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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?

A couple of years ago for my birthday, Stephen bought me an immersion blender. It came with a handy mini-food processor that I use to make salad dressing and baby food, and a whisk that would be amazing for whipped cream if whipped cream didn’t for some reason take me two hours to make (the motor isn’t strong enough to work that long without burning out).

But the immersion blender itself is amazing. I use it at least once a week. So I thought I’d share a couple of my favorite uses.

1. Mustard

Homemade mustard is tastier than even the fancy stuff and is way cheaper. As a side note, don’t buy mustard seeds in those expensive little spice jars. They’re available quite cheaply on Amazon. I found my favorite recipe online here.

Throw the following into a glass jar (or your non-reactive container of choice):

6 tablespoons mustard seeds (I usually do half yellow and half black, but do whatever you’d like; black are stronger)
1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
1/3 delicious beer (don’t skimp on quality here)
1-2 tablespoons prepared horseradish (sometimes I’ll use even more; I like it strong)
1 teaspoon salt

Leave it in the fridge overnight, or until you happen to remember it’s in there. Then unscrew the cap, stick your handy immersion blender into the jar and blend until it reaches the consistency you like. It usually takes me a minute or two. Just know it will not ever be as smooth as dijon. That requires fancy equipment.

2. Deliciously Creamy Soup, with or without Actual Cream

This is out of Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, only very slightly adapted.

Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a soup pot over medium heat. Once melted, add 2 chopped shallots (or 1 small onion) and 1 1/2 pounds sliced carrots. Cook until they begin to soften (about 5 minutes). Add 4 cups chicken or vegetable stock (that you’ve made from that freezer bag you keep full of vegetable peels and ends, cheese rinds, and bones, of course) and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook another 10 to 15 minutes, or until the vegetables become fully tender. Immerse that blender and blend! This is delicious garnished with parlsey or chervil. Without cream, this soup is the reduced essence of carrot. If you add a little cream, it will be richer, though less divinely carroty. This recipe is also quite adaptable to whatever flavor combinations you happen to like and whatever you have in the fridge.

(Bittman calls for 6 cups of stock here, but as I like a thicker soup, I’ve reduced it. Do with it what you will.)

As an alternative, use peeled and chopped butternut squash in place of the carrots and sub in 2 cups coconut milk for 2 cups of the stock. Add 2 tablespoons chopped garlic and 1 1/2 tablespoons curry powder (if you’re feeling adventurous, make your own) in Step 1. Cilantro (or perhaps roasted peanuts) would be the garnish of choice here. I make this soup all the time, and will often throw in whatever about-to-expire greens we have in the fridge for the last 5-10 minutes of cooking (the time depends on the green) with great success.

3. Homemade Mayonnaise

If you love homemade mayonnaise and own an immersion blender, boy are you in luck. Erica over at Northwest Edibles has shared her method of making America’s favorite condiment here. Because I lack the planning skills necessary to maintain a well-stocked refrigerator and because I refuse to let that stop me from trying a recipe, I used lime juice instead of lemon and my own homemade grainy mustard in lieu of dijon. It is still amazing. If you like the taste of olive oil (and the olive oil you have on hand is decent), don’t hesitate to use that. Want to make your spouse/family/friends love you forever? Use melted and cooled bacon grease for some of the oil. When I don’t want the mayonnaise to taste like a particular oil, I use grapeseed (available cheaply at Costco).

The best part is that this takes less than a minute to whip up. Seriously, folks, this is life-changing.

What are you favorite ways to use an immersion blender?

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.

End of February Garden Update

Ok, so not really a garden update. Nothing much is happening outside yet (at least nothing orchestrated by me; I’m sure my little garden bugs are hard at work).

But inside! The endive and arugula have sprouted, and one of the radishes, too. All of these things are destined to live on my windowsill. We also have cippolini onions, shallots, lettuce, peppers, and one little basil plant waiting to germinate. Oh, and a couple more chicories. The broccoli I’ll start today. Seeing as how I’ve only ever successfully grown tomatoes, basil, and a handful of greens from seed, I may be getting a little over-ambitious.

The most exciting thing about the arugula is that I saved the seeds myself last year, without knowing what I was doing, and they appear to be working! I’m growing them along side the same variety purchased from Johnny’s Seeds for comparison.

I do love arugula.

I’m also getting really excited about reusing containers instead of buying pots. The little radish is growing inside an old Folgers plastic coffee can.

Someday I’ll figure out a way to hook my camera up to the computer so I can share pictures.

Mommy Guilt

Yesterday was, in retrospect, a good day. I looked at a few potential houses, read Peter Rabbit to Laila, and made a delicious quiche/pie thing out of the leftover greens in the fridge. Sure, the house was a mess when I went to bed, but I’ll take what I can get. But sometimes, no matter how sweet the kids are, they just drive me insane. Completely bonkers. ‘Cause here’s the thing:

They never stop.

Laila speaks pretty well now, ALL THE TIME. And William couldn’t care less about my intended methods of parenting; he has chosen the attachment lifestyle. Usually I can manage to wipe a table or throw together a simple dinner, but forget balancing a budget. Anything that involves whatever mental capacities I have left needs to wait until they’re in bed. You know, when the house is finally quiet, and you’re exhausted, and all you want to do is lie on the couch and zone with Netflix. Prime thinking time right there.

So yesterday, I was trying to make a piecrust (which for me, is most definitely NOT simple dinner material), and Laila really wanted a bite of the dough. She didn’t throw a fit or anything, she just politely asked over and over until my nerves were completely shredded and I gave in because of course she’s not going to like it because it’s just whole wheat flour, butter, and salt, and if she tries it and hates it maybe she’ll give me a moment’s peace.

I’m an awesome parent like that.

Of course it didn’t work, because it was the best thing she’d ever tasted (I believe her exact words were, “Thank you nummy treat, Mom! More, pease?”) And I just lost it. I released all my petty rage in a brain-clearing growl. Thankfully I had the presence of mind to smile, and Laila thought I was joking. She growled back, and we turned it into a game.

I have a lot of flaws as a human being, and motherhood has only highlighted them. But my most crippling, destructive flaw isn’t my impatience. It’s not my selfishness, my laziness, or even my anger.

It’s my guilt.

I learned early on as a mother to stop judging other mothers. Once you see yourself fail over and over again, and realize that somehow your kids still adore you and that they’re not turning into little sociopaths (yet, at least), you begin to understand that other ways of doing things might not be so terrible after all (I mean, for all my ideals, I growled at my sweet daughter for wanting another bite of dough). Having grace for other moms has become much easier for me.

Having grace for myself hasn’t.

After all, I’m me, right? I should be able to answer the eight quintillionth pointless question with as much patience as I answered the first. I should be happy to ignore the dirty dishes for a few more minutes (hours) when my daughter wants me to read a book (or twelve). I should be a creator of harmony, secure in my success as I instill timeless wisdom into my obedient, freshly-scrubbed offspring. I’m a good person, I have values, I treasure the new life that marriage brings and wouldn’t want it any other way. So why does my reality involve covering up the anger I feel at my daughter’s childishness? I should be better than that.

That kind of guilt? It’s a form of pride.

I’m not talking about the healthy guilt, the quick pang that corrects our behavior when it’s out of line with our morals. I’m talking about the gnawing, crippling, depression-inducing guilt that tells me I’m too good for this kind of behavior at the same time it tells me that of course I messed up and what else should one expect from me.

It’s one thing to determine how to live based on principles and goals. It’s another to imagine the awesome life I can have because, I mean, c’mon, I’m a pretty awesome person. When I build that dream, and reality fails to match it (as it inevitably does), the weight of my mediocrity and normalcy crushes me. I want to hide in bed, distracting myself and others from the knowledge of my failure.

That is pride. It is the secret, ugly belief that I am somehow better. Others’ failures I can understand, but my own? I am capable of more.

So here’s to humility. Here’s to acknowledging our weaknesses, and being patient with ourselves while striving to be better. Not so we can reach some peak of perfection, but because it’s the right thing to do, for ourselves and for our children.

P.S. Mom, you’re awesome. I have no idea how you did it.

Pink Slime and Lettuce Soup

A few months ago, when pink slime first became big news and consumers suddenly cared about the contents of their fast food hamburgers, a friend of mine wrote a couple of interesting articles. The first addresses the issue of pink slime as used in school lunches; the second is, I think, a response to comments received on the first. School lunches aside, Joy’s apparent defense of the food industry initially bothered me. “That we can now extract every edible bit of cow and disinfect it with traces of ammonia,” she says in the earlier article, “is not only less wasteful but wondrous.”

Ammonia in our beef? Gross. That our beef is dirty enough to need ammonia to be safe? Even grosser. This was my initial response, and I stand by it. But looking beyond the issue of pink slime for a moment, I also think Joy is right. We live in such a constant state of excess that we can afford to think a process that saves “the equivalent of 1.5 million heads of cattle” is beneath us. When we shop at the supermarket, we can ignore what actually goes into sausage, pretend that chickens only make white meat, and forget about all of the less-than-perfect produce that gets wasted because of consumer demand for uniformity.

We decry the evils of the Food Industry while demanding food that possesses all the uniformity and sterility of a factory product. As Joy points out, “very few Americans have experience with agriculture (an herb garden is not agriculture). As a result, they don’t realize that even organic raw cow or chicken looks gross while it’s being butchered, no matter the method.” We have a problem with perspective, and a little experience with food production, a little more connection to our food supply (to borrow a hipster-foodie phrase), might help us change that perspective

Inspired by Barbara Kingsolver’s beautiful book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, we have been gradually shifting our food supply away from the supermarket (though, like most Americans, we remain pretty reliant on the industrial food system, and happily so). We get most of our dairy, meat, and produce locally, make quite a bit from scratch, and, this summer, have enjoyed the luxury of our first garden. This process has been a fun challenge for me, but it’s come with a few surprises.

For instance, when we signed up to purchase raw milk from a local farm, I figured we’d use about one and a half gallons per week (Laila loves milk, ok?). What I didn’t realize is that, in the summer months at least, raw milk can turn quite sour by the end of the week. Now, not having milk is not something I’ve ever had to deal with. If it runs out or goes sour, there’s always more at the grocery store (which I don’t think ever closes), and it takes forever to sour anyway. But this milk is available once a week; what I pick up on Monday is all we get ’til the next delivery (obviously, we can still buy grocery store milk, and often do, but let’s pretend for a minute). As a result, I’ve learned some extraordinary things about milk. For instance, yogurt-making isn’t really all that difficult. Soft cheese is even easier. My newest discovery? Apparently, if you leave raw milk out on the counter until it sours and separates, what you get when you strain it is whey and traditional cream cheese (please don’t take my word on the safety of this; I’m going on what Sally Fallon says in Nourishing Traditions). My former-but-not-quite-yet-gone self thinks this is gross. My new-but-not-quite-yet-convinced self thinks it’s amazing, and delicious to boot.

Another discovery we’ve made is that, apparently, garden lettuce doesn’t stay tender and beautiful forever and ever, on into oblivion, as I previously imagined. In fact, it’s only lovely for a few weeks before the heat encourages it to bolt and grow bitter. The result is ridiculous quantities of tough, strong-tasting lettuce that no one wants to eat, or so I thought until I discovered this recipe for lettuce soup. We humans used to know all sorts of tricky ways to use up over-abundant or less-than-desirable produce (and meat). Lettuce soup is one of those.

Here is my version:

creamy lettuce soup

Lettuce Soup

1 1/2 pounds old lettuce, washed and chopped (it really is prettier if you use only green lettuce, but I used a mix of green and red, and it tasted just fine)
1 large sweet onion or 2 large leeks, chopped (whichever you have is fine)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
zest of one lemon
1 quart beef stock (I imagine that chicken stock, as recommended in the original recipe, would be nice for a more delicate soup, but as my lettuce was so strongly-flavored, beef stock seemed a better option)
1 tablespoon honey
1/2 cup yogurt
1/2 cup miso (optional; dark miso is my favorite)
6 steamed fingerling potatoes, as garnish (optional)

Warm the olive oil in a large soup pot over medium-high heat. Add the leeks or onions, nutmeg, and lemon zest, and sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Cook until soft.

Add the lettuce and stock, cover, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer until the lettuce is tender (3 or 4 minutes if your lettuce is as tough as mine).

With an immersion blender, blend the soup until smooth (or blend in batches in a traditional blender, then return to the pot, and reheat). Remove one cup of the soup into a separate bowl and mix in honey, yogurt, and miso, using the back of a spoon to break up the paste. Stir back into the pot.

Serve with potatoes or additional yogurt as a garnish.

We ate our soup with a side of millet toasted with butter, then simmered in water until soft and topped with one of our garden tomatoes.

toasted millet and tomatoes

Enjoy!