Friday, August 28, 2009

Coping with Expensive and Exotic Ingredients

I appreciate good food, which is why I love to cook at home. I like to use the freshest and healthiest ingredients possible and I find that it is more cost-effective to create high-quality and fresh recipes at home.

The "curse" of being a foodie is that my palate is sensitive. I can taste the difference between different brands of orange juice. I know that my marinara isn't the same if I use dried basil instead of fresh. I'm disappointed if my lasagna or homemade pizza is made with anything other than fresh mozzarella. We can tell if coffee is "old" (brewed more than 15 minutes ago). And I'd never, ever choose to use the "Parmesan" cheese from the green canister; mine has to be fresh.

Obviously, my food preferences have an impact on our grocery bill. Fortunately, I'm only shopping for two. Still, we're on a budget, so I've employed some creative tactics. These are the strategies I use to get by:

1. I shop at Costco. My husband and I love Costco. At different points of time we've also been members of BJ's and Sam's Club, but when Costco came to our area ten years ago, we were sold. When I tell people that the staff at Costco knows me by name I get the response "I don't like to buy in bulk." Costco isn't really about buying in bulk, it's about quality. I could go on and on about the tires we've had installed on our cars, the plasma tv, the Crock Pot, the beach chair, the shrubs for our landscape, and the designer jeans, but I'll just focus on the savings we get on food. Surprisingly, Costco doesn't just sell food in huge portions. On weekends we can buy seafood by the pound at prices lower than our local grocery store. When we do buy meats in bulk (ground turkey, chicken breasts, pork tenderloin) they are already sold in vacuum-sealed portions that work for our mealtimes. All we need to do is toss them in the fridge or freezer. I also purchase ingredients that would otherwise be out of our price range for weekly shopping like brie, shrimp, fresh raspberries, and organic chicken stock. Not everything at Costco is a deal (soda and pasta seem overpriced), but if you have storage space and you shop smart, you can buy better quality for less money at Costco.

2. I have a garden. We have an extremely small yard (1/8 acre), yet I've found that container gardening works for me. Every May I plant tomatoes, peppers, and herbs in pots on our deck. By July I am feasting on my veggies and by August I am drowning in them. By late September my plants die off, but not before I have my fill of seasonal produce. My garden pays off most with the fresh herbs (thyme, basil, sage, rosemary, and chives). Fresh herbs are expensive and highly perishable. I grow my own, so for at least five months a year I have access to tasty herbs that enhance everything I cook. If I do not have the space and time to grow a particular fruit or vegetable, I purchase it from roadside stand (abundant in South Jersey, where I work) or on sale at the grocery store. I also freeze some fruits (blueberries, cherries, strawberries, and peaches) and store them in our second freezer in the basement.

3. I try not to order alcohol when I dine out. Instead, we keep a well-stocked bar at home. There are some exceptions to this rule: happy hour specials and restaurants known for a signature drink. For the most part, however, I either skip the alcohol or limit myself to one drink. From my experience, many restaurants serve cheap wine for high prices or make mixed drinks weak and with inferior ingredients. We prefer to spend our cash at the liquor store purchasing our favorite beverages and make high quality drinks at home. It's also both safer and cheaper to consume alcohol at home. We have all of the appropriate glassware (pilsners, hurricanes, wine goblets, etc.), so it's just like being out at a fancy restaurant.

4. I use a Food Saver. If I find a 10 lb. pork loin on sale for .89/lb. I divide it into 4 pieces and immediately vacuum seal it with the Food Saver and put it in our freezer. We also vacuum seal our coffee and wine to maintain fresh flavor. Yes, it's a cheesy infomercial gadget, but it works.

In addition to these strategies, I also plan our meals based on what we have overstocked in our pantry and freezer and what is on sale at the market on any given week. I don't purchase out of season produce. I'm just as likely as the next person to get lazy on a Wednesday after work and order pizza, but when I cook at home I am able to plan meals around good ingredients acquired at the best price.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Eggplant Lasagna

I love eggplant. I love (good) lasagna. Since my garden is currently exploding with plum tomatoes (great for homemade marinara), basil, and eggplants (actually, I didn't plant any this year, but they are really fresh and affordable right now), I created my version of eggplant lasagna.

Since this is a vegetarian dish, I figured I'd need to serve it with pasta or something more substantial. I took one bite and was surprised that this is lighter than traditional lasagna, but it doesn't need any pasta. We heated a loaf of crusty bread and this was a meal in itself. It's also pretty lean, so I didn't feel as guilty as I would when eating a cheesy, meat-laden, pasta-filled traditional lasagna. Unfortunately, eggplant is one of the few foods that my husband won't try, so my mom and I had this dish to ourselves. Try this one!


2 medium eggplants (about 1 lb. each)
l lb. fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced thin
1/2 c. Parmesan cheese
15 oz. part-skim ricotta (about 2 cups)
1 egg
chopped fresh basil (about 10 leaves)
1 t. garlic powder
1 quart marinara sauce (I prefer homemade, but do what you gotta do)
extra virgin olive oil
kosher salt

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2. Peel the eggplants (I prefer to peel in stripes, leaving on half the skin). Cut lengthwise into 1/2 inch slices.
3. Line 2 baking sheets with foil. Lay the sliced eggplant on the baking sheets and salt the eggplant to absorb moisture and remove bitterness. Let the salted eggplant sit for 15 minutes, then rinse the eggplant, pat it try, and return it to the baking sheets.
4. Brush the eggplant lightly with olive oil and bake for 15 minutes, or until tender and light brown. Set eggplant aside to cool.
5. While the eggplant bakes, mix the ricotta, egg, Parmesan, and garlic powder in a bowl. Add pepper to taste. Set aside.
5. Spray a large, deep baking pan (I use 9x15) with nonstick spray. Spread a thin layer of marinara on the bottom of the pan. Layer eggplant, 1/2 the mozzarella (I shredded it, but I think it's better sliced), 1/2 of the ricotta mixture (this layer will be thin), and marinara. Repeat once and end with a layer of marinara. Sprinkle the top with a handful of extra Parmesan.6. Bake at 400 degrees for 50 minutes, or until bubbly throughout. Let cool at least 20 minutes before serving.

Wouldn't it be great if I had a picture of the finished product? Um... it was so good that my mom and I ate it all, packed up the rest for lunch tomorrow and forgot to take a picture. I'll try to get a snapshot next time I make this dish!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


I am fortunate enough to live less than 90 minutes from the Atlantic Ocean. I've always lived relatively close to the beach, but for years I would only see the ocean a few times a year. Recently, I decided that we needed to make the most of summer and make more day trips to the beach.

In our area, overnight excursions to beach resorts can cost as much as $300/night, but I can have a fun-filled day at the beach (including parking and food) for less than $50.

I'm happy to say that I've spent more days at the beach in 2009 than in years past. The closest "real" beach to my home is Rehoboth Beach, DE, so that's our beach of choice. Not only does it have a cute boardwalk and tax-free outlet shopping, it also has some cool places to eat.

Now, my mom is a converted Delawarean (we're all South Jersey natives), so she loves Grotto Pizza, the "official" pizza of the Delaware beaches. We always go to Grotto's when we visit the beach, but in May I saw an advertisement for a new contemporary Asian restaurant, Saketumi. I love Asian food plus this place advertised a happy hour 7 days a week. I knew I had to check it out.

The atmosphere is contemporary with lots of dark woods and shiny textiles. The bar area is cozy and stylish with a big plasma tv. I think happy hour at Saketumi is a great way to end a day at the beach, plus the drink and food specials are great.

As adventurous as I've become with food, I didn't try sushi until this year. My husband ordered a salmon roll, I tasted it, and it was all over. Because sushi is half price at happy hour I took the opportunity to hone my chop stick skills and try lots of different stuff. I don't like everything, but I've had so much fun trying the different options.

If you aren't a sushi person, there's plenty of other goodies on the happy hour menu. There's coconut shrimp, lettuce rolls, spring rolls, and a selection of half-price drinks. Their dinner menu is also impressive.

Personally, I love a good happy hour because two adults can have a variety of food and drinks and still keep the tab under $30.

If you're in the area, check it out.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Fridge 8.16.09

There's a feature every month in Every Day with Rachael Ray (magazine) where Rachael has a picture of celebrity with his or her open fridge. Rachael asks the person questions about the contents of their fridge and the answers are supposed to tell you more about the person.

I have no idea what the contents of my fridge say about me, but I figured I'd give this a try. I chose five items that aren't normally in my fridge and explained them. I also numbered the picture (hope you can see it).

This picture was taken this past Sunday evening, normally the peak day for the fridge.

1. box o' wine - So, we don't normally drink our wine from a box. This is nothing against boxed wine drinkers, but my husband likes reds and I like whites, so we normally just open our own smaller bottles. Boxes tend to have at least two if not four bottles worth of alcohol and although they are supposed to have a long shelf life, we just don't deal with them. This is a box of Merlot that was brought to our home for a recent barbecue (we appreciate it). I think it's weird to store red wine in the fridge, but that's what the box told us to do. My husband enjoyed a glass, I used some in the minestrone soup (see #2) and I'm planning to use some of it to make sangria this weekend.

2. soup - I made a large pot (5 quarts) of minestrone soup with a modified version of a recipe from Tyler's Ultimate ( Normally I portion the soup into quart-sized containers and share some with mom, eat some for lunch the next day, and freeze the rest.

3. sangria - Mom made me a batch of white sangria. Yum!

4. quiche - I had a bunch of random stuff in the fridge on Saturday and I figured we needed to eat breakfast/brunch, so I made a breakfast quiche. I had an open package of bacon, some cheddar, and too many eggs and a refrigerated pie crust. Quiche!

5. jalapenos - Does anybody need them? I planted one jalapeno plant in my garden this summer and it's producing like crazy. I can only eat so many and my hubby doesn't really like them! I pick them every day and they are starting to pile up.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Cuisinart Food Processor

When my husband and I married in 2005, we registered for a Cuisinart Duet Blender/Food Processor and were very happy to recieve one as a gift. Although it proved difficult to clean and at times nearly impossible to re-assemble, it worked.

We still use it as a blender, but as my cooking skills improved, I realized that a mini bowl just wasn't going to cut it for substantial batches of fresh salsa, bruschetta, and large quantities of grated cheese. It was time to take a big step...

In December 2008, my husband decided that I "needed" a real food processor and bought me a lovely, full-size stainless steel machine. Initially, I was quite frustrated that he spent that much money and that he bought me a kichen applicance for Christmas. I got over that the first time I used it. Look out world! I can now make anything from cookie dough to bean dip in my food processor! I can slice raw chicken (partially frozen), chop veggies into pieces so small that they can't be detected by veggie-haters, and make huge batches of homemade salsa for warm nights on the deck. It's kind of a pain to clean, but it's dishwasher safe, so I can't complain. When my mighty Kitchen Aid Artisan went down last weekend, the Cuisinart picked up the slack and whipped up my cookie dough. Put this one on your list.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Kitchen Safety

Last Friday I had an accident. A freak accident.

We were preparing for a gathering for my husband's birthday. I was using my beloved Cusinart food processor to whip up a marinade for pork chops. My husband had just walked the dogs and our papillon, Zelda, bolted into the kitchen, excited about dinner. She ran under my feet. The work bowl was in my hand. I stumbled. The blade flew in the air. Somehow the arch of my foot (only protected by a leather flip flop) landed on the blade. I was in shock. Blood everywhere. My husband couldn't even understand how it happened. Neither could I.

Needless to say we tried to fix it with a BandAid and an Ace bandage (I know!) and we ended up in the emergency room. I now have 7 stitches in my left foot. Oh, and I have to take antibiotics for 10 days. The great part? Although the pain was excruciating, I didn't need a tetnus shot because this wasn't my first kitchen accident. I nearly cut off the tip of my finger with a Santoku knife in April 2007 (see my old blog:

After two trips to the emergency room (both related to kitchen accidents), I have some new rules:

1. When using a knife, always curve your fingers inward to avoid cutting your fingertips.
2. No flip flops, sandals, or bare feet in the kitchen. Ever.
3. Keep hyper dogs away from food preparation areas.

Lessons learned. The stitches come out next Monday.

Friday, August 7, 2009


I purchased my All-Clad Stainless Steel set 5 years ago. At the time I was working at a specialty kitchen store and recieved a generous discount on the set. Even with the discount, it was difficult to part with the money, especially since I wasn't that great of a cook.

Since that time, I've started cooking a lot more (maybe because I now have the proper pots and pans for the job!). I absolutely love All-Clad and looking back, I would have paid full-price for the set. I don't like cooking in other people's kitchens anymore because they don't have All-Clad. My mother has Calphalon and she wants my All-Clad.

The heat retention in the pots is wonderful. I can make a pot of soup and it will actually stay piping hot for hours... after it is removed from the stove. I originally was concerned with food sticking to the stainless surface, but the surface actually starts to repel food after a few uses, strange as it sounds. When I sautee onions or other sticky foods, I just add some oil, and I'm good to go. I still keep a set of relatively inexpensive Teflon frying pans for quick jobs like grilled cheese. I can't say enough about how well this cookware is made. The handles are attached so strongly that I doubt they'd ever move. You can scrub the pots and pans with almost anything and they still look new. You can put them in the oven, burn food on them, immerse them in water... they still clean up like new.

I love my All-Clad so much that we had a lighted pot rack installed above our kitchen island to store and display our cookware. The rack makes it even easier for me to grab my pots and pans and cook!

I'll always have All-Clad now. I will eventually add addtional pieces to my collection. If you decide to invest in this cookware, you'll have it for life.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Chicken and Smoked Sausage Etouffee

 Recipe adapted from Tyler's Ultimate on The Food Network:

I used 4 bone-in chicken breasts instead of thighs because I don't like dark meat. For my taste, I'd add a bit more cayenne (red) pepper. I served it over white rice and it was a complete meal.

It took 2 hours and the roux was a bit tricky, but we LOVED this meal. The leftovers were great, too. I've never been to New Orleans, but if the food tastes like this, I need to get there! I've had gumbo, etouffee, and jambalaya at restaurants and this one beat them all. Best part? I made it myself!

My Life On A Plate

I originally started blogging in 2005 (see "You Knew This...", my old blog). I stopped blogging in 2007 when I got caught up with work, school, and online social networking (a.k.a. Facebook).

I decided to start blogging again after recently following some excellent blogs. I also realized that social networking sites are a great way to share day-to-day info with people I know, but blogging would be a great way for me to document some of my more creative activities like cooking, baking, gardening, and home improvment.

So, here's My Life On A Plate. It's 2009 and my plate is really full with school, work and family, but I still make time for creative activities, especially cooking. This blog is a place where I'll share my creative side. Enjoy!
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