Coffee and Ink

Staying in.

For some people, it rings the toll of doom, bringing to mind sitting alone in a quiet room with the cat, a non-alcoholic cup of coffee, and a book. For others, it brings to mind the ahhh of curling up on the couch under a blanket, purring kitty keeping toes warm, sipping a beautiful, creamy cup of cappuccino, and escaping into another world as twilight softly shifts into evening outside of the window. Couple guesses into which group I fall.

Reading, It’s What’s for Cheap

Admittedly, I am a reading fiend. I mean serious fiend. If I could afford it, I would constantly buy new books and have a library the size of Serenity’s cargo hold. (yay, geek references!) I have read voraciously since I was a child. I would walk into the dining room with my book, read all through dinner, and leave with my nose still stuffed in between the pages. My mother took me to the public library at least once a week.  I would check out the maximum number of books allowed, 6, I believe, and have them read and come back for more a week later, less if I walked there after school and waited for mother to pick me up. While studying at UNT, I skipped classes, exams, and labs just to sit in the library with a pile of books I’d discovered while prowling the stacks. Today, I re-read almost everything put in front of me, sometimes because I can’t afford to keep buying more books (and when I move…Oy, kill me), but mainly because there’s a deep joy in re-visiting a story I love, knowing where it’s going, but appreciating it like an old friend. You know what she’s going to say, but you love to hear her say it.

My bank account doesn’t have the same love affair with books that I do. Still, an addiction is an addiction, and I have never found a way to break this habit.

Growing up in Dallas, I had the benefit of access to one of the best used book and music stores, well, ever. It’s called Half Price Books. I would wander the Farmer’s Branch, TX store with the air of someone who found the ancient secret treasure of Queen Cleopatra, and it happened to include her private library.  It’s since expanded to quite a few states, and the internet.  Every time I go home to see my mother and brother in Texas, I go to the local HPB, buy about 15 books for about $25 and grumble when I can’t fit my clothes back into my bag for the trip to New Jersey.  I have a few other favorites: Recycled Books and Records in Denton, TX or Half.com but Half Price Books is my first paper and ink love, and besides, the prices are ridiculous.

Half Price has quite a large selection of out of print and rare editions, but as you’re reading the blog by the most continuously broke person ever, focus on the cheap, people. I get plenty of brand-new condition paperbacks for $1 by authors such as Janet Evanovich, David Eddings, Neil Gaiman, and Charlaine Harris. On the last trip I scored this sucker for the very special price of 3 dollars.

My clandestine trysts with cheap, bound pages aside, here’s a list of some cheap book sources, some of which might have locations near you, so check it out!

Half Price Books

This is my favorite, and has the best prices I’ve ever seen.

Recycled Books and Records, Denton, TX.

This got me through my college years, and I still enjoy music searching when I’m there. The music selection is impressive.

Strand Books, New York, NY.

Frankly, I think the prices are a bit high for a used book store, but it is the largest used book store you’ll ever walk into. Multiple floors and huge stacks mean hours of book browsing. I suppose with Manhattan rent they can’t be as cheap as I would like, but I still walk out happy. Every time I go it’s a case of over-stimulation: overwhelmed, but happy.

Half.Com

There are quite a few people who love half.com. I understand – hardbacks for 75 cents? Oh, be still my open, empty wallet.

I would include some book swapping sites, as well, but I never got good at sharing and giving things up. I only let go of a book if it gets damaged, so best not to forget to return them, okay?

Coffee, the other legal addiction

As an afternoon reading a book is never complete without a favorite beverage, next, how to make a great, cheap cappuccino, on a cheap, shiny machine!

Porto Rico Coffee

Porto Rico Coffee is my favorite coffee place, ever. You can smell the coffee from outside, and when you step outside after a trip in, you can actually smell it on you, oh yum. They have my favorite espresso in the world here: Espresso Cent’anni.

If you like flavored coffee, they use natural flavorings and ingredients. If it has an orange flavor, there will be bits of dried orange peel in there. If you like hazelnut, there will be hazelnut slivers in with the beans.  I personally love the French Cinnamon.

Breville makes wonderful, affordable small kitchen appliances.  There is a wish list.

I have an old friend waiting on the couch open to page 138, and my two cats are keeping the blanket warm for me. It’s a date.

Cheap Love,

Gloria

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Eat at home on the cheap

There’s this prevailing mentality among us less-than-well-off people that eating cheap at home means living on ramen noodles with frozen mixed veg and discount 50 cent mac-n-cheese with chunk light tuna. If you’re in college, and mom or dad weren’t able to keep you at the stove and counter long enough to teach you how to cook, fair enough, but this is not necessary! Not only is it incredibly unhealthy, but the high sodium and cheap ingredients tend to leave you looking a bit puffy, unhealthy, and it just doesn’t taste all that good! (Except after a session night out, then, I’ll admit, almost anything tastes good.)

This is not to say that pasta is out! It is a fairly healthy and filling meal, and if you know how to make a tasty, easy, cheap sauce to spoon over it, well, then, you have dinner for a couple of nights! Everyone should know how to make a simple, yummy sauce, and although foodies and nutritionists will tsk at canned tomatoes, when you’re poor, you’re poor.

For the pasta, if I happen to have a bit of cash, I prefer Barelli Pasta Plus because of the added protein and Omega-3. If you don’t want to spend $2.50 on a box of pasta, don’t worry, because decent pasta is often cheaper. My local Stop N Shop has, along with lots of affordable organic products they’ve added to the shelves, 10 for $10 sales on a regular basis, so I get a few boxes of regular Barelli , De Cecco or another good pasta for a buck each.

For canned tomatoes, you have a few choices. Stop n Shop has their Nature’s Promise organic tomatoes on sale for 2 for $5 sometimes, and often you can get one of the Italian named brands of tomato for $1 a can. Cheap! and the can is…shiny! I prefer whole peeled tomatoes because I own a food mill from the times way back when I used to have some spending money, and I like a chunky sauce.

Shopping list for pasta and sauce, and I’ll use the sale prices I regularly find at my local store:

  • Pasta $1
  • Canned tomatoes (28 oz) $1
  • Fresh mushrooms (optional) $1.99 (lots left over for salads, etc)

What I shall hope you have in your kitchen, already. If you don’t, you ought to!

  • Dried basil
  • Cooking oil (I use virgin coconut oil, or extra virgin olive oil)
  • Garlic
  • Onion
  • Salt and pepper
  • Red pepper flakes or hot peppers (optional)

A note on garlic. No one will ever, ever find powdered garlic in my kitchen. Ever. It doesn’t taste right, it makes people’s breath smell nastier than any fresh garlic could ever hope to, and it isn’t garlic! Not to me, it isn’t, anyway. If you don’t like the smell on your hands, “wash” your hands under running water with a stainless steel spoon. It works, and you don’t have to buy one of those expensive stainless steel “soap” bars.

My personal thought is that a tomato sauce always tastes bland and lacks some depth without good sauteing. If you throw it all in the pot and cook, I probably won’t like it too much. So:

Dice half a small onion, 3-6+ garlic cloves (to taste),  and half a jalapeno (or to taste).  Slice half a small container of fresh mushrooms (about 4 oz).  Saute the onion with some salt and pepper in a tablespoon or so of oil (or more if you like it richer) until it just starts to color. Add the garlic and saute until it starts to color. Don’t burn it, unless you like that particular flavor; sometimes, actually, I do! Add the mushrooms and saute until they’re nicely coated. Add the peppers, tomatoes, about a teaspoon of basil (or more if you like! I do!), a small pinch of sugar, optional (I use natural, raw sugar), salt and pepper to taste and a 1/3 cup of so of water so it doesn’t burn.

I cover it with a splatter screen as I hate stuff cooking onto my stove, and simmer over med-low heat for about a half hour or so, stirring occasionally. The cooking time depends on your taste. I cook until the tomatoes change flavor. I know that sounds odd, if you don’t cook often, but I love the taste of nicely cooked tomatoes. Cook your pasta al dente, drizzle with some extra virgin olive oil, serve and spoon the sauce over the top. If you have some parmesan, grate some over the top and you have a tasty, tasty meal! Add a salad if you have the cash for 2 courses, and even mom can’t complain about how you’re feeding yourself.

Next up: Fishyfishyfish!

Broiled fish with cilantro chimichurri and kale.

As a strict vegetarian for almost 20 years, I eschewed seafood along with other meats, but in the spirit of making other people’s mothers’ (and waiters’ in foreign countries and the Deep South) lives easier when I come to dinner, I got used to eating the occasional bit of fish. The new addition to my diet came with a higher price tag than almost anything else I’ve put into my shopping cart for most of my adult life. A fresh piece of fish is by far the tastiest and healthiest for you, but lets face it, my skills do not lie in personal financial management. A spotty paycheck doesn’t usually allow for a fresh piece of tuna from the market caught just off the shore at 3am this very morning. As a matter of fact, any fresh, healthy ingredients are a little expensive to buy, and fresh herbs, especially, tend to get forgotten and die a lonely, brown, slimy death at the bottom of the crisper drawer. You really should clean that up, but I’m not your mother, so I won’t go looking.

This meal will use most of a bunch of cilantro, so you don’t waste it, but is a bit more expensive, although, not much more so, when broken down. First, I found that Wal-Mart has pretty inexpensive frozen fish that is fairly nice quality. I made this dish with perch, but I found I’m not as fond of perch due to the texture. The frozen wild salmon and flounder filets were about the same price. I get a pack of 4 or so individually vacuum packed filets for $4.99, awesome! If you’re not near a Wal-Mart, you can probably find the same sort of fish and packaging for a couple of dollars more at other stores, so it won’t break the bank.

At the store I also get:

  • Cilantro $.50 -$1 bunch
  • 1/2 lb kale $1/lbs
  • A tomato $1.50-$2/lbs (optional)
  • A lime 2-4/$1

At home you should have

  • Mushrooms (left over from the pasta, right?)
  • 1/4 small onion (left over from the pasta, again)
  • Garlic
  • Dried herbs like dill, oregano, basil, etc
  • Cumin
  • Red wine vinegar, or in a pinch, any vinegar
  • Salt and pepper
  • Oil

My Mexican-style chimichurri sauce:

Take all of these following ingredients, and blend or process in a food processor:

  • 1 cup (packed) fresh cilantro
  • 1/3-1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
  • juice of 1 fresh lime
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 3/4 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin (if you don’t have cumin, and can’t afford it, you can skip it)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Fish:

After thawing by directions on package, drizzle a little oil onto the filet, salt and pepper, and broil in a pan for 6-7 minutes (or more if you like well-done fish), turning once to brown on the other side.

Kale:

Wash and rip off veins, tearing into bite-sized pieces. Slice mushrooms, dice onion, garlic and tomato. Saute onion in 1/2 to 1 tablespoon of oil with a bit of salt and pepper until soft, add garlic and saute for 30 seconds, add mushrooms and saute for a couple of minutes until it starts to release moisture and then colors a bit, add tomatoes, a couple of shakes of your herb of choice to taste, salt, pepper to taste, and add the kale. Stir together, cover and let steam for a minute. Stir again, and cook for a couple of minutes until it’s all nice and bright green with the edges just starting to brown. If you want, squeeze a little bit of lime juice over it, so remember to save a small slice. A lot of people want some starch, so add some of that left-over plain pasta, and serve the fish over that, if you would like!

Serve everything onto the plate, putting a couple of spoonfuls of the sauce over the fish. I always end up wanting more, because I love cilantro. LOVE. If you don’t, you can use parsley instead. Me? I love the green, fresh, tangy, almost-soapy flavor of cilantro, so I change chimichurri up a bit to suit my Mexican tastes.

If you play it right, you can mix and match and have lightly pan-fried fish with pasta and red sauce the next day, too! The chimichurri sauce can go with quite a few things, including most vegetables, beef, pork, chicken, whatever you would like to pour it over, so open a bottle of wine you find on sale (I like Buy Rite), grab a book or turn on your favorite show and enjoy cheap, yummy gourmet at home! You know I will, with my talent at making money.

Cheap Love,

Gloria