Saturday, April 28, 2012

04.28.2012 Final Update to the $33 Challenge

          After one full week, I called it quits and went grocery shopping. I was missing protein, and getting tired of the frozen and processed foods. During the week, I cooked 12 meals, which averaged to $2.75 per meal. I ate several meals at friends’ houses, and went out for a couple of dinners but only spent a total of $40 at restaurants / bars.

          Since the tacos I posted about earlier this week, most of my meals included leftovers and more of the same. I did come up with two creative and tasty dinners similar to meals I’ve previously posted: mac and cheese and turkey meatball and tortellini soup.

Truffle Mac and Cheese with Chicken Sausage:

1. Prepare a box of Annie’s shells and white cheddar according to the directions
2. Brown two pieces of chicken apple sausage
3. Mix sausage into the mac and cheese
4. Stir in truffle salt to taste
5. Pour into a casserole dish, sprinkle parmesan cheese and bread crumbs on top
6. Bake for 20 minutes

Curried Turkey Meatball and Tortellini Soup:

1. Heat a package of chicken broth and 12 turkey meatballs over medium heat (covered)
2. Cook tortellini according to instructions
3. Stir in curry powder to taste
4. Add tortellini to broth and meatballs

          The challenge didn’t go quite as well as I’d hoped, but I think I was a little unrealistic about the sustainability and number of meals I'd get out of this. I did, however, come up with a few good recipes and prove to myself I could eat for less than $75 in a week. A huge improvement from the days when I ate out three meals a day and went to places like L’Espalier on a whim… progress takes baby steps and in the past year, I’ve come a long way!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

04-21-2012 Update on the $33 Challenge

          It’s been two days since I challenged myself to cook more, and see how many meals I can make with a $33 bag of groceries and some other basics I had on hand. So far, I’ve cooked four meals at home, starting my total count at four and the cost per meal at $8.25. I know I can do much better, but $8.25 per meal would be cheap if I dined out for three meals a day (and this used to be the norm).

          The first meal that wasn’t at home was a build your own pizza night with some friends. I considered this to be in the spirit of the challenge, despite not being cooked in my home. The second was a beer and light lunch while watching the Bruins game. This was not at all within the rules of the challenge, but I don’t plan to give up my social life completely. I expect to have at least a few meals out; I’ll track these along with the meals I cook, and days before I need groceries (not counting the milk I bought today with $2 in CVS rewards).

          I started out the first day by cooking two meals from ingredients I had on hand in my kitchen. Breakfast was a veggie scramble, I sautéed mushrooms and onions in a frying pan with some cooking spray, added one scrambled egg and egg white, and sprinkled the whole thing with some parmesan cheese. The scramble is my lazy version of an omelet; it doesn’t look quite as nice, but tastes just as good and doesn’t require any special folding and flipping skills (something I’ve never quite mastered)!

          While breakfast was cooking, I started some white bean soup from a mix I had (add water and boil for fifteen minutes). I’m good about eating breakfast at home every day, but I have a lot of trouble with lunch. I don’t like most cold sandwiches, and have an aversion to salad greens once they’ve been in my fridge for more than a day or two. Consequently, I eat lunch at one of the takeout places near work most weekdays. When I was thinking about this challenge and planning my meals, it occurred to me that I have plenty of time to boil some pasta or couscous in the morning, and could reheat it later for lunch. The soup was quick and easy, and I portioned it into three containers for three days lunch.

          Day two was another breakfast scramble, this time with some chicken sausage. I noticed the sausage wouldn’t be good for much longer, and I made a mental note to include it in more meals sooner rather than later. The most creative meal was dinner on day two: curried chicken and couscous tacos. I made one package of near east instant couscous (the Mediterranean Curry flavor) according to the directions on the box. While this was cooking, I heated up the precooked sliced chicken in a skillet with the spicy curry rub. When both the chicken and the couscous were done, I heated some corn tortillas in the skillet and assembled my tacos. They were delicious and had a little bit of a kick to them. They were so quick and easy, I could definitely see myself making this dish again (and maybe add some vegetables if I’m planning them in advance).

Friday, April 20, 2012

Truro Vineyards

         Truro vineyards is a small winery on Cape Cod with some great local wines. I tried them recently, when I went with a group on opening weekend to take advantage of the complimentary wine tasting (a special for just that weekend). The tasting included five of ten wines, and we were encouraged to pair up so we could try all ten. The wines were mostly standard, lower cost, but they ran out of the basic Cabernet Franc (probably a $15-$20 bottle) and substituted a bottle of the limited edition estate Cabernet Franc (a $35 bottle), which is typically only available to wine club members. This was by far the best wine we tasted, and not being able to pass up the chance at something so exclusive, I bought a bottle.

          Cabernet Franc is a black grape, often blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot to produce Bordeaux (or Bordeaux or styles of wine). On its own, it’s lighter and more similar to a Pinot noir. It generally pairs well with lighter meats and seafood dishes, and has flavors of pepper, tobacco, and berries. This particular bottle had stronger notes of strawberry and raspberry.

          Of the ten wines I sampled, the Cabernet Franc was my favorite but I also really liked the Vignoles, Cape Blush, and Triumph Red. The Vignoles reminded me of a semi-dry Riesling, light, crisp, and refreshing with just a hint of sweetness. The Cape Blush was a rose, made from a blend of Cayuga and Cabernet Franc. It was light and fruity, and I could really taste the strawberries from the Cabernet Franc. The Triumph was a Bordeaux-style wine, a bold red with lots of tannins and oak. These four were the wines that really stood out during the tasting, although there was not one that I tried and didn’t enjoy.

Taste of the Nation 2012

          Taste of the Nation is a food event run by Share our Strength, an organization dedicated to ending childhood hunger in America. It takes place every year in most major US cities, and 100% of the ticket proceeds go to toward the charity. Volunteers and restaurant sponsors make all of the events possible. I attend Taste of the Nation Boston just about every year, it’s always been my favorite food event and this year was no exception.

          Over 70 restaurants, wineries, breweries, and specialty stores participated this year and most of Boston’s big name Chefs were represented as well as many independent lesser-known places. No matter how hard I tried to remember all of them, I was only able to jot down about half of the dishes and restaurants I sampled. Some highlights include:

Grilled Jumbo Shrimp with curried couscous and vegetables from Hammersley's

Grilled Cheese and tomato soup from Trina's Starlite Lounge

Bacon and beer mac and cheese from Church
Baklava from Athans

Rock Shrimp Ceviche from Harvest

Squid ink lasagna from Tavalo

          There were several additional dishes that stood out, including the lamb gnocchi from 80 Thoreau, white asparagus royale from L'Espalier, steak tartare from Stella, and clam chowder ravioli from Adrian's. The only disappointment was that Neptune Oyster (in the VIP lounge) ran out of oysters relatively early, and by the time I made it to the lounge they had already packed up.

          There were also a ton of wineries, breweries, and restaurants handing out drinks. Some of the best were the martinis from drink in the VIP lounge, the Habanero watermelon margarita from Masa, and the wines from Joseph Mellot a French winery in the Centre-Loire region. The gentleman representing the winery was friendly, knowledgeable, and very generous with the wine! I sampled two sauvignon blancs, two cabernet francs, and a rose made from a pinot noir. All of the wines were delicious, and we learned the winery has won several awards and is ranked third in its region for excellence.

          This year, one of the major differences compared to prior years was the large number of contests and prizes. I entered at least half a dozen raffles for free dinners and brunches, purchased raffle tickets for more free dinners, and won a bottle of wine in a ring toss game (for a $25 donation).

          This year I stayed almost the full three and a half hours, which is something I've never done before. I could barely make the five minute walk home and collapsed into a food coma shortly after, which in my mind made the night a success! I enjoyed this year's Taste of the Nation as much as any I've attended in the past, it's for a great cause, and I'm already recommending it to people for next year!

The $33 Challenge

          Yesterday I bought one bag of groceries from Whole Foods for $33. In an effort to save money and eat healthy, I’m trying to cook more at home. In order to continue to have material for my blog, I decided to turn this into a challenge and write about it. I do have a backlog of restaurants to write about and I’m not going to stop going out entirely, so the $33 challenge posts will be mixed in with the standard restaurant and wine posts.

         The challenge is to see how many meals I can eat for $33 dollars. I’m allowing myself to use anything from the bag of groceries, anything on hand in my kitchen right now, and I’m counting meals based on the actual number of meals I get out of it rather than the number of unique dishes. For example, if I make a dinner one night and eat the leftovers for lunch two days in a row it will count as three meals.

The $33 bag of groceries included the following:

· One container of chicken broth
· One container of vegetable broth
· One package of precooked grilled chicken strips
· One can of white beans
· One can of lentils
· Three boxes of seasoned couscous
· One container of spicy curry rub
· One jar of balsamic vinegar
· One container of shredded parmesan cheese

Items on hand in my kitchen include:

· Eggs
· Egg whites
· Mushrooms
· Onion
· Frozen spinach
· Dried pasta
· Chicken sausage
· Misc. spices and seasonings (basics plus truffle salt and taco seasoning)
· Milk
· Butter
· Olive Oil
· Frozen turkey meatballs
· Frozen veggie burgers
· Frozen multigrain waffles
· Multi grain English muffins
· Soft corn tortillas
· Frozen polenta

Some possible meals I’ve come up with include:

· Turkey meatball and tortellini soup
· Curried chicken soup
· Curried lentil soup
· White bean, pasta, and vegetable soup
· Curried lentils and couscous
· White bean and parmesan couscous
· Pasta with chicken sausage and veggies
· Truffled pasta with mushrooms and spinach
· Polenta with truffle and parmesan cheese
· Chicken fajitas
· Bean and vegetable fajitas
· Vegetable omelets
· Chicken Sausage omelets

          The plan is to report back regularly on how many meals I’ve eaten with items from the list, and post about the interesting recipes I’ve come up with (if I eat a veggie burger or frozen waffles without doing anything creative I won’t post about it). Has anyone ever tried anything similar? Please comment with recipe ideas or if you want to share a related story!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Red Cottage (Cape Cod)

        The Red Cottage is an old-fashioned diner in Dennis (Cape Cod), that serves breakfast and lunch and is extremely popular with the locals. It’s small, cash only, and I’m told it’s the best breakfast in town.

          I tried it during a recent trip to the Cape, and even during the off-season, there was a little bit of a wait. The menu had several options I would have liked to try including biscuits and gravy, and many different types of pancakes and French toast. I decided on the plantation breakfast based on our server’s recommendation, and was glad that I did. It included three pieces of ham hock (all on the bone), buttered grits, a fresh baked (and then grilled) biscuit, and two poached eggs. I tried each component individually, then mixed the egg yolk in with the grits, chopped up the ham into small bites, and layered it on top of the biscuit. It was all delicious, and worked really well together. The combination reminded me of a shrimp and grits appetizer (minus the shrimp) I recently enjoyed at a southern style restaurant in Boston.

          The breakfast at Red Cottage was the best I’ve had in a while and without having tried any others, I have no trouble believing it’s the best in town. I’m excited to go back to the Cape and eat there again; I’ve already decided the next two meals will be biscuits and gravy, and French toast foster!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Blue Fin

          Blue Fin is a Sushi restaurant located in the Japanese food court of the Porter Exchange Building at Lesley College. The food court consists of mostly fast food type places (small, cash only, no bar), and Blue Fin is the exception – a sit down restaurant, with a full bar, and later hours. We walked in at 9pm on a Friday night hoping to grab a quick bite, but the smaller places were closed. We ended up at Blue Fin and were pleasantly surprised (although I would not have been surprised at all, if I had done my research ahead of time). After dinner, I checked out the website, and saw that Blue Fin is affiliated with Oga’s in Natick, which is one of the best sushi restaurants in the Boston area.

        We started with the avocado salad, which was excellent and unlike any I’ve had before. It included the traditional components: diced avocado, spicy mayo, shredded crabmeat, and fish roe. The thing that was unusual was that the avocado salad was served on top of a mixed green salad, but it worked really well. My only complaint was that we’d ordered the salmon avocado salad and they mixed up the order, but we enjoyed what we got and never mentioned it.

          For our main course, we shared three rolls: one spider maki, one sweet potato maki, and one specialty maki with raw tuna, tempura flakes, eel sauce, and spicy mayo. These were all delicious, but I was most impressed by the spider maki. It was the biggest I’ve ever seen, and included a whole soft-shell crab (most include only a claw or two). The crab was extremely fresh, and cooked fried perfectly.

          The meal at Blue Fin was outstanding, and I left wondering why I’d never tried it before. I tend to group sushi into three categories – the high end with truffles, fois gras, and caviar (there are only two of these places in Boston), cheaper takeout places that are good for the price, and everything else. I’ve had a couple of favorites in the "everything else" category for several years now, but after trying Blue Fin, it has moved to the top of that list.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Red Bones Food Truck

          Red Bones is a BBQ place in Somerville’s Davis Square, but I’ve never tried the actual restaurant. I’ve eaten from their booth several times at Taste of the Nation (my favorite food and wine event) and they are always one of the best. The restaurant has been on my list to try for a couple of years now, but for some reason I’ve never made it. I just recently tried the food truck right outside the Copley Square T Station, and had a great experience.

          I haven’t tried close to all of the food trucks in Boston, but I’ve been to a fair share and this was my favorite by far. The menu included a good selection of dinners (ribs, pulled pork, pulled chicken, BBQ beef) sandwiches, (pulled pork and chicken) and southern style sides (collard greens, corn bread, mac and cheese). I tried the ribs, which were $6 for a side of three. The order ended up coming with four and each rib had a ton of meat; I thought $6 was a very reasonable price. Despite coming from a truck, these were some of the best ribs I’ve had. They were falling off the bone tender, and had a nice charred smoky flavor. I sampled the three sauces, hot, mild, and sweet BBQ, and the sweet BBQ was my favorite. It went really well with the ribs, and made them taste even better.

          The ribs made me want to try the restaurant even more, but I would definitely go back to the food truck if I see it again downtown. However, I’m hoping to make it to the Davis Square restaurant soon, (maybe even before Taste of the Nation in two weeks)!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Wine Review: Tinto Pagos de Penafiel

          Tinto Pagos de Penafiel is a Spanish red wine produced in the Ribera del Duero, region, and made from the black grape Tinto Fino (a regional version of Tempranillo). Like most Spanish reds, it is very bold and flavorful. Spain has a classification system similar to Italy based on region and quality (and stricter production requirements), but is different in that there is a separate classification for the aging length and method. Ribera del Duero is both a DO, the second highest classification in terms of quality (comparable to Italy’s DOC) and crianza, which means it must be aged for 2 years with at least 6 months in oak.

          The 2004 Tinto Pagos de Penafiel from the Hijos de Antonio Polo winery is my favorite Ribera del Duero, and one of my very favorite red wines. I’ve only seen it in two wine stores: Ball Square Fine Wines in Somerville and Fifth Ave Liquors in Millis. It’s available by the bottle and half bottle; a bottle is usually in the low twenties and half bottles are around fifteen dollars. The half bottles seem to be more readily available, which are a little pricey, but the wine is absolutely delicious, and has won several awards including a ranking of 90 points by Robert Parker.

          This wine is very rich and complex with notes of dried fruit (I usually taste cherries or berries) and spice, and pairs well with red meats like lamb and steak. I most recently had some with my restaurant week dinner at Tangierino. I had been drinking a cocktail when I ordered my dinner, and didn’t even look at the wine menu (although I often choose my wine and food together). Just before the main course, I decided to switch to red wine, and was psyched to see this on the menu. I ordered the half bottle and it went perfectly with the lamb and seven vegetable couscous.

Monday, April 2, 2012


          Tangierinos is a Moroccan restaurant with a lounge and hookah bar downstairs. It’s located in a small Charleston neighborhood with an old New England feel. The atmosphere was fantastic and perfect date spot with dim lighting, lots of candles, rose petals on the tables, couches and private booths with curtains around them, and belly dancers that come by the tables.

          I went recently for restaurant week and had a great experience. The menu was split into two sections, old (traditional) and new world (more creative and eclectic). We tried a mix of both, and each ordered something different for every course. We started with the Sahara shrimp and short rib appetizers. The shrimp were grilled and served with a spicy tomato sauce, toasted crostini, and a Moroccan vegetable spring roll. The beef short ribs were braised in an apricot and prune sauce, and served with crispy eggplant. Both were delicious, but very different. The shrimp was light and reminded me a little of Indian tandoori dishes, while the short ribs were much more rich and hearty.

          For entrees, we tried two lamb dishes: the couscous bidaoui and sultan’s kadra. The couscous bidaoui was a lamb shank braised in honey and rosemary, with a seven vegetable couscous. The lamb was falling off the bone, and the couscous was the best I’ve ever had – it was very fine, cooked to just the right consistency and tenderness. The sultan’s kadra was a rack of lamb, grilled to a perfect medium rare, served with cheese filled eggplant, mushrooms, apricots, and figs. The whole dish was also very good, but my favorite part was the eggplant.

        For dessert we tried the chocolate fondant and sorbet (which were the only two options on the restaurant week menu). The fondant was a slice of dark chocolate cake, with layers of chocolate fudge and raspberry. The sorbet was two scoops, one mango and one coconut. These were both good, but didn’t stand out in terms of concept or execution. I would have rather tried some of the more creative options on the regular dinner menu.

          After dinner, we went downstairs to check out the hookah lounge. They offered to seat us in the main lounge, where it was crowded and the tables were very close together. When we asked if there was a different table, they brought us back to the VIP area and explained the price was $40 instead of $30. We stayed for the experience but both thought it was a little overpriced. Overall, we had a great meal and experience, but both agreed we’d definitely go back for dinner but skip the hookah.