Sometimes I believe the reason I have not yet become a mom or wife is because I am a dunce in the kitchen. Of course, that was a joke….I’m an awesome cook. 😉 But seriously, I am always trying to come up with meals that accomplish a trifecta of lifestyle goals: keep me within my budget, help me lose or maintain weight, and not bore me to death with those two labels of “cheap” and “healthy.” Usually, I fail at accomplishing all three things.
Last weekend, it was kitchen-palooza in my Arlington high-rise studio apartment. I mean it, I was on my feet cooking for just myself for nearly 4 hours. On my agenda, I was making my own honey wheat bread (trying not to buy overly-salted and sugared processed bread), making a creamy spinach and potato soup for my lunches (I needed a serious detox after a work trip in Las Vegas), cooking and freezing creamy pumpkin pasta for dinners this week (again, cheap but not boring), and baking an apple crumble for dessert (trying to use up the apples I’d bought in Sperryville two weeks prior). It was a crispy and windy fall day in early November, I had autumn-scented candles burning, and my apartment smelled so damn good from all the food. This week is going to be awesome!! I thought to myself.
Well, here’s what actually happened:
- Honey Wheat Bread: The bread, which needs a minimum of two hours JUST to rise, actually came out perfectly in that it was baked all the way through with only a tiny, doughy air bubble…unlike the last four or five attempts in which there was a cavern of unbaked dough; however, it was pretty much totally dry by Friday because I over-baked it.
- Creamy Spinach and Potato Soup: Somehow, I didn’t put two-and-two together that when you puree one potato with a whole bag of frozen spinach, you’re not going to get the white creamy potato soup that makes you want to go outside and chop wood in -20 degree weather. Instead, the soup was this murky dark green color that could only be likened to sewer sludge. It tasted fine (admittedly, I found the marriage of lemon juice and cumin to be questionable) but I had to hide it from my co-workers so no one would ask why I was eating slime for lunch.
- Creamy Pumpkin Pasta: The creamy pumpkin pasta had too much cream cheese in it (the recipe calls for goat cheese but I hate goat cheese) and, after heating it up twice for dinner, I decided I couldn’t get past the weird color and texture. I still have 4 servings in freezer bags that I just don’t know how to handle.
- Apple Crumble: The apple crumble was perfect with the exception of the Granny Smith apples that turned a funny “is that natural?” brown color. Only problem was, I probably put on a few pounds by pairing that with Breyer’s natural vanilla ice cream.
Suffice it to say, I wasted my Sunday afternoon, all the money to buy the ingredients that went to waste, and even more money buying takeout one day after heating up a frozen bag of soup and deciding upon the first taste that I was giving up. If I’d cooked that for a family, I’d probably be with a lawyer preparing my defense for a custody battle based on “child endangerment” charges.
I was at a loss. With no explanation as to how cooking could be such an art when all you’re doing is following directions.
Frankly, I didn’t feel like spending the money on fast food for the next two days at work, so I threw open my cupboards to see if I had anything that I could throw together for a meal at work.
Quinoa is like Taylor Swift: it has probably about as many fans as it does haters. I’m on quinoa’s side (the simile is over now) because it’s the poster child for my food trifecta of cheap, healthy, and fun (depending on what you put with it). I’ve been able to rely on quinoa during a plethora of budget and health crises and here it was, saving a week of cooking failures from the back of my cupboard without me having to spend another dime or gain another pound from fast food. A quick scan of my freezer, I realized that it was totally worth it to break open the bag of frozen peas I’d had reserved for running injuries and I found some leftover julienne-cut sun-dried tomatoes to go with the peas. Grabbed two more pantry staples– olive oil and Italian seasoning– and bam. I had lunch for the next two days. By my estimates, it probably cost about $1.50 to make and it has 355 calories, 8g of protein, 17g of healthy fat, and lots of vitamins and minerals. And it was tasty, too.
So, admittedly, I’m not the best cook, but that’s fine. When life hands you lemons, throw it out and make quinoa. Along with this tasty, easy, and cheap dish, I’ve also had some success with a recipe I deemed my “Tuscan Quinoa” dish (seriously, I have no idea what I am doing here).
Here’s the recipe:
1/4 cup of uncooked quinoa
1/2 cup of water
1 tbsp chopped onions
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 tbsp of balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp nitrate-free bacon bits
1 tbsp sun-dried tomatoes
Usually, since I have a food-warmer Crockpot that I keep on my desk at work, I just throw all the ingredients in the removable tin and let it heat up all morning. But if you don’t have one of those, follow these directions:
1) Buy the food-warming Crockpot.
2) Prepare the quinoa according to package directions, which will pretty much just tell you to cook the quinoa with the water, but add the olive oil, too.
3) Mix the remaining ingredients with the cooked quinoa.
Easy-peasy and delicious.
This week, I’m taking a break from cooking anything substantial. The farthest I go with cooking or baking is slapping a thawed tilapia filet on foil with Old Bay and coconut oil for 16 minutes in a 400-degree oven. And running to the 7-11 for wine.