Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Bento Lunch Boxes

I discovered recently, to my shock and horror, that my husband had not been eating lunch at work because he was too busy to go down to the cafeteria in his office building. On top of that, he had been drinking, on average, 5 cups of coffee a day, and was a nervous wreck by the time he got home every night. I even caught him sneaking in a few puffs of cigarettes, a habit that I thought he broke a few years ago, outside our home.

Naturally, I felt horrible about this and wanted to find a way to encourage him to eat lunch with very minimal effort. I decided to invest in a thermal bento box that does not require microwaving. This cost $9, and you can pack a pretty substantial amount in there.

There are some really fancy ways to create bentos, as documented by many blogs, but I'm an amateur at this and I wanted to just start with leftovers and whatever is in the refrigerator.

This morning, I started with a layer of red jasmine rice packed down really tight with a spoon, some baby carrots and a tomato wedge on the side compartment. Then I added some pork that I sliced up really thin, and some stir fried Chinese greens. The content of the lunch was under $2.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Recipe for Simmered Black Beans

A friend of mine just told me about a recipe she just tried for Mexican Simmered Black Beans. She got it off of the New York Times dining section from March 11, 2009, and she loved it. It seemed like a good, simple meal, so here it is:

Simmered Black Beans

The key to a great pot of black beans is using enough onion, garlic and salt for seasoning, and then cooking the beans for a long time at a slow simmer. In Mexico, a sprig of epazote or a few dried avocado leaves are usually added to the pot. Those ingredients aren’t as easy to find as cilantro, which is what I routinely use to season the beans.

1 pound black beans, washed and picked over for stones

2 quarts water

1 tablespoon canola oil or extra virgin olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

4 large garlic cloves, minced

1/4 cup chopped cilantro, plus additional for garnish if desired

Salt, preferably kosher salt, to taste

1. Soak the beans in the water for at least six hours. If they will be soaking for a long time in warm weather, put them in the refrigerator.

2. Heat the oil over medium heat in a large, heavy soup pot or Dutch oven, and add the onion. Cook, stirring, until it begins to soften, about three minutes. Add half the garlic. Cook, stirring, until fragrant, about one minute. Add the beans and soaking water. The beans should be covered by at least an inch of water. Add more as necessary, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, and skim off any foam that rises. Cover and simmer one hour.

3. Add the salt, remaining garlic and cilantro. Continue to simmer another hour, until the beans are quite soft and the broth is thick and fragrant. Taste. Is there enough salt? Does it need more garlic? Add if necessary. Let sit overnight in the refrigerator for the best flavor.

Note: If you can get hold of a sprig of fresh epazote, add it to the beans in step 3.

Yield: Serves six

Advance preparation: The cooked beans will keep for three to four days in the refrigerator and will freeze well.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Hannaford Good Deal: Whole Chicken for $0.69 a pound

One of my favorite local supermarkets here in the New England area, Hannaford, is having a great sale on whole chickens this week for just $0.69 a pound. I picked up a chicken for $3.05 (over 4 lbs), which I'm roasting as I write this entry. Roasting a chicken is wicked easy. Just follow the instructions on the package.

I'm serving this chicken with white rice and asparagus, which I bought for $2.99 for the bunch and should last two meals for the two of us.

I plan to strip the meat of the chicken and save the bones for stock again. I expect the chicken can last us two meals as well.

So, tonight's dinner will cost about $1.75 per person.

Hmmm... the chicken sale ends this Saturday. I'm thinking of going back to buy a few more and stock up the freezer. Given that I only have 4 more days left in the month, and I still have $28 left in my groceries budget, I can afford to do this!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Ginger Garlic Bluefish Recipe

Tip: this recipe calls for ginger and scallion. As with scallions mentioned in an earlier article, grate the ginger root until you're sick of grating, use the portion you need, and store the rest into a Ziplock bag in the freezer so it doesn't spoil.

I'm posting this recipe because I wrote about how bluefish can be purchased for as little as $2.29 a pound in Boston.

  • Bluefish fillet (or whole, cleaned mackerel)
  • Salt
  • Garlic
  • Cooking oil
  • 1 tablespoon grated ginger (preferably fresh)
  • 1/2 cup soy sauce
  • 1 1/2 tablespoon sugar
  • 1/4 cooking rice wine/sherry (optional)
  • A few drops of sesame oil (optional)
  • Chili sauce (optional)
  • A sprinkle of scallion (thinly sliced)
Like mackerel, bluefish is a fishier tasting fish, and some people are turned off by it. But making blue fish with ginger and garlic will diffuse the strong taste. This will also work on a whole mackerel. You can choose to grill, broil or bake the fish, but I prefer grill or broil, as the charred taste complements the fish.

1) Marinate the fish.
When I cook, I usually improvise, so these measurements don't have to be exact. Take your bluefish fillets and dust a light layer of salt and garlic all over it (can be substituted with garlic salt). Brush some cooking oil on both sides of each fillet. Let it sit in your refrigerator for a few hours.

2) Make the sauce.
Whisk together the ginger, soy sauce, sugar, cooking wine, sesame oil, and chili sauce in a small bowl. Sprinkle the scallion into the sauce.

3) Brush more oil over the fillets. Grill/broil/bake the fish at a high temperature (preheated to 450 F). Check after 8 minutes. If you're using a whole mackerel, you may want to turn it over after 5 minutes and return it to the oven for another 5. The fish is ready when you can see that it's flaky. Fish does not take very long to cook.

4) Remove fish from oven. Spoon sauce over the fish. Serve hot. It's very good with white jasmine rice and green, leafy veggies.

Friday, February 20, 2009

New York City Chinatown Supermarkets: New York Supermarket v. Hong Kong Supermarket

Along East Broadway in New York City's Chinatown, there are various stores and markets, selling everything from baked goods to fish balls. I stopped by two of them today to comparison shop.

New York Supermarket
75 East Broadway
New York, NY 10002

Located in a slightly hidden mini-mall directly under the Manhattan Bridge, you have to get past a corridor with small stores that smell of perm solutions (appetizing, no?) to get to the New York Supermarket. Don't worry - the market itself doesn't smell or seem to be contaminated. The fruit section of the market is in a covered, outdoor area, but the vegetables and other food are located inside the store. This supermarket has the usual Chinese fruits - Durian, Persimmons, Kumquats, etc. - and vegetables - bok choy, pea shoots, winter melon, etc. Everything looked pretty fresh. I found scallions at a great price (3 for $1.00)! The space itself is well-lit, but the aisles are a little tight.

Hong Kong Supermarket
109 East Broadway
New York, NY 10002

The Hong Kong Supermarket is the 800 lb. gorilla of Chinatown supermarkets. They have a huge space and a ton of selection. Reviews on the internet of this supermarket are unfairly harsh. People think that this is a dark and dirty spot. I'm not sure what standards they are applying because I find the Hong Kong Supermarket to be brighter and cleaner than most American supermarkets in the city.

Interestingly enough, the fruit selection (located outside of the Hong Kong Supermarket) was much bigger and better than the New York Supermarket, but the vegetable section (again, located inside) was not very good. The aisles were bigger than the New York Supermarket, and just because the sheer size of the place, Hong Kong Supermarket has much more selection.

As for prices, I found that noodles (both fresh and dried) were slightly cheaper at New York Supermarket than at Hong Kong Supermarket. However, for other goods, Hong Kong Supermarket served a beat down to New York Supermarket by a wide margin. Here is a quick comparison:

Fresh Lo Mein Noodles ($1.39 at New York Supermarket, $1.49 at Hong Kong Supermarket)
Gold Key Dried Mangoes ($4.99 at New York Supermarket, $3.49 at Hong Kong Supermarket)
Kadoya Sesame Oil ($4.19 at New York Supermarket, $3.99 at Hong Kong Supermarket)
25lb. bag of Golden Crown Brand Jasmine Rice (N/a at New York Supermarket, $14.99 at Hong Kong Supermarket)

As a side note, do you know how difficult it is to carry a 25lb. bag of rice around NYC? It must be like carrying a small child around with you everywhere. Now, I understand the plight of young mothers with their small children on the subway! Except, I would imagine that young mothers can't (or shouldn't!) throw their small children on the ground like I did with my bag of rice.

Note: This blog is in no way affiliated with either of these businesses mentioned in this post. This is the sole opinion of Mystery Ter.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Fresh Bluefish at $2.29 per pound

It's astounding how few varieties of fish most supermarkets carry. I often wonder whether it's really the consumer demands that generated our "over-fishing" problems, or whether it is the lack of demand-generation effort on the part of the retailers to encourage consumers to eat types of fish that are plentiful from our oceans.

On a good day, if you go to a general supermarket in the Boston area (e.g., Stop & Shop, Hannaford, Wholefoods, Shaws, Foodmaster, Roche Brothers), you may find one kind of fish for $5.99 a pound (even cat fish costs this much these days), but most will priced around $8.99 a pound. The varieties are usually limited to salmon, tuna, swordfish, cod, haddock, catfish, tilapia, trout, and your usual New England shellfish. Recently, I've been seeing more swai and pollack as well. But generally these are it. And they're expensive. For convenience sake, sometimes, I'd end up buying fish there, but I usually wait until I have to shop at Kam Man, the large Chinese Supermarket near my home in Quincy. I'm lucky that I live in a very racially diverse enough town where there is such a supermarket.

There are many, many more varieties of fish there at Kam Man that you don't see at other supermarkets. These are usually the plentiful fish and are the bargain items. The salmon is generally not much below prices at other supermarkets.

Most of this fish are very fresh–some (such as tilapia) are even live in tanks. You have to choose a fish, pick it up with a pair of tongs (as pictured above) and put it into a basket and then ask the clerk to clean and cut it for you. For bigger fish such as salmon and grouper and carp, you can get it by the pound, but for smaller fish, you have to pick a whole fish, which they weigh entirely and then cut and clean. Yesterday, I ended buying a 3.25 pound bluefish for $7.42 (@ $2.29 a lb). I had the clerk filet it, keeping the bones in the bag. Each filet will be served as entrĂ©es for two (a total of 4 servings), and the bones, head, and tail I plan to keep for fish stock.

My message here is: open your mind to ethnic supermarkets. You're likely to find good quality produce. More on how I prepared the bluefish later.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

$5.99 for a Good Bottle of Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Any Contenders?

I have embarked on a quest to find the least expensive, best quality 500ml bottle of extra virgin olive oil.

Pictured here are two bottles of 500ml extra virgin olive oil in very similarly shaped bottles. Both were priced at $5.99.

The bottle on the right, labeled Vitarroz, was bought from an ethnic (Asian) supermarket and imported from Turkey, while the bottle on the left labeled Morbido Riserva Antico Frantoio Di Mezzane, Frantoio Veneti Redoro, 100% product of Italy, was bought from T.J. Maxx's clearance shelf located in their specialty foods aisle. Both bottles are fresh-dated with at least another year before the expiration date.

While both oils were good, the T.J. Maxx purchase was really exceptional. The green nutty flavor was wonderful with blanched dark leafy greens and fresh ground sea salt and pepper. The unfortunate thing is that I'm not sure if I'll be able to find another bottle exactly like this one. T.J. Maxx does not seem to always stock the same items.

So far, I am unable to find ANY 500ml extra virgin olive oil below $5.99 ($1.20 per 100ml). This search will continue.

Even at this price, e.v.o.o. is more than double the price of canola oil, which I use for regular cooking and pan-frying. But a good e.v.o.o. makes vegetables taste so much better. A 500ml bottle can generally last a month and can still fit within our tight budget.