winter squash risotto

For your valentine: winter squash risotto

Light those candles, dim the lights and make this for your valentine: winter squash risotto. I don’t have a link here, because this is sort of a U Street Girl original. Not that I’ve invented risotto, but this is the way I make it, I’ve played around and this is what works for me.

Risotto, to me, is perfect food to cook for a special occasion. It’s very tasty, luxurious, but also homey and relatively simple to make. Plus, once you’ve mastered the base recipe, you can add whatever you want: shrimp, asparagus, broccoli, chicken, pesto, etc etc. It just requires your full attention for a half hour. Plus, this version is sort of vegetarian, if you want to use veggie stock. Where the hell else can you get a gourmet Valentine’s day meal for less than $10?

Budget: $7, makes 4 servings so $1.75 a serving. I know you’re only serving two so you could cut in half and then it’s only $3.50, but I like having the leftovers.

Recipe details after the jump.

A regular feature in which I cook cheap, gourmet dishes.



I, like everyone else on Facebook, have been tagged a few notes called “25 random things about me.”  While I find it cute, I wasn’t really compelled to write my own list. However, this morning when I read one of my favorite food blogs, Mighty Appetite, I saw that the blogger Kim O’Donnel had taken that concept and twisted it, she’s written a list of 25 random kitchen things about her. Now that’s my kind of list.  I’ve expanded it beyond the kitchen to be about food, so I could write about my food experiences outside of the kitchen as well. I cut it to 10 because I’m lazy.

  • I’m currently having a love affair with olives. I think I’ve been eating at least 10 a day. I’ve been going through jars at a rapid place and am always ordering them when I eat out. I love restaurants like Jaleo that give you olives to eat in lieu of bread.
  • At the beginning of the spring I buy fresh herbs with all intentions of tending to them and having fresh herbs to cook with through the end of the year. They wilt by the end of the summer.
  • Growing up, my favorite dish was an Italian casserole my dad made: penne, tomato, Italian sausage, and mozzarella cheese. He makes it for me every time I’m home and it makes me oh so happy. However, I’ve never made it for myself.
  • My family has a vegetable garden as well as a few fruit trees and now I miss not having my own fresh eggplants, tomatoes, zucchinis, lettuce, strawberries, blueberries, and pears every summer. The U street farmer’s market is an OK substitute.
  • I’m a sucker for a good, full bodied red wine. Recent favorites have been a Tempranillo from Spain, a Malbec from Argentina, and a Pinotage from South Africa.
  • The Food Network, an old roommate, and my competitive nature forced me to start cooking seriously. I just had to one-up her great creations in the kitchen and match her aspirations to go to cooking school. She took a few classes at Le Academie de Cuisine, I’m still working on it.
  • I’ve had several dining partners over the past few years, and it’s great to have a foodie friend who will go out and try whatever restaurant you’re into. It’s a bummer though, when you’re both broke and can’t afford to go out to the really nice places you want to eat at. That’s where cooking together comes in.
  • I don’t know how to use a charcoal grill. I wish I did, but my father is territorial over the grill or something (must be a man thing) and never taught me how. I think this makes me deficient in someway.
  • I have foodie crushes on Jose Andres, Eric Ripert, Anthony Bourdain, Mark Bittman, and Alton Brown. I recently had a dream where Anthony Bourdain was my boyfriend and I woke up happy. Real life boyfriend did not seem to mind this because he understands my foodie crushes.
  • I used to hate onions, mushrooms, and fish. Now, I’ve given them all a chance and I love onions and most fish. However, I still hate mushrooms.
Spaghetti and meatballs

Spaghetti and meatballs

I love me some America’s Test Kitchen, and in an episode I saw last weekend they made spaghetti and meatballs. So I decided it was time to make some as well. Let me be honest, I’ve had trouble with meatballs in the past. I’ve tried to pan-fry them, but I’ve found that as you try to cook them on each side they don’t look as round but more octagonal. Plus, they didn’t cook all the way through, and when I was trying I wasn’t making my own sauce, and even so, wouldn’t have thought to continue cooking them in the sauce.

Of course, America’s Test Kitchen has the answer: cook the meatballs in the oven and then finish them in the sauce. Genius. I modified their recipe a little bit because I didn’t want to use pork sausage for the meatballs, just beef. Otherwise I stayed true to the recipe.

This takes time, about an hour and a half for me. But man, is it rewarding to have made your own sauce and have meatballs that are round. And, it’s very filling and comforting, good food for a cold day like today. Plus, this recipe, which I halved for the sauce but not for the meatballs, could feed an army. They say it serves 8, but I would say it could easily serve 12 if not more. The leftovers are going in my freezer for another cold day.

Inspired by many features, most recently Best Bite’s Kelly Dinardo’s Frugal Foodie (and also inspired by being unemployed) I’ve decided to start a regular feature in which I spotlight great dishes made on an unemployed writer’s budget. As with many other similar features, I won’t include pantry staples (onions, garlic, olive oil, butter, dried spices, eggs, flour etc) in the final price.

Coq au vin

Coq au vin

First up: coq au vin, that classic French dish that many may consider too gourmet to make on their own, or too expensive, because it’s French or something. Well here I am to prove you wrong.

Budget: $20, including wine and port, serves 6 to 8 – so per serving this dish costs $2 to $3. This dish would obviously be a lot cheaper without the bottle of wine needed.

I started off of a Epicurious recipe that stayed (mostly) true to the classic French dish and modified it to make it a bit easier as well as cheaper. This can be time consuming, but I have some suggestions for time-saving techniques if you don’t want to make this an overnight affair. More details after the jump.


As a break from the sad news I’ve been reporting about local violence, here’s an interesting post from Mighty Appetite about a geekery of scallops I bet you didn’t know existed. I love scallops, seared, with some great sauce; if I go to a restaurant and seared scallops are on the menu, 9 times out of 10 that’s what I’m ordering. I have, however, never cooked them, mostly because they’re a little too pricey for my tight budget.

Searing scallops, courtesy of Justin Marx (Flickr)

Searing scallops, courtesy of Justin Marx (Flickr)

Guest poster Julia Beizer gives us way more info on scallops, how to buy them, the different kinds, then I ever would have known. A lot of her info comes from BlackSalt fishmonger Scott Weinstein and if you’re a food geek like me, it’s worth the read.

Finally, three lovely-sounding recipes featuring scallops are prepared. The curry-dusted scallops with pea puree sound especially alluring. Man, next time I’m at the grocery store I might have to break my budget for that one indulgent splurge of scallops and try cooking them myself.

Duck with blackberry sauce

Duck with blackberry sauce

This weekend I made duck breast with blackberry sauce from Epicurious for a special occasion. The comments section had some “wow this sauce is really challenging” comments along with “it takes much longer to reduce than the recipe says.” I didn’t really find either, the sauce was mostly pretty easy, it just involved a lot of stirring. And, true to the recipe, the sauce took about 25 minutes to reduce to about a cup of sauce, if not a tiny bit longer. This was my first time cooking duck, and I found that, at least for the thickness of the breasts I bought, the time the recipe recommended for a medium doneness was a little long, I stuck to it and got closer to medium-well.

Served it with a side of salad, a personal favorite: salad greens, thinly sliced pear, and a dijon vinaigrette – optional add-ons: goat cheese, sunflower seeds, croutons.

To drink: a bottle of Tarara Winery’s Meritage (of Leesburg,VA, which I visited this fall).

Georgetown cupcakes

Georgetown cupcakes

For dessert: cupcakes from Georgetown Cupcakes. These live up to the hype, they are very, very good. I don’t make it out to Georgetown too often, so I hadn’t had a chance to try these after they got a rave review in the New York Times. Well I should have known if they were good enough for Frank Bruni, they were good enough for me. Favorites so far: lava fudge, chocolate 2, and lemon blossom.

This meal was quite decadent. Even though I recently got laid off, I’d already bought all the ingredients prior to that, and I don’t think Whole Foods would take too kindly to me returning $20 of uncooked duck breasts bought on Thursday, nor Best Cellars for me returning the expensive wine I special ordered, nor Georgetown Cupcakes for returning a dozen gift-wrapped cupcakes.

So, I made the best of a not-so-great situation and cooked a fabulous meal.

pumpkin pancake and apple compote

For breakfast: pumpkin pancake and apple compote

A good weekend always includes, at least for me, a good breakfast. This weekend, it was pumpkin pancakes with apple compote and some good coffee.

The pumpkin pancake recipe is from Kim O’Donnel at Mighty Appetite. In the recipe she says that you likely will have to add more liquid to get the pancake batter to the right consistency. And you do, I found myself adding a lot more, definitely more than the quarter cup she recommends.

I don’t know if it’s just me, but whatever pumpkin things I make never really taste like “pumpkin” – probably because I feel like pumpkin isn’t a very strong flavor, but what makes pumpkin “pumpkin-y” is the spices we add and associate with pumpkin pie. So in order to get it to taste more “pumpkin” adding plenty of spices and other flavors to enhance it are necessary. And I think this recipe gets that well.

As for the apple compote, it is very simple and easy to make, and is a really nice addition to the pancake. I made it over the week and had it ready for breakfast this morning, just needed to warm it up before served.

It’s a very late fall kind of breakfast.