My Favorite Wonder Fruit/Veggie: The Amazing Tomato!

I could sing the praises of tomatoes until I’m blue in the face, to be honest. Fresh off the vine, canned, baked, sauteed, stewed, raw–it doesn’t matter. Tomatoes are my best friend ever (no offence to my human best friends. But I can’t realistically sustain myself on your flesh. You don’t reproduce fast enough). It doesn’t hurt that they are loaded with antioxidants, vitamins, and other nutritional goodies.  That website has a good overview of everything, plus a long list of resources if you’re curious about looking into the studies themselves.

Here are a few of the many ways I like to eat my delicious red (and yellow and orange!) treasures:

  • Diced up and sauteed with olive oil and pepper over pasta. I don’t even need a real sauce, usually–a whole small tomato per serving of pasta is usually about perfect.
  • As hot soup with a hot sandwich. Tomato soup is perfect with grilled cheese, grilled ham and cheese, grilled turkey and cheese, Reubens, and so on. I make it myself sometimes, but usually I just go for the canned version with the least additives and no HFCS. Remember the rule of thumb: If you can pronounce everything on the label, and know what it does for the food, you’re usually alright.
  • Sliced, drizzled with olive oil and cracked pepper, with some mozzarella. One of my favorites to take for lunches, this is wonderful with some of the lower-acid heirloom tomatoes, since you’re eating them straight!
  • In just a big pile of sauteed veggies. I often will pull out a pan and, for dinner, saute up a pile of frozen veggies. I almost always add tomatoes to this instead of any sort of stir-fry sauce. Depending on the veggies, I top it with some cheese and serve it with sourdough bread, if the supermarket recently had any on their day-old rack.
  • Stuffed with ricotta and italian breadcrumbs. One of my favorite ways! I discovered the recipe by trial-and-error, so I’ll have to make them again before I can post it (The horror!), but you hollow out the tomatoes, reserve what flesh you take out (I toss most of the seeds usually), and mix it together with ricotta and some italian breadcrumbs in a food processor (I used a manual one. I don’t know if that makes a difference). Bake until the skins start bursting. Top with a white cheese (I used mozzarella. I really like mozzarella.) and serve! Magnificent.
  • Canned Diced, mixed with Velveeta. Okay, this isn’t remotely healthy, but I’ll be darned if it isn’t the most delicious party dip in existence!
  • With Cucumber and hummus on a sandwich. My favorite sandwich, of which I eat three or four a week, is this one. Sometimes I add sliced turkey, or spinach, or something, but most often not. Red Pepper Hummus (or garlic, or lemon, or whatever else strikes your fancy), topped with thinly sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, on a good whole-grain bread, with a spot of italian dressing. It’s delicious, quick, and easy!

I go through four or five tomatoes a week, usually, and perhaps my tooth enamel won’t thank me for it, but I can’t bring myself to remotely regret the deliciousness. What are some ways I’ve missed, to use tomatoes?

Brown-Bag Lunches

Working part-time is a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, you have so much other free time to fill. On the other hand, you don’t have any money to, for example, buy lunch near your work when you have those long days. Packing your lunch is the most economical thing to do even when you CAN afford to buy a panini from the cafe, though, so here’s my recipe for brown-bag bliss:

I’ve found that the best packed lunches are actually a variety of more snack-like items. Pick one or two from each list, and I guarantee you’ll have a complete lunch that will fill you up, for even less than Applebees’ $7.99 lunch combos.

Protein:
Ham and Cheese roll-ups–Thick-sliced deli ham, with a thin-sliced deli cheddar, colby-jack, or swiss. Two or three roll-ups should be plenty.
String Cheese–There’s plenty of interesting options out there now! Kraft has flavored string cheese, with things like Tomato-Basil Mozzarella and Cracked Black Pepper Mozzarella. String Cheese isn’t just for kids anymore!
Hard-boiled Eggs–One or two, with a dash of black pepper, or salsa, or whatever else you like your eggs with, pack perfectly! Peel them and put them in a small Tupperware container; they have some at my dollar store that are perfectly sized for two eggs.

Carbs:
Wheat Thins–A single serving size of wheat thins (or Triscuit, or any other whole-grain cracker) pairs well with sliced cheese (or the cheese sticks I mentioned!).
Cold pasta salad–Or hot, for that matter, if you want to throw it in the microwave. Watch your portion sizes, and make sure it’s a side-serving, not an entree, unless it’s more veggies than pasta. Creamy pasta salads should be accent foods.
Whole grain sandwich–My favorite has hummus, tomato, and cucumber on it, which possibly also qualifies it for the veggies portion of the lunch!
Leftover Rice–I make for myself the Zatarains Rice Pilaf for dinner some nights, but I obviously can’t eat a whole box in one sitting, so I portion the remainder out to take to work the next few days. It microwaves hot in a minute or so, and is very filling.

Fruits and Veggies:
Carrot sticks (Or celery, or cucumber, or bell pepper!)–Don’t bother with more expensive pre-cut baby carrots. It only takes a few minutes to cut a 3-lb bag of carrots into large matchsticks. Portion them out into snack baggies, and collect the snack baggies into the original carrots bag. Five minutes of prep-work gives you an excellent grab-and-go snack! Pair with ranch dressing or (my favorite) hummus.
Apples, oranges, bananas, or pears–All of these are easy to grab and eat on the run, if your break involves walking anywhere.
Tomatoes, olive oil and pepper–A little on the messier side of the spectrum, this is nevertheless a delicious, ‘gourmet’ addition to lunch. Pack it in a small Tupperware, since a baggie will be difficult to eat out of. If you want to add to it, they sell pearl-sized mozzarella balls that you can add a tablespoon or so of. Extra-Virgin Olive Oil and fresh-cracked black pepper is best, but you can make do in a pinch.

A little of everything is the best way to fill you up and get a balanced diet. The vitamins in fresh fruits and veggies, plus the energy from the combined carbs and protein, will keep you going for hours longer than a microwave ‘lean-cuisine’ meal, and it’s even cheaper than going to McDonalds!

My Budget Shopping List Staples

I think everyone has their own list of ‘staple’ foods to keep in the house. It’s largely based on what you’re into, what you like to eat, and what you can afford. There probably is, somewhere, a staple list that includes “Bread and Milk”, and that’s the long and short of it. But what about those who are lactose intolerant? Gluten intolerant? People who are cutting out HFCS?

My “Pantry Staples” list is constantly evolving, especially since I’ve been trying to eat more healthily. Originally, a loaf of bread was on my list. Since I started looking more closely at food labels, though, I’ve had to cut that off. Bakery bread is too expensive, and the wonderbread you get on the shelf generally contains as much preservatives as wheat. I’ve had to find alternatives, and it’s difficult on a budget, but I won’t compromise my health for my wallet.

It IS possible to eat healthily on a budget. They key is moderation, and know where you can spend your money and where to cut back. My staples diet list right now includes the following items:

Pasta. I know that overindulgence in grains is bad for you, but  since this is one of the cheaper bulks you can get, I feel justified in merely watching my intake. I keep an eye on the sales, and when the Barilla Plus or the Ronzoni Smart Taste pastas go on sale, I snag two or three boxes. For years, my “serving” of pasta consisted of 1/3-1/2 of a box thrown in a huge pot of water, then mixed with whatever was on hand. It took a lot of self-control and time to get to the point where one actual serving-size of pasta satisfied me, but I manage it, largely by pairing it with plenty of vegetables.

Speaking of vegetables, the next thing on my list is bags of frozen veggies. As a  fairly loyal Meijer shopper, I can only speak to their selection, but they have a decent variety of store-brand frozen vegetable mixes that pair well with my pasta, or with chicken, potatoes, eggplant Parmesan, or whatever else strikes your fancy. I stay away from their broccoli cuts, because experience tells me they aren’t that good, but their “Mexican” and “Parisian” blends are tasty and versatile.

Fresh veggies are also essential. Tomatoes, cucumbers, and, if on sale, bell peppers of all colors. Tomato, I do many things with. I could post entirely about the wonders of my favorite fruit/veggie magician, but suffice to say for now that, with the help of the cucumber and some hummus, tomato sammiches are amazing. Bell peppers chop up and freeze well to go into stir-fry and other amazing dishes.

Cheese is another thing that makes person-specific appearances. I have to have a bag of fancy shredded cheddar, and a block of pepper jack in my fridge almost at all times. I put it on pasta, potatoes, nachoes, crackers, in dips, and so on. I used to douse everything in cheese, but I’ve since learned that the one-ounce serving size works just as well for flavoring and adding some nutrients to my food. I buy full-fat cheese, except for mozzarella, because it’s like a seasoning, and I will be darned if I deprive myself of its whole deliciousness.

There are obviously a lot more things to my pantry than these, but in a pinch, if I can’t afford anything else, I make sure that’s what I have, because those are the things I never tire of eating. I’ve learned that is the key to being able to hold out on a little money. You COULD survive on Ramen, but if you get sick of it,you really are just surviving, instead of living. Instead, find some things that are inexpensive, that you can sustain on for a long time, and you’re good.