Sunday, March 30, 2014

Feeding the Freezer

Not too long ago we had an unexpected major expense.  Not like "oh we need a new car", but more "oh we're now camping for vacation this summer".  Fortunately we've managed to sock away a decent emergency fund, but in looking more closely at our overall financial picture, I realized how much we've nickeled and dimed away our savings lately.  We knew something had to change.  So, I've started once again tracking every penny we spend (which sounds arduous but really only takes about three minutes a day if I actually keep up with it).  By far our biggest expense that we can actually do something about is food. 

I actually have a very generous grocery budget for three people.  Not USDA Thrifty Plan generous, but close.  Very close.  And that doesn't include eating out.  Also a very generous amount.  I tend to buy natural and organic meat and dairy, locally when I can. About 2/3 of our produce is organic.  So it adds up fast.  And when I come home in the evening and don't feel like cooking, I'm not shy about running right back out to pick up fast food.

I love the idea of freezer cooking, where you spend a day whipping up a bunch of fabulous, ready to pop in the oven meals, and then you don't have to think about cooking again for a few weeks.  But realistically, that doesn't work for me.  We just don't eat like that.  But if I'm going to get out of the habit of running out for burgers just because I had an exhausting day, the best thing for me to do is to keep my freezer well fed.  So over the last couple of weekends I've been doing some prep work that won't give me ready to serve meals, but will make my meals much, much quicker to throw together.

Yesterday I poached a whole chicken.  I took the meat off the bones and shredded it, giving me enough for three future casseroles.  When I cooked it, I added carrots, celery, garlic, onion and herb to the water.  Once I took the chicken out, I strained the broth and put it in the fridge.  Tonight I'll pull most of the fat off and then freeze it in one or two cup portions, to be used in future meals.

Today I pulled four pounds of ground beef out of the freezer (I bought 20 pounds on March 7 and I'm very interested to see how long it lasts us).  Two pounds were browned with onions and garlic, which gives me four meals' worth of pre-cooked meat for tacos, chili, casseroles, etc.  I made Italian meatballs with the other two pounds.  I use my cookie scoop and got 50 meatballs, so I froze them in packages of 10.  If we're having spaghetti, I'll pull out one package.  If we're having meatball subs, I'll pull out two.  Quick and easy.

I also made a batch of pizza dough.  This is my favorite recipe.  I don't have pizza on the menu this week, so I put both balls in the freezer so they'll be ready in case the mood hits.

I'm planning to make broccoli cheese soup this week (I finally got my family to agree to try homemade - it was a bit of a disaster last time but I know where I went wrong).  My daughter asked for bread bowls.  I've been wanting to try this Italian Roll recipe, so I mixed up the dough.  It's in the fridge now and tomorrow night I'll bake it into four bread bowls for soup on Tuesday.

Hubby asked for no-bake chocolate oatmeal cookies, so I made a batch of those, too.  I was going to try this recipe for Blueberry Banana Oat Bread but ran out of steam.  So I pulled a loaf of banana bread out of the freezer for this week's breakfasts and I'll freeze the bananas that need to be turned into baked goods (we have some every week lately, which probably means I need to buy less!).

After all that I didn't really feel like cooking dinner, so we had a simple meal of broiled pepper steak (got some on the clearance meat rack yesterday), baked potatoes and roasted asparagus.  Tasty.

What's cooking in your kitchen this week?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

In the Kitchen

On Sunday the baking bug bit.  Yes, it was an absolutely gorgeous day outside, but before I went out and enjoyed it, I NEEDED to turn on the oven.  I've been reading a ton of cooking blogs lately and wanted to give some new recipes a shot, plus revisiting some old favorites.

First, I made this Sweet Potato Cake from the Wholesome Ireland blog (I love this blog!).  This was a complete hit with the five-year-old and I love it too.  Not too sweet, with just enough lemony goodness and the potatoes give it a great texture.

Next up was these Fresh Cranberry Muffins, using up some cranberries that were getting a little wrinkled in the freezer.  I've made this before and all three of us really like them.

I had a couple of bananas that needed to go into something, and we're getting a little tired of banana bread.  The other day I ran across this recipe for Healthy Coconut Cookies.  I didn't have agave so I used corn syrup, and I added some mini chocolate chips instead of dipping them in chocolate.  We didn't really like them the first day, but after they sat for a day they were much, much better.

And finally, I made my favorite granola - An Oregon Cottage's Best Granola.  I make it with half honey, half maple syrup and add chopped pecans.  Delicious!  I put half of it in a jar and sealed up half with my Food Saver so we can enjoy it another week. 

All in all, a successful baking day.  We're set up with goodies for a week and beyond. 

What's cooking in your kitchen?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

In the Garden

Here we are, almost to the end of March, and I'm finally getting around to starting my garden.  Only a month later than usual!  Once the cold snap was over we had nothing but rainy weekends for a while so I didn't get out there.  But it appears that spring has sprung, and we're ready to get started.

Last weekend I did some cleanup.  I'm pretty sure the olive tree and my bay plant didn't survive the 17 degree lows we had in January (that's really low for this area).  But I'm going to let them go for now and see what happens.  My Spanish lavender was taking over the sidewalk (we have four planted in half barrels and they were about five feet wide), so we cut them all the way back last summer.  ALL the way back.  I was assured by more than one person that this could be done, they've done it before, and everything turned out just fine.  Well there's no sign of growth on any of them so I think we may have overdone it.  But I'll leave them be for a couple of months and see what happens.

Once again, I didn't get the raspberries cut back (I really need to figure out when that's supposed to happen), but they've come back in full force in spite of my neglect. Really, I just need to plant things that thrive on neglect.  Neglecting plants is what I do best.  I'll try to get into the raspberries to cut back the dead canes at some point, but if I don't I'm not too worried about it.

Yesterday we pruned the apple tree, and not a moment too soon.  It was already leafing out.  Seems like no matter when we do it it's always just in the nick of time.

Last weekend I also checked out the raised beds.  The garlic is coming along beautifully, and somehow some carrots and green onions survived the winter.  The carrots are tiny but if I remember correctly, they're supposed to be.  My daughter and I planted lettuce, kohlrabi, beets, carrots, and radishes last weekend.

Today, the sun is shining and it's another glorious day, and I'm going back outside.  Yesterday I picked up some seed potatoes, so I'm going to start them in a couple of half barrels.  I also put in some Walla Walla onion sets yesterday.   Today I'm going to put in peas.  I'll wait another week or two before I plant another round of the veggies I planted last week - if I space them out I should have a steady stream through the spring and summer.

In a couple of weeks my new fig tree should arrive.  My parents got me one for my birthday - it's a dwarf so I can plant it in a half barrel.  If you haven't noticed, I'm a HUGE fan of half barrels.  We have very heavy clay soil and I hate digging big holes, so if I can plant it above ground, all the better.  Of course, that seems to have backfired with the freeze we had this year...

What are your garden plans for this year?  Have you started growing yet?