Thursday, July 30, 2009

dinner woes

It's been an unusually busy week for us -- the fact that last night was the first time Dan and I had sat down to a meal together since Saturday lunch might be an indication! It was a spectacular meal, too:


I threw "West African Peanut Stew" in the Crock Pot on Tuesday morning, expecting we would enjoy it for dinner together when we both got home from work that evening; Dan was able to enjoy it, but I picked up a shift, so I didn't get to test this one out until last night's dinner. We had enjoyed this stew at Dan's parents' house over 4th of July weekend, and this second batch was just as good as Dan's mom's! Yum! Thanks for the recipe, Sandy!

All of the week's busy-ness will ultimately be worth it -- we're headed out of town tonight for a little birthday camping for Dan! I had one late night last night, getting everything ready, including baking a special birthday treat for Dan. (It's hard to find something that travels well when his favorite desserts are lemon merengue and key lime pies!)

Until next week! Enjoy the weekend, and cross your fingers for good weather for us!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Daring Bakers Challenge -- Milan Cookies

The July Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Nicole at Sweet Tooth. She chose Chocolate Covered Marshmallow Cookies and Milan Cookies from pastry chef Gale Gand of the Food Network.

There was much hubub on the alternative Daring Bakers forum this month, regarding vegetizing/veganizing the marshmallow cookies. I must confess . . . since only one cookie was "required" for this challenge, I decided to skip trying my hand at vegmallow. I love real marshmallows, and have made them in the past; I also remember how much work they were. :) I had neither time nor energy to get THAT creative this month, unfortunately.

I did, however, attack the Milan cookie recipe with gusto. I chose to follow the challenge recipe as written this month, (except for the lemon and orange flavor additions -- I do NOT like chocolate and citrus together,) even purchasing a couple of sticks of local, organic butter instead of my usual margarine. I was hoping I would be so impressed with this challenge, I'd have a new Christmas cookie to add to my arsenal!



I did make round Milan cookies, as opposed to the usual oval shape, because I just cannot afford to invest in a new pastry bag and tip right now. I used my #70 disher and dropped out blobs of cookie dough, which spread nicely into vaguely round rounds. :) Result? The first couple batches of cookies didn't crisp up like I hoped they would, so I turned the oven up 25 degrees. I achieved crispier, and slightly more browned cookies with this method, but none of the batches stayed crispy when sandwiched with the ganache. The cookies aren't terribly soft, either, which would be okay -- they are more chewy, maybe even a little rubbery? Hm. I'm not giving up quite yet, though -- I assume the heat/humidity is largely contributing to the odd texture, so I will give these another go this fall, once the weather breaks.

One more complaint about this month's challenge -- 2 tablespoons of vanilla in the dough recipe is WAY too much, in my opinion. There is so much real vanilla extract in my cookies they taste almost artificial. I'd cut down to 1 or 2 teaspoons next time, so one can actually taste the butter, flour, egg whites, and sugar, too! :)

Overall, this was still a fun challenge, and something I'm interested in playing around with much more in the future, provided I can figure out a cookie texture that works in my kitchen! :) I may have mint Milan cookies on my holiday tray yet!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

thoughts on budgeting

After I added up our grocery reciepts from this month and had my own personal freak-out time, it was time to bring up budgeting with Dan. We had a long talk this afternoon about grocery shopping, budgeting in general, and our finances, (both bleak -- Dan's unemployed in a few weeks, and I've been underemployed since the end of April.) We've agreed that our goal is to get our grocery spending down to about $400 per month, with an attempt to avoid compromising our values of buying organic, fair-trade, local, and healthy.

I did some web research tonight, and I must be honest with you, I'm doing almost everything that people are suggesting. I cook dried beans from scratch, we stick to whole foods, (not "food-like substances,") we shop the Farmer's Market, we stock up on things when they are on sale, etc., etc., etc. I've been working pretty hard at this for a month already, and was able to reduce our grocery spending by $100 in one month, but we still have room to go.

Dan and I decided that we were going to work on this using "baby steps" -- we're going to try and get our budget down to $500 next month, see how that feels, and maybe try to reduce it again the following month. You know, Rome wasn't built in a day or anything. :)

We did make some decisions about our grocery spending that hopefully will help.

We're still working on completely eliminating processed foods from our diet, but still love and sort of rely on jarred pasta sauce, sandwich bread, salsa, canned artichokes, olives, and some condiments. I'm going to work on making homemade pasta sauce from now on, (and stocking up on canned tomatoes when they are on sale,) and dig out an old sandwich loaf recipe I haven't used in years. Let's hope these cool temperatures stick around, so I can turn the oven on periodically!

Coffee is a definite expense, especially when you buy organic and fair-trade. I'm willing to try to give up coffee completely, especially since we get no nutritional value from it; Dan is not. Dan is willing to by "crap" coffee; I am not. Our compromise? We're each going to cut our consumption in half. I'll cut down to a half-cup per day, Dan will cut down to a cup. Hopefully, this alone will save us $20 a month.

We're going to go to a cash system for groceries, as well as for a very modest "date" fund. We've agreed that we really can't afford to go to first-run movies right now, or out to eat, for that matter. We also can't afford to buy popcorn at the movies, even at the budget theatre. (That's what backpacks are for, right???) ;)

I'm going to start taking a calculator to the store with me, and adding up as I go along. No more "treats" either -- soda, cookies from the bakery, prepared deli salads, etc. Dan's also going to try and come with me more, so he can actually see how much food costs.

We're going to try to plan ahead and have some meals stashed away in the freezer for times when we don't feel like cooking and/or are in a huge hurry to get a meal on the table. Again, we can't afford to go out to eat. I'm thinking soups and homemade frozen pizzas might be a good place to start. One can only eat so much pasta.

Dairy is expensive, and I feel like we've been eating too much cheese and yogurt lately anyway. Beans, beans, beans, here we come. Oh, and all that jam I've been making? Whole new relationship with the PBJ.

I've been making my own alternative milks for years, but even so, homemade soymilk is much cheaper than homemade almond milk. We'll make the switch when the supply of almonds I have in the fridge runs out.

We had a talk about sweets/baked goods/ice cream/etc. I pretty much make all of this from scratch, but I'm sure it still adds up. (Sugar, chocolate, and Earth Balance are all fairly expensive.) I've considered dropping out of Daring Bakers for financial reasons, but have decided to stick it out. I'm going to have to get smarter about halving (or even quartering) recipes of baked goods, and we're both going to watch our treat portions. We agreed that it was more important to have small tastes that were satisfying, rather than "depriving" ourselves and splurging like crazy later.

Speaking of Earth Balance, I've already switched to canola oil in the granola. And I'm going to have to price out Earth Balance versus butter.

Oh, and no more cherries. (I accidentally spent $15 on cherries this week!) In general, I'm going to try and keep fruit around $2-$3 a pound or less, given that it's mostly all organic that we're buying.

Soooooo . . . there we have it, at least for now. Any more suggestions are more than appreciated!

yet more kitchen fun

You know you're commited to fresh, local produce when you set the alarm for 6:45 AM on a Saturday.

Courtney picked me up at 7:20 this morning, and we drove out to Bauer Berry Farm in Champlin to pick a few blueberries. When we arrived at the farm at 7:50, ten full minutes before they opened their gates to pickers, we were roughly the tenth car in line to get in! Over the next ten minutes, at least fifteen more cars piled up behind us.

Thankfully, we were ushered in to the farm promptly at 8:00, our empty containers were weighed, and we were given a row for picking.

Courtney had kind of a bum row, and ended up with about 2 1/2 pounds of blueberries. I came out slightly luckier, with 3 1/2 pounds. Nothing earth-shattering like the ten pounds of strawberries Dan and I picked earlier this summer, but enough to freeze a couple cookie sheets' worth for smoothies/muffins, a few to snack on fresh, and four cups for a single (large) jar of freezer jam.

I also picked up a jar of honey at the farm, since we were running low:
Now, I must confess, I don't care much for fresh blueberries. I love them in smoothies, ice cream, jam, muffins, etc., but I've never been one to get excited about eating a handfull. These hand-picked berries, however, were firmer, more tart, and generally tastier than any grocery store blueberry that's ever crossed my lips. Woo!

Here's the jam:
We'll have to conserve this conserve (ha!) for a special occasion.

I may need to change the title of my blog to "The Jam Lady." We'll see how the rest of the summer goes. :)


Other treats made yesterday or today . . .


Homemade Vanilla-Chai Ice Cream:

Grilled cheese and salad for lunch:


My loot from the Farmer's Market . . .


Clockwise from lower left: green bell peppers, cucumbers, 3-year aged cheddar, a quart of salsa, a pint of maple syrup, romaine, parsley, onions, sweet potatoes, purple bell peppers, and grape tomatoes! Everything I picked up was local this week. Wahoo!


Last, but certainly not least, a very silly picture of Oliver:
He thought that taking a nap on top of the fridge with his face in the napkin basket was a good idea. :)


Off to stir the onions that are slowly caramelizing on my stove. I hear they freeze well? (What haven't I put in my freezer lately?)

Friday, July 24, 2009

budget woes, groceries, and meals

I've been saving reciepts during the month of July, and keeping careful track of how much we've been spending on groceries. I had a feeling it was much higher than we had guessed, and I was right.

We have been spending about $600 per month on groceries for two people.

Now, keep in mind we eat mostly organic, local, and/or fair trade. And I seriously feel like I'm doing almost everything I can to save pennies -- I cook as much from scratch as humanly possible, we hardly ever eat out, I shop the farmer's market and bulk bins largely, stock up on things when they are on sale, etc.

But still! I guess I could start shopping at a "regular" grocery store, and buying conventional produce, but I don't know how I feel about that. I know where the expensive areas of our budget are (fresh produce, especially fruit, coffee, and nuts are usually the big ticket items,) but I promise you, we are eating nearly everything we buy in a given week!

Hm. I'm at a loss. Any ideas?

Anyhow, here's this week's load from the co-op:

(You won't see coffee on the list this week, even though it's pictured, since Dan and I bought a pound from "Coffee and Tea Ltd." as a treat. I can't wait to try the Tanzania Peaberry tomorrow!)


local spelt bread

organic dry-roasted peanuts
organic, fair-trade, dark chocolate chips
organic dried cranberries
dried apricots
organic golden raisins

"Treasure Cave" Feta

organic apple juice concentrate
organic orange juice concentrate (2)
organic rasperry juice concentrate

local, organic star anise
local, organic thyme
local decaf English Breakfast tea
kava kava

kalamata olives
artichoke heart quarters
organic diced tomatoes
ginger ale (a treat for Dan)
coconut juice w/pulp (a treat for me!)
Seventh Generation dish soap
Seventh Generation paper towels

organic cotton tampons

local, organic cucumber
organic bananas
organic cantaloupe
organic cherries
organic pluots
organic ginger root
local hydroponic tomato

local, organic butter
organic Vegenaise
local, organic whole milk
local, organic heavy cream
local, organic eggs


I made a couple of simple, yet Earth-shattering meals today . . .

Roasted Yukon Gold potatoes, beets and greens, and chickpea cutlets with mustard sauce from Veganomicon. I must confess . . . I did add ketchup to my potatoes after I took the picture, and it made them that much more awesome. :)

Awesome Greek-ish salad with local lettuce, local cucumber, local tomato, artichokes, home-cooked chickpeas, kalamata olives, feta, and homemade dressing.


I'm sure I'll have a post for you tomorrow, since Courtney and I are going blueberry-picking in the morning, and THEN to the Farmer's Market!! Fresh produce, here I come!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

not much to report

We've been eating, but honestly, I'm not entirely sure what! Pasta, sandwiches, pickles, vegan lemon bars . . . and we did go out for dinner last night. (Gasp! I know. But we had concert tickets, and decided to make a night of it.)

I did manage to throw something together for dinner tonight that required more than boiling water or taking bread out of the fridge:


Pancakes and sausages! Dan's been begging me for these vegan breakfast links forever, it seems; I finally whipped them up tonight, substituting a couple ingredients for others I was out of. I also made lemon-blueberry pancakes, and strawberry-OJ smoothies to round out the meal.

We'll have to double-up on veggies tomorrow. :)


I almost forgot -- I have the greatest story from dinner last night! I ordered a quesadilla, and purposely only ate half of it so I would have some leftover for lunch today. Our server asked me if I wanted a box, and I replied, "just a piece of foil, if you have one." He brought me one, and then asked me why the foil and not a box, since four people this week have already made the same request of him. I mentioned that I tried to avoid styrofoam whenever I could, and also that this way, my leftovers were already ready to stick in my lunchbox!

He thought about what I said, then replied, "maybe everybody should be that way -- better for the Earth." He then segued into, "someday, do you think the cars will fly?"

Heck, as long as they aren't powered by ethanol, I'm all for it!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

that pesky Farmer's Market

It seems each week I go to the farmer's market, I end up "creating" a load of work for myself when I get home; this week was no exception, but heck, I'm not complaining! (Except maybe about all of the dishes . . . !!)

Clockwise from bottom left: local parmesan cheese, local raspberries, local salsa, non-local apricots (but what a bargain!), local teensie eggplants, local tomatoes, local oregano, and local summer squash.

First order of business -- do something about those apricots . . .
The lady who helped me at the farmer's market said to me, "making jam?" Indeed, I did! Apricot and strawberry jams are tied for first place in my book, and the homemade stuff I cranked out this afternoon is better than anything else I've tried to date -- sweet, tart, and purely apricotty. My freezer is getting more and more crowded by the minute!

The oregano went into . . .
"Artichoke-Walnut Spread," from Tassajara Cookbook: Lunches, Picnics, & Appetizers. I discovered this book at work last week, and was convinced I needed to make EVERY SINGLE RECIPE in the book, so I had to buy it. :) This book is going to breathe new life into our daily packed lunches! Dan tried out some of the spread this afternoon on a Dr. Kracker flatbread, with some veggie soup and pickles making a late lunch. Dan's review? "Mmm -- very flavorful."

I'm excited to try some of the spread tomorrow on the foccacia I made today . . .
. . . and I also broiled up the eggplant, summer squash, and some zucchini from last week for delightful sandwiches. MMMMMMMMMM.

And we had to eat dinner, too:
Disappointing veggie burgers from Real Simple, (they completely fell apart -- Dan's reassuring comment was, "well, now we'll just have sloppy joes!") more pickles, sweet potato fries, and oven-roasted sweet corn.

It seems as though all of the local, fresh produce I'm getting lately has been inspiring more and more projects. Does this happen to you? What have you been busy creating in your kitchen?

a little baking, a little shopping

I did manage to salvage a couple of the lemon bars I made the other night for a photo:
I've always loved lemon bars, and these are a HUGE hit with Dan. I'll have to remember this for our camping trip over his birthday, since I'm guessing a lemon merengue pie won't travel very well!

I also made some pumpkin bread (for breakfasts/snacks) yesterday:
I took great care in revamping this recipe to make it a little healthier, but still taste amazing, because in my opinion, pumpkin bread isn't pumpkin bread without a little low-fat cream cheese spread on top. :)

Recipe . . .

Whisk together:
2 whole eggs plus 3 egg whites (or egg replacer equivalent to 4 eggs)
1/2 cup canola oil
1/2 cup applesauce
1/2 cup agave nectar
16-ounce can of pumpkin

Combine, then stir into above:
3 1/3 cups whole-wheat pastry flour (I bet spelt flour would work well, too)
2 tsp baking soda
2 tsp pumpkin pie spice (or 1 tsp cinnamon and 1 tsp nutmeg)
1/2 tsp salt

Pour the batter into a greased 9-inch loaf pan, and bake for 1 hour at 350. Cool partially in the pan, before removing to a wire rack.

I also made a trip to the co-op yesterday:
Where are the green vegetables, you ask? I'm going to the farmer's market today, so there will be green vegetables, no worries. :)

The loot . . .

organic walnuts
local, organic, whole-wheat bread flour
local, organic, whole-wheat pastry flour
locally-roasted, organic, fair-trade coffee
organic, fair-trade natural granulated sugar

local Neufchatel

local, organic black peppercorns

Reeds ginger candy
organic white vinegar
organic applesauce
artichoke hearts
LaCroix sparkling water
spicy veggie juice (a treat for Dan, since it was on sale)
organic pumpkin puree
organic extra-virgin olive oil
organic lollipops (lunchbox treats!)

Burt's Bees conditioner

organic bananas
organic golden kiwi
organic lemons
organic cherries
organic plums
organic ginger root

Posting again soon . . . with Farmer's Market loot!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

nom, nom, nom.

A repeat or two this week, but given how tight our budget has been lately, (I'm sure you can all relate,) I'm being as creative as I can with all of this awesome, local produce we've been getting --

Another beans-n-rice dinner, with steamed broccoli on the side. I'm loving my "cheater" version of beans and rice lately -- cook some brown rice, drain some beans, combine the two with a few sliced green onions and a third of a jar of salsa. Top with optional cheese, and devour. Quick, cheap, healthy, and delicious!

More poached eggs, scapey-kale, and roasted baby potatoes.

This was one accidentally awesome tofu stir-fry. I combined 1/4 cup low-sodium tamari, 1/4 cup rice vinegar, 1 tbsp toasted sesame oil, 1 tbsp agave, chili flakes, and tons of ginger and garlic, and pureed the lot with my stick blender before marinading the tofu. I then fried up the 'fu in my cast iron with some kohlrabi, red pepper, and sugar snap peas, strained the marinade and mixed it with a little cornstarch, and added the sauce to the pan until it was thick and glossy. Dan took one bite of this and said, "wow!" We'll make this again, although the veggies may vary. :)

Dinner tonight was "Zuppa di Verdure," from Mollie Katzen's Vegetable Heaven. A light and delicious way to enjoy a variety of farmer's market veggies! I had a couple of slices of roasted garlic bread from the co-op on the side, which is AMAZING. Dan missed out on this one, since he's teaching an ESL class tonight, but there are plenty of leftovers, so I'm sure he'll have one (or three) chances to enjoy this soup in the coming week. :)

I also made lemon bars from The Joy of Vegan Baking tonight, but there was a slight, erm, accident when I was trying to remove the sheet of bars from the baking pan. Note to self: allow bars to cool completely and CHILL before removing from pan. I may be able to salvage one for a photo tomorrow, once they've gelled back together. :) Until then, imagine them a mess, but still delicious!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Afton State Park

The weather was gorgeous last Saturday, and Dan and I decided to make the most of the day and drive out to Afton, MN, and hike the state park, located on the St. Croix River. What we expected to be a 1-hour hike turned into a 2 1/2-hour hike! Photos from the afternoon:

Up on the bluffs, we found many "scenic overlooks"

Crown Vetch:

Another spectacular view:

A wee creek, that must have emptied into the St. Croix:

The smallest baby toad I've ever seen:

Sulphur Cinquefoil:

A hillside of ferns:

The edge of the river:

Praire restoration:

Common St. Johnswort:

Late-afternoon sun:

I cannot figure out what these crazy, strange, and interesting flowers are called, but they were everywhere!
(*** UPDATE: This flower is called "Grecian Foxglove." I took a chance and emailed the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and they emailed back, with the name of the flower and links and everything!! How incredible is that!)

Black-Eyed Susan:

Creeping Bellflower:

Old farm machinery:

More farm remnants:

Prairie sun:

Common Milkweed:

One last scenic overlook:

Late in the day:

Red pines (I think!)

Prairie Lily:

And one last view of the river:

Sunday, July 12, 2009

tons and tons of food

I have loads of food to blog about -- my kitchen has been a busy place, as always.

Dinner from last week:
Homemade spinach and tomato dal, over a brown rice pilaf with cardamom, black pepper, and slivered almonds. Frozen samosas and mango chutney on the side. Yum!

Baking fun:
I checked out Baking at Home with The Culinary Institute of America from the library, and have been adapting a few recipes from it. These blueberry muffins were the first -- I cut the fat down slightly, used whole-wheat pastry flour, and agave nectar instead of sugar. Dan and I gobbled these down in a couple of days.

Why the funny plastic cover on the muffins, you ask?
Oliver likes to eat muffins when I'm not looking.

Another delicious dinner:
Beets and greens tossed in homemade vinaigrette, sliced heirloom tomatoes, and homemade bread topped with local, herbed goat cheese. This is quickly becoming a favorite dinner, and will continue to be as long as tomatoes and beets are in season! (P.S. I used some of the scapes in the greens -- delicious!)

A fun treat:
Blackberry ice cream (storebought, but organic and on sale,) with blackberries!

I brought home quite a load from the Farmer's Market yesterday:
Clockwise from bottom left: sugar-snap peas, beets w/their tops, sweet corn, the hugest bunch of lettuce ever, zucchini, cherry tomatoes, and roma tomatoes.

Not pictured in the above photo, 'cause I got so excited when I got home I started cooking and forgot to snap a picture of everything together:
I also bought cucumbers, green beans, and dill, which I promptly turned into refrigerator pickles. Spicy dilly beans, and normal garlic dill pickles will be enjoyed by Dan and I throughout the summer. That is, if they last that long! :)

I had to figure out what to do with most of that produce, since our fridge is practically bursting with goodness. I did chop and wash the lettuce so it is salad-ready, and I cut a bunch of the corn off the cobs and froze it for future chili and creamy corn soup use. :) I also had to put some of the zucchini to good use right away, since we were already out of blueberry muffins:
Zucchini bread, also from Baking at Home with the CIA. I'm less impressed with this recipe so far, but the bread may have moistened up a little bit overnight -- I found it a little dry yesterday. I did use organic, natural sugar in this recipe, and I think I should have used agave nectar. Whole-wheat pastry flour sometimes dries things out a little bit! Drat. Now I know for next time. :)

I should have another post for you all tomorrow -- Dan and I checked out a new (to us) state park yesterday, and I took some great pictures! Until then.