Stacking Functions Garden


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The Grocery Budget, 2013 edition

It’s become an annual tradition for me to review our grocery budget around New Year’s. At first, it was about gauging whether our garden was really saving us money. What I’ve come to realize is that our gardens (especially our fruits) allow us to eat really grandly (and healthfully), on a budget. It’s all a matter of perspective of what you want to put in your body and how much effort you’re willing to make, in the kitchen and the garden.

Anyway! There’s a major difference about our 2012 grocery budget. One year ago, we started using mint.com to track all of our expenses. IT ROCKS. Pulling the stats for this post took approximately 45 seconds:

Food budget on mint.com

There you have it, a simple pie chart showing that groceries are, far and away, where our food-related spending happens. When I first started looking at the stats, it looked like we had spent about $300 more in 2012 than 2011. But on closer inspection, I realized that if I just looked at Seward co-op, where we get almost all our groceries, we actually spent a tiny bit ($100) less. The other $400 or so was from other grocery stores around the states of MN and South Dakota, where we traveled in 2012.

I think it’s safe to say that, more or less, we held the line on grocery spending for 2013. Mint was a big part of making that possible—it tracks your spending automatically, and you can sign up for text messages when you exceed any of your set budgets in any given month.

My only criticism of Mint is that neither my credit union nor my 401(k) provider hook up well with it, eliminating some of the convenience factor. But for the most part, I like it. It’s helped us set up our monthly budget and now we’re using it to help achieve some financial goals (made possible by the kids being in full-day Kindergarten instead of daycare).

I should note: we spend a MUCH greater percentage of our income on groceries than average Americans. It’s a conscious decision and I have no regrets about it—on the contrary I feel lucky to have the option.

ramen

Enough about budgets, let’s talk about food. Adam’s been watching The Mind of a Chef on PBS, and the kids and I have been reaping the benefits, including this homemade ramen. He didn’t use a recipe, but based it loosely on David Chang’s descriptions of authentic Japanese ramen. It involved cooking pork and chicken bones, and some oxtail for good measure, for 24 hours, along with some onions and other random veggie trimmings. He removed the bones, then boiled it on the stove to reduce it by half, and also cooked some kombu in there for a while. We poured the finished stock over cooked Japanese noodles, and enjoyed it. Immensely.


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Recipe: chicken wild rice soup in a crock pot

Chicken Wild Rice Soup

This recipe makes a lot of soup. I use a 5 quart crock pot (a no-frills oval-shaped one we received for a wedding present 12 years ago). Adjust accordingly if your pot is smaller:

Crock pot chicken and wild rice soup
4 chicken thighs
1 onion, chopped
6 carrots
1 1/2 c. wild rice
1 tsp each of dried oregano, basil, parsley
1 pint heavy cream
salt and pepper to taste

Early in the morning, place the chicken and onion in the bottom of the crock pot. Fill with filtered water, leaving an inch or two at the top. Add a splash of vinegar. Set the crock pot on low or “auto” and leave it for 8-10 hours.

When you get home from work, pull out the chicken and set it on a plate to cool for a bit. Add peeled, sliced carrots, wild rice, and spices. Remove the meat from the bones and return it to the pot. Cover it and let it cook another 60-90 minutes or until the wild rice is done. The wild rice could be parboiled or soaked ahead of time to shorten this second cook time substantially.

When the wild rice splits open, turn off the crock pot. Stir in salt and pepper to taste, then stir in the pint of cream. If you use a 5 quart crock pot, this recipe makes A LOT—a good 10-12 servings. I always make big soup recipes, freeze the leftovers in pint jars, and take them to work for lunch. I know you’re technically not supposed to freeze cream soups, but I thought this one was still great after being frozen.

This soup is very simple. But as one of my favorite cookbook authors says, 90% of good cooking is good shopping (or good gardening). I used meaty free-range chicken thighs, Minnesota wild rice, herbs from my own garden, and the best cream a person can buy in the Twin Cities. Quality makes a HUGE difference. You don’t have to choose recipes with 15 hard-to-find harder-to-pronounce ingredients to serve up a satisfying, nutritious, spectacular meal. This soup really brought that concept home for us.

My initial interest in grass-based dairy and meat grew from reading how much more nutritious they are (3.5MB PDF). Now I’m completely hooked on the taste as well. Homemade soup in a jar—your hipster co-workers will be impressed/jealous.


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Making bulk section shopping easier

I’ve posted about my undying love for Seward Co-op’s bulk section before, but there’s one aspect of bulk section-shopping that can get a bit tiresome: weighing the jar, writing down the PLU, etc. for each item on my list takes time. Time where my cart is blocking the aisle and my anxiety level goes up with each person who has to steer around me.

A while back, I realized that our 3 types of canning jars all pretty much weigh the same, regardless of the brand:

narrow mouth quart jars= .9 lb
wide mouth quart jars= 1 lb
wide mouth pint jars= .65 lb

Armed with this knowledge, I set out to make some more permanent labels for the tops of my lids.  First I looked through our box-o-lids and found a bunch with old PLU stickers still affixed.  Then I downloaded some jar lid templates (wide mouth and narrow mouth).

I imported the templates into Adobe Illustrator, added the names, PLUs, and weights of many of the things we buy regularly, printed onto magnet sheets, and cut out the circles.  Next I found a little-used area of the refrigerator to store the labels:

I also made some blanks because I know I forgot several things.  But this should make our weekly bulk-department stop a bit more pleasant.  I made a small and large version for each of the things we buy often — that way it doesn’t matter if we only have one type of jar clean when we’re getting ready to go get groceries.  I’m ridiculously excited about this little project. It was easy and fun.


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Yogurt: oven method

When I started making yogurt 3 years ago, I had a hard time finding information and recipes.  Now the internets are practically exploding with yogurt methods — crock pot, oven, yogurt maker, heating pad, back seat of your car, you name it. Yes, there is even heirloom yogurt now. (Thanks, Christina!)

Anyway, as my kids kept getting bigger I started having to make yogurt with my little yogurt maker twice a week. I have limited time, so I put the yogurt maker away for a while. Here’s how we’re doing it, three years later:

Start with a 1/2 gallon of the best whole milk you can get your hands on. Heat it to just around the boiling point, or 180 degrees F. Remove from heat, plunge into a sink full of cold water, and bring the temperature back down to 110-115 degrees F.

Stir in a cup or so of yogurt from your last batch. Whisk.

My oven has a setting called “proofing” — for people who have time to bake bread (some day I’ll get back into it, sniff) — it holds the oven at around 100-110 degrees.  Perfect. I bake my yogurt overnight usually, around 8-9 hours. Simple, and it makes quite a bit — usually around 80 ounces.  Still no plastic to recycle (though now the city of Minneapolis does take yogurt containers).

A little chunky for ya? That’s what happens when you use non-homogenized milk. Doesn’t bother me, honestly. A solid week’s worth of full fat yogurt from grass-fed cows who live less than an hour away (and who I’ve actually met) for only about $5. Cool!


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Happy New Year (budgeting time)

Happy 2012 everyone! I’ve just completed my yearly review of grocery expenses (2009 and 2010 editions), and you’ll probably be shocked (shocked!) to know that I did not stick to my resolution to hold the line on the amount of money we spent on groceries. We spent about $500 more in 2011 than 2010. But rather than promise to do better next time, I’m just going to say “OH WELL” and dish up some more foie gras.

Just kidding! We did enjoy an amazingly good soup this week, made out of more humble but delicious ingredients:

Christmas Lima Bean StewChristmas Lima Bean Stew recipe, which I followed verbatim from 101 Cookbooks. She’s right: don’t skip the toppings.

If there’s no financial apocalypse (I am skeptical at best), our finances should improve quite a bit when our kids go to Kindergarten in the fall and our daycare expenses evaporate (or at least go down substantially). So to prepare for that joyous (or scary) day and budget for groceries AND everything else, I’ve decided to start a Mint.com account. Will let you know how that goes…

My only other real resolution for this year is to bike even more — specifically to make at least half of all my grocery store trips by bike — this means I’ll have to bike more than half the time during the summer months to make up for the winter.  We have a cargo bike; time to use it for something besides hauling kids! If this winter continues as it has been, I’ll be able to start this week.

What about you? Any resolutions?


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Recipe: cheese popcorn

About a year ago, I was getting popcorn in the bulk section at Seward Co-op when an earnest young man with dreadlocks and carrying a sweet, sleepy baby in a front pack approached me. He said “I see you make your popcorn on the stovetop.”

“Yes?”

He launched into ten full minutes of extolling the virtues, wonders and sheer ecstasy of sprinkling your popcorn with nutritional yeast.  How could I not try it after a sales pitch like that?

I was dubious that night when I broke it out of the fridge for a trial run. It looks, and even kinda smells, like fish food. But we popped up some popcorn, tossed it with melted butter, salt, pepper, and a solid 1/4 c. of nutritional yeast.

You can guess the end of this story. One time and we were hooked.  HOOKED, I tell you.  The taste is reminiscent of the Old Dutch cheese popcorn we all knew and loved. But instead of being kinda horrible for you, this version actually has some benefits. Nutritional yeast is listed here as a superfood: it’s full of B vitamins, and a complete protein. Many vegetarians/vegans swear by it.

New Dutch cheese popcorn

2 T. sunflower or walnut oil
1/2 c. popcorn
2-3 T. good quality butter
1/4-1/3 c. nutritional yeast
salt & pepper to taste

Pop the popcorn in the oil in a heavy pot on the stove (full instructions).  Toss with butter, yeast, salt & pepper while still very hot. You’ll be a convert, too.

Nutritional yeast is available in the refrigerated bulk section of most natural food stores.

 


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Rendering duck fat

I always make a point of looking in the frozen meat section at Seward Co-op because it usually has a nice traditional foods-minded surprise or two.  I’ve found various different kinds of liver, chicken feet, homemade fish and chicken stock, and lard there.  Today: two packages of duck fat!  I took the smaller of the two, not knowing what to expect.

A little research revealed that duck fat, like lard, must be rendered.  It did take a couple hours, mostly unattended.  Also, it didn’t have nearly the strong smell that the pork lard had. The kitchen just smelled vaguely chickeny.

I used this method:

1. Place cut-up pieces of duck fat in water.  About 2 c. water for 1 pound of duck fat. I probably could have gotten by with slightly less water.

2. Bring to a simmer and cook over low heat until all the water boils off and the cracklings start to get browned.

3. Drain through cheesecloth into half-pint jars. I’m not sure how long this will keep in the refrigerator, but I’d guess 4-6 weeks at the most. Hence the tiny containers. Extra containers can go in the freezer.

Yield: 1.5 half-pints of duck fat (or, nearly 1 pint).  We used it to fry some potatoes and patty-pan squash for supper, and they turned out great.  The ever-so-slight chicken flavor was only detectable in some bites, and it was not unpleasant at all. This experiment went much better than my lard one!

Apparently, duck fat is a very gourmet, very French thing to use in cooking (even Jamie Oliver recommends it). Traditionally in Germany they also made schmaltz with duck or goose fat — a butter replacement that they spread on bread, apparently. I’m reading a book about traditional German cooking right now which may lead to both the roasting of a goose and the making of some schmaltz. (I already make sauer kraut on the regular basis so I’ve got that covered.) The schmaltz recipe in the book calls for an apple and an onion to be cooked with the fat and discarded with the cracklings.

Our supper tonight: potatoes and patty-pan squash cooked in duck fat with thyme and orange zest, plain couscous, and a massaged kale salad.  A yummy way to celebrate the start of Daylight Savings Time.


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The Grocery Budget, 2010

(Final harvest, October 2010)

I’ve just completed my yearly review of our grocery budget.  Despite my big goal of reducing our grocery expenses in 2010, we actually increased how much we spent.  #sadtrombone

To review:
Total grocery expenditure, 2008: $7,661
Total grocery expenditure, 2009: $7,609
Average for both years: around $640 a month

Now for 2010:
Total grocery expenditure, including CSA: $8,273
Monthly average: around $665

Yikes, that’s $25 more per month!  How did this happen?  A few reasons off the top of my head:

  • We switched to butter from grass-based cows. Sometimes I make it myself, sometimes I buy PastureLand butter.  Either way, it’s both expensive and tasty. And packed with vitamins of course.
  • We bought our meat mostly in the form of meat bundles from the co-op.  You get nicer cuts of meat, like steaks, roasts, etc., for a lower per-pound price.  When we buy meat off the shelf we tend to just get the cheapest cut we can find.  Nobody needs that many drummies.
  • Started buying more non-food items, like soap and toothpaste, at the co-op.  This is partly to avoid going to Target, and also partly to try and support local merchants.  So, I should really run our Target numbers because we probably reduced our monthly Target bill by at least $25.  There.  I feel better already.

SO instead of being unrealistic about 2011, how about this: I will just try to hold the line and not increase again this year.  The only major difference coming up this year is that we are discontinuing our CSA.  I was disappointed in the amount of produce we received in our weekly box.  I also have plans for some major garden expansion this year, so we might be able to grow enough of our own to have plenty to eat and still put some by for next winter.

Here are my grocery budget posts from last year: Part 1 | Part 2


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Using the whole animal

I was a vegetarian for several years.  I vowed, when I became a meat-eater again, that I would at least make an effort to use the whole animal.  So now I’m taking it to the next level: I bought some chicken feet at the co-op last week.  Why?  Mainly because they add a rich natural source of gelatin to my homemade soups and stocks, and we’ve been going crazy with soup around here lately.  Gelatin helps your body absorb the minerals in the stock.

Considering most commercial stocks and flavorings have MSG in them, now’s a great time to consider making your own.  It’s really quite easy.  And if you decide you want to add chicken feet, you can get them for VERY cheap.  Just sayin’.


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BPA and canned tomatoes

Sorry for the light posting schedule lately; as it turns out, having two full-time working adults in a family really cuts into blogging time.  ANYWAY.

I posted in August about our crazy weekend of canning tomatoes.  Because we buy organic tomatoes, and because our CSA delivers them right to our door, we save very little money canning our own tomatoes vs. buying canned tomatoes at the store. So why go through the effort?  One reason: BPA.

Bisphenol-A, which many different plastic products contain, has been shown to have some worrisome side effects, especially on fetuses and children, because it mimics the hormone estrogen.  Canada was recently the first country to declare it toxic.  (Has Canada ever considering annexing Minnesota?  I’d be all for it.)

The United States’ own FDA is also concerned, but I am skeptical that they will ever do anything beyond encouraging industries to try and find a replacement.  (They prefer to merely ask them, really, really nicely.)

The big brouhaha a couple years back with BPA was its use in infant bottles and linings of infant formula cans — many of those brands now offer BPA-free alternatives.  But what many people didn’t realize was just how prevalent this stuff is — nearly any can of food that you buy in the grocery store is lined with BPA.  Even store receipts are printed on BPA-coated paper!

Some applications of BPA are probably worse than others.  Canned tomatoes are very acidic.  Canned garbanzo beans, not so much.  Yet, right now none of the organic canned tomatoes for sale at my co-op are in BPA-free cans.  The only glass-jarred tomato products are the strained tomatoes and tomato paste from Bionaturae.  (And those travel all the way from Italy, good grief.)

Here’s another thing to consider: even home-canning is not perfect, because the lids of canning jars are also coated with BPA.  But I’m taking a “less harm” approach here — the tomatoes, as they sit on my shelf for the next few months, are not in contact with the lid at all.  So it’s not perfect, but still better.  Right?  I hope so, because that was a lot of work.

Update, Nov. 8, 2010: Here’s yet another article that I came across this morning.  Basically, a consumer group found unacceptable BPA levels in a bunch of different foods.  Two things to note: this article is one year old.  The U.S. is still only requiring “voluntary” efforts from the food industry.

Update II, Nov. 30, 2010: Now a new study looks at BPA’s effect on adult immune systems. The study also looked at triclosan’s correlation with allergies in children.  Triclosan is another common chemical found in all sorts of things (such as anti-microbial soaps).

Update III, April 4, 2011: Yet another study. This one measured BPA in people’s urine; after only three days of switching to a diet of freshly-prepared organic food, they dropped 66% on average!

The cooks were instructed to avoid contact with plastic utensils, and nonstick cookware and foods had to be stored in glass containers with BPA-free plastic lids. Researchers even told food preparers not to overfill the containers so the food wouldn’t touch the plastic lid.

Microwaving in plastic was out; so was using coffee makers with plastic parts. Coffee drinkers got their morning coffee from French presses or ceramic drip models.

I switched to French Press quite some time ago, but didn’t even think about the plastic implications. I did it for the taste, naturally.  Anyway, check out this study, the most convincing one yet, in my opinion.