Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Soup's Best Friend: The Popover

It snowed here yesterday - and not just a little. At the height of the storm (before it began to melt), we had a good couple inches of the white stuff. Now I'm not one of those cold weather and winter haters, but I'm not sure I'm ready for all the ice and snow just yet. However, with the colder temperatures comes two welcome additions: soup and popovers.

Once spring hits, all my soup recipes go into storage. Then, when the air turns crisp in the fall, my menu expands instantly when I pull them out again. I love cooking hot dinners when it's cold outside. So comforting, so satisfying - and so cheap. But there will be plenty of time to share all those soup recipes - what I really want to write about is one of my favorite soup accompaniments: the delicious popover. And did I mention that they're ridiculously easy and affordable to make?

I came across this recipe in my favorite, now-defunct magazine, Wondertime (stupid recession - even though it's been months since the last issue, I'm still bummed that it got shut down). I'd never had a popover before, but they looked yummy and the recipe looked simple, so I tried it out. What I love about this recipe is the ingredients are so basic - just a few kitchen staples. Milk, eggs, flour, salt, butter. That's it. My husband I were hooked from the first time I made them. In fact, we skipped the soup and just had popovers for dinner last night. Anyway, here's the recipe:

You'll need:

2 eggs at room temperature
1 cup milk at room temperature
3/4 cup flour at room temperature (couldn't resist - I'm such a nerd.)
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt (use half the amount if you're using table salt)
3 tablespoons butter

Heat oven to 450 degrees. Mix together eggs, milk, flour, and salt (lumpy batter is fine). Cut the butter into 12 pieces and put a piece in a each cup of a 12-cup muffin tin. Put the tin in the oven and let the butter melt for a couple minutes. Take the pan out and fill each cup about halfway with batter. Bake the popovers until they're brown and puffy, about 15 minutes. Only open the oven to take them out - if you open and check on them, the popovers will deflate.
Serve immediately.

Don't fight the cold weather that's coming. Celebrate it with a popover (or four). Make them this Saturday, along with a big pot of soup, for your little ghosts and goblins before they go trick-or-treating. gotta love the simple (and inexpensive) joys of the season.

Monday, October 26, 2009

No Cover-Up Here

This past Saturday, my husband and I threw our annual family Halloween party. We had a lot of fun planning it, putting it together, and then actually hosting it. We played games, ate lots of food, socialized, and, of course, admired everyone's costumes. I think that might be my favorite part of the whole thing - dressing up and seeing what everyone else thinks of. This year, my husband I used Big Trouble in Little China as our inspiration - which leads to the subject of this post.

My husband dressed up as Kurt Russell's character, Jack Burton, while I dressed up as Kim Catrall when she's in geisha get-up at the end. Anyway, as part of my costume, I needed my face to be painted white, with pink makeup all around my eyes. As I was getting everything together, I suddenly remembered a children's cookbook I have that has a homemade face paint recipe in it. I decided to try it - it would cost less and I could post it on my frugal blog! Plus, it seemed like it would be more skin-friendly since it used cold cream.

I got my ingredients together. I had everything except the cold cream - I had to buy that at the store. It cost about five dollars for a six-ounce bottle. I thought, "That's kind of expensive, but you don't need much of it. If you buy halloween make-up, you only get a little bit for the same price. This is going to pay for itself..."

The recipe calls for 1/2 cup of cornstarch and 1/4 cup of cold cream. You mix them together until well blended.

Then you mix it with a 1/4 cup of water. That's your face paint base. From there, you separate it into other containers and add food coloring. I spread the white paint on my cheek to test it out. It was moist, but it spread well. I was patting myself on the back - I'd just saved myself a bunch of money in the future. I was going to make our Halloween face paint like this every year, I decided.

I packed it, like the recipe said, into air-tight zipper bags. I was a little concerned that the paint on my face hadn't really dried, but I wiped it off and got back to working on the party.

A few hours later, when it was time to get ready, I got my face paint out. I put it on. It didn't work at all like I'd hoped. It was wet and gooey looking. I tried to powder it with cornstarch. That didn't work either. I should have posted a picture of myself on here. I looked completely ridiculous. It was as if I'd put a bunch of heavy lotion on my face and then smeared a handful of flour on it. Not only did my face look horrible, but my bathroom sink was coated too. Finally, I just had to wipe it all off and improvise with some pink eyeshadow mixed with water and using a make-up brush dusted with cornstarch as a powder. In the end, my make-up looked just right for my costume. But, I wasted money in the process. Live and learn.

Two lessons learned here: one, this recipe was a bust for Halloween. Maybe it's just meant for kids who want to play and paint their faces for fun. It comes right off and it doesn't dry. Lesson two: don't wait until the last minute to experiment with some new recipe. True on so many levels...

But wait! Here's something useful (*sniff* I was so sure mine would be...) for your Halloween preparations this week - a link to bunch of Halloween ideas on Parent Hacks. I'm pretty sure these have all been tested successfully.

One other note: Check out the poll on the sidebar. I thought it would be interesting to get your opinion on some of the frugal ideas and suggestions I've read and come across. Sometimes, I wonder if I'm the only one that thinks these ideas are waaaay out there. Other times, I wonder if I'm not being open-minded enough. Anyway, I voted that I'm on the fence on the washing and reusing zipper bag thing. I'd consider reusing them if they were only barely used and used for something dry (like bread or cookies). And even then, I may just get too lazy to wash it out. However, some people swear by running them through the dishwasher (I even read about someone running a bunch through their washing machine) and some even wash and reuse aluminum foil. Different strokes for different folks, I guess...

Friday, October 23, 2009

When Life Gives You Bruised, Slightly Wormy Apples....

...make applesauce.

Last month, I bought a big bushel of beautiful Honeycrisp apples. They were snappy, crisp, and sweet (with just the right amount of tartness). The apples pictured here are the ugly ducklings of the apple family. With the beautiful Honeycrisp apples, I made several quarts of apple pie filling and, by the time I was done, ran out of enough to make applesauce. I was a little bummed, but not enough to go and buy another box of them.

Then, this past week, as I was at my parents' house (remember the quarantine of my husband?), we were raking leaves and I noticed that one of the next-door neighbors' apple trees was still laden with fruit. I pointed this out to my mom and she commented, "Oh yeah. She said that she was done with all her canning and wasn't going to be able to use the rest. She said that I could pick any if I wanted." Well, of course, I jumped at the idea. The neighbor wasn't going to use them, Mom wasn't going to use them. What a waste! So I got a box and went to pick.

Mom warned me that the neighbors hadn't sprayed them and that they might have tiny little worm holes or bruises. Sure enough, most of the apples did. Some were eaten completely through. Others were barely touched, with only a little round circle on the skin, as if the bug just took a nibble and moved on. So I selectively picked. In The Tightwad Gazette, the author mentions a concept called "selective squeamishness", where you move past the initial 'ick!' reaction and realize that it's not so bad after all. Like black bananas.

After I picked the apples, I went inside and cut on the opposite side of the bug bite. Sure enough, the untouched half was perfectly fine. My parents' neighbor does the same thing with these apples - she uses them almost exclusively for applesauce. Like I said, move past the initial 'ick' and you realize that they're really okay. To me, these apples are a little dinged and bitten, but since they're not sprayed, technically, they're organically grown. Organic apples are expensive; I got mine for free.

Okay, so onto the process...

There are various mills and sieves which you can use to make applesauce. I've used the kind where push it by hand through a sieve and it took F O R E V E R. Applesauce is great and all, but hours of pushing soft apples through a sieve is hardly worth it. I suggest getting one like mine. It does cost more than the other kinds, but it pays for itself after a couple of seasons (depending on how you make, of course). Plus, you can use this food mill for other things, like tomato sauce and baby food.

So, if you have a handy-dandy food mill like I do, there's really not too much work. You don't even need to peel the apples. Simply quarter them (cutting around the questionable parts, of course) and put them in a pot of hot water to simmer. Cook the apples for a while - make sure they're really tender before you try to put them through the mill. I tried to run it through the mill too soon and it just made my arm tired. They need to be really soft.

Load the hot apples into the top of the mill. Don't force them down, just guide them.

Turn the crank and the apples feed through a strainer/screen, giving you the applesauce consistency. I don't have any idea how it does it, but somehow it magically separates the fruit's flesh from the skin and sends the unwanted stuff out the side (see that clear plastic thing on the far left). One note: once you've put all your apples through the mill, run the 'unwanted' stuff through the mill again. You'll be surprised how much more you'll get.

Once you've run it through the mill, put it back into a pot and heat over the stove until it boils. With applesauce, there's no specific recipe. You can simply add sugar to taste (or exclude it completely like I do) and season it with cinnamon. I always put a lot of cinnamon in mine. Once it is boiling, ladle the applesauce into hot jars. Adjust lids and bands. Process in water-bath or steam canner for 20 minutes (adjust your time according to your altitude - I had to add an additional 10 minutes to my processing time).

And there you have it! These apples would have just ended up on the ground, in the compost, or in the garbage and gone to waste. Instead, I got a delicious batch of organic applesauce (I tried it - yummy!). And you just can't beat the price...

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Nature to the Rescue!

So it actually was the dreaded H1N1 (aka swine flu) that my husband had. We tracked it back to a couple guys in his office at work. Though my son and I were away in the mountains at my parents' house, I could still tell via telephone how completely miserable he was. I'm happy to report, though, that he is back at work today, feeling like himself again.

As he was battling the yucky virus, he turned to a variety of sources for relief. A little honey here, a little NyQuil there; some herbal tea here, some Mucinex there. Living in the 21st Century offers thousands of possibilities when it comes to our health. We can turn to some of the modern medicinal miracles, but we can also use some of the natural, time-tested remedies of our grandparents.

For reasons both personal and frugal, I like to turn to the natural remedies first. In so many aspects of my life, I think the more down-to-earth, the better. Don't get me wrong, though - I'll turn to modern medicines, vaccines, cures, and doctors' advice (of course, after a little research and thought on my own) also. But, sometimes, we are so eager for a quick fix in a bottle, we overlook many simple ways to soothe and nurture our bodies. Plus, these natural remedies cost so much less (hence the mention on this blog). Here are a few ideas and tips that I've learned over the years...

  • Salt water is a great first line of defense. Whenever my throat starts to feel scratchy or sore, I gargle some warm, salty water. I remember as a kid I got strep throat a lot and one time, the doctor suggested gargling salt water twice a day for a while. It really made a difference. During this cold and flu season, I plan on gargling salt water at least once a day. From what I've read, this stops the proliferation of certain bugs in your throat. Start with a cup of warm water, add a spoonful or so of salt, and mix. Gargle and spit. Like I said, it worked for me.
  • Another way salt water can help with illness and contribute to overall wellness is the use of a neti pot (it's the teapot thing in the picture above). Basically, you mix a saline solution (I do 1/4 teaspoon to about 3/4 cup of lukewarm water), stick the spout up one of your nostrils, and, if you tilt your head correctly, the water will come out the other nostril, thus cleaning your nasal passages. It sounds awful, but it doesn't hurt and it things out. It has helped me a lot with sinus inflammation and allergies. I've also used it when I've had a cold and it helps get all that gunk out of my nose. I definitely recommend it. If you're curious, there's a bunch of videos on YouTube that show how it works (people will put just about anything on YouTube). If you're still put off by the idea of sending water up your nose, I read recently that you can also use a cotton swab dipped in salt water and clean your nasal passage that way.
  • I always have an aloe vera plant somewhere in my house - preferably the kitchen. Whenever I get a burn (it's usually me that's getting burned in the kitchen), I break off the tip of one of the large leaves and squeeze the goo out of it right onto the burn. You can buy burn creams and spray with aloe in it, but why not save the money and get the actual plant? It looks cool and you're growing first aid!
  • This sounds totally weird, but the best thing for mosquito bites is deodorant. There's something about the aluminum in it that neutralizes the reaction. Whenever I get a mosquito bite, I go to the bathroom, grab some deodorant, give the bite a few swipes, and it's practically gone in minutes.
  • Speaking of insect bites and such, baking soda is also a great remedy (ahhhh, baking soda. What can't it do?). Put a paste of baking soda and water on bug bites and bee stings. Apparently, the alkaline baking soda helps to counteract the acidic swelling (according the article I read). I used this when I got stung by a wasp a few months ago and it really did help.
  • Look into different herbal teas. When I was suffering from a lot of sinus and ear inflammation a few months ago, a cup of peppermint tea did wonders for clearing my head. Chamomile is supposed to help with gastrointestinal problems and migraines. I even read once in Parents magazine that you can give a couple ounces of chamomile tea (at room temperature, of course) to a colicky baby. Raspberry leaf tea is supposed to help to put this...feminine issues. A ginger tea (you can make your own by adding a teaspoon of shredded ginger to four ounces of boiling water) can help with nausea. Herbal teas can be found at any grocery store and they're fairly inexpensive. Plus, sometimes just drinking a hot cup of herbal tea settles my nerves and helps me relax. Double benefit!
  • When my son had a double ear infection a couple years ago, we did a round of antibiotics and when he went back to the pediatrician, only one of his ears had shown sign of improvement. The doctor advised giving it a few days and if it wasn't better by then, he would give him a shot of another antibiotic. It was so hard to see my little guy suffer so and when I complained about it to my friend, she suggested putting garlic oil in his ears. She said that it worked wonders for her children. Desperate for any kind of relief for my son, I tried it. I bought a bottle of garlic oil made especially as ear drops (mixed with olive oil and lobelia) at the natural and health food store. I used the drops for a few days and when I took my son back to the doctor, he said his ears were completely better. Ever since, whenever I see him tugging at his ears or if he gets a cold, I put a few drops in each ear just in case. He hasn't had an ear infection since (knock on wood). I've also used them on myself when my ears feel stuffy. Not only does it clear it up, but it's a natural pain reliever.
  • The thing my husband said was the worst about H1N1 was the super-sore throat and frequent coughing. The thing that gave him relief was honey and lemon juice. According to an article I read, lemon dries up congestion and honey coats the throat. I've even heard that some studies show that a spoonful of honey worked better than cough medicine for kids' coughs (it's important to remember, though, to never give honey to a child under one-year-old). Anyway, I just got a mug of warm water and mixed it with a tablespoon of lemon juice and tablespoon of honey. He said it worked wonders.
There's so many other remedies out there - some may be outdated or ridiculous, but others have withstood the test of time for a reason. Remember - before you try natural remedy, do some research. Mother Nature has a lot to offer - maybe we should pay a little more attention.

Do you have any time-tested remedies? Anything your mom (or you) swears by?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Lovely Links: Birthday Edition

-- First business of the day: opening presents!--

Not much time to post - today is my little boy's third birthday! And since I'm in the birthday mindset, I thought I'd include just a couple of lovely links that are related. Enjoy!

Best Birthday Cake - Smitten Kitchen
(This is the cake I'm in the process of baking right now - it's in the oven as I type this. Update: I'm on the fence about this recipe. It wasn't really sweet, but it tasted really wholesome. Good texture, too. But, it wasn't as sweet as I thought it would be - and that's a big detail. It wasn't bad, I'm just not sure it's my favorite. Just thought I'd tell you.)

A Birthday Alternative: Less Stuff, More Fun - Simple Mom
(Kids don't need all the fanfare we think they do, in my opinion. Often, the simple things are the best things.)

“That man is richest whose pleasures are cheapest.”
- Henry David Thoreau

Friday, October 16, 2009

Love Those Leftovers

Maybe it's the name. Leftovers. Doesn't sound so appealing. It could also be that oftentimes leftover meals disappear into the recesses of the refrigerator and only emerge with a layer of slime and/or fuzzy mold. That would make anyone leery of leftovers, I guess. Does anyone have any ideas of what led to leftover prejudice? Anyone? Anyone? (By the way, I know the leftovers in the background of this picture don't look super-appetizing. Soup never looks good as a leftover. Don't judge. The microwave can do wonders.)

Two things got me thinking about leftovers, thus inspiring this post: 1) Eating leftovers was mentioned as a method for saving on groceries in the book I'm reading; and 2) I was watching The Incredibles this past Sunday and there's the part at the kitchen table, during 'leftover night'. It must be a sign. So here are a few ways to love (and actually eat) those leftovers.
  • The first solution is to adjust your recipes so you don't make nearly as much, thus avoiding too much left over. Sometimes I'll cut recipes in half since there's only so much a family of three can eat (especially when one of the three is a toddler), no matter how delicious the dinner is.
  • The biggest key to using your leftovers is to change your attitude about them. Some people think leftovers are meant for the trash. Be open-minded. Be brave. Food eaten a day or two after it was made tastes just about the same. In my opinion, certain foods improve after a day in the fridge, particularly Mexican food and the lasagna I make. Really.
  • Whenever I make dinner and there are a bunch of leftovers, before I pack it into a container for the fridge, I also put a portion of it in a separate, smaller container for my husband's lunch the next day. The next morning is simple: take the container out of the fridge and go. Doing this not only helps us use up our leftovers and waste less food, but it also saves money because he doesn't have to buy lunch. Plus, my meals are usually a lot healthier than the other lunch options (i.e. fast food). I have to brag a little here: one day at work, my husband was the envy of some of his co-workers when he reheated some homemade mac and cheese. He had a bunch of comments like, "Homemade macaroni and cheese! I haven't had that since I was a kid!" or "I'm going to make that for dinner tonight!"
  • Make 'leftover night' part of your meal planning. Like I mentioned previously, I was watching The Incredibles and it just struck me how Helen (aka Elastigirl) made leftover night sound appealing. As her daughter, Violet, complains about and pushes her meatloaf around her plate, Mrs. Incredible says, enthusiastically, "Well, it's leftover night. What are you in the mood for?" and then gives her options. Make leftover night seem more like a smorgasbord instead of something to be dreaded.
  • If leftovers get lost in your refrigerator, label your containers. Nothing fancy. I use a piece of masking tape and a Sharpie and write the contents and the date. A good rule of thumb is to eat leftovers within three days. I always follow the time-tested rule: when in doubt, throw it out. But having the date written on the container helps, too.
  • Try double-duty dinners. Meat from the night before can be used again in a hot sandwich or soup. For example, last week I roasted a 3-lb. chicken for tacos (sooo good). I had some of the shredded chicken left, so I used it later in the week to make some chicken noodle soup. Use your imagination when it comes to leftovers (or you can look for some good double-duty recipes online).
  • Use the freezer. If you don't think you'll eat the leftovers, freeze them. I do this with spaghetti and make it single-serving size. I'll make a big batch of minestrone soup and immediately put half of it aside for the freezer. Then, a few months later, I can thaw it out in the fridge and serve it for dinner. I just made turkey bolognese last week, froze half of the sauce, and I'm actually looking forward to having it for dinner again.
I wasn't exactly a leftover hater before, but I didn't love them either. That's all changed, though. Once I knew what to do with them (in addition to following my husband's willing example), leftovers have become a part of my kitchen repertoire. And I'm for anything that saves me time, effort, and money.

Where do you fit on the leftover spectrum? Love them or hate them? Use them or toss them?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

WiP Wednesday: My Denim Quilt

When I was growing up, my dad used the sewing machine just as often as my mom did, if not more so. Since my dad was in the military throughout the majority of my childhood and my entire teenage years, I often saw him at the sewing machine, stitching patches on BDUs and other army gear. I think doing that opened him up to trying other sewing endeavors.

For instance, when I left for college, my dad made me a quilt, along with a matching pillowcase (what a guy!). After that project, he made a quilt out of all his old pairs of jeans (and maybe some of my mom's and brothers' jeans, too), with a flannel backing. It's a heavy-duty quilt that is super warm and ridiculously durable. Once he showed me his finished product, I immediately got envious and wanted my own. Currently, my dad is working on a corduroy quilt made from all his old corduroy pants, while also thinking of a way to use all his marathon/10K participation shirts. My dad is awesome.

So what does "WiP Wednesday" mean? From time to time, I'm going to show some of my "works in progress". Since this quilt is probably going to take me a while to do, I just wanted to show my beginnings and then on some other random Wednesday, I'll show you where I am in my progress. This way, you'll have time to get your materials together and be ready for the next step. Sort of like we're going through the process together. Plus, now that I've mentioned it, I can't abandon the project- this blog will hold me accountable. It's really a win-win situation for all concerned.

-I couldn't bring myself to Photoshop the little toes out of the picture.-

For the last little while, I've been storing away my husband's and son's worn-out jeans (I don't really have any - I'm not the jeans wearing type. Probably because shopping for pants, particularly jeans, is the bane of my existence). The fun thing about this quilt is that you can use any wash of denim - it will give your quilt a cool, mixed-up pattern. I think this is a great way to reuse something that would just end up in the trash - the jeans I'm using couldn't be donated since they have holes in the knees and seams. If you're super-anxious to get started but don't have enough denim in your household alone right now, you can ask other family members and friends for their old jeans (I'm sure they'll oblige), or you can buy some at a thrift store quite inexpensively.

I'm making the quilt using the same dimensions that my dad used. This makes a really big blanket - perfect for picnics and camping. I'll be cutting my denim into 7 x 7-inch squares. You can adjust this to whatever size you want. I laid out each pair I was working on and cut down the side seams of the leg. From there, I spread out the denim and cut some rough sections, around 8 x 8-inches - when I start patching them together, I'll make the size more precise and the edges even.

Cutting them up as I go not only makes the job easier and less overwhelming, but it also gives me more room in my storage. Instead of having piles of pants, I just have a small stack of denim squares. One note: as you're cutting out your areas/squares, don't be afraid to include the pockets or any other detail of the pant. My dad's quilt has squares made out of back pockets. For one of my squares, I'm using the bib part of my son's broken overalls; I may even try to think of a clever way to use the straps.

Now, if you're the go-getter type or you already have a ton of denim you can use and you want to get started on this quilt right away, I found this link that has a how-to (though their quilt is smaller, more like a lap quilt), along with pictures. Or, you can learn along with me and take it nice and slow...

Monday, October 12, 2009

Accept These Substitutions

I promise this picture will make sense. Stay with me.

I'm sure I'm the only one who has ever experienced this (*cough cough*), but sometimes I'll be well into a recipe and realize I've run out of an ingredient. For some reason, this usually happens on a Sunday afternoon, thus making a trip to the store not really an option. However, I'm lucky to have a mom who taught me some ways around this conundrum.

There are various, easy ways to substitute certain ingredients with other things when needed. The results are usually fine, though maybe not as good as the original. But, I'm all for avoiding a trip to the store for a single item, especially when I'm in a pinch. Here's a few of the emergency substitution solutions I've gathered in my years of cooking and baking:

For brown sugar, add molasses to regular granulated sugar. To make a cup of brown sugar, add 1 tablespoon of molasses to a cup of granulated sugar. If you need dark brown sugar, add 2 tablespoons. Pulse the sugar and molasses together in a food processor or just add the molasses with the other wet ingredients in the recipe.

For baking powder, combine baking soda and cream of tartar. To make a teaspoon of baking powder, combine 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda and 1/2 teaspoon of cream of tartar. Be sure to use this right away.

Dried herbs can replace fresh herbs. Just use a smaller amount. If the recipe calls for a tablespoon of fresh herbs, use 1 teaspoon of the dried herbs.

If a recipe calls for plain yogurt, sour cream can be used instead - and vice versa. I've used plain yogurt on tacos before and we could hardly tell the difference (the yogurt had a little more tang to it).

All-purpose flour can replace cornstarch when used for thickening. For 1 tablespoon of cornstarch, use 2 tablespoons of flour.

If you don't have cake flour on hand (quite the possibility), you can make it with cornstarch and regular all-purpose flour. Check out this link from Joy the Baker for a detailed how-to.

For those who don't have a bottle of wine on hand or choose not to purchase it for other reasons, wine in recipes can be replaced with broth and either vinegar or lemon juice. To make a substitution for a 1/2 cup of wine, mix 1/2 cup broth with either a teaspoon of wine vinegar or 1 teaspoon of lemon juice.

If a recipe calls for a square of unsweetened chocolate, you can mix cocoa powder and vegetable oil as a substitution. To make a substitution for a square (which is usually an ounce) of unsweetened chocolate, mix 3-4 tablespoons of cocoa powder with a tablespoon of vegetable oil.

Whole milk can replaced with a mix of evaporated milk and water. To replace a cup of whole milk in a recipe, combine 1/2 cup of evaporated milk and 1/2 cup of water. Or, if you have it, you can mix 2/3 cup of 1% milk with 1/3 cup of half-and-half; or 3/4 cup 2% milk with 1/4 cup half-and-half. (Psst... Don't tell anyone, but sometimes I just use 1% milk without anything else and it has worked fine. It may take longer to thicken if you add it to a roux, but it still works).

And if a recipe calls for buttermilk, you can use a mixture of regular milk and lemon juice or vinegar. I use this one all the time. To make a substitute for 1 cup of buttermilk, mix 1 tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar with a cup of milk. Let it stand for about 10 minutes - this will give it time to curdle the milk and thicken. Only use this for cooking or baking - not for raw uses, like salad dressing.

And if you didn't figure it out, the buttermilk substitution is why I included the picture. It's from Charlotte's Web, when Mrs. Zuckerman gives Wilbur a buttermilk bath before going to the fair. Whenever I think of buttermilk, I almost always think of Charlotte's Web.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Lovely Links

--This picture doesn't have much to do with the post, but I figured the post needed a picture. This is one of the things we've been busy with at my house - one of my favorite parts of the Halloween season is baking my secret sugar cookie recipe! --

In my attempt to live frugally and well, I often look to other websites and blogs for ideas. However, there's so much to read and learn out there in the blogosphere that it can get a little overwhelming. So, I usually just check a few of my favorites and go from there. One thing that I love is that a few of my favorite blogs do this thing called 'Weekend Links' where they post articles from some of their favorite blogs. So, I thought it would be fun to do that every Saturday and spread the love (and useful info!). Here's the first of the Saturday edition of 'Lovely Links"...

Pumpkin Spice Pancakes and other such pumpkin treats - Joy the Baker
( there anything that says fall better than something baked with pumpkin?)

Crafting Fun and Cooking Fun - Giveaway! -Simple Kids
(Not only do I think these books look great, but there's a chance to win them! Wait a minute - am I hurting my chances of winning by telling you about the giveaway? )

Greatest Granola - 320 Sycamore
(I came across this a couple weeks ago. I'm definitely going to try it - sans raisins, of course)

12 Clever Substitutions that Save Money (Nearly) Effortlessly
- The Simple Dollar
(My husband's cousin sent me this link - it has some good ideas. I'm going to do the laundry-vinegar one.)

12 Green and Frugal Lessons from My Mom - Simple Mom
(I'll probably post a link from Simple Mom every weekend - I just love it!)

'Let Him Do It with Simplicity'

(Inspired words from an inspired man.)

Without frugality, none can be rich, and with it very few would be poor." - Samuel Johnson

Friday, October 9, 2009

That's My Bag, Baby: How to Make Repurposed T-Shirt Bags

I have a unexplained fear of my sewing machine. This is actually quite a shame for many reasons, particularly because my mother-in-law gave me a really nice sewing machine for Christmas a few years ago, complete with a fully-stocked sewing box. So, in my pursuit of all things frugal, economical, and thrifty, I am going to work past this phobia, one baby step at a time (Wow, two What About Bob? references in a week. Nice.) - and this little project was definitely a good way to start.

Just a few days ago, I was going through some of my family's old clothes, trying to decide what to keep, what to donate to the thrift store, and what to throw out. My husband has a ton of old t-shirts - his drawer is practically overflowing. As we combed through the collection of tees, we made quite a pile of ones that he was going to get rid of because they were faded, had holes in the armpits, and other minor defects - the unfortunate part was that some of these shirts were his favorites. Then, in a moment of pure inspiration, I remembered something I'd read about turning t-shirts into reusable bags (after doing some research, I realized I got the idea originally from good ol' Martha Stewart). Thus began my sewing baby step project.

To start, turn your t-shirt inside out and lay it on a flat surface. This will help you line up the bottom evenly as you pin it together (if you're feeling adventurous, you can skip the pins).

Sew the bottom of the t-shirt together. I think the thing that scares me most about the sewing machine is how I can barely touch the pedal and that needle goes crazy-fast. But, I'm happy to report, by the last t-shirt bag, I was going full-speed, thankyouverymuch.

Once the bottom of the t-shirt is sewn together, lay the shirt on the flat surface again. Get a medium-sized bowl (about nine inches wide) and put it half-way over the neckhole. Technically, I should have used a fabric pen, but I didn't have one. So, I used a Crayola washable marker instead (I know from experience, it'll come right out in the wash). Trace around the edge and then cut carefully on that line with fabric scissors.

Next, line up the hems of the sleeves and cut them off.

And now you have a t-shirt sack, ready to carry anything your heart desires. I'm going to use mine for groceries (as you can see above, I've tested it out) - I've been using the store-bought reusable grocery sacks, but some of them have already begun to tear at the seams. Plus, these are more fun and fit more easily in my purse. These would also make good bags for kids to use to hold books and toys during road trips, for trips to the library, or even to church. You could also experiment with other sizes of t-shirts: an child size or baby shirt could make for a cute little bag.

One more timely use: these work well as awesome trick-or-treat bags. I'm almost positive my son will want to use the pirate one, though the Batman one could be tempting...

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

"Where's My Burrito? Where's My Burrito?"*

I've never really understood how some beans, cheese, and sometimes meat rolled up in a tortilla came to be called a burrito. If my rusty Spanish is correct, burrito means 'little donkey'. It just makes no sense. However, as fascinating as a discussion about the origins of this moniker would be, it is not the focus of this post.

Today's post is all about how to make homemade frozen burritos. I wasn't sure if I'd call this post a pre-made vs. homemade one, simply because I haven't done much research on store-bought burritos. I've seen them at Costco and other grocery stores, but I've never given them much thought or attention. However, I'm fairly positive that a good majority of the frozen, pre-made burritos at the supermarket are loaded with unpronounceable chemicals and concoctions, not to mention weird preservatives and colors. Correct me if I'm wrong.

And then there's the ultimate reason I'm writing about this: these homemade burritos are, most likely, less expensive than the majority of pre-packaged frozen burritos. You can easily make a batch of burritos, around 8-10 (depending on the size of your tortillas), inexpensively. My estimated cost for the entire batch I made is around five dollars, making them cost a little less than a dollar each. Sure, you can find some frozen burritos for under a dollar and skip the process I'm about to outline, but I'm not sure how tasty or healthy they'll be.

These burritos, once made and frozen, are just as convenient as any frozen burrito. And then there's the extra savings: these make great lunches - you can save money by packing a lunch and not eating out. Some mornings, if I'm feeling too lazy to make a lunch for my husband before he leaves for work, I'll just mumble from under the covers, "Why don't you just take a burrito for lunch?" Not only do I get a few more minutes of blissful slumber, but my husband still gets a homemade lunch.

Okay, enough talk. Here's how I make them (with some help from a recipe I got from an Everyday Food magazine a few years ago):
3/4 cup rice (you can use brown or white)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 jalapeno chile, chopped (remove the ribs and seeds if you want it milder)
3 15-oz. cans of beans (the original recipe called for pinto, but I always use black)
1 1/2 cups of frozen corn kernels
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
Salt and pepper
3 tablespoons tomato paste (I'm a HUGE fan of the tomato paste that comes in a tube)
3-4 green onions, thinly sliced
8 burrito-size flour tortillas (This is what the original recipe calls for, but I think I used smaller tortillas and it worked pretty well.)
2 cups shredded Monterey Jack cheese (I've also used cheddar in the past, but I like Monterey Jack better in this.)
Cook the rice according to package directions (or in a rice cooker, like I do); set aside once cooked.

As the rice is cooking, heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add chopped onions, garlic, jalapeno, and the cumin; season with a little salt and pepper. Cook until golden, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. Add tomato paste and cook for another minute.

Next, add the beans and 1 1/2 cups of water; bring mixture to a boil. Once boiling, reduce heat to a simmer and let it thicken, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Add corn and cook until heated through (just a couple minutes or so). Remove from heat, stir in green onions.

Heat the tortillas in the microwave according to package directions (for some of my burritos, I used the uncooked tortillas. I cooked them right before I was going to assemble the burritos and they worked out better than the other ones, the ready-to-eat kind, did.). Fill with the bean mixture, rice, and cheese. I don't follow any specific amounts of each ingredient - I just eyeball it and roll as much as I can before it gushes out the sides.

I wish this was a better picture of how to roll a burrito, but it's kind of hard to roll it and take a picture at the same time. But, having worked in a Mexican restaurant for a number of years in college, I happen to be well-versed in the art of burrito wrapping. Keep your mixture, rice, and beans on one edge of the tortilla. Then, tuck in the sides and roll. Like I said on the ingredient list, I used smaller tortillas than the recipe called for and they worked, but, really, the bigger the tortilla, the easier it is to wrap.

Put your burritos on a plate or cookie sheet and stick them in the freezer - not for too long, but just long enough that they firm up and hold their shape. This will make wrapping them in plastic easier. Once they've been in the freezer a little while, wrap each burrito in plastic wrap. These burritos will store in the freezer for a few months.

When you're ready to eat one of these burritos, unwrap it from the plastic, wrap it in a damp paper towel (my husband says this makes all the difference), and microwave for three minutes. Buen provecho! You've got yourself one tasty -- and healthy -- bargain burrito!

*Title asterisk: Gotta love random Simpsons quotes. I can tie just about anything to an old Simpsons episode (and by old, I mean any episode from the 90s). Just thought I'd include an explanation.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Book Review: The Total Money Makeover

I know I have absolutely no authority when it comes what my beloved blog readers do, but if I did I would make this book required reading.

Now, I'm no economic expert. Most of my knowledge comes from my 12th grade economics class, the few finance books I've read since then (and the ones I thumbed through when I worked at Barnes & Noble), and life experience (peppered with a few mistakes). That said, I feel like I've got a good, basic handle on finance on a family level. We've got a plan and we're on our way to being completely out of debt. And I honestly don't think we would have been nearly so motivated if I hadn't read Dave Ramsey's The Total Money Makeover.

A couple years ago, my mom introduced me to Dave Ramsey. She had listened to his radio show and thought he made a lot of sense. She bought his book, read it herself, and then wanted all of her kids to read it. Since, like I said, I'd read a few books about personal finance, I thought, "What is this guy going to say that I don't already know?". But, since Mom knows best, I read it anyway.

While I felt the material in the book was nothing new (it seemed like common sense to me), there were a couple things that really got my attention. One was his stance on debt. In his opinion, debt is avoidable. To him, credit scores don't really matter (he says he's had a credit score of zero for twenty years) and there is nothing that you need to go into debt for (with the exception of a house, but even then he lays out a debt-free plan). Not even a car. After reading this book, I wanted to get rid of our debt as fast as possible.
The other thing that caught my attention was the simplicity of his plan.
Even if the material wasn't completely new to me, having it all laid out the way it is in the book got me thinking clearly and getting a plan together for our family finances. He outlines the whole program as following a number of "baby steps" (which as I read it, it kept reminding me of What About Bob?). The baby steps are basically:
1. Get a $1000 emergency fund. (Side note: this saved us a couple weeks ago when my husband's commuter car needed major repairs. Even though it was hard to see our emergency fund dwindle, it was better than putting it on a credit card like we would have before.)
2. Pay down debt using the 'debt snowball'.
3. Finish the emergency fund by saving 3-6 months of expenses.
4. Invest 15% in a retirement plan.
5. Save for children's college education.
6. Pay off the house early.
7. Build wealth and give.
You simply do one baby step at a time, which makes getting your financial house in order not so overwhelming. This book has no quick fixes, no tricks, no complicated math, and you don't need to be a financial expert to follow the baby steps. I mean, if my husband and I (an artist and a former English major, respectively) can follow it, anyone can.

One thing that has really made a difference in our finances was inspired by this book: making and following a budget. I'd made attempts at making a general budget, but we never really followed it. This resulted in forgotten payments, late payments, fees, and stress. Now, we follow Dave's advice and plan out every paycheck. I have a notebook and I write where every dollar of each check will go. This has made my life so much less stressful. As I mentioned, we had some major car issues a couple weeks ago, but since I'd planned out our month's paychecks down to the dollar, I knew at a glance how we'd pay for the repairs. I honestly can't recommend budgeting enough.

My husband always makes fun of Dave Ramsey because the advice he gives on his radio show is often the same. He'll do an impression of Dave's southern accent and say, "Okay, what ya gotta do is make a budget and pay off your debt...". The way he lays it all out is so simple, so doable. Plus, reading the book is kind of a pep-talk - it gets you motivated to change, mad that you're wasting so much money, and gives you the courage to, as he says throughout the book (it's on the bottom of every page, over and over), "live like no one else so you can live like no one else". My husband and I are following the plan and even though we are just on the first couple steps, I already feel so much more control over our money, instead of the opposite and having it control us. And that makes even these scary economical times a little less so.
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