Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Bread Stories and Grocery Breakdown: November

November turned out to be a really good month for our budget (at least in groceries). We only spent $110! And we went shopping a lot, like twice a week. We opted not to do a breakdown that month because of time constraints, and also for another reason which will be explained later.. but I can say that it has something to do with a new year's resolution...

In the meantime I can tell you the Epic of the Bread Maker.

For my birthday this year, the gift which I received and covet the most is a small bread maker. I had been making our own bread for a while, and it was tedious. I had to take up the whole day in the house, tending the rising dough, putting some elbow grease into the kneading, and carefully shaping the loaves before baking.

All this has changed.

I borrowed a bread maker from one of Hillary's co-workers, and it was delightful! I was able to start a loaf by just dumping in the ingredients and pushing start. I was then free for several hours to do as I pleased (I mostly spent this time staring in wide-eyed wonderment at the bread maker wobbling on the counter). But, there were some downsides. It came with no instructions (usually not a hindrance, but in this case, yes), it came with no recipes, and it was a very large maker, designed for 2.5 lb loaves. For comparison, the loaves you buy in the store are usually 1.5 lb. For these reasons, it sat on the shelf above the small pantry for a long time, conversing with the jugs of canola oil.

Then, the gift came. I received a smaller bread maker from Hillary, who took the time to look up several recipes specifically written by the manufacturer for this machine, and included them in a small booklet along with the maker. This bread maker also had an additional feature: a built in start timer. I was now able to make a batch of bread which I KNEW would come out right because the recipe was written for this machine, and I was also able to start the bread before I went to bed so that we could wake up to a delicious loaf of the fresh stuff, waiting to be sliced and toasted.

I knew this was going to save us tons of time and money. Time, insofar as the bread can be made to be ready at any time; it can even cook while we are at work for dinner that night! And money, because I had already calculated earlier that a loaf of bread costs us around a quarter of what a store-bought loaf might cost, which is around a Quarter. Thats right, homemade bread for nearly 25¢!

And the best part is, bread makers can be found for right around $5 at any thrift store. There are probably dozens that you've been overlooking for ages. Take one home, wash it out, and make you some bread. Its a four hour investment that gives returns deliciously and infinitely.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Puffed Pancake

Puffed pancake is something that I have grown up with, but if you are unfamiliar with the concept, it is a German dish that is equal parts eggs, milk, and flour poured into a hot buttered pan and baked. Basically, it is the yummiest thing you have never heard of. You serve it with lemon butter and powdered sugar, and it is heaven. My mom always used to make them from a recipe in a little Pillsbury "Come to Brunch" cookbook. I first started making them back in high school and after a few friends had tried them it became a regular event. So I can honestly say it is one of those recipes that I can do with my eyes closed. The ingredients also happen to be things that you will almost always have on hand.

Ingredients:
  • 5 eggs
  • 1 1/4 c. milk
  • 1 1/4 c. flour
  • 1 stick butter
Heat oven to 375, place 3/4 of the butter in an oven-safe 12" skillet and place in oven. Beat the eggs and milk together and add flour a little at a time and stir. The mixture should have small lumps in it, do not over-mix. Once the butter in the pan is bubbling, pour in egg mixture and bake for 23 to 25 minutes.

Note: Pancake will puff up about 5 inches higher than the pan, but alas, this does not last once you remove it from the oven.

While it is cooking melt the remaining butter and add to it lemon juice and powdered sugar until it tastes the right amount of tangy. There is no recipe for this part, just add until it tastes the way you like it.

Spoon lemon butter over hot pancake and enjoy.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas Goodies

We thought it would be a good idea to get into the season this week as Christmas nears and make some cookies and other goodies. AJ has been begging to make marmalade since we picked up a bag of navel oranges a week ago (remember, it's orange season!) so we got out the pectin and the canning jars and prepared half a batch, and then threw in some blackberry as well since we already had everything out.

Then thanks to some couponing and sales we got gingerbread cookie mix for under a dollar a pouch. Nothing says Christmas like fresh gingerbread! Whip up some easy royale icing and you are good to go.

Next on the list are rum balls (a recipe from AJ's grandmom). These are going to Hill's brother, but you can bet we will be sneaking a few. The trick for these is to make them a few days in advance and let them mature otherwise they stay crumbly, and the flavor of the rum doesn't really come out.

On Thursday we are going to a Christmas pajama party and the plan is to make some yummy homemade bread and whip up some honey cinnamon butter. Looks like eating less sugar is going to be on our resolution list!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Shopping at Home

No, the title of this post is not about buying groceries online, but it might as well be that simple. By stocking up on staples each week you can create a pantry that allows you to "shop" for most ingredients without ever leaving the house.

Now this is not something that you can do overnight, and if you try you will spend a great deal more money than you needed to. We have been working on this for close to a year now and we are still far from completed. Basically we started off by buying basic cooking ingredients that we use on a regular basis (beans, flour, rice, etc.) Then as we started using coupons we started buying things that could be frozen to stay fresh longer. Thus next we bought a small chest freezer. This allows us to store cheese, meat, veggies and lots of extra prepared meals easily. Finally, we noticed that the small plastic shelving we were using for our dry staples was becoming a little crowded. So when we spotted some shelving materials on sale at a local home improvement store we quickly created a set of shelves with over 30 feet of shelf space.

[pic of shelves]

While our pantry looks pretty well stocked, we have a long way to go. So here are some tips to get you started on your own pantry.
  1. Pick a pantry location. This can be a closet, space in a garage or basement, a designated pantry in a kitchen, or even a shelf in a studio apartment. Anyone with any size space can have a pantry, you just might need to be creative to figure out where it will go.
  2. Make a list. You can find all kinds of pantry staple lists on the vast internets, but that list will only work if those items are ones you and your family uses regularly. For us that means lots of legumes and pasta and a little meat. If you don't use quinoa or garbanzo beans (or don't know what they are) don't make those a part of your pantry.
  3. Start stocking up. This part will take a while, but it will happen. Every time you go grocery shopping set aside a portion of your budget for staples (20% is a good number to start with). Look for coupons and sales to get items at good prices.
  4. Organize your spoils. Choose a system that works for you. We gave a shelf to canned goods, one for pasta, another for cereal/breakfast, and so on.
    Our freezer is also as organized as a chest freezer can be.
  5. Replace and rotate. Once your pantry is totally stocked keep track of what's running low and replace these items. If you plan well hopefully your stock will last until the next big sale so you will be paying pennies on the dollar for that item. Your eventual goal will be to only buy a few items on any given shopping trip, most of them fresh plus anything that is running low.
Now go forth and stock up, good luck.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Breakfast for Dinner

The other day I was reading a new issue of Parents mag (still don't know how I got signed up for it), and there was this recipe for Peanut Butter and Jelly Pancakes. I thought to myself "hey, that sounds good for this weekend", and then thought "why not make these for dinner tonight?"

Breakfast for dinner is not a new concept, obviously, but it can be a great idea for fitting in some cheap meals. Most breakfast fare is cheap (think eggs) and nutritious since it's that all-revered first meal of the day. Add to that the fact that most of the needed ingredients are typically ones you have on hand and it's a recipe for success (pun intended).

So why not try it? And why not start with the recipe mentioned above? Kids and adults alike will love it and there will be no whining about finishing it all.

Peanut Butter and Jelly Pancakes (slightly adapted for Parents January 2011)
  • 1 cup flour
  • 1 cup prepared dry milk (or regular whatever is on hand)
  • 1/2 cup peanut butter
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • butter for pan
Whisk together dry ingredients. Slightly melt peanut butter in microwave (about 30 sec.). Mix in peanut butter, milk, oil and sugar. Heat skillet on medium now and add butter or spray. Allow batter to rest about five minutes. Ladle 1/4 cup batter per pancake onto skillet and cook until bubbles pop on surface, flip and cook until golden brown. Serve with homemade preserves or jam.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Cutie Patootie

It's everyone's favorite time of year!

No, I'm not talking about the fat jolly guy. It's clementine orange season! These little oranges are the best all-around snacking orange: easy to peel, easy to separate, no seeds at all, and deliciously sweet!



Regular prices for these babies are pretty high, but coupons can be found here and there, and the price is totally worth it!! Isn't it?

Really?

Well, consider this: Every Cutie brand clementine is shipped from California. Many other growers are stationed around the world. That means the minimum that my orange would have to travel to get from the tree to my stomach is about 2200 miles. One brand I saw in meijer comes from Spain!

Next, consider the process of growing and protecting the orange trees. Trees are hardy plants, but the fruit is very fragile, and must be guarded with pesticides and other such chemicals, much of which can find its way into your food. Luckily this is not as pronounced in oranges, as they are also protected by a peel which we... peel. So any surface residue is removed.

Lastly, although oranges are currently in season, we are able to procure these morsels any time of year. How is this you might ask? We reach out farther and farther away from home to get the perfect oranges, wherever they may be growing that time of year. This means they must be shipped farther back from our hands to our mouths, half a world away if necessary. That's quite a bit more than California's 2200 miles, yes? Of course there is canning, but it can't compare to a fresh orange.

I would challenge you to try to find fruit that is in season when you go to look for snacks. It is always better for the earth, and usually better for your budget as well. These cuties for example. Or a 4lb. bag of navel oranges for $2. Or how about fresh Michigan apples in the fall at 89 cents a pound? Squash for 27 cents at late harvest, and corn, too? Strawberries on sale in early summer and cherries in the late summer?

Any way you look at it you're getting the freshest possible food at the best possible price. What could you stand to lose? So go grab some of those clementines and enjoy yourself, but when February hits, I would urge you to find something new which is in season.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Giving Thanks

Well Thanksgiving is over, and we promised to share our debut in hosting the big day. All of the planning went very well, and we were all set with all the ingredients when we started cooking. No last minute trips to the store a la Bill Cosby (sorry we were watching old episodes).

So here's our portion of the feast:

Turkey
Green Bean Casserole

Cranberry Sauce
Borscht (that's beet soup for those of you who aren't Polish)
Pierogies

Stuffing
Rolls


We planned our dinner for around 2:00 p.m. and started cooking around 11. The first thing we had to figure out was how to cook so many different things at so many different temps. Luckily we made the borscht and the cranberry sauce the night before (since they were cold anyway). We also had some stove top items such as mashed potatoes and the stuffing. Then we put the turkey in at a slightly higher temp and put the pierogies in the toaster oven (love that thing).

Hill's mom was asked to provide a dessert and sweet potatoes, but she went above and beyond and also provided salad, and caramelized onions. At one point on the phone she started complaining about how much money she spent on these items (total teachable moment) so Hill mentioned stocking up, utilizing coupons, and buying on sale in the future.

Here's a look at our Thanksgiving Table


All in all it was a fantastic meal with plenty of leftovers for the rest of the weekend.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Food Clubs

This past weekend a friend invited me to go with him to Sam's Club since he got a free membership through work. Sam's Club is one of the many warehouse club stores that have proliferated the grocery scene in recent years. The premise is this: you pay a membership fee and get to shop in a member's only store with discounts compared to regular grocers. So the question is, is this really a good deal? Actually a little over a year ago Andrej and I had a Sam's membership, but we never used it so we did not renew. But I was willing to give the whole thing a fresh perspective.
  1. Size: My first major impression of the store is that it basically looks like a big warehouse (that's what it is after all), but it's so big it seems hard to locate what you are looking for.
  2. Variety: There is a great variety of items to purchase, not just food, electronics, linens, banquet ware, even furniture, but we didn't stop to look too closely at this stuff.
  3. Brands: Almost everything is name brand here, so if you like Nabisco and Pillsbury you are likely to think it is a great deal, but if you shop more a la Aldi you might be a bit shocked by the price.
  4. Price per ounce: Most of the items I looked at were not a better price per ounce than I would find on sale at a normal grocer. Plus, many items come in huge cans that would have to be used quickly once opened. There were items that came in packs so you didn't have to open the whole thing at once, but mostly the sizes were good only for very large families.

Overall I was not super impressed. I only bought 3 items and spent about $20. One of those items was a pack of frozen mini spinach pies which I figured would last through three meals at a price of $3 per meal. The frozen section is one of the only benefits I find in the store. Most everything else could be found elsewhere for less. Plus if I was paying a membership (about $36 per year) I'd have to make that up before seeing any savings. So bottom line, if you have a friend to go with definitely check it out, but beware the huge packages which romance you into ideas of savings and check the price per unit to be sure it's a good deal before buying.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Soup Season

Fall is here, sorta (it's been a weird year for weather here in the great white north). Conveniently this is also squash season. We picked up a bit on a recent shopping expedition for about $.25 per pound. For this week I planned a butternut squash soup and a cream of carrot. I think a pumpkin soup will be in the works for later. I love squash of all forms, it has such a rich texture and flavor and is perfect in a variety of dishes, and when it's in season it's really cheap.

I used a basic squash recipe from allrecipes.com and modified it a bit:
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1 medium carrot, chopped
  • 2 medium potatoes, cubed
  • 1 medium butternut squash - peeled, seeded, and cubed
  • 4 cups vegetable stock
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
I didn't have celery, but I don't think it really affected the taste, and of course I used Better than Bouillon Vegetable stock. Melt the butter in a large pot and add all veggies to brown for about 5 minutes. Cover veggies with stock and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer, covered for about 40 minutes.

Once veggies are very tender puree with a stick blender or pour in batches into a stand blender. Soo good.

Since I was already making Squash soup I decided to make two at once and freeze half of each. So I made carrot which I had been wanting to try for forever. I'm not sure where the recipe came from, and I modified it on top of that when I realized we had condensed milk NOT evaporated. Grr!

  • 4 cups carrots
  • 1 large onion
  • 1 medium potato
  • 1 tsp ginger powder
  • 4 cups veggies stock
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
Chop all veggies, saute onions in oil for about 5 minutes. Then add stock, ginger carrots, and potato. Simmer, covered, on medium heat for 30 minutes or until veggies are tender. Puree mixture and add milk and sour cream. I think this actually might have been my favorite of the two because the ginger gave it such a rich flavor, but both are great fall tastes.

Next week I'm going to make a batch of Tomato Gorgonzola. So many soups, so little time.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

It's Chili Out

Since the weather is finally getting cold around these parts we were on the lookout for some warm and easy meals (and cheap, must not forget that). Something ala slow cookers unite. We decided that we would finally try chili in the crock pot. I have no idea why I resisted this idea for so long. All you do is open cans and dump them in and turn it on, serious, that is all. We did also saute a little onion for more flavor, but that took all of five minutes.

Price breakdown for chili to serve five: $2.50! That is $.50 per serving. And this was good eating, lots of protein, little fat. I will admit that this was a vegetarian chili, but no one (Topher included) seemed to mind.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Turkey Time

2010 is going to be our first year hosting Thanksgiving. Luckily it is only for five people, but there is still a lot to plan. The meal can also get expensive. Here is a breakdown of how we have planned and saved for the big day:
  • Set the menu ahead of time. This probably seems like a no brainer for those who are old-hats to Thanksgiving dinner, but this really helped us make sure we could get great deals on our items.
  • Buy ahead, a little each week. Every week as we plan our shopping list we look at sales, coupons and our menus to see what we should pick up this week. At this point 2 weeks out we have pretty much everything we need in deep freeze and in the pantry.
  • Coupons and loss-leaders. This saved us big-time. As the holidays approach major grocers start to put holiday fare on sale to get you in the store. If you have been saving coupons from the last few months there should be quite a few match-ups available on these items.
  • Check out Aldi. We have said it before, and we'll say it again, Aldi is a great deal. We got a 10 pound bag of potatoes for $1.39 the other day, and they stock some seasonal items that are less than at the major stores, like frozen pie crusts.
  • Don't buy too much turkey. Assess your family's turkey needs. In ours only four people will be eating it so we got a bone-in breast. This was cheaper than a bone-less breast. A whole turkey can be anywhere from 11 to 20 pounds so even at $.99 a pound it doesn't make sense for a family of four, unless you plan to quickly portion and freeze the remainder. Remember about one pound uncooked per person should suffice.
  • Have guests bring something. Hill's mom offered to bring a few things and we took her up on it. If you aren't hosting bringing a side dish should not be a large feat and most guests will offer or you can ask.
The idea for us was to not go way over our normal grocery budget for Thanksgiving and due to a little planning we really haven't gone over at all. This might even entice us to host holidays more often in the future. We'll let you know how the cooking portion of the whole thing goes.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Grocery Breakdown: September & October

It seems that we have been neglecting the blog, hopefully more than just us will read it and we will feel the urge to write more. Anyway, here is the breakdown for September:

Week of September 6th: $36.72
Week of September 13th: $41.13
Week of September 20th: $24.80
Week of September 27th: $37.58

Grand total for September: $140.22

This month was the first that we attempted coupon shopping, and with mixed results. The first week we tried it, we went together and got $45 worth of groceries for $28; we had enough budget left over to go buy more groceries! The next week Hillary went alone and, while there was still savings, the total was $41 and she had a bit of a show down with the annoying people at Meijer (more on that later.) We definitely recommend that, if possible, you go shopping with a buddy to stay on track and to help with coupons and totaling what's been spent. And the proof is in the pudding, with the breakdown for October:

Week of October 3rd: $27.29
Week of October 10th: $35.23
Week of October 17th: $32.22
Week of October 24th: $35.00
Week of October 31st: $40.16 (bought two pumpkins for carving which we later made into soup!)

Grand total for October: $169.90

Yes, this is for 5 weeks, but if you adjust for this by multiplying by 4, divide by 5, carry the two, you get $135.92! This coupon thing is starting to pay off... especially factoring in the fact that we have started getting name brand items and buying a lot more to stock up our pantry!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Bagels

Psst! I updated some of the older posts with pictures! See if you can find them!

Bagels! The opposite of Seagulls! Bagels are best when baked fresh, and what better way to get the freshest baked bagels than to be waiting at the oven door when they come out?

Bagels can take quite a bit of time to make, but if you are going to be buzzing around the house, then theres no trouble at all. The bagels that I make are wheat with various toppings and take a long time to rise, which can make for many chores in between steps. If you use another type of flour with a little more gluten in it, (and keep your house above 70 degrees,) they may come up faster and last in the breadbox longer.

This recipe makes 8 bagels.

  • 4c. flour
  • 1 ½ tsp. salt
  • 1 tbsp. oil
  • 2 tsp. yeast
  • 1 ¼ - 1 ½ c. warm water (120°F or so)


You will also need some items for toppings, which could be garlic salt, onion flakes, rock salt, poppy seeds, sesame seeds, what have you.

Start by proofing the yeast. (You know, letting the yeast sit in the warm water with 1 tbsp sugar and a little bit of the flour until it gets frothy and alive. About 10 minutes.) Combine everything (except the toppings of course) by hand or in a stand mixer (♥ KitchenAid) until well combined. Knead a further 10 minutes until smooth. Yes, this really will take 10 minutes to get everything worked together. No, this picture isn't of kneaded dough, I took it before my hands got messy.


Once kneaded, divide the dough into 8 sections (with your handy dandy dough divider) and roll them up into balls. These will rest for about 15-20 minutes depending on temperature and the type of flour you're using. Now go and vacuum the living room.


Now comes the bagel-ey part. Roll each ball out into a long snake and wrap it around your hand. Press the ends together with your palm, using a little water to hold them together if you need. These will rest another 20 minutes or so. Do more chores.



Get a wide pan of water boiling and preheat your oven to 425°F. Also grease a baking sheet. Boil the bagels in the water for 1 minute on each side. This will give them their glossy exterior while keeping the inside chewy and nice. Place these on the baking sheet and add your toppings while they are still wet. The bagels should not touch each other unless you like your bagels to be in the midst of mitosis.

Bake for 10 minutes, flip, then bake another 10 minutes. Don't worry about the toppings, they will be fine. Let them cool before you eat them, but not too much!


Delishus warm baggles. I feel that this is a very forgiving first bread-making experience, because you don't have to worry if its under risen or hard on the bottom yet or all that jazz, because the items being baked are so small comparatively. The rise times can vary, though. Again, this depends on your flour, house temp, price of tea in China, and the position of Venus compared to Orion.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Homemade Yogurt

This is the next installment of our quest for cheaper snack foods. Read about making pudding here and granola bars here.

I have been wanting to make my own yogurt for a while now, and then found this super easy recipe in ReadyMade. All you need is milk and a few tablespoons of plain yogurt. Not much easier than that! And once you make one batch you can use the last of it to make another and the cycle perpetuates into infinite. Okay, getting a little ahead of myself. So, on to the yogurt making process:

1 qt 2% milk
2 T plain yogurt

We drink 1% milk due to our great compromise over milk fat content, and since I am impatient and wanted to make it NOW I figured, why not? Plus, if you can buy fat free yogurt in the store you must be able to make yogurt with all different levels of milk fat. Place milk in a medium sauce pot and heat to approximately 180 degrees; the milk should get frothy but not boil. Then turn off the heat and wait for the milk to reach 120 degrees.

At this point briskly whisk in the yogurt. Immediately pour the mixture into a jar, cover, and wrap in towel to keep it warm. Let it stand overnight and then place in the refrigerator.


I was a little concerned because when I poured the mixture into the jar it was not very thick, but I figured that it was probably supposed to be like that. When I came down in the morning the jar was still slightly warm and although there was a little liquid left on the sides, it did look like yogurt! Stirred it up and tasted it and it was yogurt! The highest seal of approval is that AJ likes it and he is not usually into the plain yogurt. Score!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Galette Gazette

Earlier this year, after round 2 of the veggie chip making, I was left with two and a half squash. It came to me that I could experiment by making a galette like I had seen over on Smitten Kitchen. Now, a galette is really not as fancy as it sounds, wikipedia describes it as "a general term used in French to designate various types of flat, round or freeform crusty cakes." So, I used a quick pizza dough recipe and rolled it out (almost round too!)


Then, I mixed approximately equal amounts sour cream and shredded Italian cheese together. Added some garlic, basil, salt and pepper for good measure, and spread it out on the dough.


Then, I laid out concentric circles of alternating zucchini and summer squash over the top. The trick to calling something a galette and not just a pizza is that you fold in the sides about a sixth at a time. This gives the whole thing a rustic french look like you tried really hard when, in fact, the whole thing really took about 10 minutes.


I brushed it with olive oil and baked it at 375 for about 20 minutes. It came out creamy and golden and I would have to call this "off the cuff" baking a success! And for only about $1, (the price of three squash,) it is surely repeatable any time of the week.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Couponing

As you may or may not recall, in our first post here, I stated that we do not really use coupons to achieve our super-low weekly grocery budget. And that was true. Up until a few weeks ago.

Everything is different now.

Somehow, we 'purchased' $80 worth of groceries for just under $24. Somehow, I also walked out of Meijer with an armload of olive oil for free. Nothing. Nada. Hungry Man dinners for 27 cents each. Two big boxes of oatmeal for a dollar.

How?

The basic strategy of couponing is to combine two or three okay or good deals into one really super awesome deal. For example: Normally, a particular brand of olive oil sells for about $5-6 per pint. Average for name brands. Two weeks ago, Meijer put out a coupon for $2 off of this brand of oil. A good deal, to say the least. Next week, however, Meijer put olive oil on sale for 50% off face value, which brought even the best types of the target under $3 apiece. That's a good deal too. But the kicker is that the manufacturer also put out a coupon a few weeks ago for $1 off any of their line of oils. A fair deal by itself, but putting all these deals together yields you: $6 - 50% - $2 - $1 = ZERO DOLLARS. Free!

Of course, this does not happen every day. Which is why we procured an armload. It should last us through the winter, or at least until olive oil goes on sale again.

'Well how the heck can I get in on this?' you might ask. The answer lies within the vast Internet. There are people out there who take up their spare time by looking for deals like this one. Databases of coupons exist, easily searchable by brand or food type, telling you where to get coupons, what they are worth, and when you can use them. It is not difficult at all to locate what is called a 'store matchup' for your region, which picks out weekly deals at local stores and matches up coupons, often providing a link to where you can print them online, and even tells you if the deal is a very good one or not.

The only thing left to do with these deals is for you to use them. Edit your menu for the week to include items which are on sale with coupons, print off as many as you need, and go save more money!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Granola Bars

On our quest to cut down on the ol' food budget and have a good supply of wholesome snacks with limited packaging we checked one more off our list this weekend. That would be granola bars.

We modified a recipe from allrecipes.com:
  • 2 cups quick oats
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1/4 cup butter softened
  • 1/3 cup honey
  • 1 banana
  • 1/2 cup peanut butter

Place all ingredients in a powerful mixer (we love our Kitchen Aid!!) and mix on a medium speed for about 3 minutes. Scrape sides and beaters and mix again. The mixture should be course and sticky.


Spray a 9x13 pan and spread the mixture into in. Tamp down with a jar or other flat object to really press the mixture together. Bake at 350 for 10 minutes, remove from oven and press again, bake an additional 10 minutes. We let these sit overnight before slicing them up and they came out beautifully. They are denser than a chewy bar you might buy in the store, but they hold their shape well and taste amazing. The hint of banana is great, and it makes them a little healthier and cheaper cutting out some butter and honey.


The best thing about this recipe is that you can heavily modify it to suit your tastes or needs. If you like chocolate chips, throw in 2/3 cup or so. if you want it a little richer, add brown sugar or more butter. Add some raisins, or craisins, or nuts, or your favorite dry cereal (rice puffs work well we hear.)


Quick oats are quickly becoming a pantry staple, what with all the cookies we are making. But certainly not as breakfast fare. Preposterous.

Update 11/14: Pictures!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Jam III: Minty

For our third jam session of the season we decided to go the way of savory as opposed to sweet. And it was convenient that Andrej's dad loves him some mint jelly.

This was a two-part process because the first batch went no where. This was mainly because Hill's dad told her there was mint growing in his yard, and while it did taste slightly minty, it was not the real thing. Still not sure if it was a mint cousin, but alas it was off to our beloved Horrock's to buy some premium mint.


From there the process is not too bad. I believe the whole thing was done in less than two hours. Chop the mint and boil with water for 10 seconds, strain and reserve 1 cup of remaining liquid.


Return strained liquid to sauce pan with apple juice, vinegar, sugar and food coloring (we had to use a lot to get a rich green color, real mint jelly is not green). Bring to boil and add pectin. Ladle into jars, cover and process.


Note: prepare the water canner long before you want to place the jars inside. I think I turned it on right before and it took almost half an hour for it to come to a boil.


The end result was a tart, minty apple jelly that is good on toast or pork chops. Yum.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Liver-best (or self.com)

I happened across this very interesting site the other day while trying to prove a bet:

http://nutritiondata.self.com/

And this is what I discovered:

http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/sausages-and-luncheon-meats/1479/2

I grew up with liverwurst as a kid, but ever since Peppridge Farm stopped making it, nothing else ever compared. But, now that I'm doing all the food shopping 'round these parts, I can buy whatever I want (within reason). When I noticed that there was a sale on Kroger brand, I decided to pick up a bit and give it another shot.

It was even better than I can ever remember. Smooth, soft, tangy, perfect with toast and mustard.

Unfortunately, Hillary got wind of this, and asked me what it was made out of. After that conversation, I'm not allowed to bring it into the house. Le sigh.

I guess the point that I'm trying to make from all this is that Self.com is pretty cool. It has nutritional information for basically any food you can think of, broken down into amino acids, vitamins, nutrient density, caloric ratio, glycemic load, and the food's favorite thing to do on Saturdays.

From all this, I learned that Liverwurst is really very good for you (besides the fat and cholesterol). It's a nutritionally complete food that gives you all the essential amino acids and iron you could ever want. True, the first three ingredients are pork livers, pork fat, and bacon fat, but come on. It tastes really good!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Pudding

We like a lot of snacks with our lunches, and one thing we get almost every week is packs of pudding. They come four to a pack and cost about $.89 at Aldi, which is really not too bad.

However, this past week we got to thinking, would it be even cheaper to make our own? The answer is YES. We bought a packet of pudding mix for about 50 cents and all you have to add is milk. One pack of powdered pudding makes about the same yield as a four-pack of the pre-packaged stuff, perhaps even a little more. And since we buy milk anyway, that was no extra expense. The best part...it is so much yummier! The texture and color are better and it doesn't taste like it's been sitting in plastic on a shelf for years (because it hasn't!) Just be sure to keep your home-made variety in the fridge instead of the shelf.

The only conundrum you might face with packaging your own snacks is just that: packaging. Small glass or plastic containers can be expensive, so remember to save the ones that your groceries come in (namely cottage cheese and sour cream containers, we find these are the most convenient sizes.) Most are dishwasher save on the top rack, too.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Jam II: Electric Boogaloo

Several forces are at work convincing me to craft more jams. Firstly, ReadyMade magazine had an article showcasing some spiffy homemade jams, and included four recipes. Secondly, while perusing though the thrift store, we came across a carton of 25 half-pint jars for $1.50. Thirdly, we have already used up two of the seven jars of blackberry jam which we made earlier this year.

This means war.

Conveniently, we have a wild grape vine growing in our backyard. Every year it produces a modest amount of grapes. We have been checking it all summer to see how they are coming along, and finally we harvested them. All together we got just over three pounds (enough to make a batch of jam)

We generally followed the recipe on the no sugar needed Ball Pectin, but we didn't use a jelly bag and kept most of the skins in, to make it more jam-like.

First, pick off all grapes from stems and rinse in batches. We did not use any grapes that were split open, or any that had black spots on them.


Next, we mashed them in layers in a large pot with a potato masher. This was a little difficult since as you add more grapes they tend to slip in between the masher, but we got it done. Something with a finer mesh would be better.


Then, add water and boil mixture for about ten minutes. At this point we discovered we had too many skins and it was looking a little weird so we put some of the skins and pulp in a strainer and pushed the juice out.


From here we add pectin and sweetener (we added about 2 cups white sugar, you can add up to 3) and boil for one minute. We forgot to do the jelly test so our mixture was a bit runny, but it set fine once in the jars. This recipe yielded 6 half pint jars of a pinkish tart jelly. Really yummy!


edit: added pictures!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Fake n Bake Macaroni Casserole

Who doesn't love a good homemade baked macaroni and cheese casserole? I, for one, could not turn down this good old fashioned comfort food. However, with limited schedule and budget, who has time to make this from scratch? Enter this awesome fake n bake recipe. All you need is a box of Kraft mac and cheese, or for even less moolah, the generic store version, some shredded cheese, sour cream, and cracker/bread crumbs.
  • 1 (14 ounce) packages Kraft macaroni and cheese (dinner, blue box)
  • 1 cup shredded chedder cheese
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground red pepper or 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 6 butter flavored crackers, crushed (like Ritz)
  • 1 tablespoon butter or 1 tablespoon margarine, melted
I substituted bread crumbs for cracker crumbs, and I just dotted the butter on the top once it was in the pan. The whole recipe takes about 30 minutes from start to finish so I didn't have to slave in the kitchen for 2 hours and waste my whole evening, yay! This comes out so gooey and cheesy you would never believe it was just glorified mac and cheese from a box. This recipe could be expanded on as well, I think once I had no sour cream so I used cream cheese and it came out the same. Or make two boxes and double the recipe if you have a big group to feed.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Grocery Breakdown

Someone had told me that it might be a good idea to let you know exactly what it is we buy each week, and how much money we spend in each area of our food budget. Well, I said, that's a great idea, but it would require me actually doing work for once.

After my wife put down the rolling pin, I decided that as long as I had locked myself in the office to escape, I may as well get typing. And since I never empty my wallet, I happen to have a good breakdown of what exactly it is that kept us going these past weeks.

Here is what we bought for the week of July 4th:
  • Bananas: $0.83
  • Cake Mix: $0.89
  • Frosting $1.09
  • 3lb Apples: $2.59
  • Coffee Cake: $1.99
  • (2) Crasins: $2.00
  • Cereal Bars: $1.99
  • (2) Cheese: $1.99
  • Ham: $2.68
  • Rice Vinegar: $1.99
  • Yeast: $2.69
  • Onions: $2.74
  • Cookies: $1.25
  • Toaster Pastries: $0.99
  • Bread: $0.78
  • (6) Blackberries: $6.00
All together, totals with tax are $32.60 for the week.

Here is the week of July 11th:
  • Cereal: $1.89
  • Toaster Pastries: $1.79
  • Mini-cinnamon Crisps: $1.99
  • Burger Buns: $.39
  • Wheat Bread: $1.69
  • Salmon Salad: $2.19
  • Spaghetti O's: $.73
  • Soup: $1.39
  • Canned Corn: $.49
  • Canned Peaches: $1.39
  • Canned Mushrooms: $.50
  • (2) Tomato Sauce: $.50
  • Green Tea: $.75
  • Avocado: $.98
  • Strawberries: $1.19
  • Frozen Dinner: $.99
  • Bananas: $.75
  • Eggs: $.95
  • (4) Yogurt: $1.48
  • Milk: $1.99
Total for the week: $24.02!

Here is the week of July 18th:
  • Ricotta: $1.89
  • Spinach: $3.99
  • (7) Frozen Dinners: $7.48
  • Milk: $2.00
  • Eggs: $.95
  • (2) Soup: $2.78
  • Bagel Bites: $1.39
  • String Cheese: $2.79
  • Cookies: $1.99
  • Ketchup: $.99
  • Granola Bars: $1.89
  • Almonds: $2.99
  • Butter: $1.99
  • Ham: $2.79
  • Bananas: $1.03
  • (5) Yogurt: $1.85
  • Filo Dough: $3.49
  • (2) Feta Cheese: $3.98
Total for the week: $42.26

Here is the week of July 25th:
  • Salsa: $1.69
  • Spaghetti O's: $.73
  • (7) Frozen Dinners: $9.31
  • BBQ Sauce: $.99
  • Bananas: $.70
  • Pudding: $.89
  • (5) Yogurt: $1.85
  • Cheese: $2.99
  • Cool-Aid: $.89
  • Granola Bars: $1.89
  • Crackers: $1.79
  • Sour Cream: $.99
  • Romaine: $.94
  • Liverwurst: $1.79
  • Avocado: $1.79
  • Tomato: $.23
Total for this last week: $29.14

Total for the month: $128.02 (which is about $30 under our budget!)


With all of the groceries we purchased this month we were able to make the following meals/items:
  • 7 jars of blackberry jam
  • Spanakopita
  • No-meat balls (2 batches)
  • Gourmet omelets
  • Chocolate cake and cupcakes (using applesauce instead of oil)
  • Several loaves of homemade bread
  • Bagels
  • Taco salad
  • Pasta with Olive Oil and Feta
  • Puffed Pancake
And, of course breakfast and lunch for two people seven days a week.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Sushi Skills

A short while ago, I made the (excellent) decision to make my own sushi. While this was a fun endeavor, fillings are very difficult to choose. If you select fish, you must be sure to select very fresh sushi-grade fish or use a cooked variety. Many sushi bars will be able to supply you with the correct cuts for making your own sushi at home; some even sell kits that include nori (seaweed) wrappers and rice.

The types of fish that re available to you are almost endless. Tuna, salmon, crab, imitation crab, fatty tuna, white tuna, snapper, eel, scallop, shrimp, octopus, godzilla fillet, etcetera.

However, since Hillary does not normally eat fish, I believed the selections to be sharply narrowed. However, I discovered that there were as many vegetable fillings as there were fish fillets. Cucumber, avocado, egg (raw or cooked), daikon radish, ginger, pickled anything, tempura sweet potato (Hillary's favorite), asparagus, carrot, tofu, green onions, mushrooms, the list goes on. If you do not think you are able to find sushi-grade fish in your area, choose a cooked variety, like conger eel, shrimp or prawn, or even grilled tuna or snapper.

The rice is not very tricky, cook as normal, add sugar and vinegar when done, and let cool completely. if you do not have rice wine vinegar, you may substitute white wine vinegar with little ill effect. Also add sesame seeds if you like :)

Now the tricky part, in my opinion, is assembly. The pros use a bamboo mat to roll up their sushi by hand, or freestyle each individual piece in some cases. But, if you must have that sushi that looks like sushi, here is what I did: I retrieved a bamboo place mat from the dollar store and covered it in plastic wrap. Lay out a sheet of nori shiny side down on top of this mat.


Spread a coating of rice all the way across the sheet. You want to cover everything except about two inches at the far end of the seaweed. Do not apply this layer too thick, just enough to cover up so you can sort of see seaweed through it.


Line up your sliced ingredients horizontally across the center of the rice in a straight line, no more than 3/4 inch wide. Now simply start rolling up the sushi, using the mat for support. When you get closer to the end, flip up the end of the mat so you do not get it stuck in your sushi!

As a variant to this, you may prepare your sushi uramaki, which means that the rice is on the outside and the nori on the inside. Simply apply rice over the entire sheet of nori and flip the sheet over after applying the rice, then roll as normal with ingredients on top of the nori.

Move the roll to a cutting board and slice it up. Six pieces creates big sushi, I believe eight may be perfect. Serve and enjoy. Throw gang signs.


My friend Kelly recently retrieved a sushi-making tool from eBay, a sort of tube that split open so you can fill it, and a plunger to get the rice combo out and onto a sheet of nori. He used it to make a perfect roll every time. Though they were delicious, I fear there was too much rice and the sushi ended up too large. Hand rolling is the way to go for me. However, if you do not have very good dexterity, this may be a good option for you if you make a lot of sushi at home. You may wish to develop your skills on the side, so you may graduate to hand rolls and more complex sushi variants, like this crazy bean-rice-omelet combination.


If nori is not your thing, you may go that route as well, and simply place a slice of fish on top of a small roll of rice (nigiri-zushi). Or, create a roll of rice using either of the above methods, then placing the finished roll in a pan of sesame seeds, or breading and frying it to make a deep-fried roll.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

No-Meat Balls

Who doesn't like a good meatball?

Vegetarians, that's who.

Hillary is a vegetarian and I am not, and this creates a small problem when it comes to mealtime decisions. We have come to the conclusion that the best idea would be to determine some meals that we can make that incorporate a meat "add-in" a it were. For example, Fettuccine Alfredo, chicken breast optional. Or simmering two pots of chili, one with extra beans, one with beef. I am comfortable with the fact that I am unable to eat meat everyday (have you seen how much flank steak even COSTS?), but I do revel in the times when I can fry up some bacon.

Imagine, then, my suprise with this peculiar recipe for vegetarian meatballs that Hillary happened across a while ago. From the first bite, there is no real indication that these meatballs are not genuine. The texture is perfect, as long as you mince up the walnuts well, and the taste hinges on the sauces in any case. If you didn't know they were vegetarian, you wouldn't know they were vegetarian!


Vegetarian Meatballs
  • 3/4 c walnuts, very finely chopped
  • 1c shredded cheddar cheese
  • 1c Italian breadcrumbs
  • 4 eggs
  1. Mix all ingredients together well, and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
  2. Preheat oven to 375.
  3. Portion out meatballs onto a lightly greased baking sheet. The best tool for this is a 2oz cookie scoop, which should make about 40 meatballs.
  4. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until golden brown.
  5. Meanwhile, prepare a sauce in which to simmer the meatballs. Some options include 3 parts bbq sauce to 1 part water, vegetable stock, or cream of mushroom soup mixed with a little cornstarch.
  6. Place the meatballs in a pot and cover with your desired dressing, enough to almost cover the tops of the meatballs. Simmer for around 30 minutes.



This recipe fed all five attendees at our dinner club.

Feel free to experiment heavily with this recipe, especially the sauces. And, take note that the meatballs can be frozen after step four, speeding up mealtime during the week. The balls can be placed right into a simmering pot of barbeque sauce for 30 minutes or so while you prepare other side dishes. They can also be slow cooked, on low for about 2 hours, to gain a similar effect if you happen to be going to a potluck.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Vegetable Chips

I have said, more than once, that there is no reason that anyone should ever buy chips. Of any kind. Ever.

But as I sit here munching on some chips, I have to reconsider what it is that I have said, and restate it: There is no reason that anyone should ever buy greasy potato chips. For as it turns out, the chips that I am consuming are of the veggie variety. A stroke of genius then strikes. "If I could make my own food, could I not make my own veggie chips?"

The answer is a resounding "Duh."

Several pages on several websites have several different points of view on how to best conjure up a chip, including frying and even microwaving, but I have set my sights on a healthier variety, so I will introduce you to the method of baking. The steps are very simple. Cut up some vegetables into slices, let them dry for a short while, then bake them in a very low oven.

For our first trick, we have decided to use some squash. You could also use any other tuber you might like: sweet potato, raddishes, beets, regular potatoes, parsnips, even carrot, green beans, cucumbers, what have you. Here is the formal recipe that we followed.


Baked Veggie Chips
  • 2lb Mixed vegetables, peeled
  • Salt to taste
  • Cooking Spray
  1. Slice the vegetables very thinly, approximately 1/16 inch, and allow to sit in the open air for about 20 minutes. Set oven to 275 degrees.
  2. Rinse vegetables well and pat dry.
  3. Place the slices on a lightly greased sheet pan in a single layer. Spray the tops of the vegetables with cooking spray as well, and salt to taste.
  4. Bake for 1 hour. Check for crispness occasionally.

Not all the vegetables take the same length of time to dry, and not all the slices of the same veggie will take the same length of time to dry, either. This is why you have to check them relatively frequently. I would say at least every 15 minutes, more often near the end of the hour. We completely ignored our yellow squash for 55 minutes, and by that time, it was too late. Imagine little round blacks discs burned to the pan. :( It was like making toffee all over again. But that's a story for another day.

For round two, we decided to check on the little monsters every 10 minutes or so. even though we were watching diligently...



Many of the chips were no good at all, a little limp, and some of them were ok as cooked squash, but almost none of them were chips. Something tells me there's an error in translation here. This will have to have a comeback in a later post...

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

New Math... New Math...

You can't take three from two,
Two is less than three,
So you look at the four in the tens place.
Now that's really four tens,
So you make it three tens,
Regroup, and you change a ten to ten ones,
And you add them to the two and get twelve,
And you take away three, that's nine.
Is that clear?

Here's a new recipe that's so very simple only a Child could do it. My wife, that is: Hillary. For our dinner club dinner this week we were weaseled into making Spanakopita, Spinach Pie. We had never made Spinach Pie before. Fortunately, it is not difficult to do at all. And, since we are only making one dinner during the week, we are able to splurge a little bit on the necessary ingredients: Fresh baby spinach, ricotta and feta cheeses, and phyllo dough.

Hillary was positively astounded at the prices of the ingredients, but I reminded her that it would be a splendid dish and that absolutely everyone would like it. Plus, we have been doing well on our weekly spending this month, so one week that falls a little bit over isn't quite so bad (we spent about $45 this week.) I even promised to help cook it.

Conveniently, a few friends (or is that club members?) dropped by earlier than expected, and helped clean and chop all two pounds of fresh leaf spinach. It DOES take quite a while to chop all that spinach, I'm told. All the leaves were carefully dried and fried, mixed with cheese, and spread out between layers of flaky phyllo. Forty minutes later, I arrived just in time to help remove the dish from the oven.

And, everyone liked it. Even the meatatarian.

The title of this post I feel fitting because Hillary was mostly fearful of cooking something that was unfamiliar when it is being tested on friends. Certainly, making something new is a learning experience, but a wise french chef says that you must be bold in the kitchen, not apologize for your mistakes, and never feel that you are being judged for your art. And to wear pearls, to a lesser extent.

So do not be scared of trying new things when you feel it applicable. New skills in the kitchen are positively indispensable, and expand your repetoire. For example, I tried making english toffee a while ago. It was a horrible disaster, but I feel that I have a much better grip on how to create candy than I did before. And, now that Hillary knows how to cook using pastry sheets, we are able to use phyllo in more recipes in the future.

Plus, we only used eight sheets, and phyllo dough comes in packs of FORTY. That means baklava next week :)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Nutrient Density

One of my favorite blogs, Wise Bread, had an article recently about eating organic on a budget. The only parts of that sentence that I saw were "eating" and "budget", so I began reading immediately.

The article in question had very good ideas about spending wisely and reducing intake, and even included a paragraph on eating less meat, but the section that intrigued me the most was about "Nutritional Density".

Nutritional density is the quality of food that makes you feel full and satisfied after eating it (something that is severely lacking in cola and french fries.) More or less, it quantitatively measures the number or amount of nutrients available in a specific portion of a certain food, and calculates a number based on those figures. Some of the healthiest items to eat are no surprise at all: spinach, brussels sprouts, collard greens, and broccoli are among the leaders. And, conversely, other items on the other end of the spectrum are not so surprising: white bread, ice cream, french fries, whole milk, and cheeses.

What does all this mean to you (and me)? Choosing items that are higher in nutritional density make you feel fuller after eating them. Thus, you will have to purchase less to create a meal, and save money. As an added bonus, most of the things that are high in nutrient density are really quite inexpensive (think fresh green veggies, dried lentils and beans), which of course leads to saving even more money.

Of course, you do not need to eat only kale and kelp to save money, but do try to improve your choices at least a little bit. Like whole wheat bread instead of white, and skim or 1/2% instead of whole milk.

The broad line retailer in our area, Meijer, has rolled out what they call the "NuVal" system, which is a similar score based on the nutritional information of a product. High scorers include cantaloupe, lettuce, and radishes. Low scorers are pop tarts and potato chips. When picking snacks, using this index to guide you can lead to less eating later on. I know that I, personally, can munch through a bag of cookies without breaking a sweat, but Crasins make me feel full after just a few handfuls [read: lose weight, too]. I know the physical volume is lower, but the density is what matters.

WiseBread is a community of bloggers who are all about you saving money. I recommend you check them out, and start scrimping in other areas of your budget!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

JAM


YEAH jam.

Blackberry half pints at 10 for $10 this week at our grocery store, Kroger. That means its time to jam. Make jam, that is.

Making your own jam is surprisingly simple. Mash and boil some berries with sugar, add fruit pectin, and jar. For $6.00 we made 7 jars of blackberry jam, probably enough to last through to winter. Jars of jam and jelly will last about a year in the fridge, so feel free to make too much and give it away.

Canning jars can be found at most grocery stores; we got ours at Target, actually. There are a lot of complicated steps for getting the jars sealed, like boiling the lids, boiling the jars after filling, and cooling for so many hours, but the only one we did was to warm up the jars before filling. The hot jam cooled, and sucked in the top of the jar by itself.

It's delicious on homemade wheat bread.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Save my dinner!

The Real Simple Magazine which I was recently reading had an article about how to save disastrous dinner situations! A great way to save the day AND save money. It reminded me fondly of my earlier post about saving partially ruined meals. Not only does Real Simple help you save this meal, but it also gives you some tips for preventing the same mistake later.

Here's a link:

Easy Fixes for 8 Common Kitchen Mishaps

RealSimple.com has a great plethora of good tips for saving time on cooking, too, as well as a ton of other household ideas, tricks, and tips.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Dinner club update

Well, last month it looks like we spent almost our entire budget. $154.00 for two people, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But let's break that down by week. We started having our firends over for dinner on the week of June 20th...



Looks like we saved about $10 a week by having our little dinner club! The final week actually spills over into July, and we haven't actually used all the meals we purchased yet, so it also looks like next week will still be less, even if we don't share any meals at all! Which of course, we will. ;)

Friday, July 2, 2010

A Note on Sides (Subtitle: A Duh Moment)

The last time you went out to eat almost anywhere, what did you get? Just a hamburger? Just a slice of fish? Chances are you probably ate some salad, some fries, some mixed veggies, or some french onion soup with that. This may seem old hat and way too obvious, but adding sides to your meal really fleshes it out. grill up a pork chop and see how exciting and filling it is without a salad, potatoes, and some mushrooms on top.

Initially, from an economical view, it may seem that it would be inefficient to keep many different types of sides around to account for all your meals. But if you are planning week by week and buying fresh things, its actually a lot cheaper to replace a part of your main dish with a little bit of something complimentary and inexpensive.

Take for example, again, that lonely pork chop. When you are going to buy, you might figure out that everyone would like to have three chops. Replace one of those chops with some instant mashed potatoes, or even better, a big baked potato, and a head of lettuce for some salad. Youve instantly replaced something that regularly might cost $3.99 per pound to something that usually costs a lot less than $0.99 per pound. Your troupe still gets fed just the same, even healthier, and you save probably about a buck a person for that one meal.

Duplicate that 6 or 7 times, and you are rollin' in it.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

You can grow your own way~

The best way to get exactly what you want is to do it yourself. Agreed? Why not get the best and freshest produce every week? It's all too easy. Grow your own.

It might as well be free food!

But I'm a busy person! Where could I find the time to start gardening!? Well, do you have enough time to watch CSI? There's an hour at least once a week. It really doesn't even take that long to check on your plants and give them some water. And who knows, you might enjoy the time outside.

Set aside some ground space in your backyard, or make some square-foot gardens and get a-growing. It takes a lot less effort than you might think, if you get started right. The easiest and most useful plants to have around are, in my opinion, lettuce. With enough plants, (probably about 3 square feet,) you might be able to harvest fresh salads for two every day, in season! Tell me THAT won't have an impact on your food budget.

Be careful to water and tend to the plants daily to get them started, and use some plant food to help establish roots. Check on your seed packages to see how far apart to space the seeds, how big the plants get, and when to harvest (and in the case of lettuce, how much to harvest.)

Once you're comfortable with how easy it is to let the veggies carry on by themselves most of the time, you can start trying other things like tomatoes and radishes, strawberries, carrots, squash, beans; almost anything you can possibly eat from the ground could be yours. And the price is right, to boot!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Sharing is caring

Where did all the money go for this week's groceries?

Nowhere. We still have most of it. This week's bill was $35.00.

This is slightly lower than our average because of a deal we have going on with our friends down the street. We cook a regular meal one night (for four people), and they cook a regular meal for us the next night (four people again). The primary reason is because we see them so rarely, and we want to have an outlet to display our culinary prowess.

A few more of our friends have joined in this "dinner club", meaning another night a week we don't have to cook. This has a noticable impact on our grocery bill, by way of us only having to make lunches (a pittance) and one big dinner instead of a lot of little dinners, meaning fewer specialized ingredients.

For example, we made custom pizzas this week. Some Grands biscuits (which are basically premixed dough in a can, you can do a lot with those things), a tomato, a pack of pepperoni, and some mozz on sale. We already had some tomato sauce in the pantry, so theres a save right there. Add a quick salad and the meal is complete. Now, we don't have to cook for the next two days. Leftovers from this meal may or may not have covered one dinner, so there's at least ONE meal taken out of the week, price-wise.

And, of course, this is a great excuse for me to try to get people to play Scrabble.

More info as data accumulates.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Planning your menus

Let's go a little in-depth about menu-planning for the week. Say for example that you want to have quesadillas one night. Excellent choice! A bag of shredded cheese, tortillas, some onions you have lying around, maybe a bit of ground round, an avocado and a thing of sour cream. Easy peasy.

Now think about which part of that you are going to throw away at the end of the week. I'm sure you will be able to use up all the tortillas, heck you can even eat the rest of the avocado by itself (with a little balsamic vinegar), but what in the world will you do with all of that sour cream?

Here's a tip: Plan your menus with coincidental ingredients.

What that means is making sure you are able to use all the fresh ingredients you are paying for each week. So, along with this recipe, you might also want to add tacos to this weeks list. If that's too much Mexican for you to handle in one week, maybe some slow cooker chili (good thing you keep beans in the pantry all the time), or mashed potatoes (with chives! mm), or even a sour cream pound cake. Anything you can do to use up all that sour cream so it doesn't have to go to waste before expiring.

Now do that with all the other things you have to buy in relatively large quantities that go bad quickly. Blocks of cheese, tubs of yogurt, heads of lettuce, and so forth. Keep in mind also the things you buy in large quantities that go bad no-so-quickly, like onions, bags of potatoes, what have you. Basically, if you know you're going to have it on hand, use it up. Eat what you got!

The flip side of this is omitting or changing optional ingredients if there's no way you could ever eat it all, or see it as a waste of money. Do you really need sour cream on those quesadillas? I would vehemently say yes, but you may not think that it is truly necessary, and that a jar of salsa would get used up quicker. Why buy an expensive block of parmesan cheese when you know that pre-shredded is more economical, and can last a lot longer?

Have fun paring down your list!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Slow Cookers Unite

I bet you're running out of time on the weekdays too, and can't really be bothered to start a lasagna when you get home, only to start eating at about 7:30. Here's a great tip: Pull out that hand-me-down slow cooker (or get one for yourself if you are not acquainted with the phenomenon), and find a lamp timer at a yard sale or thrift store. By their powers combined, you can now cook from work. Here's a recipe to get you started.

Slow Cooker Corn Chowder
  • 1 can creamed corn
  • 1 can whole kernel corn
  • 1/2 lb frozen hash browns (or 3-4 potatoes, grated)
  • 1/2c milk
  1. Dump everything into slow cooker. Stir. Cook on low for 6h or high for 4h.

If you are going to be cooking away from home, I recommend setting the cooker to low. So, if you get home at 5:30, make sure that the cooker starts up at about noon or so using the timer, so you can check it for the last half hour. As you can see, this is too easy to not make. If you're adventurous, can add whatever you may have laying around, including bacon, peas, minced onions, etc., to punch it up. It's your meal, not mine.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Tactics: Shop Without Dropping

Here we are again on our monthly trip to the grocery store. What do we need? How should I know? We'll just pick out what looks good, right?

Wrong.

Smart shopping is the number one way to save money. People say coupons, but to be perfectly honest, we really don't use any, because coupons are mostly for high end name brand products. You must shop with a vendetta. Shop with no mercy. Do not succumb to the fancy labels or extravagant impulse purchases. You are an anti-establishment non-consumer-oriented nonconforming anti-capitalist i-get-only-what-i-need-and-you-can't-stop-me grocery-buying machine.

It's not hard. I'll help. Step number one is making a list.

Never walk into a grocery store without a very, very good idea of what it is you want to buy. Otherwise you will be subject to every marketing ploy ever invented. With a list, you can say "When will I have time to eat that this week?" or "I already have enough breakfast planned out, I don't need these." And it's too ridiculously easy to make a list. Think of 4 or 5 meals that you want to eat this week. Write them down. Write down the fresh ingredients you need and the staples you don't already have. That took 3 minutes. You can even do this on the way to the store if you have a good idea of what you have on hand.

Step number two is shopping around.

Do you go to Aldi? Have you even heard of Aldi? Know where your farmer's market is? How about that local produce store? Chances are you do your one stop shopping at Wal-Mart and head home, right? Sam Walton is counting on that, and he marks his prices at a seemingly good deal. But if you are cautious and know where the good deals REALLY are, you can save a lot more. Acquaint yourself with the local stores. We have a lovely produce market in Lansing called "Horrock's" that sells fresh local produce in season, a full meat counter, coffee from local distributors, bulk foods, wines, fresh baked breads, flowers, ethnic foods, and so on. Everything except prepared and packaged food, basically. We can grab all our produce for the week for usually less than $4, where it might cost almost double that at the bigger store. At Aldi, I know that I can get a pack of 12 off-brand kool-aid packets for 89 cents, where that would cost me $3 anywhere else. Keep a mental list of which items are usually cheaper where, and go there first when those things are on your list. Which leads me to...

Step number three is look for the deals.

When the paper comes on Sunday, skip the funnies and go for the good stuff: the circulars. Kroger is having a 10 for $10 sale again, and the 11th item is free!! Time to stock up on soups and crackers. Be aware of what's on sale each week, and plan that into your menus. If cauliflower is 99 cents per head, then plan on having Pasta and Cauliflower this week. If you don't see pork chops on the circular, change that pork chop meal to a slow cooker recipe and use a cheaper cut of meat. Eat what's on sale and save. If you notice that Meijer brand black beans are 30 cents less than Old El Paso brand, grab the Meijer brand. The beans most likely came from the same place, the company putting them away is the only thing that changed.

Step number four is stick to the list.

At the grocery store, you will be tempted by everything including the deviled ham to make an impulse buy. Especially around candies and cakes. No matter what, you must stick to the list. You have already spent all this time figuring out exactly what it is that you want to purchase and eat for the week, and there's no reason to throw all that out the window now. Granted, if you forgot something that you know you need and will actually use this week, by all means add it and save a trip. But if you are stuck lusting next to that time-saving ready-to-eat pizza on a stick, please avert your eyes. If you see on your list that you need chips, and you notice in the store that if you buy a bag and a jar of salsa, you get a free bag of chips, do ignore it. They are conning you into buying salsa that you do not need and will not eat. If the deal, however, will lower the price you will pay, or increase your bounty for free (such as buy two get one when two are already on your list), kudos to you.

Step number five is get the right amount.

When you find yourself throwing food away when you are finished cooking, you have bought too much. If you know that a recipe calls for 1/4lb of some kind of vegetable but you go ahead and grab a pound anyway, keep in mind that that extra will not really go anywhere. You don't have to buy the big package because it's a good deal, especially if you know that you won't use it before it goes bad. Americans usually throw away 25% of whatever they buy grocery-wise; try buying 25% less instead, and pocketing the difference. It can't be helped for packaged foods like sour cream, but for bulk purchases like ground round, get only what you need. If the butcher tosses up .62 lb when you asked for half, interject and have him remove some. You can't change your mind at the checkout on this one.

If you keep these steps in mind every week, you should be able to fit in the nice ingredients you want to use for some of your meals: grilled tuna steaks one summer evening, potato gnocchi, chicken satay, even lobster or scallops. Just remember that you have a budget for the whole month, and if you might have to have two extra-regular meals to make up for that fancy one.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Recently we decided to have a simple spaghetti. We had ricotta left over, so we invented a sauce to go on top of it. Using up perishable leftovers is a great idea! This will be so awesome. In goes the cheese... a bit too heavy. This doesn't taste any good at all! Dinner is ruined! For now...

We thankfully decided to save the mistake and reuse it for tomorrows dinner. This time we added a little tomato sauce on top and sprinkled it with shredded cheese. After 20 minutes in the oven, voila! Spaghetti Lasagna Bake!

While it is impossible to do something wrong while cooking, there are times where something remotely inedible might come up. Instead of trashing it and ordering a pizza, think of some other way you can reuse the ingredients already combined. A little too much curry seasoning in your lentil stew? Stir in some rice and serve with bread to take the heat off. Don't know why you started to sweat so many onions while you were only using them to flavor the pan? Think about tossing in some canned spinach and mushrooms to make a quick side dish. Keeping a good stock of common items in your pantry helps you be inventive on the fly.

If you waste only a minimal amount of food, that much more will go into your tummy, and that much less will get re-added to your next grocery bill! That's a good save.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Tactics: Stock Up

I confess that I sometimes stare at the fridge thinking, "What am I going to eat tonight?" Thankfully, I have prepared for just these situations. The mantra of chefs the world over, more or less, is that a stocked pantry helps prepare meals in no time at all. Having the right ingredients on hand to add flair to your meals is indispensable for having a chic dinner.

But what exactly do you put into that well-stocked pantry? Well, I won't disclose a full list here, because my good friend and webhost Google would definately be able to help you out in that department. I do, however, have a few important additions to most lists that will not only give you flair, but add full meals to your instantly available repitoire.

  • Canned beans. Beans can easily and cheaply be the heart of a meal, and can often replace meats in many recipes for much less, including things like fajitas and stroganoff. Dried beans may be more economical, but you cannot beat the speed of a can opener.
  • Flour. This is possibly the best food investment you can make. Making your own bread, muffins, cookies, pancake batter, breadding, PIZZA, etc., is very rewarding, and it allows you to edit the taste of the dough before it is cooked, after which point it is very hard to get new ingredients inside. I buy 10lb sacks at a time and keep them in airtight containers (i can't store THAT much).
  • Sugar. Same deal. Indispensible for quick breads like pound cake when your friends stop by for a few board games. Get the big bag.
  • Baking Powder. Yes, you DO need to add this when you cook things. You can't skip it just becaause you don't have it.
  • Boullion. There is no reason anyone should not have bullion in their pantry. With a vegetarian in the house, we keep "Better than Boullion" brand vegetable boullion and also mushroom boullion on hand. Cubes are definately the cheapest, and pre-portioned. If someone finds a place to get veggie stock cubes, let me know. Cash reward.
  • Spices. For spicing things up. Please don't waste your money on spices you have never heard of and will never use. Keep basic things like oregano, basil, onion powder, garlic salt, and chili powder. If you need a specific spice for something, consider replacing it and changing the recipe, going out and getting a small size, or borrowing it from a neighbor. Spices go bad much quicker than you think.
  • Tinned Tomatoes. We use so many tomatoes we have started growing our own to save money. More on that later. Get cans of whole tomatoes and dice them yourself if you need to. You can always make them smaller.
  • Yeast. Good ol' yeast farts make the best bread. Active dry yeast is the best for most recipes. If you don't made your own bread every week, get a few packets instead of the jar, it will keep better.
  • Peanut Butter. A quick meal in itself.
  • Nuts. They go on everything from casseroles to ice cream. A wide variety is great for making your own snack mix or muffins.

This is NOT an exhaustive list. I keep a lot more things that I use frequently on hand, like dried lentils, canned corn, white rice, nori (seaweed), soy sauce, and so forth. If you don't know what you personally need all the time, start making a list of the staples you go through the quickest, and think of the ingredients for the meals you like to make the most. Then, put those on your list. You may not use as many tomatoes as you think, or you may go through a lot more ketchup and mustard. Thusly, a list you find on Google will probably not work for you without a little editing.

Now that you have a list of the things you need on hand, go get some! But not today. No, go when the sales start and they have flour for $4 or chicken breasts for $1.88 per pound. More on shopping tactics in a minute.

Well now how much of this stuff should you keep on hand? Depends. I have a jar of peanut butter that I bought last year and it's still going strong, so I don't really need to buy them 10 at a time. Conversely, I have run out of sugar again. better buy 2 bags next trip. Tape a list of what you keep in your pantry and how much to keep inside the cupboard door. Also list the shelf lives for each of these items, so you know that the pure lemon extracts you got on that trip to Florida are only best until December, but the artificial vanilla from Kroger will be good after World War Three.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Table for two

You would be amazed at what you can do with a very tight grocery budget. For my family of two, we spend a little under $40 per week for everything.

Thats right, under $160 per month feeds two people for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And usually also dessert.

Hopefully this is a shocker for you. More likely, its a little less than what you think you can even survive on, seeing as the average monthly amount for two people hovers way over $300 dollars. I know people that spend as much as $500 per month for only two people! And now, of course, the question comes: Mac and cheese 24/7, right? Not so much.







Most of the lovliest things you can make are suprisingly the easiest, sometimes the cheapest, and usually also the healthiest. This blog is intended to show you how you can make really nice things to eat on a tight budget. True, we won't be making extravagant meals every day, but I can guarantee that you will like what you make.