Sunday, October 30, 2011

Slow Cookers

My second favorite appliance is hands down my slow cooker.  Slow cookers come in a variety of sizes.  In fact, I have three of them – small, medium and large.  I love the flexibility and freedom they offer me.  They are affordable and energy efficient and in the summer they won’t heat up your kitchen like the oven will.  You can also plug them in and use them outside if you wish.  I’ve even taken mine on vacation and used it in our hotel room.  I’ll bet the maid was jealous when she smelled our dinner cooking.  I wonder if she snitched a bite.  😉

If you don’t have one you should seriously consider getting one.  You can find them on sale quite often around $18 to $30 or at thrift stores and garage sales for just a few dollars.  You may even have a friend or relative that has one they aren’t using that would be happy to pass it along to you. 

Along with making applesauce (as previously posted) I love to use it to cook dried beans, make spaghetti sauce, chili, soups and stews, roasts, chicken, ribs, carne asada, pork or chicken verde, and so much more.  I even know of people who bake in theirs. 

I use my small one a lot more than I thought I would.  Originally I thought I would use it to keep sauces warm, particularly cheese dips on game day, but I have also used it to cook small meals and to reheat leftovers like spaghetti or chili on a busy day.  It is not uncommon to see them all three lined up on the counter cooking various things for meals I have planned throughout the coming week. 
My Favorite Pot Roast

3 or 4 pound chuck roast
1 packet Au Jus mix (for French dip)

Turn slow cooker on high.  Place roast in cooker and sprinkle with half the packet of mix.  Turn roast over and sprinkle with remaining mix.  Cook for 6 to 8 hours until roast is fork tender.

At the last hour and a half of cooking you can add raw vegetables like potatoes and carrots if you wish.  Or serve with steamed rice and a nice salad.  It roasts in its own juices and this can be made into fabulous gravy so don’t throw it out.  If you decide not to make gravy save it and freeze it for soup or a stew.

There are a lot of great slow cooking blogs and recipe sites out there on the internet.  I encourage you to do some research to get inspiration and find some new recipes to try.  I’ll be posting more of my favorites here as well.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Our Grocery Budget

This is the one thing my friends are the most interested in.  I said I would teach them, so let’s begin. 

We have an extremely tight budget for groceries - $33 per person, slightly more than a dollar a day + $25 for additional stock up food items I find on sale.  We are a family of three – so $99.  I rounded up to $100 + $25 = $125 per month for food before sales tax.  Believe it or not, sometimes I don’t spend all of it.  I have an additional budget for non-food items of $25 per month for toiletries, pet food, cleaning supplies, etc. 

I am not an “extreme” couponer.  I am a strategic planner and shopper.  I have done this for so long that I don’t even have to think about it - I just do it. 

Born out of necessity when my son was very young, I had to develop a way to get the most amount of food for the least amount of money.  Back in the late eighties, after the bills were paid, I was left with $10 a week for groceries and non-food items.  At that time I had way too much pride and ego to apply for food stamps so I had no choice but to make it work.  Every week I would sit down with the weekly grocery ads and decide what I could buy and what meals I could make out of it.  I remember I would always buy a gallon of milk and three bananas for my son.  He loved bananas and I wanted him to have plenty of milk.  Based on those ads I had that grocery list figured right to the penny.  We did just fine. 

As I began to make more money and student loans got paid off I was able to add to that budget over the years, but at a certain point it wasn’t necessary to go up too much higher because I was in a routine and we had full cupboards.  Until my girls came along we were at a $60 a month budget for years.  When my oldest daughter came a long we coasted at $100 a month for a long time.  My son left home and joined the army and my youngest joined the household.  Without a big teenager to feed anymore we continued just fine. 

In 2008, the recession hit and gas prices jumped, we inherited another cat and prices on everything started to soar.  It was getting harder and harder to stay on budget so I had to adjust and now we are where we are.  It irritated me that our budget had to increase by 50%.  From a business standpoint that is horrendous, but then if I compare it to the national average, in 2009, based on a family of four that spends $1000 a month I was doing extremely well.  I only spend 15% of the national average.  So now I know why my friends are so interested.

I will be posting about the things I do in the coming weeks.  I promise we eat really well.  I don’t expect anyone to do what I am doing but if you find something here that helps you then that is great.   I also recognize that the cost of food is higher in some areas than others.  I live in Idaho.

These are some of the areas we’ll be touching on: 

·         Meal Planning – You have to have a plan.
·         Pantry List – as long as I have the items on my pantry list in my home I can make almost anything.
·         Scratch Cooking – I make almost everything from scratch.
·         Be Creative – sometimes you have to think outside the box and don’t be afraid of a good challenge.
·         It Takes Self-Control & Self Discipline – sometimes it is tempting to stop at a restaurant or the grocery deli.
·         Portion Control – we tend to eat too much, which requires us to purchase more food and as a result we have weight issues.
·         Leftovers – they aren’t evil.
·         Shopping For Food – that is its own adventure.
·         Food Storage – you’ve got to have a place to put it and a system so you know what you have.
·         Food Waste – now that is evil.
·         To Use Coupons Or Not – that truly is the question.
·         Track Your Expenses – you can’t know where you are if you don’t know where you are. 

We’ll cover a lot of other areas too but this will get us started. 

Note:  We are very fortunate that no one in our family has any diet restrictions or health conditions requiring a special diet.  For those that do, you will want to take that into consideration.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

My Kitchen

My kitchen is where my creative juices really get flowing.  I am all about food – planning for it, shopping for it, preparing it and, of course, eating it. 

Ours is a small galley kitchen.  By most people’s standards it is very tiny.  When I moved in it was about the same size as the one we were coming from.  However, it felt larger simply because there was more drawers and cupboard space.  I cleaned and scrubbed and painted and put my things away and actually had empty spaces.  Not for long though.  I managed to fill those spaces pretty quickly, as one tends to do. 

Our dining area is positioned so people can gather at the table and see right in so I don’t miss out on anything.  It has everything I need – range, refrigerator, dishwasher, microwave, and double sink with a garbage disposal.  What more could a girl ask for? 

Minimizing clutter is key.  Because my kitchen is small I keep fewer things.  I look for items that serve multiple purposes and will store compactly.  If it won’t fit in the cupboard then it has to go.  I try to keep my surfaces clear and have out only the things I am using at the time. 

My utensil canister, coffee canister salt shaker and pepper grinder have a permanent home on the tiny counter next to the stove.  I do keep two vintage Pyrex casseroles on top of the microwave.  They are decorative and practical because I use them to store or bake food.  All of my decorative things are put to use at one time or another so they are dual purposed items. 

For big projects like canning and holiday baking my table becomes an extension of my counters.  I have even put the chairs into use to stack fruit boxes on or cookie tins, whatever. 

You can make extra space almost anywhere and still make it look nice too.  I hang wine glasses from a rack mounted under one of my cabinets, the top of the refrigerator holds my beer keg (that is another story) and our coat closet became our pantry. 

We all know the kitchen is the hub of the home and ours is no different.  Size really doesn’t matter! J

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Snapple Bottles

Several years ago armed with a coupon and a great sale at the supermarket I purchased a 12 pack of Snapple diet cranberry whatever it was.  Snapple bottles are pretty nice. 

We recycle our glass and once the bin is full I take it to our neighborhood grocery store and dump it in the big dumpster they have in their parking lot.  Before that happens though I try to re-use whatever I can for another purpose.  Pickle jars hold my laundry detergent and dry beans.  Relish jars become jelly jars.  Pesto jars are used for salsa, salad dressings, etc. 

I have reused many a Snapple bottle to haul iced tea and lemonade to work, camping and on a road trip.  My favorite use for them, however, is to hold my homemade pancake syrup.  They are the perfect size to hold one batch of syrup.  What is really nice is that once you fill the bottle with the hot syrup and screw the lid on it will seal as the syrup cools.  I’ve done it a jillion times. 

One year for Christmas I made strawberry syrup and homemade pancake mix to give as gifts.  I put cute labels on the bottles, wrapped them in cellophane and tied them with curling ribbon.  The pancake mix went into a zipper bag then into a white lunch bag with another cute label.  It was a darling and much appreciated gift. 

Pancake & Waffle Syrup 

1 c brown sugar
1 c granulated sugar
1 c water 

Place ingredients in a medium saucepan over med-high heat.  Bring to a rolling boil.  Remove from heat and stir in ½ tsp. Mapleine flavoring. 

So next time you have a jar or a drink bottle in your hand think about it before you toss it.  You might find a really neat way to repurpose it and give it a second life, or a third, or a fourth, or a…..

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Bread Machines

Simply put I love my bread machine.  With bread as high as $4 a loaf I have come to love it even more.  I have yet to actually bake a loaf in mine but I use the dough cycle and mix my dough in it all the time.  All different types of bread and roll dough, mostly whole wheat though and pizza dough…a lot of pizza dough. 

My favorite pizza dough recipe: 

            2 c all purpose flour
            1 c whole wheat flour
            2½ tsp yeast
            1 tsp sugar
            ½ tsp salt
            1 Tbs olive oil
            1¼ c hot water 

Select dough cycle.  Place dry ingredients in pan and select start.  Add oil and then water.  Once dough forms a smooth ball (you may have to add a little flour or water depending on humidity) stop machine and allow dough to rest ten minutes.  Divide dough in half and form two pizza crusts.  Top with your favorite toppings and bake at 450° 12 to 14 minutes. 

Very versatile!  You can make bread sticks out of it by rolling into a rectangle.  Place on a lightly greased sheet pan and cut into 1 inch strips.  Brush with olive oil and sprinkle with basil and garlic powder.  Bake at 450° 10-12 minutes.  Remove from oven and sprinkle with grated parmesan or romano cheese, if desired and serve with your favorite marinara sauce. 

I will often make half the dough into bread sticks and the other half into a pizza.  Then serve with a delicious garden salad and your own homemade dressing.  Scrumptious and the cost is a mere pittance compared to dining out so you can afford to do it often.
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