Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Comfort Foods: A Free, Printable Cookbook from Grandparents.com. (Also ... Hi.)

You will like these.
Why, hello there, everybody.

It's been about 100 years since I last posted here, and one (baby) or two (house) things have happened since then. The third thing is this: I've become Food Editor at a website called Grandparents.com. (Our motto: All Fun, No Doilies.) (I'm kidding.) (OR AM I?)
Behold!

Anyway, we just put out a pretty sweet cookbook called Comfort Foods: 24 Reader Recipes for Casseroles, Soups, Cakes, and More. It's completely free, printable, and contains a recipe for Candy Bar Blondies that haunts my dreams at night. (In a good way.) Best of all: You can send it to your grandma, or keep it all to yourself for endless nibbling. (We won't tell.)

It's also available on Kindle for $0.99 via Amazon. (Go here for that.) 

And that's it. In the meantime, how are y'all? The internet's changed a bit since 2012, hasn't it? And how about them Mets?

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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Roommate Living: Your Food, Kitchen, and Sanity

This was first published in April 2010.

Since freshman year of college, I’ve had approximately 15,000 roommates. Some are still my best friends, favorite people, and life partners. Others smoked crazy things too late at night. One remains the only unrelated adult I’ve ever yelled at. (Surprise! It was over the dishes.)

Whether you’re fresh out of university or shacking up with your significant other for the first time, living with other people has multitudinous benefits. It can save everyone involved a ton of cash. It can be a social opportunity, cultural experience, and culinary education. It can keep you from being plain lonely.

But if you’re not careful, it can also be a terrifying descent into a cohabitational hell, in which anger and discomfort become facts of everyday life. Living with the dishes guy? Was kind of like that.

The center of roommate karma is inevitably the kitchen. Maintain a zen-like equilibrium there, and your time together will be peaceful and harmonious. Forget to buy paper towels for the third week in a row, and you could find a severed goldfish head on your pillow.

That’s why it’s important to discuss food, money, and galley-related issues up front. It puts you on the same page, sets a precedent for the future, and prevents misunderstanding down the line. So, be open with your wants and needs. Ask plenty of questions. And remember the two most important things about living with anyone new:
  • Don’t be afraid to speak up. If your roommate isn’t doing her dishes and/or owes you money for olive oil, tell her. You can assert yourself and still be considered a nice person.
  • Don’t be a jerk. You’re sharing this room with others, and should always take their feelings into consideration. Play nice, do your part, and don’t make fun of Bob’s vegan macaroni and cheese.
With those ideas in the back of your head, the ensuing discussion should be easy. For reference, here are a few good areas to touch on, along with a ton of pertinent questions.

1) FOOD

First and foremost, you and your roommate(s) have to feed yourselves using actual food. Broaching the edibles topic could set the tone for the rest of your talk, not to mention the rest of your lease. Tread carefully, be thorough and kind, and ask:
  • Will you share food? Will you share everything or just staples? Which staples?
  • Will you share cooking responsibilities? How will you split the job?
  • When will you cook? Should you set up a schedule? What meals will you eat at home?
  • Does anyone have dietary restrictions, allergies, or ethical issues?
  • Will any food be off limits? (ex: If there’s a peanut allergy in the house, it could be best to avoid ‘em altogether.)

2) EQUIPMENT

Once you have food, you need ways to serve it. Your requirements could vary wildly, based on your diet and/or affinity for cooking. Plan ahead, use this checklist for guidance, and ask:
  • What kitchen equipment do you already own? Is it in good shape?
  • What do you need to buy? Where should you buy it?
  • Do you have any doubles (ex: two toasters)? Do you need the extra? If not, what can you do with it?
  • Who will keep new purchases (microwave, blender, etc.) if/when you move out?
  • Is there room to fit everything? (See: Storage.)

3) MONEY

Here comes the hard part. Beyond rent, you’ll probably spend most of your apartment-apportioned cash on food and kitchen supplies. Splitting the bills can be tricky, and payment itself even harder. Stay positive and ask:
  • How will pay for the food you buy jointly? Will you split the bills or alternate months?
  • How will you pay for the kitchen necessities (tin foil, dish soap, paper towels, etc.)? What falls under that umbrella term?
  • Who will do the actual buying? Will you take turns?
  • Will you join a bulk store or CSA? What supermarkets, ethnic markets, and farmer’s markets will you shop at?
  • How will you handle coupons, sales, or memberships?
  • How will you handle restaurants and take out? Does that go in the budget?

4) STORAGE

Pots, pans, silverware, dishes, and appliances do more than look pretty: they take up space. And when square feet are at a minimum, having a storage strategy is vital. Consider your cabinets and ask:
  • Where will you store the food? How about the dishes? And cleaning equipment?
  • Will you split storage? Who gets which refrigerator shelf? What about the pantry and freezer?
  • Do you have enough room for bulk purchases?
  • Is there a way you can easily add extra shelves, cabinets, or pot racks?
  • Are you allowed to throw things out without permission, if it looks like it went bad? (Note: This comes up more than you think. It’s like a science experiment in there sometimes.)

5) CLEANING

Though dishes are 90% of the issue, cleaning goes deeper than washing your coffee cup. In every kitchen, there are counters to wipe, floors to mop, and microwaves to liberate of caked spaghetti sauce. If this is left to one person - or worse, not done at all – things will very messy, both dirt-wise and relationship-wise.
  • How quickly will you have your dishes done? Will you split the responsibility? How?
  • How often will you light clean (counters, sweeping, etc.) the kitchen? Who will take care of this?
  • How often will you deep clean (oven, refrigerator, etc.) the kitchen? Who will take care of this?
  • Who will take out the garbage? How will you handle recycling?
  • Who will take care of repair issues as they come up? Are you handy? Will you be the point person for the landlord?
  • Who will keep track of and replace cleaning tools (Lysol, sponges, etc.)?
  • Should you create a cleaning schedule?
If you address all of these questions up front and periodically revisit them through the course of your cohabitation, you and your roommates/loved ones can enjoy a sparkling, relatively stress-free household. What’s more, you can apply the concepts to almost every shared room in the house, whether it’s the den or the shed you use to make illegal moonshine.

Readers, what about you? Do you have any roommate rules to follow, especially in the kitchen? How about horror stories? You know we loves us some o’ those guys.

(Excellent letter photo from Passive Aggressive Notes.)

~~~

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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Learning to Love Foods You Hate: A How-to Guide for Frugal Eaters

This article first appeared in April 2009.

Up until a few years ago, the list of foods I loathed was a long one. It included, but wasn’t limited to: spaghetti squash, broccoli, asparagus, red cabbage, ginger ale, cauliflower, radishes, lentils, beans, Brussels sprouts, fennel, eggplant, anise, scallops, figs, and of course, the dreaded mayonnaise. The list goes on (and on), but you get the idea: growing up, I wasn’t exactly a daring eater.

I still hate mayo. I will ALWAYS hate mayo. George Clooney could serve me mayo wrapped in chocolate bacon on a gold-plated re-issue of Who’s Next, and I would throw it back in his face. But my opinion’s changed on most of those other foods. These days, I’ll gladly scarf a floret of cauliflower. Brussels sprouts hold a special place on my dinner table. And eggplant? Well, eggplant is my favorite thing ever, aside from the panda song from Sifl and Olly. (In fact, you could say I’m drunk on eggplant mystery.)

Granted, part of it is just me aging. At 31-years-old, my palate’s matured a little, and my tastes now lean more toward savory than sweet. The other part, though, can be directly attributed to recent changes in my lifestyle.

See, a few years ago, I resolved to learn to cook, to eat healthier, and to better manage my money. As it turned out, vegetables and legumes were vital to making this work, since they’re exponentially cheaper than meat and much more nutritious than most starches. So, I had to confront my fears. I had to expand my produce repertoire beyond corn, carrots, corn, and carrots.

These strategies helped. I learned to tolerate, and even love, a lot of foods I had longstanding issues with. Try ‘em for yourself, and please add your own suggestions to the comment section.

Make it unrecognizable.
Case study: Eggplant
Seedy, mushy, and horrifically purple, eggplant appealed to me about as much as a drug-free colonoscopy. Then, in 1997, my friend H hid it in her homemade tomato sauce. And … revelation. Soon, I was on to eggplant dips, eggplant pastas, and finally, plain ol’ broiled eggplant. The trick was getting the image of the vegetable out of my head, and forcing me to associate it with otherwise good food. I suspect it would work beautifully with any vegetable that could be pureed or furtively included in a sauce (butternut squash, bell peppers, etc.).

Use it in a recipe with foods you love.
Case study: Brussels sprouts
As far as I was concerned, Brussels sprouts were tiny, bitter cabbages that masochists ate when they ran out of bigger bitter cabbages. Little did I know that slathering them in Parmesan would provide a delicious gateway into healthier, simpler preparations. See also: Red Cabbage (ew) with Honey (nice), Apples (yay!), and Bacon (king of cured meats). It's actually quite scrumptious.

Try it in an ethnic dish.
Case study: Broccoli
Broccoli: looks like trees, tastes like butt, right? Yeah, I used to think like that, too. But in high school, Ma ordered Chicken and Broccoli from our local Chinese joint, Da How. Suddenly, it was broccoli: looks like trees, tastes like HEAVEN (with garlic and brown sauce). Sometimes, a food is more appealing when its paired with flavors you’re not necessarily accustomed to. Like bean sprouts on top of Pad Thai. Or peas stuffed in a samosa. Or tomatillo sauce spread across an enchilada. Pick a cuisine and start experimenting.

Cook the best-reviewed recipe you can find featuring that food.
Case study: Cauliflower
Most aggregate recipe sites like Epicurious, Food Network, and All Recipes have sophisticated rating systems with which home cooks can evaluate any dish. If you’re feeling ambitious, plug an ingredient into one of their search engines. Then, prep the recipe with the best overall reviews. For example, Ina Garten has a Cauliflower Gratin that’s received an average of five stars from 132 people (which is outstanding). I’ve tried it myself, and without exaggeration, it changed the way I felt about cauliflower. I just … I just didn’t know it could taste that good. Now, stuff like Roasted Garlic Cauliflower and Curried Cauliflower Soup with Honey are making regular appearances in my mouth.

Understand you don’t have to eat it the way your Ma (or Pa) prepared it.
Case study: Spaghetti Squash
Across the country, millions of Irish-Americans loathe vegetables because growing up, produce was boiled beyond recognition and then forced by threat of death into their reluctant maws. But take heart, my freckled brethren! It doesn’t have to be this way. Did you know carrots can be roasted? And broccoli rabe, sauteed? And spaghetti squash, combined with red sauce, mozzarella, and pine nuts to create something COMPLETELY DELICIOUS? It’s true. So, love your Gaelic Ma. Embrace her. Call her often. Just … try to forget her cooking. It’ll make this whole process much easier.

Try a dish with a subtler incarnation of that food.
Case study: Tarragon
This one’s a little difficult to explain, so here’s an example: I despise anise. Even thinking about its black licorice flavor makes my tongue curl. Recently though, I discovered a White Bean and Tarragon Soup that I quite like. Tarragon, like fennel, possesses traits similar to anise, but it’s much, much subtler. In the soup, it was complemented so well by the other ingredients, I didn’t even taste the hate. Maybe I'll feel the same way about anise someday. Think of this principle like salsa: you start out mild, and work your way up to medium and hot varieties.

Give it just one more shot.
Case study: Beans
For some inexplicable reason, I always assumed I hated beans. As a kid, they looked funny to me. And in my six-year-old brain, funny-looking food = bad food. It wasn’t until I grew up, sacked up, ate one and didn’t throw up, that they became a regular part of my diet. (Okay, hummus helped.)

If you truly hate it, let it go.
Case studies: scallops, figs, radishes, mayo
Scallops will never be my thing, no matter how fresh they are, how well they’ve been prepared, and how many times I try them. Figs, radishes, mayonnaise – still disgusting, as well. (Which, did I mention I hate mayonnaise? I did? Oh, good.) Sometimes, a certain food just won’t do it for you. And it’s okay. Just move on to the next one.

And that’s it. Readers? Suggestions?

~~~

If you like this article, you might also dig
(All images courtesy of NatalieDee.com. Go there now.)

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Monday, March 12, 2012

Spaghetti with Asparagus, Egg, and Parmesan: a Mutant Freak of Deliciousness

This post first appeared in April 2009.

Though I’m cooking more often now, creating my own recipes continues to scare the living daylights out of me. My self-spawned dishes tend to be three-out-of-five star affairs, meaning they’re servable, but won’t necessarily knock your socks off. See, I’m still mastering certain techniques (read: all of them), and find pairing flavors tougher than Advanced Calculus. (Hey, if mathematicians had to eat their results, they’d have never picked up calculators in the first place.)

So, when I invent something that actually works, it’s like … it’s like … hm … how to express this without resorting to hyperbole?

Oh! I have it. It’s like riding a golden unicorn over a rainbow while world peace breaks out in the background. Or U2 playing an acoustic gig in my living room as I’m hand-fed chocolate-covered strawberries by Raoul Bova. Or taking a permanent vacation from my job, but with eternal severance pay and health benefits. (Dare to dream.)

Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating. But it is pretty cool. And today’s recipe, Spaghetti with Asparagus, Egg, and Parmesan, is one of those rare triumphs.

Tuesday night, I was in a spaghetti mood, but had a use-it-or-lose-it pound of asparagus whiling away in the crisper drawer. With no funghi available, Pasta with Asparagus and Mushrooms was out of the question. So was Roasted Asparagus with Poached Egg and Parmesan, since I reallyreallyreally wanted some pasta. But both recipes fused together? That could work.

And did it EVER. It’s my new favorite comfort food. Creamy and cheesy and asparagus-y, I can see myself eating this over and over again until my death in 2097. (Yes, I’m shooting for 120. Believe in the stars!) And? AND? I would say I could eat 14 bowls of the stuff, but a single serving filled me to the brim.

Of course, should you decide to give it a shot:

1) To cut the fat even further, omit ½ tablespoon olive oil and a little parmesan.

2) Don’t throw out the pasta water. Love it. Be liberal with it. It’s vital to everything.

And that’s it, folks. Have a lovely weekend, and experiment if you get the chance. Occasionally, it’s worth it.

Spaghetti with Asparagus, Egg, and Parmesan
Serves 3

8 oz thin spaghetti
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound medium-thin asparagus, rough ends snapped off, cut into 1-inch pieces
Cooking spray
3 eggs
½ tablespoon tap water
Kosher salt and freshly-ground black pepper
2 dashes cayenne pepper
¼ cup grated parmesan

1) Cook pasta ‘til al dente and drain, reserving ¾ cup of cooking water.

2) Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add asparagus and saute for 4 or 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add ¼ cooking water and cook for another 3 or 4 minutes, until asparagus is crisp-tender.

3) In the meantime, spray a small nonstick pan with cooking spray. Crack three eggs into it, and add ½ tablespoon tap water. Cover and cook over low heat for a few minutes, until the top of the yolks cloud, but are still soft and runny. Remove from heat.

4) When the asparagus is done cooking, add drained pasta to the pan, stirring to reheat if necessary. Off heat, add the remaining ½ cup of cooking water, cayenne pepper, and salt and pepper to taste. Stir.

5) Ladle pasta into bowls along with 1 tablespoon water/sauce from bottom of pan (or more, if you like). Place egg on top and sprinkle with about 1-1/2 tablespoons parmesan cheese. Break egg, mix everything together, and enjoy.

Approximate Calories, Fat, and Price Per Serving
446 calories, 13.4 g fat, $1.24

Calculations
8 oz thin spaghetti: 800 calories, 4 g fat, $0.33
1 tablespoon olive oil: 119 calories, 13.5 g fat, $0.12
1 pound medium-thin asparagus: 91 calories, 0.5 g fat, $1.99
Cooking spray: negligible calories and fat, $0.03
3 eggs: 221 calories, 14.9 g fat, $0.55
½ tablespoon tap water: negligible calories and fat, $0.00
Kosher salt and freshly-ground black pepper: negligible calories and fat, $0.02
2 dashes cayenne pepper: negligible calories and fat, $0.01
¼ cup grated parmesan:108 calories, 7.2 g fat, $0.68
TOTAL: 1339 calories, 40.1 g fat, $3.73
PER SERVING (TOTAL/3): 446 calories, 13.4 g fat, $1.24

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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Couponing for People Who Hate Couponing: A Zero-Stress Guide to Clipping Big Bargains

This post first ran in April, 2010.

WARNING: If you know what a Catalina deal is and/or have actually employed one, this may not be the post for you. If you occasionally slice your pinky open while using adult scissors, this is definitely the post for you.

When you think of couponing, what’s the first thing that pops into your head? Is it GoGurt? Is it a planet-sized binder and never-ending stack of circulars? Is it a crazy cat lady, forever in search of the single slip of paper that will net her 14 free packets of McCormick fajita seasoning?

It’s understandable. Long stereotyped as the favorite pastime of bargain-happy grandmas and moms of 47, clipping coupons gets a pretty bad rap. Many believe it gets you minimal deals on junky food. I didn’t touch coupons for years, figuring the time it took to collect them was disproportionate to the amount of money they saved.

Now I know better. While I still buy groceries primarily based on the circular, I’ve come to realize that a simple, no-frills approach to couponing nets good money for little time investment. I don’t freak out, I don’t buy rainbow-colored faux food, and I save a couple hundred bucks each year. Not too shabby.

If you’re considering coupons, but don’t know where to start, read on. These simple explanations and stress-free strategies could kick off a lifetime of half-price egg noodles. If you do nothing else, make sure to scroll down to the GOLDEN RULE OF COUPONING, wherein I explain the practice’s most important tenet as well as the origin of the universe.

(Also? Readers? What am I missing? I’m sure it’s a lot. The comment section awaits.)


OBTAINING ‘EM

There are a few ways to collect coupons. Some are intuitive, others not so much.

Newspapers. Since the beginning of time, the Sunday paper has come equipped with bazillions of coupon-stuffed circulars. If you can’t swing a subscription, bum them off friends and family after they’re done reading. This is how I amass most of my deals. (Thanks, Dad.)

Store circulars and magazines. Occasionally, coupons will appear in publications within a supermarket or drugstore, probably by the door or the cashier. Though you’ve already made your plan, leaf through these, since they can offer good last-minute deals or bargains for next time.

Store shelves. You know those little ticket dispensers that line supermarket aisles? If they’re located by a food you enjoy, grab one. Hey, you never know.

Mailings. If you really like a particular company, you can frequently sign up online to receive coupon packets through the mail.

Online. Online coupon deals can be tremendous, but also a giant headache if you spend too much time looking for them. So, be judicious in your search. Speaking of which, there are three basic ways to collect and save.
  1. Go to aggregate sites like Coupons.com and Mambo Sprouts (organic).
  2. Visit individual company pages like Betty Crocker.
  3. Cruise popular forums and consumer sites like A Full Cup and Coupon Mom.
Be warned: you might have to sign up for the service and/or install a special printing program, but it can be worth it. Also, not every store accepts print-outs, and many supermarkets often restrict what you can and can’t use. Give your local chain a call before planning any big shopping trip.


ORGANIZING ‘EM

My coupons currently sit in a small stack on my clock radio, vaguely organized by general category. Sometimes, I weed through them and pick out the expired ones (which can then be donated to the military). Your preferred method may vary, but other folks seem to enjoy:
They’re all small, cute, unobtrusive, and cheap (except the last one). Store ‘em in your desk or among your cookbooks.


CLIPPING AND USING ‘EM

It’s Sunday afternoon. You’re sitting down at the kitchen table, coffee at your side, clippers in hand. In front of you rests 20 coupon circulars, waiting patiently for you to begin slicing and dicing. How in the good name of Bea Arthur do you approach this? By following these simple rules:

Forget brand loyalty. You’re looking for products (ex: cheese), not brand names (ex: Sargento). If you find a coupon for a brand you like (Tropicana!), that’s fantastic, but the better toothpaste deals come when you let go of your Crest fixation.

Clip only for products you need or use. When you don’t eat yogurt, own a dog, or have dentures, getting bargains on Activia, Alpo, and Polident is senseless. A good rule of thumb: if you have to think about clipping a particular coupon for more than a few seconds, skip it.

Avoid clipping if you can find a comparable generic product. Even with coupons, store brand foods are almost always cheaper. In most cases, people can’t tell the difference in flavor or texture, either.

Don’t clip for junk. It’s undeniable: most coupons are for processed, insanely over-packaged crap, and hoarding them will only lead to blown cash and rampant unhealthiness. (*cough* Hot Pockets *cough*) However, you should always …

Be on the lookout for pantry staples. Yay! These diamonds in the aspartame-blanketed rough are more common than you might believe. Currently (4/14/10), in my alarm clock stack, I have coupons for bread, olive oil, sour cream, butter, soy milk, mustard, dried beans, chocolate chips, cooking spray, corn starch, baking powder, rice, pasta, and egg noodles. Not to mention tin foil, gum, deodorant, and the all-important Zyrtec (a brand we will not forgo).

Be on special lookout for personal products. Coupons are fantastic for cosmetics and body care items (shampoo, toothpaste, etc.). If you like L’Oreal eyeliner, and see a bargain, don’t hesitate. You could consistently save 50% or more without much effort.

Take advantage of double and triple coupon days. Never in my life have I seen a Double Coupon Day in a New York City supermarket. But I’m assured they exist in many other wonderful parts of the country, as does the rare and hallowed Triple Coupon Day. Check your grocer’s website for dates.

Beware hoarding. Odds are you’ll never end up in a terrifying A&E series, but there is such a thing as going overboard on coupons. If you don’t have sufficient storage OR the product will go bad before you use it, avoid buying multiples.


THE GOLDEN RULE OF COUPONING

If you take nothing else away from this post, remembering this single rule will still help you bank mad cash every year:

Wait for sales to use your coupons.

Sales alone can save you money. Coupons alone can save you money. But they’re at their most powerful when combined. This may mean waiting a few weeks after your initial clippage, but trust me, it’s worth it.

Let me give you an example: I buy Del Monte diced canned tomatoes all the time. They’re usually $1.89 at my local supermarket. (Not a typo. I double checked.) Two weeks ago, they went on sale for $1.00 each. That’s a good deal by itself.

However, I also had a coupon for $1.00 off four cans, meaning each dropped to $0.75. What would have been a $7.56 spending spree became a $3.00 bargain. I saved 60% off the usual price.

Sweet, right?

In order to obtain these most excellent deals, leaf through your supermarket circular (at its own website or Money Saving Mom) before going shopping. Food companies generally offer circular and coupon deals around the same time, so matching them will be easier than you think.

And that’s our ballgame. Readers, what advice would you give a beginning couponer? What do you think of the words offered here? Did I get anything wrong? (Seriously, please tell me.)

~~~

If you like this article, you might also be taken by:
[(Photos courtesy of Hearts and Home (coupon book), Encyclomedia (coupon dispenser), and Strom Products (egg noodles).]

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