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Restaurant Junkie

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Just so you know, when you eat out or order in for a full month your wallet shrinks and your waist-line bulges. It may be fun and relaxed during that time. The feel of a menu in hand may become second nature. Different places you “always meant to try” are given a chance. You call a friend up for a quick bite out more often. If your poison is dining out, you may stroll around the neighborhoods, taking walks after meals more readily than if dining at home.

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“Try this,” prompts the bartender and suddenly you are tasting an amazing wine you’d be ignorant of had you been home sitting in your pajamas drinking PBR eating PBJ. Ordering in allows you the luxury of trading in that humble PBJ for a swankier calzone while still donning  pajamas. Eventually however, you do not come to feel very well. Your body becomes accustomed to, addicted to even, greasy take-out. Your cells yearn for fresh produce. Lack of dish-washing, it seems, also equates to lack of energy. The doorman might receive you with looks of either pity or judgment each time you go to pick up your super spicy hot pepper beef with extra veggies and a side of egg rolls. Your neighbors may single you out as the one whose recycling burgeons out with plastic take-out trays and menus.

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And even if you have mastered the art of ordering the healthiest dishes offered, it is unlikely your income can keep up forever. $40 worth of food ordered from a restaurant is not equivalent to $40 worth of groceries. No amount of justifying leftovers or Groupons will make up for that. Also, dining out often leads to drinking out which ups the tab considerably, 1- because drinks are expensive and 2 – drinks make you forget the price of drinks which leads to ordering more rounds of drinks.

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It wasn’t an experiment or a  conscious decision. I have not been travelling (unfortunately) or trying to woo anyone incessantly. It just somehow happened that I ate out for an entire month. Whether ordering, picking up food on the way home or eating out I avoided home-cooked meals. My bank account and body suffered tremendously as a result. To break myself of this terrible streak I made a shopping list the length of a Russian novel and headed with my boyfriend- the incredibly patient Ryan – to the grocery store to fill the pantry and fridge with mostly healthy things.

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Following my absence from the kitchen (aside from re-heating delivery pizza) I decided to ease back into cooking with a fond, nourishing dish easily thrown together with sausage, swiss chard and some type of grain. Luckily I had picked up farro, one of those versatile, filling grains with a deliciously nutty quality that I somehow always, and unforgivably, overlook.

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I am not sure if it is every Trader Joe’s or just the one we go to down State Street, but it has about two dozen different varieties of chicken sausage.  Curiosity led me to grab the Maple syrup and apple package that works in this dish  if you love sweet and savory flavors together, but I see how it could be more successfully highlighted at breakfast.

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So here is a recipe after a month-long hiatus of cooking. Something simple, clean and refreshing after all of the deliciously heavy meals I have had this month. Something to warm you up if you are as cold as I am here in Chicago and something to fill you up if you are lucky enough to be warm right now and just simply hungry. Enjoy.

Farro and Chicken Sausage with Rainbow Swiss Chard

For the farro:
½ c quick-cook farro*
1 c broth (chicken or vegetable)
olive oil
2-3 chicken sausages, cut into rounds
1 Tbsp butter
½ c diced onion
1 clove garlic, chopped
salt and pepper, to taste

For the swiss chard:
1 bunch rainbow swiss chard, cleaned and dried
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp red pepper flakes
1 tsp olive oil
¼ cup broth (chicken or vegetable)
salt and pepper, to taste

Add farro to 1 cup broth in a saucepan. Set on high and cover until boiling. Watch as it has a tendency to boil over at this point. Reduce heat to low, cover again and let it simmer very gently for about 10 minutes. Remove from heat  when it’s al dente and let farro stand for another 5 minutes, still leaving pot covered. Drain any excess liquid. Season with some salt and pepper and set aside.

Next, prepare the swiss chard. I chose rainbow to add some color to the meal, but it really doesn’t matter. You can even substitute kale. Take the swiss chard stalks and chop them into small pieces. Set a medium sauté pan over medium heat and add the oil. Add the garlic and sauté until it becomes lightly golden in color. Add the swiss chard and the broth and stir to coat the leaves. Cover pan and cook for about 5 minutes. Stir leaves again and check for tenderness. They should be just wilted but not too crunchy in the center. Add the red pepper and salt and pepper to taste.

In a medium skillet over medium-high heat add a dash of olive oil. Add the chicken sausage pieces to the pan and brown them. Once done, remove these to a plate.

Add the butter, onion and garlic to the skillet and sauté these until tender, adding a little pat of more butter if you need to. This should take about 5 minutes. Add the farro, chicken sausage and stir everything together until warmed through. Serve on top of or stir together with the swiss chard.

* I found quick-cook farro at Trader Joe’s, however this can be done with regular farro just be sure to pre-soak the grain for 30 minutes, drain and then gently simmer for about 30-45 minutes.

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After Work Snack

This recipe is actually from awhile ago, but I thought of it today on the train ride home as I was drifting off for a short nap with Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones, and Butter in my clutch. Not because it was boring by any means, she is a great writer and her stories are somehow more outlandish given that they are true. She is a deeply determined chef who builds a great restaurant from nothing, earns an MFA, marries an Italian professor…well, I am vastly oversimplifying this incredible person’s experiences and abilities, but I meant to say that the memoir would never lull me to sleep. I was exhausted and pretty hungry. Perhaps it was my meager lunch of lentil soup that a co-worker described as “cat-food mixed with that gravy stuff”; or it could have been the fact that I was reading a book about food by the owner of Prune, but I longed for something comfy and homemade…that I could eat soon.

Stuffed mushrooms are an indulgence relatively easy to make, customizable, and universally adored. Usually we reserve such appetizers for company, but with this particular recipe found on smittenkitchen I had the key to some delicious finger food. Reluctantly, I cut the recipe to about a quarter of the amount. Forty-eight mushrooms stuffed with cheese and bacon sitting in my fridge would have just been a glorious mistake.

Roasted Mushrooms Stuffed With Feta, Spinach and Bacon

Bon Appetit, October 2001
Makes about 48

8 ounces bacon slices

1 cup chopped onion

1 10-ounce package chopped frozen spinach, thawed, squeezed dry

4 ounces feta cheese, crumbled (about 3/4 cup)

4 ounces cream cheese, room temperature

1/4 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper

2 3/4 pounds button mushrooms (about 48; each about 1 1/2 inches in diameter), stemmed

Preheat oven to 375°F. Cook bacon in heavy large skillet until crisp, about 8 minutes. Transfer bacon to paper towels to drain. Coarsely crumble bacon. Discard all but 1/4 cup plus 2 teaspoons bacon fat (adding olive oil if necessary to equal that amount).
Heat 2 teaspoons reserved bacon fat in heavy medium skillet over medium heat. Add chopped onion and saute until tender, about 5 minutes. Transfer to medium bowl and cool; mix in bacon, spinach, feta, cream cheese, and crushed red pepper. Season filling to taste with salt and pepper.
Line 2 large rimmed baking sheets with foil. Toss mushrooms and reserved 1/4 cup bacon fat in large bowl to coat. Sprinkle mushrooms with salt and pepper. Place mushrooms, rounded side down, in single layer on prepared baking sheets. Bake mushrooms until centers fill with liquid, about 25 minutes. Turn mushrooms over. Bake mushrooms until brown and liquid evaporates, about 20 minutes longer. Turn mushrooms over again. Spoon 1 heaping teaspoon filling into each mushroom cavity. (Filled mushrooms can be prepared 1 day ahead. Cover and refrigerate.)

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