BrokeAss Gourmet

BrokeAss Gourmet

Though I have been out of school for many years, I still feel the promise of things to come when, toward the end of the summer, the nights start to cool down and the leaves on trees crinkle and fade from green to orangey-brown. Kids everywhere head to office supply stores with their parents to buy new pencils, notebooks, and binders (or, more likely, iPads, iPhones, and laptops), to fill their backpacks (which, if they are anything like I was, are already personalized with white-out, silver Sharpie, and buttons stamped with contrarian statements). 

And then there's lunch.

It's been a long while since I've packed a school lunch for myself, and it will be a little while yet before I pack one for my own future little ones (sorry mom--hang in there!), but I have had a handful of nanny gigs over the years, which required me to make bag lunches, and Evan and I picnic nearly every weekend in our beloved Dolores Park. In other words, I know a few things about making food that is easy to throw together and still tastes good after sitting in a bag (most likely unrefrigerated) for at least 3 hours.

So parents, kids old enough to pack their own lunches, and anyone else who brings a lunch to work or school, take a deep breath. This is easier than you think. You've got this in the bag.

Rule #1: Consider a reusable bag/box. If you're not already doing this, you should be. Not only are reusable lunch bags and boxes better for the environment, if they are insulated, they keep your food colder (or hotter, depending on the temperature when you pack it) than a regular paper bag. Got a big kid who thinks lunch boxes are lame? Send them to school with this reusable "paper bag".

Rule #2: Leftovers, Leftovers, Leftovers! The absolute first place you should look when you have the 9 PM "Oh damn, I forgot to make my kid's lunch!" panic is whatever you ate for dinner. First of all, if your kids ate it for dinner, they probably enjoyed it, so it will likely go over well for lunch the next day. Secondly, it's a helpful way to clean out your fridge. Either pack leftovers in thermoses or other sealable tupperware containers, or repurpose them. If this works for you, consider planning ahead just a smidge, and make a little bit extra dinner so you have leftovers ready to go for the next day.

Slice leftover grilled or roasted meats and layer them into a sandwich (see below for notes on sandwich making) with vegetables, cheese, pesto, mayonnaise, etc. Or wrap them in flatbread, pita, or a large tortilla. Think of your leftovers as a handy shortcut to lunchmaking. 

 Rule 3: One Good Sandwich. Sandwiches tend to be the first thing we think of for school and work lunches, mostly because they are an all-encompassing meal in one handy package. But a little bit of thought is required if you want to make a really good one. Good, sturdy bread, firstly, is imperative. You want something that will be able to hold wet or semi-wet ingredients for a few hours without falling apart. Think thick sourdough, cut from a bakery loaf, dense whole wheat bread (which is also digested more slowly, which helps combat that after-lunch need for a nap), or a roll. Toasting sliced bread is also a great way to ensure it stays intact until lunch time. And if you are making lunch for a gluten-free eater, buy a rice-based gluten-free bread and be sure to toast it before building your sandwich. 

Keep sandwich ingredients minimal. I recommend sticking to 2 or 3 components, maximum. Think: salami, mozzarella, basil, or egg salad and tomato. 

You might also consider a make-your-own-sandwich kit for bigger kids or adults. Send a split roll, packets of mayonnaise and mustard (grab extra the next time you are at the deli) and sandwich fillings like sliced meats, tofu, tuna salad, tomatoes, and/or lettuce. Lunchers can have fun constructing their own sandwiches at school/work, and they can choose to eat it closed or open-faced.

Rule 4: Always Pack a Couple of Snacks: Depending on how hungry your luncher gets, make sure there are plenty of snacks in their bag. Sliced or cubed cheese (or packaged cheese sticks or Babybel rounds), whole or sliced fruit and vegetables (hint: if your luncher likes sliced carrots, celery, radishes, and/or jicama sticks, cut up a bunch and keep them in the fridge in an airtight container with cold water--they'll stay crisp all week and will be ready to pack or snack on whenever you need them), raw or toasted nuts, and/or crackers (go for healthier, whole-grain ones). 

Rule 5: Don't forget something sweet. A little something sweet is such a nice way to round out a meal. And no, it doesn't need to be super sugary and unhealthy. Consider a ripe piece of fruit, a small square of dark chocolate, an oatmeal cookie, or a handful of chocolate-covered almonds.

Bonus Rule: Ask for feedback! If your luncher is coming home with a half-eaten lunch, or throwing (or trading) some of their food away, find out why and adjust as needed (within reason, of course). Kids are prone to changing their tastes periodically, so don't be afraid to try things multiple times. And if your kids are old enough, consider asking them to help make their own lunches. In my experience, when kids participate in preparing food, they are approximately eight million times more likely to eat it. 

Now it's your turn! What are your lunch-packing secrets? Tell me in the comments!

Strawberry Balsamic Jam

  • Prep Time 10 minutes (plus 1 hour waiting)
  • Cook Time 1 hour
  • Estimated Cost $6.50
  • 4 Comments

As summer begins to wind down, and the nights start to get cooler (or, if you live in San Francisco like I do, they remain at the cool, steady 62 degrees they have been since April), I find myself already feeling wistful for easy summer living: flowy sundresses, refreshing seasonal beers, and fresh, beautiful summer fruit, at the peak of ripeness.

Pretty soon it will be too cold to wear those sundresses, and, before we know it, we'll be eagerly awaiting the release of fall and winter brews at the local taphouse. 

And, yes, nobody will be able to shut up about the Pumpkin Spice Latte.

But there is still time, my friends, to enjoy sweet summer fruit. Even better, if you have a couple of hours to spare, there is time to put that wonderful fruit in a time capsule so you can enjoy it all year round. I'm talking about homemade jam here.

This simple strawberry jam is made a touch more sophisticated with the additions of tart-balsamic vinegar and spicy, freshly cracked black pepper, which play so nicely with sweet strawberries, but if you are a sucker for the plain stuff, feel free to omit them. Additionally, this jam jells up the old-fashioned way, requiring no pectin, and relying instead on sugar, lemon juice, and time. Make enough of it now, and you can go ahead and cross holiday gifting off your to-do list. 

This jam is phenomenal spread on toast, but my favorite way to eat it is with something savory, such as creamy, mild cheeses (think goat cheese, triple creme, or even regular cream cheese), or as a glaze for roast chicken (use it in place of the balsamic sauce in this recipe).

I recommend using 1/2-pint mason jars (or equivalent) with fitted lids and seal rings, but if you plan on using the jam immediately, feel free to simply store it in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds fresh strawberries, rinsed, hulled and chopped $6
  • 1 1/4 cup sugar Pantry
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon (about 3 tablespoons juice) $0.50 for a whole lemon
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper Pantry
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar Pantry 
  • Pinch of salt Pantry

 

Recipe Serves 30

Directions

  1. Combine the strawberries and sugar in a bowl and stir to combine.
  2. Let sit for 1 hour.
  3. Wash with soap and hot water, and thoroughly dry 6 1/2-pint mason jars (or equivalent) with fitted lids and sealing rings. Set aside.
  4. Combine the sugar-strawberry mixture and lemon juice in a medium pot over medium-high heat and bring to a boil.
  5. Reduce heat to medium and let simmer until the jam begins to jell, about 30 minutes.
  6. Add the pepper and balsamic vinegar, and salt to the jam. Stir well and cook for another 5 minutes.
  7. Fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil.
  8. Remove the jam from heat.
  9. Ladle the jam into the prepared mason jars and seal the lids tightly.
  10. Submerge the sealed jars into the boiling water for 10 minutes to form a good seal (do this in batches if your pot isn't big enough to boil all 3 jars at once).
  11. At this point, the jam may be used once cooled, though it is best after at least 24 hours.
  12. Store the jam for up to a year.

Best Ever Roast Chicken Legs

  • Prep Time 5 minutes
  • Cook Time 45 minutes
  • Estimated Cost $6
  • 1 Comment

I had been wanting to try Thomas Keller's famous method for roasting chicken for a while now, but the truth is that these days, I am usually only cooking for one or two. This summer has been so full-to-the-brim with travel, that when we're home, if we're not ordering takeout at 9 PM after arriving home from the airport, we're eating quinoa with olive oil and calling it a night. The idea of roasting a whole chicken seemed like a little much for right now, but I wondered if I could make it with my favorite cheap and individually-sold cut of chicken: the legs.

As it turned out, I definitely could, and, hallelujah, I am now a convert. This is, without a doubt, the best roast chicken I have ever eaten. The skin was outrageously crisp, the inside unbelievably juicy and my belly satisfied beyond belief. Better still, the preparation was absurdly simple.

The trick is in salting the chicken liberally (like, more liberally than you would think), tucking a little garlic and a variety of optional additions like butter, a drizzle of olive oil and/or fresh herbs, and cooking the chicken at a very high heat.

I usually think of roasting chicken as being a relatively low and slow process (350 degrees for 45-50 minutes) but this process calls for a high and slow cooking technique. I was afraid the chicken would overcook or burn, but my fears were immediately assuaged the moment I tasted it. 

I ate one leg for dinner, paired with roasted root vegetables and a kale salad, and the second leg cold, at a picnic the next day, where it held up mighty fine.

Ingredients

  • 2 whole chicken legs $6
  • 4 whole cloves garlic, peeled, ends removed Pantry
  • 2 pats unsalted butter Optional
  • 1 tablespoon fresh flat leaf parsley, thyme or rosemary, chopped, Optional
  • salt and pepper Pantry

Recipe Serves 2

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.
  2. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and set aside.
  3. Use paper towels to carefully dry all sides of the chicken.
  4. Place 2 garlic cloves under the skin of each chicken thigh. 
  5. If desired, also place a pat of butter, a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, and/or fresh chopped herbs under the skin as well.
  6. Make sure the chicken skin is securely pulled back over the garlic and butter/herbs, if using.
  7. Place the chicken legs in the prepared pan and sprinkle salt all over the skin, adding a bit of pepper as well, to taste.
  8. Roast the chicken for 40-45 minutes, until the skin becomes very crisp.
  9. Let rest for 5 minutes, then serve hot.

I have always loved vegetables. As a child, I happily wolfed down salads, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, carrots and just about everything else my mother put in front of me. Unlike my little brother who could really have done without the baby carrots my parents tucked into his lunchbox, I was a veggie lover from the start 

These days, I'm happy to report that my brother eats most veggies with gusto. But it's not uncommon to encounter adults who claim to simply dislike most or all vegetables. Sure, they might occasionally reach for a cheese-covered or deep-fried appetizer that started out as a vegetable. Do onion rings count? they ask. But vegetables for the sake of vegetables? A resounding NO.

I'm going to go out on a limb (note the plant-based expression) and suggest that perhaps the people who claim to dislike vegetables are talking about limp, boiled-until-mushy vegetables. You know the ones. The previously frozen, margarine-glazed, often microwaved vegetables that were seemingly on every table in the 1980's. Convenience vegetables that served to round out a meat and starch. Sure, hate those. I hate them too. They're gross.

But if that's all you think vegetables are capable of, you are in for a treat. With a little good olive oil, some basic flavoring agents (we're talking garlic, onions, chili flakes, salt, pepper, lemon, etc.) and some very simple techniques, you can transform your Farmer's market haul into a deeply flavorful, addictively good dish, that is so much more than a side dish. Here's how.

Start with the good stuff. Cooking vegetables well starts with the freshest possible veggies (for help navigating the produce section, I like this handy guide from Wisebread). 

Don't fear fat. Really, don't. Obviously it's important to show some restraint, but a little bit of fat (especially a heart-healthy one like olive oil) not only makes vegetables much more palatable, it also helps our bodies absorb their nutrients.

But, getting back to how good it makes veggies taste: you haven't lived until you have had broccolini tossed liberally in olive oil and roasted at a high heat with lemon, chile flakes, and salt. The florets crisp and each stalk takes on a lovely, gently caramelized taste. The olive oil seems to coax every single flavor molecule out, and it inevitably ends up being your favorite thing on the plate.

Another great fat to work with is brown butter. Simply cook a few pats of butter (I usually use unsalted butter so I can control the saltiness of the final dish) in a pan just until it begins to brown then remove from heat and toss with roasted or sautéed veggies.

Don't forget salt. Perhaps the most common mistake made by novice cooks is not using enough salt. Salt is a conduit for flavor. Whatever you add it to tastes more like what it is, because salt emphasizes its innate taste. Take a pinch of salt (don't use a shaker--salting with your hands gives you much more control) from high above food to make sure it distributes evenly. And don't forget to taste as you go. Nobody knows your taste buds like you do, and, even if you don't think so, you know how much salt is too much. My general rule is that food is salted enough when it's nearly too salty, but not quite.

Cook at a high heat. Most vegetables taste better with a little bit of color. A hot, heavy-bottomed pan (like a cast iron pan) over high heat, or an oven turned up to 425 degrees Fahrenheit will yield a fabulously tendercrisp product with gorgeous caramelized edges. 

Flavor it up. I love adding chopped garlic, freshly ground black pepper, chili flakes, and lemon to just about every vegetable I cook. But thinly sliced fresh chilies, fresh rosemary or thyme, chopped shallots or onions, or citrus zest also make for wonderful add-ins. Check out what's in your fridge or pantry and add accordingly.

Toppings aren't just for ice cream. I always top my cooked vegetables with some sort of extra flavor element. Whether it's a whisper of grated Parmesan, chopped fresh herbs like parsley, cilantro, basil, or mint, toasted bread crumbs or chopped toasted nuts, cooked veggies deserve a little extra love just before serving. 

How do you like your veggies? Let me know in the comments! 

 

A little careful planning and a discerning eye can help you stock your kitchen with healthful real food without giving you cause to declare bankruptcy. 

I'll admit it: I love Whole Foods. The stores are clean and pleasant to shop in, the salespeople are knowledgeable and helpful, the produce is beautiful and always fresh, and the meat and seafood departments are impeccable. Yes, Whole Foods is notorious for being expensive (California stores got into big trouble for overcharging recently), but I have found that with a little bit of planning and insight, it is indeed possible to complete a Whole Foods shop without bankrupting yourself. Read on for my tips and tricks for getting out of Whole Paycheck with most of yours still in the bank. 

Shop on the outside aisles. The outside aisles contain the bulk section, the produce section, the meat and seafood counters, and the dairy and egg refrigerator cases. These are the best things to shop for at Whole Foods. Not only do they tend to be the healthiest items in the store, but Whole Foods also has a great selection in (and often very good sales on) these departments. The prepared, processed, and packaged foods tend to be where the highest-ticket items are. If you want affordable cookies, crackers, bread, and shampoo, head to Trader Joe's. They're not worth buying at Whole Foods.

At the meat and seafood departments, go with the cheapest items: Whole Foods has very high standards for all their products, so even their least expensive cuts of meat and seafood are very high quality. Opt for chicken thighs and drumsticks over breasts, and sirloin, flank, and skirt steaks over ribeye. Get the sole over the wild salmon. And while you're in the meat and seafood department...

Ask the butchers and fishmongers to help you out. In addition to being knowledgeable about the products they sell, the people behind the meat and seafood counters are the ones who clean, de-bone, skin, filet, grind, and trim the proteins they sell. As such, don't be shy about asking them to do some of the prep work for you. If whole fish are on sale, buy them (they're much cheaper per pound than skinned, pre-cut fish filets or steaks), and have the fish monger clean, skin, and filet them for you, free of charge.  

Buy in-season produce for the best prices. There’s a simple reason why a locally grown tomato in July costs less than a flown-in-from-Chile tomato in January: airfare. When we buy fruits and vegetables grown near where we live (which is only possible when they’re in season), they cost less because the produce doesn’t have to travel as far. Whole Foods generally has most of their produce available year-round (often flown in), but they also work with many local farms to bring in the best of the best when it's in season. Though my preference is to buy as much produce as possible at my local farmer's market, the on-sale, seasonal stuff available at Whole Foods is also very good.

Learn to love the bulk section. Some of the best deals at Whole Foods can be found in the bins of the bulk section. When you buy in bulk, you are paying only for the food itself, not packaging, so the pricing is significantly lower than pre-packaged goods. It's great for when you need a lot of something, but it's also wonderful for when you need only a little (why buy a twenty-four-ounce package of walnuts when you only need a quarter cup of them for a recipe?). It’s worth the annoying twelve-seconds it takes to wrap a twist-tie around a plastic bag and write the product code on it. Invest in a pack of cheap jumbo-size mason jars to store things like flour, sugar, rice, beans, pasta, oats, nuts, and dried fruit from the bulk section. Keeping them in an airtight container like a mason jar will keep them fresh for longer.

Shop like a European. I know this isn't possible for everyone. When you have a nine-to-five job and children and errands, it can be hard to regularly practice the classic European way of shopping, which is to keep a pantry stocked with basic non-perishables, and then augment a few times a week with small quantities of fresh items: a piece of meat or fish, here, some cheese and eggs there, and whichever fruits and vegetables are gorgeous and seasonal. It means more frequent stops at the store, but when you can, this is one of the most cost-effective ways to shop. Since it requires you to grocery shop on an as-needed basis (as opposed to the more traditional American style of filling a cart with enough food for two weeks), you are far more likely to actually use all of what you buy (how many times has the lettuce you optimistically bought a week ago been left to turn to mush in your crisper because you never got around to eating it?). Nothing is sadder than a compost bin full of never-used produce gone bad.

Remember, these principles can be applied to other supermarkets and health food stores too. Whole Foods is obviously the most ubiquitious whole food grocer in the United States, but, if you're lucky, there are other good options available where you live as well. Remember: just because a store is generally expensive doesn't mean it has to be off-limits. A little careful planning and a discerning eye can help you stock your kitchen with healthful real food without giving you cause to declare bankruptcy. And whatever you do, don't forget your reusable bags

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