All posts by mindelei

About mindelei

Some people would say I’m a foodie, others may not. I’m a bit of a juxtaposition: I like slow food, but I crave fast food done well.

Top Cheap-o Ways to Eat Like a Foodie Without the Expense

Just because you lack a serious dining budget, doesn’t mean that you have to eat like you barely have two pennies to rub together. Sure we’d all like to be able to eat out at the latest exotic restaurant any -or even every- night of the week, but that’s not really an option for all of us.  Even if it isn’t a monetary thing, you may not have the access to restaurants that serve some of the foods that you’ve been craving.  Regardless of the reasoning, I’m here to tell you how you can make the pricing more palatable to your budget.

Build Your Budget
Build Your Budget by eric731 on Flickr

GET TO KNOW YOUR LOCAL FARMERS’ MARKET(S)

It surprises me that there is a myth circulating that produce and other goods at the farmers’ markets are so expensive. Honestly, in all the different places I’ve lived around the country, I have yet to find one that is priced far above and beyond that of the local grocer. Sometimes the prices are comparable, but more often than not they are less expensive at the farmers’ markets. For me, spotting heirloom tomatoes at the local farmers market is such a thrill! Not just because the prices are lower, but because these fruits have just been plucked from the vine. If that alone doesn’t impress you then think about this: if you buy seasonal veggies in bulk then you can freeze or possibly even can them for use in the off season. This will save you from buying imported veggies during the winter months.

Farmer's Market Veggies
Farmer's Market Veggies by mindelei on Flickr

FIND THE ETHNIC MARKETS IN YOUR AREA

Granted, there aren’t any ethnic markets in my area… but I still have a secret: when Nigel and I drive down to Holland, MI we are always sure to stop at the Vietnamese grocer, Huynh Plaza.  We can buy all the ingredients that we need for Thai and Vietnamese dishes (plus Chinese, Korean, etc.) while we are there. More amazingly, it’s at a fraction of the cost of the ingredients that we can find locally. We often purchase canned coconut milk for 69 cents or cans of single-use pre-mixed curry powders for 59-89 cents each. This is a great savings when you consider that the “cheap” (and lesser quality) coconut milk at the big box stores ranges from $1.29-2.99 per can and that the jars of curry powder (only red or green and not as flavorful) are at least $2.50 and then have to hang around in the fridge for awhile.  Not to mention that we also have the option of picking out new ingredients that we haven’t used or maybe even seen before and don’t have to feel so guilty for experimenting because the price is so much less.

Thuan Phat Supermarket
Thuan Phat Supermarket by mikecogh on Flickr

KNOW WHEN TO GO GENERIC

I have to admit there have been several times that I’ve been pleasantly surprised when using a no-name ingredient. As you might imagine, there have also been plenty of other times when you couldn’t have paid me to try it twice. Experimenting is good. It might just save you some dough like it has me. Of course you may not be able to find a generic version of Red Leicester cheese, but you can certainly find Extra Sharp Cheddar in the Great Value Brand at Walmart. Yes, I know it was near sacrilege that I just typed that, but it’s true. The Walmart generic does taste better than either Kraft or Sargento. Who knew? I tried it in desperation once and I haven’t looked back.

It’s also not a bad idea to ask yourself why you use a particularly high-priced ingredient. Believe it or not, there was a time when we used to buy some rather expensive extra virgin olive oil (or EVOO as Rachel Ray prefers to call it). After years of throwing money at the first pressing, we thought about what we actually did with it. Often it was simply used as an ingredient or as an addition to the pasta water to keep it from boiling over. Now we purchase plain old olive oil (yes, even generic) in a small bottle to have on hand when we need it.

Same Old Brand
Same Old Brand by i am riding on the screen name carousel on Flickr

CHECK OUT THE DISCOUNT/SCRATCH & DENT STORES

I know this may sound a bit odd, but don’t be afraid to check out the foods at Big Lots!, TJ Maxx, or your local scratch and dent food store.  I like to head over to a Big Lots! because they tend to get foods in from all over the country and international items that I might not be able to buy from the other stores nearby me.  You can find some nice imported oils, pastas, chocolates, etc. in these types of stores. Just keep an eye out for the expiration dates (if that’s a concern for you).

I’m also lucky to have two scratch and dent food stores within a 25-45 minute drive from where I live. I don’t shop at either store regularly, but when I do: look out! Not every item is dented, nor are most out of date. It’s ridiculous the amount of money you can save at these stores if you look (usually 50-70% below retail). Another amazing benefit that you might find if you look: one of our local scratch & dents also sells bulk spices! They come in several sizes prepackaged by the store owners at a fraction of the price that I find them at other grocers in the area. I just save my spice containers, clean them, and reuse them. This also saves me from having to recycle or toss out packaging. That’s a big bonus for mother earth too!

Price Cut
Price Cut by -AX- on Flickr

MAKE YOUR PROTEINS MORE COST EFFECTIVE

One of the biggest expenses at the store is meat.  If you can’t afford to go-in with a friend on a quarter of a cow or half of a pig, watch for those great sales! There’s no shame in purchasing family sized packs to get the sale price and then package them up for the freezer once you get home.

Feel free to shop around too. You shouldn’t feel the need to remain faithful to a single store. Keep in mind that there are plenty of sale papers available for perusal online. If you prefer the physical hunt, you can still find several that come through snail mail or others that can even be found in the weekend paper. If you’re really good, you will even manage to “double dip” by hitting a sale and using store or manufacture’s coupons as well. Heck, if you can “triple dip” and use all three – more power to you!  Also, don’t be afraid to look at the smaller stores in your area. I recently noticed that a small grocer called Best Choice Market (which carries many upscale and specialty foods) has the best price in the area on ground beef (sometimes up to a $1.00/lb. cheaper).

Keep in mind that protein doesn’t always mean meat. Don’t be afraid to add tofu (be sure not to use silken unless you’re making a dessert) to your meal. It’s more cost effective than other proteins and can really soak up the flavor.  Another good idea is to use your protein as an ingredient in a larger dish. In our house, rather than serve everyone (Nigel, my mother, and me) our own breast halves, we can slice up a single breast half and make a stir-fry or a pasta dish that will feed the three of us. You may remember that back-in-the-day they used to call this stretching.

At the Butcher's
At the Butcher's by Suzanna on Flickr

SEARCH OUT A REAL DEAL

If you’re looking for beautiful baked goods and don’t have the time or the talent to make your own, you can often get some excellent deals at the end of the work day.  Many bakeries will discount their goods or outright give them away. If you’re really adventurous, you could save even more money by going to a local farm and partaking in the U-Pick programs that so many offer when seasonal fruits and vegetables are available. In addition, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA’s) and Local Food Cooperatives (Co-ops) may wave fees or reduce the prices that you pay for volunteering to help out at the store or farm. Of course you can also take part in a community garden, but if that’s not available or would be too much of a time commitment, find out where there are public fruit trees in your area ripe for the picking!  Free is definitely the best four letter word out there.

Grandfather's Harvest
Grandfather's Harvest by andyket on Flickr

So there you have it! Just a few ideas to make a positive impact on your pocketbook and still enjoy fantastic foods at home.  If you have additional ideas or would like to share an experience that has worked for you, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below.

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Pierogies Gone Wild!

While I wouldn’t say that our closets are full of skeletons, I can say that there are plenty of family secrets to go around. A big one is that my maternal grandfather’s side of the family is actually Russian. While this may not be a surprise to you, there are many members of our family who are still not aware of this fact. For whatever political reason at the time, when our family first came over in the early part of the 20th century they pretended to be Polish. I’m not sure if this ruse was underway when they first lived in Pennsylvania or if they waited until they arrived just south of Manistee in Michigan. To this day Manistee has a solid population with Polish heritage. My only question: where are all the Polish restaurants to go with these people?

Platter of Pierogies

In an effort to fit into the area, my grandfather’s family not only learned to speak the language, but they also learned how to prepare many spectacular dishes as well. Today I’d like to share a few of our family secrets (be they ours or borrowed as the case may be) as well as some improvements that we’ve made along the way.  Ever since I can remember, I helped my mother and grandmother make the perogies that we’ve grown to love. What most of the family doesn’t know is that after I was about eight years old, nearly every time platters (or crockpots as the case may be) of perogies were brought to a family event, I was the one who was making them  – not my grandmother. Shhh…this family secret is definitely out of the bag. Not only did I have a knack for it, but it was one less thing she had to worry about making for the meal.

The recipe for the filling goes back to my grandfather’s mother (if not further back in our family tree), the original dough recipe (which I would love to relocate) was changed in the 1980s, and my husband Nigel began making the cheese when we were living in Houston because we couldn’t find the right kind of farmer’s cheese down there. Who knew that farmer’s cheese varied across the U.S.?

Andrulis  Farmer's Cheese
Cheese Straight from Andrulis Farms in Fountain, Michigan. (Photo from their website)

Although many of you have probably only seen the potato-cheese fillings available at your local freezer, I actually don’t believe I’ve ever had one. I’m not saying it’s not authentic in some way, I’m just saying that it isn’t popular in my neck of the woods.  The farmer’s cheese that can be found in Northern Michigan is similar to a very dry cottage cheese, but it can be rather pricey!  While it is available to purchase locally, a package generally ranges from $6.99-$10.99 per pound. You can purchase Andrulis Farmer’s Cheese directly from the company in Fountain for around $5.80 per pound.  However, this is still a bit much for my frugal nature.  Fortunately, when we were living in Houston and this type of farmer’s cheese wasn’t available, Nigel came across a recipe and altered to serve our purposes.  So it will merely cost you a bit more than the price of a gallon of milk to make the cheese (oh, and a little time as well).

For those of you who aren’t quite adventurous enough to attempt cheese making (trust me, this will probably be onePerogies in the Fry Pan with Butter of the easiest cheeses that doesn’t give off a stench that you’ll ever make), or if you’re not sure that you really want to see what this farmer’s cheese is all about (it’s very mild in flavor), there are a few other fillings that are more mainstream which you might enjoy: shredded ham and cheddar cheese, pizza sauce with mozzarella and mini pepperoni or ham, or even sauerkraut.  In fact, I think the sauerkraut filling might just be Nigel’s favorite (of course, that could be because he developed the recipe himself). Regardless, you should find them pretty tasty and easier on the wallet than buying several boxes in your freezer department or heading out to a restaurant that makes them.

Below are the ingredients that you will need for to make the cheese, the filling, and the dough.

Cheese:
1 gallon of fresh whole milk
¼ cup of vinegar or lemon juice
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Cheesecloth

Filling:
2 bricks of Farmer’s Cheese (or the curd from the cheese you’ve made)
2 eggs
salt to taste
chives to taste

Dough:
2 1/2 cups flour
1/4 cup melted butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sour cream
bowl to cover
flour sifter
platter

Perogie Creation:
4″ round cookie cutter OR coffee can
Cup of water
Pot of boiling water
Frying pan (preferably cast iron with butter or margarine)

Making the Cheese:
1. Put cold milk into a non-reactive pot (enamel, stainless steel, etc.) and heat to 180F over medium-low heat while stirring constantly.
2. Once milk is at temperature remove from heat and slowly add vinegar or lemon juice while stirring.
3. Continue to stir for a few minutes until the first curds form.
4. Allow the curds and whey to sit for about half an hour, stirring every few minutes to break up the curd.
5. Strain through a cheesecloth.
6. Add salt and mix through the curds.
7. Tighten cheesecloth to remove excess whey.
8. Place in fridge suspended over a bowl. Allow to sit overnight.
9. More whey will drop into bowl overnight. Discard the whey.

Making the Filling:
1. Crumble farmer’s cheese.
2. Add chives & salt to cheese.
3. In a small bowl, beat the eggs.
4. Mix beaten eggs with cheese.

Making the Dough:
1. Sift the flour
2. Add the salt to the flour and sift again.
3. Make a hill with the flour and make a crater in the center.
4. Beat the egg in a bowl.
5. Fold the sour cream and melted butter into the beaten eggs.
6. Dump the egg mixture into the crater.
7. Work the flour/egg mixture with fingers until smooth.
8. Roll into a ball and set on a platter.
9. Cover the ball with an inverted bowl and let sit for ten minutes.

Oh…if it’s not very humid, you may need to add more wetness to the dough. Just take 1 tablespoon of milk & 1 tablespoon of sour cream, mix it together until smooth and gradually add to the dough until it’s a good consistency. On the other hand, if your dough is too wet then add a little flour a couple of tablespoons at a time.

Making the Perogies:
1. Roll out 1/3 of the dough to about 1/16″ (leaving the unused portion under the bowl).
2. Cut out as many circles as possible using the ring.
3. Put a good amount of filling into the middle of the circle (1-2 tablespoons-ish). Be sure to leave at least 1/4″ of dough around the filling.
4. Using your finger, wet the edge of the dough with water.
5. Fold closed into a half-circle and pinch the edges tight to close.
6. Place finished perogie in boiling water, it will float once it’s cooked through.
7. Once cooked through you can either fry immediately, refrigerate and fry later, or you could freeze them for later (they’ll be better if you don’t fry them prior to freezing).

*Note that you will probably need to make two batches of dough for the amount of filling that you’ll have.

Nothing Says Love Like Comfort Food from Your Childhood

As we grow up and begin to form ideas about who we are as individuals, many of those ideas are initially presented to us by our immediate family membeMy family members enjoying breakfast.rs. A big part of our lives and immediate culture are the foods we share with one another around the family dinner table.

Although I grew-up in a single-parent home, I had the pleasure of having an extended family who only lived a few hundred yards away.  I can still remember pedaling my rainbow colored bike through the woods to my grandparents’ house while balancing the two-speaker, silver “ghetto blaster” on my handle bars.  At times I had the Annie soundtrack blasting away, other times you might hear a Strawberry Shortcake book on tape, or possibly even the musical ravings of Ms. Tina Turner herself.  Regardless, I was probably singing at the top of my lungs to the plants in the garden as I biked through the area.

Thinking back on my childhood and contemplating the lives of those I have had the pleasure of rubbing shoulders with over  the years, I can’t help but wonder what exactly comfort food means to each of us.  Of course, there is the quintessential comfort food that most people probably think of when the phrase is uttered (macaroni and cheese, grandma’s meatloaf, mashed potatoes, etc.).  It makes me wonder what comes to mind for the people I’ve met from other parts of the world over the years.  Did the foreign exchange student from Ecuador miss her grandmother’s famous patacones?  Or what about the lawyer that I worked with from Nigeria?  Does she miss the rice water drink that her aunt used to make them as an after dinner treat? Are these the comfort foods of their cultures?

As I further reflected upon the idea of comfort foods, I came to realize that they are not simply something that gives a hug to our taste buds. Comfort foods are something that we hunger for on an emotional level.  Somehow they manage to give us peace of mind when the world has crashed at our feet, somehow they manage to make us feel better about whatever has us in a tizzy that day, but most importantly they provide us with a connection to all that has ever been wonderful in our lives.  Comfort foods bring us back to a time that we felt safe, a time where we could tell that everything was just as it should be, a time that requires no questioning, a time that lacks the insanity that sometimes jumps-up in front of us.  Comfort food has the ability to clarify the craziness, to help us find direction, and push us towards our passions.  Or is that just me?  Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t.

Regardless, I wanted to take a minute to share with you a recipe from my childhood that you’ve probably never heard of, let alone laid eyes on.  It might even frighten you. Okay…it probably won’t frighten you, but it might sound a little strange.  Close your eyes and… okay, keep them open (otherwise you won’t be able to continue reading this) and take a moment to let these words settle in your mind: Tuna Muffins.  I know.  It sounds strange, but they are oooooohhhhh so good!  This is one of the comfort foods of my childhood.  My grandmother found the recipe in a magazine years ago (like in the 1950s).  She made it hers and we have been eating them fairly regularly ever since.  In fact, I have to share the original recipe with you!  But don’t worry, I’ll include “our” version as well.

Tuna Muffin Recipe

The greatest thing that my grandmother ever did to this recipe was to leave the olives in the can at the store. The second greatest thing?  Trade the butter sauce in for creamed peas and mashed potatoes. Like many comfort foods, this dish is not pretty on the plate, but it is tasty in the mTuna Muffins as a Tuna Loafouth. Be sure to ladle the peas over the muffin and your mashed potatoes.  You’ll be glad you did. So what other changes have we made?  To keep with the “healthy” aspect of comfort foods, we’ve nearly doubled the cheese (although that is totally at your discretion).  I also like to add a few shakes of Mrs. Dash or Spike to the mix. I’m sure you already have a favorite mashed potato recipe (whether you add garlic or onion or even make it ahead with sour cream), so I won’t bother with giving you ours. Although I will give you the creamed pea recipe and let you know how we altered it more recently as well.

Just to give you an idea of what you can expect to see as you’re working along.  Here’s what the mixture should look like when you’re ready to puView of the Muffin Mix in Bowlt it into the muffin tin.  Note that you can use an 8×8″ pan or even a loaf pan rather than the traditional muffin tin, but you will need to increase the cooking time to about 30-35 minutes or so.  I’ve also used the mini-muffin tins (remember to reduce the cooking time to about 8-12 minutes) when creating more of an appetizer for a larger group of people (that was a great potluck we had when I was living in Houston, Texas). At this point, it merely looks like your average rice and cheese casserole dish, but trust me: there is something special about it.

It really isn’t that difficult to put together the creamed peas.  Keep in mind that they should be the consistency of a gravy.  Remember that they will also thicken as they cool, so if they’re just a little on the thin side they will turn out okay.  Trust me.

Creamed Pea Ingredients:

  • 1 regular can of peas
  • 1 small can of Peas (optional)
  • Milk  (you’re going to have to “eye” how much of this to use)
  • 2 T Flour
  • 2 T of Butter or Oil (note that the you have to be more careful with the butter as it burns more easily)
  • Pepper to taste

Once you’ve got your tuna muffins in the oven. the first thing that you need to do is begin making a roux in a sauce pan. Add the two tablespoons of flour and two tablespoons of oil (remember, you can use butter if you prefer) to your sauce pan.  It should be on a low heat.  Combine these ingrJuice from the Can of Peasedients until they are smooth.  Now, add the juice from the can of peas.  This will ensure that the “cream” portion of your peas has better flavor.  If you are so inclined, you can mush up a small can of peas (in a blender, with a mortar & pestle, or by hand using a fork) and add that in to give the “cream” portion additional flavor and more green color.  This is how Nigel has made this recipe his, but I still like it the “old fashioned” way.  Once that is well mixed, see what the consistency is.  This is when you should add your milk.  Remember that you don’t want to make the mixture too thin.  Add the peas and keep it stirring.  It should thicken as it cooks (and will definitely thicken as it cools).  If you feel it is too thin, you can always make a slurry of cornstarch and water to add into the mix to help thicken it up (although be sure your slurry is smooth, otherwise it will make your “gravy” lumpy). Add black pepper to taste (preferably freshly ground).  I will warn you, we probably use 10 grinds or so to make it a nice peppery taste. If you know me, you’d find that extremely surprising as I don’t really like a lot of pepper in anything else (but that’s the way grandma always made it).

It’s pretty easy to get everything done about the same time with this recipe.  Remember, you can always turn the oven off and let the top brown a little while your pEnjoy dinner with the familyotatoes are finishing on the stove if you need. Plus, if you’re really a fan of cheese, then you can sprinkle a bit on top and let that create a lovely brown crust.  Add a side salad and you can easily feed a small army.  So next time you sit-down to dinner with your family and feel you need a little comfort food, try the Tuna Muffins and think of my family.  You can thank me later.

Last Minute Tips for Bringing Down the Cost:

  • Don’t be afraid to go generic or buy the store brand.  We were surprised to discover that the Great Value brand of cheese at Walmart is far better tasting than either Kraft or Sargento.  Who knew?  The flavors are much more intense.
  • Shred your own cheese.  You’ll be surprised at how much farther the 8 oz. brick will go over the 8 oz. bag.
  • Shop at your local farmer’s market or seasonal produce market.  I discovered that a 10 pound bag of potatoes ranged from $1.49 to $1.89 at the Orchard Market only minutes from my house rather than $2-$5 for a 10 pound bag at our regional and national chains in the area.
  • Buy your rice in bulk.  It keeps and it’s cheap.
  • Buy your tuna on sale. If you normally only eat the Solid White Albacore, then save that for your sandwiches.  You can use chunk white or even chunk light in recipes like this.

It’s Just the Beginning

Each person’s experiences with food can vary widely.  Some see it as simply a way to gain energy for the body while others identify eating as being far more sensual in nature.  Food porn anyone?

Regardless of where you see yourself on this edible spectrum, you probably do find some enjoyment in what you eat.  Whether you find the process of refining a recipe an inspiration, you adore the perfect bite at your favorite neighborhood hole-in-the-wall, or you simply enjoy strolling down the isles of your local farmer’s market checking out the latest in mother nature’s produce, we have at least one thing in common: we find joy in the food experience.  What else do we have in common?  I would guess that we also enjoy sharing that experience with others.

Over the years, my husband and I have cherished many moments discussing ingredients, planning travel books that would focus on a foodie’s tour of a particular town or region, or even recreating foods (some successful, some not) off menus that we’ve enjoyed at restaurants in whichever town it was that we were living at the time.  We’ve probably spent more money eating out than we would even care to admit to ourselves.

As luck would have it, we’re at a point in our lives where we barely have two pennies to rub together (boy all that dough we spent on dining out sure looks good now), so we’re working on creative ways to have more interesting experiences with a variety of foods at home.  Our plan is to enjoy ourselves and share our ideas with others as we go along.  We may even share some older food adventures that we’ve had in the kitchen (you just never know).  We might even spend some time reminiscing about some of our old neighborhood haunts.

Regardless, you might get a new recipe to try, a tip to save some cash and feed your family, or even a laugh or two at whatever the latest disaster is that we’ve been through in the kitchen.  There might even be pictures, just you wait…