Saturday, January 31, 2009

Welcome to MadEnough Tips!

Hey all, I decided to start a new blog to cover specific tips, recipes, strategies, and other stuff that would either take up too much room on my main blog or would be too specific to have a broad appeal. You know, I have to think about the masses of readers out there, right?

Check back regularly for gardening advice, canning tips, recipes, and much more.

Love y'all!


Kitchen Keeping Tips #4 -- Making the Most of Your Pantry (Pantry Philosophy Edition!)

What is a pantry, and what goes in it? Why should you have a well-stocked pantry?

Your pantry is any storage area in or adjacent to your kitchen where you keep dry goods (like rice, pasta, beans, grains, flour, etc.), canned goods, and other nonperishables. For the purposes of this post, your freezer counts as part of your food storage. If you have a deep freeze, that counts, too.

In the past, I've given a pantry list, along with ten pantry-only recipes and a 30-day menu plan, as shower gifts for brides-to-be. I figure it's incredibly practical. How many times have you come home, hungry and exhausted, from your family vacation, only to be greeted by an empty fridge? And if your schedule looks anything like mine, there are times when you literally have no time to grocery shop. A well-stocked pantry will get you through those moments with minimal stress.

Think about a steaming bowl of spicy, savory pasta puttanesca. Or a rich, comforting risotto. Or Cuban red beans and rice. Or a quick vegetarian black bean chili, served over creamy polenta. You can make all of these things in thirty minutes or less, with only ingredients you have in your pantry, if you stock it according to the list in the previous post.

But just how do you do that without breaking the bank?

It's simple. Make a list like the pantry list below of all the items you do not have, and keep it with your shopping bags (you do use cloth shopping bags, don't you?) or in your purse. Each time you go to the grocery store, pick up one or two of the items, or more if you can find them on sale. You're going to be saving money by using my shopping plan anyway, so you'll be well able to afford those few extra items -- and they're cheap items!

The next time you're in the neighborhood of an ethnic grocery (there are Indian, Korean, and Mexican groceries close to me, so that's where I go), pick up some of those ingredients as well. Indian groceries are a fantastic source for cheap spices, lentils, and basmati rice. Mexican groceries often have canned and dried beans that are much more reasonably priced than a regular grocery store. An Asian market is obviously the best place to buy your everyday rice, and is a surprisingly reliable source for fresh, unique produce.

If you're a meat-eater and own a deep freeze, look into sourcing meat directly from local producers. If you put half a beef or a whole pig -- butchered and custom cut, of course -- into your freezer once a year (almost always at a dramatically lower price per pound than comparable meat at the grocery store), you can keep eating the meat you enjoy while saving literally hundreds per year.

Now, how much to buy? The answer to that involves three considerations: how much money can you save by buying in bulk, how much space do you have, and how quickly will you go through pantry items?

I have a very small kitchen, and all of my pantry items are in one standard sized cupboard and one small cupboard above my stove. Plus, I'm cooking for one most of the time. So buying beans or rice or flour in fifty-pound sacks isn't practical for me. I don't have any place to put that amount of food, and there's no way I could get through it all before it got bugs or went rancid and I had to throw it away, which negates any savings I could get by buying such large amounts.

But let's say you have six kids, your house has a root cellar, and you bake all your own bread and eat rice and beans twice a week. For you, buying rice and beans and flour in fifty-pound sacks would probably be a great plan, and the best use of your money!

Here are some good rules of thumb for determining how much to buy:

1. Buy as much of the product (rice, pasta, beans, flour, etc.) as you can store, in the largest package possible. It's more economical to buy staple foods in large quantities than small, not to mention the environmental benefit of reducing packaging materials.
2. Balance that with how much you can use before the item gets rancid (a consideration with whole grains and nuts), attracts bugs, loses potency or flavor (as with baking powder, herbs and spices, tea and coffee, etc.), or gets freezer burn in the case of your "freezer pantry."
3. Plan. I cannot over-emphasize this. PLAN to use each item in turn as you plan your meals. Focus your meal plans on your pantry stocks rather than on meat -- in other words, if you use a flex-plan like I outlined in my Shopping post, plan to have rice one day a week and pair it with a meat that was on sale at the grocery this week (or go meatless and do rice and beans!). Another day, have pasta with another meat that was on sale (or, again, go meatless). Have a meal that puts a homemade bread at the center, like pizza, crusty bread with soup, or hot sandwiches.

Whew! That was a LOT of info, but I hope it was helpful!

Friday, January 30, 2009

Kitchen Keeping Tips #4 -- Making the Most of Your Pantry (Reference Edition!)

So now the question is, what's in a well-stocked pantry?

The answer varies depending on what you enjoy, but in general, this is what I wouldn't want to be without:

Dry goods:
  • several kinds of pasta, including long (like linguine) and short (like ziti) and whatever other kinds blow your skirt up.
  • brown and white rice. I also include jasmine and basmati, just 'cuz I like 'em.
  • several kinds of legumes (a.k.a. "pulses"). Lentils are the quickest-cooking and don't require soaking, so I keep two or three kinds on hand. Right now I have plain brown lentils and red split lentils. I also keep white beans, black beans, and chickpeas.
  • flour. This is such a no-brainer that I hesitate to list it, but you ought to have at least All-Purpose flour on hand. You're fifteen minutes from biscuits, at minimum. I also have whole wheat flour, rye flour, and bread flour.
  • sweeteners, including at least brown sugar, white sugar, and honey. I also keep molasses. I really love raw sugar in my tea, but it's a bit pricey, so I don't always keep it around. Real maple syrup is another rare indulgence.
  • cornmeal. Being in the South, grits are also a pantry staple.
  • rolled oats
  • miscellaneous: I also keep steel-cut oats, walnuts, various breakfast cereals, and homemade baking mix (like Bisquick, but I make it). Onions and garlic are also absolute necessities that keep well for long periods of time -- they're halfway between dry goods and produce.

Canned goods:
  • Never, ever, ever let yourself run out of canned whole tomatoes. EVER!! They are the foundation for awesome and cheap Italian, Mexican, and Indian dishes.
  • Canned meat, like tuna, salmon, and chicken. These are economical and incredibly versatile.
  • Canned beans. If you can get these for a good price, they're really good to have on hand. Canned beans were some of the first "convenience" foods, and there's hardly anything else that you can use to make a ten-minute supper that tastes great.
  • That's it. I don't use canned soup, I rarely use pre-made pasta sauce. I have other things on hand (coconut milk, canned pumpkin, etc.) now and then but I wouldn't call them staples per se.

In your freezer:
  • A variety of frozen vegetables. Must-haves for me are spinach, green beans, and peas -- incidentally some of the most-delicious frozen veggies. Others I sometimes have (depending on price at the grocery store) include corn, broccoli, cauliflower, stir-fry or other blends, frozen hashbrowns, etc.
  • A few frozen fruits. I always have blueberries, which I eat nearly every day. In warmer weather, I keep frozen strawberries and mixed frozen fruit to make smoothies and sorbets.
  • Ginger root. Random, I know, but it keeps basically forever in the freezer, in a plastic bag or just tossed into the door, if you're lazy like me.
  • Meat, if you're a carnivore. I happen to have a vacuum sealer, so I can keep things for a pretty long time in my freezer. The key for this is to PLAN to use EVERYTHING you freeze. Do NOT put meat in your freezer until you write on your calendar when you'll use it.
  • Cooked rice. This is a lifesaver! Next time you cook rice, make a huge batch -- it doesn't take any longer. While still warm but not hot, put into quart-size plastic bags, flatten out, squeeze out as much air as you can, and stack in your freezer. Then when you need rice for a quick weeknight meal, there it is, ready to be nuked for 30-60 seconds. Sound lame? Masaharu Morimoto, the famous Japanese Iron Chef, uses this trick. Hugely credible.
  • Your stock bag. Take what would otherwise be throwaway odds and ends of vegetables and meat and turn it into culinary gold that will take your cooking to a whole new level of deliciousness.
Spices, herbs, and flavorings. This is where you'll have to customize depending on what YOU like to make. In general, this is what I need, in order to be able to make what I like:
  • The basics for cooking: dried oregano, thyme, rosemary, bay leaves, celery salt, red pepper flakes, black pepper and kosher or sea salt.
  • Baking: cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, vanilla
  • For Mexican food add: cumin, chili powder, cayenne pepper
  • For Indian food add: coriander, cardamom, garam masala, hot and mild curry powders, turmeric
  • For holiday cooking add: whole cloves, poultry seasoning and/or sage

Now, you can do just about anything.

Kitchen Keeping Tips #3 -- Shopping Wisely

So I lied.

I'm not doing pantry stuff next. As I was putting the pantry post together, I thought, "Where are you getting this stuff? There has to be some shopping involved FIRST!" So here goes:

There are two general philosophies, if you will, of meal planning and grocery shopping, each with strengths and weaknesses.

First is to plan specific meals and buy only the items necessary for those meals. Simplicity is this shopping style's major advantage: it's a no-brainer to buzz through the grocery store looking for a very specific list of stuff. The main disadvantage? Inflexibility. When you're chained to a list, you run the risk of overspending because you don't have the freedom to buy chicken if it's on sale or get the produce that's on manager's special or to buy seasonally.

The other method is the "no-plan" plan. In this method (or... um, non-method), you go up and down every aisle putting into your cart everything that a) is on sale, b) looks good, or c) you think you might use in some dinner this week. The benefit of this method, if there is one, is that you are free to buy what looks good in the produce department, what's on sale, etc. Wastefulness keeps this from being a tenable long-term method, however. Inevitably you'll end up with fresh food in the trash because you don't have a plan to use what you buy. Overspending is another obvious danger, of course.

The best strategy for meal planning and grocery shopping, in my experience, is somewhere in the middle. It involves three very simple steps:

1. Make your meal plans "flex plans." Plan in advance generally what you'll have for weeknight dinners (like meatless Monday, pasta Tuesday, soup Wednesday, crock-pot Thursday, pizza Friday).
2. Shop with an eye out for sales. Learn what is a reasonable price to pay for the items you buy regularly, and develop a mental "high number" that you won't go over (like, "I won't pay more than $1.29/lb for apples"). Never, EVER buy meat that isn't on sale. There is always something on sale that you can incorporate into your flexible meal planning strategy.
3. Plan to eat from both pantry and fresh food storage during the week, with a specific plan to eat or freeze (and, again, plan to eat later) all leftovers before your next trip to the grocery store. Planning is key here!

As I said in the first installment of Kitchen Keeping, the biggest hurdle in frugal cooking is a mental one! The actual steps are simple, once you change the way you think about your kitchen!

Just as a side note, let me answer the question that may be nagging at your mind right now: Why bother? Let's say that you and your spouse spend $500 per month on groceries. If you could save $200 per month by implementing these strategies, that is $2400 in your pocket (or bank account, or toward your mortgage) by this time next year. So we're not talking about working hard, feeling deprived, and ending up with not much to show for it. That is real money, people! It's worth it.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Kitchen Keeping Tips #2 -- Getting Ready

Once you've become aware of what you buy, food's true cost, how you cook, and so-called "scraps" in your kitchen, you're ready. Well, almost.

I've been in the kitchen a looong time -- from the time I could reach the counter on a step-stool, Mom put me to work stirring, measuring, rolling, mixing, and peeling. I still hate peeling. Anyway. In all that time, I've learned that there are some things that you really need, and a whole lot of things you really do NOT need.

Here are my absolute essentials. In other words, these are things you'd find it pretty tough to cook extensively at home without:

two knives -- one 8 or 10 inch chef's knife and one small paring knife. There's almost nothing you can't cut with these two. Knife sets are a HUGE rip-off -- you can get a good chef's knife for $30-40, and a paring knife for $5, and that's absolutely all you need. Buy your knives (both of 'em!) individually from a place where you can actually hold them and see if they fit your hands and feel comfortable. And keep them sharp. Repeat after me: "A sharp knife is a safe knife!" You can use the bottom of a coffee mug to hone your blades. Then a couple times a year, take them to a cutler and have them professionally sharpened. It should only set you back a few bucks per blade. If you have funds for a third knife, make it a good serrated knife, which will serve you well for bread, chicken carving, tomatoes, and anything delicate.

two or three cooking pots -- 1) a large dutch oven or oven-safe stock pot for soups, making stock, boiling pasta, doing braises, etc. The heavier the better. 2) A 10-12 inch skillet with a heavy base, nonstick or not, cast iron if you can find one. This you'll use for browning, stir-fries, sauteing, making sauces, and on and on. It's your everyday pan. Get an oven-safe one if you can. 3) A 3-4 quart saucepan, again with a heavy base. Useful for steaming veggies, cooking short pasta, making sauces, etc.

a few baking items -- a couple of bread pans, a 9"x12" glass or porcelain baking dish, a muffin tin, and one or two sturdy half-sheet pans, which are DIRT CHEAP at Sam's Club, Costco, and restaurant supply stores.

a few (FEW!!) utensils -- a couple of wooden spoons, a whisk, a pancake turner/flipper thing, a garlic press, a vegetable peeler, a bottle opener, a can opener, a rubber spatula, kitchen shears, and a pair of tongs. I cannot live without my tongs -- they're by far the most versatile utensil in my kitchen.

some miscellaneous stuff -- a medium-sized and a large mixing bowl, a couple of big cutting boards (one for raw meat, one for everything else), a good set of measuring cups and spoons (or a scale), and a big glass liquid measuring cup.

In the "maybe" or "when you have the money" category:

a roasting pan. I got one for $20.

a meat thermometer

an oven timer

a square baking dish

an electric kettle (this is an essential for me as a tea drinker, and it has lots of other uses, but for most Americans it's not really crucial)

an electric hand mixer or a stand mixer (like a KitchenAid)

a food processor

serving pieces

In the "heck no, what are you thinking" category:

citrus juicer

egg slicer

anything from an infomercial

knife sets (see above)

anything that only does one thing (a "unitasker") like mango slicers, avocado forks and other absurd drawer-space-wasters.

Next up: stocking that pantry!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Kitchen Keeping Tips #1 -- Mindfulness

Ok, ok. "Mindfulness" is a totally granola, Oprah, new-agey word. I got it.

But when it comes to kitchen keeping, the first step is just that -- being aware, mindful, of what you already do, and becoming aware of the areas where you most need to change. I had an acquaintance who spent $500 or $600 per month on food for just two people. I'll give you Aussies a sec to do the conversion there, but can we all agree it's way too freaking much money to spend on food?

And why did she spend that much money? Because she had no idea how much she was actually spending or what she was going to do with what she bought. She just wandered into the grocery store, looked at her list, and threw things into her cart. She never looked at a price tag, never compared prices, found the best deal, or substituted a lower-priced item for a higher one. And then at home, she just cooked whatever she wanted to eat without planning to use leftovers, so she wound up throwing food away every week.

Don't be like that.

Become aware of what you buy. If you think your grocery budget could stand a trim, go through the grocery store and, as you pick up items on your list, ask yourself: Why am I buying this? Is it just a habit (I always get bananas when I grocery shop, etc.) or do I have a plan to make sure I use it before it goes bad? Is this the best use of my money?

Become aware of the true cost of things. Not just the price per ounce (or gram, perhaps?), though that is also extremely important, but the cost to Creation and to your body as well. A cheap cut of meat that comes from an animal that was raised on a super-polluting factory farm, treated cruelly, pumped full of antibiotics and chemicals, slaughtered inhumanely, and butchered carelessly is not as "cheap" as it seems.

Become aware of how you cook. Do you find yourself spending money to buy recipe ingredients that you never use again? Can you improvise with what you have in your cupboards and fridge, or are you chained to a cookbook every time you step into the kitchen? Can you creatively re-use leftovers or are you constantly either repeating the same meal or throwing out old food?

Become aware of scraps. Seriously. I mentioned my "stock bag" in my last post. It's full of the odd bits of vegetables that I would otherwise have tossed-- onion and garlic skins, parsley stems, carrot ends, celery tops, etc. -- plus the giblets and neck from the last chicken I roasted. When the meat gets picked off that chicken, his skin and bones will go in the stock bag too. When the bag is full, I'll soak the bones in acidic water to get the calcium and magnesium to dissolve, and then I'll cook the veg ends along with the chicken bones and skin to make a rich, nutritious stock. Why should all that goodness go in the landfill? And what else are you throwing out that could have another use?

Friday, January 23, 2009

Frugal frugal frugal

When I was growing up, we lived on a pastor's salary while my mom stayed home. So... you do the math and figure out if we were the kind of family that ate out three or four times a week. Hint: no.

We had a garden. We bought ingredients instead of prepared food and cooked all our meals from scratch. We bought beef once a year from a local rancher. We didn't waste food, ever.

For my mother, it wasn't such a stretch. She, like many in my parents' generation, was raised by folks who grew up during the depression, whose frugality wasn't an affectation, but a characteristic learned by bitter necessity. But somewhere in the prosperity of the last thirty years, my parents' generation struggled to pass the skills of frugal living and frugal eating along to my generation. And for many people my age, we had little motivation to learn those skills. In times of unparalleled economic growth and national wealth, it seemed unnecessary to many of us to learn how to bake our own bread, how to plant a garden, how to make a roast chicken stretch into three meals, how to can and preserve food.

But I'm blessed to have a stubborn mother whose dad was the youngest of eleven and grew up on a farm. Gardening, baking, canning, and generally saving money were second nature to her. I basically grew up in her kitchen. And now that we seem to be in for a long haul with this recession, I'm more glad than ever for that fact. I can bake bread (and I do!). I can make delicious meals with frugal ingredients. I can home-can produce and beans. And these skills are saving me money.

I was talking with my awesome, gorgeous sister-in-law last night and, on the topic of stretching grocery budgets and feeding ourselves and our loved ones with less meat and more love, I said, "By golly, if our grandmothers could do it, so can we!"

Too often what hinders people (especially women) in my generation from really mastering domestic frugality is just plain fear: fear that it's too hard, that it's not worth it, that we really can't do it even if we try. But that's just not true! We can do everything our grandmothers did to steward our finances and care for our families. We truly can.