Merlot Mudpies

Can a blog be about gardening, cancer, family, food and life all at the same time? Oh good.

Days 5 through 7 — Feasting with Friends September 10, 2009

I was pleased on Day 5 because I fought my baser “run to the store” instincts in the face of impending company and after a day at the beach that went about two hours longer than I’d intended. In addition, I suddenly realized I’d be feeding more than I’d planned on when shopping and going through my stores of supplies earlier in the week. My menu for 3 adults and 1 child was now being faced with 7 adults and 1 child in a growth spurt.

“I’ll just have to run to the store and get more pork butt…!” I told myself frantically. This is what I love about this challenge, though: The thought of spending more money before even a week was up just killed me. I took a deep breath and took stock. On the menu was carnitas and salad. But that wasn’t going to feed 8. What to do?

(You know, I’m suddenly feeling a bit better about my $300.00 spending choice. While we’re only 3, my husband sweetly allows me to have guests over quite often. I’d say at least once a week we feed at least one extra adult, usually one of our many single friends, and send them home with some leftovers. More often it’s more people and more frequent than that. I am so very, very thankful that Ryan enjoys this, too, and let’s me give little gifts to our friends this way! And this is perhaps one of the bigger side effects of having started to work on my food budget — as we steward our gifts better we are able to be so much more generous with our resources and it is a source of real fun and glee in our home.)

So, our Day 5 menu was:
Carnitas (from FF$75, truly delicious recipe and stunningly easy)
Grilled chicken tacos
Spanish rice (ill-fated, it didn’t cook through that night)
Tomatillo salsa
Fresh guacamole
Sweet corn casserole (brought by a friend)
My one accrued cost for today was $4.50 for a pitcher with a lid that will hold a gallon of liquid. We have one for tea. This one is for lemonade. We can make a gallon of each and it lasts us for days at only about $1.25 (based on price of mix and tea bags purchased in bulk) as opposed to the cost of soda, which my husband loves. He’s finding homemade iced coffee and iced sweet tea (sometimes mixed with the lemonade) to be his preferred alternatives, though! Hooray!

Sent a hungry seminarian friend home with leftovers, to boot. I love that.

Day 6:
My failed spanish rice was re-cooked as a crock-pot casserole with corn and beans added. This was taken to church for community meal and every last bit was gone when I picked it up after the meal!
That night we made one exception to our eating at home and had tacos with friend who were leaving town the next day. After 6 hours at the beach and and having worked our way through all the snacks (fruit, my spiced nuts, boiled eggs for protein after surfing, etc). we succumbed to the siren call of cheap mexican food with friends, who all had decided to go as well.

$18 for the family with leftovers that my son ate the next day. He literally fell asleep chewing a bite of quesadilla, poor guy! “Furfin'” four days in a row will do that to you! We had 5 tacos, beans and rice, a UFO-sized quesadilla, and a California burrito the size of my husband’s head.

I’m not sure what to do with my $18 expense. We normally have an eating out budget. This is the ONLY eating out we’ve done and we’re way under. So I guess I’ll keep those pots separate and figure out how much lower my eating out budget will be this month. I guess I’ll just list that expense in a separate category for accountability purposes for now.

Day 7:
For lunch we had chicken quesadillas while my E finished off his food from the night before. We shared the leftover rice and beans that came with his meal. I sliced up a cantaloupe to go with them. We added leftover salsa and guac to the quesadillas and all of us were loving lunch!

Dinner was my new recipe for “California Tacos”. If you’ve never had a California Burrito this name might not make much sense to you. But it’s a carne asada burrito with added fried potatoes (sometimes french fries). My husband LOVES California burritos possibly more than any food save sushi. So I was curious to know how he’d take to the tacos. If we weren’t already married, I think he would’ve proposed after eating those. So here’s my easy-peasy recipe for California tacos. They took about 20 minutes.

California Tacos:

Pre-heat oven to 450 F

4 or 5 potatoes (any kind, honest!)

  • Dice and boil until just cooked through in salted water
  • Drain and toss with vegetable or olive oil, pepper and seasoning salt
  • Bake in oven until outsides crisp and brown slightly while you make the other filling.

While potatoes cook, in a small pot combine and heat:
1 14 oz. can black beans, with juice
2 C cooked chicken, chopped or shredded
2 Tbsp. bacon crumbles (optional, for flavoring. this time i used the very last of our carnitas meat.)
1 tsp cumin, coriander and oregano each
1 Tbsp chili powder
salt and pepper to taste

Combine chicken and potatoes in corn tortillas with salsa, sour cream and fresh cilantro.

We ended up eating this two nights in a row because it was so good and very filling, so they lasted well!

There you have Days 5-7.

We’re at 149.08.

I’ve run out of a lot of my more expensive things all of a sudden.  The end of this month is going to be interesting to say the least.  Especially because my in-laws are coming for 10 days.

I’ll up date with Days 8-10 tonight, Lord willing. What a busy week this has been!


Aw, Nuts! (and Honey Whole Wheat) September 4, 2009

Filed under: cooking,frugal cooking,Homemaking,recipes,snacks — Mary @ 9:50 am

Some pictures and recipes (approximate — that’s just the way i roll)

Chili, Garlic and Lime Peanuts:
Garlic, Chili, Lime Peanuts

These peanuts (3.5 C) got mixed with:

2 T melted butter
juice of 1 lime
1 tsp garlic, minced finely
zest of 1 lime
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
2 tsp chili powder
garlic salt
sea salt

then they got roasted in a 300 degree oven for 20 minutes (could have gone another 10 minutes, I think). they tasted better the more they rested and dried out. i’d like to figure out how to up the lime taste as it’s not very strong. maybe some granulated citric acid? i don’t know, i’m going to have to research this.

Hot Spiced Cashews:
Hot Spiced Cashews

these cashews (3 C) got mixed with:

2 T melted butter
1 Tbsp Worcester sauce
garlic salt
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
2 tsp chili powder
a couple of really good shots of Tapatio sauce

then they got roasted in a 300 degree oven for 30 minutes. any longer and they would’ve burned. we hit that perfect balance right before over-roasting where they go tender and melt in your mouth, though. sooo good!

Thanks, Mary, for the snack idea!

And now for the new bread recipe I tried, Honey Whole Wheat:

The crust is crunchy but not hard, so it’s very edible:

The crumb is so, so tender and tasty. For breakfast this morning it was heaven as toast with butter and apricot preserves.

I’ll definitely be making this in double batches from now on.


Grocery Spending Challenge — Day 3

Here I am at the end of day 3 of the challenge and it’s only my first post on progress.  But what a busy few days I’ve had.  And spendy!  However, I’m thrilled about some of the deals I’ve gotten this month so far.  I’m hoping that some of the spending I’ve done up front will pay off at the end of the month.

The numbers:

Budget for the month: $300.00

Money spent so far:  $127.43

Remainder:  $172.57

I mentioned in a previous post that I was heading out for an opening of a new farmer’s market store in my neighborhood (I’m really excited because previously the closest one was a whole town over).  They were giving out a bag of free groceries to the first 200 families to shop at the store.  This is a post for another day but, needless to say, I don’t think I’ll ever try the first morning of a store opening again!  However, I did score some great deals there and a few other places.  Here are my best bargains:

— Boneless Skinless Chix Breasts, frozen, $1.66 lb.  I got 8 lbs.

— Scented soy-based candle in lavender, Free! (sometimes cupons are great, just not always)

— Bananas, 4 lbs. for $1.00.  I got about just over 2 lbs.

— Dozen eggs, $.99. I got 4 dozen.

— 5 lbs. bag of russet potatoes for $.97

— 4 lbs of tomatillos for $.99 (this is just…like..unheard of!)

There are other good deals on my list but those are my shining finds.  We’re in chicken (with another purchase of fresh breasts for $1.88/lb.) for the rest of the month, easily.  I have some frozen in pollo asada marinade, some grilled after being marinated in teriyaki sauce and then frozen for later, some frozen in family-sized portions, and will shred more for freezing this week.

Day 1 Dinner:  Leftover zupa toscana and salad with viniagrette

Day 2 Dinner:  Teriyaki chicken, gingered teriyaki rice wtih pineapple, green salad

Day 3

Breakfast: Cheese and bananas and Kix cereal — too hot already in the morning to cook.

Lunch: Teriyaki leftovers for the hub, PB&J with grapes and a cookie for the E.

Dinner:  $.35 for all three of us!  I love it when stuff like that happens.  I had a gift card for a smoothie place that just started selling sandwiches and wraps.  For $.35  beyond my card, E and I got three smoothies (took one to my dad who was in 100+ degree weather with no A/C), a chicken chipotle and lime wrap, and a bag of the oh-so-beloved-and-rare-for-us Pirate’s Bootie.  We topped it off with a watermelon snack before bed.  The hubby had dinner on his work, which kindly treated all the employees to an after-hours happy hour with food.

I’m not counting the money on the card as part of my budget.  My reasoning?  It was just for the smoothie place so I couldn’t have used it any other way if I’d tried.  Ah, sweet friends.  Sometimes they lead you to the lap of luxury!

In addition, I’m smelling a loaf of Honey Whole Wheat bread bake as I type this.  It’s a new recipe and if it tastes as good as it smells, I’ll be making a lot more of it soon.  I also made two batches of spiced nuts for my husband.  I’ll post the recipes for them once I get some of the kinks worked out but they are already pretty tasty.  We have a pound each of Chili, Lime and Garlic peanuts and Spicy Chili Cashews on the counter that cost us a grand total of $6.72.  I’m not sure how this compares to store-bought nuts but I think I came out ahead and I’ll do some research to find that out and post with the recipes.

Lastly, I’m really looking forward to making pizza this week with cheese I made with my friend Wilma.  We took a crack at making home-made mozarella and documented with pictures.  I’ll be posting a step-by-step for that this week as well.

Oh dear…and to think I have to let this bread cool before I eat it…when my mouth is watering NOW!


Snacks — The Budget Buster August 31, 2009

I once wept to my husband, “Could you PLEASE keep your cravings to something that DOESN’T cost us $11.00 a lb.??” when thwarted in the process of making pesto one night. I reached for my bag of pine nuts only to find 8 or 10 measly little kernels remaining in the bottom of what had been a huge, full Costco-sized bag the week before.

This is one of the biggest problems for me with frugal cooking and household budgeting: My husband is a rabid snacker. He willingly and appreciatively takes leftovers to work for his lunches (I only occassionally get them back uneaten and that’s usually when a hankering for rolled tacos just cannot be avoided…totally understandable!) But he is a big man, an extremely active surfer, and has a big appetite. When Ry comes home from work or surfing and when he’s up late doing freelance or 3-D modeling, he wants handy snacks that are easily accessible and he wants them in huge proportions. If I don’t have them around then things like this happen:

An entire box of granola bars disappears in one night
An entire 1.2 lbs bag of pine nuts goes missing
A large box of cereal disappears in one night
Half a bag of string cheese vaporizes when I’ve left the house for an hour

To put this in perspective, he’s about 6ft 3 or 4, wears a 3X wet suit to accommodate the breadth of his shoulders and chest, and will surf for 6 or 7 hours in the course of a day quite easily when the swell is good. He burns through calories like other people burn through….uh…well, I can’t come up with a good comparison — but something that burns quickly and people use a lot of! Anything else I can think of falls short when it comes to his appetite when it hits.

So, here are some things I already do:
Buy whatever fruit he likes that’s on sale and keep it handy as consistently as I can
To cut cost on cereal I use coupons and combine them with sales to keep cereal costs low
I also make homemade granola (TY to Mary at Owlhaven’s Granola Recipe in Family Feasts for $75 a Week) to lighten the cereal costs
Buy block cheese on sale and slice it myself so it’s easily accessible for snacks
Keep cookie dough on hand so I can easily bake up a batch of cookies on a whim

Two things that Ryan LOVES and I haven’t figured out are:
Spiced nuts

Microwave popcorn is expensive and not all that healthy. I make popcorn in a pot but sometimes I’m asleep when the craving hits or I’m just exhausted. Does anyone know of a way to keep popcorn fresh? Does anyone make seasoned popcorn? How does it keep?

Spiced nuts I’m going to look in to today at the store. I’d like to see about finding recipes for spiced nuts so that, when raw nuts are on sale in bulk I can buy them, season them and roast them myself, and then keep them handy to fulfill some of his needs for protein.

So what do you do for easy snacks? Do any of you have men/sons like mine with big appetites and for whom meals or leftovers won’t always do? I’d love to hear suggestions!


Thrown Together Dinner: Chicken in Tomato Caper Sauce July 20, 2009

My eyes are open all the way again. Thank heaven! I don’t know what on earth I got into, but I was seriously considering asking my husband to take me to the ER at one point on Saturday night. Good grief! And never mind the fact that we had his company picnic with his brand new job (not even a month old) on Saturday. Luckily, the damage could be hidden by sunglasses.

As a result I’ve been a little off kilter and we’ve been eating out some and off our game. But tonight I had a bag of potatoes, some tomatoes ready to go bad, some cooked chicken in the fridge and some wonderful green beans I scored at Henry’s for $.77 a lb. So I got creative. This is what we ate:

Baked the potatoes and then mashed em up in their skins with butter and salt.

Steamed the green beans and then sauted them in olive oil til slightly caramelized and then sprinkled with just a dash of kosher salt.

I built the base of my plate with those two things and then made the pan sauce and used it to heat up the chicken. For the pan sauce:

2 Tbsp of butter
2 cloves of garlic, softened into the butter
1 small tomato diced and added to the pan to cook down with
Juice of 1 lime
1 or 2 tsp of capers
salt and lots of pepper to taste

I reduced the broth until it was just slightly thickened and then added in the shredded chicken until it was cooked through. I served the chicken over the potatoes and green beans and then used the sauce to dump over the whole top.

Our family, including the three-year-old, purred their whole way through.

The sauce took about 7 minutes from start to finish. And we made some more to take to lunch tomorrow. If I’d had parsley on hand I would’ve added some. And canned tomatoes — a small can — would’ve likely worked just fine, too.

Double yum.


Two Salsas and How to Deal with Tomatillos (trust me, they’re worth it) July 9, 2009

This week tomatillos and tomatoes were on sale along with cilantro, avocados, and jalapeños. MAN do I love summer!

So I made up two salsas for dinner last night. I calculated out the cost and I made 10 cups of salsa for less than $5. And let me tell you, homemade salsa just…well…how do I even begin?? It is SO GOOD. I’m not sure about shelf life on these as salsa — even ten cups of it — never lasts more than two or three days around here.

So. Here are two of my standards.

Basic Tomato Salsa
About 10 medium tomatoes, cored and quartered
6 or so cloves of garlic
1 small can of diced green chilies with juice
A rough handful of cilantro, rinsed (I use a LOT more than most folks like because we LOVE cilantro)
Juice from 1.5 to 2 limes
1 – 2 jalapeños depending on your heat preference
half a white onion, peeled and chunked
15 – 25 twists of the pepper grinder (trust me)
salt to taste

Just plop all of the ingredients into the blender and pulse until it’s the consistency you like.

Green Tomatillo Salsa
10 tomatillos, husks off and rinsed of oil
1-2 jalapeños
A rough handful of cilantro
Juice from 1.5 to 2 limes
1 avocado
3 or 4 cloves of garlic, peeled
salt to taste

Before plopping this all in the blender like the first salsa, I toast the tomatillos a bit and char some of the skin on them. You can do this under a broiler, in a hot pan, or even on the grill. I don’t know why but it just does something wonderful to the flavor of the salsa. If you DO toast them, though, you’ll likely want to chill the salsa before you serve it as the flavors really come together when the salsa is cool.

If you don’t know about how to pick out a tomatillo, here is some help:
Don’t be afraid to tear into a tomatillo husk to take a look at the fruit underneath when you’re picking them out
Look for tomatillos with a nice, even medium green color
Tomatillos don’t have to completely fill out their husk to be ripe — often if they do their already too ripe and sort of beaten up
Tomatillos are weirdly oily/sticky on the outside under the husk — that’s natural and rinses off under warm water
Tomatillos should be about the same firmness of a ripe tomato
Tomatillos are NOT green tomatoes and they have a lovely distinct flavor all their own — if you’ve never had them in salsa, you’re missing out!

(Edit:  Maybe someone can clarify on this for me.  I don’t have enough brain cells to try right now.  Is there a difference between tomatillOs and tomatillAs?  I don’t think there is.  But is one more proper than the other?  Inquiring minds want to know!)


Family Feasts for $75 a Week – A Review July 8, 2009

Author: Mary Ostyn

Release Date: September 2009

Price: $17.95 US

I was all set last night to sit down and write my thorough praises of Mary Ostyn’s new book, Family Feasts for $75 a Week, when my husband blithely reviewed the book better than I could have in pages with one sentence:

As I sat cackling over the money I’ve saved since reading a pre-publication copy of this book a month ago I said to Ryan, “I can’t believe how much money we’ve saved this month!  I’ve cut our budget by 50% and I think I could easily go lower if we needed to.” To which he replied, “That’s insane, because we have been eating really well recently, too!”  High praise coming from a man whose own mother (an amazing cook) dubbed him The Food Diva several years back when he commented on the amount of carrots she’d used in a favorite dish of his when we were home visiting for Christmas.

In case you aren’t already heading out to pre-order a copy of the book based just on that, let me elaborate just a little.  Because if you’re anything like me you might be thinking, “Come on, seriously.  Do we really need another book on how to save money on groceries and inexpensive recipes to feed our families?  How many tater-tot casseroles with cheese whiz and Ritz cracker toppings can a girl try?”

If that’s you, I’m with yah sister.  But let me just mention a couple of things.

  1. Delicious Recipes Suited to Any Skill Level: While Mary DOES mention tater tots once in her book it is only to tell you how much better homemade fries are.  Not only that, but she upgrades the oven fries with her own homemade Ethiopian seasoning mix (and provides several other easy suggestions for seasonings if a mouth on fire is not your particular version of tasty).  And all joking about those spuds aside, her recipes are seriously good, seriously easy and seriously cost effective.
    In particular I must recommend her Thai chicken curry dish for which you can make your own curry paste and even your own coconut milk if you don’t have a can on hand but do have some shaved coconut in the freezer.  Another favorite already is her suggested recipe for making your own granola cereal.  (As I stood at the counter breaking up my first batch, chest swelled with pride, my husband gave me a smooch and seriously appreciative squeeze and raved about how amazing it was that I could make something like that all on my own.  Sorry, Mary, I took that compliment for my own and didn’t re-mention the fact that I’d learned it from the book.)
  2. Flexible Ideas on Cost Cutting that Allow You to Create Your Own Plan: One of the frustrating things about many books like these is that, in order for the system to work, you have to change a million things all at once and after about two weeks (for the very strong and enduring, perhaps three), the whole thing goes out the window because it’s just too hard to maintain so much change all at once.  Mary, however, is very clear about her desire for readers not to make this mistake.  Instead you’re given four areas in which you can assess your strengths and weaknesses and then a ton of ideas to choose from in each of those areas to begin the process.  This book’s plan is laid out like an a la carte menu of great ideas that you can tailor fit to your needs and your money-saving goals.
    I hate to admit it but I’m the queen of starting strong, getting over my head, and fizzling out completely on things.  This is something I dislike about myself and have been working hard to overcome.  But ladies, this process has been seriously painless so far and the benefits have far outweighed the effort.  Oh and another thing?  You don’t have to use coupons!  (But you can if you need to do penance or something.)
  3. An Easy and Interesting Read that Gets Right Down to the Issues and Lets You Start Saving Almost Immediately: I got this book on a Sunday.  Inspired, I refused to go to the grocery store until Wednesday because I could see in my own kitchen several different great meals I could already make with things I had in the house.  During that time I was able to use small portions of my time each day to figure out what changes I could make, lay out my plan, and embark.  Holding on to just a few of the ideas I’d found in the book I set out my first week and was delighted with every grocery receipt I collected because I knew I was making wiser decisions already.

I am torn between a desire to be completely honest about improvements to our grocery budget because it’s so amazing and wanting to hide from shame about how easily I have saved so much in my first month of using Family Feasts for $75 a Week.  I have literally saved several hundred dollars this month.  I thought at first that I was unique in how much waste was happening in our home but a few conversations with friends let me know that I am certainly not alone.  Some of my joking, if I’m honest, is to distract from the fact that it was painful to realize just how much room for improvement there was.  I found myself in tears at one point as I worked through my new budgeting plan and list of easy changes – it was a mixture of regret over the waste I could now see over the last 5 years of my marriage and relief to have found in Mary’s advice a workable, helpful and thorough means by which to improve so drastically.

In Titus 2, Paul admonishes older women to come alongside younger women and, among many other important things, train them in the ways of their home. Mary has shared the resulting wisdom of years of experience, trial, error and success in this new book and it’s a fantastic boon to those of us who still have a lot of learning to do. In future I plan on giving this book for wedding shower presents so that my friends can start out ahead of the game in feeding their families well on a frugal but flexible budget.

I could not recommend Family Feasts for $75 a Week more highly.  


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