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I don’t have a traditional spice rack, and come to think of it, I don’t even have a particularly organized way of managing my spices.  Most of them sit on top of the microwave in various caper and bullion jars that have been emptied over time.  The major players like cumin, nutritional yeast, soy sauce, dill, and Italian herbs sit on top of a little ledge above my oven; the ones who come out only every so often, like allspice and Chinese five spice, are in a different cupboard, with my backstock teas and big empty jars.

Which is why the Hanukkah present I got from my dad and his girlfriend a few months ago was one of the most useful gifts I’ve ever received.  They pretty much had a heyday at Penzeys, and my meals are now all the more flavorful for it.

I’ve always been about using fresh bulk spices, never the ones that sit in plastic containers on the grocery store shelves for years.  I usually fill little baggies at the New Seasons bulk area and bring them home and put them in cute little mismatched jars, or even order online at The Spice House for the harder-to-find stuff like nigella and saffron.

So, here’s my loot, and what I’ve been using it for these past few months:

A whole box devoted to curry!  I actually rarely use powders to make actual curries — for that, I’ll usually go with some good paste and coconut milk.  But, I do love to sprinkle any of these on roasting veggies, on a lentil salad, or in dressings.  I also love using a teaspoon of the Tandoori seasoning in my rice while it’s cooking.  It has just enough saffron to make the entire pot taste like it, but without having to use up my valuable saffron threads!

The green herbs.  These are great in just about anything, and they’re right when they say the Pasta Sprinkle is really all you need with some yummy pasta, a good olive oil, and some salt or Parmesan.  In fact, one of my favorite quickie lunches on my day off is to cook a cup of macaroni elbows, and toss it in a bowl with some homemade cultured creme fraiche (I make this every few months and it keeps in the fridge seemingly indefinitely, always ready to be used as a creamy, tangy butter substitute), salt, pepper, nutritional yeast, some TJ’s red pepper spread, and the Pasta Sprinkle.  It takes about seven minutes and is the best faux mac’n’cheese you’ll ever eat.

I’m totally in love with having high quality powdered ginger on hand.  I do try to keep fresh ginger in the fridge all the time too, but sometimes it’s just so much work.  To be able to add a pinch or two of this to an Asian salad dressing or stir-fry is luxurious.  I haven’t gotten to try the nutmeg yet, because these boxes all came nestled in beds of bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, and whole nutmeg, so I’ve been using the latter ground fresh whenever I need it.  But, this box is just screaming out for me to make some sort of delicious coffee cake, I know it.

The title on this box was “Pepper Lover’s Assortment,” and that couldn’t be more right on.  I put pepper on everything, and now for the first time ever, I own a super snazzy pepper mill (that I’ve already had to refill twice, if that gives you any indication) instead of the grocery store one I’ve been using and refilling for five years.  Damn, it makes a big difference.  This pepper lover just got seriously upgraded.

And finally, I think it’s time to take up baking.

What do I use lemon extract for?  Lemon poppyseed bread?  I’m hosting a clothing swap at my house on Sunday and I think I just decided what I’m going to have to make for a sweet treat to go with my coconut vanilla iced coffee cocktails…

So, needless to say, I haven’t had to spend any money on spices yet this year!  There’s certainly enough here to last me for awhile, so this was a nice little bonus to kick off my grocery budget.

What are you favorite spices to experiment with?  What are your go-tos?  Do you have a good spice store in your neighborhood that you love?

How did the rest of my Project: Food Budget-ers do?




Moroccan Chicken and Fragrant Rice

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This week warranted a big quick-and-easy meal for dinner, because not only did I need a few days’ worth of hearty lunches and dinners to bring with me to work (Knit Night on Thursday, and an after-work meeting on Wednesday), but I was simultaneously prepping two lasagnas to freeze for a few days and bring with us down to Bend this weekend, where we’re renting out a house with about 15 of our friends, and going to see Yonder Mountain String Band.

Between these, Jesse’s famous curry for dinner on Friday night, his French-toast-croque-monsieurs in the morning, and Kate’s truffle salted caramel dark chocolate brownies (truffle as in truffle truffles, not chocolate truffles), and whatever the rest of the crew arrives with, we’re gonna be set.

So for actual dinner on Tuesday, after assembling these beauties of white creamy garlicky goodness, and before curling up in bed to watch The Wonder Years on Netflix, I whipped up a go-to that I’ve been making since high school, back when I thought all meals had titles.  What makes this dish Moroccan I’m not entirely sure, except that I usually use those wrinkly black Moroccan olives instead of the ones I used here today, but that’s what my mom always called it, so that’s what it was.

In the past when I’ve made this I’ve bought whole chicken breasts and cubed them, but since it was my day off and I had a few hours of homey stuff to do like laundry and dishes and packing for this weekend, I bought a whole chicken and roasted it, saving portions to be frozen for later in the month, and shredding a good deal of it for tonight.

I started by sauteeing this in some olive oil, with a few cloves of minced garlic, before adding some fresh ground cumin, berbere (which I always use instead of paprika, but the latter would be fine to sub in here), a whole cinnamon stick, and half a bag of frozen pearl onions.  This is one of the only times I ever buy frozen vegetables, but these little pearl onions are totally perfect for this dish.  I took 2 cups’ worth of my homemade chicken stock out of the freezer, and let them simmer in with all of this until they were completely melted.

I sliced up some big meaty green and black olives, added those in, and let this all stew together for about 45 minutes.  At that point, I tossed in a handful of slivered almonds, and sliced up a lemon and laid the slices on top of all this with the lid on, releasing just enough juice to make the dish a little tangy.

In the meantime, I made a big pot of fragrant rice: 1.5 cups basmati rice to 3 cups of water, all simmered together with: 1.5 tsp salt, 1 carrot cut up into slivers, a handful of raisins, and this super yummy Tandoori seasoning (saffron is the key component in here — you could also just add a pinch of that and be good to go).

Paired the stew and the rice with a delicious green salad, topped with olive oil and my new favorite fig balsamic vinegar.  A delicious dinner, and lunches for the rest of the week!

Grocery Time!

Trader Joe’s 4/12

  • orange peach mango juice: $2.99
  • organic dark truffle bar: $1.99
  • chocolate bar w/almonds: $1.99
  • sparkling water: $2.08
  • half and half: $0.99 — already thinking ahead to coffee after my cleanse was over!
  • jumbo scallops: $12.99 — Hollis, Kate, and I made some delicious Tom Kha coconut soup last week with these

TOTAL: $23.03

New Seasons 4/18

  • lasagna noodles: $2.99
  • garlic powder: $0.72
  • organic milk: $3.39
  • strawberry yogurt: $3.69
  • dozen eggs: $2.89
  • crimini mushrooms: $11.23
  • fresh spinach: $5.45
  • bananas: $1.21
  • fresh herbs: $0.95
  • lemon: $0.52
  • blood orange: $1.00
  • free range chicken: $14.34
  • shredded Parmesan: $4.05
  • olives: $2.80

TOTAL: $55.18

How did the rest of my Project: Food Budget-ers do?

Gluten-Free Sprouted Amaranth Sesame Crackers

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Sorry, guys, not too much to report this week.  Though it’s been a cooking-heavy week full of delicious, non-inflammatory food as the Great Cleanse of 2012 continues, not much of it was photographed, as my main focus is on some technical behind-the-scenes stuff right now as I transfer this blog over to WordPress and move everything over to our own domain.

Back on track next week, I promise, when I’ll be cooking up a big mushroom lasagna for a weekend down in Bend to see Yonder Mountain String Band with a house full of friends.

In the meantime, I will take you on another gluten-free cracker adventure, this one bearing a surprisingly happy ending.

I recently gave in and admitted that no, in fact, I just can’t handle the woodsiness of amaranth hot cereal while I’m in this gluten-free phase of things.  I would opt for a fresh fruit smoothie, or the gluten-free granola from New Seasons with almond milk, any day.

So, faced with a glut of leftover amaranth grains, I decided to try out another go at gluten-free crackers.  To start with, I sprouted the amaranth for three days by soaking it in water, draining it in a jar with a mesh top, and then rinsing it daily so the grains stayed moist.

  • Then last night, I gave it a final rinse, and tossed it in the blender with the following:
  • a handful of sesame seeds
  • some rehydrated wakame seaweed
  • a dash of coconut aminos
  • garlic powder
  • Italian seasoning herbs
  • and enough rice flour to thicken it up into a nice wet paste
I spread it all out on a tinfoil-lined baking sheet…

Scored it, sprinkled some finishing salt on top…

And baked it at 200 degrees for about an hour and a half, checking it every 20 minutes and taking it out right when the thickest pieces were no longer pliable.

The verdict?  “Not too bad…considering.”  

Grocery Time!
New Seasons 4/8
Erewhon brown rice cocoa crispies: $4.49
Theo chocolate bar: $3.59 — no soy lecithin or dairy!  Too good to be true!
hazelnuts: $6.89 — I grind these up in my morning smoothies
medjool dates: $2.45 — I had a grand plan to make gluten-free dessert bars out of these, but ended up just eating them whole
brown rice flour: $3.79
chickpeas: $2.97
red quinoa: $6.23
white quinoa: $4.11
salmon lox: $5.29 — my indulgence for this week!  Gotta have some salty treat to keep me happy during my cleanse…
cucumbers: $3.96
red kale: $2.49
radish bunch: $1.49
mixed greens: $3.50
red onion: $0.91
bananas: $1.92
whole free range chicken: $10.47
olives: $5.79
TOTAL: $70.34
A new look for the blog, next week!

How did the rest of my Project: Food Budget-ers do?

Gluten-Free Brown Rice Crackers

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Well guys, it’s that time of the year again — the annual Cleanse.  No, don’t get me wrong, this isn’t one of those 10-day master cleanses comprised of lemon tea and cayenne pepper.  In fact, my cleanse doesn’t even come close to being a fast, of any sort.  It’s an anti-inflammatory diet that I do every year around springtime for a few weeks, and it feels awesome.

I have a handful of random little maladies that flare up throughout the course of the year — nothing that on its own feels like anything that serious, but right around April is when they all start to converge at once, and start to make me feel a little debilitated.  These maladies cover the range of all my systems, from skin to circulation to energy to digestion, and I’d venture to guess that they’re all somewhat connected, and most likely linked to something I’m eating that maybe I shouldn’t be.

So far I’ve been lucky, and by doing these elimination diets and then “challenging” my body as I add the forbidden foods back in, I haven’t found any glaring red flags that would urge me to, say, swear off gluten for the rest of my life.  For the past few years I’ve been able to use this cleanse as a reset button of sorts, like a spring detox to clear all the lurking toxins out of my body that I probably do have at least some mild sensitivities to, and that pretty much keeps me going for the rest of the year, able to eat and drink whatever I want.

So here we go, here’s what I’m not putting in my body for these 3 weeks:

  • gluten
  • dairy
  • eggs
  • soy
  • corn
  • nightshades (peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, etc.)
  • red meat
  • alcohol
  • coffee
  • sugar

Sounds like just about everything, doesn’t it?  Well, if you’re accustomed to eating out a lot or relying on processed foods, then yes, it’s pretty limiting.  But in fact, cooking at home with simple, fresh ingredients, there are still a bajillion things I can eat.

And since I tend to lay pretty low these few weeks that I do my cleanse, not going out to eat or drink, cooking all my meals at home, I like to really get into it.  Clearly, I love the challenge of food constraints.  This just raises the bar a little higher.  What fantastic meals can I make within these limitations?

Well believe you me, I have some ideas up my sleeve.  In fact, here’s my meal plan brainstorm from last year, and now that I’m going on year three, I have even more ideas to throw in the mix.

So on Monday I went to New Seasons and Trader Joe’s and stocked up — lots of fruit and veggies, nuts, dried fruit, gluten-free grains and flours, herbs, chicken and fish, juice, and my favorite: brown rice pasta.

Here’s the thing, though.  The one thing I crave and go kind of crazy without (aside from, of course, the coffee.  Let’s not even talk about that right now.  I’m relying on loads of green tea so I can still get up in the morning and run my businesses, but truly, it is no substitute) is crunchy, salty, bready snacks.  Rice cakes just don’t cut it for me, and while I have wild aspirations to make rice-and-teff flour enjeras to hold lunch roll-ups, and while I do love me a good dragon bowl full of quinoa and seaweed and roasted veggies, I just really miss the crunchy snacks.

Sure, there are rice snacks in the gluten-free aisle, but almost all of them have either corn or soy in their ingredients (if only because they are all tamari-flavored), and the rare few that don’t are crazy expensive.  And while, yes, I do bump up my grocery budget a little during my cleanse month since I won’t be going out to eat or drink at all, I just can’t swallow paying $4 for three little rows of round rice snaps.

And I figured, if they exist…there’s got to be a way to make them right?

Sure enough, some online trolling brought up a couple ideas, and most important for me is, these can be simple.  Simple as in:

1) Fully cook 1/3 cup brown rice (yielding about a cup when fully cooked)

2) Mix in a bowl with 1.5 cups brown rice flour

3) Add 1 tsp salt, some olive oil, a handful of flax seeds, and water until a pasty dough has formed

4) Roll into little balls and press onto an oiled baking sheet, and bake at 375 degrees for about 15 minutes, or until they’ve browned

Verdict: I’m stoked.  I need to work on the texture a little bit, maybe rolling them out with a pin next time, so they’re a little thinner (these definitely could be used as teething rings, which perhaps is why I found the inspiring recipe on a mommy blog), but this pretty much made my week.  This yielded about 20 huge crackers, and I’ve been eating them with everything — dipped in hummus for an afternoon snack, covered in mashed avocado and sea salt for a savory breakfast, as the bookends to a faux PB&J sandwich, and as a crunchy accompaniment to my uber-salad for dinner last night.

mixed greens, fresh spinach, chopped carrot, radish, and cucumber, sunflower seeds, fresh dill, and browned chicken breast topped with a sweet balsamic fennel dressing.

Oh, and I think I may have discovered the solution to the other massive roadblock I encounter every year on this cleanse: no soy sauce.  Asian cuisine is definitely the route to go for these few weeks, since so much of the dishes naturally omit the foods I’m avoiding, but there’s just no way to get around soy sauce, providing that certain kind of tangy saltiness that nothing else can!

Until this?

I’ve been using it when I brown chicken for salads, along with olive oil, some oregano, and nutritional yeast.  My friend Kate, who tried a dab straight up on her finger, recommended against me doing the same if I feel like it’s doing the trick.  I believe her exact words were, “Keep the dream alive.”  


Like I said, I do give myself a bit of leeway this month, since I have to stock up on some ingredients to make this cleanse work that are more expensive than I usually spring for — lots of nuts and dried fruit, exotic flours, fresh fish and chicken.  I usually set aside some cash for going out during the month — $20 each week for food, and $15 for drinks, so I’m giving myself an extra $70 in cash to spend on groceries this month if I need to.

I also give myself some wiggle room on the local produce rule.  Breakfast smoothies necessitate bananas, and I usually need a little more avocado than usual just to stay sane, even if they are coming from Ecuador.

New Seasons 4/2
Coconut aminos: $5.49
Thompson raisins: $1.32
brown rice flour: $2.74
amaranth: $2.03 — for hot cereal in the mornings, cooked with dried fruit, nuts, maple syrup, and almond milk
almonds: $3.44
dried peaches: $4.10
mixed nuts: $8.31
gluten-free bulk granola: $4.29 — for when I’m really craving the cereal
mission figs: $2.14
dried hummus mix: $1.68 — add water and olive oil.  The perfect emergency snack to keep at work!
bananas: $2.33
lemongrass: $0.54
grapefruit: $1.96
pineapple: $3.62
fuji apples: $2.51
avocado: $2.50
broccoli: $2.77
crimini mushrooms: $5.79
mixed greens: $3.60
yellow onions: $1.48
fresh dill: $2.99
5 lb. bag carrots: $4.99
fresh ginger: $0.56
garlic: $2.34
radishes: $1.49
kiwi: $0.60
cucumber: $1.29
gold beet: $3.20
ground chicken: $3.23
TOTAL: $84.17

Trader Joe’s 4/2
orange peach mango juice: $2.99
fresh basil: $2.79
almond milk: $1.99
brown rice fusilli: $5.97
coconut milk: $1.98
frozen berry medley: $3.29
soprasetta salami: $3.99
cashews: $6.99 — cashew cream sauce coming up!
fresh limes: $1.17
frozen pearl onions: $1.69
frozen salmon fillets: $7.54
toasted sesame oil: $2.29
canned tuna: $3.38
chicken breast tenderloins: $6.99
TOTAL: $53.05

How did the rest of my Project: Food Budget-ers do?