Friday, February 26, 2010

Myth Busters

There are several correlations that exist in our culture that truly befuddle me. I don't have time to delve into that list and I'm sure that many of you wouldn't want to read it. What I have here to share with you is a list of a different sort. It's nothing new or exciting but here it is...

My grocery list.

It's nothing fancy but I think that it looks like a reasonably healthy collection of mostly whole foods. I try hard to feed myself and my family with stuff that tastes good and will nourish us so we can power through each day. Chris and I are both watching our diets so we try to make the most of our allotted calories we have each day. We're also trying to save money by reducing the amount that we spend eating at restaurants so I've been trying to jot down ideas for an assortment of things to enjoy for breakfasts, bagged lunches and dinners.

Where am I going on this tangent? I do actually have a point and it's this: There is a strange mindset that exists among a lot of people that eating healthy is expensive. I've heard so many people go on about how a healthy diet is out of their reach because because they cannot afford it. There are even several members of my family that believe this and feel that they're resigned to buying edible food-like substances in colorful boxes with characters on them and washing it down with a 24 pack of diet soda. I once heard a rule that seems to be golden as I see more and more grocery stores. The outer layer of the floor plan is usually where you should shop. The further into the middle you go, the more processed foods there are. The dairy, produce and other less complicated fare is all along the sides. I've also heard several people say that they don't know where to start when it comes to making healthy changes. I know that we get a lot of contradictory information as consumers when it comes to nutrition. I highly recommend this book.

Short, sweet and to the point. I learned a lot in the 10 minutes it took me to skim through it.

I am a Trader Joe's Queen. Almost all of the food you see and will continue to see on this blog was purchased there. I'm lucky enough to finally have one close to where I live! Their products are fun and simple with quality ingredients and no preservatives. I do buy some prepackaged stuff for days that I know I won't have time to cook. A frozen spinach pie or a pizza and a carton of tomato soup from TJ's is no worse than ordering it out and it takes 2% effort to make.

The vegetable based diet really helps with saving money so we can afford to spring for fancier veggies and quality ingredients. We also don't typically buy soda aside from an occasional 4 pack of Virgil's Root Beer which is usually a treat for everyone. Molly prefers milk to just about anything else and we drink a lot of water and tea. I've been all about the fiber lately so I try to eat a good bit of fruits, veggies and whole grain carbs. Typical breakfasts are quick aside from the few days a week I decide to cook something. It's usually half of a blueberry bran muffin and some cottage cheese. I love poached eggs and I'm a big fan of the Ezekiel line of breads. For lunch, I really like the frozen rice and bean burritos at TJ's and I take them with me to work at least 3 days out of the week with a piece of fruit. If I don't bring one, it's usually because I have leftovers from dinner. I haven't bought my lunch at work since the middle of December! I used to do it almost everyday so it's a big change.

Dinners vary and depend on my mood (and how tired I am!).

Smart Dogs with whole wheat pizza crust wrapped around them and baked is very popular with my family. We usually have it on Friday nights. I love them dipped in mustard and chili.

We love beans in this family. This is buttered toast with baked beans. In the summertime, we usually have fresh tomatoes with it. I jokingly think of it as "The Kerouac". Spinach and white beans is another favorite.

Some meals are a little more complicated...

Colorful bell peppers were on sale so I picked out one of each and stuffed them with white rice and black beans mixed with salsa and a bit of cheese. I simmered them for a bit and then let them brown in the oven. I served fresh guac on the side. I even had enough leftovers for two lunches the next day. It took a while to put together but I had company so that made it more fun. Anything remotely Mexican flavored will earn me an A+ with Chris and Molly. Burrito night never fails me.

When the West Windsor Farmer's Market opens back up in May, we'll be getting most of our produce from there. I can't believe how close it is! We get our public garden plot back in April!

I probably spend about $85 every week (give or take $10) on all of the different things I've mentioned. I think that list up there was about $75. Not too shabby considering it fed 3 people for several meals everyday. I also have to pack Molly a snack for school. Her teacher is a stickler for kids bringing in healthy food to hold them over until lunch and so M typically gets pistachios, cheese and crackers, applesauce or some fruit.

Our diet isn't anything too special but we like it. We're satisfied and we don't spend a lot of money. I read that the average American household spends 10% of their income on groceries. I see an investment in quality sustenance as a much better option than paying for a bunch of pharmacy visits in the future. I could go on and on about how even the slightest change in our way of thinking about food would be a definite variable in some very positive changes that would come about in our country but this ain't that kind of blog.

I just wanted to dispel the myth that we have to spend a lot of money to eat well.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Chick'n + Waffles

It's difficult to retrace my steps back to the root of this particular brunch that I prepared for myself today. My passion for sweet and salty definitely played a small role. I'm sure that I'm not the only one that has heard of the famous Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles (I recommend clucking the link). Two words that many people don't traditionally hear together in the same sentence but as they flow into your ears, you know immediately that it has to be as good as it sounds.

I try to keep my meat analogue intake down on the medium-low side but every once in a while, it's absolutely necessary to scratch an itch. I didn't eat breakfast this morning and because of the weather we were having...

...Molly and I did not go to work or school. She was supposed to go in a half of a day but I just didn't feel comfortable sending her out with the snow coming down the way that it was. It did end up slowing down but I'm still glad we laid low.

She has a small arsenal of breakfast food in the freezer. Maybe my child is a bit spoiled but she has either waffles or french toast every morning for breakfast along with maple syrup and a glass of milk. On Saturday nights, she defrosts some cheesy blintzes that she enjoys on Sunday morning. They're always ready to eat straight out of the box so I don't have to cook them. It works well for her because she normally wakes up before I do. I suppose I'm also spoiled since I have to do very little in order to put breakfast on the table for her.

As I waited for her waffles to toast, I thought the idea sounded especially good so when I did decide to eat, I just pulled two more out of the box. I like mine a little well done so I put the butter on before they went in and let them go for an extra half of a minute. They were perfect. I drizzled a small amount of syrup and let them sit for a bit. I'd already preheated and baked some Morningstar Buffalo Wings. Not too many, just enough to balance out the sweetness.

By the time I sat down, it was almost noon so I was pretty hungry. This meal didn't just hit the spot, it knocked it into next week. I decided to use some of my fancy dishes even though I was basically just defrosting food for myself.

Everyone enjoyed the dinner I lovingly prepared last night (stuffed peppers). It took a bit of time and effort but in the end, it was definitely worth it. Sometimes, however, I am just not in the mood to invest time and effort and I'm thankful for my freezer giving me the occasional option of fast, easy and good.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Red Bank Trilogy

Over the past six weeks, my friend Shannon and I have made several trips to Red Bank, NJ. It's pretty close to the shore and will always hold a special place in my southern heart. I've heard The Boss even has a place close by! There is such an amazing mix of shops and restaurants that even after this many trips, I'm already anxious to return! We decided that since there is usually so much walking involved, we're going to wait until the spring. The farmers market will be back on the weekends too.

Back in 2004 when my future husband brought me up to New Jersey for the first time to meet his parents, he ended up taking me to Red Bank for the day. Back then, there were a few more cool places that I loved that unfortunately closed down. There are still a lot of great places though. Nowadays, there are several high ends stores and chains (Tiffany & Co and Urban Outfitters) tossed in with independently owned shops that have been around for decades. Over these past few years, my friends and family have been establishing our own history here.

When the Alvino clan came over from Italy to New Jersey, they first settled in Red Bank. True fax. Nowadays, you might spot my inlaws dining at The Broadway Grill or browsing around in this shop...

My father-in-law is an avid coin AND stamp collector. He has given this guy a lot of business over the years. His collections are very impressive.

This is another fantastic place for hobbyists, gamers and the forever young. They sell everything from Madame Alexander dolls, seriously old school toys and board games. Chris was impressed with their selection of Settlers of Catan expansion sets. Geek alert!

The first time we ventured over, Shannon insisted on this place for lunch.

The pizza is tasty but she had been raving about their famous fries...

They are the perfect hybrid between a chip and a fry. I've never had them like this before! If the food isn't enough to get you in here, maybe the fact that you can play vintage arcade games and sit next to a picture of old people shooting the bird might be more of a draw. Don't believe me?

I want to be just like them when I get old.

An important part of my own history also took place in Red Bank.

I had my first real bagel here. This place is small and dark and cozy. People come in and out for coffee, sandwiches and the seriously tasty namesake. I got to come back on our second trip earlier this month and relive the magic. I know I've raved about the place close to us and they do indeed have good stuff. They're just different here. Much more crisp on the outside. When I go in, I find myself wanting to roll up my sleeves, go behind the counter and work some dough. I used to love those Lender's Bagels that you could get in the frozen section at the grocery store when I was growing up in the south. I haven't had one since I came here.

Right across the street is a reasonably good thrift store and right next to it is another cheap place to get clothes and accessories. It's a consignment shop that has a good selection of vintage jewelry. Leave yourself some time to hunt. I scored a gorgeous pair of black leather gloves and a killer brooch here. You'll know you're in the right place when you see the polyester rainbow...

What else does Red Bank have to offer? There definitely was no shortage of hip clothing shops before Urban Outfitters opened up. Backward Glance and Funk & Standard have been serving the community for years. Both are fantastic places to look when you feel like you haven't got a sassy stitch to wear. It's a great town for antiques. There are two huge havens right across from the Galleria. There is also a well stocked record store.

When we were there yesterday, we had plans to go to Carlos O' Connor's for Mexican food but we waited a bit late and lost our chance for a table due to a bunch of reservations. We ended up down the street and waiting outside of the Eurasian Eatery for a table. The place is absolutely tiny so it took a while for us to get seated. We found out later that John Prine was in town and that's probably why the restaurants were so packed. I was grouchy from being cold and hungry, the delicious food immediately lifted my spirits. I'd been told that the place was quite vegetarian friendly but I was still pleasantly surprised. Their menu is all over the place from dumplings to falafel to pasta dishes. I ordered the black bean moussaka and it was everything you could possibly want from a meal if you're cold and hungry. Despite the vast array of things I would love to try the next time we go back, it's going to be difficult not to order that again!

Despite the yummy dessert menu, we skipped out after dinner and walked back towards the Galleria where we'd parked because Shannon was clever enough to make us reservations at The Melting Pot for chocolate fondue. It was the perfect ending to another great Red Bank outing. Two tips I'd offer anyone planning a trip: bring some cash because these smaller places to eat like Bagel Oven or Mr. Pizza Slice prefer it. Also, if you're planning on sticking around for dinner, make reservations!!!!

Eurasian Eatery
110 Monmouth St
732- 741-7071

Bagel Oven
72 Monmouth St.

Mr Pizza Slice
10 Monmouth St.

The Melting Pot
2 Bridge Ave.

Here's a list of some other places to eat.

Funk and Standard Variety Store
40 Broad St.

Jack's Music Shoppe
30 Broad St.

Nearly New Shop
70 Monmouth St.

Toymasters Inc.
62 White St.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Feels Like The First Time

Chris and I have a new favorite meal and it comes to us courtesy of my friend Shannon. I know what you're thinking S, it's not the sprouts with ghee but we do love those too!

Like anything else on this blog, this meal has a backstory.....

The very first time I ever had bok choy was after I moved up north. It's not a common sight in Alabama. We were living right outside of Philly and every once in a while we'd go into the city and shop at this amazing grocery store called Essene. Parking on South Street can be nearly impossible and we wouldn't have even bothered if this place wasn't so awesome. It came highly recommended by our friend John. He does these cleansing fasts a few times a year and when he prepares to break it, his first meal is usually this total hippie soup. It's chock full of nutrients and quality ingredients and he buys it all from Essene. He informed us that if you go a while without eating, the first meal that you ingest is going to be deeply absorbed into your system so it better be top notch.

Chris and I never got around to fasting but we did decide to go check this place out for ourselves. We did some shopping and decided to sit down and enjoy a meal from their entirely vegetarian and mostly organic food bar. I thought the bok choy cabbage looked great so I put some on my plate. I don't remember anything else I had but I remember how much I loved those greens. The texture was a cross between crunchy celery (but more mild tasting) and a flat leaf kale. It was very simply seasoned but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. I didn't have nearly as much experience with that sort of thing as I do now. I think it's funny that our Turkish friends avoid bok choy because bok is their word for shit. Pardon my French. Or should I say Turkish?

Fast forward through several years of cooking up bok choy in several different and pleasing ways but never really forgetting the greens from Essene. I know, it's a bit ridiculous the way certain things stick with me. A few months ago, my friend Shannon gave me an old grill pan that she was going to Freecycle. I'd been wanting to get my hands on one so I was excited! Our condo doesn't allow grills. Some people have them anyways but we have a nosy neighbor who has the association on speed dial and would probably rat us out!

While we were snowed in last week, we had company. Our friend Vahe is a complete health nut so while we were getting ready to play some Settlers of Catan, I looked into the fridge to see what I could cook up. My bok choy was looking sad so I figured I'd use it or lose it. We were at Whole Foods the day before and I saw some heads cut in half and grilled with a glaze. It looked great so I decided to try something similar with my pan. I cut them up and mixed some tamari, sesame oil and some ginger juice together to brush onto the mix. I cut up a brick of tofu and threw on some shitake mushrooms that also were looking a bit dejected....

Look at those lovely grill marks!!!

This really turned out to be quite tasty! It's definitely the closest I've ever had to the Essene bok choy. I think the slight char is what did it. It made everyone happy and gave me the fuel I needed to lay the smack down in Catan. I made it again for dinner tonight and the family scarfed it up. The best part? The entire meal is very low in calories and quite high in fiber and nutrients so it's very diet friendly. Between the watermelon I had for lunch and the grilled dinner, it almost feels like summer despite the fact there is a foot of snow on the ground!

If you're ever in the area, I highly recommend treating yourself to a meal from Essene. There's never a lack of inspiration for future meals you can cook at home. Bonus: There is a cool tea shop across the street!

Essene Market & Cafe
719 South 4th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19147

Friday, February 12, 2010

Cool Bean

I know that they're a dying breed but one of my absolute favorite places to go are independent coffee shops. It's always a pleasure to go hit one up that is feverishly supported by the locals who seem to prefer it to Starbucks.

I was hanging out with my ladies, Kate and Laura, a few weeks ago and we hadn't really eaten much in the line of breakfast so Laura said she knew a great place. We got into her car and took a lovely drive over to the small town of Hopewell. It was about 10-12 minutes from her place in Lawrenceville. She parked across the street from our destination, The Boro Bean. She assured us that we were going to love this place as much as she did.

We walked into the renovated old house and passed a cart of books on sale from the local library which is up the street in an adorable building that looks like it should be part of the Christmas Village my inlaws put up every year. The front counter of the Boro Bean is lit up with lights and a colorful menu that offers up a variety of choices for breakfast and lunch. It's also impossible not to notice the large area of counter space to the right of the cash register that is taken up by dozens of muffins. Not just any muffins. These bad boys are roughly the size of a human head. There are displayed right in the pans and they glisten with the hope of being purchased and enjoyed. They usually have at least four different flavors and I've can tell you that the apple, peach and gingerbread varieties are all fantastic. You can wash it down with a coffee. I asked for a dry cappuccino and it practically floated out of my hand. They feature Small World coffee and although the espresso was bitter (as it tends to be in most places), the drink was well crafted.

Another highlight of the Boro Bean is the panini selection. There are at least two or three vegetarian choices and they also offer delicious homemade soups with at least one meatless option. The last time I went, I decided to go with the grilled veggie panini (squash and zucchini) with gorgonzola cheese and an artichoke spread....

If you order a sandwich, they offer you the choice of chips or bean salad. The salad was great but avoid it if you don't enjoy cilantro. I read something recently that said people either love it or hate it. That there really aren't any shades of grey when it comes to enjoying the flavor of that particular herb. Maybe this is true because I really like it and my brother-in-law cannot stand it.

The Boro Bean is right on the main strip of Hopewell. After you have your fill of goodness, you should definitely take the time to walk off your meal in this charming little town. There's some good antiquing to be found as well a laid back pace that almost feels southern.

Boro Bean
9 East Broad Street
Hopewell, NJ 08525