Budget Epicurean

Budget Epicurean: November 2013

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Thanksgiving is for thanks-giving

In my previous post about Thanksgiving on a budget, I laid out the history of the North American Thanksgiving holiday. While it's taken quite a while to get to this point, the more recent incarnation of this holiday has been centered around giving thanks for what we have. Or at least it should be. As with most holidays in the US, the big companies try to take over and commercialize the living daylights out of everything. Now we can buy decorations, tablecloths, dinnerware, and all manner of turkey-themed knicknacks. The President of the United States even gets to issue a T-day proclamation and "pardon" a turkey, which ensures that particularly lucky bird will spend the rest of its life roaming freely and not trussed, stuffed, and roasted on a dinner table. Though there has been some suspicion involved in that whole process. The Huffington Post wrote a story last year about the fates of previously pardoned turkeys. Mental Floss also wrote a thorough post on the whole history of Presidential poultry pardoning.

There are also plenty of companies out there offering to cook part or all of your holiday meal. While that may be a good option if you're hosting a huge amount of people and would rather spend time with them than spend thirty straight hours in a kitchen, that is not the case for most people. And honestly, this holiday should be about spending time with your loved ones. They won't care if you don't have a perfect spiral, smoked, honey baked ham, if the turkey skin isn't just-right crispy, if the stuffing is a little dry (that's what gravy is for). We tend to put so much stress and importance on the perfect meal that we forget the purpose of having it: to be thankful. To count our blessings. To spend time with people we care about and share a meal together.

There have been tons of psychological experiments on the psychological and physical benefits of an "Attitude of Gratitude" with more being published all the time. People who practice gratitude consistently report stronger immune systems, more joy, optimism, and less feelings of loneliness. The Huffington Post wrote a great article on 10 Reasons Why Being Thankful Is Good For You. The reasons include better sleep, better grades, better relationships, improved heart health, and boosted immunity. Gratitude has been purported to help in many chronic health diseases like depression, CFIDS and Fibromyalgia. The CFIDS & Fibromyalgia website has an article summarizing a well-know gratitude book "Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier" by Robert Emmons. The NYTimes also wrote a nice article about the main points in Emmons' book.
The CFIDS & Fibromyalgia website also included a 5-point list of things you can do in your life to increase gratitude right now. To sum it up:

5 Things You Can Do To Increase Gratefulness Now

1. Keep a daily gratitude journal. Write down 3-5 things every day you are thankful for. You only need a sentence, and it could be as simple as the sunrise to a hug from a friend to a raise. 

2. Use a visual reminder. People are forgetful little things, out of sight out of mind. Write yourself post-its of all the good things and people in your life. Set an alarm to go off at different intervals to remind you to take a thank-you break.

3. Have a gratitude partner. Any habit is easier to maintain if you have accountability. Plus gr-attitudes are contagious. Make a point to cultivate relationships with other thankful people. One of your daily gratitudes can then be your thankfulness partner.

4. Make a public commitment. This goes along with #3 but is directly related to achievable goals and should be made more public, like a weekly thankful Facebook status, family, or join a support group.

5. Change your self-talk. Also known as an inner monologue, this is the voice running constantly in the back of your mind. Most people have lower mood when that voice is negative, "you're not good enough", "you'll never lost that weight", "that raise isn't gonna happen", etc. With conscious practice, you can rewrite the script to be more kind to yourself and the other people in your life. 

This list is at my desk in lab, where I see it every day.

The University of California, Berkeley is launching a 3-year long, $6.5 million initiative: Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude. This project aims to increase scientific knowledge of the process and benefits of gratefulness as well as to educate the general public on current knowledge and future findings. They will be exploring everything from the neuroscience of gratitude to gratefulness in romantic relationships to how thankfulness may reduce bullying. All good stuff I think. You can find out more about the project here.

So if the stuffing is a little dry, be thankful you have stuffing at all. If the bird is slightly burnt, be thankful the nine hours of roasting killed any harmful bacteria on it. If the family feud begins somewhere between "grace" and "pass the pumpkin pie", be grateful you have a family to share this day with in the first place. I am so very grateful for my family, my amazing mother and grandmother who taught me how to cook and supported me through burnt popcorn and un-jelled Jello. My dad for teaching me the value of a dollar and good financial practices. My many friends and roommates over the years who suffered through many first attempts at recipes and recipe creations. I am thankful for the ability to get in my working car, drive to a store which is less than twenty minutes away, fill a cart with fresh, tasty foods, and pay for it without worrying about overdrawing my credit. I am thankful that I now have the ability to cook healthy, hearty, delicious meals, and the ability to share that with the internet world. I will be giving many thanks this Thursday, and I hope you will too.

Thank you for reading! Happy Thanksgiving, readers.

More info:
For more information on ways gratitude is good for you, research, and ways to feel more thankful, check out Harvard Health's article: In Praise of Gratitude, Psychology Today about Giving thanks: The benefits of gratitude, Happier Human's blog The 31 Benefits of Gratitude You Didn't Know About, and Berkeley's video clip on the benefits of gratitude from Robert Emmon's himself.

Please share: What are you grateful for?

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Sunday, November 24, 2013

Thanksgiving Meal Under $20

The time of giving thanks is approaching! Everyone knows the beloved American holiday featuring a rather large, ugly bird. Kids drawn pictures of feathered Native Americans and buckle-hatted Pilgrims gathered around the cornucopia and a turkey drawn from your hand's outline. 

But like most American holidays the original meaning has become commercialized and veered a bit from the original. The first Thanksgiving meal happened in fall of 1621, sometime between mid-September and mid-November. It was to give thanks for a successful harvest, and the Pilgrims joined the local Wampanoag tribe to eat fowl, fish and deer, and probably local plants like berries, plums and boiled pumpkin. 

After that, it was not immediately a national holiday. That didn't happen until George Washington proclaimed Thursday, November 26, 1789, a "day of public thanksgiving and prayer" in honor of our new nation and brand new Constitution. Even then the holiday was not a set annual day. During Lincoln's presidency, when he needed a way to unite the states, he turned to Sarah Josepha Hale, writer of the famous "Mary Had a Little Lamb" rhyme. She thought the holiday would be a way to infuse the nation with hope and belief in itself and the Constitution. Thus Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November a national holiday.

FDR caused a bit of a ruckus when he tried to change the date, causing TWO Thanksgivings in 1939 and 1940. Sounds awesome, two days of paid vacation, stuffing yourself and football right? Not so much, because some states kept the traditional date while others followed the President. Thus it caused some familiar discord as people had different days off, schools had to reschedule tests and vacations, and it sure is lucky airplanes weren't around yet, because that would have caused a lot of date-change booking fees. Congress finally got around to making it into law that the fourth Thursday of November was the official and forever Thanksgiving Day.

If you're heading into T-Day with a lot of things to be thankful for, but a large bank balance isn't one of them, fear not. You can still have a stellar feast, and for less than an Andrew Jackson. 

Now, for the remainder of this post I will make a few assumptions. Don't be offended if they don't apply to you. Adjust the advice accordingly.

1. You will be feeding 2-4 people.
2. You want turkey and not a ham.
3. You want the most "traditional" American dishes.
4. You have twenty dollars.
5. You have basic cooking equipment and knowledge.

Ok, so for the "traditional" American feast, the most common dishes are:
*The Turkey
*Mashed Potatoes
*Green Bean Casserole
*Cranberry Sauce
*Pumpkin Pie

That's what we need to make, as inexpensively as possible. If those don't sound right or aren't quite what you want, try here for thousands more Thanksgiving day recipes. 

*The Turkey (free - $7)
Here we have a few options. You aren't likely to find a whole bird under $20. There are a few ways around it. Some stores run specials leading up to T-day such that you purchase a certain amount of groceries and get a free bird. If you had planned spending $100 in groceries into your budget anyways, pick up that free bird! If not, you still have choices. One option is to purchase only turkey drumsticks rather than the whole bird. I just saw these at a store, four drums for $5-7. Your other option is to purchase mini hens/ducks or a whole chicken. If the people you're cooking for won't care what type of fowl they eat, this can get you a bird for $4-7 as well.

*Stuffing ($1 - $3)
If you're good with boxed types, keep an eye on sales. These can be picked up for $1 or less per box, and you'll probably need at least two. If you want to make your own, you'll need a loaf of stale bread, 2 cups stock, seasoning, and 1 cup diced & sauteed celery/carrot/onion. all together the ingredients shouldn't cost more than $3. Mix it all and bake at 350 inside the bird or in a casserole dish for 30-40 minutes.

*Mashed Potatoes ($1 - $3)
Again, if you don't mind the boxed stuff, I've seen this at the dollar store as well as on sale for $1 or less. To make your own, peel and dice about a pound of potatoes per person. Boil the potatoes in salted water until soft, about 10 minutes. Drain and put back into the pot. Mash or use a hand blender. Add in garlic salt, butter, sour cream, and/or milk to your desired taste and consistency.

*Green Bean Casserole ($2)
A good old stand by favorite, this is nothing more than a can of cut green beans mixed with a can of cream of mushroom sauce. If you've been good about sales you should be able to get at least two cans of each for less than $2. You can also be fancy and use a pound or two of fresh green beans, cleaned and boiled. The fanciest is to add some french friend onions or crushed potato chips on top.

*Cranberry Sauce ($1 - $2)
Buy a can of this jello like fruity goop for $1 or less, it will probably not all be eaten. Or you can get yourself a bag of fresh cranberries on sale. Mix 1 cup water, 1 cup sugar and the cranberries in a sauce pot. Bring to a boil, then simmer for about ten minutes, or until cranberries burst. At this point you can add anything you like, such as cinnamon or nutmeg, chopped almonds or pecans, orange zest or blueberries or raisins. Cool and then put in the refrigerator until served.

*Pumpkin Pie ($1 - $3)
If you get lucky and find a frozen or fresh pie on sale you like, go for it. However if you want the homemade touch, take 1 can pumpkin puree, 1 can sweetened condensed milk, 2 eggs, and pumpkin pie spice (or combination cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice) and a pie crust. Mix all ingredients and pour into the crust. Bake at 425 for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 and bake another 30-45 minutes, until set.

Total: $6 - $20

So you see you can indeed enjoy an all-American thankful feast for under $20. Also of note, there are lots of things that go on deep sale during the holidays that you use other times of the year. If you're an avid baker and find a 4 for $1 sale on condensed milk, snap that up! If celery is .50 per pound, buy a whole bunch and freeze some for soup, or use it at Christmas. Especially if you have a big freezer, when the birds left are taking up space the day after Thanksgiving, head to the grocery store after your Black Friday shopping for steep discounts on fowl, and freeze it for Christmas or any time of the year. Happy bargain-hunting!

If you have any budget-friendly holiday tips, please share!

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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Stuffed Pork Chops

What would Thanksgiving be without stuffing? Incomplete, in my opinion. I had never made stuffing myself before (I know, pause to gasp in shock) and so as per usual, I turned to multitudes of online recipes, compared that to what I had in my kitchen, and then just dove in with both feet. Hands, actually. You're welcome. To prepare for next week's big day, I made some stuffing and wrapped it in a slab of pig. Because 'Murica.

Stuffing is also called 'dressing', and rarely 'forcemeat' (because who wants to eat bread mush with a name like that?); it is a mixture of carbohydrates and occasionally other meats, sometimes with eggs mixed in. It is usually stuffed inside the body cavity of an animal (hence the name) and baked within it, then served alongside the meat. Records of various stuffing recipes exist as far back as the Roman Empire, which published a kitchen anthology titled Apicius which lists thousands of Roman recipes. An article from Kitchen Project goes more into detail about the history and evolution of stuffing if you're interested or want to try something different this year. But if you love the old easy standby, Stove Top, don't feel bad. Introduced in 1972 and now owned by Kraft Foods, they sell nearly 60 million boxes every year around Thanksgiving. That's a lotta stale bread.

So with that in mind, let's get to the stuffing of meats! For stuffed pork chops, I made the stuffing, pounded the meat thin, then rolled it around a gob of the bread mush. It tastes way better than I'm making it sound, trust me! This recipe can also easily be doubled, tripled, whatever, depending on how many you're feeding. It can also be a great way to use up leftover pre-made stuffing in the days after Thanksgiving when you're tired of just having it with turkey.

2 pork chops
3 sliced day-old bread, cubed
1 tbsp Italian seasonings
1 tsp dried onion
1 tsp paprika
1 egg
2/3 cup broth 

Step 1: Use fresh pork chops, or thawed if frozen. You'll need to cover them with plastic wrap, then using a rolling pin or other such heavy, blunt object, pound the meat until it is about 1/4-1/2 inch thick. Ideally your chops will be wide yet long, so they can close around a cups' worth of stuffing.

Step 2: Chop up the stale bread slices or lightly toasted bread into inch cubes. Put into a medium bowl, and mix in the broth and seasonings. You want the bread wet but not soupy. Finally add the egg to bind and mix it all well. This should make about 1 1/2 - 2 cups. 

Step 3: Divide the stuffing between the two chops, and scoop a handful into the center of one. Roll up both sides so they touch or cross on top and secure with a toothpick or twine.
Step 4: Put the stuffed chops in an oven-safe pan and bake at 350 for 45-50 minutes, until pork is totally done, at least 145 degrees. The chops should be nicely golden and tender, the stuffing soft inside and crunchy without. Serve with side dishes of your choice. I made some rice and poured my 'special' mushroom gravy over it. (Secret: It's a can of cream of mushroom soup. For reals.)

If you have a favorite recipe which uses up leftover stuffing after Thanksgiving, please share!

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Sunday, November 17, 2013

True Stories of Juicing

Raw Juice: what's fact and what's hype?
For several years now I've been dabbling in "healthy stuff" like juicing. As most things do, it began as just a curiosity, what's it all about. I read articles and books and opinions of people who have tried juicing in various ways and for various amounts of time. There are some super-intense proponents of juicing, like this guy. His name is Joe Cross, and he claims juicing saved his life. He has a documentary on Netflix and free online called "Fat Sick and Nearly Dead" as well as a blog. Before you think "ok, crazy extremists who make these claims just want us to buy their juicer", let me say that recognized sources like WebMD and even Dr. Oz tout the benefits of juicing while giving adequate attention to the possible drawbacks.

Fruit and vegetable juices retain most of the chemicals which make them so good for us in the first place, like chlorophyll, anthocyanins, antioxidants and flavonoids. It is important to note that although adding juice to a well rounded, healthy diet is an excellent idea, beware falling into thinking that juicing is the only or best way to be healthy, or that only juices are good for you and you should avoid whole foods. That is not at all what I'm saying. Juicing also takes out all the fiber from these wonder foods, fiber that your body needs for its normal digestive process. For a list of nearly 50 more fascinating raw food juice facts, check this out.

Now, before you rush out and buy a $300 juicer, consider your needs. Are you just beginning to dabble in this juicing craze? Do you just want a healthy beverage now and then, as well as pulp to put into soup and muffins? Are you already a hard-core health nut ready to begin adding daily juices to your diet? There are two types of juicers, a centrifugal juicer or a masticating juicer. Centrifugal machines work by chopping the food into tiny pieces and spinning it to separate the juices. They are typically smaller and less expensive. You won't get as much of the nutrients, but they do the job. Masticating juicers work by mashing and grinding the food, producing a thicker, pulpier juice with the majority of the nutrients. They are typically larger and more expensive. You can check out a wide array on Amazon (not an affiliate link. I will get no benefit if you look or buy). 

Funny story, my juicer was actually free. I'm a member of an online community called SparkPeople which has nutrition and exercise trackers, recipes, articles, community boards and much more. I highly recommend it if you want a simple, informative website to keep track of your health stats. Anyways, there was a forum about juicing, and I posted in it that I was curious about juicing. It lead to several conversations about types of juicers, uses, etc. A fellow member sent me a personal message saying that she had just gotten a newer, larger juicer as a gift and had an old one she didn't need anymore. Of course I was skeptical, but sure enough two weeks later a gorgeous little blue and white juicer showed up! 

My gorgeous gift, courtesy of a kind fellow Spark-er!

I was thrilled, and thanked her profusely. Since then I've dabbled on and off with various types of fruits and vegetables and recipes, and learned a little along the way. Following is a list of rules I've determined for myself. They may not all work for you, but enjoy learning from my experience.

Jen's Five Juicing Rules: 

1. Take the time to cut off the peels. Seriously, juicing the peels too gives the final juice a bitter, sour taste that is not really pleasant, regardless of what other goodies are in there.Of course, mine is a centrifugal juicer, not meant for large pieces of whole fruit. If you have a masticating one, it might be ok.

2. Know the limits of your machine. If you have one of the huge, fancy juicers you can pretty much throw a whole watermelon into, good for you! Most likely you do not, so know how large of a piece of food your machine can handle at a time, and if you're doing a large batch clean it a few times throughout to keep it from clogging up.

3. Wash your juicer immediately once finished. Dried on fruit and vegetable bits are gross, start to smell, and are much harder to scrape off the inside of a fruit chute than fresh.  I promise the chlorophyll and phytochemicals won't fall apart in the time it takes to give it a quick rinse.

4. Always throw in a little something sweet. Even the most hard-core purist who drinks three glasses of green juice a day has to admit kale, spinach and carrots alone don't taste super great. Especially if you're just starting out with juicing, give yourself some slack and add some apple juice or berries to everything.  

5. Don't be afraid to try new things. I juiced anything I could get my hands on for a while. Sure I made some mistakes (see the list at the end of things that are HORRIBLE juiced) but I also found a lot of new fruits and veggies I didn't know I liked. 

Prepping for juicing: lots of fresh fruits and veggies

This will become many tasty beverages for the week.
Mmmm green juice, that's the best way to start the day.

Things that are seriously gross when juiced:
Garlic - maybe for cooking, but holy cow this stuff is strong! Gag-inducing, even in small amounts.

Things that will overwhelm the taste (use small amounts only):

Best things for juicing:
Berries (most of them)

Now that you know the facts, go ahead and find yourself a juicer (Amazon, Ebay, Walmart, Christmas present, Craigslist...) and get to creating!

Some recipes to get you started:

Citrus Refresher
~2 oranges, peels cut off
~2 apples
~2 large carrots
~1 lemon and/or lime

Green Machine
~1 large handful spinach or kale
~4 stalks celery
~1 large cucumber
~1 apple
~1 lime

Cold Crusher
~2 oranges
~1/2 a grapefruit
~1 apple
~1" chunk ginger
~1 lemon

If you have any juicing stories, advice or recipes, please share!

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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Ratatouille niçoise

There are several recipes or types of food which I've heard of, tried, or seen but have not yet tried to cook myself. One of those is ratatouille. The 2007 Disney movie brought the dish into the main stream consciousness with its adorable main character, Remy, a rat who just wanted to be a great chef. Ever since then it's been in the back of my mind as a 'make this someday' dish.

Ratatouille the dish is traditionally a French dish consisting of stewed vegetables. It originated in the French province of Nice, and comes from the Occitan language "ratatolha" and the French word "touiller" meaning to toss food. There are similar dishes in many other cuisines, including the Catalan samfaina, the Majorcan tombet, the Spanish pisto, the Italian caponata, Greek tourloú, and Filipino pinkabet. French chef Michel Guérard came up with a new version called Confit byaldi for the Disney movie. It can be served as a side dish, or made a whole meal when served over rice.

In my version, I pulled together several variations, and used what I had available in my kitchen. I had planned on a potato leek soup sometime this week, but silly me had only bought one leek, so into the ratatouille it went. While I'm at it, I'll throw the potato in there too. Oh, and a single turnip I had bought for who knows what reason. Also I had no fresh tomatoes, but my pantry is never without a can of diced tomatoes.

3 zucchini (I just happened to have three different colors, so at least it'll look pretty)
1 turnip
1 potato
1 leek
1/2 red onion
3 large bulbs garlic
1 leek
1 can diced tomatoes
2 tbsp butter or margarine
1/4 green bell pepper, sliced

Step 1: Slice the onion into thin strips, dice up the garlic, and slice the leek. Add them and the bell pepper to a frying pan on low with the butter and cover.
Let that cook and caramelize, stirring occasionally, while you preheat the oven to 350 and proceed to the next step. 

Step 2: Slice the zucchini into thin coins. Peel and slice the potato and turnip as well.

 Step 3: Layer the potato, turnip, and zucchini in a casserole pan.
Step 3: To the pan add the can of diced tomatoes. Bring to a boil, then pour over the vegetables in the casserole dish.
Step 4: Cover in foil and bake at 350 for 45 min to an hour. You'll know it's ready when the slices are soft when poked with a fork.

I also took the foil off after 45 minutes and let it bake another 15 minutes to evaporate some of the juices. You can now serve it over rice or couscous, with fresh crusty bread, and/or sprinkle on some mozzarella. Deliciously vegetarian and very low fat and low calorie. Bake up a batch, put on the Ratatouille movie or some classic Julia Child and enjoy!

If you have a favorite French recipe, anecdote of your trip Paris or first year of chef school, or a story of attempting a French recipe that ended unfortunately, please share here!

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The times they are a-changing...

Ok world, listen up. Things are changing around here, and changing soon. Rather than recipes only, sometimes I will include informative posts about things related to the world of cooking. Don't panic, you can still find plenty of culinary inspiration here. I will continue posting all my cheap, easy, fast, fun, filling, creative recipes. To that I will add an enrichment of reader's knowledge on all topics food, cooking and budgeting.

There will also be some tweaks to the layout and a re-naming. From my very first post on this fledgling blog to today,  many things have changed and yet many things have stayed the same. I have survived four years of undergraduate education, a masters degree, a thesis, many experiments, tests, quizzes, long nights, various jobs in restaurants and libraries, and have many great memories. I am no longer in college, but my philosophy of trying new, fun recipes while keeping it cheap and simple has remained. This blog is all about the creative fusion of new, strange ingredients with classic old standbys all while staying within a budget. 

Thus the name has evolved into "Budget Epicurean" to reflect the philosophy that eating inexpensively does not necessarily mean eating flavorlessly. A meal made for pennies can bring you great taste and joy. You can literally have your cake and eat it too!

Epicureanism is actually a system of philosophy based on the thoughts and teaching of Epicurus, a materialist from around 300 BC. He believed that "pleasure" is the greatest good, but unlike hedonism, he claimed that the way to attain such pleasure is to live modestly and to gain knowledge of the workings of the world and the limits of one's desires. The ultimate form of happiness was a state of freedom from fear (ataraxia) as well as freedom from pain (aponia). Today epicureanism is meant to imply a love of the finer things in life like art, food, and sensual pleasures even to excess. However a true follower of Epicurus knows that happiness does not come from over-indulgence but from balance, prudence, and contentment.

So from now on, look for new posts every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday! 
Keep being fabulous, guys!

If you have any comments, suggestions, or wish to write a guest post, please shoot me an email. Keep on creating. Thanks for reading!

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