Monday, February 18, 2013

The Virtues of Sweet Potatoes

So, apparently the plural form of "potato" is "potatoes".  And here I was thinking I'd done so well over the years avoiding a common spelling mistake...not.

I'm down with any spelling you like as long as you boil 'em, bake 'em, stick 'em in a stew.

Ok, I'll try to be serious now. No promises though.

Today I would like to extol the virtues of sweet potatoes.

Not the prettiest outside; but it's the inside that counts.

These colorful tubers which retail for about 90 cent/lb at your local Wally World (Walmart) have saved my hiney more than once, even before I arrived on campus. When I was hungry and too tired to cook anything, I'd pop one in the microwave until it was slightly less firm, mash it badly with a fork, attack it with cinnamon, milk, a bit of butter, and some brown sugar, then proceed to shovel it into my gaping maw.

How's that for a lovely picture.

Since my dorm-room microwave is much wimpier than the one at home (even if it isn't exactly regulation- shh! Don't tell the R.A.!) I've switched over to boiling them. And my what a difference it makes.

When I microwaved sweet potatoes (or regular potatoes too, but that isn't our focus today) and tried to mash them up, they never achieved that lovely, creamy consistency that my uncle always managed to get with his Sweet Potato Casserole (which edges into dessert territory with it's butter content, but I digress). I started boiling them once I moved to college and that made all the difference.

I know, I know, boiling is so time consuming. This is supposed to be dorm cooking dagnabit! Fast and easy, like the Road Runner!

I promise you can still get things done while you make nice and fluffy(ish) sweet potatoes. Just wash, peel, and cut the potatoes into small pieces (the smaller they are, the faster they cook) and throw them in a pot of boiling water for 10-20 minutes. That's it. Usually I go study in the living-room  where I can still see and get to the stove quickly.

Never ever EVER leave a pot or pan on a hot eye unsupervised. Ask someone to watch it for a minute while you run to the loo, or grab your psychology textbook. (I feel this PSA is needed because it is always better safe than sorry.)

Only you can prevent wildfires.

Sorry, I'll stop.

After the potatoes have been boiled to desired done-ness, which for me is when the water starts taking on a vaguely yellowish tint, drain them (be careful of the hot steam!) and mash them up with a potato masher or a fork. I've found that it works better to add spices and butter until after I've mashed up the potatoes somewhat. And if the potatoes seem really dry and you don't want to/don't have any more butter to add, pour in some milk. This works as an awesome cool-down method that will also make the potatoes go further if you're running low on potatoes and high on diners.

But seriously, sweet potatoes are amazing. I cook them as a side for dinner, then heat up the leftovers (or don't, if I'm feeling lazy) and eat them for breakfast the next morning. They add splash of color to a bento box (a post all it's own, hopefully), are packed with vitamins like beta-carotene, and are a tasty way to get a serving of veggies. Yes, they are potatoes, and from what I understand are still starchier than say, spinach (but really, isn't everything starchier than spinach?), but for someone like me is super picky about veggies, this is about as good as it's gonna get.

I had a bad salad at a band function three years ago and have never been able to look at lettuce in the same light. It also ruined one of my face washes at the time, because the face wash began to smell like the salad tasted. No money was lost on that salad, let me tell you. So, for now I will just settle, quite happily, with my beloved sweet potato.

If sweet/spiced sweet potatoes aren't your thing, try topping it like you would a normal baked potato. At the cafeteria a few weeks back, Roomie got a sweet potato at the potato bar one night and loaded it up like a regular baked potato, bacon bits and all. I was skeptical of it, but she said it was great. Personally I can't get over the idea of putting bacon and cheese on a sweet potato, but hey, give it a shot. I'm sure there are people out there who gagged as soon as I mentioned cinnamon; to each his own.

So, any ideas about what to do with sweet potatoes?

A blank canvas of delicious.
Side note: Those white spots are there whenever I cut a sweet potato. I think it's the "juice" or something. Anyone else have this issue?

Monday, January 14, 2013

Gluten Free on a College Budget

Let's be honest: gluten free food can be expensive. Very expensive.

For example, one of my favorite gluten free breads is Udi's. Udi's loaf is considerably smaller than most "normal" (gluten filled) loafs of bread and even some gluten free loaf breads. There are fewer pieces and it can generally be less filling.

These smaller, less filling loaves also generally have to be toasted before consumption. The price tag? Anywhere from $5-$6 a loaf. On the other hand, regular bread runs about about $1-$3 per loaf (or if you shop as frugally as Roomie, it costs only 89 cents).

It's the same everywhere you look. A box of cake mix: $5.75 A box of crackers: $4.50. Some gluten free snack bars for those mornings when you wake up late and run to class: $5. Gluten free All Purpose Flour: $8 a box.

Even if your local Wal-Mart has begun stocking gluten free food products, the idea of paying four and a half bucks for a box of crackers is still gut-wrenching when you aren't even half way through your shopping list (socks, face wash, chicken, fruits and veggies, milk...). It's even worse when you're shopping with a limited budget. Can you live without peanut butter or live without toilet paper this week? Will your roommate kill you if you eat anymore of her chips or can you afford your own if you don't buy bread, but get more shampoo?

Take a deep breath and step away from the shelf.

First of all, make a list. Roomie and I tried to go shopping once, and only once, without a list. It was left behind in the dorm and we thought we could just remember everything we needed.

Never again.

A list helps you keep track of what your really need for the week, and can keep you from making too many frivilous purchases. Make a list of the items you absolutely need first and put them at the top or star them or something to help yourself remember these are the things you absolutely need to buy. For me this would be items such as milk, yogurt, eggs, and chocolate chips (we bake a lot).

Nexts list the things you want to buy; these are things that if you don't buy them, your world won't come to a screeching halt. For me that would imclude items such as chips, cereal, cosmetics (which come out of my grocery budget), and packaged snacks. Living without these things might not be convinient, but its doable.

Finally, list the items your running low on, but don't need this week. If its a pricey item, you might run across it on sale. Or if you have money left over, you can spend it on that item if you don't mind usuing all of your budget.

Second, you want to set a budget. Keep in mind how many items per week you need to buy and how often you will be grocery shopping. I try to keep my budget under $30 per week, including cosmetics and personal care items. Try to aim lower than the maximum you can afford, that way if something comes up and you go a little over, you aren't in the red.

Coupons are great if you can find them, but don't agonize over it. In my area the coupons are usually cruddy, so I have to find other ways to save.

Now that we have our list and budget, it's time to pick your store(s)! Evaluate the stores in your area. Which ones are cheapest? Which one(s) are closest? Who has most of the items I need?

It may be cheaper to go to a few stores in the same area, or it might be better to do all of your shopping at one supermarket. It's different for everyone.

Roomie and I usually go to Wally World (Walmart), Target, and Aldi's; but we only go shopping once a week. Walmart is where we get our dry foods (they finally started a gluten free section where I can get my crackers on the cheap, go Wally World!), my lactose free milk, and things like shampoo and razors. At Target we buy some of our cosmetics and assorted food items that are on sale. Aldi's is where we buy the bulk of our cold foods and a variety of other items.

Walmart is consistantly cheaper than most stores, of you don't count the great sales other stores have once in a blue moon. Roomie and I generally start our shopping there.  However, when Publix has one of their BOGO sales on ceral, you can bet your sweet pumpkin pie that I'll be going through the line with several boxes of my ceral of choice.

Target is a bit more pricey, but they tend to have some odd things that Walmart might not. Our Target carries the cosmetic brand e.l.f., whose cosmetics are are generally $3 and under, but work as well as the major brands. Targer also has more clearance sections than Walmart. They aren't always super amazing mark downs, but I'm in no place to shake a stick at the clearance sticker.

Aldis is, from what I understand, a store that originated in the northern US (feel free to correct me if I'm wrong). It's finally begun to trickle down into the south, much to the rejoicing of well, everyone. Aldi's isn't your typical supermarket; there are no fancy displays, signs, baggers, or car collectors.

You take your own bags and deposit a quarter to get a cart (no worries, you get that quarter back when you return the cart). The only accepted methods of payment are cash and debit; no credit cards or check, which cuts out their bank fees. Most of the brand there are not brand that Roomie and I know as "name brands" but we aren't 100% sure if that's an Aldi's thing, or if its brand that are more known up north. Either way, I've tried their Nutella knock off, and their greek yogurt, both of which taste just as good as the "name brand" stuff.

The only downside to Aldi's is they tend to be hit or miss. Either they have it or they don't; usually they don't run out of stuff, they're good at keeping their shelves stocked. But personally, I'm willing to take my chances if that means produce for under a dollar and eggs for 99 cents.

Now, I don't mean to knock Whole Foods, but I rarely visit them. As in once a month if I can help it. I'll be one of the first to admit it: Whole Foods is expensive, especially if you're on a budget. I try to limit the items I buy there to things no one else sells, like gluten free bread and waffles. I'm allowed one frivilous item from there, be it cupcakes or an expensive all natural soda, but that's it.

I wish I could buy all my groceries at Whole Foods and not break into a sweat each time the total pings closer and closer to $20. I wish I had enough money that I didn't have to worry about silly things like a budget,  or coupons (pish posh dahling, my ice cream is flown in from the finest gourmet creamery in Paris!). But in reality I'm a college kid, I do have to worry about those things.

My parents know my grocery bill is going to be a bit more than the avaerge for one person (hello there, four dollar crackers), but I still feel bad when Roomie is able to buy three boxes of snacks for my one.

I keep my costs down by relying on produce, peanut butter, and yogurt for snacks. I've mastered the art of the mug cake and how to make small batches of cookies. Rather than relying on everything coming from a box, try to come up with alternate options for those times when you're in the dorm and have the time and resources to make your own rather than getting it out of a box. Frozen fruit thrown in some hot cereal (oats for me, since I can tolerate them) can do wonders for the belly and wallet.

That's not to say that boxed snacks are bad, I rely on snack bars on those days when I know I'm going to be busy. Potato chips are fantastic when that craving for someting salty hits, and mini chocolate bars make a great sweet treat. Just don't rely soley on those for food if you can help it; it can add up faster than you realize.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The International Inter-Room Buffet Extravaganza

Tonight my dorm had a world food night ("The International Inter-Room Buffet Extravaganza"). In between walking up and down the hall and trying to keep gluteny garlic break (for the Roomie) from touching my un-gluteny chicken, I started thinking. How awesome is it that I can eat so much food from all of these different cultures?

At most every station there was something that I could eat. Italy had garlic chicken, Mexico had tacos, Ireland had popcorn (not quite sure about that connection), and the Indian food my roomie and I made was (obviously) gluten-free. Honestly, it was probably the best meal I've had all day.

Actually, scratch that. It was the best meal I've had all day. Probably,the best meal I've had since Friday night, when I heated up some frozen chili and made cornbread that was in desperate need of salt.

Chili is Mexican isn't it? I guess I was preparing early for the international buffet. Haha.

But one thing it reminded me of was to look to other cultures for gluten free meal options. The cafeteria serves sushi, which is gluten free if you don't eat the seperately packaged soy-sauce. My local Publix has instant Thai noodles that are gluten free as well as microave Indian entrees and sides that are prepackaged, microwaveable, and gluten-free: the holy trinity to college students.

If you have access to a stove you can cook up some beef, chicken, beans, tofu, intsert protein of choice here and season it with a few spices (store brand is the cheap way to go, provided it is free of gluten and/or your other allergen(s) of choice). Throw it in some corn tortillas with some canned or fresh tomatos and wa-blam!: food. If you don't have stove acess, Tyson sells cooked un-breaded chicken strips and cubes in teh freezer isle. I can't vouch for the seasoned varieties, but the unseasoned strips worked well for the Roomie and I.

If your feeling All-American, try a frozen burger patty without the bun (or, with a bun, if you have some handy). Or  maybe a grilled cheese on an iron (not sure how that works exactly, seeing as I have a stove, but reliable sources claim it works) and some gluten free soup. Just make sure to take the soup out of the can. Unless you need some evening entertainment, in which case watch that baby spark! (Not really, don't burn down the dorm. Please.)

I'll try to post some recipes soon, but until then, remember to keep foods from other cultures when you wonder what to have for dinner. It keeps things interesting and tasty.