food


Answer: Bring it from home.

The question is how to keep that lunch interesting enough to not be pulled to the darkside of the wonderful foodtrucks that are on my office block each day.

I’ve been doing some financial belt-tightening as part of my goal of paying off all my debt before I hit 40 (I’m not going to say how many years that gives me). A recent review of my spending showed me that a large share of my income goes to supporting local food trucks and other nearby cafes.

So I’ve been packing a lunch each day from home, or packing all of the week’s lunches on Sunday night, to save money.

My lunch options are more limited than most people because I cannot have anything containing gluten, fresh tree fruit (bananas are the exception) or tree nuts.

And although I’m thankful that there are some gluten-free breads that could pass for the real thing if one were realllllyyyyy intoxicated, sandwiches and snacks get boring really fast. Moreover, bringing in something like humus and cucumbers doesn’t work because I’ll snack on them all day but not find time to treat that like a meal.

This week I decided to mix it up a little.

On Monday I had gluten-free rice pasta with garlic-scape pesto and a side of fingerling carrots pan-cooked with rosemary and olive oil.

Next, I made a sort of taco mix (the church I used to go to called them haystacks) of beans, lettuce, Greek plain yogurt (I prefer that to sour cream), shredded cheese, diced tomatoes and salsa. I brought in a bag of corn tortillas (precooked at home) and made the tacos in the kitchen.

Today I made a dish that used to be my potluck standby.  It is a salad of chickpeas, feta cheese crumbles, diced tomatoes, diced cucumbers, fresh-squeezed lemon juice, olive oil, cumin,  salt/pepper and a dash of Adobo seasoning.

But I’m running out of ideas.  Suggestions?

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Growing a vegetable garden from seed is difficult — much more challenging than I expected.

This year I decided to grow a vegetable garden from scratch — starting with seed packets and potting soil.  I’ve never had my own vegetable garden. But I have some limited gardening experience from watching and helping my parents and grandmothers in their gardens.

Two months ago, I went to the local hardware store and loaded up on more than a dozen packets that promised a bountiful garden with pictures of red ripe cherry tomatoes on strong fuzzy vines, bulging beefeater tomatoes nearly touching the ground, big green garden pea pods, yellow-veined chard, slender Asian cucumbers and shiny green bell peppers, plus a few varieties of flowers.  My purchase also included potting soil, starter seed containers, fertilizer and various shiny tools.

With permission from the landlord to use a plot of land in the backyard, I started growing seedlings indoors. I figured I could get to digging the garden later because it would be a breeze, right? Wrong. But more on that later.

My first set of seedlings  was an utter failure. I did all of the things a rookie grower would do.

I over watered the plants which caused them to get moldy and drown. I didn’t make sure that the seedlings stayed warm all of the time or had consistent sunlight. Sometimes I even forgot to water the plants.

It probably didn’t help that I live in a basement apartment with limited sunlight.

So I scrapped the first batch (there was nothing really to toss out but soil because all of the plants shriveled up and died) and tried again. But this time I was aided with a sunlamp and an indoor grow lightbulb.

The plants did much better in my second attempt. The cucumbers grew strong and became viny, the tomato plants sprouted leaves that had that wonderful earthy ripe tomato smell when you pinch them. And my green pepper plants produced shiny waxy leaves.

But my busy schedule, time away from home and random cold weather kept me from tilling the backyard soil.

When I did finally put my shovel in the ground (or at least tried to), I found the earth was packed tight thanks to years of people walking on it combined with a thick network of grass and roots from nearby bushes. I had to jump on the shovel to get it in the ground each time.

Forty-five minutes later, covered in red dots of mosquito bites; with dark brown and grey smudges of dirt on my clothes, hands and face; I had only created a garden plot the size of a truck tire — if tires were square. In other words, it was tiny. *sigh*

But I persisted and mixed the slightly sandy soil with organic fertilizer and placed my little green metal garden fence around the border. The plot sat untouched for nearly a month.

Then my wonderful mother came to the rescue. Last night she helped me reshape the soil and plant the remaining seedlings (only a few tomato and bell pepper plants remained alive by then), plus a wonderful LARGE tomato plant she bought at the store.  It will probably be the only thing that survives.

Now all I have to do is water the plants consistently, keep bugs and other pests away as much as I can, and keep my fingers crossed that I will get to sample at least one vegetable from all of the work I put in this year.

Hopefully, it will be uphill from here.

Currently, the gluten-free menu at Chinese restaurant P.F. Chang’s consists mostly of chicken and a couple of seafood dishes. Trust me, I’m not complaining that those are my only choices. I’m just thrilled to be able to eat Chinese food at a restaurant without the fear of severe digestive discomfort an hour or day later.

But I am excited to be among the first to tell the world that P.F. Chang’s China Bistro is adding beef items to its gluten-free selections, according to a manager at one of my nearby P.F. Chang’s restaurants.  I don’t know when, but the manager said it would become a reality in a matter of weeks.

I learned of the change after the manager and my waiter had difficulty finding me their gluten-free soy sauce, which they said is usually stocked in their kitchen in mass amounts. The manager said the restaurant was short on the special sauce because the company is changing the menu to make all beef products gluten free.

Gluten is a protein in certain grains, such as wheat, oats and barley, that some cause severe allergic and digestive reactions in some people. Many people with an intolerance to gluten have what’s called Celiac disease. The reason for my allergy to gluten is unknown.

The standard menu’s for this restaurant chain vary by location but the gluten-free menu is the same at all sites.  A spokesperson for P.F.Change’s was not immediately available for comment tonight. I’ll try to confirm the beef-addition as soon as I can!

I’ve checked the restaurant’s news release page and its menus and haven’t seen any announcements yet.  I’m guessing they are waiting to launch the product to go public. You heard it here first folks, well at least, I think you did. lol.

I have a confession to make. I love reading cookbooks.

Whereas some people peruse through magazines for leisure, when I’m not reading a regular book, you’ll most likely find me on a Sunday morning in my pajamas, cuddled up on my couch with a cup of tea in hand and a stack of cookbooks around me, and sometimes also a stack of crochet pattern books.

I’ll sit there in my soft aqua blue blanket with my dog curled up at the end of the couch and I’ll flip through page after colorful page of recipes. I’m usually equipped with a pen and notepad (so I can write down ingredients to buy and/or plan my meals for the coming week), my personal cookbook binder (in case I want to use a favorite recipe or add something) and sit there and fantasize about what I could cook.

Lately, I’ve been trying at least one new recipe a week. Last week I made glazed yams with brown sugar and butter and on another night I baked some mahi-mahi with white wine, herbs, lemon and butter.

I own a few good gluten-free recipe books. And I’m slowly amassing a binder full of heirloom recipes and recipes for dishes I return to frequently, but it’s hard to find a cookbook that has recipes that both whet my appetite and that I could eat or would be likely to make.

The other problem is I love the dishes prepared by a lot of cultures, but I’m too darn cheap to go out and buy a cookbook for each of the 50 or so cooking traditions that I love.

Well last week I went to the Takoma Library and found this book in the “new books” shelf.  I took it home and stayed up until 1 a.m. perusing its pages. I’m only half the way through the book and already more than half of the pages are folded in at the tab for me to come back to and copy down or try.

It’s called the Illustrated Kitchen Bible, 2008 edition.

kitchenbible

I can’t recall ever being so excited about a cookbook.

Not only does it have recipes from all over the world, but out of the two or more recipes per page, I find at least one I want to cook, would find it relatively easy to cook and with ingredients I could eat. Dishes range from Borscht or how to make the perfect omelet, to Asian meatballs, fruit compotes and stuffed grape leaves. Yummers.

I think I’m going to try the recipe for swordfish with fresh herbs tonight.

YAY. Anyway, I’ve been copying down by hand several recipes in my little book, but I think I’m just going to indulge myself and buy the book online.

There are bad pick up lines and there are worse ones.

I was shopping at a local Latino grocery market where the prices for fresh produce and meat are particularly low because Latinos, statistically compared to many other cultures, cook among the most at home and for large families. In other words, they buy so much produce that those kind of grocery stores are able to buy food at lower prices and pass the savings on to customers.

Anyway, with a grocery cart of potatoes, leeks, carrots, onions, lemons and limes, kale, avocados bananas and plantain I was perusing the meat isle.

I was looking over a stack of “young chickens” wrapped in plastic on yellow Styrofoam plates when I noticed a man had approached and was not looking at the chickens but facing and looking directly at me. I continued to peruse.

“Nice chicken,” he mumbled.

 Unsure if I heard him correctly I said, “excuse me,” and looked up.

He had black rimmed rectangular glasses he was wearing a light blue dress shirt unbuttoned at the top and his skin was smooth and the color of mahogany (I know this sounds cliche but that really is the best way to describe his complexion). He had beautiful dark eyes and on a quick glance I saw his hands were ring less. He smiled.

“These are nice chickens,” he said, a little louder this time, and nodded toward the pile of poultry carcases.

“Yes they are,” I replied, unsure what else I could say and I turned back to face the stack of naked chickens.

I was pretty sure he was trying to say something to start a conversation with me but I was completely thrown off by his pick up line.

 By the time all this had registered and I had decided to try to talk some more I turned my head back in his direction and he had gone back to a grocery cart, never having taken a chicken, and he was turning down the cereal isle.

He glanced my way before turning down the isle and he disappeared.

Unsure what else to do, I also turned and went down the spice and baking supplies isle, also without a chicken in my cart.

I love my weekend shopping trips to the area farmers’ markets.

But with the economy headed down a steep hill, I’ve been forced to find ways to cut back on my spending.

I’ve found some ways to still support the local farming community while still having money left over to get to the office each day.

Here are my ideas for shopping at a farmers market on a budget.

1. Asses your options when you get there.
Prices, freshness and quality will vary slightly between booths so first take a walk around the market to see what everyone is offering.

Look at prices, variety, all the while think about what you can buy to pair together or to put that fresh touch to a standard dish.

2. One idea is to get things that you can’t easily replace from a grocery store.

For example, NOTHING tastes as good as a yellow or beefstake tomato plucked from the vine a few hours before you slice it up and serve it with some kosher salt and fresh ground pepper with a touch of olive oil.

Or how about buying fresh herbs, homemade cheese and garlic and using them in your next pasta dish.

3. Look for discount bins. Sometime farmers will have some food set aside to sell at a discount price because it’s about to turn overripe or it has slight imperfections.

My grandma once taught me to look for discount bins for apples to slice up and bake in a pie. I follow the same idea today.

If you are going to boil, chop, bake or otherwise alter the look of the produce, it won’t make lick of difference in the flavor of your food.

4. Timing is everything. If you come 10 minutes before the market closes, farmers will probably have already started marking down the prices of produce.
Pick a place that has a few things you want and only a few things left of each. Next…say something like: “If I buy two pounds of these peaches at full price would you be willing to throw in that pint-sized carton of green beans?

Don’t make ridiculous offers and always be respectful about it. Chances are they will accept your bid or they will offer a similar compromise.

4. The most important thing along with taking these cost-cutting actions is to conquer your fear of asking stupid questions. The best trick to coming home with what you want is to ask the farmer about the produce.

For example, garlics at farmers markets are very different in heat and flavors. I love adding hot (the spicier) garlic to give my food a bite.

On Sunday I came home happy with a large head of garlic that the farmer told me was of a variety so spicy that it made him cry. He wasn’t kidding.

This morning I cooked up my lunch of sliced and sauteed garden yellow squash (farmers market) with onions, thyme and garlic. After dicing up half a garlic clove I ran my finger along the side of the cutting knife and licked the garlic residue off my finger.

Imagine my surprise when my eyes started watering.

I love cooking, especially when it comes to other ethnic foods. My shelf of cookbooks is full of recipes for dishes that are Korean, Thai, Chinese, Mediterranean, Japanese, Indian, etc.

Last night I stopped by one of the few remaining authentic Asian grocery stores to get some fresh produce for a stir fry. Oyster mushrooms, fresh bamboo shoots, home made firm tofu, garlic, water chestnuts, (canned) baby corn, garlic, ginger, young bean sprouts and snow peas. Yummy.

Yet… there is one type of ethnic cooking that has so far eluded my mad skills: Ethiopian.

I gained a love of Ethiopian food from a guy I dated about a year ago. Yet I can’t eat the Injera that most restaurants serve with the food because, to cut costs, many places add regular flour to the teff flour. Urg. Injera is spongy flat bread with kind of a sour/bitter flavor to it. Injera is served on a platter with the food on top of it. People scoop up and eat their food by hand using injera.

So I recently bought some teff flour from the Takoma Park food cooperative and tried to make it at home. Apparently I let the teff/water mixture ferment a day or two more than I should have and I may have added too much water. I felt like a totally incompetent cook.

Then, while riding the bus home from DC the other day I happened to get into a conversation with a couple of Ethiopian women and I mentioned my cooking woes.

They laughed at me. Not because I had flubbed up such an easy food but because I had even tried. They said it is so difficult to make that they don’t even try to make it at home.

I am still undaunted by this news, however, and I fully intend to give it another go, that is, as soon as I can get my hands on some good quality, fresh ground beef for a recipe that calls for it to be eaten raw with spices and injera.