Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Being Cheap at The Farmer's Market

The familiar image of the farmers' market can be discouraging to people on a budget: trendy suburban professionals, walking their dog and baby, picking up fresh eggs, grass-fed beef, and some heirloom tomatoes, carried home in their SUV. If you examine the prices paid, it hardly feels like the bargain it allegedly should be. As per usual, though, it's because people are buying the wrong things. Farmers' markets are about getting closer to your food and improving efficiency for everyone involved.

For example, our last trip to the farmers' market (and our first trip of the year... it's been a late spring), we picked up a bunch of arugula, two bunches of asparagus, a bunch of green onions, and a few small yukon golds. Total cost was around 12 bucks, which is actually a good portion of our weekly budget. With our usual process, we'd scratch together one salad, a couple of garnishes before the onions went bad, and maybe some oven fries. Quality, natural produce demands a slightly different approach, though, so here are some techniques we've found useful to take advantage of the farmers' market.

First off, greens are going to come in a much more natural form. That batch of arugula only makes one salad, but that's because you're using it wrong. Farmers' market greens will generally be much more potent, because a lot of those things are really weeds. Most herbs, in fact, are really just Mediterranean weeds. The secret is that weeds are delicious, if you aren't too puritanical about it. The stems contain some delicious bitter compounds that really deepen with a bit of heat, and the tiny leaves have a colossal amount of flavor. You'd never find these parts in a supermarket, because the quality isn't immediately visually obvious, but they're well worth the extra preparation. Saute the greens with a bit of garlic and toss with pasta, or toss a couple handfuls on top of a just-cooked pizza, and the flavor will absolutely explode 3 bucks for a salad sucks, but for a huge handful of flavorful herbs, it's a fantastic bargain.

Second, if like us, you're only cooking for two, the quantities at the farmers' market can seem prohibitive. You buy huge amounts of produce pretty much anywhere, but the natural stuff goes bad way faster. The trick is to learn to be flexible with an ingredient, so you can use it in seven straight meals without it getting tired. Our green onions went into pasta carbonara, Chinese steamed dumplings, classic French omelets (with an American spelling, to confuse purists), and some fantastic improvised Asian lentil pancakes. Thus we blew through a whole bunch before they wilted to inedibility. Most of the cheaper ingredients you can get at these farmers' markets are things that grow practically everywhere with little effort, so they fit into a wide number of cuisines. Learn to cook in a number of styles, and you'll be able to take advantage of the easiest ingredients there are.

Finally, accept that sometimes you'll have to violate diets and schedules when you have fantastic produce around. A big pile of asparagus sauteed in butter has minerals and vitamins, but no caloric value. Spring asparagus is amazing, though, so sometimes it's worth it to eat a huge amount of asparagus for dinner, and have to make it up later with some hummus or carrot sticks. Especially in the upper Midwest, take advantage of delicious veggies while you can, and use staples to compensate for anything that lacks. You'll be eating beans and root vegetables all winter, so give yourself a break and eat some meals that have virtues other than protein and fiber every now and then.

Of course, the heirloom tomatoes and grass-fed beef are delicious too. I'm not proposing that you avoid them entirely (unless you're vegetarian or sensitive to tomatoes, like our household). You can't subsist entirely on them without seriously depleting your bank account and your digestive system, though, and this blog is really all about filling in that gap. So we'll keep you updated as more things come into season around here, but that's a pretty solid start to the bargain ingredients.

Monday, May 26, 2008


So it's slowly heating up out here in the Midwest, and I finally found someone who stocks soda cartridges. This brilliant confluence has led me to the holy grail of summer drinks: Sparkling Punch.

Classic punch consists simply of sour citrus, sugar, and rum, diluted with ice or water. Many variations have been made since, but there's a reason this one's classic. The best rum we've found for this purpose is Cruzan Dark; it's made in the Virgin Islands, so no import taxes, and it also doesn't advertise. Seriously, like ever. That's why you've never heard of it. That makes it cheap, and it's way superior to anything in its class. Obviously not top shelf, but come on, it's punch.

You will also need some kind of sour citrus. Lime is the most obvious, but you can swap some out for interesting fruits (pineapple, guava, pomegranate, what have you), and any other kind of citrus will work instead. Finally, you need sugar to sweeten. I highly recommend turbinado sugar for all purposes, but it's essential for this: nothing else will have the same flavor profile.

Make a quick syrup out of equal parts sugar and water. Squeeze your citrus juice fresh (it makes all the difference). It's also worth slicing off some peel from your fruits; the bitter compounds make a nice addition to the taste. Once your syrup is dissolved, put it in the freezer to cool down.

Now take your pitcher and pour in your fruit juice. Add most, but not all, of your cooled syrup; you should have about a 1:2 ratio between lime and sugar, but it mostly depends on your taste, so use a light hand and taste frequently. Now, pour in your dark rum to double the volume. 3 rum : 2 sugar : 1 lime juice, according to the ridiculous rhyme:

One of sour, (lime)
Two of sweet, (sugar syrup)
Three of strong, (rum)
Four of weak. (hahaha)

Now, your goal is to add as much rum and as little sugar as possible until it fits your taste. Let's be honest, who the hell wants fruit in their drink? I usually just start dumping rum in at this point until you can begin to taste its darker notes, then add sugar until the lime juice smooths out.

Now, add the pieces of fruit peel and toss your pitcher in the fridge. Once it's cool, you're ready to serve. Fill a glass with ice cubes, then pour your punch about halfway up the glass. Top it off with soda water (fresh from a seltzer bottle is really ideal; use premade only if you are too silly to invest in proper machinery). It's very light and refreshing, you can make huge quantities (really, quite huge) in advance, and it will get you drunk like you thought only champagne could.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

How To Actually Make Hummus

So pretty much everyone is familiar with hummus these days. It's standard party fare, it's usually involved in a restaurant's vegetarian "option", and even well-adjusted Midwestern football players admit to liking it. It's also a perfect staple food: it work on sandwiches, pairs well with vegetables, has a large amount of protein and fiber, and is easy to make ahead. Hardly anyone does, though, and it's hard to eat it like a staple food if you buy it at pre-made prices.

No doubt a number of people have shared my experience of homemade hummus, though: way too thick and chunky, so much raw garlic it sears, often strangely colored... not a pleasant experience all-around. So I puttered around online, trying to find how it's actually supposed to be made, and I learned a few things:

1) You must use dried chickpeas, not canned ones.
2) The proper ingredients are chickpeas, lemon, and garlic. Anything else can be added, to alter flavor or texture, but those three are it for essentials.
3) It should always be modified right before you use it, to suit the purpose.

So, this is how I now make my stock hummus recipe, to keep in the fridge:

Put some dried chickpeas (around a half cup) into a medium-large plastic container. Add around a teaspoon of baking soda. Whaaa, you say? Any dried legume toughens up in the presence of acids, and it's essential to keep the chickpeas light and fluffy, so you add baking soda to counteract any potential acidity. Cover with several inches of water and leave them soaking overnight, or for 24 hours in the fridge.

Once they're good and soaked, drain them and add put them in a pan with more baking soda. Also, toss in some black pepper. Cover by an inch with water, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook, uncovered. When you can pick up a chickpea in a spoon and mash it easily with another spoon, your chickpeas are done.

This next step is way easier if you have a food processor or immersion blender; any large blunt object and a bowl will also work, but it will take a lot more effort, so consider investing. Put the chickpeas in your FP or a container, and add enough of the cooking water to almost reach the top of the chickpeas. Hit "blend", or go, or start mashing like crazy. Your goal is a thin, light paste; it will be slightly sticky and starchy, but it should be smooth and even. If it's too thick, add some more of the cooking water until it reaches a thin, light consistency. You can't really overwork the paste, but on a labor-saving principle, when it's smooth enough, let yourself be done.

Now, mince about 5 cloves of garlic and toss them into your hummus. Add a teaspoon, maybe 2, of salt to taste, and a tablespoon or so of tahini. This isn't necessary, but it's the flavor profile I like, so I add it here. You can use any kind of fat, from olive oil to peanut butter, whatever you like; it just helps a little with consistency. Run your FP or blender or primitive mashing mechanism a little longer, to blend thoroughly, and decant into some kind of container. Bam, hummus.

Before you use it for anything, take out the portion you'll need and add lemon juice; 2 lemons is enough for the entire recipe, so adjust accordingly. As a dip, add some olive oil over the top, maybe some minced parsley for garnish; in a sandwich, a pinch of cumin and chile powder adds some nice tang; for a pizza topping, add some roasted garlic and goat cheese; really, you can add what you like at this point. It's super-cheap to make this way, it's flexible, and it can be whipped up in big batches, so there's no excuse not to add this to your everyday diet.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Wonders of an Indian Grocery

Our sincere apologies for that month-long silence; be comforted to know that despite being very busy, we've managed to do some exploration of a new and important element in eating cheap, delicious vegetarian food. Yes, we finally made our way to an Indian grocery store.

Why are these things so wonderful? Well, first off, a higher proportion of Indians are vegetarian than not, so there's plenty of demand for vegetarian options. This means the food is cheaper and there's more to choose from. Also, the spice selections at these stores are literally jaw-dropping. You can stock a spice rack well for the next five years for under $40, again, because the customers actually buy and use spices. Plus, super-cheap lentils and beans.

Anyways, we found an ingredient that we've introduced into our larder, probably for good: Chickpea, or gram, flour. It's used pretty extensively in Indian cuisine for frying batters, but it's also used in a little treat called "farinata" from the border regions between France and Italy. It's basically a springy crepe made from chickpeas, flavored with onions and rosemary, but of course that can be altered depending on how you're using it.

First, put a cup and a half of warm water in a bowl. Next, slowly sift a cup of chickpea flour into the bowl. Chickpea flour clumps, no matter what, so either use a fine-mesh strainer, or do what we do: take a fine-mesh produce bag and repurpose it as a strainer. It's actually a little faster and more effective, plus it's free (assuming you've used the produce that came in it). Chickpea flour, like any other, weighs about 4.5 ounces to the cup, if you're doing it on a scale like I do.

Next, add a couple tablespoons of olive oil and a couple big pinches of salt and pepper. This mixture can sit for anywhere from a few minutes to a day in the fridge; it does produce a slightly more resilient texture if you let it sit at least 8 hours, but if you're eating it by itself, it doesn't really need it.

When you're ready to cook, preheat your oven to 450°F and get a heavy iron skillet heating over medium flame. Slice a half onion very, very thinly, and pick about a tablespoon of rosemary leaves; stir these into the batter. You can, alternatively, add garlic, or a spice mix like garam masala, or really any flavoring component to fit the rest of the meal. When your skillet is hot, add olive oil to cover, and wait until it shimmers and runs easily (should be almost immediate). Then, working quickly, pour the batter in a thin layer over the bottom of the pan and toss into the oven. Check after about 5 minutes to see if the center has set up; it usually takes 7-10, but it can vary.

Once the center is set and the edges look crisp, pull out the pan, smack the handle with the palm of your hand, and slide the pancake out. Add oil to cover again, pour in another layer of batter, and slide back into the oven. The flame was really just to preheat the pan for the first one. Repeat the process from here until your pancakes are finished.

These things taste like the world's finest fried food. They are, like all chickpea products, loaded with protein, and if you let the batter sit for long enough, they are a perfectly serviceable flatbread. Also, they allow me to achieve my dream of a meal composed entirely of chickpea: farinata, spread with hummus, rolled around falafel. Maybe one day, Anna will actually let me try it. I'll report back when that day comes.