Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Spicy beef burgers with avocado sour cream

This burger has the potential to convert any vegetarian into a meat eater. The other day, In-N-Out Burger tweeted a photo of the most delicious-looking burger, and I continued to crave beef until dinner that evening. There's nothing like a thick, juicy burger sometimes, despite the little nutritional value it possesses. My craving completely surpassed my caring about the lack of health benefits anyway, so I hit up the supermarket after work to purchase some ground beef. In an effort to use up some ingredients I already had at home, I decided to make spicy burgers with jalapenos I had in the fridge, and spices I had in the cabinet. I also had a ripe avocado sitting on my counter, so I had to put that to use as well - avocados are expensive, and I'm not about to let one go to waste. The result: Spicy beef burgers with avocado sour cream. A must try.

Spicy Beef Burgers with Avocado Sour Cream
Yields: 4 burgers

-1 package of 90% lean ground beef ($2.53, Hannaford)
-6-7 jarred jalapenos, diced
-1 tbsp. minced garlic, jarred
-4-5 shakes of tabasco sauce
-Chili powder
-Dried cilantro
-Salt and pepper

Directions: Mix all ingredients together, being careful not to over "knead" the beef. Cook in frying pan with a tiny bit of olive oil, several minutes on each side, or until browned.

Avocado Sour Cream:
-1 ripe avocado, slightly mashed
-1 generous tsp. sour cream
-2-3 squirts of lime juice
-Dried cilantro

Directions: Mix all ingredients together in a bowl, 30 minutes before serving time (this allows the flavors to mesh together). Spoon generous amount on top bun of each burger.

I served my burgers on toasted wheat bulkie rolls ($2.99 for 6, Hannaford bakery), with Muenster cheese and sliced tomatoes. On the side I had some Trader Joe's sea salt pita chips on the side. The patties were only mildly spicy, but full of Mexican-inspired flavors.

Whether you're a vegetarian or an omnivore, what's your favorite way to prepare a burger?

Monday, December 28, 2009

My Christmas, in photos

Sorry for the lack of blogging lately, kids - I've been M.I.A. due to the Christmas holiday, and my recent weekend away for a snowboarding trip. But now I am back, and happy to report that I received a pretty sweet Canon PowerShot S90 camera for Christmas. My old camera was a Kodak, bottom-of-the-line camera that took pretty lackluster photos. However, my new camera takes amazing snapshots! Despite my gift, I spent most of my time this Christmas reflecting on all the wonderful people I have in my life, and how lucky I am to have each and every one of them. I feel like this holiday flew by way too fast, too, so I am devoting this post to the holiday I shared with my family and my loved ones, through photos (with my new camera). Most of these shots highlight my mother's talent for holiday decor - or, in other words, what makes Christmas Christmas for the Collins'. Enjoy the show!

OK...I wouldn't be a true foodie without including some photos of what I ate on Christmas. Below is my dinner plate, consisting of turkey, homemade gravey, squash, mashed potatoes, peas with pearl onions and mushrooms, and a dinner roll. Simple, traditional, and downright delish!

Also, here is a shot of the white chocolate-covered trail mix my mom made for Christmas Eve/Day. Completely addicting and dangerous:

Finally, I had to conclude this mini photo reel with a picture of my adorable nephew, Ryder, with his favorite gift this Christmas: A stuffed dinosaur. How cute is this kid? (He's with his mom, my older sister, Theresa):

How did you spend the Christmas holiday?

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What's in my pantry?

What’s in my pantry? As a food writer, I get asked this question all too often – most people believe I have shelves full of gourmet products and delicacies. To be honest, I keep the items in my pantry (and fridge, and freezer) to a minimum. My friends can’t get over how empty my pantry always looks, but, to be honest, I have more than enough items to sustain me for at least a week (usually two). Items like pasta, mashed potatoes, etc. last me months at a time, as I normally cook for one. Since I do live on a budget, I am an avid coupon clipper and grocery-list-maker, which helps me to only buy items I need, without having excess products in my cabinets.

Just for fun, below is a list of food items currently in my pantry  - cutting down on quantity, by the way, also helps me buy quality products, vs. always having to buy store brand.

What's currently in my pantry:
-Trader Joe’s sweet & salty trail mix
-1 loaf of Pepperidge Farm Oatmeal Bread
-1 big box of Hannaford brand “Crispix”
-Half a box of whole wheat pasta
-Half a box of Market Basket brand orzo
-Box of instant mashed potatoes
-Huge box of Success Boil-in-bag Whole Grain Brown Rice
-Large jar of J.I.F. Extra Crunchy Peanut Butter
-1 bag of Stacy’s Sea Salt Pita Chips
-1 bag of Cape Cod Jalapeno & Aged Cheddar chips
-1 bag of Green Mountain Pumpkin Spiced coffee

*Note: I mention the size of some of these items, as the larger the product, the farther my dollar stretches. 

Now: Your turn! What’s in your pantry?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Merry Berry Cheese Squares

The snow made everything look so festive! I'm so in the mood for Christmas now!

I'm also in the holiday spirit because last night was my family's annual Christmas party, held at my aunt's house in Newton, N.H. She had quite the spread of food out, including warm spinach and artichoke dip, rum and bourbon balls, cheese and crackers, lasagna bites, and brown sugar kielbasa, to name a few. My duty was dessert, so I made Merry Berry Cheese Squares. I received this recipe when I acted as a judge at The Nashua Telegraph's Culinary Delights Cook-off a few months ago. I did not note who made the recipe, but these bars were second in the running for the "best dessert" award that day. The bars are creamy and rich, and the whole cranberries add a necessary tartness to the otherwise too-sweet squares. Plus, they look almost as festive as the snow outside:

Merry Berry Cheese Squares
Yields: 24 pieces

-2 cups unsifted flour
-1 1/2 cup oats
-3/4 cup, plus 1 tbsp. firmly packed brown sugar
-1 cup butter or margarine, softened
-1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, softened
-1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk (not evaporated)
-1/4 cup lemon juice
-1 (16-ounce) can whole berry cranberry sauce
-2 tbsp. cornstarch

Directions: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. With mixer, blend flour, oats, 3/4 cup brown sugar and butter until crumbly. Set aside 1 1/2 cups of mixture. Press remaining mixture into bottom of greased 13x9 inch baking pan. Baked for 15 minutes or until lightly browned. Remove from oven and set aside.
Beat the cream cheese until fluffy. Gradually add the sweetened condensed milk, and mix until smooth. Stir in lemon juice. Spread the cheese mixture over the baked crust (doesn't have to be cooled). Combine the cranberry sauce, cornstarch and remaining 1 tbsp. brown sugar. Spoon this over the cheese layer. Top with reserved crumb mixture, and bake for 45 minutes, or until golden brown.
Cool and cut into pieces. Refrigerate leftovers.

These squares are definitely not figure-friendly, but it's the holidays - nothing I consume between now and New Year's will probably be healthy. The bars were also a big hit with my family, and I cut them into smaller pieces, since I knew people would be eating a bunch of other desserts.

What baked goods are you making for your upcoming holiday parties?

Friday, December 18, 2009

The perfect cookbook for any economical eater

Christmas came early for me this year: my roommate gave me a gift that any economical eater can use. Erica (my roommate) left for New York today for the holidays, but before she left, she gave me a copy of "The Frugal Foodie Cookbook," by Alanna Kaufman and Alex Small. The paperback holds "200 gourmet recipes for any budget," and, after flipping through it, is one of the few approachable cookbooks I have found. Many of the recipes have ingredients that most "everyday" pantries possess, but the recipes themselves are innovative and unique to the routine meatloaf and mashed potatoes. An even bigger bonus: Each recipe comes with a total price, number of servings, and price per serving. Talk about keeping your budget (and meals) intact. A few of the recipes I'm most excited to try are Slow-cooked Rosemary Scrambled Eggs, Chai Muffins with Figs and Oats, and Mediterranean-style Beef-stuffed Eggplant.

For now, however, I'm off to bake some Merry Berry Cream Cheese Squares for my family holiday party tomorrow (recipe to come).

Do you own "The Frugal Foodie Cookbook," or have you made/tasted any of the recipes? I'd love to hear your review!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Curry chicken with peach ginger jam

I recently did an article for The Nashua Telegraph regarding edible gifts, and one of the woman I spoke with, Jena, makes her own jam and preserves for her loved ones at Christmas. I have a killer savory tooth, so the peach ginger concoction she described sounded like a cool twist on the normally overly sweet jams. So, when I met Jena at the Nashua Tweetup last week, I was delighted when she brought me my own jar of peach ginger jam, made from Springdell Farms' peaches and seasoned with Penzeys' spices. The minute I got this gem home, I whipped it open, devoured the aroma with my nose, and planned dinner: curry chicken with peach ginger "sauce"; also inspired by Jena. Plus, I scored a handle of high quality olive oil at Zach's family's Yankee Swap, so I had to incorporate that, too. Check this baby out!

Curry Chicken with Peach Ginger Jam
Serves: 2

-Two thin chicken breasts (I got a huge bag of them at Trader Joe's for under $7 - will last me until 2011)
-Curry powder
-Chicken broth
-Olive oil
-1 tbsp. garlic, jarred
-Salt and pepper to taste
-Peach ginger jam (substitute: store bought peach jam mix with some fresh or ground ginger)
-Sherry wine vinegar (optional)

Directions: Heat up olive oil in a skillet. While heating, season chicken breasts with desired amount of curry, salt, and pepper. Add chicken breasts to pan and brown on each side. When almost done pan frying, add a few splashes of chicken broth, a quick splash of sherry vinegar, and garlic. Let cook for one more minute, then cover pan with tin foil and place in 375 degree oven for 10-12 minutes. When done, immediately coat each piece of chicken with two generous spoonfuls of peach ginger jam.

On the side, I made some comforting, instant mashed potatoes (best packaged food on the market, if you ask me), and I roasted some grape tomatoes I had to use up with olive oil, garlic, basil and parsley.

This dinner was incredibly easy, and delicious. With the help of the broth and sherry, the chicken was insanely moist, and the spicy curry paired perfectly with the sweet and savory jam. Thanks again, Jena, for sharing it with me!

What's your favorite edible gift to give/receive at the holidays?

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Elephant Walk: Worth the extra buck

My boyfriend has been raving about The Elephant Walk since I met him, so the other night, we hit up the Waltham location for some Cambodian and French-inspired cuisine. With additional locations in Cambridge and Boston, the Waltham spot is inviting and cozy, and was surprisingly busy for a Wednesday evening, especially 30 minutes before closing time. When we first arrived, I ordered a glass of Pinot Grigio and sipped away while we munched on some Vegetarian Rouleaux ($8.95), which are Cambodian spring rolls filled with shitake mushrooms, carrots, onions, bean sprouts, peanuts and beanthread with vegetarian tuk trey for dipping.

The spring rolls came fried, although apparently in the spring and summer they are served steamed. Regardless, the rolls were delightfully crispy without being overly greasy, and came out piping hot and fresh. The waiter even informed us about the recommended way to eat the rolls: wrapped up with some of the accompanied bean sprouts, lettuce, and fresh mint leaves. Wrapping the spring rolls as he suggested gave them even more authentic flavor.

For an entree, I enjoyed a plate of Crevettes Amrita ($16.95), which was plump shrimp sauteed in a Cambodian satay sauce with a slew of spices and flavors, including coriander, cumin, star anise, and lemongrass, to name a few.

The plate was vibrant and full of spicy, fresh flavor. The best part for me was that the dish was plenty for one serving, but I wasn't left with three days' worth of leftovers.

My only gripe about Elephant Walk: we had to shoo away several fruit flies during our meal. I'm just happy we didn't find them in our food. However, for spending the money to enjoy dinner out, it was well worth the extra few dollars.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Local Tweetup gave me new holiday meal idea

Thursday night, I headed down to Nashua for a Tweetup. For us Twitterers, a "Tweetup" is simply a meet-up, or networking event, where you can meet your fellow Tweeters face-to-face, exchange business cards, and just get to know people in your community with common interests (in this case, food and social media, mostly). The event was held at Killarney's Pub inside the Holiday Inn, and a good crowd of at least 30 people mingled over cold Bud Lights and over salted popcorn. Having a Tweetup at such a casual location, with inexpensive appetizers for anyone who wanted them, was a great way to keep it cost effective - and thus brought more local Tweeters in.

I chatted with a lot of folks that I've met at previous Tweetups, and I was also fortunate enough to meet a few new people. Before I left for the night, however, I bumped into my buddy Wayne (@WayneNH), a social media guru and columnist. Wayne asked me a number of insightful, food-related queries, including what my beef is with Dunkin' Donuts (for the record, I loathe their coffee and artificial products). When Wayne asked me what my favorite holiday meal was, however, his response back made me rethink my holiday food traditions. He explained that every Christmas he and his family make a special breakfast versus a big dinner. To me, this is a simple, yet brilliant idea. Not only is a Christmas breakfast cheaper than having a big dinner, but it's also a great way to break up the morning that otherwise rushes by.

What food traditions do you cherish during the holidays?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Mushroom Lover's Burgers: Cheap, healthy, and delicious

My budget has never tasted so good: this is one money-saving meal that satisfies. On Monday night, my boyfriend, Zach, and I switched dining out for a quick dinner in. On the menu: Morninstar Mushroom Lover's Burgers atop slices of whole wheat toast, smothered in Dijon. We also topped our burgers with somewhat caramelized onions - basically, the onions were just sauteed in the pan with olive oil, but they tasted semi-caramelized and added a necessary sweetness to the otherwise salty burger. We also melted some Muenster cheese on the burgers, and prepared a simple yet delicious side salad, made with fresh avocado, cherry tomatoes, arugula and balsamic vinaigrette.

I've tried quite a few veggie burgers, and haven't been impressed with a lot of them, but these mushroom patties were divine, and full of flavor. Eating the burger on top of just one piece of bread also helps to make the loaf last the entire week, and sometimes I find two pieces of bread on a burger is too filling. The side salad was a healthier alternative to fries, too, and was cheap for us because we already had half the ingredients. Plus, I'll pay the extra buck any day for arugula over iceberg lettuce; sometimes, you just can't compromise flavor.

Monday, December 7, 2009

'Tis the season to save some money

This weekend, I traveled to Long Island to see some friends from my alma mater for a mini holiday party. One of my friends is getting married in June, so us bridesmaids got together this weekend to get fitted for our dresses, but we also made time to meet up with a few of our other friends Saturday night for the gathering. My friend, Stephanie, held the festivity at her apartment, and she had everyone bring one appetizer or side dish, while she focused on the main meal. Everyone brought a little something, including goat cheese tartlets, spinach and artichoke dip, and pigs-in-a-blanket. For the entrée, Stephanie prepared chicken rolled up with fresh mozzarella, breaded and baked in a sauce of butter, white wine, and fresh herbs. She used the remaining cheese for her homemade mashed potatoes, served on the side. The chicken was delicious, although I could have gone without all that butter – over two and a half sticks were used for the sauce!

For dessert, Stephanie had a great, cost-effective idea that also extended the holiday get-together: a few hours before everyone arrived, she had some of her girlfriends over to bake several different kinds of cookies for dessert after the holiday dinner. By doing this, Stephanie saved herself some money as the host – she had each person bring a recipe and its relevant ingredients. The girls had made so many different kinds of cookies, too, including sugar cookies with icing, gingerbread men, and chocolate fudge cookies filled with creamy peanut butter – ah, how I love the taste of the holidays! Here's a photo of my friend Janine putting her artistic skills to good use:

The Nashua Telegraph - Holiday Parties on the Cheap:
I recently wrote an article for The Nashua Telegraph regarding holiday parties on the cheap, and the event planners I spoke with had some awesome tips. I learned that eliminating the little expenses add up quick, without compromising the ability to have elegant décor and delicious food.

In what ways are you cutting corners this year to keep your holiday party within budget?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Where to get $12 wine for under $8

For wine drinkers like me that enjoy good, cheap wine, North Andover's got a new shop that not only sells an endless variety of brands for cheap, but the bottles also come with a whole lot of information.

I love wine, but I don't know much about the different varietals and what wine goes well with what food - I just eat and drink whatever feels good to me at the time. My lack of wine knowledge is why I am a big supporter of local wine shops, where the owners are informative and the wine is high quality - and reasonably priced. The Wine Connextion is one of the newest additions to the N. Andover's Main Street, and carries row upon row of wine varietals, separated by region. Above each wine is a piece of paper that lists information about the wine, including: acidity, body, food to pair it with, and drinkability (meaning whether you should drink the wine today, or if it will be at its best in 2012). The list also includes the original price of the bottle to compare the current price to. For instance, a lot of the bottles I was looking at should have cost $12, but at Wine Connextion, they're only being sold for $7.99. The shop owner confessed that they can sell the wine at such a low price because they buy the vino in bulk. I'm guessing they won't have any trouble selling their stock.

I settled on a bottle of Four Vines Naked Chardonnay ($8.99), and a large bottle of CK Mondavi Pinot Grigio ($8.79). I plan to break into both of these this weekend at various holiday gatherings - I'll let you know if the taste is worth saving the extra dollars.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Curried eggplant with chickpeas and spinach

My recent purchase of curry powder went to great use last night. I didn't start getting into Indian food or flavors until about a year ago, but with my high tolerance for spice and love for authentic fare, it was inevitable for me to adopt a love affair with the cuisine. Last night was the first time I cooked an Indian dish from start to finish, so a simple meal like this one was perfect for a first try. Inspired by this Food & Wine recipe, I only made a few small changes to the ingredient list, to save some dough and use up items I already had in my kitchen - as well as to satisfy my own personal tastes. For instance, the original recipe calls for vegetable oil, but I only had olive oil - plus, I love the taste of olive oil versus vegetable. I also added crushed red pepper for extra heat, and use powdered ginger versus fresh. By reading both recipes, you'll notice the differences, but the taste was not compromised by making a few subtle changes. Roasting the ingredients also resulted in a symphony of flavors that other forms of cooking just could not capture. Trust me when I say, this dish is worth trying; and took less than one hour to prepare and cook.

Curried Eggplant with Chickpeas & Spinach
Yields: 4 servings

-2 tbsp. jarred minced garlic
-2 tsp. curry powder
-1/2 cup olive oil
-1 medium eggplant, peeled and cubed in 3/4-inch pieces
-1 large onion, cut into 1/2-inch wedges
-3/4 of 15 oz. can chickpeas, drained (I used all 15 oz., and found it to be too much)
-1/4 tsp. ground ginger
-1/2 tbsp. crushed red pepper
-One 5 oz. bag baby spinach
-Salt and pepper
-Warm Naan and plain yogurt, for serving

Directions: Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Mash the garlic to a paste with a pinch of salt. In a bowl, mix the paste with the curry powder and olive oil. Put eggplant, onion, chickpeas and ginger in a large roasting pan (or spread out flat on cookie sheet), and coat with the oil, garlic and curry mixture. Season liberally with salt and pepper, and toss well. Roast for about 30 minutes, stirring once or twice, until the eggplant and onion are tender. Stir in the spinach and roast until wilted (about two minutes). Serve with Naan and plain yogurt.

Do you like Indian food/flavors? Why or why not?

Monday, November 30, 2009

The best deal I found this week

Curry powder - why is it so hard to find in "regular" grocery stores?

I've been to my local supermarket numerous times looking for the spice, with no luck; until tonight. My local Hannaford, on Main Street in Waltham, hides their curry powder in the International aisle. Personally, this makes no sense to me, especially because their Naan is in the middle of the deli aisle - but I won't complain. Most spices in the spice aisle are uber expensive, priced at least at $3-4 a  jar. So, when I saw that Hannaford had Bada brand curry powder for $3.49 for 7 ounces, I did a triple take. That's a whole lot of curry powder! At first, I was skeptical, wondering if it would taste like authentic, smoky curry. Only time will tell; I'm making a vegetarian-friendly Indian meal tonight, inspired by a Food & Wine recipe, and curry is definitely on the ingredient list. Regardless, I have enough curry powder now to feed most of South India - and I paid almost nothing for it.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Turkey and tapas

Phew! It's been a crazy few days, so I apologize for the lack of blogging. I'll start this post by saying my sweet potato pie came out edible and quite delicious. The only thing I'd suggest is to melt the butter before you add it to the sweet potatoes - I was in a rush, and wasn't thinking like a true culinarian at the time.

My Thanksgiving holiday as a whole was also a success. I spent a lot of quality time with my family, ate a lot of homemade, traditional dishes (without overindulging), and sipped on some budget-friendly, palate-pleasing Yellow Tail wine. I was even fortunate enough to have a second holiday with my boyfriend's family on Friday, but instead of eating the same foods we ate on Thanksgiving, his godfather whipped up some yummy tapas and a holiday cocktail, made with Prosecco and blood orange liqueur. The cocktail was refreshing, and went beautifully with appetizers. I was too busy mingling and gorging to take photos like a good blogger, but the menu ranged from polenta topped with spicy tomato sauce and creamy feta cheese, to a variety of crackers and cheeses, marinated olives, and salmon dip with capers. The spread was vast, and having appetizers and cocktails the night after Thanksgiving was a perfect way to round out the holiday without overstuffing our stomachs two nights in a row.

Needless to say, I have a lot to be thankful for these days. How did you spend your Thanksgiving holiday?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Sharing a family favorite Thanksgiving recipe

Thanksgiving in my family is all about eating until we feel sick, and drinking wine until we can't tell how full we are anymore. There's about 25 of us (at least) sitting at a long table, gorging on moist turkey, buttery stuffing, creamy gravy, and the most popular dish of the holiday: sweet potato pie. When my aunt moved back up here from Texas, she began bringing the sweet potato pie to our family Thanksgivings, and our New England palates welcomed it to the table wholeheartedly. Now, most of us eat more sweet potato pie than we do turkey. So, this year, when my aunt told me she wasn't going to make it to Thanksgiving and that I was in charge of the sweet potatoes, I almost had an instant anxiety attack - I have to make the main dish for 25+ hungry Irish people? I managed to take on the challenge, and literally just removed the pan from the oven. I still won't know how it tastes until tomorrow, but, I must say, it smells and looks delicious. Let's just hope it tastes that way - I'll report back after the meal. In the meantime, I wanted to share this sacred recipe with you - it's not traditional sweet potato pie, but it's downright delicious. I guarantee it will be a staple at your Thanksgiving table, just as it's become one at mine. Happy Thanksgiving!

Southern Sweet Potatoes

-3 cups canned or cooked sweet potatoes
-3/4 cup sugar
-1/2 tsp. salt
-2 eggs
-1/3 stick butter
-1/2 cup milk
-1 tsp. vanilla

Directions: Beat above ingredients together until thoroughly blended. Pour into buttered baking dish (8x8 or casserole dish).

-1/2 cup brown sugar
-1/2 cup broken pecans
-1/3 cup flour
-1/3 cup melted butter

Directions: Combine topping ingredients and crumble over potatoes. Bake 35 to 45 minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Serve and enjoy!

*Side note: I doubled this recipe for my family of 25+.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Eco-friendly invention deserves nationwide recognition

I'm taking a break from recipes and restaurant reviews today to share with you a very smart idea that somebody in the world is cursing themselves for not copywriting before. The world's first pizza "GreenBox" was introduced last month to diners at V&T Pizza in Manhattan, where the cardboard box can be ripped apart to make plates and a storage box for leftovers. Just think of the billions of pizza boxes per year that are wasted, along with the paper plates we normally eat the pie off of! Now there's a use for all that cardboard, and the GreenBox is made with 100% recycled paper.

42-year-old William Walsh is the mastermind behind this eco-friendly invention, and although he currently stores his GreenBoxes in a warehouse in Staten Island, N.Y., he's hoping to hit it big with a national chain. My question is, why aren't the national chains lining up for this guy? In the midst of a recession, where being "green" is the "cool" thing, and pizza will always be popular, Walsh has quite the brilliant invention on his hands. I'm ready to start using the GreenBoxes. Are you?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Five dollar Margaritas and a Mariachi band

I've gone out to eat one too many times this week, but how can you go wrong with margaritas, salsa, and a Mariachi band? That's exactly what we experienced at Paisano Restaurant on High Street in Waltham. (Side note: Paisano is slang for "friend"). I went for a late dinner and drinks with my cousin and this guy last weekend, and was instantly impressed at the authentic atmosphere (despite the glass case of bottled soda right as you walk in). The place was packed with late-night diners and tequila sippers, and the Mariachi band happily provided their melodies throughout the restaurant. We started with the house margarita, which was only $4.99 compared to the $8.50 price tage of the "specialty" margs. The drink was strong, and fortunately lacked the overpowering taste of the sour mix. The complimentary chips and salsa were exceptional, the salsa being fresh and necessarily spicy. For my meal, I opted for the Mexican side of the menu, although Paisano serves both Guatemalan and Mexican fare. I was craving spicy food with lots of veggies, so I decided on the Enchilada Especial ($11.99), which were three corn tortillas stuffed with shredded chicken and smothered in your choice of sauce: mole, green, red.

I asked which one was the spiciest (the red), and went with that. On top of the enchiladas was onions, melted cheese, sour cream, pico de gallo, avocado, and lettuce, with rice and refried beans on the side. The red sauce and fresh avocado made this dish for me - the sauce gave it a much-needed kick, and the avocado helped to balance out the heat from the sauce, and added a creamy texture - without becoming "soupy" like the sour cream did. I'll definitely be going back to Paisano, but be careful how late you go on a Saturday: the back room apparently turns into a dance club, with flashing lights and bad, Top 40's music.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Celebrating a special occasion at Ten Tables

Last night, my wonderful boyfriend took me to Ten Tables in Cambridge for our anniversary. This upscale eatery is tucked away from the bustling restaurant scene, but easily beats out the competition. The place is small (hence the name), and my six-foot-five companion had to watch his head on our way to the table. However, the small, elegant atmosphere helped to make the restaurant that much more special, and the waitstaff was friendly, informative, and eager to please. The menu had few vegetarian options, but the waiter mentioned they have tasting menus every other night for omnivores and vegetarians alike. The four course meat-free tasting menu was also only $28, compared to the price of one entree, which averages at $25 per plate. Since I was "off the clock" last night and didn't want to be taking notes or snapping photos during such a special evening, I cannot remember the kind of white wine the waiter recommended to us - but the result was crisp, and full of the tart and sweet tastes of citrus and dates. When it comes to the food, our first course was complements of the chef, and was a spicy coleslaw-type dish. Next was the salad, which consisted of a bed of greens topped with large shavings of tangy cheese, toasted nuts, crispy croutons, and a flavorful vinaigrette. The main course was handmade ricotta cavatelli with spicy squash, sage, porcini broth, ammaretti cookies, and parmesan cheese. Homemade pasta makes a world of difference, and although the amaretti cookies gave the dish an odd caramel flavor, the spiciness from the squash helped to balance the bowl perfectly. The two desserts, however, were the stars of this meal: chocolate cake with sea salt and Thai basil ice cream, alongside hazelnut semifreddo with bay, oranges and caramel. The hazelnut dish was light and refreshing, but I'll be dreaming about that Thai basil ice cream for weeks. The addition of sea salt was also surprisingly successful, and helped cut the sweetness from the dense chocolate cake.

All in all, Ten Tables helped to make our anniversary extra special - and filling. It's definitely a great place to bring a date, impress a business associate, or just to share some good wine with great friends. What's your favorite date spot in Boston?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Savoring the taste of fall with sweet potato Cool Whip

I'm not a big dessert person - I used to have a sweet tooth larger than Bazooka Joe's, but somewhere along the way, things changed. When I'm hungry, I crave salt. As a result, my dessert-making abilities have fallen to the wayside. However, tonight I felt like a fall-inspired dessert, and I didn't want pumpkin pie (I'll be eating enough of that on Thanksgiving). I decided to research some recipes using sweet potatoes, and found complex recipes for sweet potato bread pudding, sweet potato bread, and sweet potato cookies - I just wanted something simple. After standing in the baking aisle at my local grocery store for a solid 20 minutes, I got it: sweet potato whipped cream with store-bought pound cake. Don't ask me how that lightbulb went off; I think it was a mix between a craving for fall flavors and simplicity. So, here it is: my recipe for very easy sweet potato Cool Whip ($2, Stop & Shop) which I served atop freshly-made pound cake ($3.99, Stop & Shop) and chopped pecan halves ($1.89, Hannaford). This dessert was seasonal, and had just the right amount of sweet potato and nutmeg/cinnamon flavor, without overpowering the delicious taste of Cool Whip.

Sweet Potato Cool Whip
Serves: 25

-3/4 of a 15 oz. can cut sweet potatoes, in syrup - mashed ($0.99, Hannaford brand)
-8 oz. tub of Cool Whip
-1/4 tsp.ground nutmeg
-1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
-Pinch of ground ginger

Directions: Drain sweet potatoes, and rinse quickly with water. Mash in a blender, or with a potato masher. In a separate bowl, fold into Cool Whip. Add cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger. Mix well, and let sit in refrigerator for at least 20 minutes to allow flavors to mesh. Serve over pound cake, with crushed pecans (I just bought a small bag of pecan halves, and broke them up into pieces).

How do you easily incorporate the taste of fall into your desserts?

Friday, November 13, 2009

NuVal scores: more nutritious dinner, while keepin' it cheap

When I shop for meat at the supermarket, I normally go straight to the chicken and ground turkey – my goals are always cheap and versatile. However, when Tina Haupert, the writer behind one of my favorite Boston food blogs, Carrots ‘N Cake, as well as a NuVal employee, asked if I would be interested in devoting a blog on NuVal scores, my meat-buying-abilities immediately broadened. NuVal is a company dedicated to making nutrition easy by rating certain foods with “scores.” Their website has more information, but NuVal basically rates foods on a scale from 1 to 100, 100 having the most nutritional value. Price Chopper has NuVal scores listed right underneath the product, but I went by the scores right on their website.

On their website, I went straight to the meat section, and noticed that boneless chicken breast only scored a 39, while turkey breast was a 31. I then perused the seafood section, and most of the scores were closer to the 70 to 80 range! Shrimp, for instance, got a 75. When it came to veggies, Aunt Nellie's Ruby Red Sweet & Sour Harvard Beets received an 8, while regular red tomatoes scored a 96. Easy decision: toss up same-old chicken and vegetables for some fresh shrimp and tomatoes. The catch: shrimp usually isn’t cheap.

I stopped into my local, trustworthy Hannaford last night and did some serious bargain shopping. The fresh shrimp was obviously expensive, especially if it was already peeled and deveined. However, I was surprised at how expensive frozen shrimp was; even the Hannaford brand was close to $10-12. After some more digging, I found it: a five-serving bag of frozen, medium-sized shrimp, peeled and deveined, for a mere $4.99. Hello, dinner.

I knew I was going out for nachos and beer for “dessert,” so I made my pre-meal a light one. However, although this dish was delicious as is, I also recommend serving it over rice or pasta – it’s spicy, full of flavor, and the shrimp are perfectly plump and juicy.

Spicy Shrimp & Tomatoes

Yields: two servings

-30 medium shrimp, peeled and deveined (frozen, with tails still on)

-1 medium red tomato, chopped

-1/2 tbsp. minced garlic, jarred

-1 1/2 tsp. butter

-Juice from half a lemon

-1 tsp. crushed red pepper

-Salt and pepper to taste

-Parsley, for garnish (optional)

Directions: Melt the butter in a saucepan. Add shrimp (cut off tails if desired). Season with a little salt (very little amount if using salted butter), black pepper, and crushed red pepper. Squeeze in fresh lemon juice, then add garlic and tomatoes. Allow shrimp to cook for 4 to 5 minutes total, or until they can be pierced with a fork. Serve over rice, pasta, or in a bowl as is. Garnish with parsley. (If you have white wine, adding a splash of that would add even more flavor/cut some more of the heaviness from the butter).

Recap of NuVal scores:
Shrimp: 75
Red tomato: 96

*If I had made my usual chicken with broccoli, the scores only would have been:
Boneless chicken breast: 39
Fresh broccoli florettes: 100

How have you used NuVal scores to change up your routine meals/a certain recipe?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Stuffed mushrooms and pumpkin ale; British-style

My college friends were still in town on Friday night, so I took them to one of my favorite spots: the British Beer Company (in Framingham). This Brit pub has a great beer selection, outstanding bar food, and authentic British cuisine. Bangers and mashed, anyone? On Friday nights, the BBC also has live music – bonus! There were quite a few of us, and although we had to wait an hour for a table, the time flew by while we sipped some brews at the bar. I had a Shipyard Pumpkin Ale with cinnamon sugar on the rim, which was a little too sticky for me, although the flavor combination was decent. Once we sat down for dinner, we ordered a plate of nachos for the table to split. The nachos were nachos although I wish the cheese and toppings were layered throughout. Layering is key in nachos (BBC should take tips from The Common Man). For a meal, I ordered the Stuffed Portabella Mushroom appetizer. The mushroom was chocked full of fresh feta cheese, kalamata olives, and roasted red peppers, roasted in the oven. The dish was then drizzled with balsamic glaze and fresh basil. The meal was light and tasty, but had way too much tangy feta for my liking. Overall, the BBC didn’t fail us: the live music was good, the beer was ice cold, and the food was not-so-bad. Next time I go, though, I’m sticking to the burgers and bangers.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Turkey meatballs with herbs and garlic

Growing up, my mother made the best meatballs - which is ironic, since her spaghetti was always questionable. Her meatballs, however, were always juicy, full of flavor, monstrous, and slow-cooked in the crockpot. Cold, cozy Sundays always smell like tomato sauce and bubbling beef to me - such glorious foodie memories. Now that I've been cooking for myself for the last several years, however, I've become a bigger fan of ground turkey, and almost always choose the bird over the beef. Although I know I will never be able to make a meatball taste as delicious as my mother can, I strive to pack my turkey meatballs with tons of spices and garlic, while allowing them to still taste like turkey. Oh, and I try to get them as big as my mother's infamous meatballs, too. Here goes:

Turkey Meatballs
Yields: 10 meatballs

-1 package ground turkey (lean, with no seasonings) (turkey breast can be used here, too, although it's usually $1+ more expensive)
-1 egg
-1 palmful Italian bread crumbs
-1 1/2 tbsp. minced garlic, jarred
-1 tbsp. Italian seasoning
-Salt and pepper to taste

Directions: Empty package of ground turkey in a large bowl. Add remaining ingredients and mix with hands, without over "kneading" the meat. Roll into 10 balls, and place on baking sheet. Cook at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for 25-30 minutes, flipping halfway through. Check meatballs prior to end cooking time, to ensure they don't overcook/dry out.

I enjoyed these herb-infused meatballs with my pasta sauce (made with frozen veggies this time), and whole wheat rotini pasta. Mangia!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Disappointing fare at Union Street

Several of my good friends from college were in town this week, and we needed a central place to meet up for dinner and drinks. After a quick Google search, I found rave reviews for Union Street Restaurant in Newton. Their website proves that it's a sports pub with innovative American-style dishes, as well as a lengthy beer list. Bingo! We met up on Thursday night, which also happened to be karaoke night - and almost everyone who participated actually knew how to hit a melody. This place was sounding (literally) better and better! However, once we got our food, I was disappointed. I ordered the Chicken & Pear sandwich ($9.99), which was a chicken breast servd with Brie cheese, thinly sliced grilled pear and herb mayonnaise on a toasted French roll with tomato and lettuce. Sounds unique and delicious, right? Unfortunately, the outcome wasn't as yummy. The grilled chicken was tough and overcooked, and the Brie cheese was almost nonexistent. Huge bummer. Thankfully the karaoke and beer selection were decent. For anyone who's dined at Union Street before, how was your food?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Banana Bread French Toast

Banana bread has never tasted so good - which is a heavy statement for me to make. After my epic failure of my mom's recipe this past weekend, I couldn't let two loaves of the delicacy go to waste. So this morning, I experimented, and came up with this:

Banana bread French toast. The outcome was a more dense, richer banana bread with a perfectly crispy exterior. Drizzled with some sweet maple syrup and a light dusting of powdered sugar, I was in breakfast heaven. Thankfully, the dish wasn't super sweet either; the bread was able to hold up its authentic banana flavor while complementing the syrup and cinnamon perfectly.

Banana Bread French Toast
Yields: 2 servings

-Four slices banana bread (homemade or store bought)
-1 egg
-1 tsp. milk
-1 tbsp. butter
-1/4 cup maple syrup (optional)
-Powdered sugar (optional)

Directions: Mix egg, milk, and a dash of cinnamon in a shallow bowl. Melt butter in a skillet. Dip banana bread in egg mixture and add to skillet. Brown both sides, then plate. Dress with maple syrup (1/4 cup serving each; although I only used half that for each plate), and sprinkle with sparing amount of powdered sugar.

What baking/cooking mistakes have you turned into something even more delicious?

Monday, November 2, 2009

Refusing to let bad banana bread go to waste

I am ashamed to admit this, but sometimes the best cooking mistakes yield the most delicious creations. Friday, after work, I got the sudden urge to use my rotting bananas and make them into my mother's famous banana bread - with chocolate chips added, of course. My mother has never failed at baking banana bread (or at much else for that matter), but I was in a rush - and didn't allow the banana bread to cook all the way through. What I was left with was a delicious-looking loaf of bread who's center caved in five minutes after leaving the oven. Now I'm looking for a way to make use of this disaster - banana bread pudding? Banana cinnamon French toast? Thankfully, the possibilities are endless, and the bread won't go to waste. Stay tuned.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Four courses, five beers, sensible price tag

I have eaten many meals (and slugged back quite a few beers) at Cambridge Common in my day, but Monday night was the first beer dinner I've ever attended. Cambridge Common holds their popular beer pairing events at least once a month, and trust me when I say, it’s worth trying out. On Monday, the brewery featured was Clipper City out of Maryland, the same guys who made brew pubs legal in their native state. The folks at Clipper City pride themselves on integrating traditional brewing conditions with modern techniques. The beer dinners at Cambridge Common always feature a specific local brewery, and are set up family-style; yup, you sit right at the table with other beer snobs, foodies, people from the featured brewery, and the owners of Cambridge Common themselves. Suzanne Scholow and Kate Baker are the masterminds behind this comfortable downtown eatery with over 30 beers on tap at a time. Baker pairs the food for these events with the beer, and after tasting just the first course, you’d think she attained a master’s in the trade. For an appetizer, we enjoyed Maryland crab cakes with chipotle aioli, paired with a Loose Cannon Hop3 Ale Cask as well as its un-cask'd counterpart. The pairing was good, but I found the significant difference between the cask and the ale the most interesting. Next was a salad of tomatoes, romano cheese, and arugula, which provided a needed pepper-y flavor, and which was cut nicely with the subtle, sweet Uber Pils it was paired with.

For an entrée, I opted for the pumpkin ravioli with the Imperial Pumpkin Ale, which was a little too much nutmeg and sugar for me in one dish. However, the ravioli had a needed savory touch with red peppers, which paired much better with the other entrée’s beer – the Oxford Organic Amber. The other entrée, cranberry apple stuffed pork loin, just happened to taste better with the pumpkin beer, too.

Dessert, however, I am still dreaming about. Chocolate crème brulee with a Below Decks Barleywine (2007). The barleywine had well-rounded tones of cherry flavor, which paired perfectly with the otherwise-too-sweet crème brulee.

Tickets for the beer dinners are about $50, but for four courses and five or six beers, you’re getting a deal. Next month: Magic Hat’s bringing their brews on 11/10. I suggest you be there.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Making a pit stop in Portsmouth

I spent last Sunday enjoying the fall weather the best to my ability with a bike ride, an outdoor concert at Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse, and enjoying some seasonal brews. I love the town of Portsmouth: it's quiant, and filled with locally-run specialty shops and niche restaurants, all with a view of the water. After getting slightly lost on the way to my brother's band's concert, my boyfriend and I decided to stay on the Seacoast for a little while longer, and thus made a pit stop at the Portsmouth Brewery. I had never been to this particular brew pub before, but always heard rave reviews - and now I see why. The restaurant is comfortable, yet eclectic, and was bustling with families and younger groups of friends on this Sunday evening. I slowly sipped a hoppy Bottle Rocket IPA, and we eventually shared an appetizer of hummus & baba ganoosh ($7.95). I've had hummus just about everywhere that serves it, but this spread was fantastic. Served with huge, grilled roasted red peppers, onions, and zucchini, as well as fresh pita points for scooping, this dish was healthy and light, yet surprisingly filling. As a bonus, the hummus even had a few whole chickpeas mixed in for some added texture. Next time I go, I'm trying The Beauty ($7.25) - grilled tempeh with gouda and honey mustard on a scallion roll.

Where's your favorite place to chow on the Seacoast?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Changing the taste of stir fry

I have a love/hate relationship with stir fry. Tradtionally, stir fry is made with a lot of veggies and a little meat, cooked in a wok with peanut oil (versus olive oil or butter), and served over rice. I've had some pretty bland stir frys in my lifetime, so the dish as a whole is usually not that appealing to me. However, I am trying to change that - slowly. Because of the great deal I found at the supermarket earlier this week, I decided to give the entree another whirl, but with my own (inexpensive) twists. For starters, I bought choice round boneless stewing beef for $2.15 (the other varieties of beef surrounding it were in the $3 to $5 range). I then cooked the beef and veggies with olive oil instead of peanut, and enjoyed some instant mashed potatoes on the side instead of rice, for two reasons: one, I didn't have any rice in the house, and two, because it was bitter cold outside and I was in the mood for some comfort food. Below is the recipe for my latest go at stir fry. Did I mention I cooked this in under 20 minutes, too?

Simple Beef Stir Fry
Yields: 2 servings

-1 package choice round boneless stewing beef
-1 1/2 cups of Hannaford Stir Fry Mix (peppers & onions)
-1 tbsp olive oil
-1 tsp crushed red pepper (optional)
-1 tbsp jarred minced garlic
-Red wine of your choice (I used a Porto Tawny)
-Salt and pepper to taste

Heat 1 tbsp. of olive oil in a saute pan or wok. Add beef, and season with salt and pepper. Cook meat for 4-7 minutes, depending on how rare you like it. Add garlic, and a small pour of red wine (1 tbsp or so - helps create a sauce). Cook off wine for 1 minute, then add veggies and crushed red pepper. Cook for another two minutes, and serve over mashed potatoes (or rice). Enjoy!

Friday, October 23, 2009

A lunch splurge that was worth the wait

For me, easy-to-make lunches are a necessity during the work week, so when I splurge on a more "gourmet" sandwich, it better be good. Luckily for Boston King Cafe in Andover, their sandwiches are good, although prepare to wait 10 minutes for one, as they're made to order. I stopped into the breakfast-to-dinner cafe yesterday for one of their Four Corner Ham & Cheese sandwiches ($6.80), and although this dish was anything but gourmet, it was satisfying and (I guess) worth the wait. Made with just the right amount of black forest ham, provolone cheese, house mustard, lettuce, and tomato on thick cut multigrain bread, this was one dressed up ham and cheese. My only gripe? The bread was toasted, while the meat and cheese were still cold. I would have killed for some melted cheese and ham heated in the skillet.

What's your favorite place to splurge on lunch during the week?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Best deal I found this week

It's amazing what kind of deals you find when you take the time to compare prices at the grocery store. Brand names, organic labels, and "specialty" products are always overpriced, when you can get basically the same product in another aisle for much, much less. Case in point: last night, I wanted stir fry, and the fresh, pre-cut veggies in the produce aisle at Hannaford ranged from $3 to $4 for about two servings. In the frozen aisle? A much larger bag of still-fresh chopped peppers and onions was a mere $1.89 - for five servings. In the mix are yellow, red, and green peppers in addition to onions, and the peppers were perfectly crunchy and sweet. Needless to say, I was impressed. Behold, the best deal I found this week (recipe to come later):

Monday, October 19, 2009

The underestimated orzo

Orzo is one pasta I’ve wrongly underestimated. I used to think, “What, besides soup, could I possibly make with pasta that looks and feels like rice?” Well, after Market Basket offered orzo at the smallest price in the pasta aisle, I made do with the rice-shaped pasta – and now there’s no turning back. Orzo is extremely versatile, and I always have random leftover veggies, meats and cheeses in my fridge that need to be used up in new, delicious ways. Orzo allows me to use up these ingredients, while not having to eat the same dinner three nights in a row. Below is one such orzo dish I made with jarred kalamata olives, feta cheese, and tomatoes – a light, healthy meal that made use of still-fresh produce and sale-priced orzo. Mangia!

Out-of-the-fridge Orzo

Yields: 1

-1/3 cup dry orzo

-4 jarred kalamata olives, chopped

-1/8 cup crumbled feta cheese

-2 tbsp olive oil

-1/2 plum tomato, diced

-1 tbsp. jarred minced garlic

-Dried parsley

-Italian seasoning

-Crushed red pepper (for heat)

-Salt and black pepper

Directions: Boil 1 quart of water, with salt. Add orzo, and let cook for 5-7 minutes, or until al dente. In a separate sauce pan, heat 1 tbsp olive oil. Throw in tomato, and add salt, black pepper, red pepper, parsley and Italian seasoning (amount to your taste preference/tolerance). When tomatoes are near mushy, add garlic. Cook for 30 more seconds, then add orzo, and toss with the remaining tbsp. of olive oil. Sprinkle in feta cheese, and serve with an extra dusting of parsley.

Blogger’s note: I include the serving size of the pasta (and will in past/future recipes), because I am a stickler for serving sizes. Paying attention to a packaged product’s recommended single serving not only keeps my weight in check, but also my wallet – by eating only a serving size of orzo, for example, I get the full eight servings out of the box, versus half that.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Home, and already planning my next meal

After a week of traveling for work, I'm beat - the time change, contracting the common cold, and working my socks off at the CAPPS Conference. Traveling also makes it difficult to eat regular meals at "normal" times, and I never seem to get the right amount of nutrients while on the road. However, now that I'm home and have the time to cook this week, planning my meals for the week to come is - sadly - really exciting. For tonight, thankfully I froze my leftover vegetarian chili earlier this week. I'm plopping that baby on the stove to simmer, and diving in.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Keeping your stomach (and wallet) full while traveling

I'm taking a short hiatus from the Boston scene to dedicate this post to eating on a budget while traveling. I'm currently in Los Angeles, CA until tomorrow for the CAPPS Conference for my full-time job at Effective Student Marketing in Andover. My coworker and I are staying at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza - one high class hotel! So high class, that their three restaurants make visitors pay 18 bucks for an ordinary tuna sandwich. When I say ordinary, the only "fancy" thing about this overpriced dish is that the tuna is served on ciabatta bread. Although my co-worker and I are here on business, our company is small, and it's a gosh darn recession - we don't feel right eating $18 mediocre sandwiches for three days. Apparently, our fellow exhibitors at the conference agree, and willingly gave us tips on cheaper eats within walking distance from the wallet-emptying hotel. Last night, after we did our networking duties at CAPPS, we walked over to one such recommendation: The Pink Taco. Located in LA's Westfield outdoor mall, The Pink Taco was a rock 'n' roll, tattoo shop-inspired Mexican joint, crowded with hungry (and thirsty) twenty-somethings. Their food menu was limited and simple, and their margarita offerings were also slim, yet innovative. My coworker ordered the pumpkin spice margarita, which was suprisingly delicious, and tasted just like pumpkin pie, but with tequila. Can I get an amen? To make the bill even smaller, we split an appetizer of mini tacos with steak and avocado,  as well as an entree of a stuffed poblano pepper. While neither dish was outstanding, they were fairly tasty, spicy, and filling...not to mention affordable. Splitting a few entrees for dinner and having a margarita each ended up costing us less than the two sandwiches we had at the Hyatt for lunch.

What corners do you cut when traveling on a budget?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Breakin' in the crock pot with vegetarian chili

My other half is a vegetarian, so I made the most of my day off yesterday by making some vegetarian chili. I rarely use my crock pot, so this winter, I plan to use it a lot more often – and today I broke it in for the season. My apartment was fragrant with the smells of chili powder, smoky cumin, onions, and tomatoes bubbling away in the pot on the counter. And putting it all together took less than 20 minutes! Another bonus: this recipe is cheaper than most of the other chili recipes in my repertoire, thanks to the fact that I didn’t have to buy any meat. Below is my recipe for this chunky, spicy, lacto ovo-friendly chili. Dig in!

Easy & Spicy Vegetarian Chili

Yields: 4-5 servings

-16 oz. can of kidney beans, drained
-2 28 oz. cans crushed tomatoes
-1 medium yellow onion, chopped
-1 red pepper, cut into chunks (for thicker, chunkier chili)
-1 jalapeno, with seeds, diced
-1 tbsp. minced garlic
-1/4 tsp. cilantro
-1/2 tsp. cumin
-1 tsp. chili powder
-1/2-1 tsp. crushed red pepper (for extra heat)
-6-7 splashes of Tabasco sauce
-1 tsp. each of salt and pepper

Pour all ingredients into medium/large crock pot. Cook on low for 6-8 hours. Spoon into bowl and sprinkle with cheese (I prefer Heluva Good! Monterey Jack with Jalapeno). Serve with multigrain tortilla chips and enjoy!

*Tip: use an extra can of beans or some scambled meatless hamburger to make this chili even chunkier. It was a little runny and could have used the extra "sponge" to soak up the excess liquid from the tomatoes.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Buffalo: it's what's for dinner

I recently tried the buffalo burger ($9.50) at Bison County BBQ in Waltham, and was pleasantly surprised at how moist and flavorful the meat was. The menu boasts that buffalo has less cholesterol than chicken or turkey (my go-to meat for homemade burgers, usually), and my sister always makes her chili with buffalo meat because it tends to be cheaper than beef at the supermarket. Although I have yet to cook with buffalo in my own kitchen, I was more than happy to give the lesser-used chow a try at this establishment that is known for their meat. I was also happy to discover that the buffalo was a lot less greasy than beef would be, avoiding the dreaded grease waterfall that tends to pour out with every bite of a regular hamburger. The joint was casual and crowded on the Friday night that I visited, and their French fries were exceptionally crispy and full of real potato flavor. My friends ordered Bison County's Boneless Fire Wings ($7.95), that were supposed to be their spiciest, yet, unfortunately, lacked a lot of heat. I left satisfied, however, being able to wash down my burger with a few ice cold drafts of Shipyard's Pumpkinhead Ale, in the company of good friends.

Have you cooked with buffalo meat before? What are some successful ways you've prepared it, in addition to burgers and chili?

Thursday, October 8, 2009

What did Guy Fieri eat?

I'm interviewing Food Network's bleached blond star Guy Fieri next week, to advance his upcoming appearance at Lowell Memorial Auditorium in November. This milestone interview (for a foodie like myself) got me thinking: where did Guy eat/what meals did he prepare when he was on a budget? The California native has only been a "star" for almost three years, and started his career at the age of ten selling soft pretzels from a bicycle cart entitled "The Awesome Pretzel." Fieri washed dishes and sold pretzels until he had enough money to study abroad in France, where he learned to appreciate international cuisine - and the rest is history.

So how did he save all that money at such a young age? What do you think he cooked, and where do you think he ate before becoming a Food Network star? 

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Organic and inexpensive pub grub at Piccadilly

I just had lunch at the Piccadilly Pub in North Reading. I went in skeptical, and left brutally beaten with the fact that I'd been proven wrong. Piccadilly is one local chain that offers the whole package: cheap grub, quality food, solid customer service. I wouldn't recommend bringing someone here on a first date (or any date in the first few months of courting), but the casual atmosphere makes you just want to sip a brew, gorge on some simple American food, and revel in light conversation. Since I was on my lunch break, I opted for lemon water - not beer - and ordered the Organic Malibu Garden Burger ($7.99) with a side of mixed veggies. The vegetables obviously came out of a can, but were flavored so well, I ate every last bite - and wished I had more. The veggie burger was also one of the best I've had in a while, chocked full of organic broccoli, corn, carrots, peppers, water chestnuts and onions, covered in melted Swiss cheese, and sandwiched between moist-and-cheesy focaccia bread. The burger also had fresh tomato and lettuce for a garnish. Downright delicious. Personally, I believe the word "organic" means nothing but "expensive," but when it's inexpensive, I jump on the chance to eat anything organic. Piccadilly offered me that chance today.

What's your favorite restaurant that offers simple, delicious pub grub?

Monday, October 5, 2009

Gourmet's demise results in delicious baked Brie

With today's unfortunate fold of Gourmet magazine, a comforting dinner and some wine was in order - without overdoing it. My roommate and I decided to make some homemade pizza with store bought crust (with the sauce included!) and leftover fresh mozzarella and broccoli. For an appetizer, we made homemade baked Brie with apple slices on the side. Hello, comfort food! We fell in love with baked Brie at the British Beer Company in Framingham last year, but now that we know how to make it at home, this could be dangerous. Below is the recipe for this inexpensive, warm treat, right in time for the colder weather.

Baked Brie
Yields: 4 servings (or more...or less)

-1 Hannaford (or store brand) frozen pie crust, defrosted
-1 Presidente cut & wrap Brie wedge
-1 apple (optional)

Cut the brie into 1-inch thick pieces, and cover half of the pie crust with the cheese. Fold over empty half of pie crust to cover the cheese, and pinch ends of pie crust together to hold closed. Bake at 400 degrees for 12-15 minutes, or until crust is golden brown and cheese is starting to bubble. Enjoy with apple slices (and wine).

What's your favorite comfort food this time of year?

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Darwin's sandwiches are worth the weekend splurge

There is nothing better than going out for breakfast on the weekends, but on a rainy day like today, there's nothing better than sleeping in and cooking a delicious breakfast for two. In an effort to save some money, I've been making a lot more meals at home, but normally I love going to Darwin's in Cambridge on the weekends for their amazing sandwiches and strong iced coffees. Darwin's is known for their sandwiches, and has plenty of options for vegetarians and omnivores alike. Plus, everything I've ever eaten there (which is a lot) is always full of fresh ingredients, and their iced coffee is probably the best I've had to date. A lot of the times I order one of their pre-made sandwiches of the day (like their black bean veggie burger with avocado, sprouts, and tomato on focaccia bread), but one of my favorite made-to-order sandwiches is The Hovey ($6.85). The Hovey is made with eggs cooked over medium and topped with bacon, avocado, and cheddar cheese, on your choice of bread (I usually go for the focaccia or ciabatta). In addition to sandwiches, Darwin's also has amazing, freshly made baked goods like homemade cookies, muffins, and pastries. The small cafe is always packed on a late weekend morning, but the staff is usually friendly and organized, so you're not waiting for 30 minutes for just one sandwich. Their prices are also pretty reasonable, although a little more expensive for breakfast-on-the-go. I usually spend between $7 and $10 for a sandwich and large iced coffee, but sometimes, quality food is worth the extra dollar (especially on the weekends).

What's your favorite place to splurge on a weekend breakfast?

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Where's the beef?

Mexican food is one of my favorite types of cuisine, but the refried beans, salty tortilla chips, and mounds of cheese can sometimes be a little too much for me. Recently, to get my Mexican fare fix, I've been making quesadillas at home and revising the recipe to make it more heart healthy - not to mention cheaper. A pack of eight wheat tortillas, a few avocados, a carton of grape tomatoes, one package of meat, and a bag of store brand Mexican shredded cheese comes out to be a lot cheaper than an entree and a few margaritas at the Mexican restaurant down the road. To make these quesadillas, I use ground turkey for the meat (in place of beef or pork), and load the sucker up with vegetables and some cheese for "glue." Below is the recipe for my turkey quesadillas, and as a disclaimer, I like my food spicy - so feel free to revise to your own tastebuds.

Turkey Quesadillas
Serves: 4

-4 whole wheat soft tortillas
-1 package ground turkey (or ground turkey breast)
-2 avocados, sliced lengthwise
-1 medium yellow onion, chopped
-1 carton grape tomatoes, cut in halves
-1 cup shredded Mexican cheese
-Jarred jalapenos, chopped (use to your heat preference; I use about 10)
-Several dashes of hot sauce
-Chili powder, cumin, dried cilantro, salt, pepper (I don't measure out my spices; just eyeball the amounts used)
-4 tbsp. sour cream (optional)
-1 tbsp. jarred garlic, minced
-1 tbsp. olive oil
-1 tbsp. lime juice
-1/2 bag of frozen corn

Heat olive oil in a frying pan. When warm, add chopped onion and cook until transluscent. Add ground turkey and cook until no longer pink. Pour in frozen corn. Add desired amount of chili powder, cumin, cilantro, salt and pepper. When almost done cooking, add garlic, chopped jalapenos, lime juice and hot sauce.

Butter one side of each tortilla, and place butter-side-down on frying pan. Sprinkle half of 1/4 cup shredded cheese on the bottom layer of each tortilla. Place two heaping spoonfuls of turkey mixture on top of cheese layer, and add chopped tomatoes and avocado slices. Top with the other half of the 1/4 single serving of cheese, and fold tortilla in half. Cook until tortilla is golden brown on each side (I place a bowl on top of the quesadilla so both sides get extra crispy and cook faster). Put 1 tablespoon of sour cream on the side of each quesadilla.

On the side, I normally have a 1 cup single serving of Success' Boil-in-a-Bag Brown Rice (it cooks in 10 minutes!), and I add a little butter, chili powder, cumin, dried cilantro, salt and pepper to add some flavor - it tends to be very bland without the extra spices.

What revisions do you make to recipes to make them more healthy, and/or affordable?

Monday, September 28, 2009

West Side Lounge offers upscale dining at an affordable price

Last week, my boyfriend's parents took us out to West Side Lounge on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge. At first glance, the restaurant is high end, yet comfortable, and the atmosphere instantly screams "expensive." However, once I perused over the two-page menu, I was pleasantly surprised at the prices. For the location West Side Lounge is in, along with its physical appearance, it amazed me that most entrees were under $20.

As a table, we split several appetizers, including the Tofu Bites ($6.95), which were lightly fried with sweet soy sauce on the side, as well as a bowl of hand-cut French fries with a roasted garlic aioli for dipping ($4.95). For someone who is just starting to enjoy tofu, the tofu bites were perfectly crunchy on the outside and, most surprisingly, full of flavor. The hand-cut fries were nothing innovative, but I could have easily gulped down the garlic aioli like a shot of top shelf tequila. For an entree, my boyfriend's dad and I both ordered the Roasted Chicken with a Lemon Dijon Rub ($16.95), with garlicky broccolini. The chicken is normally served with fingerling potatoes, but the cold weather inspired me to substitute them for the mashed potatoes, which was a very successful decision. The mashed potatoes were obviously made with an artery-clogging amount of milk and butter, but the portion size was reasonable. The skin on the chicken was also crispy and full of fresh citrus and herb flavors, yet lacked the unnecessary grease (thankfully).

For dessert, we all split the Ice Cream Sandwiches ($7), which were two tiny sandwiches of homemade chocolate chip cookies and vanilla ice cream, garnished with a drizzle of chocolate sauce.

Overall, it was a delicious meal at a "fancier" restaurant that didn't have us worrying about the size of the bill at the end. In my opinion, any dining establishment that is afforable enough to get appetizers, an entree and dessert (and drinks) in the midst of a recession is doing something right.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Turning a once dreaded meal into a modern favorite

Growing up, I dreaded having pasta for dinner. I am one of four siblings, so my mother would make a lot of store-brand-name-food at dinner. So, pasta night was always Market Basket's vermicelli covered in the most under seasoned jarred pasta sauce. I didn't know that there were any other kinds of pasta besides vermicelli until I was at least 12 years old. Regardless, since my mother's large-family-on-a-budget dinners, I have become much more creative with my pasta - while still utilizing store band names. I almost always use Healthy Harvest Whole Wheat Blend Pasta by Ronzoni, and I make sure to still buy store brand pasta sauce, but add my own flavor and texture to it. Last night, I had some leftover whole wheat rotini, and I stopped at Hannaford to grab their Tomato & Basil Pasta Sauce, a red pepper, and a yellow onion. I came home and, to the delight of my roommate, filled the apartment with the tantalizing smells and the powerful sizzle of garlic and onion sauteing on the stove. Below is how I dressed up an otherwise ordinary pasta sauce, while adding more nutrients to it, too:

Tomato, Red Pepper, Onion & Basil Pasta Sauce
Yields: 6 servings

-1 jar Hannaford Tomato & Basil Pasta Sauce
-3 small red peppers, chopped (I cut into larger chunks for more texture)
-1 large yellow onion, diced
-1 tbsp. garlic
-Olive oil
-Pinch of granulated sugar
-Crushed red pepper flakes (for heat)
-Salt and pepper

In a pan, saute diced onions until translucent. Add in chopped red peppers, and season liberally with salt and pepper. Cook until red peppers are slightly soft. Add in garlic, and saute for several more minutes. Pour in jar of pasta sauce, desired amount of crushed red pepper flakes, and a pinch of sugar. Let simmer for about 20 minutes (or longer, if you have the time). Pour over your favorite pasta, and enjoy!

On the side of this veggie-packed dish, I spread some butter on two halves of a Multi-grain Arnold Sandwich Thin, and sprinkled on some garlic powder and dried parsley. I popped them in the toaster oven, and had "homemade" garlic bread to go with my pasta.

What are some of your tips to make a delicious pasta sauce?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Lamb burgers & plum beer at Watch City Brewing Co.

I try to eat healthy most of the time, mainly because I like to enjoy good beer, guilt-free. With that being said, I was ecstatic when my fellow beer-lovin' boyfriend (who introduced me to beverages other than Bud Light in the first place) brought me to Watch City Brewing Co. on Moody Street in Waltham a few weeks ago. Any American-style pub with beer samplers is O.K in my book, and the menu portrays the place as an upscale burger joint and brewery. On this initial visit, I went for the lamb burger ($10.99), which exceeded all of my expectations, to say the least. Although it was a few bucks more than the regular burgers, I had to try it - and was glad I did. Coated in tangy feta spread and an array of herbs that would make the stuffiest of noses tingle with delight, this innovative meat patty was the perfect companion to my beer sampler. My favorite beer that night: the juicy, refreshing, not-too-fruity Lil’ Jack Horner‘s Plum Suckin’ Wit brew.

My first meal at Watch City was so successful that I brought two of my cousins there last night. Needless to say, they left just as impressed as I did on my initial visit. Last night, I opted for the Chipotle Turkey Club Wrap ($8.99), which was just a basic sandwich wrap, with well seasoned, extra crunchy fries on the side. The portion was enough for at least two people, so I even got lunch for today out of it! For beer, I ordered their seasonal pumpkin ale, which is by far one of the best pumpkin concoctions I've had to date. My cousin described the drink as "pumpkin pie in a glass." Enough said.

Where's your favorite place to go for good beer and pub grub?