Food Budgeting Recap: Success!!

I can't believe it's the last day of September--this month was really fantastic for me because I was able to meet my food budget and it wasn't something that was completely unbearable to do. As I mentioned at the beginning of the month my goal was to eat for $10 a day--or $300 total. Having just ONE meal left in the month tonight, I can say I am UNDER budget by $18, which I will promptly spend on Pho and Spring Rolls.

What did I get out this? 
  • Bringing your lunch to work is key. Wouldn't be possible unless you planned ahead with leftovers or set lunch items. Making my own hummus was fun, and economical! When the old sandwich and yogurt routine got boring, I planned out leftovers from my dinners the night before.
  • Bring a Shopping List With you...and Stick to It! When the bills ring up for $20-30, I started seeing that as 'two days of food, three days of food' and over time was able to stop myself from grabbing items that wouldn't hold out for a longer shelf life. There are always things you forget, or need to restock (like olive oil) but when I grabbed those items, I thought about what I would be using it for, and how long it would last me. Olive Oil: in; Lay's Barbecue Chips: replaced with carrots (ugg) which I could use as a snack or for a stock.
  • The freezer is your friend. That lasagna was amazing, but took 2 hours to make! Freezing a second one spread out my ingredients over more meals, and gave me a great dinner the week I didn't feel like cooking. Plus, I still have leftover Chicken 'n' Dumplings to eat at a later date!
  • Split up the month. I started with a clean out week to rid my pantry of older items, then followed it with two weeks of family style meals that worked for 2-3 dinners plus lunch. It made the month a lot less daunting and easier to follow.
  • Don't Forget to Treat Yourself. A while ago, I tried to save money by only eating out once a week for both lunch and dinner. I picked this up again---but also tried to keep these meals within the $5-8 (for lunch) and $15-18 ranges (for dinners). Keeping track of my food by day (on the right column of my blog) let me know when I was under budget and could allow myself a little more leeway on what to order
So that's all--until my next project--hope it helped you plan your own meals a little more consciously :)


Poll: Cooking Hot Dogs in Beer?

Oh it's happening. The only question is will it be good?

That's right. We're cooking some hot dogs in four Budwisers and a Dogfish Head Mahogany Ale...all of which are too old to actually drink. The plan is to pour all into a pan, bring to a boil, toss in the hot dogs for 15 minutes (cuz they are frozen--10 should be fine for defrosted brats) and then serve.

So do you think we've stumbled upon the best football snack ever, or just a quick trip to the emergency room...let me know.


Food Budgeting Week 3: More Lasagna

The final product--served with Caesar salad
Last Tuesday, I spent around $30 to make my mother's lasagna. It was an all-night affair, but I came away with two pretty large lasagnas—one to serve the next day to my friends—and the other I froze back for a later meal....which would be happening tonight. I know, a week later isn't what people expect when you freeze back meals, but I've been thinking about how delicious it was---and how I was kind of over cooking for the next few days---so I went ahead and pulled the second one out of early retirement.

Some tips before you begin. Unless you are cooking for six or more, I would use a smaller, square pans and split up your noodles, sauce, and cheese into two or three dinners. It means you'll be stuck with fewer leftovers. Also, I tested out both regular noodles and oven-ready noodles you don't have to boil first. The no-boil noodles worked out fine, but you will want to drown them in a little more sauce or else the outside is a little tougher than usual. Definitely a time saver.

Patricia's Lasagna
  • 1 package lasagna noodles
  • 12 oz. ground beef
  • 4-6 Italian sausage links--sweet
  • 1 c. chopped onion
  • 2 cloves minced garlic
  • 2-3 jars spaghetti sauce
  • 1 T. flour
  • 1/2 c. red wine
  • 1 chopped tomato
  • 1 chopped zucchini
  • 6-8 oz. fresh mozzarella--sliced
  • 15 oz. ricotta cheese
  • 1 T. fresh basil, chopped
  • 1 beaten egg
  • 1 T. parsley
  • Parmesan Cheese
  1. Sauce: In a dutch oven (trust me, you'll need to space) cook the sausage, ground beef, onions, and garlic until meat is brown. Add in flour to thicken sauce, then tomatoes, zucchini, and 2 jars of tomato sauce. Season with salt/pepper. Add in red wine, bring to a boil, then lower heat to a simmer.
  2. Meanwhile, cook the noddles. (Or buy oven-ready noodles and forget this step!) and slice your cheese. 
  3. Ricotta Sauce: Beat egg and add in ricotta, basil, and parsley.

    Ricotta Sauce
  4. Layering: Start with a layer of sauce, then begin layering: noodles, ricotta, sauce, noodles, mozzarella, sauce. Repeat once and you should have a pretty decently high lasagna. Shave some Parmesan on top:

    The final lasagna
  5. Cover with foil and store in freezer for two months. OR heat oven to 350 degrees and bake for 30-40 minutes until it's nice and bubbly. 


RIP: Bertolli Extra Virgin Olive Olive

Brand: Bertolli Extra Virgin Olive Oil "Rich Taste"
Bought: July.
Lasted: 10 weeks
Flavor: Pretty decent flavor--worked nicely on my popcorn. I would buy it again.

And in honor of my record-setting Olive Oil intake this year, I found the following stats at The Washington Post:

  •  99% of the olive oil consumed by Americans comes from other countries.
  • 70 million liters of olive oil were consumed by Americans in 2009.
  • $700 million was spent by Americans on olive oil, 60% of which was labeled "extra-virgin."
  • 8% more olive oil was consumed in the United States in 2009 than in 2008.
  • 3rd largest consumer of olive oil in the world is the United States.
    Statistics: North American Olive Oil Association


Sauce Weekend Part 2: "The Smell of Summer"

This past Saturday, I was invited over to my friend and coworker MaryLynn Haase's house to experience a day in the life of an Italian kitchen. MaryLynn still has family in Italy, and most of her cooking is pure Italian: eggplant Parmesan, manicotti, and—of course—traditional Italian tomato sauce. It was this last item that I ventured over to MaryLynn's to see first hand.

MaryLynn has a seasonal goal of 750 pounds of tomatoes. Split up over 7-8 weeks, you can pretty much guarantee where she will be on the weekends between August and October, as long as the tomato crops are coming in.

The day starts with a trip to the farmer's market in Court House, Arlington. There are a few stops to make before 8 am—she buys from Maple Avenue MarketToigo Orchards, and others—until she has around 100 lbs of whatever tomatoes are on hand that week: slender romas are great for thickening your sauce, but don't have the flavor of the obese-looking heirlooms, which come later in the year. She also threw in some San Marzanos that were growing in her backyard, as well as some regular juice tomatoes to finish it off:

A run down of the tomatoes used...

Once home--the process begins. MaryLynn has an industrial-sized squeezer that will de-seed, de-skin, and juice the tomatoes. First, the tomatoes must go through the "quality control" that is her husband. His job was to quarter the tomatoes, while seeking out blemishes or cuts that needed to be removed, or tomatoes that were just a little past their prime based on smell. From here, they are poured into the top of this juicer, and the pulp and liquid gets pushed out into one bowl, while the scraps get poured into another. Here's a nice video of all the action:

Once all 125 lbs. has been juiced--plus running the scraps through again to pick up any liquid that escaped the first time--it's into the pots to simmer down by HALF. By the end of the morning, we had five pots going at once--all filled to the brim with the most pink, delicious smelling tomatoes ever. Here's where I left to grab lunch---coming back 3 hours later once the sauce had started to thicken. As the liquid burns off, you can definitely feel the heaviness of the tomato sauce start to form. We combined the pots into two large ones, and went on from there---continuing to boil as we prepped the additions.

MaryLynn's sauce is made up of onions, garlic, red peppers, and spices. One pot of sauce held about six medium onions, 2 bell peppers, 10 cloves of garlic, and 1 bottle of wine. Cooking the onions and peppers first, I learned a neat trick about when to add int he garlic and wine. Leaving the veggies to saute on their own, when you push aside the onions with a spoon, you should hear a nice sizzle--your cue to add in the wine. .

Here's a great video of MaryLynn adding the wine, (she's talking to her daughter in the background--it really was a a family affair):

You want to cook down the wine until it's almost gone and the veggies just have this purple hue to them. That's when you add it to the sauce. Be careful here---boiling tomatoes can pack a punch if they splatter toward you:

From here on out--you just want to continue to cook down the sauce until all the flavors merge. A taste test when you first add in the onions will still have the aftertaste of raw tomato, but after a few hours that will go away--along with the liquid halo you will see lining the spoonful of the sauce. Your key that it's done is when that halo disappears and the sauce becomes thick and wonderful.

I left MaryLynn around 5pm, but the sauce was still brewing. Some basil and oregano were added in while I was there, but she assured me she would keep fiddling with it until it was 'just right'. MaryLynn told me later that she was up until midnight sterilizing her glass jars and canning the sauce itself--in the end our 125 lbs of tomatoes came to 28 jars of sauce.

A slide-show of the day:

And that's that! But sadly, I've already used up my portion of that making two lasagnas--but it's totally worth it. Having already sampled one of them, the freshness of the sauce really stands out, even when cooked in with meat and pasta. No one could mistake it for Ragout ;)


Sauce Weekend Part 1: Why We Cook

Slaving away all day in a kitchen with little immediate yield sounds daunting. You know whatever you are cooking will be worth it, but in the end there is going to be someone who can't tell the difference between a store-bought Ragout and homemade tomato sauce that was infused with sweat, tears, and the love of a chef. So why do it? What keeps us coming back at the end of a hard work day to a hot, cramped space when ordering a pizza is faster and less labor intensive? The answer is either immediately apparent to you as you read this, or you aren't a cook.

My Mamam
Before I get to the point, let me throw out an example. When I was a child, my grandmother made this wonderful pasta dish that was hands-down my favorite meal. I've made here. When she passed away while I was in high school, the recipe seemed to disappear with her, but that didn't stop me from constantly trying to recreate a taste from memory. My mother gave me my start--explaining how to make a cream sauce, and when and how long to cook the vegetables and shrimp--but it only took the dish so far. A distant cousin who can't speak the language.

But I continued--five years--perfecting my bechamel sauce while working at Cooking Light--and finally, almost by accident, stumbled upon what I had been missing: parsley. As soon as I added the fresh herb to my sauce, I could smell the difference. Did that dish taste more delicious than the others I've made throughout the years? Probably not--but the memory of my grandmother comes back to me with every bite, and the love I feel for her when making it the way she made it is something you can't buy in a store.

So back to my original question. Why do cooks slave away for hours? Clearly, it's for love. Love of food--love of family--love of fine ingredients.

Last Saturday, I had a day-long experience devoted to the love of cooking by spending it with my friend and coworker MaryLynn--a truly awesome Italian mother whose kitchen turns into a tomato factory every weekend from August through October as she makes homemade tomato sauce.

Tune in tomorrow to see more details and pictures from my Sauce Weekend, but for now--see some great pictures of the final output: my mother's lasagna. Another dish that brings my family immediately to mind, I couldn't help but invite my friends and boyfriend over to share a delicious family-style meal of meat lasagna, garlic bread, and Cesar salad. Because for me, life doesn't get much better than this.

Read Part Two Here (where I actually get into the cooking)

The final meal

Chris showing off his perfectly toasted bread--it's impressive because it was broiled in our oven

Kate made guacamole cause it's delicious


What to Make with a Whole Chicken

If I can give potential food budgeters one piece of advice, it would be to eat what you can use the most. Cooking an entire chicken this week was a huge success for a few reasons:
  1. You get a ton of meat from it--precooked and ready to reheat and use for quick weekday meals. Just store away in tupperware and use as needed.
  2. The bones and gross parts (neck, back, heart, etc.) can be saved and used to make a really great chicken stock.
  3. For a $7 chicken--I'd say this is a definite must for those under a tight budget.
Shredded meat w/ reserved bones

For a few recipes to get you started, here's a run down of what I made this week:
Aji de Gallina A family recipe from South America, great ethnic comfort food.

New Mexico Enchiladas. Another family favorite--this is more along the lines of do-it-yourself enchiladas. The tortillas are served flat, covered in enchilada sauce, and then 3-4 are layered on top of each other with meat, onions, tomatoes, cheese, etc in between—plus (most delicious of all) a fried egg on top. 

Chicken 'n' Dumplings. Southern comfort food at its finest. Recipe below.

and finally, Chicken Tacos with the remaining leftovers from other meals.

Chicken 'n' Dumplings
  • 8 pieces of chicken (or a whole chicken, shredded)*
  • 1 T butter
  • 2 c. Chicken Stock
  • 2 c. water
  • 1 t. salt
  • 1/2 t. pepper
  • 1/4 t. saffron flakes
  • 2 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into pieces
  • 2 small onions, diced
  • 2 large carrots, diced
  • 2 stalks celery, diced
  • 1 T. chopped parsley
  • Dumplings: 1.5 c. flour, 1/2 t. salt, 1 egg, 3-5 T. milk
  1. Brown the chicken in a dutch oven with butter, add water and broth, salt, pepper, and saffron and bring to a boil. Add in potatoes, onions, carrots, celery, and parsley. Cover and simmer for 30-45 minutes. (*Note: if you've already cooked the chicken, reserve the meat until the veggies are cooked, before the dumplings.)
  2. In a bowl: combine flour and salt. Separately, beat the egg and add 3 T. of milk. Add into flour until dough is smooth, and not sticky. Add more milk if need be. 
  3. Spoon out teaspoon-sized nuggets of dumplings, flatten, and add them to the soup. Cook an additional 15 minutes. With five minutes remaining, add 2-3 T. of milk to thicken the soup. Sprinkle with cheese, and serve.


Kitchen Basics: Chicken Stock

So on Tuesday when I first boiled my chicken, I attempted to kill two birds with one stone and reserve the liquid from the pot to make chicken stock out of. So after the chicken was cooked, I cooled the pot and placed it in the fridge overnight---with the understanding that the next morning, the fat would have risen to the top and the stock would be underneath--ready for me to use.

Not so much. I'm not sure if it's because I left the veggies and chicken in the pot, or because there was just a lot of skin and fat in the chicken--but the next morning the entire pot had turned to this gelatin-like goo. I have since discovered the gelatin comes from the bones, and had I strained the stock the night before, it would have been easier to manage. Either way---down the sink it went, and on to my second attempt.

I still had all the bones--now cooked--but my coworker Heather and I were discussing my gelatin problem, and she offered to scan a Joy of Cooking Recipe for me. Using roasted chicken bones actually makes for a richer stock--and because I'm feeling sick and wanted to make a hearty chicken soup with it, I didn't see why I couldn't try again. My recipe last night was pretty easy on the labor--- I'll let you know how my soup goes!

Chicken Stock
from Joy of Cooking 
  • 2 lbs chicken parts 
I removed the meat from the chicken first, but left large pieces on the bones for flavor, however, leaving the meat on apparently makes for a more flavorful stock.
  • 1 onion-chopped
  • 1 carrot-chopped
  • 1 celery stock-chopped
I roasted the bones and vegetables for 30 minutes at 425 degrees, then added them to a dutch oven. Using one cup of water, scrap the roasting pan and add the brown bits to the pan. Add around 8 cups water (cover the bones plus two inches) and bring to a simmer. Lower the heat so there aren't any bubbles rising, but heat is still coming off the pan (around 180 degrees). Cook for three hours.
  • Bouquet garni (garlic, peppercorn, parsley, thyme, bay leaf wrapped in cheese cloth)
In the last hour, add in the bouquet garni. Remove from heat and strain the stock twice--once with a strainer, once with a cheese cloth to get all the bits and pieces out. Cool, then refrigerate and then skim the fat off in the morning.


Aji de Gallina

The first time I broke down a chicken was to make this dish. Naturally, if I'm going through the trouble of cooking an entire chicken--you better believe this is on the menu.

Aji de Gallina is a shredded chicken dish from Peru that gets its name from the Aji Amarillo pepper of the area. I have never found the actual pepper in the supermarket--but a quick stop at a South American/European food market (there is one down my street) and you should be able to find it in paste form. If you can't find any--cayenne pepper works as a good substitute, but you will want to SEVERELY reduce the amount you put in. Cayenne will give you that heat, but there is this smoothness to an aji pepper that really makes this dish something special.

Serious Eats did a nice run down on the spice, saying:
[It is] less sharp and harsh, more full-bodied, and a lot more subtle. If there were a chile to taste like sunshine, this would be it. It may sound odd to use the word "comforting" to describe a hot chile, but for aji amarillo, it seems fitting.
The recipe is fairly simple, and gets even more so if you decide to skip out on boiling the chicken and either buy a rotisserie one pre-made, or heat up some chicken breasts in the microwave. This is also good to freeze back--I've doubled up on the sauce and reserved half for a later meal, or used leftovers for a nice hearty lunch the next day.

Aji de Gallina
  • 3-4 lb. Chicken--skinned
  • 4 c. Chicken Broth (reserved from boiling)
  • 8 slices white bread, without the crust
  • 1-2 T. aji amarillo paste (or 1 t. cayenne, or less)
  • 1/2 c. evaporated milk
  • 1 finely diced onion
  • 1 finely diced garlic clove
  • 2 T. olive oil
  • 1/2 c. Parmesan cheese, grated
  • 1/2 c. pecans or walnuts, finely chopped
  • Garnish: salt, pepper, parsley, black olives, hard-boiled eggs
  1. To be done a day ahead or in the afternoon (takes 1-2 hours): Break down the chicken into parts (breasts, thighs, wings, back & neck) and submerge entire  bird in water. Liberally add salt. If you want, add in celery, carrots, onions to create a richer stock. Bring to a boil and then simmer for 30-45 minutes until chicken is done. Cool, reserve broth, and shred the chicken.
  2. In a saucepan, saute onions and garlic in oil until golden.
  3. In a blender, soak bread slices in broth and add aji amarillo paste and evaporated milk. Blend under fine.
  4. Gradually add bread mixture to saucepan and stir constantly for about 15 minutes until liquid reduces to a thick consistency. When desired consistency is reached (thick, creamy sauce) add in cheese, nuts, and chicken. (Note: you might not need the entire chicken--add gradually, and use extra for other meals)
  5. Cook another 10-15 minutes. Serve with rice and garnish with parsley, olives, and egg.


Sauce Tease...

A taste of things to come...
Not to brag or anything, but this Saturday I get to wake up early in the morning and make SAUCE. As in Italian tomato sauce. My coworker MaryLynn does this every year with hundreds of pounds of tomatoes.

Don't believe me? She just sent me this photo today:
Yes, that would be a pile of tomatoes waiting to be sauced...

Does the fact I've been looking forward to this for a month make me a huge dork? Or someone whose about to have some REALLY tasty homemade lasagna.

Food Budgeting Week 2: The WHOLE chicken

Last week was such a success at NOT spending money and using up random freezer food (spanokopita GONE)--I am $40 under budget for the month so far! I celebrated over labor day by buying a new wallet with the saved money. (Yeah, I know my budgeting should be extended beyond food--but that's not what I blog about!) This week's plan is to make use of an ENTIRE chicken. All my followers from my Vegetarian month should stop reading now. It's going to get bloody.

My Shopping List--3 meals for $25 dollars
That's right. An entire chicken. One that cost me $7.33 cents. The savings you get from buying an entire chicken totally makes it worth the extra hour of work (20 minutes to break it down, 45 minutes to boil off the stock). For that, I've built out a plan to make three meals over the course of the week: Aji de Gallina, Honey Mustard Chicken, and Chicken 'n' Dumplings. But first things first. Attacking the beast.

Before it got gross!
I've cut down a chicken before--and didn't take too many photos because I'm ubber scared of raw chicken and it was too much hassle to continually washing my hands between shots. If you are interested in trying this, I recommend two sites: Serious Eats breaks it down in 16 nice close-up photos, and Martha Stewart has a great video that pretty much follows the same technique.

wings, thighs, and random meat...maybe the liver?
Two skinnish Breasts, plus the spine
The breasts are being stored until I grill them Thursday for the Honey Mustard Chicken recipe--and the rest went into a large pot to cook as part of the stock. I'm going to reserve one thigh and wing for tonight's Aji de Gallina, but the rest will be stored until Friday's Chicken 'n' Dumplings. Feeling hungry yet? I am...and my stock is still cooking for another 20 minutes!


Cooking Light's Strawberry Shortcake

So I rarely make desserts because that's totally in my mother's realm, but this recipe was easy, and delicious and I had to share:

So I totally wish this was the one I made, but by the time I remembered my blog the entire thing was gone! I made this on Thursday for my coworker's birthday and it was a great success.

Strawberry Shortcake
by Cooking Light

If you are looking for a quick, delicious dessert---this is totally easy to do. The hardest party was slicing the shortcake in the middle, and that can easily be bypassed by rolling out individual biscuits instead of making the large, round cake. I baked TWO in 45 minutes. (I actually made two because the first go-round I couldn't remember if I had added one or two cups of flour--so I put in another cup and it ended up slightly too thick. Luckily, I baked that one anyway into those individual sized cakes (each about the size of my palm--and they also turned out gorgeous!)

The lemon rind is a great addition to the dough--with the strawberry topping it really gave the cake a fresh taste.


Food Budgeting...Week 1 Recap

Here's a quick one before I go to work. First of all, I feel I passed my first test for budgeting last night when I decided NOT to get Thai takeout and drove straight home instead. I used up leftover beans/cheese/rotel to make some quesadillas...and spend NO money.

For those curious how this can work for you, I have already figured out the best part of my plan: putting a monetary value on your daily food budget. $300 in a month is a big figure that is easy to chip away from---$30 here for dinner, $21 there for groceries---but by dividing that up daily, I have an easy number to keep track of: $10 a day. That's a lunch out. Or produce for dinner. The idea here is that I use up more that is in my house, and days where I don't spend anything (on Wednesday) I was able to pay that budget forward and spend $20 on Thursday for birthday cake materials.

I'm celebrating today by eating out for lunch. I must stay strong---order off the lunch menu and DONT order a soda. It can be done!!