Archives for category: Food

This recipe came together as a result of the inventory control I’m practicing (trying to practice!) in my new kitchen.  Lack of cabinets and a smaller fridge make it tricky–they were pretty much full to bursting just with the collections of grains, spices, and condiments that I moved in with.  So when I felt like pesto, I wasn’t going to buy basil, not with the slightly wilted container of arugula in my fridge, and I wasn’t going to buy pine nuts when I had a good handful of walnuts left over from a Peruvian chicken dish (that was really good).  I ended up adding some parsley, too, and the other usual suspects: garlic, olive oil, and Parmesan.  Normally you might mix some Romano in too, but if your arugula (I get the wild/baby type) is as sharp as mine, you’ll want to skip it and stick with Parm to mellow it out a bit.  Just whizz it all together in the food processor, keep tasting, adding, seasoning.  You don’t have to do like me and inadvertently make a giant batch because you keep adding a little more of this and that and then have to add more of this.  But if you do, it will get eaten.

Especially if, like me, you’re out of pasta the next day and force yourself to use what you have to save space, and if what you have is a package of soba, Japanese buckwheat noodles.  I was a bit skeptical, but it turned out much better than with the pasta.  The flavors of the pesto and the soba mix in a really interesting way that’s more complex, and with a bit of chicken (from a leftover roasted chicken with two lemons that I’ve been eating from all week) and an optional crumble of Bulgarian sheep’s milk feta (from my visit to Halime at the Turkish market in the old neighborhood), it makes a very nutritious and satisfying go-to lunch.

A note on serving temperature.  Soba noodles should be rinsed after cooking, and they are often served cold.  Personally, I like this dish at about room temperature, and the pesto incorporates better if they’re warm, so I’ll rinse the noodles with warm water, return to the pot, mix in the other ingredients and let the cold pesto and chicken from the fridge cool down the noodles to lukewarm.

Now, you can substitute whatever you have in the house, experiment!  But if you replace the arugula with basil, the walnuts with pine nuts, and the soba with pasta, I’m afraid I can’t help you.

In other food news, I’ve joined a local CSA (Community Sponsored Agriculture) and I’ll be picking up my boxes of freshly picked, sustainably grown vegetables starting in June (and fruit, starting in July).  I really look forward to having a defined palette of seasonal ingredients to work from.  It’s like having constraints in graphic design (or any other creative job)–it can be very helpful to the process.


I get twitchy if I can’t cook. It’s a centering activity for me. But the first few nights I was in my new apartment, I couldn’t even see the stove and after that, it just didn’t seem to be a good idea to make more work for myself. It’s given me an opportunity to explore some of the takeout around here (highlights: the taco stand at the elementary school at 60th & 4th and the delicious frozen Indian dinners and breads from Patel Grocery on 53rd; low points: Pio Pio Riko being out of chicken and chewy, pale-looking beef and overly peppery wontons from the local Chinese).

So today, I was up near 25th St. returning my cable box when I remembered there was supposed to be a great retail/wholesale produce market around there on 3rd. I found it, after almost getting run over by a truck, and I have to say it really put a smile on my face. I was so starved for real food that I wanted to fill up a cart with everything in sight, all of those gleaming colorful deliverers of vitamins. I could have, too, at those prices. I ended up getting 3 mangoes, 4 lemons, 6 limes, a cucumber, 3 tomatoes, a package of arugula, crimini mushrooms, oyster mushrooms, 2 apples, and a bunch of parsley, all for $17.

And what would I make with all this? Well, I had a very hard end to a loaf of olive bread I’d gotten in the old neighborhood. I’d never made it before, but out of the options for using up stale bread, panzanella seemed to be the most congruous with olives.

So I looked up a few quick recipes online, threw something together, and just ate the entire thing in one sitting even though it was supposed to sit and get moister. I don’t know if it’s because it’s the first real food I’ve made since I’ve been here, but it was DAMN GOOD.  Here’s what I did:

One hard old end of a sourdough olive bread loaf.  One tomato and one-half a giant cucumber, chopped.  Mixed them together, sprinkled s&p, let the juices come out a bit.  Added a generous drizzle of olive oil, a drop of good balsamic vinegar, a splash of cheap red wine vinegar, a lot of chopped parsley and a minute amount (a quarter of a clove) of very finely minced garlic.  Had a bite, left it for 10 minutes, had another bite, then downed the whole thing.  I thought capers would have been nice and sorely regretted throwing out the jar with two tablespoons left when I moved, but (a) my new, smaller but nicer fridge is already completely full just with the condiments I brought from the old place, and (b) it was perfection without them.

No picture of the dish, because I’ve realized not only do I not want to spend the time to make my food look good, I don’t want my food to look good.  So here’s a picture of an empty bowl next to a pile of extension cords:

I thought I’d do a mushroom pasta for the main course.  Will I be hungry?  Who knows.  I’ve been absolutely ravenous the past week from all the physical exertion involved in moving and setting up the new place.  I’ve also been eating at 7 PM, going to sleep at 10, and waking up early.  I know it’s time to eat when I hear the ice cream truck outside, and time to sleep when the baby in the next building stops crying.

I think the key to sticking with a wholesome eating routine is to keep the food you cook at home fun and slightly luxurious, but with lots of whole grains and vegetables.  That, and to be poor and have lots of time to cook, i.e., unemployed.

Here’s some dishes that have kept me going–staying in a tight budget while being relatively healthy, varied, and fun.  I haven’t chosen the cheapest option and sacrificed nutrition–I don’t always go for the white potatoes and white rice because they are the cheapest, or the factory-farmed chicken.  To be honest, sometimes I do.  Some dishes are best with white rice and others brown.  Taste is always foremost!  If it doesn’t taste good, doesn’t give you a feeling of being a little decadent, you’ll pig out on nachos at the pub the first chance you get.

1. Homemade pita & tortilla chips
I never buy store-bought chips anymore–I’ve usually got a bag of corn tortillas and a bag of whole-wheat pitas in the freezer.  Even more thriftily, I save the tortillas (folded in half, wrapped in foil) from Mexican takeout.  I break them in pieces while still frozen, toss generously with olive oil & salt, and bake at 350º for about 10-15 min until slightly browned and crispy.  They have a different texture than store-bought chips but I have learned to prefer them, and they have a rich taste from the olive oil.  Using another oil like vegetable, corn, or peanut will make them crispier but I prefer the taste from the olive oil–it’s roastier.
For pita chips, it’s much the same process except I dry them in the oven first, so they are twice-baked.  I haven’t thought of doing that with tortillas, but I must try that.

Think about it, a bag of tortilla chips is about $3 while a fraction of a bag of tortillas, at least in an area with a Latino population, will run you about 25¢.  Free if you get them with takeout and don’t use them.  The same with pita chips–a bag of those is at least $4 and half a bag of pitas is just 75¢.  Plus, they’re wholesome, homemade, certainly better for you than anything deep-fried.  And you can use leftover homemade tortilla chips for…

2. Tortilla soup
I make this about every other time as part of the roast chicken aftermath.  After the carcass has been ravaged for sandwiches, I pick all the hidden bits of meat off (like le sot l’y laisse), reserve, then make a stock from the bones.  I also make sure people throw back the bones of the legs and wings instead of tossing them out because you want the wings for extra gelatin in your stock.  For a Mexican broth you want to add some mint and thyme, but I usually make an unflavored, unseasoned stock and simmer 1 qt of it with herbs later to make this soup.  There are many recipes for tortilla soup, but the basic idea is to saute some garlic and tomato in olive oil on high heat, then puree and add back to the soup and squeeze a lot of lime juice in at the end.  I’ve built on this recipe with inspiration from Rick Bayless–I now add one or two soaked pasilla peppers into the puree, and add shreds of either chard, kale, or spinach.  I also throw in a handful of rice, then at the end, add the bits of cooked chicken and crumbled tortilla chips.  Some leftover black beans, too, if they are handy, and a bit of hot sauce if it lacks punch.  Cheese is traditional but I skip it.  And if I don’t have tortilla chips already made, I skip those too, so is it still tortilla soup…?  If you haven’t roasted a chicken, you can always poach one and strip ALL the meat, which you will then be able to save for many different meals and you’ll have a great stock as well.  I just poached one for tonight’s aji de gallina.  I get my chickens at a halal market for about $3.  I choose to believe since they are halal, they are better for me than a factory-farmed chicken.

3. To serve with your homemade chips, some homemade guacamole!  I can get avocados here depending on the season for $1 or less a piece.  2 avocados makes a nutritious special treat for 2 or 3 people.  Yes, they are full of fat, but it is good fat, and they contain a natural antidepressant!  So if you lost your health insurance, eat guacamole when you are blue.  In the summer I make them with fresh tomato and red onion, lime juice, hot sauce and cilantro.  In the winter, when I don’t buy tomatoes, I try to have some tomatillo salsa (salsa verde) on hand and I use that plus red or green onion, lime juice and cilantro.

4. For another dip that is wonderful with either of the homemade chips, but which I eat more often with carrot sticks, I developed a homemade spinach dip.  I wanted to capture the flavor of a classic potluck spinach dip, the kind you’d serve in a bread bowl, but made from fresh ingredients.  I sautee onion, garlic and celery, then puree that with a combination of dairy products–mostly drained lowfat yogurt (I get a really tasty, tangy Indian brand at the halal market) plus a bit of either labeneh (a cross between thick sour cream and yogurt), sour cream, and/or mayonnaise, for richness.  To that I add some leftover cooked greens, either spinach, chard, or kale.  If you don’t have leftovers, just add the greens to the sauteed aromatics and cook until wilted.  I always keep a bunch of dark leafy greens in the house.  Swiss chard is my favorite but all winter it is kale, kale, kale!  It’s not hard to eat in season when you have no money.  Zip it all in the food processor with salt, pepper, and coriander powder or another spice of your choice, and there you have it.  Trust me, it is so much better than those potluck dips, and you know everything that’s gone into it–not like a packet of dried soup mix full of additives and preservatives.

5. Lentils and split peas. Yes, the classic staples of the poor!  But I won’t hold for any tasteless mush.  Adding flavor is key.  And it doesn’t always have to be in the form of a smoked pork product, though sometimes it does.  One soup (from Marcella Hazan) I make all the time is the epitome of thrift.  One half a bag of green split peas, 2 potatoes, 1 cup of beef stock or a bouillon cube, 4 cups of water.  The key, and all the flavor, comes in at the end when you saute 2 Tb of chopped onion in a mixture of butter and oil, then puree that in with the soup.  I also love her lentil soup, with lots of garlic, tomato, bit of bacon, pasta and crushed red pepper.  I make another lentil soup–with many variations–to which I generally add smoked paprika in lieu of a smoked pork product.  I don’t have anything against smoked pork, by the way, in fact I very often use bacon as part of a soup base, but cooking for two I don’t make whole hams so I don’t have leftover ham hocks.  You can buy them of course (though that doesn’t seem very thrifty), and I’ve also heard good things about using smoked turkey wings in soups.  I just picked up a package of them but haven’t used any yet.  My Algerian friend also makes an amazing lentil soup with a bit of lamb on the bone.  I’ve been trying to get her to teach me how to make it so stay tuned…

Then there are the multitudinous combinations of lentils, dark leafy greens, and rice/pasta.  They can easily stray into the “I’m eating this just to stay alive” camp, which is where we don’t want to be!  A judicious use of spice and/or meat will fix that.  My favorite lately uses a bit of Italian sausage and seasons the greens with a pinch of anise seed, served with pasta.  The anise works so well with the lentils and greens–delicious!

6. Turkish-ish greens w/ rice.  Thanks to Halime, who runs the halal shop across the street from my apartment and taught me how to make this one day.  I make it often for lunch and I’ve altered the recipe a bit by adding garlic and cinnamon (which is more of a North African touch).  You sautee some onion & garlic, add a tiny bit of ground meat and cook for 10 min, then add fresh or canned tomatoes or tomato paste, cook it down, add lots of greens and a small handful of dry rice, water to cover, simmer until rice is done.  I sometimes make this with leftover rice; brown rice is good and makes this a very nutritious meal but you do want it to be at least par-boiled when you start.  If I’m using dry rice, I’ll usually hold out on adding the greens until it’s half-cooked.  It’s a personal thing; the Turkish way has you cook the greens until they are soft and brownish, which is not always as bad as it sounds and can be quite yummy.  Their version is also mostly greens with a tiny bit of rice while I like to do more half-and-half.  Add a dollop of yogurt or labeneh to serve.  Mmmmmm.

7. Root vegetables.  For a favorite side dish of mine, I take half sweet and half white potatoes, chopped, tossed w/ olive oil, s+p, smoked paprika and cumin (sometimes a bit of cayenne too).  Roast at 400º for about 40 minutes.  Optionally you can squeeze lemon juice over, sprinkle w/ chopped parsley or cilantro, or serve w/ an aji or chipotle dipping sauce.  This is my go-to side dish with burgers, be they lamb, beef, or turkey.  The sweet potatoes are extremely nutritious and anti-inflammatory–it might be my imagination but I get a feeling of well-being every time I nom one.

I’m also a huge fan of celery root, which I use in purees (with roast chicken) and soups (with parsnips, potatoes and dark leafy greens) all winter.  Turnips and rutabagas, likewise, can be turned into a rustic mash with carrots, sweet potatoes and roasted garlic, or into a soup with bacon and dried mushroom.  All of them have a lot more to offer nutritionally and taste-wise than white potatoes.

8. Hummus.  1 can of chickpeas = 89¢.  1 cup of premade or good deli hummus = $4-5.  Yeah.  The only thing that will cost you is the tahini.  I can get it for less than $4 here but I live in a Middle Eastern neighborhood.  I remember paying $11 in the suburbs.  In that case, you might want to try experimenting with almond or cashew butter, if you can get them cheaper, but even for $11 you will save money in the end because you’ll get lots of batches out of one tub.  I make my hummus the traditional Lebanese way, with a generous amount of tahini and lemon juice, few Tb of water, salt and ½ clove garlic.  (Though to be really traditional I’d have to soak and cook my chickpeas, which would save me even more money, but I never think ahead.)  The only addition I sometimes make is a squirt of Sriracha.  Drizzle a good olive oil over and top with a dusting of either sumac, smoked paprika, chopped parsley, or Aleppo pepper.  Serve w/ pita chips or just plain whole wheat pita.

There are a lot more ideas out there of course, like fish cakes (which I love to serve with the tortilla soup), grated veggie latkes, which I’d like to do more of, casseroles, gratins… what are your favorite nutritious, cheap, fun, slightly decadent dishes or tips?

Personally, I hope that after I transition off unemployment (which I’m in the process of now), I’ll be able to keep some of the good habits I’ve learned.  Not only with cooking, but in general, relearning the joy and inspiration in the simple and the cheap.

OK, so I’ll get back to the heavy stuff sooner or later.  Until then, here’s something delicious.  I’ll give props to my UK friend Plum for suggesting I make fish cakes with some of the skate I got at the Union Square Greenmarket 2 weeks ago.  I don’t think I’d ever had a fish cake that wasn’t of the Thai variety (I’d like to try my hand at making something like that too) and I was suddenly obsessed with the idea, thinking of fish cakes morning, noon and before sleeping until I finally made them.

My friend had suggested using leftover “mash” (potatoes) and leftover cooked skate–a quick review of British recipes online called for that and not much else, maybe some parsley and a coating of breadcrumbs.  One had the egg and breadcrumbs mixed into the cake itself.  I decided not to go that way though it would be easier and require less cleanup.  I had a vision of a crisp, golden brown exterior yielding to a soft fishy center.  And of course I couldn’t leave it alone without spicing it up a little.  I was on a New Orleans kick, so green onion and a few shakes of Tabasco went in, then while mixing it all up I had a stroke of brilliance and added a dash of smoked paprika.  That unidentifiable hint of smoke flavor in the finished dish really made it–surprisingly for a lowly fish cake, it was one of the most delicious food items ever to come out of my kitchen.  I bet you could try Sriracha to stand in for both the Tabasco and smoked paprika, or even a bit of adobo from chipotles, but just a dash–you don’t want to be able to pick out the flavor.

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I hope everyone has had a lovely holiday, for those who celebrate one, and a bright start to the new year.  For me it’s been up and down as I’ve come to expect lately.  I had a terrible blow before the holidays when the dream of the crafts co-op for Arab-American women in Brooklyn that I’d dedicated 10 months of my life to advocating and building dissipated with a change in management at the social service agency I’d been working with.  I’m devastated over the collapse of my vision and frustrated at all the hard work lost, but telling myself to be resilient and find another way.  That’s led to thoughts of going back to school–to learn Arabic, get my MBA (bleh!), my MSW or a Master’s in Middle Eastern studies or somesuch which would be the most interesting but maybe the least practical.

This is a delicate subject but I can also foresee that I am stepping into a path where ethnic and religious origin may always be an issue–with my peers, that is, not my clients!  I’m a white woman without the kind of ingrained understanding of Arab culture that comes from being born and raised on the inside.  A do-gooder.

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