Monday, June 30, 2008

You Go, Girl!

My oldest daughter passed her driver's permit test today and can now terrorize the road (and her parents!). She passed on the first try, ain't she a smarty?!

Congrats, Jana!

Crazyville Food Shoppe

People are sometimes amazed when I tell them that I average $125 a week for groceries/household products for my family of six - this includes shampoo, toilet paper, cleaning supplies, etc. I know that there are lots of people who do it for way less (see Money Saving Mom for an example of $40 a week - although in my defense, she has a much smaller family and access to a CVS!). But when I look at the governments numbers I'm doing pretty well: The USDA Thrifty Food Plan (upon which food stamp allotments are based) says that to feed my family it should cost $189.00 a week. That is the food stamp amount, if I went with the "moderate" plan, it should cost me $240.20 a week - and that is just food, not household supplies. So, though I have a long way to go to be among the truly frugal people, I'm feeling ok. And I know I'm doing better than a lot of my friends, because they told me I am!

How to keep food prices low? You have heard a lot of the stuff before: stay away from prepared foods and make stuff from scratch, pay attention to unit pricing, buy in bulk if it makes sense, eat some vegetarian meals, use store brands, use coupons. I do all of these things and know they work to keep the budget low, but my secret is shopping from my basement. Whenever I need an ingredient for my favorite recipe, I go to my basement store and get what I need - and it is always at the lowest price I can find it!

No, I don't have a grocery store in the basement, I have my food storage, what most people would call a pantry. Our church stresses the importance of having a supply of non-perishable food on hand in case of job loss, emergency, natural disaster, or whatever. So, I have an awful lot. It can cost a lot of money to buy a lot of food at once, but I have a strategy.

My strategy is this: when I find something on sale, a really, really good sale, a won't-be-this-low-again-for-awhile sale, I buy lots of whatever it is. For instance, if I find spaghetti sauce for 69 cents a can, I'll buy 10 of them (or more, depending on what amount I already have on hand). Once I have those 10, I won't buy spaghetti sauce until I can get it at 69 cents a can again. I have kept a price book for a long time and am pretty aware of what a "good" price is in my area. I have limits of what I'll spend on certain things and I won't go over. But I very rarely have to because I have a stash of stuff in my basement and I can wait until it goes on sale again (I'm having to adjust my "limits" on stuff due to the rising food prices, sigh). By doing this, I can always make spaghetti with 69 cent spaghetti sauce instead of deciding "Hmm, I think we'll have spaghetti this week" then put it on the grocery list, then buy it for $1.79 a can. I just go shopping in the basement.

(Mind you, the ambiance isn't beautiful - please remember this is my basement!!) I do the same thing with chili, tuna, canned soups, canned beans, canned tomatoes, and lots of other stuff. Some stuff I buy in large quantities at Costco and store them in big white 5 gallon buckets:Of course, you want to use food-grade buckets and not the ones your paint came in! I use the ones my strawberries come in every year and then I have bought a few. Things like rice, lentils, and giant bags of chocolate chips get stored in here (Because, really, what is life without chocolate?). With a few exceptions I keep anything not in a can or jar in a plastic bin -you know, those under-the-bed type boxes? We had a mouse problem years ago and now I'm a little compulsive about it. I also have my home-canned stuff down here: It is getting kind of low because it is June and I will start canning for this year in July and August. I try to only can about a years worth that way it doesn't sit around for a long time and lose quality. I don't always get the numbers quite right, but I try! I also have the most important stuff stored:Can't live without it (does anyone know of a local chapter of Diet Soda Anonymous? Never mind, I haven't reached rock bottom yet and I'm not ready!) But the same strategy holds here, I won't pay over $2.50 for a 12 pack. When it goes on sale for that amount or less, I buy a lot. I keep the important stuff for my kids too:
I love going "shopping in my basement." Hope you enjoyed this tour of Jill's Crazy World Food Shoppe, come by again soon!

Jill

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Menu Plan Monday


Menu Plan Monday is being hosted at Heavenly Homemakers this week. Check it out for tons of menu ideas,

This week I am attempting to, once again, limit my food budget (with the exception of Friday because we are going to get together with my sister and her family for 4th of July and party!!). I'm limiting my food budget because I want to be able to splurge next week when we go on vacation. So this week, I'm eating a lot out of the pantry/food storage and mostly getting fruits and veggies from the store. So this is what we are eating this week:

Breakfasts:


Lunches:
  • mac and cheese (probably from a box but I might get energetic and make my own)
  • leftovers
  • pbj's
  • mini-pizza (english muffins with toppings)

Dinners:

  • Spanish Tortilla ( basically a potato frittata with caramelized onions, potatoes and eggs), veggies with ranch dip, home-canned pears with cheese
  • Hawaiian Haystacks
  • Broccoli Cheese soup (freezer meal), bread or maybe biscuits
  • Taco-stuffed shells, mexican rice, tortilla chips, fruit
  • Restaurant-Style Chinese Chicken from Saving Dinner, rice, steamed veggies
  • 4th of July - hoagie sandwiches, fruit salad, chips, cookies,

Snacks:

no-bake cookies (it has been hot here!)
coffee cake/snack cake
veggies with ranch
apple-oatmeal bars (recipe with pictures tomorrow!)

Notes:
  • You will notice that I don't have days assigned to meals (except for the 4th), that is because I decide the night before or the morning of, what I feel like based on how busy my day is, what the weather is like, or what needs to be used up. I like the flexibility of not being tied to a specific meal.
  • There are a lot of egg-heavy dishes/snacks (french toast, spanish tortilla, cake, etc). Because we have chickens in our backyard and therefore a continuous supply of eggs, I consider eggs a "pantry" item and also very cheap for us!

What are you eating this week?

Jill

Friday, June 27, 2008

Book Review - Cheap. Fast. Good.


In my endless quest to find the perfect cookbook I check out tons of them from the library. I love it when I find one that seems to have been written with me in mind. Such is the case with Cheap. Fast. Good! by Beverly Mills and Alicia Ross. When I buy a cookbook I go through it page by page and put post-it notes on the recipes I would like to try. As you can see from the picture, there were lots in this book! However, the recipes aren't the only reason to buy this book. It is filled with tips and ideas for how to cut your food budget. There is a section in the back where the authors describe their experience trying to feed their families for under $100 a week. The post the actual menus they used and notes on their experiences. Now, for us, ahem, seasoned homemakers (read: old), some of the advice might seem like stuff we learned already. For a beginning cook the advice is invaluable. In fact, this book is my standard wedding shower gift - I've probably bought eight copies in the last two years to give to new brides at church.

However, with the rising cost of food, I find myself turning to this book and the ideas and tips more and more. It is good for even us "seasoned" cooks to be reminded of all those basics. Some of the informational sections include such topics as "How to use up a big hunk of ham," "Making school lunches reasonable," "Super potato toppers (different things to put on top of baked potatoes)," "Making your own convenience items," and a look at "what keeps you out of the kitchen" and how to overcome it!

But really, you buy a cook book for the recipes, and this book is full of good ones. Especially if you have children in your home, these are winners. My favorite recipe is "Good Ol' Beans and Rice" on pg. 173. This page is splattered and stained, a testament to how often it is used (I actually almost have it memorized). Others that I love are Mu-Shu Pork at Home, Mindless Meatball Minestrone, Onion Chopped Steak with Easy Gravy, and Winter Roasted Carrots.

I really like this cookbook and would recommend it to anyone who is trying to feed a family and keep their food budget under control.

Winter Roasted Carrots (Jill's Reader's Digest Condensed version - the the actual cookbook for a much more detailed and, I'm sure, better worded version!)

Preheat oven to 475 degrees. Spray a 9x13-inch pan with cooking spray. Peel and cut 1 lb of carrots into pieces approximately 2 to 3 inches long, 1/2" wide and 1/2" thick.

Place them in the pan. Peel two small or one large onion and quarters, then cut the quarters in half crosswise and add them to the pan.

Peel several cloves of garlic and add the whole cloves to the pan.

Drizzle 1 Tbs. olive oil over the vegetables and then sprinkle them with 1/2 tsp dried thyme an 1/4 tsp salt. Stir and toss the vegetables until they are coated.

Roast, uncovered, for 45 minutes, stirring every 10 to 15 minutes. Remove pan from the oven and drizzle 1 tsp balsamic vinegar over the vegetables and toss. Serve immediately.

Notes:

  • We add washed, chopped red, russet and/or sweet potatoes to this dish.
  • We have also added red peppers, broccoli, and lots of other things. Basically this recipe is a basic recipe for roasted vegetables and you can add anything that seems like it might be good roasted!
  • Don't leave off the balsamic vinegar. At first it sounded weired to me but it adds an amazing tangy flavor without overwhelming it with vinegar flavor.
  • We add more salt - it just seems to need more salt. Probably not as healthy, but it sure tastes good.
  • We love to mash the roasted garlic cloves and use the "garlic paste" to flavor the rest of the veggies. My kids fight over who gets the garlic so I put LOTS of garlic cloves in there.

Enjoy!

Jill

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Quick and Easy Lentil Stew


I decided the other night that I wanted to have lentil soup for dinner. I had some polska kielbasa in the fridge and was in the mood for something rich, hearty and satisfying. I had planned on searching the web for some fabulous recipe that everyone raved about, but ended up too dang lazy to even do that, so I improvised. What I came up with was a hit with the whole family and even with my daughter's friend who happened to be dining with us. Here's what I did:

Lentil Soup on the Fly

Sauté in a big pot (make sure it is big, I ended up switching to a bigger pot half way through):

Olive oil (about 2 TBS?)
chopped onion
chopped carrot
(I would have added chopped celery if I'd had any but we were out)

When the onion is translucent and the carrots are looking slightly cooked, add:

8 c. chicken stock (I used water and chicken bullion, don't judge me)
1 can chopped tomatoes
1/2 c. pearl barley
1 c. lentils

Bring to a boil and cook for about 40 minutes or until the barley and lentils are tender. You could go do something else, or chop some lettuce for salad, or mix up a batch of biscuits or cornbread, or whatever. When the lentils are tender add:

chopped up sausage, ham or whatever you have on hand. You could add the meat earlier but I have a vegetarian and I took out a bowl for her before I added the meat (she will eat chicken so the broth was ok). We served this with breadsticks and fruit.

Notes:
  • I used polska kielbasa and it was fabulous. I get it at Costco and repackage it into meal-sized packages and freeze it. We like polska kielbasa in our red beans and rice and a few other things so I try to keep some in the freezer and Costco is cheap.
  • This was even better the second day as leftovers. Yum!
  • You can adjust the amount of water to feed a bigger family (or smaller)
  • I was going to add some shredded cabbage but forgot. It would probably be a good addition.
  • The one thing I would for sure do different next time is I would blend the can of tomatoes in my Magic Bullet. My son doesn't like tomatoes and whined about having to pick them out. The soup needs the flavor, though. Next time I'd just puree it and add it to the soup, then little boy wouldn't complain!
Enjoy!

Jill

Freezer Jam

I love the idea of feeding my kids homemade bread with homemade jam for snacks. But I really don't like making jam the old fashioned way - cook it until it doesn't actually taste like fruit anymore, ladle it into sterilized jars, boil the canning lids, attach the lids and screw bands, boil it in the water bath canner. Ugh! A lot of work and cooked jam doesn't taste as fresh as I would like it to.

Then I discovered freezer jam. Not only is the preparation quick and easy, but the final product tastes like fresh berries, yum! It does take up space in your freezer, but it is absolutely worth it. It is so easy to make that I recently made four batches of strawberry freezer jam in about two hours. Let take you through it step by step.

Here is my big secret recipe for freezer jam:
Yes, you can see that correctly, it is the instructions from a package of Sure-Jell pectin! Really what I do is buy the pectin and follow the instructions inside. Pretty much all pectin will include a recipe for freezer jam in addition to instructions for cooked jam. Be sure to follow the instructions because each kind has you do it differently. In fact, this time I did two batches of regular Sure-Jell and two batches of low sugar Sure-Jell. Same brand, two different ways of making it. In general, though, the steps are pretty similar. First you mash your berries. Oh, be sure to wash and hull them first, duh. Then you mash them, I use my food processor but you have to be careful because you don't want a puree, you just want them mashed up (the instructions tell you that "jam has bits of fruit in it" as opposed to jelly which doesn't). Then you add the pectin and sugar. Sometimes you add the sugar to the berries and let it macerate (which is just a fancy way of saying the sugar will draw the liquid out of the berries causing it to break down which is good for the whole jam-making thing). Sometimes you add the sugar to the pectin with some water and boil it for a minute or so. After you have added to dissolved pectin and sugar to the berries you usually have to stir for a bit to make everything (especially the sugar) dissolve - you don't want grainy jam!

At some point it will look like this - a big bowl of very sweet strawberry soup! You ladle this into containers that are suitable for the freezer - I use margarine containers, they are cheap and it is recycling. You let the containers sit out on the counter for 24 hrs then put them in the freezer. Freezer jam is not as "solid" as cooked jam so it spreads easier but it also falls out of sandwiches easier so be careful. But the flavor is worth it. I usually do strawberry, raspberry, and blackberry every year, but the instructions have recipes for peach, blueberry/raspberry, and more. Experiment until you find your favorite. Enjoy!

Jill

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Homemade Rice-A-Roni




Sometimes, eating cheap isn't very pretty. If you really want to keep your budget low, you need to give up prepared foods and cook things from scratch. Somethings are just so darn easy they are hard to give up. Rice-a-Roni is one of those things. It is just so dang easy to open that box and 20 minutes later you have a rice pilaf to put along side your chicken. But the reality is that you can make it for a whole lot less and with none of the preservatives, artificial colors, or artificial flavors. But can you do it in 20 minutes like the boxed stuff? And will my family eat it? I decided to find out.

I first started with searching for copy-cat recipes on the web, there are lots. Most were variations on the following recipe. I opted to go "minimalist" in this, you could of course add tons of herbs, spices or flavorings.

All you need to make the basic chicken flavored rice pilaf is this:


A cup of rice, an onion, some butter, some garlic, a couple of bullion cubs (or canned chicken stock), and some vermicelli. For me, finding the vermicelli was the hardest part. Most on-line recipes tell you to break spaghetti noodles into one inch pieces, what a bother! My new favorite place to find spices is the Mexican food aisle at my grocery store and while I was checking out the spices I spotted this:It is El Guapo medium vermicelli and it looks exactly like what they use in rice-a-roni! And the best part? It cost 25 cents for this package! I have enough to make about 6 batches of homemade rice-a-roni, steal-of-a-deal!

So, first I chopped up my onion. I had a huge onion so I only used a quarter of it cause I didn't want onion-a-roni. I chopped it fairly fine because I wanted it to disappear into the pilaf. Then I sautéd it in some butter, it looked like this:


Bet you've never seen sautéing onions as cook as that before, have you? Am I amazing or what? After the onion had softened up, I added 1 cup of long grain rice and about a half a cup of vermicelli. It looked like this:
You can't really tell from this picture, but this looks just like the rice-a-roni does when you are cooking it, honest. After the rice and vermicelli were starting to look toasty, I added several cloves of garlic that I pressed. This is not a very authentic addition, the boxed stuff doesn't taste very garlic-y but my family loves garlic and so I added it. After the garlic starts to really smell wonderful add the rest of your ingredients. Don't let the garlic burn or you will be starting over, trust me.

Next I added three cups of chicken broth (actually it was three cups of water and three bullion cubes, but don't tell. I know that "real" cooks never use the dried cubes of bullion but I like them cause they are shelf-stable, take up far less room than cans of chicken broth, and cost next to nothing at Costco. And my family likes the taste. Sue me.) The other thing I added was a pinch of turmeric. Why? Because the first time I made this it was very pale, sort of anemic looking. The boxed stuff is a very pretty yellow color. By adding just a pinch or two of turmeric, it turned it that lovely shade of yellow and didn't taste like turmeric at all. Then I covered it up and simmered it for 20 or so minutes, until the rice is tender and all the liquid absorbed. You may need to check it and add more liquid if needed. I haven't perfectly worked out the proportions yet.

My 14 yo said, "Mom, this is even better than the real stuff, will you make it more often?" Am I amazing, or what?

Jill

Monday, June 23, 2008

Good 'Ol Beans and Rice


(I'm taking part in Fugal Upstate's Frugal Food series. This post is about those amazingly frugal beans. Check out Frugal Upstate for even more bean ideas.)

When you read or hear a discussion about cheap eating you invariably hear about eating a lot of rice and beans. Usually this is accompanied with a sigh or a grimace. I recently found a recipe in one of my favorite cookbooks for something called Good Ol' Rice and Beans. The author was saying that she had a discussion with some people about all the prepared foods in the American diet. She noted that people don't seem to have time to cook anymore. A sweet lady said to her that people "could always find time to cook good ol' rice and beans." The accompanying recipe is one my family loves and would eat once a week if I made it. We serve it with fruit, corn bread and maybe a salad. Cheap, quick and nutritious - can't beat that. And not a sigh or grimace in sight. (By the way, the cookbook is Cheap Fast Good and I'll be reviewing it later this week.)

Good Ol' Rice and Beans

In a large skillet sauté:

2 tsp vegetable oil
1 large onion, chopped

When onion is softened, add to the skillet:

1 or 2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed

When the garlic is fragrant (but before it turns brown) add:

1 can (15 oz) red or white beans, drained
1 can (15 oz) black beans, not drained
1 can (14 1/2 oz) diced tomatoes, not drained
1 cup frozen yellow corn kernels
1 tsp chili powder
1/2 tsp ground cumin

Reduce heat and simmer until the flavors blend and frozen corn is no longer frozen! Serve over rice (we prefer brown rice but the white rice cooks faster if you are pressed for time). Top with a sprinkle of grated cheddar cheese.

Notes:

  • If you use canned beans it goes together in about 20 minutes or less. If you use dry beans it would be cheaper but you have to think in advance. Unless you cook a whole bunch of beans at once and store them in the freezer.
  • We blend the can of tomatoes in the blender because some people in my family "don't like tomatoes." We like the flavor of the tomatoes and I want the nutrition that the tomatoes add, so I just blend them and that person doesn't even know they are there.
  • You can change it up by using tomatoes with added flavors (garlic, Italian spices, Mexican spices, etc.) You could really go crazy and add a can of Ro-tel tomatoes.
Enjoy!

Jill

Cookies to Die For!


I own a bazillion cookbooks. No really, if there is such a number as "bazillion" then I have that many cookbooks. I don't buy a cookbook unless I've checked it out of the library at least three times, I figure by then it has enough good stuff that I should own it. The one exception to this rule was that one time I joined a "book-of-the-month" club. When you joined you got six books for a dollar (or something like that). I joined because there was one book I was drooling over and I figured if I could get it for a buck it was worth it (that book was Homebaking by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid.). I ended up getting several books that I had never read/looked. When they first came I looked through them and put them on my shelf. I have been going through my cookbooks again and finding some great stuff.

The book I'm going through right now is called The All-American Cookie Book, Nancy Baggett. I is sort of a history of cookies in America. The one I tried today is called Caramel Frosted Brown Sugar Drops. Can you say "to die for?" Oh. My. Goodness. If you like caramel, like I do, these are amazing. The frosting recipe that is in the book didn't work for me and I ended up throwing out a lot of weird-looking-burned-caramel-smelling stuff. I found another recipe on CDKitchen, it was fabulous. My kids (and husband) ate almost half the recipe before I frosted them and loved them so I guess you could do it either way (go with the frosting).

Caramel Frosted Brown Sugar Drops

Mix in a bowl and set aside:

2 3/4 c. all-purpose flour (I used about 1/2 c. whole wheat, cause I'm just like that)
1 tsp. baking soda
generous 1/4 tsp salt

In another large bowl or bowl of your stand mixer, beat together:

1 c. (two sticks) butter
1 1/3 c. brown sugar

When the butter/sugar mixture is light and fluffy add:

2 large eggs
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

When it is combined add half of the flour mixture then add:

2/3 c. sour cream

Then add the other half of the flour mixture. If you want them, add:

3/4 c. chopped pecans (I didn't have any and my family has this whole "no nuts in things")

Drop by tablespoons on cookies sheet. With greased (or wet) fingers, press the tops so the cookies are relatively flat. Bake at 350 degrees for 9-12 minutes. Put on wire rack to cool. Top with Caramel Frosting.

Caramel Frosting

Melt in medium saucepan:

1/2 c. butter

When melted, add 1 c. packed brown sugar

Stir and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Reduce heat and boil (still stirring) for two minutes. Add:

1/4 c. milk

Bring back to a boil then remove from heat. Stir well. Cool to lukewarm then add:

2 c. powdered sugar

Stir well and cool (put your pan in a bowl that has cold water in it). Use to frost cookies. YUM!

I'm off to look for more cookie recipes.

Jill

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Menu Plan Monday


I'm participating in I'm an Organizing Junkie's Menu Plan Monday. This is my first week posting my menus, but I always plan my menus for the week. I'm very organized in my food life! Don't ask me about the rest of my life.

This week is "eat out of the pantry/freezer week." I'm trying to keep the budget low this week and eat some room into my freezer! So here is what we are eating:

Breakfasts:

  • Baked oatmeal
  • Cereal
  • Homemade bread toasted with homemade jam
  • Bagels

Lunches:

  • One-eyed Egyptians (butter a slice of bread, cut a hole and put it in a pan butter side down. Crack an egg in the hole and salt and pepper it. Fry/cook until egg is set, flipping once. Don't forget to cook the piece you cut out, my kids call that the "cookie" and it is their favorite part!)
  • Wagon-wheel chili (boil wagon wheel pasta, drain and set aside. Heat one can of your favorite chili, add one small can tomato sauce and some garlic powder. Stir in pasta and heat til warm. A great way to stretch a can of cheap vegetarian chili to feed my four kids and me.)
  • Easy Bean and Cheese rounds (new recipe for me, I'll tell you how it went and post the recipe later this week)
  • Ramen with egg (Just ramen noodles with beaten egg stirred in at the end. My kids love ramen and with the egg it begins to approach healthy. Ok not really, but with the egg I don't feel so guilty!)
  • Leftovers

Dinners:

  • Lime chicken, homemade rice-a-roni, salad
  • Lentil soup, homemade bread, steamed veggies
  • Red Beans and Rice (using dry beans which I will soak and cook), tortillas, jello salad
  • Chicken Crock Pot thing (boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cream of broccoli soup and some milk, cook all day, stir in some cooked broccoli and cheese at the end, serve over rice), veggies with ranch dip
  • Meatloaf (freezer meal), baked potatoes, salad
  • Friday we are hosting a party for several couples from church - we are all bringing a main-dish salad and a dessert, and I'm making several kinds of homemade bread (foccacia, pan rolls and maybe french bread?) I'm bringing chinese chicken salad to this also.

Snacks:

  • leftover bread toasted
  • granola with yogurt
  • Caramel Frosted Brown Sugar Drops (cookies, the recipe will be posted tomorrow)
  • fruit
  • veggies with ranch
  • applesauce with graham crackers

With this menu, I will only have to go to the store to get some fresh fruits, veggies, salad stuff, and milk. That should really keep the budget low! And, all the meals I know my family will eat and enjoy. Cheap, good, and a happy family - can't get much better than that!

Jill

Lazy Summer Weekends, Gotta Love 'Em


What did we do this weekend? Pretty much nothing. Actually we did a lot of little things around the house and yard. Hubby has almost finished the shed, we planted a few things in the garden, moved the baby chickens to the backyard, and read books, enjoyed the sun, and lots of other little things that weren't too strenuous.

I did go to the library and pickup some new cookbooks to read. All about cheap, easy to prepare, good-for-you recipes that your family will actually eat. I'm excited to review these books in the next few weeks. I love me some new recipes!

I'm going back to read the Sunday paper and do more . . . .nothing.

Jill

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Strawberry Fields Forever

Guess what I did last night? Lots and lots of strawberries! I buy my berries from the Salem Rotary Club every year. They do a fundraiser and I can get lots of berries for not much money. I bought 30 lbs of strawberries for $40 or so. Not too bad. The only problem is that then I had 30 lbs of strawberries I had to deal with! Luckily they come washed, hulled and sliced, so dealing with them isn't too bad. Here is what the bucket 'o strawberries looks like.
That is my youngest, Kaden, snitching some berries out of the tub. That is a 5 gallon bucket full of strawberries! Ok, in this picture it isn't exactly full, I had already fed the boy a big bowl and made two batches of freezer jam by the time I took this picture. Here is what the strawberries look like:
Mmmmm, don't those look good? My kitchen didn't look all that good by the time I was done but this sure looked great:
I did four batches of freezer jam (14 containers worth), 9 quart bags full of frozen berries that we will use when we do crepes with berries during the year, a big bowl of berries to eat the next few days and some "strawberry ice cubes" for making smoothies. Since I didn't have to slice, wash or hull them, it only took me about two hours. Not too bad, but I'm really, really tired!

Jill

Links to Stuff I've Found

There are a lot of great stuff around the web this week. Some great recipes that look amazing and a couple of great articles that will really make you think. Here we go:

Long, Comprehensive Article about Childhood Obesity at Cheap Healthy Good

I came across this comprehensive article on childhood obesity at Cheap Healthy Good. It really opened my eyes. For instance, did you know that there is a direct correlation between physical fitness and SAT scores? Did you know that obese kids are seven times more likely to be depressed? This article really makes you understand why it is important to feed our kids a healthy diet and make them exercise!

Fabulous Looking Chocolate Cake at Evil Chef Mom

Evil Chef Mom is one of my favorite blogs to frequent. She is so very funny to read. In addition, she has great recipes. This recipe for Chocolate Pound Cake with Coconut Glaze sounds so good. Maybe this weekend? Where does one find coconut extract? In the spice aisle?

A Small Bite: A Sensible Way to Splurge

Over at Get Rich Slowly, JD's wife has a great post about not depriving yourself. She is talking about money and spending, but it really can be applied to so many areas of life. I really like her idea that rather than going without dessert, she has one small bite. Then she can enjoy it but she won't feel guilty later. Maybe I should try that? Nah.

Why We Can't Order Tomatoes At Taco Bell!

The number of salmonella cases due to tomatoes has risen again. Three hundred and eighty three people have gotten sick. Why can't they figure out where these tomatoes are coming from. No more salads for awhile, sigh.

Jill

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Spicy Sticker Shock!

Recently I found a great recipe for Good 'ol Rice and Beans which my family inhales. It calls for, among other things, 1 tsp chili powder and 1/2 tsp cumin. That doesn't sound like too much but when you make this dish once a week or so it adds up. So I needed to stock up on chili powder (I'm doing ok on the cumin for now). I also noticed when I did my broccoli cheese soup recipe that my paprika is probably 10 years old (I know, I know, I'm busy, cheap, and I don't use paprika that often. Sue me.).

Spices are expensive! This topic came up over at the fabulous blog Get Rich Slowly. In the comments someone suggested checking the Mexican food aisle in your grocery store for cheap spices. I figured that while I was at Winco I would check it out. I was amazed! Here's an example: This bottle of Safeway brand chili powder costs $4.99 for 4.5 ounces which makes it $1.11 an ounce.These packages are what I purchased at Winco in the Mexican food aisle. The package of chili powder was $.62. Yes, you read that right 62 cents for one ounce, making it 62 cents an ounce!! That is almost half as much as the Safeway brand. The paprika was the same price, 62 cents. Versus this package of Safeway brand:This package is $1.96 for one ounce making it $1.96 an ounce! That is more than three times the mexican package.

While you can't find every spice in the Mexican food aisle (I didn't see chives for instance), you can find lots - cinnamon, cumin, rosemary, crushed red pepper flakes, and lots more. All of them for 62 cents. You can bet where I'm going to be buying my spices in the future!


Jill

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Book Review - More With Less Cookbook


I decided to do a review of my all time favorite cookbook, the More-with-Less Cookbook, by Doris Janzen Longacre. But first a little story (it is what you have come to expect from me, right?). When I was 20 years old I was a student in my second year of college. Actually, to be more accurate, I was not a student in college - I had opted to stay in the college town I was living in and get a job rather than go to school. I was burned out on college and I really couldn't decided what I wanted to major in and felt I was wasting my money. While reading the campus newspaper one day I noticed some ads - "Nanny Wanted." Seems there was a booming business finding cute college coeds to be live-in nannies for families on the east coast. Hey! Since I'm not going to school anyway, why not travel, get paid, and not have to pay rent - all at the same time!! Sounds like a winner to me. So I interviewed with an agency then had phone interviews with several families. The family that I immediately clicked with was a family in Washington DC. The Bentons had two little boys, ages 18 months and 6 weeks. They had amazing red hair and the pictures were of some of the cutest kids I had ever seen. A few weeks after Christmas I packed up my life, boarded a plane and flew off to live with a family I had never actually met in person. I look back now and marvel at my chutzpah and bravery. I should have been scared to death (and at moments I was), but overall I was just excited for this new adventure.

My year in Washington DC, turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life. The first month was a huge adjustment period and I cried often, but I learned to rely on myself and to trust myself. I made amazing friends and traveled all over the east coast - Maine, Rhode Island, Maryland, Virginia, Connecticut. The Bentons are vegetarians and one of my jobs was to cook dinner for them on week nights. I learned how to cook vegetarian dishes and founds some great vegetarian recipes. And, I found my favorite cookbook, More-with-Less Cookbook.

This cookbook isn't strictly vegetarian, it does have lots of meat recipes, but as the name implies, this book is about eating better with less and sometimes that means less meat. The book was inspired by a 1974 resolution by the Mennonite Central Committee. Part of this resolution was the call for all Mennonite and Brethren in Christ households to reduce their food budgets and consumption by 10%. This cookbook was intended to help them figure out how to do that.

This cookbook is not gourmet and it doesn't even try to be. But almost every ingredient in the book is something you probably have in your pantry right now (or you should if you consider yourself a frugal healthy cook!). There are "from scratch" recipes for sandwich bread, granola, tortillas, pizza, white sauce, "cream of" soups, and much more. The recipes are simple, cheap and quick. These recipes do not rely on heavily processed convenience food (no Velveeta here!), they rely on vegetables, beans, grains, and small portions of meat. Some of my favorite recipes from this book are:
  • Basic Dry Cereal Formula - granola from scratch but this recipes allows you to customize it for what your family likes or what you have one hand or what happens to be cheap!
  • Basic Baked Beans - baked beans from scratch - yummy and oh so cheap!
  • Baked Lentils with Cheese - a vegetarian dish that is so good.
  • Cottage Cheese Casserole - another vegetarian dish that tastes like comfort food.
  • Indian Fry Bread - not low cal but cheap and can be used in a myriad of ways.
  • Torta Pascualina - Argentine Spinach Pie. Trust me on this one, it's great.
The book also has dessert recipes and some weird stuff like recipes for Homemade Laundry Soap using "1 can lye."

For me cookbooks are kind of like good literature. I enjoy reading them even if they don't apply to my life directly. But when I find a cookbook that inspires me to get in the kitchen, that one I keep. This book is a keeper.

Jill

Monday, June 16, 2008

Frugal Foods - Canned Tuna Fish


Jenn over at Frugal Upstate is having a frugal food series where she highlights a frugal ingredient and than has people post all their best recipes using that ingredient. Last week was eggs and people suggested tons of great ideas including my suggestion of breakfast burritos. If you are looking for frugal foods to feed your family, stop by Frugal Upstate and check out all the great ideas. This week is canned tuna fish. We always have canned tuna in our food storage, we eat lots of tuna salad in the summer and my oldest daughter Jana could live on tuna sandwiches!

My mom used to make several things with canned tuna. We ate creamed tuna on toast (it sounds kind of weird but it is still comfort food for me when I'm grumpy and not feeling great). One of her favorites was Tuna Loaf. It is amazingly frugal and pretty easy to put together. We like it topped with a mushroom sauce (usually just cream of mushroom soup with a little milk and some cheese melted into it, but you could make a white sauce and add some sautéd mushrooms and some beef boullion with the cheese). We usually serve this with green beans because the mushroom sauce goes really well with the beans. Add some fruit and you have dinner! So without further ado, here it is:

Tuna Loaf

Mix together in a bowl:

1 can tuna, drained
2/3 c. soft bread crumbs (about 1-2 slices)
2 eggs
1/2 c. milk
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp paprika
1 Tbs. chopped celery
1 Tbs chopped parsley (or 1 tsp dried)
1 Tbs. chopped onion (or 1 tsp dried minced)

Mix these together well and place in a loaf pan. Dot the top with butter and place in 375 degree oven for 40 minutes.

Notes:
  • We always make a double batch of this and put it in a 9x9 square pan.
  • To make the soft bread crumbs, take a couple of slices of sandwich bread and cut it into small cubes. Or you can put it in the food processor to make actual crumbs out of it, I'm always too lazy to get out the food processor so I just cut.
  • You can use whole wheat bread (as we do) so that you make it even healthier.

The Case of the Missing Chicken



The day started out like any other day. Any other day that was incredibly busy and included things like my husband going to Urgency Care for a nail stuck in his foot, my family coming over for a family birthday party, and getting ready for Father's Day. We had worked hard in the backyard getting ready for the family barbeque and the yard looked great. So picturesque with the green grass and the three chickens grazing amongst the flowerbeds. You see, we have pet chickens. Three of them (and three baby chicks that are in a box in the garage currently). We call them "pets with a purpose," the purpose being fresh eggs. We love our chickens (and their eggs) and treat them truly as pets. They are spoiled rotten and we dote on them. We have lost several over the years to raccoons and are very protective of the ones who are left. They are only allowed out during the day and are locked up tight at night.

We had let them out this day because the cousins who were coming over enjoy the whole "farm feel" of Auntie Jill's house. I say farm feel because we live in a suburban neighborhood and have a larger than average yard, but not a farm by a long shot! But we have chickens, bunnies, a little red barn chicken coop, grapes, blueberries, raspberries, gardens like crazy, and it feels like a farm to someone who doesn't have that.

The cousins had fun playing in the backyard and the weather was beautiful for the barbeque. At the end of the day I was going to show my sister (who lives far away and doesn't see my yard often) all my pets. But we couldn't find Jellybean, my black Austrolorpe chicken. We searched everywhere - the bushes, the coop, the green space behind our house, everywhere we could think of, but she was gone. When dusk came and the other two chickens went back to the coop for the night, she still wasn't there. She just . . . . vanished! (cue scary music!)

We went to sleep thinking the worst, she had been grabbed by a raccoon or a hawk and we had seen the last of her. But the detective in me wouldn't give it up; how could she have disappeared in a yard full of kids with adults watching from the deck? Wouldn't we have heard or seen something? It bugged me and when I woke up this morning it still bugged me! I wanted to go search the yard again but I had a Father's Day breakfast to make, kids to get ready for church, things to do!

After church, and after the Father's Day dinner (we go all out on holidays here), I went to take my baby chicks to the backyard for some "sunshine time." While they frolicked and pecked and flapped, I watered my garden and did some tidying up. When I came to the hay storage area I noticed the lid of one of the boxes had gotten knocked part-way off, when I lifted it to straighten it - out flew Jellybean! She had somehow gotten herself trapped under the lid and couldn't get out. She was very thirsty, very hungry and is walking with a limp right now, but otherwise seems ok. It is still a mystery - how did she get under there? Why didn't she make noise? Did she and we didn't hear her because of the kids? Whatever the case, I'm glad she's back and the mystery is solved!

Jill

Friday, June 13, 2008

Crashed Potatoes!

Happy Friday the Thirteenth!

I love to search the internet for recipes. Recipes with pictures are even better. Much like how I read cookbooks, I love to just read the recipes and the comments. I often try these recipes; some have become family favorites. When I find a good one, I love to share. So, here is my new find - Crashed Potatoes!

I found this recipe on a fabulous cooking site called Pioneer Woman. She has fabulous recipes and she is a crackup to read - so funny! This recipe looked especially fabulous. I am a potato girl. Should have been born in Idaho, sigh. I like potatoes anyway you can think of - fried, baked, boiled, in salad, potato chips, mashed, anyway but raw! So whenever I find a new way of making potatoes my little heart goes pitter-pat. I decided to try this one right away. So we had it Tuesday night. Every single member of my family loved them. That rates six stars in Crazyville! So here is the recipe, if you go to Pioneer Woman she has photo illustrations for the whole recipe (and some really witty commentary). But here is my version:

Crashed Potatoes

Take some small red or new potatoes (I used small yukon gold potatoes which is why they look so golden-y in the picture). They should be relatively small, single serving size. You want enough for each person to have at least one, but if they are really small two each (or if you just really like potatoes, three or four each!!). Boil the potatoes in a big pot of salted water until they are fork tender (you know, cooked until they are tender enough to be easily poked with a fork). Drain in a colander. Now place these boiled potatoes on a greased cookie sheet (or a silpat, silicone baking sheet). Grease well because we all know how potatoes like to stick!

Now take a potato masher (or the bottom of a cup, or a fork) and gently smash those potatoes. You don't want mush! You just want to open the potatoes up and expose the insides. This is the "crashed" part of the recipe, but we just want a rear-ender not a wipe-out! Now liberally brush the tops of the potatoes with olive oil, sprinkle with salt (lots, potatoes need salt!), add some pepper and some fresh herbs - I had chives and parsley in my garden so that's what I used but you could use whatever you want. Next put them on the top rack of a really hot oven (425-450) and bake for 20-25 minutes. Then eat - don't moan when you taste them even though you will really want to!

This recipe is definitely a keeper in my home. Next time I will try brushing them with melted butter instead of olive oil (or get some really good olive oil, you can really taste it and my tasted just slightly off. Time for a trip to Costco!). I would like to try different herbs, also. Rosemary? Thyme? No matter what I am sure they will be delicious and they are cheap too. Can't beat it! Try these, I promise they are worth it!

See you all on Monday when we talk spicy!

Jill

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Making Bread 101



When talking about ways to lower your food budget, one thing that comes up over and over again is making your own bread. It is true, making your own bread is cheaper than buying it. However, the reason I make bread has little to do with price and everything to do with quality. I like baking bread because I can control what goes into it. When I make bread there is no high fructose corn syrup, malt coloring, or artificial anything, just flour, water, yeast, salt, sugar (or honey) and occasionally milk and/or butter. I usually use half whole wheat flour (that I grind myself - don't I sound all pioneer woman-y?) so my family is getting some whole grains. But this isn't the real reason I bake bread.


The real reason I bake bread? Because it makes me feel so good. I love watching it rise. I love the smell my house fills with as it bakes. I love taking those warm, brown, fragrant loaves out of the oven. I love slicing into a still warm loaf and having that yeasty smell smack me in the face. I love spreading real butter on that still warm slice and eating it. Oh goodness - I'm filling with warm fuzzies just typing this. It isn't just the taste, it is the whole sensory experience! But a lot of people don't seem to know how to bake bread, or think that it is this labor intensive, complicated, scary process that only us pioneer woman-y types can master. Here's a secret . . . bread baking isn't hard! It is very forgiving and while you do have to let it rise, the actual hands-on time is minimal, especially if you have a heavy -duty mixer. (Oh, and the other secret is I'm not really all that pioneer woman-y, I just like to let you all think I am!)

So here it is, with photo illustrations taken by me: Bread Making 101.

The recipe I used for these loaves of bread is Grandma Bread from the Chickens in The Road blog. I highly recommend her blog and her recipes. This bread is amazing.

Mix in a bowl:

2 1/2 c. warm water
1 package yeast (2 1/4 tsp if using bulk yeast)
1/2 tsp salt
1/3 c. sugar (I used a little less, I didn't want it too sweet)

When you mix it up (I use a wire whisk) it should look like this:Now, let me say one thing. I am working on this whole photography thing. Tali won't give me lessons and I'm not very good. I'm getting better, honest! Just go with me on this and pretend you can tell what this looks like, 'kay?

Let this sit for about 5 or 10 minutes and it should look like this:
Go with me again, pretend this looks foamy and frothy.

Next add:

5 1/2 - 6 cups flour (I used about half whole wheat)

Then knead it. This is easy if you have a heavy-duty mixer. My KitchenAid stand mixer does this beautifully. Just turn it on and let it go for 5-10 minutes. This amount of flour is approximate. Depending on lots of different things, you may need more or less flour. Just make sure you add enough that the dough stays together and isn't too sticky. If you don't have a mixer, stir in the first few cups with a wooden spoon then turn it out on a flat surface and sprinkle the rest on top. Then get your hands in there and work it baby! Smoosh it flat then fold it over, twist it clockwise half a turn then smoosh it again. Keep doing this over and over again until the dough is smooth and elastic. Then put the whole thing in a greased bowl (a big bowl, this stuff will expand!) It will look like this:
This picture actually looks like what it is supposed to - see I told you I was getting better!

Next cover the bowl with a towel and place in a somewhat warm place. I usually turn my oven on for 5 minutes while I'm kneading then turn it off and place the dough in. It gets warm in that time but not hot. You can just put it on top of the refrigerator, on the counter, where ever, just not the fridge!

Next, go do something else. You are waiting for the dough to double in size. It should take about an hour or so. Go watch Oprah. Go clean your bathtub. Go to the grocery store. Just come back in an hour or so and check your bread. When it is ready to go it should look like this:
That looks twice as big, right? Now punch it down. Just punch it with your fist - think of someone you'd like to hit, but can't. Turn the now deflated dough on a flat surface and knead once or twice. Divide it into two relatively even pieces and shape them into a loaf shape - don't worry about how it looks, just make it relatively oblong and smooth and plop them into two greased loaf pans. They will look like this:
Then cover them up and go do something else for awhile. You want them to be - wait for it - twice the size! They should look like this:
Those pictures just keep getting better and better, too bad the kitchen in the background doesn't get cleaner and cleaner! Place these lovely ladies in a 350 degree oven and bake for 25-30 minutes. They should be golden brown and sound hollow when you tap them. If you want to get all domestic on us, you can use an instant-read thermometer and when it reaches 190 degrees or so in the center, they are ready. Then take them out and put them on a wire rack to cool. Take them out of the pans as soon as you can because the steam will be trapped in there and make the bottom crusts tough. They should look like this:
Next you just slice them and eat them. Try not to moan as you eat that first bite, your children will tease you forever if you do. Enjoy!

Jill

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Welcome to Jill's Crazy Life!


Welcome! If you are new to my blog I thought I would tell you a little bit about myself and what exactly I am doing here. (Well, right now I am typing but you know what I mean . . . !) I started this blog to prove to myself that I could write. I had just been rejected by Pacific University for their Master of Fine Arts in Writing program. I was disappointed to put it lightly! I started writing entries about my family and life as a wife/mother/full time college student to prove to myself that, yes, I can write. But slowly things began to change. I started writing more and more about food. I decided not to fight it!

Now I see this blog as a way for me to expand my "food horizons." I also hope to share some of the things that I have learned along to way. Many years ago, I quit my job to stay home and raise my three daughters. We figured out our budget and we had enough to cover everything - except food. Somehow we always ate, and ate fairly well, and I learned to shop and cook for next to nothing! With the price of food today, I need to go back to cooking cheap - and figure all of you could use some recipes and ideas, too. Hopefully, we will start a conversation and we will all share what we know.

I must warn you, I am still a wife and mother (although I graduated from Portland State in May), and my blog will feature my kids and life here in Crazyville. (That is me and my youngest, Kaden in the picture above) It is highly likely that sometimes the entries will not even mention food! But most of the time it will and hopefully it will entertain as well as inform. (oh, I have high aspirations for myself, don't I?) In the coming weeks I will review cookbooks, provide links to cool cooking stuff I find, and post recipes.

I hope you will bookmark me and come back often to see what I'm up to. For now, feel free to browse the site and make comments at will.

Enjoy and welcome to Jill's Crazy Life!

Jill

Broccoli Cheese Soup - Fast!


I love good soup. It makes me happy. Sometimes, Campbell's hits the spot, partly because it is nostalgic, and partly because it is brainlessly easy! Sometimes, however, I really want a good soup. Soup with lots of fresh ingredients, that has been simmered and stirred into yumminess. But I want it fast. How do I accomplish that? By cooking giant batches of soup and freezing them. Then I can have great soup super fast. I do French Onion Soup, which I freeze in individual containers because I'm the only one who likes it. I do Chicken Tortilla soup which is wonderful. I found a great recipe for Chicken and Wild Rice soup, too. But this week I tried a recipe that I have been wanting to try for weeks. The recipe is from the book Don't Panic, Dinner's in the Freezer by Susie Martinez, Vanda Howell an Bonnie Garcia. As you can see from the picture above, I shamelessly photocopied the recipe out of the library copy. However, there are a lot of great recipes and it might be worth finally buying it (the French Onion soup recipe and Chicken and Wild Rice recipe are from this cookbook also).

The recipe I tried this week is for Broccoli Cheese Soup. I love broccoli cheese soup and I order it whenever I get the chance. Quiznos has a pretty good version that I order sometimes. This recipe is very similar and everyone in my family ate it!! Even Tali, my vegetarian! I made a single batch on Monday and made a triple batch for the freezer on Friday. So I have three nights of Broccoli Cheese soup for dinner, waiting in my freezer - YUM!


Broccoli Cheese Soup

Combine in a large pot and bring to a boil:

1 cup carrot, finely chopped
1/4 cup celery, finely chopped
1/4 cup onion, finely chopped
1/4 cup green pepper, finely chopped
1/2 cup fresh broccoli, cut in small pieces
1 3/4 cups chicken broth

Bring to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes or until vegetables are tender.

Combine in a bowl:

2 cups milk
1/4 c. flour
1/2 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp salt

Add the milk mixture to the vegetable mixture and cook until thick and bubbly.

Add to the pot:

4 oz. Velveeta cheese
1 c. shredded cheddar cheese
1/2 c. shredded provolone cheese

Stir until cheese is melted, but don't boil. Freeze in large gallon bag. On serving day, heat until warm but don't boil.

  • NOTES: Ok, I never make a recipe as listed and as I was typing this I realized I changed this one a lot!
  • When I was making it, I didn't think I wanted the veggies to be chunky so I pureed the vegetables after they were cooked and added them back to the broth. We liked it better smooth.
  • I left out the green pepper, no one here will eat it.
  • I added additional broccoli, this is, after all, Broccoli Cheese soup, I thought there should be at least as much broccoli as carrots.
  • I upped the amount of chicken broth, only because I was worried about there being enough for my family. I upped the amount of flour to compensate.
  • I left out the provolone cheese because it was expensive and I couldn't bring myself to spend $7.00 on cheese!
  • So, my final version wasn't actually very much like the original, was it?? Oh well, it was good anyway!

Jill

Monday, June 9, 2008

Breakfast Burritos


When I was in college I lived in an apartment with five other girls. We had the required number of fights over boys, chores, loud music, and whose dishes were left in the sink. We also shared a lot of good times too. Most often it was our neighbors complaining about the loud music that all six of us were dancing to. Usually it was five of us cheering up the one who was dumped by the boy. And sometimes we knew whose dishes they were because one roommate had made some delicious meal for all of us. I made a lot of friends in college, very few that I keep in touch with. The recipes I learned, however, are still with me.

The recipe for Breakfast Burritos if from my roommate Threesa (yes, that is actually how you spell it, Mormon mothers often get very inventive with their baby names!). Threesa was from Utah, I think, and she had some great recipes. I still love her Chocolate Mayonaise cake recipe and we eat Breakfast Burritos all the time. I think she had some much more impressive name for them, but we simply call them Breakfast Burritos, although we never eat them for breakfast.

In addition to being something almost everyone likes, Breakfast Burritos are very cheap and easy to make. There is no real "recipe" it is more of a concept that you adapt as needed. I'm sure lots of people make some version of this.

First you take some bacon, ham, sausage, or whatever you have. Fry it in a pan with some onion if you have/want it. When they are almost done, add several chopped potatoes. You could add leftover baked potatoes that have been chopped up and they would cook lots faster. I never think ahead enough to do this so I just add chopped raw potatoes. Because they are raw I add a few tablespoons of water and cover the pan to allow the potatoes to steam. Then cook the potatoes until they are tender and crispy on the outside. Now scoot all the potatoes to one side and add to the pan a couple of beaten eggs (for my family of 6 I usually add 4-5 eggs). Scramble the eggs until they are just barely done then mix them with the potatoes. On top of the mix lay enough tortillas for everyone to have one, then cover the pan with the lid. You are just heating up the tortillas so they will be soft and yummy. At the table, give everyone a tortilla and spoon some potato/egg mixture down the middle, add ketchup, if desired, and roll up and eat.

You could, of course, add cheese to the mixture. You could add salsa instead of ketchup. You could vary the type of meat. You could use whole wheat tortillas. You could make this lots of different ways but however you do it, it is cheap, fast and good!

Jill

Friday, June 6, 2008

A Slow Burn over my Slow Cooker


About 3 years ago, I purchased (or was given as a gift - I don't remember which) a Rival Smart-Pot 5 quart Crock-Pot. I was so excited! My old slow cooker was a cheap-ish one I was given as a wedding gift some 13 years earlier. I had used that trusty slow cooker to death. Tons of giant batches of spaghetti sauce, baked beans, chicken and sauce stuff, and lots of other stuff had been slowly cooked to tender goodness in there, but it was falling apart and needed to be replaced.

This new Crock-Pot was so shiny! So clean! So huge! So substantial! It was much more heavy duty than my last one and I was excited to use it. The first few batches of stuff were over cooked and I couldn't figure out what I had done wrong. These recipes had always worked in the other one, what had I done wrong? I thought that maybe it was a size issue; the other slow-cooker had been a 4 quart and this one was a 5 quart, meaning that it didn't fill up as much, maybe that caused it to get too hot? The next thing I tried was a huge batch of spaghetti sauce - on low. It was boiling withing an hour - what the heck? I remember talking to my sister about the problem and she said she thought she had heard that slow-cookers were now being made to cook at a higher temperature due to food safety concerns. That made some sense, after all, cooking something all day on "low" could, theoretically, cause bacteria to grow.

So I just put up with it. I cooked things for three hours instead of the recommended 6, I alternated between the "low" setting and the "warm" setting, I propped the lid open for part of the cooking time. Nothing seemed to help and it was ticking me off. Yesterday was the proverbial straw (and I was the proverbial camel - picture that!), I started my Crockery Beanery recipe from the Saving Dinner cookbook, on "low," at approximately 11:15 am, then I left to go have lunch with my sister. When I got home at 1:40 pm my recipe was burned on the bottom!! Just two hours and twenty minutes later!! I thought, this cannot be right. So, I did what any computer savvy 21st century woman would do - I put "Rival crock-pot too hot" in Google and hit return. One of the first results was a link to the Amazon listing for this crock-pot, there were 95 comments/ratings for this crock-pot and 93 of them said versions of this, "Don't buy this product! This crock-pot cooks way too hot! It burned my food! I'm taking it back! I hate it! Don't waste your money!" (Go read the reviews if you don't believe me)

My first reaction was joy - I'm not crazy! I have been cooking these recipes right and it is the cookers fault not mine! The next thought was sadness. Why have I been putting up with this for three years? Why didn't I do some research and figure it out a long time ago? I have a tendency to do this in my life, I just settle for something even though there might be something way better out there. Sometimes it is an object (like my crock-pot) but sometimes it is a situation (putting up with someone rude when I could have asked them nicely to stop and it would have changed everything).

Needless to say, I'll be buying a new crock-pot soon. But I'm going to go read the reviews on Amazon before I bring home anything!!

Jill

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Links to Stuff I've Found

I spend an amazing amount of time surfing the web and reading interesting articles. Actually, I spend way too much time surfing the web! I've decided that I'm going to share some of those interesting articles with all of you, my adoring fans! (Hi, Jen!)

Remember Magic Shell? That stuff we used to pour over ice cream and it formed a hard shell over the ice cream? Well, it turns out, you can make it yourself. Brownie Points shows us how. It actually looks pretty easy and I think I'll have to try it. My kids would think it was great.

We are trying to do more vegetarian meals at our house. My 14 yo daughter, Tali, went "veggie" on us about a year ago. At first I made two meals, one regular and one vegetarian. Lately I've been just making more Tali-friendly meals. I'm always looking for good vegetarian recipes that are quick and easy. The Kitchn recently answered a question about resources for people going vegetarian, make sure and read the comments section as there are lots of good links there.

I tried a new recipe from Cheap Healthy Good, my new favorite blog! I tried the White Bean and Kale Soup with Turkey Sausage and man was it ever good. Ok, it wasn't veggie and Tali wouldn't eat it but everyone else ate it (even my six year old who is very picky about "green things" in his food). The kale was surprisingly good. Tali will eat chicken and we recently found a great chicken italian sausage at New Seasons so if I made it with that I think she would eat it. It was cheap, healthy, and good, can't ask for anything more!

Next week I'll post more links, and maybe even some that don't involve food!

Jill

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Book Review: Saving Dinner


My husband laughs at me for the way I read cookbooks. Ok, actually, my husband laughs at me for lots of things, but he really thinks I'm crazy for how I read cookbooks. You see, I check cookbooks out of the library and read them like novels. I always have a cookbook going next to my bed and I pick it up and read a chapter or so before I go to bed. Right now I'm reading, and loving, the book Saving Dinner, The Menus, Recipes, and Shopping Lists to Bring Your Family Back to the Table by Leanne Ely.

For those of you familiar with Flylady, the organizational website/email group, Leanne Ely is the woman who does all the food related content for Flylady. She also happens to be a certified nutritionist, cookbook author, cooking class instructor, food editor for ePregnancy magazine,and radio show host. The woman is busy, which must be why she wrote a book about quick, healthy meals that you whole family will actually eat.
.
This book is the result of, and compilation of, Ely's Menu-Mailer program, a program where you sign up, pay a small monthly fee and receive a menu of meals, complete with shopping list, each week. As a result, the cookbook is set up in weekly format. At the beginning of each "week" in the book, you are given a list of the meals that week along with a shopping list. You could, of course, follow each weekly plan and use the shopping lists, or you could (as I did) pick and choose meals from different weeks and make up your own list.

Each weekly menu contains a crockpot meal, a fish meal, and a meal featuring beans.
Since I am trying to incorporate more beans into my families diet, because they are cheap, healthy and can be vegetarian (for my daughter Talia), I picked a bunch of the bean recipes to try. I have been very impressed . I tried the Polenta Casserole and my whole family actually ate it. I called it Tamale Casserole, because my children are convinced that polenta is the worst food item in the world, but since it wasn't actually called "polenta" they ate it and liked it.

One recipe I would definately recommend is the Garlic Lime Chicken. It was moist, flavorful and very yummy! I'm trying several more recipes this week and have already recommended this book to several people. I might actually have to go and buy it!

Jill

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Baking Banana Bread with Boy



I looked at the fruit basket the other day and noticed that the bananas all had come down with a serious case of "banana pox." You know that disease, right? When the bananas are all covered with brown spots! I knew it was time to make banana bread, and I'd have enough to make a double batch.

I got my banana bread recipe from my mother, who got it from her grandmother. My mom was not much of a baker (although she was an excellent cook) but one thing that she did bake was banana bread. I remember toasting slices up and slathering them with butter, oh so good! I've been making banana bread my whole married life and it is especially fun now that I can involve my kids in the experience. My son Kaden loves to help me cook and bake.

He loves to measure, stir, and pour things. He especially likes eating the end result! That is fine with me, I love to bake for an appreciative audience!

Banana Bread

makes one loaf

Stir together in a bowl:

2 c. sifted flour (I use 1 c. white flour, 1 c. whole wheat flour)
3 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 c. sugar

Combine in a separate bowl:

1/2 c. finely chopped walnuts (optional)
1 egg well beaten
1 c. mashed bananas
1/3 c. melted shortening (that is what the recipe says, I use melted butter/margarine)
1/4 c. milk

Fold the wet mixture into the dry mixture. Stir until mixed but don't over stir it. Pour into a greased 5x9 loaf pan and bake at 325 degrees for 50 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Notes:

I use unsweetened applesauce for part of the marg/butter.

I have used the soy flour/water substitute for the egg in this recipe with good results.

I rarely put the nuts in because most of my children do not like nuts in things. They will eat nuts plain but they don't want them in anything. Go figure.

Jill

Monday, June 2, 2008

Perfect Pancakes, The Easy Way!


My family loves pancakes. They could eat them once a week for breakfast or dinner. I love pancakes, too. Actually, I don't really like to eat pancakes all that much but I really like them anyway and I'll tell you why. To me, pancakes for dinner is cheating. It isn't a "real" dinner and it is so easy that when I make pancakes I feel like I'm taking the night off. But I'm taking the night off without anyone in my family whining! In fact, they cheer! "Yeah! Pancakes!"

The secret to really good pancakes was given to me by my sister and I bless her name every time I make them. You see, you start with Bisquick (or any other mix) and add a few things and viola, it tastes like you made them from scratch! This last batch I did was even easier (and cheaper) I had some Aunt Jemima Just Add Water Pancake Mix and some Krusteaz Just Add Water Whole Wheat and Honey Mix. I had gotten the Aunt Jemima for about 25 cents a box during the last Albertson's freaky $10 off 10 items sale. The Krusteaz is pretty cheap too. I put equal amounts of each mix in a bowl (The "large" recipe called for 3 c. mix and I put 1 1/2 c. Aunt Jemima and 1 1/2 c. Krusteaz). I use half of each for the whole wheat in the Krusteaz. My family doesn't love the 100% whole wheat by itself but I feel better if they are eating at least half whole wheat. To the mix I added about a tablespoon of baking powder and a tablespoon or two of sugar. I mixed that up really well. Then you measure out the amount of water/milk that is required (the Bisquick calls for milk, the "just add water" mixes, surprisingly, just call for water! go figure.) To the measured liquid you add egg, if called for, and a tablespoon of lemon juice.

The baking powder and the lemon juice chemically react with each other to provide a really powerful rising action. The lemon juice gives it just a hint of tartness and the sugar balances that out nicely. These always turn out terrific and everyone raves about them. Should I tell them it is just a mix? Nah, let 'em think I'm awesome.

The last time I did them, I did them the night before Jana's birthday. She leaves really, really early in the morning and I didn't want to get up that early but I still wanted her to have a good breakfast. So I made a batch of pancakes the night before. They reheat in the microwave perfectly and everyone loved having pancakes for breakfast. I loved not having to make pancakes for breakfast!!


Jill