Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Tightening the Belt: Eating Oatmeal in an Economic Crisis

I'm experiencing an economic crisis. This one has less to do with Wall Street and the collapse of global financial markets than with having been a student for the last 6 and a half years with no source of income besides the extreme generosity of my parents.

As a result, I've decided recently to tighten my belt. This has led me to really re-think what I buy while I'm shopping. For example, Karl pointed out to me that eating cereal for breakfast is actually quite a drain on the finances (in perspective). I've switched to eating oatmeal and the occasional bowl of Cream of Wheat instead.

Think about it: the average box of generic brand cereal costs between $3 and $4 (more for the name brands). If you eat cereal every day for breakfast, that box of cereal will be gone in 5-7 days. You'll spend between $12 and $16 on cereal for a month. And don't forget the milk!

By contrast, a big cannister of generic brand oatmeal (traditional rolled oats, not instant) costs approximately $3 and will last you all month, if not longer. You can make it with water (though I do cut my water with some milk), which can help decrease the cost of the milk you would use for your cereal. So for a month of oatmeal (maybe more), you'll spend $3 (plus some milk if you do use it in your oatmeal; I would also add in the cost of a package of brown sugar, because I can't eat my oatmeal without a 1/2 TBSP at least!).

I have really started to look forward to that hearty bowl of oatmeal in the mornings. Karl and I have divergent viewpoints about eating the same thing day after day, but in this case, the fruit-element of my morning bowl of oatmeal really places this breakfast outside of the monotonous category.

I have found a cannister of prunes or raisins is a must to keep around for oatmeal. However, to shake things up, I keep a bag of frozen mango chunks from Trader Joe's on hand ($2.79): just throw a few chunks into the pot at the same time you add the oatmeal. Delicious! This works great for instant oatmeal in the microwave also. Other frozen fruits are also wonderful. If you have a Trader Joe's nearby, I highly recommend you shop there for affordable frozen fruit: the larger chain grocery stores tend to charge about twice as much for less quantity.

The best part about a hot bowl of oatmeal? I don't feel hungry in two hours like I would with a bowl of cereal. It's not just an old wive's tale: oatmeal really does stick to your ribs!

Feel free to share some "belt-tightening" strategies of your own in the comments below!

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Spice Girls: Vegan Stuffed Chile Peppers and Zingy Mashed Potatoes

My fabulous roomie Ruchi recently inherited a bag full of wicked-hot chile peppers from her friend Mala, who received them from her weekly batch of CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) produce. What a windfall!

Ruchi and I decided to use all the peppers in one night to make stuffed peppers and spicy mashed potatoes. Since Ruchi has recently committed to being vegan (thanks to Skinny Bitch, a book I couldn't stand to read more than 5 pages of), I formulated a delicious vegan filling to stuff the peppers with.

If you ever decide to make stuffed chile peppers, you have a couple of options.
The "boat" method: slice the pepper in half long ways, scoop out the pithy part (and the seeds: they can taste bitter if you leave them in, and I promise, you're not discarding the spiciest part of the pepper), and fill each half with the filling.
The "bullet" method: slice only a small portion the top part of the pepper off (with the stem) and use a small utensil (like a paring knife, but be careful!) to scoop out as much pith and as many seeds as you can. Then you put the filling in and press it down until you can't fit any more in.

I like the bullet method best: I think it looks prettier. However, when you bite into a bullet-filled pepper, you are more likely to have an explosion (kind of like an over-filled jelly donut!). Either way, these peppers taste great and have a delicious spicy kick! The mashed potatoes were also very tasty.

Be creative with your food! Ruchi thought of an ingenious way to use last night's creations for lunch today: she wrapped up a stuffed pepper with some mashed potatoes in a roti (an Indian flat bread) for an interesting "burrito!"

Helpful Tips for Handling and Eating Spicy Food
Always remember to wash your hands very, very thoroughly after handling chile peppers with your bare hands. Also avoid touching your eyes or face. The peppers Mala gave us were quite potent, and even though I washed my hands several times, I still had burning sensations on my nose from scratching an itch! If you're really worried about it you can always handle the peppers while wearing latex gloves.

If you ever eat a pepper that is just too spicy, so spicy you feel ill, nauseous, or just completely overheated (this really can happen: it has happened to me!), whatever you do, do NOT drink water. This will just spread the spicy capsaicin all over your mouth and down your esophagus: hello, heartburn! The best way I have found to soothe the burn is to eat some high-fat yogurt. Drinking milk also helps, as does eating a piece of bread.

Carly and Ruchi's Vegan Stuffed Chile Peppers
Feel free to substitute your favorite veggies, add spices, etc. Be creative!

6-8 hot chile peppers (any kind will do), hollowed out and seeded
3 TBSP chopped crimini mushrooms
2 TBSP canned spinach (drained)
1 half of a roasted red bell pepper, chopped fine
3 cloves of garlic, pressed or minced fine
3 or 4 TBSP panko bread crumbs
2 TBSP Better-Than-Cream-Cheese (Tofutti)

Preheat oven to 400˚ F.
Mix all ingredients except the chile peppers until well combined. Stuff the chile peppers with the mixture. Place stuffed peppers on a cookie sheet and bake in the oven for 30-45 minutes, until peppers are soft and the filling is steamy. Enjoy, but keep a glass of milk handy!

Zingy Mashed Potatoes (Vegan-friendly)
If vegan isn't your thing, or you don't have a vegan roommate that you love sharing food with, you can substitute butter for Smart Balance and regular milk for soy milk. If you really want to load up on animal product, try using chicken stock instead of water to boil your potatoes...Yum!

4-6 medium Idaho potatoes, peeled and cubed
4 cloves garlic, pressed
3 hot chile peppers, cored, seeded, and diced
salt and pepper
3 TBSP SmartBalance
1 or 2 TBSP unsweetened soy milk

Put the potatoes, garlic and peppers in a pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium and cook until the potatoes are fork tender (about 20 minutes). Drain the potato mixture, then transfer to a mixing bowl. Add salt and pepper to taste, then use an electric hand mixer to mash the potatoes (you can also just mash them by hand with a potato masher or a fork). After mashing, add the Smart Balance and the soy milk and mash again (with electric mixer or by hand) until smooth. Enjoy hot or cold!