Monday, October 27, 2008

The $25 Shopping Cart, Version 1.0

It's scary week this week, and not just because Halloween is on Friday. It's the week before payday, when the money's pretty much run out and one is eagerly awaiting that paycheck, even though it might already be virtually spent because of bills and the theft that is rent. Last Thursday, however, I got a nice little surprise in the mail from my Aunt Matilda in New Mexico: a cute little Halloween card with a goth kitty on it and inside, a $25 gift card to my beloved Trader Joe's! I don't know how she knew it was the perfect gift at the perfect time but I knew it was also the perfect way to introduce The $25 Shopping Cart series. And in my world, there is no better place to get some bang for your buck than at Trader Joe's. Of course, you can do this at any grocery store if you know how to shop wisely. And that's what I'm here to teach you, with the added twist of having something a little "fancier" to eat than standard college dorm room fare (which one should always remember fondly... one gets so resourceful in college). Some may call me cheap but picky, I say I'm just a smart shopper who likes to eat something better than the $0.79 frozen burrito that you can buy in mass quantities.

The key to making your $25 shopping cart a success is to shop for options, not for convenience. There is a higher price to pay for things that are pre-made and pre-packaged, so think of what you can make with several ingredients rather than focusing on a few yummy pre-made meals. Sure, the Bertolli pastas and DiGiorno pizzas of the world can be super tasty and easy to make, but think about it: how long does that really last? One, maybe two scant meals? If you're going to make your tiny budget stretch, you really have to think ahead and think creatively. Try to look for items that you can combine in a variety of ways, stuff from which you can squeeze 2-3 different meals. Since I speak from experience, here's my most recent example of how to do that:

1 bag of baby spinach (which I normally get in a larger size for the same price, but they have been out of that size lately, sadly) - $1.99
1 jar of Traditional Marinara Sauce - $1.99
1 package of potato gnocchi - $1.99
1 0.64 oz block of mild cheddar cheese @ $4.49/lb - $2.87
1 container of Creamy Corn & Roasted Pepper Soup - $1.99
1 bag of large frozen cooked shrimp (~40 per package) - $5.99
1 dozen large eggs - $1.79
1 bottle Charles Shaw Cabernet Sauvignon - $1.99
1 5-pack of roma tomatoes - $1.99
2 cans of Tuna for Cats (for the furry members of my family) - $0.49/each

Grand Total = $25.57
Now, consider your options if you had absolutely nothing else at home to augment your list:

Shrimp & Cheddar omelettes
Cheese-only omelettes
Gnocchi with Marinara sauce & a glass of red wine
Simple salad with spinach, egg, and tomato
Spinach & tomato scramble
Gnocchi with cheddar skillet
Creamy Corn & Roasted Pepper soup with tomato & spices
And so on and so forth......

You can see that the possibilities here are endless, as long as you're creative and open to different food pairings. I could go on but I just wanted to illustrate how shopping for options over convenience can make your life both easier and tastier during Scary Week. You can even have a glass of wine or two to make things a bit more classy every now & then - how many people can say they can do that and have a week's worth of different meals and feed your cats on such a tiny budget?

Granted, you can make your dollar stretch a lot more at a place like Trader Joe's, but don't discount your regular grocery stores! A lot of the major chains have club cards or other types of sales that can make shopping for good stuff a lot more affordable (more on how to get the most of those programs in a future blog). And in a lot of places, major grocery store chains have "outlet" type stores that sell things for a lot less because they're either sold in bulk or because they have you bag your own groceries (eg. Safeway's Pak N Save, Raley's Food Source, etc.). You can stretch your budget really well at these places, though you won't get all the fancy schmancy stuff that a place like Trader Joe's will offer. Still - and I harp on this a LOT - as long as you can break free from the standard mold & get creative, you can make anything fancy schmancy.

Next stop for the $25 Shopping Cart will probably be a major grocery store or its outlet cousin, just to break away from my Trader Joe's obsession and show you that it can be done at other places. Hope you've enjoyed today's lesson! Now for some yummy gnocchi & marinara with a spinach & tomato salad and some vino..... Bon Appetit!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Recipe: The Easiest 3-Bean Chili Ever

This past weekend autumn officially announced its presence with blustery winds and super-cold nights. I had to pull out my heavy comforter and start sleeping in sweatshirts again, and StuKitty took full advantage of the new warm spots on the bed. I figured this was the perfect time for me to make something hearty that would warm me up from the inside, and since this is a bare bones week for me, what could be more convenient to make than a nice hearty chili?

I love making all sorts of chili varieties, experimenting with this & that. Not only can it be extremely tasty, if done right (meaning w/o too much oil or grease), it can also be a very healthy one-dish meal since it’s packed with fiber and protein. And it’s so versatile! You can serve it with yummy cornbread, with a nice salad, and top it with just about anything – or just serve it by itself in a giant bowl or mug. The best part is that you can make a really great chili without breaking the bank – so long as you have some good spices and some patience for letting it simmer long enough before digging in (like I do… once the aromas start filling my kitchen, I just can’t resist!).

I call this particular version “The Easiest” because there’s really not much work involved at all. Even the most inexperienced cook can make this and it would turn out okay. I used black, red kidney, and garbanzo beans primarily because that’s what I had in my cupboard, but also because I’d been meaning to combine these in something other than a salad. I’d never tried garbanzo beans in a chili before either, so I was eager to see how their texture would add to the standard beans usually used in chili. Feel free to mix it up with different beans, and if you want to toss in a 4th or 5th variety, have at it. It can only get better. Lastly, remember spices are key; I tend to make mine explode with flavor because I like that sort of thing, so if it’s a bit much for you, go ahead and tone it down by adding some water or a light broth. You’ll get a soupier chili but it’ll still be good.

The Easiest 3-Bean Chili Ever
1 can of red kidney beans
1 can of black beans
1 can of garbanzo beans
1 can of diced tomatoes (salted or unsalted are fine)
1 medium tomato, chopped
2 T crushed garlic
3 T cooking oil
1 t garlic salt
1 t cumin
2 t chili powder
1 t ground black pepper
1 t crushed red pepper flakes
pinch of oregano
Shredded cheddar cheese, sour cream, chopped green onions, etc. for garnish (if you have it)

Combine garlic salt, sea salt, cumin, chili powder, black pepper, and oregano in a bowl. Mix together and set aside. Drain each can of bean in a colander, but keep the tomatoes in their juice.

In a large pot heat the oil & garlic over medium high heat until garlic starts to brown slightly (don’t burn it!). Add about half of your spice mixture and stir together so that the garlic starts picking up some of the flavors. Add the beans, then the tomatoes in their juice and the rest of the seasonings; stir well. Let simmer for about 3-5 minutes then reduce to medium low heat. Cover and let simmer slowly for about 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Test for flavor and consistency; if it’s too thick and spicy, add ¼ cup of water and stir. Add the chopped fresh tomato at the very end (gives it a little zip and extra texture) and remove from heat.

Ladle into bowls or big soup mugs. Garnish with shredded cheese, chopped green onions or scallions, sour cream, etc. Serve with breadsticks or cornbread, or on its own. Enjoy!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Tip #3: Find your "Bare Bones" staples

I’m not going to mince words here: when you’re struggling financially, sometimes there isn’t much left to eat but rice, pasta, or beans. Not even some salad greens and a tomato to liven things up with some color are possible when things are super tight. Some of you may not be familiar with this concept just yet; others are probably nodding your heads in agreement as you read this. I’m at the grains & beans only point this week (though I might have enough eggs to treat myself to at least one more omelette over the weekend, woo hoo). I have a couple “bare bones cupboard” recipes in mind to share with you, but before I do that I want to give you an idea of what I try to have on hand for those scary few days (or weeks) before the “good” payday – you know, the payday that doesn’t have to completely go towards rent & utilities.

The key here is variety. I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that my palette is a little ADD and I like to mix things up. This still applies even when I have nothing much left in my cupboards other than cat food for Hana & Stu. Fortunately, I’ve become a sort of grain connoisseur over the past few months, incorporating whole grains like farro, kamut berries, and quinoa into my grain repertoire of brown rice & couscous. I try to keep about ½ pound each of the following on hand for the “scary” days that inevitably happen: long grain brown rice, whole wheat couscous, quinoa, brown rice pastas, and farro. I like these because of their flavor and versatility. You can make soups, salads, sides – you name it! The possibilities really are endless. I store them in airtight containers so they don’t go stale & random grain-loving creatures get to it before I do. Because all of these require different water measurements & cooking times, and because a lot of recipes call for the already cooked version of these, I make sure to clip the cooking directions for each and keep them in the containers with their respective grains. This way I don’t mess up and waste anything.

On the nutrition point, I try to leave as many refined flour products out of my diet in general. Whole grains have a lot more flavor and have more nutrients than the refined stuff. Even standards like fettucine, penne, and spaghetti are now being made out of such healthy things as brown rice & flax. Now, I’m not trying to make everyone a health nut here (yes, I am); what I’m trying to show you is that there’s a lot more out there than just white noodles and rice, which means you can do more with the simple stuff. And whole grains are nutritional multi-taskers: you’ve gotta love something like quinoa which packs about 10g of fiber and 22g of protein per cup! Sure, it’s calorie rich but when there’s not much left to eat, calories can be your friend. The last thing I want people in perpetual financial hell like me to deal with is declining health due to poor nutrition!

So how do you buy good-for-you-grains so that you don’t go broke? Buy in bulk. Most things like couscous, quinoa, kamut berries, spelt berries, brown rice, wild rice, etc., can be found in the bulk section at most food co-ops or good grocery stores. The beauty of bulk buying is that you choose what you want, how much of it you want, and you’re paying for the food, not the packaging. About the only thing I haven’t been able to find sold in bulk in the Sacramento is farro. However, I have been able to find it in an 8oz. bag for about $4.95 at the Co-op, and considering you can make several 1 dish meals or a couple of big ones out of a single bag, that is a very small price to pay for such a tasty, nutty, grain (more on the joys of farro in another blog).

Legumes make up the other half of my bare bones supplies, and I don’t know of anyone that doesn’t like at least one type of bean. They’re extremely versatile and very healthy, depending on how you prepare them. Some of my favorites include: black beans, red & white kidney beans, garbanzo beans, navy beans, lentils…. okay, I pretty much like them all. I try to keep at least a can of each of the aforementioned on hand at all times. I’m trying to look into dried beans and experiment with those, as the flavor of those really can be much better than what you get in a can (and I figure if I buy them I can con my mom into making me some of her famous lentil soup next time she visits), but let’s face it: canned can be very convenient, not to mention, less expensive. As you’ll see in my next blog, sometimes a few cans of this & that can turn into an amazing meal.

With these essentials in your cupboard and some creativity – and a little help from yours truly – you’ll be able to weather even the stormiest of times. Not that you should only eat quinoa and black beans when you’re having a rough time; trust me, some of my favorite everyday meals include these healthy basics. However, having a little bit extra on hand “just in case” is always helpful. I know, I know, I’m starting to sound like I grew up in the Great Depression, but we paycheck-to-paycheck folks could use a lot of their tips. Just don’t buy 32 tomato plants right before winter just because it was a “good deal”. ;)

(NOTE: Many of the things I mentioned are wheat derivatives and I’m lucky enough to be able to eat them without any problems. I understand that there are many people out there with food allergies, so please use caution when choosing your grain products. Just because it’s listed here as a good ingredient to keep on hand doesn’t mean that you must have it. There are plenty of alternatives that we can explore later!)

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Recipe: Brown Rice, Lentil, and Feta Salad

It’s not that I don’t adore my hummus & tomato sandwiches for lunch. But after having them for two weeks straight, I was starting to get a bit bored. I had just scored some Black Beluga Lentils at Trader Joe’s, and I figured they’d go nicely with a few other ingredients that I had at work for random lunches.

Besides being a ridiculously healthy and tasty lunch, this is totally dirt cheap to eat. A Trader Joe’s meal from beginning to end, here’s the breakdown on the ingredients: the lentils cost $1.99; the pre-cooked brown rice, also $1.99; low-fat feta cost about $2.29; the 6-pack of tomatoes & bunch of green onions, $1.99 and $1.19, respectively. Even if I’d used all these ingredients in their entirety, this is still a great deal for a healthy meal. However, when you’re trying to make lunch for one, you don’t need all that food – it’s just too much! Instead, I split the packages of rice & lentils and had plenty for three days worth of lunch. Of course, this probably means I’m going back to hummus & tomato sandwiches by Thursday, since my palate does get bored w/the same thing very easily, but I’m still loving the simple guilt-free flavors of this dish. You could probably jazz it up a bit by making an actual dressing for this, but I found that the fresh tomato, green onions, and lemon juice blended together nicely with the rice & lentils. The feta just adds that extra zip to the dish, and of course, you can’t go wrong with plenty of fresh ground pepper.

I’ll stop babbling now and give you the easiest recipe ever. :)

Brown Rice, Lentil, and Feta Salad (serves 3-4)
1 bowl Trader Joe’s pre-cooked brown jasmine rice
1 package Trader Joe’s black beluga lentils (any black lentil will do)
2 small Roma tomatoes, chopped
4 green onions, chopped
2 oz low fat feta cheese
Juice of one lemon
Pinch of salt
Lots of fresh ground pepper

Cook the rice & lentils in the microwave per package instructions. Add the rice, lentils, onions and tomatoes in a bowl and toss together. Add the lemon juice and stir until well coated. Crumble the feta cheese on top (you can either toss it into your salad or leave it on top for garnish). Finish with plenty of fresh ground pepper. Enjoy!

(PS – You don’t have to use Trader Joe’s rice & lentils, it just makes it that much easier to make a quick lunch at work.)

Friday, October 3, 2008

Trader Joe's 101

(NOTE: I do not work at Trader Joe’s, nor do I hold any stock in their company because they don’t sell it. I’m just a really big fan. Please do not take this as an advertisement for their store, but as a lesson in how to shop well for less. – K. A. M.)

Few places in this world make me as happy as Trader Joe’s. For those of you who don’t know about this fabulous place, it’s technically a grocery store but not the type you’re used to. Rather than being a huge supermarket that becomes almost overwhelming in choices and brands, Trader Joe’s is a nice user-friendly, foodie-friendly store that no proper cook should ignore. For me it’s my little food mecca: affordable, beautiful, chock full of all sorts of things you can’t find at the big food giants, most of it geared towards health conscious folks. Sure, you’ll find things like ice cream and potato chips, but you’ll find that their “junk food” is surprisingly not that awful for you. About the only thing I find lacking at Trader Joe’s would be their produce department: there is not a very large selection and most of their produce is already pre-packaged – great for things like baby spinach and other salad mixes, but not so much for other vegetables and fruits that you might like to choose yourself. I’ll admit I’m a bit of a produce snob, so I do prefer to pick it myself. If you don’t care as much and like to save time, then TJ’s produce would work well for you.

I could probably write an entire book about this place. But this is a blog, so what I’ll do instead is post different blogs on each department’s best features in the coming months. Trader Joe’s carries some fine wines & cheeses; a wonderful array of nuts, dried fruits, and other natural snacks; great deals on fresh, organic cruelty-free meats, fish, and poultry; quite a variety of pasta and other cooking and dipping sauces (stuff that makes even the most cooking-challenged person appear like a gourmet chef); a variety of vitamins and other health & beauty aids; and a rather nice selection of conventional and unconventional breads and grain products. They also cater to the typical American who is rushed for time, by offering excellent pre-made salads (the Fiesta Chicken & Vegetable or the Roasted Beet & Gorgonzola are always winners) and other pre-packaged lunches & meals in their refrigerated section. And Trader Joe’s frozen food section alone is worth a trip and the eternal fight for a parking space.

Now, there is a common misconception that Trader Joe’s is a very expensive place to shop. I’m afraid folks that think this might be confusing it with Whole Foods and other natural grocers whose prices are quite a bit higher (no offense to these establishments at all; I adore Whole Foods, it just takes up my whole paycheck to shop there). It’s true that one does pay a price for wanting to eat well, but as a very poor girl who does do so, I can guarantee you that you will save quite a bit of money if you are able to do most of your shopping at TJ’s. In the next few weeks I will do some comparison shopping at both Trader Joe’s and Safeway so that you can see the difference in prices. I would be willing to bet that you can save about 40% on the exact same shopping list, so stay tuned for that. For now, here’s an example of one of my recent jaunts to Trader Joe’s, with a bunch of “splurge” items that I probably didn’t need. It’ll give you an idea of what I mean about this place:

2 bags of baby spinach salad (18 oz., not 8 oz like you get at regular stores) - $1.99/ea
2 bottles of “2 Buck Chuck” (Charles Shaw wine, great for wine drinkers on a budget): $1.99/ea
Box of Roasted Gorgonzola Crackers - $1.99
1 bag frozen Marinated Teriyaki Chicken Breast - $5.09
Box of Vegetable Samosas - $3.49
TJ’s Extra Virgin Olive Oil Spray - $2.99
Alfredo Pasta Sauce - $2.99
“Mangolicious” frozen fruit blend (mango, blueberries, raspberries – SO good in a smoothie!) - $2.69
Sweet Chili cooking/dipping sauce - $1.29
TJ’s Lobster Ravioli - $2.99
Roma tomatoes - $1.99 for 5
Loaf of Complete Protein Sprouted Bread - $2.99
Block of mild California Cheddar - $3.09
Organic Vegetable Foursome (frozen) - $1.69
Dozen large eggs - $1.79
4 assorted cups of nonfat yogurt - $0.79/ea
Hummus - $2.19
5 Bananas (which they sell individually at only $0.19/ea, not by the pound – genius) - $0.95

Very yummy stuff and I spent around $45 after tax. Not bad, eh? I don’t even want to know how much this list would have cost me at a regular grocery store, not to mention the fact that they wouldn’t sell a lot of this stuff anyway.

Stay tuned for the next Trader Joe’s 101!


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