When life gives you cream cheese… make spinach-artichoke dip

I often get a random taste for something that I just can’t shake. This was the case earlier this week when I decided that I HAVE To have spinach-artichoke dip. Of course, I didn’t even have any artichokes and the frugal streak in me wouldn’t let me go to the store and buy the ingredients. If I was going to satisfy this craving, I was going to have to do it with what was in the house.

So, as with most of my recipes, this recipe should really be titled (Here’s What You Do When You Don’t Have The Right Ingredients To Make) Spinach-Artichoke Dip.  The key was finding the “magic” with the standard recipe and making sure I, at least, had the right ingredients to recreate that magic.  It turns out the special flavor in spinach-artichoke dip doesn’t come from the  spinach or artichokes- its the cheeses and raw garlic!  I know this because I tasted along the way and it was pretty blah until there was this big bang of flavor as soon as those items came together.

The actual recipe below is for a pretty spinachy dip.  It turned out to be more flexible this way and I used it as a dip, sandwich spread, inside a hamburger (Jucy Lucy), in an omelete, and as a small, low-carb side dish.  In fact, it’s been almost a week and I still have some left that I’m working through slowly.  I was thinking about stuffing the rest into mushroom caps and baking.  YUM!

Quick Hot Spinach Dip

  • 1 bag frozen spinach, defrosted and liquid squeezed out
  • 8oz cream cheese, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup mayonnaise
  • 1/2 cup mozzarella, grated
  • 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • Salt and pepper

Mix up the ingredients and microwave for a few minutes.  Stop and stir about every 30 seconds until it’s mixed well.  It doesn’t really need to be baked like many recipes but it would be nice placed in a ceramic dish, topped with some extra cheese and then broiled for a few minutes to melt the cheese.

I really think the key ingredients are the cream cheese, mayo and garlic.  The recipe above gives the classic taste minus the artichokes.   If you wanted to turn this into the real thing, I would either use half the spinach and add a can of artichoke hearts, coarsly chopped.  I think as long as you have cream cheese, mayo and garlic you can really spin off on some delicious and wild variations.  I was thinking about adding some smoked paprika and chorizo for a Spanish flavor.  Some raw vegetables like onions and celery might add a nice crunch as long as you don’t cook it too long.  It would be tasty cold but you would probably want to add in some sour cream and cut back on cream cheese or else it would be too stiff.


(Not my actual dip, but a re-enactment using paid actors)

Frugal Wines from Trader Joe’s

Being frugal doesn’t mean completely cutting out any one thing- especially wine.  Wines certainly have a place in a frugal lifestyle but trying to find delicious wines at good prices can be challenging.  I’m not going to give away the ending of the video, but will say that there are a couple of deals to be had.

I’m a huge fan of Gary Vaynerchuk, of Wine Library TV, so when I saw his review of Trader Joe’s two-buck-chuck wines I knew I would have to include that here. You might be surprised at what he finds.

Italian beef and quick giardiniera

If you live in or have ever lived in Chicago, you know about an Italian beef sandwichs with giardiniera.  When I’m in Chicago I make a point of stopping by Portillo’s or Al’s Beef for an unbelievable sandwich of juicy, flavorful beef covered with olive oil and spicy pickled vegetables.  I just had to have something like that for dinner so I came up with this easy and frugal recipe.

I don’t know how Italian an Italian beef sandwich really is, but the classic Chicago Italian beef sandwich has paper-thin beef soaking in a thin, heavily seasoned gravy piled HIGH on a crusty-on-the-outside/soft-on-the-inside Italian roll.  The sandwich is then, optionally, piled high with a mix of spicy pickled vegetables in olive oil called giardiniera.

As usual, I really didn’t have the right ingredients for this, which might be a beef rump or cross-rib roast.  I did have a nice, inexpensive chuck roast so decided to make that work.  Let me tell you that it did work!  This is the best creation I’ve made in a while.  I’m also doing this low-carb thing to drop a few pounds (already dropped 12lbs!)  so passed on the roll.  Any kind of roll would do.  I would heat them in the oven for 10 min at about 350F and then slice just before piling with beef.  If you did have a rump or similar roast, I would cook it to rare, slice thin and then simmer in the sauce for about 15min.

Italian Beef

  • 1 chuck roast
  • 2t garlic powder
  • 2t onion powder
  • 1/2t thyme
  • 1T oregano
  • 1t red chile flakes (optional)
  • 1T salt
  • 1t black pepper
  • 2 cups (or 1 can) beef broth
  • 8 cloves of garlic minced (yes, eight!)
  • 2T Worstershire sauce
  • 1t tabasco or other hot sauce (optional)
  • Crusty rolls

Mix up the spices and sprinkle 1/3 on the roast.  Set aside 1/3 for the giardiniera.  Brown the roast on both sides well in a dutch oven or similar pot over medium heat.  Add the rest of the ingredients (except the rolls, duh!)  and simmer for 1 1/2 to 2 hours on low heat, covered.  You want to roast easily slicable but not so tender that it falls apart.  You’ll need to check it periodically to make sure it doesn’t get too tender.  I think mine cooked in about 1 3/4 hours.  When it’s tender enough, take the roast out and let the sauce keep simmering to reduce a bit.  The sauce will be more like an au jus than a gravy.  Slice the roast as thin as you can and put it back in the sauce and turn off the heat.  Time to make the giardiniera.

Quick Giardiniera

  • 1/4 of a small onion, sliced thinly
  • 3T olive oil
  • 10 sport peppers or hot pickled peppers, chopped coarsely
  • 10 small pimento-stuffed olives,. chopped coarsley
  • 1T vinegar
  • 1/3 of the spice mixture above (hope you didn’t forget!)

Saute the onion in olive oil over low heat until just wilted.  Add the rest of the ingredients and turn off the heat.  Let cool and transfer to a bowl.

To assemble a sandwich, pile the beef on a hot, crusty roll and top with the giardiniera.  I put the beef into a bowl, added some sauce and topped with the giardiniera.

Sesame seeds

Sesame seeds are found in recipes from all over the world.  You’ll find them used in Mexican moles, Middle Eastern desserts, Asian dishes and topping American hamburger buns.  It’s no wonder considering how tasty and healthy they are.  Here are some good reasons to get more sesame seeds into your diet and a tasty Korean BBQ recipe that will help you sneak them past the most finicky eaters.

I’m not going to try to get into all the details of why they’re so good for you, but here are a few of the good things packed into these tiny seeds:

  • Copper, which support antiinflammatory and antioxidant enzyme systems to reduce pain and swelling and prevent cancer
  • Magnesium, which supports cardiovascular and circulatory systems to reduce asthma symptoms and lower blood pressure
  • Calcium and zinc, which supports bone strength and prevents colon cancer
  • Phytosterols, which lower cholesterol and blood pressure

Check out this page and this page for more detailed information.

So it’s not like you can just have a big bowl of sesame seeds for dinner.  My two favorite ways to sneak in some sesame seeds are hummus and this Korean BBQ recipe:

Korean BBQ

Almost any kind of meat (or tofu) will do in this recipe.  My favorites are beef short ribs, chicken thighs, tri tip, pork loin and firm tofu.  Make the marinade as much as a week in advance and marinade the meet for at least and hour and as long as 24 hours.  The most important part of this recipe is the toasted and then crushed sesame seeds.  Don’t skip that part!

  • Meat
  • 1/4 cup sesame seeds
  • 4-8 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 4 green onions, finely chopped
  • 2T ginger, finely chopped
  • 1 cup soy sauce
  • 1/2 cup oil
  • 2T agave or sugar

Toast sesame seeds in a dry skillet over medium heat until they turn a light brown and are fragrant.  Put them in a blender or food processor and pulse until mostly crushed.  Smell that flavor!!!  Combine the rest of the ingredients and either keep in the fridge until ready to use or pour on your meat to marinade.  Wait as long as you can stand it and then fire up the grill and cook over high heat to get a good char.  Cook until finished and serve with kimchi and rice or whatever else your family likes.  Leftovers are possibly even better!

Summer salad formula

Here’s another example of using “formula cooking”.  Tonight I was really in the mood for something *LIKE* potato salad.  I didn’t have any potatoes but I wasn’t going to let a trivial problem like that stand in my way.  I used the formula for potato salad and came up with a very tasty quinoa and vegetable salad that was exactly what I was craving.

The formula for potato salad is pretty simple:

  • Some cooked starchy vegetable(s)
  • Some aromatic vegetable(s)
  • Some mayonnaise-like binder
  • Some seasoning

I had some cooked quinoa and left over sauteed green beans and mushrooms.  Here is what I came up with:

Summer Quinoa and Vegetable salad

  • 3/4 cup cooked quinoa
  • 1/2 cup cooked green beans. chopped
  • 1/4 cup cooked mushrooms, chopped
  • 1/4 cup frozen peas, defrosted
  • 3 green onions, chopped
  • 1T fresh parsley, chopped
  • 3T mayonnaise
  • salt and pepper to taste

Mix it all up.  Makes about 3 servings.

The frugal formula

In this post, I proclaim that I am the creator of the phrase “formula cooking“.  I’ve googled around and can find no other references to this that aren’t about something completely different.  After this phrase catches on and gets it’s own Wikipedia page, you can say that you read it here first!  Even if I actually am the first to use the phrase, I’m far from the creator of formula cooking and to some extent every professional and home cook does this every day.  I wanted to explain my thoughts around formula cooking because it’s a fun way to cook and super frugal, of course.

Formula cooking is the idea that behind every recipe there is a formula.  The formula dictates what kinds of things go into a recipe and roughly what’s done with them.  That formula might be the same for literally hundreds or thousands of similar recipes but with each combination of specific ingredients yields something unique.  The easiest way to illustrate is with an example.

Here is a recipe for Macaroni and cheese:

  • 1lb elbow macaroni, cooked al dente
  • 8oz sharp cheddar cheese, grated
  • 1/2cup milk
  • 2T flour
  • 1t salt
  • 1cup seasoned bread crumbs

Mix first 5 ingredients and pour into a small baking dish.  Cover with bread crumbs and bake at 350F for 30 minutes or until bubbly.

This is a simple recipe but specifies exactly what goes into the dish and in what order.  Here is a formula for Macaroni and cheese:

  • Some kind of pasta
  • Some kind of cheese
  • Some kind of sauce
  • Some kind of seasoning
  • Some kind of topping

Mix in some order and heat until all ingredients are cooked.

With this formula, you can create a practically unlimited number of dishes that could be called macaroni and cheese but are distinctly different from the first recipe.  You already do this when you happen to be out of cheddar cheese and substitute monterey jack instead.  Now, think about every part of a recipe being replaceable and your now using formula cooking.  This flexibility will allow you to create your own variation that might be:

  • Healthier
  • More suited to the tastes of your family
  • Easier to prepare
  • More interesting
  • Better matched to another dish that this will accompany
  • Best of all… Less expensive to make!

Now let’s say that I’m planning to make a Cajun meatloaf for dinner tonight.  The meatloaf is already in the oven and I need to make a quick side dish.  There are some chopped vegetables left from making the meatloaf.  I have some left over rotelli pasta that’s already cooked and some mild cheddar I got on sale because my family doesn’t like sharp cheddar.  Why not make a Cajun macaroni and cheese to go with the Cajun meatloaf?  Here’s what I come up with.

Cajun Stove top Mac & Cheese

  • 1lb Rotelli pasta, cooked (pasta)
  • 6oz mild cheddar, grated (cheese)
  • 2T flour (sauce)
  • 2T butter (sauce)
  • 1/2 cup milk (sauce)
  • 1/2 cup onions, chopped (seasoning)
  • 1/4 cup bell pepper, chopped (seasoning)
  • 1/4 cup celery, chopped (seasoning)
  • 1/4 cup andouille sausage, diced (seasoning)
  • 2t Cajun seasoning salt (seasoning)
  • 5 dashes Tabasco (seasoning)
  • 1/2 cup stale goldfish crackers, crushed

Cook the butter and flour over medium heat in a large sauce pan until the flour turns lightly brown.  Add the onions, bell pepper and celery and cook about 5 minutes or until soft.  Add the andouille and seasoning salt.  Add the cheese and milk and stir until it forms a sauce.  Add the pasta and tabasco.  Turn off the heat and let sit for 5-10 minutes for it to thicken.  Sprinkle with the crushed crackers.  Serve with Cajun meatloaf!

I’ve never made the above recipe, but bet it would be good!  It’s just an example to show how when you use the formula you can come up with something completely different that you can be pretty certain will still be recognizable, and probably delicious.  Next time you’re looking at a recipe, see if you can figure out the formula.  If you do that, I bet you’ll immediatly come up with ideas to make your own version that’s probably even better!