Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Cheap Eats: Vegan Bachelor Soup

The Topic: Eating on the cheap with Managing Editor Elizabeth Castoria

The Dish: Virgil once wrote,"Fortune favors the brave," and he could not have been more right—especially when it comes to dining inexpensively (which, I'm sure, is exactly what he had in mind at the time). Should fear rob you not only of delicious meals, but also of your cold, hard cash? Heck no! Go boldly into your kitchen, like you've never gone before! (Really, if anyone comes to mind when you think of Virgil, it's Shatner.)

I was richly rewarded by inquiring once about what my friend Joelle was eating. Joelle is something of a culinary genius, and is the embodiment of fearlessness in the kitchen. She'll put spirulina on anything. She'll whip up seitan in five minutes flat. Sometimes she'll get a little extra crazy and create something truly magical, and sometimes—very rarely—she'll wind up with a dud. But, that's the cost this culinary adventurer pays for all her stellar successes. So, she was once dining on a bowl of soup that looked, well, sort of like what you'd expect to find floating along the coast during a red tide. When I asked her what it was, she said, "Bachelor soup. It's my specialty." The "bachelor" part comes from the fact that this dreamy dish takes all of three minutes to make, and can be eaten straight from the pot while standing over the stove, like a barbarous bachelor. She was generous enough to share some with me, and ever since, I've been hopelessly hooked. I could eat this garnly looking soup day and night for the rest of my life.

Joelle's Bachelor Soup

Serves 1

What You Need:
6 cups water
1/2 tablespoon Tom Yum paste
1/2 cup frozen rice cakes
1/8 cup dried seaweed (we like wakame)
8 ounces tofu (or 1/2 asceptic package)
1/2 cup vegetable stock

What You Do:
  1. In a medium pot over medium-high heat, bring water to a boil. Add Tom Yum paste and rice cakes, and boil for 1 minute.
  2. Reduce heat to medium. Add seaweed, tofu, and vegetable stock, and simmer for 2 minutes, or until seaweed is soft. Serve in a bowl, if you must.
The Final Word: The seaweed is easily the most expensive item in this soup, and that can be lessened by buying in bulk from your local health-food store. Check the "ethnic" section of any major grocery store to find Tom Yum paste, or head to your local Asian grocery. Be bold. Enjoy this awesome, cheap soup. See if luck doesn't find you.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Decorating on a Dime

The Topic: Decorating your home without spending all of your hard-earned money by VegNews Associate Editor Jennifer Chen.

The Dish: I recently helped my wonderful yet woefully style-challenged friend decorate her new home. She and her husband are on a tight budget—$200 to redo their living room and bedroom—so she asked me to come over and lend my design skills. Now, I'm not a decorator, but I am known amongst my friends for designing on a dime. If you walk into my house and admire my turquoise blue distressed coffee table, I'll happily share that I got it from a flea market for less than a $100. While the stereotype might exist that vegans live in yurts or hippie communes, I know that our community has some serious style. Here are some ways to decorate your humble abode without distressing your wallet.

1. Score good deals. My favorite websites to hit first? Craigslist and Freecycle.org. On Craigslist, towards the end of the month (when everyone is moving out and wants to get rid of their furniture ASAP), search through the furniture sections. If there's a catalogue item from Crate & Barrel I'm eyeing, I'll try to find the same exact piece on Craigslist by entering "Crate & Barrel coffee table" as a search term. You can easily score IKEA items the same way. I love shopping this way because not only are you recycling an item, you can also get it for half the price. My tip: If you like an item, ask for pictures so you know what the condition is of the piece you're buying, and have a game plan for how you're going to transport it home. Search for your local Freecycle group and signup for the Yahoo group to join. Everything under the sun is on the list. For both sites, reply quickly if you want something or else some other lucky person will score your deal.

2. Coupons. I am the queen of coupons, and something I learned about the ubiquitous Bed, Bath, & Beyond (BBB) coupons that I get in the mail is that they never expire. Seriously. I found this out at while checking out at a BBB and the cashier asked me if I had my stack of coupons. I did not, but now I do. So save those 20 percent off coupons for your big purchases like new bed spreads, curtains, or kitchenware.

3. Gather three objects you love. I stole this idea from Style Network's show Dress My Nest with Thom Filicia because I think it's genius. What Filicia does for each of his style-challenged couples is ask them to give him three objects that they love. He takes the objects—framed photos, dresses, souvenirs—and creates their style from their own personal objects. So that's what I did with my friend. Her wedding invitations had a nice red Asian theme and a photography book she picked out as one of her objects had beautiful black-and-white portraits. So when I saw a $25 table lamp with a red, white, and black flowered lampshade at Target, I snagged it immediately. It's so much easier to shop when you know what you're looking for instead of just grabbing random furniture pieces you like (and racking up a huge bill). Bonus tip: Target has some amazingly cute designs for cheap. And if you grab items out of season, you'll land some hot deals like red-and-white place mats for $1.33 each.

4. Flea markets. Haggling might not be your thing, but even a gentle, "Can you do better?" will often help lower a price on a piece. Even better, try this tactic just before the flea market closes. Vendors don't want to haul all of their wares back so bargain-bidding is easier. One of my favorite flea markets is the Melrose Trading Post in Los Angeles. When you find a great flea market and your favorite vendors, visit their stalls often. I scored so many deals at the Melrose Trading Post from a furniture guy who makes the most adorable vintage-looking furniture pieces (like my writing desk that was originally a sewing machine table). I visited him so much that every time I did, I got better prices. Vendors want you to keep coming back so tell them how much you love their pieces, bring friends (which is the best word-of-mouth for them), and gently ask what they can do for their best customer (that's you!).

5. Design blogs and magazines. Design magazines like Blueprint and Domino were my go-to mags for design ideas but in the wake of those publications' closure, a whole slew of drool-worthy design blogs have popped up. (Check out these mags for great ideas: ReadyMade, Anthology, and Dwell.) While you don't have to go and buy a suggested $1,000 bed frame, you can collect great ideas and styles (try the free website Evernote.com to store your ideas on the go). Here are some of my favorites, along with some picks from the VN staff (VN Editorial Assistant Anna Peraino was particularly exited to share her fave design blogs.): Apartment Therapy, Craft, Design Sponge, Craft Gawker, and California Home + Design's blog.

The Final Word: It may take extra effort to find the truly great decorating finds out there, but once you do, you can happily brag to your friends just how little you spent. You don't have to redecorate an entire room, but finding key pieces will help bring your whole place together. With a good eye on deals, you too can dress your nest for less!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Cheap Groceries at Ethnic Markets

The Topic: Filling up your grocery bags at ethnic markets (and saving tons of money while at it) by VegNews Editorial Assistant Alexandra Chang.

The Dish: It’s true that buying groceries and eating in is cheaper than going out, but there’s also a significant price difference between buying groceries at Whole Foods or Safeway and getting the same veg-friendly products at an ethnic market. Here in San Francisco, ethnic market tends to mean any of the dozens of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Mexican, and Indian markets throughout the city. But even if you’re not in a metropolis, there’s probably at least one ethnic grocer near where you live. Though they might be a bit intimidating at first, the rewards are completely worth it.

1. Basics First: For grains, noodles, and beans, these markets have the best deals by far. I grew up eating rice at every dinner, and have fond memories of lugging bags bigger than my torso into the trunk of the car. My family of five went through a 50-pound bag in a few months, but now I can hardly get through five pounds in that time. For $30 at any Asian market, 50-pounds—around 250 uncooked cups—lasts forever for one person. You’ll also find packs of eight single-serving shaped rounds of dried noodles for 99-cents. And beans? The prices at Mexican grocers are insanely affordable.

2. Milk and Meat Replacements: Every Asian market has at least a few brands and varieties of tofu. Larger grocery stores like 99 Ranch have more than a dozen. Silken, extra-firm, baked, seasoned, or fried, because it’s such a cultural staple, tofu goes for cheap. You can even afford to experiment with different types—I love extra-firm and baked tofu—in your favorite recipes. Non-dairy milk is also plentiful, ranging from unsweetened rice to chocolate soy, all for at least one-third less than natural foods markets.

3. Spice up a Meal: I went to a big chain grocery market recently (as a last resort for some Earth Balance) and saw tiny containers of spices priced at $8.99. Granted they were organic and fancily packaged, there is no reason for a savvy vegan to purchase such items when just as satisfying spices reside in the aisles of any ethnic market at one-eighth the cost or less. The same goes for premade sauces—soy, black bean, vegetarian BBQ, and all. It’s simple and cheap to achieve the layered taste of a great Indian curry or prepare a delicious Chinese stir-fry.

4. Produce Galore: Though you may not be able to afford kale from natural food stores or farmers’ markets on a daily basis, you will be able to stuff your cart full at ethnic markets. At my favorite neighborhood produce joint, kale is only 99-cents per bunch. Usually steep-priced special veggies are also discounted, in particular those associated with the culture’s cuisine. Baby bok choy, Chinese broccoli, edamame, and various mushrooms are cheaper in Asian grocers, while Mexican grocers’ tend to have lower prices on peppers, olives, and avocados.

5. Surprise Treats: Ethnic markets aren’t only for your everyday staples; they’re a place to explore the variety of veg-friendly food items you’ve never tried or even seen before. Ever heard of basil seed drink or sweet sesame-filled rice balls? Or thought about adding pickled radishes and kimchi to your next meal? What might be considered specialty items at the standard grocery store are so common to certain cultures that they’re cheaper than buying a can of soda at Walgreens. Treat your taste buds to new flavors, without hurting your wallet.

The Final Word: Seeing the total amount at the checkout stand of ethnic markets never fails to surprise, in the best of ways. So if you’re on a budget and looking for regular grocery items or wanting to cook up a fantastic meal from another culture, then add ethnic markets—may they be Asian, Mexican, Indian, or other—to your grocery shopping rounds.