Thursday, May 28, 2015

Cheap Eats! 8 Tips to Trim Your Grocery Budget

When I was 22 years old and had just graduated from college, I got in a lot of arguments with my boyfriend about cheese. We were on a tight budget, and he objected to extravagances like gorgonzola. I didn't dump him, but let's just say, no man is standing between me and my blue. My counter argument? First of all, he had the metabolism of a baby cheetah and ate way more than half our food, so I insisted on a few reserve items. Second of all, we were saving money just by shopping for and cooking our own food in the first place.

Cooking for yourself is usually cheaper, especially when you're smart about how you stock the fridge. Think about all of the lattes, turkey sandwiches, takeout, and delivery you've shelled out for in the past month. Well, I'm an English major, so I'll spare you the bad math, but there's no contest! Doing it yourself pays off, and it's not hard, once you get into the habit. Personally, I don't track every penny spent. But I do jot down a weekly menu plan, keep in mind a general number, and rely on some good common sense when I'm loading up the cart.

Here are eight tips and tricks for trimming the fat from your weekly grocery budget.

1.) First of all, COOK! 

Groceries are almost always cheaper than restaurant fare. Up your grocery budget, cut back on eating out, and you'll be amazed by how much further those hard-earned dollars go.

2.) Shop smart 

Going to the store is step one. Making good choices is step two. Avoid prepackaged meals, or as I like to think of it, Trader Joe's syndrome. Man cannot live on frozen samosas alone! And the Whole Foods hot bar is one step away from highway robbery. Shop the perimeter, load up on fresh produce, raid the bulk bins, and yes, buy stuff you're planning on cooking yourself.

3.) Eat veggie

I'm not flexitarian because it's cool. I'm just cheap. For my weekly shop, I buy one piece of fish and one piece of red meat, because I love them, but they cost more. Round out the week with healthy, hearty veggie dinners. Rice, beans, potatoes, yams, carrots, and broccoli are all cheap and satisfying.

4.) Know your cuts

When you do eat meat, scout the case and spot where you can save. I'm always astonished that boneless, skinless chicken breasts are so expensive. By the pound, thighs are more affordable, a whole bird is even better. Chuck, flank, and blade are among the most cheapest beef cuts, best in slow-simmered stews. With fish, know your varieties and watch for sales. (As a Pacific Northwesterner, I can't recommend farmed fish for flavor, but yes, it's another option.)

5.) Leftovers with a twist

The best budget dinners stretch for more than one meal. My favorite example is a classic roast chicken. Eat the drumsticks and wings with mashed potatoes, chop up the breast meat for salads and sandwiches, shred the thighs and slip them into a soup or stew. The same principal goes for a big pot of beans (served warm with avocado and salsa, folded into a burrito, turned into chili) or grains (as a side for fish, topped with a fried egg and sprouts in a grain bowl, tossed with veggies and vinaigrette in a salad). Buy and cook it once, savor all week.

6.) Stash it in the freezer

Or, if you've had enough of the same flavor, save it for later! I rarely cook a meal that only consists of one or two servings, and making a big batch is usually the most economical. Soups, stews, and curries all reheat beautifully.

7.) Waste not, want not

My friend Kathryn confided that what keeps her from cooking is the prospect of throwing out ingredients at the end of the week. I sympathize. Life happens, and no one likes to feel like she's wasting food or money. But good housekeeping comes with experience. If you're new to planning a weekly menu and budget, start small. Cook once this week. Take it up to twice. Try to anticipate the nights you'll be busy, so you're not setting yourself up for failure. Get into a good rhythm and make it a habit.

8.) Go fridge-diving

We've all had those nights when we stand in front of the fridge and think, "We have nothing for dinner." Reality check: Your kitchen is probably full of food. I almost always have pasta and marinara, bread and ricotta, rice and frozen veggies, and eggs. Spaghetti, cheese toast, risotto with peas, fried rice with eggs, an omelette, or a scramble are all perfectly respectable dinners. Get creative! Dive in and dig in.

You can find the recipe for Jacket Potatoes with Fillings (pictured) in my cookbook, How to Feed Yourself.

Do you have any favorite ways to save money on food?

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Ten 10-Minute Dinners for When You Just Can't

Do you really cook every night of the week?

People ask me this question all of the time. First, I mention that I wrote a cookbook. They exclaim, "That's awesome!" and "I really need to cook more!" Then they slip into a guilt-ridden revelry. Maybe they start thinking about how busy they are, and how they really need to go grocery shopping, and sigh.

Do I cook every day? Heck no! Who has time for that? I'm a working girl. I have a demanding career and personal writing projects. There are plenty of nights when I get home from work and would rather collapse than pull out a casserole pan. (Plus, let's be honest--like any other young urban foodie, I consider going to restaurants a favorite extracurricular activity.)

But it depends what you consider cooking. I don't slave over a hot stove every night. But I do manage to eat at home a lot of the time, especially during the week. I shouldn't even say manage--that makes it sound like a chore. The truth is, I honestly like and prefer to eat at home most of the time.

Wait, what's the difference? For me, eating at home means cooking a big dinner on Sunday, like crispy roast chicken or a gooey lasagne. It means stumbling home on Monday night and having something comforting to warm up. It means having great go-to ingredients that can be thrown together for fast, flavorful meals that will see you through the rest of the week.

Making your own food is cheaper, quicker, and healthier. (You can pack a sandwich in less time than it takes to wait in line at the deli! You can shake a stir-fry way faster than you'll get that greasy delivery!) Most people get that, at least in theory. You might even have good intentions. But we all live in the real world, and when it's 8 o'clock on a Tuesday night and you're so hangry that you're ready to chew your arm off, it's all too easy to lean on the cupboard door with despair, and say, "F* this! I'm getting a burrito!"

It's times like these when I take a deep breath and refer to my mental catalog of "stuff I like to eat." Here are my top 10 favorite 10-minute dinners (yes, 10 minutes!), for those nights when you just can't see straight.

1.) Cowboy Chicken Salad (page 92)

Chop and drop some romaine, tomato, avocado, and chicken, throw in some black beans and corn, and drizzle it with lime juice and olive oil. Come and get it, cowboys and girls.

2.) Tossed Pasta with Tomatoes, Olives, and Fresh Mozzarella (page 45)

Pasta is cheap and fast, and my book includes several variations. I love bolognese or fresh basil pesto, but when I want to keep it super fresh, I turn to this quick combo of bursting cherry tomatoes, briny black olives, milky mozzarella, and fragrant basil leaves. Dinner is done in the number of minutes it takes to boil your pasta.

3.) Polenta with Marinara & Mozz

Did you know that polenta comes pre-made in tubes? Thickly slice and panfry it in olive oil. Douse with marinara, sprinkle with cheese, and you have a high comfort, low effort plate.
4.) Tortellini en Brodo with Kale (page 51)

Plump tortellini simmered in a rich beef broth is really as simple and delicious as it sounds. I drop in a handful of kale leaves to make it a meal. Don't forget to make it rain parmesan and fresh pepper.

5.) Existential Ramen with Chicken & Egg (page 89)

We're not talking packets, but it's pretty much that easy. Boil some noodles. Crack an egg into it. Add a handful of shredded chicken, if you've got it. Load up with fresh herbs, sesame oil, and hot sauce. Grab your chopsticks and go to town.

6.) Sriracha Fried Rice with a Sunny Egg (page 42)

If you've already got a pot of cold rice sitting in the fridge, dinner is just minutes away. Let it sizzle in a hot pan, scattershot it with veggies, and slide an egg on top.

7.) Sautéed Sole with Mango & Avocado Salad

Fish is always fast, especially thin sole fillets. I sauté them in olive oil, sprinkle them with cumin and chile, and toss together a fresh salad of arugula, mango, and avocado to pile on top.

8.) Beany Cheesy Burritos

Old-school ground beef burritos (page 106) are my jam, but on exceptionally lazy nights, skip the meat. Slap down a tortilla, mound with black beans, corn, and cheese, and warm through. Top with avocado, lettuce, salsa, sour cream, and dig in.

9.) Grain Bowls

Make a big pot of brown rice, quinoa, or farro on Sunday, and you have a great base for lunches and dinners all week. NYTimes throws out some cool ideas with kale and kimchi and chard and chorizo. I'm just as likely to go fridge diving and come out with more humble broccoli and cheese or asparagus and mushrooms. Don't hesitate to put an egg on it.

10.) Trendy Toast

Toast is super hot these days, which I find hilarious but also validating. (Every twenty-something has banged cheese on bread into the toaster and called it dinner, right?) The current more glamorous variations include smashed avocadofluffy ricotta, and hummus. I feel like everyone has forgotten how fabulous a smoked salmon tartine can be. But you can't go wrong with scrambled eggs. Imagine you're a short-order cook at a 50s diner: Adam and Eve on a raft and wreck 'em! Order up!

*You can find the full recipes for the southwest salad, tossed pasta, tortellini, ramen, and fried rice in my cookbook, How to Feed Yourself.

What do you make for dinner when you just can't?

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Cinephile Strikes Back: 2015 Oscar Nominations

Can we talk Oscar nominations for a second?

I'd like to take this opportunity to say that I actually went and saw all best-picture nominees this year. Every year, the Oscars come around, and I think to myself, why haven't I seen these movies? These look like great movies! I love going to the movies!

I also love guessing things correctly. So when they tear open the envelope, and draw out, "And the Oscar goes to ... " I can leap off the couch and scream, "I knew it! It had to be! It had to be!" Well, there is going to be a lot of wine spilled this year, my friends, because I did it. I saw them. I saw them all.

I feel like I've been waiting my entire life for this moment. I would like to thank the Academy; my friend Kathryn, who reminded me about the Oscars a good two months before deadline; my friend Amir, who was actually willing to see American Sniper; and my brother Jason, who agrees with me that Boyhood is the best thing to happen to anyone this year.

Let's talk contenders, shall we?

Boyhood was an unrivaled treat and if it doesn't win I'll hyperbolically die. (My next blog post: Fun alternatives to the widespread misuse of "literally"!) I loved everything about it: Watching the kids grow up naturally. How Ethan Hawke very unnaturally never seems to age. The Britney Spears and Harry Potter allusions. The sepia tone that spreads nostalgia throughout. The thoughts and fears and conversations that we all have growing up, and yet feel so profound when they're happening to you. It was an unprecedented storytelling technique and a profound experience.

Birdman is the next best contender. The long takes, blue tone, and jazz beat were striking, but I was often pulled out of world to think about those choices. Edward Norton was dynamite, and the scenes with him and Emma Stone during magic hour on the New York City rooftop were my favorites. It was unexpected and thought provoking and psychologically snaking, but a little too belabored to be flawless.

The Grand Budapest Hotel was a mad-cap caper and delight. I loved all the signature Wes Anderson elements: over-the-top costumes, off-kilter comedy, deadpan delivery, and characters who take themselves hilariously seriously. But he has yet to make anything as human as The Royal Tenenbaums. I laughed through Grand Budapest, I'm glad it got a nod, it's not going to win best picture.

The Theory of Everything was lovely. My astrophysicist boyfriend refused to see it because he felt that it was "going to be all about Stephen Hawking's personal life" and "no one talks about all the other famous physicists." The first point is true. The latter defies argument. But I loved these two talented British actors, I desperately wanted to live in Cambridge and go to the May Ball, and Stephen Hawking is undeniably a compelling subject. It's an extraordinary individual, an expansive idea, and a heart-wrenching story rolled into a beautifully executed movie.

The Imitation Game was one that I got dragged to with my science-loving boyfriend and history-loving father, placated by the prospect of Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley in period costumes. In this and other regards it did not disappoint. I was impressed by the film's success at building tension around a bunch of guys in suspenders watching a massive computer slowly tick in a solitary room--no small feat! Yet it seems to me that in terms of current social topics, gay rights should have been big this year. As my friend Katie pointed out, Alan Turing's personal life is hinted at but underrepresented.

American Sniper reminded me why I like Clint Eastwood films, and that it's good to see movies outside of your comfort genres. I'm not a war film fan, and it challenged and rewarded me. Bradley Cooper was impressively large (like whoa), I liked the not-too-smart, not-too-sappy soldier dialogue, and I was swept up into the sandstorm scene. Amir would like to point out that the pacing in the first half lagged, all of the Iraqi characters were portrayed as evil, and that the villain was too caricatured. I'll agree with all of those points. It still hit me hard.

Selma was strong, hard to watch, good to watch. Of the three biographical films this year, this one was the most narrowed in scope: you see Martin Luther King, Jr. at one moment, in one city, trying to make one march happen. I craved some language you'd expect (no "I dream" speeches here), but it's nice to see a focused film that doesn't try to cover the entire life of a much-covered figure. The film was tight and powerful. The violence is shocking, all the more because you know these were true events. Reverse cuts to the faces of bystanders were especially striking. It's hard to fathom having so much hatred for another human being.

Whiplash was my least favorite. I couldn't cope with the masochistic, bloody-knuckled drumming (just stop! let the blisters heal!), or vicious teacher-student relationship. According to the film's philosophy, this probably means that I will never be the world's greatest at anything. I'm pretty sure I'm cool with that. It was an intense movie, with strong performances, and gorgeous music. If you're into jazz, I'm sure you'll get more out of it.

Do you like watching Oscar nominees? Which were your favorites this year?

Friday, February 13, 2015

Seductively Easy Date-Night Steak

Valentine's Day! Flowers! Chocolates! Overpriced prix fixe!

Whether you're celebrating your sweetheart or drowning your sorrows with your single ladies, I say, skip the restaurant scene. Valentine's Day is possibly the best night of the year to eat in. It's painfully expensive and difficult to get a reservation. Plus, think of all the money you're saving! It's enough to make it seem totally reasonable to splurge on STEAK!
I'm partial to Porterhouse, a luscious T-bone, with tenderloin on one side, strip on the other. So if you can't decide on a favorite cut, have a bite of both. Plus, meat is always more tender and flavorful next to the bone. Just try to avoid gnawing in front of your date. (Do what I do, and stash bones in the fridge for the morning after.)

Mash some potatoes, drizzle them with truffle oil, sauté some veggies, and you have a sexy dinner that's deceptively easy to make. (Don't worry, I won't tell your date.) Go with a big, bold red, like Cabernet Sauvignon. I'll let you handle the mood lighting and music.

Oh, and dessert? If you think ahead and treat your valentine to those truffles, you might not even have to mess around with mousse.

You'll find the recipe for Porterhouse Steak with Pan Sauce in my cookbook, How to Feed Yourself.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Big Announcement: It's Finally Here!

I'm thrilled to announce the release of my new cookbook, How to Feed Yourself, a great go-to set of recipes for young and hungry cooks. Now available on Amazon!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

On Holiday in England & Scotland, in List Form

Is there anything as dreary as the end of a lovely vacation? I'm back from another gorgeous trip to the UK, and feeling glum. It's just not as easy getting out of bed in the morning, when you know nobody is going to say, "Alight here for Piccadilly Circus!" in an English accent.

England--or as I like to think of it, the homeland. You know how Jewish kids do Birthright, and African Americans take heritage trips? I don't mean to offend anyone, but personally, I like to wander the scarves section of Liberty London. It's an uplifting experience. I pay homage to my ancestral roots.

Stevie and I flew to London, took the train to Edinburgh, motored through Fort William and Glen Coe, tootled around the Isle of Skye for a few days, ferried down to Loch Lomond, met up with Stephen's family in Northumberland, and went back through London for the finish. Two-odd weeks in total, and many adventures had. I won't bore you with a blow-by-blow, but I do love writing lists.

400 meters of Hadrian's wall, and a Roman fort
8 cheeses sampled before 10 a.m. at Neal's Yard Dairy
5 new frocks (Topshop, Cath Kidston, Portobello Road market)
4 sticky toffee puddings
4 Scottish B&Bs that all served the same breakfast (eggs, sausages, rashers, tomatoes, mushrooms)
4 filming locations (Harry Potter, James Bond, Braveheart, Robin Hood Prince of Thieves)
3 major London sites (Tower of London, Cutty Sark, Greenwich Prime Meridian)
3 afternoon teas (The Cadogan, Fortnum & Mason, and a small shop in Northumberland)
3 posh department stores (Liberty, Harvey Nichols, Fortnum & Mason)
3 castles (Edinburgh, Stirling, Eilean Donan)
2 plays (Jeeves & Wooster Perfect Nonsense, King Lear)
2 historic markets (Borough Market, Portobello Road)
2 cheap street scarves
2 sturdy native ponies
1 Scotch distillery (Talisker)
1 very wet boat trip (where we saw a few soggy seals and no puffins at all, but made friends with a zany Frenchman and some St Andrews students)
1 birthday party for a 90-year-old gran
1 book shop that might just be my new favorite in the whole world (Barter Books)
1 needle-toothed puppy hanging out under the breakfast table (she liked the taste of Stephen!) 
Numerous highland cows standing in the road
Countless black-faced sheep
Ensemble cast of friends, family, and elderly British relatives

And just because I'm an English major, how about a few selected quotations?

Scottish boat captain: "Do I spy a midgy in here?"

Boat hand: "Where are you from, then?"
Becky: "California."
Boat hand: "California?! But you're too quiet to be American!"
Becky, indicating Stephen: "Well, he's English."

Castle guide, taking photo: "How well do you know the young lady?"
Stephen: "Er, pretty well, I suppose?"
Castle guide: "Go on, let's have one with a kiss, then!"

Musketeer re-enactor: "You had to light it using a bit of rope, and make sure to keep the gunpowder dry. Fortunately, it rarely rains in Scotland. The rainy season is just from January through December .... But if it was raining, there was another option. You could put a dagger on the end of the musket, and use it as a bayonet. Gunpowder costs money. Stabbing is free. Stabbing will always be the more popular option in Scotland."

Barney the Beefeater on Mel Gibson: "Now I loved Braveheart. It was a great film. Just not the most historically accurate. The portcullis at Traitors' Gate weighed XX tons. It took 30 men to lift it. Or, one Australian!"

Stephen, tasting hogget: "What was that bready thing, again?"
Becky: "You mean the sweetbreads?"
Stephen: "Yeah. What was that?"
Becky: "You didn't know what that was when you ordered?"
Stephen: "No. What was it?"
Becky: "Oh gosh."

I want to go back. And I want a scone.

Monday, February 17, 2014

What to Eat in San Francisco, 2014 Edition

Big news, guys, big news.

7x7 has released this year's Big Eat! 100 things to eat in SF before you die!! Ah!!! Commence foodie freakout.

Last year I made it through 20 of the 100. Not my best work. I blogged about this awesome mac and cheese, the finer points of a sardine chip, and life-saving super burritos. Let's review some other highlights, shall we?

I give you the reuben at the Bar Tartine sandwich shop. With award-winning bread and some serious pastrami, it's everything you've hoped and dreamed. 

A dozen Sweetwater oysters courtesy of Hog Island Oyster Co. So sweet, so clean, so San Francisco.  

I continue to feel that Farina is overpriced--I mean, if you're going to be "rustic Italian," do you have to have such an outrageous wine list? But for what it's worth, the mandilli al pesto is simply outstanding. One big handkerchief of fresh pasta folded around a slurry of fresh herbs. Green glop never tasted so good. 

Art's Cafe is a no-frills, no-fuss neighborhood joint in the Sunset. There are some interesting Asian-American tangents on the menu, but the claim to fame is the hashbrown sandwich, filled with cheddar, sausage, spinach, mushrooms, or whatever you like. Organic? Probably not. Delicious? Heck yeah! Hangover, cured.

One of the best things to happen to me this year is that my friend Mary Z moved two blocks away from Brenda's French Soul Food. We now get biscuits to go whenever we like. We eat them on her roof and laugh at all the schmucks waiting for a table. Feel free to die of jealousy.

For this year's list, I was thrilled to see some personal favorites make the cut. Let the record show that I fell in love with the chicken liver paté at Starbelly even before it was famous, and Pizzeria D, Boxing Room, Marlowe, and Kokkari are old friends. Others were good reminders: Still haven't made it out of the city to do Koi Palace, and I can't believe I haven't tried the veggie tacos at Gracias Madre yet. I also appreciated the nod to the current toast trend with Trouble Coffee, going to need to hit that soon. We'll do our best this year. 

Foodies of 'frisco, on your mark, get set, go!