Grocery Day! (Part 2 of the Dinner Series)

On grocery day, I pack up my bags and egg cartons.  Depending on the weather, I lay out my route.  Right now, I call ahead and place my meat order at Mary Anne’s and pick that up first.  The meat stays cold in the car and then I’ve gone to the furthest away store.  Next up is Wayne’s.  This is designed in case we have a pre-nap meltdown and I have to stop and go home, I’ve gotten the essentials, right?  I can go to Kroger’s any time of day or night, so I’m never too worried about that store.  Today, I left my little guy at my Aunt’s and headed out.  I made it through everything except for the meat market since the roads that way weren’t too promising.  (Grocery shopping in February can be tricky.)  When I shop, I hit the produce section first.  It gets me in mood so to speak.  If Wayne’s hasn’t had what I was looking for, I’m most likely to find it at Kroger’s.   By shopping at a separate meat market, I don’t have too much in my cart and can by-pass the “butcher shop” in the back of the store.  I do always check the fish counter to see if there’s anything good, though.  

As  general rule, I avoid the middle-most aisles.  The ones that contain your rice-a-roni dinners and spam.  Now that I am out of my frozen garden produce, I am making trips to the freezer cases for green beans and peas.  I can’t go more than a day without them.  The last place I stop at in the store is the dairy case for heavy cream or sour cream if I need it.  I don’t typically buy my milk in the store since I buy Hartzler’s and I call ahead and order that from Trinity.  I recently discovered some sour cream cultures in my freezer and so my days of purchasing that may be coming to a close!  

Now here’s the hard part: check out.  I bring my own bags and am often greeted with looks of distain from the teenage baggers.   The reason why this is the most challenging part of my trip is because I have to explain how to pack a bag.  Since any explanation as to which bags are insulated has fallen on very deaf ears, I lay anything that should be kept cold out first with the insulated bags and once they are packed, I let them have the rest.  Once I came home to discover my eggs at the bottom of a bag containing dog food.  Needless to say, I lost those eggs.  Some stores will give you money off for bringing your own bags.  Target, for example, gives 5 cents a bag, I believe.  Be aware, though.  If you want your 5 cents, you may just have to ask for it.  Unless you are lucky enough to do all your shopping at a mecca like Whole Foods that is!

Once I’ve arrived home, I put away my goodies.  If the meat is going to be used within the next 2 days, I put it in the fridge.  If it’s scheduled for a meal by the next weekend, it goes in the upstairs freezer.  The rest goes in the basement in my deep freezer.  I try to plan my arrival home around a nap so that I get things done right away.  While Liam sleeps, I wash all the fruits/vegetables and put them away.  Greens are also washed.  I blot them dry on a towel and then store them in the fridge wrapped in a damp cloth.  This way they last far longer and they are cleaned and ready for whenever the mood for a kale salad strikes me.  

Any extra staples go in the basement in my (currently rather bare) canning cellar.  For instance, I once was at the store and they had dried pasta on sale for 50 cents a box.  I bought a few and had some as back up for a while.  I will be writing another post on the staples you should always have for a versatile kitchen.  Flour, sugar, oats and rice all go in old pretzel jars from my grandmother.  I must admit that as much as I love to grocery shop, I am really looking forward to the days when I can just walk out back to my garden and get the carrots I need for dinner.  That beats even the best produce department!

Dinner – Drama or Delight? Part 1

It happens to every one of us.  It’s been a hectic day, maybe even one like those Laughing Cow commercials, you arrive home exhausted only to find that you have nothing for dinner.  The solution?  Typically, you order out, Right?  I grew up in a home where this did not happen.  My mother stayed home and had dinners on the strict schedule.  In fact, we ate at 530.  Every.  Single.  Night.  I was never the sole organizer of the dinner plans until I went to college where the cafeteria took care of things for me.  As long as I was there during the open hours, I was ok.  Even if I didn’t like what was on the main menu, I could make a salad or an ice cream sundae.  Fast forward a few years and I was a new bride.  I realized that not only did I not actually know how to cook, I was clueless about grocery shopping, menu planning and there were buckets of tears to be had when my darling new husband didn’t get why we had to eat at 530.  

By this time, however, my mother had had a stroke and was unable to teach me how to do this simple task.  My whole life, I had these dreams of someday being a cute little wife who greets her husband with a tastefully ruffled apron and a 3 course meal on the table when he gets home from work.  My mother planted this dream in my head and it stuck.  It was a very idyllic version of what actually happened.  I worked 8-10 hours everyday, plus a commute.  Most nights, I was far too tired to make much more than a frozen pizza.  My parents are instinctual cooks and most of the meals that were on the weekly menu were ones that no recipes with quantitative measurements were to be had.  My husband made it clear that tofu was not an option, so I went in search of cookbooks.  I had a few, but over the following months, I set aside money from each paycheck to purchase a new book.  By the time, the summer rolled around, I had amassed a collection and some experience.  Now, if I could only not waste so much time and money in the grocery.

At that time, I had quit my job with the commute and was now in town.  For the first time ever, I could go to the farmer’s markets, pick up produce and take it straight home.  It was then I discovered coupons and comparison shopping.  These days, I pretty much have the prices memorized at my bi-weekly haunts.  I know if using that coupon is worth it or if I’d be better off just buying the store brand.  This is a muti-part series on menu planning, grocery shopping and kitchen organization.  I wish someone had be able to share this with me, so I am hoping to help another new housekeeper and maybe give some new tips to an experienced one.

Grocery day is set up around my pay days.  I start the menu planning on Wednesday or Thursday and shop Friday mornings.  The main reason why I do it this way is because that’s how my parents did it.  The only difference is that we don’t come home to a weekly meal of tofu cottage cheese and yam chips (although I would very much like to).  I live in my Blackberry.  My calendar, recipes I’d like to try, notes and grocery list are all in there.  But I do keep a calendar on the fridge so that the hubs knows what’s going on.  Menu planning for me isn’t so much about a rotational list or a specific diet, it’s about my schedule and what I want to try.  I have an ongoing pile of recipe clippings in my recipe binder to try and I do try to use at least one new one every 2 weeks.  Also in my binder is a copy of the Ohio produce availability.  This way I am ready for when the crops start rolling in and I don’t miss something; like fresh asparagus.  On Tuesdays and Thursdays I work until 7 at night.  Therefore, I have either a crockpot meal ready when I get home or a freezer meal thawing.  Monday, Wednesday and Friday I only plan for dinner because we either have leftovers or sandwiches for lunches.  The weekend menus revolve around what we are doing and usually include a dinner out.  I do try to be realistic in my planning because now that I have a little guy motoring around the house, I can’t get too involved in my meal prep in case he needs something.

Once the meals are chosen and allocated to their days, I make out a grocery list.  I go through every recipe and make sure I have the ingredients (because nothing is worse than trying to make Carbonara only to discover you don’t have any heavy cream).  Then, I make a quick trip through the pantry shelves and my freezers to see what I already have.  I have a running list in my BB of items that we need as I notice it and I add my grocery items to that list.  Finally, I go through my coupons and mark the items where one is applicable with an uppercase “C”.  I don’t often check the store fliers since we only shop at Kroger for items that I can’t get at Wayne’s or the meat market.  If I am going to a bulk foods store, I have a separate list for those purchases so that I don’t get confused.  

Thus ends the tale of my menu planning.  Up next, grocery shopping!  Grocery shopping is my all-time favorite kind of shopping, so I can’t wait to share with you these tips!

Nifty Thrifty

Shortly after we got married, I started on a mission to de-waste our house, to be more frugal and to stop spending money on things I could just make myself.  I think at first, my husband thought it was endearing.  And while I’m sure he still finds it a respectable challenge, sometimes I think he wishes I would just buy the product and stop tearing the kitchen apart trying to reproduce something.  You see, for the last 3 and a half years, I have been trying to make homemade crackers.   Not just any homemade cracker, though.  I wanted something as crisp and salty as the wheat thin, but without the packaging, preservative and expense.  I’ve tried a number of recipes and finally, through some tweaking, came up with this one.

Wheat crackers

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/2 cup wheat germ
  • 3 Tbsp sugar
  • 1/2 tsp paprika
  • 1 tsp. salt, plus more to sprinkle on top
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
  • 1 stick of butter, cut into 1/2 Tablespoon pieces

Pre heat your oven to 400 degrees.  Place all ingredients, except the water in a food processor and blend until the butter is fully incorporated.  Stream in the water until the dough begins to pull away from the sides of the processor as it spins around.  Dump the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and finish kneading it by hand until the dough is smooth and there are no lumps of butter showing.   Divide the dough into 4 pieces and work with them one at a time.  Work quickly, though, because the dough dries out if you let it sit for too long.  Roll the dough out until it is about 1/16 of an inch thick.  Then, with a pizza cutter or a knife, cut the dough into 1-inch square pieces.  Transfer the dough pieces to a lined baking sheet and bake for 5-7 minutes.

I rolled out the dough and made the general size cuts.  Then, I only put the crackers that were in the right shape on the tray, rolled up the rest and repeated the process.  The ones that never made it into the right shape were the first to be sampled.  The whole process took less than 15 minutes until i was munching on these amazing crackers!  Even 7-month-old Liam thought they were amazing.  I am pleased with the taste and consistency.  You have to make sure you roll the dough out thinly enough, but if you do, you will have the perfect crispness.  

As far as the thrifty aspect, the last time I checked, Wheat thins were $3.47 a box.  I bought butter for $2.38 a pound.  I can get 4 recipes of my wheat crackers out of a pound of butter.  Each recipe produces enough to fill my canister. (This canister also holds a little over one box of Wheat thins.)  So for the cost of the butter alone, I am getting a comparable amount of crackers for 60 cents and 15 minutes of my time.   No bad, if I do say so myself.  It took far longer than I thought it would, but I’ve finally reached a solution for this snack conundrum.  Next up: pretzels!  This week, I am going to also post about how we grocery shop and menu plan since I have gotten a few personal emails/phone calls regarding this.  Perhaps I can be of help to someone else!

French Yogurt Cake

 An indulgently healthy sweet: French Yogurt Cake

When I first made out my list, I wanted to include some variations for traditional desserts.  To be honest, I didn’t really come up too many because when it came right down to it, I like the tradition.  However, when I discovered the recipe for a yogurt cake, I knew this was something I needed to add to my repertoire.  As I mentioned in my last post, butter has been a hot commodity in my kitchen with all the snow and my greatly decreased desire to head out to the grocery.  Again this weekend, I baked away the snowstorm induced chill in the house from the Freeze Your Buns Off challenge in an effort to combat the lower temperatures outside of the main rooms of the house. 

This is a wonderful Christmas morning treat as well… the pug was quite covetous.

I am a big fan of the pound cake.  In fact, my favorite is a lemon cream-cheese one that I make for most occasions where a sweet bread is appropriate.  This weekend was one of those occasions.  Somehow, though, I managed to mess up the batter.  I don’t actually know what I did for sure, but I’m pretty certain I missed half a cup of flour.  Regardless, I had to bake it 30 minutes longer than prescribed and the resulting cake was something I would never allow out of my kitchen.  I then decided that the yogurt cake would be a simple fix.  In this recipe, plain yogurt takes the place of the butter so while you have a baked good with the consistency of a pound cake, it is lower in fat and as an added bonus, you’ve also gotten something to chat about with your guests.  I adapted this recipe somewhat from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking book, but not too much, she is a genius after all.  

French Yogurt Cake

  • 1 1/4 cups flour
  • 1/4 cup finely ground wheat germ
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup plain yogurt
  • 1/2 tsp. lemon extract
  • 1 Tbsp. lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup canola oil

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and butter a loaf pan liberally.  Combine your dry ingredients.  In a large bowl, cream together the yogurt and the eggs, one at a time.  When it is thoroughly blended, add in the lemon extract and juice.  Mix in half of the dry ingredients.  Stream in the oil while the dry ingredients are being mixed.  Once all the oil is mixed in, add the last of the dry ingredients and mix until combined.  Pour the batter into the loaf pan and bake for 50-55 minutes.  

**Dorie calls for a glaze to be poured over the top of the cake, but I don’t like it that way.  I prefer it with a thin schmere of cream cheese and a cup of coffee.  Those I have served it to, agree.**

Resources: Baking: From My Home to Yours

Oatmeal Cranberry Cookies

I love cranberries.  Everything about them makes me happy, the color, the tang, the size.  I just think they are the greatest little products of any bog you could come up with!   When I discovered the dried cranberry a few years ago, it was as though the heavens opened and angels sang.  I love cranberries so much that I’m ashamed to admit that if you were to visit my Farmville farm you’d note that I plant them almost everyday.  Lots and lots of cranberries.  

 Mom’s worn cookie book she got in girl scouts.  Every cookie she made was from this book.

Now, I know I said I wanted to master the Oatmeal cookie on my list, but I just didn’t want to make them with the ubiquitous raisins.  Everyone does that.  Last weekend, I wanted cookies.  I didn’t so much want chocolate or peanut butter, but something that was baked with brown sugar.  I don’t know why, but I like the way brown sugar creates a different crunch in it’s baked goods than your run-of-the-mill white sugar.  While rooting around in my cupboards, I discovered some dried cranberries and knew just what to do.  Gleefully, I started pulling together my ingredients until I realized that we were in the middle of a snow storm and I didn’t have any butter.  Well, shoot.  I turned to all my cookie recipes to find none with any suggestions.  That is until I pulled out my mother’s Cookie Book.  In a section dedicated to special diets, I noticed that they substituted butter for oil a few times.  So I started playing.  Below is the recipe that resulted.  It only makes about 18 cookies, but they are a healthy size, so you only need to eat one.  But you’ll probably want more.  I do.  Perhaps, this is what I should do during naptime today…

Oatmeal Cranberry Cookies

  • 2 cups rolled oats
  • 3/4 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup oil
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup dried cranberries

Preheat your oven to 325 degrees and line 2 baking sheets with silpats.  Beat together the wet ingredients and then sift in the dry ingredients.  Stir in the cranberries.  Drop about 2 Tablespoons of dough on the cookie sheets, leaving about 2 inches of space between the drops.  Bake about 15 minutes, makes 1 1/2 dozen cookies.

Mise en Place not Mise en Mess

Anyone out there watched Worst Cooks in America?  Anyone actually pick a favorite and then sweat it out because your 2 team favorites were pitted against each other?  Ok, well I did.  I was glad to see Rachel win… of course, I’d have been happy with Jen, too though.  Anyway, I learned a lot from the series.  And I had the luxury of learning it curled up on my couch without Anne yelling at me.  

 Readying the pork to pound it out.

On the of the big lessons that the cooks learned with to get their acts together.  By which I mean, know what you need and have it.  Know what to do and do it.  I was a big fan of the episode when after the chefs asked the “recruits” over and over if they had read the recipe and “memorized it, they wiped it off the blackboard.  Nice.  I’m pretty visual, so I could have been ok.  But then, I might have used the wrong apples, too.

Bread crumbs, egg wash, base flour 

I took that lesson to heart and I also listened when I realized that one of the biggest complaints was in reference to seasoning.  Time and time again, the chefs turned away a dish because it was under seasoned.  Which I do believe, would have been my case.  Honestly, I feel that my food is oftentimes a little bland.  Pork Milanese was on my menu for a weeknight dinner.  And I decided to actually put forth the effort to season each layer of my dish.  It turned out so good, that I ate seconds.  And thirds.  

Notice the breading ON the pork, not burning in the pan! 

This recipe is really a simple, pound, bread and fry sort of meal but there was something about the added niftiness of finishing the pork in the oven.  And honestly, I realized that if you season the meat before you bread it, the flavor of the meat itself is much sweeter than if you only season the breading.  And if you dust the meat in flour before you dip it in the egg wash, the egg will stick better thus leading to a more consistent breading coverage.  Perhaps you already knew this.  And maybe I’m the last person on the planet to put this together in my head, but it’s finally there.  For once, I’m making breaded foods that still have the breading on them when I plate.  Small victories people, small victories.

Heaven, perfectly seasoned.