Shop Smart…Shop S Mart

This week Jen over at Sprite’s Keeper is studying for a big test and rerunning a Spin Cycle topic from last year.  Which is marvelous – it gives me an opportunity to re-post what I wrote for that topic.

Because saving money never goes out of style, y’all.

This week’s Spin Cycle is a subject I know quite a bit about, actually.  When my older kids, now 25 and 22, were growing up, to say I was on a fixed budget is something of an understatement; I was the Queen of the Penny Pinchers.  We didn’t have a car until Darling Daughter was a freshman in high school and either walked or took public transportation everywhere (oh, to have the figure now that I had then…).  When The Young One was a baby, his father and I worked different shifts to save on daycare costs.  And to be perfectly frank, the house I live in now is the first house I’ve ever actually owned.  We did a lot of “hand to mouth” existing, for a lot of years, and without government assistance.

So I can give you a lot of advice, not on how to save money (because I never saved a red cent until the last 10 years or so), but how not to spend it (simply because I didn’t have it to spend).  I could quote you line and verse about swallowing your pride and shopping thrift stores, taking public transportation when and where you can, clipping coupons (although I was never much of a coupon-clipper, for reasons I’ll go into in a moment), shopping sales, etc. but there’s already plenty of advice out there already for that.  Besides, this is my blog – what else do you expect me to talk about?

After housing, a family’s largest expense is often food.  It is estimated that the average family spends approximately 15% – 20% of it’s income on food – that’s really mind-boggling when you think about it.  So while you may not be able to do much about your mortgage or car payments, you can do something about the amount of money you spend to feed your family.

Tip #1 – Probably the most important tip I can give you:  STOP EATING OUT.  Even today, when I have more discretionary income than I’ve ever had in my life, we eat out on the average of once a month.  Yes – once a month.  This has never been hard for me, for we never ate out when I was growing up or raising my older kids; we simply couldn’t afford it.  But a lot of Americans eat out several times a week, simply out of convenience, and did you know that it is cheaper to make your own cheeseburger than to eat a 99-cent take-out burger?

Makes you think, doesn’t it?  Don’t eat out, and don’t eat at fast food restaurants at all (your arteries will thank you, if nothing else).  Save restaurants for special occasions.  Not only will you save money, you’ll find you enjoy it more.

Tip #2 – Probably the second most important tip I can give you:  LEARN TO COOK.  You don’t have to be Julia Child, or even Bobby Flay, just learn the basics.  I know it’s easy for me to proselytize about this because I know how to cook and enjoy it, but you truly don’t have to be a gourmet to cook great meals for your family.  In all honesty, the dishes our grown kids love the most are the simple ones that can be prepared on a tight budget.  You’d be better off investing in a crock pot, a food processor and a couple of cook books than eating out 3 or 4 times a week.

Tip #3CONVENIENCE FOODS ARE NOT NECESSARILY YOUR FRIEND.  Until my first husband and I had our first apartment, I’d never eaten potatoes or rice that weren’t “instant” – my mother considered them miracle foods.  When I had a family of my own, however, I quickly realized that I could get as much as 4 – 6 times  the amount of servings out of “raw” foods (i.e. raw potatoes and slow cooking rice) for the same price as 1 serving of the “instant” or “convenience” and that the time savings was NOT worth the extra cost.  For example, I can make four servings of plain white steamed rice that will take 15 mintes, for the cost of 1 serving of Minute Rice at 5 minutes.  Think about that for a minute – is the world going to end if you serve dinner at 7:15 as oppsed to 7?

Tip #4STORE BRANDS ARE YOUR FRIENDS.  Is your 6-year-old going to be able to tell the difference between Lucky Charms and the store brand of marshmallow cereal?  There can be as much as a $2 – $3 per package difference, and that can add up.  For that matter, can you tell the difference between a can of Green Giant green beans and a can of Top Choice?

It ALL adds up – buy the store brand.  Which brings me to my next point…

Tip #5MAKE SURE YOUR COUPONS ARE A REAL VALUE.  The vast majority of coupons you find in the Sunday paper or the weekly circular are for items that are really expensive – a lot of the time  you can purchase the store brand less expensively than you can the name brand, even with a coupon.  Even then, make sure it is something you really need and can’t make from scratch more cheaply, no matter what the brand is.

Tip #6UTILIZE YOUR LEFTOVERS.  You can eat leftovers for pennies on the dollar when compared to eating even a fast food value meal.  If you find a roast for half price at the grocery store, you can make it for dinner in the crock pot on Monday night, have chopped beef sandwiches for lunch on Tuesday, then make a stroganoff casserole with what’s left using cheap noodles, cream of mushroom soup and milk for dinner on Thursday night.  Even if you pay $4 a pound for a 3-pound roast, that’s a pretty damn good deal – 3 meals for 3 -4 people for $12?  You can’t beat that with a stick.  All it takes is a little forethought.

So there you have it – 6 tried and true tips for saving money on your grocery bills.  Research on the interent will render even more help; all you have to do is look.  And check back here every now and then – I have money saving yet tasty recipes out the wazoo…even if they do require more than four ingredients.  :P

Strawberry-Rhubarb Crisp

Strawberry Rhubarb CrispStrawberries and rhubarb are still on sale at the grocery store.

Somebody give me a hallelujah.

Growing up in Texas, I had no idea what rhubarb was.  Oh, I’d heard of it, but I’d never eaten it and I don’t remember ever seeing it in the grocery store.  I was in my late 30s before I had a dish containing rhubarb, and it was, of course, strawberry-rhubarb pie.  I fell in love.

My whole problem with strawberry-rhubarb pie, like almost any berry pie, is they are almost always too soupy and run all over the place when you cut them, no matter how much cornstarch you use or how much of a reduction you make with the juices after macerating the fruit in sugar.  My sister-in-law, Tough Yankee Broad, finally gave me the secret to making a juicy-yet-unrunny berry pie – use quick cooking tapioca instead of cornstarch.

Whaddya know…it works.  Like a charm, I might add.

So, this past weekend I found myself in possession of some inexpensive strawberries and rhubarb, but without the ambition required to make a pie crust.  So I made a crisp instead.

I love fruit crisps – they’re easy and inexpensive to make, and don’t require any special or unusual ingredients; you should have them all in your kitchen already.  You can use tapioca in place of the cornstarch if you want, but it’s not necessary – a crisp, like a cobbler, is supposed to be a bit “jucier” than a pie.

Oh – this is absolutely sinful with homemade vanilla ice cream.

Strawberry-Rhubarb Crisp

makes 4 generous servings

2/3 cup flour

1/2 cup brown sugar

1/2 cup rolled oats

1/4 teaspoon cinnamon

kosher salt

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled and diced

3 -4 stalks rhubarb, trimmed and cut in 1/2-inch slices

3 cups strawberries, trimmed and quartered, about 1 pound

3/4 cup sugar

3 tablespoons cornstarch OR 2 tablespoons quick-cooking tapioca

2 teaspoons Cointreau (optional)

Preheat the oven to 375° F.  Generously butter an 8×8 baking dish.

In a medium bowl, combine the rhubarb, strawberries, sugar, cornstarch or tapioca, Cointreau and a pinch of kosher salt. Stir well, and set aside while you make the topping.

In another medium bowl, combine the flour, brown sugar, oats, cinnamon and another pinch of kosher salt.  Cut in the 6 tablespoons chilled, diced butter using a pastry blender, or rub the butter in with your fingers.

Spoon the fruit mixture into the baking dish, then blanket with the topping.  Bake for 30 – 35 minutes.

Piggy BankThis was posted in cooperation with Smart Mouth Broad’s Money in the Bank series – check it out for more money saving ideas.

Money in the Bank: Bran Muffins

Piggy BankI’d promised another Hawaii adventure story for today, but then I realized it’s Monday and my OCD insists that Monday is Money in the Bank day.  You get the Hawaii story Wednesday.  And since I still feel crummy, as I write this early Sunday afternoon (this cold or whatever it is, is kicking my ass), you get another recipe, because I could post recipes in my sleep.

Or hopped up on Dayquil.

My grandmother grew up during the Great Depression and the vast majority of the recipes I’ve learned, gathered or inherited from her are very frugal, making use of every day ingredients or leftovers or both.  Along with her oatmeal cookie recipe, my favorite is her recipe for bran muffins.

During my childhood, these were made with Post brand 40% Bran Flakes which, alas, are no more (in fact, if I’m not mistaken, this recipe evolved from the one on the box).  Indeed, these days when we are all so concerned with our fiber intake, finding a simple bran flake cereal is damn near impossible – most of the bran cereals on the market have an uncanny resemblance to sticks and twigs in taste and texture, as well as appearance.

Fortunately, I can still find simple bran flakes cereal if I shop the store brands, which makes this recipe even more frugal to make.  If you store the cereal carefully, it will keep for quite awhile, insuring you always have it on hand when you want to make these very simple, moist and tasty muffins.  While the original recipe called for melted shortening, I substitute a non-hydrogenated vegetable oil for a healthier fat.

Note:  If you wish to use a raisin bran cereal, use 1 1/4 cups of cereal and soak only until just moistened.

Bran Muffins

makes 6 large

1 cup bran flakes

3/4 cup milk

1 egg

2 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 cup sugar

2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt.

Preheat oven to 400° F.  Grease a standard 6-muffin tin well.

In a small bowl, pour the milk over the bran flakes and set aside until very soft.

In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking soda and salt.  When the bran flakes are very soft, mix the egg and vegetable oil into the bran/milk mixture very well.

Stir the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients just until mixed; the batter should still be a little lumpy (over-mixing will give you tough muffins).  Spoon the mixture into the muffin tin, filling each cup 3/4 full.

Place the muffin tin in the oven and immediately reduce the heat to 375° F.  Bake 20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with just a crumb or two clinging to it.

Cool for at least 10 minutes before serving.

Money in the Bank #1…Oh, and Chocolate Souffle

Piggy BankThe wise and venerable Smart Mouth Broad has tasked our dear interwebz with a weekly feature alá the Spin Cycle – let’s all get together and share ways to save money.  Voila – we give you Money in the Bank.

I think it’s a dandy idea.  So here I am.  Oh, and looky here – I’ve brought my soap box along for the ride, too.

Ahem.  Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day*.  Beloved has already fulfilled his obligation showered me with lovely gifts for this superfluous “holiday” with this and this, reasoning (and rightly so) that he would spend that much on flowers and candy – things that wouldn’t last.  Ahhhh – now there’s a thought!

Money in the Bank Tip #1 for Valentine’s Day: Gentlemen, if you’re going to spend money, buy something that she’ll be able to keep for longer than a few days.  It doesn’t have to be expensive, just thoughtful (the key word here being “thoughtful”).  That being said, you should pay close attention to the first sentence of the next paragraph…

My good friend Twenty Four at Heart observed in her creatively-named Valentine’s Day post “Cupid is an Asshole” that, “Quite honestly, the most romantic meal in the world would be if a man put the effort into making a candlelit dinner for two at home.”  Since I can be reasonably sure that isn’t going to happen and since I also believe I’ve mentioned that Beloved is notoriously hard to buy for, I’m taking the easy way out:  I’m making dinner, including his favorite dessert, and then will pull some lingerie out of mothballs and spend the rest of the evening giving various parts of his body various massages.  Ahhhh – another thought!

Money in the Bank Tip #2 for Valentine’s Day: Ladies, you know what he wants.  YOU KNOW WHAT HE WANTS.  Give it to him!  Put some thought into it!  Put some effort into it!  You know that somewhere in your closet or dresser is something lacy or slinky that you haven’t worn in so long he’s forgotten all about it (although, granted, not as well as you may have).  Get it out.  Put it on.  It will make him happy and won’t cost you a red cent.  And you never know – you may end up enjoying it too.

So, there you go – two very sound pieces of advice for not only saving money, but surviving Valentine’s Day.  And you thought I couldn’t multitask.

Oh, and the Chocolate Soufflé in the title?  Beloved’s favorite dessert.  Here’s the recipe, as my Valentine’s Day gift to you, dear interwebz.  While it’s best started the evening (or at least several hours) before you plan to bake it, it is absurdly easy to make.  And it’s not expensive, either.  Serve it with some good vanilla ice cream – this is one of those gooey, intensely chocolate affairs.

Note: While the original recipe calls for this to be baked in small, individual springform rings, I bake it in a pie plate or small soufflé dish and serve it from there.  Not quite as elegant a presentation, but it is easier and it certainly doesn’t detract from the taste.

Chocolate Soufflé

Serves 4, or Beloved

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

4 ounces semi-sweet chocolate

3/4 cup sugar

1 3/4 tablespoons cornstarch

2 eggs, plus 2 egg yolks

In a saucepan over low heat, melt the butter and chocolate.  Set aside.

In a medium-sized mixing bowl, whisk the sugar and cornstarch together.  In another small bowl, whisk the eggs and egg yolks together.  Whisk the melted butter/chocolate mixture into the sugar/cornstarch mixture, combining thoroughly.  Stir in the eggs, just until smooth.  Refrigerate for at least 6 hours.

Preheat oven to 400° F.  Butter a 9″ pie plate or small soufflé dish well.  Spread the chocolate mixture in the dish, and bake in the top half of the oven for 20 – 25 minutes.

Serve immediately.

*Re-reading this post, it sounds rather snarky.  I didn’t mean for it to, but I don’t have the time/inclination to re-write it.  I love you dear, and I love the figurines.  They look so nice in my new curio.