Thursday, October 25, 2012

Mexican Chowder

Fall weather has finally arrived!  This is absolutely perfect timing for my culinary bent as Mexican Chowder is on the menu for the evening.  I had a recipe for this that I loved, but that recipe has somehow disappeared.  I searched the internet and found nothing that was quite like it, so tonight, I am boldly exploring new possibilities and creating my own recipe! 

Please forgive my photo-taking abilities.
Alright, as a guide I am starting with a corn chowder recipe from my faithful Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, tweaking it as my memory serves me, and adding my own creative twist.  Here we go...  

Mexican Chowder

1/2 C chopped yellow onion
1 T olive oil
1 medium chopped zucchini
14.5 oz chicken broth
1 C frozen corn
2 C chopped cooked chicken
1 small can chopped green chilies (I used home-canned hatch chili peppers.)
1 C milk
1 T flour
1/4 t salt (more if using homemade chicken broth)
1 T taco seasoning
1/4 C chopped cilantro (optional)
shredded cheese & tortilla chips (optional)

1. Heat olive oil in a large saucepan.  Add onions and sautee for a couple of minutes.  Add in zucchini and continue to cook until the onions are soft, but not brown.
2. Add chicken broth, bring to a boil.  Add corn, chicken, and green chilies.  Simmer for 10 minutes.
3. In glass measuring cup or small bowl whisk together milk, flour, salt, and taco seasoning.  (Supposedly you're supposed to let this cook and stir until it's "thick and bubbly."  Um, mine didn't really get thick, and I think chowders should be thick.  If you're happy with the "chowder" at this point, then skip to step 5.)
4. Melt 2 T butter in a small saucepan.  Whisk together 1 C of milk and 3 T of flour.  Slowly pour the milk mixture into the melted butter, whisking it until it thickens.  Add to chowder.  Taste and adjust seasoning as needed.
5. Top with cilantro, shredded cheese, and tortilla chips if desired.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Fall Menu Plan

The bug may have finally hit me.  Decorate for Fall has been on my to do list for the past three weeks, but this week it may actually get crossed off.  We took the kids to the pumpkin patch this weekend, temperatures are about to get cool(er), and I've been pinning winter squash and apple recipes on Pinterest.  This menu plan was hard to write because there were so many recipes I wanted to include. (Since I started this post, I have found even more recipes. *sigh*)
Pumpkins on death row

Also, we joined a new coop this month that offers local food during our growing season!!!  So excited about this.  I'll update you on our progress on the Pantry Challenge at the end of this post as well.

Since seasons range quite a bit around the country, I wanted to give you a quick how-to for menu planning so that you can adapt to where and how you live.

1. Start with what's in season.  If you shop at the grocery store, start with what produce is on sale. (This will save you money and you will get better quality.)

2. Look at your family calendar and decide which nights you would benefit from a quick and easy meal or a crock pot dinner.  Do you want to eat out one night?  I like to put more time consuming recipes on the weekend.

3. Consider spreading out costly items such as meat and dairy.  We only cook meat 2-3 nights a week. If we eat it other nights, it's leftovers added to a new dish.  Some people have chicken on Monday, pork on Tuesday, etc.

4. Think about grouping meals together that share ingredients or can be used to make the next meal.  I'll give you an example in my menu plan in week two with the Cilantro Lime Chicken.

That's about it!  So, without further ado, my fall menu plan:

Week 1

Saturday- Sweet Potato Burgers/Quiche
Sunday- Chicken & Shrimp Gumbo (freeze leftovers in small portions for lunches)/ Chipotle-Glazed Roast Chicken 
Monday- Curried Quinoa/ Creamy Quinoa Primavera
Tuesday- Crock pot Meatloaf/ Pineapple Teriyaki Burgers
Wednesday- Grilled Sweet Potato Medallions/Sweet Potato Quesadillas 
Thursday- Spanish Tortilla/ Twice Baked Potatoes (crock pot)
Friday- Homemade Pizza

Week 2

Saturday- Steak & Baked Potatoes/ Chili & Cornbread
Sunday- Butternut Penne/ Pumpkin & Sage Ravioli 
Monday- Crock pot Tikka Masala/ Crock pot Cilantro Lime Chicken (Serve with lots of veggies & cook extra rice to go with it. If necessary set aside about two cups of chicken before serving for Friday's recipe.)
Tuesday- Crock Pot Lentil Soup/ Crock Pot Bean Soup (Serve with leftover rice from Monday.) *Both recipes came from, but they've changed their site, so I will share these recipes later.
Wednesday- Homemade Pita stuffed with leftover lentils/ Roasted Veggie and Black Bean Burritos
Thursday- Kale Risotto/ Roasted Butternut Squash with Kale
Friday- Chicken Tortilla Soup/ Mexican Chowder (Use leftover chicken and cilantro from Monday's recipe.  If you're worried about food poisoning, you can freeze the chicken Monday night.)


Last time I included lunches in my menu plan, and we didn't really use the recipes I posted.  This time I'm just going to assume we will either have leftovers, sandwiches, or will eat one of the meals we didn't end up eating during the week.  And of course, there's always Butternut Squash Soup. :)

Pantry Challenge Update

Ummm, yikes.  I am way behind posting.  I started this post last week, didn't have time to finish it and then life happened, including starting back to work part-time, and it's a week later.  Oh well.  I will try to remember as best I can and hope my menu on the calendar is accurate.

Day 12
Eggs; leftovers; Out

Day 13

Yogurt & Granola; Quinoa Salad; Vegetable Tian

Day 14
Out; Eggplant Marinara Flatbread; Simple Stuffed Peppers

Day 15
Zucchini Muffins; Leftovers; Salmon & Crock Roasted Root Veggies

Day 16
Apple Pie Breakfast; Out; Chicken Sausage, Red Cabbage & Apples

Day 17
Smoothie & Toast; leftovers; I don't remember. 

Day 18
Eggs & Zucchini; leftovers; Chicken Wrap

Day 19
Zucchini Muffins; Out; Homemade Pizza

Day 20
Baked Pumpkin Spice Donuts; Out; Paella

Day 21
Baked Oatmeal; Community Lunch at Church; Caprese Lasagna

Day 22
Zucchini Muffins (so glad I made a bunch and froze them); leftovers; Cilantro Lime Chicken, Rice, Sweet Potatoes

Day 23
Yogurt, Frozen Fruit, & Granola; leftovers; Black Beans & Rice

Day 24
Make-your-own-cereal; leftovers; Roasted Veggie & Black Bean Burritos (This recipe made 6, so I froze the extra ones for future lunches. :) )

As far as spending goes, at this point we are at 506.79 total for the month.  I also highly doubt I will spend absolutely nothing at the grocery store in the next 7 days, considering that we are almost out of salt, vanilla, and something else which escapes me at the moment.  I still think we've done pretty darn good, overall, though. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Update: Target, Wal-mart, and the Pantry Challenge

We ran out of coffee.  This lead to me stopping in Target on my way back home from dropping off the kids at school and deciding to do a quick check of prices on the items from my last post.  Which also lead to stopping in at Wal-mart (oh the horror) to check prices their too as they are reputed to have the "lowest prices" and supposedly have started carrying more organics.

I added my findings to my spreadsheet.  Instead of copying and pasting from Excel which leaves the table looking a little wonky, I have uploaded it to Google Docs.

Wal-mart did beat Whole Foods on non-organic items, however their selection of organic items was awful.  I also have other reasons for not shopping there such as horrible customer service, way too many crazy customers, and the fact that they are rated extremely poorly by better world shopper. Target didn't do so hot on prices, although they have a fairly decent selection of economical fair trade organic coffee which I was in desperate need of Tuesday morning.  The least expensive price for each item is highlighted in yellow.  As you can see, no one store offers the best price across the board.

My advice to you if you are on a super strict budget is to keep a notebook or a spreadsheet of prices for items that you buy on a regular basis, much like the spreadsheet above.  If you can hit two or three stores without going too much out of your way and wasting gas, then go to more than one store to get the better overall price.  Keep in mind that grocery store prices fluctuate a lot.  If you combine a sale with a coupon at a grocery store that doubles coupons, you can actually beat Wal-mart's prices.  Websites like charge a small fee to track sales and coupons for you if that's your thing.  I personally don't coupon because I've found that there are very little coupons out there for the products we buy.

Pantry Challenge Update

My little OCD self created yet another spreadsheet to inventory the items I had bought through Azure Standard the last two months, complete with cost per unit for future price comparison, estimated length of time the product will last us, and the cost per month.  When it was all said and done, I discovered according to my spreadsheet (which erred on the side of caution) calculated the monthly cost to be 92.24, which means I have an extra $2 per week.  Woohoo!  

The bad news is I already dipped in to tomorrow's grocery budget  for bacon, snacks, and fried chicken from Target. (The dentist appointment ran late, the chicken wasn't defrosted in time, etc, etc.)  I only have 16.09 to spend at the store tomorrow.  I have no idea how I'm going to make this work.  Maybe I'll dip into next week's budget...

Day 8
Breakfast: Milk, Leftover Apple Butter Cupcakes Muffins (They didn't even have frosting on them. Don't judge.) 
Lunch: Kids-leftover Sweet Summer Corn chowder, Quesadillas; Adults-BBQ Chicken Sliders (leftovers in freezer), Cucumbers
Dinner: Spaghetti, Salad
Dessert: Pumpkin Snickerdoodle Cookies

Day 9
Breakfast: Make your own cereal (My kids LOVE this.)
Lunch: Leftover Spaghetti
Snack: Pretzels and goldfish from CVS after looong dental appointment
Dinner: Fried Chicken from Target, Potatoes, Cucumber & Bell Pepper Salad

Day 10
Breakfast: Peach Pecan Waffles (Thank you, dear.)
Lunch: Chicken Wrap
Snack: Yogurt and half a peach
Dinner: Tomato Basil Soup, Garlic Toast
Snack: Homemade popcorn

Day 11
Breakfast: Toast with Almond Butter, half a peach
Lunch: Chipotle (out)
Dinner: Chicken Teriyaki Thighs, Rice, Cucumer (Finally used those chicken thighs I've tried to defrost three times...)

Wish me luck shopping tomorrow.  I'm going to check the sales online.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Comparison Shopping: Whole Foods vs. Kroger

Much to the horror of my budget savvy friends, Whole Foods is my go-to grocery store.  I realize that it is not the most economical across the board, but I have my reasons for shopping there besides the fact that it smells oh so good I inhale a contented sigh whenever I walk in the door.  Keep in mind that I don't buy all of my groceries there.  As mentioned previously, I buy a lot of my pantry staples through Azure Standard. I get produce, milk, eggs, and meat through local farmers.  For me the grocery store just fills in any gaps I may have.

1. Tortillas Yes, this sounds like a silly reason to pick a grocery store, but it's important.  It is the only place that I have found yummy tortillas that do not contain hydrogenated oils, preservatives, or other scary ingredients.  I do realize that one can make homemade tortillas for less expensive, however that person would not be me.  For some reason, homemade tortillas are my unicorn.  I have tried multiple recipes, different pressing techniques; I was even given instruction in Mexico by a Mexican.  It never works.  My tortillas come out thicker than they should, they don't roll easily, and they rarely inflate during the cooking process. (The true test of whether or not you are ready to marry according to Mexican standards.  Lucky for me my husband is not Mexican.)

2. Convenience I like that Whole Foods has not just one option for healthy foods, but several.  Shopping at Whole Foods does not negate the need to read labels, none the less, chances are I'm going to find an option that is satisfactory.  At the regular grocery stores I have to hunt and search for a product that I'm okay with consuming, and sometimes I can't even find what I'm looking for.

3. Location I have friends who swear by Trader Joe's and who say Central Market is better than Whole Foods.  That may be, but I would have to drive to Fort Worth or Dallas to shop there.  Whole Foods is not the closest natural grocer.  There is a Sprouts that is a little closer in driving time.  However, it is out of the way of anywhere else I would go, whereas Whole Foods is close to my church and is often within my route of errands I run.  The other options just aren't worth the extra gas to me.

All that being said, I do occasionally run in to a conventional grocery store for odds and ends.  Sometimes Whole Foods either doesn't have what I want or more likely it costs more than I'm willing to shell out.  Hence, today I went to both Whole Foods and Kroger and decided to do a little comparison shopping.  My findings are below.

Food Whole Foods            Kroger
Organic Frozen corn 2.39 3.79
Conventional Garlic 0.89 0.50
Organic Onion (3lbs) 3.99   Not available
Organic Tortillas 1.99                      Not available
Sundried Organic Tomato Paste  0.89 0.79 sale price
Conventional Avocado 1.29 0.78
Conventional Lime 0.33 0.20
Negro Modelo (didn't buy) 8.99 8.69
Organic unsalted butter 3.99 6.29
Pumpkin 1.29 1.00 sale price
Organic Sugar (2 lbs) 3.69 3.33
5 oz. can evaporated milk   Not available 0.65
Organic Apple Butter 4.49 4.89
Total of Items Available
Both Places 28.24 30.26

Interestingly enough, Whole Foods was less expensive in total on items that were available both places.  The only thing not available at Whole Foods was the 5 oz size of evaporated milk which I don't buy on a regular basis.  I just needed it for a new recipe.  I didn't actually buy the Negro Modelo which I needed for a particular recipe.  Instead I bought a $3.69 large bottle of Corona Extra to avoid going over budget.  This item I only found at Kroger.  (Once again, not a normal purchase.)  Side note: Sundried tomato paste was $5.49 for a tube.  See the strike-through above?  So. not. worth. it.
Whole Foods buys: Not a lot, but enough to fill in the gaps

My grand total at both stores was $32.98, 52 cents under budget for the week.  Some items I considered not including in the budget as they were bought to make a dessert for a meeting.  However, I decided to include them because it's part of my real life.  I must confess that I sent my husband to the store the next day for bacon as I overlooked that ingredient in a recipe I planned.  And he didn't even buy the "healthy" bacon. As a result, I am actually over budget this week by whatever the cost of the bacon is minus 52 cents.  I will take it out of next week's budget.  Promise.

Week One in Review

Day 3
Breakfast: Apple Pie Breakfast (This recipe was a hit!  Even my non-oatmeal-eating child ate two helpings!  Hint: Add cinnamon to the recipe and keep the cooking time short. Don't tell them it's oatmeal.  Call it apple pie breakfast. It's not lying, that's the recipe's name.  If they ask you what's in it, say grain instead of oatmeal.)
Lunch: Leftover Chinese Chicken from Monday's dinner, Homemade Chicken Noodle Soup for sick child :(
Snack: Apple and peanut butter
Dinner: Zuni Stew (Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook)  I forgot to mention last post that I cooked a pot of pinto beans in the crock pot overnight for this recipe.

Day 4
Breakfast: Leftovers (zucchini muffins and apple pie breakfast)
Lunch: Out (surprise catch-up lunch with a good friend)
Snack: Quinoa Pizza Bites (from the freezer)
Dinner: Tomato Salad, Leftover Chicken

Day 5
Breakfast: Zucchini and cheese Omelet
Lunch: Out (Pizza during shopping trip at Whole Foods)
Snack: Apples
Dinner: Out

Day 6
Breakfast: Leftover Rice Hot Breakfast Cereal
Lunch: Sweet Summer Corn Chowder (the bacon culprit)
(Put leftover Zuni Stew, pinto beans, and chicken noodle soup in the freezer.  Baked Pumpkin Snickerdoodle Cookies and Apple Butter Cupcakes.)
Dinner: Out (We got a bonus date night since the kids stayed the night at the grandparents!)

Day 7
Breakfast: Eggs, Toast, Bacon
Lunch: Shredded Beef Tacos with Avocado and Lime
Dinner: Chicken Caprese Sandwiches 
After dinner treat: Homemade popcorn

We ate out a more this past week than is typical for us.  Our normal habit is I eat something out on Friday when I'm running errands, and we eat out after church on Sunday.  My husband eats out almost every day for lunch and I try to let it go because I'm not in his shoes and I value my marriage. ;)  This week we traded Sunday lunch for Friday dinner because we just felt like going out.  I got to go out to lunch with a friend I haven't talked to in months if not years on Thursday, and my husbands parents offered to let the kids spend the night on Saturday.  When these opportunities come up in life you smile and take them.  And you put the extra leftovers in the freezer for another day.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

What's in Your Pantry?

A couple of days ago I posted about our October Pantry Challenge to spend $500 or less on organic whole foods this month.  It only seems appropriate to give you an idea of what's in my pantry that I'm working with. (An approximate cost of these goods was subtracted from the total budget for the month.)  This also gives me an excuse to show off my newly organized pantry.  Feel free to skim through to the update below if this bores you. ;)

 Not the greatest pictures as my pantry has no light in it and a small door that gets in the way which keeps you from seeing the entire shelf, but... 
Top shelf: White flour (way in back and almost never used), Cocoa powder, chocolate chips, flax seeds, coffee grinder for the flax seeds, baking soda, powdered sugar, Sucanat, brown sugar, Cholula hot sauce (free from Rangers game), vinegar (raspberry, apple cider, rice, white wine, red wine, balsamic)  honey, brown rice syrup (which I obviously needed seeing as how I've never opened it since I bought it over three years ago), molasses, pectin (three boxes, nonetheless), Mirin, Marsala, and extracts (lemon, almond (once again 3?), vanilla, and cherry)
Bottom shelf: brown rice puffs (similar to Rice Crispies), steel cut oats, quinoa, white rice (soon to be used up and replaced), lentils, arborio rice, garbanzo beans (aka chickpeas), brown rice, elbow pasta, white beans of some sort, vegetable alphabet pasta, and the odds and ends of packages to restock the containers to the side.

To the right, top shelf: almonds, instant tapioca (for a particular recipe or two), pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, dried fruit (whatever I buy at the time), coconut, sesame seeds, pistachios, pecans, walnuts, raisins, cashews, poppy seeds, homemade lemon rind candy, peanut butter, pinto beans, more garbanzo beans, Great Northern beans, 11 packages whole wheat penne pasta, 11 packages whole wheat spaghetti pasta, 12 packages lasagna noodles.  Bottom shelf: 11 jars homemade chicken broth, two cans of tuna, Chipotle salsa, two cans sweetened condensed milk (once again, have owned these over three years), 7 jars roasted Hatch chili peppers, four jars homemade peach jam, 9 28 oz cans diced tomatoes, basket contains dried chilis, pine nuts, sundried tomatoes, and sunflower seeds, basket for onions and garlic, basket for potatoes.

Pantry floor: Unseen to the left are my reusable grocery bags and egg cartons; the large containers hold soft wheat berries (to make flour for quick breads, cookies, etc.), rolled oats, black beans, hard wheat berries (to make flour for yeast breads).  Also lurking down there is some bottled water and a fire extinguisher, in case of emergency, although not necessarily for the same emergency.  As you can see I haven't found a good place for my freezer paper, plastic freezer bags (still working on phasing those out) and two extra boxes of plastic wrap, which I almost never use.  Up top: I chose not to take a picture of my top shelf which is kind of a catch all for items too tall to fit elsewhere such as a couple of serving items, adult beverages, and my oils: olive, canola, and coconut.

Moving right along...

I realize in a perfect world, I would be starting day one with zero food items.  That's not going to happen as October 1st was a Monday and I run errands on Friday.  And I'm not going to through away all my food.  I've decided not to include that trip in my budget, either, because at the end of the month I will be buying food that will carry over into November, so I figure it all works out or at least close enough.  Just so you know, I did keep my spending last Friday within weekly average budget guidelines.

Day One
Monday is my "cooking" day, as in, baking/cooking larger batch items to carry over into the week or month.  This past Monday, I made cheese crackersmayonnaise,  and 40 Zucchini Muffins.  The quantity of muffins was somewhat of a happy accident as I had extra zucchini and decided to double the recipe before I realized that it already made 24 muffins.  No matter, as my children LOVED them and now we have extra in the freezer.  (Tip: Call them surprise muffins that have cinnamon and sugar in them until after they have devoured two.  Then they will be shocked and in awe when you tell them the surprise is zucchini.)  I also made some yogurt in the crock pot overnight.

Breakfast: Leftover blueberry muffins
Lunch: Chicken salad sandwich, cucumbers
Snack: Cheese Crackers
Dinner: Crock pot Chinese Sweet and Sour Chicken with Sesame seeds, brown rice, Stir-fried summer squash, zucchini, sweet peppers, and onions; milk for the kids
Note: I wanted to make a new sweet and sour chicken recipe from Pinterest, but I had a whole chicken, not chicken breasts.  Such is life.

Day Two

Breakfast: Zucchini muffins, cantaloupe
Lunch: Chicken salad sandwich, cheese crackers
Snack: Zucchini muffins (I told you they were good.  And I almost forgot to grab something before picking up the kids.)
Dinner: Maple-Cardamom Glazed Salmon (minus the cardamom, ha!), chickpea and tomato basil salad (On my original menu plan, I had only listed the salad, and then realized that was completely ridiculous as two of my kids don't really eat chickpeas so I added salmon.  The salad turned out to be smaller than I expected anyway, so it all worked out.)

What's in your pantry?  Anyone care to share?

Monday, October 1, 2012

October Pantry Challenge

It's a new month!  Yay! I have been waiting for this.

Don't you just love a well-stocked pantry?
A little into last month I read a couple of blogs (here and here) about women who challenged themselves to feed their family for $100 a person for one month.  However, I intentionally place large orders to Azure in August and September to stock up my pantry for the next few months as I will be working part-time and don't know when I'll be able be able to pick up an order again in the near future.  No way could I stick to $100 a person last month.

One of my best cost-savings strategies on groceries is to buy staple ingredients in bulk at a discounted price.  (They don't typically make coupons for raw nuts and grains.)  This means that some months my grocery bill is higher than others, but it should balance out over time, provided we eat what we have on hand instead of buying other food to eat instead--not that we would ever do such a thing... (Avoids eye contact.)

Enter "The October Pantry Challenge."

We have four kids, but they are only with us half the time, so I will say $400 for groceries for our family for the month of October.  This number is for food only.  In August and September I spent bought $600 from Azure to stock our pantry.  I am guesstimating that these items will last around 6 months. Some may last much longer, while other items we may end up using up way before then.  I also ordered Salmon which I expect to last around 4-6 months.  We order beef and chicken through a coop, but that normally balances each other out as we order them every other month, respectively.

Here's a break down of the fuzzy math:

Food budget:                                     $400 500
Azure (averaged out over 6 months):      100
Salmon:                                               16
Milk and eggs:                                      40
Coop:                                                 150                                          

Balance:                                             $94 194

Hmmm.  I honestly think I could do it on $400, but it would mean a big spending month again the following month.  Plus, I wouldn't be able to order chicken this month which would create problems and higher spending later.  I'm thinking that $500 for the month is a little more reasonable and possibly sustainable over the next few months.  I also am thinking my Azure number may be on the high side as a lot of what I bought is probably going to last us closer to 9-12 months.  (Getting a better idea of how long my bulk items last is on the to-do list.)

During this month I am going to ATTEMPT to post updates more regularly--every day or at least every other day.  I'm thinking this may give more of an idea of how we eat real organic food at a reasonable price.  However, I am not going to be estimating the cost of each individual meal because I am not going to make myself that crazy.  (If you follow via Facebook updates, I am planning to post blog updates for this once or twice a week, not daily, as that seems that it may get a little annoying.  If you're interested in reading the in-between posts, you may want to subscribe via e-mail so you don't miss one.)

Over the course of this month, my goal is to be more watchful of my grocery spending and to get a better idea of what we're spending.  I also hope to prove that eating healthy food doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg.  Then again, I may be coming to the realization at the end of the month that we do spend more on our food than I thought.  Wish me luck!