Tuesday, June 23, 2009

An Open Letter To Governor Strickland

Dear Governor Strickland,

I am writing to ask that you reconsider the proposed budget cuts for the Ohio library system. Libraries are so important now, more than ever, as people use their resources for job searches, resume help, a non-judgemental place where one can find out about services for people in need, and yes, even as community centers. In our small town, the library serves as a place for our children to go after school, and provides snacks and activities during the summer for all of our children. These budget cuts would be catastrophic, as our library would be shut down, leaving the children with nothing to do after school.

We have used the libraries when our power or water goes out; they are always a haven, especially for those who are elderly or who are home with small children, giving people a place to go which is welcoming and free. The libraries provide gallery space for local artists to exhibit, exposing many people to the pleasures the arts can bring into their lives. The libraries also provide low-cost meeting areas for groups of all kinds from La Leche League to local conservation groups, and programs for patrons of all ages, including yoga, writing, local history and more. The loss of these services would be devastating.

Please, please, please reconsider and do not cut funding to our libraries. They are too vital and too important to let go by the wayside.

Thank you for your time.

Andrea L. Stern

If you are in Ohio, find out more about saving our libraries at these sites
Athens County Public Library (lists the budget committee members)
Save Ohio Libraries (Facebook page)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Pizza Party

One of the things we missed most back when I had $80/week for groceries, gas, and fun was pizza. Occasionally Totino's brand of frozen pizza would be on sale, but nothing could compare to the taste of a fresh-baked delivery pizza, with its golden crust and hot cheesy goodness.

As with many things in my learning curve, it was Martha Stewart to the rescue once again. Because I was subscribed to Everyday Food magazine, I would receive sample issues of her Kids publication in the mail. One issue contained a recipe for pizza crust that changed our dining habits and let us incorporate that tasty treat back into our menu planning.

Martha's recipe was simple: flour, water, sugar, yeast, salt and oil, mixed together and left to rise for an hour. It changed our lives and I was happy with it for many years. Then recently we discovered King Arthur's bagel recipe, which I also now use for pizza dough:

(from The King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion, page 225)
1T instant yeast (I use 1 package Red Star Rapid Rise $1.18 for a strip of 3 at WalMart)
4 c unbleached bread flour
2t salt
1T brown sugar
1 1/2c lukewarm water

Combine all the ingredients in a mixing bowl and knead vigorously by hand 10-15 minutes or by machine for about 10 minutes. The dough will be quite stiff because it uses a high gluten flour. Place the dough into a bowl which has been oiled; cover, and let rise for at least one hour, until doubled.

You can add herbs to the dough when mixing it. We like to add any or all of the following: 1t oregano, 1t garlic powder, 1t onion powder, 1t rosemary. You can also brush the crust with oil after spreading it on the pans and sprinkle with herbs before adding the sauce and toppings.

Preheat oven to 475F

Punch down the dough and divide into two rounds. Lightly oil two pans (we have 18" round pizza pans now) and spread dough onto them, patting to get an even crust. Top with sauce and cheese and toppings of your choice. Bake at 475F for about 15 minutes, rotating pizzas after 8 minutes for even browning of the cheese.

The cost of the ingredients for the crust work out to around $1.00, depending on where you get your bread flour (I buy mine at Bulk Food Depot, for $0.57/lb, and this recipe uses 17 ounces of flour). I buy ready made spaghetti sauce at Aldi for $1.09/jar, and one jar will sauce at least two batches of pizzas, depending on how generous we are with the sauce. The shred cheese will vary in price, an 8 ounce package will give you enough cheese for two pizzas. This week Kroger's has 8 ounces of Kraft brand shredded cheese for $1.69 a package. A plain cheese pizza with toppings works out to around $2.00 on a good cheese week, much cheaper than home delivery, and for only a little extra time and effort. If you have children, let them help you. My son is now the pizza chef in my household, he makes the crust most days we have pizza, and he loves tweaking the recipe.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Hot Dog Season!

Well, I did write about Hot Dog Season last week. This week at Kroger, many picnic favorites are on sale, including (at my local Kroger, check http://www.kroger.com for your local ads) Lay’s potato chips for $1.99, ears of corn for $0.17 each, Pepsi, Coke and 7Up all for $2.39/12 pack and 12 ounce Kroger cheese single slices for $1. If you have the extra cash, it’s a good week to stock up on some basics, including bar and shred cheese for only $1.79/8oz package.

Another way to stretch your food dollar is to find simple recipes that take few ingredients yet are delicious, tasty and nutritious. Pasta puttanesca is one of the dishes I made regularly when I began my switch from the daily Helper menu. It takes as little as a 28oz can of diced tomatoes, a can of whole olives, a few extra spices, and a box of spaghetti. As one of the characters in the Series of Unfortunate Events movie says “Puttanesca means ‘made with very few ingredients’ “

I found my original puttanesca recipe in an issue of Martha Stewart Everyday Food magazine, and over time put a few of my own tweaks on it. To add it to your menu, you can start with these ingredients:

1 28 oz can of diced tomatoes (I generally go with a store brand, unless Red Gold is on sale)

1 can of whole black olives (sorry, I don’t know the ounces of this, but generally they seem to come in one size can; I go with Medium olives)

1 onion (and Vidalias are in season and on sale for $0.58/lb this week!)

1t dried basil

1t dried oregano

1t garlic powder

Salt and pepper to taste

1 package of pasta of your choice (spaghetti, spirals, little shells; generally we used spaghetti because the kids were smaller and less adventurous)

To make the sauce:

Slice the onion, and saute in a small amount of olive or canola oil (if you live near a Trader Joe’s or an Aldi you can find olive oil for less). When it is translucent, add the tomatoes, dried herbs, and olives (drain the olives first). Continue to heat while you prepare the spaghetti according to the package directions. Add salt and pepper to taste, if desired.

Serve by spooning the sauce over the pasta. You can also stretch this out by serving the pasta and sauce on a bed of lettuce.

This week I am going to try Isa Chandra Moskowitz’ version from her new book Vegan Brunch It seems to be similar to the recipe listed above, with the addition of tofu cubes for extra texture and protein. (Meat substitutes are another great way to stretch the budget). I’ll let you know how it goes on Thursday.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Eating by the Seasons

I know I said I’d write about the Good Pantry today, but while shopping last night I realized it is Hot Dog Season. What is Hot Dog Season, you ask? The time of year when hot dogs are cheap and plentiful, especially my favorite kinds. I realized that part of my strategy is to shop by the seasons, and today I share part of that strategy with you.

Every year our local paper runs the article detailing how to plan shopping for your home by the seasonal sales. For instance, in January, stores have “white sales” with linens and such being on sale, while back to school encompasses items such as stationery supplies and storage.

I plan some of my household shopping by those sales, but what no one ever seems to talk about is that food can be seasonal as well. I’m not talking eating fresh fruits and vegetables in season, though that is excellent and I am eagerly anticipating the pears from my favorite farmer’s market vendor this summer, but something else.

My seasonal year looks something like this:

Janaury: Chips and soda, also party foods, frozen pizza and hors d’oeuvres (I call this Superbowl Season)

March/Early April: Easter Season, generally baking supplies, eggs, butter, sugar, stuff like that. This year Kroger’s had eggs for $0.98/dozen, and butter for $1.50/lb

May-August: Picnic Season, the time when corn is plentiful and cheap (this week $0.19/ear), chips are once again cheap ($1.98 for a bag of Lays at Wal-Mart), soda flows freely, and best of all it is Hot Dog Season, when we can get a package of Hebrew National Kosher Beef Franks for as little as $3/package, (I also am a big fan of Ball Park Franks Smoked White Turkey hot dogs, yummy and my pants still fit after eating them). Frozen treats, ice cream, popsicles, etc are also really cheap this time of year (one reason I buy those low-fat hot dogs! more ice cream for me).

September/October: Back to School/Candy Season, lots of places have convenient put up packs of individual servings of things like chips and granola bars. Candy is also on sale, usually starting in late September. There’s nothing like having a good stash of $100,000 Bars laying around on a dreary November day, and I generally find they run anywhere from 3/$5.00 to around $2.00 a bag. Try places like Wal-Mart and Kroger’s on the day after Halloween for even better deals.

November/December: Holiday Baking Season, also end of year party season, Thanksgiving, et al. Turkey can be had cheaply this time of year (of course) but also baking supplies tend to be more plentiful. This is the time of year I pull out those coupons and use real Nestle’s Toll House Chips in my recipes. We also stock up on tasty staples like Stove Top Stuffing, Ocean Spray Cranberry Sauce and Heinz Turkey Gravy.

So there you have it, my Year Of Savings by the Seasons. I know there are other sales year round, but you can pretty much be guaranteed that certain items will be plentiful and cheap at certain times of the year. By buying when things are less expensive, you can free up money for other treats, like real raspberries out of season or even going out to see a movie.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Weekly Grocery Run

One way I’ve been able to feed my family well on such a small budget is through good planning. Each week I sit down with a notebook and write down the meals I am planning on making during that week, as well as a list of the ingredients needed and what is on sale that week.

This week, for instance, looks something like this:

Meals: pizza, burgers, dogs, chicken ? ? ?

(I also list the days of the week at the top of the page, the day I am shopping through the next week, this week the week runs Tuesday through Monday)

I know that I already have flour and yeast in stock, and was able to score several jars of 59 cent manager’s special pasta sauce, so the only thing I need this week for pizza is the shred cheese. That goes on the list.

Milk and cereal are always necessities in my house with two growing boys, so that is also on the list.

I live in an area served by Kroger stores, so I have a link to their website, which lists their weekly ad: Kroger main page, click on “weekly ads” and type in your zip code to get your store’s ad.

When I opened this week’s ad, I saw that milk is $1.98/gallon this week. I also know that when there is a sale on one size of the milk, many times the other sizes do not sell as quickly and may end up with a happy red tag on them (manager’s specials; they are one of my best friends). I have gotten milk for as low as $1.18/gallon by buying it on manager’s special.

Cereal is another thing on my list. I see that Kashi GoLean is on sale for only $2.49/box. I remember cutting out a coupon recently for $1 off two boxes of Kashi cereal, which means that I would only pay $1.99/box by buying two and using the coupon. Depending on the budget this week, and how much carry over I have in the pantry from the previous week , I may take advantage of that option.

Shred cheese is another item which we go through quickly, and this week the Kroger brand is on sale for $3.99/24 oz bag. That works out to $1.34 for the equivalent of an 8 oz bag. I will be adding a bag of the mozzarella and a bag of the colby-jack to the list.

Other items will be added at the store, as I see what is on manager’s special and as I tweak the menu for the week. Some weeks we do not eat any red meat, others we may go without chicken. I generally find some salad or some such on manager’s special, and there is a Kroger’s down the road where I almost always find good bread and buns on manager’s special. I do most of my shopping at Kroger's, but supplement at the local Asian market, bulk food store, health food store, and even Big Lots (and yes, Wal-Mart, they have the best price on yeast).

It helps to have a repertoire of recipes and a basic pantry of staples at home to build on each week. I will write about my basics on Thursday. Until then, good shopping!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Good Beginning

I am not an expert, at least in the way we are used to seeing, with morning show appearances, articles, interviews and internet exposure.  But after years of refining ways to live well with a limited budget I know a thing or two about how to make a dollar stretch and still be satisfied with the options I have available to me. 

This is how I feed my family and save money.  It works for me, and I figured that some people may want a little help and encouragement in how to do the same thing.  It is possible to live well on a limited budget, it just takes planning and a willingness to be open to different ways of doing things.

Over the past 14 years, I’ve gone from feeding a family of 5 on $80/week, including gas money, to feeding that same family on $120/week, which does not sound like a huge increase at first.  But in 1995, the options for dinner were “which type of Hamburger Helper do we want tonight?”  (made with 49 cent/pound tube ground turkey) and lunch was toast, literally, while now, we choose from a variety of simple and quasi-gourmet dishes, with leftovers and even the occasional upscale yogurt (I love Rachel’s Vanilla Chai)  for lunch. 

My purpose with this blog is to detail how I was able to make such a dramatic change, and how you can too.  I will be writing about shopping, meal planning, what to stock in the basic pantry so you can make dinner even on those nights when it seems like there’s nothing to prepare.  Living this way is an adventure, and I am eager to share my experience and methods with you. 

Friday, September 14, 2007

Good Muffins

My how time does fly when you're having fun. In celebration of the new school year and the cooling temperatures, I bring you the good muffin. Vegan recipe, pumpkin, organic flour and sugar and eleven herbs and spices make this a tasty treat as is with a hot cuppa. Currently featured at Donkey Coffee and Espresso, Athens Ohio.