Thursday, February 20, 2014

Who Is Afraid of the Shopping List?

Sentences I do not want to hear from my builder, 'I just moved your mandarin tree while you were out. I needed to put a post there.' This was at 9am on one of the hottest days of the year. We were having a new fence built, just behind a row of two-year old citrus trees, oranges and mandarins, which are a little marginal in our climate, but are on the edge of flourishing, due to their protected position and my continual mollycoddling. They are my BABIES, and one day they will be a gorgeous green hedge of golden citrus goodness. I think the poor builder was rather startled at my shriek, and sudden disappearance, and just as sudden reappearance armed with secateurs, seasol and the garden hose. No, I did not tie up the builder with the hose, prune him and waterboard him with seaweed concentrate, however tempting that course of action seemed at the time. He is, after all, a very good builder, and they are as precious and rare as mandarin trees around here. I tried not to weep as I pruned a good third of the foliage off the poor baby tree to reduce stress and water loss by evaporation, watered it thoroughly with seasol concentrate to help with transplant stress, and left the hose trickling on it all day. I think it may survive. The builder was completely bewildered by all the fuss. I think he regards plants as some kind of green, fluffy landscaping accessories that you can move around like fence posts.

Meanwhile, back in the kitchen I have been keeping a tight hand on the grocery budget. The thing I absolutely loved about my week of not buying groceries, was not going grocery shopping. I just hate shopping, and grocery shopping is right up there on the list of jobs I like to procrastinate about. So my bright idea on the Monday morning following my week of no shopping was to take twice my weekly grocery budget in cash to the shops, and shop until it it was gone, then stop, and that is it for groceries for two weeks (I kept some back for milk).  I shopped with menu plan in place and list in hand, and actually went under budget. I couldn't believe it - I never go under budget for the groceries. It did get used up when we went blueberry picking at a local farm on the weekend, but I am not complaining there of course, and we have a few kilograms of blueberries which will keep us in fruit for weeks. I am still using up odd and hitherto unused exotic ingredients from the back of the cupboard, but I am also buying a few things in bulk which will last for weeks - oats, potatoes, lentils. We are eating very normal dinners, and aren't wanting for anything, so I can't understand exactly how it is that it is suddenly so easy to stay in the grocery budget, other than that without popping out every couple of days 'just' to get sour cream, or extra chicken, or icy poles because it is so hot, we are not picking up those tens of extra items over a week as well that normally sneak into the shopping basket on those occasions.

But I do think there is an extra reason as well - I have discovered this convenient truth about the store cupboard. There are certain staples that I keep topped up all the time - flour, dried beans, sugar, dried fruit, nuts. What occurred to me this week is that all of this is not necessary if I make a menu plan. If I am not going to be baking with dried fruit, why buy any that week? Also, if I have one kind of a basic food, I don't need five other varieties. This week I will be out of brown sugar and caster sugar, but I have plenty of raw. Sugar really is very interchangeable in most recipes, even meringues. Raw sugar makes meringues look rustic, and their texture gets chewy and delicious. I suspect most recipe breakthroughs come from the 'necessity is the mother of invention' school of cooking. I am thinking that the secret of saving money on the grocery bill is not to be afraid of slashing the shopping list, and being willing to experiment (and have a family who is willing for you to experiment!). Also, if I am running out of an ingredient and 'not allowed' to pop out to the shops to pick up 'just one thing', then I am forced to rummage around in the back of the cupboard and use up what I find back there. And who knew that when I ran out of vanilla extract that we would discover that meringues and cup cakes taste very exotic and delicious flavoured with years-old bottles of orange blossom water and rose water, bought for who knows what forgotten recipe now? It actually makes cooking more fun to have to make do, certainly more fun than rushing around in traffic at dinner time hunting for one vital ingredient, which ends up as half a bag of other indispensable items, which mostly consist of, though are not limited to, chocolate and chippies. Just think how thin we will all be too:)

Has anyone else out there been doing a cook-from-the-pantry challenge? Please tell me about successful 'make do' ingredient substitutions, and go on, we all want to read about the unsuccessful ones too..

Saturday, February 8, 2014

World's Yummiest Vegan Chocolate Cake

Here, as promised, The World's Yummiest Chocolate Cake, which, as a surprising bonus, is egg and dairy free, and therefore vegan as well. The recipe came from a friend whose adorable two year old is severely allergic to dairy and eggs. She in turn found it in a years' old Women's Weekly magazine. We use it when we run out of eggs.

World's Yummiest Vegan Chocolate Cake

1 1/2 cups plain flour (all purpose flour)
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)
1/2 cocoa
1 cup castor sugar (or any sugar, I substitute freely)
100ml rice bran oil
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tbsp apple cider (or white wine) vinegar
1 cup water

Preheat oven to 160C
Sift flour, bicarb, cocoa, sugar and pinch of salt.
Whisk oil, vanilla, vinegar and water in jug.
Pour wet ingredients into dry and stir until combined.
Bake for 30 mins or until skewer comes out clean.
Cool in pan for 15 mins.

Yum yum. Ice as desired. The Girl has determined that the average cake requires 1 cup of icing sugar to ice the top. She has a scientific mind, and works these things out. I never even thought of measuring in the 20 years I have been baking. That is why I will never take up Chemistry.

Also, do not do as I just did and accidently set the oven on 200C instead of 160C. I am afraid it will be very dry. Luckily the one in the photo above was made by Rosy. Clearly I should just stay out of the kitchen.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Green and Thrifty

Well, Friday is upon us again and the refrigerator is looking very bare, which I must say makes cleaning it much easier. We are powering through our grocery challenge, which surprises me no end. I thought this was going to be really hard. Even the girls are on board. When I pulled crackers out of the back of my wardrobe (hidden in a stash from the end of the last school year - unopened, I hasten to add!) to add to today's school lunches, Posy glared sternly at me.
'I thought you weren't going shopping this week!'
I had to confess my hoarding tendencies.

We are all out of tomatoes, cucumber, or indeed any salad vegetable except lettuce and half a capsicum. I was going to put the slow cooker on for beef stew, but it is just too hot, so I tried this carrot soup instead, adding a handful of red lentils for bulk and protein. Now there are only carrots, yellowing celery, broccoli stems and some shrivelled up mushrooms in the crisper. Perfect for beef stew, but this weekend will be a scorcher. I may put the slow cooker in the shed in the morning, cook the stew and eat it next week when it is cooler. I don't want to waste that lovely yellow celery! For fruit we have apples and oranges and a couple of pears from our tree. Oh, and rhubarb, so apple and rhubarb crumble on the horizon.

I kept a bit of a 'green and thrifty' diary this week, to see if I could accomplish something every day:

Saturday: Children were begging and whining for take away, as I had prepared exactly nothing for dinner, and it was 5.30pm, but I STAYED STRONG. I pulled English muffins out of the freezer, which we split and made into mini Hawaiian pizzas with the last two slices of ham cut up very small, tinned pineapple, cheese, and pizza sauce. Not gourmet, but acceptable fast food substitute.
Home made pizza sauce: Dollop of tomato paste, pinch brown sugar, tsp dried oregano or basil. Thin mixture with boiling water until you get required consistency, stir well. Thanks to my dear friend Ange for this brilliant tomato paste extender!
Sunday: Too hot to do anything except water the garden pots multiple times. A no-driving day! Also, I have my brilliant idea about not buying groceries this week.
Monday: Rosy does some painting. For Christmas I had planned to do a bedroom makeover for the two big girls. Well, I managed to achieve a couple of bits and bobs, and bought several things for Christmas, but it is turning into the longest room makeover ever.  However that has meant that the girls have enthusiastically taken the project on board and are doing it much better than I would, which proves something positive about lazy parenting I expect.
So today Rosy is painting baskets to store her precious treasures like 56 bottles of nail polish.
Take one pot of any kind of water-based white paint from the shed (we used undercoat). Add water about 50/50. Apply with rag for rustic shabby-chic look. Add another coat if you want it whiter.

Tuesday: Hemming Posy's secondhand uniform, and sewing up bits of seam that had come undone.
Wednesday: Planting capsicum seed which I was given at Tanya's brilliant Living Better group. I took my saved seed to share from a brilliant, locally developed non-bolting lettuce imaginatively called Slo-Bolt.
Thursday: Planting out tomato seedlings which popped up in a pot a few weeks ago. I am almost certain they will produce tomatoes before the first frost!
Friday: I was going to go out to the art gallery with a friend, then out for tea and cake, but had to stay home to receive a delivery of fence posts and palings, so my friend came to me, and we drank rooibos tea and ate Rosy's fabulous vegan chocolate cake (no eggs!). Tomorrow I will post the recipe for that.

This week's greatest achievement has been managing to eat out of the pantry and refrigerator. So far I have spent $9.50 on 4l of milk. Let's see if we can survive until Monday. My next challenge will be to stick to my $160 budget next week, and not go crazy restocking.

What green and thrifty projects have you been up to this week?

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Teriyaki Sauce From Scratch and the Romantic Sledgehammer

The first day of school for Posy today, who had a terrible, horrible, no-good morning. Her silly putty fell in her milky cereal, she choked when she tried to drink out of her water bottle, and the zip of her jacket attacked her, all before 8.30am. Luckily her day got better from there - this afternoon her new class and teacher were pronounced 'totally awesome'.

And me? Oh, the serenity! I realised today that over the whole summer I have had a total of three hours home alone, when all the girls went to a movie together. So this morning I looked around at a considerably less than pristine house, ignored it, made a cup of tea and sat down to watch Poirot. Ooh, I do love the first day of school.

On the no grocery shopping front, yesterday morning I had two appointments, three quarters of an hour apart, right near the supermarket, wholefood shop and bakery. Normally, I would have grocery shopped, but yesterday I was forced to sit in the car and read my book. Oh, the trials of my life.

I am reading Food First by Frances Moore Lappe and Joseph Collins. I know that the production and distribution of food is a highly political enterprise, predicated on keeping power and wealth in the hands of the few. I want to eat and feed the family outside of that system, and I think this is the book to describe that system, and make me even more irritable about the state of our, erm, civilisation.. is a single system, supported by governments, corporations and landed elites, that is undermining food security both in our countries and the Third World. The forces in Africa, Asia and Latin America cutting people out of the production process and therefore out of consumption turn out to be the same forces that have converted the food system into one of the most tightly controlled sectors of our own economies.
Food First, prelude

The other book I am reading is a jolly dalliance in the garden - collected Independent gardening columns by Anna Pavord. Unfortunately, the issues of unsustainable globalisation and the horrible propensity for our luxuries to be paid for by other, faceless people who live far, far away, seem to follow me whatever I am reading.. here is the first February entry:

I've gone off red roses in a big way since a trip to Ecuador this time last year. Vast tracts of the country were covered in polythene tunnels filled with bushes of red roses and further vast tracts of native wildflowers were being bulldozed to prepare for yet more of this rapacious monoculture.
Production was just coming to a peak for St Valentine's Day. The compounds were guarded by blockhouses and sub-machine guns. From the barbed wire of the perimeter fence, you could see girls picking the flowers, the air in the tunnels (and outside) thick with the acrid smell of sulphur. It's burned to destroy pests and disease. It does a good job on lungs too.
The Curious Gardener, A Year in the Garden

Her pick for Valentine's Day? The tulip. Of course, in the Southern Hemisphere, our gardens are full of roses, and hopefully, so are the farmers' markets. But for true romance, take a leaf out of my neighbour's book. He texted me last night, 'Can I borrow your sledge hammer? It's my wedding anniversary..'

They are at the end of a landscaping project, and he still hadn't knocked down the other half of a brick wall which was on the end of his rather long list, and at the top of his wife's list. So that is all she asked for for their anniversary. I can hear the wall coming down as I write. So romantic.

So, to dinner. Tonight we were going to have Korma curry. I could have sworn there was a tin of coconut milk left, but no. So dinner changed to teriyaki chicken stir fry. Over the summer I borrowed a Japanese cook book from the library. I only tried one recipe, and it was brilliant: teriyaki sauce. This apparently does not come in a jar in Japan!

Teriyaki Sauce
2T mirin (or sherry)
2T tamari (or soy sauce)
2tsp honey
Add anything you like to this sauce. I added grated ginger and garlic.

Stir all the ingredients together. Saute your meat with a little oil. Remove from pan. Pour in the sauce and bring to the boil. Let it reduce a little, return meat to pan, and coat. If you want to turn this into stir fry, add vegies (that is the broccoli, beans and spinach used up), and a little water to stretch the sauce. If you want to thicken the sauce, mix a half teaspoon of corn flour with a spoonful of water and tip into the pan. Add more half teaspoons of cornflour until the desired consistency is reached. Never tip dry cornflour into hot liquid or you will get lumps!

This is delicious and divine, and even certain children who were completely wedded to the idea of Korma curry and naan, were convinced that this was an acceptable substitute.

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Universe Provides

This morning I was absolutely appalled with myself. Last week the washing machine broke and I have been doing washing at the next door neighbours'. This morning the repair man was coming at nine, but I completely forgot and went up to the school vegie garden to water, leaving Posy at home with Rosy, who was sleeping in (The Girl's first day at school, so she had already left..). So what does Posy, who has been carefully drilled in stranger danger etiquette - don't answer the door, don't answer the phone when no adults are home - do, but open the door to the washing machine repair man, in her pyjamas no less, stand and watch while he fixed the machine, then happily wave him good bye when he had finished?
I couldn't believe it when I got home. Rosy had slept through the entire episode, and apparently Posy had opened the door... because she wanted to know who it was! OK, so the nine year old clearly has no modicum of common sense whatsoever, and obviously everything I say goes in one ear and straight out the other. I will not be leaving them again without making sure that Rosy is awake, and aware that her younger sister is completely unreliable. I can't believe that after four of them I still haven't plumbed the depths of what I don't know about my own children.
On the bright side, the washing machine now works.
Also, I have been collecting the ripe veg at the school garden over the holidays, so this morning I gleaned some bits and pieces that won't last until next Monday, which is our first school garden day. So now I have some more greens for this week, a bunch of spinach, a handful of beans, a couple of handfuls of strawberries. The universe provides.
This morning was The Girl's first day of school for her last year. So last first day of school! Luckily she is a self starter, and very conscientious. She exhumed various boxes from the shed to find her brother's old text books, organised her uniform and last night I found her stitching up her school bag where the zip was coming off. First morning was slightly enlivened by our clever, but normally indolent cat Polly, who caught her very first bird this morning, and brought it inside to show us. Luckily, neither of the cats has ever caught a native bird, mostly pestiferous blackbirds and sparrows, which they are quite welcome to, and Milo, our dopey if energetic cat is an excellent mouser and ratter. Unfortunately, he loves to bring us presents, and now Polly has joined him. It is so nice to be loved..
Food experiments today - I am trying to approximate a muesli bar so that I can stop buying the ones at the supermarket in their little plastic shrouds. I had a good tasting recipe, but it was too crumbly, so today I put the individual slices in the dryer for a few hours, which made them good and tough. I think we have a winner! Even Posy ate one. If she takes one to school then actually eats it while there I will deem it a success and post the recipe (she is my toughest critic).
What real home-cooked food looks like:

Oops. This is what happens when you 'just look something up' on-line for 'just a minute' while cooking dinner..

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Step Away From the Supermarket

It is hot, hot, hot here. We have been having late night races in the pool, but Posy kept winning because she was wearing flippers. Not fair koala bear!
I have come to a decision, which is to not spend any money on groceries this week. This morning I looked in the cupboard and the fridge, and thought that I wouldn't need much at the shops this week, just one or two things. But I often think that, and pop out to do the grocery shopping, and you know how it is, even with a list, one or two things turns into quite a few things, and the food at the back of the cupboard stays there, the dried beans remain unsoaked because it is so much easier to buy a can or two while I am out, and then the chips are on sale, and the icecream.. well, I am sure you all understand.
So this week, line drawn in the sand. I will make do with what I have. I announced this to the girls today - no going to the shops until next Monday. That is actually more than a week, because the last time I popped into a shop was for milk and juice on Friday morning. So really, I am just skipping Monday grocery day. But no incidental shopping either. Except for milk. Just milk. Nothing else.
It's OK, we have lots of food. We won't even get slightly thinner. But I want life to be a bit simpler, to see what I can do without while still enjoying life. To think about the concept of 'enough' and 'making do' in the middle of a life that doesn't really require much of either.
What we don't have this week, is any potatoes at all. We have hardly any greens, except enough broccoli for a meal, and a large bunch of kale (hooray) and half a lettuce. There is a bit of green in the garden, fast sizzling in the heat, and half a cucumber from a friend's garden. We probably won't get scurvy because we have a lot of carrots, a capsicum, and almost two dozen oranges. There is no cream or sour cream, and only a dozen eggs (usually we go through two dozen in a week).
My first action was to locate a scrap piece of paper at the dining room table, and the nearest writing implement (a blue crayon, of course), and to write a menu, including snacks and school lunches, because this is the first week of school (why not add an extra level of difficulty). Actually, in the last week of school last year I hid all the left over 'school snack treats' (muesli bars, boxes of crackers, small bags of 'junk food Friday' chips) in my wardrobe, so that is taken care of. Nevertheless, this evening after dinner we whipped up cheese and vegemite scrolls for school lunches, a muesli bar slice, and a pan of brownies that used up the last of the choc chips, so we are officially a chocolate-free house now... (well, actually, I do know where a packet of chocolate biscuits is hidden... for emergencies. I only buy ones I don't like so I won't be tempted to eat them. So far an appropriate emergency hasn't presented itself in the three or four weeks since I bought them, but you never know..). So now we only have four eggs to see us through the week - we used four in a salad for dinner, and four in the baking..
For dinner I made a rice-based salad using the brown rice I bought to try, oh, about six months ago now. I only have enough of our favourite basmati for two meals, and they are already planned out for later in the week, so brown it was. And the girls loved it, what do you know? Well, except for Posy, but then she doesn't like anything. She appears to live on air.
So that is this week's project. It might even save $160 (I work on a budget of about $40 per person, per week. There are only four of us this week, as The Man is away). It might not be that much saved, because I will have to stock up next week, but I tell you, nothing will be wasted here, and I won't be indulging in my usual 'extra ingredient' supermarket dash.
Would anyone like to join in the fun? Have any of you tried this before? Please let me know in the comments:)