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cooking and no spend days

July 10th, 2008 at 08:20 pm

Generally, my biggest expense is food. This is because before I started cooking, I'd eat out all the time. But since I moved, I've been doing a lot more cooking, and I find I don't want to eat out at all.

I've been making a habit of making an extra serving of something, so I can have it for dinner the next night. Since it's summer, breakfast is cold cereal and fruit. I haven't done so well with lunch, and end up skipping it. But I used to go so far as to buy desserts, like bakery cookies and cake. Now, I'm doing more baking on my own, and might have cookies. Actually, since it's been so hot and muggy, I've just been eating a lot of fruit.

So I'm finding that my day to day expenses have really dropped. But, I'm spending a little more on groceries. Some of it's not a bad thing, because I let myself buy fresh fruit in season, even if it's a little high. So I've been eating tons of cherries and blueberries, even though apples and bananas are cheaper. But I can't get fresh cherries in December, so I'll save the apples for wintertime.

I think I could drop my meat consumption and save more money. Or at least change it. I just found out my fishmonger will clean/scale and behead a whole fish, and these tend to be less $/pound than buying the fillets. I hardly ever buy red meat, and when I do, it's hamburger, but I do buy a lot of chicken and then just boneless, skinless breast. I should switch to whole chickens, and joint them, but I'm squeamish. I eat a lot of egg (whites) which are cheap. But I should eat more beans instead. I don't really like them though, so I'm going to have to sneak them into food.

I can't handle a ton of dairy, so I have milk, soymilk and yogurt as my dairy servings. Soymilk is $$, which is aggravating. But I can make my own yogurt, which can really cut costs.

But I haven't really kept to the grocery budget, because I went on a carnivorous rampage over the 4th of July, and that just really got pricey.

I've decided to set aside the grocery money and put it into a holding account that I was using as a potential space to hold my pocket money. Currently, this account has about $50.00, just to keep it open, and I give myself the pocket money when I need it. But since I don't eat out, I only use a dollar or two, and I can just keep that in my wallet.

Since the holding account has a check card, I can put the grocery money there, and that way the month's allotment is isolated from the rest of my operating expenses. So I won't blindly go over (I'm good about checking my overall balance) and if I underspend, I'll just put in less the following month and pay extra on my debt.

Grocery Budget?

May 20th, 2008 at 08:15 pm

Ok, I am a ramen/tuna/cornflakes kind of person who, if peanut-butter and jelly were outlawed, would have to live in San Quentin. In the settlements near the Guild, it's microwaves and George Foreman grills. Not the stuff of haute cuisine.

But my apartment has a kitchen, eeek! And now I have to stock a pantry. I'm thinking that having one meatless meal a day will really cut costs. I'm not a vegetarian (I am a baconarian) but meat=expensive!

I know there are frugal cooking websites, but they seem to be family orientated. I am perennially single, and using Monday's meal for 4 to make leftovers for Tuesday and Wednesday's meals (also for 4) mean that I've got tons of food that's going to waste.

But what's a reasonable amount to spend? I'm organic for dairy, but I can make my own yogurt and cheese is incompatible with bikini season, so it's mainly a milk bill. Cutting down on meat is definitely going to help, but I could cook a chicken or something. There's a local farm cooperative not too far from me that's selling shares. For about 20/week** I can get fresh vegetables (not fruit). I could bake my own bread. Eliminating coffee is slightly less preferable than eliminating air.

So I'm guessing 20+6 for fruit, plus dairy and some meat...that's looking like 35/week? Say 40/week total. Is that crazy?

**this is a half-share. I expect to freeze a ton of stuff for casseroles. If I could find a buddy to pair up with, it'd be 10/week. This is the second peril of singledom. The first is that there's no one to kill the spiders for you.

Starting Small

January 15th, 2008 at 11:25 pm

Ok, so here's the plan for the rest of the month: use the use the surplus $$ from the grocery money to get a crockpot. I was talking to a girl today who said she loveloveloves her crock pot. I figure if I just use it for stew, I'll be golden.

Second plan: make a list of my favorite cheap eats, and set a menu for the next few weeks. This will put me on target for one of my goals for 2008: lose weight. I'm a little too cuddly for long-term good health. So being more careful w/the meals is a good way to be both economical and healthful.

Drinks, Part III

July 6th, 2007 at 04:45 pm

Ok, so the Coffee Trials are over, and if you want to cut to the chase, scroll to the end of the post! Smile

I tried using coarsely ground coffee instead of fine ground coffee and I'm really not seeing an appreciable difference in taste.

In fact, it seems counter-intuitive to me that a coarse ground is going to extract more flavor (using the logic that a smaller particle is more easily saturated by the water, and will release more flavor as a result.) Also, it's a little harder to really ballpark the volume of coffee to water: a large ground takes up more space than a find ground of the same weight. Basically, a pound of coffee, ground fine takes up less space than if it's coarsely ground and since we're eyeballing how much water to add, it's a little harder (for me) to get the strength I wanted.

This is just a guess, but I think I'm going to switch back to fine ground coffee, if for no other reason than sometimes I want to drink the coffee hot, and when I do, I use a fine ground.

And, I decided that diluting the toddy with 1/2 water was too weak. So here's the final answer for iced-brew coffee:

ICED BREWED COFFEE

* 2:1 ratio of water to coffee (fine ground, dark roast if you're me!)

* Put it in a cup, sticck it in the fridge, go to bed or something.

* In the morning, filter the coffee (I poured the coffee sludge into an automatic drip and used the drip's filtering basket.)

* The remaining liquid (toddy) is superconcentrated. I like cream in my coffee, so I've been adding that, and then adding water to dilute it to taste. I'm finding that about 3 parts toddy to 1 part water is what I prefer. Don't come crying to me if it leaves you with a mohawk on your chest.

* Add sweetener. If you're using plain sugar, you might add it to the water you're using to dilute the coffee. I like using the sugar syrup (there's a link posted in another Drinks post to show you how.)

* Drink, and hope you don't get the shakes. Then drink some more, it's July!

Note: cold-brewed seems to take about 1/3 more coffee than hot brewed. So if you're really cutting costs, brew it hot and cool it overnight. It's still yummy, either way.

Drinks, Part II

June 25th, 2007 at 08:21 am

Ok, so I talked about cold-brewed coffee in an earlier post and decided to test my recipe.

To start, I took a quantity of grounds (not coarse, as I just didn't have that handy) and added double the volume of water. I put this into my coffee pot (using the idea that I'd use the coffee maker's filtering basket to drain out the grounds) and let the mix sit for about 2 days.

Here's the result.

First, it was damn near impossible to filter out all of those grounds. I realized (too late) that to use the coffee machine's filtering system, I needed to have the actual pot in the machine. My particular model has a little plunger on the filter basket and a little bump on the coffeepot lid. The bump depresses the plunger, which releases the liquid in the basket. So I should have used a different container to keep the coffeeground and water mix. That would have made things a lot easier.

The second thing, which is really the first thing is that coffee grounds steeped in water make a slurry. Actually, "mud" would be a more precise description. The mixture was so thick, there was hardly any liquid left. I think that the use of fine grounds was the culprit here -- all that particulate matter, acting like little sponges absorbed all my caffeinated goodness.

In any case, when I had finished filtering, I was left with an inky, stinky substance that tasted like pond scum.

Needless to say, I was pretty bummed at this point. But then I remembered that I was actually brewing a concentrated product (the "toddy"), and the final beverage would need to be diluted.

Luckily, I scored some flavored syrup from the Souk. I wanted to buy a bottle of it, and they let me take home a little bit to try. So, I added water to the toddy (in a 1:1) ratio, poured in my syrup (tasty almond) and added a nice splash of cream.

This left me with a carmel-colored, sweetly scented brew that made me think of blue summer skies, handsome men playing frisbee, and a potential savings of $3.00 for not having to visit Starbucks that day. In a word: yummy.

What I would do over? Use coarse grounds instead of fine, plus making a bigger batch altogether. I had just enough for two cups of coffee (diluted) but if I'd wanted to add ice (I just used cold water, plus the toddy was already cold) I'd have had to make it stronger.

I'm not sure if there's an overall savings with the cold brew vs. the hot brew. I think cold brew takes more grounds, but I'll need to do a few more batches to make sure.

I will admit, the flavor is smoother, less acidic. I like a strong dark roast, and I 'm ok with a little bite. But the diluted toddy is a lot easier on the tongue than the same coffee does when hot brewed. And the home-made kind tastes exactly like the store bought kind (I think my syrup helped though.)

I will definitely make this again!

Salad Math

June 21st, 2007 at 12:46 pm

Lately, I've been buying lunch at the Forum's cantina. This is partially because I am a lazy oversleeper who always forgets to pack something the night before, and also because the Cantina has an amazing salad bar.

Typically, I get the same thing: mixed greens, fruit, chicken, cheese and dressing. This may not be the most healthful combination, but I really enjoy it. It prices at about 0.38/oz, and my salads clock in at roughly 3.50.

So today, I figured that I'd just buy salad fixings and bring my own. And then, while enjoying my (slightly less) tasty salad, I decided to see how much $$ I'd saved.

Mixed Salad Greens: 4.99/lb
Berries = 8/lb
Chicken = 5/lb
Salad dressing = 3/lb
Cheese = 4/lb
Carrots = 1.50/lb

A careful reader will determine that I'm pretty lazy. The chicken is chicken breast (organic) and the carrots are prebagged, baby-cut.

Now, the chicken at the Forum isn't organic, but they do have the carrots I like (matchstick). And I feel silly even typing that.

Ok, so buying my salad daily costs .10 more per ounce than it does to make it at home. And an average salad weight of 1/2 pound, I save roughly 3.50/week by packing .

Clearly my cost would go down even further if I had used a different kind of fruit, say apples or grapes, rather than berries. But I had bought berries this week and that's how the math goes. Also, I know I could do better with buying a whole chicken, but I know I won't eat it, and getting on the bone breast still kind of grosses me out.

At first I was worried that the 0.10/oz savings was kind of piddly, but doing the math reinforces my decision to do this at home.

Oh, and it makes me want to grow salad greens!

Drinking Problems

June 21st, 2007 at 08:06 am

I love coffee. Love it, love it. Coffee makes the fog clear, the sky blue, the sun rise in the morning. Coffee transforms my brain from a sluggish clod of dirt into a sleek, high-speed performance machine. Or maybe it just helps me string a sentence together at 9 am.

So I have a dedicated mid-morning cuppa, just as insurance towards a happy life. But this heat...it's so intolerable that I'm nearly off my food. And the thought of drinking anything hot makes me sweat a little.

So, this weekend I started drinking iced coffee. I was so desperate for a fix, I actually bought this at a Corporate House O'Doom.

The obivous conclusions can be made here: the coffee was delicious, more $$ than what I want to pay on a daily basis, and so I've been doing a little homework to crack the code.

Here's what I found, pass it on!

Cold-brewing iced coffee:

* Start with a coarse-ground dark roast. You can get this in bulk at a grocery store.

* Put a quantity of coffee in a clean container, and add double the volume of water as you did coffee (so, say 2 cups of water for 1 cup of grounds.) Not boiling water, just plain water.

* Let this concoction steep for about 10 hours.

* Filter the coffee water mix. The resulting liquid (coffee concentrate) is called "toddy". You'll want to dilute it with some water, and because it's already so strong, it should keep a nice flavor even when you add icecubes.

From what I've read about cold brewing, it's got a smoother flavor and less acid than the regular hot brewing method.

And how to sugar it now that it's cold? Martha Stewart has a simple sugar syrup recipe and you can flavor that to taste to duplicate all the fancy schmancy syrups you find in the Corporate Houses O'Doom.

Of course, you can always make hot coffee, add sugar, put in fridge, go to bed and drink it later. But try the different way and see what you think!

Learning more

June 15th, 2007 at 07:07 am

Ok, so I've done a bit more homework, and have concluded that, in spite of major advances in computing, finding a hardiness map that shows my precise location is really difficult. I can see my state, but I'm at the border between two zones and when I search for average yearly temps, I get values that don't jive with what I remember from last year.

So here's the rundown on my climate here:

long winters, with frost as late as April and as early as October. Typically a heavy snowfall, with low temps (including windchill) around -5. In the summer, highs in the 90's. The area is very fertile and green, so I think I'm in zone 5b.

Also, my mom tells me to stop using the little peat pots -- she says that it's not a renewable resource, and I should consider it like oil: once gone, not replaced. So I'm getting some vegetable compost (not quite on board with the manure just yet)and topsoil and starting seed in little newspaper pots.

I actually have some biodegradable coffee bags (when you buy it by the pound) so I used a few to put my basil seedlings in there. I also used some carry-out containers for the smaller seedlings.

To justify the cost, I'm not allowed to eat out (after today, as I forgot a lunch) as a substitute for cooking at home. If I'm meeting friends, that's ok, but for a day to day basis, I'm not going to spend the $$. This eases my mind a little about the cost of the dirt.

It's been a lot of fun reading about the different gardens. Here's some of the sites I really like:

You Grow Girl I love this site.
Victory Seeds (I got some seeds from them, but haven't tried them yet)
Seed Savers (haven't bought, but like the site)

Gardening!

June 14th, 2007 at 10:05 am

Wow! Thanks for all the great advice! I knew I came to the right group for questions.

I started doing a little homework, both online (from the resources you all gave and yay wikipedia!) and old-school (yay library!)

So I'm feeling a little more confident, and here is my grand plan to convert a 3x3 patch of sunlight into some healthful food.

1. Raised beds. I'm not sure exactly how I'm going to retain the beds just yet, but I figure I can buy myself at least a week or two of time if I box the beds in...well, cardboard boxes. I've got a ton of these handy, courtesy of the Souk.

So the dirt and plants go in the boxes, and that gets them outside while I figure out how to build a frame around them.

2. The dirt. Evidently, a local park gives out free mulch in the spring! I did not know this. So I'm checking to see if I can find some of this stuff. If not, I'll buy it this year and pay attention to the news next year. I also tried to get a few neighbors together so we could have it delivered, but I don't know if that will fly. My mom says: 1 part each of dirt, humus or mulch, sand.

3. The "crops": lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, herbs, pepper, beans (of the drying type) and then for next spring (to overwinter) broccoli, garlic.

I figure, I can't kill all of this! And although not all is from seed (the tomatoes and herbs weren't) the plants averaged about $1.50 per each, and seed packets about the same. I've read that I can save the unused seed for another year, and I'll do that.

So now, I'm pricing out whatever materials will be used to hold the beds together (I'm guessing wood is cheapest, plus easy enough for me to lift and transport).

So I'm adding another category, and will continue to post on the topic. Thanks again for all the help!