Thursday, December 8, 2011
Filling up on free samples has long been one of my favorite pastimes. As soon as I got my driver's license, I started borrowing my parents' minivan for special weekend trips to the grocery stores that enabled my free food addiction. The store I liked best was the long-gone Eatzi's, which peddled 16 oz. cups of soup for $7 (and this was the 90s!). While not so generous in its pricing, Eatzi's was -- for a brief while, at least -- incredibly generous with its samples. It seemed that everywhere you turned there was a different mayo-and-sour-cream based dip to smother a cracker with. These dips sold for around $5 each (and this was the 90s!), so I felt minimal guilt about all the cracker-smothering I did. All good things must come to an end, though, and so did Eatzi's sample stations. It was an omen of bad times ahead, because soon enough, Eatzi's itself was gone, too. I like to think it was the lack of market demand for $7 soup and not my gluttony that brought down the house.
Back in those days, I had no shame about my flagrant displays of greed, but as I've gotten older I've learned the importance of subtlety. There's a Whole Foods not far from my office, so maybe one or two days a week (Tuesdays are the best, I've found) I'll head over there to cruise for freebies. I am not the only one. It seems many people also enjoy this pastime, but most of them appear to lack my talent for it. They stand there filling up their toothpicks with four or five cubes of cheese, stuffing their faces like squirrels before dipping in for another round. To watch it is to fully appreciate why communism is a failed form of government: people are natural gluttons and will always try to take far more than their fair share, never mind the regulatory "Please take one" signs. But there are ways to exercise one's greed without being so obvious, and there are ways to sample heartily without putting grocers out of business. Here's how to eat for free like a pro.
1. Even if you are there to just fill up on samples, you should still carry a basket or push a cart. Better yet, fill it with a couple items you don't intend to buy. Even better than that, put the item that's being sampled (not the sample itself, of course!) in the basket.
2. Okay, actually, you should try to buy something. One person isn't going to force the establishment to stop giving out free samples altogether (though I really do take full responsibility for Eatzi's ban on samples), but what if everyone was there just to fill up for free? A store without samples it would be.
3. Make several laps. Don't loiter. Take one sample and go on your merry way. Come back a minute or two later, and take another one. Repeat. You'll need your exercise anyway.
4. Look as distracted as possible. Play with your phone or recite your "grocery list" aloud. (If you don't have a grocery list, recite that one from Sesame Street: "a loaf of bread, a container of milk, and a stick of butter.") Make it look like an accident that you just walked right into that Mediterranean hors d'oeuvres display for the third time. "Oh, hummus, I didn't see you there!"
5. Pick up a sample, eat it, then pick up the container of whatever is being sampled. Examine it closely, as if you are seriously considering it for purchase. Read the ingredients list and say something like, "Hmm. I didn't taste the smoked paprika in there." Have another sample just to be sure.
6. Wear disguises at grocery stores where there are clerks manning the samples, so you can stop by more than once. I'm only half-kidding. They probably don't recognize every repeat offender, but it may not be a bad idea to stash a wig in your bag when you go grocery shopping.
7. If a clerk appears to be giving you the stink-eye after you've sampled one too many, look at them with a sheepish, "Aw, gee!" smile and rub your belly to show how hungry you were. If they don't give you a knowing smile in return, then start muttering incoherently about sinners and the apocalypse. They'll leave you alone.
8. Look for samples in every nook and cranny in the store. The Whole Foods I go to has this one cheese station that's hidden behind a column. Two advantages here: the bowl is nearly always filled with Gouda because so many people seem to miss it, and I can chow down out of public view.
9. Don't stuff samples into your purse. How tacky! Only ladies ages 75 and over can get away with such behavior. And, to reiterate, if everyone acted in this way there would be no more samples. So, maybe just stuff them into your pockets instead; no need to be so ravenous. Just be careful before you do laundry or all your clothes may also be sampling those brownie bites.
Thursday, September 22, 2011
Here's the catch, though: I want to talk about cooking in my new married life because there is a lot to say. Blog, is that okay with you? Is it okay that I don't always make my dishes quite as frugally as I used to? (Marriage has its financial rewards.) Is it okay that I have cut all yellow squash from my dinner repertoire? (Marriage involves compromise.) Is it okay that I no longer subsist on raw cabbage from time to time to maintain my girlish figure? (Marriage is a commitment to stay together through thick and thin, and I take that commitment quite literally, especially the thick part.)
Funny how my last post was about pre-wedding dieting. HA! I say to that, Ha! How things have changed. While I have not exactly been "letting myself go" just yet, I've enjoyed reconnecting with two long-lost friends, Meat and Carbs. We're just letting bygones be bygones or, more accurately, letting backflab be backflab. No big deal. But the real reason for our renewed friendship is this whole married life thing. Special Someone and I like to sit down for dinner and enjoy a meal together when we're both home. I like to cook more than he does, plus my tolerance for Steak-umms is non-existent-to-quite low, so I end up doing most of the preparations. But my single gal style of cooking cannot keep up with this man's idea of a normal portion or a filling meal. I am starting to comprehend the challenge my mother used to face nightly, cooking for her bottomless pit of a husband, three ravenous sons, and an equally gluttonous daughter (back in my youthful days of turbo-charged metabolism -- man, I miss those days).
Anyway, if I were to cook traditional Economical Epicurean-style meals for Special Someone every night, he would get too skinny (and I'm still in that newlywed phase where I think we need to eat the same thing, together, every night, so for now making our own separate dinners is not an option). And no amount of Cream of Poverty soup could ever sate this fellow. So it's a trade-off: either he gets skinny or I get fat. It's more fun getting fat, so without too much further ado, I present my original recipe for the most compliment-inducing meal I have ever made for him. (Not to get all "here's a man-pleasing meal to please your man" on you -- this is genuinely delicious, and though it's not very innovative, it is surprisingly quick and inexpensive to make, and will last you for days if you're not married to Special Someone.)
Recipe: Penne with Vodka Sauce, Sausage, Shrimp, Spinach, and Sundried Tomatoes (There's got to be a less unwieldy name for this, but at least I lay it all out there, and anyway Pasta with Five Esses sounds a bit contrived.)
I know what you're thinking: "Surf and turf? No way that's economical!" True, it ain't rice and beans, but it's not as bad as you think. (My recommendations for cutting costs are in the ingredients list.) Also, I must confess I totally cheated on this one and bought jarred vodka sauce. This was the more economical thing to do since we don't have any vodka in our house for some reason, i.e., I drank it all, and cream is darn expensive. The vodka sauce I bought was this fancy, all-natural Whole Foods brand that was on sale for $3.99 (I happened to be there eating free samples for lunch and felt the sudden urge to make penne alla vodka for dinner). I'm still including homemade vodka sauce in the recipe since it's super easy and convenient to make if you're the kind of person who manages to keep vodka and cream in the house at all times. You're the kind of person I aspire to be some day.
With all the spinach in this dish, it's a complete meal. The only accompaniment it may want for is some crusty bread.
Makes 8 servings (more like 4 in our household) and reheats well for lunch and dinner over the next couple days. Total time, including prep: 30 minutes
4 T olive oil
10 garlic cloves, finely chopped (sounds like a lot, but it's part of the vodka sauce; if you use store bought vodka sauce, just use 3 or 4 cloves)
1 small- or medium-sized onion, sliced into thin strips
2 spicy Italian sausage links, casings on, sliced into thin discs (feel free to use more sausage, but in the spirit of frugality I decided to save the rest of the package for lentils and sausage later in the week)
1/2 lb. frozen precooked peeled and deveined shrimp, any size, thawed or mostly thawed, tails removed (about half a bag)
a handful of sundried tomatoes, chopped (a nonessential but surprisingly inexpensive ingredient that adds excitement to any dish!)
1 lb. dried penne pasta
1 28-oz. can whole peeled tomatoes
1/2 t salt
1/2 t sugar
1/4 c vodka
1/2 c heavy cream
6 oz. baby spinach (or the contents of one bag)
additional salt to taste and freshly ground pepper
1/2 c freshly grated Parmesan
some parsley or basil (optional -- I make mine herbless and it's fine that way)
Special Equipment: a stick blender (or regular blender or food processor)
Place the olive oil, onions, and garlic in a Dutch oven and turn on the heat to low-medium (not the usual way, but starting garlic and onions in cold oil draws out more flavor than heating the oil first). Once things are getting a little crackly, add the sausage, shrimp, and sundried tomatoes and stir everything around for about 3 minutes (the sausage and shrimp are precooked so you really just need to heat them up). If you are using store-bought vodka sauce, dump in the entire jar along with the spinach. Cover the pot and go cook your pasta.
If you are making homemade sauce, remove the shrimp and sausage from the pan and set aside. Turn up the heat to medium, add the tomatoes with their liquid along with the salt and sugar to the Dutch oven, and stir around for a couple minutes to break everything up a bit (vodka sauce traditionalists tend to puree the tomatoes first and then add them to the pot -- do this if you don't have a stick blender, but otherwise you can blend everything at the end and it will have some good savoriness from the sausage and shrimp that were cooked in the same pot). Add the vodka, and while the sauce is simmering, get to work cooking the pasta: add about six cups of water to a large pot and set it on high heat, throw in a tablespoon or so of salt once the water boils, then add the pasta and boil for 10 minutes. Drain and return to the pot, reserving a bit of the water.
At this point the vodka sauce is definitely done, so turn off the heat, stir in the cream, and if you have not already pureed the tomatoes, puree the sauce with the stick blender or transfer it to the regular blender. Stir the pasta and the shrimp and sausage into the sauce, then stir in the spinach. Do not fear that this pasta dish you made has turned into a salad -- all that spinach will wilt almost beyond recognition. Add a bit more salt if you like and some freshly ground pepper. Serve with the Parmesan cheese and the herb(s), if desired.
Thursday, April 28, 2011
Our wedding is now just three months away and I've recently been inspired to start trimming down my physique a bit in preparation for it (I'm fully aware that I sound like I've been corrupted by The Knot, and it's probably true.). Longtime readers of this blog may recall that when I used to feel fat, I would eat massive amounts of cabbage salad. However, cabbage can only do so much to keep you alive. Despite being fibrous and requiring a lot of chewing, it does little to help one feel full for a long time. (Trust me, I've laid awake many a night, post cabbage dinner binge, craving a steak and a baked potato.) So now I'm getting a little smarter: adding more protein, controlling my portions, and getting up from this chair once in a damn while.
Well, duh. Everyone knows that's how you lose weight - eat better, eat less, and move more. To prove I'm not just all hat and no cattle, I'll provide some details (probably more than you care to know), complete with a few recipes. Now, I must admit that this new weight loss program, if you can really call it that, has been going on for only about two weeks. Okay, so maybe I am all hat and no cattle. I don't even know what I weighed to begin with, so I can't provide any numbers proving this thing works. Still, my clothes are fitting better already, I feel more energetic during the day, and I'm convinced my back flab has depleted ever so slightly. So here's what I've been doing:
1. Not going to the Ethiopian lunch buffet near my newish office in NoNoPe (North of NoPe). Another "duh," but it was getting to be a real problem. Still, it's delicious and a great deal at $7.95 on weekdays. I highly recommend it to anyone who doesn't care what they weigh or can exert good self control at a buffet table.
2. Going for thirty minute "power walks" before I eat lunch. Work gets demanding and weather in these parts is strange, to say the least, so I can't do this every day. But when I do, it involves putting on tennis shoes with whatever business casual outfit I'm wearing (since my work clothes are not nearly dorky enough to begin with), pumping my arms wildly, and admiring all the pretty flowers in residential NoNoPe while walking as fast as I can for a timed half hour. It's an enjoyable, if ridiculous-looking, part of the day.
3. Cooking as much as I can. I've always cooked fairly often, but now I make a conscious effort to cook larger quantities so that I have delicious leftovers to eat for lunch the next day. This helps me avoid Item 1. Some good old standbys that have been enjoying a revival in my kitchen include: Cream of Poverty soup, sweet potato chili, Seth Quinoa Salad, other assorted vegetarian one-pot meals, the occasional peanut butter & cabbage sandwich (now made even more delicious with the addition of Geeta's chili-lime chutney) and, as often as possible, lots of hearty greens like kale and collards on the side or mixed into the pot.
4. Eating as big a breakfast as I can stand (helps control mid-morning fatigue and lunchtime binging). Actually, I made this change awhile ago, but am now expanding upon it. I used to eat, at most, a granola bar or maybe a croissant from 7-Eleven. I would wait until around 10am to eat it; otherwise, if I ate when I woke up, I would be hungry again an hour later. Now, I try to eat a huge bowl of high-fiber, high-protein cereal, drink a glass of milk AND a glass of orange juice, and maybe even top it all off with a fried or hardboiled egg. All this is consumed before I have my first cup of coffee, since coffee supposedly interferes with the absorption of iron that you get from cereal, and I'm iron-deficient to begin with. I would like to start adding smoothies to my breakfast repertoire--my favorite, easy combo is one banana, one plain yogurt, a spoonful or so of sugar, and a cup of OJ--but my blender is broken. (Hello, wedding registry!)
5A. Speaking of breakfast, eating more eggs! But eggs are not just a breakfast food any more. I've gotten really into hard-boiled eggs ever since I learned how to cook them perfectly--who knew they didn't have to have putrid grayish yellow yolks and an aroma of fart?--thanks to another great Pam Anderson technique. You just put enough water in a pan to cover them, as many as you feel like cooking but not so many that they are crowded, then place the pan on the burner and crank it up to medium-high. As soon as the water reaches a rolling boil, immediately remove from heat, cover, and let stand for 10 minutes. When the 10 minutes is up, rinse out the hot water and run the pan under cold water until it's completely cooled. Then peel your eggs or keep them in their shells if you don't want to indulge right away. Really, I never knew hardboiled eggs could be so delicious, and they're only 70 calories each. I like to bring them to work for a filling snack or chop them up and add them to salads and pasta. And now I don't have to worry about my coworkers being like "Who farted?"
5B. Did I mention I'm eating more eggs? So yeah, omelets! They are not as fattening or as troublesome to make as many people think. Using my method it's just two eggs and one egg white; you don't need to use any butter or cheese; you fill them up with as many delicious cooked veggies as can fit; and then you eat the rest of the veggies that don't make it into the fold. Omelets do not require any talent, just a nonstick pan and a big spatula. Whisk together your eggs and egg white (you could also use all egg whites if you're gung-ho) for about a minute, add a couple teaspoons of vegetable oil to a frying pan and set it on medium to medium-high heat, dump in the whisked eggs once the pan is hot, scrape around the sides as they begin to set, then--once the middle starts to set--flip the whole thing over as best you can. Don't worry if it falls apart, it will still be highly edible. Then add your precooked veggies (lately I've been using a combo of sauteed spinach, mushrooms, asparagus, and tomatoes) to one side of the omelet, flip over the other side like you're folding over a taco, and slide it onto a plate. The whole process, if your vegetables are ready to go, takes less than 5 minutes. And you can save the veggies to use in an another omelet the next day.
6. Eating smaller portions and eating more often. You always hear this bit of advice from the diet cheerleaders, but I've found it's a good one. Lately, when I pack my lunch, I divide it into two containers. I'll eat one around noon and then the other one around 3. It just doesn't work for me to put it all in the same container and attempt to eat only half, like I used to - I would inevitably finish every bite.
7. Telling the whiny food-craving part of my brain to shut the eff up. This is where the "eating less" part is extra hard because my brain always thinks I'm hungry. Like, an hour after I've eaten a full meal. This is not because I'm actually hungry, but because I just love to think about food. When this happens I'll drink lots of water or go for a little stroll around the office. If that's not enough to refocus my brain, I'll have a piece of fruit and then usually forget about food until my next meal.
8A. Not cooking so many "man-pleasing" meals. Just typing this makes me feel lame. For a long time, when I would cook for Special Someone, I would stick to those kinds of meals that guys supposedly love: roast chicken, burgers, steak, pork roast, etc., usually all prepared with some kind of irresistible buttery potato dish. This style of cooking was misguided, fattening, and more expensive and time-consuming than it needed to be. While Special Someone is by no means a foodie (though he claims to disagree with that statement), he has expressed he is happy to eat my hippie-dippy bean/green/whole grain vegetarian melanges. Not that I believe there's anything inherently wrong with a roast chicken or beef stew (they're delicious!) - it's just that, like my skinnier, single gal old self, I'm now cooking these types of meals more occasionally, and am once again saving calories, time, money, and a few innocent cows and chickens.
8B. Or, finding low-fat substitutions for "man-pleasing" meals. Once again: lame. But wait till you make this delicious alfredo (alfred-faux?) sauce. To make enough for six servings of pasta (lately we're enjoying Trader Joe's brown rice penne - it's the most delicious hippie pasta I've found), heat together in the microwave one half cup of 1% milk, one half cup of chicken broth, and two minced cloves of garlic for two minutes. In a small pot, mix together a quick roux: melt 1 tablespoon of butter and whisk in 1 tablespoon of flower. Dump in the milk/chicken broth mixture and stir it until it gets thick. Add grated Parmesan and salt and pepper and serve over pasta (the other night I mixed in sauteed shrimp, white beans, and kale, and it was great). Also brought to you courtesy of that genius Pam Anderson.
9. Trying to cut the booze. Um, not really working. Beer is one of my favorite food groups, and I am loathe to eliminate an entire food group. Still, cutting back is something I need to do. One thing that's good for people to avoid when watching their weight is sugary mixed frozen drinks. As delicious as they are, a frozen margarita has around 700 calories. Dios mio! I'll stick with beer, thank you - hopefully just one.
10. Not obsessing. Wait, what? That seems a bit contradictory to this whole long list I just wrote. Why do so many diet manifestos always end with "Don't obsess" or "Enjoy life"? Because otherwise you go crazy, that's why. When I go out to dinner, I want to be able to enjoy myself, not just order a side salad and stare longingly at everyone else's entrees. I figure, as long as I'm cooking most of my meals--all of which are nutritious and low in sugar and fat--I can indulge on those occasions when I do go out. Otherwise, this eating plan becomes a true diet and, as everyone knows, diets don't work.
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
Here's how it began, all in one whirlwind day. I stopped at Whole Foods during lunch to fill up on free samples (the key is to make several laps - disguises your gluttony while burning calories) and on my way out picked up their newsletter. Despite Whole Foods' reputation for catering to the country club set, the recipes in the newsletter are usually cheap to make, surprisingly inventive, and far from fancy. I came across one called "Linguine with Spinach, [Canned!] Artichokes, and Red Lentil Sauce." After reading about the lentils -- "when simmered until they're velvety soft, lentils make a surprisingly creamy sauce for pasta" -- I nearly slapped myself on the forehead. Lentils! Of course they would be a delicious and nutritious pasta sauce. Dal is da bomb, yo - let's Italicize it and throw that joint on some noodles! I just had to try it, that very night.
Other than the lentils and linguine, I was not at all faithful to Whole Foods' recipe. I didn't have spinach or artichokes at home, but I did have sweet potatoes, ground turkey, and broccoli and threw those in the mix instead. Sorry, Whole Foods - I realize the whole point of these recipes is to inspire people to buy your stuff, but I just raided your free samples and your free newsletter. Thanks for the inspiration, though.
I also made my lentil sauce a bit differently, with the addition of tomato paste and subtraction of lemon juice. I had some leftover tomato paste that needed to be used up immediately (learn from my mistakes and always buy yours in the tube), but no lemons. When life hands you no lemons, use tomato paste! I realize tomato paste and lemon juice could not be more different (eh...I guess they are both acidic to varying degrees and fruit-based, though that's about it), but tomato paste seemed like a nice little Italianate touch and it never hurts on pasta. Without the tomato paste, and with the addition of lemons, this would've been a whole 'nother sauce.
The lentil sauce melded deliciously with the sweet potatoes, turkey meatballs, and broccoli, but it’s so good that it doesn’t really matter what you add it to. I think it would be excellent plain over pasta, rice, or a baked potato. The vegetables, meat, or whatever else you want to throw in there are just a bonus. I’m sure the artichokes and spinach called for in Whole Foods’ original are also scrumptious. Again, sorry Whole Foods – I failed you, but it was a big win for me.
Recipe: Pasta with Lentil Sauce, Vegetables, and Turkey Meatballs
Makes 4 servings.
It looks like a lot of ingredients, but doesn’t need to be – other than the lentil sauce, everything is variable, and even the lentil sauce could be easily modified. The turkey meatballs here are incidental – I had made turkey burgers the other night and had some leftover meat. But they were really good in this dish, so if you have some ground turkey I recommend using it here. Sweet potatoes are merely a seasonal addition and a good source of nutrients. They absorbed the sauce well, but you could use another root vegetable or none at all. Same goes for the broccoli. I can’t wait to try other veggie combinations. Next up, collards and cauliflower (for the alliteration, of course), red peppers and olives, and butternut squash and green beans. And in case you want to be extra rebellious, you could even use split peas in place of the lentils if you don’t mind the homely colors. Oh! And gnocchi. The sauce would be incredible atop some gnocchi if you are so inclined. Or fish! Seriously, it would be delicious over fish, or chicken cutlets, or maybe even pork. Heck, heat some up and drizzle it over your ice cream like it’s a sunset-colored hot fudge! Okay, I think I found the limit.
For the lentil sauce:
2 t mustard seeds
2 t olive oil
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 C chicken broth (Whole Foods calls for 1 C vegetable broth and 1 C water, which is more economical. Use whatever you have.)
3/4 C red lentils
2 t turmeric (I thought this would brighten the color. Not necessary though.)
2 T tomato paste
Salt and pepper to taste
For the rest, if you want to follow what I did beyond the lentil sauce:
2 T olive oil for sauteing, more as needed
2 sweet potatoes (the smaller kind, or one yam), cut into bite-size pieces
1/2 t ground nutmeg
2 t ground cumin, divided
1/2 lb ground turkey, room temperature
1 t Adobo seasoning
1/4 t salt
2 t Worcestershire sauce
2 T chopped flat leaf parsley (only if you have it)
1/2 lb whole wheat linguine (or any pasta you half)
1 stalk broccoli, cut into bite-size pieces
The lentil sauce and sweet potatoes take roughly the same amount of time to cook, so get these started in tandem. For the lentil sauce, put a small-to-medium-sized pot on the burner and turn to medium heat. Add the mustard seeds and cook a few minutes – they are supposed to pop after a few minutes but might not. It doesn’t matter. Add the olive oil, garlic, and onion and cook for a minute. Add the lentils, broth, turmeric, and tomato paste, stir everything around, turn heat to high, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and cover the pot – these should simmer for about 20 minutes or until lentils are very soft.
Meanwhile, for the sweet potatoes and the rest, heat a large skillet to medium heat and add the olive oil. When the pan is hot, add the sweet potatoes and saute for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to keep from sticking. While sweet potatoes are cooking, form the meatballs: in a medium size bowl, gently mix the ground turkey, 1 teaspoon of the cumin, the Adobo seasoning, salt, and Worcestershire sauce (do not overmix or the meat will get gooey and gross!) and roll into balls about 1 inch in diameter. (If you have extra onion, use it up in the meatballs.) Move the sweet potatoes to one side of the pan and sprinkle them with the nutmeg and 1 teaspoon of cumin. Add extra olive oil to the pan if it has dried up, and add the meatballs to the other side. Use tongs to turn them, making sure they get browned everywhere, about 10 minutes. Cut into one to make sure it is done (i.e., not pink, or only a teeny bit pink on the inside) - if not, keep sautein'. Check the sweet potatoes - if they are soft enough that you want to eat them, they're done! Add a little salt and pepper if you like.
In another pot (yes, I know we're up to three pots now - this is not such an economical dish for your stove or dishwasher), cook whatever pasta you are using according to package instructions. Drain and stir in the lentil sauce, which should be done by now. It will seem like a lot of sauce, but remember, you will also be adding the meatballs and vegetables.
Add the sweet potatoes and meatballs to the pasta and lentils, stir around, and cover the pot to keep it warm. In the pan you used to cook the sweet potatoes and meatballs, add a bit more olive oil and turn the heat to medium-high. Add the broccoli and stir-fry it until bright green and slightly softened. (Feel free to cook broccoli any other way - steamed, roasted, microwaved, etc. - this is just how I like mine.) Salt it a bit and throw it into the pasta. Voila! Enjoy.