$5 Challenge for Fall: Vegetarian Value Meal

I really love these $5 slow food challenges. Slow Food USA challenged chefs and food bloggers to “take back the value meal” by demonstrating that buying fast food, usually for about $5 per person, might seem like it’s saving money in the short-term, but is worse for us in the long run. Of course, slow food doesn’t cost more than fast food, it’s just … well, slow.

In the past, I have blown away the $5-per-person goal with an epic slow-cooked smoked chicken posole and a simple beef phô that anyone can make. Although both of those recipes can be adapted for vegetarians by eliminating the meat, this recipe is a bit more seasonal and spicy, and frankly, it’s wonderful. It’s so thick and hearty and spicy, you won’t miss the meat. The other two challenges were also crock-pot recipes, and this only takes about 30 minutes — 45 minutes to an hour total active and inactive time, if you include the time it takes to roast the pumpkin.

Pumpkin-Potato Curry (Or Soup)

(Try it as a rice dish or as a creamy soup … or both.)

Ingredient list and cost breakdown:

  • about 2 medium-sized cooking pumpkins: $0.35 per pound, about $2.00 total*;
  • 3-4 large russet potatoes: about $1.00 ($3.99 for a 5-lb. bag);
  • 3-4 large carrots, peeled and chopped, about $1.00 ($2.50 for a large bag);
  • 2-3 tablespoons of green or red Thai curry paste; about $1.00 ($3.75 for a 4-oz jar);
  • 1 large onion, chopped; about $0.70;
  • 2 granny smith apples, chopped: about $1.50;
  • 4 cups cooked rice; about $1.00 (about 1/2 of a bag that cost $1.99)**;
  • 32-oz vegetable stock; $2.50;
  • 1 can of coconut milk; $2.59;
  • about half a bag of frozen green peas; about $1.40 ($2.79 for a whole bag);
  • about a cup of brown sugar; about $0.45 ($1.69 for a 4-cup bag);
  • fresh chopped ginger; about $0.50 ($1.76 for a big chunk of ginger root, use about 1 tablespoon of peeled, chopped ginger);
  • salt and pepper (you should have this in your kitchen already, but if you need to buy a set of pre-filled salt and pepper shakers to make this dish, it’s $2.19 for the set)

As you can see, most of these ingredients are available in packages that will allow you to still have potatoes, carrots, rice, etc., left over after this meal. If you just go by what this meal actually costs, i.e., the portion of ingredients you use out of the whole package, then it costs a total of $15.64, or $3.13 per serving. If you buy all of these ingredients in money-saving packages and go by what it all costs, total, including a pack of salt and pepper, the total is $29.95. That’s still $5.99 per person. Lots of you probably have a half-bag of rice, or a sack of potatoes, or an extra couple of apples lying around, or a chunk of ginger root in your freezer, to use in a recipe. I would recommend buying the larger packages if you have the means, especially for things like a jar of curry paste, which lasts a long time and is a great addition to lots of dishes. Also, if you make your own vegetable stock (try this easy way using kitchen scraps), you can save that money as well.

(*A couple things about pumpkins: First, make sure these are the smaller cooking pumpkins, not the big jack-o’-lantern kind. The big ones will still work in a pinch, but the smaller ones have more flesh, and they are more tender and sweet than the big ones. Secondly, obviously this price is for autumn, when fresh pumpkins are in season and available at your local grocery store, farmer’s market, or pumpkin patch, and they’re pretty cheap. If you MUST, and you can’t find a real pumpkin anywhere, use canned “pure pumpkin” puree for this recipe, which you can get year-round for $2.99 for a 29-oz. can. Just make sure it’s pure pumpkin, without added sugar and spices and whatnot.)

First, prepare the pumpkin. This part is fun.

I took this very easy pumpkin-preparing tutorial from the Pioneer Woman’s blog and basically eliminated the last step of pureeing the pumpkin. Essentially, you slice it, scrape the seeds out (don’t forget to save them for flavoring and roasting later!), and roast the slices over high heat. Let it cool so you can handle it with your bare hands, then the rind comes off very easily and you can take the pumpkin for all of its tasty meat inside.

This is delectable for pureeing for pies, tarts, desserts and pumpkin fruit butters, or for keeping in chunky form for curries, stews, and, as Ree Drummond explains, just for eating by itself. (It is very difficult to handle a chunk of freshly roasted, slightly warm, sweet pumpkin flesh and to NOT just pop a chunk of it in your mouth. Try to save enough for the curry.) The day I made this recipe for the first time, I roasted a few pumpkins and used some for this curry and the rest for a fabulous spiced pumpkin apple butter.

While the pumpkin is roasting, chop the potatoes, carrots, apples and onion, and start it cooking in a large pot with a bit of oil. Add the coconut milk, about half of the container of stock, frozen peas, curry paste and brown sugar, and let simmer until vegetables are soft. By this time, the pumpkin should be nice and soft as well, so let it cool off a bit after you take it from the oven, then peel the rind off, rough-chop the pumpkin, and toss the chunks into the pot. Add a bit more stock at this point, as well as the salt and pepper to taste. Be sure to taste it … you might want to add a bit more sugar or pepper or stock. Then let it simmer for another 10 minutes or so, so that all of the flavors mix in together.

** Rice vs. Soup: I served this on a bed of cooked white rice, but you can also stop here, and simply puree or blend these cooked ingredients into a liquid for a sweet and spicy soup. (In fact, if you aren’t feeding a house full of people on this meal, you may want to do both, just so you don’t get tired of the same dish multiple times. Even fabulous leftovers get old after you have to eat them a few days in a row.) This is delicious as a smooth, creamy soup, or as a thick and chunky curry and rice dish.

Delish dishes from your Thanksgiving leftovers

If you’re anything like me, by the time this long Thanksgiving weekend draws to a close, you still have surplus of potatoes, both cooked/mashed and uncooked on the shelf, as well as a bowl of stuffing (or perhaps an extra box of Stove Top up in the cupboard).

In my house, the delicious and juicy slivers of turkey and ham always seem to disappear first, usually into little makeshift sandwiches using leftover rolls, or tossed into post-Thanksgiving breakfasts. Plus, usually my family boils down the turkey carcass on Friday, making a nice turkey-rice or turkey-noodle soup, so maybe by Saturday and Sunday, you’re kind of turkeyed out! But the potatoes and the stuffing always seem to hang around. I found these two excellent recipes for utilizing leftover mashed sweet potatoes and leftover stuffing, and gave them my own little spin.

Sweet Potato and Carmelized Onion Shells

I adapted this recipe from this one from Taste of Home, but I used my own homemade carmelized onion chutney instead of carmelizing onions for this on the spot. I also made it just a little healthier, omitting the turkey gravy at the end (not necessary at all) and using some lovely cheese left over from my cheese plate instead of gorgonzola. I also left the shells uncooked and then baked them in chicken stock for added flavor. Obviously you should feel free to adapt this recipe both based on your tastes and what you have left in your fridge.

  • 1/2 jar (about 4 ounces) carmelized onion chutney
  • 2 cups mashed sweet potatoes (milk and butter were added when they were cooked for Thanksgiving)
  • 1 package jumbo pasta shells (uncooked)
  • 6 oz. (approx.) gorgonzola or other tangy cheese
  • 2-3 oz. grated parmesan cheese
  • 2 cups (approx.) chicken or turkey stock
  • garlic powder, salt and pepper, poultry seasoning (about 1 tsp. each, to taste)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix the mashed potatoes, carmelized onion chutney, cheese and spices and spoon the mixture into each individual pasta shell. Place into a baking dish and pour the stock into the baking dish.

Make sure the liquid touches the shells but doesn’t cover everything. Essentially everything is cooked except the shells, so cover and bake until the shells are tender (about 25-20 minutes). The mixture will be nice and bubbly. Then top with parsley and grated cheese, and bake another 10 minutes until the cheese is nice and browned.

This is soooooo delicious. Why did I never think of this before? I want to try this again with garlicky mashed potatoes and other variations.

It’s also nice to have a good savory breakfast dish. I have to admit, this looked so good, I might have to make this all year round. Mark Bittman, master of all things simple and delicious, posted this lovely recipe for eggs baked in stuffing, and once again the universe opens up a way for me to use this awesome carmelized onion chutney again (yeessssss).

Eggs Baked in (Leftover) Stuffing

(This can be made in a casserole dish or individual ramekins.)

  • 2-3 cups leftover stuffing, cooled or at room temperature
  • 1 cup carmelized onion chutney
  • 6 eggs
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • grated cheddar or pepper jack cheese (optional)

Grease your baking dish or individual ramekins, and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Alternate stuffing and chutney (I used stuffing, then a spoonful of chutney, then more stuffing on top), then crack an egg into each ramekin — or make a crater in the stuffing in your dish and crack the egg into it. Add salt and pepper to taste. Bake for about 20 minutes or until the eggs have set. If you are using ramekins, put them in a baking dish filled halfway with water.

About halfway through cooking, I added a bit of grated cheese to the top of each egg.

I am usually not coherent enough first thing in the morning to make an adequate breakfast, so these are ideal for me. They’re perfect to make the night before and wrap up for the next day’s breakfast, or to enjoy while they’re warm!

A taste of class on a budget: homemade paté

Paté is one of those dishes that people assume is difficult to make, exotic to taste, expensive to buy and luxurious to afford. But it doesn’t have to be! With a little work and the right tools (a smoker and a food processor), you can make a delicious paté for a great price.

I am lucky enough to have scored an invitation to a lovely Thanksgiving dinner, and since my help was not needed for making the turkey (although I make a nice juicy bird, if I do say so myself) or any other cornerstones of the holiday meal, I volunteered to make a cheese plate for an appetizer, including fancy cheese, cold cuts, homemade paté and sweet pickles. The cheese was storebought, but even the homemade parts of this plate were awfully easy to make.

For the pickles, I used this basic pickling spice and recipe, only obviously I used a variety of fresh veggies, and I also added a little star anise and clove for a little sweetness.

The paté was very easy to make  – although nothing is as easy as making refrigerator pickles:

Smoked Chicken Liver Paté

  • about 2 lbs. of chicken livers, trimmed
  • 1 small onion
  • 2 cloves fresh or roasted garlic
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 3 tbsp. butter
  • fresh herbs (I used rosemary)
  • Worchestershire sauce
  • salt and pepper

I got two pounds of chicken livers (they’re so cheap, just over $1 each) and seasoned them with Worchestershire sauce and some seasoned salt and pepper. Keep in mind that this recipe works just as well with any type of liver — even the one from your Thanksgiving turkey.

I put the livers on my smoker, and I used wood chips made from the oak barrels they use for aging Tabasco sauce. It added a lovely-scented smoke to the livers (although feel free to use your favorite type of wood chips and your own favorite seasoning). You may also want to smoke some garlic at the same time, or roast it in your oven, just to kick it up another notch.

After smoking for about an hour at 200 degrees, the livers should be no longer pink (although a tiny bit of pink is OK). Make sure they cool completely — you can even do the smoking a day or two before.

First, chop the garlic and onion as finely as possible (not necessary if you have roasted or smoked the garlic), or grate them into the food processor. Then blend them in the food processor with the fresh herbs and 3 tbsp. butter. Pulse the mixture a few times to make sure the onion and garlic is as paste-like as possible — no one wants a big chunk of fresh garlic in their paté! Add the livers and pulse the mixture a few times to get the livers broken down as well, then slowly pour the cup of white wine into the food processor until the mixture is your desired consistency (you may not need it all).

I like my paté a little on the thin side, just thick enough that it will hold to a piece of bread or a cracker. Add salt and pepper to taste.

I served this as part of an epic Thanksgiving cheese plate with those pickles, lots of delicious cheeses and cold cuts — if you’re in southern California check out my friends at Venissimo CheeseThen, for dessert I cooked a wheel of brie on a cedar plank with roasted cherry/jalapeno jam. This is the “before” photo — and there isn’t an “after” photo because it pretty much disappeared within a few minutes.

Easy steps to a perfect bird

This time of year, many first-time cooks embark upon what should by all rights be a simple task: roasting a turkey. Technically it isn’t difficult, but for some reason many cooks have an imperfect (and in some cases, ruined) turkey because they skipped a crucial step.

There are three rules for a perfect bird, each at a different step in the process:

1) Thaw the bird completely.

It sounds simple, but you cannot imagine how many holiday meals go south because someone forgot that a 20-lb turkey needs FOUR whole days to thaw. Don’t buy a frozen turkey when it’s on sale the day before Thanksgiving and expect it to be ready to go into the oven in the morning on Thanksgiving Day.

This is the No. 1 mistake new cooks make at Thanksgiving!

A general rule is to let the turkey defrost for 24 hours for every 5 pounds. Plan accordingly or the rest of the steps don’t matter!

2) Show that turkey some love.

How do you make sure the turkey stays happy for the few hours it’s in the oven? Make sure he’s hydrated. I cook my turkey without the stuffing inside — it cooks faster and is more moist and tender.

Instead of stuffing the insides with some sort of delicious dressing (don’t worry, the stuffing has its place at the table, just not inside the turkey), I stuff in two halved lemons, an onion chopped up into chunks (maybe two onions) and a few sprigs of fresh rosemary. I was also doing some pickling that day, so I used a leftover bell pepper as well; my sister adds whole carrots and celery as well. This adds a very light, lemony, herby flavor without overpowering the flavor of the turkey, and keeps the inside and outside of the turkey nice and moist.

I stuffed the turkey with onions, lemons, rosemary and fresh bell pepper.

I also use about a whole stick of butter, both pats of butter inside the cavity with the onions and lemons, and sliding a few under the skin. Make sure to season the outside thoroughly with salt and pepper or your own favorite seasoning blend.

Tip: If you really feel like getting crazy, stick a smashed garlic glove under the skin too. You’ll be happy you did.

Before putting it in the oven (preheat to 350), place the bird in the roasting pan breast-side up, and make sure to bend the turkey wings under the bird or cover the tips with foil so they don’t burn.

Cover the whole thing with foil for the first half of the roasting time, then rub it with a stick of butter (spread it all over, and then put the rest of the butter in the cavity). You may also need to re-apply some more seasoning to the outside at this point. Keep basting the turkey at regular intervals until the internal temperature reaches at least 155-165 degrees in the thigh.

For an 18-20-lb, turkey, it will need to be roasted for about 4 1/2 hours at 350 degrees — but note, cooking it to the proper temperature is more important than timing. If the thigh of the turkey hasn’t reached at least 155 degrees, keep it in the oven until it does. See more tips here and an easy-to-use chart for roasting times here.

3) Carve it properly.

Trust me, you will want to get the most out of this tender, delicious turkey. There are a few simple tips for getting the most of that delectable meat off the bones.  Check out this great video I found on the New York Times site. This is the best video I have seen on how to carve the turkey to get the most out of each piece.


After dinner, it’s not over! When I was growing up, my grandmother would take the liver, gizzard, heart and neckbone from inside the turkey before cooking, and put them in a pot of rice, onions, garlic, and water, on the back of the stove. It simmered all day while the turkey roasted and there would be a lovely bowl of soup for after you get your second wind, an hour or two after pie. 

And a few days later when you’re tired of all of the leftover turkey sandwiches for lunch and potato pancakes for breakfast, you can cook down the turkey carcass for a lovely turkey stock or soup. (You can also save the liver, gizzard, etc. and cook it with the carcass for extra flavor.)

Take the whole carcass if you have a stock pot that’s big enough, or break it apart if you need to fit it in your biggest pot or slow cooker, and cover it with water. If you just want stock to use later, add some salt and pepper only. If you want to make it into a turkey rice soup, add rice and onions and garlic. Let it simmer on low heat (or the low setting on your crock pot) for a few hours, up to overnight, and take out the bones before serving the soup or placing into freezer bags if you’re saving it. You’ll be surprised how much more meat is on those bones!

Have a safe and Happy Thanksgiving!