Friday, January 28, 2011

Poached Pear

I have almost completed my journey through winter produce with this Part 5: the pear.  I have to admit that I am not fond of raw pears.  When I received my box from Washington's Green Grocer this past week, I almost gave my friend who shares the box with me all of the pears.  However, I knew that my adventure through winter produce needed to include me finding a way to enjoy one. 

Wondering what I can do with one pear, I saw that I had some day or two old red wine on my counter and an tangelo in my fridge.  So I thought, I'm going to do a poached pear! I thought that the process would be difficult considering the delicate nature of the pear and how posh a poached pear sounds.  But really, the process was super simple and the leftover poaching liquid turns into a fantastic sauce.

As you probably can see by now with my cooking, I am not one for exact measurements, so the numbers below are approximations.  You can change the spices based on what you have on hand!  If you make more than one pear, just increase the surface area of the pot so that you can put all the pears in at the same time, as well as increase the liquid slightly.  To finish the whole thing off, I paired the pear with tart Greek yogurt and crunchy almonds.  It really is the perfect combination of textures, flavors, and sweet tooth satisfaction.

1 Pear
1/2 bottle dry red wine (cabernet or merlot)
1/8 cup sugar
orange zest (use a veggie peeler to get a good 1"x3" piece for easy scooping out later)
juice of orange
1 cinnamon stick (or 1 tsp ground)
1 tsp vanilla extract (the real stuff, not the artificial flavoring)
pinch of nutmeg
2 T Fage Greek yogurt (optional)
1 t Sliced yogurt (optional)

  • Put all of the ingredients but the pear in a small pot. Bring to a boil, then turn the heat down to medium and simmer for 5 minutes.
  • While the liquid is simmering, take a veggie peeler and peal the pear, leaving the stem on the top intact.
  • After the liquid has simmered, put in the pear and poach it for 15-20 minutes, turning every 5 minutes for even color.  You will know the pear is finished when you can stick it with a knife and it goes in easily, but is still slightly firm.
  • Remove the pear and set aside to cool. Keep the poaching liquid on medium heat and reduce the liquid by half to make a slightly thickened sauce.  This should take approximately 15 minutes.  Once thickened, remove from heat and allow to cool.
  • Once everything reaches room temperature, put the pear in a bowl or on a plate, spoon some of the sauce on the pear, and serve with Greek yogurt & sliced almonds.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Butternut Squash Soup

I know, I know.  I've already done a post on butternut squash.  But I got a great new box of fruits and veggies from Washington's Green Grocer and I really wanted to use what I had! In the box was a medium butternut squash and some granny smith apples, so I decided to try my hand at using this combination in a soup.  I am so excited about the results that I can't wait to share the recipe with you all!

Making soup is one of my favorite ways to save money.  You can use standard soup ingredients (onions, garlic, olive oil, carrots, etc) that you should have in your pantry and make different soups based on the additional ingredients you have in your fridge. Although a butternut squash and apple soup may sound weird, their combination is timeless.  The apple brings out the natural sweetness of the squash while not making it too sweet.  The touch of sour cream on top of each bowl adds not only to the soup's presentation, but the tart cream compliments the sweet soup to balance the flavors.

So with a few ingredients that you may not have in your pantry (butternut squash, leeks, & apples) along with your usual pantry items, you should be able to make a comforting, elegant soup for just a little pocket change.

Butternut Squash Soup
1 tsp olive oil
1 tsp butter
1 medium onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium leek, cleaned and chopped
1 medium butternut squash, peeled and cubed
1 medium granny smith apple, cored and cubed
1 cup shredded carrots (or one large carrot chopped)
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 tsp nutmeg
4 cups (1 box) chicken stock
sour cream (optional)

  • Put the olive oil and butter into a large soup pot on medium-high.  Once the butter is melted, add the onion and garlic. 
  • While the onions and garlic are cooking, chop the rest of your ingredients.  The butternut squash is a bit tricky, so be careful or buy the pre-cut squash.  For the leeks, cut them in half, then chop into tiny moons.  Leeks hold a lot of "grit" in them, so after you cut them, place them in a big bowl of water.  The grit will fall to the bottom while the leeks float.  Scoop out the leeks from the bowl and place in a strainer (dumping everything into the strainer will also move the grit, so don't dump it all!)
  • After you have chopped all your ingredients, put them into the hot pan.  Season the veggies with salt, pepper, and nutmeg.  
  • Add the chicken stock, cover, and bring to a simmer.  This should cook for 30-40 minutes, or until you can easily stick a knife into the butternut squash.
  • Once the soup is fully cooked, use an immersion or stand blender to puree the soup.  If using the stand blender, make sure to do small batches and to keep the hole in the top of the lid open.  Place a towel over the hole to protect yourself just incase some of the hot liquid should come out.  Make sure to start blending on a low speed, then move to high until you get a smooth consistency.
  • All that's left is to check your seasonings and serve!  

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Review: CapMac

My lack of refrigeration has lead to many outings for food this week.  One of my friends at GWU said that I HAD to try the new food truck, CapMac.  I was intrigued since the food truck popularity and quality have been on the rise in DC.  There's the burrito guy, the pizza guy, and even the Korean BBQ Taco guy (yes, you read that correctly, and I will be visiting him soon...).  I checked CapMac out on Facebook (since they don't have a website yet) and found that their prices are pretty reasonable.  The original CapMac'n Cheese is $6 while the Chicken Parm Meat Balls or Beef Bolognese are $8.  They also offer daily specials of soups, salads and desserts.

I walked the 3 blocks from work to their Franklin Square location and found a line of about 10 people.  This line was consistent the entire time I was waiting for my food (which was no more than 5 minutes, really).  Obviously CapMac has made a name for itself and I was excited to try it.  Since I am currently lacking in the financial department, I decided I would get the original mac and nothing more...although stepping up to the window to order almost changed my mind.

To preface this, I am one of those people that likes to decide from an online menu what I am going to order before stepping into the establishment.  This might not be what I decide to order in the end, but I go in with a good idea of what I may select.  Stepping up to the window I knew what I had come to order, but their special dessert that day was a rice pudding with caramalized bananas and nutella...oh my if I had had a few more bucks on me, I would have bought it!  But like most food trucks, cash is all that is accepted, so I purchased my mac & cheese and walked back to work.

I could hardly wait to open the small brown box I received.  At first I thought the portion size was tiny, however by the end I found that what I was given was just the right amount!  The original CapMac'n Cheese has your usual components (macaroni & cheese) but with pimento and Cheez-its cracker crumble on top.  Now, when I first read this on their menu, I thought, ewww.  Pimento? Cheez-its? However, after I took my first bit I knew this combination worked!

The Cheez-Its on top were a great surprise and a genius idea.  Why hadn't I thought of putting cheese crackers on top of my own cheesy macaroni goodness?  This is definitely something I may experiment with in the future.  The pimento was not immediately apparent, but definitely added something to the dish.  So for a short walk and six bucks, I was able to eat some great comfort food and enjoy the one day that the DC weather decided to cooperate.  Since CapMac is a truck restaurant you can spot them in multiple locations around the city.  They post daily their location on their Facebook and Twitter pages, so check them out!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Blood Oranges

My favorite winter produce has finally arrived!!!!

I was craving some fruit, so I visited my local Whole Foods to grab some produce that does not need refrigeration (to see why, see my last post).  I walked into the produce section to discover a large pile of blood oranges.  My winter produce adventure is almost complete with this Part 4: the blood orange!

Now, some of you may be saying...."Ewww, blood oranges? What does she mean by blood?" Well, this name really comes from the color of the juice.  Although the outside looks like a normal, average orange, the inside shows a deep red color.  The blood orange has a sweeter, less tart taste than a naval orange and I feel it has less acidity.  For this reason, those who usually cannot eat a navel orange may find the blood orange more palatable.

The price at Whole Foods was $1.25 per orange, which is not as economical as other winter citrus fruits.  However, as I'm obsessed with this fruit I don't mind to pay the price for a few.  As more people try blood oranges for themselves, the more available they will become in local groceries and at a lower price.

So try this exotic orange next time you go to the store.  You can mix the juice with club soda for a fancy drink or eat it as is.  Just be careful when peeling and eating this delicious fruit, or your fingers may just be stained red...

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

What to do when your refrigerator dies?

This weekend I woke up to find a puddle of water in front of my fridge and all of my frozen foods thawed.  Since I have just recently restocked my fridge and freezer (and have been dedicated to eating from home) I was devastated.

So what does a graduate gourmet do when her fridge dies? First, I kept the doors closed as much as possible.  This keeps the cold air in, and hopefully allows your repairman time to fix your fridge before the food goes bad.  With this approach I was able to keep my food fresh for one day after I discovered the puddle.

As this was a holiday weekend, I had to wait at least 4 days before a repairman could fix my fridge.  This led to my second action: move your food outside.  Since it is winter time, I knew I could store my food outside for a short period of time.  My frozen food and produce were unfortunately not salvageable, but I put all of my condiments that need to be refrigerated outside in an insulated cooler with a note stating "Fridge Broken. Please do not move."

Third, I cried....No, I'm kidding, but as I was throwing away my food, I made a list of what I threw out.  This way, I can hopefully be reimbursed for my spoiled food.  Luckily, since I rent my apartment my landlord will be footing the bill for the repairs.  However, I think the total lost food damage may be $80-100, plus the cost of eating every meal out for 4 days (kind of hard to store leftovers in a broken fridge...).  One positive effect from all of this is that I will be trying harder than ever to be frugal for the next couple of weeks, which should lead to some great posts!

Hopefully I will come home today to a working refrigerator!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Chicken Leftovers

This week's task is to use all my roasted chicken before it goes bad.  As a single person, it is pretty difficult to eat a whole chicken, but I am becoming resourceful.  The first day I used some of the shredded chicken breast in a quesadilla.  This is my favorite fast food.  I took one large wheat tortilla, heated it in a large skillet, put shredded cheese, shredded chicken, and chili powder on half, folded over the tortilla, and cooked it on both sides until the cheese was melted and the tortilla toasted.  I sometimes add tomatoes, olives, peppers, or anything else I have on hand to mix up the flavors.  Plus, the great thing about quesadillas is that they do not have to be Mexican-influenced in flavors.  Swap the chili powder for italian seasoning and dip in marinara sauce, and you have an Italian quesadilla!

Another meal I made was a chicken wrap.  I wanted to add a little Asian flair to my lunch, so to my toppings of lettuce, carrots, and chicken I drizzled a sesame ginger dressing on top.  To punch the flavor up even more, I dipped the wrap in some sweet chili sauce.  I have basically become addicted to this sauce and it is great when making all types of Asian cuisine!

Wraps are great because you can really change what you fill them with to suit your mood.  But there are so many other possibilities to create with leftover chicken.  Make some soup (chicken tortilla, noodle, chili, or even chicken & dumplings), mix up some chicken salad, or just heat and eat as is!  By using simple ingredients and creative thinking, I was able to create something original out of my base of roast chicken while saving money in the process!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Buy the Whole Chicken

In preparation for Restaurant Week here in DC, I am trying to spend as little money as possible.  I want to enjoy my three meals out without concern of financial restrictions!  So when I went to the grocery this week, I wanted to spend as conservatively as possible while restocking my pantry to avoid last week's debacle.

I was going to grab my usual pack of chicken breasts, when I looked down and saw some whole chickens.  In the back of my head I hear the voice of my father saying, "whole chickens are cheaper than chicken breasts"!  I looked at the price per pound, and low and behold he was right.  The price per pound for the whole chicken was half as much as the price for the chicken breasts!  This difference in price is derived from the amount of work done by the butcher...the more bone/skin left on the chicken, the less it costs!  So I bought the chicken (only $6 for a 5 pound bird!) and began to research how to properly roast a chicken.  I think it turned out pretty well! Now I can eat for days with very little effort!

How to roast a tasty chicken:
1) Prepare. Sometimes whole chickens come with giblets in the center of the bird.  You want to make sure you pull those out!  You then want to rinse the chicken inside and out with cool water, then pat the outside dry with a bit of paper towl.

2) Season. This is where you get to get creative!  The only thing you must always do is season the inside cavity heavily with salt and pepper.  Then, you want to add some standard "aromatics" like onions and garlic. The onions help to keep the chicken moist while the garlic gives great flavor. The rest of your stuffing is up to you!  I put in one whole medium onion (skin on) cubed, 1/2 of a garlic bulb (just cut the bulb in half and leave the skin on), 1/2 a lemon quartered, and thyme.  You then brush the outside of the chicken with melted butter, and season well with salt and pepper.  The reason you use butter and not my old standby of olive oil is that the milk fats brown the skin of the bird better than the oil.

3) Arrange.  After you've finished seasoning your bird, you wrap the legs together using kitchen twine, or unwaxed floss.  If you use the floss, make sure to wrap the legs more times than you think it needs, just in case the floss breaks in the cooking process.  Then tuck the wings under the body of the chicken.  Don't skip this step as it keeps the legs and wings from burning or becoming over cooked.

4) Cook!  I roasted my 5 pound chicken in a 425 degree oven for 30 minutes, noticed it was over-browning, reduced the temperature to 400 degrees and covered it lightly with aluminum foil for an additional 40 minutes.  As with any baking, just make sure you are keeping an eye on not only the timer, but the food. 

5) Is it finished? To check if the chicken is fully cooked, you can use a meat thermometer, or simply cut gently between the leg and breast.  If the juices run clear, your chicken is ready to go!  Just make sure that you let the meat rest for 10 minutes so that the juices reincorporate in the meat.  Otherwise you'll have a dry chicken.

Enjoy your awesome handiwork and the money you've saved!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Is Butternut Squash Buttery?

Part 3 of my winter produce pursuit is the butternut squash.  I think the the first time I tried butternut squash and really enjoyed it was at the Taste of Georgetown a few years ago.  Clyde's had a butternut squash soup with creme fraiche and duck confit...oh my goodness, my mouth died and went to heaven! 

Still, that does not mean I cannot enjoy butternut squash from the comfort of my own home.  I have made my own butternut squash soup, but have not been able to perfect the smooth consistency which the best butternut squash soups have.... Still, below is my new favorite recipe.  It is a butternut squash pasta bake with ricotta cheese.  When roasted, the squash almost "melts like butter" to make an awesome sauce.  I call it my grown up version of mac & cheese, and trust me, it is super tasty, comforting, and healthy.

Butternut Squash Pasta Bake
Adapted from

1.5 cup dry whole wheat pasta (I prefer rotini because it catches all the sauce!)
boiling water to cook pasta
20 oz butternut squash, peeled and cubed (Trader Joe's sells this exact thing)
1 1/4 Cup milk
2 T all-purpose flour
2 t minced garlic
1/2 t table salt
1/4 t black pepper
1 T fresh thyme, chopped
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup walnuts
1/2 cup ricotta cheese (I use fat free, but any kind if fine)

  • Preheat oven to 375°
  • Coat a baking sheet with cooking spray.  Place squash on prepared baking sheet; roast until tender, about 20 to 30 minutes.  
  • While she squash is roasting, place a medium pot of water on the stove to boil.  Once the water comes to a boil, heavily salt the water and place pasta in the pot.  Cook until 'al dente' or while it's still firm and not squishy.  I cook my pasta from a minute under the time on the package since the pasta will continue to cook in the oven.  Drain, and set aside in the original pan, covered.
  • Mash the butternut squash with either a hand masher, or in a ziplock bag.  I like mine to still be a bit chunky, but you can get it completely smooth by using a blender instead.
  • In a medium saucepan, whisk together milk, flour, garlic, salt and pepper.  Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, whisking frequently; reduce heat to low and simmer until the sauce has thickened (about 2 minutes).
  • Remove the sauce from the heat; add in the mashed squash and thyme, then toss with the pasta to coat.
  • Transfer the pasta mixture to a baking dish, dot with spoonfuls of ricotta and then sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and walnuts.
  • Bake until the top is lightly browned in a few spots and bubbly, about 15-20 minutes, and enjoy!

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Well-Stocked Kitchen

When you are trying to live on a graduate's budget, a well stocked kitchen is the best way to make quick, inexpensive meals any time during the week.  Personally, I try to keep my kitchen stocked by shopping weekly for fresh items, and monthly for those items with a longer shelf life.

If your kitchen is not well stocked, it can lead to some expensive decisions.  This happened to me just last evening...

I knew that the only fresh item I had in the fridge was a chicken breast (Trader Joe's was very understocked this past Sunday after being closed on New Year's Day).  I was craving something Asian, and since I knew I was out of rice, I thought of making a chicken noodle stir-fry.  I came home with this intent until my search for spaghetti came up empty.  Since I did not want to eat just chicken for dinner, I proceeded to the fridge to see what I could throw together.  I saw some stale bread and deli turkey, so I thought I would suffer through a stale sandwich until I could get to the grocery.

I toasted the bread in an attempt to reduce the stale taste, but to no avail.  I happened to be chatting with my mom during this endeavor, and she suggested I try making a cheese sauce to put on top (similar to a KY hot brown).  I proceeded to make two "bechamel" sauces, which is basically a mixture of milk and flour that are cooked until thickened.  The first did not have enough flour to thicken the sauce so I started over and melted in cheese once the second had thickened.  Unfortunately, when I went to build the sandwich, I saw/smelled that my turkey was expired and the sauce tasted like paste...obviously too much flour this time.  At this point I gave up and ordered a pizza.

What would have solved this entire predicament? A well stocked kitchen!  Below is what I suggest (and usually have) on hand in my pantry.  Obviously it is high time that I did my monthly pantry stock-up!  You can modify the list based on the types of cuisine you like, but these are fairly standard.  With this basic list you can avoid my predicament from last night and keep your budget in check!

Pantry/Cabinet Items:
Pasta (spaghetti, rotini, penne, lasagna, etc)
Tomato Sauce
Canned Diced Tomatoes (plain or with chilies/seasonings)
Low Sodium Chicken Stock
Canned or Dry Beans (black, chickpea, kidney, pinto)
Oil (olive, canola/vegetable)
Sugar (brown & white)
Dried Herbs
Canned Tuna/Chicken

Mixed Veggies
Fully-Cooked Shrimp (great for throwing into pastas or salads)
Fully-Cooked Brown Rice (3 minutes prep vs 40)
Nuts ("nuts have oil and oil will spoil", so keep in the freezer!)

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

New Year's Resolutions

I cannot believe how another year has flown by!  I remember back in October thinking how crazy it was that I had been at my job for a year, and now it has been a year since I graduated graduate school.  I feel that I have learned a lot over this past year of transitioning from the world of academia to career. However, there is always room for growth and improvement, right?

I have made a few resolutions for 2011 (below are 2 of the many others in my head):
  1. Run a 5K by April
  2. Learn to cook at least one gourmet meal a month
I actually hung a few colorful notecards in my bathroom to remind me of these resolutions & goals.  The second one especially important as I have come to realize that DC is a city that goes out to socialize.  I am sure that DC's social culture is inexpensive compared to New York or LA, but any time I talk to friends about doing something, money is usually involved.  After I graduated, I tried to host more small dinner parties to save money, but I really want to kick it up a notch in 2011.  I am not sure what I mean by "gourmet meal" at this point.  I think I would like to cook foods from different cultures and countries to really challenge myself in the kitchen.

So, where to start?  Well, for my first resolution, I have started to train using the Couch to 5k Challenge (which I HIGHLY suggest for those starting to run). For my second, I have been researching some awesome gourmet meals to try my hand at, but I would love suggestions.  Who knows, for those of you who live in DC, I may just make the meal for you too!

Just remember that it's not the resolutions you set that are significant, but the ones you finish.  Good luck making and succeeding at your New Year's Resolutions in 2011.  Happy New Year!