Sunday, August 24, 2008

Sunday Suppers - Chicken Enchilada Casserole

Chicken Enchilada Casserole (a mishmash of leftovers...)

8 oz chicken breast, pan steam-fried and chopped
1 cup dried black beans, soaked and cooked in pressure cooker
1 cup frozen corn
1 bell pepper, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 cup leftover homemade enchilada sauce
1 poblano chile, roasted
6 corn tortillas
4-6 oz shredded cheddar

Saute onion and pepper in olive oil. When soft, add diced chile, corn until warm. Add diced, cooked chicken and drained black beans. Add salt and pepper to taste. Come to think of it, some cumin and chili powder and garlic would have been good here. Oops. It did come out a little on the bland side.

Preheat oven to 350F. Spray a 9x13 pan with nonstick spray.

Spread a small amount of enchilada sauce on the bottom of the pan. Layer 3 of the tortillas, tearing as needed to get good coverage. Top with 1/2 of the bean/chicken/veggie mixture. Top with 1/2 of the enchilada sauce.

Repeat layers (tortillas, bean mixture, enchilada sauce). Top with shredded cheddar cheese.

Bake at 350F for 30 min.

Mine was pretty ugly, because the tortillas were from the freezer and had been rolled up, so they didn't sit flat. But it still tasted good, despite the slight blandness (I'm adding salsa to the leftovers).

I served this with Greek cucumber salad ala Rachael Ray, as we got 3 lbs of cukes from the CSA this week.

Coupons - a rant!

We all have read or seen on TV those know the ones...who can feed a family of 6 for $350/month, and can get $200 of groceries for $50. The Economides family is one such famous family. So why can't we all succeed at this game?

First of all, there are the coupons. The local paper isn't the best, so I get the LA paper. They are better, but still, the vast majority of coupons are for processed foods. I am not a big fan of processed food, though I will buy it if it's a great deal (hey, a hot dog once a month probably won't kill you right?) My best luck tends to be with salsa (which I could make, but really I do love Newman's own), and occasionally pasta.

Of course to get the best deals, you have to combine coupons with sales. Even with a sale and a double coupon, Sargento Cheese was $6/lb at my local grocery store, and I can purchase it at Costco for $3/lb. The store brand of cheese was $5/lb.

And then there's the secret double coupons...well, here's that secret. Vons stopped doubling coupons here years ago. They have since started up is the rumor, though I haven't tested it. Ralphs has been the best source of sales-plus-double-coupons for me locally. Today, however, I learned the hard way that they no longer double coupons. I read the fine print (after checking out), that anything 50cents to 99cents is rounded up to $1. Anything above that is face value. more double coupons for me.

That just means that Scolari's, which still doubles coupons up to and including $1, will be my new store of choice for most items. However, based on their location (in a heavily Latino area of town), I am not so lucky at getting whole wheat flour I will have to go elsewhere for that.

So...why can't we all be like these families? Well, if you choose to eat unprocessed foods and your local stores don't double aren't going to be going home with 15 boxes of almost-free groceries. And that's okay. You're probably better off.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Simple Stew

On Sunday, I made a black lentil soup/stew. I had this package of black lentils from TJ's from long ago...and decided I should try and use them.

Black lentil soup

1.5 cups black lentils ($1.00) -just guessing, 'cuz I've had 'em for awhile
2 carrots (0.20)
2 celery stalks (0.28)
1 onion, diced (0.23)
2 cloves garlic (0.08)
1/2 ice cube of pureed chipotle (0.10?)
cumin, garlic powder, salt, pepper (0.15)
1/2 leftover pkg of taco seasoning (0.50)
32 oz homemade chicken stock (free)
2 cups water
2 T olive oil (0.22)

Total: $2.76 for 8 cups, or $0.35 per cup

Saute onion in olive oil until soft in a large stockpot. Add garlic, celery and carrot and saute 5-10 min more. Add cumin and taco seasoning (or your own spice mixture) and saute one minute.

Rinse and pick through lentils. Add lentils to pot. Add stock and water. Cover, bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer 30 min. Do NOT add salt yet! If you add salt, the lentils may never soften.

Test the lentils to see if they are done. When done, add chipotle, salt and pepper to taste.

Soups always test better the next day, so we didn't eat this until Monday night. Here's a pic of Tuesday's lunch box. The stew is on the upper left corner (with some cheddar cheese - everything is better with cheese).

I also steamed some beets and tossed them with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, blue cheese, and toasted almonds.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Sunday Suppers

aka...Monday lunches.

Today was a nice laid-back, frugal kind of day. Mostly. It started cool and foggy, with a 5k race. I finished in 27:50, which is my best time ever. Not a very hard thing to do, because it's the first 5k I've ever fully run (walked a couple). But that's an average pace of just under 9:00 per mile, which is awesome!!

Then it was cooking, playing with my son, cooking, trying (unsuccessfully) to get my 2-year old to take a nap, more cooking, hanging out with my naked toddler in the kiddie pool (giving me the chance to soak my feet, and do a little pedicure...soak off a couple of months of junk on my toes). Said toddler is looking pretty tired after no nap.

The only non-frugal thing was the purchase of a sunshade type of thing, 10'x10'. Our back patio gets hot and has little shade. It will come in handy. It was on sale for $69.

Onto the major topic...dinner. Tonight I made my sister's calico beans and tabouli. The picture is actually from our lunches for tomorrow. I seem to forget to take pictures on our fine china (aka, hand-me-down Corelle).

Calico beans
1 lb ground beef (2.99)
1 can pinto beans (0.69) (original recipe left these out)
1 can kidney beans (0.69)
1 can baked beans (1.09)
1 can cannelini beans (1.29) - recipe actually called for butter beans
4 slices bacon (0.50)
1/2 cup ketchup (0.17)
3 T cider vinegar (0.08)
1 large onion, diced (0.35)
1/4 cup brown sugar (0.25)
salt and pepper to taste

Total: $8.10 for 8 servings, $1.01 per serving (per cup). Original recipe says it serves 10-12, I assume for a side dish. We used it for the main course. I could have made it cheaper by cooking the beans from scratch and subbing higher-fat meat.

Directions: Brown meat, onion, and bacon. Combine all ingredients in crockpot and cook on low all day.

1 cup bulgur ($0.44)
1 cup boiling water
1 cucumber, peeled and diced (CSA, ?0.70)
2 tomatoes, or 1 cup cherry tomatoes, diced (CSA ? 1.00)
1 bunch green onions, sliced (0.50)
2 cloves garlic (0.08)
1/2 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1/4 cup cider vinegar (0.21)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil (0.44)
3 T lemon juice, or juice from one lemon (free from neighbor's tree)
1/2 cup chopped parsley (0.35)

Total: $3.72 for about 4.5 cups, or $0.83 per cup.

I'm guessing on the cucumber and tomato costs, as we get them from the CSA.

Man I love this stuff. I make it every single week when cukes and tomatoes are in season.

Thursday, August 14, 2008


Well, I've been pretty busy lately dealing with a toddler who suddenly decided to stop sleeping. So, I've been a bit...distracted. I have been taking lots of pictures of meals.

Dinner last night, which was leftover chile relleno casserole (made from fresh chile rellenos from the CSA, roasted, peeled, sliced...yes, that was a weekend chore for sure). It was served with chips, cheese, salsa, and guacamole, and sauteed carrots, squash, and onion.

Bean, corn and brown rice on vacation at Mom's house.

Greek cucumber salad.


Chile Relleno Casserole


As you can see, my photography isn't the best. Most of the time I don't even remember to take a picture until the food is in the tupperware.

Here's a breakdown on the spaghetti:
1 lb whole wheat pasta: $1.00
1 lb zucchini, diced: 0.59
1 28-oz can whole tomatoes: $1.19
1/2 onion: 0.10
2 cloves garlic: 0.08
1 T canola oil: 0.02
marjoram, oregano, basil, salt, pepper: 0.20
4 T grated parmesan: 0.40

Total: $3.58 for 8 servings, or $0.45 per serving

Saute the onion and zucchini in oil until beginning to brown. Add the garlic and saute 1 min. Add the herbs and saute 1 min. Add the salt, pepper, and tomatoes. Break the tomatoes up with a spoon. At this point I used an immersion blender to blend. You could always just use crushed tomatoes.

Meanwhile cook the pasta. Toss the pasta and sauce together, top with parmesan.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Link Love

The new Festival of Frugality#138 is up at What on earth did I do before I found this Festival? Every week I see new and great tips from all over the web. And my very own "Pinching Pennies on Produce" is featured.

Other good links:

Cheaphealthygood has good tips on Food and Financial Advice for the College-Bound. Boy this would have been really helpful (for me, actually, learning to cook would have been more helpful during my 20's. When I think of how much money I blew eating out...ouch!)

Frugal-fu has good breakfast ideas for brown rice (when you are sick of oatmeal). I might have to give some of these a try.

And Frugal Dad talks about shrinking product sizes and increasing prices.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Pinching Pennies on Produce

aka...keeping your produce bill down.

There is a lot of information out there on how to keep your grocery bill under control:
- buying bulk meats & repackaging (directly from farmer if possible)
- buying bulk grain, grinding your own wheat for bread (if only shipping costs weren't so prohibitive - oh, and there's that time issue too.)

The first recommendation that comes to my mind when people want to cut their grocery bill is simply to "eat less". No really. When you consider the statistics - 2/3 of American adults are overweight or obese - it's a no-brainer that "eat less" would be a good place to start to save money.

Indeed, about 6-7 years ago, I was tipping the scales at 50-60 lbs over my currently healthy weight. Over the course of 6 months in 2002, I cut calories by about 1/3 and lo and behold, my grocery bill went down by the same amount.

But fruits and vegetables aren't an area where you really want to say "eat less". In fact, the recommendations from just about any dietitian, the government, etc. are to eat MORE. The average American eats only 4 servings per day of fruits and vegetables (the typical serving is about 1/2 cup, or 4 ounces). This certainly can be frugal but isn't the best idea. The recommendations are more along the lines of 7-9 servings per day, which is 2 pounds per person, per day.

When it comes to trimming our grocery bill, I always focus on produce. It constitutes the bulk of our food and the bulk of the budget. For our 3-person family, our recommended intake comes to 5 lbs per day (one of us is a toddler), 35 lbs per week, 150 lbs per month...and 1800 lbs per year - almost a full ton!

So how does a family go about keeping their produce bill down, while still getting the proper intake of the good stuff? We are fortunate to live in So. Cal., which is great for its year-round growing season and reasonable produce (except apples - $2.75/lb!!) Read on for some of my tricks and tips.

1. Know your veggies: Some items are just cheaper than others. Potatoes, carrots, cabbage, onions - if you are on a budget, these should be a regular part of your repertoire.

2. Keep a price book listing prices for vegetables at several stores. I know, for example, that loose carrots are at the lowest price at the local wholesale produce store (but other items there are more expensive). They range from $0.25-0.33/lb, depending on the season. Onions are usually cheaper at one of the "big box" stores.

3. Choose your organics wisely: I think many of us would love to have the luxury of eating all organic all the time. But it can be pricey. I try to buy organic (or local, where I know the growing practices) for the "dirty dozen" because of pesticide concerns. But for the rest, I buy conventional or at least compare the price difference.

4. Shop local: The "U-pick" apple orchard or berry farm is likely going to be cheaper (with better tasting fruit) than the stuff you buy at the grocery store, that was picked unripe and ripened with gas. Local farmer's markets can be a great source of reasonable produce, particularly for items that grow well locally. I priced lemons yesterday at the grocery store at $1.49 EACH. They can be found for $0.25-0.50 at the local farmer's market.

5. Know your seasonal fruits: While some people keep a steady diet of apples, oranges, and bananas year round, I prefer a little more variety. Here is when knowing the seasons can be helpful. Bananas are a good price year round. Winter is great for oranges, and can be found at $0.60/lb at our farmer's markets (and the quality is WAY better than the grocery store). Of course, you have to buy 10 lb, so I split a bag with a friend. Spring and early summer are great for strawberries. Summer is good for stone fruits and melon (there's a reason why watermelon is a star at summer BBQs).

Even though berries, peaches, and melons might be more expensive than the standard apples and bananas, buy 'em occasionally. But wait until they are fully in season. The early season tends to be more expensive, and the produce often isn't as sweet.

6. Bruised/Damaged fruits: Many farmstands will give you a deal on slightly distressed fruit or vegetables. I have gotten a pound of cauliflower for 15 cents this way. What do you do with 3 lbs of distressed peaches? Slice them, sprinkle with lemon juice, and freeze.

7. Consider a CSA: For about the same price as what you'd get at a grocery store for conventional produce, you can get a box of fresh, local, tasty fruits and vegetables (sometimes organic). Our CSA is $20/week, and we got >10 lbs of produce this week. You can't be too picky with a CSA - you get what's in season (dandelion greens, anyone?) but it is a great way to expand your vegetable repertoire.

8. Don't overlook your freezer: Often you can get on-sale frozen vegetables for $1/lb or less. They are great for dinner when you can't muster the energy to even peel a few carrots. And because they are frozen after picking, they retain many of their nutrients.

9. Big Box Stores (Costco, Sam's, BJ's): The best deal, hands down, on canned tomatoes (gotta have that lycopene!) is in the #10 (~100 oz) can. You know, the really big one. ($2.40 for 100 oz??) Bring them home, package in smaller containers, and freeze. Same for large bags of frozen vegetables at $1/lb.

10. Grow your own: Plant some tomatoes in a container. Plant a fruit tree (being sure to check what grows in your area). We have an orange tree. We get free lemons from a neighbor. We have a friend with an avocado tree, and friends with peach trees, plum trees, lime trees, which brings me to...

11. Get free stuff from friends: Don't be too proud to accept free food. I have recently seen SO MANY peaches and plums rotting on the ground in homes where people either don't like them, or don't have the time to pick them (it's been a banner year for the stone fruits). If someone complains about the amount of peaches they have, offer to come pick them. I have even seen swapping on Freecycle (my peaches for your plums...). Slice and freeze the spare fruit, and use later in oatmeal, yogurt, smoothies, fruit crisps, etc. All this freezer talk means...

12. Buy a spare freezer: If you have the room. This can be used for your excess summer garden bounty, those 6-lb bags of frozen vegetables from Costco, and those repackaged tomatoes from the big cans. Even if you don't have a garden, you can buy sale veggies in season and blanch and freezer.

13. Dried beans: Yep, legumes count as a vegetable and they are darned good for you (cheap too). YOu should eat 1/2 cup per day according to government guidelines. Canned beans are okay too, but why pay for water? Dried are about 1/3 to 1/2 the price of canned, depending on where you buy them. I purchase chick peas and lentils on sale for $1/lb, and I can get kidney beans, black beans, and pintos in 5-10 lbs bags for $0.40-0.90/lb.

14. Consider orange juice: I'm not personally a big fan of juice. But if you are actually getting 9 servings a day, having one be juice is okay. And my husband and son drink it. If you buy 6-packs of the frozen concentrate, you can get a serving of fruit (a 6-oz glass) for about $0.12.

15. Find alternate sources: I'm not a big fan of canned vegetables, but drugstores, dented stores, and dollar stores often have discount prices on these items. They can also be a good source for dried fruit such as raisins. Asian or Mexican stores often have better deals on produce than regular grocery stores. These tend to be in out-of-the-way places with lower overhead costs.

16. Do a price-per-serving analysis: Compare and contrast the cost of strawberries vs. apples, broccoli vs. cabbage. Know the cost per serving. That doesn't mean you have to give up broccoli and strawberries. It means you may choose to eat fewer servings or grow your own.

and a bonus:

17. Eat what you buy, buy what you eat, and learn proper storage of fruits and vegetables to maximize their lifetime. Eat perishable items first, save others for later in the week. Throwing away food is throwing away money.

What are YOUR tips?

Thursday, August 7, 2008


Well, I’m back from my vacation. It was the first two-week vacation that I’ve ever taken as an adult. I have to say, I am addicted (now that I am about to change jobs, start over with 0 days on the books, and earn three fewer days per year…). The decision to switch to one two-week vacation to visit our families was based on frugality and common sense. It is expensive to travel with a toddler, and can be painful. So why would you fly twice as often, for twice as much money, and take a two-year old across 3-time zones twice…when you don’t have to. In any event, it was very very relaxing. I hadn’t realized how much stress is relieved when you’ve been on vacation for 5 days and still have a week to go. So every two years, we are going to make the same trip.

I'm writing about gardening because my mother has a garden, and in one short morning we picked 12.5 lbs of green beans. The day we arrived, they were just tiny, and only 4 days later, they were ready (lot of rain in the northeast). My hamstrings were crying.

Gardening can be very much a part of the frugal-healthy-simple lifestyle.

Frugal: There is some startup cost associated. You may have awesome topsoil and good rain, and only need some seeds. We have sandy soil and have to purchase or build containers and buy soil. Others might need to rent space in a community garden. The water bill might be an issue also.

Healthy: Well, there’s nothing healthier than home grown fresh vegetables. Especially organic. At least you know where they come from. And you get exercise to boot! To those doubters.

Simple: This is debatable and depends on your definition of “simple”. To some, growing your own, canning, freezing, etc. is the essence of simplicity. To others, going to a store, farmer’s market, or farm and buying weekly are more simple.

In my opinion, having a skill that allows you to be self-sufficient is a good thing. Certainly I could probably make more money working an extra 1-3 hours a week than by gardening, but if ever the stores run dry, I can still feed my family.

I am an absolutely newbie to gardening. We did have a large garden growing up, but that was when I was a kid, up to age 15. More than 20 years have passed, so I can't claim any good garden knowledge. Therefore, this post is more of a "where to go to find good information".

Getting started: start small. Last year, we started with a few tomato plants in pots (started from tomato plants), and a few green beans in pots (started from seeds). We got probably all of 1 to 2 lbs of beans from our 4 or 5 plants. The tomatoes were a little more generous, at least until our then 18-month old discovered he liked picking the green ones. I learned that if your tomatoes are black on the bottom and on the inside, it means they have blossom end rot, related to a lack of calcium. This is common when you grow in pots, and you need to be more consistent with watering.

Square foot gardening: This was our big plan for the year. There’s a great book called…you guessed it “Square Foot Gardening” by Mel Bartholomew that shows you how to grow an amazing amount of produce in a small plot. Unfortunately, our backyard project took two months longer than we expected (well, maybe 4 months), and we were not able to put down our plants this year. Fortunately, we live in Southern California. So while tomato planting season is past, other things are coming for the winter.

The basic idea calls for building a 4’x4’ square, filling it with a special mixture of soil specified in the book, dividing the square into 16 1’x1’ grids, and planting the vegetables, fruits, or flowers in each square in varying densities depending on the needs of the particular plant. The author discovered that vegetables can be planted more densely than originally though, and more densely than recommended in standard “row gardening”. Square foot gardening is much more efficient from a space standpoint, which is a bonus for anyone with a small front and/or backyard, or even a sunny patio. The author is pretty funny, and notes that his book is easier for the novice than the expert. Apparently the experts don’t get how easy it really is.

Composting: This is another helpful thing that is on my to-do list. The most frugal thing is to make your own pile. Our tiered patio/grass/mulch backyard is not conducive to this, so we will likely keep our eyes out for an aerobic compost bin. Why compost?

Our house, actually, came with an anaerobic compost bin. It looks like the city was really trying to get people to compost about 10-20 years ago. I don’t believe the previous owner ever used it. For a description of the differences between aerobic and anaerobic composting

I basically decided that I’d rather have an aerobic composter.

The frugal aspect: There can be some startup costs associated with container gardening. Building the wooden planter boxes, buying pots. Here are some ideas to lessen the pain:

For herbs, use small pots (especially for mint, it’s a weed!) You can buy herbs already started in small pots. You can look for small pots from freecycle, craigslist, garage sales, your neighbors, friends. You can even try using milk jugs with the tops taken off (these make good seed starters too). If necessary, you can get end-of-season sales.

For larger items such as potatoes, 5-gallon buckets are a good option.

Seeds: I found mine on sale for 50% off. Most packets were 50 to 75 cents.

Soil: If you have bad soil, you will have to purchase some. But making your own compost will help you renew it year to year.

“Putting Up” the excess:

Canning: The Ball Blue Book

The gardening plan is definitely a work in progress. As I get my square foot gardening going, I will let you know how it goes. For now, the CSA is my friend!