Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Chicken Curry

We are big fans of curry. So many wonderful flavors and aromas in a bottle of curry powder! We have posted a number of curry-using recipes here - Turkey Curry, Thai Fried Rice, Vegetarian Curried Split Pea Soup, Curried Chicken Salad. Well, here's another one. The addition of tomato makes this one different. The tomato mellows out the curry. It's really a delicious combination and not uncommon, if you look in Indian cookbooks. It bears absolutely no resemblance to the chicken curry that you often see on menus in Chinese restaurants. This is much, much better.

Chicken Curry
(serves 4-6, costs $9.20)

3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1 ½ pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts or chicken thighs
1 large clove of garlic, minced
1 medium onion, sliced
2 sweet bell peppers (same color, different colors - use what you like), seeded and sliced
1 Tablespoon curry powder
1 14.5 ounce can diced tomatoes, undrained (see Note)
3 Tablespoons milk or heavy cream
¾ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
juice of ½ lemon

Heat 2 Tablespoons vegetable oil in a skillet with a cover over medium-high heat. Brown chicken on both sides, about 5 minutes per side. Remove from the pan. The chicken won't be completely done; it will finish cooking in the sauce. Cut the chicken into 1" cubes and place it and any juices in a bowl. Set aside.

Add the remaining 1 Tablespoon oil to the skillet. Add the garlic, onion, bell peppers, and curry powder. Stir to combine and cook over medium heat for 5 minutes until the onions and peppers are just starting to soften. Add the reserved chicken and its juices, tomatoes, milk, salt, and pepper. Stir and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook until the chicken is completely cooked, about 15 minutes. If all the liquid cooks off, add ¼ cup of water. Stir in lemon juice and add additional salt, if needed.

Note: 14.5 oz. seems to be the current standard for cans of diced tomatoes. If you can't find that size, anything from 14 to 16 oz. is just fine. I have lots of old recipes that call for 16 oz. cans so apparently cans have been shrinking over the last 30 years.

Shopping Smart: Pay attention to unit prices!

Today, I was at the supermarket for tomato sauce. An 8 ounce can of tomato sauce cost 38¢. A 15 ounce can, on sale!, cost 89¢. The unit price on the 8 oz. can is 4.75¢ per oz. while the unit price on the 15 oz. can is 5.93¢ per oz. Wait a second! That doesn't sound right. But, things are often priced this way. A lot of people assume that the bigger the package, the cheaper the unit cost. It's not always so. I've seen this a lot on boxes of cereal too, a food where the difference can be as much as a dime an ounce. Buying in bulk may not be your best deal.

So, pay attention to the unit cost to get the best deal. Supermarkets post the unit prices so smart shoppers can "easily" comparison shop. I can't tell you this is always easy. Supermarkets have a way of displaying the unit price in different units, making it much harder to figure out the best deal. The same food with unit prices in ounces and in pounds can give you a computational headache. But, most of the time, the units are consistent and you can get the best deal by using this information.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Meatless Monday - Black-eyed Peas and ?

This is a riff on Hoppin' John, the New Year's Day tradition of serving black-eyed peas with rice. You could serve these with rice. Or pasta, or potatoes, or...up to you. Pasta is the quickest. I like it on rotini, corkscrew pasta.

As discussed in our Cajun Meatloaf, this is Louisiana Style because of the combination of celery, onion, green pepper, and garlic. The first three are called the Holy Trinity and garlic is the Pope, down in Cajun country. No wonder I love the food down there!

You can use a can of cooked black-eyed peas. They are OK. I like to cook them myself and unlike many other beans, they don't require soaking, and cook in under an hour. About 45 minutes, in fact. Instructions on cooking the beans are at the end of recipe.

Though obviously not meatless, this is also a great place to use up a little bit of cooked ham, sausage, or chicken. About ¼ - ½ cup is good. Add it along with the black-eyed peas.

Louisiana Style Black-Eyed Peas
(serves 3, costs $3.10 with canned black-eyed peas)

1 15 oz. can black-eyed peas, drained (use 1 ¾ cups if you cook them yourself)
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
½ onion, chopped, about ¾ cup
½ large green pepper, seeded and chopped, about ¾ cup
2 stalks celery, chopped, about ¾ cup
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ to ¾ teaspoon salt, depending on saltiness of black-eyed peas
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1 bay leaf
2-3 Tablespoons of white wine, broth or water
½ to 1 teaspoon hot sauce (such as Tabasco)

3 servings pasta (6 oz. dry), cooked or 3 cups cooked rice
grated Parmesan cheese (optional)
additional hot sauce

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion, green pepper, celery, and garlic. Cook for 5 minutes until onion is translucent. Add black-eyed peas, salt, pepper, the bay leaf, and a few Tablespoons of liquid. Cover, reduce heat to low and cook until black-eyed peas are hot. Remove from the heat, add hot sauce, stir, and remove the bay leaf. Serve over hot pasta or hot rice.

To cook 1 pound of dry black-eyed peas, rinse off the peas, removing any non-pea debris. Bring 4 cups of liquid (stock or water) to a boil in a 2-3 quart saucepan. Add the black-eyed peas and reduce the heat to maintain a simmer - gentle bubbling. Cook for 35-45 minutes until peas are tender. Try a few beans to make sure they are all done. If any are crunchy, cook for another 5 minutes. Drain before using. Since you won't need all the beans for this recipe, refrigerate the reminder, or freeze them. They freeze extremely well.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Honey Glazed Carrots

Carrots are one of the easiest vegetables to prepare. They are very tolerant of overcooking. Or undercooking - we eat lots of raw carrots in my house. You need to figure out how cooked you like your carrots - very crunchy, a little crunchy, tender, or even soft. All these points on the carrot cooking continuum are just fine.

Carrots are also cheap year round, making them an excellent go-to vegetable. They are pleasantly sweet, all by themselves, which makes them palatable to lots of folks. They aren't as challenging as, say, collard greens or even broccoli. But, still very nutritious.

This is a simplification of a classic French dish, carrots glazed with butter and sugar. Though butter is more expensive, it is mighty tasty. We use honey here, but you could substitute an equal amount of agave nectar. Even maple syrup, though that is pretty decadent. :-)

This isn't terribly sweet. There is just enough sugar to enhance the natural sweetness of the carrots. Really - this isn't dessert, it's a vegetable!

Honey Glazed Carrots
(serves 4-6, costs $1.00 made with butter, 85¢ if made with oil)

1 pound of carrots, sliced thinly or julienned or cut into sticks (see Note)
1 ½ Tablespoons butter or vegetable oil
1 ½ Tablespoons honey
about ½ teaspoon salt
chopped parsley (optional)

Fill a medium saucepan half full with water. Bring to a boil and add the carrots. Cook until they are done to your liking. For tender carrots, it takes 8-12 minutes depending on how thick they are sliced. Julienned carrots will take under 5 minutes. Drain the carrots and return to the saucepan over low heat. Add the butter, honey and salt. Toss to coat. The carrots are ready when the butter has all melted and carrots are all coated. Add chopped parsley for color, if you like.

Flat side down, to keep the carrot from rolling around
Note: Slicing or julienning carrots is great knife skills practice. If the carrot rolls around when you try to cut it, slice off a thin slice from one side of the carrot. That will prevent the carrot from rolling around as much. Julienning - cutting something into skinny sticks - is done by slicing the carrot the long way, stacking up the slices, and cutting the slices into thin sticks. It's easier to do if you cut the slices into 3-4" lengths before cutting into sticks.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Comments Now Moderated

We've been getting some spam-y comments lately. Mostly pointless commercial things. Rather than subject you all to them, we're moving to moderate comments. Loyal readers - your comments will still appear (even criticism). This is just to limit the spam.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Meatless Monday - Microwave Spinach Lasagna

We are not vegetarians but we are all for eating more delicious vegetarian food. It's a great way to eat well for less since meat is a fairly expensive way to get your protein.

This is a recipe for microwave spinach lasagne that I have been making for many years. It has a lot of ingredients, all easy to get, and the dish comes together easily. The toughest part is the assembly. You can do this. A tip on the noodles, after cooking and draining them, lay them out flat in one layer. Then they won't stick together, making assembly easier.

This is a great one-dish meal, good enough for company but so easy to make.

Microwave Spinach Lasagna
(serves 6, costs $11.00)

6 lasagne noodles, cooked according to package directions and drained
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil + some more to oil dish
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 8-ounce can tomato sauce
1 6-ounce can tomato paste
¾ cup water
1 Tablespoon vegetable stock concentrate or dry vegetable soup mix
1 teaspoon sugar
½ teaspoon dried basil
½ teaspoon dried oregano
¼ teaspoon black pepper
a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
12 ounces frozen spinach
2 cups low-fat cottage cheese, a 16 ounce container
2 eggs
12 ounces shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese (3 cups)
⅓ cup Parmesan cheese, about 1 ounce

Thaw spinach by microwaving for 3 minutes in a 1 ½ quart microwaveable bowl or dish. Put spinach in a colander to cool while you cook the sauce.

Combine oil, onion, and garlic in the same dish you cooked the spinach in. Microwave for 3 minutes, stirring once. Stir in tomato sauce, tomato paste, water, vegetable stock concentrate, sugar, basil, oregano, black pepper, and crushed red pepper flakes. Cover with lid or plastic wrap and microwave for 4 minutes. Stir and microwave for 4 more minutes. Stir again and set aside.

Squeeze most of the liquid out of the cooked spinach and coarsely chop. Put in a medium bowl. Add cottage cheese and eggs. Stir to combine.

Spray a 12"x8" microwaveable glass dish (this size will fit in most microwave ovens) with nonstick cooking spray or lightly oil to prevent sticking. To assemble, lay 3 noodles in dish  Ladle on ½ of the sauce, all the spinach mixture, then sprinkle on 2 cups of mozzarella cheese. Put on remaining 3 noodles, and the rest of the sauce. Cover tightly with plastic wrap.

Microwave on high for 5 minutes. Then microwave at 70% for another 12 minutes. Remove the plastic wrap and sprinkle with remaining mozzarella cheese and Parmesan cheese. Microwave on high, uncovered, for 3 minutes until cheese is melted. Let stand for at least 5 minutes before serving.

Adapted from Microwave Cooking Lite, Contemporary, 1985. I've changed the cooking times a lot because microwave ovens in 2013 are a lot more powerful than microwave ovens in 1985.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Cauliflower with Orange Flavor

This recipe is inspired by a Spanish salad recipe. It can still be served as a salad if you chill it after cooking. But, the important difference is all the ingredients are cooked. In the original recipe, the cauliflower is blanched but the rest of the ingredients are added raw. Some folks like raw onions, many don't. So, here's a variation on the raw salad that is made even better by sautéing the onions. The original version also has segments of orange; this version gets the punch of orange flavor from orange zest.

Extra-virgin olive oil is fairly expensive. To keep the cost low, we use cheaper vegetable oil for the sautéing and finish it with a drizzle of the more flavorful but more expensive extra-virgin olive oil. You can leave off the drizzle; it's still very tasty.

The average non-sale cost of cauliflower is $1.49 but this time of year, you can find it on sale a lot. Look for those produce sales! Eating what is on sale this week can really save you a bunch of money and stretch your budget for delicious and nutritious fruits and vegetables.

Cauliflower with Orange Flavor
(serves 4-6, costs $2.80)

1 small head of cauliflower (about 1 pound), cut into florets
2 Tablespoons vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ of a red onion, minced
1 small can (3.8 oz.) sliced olives or ⅓ cup chopped kalamata olives
2 Tablespoons water
zest of 1 orange
1 Tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper

Heat the 2 Tablespoons vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion and garlic. Sauté for a minute or two until the onion becomes translucent. Add cauliflower,  olives, and 2 Tablespoons water. Cook, covered, until cauliflower is tender, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat, add orange zest, extra-virgin olive oil, salt, and pepper. Stir to combine. Serve hot, warm, or chilled. If you serve it chilled, you may need to add a bit more salt.

This is a vegetable dish that improves with reheating.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Vegetarian Curried Split Pea Soup

We posted a recipe for split pea soup with ham in 2012, saying we would post a vegetarian version soon. OK, a year isn't soon, but here it is. It's a twist on split pea soup that makes the vegetarian version even better: curry.

Curry and green split peas are a natural combination. Many similar pulses (lentils, split peas of various colors) are used in Indian dals so why not split pea soup? The curry adds lots of flavor too, flavor that usually comes from a pork product.

Instead of chopped onions, this recipes uses dehydrated onions. Since this cooks a long, long time, the dried onions dissolve into the soup. If you use fresh onions, they remain crunchy, even after long cooking. We like it better without the crunch.

Curried Split Pea Soup
(serves 6-8, costs $7.35)

1 pound dried green split peas, rinsed, drained and picked over for pebbles or non-pea particles
6 cups vegetable stock
2 Tablespoons minced dehydrated onions
2 Tablespoons mild or hot curry powder
4 large carrots, chopped into ¼ to ½ inch pieces
2 large ribs of celery, chopped
½ teaspoon garlic powder
¾ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper

Mix together everything in a soup pot or 3-5 quart slow cooker.

If cooking in a pot, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook until the peas are tender, at least 2 hours. Longer isn't bad; the peas will get very soft which is really the point.

If cooking in a slow cooker, set to cook for 10 hours on low.

Stir well and add more salt if needed.

This soup freezes very well. If you reheat it, add a bit of water because it will get much thicker when it cools.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Stocking Your Pantry

What do you need in your pantry - that is, the ingredients you always have on hand? I've seen a lot of lists. Some of them go on for pages. Obviously, the people who came up with these lists weren't on a strict budget. Nor, do they take into account what you really like to eat. There is no point in having polenta in your pantry if you don't like polenta.

We also think you need to think about what you like to eat when it comes to ethnic food. As we discussed in our post on stocking your pantry with herbs and spices, you shouldn't spend much money on ethnic ingredients you have never tried and therefore may not like. If you don't like Thai food, you have little need for fish sauce or coconut milk. If you don't like Thai food, you probably don't like fish sauce or coconut milk!

Here's our list of basic pantry staples. Everything on this list is shelf-stable, which means they require no refrigeration (except the Mayonnaise which needs to be refrigerated after opening). We are assuming that you have no food intolerances or food allergies. That will undoubtedly change your pantry quite a bit.

You don't need to get everything on this list at once. Since they are shelf-stable, you can buy a subset one week, then add to it the next week and the next week. As you use things up, restock to make sure you always have them on hand.

All-Purpose Flour: for baking, thickening, and breading ($1.49 for 5 lbs.)
Sugar: white sugar is the most versatile with brown sugar coming in second (1.99 for 2 lbs.)
Salt: we like kosher salt because the large crystals are easy to pinch and use for seasoning but most recipes assume you are using table salt when they give measurements. Salt is cheap so get both. (kosher: $3.29 for 3 lbs., table: 48¢ for 28 oz.)
Pepper: Black pepper ground fresh from a pepper mill is the most flavorful and aromatic but a good pepper mill is an investment. Get a small quantity of ground black pepper at a time (you can find it in bulk in many markets these days) and it will stay potent. ($2.59 for 1.75 oz.)
Dijon Mustard: it's the most useful in cooking as it packs a good mustard punch. Spicy brown mustard is not a bad substitute most of the time. Yellow mustard is too mild but it's great on hot dogs! ($1.69/12 fl. oz.)
Red Wine Vinegar: the basis for vinaigrette and for adding acid to many dishes. There are many varieties of vinegar but you should start with Red Wine Vinegar. ($2.69 for 12.7 oz.)
Extra-virgin Olive Oil: we like it for vinaigrette and for cooking. If you want to economize, buy a small amount that tastes really good for your vinaigrette. Many markets, such as Whole Foods, now sell it in bulk. If you buy it in larger quantities, keep it out of light and away from the heat. It will go rancid fairly quickly. ($4.29 for 8.5 oz.)
Vegetable Oil: this is for higher heat cooking where Extra-Virgin Olive Oil will break down but it can be used all the time as it is much cheaper. The flavor is very bland but for people who don't like the peppery flavor of Extra-Virgin Olive Oil, that's just fine. Lots of choices here but we like peanut oil, safflower oil, soybean oil, and corn oil. Canola oil is popular too. (Canola or Soy oil: $2.97 for  48 oz., corn oil is $4.69 for 48 oz.)
Pasta: one tubular type like elbow macaroni or penne, and one long type like spaghetti or linguini. ($1.25 per pound)
Rice: long-grain rice is the most widely used. If you like brown rice, that should be in your pantry too. ($1.59 for 2 lbs. white, $1.59 per pound for brown rice)
Beans: either dried or in cans. Lots of different varieties and a small investment. If you don't want to bother with soaking and cooking dried beans, stick to the canned. They are still really cheap food relative to other protein sources. Lentils cook quickly so you won't find them in a can, only dried. (most canned beans are 69¢ to $1.00 for 15 oz. though chickpeas are more, $1.29 per 15 oz. can)
Canned tomatoes: whole or diced peeled tomatoes are the basis for pasta sauces, soups, and braising liquids. Canned tomatoes are riper and more tomato-y than fresh plum tomatoes most of the year. (69¢ for 14.5 oz.)
Stock: chicken is the most versatile. Its mild flavor can be used in lots of recipes such as the liquid for cooking rice, and most soups and sauces. If you are a vegetarian, substitute vegetable. The concentrates are a great value. (Stock in a box: $3.19 for 48 oz., $4.39 for 8 oz. of Better than Bouillon® concentrate that makes the equivalent of 9 ½ boxes of stock.)
Mayonnaise: for salads dressings, as a binder, and a cold sauce. ($2.89 for 10 fl. oz.)
Soy Sauce: a stir-fry essential ($1.34 for 10 fl. oz.)
Hot Sauce: if you like. If spicy scares you, you don't need it, but it's essential for us. :-)

If you buy everything on the list, it adds up to about $35. That is based on prices in my local supermarket, using no sale prices. Not an insignificant sum of money, but if you spread it over a few weeks, a great investment in future cooking!

Monday, January 7, 2013

Ginger Chicken Kabobs

There are some things the microwave oven does really well. Steaming chicken is one of them. When it comes to cooking very lean chicken, like breast meat, the microwave is unbeatable. (Check here for basic chicken cooking instructions in the microwave.) We add flavor with a quick and simple marinade and the chicken cooks in minutes. There's no browning, but that is OK. Small pieces of chicken would dry out too much anyway.

The marinade is a tasty combination of garlic, ginger, cumin, and olive oil with just a hint of mustard. You only need to marinate it for 15-30 minutes. The original recipe says it can marinate for up to 2 days but even after 24 hours, the texture suffers. I wouldn't go beyond an hour. If you don't want to bother with skewers, arrange the chicken piece in one layer on a microwaveable plate and cook just like the skewers.

Here's a tip on mincing or grating fresh ginger: peel the ginger knob with a spoon (works better than a vegetable peeler or a knife) and then freeze the whole thing. Once the ginger is frozen, it's less stringy and the ginger will keep forever in the freezer.

Ginger Chicken Kabobs in the Microwave
( serves 4-5, costs $5.65)

1 ½ pounds skinless boneless chicken breasts
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 Tablespoon minced or grated fresh ginger
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 fresh green hot chile (Serrano or jalapeño), seeded and minced (optional)
½ teaspoon dry mustard or 1 teaspoon brown or Dijon mustard
About 1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper

Cut the chicken into strips about ¼" thick.

Combine the olive oil, ginger, garlic, cumin, chile (if using), mustard, ½ teaspoon salt, and black pepper in a medium bowl. Add chicken strips and coat with marinade. Cover bowl and marinate in the fridge for at least 15 minutes, but no longer than 1 hour.

Thread chicken strips onto wood or bamboo skewers. Don't pack the chicken too tight on the skewers because it won't cook through in 4 minutes. The chicken pieces should look like a wavy line. Sprinkle lightly with salt. Arrange on a microwaveable dish and cover with plastic wrap. Cook on high for 2 minutes. Flip over the skewers, re-cover, and cook for another 2 minutes on high. Let stand for a few minutes. Serve by pouring any accumulated juices over chicken.

Adapted from Morghul Microwave by Julie Sahni, William Morrow, 1990.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Quick Chicken and Rice

We're not pretending this is really chicken and rice, the kind that is made by Hispanic cooks and moms around the world. No, this is pretty darn basic. But, as quick and easy one-pot meals go, this is a winner.

You speed things up by using cooked diced chicken and frozen vegetables. You use the heat from the cooking rice to reheat the chicken and vegetables. What could be easier?

One Pot Quick Chicken and Rice
(serves 4, costs $4.30)

2 cups chicken stock in a box or reconstituted chicken bouillon
1 cup white rice (see Note if you want to use brown rice)
2 cups diced cooked chicken
1 ½ cups frozen vegetables (peas, peas&carrots, green bean, chopped broccoli)
¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
salt if needed

Bring 2 cups of chicken stock to a boil. Add rice, stir well and reduce heat to maintain a simmer, about medium-low. Cook, covered for about 12-15 minutes, until the level of the stock is below the top of the rice. Add chicken on top of rice, then veggies on top of chicken. Do not stir. The chicken and vegetables will steam and reheat while the rice finishes cooking. Cook, covered, for an additional 5-7 minutes, until the rice has absorbed all the stock. Remove from heat, stir in black pepper, re-cover and let sit for 5 minutes. Add more salt if needed and serve.

Note: You can use brown rice which gives the dish a nice chewy texture. Brown rice takes longer to cook, so plan accordingly. Increase the stock to 2 ¼ cups. Cook for 50 minutes, add the chicken and vegetables, then continue with recipe above.