Young, broke and hungry

Recipes, tricks, and tips on healthy eating for the frugal foodie

Category: Trick

Save or Splurge: Organic Produce

It’s hard to escape the organic craze.  Nearly ever item at the grocery store has an organic counterpart that boasts itself as the better choice…more all-natural (is that possible?), more healthy and certainly more expensive.  While the choice to go organic is a personal one, it may help to know which foods are really worth the switch.  And the answer may shock you!  Okay fine, that was more for dramatic effect, but what I’ve learned about organic produce really has been enlightening.

The Environmental Working Group releases a list every year of the 12 foods with the highest traces of pesticides – the Dirty Dozen, if you will.  The 2011 list can be found here, but for those of you too busy (lazy) to click, I’ll recap the list for you:

1. Apples – frequently at the top of the list of most pesticide-laden foods

2. Celery

3. Strawberries

4. Peaches

5. Spinach

6. Imported Nectarines

7. Imported grapes

8. Bell peppers

9. Potatoes

10. Domestic blueberries

11. Lettuce

12. Kale

All of these foods tested higher in pesticide traces in 2011 than their superfood brethren.  The fruits and veggies that tested clean?  Onions, sweet corn, pineapple, avocado, asparagus, sweet peas, mangos, eggplant, domestic cantaloupe, kiwi, cabbage, watermelon, sweet potatoes, grapefruit, mushrooms.  If you’ll notice, with the exception of a few, most of the fruits and veggies on this list involve some type of inedible peel.  A good rule of thumb when you’re shopping and don’t have this list handy (WHAT??  My blog isn’t the homepage on your phone’s browser?!), is that if it has a peel that you don’t eat, it’s safer than a fruit that you eat whole – apples and grapes for instance.  So plan ahead, check the weekly specials, and decide which organic fruits and veggies to splurge on and which to save on, using that simple rule.

Don’t have the budget to accomodate any organic produce?  Personal belief disclaimer: I’m no nutritionist, but I think it’s safe to say that the good you’ll do yourself by continuing to load up on fruits and vegetables will outweigh any potential harm from pesticide traces.  So continue to buy your produce, and stick as closely as possible to those on the “clean” list.

Bonus tip: Go for fruits and vegetables that are in season and save even more. 

Extra bonus tip (I’m feeling generous tonight): Many local farmers’ markets have stands with organic produce at a much lower cost than what you’ll find at the local supermarket, so hit up the world wide web to see if there are any winter farmers’ markets in your area, or just look forward to that in the spring!

 

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Save or Splurge: Olive Oil

One of the recurring posts I’ll be writing is “Save or Splurge,” in which I’ll help you decide whether to go cheap or go for broke on certain foods.  In this post, I’ll help you maneuver through the olive oil aisle to help you select the most healthful and budget-friendly oil.

It’s been used for millenia in various ways and has long been heralded for its health benefits.  It’s high in monosaturated fats (the good kind), is believed to help prevent heart disease, and is beneficial for the digestive system.  Homer called it “liquid gold.”  Lucky for you, Homer’s romantic description of the super oil doesn’t have to reflect it’s modern-day cost.

The first rule of buying olive oil is: ignore the pictures and logos.  In fact, check the back of that bottle – while the picture leads you to believe it was produced somewhere in Tuscany where the sun is perpetually setting, that bottle of oil may be coming from somewhere less picturesque…don’t get caught paying a pretty penny just for a pretty label.

Look for olive oil that is cold pressed.  This refers to a method of extracting the oil in which the olives are pressed without being heated, and no chemicals are used in the process, producing a higher quality oil with low acidity.  It should say “cold pressed” somewhere on the label if this is the process used.

The second rule?  Take a purity pledge.  Go for extra virgin instead of refined.  In the simplest terms, refined goes through a more extensive process that uses chemicals to extract the oil. 

And finally, don’t count out your grocer’s house brand.  Most grocers have lots of staples like olive oil included in their house brand line, and you’re usually able to find one at a decent price that was cold pressed, extra virgin, and maybe even bottled in Italy, Spain or Greece – the three main producers.

Save or Splurge?  Land somewhere in the middle.  Don’t spend an outrageous amount on a trendy bottle, but do spend the extra dollars to fit within those three guidelines.  If you can’t find one within your budget, the origin of the oil should be where you compromise.  I use Earthfare’s brand – cold pressed, extra virgin, and bottled in Argentina.

A couple of tips for making that oil last?  Olive oil should mainly be used in dressings, marinades, and for sauteing.  It has a lower smoking point than other oils, which means it can burn easily and should not be used for frying.  Peanut oil or vegetable oil would be a better option for deep frying or pan frying a dish.

Heat up your pan before adding in the oil.  Once the pan is hot, add the olive oil, and let the olive oil heat up before adding the other ingredients.  Adding cold ingredients to cold oil in a cold pan will just cause your food to soak up the oil when it heats, requiring you to use more oil (subsequently adding extra calories).

My favorite recipe for a quick salad dressing – using ingredients you probably already have on hand – is below.  It serves a dual purpose as an excellent quick-marinade for chicken!

5 tablespoons olive oil

3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon dijon mustard (only have yellow mustard in the fridge? that works fine, too!)

1/2 tablespoon agave nectar (honey or maple syrup can be substituted)

Whisk the vinegar into the oil first until fully integrated, then whisk in the dijon and agave.

This makes enough dressing for two big salads.  Increase amounts to match the amount of meat you’re using if making for a marinade.

As I mentioned before, olive oil leads a secret life as a health and beauty hero.  Need a quick DIY Christmas idea?  Buy a cheap bottle of olive oil, combine it with raw sugar or sea salt and a couple drops of vanilla extract, and pour into a Mason jar tied with a cute bow.  This makes an incredible (and incredibly cheap) hand and body scrub that is especially luxurious in the dry winter months!

Ginger Butternut Squash Soup

One of my favorite things that the cold weather brings is butternut squash, in all of its sweet, slightly nutty glory.  My other favorite thing the cold weather brings?  The ability to eat soup as often as you please without prejudice or judgement.  I’m a huge soup fan – not only is it comforting, healthy, and easy to make – it’s extremely economical.  You can make a giant batch now and freeze it in single serving portions for any of those too tired to cook/too sick to move/too broke to get takeout nights that seem to inevitably pop up around the holidays.

In addition to being a huge soup fan, I’m a big advocate of the freezer.  You all should know by now that I can’t stand the thought of throwing away leftovers (I literally can’t stand it – maybe a side effect of my time in Africa – but it gives me severe anxiety to see food go in the trash).  I freeze everything and keep a list of what exactly I have in my freezer.  Then when I’m meal planning, I can plan to incorporate some of the frozen leftovers/leftover ingredients.  That’s another big perk to meal planning – having it all laid out lets you know when you need to pull something out of the freezer, and all of your frozen goodies don’t go untouched because you never have time to thaw them out.

Now let me come down off my soap box (or ice box), and tell you about the very best soup for cold winter nights: Ginger Butternut Squash Soup.

 

 (my pictures are getting bigger – can you tell I”m getting the hang of this?)

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 shallot, chopped

1 tablespoon fresh ginger, chopped or grated

2 cups butternut squash, cubed

3 cups chicken stock

Salt and pepper

One of best things about this soup is that you can make it any way your schedule permits.  My favorite prep is to roast the veggies, which just adds a little depth of flavor.  The above measurements make three good-sized bowls of soup (in my case, one for now, two for the freezer).

Step 1: Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.  Throw your butternut squash, chopped shallot, and ginger in a baking dish, drizzle the olive oil over the veggies and toss to coat.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper and roast for 30 minutes, flipping the squash about half way through.

Step 2: Put your veggies in a blender in batches (it will take about three batches) with the chicken stock and blend until smooth.  If you have an imersion blender, throw the roasted veggies in a pot with the chicken stock and blend. 

Step 3: Simmer the blended soup on the stove for 10 minutes without letting it boil.  Salt and pepper to taste.

Garnish with whatever you have handy!  Goat cheese, parmesan, fresh parsley, or nothing at all…I used some goat cheese left over from my pomegranate crostini.

 

A quick note on ginger:  It’s intimidating.  Whenever you see it in the store, it’s part of a giant root that you can’t ever picture yourself using all of.  Ever.  A hint?  You don’t have to take the whole root – break off a knob!  The broken ends will just dry up, but will not effect the product.    Ginger also freezes incredibly well (me? using the freezer? shocker).  Wrap it in saran wrap, throw it in a plastic bag, and when you’re ready to use again, run it under cool water, slice off the skin, and slice what you need.  I promise it’s easy, and using fresh ginger in recipes that call for it makes all the difference.  In this case, it gives the soup a little spice and a little bite – just enough to wake up the squash.

Alternative method?  Throw all ingredients in a soup pot, bring to a boil, turn the heat down and simmer until squash is soft.  Blend until smooth.  Finish up by patting yourself on the back for being an excellent, albeit lazy, cook.