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?