Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Need or Want?

This month I decided to embark on a "no spend" month. It just happened to be November which adds to the charm (I think), "No Spend November". Now it's not as if I am a spend thrift, just the opposite actually. I am tight. Quite tight. We have a budget, we stick to the budget. We pack lunches, we rent movies, we stay home. If a corner can be cut, I'm cutting it. But somehow, we always end up at the end of the month with a bunch of little purchases that really add up. For me its the unassuming $1 clearance purchases I make while picking up necessities. For my husband it's the beverage or snack that he spends $2 on during his work day. At the end of the month I am beating my head on the kitchen table lamenting, "We spent $120 on WHAT?!?".

Some of you may be laughing, $120 may seem trivial. But think about that $120. Spend that same amount every month for a year and you come to the grand sum of $1,440. Wow. Laugh if you want but that is a considerable chunk of change. I would much rather put that amount towards our future home or retirement then literally flush it down the toilet. This is where my glorious plan of a no spend month came in. 

We just need to STOP. For one month. And think, really think before we swipe that credit card (We use a cc in order to cash in on the rewards. Never have we carried a balance, I'd sell small organs before I carried a balance on a cc.). So what are we spending our money on this month? The basics. And I mean really basic. No eating out, no pointless trips to the bookstore, no meandering through thrift stores. Obviously we are paying our bills, putting gas in the car and eating (at home). I am "shopping" in our freezer and pantry and getting really creative! The only food items I've purchased so far are a few fresh vegetables, milk and creamer. (And before you say creamer isn't a necessity let me set you straight...yes.it.is. End of story.)

So that brings us to last night when I shook the rest of the severely rationed granola over my evening yogurt. Sigh. Granola certainly does not fall under the "necessity" column. And at $3 a box it certainly isn't frugal. I've been *meaning* to start making it for some time. I know it's easy, I know it's cheap...and yet somehow I just never got around to it. No more. Today, I made granola! 

I started by looking at various recipes and drawing inspiration. Things I didn't want in my granola; chocolate chips, peanut butter, vast amounts of sweetner and/or raisins. After that I'm pretty darn flexible. Feel free to substitute any nuts you may prefer. I just used what I had on hand. 

Yield: 2 1/2 quarts

6 cups old fashioned oatmeal
1/2 cup sunflower seeds
1/2 cup sliced almonds
1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts
1 cup unsweetened coconut (sulphur free is best)
1 tsp ground cinnamon

Stir together in large bowl. 

1/2 to 1 cup agave (I used 1/2 cup, might increase the amount in future batches)

Add agave and stir to coat. Spread mixture on large cookie sheet and bake at 350* for 30 mins stirring frequently. (I stirred about every 8-10 mins for the first 20 mins and then every 5 mins for the remainder). Continue baking past the initial 30 mins if you do not feel it is browned enough. Just watch it closely so you don't burn it. 

Remove from oven and add 1 cup of your favorite dried fruit. I used cranberries because raisins and I a not friends. (Unless they are plump and juicy in a hot bowl of oatmeal. Then we're best friend.) 

Cool completely and store in an airtight container. I used quart sized mason jars. Great for display! 

I hope you give homemade granola a try, even if this is not your recipe of choice, and let me know how it goes! I would also love to hear from others who have taken the plunge and cut spending for a month! Happy baking and saving! 

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Canned Food and Cauilflower

Raise your hand if you have enough food in your house to last a week. Oh good, there are two of you. You are both excused to go rustle up a SPAM or canned tuna snack. Now the rest of you who's cupboards were described in Old Mother Hubbard, listen up.

We just experienced a devastating storm on the East Coast, Hurricane Sandy. Times like these make me scratch my head as I watch the masses rush to the grocery store. "Milk and bread!", everyone screams. I've always scratched my head at the milk (unless it's a snow storm coming in and you can sink that jug in a snow drift) because who wants rotten milk on their Fruity Pebbles when the electric goes out? No one I know of. (FYI: I in no way condone the consumption of Fruity Pebbles. Ever. It was just the funniest cereal I could think of.) The bread is fine, but I sure hope you have a jar of peanut butter to go with it. My point is this, you need to always have a little extra on hand. It doesn't have to be extreme, no gold bars or bomb shelters, just enough to feed your family for a few days if supply chains are disrupted or you can't get out. It's COMMON SENSE PEOPLE. Sorry, didn't mean to yell. Ok, I did. I just want to wake you up from your "grocery store dependency" slumber.

Now before you run out and buy a case of SPAM and a sack of beans, think about what your family will ACTUALLY EAT. In my case the SPAM is a no go. The beans would be great but how do I cook them if the electric is out? I don't. Canned fruit, peanut butter, crackers, dried fruit, bottled water, fruit leather, energy/protein bars....you get the idea. Things that require little to no prep and you can easily eat. If you have a woodstove to heat food up on throw in some canned soup and veggies. I currently do not have a woodstove, but in the past I have and they are fantastic for cooking on. This is not crazy, expensive or unreasonable. As I said earlier it just plain and simple common sense.

Our ancestors did not have grocery stores to frequent. They "put food by" for later consumption. We need to do the same. Our reasons may not be the same but the need is still there. Learn how to freeze and can food. I can and freeze for multiple reasons. One of them being the economy of preserving your own food. Often, not always, you can preserve your own food much cheaper then if you were to buy it. Sometimes I just break even, but I'm okay with that because I know where the food came from and exactly what went into each jar or bag. Today I picked up three huge heads of cauliflower from a roadside stand. I paid $4.50 total and ended up with 12 quart bags of cauliflower florets. That comes to thirty seven cents a bag!

Cauliflower is insanely easy to freeze. I like to break it up into 1" florets (some will be smaller, that's okay) and then blanch it. I bring about 3" of salted (1 tsp salt) water to a boil in a stockpot and then drop in the cauliflower. Make sure all of the cauliflower is covered with water. Let the water return to a boil and let it boil for about 30 seconds. Dump into a colander and immediately rinse in cold water. If you are doing multiple batches use a large slotted spoon to fish the pieces out of the water and then you can save the water for the next batch. Once cool, bag it up in freezer bags and throw it in the freezer. In my experience it holds well for about a year. I use it in casseroles, soups and as a side dish.

I hope that everyone will take the time to do a quick inventory of their pantry and make a few simple changes in order to be better prepared. You shouldn't depend on FEMA, the Red Cross or your crazy conspiracy theorist neighbor to bail you out. Being somewhat self reliant is a beautiful thing.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Apple Season = Applesauce

There is something you should know about me. I'm cheap. I can't help it. It's in my blood. Honest. Ask anyone that knows my family. I come from a long line of thrifty, resourceful, savers (ok, maybe even some borderline hoarding but we'll cover that another day). So why wouldn't I be any different? My mantra as a child was "a penny saved is a penny earned". Talk about a whimsical childhood!

Not much has changed since then. I clip coupons. I balk at paying more then $3 for a shirt. I drive 10 miles to save two cents a gallon on gas. I buy oatmeal in bulk. Yep, I have issues. 

Earlier this week I began my yearly quest for applesauce. The past few years I have peeled and processed all of my applesauce by hand. A tedious, time consuming project that always ended with me frustrated with my productivity level. This year I decided it was time. Time to bite the bullet and cough up the money to buy a food mill/strainer. Surprisingly, I was only required to part with $54.00 of my hard earned money to add this work horse to my collection. I always thought this was a wildly expensive piece of equipment only purchased if you were attempting to reenact Little House on the Prairie. 

Meet the Victorio Food Strainer and Sauce Maker. I cranked out sixteen quarts of applesauce with this beauty in one afternoon. SIXTEEN QUARTS! I don't think I've made that much applesauce in the past three years combined. I always end up hoarding my precious stash like it's made from the last apples on planet earth. Or like my Easter candy as a child (c'mon, you didn't hoard your Easter candy? I mean, you had to wait a whole YEAR until it rolled around again! I had some pretty serious rationing going on. Tell me I'm not alone on this. Please?). No more hoarding. Just pure, unadulterated applesauce bliss. 

The process is so simple. Almost to simple. No peeling needed (the cheapo part of me is doing the happy dance about this...virtually no waste!). Just wash your apples, cut them in fourths, remove any large stems and boil them down. When you run them through the mill all of the seeds and skin will be strained away. Then you can can it, freeze it or refrigerate it if you plan on eating it right away. I canned mine because I have limited freezer space. 

When selecting your apples it's best to use a variety instead of just one kind. I always buy "seconds" from the orchard which are usually a mixed bag to start with. Stay away from Granny Smith or any other sour varietys. The idea is to not add much or any sugar. 

Plan on 3 lbs of apples per quart. Most canners hold 7 quarts so to do a canner load you will need 21 lbs. Wash and quarter the apples removing any large stems that might damage the screen of your food mill. Place in large stock pot with one cup of water (to keep apples from sticking/burning) and a cinnamon stick (if desired). I used two large stockpots to speed the process up, but if you only have one just repeat as needed. Depending on your stove/the size of the pot/the apple variety it could take anywhere from 15 to 40 mins to cook the apples. I start out at medium heat and then adjust (down) as needed. Keep an eye on them, stirring occasionally. Once they have cooked down and have a good "give", meaning they are soft and falling apart, remove the cinnamon stick and run them through your mill. If you will be canning, return the sauce to the pot and keep at a low simmer until ready to can. Pay close attention to the finished sauce because it will burn or stick easily. And watch out for splatters and pops! This stuff is deadly hot. Add sugar to taste but if you used sweet apples you probably won't need any. I added about 1/4 cup to the entire batch. Process quarts and pints for 20 mins in a boiling water bath or allow to cool and freeze. 

As always, if you are new to canning please research the basics to ensure a safe product. 

Apple season is in full swing in the North East. How about where you live? And what do you typically pay for apples? The cheapo in me wants to know. 

Happy saucing!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Hot Dog Relish

I love food with a story. Knowing the history behind a meal or recipe makes it come alive in my mind. This relish has one of those stories.

I grew up with this relish. As a child I detested it because it was full of things I didn't "like". Peppers, onions, cabbage....yuck. Eventually I gave it a try and found it was not at all what I expected. Sweet, a little tangy and well, yummy. Added to a hamburger I found it quite enjoyable. I never quite took my love of it as far as my Dad did though. He eats it by the spoonful, not as a condiment but as a side dish! That always confused me because this man HATES onions with a passion. I suppose with enough vinegar and sugar anything is edible (Case in point? Pickled pigs feet. I mean really, who thinks of that?!?). 

Eventually, I learned that this was the relish my Dad grew up eating. It was his mothers recipe, a grandmother I never met as she passed away before I was born. I've been told I resemble her though. And judging from the bits and pieces she left behind, I share her love of food. My Grandfather remarried, a wonderful woman I have always known as Grandma. She is the consummate home cook; turning out pies, cookies and perfectly cooked roasts with grace and hospitality. Under her wing I learned how to make apple sauce and perfect sugar cookies. I still use the cookbook she gave me when I was ten; the very cookbook that I used to bake my first loaf of yeast bread.

I don't distinctly remember the first time I made relish. It was just a part of summer. Pick the peppers, make the relish. Eventually the relish making reins were handed over to me and I was off and running. Every summer I fired up the stove and went to work preserving summers bounty. It was never a chore, always something I genuinely enjoyed: and still do. Some of those creations made their way to the state fair as culinary exhibits and the rest ended up on the shelves of our pantry for enjoyment.

Last weekend my husband called, "Do you want some peppers?", not one to turn down a gift of produce my response was, "Of course!". He ended up procuring two grocery bags full of sweet peppers. Pure. Gold. And a sure way into this girls heart! I knew I wanted to make my grandmothers relish but upon further investigation I realized I did not have the cookbook her recipe is published in (A local church cookbook). Gasp! A quick trip to the local store that carries the cookbook was a bust, they were temporarily out. I searched the Internet for a similar recipe and came up empty. Disappointed, I resigned myself to making a new recipe I found online. While gathering my supplies to start on that recipe I remembered my grandmothers handwritten recipe notebook Grandma found while cleaning out earlier this year and gave to me. I flipped through cakes, cookies and pies...it wasn't until the last page that I hit pay dirt, "Hot Dog Relish"....I had it all along, in my grandmothers handwriting, and I didn't even know it!

It has been a few years since I've made any relish, but it all came back to me once I got started. The grinding, the tears shed over onions and the scorching heat rolling off of the pan as I stirred. It brought back many memories and when I tasted it, I knew it was right. A word of warning, this is an extremely sweet relish. Again, extremely sweet! (You have been warned!) If you enjoy a zesty concoction this is not the recipe for you. It is also a large recipe, I ended up with nine pints. If math is your forte you could cut it down to suit your needs.

I have always used a blender to grind the vegetables for this recipe. If you have a food processor feel free to make use of it. For anyone else that doesn't have a food processor here's how to use your blender - Cut the cabbage into fourths and then in half so you have eight pieces. Take two pieces, place in blender and cover with water. Using the "grind" option, process in short 2-3 second bursts once or twice. Usually twice is all you need to get the job done. Just be careful. You want to grind, not liquefy. Dump the contents of the blender into a colander and leave to drain. Repeat process until all vegetables are ground. I do one vegetable at a time, clearing out the colander and measuring (if needed) after each variety. Easy peasy.

Hot Dog Relish

4 cups ground onions
4 cups ground cabbage
4 cups ground green tomatoes
12 sweet red peppers, ground
6 sweet green pepper, ground

Combine all in a large bowl and sprinkle with 1/2 cup salt. Let stand 2-4 hrs. Rinse and drain.

Place in a large, heavy bottomed stock pot.


3 cups vinegar
7 cups sugar
1 tbsp celery seed
2 tbsp mustard seed
1 1/2 tsp tumeric

Bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer 10 mins. Pack in hot jars and process in boiling water bath for 15 minutes.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Lemon Blueberry Cupcakes

Blueberries. One of my favorites. Lemons. One of my other favorites (I have a lot of favorites). Put them together and you have a very happy me. So when my friend and right-hand gal suggested I make Lemon Blueberry Cupcakes for this weekends cupcake table it was a no-brainer. Yes, please!

After a few searches of Foodgawker (What? You don't know what Foodgawker is? Oh the horror!! Go. Now. Foodgawker.com. You can thank me later.) I found what I was looking for. Simple. Small batch. Perfect.

I even broke into my precious stash of frozen blueberries that I picked this summer to make these! If you ever have an opportunity to pick blueberries, do it! The taste is unlike anything you will ever find at the grocery store. And they are one of the easiest fruits to freeze! You don't even wash them! Just bag and freeze for use all winter. Rinse them off before you use them and THAT'S IT! Presto, a little summer on your cereal in November...or in your muffins in March....you get the idea.

Lemon Blueberry Cupcakes
Source: The Dainty Chef

3/4 cup plus 2 tbsp. all-purpose flour, divided
3/4 cup cake flour
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
8 tbsp. (one stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup plus 2 tbsp. sugar
Zest of 1 lemon
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1tsp. vanilla extract
2 tbsp. lemon juice (fresh squeezed please!)
1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp. milk, at room temperature
1 cup fresh blueberries (I used frozen, thawed for a few minutes at room temperature)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line cupcake pans with paper liners. In a medium bowl, combine the 3/4 cup all- purpose flour, cake flour, baking powder and salt; whisk together, set aside. In the bowl of an electric mixer combine the butter, sugar and lemon zest. Beat together on medium high speed until light and fluffy, about 2 - 3 minutes. Beat in the eggs one at a time, blending well after each addition. Beat in the vanilla and lemon juice.

With mixer on low speed, mix in half of the dry ingredients just until incorporated. Blend in the milk. Mix in the remaining dry ingredients, beating just until incorporated.

In a small bowl toss the blueberries with the remaining 2 tbsp. of flour. Gently fold into batter. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared liners, filling each about 3/4 full. Bake 20-22 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool in pans for 5 mins, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Frost as desired or simply sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve!

Enjoy! And be sure to fill me in if you try these!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Crock Pot Apple Butter

Apple Butter is synonymous with fall. I have fond memories of days spent at my grandparents making quart upon quart of apple sauce every autumn. Some of that apple sauce was then boiled down even further and reduced to what we knew as "apple butter", even though no butter was present. Maybe it's the fact that you can use it in place of butter and be just as happy. My grandfather used it on everything from corn bread to cottage cheese (Yes, cottage cheese. Try it! Life. Changing.).

Last year I decided it was time to try my hand at capturing this distinct and delicious fall flavor. I certainly was not about to sacrifice one of my precious jars of apple sauce to the cause though! I stumbled upon a Crock Pot apple butter recipe while thumbing through a magazine...and that was all it took! I made two batches last fall and was able to gift them over the holiday season to several friends and family members. It was so well received I knew I had to make more this year.

Enter my ginormous bag of apples fished from the "seconds" bin at the local orchard. Seconds are the apples the orchard deems unfit for retail sale due to small size, a bruise or other imperfection. Perfect for baking and canning though -and at a bargain basement price! I chose Golden Delicious, but just about any baking apple will do. Nothing too tart, such as Granny Smith, or you will need to add extra sugar to balance out the tartness. It really couldn't be easier to make. If you have a blender and a Crock Pot, you're in business! Here's my method, feel free to tweak to your tastes!

I washed and sliced enough apples to fill my 6 quart cooker. As I layered the apples I sprinkled them with 1/2 cup of sugar. After that I put the lid on and let them stand all day. (This may not be necessary but it enabled me to do the prep work in the morning and then turn the crock pot on before I went to bed.) Before turning on I added 1 3/4 tsp of pumpkin pie spice and 1/4 tsp of all spice. Then I stirred it all up and put the lid on. Turned it on to low around 7:30 PM and left it cooking all night. By 7:30 AM the apples were reduced to less then half. I took the lid off and let it cook for another hour to thicken. After an hour I returned the lid and turned the Crock Pot to the "warm" setting and left it to cook for the rest of the day. At 3 PM I began the processing.

Working with one cup of apples at a time I processed it in my blender until smooth. Use *extreme caution* during this phase. The apple butter is piping hot and has a tendency to splash, splatter and otherwise cover your kitchen (and you, ouch!) in apple butter goodness. I always wait a few seconds after turning off the blender to remove the lid. This gives the apple butter a chance to settle and saves you from a painful splatter.

Next I gave all of the different "batches" a stir and a taste test. I found that it was perfectly sweet with just the original 1/2 cup of sugar. You may prefer it a touch sweeter and can add sugar to taste.

Before I started processing the apple butter in the blender I washed my jars and lids in hot soapy water and sterilized them in a boiling water bath. If you have never canned before I know this is where I loose you. But trust me, if you can normally make your way around a kitchen without burning down the house or cutting off your hand, you can can! Corny, I know. Can, can....never mind.

I filled the hot, sterilized jars with the hot apple butter leaving 1/4" headspace. I wiped the rims, topped the jar with a hot lid and tightened the band until snug. As soon as I was done I placed the jar back in the hot water while I completed filling the remaining jars. In the end I had 6 half pints and 1 pint which were processed in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.

If you are a newbie to preserving please go here and learn more. Canning can be a fun, rewarding experience if you follow safe methods. On the other hand it can be deadly if not properly executed. There are no shortcuts in canning! My favorite go-to-guide is the Ball Blue Book Guide to Home Preserving.

So there you have it, Apple Butter in a Crock Pot! I hope everyone has enjoyed this first "real" blog of mine! Tell me how it goes if you try your hand at Apple Butter!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Chocolate Peanut Butter Cupcakes

I killed two birthdays with one cupcake this week. Only this cupcake is capable of that. Very few people can turn down such a decadent treat: the ones that can generally have a peanut allergy or just joined Weight Watchers. For the rest of us it's a no brainer, eat a cupcake...or two.