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with discounted meat, especially sausages, which were reduced for quick sale since they were getting ready to go out of date.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 jalapeƱos, 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!