Broiled Eggplant Salad

Did you know that in Great Britain, they call eggplants “aubergines”? Yes, they do. And I bring that up because today we’re making a salad with this unusual, double-agent vegetable.

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Broiled Eggplant Salad
(Or, in Great Britain, “Broiled Aubergine Salad”)

You can find it on page 43 of the PDF version of “Good and Cheap”. (This wonderful cookbook is a free download at leannebrown.com.) In the print version of “Good and Cheap”, it’s on page 32.

Ingredient Notes
This is a super-easy recipe that takes:

  • eggplant
  • tahini
  • lemon juice
  • green onion

I didn’t deviate from the ingredient list, but I did use fresh dill, one of the suggested additions.

How Did It Taste?
Really good! The combination of the tahini with the lemon and dill is the perfect offset to the eggplant, which tends to be a little bland.

One hint: slice the eggplant about 1/4″ thick. Any thinner and they tend to get a little crispy on the edges.

Time and Money
The recipe knocks together in about ten minutes flat, and then you just need to wait for the eggplant to broil.

The total cost was $3.32, which works out to $1.66 per serving. One of the things that helped make this recipe very cheap was the fact that I grew my own dill this spring. More on that below…

The Secret Lives of Herbs
Back in March, when we were busy noshing on Banana Pancakes, I decided to try planting my own culinary herbs as an additional money-saving technique. I bought seeds for dill, rosemary and basil.

The dill came up right away, and grew beautifully. The basil also came up right away, and grew well as long as it was indoors. I’ve tried planting it twice now, and have managed — both times — to kill it by taking it outside.

The sullen and pouty rosemary didn’t even sprout.

My conclusions from this experiment are that rosemary is probably best purchased as a plant from a greenhouse, and that basil is growable but infinitely fussy, and happiest leading a sheltered life inside the house.

And that’s the end of this week’s eggplant/aubergine story, with a side trip to herbs. Thanks for tuning in, and come back later this week, when we toss beets and chickpeas together to make the world’s most colorful salad!
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Dollars and Cents: May Recap

Hello! Not long after starting this project, I decided it would be a good idea to devote one post each month to taking a look at how close my grocery spending comes to the $6 per day that I targeted.

There were 31 days in the month, but I had houseguests for seven of those days. This meant that my total grocery budget in May was $252.

I was a little nervous. I’d done really well in April, but I know full well that I’m the poster child for panicking and buying too much food when company comes.

And … that’s exactly what I did. Although I consider my restaurant and potluck spending to have been quite good in May, I really went hog wild on the grocery end of things.

The Small Bright Spot
The $31.34 you see below represents one lunch for myself and my sister at A&W, and my contribution to one potluck dinner. I’m happy with this expenditure and I don’t think I could bring it down a whole lot lower.

Actual grocery expenditures = $311.38 (ouch)
Restaurants and potluck  = $31.34
Grand total = $342.72

When everything is tallied up, my total food spending in May was $342.72. That’s $90.72 and 36% over budget. (Percentage-wise, it looks better than I thought.)

(Spoiler Alert: Things got better in June.)
Even though I spent a lot in May, I managed not to let a lot of fresh produce go bad, and some of the biggest-ticket items I bought came out of the frozen food section in the supermarket. That means they’ve been there for me to use up in June and July, helping to even out my over-spending.

I can’t say that I learned anything particularly frugal over the course of May, and I still believe that it’s important to have lots of food in the house when you’ve got guests. In my case, I was feeding anywhere from three to seven people at any given time, so flexibility was important.

Plus, there’s that whole “feeding your soul” bit, as cheesy as it sounds. You can’t beat the magic that happens with a gang of your cousins — over a plate of olives, some quality cheese and bottle of wine — while laughing your head off at some crazy piece of family history. Budget or no budget, I’d never want to cheap out on that.signature

Dollars and Cents: April Recap

Hello! Not long after starting this project, I decided it would be a good idea to devote one post each month to taking a look at how close my grocery spending comes to the $6 per day that I targeted.

With 30 days in the month, my total grocery budget in April was $180.

Having completely blown it in March, I was determined to do better in April. Drumroll, please …

I did it! I got through the month of April with grocery expenditures of $153.39. Not only is that below my $180 target, it’s slightly under $4 US per day, which would work out to $155.26 CDN for the month. Yay!

What Made the Difference?
I wish I knew — then I could replicate it. Sheer determination might have played a role. I know that I was very careful every time I walked into a food store. But I also know that prices for fresh produce have started to come down in my hometown of Edmonton, which is great news for us prairie frugalistas.

Less Dough in the Resto
The $68.73 you see below represents two restaurant meals and my contribution to one potluck dinner. (I also bought myself lunch in an A&W one weekend day when I was about to pass out from hunger, but I counted that as part of my grocery bill.) I’m happy with this degree of spending on dining out.

Actual grocery expenditures = $153.39
Restaurants and potluck  = $68.73
Grand total = $222.12

So, when we crunch the numbers, my total food spending in April was $222.12 and a mere 23% over budget. This is the best I’ve done so far.

What’s Changed?
I’m still cooking a lot, which is good. Beyond that, April was a crazy busy month for me, so I can’t say that have any new culinary insights. Those thirty days just seemed to whiz by in a haze.

One thing I did do in April was to write myself three little scratchpad inventories: what’s perishable, what’s in the freezer and what’s in the pantry. As I’ve mentioned before, I live in a communal household, so it’s really simple to forget you’ve bought something. And then buy it again. And again. When I did the inventory, I was quite surprised to see how much food I had actually stockpiled in the pantry.

I’m a little anxious about how I’m going to manage my spending in May. I hosted Mother’s Day lunch this past weekend, and I have houseguests coming for roughly seven days.However, with more people in the house, that means I get to spend more on food. And that just might work out in my favour … I’ll let you know next month. Thanks for tuning in!signature

Dollars and Cents: March Recap

Hello! I thought it would be a good idea to devote one post each month to taking a look at how close my grocery spending comes to the $6 per day that I targeted.

With 31 days in the month, my total grocery budget in March was $186.

When I posted my February spending, I set a goal not to go over budget more than 20%. I am sure there’s an old Gaelic proverb somewhere that says “If you set ambitious goals, don’t post them in a blog, because you’ll look silly if you blow it.”

If you haven’t guessed by now, I blew it in a big way. March found me spending freely in restaurants on three occasions. However, I was determined not to go over budget on actual groceries by more than 20%, and I managed to squeak across that finish line with 88 cents to spare.

What To Do, What To Do?
I’ve had multiple discussions with myself about how to handle restaurant spending during this year-long project, all with no clear resolution. When I decided to do this, I knew that I would need to make some lifestyle changes but I didn’t necessarily expect my friends and  family to have to go along with me every step of the way.

So … as hypocritical as it might appear right now, I won’t expect everyone in my social circle to give up eating in restaurants if they want to spend time with me. And I won’t entirely give up eating in restaurants. As I move into the second quarter of the year, I’ll try to keep the dining out toned down but I’m going to focus primarily on my grocery bill.

A Note About Restaurants
That $159.56 you see below represents three meals: one in an upscale restaurant and two in more modest establishments.

And I have to tell you that I spent the money in that upscale restaurant without an ounce of regret. It was the birthday of a very dear friend, the food was fabulous and the service impeccable. Truth be told, I’d much rather spend $100 on one really memorable meal than $100 on five mediocre meals.

Actual grocery expenditures = $222.32
Restaurants = $159.56
Grand total = $381.88

So, when we crunch the numbers, my total food spending in March was 195.88 and a full 105% over budget. *ouch*

What’s Changed For Me?
Although the numbers for March are not that impressive (at all), I’m finding that I’ve become significantly more conscious about not wasting food. “Good and Cheap” has been instrumental in getting me to stretch my brain and think creatively about how I handle those bits of extra zucchini, pepper, onions and so on.

I’m also cooking more than I have in years, which has led to the happy fact that I’m consuming a lot less packaged and processed food.

As we close this post off, my goal plan for April is to not spend more than $180 on groceries. In the meantime, I’ll continue to work my way through the “Soup and Salad” chapter. What’s up next? A curried squash soup — yum!

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Breakfast Quinoa

Newsflash!
In early February, I did an interview with Isabelle Gallant of CBC, talking about this project. I’m happy to say that it aired on Monday of last week, and you can have a listen here. (I start at the 9:02 mark.)
Breakfast Quinoa

Breakfast Quinoa, with fresh mango

Well! After several weeks of oatmeal recipes, we are moving on to new horizons. Today’s breakfast option doesn’t actually appear in the PDF version of the cookbook (which is a free download at leannebrown.com) but you can find it on page 11 of the print edition.

Ingredient Notes
There’s really only three ingredients: quinoa, fruit, and a little bit of sugar. I used mango, because it was the only thing I could really imagine with the quinoa. (I had a good-sized mango, so I used half of it in my breakfast and took the other half in my lunch. Bonus!)

I should warn you that mangoes are delicious but very messy to cut up. You can find a good primer for choosing and chopping mango, at the website of the U.S. National Mango Board. (Yes, there really is such  a thing as a National Mango Board.)

How Did it Taste?
Nice. This is a pleasant alternative to oatmeal, and quite filling. (I’d actually use less quinoa the next time I make this recipe, probably 1/3 cup.) I wouldn’t say that I’m in love with Breakfast Quinoa, but I think it’s worth experimenting with some different fruits to see if there’s a magic combination that knocks my socks off.

Let’s Do the Math
The quinoa takes about 20 minutes to cook,but it’s still a very simple dish to pull together. Half a mango cost me 75 cents and  the quinoa (purchased in the bulk section at Save-On Foods) came to $1.45. Add some sugar and Breakfast Quinoa weighs in at $2.25 per serving. This isn’t necessarily as cheap as some of the oatmeal options, but as the book points out, quinoa packs a pretty good wallop of protein, keeping you full for longer.

Frugal Food Tip
I don’t actually have a frugal food tip for today. But I will tell you that — in preparation for the warmer months — I’m in the middle of “The Dirt Cheap Green Thumb” by Rhonda Massingham. This little book is packed full of practical advice for getting a garden going without spending a fortune.

I took it out of my home library, but it’s also available online through Freading, a service that lets you access off-the-beaten track eBooks with your library card. You can find out more at their website.

And that’s all for today. Tune in next week for a recap of how my food spending went in February. Have a great weekend!

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Savory Oatmeal

Welcome back! Today we’re on the second installment of a seven-part series about morning oatmeal.

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Savory Oatmeal, topped with a fried egg, some fresh green onions and a little side dollop of sambal oelek

The breakfast section of “Good and Cheap” has seven different recipes for livening up this classic breakfast food. You can find this one on page 31 of the PDF version (a free download at leannebrown.com) or on page 9 of the print version.

Ingredient Notes
I made my Savory Oatmeal with bulk bin quick oats. (See a previous post for a primer on quick oats vs. large flake.) It was simple to cut in half for a single serving.

The cookbook makes reference to putting “scallions” in this recipe — for you Canadians out there, that means “green onions”. I also kept some aside to sprinkle on top of the fried egg.

How Did it Taste?
I have to confess that I actually made this dish for supper instead of breakfast. (One serving is pretty hearty.) It was really good — I was a little skeptical about incorporating onions into the oatmeal, but the combination was delicious and the sharp cheddar cheese is a nice addition.

I put some sambal oelek on the side to spice it up, but I think this would be fantastic with a good tomato-y salsa.

Let’s Do the Math
It took about 20 minutes to pull the recipe together and the total cost of ingredients came to $1.40 per serving.

This is quite bit higher than the costing in the cookbook, which is 75 cents per serving. Part of that can be attributed to my use of expensive free range eggs (47 cents each), and part of it is the unfortunate fact that the price of fresh produce has currently gone berserk in my hometown of Edmonton. (I paid $1.29 for a bunch of green onions, which would normally be down around 69 cents.) We’ll be looking at workarounds for this particular issue in future posts.

That’s all for today! Check back next week, for the third installment in the Oatmeal Diaries.
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A New Chapter

Hello and Happy New Year!

Over the past three years, this blog has led a highly checkered and sporadic life. And yet, every December, when the good folks at WordPress.com ask me if I want to sign up for another twelve months, my heart eagerly shouts out “yes!” (Even if my brain is saying “Really? Are you sure?”)

So, if you’re reading this, know that I thank you. While I may be the fingers and the mind, it is YOU — the reader — who breathes life into this blog.

What’s Next?
In the coming days, we’re going to be taking a look at a cookbook called “Good and Cheap”, written by a brilliant young woman named Leanne Brown.

How Well Can You Eat on $4 a Day?
As a master’s student in food policy at New York University, she asked a simple but vital question: How well could someone eat on $4 a day? Why $4? Because that is the daily amount that low-income Americans receive from SNAP, the U.S. government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which is better known as “food stamps”.

As it turns out — if you plan ahead and shop carefully — you can eat surprisingly well.

Social Entrepreneurship in Action
“Good and Cheap” is the result of Leanne Brown’s research. But it’s so much more than that. It’s a heart-lifting example of smart social entrepreneurship in action.

Leanne Brown wrote the first edition of “Good and Cheap” and made it available online as free PDF, so that it would easily find its way into the hands of the people who could really use it.

When the PDF went viral (it’s been downloaded more than 900,000 times), she launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a print run based on a “get one, give one” model, so that people who bought a print copy of the book for themselves would trigger another copy going to a family in need.

The campaign was wildly successful. Over 25,000 copies of “Good and Cheap” have been given to people in need. More than 60,000 copies have also been distributed through organizations that work with low-income families. These organizations are able to purchase the cookbook at a very deep discount.

Cooking and Blogging
The library I work in has a wellness committee and “Good and Cheap” caught their attention around the same time it caught mine. After some discussion (and recipe sampling), we decided that I would start cooking and blogging my way through the book. In mid-February, I’ll do a presentation with our staff, followed by challenging them to try living on $4 a day, for a week, and reporting back their results.

Some Practical Thoughts
Away from work, I live in a communal household with four other adults. They’re also enthusiastic about this experiment,  but talked me into a couple of practical realities:

  • “Good and Cheap” is based on the idea of feeding yourself on $4 US per day. As I write, this is the equivalent of $5.52 CDN.
  • Generally speaking, groceries are more expensive in Canada than the US.
  • And so, we’re going to start off at $6 CDN per day. If we can go lower than that, we will.

Great Life Hacking
This is life hacking at its finest. Smart, socially generous young women like Leanne Brown make me feel happy about the future of our planet.

If I’m successful, I’ll be shaving about 25% off what I think is an already-frugal monthly grocery bill. Even if I’m not successful, I suspect that cooking my way through “Good and Cheap” will permanently change some of my shopping and cooking habits.

You Can Do This Too
Want to try this out too? You can download your own PDF copy of the cookbook at leannebrown.com.

So … that’s all I have to say for right now. Watch this space next Tuesday for the first recipe review. And Happy New Year to you all!
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How’s Your Spider Sense?

Last summer, I spent a month on the road in Europe, as part of an international business school experience. For the last little while, I’ve been posting an occasional series of purely self-indulgent* essays, inspired by the slice-of-life wisdom that only travel brings.

*You could say that I’m invoking the “it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” rule. After all, it’s my blog and I’ll… etc. etc. Still, I hope these are at least a little entertaining.

Over several years of roaming around other countries, I’ve worked at amping up what I call my “spider sense”.

This is something we all have, in varying degrees. It’s that queasy little feeling you get when someone is trying to scam you, or when you’ve stepped into an unfamiliar neighbourhood and something isn’t quite right.

Last summer, I put my spider sense to the test when I went to Bratislava. (Bratislava is the capital of Slovakia, a country that came about when the former Czechoslovakia dissolved in 1993.) I’d never been in eastern Europe, so I was very excited but also a little bit cautious.

I found what looked like a really nice hotel (at a great price), and started figuring out how to get there from the airport. Since I was arriving at 10 PM, it looked like I might have to break one of my primary transport rules and take a taxi. I justified the extra expense based on my safety, and knowing that I could walk to the train station for my departure the next day.

At the same time, I’d started poking through the  Lonely Planet Guide to the Czech & Slovak Republics. I checked the taxi section for Bratislava, which talked about an “unofficial English-speaking surcharge” followed by a reference to “skulduggery”. This looked to me like polite Lonely-Planet-lingo for “thieving cab drivers”. I hit the web and found a current online guide to Bratislava — with an article charmingly titled “Taxis – How not to get cheated”.

Decidedly nervous by now, I checked my hotel’s website and discovered that they had a driver service. Brilliant! I wrote to them and we made arrangements for the driver to pick me up at the airport and bring me to the hotel. This would cost me 23 euros. Not cheap, but not outrageous. I was all set.

I arrived in Bratislava, got through the customs line-up and looked around for a guy holding up a sign with my last name on it. Nope.

So I went outside to the front of the terminal and waited. Nope.

I tried calling the hotel, and couldn’t get through. The lady who’d been sitting beside me on the flight tried calling the hotel, and couldn’t get through. I went back into the airport to the car rental kiosk, to see if the car rental guy could try the hotel on his land line. And … he couldn’t get through.

A British couple was also at the kiosk, waiting for their rental car, and asked what had happened. When I told them, the wife shook her head and said “Well, whatever you do, don’t take a taxi. They’ll rob you blind.” I smiled and thanked her, but my inside voice was busy muttering obscenities.

Car Rental Guy told me to take a bus to the train station, and even showed me how to buy a ticket from a ticket machine. I figured out the bus schedule and then I checked my spider sense. Was this really a good idea? My spider sense seemed pretty calm. I checked again. Still calm. So, I caught the bus. I reasoned that if I got to the train station and things were too scary, I’d be able to find a last-resort taxi pretty easily. Plus, I had a map. A rudimentary map, but still a map.

Here's my goofy little photocopied map

Here’s my funny little photocopied map

By the time the bus got to the train station, it was 11:30 PM and very dark. My hotel was at 4 Stefanikova Street and according to my little map, Stefanikova Street was right off the train station. I walked a few steps and checked my spider sense. I was feeling a little more cautious, but still OK. So I just started walking, looking for street signs and building numbers. A few minutes in, I found a building that claimed to be 8 Stefanikova Street. That seemed encouraging. Lo and behold, 4 Stefanikova Street was another 50 steps away. Ta dah! It was that easy.

Doing stuff like this will momentarily make you feel like Marco Polo. It doesn’t last, but it sure feels awesome in the moment. What does last, though, is a newer spider sense, made stronger by experience.

Your spider sense is a gift, and the time you spend learning to listen to it will pay off handsomely. It will warn you when you’re heading into trouble, as well as reassuring you when things are actually OK. And don’t tell me that you don’t have one, because you do. We all do. You can trust me on this one. Just ask your spider sense.
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Let’s Get This Party Started … Again

Having wrapped up a very interesting 2013, it’s time to let you know what I’m thinking about for 2014.

Instead of focusing strictly on life hacking, I set a number of goals that I’m going to be turning to my library for assistance with. And … I have some interesting adventures coming up.

Let’s start with adventure — it’s more fun. From June 29 until July 23, I’m going to be in summer school in Austria and Italy. I got the acceptance letter two weeks ago and now that I’ve stopped dancing about in joy, I’m realizing there’s actually a lot of pre-planning required for something like this. However, there’s also loads of opportunity for some good-quality life hacking. I’m looking forward to sharing all my sneaky travel tricks. (That is, when I learn what they are.)

Plenty ‘O Goals
Now, about those goals:

  • Lose 20 pounds.
  • Start running again — and keep running.
  • Learn to speak passable German and Italian.
  • Pull together a wardrobe that will work for Europe in the summer, make me look sophisticated and wordly, and yet fit into a backpack.
  • Get my job under control so that leaving for a month doesn’t create mountains of chaos for my beloved co-workers.
  • Buy a condo.
  • Get successfully through eight university-level courses.
  • Be creative.
  • Learn how to be content.

I know that’s a pretty tall order, but I figure that if I at least put in some effort, at the end of the year I’m still ahead of where I was at the beginning of the year.

I’ve already started working on some of them. The good folks at Weight Watchers are helping me with the 20 pounds, and I’ve used Jeff Galloway’s “Running Until You’re 100” (which we first talked about early last year) to build a training plan.

Ciao Bello!
I’m also quite jazzed to be trying out the Mango Languages software, which is available FREE through my home library. This is language learning that’s completely online, so I can chirp “Buongiorno, Signore!” and “Guten Tag!” in the privacy of my own home, whenever I want. You can even access Mango on your phone. It’s just so cool. (You can check at their website to see if your own library has access to Mango.)

More Crazy Experiments
As well as my ridiculously ambitious list of goals, I still have a whole pile of life hacking experiments left over from 2013 to be tried out. Here’s a quick sample list:

  • Making port
  • Fixing a car (I thought an oil change might be a good place to start)
  • Making candy canes
  • Building a guest bed
  • Learning how to paint watercolors
  • Learning to cook Thai food
  • Figuring out how to make my own lunch instead of buying it every single day
  • Growing herbs indoors
  • Writing a Harlequin romance
  • Learning how to win at blackjack
  • Making good-looking pottery without a potter’s wheel
  • Basket-weaving (and that’s not a joke)

Even though I haven’t quite figured out how to make it all happen, I think we’re in for a fun 2014. I hope you’ll come back and visit now and again, and I’ll endeavour to have something new and interesting to show you.

Next week, we have a guest post from Jessica, on some unconventional ways to learn French. Until then, I hope the sun is shining in your part of the world!

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A Look Back At 2013

Hello!

Before we get too far along in this brand new year, I thought it was a good idea to wrap up what we did in 2013.

The initial goal of Library Life Hack was to determine the dollars-and-cents value of a library card in the life of a (more or less) ordinary person. At the close of 2013, the life hacks I had tried out had saved $3971.86.

As well as life hacking, I borrowed entertainment resources that would have cost me $424.26 to buy, and I also borrowed $124.32 worth of books and DVDs for my academic pursuits. That’s a grand total of $4520.44.

My library card weighs 3 grams, so pound for pound, that makes the card much more valuable than platinum.

A library card is worth more than $4500. Who would have thought?

And … what did I learn?
Quite a lot. My favourites:

All these little enrichments added up to a life that felt very much enriched by the end of the year. I also got exposed to a lot of terrific, insightful and inventive authors and filmmakers. I felt like my brain expanded into all kinds of new territory, and there were several nights I would lay awake, too excited by all these unexplored frontiers to go off to sleep.

I learned a few other things along the way. To my surprise, a rolling pin is nothing to be afraid of. And not so much to my surprise, food that you make yourself tastes way better than anything you buy in a typical grocery store.

And I had so much fun
Oh my gosh, I had fun. I loved doing the experiments and I loved writing the goofy stories about the results. I still play my Butter-Making Dance Mix when I’m cooking and cleaning, and laugh as I’m shaking my 50-something derriere to Katrina and The Waves.

Thank you, Thank You, Thank You
We’re now two weeks into 2014, so let’s close off 2013 with a few words of thanks.

  • First to Chris Guillebeau, who provided $100 and the instructions that inspired Library Life Hack. (You can read the whole story here.)
  • Second, to the brilliant staff of Strathcona County Library, who offered help and suggestions at every turn. (This is a gorgeous library. If you’re ever in Sherwood Park, stop in for a visit. You won’t be sorry.)
  • Third, to everyone single person who has ever sat down and read through the posts, offered their comments and even trusted me far enough to subscribe. You’re a giant part of what makes this blog so much fun and so worthwhile. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

And now … it’s 2014. Let’s go!
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