Is it completely bizarre for an online political magazine to have a recipes section?
Probably. But, here’s one anyway.
Food has always been a big part of my life…and for a while a few years ago I ghostwrote for a series of cookbooks put together by a quasi-famous chef here in Chicago. I also worked in the Food & Beverage division of a Ritz-Carlton hotel when I was in college and later managed an upscale Italian bistro in Cleveland. Oddly, the biggest culinary influence on my life was my good friend Abbey in Ohio who is a coupon-queen and bargain shopper…who taught me to bring any meal in for under $10 for a couple. I actually keep a groceries journal via Google Docs that Abbey and I share…and we compare what we’re spending and the deals we’re getting in Chicago and Cleveland respectively.
Because we’re friends like that too, I set up this page to keep track of the different recipes I’ve featured on HillBuzz.org in various random essays over time. If you make any of these, please leave a comment or send an email and let me know how they turned out for you. I really want to stress up front that I’m not the measuring sort of guy, though. That’s why I could never be a baker, because pastry recipes need to be very EXACT and precise…like crafting magic spells. I really just roll with whatever I find in the fridge and come up with meals based on that…or on what’s on sale at the grocery store. My shopping budget is $80/week for my boyfriend Justin and myself…so that’s just a little over $10 for the two of us per day (I’m writing this in November of 2012…so adjust all prices on this page and in the recipes to whenever you are reading this).
Whatever I don’t spend on groceries before the end of the month I use to stock up on canned goods for months down the road when we might be tight on cash and need to dip into the pantry. Right now, we have a supply of about three months’ worth of canned goods to last us in case of an emergency…or just really terrible weather here in Chicago when it’s either too cold or too dangerous to leave the house for extended periods.
Below please find some of the favorite things I enjoy making here at Buzzquarters on a very tight budget with very basic, limited ingredients. Since they’re all my favorite things, I hope you enjoy them at your house as if you were eating them here in my home with Justin, my friends, and me!
Before we get into the food, I’d like to recommend some basic kitchen tools and devices that you should think about getting if you don’t already have an equivalent. These are things that bring a lot of joy to my life and make dinner prep and cooking much easier. You can make pretty much everything without these items, but they are a dream to own and are very affordable to buy on Amazon.com (where I do all my non-grocery shopping when possible because I’m an Amazon Prime member and receive FREE shipping that makes almost everything less expensive than buying it here in Chicago and paying our outrageous sales tax…which is the highest in the nation because of Cook County’s corruption).
1. The Chicago Metallic Lasagna Trio Pan — I love this thing the way straight guys love big screen tee-vees during football season. I bought it for $18 on Amazon in March of 2012 when it was on sale and it honestly changed my life in a lot of ways. My boyfriend Justin loves lasagna but I rarely made it before because it never turned out quite right and was a big mess to assemble. We also got sick of eating it after more than a day or so because it was just so heavy and there was so much of it…and because I only had one pan to make it in I always had to make the full thing (which meant the two of us having to eat all that lasagna until it was gone). This Trio Pan solved all sorts of problems. For starters, if I only want to make a little lasagna then I can just fill one or two of the sections and leave other slots empty…which is great for when I’m cooking and Justin’s out of town or if he wants lasagna but I’m not feeling like it so I’ll just make a small batch for him. I love the flexibility this pan brings to my life. I also appreciate how I can make three different kinds of lasagna if I want: the regular way with meat and tomatoes and cheese, a lighter cheese version for me since I’m not a big fan of dairy (and vice versa), and a chicken-bacon-alfredo lasagna for Justin and me for when we get sick of eating the regular version. I also use this pan to bake cakes and bread and make macaroni and cheese in it (which I do three different ways too). I make Jell-o desserts in this pan too and used it for fruit salads and other things when people are over. It’s spartan, but still functions well as a serving dish for friends who aren’t expecting me to have crystal dishes or sterling silver bowls out for them. I just love this lasagna pan. I give it as a gift to anyone getting married, engaged, or when they move into a new apartment/house. I honesty wish I had known about this thing a decade ago because I probably would have come up with thousands of other uses for it by now. As it is, every week I think of something new to do with it.
[ Click on image above to check out the Lasagna Trio pan on Amazon ]
2. Crock Pot Slow Cooker (6 Quart Programmable) — I resisted getting a Crock Pot for my entire adult life but finally broke down and bought one in November of 2012 because I agreed to start keeping track of the number of friends who recommended I get one and I made a deal with myself that if 25 people told me I had to have one completely unprompted, then I’d get one. It took less than two weeks for that to happen so I researched a good one for two people and I came up with this 6 Quart programmable one on Amazon that I found for under $50 in November 2012. They had a cheaper manual one that was $20 less but I expect this thing to last me a decade or so…and I consider the extra $20 well spent because it has a digital push-button control for setting the temperature and the time, which is nice. It also has an automatic switchover to “WARMING” when the food is done cooking. The reason I resisted the Crock Pot is because I felt it was redundant, since I already had an oven. I figured, why buy a crock pot when I can just make roasts and chicken and things in the oven? Well, after having this thing for a while I need to admit there is just no comparison in the quality of meals I can now make with the Crock Pot that never turned out anywhere near as good in the oven. AND, on top of that, I can actually set the food up to cook before I go to sleep and I don’t have to keep checking it the way I did with the oven. This Crock Pot has really changed my life and has allowed me so much extra time in my day. Not only does the food turn out better, but it also seems to take me 1/3 of the time to make since all I really focus on is the prep time in dicing things and putting it into the Crock Pot…setting the timer…and then coming back to the device in 9 or 10 hours when everything is done. The meat gets so tender it falls apart when the fork touches it…which is something I only saw happen at Cracker Barrel restaurants on the highway when Justin and I would stop for lunch on road trips. I never in a million years thought I’d get that kind of meal at home…let alone be able to make one. The first time I made Justin roast beef with the Crock Pot he took a bite and his eyes opened wide and he smiled so big it was like Christmas morning to him and he’d just spotted Santa. I knew I had a winner with this Crock Pot right then and there. This is seriously the best money I ever spent on a kitchen tool besides the Chicago Metallic Lasagna Trio Pan.
[ Click on the image above to check out the Crock Pot on Amazon ]
3. Cuisinart ICE-21 Sorbet Maker — This is actually something I was re-gifted back when I worked for that chef here in Chicago…and it was a secret santa present from one of the line cooks on staff who drew my name out of the Santa hat and, I presume, believed since I’m gay I’d love the extra sorbet maker he happened to have but never opened. He was right! I love this thing but would have never bought one for myself since I’d see it as a luxury item and wouldn’t have thought I’d ever use it as much as I do. My boyfriend Justin loves sherbet and sorbet so it’s fun coming up with new flavors to make. My favorite is grapefruit-champagne and his is clementine. I try to make a new flavor each month as a special treat for us, based on whatever’s in season at the time. For December I’m making pomegranate for the season of Persephone’s ransom (which, oddly enough, is the name of a really bad punk band I managed when I was in college). Justin gets excited when he hears this sorbet maker whirling…and I try not to let him see what the flavor is because I like to make him guess. This is about $60 for a sorbet maker so please judge if you think that’s an extravagant addition to your kitchen; I think it’s pricy for something you might not use very often…but honestly it actually is cheaper than buying sorbet every month if you like this as a treat. I make this once a month in a new flavor every month and I think my cost is about $10 or so for the equivalent of around $15 worth of high-quality, gourmet sorbet. But, I can make flavors that they never have in the stores…like watermelon or starfruit or kiwi or whatever. It’s actually really fun to bring out when I babysit too because my friend Althea’s kids love helping to make the sorbet and picking out the next flavor…and when we’re at the store it’s fun to see how many of the fruits and vegetables they can identify or try to make into sorbets. And, yes, we do vegetable ones too…but those are hit or miss in terms of success. I really liked a cucumber-honeydew sorbet we made…and a carrot-raisin one was great too. I’ve done pumpkin-cinnamon before as well…but the radish-cherry one was a disaster. That was a combo the kids picked and it was funny watching them try to pretend they liked it…but I showed them it was okay to admit they were wrong about something and it’s good to try new things to see if they will work, because that is what inventors do. If you factor in all the fun and joy this little red Cuisinart has brought into our home through the years then I think the $60 would be worth it if I had bought it and it wasn’t just a secret Santa re-gift. NOTE: I’ve never made ice cream with this machine as I can’t have dairy but I checked in the Amazon reviews for it for people who do make ice cream and they love it for that. When Justin’s at his parents’ farm for Christmas I think I’m going to experiment with using almond milk to make ice cream with the machine. I’ve been revisiting a lot of old recipes lately to see how almond milk would work as a dairy substitute and have been really happy rediscovering milkshakes and puddings and things again that I haven’t been able to eat in many years since I had to remove milk products from my regular diet. Because of that I’ve been really focused on the sorbet…now that I’m discovering the uses of almond milk I might get back into ice creams in the future (as long as they are non-dairy). The version of this machine that I have is the red one…but it comes in lots of cool colors. I love red kitchen appliances for some reason though. Always have, always will.
[ Click above to check out the Cuisinart sorbet maker ]
Pizzas of the Month:
For all of the pizzas below, I highly recommend making your own pizza dough at home from scratch. It’s easier than you think it would be and is so much cheaper than buying store-made dough or those Boboli pizza shells (which are okay, but not great). I was afraid of making my own dough for the longest time because I thought it wouldn’t turn out right and it did take me one or two attempts to learn how to do it right. I’ve been using this “Almost Like Papa John’s Pizza Dough Recipe” that I found on Food.com and love it. I don’t add anything to the dough or crust when I make the themed pizzas because I don’t know what that would do to the pizza crust as it bakes; so all my flavors come from the toppings themselves and the crust is just a generic crust for each one. If you’ve been making pizzas a while and know a better dough recipe or have advice on how to alter the crusts in delicious ways, please chime in below in comments or send me an email about that and maybe I can take these recipes to another level in the future. I really like the pizza dough that Dominick’s, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods sells in Chicago…and it’s very reasonably priced for when I don’t have time or energy to make the dough myself. I think it ends up being about $1.50 cheaper per pizza to make the dough from scratch myself though.
A lot of these pizzas are actually based around either left-overs from holiday meals or from things you might have in your fridge anyway. I really like using up the leftovers from big meals in a pizza instead of just replating the food from last night again the same way for two days in a row. It’s sinful to ever waste food and I hate seeing good money thrown away like that…but I also feel guilty if I serve my boyfriend Justin the same thing twice in a row because it makes me feel like I wasn’t creative enough to give him a new, memorable meal that second day. The holiday-pizzas really change all that since they take the same ingredients from the night before but use them in a novel way…which Justin always loves.
— NOTE: I started building this page in November 2012 and will complete it over time in the weeks ahead, so if a recipe’s not up yet and there’s just a description don’t worry…it will be there eventually as I write the content for that section and add it. With most of these, I’ll actually wait to make the dish again so that maybe I can take some photos of the finished products (though amateur food pics never turn out like they do for magazine shoots, so bear with me). —
January = New Year’s Pizza. To start off a new year, why not try a pizza made from traditionally “lucky foods”? Pork is considered lucky in many countries, because the pig is seen as a symbol of progress (as it moves forward in its relentless rooting for food); pork is eaten on New Year’s Day in many homes because it signifies wealth (as the pork roast is rich with fat and flavor). When making a pizza, you should start with the meat you want to feature (or the main vegetable if you want something meatless) and then figure out a pizza sauce that complements it. Pork is really fun to work with because you can use bright citrus flavors and keep things light and effervescent. Grapefruits always remind me of fresh starts (because they’re breakfast food) and champagne is a nice carryover from New Year’s Eve, so a grapefruit-champagne sauce is nice for a pork-centered pizza. Other lucky symbols in the produce section include grapes (which are supposed to resemble coins and are eaten in some countries 12 at a time on New Year’s, one for each stroke of the clock at midnight), kale (which is leafy and green and looks like money), and lentils (which are also supposed to be like coins…and plump when you cook them…and that’s another symbol of prosperity). The one thing in this flavor-profile that’s still missing is something nice and salty and crispy-crunchy…so why not add some bacon for another rendering of a pig? In a lot of countries, they mold little porcine marzipans and leave them around the house for children to find on New Year’s Day so clearly the more pig the merrier for your New Year’s pizza.
February = Valentine’s Pizza.
March = St. Patrick’s Day Pizza.
April = Easter Pizza.
May = Justin’s Birthday Pizza.
June = Pride Rainbow Pizza. June happens to be both Pride month and also my personal birthday month, but I’m not much of a cake person…though I do love shortcakes with lots of fresh fruit on them. I actually got the idea to start making a dessert pizza that has a sugar-cookie like crust with all sorts of colorful fresh fruits on it…and I figured Pride month was a great (and poetic) time to use a rainbow of fruits to create a fun dessert pizza that doubles as a birthday celebration for myself. If you remember back to grade school, rainbows are bedazzled by a magical elf named Roy G. Biv…which stands for red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. There are endless assortments of fruits you can pick in all of those colors. Since I love a challenge, I wanted the sauce for this pizza to be an electric blue color…like a Blue Hawaii drink (which also makes me think of all things tropical and summer time). Marscapone cheese takes the place of traditional pizza cheese in this special end of June treat.
July = Patriotic Pizza.
August = Market Days Pizza.
September = The Jane’s Pizza.
October = Trick or Treat Pizza. Halloween’s colors are black, orange, and purple. You could go with a dessert pizza that celebrates the different candies of the season (like caramel corn, candy apples, or any of the name-brand chocolates and other treats for Halloween)…or you could make a spooky pizza that incorporates more of the Halloween-looking foods that could haunt your dinner table. It’s fun to seize the Halloween opportunity to actually craft a Jack-o-Lantern face on your pizza using your favorite ingredients; even though this will disappear as you carve up and eat the pizza, it’s a nice presentation “WOW!” when the meal hits the dinner table.
November = Thanksgiving Pizza. Literally, this is a Thanksgiving dinner turned into a pizza. For sauce, I use cranberry sauce…and then on top of it I add carved turkey breast, gorgonzolla cheese (which goes great with turkey and the tart cranberries), sweet potatoes, marshmallows (stay with me on this…you will fight me on the marshmallows because your brain tells you it sounds weird and gross but the little pop of sweet it gives the pizza here and there is a joy you will instantly love if only you try it), green beans (chopped up and added for some color if you like that), and dried Stove Top stuffing crumbled around just for texture and that extra Thanksgiving taste. This is a great way to make use of some of your Thanksgiving leftovers…though, honestly, I enjoy making this so much that when Thanksgiving dinner is ready I actually take the best cuts of turkey and the first scoops of everything else and I immediately set these to the side for a few days in the fridge to make this the second day after Thanksgiving as our last hurrah of the Thanksgiving foods. The day immediately following Thanksgiving (Black Friday) is when I make Thanksgiving Sandwiches…which is the same concept of the Thanksgiving Pizza, only as a sandwich. Click HERE for the recipe.
December = Christmas Pizza. There are a few ways you could go with a Christmas Pizza…either savory/sweet or a full on dessert pizza. Christmas foods have a natural sweetness to them…with notes of cinnamon, spice, nutmeg, ginger, candy apple, fruitcake cherries, etc. The colors red and green are also prominent in anything Christmas-themed. So, there’s a wide range of options for you when it comes to deciding on a flavor-profile for a Christmas pizza.
Justin’s Favorite Foods:
Orange Chicken — my version uses roasted or Crock Pot pulled chicken that’s not breaded or fried like in Chinese restaurants. The sauce has more of an orange kick and I add yellow and orange peppers to not only give the dish more color, but also to add crunch. The final touch is orange segments that I add last to the pan. I serve this over brown rice or I put the leftovers cold on a baguette and make an a l’orange sandwich with it. Another fun thing is to use the Orange Chicken as filling for lettuce cups…which could be a meal or an appetizer, depending on what you want to do with it. When I made this in November 2012, I spent $23 or so and got 3 meals out of it…so the average cost per meal is something like $7 or $8 and one batch of Orange Chicken will feed Justin and me for three days, easy.
Justin Three-Color Pasta
Spooky Pot Roast
Abbey & Byron’s Pulled Pork
Althea’s Peach Wings
CarolAnne’s Breakfast HeartAttacks
Totally Cleveland Things You Will Love Too:
Strawberry & Cream Pretzel Dessert Thing
BBQ Ham Sandwiches & Dill Pickles
Watermelon Sherbet (like from Friendly’s)
Geppetto’s Style Ribs and Chicken