Monday, May 30, 2011

May 27 - Grocery Bills - End of the Month

I'm back!  Well, relatively speaking.  In three days, I will leaving for ten days as I vacation to Alaska with my entire family.  However, I will try to jam-pack the next three days with some culinary goodness for all my readers.

Let's see.  School is now out, and I have not quite caught the cooking bug like I thought I might.  I attribute this to a general lack of ambition; with the impending trip, I am in "scavenge" mode...getting creative with the contents of my freezer and pantry items.

In addition to the Memorial Day holiday, this weekend marks the last grocery shopping trip for this month...and you know what that means, end-of-month totals!!

But, first, the weekly pie chart.

 First of all, we did go camping this holiday weekend, and because of that, certain categories tend to be inflated, such as "Snacks" and "Beverages".  The meat purchased this week was only cold cuts, which will provide lunch for my children who are now home for the summer.

For future reference, I will refrain from buying cheese from the meat counter guys.  A pound of colby longhorn ran five dollars...maybe this is par for the course??  Dairy products just seem so darn expensive - my 16 oz. tub of Fage yogurt was nearly five dollars!  Of course, my feminine health is very important to me, so I will probably keep shelling out the beaucoup dolares for the yeast-killing stuff.

Here's the exciting news: for the second month in a row, my grocery bill has fallen under $400...this time by $46 dollars.  And, my family is still eating well!  They are not starving!  They are not malnutritioned!

And finally, check out this last bit of data.  My husband (Mr. Meticulous) keeps track of all our bills in a red 3-subject notebook, including our grocery expenditures.  This last fall, we decided to place all grocery purchases on my ATM card, where I would easily be able to keep track of amounts.  In the beginning, we just wanted a baseline for purchase amounts, but then we began to notice that grocery costs was an area that really could use trimming...especially after February (December was the worst, I know, but sometimes with the holiday season, one can be a bit more forgiving)!

The middle of March is really when I started actively seeking to reduce monthly grocery totals - coupons, sales, stockpiling, etc., all added to the significant decrease in March, April, and May's totals.

 To be honest, I think I've found the magical number for our family right now - $400 per month.  Yes, $350 was doable, but $400 would give me a bit more leeway with creativity at mealtime.  Remember, I am still reading Julia Child and will be trying more of her recipes this summer.

June should prove to be interesting.  Not only will I need to replenish my depleted freezer and pantry stores once I return from Alaska, but also devise clever ways to keep costs low now that I have another meal to provide for my three children during the summer.  I think one way might be to double-batch casseroles - leftovers for the kiddos the next day!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Omelettes: Adequate, But Not Mastered

I said I would post about my omelette experience, and I hate to let down my dear readers, so here goes.

I don't remember my mom making them much when I was a child, and when she did, it seemed an arduous process.  She would lift one edge of the mass of coagulated eggs and tilt the pan, letting the uncooked mess spill underneath.  Then, she'd manage to tuck it nicely into a half-moon shape on the plate.  But, like I said, I don't remember her making them often...I mostly associate omelettes with restaurant breakfasts.

For all my many kitchen successes, the omelette has been the one epic failure in my culinary repertoire.  In the recent half-decade, I can remember four separate attempts at omelette-making, and all resulted in my throwing in the towel and just scrambling them in frustration.

Enter Julia Child.  I decided it was time to conquer my fear of omelettes.

I read the passage in her cookbook about omelette-making, reread it again, and still didn't quite have the grasp I needed to pull it off.  I am a visual learner, you see, and the pictures just weren't doing it for me.

Enter and Julia Child Makes Omelettes.  A quick search pulled up a six-minute video of Julia making omelettes, and that provided the visual I needed.  I watched it three times before I felt the confidence to proceed.

First, I assembled my army, as seen here.  Eggs and butter are the essentials, obviously.  Ham and cheese are the extras.  Oh, and the empty bottle of Tassel Ridge wine in the background?  Not part of the list of ingredients!
After heating the small 7-inch pan, I melted a pat of butter, letting it foam.  The heat is important...the butter pretty much needs to sizzle and melt on contact.  When the foam subsided, I poured in my two eggs (beaten).  Eggs cook rather quickly, and after five or so seconds, mine looked like the above.  Right around here is when I swirled my pan in a circular motion several times over the heat to distribute the uncooked eggs.

Then came the tricky part.  Per Julia's instructions, I tilted the pan up and jerked it back towards me...several times, trying to get the mostly cooked egg mass to roll down towards the far lip of the pan.  THIS REQUIRES PRACTICE.  My husband was watching me attempt to roll the omelette, but he did not respond as I shrieked at him, "It's not rolling!  What do I do?"

Eventually, the thing kind of flopped over, so I transferred the product to the plate.  A sprinkle with parsley and omelette #1 was done.  And it didn't taste too bad, either!

By this time, my children were clamoring for one, so I made three "filled" omelettes.  The first one turned out okay, but #2 and #3 experienced some falling-apartage...but nothing a little rearranging on the plate and a sprinkle of parsley didn't fix. 

Long story short, I am *not* the master of omelettes...but it is not as daunting as I once thought it was.  I let go of the notion that omelettes must be a perfect half-moon shape and instead embraced the messy, eclectic rolls I turned out four times.  My husband was amazed at the terribly short cooking time (thirty seconds, tops), and there was nary a clean plate after breakfast this morning.  As you can see in the above photo, all children appear to be satisfied.

You can have your oeuf and eat it too!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Groceries - May 20 - Rapture

This Week's Spending: $44.18   Total Grocery Expenditures for May: $267.16

Heather's Tip of the Week: Grocery shop on a Friday night when you are:
a.) very tired
b.) full from a great dinner
c.) towing the entire family

I guarantee if you do these things, your grocery shopping trip will be short, thus, relatively inexpensive.  Why?  Because you want to get things done so you can go home and take a hot bath, watch 'Glee', and read your copy of "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" before you collapse from exhaustion around ten o'clock.  You won't waste time deliberating over whether or not to buy lunchmeat this just won't.

Spending-wise, though, May is shaping up to be a pretty sweet month.  I really, really don't regret that forty dollars' worth of hamburger I spent earlier this month, because it's paying itself forward now.

Again, dairy and produce account for nearly a third of the total - which I think is good.  Eggs were not on sale this week and neither was cottage cheese ($2.79 for the cheap store brand at HyVee?!).  I would have to say that Dairy was definitely the No-Bang-for-the-Buck category this week.  Two containers of cottage cheese and two dozen eggs for nearly ten dollars?!  Perhaps it is a sign of the impending Rapture...

The Beverage category consists of a bottle of wine - a local (Indianola-local) winery on sale for $8.  That was my husband's idea.

Yeah, and I suppose I've got to do something about that bread category.  $1.34 a loaf is not terrible, until I recall that I can make my own for much, much, much cheaper.  Perhaps it is time to take a year-long No Store-Bought Bread Challenge?  Who dares me?

The last week of school is now upon us, and I wonder how that will affect my grocery tab.  I theorize spending will increase somewhat with home lunches now being added into the fare, not to mention snacks, etc.  Also, after we get back from Alaska, our stores will be fairly depleted, so it will be time to rebuild.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Oeufs and Ends

First off, let me just say that not even one week into the three-week No Restaurant Challenge, this family folded.  Like a fragile house of cards in a gentle breeze.  I've cooked decent meals all week long, and tonight I felt like being catered to...and I felt like a steak.  So, I got it, and I enjoyed it, and I'm not going to feel bad about it.  At all.

Moving on.  Last weekend, I had the pleasure of watching the movie Julie & Julia.  Amy Adams plays Julie Powell, a 30ish something who seeks to find meaning in life by cooking her way through Julia's cookbook "Mastering the Art of French Cooking".  The parallel storyline is of Child's trials and tribulations in the 1950s.

Anyway, enjoying food and cooking myself, I took a great deal of interest in this movie.  In fact, I was impelled to purchase the paperback version of Child's cookbook at the bookstore recently.  I have been content to read it over the last few days, and I am finding it very enjoyable.  This cookbook has a sense of humor (suggesting eight-year-olds can make Hollandaise in the blender).

So far, I am through Soups (which seem very delicious and doable), Sauces (v. daunting), and Eggs (of great interest).  I am a fan of eggs, but I've never really been terribly creative about cooking with them.  I know how to fry them, poach them, scramble them, and bake them...and that is about it.  About four times in my life I have been compelled to try making an omelette...and I have failed every time.

However, I have determined that this is the weekend that I conquer the omelette.  I will document the epic battle in another post.

Also, I am itching to try making pie crust a la Julia Child.  I never have before, but according to my mom, my grandmother made excellent pies, so maybe I have the magic as well.  Julia's Boeuf Bourguignon recipe also looms on the horizon, but I may have to wait until school is out and I have all my faculties about me before I attempt it.

In other food-related news, in addition to the ten-cent cottage cheese cookbook, I also picked up a cheap beef pamphlet-type cookbook (courtesy of the makers of A1 steak sauce, circa 1990).  The recipe for meatloaf was pretty darn amazing:

2 lbs. ground beef
1/2 c. A1 (natch)
1 c. bread crumbs
2 eggs
1/2 c. of minced green pepper and onion each (which I actually did not have, thus, I used a 1/2 c. of dried tomato and pesto seasoning...close enough, right?)

After shaping into a football-looking thing, I placed the meatwad in a baking dish (not a loaf pan) and spread a thin coat of steak sauce on top.  After baking it for an hour at 350 degrees, our family of five nearly obliterated the entire thing (but not before I procured two lunch servings for Brent and I).  Man, it was really good.  Then again, our family likes meatloaf in general...and so, can there ever be a *bad* meatloaf?

Finally, rounding out this random spew of food-related topics, I woke up this morning earlier than the banging of cupboard doors.  My twelve-year-old son was in the midst of making himself scrambled eggs...and doing it with much aplomb and success.  Then, some thirty minutes later, my ten-year-old daughter proceeded to make scrambled eggs for her little brother, and then a serving of "Taco Eggs" for herself (a sprinkle of taco seasoning added to egg mixture before cooking).  No smoke alarms, no exclamations of "Uh Oh", no discarded burnt eggs in the garbage...

With the exception of the early-morning kitchen racket, I am love, love, loving that my children are comfortable (and able) enough in the kitchen to make themselves an easy, good breakfast without any supervision. 

I think I will pat myself on the back as well...

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Groceries This Week and The Three-Week Challenge!

Now, this is what I'd like my pie charts to look like every week:

Somehow, I just can't get around buying condiments!  That's been a slice in my chart the last several weeks...this week, it was jelly for my kids' lunchtime PB & Js.

The snacks slice is a bit bigger than I'd like, but I took advantage of the 2/$4 deal on graham crackers (got some frozen homemade cream cheese frosting I need to use up - hence, improviso s'mores!).  Also, Ritz crackers to substitute in for the "Lunchables" my daughter wanted to buy for her soccer games on Saturday.

But, fresh produce at nearly a quarter of spending?  Yes, that's awesome.  My cart was laden with watermelon, apples, oranges, and muskmelon.  YUM!  The significantly smaller 'Meat' slice is due to a small purchase of lunchmeat for weekly wraps and sandwiches.

I am pleased with the variety of spending, as well as the low receipt total this week.

Spending This Week: $60.86  -  Total Expenditures: $222.98

Onto to the really fun stuff.  Less than three week remain until our family departs for the great state of Alaska for several days.  I have been issued a challenge by my husband:

"Let's try to eat down as much of our freezer and pantry as we can before then."  Also, he included this corollary: "No restaurants until Alaska."

If you go back through my October archives here, you'll read about our month-long-plus adventures of no-restaurant eating.  It was no problem then, and I anticipate the same now - it's only three weeks, for goodness' sake.

So anyway, Mr. Nelson, the game is afoot.  The challenge is on.

Also, let me briefly, here at the end of things, express my sheer, utter pride at my daughter.  I prepared a carrot cake this afternoon that was a complete EPIC FAIL (double amount of sugar *sigh*).  It was to be our dessert for this evening's meal.   Kirby proceeds to inform me that she can make cupcakes in her Sunbeam cupcake oven for our dessert.  She then does it!  Mostly by herself.  I only had to help work the mixer and fill the muffin cups.  It was glorious!  I love watching her move around the kitchen, knowing where everything is, feeling comfortable in it, etc.  *sigh*

Saturday, May 14, 2011

My Cookbook Inventory

Not that this is terribly surprising, but I am a cookbook collector.  Of course, I've had to exercise enormous restraints when it comes to cookbook purchases, because I am also the antithesis of a packrat...and if I'm not using something, I'm quite likely to give it away or pitch it.

But, I found this little gem at a garage sale today that I could hardly pass up.  It definitely appealed to the kitschy in me.

Pub. Date: 1950
Yes, indeed.  That does read "Creative Cooking for Cottage Cheese".  My husband expressed his amazement to me that such a cookbook could exist.  Fabulous recipes include: Blushing Pink Chip Dip, Cottage Cheese Straws, Up North Salmon Supper, Pinwheel Meat Roll, Spinach Pudding, Frozen Fruit Cheese Salad, Cottage Tuna Mousse, and Peach Snowballs.

I know, right!?  Good thing our family loves cottage cheese - because we'll be trying some of these dandies on the dinner table this summer.

This puts me in mind to inventory all my cookbooks.  And why not do it for you?  I'll take things slow, I promise.

Pub. Date: 1958
Continuing on this nostalgic 1950's-era thread I've seemed to begin, here's another throwback I own.  -------------------------->
Oh yes, the ubiquitous Better Homes and Gardens Special Publications.  

This tome is devoted to salads...not the lettuce-laden concoctions we know today, but recipes that instead include: Cranberry-Tokay Salad, Melon Polka-dot Mold, Fruited Ribbon Loaf, Pineapple in Emerald Wreath, Peppy Beet Salad, Perfection Salad, Cheese-Aspic Peaks...and MANY MORE!

Pub. Date: 1978
Hark, the 1970's!  A time when many, many women were working outside the home, earning their own money, exercising their Constitutional rights, etc, etc.  Too bad the cookbook industry hadn't quite caught up with the Feminist Movement.  To be equal, this next cookbook should have marketed towards American People, as opposed to American Woman.    I suppose it's terribly ironic then, that I rely totally on this cookbook for a really good Creamed Sausage Gravy recipe.  Of particular note is a AWFULLY graphic picture of the Barbecued Short Ribs recipe...I am reminded of a gory horror movie scene.  To this book's credit, most of the recipes are comprised of ingredients I've heard of and happen to have in my stores.  You can't say that about many cookbooks today.

Pub. Date: 1976
To round out the "Kitsch" collection, let's bring things up to modern times.  And no cookbook evokes that nostalgic sense of cutting-edge technology than this little guy right here ------------------->
Why pay scads of money for a trip to Mount Everest or the Australian outback or Delaware when you can have an adventure in your very own kitchen??  That's the angle Montgomery Ward was going for, I guess.  This comprehensive cookbook contains a confusing Table of Contents - in alphabetical order.  That explains why after browsing "Appetizers", "Beverages", "Breads/Sandwiches", "Cereal/Rice/Pasta", and "Cheese and Eggs", I am all of a sudden thrust into "Defrosting and Reheating".

This cookbook is a bit more liberal with the ingredient list (one recipe for "Avocado Voisin" consisting of eighteen items leads me to three questions:  1.) what is a voisin?  and 2.) why are salt and white pepper listed twice? and 3.) what exactly does chef mean when s/he says 'few grains of salt and white pepper'?)  Of particular interest is the "Cheese and Eggs" section - since I'd like to cut back on cereal spending, maybe I'll need to consult this section for breakfast ideas.

And that's all I've got for the Nostalgic Section.  Hope you enjoyed it.

P.S. - This is just a small sample of my library.  Just you wait.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Grocery Update - May 8th

Can't believe I almost forgot this!

This Week's Spending: $93.32.  Total Expenditures: $162.12.

Fareway had an excellent sale on ground beef ($1.99/lb); however, the package came in ten-pound logs.  So, I bought two.  I figured with warm weather around the way, we'd be grilling a lot more.  Hence, burgers.  Twenty pounds of hamburger ran me at about $40...nearly half of my week's expenditures.

Everything else is evenly distributed.  Aberrations include: Propel 6-packs and Little Debbie Chocolate Chip Cakes (both on sale for 2/$5).  Turns out we were in charge of snacks for my son's soccer team this week - so, we went cheap and nutritious (one of those anyway).

Shockers (but not really) include: a bottle of A1 steak sauce (medium size) at $2.49...and that was with a $1 off coupon!  Also, Kraft grated Parmesan cheese - $3.19!  Egad!  I must find alternatives.  I suspect I could probably make my own steak sauce...the cheese may require more thought.

We leave for a ten-day jaunt to Alaska in about three weeks, and so I have been informed by my husband that he would like to clean out as much of the freezer and pantry as possible in the twenty-one days to come.  I welcome this creative culinary challenge!

Note: I will edit this blog later with total and number amounts and other insights - I am currently without my receipts.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Chili Armada

Happy Mother's Day out there to all past, present, and future moms...not to mention those of you with maternal-type inclinations.

Did I leave anybody out?

Today I did a smidge of housework.  I also contemplated doing schoolwork, which I figured could wait until tomorrow.

Instead, I spent the morning in the kitchen (naturellement!) and the afternoon eating food and drinking wine at a Mother's Day brunch held at the local winery.  I probably don't have to detail for you how *that* turned out.  Food, wine, my was like Margarita Garage Sales '09 all over again!

Anyway, more about the kitchen bit.

This week coming up is probably the busiest one of the spring. The hubs and I are in a community theater radio show that is happening on Friday night, so rehearsals all week long.  Then, three kids in soccer means practice on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and game on Friday.  However, this week, I am prepared!  By that, I mean:

1. Four pounds of premade sloppy joes.

2. A ginormous Paula Deen stockpot full of chili (finished up canned mushrooms and black beans - yay!)

3. Usage of the wilting spinach baby leaves in a super-batch of Spinach-Tortellini soup - for lunch this week.

There is absolutely no reason to eat out in a restaurant this week, not with a stockpile of sloppy joes, chili, and hotdogs.  Check out my chili armada...
Yes, with this fleet, I shall battle hunger.  And laziness.

Due the sparsity of red meat in this chili (mostly beans), it is likely we would drink the white table wine with this dish (top bottle), as opposed to the Beaujolais we would enjoy enjoy more with a grilled steak.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Grocery Shopping Calculations...Continued

A new month, a new grocery budget.

I really have no goals or expectations for shopping this one.  Fifty dollars a week is not realistic right now (or at least, that's my take), so I am going for keeping the month's tally under $400.  Fortunately, I was able to do just that (by the skin of my teeth) last month...the only reason being was that I did not grocery shop at all the last week in April - we lived off of what was already in the pantry, freezer, and refridgerator.

Total Expenditure for April's Groceries: $398.25

I should say that I am pledging to keep better track of my records, receipts, checkbook, etc.  Then, perhaps I will have a more acccurate picture of my spending.

Anyhow, onto the next month.

Grocery Expenditures - May 1-8: $67.97   *Here is the graphic:

To be honest, this is what a normal, typical Nelson grocery shopping pie chart should look like.  Fresh produce (fruit and veg), dairy, and meat take up nearly three-quarters of the spending, and that should be par for the course.

I am pleased with the variety this chart shows.  Ketchup was on sale for .99 a bottle, so I won't need that for awhile.  "Beverages" consisted of a two-liter of ginger ale I'll be using for a crockpot recipe later this week.  I also took advantage of 2/$5 sale on boxes of Cheerios.  So yeah, I do feel I shopped "by the sale" and found decent deals.

However, I think my love affair with string cheese is coming to an end.  A 24 oz. package ran me $5.99 ($7.99 before coupon)'s the main reason my dairy slice above is so beefed up.  I won't delude myself anymore about forgoing lunchmeat, but string cheese, it's time to do without.  For awhile.  Perhaps I should check the prices at Costco.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Oh, May! You Make My Day!

May 1st!  It's May!  Yay!

I think I am feeling so darned content today because I was able to spend time puttering in the kitchen.

I made a batch of hummus, pizza dough for tomorrow, pork and pineapple kabobs for the grill, brownies from scratch...

The best part, though, was my ten-year-old daughter Kirby asking (and then proceeding) to make cream cheese frosting for the brownies.

Hummus was a gem I discovered when we lived in Minnesota - sixish years ago.  Since investing in a food processor, whipping up my own now is a breeze (not to mention cheaper).  Chickpeas, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic - all of which I usually have on hand.  I did invest in a jar of tahini a couple of months ago (found at local grocery store), and I'm just now getting to the bottom third of the jar (after five-six batches of hummus).  I prefer hummus to sour cream-based dips - I eat it with carrots, pretzels, and spread it on my lunchtime Flatout wraps.

Pizza dough was quick and effortless in my bread machine; great for a breakfast pizza recipe I came across.  Breakfast for dinner tomorrow!

Then, the I-must-bake-something-itch took hold of me today and I had to scratch it.  A quick flip through an elementary school cookbook turned up an easy recipe for brownies.  The bake time was off, though, by about ten minutes...nevertheless, nice, moist, dense brownies appeared in front of me 30 minutes later.  Now, because I can eat brownies perfectly well without frosting, to me, the bars were done.  However, when my daughter asks if she can look through her cupcake magazine (a gift for her birthday back in March) for a frosting recipe, I sure won't say no.

Turns out we had all the ingredients on hand for a cream cheese recipe - thanks to a coupon and cream cheese sale I'd taken advantage of a couple of weeks ago.  We made three times the frosting we needed for the brownies, so I was super-glad to read on the Internet that I could indeed freeze cream cheese frosting
And this, my readers, was the star on tonight's bill of fare.  What you are looking at is teriyaki pork, pineapple, and green pepper kabobs.  While my daughter was making the frosting, my sons (12 and 6) were responsible for skewering the goods.  They enjoyed this task immensely...I suppose as it involved sharp metal sticks, food in finger-friendly chunk sizes, and the thought of getting to "poke" things.

Now that May is here, kabobs and other such grill-friendly foods can take their righteous place on the dinner table.

Huzzah!  May!