Monday, January 31, 2011

What's for supper? (and why not to buy cheap baking powder and cocoa)

Tonight's supper:

Subversive Tuna Wrapup with white sauce
Combination of broccoli, red peppers, and a bit of frozen broccoli-red pepper-other mixture veggies
Small panful of frozen french fries

Choice of pie (left over from the weekend) or homemade chocolate pudding

And now a comment on cocoa.  The kind you bake with, not the kind you drink.

Some of us do not normally buy gourmet-type ingredients, nor do we particularly care or notice the difference, say, in whether the cheese mixed with the macaroni is on-sale store-brand or something grander (and necessarily more expensive).  And in many cases, unless you're feeding gourmets who make it their mission to care about such things, or have other reasons such as dietary concerns for wanting a particular level of organic or something-or-other-free, the cheap brand of most ingredients will do nicely for everyday cooking.  Well, okay, so we're a bit fussy about canned tuna--we prefer the next level up from the dog-food-type cheapest kind.  And we do look for a few low-sodium options such as a particular brand of sauerkraut.  But in general, generic is okay with us.  Even in baking, I often go for cheaper alternatives such as imitation vanilla.  I am not trying to win a baking contest, I'm just making oatmeal cookies.

However, there are at least two baking ingredients that it pays to fuss over.  One is the lumpy cheap generic baking powder that leaves little bits of bitter near the top of the muffins.  Blech.  It also comes in a nasty container like a Parmesan cheese can (if you ever buy that kind of Parmesan cheese--I don't) with a swivelling top that's almost impossible to get a tablespoon into, therefore requiring me to decant it into another container, and this shaking-up-and-down-and-out process is time out of my life that I could really spend doing much more interesting things.

So no more of that; I'll either buy it in bulk or spring for the name-brand, which comes with a regular old screw-on lid.  Or substitute cream of tartar plus baking soda (see the Tightwad Gazette or search online for simple instructions).

The other thing I've decided it's worth paying more for is cocoa.  If your cocoa-using recipes come out kind of so-so, it might be the recipe, but on the other hand--it might be the cocoa. The Bulk Barn stores here sell Ruddy Red Cocoa, a Dutch-process alkalized cocoa.  According to their site, "the alkalizing process neutralizes the acidity, leaving a mild but rich tasting cocoa powder that lends a deep chocolate colour to your favourite recipes. If a recipe calls for "Dutch process" cocoa, this is the one to use!"  In the past year or so I've tried it in most of our favourite cakes, brownies, puddings and holiday recipes, and I am a convert.  I much prefer it to the lighter brown supermarket stuff, even if it's messier to scoop.   It's like the difference between fresh-ground pepper and powdered gray stuff.  Or Parmesan cheese in a can vs. freshly grated.  Or fresh nutmeg and pre-ground; not that I always use fresh nutmeg either, but you get the idea?

I finished off the end of the bag in the chocolate pudding, and I guess we will now have to use up some of the regular stuff I have in the pantry.  But I am planning to buy more of it before too long; good cocoa does make a difference.

Here's the chocolate pudding recipe; it's enlarged and adapted from the vanilla/butterscotch/chocolate pudding recipe in Betty Crocker's Cookbook.

Chocolate Pudding

3/4 cup white sugar
3 tbsp. cornstarch
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 cup cocoa, see notes above (I might have put in slightly more, since I was dumping out the plastic bag)
3 cups of milk (I used a can of evaporated milk, thinned with water to make 3 cups)
1/2 tbsp. vanilla
chocolate chips for topping, optional

In a medium saucepan, combine the sugar, cornstarch, salt, and cocoa with a whisk.  Over medium heat, gradually stir in milk.  Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens and boils.  Be patient, this will take a few minutes and you don't want it to burn; turn on a good radio station or contemplate something worthwhile, but don't forget to pay attention to what's in the pot.  Keep whisking and remove from heat when it comes to a boil; stir in the vanilla.  Pour into a container of some kind--I prefer a square Pyrex cake pan so that it thickens and chills evenly.  Chill in the refrigerator with plastic wrap spread over the top to reduce skin buildup; you can sprinkle the top with chocolate chips first if you want.  Serves 4 to 6.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The personality of a crocheter

"I suspect that many people who continue to keep a crochet hook handy retain a pronounced ability to improvise; we think neither more nor less about what we're doing when we grab the hook and bit of string than we think about choosing to walk or skip or run. We bring a destination to mind and launch forth on a direct or a meandering path....In crochet, the basic component is tiny and yet self-sufficient: Each loop is complete at the same time....crochet plays a game whose rules and goal lines change with every movement: a game with no out-of-bounds, a game that perfectly balances control and freedom.

"Open a door, open a loop: Walk out to discover the wider world, raise a single, tiny, bent strand.

"What will come next?"--"One Loop at a Time," by Deborah Robson, in Hooked: A Crocheter's Stash of Wit and Wisdom. (Check it out on Google Books.)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

What's for supper? (Thai Chicken and Poppyseed Cake)

Thai-Style Curried Chicken
Rice, Oriental frozen vegetable mix

Lemon Poppy Seed Muffins, baked in a 9-inch pan instead of as muffins. I used 1/2 tsp. of lemon extract instead of lemon zest, and thinned yogurt instead of buttermilk.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Tightwad Gazette Revisited: Notebook of Frugal Triumphs...and blessings

In the Tightwad Gazette Volume 3, or the Complete Tightwad Gazette, there is a note from a newsletter subscriber, who said that she had begun keeping a "journal of frugal triumphs." She found that documenting and then reviewing small successes and "scores" was an encouragement on the days that didn't go so well.

I remember reading this at the time (around 1996) and keeping a similar list...I don't have it now, but I remember such things as finding not one but two dressy dresses in my size at a yard sale, right before a cousin's wedding; a neighbour passing on some extra milk to us (she didn't know we had just finished up the last of it); and Mr. Fixit bringing home free milk and juice that he got at the gas station for filling up his work van (it was okay to do that--the company he worked for didn't want the milk and juice).

I never counted those things as triumphs, though; I thought of them more as blessings than boastings. I read a quote--I think it was in the Os Guinness book I just finished--about atheists being in a pickle when they're feeling thankful and have nobody to thank.

And though I don't always keep a list on paper, I do remember many of the small and large blessings, of the frugal and financial sort, that we have seen over the years. Things like finding something useful at the back of the cupboard; finding a recipe that just matches what's on hand; having something offered to us that we needed; finding a good sale at the supermarket or a treasure at the thrift store. Here are a few of the most recent:

A black skirt for Mama Squirrel from the thrift shop, part wool, suitable for church. Price: $1. (Back in December, MS also found a couple of holiday outfits there for a total of less than $10.)

An extra week's wages for Mr. Fixit; he didn't take enough sick days over the past while, so it was made up in pay. That is a blessing in more ways than one.

Three thrift shop books on Saturday: two by Philip Yancey, and Becoming a Woman of Excellence by Cynthia Heald, something I had wanted to read. Also a copy--a bit battered--of Teddy Jam's Night Cars.

Marked-down chicken and other meat at the supermarket--it wasn't even about to expire. Mr. Fixit cooked the chicken last night for Sunday dinner and it was very good.

Marked-down chocolate-chip oatmeal cookies. Marked-down Italian bread at the more-expensive-supermarket on a day that was too stormy to go to our usual discount store.

Ponytails got 25 Mabel's Labels free with a coupon on the laundry detergent. And a free pair of cupcake earrings on a blog giveaway.

The Apprentice won a free t-shirt and a price card good for store discounts.

Sheets on sale.

Ponytails found a good sewing section in a recently-opened Walmart (somewhere we don't usually shop, so just her being there was kind of unusual); and they had the webbing she needed for her sewing project.

Finally: do you remember the story of Crayons' Crissy doll, how when we bought her she smelled so badly of cigarettes and how her original green plaid dress didn't survive the cleaning? Crayons found the same dress on E-bay last week (Mama Squirrel was helping her look at Crissy clothes) and she got it for less than a dollar--nobody else bid on it. When Mr. Fixit mentioned to the seller that the dress was for his little girl's doll, she cancelled the shipping charge. There are some very, very nice people out there.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

What's for supper?--Applesauce Chicken

We haven't had A Year of Slow Cooking's Applesauce Chicken for a long time--I made it tonight with bone-in thighs, and baked it in the oven instead of in the slow cooker. I thickened it at the end with cornstarch--there was lots of sauce.


Baked butternut squash

Banana bread, yogurt

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Revisiting The Tightwad Gazette, 2011

When I thought about doing some blog posts on The Tightwad Gazette, I was hoping to start a little closer to the actual 20-year anniversary of the newsletter's starting date.  I had a vague impression of "1991" in my head--turned out that, oops, this is indeed OUR 20-year anniversary, but Amy Dacyczyn started the newsletter in May 1990.

When I first knew Mr. Fixit, I was sort of a tightwad wanna-be; or perhaps a frequently-misbehaving tightwad.  By the time we got married, necessity made us both more than ready to tighten things up more than they had been; late-night courting pizzas had been fun, but a new house (even a small one) and a Squirreling soon on the way meant a different reality.  Plus the whole economy was in a bad spot during those years.  As I've said before, wedding rings were cheap; broccoli was expensive.

So all that is to say that, from our earliest Treehouse days, we tried to be careful with money; we had other books about frugality and quite a few broke-and-or-frugal friends to learn from; but I don't remember exactly when or how I first heard about The Tightwad Gazette.  The first book was published in 1992, but I bought it used sometime later, maybe in 1993 or '94.  The second book came out in 1995, and I got it with "four free books for joining" from a book club (I still had some things to learn).  At that point we started subscribing to the newsletter, and almost right away heard that it would be winding up in 1996.


But we did get several months' worth of newsletters, and then bought the third book when it came out at the end of the year.  Brand new, $17.95.  I knew it would be worth it.

So knowing all that, I guess our most intense apprenticeship with Amy would have been through the early to mid '90's.  I took the handles off a small pot, trying to make it fit inside our pressure cooker to make rice and beans (I gave up on that--pot and cooker were just the wrong shape). I tried a whole lot of things, especially food-related, from the books:  gelatin, popsicles, coffee mixes, chili, breadcrumb cookies, practicing "how to avoid feeling deprived," home haircutting (Mr. Fixit was the first to try that here); buying grains and beans from a co-op; juice-lid toys; the "snowball principle"; the "combining frugal strategies" principle; frugal-baby ideas; newspaper Easter bonnets; and egg-carton crowns.  (I passed on the dryer-lint Halloween mask.)  We didn't try everything (have never been dumpster diving either), but we learned one main principle:  nothing is too weird to try if it means you stay afloat.  And another one:   that a lot of "radical tightwad" ideas are just the "normal" of a couple of generations ago--less stuff, more time and so on.

If fixing, scrounging and occasionally doing without things meant that we could pay off our house, have me stay home with the kids (and eventually homeschool them), and stay out of credit-card debt--then, as Amy says in the intro to her first book, we weren't too frugal. 

It wasn't until years later that I realized, via Google, how many people out there had issues with certain frugal practices and Dacyczyn parenting points.  Given the number of critics who are STILL trashing Amy on message boards for powdered milk and making her kids clean their plates, it's no wonder that their family went into a more private lifestyle after the newsletter ended.   I still admire her, though, and am still learning through her books (I keep them with our cookbooks); Amy stuck her neck out, did the math instead of just saying "this should save you money," and took the risk of being called extremist. 

Maybe it's fifteen years since we connected, maybe it's more; it doesn't matter exactly.  The Dacyczyns' risk gave us more confidence to live the way we wanted, and to keep working on that over the years.  And for that, we thank them, and the Gazette.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

This Term's Work: Picture Study

My choice for this term's art study is Woldemar Neufeld.

We were going to do Tom Thomson, but I have this lovely book that Mr. Fixit bought for me as an early Christmas present this year...and Neufeld, although he spent much of his life in the U.S., also did many paintings of this part of Ontario.  Here's a short bio page. 

We'll probably also visit the Neufield gallery.

Friday, January 07, 2011

When the fridge is empty...or full...(What's for supper?)

The week after New Year's is sometimes a strange one, grocery-wise. As Cardamom Addict pointed out, you may be using up the last of unusual holiday ingredients; in our case, we're also short on/out of a few things. Groceries tomorrow.

So what was in the fridge/freezer/cupboard for supper?

Well, there was quiche, left over from last night. But I was also thawing a package of ground chicken. My plan was just to cook it with a can of no-salt tomato sauce, and serve it over spaghetti. Easy if not inspired. But there wasn't anything extra to put into meat sauce--no mushrooms or peppers. So what about some kind of a white sauce? There was half-and-half cream, the last bought-on-sale grated Romano cheese, sour cream, mixed herbs that I had put together for a food gift (what was left afterwards), Scoobi-doo pasta, frozen peas...all of that went together in a skillet dish loosely based on Chicken Alfredo. It didn't look as fancy as Chicken Alfredo, but it tasted good. It could have maybe used a stronger dose of the herbs, but I was being cautious. Mr. Fixit added hot sauce to his.

And there was a head of iceberg lettuce, bought for economy, not for taste. The middle of the head was too yellow to eat, but the outside was fine. There were half a dozen carrots rolling around the crisper; I sliced one thin for salad and made carrot sticks out of the rest. To the lettuce and carrots I added the last of a bunch of celery, and a sprinkle of sunflower seeds. I also opened a can of no-salt chick peas and put them on the table for them that wanted.

There was a rare can of refrigerated crescent rolls, bought last week when the supermarket had them for 99 cents. Ponytails put those together.

I wanted to make cookies today, but we are out of butter and close to the end of the margarine, so it had to be an oil-based recipe. So I mixed up a batch of Sesame Cookies, made without the raisins but with chopped candied ginger added instead. (I used the end of a box of raw sugar too.)

There was some leftover gingerbread cake. And canned peaches if anyone had wanted them, but we were all full enough.

Sometimes you feel like you're starting with nothing. But you end up with something...and leftovers as well.

Friday School Plans...and Crayons' Epiphany Gala

What's up today for the Squirrelings?

Well, that's after we get enough clothes on to go out and shovel the steps and help Mr. Fixit clear the driveway.

We have been reading Little Town on the Prairie together this week before starting other classes--just something that got started on kind of a whim.  And we usually start with a hymn or O Canada--sometimes with the hymn books, sometimes with You-tube.

Then Crayons has table work with me--she has just started Math Mammoth Light Blue Grade 4 (thanks, Mr. Fixit, for printing it out), so she's doing addition and subtraction review in that book.  And I have to put a few dates together for her to paste into her timeline book--we are doing a Book of the Centuries but in a format that doesn't take as much writing.  Oh, and we have a science experiment involving popcorn.  And four pages of Robinson Crusoe.

Ponytails has ongoing work in math and science; she is doing an outline of a magazine article (from one of the units in Write with the Best) and studying nouns in Easy Grammar Plus.  Today is Canadian History day (we usually read that together) and she also has half a chapter of Story of the World Book 4 to read.  And some assigned pages from The Accidental Voyage (the last Mr. Pipes book of hymns and history).

Group times:  we are continuing our French lessons together, reading Louisa May Alcott's Jack and Jill, reading a couple of pages from It Couldn't Just Happen, and doing a picture study.  Except that it's now Friday morning and I'm not sure what picture we're doing.  I guess that will have to wait until after lunch.

Making stuff:  Ponytails has a couple of current projects; she'll probably post them on her blog when she's done.  Crayons has been extremely busy over the last few days since she arranged a Twelfth Night/Epiphany party for her Only Hearts Club doll (who's Hispanic), the little sister of the Only Hearts Club doll, the same-sized friends of the Only Hearts Club doll, and the rest of us human beings, who felt a bit like we'd been invited to the Miss Happiness and Miss Flower housewarming in Rumer Godden's book.  She made decorations, gave a speech, gave EVERYONE tiny Sculpey presents, gave us paper hats, and read us the Three Kings Day chapter of The Happy Orpheline.   I love it when the Squirrelings get old enough to think of things like that all by themselves.  Thanks, Crayons!

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Christmas Dessert: Chocolate Trifle, now with photos

(The toothpicks are not meant to be decorative--they were to hold the plastic wrap up.)

This is the recipe we used for trifle--the same one we've used for several years, but it's been quite awhile since we've made one.  We cut back on the sugar in the whipped cream, and added thawed frozen raspberries.  What to put on top?  Mama Squirrel found some chocolate sprinkles in the cupboard, and The Apprentice used bell and star cutters to cut shapes from the leftover cake.

(Note:  we made this a day ahead, since the trifle part is better if it sets--but Mama Squirrel forgot that sprinkles on whipped cream tend to melt and bleed a bit.  Good thing we had a few left in the jar to top it up again.)

Photos:  Ponytails

Christmas Cookies: Last Minute (now with photo)

We got to Christmas Eve and the cookie stash was depleted...even the Butterscotch Bars were almost gone.  Note to self:  stop making the kinds of cookies that people like too much too many days before Christmas.

OK...time for one batch of something quick.  The fastest sugar cookie recipe I know!  (Remember Speed Baking?)

Push onto the pans.  Press with a glass.  Just about ready to go into the oven--and I thought of Grandma Squirrel's little canape cutters in the drawer.  I found the flower and star cutters, and cut a shape through each cookie--not lifting out the dough, just leaving it in the middle.  As they baked, the cut-out part baked back into the cookie, but left us with an impression of the shape. 

The stars turned out clearer than the flowers...but we had a bit of strawberry-flavoured frosting in the fridge (from the Apprentice's class brownie project), and that went on about half the, up on the top shelf we had some pastel star sprinkles from someone's birthday! Yes!

So we have plain star cookies, and icing star cookies.  Sometimes last-minute baking turns out the best of all.

(How do you get strawberry-flavoured frosting?  Ice-cream/milk shake flavouring--The Apprentice had bought some last year to put in milk shakes.)

Photo: Ponytails.

Linked from Four Moms' Christmas Baking, December 2011.