Recession Food: Recipe Bonanza, and Greek Bean Soup

Check out Shapely Prose for a great collection of readers’ favorite low-cost recipes for hard times.

This soup recipe from commenter Lisa sounds particularly tasty.  I haven’t tried it yet, but I plan to whip up a pot this week in honor of Greece, where people know how to register their anger with failed economic policies.

Fasolatha (Greek bean soup)

3 Medium Carrots Sliced
3 Celery ribs Chopped
1 lb Navy Beans, soaked overnight
1 Cup Olive Oil
3 cups water
1 Medium Onion Chopped
1 Pinch Pepper To taste
1 Pinch Salt To taste
1/2 tsp granulated garlic
1 Cup Diced Tomatoes
Directions:

* Soak the beans in water overnight.
* Strain the water and place the beans in a pot with new water.
* Boil for 2 minutes; strain. Repeat once more. This prevents the beans from causing gas.
* After boiling and straining the 2nd time, return beans to pot, add 3 cups water, and simmer.
*While the beans simmer, saute carrots, celery, and onion in a small amount of olive oil until onions are translucent. Add to beans, stir and continue to simmer until beans are tender, approx. 1 hour.
*Once beans are cooked, add tomatoes and olive oil. Simmer again. Add seasonings to taste.

At this point, the soup is ready. I often puree about 1/3 of the soup for a thicker consistency. This is an old Greek recipe; inexpensive, healthy, and very tasty.

I’m guessing you could probably used canned beans in a pinch.  This is vegetarian, dairy free and gluten free, and could easily be vegan if you use vegetable stock.

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Recession Food: Matzo Brei

Yes, folks, now that the financial sector is in total collapse and we’re staring down the very real possibility of a new Great Depression, it’s time for another installment of what will clearly be our ongoing series, Recession* Food!  Those of us who didn’t make millions running banks into the ground are tightening our belts, cashing in our change jars and wondering about that seven hundred billion dollars (!!) we’re being told we’ll hand over to the rich, so I’m afraid I won’t be reviewing many fancy restaurants on this blog anytime soon.  Seriously, a loaf of bread, a block of store-brand cheddar and a bag of Lay’s chips just cost me eight bucks.  It’s going to be a rough winter.  I will, however, be creative at finding ways to make tasty, nutritious food as cheaply as possible.  After all, that’s what most of the six billion people on this planet try to do every day.  Which brings us to matzo brei (or matzah brei), a Jewish favorite with Ashkenazi origins.

I’m not Jewish, and it’s been only recently (thanks largely to the lovely folks at the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation) that I’ve been introduced to the joys of Jewish culinary traditions.  So my introduction to matzo brei came from a book: the delightful Garlic and Sapphires, former New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl’s memoir of her adventures in dining.  In one chapter toward the end of the book, Reichl is describing a period when the backbiting and snobbery of the food world began to get under her skin.  She reacts one night by cancelling her reservation to a lofty temple of haute cuisine and staying home with her two-year-old son making matzo brei, his favorite.

This matzo-and-egg dish is incredibly simple, quick and cheap.  (It’s also vegetarian and very Crohn’s-friendly, with its high protein and easily digested matzo.**)  I used Manichewitz ‘everything’ matzo, which, like the ‘everything’ bagel, has bits of onion, garlic and poppy seed for some added flavor.   There are lots of versions out there, including one that’s closer to a fritatta; there are also sweet versions with fruit and sour cream.

This recipe is meant for two, but Joe and I found that it took three crackers and four eggs to satisfy us.  Enjoy for breakfast, lunch or dinner.  This takes five minutes to make.  Really.

Matzo Brei (recipe by Ruth Reichl)

2 matzo crackers

2 eggs

Salt

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

Set a colander inside a bowl (to catch the crumbs) and break the matzos into little pieces, dropping them into the colander.  Remove the colander from the bowl and hold it beneath running water until the matzos are damp.  Allow them to drain; then put the damp matzos into a bowl.

Break the eggs into the bowl and stir with a fork just until mixed.  Add salt to taste.

Melt the butter in a small skillet over medium heat.  When the foam subsides, add the matzo-egg mixture and cook, stirring constantly, for about 4 minutes, or until the egg is cooked and there are a few crispy little bits.

Put on plates and serve at once.

(Note: This might be blasphemy, but the spice lovers in my household ate this with a generous dollop of Sriracha hot sauce.)

*Stay tuned, I may have to rename it “Depression Food” and start offering recipes for roadkill and bathtub gin if this keeps up.

**Celiacs, you can buy gluten-free oat matzo, or try this recipe.  I haven’t tried these, so I can’t comment on their quality.  For those with wheat allergies who can tolerate spelt, though, I have eaten spelt matzo and it is freaking delicious.  Both are available from MatzahOnline.com.

Philly’s Best New Cheap Eats: Ekta and Zhi-Wei-Guan

Joe and I are headed to Kitty Hawk, NC for a week of internet-free relaxation on the beach.  If you’re in Philly, though, two new spots to try:

Ekta

I posted about Ekta’s opening, so you know I was in a hurry to try the food.  I’m happy to report that Chef Raju Bhattarai has matched the quality that his fans came to expect at his former post, Tiffin, at his new restaurant a few blocks down Girard.  [where: 19125]  I ordered one of the few dishes I hadn’t seen before, Murg Pahari, described on the menu only as “chicken cooked in a village’s style.”  It arrived hot and on time, and it was comfort food– the chicken was cooked in a thick, spicy sauce of onions, tomatoes and herbs.  No heavy cream thickening the gravy here, just fresh vegetables and a low level of heat that allowed the flavors to shine.  Peshawari naan and onion bhajis were tasty, but the real standout was the freebie “chef’s accompaniment” that arrived labeled “semolina.”  It was a dessert semolina porridge with golden raisins and toasted almonds, its subtle sweetness cut by a hint of black pepper.  I hope it makes it onto the menu– I’d order it for dessert or for breakfast.

Zhi-Wei-Guan Restaurant

I’ve posted a lot about Race St. between 9th and 10th: Wong Wong, HK Golden Phoenix and Nan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodles all live on this blessed block. [where: 19107] Between Nan Zhou* and HK there’s a new neighbor: Zhi-Wei-Guan Restaurant, the Magic Kingdom of Dough.  (That’s what it says on the business card.)  Zhi-Wei-Guan is named after a famous restaurant in Hangzhou, China, and Hangzhou dishes are proudly featured throughout the menu.  We had an amazing Hangzhou-style duck noodle soup with bok choy, and noodle dishes are clearly a specialty.  The real star here, though, is the juicy buns.  When we arrived, around 9:15 PM, our server welcomed us cheerfully** and told us that the pork/shrimp/mushroom buns ($7.50) were almost sold out.  There were only five left, but she’d round out the order with some beef buns.  Who could say no to that?  The buns were indeed juicy, fresh and full of flavor.  The beef buns were very lightly cooked, still pink inside, but delicious, with a lighter flavor and texture than you might expect from a beef dumpling.  Definitely worth the price.  We also ordered a noodle soup with fried tofu and stewed spareribs, and found it deeply satisfying.  Unlike Nan Zhou down the street, which is known for its noodles, the amazing, knock-your-socks-off component to Zhi-Wei-Guan’s soup is the broth.  Both of the soups we tried were all about the complex, rich flavors of the broth.  The way it permeated the fried tofu– oh, man, you’re just going to have to try it.  The soups, by the way, are all in the $5-7 range.
They’re open until 10, and the service is amazing.  Our server was a friendly, personable woman in her twenties who chatted with customers, recommended dishes, brought us freebies (sliced cucumber with a vinegar-soy dipping sauce, yum!) and even took our pictures for the wall.  I wish I’d caught her name.  I’ve worked as a server and in retail, and I’m not a fan of the classic servile style of restaurant service– I’d rather talk to a friendly fellow human being who knows and cares about the food they’re serving.  I loved the food, but our server gave us such a good experience that I know I’ll be coming back regularly.
With that, I’m disappearing for the week– off to enjoy the tasty treats of Kitty Hawk.  Have a nice week, folks!

*a.k.a. Lanzhou (兰州/蘭州), not to be confused with Hangzhou (杭州).  Chinese transliteration is a complicated business; I’m not about to hazard guesses about what’s right or wrong.  Chinese speakers, please feel free to chime in.

** This is a welcome contrast to the dumpling house that briefly occupied this space before Zhi-Wei-Guan– I stopped in one night half an hour before closing time to order takeout and was shooed out by a surly server.

Sketch Burger: Holy Kobe!

I have been to the top of the mountain… and they serve hamburgers.

OK, that mild rise on Girard isn’t really even a hill, but the hamburgers really are amazing.  I’m talking about the newly opened Sketch Burger and Shake Joint, at 413 E. Girard in Fishtown [where: 19125].  Dear readers, we have a serious contender for Best Burger in Philly.

The menu is simple: burgers and shakes, and one token salad.  Pick your protein, sauce and toppings, and choose from four shake flavors (vegan or milk).  Options are beef, turkey, ‘smashed onion,’ vegan burger, chicken, and American Kobe beef, as well as the day’s special, a seitan burger highly recommended by the server.  Joe and I, being hedonists, went straight for the American Kobe burger ($9.75).  He got harissa aioli, I chose Thai peanut sauce on the side.  I went for grilled onions and avocado.  The burger arrived, and it was massive.  Really, I cannot believe they crammed that much meat into one burger.  Most kobe burgers tend to be on the small side– $9.75 may be expensive for a burger, but for kobe it’s really an excellent deal.  It arrived medium rare, thank God– overcooking meat of that quality is a sin.  We got our burgers to go, so the bun was slightly soggy, but it really held up well given the juiciness of the burger.  The grilled onions sat below the patty, and above it were slippery sliced avocado, a slice of juicy ripe tomato and some high-quality salad greens.  This is a difficult burger to eat.  It’s crammed full of fresh ingredients that want to come bursting right out of the bun.  The effort, however, is worth it, as is the 20-minute wait while your burger is cooked to order.  The end result is incredibly rich, flavorful, juicy, and did I mention rich?  It was a bit of a shock to my system since I’ve been eating lightly recently, but very much worth it.

We also shared a vanilla milkshake, which was flavorful and thick but not too thick.  (As Joe put it: “Thick, but I won’t have a brain embolism trying to suck it through a straw.”)  Everything is made fresh here, so no chalky chemical taste either.  I try to take it easy on the lactose, so I’m really looking forward to trying a vegan shake.

The shop itself is cute; there are blackboards everywhere and rolls of butcher paper on the tables, and customers are encouraged to doodle with chalk (hence the “Sketch” name).  It’s also open until 11 pm, which is wonderful for those of us who live in the neighborhood.  And vegans, vegetarians and the lactose-intolerant can all find joy in this menu.

I found only two downsides to our delicious, gut-busting meal.  One was the cheese selection: American (ew, plastic), horseradish cheddar, pepper jack, vegan and bleu.  One straightforward cheese option, an aged cheddar or maybe a sharp provolone, would be welcome.  The other was the standard side order of Cheesy Poofs– ours were stale.  Sketch would be better off dropping the little orange orbs and developing the ultimate French fry.  They’ve mastered the ultimate hamburger, so why not?

The Great Watermelon Challenge

So, I was in Trader Joe’s grocery shopping and I saw that they had these small watermelons for sale. I know that Sarah isn’t a big fan but even if she didn’t eat any I could probably eat one of these small ones. So, I bought it and put it in the fridge. When Sarah came home and saw the watermelon she challenged me.  “Make me like watermelon!  That is your mission!” she said.

OK. So now it was on. I had to come up with something. One night when Sarah said she wanted something light I went to work. I made soy and honey marinated chicken breast salad with red onions and watermelon. And for dessert, I made a watermelon granita with Limoncello on the side.

For the salad I made a raspberry vinaigrette in which to marinate the onions. For the vinaigrette:

1/2 cup raspberries (fresh or frozen)

1 tbsp balsamic vinegar

1 tbsp rice wine vinegar

Olive oil

Juice of one lime

Salt and pepper

Combine all ingredients except olive oil in a blender or food processor. Gradually add the olive oil until it comes together to the desired consistency.

Slice one red onion into rings, place in a bowl and pour the vinaigrette over the onions. Allow to marinate for an hour or longer.

For the chicken marinade:

1/4 cup of canola oil

Juice of one lime

2 tbsp dark soy sauce

2 tbsp regular soy sauce

2 tbsp honey

1 inch of ginger root sliced

Salt and pepper

Stir ingredients together and add chicken breasts. Coat and marinate for an hour or so.

Shake the chicken of excess marinade and cook on the stove top on medium high heat. Cook 2-3 minutes on each side until the sugars in the marinade begin to brown. Transfer to a baking dish and finish in a 350 degree oven for 10-15 minutes. Remove from oven, cool for five minutes and slice into strips on the bias.

Construct the salad by laying down a bed of arugula. Top with the marinated onions, cubes of watermelon, the chicken and some of the vinaigrette.

For the granita, add 3-4 cups of watermelon, juice of one lime and some pomegranate syrup to a blender. Blend until smooth and slowly add in 1/3 cup of simple syrup (1/3 cup of sugar dissolved in 1/3 of boiling water and cooled for at least 10 minutes). Strain through a strainer pressing the solids through. Pour into a baking dish and put in the freezer for 2 1/2 to 3 hours. Every half hour scrape and stir the granita until fully frozen. Serve in martini glasses with Limoncello served on the side in vodka or shot glasses.

Sarah was happy with the dishes. I was happy because I can add watermelon to a growing list of foods that Sarah will eat because of me.

Both dishes are gluten and dairy free.

The Gadget Wall: Pot Roast and Moroccan Chicken Stew in the Slow Cooker.

Certain things happen when you get married. Your parents cry. You learn way more than you ever wanted to know about ring sizes. You learn a lot about your relationship. You explore many ways of answering the question ‘So when are you having a baby?’ (We’ll have to get back to you on that, nebnose.) And at the end of it all, you’re left with lots of photos, lots of memories, and lots and lots of kitchen appliances.

This is probably even more true if you are known to be foodies. Joe and I met working at the late, great Lechters Housewares, received all sorts of coffee makers, flatware, and slow cookers, among other gifts, from our wonderful and generous friends and family. We love gadgets, and we both subscribe to Alton Brown’s Unitasker Theory: the only unitasker allowed in our kitchen is the fire extinguisher. (OK, and maybe that awesome stovetop coffeepot Paola brought us from Lebanon.)

Fortunately, the slow cooker is versatile. Stew? Sauce? A whole chicken? Check, check and check. Our thoughtful friends Peter and Cat gave us not only a spiffy slow cooker, but also The Slow Cooker Ready & Waiting Cookbook: 160 Sumptuous Meals that Cook Themselves by Rick Rodgers. Like many cookbooks organized around a gadget, this one pulls recipes from every corner of the globe and adapts them for American tastes. I’m generally skeptical of this approach, but after two really, really delicious meals, I have to admit that Rick knows what he’s doing.

Both recipes are deceptively simple. The recipes are long, and aimed at beginner cooks, with instructions like ‘turn on the slow cooker’– so I’ll summarize them here but add a few notes. My main criticism is that these recipes go too light on the seasonings– feel free to load up on your spices and aromatics. Also, he seems to be a fan of canned broths. I use them sometimes, but try to stick to fresh– the sodium levels in canned broth are ridiculous, and they tend to be full of additives. The pot roast recipe is gluten-free, if GF beer is used; the chicken stew is dairy free, and also GF if served with rice or quinoa instead of couscous. Read the rest of this entry »

Simple Dal for Winter Nights

It’s February, and you just spent an hour driving home from work in a treacherous ice storm. You’re cold and tired, and there’s not much food in the house. What do you do?

Here’s what we did: ad libbed from an already-easy dal recipe. This requires a bit of time but very little effort, and the results are warming, comforting and satisfying (not to mention gluten-free and vegetarian). This is our version, but you can throw in some vegetables or whatever you’ve got around the house. This serves 2, with some leftovers.

Simple Dal

Throw into a pot:

1/2 lb lentils (use your favorite kind)

1 1/4 pint water

1 bay leaf

3 cloves garlic, broken up a bit but not chopped

about 1 tbsp chopped ginger

1 cinnamon stick

large pinch of turmeric

Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer for about 35 minutes or until the lentils are tender. Then add:

Juice of 1 lemon

pinch of salt

pinch of pepper

pinch of cayenne

Simmer for 5 more minutes.

In a small pan, heat about 3 tbsp of ghee or vegetable oil. Add:

pinch of black cumin

pinch of regular cumin seeds

pinch of asafetida

Let it sizzle for a few seconds, then stir into the dal.

Serve with rice. That’s all there is to it. By the way, this process will leave your dal studded with tender, sweet pieces of garlic.

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