Thursday, September 9, 2010

Organic Wine on the Cheap

I'm not much for wine usually, but while in Trader Joe's the other day, I found a sign that advertised an organic wine for 5.99 a bottle. 5.99 is a cheap wine any day, and to have it be organic? I was sold.

This Albero sparkling white wine was from Spain. It was very smooth and it went very well with our Italian-flavored dinner, including chicken and a risotto. Yum!

Now, my husband and I can almost never finish a bottle on our own with dinner. Our friends got us an awesome wine preserving decanter for our wedding. It looks something like this. It is an expensive initial investment, but it saves our wine, and we can have it for another meal. Even after several weeks, I can still use the last bits for a great white wine sauce when it's been vacuumed in with one of these doohickeys.

A reminder, check out other tips about finding cheap wine here. Also keep in mind your carbon footprint. If you live on the East Coast like I do, your carbon footprint is less for a wine from Western Europe than the West Coast. Go figure.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Get Physical With Your Food: A Simple, Hands-On Meal

We'll start today with a shout-out to the Mass Farmer's Markets and their loving local blogathon going on right now! Click on the previous link to find a lot of local bloggers who are sharing recipes and other ideas from their findings at local Massachusetts Farmers Markets. I've found some delicious recipes I'd like to try in the near future from my fellow bloggers out there, including this delicious looking Spanish Tortilla recipe I have got to try when I get my tomatillos from my Silverbrook Farms CSA this week!

Today, I'm talking about getting physical...with your food. We get so separated from our food, especially our meat. We can buy melon cut up into perfect cubes, chicken that looks nothing like the bird they came from, and the list goes on. But someone out there cuts that melon, someone out there kills that chicken (or runs the machine that does so.) I think it's only fair that once in awhile, we get our hands dirty, get a little more involved with where our food comes from.

This dinner was ALL HANDS ON; we had to work for all our food, but it was worth every effort.

The physicality is why I LOVE lobster. You have to work for your meat, but it is so worth it to bite into that juicy, briny flesh. For those living in New England, take advantage of lobster as a special occasional treat! We're lucky to have world-class seafood, the kind people will get shipped all over the world, right here and local. The Sustainable Seafood Watch has Maine Lobster as an acceptable seafood choice as well. Lobster is expensive, but not that expensive when it's local and you're buying from a Lobster Pound, which specializes in Lobster and buys direct from lobstermen. Our lobster were 6.99 a pound in Southern Maine.

I have no problem boiling my lobster, but I don't have a pot big enough. Thankfully, most places will cook your lobster for you for free. Make sure you have lobster crackers on hand!

You can dip your lobster in clarified butter, but I like olive oil, garlic, and some fresh local basil (from the CSA) instead.

Boil some farmers market-fresh corn for a delicious, messy, hands-on meal.

This is an expensive meal by my standards. It works out to a little under 10 bucks a person with the lobster and the corn and dippings. But this would be a great way to have a romantic meal, very Like Water for Chocolate. It's also a great way to celebrate a special occasion with your family. Lots of kids love taking their food apart and giving the lobster and autopsy!

Don't live in New England? If you live near the coast, try some local seafood, perhaps even a whole fish baked with lemon and herbs! Don't like seafood? Try some melon, corn, or other fruit or veggie that needs your hands-on work. You'll have fun with it!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Faux Pho Failure

I apologize for the delay since my last post. My husband and I have been eating on other people's dime for the last week or so, and there's no cheaper meal than a free one!

I would like to admit our first real meal failure. I will explain what we did, how it went horribly wrong, and how we realized it could actually be delicious next time.

Crockpots and soups are good ways to stretch a dollar, but it is the summer, so we didn't want anything too heavy.

I decided we should try to make Pho. Which, in making the link to Wikipedia to explain what it is, I realized I have always mispronounced. (I guess it is "Fah"). Pho is a Vietnamese soup with lovely cilantro and lime flavors.

So we set some organic and free range chicken broth chicken broth in a crockpot with some water in it as well. We used about one carton. We then put in two free range chicken breasts. Then...this is where we went horribly awry, we decided to "flavor" the broth all day. In went a ton of chopped cilantro, and a lime: chopped in half, but the whole thing, rind and all. Mistakes one and two right there.

We get back, and we add ramen last minute to our individual bowls. A pack each, at .10 a pack. What a bargain! Then we took a sip.

BITTER. Our Pho was a Bitter failure. Instead of the bright, citrus broth we had hoped for, the rind of the lime and the cooked down cilantro made the soup have such an aftertaste that we couldn't drink any more of it. We ate the noodles quickly and dumped the rest of the crockpot out.

However, I think this will be a success next time if we flavor the broth at the end, at the same time as adding the ramen. So, a successful faux pho recipe looks something like this.

Add chicken broth and chicken breast to a crockpot. Cook all day on low. Come home, spoon into bowls, add a package of ramen per bowl. Offer fresh lime, cucumber, and cilantro for flavoring. Enjoy.

Price per serving if this meal had been successful? About $1.50

I'll try again soon, once the bitter agony of defeat is out of my mouth.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Uncompromising Banana

This commercial gets me every time. It's super-cute, that's for sure, but it also highlights a pretty obvious problem with bananas. They travel a very long way to get here. Bananas are one of those never was, aren't now, and never will be local foods that we probably shouldn't be eating. But Americans sure love their bananas, in vast quantities. Americans, on average, consume more bananas than apples and oranges combined.

To quote from the previously-linked NY Times Op-Ed piece:

"That bananas have long been the cheapest fruit at the grocery store is astonishing. They’re grown thousands of miles away, they must be transported in cooled containers and even then they survive no more than two weeks after they’re cut off the tree. Apples, in contrast, are typically grown within a few hundred miles of the store and keep for months in a basket out in the garage. Yet apples traditionally have cost at least twice as much per pound as bananas."

But I love bananas! And so does my husband! They're delicious by themselves, with peanut butter, or honey, or chocolate...

When Barbara Kingsolver set out on her Animal, Vegetable, Miracle project, trying to live completely locally, each member in her family got to pick a free pass item: something that they would get even though it wasn't local. One chose coffee; another chose chocolate.

If Kingsolver can do it, so can I. I choose bananas (and, okay, chocolate too maybe.) Why do I think it is okay to continue to include these items? The help me stick to my resolve to eat more responsibly.

That said, if I'm going to eat bananas, I better eat better bananas, more responsible bananas. I would like to get fair trade bananas, but I haven't found anywhere in Boston yet that stocks them. Whole Foods, however, does sell their "Whole Trade" labeled bananas, and we have begun to buy those. While they do not go through the Fair Trade Certification process, Whole Foods does promise to meet certain standards about the sourcing of its products.

Yes, they're nearly twice as much per pound, but if I'm going to eat a food product with such an enormous carbon footprint, the least I could do is spend the extra money for a product with a better grower-justice history.

For a list of where to buy various fair trade certified products, including coffee, fruit, and chocolate, look here.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

We Grow Our Own Herb(s)

Once upon a time, I was in a grocery store and wanted some mint. For mojitos. I had three options. There was dried mint. Not really an option for mojitos, but it was mint. There was a section of fresh herbs, individually packaged a few twigs at a time in plastic. The price? Close to $4. I gagged. Maybe I didn't want a mojito after all. At this price for the mint alone, when you added in the rum and lime and...maybe I should go buy one at the bar.

Then I saw it. A tiny little plant, tall and spindly, just roots and twigs really. It wasn't even potted. But it was 2.99. It was grown hydroponically. It was alive, and the package said it would last up to two weeks in its wrapping. I brought it home, and instead of keeping it in its little snug wrapping, it found a home in a tupperware container with water in it.

And there it grows to this day. That sucker has made it several months now, happily feeding our occasional mint needs. We change the water out every once in awhile, but that's it. What a bargain!

This happy little mint plant inspired us to try to add to our "herb garden." We have recently added a small basil plant to the tupperware. There is no soil, no fertilizer, just water. The plants get plenty of sunlight and are very happy.

We don't have a yard, or a porch even. My husband and I live in a tiny glass box apartment suspended high in the air, which comes into our place courtesy of an H-Vac. But even we can have our very own tiny hydroponic garden. You can too. Just get out that tupperware you never use.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Tofu Scares Me

A lot. I enjoy those delicious little white cubes, particularly in a stir fry of noodles or rice and veggies and an appropriately spicy sauce. I don't know how to make tofu, though. I mean, is it cooked when you buy it? How long do you cook it for?

Besides, isn't stir fry expensive? Tofu's not exactly cheap, and all those vegetables must certainly add up.

So I set out Sunday evening to make stir fry as economical and delicious as possible, while still thinking about how responsible my food sources were.

First, my rice is organic short grain brown rice from Whole Foods. I realized the other day that Whole Foods (as do some other grocery stores, particularly smaller co-ops), sells some of their grains loose, in bulk. This saves on packaging both for the environment and your wallet. This meant that I could buy organic brown rice for the same price as non-organic, and I can bring the same container back to the store to refill when I am out.

I also included some snow peas from the CSA, as well as some shell peas, asparagus, and red pepper from Haymarket. Now, Haymarket is not a farmer's market. The vendors sell goods they have acquired from a wholesale market in Chelsea. Basically, these are the leftovers. The produce equivelent of the reduced price item section in a supermarket. On a grand scale.

This is an ethical dilemma. Is it okay to buy these goods? On the yes side, I would argue that this produce will be thrown out otherwise. Also, the vendors at Haymarket are "local" in the sense that they are running their own local small business, i.e. their fruit/veggie stand. On the no side, these items come from anywhere and everywhere, with little thought as to source, amount of miles traveled, carbon footprint, responsibility of the grower, etc.

I think the yes side can win out if one shops carefully at Haymarket. First, many packaged items, such as berries and lettuces have their place of origin on them. With a little careful looking, I found strawberries that were not from Chile but from California. California's not great, but for the same price I chose something with several thousand miles less of a footprint. You can also occasionally find organic produce at Haymarket, especially lettuces. Just watch the labels (on the produce, not the handwritten signs by the vendors). Lastly, I try to make some simple, smart choices. Are there blueberries from the U.S. being sold at Shaw's, Whole Foods, and Stop and Shop right now? Yes; okay, then I can buy blueberries at haymarket. They're likely from the US too. Kiwi? Those are never really in season in the US, so I avoid more exotic fruits and veggies. I also try to avoid items like apples, which could come from New Zealand or the US right now.

So, my stir fry veggie total from Haymarket was a whopping $3. This picture is deceptive. We had stir fry leftovers for lunch until Thursday following Sunday dinner.

My tofu was firm organic tofu.

After pre-cooking the rice and the vegetables, I mixed everything in a wok with tofu and some szechuan sauce from Super 88. Was it good? Absolutely! Would I make some changes before serving stir fry again? Again, absolutely.

1. Next time I will buy extra firm, or super firm, or firmiest of the firm tofu. "Firm" wasn't "firm" enough. It crumbled.

2. I will add the tofu to the wok a couple minutes early with the sauce so it can pick up more of the flavor. It was a little bland.

3. I will cook the rice longer and the veggies less. I thought the former would "finish" with the stir fry and the latter would be fine. The opposite was true.

So learn from my mistakes, and have no fear! Tofu won't hurt. I think. I should try again before making any promises.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

We'll Bring Dessert!

Friends asked us over for dinner on Friday night. Accepting their generous offer to cook, I asked, "Can we bring anything?" The answer: dessert.

Simple enough, but what were we going to bring? I didn't have a lot of time, I didn't want to go buy a bunch of ingredients. Should we just stop by at a bakery and pick something up on the way there? It was tempting, but I thought I could spend less and know where my ingredients were coming from. So I opened my refrigerator, looked on my shelves, and realized I had what I needed for a crisp.

Crisps have all the goodness of pie without all the difficulty of making a pie crust.

Take about 6 cups of local blueberries (or whatever fruit you have on hand). Mix in a little brown sugar and a little flour and lemon juice until the fruit begins to look like it's coated in something. I used a tablespoon of each.

Take 1/2 cup of oats, 1/2 a cup of flour, and 1/2 cup of local butter (cut up into tiny chunks.) mix together, add enough cinnamon to darken the mix a little, and sprinkle on top.

Bake at 375 for 30 or so minutes or until it looks brown on top and a little bubbly on the inside.

Now, this was a "healthy" recipe, but if I was making it again, I'd use a little more butter.

You might raise the fair question..."I thought you said it wasn't supposed to take long! 30 minutes is WAY to long to bake something."

Actually, put it in one of these lovely pyrex dishes with a lid. Dessert baked while we ate dinner. The dessert took less than 5 minutes to prep.

Way less than a blueberry tart I was eyeing at the bakery. That thing was $12. My dessert? Less than 5, even with all those yummy blueberries.