Tuesday, February 27, 2007

EcoMama's Spice Rack

Ah, finally we reach the crown jewel of my culinary stock, the spice rack! Yes, technically rack(s), although if we really want to get techical i'm not sure they're even "racks". We had to expand after I started cooking lessons, started getting higher quality spices at Penzey's, and started to overflow the cabinet. These are a great little spice holder from Target. They come with labels but I prefer to write on them with dry-erase markers so I can switch things around. There was a time when I didn't ever replace spices unless they became so old that they were 1) rock hard or 2) flavorless. Now I buy bulk bags and refill my spice containers frequently. It's definitely worth it to buy quality. It is more flavorful so you not only get a better quality flavor, you also have to use less.

So what do I keep on hand? Curry Powder, Turmeric, Garam Masala, Cumin, Smoked Paprika, Mustard Seeds, and Corriander start my savory and Indian to Middle East collection. I use a lot of chili powder to add flavor to soups. The next rack has nutmeg, cinnamon, a savory herb blend, rosemary, homegrown thyme, crushed mint, peppercorns, and powdered ginger. The nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger are mostly used for baking though they do make their occasional appearance to set off a savory dish. Beo loves rosemary in anything, though especially paired with egg. He has been making a mean hashbrown with lovely rosemary tones. We recently ran out of our dried rosemary from the garden and plan to grow more next year. Rosemary along with thyme it makes a nicely rounded flavor mix. Crushed mint I mostly use in making yogurt dips. You'll notice two empty containers, and it's not for lack of spices, I just can't decide what is most worthy of a spot on the rack. Is it cardamom which I use rarely but as an esteemed spice deserves a showcase? Should I give a spot to cayenne, or is it used to sparingly to have it's own container? What about straight up Paprika that I've realized has it's own place in addition to my smoked variety? There are another half dozen or so contenders still regimented to the cabinet, including a mean mexican vanilla which actually enjoys the cool dark of it's current home, of course. I never imagined that I would be such a spice hound, but my love of cooking has expanded my knowledge and thus my love of a good spice. I hope you enjoyed the tour of my little stovetop universe o' flavor.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Our Frugal Pantry

Next up, the frugal pantry! Our pantry is a lot less cluttered these days than it used to be, thanks mostly to our cutting back on convenience and prepared foods. I have always wanted a pantry, so I was very excited that our new house had one, and quickly set to work filling it up. It took me a while to get it organized, but we have a good system. I keep bulk spices and other seldom-used items on the top shelf. The next shelf has snacky things: applesauce (mostly used for baking), apple butter, and convenience foods for the kids. We keep stocked up on Clif Z Bars. These are great organic whole grain bars that can even substitute for a meal if you have to rush out the door. (All you Weight Watchers folks, they're also a filling treat for 2-3 points!) We also keep Archer Farms (Target) organic fruit leather on hand for the same purpose. (Again, these were nice when I was counting points-just one point for a chewy snack.)

Next comes the grains shelf. Here we have a few bags of whole wheat pasta for quick meals, brown and white rice, whole wheat couscous, oats, and other grains that don't fit in our fridge drawer. The protein shelf is next. I used to keep loads of canned beans on hand: Kidney, black, cannelini, garbanzo, lentils. Now we keep mostly dried on hand, but I keep a few cans in case I've forgotten to plan ahead. I also keep the miscellaneous extra condiments like tamari and tahini on this shelf, just because there's room. (I'm slowly collecting enough containers that I can keep all of our bulk items in sealed glass, to avoid pest problems. A rogue mouse was once deleriously happy in our pantry before we found him out.)

Our next shelf is the tomato shelf. Next year I hope that this will be filled with home grown jars. We use a lot of tomato products in our cooking: marinara for pasta, pizza sauce for Beo's famous homemade pies, diced for soups and curries, etc. I love Muir Glen products, especially their fireroasted tomatoes. Whole Foods now has 365 organic canned tomatoes which are much cheaper, so we always stock up on those unless Muir Glen is on sale. I used to keep 5-6 boxes of veggie broth on hand, now I just keep 1 or 2 for the occasion that we run out of homemade. I also used to have a whole row of Annie's organic mac and cheese. I don't put much stock in all of the hype Annie's recently generated. The kids love it, and it's a relatively healthy alternative. That said, we have moved away from it a bit just for frugal purposes. The kids love white bean soup so that has taken a large part of the Annie's market away in my house. We've also discovered that the kids are pretty happy with some whole wheat pasta mixed with some beans and sprinkled with a little parmesan and Earth Balance. So while you'll still find Annie's in my pantry, it's no longer a staple due to price and our move to less packaging. Voila, our frugal, whole foods, vegetarian friendly pantry. The great majority of what I cook is easily made from the contents of this pantry and our fridge. Extra ingredients are a rarity. It's nice to be able to pull together a wide variety of meals once you've staked out your basic needs.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Frugal Filled Fridge

I figured that since I showed you my frugalfied, pared down fridge, I'd show you it stocked up with frugal friendly foods too. It's taken me a year of healthy cooking, but I've come up with what I think is a good stock list. We'll start with the fridge, move to the pantry, and then check out my spice rack. Today, let's look at the fridge. There are a number of things I try to always have. They include:
  • Milk and Soymilk
  • Eggs
  • Juice or Herbal Tea
  • Cheese-Mozzarella, Cheddar, Parmesan, Feta
  • Tempeh or Tofu
  • Earth Balance Spread
  • Butter for Baking
  • Yogurt-Plain and Flavored
  • Vegetable Broth
  • Cooked Beans
  • Prepared Steel Cut Oats (Cooked+Fruit)
  • Oodles of Fresh Produce
  • Nuts and Grains
  • Peanut Butter
  • Tahini
  • Jam
  • Raisins
  • Condiments Galore
The must-have produce items I keep on hand are carrots (full-size for cooking, baby for snacking), onions, potatoes, sweet potatoes, green, garlic, and mushrooms. I usually have celery and an easy side veggie like broccoli, cauliflower, or beets. I try to have a good stock of fruit to choose from-usually apples and citrus is the only thing we can get organic and US grown these days. Our nuts and grains drawer usually has steel cut oats, barley or millet (or another filler-type grain), almonds, walnuts, flax seeds and meal, and homemade bread crumbs. We also have various specialty flours and grains like wheat berries for Beo's breadmaking. Condiments include peanut butter, jam, salad dressing (a creamy one for dipping and a homemade vinaigrette), salsa, asian marinades/tamari, Bragg's, lemon and lime juices, ketchup, and mustard. Of course there's always a variety of leftovers as well, and beer and white wine-when it's too cold to keep it in the garage! Each week I try to plan at least 2 or 3 recipes outside of our standards, and make sure I have the necessary ingredients for those in addition to our basics. With these things in my fridge, I'm able to prepare a healthy frugal meal at the drop of a hat.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Afghan Stewed Vegetables

Well, dear friends, Soup Week has come to an end. I don't want to shock your system too much, so I'll ease you out gradually. One of my underlying goals for this year was to be sure to take time for myself. Sometimes being a full-time Mom, running a non-profit program, and trying to keep up with the gardens seems like a full-time job. I enjoy cooking so much, so this year I am going to try to take a cooking class every month at Whole Foods Market. Not only does it allow me to indulge my foodie nature, it gives me new tips, tricks and recipes, and gives me a night to myself. One of my dear sisters is underwriting these classes for me as a congratulatory gift for attacking our debt and sticking to our budget. My first class was a fabulous course in Afghan cooking. It was taught by the head chef of a popular Afghan restaurant. One of my favorite dishes of the night was this stewed vegetable concoction. It was just enough of a new twist on a curry-like meal, combining spices and flavors in a uniquely Afghan way.

Afghan Stewed Vegetables
  • Onion, diced
  • Small Can Diced Tomatoes
  • Large Can Crushed Tomatoes
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed/diced
  • curry powder (up to 3 t.)
  • ground coriander (about 1 T.)
  • cumin (up to 1 t.)
  • salt (about 1 t.)
  • 1 T. grated ginger
  • 1 c. Water
  • Vegetables cut into large chunks (potatoes, peppers, cauliflower, carrots)
  • 1 can or 1.5 cups chickpeas (rinsed and drained if canned)
  • couscous (prepare while veggies stew)

In a large pot, saute onion in a bit of olive oil. Add canned tomatoes, garlic, spices, and ginger. (Add spices according to your taste. I am estimating about what she used and I've used since.) Add water. Bring to a simmer. Add vegetables and bring to a boil. (Add them according to which will take the longest to cook. i.e. add potatoes, then 5 minutes later add carrots, etc.) Add chickpeas. Allow to stew until veggies reach desired tenderness. (Meanwhile, prepare couscous.) To serve, fluff couscous and arrange in the center of a plate. Surround with vegetable mixture and serve immediately.

I served this with bulani, another lesson from my class. They're quite similar to the carrot rangoon I made in my frugality efforts last month. These I made with some of the last of the frozen shredded zucchini from summer. Use wonton or egg roll wrappers and fry in a bit of oil. You can use almost any filling. Serve these with a yogurt mint sauce. The coolness of the yogurt sauce is perfect with the spicy rich warmth of the stewed vegetables. Enjoy!

Friday, February 09, 2007

Soup Week, Part 4

What's that? Enough beans already? Well beans are a wonder food, but okay. I'm not going far though, just traveling to an underloved grain: barley. I recently discovered barley and have found it to be a wonderful tool for frugal and healthy vegetarian cooking. When it comes to barley's nutrition, think whole wheat on all natural steroids. Barley is high in protein, fiber, and iron, and rich in fatty acids which make it a good complete protein. Hurrah! Barley, where have you been all my life? I have been using organic pearl barley, which is less nutritious than whole barley, but has a delightful texture and still retains some of the nutritional values previously mentioned. It can be purchased on the cheap in the bulk section. The stuff really expands when cooked. It's a great filler when you have the bare essentials for a soup.

Making a soup with barley is simple. Cook the barley ahead of time. Pearled barley does take a while. Cook it for about 35 minutes with a ration of 2 parts liquid to one part barley. It takes on flavors well, so consider cooking it in a good veggie broth. I think you could theoretically throw some barley in to a soup uncooked, but you'd need to make sure there was plenty of liquid for it to soak up. I make my barley soup with potatoes, carrots, onions, and celery, and whatever seasonings I'm in the mood for. Rosemary, thyme, the basics-all work well, but you can certainly get more exotic. Salt and pepper round things out. Bring to a boil and simmer until the veggies are as tender as you'd like them.

You can also use barley as a filler for leftover soups. Recently Beo threw a couple scoops of cooked barley into some leftover baked bean soup to stretch it for a hearty lunch. He served it in fresh baked bread bowls! They were his first attempt at bread bowls, and they were wonderful. Enjoy exploring the wonderful world of barley!

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Soup Week, Part 3

The soup du jour is White Bean Soup! The base for this recipe comes once again at the reccomendation of Virtual Veggie "Geek". I first had this soup in it's original incarnation as "Smokey White Bean Soup". The original calls for 3 oz. of smoked gouda and 1 c. milk. I have modified it only slightly to use whatever cheese you have handy, coordinating spices, and have eliminated the milk. The flavor of the soup really hangs on whatever cheese and seasonings you use. This is very versatile, and something both Sprout and Bird absolutely love. It's as much a staple for them as anything now. I don't measure anything with this soup. Just figure out what you'd like the texture to be, and take it from there. I chop the potatoes, put them in the pot, and barely cover them with liquid. I add beans according to how filling I want the soup to be.

White Bean Soup
  • 1 lb. potatoes, peeled & cubed
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 3 c. water, broth, or mix
  • 3 cans (15 oz) cannellini beans drained & rinsed (I use a bunch of cooked white beans)
  • 1 tsp. cumin, or to taste
  • 1/8-1/4 t. cayenne
  • nutmeg to taste (optional)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 3 oz. cheese of your choice, shredded (cheddar and parmesan work nicely)

In a soup pot combine potatoes, onion and water. Cover, bring to a boil and simmer until potatoes are tender. Process potatoes, onion and cooking water until smooth. Return to pot (or use immersion blender) and add beans, spices, and S&P. Heat gently until it's uniformly hot. Stir in the cheese of your choice and continue heating until the cheese has been melted.

Yesterday I made this with a raw milk cheddar from our farmer's market. I topped my serving with smoked paprika, which brought that smokey taste from the original back in. It was wonderful. Geek also reccomends adding chopped spinach to this soup to switch things up. Enjoy!

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Soup Week, Part 2

Today's soup comes again from Moosewood Restaurant Daily Special. I've only dabbled here and there in this great book. This soup was pointed out and recommended by my Virtual Veg friend, Geek. I can't believe I missed it-it's just a few pages from one of my favorite soups in the book. This has become one of our favorites. Thanks, Geek!

Baked Bean Soup

  • 2 c. chopped onion
  • 1 T. olive oil
  • 1/2 c. diced celery
  • 1 c. peeled and diced carrots
  • 1 T. chili powder
  • 2-3 t. dijon or german style mustard
  • 2 c. water
  • 1-1/2 c. undrained stewed tomatoes
  • 1-2/3 c. white beans
  • 2 t. cider vinegar
  • 2 T. molasses
  • 1 T. soy sauce
  • salt/pepper to taste
In a soup pot on medium heat saute the onions in the oil for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently, until translucent. Add celery, carrots, and chili powder continue and cook until veggies are tender, about 5 [to 10-15] minutes. Stir in the mustard, water, tomatoes, beans, vinegar, molasses, and soy sauce. Cover and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and gently simmer for about 15 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Notes and Optional Additions: I use veggie broth instead of water, for a richer soup. I also like using diced tomatoes rather than stewed-fire roasted are great. The first time I made the soup I accidentally used twice the tomatoes, and I prefer it that way. You can also use more beans if you wish. Geek recommended adding garlic in with the celery and carrots, and also adding in a splash of maple syrup w/ the molasses. It definitely adds a nice sweetness. Both Geek and I found that the end cooking time is more like 30-40 minutes to allow the flavors to blend properly and the veggies to get tender. You don't want them to get soft though. This soup is even better the next day. When I make it for company, I always make it the day before and let it "marinate".
Geek recommended a great cornbread with this soup. I did cornbread muffins the second time I made this, and made a recipe I found a bit lighter. They turned out beautifully.

EcoMama's Cornbread Muffins

  • 1 c. cornmeal
  • 3/4 c. all purpose flour
  • 1/4 c. whole wheat flour
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 c. honey
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1/4 c. plain lowfat (or fat free) yogurt
  • 1 c. skim or soymilk
  • 1/4 c. corn kernels
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease muffin tins. Mix together dry ingredients. Add wet ingredients and stir just until mixed. Gently stir in corn. Bake at 400 for 15-20 minutes, or until a toothpick comes clean.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Soup Week, Part 1

It's Soup Week at EcoMama! To be accurate, it's the end of two soup weeks in the EcoMama-Beo Household. We've been eating soup, soup, and more soup in this frigid Wisconsin Winter. This morning it was -15, with a windchill of -30. Brrrrrr. Our nice new house has ice build up on the inside of the windows. It's cold. Nothing a good pot of soup won't fix though. We're starting with a great new favorite which, like many, comes from my Moosewood Daily Special. (Well it's not technically mine-it's Mollie Katzen's. I do own a copy though. Mine.) I highly recommend this cookbook for it's soups and accompaniments. This soup is versatile and easily adaptable to whatever cuisine you'd like to pair it with. The recipe calls for fresh sage, but I subbed a good deal of whole rosemary leaves and thyme, and it was heavenly. Without further ado, Tuscan Bean Soup.

Tuscan Bean Soup
  • 2 c. diced onions (about 1 large)
  • 1 c. peeled and diced carrots (2-3 medium)
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced or pressed
  • 1 T. olive oil
  • 15 large fresh sage leaves (or other herbs)
  • 6 c. cooked pinto, Roman, or small red or white beans*
  • 3-4 c. Vegetable Stock, bean-cooking liquid, or water
  • salt and pepper to taste

*Beans: 3 15 or 16 oz. cans, undrained. Or, 2 c. dried beans yields about 6 c. cooked.

In a soup pot, saute the onions, carrots, and garlic in the olive oil on medium-low heat until the onions are translucent and the carrots are tender, about 10 minutes. Stack the sage leaves and cut them crosswise into thin strips. Stir the sage into the vegetables. Add the cooked beans and 3 c. of the stock or other liquid. Continue to cook on medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the soup is hot and simmering, 5 to 10 minutes.

Carefully ladle about 3 c. of the soup into a blender and puree into smooth. Stir the puree back into the soup. (Using an immersion blender sparingly also works.) If you wish, add more liquid for a less thick consistency. Add S&P to taste. If necessary, gently reheat the soup. Serve hot.

This is a great soup for chilly nights. It's very filling and the thyme and rosemary made the house smell warm. Beo loved this soup. He said it tasted "meaty". Coming from him, this is quite a compliment. Stay tuned for more great soups for these cold Winter days.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Frugal is the New Green

There has been a lot of talk lately on how being Green can be so frugal. Daily Kos, Ethicuran, and Groovy Green along with others have been touting all of the penny pinching that comes along with greening up a lifestlye. Beo has discussed on his blog how we have found that we can afford organic by making more things from scratch and cutting down on packaging. Over the past few months we've been trying to make more out of less, both for the environment and for our budget. I've been surprised at what a difference some of the little things really make.

One item we've swtiched to is bulk beans. I've had people telling me for a while that my canned beans were a convenience food, and I've scoffed and kept on stocking my pantry. Do you seriously think I have time to cook my own beans? We eat beans like they're going out of style. Sure, some organic beans are $1.79 and up per can, but at 99 cents a can, Whole Foods was making it easy for me to think canned beans are frugal in and of themselves. I decided to try a batch or two of bulk beans, and they were so easy that I gradually started switching over to all of our beans in bulk. Today I took the last step and bought bulk dried garbanzos instead of canned. I decided to do some weighing and measuring and seeing how much I was saving not just in packaging but also in cost. It turns out I'm paying an average of 25 cents for the same amount of beans that I used to pay 99 cents for in a can. No can, no sealing, no label, and I'm saving a whopping 75 percent. Not bad at all. In this veggie household that's saving us a bundle on soups, chilis, casseroles, and hummus.

Another switch we've made is a bit less about Green and more about frugality. When I read Kos's article about Kossacks being Frugal, I skimmed the list of reader submitted ideas on saving money. One was "Give up Coffee". Behind it, Kos had written "(You first.)" I laughed hysterically. But guess what? Yesterday I finished packing up our $100 coffee pot and stowing it away. We are coffee lovers extrodinaire, but we decided it was time to give up our daily 6-cup each habit. Neither of us is sure how we came to this conclusion. I had a splitting headache one day when sharing our coffee with visitors meant I didn't get as much as usual. The next day I was late in getting my coffee and the headache worsened. It was so severe that I decided that I didn't want to have something messing that much with my body chemistry, and I've only had a cup or two now and then since then. I started drinking a lot more tea, and soon Beo was on board as well. I ran the math, and I figure that we were paying almost 50 cents a cup for the shade-grown, fair trade, organic coffee that we brewed at home. The cost of a cup of tea? 15 cents. It varies a bit with the varieties we choose, but that's the average-and this is high end tea. What's more, that cost doesn't take into account re-using your tea leaves, which we do, so you can cut that in half again. We're still working on balancing out the smaller choice of organic varieties in the Tea world, but we've ordered a variety and are buying from Republic of Tea, which is a fair trade certified company. (Some of their teas have an additional Fair Trade premium on top of the already fair trade price.) We're not giving up the bean entirely, we've ordered a french press for an occasional brew now and then, but in the long run the switch from coffee to tea is saving us anywhere from $500-$1000 this year (depending on how much we'd have brewed day to day.)

I'm also happy to report that I finished the first month of 2007 within my budget limitations for kids clothes spending, and hit my goal for buying 50% of it second hand. Green = Frugal. The great thing is that like my diet-diet last year, the success of my financial-diet this year is motivating me to keep on track and see how much farther we can go. Stay tuned for frugal meal ideas. I've declared next week "Soup Week" on EcoMama Musings, and will share some of our favorite recipes.