Saturday, September 17, 2011

My Slow Food Pledge Worked!

Read what we’re having for dinner…

It’s a fact of the new millennium: if you want to hang on you better speed up. But thanks to concepts like The Slow Food Movement, we are reminded that our basic needs—such as sharing a healthful and delicious meal among friends—never change. Reflection and togetherness make renewal possible, so why not provide the perfect zen backdrop with a dinner party that doesn’t break the bank? It’s why I decided to take the Slow Food Movement $5 Challenge. On September 17, 2011 likeminded people all over the world are attempting to make a healthy meal, using fresh and mostly local ingredients for no more than $5 per guest—roughly what a fast food dinner costs.

Tonight I’m serving Greek Moussaka Casserole for six guests, and am happy to report that the grand total for my ingredients, once divided amongst each diner, is going to be $4.89 give or take a few pennies. This Mediterranean dish was cost effective for me because I reserved some of the meat when I made grilled lamb chops earlier in the week. Simply shred the lamb and add to the skillet with the cooked veggies. Immediately add the wine and tomatoes, continuing with the recipe. Lamb’s not too badly priced at the grocery store—averaging anywhere from $5 to $8 per pound—even in light of the money saving challenge, I knew I could splurge on the red wine that goes in (and with!) this dinner.

I’m really looking forward to sitting down and enjoying this dinner with my friends tonight. I could have approached this challenge in other ways: look for a potluck or host one of my own, make a one serving dinner that cost no more than $5 or find a community event. The extreme party planner in me chose hosting a dinner instead, which I could have done even more frugally with a pasta based dish. But I don’t like being too obvious, and chose Moussaka because A. I love meat and B. Moussaka reminds me of a lasagna that uses eggplant instead of pasta, and lamb instead of beef. My next Slow Food effort might be vegan, having been so intrigued to find a popular book called, Vegan on $4 a day. This I gotta see (read).!

It’s Never Too Late to Cook Slow

Though you might be seeing this post a little late to meet the 9/17/11 challenge in time, take heart. There’s Food Day on October 24th and October, as I understand it is National Organic Harvest Month—so all the menus and table settings should be pleasing to both palate and eye. Besides that, Food Day and Slow Food have much in common. Here are some of the cornerstones in thinking and eating that they share:
• Eat together
• Buy Organic
• Avoid genetically modified food
• Conserve, compost and recycle
• Try making things from scratch
• Learn your region’s food story

These items are critical to the Movement’s initiative of taking back, or rather rejecting “the value meal”. The Slow Food Movement said it best: fresh, seasonal food shouldn’t cost more than fast food. Fruit should be easier to buy than Fruit Loops—and to prove it, we’re going to make something with 10 times the love and care of a drive-thru but at the same $5 price. For more background on this day and its campaign, read frequently asked questions or their website—you can click here for $5 cooking tips and recipes. Know this, too: if moussaka isn’t quite what you had in mind for your next Slow Food dinner, please write to me and I’ll send you something more ideal in two flicks of a lamb’s tail.


Greek Moussaka Casserole

3 large eggplants, peeled and sliced into ½-inch thick lengths
Salt and freshly ground pepper
4 to 6 tablespoons olive oil

1 large yellow onion, diced into ½-inch squares (about 1 cup)
2 large carrots, diced (about 1 cup)
2 medium cloves garlic, minced (about 1 teaspoon)
2 pounds lean ground lamb
1 cup red wine
1 (16-ounce) can diced tomatoes
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 cinnamon stick

3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups milk
4 ounces finely grated Parmesan cheese (about ½ cup)
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
1. Season the eggplants with salt and freshly ground pepper. Place into a colander for 30 minutes to lose excess moisture. Pat the eggplant dry. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet over medium high heat. Cook the eggplant in batches, turning once until soft and just beginning to brown, about 2 minutes per side. (Do not let the eggplant slices get too mushy.) Drain on paper towels. You may add more olive oil as needed.

2. Heat 2 more tablespoons of olive oil in the skillet. Cook the onion and carrots until soft and golden, about 5 to 7 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 2 minutes more.

3. Add the lamb to the pan. Cook, breaking up the meat with a spatula until browned, about 8 to 10 minutes.

4. Stir in the wine, tomatoes, tomato paste, oregano and cinnamon stick. Simmer for 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Remove the cinnamon stick.

5. Heat the butter in a saucepot over medium high heat. Whisk in the flour. Cook until golden and bubbling, about 2 to 4 minutes. Pour in the milk. Cook, stirring constantly until the sauce is thickened, about 6 to 8 minutes. Stir in the Parmesan cheese. Season with ground nutmeg, salt and pepper.

6. Assemble the moussaka by placing a layer of eggplant slices in the bottom of a 9 x 13-inch baking dish. Top with half of lamb mixture. Add another layer of eggplant and another layer of lamb. Finish with a layer of eggplant. Top the casserole with b├ęchamel sauce. Bake until the casserole is bubbling and the top is golden, about 30 to 40 minutes. Allow the casserole to sit for 15 minutes before serving.

Servings: 6 to 8
Preparation Time: 30 minutes plus 40 minutes baking

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Spend Small, Live Large!

When it comes to food trends I’ve got my radar on. Like a potato with too many eyes, I often put feelers out (to my recipe testers) to see how they feel about the latest craze, and with the economy holding so many of us hostage, I was eager to see if extreme couponing and really good food could go hand in hand. I turned to a local grocer, who is all about fresh and organic. A few weeks ago, he offered an in depth personalized tour of how to find the best deals in his store.

Everyone at the tour wanted the latest monthly edition of the coupon book he spoke about (I linked to it here), and they wanted to know more about the 365 store brand—one tour member said they recognized our Whole Foods guide from the rotary garden club—small world! It soon became clear just how long I’d been preaching to the choir. Our friends and neighbors really do want to know where our food comes from and turn cooking into a less solitary experience. I felt good about that the rest of the day—even if I didn’t win the $500 bag of groceries at the end of the tour.

My economy shopping hence reminds me that bargain hunting really isn’t about snipping along dotted lines that save you 40 cents here, and 75 cents there; it’s about stretching, about buying the steak, but with a menu in mind that ensures 1 ½ pounds ground sirloin feeds four and incorporates the things in your crisper that only last so long. The eggplant in this dish saves you from having to buy breadcrumbs too, binding the meatballs and helping bake the cheese in oh so beautifully! My Meatballs with Eggplant Topped in Muenster Cheese (shredded zucchini and carrots also work well) is a deeply satisfying casserole that you can eat off of for a couple of days. Another good one for budget eaters is Veggie Burgers with Spicy Cranberry Mayonnaise. You save $5—the cost of 4 frozen patties. My recipe yields twice that amount of better-tasting faux beef.

As to what my contributors think of EXTREME couponing, whereupon you pay virtually nothing for a grocery cart bulging at the seams...I thought I’d share a few of their quotes because they were so down to earth and funny:

Says one foodie friend:
“I think the whole thing takes too much time. I don't have a basement to store a year's worth of paper towels either. I'm not sure how they get all those coupons. I am lucky if I have 2 or 3 to use each week for things I NEED. And it is rare to get a coupon for produce or non processed food. I tried waking up on Sunday and planning my shopping trip based on coupons and sale papers but it is no fun to make 3-4 different trips just to save a dollar here and there. I try to shop just once a week.
P.S. This particular foodie friend has begun taking cooking classes at The Publix Apron Cooking school and reports that learning more about the kitchen is saving her calories, time an money.

Says another foodie friend on the subject of extreme couponing:
“I've been couponing for 30 years and have a good stash, but I don't do extreme. I spend 30-60 minutes a week clipping from the Sunday paper or printing and clipping from the Internet, then sorting into my coupon keeper. And I subscribe to several Facebook coupon groups, like Fabulessly Frugal and Frugal Gals. They link you to free coupons and give tips on what coupons to use where. But I don't do a ton of coupon matching to stock up, I just take my coupon bundle with me and match as I go, depending on what I really need.”

Thank you, guys, for sharing! I love it when you bring something to my table! Happy cooking and good luck on spending small and eating big!

Veggie Burgers with Spicy Cranberry Mayonnaise

2 cups dry lentils
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 (8-ounce) packages portobello mushrooms, chopped into ¼-inch dice (about 3 cups)
1 (16-ounce) red kidney beans, drained and mashed
1 cup whole wheat bread crumbs
½ medium white onion, finely diced (about 1/3 cup)
4 medium cloves garlic, roasted and mashed
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves, chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper

1 cup mayonnaise
½ cup canned whole berry cranberry sauce
½ medium jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely diced (about 1 tablespoon)
1 teaspoon cumin

8 whole wheat buns, toasted
Beefsteak tomatoes
Red onion

1. Place the lentils in a pot over medium heat. Cover with 4 cups of water. Simmer until the lentils are soft, about 30 minutes. Remove 1 cup of the cooked lentils to a large bowl. Mash the remaining lentils.
2. Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium high heat. Cook the diced mushrooms until softened, about 5 minutes.
3. Place the mashed lentils and mushrooms into a large bowl.
4. Add the kidney beans, bread crumbs, onion, roasted garlic and Worcestershire to the bowl. Mix well.
5. Add the thyme and 1 cup whole lentils. Season with salt and pepper.
6. Use your hands to from the mixture into 8 large patties. Place each patty on a baking sheet and refrigerate for 2 hours.
7. Mix together the mayonnaise, cranberry sauce, jalapeno and cumin in a small bowl.
8. Cook the patties over a hot grill or in a grill pan for 5 minutes per side or until golden brown.
9. Serve on a toasted whole wheat bun with slices of ripe beefsteak tomatoes, red onion and a dollop of the mayonnaise.

Servings: 8
Preparation Time: 45 minutes plus refrigeration

Meatballs with Eggplant Topped in Muenster Cheese

Serves 6 to 8
Preparation time: 1 hour

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 medium shallots, minced (about 2 tablespoons)
1 medium eggplant, peeled and finely diced into 1/8-inch cubes (about 4 cups)
4 cloves garlic, minced (about 2 tablespoons)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 ½ pounds ground sirloin
2 cups Marinara sauce
8 ounces muenster cheese sliced

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a hot pan heat the olive oil over medium high heat. Cook the shallots until soft. Add the eggplant and garlic and cook for several minutes. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Remove the pan from the heat and allow to cool.

In a large bowl combine the ground sirloin and the eggplant mixture. Form into 1-inch meatballs and place on a baking sheet. Bake from 10 to 20 minutes or until cooked through.

Pour ½ cup of the marinara sauce into a large baking dish. Place the meatballs in the dish. Pour the remaining sauce on top and place a slice of cheese on top of each meatball. Bake for 20 to 30 inutes until the cheese begins to melt.
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