Sunday, February 28, 2010

First recap: My successes & failures in saving for Italy did I fare during my first few days of saving for Italy? Considering the budget I put myself on, I didn't have as many epic failures as I originally thought - although my first attempt at this new budget hasn't been easy, either.

The $25/week on non-professional dining out expenses has deemed the most difficult. For those of you who are freelance writers, I'm sure you can agree with me when I say, we don't make a lot of money. Sometimes, we make $0 for a review/article. So, even though I'm dining out 4 to 5+ times per week, I might only be getting paid for 1 or 2 of those times. However, eating out at a restaurant is what I love to do - so, cutting back on how many times I dine out has been hard. Depending on how March goes, I may have to tweak this weekly amount to $35, but I'll cross that bridge when I get there.

A lot of you have also asked me how the hell I can survive off $20-25/week on groceries. The simple answer is explained above: I go out to eat so often during the week, I rarely eat at home. My friends make fun of me all the time because my fridge and pantry are next to empty - I buy food when I know I'm going to be home to cook and eat it. There's no sense in letting good food go to waste.

So, without stalling any further, here is my recap of expenses since I first announced my plan to "Save for Italy" on February 17th:

Goal: $20-25/week
Result: $54.47 total, or $27.25/week
Went over: $2.25

Wine/beer for home:
Goal: $10/week
Result: $10.99 on a bottle of Pinot Grigio (woo hoo!)

Dining out:
Goal: $25/week
Result: $36.08 (not bad for a week and a half)

I didn't do terribly, but it looks like I need to discipline myself more when it comes to sticking to this new budget, all across the board - especially as time goes on. Now, our plan is to go to Italy closer to the September/October (and cheaper) time frame, so these last few weeks were a good practice run for me. Seeing these numbers listed out makes me want to get my butt into gear ASAP!

How have you successfully saved money for a trip?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Where to get quick pub grub before a Celtics game

On Tuesday night, I went to my very first Celtics game. They were playing the New York Knicks, but I could have cared less - I was more excited about the energy of a live game, and consistently crossing my fingers in hopes that I'd end up on the JumboTron.

Before the game, however, my friend James and I met up at McGann's on Portland Street, right near the TD Banknorth Garden. The Irish pub didn't boast its Irishness in decor or cuisine, and the space itself was quite the tight squeeze (unless you weigh 100 pounds or less, you're going to have to slither your way through the tightly packed tables and diners to get to your own seat). Regardless, the food was good, the service was efficient, and the atmosphere was lively.

For dinner, I ordered a simple cheeseburger with tomato and lettuce, with fries on the side ($7.95).

The food was nothing special, but tasted fine. Let's just say if/when I go to another Celtics game, I'll probably go back to McGann's for a burger. James ordered the fried calamari ($8.95), which was perfectly plump squid enveloped with a crispy, golden brown outer layer.

Every piece of calamari was shaped exactly the same, which can always be sketchy - but the taste was spot on, and I wasn't expecting gourmet fare at this jam-packed pub.

All in all, our pre-game dinner was satisfying, quick, and good-enough pub food. The game, however, was even better - although we never made it on the JumboTron.

Celtics fans: Where do you go for dinner before the game?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Vegetarian pea soup

Split pea soup – people either love it or they hate it. I’ve had my fair share of split pea soup in the past (even post “The Exorcist”), but I’ve never been impressed – especially by the appearance of it. The color alone is dull and unappetizing, and I’ve had bowls that simply taste like warm pea smoothies with some random ham chunks floating in them. So, when my roommate’s mother sent her a vegetarian-friendly version of the soup, I was extra skeptical. You mean to tell me that you omit the tiniest bit of flavor (the ham) from the soup? Perhaps I’ve been cursed with bad bowls of the sludge, but a giant bowl of pureed peas sans ham did not really appeal to me – at first.

Once my roommate sent me the recipe to review, however, I was pleasantly taken aback by the ingredients – especially the fresh cinnamon and whole cloves. How would these ingredients mesh together, and how would they compensate for the lack of meat?

Let’s just say they compensated very well. The end result was a thick, creamy bowl of split pea soup that had squashed all pre-conceived notions of the ham version.

The dish was full of a “wow - what is that?” flavor thanks to the unique ingredients aforementioned, and my lovely roommate added enough black pepper to give the soup a necessary kick.

On the side, we enjoyed some warmed Afghan bread that my roommate drizzled with oil and fresh chunks of garlic (we picked it up at Russo's).

Vegetarian Pea Soup
Yields: 6-7 servings

1 lb. package of Split Green Peas
2 medium onions
5 – 6 cups water
1 teaspoon all spice
1 small piece of a whole cinnamon stick

Directions: cook the above ingredients in a slow cooker for about 3 hours. Then add:

3 – 4 carrots, cut up
3 stalks celery, cut up
5 – 6 whole cloves
Salt and pepper to taste

Continue to cook in slow cooker another 3 to 4 hours, or until peas "mush up" to the desired consistency.

Needless to say, ham was not missed in this recipe, and I will probably never go back to split pea and ham soup. The variation of flavors and thick, meaty texture of this version were just so damn good – and addicting. I had two heaping bowls full for dinner that night.

Stay tuned for vegetarian pea soup

Pea soup sans ham, and made with cinnamon and whole cloves? It does exist, and I'm posting the recipe tonight!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Best deal this week: $30 for two courses & a bottle of wine at 75 Chestnut

"Wine Wednesdays" seem to be the new, recession-friendly restaurant trend. I know when I lived in Nashua, Unum's and Common Man in Merrimack had them - and now I hear about them everywhere. However, wine on Wednesdays goes down a little bit smoother when you're totally cheating the system - meaning, getting a steal at a normally very expensive restaurant in Boston. 75 Chestnut, for instance, now has Wine Wednesday, where you get two courses and a hand selected bottle of wine for $30 per diner. I haven't eaten at 75 Chestnut for over a year, but I do remember the food was exceptional, and that Mel Gibson was a foot away from me, eating his meal with a smile on his face.

What other "Wine Wednesday" deals have you seen in the Boston area?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Regaling at Rendezvous on Valentine's Day

Rendezvous in Central Square helped to make my Valentine's Day extra special - as did the person I dined with.  Zach's parents gave me a gift certificate to Rendezvous for Christmas, so Valentine's Day was the perfect opportunity for us to try out a new, fancier restaurant together that we wouldn't normally go to. The menu at Rendezvous seems to change often, but when we went on Sunday, the options included alluring options such as crispy roast chicken with horseradish mashed potatoes and skillet-roasted skate wing with baby brussel sprouts. Since Zach is a vegetarian (and in an effort to stay within the price of the gift certificate), we decided to order a bottle of wine and several appetizers to share. 

The wine we ordered was recommended by our waitress - we told her we wanted a white, dry wine and she immediately suggested the Domaine Du Tariquet Sauvignon Blanc. 

The wine was crisp with light notes of citrus and oak. Definitely a great recommendation.

We ended up ordering a total of four appetizers for our meal, and our waitress brought out two at a time, which was a great way to elongate the meal/experience. The first two that came out included the Boston lettuce salad with apples, cheddar cheese, spiced pecans and cider vinaigrette ($10), as well as the selection of three farmhouse cheeses from Formaggio Kitchen ($12).

The salad was surprisingly exciting, thanks to the tangy cider vinaigrette and necessarily spicy pecans.

The cheese plate, however, was incredible. The plate included blue cheese, creamy goat cheese and another kind that I sadly cannot remember, but each piece was insanely fresh, full of flavor, and accompanied the raisins and almonds on the side very well.

The final two plates that we ordered were the vegetable antipasto with roasted eggplant puree and muhummara ($11), along with the black truffle risotto with aged Mahon cheese ($13).

The vegetable antipasto dish was the perfect size for two people to taste, and included potatoes, spicy coleslaw, yogurt with cucumber sauce, and brussel sprouts, to name a few. The dish had a lot going on, but wasn't overly complicated.

I, unfortunately, dug into the black truffle risotto after my stomach capacity was near full, but the dish was still creamy, cheesy, and perfectly cooked, with a slight background flavor of the treasured black truffles.

By the end of the meal, we were stuffed and slap happy. The food was outstanding, but our waitress was also extremely informative, attentive, and patient. We definitely experienced five star dining that made a special holiday that much more special.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Save for Italy: the plan

I have big news, folks…


That is…assuming I save enough money to do so.

Zach and I are planning a trip to Italy for this summer. We haven’t researched rates or anything yet, but I know I can’t write a check tomorrow for the trip. So, assuming we plan the trip for August, I have about 6 months to “Save for Italy.”

Growing up, my family and I never traveled outside of the country – money being the number one reason why. I just applied for my first passport on Saturday, and I am 25 years old. Now that I’ve been making and saving my own money for years, I still can’t travel to Italy comfortably as of today. And the thing I spend most of my spending money on? Food and drinks. Heck, I am a foodie after all – and I am not even talking about the money I spend on “professional” food and drinks, for my writing career. I rarely spend money on clothes or shoes (as I type this, I am wearing a sweater from junior high), and I maybe get my hair done every few months or so. Food and drinks are what I spend the bulk of my money on – and thus, what I need to limit my spending on over the next 6 months.

With all this being said, I have a plan – and I am announcing it here in order to use this blog and you guys as my motivation to “Save for Italy.” My ultimate goal is to save $800, which is pretty conservative – so if I can save even more than that, all the better. $800 obviously won’t pay for my whole trip – but I can swing the remainder of the investment with some money I have in savings.

So, here is my plan - I'm not one to set unrealistic goals and fail. This is a pretty conservative approach, but my hope is to exceed my objectives. Here goes:

1.     Groceries 
              Now: I currently spend about $30/week, or $120/month 
              Goal: Spend $20-25/week on groceries, or $100/month max
              Savings: $20/month, or $120 in 6 months 

2.     Wine/beer for home
              Now: $20/week, or $80/month
              Goal: $10/week, or $40/month
              Savings: $40/month, or $240 in 6 months

3.      Dining out (not for work)
              Now: $40/week, or $160/month (wow!)
              Goal: $25/week, or $100/month
              Savings: $60/month, or $360 in 6 months

            Grand total: $720 in savings

Between some other savings here and there in gas/energy bills, etc. my goal is to save up at least $800 for my trip to Italy. On this blog, expect to see updates on how I am continuing to “Save for Italy,” including how much money I have saved at the end of each month. I might have some epic failures along the way, but I hope you join me for the experience. Wish me luck!

Do you have something you’re saving for, too? Then please, join me in my effort to save some money, while sacrificing two of my favorite pastimes.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Best deal this week: free small plates at Burton's

At Burton's Grill in Boston, Monday IS the new Friday. The restaurant's Boylston Street location is giving diners free food from 3 to 8 p.m. on Monday evenings. When you purchase an item off of their small plates menu, you get another small plate menu item free. Some of their small plate options include Warm Goat Cheese Salad, Fried Feta, and Firecracker Shrimp. I have been to the North Andover location several times, and I can honestly say I've never had a bad meal or experience there. The martinis are strong and delicious, and the food is upscale without being insanely overpriced and unapproachable. Plus, they make their own ketchup with a kick. Few places take the time to make their own condiments anymore. Here's to hoping Burton's opens this small plates deal to all their locations soon.

Heads up: the "Monday is the new Friday" deal at Burton's Boston is only available until March 22.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Food = love

In honor of Valentine's Day, I wanted to share this story with you guys that I wrote for The Nashua Telegraph last week. The story is about couples local to Southern New Hampshire who fell in love or revived their old love through food.

I am one of the fortunate people in this world who is able to share my love for food with my significant other. Zach and I are always cooking together, and we also enjoy trying new restaurants and visiting our favorite eateries.

I'd love to hear your stories, too - does food play an integral part in your romantic relationship? If so, let's hear about it!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Creamy chicken orzo

Carbs and protein make me a very happy woman. Fortunately for my arteries and waistline, I also like vegetables. So, the other night, when I had nothing planned for dinner, I threw together some of my favorite things that I already had in my kitchen: chicken, orzo, grape tomatoes, kalamata olives and mozzarella cheese.

It felt good to use up some of the food I already had in my apartment. I’ve had the orzo in my cabinet forever, it seems, and I buy the jarred kalamata olives, so they last quite a while. Plus, Trader Joe’s had a big container of grape tomatoes for less money than four of their plum tomatoes, so I had to use up some of those, too. For the sauce, I simply heated some crushed red pepper and garlic in olive oil, seasoned it with salt, pepper, and Herbes De Provence, and added a splash of lemon juice for some acidity (I had no white wine). The end result was delicious, creamy (thanks to the melted shredded mozzarella cheese), satisfying, and free (technically). That’s my kind of dinner.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Ode to Trader Joe's

I have jumped on the Trader Joe's bandwagon - and I may never get off. I know it seems a little overdue for me to have realized the beauty that is Trader Joe's, but I finally live in an apartment accessible to a TJ's. Plus, I grew up in New Hampshire in a family of six, so we were lucky if groceries came from anywhere other than Market Basket.

For anyone who's behind the TJ times like I was, trust me when I say their food is good, organic, natural and insanely cheap for the quality of food you're getting. Case in point: I bought a bag of wild arugula at the Burlington location the other day for $1.99.

Yes, $1.99.

At Hannaford, I normally pay a whopping $3-4 for my beloved, peppery arugula.

I'm still reeling from this inexpensive find because it can be so hard finding cheap, healthy food (especially cheap produce). Right now I'm in love with Trader Joe's for making it possible for me to eat arugula-based salad and still have some cash leftover to buy tomatoes.

Do you shop at Trader Joe's? Why or why not?

Monday, February 8, 2010

Best deal this week: $32 for all-you-can-eat maki at Uni Sashimi

I love me some mercury. I have yet to eat sushi that I don't like, and I am fortunate enough to get full very quickly so I don't spend a fortune every time I crave the raw fish. However, most of my friends (especially the males) could eat triple the amount of sushi I typically consume. With that being said, I feel like Uni Sashimi's Maki Mondays deserve to be the best deal this week. Every Monday, Uni Sashimi on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston lets us sushi lovers eat all the maki we want for $32. This would be a great deal at any sushi joint, but especially at Uni Sashimi, as their "everyday" prices are typically quite high. The only catch: it's $32 a person, so it's not the best deal for people like me who get full from just a few pieces of sushi.

On a side "best deal" note, Uni Sashimi also has Sake Bomb Tuesdays, where diners get a four course menu and a sake bomb for $35 per person, excluding tax and tip.

Have you been to Uni Sashimi's Maki Mondays? If yes, what's your review?

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Roasted summer veggie lasagna (in winter)

The other night, I finally broke out my Frugal Foodie Cookbook in hopes of finding a comfort food recipe for dinner. This meal was also being eaten during the filming of "Food, Inc." in my apartment, so I wanted to make sure it was meatless. Thankfully, the Frugal Foodie has a vegetarian section, and Roasted Summer Veggie Lasagna was one of the more comforting recipes. Even though the ingredient list asked for a lot of seasonal summer produce, the only item I had to omit was zucchini.

The end result was fantastic, and the lasagna was chocked full of flavorful, fresh vegetables. The pesto/ricotta cheese mixture also made a huge (and satisfying) difference to the dish. Even though I highly suggest you buy a copy of this cookbook for your own culinary book shelf, I really want to share this recipe with you here. So, here it is, taken straight from the Frugal Foodie Cookbook:

Roasted Summer Veggie Lasagna
Total price: $20
Servings: 8
Price per serving: $2.50 (can't beat that!)

-2 medium zucchini, sliced thinly (1 yellow, 1 green)
-1 medium tomato, sliced thinly
-2 portabello mushrooms, sliced thinly
-2 peppers, sliced
-1 onion, sliced thinly 
-1 eggplant, sliced thinly
-1/2 cup olive oil
-1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
-Salt and pepper to taste
-1 box whole wheat lasagna pasta
-1/3 cup pesto (store-bought or homemade - I used store-bought)
-2 cups part-skim ricotta cheese
-2 1/2 cups mozzarella cheese, shredded
-1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
-1 16-ounce jar tomato sauce

Directions: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line baking sheets with parchment paper (I skipped this step). Toss vegetables in oil and vinegar; sprinkle with salt and pepper. Spread evenly across two baking sheets; roast 30 minutes, or until caramelized. Cook pasta until just barely done; mix pesto and ricotta together in bowl. In another bowl, combine mozzarella and Parmesan. When vegetables are done, turn oven to 325 degrees. Layer lasagna in 9" x 13" baking dish (I split mine into two baking dishes, because I don't have a 9" x 13") by adding sauce to bottom, then 3 noodles, 1/3 of pesto-ricotta mixture, 1/3 of vegetable mixture, then 1/4 of mozzarella-Parmesan mixture. Repeat twice, then add remaining mozzarella-Parmesan and any leftover vegetables or sauce on top. Bake 40 minutes uncovered; let site 10 minutes before serving. Freeze single portions in plastic containers for up to 6 months for easy weeknight meals.

The only other thing I would change the next time I make this: I'd cook the noodles for less time (if at all).

What's your favorite seasonal recipe to eat off-season?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Food, Inc. inspired shopping spree at Russo's

The other night, I finally watched Food, Inc. – and the movie ruined me. Or made me a better person, depending on your perspective. I don’t have plans to become a full blown vegetarian, but I am definitely going to start paying much closer attention to what I’m shoving down my gullet.

Since the movie is still fresh in my mind, the last thing I wanted to cook up for dinner last night was mechanically engineered chicken. Instead, my roommate showed me one of my new favorite markets, right down the street from us in Watertown: Russo’s.

Russo’s makes Whole Foods look like Stop & Shop. The good sized marketplace is chocked full of fresh, hard-to-find produce (sunchokes, anyone?), homemade pasta, fresh baked goods, and even pre-made dishes for on-the-go folks.

Let’s just say I was in foodie heaven walking around this place, and was so relieved that not one product I looked at had an ingredient list a mile long, full of unpronounceable words. It was all fresh, homemade, “real” food.

My roommate and I ended up grabbing homemade sauce, pizza crust and veggies for dinner last evening (she footed the bill), but I also grabbed some of the best guacamole I’ve ever tasted (with fresh cilantro leaves and chunks of bright green avocado), a big container of spicy hommus, fresh mozzarella, a red pepper, and a portabello mushroom – all for the price tag of $11.91. Not a bad cost, considering the quality of food I was getting. Financially, I can’t do my grocery shopping at Russo's every week, but I’ll definitely be going there more often for “safer” meats and produce.

Have you seen Food, Inc.? What did you think of the movie?

Monday, February 1, 2010

Recap of Rogue Beer Dinner at Cambridge Common

“We love beer so much, it’s the only reason we get out of bed in the morning.” Amen to that.

Suzanne, one of the masterminds behind Cambridge Common’s beer dinners, said this at their Rogue Dinner last week. After my first beer dinner at Cambridge Common, I had to go back for another. This time, I hit up the beer dinner with Zach, and, somehow, this event was even better than the first. The dinner was also sold out, so Zach and I sat across from another, same aged couple and ended up leaving with two new friends – bonus!

Now, on to the food and brews: I sipped the pre-meal beer, Captain Sig’s Deadliest Ale, while perusing the menu. 

At CC’s beer tastings, you basically get five 6% or higher beers, plus four good sized courses for $50 – and you get your choice of an entrée. The soup of the evening was garlic, cheddar and andouille sausage paired with Dead Guy Ale. Being a vegetarian, Zach was even able to get the soup without the sausage, as CC had made a veggie-friendly batch. The soup was creamy and flavorful, and wasn’t too heavy (despite all the cheese), which was necessary as we had several courses and several heavy beers to go.

The salad was simple, made with baby spinach, toasted hazelnuts, cranberries and crumbled bleu cheese, paired with Rogue’s Hazelnut Brown. The salad was coated with a hazelnut vinaigrette, but the hazelnut flavor was next to nonexistent. The beer was also not my favorite – as one of our fellow diners put it, it tasted like it came “out of the Hershey’s syrup jug.” It really didn’t taste much like hazelnut, and would have been better as a dessert beer, although it did help to cut the tang of the bleu cheese.

The entrée, however, was another story. I had my choice of Crab Stuffed Halibut and a Pork Chop with a Black Lager Mushroom Jus. As if I wasn’t getting enough of a buzz that night, I opted for the pork, which was juicy and perfectly cooked, while the jus reminded me why I finally like mushrooms. 

The pork was paired with Dirtoir, which paired with the mushroom sauce beautifully. The beer was slightly sweet and very dark – but, thankfully, not very heavy. 

Zach, again, was able to get a vegetarian-friendly option, too: the restaurant made him a large plate of yummy, filling side dishes.

Finally, dessert was a Molten Chocolate Lava Cake paired with my favorite beer of the evening: Sebbie’s Chocolate Stout (Sebbie was also in the house that evening, chatting with all the diners/drinkers – I had serious celebrity stage fright). The beer itself I could easily take by IV on a daily basis, and the dessert was decadent, yet not overly sweet. The cake and the beer paired perfectly together, too, without giving my body chocolate overload.

Overall, the Rogue Beer Dinner was informative, delicious, and encouraged social interaction amongst foodies and beer snobs alike. Let’s just say I didn’t leave sober, hungry, or disappointed – which means I had a good night. 

Best deal this week: four courses & four wines at Sel de la Terre for under $40

I’m not sure how Sel de la Terre can do this and still pay their bills, but I guess that’s their worry. Every Wednesday, the Southern France-inspired eatery gives out four courses and four wines for $38 – just above the price of one of their dinner entrees. At the events, diners are seated at large dining tables, encouraging people to socialize while enjoying the chef’s rustic French cuisine, and sipping wine that’s explained to you by Sel de la Terre’s own sommelier. The tastings are also inspired by the changing seasons, and start promptly at 7 p.m. – and are only offered at the Long Wharf location. Oh, and did I mention the price tag’s only $38?