My last money-saving post was about cooking and eating, so I thought I'd share a few of my favorite resources here. I tend to stick to only a few basic books and websites, because I usually find what I need there and/or just can't handle information overload. I used to subscribe to a whole bunch of beautiful food blogs, but found that they weren't practical in terms of actually cooking and eating. Some of them had beautiful photography or wonderful witty writing, but when it came to the recipes, I either didn't like them much or the ingredients were too expensive or hard to find. This (short) list is a few that I have found over time to be reliably inexpensive (at least most of the time) and suit my taste in food:
Budget Bytes - This is my newest addition to the bunch. It is what it says it is - budget conscious eating! I've tried quite a few of the recipes here and found them all to be tasty and not too difficult/time consuming to make. Plus, it gives you a cost breakdown for each one. Your costs may vary, of course, depending on where you live, what substitutions you make and a variety of other factors, but you get a general idea.
Catherine Newman - I've been following her writing/blogging progress for years. I started reading her blog over on Babycenter, back in the days before I was even contemplating having kids of my own. I followed her over here and then on to her own blog. Hers is one that I don't go to solely for recipes, though they are always good and simple and cheap. I love her writing, and always have, so check out not only the food, but the thoughts as well!
smitten kitchen - Do I even need to talk about this one? If you haven't read any posts over at smitten kitchen, just go. Do it right now. (And, um, where have you been?)
Food in Jars - For the canners and preservers among us, this is a nice resource for canning recipes. Yum!
As far as cookbooks go, I tend to stick to a few that have reliable, basic recipes. I use the Joy of Cooking to look up most anything I need to figure out. Usually they have it in there, sometimes they don't. I have several King Arthur flour cookbooks that I use for most of my baking needs. And for canning, I love this Ball book on canning.
That's just a very few of the (probably) millions of resources out there for home cooks, bakers, canners, etc! Do you have a favorite budget-friendly source of recipes? Share it in the comments!
Now this is a post that could go on and on...but I will try to refrain and stick to the basics.
Food is something that is very adjustable for most people. If there's wiggle room in a budget, it tends to be here. It's a necessity, for sure, but there are a million ways to reduce your food costs. I'm going to go over a few of the ways we save money (and don't!) in the food realm.
Please note: I feel like I need to confess that I haven't been doing many of these things since getting pregnant. While I don't feel sick exactly, I still almost never want to deal with food. I have food aversions to, well, nearly everything. *sigh* So lots of these suggestions are best case scenarios right now but I've done them all at one point or another!
We garden. This is not necessarily a money saver, but can be. We have two 4x6 raised beds in our (rented) backyard and over a dozen large pots or buckets on the porch. There is definitely skill, and a lot of luck, involved in making a garden come to life and produce edibles but if you have that skill (and good luck!) then it can make it all worth it. Last year was our first year here and if you factor in the cost of the wood to construct the raised beds, the soil, the seeds, etc. then we certainly didn't come out ahead, financially. But it is an investment. This year, we have virtually none of those costs - the beds are constructed, the soil is in place, we composted over the winter and are still using many of the seeds we bought last year. (We did need to replenish a few and of course I ordered some more because it wouldn't be my garden if I wasn't trying to fit too much into it...) But you never know how things are going to produce - our tomatoes, for example, didn't do well last year. Some of them caught early blight and others just didn't flourish. Luckily, the seedlings were a gift from a farmer friend, so we hadn't wasted any money, only garden space. On the other hand, I bought two tomatillo seedlings for a couple bucks in the spring and by fall we had baskets full of tomatillos. So many! We're still eating salsa verde I canned from those fruits.
We cook. Yes, we cook. Shocking, I know. In a world where there's a drive thru fast food joint on every corner, we make most of our meals at home. We use simple ingredients - beans, rice, pasta, veggies - and are able to keep our food costs down that way. Cooking at home can be super expensive, if you choose to cook filet mignon and out-of-season asparagus at every meal. But it doesn't have to be. And again, there is some skill involved. But with all the food blogs, cooking shows and cookbooks out there, there's really no excuse for not being able to learn. And you really don't need to stick to Kraft mac 'n' cheese and frozen food either.
We bake. I (used to) bake all our own bread products. Every loaf of bread, every tortilla, all the English muffins, any necessary cakes or pies. Recently, we've taken to buying that cheap fluffy wheat bread because I just can't seem to make a good fluffy PB&J-worthy sandwich bread at home and, well, I have a toddler. So there you go. (But that stuff is terrible for any other type of sandwich...blech.) If I have time, I make regular loaf bread - I usually use a recipe from the Joy of Cooking. And if I'm busy, but don't need the bread immediately, I make no-knead bread, which is excellent for hearty ham sandwiches and takes mere minutes to mix up. Yum. I refuse to buy store bought tortillas anymore - homemade ones are so! much! better! Seriously. If you've never had a hot, fresh, homemade tortilla...GO. Make them. Now. I'll wait.
So anyway, now that you've had some tortillas...I also make our own burger buns, for the relatively rare occasion we eat burgers, and have made our own English muffins but don't do it often as the cooking process is a bit time-consuming. Cakes, pies, cupcakes, cookies...those all are homemade too. I admit to having a weakness for boxed brownies though. Ghirardelli...yum. I also have to admit my weakness for toaster waffles. I hadn't had one in years and recently bought some and I love them. Why don't I make our own waffles and freeze them? Well, largely because we don't have a waffle iron and I don't need one more large-ish specialized kitchen gadget taking up space in my house.
We buy in bulk. Sometimes. Buying in bulk can be cheaper. But not if you buy too much of something perishable and end up throwing most of it away before you can eat it. Also, check the unit price - sometimes bulk items are not actually cheaper! For instance, at our local grocery store, organic white rice is $2.99/lb from the bulk bins but when you buy it packaged it's half that. We particularly benefit from buying larger bags of flour (for baking) and, if you ever make bread, don't ever buy those teeny packets of yeast. We buy 1 lb bricks that last most of the year in the refrigerator but even if you can't find those, buy a jar. Trust me on this. The price difference is astronomical.
If you have a co-op in your area, look into joining. Sometimes they can be very beneficial. We briefly joined our local co-op, but found that it actually wasn't cost effective, so we stopped using it. Oftentimes, it will depend on precisely what you buy from them so check it out and see if it could help your budget!
We don't eat a lot of meat. Meat is expensive. We're not vegetarians but our meat intake is low and what meat we do eat is a treat. I'll often get meat when we're out for something special (added bonus - not having to cook it!) or if we do have it at home, we buy larger packages, split it up and freeze it into smaller portions. Where do we get our protein? Lots of other places - dairy, eggs, beans, etc.
We use dry milk when we can. I know...what? Are we in the depression here? Seriously though - I buy a big box of dry milk and store it in an airtight container. When I need milk for baking or cooking, I reconstitute what I need. In situations like that, where taste isn't really the issue, it works just fine. We save our "real" milk for drinking and other occasions where it's needed. (We still go through a ridiculous amount of milk but it cuts down a little!)
We buy generic. Mostly. Through some trial and error, it's pretty easy to figure out what stuff your local grocery store stocks that's just as good (or better!) in a generic version than "name brand." Most of what we buy is generic, unless there isn't a generic option or we've discovered that the generic version is really awful. (Our local store's generic pudding for example - blech.) This comes in particularly handy at Whole Foods - I've found that many of their generic products are really good and often quite inexpensive, less than our regular grocery store often!
We rarely eat cereal. (Um, except while I'm pregnant...) Boxed cereal is expensive and much of it is highly processed and sugared and not necessarily all that good for you. It's easy, this much I admit. (And I actually love cereal. Especially right now in my lazy, food-averse, hungry-at-odd-hours pregnant state. Lately, I've been buying big bags of this all-natural Lucky Charms-type cereal and loving it. I'm embarrassed.) Usually, I make our own granola and instant oatmeal. I've blogged this granola recipe, but the one I find myself defaulting to lately is from this book - there's a honeyed granola in there that I am absolutely loving. And I can't recommend the oatmeal enough - it's super easy to whip up and if you do two batches at once, it saves even more time.
We (sometimes) make our own yogurt. It's really incredibly easy. (Just Google it - I've cobbled together a method from various blog posts and this pamphlet, which I picked up at a general store in rural Texas.) Making yogurt is very inexpensive - all you need is milk and a little bit of starter (yogurt). It sure beats paying big bucks for quarts of yogurt at the grocery store, let alone the little single serving cups.
We can. Can! Canning, again, is one of those things that can (heh) be cost-effective, but isn't necessarily. I generally only can in-season fruits and some vegetables that I can get for relatively cheaply at our local farmers market or from my own garden. For instance, I desperately wanted to make raspberry jam last year but with raspberry prices the way they were, there was no way it would be worth it. (Financially speaking, my tastebuds think it's always worth it.) But I made blackberry jelly instead because we have blackberry bushes in our yard and thus the fruit was free! Check out my little series on canning here.
If you need some recipe ideas, feel free to follow my food board on Pinterest. I intend to pull together a list of my favorite budget-friendly food blogs, recipes and cookbooks in the near future.
So there you have it. There are probably more things that we do that I don't even think about, but these are the ones that my poor addled brain can come up with at the moment! Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments!
Oh, summer. What have I been up to? Clearly not blogging... Mostly because I've been, well, living.
Started off the season with some gorgeous flowers...hyacinths! (Which, if you've been 'round these parts very long, you know are some of my very favorites.)
There were also (and will always be) some whoopie pies. Oh, the deliciousness. My favorites come from the bakery down the street - Borealis Breads. Yum.
There was some music-ing...
And somebody's very first beach trip...
(Well, the first one where she could actually appreciate it, anyway...) Followed by some more beach trips...
And some more... Love that sand!
There were a lot of hot lazy days spent playing with blocks and baby pools.
There was even some sewing! Here, the lovely E is stacking some rings in her beautiful new handmade dress!
And some more sewing... Love that dress pattern!
I gardened. Quite a bit actually. And I had every intention of blogging about my experience, but...well...maybe I'll get around to an end-of-season recap?
We had play dates!
And, of course, I just had to sew a party dress to go to some of those parties...
There was swinging and sliding...
I just had to sew another pair of shoes, before E outgrew the pattern...
There's been a lot of jam and jelly making and other preserving. Like whoa. A lot. Here, vanilla peach oolong. There's also been strawberry lime jam, blackberry jelly, maple strawberry smooch, strawberry lemonade concentrate, salsa verde and more on the agenda...
In addition to all that, I dyed yarn all summer for Picnic at the end of August. My first time vending as a yarnie! (I've done craft shows before, but not with the yarn...)
Finally, at the end of it all, when I was feeling a little stressed out by all that was happening, we went on vacation! A week at the lake, even if part of it is spent with no power or running water (thanks, Irene!) is a wondrous thing.
To top off the vacation, my dear father turned 60. Party! And he got to spend the day with his granddaughter. (Among others...) Possibly my favorite moment this summer.
So I may not have been blogging, or commenting on your blogs, or, honestly, even reading them most of the time, but I'm here. I've been checking in and catching up periodically but I feel like an ass commenting on months-old posts often, so I read, and move on. And live. It's been a good summer for us. I hope the same is true for you!
Finally! Part 3 of my little home canning series. (Part 1, Part 2) In this installment, I'm going to talk about the real nitty gritty of canning - what you actually do in the kitchen with all those jars and pots and lids and food.
When you are planning to do some canning, make sure you use a reliable modern recipe, and don't deviate from it. If you do, you could throw off the acidity of your end product and risk not killing off all those nasty little buggers that'll make you sick. And why modern? Some older recipes aren't considered safe anymore, because of new information on the acidity of tomatoes or other things we've learned since whenever that ancient recipe was written. I have the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving, which I love. There are other books out there as well. Despite the less-than-pleasing design of the site, PickYourOwn.org has a wealth of information on local food and canning.
OK. So now you've got your recipe, and all the ingredients to go into it. So what equipment do you need to get started? As long as you have mason jars with two-piece closures and a pot big enough to cover them with at least an inch of boiling water, you can get started. But the following tools will make your life much easier and keep you from scalding yourself or wanting to pull your hair out during the process.
From left to right:
Also nice to have is an actual canner - basically a really huge pot (really! huge!) with a metal rack inside that allows you to raise and lower all your jars at once. (My apologies for the blurry photo.)
Well. Now you have your recipe, your ingredients and your equipment. The first thing I always do is sterilize my jars. Washing them in the dishwasher is fine. If they get done right before I need them, and they're still hot, I just use them straight from the dishwasher, but if they're finished well in advance I'll put them in the canner with some water and heat it all up. You want the jars to be hot when you fill them with hot food. Even if I'm not putting the jars in, I'll fill the canner with water about 2/3 full (more or less, depending on the size of the jars I'm using that day - you want them to be covered by at least an inch of water when they're all in there) and turn the heat on. That much water can take a long time to get boiling! Also, at this point I put my lids (not the screw bands, just the lids) in a small saucepan with a little water and put them on to simmer. Don't boil them, just a nice little simmer. And remember to use fresh lids! They aren't reusable - once they've done their duty, toss them and get new ones. The sealing compound forms to the shape of the jar and once it's done, it's done.
Now you're ready to actually make whatever it is you're going to preserve! I can't tell you what to do here, that'll depend on your own tastes, what's in season, how much time and energy you have... For these photos, I was making a pecan praline syrup, thanks to a friend's mom who gifted me with several gallons of shelled pecans! (If you need a recipe, any recipe just to get started, I've got a salsa recipe here from the Ball book. Jams are particularly good and easy to start with.) Follow your recipe carefully. Have everything handy and measured out ahead of time if you can - it really helps and you sometimes need to pour in, say, 7 cups of sugar all at once.
Now you've got hot, sterile jars, simmering lids, all your equipment laid out waiting for you and something yummy bubbling on the stove waiting to be ladled into jars. Phew! Now is where organizational skills and time management come in really handy. You need to work fairly quickly, but also carefully. I have a designated counter area where I have a dish towel laid out to protect the jars from any sudden impact with the counter. Around it I place all my utensils that I'm going to need, plus a damp cloth or paper towel. Take the simmering whatever-it-is off the stove and put it there too. (Unless you're lucky enough to have swaths of counter space right next to your stove, then just leave it there, but turn off the heat. I'm not that lucky.) Now grab a hot jar, place it on the towel, put the wide-mouthed funnel in it and ladle in your hot food. (For pickles, you'll put the vegetables in the jar first and ladle in the hot canning liquid. Same idea.) You want to leave the proper amount of headspace in your jar, which is what the ruler is for! It needs to have the right amount air above the food or it may not seal correctly. The measurement is different depending on what you're canning, but your recipe will tell you. It's usually 1/4 - 1/2 inch or so.
Once you have the right amount of food in there, poke that chopstick (or whatever you have) in the jar and run it along the sides, releasing any air bubbles that might have formed. (Don't use metal knives as they may react with your food - I believe it can cause unpleasant tastes or colors, but I could be wrong about that.) If needed, add more hot food to make sure the headspace is correct. Wipe the rim with that handy damp cloth you've got sitting there, poke the magnetic lid lifter into the saucepan of lids, pull one out and center it on your jar. Then screw on the screw band, making sure that it's secure but not too tight. "Fingertip tight" is what they call it.
Now is when it's handy to have an actual canner with a rack. At this point I start putting the jars on the rack as it is propped up on the rim of the pot. Repeat the filling process for all the jars, putting each one on the canner rack as it is done. When all the jars are filled, or the canner rack is full, gently lower it into the boiling water and make sure the jars are covered by at least an inch of water. It may stop boiling at this point, so wait until it starts again before starting your timer. Put the lid on the pot, and process for however long your recipe indicates. (Usually 10-30 minutes for the things I've done so far.)
Now is when I usually look around the kitchen and sigh about what a mess I've made, especially if I was making something sticky and colorful like jam. (But so yummy!) I generally clean up while the jars are processing, because you'll need some clean counter space to put your happy little hot jars when they come out of the canner.
When they've finished processing, your recipe will usually say to remove the lid of the canner, turn off the heat and let them sit for a few minutes. Then, use that jar lifter (love!) to take them out of the pot, keeping them upright the whole time. Resist the urge to tilt them this way and that to shake the water off the tops! Don't worry about it! You don't want to do anything right now to disrupt their sealing. Put them on a dish towel to protect them from bumping the counter and don't knock them into each other either. Make sure it's a draft free place and let them hang out there for about a day. Usually very shortly after you take them out, you'll hear that telltale *pop* of the lid that means they've sealed. But let them sit and cool off and don't fiddle with the screw bands.
The next day, you can unscrew the bands, wipe any water or food residue off the jar and lid and make sure that they've completely sealed. The lids should be concave and you shouldn't be able to remove them if you try just a little. (Obviously, don't try too hard, since they are meant to be opened after all...) I generally replace the screw bands after this, though some people don't. If you find that some of them haven't sealed, refrigerate them immediately and use them first. And, as always, if any of the food seems...wrong...don't eat it! As the old saying goes - when in doubt, throw it out!
I've never had anything not seal properly and never had food go bad in my home-canned jars. I've made pickles, pickled peppers, pickled garlic, jams, fruit butter, applesauce, salsa and more. I can't stress enough the importance of following your recipe to the letter. Get a good canning book - they're so worth it! Good luck and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!
Part 2 in my little primer on home canning. For Part 1, click here.
I should mention that this post will be geared toward "How does it work?" rather than "How do I do it?" That will come next! Probably in a few days, because I'd like to take some stunning (heh) photos to illustrate the process and it'll take me a bit to do that...but never fear! I'll get there!
So! How does it work? Well, you've seen mason jars, right? The kind with the two-piece lid consisting of a flat bit and a screw band? That's the key to home canning. What happens is this: you heat the glass jars, and the food to be canned, whether it's scrumptious strawberry jam or perfect pickles (yeah, I just did the alliteration thing) and put the hot food in the hot jars, leaving the proper amount of space at the top. Then you place the lid on, screw the band on and put them in a hot water bath and process for the stipulated amount of time. (This is turning a little into the "How do I do it?" part, but, really, there will be many more details next time, I promise.) Now comes the fun part. The heating process causes gases and food to expand in the jar, leading to a buildup of pressure. The pressure is relieved by venting out from under the lid, which happens repeatedly throughout the heating process. This creates a vacuum inside the jar which means that when the jar is cool, the pressure outside is greater than the pressure inside, causing the lid to indent and the softened sealing compound to conform to the lip of the jar. This creates an air-tight seal preventing any microorganisms from entering the jar and recontaminating your precious food. And as the books say, heat-processing home-canned food is not optional! Without proper heat-processing, you run the risk of spoilage and health problems (I mean, I love my home-canned peppers as much as the next guy, but I'm not a fan of food poisoning...)
Next time, I'll be getting down to the nitty gritty: how to actually do this canning stuff. I should note that I will only be discussing how to can high acid foods. Low acid foods are a whole 'nother ball game, and one that I can't get into, or at least not until somebody sends me a pressure canner. High acid foods include fruit, jams, jellies, fruit spreads, pickles, relishes, chutneys, and some tomato mixtures. These foods have a pH of 4.6 or lower, which means that they can be safely heat-processed in boiling water. Low acid foods are things like vegetables, meat, fish, poultry and some tomato mixtures (gotta watch out for those tricky tomatoes!) and they need to be brought to a much higher temperature in order to kill off toxin-producing bacteria, like Clostridium botulinum, which causes...you guessed it! Botulism! It thrives on low acid foods in moist environments with no air...just like inside a canning jar.
Over the next few days, I'm going to be writing about canning - why I do it, why it works, the process of doing it, etc. I'm no expert but I like to think I know a thing or two. (It probably won't be consecutive postings, so don't be surprised if you see a bit about knitting pop up in the middle...)
So! Why can? I mean, I can just go down to the local corner store and pick up any number of pre-canned food items, why on earth should I do it myself? There are a multitude of motives to do it yourself. Ask ten people, and you'll probably get ten different reasons. Here are some of mine:
So that covers my personal reasons for canning, what about the technical reasons? Why do you have to can food in the first place? Well, I think we all realize that you can't just stick some food in a jar, put the lid on, and call it good! It will spoil. There are microorganisms everywhere - in the water we drink, in the air we breathe and in the food we eat. Yeasts, bacteria, mold...they are all there, generally in populations that far outnumber us! Left unchecked, they'll cause spoilage. Home canning kills these microorganisms and prevents recontamination by hermetically sealing the container. It also destroys enzymes in the food that cause it to spoil. So how exactly does canning mitigate the threat of those wily yeasts and cunning bacteria? I'll get to that part in my next post!
I'm finally getting around to posting about the recipe I used over the weekend to make some delicious salsa! I knew I wouldn't get a chance on Tuesday because we had a very busy evening. Right after work we had a secret special errand to do (which I'll get to at the end) and then we went to our homebuying class! The class was really interesting and kind of depressing. Basically we came out if it thinking, "Man, we are never going to be able to buy a house!" But I'm sure things will improve. I just know it! Anyway, we didn't get home until really late, at which point I collapsed into bed with no further thought of blogging. Then last night I collapsed on the couch in a similar fashion, after making some yummy pesto risotto from this book, again. Anyway, who can even think about blogging with a tummy full of risotto and kittens sleeping on you? Seriously. I mean, if you could crawl out from under there (especially with a headache, which I had) then you are a stronger person than I, and much more resistant to cute!
So! Here it is, finally. Our salsa came out a little on the bland and too-tomatoey side, but I think that's largely to do with us completely forgetting to measure the tomatoes until it was too late and we'd already dumped them into the pot with everything else. Oops. We didn't think we had enough so we added some more at the last minute, and I think that was probably a mistake. I must add here that when canning it is very important to follow the recipe exactly. (Do as I say, not as I do!) There are reasons for doing things exactly like they say and even if you're not sure what they are, do them anyway. It could make the difference between a winter full of yummy home-preserved goods and a winter full of spoiled jars of inedible food, or worse, botulism. Yay botulism! So! Don't substitute ingredients or change the amounts of things unless you've been canning and preserving for long enough to know what you're doing and know that it's OK. Please! Thank you!
Fresh Vegetable Salsa
from the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving
7 cups fresh tomatoes, chopped, cored and peeled*
2 cups onion, coarsely chopped
1 cup green bell pepper, coarsely chopped
8 jalapeños, diced (remove the seeds if you're a baby about spiceyness)
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 can tomato paste (5.5 oz.)
3/4 cup white vinegar
1/2 cup loosely packed finely chopped cilantro
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
In a large stainless steel saucepan, combine all the ingredients. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly. Reduce heat and boil gently, stirring frequently, until thickened, about 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare canner, jars and lids. (I'm going to write a post about how to do that in the very near future. I promise. It's just a little more than I can get into here at work...shhh...)
Ladle hot salsa into hot jars, leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Remove air bubbles and adjust headspace, if necessary, by adding hot salsa. Wipe rim. Center lid on jar. Screw band down until resistance is met, then increase to fingertip-tight.
Place jars in canner, ensuring they are completely covered with water. Bring to a boil and process for 20 minutes. Remove canner lid. Wait 5 minutes, then remove jars, cool and store.
Makes about 10 8-ounce or 5 pint jars.
*To easily peel the tomatoes, dip them in boiling water for about 30 seconds then remove with a slotted spoon and immediately plunge into a bowl of ice water. The skins should slip off easily after that.
So that's what it looks like when it's done! Not bad! I'd love to try another recipe, maybe one with fruit in it - anyone have a favorite?
And, in case you didn't notice the pretty ring on my finger, or just didn't think anything of it - we're getting married! That was our secret special errand that we had to do after work on Tuesday - pick up a big hunk of sparkly, ooh yeah! It's really gorgeous and I love it! And the boy who gave it to me! Wheeee!