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Let’s pretend that I never left.

It’s winter, and I’m in my annual “try not to stuff my face” mode. Every January and February, the fear of bikini season kids in, and for a few fleeting moments I get ultra-motivated to exercise well and eat healthy food. That works in St. Louis, with there generally being nothing much else to do in January and February, and lasts me all the way until Fish Fry Season, when the siren song of jack salmon lures me to church basements and sides of canned green beans.

Problem is, I need salt. I’m not a normal female: chocolate I can leave well enough alone. But, I absolutely crave salty snacks and salty foods of all kinds. I headed over to Emily and Rusty’s house this past Sunday, to drink a bottle of wine, eat food, and watch the Grammys. Emily introduced me to Kale Chips, easy enough to make, full of good vitamins (I think), and plenty salty for me.

Kale Chips
(courtesy of Emily, courtesy of her sister, courtesy of ?)

Ingredients:

Kale

Olive Oil

Salt (kosher, I’d say)

Pre-heat the oven on broil mode. Like you’re preparing a salad, tear off pieces of the fresh kale into a large boil. Drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle with sea salt. Toss. Spread on a cookie sheet, and pop them in the oven. Don’t let them burn, but if you do, do like Emily did and throw them out and start over.

Cook until just crisp.

Eat. If possible, eat while ridiculing a Justin Bieber and Usher duo.

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Burrito, chicken, black beans, mild, both, lettuce.

Take out, please.

Then (and this never gets old):

Look at my burrito baby!

(said while miming rocking motions, holding the foil-wrapped hunk of deliciousness)

Not a bad combination, right?

I’m a fan of impromptu dinner parties. My mom was the queen of them–many a weekday night saw her “adding more water to the soup” and a few more places set at the already full table if friends stopped in on their way to somewhere. Actually, a few children who were frequent attendees announced to their mothers that our house was their “favorite fast food restaurant” in town. Ironic, considering mom’s meals were always made-from-scratch, and her menus weren’t always classic American fare (Nana’s Slovakian Halupkis, anyone?).

Last week I turned my apartment into my own “fast food restaurant” for my roommate and good friend. I ran home after a good post-work gym session, and had a great meal whipped up in about 20 minutes (or as long as it took the pasta water pot to boil). The shrimp scampi was simple and very easy, I bought a nice baguette the day before and popped that in the oven to warm it up, and roasted some asparagus.

The asparagus was very easy…easy enough to not even warrant its own recipe. Just toss together some garlic, olive oil, fresh ground black pepper, and a pinch of red pepper flakes, drizzle over the spears arranged on a cookie sheet, throw a few kalamata olives on top (a little drizzle of the olive juice is never bad, either) and roast at a high temperature.

This meal is even better accompanied with that tall glass of deliciousness, Jude Law (we watched Alfie while eating).

Shrimp Scampi with Angel Hair Past (adapted a bit from my favorite cookbook ever, The New Best Recipe, by the editors of Cooks Illustrated)

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

shrimp (the cookbook calls for 2 pounds of uncooked shrimp, but I bought a bag of the smallish, already-cooked frozen ones, and that was OK for an inexpensive, weeknight meal)

6 tablespoons butter (the recipe calls for 3 tablespoons, but if you are serving with pasta, you need more juice)

4 medium garlic cloves, pressed

2 tablespoons lemon juice (use fresh! better!)

1 tablespoon dry vermouth

2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley

pinch cayenne pepper

Salt and fresh ground black pepper

Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a large saucepan, then throw in half the shrimp and cook quickly. If you are using raw shrimp, cook only about 2 minutes. If you are using already-cooked shrimp, defrost beforehand and keep them in the pan long enough to warm them up. You don’t want to overcook them. Transfer the cooked shrimp to a holding dish and put aside.

Return the saute pan to the heat, and melt half the butter. When the foaming subsides, add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds (never, ever, EVER overcook or burn garlic. You’ll regret it when you have little bits of burnt bitterness). Take off of heat, stir in lemon juice and vermouth. Whisk in the remaining butter, parsley and cayenne, add salt and pepper to taste. Throw in the shrimp, toss with angel hair pasta, and serve!

Pretty, yes? Almost as delicious as Jude.

I think the day I discovered Gus’ Prezels was the day I realized that I really, really liked this city. I’m a sucker for tradition, for family-owned businesses, for local establishments, for cheap food, and for cooked dough covered with salt (see Exhibit 1, below). I know this is old hat for your seasoned St. Louisans, but indulge this transplant a bit as I pay homage to a local tradition.


(Salzburg, Austria, February 2006. Note the glazed eyes, I’m like a pig in slop)

My love affairs with soft pretzels started during visits to my grandparents home close to Philadelphia. My grandfather would take us to Philly’s games at the old Vet Stadium and we’d buy brown paper bags of the things from vendors hawking them outside. 3 for $1. Much better, I think, than buying them from the regular concession stand. Cheaper, definitely.

But back to Gus. What is not to love? For $2.50, you can get a delicious brat or salsiccia cooked inside the best soft pretzel you’ve ever tasted. The meat is so moist, all the juices kept inside by the perfectly chewy outer pretzel casing, and to get to it you bite through the shiny, crispy, and salty pretzel exterior. You also get a free show for this low, low price: the “factory” part of the shop is behind glass windows, and you can watch the machines roll the dough into pieces of deliciousness over and over and over and over again. Its quite mesmerizing, and it would be hard to tear myself away if I weren’t such a glutton for a good soft pretzel stuffed with sausage.

If you want a pretzel sans meat, they can be yours for $.50 each. Or, if you’re in the mood to buy 99, the price drops to an even more affordable $.35 each. Dip them in a little pot of cheese sauce ($.60), if you must (weenie), or be a purist and only use yellow mustard. I’d even suggest their take-home frozen pretzels, that come complete with cooking instructions and a little baggie of rock salt. I may or may not have had 2 or 3 for dinner one night. Or, just go ahead and get everything…even your name spelled out in pretzel letters.

If it were summer, I’d do what I did when I brought my entire family (parents plus 5 siblings) there when they visited: Get a whole sackful, and walk two blocks down to the park and have a lovely outdoor picnic in the grass, under a tree.

I’m hungry now.


http://www.guspretzels.com