Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Favorite Things: Salt

Once a week I'll be bringing you a 'favorite thing' from my kitchen!
This week let's talk salt!  I am, admittedly, a salt fiend.  I think most dishes flop because they lack one of two things...salt or acid.
In recent years there's been a lot of talk about fancy sea salts, Himalayan rock salt, pink salts, smoked salts and even bacon salt, have been showing up on restaurant menus, cooking shows, magazines, recipes and upscale grocery store shelves.
I can't say I've used a lot of the odd ball, fancy or exotic salts.  For me Kosher salt is where it's at.  It's the easiest to control for seasoning purposes (much easier to grab a pinch of kosher than of iodized).  It also gives food a delicious crunchy, salty taste explosion when put on food just before eating.
Kosher salt isn't any more expensive than iodized, is available at every grocery store and typically can be used in anything you'd use iodized salt in.  I still use iodized or fine ground sea salt for baking because it integrates easier, but for everything else I keep it Kosher ;).

Monday, March 12, 2012

$50 a Week Challenge

Starting at the beginning of the year I gave myself a $50 a week grocery budget.  I felt, after reading others testimonials and blogs, that this was reasonable for a family of three.  Easier said than done.  My love of cooking and salty snacks can really tack onto a grocery bill as the week goes on, so I said no more...time to trim the fat. 
It's been a struggle.  I've gone over budget twice in nine weeks.  It's forced me to get creative, use what I have, coupon, scour the sales papers and to re-evaluate what's important.  Sticking to a budget has had one unexpected benefit; I'm healthier.  I've lost 4 lbs since this started and the scale is dropping consistently.  When the fattening junk food isn't in the house you can't eat it!  I'm also making fewer trips to the store (and saving gas in the process).  Whereas I used to run to the store 4-5 times in a week I now go 2-3 times and one of those is typically to just get milk for my daughter.
So, how can you save money on your grocery bill?  I'm so glad you asked.  Below I'm highlighting some of my money saving techniques.  In later weeks we'll examine some of these ideas a little closer.
  1. Set a budget and keep it realistic.
  2. Think about why your will make it more important to you.
  3. Decide what' important to you.  Odds are you won't fit everything you want into your new budget.  Would you rather get the convenient lunch meat at a higher price or roast some yourself for half the cost?
  4. Notice the prices.  Sounds simple huh?  Notice the unit price...that's what really counts.  Don't put anything in your cart before asking yourself 'Is this a good deal?'  If it's not maybe it can wait until you can get a good deal on it
  5. Buy on sale and store it.  Items such as pasta sauce, pasta, frozen pizza, vacuum sealed cheeses, crackers etc...have long shelf lives.  Buy what you'll use in 2-3 months and store it.
  6. Use the store circulars or money saving websites.  The circulars can help you compare prices and plan your trip.  I really like money saving websites like Southern Savers to help me find the best deals...they do the work and you get the benefits!
  7. Use coupons and promotions.  Admittedly I use coupons more for toiletries than groceries, but I have saved a substantial amount on groceries as well. 
  8. Plant a garden or use your farmer's market.  I froze at least 20lbs of peppers, tomatoes, garlic, blueberries, strawberries, peaches and more from the summers bounty.  This has saved me money and time.  I always BUY LOCAL if I can. 
That's it.  Yes I've given up a few luxuries.  Do I miss them?  Not really.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

15 Minute Mac and Cheese

Mac and Cheese is a food that warms the soul and is one of my family's favorites.  I have several recipes for Mac and Cheese ranging from the 15 cheddar cheese version featured here today to the elaborate chicken and prosciutto version I break out for a special occasion.
I used to make the blue box Mac and Cheese weekly, but I've recently discovered making it from scratch takes only a few minutes more!  This recipe whips up quickly with just 15 minutes of work time.  In total it will probably take you anywhere from 30-45 minutes depending on whether or not you bake it.

8 oz elbow macaroni, rotini or penne pasta
2 cups cheddar (or a combination of cheddar, mozz, swiss...any easy melting cheese)
2 cups milk
1/2 cup diced onion
1 clove minced garlic
1 TBSP dijon mustard
1/4 TSP cayenne pepper
4 TBSP butter
4 TBSP flour
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese (optional)
1/4 cup bread crumbs (optional)
salt and pepper to taste

In a 5 qt, or large, pot cook off the pasta to the package directions.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees if you plan on the oven finish.  Drain the pasta and set aside.  Using the same pot* saute the garlic, onion and 1/2 tsp salt in the butter over medium heat.  Once softened sprinkle in the flour and stir it in.  Cook until all the flour has dissolved and slowly stream in the milk constantly stirring (you can use a whisk for this if you prefer).  Once combined add in the dijon, cayenne.
When the mixture comes to a bubble (this should take 3-5 minutes) start adding the cheese, 1/2 cup at a time.  Stir or whisk in each addition until is has completely melted before adding the next.  Season sauce to taste.  Take the cheese sauce off the heat and stir in the cooked pasta.
At this point you can serve it up** or continue to the oven finish. 
Oven finish.  Pour the Mac and Cheese into a 3 qt glass or stone baking dish.  Top with breadcrumbs and Parmesan cheese.  Bake, uncovered, for 20 minutes.  Allow to cool for 5 minutes before serving and enjoying!

Monday, March 5, 2012

5, 5 minute meals for under $5

If you're anything like me Monday's are busy.  There never seems like enough time to do everything, let alone make dinner.  Here are some of my solutions to 'Manic Monday' syndrome. 
  1. Ravioli.  I purchased a large bag (11, 1 cup servings) of Mona's Cheese Ravioli for $2.99 (making each serving just 00.27) at Publix and have been surprised at how good it is.  Serve up some Ravioli in red sauce from your freezer or from a jar.  Boiling ravioli typically only takes about 3 minutes, making dinner in a flash!
  2. Pita pizzas.  The flatbreads you can buy at the grocery store make a wonderful canvas for pizzas!  I can get the pitas for as little as 0.30 a piece.  Top them with BBQ sauce, cheese and pineapple or red sauce, mozzarella and pepperoni.  You can pretty much put anything left over on top with some cheese and the kids will eat it up!
  3. BLTs.  Need I say more?
  4. Beenie-Weenies.  Ok, maybe this isn't the most gourmet option, but I have found few people who don't enjoy this on occasion.  I buy large cans of vegetarian baked beans and add chopped turkey dogs to it.  You can serve this meal up for 4 for just $3 if you buy the items while they're on sale!
  5. Tuna salad.  Make up a batch of your favorite recipe...or mine featured here.  Put this in a pita pocket, wheat toast or on a salad.  I can usually make tuna salad for about 0.60 a serving.
You could serve up a Caesar salad made of 1 chopped heart of romaine, croutons, kalamata olives and Caesar dressing to round out any of these meal options.
I admit I sometimes just have to go with takeout because I'm too busy, too tired etc..., but I've really been challenging myself to put dinner on the table and save the money we would have spent eating out.
On average you'll spend $20 for 2 for takeout.  If you make a 5 minute meal just once, instead of eating out, you'll save $15 a month.  If you do it four times you'll save $60!  Now that's food for thought!