First Week Musings

First and foremost, I think this is kind of a “soft opening” for my SNAP Challenge. I haven’t had the time to prep for it due to the surprise GenCon trip with Studio 6d6. Also, I forgot our camping trip this weekend with Saturday spent at the Bristol Ren Faire. While I could probably keep it in the $4 budget at the campsite, at the Ren Faire that would be impossible. I’d dehydrate and collapse long after my $4 was gone. Without eating.

I have found a couple of tricks though. Ones worth sharing. Also some pitfalls, which are also worth sharing…

Your New Best Friend

Eggs. Seriously, if you want protein and cannot spare the budget for meat these are your go to. I sprayed down a cupcake pan with baking spray and put an egg in each spot to bake at 350 for about 20 minutes or so. (I went by sight on them and was pretty close to spot on.) Each one cost about 26 to 28 cents. Baked are a bit healthier than fried and can be stored for easy transport. I brought one with my lunch today.

Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

IMG_0550One of my go-to dishes is a kale and/or asparagus risotto. It takes a while to make, but it is good, filling, and a slightly impressive dish to serve. The problem was the cost of not only the rice, but the herbs (fresh basil and parsley), the kale, and the broth. So my goal was to device a cheaper version of this dish. And what I came up with is about $1 for a lunch serving and $1.50 for a dinner serving.

Spinach Risotto

  • 1.5 cups of arborio rice
  • 32 oz box of chicken broth
  • about 6 oz fresh spinach (2/3rds of a bag)
  • olive oil
  • Italian spices (basil, oregano, dried onion, etc)

I use a mixed blend of spices from an Italian grocery in Racine. A large container usually lasts me a year, about our rate of visiting the place. Olive oil is standard fare from the grocery, nothing fancy.

With the olive oil covering the bottom of your sauce pan on medium heat, throw in the rice until translucent. Toss the spinach on top just before done and cover the saucepan with the cover. Once done, mix with your wooden spoon and throw in some of the broth. Just enough to slightly cover the rice. Cover again for a minute or two to stew the spinach. Keep adding broth and slowly mixing with the wooden spoon. Once a stew like consistency, add some more broth until it is all absorbed. The spices can be added at any time – I add them with the oil to saturate the flavors through the dish.

Notes: I did keep the cost down as the spinach was on sale this week – $1.33 per bag. I also discovered a cheaper bulk bag of the rice that cut the cost by at least 35% for the whole batch. That went a long way to keeping a $1.00 lunch cost. Also, to make this a fully vegetarian/vegan meal, switch out the chicken broth with vegetable broth.

What I Would Change

If there was no budget to consider, I would add in the fresh basil (about a $1.50 hike to the whole batch) and switch out to kale (about another $1 or slightly more to the batch). Additionally (as we are from Wisconsin), I usually add some cheese to it as well. Without the cheese, some salt may be needed for the dish. And finally, meat. Either to the risotto, or served with it instead of the egg.

What I Have Found

This may be an indication of my pre-challenge diet, but I find myself snacking on bananas (13 cents each for my current bunch) and the like because I’m hungry. Also it helps meet my concerns on the amount of fruits and vegetables I am eating. I do have a couple more recipes that I am altering up this week/weekend to address these as well.

The part that really struck me though was the drinking. I have been drinking more water. I have also used a Crystal Lite drink mix in a squirt bottle that runs about 12 cents per 8 oz drink. How much smaller would my meal plan be if I had to purchase ground coffee beans to brew my own coffee? Or pay for the creamer? I set a caveat that my morning coffee would not be included in the budget. My reduced price drink at the drive through is $3.26 after tax. (A trienta iced coffee with cream.) I did go a couple days without it, but had to buy a soda/tea due to the drag effect.

I am not playing around with going cold turkey, because coffee is one of the stages in staving off a migraine before it settles in fully. Between the allergy medication, Advil Liquigels and coffee, without these I would be having a lot of problems this week.

Just in the food reduction (and coffee limitation to 1 per morning), I can see how difficult this budget is to continue under. And why people resort to ramen packets and processed mac & cheese for meals. Eating healthy within these limits is tough. And it definitely limits the amount of meat in your diet.

More Recipes

Well, okay… one more. There’s nothing terribly interesting for me to post on the writing front (until submission time rolls around), and the cupcakes post went over so well (because of RT’s in Twitter). Also, it was my lunch today.

Roasted Brussel Sprouts

BX0808H_balsamic-roasted-brussels-sprouts-recipe_s4x3This likely takes a lot of what makes this vegetable healthy and negates it, but it was also the recipe that I pulled out of my noodle to make my wife like sprouts. You know, because… healthy.

The Prep

Take about 3-4 cups of sprouts (I have a large measuring bowl I fill almost to the top), wash them, pat them dry and then cut off the bottoms and split them. You can choose not to split them, but I like the idea of more surface area and getting the good stuff through the whole vegetable. Plus, easier to eat.

Chop up 4 slices of thick cut bacon into as small of pieces as you want. (Mine aren’t finely chopped. I like seeing the bacon in the finished product.)

The Cooking

Put the bacon pieces in your pan at medium heat. Get them browning and getting a nice coat of bacon grease in the pan. (I told you this was going to kill some of the health benefits.) Once the bacon is browned and you have a nice glaze on the pan, throw in the sprouts and lower the heat a touch (for me, it’s taking it from a 6 to a 4 on my stove).

Once your sprouts are starting to brown a bit on the bottoms and edges, pour in some stock. I use either vegetable stock or chicken stock. Just enough to give a shallow coating on the bottom of the pan, maybe a half cup. Splash in some white wine (recently it has been a pinot grigio for me) and a bit of spice. My go-to spices are sea salt and ancho chili powder. If I want a little kick I add a touch of cracked red pepper.

Stir occasionally and simmer for a while, maybe 5 or 10 minutes. Once you are ready to simmer them (and the sauce) down for a bit, put in a splash  of balsamic in the pan. Just a touch, maybe a tablespoon or two tops. You don’t need much. Stir to get everything combined and then cover for a bit to let simmer.

Again, stir once in a while to keep them from scorching. Once they are soft to the touch, they are ready.

When to Use

I use them as a side dish with any type of meat. Usually when we want some type of green vegetable. Because, fiber… Also, they are high in protein all on their own. (Though you should add some whole grain to your meal if you are relying on the sprouts for your full fiber.) I have also been known to take leftovers to work as a lunch. A small container of the sprouts and a banana make for just enough to keep me from gnawing on people’s arms throughout the day.

Steak Fajita “Stew”

Yeah, not the most exciting “here’s a sample from my work in progress” blog entry, but someone requested a recipe for a dish I made for lunches this past weekend. I’m going to let you all in on a secret, but it’s… y’know… a secret. So don’t tell anyone. Most of my cooking sports little to no recipes.

Once in a while I’ll venture out (like the chicken tortilla soup recipe, which did need some adjusting to get the Mrs. Zombie seal of approval), but mostly I’m making this shit up as I go along. I hear tell it’s the Italian way. That’s really the only excuse I can come up with for how I can eyeball amounts and remember the recipes that I’ve been brushing up over the past couple of months. That and a strange memory that will hold onto small details. For example, when I couldn’t remember the cupcake base I’d been doing for the past year and a half I knew that I was having problems. I hadn’t eaten anything in over five hours. When you eat five or six small meals a day, you do not go five hours without food. Not without a price to pay that is. And memory really is the second thing to go.

That said, I do remember exactly what went into this experiment. My goal was to make some fajita stuff to put into a tortilla or a pita bread and eat. I made this in the slow cooker as I was making steak, mashed potatoes and pan seared asparagus for supper that night. And doing laundry. June frickin’ Cleaver with a beard – that’s me. (Note to Self: buy a pearl necklace.)

Okay, by the numbers…

  1. Chop up 3-4 jalapeno peppers. For this, I used the two and a half I had left over from the cornbread experiment. Put them into the slow cooker. (make sure to clean out all the seeds)
  2. Chop up 1 pasilla pepper into small bits. Put this into the slow cooker. (If you don’t have them fresh, get the dried one and stew it in olive oil first. Shoot for fresh if possible.) (make sure to clean out all the seeds)
  3. Note on 2. If you can’t find pasilla try for ancho chiles or a pepper on the lighter side of spicy, like a poblano pepper. If you like the hot, you could replace with 2-3 serrano peppers, but you’re rolling the bones on that one. 😉
  4. Slice up one large or two medium sweet onions. If you like cooking, look into a mandolin slicer. You can get them as cheap at $20 in a big box store. I use mine to julienne the onion. Larger julienne slicing if you still want to be able to see the onions in the finished product. Guess what you do with it when you’re finished slicing. 🙂
  5. Open up two large cans of diced tomatoes. I use canned instead of fresh because I’m lazy. Just make sure the cans you get aren’t sporting a bunch of sodium in them. Low sodium where possible. Put them into the slow cooker.
  6. Throw in 2 pounds of lean stew meat. You can trim it if you wish or not if you’re lazy. (Note: were I to want more stew in this stew, I’d oil the meat and brown it covered in whole wheat flour and spices. Stew wasn’t what I originally was going for though.)
  7. For flavor I sprinkled in some grey sea salt, ancho powder and the Penzey’s chili mix I use (good cayenne kick to it). I also crushed in a couple of cloves of garlic – I’m Italian, it’s a law.
  8. At this point I considered adding some low-sodium V8 to give it more liquid for the cooking, but I figured it would be a bit spicy for Mrs. Zombie so I wanted to tone it down. That meant some sweet and something to counter the oil. I had grabbed a can of Pepsi that was in the frig, but stopped. I went over to the pantry and picked up a can of Vanilla Coke. Soda is awesome for slow cooker meats, but I thought the vanilla would be just enough to tone down the spice but leave the flavor.
  9. Set to cook for 4-6 hours. (The high setting on our slow cooker.)

End result was something that my wife ate as a soup. She loved it, which showed me two things. One that the vanilla was a good call. And two, that she’s learning to accept the peppers in everyday life. 😉

And for the record, the steak fajita “stew” pairs up all sorts of nice with the jalapeno bacon cornbread I made the day before. Still is in fact.

CWN Cookbook – Chicken Tortilla Soup

As was shown to me this week, I get larger spikes in views when I blog about politics as opposed to recipes. Of course that could be related to not linking another blog from the #amwriting web site. Also, it does take a special person to take recipe advice from a guy named Zombie Joe. That said, I’m still going to give you another recipe from the Change Write Now cookbook I am compiling.

A while back I picked up a copy of Eva Longoria’s cookbook. Mistakenly I picked it up in ebook format. I found that my Nook takes a long time to load the photos – and there are a lot of photos in the book. My first attempt at the soup involved using a full chicken to boil, but otherwise was according to the recipe. I found that my wife declared the soup too spicy, so I made some modifications to it due to produce availability here and taste. What we came up with is a tasty soup that is low in calories and sodium, but good enough to eat often.

Grocery List

  • 4 pounds of chicken legs
  • 4 pounds of chicken thighs
  • 4 cups of low-salt chicken stock
  • 6 cups of water
  • 1-2 medium-large onions
  • 3-4 cloves of garlic
  • 3-4 fresh jalapeno peppers
  • 4 fresh tomatoes (or 2 cans of diced tomatoes)
  • 2 bunches of fresh cilantro (our store sells pre-chopped in a tube)
  • ground ancho chili

In addition to the above list, you’ll want to have some olive oil handy for sauteing the peppers and onions. You can also use other spices to your taste, but other than a pinch of sea salt, anything else would get lost. The only change in spices I have is using the jalapeno instead of the second pepper listed in the original recipe (as well as using fresh instead of dried), and using ancho powder instead of dried ancho. (Dried ancho is tough to get around here, and I keep a stock of dried for making cupcakes.)

Stage One

Fill a large pot up with the stock, water and chicken, bring to a boil for around 30 minutes to boil the chicken.

While that is boiling use a pan with a little olive oil in it to saute the garlic and the strips of jalapeno (wash and clean the seeds out first). Once they are cooked through (only 4-5 minutes over a medium heat) put them into a blender (we use a Ninja) with the tomatoes. You can mix the ancho pepper into here as well, but I put it right in the soup to minimize the affect on my lungs. The recipe calls for putting the onions in the food processor as well, but we like the strings of caramelized onions in the soup.

Stage Two

With the salsa ready to go, put the chopped up onion into the pan with olive oil. Saute them until the get clear-ish but don’t let them burn. Burnt onion strips in this soup would ruin it.

Around this time the chicken should be getting close to done. Once the chicken is cooked through (juices come out of the meat clear), remove the chicken and set it aside to cool. If the chicken you used was particularly fatty, skim any fat out of the stock left in the soup pot. We haven’t had to skim it yet.

Mix the salsa, the onions and the ancho pepper into the stock and leave it in there, off of the heat. Wait for the chicken to cool.

Final Stage

Once the chicken is cooled down, remove the meat from the bone and tear it into small pieces. You can chop it, but tearing it is faster and offers a sort of lizard brain satisfaction to it. Once all of the chicken is torn into small pieces (removing any skin, bones, etc. from it) deposit the chicken back into the pot with the broth and bring to simmer. Throw in the chopped cilantro (even the prechopped stuff) and let simmer until warm (about 3-5 minutes)

This soup can be served over tortilla chips, but I usually don’t as it takes time to make the tortilla curls and it adds calories. Lettuce and a dollop of sour cream are also part of the original recipe, but I stick to just the soup. I have grown in the habit of having cornbread with it though.

Serving Size: 1 cup

Actual Serving: 1 bowl (usually 2 cups)

Calories (per cup): 100

Yield: I forget the exact number, but I think it was around 26 cups give or take.

Pairings: Normally my bottle of water and a cornbread muffin.

Change Write Now Cookbook – Brat Chili

Part of my success or lack thereof in dieting involves my ability to eat the same foods over and over again. Through Season One that evolved into making large batches of meals and portioning them off so we had easy food to take for lunch that wasn’t saturated in sodium. What helps out in this instance is making it taste good and something you like. For my first posted recipe, I’m going with Brat Chili.

I know, if there are brats in that chili, how can it be healthy? The idea is to make something fresh, good for you, low in sodium and the like but still filling enough for a meal. And if you’re worried about the fat content as well as the calories, you can substitute the ground beef with ground turkey and the brats with turkey brats. The calories won’t go down as much as you think, but it is less fat.

First off you’ll need a shopping list.

  • 2 pounds of ground beef (as lean as you can get it)
  • 1 pound of brat meat (single packages are about 1 pound)
  • 2 cans of black beans (can use red kidneys or a combination for variety)
  • 2 cans of diced tomatoes
  • 4 fresh jalapeno peppers
  • 3-4 cloves of fresh garlic
  • 1 medium-large onion
  • 4 small cans (5.5oz) of V8 (or the equivalent)
  • note: you can substitute plain tomato juice for V8 if you want to keep the sodium down
  • chili seasoning (I used Chili9000 blend from Penzey’s)
  • ando chili powder (my personal tastes include adding this to the seasoning mix)
  • cayenne pepper (if you want to kick the heat up more – only for HEAT eaters)
  • olive oil (for saute mode on onions, garlic and jalapeno)

With your ingredients purchased, you can either make this in a pot or in a slow cooker. When time allows, I use the slow cooker to free me up from watching it.

First Step

Get out two pans. In one, put the onion and garlic chopped up with some olive oil. Saute them until just caramelized, be careful not to burn them. At the same time, brown the ground beef in the other pan.

While those are cooking, slice and de-seed the jalapenos and de-skin the brats (if you didn’t purchase unstuffed brats). When the onions/beef are done, drain the beef and put it and the onion/garlic mix into the slow cooker. Replace them with the jalapeno (and a small amount of olive oil) and the brat meat crumbled in the other.

Once those are done, drain the brat meat and toss both pans into the slow cooker.

Second Step

Drain and rinse the beans (you can skip this step, but this will bring out the bean taste more in the chili – your call). Pour the beans, tomatoes, V8 (or tomato juice) into the slow cooker. This point gets a little more abstract – spice it to taste. For a full batch I usually use around 2 tablespoons of chili9000 blend, about a tablespoon of ancho powder and a teaspoon of extra cayenne pepper.

Mix it up and leave it on low for 4-5 hours and it will be blended well and ready to serve. You can eat it sooner, but I find that leaving it in and stirring it every so often gets the flavor through the dish and brings out the brat taste in it as well as the chili.

Serving Size: 1 cup

 Actual Serving: 2 cups (a bowl)

Calories: around 220 per cup, closer to 200 if you use turkey meat

Yield: For this batch I think our final amount was around 18-20 cups worth. Enough for a meal that day and at least 3 days of lunch for everyone in the condo.

Pairings: I have a buttermilk cornbread recipe that goes real well with this. One cupcake/muffin sized serving is around 165 calories. For a drink, most of the time it is water, but if it’s a weekend and I still have calories left a Guinness goes down real nice with it, with a bottle being 175 calories.

What diet food do you like that some people would not call diet food?

Next Time – my modification to the chicken tortilla soup recipe I took from Eva Longoria’s cookbook. My seriously low calorie meal choice.