Monday, March 29, 2010

Ways to save money on healthy foods, Part 3

I recently read an article about a group of people who call themselves "preppers." They are dedicated to being prepared for just about anything. I'm not talking about having a few Costco-size cases of toilet paper and soup in the garage...I'm talking about dedicating entire rooms, basements and sheds to stockpiling a year or more's worth of food and other goods in case of emergency, natural disaster, etc.

Based on what I read, I guess I could call myself an anti-prepper. Not because I dislike preppers (although the gun-toting ones scare me a little), but because I've recently made it a goal to keep my refrigerator and my pantry as bare as possible. Why? Because because it keeps me from wasting food, and consequently saves me a lot of money.

I do buy food regularly and my family eats a LOT. But I've made it a point to try and use up what I have before buying more - and I think it's really helped cut costs. Before I adopted the "bare is better" approach, I was constantly discovering food that I'd forgotten about until it had wilted or grown fuzz; or noticing that I had 7 jars of mustard, but no ketchup; or opening a brand new jar of pasta sauce when I had already had a 3/4 full one in the fridge. Out of frustration with my disorganization, and a desire to stretch my food dollars, I decided to get organized. As a result, I no longer waste money on products I already have, or throw away perfectly good food that I would have eaten if only I'd noticed it in time.

Here are some of the steps I've taken to de-clutter my fridge and pantry.

1) Cut down on condiments and/or relocate them.

It's amazing how full a refrigerator can look without having any "real" food in it. For some reason, people have a really hard time parting with something in a jar - even if it's some strange sauce they bought ages ago and didn't like that much. Go through the fridge and take a tough love approach with all those bottles of salad dressing, sauces, and other assorted things. Even better - if you happen to have a second fridge in the garage or basement, move all of your lesser-used condiments to that fridge to free up your main fridge for fresh foods.

2) Take frequent inventory.

Once the fridge and pantry are organized and de-cluttered, it's easy to look in and quickly assess what you have a lot of and what you need more of. And when you can plan meals around the foods you already have in abundance, it means less things you'll need to buy at the store (and consequently less money you'll need to spend). Right now I happen to have a lot of parmesan cheese and eggs. So maybe I'll make some sort of cheesy frittata for brunch over Easter weekend.

3) Use up what you have before you buy more.

Instead of making lots of little trips to the grocery store throughout the week, I've started making one or two really big trips once every 1-2 weeks. Then I try to be as creative as I can with the stuff I bought in order to make it last as long as possible. This sometimes gets frustrating, but most of the time it's kind of fun. It forces me to think outside the box.

One way I've been able to get innovative is by making lots of what I call "blank canvas" foods. These are dishes that can be changed up easily, so you can add in whatever ingredients or leftovers you happen to have on hand. Here are my favorite blank canvas foods:

Pancakes -

Almost anything sweet and/or nutty can be thrown into pancake batter. Smash up some overripe bananas, use up the last bits of applesauce, or toss in too-soft blueberries or crushed nuts. The other day, I even crushed up some stale gingersnaps in a batch of pancakes and they turned out great! Now I'm contemplating using our leftover peanut butter girl scout cookies to make some peanut butter banana pancakes...yum!

Eggs -

Just about any cooked veggie, meat or cheese can be added to eggs and made into frittatas, omelets, scrambled eggs, or breakfast burritos.

Pizza -

Since Sydney can't have cheese, we often make our own pizzas at home using store bought frozen or refrigerated dough. For toppings, I'll chop up leftover meatballs, sausage, veggies, or even deli meats.

Pasta -

Leftover broccoli and sliced up deli meats can be mixed into pasta salad...leftover noodles can be tossed with tuna salad. Or a simple cappellini can be mixed with some steamed shrimp, olive oil, white wine, lemon, salt, and parmesan for an easy dinner that tastes elegant.

4) Plan weekly meals around "families" of ingredients.

For me, one key to saving money has been focusing less on following exact recipes and instead creating my own simplistic (but tasty) meals. The problem with using recipes is that you often end up buying ingredients specific to that recipe, and then only using a portion of those ingredients and wasting the rest. I have bottles of spices in my pantry that probably cost $5 and that I only ever used in one dish.

To avoid this, I try to buy ingredients that go together and then use them in several different dishes throughout the week. For instance: if I buy tomatoes, basil, mozzarella, garlic and onions, I can use those ingredients in homemade pizzas, a caprese salad, bruschetta, pasta, or pasta salad.

If I buy tomatoes, cilantro, onions, garlic, peppers, and shredded cheddar cheese, I can use that in a variety of mexican-themed meals throughout the week.

I still waste food from time to time - it's inevitable. But I've definitely limited my wastefulness quite a bit. Now I rarely throw out food unless it's one of my cooking experiments gone bad, or an overabundance of red beets from one of my bountiful baskets. Being less wasteful feels good on three counts: I get to be creative, I'm saving money, and I'm being "green." I just won't be the one to turn to if disaster strikes...hopefully one of my neighbors is a prepper!

Monday, March 22, 2010

A crock pot success, one disaster

Apparently I take the crock pot mantra "set it and forget it" a little too literally.

Since my mornings are usually bedlam, I really like making crock pot meals in the afternoon, so that they will be done around 8:00 pm, and I can just put them in the fridge for the next day. Well, at least three times in the last two months I have put something in the crock pot in the afternoon and completely forgotten about it until I wake up half-delirious at 2:00 am, smell something cooking, and rush downstairs to find a shriveled mess in my crock pot. My newest mess was my crock pot green beans, which I posted a photo of.

To make crock pot green beans, I trim the ends off of a bunch of fresh green beans and put them in a crock pot, cover with a mixture of chicken broth and water, and throw in one or two ham hocks. Then I set it on low until the green beans reach that super soft texture - kind of like canned green beans. Although I shouldn't, I sometimes throw in some extra salt to taste. I LOVE salt. If you cook them this way for 6-7 hours instead of 14, they turn out really good. I like to make a big giant batch to serve throughout the week as a side dish - my girls love them! Unfortunately, I turned my plump, juicy and flavorful green beans into green bean jerky.

After my latest crock pot misfortune, part of me wanted to just throw in the towel on the whole crock pot endeavor and go out and bury the damn thing in the back yard. But, inspired by a recipe in my newest issue of Food Network magazine, I decided to try, try again. The recipe was for "Beer Braised Chicken" which is basically a stew made up of boneless chicken thighs and potatoes in a yummy broth. It doesn't say to use a crock pot in the recipe, but it screamed "crock pot recipe" when I read it, so I chose to use one. You can find the recipe by clicking here.

As usual, I added/changed some things in the recipe. First, to compensate for my green bean mess from the other night, I added some fresh green beans in with the potatoes. The beer I used was Dos Equis Amber (since that was in our fridge). I just used one bottle of beer, then added a combo of water and chicken broth until the chicken, potatoes, and green beans were covered with liquid. On top of what the recipe called for, I added some extra dijon mustard, salt, and pepper to taste...until it was really yummy and savory. I also used plain old dried thyme from my pantry that's about 10 years old, and completely skipped the onions and the parsley.

I must say, this dish was really, really good. It definitely has that comfort food vibe, and would probably have been even more enjoyable were it a little chilly outside instead of 79 degrees. I love having a meat, carb, and veggie in one dish - it just makes life so much easier.

So, do you think they might consider adding "A crock pot story" to the TLC line-up?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Pepper-seared Asian salmon over napa cabbage

Years ago I found a recipe for "marinated salmon seared in a pepper crust" on the Food Network website. It was amazing the first time I made it, and it continues to be amazing every time I make it. It tastes complicated, but it's really easy. The only catch is that the searing process almost always makes the fire alarm go off. For this reason, whenever I make it I have my husband standing by with a dish towel, ready to start fanning the alarm as soon as the smoke starts billowing out of the pan.

Here is the original recipe...more accurately, it's my interpretation of the original recipe. Actually, I feel quite confident calling this recipe my own because I've made so many alterations to it over the years.


Grind a whole bunch of black pepper onto a plate. If you start to get carpal tunnel, then you can add in some plain old pre-ground black pepper.

In a large sealable plastic bag (or a bowl), combine the following ingredients:

2 tbsp soy sauce
1 garlic clove, minced and mashed to a paste
2 tsp fresh lemon juice
2 tsp sugar
a pinch of grated fresh ginger

(This is about enough marinade for two salmon filets...if you're going to make more, just double it. My best advice is to make more than you think you'll need because it serves as a sauce at the end.)

Place salmon fillets into the bag with the marinade, seal, and marinate in the fridge for 30 minutes. Remove the salmon from the bag, pat dry, and press the pepper onto both sides of each salmon filet until its thoroughly coated. *Keep the marinade!*

In a heavy skillet, heat the oil until it is hot but not smoking. Saute the salmon for a few minutes on each side, or until it flakes with a fork. Put on a plate and drizzle with the leftover marinade.

Now, for the addendum...

In my newest bountiful basket, I opted for the "Asian Pack," which was a bag of ingredients typically used in Asian cooking. I got some snap peas, mushrooms, bok choy, ginger, cilantro, garlic, and a mystery green. After hunting around at the grocery store, I was later able to identify the mystery green as napa cabbage.

Napa cabbage isn't all that strange an ingredient, but I can honestly say I've never cooked with it or purchased it before. But since I had one in my fridge, I thought I would chop it and saute it to serve with my favorite salmon.

So after the salmon was done cooking and removed onto a separate plate, I put some chopped napa cabbage in the saute pan, and tossed it with some of the leftover marinade. I only sauteed it for a minute or so...just until it had a chance to absorb the marinade, but hadn't yet become limp. Then I made a bed of the cabbage on the plate, put the salmon on top, and poured the rest of the marinade over the whole concoction.

It was so good, I am pretty sure I will never make this salmon without the napa cabbage again. To me, it's the perfect sauteed green because it doesn't really wilt - it's more like a warm crispy salad. And it doesn't have that really green, health-foody taste like kale, chard, and spinach have. Trust me - I usually hate sauteed greens, and this was truly delicious!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The best salmon recipe ever

My apologies - I have been slacking on my blogging lately, partly because I've been transitioning from a PC to a Mac, and partly because life has just generally been chaotic. And now I'm going on vacation to Cabo for a few days...yippee!!!

But I've been meaning to post about my favorite salmon recipe...I've eaten a lot of salmon in my life, and this recipe is easy and the best I've ever had by far! I made it the other night and I was licking the plate clean. And I also recently discovered a way to combine it with sauteed greens (my health food nemesis), and it still tastes amazing. So I promise I will post this recipe when I return from vacay...refreshed, full of margaritas, and hopefully inspired by the local Mexican cuisine.