World travel on the cheap (in your kitchen)

The low murmur of conversation, occasionally cut by a laugh. The quiet, busy hustle of waitstaff, and the clink of glasses and plates and the wonderful aroma of amazing food being carried to your table.

Oh, right, broke!  Guess I’ll be dining in this evening, with the TV for company!

If there is something that I intensely dislike about being broke, or on a ridiculously tight budget (same thing, but let’s make it sound better), it’s not getting to go out to eat, and since I live right outside of NYC, I can choose anything: Ethiopian, Indian, Chinese, Mexican, anything! There are people who can eat boxed mac-n-cheese with hot dogs every day. There are people who think nothing of having the exact same breakfast of a bagel or a muffin or an egg and cheese on a roll Every. Single. Day. There are even souls out there in the world who purposefully go to Costco or Sam’s and buy cases of frozen burritos or meals because they cannot bear change.

Bless their hearts, because when the same meal is looking at me from my plate for more than two days in a row, I get a scary look in my eyes and my vocabulary could make a Somali pirate blush. I’ve been known to go hungry because the thought of choking down the same meal for a few days in a row makes me wonder if cannibalism is such a bad thing. Ever read Steven King’s “Survivor Type”? I don’t know if my foot would taste good with curry spices, but I don’t deal well without change.

The secret to eating a variety of flavors and cuisines, at home, without spending hundreds of dollars on a million ingredients, is to use a few main ingredients in different dishes.

Since I have already mentioned I don’t really like using canned ingredients, unless they’re low-sodium, organic, yadda-yadda-yadda, I won’t go into it again. Just so you understand, however, I am not an organic or nothing person because I frankly cannot afford it. It would be wonderful to go full organic, but this blog is about living cheaply, and organic is usually anything but. Get what you can afford, until you can afford what you really want.

Today I will tell you how to cook a couple of ingredients and how you can interchange them in a few different recipes so as to change-up your cheap diet a bit.

Beans, beans the magical legume

I grew up very Mexican. Yes, beans are in a lot of meals. They are incredibly versatile, and a good source of protein and fiber. Tasty, too. No, they won’t give you bad gas if you cook them correctly, and I do find that canned beans aren’t always cooked correctly, so if for no other reason than to decrease methane production, make your own beans! Since I cook for myself to last a day or two, portions are smaller, but feel free to increase/double/etc.

  • 1/2 bag dry pinto or black beans (1/2 lbs)
  • 1 thick whole slice of onion
  • 1/3 cup chopped onion
  • 1 TBSP extra virgin coconut oil (olive is fine, but I prefer to not ruin olive with cooking)
  • salt to taste

Sort the beans, taking out any rocks. Yes, there are often rocks in dry beans. They grow outside, in the dirt, so sometimes there are rocks. Just pick em out, sheesh! Wash the beans in cool water a few times and drain. Put in a pot with 6 or so cups of water and the slice of onion, bring to a boil, cover and reduce to a low simmer. Not a low boil, a low simmer. If the temperature is too high, they won’t cook correctly.

Cook until soft, anywhere from 1.5-2.5 hours depending on how fresh they are. A bean should be soft enough to smash easily and the skin should be soft to bite into. Do not add salt before cooking, or the skins will not soften correctly. Take out the onion slice and stir in the salt a teaspoon at a time until the broth tastes how you like it.

This next step gives them a lovely flavor, but is not necessary. If you prefer NOT to do this, put the oil in when cooking the beans. I like the richness it adds.

Sautee the chopped onion in the oil until it starts to blacken. Do not burn the holy living life out of the onion, but you want a little blackened flavor to it. Add to the beans and cook for another 5 minutes. At this point, they are already tasty, and make a nice soup. You can add chopped tomatoes, some scallions, maybe some salsa, if you prefer, and enjoy! Snack! I keep them in the fridge in the original form, liquid and all. They will last 5 or so days before souring, or put them in pints and freeze for later.

From here you can soft fry them. Melt oil in a pan, put in beans without too much of the liquid and sautee until hot. Great with eggs and tortillas for breakfast, or as a side dish with almost anything!

To refry, you need to use a bit more oil:  To make refried beans the way you get them in Mexican homes, melt oil in a good pan, put in the beans without too much liquid, and when they’re hot and soft, smash them up with a potato masher, then continue to sautee them. As they dry up, shake the pan back and forth a bit to let them beans solidify and start to stick together into a  roll. If you can, flip the roll a couple of times until its drier and sticks solidly into a soft roll. Again, these are great with breakfast or as a side dish.

Here chicky, chicky, Garbanzo beans! (chickpeas)

Chickpeas, or Garbanzos, if you speak Spanish, are also very nutritious and very yummy.

Sort 1/2 bag (1/2 lbs) of dry chickpeas, (Yes, rocks! Just deal with it, already!) wash a few times, drain and put into a pot with 6 or so cups of water. Bring to a boil, reduce to a slow simmer, cover and cook until they’re soft. Once cooked, it’s best to take off the skins. It is a pain in the behind, frankly, but you’ll appreciate the texture much more. When they’re cool, rub them gently  in a bowl of water, and the skins should come off easily. The pain is taking the skins out of the chickpeas. You won’t get them all out, but try to get most out. You don’t have to do this last step, but I enjoy them much more if I take the time, myself. They last about the same as beans, perhaps a day less or so, from my experience. Keep them in the fridge with some of the liquid, but you’ll want to rinse them before using as the liquid gets a bit gelatinous.

From here you can make breakfast, middle eastern style. Put a cup or so into a small pot or pan with a chopped garlic clove, squeeze half a lemon or more into it, add a little water, and cook until nice, hot and soft. Add some chopped tomato and salt and pepper to taste, and you have a lovely protein rich, healthy breakfast that’s a nice change from your normal egg and cheese sandwich, and it costs less, too! I got this from a friend who had a roommate from the middle east, and I gotta say, I like it!


Who doesn’t like it? It’s a great dip, spread and a wonderful satisfying snack. I do my own version, and being Mexican, I add lime juice because I think the tangy flavor does wonders for anything. We’d put lime on sex, if we could!

In a food processor or blender:

  • 2 cups of cooked chickpeas
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1/4 cup tahini (optional,if you want to save more cash, but I like it, and it keeps well in the fridge)
  • Juice of half of a lemon and of half of a lime. If they’re dry, use the whole thing. This is to taste, as well, so taste as you go
  • 2 or so tablespoons of water to moisten
  • A few, healthy glugs of extra virgin olive oil, about 1/4 cup or less
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Put the chickpeas into the blender or processor a handful at a time with the water and the garlic. Add the tahini, citrus juice, and then add the olive oil in a bit at a time, watching to see that the texture gets nice and velvety. Add salt and taste. Add more juice or water if its dry or not tangy enough.

Here are a couple of variations I use. Add while still in blender/processor:

  1. Add 1/2 teaspoon of paprika or
  2. Add 3-4 tablespoons fresh cilantro and some jalapeno to taste or
  3. Add 1/2 teaspoon curry spice or
  4. 2-3 tablespoons fresh parsley

Cut some fresh veg crudites, get some pita slices and dig in!

Now for the switcheroo

Here are two recipes in which you can use either the cooked beans, or the cooked chickpeas. Both are fast, inexpensive, healthy, each based on a flavor from a different cuisine.

Mexican-inspired hot quinoa

If you have never tried quinoa, I’ll fill you in. It’s a seed, not a grain, although it’s treated like a grain. It is not only high in protein, but gives you a complete complement of amino acids, so the protein is as complete as having a piece of chicken or fish, for instance. It has great fiber, low calories, a nice texture, and you can use it in place of pasta or couscous, if you like. It comes pre-washed, or unwashed in bulk. Unwashed costs less, but do not skip the washing step. It has a layer of saponins that make it bitter, so take the couple of minutes.

To wash: put into a bowl with cool water, swish around and run gently between your fingers. The water will get cloudy. Drain using a fine sieve, and repeat 2-3 more times. That’s it! Washed! (No rocks!)

  • 1 cup uncooked, washed quinoa
  • 1  3/4 to 2 cups water, depending on how firm you like the texture
  • 1 TBSP extra virgin coconut oil or other oil you like to cook with
  • 1/3 cup chopped onion
  • 1-2 garlic cloves, diced
  • 1/2 cup frozen or fresh corn
  • 1 small tomato, chopped
  • 1/2 fresh jalapeño, diced (optional)
  • 1/2 cup chopped zucchini or Mexican squash
  • 1/2 cup chopped red or green or yellow sweet pepper
  • 1 cup cooked beans or chickpeas
  •  1-2 tsp ground cumin seed (to your taste)
  • salt and pepper to taste (I use about 1 tsp sea salt, but you may prefer to make that 2)
  • 1/4 cup chopped cilantro
  • fresh lime juice

Sautee onion in oil until starting to color

Add garlic and sautee for a minute or so

Add corn and sautee for a minute, add tomato and sautee for a couple of minutes

Add salt and ground cumin

Add rest of  ingredients

Add water, bring to boil, lower heat to a simmer, cover and cook for approximately 15 minutes. The quinoa will turn slightly transparent and show the little curlicue that’s inside of it. Do not over-cook quinoa or it will be mealy. It does not need to get boiled to death. Fluff up with a fork, adding the cilantro, and serve hot with a couple of slices of lime to squeeze over it.

Serves 3-4, depending on how hungry you are.

Indian-spiced greens and beans

I actually saw something like this on a nutitionist’s blog I love to read a few days after I made this, again. Apparently, it’s a healthy, inexpensive, fast meal for a lot of people, with variations depending on your pantry. Make this with any sort of flavor you like, Mexican, Italian, I just happen to always have a box of Indian spice mixes in my pantry. Go to an Indian or Pakistani foods store, and in the spice aisle, you’ll find all sorts of pre-mixed curry spices for $1.25 to $1.75 and as you only need a spoonful or so per dish, it’ll last a long while. Make sure it’s not a single spice, but has a variety. You’ll find masala spices, curries, fish spices, etc.

  • 1 TBSP extra virgin coconut oil or other oil you like
  • 1/3 – 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 1-2 diced cloves garlic
  • 1/2 cup chopped sweet pepper
  • 1 cup cooked beans or chickpeas
  • 1 large chopped tomato
  • 4 – 6 cups washed, torn or chopped of any of these, or make your own combination of any of the following: kale, spinach, collard, swiss chard, etc. If you use spinach, you’ll have to use at least 6 cups, as it’s softer and will wilt much smaller
  • 1 – 2 tsp indian curry spice mix
  • salt and pepper to taste (about 1/2 – 1 tsp depending on your taste)
  • Juice of 1/2 lemon or lime

In a large pan, sautee onion until transparent, add garlic and sautee for 30 seconds or so.

Add chickpeas or beans, pepper, and tomato together with the spice mix and salt and pepper. Sautee together for a couple of minutes.

Add greens on top, and cover over med heat. Let them wilt (keep checking) and once they have softened and are still bright green, gently mix everything together. Let cook for a couple of minutes longer until the greens are tender, but not brown and overcooked. Check the salt, and add the citrus juice. Serve hot as a full meal or a flavorful side dish.

Serves 2-4 depending on how you serve it, and how hungry you are, again.

In the end, you don’t need to eat your own foot to avoid another night of tuna mac. Take a trip to another country via food, without having to spend all your gas and toll money. The company? Well, you’ll have to figure that one out on your own.

You could possibly make your own foot taste alright, but it’ll really ruin your self-done pedicure.

Cheap love,



Your Mamma! (Okay, okay, mine)

In honor of women, but man-safe (girlfriends and wives will love the links)

This has been a difficult month, both in terms of my time and schedule, as well as my stress level due to family problems. I live outside of NYC, across the country from my mother in Dallas, and on this Mother’s Day, I especially wished I could go see her. She’s in a rehabilitation hospital dealing with a very serious repercussion to health problems exacerbated by an almost aggressive inattention to her health.  She can’t understand how her condition got so advanced. It is difficult to have these conversations with her, because she inevitably says, “But, I have never stepped foot in a hospital outside of childbirth, nor have I ever had to see a doctor in my life! How could this happen to me?”

“Why did this happen to me?” How many times has someone looked down at their hands or looked at another person, pleading that it isn’t real, that someone can fix it? Countless. I also imagine that many of the people who say that never truly grasp that not taking responsibility for your own health does not absolve you from accepting the consequences.  If you don’t take care of yourself, then as you get older, your quality of life won’t turn out to be the golden age you imagine. Some people see me as a bit of a crank, what with my care and attention to my health and body. I read labels and spend a bit extra on brands that I know don’t have ingredients I don’t want, and a bit extra on fresh veg and fruit, organic when I can, to make fresh juices at home. I also don’t eat much in the way of canned and processed foods due to sodium and other bad things. Every so often, someone proudly tells me they buy the cheapest food and body care they can, and that I am silly to want to spend the extra on better food or natural cosmetics, instead of going out more, for instance. (Yes, going out is important, but it isn’t the most important thing. Except on St Pat’s. And Cinco de Mayo in the US. Oh, and the 2 weeks leading into Christmas.) This same person will also at some point say, “We all die anyway, I may as well enjoy my life!”

That is exactly the point, isn’t it? Enjoying life? Since we humans haven’t learned how to get a brand new body, if it breaks down, it will be as much fun as push-starting an old VW on a busy up-hill Mexican street in the summer on an empty tank, while hungover.

Your body is like a car. Eventually it’ll be a classic, but it’s harder to restore.

I live on a very limited budget, but I try to do what I can to make sure that I keep my body working well and help it age as slowly as possible. Granted, I do ridiculous things that get me injured, and I like my adult drinks when I can afford them, but I bounce back very quickly (from injuries, anyway), and that has mostly to do with how I take care of my insides. I try my best to eat well so that my body can rebuild, and when I can, I get my physicals/annuals, etc.

If you have insurance, get your check ups. I do not have insurance right now. I do not like this considering my propensity for athletic injuries. I am an idiot with the occasional Superman complex and a ridiculous lack of innate grace. Still, modern medicine can easily take care of unfortunate health luck before it turns into a complicated, life-threatening or life-altering problem.  If you don’t have insurance, go online and look up free and low-cost health care or clinics in your area. Many hospitals do offer free health care and check ups, as well as consultations and treatments with specialists.

Find a Health Center

Be a crank, and like you would take care of your car, have someone “look under the hood” and make sure that “tic-tic-tic” isn’t turning into a “TOC!TOC!TOC!” Trust me, it’s far cheaper.

Used to that permanent smell.

Since I’m going on about taking care of yourself, I’ll move to your outside. My mother is a cosmetologist, so I grew up in a salon. Reading my mother’s cosmetology school books as a casual way to pass the time did things to my young brain. Odd things. I know how to spot a fungal infection on nail or scalp. My eyebrows have a marked arch because I chose what shape I liked for my face from those books and plucked accordingly (the dramatic look, if you care to know). I can mix hair color using professional products and know that facial massage, cleansing and hydration along with gentle treatment of delicate areas prevent premature wrinkles. Oh, yes, and hand massages are a great stress reliever and are essential for a good manicure (I give a good one).  I knew all of this since I was about 9 or 10. It puts a mark on a girl: I was using eye cream at 15.

Here is a free bit of advice from salon-girl. Do not let your hair go. If you find someone who cuts your hair beautifully and you can’t afford them, save up, because if your hair looks bad, there isn’t a lot you can do to look good. Even if you have no makeup on and dress casually, if your hair looks great, you will, too. Guys, I’m talking to you, as well. If your hair looks like you haven’t cut it in months, we will wonder how often you wash your sheets.

I cannot very well ask my mother to cut my hair right now, and there isn’t an app for a phone-cut, yet, so I bit the bullet and sprung for a cut with a great stylist. It’s amazing how much better I feel. I know I look loads better. If you’re in the NYC/Jersey City/Hoboken area it’s Mariela at Hair Cult . She is amazing and if you have curly hair, she’s magic with that, too. I missed her beautiful cuts. Admittedly, this isn’t cheap, but no matter how expensive or how stylish the jeans, dress or shirt, unkempt hair will kill the look, so make this your big splurge.

My non-chemical romance

My favorite skin care/cosmetic line is Korres. Naturally derived, well-tested, and efficacious. No unkept promises. The cherry on top? They aren’t ridiculously expensive, especially right now. This month you can get about 40% off many of their products. They’re changing packaging, and discontinuing certain lines in the US. I won’t stock up a lot because as a natural line, they have expiration dates, but I will get enough of certain things to last about a year. Next year, friends in Europe will have to bring me the Honey Thyme skin cream. It’s just that good.

Tres belle, mademoiselle!

In a previous post, I sent you to Tuesday Morning for some lip gloss. Now they have Orlane products at less than half retail cost. (I KNOW!) If you don’t know, a jar of ORLANE Paris Anti-Wrinkle Sun Cream for the Face, SPF 10 goes for over $100. Tuesday Morning is offering it at $39.99. Big difference. So go ahead. Buy the shiny, luxurious jar of miracle French beauty magic, but do it cheaply.

Taking care your yourself isn’t just about exercise, vitamins and food. It’s a package deal. How many health nuts out there can run a 10K with no extra training, but make no attempt to take care of the outside, too? On the other side of the coin, those hip clothes may look hot, but it won’t matter much if you end up in heart surgery.

Do something good for yourself in honor of the life you were given. Mamma will appreciate it.

Cheap Love,