Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Veggie Pasta Salad

My pasta salad is made cheaply with veggies found at my local Latin grocery and supplemented by pasta from the 99c only Store - it's the best of both worlds.

Green bell peppers are cheaper than red and yellow ones, so that's what I usually get. Mexican squash is cheaper than yellow squash. Broccoli is frequently on sale and celery is cheap everywhere.

Just because I'm a cheap$kate, doesn't mean I have to eat unhealthy. I've gotten gluten free and whole wheat pasta from my local 99c only Store. It's not always there, but when it is I get a few packages. I like the flavor and it's good to mix it up, instead of always cooking with regular white flour pasta.

When making a Veggie Pasta Salad, you want to taste the veggies raw, just to see if you like it that way. If not then try blanching them in boiling water for a minute or two. This takes out the harshness, and leaves a more mellow and subtle flavor. It also removes any slight bitterness you may detect. But I find most veggies are delish even raw - once you've tried it that way a few times.

Broccoli, squash, asparagus, corn, green beans and cauliflower do well with a quick blanching. Carrots, onions, celery, cucumber, and tomato are easily eaten raw. As for the amount, you can adjust to your veggie preference.

Veggie Pasta Salad can be made with almost any vegetables you find on sale. As for the salad dressing I like to use vinegar and olive oil, although you can use any store-bought salad dressing you like. It's really simple and quick to make one. While the pasta boils, just chop the veggies. (And I usually blanch some selected veggies first and use that water to boil the pasta in - hey, it's extra flavor.)

And if you don't want to deal with chopping a bunch of veggies, just get a favorite frozen package medley like Italian, Oriental, or combine a couple of packages.

My Veggie Pasta Salad is even better the next day and makes a great meal to pack for the workweek. So give it a go, and let me know what veggies you add.

Ingredients (4-6 servings)
  • 1 package of pasta - about 1 pound. I like bow tie, spiral, macaroni or any short-cut type.
  • 1/2 bell pepper - chopped
  • 1 squash - Cut into cubes. I used Mexican squash, but easy-to-find zucchini or yellow neck squash will do.
  • 1/2 cup of carrot - thin sliced or julienned.
  • 1 medium head of broccoli - about 1 cup when broken apart.
  • 1 stalk of celery - chopped.
  • Water - to boil pasta and blanch some of the veggies.
  • 1 Tablespoon of salt - for boiling pasta.
  • Ice cubes - to cool down the cooked veggies. Or just run cold water on them for 10-15 seconds to slow down the cooking process (after blanching.)

Pasta Dressing
  • 1/4 cup of olive oil - or any favorite tasting oil.
  • 1/4 of vinegar - any type you like. I've used apple cider, rice, red wine or plain white vinegar.
*You could also use a favorite store-bought salad dressing.

Rinse off the veggies. Most just need some chopping and peeling. It's not too much prep, really.

Cut off tough and dried-out end of celery root. I peel off some of the celery treads off the rough side. You can use a potato peeler, or just take a knife and peel away some of the strings (you don't have to get them all.)

For bell pepper, slice it in half, from stem to bottom. Remove the seeds and white membrane from the inside of the bell pepper. Chop it into small pieces. For this recipe I used half a bell pepper because I find the flavor very intense.

I like to blanch some of  the veggies first. Slice Mexican squash in half, lengthways. Chop off tough stalk end and peel some of the broccoli stem, this will help tenderize the stalk when blanching.

When a pot of water comes to a boil then add the squash and broccoli. I usually cook the veggies about 1 to 2 minutes - just enough to slightly soften them. You don't want to overcook them until they get mushy. I think it's better to slightly undercook so there is some crunch left.

Remove the broccoli and squash to a bowl of cold water with ice cubes to stop the cooking. Or put the hot veggies in a colander and run cold water over them for 15 seconds or so.

Now I add salt to the water and cook the pasta according to the package directions.

While the pasta cooks, and once the broccoli is cooled, I break off the florets and chop the stem into smaller pieces. I also chop the Mexican squash into bite-sizes.

When the pasta is done, drain and run cold water on it to stop the pasta from over-cooking.

Now time to bring it all together. Add the pasta to a large bowl, along with all the veggies.

Pour in the vinegar and oil. Mix the salad well. You can add or subtract the dressing amount to suit your taste. Finally sprinkle on some salt and pepper (optional.)

Keep the Veggie Pasta Salad in the refrigerator until you are ready to serve.

You can make this salad with any fresh veggies you like, I sometimes add cherry tomatoes, too. The amount of each veggie can be adjusted to your preference - if you like a lot of broccoli, then add more. If bell pepper is too pungent, then leave it out. Use this recipe and make it to suit your taste buds and pocketbook.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Grilled Russet and Sweet Potatoes

This is my favorite patio BBQ meal. I have a cheapie gas grill and it cooks burgers and grilled potatoes perfectly. I've done it enough and figured out the timing - start the potatoes first and when they are done on one side, I flip them, then add the BBQ sauce slattered hamburger patty.

I like my burger medium rare, so the potatoes need to begin cooking first. And should they finish early, then I just move them to a cooler part of the grill, until the hamburger is done. If you like your burger well done, then the potatoes only need a minute head start.

I usually grill cheap russet potatoes. They are easier to work with and char slower. Lately I've been grilling sweet potatoes. They have more sugar so you have to check on them more often, as they will burn and blacken quicker. Well, I like the mix of soft sweet interior and charred smokey skin of the sweet potato.

And if your burger is done right and still juicy, then there is nothing better than using fries to sop up the meat juices after each burger bite.

And when grilling them I use the burger juices. I flip the burger to a different part of the grill and place some cooking potato slices on the greasy and flavorful used burger wet spot.

Potatoes are cheap. I've made grilled potatoes using russet, white and rose, yam and sweet potato. I simply season them with salt and pepper and sometimes a Cajun seasoned salt.

So, during this summer grilling season, make sure to throw on a few thick potato slices alongside your favorite slab of barbequing protein. They are a delicious combination.

Ingredients (about 2-4 servings)
  • 2 potatoes - I only peel the yam or sweet potato. Slice potatoes one inch thick. You can slice into ovals or stick shapes.
  • Salt and pepper to taste - I also use seasoned salt.
  • Oil - optional. Some grill grates are sticky so lightly brushing potatoes with oil will make flipping slices easier. 

If you have a traditional BBQ grill then fire-up the charcoal or wood chips. If you have a gas grill like I do, then start it a minute before adding sliced potatoes.

Lightly wash or scrub potatoes. You can peel them or leave the skin on. I only peel sweet potatoes and yams. 

Slice the potatoes. I like them sliced to about one inch thick. You can slice them any way you like, into ovals or like matchsticks (but thicker.) This will give you more of a potato soft center. I like to use larger potato slices because it's easier to handle on the grill. You can always slice the bigger pieces when you serve them.

Lay out sliced potatoes and sprinkle on salt and pepper and/or seasoned salt. Lightly brush or drizzle with oil if necessary - I usually go without it. Sometimes I even add some fresh chopped herbs.

Add the sliced potatoes to the hot grill. Depending on the heat of your grill cook the potatoes until one side is charred. This is when I add my hamburger patty. (If you are grilling chicken, then start chicken and potatoes at the same time - as chicken usually takes longer to cook than a hamburger.)

*If you are cooking a burger with the potatoes then flip the burger to a different part of the grill and add the cooking potatoes on the greasy burger spot - for extra flavor.

Cook the other side of potatoes until charred. That's it. Cooking time will vary depending on the heat of your grill. With my gas grill on low it takes about 5 minutes for each side.

Sweet potatoes or yams have a high sugar content, so they will char black if left on the grill too long, so they need more babysitting - check on them after a couple of minutes.

Potatoes are done when tender on the inside. Try one out to test for doneness.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Lightlife Soy Burgers - Deal of the Day

It's a tasty soy burger that comes cooked and frozen. All you do is zap it for a minute and a half and it's ready to eat. I'm wary of frozen factory-made veggie patties, but Lightlife Meat Free Backyard Grill'n Burgers were surprisingly savory.

I got mine at the 99c only Store and the package holds 4 patties - a great deal. As I've pointed out before, this type of Deal of the Day is often only stocked for a day or two before they sell out. So I can't guarantee if you can find them. But if you see them grab a few bags. Even for a regular price at a typical grocery, it would be worth it. A delish soy or veggie burger is hard to find.

Resting on a typical cheap burger bun, the soy patty was the right size and thickness. I dress my burger with mayo, mustard, lettuce and tomato. The soy patty microwaves fast, as it's already cooked. I covered the patty with wax paper to make sure it didn't dry out, if it defrosted early.

frozen                          defrosted

I liked how moist the soy-veggie patty was. The main ingredients are listed as: water, soy protein, canola oil, wheat starch and eggs whites. Do eggs whites disqualify this burger as vegetarian?

As for the taste it was beef-light in flavor with a slight mushroom undertaste. The texture was slightly chewy, in a good way - similar to a well done beef patty, but still moist. It is under-seasoned, so you may want to add a little salt and pepper, or seasoned salt. The color is boring brown, but that's okay. (And topped with melting cheese would definitely bring the soy burger over the top.)

Overall I was quite impressed with Lightlife's soy patty. It reheats fast and is quite tasty. So on a Cheap$kate Dining Scale of 1 to 9, 9 being best, I give Lightlife Meat Free Backyard Gill'n Burgers an 8! It is a good all-around soy patty, with enough flavor to satisfy a meat eater. It's an excellent Deal of the Day.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Canyon de Chelly - Indian Summer Vacation Video Series

This is the last video of my Indian Summer Vacation Series, and while only running three minutes, it's a spectacular one. Our last day was spent in Canyon de Chelly  (info here,) near Chinle, Arizona. While part of the Navajo Nation, it's partially run by the National Park Service. And some Indian families still live there. You are required to have a guide to enter the canyon (except for the White House Ruin Trail.)

Our home base of Spider Rock Campground (see my video blog post, with links, here) supplied a tour guide at $75 dollars per person. While quiet-spoken, our tour guide, Ben, shared many interesting stories about Canyon De Chelly. You check in at a ranger station then just drive right in. We brought a picnic, as the tour lasted half the day.

It's a fertile valley with 2000 foot (in parts) high walls on 2 sides. Many plants and animals trive here - while just outside of Canyon De Chelly the landscape is harsh and desert-like. Various Indian Clans have settled here over time. The valley floods during a short rainy season, but while we were there our tour guide only had to drive through shallow stream beds.

We made many stops to look at petroglyphs and ancient Indian dwellings. Make sure to bring binoculars as the cliff dwellings are almost impossible to reach. Even the original inhabitants had to build long ladders to climb to the stone pueblos.

The ocre/red sandstone walls drop straight down with natural caves and ledges in the shear walls. Ancient peoples carved-out and built structures in the cliffs thousands of years ago.

The White House Ruins is one of the main stops. There are water stations and restrooms nearby. Gift tables manned by local natives carry all manner of jewelry, pottery and clothing. You can walk a trail to get closer, although we did not do it. Waves of different Indian Clans have taken refuge there. I asked out tour guide why anyone would live in the side of a cliff, he said it was because of the floods and wild animals (and probably to keep enemies at bay.) Another blogger describes a hike to the ruins here.

Driving along the majestic high walls puts you in humble space. We even passed a sandstone Arch or two. At the end of the trail was Spider Rock. At about 800 feet high, it looks nothing like an arthropod. The spectacular red sandstone monolith is said to be the home of Spider Woman, an ancient Navajo Deity, click here to read about the legend.

Spider Rock is indeed awesome and we stopped to have a picnic under the trees nearby. This was the end of the valley tour for us. We packed the leftovers and headed back.

(Here is the National Park Services website that gives you many details about: directions, visiting hours, a brief history, camping and free Ranger led activities.)

One last photo op was for Dog Rock, can you see the canine? Well, just watch my video below, were I trace the outline (if you can't quite make out the dog.)
Dog Rock

That's it. My Indian Vacation Series is over, but you can return anytime to view all 9 blog post and videos anytime. A big 99 thanks to my wife, Amy, for arranging and booking the trip (and for being a fun  travel mate,) plus all the cool tour guides, park rangers, and friendly and informative local Native Indians, for showing us the way.

Canyon de Chelly- Video #9

Play it here, video runs 3 minutes.

My YouTube video link for viewing or embedding, just click here.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Frybread Taco Recipe - Indian Summer Vacation Series

Leave it to American Indians to come up with a delicious dish that looks like a Mexican pizza: a Frybread Taco.

I had a Frybread Taco during a lunch stop on the way to Arches National Park. It's similar to a humongous Americanized taco, but on a fluffy, airy round of pizza-like crust - really quite tasty.

All the typical ingredients seemed simple enough to assemble, just ground beef, beans, iceberg lettuce, tomato, onion, grated cheese and sliced black olives, on a slab of Indian Frybread. For my version I left out the beef, olives and onions, but you can mix and match almost any favorite taco ingredients you like. Do you want meat on your taco? I have an easy and quick recipe for that right here.

Flour, baking powder, water and oil, that make up Frybread, are cheap enough. I made this entree vegetarian and all the toppings fall within my 99 cent mandate. As I mentioned above, you can make it with ground meat, while that is an inexpensive protein, it's still over my budget.

If you have been following my Indian Summer Vacation Series then you've seen my Frybread Video Recipe from a few weeks ago. Just click here to see it - but I do explain the recipe below as well. Frybread is light and tasty, kind of a cross between a flour torilla and pizza crust. They are on the large size, about 8 inches across, so one Frybread Taco is almost enough for a meal. My recipe makes enough for 2 Frybread.

The main topping ingredient for this taco are Chili Beans. I take a shortcut and use canned. Also, you can also use any favorite canned beans, like pinto, chili with beans, red or black beans. If all you have are red beans or pinto beans, try adding half a teaspoon of chili powder. And you can use nutritious spinach instead of iceberg lettuce.

Frybread right out of the frying pan is delectable and you should try it once, even if it is made with white flour and deep fried like a doughnut. (You can substitute whole wheat flour instead of white.) It's a delicious indulgence.

So give my Frybread Taco a try, it's a unique taco and looks good on the plate.

Ingredients for Frybread (for two, eight inch round tacos)
  • 1 1/4 cup of flour - okay to use wheat flour.
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder - it makes the Frybread blister and puff up.
  • 1/2 cup of water
  • Vegetable oil for frying - any favorite. Most recipes call for lard or Crisco, you can use it, if you want to.

Frybread Taco Toppings
Chili beans, chopped tomato, lettuce (or any greens) and shredded cheese. Other topping include: sliced black olives, onion, avocado, taco-style ground meat (recipe here,) pico de gallo (recipe here,) and of course, hot sauce.

Add flour and baking powder to a large bowl. Mix well.

Pour in water and begin to stir with a spoon or fork. As dough comes together you will need to get your hands in there to form a dough ball.

If the dough is sticky when all mixed together, then sprinkle on a teaspoon of flour and fold the dough some more. You shouldn't need more flour than a couple of teaspoons.You only need to mix and fold the dough for a couple of minutes, total.

When dough if well mixed together, pinch it in half and form 2 dough balls.

At this point you can chop any veggie toppings and set them aside. I used tomato, red leaf lettuce and cheddar cheese.

Start the Chili Beans heating in a pot (or zap them in a microwave oven.) I like to get all the topping ingredients ready to assemble when the Frybread comes hot out of the oil.

Add oil into a frying pan that's at least 8 inches across. Add enough oil until half an inch deep. You want enough for the Frybread dough to float when cooking. Start with a medium/high heat for frying.

While oil is heating make the Frybread rounds. Sprinkle a little flour on a board or counter. Spread it out about 8 inches around. Lay out one dough ball and flatten with your hand and fingers. Start from the center and work your way outward.

Keep pressing until you get a tortilla shape. It doesn't have to be perfectly round, the main thing is to make it thin without tearing (or taco fillings will fall through.) It should be similar to thin crust pizza.

Repeat the shaping steps on the other dough ball. Now time to fry it up.

Pinch off a small piece of dough and drop it into the now hot oil. The dough should immediately bubble and float. Be careful as you are working with hot oil. If you have a frying thermometer the temperature is about 375 °F (190 °C.) I just guess, with my heat controls in the medium/high range.

Spoon-out the dough piece. Use both hands to pick up the flatten dough and slowly add it to the hot oil. Again, be careful when working with hot oil. The dough will bubble and quickly float.

The dough cooks quickly, no more than 30 seconds to a minute. Use a metal spatula or fork, and lift one edge of the dough to check that the Frybread is stiff - that means it's read to be turned over.

Turn the Frybread over and cook another 30 seconds or so. That's it. The Frybread doesn't have to be browned like a doughnut - you may get a few light brown spots.

Now just lay the Frybread on a paper napkin, or a wire rack, to drain off the oil. Repeat the same frying method for the other dough ball.

It's best to assemble and eat the Frybread Taco while it's still warm. You can add the toppings in any order. I like the beans on the bottom then add the rest of the toppings. If you want melted cheese then add that on the hot beans, followed by the other ingredients.

The balance of ingredients is up to you. Add a lot of beans or just a little. Double up on the cheese or veggies. It's all to your taste.

Now just eat the Frybread Taco like you would a big slice of pizza. It's easier to handle than pizza, as Frybread is stiffer - somewhere between a saltine cracker and a soft tortilla.

As I mentioned earlier, you can use any favorite taco toppings like: black olives, avocado, onion (white, yellow, red or green onion,) sour cream, pico de gallo salsa (recipe here,) hot sauce, etc.

And my Frybread recipe is easy to just double the ingredients to make more. Also, I reuse my oil, so when it cools down and the flour sediment has settled to the bottom,  I pour it into a large pickle jar (cleaned and dried of course) for use on another day.
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