A Week’s Worth of Food for $20

Yesterday, I announced my intention to try and eat for a week on only $20 (an arbitrary amount based on what I had in my wallet at the time, but one that low enough as to be a challenge) and what I had in my pantry and freezer. I’ve been stockpiling blog posts to meet my three-per-day quota at work (as so much of what I write about has to do with eating out) and intend to cook every meal myself this week: breakfast, lunch and dinner.

That isn’t much of an accomplishment for your average person. I get spoiled in my new line of work, frequently and excessively. I get to attend media dinners and eat things like foie gras torchons on a typical Tuesday for lunch and expense a significant portion of my meals. I often don’t put as much thought into the things I’m eating as I feel that I should. It’s a lifestyle for which I am endlessly thankful and one that I don’t ever want to take for granted.

The decision to eat on $20 and what’s in my pantry (as you will see, I’ve gotten better at keeping supplies on hand) was borne out of this, but also out of a desire to eat and live more simply and yet more creatively. One day into the project, and I’ve already rediscovered spices and vinegars that were hidden away in my pantry — which, as you’ll see, is already very small to begin with — and use them to my advantage while cooking. Washing dishes, trimming fat, blooming spices, zesting fruit, et cetera: All are things which make me more mindful of the food I’m eating and which provide me with a very needed sense of calm and simplicity.

The project was also borne out of a desire to truly look at the money that we’re spending on food as entertainment, not food as nourishment or food as a connection to our dining companions. $20 may seem like a difficult sum of money to eat on for an entire week, but that’s a budget that millions of people — here in America and in less wealthy portions of our world — have to adhere to every week of their lives. If they can do it, so can I and so should I. Forcing yourself to consider other perspectives and circumstances is crucial for leading a more enlightened, more considerate, more gracious and more thankful life.

I intend to do a full writeup of the project when I’m finished, but for now, here’s my starting point. Below are photos of what I already had in my pantry and refrigerator, what I bought with $19.54 at Fiesta and what I made my first evening for dinner. I’ve already planned out every meal for the week, so I’m terrifically excited for the week ahead and can’t wait to see how it all shakes out.

The "staples" I had in my pantry: two cans of tuna, a tin of smoked kippers, several rices and pastas, a jar of red peppers and a can of chickpeas.
As you can see, I don't keep much in my fridge, mostly St. Arnold's and water. The broths and the shredded cheese had to be thrown away (expired), which left me with butter, mustard, grape jelly and two kinds of relish.

(Not pictured: the contents of my freezer. I have one-half a bag each of frozen green beans, frozen edamame, frozen broccoli and frozen peas.)

My "pantry" with spices, sugar, two vinegars, two oils, bread crumbs, tea, honey, a can of evaporated milk, powdered chocolate and all the "staples" put back where they belong as well as all the groceries I bought with my $20.
All of the groceries I bought for $20. Not pictured: a pack of five chicken thighs, quarantined because they were covered with gross chicken juice.
Last night's first dinner: One and a half baked chicken thighs, cooked with a mustard-tarragon sauce over garlic and onions, served with wild rice and green beans.
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Chicago On My Mind

This time last week, Eric and I had just finished pounding the streets in Little Vietnam and Wrigleyville, and were headed back to our hotel along the Chicago River and the Magnificent Mile for some well-needed rest. It was the first vacation I’d taken in well over three years, and one of my favorite vacations to date. I couldn’t have asked for a better traveling companion than the always game, always enjoyable Eric and I couldn’t have asked for a better city than Chicago. It was my third visit to the city and — with five days to enjoy it — the best one yet.

To go into detail about all the wonderful places we ate at while we were there would take at least a dozen different blog posts. Instead, here are some of the photos we took while we were there. I’ll let this one post act as a dining scrapbook to look back at when I start to get vacation-sick for the City of Big Shoulders.

A "North of the Border" omelet with cheddar, apples and Canadian bacon from Nookie's.
This adorable little cafe in Old Town is the epitome of a casual, neighborhood restaurant. We loved it.
We tried pho in Little Vietnam at Pho Xe Tank for comparison purposes. Houston's is still better, although the clove-saturated broth here was a nice twist.
We stumbled into Little Joe's on Taylor in Little Italy more or less by accident. No mass-market beers on draft, a great girl behind the bar who knew her microbrews and a cozy, welcoming vibe. I'd kill for a place like this down the street from me.
Afterwards, we walked down the block and grabbed an Italian beef (combo, with sausage) with cheese, dipped, at Al's.
I kind of lost my mind eating this thing, it was so damn good.
For his part, Eric enjoyed the twice-fried French fries and the bag they came in.
Sunday brunch at Bin in Wicker Park was our second best meal in Chicago, especially because of the inventive Bloody Mary and mimosa flights.
The food was also inventive: Eric's egg sandwich had lovely, peppery escarole on it and the hashbrowns had a layer of caramelized onions.
The omelet of the day was only $10 but came with fresh crab meat, escargot, Gouda and was cooked in truffle oil. I know it's overdone and slightly weary (thanks to the truffle oil), but I loved every bite.
Waiting for the Chicago Architecture Foundation boat tour, we sucked it up and ate at a tourist trap along the Chicago River.
Despite that, the food at Cyrano's Bistrot was better than expected, especially the leek quiche and frites.
Our favorite meal was at The Purple Pig, both times we went. The coppa panini with Provolone, house-pickled peppers and whole grain mustard was an amazing $8.
Salt-roasted beets with whipped goat cheese and pistachio vinaigrette were my favorite, while Eric preferred the shrimp and clams with rosamarina.

For more photos from the trip (and better photos, at that), check out Eric’s set over at Flickr. (Yes, they’re for sale.) (Kidding.) (Kind of.)

Wine Wishes & Cupcake Dreams

If you don’t remember watching that show, I feel vaguely sorry for you.

Nearly every Tuesday night, I can be found at the same place with the same assortment of friends. As I told Marc, the capable bartender at this establishment, I think it says a lot about the group of people and the libations he serves up that the night I look forward to most in my week isn’t Friday or Saturday, but Tuesday. It’s almost a reward for making it through Monday and Second Monday (because, let’s be honest, that’s all Tuesday really is).

The people that gather here every week are the brothers and sisters I never had, and the sense of family and comfort and assurance that you’re accepted as yourself at all times is strong and encouraging. As is the wine.

The cupcakes, on the other hand, are just divine.

Continue reading Wine Wishes & Cupcake Dreams

The Dallas Farmers Market: What Houston Should Aspire To Emulate

That’s probably the only time you’ll ever hear me say that Houston should aspire to mimic anything that Dallas has done, and that includes things about Dallas that I do find quite lovely: the Arboretum, the Kalachandji temple, the new Whole Foods at Park Lane, large swaths of Lower Greenville and the redevelopment of Oak Cliff. As far as those things are concerned, I feel like Houston has our own interesting versions of them and doesn’t need to look to Dallas as a role model for such things.

But when it comes to the gigantic Farmers Market in downtown Dallas, I feel only a heavy heart for Houston.

It’s long been a fact that our own farmers markets have been segmented due to in-fighting and petty disagreements among the various organizers and farmers themselves. Way to let your entire city down because of ego and unresolved drama, folks.

There have been strides made, of course, and as a result we have a plethora of great markets to choose from…but most of them are only open on specific days of the week and most of them have a limited selection. How wonderful would it be if Houston had a central farmers market that was open at least five days a week, if not seven? I know full well that I’m probably the eight millionth person to complain about this and that my two cents are just that…two cents out of many.

So instead of whining and moaning, let’s be inspired by some of the photos from the Dallas market. Maybe we can be the change we hope to see in Houston.

Continue reading The Dallas Farmers Market: What Houston Should Aspire To Emulate

To Everything (Turn, Turn, Turn)

I started this blog in November 2007. Over two and a half years later, things have changed significantly.

I am no longer employed in the HR department of a large, corporate behemoth, but am now working for an alt weekly.

I am no longer married, but am now kicking it Mary Tyler Moore-style surrounded by amazing friends and a supportive family.

I am no longer living in a thoroughly modern condo in the suburbs, but am now the current custodian of a lovely 1920s slice of history in the inner city.

And soon I will no longer be the web editor for the Houston Press, the amazing job that I’ve held for the past year and a half. Continue reading To Everything (Turn, Turn, Turn)

The Art of Charcuterie

My first “real” feature for the Houston Press, “Designer Meats,” came out last Thursday. It was the third attempt at writing a full-blown feature in a couple of months, as my first two ideas fell though.

Charcuterie is something I’ve always been interested in, and was planning on doing a series of blog posts for Eating…Our Words about the various chefs around town who were reviving the craft here in Houston (seeing as how it’s already experienced a long overdue renaissance in other cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco).

So when my other two stories fell through, this seemed like the perfect answer: combine all those blog posts I was going to do into one, full-length story. Brilliant! Except for one thing…

I found out through the course of interviewing various chefs that some charcuterie — in particular, the hard cured meats that are hung to dry — is considered illegal in Houston. It seemed ludicrous to me that a food preparation technique that has been around since the dawn of man and is still used throughout the world to this day would be illegal because U.S. health laws are still in the dark ages compared to, say, Europe. On the other hand, this wasn’t why I set out to do the story and I eventually turned in my copy with no mention of the illegality of the situation.

You can probably guess what happened next. Continue reading The Art of Charcuterie

Maple-Mustard-Ginger Glazed Chicken

Another night at home? With no events to attend? Cooking for myself? With fresh veggies and fruits and a bottle of wine? This must be what heaven is like.

I had expected to have some friends over tonight, but the rain saw fit to give us a literal raincheck. Only wanting to cook something for one, as well as use up some stuff I’d bought a few days earlier at random, I threw together a pantry meal that made me as happy as any meal in a restaurant.

I had one chicken breast left over from Friday night, so I butterflied it and made a glaze of one part maple syrup, one part ginger and two parts Gulden’s brown mustard, with a pinch of salt, then set about pan-searing it. (With all apologies to Plinio, for whom the phrase “pan-seared” is offensively redundant.) In another pan, I cooked down some fingerling potatoes and multi-colored French baby carrots. I left the carrots a little crunchy, which is how I prefer them and — if I’m being honest — why I sometimes prefer cooking for one. We can indulge in all of our strange dining peccadillos without imposing them on others.

If I weren’t feeling so tired tonight (and if I hadn’t been so hungry), I would have breaded the chicken and stuck it into the oven with that glaze. Perhaps next time. As it was, it was quite delicious. And dessert — the rest of the strawberries and raspberries from this weekend’s FAILberry pie — with a little almond milk and sugar — wasn’t too shabby, either.

I could get used to this.