Kale to the Chief

Last fall, during the lay-off, we took in a roommate. A good friend of ours needed a place to live for a few months, and we had been thinking about renting the second bedroom for extra cash. His rent included dinner every night, which was a bit of an upgrade for him. (He’s a great guy, but the one cookbook he owns is A Man, a Can, a Plan.)

Whenever our friend talks about his time at our place, the nightly dinner always gets mentioned. I’ve asked him for his favorite and most distinctive food memory from his time with us, and his answer is always the same: kale. When he thinks of eating at our table, he thinks about kale.

This dish, a panade, literally, a “big bread thing,” is my absolute most favorite thing to do with kale. It takes a good long time to prepare and even longer to bake, so I typically make it on football Sundays in the late fall and wintertime, starting around 1:00 for a 4:30 meal. I say Sundays because I always use leftover challah, although it’s certainly not what the recipe calls for.

In fact, the recipe I use doesn’t even include kale. It calls for chard, which I am sure would be dandy, but as soon as I saw the ingredients — stewed onions, chard, and fontina, nestled in between cubes of bread and bathed in stock — I thought kale would be even better. This season, you can get a bunch of kale for under a dollar — mine was .79 at Russo’s.

You can certainly use fancy fontina, but if you want to keep costs down, Trader Joe’s cheeses work great. I had some leftover veggie stock in the fridge, so we used that, along with the frozen turkey stock Rich made the day after Thanksgiving. We’ve found that animal stock makes the dish unctuous and more layered with flavor and depth, but I promise you, it will be delicious veggie-only as well.

This is one of those dishes that requires the dirtying of a frustrating amount of dishes, and Rich and I make it together, each tackling a part of the preparation. But trust me, the time and dirty dishes are well worth it.

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Choppin’ Broccoli

Darn it, shoulda used extra-firm tofu.

I think Rich and I broke a holiday party record yesterday: four parties in nine hours. And the food. Oh boy, the food. Highlights include warm ricotta dip, fig and caramelized onions on parmasean tarts, Swedish meatballs, homemade marshmallows, roasted Brussels sprouts, two separate brie en croutes –all warm and melty with caramelized onions and cranberries spilling from underneath their puff pastry shells — a divine cheese platter and rich chocolate ganache cookies. I also drank some wonderful homemade merlot and was introduced to a fresh cranberry and vodka drink that needs further exploration.

So it’s no surprise that Rich and I woke up this morning still pretty full, and a little, just a little bit, grossed out by how much food we ate yesterday. So tonight I turned to my favorite dish I cook up when I think we need to hit pause on our holiday eating.

This recipe is adapted from Mollie Katzen’s Still Life With Menu Cookbook. I’ve found her original recipe to be too vinegary and lacking in soy sauce, so over time I have rejiggered it. She also calls for water chestnuts, which I never seem to have on hand, although last time I made this, I tossed in a can of baby corn. The dried black mushrooms are a pantry staple, thanks to Ocean State Job Lot. Tonight I added a block of medium firm tofu, although looking through the photos, should have been extra firm. Nonetheless, it still tasted great. The red chili flakes give it a good kick, so if you think it’s going to be too spicy for you, just use less than a teaspoon. Rich loves the extra kick and even adds Siracha sauce to his.

Broccoli and Black Mushrooms in Garlic Sauce

Adapted from Still Life with Menu Cookbook

Preparation time: 40 to 45 minutes (The actual stir-frying, once all prelimanaries are ready, takes only about 10 minutes.)

Yield: 4 main-dish-sized servings

Helpful hint: Put your rice on as you start to collect the ingredients, and it will be warm, ready and fluffy when the dish is done.

6 Chinese dried black mushrooms

2 cups boiling water

1/4 cup rice vinegar (cider vinegar will also work in a pinch)

1 1/2 cups water

1/4 cup (packed) brown sugar

3 tablespoons soy sauce

1/2 teaspoon salt

6 medium-sized cloves garlic, coarsely minced

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (more or less, to taste)

2 tablespoons cornstarch

2 tablespoons peanut or sesame oil

1 bunch broccoli (1 to 1 1/2 lbs.) stems trimmed and shaved, cut in 2-inch spears

salt, to taste

1 8 oz. can water chestnuts, drained and sliced, OR 1 can baby corn, OR 1 package extra firm tofu — the choices are really endless, and entirely up to you

1) Place the dried mushrooms in a bowl. Add boiling water, cover with a plate, and let stand at least 1/2 hour (preferably a whole hour). Drain the mushrooms, squeezing out all excess liquid. (You may wish to reserve the soaking water for soup stock.) Remove and discard mushroom stems, and slice the caps in half.

2) Combine the vinegar, 1 1/2 cups of water, brown sugar, soy sauce, salt, garlic and red pepper in a bowl.

3) Place the cornstarch in a small bowl. Add some of the sauce, whisk until dissolved, then return this mixture to the rest of the sauce. Leave the whisk in there; you’ll need it again.

4) Have all ingredients ready and within arm’s reach before starting the stir-fry. Place a medium-large wok over high heat for about a minute or two. Then add the oil. After about a minute, add the broccoli. Salt it lightly, and stir-fry for several minutes over consistently high heat, until the broccoli is bright grean.

5) Add the black mushrooms and water chestnuts, or tofu or baby corn, and stir-fry a few minutes more.

6) Whisk the sauce from the bottom of the bowl to re-integrate the cornstarch. Pour the sauce into the wok, turn the heat down just a little and keep stir-frying over the medium-high heat for another few minutes, until the sauce thickens and coats everything nicely. Serve immediately, over rice.

Cheap Beets Gift Tip#2: Bring Beer or Cider Instead of Wine

This is one of my favorite beers of all times, but just a warning, it's very very sour.

Flipping through December food magazines, I’ve noticed a trend: recommendations for really good bottles of wine that cost less than $15. Now, I’m not much of a wine drinker — reds give me a headache — but I do like a good bottle of Belgian beer, or a crisp, hard cider. Which leads me to Cheap Beets Gift Tip#2: for the same price you would pay for a decent bottle of wine, you can get a world-class bottle of beer or cider. Continue reading

Cheap Beets Gifts Tip #1: Give a Gift That Can Make a Difference

We didn’t do a lot of gift exchanges last year. The layoff happened only four months earlier, and we were still feeling a little uneasy about how to celebrate the holiday season.

People around us understood. In fact, when I tell people about why I started this blog – to share my stories of our fiscally responsible food budget in the wake of an unforeseen layoff – everyone nods and often replies that their roommate, sister, uncle or they, themselves, just went through, or are going through, a similar ordeal.

Over the course of the next month, I hope to share with you some of the ways we were able to celebrate the holiday season and hopefully inspire you to also think outside the proverbial gift box.

Here’s tip #1: If you would really like to still give a gift this year but your budget is very small, consider making a small donation, in whatever amount you can afford — $5, $10, $18 — to an organization your friend or loved one cherishes. There are so many non-profits and charities that are really hurting in this economic downturn, from your favorite public television station, to your local food kitchen, or Federation, to international organizations like the AJWSOxfam, and the Red Cross. Maybe there’s a synagogue or church your friend loves attending. Maybe they’re very active alumni and would be thrilled if you made a donation in their honor to their university. Whatever the amount, it’s a wonderful way to spread holiday joy without breaking the budget.

My advice is to give it over the phone and insist the organization spend as little as possible on the mailing. Ask if they can send an acknowledgment of the gift over e-mail to cut down on office costs.

Stay tuned to Cheap Beets for more tips for ways to save money during what can be the most expensive time of the year.