Laura, what prompted you to start this blog?
I started the blog when I noticed that my kids’ friends were calling me for cooking advice. They could have called their own parents, but seemed more comfortable asking me. They knew a cooking conversation with me wouldn’t end with a question, a concern, or a nag about their personal lives. Since it launched the site I have changed my posts to provide more tips, like how to buy and store foods & ingredients. I’ve learned not to be shy about using my own cooking mishaps to help others avoid making those same mistakes. Also now I realize that I have to repeat or link to certain information or concepts, so no matter which post or page you read, I don’t take for granted knowledge that you may not have.
I'm realizing that meat is one of the more expensive items I get at the store. I'm trying to cut back and find meals I can make without spending too much, but I want to keep my meals filling and balanced. What food items or meal alternatives would you suggest to help reduce my meat consumption?
I like stews make with lentils or garbanzo beans (chick peas), thick soups like this "stone soup", and baked or roasted veggies. For summer, I often make 2 or 3 salads and no "main" course. Pasta, rice or cous cous all work well as a salad "base" - add veggies and nuts (especially toasted) and even dried fruit and you've got a delicious & beautiful, filling salad.
I'm all for cutting down on meat - or going vegetarian - but you don't have to cut out meat entirely if the consideration is cost. You can make dishes that use meat as a part of a larger, more veggie-oriented dish, like enchiladas with a bit of meat, but mostly cheese and beans. I've recently gotten into home-made empanadas, using inexpensive Goya brand frozen "discs" I found at Rodman's. I use just a tad of ground beef and add lots of other ingredients, including onions, raisins, nuts and spices - yummy and cheap!
I went mostly vegetarian earlier this year and was surprised how much money it saved me. But you do have to plan ahead to make sure you still get enough protein and fiber.
Your friend in this venture: Beans, beans, beans. I try to throw a can of beans into almost anything I make, especially pasta dishes and salads. One of my favorite things to do is roast chickpeas in my toaster oven. Toss a can of chickpeas with a little bit of olive oil, salt, paprika and cayenne pepper. Toast on high for about 30 minutes.
I also eat a lot of eggs, which are less than $2 for a dozen. My favorite brunch: One or two whole eggs, plus a couple egg whites, scrambled. Mix in some feta cheese and a bunch of salsa.
Oh, and peanut butter. I <3 peanut butter.
I just moved and am starting from scratch. What are your must-have spices that I should get that might be used most frequently?
Ah, that's like asking me to pick which child I like best :)) But if you're talking about how to start - I'd go with curry, chili, cumin, cinnamon, dried ginger (though I prefer fresh & it's easy - we'll get to that later I hope), nutmeg and fennel seed. Of course, there are herbs too - don't forget basil, oregano, tarragon and dill!
Also don't forget pepper! The greatest spice ever. Trader Joes sells peppercorns already loaded in a plastic grinder for a couple bucks. Oh, and a box of sea salt is great, too.
Salt and pepper goes a long way. I'd also consider a single plant (yes, a living breathing plant) of basil or rosemary. Fresh herbs (that keep on giving) can blow away dried spices which are expensive. Plus, you get a pet plant to water every day...
What tips do you have for 20somethings headed to the grocery store? Is it better to make lots of quick trips to the neighborhood store during the week or epic monthly trips to Costco?
Most important tip – don’t go shopping when you are hungry! Seriously, I still overbuy when I shop hungry. And make a list of the days and meals you will eat at home or using your ingredients in the kitchen. If you live alone or with 1-2 other people, decent-sized neighborhood stores are probably the best bet. Costco runs should be saved for party times, when you have friends with whom you can split the food, or if you have storage space and can store (freezer or cabinet) the extra.
While my dad goes to the grocery store every day, I find it hard for young folks to go more than once or twice a week. The trick is often gauging the shelf life of a lot the items you buy. So yes, you can go weekly but don't buy anything that won't last or when you do, plan to use it that night or the next night.
How do you avoid buying tons of fresh food, only to watch it go bad before you can eat it?
Don’t buy something just because it looks good – make sure you will have the opportunity to eat it before it goes bad. If you won’t eat fruit in a day or 2, don’t buy fresh strawberries or ripe peaches or apricots – they don’t last. But if you have them and know you aren’t going to eat them before they go bad, freeze them For strawberries, wash and dry them by letting them drain, cut off tops (hull them), put in a single layer in a freezer bag (not just any plastic bag, use one meant for this purpose), squeeze the air out of it and freeze. Peaches and apricots should be washed, sliced. Not as good as fresh, but better than throwing them out. And check out my post on lettuce - we've all had the problem of how to keep lettuce, yet it's such a staple, especially for summer salads.
Are there any good ways to store produce (lettuce and other salad items) and keep them fresh for as long as possible? Sometimes I forget to eat them soon after buying them and end up throwing away wilting and brown veggies.
We all have that problem. I did a post on buying, cleaning and storing lettuce - Bottom line - clean the lettuce & keep it slightly moist in the humid section of the refrigerator bins. Other veggies should also be kept in that (more humid) section of the refrigerator - and take them out of the plastic bags or at least don't close the bags up tight - or they'll rot faster.
Hi Laura! Tomatoes are always a mystery for me. I know not to keep them in the fridge before I use them, but once I cut into them and I have some left over, what do I do with them? Do I leave them out, or can I put them back in the fridge? Thanks! Oscar
I have lost many a hunk of tomato by leaving it on the counter after I took off a couple of slices. Although tomatoes don't do well refrigerated, if you can use the tomato within a day or 2, I'd say the best route is to cut up the remaining parts and refrigerate them in a closed container, letting the juices keep the pieces "happy." If you can't use the tomato soon, you can cut it up and freeze it in a plastic container or bag, as long as you "burp" the air out. Frozen tomatoes defrosted don't have the same wonderful texture as fresh, but the taste is fine and they work great in a cooked dish.
What is a cheap, healthy and delicious dinner to cook for (and wow!) friends and family visiting the unpaid, penny-pinching intern?
Shish kebobs are a "wow" meal because they look so pretty. You can feed a bunch of people with just a little meat because you cut it into small cubes, marinate it and give each person 1- 2 skewers. I prefer to do the meat separately from most of the veggies, because they cook at different rates. I'm planning to post my "no fail, easy marinade" for chicken shish kebabs next week, so stay tuned to my site. They are best on a grill - a hibachi is fine, but you can do them in the stove or on a cooktop grill too. For dessert, parfaits are impressive. They can be made with yogurt instead of ice cream, and berries - not expensive at all!
My latest "wow people with little work dish" is Martha Stewart's Creamy Carrot Rice, which I found via her iPhone app.
Carrot juice can run on the expensive side (up to $5 at my grocery store) but all of the other ingredients should only run a few dollars. You only need a knife to cut the onion, saucepan to heat to liquids (or a microwave safe bowl to do the same) and another saucepan to cook the rice. The final result is luxurious, especially when paired with a fresh green salad and glass of dry white wine (err, as long as you are over 21).
Adults who work year round know that the office holiday party is no place to let down your guard. What advice do you have for interns who may be invited to BBQs, softball games with kegs, or farewell-and-thank-you dinners? Can interns cut loose and get their freak on at least *once* with the office crew? Or does that leave a bad final impression? Hey, it's free grub and the booze is flowing on someone else's tab.
Oh please, don't do it! Many an intern has done a fabulous job all summer (or all semester, or all year) and become a valued colleague that everyone hopes will come back, only to turn him or herself into the butt of countless jokes and stories after departure from the scene because of a final "performance." There's no harm in having a good time - and eating/drinking on the bosses' dime, but try to do it in a way that leaves them wanting to invite you back.
Anytime I'm looking to quickly cut expenses, I start bringing my lunch to work. But PB&J is so calorie-packed and frozen dinners get boring. Any new ideas?
Cold cooked veggies are delicious (ratatouille or similar recipes that have a sauce to keep the vegetables moist). You can mix the veggies with a small amount of rice or pasta.(Many offices have microwaves, if you prefer them hot.) In the fall, baked apples are great cold or rewarmed the next day, and can be made healthy with hardly any sugar. Bring pita to work, with hummus and cut up cucumbers and peppers in a separate bag. Put the sandwich together at work and it won’t get soggy. Falafel is also easy to make from a mix and the individual pieces travel well and can be reheated.
I recently bought several pounds of plain brown rice. It's cheap, easy to cook and healthy. But it is also boring. I've tried mixing it with beans, vegetables, chicken, sausage, eggs, even sugar and milk...while I am not short on rice, I'm short on ideas of what to do with it! Do you have any ideas?
If you don't like to eat rice every night (and you're not in habit of doing it), you might try rotating it into your plans, but not forcing it into every meal. Look for different ethnic cuisines that use rice. I love grape leaves made with rice and dill, also Louisiana-style "dirty" rice with peppers, onions, and Cajun spices.
What about breakfast? I have known quite a few interns who never eat breakfast -- or consider a latte to be adequate. What are some cheap, easy breakfast ideas for busy people trying to catch a bus?
Yogurt with cereal or trail mix, smoothies (yogurt, juice and fresh fruit blended), bread and cheese. Go with protein and you won’t get hungry mid-morning.
I am going to jump in and answer my own question... I fully realize that's lame, but roll with it...
Some of my weekday favorites: Piece of whole grain toast (or a Van's waffle) with peanut butter and slice strawberries. Fage greek yogurt with berries. Egg whites and veggies. And -- confession -- Fiber One granola bars.
Any tips on cooking without a stove? All we have is one of those dorm-size fridges and a microwave. Not a lot of incentive to stay inside and cook...
An electric skillet works just fine. Also there are relatively inexpensive induction cooktops that work fine - you just have to use pots and pans that conduct - if a magnet sticks, it works with induction. We have a Nepali friend who makes delicious food and doesn't use an oven because she didn't grow up with one. You'd be surprised how much you can do with those 2 items - or just 1 of them. (Only baked goods aren't happening - sorry.)
ACTUALLY! My studio apartment is not equipped with an oven, just a range and a microwave. (I once cooked a turkey in that microwave and then blogged about it.)
Other than baking, I haven't missed having an oven at all. I do a lot of salads, soups and stir-fry dishes.
I did splurge for a crockpot, which I use all of the time during the winter. I love Stephanie O'Dea's A Year of Slow Cooking blog. All of her recipes are gluten-free and she has a section of light and healthy recipes, too.
What are some quick ideas for inspiring dinners for interns on a budget to make for themselves?
I like stuffing vegetables because you can stuff them with meat or vegetables and rice, or all three. If you hollow out peppers, tomatoes or portobello mushrooms they work great, also zucchini. For topping on the stuffed vegetable, I like panko (a Japanese-style bread crumb that you can buy in most groceries and is very crunchy) mixed with parmesan cheese and drizzled with butter or olive oil.
I am trying to cook vegetarian, but anything with variety and protein seems to take lots of time. Any quick suggestions?
Cheese and beans are great for protein and canned beans don't take so much time. If you prefer dried beans (some say the taste is better), you can boil them for a short time and let them soak overnight, then use. For me, it's not the protein that takes time, it's the chopping (of vegetables). You can chop vegetables and put them in a container in fridge the night before, then take them out and whip up the meal the next day.
I'm not the greatest at cooking. What are some super easy meals (not too much effort or ingredients) that I can make? I'm living in a shared house and our stove barely works, so the easier the assembly the better.
For summer, salads are great. And I don't just mean tossed lettuce and dressing. Go with beans, toasted nuts and roasted vegetables on top. If you have an oven or grill (even small hibachi) grilled or roasted vegetables are easy, sprinkled with olive oil, salt and pepper - at 375 degrees in oven or over coals. Probably takes 45 minutes in oven, 20 on grill.
Joe Yonan, the food editor here at the Post, did a story a couple months back about cooking for a group house filled with different tastes. Here's the house he profiled:
Delaney eats everything but doesn't cook much meat at home. Novick doesn't consume red meat. Ardinger is on a mission to down as much protein and as many calories as possible to support his intense workout routine. Their schedules are erratic, the two women don't have a car and their budgets are disparate - especially since Ardinger just got laid off from his job.
Joe came up with a bunch of recipes for basic meal building blocks that everyone in the house could use differently.
Between work and classes, I don't have time to cook much Monday through Friday. What kinds of things could I make several portions of on the weekend to eat at different points throughout the week?
Casseroles are great because you can cut them into single-serving portions and refrigerate or freeze. But did you know that you can freeze rice? (I didn't know that until I did a post on rice - I'm learning a lot as I blog!) So making a pot of rice and freezing single portions opens up lots of possibilities. In the fall-winter, I make all kinds of soups and freeze them in 1-2 person size containers - great, easy dinners.
I don't know if you have tried them; but, a few years ago I was gifted a package of those green/greenish-yellow plastic bags (complete with "as seen on tv" label) that claim they keep produce fresh longer. And much to my amazement, they actually work! Getting some of those have really cut down on the amount of fresh produce that I toss.
Ok, I admit that I refused to listen to my own mother when she told me the same thing. (I bought a package and they are languishing in my bottom kitchen drawer.) Now I'm going to take them out and try them - oops - my mom will probably read this chat.
We have a microwave/convection oven that I use as an oven a lot. I bought it when they were 'new' but that was 9 years ago. I'm sure it's not so hard to find one that's not so expensive if you want an oven.
My oven has a convection setting, but I admit that I haven't been too successful with it yet. My general impression is that convection works best with foods that have liquid or where you have a recipe specifically written for convection cooking. And so far I haven't made it work well for baking, but I haven't given up yet.
I was always told that when you're cooking for yourself regularly and then go out to eat, order something that you can't cook yourself. Do you agree? What do you order when you eat out?
I learned that from my grandmother (and my mother too) and I follow it. I always try to order something I don't make myself - or haven't made. Also, if I'm in an ethnic restaurant, I try to order something that I wouldn't have thought of myself - or that uses an ingredient I'm not used to cooking with. It's all about adventure, right?
Exactly, this is why I never feel guilty going out for sushi.
Hi Laura, this is Bryan from Denver. What kind of things can you recommend for having a good lunch at work, as opposed to leftovers in the microwave or frozen dinners?
Hey Bryan (an intern in DC last year) - How about rice and beans with a bit of meat (made night before for dinner)? Also falafel from a mix, with pita and hummus or tahini dressing and cut-up cucumbers and tomato. For the falafel - bring things separately, then put together at work.
Can you make vegan cake? How do you make one?
I'm not a vegan and haven't made a vegan cake. But I've been to vegan bakeries that make delicious stuff. You've inspired me - I'll check it out and report back on my site.
We tried this one time in college for a vegan friend's birthday. As I remember, it was miserably bad. Perhaps this is one of those things best ordered from professionals? Or maybe you could switch to a fresh berry cobbler? Or snowcones?
Anyone out there have a great vegan cake recipe to share?
but EASY is veggie burgers. I usually use whatever I have. Cooked quinoa or cooked rice, beans, carrots, onion/pepper, some nuts. Put everything (but the quinoa or rice) in a food processor, mix in some eggs and breadcrumbs, and then make them into patties. Cook for about 7 minutes on each side at maybe 425? SO GOOD. Oh, you can put shredded cheese in there too. It takes a little bit of time - but you can make A LOT of it and freeze them. Then it's EASY to take out of the freezer and reheat.
Definitely get one! I bought an inexpensive one (Presto, I think, w/a glass lid) when I remodeled my kitchen, and used it on the dining room table, along with a rice cooker. Worked great for six weeks and I still use it for all kinds of stuff.
Love mine too. Bring it out for all sorts of stuff. Electric skillet is great for keeping temperature steady, when cooktop may not. I don't have a rice cooker, but I want one.
Yup -- and if you have a rooftop or deck, you can also take it outside to cook!
Hi Laura- I'm both blessed with very cheap rent and cursed with a tiny minifridge in the corner of my room. What items should I prioritize if I have very small storage spaces for food?
Ahh, small storage dilemma. If you live near decent food store, or can get to farmer's markets held on different days of the week, pretend you're in France (or on the Upper West Side of NYC) and shop a bit each day. If you buy fruit that isn't too ripe, you can leave it out to ripen for a day or two. I'd save fridge space for milk, yogurt, cheese, & stuff that needs refrigeration for safety reasons. Speaking of safety - summer means pay attention to the 2 hour rule - that is, 2 hrs max for cooked chicken or may-based foods out of fridge!
Along with my lack of an oven, I also have a mini-fridge. The key for me, like Laura said, is doing lots of short shopping trips. I keep fruit and bread on the counter, and I try to buy everything in tiny containers. I also try to make only half of a recipe, so I don't have too many leftovers.
Nobody ever told my mom this...so I never knew! I just do the same things I learned growing up but I guess I need to stop abusing my tomatoes, right?
I'm sure your mother is a wise woman and knows a lot. But maybe you never got on the subject of tomatoes and refrigeration? Yes, immediately cease & desist (former/recovering lawyer in me coming out) abusing your tomatoes. They will be forever grateful and will reward you by tasting much better.
What is a quick, easy dish that a 20-something with minimal cooking skills could make to impress a date or take to a potluck?
The potluck question is a good one. One senior editor here at The Post invited me to a Christmas potluck and said, "You know, young guys like you generally bring a cheese plate..."
I've never quite been happy with that response... I feel like I have something to prove when going to a potluck.
For potlucks, I always take Georgetown cupcakes, which get way more attention than all of the desserts and dishes co-workers spent hours slaving over.... And then I sorta feel bad. But not really.
Presentation is everything. I do a dried tomato and basil spread over goat cheese that is easy but quite elegant. And putting melon balls on skewers, alternating with dates (or fresh mozzarella balls alternated with cherry tomatoes) is another easy, elegant dish. For skewers, you don't need to go to a fancy food store. Whole Foods and Rodmans carry them.
well, I admit that baking in it hasn't been the most successful BUT, I *have* made bread in the convection oven. You just take 'regular' recipes and either put them in for a little less time or a little lower temp. What I love is that i can make potatoes in the convection/microwave setting in 10 minutes. YUM. Because while one could microwave potatoes, well, they're not as good as baked. That's the only time I really use the dual setting. but really you can cook ANYTHING in the convection oven. And I do!
I am a born compromiser, which could be why current budget stalemate has me up in arms. I like my potatoes done part-way in microwave, then baked at high heat in toaster oven, regular oven, or outside grill to get a crusty outside. Speaking of potatoes, stuff them with healthy stuff and they are a whole meal in one little package!
My mom in law got us one. I thought: when will I *ever* use it? Well, I use it all the time. I can set it and forget it - and it's like the crock pot, I don't have to be there. I make rice or quinoa in it. easy peasy (then heat up a can of beans and roast some vegetables, and there's dinner).
My little red rice cooker recently died after many, many, many uses. It's possibly the best appliance out there for under $20. In addition to concocting rice dishes (like using tomato juice or coconut milk instead of water) I also used mine to steam salmon and veggies...
Speaking of quinoa - it's a great grain, very healthy and wonderful as a substitute for barley. I've used it with feta and chopped tomatoes, chopped parsley and basil, salt and pepper - yum!
Here's something easy to cook in it. Heat up olive oil and garlic. Throw in a can of diced tomatoes and veggies of your choice (I use frozen cauliflower and broccoli florets, and green beans). Add some pitted black olives (cut in half), and a bit of salt and pepper. Simmer until tender at about 200-250. Serve over pasta. Yummy and healthy!
Love pasta and veggies. Pasta primavera if we're getting all fancy. In summer, look for fresh if you have a grocery or farmer's market, cut them into small pieces/thinly slice and sautee (fry) them in olvie oil. Then add pasta and a bit of the water (just a small amount) from the pasta pot. Agree with you on olives - they add a nice touch. Top off with cheese - parmesan.
Fiberous foods are usually more expensive (fresh veggies etc). How do I incorporate that into my diet on a budget.
Look for vegetables that are in season and on sale. You can get great deals if you buy sensibly. Also, try farmers markets, especially the smaller ones (or the smaller farmers at larger markets). You'd be surprised how many will give you a price break on bruised tomatoes that make fabulous gazpacho. Also, consider a Costco/Sam's Club run with friends if someone has a card - great fresh veggies are in strange places sometimes!
Remembering when I rented an uber-cheap apartment one summer in grad school. My fiance had rented another room in the building, so we were able to share groceries & cooking.
Our shared kitchen facilities consisted of an aging refrigerator with a barely-functional freezer, an electric skillet & hot plate (hand-me-downs from my future in-laws), and the bathroom sink down the hall.
We improved the nutrition of those ubiquitous ramen noodles by adding cans of generic mixed vegetables (and the occasional can of generic tuna, when we were feeling extravagant). We walked 6 blocks each way to a proper supermarket so our limited food budget would stretch farther than at the quickie-marts & ethnic groceries on campus. We bought a LOT of generic/store-brand groceries, tried to remember the "4 food groups" so we'd have a balanced diet, and limited the amount of perishables to what we could use up quickly (because we didn't trust that sorority-house fridge).
How did it work out? Well, my fiance passed his bar exam at the end of that summer, and we've been happily married for 28 years now (with our oldest entering his sophmore year at that same college this fall) -- so we didn't starve or go hungry! :)
Awesome! Thanks so much for sharing...