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January 2014 - Posts - Live Like a Mensch
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Live Like a Mensch

January 2014 - Posts

  • Cost Breakdown of Frugal and Healthy Super Bowl Recipes: Part 3 of 3

    We've already covered how to healthify and cheapify your Super Bowl dip and dessert, so today let's focus on the main event: a big ol' pot of chili.

    I personally find there's nothing better than a warm and spicy bowl of chili on a cold day. And since chili that's simmered all day tends to be the best chili, it lends itself well to a Super Bowl party.

    It is also the only recipe that I have actually created myself. Last year, I made a "let's use up everything in the pantry/freezer/refrigerator" pot of chili that was so good, I wrote down the ingredients and recipe so I could recreate it.

    Apparently, throwing everything you've got a little something of into a pot of chili--including leftover tomato juice, the tail-end of a bag of frozen corn, and the two cans of black beans you've been saving for a rainy day--makes for an excellent chili. So let's break down the cost of this delicious bad boy:

    • 2 large onions, chopped

    You can get a pound of onions for about $1.29. I always have onions in the house, so this would usually be free for me.

    • generous garlic

    (Generous, because garlic makes me happy). This is generally about $1.60 per pound,but my kitchen is never without garlic, so it would (basically) be free for me.

    • Olive oil

    This might be cheating, but since I ALWAYS have olive oil in the pantry, I'm not going to include this cost. (If you'd like to do your own calculations, I can generally get a 1.5 liter bottle for around $8.00--but enough olive oil to saute onions and garlic is a teeny tiny fraction of that).

    • 1 pound ground beef

    I will often substitute lean ground turkey for the ground beef, and I always go for the leanest ground meat I can find. So this can often be the cost-breaker in the chili. Generally, I can get my ground beef or ground turkey for about $4.50 per pound

    • 2 jalapeno peppers
    These are often priced around $1.79 per pound, but 2 peppers are only about a 1/4 of a pound. Let's say this is about $0.45 worth of peppers.
    • 1 (14.5 ounce) can chili ready tomatoes

    I can usually find this for about $1.

    • 1 (14.5 ounce) can plain diced tomatoes

    $1

    • 1-2 cups tomato juice

    I can find a 46 ounce bottle of tomato juice for about $3. However, that does mean that I'm left with a bottle of tomato juice, and while J has been known to drink the stuff if there is no OJ about, it will often go bad in our house. This is why I always plan to make this chili recipe in the same week that I make a crock pot beef stew recipe that calls for another 3 cups of tomato juice. Then, I'll heat up the last six ounce of the juice one day for lunch and eat it with a grilled-cheese sandwich, and I haven't wasted a food product that we otherwise rarely eat. (Incidentally, I had tomato juice on hand when I first made this recipe because I had some leftover from making beef stew and hadn't planned for what I would do with the rest).

    •  6 ounces tomato paste

    $0.50. (And I used the whole can because I get sick and tired of only being able to find cans of tomato paste and having recipes that call for a single teaspoon of teh stuff).

    • 2 (14.5 ounce) cans of black beans

     I can generally find cans for $0.60 each, so $1.20 total.

    • 1 cup frozen corn

    I can get a bag of frozen corn for $1

    • oregano
    • chili powder
    • pepper
    • salt

    We're going to call these free, since even cooks with minimalist spice cabinets have these four spices on hand.

    Total:  $15.54

    Cost per serving (eight): $1.95

    For those keeping score at home, that means you can put together a Menschly Super Bowl party for just under $35: $10.60 for the Cowboy Caviar plus chips, $7.50 for three batches of the Healthy Peanut Butter Banana Oatmeal Cookies, and $15.54 for the chili, equalling $33.64

    Not a bad price for enough food to comfortably feed 8.

    What are you planning on serving at your Super Bowl celebration?

  • Cost Breakdown of Frugal and Healthy Super Bowl Recipes: Part 2 of 3

    As I promised yesterday, I'm continuing the Menschly look at healthier and inexpensive Super Bowl party foods today by offering you a healthy dessert alternative for the big game.

    But first, let's address the elephant in the room. Specifically and to wit: you really should not try to make dessert healthy. That's because:

    1. It's dessert. It's not supposed to be healthy, which means if it's healthy, it generally tastes unpleasant.

    2. Dessert-in-a-box/just-add-water!/better-living-through-chemistry options tend to be so dang cheap to begin with that there's no way to make a healthy version that's even close to as cheap as a $1 box of brownie mix.

    3. Removing/replacing the bad for you parts of dessert with something worth eating tends to be time consuming and labor-intensive.

    However, despite these issues, I believe I have found a healthy dessert recipe that is tasty, inexpensive, and it only takes as long as you would be in the kitchen, anyway.

    (Before you ask, no, this recipe does not do your taxes for you).

    So, without further ado, I present to you Healthy Peanut Butter Banana Oatmeal Cookies from Key Ingredients.

    The best part of these cookies is that they only require four ingredients:

    • 2 overripe bananas

    About $0.59 per pound, and two medium bananas would be a little less than a pound total.

    • 1/3 cup natural creamy peanut butter

    I was thinking that this would be the most expensive part of the recipe, since natural peanut butter is way more expensive than the stuff we all grew up eating, but I was pleasantly surprised when I did the math. I can generally find a jar of the natural stuff (which is what we keep in the pantry) for between $2.50 and $3.00 per jar. There are just under 2 cups of peanut butter per jar, so let's say 1/3 of a cup costs $0.50

    • 1&1/2 cups uncooked oatmeal

    A 42 ounce canister of oatmeal is about $3. That means 1.5 cups (12 ounces) costs about $0.86.

    •  1/3 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

    A 12 ounce package of chocolate chips generally runs around $2.50, so a 1/3 cup of that would run about $0.55.

    Total:  $2.50

     

    Cost per serving: Okay, here's where this bites you in the tuchus. This recipe only makes 15 cookies, and the blogger behind the recipe seems to think a single cookie is a serving. Clearly, she has never met me. (Also, no matter how small your Super Bowl party, if you set out a plate with only 15 cookies on it, you're going to get a reputation for stinginess).

    So, let's say that a serving is four cookies, meaning there are four servings (or thereabouts) per recipe, and that you will need to double or triple your recipe in order to actually make this for company. Even increasing the serving size (and the recipe size) keeps this healthy recipe at a frugal $0.63 per serving.

    Granted, it's still more expensive than a $1 box of brownie mix (plus the egg and oil you must add), but it's very likely that you have several of these ingredients on hand anyway, meaning you can whip these up if a roving Super Bowl party happens to maraud its way into your home unannounced. (Super Bowl parties are like pirates that way).

    In our particular case, the Mensch family can guarantee that we always have the bananas, the oatmeal, and the peanut butter on hand, and you can easily substitute raisins for the chocolate chips if you, like me, find them to be a dangerous substance to keep in the house.

    (Fun fact: J and I actually missed the infamous 2004 "wardrobe malfunction" during halftime because of brownies. We were watching the game by ourselves and I had a yen for brownies and we left during the Justin Timberlake/Janet Jackson performance in order to get a box of brownie mix. Since this was in the dark ages before Twitter, we had no idea what we had missed until we got to work the next day and felt incredibly out of the loop.)

    So, if you don't want to miss the "whatever-it-is-this-year" seen round the world, this cookie is an excellent frugal and healthy new Super Bowl dessert.


  • Cost Breakdown of Frugal and Healthy Super Bowl Recipes: Part 1 of 3

     

    Whether you are a passionate football fan or only watch the Super Bowl for the commercials and the potential wardrobe malfunctions, I think we can all agree that the best part of any Super Bowl gathering is the food.

    Unfortunately, traditional Super Bowl party food is enough to derail any New Year's resolution, whether it is budgetary or dietary. So, through the rest of this week, I thought I'd share some of my favorite healthy and frugal substitutions for the traditional fare.

    Today, let's talk about dip.

    I'll admit that I LOVE 7-Layer Dip. (Actually, loving 7-Layer and other sour cream and/or ranch based dips is a requirement for residency in Indiana. It's on the books.) But I have always loved this Super Bowl staple, even though it is the caloric equivalent of an act of war on your body. (Well, it is the way I eat it: Fifteen minutes after the start of the party, before anyone has actually arrived, I can be heard to say, "Does anyone mind if I finish the 7-Layer Dip?")

    So, this year I will make a dip that is (nearly) as tasty, but both cheaper and healthier:

    Cowboy Caviar

    Ingredients:

    • 14 oz of black-eyed peas

    While buying dried beans is definitely cheaper and lower in sodium, I've mentioned before that dried beans simply do not work for me, so I spend the $0.75 for a can of black-eyed peas.

    •  14 oz of garbanzo beans

    Another $0.75

    • 12 to 14 oz of canned or frozen corn

    I can get a 12 oz bag of frozen corn for $1. (I have a lingering distrust of corn in a can after a disastrous creamed corn incident from my childhood, so I have no idea of the cost of canned corn, which may well be cheaper).

    • 2 scallions

    These are generally about $0.50 per bunch.

    • 1 clove garlic

    This is generally about $1.60 per pound, but my kitchen is never without garlic, so it would (basically) be free for me.

    • fresh cilantro (The linked recipe just calls for 2 Tbsp of cilantro, without specifying whether you should use fresh or driec. USE FRESH! Fresh cilantro adds a flavor like a thousand angels dancing on your tongue, while dried cilantro is like oatmeal. There's nothing wrong with it, but there's nothing particularly right with it either.)

    $2.00 or so

    • 4 Tbsp red wine vinegar

    About $2.00 for a 12 oz bottle

    • 2 Tbsp olive oil

    This might be cheating, but since I ALWAYS have olive oil in the pantry, I'm not going to include this cost. (If you'd like to do your own calculations, I can generally get a 1.5 liter bottle for around $8.00--but 3 Tbsp is a teeny tiny fraction of that).

    Total: $8.60

    Additional cost: $2 per bag of tortilla chips with which to eat the dip, since Miss Manners frowns upon treating dip like a finger food. Let's say you need two bags of chips at $2 each, so the new total is $12.60

    Cost per serving of just the dip (12 servings): $0.72

    Cost per serving of the dip plush chips: $1.05

    Either way, this is fantastically frugal treat, even if you have to buy all of the ingredients especially for the recipe.

    What's even better about this healthy recipe is the fact that often, you will have nearly everything on hand in your pantry anyway. With the exception of the scallions and the cilantro, I can guarantee that I have everything else in my pantry at all times, and I will often have cilantro and scallions on hand for other recipes. So considering the pantry-shoping nature of this recipe, it's an awesome substitution for the perishabl-heavy 7-layer dip.

    And much lighter, to boot.

    I'll be continuing this Super Bowl food breakdown over the next two days. For tomorrow, we'll look at inexpensive and healthier dessert options.


  • The Best Uses and Misuses of Vinegar--or, Why Pinterest Needs a Scratch & Sniff Function

    Whilst I was away on my blogging hiatus/maternity leave, I became obsessed with the incredible time suck source of all inspiration that is Pinterest. In particular, I have become fixated on the idea of creating a clean and organized home by looking at pictures of how other people have cleaned and organized their homes.

    Setting aside the fact that trying to keep a home clean when it houses a toddler, a baby, and my husband all at the the same time is much like attempting to create an elaborate Doozer building while hungry Fraggles are drooling nearby (80s reference for the win!), my newfound obsession with Pinterest organization and cleaning does not seem to take into account the fact that the Internet is not necessarily known for its reliability.

    For instance, I recently decided to take Pinterest's advice in using vinegar as a natural cleaner.

    Image source

    Now, of course there is absolutely nothing controversial about the cleaning properties of white vinegar. For instance, I've used vinegar and water as a glass cleaner for many years.

    What I have never done, however, was use vinegar to easily clean a begrimed and begrossed microwave.

    The first site I checked suggested mixing one cup of vinegar with one cup of water, and then microwaving the mixture with a toothpick (to preven overboiling) for 10 minutes.

    DO NOT DO THIS!

    I was unaware of any particular issue with my natural cleaning plan until about minute 3 of the process. That was about the point in which it began to smell like a vinegar bomb had been released in the house.

    By minute 5, I was willing to share state secrets and was rather put out that I didn't know any.

    By minute 6, I wondered if I needed to evacuate the animals from the house.

    (You may wonder, appropriately, why the heck I didn't just turn off the dang microwave. The reason is that I'm an idiot. The instructions told me 10 minutes, so by golly I was going to go 10 full minutes).

    I turned it off around minute 8 and a half.

    I let the mixture sit for an additional half hour to avoid scalding myself, and found that the microwave nastiness did indeed wipe right off, although I could only tell for sure by touch, since my eyes were watering.

    The vinegar bomb smell hung around for the rest of the day, and I still can smell vinegary echoes whenver I use the microwave for more than 2 minutes at a time. (Just to be clear, I did this experiment in Pinterest cleaning a few days before Christmas).

    It wasn't until I was looking back over Pinterest today while writing this post that I discovered the problem. Other than the single site that I followed for this cleaning plan, EVERYONE ELSE advised putting about 2 tablespoons of vinegar in a cup of water for the microwave trick. I managed to stumble upon the one site run by either a cleaning sadist or someone who has lost her sense of smell. Lucky me.

    Despite my issues with the vinegar bomb in my microwave, I still plan to try several of the other vinegar tricks I've found on Pinterest, like

    What are some (non-vinegar bomb) tricks you've used with this all-purpose cleaner? And has anyone else been led astray by Pinterest?

  • 10 Foods To Have on Hand When You're Snowed In

     

    Photo courtesy of Denis Jacquerye

     

    2014 started off with a bang. Well, at least it started with a polar vortex.

    Let that sink in for a minute.

    Doesn't a polar vortex sound like the kind of storm Luke Skywalker had to ride out inside of a taun-taun on the ice world of Hoth? (And was that the single geekiest sentence I've ever written, or does the fact that I even have to ask if that's the case just show that my writing is riddled with geekery?)

    In any case, the polar vortex had a perfect sense of timing, as it arrived on the very week that LO was due to return to school. If he can't get into college in 15 years, I'll know it's because of the amount of brain-rotting television I allowed him to watch last week.

    Since it was not only snowy but also colder than a wampa's ice cave, I did not venture out of the house for a week. We quickly were reduced to eating the random cans of food that somehow come with every pantry. (I don't think anyone has ever actually bought capers or anchovies--they've simply found them in their pantry).

    This got me thinking about the best foods to have on hand for such a weather event. Of course, the standard list is milk, bread, eggs, and toilet paper. I suggest that the following foods are just as important:

    1. Hot chocolate. No 3-year-old wants to warm up with a cup of tea after a rousing romp in the snow. I don't care if they are British. Luckily, even if you don't have the pre-mixed kind, it's simple enough to make your own.
    2. Chocolate chips. (Not all of these will be chocolate related, I promise!). This is a must for when even your screen-addicted toddler (or tween or teen) is sick of staring at the TV/computer/iPad. If you've got a bag of chocolate chips on hand, making cookies can be the fun snow day activity that keeps you from going Jack Nicholson-in-Shining on each other. And they go great with hot chocolate, if you'd like a sugar coma.
    3. Frozen fruits and vegetables. We eat a lot of produce in our house, and the idea of going a week without fresh greenery makes me feel scurvy-ish. Frozen fruits and veggies will allow us to keep up the rabbit food intake.
    4. Chicken broth. Soup is the best food to have when it's cold out, and I can throw together any number of soups from a base of chicken broth (or boullion, in a pinch). Our favorite is matzo ball soup, although my matzo meal is generally kind of stale by this point in the year. (J assures me that he actually likes matzo balls better that way: heavy and chewy. He's either sadly misguided or the most diplomatic husband ever).
    5. Canned tomatoes. Like chicken broth, these can be the basis of any number of delicious meals, like tomato soup, spaghetti and marinara sauce, chili, etc.
    6. Lentils. These are the only kind of dried beans I've ever had any luck making, and they are remarkably versatile. We can make a delicious lentil curry, lentil soup, or lentil-based fritters.
    7. Rice. We need something to eat underneath several of our lentil and/or tomato dishes or in our soup dishes.
    8. Cheese. Unfortunately, this, like the chocolate chip cookies, would not last the entire week in our house. But while it lasted, it would make for wondrous grilled cheese sandwiches, topping for tomato based dishes, and snacks.
    9. Oatmeal. Not only does this make for an awesome hot breakfast on a cold day, but it also gives you a second cookie-baking opportunity should the chocolate chip cookies not be enough.
    10. Butter. If you're going to be doing all this baking/grilled cheese making, you'll need plenty of Julia Child's favorite fat.

    If I had all of these ingredients in my pantry prior to a Hoth-level snow event, I believe we could ride out the storm quite deliciously. What 10 items do consider essential when you're snowed in?

  • Organizing My Spice Cabinet

    Or, How I Got Overwhelmed By a Huge Bunch of Trees and Wondered Why Everyone Was Blathering About Something Called a "Forest"

     

    Several years ago, LO got hold of a permanent sharpie and had a grand ol' time creating a mural on our dining room wall. Since we generally use our dining room for dog food and recycling storage, this was not a huge deal.

    Then, while nesting with BB, I cleaned the kitchen (which shares a wall with the dining room) within an inch of its life.

    All of a sudden, the Exorcist pea-soup green color that some former owner had painted on our walls became far too much for us to bear. We decided to paint the dining room and kitchen while J had a little time off between Christmas and New Year's.

    Of course, as we have long known, no simple home improvement project is EVER done until someone utters the hated words "while we're at it." In this case, the words came when we decided to be really thorough in our cleaning efforts and temporarily removed the drop ceiling fluorescent lights that reside in between our back door and our basement door, pictured below looming menacingly over Halloween fun:

    (In other words, we didn't think to take a before picture).

    We HATE that fluorescent light. We've HATED it since we moved in. Since we were already there, J convinced me it was a good idea to pull it all out and try to recreate the lovely arches we have elsewhere in the house.

    Momentarily made insane by grand DIY dreams, I agreed.

    We thought our division of labor would go thusly: J would work his magic to create an elegant archway between the dining room and the kitchen, while I continued to clean the kitchen and begin the painting.

    That worked for a while. I pulled off cabinet doors, emptied cabinets, cleaned, purged, and painted. But then, I tripped and fell into a morass of Pinterest.

    You see, I did not want to replace my spices in the designated spice cabinet unless and until I could figure out a way to retrieve necessary spices while cooking without having to crawl into the cabinet and mutter things like "Where did the thyme go?" under my breath. I have tried in the past to organize my spices. I've alphabetized them. I've had super OCD friends rearrange them by height. I've put commonly used spices at the front and alphabetized the rest. Nothing stays organized for long.

    So, I turned to that bastion of modern time-wasting, Pinterest. And I discovered that the secret to an organized spice cabinet is decanting one's spices into uniform containers.

    Without further ado, I ordered myself 50 canisters and got my label maker all warmed up. The result is impressive:

    Order! Alphabetizing! Uniform heights! The ability to reach into a cabinet and lay my hands on any spice! Always knowing where the thyme went!

    Unfortunately, while I was working my tuchus off getting this taken care of, this is what the rest of my kitchen/dining room looks like:

    (Please do take a moment to admire the lovely arch J has managed to recreate!)

     

    So basically, my spices are organized like nobody's business, but I don't know where to find my favorite frying pan.

    Clearly, While We're At It has struck again!

     

    How do you organize your spices? I know this is a great deal of thought going into a fairly minor issue, but doesn't anyone else get tired of buying more vanilla/thyme/taco seasoning only to find four unopened ones somewhere in the back of the spice cabinet while looking for something else? Or is that just me?

  • Return of Mensch! (Tomorrow)

    Greetings, gentle readers!

    After a wonderful couple of months just focusing on my little family, I'm now ready to return to blogging. As I come back to Mensch in 2014, I thought I'd give you a little sneak peek of what to expect from the blog:

    • Vlogging! You will get a chance to see my mug (and the clean four square feet of my house within the scope of my computer's camera) as I opine on various topics. Any requests or suggestions for vlogging topics will be welcome!
    • Mensch in the Kitchen! I will be doing more posts on recipes, grocery shopping, kitchen organization (which is my recent obsession), and ways to save money on food.
    • The Olympics! Every two years, I watch the Olympics and find myself idly wondering if I could ever be a world-class athlete (while polishing off a double-chocolate brownie, generally). In any case, I'm excited to watch the sports and drama unfold, and I'll be blogging a little bit about how to feel like an Olympian without (necessarily) having to put down the chocolate.

    This all starts tomorrow! I look forward to meeting you here twice a week.

    In the meantime, I'll leave you with a picture of what I've been enjoying for the past two months:

     

    P.S. Total shameless self-promotional plug: My book is out! Please check out The Five Years Before You Retire.

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