Try our Test Kitchen's secrets to buying budget beef and cooking up healthy Tex-Mex dishes.
April 2005: From Our Kitchen
Credit: Tina Cornett, William Dickey / styling Buffy Hargett, Cari South

Looking for an easy but impressive way to entertain? Grab a decorative planter box from the garden shop or flea market, and set up a salad bar. Few things are simpler to make than salads, and if you're really short on time, you can always purchase a great-tasting assortment from a cafe or delicatessen.

We filled our planter box with colorful bowls of Chicken Salad, fresh-cut fruit, and a favorite pasta salad made with refrigerated tortellini. (Prepare cheese tortellini according to package directions; toss with Ranch dressing, a handful of sliced green onions, and thawed frozen peas.) Store-bought crunchy breadsticks and a quick mixture of toppings (toasted sliced almonds and crumbled ramen noodles) add the finishing touches.

Cash In on Flavor
For Grilling Smarter, we passed by the premium meat counter and headed straight for the big bargains. London broil (right), an extra-thick cut of boneless top-round steak, is frequently on sale and is an economical way to serve a crowd.

At around $3.98 a pound, chuck-eye steaks (right)--not chuck steaks--are one of the trendy new cuts of beef. Cut from the chuck section traditionally sold as pot roast, these tender and flavorful steaks are an ideal choice for grilling. Top blade or flat-iron steaks also come from the chuck section and are equally inexpensive.

For maximum tenderness, these budget cuts of beef need to marinate before grilling. Be careful not to overcook them; they're best when pulled off the grill between 145° and 155°, before they reach a medium degree of doneness.

Shelf Magic
Spicy black bean dip, a versatile south-of-the-border specialty, is delicious with tortilla chips but is even better when used as a time-saving ingredient in recipes. It delivers a bold and spirited surge of Tex-Mex flavor without adding a lot of extra spices, seasonings, and fat.

We like to use it in everything from casseroles to quesadillas, replacing refried beans with an equal amount of spicy black bean dip. Try it in Mexican lasagna or on a pizza topped with salsa and shredded cheese. It's also a healthy and nutritious way to thicken and season homemade chili or vegetable soup.

Several brands of black bean dip are available, each with a slightly different flavor profile. One of our favorites for cooking with is a fat-free version made by Guiltless Gourmet (, which comes in spicy or mild. Top-rated Chicken-and-Black Bean Soup tastes as if it's simmered for hours, but is ready for the table in only 20 minutes. Serve with a skillet of hot cornbread.

Chicken-and-Black Bean Soup: Dice 1 small onion and 1/2 green bell pepper; sauté in 1 teaspoon hot oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat 3 minutes. Whisk in 4 cups chicken broth and 1 (16-ounce) jar spicy black bean dip until smooth. Bring to a boil, and stir in 2 (16-ounce) cans black beans, rinsed and drained, and 2 cups chopped cooked chicken. Cook 5 minutes or until thoroughly heated. Top individual bowls of soup with low-fat sour cream, shredded Cheddar cheese, baked tortilla strips, diced tomatoes, and avocado slices. Makes about 2 quarts. Prep: 10 min., Cook: 10 min.

This article is from the April 2005 issue of Southern Living.