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.

  • 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?


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:

Green Bean Casserole

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


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.