adapted from Put 'Em up via Serious Eats

1 cup fennel stalk sliced thin (1 Star anise if you have it)
2 lbs. plums, pitted (I had about 15 small dark purple plums)
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup soy sauce
3 Tablespoons freshly grated ginger
2 cloves garlic

In a non reactive sauce pan (stainless steel works), put a small amount of olive oil and the fennel stalks and let them start to cook down. When sliced really thin, this doesn't take too long -- about 4-5 minutes. If you have star anise, obviously you can skip this step.

Cut plums apart and remove pit. Leave the skins on! Add to the pot along with the vinegar, sugar, soy sauce, grated ginger and grated garlic cloves. Cook and bring to a boil for about 25 minutes.

Pour the mixture into a blender and blend until pretty smooth. Let cool and store in fridge for up to 3 weeks (If it lasts that long...)