4th Meals, At Home.

Continuing on the theme of DIY fast-food favorites, let’s head south of the border.

For most students, especially in the Pacific Northwest, a college diploma comes with an intimate knowledge of Mexican cuisine and, inevitably, discerning personal taste for the preparation of its dishes.

Tacos, fajitas, burritos, enchiladas; most Mexican fare is simple to make — they require few ingredients and are inexpensive at that.

And, while no one can deny the convenience of late-night Muchas runs, in terms of nutritional concerns, making Mexican food at home is by far the healthier choice for fulfilling these cravings — no matter what the Taco Bell diet claims, fresher ingredients that aren’t deep-fat fried are always the way to go.

What’s more, you can make these dishes exactly how you like them, for comparable time and cost.

For example, the ever-convenient quesadilla is easy to make and can accommodate endless variations. Plus, its prep time is five minutes, tops.

For even more flavor, try adding some other, sautéed veggies to your creation. Here’s how.

As you can see, knowing how to sauté is a kitchen basic that can open up a lot of menu options, so make sure and practice this technique!

So, when it comes to Mexican food, have it the way you like it and make it at home — your body will thank you for it.

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Let’s try this at home…

Let’s face it; besides their convenience, there’s another reason people keep turning to frozen and/or prepackaged meals: They taste good.

Be it Lean Cuisine, Stoffers or Digiorno’s, however, these pre-made products often provide customers with more than they bargain for: i.e., empty calories, preservatives and high levels of sodium and saturated fats.

Not so lean, huh?

Luckily, there’s a solution: Most all of these recipes can be replicated at home for much less monetary and nutritional cost.

For those who like Hamburger Helper, here’s a comparable recipe courtesy of my roommate, Sarah, sans the preservatives.

It’s simple:

Brown some ground beef,


Cook some pasta,


Grate some cheese,


Stir in a can of tomato sauce, along with garlic powder, onion powder and parsley to taste,

And mix it all together!


As you can see, this recipe makes enough for several meals and can be stored in the refrigerator for up to four days. This boils down to less than 20 minutes of cook time for at least four meals, depending on your appetite, not including the time it takes to reheat the food in the microwave.

So, let’s get to the bottom line.

Comparing the marginal differences between the prep times of home-cooked and prepackaged meals and the vast ones between costs per dish and nutritional content of these options, the choice is clear: DYI is the way to go.

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Sweet Nothings.

For those with a sweet tooth who are familiar with the food pyramid, it seems like a cruel irony that some of the best-tasting foods fall in the “eat sparingly” category at its peak.

Especially for students who keep late hours and live dangerously close to Cold Stone Creamery and Albertson’s cheesecake cooler, the temptation for dessert is hard to resist.

Knowing the nutrition information behind some perennial favorites, however, helps to sour their taste for those committed to healthier fare.

Forbes.com compiled a list of the worst offenders, which may or may not surprise you:
•    Death by Chocolate
•    Apple Crumb Pie
•    Chocolate Cheesecake
•    Carrot Cake
•    Banana Split
•    Strawberry Shortcake
•    Key Lime Pie
•    Bread Pudding
•    Peach Cobbler
•    Tiramisu

As you can see, even the mention of fruit in the title isn’t enough to calorically redeem these dishes.

What doom most of these recipes are their calls for sugar and butter, and by extension fat, which are found both in their crust/shortcake bases.

Discouraged?

Not to worry, luckily some variations on these favorites preserve much of their flavor for at much less of a nutritional cost.

Try, for example, berries with homemade whipped cream:

Raspberries & Cream

Or else these other, healthier variations on the classics

Of course, everything is fine in moderation, but who wants to be thinking about portion sizes all the time?

So, the next time those late-night sugar cravings strike, head for the fruit bowl instead of the ice cream bowl — it’ll taste just as nice.

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All-in-One.

Moving in from eating out, let’s shift gears and concentrate a bit more on entertaining a crowd at home.

For many, the thought of learning to cook is dampened by the thought of purchasing the “necessary” kitchen tools.

Unless you’re planning on becoming a true gourmand, however, it probably isn’t a requirement that you own an asparagus peeler.

For my last birthday I received a Magic Bullet from my parents. For this post I decided to test whether or not the appliance lives up to its claim of negating the need to buy separate blenders, food processors, etc.

As part of this experiment, I made salsa and smoothies for around eight friends; even accounting for a degree of what I’m assuming was user error, I’d say my results were mixed.

Magic Bullet – Seven-Second Salsa

What is not mentioned in the Magic Bullet 10-Second Recipes pamphlet is that the perfectly blended salsa made on the Bullet’s popular infomercial is achieved through the pre-dicing of its ingredients.  In my case, the large pieces of tomato ended up getting stuck to the blade and being pulsed into a not-so-appealing liquid form.

The result? A bubbly, light-pink mixture with the consistency of — let’s face it — vomit.

Luckily, my roommates were brave enough to try a bit and said it tasted good enough overall.

The Magic Bullet’s drink blending abilities, on the other hand, are far superior.

Magic Bullet – Smoothies

Blend time would obvious increase if real fruit pieces were added to the mix, but using concentrate only, each drink took around 30 seconds, ice included!

Perhaps the biggest advantage to the Magic Bullet is ability to cut down clean-up time considerably. Aside from a knife, a cutting board and mugs, the Magic Bullet was the only other tool used for preparation, and its plastic parts are dishwasher-safe — a definite plus.

Also, aside from the Bullet’s initial cost, which runs around $55, the ingredients for both recipes easily served eight for under $20, making this scenario realistic for “starving” college students.

All in all, as with most “as-seen-on-TV,” the Magic Bullet’s results aren’t as pretty as advertised. However, as it is easy to use and maintain, the product is a practical purchase for those looking for simplicity in their kitchen tools.

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Good Fortune.

Rounding out our survey of area happy hours, let’s take a look at a restaurant that, although it’s an hour away, has some of the best prices and the healthiest food around:

P.F. Chang’s China Bistro

P.F. Chang’s hours and food prices are easy enough to remember; its happy hour selections are offered for between $3 and $6 daily from 3 to 6 p.m.

Unfortunately for Oregonians, state liquor law prohibits the restaurant from discounting its drink menu to between $3 and $6 as well, as is the case in its locations in other states.

As happy hour is offered in the bistro’s bar and its main dining room, all ages can enjoy these prices.

Unlike the other happy hours we’ve seen, which revolve heavily around bar standards — meat and potatoes; chips and salsa; fried everything — P.F. Chang’s’ menu actually offers a change to get your daily serving of vegetables as well.

Photo via: http://www.prudentialcenter.com/i/tenant/image/pfchangs.jpg

It’s crispy green beans, lettuce wraps, dumplings, spring rolls and egg rolls are all guilt-free. Plus, they are served in such generous portions that, depending on how many you share it with, they can easily replace more expensive entrée options; one portion of green beans, for example, can easily serve two to three.

Moreover, the menu appeals to vegetarians and carnivores alike, as several options come in meat and veggie varieties, and shrimp, beef, chicken and tuna are all represented in one form or another.

Of course, as P.F. Chang’s is located in Bridgeport Village, whatever money is saved in the restaurant is diverted to the gas tank. To remedy this problem, take a group and split the bill — it’s worth it!

Along with drive time, expect a wait once you’re there; P.F. Chang’s is popular, but it’s popular for a reason. Fortunately, once you’re seated its staff is friendly, attentive and well worth the wait!

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Brew food.

For our third stop, let’s hit another 3rd street hot spot:

Golden Valley Brewery

Capping off 3rd Street’s culinary attractions at the corner of 4th and Johnson, Golden Valley Brewery draws attention for its array of in-house drafts — 10, to be exact — and high quality food.

Golden Valley’s sampler draws some of the restaurant’s biggest numbers

Photo via: http://www.thebrewsite.com/images/breweries/golden-valley-sampler.jpg

Offering a wider variety than Hotel Oregon, its full-price menu items range from pasta to fish to burgers.  Unfortunately, its happy hour selections are slightly more limited and are only available….

GVB offers standard bar food items such as chips and salsa, fries — both regular and Cajun — for a dollar a plate and burgers for under $5. However, this burger, the largest item on the menu, is not available on Fridays, presumably because of demand.

There are also some welcome, healthier surprises; its side salad and spinach dip with pita are guilt-free selections ranging from $1 to $3 that satisfy the taste buds as well.

This menu also comes with a word of caution — small portions on these items make it difficult to substitute happy hour items for a full meal and may make it tempting to resort to fatty, fried options that are inevitably more filling.

Like McMenamin’s, GVB’s menu is made more appealing in that it’s available to everyone in the restaurant regardless of age. The Brewery’s open floor plan, long tables and outdoor seating are prefect for groups; there’s even a pair of adjoining party rooms that can be reserved for no extra cost.  Moreover, its staff is also graciously accommodating of large groups of college students and their requests for separate checks.

Although its happy hour food is vastly overshadowed by its drink selection, GVB is earns points for its seating and its service and is a must for all ages.

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El Primo, not so prime?

Alright, well, because of an unfortunate and extremely ill-timed camera malfunction, our exploration of McMinnville’s happy hour menus has been accelerated.

Let’s continue our journey, stopping at a place for those looking to spice up their lives.

El Primo

Probably the closest available happy hour menu for Linfield students, you could throw a rock from Linfield’s main, Oak Grove entrance and hit El Primo’s front door. Besides its convenience, El Primo also offers some of the cheapest food to boot.

Aside from its drink menu (which runs strong, by the way), the Mexican restaurant offers a variety of dishes to share; flautas, taquitos (see below), mini quesadillas or the fiesta Mexicana  — a sampling of all of the above — all for under $5 each. Moreover, one dish is more than enough for two people, making it even more budget friendly.

Photo via: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_AB3sA1n5jeM/SVasrxuh6CI/AAAAAAAABfk/NBNdrGG2_ZQ/s400/Taquitos.jpg

However, those looking for a nutritious meal should proceed with caution.

As with most Mexican fare, most all of El Primo’s menu items have been fried and are a consistently golden brown hue — the only color on the plate comes from the pico de gallo and guacamole that is served up on the side of each dish.  With these options, it becomes difficult to satisfy the type of dietary balancing prescribed by the food pyramid — and common sense.

Another negative to El Primo’s happy hour selections is the atmosphere in which it is offered. While the main restaurant contains plenty of seating, the happy hour menu is only available in its bar area — a much smaller space that is off-limits to minors and so dark you can hardly see your food. This makes it difficult to seat more than four per party.

El Primo no doubt has some of the cheapest happy hour food around, but it is by no means the healthiest; for those who are truly committed to eating right, spend more and order off the main menu to throw some vegetables into the mix.

Otherwise, at-home Mexican food is a better, more cost effective option.

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