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Only Fresh?


Chili and tomato sauce are things that I make from time to time, always using fresh tomatoes in my non-recipes. That is, until several weeks ago, when I had a bunch of fresh cilantro to be used but couldn’t find good tomatoes for less than a fortune. So I bought cheap canned tomatoes instead. The huge cans were on sale, so I got quite a lot of tomatoes. As it turned out, far more than were necessary.
First, I made chili. I used two large cans of tomatoes, not realizing how much that threw off my usual ratio. I seasoned until it smelled good. In the end, that wasn’t enough. Not only did I have more left over than ever before, it was not quite as good as usual. I still ate it.

A bit later on, I finally made tomato sauce. I only used one can this time (I think). In went the usual olive oil, and after simmering them long enough to have sauce rather than whole peeled tomato soup, all the usual seasonings joined the party. I tried it and found that it came out very nice. It tasted just like tomato sauce …

But not my tomato sauce.

The difference was notable. When you use fresh ingredients, the resulting flavors of the dish are–there’s no better word for it–fresh. (I realize I’ve now used this word a lot in this post, and I usually try to avoid that, but it’s the only word that really gets my point across.)

Perhaps it was the extra ingredients in the canned tomatoes: salt and added preservatives. That’s the first hint that it not only will taste different, but will not be as good for you. I do add salt to tomato sauce, but not very much. As a result, what I make is typically far healthier than any store-bought kind (large quantities of olive oil included).

While the canned tomatoes definitely saved me money, I have long been a believer in spending more for better quality, within reason. At times it’s a necessary sacrifice, and I’ll admit I’ve had more ramen dinners than I ever really wanted, but in general, the difference between fresh and pre-packaged items are worth it. Tomatoes can be a bit of a problem in winter, though, because they aren’t in season. However, it clearly depends where you go. Everything is always more expensive at Whole Foods and some of the local artisan co-op type places (City Feed, I love your coffee, but I cannot afford your groceries), but I got ten pretty nice roma tomatoes for $2 at Johnny D’s in Brighton Center yesterday. Knowing where to find the deals is key.

I’m not even a fan of frozen vegetables, for the most part. In some recipes they work just fine, and they’re certainly going to save you money, but I can’t help noticing a deficiency in flavor and crispness. Do a simple test: take some frozen broccoli and some fresh broccoli and cook them exactly the same way, for the same amount of time, and then compare them. If you come back and tell me you didn’t notice a difference, I’m not going to believe you. It matters.

I do buy frozen vegetables at times. Here’s another problem, though: I’m far less likely to use them than fresh ones. Knowing my food will actually go bad is a greater incentive to eat it. Seeing all the colors and options set out before me, rather than a collection of white bags with pictures of produce on them, gives me a much better sense of the food that’s available to me. Not to mention that some of the things I like to do with vegetables, like salads and sandwich toppings, are not possible with the frozen variety. Hell, I have a bag of frozen corn that seemed like a good idea at the time, but has been sitting in my freezer for at least two months now. I’m not a huge fan of corn, but I was going to make some kind of chowder-casserole concoction that never came about.

Anyway. Although it seems like buying frozen and canned food items is just a good way to save money, it doesn’t work for me, because I’ll leave them sitting for substantial lengths of time in favor of going out for a burrito or something. If I buy fresh produce, I feel much more compelled and in fact excited to eat it. So really, which option is more budget-friendly?

What Do You Do With a Bunch of Fresh Basil?


Buying fresh herbs kind of sucks–because they always sell you more than you can use, and then all that goodness goes to waste! The last time I bought cilantro, half of it turned into rotting mush in the bag before I got a chance to make the thing I’d been planning to make with it.

But sometimes I just really want to buy they anyway. There’s a small produce store in Brighton Center that generally has really good stuff at good prices, so I like to go there sometimes so I’ll have good fresh fruits and vegetables. They sell fresh basil and cilantro for a dollar a bunch. (Not that this is really different from most grocery stores, but it’s still a nice price). I wanted basil, so I got one bunch.

One bunch is just too much. I’ve gotten more used to the idea of copious fresh basil, instead of adding it as an afterthought or a garnish. I like it in salads, particularly if I have blueberries or strawberries to put on the salad as well. Add a little drizzle of olive oil, and you’ve got a great thing going. Unfortunately I have no berries, but that’s ok. Just using basil in a regular old salad definitely kicks up the flavor, at least one notch, if not two.

I’m sure most people are aware that basil is great for cooking, too. Pizza, sauteed with vegetables, mixed up into a marinade for some chicken… whatever you think will taste good, there’s a good chance you can do it with basil. (Wow, that sounded weirder than I thought before I typed it out.)

Of course, one way to use up a substantial portion of that bunch is to make a nice batch of tomato sauce. I had that intention, but unfortunately I left the burner on too high for too long on my pot of tomatoes, and they burned horribly. They were not salvageable, and I didn’t want to go out and get more tomatoes, so I had to just scrap that whole idea. In this case, my cooking failure was due to not paying attention, rather than not having a recipe going in! I’ve made tomato sauce a whole bunch of times and this has never happened before.

I wish they would sell smaller bunches of herbs for 50c. I don’t want good basil going bad because I only wanted to use small amounts… but what am I supposed to do? I only have so many ingredients that will logically combine with basil. And I’m not planning to shop again before Thanksgiving. I suppose I can always freeze the rest if I don’t feel like using it right now.

Maybe I can make a basil-mozzarella omelet tomorrow morning. I might even spare some of the grape tomatoes that I plan to put on my salad for tomorrow’s lunch.

If you feel inclined, leave a comment and let me know what you do with your basil.

Monday Madness: Saucy Sunday


I got food in my hair this morning. Of course. How else do you start off a week? Such fun. Ugh.

It turned out, although my shoe rack came unassembled (duh), it was really easy to put together. I think it took me ten minutes, listening to Lorde’s album on the internet (who buys cds these days?). I almost think I could actually get my crap organized someday… with a few more bins and boxes, maybe.

And now another week starts. Time is passing too quickly, at least, in comparison to what I’ve been able to get done lately. I don’t need to be productive all the time, but I’ve been pretty much useless for the past month or so. I’ve had a lot of free time, all things considered, and I was going to use it to get ahead on work and personal projects, and here I am, having done nothing at all for way too long. I feel so dumb and lazy…

Last night I decided I should make some dinner even though I didn’t think I was hungry. I didn’t make what I had planned, because it was slightly more effort. Instead I made a quick tomato sauce and butternut squash ravioli from Trader Joe’s.

Tomato sauce of the consistency people expect when they say “tomato sauce” takes quite a while to make. But any sauce you make in which tomatoes are a key ingredient is tomato sauce. I made a simple version in a saute pan this time. I started by frying some chopped green peppers, cooking them until they were sizzling. Then I added the tomatoes and a handful of scallions. I let the pan cook up for a few minutes before I added a small amount of water. That’s what makes it sauce. Some basil, black pepper, and time to simmer, and it was smelling delicious. The ravioli was drained, put into the sauce and mixed around until they were covered. Finally, I ate it up. (The typical last step of dinner).

In the end I was glad I decided to cook, because it was really good. But I also kind of wished I didn’t have to…

Food Acquisition, plus Spinach Tortellini with Tomato Saute


If anyone knows how to type  in the e with the accent on it so that I can spell “saute” correctly in the title, please let me know.

First, a brief review!

This is not the best coffee in the world. This is just a tribute.

This is not the best coffee in the world. This is just a tribute.

The caption there is a play on the Tenacious D song, “Tribute,” in case you aren’t familiar. These were bought online due to a Starbucks membership promotion. Yes, I have a Starbucks membership, and no, I don’t go there every day. I got a gift card for Christmas and registered it mostly because I wanted the free birthday beverage. I think it was a Vanilla Spice latte. If not… doesn’t matter. In any case, I had a discount coupon, so I ordered these items. Haven’t tried the coffee yet, so I guess it could actually be the greatest coffee in the world. Kind of doubt it though.

If you can’t see it well enough, the via product is an instant version of their “very berry hibiscus refresher,” which is made from coffee juice, I guess. I tried one the other day, and it wasn’t bad, but tasted very different from the one you can buy freshly made. I would only recommend buying this if you can get it on sale, like I did.

Last week, I did two grocery shopping trips in one day, spent nearly $70 total–quite a lot for one day for me (on food, that is), but I still have a lot of food left from those trips, so I don’t think it’ll work out to be much more for the month’s groceries than I usually spend. In case you’re now wondering, I do not work off an actual budget. I’m sure I should, but I manage fine without it, and I have a tendency to rebel against the approach of “you CANNOT spend any more than ___.” I’ll spend more just because. So I don’t bother.

Things I should always buy in multiple when I go to Trader Joe’s: Spicy Powdered Chai Mix, Chile Lime Chicken Burgers, Chicken and Cheese Tamales, Pumpkin Ice Cream (when available), individual serving Greek yogurt, frozen naan. Having these things available at any given time makes my life better.

Last, but not least, I have a non-recipe to share (finally)! It is a very uncomplicated thing to make, as its base is quick-cooking spinach tortellini. I used the package bought from Trader Joe’s, but any variety you can find will work.

I just want to take a moment to say that I LOVE spinach tortellini. It’s weird, because I’m not a fan of the flavor of cooked spinach. However, dishes that involve cooked spinach in which other flavors are more prominent than the spinach itself can be as delicious as anything. What I have done in the past with instant tortellini or ravioli is just melt some butter and mix in some herbs, and pour it over the pasta. This is a slightly more involved version of that practice.

The actual cooking part doesn’t take much time at all, but I always forget how long water takes to boil. Start boiling your water first or you’re going to be sitting there trying to keep your sauce warm and tapping your foot yelling, “Goddamn it water, boil!”

I’m not going to explain how to cook the tortellini, because there are instructions on the package. For the tomato saute, I started by melting a whole bunch of butter in a small pan. Read the rest of this entry

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