Dollar and Cents: June 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 30 days in June, which meant that my total grocery budget was $180.

After my flagrant over-spending in May, I went into June firmly resolved to do better. And things went pretty well. However, this busy month prompted three number-crunching challenges:

  1. I took a four-day trip to Winnipeg, where I was largely fed by my kind and generous hosts. I included all of my eating-out costs except one. That was a delicious take-out dinner for our whole gang from Lovey’s BBQ. I left it out because I believe that a nice meal out with your hosts is just a standard travel cost when you’re trying to be a good guest. (By the way, if you’re travelling to Winnipeg, I highly recommend Lovey’s.)
  2. June also introduced a novel accounting wrinkle: food as a gift. A good friend had a birthday in June, and I went over to his house armed with a good-sized picnic supper. We both enjoyed it, and the leftovers stayed with him to eat the next day. So, yes, I did feed myself from a portion of this purchase. But … was it realistic to count this with my food spending? This is a conundrum, and in the end, I put a third of the cost in my “grocery” ledger.
  3. Now, I also had friends over for dinner in June, and fed them almost entirely from “Good and Cheap” recipes. One friend is vegan, and I’m happy to report that it was really pretty easy to find things that worked for him. (He was willing to cheat a little and eat cheese.) This spending I did count in my grocery bills. Here’s what we chowed down on:
  • Pagnotta from Edmonton’s Italian Bakery, with real butter
  • Tomatoes with bocconocini medallions and basil
  • Beet and Chickpea Salad
  • Creamy Zucchini Fettucine (you’ll find this recipe on page 89 of the “Good and Cheap” PDF or page 86 of the print version)
  • Raspberry sorbet from the fine folks at Pinnochio Ice Cream
  • Beer and wine
Actual grocery expenditures = $72.41
Food purchased in Vicky’s Cafe = $29.80
Fast food  = $15.11
Food that came out of vending machines= $2.50
Food for entertaining = $49.14
Food purchased while travelling =$21.62
Food as a gift = $45.07/3 = $15.02
Grand total = $205.60

When everything is tallied up, my total food spending in June was $205.60. That’s $25.60 and 14% over budget. All in all, I’m fairly happy with this figure.

In fact, after pulling apart my June spending, the only thing that I’m a little concerned about was the amount of money plunked down at Vicky’s Cafe (the coffee kisok in my home library). This is largely the result of being too disorganized to eat breakfast, and — realistically — something that I could easily fix.

And That’s the Month That Was
I didn’t come out of June with any spectacular insights on cheap eating. Mostly, I feel like I spent the month almost perpetually on the run, and my food choices reflected that.

However, I will say that I was very pleased at the outcome of my second attempt at a “Good and Cheap” dinner party. It was a little more expensive than my first attempt (point a small finger of blame at $8.50 for a container of delicious sorbet) but I felt like the dishes worked together a little better. It was easy to prepare, tasted good and I had just enough leftovers. Now  really, could you ask for more than that?   signature

Beet and Chickpea Salad

Hello and Happy Friday! We’re closing out the week with a vividly-colored salad that will look smashing at summertime dinner parties and potlucks. (The fact that it’s dirt simple to make and really inexpensive will be your little secret.)

beet+chickpea salad

Pretty in Pink: Beet and Chickpea Salad

You can find it on page 53 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 33. And by the way, you can find the print version at most libraries. (Strathcona County, my home library, has seven copies.)

Ingredient Notes
This is another fast & easy recipe that takes:

  • beets
  • chickpeas
  • peanuts
  • olive oil
  • lime juice
  • chili sauce

Contrary to the instructions, I took the traditional route and boiled the beets prior to peeling them. I also added some fresh dill, because I think it goes well with beets. (And because I had a pot of dill that was growing out of control.)

How Did It Taste?
I’ve made this twice and both times, proudly served it to guests. It’s an unusual combination of flavours, but it’s very good. A couple of thoughts:

  • I tried the recipe once with canned chickpeas and once with dried chickpeas that I’d cooked from scratch. The scratch ones taste much better and it’s really not that much work.
  • The dressing component calls for a teaspoon of chili sauce. I think that’s too much. I’d cut back to at least half a teaspoon (or less) and increase the amount of lime juice. You can also add some lime zest.

Time and Money
The recipe knocks together in about twenty minutes and the total cost was $3.09. This served three people quite comfortably, so I’ll peg it at $1.03 per serving.

Interestingly, this is one of those rare instances when the price per serving is actually much cheaper what’s quoted in “Good and Cheap”. ($1.75 per serving.)

A Little DIY — Using Dried Chickpeas
Here’s how you cook with dried chickpeas, in two easy steps.

  1. Measure your chickpeas into a bowl. The ratio is roughly 2:1. For example, if your recipe is asking for a cup of chickpeas, use a half cup of the dried ones. Cover the chickpeas with water and let them soak overnight.
  2. The next morning, drain the chickpeas, put them in a saucepan and cover again with water. Put the saucepan onto medium heat and bring to a boil, then simmer for about ninety minutes. Once you’ve hit the one-hour mark, check the chickpeas for firmness every fifteen minutes.

And that is literally it. Try it! You won’t be disappointed. These ones have a rich creaminess that is totally absent from the canned version. And (no surprise) they’re much cheaper.

Ta dah! We’ve now come to the end of today’s colorful salad report. Thanks for reading all the way down here. Next up is a look at how the dollars and cents of this experiment played out in the month of June. But until then, have yourself a very good weekend!
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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

Kale Caesar Salad

Hi!

I’ve been absent from the blog for awhile. And for this, I do apologize. I won’t give you any lame-duck excuses, but I do apologize. I’m not giving you any lame-duck recipe reviews either. Today, we’re cooking up a super-healthy version of a classic salad that dates back to the Prohibition era.

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Kale Caesar Salad
Even Julia Child would approve

You can find it on page 44 of the PDF version of “Good and Cheap”, where it’s simply called “Kale Salad”. (This wonderful cookbook is a free download at leannebrown.com). In the print version of “Good and Cheap”, it’s on page 31.

Ingredient Notes
This is a fairly simple recipe that takes:

  • kale
  • homemade croutons
  • homemade dressing
  • Romano cheese

The dressing is a fairly typical Caesar salad dressing and I made three changes to the ingredient line-up. One, I substituted Polish mayonnaise for the raw egg yolk. The mayo is probably not a perfect stand-in for the yolk, but I’m just a little squeamish about raw eggs. Two, I used Giovanni’s All-Natural Anchovy Paste in place of an anchovy fillet. I like the taste of the anchovy paste and because it comes in  a tube that can be stored in the fridge, it neatly sidestepped the issue of leftover anchovy fillets. And three, I substituted mozzarella for the Romano cheese the recipe called for — because in true “Good and Cheap” style, that’s what I had in the fridge and wanted to use up.

How Did It Taste?
There’s one universal law about Caesar salad dressing. Homemade always tastes better than store-bought. Always. In fact, the gap between homemade and commercial Caesar dressing is so broad that a person might be convinced to forever banish store-bought from their table.

I’m not the world’s biggest kale fan, so even with a yummy handcrafted dressing, I went into this experiment with some skepticism.

But … my skepticism is once again proven wrong! This is really quite good. I’d happily serve it to guests and I love the taste of the homemade croutons.

Time and Money
All in, Kale Caesar Salad takes about 25 minutes to create. I made a full recipe, which came out to two fairly generous meal-size servings. The total cost for this was $5.32, which works out to $2.66 per serving.

A Little History
I had assumed that, like many other classic dishes, Caesar Salad had been invented in a restaurant in New York. Wrong! The original Caesar Salad was the creation of  an Italian-American restaurateur named Caesar Cardini. Cardini lived in San Diego, but owned a restaurant in Tijuana, as a way of getting around the Prohibition laws in the U.S.

The back story is that on the Fourth of July weekend in 1924, Cardini threw together a bunch of ingredients he had on hand and served the salad to his friends. It became a sensation. Even Julia Child’s parents travelled to Cardini’s to try out the Caesar. In her cookbook From Julia Child’s Kitchen, the American culinary icon recalls her encounter:

My parents, of course, ordered the salad. Caesar himself rolled the big cart up to the table, tossed the romaine in a great wooden bowl, and I wish I could say I remembered his every move, but I don’t. They only thing I see again clearly is the eggs. I can see him break 2 eggs over that romaine and roll them in, the greens going all creamy as the eggs flowed over them. Two eggs in a salad? Two one-minute coddled eggs? And garlic-flavored croutons, and grated Parmesan cheese? It was a sensation of a salad from coast to coast, and there were even rumblings of its success in Europe.

And that’s it! In my next post, I’ll be catching you up on how the financial end of this year-long experiment has been going. Thanks for tuning in!
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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

Sweet or Savory Pineapple Salad

Hello!

Today, we’re tackling a salad with a split personality. It can be either sweet or savory. (Kind of like some people.)

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Savoury Pineapple Salad
Good, fast, cheap … and remarkably photogenic

You’ll won’t find this recipe in the PDF version of “Good and Cheap” (a free download at leannebrown.com) but it’s on page 30 of the print version.

Ingredient Notes
I made the savory version of the salad and it takes:

  • pineapple
  • cilantro
  • chili pepper
  • salt

I used canned pineapple and a tiny Thai chili.

How Did It Taste?
Let me digress for a moment and talk about a concept called the Iron Triangle, which I learned about when I was taking project management. Imagine three sides of a triangle. One side is GOOD, one side is FAST and one side is CHEAP. According to Iron Triangle theory, any project (and this includes recipes) can have two sides of the triangle, but never three. For example, you can have fast & cheap, but you have to give up good. Or good & cheap, but forget about fast.

I believe that this little salad has smashed the Iron Triangle. It’s delicious, it’s cheap, and it goes together in a jiffy. Take that, oppressive polygon!

Now, about the taste. It’s really good. The salt brings up the flavour of the pineapple and I’m completely biased in favour of cilantro. If you use a Thai chili, you’ll get lots of heat that plays off the sweetness of the pineapple. (I’m not sure that I would recommend that you actually eat uncooked Thai chili, however. They’re pretty fierce. If you want to tone it down, I’ve tried this recipe with a jalapeño too, and it’s still really good.)

Time and Money
The salad goes together in less than ten minutes. I made a full recipe, which would serve two people as a side. (I was really hungry and managed to eat the whole thing myself in one sitting.) The total cost for this was $1.41, which works out to 71 cents per serving.

Let Me Tell You the Story of a Man Named Jim
(No, this is not the theme song of the Beverley Hillbillies. The man in that story is named Jed.)

Jim goes to my church and a few Sundays ago, he asked for a quick meeting after the service to talk about a fundraiser. When I got to the meeting space, Jim was standing behind a table with about a dozen different kinds of canned fruit in front of him and asking some of the ladies how much canned fruit costs. (You can probably imagine the question mark now hovering over my head.)

As it turns out, Jim had gone to a public auction for a grocery store that was shutting down in the small town of Andrew. He bought what he thought was three shelves of fruit, but when he went to claim his winnings, it was more like nine shelves of fruit.

Undaunted, Jim hatched a brilliant scheme. He donated the fruit to my church, and has been selling it at the amazing price of 4 cans for $5.00. His timing is fantastic. The pineapple in today’s recipe was purchased this way, saving me somewhere between 75 cents and a dollar on ingredients. I see it as a win-win all around! I save on canned goods, the church gets some easy fundraising and Jim gets his garage back.

And that’s that. I’m very intrigued by our next recipe, which is a caesar salad made with kale. I’ll admit I’m skeptical. Tune in soon and find out if this really works!

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Tomato Soup and Grilled Cheese

Well, hi there!

Today is our first-ever double header: soup and a yummy sandwich.

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Tomato Soup and a Grilled Cheese Sandwich:
A comfort food classic from as far back as I can remember

You’ll won’t find these recipes in the PDF version of “Good and Cheap” (a free download at leannebrown.com) but they are on page 29 of the print version.

Soup Ingredient Notes
The soup takes:

  • onions
  • tomatoes
  • broth

From the optional ingredient list, I added:

  • heavy cream
  • basil (more about that in a minute)
  • lemon zest

The only detour from the instructions was that I used chicken broth instead of a vegetable broth.

Sandwich Ingredient Notes
The sandwich takes:

  • bread
  • grated cheese

I used an aged cheddar and added the optional Dijon mustard.

How Did It Taste?
The soup tastes great. The only thing I’d change is to cut back on the vegetable broth by about one-third — I found the finished product a little thin, but that was easily fixed by simmering it for awhile.

The sandwich is equally delicious! The technique of using grated cheese is brilliant. It melts much more evenly and quickly than slices. I wouldn’t change a thing here.

Time and Money
I forgot to time myself, but you should be able to knock this together in about half an hour. It’s very easy.

I made a half-recipe of the soup (serves roughly three) and one sandwich. The total cost for this was $7.74, which works out to $2.13 per generous serving of soup and $1.34 per sandwich.

pesto

A small jar of pesto = a world of tasty possibilities


Add Some Zest-o with Pesto
Here’s a way to get a little of the flavour of fresh herbs without the stupidity of supermarket prices. Pesto!

Traditional pesto (which is what this is) is made up of basil, olive oil, garlic and parmesan cheese. This little jar cost me $2.98 at the Italian Centre Shop and I used a 2 teaspoons of it in the tomato soup, in the place of  a tablespoon of chopped basil leaves and two cloves of garlic.

You can also use pesto on pasta, sandwiches, in sauces … you name it. And it’s cheap, which is what we’re all about here at Library Life Hack.

Ta dah! That’s a wrap. Next week, we’re headed into the salad part of “Good and Cheap”. See you then!

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Lightly Curried Butternut Squash Soup

Hello!

Today we’re tackling a relatively simple soup with a relatively long name.

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Lightly Curried Butternut Squash Soup
Lots of words, lots of flavour

You’ll find Lightly Curried Butternut Squash Soup on page 39 of the PDF version of “Good and Cheap” (a free download at leannebrown.com) and page 25 of the print version.

Ingredient Notes
This soup takes:

  • butternut squash
  • onions
  • green bell pepper
  • garlic
  • coconut milk
  • spices

I mostly stuck to the recipe, but a relative who over-bought for Easter dinner plunked a pair of free yams in my lap, which I thought I could safely substitute them for the butternut squash. And I had a red bell pepper to use up, so that took the place of the green one. 

How Did it Taste?
This is a really nice soup that would be great in the early fall. The one thing I’d change is to take out the cayenne pepper that the recipe calls for. I cut it in half and still ended up with a medium level of heat that overpowered the curry flavour.

I need to experiment a little more, but I really do think this soup can stand on its own without additional spiciness.

Time and Money
Instead of peeling and cubing the yams, I baked them. This added an extra step but made them super-soft and easy to work with. (See page 57 of the PDF version of “Good and Cheap”, or page 64 of the print version, for instructions.) Altogether, it took about 45 minutes to make up the soup.

I made a half-recipe and the total cost was $5.19, or $2.60 per generous serving. (I costed the yams at the current price in Save-On Foods.)

A Little Experiment
Awhile back, we took a look at a jalapeño & cheddar scone recipe. I loved these and pondered an alternate version that used asiago cheese and lemon zest.

I finally tried it out this week and I’m pleased to say that this was a highly successful experiment. I used the same quantity of cheese, but grated it, and zested a small-ish lemon. (Asiago is a drier, more crumbly cheese than cheddar and it doesn’t lend itself well to being cubed.) I also added about a tablespoon of flax seeds that have been hanging around in our pantry.

The lemon flavour is quite subtle and the saltiness of the asiago cheese makes for a nice savoury scone. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner.

That’s it for today. Next up is a 1960’s classic — tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. Join us for this retro double header!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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