Thursday, November 19, 2009

Recession Smeshmession - Eating Out (Well) On A Budget

We've all seen those commercials for Chili's or Applebee's or pretty much any one of those chain, casual dining restaurants, advertising their 2 for $20 menu. Basically, for $20, you get to split a crappy, previously frozen appetizer with your dining partner. Then you get to choose an entree each (choose from deep fried meat or deep fried meat over lettuce) and then you share another previously frozen dessert. Oh. And you have to drink water, unless you want to run that bill up to $40 by ordering a few of those "big" beers. Now. I hate to knock these chains. They appear to be successful so obviously they're doing something right AND people are eating there. But when you live in a town full of fantastic Mom & Pop restaurants, all struggling with a down turned recession, I'd prefer to give my hard earned money to the little guy. Unfortunately, the little guy doesn't have the cash to pay for a commercial full of good looking, thin, 20-somethings, laughing and carrying on while they pretend to enjoy their variety-plate of artery clogging fried food that you know they would never normally touch in real life. But that doesn't mean that the little guy isn't offering good deals...or even GREAT that make the 2 for $20 menu look like pig slop. The hubby and I recently tried out two such deals in Philly and I'm happy to report that you CAN still go out to a nice meal, with good quality food (made with love and care) for around $20 a couple. Like I said. Recession Smeshmession - with the right info you can still afford to go out and have a good time - and not worry about diving into the kids' college funds to do it.

The $10 Burger at Butcher and Singer:
I know what you're thinking. $10 for a burger doesn't seem like a good deal. But folks, $10 for the BEST burger you've ever had, in a ritzy steakhouse, with a side of the most amazing french fries that ever accompanied a piece of beef IS a good deal. I'm talking about the Butcher and Singer $9.95 burger. Butcher and Singer, another one of Stephen Starr's Philadelphia gems, used to charge almost $20 for this lovely hunk of meat. Then one day they put the word out that they would be running a special where you could get that $20 burger for $5...yes...$5. The hubby went running out of work at noon the day of the special and made a b-line for the steakhouse. He and his co-workers were seated amongst a veritable sea of burgers, and, the rest is history. They dropped the price to $9.95 permanently and I'm happy they did. The hubby and I went to lunch a few weeks ago to enjoy the Butcher and Singer 10 buck burger again and let me tell you, I think they must be losing money on this burger, because the quality of beef they use, combined with the fries and the bakery fresh, buttery roll that it sits on is certainly worth more than $10. Add the atmosphere, the pleasant (not to mention perfect) wait staff and you get an experience worthy of a three-piece suit and a top hat. If you go be sure to look somewhat presentable. This IS a really nice restaurant. I'm not talking gold lame'...perhaps just non-holy jeans and a nice sport coat or sweater. The best part for me was not feeling bad about just ordering the burger and a glass of water. The wait staff treated us the same as if we had ordered the petit filet and a bottle of wine. And the restaurant was filled with "suits" ordering the burger. So please give it a shot. Order it as you would a piece of filet mignon. Medium rare. The quality is amazing. The texture is pure meat-butter that begs to be eaten with a knife and fork. The flavor is rich and earthy. Even the damn garnishes are top notch. I couldn't decide whether it was more like steak tartar or a rib-eye on a bun. Either's worth way more than $10...but don't tell Stephen Starr that...I fully intend on getting my Alexander Hamilton's worth for a long time to come.

Gnocchi - 2 for $25 steal of a deal:
The hubby and I don't go to many Italian restaurants. I mean, don't get me wrong, we love Italian cuisine (ahhh, such a general term, Italian cuisine, Mario Batali would hunt me down and beat me if he knew I used it so broadly). We, unfortunately, don't often leave an Italian restaurant feeling satisfied, regarding both money and quality. So many places throw $2 worth of frozen shrimp over ten cents worth of dried pasta and charge you $20 for shrimp fra diavolo. Not on my watch folks. The other day we heard about this small Italian restaurant near South Street called Gnocchi that was offering a 2 for $25 deal. With further inspection we found out that for $25 (for the two of us) we could get a salad each (from a choice of 3) a pasta each (from a choice of around a dozen...FRESH...HOMEMADE! gnocchi and pastas), two desserts and two cups of coffee. Oh. And the's a BYOB! We couldn't get to the liquor store fast enough that Wednesday night. We picked up a bottle of wine that was on sale and walked to Gnocchi. It was a slow night for Gnocchi and I think if more people knew about this deal it would have been packed. The salads were lovely. I had the house salad topped with a hearty helping of roasted veggies and the hubby had a mixed green with goat cheese salad. We both ordered their namesake gnocchi. The hubby had the tomato basil and I had the special, a plate full of pumpkin gnocchi in a creamy white wine sauce. A loaf of bread, two salads, a bottle of wine and two wonderful plates of moist, pillow-like, homemade gnocchi later and we almost didn't have room for dessert. But who can say no to homemade tiramisu and a good cup of coffee? Not I my friends...not I. They offer this special Monday - Thursday and if you're looking for a romantic and cheap date night, look no further. We will certainly be back to Gnocchi...soon. Next time I'll try one of their pastas, unless they offer another Gnocchi special like the fresh pumpkin balls of wonderfulness. You know what? For $25 a couple, we'll just keep going until we've tried everything.
Gnocchi 613 E Passyunk Ave (215)592-8300

Now, I know that not everyone lives in a big city and sometimes you might think that all you have in the way of recession proof menus is the chain restaurant, 2 for $20 deal. But just look around and I'm sure you'll find plenty of good deals at your local mom & pop feeding trough. My Mom called me a few weeks ago and said that her local diner (in a small township in central jersey) was offering a ridiculously good fish and chips deal. I can't remember the price but I do remember listening to her run down the list of food that came with it and it was so extensive that it's probably why I can't remember the price. And when I lived in Richmond, I remember going to Cafe Rustica's ( "Sunday Supper" and wanting to tell the world about it. For $15/person you got a three course set menu that rotated weekly AND they had great deals on wine ($10 or $12 bottles). I just looked it up and they still offer the Sunday Supper and I'm sure it's as good as ever.

I know we're all pinching pennies these days, but there's no reason why you can't go out and enjoy yourself and still put money aside for a rainy day. Live in another town (or philly of course) and know about a great "recession proof" deal? Leave a comment, and help a fellow bargain hunter out!
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Friday, November 13, 2009

Where's The Beef? Bean Stroganoff - No Beef Needed

Growing up, food was a big part of our household. We cooked dinner, sat down at the table and ate together every single night. This ritual was as much about us spending time together as it was about the food, which was probably a good thing because this food wasn't your typical Leave It To Beaver type cuisine. Food in our house when I was younger was, I suppose, a bit strange. My parents adopted the "whole earth" lifestyle before it became the fad that it is today. We had a compost pile, a solar powered lawn mower and the food to match. Yup. I'm talkin' granola munching, refined sugar shunning, only eat meat once in a blue moon type household. I didn't know that you could put beef in tacos or lasagna until I was about 10. We always ate bean filled tacos and vegetarian lasagna. I'm pretty sure I didn't taste a piece of white, Wonder type bread until I was in my early teens. And I got mocked more than a few times by the kids in the cafeteria for eating bean sprouts on my sandwiches.

I attribute my good cooking skills today, to growing up cooking Bulgar wheat and raisins for dinner when I was 9. If you can make Bulgar wheat taste good, cooking a good steak is a piece of cake. I don't cook quite that healthy anymore. I still try to buy local produce, meat and free range eggs (I am telling you CAN taste the difference). But when it comes to the actual cooking process I've adopted a "richer" way of cooking. I use wayyyy too much butter. I love adding cream to, well, almost anything. And we probably eat too much red meat...ok, we definitely eat too much red meat. So the other day when I was staring at the pantry, trying to come up with a side dish for dinner I had a nostalgic craving and an idea to add my butter and cream laden way of cooking to an old parent's Bean Stroganoff.

Bean Stroganoff was one of my FAVORITE vegetarian dishes growing up. It's satisfying, creamy AND without using meat it costs mere pennies to make. I probably add more butter...much more butter and cream to my version of this than my parents ever dreamed of...I used it as a side dish to accompany a whole roast chicken and back in the day this was a whole meal...but it's good...very very good...and I promise, you won't miss the meat one bit.

Bean Stroganoff (side dish portion for two hungry folks...or four normal eaters):
1 1/2 cups egg noodles
1/2 of a 15 oz can of pinto beans
1 cup raw sliced mushrooms (I used cremini shrooms)
1/2 onion sliced thin
1 tsp. fresh thyme
1 1/2 tbs. butter
1 tbs. heavy cream
1/4 cup white wine
1/4 cup sour cream
salt and pepper to taste

Bring a pot of water to a boil. In the mean time saute the onions, mushrooms and thyme in the butter over medium heat until just soft (8-ish mins). Add the egg noodles to the boiling water and cook until done (7-8 mins). While the egg noodles are cooking add the white wine, beans and cream to the mushroom mixture and cook until most of the wine has reduced and the sauce thickens a bit (it should take about as much time as the noodles take to cook). As soon as the noodles are cooked, drain and transfer them directly to the sauce and take the pan off the heat. Toss the whole mixture with the sour cream and season with salt and pepper to taste. You may not need all of the sour cream OR you may need more, depending on how creamy you would like the finished product to be.

And that's it! Serve as a side dish with some roasted chicken or if you're my vegetarian brother...double the recipe and eat it as an entree. Vegetarian or's a delicious dish and something out of the ordinary. I might just make it again tonight!
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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Cutting The Cheese

Have I told you about my love affair with cheese? Oh look at me. So brazen. Shamelessly flaunting my relationship. No. Not just one relationship. Oh there have been so many. Cheese after cheese after cheese. Some firm, some soft. Some robust, some mild. Oh and the stinky ones! Why must I adore the stinky ones so! Ahhh, forgive me. I seem to have gotten carried away here. This really isn't about the cheese. This is about cutting the cheese. I'm not ashamed of it. How else can you enjoy it without cutting it? Any other means would be barbaric. I may be a cheese hussy but I'm a classy and sophisticated one. I prefer to use the right tool for the job, and that tool my friends, is one I feel as though I can't live without. The Zyliss hand-held cheese slicer.

I'm not one to run out and buy every new gadget on the market. Food Network's Alton Brown has a rule about certain gadgets...anything that can only be used for one, single purpose, a "uni-tasker", has no place in the kitchen. I typically agree with him. I have no room in my loft apartment kitchen for one of those Giant Cupcake baking pans or a Taco Taxi...this this is freakin' looks like a napkin holder but it's designed (I use this term loosely) to keep your taco upright until you're ready to eat it. Paaaa-llleeaassssee people. If you can't deal with those unruly tacos then maybe you should limit your food intake to pudding. I do, however, have a few uni-tasker exceptions, and the Zyliss cheese slicer, my friends, is certainly one of them.

Look at this puppy. It's perfect! It's got a handy dandy thumb wheel that allows you to dial your preferred cheese slice thickness. It's got a sharp (but not too sharp...if you get your hand too close to the cheddar and the blade you won't get cut...anyone who knows me will understand that this is a must...I'm surprised I still have all of my fingers) slicing plane that is wide enough to slice sandwich size pieces of cheese (never again will you have to pay deli cheese prices!). It's reasonably priced (around $12). And best of works! I've used it 5 or more times a week for about 3 years now and it's never let me down. I think deep down inside it loves cheese as much as I do! We might be soul mates.

So if you're looking for that holiday gift for the person who has everything, why not give the Zyliss hand-held cheese slicer a try. Your friend or loved one will be cutting the cheese with ease and thanking you the whole time.
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Getting Down To The Root Of It - "Root" Liquor is the Drink of the Month

For as long as I can remember my husband has been coming home from the liquor store at least once a month with some crazy new spirit. Some turn out to surprisingly good, like Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka. It's made in South Carolina and I'll be darned if it doesn't taste like some true southern sweet tea...and of course pack a punch. Some turn out to be surprisingly bad like Barenjager liquor. It's a German honey liquor...think really thick honey flavored cough syrup. And some turn out to be, well, something worth experiencing. My drink of the month, Root, just happens to fall into that last category.

The story of Root is actually really interesting. The folks that made it actually re-created something called Root Tea. Root Tea was an alcoholic folk recipe from the 1700's made of birch bark, wintergreen and a bunch of wild roots and herbs. Native Americans taught the recipe to the colonial settlers and soon after it became a heck of a lot more potent (apparently the "white men" liked their drinks strong). Eventually prohibition came along and took away all of the liquid fun. At that time a Philadelphia pharmacist removed the alcohol from Root Tea and renamed it Root Beer (a cruel name I would think). So long story short...that Root Beer that accompanies your ice cream in a float or quenches your thirst on a hot summer day all stems from this ancient, back-woods concoction. Pretty neat right?

Now to present day......

A Philadelphia based company now produces this recreation of the original Root Tea and they call it, simply, Root. It's certified organic for all of you folks out there that like to "keep it real" and it's got a rather interesting flavor. The back of the bottle lists some of the many crazy ingredients and they include things like cardamom, smoked black tea, anise, spearmint and of course things you would expect like sugar cane and birch bark. It does taste a lot like Root Beer, but it also, in my mind, tastes a lot like Jagermeister. I'm not saying it's for everyone, BUT, like I always say, "you'll never know unless you try".

The bottle comes with a cute little booklet that details its history and recommends a few drink recipes. But if you do decide to try Root, might I recommend you first give it a shot almost completely au natural........

Root Au Natural:
Fill a highball glass with ice. Pour Root in the glass just shy of 3/4 of the way up the side. Fill the rest of the glass with plain seltzer water. Stir and enjoy.
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Monday, November 2, 2009

Too Much Of A Good Thing?

Can you really ever have too much of a good thing? You can when you've got a Tupperware container full of if, your household consists of two people (plus dog) and it's shelf life in the refrigerator is about 3 days. I'm talking crab here folks.

I recently found the best seafood deal going. My fave fish monger, John Yi at the Reading Terminal Market, sells a two cup container of fresh crab claw meat for under $10. I know what you're thinking..."way to cheap out on quality there Jessica...ever heard of lump crab meat?". I do love me some lump crab meat, but when you're stuffing flounder or mushrooms, or mixing it into a creamy seafood bisque all you're really looking for is that sweet crab flavor and a tender texture, and I promise you, for about 1/3 of the price of lump, claw meat delivers. The only problem? I can never eat it all! Hmmm. Doesn't really sound like a problem huh? You're right. It's not really a serious issue, but one that I felt needed solving...I suppose that means that world peace can wait huh?

Last week I got a hankering for some crab stuffed flounder and realized I was still looking for something to serve at a cocktail party I was hosting that weekend. At that moment I knew I had found the solution to my "can never eat it all" crab dilemma...Hot Crab Dip! It's the perfect way to use the rest of that delicious crab AND make my guests happy at the same time. Hot crab dip, to me, is like the love child of seafood bisque and a Maryland crab cake. How could that NOT be amazing!? So next time you're perusing the seafood counter grab a container of crab claw meat and make this dip. You'll probably have to invite some friends over to give you a hand eating it all, but I'm sure they won't mind helping you out. What are friends for right?

Hot Crab Dip:

-1 1/2 cups fresh crab claw (or lump you high rollers) meat *note* This will be pre-cooked by your fish monger and packaged fresh - I'm not a big fan of the canned stuff - ask your fish monger for a hand if you're confused
-1 tbs. butter
-1/4 cup chopped onion
-1/8 cup chopped celery
-1/8 cup chopped green pepper
-5 oz neufchatel OR cream cheese
-1/3 cup mayo
-1 tbs. brown mustard
-1 tbs. worcestershire sauce
-1/3 cup grated munster cheese
-1 tbs. chopped fresh parsley
-1/2 tbs. onion powder
Salt and pepper to taste

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. In a saute pan on medium-low heat sweat the onion, celery and green pepper in the butter until soft (about 7 mins). Meanwhile in a large mixing bowl combine the neufchatel (or cream cheese), mayo, mustard, worcestershire sauce, grated munster, parsley and onion powder in a bowl and mix thoroughly (if you leave the cream cheese out for 30 mins before hand it will help this process). Now add the onion, celery, green pepper mixture as well as the crab and mix well. The crab has been pre-cooked prior to your purchasing it so you can taste this mixture cold. Add salt and pepper as you see fit. I usually add about 1/2 tsp. of pepper and about the same amount of salt. Once combined transfer mixture to a greased baking dish (preferably one that is shallow and wide) and bake at 350 for about 30 mins or until the edges begin to bubble and it's warmed through. Let cool for a minute or two then serve while still warm. You can dip anything in this...pita chips...tortilla chips...pretzels...crackers. Enjoy!
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