12.24.2013

cheap and sexy christmas eve

For the past few days, I'd been stressing over what to prepare for Christmas Eve dinner.  I wanted to avoid laboring over a meal for countless hours when I had so many other demands on my time and energy, but at the same time, I wanted a meal that would be somewhat elegant and festive, but not crazy expensive.

I know from years of experience, that when it comes to 'elegant and festive', you can choose to save time, or money, but rarely ever both.

Luckily for me, inspiration struck at just the right time!  I've always loved mussels, but I found the process of cleaning and de-bearding them so laborious that I rarely ever prepared them at home.  But since the rest of this preparation was so quick and easy, I figured I could devote some time to the cleaning without too much difficulty.  As it turned out, the mussels that I found were so clean and free of debris that prepping them was a snap, taking less than half the time I anticipated.

Also, to be clear, I did not deliberately seek out the cheapest available version of every ingredient I used.  I purchased the brands/versions that I usually buy, as my goal was merely to prepare a holiday meal with minimal effort that wouldn't cost much more than any other weeknight meal.

I'm including a list of all the ingredients I used, but I am only providing prices for items that I don't usually have in my pantry, i.e. things that I actually had to go out and buy specifically to make this dish. You might have more of these ingredients on hand than I do.



Steamed mussels with fennel

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter or butter substitute
1 fennel bulb, finely diced (save the fronds for garnish) - $2.99
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 cup of dry white wine
1 15-oz. can of diced tomatoes - $2.49
1 cup of chicken stock - $1.39
salt, if desired
red pepper flakes
approximately 2.5 lbs of P.E.I. mussels (cleaned and de-bearded) - $7.77
baguette - $2.00

Heat the oil and butter over medium heat, add the fennel and garlic and cook until the fennel starts to soften. Add the wine, simmer and reduce slightly.  Add the tomatoes, stock, salt and pepper flakes.  Bring the mixture to a boil, and add the mussels to the pot.  Cover tightly and steam until the mussels just open.  This happens very quickly (less than 5 minutes), so be careful not to overcook them.  Discard any that don't open.

Just before serving sprinkle some minced fennel fronds over the top.  And have some crusty bread on hand for sopping up the juices!

And what holiday meal would be complete without dessert?  Since I didn't want to have any sweet leftovers sitting around the house to tempt us in the coming days, I bought the smallest panettone I could find and cut it into slices, which I browned in some butter in a non-stick skillet.  I served the panettone with a small scoop of vanilla ice cream, and topped the dish with a sauce made from dried cranberries simmered in dark rum and orange juice.  I also added some fresh cracked black pepper to the sauce to give it a bit of a kick.



panettone - $5.99
ice cream - $2.50
dried cranberries - $4.99
dark rum - $5.99
orange juice - $1.79

So there you have it - a wonderfully delicious, romantic and classy meal, suitable for the holiday season, at a cost of around $38  - not including a bottle of sparkling wine (not the wine I used for cooking), which came in at a very reasonable $12.95

Many thanks to Shinae for the inspiration.

Merry dinners to all, and to all a good night!

12.08.2013

cookin' up a storm!



Nothing like plummeting temperatures, bleak skies, and snow flurries to get me in the mood to whip up some comfort food!  On this particular night, I was inspired by a tuna casserole recipe that one of my friends posted on 'that other social network'.  I adapted the ingredients a bit to accommodate my dietary restrictions, but you can feel free to use the full-fat, full-sodium versions of any of the ingredients.  I didn't measure anything, (I rarely do) so you'll just have to wing it on that front.  Here's what went into the dish:

2 cans tuna fish, drained
1/2 package whole wheat pasta spirals
3 egg whites, beaten
2 tablespoons of Smart Balance spread
grated pepper-jack cheese
diced tomatoes
fresh chopped parsley
chopped onion
fresh ground black pepper
salt, to taste (I didn't use any)

Cook the pasta according to package directions, drain.  Mix in all the other ingredients except for the eggs, and a couple handfuls of the cheese.  When the mixture has cooled slightly, incorporate the beaten egg.  Place in a greased dish, and top with the balance of the grated cheese.  Bake at 425 degrees for about 25 minutes (the cooking time will depend on your oven's mood that day).  Thanks for the recipe Frankie!  You rock!!!

AND.... as if that wasn't enough, I figured that while I had the oven going anyway (a very rare occurrence in my home), I might as well prepare some cauliflower and chickpeas, tossed with ground cumin, olive oil, lemon juice and minced parsley, and roasted for about 35 minutes.   To accompany the cauliflower, I put a couple of lamb leg steaks - seasoned with salt, lemon juice, minced garlic and rosemary - under the broiler and let them go for 2 minutes on each side for medium-rare.





We'll be enjoying the lamb and cauliflower tonight for dinner, and the tuna casserole will be consumed during the very busy week ahead.  It's great to have something tasty and relatively healthful to nibble on when holiday errands wreak havoc on your schedule.

And by the way, that lamb marrow - INSANE!!!!!

9.28.2013

"coffee donut"



Having lived in Park Slope for close to 25 years, it's an understatement to say that I've seen a lot of changes in the area.  In my opinion, the vast majority of them have been for the better, but I think the pendulum is swinging so far to the other extreme that the neighborhood is becoming completely devoid of individuality.

In the Times today, Sean came across the story of this amazing artist, who captures (in perfect, miniaturized detail) some of the spirit of a rapidly disappearing New York.  And I was deeply moved to see among his works, a reproduction of a run-down coffee shop, where we spent many a hung-over weekend morning, reading the New York Post, chatting with the owner, Chris, and trading barbs with the waitress.

It has long since been replaced by the expansion/upgrade of a nearby supermarket.  To be honest, the supermarket, while larger, cleaner and more modern, does have a quirkiness of its own.  But we still sorely miss this little shop, which we stubbornly referred to, between ourselves, as "Coffee Donut" and reminisce about it quite frequently.  I even see the waitress (whose name I never learned) shopping in the supermarket every now and then.  We believe Chris may have moved back to his native Greece, but we never inquired.

"Coffee Donut', gone but not forgotten.

8.17.2013

D. I. Y. dinner for the 1%

A few months ago, I noticed a very intriguing sign in a storefront window of an establishment under construction. The shop was to be called 'The Walk-In Cookbook'. Needless to say, my curiosity was peaked, but I resisted the urge to research the hell out of the topic and decided to wait until opening day to find out what it was all about.

Today, my patience was rewarded as I sauntered into the newly-opened establishment to take a look around. The Walk In Kitchen, it appears, is kind of like an Ikea for cooking. There are brightly colored posters that feature photographs of meals, accompanied by ingredient lists and the cost of said ingredients in 2 and 4 serving iterations.



There are also recipe cards, which double as shopping lists as you make your way around the store selecting from the attractively displayed produce and other food items. The layout resembles a professional kitchen, and you kind of get the feeling that a cooking class is going to start up at any minute. Except with this concept, you take the ingredients home with you and conduct the class yourself.

Now, all of this sounds really cool and innovative, and for a few minutes, you start to imagine yourself walking in after a long, hectic day and not having to think about what to make for dinner, and how much of each ingredient to buy. And then you look at the prices.  *gasp*

While I live in an affluent neighborhood, I really can't imagine that the idea of paying $24 for two servings of spaghetti marinara and meatballs that you have to cook yourself is going to be terribly appealing to many people. This area has a high concentration of very good, affordable restaurants, as well as many produce and gourmet markets at a variety of price points.  And while I might be willing to pay a premium for a small amount of that one ingredient that I happened to need in a hurry, I don't see myself paying that kind of premium for an entire meal's worth of items.

I hate to see any business fail, so I'll be keeping my fingers crossed for this establishment. But in the meantime, I'll be sticking to my budget gourmet lifestyle.

7.10.2013

dinner : caribbean ratatouille


Now, I know you're scratching your head at the name of this dish, but bear with me.  I'd been craving ratatouille for a few days and planned to prepare it tonight, but as I was writing up my shopping list, a minor mental slip turned into a spark of inspiration.

The first item on my list was meant to be 'eggplant', but for some strange reason, I typed the word 'melongene' which is one of the words we use for eggplant in the Caribbean.  In the U.S., I never have reason to call it that, since most Americans would have no idea what I'm talking about, but there it was, sitting on the blank page, staring back at me.  And I think you can follow my train of thought from there.

So this ratatouille came together using produce that is readily available in the Caribbean - melongene, onion, red bell pepper, chayote (which we call 'christophene'), calabaza (West Indian pumpkin), garlic, and tomato (I used canned, diced).  I also added a few tablespoons of diced green chiles and some red pepper flakes for a bit of a kick.

The end result was really delicious.  The chayote was so tender and juicy, and the pumpkin added a bit of sweetness.  However, the next time I make this dish, I might add some minced recao leaves, to give it an even more Caribbean flavor.  I'm thrilled that my little cooking experiment turned out so well, and I'm looking forward to compiling my next shopping list!

6.23.2013

cinema under the stars (and a really big moon)

,,and if Tropfest NY isn't enough for you, here's a supermoon to push things over the top!

Whenever I hear the phrase 'film festival', my mind is filled with thoughts of highly intellectual and esoteric cinema that can only be appreciated by people who use the word 'cinema' on a regular basis.  But my personal movie preference leans toward presentations that involve any combination of gunfire, aliens, explosions and shirtless heartthrobs. So when I registered to attend the free Tropfest NY short film festival it was only due in part to my curiosity about the actual films. My main incentive was the opportunity to see Liev Schreiber (this year's host) in the flesh.

With low expectations, and a burning desire to take advantage of a rare sunny day, I packed up a little picnic and headed to Prospect Park with my sweetie to check out some film (and Liev Schreiber).

Because I had an early-morning commitment, we were only able to stay for the first eight films (there were sixteen finalists in all) but I was really surprised by how much I enjoyed every single one we saw.  They were funny, poignant, clever and highly entertaining, even without explosions and heartthrobs and stuff. I'm definitely adding this one to my annual summer 'must do' list and if Tropfest ever comes to a location near you, I strongly urge you to do the same.

I wonder if next year's host will be as cute as Liev Schreiber...

6.16.2013

it's just like riding a bicycle


I feel rather envious of the people who never come to the realization that nostalgia can be a dangerous thing.

For most of my childhood, mid-year school holidays involved endless hours spent on my bicycle (a purple Chopper with orange lettering, a banana seat, basket AND tassels) zipping back and forth on the 4-block stretch that was my street.  Being profoundly chicken-hearted even back then, I rarely ventured beyond the confines of that quiet strip, and I look back in amazement at how I was able to while away so much time in so small a place.  I remember the warm sun on my shoulders, and the wind whipping through my hair, and having not a care in the world.

So, when the long-awaited Citibike scheme finally came to fruition in New York, I was among the very first to sign up, eager to relive those carefree days of my childhood.  Last weekend, I had my first opportunity to hop on one of these blue behemoths, and let's just say things didn't go quite as planned.

I had envisioned myself coasting along Brooklyn streets, enjoying the scenery and garnering looks of admiration from pedestrians.  Instead, I discovered that after 30+ years out of the saddle, I had absolutely no idea how to ride a bike.

I wasn't completely unprepared for this, as I'd had the fairly recent experience of failing to stay upright on a very rickety rental bike down the Jersey Shore.  I blamed the problem on the bike at the time, and settled for an equally rickety three-wheeler, even though I knew, deep down, that my cycling abilities had gone the way of my youth.

However, spurred on by my enthusiastic sweetheart (and the thought that I had spent $100 on annual membership) I resolved to give the whole cycling thing another try.  We found ourselves a relatively quiet side street and engaged in a session of 'Cycling 101'.  I won't bore you with the details, but I will say there were attempts, failures, adjustments, readjustments, words of encouragement, expletives and in the end, a tiny bit of progress.  I eventually managed to stay upright and in a somewhat straight line for about 30 feet.  And since my free ride time was about to expire at that point, we declared the lesson a moderate success.

I have no doubt there will be many more lessons before I'm capable of navigating a busy bike path in a responsible manner, and I won't even dare to speculate about riding in NYC traffic, but I will most definitely persevere.  One way or another, I'll get back in the saddle!