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Archive for the ‘Finances’ Category

One of the quickest ways to save money in the kitchen is to learn to avoid food waste. Making the most of what you’ve got is the guiding principle behind all sorts of traditional techniques, like canning, pickling, and yogurt-making. More modern home cooks achieve this goal by focusing on meal planning and freezer cooking. At the very least, we try not to purchase more than we can reasonably use (this is one of the reasons buying produce at Costco isn’t always the best idea).

I’m not sure if it’s just the blogs and news sources I read, but this seems to be a growing trend in other areas of life as well. It’s cool to shop at thrift stores and repurpose old stuff. People clip coupons like they’re going out of style. And most first-time moms at least toy with the idea of cloth diapers, if only because they’re now routinely discussed in baby books and websites. Frugality, it seems, has stopped being an embarrassing necessity for the poor and become a buzzword. Home economy has married eco-friendliness, do-it-yourself skill, and freedom from the cubicle in an extremely convincing way. If you don’t believe me, spend a few minutes poking around sites like Mr. Money Mustache, Northwest Edibles, Simple Mom, or Small Notebook. These people are out there, and their audiences are huge.

The kitchen, for me, has been the most interesting place to save money and avoid waste. Fortunately, the possibilities here are endless. Eggshells and coffee grounds make much better garden amendments than landfill additions. Old-fashioned kitchen staples like sourdough, homemade pickles and condiments, and yogurt add nutrition and interest to your dinner without the wince-inducing grocery receipt. Kitchen scraps can be tossed in a compost pile or fed to worms to make powerful garden supplements. All of these things, though, require some investment of time, skill, or money. It can be difficult and overwhelming to imagine making your kitchen entirely waste-free. I certainly haven’t done it. But I have learned one trick that is ridiculously easy, requires little time or skill, and almost no money. With this trick, you can make something delicious from something you’d otherwise throw away. Just make your own stock.

Most cookbooks that have recipes for stock require things like juicy beef bones, whole vegetables, and pricey bunches of herbs. Ignore them, unless you are learning how to make a particular traditional French recipe or something and want to know how to do it the exact right way. Here’s what you do instead:

Find yourself a gallon-size freezer bag. Anytime you cook, evaluate what you’re about to throw away. If you make, say, a roast, throw the bones in your bag afterwards. Carrot ends, limp celery, aging bunches of herbs, garlic and onion peels, and cheese rinds all work wonders in stock. Apple peels are great, as are citrus peels (though watch how many you put in your bag; I’ve made some pretty bitter stocks by not paying attention to this). The ends of leeks or green onions are fantastic. With certain things you might want to be a little more careful. I save the hard ends of my asparagus, for instance, but I put them in their own bag, because I really only want that flavor in very particular instances (like cream of asparagus soup).

When you decide you want to make stock, dump the contents of your bag in a big pot and add water. Stock made with whole vegetables will be more flavorful, and if you need a strong-tasting broth, you may want to add one or two. I usually don’t. A splash of wine or vinegar will help draw the gelatin from your bones and add flavor. A bay leaf, a couple peppercorns, some dried mushrooms or herbs, or even a piece of dried seaweed will add both flavor and nutrition. It is completely up to you. Bring your pot to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer, and leave it until you feel like it’s done. I’m sorry that I don’t have more precise timing for this, but once I’ve got stock on the stove, I tend to forget about it for hours. If you’re forgetful like me, it’s helpful to cover your pot and only remove the lid for the last hour or so of cooking so you don’t boil off all the liquid and burn everything.

If you’re using bones, it’s a good idea to skim off the nasty foam that rises to the top in the first half hour or so of cooking. But bones aren’t necessary; I make delicious, vegetarian stock all the time.

Alternatively, put everything in a crock pot with the heat on high, and turn it down to low once it’s boiling. I’ve only done this once, but the results (and ease of cleanup) were so fantastic that I think it may be my new preferred stock-making method.

Once you’ve turned off the heat and the stock has cooled a bit, strain it. I usually do this twice, once through a colander and once through a finer sieve. Put it in the fridge if you’ll use it in the next couple days, or freeze it (preferably in smaller containers so you don’t have to thaw a giant batch all at once). If you’re feeling adventurous, stir a spoonful of miso into the hot liquid after you strain it. This is also delicious (and full of probiotics!).

How do you use the stock? Soup is the obvious answer, and is one of the frugal cook’s best friends. This stock also makes a mean gravy or adds flavor and nutrition to a pot of beans or whole grains.

Yes, I said “adds flavor and nutrition” about a million times. Doing so cheaply is one of my highest goals in the kitchen, and making stock is the easiest way to do that.

Got any waste-reducing kitchen tricks of your own?

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A typical trip to our farmers’ market in the summer used to involve me planning to spend twenty dollars and leaving sixty dollars poorer. I brought home giant, reusable totes full of summer’s bounty: juicy tomatoes, other-worldy cucumbers, huge bunches of purple kale, cauliflower in every color. Throw in the odd half-pound of locally-made cheese and a grass-fed steak for dinner and it wasn’t hard to go over budget. If I did all my shopping at the farmers’ market we would never have any money. (It doesn’t help that Trader Joe’s and Baby Gap are a stone’s-throw from the market).

We try to be pretty careful with our money. Neither of us want Stephen to work more than necessary, and we would both prefer that I stay home with the babies for the time being. I’d like to teach music lessons once we’re a little more settled in a particular location, and maybe join a local orchestra, but in general, unless you live near a family member willing to babysit, there aren’t many jobs that allow a parent to work part-time without paying more than they earn in childcare.

And anyway, who wants to? Ok, ok, I am aware that some money is generally necessary to function in our country. I’m not sitting here wishing we lived in a log-cabin in Wisconsin on zero-income. But we have got to get away from the idea that the only work that matters is paid work. We all acknowledge that spending money doesn’t make us happy, yet we tend to still define ourselves by our money-making pursuits.

Erica over at Northwest Edibles (one of my favorite blogs) coined the term “negabucks” as a way to quantify the value of work done to improve life quality without spending money. I think this is a brilliant idea. I don’t (currently) work, but I can do a lot to reduce our spending while bettering our lives.

And so we come back to those juicy tomatoes. They are the biggest reason I decided to garden last year. I cannot resist a fresh summer tomato. They are hardly the same creature as the hard, orange, Florida-grown supermarket offerings. And they are EXPENSIVE at the farmers’ market. So I grew tomatoes. Did it save me money? Probably not really, if you figure you can buy canned tomatoes for fifty cents a pound. But man, were my tomatoes delicious.

Gardening had other rewards as well. I spent time outdoors. I lost a ton of weight walking the two miles to my garden every couple days. I learned the joy of nurturing a tiny seed into something dinner-worthy. Laila ate pounds of cherry tomatoes weekly, often plucking them from the vine herself. She got to see nature in action. The bowls of tomatoes beautified our home and, yes, improved our meals. I could go on and on.

We do a lot of things ourselves around here (though we’re not homesteaders by any stretch). I bake most of our bread (and because I am lazy, this has resulted in us eating much less bread than we normally would, which is supposed to be better for one’s health anyway). Stephen cures bacon and changes the oil in our cars. We look around for opportunities to learn new skills and save money at the same time.

We are lucky in this country, because we don’t have to live this way. I am grateful that life doesn’t demand I spend my days hoeing corn, scrubbing clothes, and chopping firewood. I can focus on the things I like to do, because I like to do them and because they make our lives better. This isn’t any kind of moral, everyone-should-do-things-this-way argument. But it is fun and rewarding to try your hand at new things and to find your work of better quality than you could afford at the store anyway.

What ways do you have to avoid outsourcing your work to more costly and less capable hands? Does your family have any good ideas for saving money while living better? I would love to hear about them.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go clean the raisins I bought Laila’s cooperation with out of my bed.

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