Tuesday, April 22, 2008

baked feta with roasted tomatoes and greek olives

I've been craving Greek food ever since Michael Psilakis became New York's most-favored chef this winter with the nod from Food & Wine for "Best New Chef". I've visited his Upper West Side restaurant, Kefi, and loved it both times (and reviewed it on my former blog, Goûter), and I am dying to try Anthos. He must be doing something right, because Anthos is one of the only two Michelin-rated Greek restaurants in the world. Then, last night during my weekly romp around Whole Foods, I found the inspiration I needed to make my own Greek meal when I found a big, fresh, milky block of feta cheese.

I imagined this recipe all the way home on the subway, and it came out just as I had imagined. The ingredients in my Baked Feta with Greek Roasted Tomato Salad are simple; the creamy, salty feta cheese is complimented perfectly by the sweet, juicy red tomato, tangy red onion, and briney olives. With a drizzle of fine olive oil and a sprinkle of spices and lemon rind, this dish takes simple ingredients and makes a delicious Greek gourmet snack that anyone can make -- whether or not you're Michael Psilakis.


Serves 2 as an appetizer

1 block Feta Cheese
1 large Tomato
1/2 small Red Onion
Greek Kalamata and green olives
Fresh Oregano, minced
Lemon rind
Olive Oil
Salt & Pepper

Pre-heat oven to 400-degrees. Put a small roasting pan (or better yet, a clay pot) in the oven to warm.

Cut the tomato into large chunks. Slice the onion into paper-thin, half-moon slices, and separate. Toss together with a bit of olive oil and salt and pepper. Set aside.

Take out warmed pan from oven. Drizzle a bit of olive oil on the bottom, and place the feta block inside. Drizzle the top of the cheese with olive oil, and sprinkle with fresh oregano, lemon rind and pepper. Arrange tomato salad alongside the feta inside the pan.

Place pan in oven and cook until cheese begins to sizzle, about 7-10 minutes. (If using a clay pot, cook with cover on.) Once the cheese and tomatoes have become soft, transfer entire pan to broiler (remove lid if using clay pot), and broil on high, about 2-3 minutes, until cheese begins to brown.

Serve immediately with warm pita bread. Shots of ouzo and occasional plate-breaking are optional.

Monday, April 21, 2008

the perfect pantry

Spice table at Saxe-Breteuil market in Paris, 2005

The one thing that distinguishes a frugal gourmet from the rest of the hungry masses is a well-stocked pantry. Having a pantry full of ingredients, rather than snacks, paves the way for culinary innovation under any budget. The perfect pantry is an investment, and may initially cost a bit more than your regular trip to the grocery store. But once your pantry is stocked, your weekly grocery bills will decline, and the majority of your spending will be on fresh, seasonal produce, which is not only fresh and nutritious, but inexpensive.

As Michael Pollan writes in his book, In Defense of Food (Penguin Press, 2007): "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." This dietary trope has become an increasingly popular credo for cooks and eaters who are becoming more conscious of the importance of knowing the origins of their food. According to Pollan, a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, grains and the occasional animal protein, feeds the human body as it was meant to be fed, with food food, not cellophane-wrapped synthetics.

The additional benefit to this earthy way of eating is that it costs comparatively less. Anything that comes in a box can be sold at a higher price point than things that come in crates. Consider this: not only are you paying for the producer's name-brand label on the box, but you're also paying for the cost of packaging materials. So if you're trying to "make ends meat" and your shopping cart is regularly filled with grocery items instead of things from the produce section, try the following experiment. Take note of how much you spend on a regular grocery trip. Sometime in between shopping trips, go shopping for the items to put together The Perfect Pantry. Next shopping trip, only visit the produce, meat, and dairy sections (according to your taste). These items will become the main focus of your dishes, and your perfect pantry will supplement each meal. You'll see that your grocery bill will be significantly lower. Just remember that the items from your pantry trip are an investment, which in the long run cost you nothing. In economic terms, this is your deadweight loss, which ultimately is your culinary gain.

So what to buy for the perfect pantry? I've divided the contents of the pantry into seven groups: Grains, Legumes, Flours, Canned Goods and Butters, Nuts and Dried Fruit, Oils and Vinegars, and importantly, Spices. These will provide the backbone to any dish, allowing you to be creative with your fresh ingredients.

Here is a starter grocery list of my favorite and trusty items that will transform your snack cupboard into a chef's stockroom.


  • Bulgur
  • Couscous
  • Rice
  • Farro
  • Quinoa
  • Oats
  • Pasta (a box or more each of long form pasta, ribbon pasta, and tubular pasta)*
Legumes (canned or dried)
  • Chick peas
  • Cannenelli beans
  • Black / pinto / butter beans
  • Lentils
  • Unbleached white flour
  • Whole wheat flour
  • Whole wheat / unbleached white pastry flour
Canned Goods and Butters
  • San Marzano peeled tomatoes (look at cans to be sure that the variety is San Marzano)
  • Tomato paste
  • Capers
  • A nut butter (peanut, almond, cashew, etc)
  • Tahini (sesame butter)
Nuts and Dried Fruit
  • Raw Walnuts
  • Raw Almonds
  • Pignoli (pine) nuts (can be quite expensive)
  • A variety of seed, like pumpkin
  • Raisins / currants
Oils and Vinegars
  • Olive oil (for cooking)
  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • Sesame Oil
  • Nut oil (i.e., pumpkin seed oil, walnut oil)
  • Balsamic vinegar
  • White wine / champagne vinegar
  • Rice wine vinegar
  • Peppercorns (use only freshly ground pepper)
  • Salt (kosher salt for cooking, and a sea salt variety in a grinder for flavoring)
  • Cumin
  • Cinnamon
  • Bay Leaves
  • Chili powder
  • Nutmeg
  • Saffron
  • Curry powder and/or Garam Masala
  • Coriander
  • Mustard
  • Tumeric
  • Dried oregano
  • Dried rosemary
  • Dried thyme

*Alternatively, you can make your own delicious, inexpensive, homemade pasta using the flour from your pantry if you have a pasta machine.

** Instead of wasting your money and your potential for flavor on dried herbs, garlic power, onion power, and powdered ginger, buy these ingredients fresh, when available. However, if the availability of fresh herbs is scarce, dried herbs are just fine, such as the ones I've suggested. Try to avoid buying dried leafy herbs, such as basil, cilantro, and parsley, as they dramatically lose their flavor and utility when dried.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

poor man's rice and beans fit for a raj

There's a place on Lafayette Street called La Conquita that serves up the cheapest food that money can buy: rice and beans. There's always a line around the block and into the door of this little shack where, for just $4, you can get a heaping pile of white rice or yellow rice with black beans or red beans garnished with sweet fried plantains and vineagared onions. And if that isn't enough to feed you for the next three days, for $2 more you can top it off with roast pork, barbeque chicken or goat stew.

Rice and beans is widely considered the perennial poor man's food. Rice is cheap, beans are cheap, and you can make them in large enough quantities to provide sustenance and complete protein nutrition for lots of people. It is, next to ramen noodles, the standard meal for those trying to make ends meet. What better what to kick off this blog than with a recipe for my version of rice and beans?

With a little bit of spice from the spice rack and some fudging on the traditional ingredients, I turned rice and beans into a nouveau-Indian gourmet meal. The basic ingredients are very inexpensive; the only things that will cost you are the spices and the wine. A good spice rack, however, is an essential investment for any kitchen, and if you have old wine left in your fridge, it's good enough to use here.


Serves 2 as a main course, 4 as a an appetizer

For the "Beans":

1/4 cup Spanish or Vidalia Onion, chopped
2 cloves Garlic, crushed
1/4 cup Tomato, chopped
1/2 tsp Cumin
1/2 tsp Curry
1/4 tsp Garam Masala
2 medium Bay Leaves
1/4 tsp Red Chili Powder (optional)
1 can Chick Peas
1/2 cup Water
1/2 cup Chicken Stock
Splash of leftover Wine, red or white
Olive Oil
Salt and Pepper, to taste

For the "rice":

1/4 Raisins or Currants
1/8 cup leftover Wine
1/2 cup Chicken Stock
1/2 cup Water
1 cup Cous Cous
Olive Oil
Salt and Pepper, to taste

One handful of Arugula per plate

*Cook's Note: Anytime you cook with beans from a can, you must rinse them well in a colander under fresh, running water. You will notice that bubbles will appear; rinse until bubbles are gone. These bubbles are the gas bubbles in the beans that -- if not rinsed out -- become gas bubbles in your body.

Heat a small pot. Add olive oil at room temperature on medium heat. Add onions, and cook until just transparent. Add crushed garlic and tomatoes, sauté until tomatoes are soft. Add spices and stir. Add chick peas and mix to coat in oil and spices. When chick peas start to sizzle, add a splash of wine. Once wine has let off its liquor, about a minute, add water and chicken stock. Cover partially with a lid and turn down to a simmer. Add salt and pepper to taste. Stir occasionally until chick peas reach desired softness, with enough liquid remaining to constitute a sauce. Additional stock and water may need to be added throughout the simmering process.

In another pot, heat a small swirl of olive oil on high heat. Add raisins and cook about thirty seconds to one minute, until raisins start to lose their wrinkle. Add wine, turn heat down to low, and reduce to allow wine to become absorbed into the now bloated raisins. Once the wine has evaporated completely, add water and chicken stock. Bring liquid to a boil, add couscous and stir. Turn down heat to low and allow couscous to absorb liquid, fluffing occasionally with a fork, about one minute. Turn off heat, fluff couscous, and allow it to absorb remaining liquid. Add salt and pepper to taste.

To arrange on a plate, take a serving of couscous (about 1/2 to 1 cup) and pack tightly into a measuring cup or a similarly round, flat-bottomed vessel. Quickly turn over cup onto a plate, and tap the bottom to release a molded mound of couscous. Arrange a small handful of arugula in a bunch on top of the couscous. Delicately spoon a helping of chick peas on top, dressing with a spoonful of sauce from pot on top and around the dish. Garnish with mint, if desired.

beginning advice

Photo © 2006, Conor Dubin

In 2006, New York Times reporter Darren Darlin wrote an article for soon-to-be college graduates about how to save money. His advice was: "Let's Start With That Daily Latte Latte". So often, especially here in New York, we get ripped off for things that become "luxury items" because of name brands, popularity, or even the affluence of the neighborhood in which you are purchasing. A coffee at a bodega in Harlem costs far less than a coffee at a bodega in SoHo. It's no surprise then that many of us in this food-obsessed city pay out the majority of our income on food-related items, whether on groceries, a fine meal, or your Starbucks addiction that only got worse since the corporation went coffee house.

In order to make ends meat, you have to start by being savvy about your consumption practices. Don't compromise quality, but do make what you are paying for count. I demand quality in what I eat, or else eating isn't worth it to me. I buy organic when available and reasonably affordable, and I eat at restaurants that serve quality food that is worth the price demanded. It isn't worth the dollar less to buy discount produce, nor is it worth it to me to buy a plate full of rice (origin unknown) from the Halal cart that could feed a small family for $6.

There are simple things that you can do to maximize the value of your food. For example, shopping at Citarella might be fun because their bags are so tote-able, but Fairway Market right next door is much less expensive, even if their double-bagged paper/plastic bags are hard to carry. Buying lunch at work is certainly easier than preparing something you can carry on your subway commute, but (especially in Manhattan) you'd save an astounding amount of money if you took the extra effort to prepare your own lunch. Getting ripped off on food is something that can easily be avoided. To begin the first of many tips to come, here is Darren Darlin's advice on economic eating:

Make your own coffee You probably know you spend a lot at Starbucks, a company that collected $6.4 billion from coffee drinkers last year. You probably don't have any idea how much of that total came from you. A calculator at www.hughchou.org/calc/coffee.cgi let's you figure that out and also forecast how much you will spend over a decade of coffee breaks. (This Web site contains a treasure trove of financial planning calculators.) Say you spend just $3.50 every workday for your latte. If you drank the free office brew instead, you'd have more than $11,500 to play with after 10 years.

Does coffee shop coffee taste better than the free stuff? Probably, but ask yourself, do you want to live in a roach-infested studio apartment with two roommates your entire life?

By the same logic, if you smoke, now is a good time to quit. Doing so will save you on average $25,600 over 10 years.

Learn to cook Unless you have learned the art of sneaking into conferences at hotels to snag a breakfast croissant or cocktail-hour shrimp, you need to reduce your dining budget. A twice-a-week kung pao chicken takeout habit can easily drain you of about $10,000 over 10 years.

At the very least, learn how to pack a lunch. Taking your lunch to work may seem like the equivalent of sitting with the nerds in the school cafeteria, and going out to lunch with colleagues can sometimes be a smart career move. But bringing your lunch lets you be more choosy about who you are eating with and saves money. How much? Back to the online calculators (www.hughchou.org/calc/lunch.cgi) and you'll discover that the savings could be as much as $23,000 in 10 years.

The tally so far: $34,500 (for the nonsmokers), or enough to make a down payment on a $172,500 house. That won't get you much in most big cities, so you really need to exert yourself.

From Darren Darlin, "Advice to All You Graduates: Let's Start with That Daily Latte", Your Money; The New York Times, June 10, 2006.

making ends meat

Late the other night around dinner time, I found myself staring into an empty refridgerator. The past few nights had been Yogurt & Granola Nights, and the night before that was Yet Another Salad. I was determined not to scramble an egg or nibble my way through the pantry; I was itching to cook and to taste something worthwhile. I couldn't buy more groceries for the week, and I also couldn't afford to get takeout. Living in New York City on my notoriously low publishing salary requires me to budget rather frugally. I have no choice but to adhere to it in order to continue surviving here in New York, one of the most expensive cities in the world. The problem is, I already spend the majority of my money on food (next to rent, of course), and even though I wasn't going hungry, I was absolutely starving.

I was running out of time and patience as I confronted my new reality staring back at me from the chilly refrigerator: my palate has outstretched my wallet.

New York is the culinary capital of America. The culture here is extremely gastrocentric: restaurants are at the top of the city's places to be seen, and social life revolves around the table (or the bar, since we all love dining at the bar now). Everyone is obsessed with food, and the town is brimming with hungry twentysomethings who define themselves as "foodies", though some of them don't even cook. Food is extremely accessible in the city since every restaurant delivers, from the local greasy Chinese joints to the nation's top gourmet restaurants. As a New Yorker, you can even get your groceries delivered, but if you prefer, you can go down to your neighborhood's and finger through crates of produce. Whatever your food fancy, you can find it in this city -- but you just have to be able to afford it.

So what happens when you're on a low budget but you've got high taste? I grew up in a family of cooks and eaters, so it would be impossible for me to neglect the importance of food. My favorite pastime is cooking, and my favorite urban activity is strolling through the maze of the Columbus Circle Whole Foods. But as of late, I've been out of time and out of money to make my food taste good. So now, more than ever, I am dusting off firing up the stove and my calculator to make sure that I go neither hungry nor broke.

making ends meat
is my endeavor to show you (and in part, to prove to myself) that with a bit of creativity you can eat gourmet meals any day of the week without spending the fortune you don't have.