All Good Things.

24 Sep

Must come to an end.

And this, sadly, includes Seven Deadly Divas. I’m not going to go into the whos or whys of it too much beyond “real life kicked the ladies’ collective asses”. Health, school, moves, kids, and work malaise made the blog unsustainable. As such, if you want to catch up with the divas, might I suggest checking out their personal blogs? There might not be new articles every day, but between the ten of us? Twelve of us? We’re bound to entertain you sooner or later.

Thanks for stopping by, thanks for reading, and thanks for contributing to a fantastic nine months.

Cooking with Mother Hubbard – Breakfast and the Leftovers

21 Sep

This is Part 3 of a series on frugal/budget cooking. Here are parts 1 and 2!

Old Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard
To get her poor dog a bone
When she got there, the cupboard was bare
And so the poor little dog got none!

Except now Mother Hubbard has a menu plan and a stocked cupboard, so give the dog a treat and make dinner! This week we’ll look at leftovers and healthy breakfasts/snacks.

Dear Anna, you say, I’m just one person! What will I do with a meal set up to feed FOUR!?

Ok, that’s easy. This advice goes for both single person kitchens and people cooking for two.

When you make a meal, make the WHOLE MEAL.

When you’re done, pack up the leftovers.

If you take leftovers for lunch, put them in individual serving containers in the fridge. Try to stack all of them together, so you don’t have a stack of four white ceramic containers of “mystery lunch”. While Mystery Lunch can be fun in the right mindset, if one member of your household has a food allergy (gluten) and the other doesn’t (SSH) it can make for an awkward lunch moment.

(Don’t ask, just learn, remember? Also, I highly suggest, if you have a food-allergy-segregated-household, invest in containers with two different colored lids. Then your whatever-free eater can always see what’s safe.)

If you don’t take leftovers for lunch (you’re not eating out every day while on a budget, right?), you should STILL invest in individual serving containers… only instead of putting them in the fridge, you will put ONE in the fridge and the rest in the freezer. Add them to your HAVE IT list on the marking white board.

This allows you to double your money – after cooking seven dinners, you’ll have at least seven dinners in the freezer, and you can go a whole week without cooking! Keep at least a few days worth of soup in the freezer as well. This is miraculous if you happen to get the flu that your coworker so generously shared with the whole office.

Also, if you’re only cooking for one person, I suggest planning for four full dinners every week, and you then eat leftovers on other nights.

This DOES involve some thinking about leftovers.

I know, some people just don’t eat them, but throwing away food is throwing away money, and you CAN eat leftovers safely.

The first step is ALWAYS put food away.

Always. Do not invite Sam and Ella or any of their relatives into your kitchen. While I’ll do a whole series on food prep another time, when it comes to food that is already prepared, this means do not let the food sit out on the counter. Let it cool while you eat, and then it MUST go into the fridge or freezer.

In fact, I usually divvy up the food when I’m first serving it. I make a plate for me, a plate for SSH, and then the rest gets put into containers for leftovers in the fridge. RIGHT THEN. This also prevents either of us going nutso on a meal and eating three people’s worth of dinner because we had a shitty day at work. If we’re still hungry, the food is there, but there’s an extra step (having to reheat it) that prevents rampant potato binging. *

Part of this step is also eating the leftovers before they turn into science experiments. I try to do a fridge sweep every week before I go shopping, since I’m in there to make sure I have mustard (or whatever) anyway. Bring things to the front that need to be eaten, and anything that looks questionable needs to get tossed.

Regardless of frugality, when in doubt, throw it out. It is more sensible to toss a $3 lunch than it is to miss two days of work because you can’t leave the bathroom due to food poisoning.

Step two is thinking about your meals from a leftovers point of view.

If chopped mushrooms get yucky after 2 days in the fridge (they do), only chop enough mushrooms for today and leave the rest whole. Same thing goes for putting dressing on salads. Only put dressing on salad you’re going to eat right now. It takes 30 seconds to chop up two mushrooms for your leftovers or toss tomorrow’s salad in vinaigrette tomorrow, but yucky slimy mushrooms are, as they say, NOT good eats.  A little planning now prevents you having to throw away a perfectly good salad tomorrow because it got soggy and gross.

If you’re packing salads to take for lunch, some wee plastic resealable containers are a good investment. Fill one with salad dressing, seal it up, and toss it (sealed) into the container with your salad. Add a fork, and poof! Instant salad pack! (And to think, you’d pay $4 for that at the store)

As for the rest of your food, breakfasts can be pretty simple.

  • Fruit: I like bananas (I need the potassium), especially with almond or peanut butter.
  • Juice: Frozen orange juice is cheaper, but usually I just stick to tea and buy the GOOD orange juice for special occasions.
  • Cereal: Cereal isn’t cheap unless you’re buying oatmeal, but many/most off brands are actually made by the same company. If you’re OK with the idea, try a few bulk brands and see!
  • Eggs: Making eggs every morning can be a pain in the butt and take a lot of time… or you can make egg muffins (8 eggs makes 12 muffins = six breakfasts, takes 30 seconds to microwave) and be a winner!

If you’re eating light at lunch, I highly recommend eating a breakfast with some protein in it. My favorite by far is the egg muffins with a banana with almond butter and a cup of tea. Good mix of vitamins, protein, carbs, and fats, and I’m not usually so ravenous before lunch that I eat something stupid.

For snacks, pretty much anything you can buy and put together yourself will be healthier than cheez-its and candy bars. Keeping some “good” snacks around is both healthy and inexpensive (though I admit, a chocolate bar is sometimes the only answer to a shitty afternoon at a cash register).

Things I like

  • Cheese – Either buy packaged string cheese (more expensive) or blocks of cheese you can cut up into chunks (less expensive) – this is best if you’re taking a lunch box, but you can also keep a labeled container in the work room fridge. Just don’t forget about it.
  • Nuts – buy in bulk. Nuts aren’t cheap, but a little goes a long way, and they’re extremely good for you (especially things like almonds, walnuts, and pecans). Keep unused nuts in the freezer so that the oils in them don’t go rancid.**
  • Fruit – anything goes here, especially if you can pack it whole. Try to stick to fruit that’s in season. Since we’re coming up on fall, that means apples, but some pears and peaches may still be good and inexpensive. Grapes and bananas are available pretty much year-round, thanks to shipping them in from far away, but berries are just icky when they travel that far.
  • Veggies with Stuff – carrots and celery are both VERY frugal, and both extremely delicious with hummus or other homemade dips. I’ll post my hummus recipe in the next post!
  • Trail Mix – Make your own – here’s my recipe! 
  • Popcorn
  • Chocolate – buy the good stuff, break it into squares. Eat just one square with another snack from the list. If nothing else, Hershey’s makes Special Dark bars in a handy snack size.

If you’ve got a desk, keeping one of the shelf-stable snack staples on hand will help avoid a trip to the vending machine, where you’ll spend $1.50 on some cheap processed carbs, artificial coloring, and sugar.

Usually with snacking, it’s all about eating what’s there to eat. Convenience is great – so take the time to plan your OWN convenience foods.

Assemble cut carrots and celery at the beginning of the week when you make hummus, and have a variety of food containers around to make grabbing them easy. Once again, keeping a budget and being healthy can go together if you’re willing to put in a little planning and forethought. Like with all other aspects of food, snacking is healthier and more frugal if you make stuff yourself than it is if you’re constantly paying for it at the vending machine.

*Do not accuse SSH of rampant potato binging. That would be me. Put me with potatoes, and I will eat until I’m sick. It’s not pretty.
**Insert nut jokes here.
***Breakfast and the Leftovers sounds like a really terrible band.

Audio Book Magic

19 Sep

Unwelcome Change

I grew up with paper books, flipping pages and reading words. The thought of having someone read TO me has been distasteful for a long time. What if I wanted to go back and re-read a particular section? What if I wanted to skim through some boring bits to get to the good stuff? What would I DO while listening? I imagined myself sitting on the couch, hands held awkwardly as I tried to figure out what the hell to do with them.

I love the ACT of reading. I don’t view an audiobook as a shortcut – a great way to avoid having to squint at words and flip pages. Instead, it seems a hindrance to the way I typically enjoy a book. Some OTHER person injecting themselves into my reading time and inflecting the story with THEIR interpretation just feels … awkward. An uninvited guest at a dinner table, so to speak.

However, I don’t have as much time for reading these days as I used to. Ah, the golden days of high school, when responsibilities were pretty much insignificant and days stretched before me without things like work and bills and cooking and cleaning to gobble up my free time.

Audio Books of Yore

Friends told me how much they loved audio books. How they allowed for books to be consumed while doing other tasks (such as commuting or cleaning or cooking or even working in a quiet enough environment).

I tried a few only to immediately dislike swapping tapes or cds every hour or so. The cds would be scratched or the tapes not rewound.

I discarded the notion and simply savored my reading time where I could steal it.

Recently, though, I tried again and found that swapping cds was a small price to pay for an audiobook’s company on a long car drive.

Audio Books of Now

Then a librarian showed me their new mp3 player audio books – just plug in your own earbuds and the tiny device could be plunked down in your pocket for the duration. No cds, no tapes, no extra equipment required.

With their help, I finally read Hunger Games.

Five hours in, I finally abandoned my distrust of audio books.

Now, halfway through Poison Study on my little ipod shuffle (thank you, Audible.com!) I feel compelled to evangelize.

Audio books will never, ever replace the feel of READING. My eyes ache to seek the words the narrator is speaking, and I’m not sure I’ll ever quite get over the feeling that something is MISSING as I have a book read to me.

On the other hand, I’m READING again. Maybe not “reading” – but I am consuming stories. I am enfolded into the world of books without having to desperately carve out a few uninterrupted hours to devour a book.

There’s a magic in that. I love books, and being so far from them for so long has weighed on me.

Give Them A Chance

If you’ve discounted audio books as I did, but miss READING, please give them another chance. Libraries are free, and I know the mp3 audio book format is growing in popularity.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve left my heroine in a tree with pursuers below her. I think I can see her safe to the ground by the time I’m done shopping for groceries.

 

 

Vilify Me.

19 Sep

Well, maybe not me. Them. But then, they deserve it. When one is trapped in a car with other humans for longish periods of time, one may find themselves engaging in odd conversations. In this case, I am The One, and as The One, I was talking to Lauren about my own work and why one of my projects did it for me so much – namely The Devil’s Due. The short answer is . . . I love my villain in that book. I think I got it right. Lauren, to her credit, nodded and agreed and didn’t say anything derogatory about my portrayal of Azazel, so I’m going to take that as I AGREE, BEST FRIEND THING, THAT YOU ARE AWESOME IN FICTION and take a bow.

In the meanwhile, though, it got me thinking “What MAKES a good villain?” Complicated question, that. I think understanding the bad character’s motives is the most essential piece – why does Bad Person X act the way they do? Can I wrap my mind around their actions? I understand the concept of malevolence for the sake of malevolence (the Japanese love their Angry Ghost For No Reason thing, and the movie The Strangers did a hell of a job of making the “WE’RE EVIL JUST CAUSE WE CAN BE” thing terrifying) but I think writers have to be careful with that particular trope. It’s overdone and most of the time, done poorly. For a bad guy to really get under my/our skin, it’s good for people to understand the baddy’s head space. Mind you, we might not agree with their twisted (and often psychotic) world view, but nothing is scarier than a villain who does things for reasons we can ALMOST get behind.

Making a villain likable on some bizarre level makes them dimensional. Dimensional makes them more relatable and thus . . . much more terrifying. It makes us think about ourselves and what deep, dark, mangled little things squirm at our cores.

So I decided I’d put together a list of some of my favorite villains. I even explain why I like them so much and in some cases, why they were on the list as opposed to other villains of the same genre. Really? I just talk a lot and put a lot of pictures up. Act surprised!

15. Shere Khan, The Jungle Book

He Will Eat You On Toast

Right off the bat people are probably going to disagree with me, but that’s okay! I had to pick between Jeremy Irons’ portrayal of Scar in The Lion King and this, and I went with the 1967 villain instead of the more recent one. Why? Because I always felt that Scar took a page out of Shere Khan’s book – as in he wouldn’t have been nearly as effective without some help from an earlier bad-guy-talking-animal. Not to sound like a hipster douchebag, but SHERE KHAN DID IT FIRST sorta goes on repeat whenever I hear people talk about how awesome Scar is. I know, I know “the only thing in common is they both have English accents!” Not true. There’s a certain /style/ to the villainy that carries over. Watch both movies and do a compare and contrast. I’m pretty sure you’ll get my meaning. The Disney writers definitely looked back before they looked forward in this case. Both villains are fantastic, but I’m going to give the nod to Tony The Tiger On Roids.

14. Malcolm McDowell as Alex, A ClockWork Orange

I actually didn’t like A ClockWork Orange if I’m being totally honest. The movie was heavy handed with its message, and I found a lot of the violence done more for shock value than advancing story, but I can appreciate what a great villain Alex was. You could see that Alex enjoyed what he was doing, hurting others. He liked being powerful and seeing others afraid. He raped, beat, and stabbed those not willing to go along with his horrible ideas, and every terrible thing done fueled his next Bad Plan. He got off on being wicked, and you could tell that he’d go on like that forever if there weren’t consequences for his actions. He made being bad look SO FUN, and in making it look fun, it made him scary. It made me as a watcher question if I’d like lording fear over others, and if I would, what does that say about me?

13. Geoffrey Rush as Captain Barbossa, Pirates of the Caribbean

What A Jaunty Hat!

There is something so utterly likable about Geoffrey Rush. I don’t know if I can properly explain it, but let me put it this way – if I had a list of “people you could randomly have lunch with just because”, Geoffrey Rush would be on that list. He seems so damned approachable. And that’s why Barbossa is an amazing villain. You can get behind him. He’s funny and has as much flair as Cap’n Jack. He’s a very bad man, and yet you can forget it when he’s feeding his evil undead monkey or barking orders at his crew. There’s also a definitive creep factor to him too, though, and that’s what makes him so fantastic. I recently watched the first Pirates movie again, and was struck by how unsettling the scene is with Keira Knightly eating food at Barbossa’s table. He’s staring at her, longing all over his face. Maybe it’s because she’s a pretty girl, or maybe it’s because he misses the taste of that apple just that much. It’s intense and weird, and all because Geoffrey Rush is an amazing actor who did great things with a great character concept.

12. Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

We all learn to be afraid of the doctor’s office as a kid. The doctor wants to give us a shot, and the shot is going to hurt. The good news — at least for me anyway — was that most of the time the doctor or the nurse that treated me would give me a sticker or a lollipop afterwards. They were very nice and would pat me on the head and say I’d been very brave even if I’d thrown an enormous tantrum. Nurse Ratched would have jabbed me in the eye with the needle and then punched me in the face as a follow up. And she would have been so even keel about doing it, I never would have seen it coming. The thing that’s so UGLY about Nurse Ratched is how she never gets excitable, never gets above ten miles per hour when she’s doing her evil nurse thing. She’s so temperate it’s inhuman, and combining someone inhuman with the healthcare industry? Yeah, that’s the stuff of nightmares. She’s a little piece of doctor’s office hell.

11. Heath Ledger as The Joker, The Dark Knight

Smile!

The thing I find the most admirable about Heath Ledger’s performance in this movie is the HUGE MOUNTAIN he had to climb before he even got onto the screen, namely overcoming everyone’s admiration of Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the same character twenty years before. It’s a bit like walking into a kitchen as a new chef and being told that the old chef was Gordon Ramsay and GOOD LUCK WITH THAT. He had to play an iconic villain and put his own spin on it, and he did it beautifully. Instead of going for the campy mustache twirling of the 60’s Batman, or Nicholson’s malevolent-yet-lovable gangster clown gone wrong, Ledger made The Joker FUCKING PSYCHOTIC. He was scary. The scene where he’s threatening to cut a smile into a woman’s face at the party? Terrifying. I squirmed in my seat. He twitched and licked his lips, his eyes darted all over. He was nervous and jumpy, a makeup smeared poster child for “This is what doing too much Ritalin can and will do to you”. Fantastic villain.

10. Kevin Kline as Otto, A Fish Called Wanda

When you think of comedies, you think of the funnies associated with the plot line, not necessary the plot. You also don’t tend to think too much about the villain giving the good guys all the trouble. Then there’s Kevin Kline. A Fish Called Wanda is a hysterical movie — one of my favorites — with a stellar ensemble cast, and yet if you ask everyone who they loved the most after the movie, it’s not those Monty Python guys they talk about. It’s Kevin Kline as the assassin. He won an Oscar for his portrayal of Wanda’s other lover and it was well-deserved. Not only was he funny, he was also believably dangerous. It’s not too often that you’ll slap a comedic bad guy alongside the likes of Nurse Ratched, but I have no compunction about doing so with this particular pick.

9. Daniel-Day Lewis as Bill The Butcher, Gangs of New York

Daniel Day-Lewis is one of those actors everyone hates working with. He pretty much becomes whoever or whatever he is playing, to the point he probably ran around the set of Gangs wielding sharp objects and threatening to shank the other actors. In this case (and admittedly in most cases – the guy’s amazing) it worked beautifully. Bill the Butcher is a racist asshole who runs the town, who’s more than willing to cut anyone and anything down to maintain his control. Those who are stupid enough to cross him die horrible, painful deaths. And yet. And yet those he cares for he’s overly kind to, like he’s trying to make up for his atrocities by loving his inner circle THAT much. The thing about Gangs that’s so brilliant, though, is right as you’re about to get behind Bill the Butcher and say “ahh hell, he’s not so bad” Bill does something so savage and bloody, you recoil and wonder what the fuck you were thinking. But for a few minutes? You start to believe he’s a great guy, and that’s what makes him so frightening.

8. Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance, The Shining

HEEEERE'S A CLICHE!

If you’ve ever read Stephen King’s book, Jack Torrance is something of a tragic character. He’s a flawed bum just like you or me who made some bad decisions, but he wants to make it right. He wants to turn a corner on the bad and get back on the straight and narrow, and he takes this job at The Overlook to do just that. How could he know it was a haunted hotel? The beauty of King’s text is that Jack’s decline is so slow, it’s painful to watch. He’s besieged by his surroundings and it breaks down all of those good intentions. The remarkable thing about Jack Nicholson’s performance, then, is that he managed to hint at this while staying brutally intense throughout. You can see him teetering on that dark precipice from the beginning. Without having a really good reason to say so, you just know from five minutes in things are going to go badly for this guy, and it makes you uneasy from the onset.

7. Kevin Spacey as . . . Oh Fuck. Just Pick Something.

Except Lex Luthor because that movie sucked. Anyway, Kevin Spacey is amazing. We all know this. The problem, then, is which villain do I put on the list? Do I put the serial killer from Se7en? I certainly want to. That movie made me feel dirty watching it. I one hundred percent bought into Spacey’s portrayal as John Doe, the religious zealot trying to point out human flaws with crimes embodying the seven deadly sins. When Spacey’s sitting in the back seat of the car talking about wrath and the wrath crime has yet to be discovered by the unsuspecting cops, there’s almost too much tension. You know whatever it is, it’s going to be awful just like the last few crimes. Conversely, do I put The Usual Suspects on this list? Cause he deserves kudos for that, too. Or, wait, he was in . . . fuck it. Kevin Spacey rocks.

6. Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa, Inglorious Basterds

Trying to pick a Tarantino villain for the list was hard. There’s Bill from Kill Bill, and Mr. Blonde from Reservoir Dogs. There’s bad guys galore in Pulp Fiction and Stuntman Mike from Deathproof. In the end, though, I went for Hans Landa. First off, he’s a Nazi, so the likelihood of us relating to this character is slim to none. The thing about Waltz’a portrayal of Landa, though, is that he’s so bon vivant about it, like waking up and reporting in to the SS is a delightful task and la-tee-da. He’s such a casual character, his evil so off the cuff it’s bizarre to watch. Where other villains brood and psycho their way into storylines, Hans Landa waltzes, smokes a cigar, and smiles. It’s the most blase portrayal of a homicidal douchebag I’ve ever seen, and that’s what I think works about it.

5. Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes, Misery

COCKADOODY.

She doesn’t really swear, she smiles too much, and her home is warm and inviting. Sort of. She’s a huge fan of your work and she’s more than willing to nurse you back to health while you recover from a terrible car accident. She’ll fluff your pillows and cook you soup. She’s also a fucking psycho who’s going to hobble your ass when you try to leave her house. Kathy Bates takes a terrifying character from literature and breathes life into her. It’s Pygmalion from Hell. I remember seeing the movie for the first time, laying eyes on Kathy Bates, and going YES. YES, THAT. Because she nailed it. She took Stephen King’s horrible creation and made it her own. She became Annie Wilkes and turned her into an iconic figure of feminine terror. Your Old Aunt Gerdy has gone around the bend, and she’s going to beat you to death with her collection of Boston Terrier Statuettes, and you won’t know if you should scream or thank her for the money she sent in your Christmas card last year.

4. Maleficent, Sleeping Beauty

“But Hillary, where’s the Evil Queen from Snow White?” Okay look, it was a toss up. They are cut from the same cloth. They’re two evil bitches who want to kill a young innocent girl for selfish, horrible reasons. Let me tell you why I picked Maleficent over The Wicked Queen. One, she turns into a dragon. Two, SHE TURNS INTO A DRAGON. Three, SHE TURNS INTO A FUCKING DRAGON, GUYS. A more serious answer? The voice acting on Maleficent is spectacular, plus she’s the first Disney character to curse (she actually says the word Hell, and that was a big deal back in the day.) She’s similar to The Wicked Queen, but I feel like this is a perfected version. Where Shere Khan and Scar were a situation of “derivative do-over”, I feel like this is an instance where they looked back and actually improved upon an earlier version, and that’s saying something. The Wicked Queen was pretty bad ass. Oh, did I mention MALEFICENT TURNS INTO A DRAGON?

3. Margaret Hamilton as The Wicked Witch Of The West, The Wizard of Oz

I'LL GET YOU, MY PRETTY. AND YOUR LITTLE DOUCHEBAG, TOO.

You knew she was coming. And what can I say about her really? As a wee tot, I’d sit for the annual television showing of The Wizard of Oz despite knowing I was going to shit Twinkies the moment the Wicked Witch came on screen. Her cackle, her evil trees, her bony fuckin’ hands . . . she scared the crap out of me. Now that I’m older, I’m not afraid anymore, but I can’t help being impressed by a woman who hires dung-flinging aerial simians to do her dirty work. That’s clever, way before its time. And, if we’re being really fair here, The Wicked Witch had a pretty good reason to get her bitch on with Dorothy – Dorothy stole her dead sister’s shoes. If I had a sister and someone took her cool stuff without asking me first? I’d be pretty furious, too.

2. Darth Vader (Vit Your Little Boots And Cape), Star Wars

If you clicked that link, I bet you want to smack me right now. Sorry! Anyway, Darth Vader’s iconic despite being a pasty-faced robo-man. The interesting part about him? The actor doesn’t do a whole lot beneath the mask. It’s all about the James Earl voice acting. It’s stellar. It’s exactly what you need it to be – dark, brooding, evil, and yet refined too. I’m not a Star Wars fan in general — PLEASE DON’T HIT ME HAMMARYN — but I can understand why it’s got the followers it has, and I can also understand why Vader set the bar for villains in the Sci Fi/Fantasy film genre. (Sidenote: I almost put a picture of Rick Moranis up from Spaceballs, but I figured someone would sic a rabid raccoon on me, so . . . idea banished. For now.)

1. Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, The Silence Of The Lambs

Someone told me a story once, I think it may have been my mother, that when this movie went into the cinemas, Anthony Hopkins decided to go watch the audience to see their reaction to it first hand. I don’t recall a lot of hoopla about the launch of Silence, it was more a darling after it won every Oscar ever, so it didn’t get massive attention and massive release. Anyway, Hopkins goes into the movie theater, sits in the back, and watches people watching his movie. When it was over, people were gushing. Sir Hopkins tapped one gentleman on the shoulder, asked him how he liked it, and the man shrieked and /ran away/. I’d have done the same damned thing. Lecter has a casual approach to his badness (a bit of what I talked about with Hans Landa). He’s a refined gentleman who just so happens to FUCKING MURDER PEOPLE AND EAT THEM. He’s smarter than you on every possible level, so he’s the ultimate predator, which I think is what makes him so bloody terrifying. He was also given some of the best lines in a movie ever. “So I hate his liver with some fava beans . . . ” You can finish it, can’t you? I know I can. It’s going to take a lot to convince me that Lecter isn’t the best of the bad when it comes to movie villains.

*****

So, have at the list. What did you like, not like? What would you change or add? I’d be interested to see which villains stuck with you and why! AUDIENCE PARTICIPATION TIME!

I Admit It.

17 Sep

It’s a filler video. Two of the divas are off gallivanting this Saturday. Hopefully my health holds out! Wee!

In the meanwhile? Enjoy.

Cooking with Mother Hubbard – The Grocery Store

16 Sep

This is Part 2 of a series on frugal/budget cooking. You can read Part 1 here.

Old Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard
To get her poor dog a bone
When she got there, the cupboard was bare
And so the poor little dog got none!

And then Mother Hubbard went to the grocery store.

Last week, we looked at planning meals from a budget standpoint. This week, let’s take that menu and turn it into some actual produce.

Step 1 is to look at your list of recipes (print them out, it’s easier, I promise) and go through your pantry/fridge and find out what you need. Make a list of what you will have to buy, noting especially that you need THREE onions, not just “onion”. (Don’t ask me how I know that this is important, just learn from my mistakes…) The printouts will come in handy later, as keeping a binder of recipes in your kitchen is a good practice in general. I use a big 2” binder with plastic sleeves, to avoid splattering tomato sauce all over my recipes. If I make something, and it’s awesome, it goes in the binder. If I make something and it sucks? The recipe goes in the recycling. (Sometimes the food goes in the compost too)

Once you have your list, have a snack.

You will be less tempted to buy crap if you’re not starving at the store.

And now, off to the store! (Do not forget your list)

Make the rounds of the store – most items on your list should be on the outside edges, since you’ll be doing most of the actual cooking yourself. Other than produce, dairy, and meat, you’ll probably only need to stop by the freezer aisle for vegetables and the “staples” aisle for rice, pasta, breakfast cereal, and baking stuff.

Do not be tempted by the things on the end-cap at the grocery aisles – those are usually there to BE tempting, but aren’t always a good bargain. However, if you have freezer space, buying an extra pack of meat that happens to be on sale (or close to its sell-by date and reduced) means you can get a really cheap meal out of it next week. Just don’t forget to put it in the freezer IMMEDIATELY once you get home.

If you have a little extra cash to spare on your trip, consider making a double batch of something (like lasagne or a casserole) that you can freeze (labeled, please). That way you’ll have a few aces up your sleeve in a later emergency.

The biggest waste of money you can have when it comes to food is anything that spoils before you can eat it. This can be avoided by sticking to your meal plan and by using things like lettuce and mushrooms earlier in the week.  Frozen vegetables are a great option for things like broccoli, green beans, stir fry mix, and corn. If you’re not sure your meat will still be edible, put it in the freezer and defrost it in the microwave or the day before in the fridge.

Also, choosing “shelf stable” fresh produce can reduce the chance of having to toss a science experiment at the end of the week – think apples, potatoes, bananas, oranges, red peppers, onions, garlic instead of apricots, peaches, cucumbers, and lettuce. Keeping as much as you can in the produce drawer of the fridge will help too. Just don’t put the tomatoes or onions in the fridge. Onions will spoil faster, and tomatoes will lose all their flavor if you keep them in the icebox. Also, don’t keep your apples next to the onions and potatoes. Apples, as well as other fruits like peaches, emit ethylene gas (a ripening agent) that will make your onions and potatoes go all gross on you.

And now, a word about coupons.

Coupons are pretty cool. We’ve all seen the advertisements about the women who go to the grocery store and buy six carts of stuff for $3. This is an exciting part-time or full-time job. (That’s the part they don’t tell you on the commercials) While it DOES make sense to shop sales and use coupons, if you’ve got a 40 hour a week job (or more), spending all of your free time clipping coupons is… well, it’s slightly more exciting than watching paint dry. Also, a lot of those deals are made by purchasing in mass quantities.

Instead, I recommend checking out your store’s weekly flyer (they’ll have it on display as you go in, so don’t subscribe to the newspaper for it) and also checking at the website Hip2Save. This website posts list of coupons that may or may not apply to you, but it’s worth a scan on things like personal care items, toilet paper, and some food items. Usually it’s all set up so you just print off the coupon and go!

Being truly coupon savvy is more “Budget Cooking 102″, though, and Mother Hubbard is pretty obviously in the 101 class, so for now stick to using the posted circulars at the store as well as being sensible about deals.

Remember – it’s not a deal if you didn’t intend to buy it or won’t use it. (Buying meat that’s on half price sale so you can freeze it? Good deal. Buying 10 packs of store brand honey buns that are already looking stale? Not a good deal.)

Once you’ve made the rounds of the store with your list, READ THE LIST AGAIN. Especially if you’re using public transportation or bumming a ride from a friend, having to make a 7pm trip to the grocery because you forgot eggs (and really, you can’t substitute for eggs in a lot of recipes) will make you feel particularly silly if you have EGGS written on your list and just didn’t double check.

Then head home, and get everything put away!

Note: If you buy extras of staples (rice, lentils, meats), I highly recommend keeping two marking white boards. Ok maybe three, but hear me out.

  1. First board goes on the freezer. On it, you write down any meats you buy that you’re saving for next week. Instant menu planning quick list! (Also, you’ll put frozen meals on there, but that’s another post). This is your HAVE IT list.
  2. Second board goes somewhere REALLY OBVIOUS. On it, you write down anything you need. Toothpaste, potty paper, dog food (*sidelong glance at Mother Hubbard*) butter, ketchup, pickles, whatever. This is your NEED IT list.
  3. Third board (if you need one) goes in the pantry, to let you know about any staples that you’ve stored somewhere else. If you don’t store staples elsewhere, you don’t need this one.

These boards become your go-to lists before you go-to the store (har har).

When you get home from the store, erase anything you purchased from the NEED IT list. Add anything you’re putting in the freezer to your HAVE IT list.

Use a post it note to write down the menu items on the fridge (so you know your options) and cross them off as you make them. The recipes go in the front pocket of your recipe binder. (Remember, if they suck, throw them away. Don’t make one recipe failure into a repeated recipe failure!)

And now, you’re all stocked for a week (or even maybe TWO!) for meals that you can make, some of which will hopefully be in your slow cooker, and all of which should be delicious!

In the next part of our adventure with Mother Hubbard, we’ll take a look at leftovers, cooking for just one (or just two), and the “healthy snacks and lunches” part of this whole deal. After that, I’ll hook you up with some of my favorite, easy and cheap recipes.

Cooking with Mother Hubbard – Planning Meals

13 Sep

Old Mother Hubbard went to the cupboard
To get her poor dog a bone
But when she got there, the cupboard was bare
And so the poor little dog got none

We’ve all been there. It’s the end of the month, every bill you have is due, and the pay period ends on the 3rd of NEXT month so you’re scraping and pinching to make enough money to both eat AND pay rent by the 1st while still hopefully having clean underpants.

And really? Ramen noodles are not good for you. You can turn them into decent food if you have to, but that might cover you for ONE night – or even a week if you absolutely have to.

What if your budget only allows a couple of shoestrings for food all the time?

The goal is to be able to eat cheap food without suffering from a) malnutrition b) rampant weight gain or c) utter boredom*. I mean, you COULD live off ramen noodles and “reduced for clearance” chocolate cakes at the bakery, but after a week you’d feel like ass. And while you CAN eat nothing but beans, rice, and off-brand dry cereal, after awhile that gets incredibly boring too.

Also, you might get scurvy. Yarr.

So we’re going on an adventure to take you from Mother Hubbard’s to… well, I won’t say Martha Stewart, but at least happily well fed and without having to starve your dog. This week, we’ll get started with choosing budget friendly recipes. The next installment of Mother Hubbard’s Cooking Adventure will get you through the grocery store and teach you how to avoid some really common pitfalls. Then, we’ll take a look at leftovers, cooking for just one (or just two), and the “healthy snacks and lunches” part of this whole deal. After that, I’ll hook you up with some of my favorite, easy and cheap recipes.

ONWARD!

First, some resources:

  • Hie thyself to Budget Bytes – a cooking blog entirely devoted to easy, delicious, cheap recipes. Included are step by step recipe directions AND a cost breakdown of each item.
  • Check out the Hillbilly Housewife’s Recipes too – while I don’t always agree with everything else on her site, she’s got some gems for saving money – especially if you’re willing to do some prep work first.
  • Also, I love The Stone Soup Blog – which is really a blog about cooking DELICIOUS food, but also has a $5 dinner section and a lot of good information on making deliciousness go a long way (her goal is 5 ingredients, 10 minutes to dinner).
  • Allrecipes.com is another great resource, and I like to look at their menu deals/articles on the right hand side of the page. Often it’s enough to get a few new ideas and start the menu ball rolling.

The first step toward eating cheaply – especially if you’re cooking for more than just yourself – is to really evaluate all the convenience foods you buy. I don’t mean grabbing a bag of pasta and a can of spaghetti sauce (yes, I said can, more on that later) as much as I do grabbing a frozen, salt laden entree that won’t taste very good and will leave your ankles begging for mercy from water retention tomorrow.

Under the sub heading “evaluate convenience foods” goes “evaluate restaurant foods”. You can almost always eat for less money and more nutrition if you make food yourself. Yes, some nights there is nothing else to do but call for pizza delivery, but that $15 can go a LOT farther. You’re essentially paying for time in those situations, and they WILL happen. Don’t sweat it too much, just do your best to plan for other options. I try to keep one meal in my freezer – even if it’s just making a double batch of soup and freezing it – so that if it comes down to it, there’s one dinner stocked away that I just have to heat up.

In fact, that’s kind of step 2 – once you’re looking at the cost vs. time of your convenience foods, start planning meals.

This is the part of budget cooking that I hate, and I’m not too proud to admit that I kind of suck at it.  Part of my sucking at it is my desire to constantly be making new recipes. Going to the grocery store is, in some ways, a creative experience for me. I want to walk in and go OOh! Eggplants! and buy some even if they’re stupid expensive, because all of a sudden I’ve got an idea for a stuffed eggplant recipe.

While fun, this is NOT the way to save money at the grocer’s.

Instead, pick out a few meals that you like making or that seem interesting. If you need ideas, check out the recipe blogs above, as well as thinking back to food that you might have eaten as a kid, and keep an eye on the Divas, as I’ll be posting some good recipes as well.

Both SSH and I grew up eating spaghetti with meat sauce one night a week (His was every Thursday, mine rotated around). That plus some steamed frozen (green vegetable of choice) and you’ve got a solid, inexpensive meal, especially if you cook with the spaghetti sauce that comes in cans (Hunt’s is the brand I usually find) instead of the more expensive stuff in jars. Bonus Tip: If you have extra sauce, freeze it for next time!

You’ll want to choose meals that make use of an expensive ingredient sparingly, using it for flavor (like a really snazzy cheese, or olives, or sesame seeds) while being made up mostly of staples – whole grains and vegetables. You might need to start thinking of meats as more of a side dish, since meat is VERY expensive – even consider eating vegetarian one night a week! Splitting a chicken breast into two servings, but making up for it with delicious roasted potatoes with sauteed onions and some steamed vegetables will not feel like you’re depriving yourself of a decent meal, but it dramatically reduces the cost per plate of that meal.

For a week with just SSH and I, I usually plan 5-6 dinners for 7 days, with one day for leftovers (most leftovers get eaten for lunches), plus breakfasts and some staple snacks (pretzels, fruit, cheese, hummus).

This is the point in our little adventure with Mother Hubbard where I recommend that you spend $20 on a slow cooker.

For 1-2 people, a 3 quart slow cooker will almost always be enough, for 4+ you’ll want a 6 quart one. Some recipes will do better in the smaller size (I have both, but that’s mostly because I got my 3 quart one in a deal with SSH when I signed on for this marriage thing).

Given options, you want one with a removable inner crock (so you can put stuff in it the night before, stuff it in the fridge, and then just put it in the “pot” part and turn it on in the morning), and a programmable option is really nice, especially if you want it to only cook for 6 hours and then just click back to “warm”.

Slow cookers are pretty awesome, and they are NOT just for stew/soup. While you CAN make an awesome chili in one, you can also make delicious sour cream and chive chicken (cook up some rice, and poof! dinner!), pulled pork “barbecue”, and even cook a whole chicken. Because one of the biggest factors in throwing up your hands and ordering takeout is “I’m exhausted and I don’t have time to cook”, the crock pot can be a real lifesaver.

Coming home from work to a kitchen filled with the smells of a delicious pot roast isn’t bad either.

As you’re planning your meals, pick at least one new thing that you’ve not made before.

This will do a number of things, but mostly it’s to keep you from being utterly bored. Food is awesome. It’s one of the biggest pleasures in life, especially a nose-to-the-grindstone, workin’-for-the-man kinda life that leads to shoestring grocery budgets. Eating a variety of foods is important, both for your mental health AND your physical health.

And you really CAN eat well, even on a budget.

*True facts: you get more nutritional value out of food you enjoy eating. Who knew? 

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