Monday, November 03, 2008

Party Fare on a Budget: Spicy Popcorn

For our Diwali party, I decided to break out an old-school snack that I think I had forgotten about since the ol' college days. I used to keep boxes and boxes of microwave kettle corn at all times: you never knew when a movie would spontaneously begin playing in those days.

Popcorn is the ultimate budget snack, especially if you make it using plain kernels either on the stove in a pot, or using this awesome contraption that our friends Lauren and Adam brought over for the party (thanks!). The microwaveable bowl essentially replaces the bag for microwave popcorn and helps you avoid the higher probability of burnt popcorn popped on the stove. Regardless, popcorn is CHEAP, and adding some chile powder or other spices to some melted margarine before tossing it into the popcorn is enough of a twist on an old favorite to wow the crowd easily.

I'm thinking about experimenting with sweet curry powder for my next batch...mmmm. Everything tastes better with curry it seems.

Spice up your life! This recipe is not just for parties.

Spicy Popcorn
Yields 6-8 cups popcorn

2 TBSP vegetable oil
1/2 cup popcorn kernels
4 TBSP butter or margarine (more if you like extra buttery popcorn!)
1 tsp extra hot chile powder (or any other spice)
salt and pepper to taste

Pop the popcorn by any method (using a microwave popper, an air popper, or the stove). If using the stove, make sure to coat the bottom of the pot with a little bit of oil to help prevent scorching. Click here for more-detailed instructions on popping popcorn on the stove.

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan over medium heat, melt the margarine or butter. When it is melted, add the chile powder and salt and pepper. Allow to heat through until the spices are fragrant.

Toss the freshly popped popcorn with the melted margarine or butter mixture in a large bowl and serve.

Party Fare on a Budget: Spicy Peanut Balls

My roommate Ruchi and I hosted a Diwali party last week for a few friends. In the spirit of Diwali, we lit a ton of candles and played fun games like carrom board, UNO, and Fluxx. We also had lots of snacks out, including burfee, spicy popcorn, vegan chocolate chip cookies, and spicy peanut balls.

I found the origins of the spicy peanut balls recipe in one of those cookbooks you can find 365 days a year in the bargain racks of the large bookstores (Barnes and Noble and Borders). You probably know the ones: there's at least one full-page photo every 2 pages and the price is so ridiculous ($5 to $8) that it's worth it to buy it for the pictures even if the recipes stink (which, sometimes they do...).

Anyway, I adapted a recipe from an Appetizers cookbook for the spicy peanut balls. If you have a food processor, you should file this recipe away for your next party. Essentially, to make it budget-friendly, I left out the expensive ingredients and substituted things I already had for ones I didn't.

These balls were a big hit! They're great finger food, and really: who doesn't like something fried once in a while? We dipped them in a spicy chile sauce that I purchased from Trader Joe's ($1.99) and they were quite lovely. There are a million ways you could make these without having to buy expensive ingredients. For example, I happened to be out of turmeric, so I used hot curry powder instead. You could also use something else to replace the fresh ginger, which most people don't keep around all the time.

The only problem I had with the spicy peanut balls was that they disappeared way too quickly. Next time I'll make a double recipe.

Enjoy, and Happy (belated) Diwali!

Spicy Peanut Balls
Yields about 14 balls

1 to 2 inches fresh ginger root, peeled and chopped fine
2 cloves garlic, minced fine
1 tsp hot curry powder
1/2 TBSP soy sauce
1 tsp hot chile sauce
1 cup cooked jasmine rice
1/2 cup peanuts, roughly chopped (or lightly processed)
vegetable or canola oil (for frying)
Hot Chile Sauce (for dipping)

Process the ginger and garlic in the food processor until they form a paste. Add the curry powder, soy sauce, and chile sauce, and process very well. Scrape down the sides of the processor several times if necessary. Add 3/4 cup of cooked rice and process until a sticky paste. Add the remaining rice and pulse a few times to incorporate it.

Form the rice mixture into bite-size balls, then roll them in the peanut pieces.

Heat 3 or 4 inches of oil in a heavy pot over medium-high heat. A good way to test whether the oil is hot enough for frying is to press a wooden chopstick or the non-spoon end of a wooden spoon on the bottom of the pot. If bubbles rise up around the utensil, the oil is hot enough.

Using a heat-resistant spoon, carefully add the peanut balls to the oil in batches of 5 or 6 and fry 3 or 4 minutes, until the balls are a lovely golden brown color. Enjoy hot.

Serve hot, with chile sauce for dipping.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Baking on a Budget: Vegan Chocolate Chip Cookies

I believe that, even in a small-scale, personal economic crisis (or a big one), one should indulge every so often. Cookies are simple to bake, lift the spirits and, more importantly, stave off the symptoms of SAD (seasonal affected disorder) and PMS (no explanation necessary, I hope). A homemade cookie is also a treat that potentially will not break the bank.

Last week, I decided to bake chocolate chip cookies that both I and my vegan roommate Ruchi could enjoy. But how to do it on a budget? Vegan baking sometimes requires ingredients that I don't typically have on hand. However, when I Googled "vegan chocolate chip cookies", to my surprise, the first recipe that came up required nothing that I didn't already have on my shelves besides vegan chocolate chips. The recipe, from (a site that features recipes, forums, coupons, and social networking), was so simple that I almost didn't think the cookies would turn out well. I was happily mistaken.

One of the things that usually turns me off about vegan cookies is the texture. Many vegan cookies are chewy, thick, and fibrous (i.e., they're 'healthy' cookies with lots of bran and oats thrown in for texture). These cookies are soft and the cinnamon gives the impression that they are melting in your mouth.

We shared the cookies at our Diwali party the next day, and everyone agreed that they were fabulous cookies, even before finding out they were vegan!

I think it's very important to follow the preparation instructions to a "T." Especially the part about mixing the oil and sugar together separately before adding it to the dry ingredients. I believe that this is the secret to the soft and delicious texture. I did need to add about 1/2 cup more of flour as the dough was clearly too wet with only 2 cups of flour, so I reflected this in the reprinted recipe below. I used about 1 tsp of ground cinnamon, but you can leave the cinnamon out (I don't really recommend it though: I think the cinnamon is what makes these cookies shine). I also did not use raw sugar, just regular granulated sugar. Some vegans do not use regular granulated sugar because it is processed using bone char. I opted out of purchasing special sugar since my roommate is not particular about what kind of sugar she eats.

Oh, and here's another tip if you have a Trader Joe's near you: their semi-sweet chocolate chips are vegan (i.e., there are no milk products or butter in them) and cost only $1.99 for a 12 oz. bag! Enjoy!

Happy Vegan Chocolate Chip Cookies

2 1/2 cups unbleached flour
2 TBSP baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
cinnamon to taste (optional)
vegan chocolate or carob chips - put in as many as you like
1 scant cup sugar
1/2 cup canola or vegetable oil
1 tsp vanilla
1/4 cup water

Make sure all ingredients are at room temperature. It will work if they're not at room temp but it works MUCH better if they are.

Preheat oven to 350˚F.

In a large bowl, mix flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon. Add the chocolate chips. Make a well in the center and set aside.

In a medium bowl, mix sugar and oil very well. Add the vanilla, and then add the water, mixing well. Add the wet ingredients to the well in the dry ingredients. Mix, being careful not to overwork it. Add more chocolate chips if you so desire. Spoon the dough onto ungreased cookie sheets (about 1 TBSP per cookie).

Bake 8-12 minutes. The cookies are done when they seem a little bit softer then you want them to be. They will harden up some as they cool.