Beginning the Challenge

A new year, a new challenge.

For January, I’m starting the Food Stamp Challenge again. I wrote about the conditions for this exercise already, so I won’t repeat, but I hopefully I’ll keep up the weekly updates.

Groceries for the First Week

For the first week, I hoped to spend $20 in groceries in preparation for the challenge. Luckily, I have most of my necessities on hand before heading to the store, so I didn’t need to pick up much. It’s going to be eggplant week to kick off this Food Stamp Challenge (FSC) and what better way than with a vitamin packed fruit.

Here’s the list of this week’s groceries from Trader Joe’s:

  • Sweet crisp canned corn ($ 0.89)
  • Light Coconut Milk -canned ($0.99)
  • 1 large eggplant ($1.39)
  • 1 dozen large white eggs ($1.49)
  • 8 bananas – $0.19 each ($1.52)
  • White mushrooms – 8 oz. carton ($1.69)
  • Baby Spinach – ($1.99)
  • Blood Oranges – 2 lb bag ($1.99)
  • Organic Multigrain Oatmeal ($2.29)

Total Amount Spent: $14.24
Amount Remaining: $35.76

Hopefully I planned this week well so I won’t have to waste any food and it will last me all week and perhaps next week as well. I’m starting this challenge officially on January 4th since I was visiting my family previously. Also, I will do my best to keep all my meals and snacks balanced and healthy. There will no MSG and no overly processed foods this month unless specified. I’m hoping that through this challenge, I will demonstrate that healthy eating is not expensive and it’s not complicated either.

I don’t clip coupons and I don’t read the weekly grocery ads. I just plan out the entire month, but I’m flexible with my menu based on the items at the store and what appeals to me. This isn’t the only way to be healthy and cheap, but this is my way of eating healthy for the new year.

What’s on this weeks’ dinner menu?

  • Eggplant Parmesan with Pasta
  • Modified Ratatouille or Confit Byaldi with Pasta
  • Eggplant Stew with Harvest Blend (Couscous, beans, barley, quinoa)

It’s just tea right?

Longjing Tea

Longjing or Dragon Well tea.

The most famous Chinese green tea. The tea has a transparent yellow-green color with a light flavor, yet fragrant aftertaste. It contains vitamin C, amino acids, and the second highest concentrations of catechins (the first being white teas).

History

(The story according to my mother.)

In the past, Chinese emperors would drink black tea from Northern China which have a dark color and intense flavor. During the Ching Dynasty, an emperor traveled south to Hangzhou and stopped by a village (Longjing or Dragon Well). The village offered him the local tea, and when he tried it, he said that was light, bland, and had no taste (when compared to black teas). Yet, as he was walking out of the teahouse, he replied that in his mouth, there was a lingering fragrant aftertaste that caught his attention and appreciation. That tea was Longjing or Dragon Well and it became known as an imperial tea.

Taste Test

The first time I tried this tea, it was in San Francisco. South Sea Seafood Village Restaurant serves specialty teas with their dim sum service. With two small ceramic cups, smaller than a shot glass, they pour out Longjing tea for $2/person with at least 2 people per pot. Despite the small tea cups, the taste is very concentrated in each sip. Though they are quick to steep and dispense this tea, the flavor and aroma emanating from the green tea is unique to the everyday teas we drink.

Longjing is considered to be the most bland and least intense of the specialty teas, primarily because it is a green tea. The light flavor cuts through the oil in the dim sum dishes and refreshes the palate. The fragrant aroma lingers long after the liquid is consumed.

Other Notes

If you go to the restaurant mentioned and order dim sum, there are a couple of highlight dishes

  1. The steamed tripe is one of the best around. Fresh, crisp, and pure…it’s very hard to find tripe this delicious. It may seem bland, but there is no need to mask the original texture or flavor (with marinated sauce or ginger)…just a quick dip into soy sauce will suffice.
  2. The lotus-filled sesame ball is well made. A thin crunchy skin, a sweet lotus center, and a smooth mochi middle creates a worthy dessert.
  3. The mango pudding has a strong mango flavor with a smooth and creamy texture. Though the color may seem to dark, the taste is worth it.

Just a warning, this place can be busy, noisy, packed, and chaotic. For dim sum, don’t expect a quiet leisurely experience. This is a fast-paced, messy jumble with decent food and spotty service. I don’t mind because I know what I’m ordering and I’ll flag down the staff if I have a request without a second thought. In some ways, it reminds me of a busy local diner with staff scurrying about and boisterous customers devouring the food.

Business Info

South Sea Seafood Village
1420 Irving Street
San Francisco, CA 94122

Starting Up Again

I’ve tried the Food Stamp Challenge about twice this year and starting January 2010, I’ll be kicking it off again. This time, it’s gonna be crazy intense! I’ll be setting aside a cash budget of $50 in an envelope so it will be easier to track. I can shop as many times during the month as I want as long as I keep under the budget.

There are some conditions that I’ve set aside:

  • No coupons unless it is already marked off with my rewards cards
  • No processed/frozen food (unless it’s sausage and tofu)
  • Must have balanced meals (no living off of ramen and mac&cheese)
  • Can eat out twice this month (leftovers not allowed and prices don’t count in budget)
  • Spices, oil, and 10 other things in the pantry does not count (it’s a bit cheating, but it’s already in the fridge and I don’t want them to go to waste)

A lot of people say that in order to be healthy, you have to spend a lot more money than to be unhealthy. But I want to prove them wrong, it can be done…to be healthy and to be cheap are not mutually exclusive. Sure, it might not be possible for me to buy organic, but it will be ok. This challenge would probably be pretty tough, but I’m sure I can do it.

In the 50’s people had victory gardens and even Mrs. Obama recently set up a White House vegetable garden! As for me, since I live in an apartment, I am only growing basil and parsley. I don’t really have time to take care of any more plants. So, I’m not really cheating with my basil and parsley.

I’ll try to keep a better record of everything…pictures and all! Wish me luck!

Food Drama

gourmetkdrama

I love watching food programs and learning new things about food. My faves are Ace of Cakes, Dinner:Impossible, anything with Giada, Throwdown with Bobby Flay, and Unwrapped. However, few programs have prompted me to actually try the recipes or go to the restaurants that are recommended. I’m not sure why exactly, but it doesn’t motivate me to cook.

Recently, I got into Korean dramas from DramaFever and I was hooked. Gourmet is one amazing series that just makes me want to learn to cook Korean food…and be a better cook in general. Not only do they make life behind the restaurant super dramatic, the food itself becomes a character. Taste becomes the overall theme…when the taste changes, something just isn’t right.

When a restaurant becomes franchised, what happens to the taste? Is it still the same as when it was only one restaurant? I’ve been thinking about that quite a bit and I wish that I could say that the taste never changes.

For example, when Chili’s was a smaller chain, I loved its Broccoli Cheese Soup because it was hot, flavorful, and cheesy. That was one of the reasons I went to Chili’s. However, the Broccoli Cheese Soup now tastes pretty bland, watered down, and sometimes, comes out slightly cold. Now, I rarely go to Chili’s unless it’s someone’s party. What happened? Seriously, when the taste changes…it’s not quite what I remembered and it no longer appeals to me.

Lately, I’ve stayed away from chain restaurants and franchises in the hopes of finding some great local restaurants that pride itself on having great food and great service at affordable prices. My most recent finds are Bean Sprouts and Bar Food. When I think about both establishments, I think about the time they took to craft their signature dishes and the sincerity of the people in the kitchen. If all restaurants were up to that standard, I’d eat out all the time!

Vanilla Bake Shop

After a brief pause from purchasing cupcakes due to sugar overload, I’m back with more goodies. The Vanilla Bake Shop is located in Santa Monica near the 3rd Street Promenade. I wanted to venture here because I’m always at the Promenade, but I didn’t visit that bakery. There wasn’t parking near the bakery as far as I could tell, but a quick stop at the public parking structures wasn’t too far away to deter my curiosity.

The staff was friendly if a bit rushed to finish my order. There were several people coming in and out, but not so much as to create a panic. As for the tables, there was a small group holding a meeting there, but with the size of the shop, it doesn’t really make you want to sit around for long.

A large display case covered about half the space with a couple of chairs and tables nearby. There was a large menu of flavors that rotate everyday and seasonal sweets, I had to try a little bit of everything. First off, I had to get cupcakes…I tried 6 flavors out of the many they have and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Then, I saw that they just put the French macaroons out and I snagged a dozen, two in each flavor.

Taste Test

It was the first time I ever had French Macaroons and I was pleasantly surprised. A nice crisp shell with a soft cream in the center, it’s a good combination. The only thing that didn’t appeal to me was that it seemed to have too much sugar in the macaroon. I’m not sure if it’s supposed to taste as such, but that’s what it seemed like with this batch of macaroons. This experience opened my eyes to French macaroons and I think this will be a new love.

As for the cupcakes, I ordered the following flavors: red velvet, vanilla bean, old school, choolate raspberry, spicy carrot, and chocolate banana. Each cupcake had a unique flavor and interesting combinations. I have to say that the red velvet, the vanilla bean, and the old school weren’t that memorable. The chocolate raspberry, the spicy carrot, and the chocolate banana definitely stood out as well-thought out items with great ingredients. The cupcake to frosting ratio was about even and it was tasty. The look of the cupcake reminded me a bit of Sprinkles and plastic cupcakes but the taste more than made up for it. Overall, pretty good cupcakes, but it would be even better in a mini-cupcake size.

Go for the mini-cupcakes and get a good mix of flavors in your mouth.

Pictures

vanillabakeshop

macaroons

vbs cupcakes

Store Info

Vanilla Bake Shop

512 Wilshire Blvd.

Santa Monica, CA 90401

May Update

This month, I did get more fruit and veggies, but the fruit didn’t last as long as I thought. I ended up snacking a lot more than usual, having salami with cottage cheese on multi-grain crackers. Because I split up my grocery trip into two, I definitely lost less food to spoilage, which was good. Also, I realized that the fresh produce from the farmer’s market and from Trader Joe’s doesn’t last as long as ones from Ralph’s and the like. I guess that’s the difference between organic and genetically modified food.

For May, I spent $59.71 on groceries, but I went out to eat 7 times which cost a total of $201.91. In total, I spent $261.62 on food. So I ended up spending a bit more money than last month and I went out to eat 2 times more than I should have because of unplanned events.

Next time, I want to spend $50 on groceries, eat out 5 times a month while only spending $150. It’s still a large food budget, but gradually, I want to bring it down to $100.

Bar Food

Bar Food on Wilshire Blvd. is amazing and I have yet to frequent a bar that is up to this level. I gave it 4 stars on Yelp, but that’s because I’m stingy with my stars and they have potential to grow and be even better…hence the 4 star rating. Honestly, it blew me away…this is one of those few life-changing food moments.

The Atmosphere

A relatively new establishment, Bar Food is located where the old Z Robata used to reside. In keeping the previous decor, it adds a classy touch to a traditional pub. While there is only street parking in the neighborhood, it’s not tough to find a spot. Once inside, the staff are friendly, sincere, and genuinely helpful. Also, the owner, Jason, makes his rounds and makes time to talk to his customers. He’s a charming, charismatic Irishman with great stories to tell and doesn’t mind serving his customers. That’s a great touch!

They have happy hour from 5:00-6:30PM every weekday except Monday, because that’s the only day they’re closed. During happy hour, they give out free hot dogs. On a Friday night, it’s not packed and the music adds a casual, laidback ambiance. This is not a trendy hotspot, it’s a local hangout where people kickback and relax with some good food and great beer. With flexible seating arrangements, Bar Food provides a great location for larger parties and groups. If you come here regularly or even a couple of times, I bet you’d feel like you’re in Cheers…”Where everybody knows your name…”

The Drinks

Bar Food serves wine and beer, but with more emphasis on the beer. The wine selection does not list the details of the wines, only the type of wine you’d prefer. So all you wine lovers, if you want a particular bottle, tough luck. But if you’re new to wine or want to try a blind taste test, tell them what kind of white or red wine you’d like and they’ll bring you a glass.

Currently, with 12 beers on tap, it’s a great starter set. You got the standards that most people want and a couple surprises to round out the selection. I hear it’s expanding its beer selection, so don’t worry if they don’t have what you want right now, they’ll probably bring it around soon.

We tried 4 beers and they were all solid. I can’t tell you the exact spices and ingredients  in the beer, but I can say that it’s good. The Fat Tire is a standard starter with a light, crisp flavor and good carbonation. The seasonal beer right now is the Mighty with a refreshing citrus aroma. The regular Guinness is rich, dark, and creamy. The Guinness 250, the original formula, has a lighter body with a smoother taste. I’d have to say that the Guinness 250 puts the regular Guinness to shame…it’s that amazing!

The Food

I had a monster feast and with maybe two more trips, I’ll have tried most of their food menu. At first glance, it seems eclectic with regular Irish pub food and some Asian inspired snacks. But once the owner explained a bit about his Irish background and his girlfriend’s Thai ethnicity, it made more sense. Now onto the food…

The Traditional

hotdog

For $2 you can get the hot dog and it comes with ketchup, mustard, and diced onions. A pretty standard item that’s good when it’s free during happy hour, but not really something I’d especially order again.

barburger

The Bar Burger is a great burger that’s perfectly cooked at medium. With carmelized onions, bits of bacon, cheese, and some greenery, this is what a burger should taste like. With a side of ketchup for you sauce lovers, it’s a great pairing, but the burger can do find without it. This burger rivals the Father’s Office Burger and I think this one stands on top especially because it is a traditional burger.

sweetfrites

My new favorite…the sweet frites, or sweet potato fries. The fries are about the size of regular fast food fries but that’s where the similarities end. It’s cooked perfectly with a light crispiness and a soft center. The spicy aoili that comes with it adds hot kick to contast the sweetness of the sweet potato. I’d have to say that Father’s Office sweet potato fries are good, but there’s just no comparison to these ones. There is one other place that had great mind-blowing fries like these and it was a Citrus at Social Hollywood.

The Seafood

mussels

The mussels are steamed just right. At the top of the plate, they are a bit dry, but are quite fresh. The broth at the bottom is delicious! It mades a perfect dip for the buttered toast on the side. My only note is that if they added just a wee more broth, it’d be absolutely perfect.

calamari

The fried calami was also a great dish. Lightly battered and perfectly fried, it wasn’t even greasy! The sauce that was paired with it matched just right. I prefer my calamari a bit softer, but I know that if it was softer, it’d be chemically altered. So, this au naturale calamari is fine just the way it is and it doesn’t need any tweaking!

The Fusion

bangersandmash

If you know your Irish staples, you’d reconize the bangers and mash, only this is Thai Bangers and Mash. What’s the difference? Well, they have Thai sausage, a horseradish/mustard-type sauce, cilantro mashed potatoes, and some scallions on top. It’s a great spin on a old favorite and it works well. We got a bit carried away so we cut into it before we took a picture.

The Dessert

appletart

The apple tart, classic dish with a facelift that just screams gourmet! With layers of pastry and thinly sliced apples, this apple tart has a subtle apple flavor with a nice crunch. The ice cream complements the tart without overpowering it. Plus, the sauces add a nice richness to the dessert.

The Breakdown

After 4 beers and 7 dishes, the total came out to be about $80. That’s a sweet value and once you check the prices, you’ll see that everything is under $10. The menu is spectacular, but if you want the highlights, go for the Bar Burger, the Sweet Frites, the Thai Bangers and Mash, and the Guinness 250. You can’t go wrong with that selection!

I know I’ll be back.

Restaurant Info

Bar Food

12217 Wilshire Blvd.

Los Angeles, CA 90025