Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Holiday Favorites for 2010

We finally got the tree totally up and decorated this weekend and tidied the house on Sunday, so it looks a little less like the evergreen explosion in our home, and more like Christmas. Since I've had a few snow days on my hands this week (it started snowing on Saturday and is still coming down in small flakes today), I've had some time to blog hop, along with the beginnings of some holiday baking and online window shopping. Here's a short list of favorites:

1. A good book and a cup of hot chocolate: Who doesn't love this on a snowy day? Or maybe you're more of a movie person... either way, here's my short list of holiday reading picks.
  • The Chronicles of Narnia (we love it so much we have the whole series on CD)
  • The Polar Express (it's our Christmas Eve tradition to snuggle under the covers and read this one together)
  • Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (I loved it this summer and am going back to reread parts--I want to try my hand at making some homemade mozzarella on a snowy winter day)
  • Any good cookbook, especially those by Cook's Illustrated, since they're full of good factoids and how-to's.

2. Snuggly hats and scarves: I love to crochet, so I have a thing for scarves. I have them in all colors and styles. But this year, I'm noticing some super cute hats out, including this super cute one wool beret from Target, among others. There were also some fun felted wool ones in other styles in the store. Hats are a really fun way to express a sense of style without sinking a ton of cash into something that you might want to change out next year.

3. Gorgeous holiday decorations: I've been inspired this year to add to our Christmas decorations by decorating the mantle. Ours is interesting to decorate, since the TV sits in a nook above the mantle, making adding some height from candles, etc. a little interesting. But I've found this inspiring one and want to try to whip up something similar with some antique candle sticks and the PB inspired sheet music candles I'm seeing all over the blogosphere. And, I'm still working on getting that clothespin wreath just the way I want before I take a pic of it for the blog. (Right now, I'm having trouble finding all of my holiday decorating stash... does that happen to anyone else?)

4. Homebaked goodies: Inevitably, our holiday gift giving list grows each year, which means I try to find a new recipe or two to introduce into the mix. This year, it's jam thumbprint cookies and homemade peppermint hot chocolate mix. I have also been known to put a few of the slice and bake varieties on a cookie platter if I'm in a pinch for time (shh... it'll be our little secret). However, usually, we try to get most of our baking done ahead of time, and we include some chocolate dipped things (pretzels, coconut, chow mein noodles) that last for a while, so we can make them well in advance. Homemade jam is also a nice thing to add to a goodie basket, or as a small gift for a coworker or acquaintance.

5. Christmas cards in the mail: I love getting holiday cards in the mail... it's just so much more exciting than the junk we usually get, and it's fun to hear what friends and family have been up to throughout the year. We're generally slackers and don't get many cards sent out, but I think we might do an e-card this year, just to continue the sentiment. I also like to use the old Christmas cards as gift tags, so it's always fun to see what the pictures are on the front, so that I can match them up with the wrapping (is that just me being a nerd... or do other people think about that too?). Plus, it gives the card one more "life" and you know I'm all about reusing.

So, what are your holiday favorites? Do you have some new ones to add to your list this year? I'd love to hear from you! Check it out later this week and there will be a guest post on saving a bundle on a phone.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas...

This morning, we awoke to a dusting of snow and blustery weather... the perfect way to begin December. We've made it through the Thanksgiving food rush (and learned that baking soda, vinegar, and a little liquid soap make a great cleaning agent for the oven), and have had our fill of winter squash and pumpkin pies and cupcakes.

So, now we're in the throes of getting the house ready for Christmas and it looks like Santa's workshop has exploded all over the living room. The artificial tree is halfway up, with lights on part of it; the Christmas wreath will go on the front door this afternoon; and the Christmas goodie list is being made and we're stocking up on flour, sugar, and all the other baking necessities. The Christmas wrapping station has not been put up yet, but I'll showcase some of those packages for you to give you some creative ideas for wrapping your own gifts.

The holiday projects, outside of baking, include staining the handrail for the stairs (which we've put off for two years... it just hasn't been at the top of the priority list) before decorating it with garland, lights, and bows. I also started a wreath last year with antique clothes pins (hurray for reuse), but I have to figure out what kind of embelishments I want to add to that. I've already spray painted it silver, so I'm thinking I might go with a teal and green theme for that wreath, since those are the colors in our living room and kitchen. (These might come from the holiday wrapping stash.) I'm also wanting to put together our cork board to put by the back door, so that we can post a calendar and not forget all of our holiday parties or committments.

So, what about you? Have the elves already been at work at your house, or are you fitting it around the edges of a hectic schedule? What are the projects you want to get done before December 25? How about that holiday goodie list... are you trying something new this year? I'd love to hear from you!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

6pm Shoe Blowout

If you haven't checked out 6pm.com lately, you should! They've got some great deals on shoes for $9.95 or less, in some really cute styles. These would make a great treat for yourself around the holidays, or a gift for someone special.

Enjoy the browsing!

Couponing Deals at HT and a dent in the freezer

This past week, we had some fabulous grocery shopping deals at Harris Teeter, thanks to Super Doubles (where they double coupons up to $1.98 value, meaning that your $1.50 coupon now gets you $3 off). We ended up going twice, since the HT coupon policy states that you can only double 20 coupons per day (24 hour period).

Some of the deals we scored were $0.13 cartons of yogurt, $0.80 for a dozen eggs, free refrigerated cinnamon rolls, and $1.14 bags of Craisin trail mix. We were also able to stock up on some free rice and cheap name brand flour for the baking season ahead. All in all, I think this week's grocery savings were about 65% off the retail price... not too shabby!

Later this week, I found a $4 coupon for Wholly Guacamole, which meant that it was free. So, we made a run to HT today while we were doing our other errands (which included a free drink and sandwich at Chick-Fil-A, thanks to coupons) to pick that up. Benny found a peelie coupon on one of the Wholly products, but the store didn't have the free item on the coupon in stock, so we just got the guacamole. It will be tasty with the black beans, cheese, and sour cream we already have to load into a tortilla.

This week, we also managed to whittle down some of the freezer stash. We cooked some chicken in the crock pot for quick casseroles and stock, and then made some turkey soup with leftover turkey pieces we had saved in the freezer. It came together quickly with the free rice we had, the seasoning package from the rice, and some chopped celery, onion, and carrot. Tonight, we're going to make some homemade mac and cheese with broccoli stirred in, so that will free up a little more freezer space.

Recently, I found this post on The Frugal Find about couponing. It's a very well done video tutorial and has challenged me to tackle the drug store couponing game once again. I hope you find it helpful as well.

Did anyone else have a fabulous run with HT super doubles? I'd love to hear about it!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Autumn Pantry and Freezer Meals

Lately, we've been making do with a good bit that's in our pantry and freezer. Not only does this mean that we're not spending as much at the grocery store, but it also means that we're not using that fuel to go to the store. (We're also trying really hard to stick to that $100-150 a month grocery budget so that we can add more to savings.) Since we're avid couponers and sale shoppers, and have never met a freebie we weren't willing to try, our pantry and freezer are stocked with homemade or rock bottom staples to make almost any meal happen.

Last week, I found myself coming home with about a dozen butternut and acorn squash. (The kids harvested the seeds for a lab, but no one wanted the squash. Who was I to turn down free food?) So, I brought them home and cooked and pureed them. (You can cook them in the microwave, after you've seeded them, for about 15 minutes, or leave them whole and cook them in the crockpot for 6-8 hours. Then, just scoop the meat out with a large spoon.) Some of the puree I made into a butternut squash soup (evaporated milk, chicken stock, nutmeg, salt and pepper--no measuring). I spread the puree onto tortillas and made burritos with black beans, rice, and chicken/barbecue... add some sour cream and hot sauce and it's a tasty meal in a jiffy. Some of the puree was frozen for later use in chili as a thickener. I think some of the rest of it might substitute for canned pumpkin in some recipes, since the flavor and texture is almost identical. Do you have any suggestions for using up the rest? We're thinking of experimenting with mixing it with sour cream for a pasta sauce with cheese and keilbasa.

I found this recipe for a quick cream soup mix in Miserly Moms, which turned out to be a great base for tuna casserole for our supper club. It made a large batch, so as long as it's in an airtight container, it's great for soups and casseroles later. (Plus, it doesn't have all the preservatives that are in regular canned soups.)

We're trying to use up some stuff in the freezer so that we have room for a turkey when they go on sale in a few weeks. So, we've made many meals with sausage, which always seems to be a staple in our freezer, and are trying to use more of the homemade stock that's in the freezer. The frozen pizzas are regulars on Friday nights, and I've been making more homemade breads and muffins with the berries we gathered this summer that are in the freezer.

Here are some of our favorites to use up pantry and freezer finds:

  • Chili with beans (use dried beans for biggest savings and home-canned salsa or diced tomatoes)
  • Vegetable and rice/pasta soup (great use up for canned veggies and homemade stock)
  • Minestrone soup (use dried beans and ingredients above)
  • Chicken/turkey soup with rice (cook the carcass in the crockpot with celery, onion, and carrot... then shred the meat from the bones and add quick cooking wild rice at the end for about 20 minutes or until rice is done)
  • Baked potato night (add sauted veggies, leftover lunch meat or chicken, beans, cheese, or any combo)
  • Jazzy mac and cheese (add sauted veggies or sausage/meat; make it from scratch for best flavor and use whole wheat pasta)
  • Pasta with tomato sauce base (add any variety of veggies and/or meat to the can of tomato sauce for a quick meal)
  • Pizza night (use homemade crust and add your own veggies/meat/cheese for a fun dinner)
  • Stir fry (make your favorite stir fry sauce or buy a jar, then just saute the frozen veggies/meat and serve over cooked rice--we use brown rice for greater nutritional value)
  • Berry bread/pancakes (add frozen berries to bread, muffins, or pancakes for added nutrition and flavor)
  • Berry syrup (cook any mix of berries with some sugar and cinnamon for a quick pancake or icecream syrup)
What about you? How do you make meals out of your pantry and freezer to keep from having to go to the store or spend the cash? Does your family have any favorites? I'd love to hear from you!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Traveling on the Cheap

This past week I had the fabulous opportunity to travel to Poland, with the goal of trying to develop an international collaboration between some NC schools and Polish schools. If you want to check out the details of the trip, hop over to my other blog. This post will focus on the details of traveling on the cheap, while not sacrificing any of the experience.

1. Travel on someone else's dime, if possible. I had the opportunity to take this trip through the local university, since it was a partnership between the universities and K-12 schools in both countries. Other trips I've taken, I try to weave in some professional experience so that I can apply for grants and scholarships to help offset the expenses, including plane tickets, lodging costs, and museum/conference fees.

2. Make lodging inexpensive. Most countries abroad (especially in Europe) have a hostel network, home-stay network, or university lodgings that are significantly less expensive than the cost of a hotel. For this trip, we stayed in university lodgings that were dorm style, with each room having its' own bath. The lodgings were the typical sparse dormatory feel, but they were certainly sufficient, since we didn't do much there besides sleep. These lodgings also provided breakfast, so that was one less meal that we had to pay for. The cost per night was about $30; much less expensive than a hotel in the area. When I've traveled in other countries, I've done the home-stay thing, which gives you a much better sense of the local culture and day to day life. If you're looking for inexpensive lodgings in the States, most KOA campgrounds have camping cabins that are quite serviceable and cost about $15-20 per night. For these, you have to provide your own linens and plan on trips to the bath house, but going this route frees up more funds for sightseeing and other expenses.

3. Follow the local culture in terms of meals. In Poland, we found that there is a tradition of a light breakfast around 8:00, then "second breakfast" around 10:30 (this term makes me thing of The Hobbit... anyone else remembering that?), and a heavy lunch around 2:00-3:00 in the afternoon. Dinner is either skipped or is a light sandwich around 10:00 pm. Following the local culture in terms of meals and food means that you get a more authentic experience and aren't disappointed when restaurants close earlier than anticipated. With this particular trip, the local university in Poland treated us like royalty, so there were very few meal that we had to pay for overall.

4. Pack light. When I travel in a plane, I have learned not to check baggage unless absolutely necessary. This means that I don't run the risk of the bag not arriving with me at my destination, I don't have to wait at baggage claim, and I can make easy use of public transit to get me from the airport to my lodgings. It also means that I don't have to pay a fee for checking baggage, which is becoming more and more frequent and popular with airlines.

5. Choose small, but meaningful, souvenirs. I often make my souvenirs a local street artist painting of a typical scene in the area, a Christmas ornament, tea towel, or something edible (condiment, tea bags, etc. make sure it's in a sealed package, so you don't have a hard time with airport security). Depending on my packing space, I choose one of these, or some combination. (My grandmother always likes to bring home jewelry for the same reason.) This time, I was able to find a painting, Christmas ornament, and something edible that would all easily fit into my carry-on luggage. I like the paintings because they're small and flat, which means they easily pack away, and the Christmas ornament can be padded with clothing. Generally, I come back with some condiment that seems indicative of the area, so this time it was some rose hip jam, with which I'll make thumb print cookies at Christmas. If you get too carried away with souvenirs, especially large ones, it can mean paying for shipping or an extra checked bag on the return flight.

6. As I've mentioned before, make use of public transportation. We found the tram/trolley system in Poland to be very easy to navigate, once we learned the main routes. The particular city we visited was also very pedestrian friendly, so it was easy to walk to the market area or bakery without losing our way.

7. Take advantage of museum deals or entertainment. A few people from our group attended a ballet at the local opera house while we were there, and found the tickets to be quite reasonable with the conversion rate (about $12). I opted for a night walking tour of the historic square that evening, with window shopping and people watching included for free. I find seeing a new place at night an interesting way to learn more about the local culture and more about the pop culture, since this is usually when the younger generations have time to bar hop, play street music, etc. There is often one day of the week when museums provide discounts, so this is another way to take in the culture. When I was in Germany, this day was Sunday, so it was easy to go to a few museums in the course of the day and end up paying less than the cost of going to one on a regular week day.

So, what about you? How do you travel on the cheap, while still enjoying the scenery? Do you have any tips for sight seeing or eating on the cheap while you travel? I'd love to hear from you!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Master Bath Redo Phase 1

This afternoon, I was feeling inspired so I took advantage of a few minutes to put together the first phase of our bathroom tub area revamp. I was slack and didn't take any before pics, but here are a few after shots.

We love how the branches fill the space in that corner, while still allowing you to see through to the wall color. The original plan was to stain the branches, but when we got them home, we realized that the natural color fit right in with the shades in the tiles on the tub surround. The contrast of the organic texture of the twigs is a nice contrast with the graphic weave of the pottery basket (used to be an umbrella stand, I think).

Now, we have to figure out what to do with the little one on the opposite side. Do you have any budget-friendly or free ideas? Do you think the white frame collage will be too much with the twiggy deal in the corner? I'd love to hear from you!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Decorating Mini-Project

We've been slowly working on getting our master bathroom just the way we want it. There's this large shelf/deck around the garden tub that has been a bear to figure out what to do with, especially since we're realizing that the tub has become a large built-in hamper, rather than a tub. (We realized that we designed the bathroom for resale, not for us... we're not bath people. Dumb decision in retrospect since we see ourselves being here for the long haul.)

When we were cleaning out my grandmother's house, we found two cool white woven looking ceramic planters. So, we brought them home, cleaned them up, and they've found a nice home there behind the tub on the deck/shelf thing. They suit our taste and fill the space nicely, but there was still something missing... they needed some height and movement. Enter road trip...

On our recent trip to Charlotte to visit friends, we managed to squeeze in a visit to Ikea (our first ever... amazing). We were scoping out several things, but we stumbled upon these super cool twiggy things that suit our needs perfectly. And for $5 for a bundle, we picked up two bunches and wiggled them into the Jetta for the road trip home.

This weekend, we went to Michael's here (yes, there's one in the High Country now!), where I used a gift card to purchase some floral oasis/foam to stuff in the bottom of the planters to anchor the twigs. Putting all this together will be one of the projects this week.

But now, the wall is behind these cool things is looking a bit bland... so I hopped over to one of my favorite blogs, YHL, to find this inspiring feature. We love the collage of empty frames over the master bed and think this will be a cinch for us with some Goodwill frames (and those we've found in our basement cleanout) and some white spray paint. I think it's just the kind of textural interest we need, without detracting from our other art that's going to go in the space.

So, what're your new decorating projects? Do you have any tips for laying out the collage thing on the wall (because it seems a bit daunting to me... though I think some large newsprint and outlining the frames might be the answer)? I'd love to hear from you!

October Menu Planning

So, I finally sat down this weekend to plan out our October menu. As usual, there's always a little wiggle room and flexibility as new ingredients pop up unexpectedly (such as a share in a friend's CSA if they're out of town that week) or we just run out of steam one evening and use the go-to frozen pizza or 15 minute pasta meal. Here's the plan for the month:

Week 1: supper club meal (turned out to be shepard's pie made with venison... yumm), beef and cheddar pie, acorn squash chili

Week 2: barbecue chicken and black bean burritos (recipe from Cheap. Fast. Good!), crockpot vegetable soup (with homemade stock and frozen garden veggies from the summer), fruit and yogurt salad for lunches/breakfast, roasted butternut squash with sausage and apple stuffing (recipe from Joy of Cooking)

Week 3: French Toast Casserole (to make use of more berries from the freezer), sausages on buns (sausages were on sale at HT), perogies (free from a friend) with canned tomatoes, supper club meal

Week 4: Sausage and wild rice casserole (mom's recipe), chili with sausage and beans

We're using batch cooking several times this month. I cooked a pack of chicken thighs in the crockpot today, so we'll have the meat for the burritos and the stock for soups later in the month. The beans are easy to fix in the crock pot and freeze in one and two cup portions so they're easy to put into any meal. We'll also make some flexible Mexican filling (also from Cheap. Fast. Good!), since the farmer's market will close at the end of the month, we want to stock up on local beef for this recipe before then.

Breakfasts will be toast from homemade bread or homemade muffins that I make in the evenings or weekends to have throughout the week. Lunches are always leftovers, with yogurt, crackers, or granola bars to round things out. (We try to eat the more European way with a larger lunch and lighter dinners... it means we have longer to burn off the calories and we've got more energy to get us through an afternoon at work.)

We've done really well sticking to our $100-$150 a month grocery budget, although we went a little over last month to stock up on essentials and restock spices and baking products. This month, we're really going to work out of the freezer and do more to use up stuff that's stockpiled in the pantry and basement. Couponing has really helped, as has the grocery game. (If you decide to sign up, let me know! If you put me in as the person who referred you, I can earn a free month. :))

How's your monthly menu planning going? Have you found new coupon tips and tricks somewhere? I'd love to hear from you!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Seasonal cooking

Fall has officially set in here in the High Country, with night time temps hovering around 40. The fall wreath has been put on the front door, and the debate about pulling out the down comforter has begun. We'll see if we can make it through the month without turning on the heat. (We're typically the last hold outs, so we ought to be able to hang in there until November 1.)

With fall comes acorn and butternut squash, the "nut man" set up down the road with all sorts of local wares (pecans, hazelnuts, walnuts, etc.), apples, pumpkin, and cabbage. We love fall, with comfort foods and hot cider. For us, this means lots of soups, apple crisp, and potato hash with sausage, cabbage, and apples. One of our new favorite soups is this acorn squash chili, though we've substituted butternut squash sometimes and it's just as good. We threw some together last night for us and made another batch to share in our supper club.

My grandmother's recipe for apple crisp has been a hit at small group, and it's fabulous with vanilla icecream. It's super easy and comes together in a flash, so I thought I'd share the recipe. We also love these pumpkin cheesecake cupcakes, although we'd use something less labor intensive for the frosting.

Apple Crisp (from the Betty Crocker cookbook)

4 c apples, peeled and sliced
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 c water
3/4 c flour
1 c sugar
1/3 c butter or margarine

Place in buttered 10x6x2 baking dish 4 cups of sliced, peeled apples. (Usually 4-6 apples, depending on size.) Sprinkle with 1 tsp cinnamon, 1/2 tsp sale, and 1/4 c water. Rub together (use your hands) in separate bowl 3/4 c sifted all purpose flour, 1 c sugar, and 1/3 c butter or margarine. Mixture should be a coarse sandy texture. Drop mixture over apples. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes. Topping should be crunchy. (We sometimes have to use the broiler to help it along.) Serve warm with cream, ice cream, or plain. Serves 6-10.

I'd love to hear about your seasonal culinary adventures, so please leave a comment or two!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Project Update

Well, some of the projects on the earlier project post are completed or nearing completion, thanks to my dedicated and persistant husband.

The mirror that I refinished is now hanging nicely over our kitchen table and adds a great finishing touch to the space. The thing was a beast to hang because the frame was super solid wood, but we managed to add some picture wire to the back and get it centered on the wall with some drywall hangers. We found this cool tutorial to help us hang it at "museum height" (57" above floor height) so it really is the focal point of the wall.

The bathroom fixtures have all been hung and they look great! (After two years without a toilet paper holder, I think we're both grateful for the little things!) We hung the robe hook behind the door, but decided to forgo the towel bars for our bathroom due to the configuration of the space. Instead, we hung $3 stainless finish Command hooks on the back of the door. (There's plumbing in the wall that would be the obvious choice, and the other walls are too far away from the shower, so we'd end up dripping water everywhere.) Thanks to a Costco find, we were able to outfit our bathroom with all the fixtures for $30. The leftovers from that kit will go in the basement bath when we finish out that space.

We used a Lowe's card we got for our anniversary (thanks, D&D!) to purchase a set of faux wood blinds for our bathroom window. Benny and I managed to install them on a Sunday afternoon with minimal stress and no extra holes in the casing (hurray!). They look beautiful and are totally functional. I like the wide slats for easy cleaning in the bathroom, and the white color blends perfectly with the trim. I'm thinking we may add these (as the budget and gift cards allow) to the other windows downstairs for an additional layer of light and heat control.

The handrailings of the entire front deck are stained now. We're just waiting for a clear weekend day to stain the deck boards. That's how it seems to go with many of our outdoor projects... we're too exhausted during the week or don't have enough daylight, or it's raining on the weekend. The deck saga will continue...

As for the guest room furniture, it still sits in the basement. I'm hoping that perhaps over Thanksgiving I can at least get some of it primed and painted. Since it looks like we'll be staying in town for that holiday, that seems feasible.

The next projects before winter are to install a whole-house water filter (we scored a coupon for one at Lowe's and have some gift card funds squirreled away for that purchase) and a storm door for the front door. The storm door will help with heat loss in the winter, and with the screen, it will help with natural ventilation and cross-breeze in the spring/summer/fall. The whole-house filter will save our washing machine from dying a slow death due to sediment in the water from our well, as well as make the fridge filter last longer.

So, how do your projects go? Anything you're dying to refinish or revamp, but can't find the time? How do you finance your projects so they don't bust the budget? (We love the gift card and credit card points for saving the budget!) I'd love to hear from you!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Cool Faucet Giveaway

Over at the DIY Showoff, a Delta faucet is being given away! Check out the link here for more info, or the link in the blog roll. So, whether you're remodeling, adding an addition, or building totally from scratch, check out the Delta website and the giveaway.

September Meal Plan

So, this post is a bit belated, but I thought you might like to know how I go about making a meal plan for the month and what this month looks like for us. (I'm giving myself a break from National Boards reading for a few minutes, so I'm rewarding myself with a blog post... Benny would say it's more work, but I love it! :))

To make our meal plan, I first assess what we currently have on hand in the freezer, pantry, and fridge. Then I add the essentials to the grocery list (this month, it was cheese, milk, flour, and some seasonal veggies from friends and the farmer's market). The rest of the grocery list is built every week or two based on the Grocery Game list. This helps me to determine the plan for the month.

This month, I knew we had sausage in the freezer that we could use in chili and casseroles. We also had tomato sauce in the pantry, dried pasta, and the basics for bread in the machine. So, here's the breakdown for the month, based on the basics we had on hand, plus produce and additions from the Grocery Game list.

Week 1: chili and rice (use the crockpot to cook the chili and use free tomatoes and jalapenos from friends, dried beans that were cooked and frozen in portions, and a bottle of old beer); sausages on homemade buns with sauted cabbage, onions, and apples as relish; broccoli salad, applesauce, and homemade cookies as sides--if additional meals are needed, fill in with pasta and sausage pizza

Week 2: meal from supper club (this week it was a pineapple salsa chicken casserole), sausage casserole, and homemade pizza (bacon, veggies, and fresh herbs); sides are stewed apples (done in the crockpot) and yogurt purchased with coupons

Week 3: pasta e fagiole soup (using pantry pasta, canned tomatoes purchased with coupons, and beans cooked and frozen in batches); Mexican chicken pizza (homemade crust, chicken thighs cooked in crockpot and meat shredded, salsa as sauce, and cheddar cheese); french toast casserole with frozen fruit (free blackberries and local blueberries)

Week 4: supper club meal; stir fry with spicy Asian sauce over linguini; homemade pizza

For breakfasts, we generally either eat cereal (purchased with coupons for about $1 a box) or toast with homemade jam or cream cheese. Breakfast breads for this month include: beer bread, banana bread, apple cinnamon bread, and berry muffins. All of these are made from scratch using the bread machine or a good blending fork. Generally, we make breads on the weekend so we're around to pull them out of the bread machine. Almost all of our bread recipes come from Bread Machine Magic, though the beer bread recipe comes from Better Homes and Gardens Best Bread Machine Recipes.

Snacks and fillers for lunches include: yogurt, homemade cookies or brownies, crackers (store bought with coupons for about $1-$1.50 a box), or popcorn.

Our lunches are always leftovers from dinner, and we frequently pack up lunch portions after cooking the main dish to store them in the fridge. This makes packing lunches in the morning a breeze, since the meal is already packaged to go in the lunchbox and is in microwave ready containers for work.

I hope this gives you a little bit of an idea of how we go about planning for the month. Of course, sometimes things are a bit flexible... if I find a new recipe that I want to try and have things on hand to make it, then I'll substitute it for something else in the plan. Sides are always a bit flexible, and we try to do a lot of one dish meals, so that we don't have to fix a ton of sides. (That's why you see so many soups, casseroles, pizzas, etc.)

Here's to budget friendly cooking and saving on the energy bill by using the crockpot and microwave as much as possible for your meal prep! If you have questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you!

Harris Teeter Super Doubles

Just a quick post to let you know that this week is super double coupons at HT. That means that they will double coupons with a value of up to $1.98, so your $1 off coupon magically becomes $2 off. How cool is that? I know where I'll be on Friday after date night... the freezer section of HT, stocking up on Ben and Jerry's!

If you do the Grocery Game, the new list should be posted on Friday for HT. Happy shopping... and saving!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Fabulous Freebies

Here are a few freebie tips and sites I found this week that you might be interested in. Some are events while others are products.

1. Free Museum Day has fabulous offerings all over the country on September 25. In Charlotte, there's the Mint Museum and the History Museum, both of which sound cool to me.

2. The North Carolina Science Festival is happening September 11-26 and has some amazing events all over the state. Click on the date on the calendar you're interested in to find out what's available in your area. In the high country, there are several stargazing/lunar events at the university observatory. Some events have a cost, which is minimal, and others are free.

3. A free issue of Fresh Home, which looks like a fabulous decorating magazine.

4. Walmart.com always has free samples and they change almost weekly. We've found this is a great way to sample new products, as well as to get products to donate to the local food pantry (they also take toiletry items, so toothpaste and other samples are appreciated there) if we're not going to use the item. We have a "dummy" email account, so we don't find our inbox junked up.

5. If you're into gardening the way I am, the Home Depot Garden Club is a great way to find coupons and tips. Their emails are useful and I even find ideas that I can use with my students. The coupons are printables, and you can usually print more than one, so you can stock up on fall bulbs or mums now. (This is probably one you want to see in your regular email.)

I'd love to hear from you if you've found more fabulous freebies this week! Don't forget to check the blog roll, because several of those offer weekly give-aways too.

Increasing Your Savings and Giving

There are essentially two ways to increase your savings; one, to cut out extraneous expenses, and two, to increase your earning potential. As a family, we've cut out about all extra expenses we can while still living comfortably. For example, we cook in batches to save on energy, we line dry clothes, we cut out cable, don't have a local phone bill (aside from internet), carpool, and conserve on energy for heating/cooling as much as possible. Of course, we also shop sales, weigh our purchases as a need vs. want, and use coupons.

Since we've cut out about all that we can and still live with comfort, we've done what we can to increase our earning potential. Benny works overtime, when it's approved, to add a bit more to his paycheck. This is especially important for him in the summer, since winter can be slower and his hours have been known to be reduced during the off season for paint. I have, in the past two years, earned my master's degree, which puts me on a higher pay scale with the state. I've also found a few summer opportunities for professional development that offer stipends and have had the opportunity to work with a grant funded program through the university that pays well for some teaching during the summer. Recently, as a family, we have decided that this is the year that I will pursue National Board Certification. In North Carolina, currently, Nationally Board Certified teachers are compensated with an additional step in the pay scale. Since certification is good for ten years, we decided that this would be a good time for me to pursue this process, since we don't have kids yet and I'm still in the mode of reflective writing since I just finished graduate school. It's also a welcome challenge for me, since I have a fantastic and unique group of students this year, who will make the writing and portfolio construction very interesting.

We can continue to increase our giving during this time through in-kind donations, such as donating gently used items to Goodwill and our church, as well as using our coupons to purchase items at a deep discount for our local food pantry. Our food pantry also accepts home canned items, so the apples and jams that I can are gladly accepted. Of course, we continue to tithe to our local church and I make donations throughout the year to our school (both time and supplies) and my students.

All of that is to say that this will enable us to add more to our savings, begin to invest more, and give more to ministries and organizations we care about. Since I'm pursuing National Boards, it also means that I will have a little less time to devote to this blog. I still fully plan to post as frequently as possible, but that will likely be once a week, rather than the more frequent 2-3 times a week that I've been trying to post.

How do you go about increasing your savings and giving, while not sacrificing the time with family or hobbies that you love? Are you willing to wear yourself out for the short-term to gain in the long-term? I'd love to hear how you're saving and giving green!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Finding Fun on the Cheap

We love entertainment on the cheap, and free is even better. Yesterday, we had the opportunity to attend the High Country Beer Fest, which was a blast, even for the non-beer drinker, such as myself. Even better... we got in for free!

Benny signed up about a month ago as a volunteer for the festival, so that meant that he helped to set up and then worked a two hour shift. This also meant attending a training event on Friday evening, where they served barbecue and had music and beer on tap afterwards. So, needless to say, the training event was far less boring than most. After his set up time yesterday, he came home for a few hours. Then we went back together, me as his designated driver (which meant I got in for free), and attended the event. Benny served his shift by passing out glasses to everyone with a wrist band (which indicated that they were of age and had paid for a ticket). Later, when his shift was over, he sampled several beers (pouring some out along the way), and found several unique ones that may find their way to our fridge over the next few months.

I spent the time attending the workshops on brewing and pairing beers with foods. Of course, I found these incredibly interesting since I love to cook and like to eat even more. One workshop was on pairing cheeses and beers, and though I didn't drink any beer, I tasted some excellent cheeses from a local wine and cheese shop. In addition to the information and tasting, they also offered a 25% off coupon for any cheese in their store. And you know how I love coupons! Then, I went to a workshop on pairing beer with dessert, which I have to say I was a bit skeptical about. However, they quickly proved that they knew what they were doing. The spiced pecans were fantastic, and I can only imagine how good a glass of the raspberry lambic would be with the raspberry crepe they served. The puffed pastry drizzled with caramel and spiced pecans was fantastic, and the flourless chocolate torte was to die for!

When we finished up, we walked through the Broyhill Inn and stumbled upon an exhibit of water color paintings done by local artists. They were all professionally framed and for sale, and we found one that we decided to purchase for Christmas for each other. At $50, it was a steal for local original art, especially since it was already matted and framed. Even though we're really trying to save every cent we can right now, we felt like it fit our Christmas budget and we could more easily swing it since neither of us had to pay to attend the beer fest.

After that, we had dinner with friends (pot roast, salad, and homemade banana pudding for dessert... yummm). All in all, a fantastic way to spend the Saturday of a holiday weekend... relaxing, learning, and spending time with friends.

So, the next time you see an event you'd like to attend, but the ticket price is too steep, don't hesitate to investigate further for volunteer opportunities. It may be that it will provide you with more opportunity to learn about the event than just by attending at the full ticket price.

What about you? How have you found ways to enjoy the holiday weekend while sticking to your budget? Did you grill out with friends, labor around the house on some long-awaited project, or something else entirely? I'd love to hear how you did it, while saving what you could of the planet and your paycheck!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Coupon Party

This week I had the opportunity to attend a coupon party. Even though my week was crazy busy, I decided to go since I'd been wanting to check one out for a while. Here's the low down...

First, gather all coupons you're not going to use, as well as your coupon organizer and a pair of scissors. These are essential to making the most of the coupon party.

When I arrived at our coupon party, there was a stack of coupon flyers in the middle of the table that was up for grabs. Pretty much, we just sorted through and picked out what we wanted. I also found it helpful to let others know if I was looking for something in particular (yogurt coupons), so that if they found one they weren't going to use, they could pass it along to me. When couponing, it helps if you're not brand specific, so that you can make the most of the coupon good-ness. However, if you are, the coupon party is a great way to accumulate doubles or triples of things your family likes. (It saves you from having to buy an additional paper each week.) We were able to stock up on Yoplait coupons, as well as Pepperidge Farm cookie coupons (woohoo), among other things. I also found this to be a nice way to get a hold of some coupons I hadn't seen, since we get the Winston Salem Journal, while others get the Charlotte Observer.

The coupon party was a great way to get tips from others on their couponing methods, such as the Grocery Game and Southern Savers. It was also neat to see how other people organized their coupons. One person used a small photo album, another the baseball card holders, another just a binder with sheet protectors with the inserts in chronological order. For more on my couponing methods, check out this post, and those tagged with "coupons". I also found out about some great local deals, like "friending" Stick Boy on Facebook for daily and weekly deals. Too bad I missed out on the free cookie and coffee this week there! We also gathered up expired coupons to send to troops, who can use them on the bases for up to six months after the expiration date. I also shared that the Watauga Humane Society takes animal food coupons, so that's another way to share the wealth.

Probably the best thing about the coupon party was the chance to meet others in the community who are like-minded about savings. It was a nice way to meet some new moms, other gals who don't have kids yet, and get to share some dessert and grocery savings strategies. So, kudos to Amanda for organizing the coupon party this month! I'm hoping that I can attend again next month.

Have you found a local coupon party to attend? Maybe you can start your own to learn more from others, and at the very least, enjoy some social girl time. Here's to living and saving green, the party way!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Squeezing the Grocery Budget

We've always tried to be very thrifty with our grocery budget by making the most of coupons, sales, and discounts. This month, after assessing our overall budget and meeting last month with our financial planner, we decided that we would do everything we could to stick to our $150/month grocery budget. Here's how things went down...

The first two weeks of the month, we spent the bulk of our monthly budget, approximately $100. Primarily, this went to restocking the pantry, purchasing staples such as onions, potatoes, milk, and eggs (from our friends at Faith Mountain Farms). We also restocked the freezer with discounted meat, especially sausages, which were reduced for quick sale since they were getting ready to go out of date. We found some fantastic blueberry chicken sausages, as well as portabello mushroom chicken sausages, in the natural/organic section that were two and three dollars off the regular price and some were already on sale. We also found some of our favorite wine on sale at HT, which was an even better buy since they were doing 15% off a half case. So, that splurge was also calculated into the monthly grocery budget.

The next few weeks, we purchased only the essentials... milk, eggs (we go through about a dozen a week, especially since we like to have omelets for breakfast on Saturday), cheese, and sometimes fruit. We are blessed to have fresh herbs here at home, as well as friends who bring us lots of produce (zucchini, squash, tomatoes, peppers, carrots, etc.), and we know how to make use of local apple trees that others don't pick. I made two huge batches of applesauce from apples here at home and those I picked at school to stock the freezer and fill out our breakfasts and lunches. These weeks, we only spent about $15-$20 on groceries, if that.

The last week of the month is always the stretching point, but I think we did pretty well. I made a crock pot of beans (pintos and shelly beans, both given to us), seasoned with dried onion, garlic, cumin, diced jalapeno, and some chopped carrot just because we had it and I thought it would be a nice addition. We had beans on orzo for a few days, froze some for chili later this fall, and will make some into refried beans. Wednesday night we had dinner with some friends, so we just had to bring dessert... blackberry and apple cobbler to the rescue! The blackberries were from the freezer (free--we picked them earlier this summer), and the apples were canned by Benny's aunt and had been hanging out in the pantry waiting for just such a use. Friday night, we had steamed shrimp (a customer gave Benny a pound of fresh shrimp from his trip to the beach that he had frozen for us), homemade blueberry muffins (I substituted applesauce for the oil to use what we had in the fridge), and a sliced homegrown tomato. I also found a few cucumbers hanging out in our garden (the deer must have decided they weren't worth it), so we sliced those up with some vinegar for a little extra side. Dinner last night was with friends, so we just had to bring an appetizer (breadsticks from scratch--thank you bread machine--with tomato sauce from the freezer), and we took the stuff for homemade icecream (it pays to buy dairy in bulk). Tonight, we had pancakes, sausage, and applesauce. I prefer blueberries in my pancakes, so I added those, and I made some quick-and-dirty blueberry syrup by heating some blueberry jam in the microwave. We've got quinoa "hash" for lunch tomorrow with turkey kielbasa and brussel sprouts (thank you frozen veggies at 50 cents a pouch with coupons).

So, all in all, even with our splurges, more expensive local eggs and organic milk, we were able to stick to our $150 grocery budget without too much pain at all. Of course, the Grocery Game helped, along with triple coupons one week, and knowing how to shop a sale at the meat counter. We're always grateful for the kindness of friends who share out of their garden abundance, and we try to return that favor as much as possible (homemade applesauce or fresh herbs, anyone?).

The ultimate goal of this penny pinching is to beef up our savings account, as well as to tackle a few more home improvement projects before winter (hello gas logs!). So, what about you? What's your strategy for making your dreams happen? How are you saving a penny in order to earn one somewhere else? I'd love to hear from you!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Reuse it or Lose it

Today's post is all about finding new ways to reuse items that some might be ready to send to the landfill or recycling center. Here are a few that we commonly implement here at home to lessen our environmental impact.

1. Reuse the old shower curtain liner. We've used them for drop cloths when we're painting, as a tarp in a pinch, and you can use them to help protect plants during early spring when late frosts threaten new growth. I've even seen friends cut them into smaller portions and use them under high chairs to keep the mess from getting out of control. (Though that would be totally unnecessary here with the fuzzy Hoover picking up every crumb in sight.)

2. Find new uses for containers that once held products in the fridge. We use milk jugs for watering containers and berry picking. They also make excellent scoops if you cut part of the top off (try them for bailing water out of the boat after a rainstorm or for scooping up compost to add to the garden in small portions). For containers with tight fitting lids, like whipped topping, we commonly use them for taking things to church potlucks, taking food to a family who just had a baby, and gatherings with friends. That way, it's no biggie if we forget it. You can easily reuse the yogurt and sour cream containers for starting plants from seed or delivering small transplants to friends.

3. Reuse aluminum foil and ziploc bags. If the foil is clean or easy to wash after covering soup or a casserole, we'll reuse it to cover something else. We reuse our gallon size ziploc bags several times if they're going to hold the same thing, like our weekly batch of homemade bread.

4. Reuse jam and jelly jars. If you're going to make refrigerator jam or a standard batch of jam that you plan to use right away and keep in the fridge, then you can reuse these jars. You can't process these in the boiling water bath, as you would with standard canning jars, but as long as they're sterile (we wash ours in the dishwasher), then you can reuse them if they're going straight to the fridge. You can also use them for salsas, pickles, etc. in the same way.

5. Reuse cardboard and newspaper. I've written quite a bit about using these in the garden to block weeds, but we've also used large sections of cardboard to mount posters on for display (great in a pinch for school projects). For example, we mounted a county map on a piece for our neighborhood small groups at church. Once this is finished and we're done with the map, then I plan to trim the cardboard a bit and make a memo board out of it by covering it with some batting, scrap fabric, and criss crossed ribbon. This will be a great organizational tool at school and will cost far less than purchasing one new, since I have all the materials on hand.

6. Reuse the unexpected. You can always get creative with old china, metal containers, large metal cans, baskets, etc. if you plan to use them in the garden. I discovered a cool old metal gas can when we were cleaning out my mom's shed, which I (really Benny) plan to drill some holes into the bottom and plant some cascading plants into the small hole. I think it'll add a nice eclectic touch to the garden in the spring, and the green patina of the container will blend in nicely with the other plants in the garden. Old potato bins can make unique trash cans or recycling centers, especially if you have some vision with stain or paint. The same is true of baskets of all shapes and sizes; think blanket storage, a place to stash kid or dog toys, hide your collection of magazines neatly, etc. Smaller containers can hold jewelry, mail, collect pens on a desk, and a variety of other uses.

So, with yard sale season in full swing and treasures always to be found at thrift stores, I hope this gives you a few ideas. I know when I passed a few yard sales on my way home from the farmer's market this morning, I was sorely tempted to swing in and see what I could find!

Here's to creative reuse, saving a bit of cash along the way, and keeping things out of the waste stream for at least a little longer--one of the easiest ways to live a little greener. I'd love to hear your reuse ideas!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Project Update

This weekend, we managed to slowly tackle a few things on the project list I posted a few weeks ago. We also found time to do some batch cooking and have a fantastic homemade pizza for date night on Friday.

Friday's pizza consisted of homemade dough made in the bread machine, using our favorite bread machine book, Bread Machine Magic. Then, we pulled and stretched the dough to form two 14 inch rounds onto which we layered several yummy toppings. These included mushrooms (re-hydrated gourmet mushrooms from Costco), bacon, onions, green pepper from our garden (which the deer did not find), and cheese. We had contemplated some fresh tomato, but the pizzas seemed to be getting overloaded, so we added those to eggs for breakfast on Saturday. We topped the pizzas off with some fresh basil from our garden and some red pepper flake, which we love on pizza. (We have some pictures, but I don't know how to get them off Benny's phone right now.) They were fantastic, and we had enough left over to have some on Saturday night also. So much better, and cheaper, than ordering delivery or pick up.

Saturday, I tackled finishing the mirror project by painting the mirror with two coats of black paint (once in the morning and again in the evening), and then dry brushed some silver acrylic paint onto the raised portions of the frame on Sunday. It looks fabulous, although it needs a bit of cleaning up with a razor blade along the interior edge, mostly because I didn't pull the tape off soon enough. I didn't get any before pictures, but I'll post some after ones soon. (This no pic thing is becoming a theme...)

Saturday morning, we also stained a portion of the deck. Really, by the time we (by we, I mean Benny) dealt with the wasp nest behind the siding (seriously... how did they get in there?!), and a quick sweeping of the deck, we got one more section of railing done. But, hey, progress is progress. The plan is to do some more staining next Saturday morning. Part of the difficult part of this project is that it's so weather dependent, and we can't do it in full sun (difficult when we face south) because the stain won't cure properly.

Yesterday evening, we made a tuna melt pie which was great, although I think it could have used some green pepper. We'll make this for our supper club this week to share with Michele. I'd definitely recommend it if you're looking for good comfort food; it totally fits the bill for that! (The link for it isn't up yet, but it's in the most recent Rachel Ray magazine.)

So, how go your last minute summer projects? Any yummy dishes you've made that you want to share? I'd love to hear from you!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Deer Me!

Stick with me... I'll get to the title in a bit...

Over the weekend, we went to visit my college roommate, her husband, and their almost two year old son. It was a fabulous way to end the summer and incredibly relaxing. They're so easy to be with and love much of the same stuff that we do, so it's super fun to spend time with them.

We chose this past weekend (and not another summer weekend) to go because it was the annual crafts fair (54th annual) in Burnsville, NC and it's an event that we discovered through Donna and Jeremy. We had a blast checking out all the handmade stuff from all over the region, including a wealth of pottery, fused or stained glass art, fiber crafts, and others. While we were there, we picked up a pottery mug and some culinary lavender, since we'd run out of what we had from Annie at Sunshine Lavender. We also ended up leaving with about eight Rose of Sharon bushes that they were wanting to get rid of, so I'll plant those along the fence line here. They'll be beautiful next summer.

While we were away (here's today's focus topic), the deer totally chowed down on my veggie garden. The tomatoes that were almost ripe are completely gone. The peppers (even the hot ones!) were chewed to bits. They even ate the fuzzy zucchini and cucumber leaves... who knew they'd eat those?! And they went after those when there were tons of apples from our tree in the woods...

So, we're contemplating how to keep the deer out next season. We've tried flowers (marigolds and herbs) with some success (the peppers in the flower garden haven't been touched... so glad I tried two locations). A local friend said that you can try human hair or urine around the perimeter. (I'm thinking that I know several three year olds who would love the opportunity to pee in the yard!) And then there are the obvious... fences. The varieties are endless... picket (pricy), barbed wire (dangerous), woven wire (think chain link or wire mesh), and the list goes on. We'll probably end up going the woven wire route, since we have some left in the basement from a previous project. It's also one of the cheaper options, and the fence itself would serve as a great trellis for beans, squash, climbing flowers, etc. The trick is going to be to make it look attractive and tall enough to keep the deer out. Ultimately, we want a solution that will be earth friendly, and even healthy for the deer, while keeping our veggies safe and sound. Yet another project to add to the DIY list... :)

If anyone has any tricks for fencing or keeping deer out of the veggies, I'd love to hear them! Here's to living and saving green in garden pest control!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A Baker's Pantry Must-Haves

You all know how I love to bake. It seems that it's an inherited trait from my kitchen diva Aunt Debbie (she's an aunt by marriage, but we'll not get into the genetics thing today... just go with it). I grew up spending countless hours around Christmas time with her and my cousins in the kitchen, primarily baking. We baked triple batches of sugar cookies, the family's (Uncle David's) favorite sand dabs, cream cheese coffee cakes, ginger bread men, and even candies, like toffee.

So, when the mood strikes (which is often, fortunately for Benny), I like to bake. Often, this is simply a loaf of bread in the bread machine, which takes no brain power whatsoever. But I do love to bake cookies from scratch for pot lucks, cobblers with seasonal or frozen fruit, bundt cakes and coffee cakes just to have around for breakfasts or dessert. I do NOT like having to run out to the grocery store every time I pull out a recipe, so I've learned to keep a few staples on hand in the pantry. It makes the whole process so much more enjoyable.

1. Flour: I keep several types of flour on hand. My staples are all-purpose (unbleached, if I can find it), whole wheat, bread flour, and self-rising. The ones I use most are the AP, whole wheat, and bread flour. The self-rising is nice to have on hand for coffee cakes, etc., since it often simplifies the process. I also like to keep some type of specialty flour to "play" with in bread recipes. My current selection is rye, from the bulk bins at Earth Fare. (If you don't want to commit to 5 lbs, buying from the bulk bins is the way to go, because you can get as much or as little as you need.)

2. Grains/Nuts/Dried Fruit: I always keep rolled oats on hand. These are a great addition to breads, coffee cakes, meatloaf, etc., and of course, for oatmeal. I try to keep a few kinds of nuts on hand, some for snacking and some for baking (although Benny likes the stash of pecans for baking so much that I often have to keep double on hand). Currently, I have a few pecans and some mixed nuts. I also have some sunflower seeds, which make a nice addition to bread. The dried fruit is fun to add to bread and rolls, as well as to oatmeal or salads. We generally keep at least raisins and craisins on hand, and we also have dried currents right now.

3. Sugar: I generally have three types of sugar on hand: granular, powdered, and brown (either light or dark). I also know that if I run out of brown sugar, I can whip some up with the molasses and regular sugar and have the same thing without a trip to the store.

4. Miscellaneous pantry staples: Many recipes call for buttermilk, but I generally don't use that quick enough to warrant it taking valuable real estate in the fridge. So, I keep powdered buttermilk on hand. It's super easy to use and lasts much longer than the refrigerated variety. I keep powdered milk on hand for my bread recipes, and it's also great in a pinch if I run out of milk before the weekend shopping trip. As I mentioned before, I keep molasses on hand for various uses. We also keep a large bottle of olive oil and vegetable/canola oil on hand for baking. (If you're caught without the veg oil, you can use olive oil in most recipes and it tastes the same. You can also substitute applesauce.)

5. Refrigerator items: The basics--eggs, milk, butter (please, use the real stuff), yeast, and cream cheese. We have started trying to buy our eggs locally from a family at the farmer's market, so that more of our purchase goes into the local economy. The butter is always unsalted. I purchase it at Costco or Sam's and freeze most of it. This means that I'm never without, and if I think ahead, I can thaw it in the fridge before I need it. I keep a jar of yeast in the fridge for our weekly bread making in the machine. I like to keep a package of cream cheese on hand so that I can quickly pull together a yummy coffee cake or bundt cake without any hassle.

6. Spices: vanilla (homemade if you can), cinnamon, whole nutmeg (it has a better flavor and lasts longer), cloves, cream of tartar (not a spice, but go with it--use it for icing), and chocolate chips (I generally have the swirled variety and semi-sweet).

By keeping all of this on hand, purchasing in bulk and on sale (I stock up when flour/sugar is on sale around the holidays), and planning ahead, you'll be well on your way to a baker's dream. By baking from scratch, I have a better sense of what goes into the food I'm eating or giving to people, and save a ton over purchasing these baked goods from a bakery. It also means that I'm saving on the packaging that many of these items come with, therefore saving the earth a bit in the process. (Not to mention the saved fuel and CO2 from planning ahead and not running out to the store every time I need something.)

So, what are your pantry staples? Do you have any go-to recipes for weeknight baking or pot lucks? Here's to living and saving green in the kitchen!

Outlet shopping

Earlier this summer, I had the opportunity to teach a two week workshop at Clemson University. It was an awesome experience, despite the heat, and I loved working with the kids and teachers. But the real meat of this post is about what I found along the way... the Gaffney Outlet Mall in SC. (Can you hear the dramatic music playing... this place is incredible!)

Among the shops that were there, I found the Pottery Barn Outlet (cue dramatic crescendo). I could have spent hours in this place and I saw so many things to drool over... table linens, bedding, outdoor furnishings, and of course, the clearance/scratch and dent section. What did I find in the clearance section? A $3 linen colored hemp table runner. At 108", it was a bit long for our table, but that was nothing my mom couldn't handle with the help of my Grandma's sewing machine (I could have done it by hand, but she offered.) So now, I have a custom length table runner and a nice big basket liner for the basket we put dinner rolls in when we have company. (Come on, when it's just us, we just grab them hot off the pan... don't you?) Thanks, Mom for the help with that!

I also found the Hanes outlet, where I found my favorite bras on clearance for $2.50 each! So, I scored two of those, and was on my way to explore some more. I also found the Bath and Body Works outlet, which was way cheaper than the retail places in the mall, but I still couldn't rationalize paying $3 for foaming soap I could make myself for pennies. I did make a mental note that this might be a nice place to stop in for gifts, if I'm ever in the market for stuff like that and we're in the Charlotte area.

Later this summer, when we were at Hatteras with Benny's mom, we discovered the outlets there (it was raining... no, we didn't blow off the beach on a pretty sunny day to go shopping). We browsed each store, noting that they weren't that different from what the Blowing Rock outlets offer, but we found a few deals. One was a book store that did a lot of second hand books, so we gathered up three for $10 for beach reading. (I like cheesy romance novels for beach reading, but I don't like to pay full price for something I'm only going to read once or twice. And I didn't have enough library books with me, once the rain set in.) The cool thing about this shop was that you could bring in two of the books you'd purchased from him and trade them out for a new one. So, had we been there longer, we could have made even greater use of the great deal we were getting.

We also found the Bass outlet at Hatteras, which meant that I wanted to try on almost every pair of sandals in the store. I'm a sucker for sandals, especially comfortable ones like Bass offers. They had a pretty good sale going, but I knew I didn't need a new pair of sandals. But if you're a shoe hound like me, you know how they can just keep calling your name. Finally, I found one pair on the clearance table (can you tell that's where I usually start in the store?!) for $15. Benny's mom had a $10 off coupon, so by the time I used that, they came out to six dollars and some change with tax. Not too shabby for a new pair of sandals! They'll be great for teaching in, and fairly versatile, because they're brown with a little bit of a wedge heel. So, they'll work with skirts and pants.

Have you scored any great deals at outlet malls? I'd love to hear about your summer shopping adventures! Here's to living and saving green, even when shopping!

Nothin' like the last minute...

So, today I've decided to make the most of my last official day of summer. It seems that I have, in my great fashion, managed to save most of my rehab/painting projects until the last possible minute of summer. Part of this was due to all the traveling I did this summer, and part was because I couldn't keep myself from spending as much time in the garden as possible. Since it's overcast today and looking like rain, I've decided to stay indoors and take care of some more batch cooking and painting rehab projects. Here are the goals (it always helps to put goals in writing)...

1. Take the huge but dated mirror acquired from my grandmother's house and bring it up to date with our home. The frame currently has a painted on antique brass patina that is in desperate need of some updating. So, I'll prime it this morning and then paint it black with some silver dry brushing highlights this afternoon. (This is why I forced myself to get back into the school routine of getting up before 6:00 today.)

2. Attempt to spray paint the last of the outdoor furniture, if the rain holds off. (I tried to do this about a week ago, got all set up, painted for 30 seconds, and promptly threw a fit when the spray can clogged. We're hoping that my paint guru hubby can fix the problem and we'll be on our way to new deck seating.)

3. By the end of the month (since this one is weather contingent), have the front deck stained. We've already cleaned it and prepped it for stain, but we're in that lovely summer cycle in Appalachia of rain almost every day, which is great for the garden, but not for the deck stain.

4. By Labor Day weekend (or on that weekend), have the rest of the guest room furniture that is currently stored in the basement repainted. (The reason it's in the basement is because I refuse to bring it upstairs until it matches everything in the room, because I know if I bring it up before it's repainted, I will never get it done.) Currently, that furniture has an ages old oil-based paint which was, at some point in it's life, white. Right now, it is an incredibly yellowed cream (due to the aging of the oil based paint). The plan is to prime it and paint it white to match everything else in that room.

I would love to use low VOC paints for these projects, but most of them will make use of the leftovers we have in the basement (gotta love free). As for the deck, we're going with a semi-solid oil-based product, which my husband says is the best for our purposes, since the deck is exposed to all sorts of weather and gets full sun all day. This stain will hold up the best and the longest, meaning that we shouldn't have to tackle that project again for a few years.

So, if you're one of those folks who gets a huge kick out of the process of painting (I love the end results, but find that I'm often too impatient and get heavy handed), feel free to come visit for the weekend! :) I'll even feed you (there are homemade hotdog buns rising as I type this!).

Where are you with your summer "to do" list? Have you procrastinated like I have, in favor of spending time with family and friends (and the garden), or have you checked it all off and are now enjoying the sun in your newly refurbished outdoor space? I'd love to hear from you!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Batch cooking for fall

As I wind down my last week of summer before the kiddos come back to school, I've been doing some major batch cooking to make the first few weeks of the school year easy. I've talked about batch cooking before, but this time it has taken a slightly different twist with all the fresh summer produce available. So, here's the run down...

I've begun canning and freezing more produce. I started with jam at Michele's and have moved on to blanching green beans to freeze, making applesauce from our apples here at the house, and canning salsa and marmalade (which is working on the stove right now and smelling great). I've also done some refrigerator pickles with cucumbers from our garden which will be ready to add to sandwiches and burgers in about a month.

The applesauce is so easy it's ridiculous, as long as you have the right tools. When mom was here, she was helping me do some of the jam and thought a food mill might come in handy. She picked up one from a retailer in Hickory (it's the OXO brand), and it worked great! All you do it wash and quarter your apples and simmer them with some water until they start to fall apart. For me, this took about 20 minutes, since the apples were small. Then, you just ladle the mixture into the food mill, which is positioned over a bowl, and turn the crank. I ended up with about three gallons of homemade applesauce to use, and it was totally free! It will be a great addition to winter time meals, lunches, and a substitute in baking for the extra oil. The food mill is also nice for making other fruit purees and baby food, so I'll probably make some homemade baby food to give as gifts at Christmas.

I decided on canning salsa, since it's one of our favorite condiments and additions to casseroles, and we've had several friends give us jalapeños, and the tomatoes looked great at the farmer's market this weekend. (I don't have enough coming in from my plants to do a whole batch.) I'm using this recipe for the salsa, which sounds really easy and will give us the flavors we want. The nice thing about working with the tomatoes is that you don't have to use the pressure canner, since they have a high enough acid content (to keep out the nasty bacteria). This means that I can do this with the canning rack and pot we found while cleaning out mom's shed (I saw the same thing at Lowe's for about $60--free is so much better!). If you know you won't be doing a ton of canning, you might want to purchase one of these with a friend or borrow one to try it out. (I was a little intimidated by the canning thing at first, but it really is simple, as long as you plan well.)

We've also started a supper club, which means that my first recipe (the zucchini and ricotta tart) goes out today and we get a main dish from someone else. We've decided to do it as a once a month thing for starters, just to see how it goes, and so we have room in the freezer for the leftovers. This frees up more time for all of us involved in the long run, because it means that we don't have to worry about what's for dinner that night and we can simply make a double batch of a great recipe to share.

Of course, the bread machine keeps on whirring as I crank out zucchini bread and sunflower bread for sandwiches and breakfast toast. The machine also makes it incredibly easy to make bread for friends. (We're taking some to a family with a new baby on Thursday.)

All of this means that I'm saving money by purchasing (or bartering or growing) produce at it's best and cheapest (and local, when I can), and saving it for later. By canning my own things, I am able to reuse the jars each year, which means I save a ton on that cost. (You can also find jars rather inexpensively at thrift stores and flea markets, if you look. Your friends may also have some that they're going to recycle, so you might ask around there.) Plus, I really like knowing what's going into our food and having a connection with the people who grew what we're eating.

So, how're you continuing to use that summer produce? Are you finding time to make the minutes in the kitchen count? Are you managing to save some green while living green this summer? I'd love to hear from you!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Summer Lovin'

So, I've been on a blogging hiatus for a while, mostly due to professional development and vacation. But I'm sooo glad to be back and enjoying all that home has to offer this summer! I wanted to share a bit with you about what culinary/gardening adventures I've been up to over the past week, in hopes that it might inspire you to make the most of the bountiful summer produce you find in your own garden or at the local farmer's market.

Last week, while visiting with my mom, I had the opportunity to visit a few gardens in the eastern part of the state. One thing that I've found with gardeners is that they are generally very willing to share both their knowledge and their plants. So, I came home with a back seat full of perennial flowers, ground covers, and a few herbs. Most of what I planted has survived, despite the continued heat wave (it took lots of watering). The most exciting thing for me in sharing with these gardeners was to learn from them. One prides herself on her organic vegetable garden, which is totally amazing, so that really helped me out with our veggie garden here. Another is a Master Gardener (see your local ag extension office if you don't know about that program), so she shared a lot with me about saving seeds and amending soils. The last was a family friend who has always had a love of garden and has inspired me to begin collecting stones from our travels to add to our flower gardens as another layer of textural interest and a unique trip down memory lane.

When I got back here, blackberry season was in full force, so we spent several hours picking berries (and climbing into thickets or up banks others might have deemed dangerous--anything in the name of fresh summer berries!). We also found a blueberry patch a friend told us about where you can pick a gallon for $5! (Do you realize you pay that much for 8 ounces at the grocery store! Ridiculous!) So, we picked a gallon of those last Tuesday evening. This all came together beautifully when a friend volunteered to help me learn to can home grown produce, so last Friday I made my very first batch of mixed berry jam! I haven't opened the first jar yet, but we're totally looking forward to it. I'm hoping to be able to make some apple jelly or butter this fall with our apples and give some of both as Christmas gifts.

The same friend who helped me with the canning (thanks, Michele!), also has an amazing vegetable garden. Like most gardeners, theirs seems to grow a bit every year, and it seems this year it grew a little too large... so large they can't keep up with eating all the produce! That means that we get to share in the bounty. :) They've offered us tons of yellow squash, zucchini, cucumbers, and green beans. In addition to helping her can some of the cucumbers as pickle relish (another fun learning experience), I've experimented with some new recipes for squash and zucchini. Of course, we've steamed some in the microwave with our fresh herbs and some of the first peppers from our garden. I also discovered this zucchini tart recipe in the recent edition of the Rachel Ray magazine, which I tried on Sunday night. I'll warn you, it's labor intensive, so prepare yourself for a few hours in the kitchen. (I did use the food processor for slicing the zucchini and wouldn't hesitate to steam the zucchini first, rather than doing the salt soak thing to get the moisture out, since it's going to be cooked anyway. We also made a double batch, since we had the ingredients.) I'm also wanting to try a zucchini bread recipe, as well as a squash casserole. Does anyone have a fantastic squash casserole recipe you love?

One thing I've been doing with the abundance of fresh herbs I have is making herb butter to put in the freezer for winter, when I don't have those fresh herbs on hand. This is so easy to do and takes practically no time. First, I use room temp butter (this usually means I set it out the night before or sometime that morning to make an afternoon batch). You can use as much as you'd like, but I generally only soften one stick at a time so that I have a variety of flavors in the freezer. Then I chop my herbs (as much or little as your taste preference is). Some of my favorite flavor combos are parsley, chives, and cilantro; parsley, chives, and sage; parsley, chives, and basil; lemon balm and mint. Then, I just mix the butter and chopped herbs in a bowl with a fork or small spatula and place the blob on waxed paper. I make a roll with it inside the waxed paper, double wrap in plastic wrap or aluminum foil, and label it. Then it goes in the freezer. This is a fantastic addition to any sauté you do in the winter, as well as great for adding to burger patties (we put about 1/2 tbs. in the center of each patty before grilling and love it!), meatloaf, or spreading onto bread for garlic bread.

I can't wait for the summer tomatoes to come in later this week! They're looking beautiful on the vines right now, but I am so ready to pop one in my mouth! There's just nothing quite like a home grown, vine ripened tomato.

So, how are you enjoying the love that nature has to offer in the veggie garden and farmer's market this summer? Are you finding, as I am, that your dollar goes further for better produce at the farmer's market than the grocery store, or is it a toss up to you? Here's to living and saving green on produce this summer! I'd love to hear from you!

If you're into local food and farmer's markets the way I am and haven't read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, I highly recommend it. I just started it and can hardly put it down!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Busy Summer

Just a quick note to let my dedicated readers know that I have a busy few weeks with professional development and will not be posting much again until mid-July. I'll let you know how I both lived and saved some green along the way in those pursuits then.

Hoping you're enjoying your summer and surviving the heat wave!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Summer Garden Goodness

This weekend I had the pleasure of using quite a few of our garden plants for various things around the house. Here's what we made:

Raspberry iced tea: We steeped the tea bags with the raspberries (in a strainer or tied up in a coffee filter works nicely) and some lemon balm. Then, we added the sugar while the concentrated tea was still warm so the sugar would melt. Finally, we added the appropriate amount of water to get two quarts and enjoyed some ice cold goodness!

We picked some blackberries and black raspberries from some of our bushes that have been thriving in the heat wave. We added them to cereal, yogurt, and just enjoyed them to munch on. Nothing like living off the land!

I added some fresh basil to a store bought pizza (of course purchased with a coupon that was doubled during super doubles at HT) and it really helped to perk up the flavor. I've also added chives or cilantro in the past and that's been yummy too.

Benny added some fresh cilantro to his enchilada casserole. This really brightened the flavor of all of the canned ingredients. It's also a nice pop of color in the dish.

Lastly, and this one I haven't gotten to yet, I plan to do a few cut flower arrangements with the herbs and flowers fresh from the garden. The calla lilies are blooming now, as are the Easter lilies I bought last year (after Easter for 75 cents a plant... score!), and I think these would be gorgeous in a small glass vase or floating the lilies in a shallow bowl. The lemon balm and mint would add some nice fragrance to wild flower arrangements on the mantle and in the kitchen window.

So, how does your garden grow this week? Are you enjoying any of the fruits of your labor? I'd love to hear from you! Here's to living and saving green in the summer garden.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Things I'm Loving

Today's post is all about things I'm loving, especially for outdoors this summer. I hope you enjoy the pictures and links and that they inspire you to think about how you can make your outdoor space more enjoyable.

Rain Barrel I'm loving this from Lowe's and think it might be the next purchase to improve our garden area. It will certainly make watering in front of the house easier and will help to recapture some rain water, rather than using our potable well water for watering the flowers.

This hammered spray paint from Rustoleum is helping us to transform some slightly rusted white iron outdoor furniture (thanks to wonderful kitchen diva Aunt Debbie and ranger Uncle David). The white would have been beautiful in the right setting, but this paint felt more in keeping with our colors and outdoor design. With some outdoor pillows, it will be perfect for relaxing on the deck in the evenings.

I'm loving having my fresh herbs this summer to use in the kitchen. The lemon balm is a great addition to cut flower arrangements. I'd love to have an herb basket, something with a nice handle and a low frame, to carry around the yard when I gather herbs and flowers to keep both hands free when I need them. I'm thinking something along these lines, with the hope that I can find one at Goodwill or a yard sale. This one came from an Etsy shop, Carol's Cupboard, but it's a bit out of my price range for a basket.

Along those lines, I'm loving our library's current collection of landscaping and gardening books. It's allowed us to get some great ideas for free, as well as providing me with resources on how to deal with some of the pruning details and soil amendments that I had questions about. I've also found some fantastic summer reads at the library, many of which come from the staff pick section, which is a nice way to pick up something quickly.

Lastly, I'm loving adding to our pottery mug collection. I found a cool one last weekend at Goodwill in Raleigh for $2.50... score! It's the perfect colors for our kitchen and living room and has a nice shape. I don't have any like this stoneware mug that I found on Etsy. I like the shape of this mug, and the handle seems to be large enough to suit our needs and taste.

So, what about you? What are you loving this summer? Had any fantastic Goodwill finds or ideas for your summer garden? Here's to living and saving green in your summer ventures!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Summer Batch Cooking

This summer, I'm exploring more of the idea of batch cooking. The idea has been rolling around for a while, but a conversation with a friend last week really helped to get the idea solidified.

First, I'm doing more crock pot batch cooking for us (whole chickens for shredded chicken for casseroles, soups, chicken salad, etc., pots of beans for three bean salad, beans and rice, baked beans, etc., and other recipes I come across), so that the freezer is always stocked with the essentials to put together an easy and healthy meal. This is really easy in the summer when produce is so abundant at home and at the farmer's market. (And I love to cook apples in the crock pot in the fall... yummy) I've also made quite a few vinegar based salads, which will keep in the fridge for a week or two. (I'll post my bean salad recipe later today, and maybe my kitchen diva aunt's squash salad recipe.)

But to take it a few steps further, Michele offered to teach me how to do some canning this summer. She has some great recipes for a squash relish and raspberry/blackberry jam, and if the tomatoes turn out great this summer, we might try making our own tomato sauce. I'm so excited about this! It will be great to have some of this summer's harvest on the pantry shelf for fall and winter, and will definitely save us some money in the food budget. (Not to mention the jam will make great Christmas gifts.)

We've also talked about creating a freezer supper club with people, so that we'll all have well stocked freezers with a variety of things. For example, one month, I might agree to make a lasagna, while Michele might make a soup and Beth might make a chicken casserole. We'd each triple the recipe and make one batch for each person, so that we'd all end up with one of each thing. I'm really hoping that this will take off, because I think it would truly simplify life for everyone and give us the chance to try some new recipes.

What are you enjoying making this summer in the kitchen? Have any great canning recipes you'd like to share? (It looks like we'll have an abundance of squash and peppers, so send those recipes my way!) Here's to living and saving green in the summer kitchen!

Community Living at it's Best

This summer we have the pleasure of having my cousin live with us. She's in grad school here in the High Country and needed a place to stay for the summer while she takes classes and has her first practicum experience at the speech and language clinic on campus. It's been a great time to get to know her better, since we kind of drifted apart during those high school and college years.

One thing that she's helped us to think about more is vegetarian cooking and eating. She's a vegetarian, primarily out of her love of animals, and has been for several years now. While we're not vegetarian, we do have an understanding of how many livestock animals are raised in this country and feel that we have a moral obligation to use our purchasing power to curtail this. So, for us, this means purchasing less meat overall. (Did you know that it takes a vast amount of petroleum resources and grain stock to raise a beef cow, than to support a vegetarian lifestyle?) Secondly, it means purchasing from reputable sources, such as the ones we find at our local farmer's market or Earth Fare. By simply doing these two things, we can feel much better about how our food is grown and raised, and it means that we have a smaller carbon footprint, since our meat doesn't have to travel as far or use as many petroleum based machines for processing.

With my cousin living here, we've also learned a lot about communal living, which is something our small group has explored for a while. We've shared several meals together, meaning that the work is less on all of us to prepare that meal. She's been able to enjoy having a dog around (which she always wanted as a kid, but couldn't have due to asthma in the family), and Lavender has learned to be much more social with one more person. She's helping to keep the upstairs part of the house neat and tidy, which means less work for us. And it means that while we're on vacation, she'll be here keeping an eye on things and making sure things go smoothly here at home, including the vegetable harvest.

Later this summer, we're hoping to add another friend to the communal living arrangement for a few weeks while his house is being finished. He's offered to help us with some major landscaping projects in exchange for the room, as well as lending a hand in the kitchen with his excellent culinary skills. And, since his family will be using our basement to store their things for the short term, it'll be incentive to clean out the basement.

We're hoping that this will better prepare us for the one-day basement apartment and sharing the house with a renter. It's also definitely helping us complete some projects that we might not otherwise get done, or would put off due to the time/cost investment.

What are your thoughts on sharing your space with someone else? Could you do it, or would it be too much? How could you make it work for everyone to provide a better quality of life? What would you learn from each other?

Here's to living and saving green, and spreading that beyond your household!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Let the Mercury Rise...

It's officially summer in the High Country... it hit the 80 degree mark inside yesterday. With summer comes a few tips for staying cool and making the most of a hot day at home (yay, school's out for summer!).

In the summer, I generally try to get up early still to make the most of the cooler morning temperatures. This is when I do any baking that needs to be done and I try to cook ahead for the evening. I use the crock pot a lot in the summer, since it doesn't heat the house up as much as the oven, and to get it ready for evening meal time, I need to get it going early in the day. For example, on Tuesday, I made a batch of turkey soup in the crock pot for friends who just had a new baby. It cooked all day and used way less energy than making it on the stove top. Yesterday, I baked a carrot cake (from scratch... used the recipe in the New Best Recipes Book from Cook's Illustrated... totally yum), early in the day so that I wasn't roasting in the afternoon. You can also keep things cool at meal time by cooking on the grill or having a no cook meal, like salad and sandwiches or antipasti (which I prefer to sandwiches, mostly).

After the baking and meal prep work is done, I move on to laundry, since I can hang this outside during the sunny day and be guaranteed that it's dry by dinner time or sooner. While the laundry goes, I might take the opportunity to work in the garden weeding or planting, so that the morning temps make it easier and the moisture from the dew helps the weed pulling go easier. I'm loving our veggie garden right now... tons of baby green tomatoes and today I spied our first baby bell pepper! (I'll post pics when I can snag Benny's phone to get some. They're so cute!)

I usually devote the afternoon to errands, since these are generally to air conditioned buildings, like the library and Post Office. When I don't have errands to run, I spend the time relaxing reading, watching a movie, or doing some other low key house thing (crafts, organizing a closet, etc.). I try to make sure the curtains are drawn during this part of the day, at least at the front of the house, so the heat of the sun doesn't pour in. (This does cut down on the natural light, but I still get plenty from the back windows.) This is also when we have the windows open wide and the ceiling fans on. We keep things this way throughout the evening until the sun starts to dip, and then the curtains open up again. We're loving the cross breeze we get with our new screen door across from the front windows and are hoping to install a screen door on the front door sometime this summer.

Summer time is also when the bed gets a makeover... the down duvet comes off and the lightweight quilt goes on. We transition from flannel or sateen sheets to cotton, and may use a lightweight blanket. This means that we can keep the window open wide and still stay warm enough when the evening chill hits, without roasting under the down comforter.

All in all, these things enable us to stay comfortable without running the air conditioning. (Although we may run it for a few weeks in August if it gets excessively hot and humid.) So, how about you? What do you do to stay cool in the summer? How do you keep those energy bills low (and save on fossil fuel use) when the mercury rises? Here's to living and saving green, even in the heat of summer!