Monday, May 26, 2008

Showing You the Dough- Foolproof Bread! This makes french bread, pizza, bagels, and more.

I'm going to debunk the idea that bread is hard to make. I'm also going to debunk the idea that it takes a long time! Time is something it seems we are always pressed for. As caregivers, employees, etc., we need to be multitaskers. So what if I told you, I have someone (or something) that does all the work for me? Actually, I have two somethings. A stand mixer, and yeast.

When I make bread, folks, I break all the rules. And it works! What I discovered: yeast don't care about anything but sugar, moisture, and temperature. Salt kills microbes, making it a great preservative, but an enemy for yeast, which are living, single cell organisms. With this knowledge in hand, I set out to prove that I could make bread for my family, and not spend all day doing it. Okay, some of what you are about to read was an accident. Well, alright, a whole bunch of accidents: forgetting my bread, killing my yeast, all kinds of stuff I do not want you to experience!

But if you mess up, just try again. You have to have a couple of failures, and if you are going to fail at anything, it might as well be bread, because sooner or later you will master it.

Think of all the ways it is peppered throughout your family's diet. Now imagine not having to buy all of these things, and have them anyway, only better than storebought. There is nothing like the smell of home-baked bread! Do you know that Subway sandwich shops bake their bread in the store for the sole purpose of having you smell it? It's true. It would be cheaper to have it ready-made, and it would still be "fresh." They want you hungry. Smelling bread does that, and makes you feel... happy! And it leaves you with the perception that all is fresh, all is well with the world. If I owned a bakery, I'd literally pipe that smell into the air with an exhaust fan.

Here's the dough:

Water: 2 cups

Sugar or honey: 2 tbsp.

Yeast: one packet of quick-rise yeast

Bread flour: I have no idea how many cups I use- it's something in the neighborhood of five. I do know I get two or three batches from a $2 standard package of bread flour. You want bread flour for the higher protein content, or the gluten. You can use regular flour in a pinch, though there is no doubt that bread flour is better.

Salt: 1 tbsp.

Oil: 1/4 cup (or two dollops), of canola or olive oil, depending on the use. For multipurpose, and for daily use, I go with canola. For pizza, or focaccia, I use olive, though canola works fine here, too.


One cup of oat flour, which retains moisture, is good for you, undetectable, and makes the bread chewy. If you can't buy this, grind up oatmeal in a magic bullet or food processor until you have flour. This is how I do it. This is one of my "secret ingredients" for moist, delicious bread.

Flax Meal: 1/3 cup. Excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, and great for digestion. Makes a great dough conditioner, as well.

Whole wheat flour: Sometimes I substitute 1/2 cup of whole wheat flour, because I'm trying to get the kids to eat it. At this small amount, it doesn't affect the dough, and the kids accept it.

Let's make bread!

Put warm water into your mixer bowl with the paddle attachment. Add honey, and yeast. Whisk (using a whisk or a fork) together to combine. You have to really get those yeast dissolved in the sugar and water.

Water should feel warm, slightly warmer than you are, but not hot. Until you get the hang of it, stop here and wait for bubbles, about 5 minutes. This indicates your yeast are alive and well.

Next, add the oat flour and flax, or if you are skipping those, just add about 2 cups of flour, turn on the mixer, and mix until it's like paste. Add more flour, until it gets sticky. NOW, you can add your salt, and oil- your yeast are insulated. Add more flour, until it's a dough.

Switch to the dough hook.

With the mixer on, let the hook knead the dough. If it is sticky, or not wrapped around the hook after a minute or two, add more flour, a little at a time. Keep doing this until the dough is elastic and not sticky. Let knead for about ten minutes, to develop that gluten (stringy stuff) in the bread dough.

If you are using it now: just leave it in the bowl, with the dough hook still attached, cover with plastic wrap, and put a towel on top. Let rise until double, about 45 minutes. Turn on the mixer for a moment, to deflate the dough. Did you notice there were no additional bowls, no greasing, no fuss, no muss?

Use in your recipe. This makes two loaves, 4 pizzas, 12 bagels, amoung other things like pigs in blankets.

What you don't use right away: Put into a container that can handle double the volume of dough and put it covered in the refrigerator. I put a piece of plastic over the top of mine, to keep it from drying out, then put the lid on. It will rise in the refrigerator, so don't let that upset you. It will also stay good for a whole week, and be "ready when you are."

I'm going to give you the pizza recipe first, then bagels, beginning tomorrow. With this dough in the fridge, they take about 3o minutes, start to finish.

Most Problems can be Solved With Cheese

Or, at least, that's one of my philosophies....

Many of you may not know this, but I am also an artist (and not a starving one!), and a musician, as well as a writer. I love wine and cheese, as well, both of which I consider art forms. Both are nearly magical: you assemble the ingredients, bottle or mold them, and unseen forces turn them into delectable treats. Well, it's not that simple, but that's the short version!

Cooking is another art form.

You do not need to be an artist to cook, though. For me, cooking is a way to show love. Beyond providing sustenance, food provides pleasure, comfort, a myriad of needs we don't even realize we have. When I'm cooking, I'm creating, thus relaxing. The result is visual, tactile, and an experience for your tastebuds- really all five senses, and a few others besides. In this way, it is like art.

In my family, when we don't know what else to do with you, we feed you. There is a lot happening in the world right now, that I have absolutely no control over. This blog, the concepts and the recipes in it, is something I can contribute- I hope it makes a difference! And if not, try cheese... works for me!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Milk... $4 a Gallon! How to SAVE!

Milk prices are going through the roof, just like everything else. This is a short post, directed to mothers everywhere. There is a way to save money on milk, and it requires NO COUPON CLIPPING (though that doesn't hurt!). The information is elsewhere in this blog, but I do not want you to miss it. It's important enough to have its own post:

Nido Powdered Whole Milk.

You won't find this in the powdered milk section. Oh, no, that would be too easy and logical! No, you find this in the Hispanic, or International section. Walmart has it. I'm not sure about other stores, but I predict it will be on the rise. Nestle makes it, believe it or not, and has never told us about it. They have been marketing it in Mexico for years.

We all have my sweet little mama to thank for this. She enjoys shopping, and peruses the aisles at the grocery store like the jewelry counter at Saks, reading lables, and finding new things. Nido milk is one of those discoveries she insisted (thereby insuring my reluctance) that I try. Finally, I did... Now, it saves my behind every month! Learning to listen to your mother is, apparently, a skill that is developed with age...

I always buy 3 cans at least, but I think I will buy more because once my secret is out, I have a feeling it may become hard to find.

One added plus for those that have to schlep their groceries on foot or by bus: it's lightweight!

Use this little treasure to replace milk in cooking, and for everything but drinking. Kids can tell the difference if you try to serve it up by the glass (but it's light years better than that nonfat dry milk goo). It's great for emergencies, though, and if you run out of milk, just add a little chocolate syrup or powder, and they will scarf it up. You have to be wiley, when you are a mother. :)

**NOTE: This is NOT infant formula, and should not be used as such. If you are having trouble with buying infant formula for your baby, go to your local WIC office, which can cover the cost. They help with other staples as well, and your local food stamp program may be able to help too.

First Recipe: Pasta "Alfredo"

Whipping up a dinner-in-a-box… With no box!

If this recipe doesn’t freak you out, you are going to do fine with this blog. I use the term recipe loosely, because I’m going to give you approximate measurements. Some things, like baked goods, require more precise measuring. But dinner should not. When I’m cooking, there generally isn’t any measuring at all. Let’s just jump in!.

With these one-pan pasta recipes, you literally simulate the results of one of those dinner-in-a-box mixes. With one exception: when you make this recipe, you have enough to feed the entire family, usually for less than the price of one box of prepared mix. With leftovers. And with no preservatives or additives.

We are going to use the starch in the pasta water to thicken our sauces. Simple as that. Additionally, we are going to customize the recipe to suit your family’s tastes, and any dietary restrictions, because you are in control of what is in that pan.

First, gather everything you are going to need, as well as a vegetable to make while the pasta is cooking. When I’m pressed for time, I yank out frozen green beans and sauté them with olive oil, a touch of butter, and a little garlic. Season with a dash of sugar, and salt.

Pasta “Alfredo"

Real Alfredo sauce is loaded with butter, cheese, and cream. Tradionally, you use a roux, make a bechamel (white sauce), and add cheese and garlic. Pasta is cooked al dente separately, drained and added. Too many pots for my taste. I've played with that a bit, so real chefs will probably need to forgive me or look the other way!

This pasta sauce is really quite lean for a cream sauce, and can be skinnied up a bit more if you like. Interestingly enough, once it cools, it remains creamy, and makes a perfect pasta salad base.

My favorite is radiatore, but linguine or fettucine are wonderful, too. Your favorite will work just fine! This recipe is for one pound, but once you see how this works, you can make it with any amount of pasta.

Cover the pasta by 2 inches.
Salt the water with 1 TBSP of salt, and add a dollop of oil (optional).

About 9 TBSP Dried milk powder. Use whole milk powder, or it will be too thin (see “Stocking Up” ). This is one of those grey areas, and you are going to use your taste buds instead of a hardcore measurement.

Salt, garlic or garlic powder, basil, sage, thyme or any other herb your family likes. Keep it simple: one or two compatible. Try garlic and basil for the first batch. Nutmeg is a classic with Alfredo sauce.

3 TBSP.+/-
Butter is for taste, as well as binding with the starch so the sauce is smooth and velvety.

½ to 1 Cup

I use the shredded Italian Blend cheese as a rule, which has 5 great cheeses in it. You can always shred your own, and the blend is up to you. Alfredo is about Parmesan, but you are going to make this recipe your own.

MEAT (optional)
This sauce tastes wonderful with chicken, beef, or fish.

You can use any left-over grilled, roasted, poached or pan-seared meat. It should already be cooked! Last minute idea: frozen cooked shrimp. Rinse in a colander until thawed and add.

Slice or chop while your pasta is boiling.

Here's how you do it- you just have to trust me that it will work:

Bring salted water with oil to a rolling boil, add pasta and cook until done. With these, you want to go right to “al dente,” which means, “to the bite.” Traditionally pasta is always cooked until just barely done, so it will absorb the delicious sauce. We don’t want it absorbing too much sauce, because we want to keep some of that creaminess. Your pasta is going to cook a bit more, right in the sauce, and will be a bit softer when done.
As an aside, this is the perfect time to get your vegetable dish going, while you are waiting for the pasta to do its thing.

Time to drain, BUT DON’T GET RID OF ALL THE WATER. When I drain the pasta, I use a colander, in case any bits fall out of the pan, but I do not try to measure the drained water. That would make it a pain in the… you know. Can you imagine doing that? Instead, here’s what you look for: You want to drain just enough water that it is nearly level with the pasta. There should be pasta sticking out of the water, by about ¼”.

Now, add your milk powder directly to the water, which should be approximately (no worrying allowed) 3 cups, along with the butter, and your spices and stir. The water should now look like milk. If it looks thin (bluish), you need more milk powder (remember you have to estimate the water, so use your eyes and tastebuds to gauge the milk). On the spices, I do not measure, but you might want to the first time. The idea is to shake them directly into the pot, though. Easy, remember? Garlic is important to this dish. You’ll want about two chopped up cloves of garlic (you can add to the water in the beginning to cook it if you want to), or ½ to 1 tsp. garlic powder (NOT garlic salt). Add other spices to taste, with a dash of freshly grated nutmeg. DO NOT ADD SALT YET. There was some in the water and there is salt in the cheese.

At this point, your sauce is going to look like milk, and be just as runny, so don’t panic! Bring it to a simmer. The sauce will thicken up once it cooks just a bit (about 3-5 minutes). Thickened sauce will still be a bit thin. Now add your cheese, let it melt in, and taste it. What does it need? More basil? How about the salt? Adjust accordingly. Throw in your meat, and you are done. Sauce will continue to thicken as it sets, mainly because the pasta will continue to absorb the water in it. Want it to be even creamier? Wait until it sets, (so you see the real consistency) then add a dollop of sour cream or plain yogurt, or a splash of half and half or cream.

As mentioned earlier, this pasta recipe makes a terrific pasta salad. You don’t have to do anything at all to it, but you could add vegetables and or beans (including the green beans or spinach left over from dinner) for a balanced salad/meal. I don’t add the creamy stuff at the end of the pasta, but might add a smidgeon to a salad. What I mean to say, is that you will do it your way, according to your taste.

Equipment You Need

When I first began writing this blog, it was after a year of having only the barest minimum of standard equipment. At the time, I’d had to start completely over, with just a few items. I thought this would be difficult, but really, what I discovered was that most of the gadgets we keep in our kitchens are just fluff. I bought one knife: a medium chef’s knife with a serrated edge- it was enough! I use it for everything. Now I’ve adopted the following rule: With very little exception, EVERY piece of equipment must multitask. This tends to keep cleanup to a minimum, as well. There’s just less stuff.

With this in mind, I have compiled this equipment list for you. Most of it is probably in your kitchen right now! If you don’t have something, try to improvise before you go out and buy it. Here’s what you will probably need:

· Small and medium to large frying pan (mine are non-stick, but any will do)

· Small and medium pots with lids (or use foil if necessary, or even a plate)

· One great big stock/soup pot (wonderful if it has the steamer/strainer insert)

· Cookie sheets- I have some large, heavy aluminum ones that managed to survive my move to the new kitchen. I bought them at a restaurant supply store a zillion years ago, and they last forever. P.S… I got them for a song, and they are much better than dept. store and grocery store cookie sheets.

· Roaster pan, pie pans, bread pans, etc. If you don’t have these, get the foil kind and try to use them a few times before you give up on them. That’s what I had to do, and it works fine.

· Foil, and plastic wrap, regular and sticky. Plastic bags are an optional item I don’t buy for environmental reasons.

· Bar towels, which you buy in bulk. This is an optional item that I picked up on after having that restaurant I mentioned earlier. First, when there is a real mess, paper towels frustrate me when it takes half a roll to get the job done. One real towel, and poof- mess gone. They are reuseable, (trust me, just throw them in with the whites as you go about your week, and besides the folding, you will see no difference) and save me a fortune in paper towels. We go through about one roll of paper towels/month. If you have children, do yourself a favor and pick up a pack of bar towels. This might be a great item to pick up at a restaurant supply, too, but discount stores carry them as well. After a while, they become car towels or pet towels, then they get used for ugly messes on a throwaway basis. I use two or three/day in the kitchen, and it takes a really long time for them to become so threadbare they need to be thrown out.

· You will need at least one wooden spoon or silicone (heat-proof) spatula/spoon for cooking, and I like the spatulas because they… multitask.

· Slotted spoon, and a “pancake turner.”

· Some mixing bowls, or use a large measuring cup if necessary.

· A whisk, at least one, medium sized. This is not a pricey item, but if you don’t have one, in most cases you can use a fork.

· Stand mixer: This is an expensive item, but worth its weight in gold. If you are going to really use the principles in this book, this is an invaluable tool. Mine is about 18 years old, and still cranking. One of the very few items in life I’d put on a credit card if necessary. However, you can get by without it, kneading dough by hand, or using a regular electric mixer, or even a wisk.

· Food processor: Those Magic Bullets (link provided was cheapest I could find today, but shope around) are a pretty good stand in if you don’t have one. In any case, it’s another optional item that makes life a LOT easier. Also, you can use it to chop vegetables when you are in a hurry- and pop in the dishwasher. Another thing: if you have kids, you can use the bullet to hide vegetables in foods by blending them up. See Deceptively Delicious, by Jessica Seinfeld for lots of great ideas.

· Blender or stick blender. Again, that Magic Bullet blender thing is a good stand-in. I personally like those, because they… multitask! Stick blenders are made so that you can put them right into your pot and blend. Kind of wonderful for milkshakes, too.

· Parchment- Coolest stuff ever. Makes any pan non-stick, and you can even cook in it by itself, by making it into a “pocket.” That’s a classic French technique that you can use for more than fish or chicken. It’s microwave safe, as well as reusable, if you are just using it to bake cookies on. Who needs expensive silicone mats when you have parchment?

· A microplane, or grater, for zesting citrus, grating nutmeg and ginger, etc.

· Measuring cups and spoons

· Knife. At least one good sharp one. Mine is a medium chef’s knife, with a serrated edge, and I use it for everything. I’d like to have a couple, in different sizes, though.

· Colander and at least one wire mesh strainer. If you only pick one, get a larger size. They have myriad uses.

· Standard hand-operated can opener- which you most likely have.

Organization is the Key

Think about it: that mix in the box looks appealing because “it’s all in there.” The perception is that it’s easier because the ingredients are all in one place. And this is a fact that actually does make all the difference in the world when it comes to making food the quick and easy way. I think there is also the perception that there is something magical in that box, too. Something that will make everything work just right, with just the right consistency. Who cares how it’s done, we just want it to work.

Some of those things we shouldn’t be eating, others we just don’t need, and most of those things are sitting in your pantry right now. I’d be lying through my teeth if I said I NEVER use a mix. Sometimes it makes sense! I have a packet of coleslaw seasoning in the fridge (I only used a bit of it) right now. This is because the seasonings are some that I very rarely use, and didn’t see spending a fortune to buy when they’d sit until going bad. I made the coleslaw, and then liked the blend so much, though, that I might just add those spices to the rack anyway. It’s a good way to try something for the first time. I can’t think of any other mix that I use right now, but I’m sure there’s something somewhere.

Placing all my ingredients together in one place in the kitchen and organizing it for efficiency was something I had done unwittingly, and mostly it was out of necessity. The kitchen I am working in as I write is probably about 12 x 12. There was very little in the way of natural storage space, so a small “pantry” (really a large cupboard typically found in a garage) was added (Thanks, Dad!).

Most experienced cooks naturally gravitate towards a triangular setup in the kitchen, with everything within reach. Stove, refrigerator, sink, typically. If you don’t have such a setup, try to create one. A kitchen island is wonderful, too. For those of you without one and on a budget, you might need to think outside the box on this one. Revamp an old changing table with paint and some hooks. Remove the front railing and lay down butcher block (or another appropriate salvaged material) for the top. Use anything that will work, but think about easy cleaning (non-porous, or wood are good choices)! Add wheels if space is at a premium, and you can move the island out of the way when you are not cooking. The point is, you want everything within reach. Even a fold-out table would be great for a small space.

These days, kitchens in new homes feature wonderful walk-in pantries. Pantries are terrific with one exception: they are usually nowhere near the cooking area! I guess this happens by default for the most part. Scope out your work space, and try to figure out how to bring your most commonly used items close to where you are working. This includes not only utensils and pots and pans, but common foodstuffs, as well. This is the secondary use for that kitchen island- EVERYTHING should be multifunctional. Your island should work as storage as well as counter space, and offer hooks for hanging more. A magnetic spice rack attached to one end is a great idea.

Another way to streamline your workspace is to have a large bowl or tray, and use it to assemble all your ingredients before you begin to cook. If you’ve ever watched Rachel Ray’s cooking show, you might have noticed the way she does that. Hey, she’s only got 30 minutes, and that’s for real, not just for TV. All the cooking you see happens in a half hour. And you rarely see her use a mix! On other shows, the chef might tip all of his ingredients out of little bowls that are prepared in advance. Well, that guy has a staff of helpers! Until we have staff of our own, let’s ditch those containers, but keep the idea of having things handy, and prepping (chopping, etc.) in advance if you feel so inclined. If you have all your ingredients to hand, you can just gather what you need before starting, and move right along.

I’m telling you, the only stuff you need to make anything you can find in a mix, you can find right in your own cupboard. I promise you’ll be able to make more food with less money, in just as short a time. And that is what this blog is all about. Saving money, and leading a better life with the savings. Who doesn’t need that?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


How a tiny bit of chemical know-how can put the fun back into cooking

Cooking happens through chemistry, but it’s not hard, and doesn’t have to be complicated. Ever watch “Good Eats” with Alton Brown? I highly recommend it as a very enjoyable show on The Food Network. Of course, you could just watch the show on TV! Alton is a mad scientist, a showman, and a good Southern boy. Above all, he’s a fabulous cook! I have to say that he might cringe a little at my laissez-faire treatment of some recipes. He is nothing if not a perfectionist, while I’m… not. So I hope he will forgive me, but I’m mostly into shortcuts.

Cool stuff:

· Roux- Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? This is equal parts butter (or another fat) and flour. That’s all. You melt the fat, add the flour, and cook for a minute or so. After that, it starts changing color, “carmelizing.” The darker the roux, the stronger the taste, and the less thickening power it has. Thickening is the major point of a roux, but as it gets darker, it gets nuttier, more complex, and adds flavor to sauces.

*A tip from chef/friend of the family, Nestor Ramires: Make some up and put it in the refrigerator to use whenever you need it. Instant thickening power!

· Ok, that was the most complicated, so relax!

· Self-rising flour: If you add liquid to this, then put it in the oven, it will rise. Add eggs, and it will rise more. Cool, huh? Say goodbye to pancake mix.

· Pasta water: Pasta water is delicious, has vitamins from the pasta, and, guess what, folks? It has tons of starch from the pasta, as well. Say goodbye to pasta dinner mixes. You don’t need them anymore.

· Powdered whole or nonfat milk: This is a lifesaver in sauces, soups, and breads, as I can add it to the water. No more “scalded” milk (a hassle which takes time, and makes me wash yet another pan). Add to the afore-mentioned pasta water, and you get the beginnings of a cream sauce. I’ll show you the right way, and my quicker, wrong (but oh-so-easy) way.

· Yeast: Nothing new here. Yeast are magical all by themselves. You add water to a package of yeast, and the little guys wake up, and start eating. This causes them to multiply, and party, all the while expelling great amounts of carbon dioxide. They make lots of little bubbles, which gives you rise. More on that in the Dough section.

· Leavening: baking powder, baking soda, and eggs make things rise.

· Oils and fats, including milk, make things moist. Eggs work this way, too, due to the fat in the egg yolk.

There's more, but I'm out of time. I'll add more as I can, and you'll find these and other tips within the recipes about to be published. So stay tuned!

A Word About Mixes and Processed Foods

There are few things that have changed the way we cook as a nation more than mixes. By mixes, I mean those packets in boxes that we as a nation buy to make dinner most nights. Add to the list of innovations the refrigerator, the microwave, and hydrogenation, and the list is complete. What the heck is hydrogenation? Well, it’s one of the things that you will find in nearly every mix, for starters, and in most prepared foods.

Food chemists found that by adding an extra hydrogen molecule to a fat, it became hard, like butter and lard, and virtually immortal. Hydrogenated oils lasts just about forever. This translates to profits for food companies, because the shelf life of products is extended. Margarine replaced butter: more profits. When margarine emerged, so did a smear campaign against butter. The public by and large switched to margarine for health reasons. It must be said here that Southern cooks were never fooled into giving up their butter.

You now know this tricky stuff as trans fats (look for hydrogenated oils of any kind), and probably are aware that it is not good to eat. It has been replaced or eliminated in many processed foods due to public outcry (60 years later…). However, many manufacturers have simply replaced it with interesterified fat, which studies show is even worse. So watch out for that. Manufactures are in business to make money, not to keep you healthy. That’s your job.

Look, I know that mixes are convenient and fast. They really became popular in the 1970’s, when a great number of mothers joined the workforce and had less time to prepare meals. Today, with all our modern conveniences, whether a caregiver works outside the home or not, we are just as short on time, if not more so. America seems to be under the impression that food needs to come from a box.

But what if I told you there isn’t a mix in my cupboard, and I can make a healthy dinner in 30 minutes or less? And we are talking family-friendly foods, here. Rachel Ray has made a career out of doing this, and you don’t have to be a chef to do it (she isn’t!), either. I highly recommend her show, “30 Minute Meals,” on Food Network .

For this blog, I’m going to stick with home-cooking, and comfort foods. I’ll show you how to make your own “mixes,” based on simple kitchen chemistry. Once you know this chemistry, you will be able to invent your own recipes. Because the factors that contribute to heart disease begin to accumulate in the body in childhood (yes, you read that correctly), and to stretch that dollar, we are eliminating packaged mixes for the most part. The focus here is on inexpensive, fast, and mostly healthy. I want you to be able to save a cartload of money in the stores, and still be able to eat great food. My hope is that you will use these recipes creatively and put your own spin on them.

Some of the things I make all the time, quickly and easily without a mix:

· pancakes and biscuits

· macaroni and cheese

· beefy mac

· spaghetti

· tacos

· bread and bagels

· pizza (pizza crust can take 10 minutes to make, believe it or not)

· stroganoff

· cookies, cakes, baked goods

· lasagna

· hot cocoa

· bagels

· pies, cakes, cookies

Stocking Up: Your Pantry Can Save You Money!


Making something out of nothing (almost!)

If you were to look in my cupboards, the first thing you’d think is that they need to be organized. The second thing you’d think, is that there really isn’t much in there! Oh, but there is….. it’s just not instant. When I can, I do stock some convenience items. I do believe in buying a couple of treats, because they simply make you happy. There is actually a mix or two somewhere (though I can't think of any at the moment). Chocolate is on the list, and I can’t live without coffee and/or tea. But here are the staples you will need in order to create most of the recipes in this blog:

· Powdered milk, either nonfat, or whole. I LOVE a product you can only find in the Mexican section of your supermarket, called Nido. It is in a can, and it is a powdered whole milk. I use this in baking and cooking to replace the fresh milk so I can save that for drinking. If this is the only tip you take from this blog, take this one. Wonderful to have in emergency situations, too!

· Self rising flour

· Regular flour

· Bread flour (optional, but if you make bread, buy this)

· Whole wheat flour

· Sugar, white and brown

· Eggs (or powdered eggs, for when you run out)

· Regular milk for drinking- don’t even try to get your kids to drink powdered milk, unless you are going to mix it with chocolate or strawberry syrup. Make sure it’s well-chilled, too.

· Cheese. I buy 2 lb. bags of shredded (real) cheese for about $7 each. Typically, I buy a Mexican blend, and Mozzarella, and then a couple of smaller bags of Italian blend for about $2 each. If they came bigger, I’d buy ‘em!

· Pasta, different varieties

· Butter

· Canola oil

· Olive oil (I like extra virgin)

· Large (29 oz.) cans of crushed tomatoes. I buy concentrated crushed tomatoes but regular crushed tomatoes work just fine. They get used in lots of recipes, so you will want at least 3 in the cupboard at the beginning of the month.

· Ground turkey- this is a sneaky little item that I buy in plastic “chubs” or sleeves for about $1.86 a pound. I use it in place of ground beef in most everything, and I love, love, love, the sausage version. It has the added benefit of being healthier, too!

· Other meat: buy in bulk on this one, divide up and freeze in 1 lb packages until you need them. I actually tend to use less meat than most- we use it more like a flavoring, and I don't tend to use much red meat as most people do. But there is room in this $300 budget for red meat if you like it.

· Rice: I like Jasmine, or Basmati, which is a little more expensive but has more complex carbohydrates than other rice, as well as a superior flavor. Do not boil and drain, or you will lose the B vitamins. I will give you a fool-proof way to make it that won’t let you down (It is not my method, credit the Japanese). This is one of those items that cost a bit more, but pay off in the end. Give brown rice a try, too.

· Ground flax meal (in the baking section): This is extremely good for you and undetectable in baked goods, although the flavor is nice- a mild, nutty taste. A terrific source for Omega-3 fatty acids, and for the money, the best you will find. It’s also a fat substitute, and has the added benefit of keeping your digestive system happy.

· Wheat germ- strangely, in the cereal section. Wonderful in bread.

· Yogurt- both vanilla and plain. This is another place where I spend more than the minimum. I’m looking for live active cultures, and there is a lowfat brand that is organic, and tastes spectacular. No matter how good for you something is, if you can’t get your kids to eat it, it isn’t going to work. I like Stonyfield Farm’s lowfat versions, and I buy the big 32 oz. containers. This works great for sour cream, and for creaming up sauces. I also mix crispy rice cereal and other cereals with the vanilla yogurt for my two year old, because it makes the cereal stick to her spoon. She gets those great live active cultures to boost her immune system and aid in digestion, and it tastes fantastic. Also: it doesn’t spill like liquid milk!

· Cereal: Buy the bagged generic versions, and get the large one. I only buy one a month, but you may need more. Skip the branded versions- they cost way too much, and you can get more for less buying generic.

· Oatmeal: I love stone cut for eating, but will use old fashioned oats too. Quick oats are good for baked goods and sneaking into things for filler. Good in meatloaf, great binder (you can grind it a bit in a magic bullet, blender, or food processor.

· Juice: Buy the frozen kind that you add water to. Make sure it’s 100% juice… And you can make “soda” by adding carbonated water, too. Very refreshing, and good for kids.

· Speaking of soda water: I can buy a gallon of regular water for 99 cents. I can buy two liters of soda for 68 cents (though I buy very little). Yet one liter of carbonated water costs me nearly two dollars. Can someone explain this? Meanwhile, check this out: Soda Club USA. I don't have one yet, but all the reviews are VERY favorable. You can make your own soda and soda water! Cost of the unit is about $100 and is very economical to use.

· Applesauce and canned fruits: I usually have bananas around, and whatever fruit is in season, but if you run out, you have this to fall back on. Buy unsweetened versions, or the cans with juice instead of “heavy syrup.” Also, you can make great cobblers from canned peaches. Just buy the generic brands, or catch a sale.

· Dried fruit, like raisins and apricots. I personally love dried cherries.

· Tortillas: these, like pasta can be made with the ingredients on this list, but for the sake of saving time, I buy them. If you are lucky enough to have a Tortilleria around, take advantage. There’s nothing like a fresh tortilla, either flour or corn. And you know those wraps that are popular now? Basically, they are tortillas. Most manufacturers make them without lard now.

· Frozen vegetables: Buy fresh whenever you can. Many farmer’s markets accept food stamp benefits, too. However, I always like to have frozen vegetables on hand in the freezer because they are instant, and take a lot longer to go bad. Make sure you’ve got frozen spinach: This is one of the few vegetables that is better for you cooked, because it shrinks up and you get more that way. You can sprinkle it into things for a touch of color, and get some vitamins into unsuspecting kids. I add it to soups, and spaghetti sauce, nearly everything- like parsley, only healthier.

· Instant potato flakes: Yep, I’ve got an instant item in my pantry. Note that this isn’t a mix. Never buy those potato mixes like “garlic and chives,” etc. (Who doesn't have garlic?). I'm talking about simple dried potato flakes, with nothing else added. You can use these for thickening sauces, making soup, an instant meal in a hurry, or even a type of pasta called gnocchi.

· Spices: I can’t live without garlic powder (not garlic salt), onions, both powdered and minced, basil, oregano, vanilla, nutmeg, paprika, pepper, poultry seasoning, chili powder, cumin, cayenne pepper. Buy the basics, then add as you go- they last a long time. Most of these I buy for 50 cents. There are few times when the expensive version is better.

Also, try that Mexican section of the grocery store again, because often you can find packets of spices and shaker jars for very cheap prices. A wonderful place to find things like chipotle and other peppers, both dried and canned. About nutmeg: buy the whole nutmegs. Just suck it up and pay the extra money. They last forever. When you grate a real nutmeg, folks, the taste is nothing like the ground stuff that comes in the shaker bottle. The taste is an epiphany-they are much more delicious and almost delicate when you grate them yourself.

· Baby food carrots. You need this if you have kids, and think you are going to get them to eat homemade macaroni and cheese. In order to get them to eat this, no matter how wonderful it tastes, you will need to make the stuff fluorescent. This seems to be a universal kid requirement, this fluorescent orange color. Carrots do the trick, and are good for them, too. And they’ll never know unless you tell them, if you don’t add too much. Also wonderful in spaghetti sauce!

· Cocoa, and yes, a generic bottle of chocolate syrup. Used judiciously, this stuff can get your kid drinking milk, or provide a welcome treat. I think it’s unlikely that we can eliminate all preservatives and artificial colors/flavors from our diet. I just try to keep it to the bare minimum. You can also make chocolate syrup from cocoa and keep it in the fridge.

· Honey, and molasses, which add flavor and color to foods as well as sweetness. Molasses has the added benefit of being the only sweetener with nutritional value, and it’s a powerhouse: you get great amounts of Potassium, Calcium, iron, Choline, Magnesium, and Selenium, as well as other trace vitamins and minerals. When I looked that up and saw the actual nutrient value, I decided to just eat a spoonful every day.

· Fresh fruits and vegetables in season. Go to the farmer’s market, buy in bulk and can or freeze. Another great option: farmer’s co-ops. This is where you buy a “share” of what is grown, and you get boxes once or twice a month full of fresh vegetables.

Buy in season, no matter where you pick up your produce. Produce from other countries is much less regulated for pesticides than that grown in the United States. And it costs a lot more (this can only get worse as fuel costs go up). In any event, it’s always my favorite thing to step onto the porch and snip some fresh herbs. They look pretty, planted with some clover, which helps to add nitrogen back into the soil like a living fertilizer. How cool is that? A little mustard keeps bugs away, and tastes good in salad, too.

I've mentioned before that I shop at my favorite superstore, Walmart. I'm sure there are other stores that have great values as well, but the truth is they get the bulk of my grocery money because I save at least 40% by shopping there. Another store I LOVE, but we don't have one nearby: Trader Joe's. If you have one, go there! Trader Joe's if you're listening, please come to SC!

My sister has to send me things from CA, because there are some things you can only get at Trader Joe's, and I'm not kidding when I say the prices and the food items are incredible. They have lots of other things, too, like gourmet items including wine and cheese: Foodie Heaven.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Grocery Store Survival Tactics


Have you ever noticed that no matter the season, the grocery stores are very chilly places? I always have to take a jacket for my two year old when I go shopping. You’d think with energy prices being what they are, stores would lay off on the air conditioning. But there is a reason for this! First, keeping the store cool keeps bacteria counts down. Think about it: hundreds of people walking through the store every day, touching everything, coughing, sneezing, whatever. So it makes sense (when I think of it that way, wrapped produce suddenly holds more appeal!).

But here is the sneaky bit: Cold temperatures also make you hungry. Ever notice that in winter you crave comfort foods, and eat more? Your body is trying to stay warm by adding extra calories it can burn. So a cold grocery store triggers this physiological reaction in your body, no matter what season it is.

Don’t think grocery stores aren’t aware of this! The temperature of a store is calculated to cause you to want to buy more. But don’t blame them. You and the store just happen to be on opposite sides of an equation: Their job is to get your money, while your job is to hang on to some. Both sides need each other- grocery stores typically have profit margin of 1-2%- that’s a nano-profit! So even the score by eating before you shop. And always take a list. And maybe a sweater?

Did I mention the list???

ALWAYS have a list with you, and stick to it. When I was going through some very tough times financially, I even went so far as to create a spreadsheet for my nearby superstore... dare I say it? I'm gonna... I shop at Walmart, among other stores. I used my receipts from previous visits, and estimated where I didn't have information. I knew what I was going to spend, +/- $10, before I ever walked into the store. I'm working out how to make this function available to you- if you know of an online list that has local prices based on store location, let me know. Ahem... Walmart, are you listening?

End caps and checkout stands:

The end cap is the end of every aisle. This is where you find new items, “specials,” and sale items. This is where, in short, the store manager puts items he or she wants you to buy. These items, more often than not, spell profit for the store, and loss for you. Stick to your list. If you see an item for sale on an end cap, take the time to look in the section where the item is usually kept. Odds are, you will find it cheaper. And did I mention the list?

Toddler Treats:

We’ve all done it at least once if we have a toddler: Opened a box of crackers or cookies right in the store and handed one to our screaming child. I think this is one of those gray areas in life and as long as it gets paid for the stores usually look past it. However, if you bring along your own treat, you can be sure it is something you approve of, not an impulse item to save your sanity. Keep a juice cup handy, and some toys if you can. See if you can find a hook or lanyard you can clip on the toy and the cart to avoid losing them.

Buying in Bulk:

This is a tricky area. I do buy some things in bulk, but very few. This is because even if the end result is that I'm saving money, if I'm buying more than I'm going to use in 1-3 months, I don't do it. Why? Because even if I'm saving in the end, the money's still gone. So I reserve bulk purchases for things that get used up quickly. And I pay attention to the unit price. It doesn't matter what the brand name is as long as it's a quality product, and it's the least expensive. Just ask yourself this question: Are you really going to use up 9 pounds of oatmeal in a month? If not, would you rather see a movie, or get the tapenade? It all depends on what's important to you.

Frozen Vegetables and Canned Goods:

Well, I prefer fresh, but I always have lots of frozen and canned products. They are cheaper, if it's the off-season (more about this later), because they have a longer shelf-life. Spoiled food is an expense that stores have to plan for by increasing the price of perishable foods.

Also, frozen vegetables and canned goods are ready when you need them, and already cut up for you. When you are in a hurry, they are perfect. Personally, I prefer frozen vegetables to canned, with the exception of tomato products and some root vegetables like carrots. And I really think it's all in the way you cook them.

Farmer's Markets and Buying in Season:
Always buy produce that's in season and locally grown if at all possible. One exception is bananas, which are an import with low to no pesticide residue that is a great staple to have.
I love supporting local farmers, and like to buy crates of vegetables and can them. If you do this, you may not have to buy vegetables at all in the winter, and you'll know what's in those beautiful Ball jars lined up on your shelves. Even better: Grow your own!

I'm sure there's more, and welcome posts with other ways to shop successfully in the supermarket.