Arepas: A gluten-free win

Many years ago we lived in a big city in walking distance to a wonderful little arepa place.  We’d never had arepas before and we instantly became addicted.

Arepas a kind of cornbread, round like a small corn pita-bread, crusty on the outside with soft melty cornmeal on the inside.  They hail from several Latin American countries, and the ones we craved are from Venezuela, where they split them in two to make sandwiches.  There’s a particularly addicting arepa sandwich called reina pepiada, which is essentially chicken salad with avocado.  Or a slice of fresh cheese.  Or just butter.  Oh oh oh.

Fast forward many years, and we’ve been unable to find arepas, or rather, we’ve been able to find plenty of Colombian arepas, but none of the Venezuelan kind.  After deciding it probably wasn’t worth trying to get to the 3 yelp-dot diner two hours away in the middle of nowhere, we figured maybe this was something we could make on our own.

So eventually DH got himself a Latin American cookbook.  It’s a bit intimidating… sort of the Joy of Cooking Latin-American style.  An encyclopedia for a continent and a half’s worth of cooking.

Then my mom bought the arepa maker off my amazon wishlist.  And we were in business.

Oh joy.

We haven’t quite mastered the amazing rosemary chicken salad of the big city, but we’ve got the avocado down.  And the arepas are heavenly.  Just as we remembered them.

You don’t actually need an arepa maker to make arepas, you can make them on the stovetop like pupusas or really thick tortillas.  But to get them just like the ones at the restaurant, the arepa maker was necessary.

Here’s an internet recipe.  The internet makes a big deal about using PAN harina, but we’ve been using instant masa instead to no ill effect.

This week in challenge eating :

Quesadillas (we actually had these last week, but pretend we actually did fried rice last week and not this week).


Leek and potato soup– Leeks are out of season, but we got some anyway.  $3 for organic leeks.  <$3 for potatoes.  And some butter.  So $6 for a big pot.

stirfry with the leftover cabbage and other assorted veggies

vegetarian chili– Same as meat chili, but without the meat.

spaghetti with meat sauce

scrambled eggs

On baking from scratch, from mixes, or not at all

When you’re trying to save money, it can be difficult to decide what to make from scratch and what to buy for convenience.  Sometimes it’s a time issue, but sometimes the price difference between products isn’t that big.  Sometimes the price difference is enormous.  Often the big difference is in quality.

If you do plan on doing a lot of baking a stand mixers is an important investment.  A stand mixer is well worth the time (and potentially money) that it saves if you can afford it.  That’s one of those problems with being genuinely poor– where are you going to get $250 or $350 to buy a high quality stand mixer so you can multi-task while making bread?  Without a mixer, where are you going to find the time to bake from scratch on a regular basis?

Some people balk at the cost of yeast when baking bread, but really you only need to buy it once.  If you’re going to be baking bread regularly you can keep a starter in your fridge and use that in place of store-bought yeast.  If you’re not going to be baking all the time, you can still save on yeast using the “old dough” method, which uses old dough to provide yeast for new dough, and the dough can be frozen for quite some time before reuse.  Once you’re down to the price of flour, sugar, and oil, homemade bread is a delicious but inexpensive carb.

Making your own mix when you have time might be an option.  Pancakes are super cheap from scratch.  Yes, it’s convenient to buy a mix and just add liquid, but if you’re really trying to save money, you can mix up a big batch of mix yourself and use it as you need it.  Similarly, you can make up extra waffles or pancakes for your own toaster-waffles (or microwave pancakes) on weekday mornings.

Cakes, on the other hand, are often expensive homemade than store-bought or from a mix because you start using butter, and even with on-sale butter ($2/lb at the holidays), it can start to add up, especially if you want to add things like chocolate or candied fruit.  Of course, the same quality cake will cost tens of dollars from a real bakery.  Supermarket cakes tend to be chiffon (using oil) or shortening.  They’re not as good, but may be less expensive than you making your own (especially when reduced for quick sale after an event).  If you’re really into chiffon cakes, it may be less expensive to make your own mix than to make from a mix, but you’ll have to run the numbers yourself.  Personally I don’t think store-bought cakes or mixes are worth it– if I’m going to eat something bad for me it had better taste really good.  (Store-bought brownies and mixes, otoh, can be pretty tasty.)

Similarly, if you have expensive tastes, then homemade may be worth it because you use higher quality and fresher ingredients than the store.  Granola isn’t peanuts to make depending on what you put in it (the oats are cheap, but nuts can get expensive), but it is so pricy to buy that making it turns out to be a pretty good deal.  Freshly made granola also tastes ambrosial.

The true benefit to making your own baked goods is that you control what the ingredients are.  There’s a lot of crap in a lot of processed foods, even in the pre-made mixes.  There are breads that are cheaper than flour, but I can’t bring myself to eat them.  We still have some wonderbread in our freezer from when FIL was here and he wanted to make french toast with bread (but not whole wheat bread).  (MIL shouldn’t eat it because of her diabetes.)

But often times store-bought is the way to go.  If you can find a sandwich bread you like, store-bought lasts longer and comes perfectly sliced.  Sometimes you only want one cookie and not an entire batch (and what’s the point in going through the effort of making just one cookie?  and you mean to freeze the dough or the cookies for later but…).  The kind of pastry dough you use to make croissants is a multi-hour if not multi-day affair of folding and pounding if you make it from scratch (though buying croissants made without butter is completely not worth it no matter how inexpensive).

Sometimes you don’t have time and it’s worth more to buy the convenience food so you can earn more money, even when we’re not talking about croissants.  However, baking is a good way to spend time with kids– they can help at a pretty early age.  And, once they’re old enough to do it on your own, the time calculus changes.  Obviously they need to make more cookies.

Sometimes there are sales that make store-bought baked goods ridiculously inexpensive.  Check out the day-old bin, and check for holiday-themed mixes and baked items after a holiday for real deals.

When do you bake, when do you buy?  When do you use a mix?

This week’s menu:

Fried rice.  This uses the leftover rice from last week’s stirfry, but if it doesn’t the entire meal costs <$3.

Fried kielbasa with onions and potatoes.  If you want to save money and aren’t worried about your gylcemic load, you can buy a big bag of potatoes.  The trick is that you have to eat them before they go bad.  Because of my PCOS we won’t be doing that– potatoes are a special treat that I need to balance with meat and/or vinegar to slow digestion so I don’t get blood sugar spikes.  But man I do love me some potatoes.  Kielbasa ~$3  Onion ~$1.  Potatoes ~$1

Homemade pizza.  Dough, sauce, cheese.  Bread dough<$1, sauce <$2 (we use canned pizza sauce, but if you want to go cheaper you can just get a small tin of tomato sauce and add salt and any spices you have on hand), cheese… can vary depending on what kind you use and how much you use of it, but let’s go <$2.  DH insisted on more pepperoni (<$2) and some mushrooms (<$1).  Base meal is <$5, more fancy versions will depend on toppings.  One recipe worth tends to have a lot of leftovers.

Black Bean Soup.  Black beans, onions, carrots.  This costs about the same as split pea soup from last time, but I really want to have it with sour cream, so add a bit more.  And we’ve got cilantro in our garden that’s thriving despite (or because of) the recent cold snaps.

Spaghetti.  Can of sauce, noodles.  ~$4.  ($3 if you make the sauce from canned tomatoes and aren’t picky about spices)  If you add meat, another $2-$6.

Wraps.  Wraps are like sandwiches, but with (flour) tortillas instead of bread.  You can put anything in them from sandwich fillings to leftover rice, bean, or noodle dishes.  They’re good on-the-go versions of a meal.   We are going to do fresh spring rolls instead because we still have rice wrappers from last time and DC2 shouldn’t have flour tortillas.  The price on this can vary tremendously depending on what you put inside the cover.   We’ll be doing noodles, lettuce, cilantro, mint (also thriving), and shrimp (DH wanted seafood and shrimp are in season), so not that cheap.  A less expensive spring roll option would use chicken or maybe tofu depending on tofu prices.

Sweet and sour red cabbage.  We might do this with the kielbasa instead of potatoes and onions, I dunno.  <$1 for the cabbage (and there’s usually leftover).

Ask the grumpies: subsidies and obesity

Linda asks:

I saw this story about rising obesity rates and thought there must be an angle here for an economist.,0,3401712.story Maybe I am biased, but I’m thinking that one reason the obesity rate is rising is because people are incentivized (is that the right word?) to buy processed food with a lot of fillers, sugar, hydrogenated oils, and many other bad substances because they are so cheap. Of course they are cheap because the products that are used to make them (mostly corn and soy) are highly subsidized. So, if the subsidies were diminished or removed and the costs of cheap food fillers, the product cost would go up, too, right? Then there would be a more level playing field for true costs of foods, whether they be the highly processed junk or the whole foods like vegetables, fruit, etc. If food prices rise, that would impact people’s budgets, too, but is this logical? Factual? Inquiring minds want to know! ;-)

Sorry, typing too fast…if the subsidies were diminished or removed and the cost of cheap fillers went up, the product costs would go up, too, right?

Ok, here we have some huge problems with food deserts, poverty, and, as you so rightly point out, subsidies and lobbies for stuff like HFCS.

#2 says:  There must be answers to this we can cite.

Have you seen King Corn?

#1 says:  Well, this is one where the science isn’t complete yet.  Many folks still believe that sugar is sugar, whether it comes from beets or cane or corn or apple juice or whether or not it has fancy chemical stuff done to it to make it “high fructose” instead of just regular.  However, there’s some compelling (in my mind) new research that suggests that our bodies don’t understand the calorie load of things like high fructose corn syrup, or (with a stronger research base) artificial sweeteners.  Therefore yes, it’s quite possible that these more processed things are making us fatter.  But that’s not mainstream yet and we don’t really know.

We also know that many processed foods are processed in a way to make them addictive– to get that perfect balance of sweet, salty, fatty, and crisp, so that no, you can’t eat just one.  Does that lead to over-eating?  I think it’s likely, but I don’t know that’s been proven.  (People could substitute with lower calorie intake later.)

We do know that you’re absolutely right about these cheap carbohydrates providing cheaper calorie loads.  They also are bad for folks with insulin problems because they’re digested quicker and lead to insulin spikes.  The insulin spikes then lead to weight gain and other health problems.  Are they bad for folks without insulin problems, I don’t know.  But, 10% of women have PCOS, so even with that alone, a lot of people are going to be affected by cheap simple carbohydrates.  We do know that being poor and getting your calories from simple carbs does lead to obesity.  That’s why there are a lot of obese poor people.

And absolutely, the subsidies are on grains that are not good for us.  They’re not on real veggies.  Without them corn and potatoes and bread would cost more, and healthier foods would be more likely to be grown (because there wouldn’t be a kick- back for planing the filler foods) and their costs would actually go down.  Overall food budgets would probably increase, though if we also got rid of tariffs and embargoes, it’s hard to say what the bottom line is.  Your economics logic is impeccable.

I’m sure someone has looked at the hard numbers recently, but it’s not summer so I’m not going to look them up.  I do know a guy who did his dissertation on getting rid of the sugar monopoly, so people do look at these questions and put numbers on them.  With the huge amount of funding going into obesity research, I’m sure there are plenty of numbers on what getting rid of the farm subsidies would do to obesity as well, though they’re really just guesstimates.  (Sorry for not looking them up… it has been a crazy busy semester, and sadly the only two ask the grumpies posts left require actually knowing stuff.  We have fallen down as omniscient bloggers.)

Chicken with waffles: a theory of meat and bread

So, the other night my partner and I were talking right before sleep.  For some reason he was telling me about chicken with waffles.  Despite living in the South for several years, he has only recently tried them, and waxed quite poetically about them.

Something about the warm crispness of the waffle, the meatiness of the chicken, and the delightful crunch of the fried part, tied together perfectly with only the lightest of syrups, syrup that would be totally out of place on the fried chicken by itself but seems integral to the chicken-with-waffles experience.  (Yes, you eat the chicken and waffle at the same time, he says, the chicken is on top of the waffle, syrup on top of that.)

This lead us to discuss what seems to be a hierarchy of breaded products and meats.

Beef we eat in Roast Beef sandwiches, or in a pot pie.  It stands up well to rye and hearty wheats.

However, pork needs a lighter touch, but still more dense than waffles.  Think bacon and sausage with pancakes and syrup.  Nom.

Waffles with chicken we have already discussed, and their part in the breaded meat hierarchy should have been an obvious missing link.  Someone would have had to invent it if it hadn’t already been invented.

Then, of course, we have the most delicate meats of all– seafood.  Obviously we have those in crepes.  (Assuming we’re sticking to wheat products.)

Are you a fan of meat and bread combinations?  What are your favorite?

What do you have for breakfast?

The idea of getting things done (besides the standard morning ablutions, maybe getting dressed) before breakfast doesn’t really fly at Casa Grumpy.  We tend to, you know, want breakfast.  And breakfast is a good thing to do– it’s correlated with being a healthy weight, it helps start your day, etc. etc. etc.

Here’s our current routine:

#1:  These days I’m having yogurt with granola.  Sometimes Whole Foods Cheerios in milk.  When I’m in a hurry, a larabar and a banana.  Second breakfast is generally a larabar or piece of fruit, though occasionally I’ll dip into lunch and have to find something else for first lunch.

#2:  Bagels & cream cheese.  Frozen waffles.  Microwaved sausage.  Always coffee!  Sometimes cold cereal.  Sometimes instant oatmeal.  Occasionally, leftover pasta.

What else do folks have for breakfast in the grumpy nation?

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Mental load and menu planning

Sometimes the biggest problem with weeknight dinners is figuring what to make when you get home from work.  Generally you’re somewhat hungry and exhausted from making too many decisions at work and an additional decision, even of just what to have for dinner, puts you over the edge.  Even adults can have low blood sugar melt-downs.

Now, to fix this problem, you could do what one set of our friends does and have the same thing to eat every week.  Monday is chili night.  Tuesday is Spaghetti night, and so on.   (Wasn’t there a commercial about that?)  Problem solved.

We need more adventure than that, however.  Otherwise I might have to take up skydiving, and nobody wants that.  So that means new and different meals that can be made quickly on weeknights with minimal advance planning.  Pantry meals.  Or meals with ingredients that will last between weekly grocery store trips.

There are online services out there that will give you a weekly menu plan complete with grocery list, taking the thinking out of the process.  We tried a couple of these at various points, but they always seem to call for exotic ingredients that we can’t get given our lack of Whole Foods, take much longer than the 20 min we have for making dinner (if the cookbook is called, “20 min meals” it is LYING), and end up leaving mostly unused jars of ingredients in the fridge to rot.  Alternatively, they focus on pouring can of Campbell’s X over Pillsbury Y, which is not only unhealthy but doesn’t taste great if you’re unused to so much processed stuff.   So, a great idea in theory, but in practice they seem to be unworkable.

Fortunately it’s pretty easy to cobble together your own menu plan with minimal mental effort using one or two cookbooks by the mother-son team of Nancy and Kevin Mills.  If there are 1-3 people in your family, use Help! My apartment has a kitchen!  If there are 3-5 people, use Faster!  I’m starving!  Obviously you can use your own cookbooks, but we like these because they are actually accurate in terms of preparation time, they use simple healthy and inexpensive ingredients that work well with a pantry, they have a nice variety of cuisines, and the meals are darn tasty.  For non-meat eaters, Kevin Mills married a vegetarian before writing Faster!, so that book has more suggestions for making the meals veggie-friendly.

Open up your book of choice.  Go to the first section (possibly salads, maybe appetizers), pick the first meal from that section (or the first meal that sounds good).  Write it down on one sheet of paper (or used envelope) and put the ingredients that you do not have on your grocery list.  Then move to the next section (chicken, for example), and pick the first meal from that section, adding its ingredients to the grocery list.  Continue until you have 5-7 meals listed on the paper.  Then go grocery shopping.

When you get home from work on Monday, instead of wondering what to have for dinner, just pick the first meal off the list and ~20 min later it should be ready to eat.  Get the partner and/or kids involved too, if applicable.

What if you don’t feel like that day’s scheduled meal?  That shouldn’t be a problem, just pick a meal further down the list– you should have all the ingredients from all meals on hand.  We usually just have a list of meals, generally one or two more than we’ll be making before we next get to the grocery store.  The default no-think option is the top one, but if that doesn’t sound good, we move to the next.  Also we will often have one night that’s just leftovers (if not all of the leftovers have been eaten as lunches), or people can have leftovers instead of the planned meal.

The idea is that this kind of planning is more flexible than a strict menu plan and also takes less thinking than other forms of deciding what to have for dinner.  There’s a default option for each day each week that is a pretty good option.

Is figuring out what to make for dinner stressful for you?  Have you found ways to cut down on the mental load?

Food and DC2

Long-term readers of the blog may have come to the realization that #1 and her partner are kind of hippy-dippy parents.  Or lazy parents as they think of themselves.  They tend to let nature take its course, even when that causes them to deviate from the more stress-inducing mainstream.   Things other parents tend to complain about, #1 and spouse do a little research on and then usually realize they can avoid the thing causing the stress.

One of the potentially stress-inducing baby situations to rear its messy head is that of introduction to solid food.  Some parents force it on their kids and get very frustrated when it doesn’t go down.  Some parents freak out about perfectly made fresh organic purees, lovingly frozen in ice cubes.  Obviously perfectly made fresh organic purees are great, but if they freak one out…they can be skipped.

So in our lazy parenting strategy, we wait for the “signs of readiness”.  These are things like the baby being interested in food, the baby grabbing your food from you, the baby swallowing the food rather than pushing it out with hir tongue, and so on.  DC1 did not get these signs until ze was around 8 or 9 months old and rather dramatically stole a banana from me.  Because DC was so old and was pincer grasping, we figured we could just skip the puree stage entirely, so we did.  Research on “baby-led weaning” backed us up on it.  (Weaning being the British terminology for introducing foods.)

DC2 has shown the signs of readiness much earlier.  The day after hir 4 month appointment, in fact, it became pretty well impossible to keep food from hir at the dinner table.  So we didn’t try to keep it away.

DC2 gets table food, just like DC1 did.  We give hir little non-chokable bites.  Ze eats things that are naturally mushy with a spoon (split pea soup for lunch today).  We have been keeping wheat away because we’re still a bit worried about allergens.  And DC2 did have a small allergic reaction to *something* in San Diego, but we have no idea what, possibly naan (this, of course, being the reason the pedi says to introduce only one food at a time in 3 day intervals… something hard to do with a grabby baby on vacation).

Other forms of baby-led weaning suggest mesh baggies or just giving entire chicken legs or soft carrot sticks… but we’re still too lazy for that.  Ze gets what we’re eating.

And it seems to be going just fine, though we could have lived longer without the stinkier diapers.  Still, if you limit to whole foods, the diapers still aren’t as stinky as they could be.  (We remember the results of DC1′s first foray into processed food… the experience out the other end cut processed food out of all of our lives.)  We also understand bibs in a way that we missed with DC1.

Now, does that mean that more traditional methods of introducing solids are wrong?  Probably not.  We’re just lazy and take the least stressful way out.  It seems to work so far.

So if you don’t want to bother with purees, we at grumpy rumblings give you permission not to.

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Cookbooks we have loved

My maternal grandma got a copy of The Old Fashioned Cookbook by Jan Carleton McBride for my father as a wedding present.  It’s full of wonderful American recipes from appetizer to dessert.  The cake section is especially amazing– I did not like cake at all before trying this book.  When my mom went to a low-fat diet, I was able to obtain ownership for our copy.

Another favorite from my parents’ is The Victory Garden Cookbook by Marian Morash. This fantastic book goes in and out of print all the time and has gone through a few editions and updates (now with microwave technology!). My parents would not part with theirs so we bought our own copy. If you belong to a CSA or have a garden of your own, you must get a copy of this book. It answers the question of, “What on earth are we going to do with all this X?” from basic preparation to elaborate recipes. And the recipes are delicious.

The New Laurel’s Kitchen book is fantastic if you’re trying to eat healthily and/or vegetarian. The recipes in it are creative and tasty, even though they only contain healthy stuff.  It’s a fun read too.  But very hippy-dippy.  What else would you expect from a cookbook coming out of a commune in the Berkeley area?  Additionally, if you want to bake with only whole grains, their bread book is not to be missed.  There are different techniques for baking with whole grain flour (which is “thirstier”) and The Laurel’s Bread Book covers them.

We’ve already talked about this duo of cookbooks from son Kevin and mother Nancy Mills. These are fantastic quick recipes for weeknights. We love them all.

The Cake Bible.  It is as advertised.

Baking with Julia. This cookbook encourages you to master a few basic recipes and use them with an array of different recipes. The weeks my partner spent mastering pie dough were wonderful indeed.

A new favorite that we’ve been going through, Madhur Jaffrey’s Quick and Easy Indian Cooking.  It should be called, Madhur Jaffrey’s Quick, Easy, and Delicious Indian Cooking.  Also:  pretty sure it’s healthier than the stuff we get for take-out.

We have a few Best Recipe books, which are good go-to books when something isn’t in the Old-Fashioned Cookbook.  Our favorite is the Best Recipe Make-Ahead cookbook. It is great for making food in advance whether for a party, for someone with a new baby, or for yourself in the future.

What are your favorite cookbooks?

We like nuts

Love nuts!  The nuttiness of the almond, the bitter tannin giving way to the rich meat of the walnut, the sweetness of the pecan, the creaminess of the cashew.

I think my favorite nut is the hazelnut.  There’s just something special about that flavor.

I like them best roasted and lightly salted, though second best without salt.  I miss TJ’s half salted nuts– they had the right amount.  (#2 likes a lot of salt)

Male chocolate chip cookies are my favorite.

Sometimes I will add roasted salted nuts to the ice cream I’m eating.  Nom.

#1: What kind of nuts do you like?

#2: many kinds
cashews. pecans. walnuts. hazelnuts. pistachios. almonds.

#1: hm
I think you will have to add to the blog post yourself
too complicated for me!

#2: hee

#1: and I’m sure CPP will say that our tastes in nuts are plebeian

#2: hehe
I like almost all nuts I have ever tried.

#1: I’m actually not crazy about brazil nuts

#2: I will eat them in with other things

#1: I used to really like macadamia

#2: oooo I forgot those. Those are really good!

#1: and I think I still like small (hazelnut sized) macadamia chunks in double chocolate chunk cookies

#2: I like macadamia

#1: I like to say macadamia

#2: gazebo

#1: exactly

What is your favorite nut?

We love ice cream


Also gelato.

#1′s favorite is anything chocolate with nuts.  Though she loves many many other kinds of ice cream.

#2′s favorite is coffee ice cream, with kahlua and chocolate syrup on top.

#1 notes also that she loves real whipped cream.  And chocolate syrup.  Ooh, and she’s been jonesing for a turtle sundae since she left the midwest… at some point she’s just going to have to roast and salt her own pecans.  (Update:  partner is a dream boat and I am the luckiest woman in the world.  Happy satisfied #1.  Sticky syrupy kitchen…)

Do you like ice cream?  What’s your favorite kind?

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