Keep the tips, can the recipes

The old axiom says that writers should write what they know. Jennifer Maughan, a freelance writer from Utah, knows it’s not easy to feed a family of five on a freelancer’s budget. In her upcoming 100 Meals for $5 or Less (Gibbs Smith, 2009), she shares the lessons she’s gleaned as she struggles to put food on the table and stay sane.

dscn3472The book is worth checking out for its first three chapters. Here, Maughan provides clear, useful tips on grocery strategy: how to use the circular to plan your meals in advance, how to keep a price list to make sure you’re getting the best deals on your regular purchases, and the importance of approaching your supermarket aisles with a suspicious eye.

Then, from chapter four on, Maughan presents the 100 recipes that give the book its name. The main course is disappointing after the useful appetizer. Of course I was not expecting gourmet recipes to come in under $5, but a lot of Maughan’s recipe suggestions are not even palatable. They generally include mixing several prepared foods together: a fish stick casserole that combines frozen fish sticks, processed cheese, and dry onion soup mix, or a mixture of ground beef, condensed cream of mushroom soup, and condensed chicken noodle soup. Even the recipes that don’t feature canned food disappoint, like an herb-crusted potato recipe that mysteriously doesn’t include a single herb.

I may not know 100 recipes that use fresh ingredients for under $5, but there are certainly a hundred out there, and I’m inclined to wear them out before I let Campbell’s take over my kitchen.

Published in: on January 30, 2009 at 8:27 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Happy Hour of (Next) Week

brazenhead1It’s good to plan in advance when you’re economizing, and in that spirit, here’s a surefire plan for next Monday, when the week ahead is starting to look a little too long.

Steer your way to the Brazen Head (228 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn–map) in Brooklyn. A brazenhead2comfortable, homey bar that’s a favorite of Brooklyn law students and court staff, Brazen Head serves up some 15 micro-brews on tap. But they watch out for the budget minded as well, particularly on Mondays from 5 pm on, when they serve up an assortment of free food. Often it’s fresh, meaty chicken wings. When I went last Monday, it was tasty meatballs in wine sauce and macaroni with carmelized onions.

Complement the free eats with a few $2 PBRs and your week will look a little hazier, and a lot brighter.

The slippery Slope

ellisbar1I live in the Gowanus/South Slope area of Brooklyn, and in the past the one thing that’s drawn me away from my neighborhood is its lack of great bars. If I need to liven up my evening I’d usually head at least as far away as the north Slope or Smith St. But a rash of recent openings (along with the splendid weather) has given me all the more reason to stay home. The best: Ellis Bar (627 5th Ave., Brooklyn–map).

Ellis is a clean, comfortable neighborhood bar with excellent food. I mentioned its ridiculously cheap party deal in last week’s HHotW, but it turns out Ellis has a full calendar of drink specials that can keep you abuzz on the cheap. Consider tonight’s special, which they repeat¬† every single Wednesday: 25 cent shots of house bourbon to accompany live music, starting at 9. Mondays feature $3 Heineken, Tuesdays have canned beer specials (and trivia), and weekends have extended and reverse happy hours.

Ellis has an up to date website and a blog, so you can check in and fill out your calendar accordingly.

Mofongo, less money

Like many New York Dominican restaurants, El Rey de la Caridad in Morningside Heights (973 Amsterdam Ave., Manhattan–map) is best known for its rotisserie chicken, rice and beans. But if you’re looking to mix it up and still keep it cheap and filling, take a crack at El Rey’s mofongo.

dscn33941For $7.50 your plate will arrive with a giant dome of mashed, fried plantain flecked with salty, chewy bits of pork. Break it down into a more accessible pile and then drizzle on the glorious brown gravy. It’s so good that when you’re finally done with the mofongo, you’ll be dipping the iceberg lettuce garnish into the cup and eating that, too. What you can’t see is the minced garlic that infuses its flavor throughout the dish. But you sure will taste it.

To be honest, I’ve never been a huge plantain fan (this may date back to the time I visited the DR; my host put a mountain of whole boiled plantains in front of me and watched me eat them, one by one). But El Rey can pile their mofongo on me all they want and it’ll never get old.

Last minute Happy Hour of the Week


This one is too good to pass up. Ellis Bar (627 5th Ave., Brooklyn–map), a recently-opened restaurant/bar in South Park Slope, is just shamelessly seeking attention. Tonight, Friday January 23, they’re hosting a bash and serving 1 cent Harpoon drafts, 1 cent shots of Jager, Soco, and house bourbon, and 1 cent cocktails, including margaritas and my favorite, caipirinhas.

If that’s not generous enough, they’ll also serve up chicken wings, sandwiches, and samplers, FOR FREE. As I said, completely shameless. The party starts tonight at 9, and every penny pincher with his or her head in the game will be there.

The skinny on A Chau

For my second crack at banh mi, I tried a highly-touted takeout joint in Manhattan Chinatown known as A Chau Deli (82A Mulberry St., Manhattan–map). I popped into the narrow, counter-only establishment and was surprised that I was the only customer, save for a friend of the proprietor chatting in a foreign language. I didn’t want to interrupt, but I was hungry.

dscn33872I ordered the #6, Banh Mi Dac Biet, because in addition to daikon, carrots, pickles, jalapenos, and cilantro, it has four different types of pig. These ingredients are wrapped up in a long, fresh baguette for a total cost of $3.75. For that price, A Chau is a great deal. But I have to say, given all those ingredients, they certainly found a way to make their sandwich thin.

The ratio and blend of the meats and pickled veggies was perfect and the sweet hot sauce gave it just the right kick. But the banh mi I fell in love with, at Brooklyn’s Ba Xuyen, is a real mouthful that makes A Chau’s entry look a bit anorexic. And because A Chau’s sandwich is so thin, the admittedly delicious bread covers up the taste of the goods inside.

If you can’t make it to Brooklyn, A Chau’s certainly worth stopping by. But if you’re a native or have some time, Brooklyn Chinatown is where you want to be.

Published in: on January 23, 2009 at 3:08 pm  Leave a Comment  
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A shoulder to feast on

With the long weekend before Martin Luther King Day, I decided to have a dinner party. Unfortunately all my roommates were out of town, which meant I’d be cooking, and paying for, all the food myself. I headed for the circular and leafed through until I found just the right thing: pork shoulder for 79 cents a pound.

pernilA good spice rub transforms the plain-sounding pork shoulder into pernil, a tender Puerto Rican roast that cooks for a whole afternoon. When it’s done the rich and spicy skin crackles, the smoky meat falls off the bone, and the fat and juices mix with the excess spices to make a sinfully delicious gravy. And your house will smell like heaven all day while it cooks.

I fed five people that night, and so far I’ve had another three meals of leftovers with more to come. At 79 cents a pound, I was able to buy ingredients for Brazilian collard greens and cornbread and still come in under $10. Even when shoulder isn’t on sale, it’s a great deal at $1 to $1.50 per pound.

Pernil recipes abound, but the simple technique I used comes from Mark Bittman at the New York Times (it’s worth watching the video, too).

A burrito for two

dscn3398I’ve seen a lot of burritos in my day, but when the waiter at Taqueria y Fonda la Mexicana (968 Amsterdam Ave., Manhattan–map) in Morningside Heights placed a giant carnitas burrito in front of me, I was momentarily speechless. It may not have been big enough to be mistaken for a terrorist’s weapon, but it could easily have passed for a body builder’s forearm.

Once you tackle the challenge of how to get it in your mouth, the results are heavenly. The pulled spicy pork is tender and meaty, offset perfectly by rice and black beans. With the addition of three different salsas–red, green, and spicy avacado–that come with your gratis tortilla chips, the burrito has just the right kick and plenty of flavor.

The burrito will run you about $9, but have no fear. With the tortilla chips to back it up, the package is easily enough to fill two people. And the hole-in-the-wall decor of the restaurant belies excellent service, generosity, a wide range of authentic fare, and even a classy glass of wine for $4.

A big dog for small change

dscn3383If I’m in Chinatown, chances are I’m there for the cheap Chinese food. Makes sense, right? But on my last trip, I found that at least in one instance, Chinatown can do an American classic bigger, better, and cheaper than most spots in the city.

The 1/4 Pound Jumbo Hot Dogs window (149 Canal St., Manhattan–map) might not look like much. It’s just one small room with a rack of hot dogs, a few condiment jars, a cash register, and a single smiling woman. But when she puts that dog in your hand, you’ll realize that this under-sized establishment boasts an over-sized product. It’s well over an inch in diameter and at least six inches long. And it’s tucked dscn3385inside a fresh potato bun far better than what you’d get at a cart.

All that with ketchup and mustard sets you back $1 (92 cents plus tax). In my opinion it’s worth shelling out the big bucks (an extra quarter) for delicious sauteed onions on top.

Published in: on January 20, 2009 at 6:18 pm  Leave a Comment  
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A good night with a bad white

chicken-cacciatore-twoEating and drinking on a budget is rewarding but risky. You’re bound to make a few bad choices in your search for the best deal. This is never more clear than when buying wine. There are some great budget picks out there, but sometimes you get that $7 bottle that just tastes like…well, a $7 bottle, or worse.

For me last night, it was a Nostalgia Sauvignon Blanc 2007. Rather than choke it down, I flipped through the myriad recipes that would allow me to make the best of my poor decision. I came across an old favorite: Marcella Hazan’s Chicken Fricassee, Cacciatora Style. As luck would have it, the front page of my circular blared “59 cent chicken leg quarters.” With an investment of about $4, my ghastly wine became a delicious dinner for five.

Marcella’s recipe is after the break, and is best served atop a pile of polenta (cornmeal + water = the poor man’s dream starch). (more…)