Tuesday, January 29, 2008

I've never met a buffet I didn't like

Disclaimer: I didn't much care for the $10 T-Bone Buffet at the now-defunct New Frontier Casino on the Las Vegas Strip. But such cases are rare (pun intended!).

The Economical Epicurean's culinary pursuits are not limited to the domestic. I remember reading an article reprinted from the Christian Science Monitor that claimed that the prices of groceries inflate at much quicker and higher rates than do the costs of entrees at restaurants. Of course, if you eat mostly vegetarian food at home and try to avoid buying produce out of season, it's invariably more economical to dine in. But there are certain cuisines that, I am convinced, are cheaper and more satisfying to enjoy at a restaurant. The two that come to mind here are Indian food and sushi. In the case of Indian, the spices are expensive and can be hard to find while the cooking can be terribly time-consuming; unless you make Indian food often, it might not be worth it to buy cardamom pods or tamarind.** In the case of sushi, fish is expensive enough in the grocery stores; once you factor in the "sushi-grade" requirement (which, in grocery stores, usually falls well below restaurant standards), it costs a fortune.

Overall, I think it's much more rewarding to go out for these kinds of foods. And where can you get more bang for your buck than at a buffet? Admittedly, buffets often feature the restaurant's homelier selections, which become extra homely after hours of sitting out on hotplates. But the following buffets offer delicious dishes that would be far more expensive to make at home. And they're all lunch buffets, which means you stuff your face early in the day, still can't bear the thought of food when dinnertime comes, and ultimately avoid that dangerous "late-night" eating.

The best part? Nothing remotely reminiscent of the tire-flavored "Vegas Strip Steak Special" on these buffet tables.

**Disclaimer #2: my spice rack contains two somewhat costly Indian staples, garam masala and ground turmeric, which I often use to flavor chickpeas, potatoes, and stews. But it would probably be expensive and time-consuming to make, say, an authentic Lamb Vindaloo at home.

4904 Fairmont Ave, Bethesda
Every day from 11:30am-2:30pm
$10.95 weekdays, $12.95 weekends

A few dollars pricier than your typical Indian all-you-can-eat, and justifiably so: this is The Mother of the lunch buffet. Highlights include the palak paneer (homemade cheese cubes cooked in a spinach sauce), chicken tikka, and lamb curry. Beautiful presentation and serene setting.

1341 University Blvd, Langley Park
Weekdays from 11:30am-2pm

The wait staff comes in extremes -- aloof or over-eager -- but the goat curry makes it worth it. A satisfying study break for the slaves of McKeldin Library.

8046 New Hampshire Ave, Langley Park
Weekdays from 11:30am-2pm

Fantastic vegetarian buffet; also a good escape from the library. I find the ambiance underwhelming but the food excellent. Don't think that just because it's vegetarian it's going to be low-fat -- you won't be able to stay away from the pakora (lentils fried in pastry) and dosas (fried crepes filled with spicy vegetables).

134 Congressional Lane, Rockville
Weekdays from 11:30am-2pm

Great selection of sushi and rolls at a great value. Friendly and attentive staff. Nothing out of the ordinary (it's a buffet, remember), but always satisfying. I'm a sushi novice, so don't take my word for it, but my sushi aficionado cousins and uncle frequent this place, too.

Any more suggestions? If you know of a great buffet, send the details my way! I'll continue to update this list as my waistline continues to expand.

Me and Mike Sanders enjoying his Christmas Party buffet!***

***The above picture was shamelessly stolen from fatchicksinpartyhats.com

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Couscous with Personality

Winter weather and a weekend of nonstop noshing in New York have conquered my girlish figure. Time to swap the pasta and red meat for.....couscous? I used to think couscous was something only boring people eat (no offense to Israeli folks -- it's only boring when Americans appropriate it at home). But I was so wrong! Or maybe I'm just boring. But this couscous is definitely NOT boring! It's so unboring that you could bring it to a party and the hosts might even invite you back. In fact, this couscous is a party in itself!

I should also mention that it's filling and well-balanced enough to be a whole meal in itself, thanks to the addition of chickpeas, various veg, and cheese.

Recipe: Couscous with Personality

Makes 4 servings as main course, reheats well in the mike, and lasts almost a week. Although some of the ingredients may sound expensive, you will have enough left over to make this dish or use them for something else several more times. Around here, at least, Trader Joe's has the best prices on frozen, canned, and jarred ingredients, as well as cheese.

2 T olive oil, divided
1 small chopped onion
4-6 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 15 oz. can chickpeas
1 C chopped frozen or canned artichoke hearts
dash of ground coriander
dash of ground cumin
big dash of dried basil
1/3 C frozen peas, thawed
1/3 C chopped sundried tomatoes
1/4 C chopped, pitted olives (any kind will do)
1 C couscous (wheat or white is fine)
big handful of spinach
1 t lemon zest (optional, but highly recommended)
2 T chopped fresh parsley or cilantro (optional, but recommended)
salt and pepper
crumbled feta or goat cheese (optional)

Heat 1 T oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and cook till softened, about 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook another minute or two. Add chickpeas, artichoke hearts, and spices, and cook, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Add peas, sundried tomatoes, and olives. Turn heat to low. Meanwhile, bring salted water to a boil in a small saucepan. Remove from heat and add couscous and 1 T oil; stir well, then let sit, covered, for 5 minutes. Add spinach to chickpeas and veg mixture and cook till it wilts. Turn off heat and add lemon zest and parsley or cilantro, and salt and pepper to taste. Fluff up the couscous with a fork and add to pot. Serve sprinkled with feta or goat cheese, if desired.

UPDATE: My friend Mike, who's, like, enormously fat, just informed me that couscous is a "bad carb." I happen to use the wheat kind anyway, as I, too, am on the verge of rotundity. If you are worried about extra poundage or just want to eliminate the processed carbohydrates, opt for wheat.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A dip does double-time

This one's an old standby. I take it to parties when I'm asked to bring a dish but have just paid the bills or gotten another parking ticket. You can eat it as a dip with tortilla chips or alone as a salad (crush the chips onto the salad for crunchy effect). Or go chip-free and it's still delicious.

Recipe: Black Bean and Corn Dip/Salad
As a salad, I would say there about 6 servings, more as a dip. It keeps well in the frigerator for about 5 days.

1 15 oz. can black beans, drained
1 15 oz. can whole kernel corn, drained
1/2 of a red onion, finely chopped
Juice of one whole lemon
Juice of one whole lime
1/2 C chopped cilantro (I like cilantro in astounding quantities, but you'll probably want to use less)

Mix all the ingredients together; add salt and pepper to taste.

-Add one finely chopped bell pepper
-Add one large finely chopped and seeded tomato
-Add a cubed and not-too-ripe avocado
-Mix all the ingredients in the food processor with a bit of oil for a pureed dip
-Serve with grilled chicken, steak, or shrimp if you're richer than I am

"If I'd known THAT was going to happen, I wouldn't have gone to get BREAD!"

Maybe if the batty Acadian woman had had this bread recipe at her disposal, Sara wouldn't have totaled her car that fateful day in Nova Scotia. Who can say?

At any rate, this recipe is great for people who are lazy about kneading, like I am. I gave a pretty haphazard knead job and it still turned out as it should -- golden crust, chewy inside, etc. It's almost dense enough to be a meal on its own (thanks mostly to the bad kneading). Smear on some butter or blue cheese and you won't need to eat again for hours. That's a long time for me.

If you're the only one eating this bread, freeze half.

Recipe: Cuban Bread
Adapted from the 1961 New York Times Cookbook by Craig Claiborne

1 package active dry yeast
2 C lukewarm water
1 and 1/4 T salt
1 T sugar
6 to 7 C sifted flour

Dissolve the yeast in the water and add the salt and sugar, stirring thoroughly. Add the flour, one cup at a time, beating it in with a wooden spoon or your hands. If you have an electric mixer with a dough hook or a food processor with a dough blade, that will work, too. You can stop adding flour once the dough is fairly stiff.

When the dough is thoroughly mixed, shape it into a ball, place in a grease bowl, and cover with a towel. Let stand in a warm place (80 - 85 degrees) until doubled in bulk. (Under the covers on my bed seemed to work well.)

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and shape into a longish, French-style loaf. Sprinkle a baking sheet heavily with cornmeal; place dough on baking sheet and allow it to rise for another 5 minutes.

Bring an oven-proof pan of water to a boil. Slash the top of the loaf three times with a knife and brush with water. Place in a cold oven. Set oven to 400 degrees, and put the pan of boiling water on the bottom of the oven. Bake the loaf until crusty, about 45 minutes.

-Remove bread from oven after about 25 minutes, brush with water again, and sprinkle with sesame or poppy seeds. Bake for an additional 20 minutes or until done.
-For more glaze and less crustiness, brush loaf with an egg white beaten with one tablespoon of water (in place of just water).

(Above photo stolen from Maddy Read)

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Italian Flag Soup

...So named because of its ingredients and color scheme!

January weather is finally making an appearance, so it's time to dust off the ol' stockpot. This is my favorite of my bean soups. Although its flagship ingredients come from cans, the addition of lemon zest, spinach, and parsley lends it an unseasonably fresh flavor.

This soup is equally good in warmer weather when you have easier and cheaper access to fresh herbs. Basil and rosemary are heavenly with the white beans and tomatoes; add them to the pot when you add the tomatoes, cayenne, and wine. See below for other variations.

Recipe: Italian Flag Soup
Makes about 6 reasonably-sized servings, or 4 Owen-sized servings
Prep time: 5 minutes; Cooking time: about 35 minutes

2 T olive oil
1 medium-sized onion
6 garlic cloves
2 15 oz. cans white (cannellini) beans
1 qt. chicken or vegetable stock
1 28 oz. can diced tomatoes
1/4 t cayenne (red) pepper
1/2 C dry white wine (drink the rest with din)
1 lb. spinach
1 T lemon zest
1/4 C chopped fresh parsley
1/4 C grated Parmesan (optional)
salt and pepper to taste

Heat olive oil in soup pot over medium heat. Chop onion and add to pot. While onion cooks (about 5 minutes), mince the garlic cloves and drain beans. Stir garlic and beans into pot and continue cooking about 1 minute. Add stock, increase heat, and bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium and simmer about 15 minutes. Drain tomatoes and add to pot, along with cayenne and white wine, and simmer another 10 minutes. Reduce heat to low and add spinach and lemon zest. Once spinach has cooked down, remove from heat and add parsley, Parmesan, salt, and pepper.

-Use dried basil and/or oregano; add when you add tomatoes.
-In place of spinach, use a bitter green like kale or collards.
-Give it a Southwestern kick (after all, the Mexican flag is also red, white, and green!). Use pinto beans or black beans in place of white beans; Goya Adobo seasoning, cumin, and oregano in addition to the cayenne; and cilantro in lieu of parsley. Omit the Parmesan and garnish with shredded Jack cheese or queso fresco and sour cream.
-Give it a Southern twist by substituting the beans and greens with black-eyed peas and collards and use bacon grease instead of olive oil to get the onions going, reserving the cooked bacon to add to the soup before serving.
-Use chickpeas instead of white beans and add cumin when you add the cayenne.

Monday, January 14, 2008


In my experience, this dish is loved by all: herbivores and omnivores, root vegetable enthusiasts and root vegetable skeptics, Catholics and Protestants, Democrats and Republicans. I have served it many times, and it has yet to meet less than laudative reviews. Though Gruyere cheese is not what most would consider "economical," it can be subsituted with a cheaper Swiss. This dish makes for a dramatic and impressive entree or side dish at a dinner party, and, if you consider that it can generously feed 9 people, it's relatively inexpensive. It looks particularly festive when garnished with a pretty arrangement of sage and rosemary leaves.

Autumnal Lasagna with Sage Bechamel and Gruyere (renamed and adapted considerably from Cooking Light)
Serves 9 as main course; halve the recipe for one and you can eat well for a few days. It tastes great reheated in the microwave.

2/3 C all-purpose flour
6 C milk (any kind will do)
1/2 C finely chopped onion
1/3 C chopped fresh sage
2 T finely chopped shallots (if you don't feel like buying both shallots and onions, just chop an extra 2 T of onions)
1/2 t salt
1 bay leaf

Filling 1:
1 T olive oil, divided
2.5 C finely chopped onions
3 minced garlic cloves
2/3 lb. spinach (or 1 10-oz. bag of spinach)

Filling 2:
3 C cubed, peeled sweet potato
3 C cubed, peeled butternut squash
1 t nutmeg
1/4 t cayenne pepper
1 T olive oil

1 C shredded Gruyere (or Swiss) cheese
1 C grated Parmesan

12 precooked lasagna noodles

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Arrange lasagna noodles in 13" x 9" baking dish, and add enough water to cover. To prepare bechamel, add flour to Dutch oven over low heat and gradually add milk, stirring with a whisk. Add onion, sage, shallots, salt, and bay leaf. Bring the mixture to a boil and cook one minute or until thick. Strain bechamel through sieve and discard solids. Set aside.

To prepare Filling 1, heat 1/2 T olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion and garlic; saute 3 minutes. Add salt and spinach. Spinach may not all fit at once, so add what will fit and add more as it cooks down. Add salt and pepper to taste; set aside once all is cooked through.
To prepare Filling 2, toss sweet potato, butternut squash, nutmeg, cayenne, and olive oil into any baking pan and bake for 15 minutes (this can be done before you begin work on Filling 1). Remove from oven and add salt and pepper to taste.

Combine cheeses; set aside.

Now, it's time to assemble the lasagna:
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Spread about 3/4 C bechamel in bottom of greased 13" x 9" baking dish. Arrange 3 noodles over baking dish; top with half of sweet potato/squash mixture, 1.5 C bechamel, and sprinkle with cheese mixture (about 1/3 C). Top with 3 noodles, spinach mixture, 1.5 C bechamel, and sprinkle with cheese mixture. Top with 3 noodles, remaining sweet potato/squash mixture, 1.5 C bechamel, and 3 noodles. Spread remaining bechamel over noodles. Bake for 20 minutes. Remove from oven and sprinkle top with remaining cheese; bake an additional 10 minutes. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.

Love dies, but good recipes live on

This fantastic scone recipe comes from an ex-boyfriend's mother, who is a phenomenal cook and baker. The scones are fairly cheap to make and take less than half an hour -- baking time included -- though enthusiastic eaters will think you slaved away the whole morning. Or, be selfish: freeze them and you can eat a fresh scone for breakfast every day for a week!

Cranberry-Orange Scones (see below for variations)
Makes 6 large or 8-9 medium-sized scones

2 C flour
1 T baking powder
1 t salt
1/4 C sugar
1 stick of cold butter, cut into small pieces
1 egg
Grated rind of 1 orange
1/2 C cream
Handful of dried cranberries

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix together all the dry ingredients (1 through 4), then mix them with the butter in a food processor. Set aside. Mix "wet" ingredients (egg, orange zest, and cream), and add to food processor. Fold in dried berries. Mold dough into slightly flattened balls about 3 inches in diameter and arrange on a baking sheet. Bake for 20 minutes.

-In place of orange zest, use 1/2 t almond extract.
-In place of an orange, use a lemon, and substitute cranberries with blueberries.
-Especially when using almond extract, dried cherries are a delicious substitute for cranberries.
-Add chopped almonds or walnuts to batter before baking.
-Use chocolate chips in place of berries. If you like the chocolate/orange combination, keep the orange zest; if not, use vanilla extract instead.

Gnocchi with Spicy Sweet Potatoes

Legumes and pasta aside, the tuber is quite possibly the frugal singleton's gastronomical soul mate. The following recipe is a tasty, tuberous two-for-one. Who can resist potatoes on top of more potatoes?

I've served this dish to friends who claimed to dislike sweet potatoes and became instant converts. On the other hand, sweet potato enthusiasts may find them too savory here, so feel free to tone down the spices if you prefer your sweet potatoes canned and covered in marshmallows.

You can make this dish even more economical by making your own gnocchi. Lidia Bastianich's recipe is a good one: http://www.recipelink.com/mf/31/43239

Recipe: Gnocchi with Spicy Sweet Potatoes
Prep time: 5 minutes; Total cooking time: 20 minutes
Serves 4 as side dish or 2 as hearty main course

2 sweet potatoes (if using yams, which are much larger, one will do)
1 small onion
2 T olive oil, divided
1/4 t ground cayenne (red) pepper
1 t ground nutmeg
1 t ground sage (dried rosemary is also delicious in place of sage)
1 13 oz. package of fresh gnocchi (I like Trader Joe's)
2 T half-and-half or light cream
1 T butter (optional)
2 T grated Parmesan (optional)
2 T chopped fresh parsley (optional)
Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Peel sweet potatoes and chop into pieces about 3/4 in. Grease a small baking dish (9" x 9" works well) with about a tablespoon of the olive oil; spread chopped sweet potatoes evenly over dish. Coarsely chop onion and add to dish. Brush with remaining olive oil and add cayenne, nutmeg, and sage. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until sweet potatoes are soft and browned. Meanwhile, bring water in pasta pot to a boil. Add gnocchi and boil until all gnocchi have been floating at top, about 4 minutes. Drain, but not too thoroughly. Return gnocchi to pot and add half and half, butter, parmesan, and parsley. Toss with sweet potatoes, adding salt and pepper to your taste.