Saturday, May 31, 2008

Fun With Leftovers

A food blogger for the local paper writes that some of her friends can’t stand eating leftovers. They toss food that’s more than a day old. That reminds me of my promise to share my very own tips on stretching your grocery budget. Tip no. 1: Don’t toss leftovers.

I really don’t understand why people wouldn’t eat leftovers. Is it the American obsession with hyper-freshness? Is it because eating the same thing twice in a row is boring? I can’t cure excessive zeal for food safety, but I can offer some ideas on making leftovers a little more interesting.

Here’s one: use leftovers to make salads. Recently, I found myself with a fridge full of grilled chicken, grilled tomatoes, and sautéed green beans, all left over from a cookout. I knew everything would taste inferior if I just nuked it in the microwave. Instead, I cubed the cold chicken and tomatoes, heated up the green beans for barely a minute and cut them into 1-inch pieces, and chopped up some scallions, parsley, and a hardboiled egg. All this went into a salad bowl with a bit of olive oil and balsamic vinegar for the dressing. A completely new dish made out of last night’s food.

From a previous post, more ideas on using up leftovers:

Milk: Make homemade cottage cheese (aka farmer's cheese, curd cheese or tvorog).

Cottage cheese: Bake muffins.

Cooked, cold chicken: Make chicken-stuffed crepes or chicken and spinach hachepouri.

Raw chicken, random vegetables: Make stock.

Tomatoes past their prime: Roast 'em.

Roasted tomatoes, canned tomatoes, or tomato paste: Make chana masala soup.

Cooked vegetables: Make salad.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Russian Grocery Tour: Spartak

Welcome to Spartak, the third stop of my Milwaukee-area Eastern European grocery tour (see also the first and second installments). Word on the street is that Spartak is the most popular of all Milwaukee-area Russian groceries. This small, bustling store is well-priced, well-stocked and staffed by reasonably helpful employees.

Location: 5587 N. Diversey Blvd., Whitefish Bay, (414) 332-3347.

Atmosphere: Just your average Russian store—beige shelves, scrappy posters on the walls, a large freezer filled with dumplings, fish, etc., in the back. Be prepared to stand in line on the weekends. Spartak also gets very busy and crowded around the holidays (that would be New Year).

Customer Service: Surprisingly good! Every time I’m in, the male cashier asks if I need help finding something, brings out items as requested, and promptly rings them up.

Product Selection: A very nice variety of everything from sauces to buckwheat kasha to the delicious marinated tomatoes described here. This is also the place to get candy, sausage, herring, and various unusual dairy products. Make sure to check out the goodies in the back freezer--this is where Milwaukee’s entire Soviet diaspora buys fish like tilapia and flounder, and puff pastry dough for semi-homemade pirozhki.

Pricing: Honestly, I haven’t been doing an item-by-item price comparison between the stores I profile, but the prices here seem pretty reasonable.

Buy: Marinated tomatoes and other pickled vegetables, sold in big glass jars by the back wall. Look for the brand with the red-nosed babushka logo. Also: kielbasa, herring (whole and packaged chunks) and smocked mackarel.

Avoid: I haven't had anything terrible here, but make sure to check the expiration dates on packaged products. No matter how friendly and helpful, Russian grocers just aren’t as stringent about this stuff as Americans.

Final Rating: ****

Rating Key:
*Soviet cafeteria food
**Day-old buckwheat kasha
***Borsch made by a non-native
**** Babushka’s homemade pirozhki
*****Black caviar on a buttered baguette and a shot of chilled vodka

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Updated: Eggplant, tomato and pepper salad

Food at Russian gatherings rarely includes a set meal with courses. Instead, there’s a big spread of appetizers, salads, canapés, cold cuts, pastries, sandwiches, cakes, and so on. I’m usually tempted by the salads, which are never made with lettuce. Rather, they’re heartier potato-based offerings, marinated salads or cooked, mixed vegetable salads like the one above. I didn’t make this excellent eggplant, tomato and pepper salad, but I loved the idea:

-Thick, round slices of eggplant, sautéed in sunflower oil until soft
-Very thinly sliced raw tomatoes
-Very thinly sliced raw green peppers
-Very thinly sliced white onion rounds
-Julienned carrots
-An entire bunch of chopped cilantro (I’d use dill or parsley, a personal preference)
-A couple of tablespoons of sunflower oil and a little white vinegar for the dressing

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Grocery Shopping on the Cheap in Milwaukee

Hey, did you hear there’s a recession going on? If not, news stories about rising food prices will tell you all about it. I hope you’re as amused by money-saving tips like “buy things that are on sale” and “don’t throw away leftovers” as I am. Kitchen economics actually is a topic that’s near and dear to my heart. I’ve toyed with the idea of writing a recession guide to grocery shopping in Milwaukee, but I hesitate because my guide would require the reader to a) have a car, b) have extra time to shop around c) shop mostly for produce, non-organic meat, dairy and some pantry staples, and c) shop for two adults, or two plus a young child at most. I won’t pretend to know anything about feeding teenagers.

What I can do is offer some Milwaukee-area shopping suggestions for the penny-pinching semi-foodie. This isn’t really meant for locavores, the strictly organic-minded, green activists, or those who would spend their last cent on artisan cheese. My target audience is people who want to make reasonably good food without blowing their budget.

Lena's—“Shockingly cheap vegetables under the glare of fluorescent lights…” is how I’ve described this chain in the past. You don’t go to Lena’s for the atmosphere; you go for the produce prices—$1 a pound strawberries, anyone? How about a huge bag of red, orange and yellow bell peppers for about 70 cents? The quality can be spotty, but more often I can’t tell the difference between these veggies and the ones sold across the street at the Outpost, a pricy, organic grocery store. To the “but food should be expensive!” crowd, I say: No farmer’s market or co-op initiative or corner grocery or eat local crusader will offer fruits and vegetables at these prices to people who couldn’t afford them otherwise. Also, Lena’s runs specials on whole chickens at 69 cents a pound. Just sayin’.

El ReyThis chain of Mexican groceries reminds me of the international stores on Chicago’s Devon Street. Busy, colorful, English rarely spoken. I like the big store on National Avenue and 16th Street. The last time I stopped by, 30-cent avocados and 50-cent super-sweet mangos were on offer. The meat department selections are well-priced and stocked with unusual items like tripe and tongue for you au courant nose-to-tail eaters.

Asian Mart--The place is rundown and the selection can be spotty, but the husband-and-wife owners are super-friendly and the prices are good. There’s a variety of produce and even frozen whole fish sold in the back, with prices written on a chalkboard. Call ahead if you want something specific. This store also carries a nice selection of Asian goodies, from sauces to rice to bowls and steamers.

Sendik's has a reputation as a high-end chain, and the Nehring-owned stores are indeed expensive. The Balistreri-owned locations, on the other hand, have some good deals on produce, fish and meat. You can find surprisingly good-quality vegetables on the reduced produce cart at the Silver Spring Drive store.

Coming next: More places to shop, including farmer’s markets. Plus, my very own money-stretching cooking tips.
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