Obnoxious whine: I’m tired of the food options in my town

This is truly an obnoxious whine.  See, back when we lived in places with amazing food options we had no money.  Now that we have money…

I live in a small college town that has had some recent growth.  Usually in the summer a number of college student places go out of business and a number of new places move in to replace them.

This year instead of getting interesting new places, we’ve been getting places that are either literally or essentially duplicates of places we already have.  We do not need yet another cheap wood-fired pizza place in town, yet this summer we got three of them.  We do not need another crappy Thai place, but this summer a couple sprang up.  (These things seem to go in cycles– when I got here we had a bunch of great Vietnamese places and the one Thai place in town had gone out of business the year before– now all the Vietnamese places have been replaced with sushi of varying quality and we have an overabundance of mediocre Thai.)  We even got a second really mediocre poke place (I did not realize mediocre poke existed until we had some in our town– I think it’s just not the right demographics to support a decent poke place… students prefer cheap), though I suspect that now there are two they will both go out of business.

So what’s left are places that are so meh that we don’t particularly want to go there again, or good places that we’re kind of sick of.  (In the case of super fancy restaurants, only I have had the chance to have gotten sick of their menus– I was on two search committees last year and really do not need to go to the fancy restaurants in town again any time soon.  Even these are kind of repetitive in terms of menu options.)

The way work is for both of us this year, we have a lot of disposable income, but less time than usual.  It would be nice to have a list of places we wanted to try or places that we like but aren’t tired of.  But we don’t.  So we waste time trying to figure out where to eat and finally decide we might as well just make something instead.

Now, our kids would be perfectly happy if we went to the burger place once a week and our favorite pizza place once a week and the hand pulled noodle place once a week and pei wei (never mind—pei wei just shut down) once a week and so on.  But DH and I have just gotten bored of their limited menus, along with those at our favorite Chinese place and our favorite Indian place.  Over the eight years or so that we’ve had an Indian place in town, we’ve literally tried everything on the menu, most multiple times (particularly when I was pregnant with DC2 and couldn’t eat wheat).  (To be completely truthful, I suspect our kids would be happy with macaroni and cheese with tuna and peas, spaghetti with meat sauce, and grilled cheese each once a week… I don’t know what we would do for the other meals.)

It’s so easy to find new exciting things to try when we go into the city.  Heck, there are fun things at the grocery store to try in the city.  But it seems like if we want new things to try here we’re going to have to keep making them ourselves.  And that takes time.

The box delivery services remove the part of cooking that I like (picking out food) and keep the time consuming parts (chopping).  And, with the exception of purple carrot, the recipes seem pretty pedestrian.  Plus there’s all that plastic.  And the per-person cost for most places is more expensive than take-out.  (Of course, we’re tired of local take-out…)

My sister suggested getting a personal chef, but that seems expensive (most don’t post their prices online, but the ones who do it looks like ~$80/meal for four people, and their suggested menus are BORING).  Plus I really don’t want the kind where someone comes to your house because I don’t want people in my house when I need to work or relax.  Moving to the city and commuting to work on week days also seems less of a good idea than going the other direction on weekends.  But when weekends come, there’s so many chores at home that going to the city just to eat out seems like maybe not a great idea.

So I guess we’ll keep cooking, going through new recipes in cookbooks and Cook’s Country magazine.  And we’ll spend a good portion of each weekend on fancy recipes.  And the kids will complain half the week that they don’t like whatever we’ve made and will thank us fervently the other half.  DC1 had been starting to cook more this summer, but zie has way too much homework during the school year.  Since we remodeled the kitchen and got a new stovetop, DC2 is no longer tall enough to safely use the stove.  So it’s on us.

What do you do about food when you have more money than time?  Would you ever get tired of your local restaurant options?

I guess I want food now

#1: the only thing I want to eat in the entire world is ramen
(and coffee)
#2: those are both good things
well, depending
I mean, you can get bad ramen and bad coffee
but you wouldn’t
because why would you when there are good versions?
#1: I mean I want all the ramen. I want ramen noodles cooked with only a thin sauce; or the soup version; at home or in a restaurant; many kinds of ramen but only ramen.  It’s the only thing I want in this world right now.
#2: there is an anime about all the different kinds of ramen
#1: ooh
memo to self, someday when I have energy/caring, I would like to try the chilled cucumber, cauliflower, and ginger soup from this webpage (although first I have to figure out how to measure in mL, what even kind of crap is that) and:  http://orsararecipes.net/best-eggplant-rollatini-recipe
#2: that looks good!  I want a personal chef
#1: don’t we all?
#2: Last night we had steak and an Asian-themed cucumber salad
today for breakfast I had oatmeal with raisins and macadamia nuts
for snack I had pistachios
#1: sometimes I put trail mix in my oatmeal
#2: I do that too, but we’re out (and most trail mix has sugar added… sigh) [#1 is totes baffled by this, I haven’t seen this!  The trail mixes I get never have sugar.] .[do you not get dried fruits with trail mix?  Or chocolate or granola are other offenders]
#1: I would love to have colcannon, mmmm…
it seems like work to make it though.
#2: for lunch I had leftover steak with leftover lemon butter mixed veggies [#1 thinks this would be good if there were a shallot-mustard sauce on the steak]  [but no ramen there…]

Now I’m all hungry.  What are good recipes?

What food do you love that nobody else likes?

One of the problems with other people is that they have different food preferences than you do.

This can be a benefit if the food in question is something you can purchase in small quantities or that doesn’t go bad, because then you can buy it for yourself and have no competition from eating it.  But it’s problematic if it’s something that you can’t share and will thus go to waste if you get too much of it.  If the other people in the household are vocal about their distaste, then you might not get/make the item unless the loudest is not there for whatever reason.  (A reason our family orders Hawaiian pizza only when DH is away on business.)

I really like grapefruit juice, but I’m the only one in the house who does, so I can’t drink an entire carton before it goes bad.  I do, however, order it whenever I see fresh squeezed on the menu at a bunch place.

The rest of the family doesn’t mind beets, but I’m the only one who really loves them.

DH rarely gets to eat Brussels sprouts because the rest of the family ranges from meh to yuck.  DC1 used to love sardines but has outgrown them (the cats got almost an entire tin the day DC1 discovered zie no longer wants to eat them, but they have been missing out on smaller amounts since).

#2’s husband is a vegetarian, so… meat.  Especially bacon. He’s not that enthusiastic about pesto or soup, but he’ll eat it if it’s there.

What food do you love that nobody else likes?

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Ask the grumpies: Suggestions for American foods to import

Zenmoo asks:

An American food store has opened in my town – they import products on request. I’ve got a few foods I like but don’t know good brands- so suggestions wanted for products in the following categories: dark chocolate peanut butter cups, white or yellow cornmeal muffin or cornbread mixes, healthier boxed mac & cheese …

The best dark chocolate peanut butter cups come from Trader Joe’s.  But it’s unlikely your food store will be able to import them because a store in Canada tried and got sued.  This is very sad for you.  :(  Justin’s brand is pretty good (though possibly not Orangutan safe?).  Neuman’s own is also pretty good.  For a truly American experience, Reeses occasionally puts out a dark chocolate version of their peanut butter cups (and these, of course, will still be extremely sweet).  You’re most likely to find the small versions at holidays like Easter or Christmas in my experience.

I like the Ancient Harvest brand quinoa mac and cheese (a discovery in our bad days of wheat allergy, but I still buy it).  The most ubiquitous “healthier” boxed mac&cheese is Annie’s.  Annie’s tends to add yeast extract to things (not their mac and cheese though) so I don’t trust it (disclaimer:  I get headaches from yeast extract) and I’ve just never really been a fan of their boxed mac and cheese.  I mean, I’d eat it if it were actually healthy, but for something that isn’t truly healthy I’d far rather go Kraft or a Kraft imitator.  There are lots of different kinds of mac and cheeses, but if you’re going true american you’ll get a kind that comes with a pouch of powdered cheese to which you will add butter and milk.  The other kind uses velveeta or a similar cheese product and will come with a creamy cheesish substance.  In any case, if you want to experience true Midwesternism, add a can of tuna and some peas for a stove-top casserole.  Yum.

I’m not entirely sure why you’d want to import cornbread mix unless they don’t make cornmeal in New Zealand(?) because it is super easy to make yourself with just cornmeal and a recipe.  However, Jiffy is the brand if you like Northern style sweet cornbread.  This is the cornbread of our youth and our holidays.  If you like Southern style not-sweet cornbread, you’re best off buying the cornmeal itself and making your own.  You’ll want a stoneground cornmeal.  We like Hodgson, Bob’s, or Arrowhead Mills.

Grumpeteers, what are your favorite of the requested American products?

Money, Love, and Food

This is a repost from 2010 back when we had great blog posts but few readers to appreciate them!  Feel free to comment as if it’s new since there weren’t many comments to begin with.

Thought provoking post at GRS, for anyone with children or who grew up with parents.

To sum, a woman grew up with a father who told her they were wealthy but would not spend or let her spend on things.  Now she feels guilty whenever she does spend, despite having a healthy (100K) emergency fund in place.

The comments contain a lot of conflicting arguments about how we’re destroying our kids.  It seems like parents can’t win.

The things her father said to her sounded a lot like the things my father said to me.  I had many of the same experiences growing up.   Yet I did not take away the same lessons and overall I am very happy with my relationship with money.  Sure I felt guilty spending on luxuries when we had no money and we were trying to pay off DH’s college debt, but once we got into a comfortable place, I got comfortable with spending on things I could afford.  Take care of myself and my family first, then spend on luxuries without unhappiness.

Over the past couple of days my mind has been grappling with the question about what’s the difference between my situation and hers.  At first I thought it might be the autonomy I was allowed with my own small allowance (nobody made me save it– though I did learn to save on my own for larger items).  But I don’t think that was it.   It also isn’t talking about money as a family or not talking about it.  Or knowing the parent’s financial situation or not knowing the parent’s financial situation.  It definitely isn’t being denied an ice cream cone out or getting every wish granted.

The real problem is when we associate tools with love. The poster and most of the commenters are taking for granted that how money is spent is a sign of where love lies.  That isn’t the case.  Money is just a tool.  After basic needs are met, you can spend nothing or spend a ton aligned with your family values about what is important, but that is not love.  The child in the post perceived the soda or ice cream as lack of love.  As a child I perceived it as not wanting to spend money on an item that my father did not value.  A commenter talked about how he felt guilty when told that they couldn’t go on a vacation because they were saving for his college.  As a child I saw that as information that my family valued education over trips to Disney World (not that we didn’t travel– we went on countless road trips, but generally on the cheap and often to visit family) and that my future was important enough to delay gratification for (and corporations are really good at getting people to spend money).

There’s a reason I’ve never understood the women who want their husbands to buy them expensive jewelry to prove their love or to apologize for an argument, especially at the expense of quality time as a family or true financial security.

In my family, we were also encouraged to ask questions and test limits.  I think my father was proud when we made a counter-argument about how we were willing to pay the additional money to get a cold drink *now* or that the ice cream in the small pint is better quality than the ice cream in the large tub and we don’t need a large tub’s worth anyway.   It was most important to him that we understand why and how we were spending our money– not to be skin-flints but to truly understand frugality and value.   For my own parenting, I think we don’t have to worry about the money messages we’re sending if we talk them out, encourage communication and even disagreement, and let our children know if we’re worried they’re taking the wrong message. It’s like teaching undergrads, if you encourage students to ask questions in a safe environment, teacher mistakes can become valuable teaching moments rather than a disaster. They can lead to more rather than less learning.

How does this juxtapose with Donna Freedman’s wonderfully sweet column on material gifts from her mother?  It’s the gesture, not the item.  But the gesture need not be a thing at all, and it need not involve money at all.  It really is the thought that counts.  Maybe it’s ok to think of buying a soda as an act of love (though it’s an odd thing for most Americans where soda flows more freely than water), but it is never ok to think of the lack of buying it as a withdrawal of love.  There are many ways to show love, and a homemade toaster cozy or a timer that brought order to a mother’s life are examples of things where the thought is much more important than the money spent.

For me this connection is more obvious with food– emotional eating.  Culturally this is a big problem for us… chocolate chip cookies do cheer someone up when they’re down.  I love it when my husband bakes me a batch.  It reminds me of vacations with my late grandmother or brownies from my mom.  But it is important to separate the thoughtfulness of making the cookie from the cookie itself.    And maybe the few extra pounds is worth it for immediate comfort.  It’s when that emotional food connection becomes a problem, or that emotional money connection becomes a problem that we really need to remember that love is love and money is a tool and food is something to eat.

Do you intertwine love with money or with food?  Do you have healthy or unhealthy associations with money and/or food?

Ask the grumpies: Healthy natural environmentally friendly food for lazy people

Bogart asks:

I have realized that I value (a) minimal environmental impact; (b) foods made from “natural” ingredients, with “natural” here being a stand-in for Michael Pollan’s sort of stuff-my-grandparents-would-have-been-familiar-with. Things people have been eating (or cooking with) for a long time; and (c) not having to do food prep. Ever. At all.

B and C seem somewhat at odds with each other, though I am increasingly coming to believe that C is very consistent with A — that if, for example, I buy a rotisserie chicken it likely took a lot less energy to cook that chicken than it would had a roasted a single chicken at home (never mind baking bread). So my main question is how other people who value B & C manage to balance them. Should you post this, I’d be grateful if people could act like economists and assume that, no, really, I am confident about my actual preferences vis-a-vis C, it’s not just that I haven’t tried hard enough/long enough/gotten in touch with my inner chef. Also, I have enough of a budget constraint that I’m unlikely to land in a place where, e.g., I solve C by hiring a personal chef thereby violating A. So food prep does need to be minimal or inexpensively outsourced to solve this conundrum.

I tongue-in-cheek recommended a raw food diet, because even though there are plenty of people who do crazy raw food stuff (lots of sprouting and fermenting and processing and chopping and mixing and dehydrating etc.), you can actually be really lazy and just eat lots of completely unprocessed fruits, veggies, and nuts.  Depending on where you live, you can do this locally and organically too.  All it takes is rinsing off and chewing.  (How do I know:  Three months with DC1 of being completely unable to keep anything down other than fruit, and a limited longer-term diet with DC2.)  But it does take a lot of chewing.  And I am much happier being able to eat more food groups.

When you live in a West Coast city, this is also really easy.  Just go to your farmer’s market every weekend and buy food there.  Done.  You can get enough pre-made local ethnic food and other goodies to last you the week.  Still, farmer’s markets in other places often have local canned items and jams and baked goods and you can return the mason jars to them to be reused.

Everywhere else you’re going to probably not going to be able to do very well on (a) because food will need to be shipped in for 3-9 months out of the year.  Still, as a museum exhibit here in Paradise says, you can do a lot to minimize your environmental impact just by not eating meat or by cutting down on meat.  (I say this while lovingly scooping up a salad made with local butter lettuce, local feta, and ground buffalo, nom.)  So yeah, eat organic fruits and veggies.

Some cities have a caterer in town whose business model is to provide home-cooked meals to families for the week.  Usually they drop a big package off with you at the beginning of the week with meals for the entire week.  Many of these places have organic/resuable containers/etc.  But some of them it looks like all they’ve done is chop things and you still have to put stuff together and actually cook.  Meh.  Still, something to look into– it’s not exactly a personal chef because they’re making the same meals for a ton of people, which is also more efficient.  We flirted with this idea when I was unable to eat wheat with DC2’s pregnancy because one of the options in town did organic/gluten-free but never tried it out.

Really, it sounds like you want to go to your most upscale local grocery store in town and just check out their freezer section and ready-made section.  If you’re committed to minimal waste, do things like bring your own containers and get stuff from the bins (like mixed salad greens).  Also, we are big fans of cheese and crackers and fruit for dinner.  Crackers may not be the best option from an environmental standpoint, so you could do sandwiches (with local bread) instead or quesadillas (with local tortillas).  Which requires a little food prep, but mostly of the slicing and (optional) toasting/microwaving variety.  Here we discuss looking at ingredients on processed foods, and we also describe some really minimal prep options (see #5, for example, sandwiches).  When you’re middle-class or upper-middle class, most anything you can get from the grocery store is going to be affordable compared to eating out and you’ll save more money avoiding food-waste than skimping on things that make food easier (so don’t feel guilt about buying things that are already chopped/torn/etc).

Katherine says:

In my experience (not having been on one myself, but knowing some people who have and owning a few raw food cookbooks), raw food diets involve a MASSIVE amount of food prep.

I submit that Katherine’s friends get enjoyment (possibly perverse) out of doing that kind of food prep and you can’t sell a raw food cookbook that just says, “wash and eat fruits, veggies, and nuts.”

Cloud says:

I like cooking OK, but hate cooking in the time crunch I usually have during the week. I’m probably less committed to your point (b) than you (I’m a big fan of EDTA and other preservatives, for instance), but do try to avoid excess sugar and more processing and additives than are strictly necessary, and my main trick is to read labels carefully and find favorite brands of convenience foods. There are some that would probably meet your point (b) requirements, and using those can help with your point (c).

For instance, there are pasta sauce brands that really only have tomatoes, onions, garlic, and herbs as their ingredients. If you have access to good fresh pasta (or even good frozen filled pasta, like tortellini), you can mix that with the sauce in very little time. I also have a recipe I love that is essentially tortellini, a can of veggie broth, a can of diced tomatoes, a splash of white wine, spinach and basil. I can handle this recipe even on the crappiest weekday.

I get a lot of recipes like this from Cooking Light. They have a “quick and easy” section that makes good use of convenience foods.

The only caveat to my method is that it took a lot of time at the grocery store for a few weeks, while I read all the labels and found the brands I liked for the convenience food.

We’re fans of “pour sauce A over noodles/rice B”.  Sometimes we throw frozen veggies or even meat in.  Honestly, most nights we don’t do anything as complicated as what Cloud is describing– that sounds like a weekend meal for us(!) since it requires opening more than one can.  Al fresco dinners that contain some fruit or veggies (and your choice of protein/starch/etc.) are AOK and your ancestors would totally recognize them (assuming they were lucky enough to have fruit available).  We give permission.  If you want to just have snap peas and carrots and some bread, go for it.  Or microwaved mixed veggies with or without a pat of butter (something I ate a lot of while pregnant because it didn’t come back up again), also fine (though frozen veggies provide some waste :( ).

Grumpy Nation, how would you help bogart?

Bonus Sunday actually the last food pics for realz this time

In case you were wondering if they were going to completely skip cooked tomato sauces and pizza, they waited to do that until the last day.  (Not quite accurate– there were pizza and calzone that did not get photographed because apparently #2 is too hungry at lunch most days to remember to take out the camera!)

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Fresh fettucini with artichokes (front) and with mushrooms (back)

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Simple pasta with tomatoes

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Simple pizza with fungi

And that’s it! Back to our regularly scheduled programming tomorrow!

Some (almost) final food pics

We will return to our regularly scheduled programming on Monday (with a money post).

In the mean time…

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Arrabiata with house-made pasta

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Carbonara with house-made pasta. Eat all the carbonara. The pasta was toothsome!

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We eat a lot of caprese.

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gnocchi baked with mozzarella

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a big salad with things in it, also I had bread and olive oil

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Wild rice salad with eggplant.

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some kind of pasta

Also saw many dead saints bodies and churches.

Roman cheeses and other foods.

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For dinner we got the grand tour of cheese from soft bufala ricotta in top left progressing in strength to stronger and then smoked mozzarella.  We ate all the cheese in Rome.

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eggplant slices grilled with zucchini and pesto

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tomatoes with pesto

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Artichokes, eggplant casserole

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pasta

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salad

We have conquered Rome.

A single link.

Food pic Friday!

In the Campo de’ Fiori is a mozzarella bar/ cucina. The cheese is as amazing as you think.

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First an “intense” bufala mozzarella with a side of tomatoes and pesto. Delicious!

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Yummy pasta

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Grilled eggplant covers a ball of cheesy rice. Pesto on side. Smoky mozzarella. Sooo good.

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Overhead view

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Dessert was creamy ricotta with honey, pine nuts, and orange peel.

So far this meal wins!  We will go back.

Lunch in Rome

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Bucatoni amatriciana (tomato sauce with black pepper, bacon)

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Eggplant parmigiana made with burrata

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Arrancini, Sicilian style

Special Thursday edition of food pics!

Campo de’ Fiori has many restaurants.

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Artichoke ravioli

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Lunch near Vatican City.

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Tagliatelle with porcini

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Penne with onion sauce

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Basil sorbet

Didn’t take pictures of gelato by Vatican Museum.