Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Simple Life Challenge

If you like this blog, you'll love Bobbi's new, Simple Life Challenge for May. Sign up by emailing her, and report weekly how many points you earn for each time you
  1. commute in a green/thrifty way (ride a bike, walk, carpool, take public transit, etc.)
  2. prepare a meal at home
  3. do something frugal
I signed up, but I have to admit that I carpool every day and prepare just about every meal at home, so I guess it's just the third point that I'm going to challenge myself with. I knew she was a person after my own healthy/cheapskate heart when I read her suggestion: "Make all your own breads instead of buying them." That very topic is in my line up of posts for May. All I have to do is make the perfect whole wheat breadmaker bread, which I feel is juuuust around the corner.

Are you up for the challenge? Make good on all those Earth Day resolutions you made last week!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Make This The Day You ...

Answer "Neither" when the bagger at the checkout asks, "Paper or plastic?"

If you haven't already made the switch to cloth, hemp, or durable plastic, give it a try today.
Any company who has a product to advertise wants you to carry a bag with their product's name on it and this month, so there are a few free bag offers I stumbled upon in just a quick google search.

Here are two offers for FREE bags, with minimal effort -- and no purchase -- involved:

Sign an Earth Day Pledge
Submit a Design

Or, if you dislike advertising as much as I do, you might want a blank canvas for your own message or no message at all. My cheapskate tendencies take over when the product is free, so don't pass up the above offers. But if you're like me, you need more than two bags at the grocery store. If you'd like to design your own logo for your bags, visit your favorite local or online craft store, or maybe even at an office supply store, buy a pack of iron-on transfers for about $5 for 5 transfers. Set up your design on your computer and print directly onto the transfer. If your logo involves words, you'll have to print it as a mirror image onto the transfer or, on my Mac, there is a "transfer" option in the print menu that reverses the image.

I used iron-on transfers on several bags from ECOBAGS, which is giving away a free string bag with the message "Earth Day is Every Day" to the first 250 purchases of $50 or more. $50 is going to get you a lot of bags on this site, which has bags made of organic fibers by companies with fair labor practices.

If you make your own, please share with me a photo of your handiwork!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

20 Days in 5 Hours

On Saturday, I had three burners going at once, sauteeing onions on one and turkey with onions in the other two.
Upper left burner: Meaty Tomato Sauce
Upper right: sauce for Turkey Lasagna
Lower right: Tomato sauce with a dash of cinnamon to remind me of my mom's chicken kapama -- a Greek dish.
All of these dishes are either straight from my favorite cookbook, Cook's Illustrated's Best Light Recipe), or based on a recipe in the book.

All in all, I cooked

  • Turkey meatballs (5 servings)
  • Turkey meatloaf (5 servings)
  • 4 medium pizza crusts (8 servings)
  • Turkey lasagna (8 servings)
  • Meaty (turkey) tomato sauce (5 servings)
  • Cinnamon tomato sauce (6 servings)
Including the two meals of rosemary chicken already in there, there are 20 dinners for two in our freezer! Ignore the Lean Cuisine, which is reserved for a dinner emergency. I don't think we'll need those anymore.

Before: Bag-o-veggie scraps, veggie stock, chicken stock, rosemary chicken chunks, butternut squash soup, frozen chick peas and black beans


The plus side of it all? (Besides the other things I mentioned before) A full freezer works more efficiently!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Quick Freezer Cooking: Bulk Meat

The other day, Mr. Green spotted chicken breasts on sale at the grocery store, so he picked up 6 of them and I went to work soon after he brought them in the door.

I prepared Cook's Illustrated's Garlic & Herb Marinade (from their book, The Best Make-Ahead Recipe), trimmed the breasts, and sliced them for three different preparations: Kebabs, chunks, and cutlets. I labeled plastic bags accordingly, put the chicken in and a third of the marinade, and coated them before tossing them in the freezer.

Garlic & Herb Marinade
Good for chicken, pork, beef, lamb, shrimp, fish, and vegetables.
Process in a food processor or blender until smooth, about 20 seconds:
  • 1/2 cup EVOO
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/4 cup fresh parsley, tarragon, or basil leaves or
  • 2 Tbsp fresh rosemary or thyme leaves
  • 1 shallot, chopped
  • 6 medium garlic close, minced
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp ground black pepper
Save 1/4 cup of the marinade and save. Place meat (or veggies) in a ziploc bag, pour in the remaining amount, and refrigerate for up to 2 days (or freeze). When ready to serve add 2 Tbsp lemon juice to the remaining marindae and pour it over the cooked meat.

Voila! I know, it doesn't look as appetizing as the photos on food blogs -- you don't exactly want to lick these things off of your screen. The point is that there is no trimming, cubing, or keeping fresh herbs on hand to prepare three healthy meals at the last minute. In fact, Mr. Green already succumbed to temptation one night after we arrived home late and tired from work. Even from freezer to grill, the kebabs were delicious! (no thawing necessary)

I chose the rosemary garlic marinade because it did not involve marinating the meat in vinegar or lemon juice, two acidic flavors that the freezer amplifies. This recipe is nice because you use the marinade (with lemon) while plating the meal, too.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Cooking in Bulk & Using your Freezer

I love to cook, but I love to cook in great quantities even more, because then I don't have to cook as much. I know it seems like a paradox, but you know what I mean ... I enjoy cooking, but I never want it to feel like a chore. Cooking for yourself also helps you control what, exactly, you eat and how it is prepared as well as the cost of it. Cooking in quantity saves the cook energy and saves the Earth's resources because cooking implements need only be rinsed between uses, if at all, and proper planning reduces wasted leftover ingredients that the cook doesn't typically use. Cooking in quantity also tends to reduce the cost of cooking because it allows cooks to buy in bulk.

You can cook in bulk even if you love variety. In my experience, once I find a recipe that meets my criteria, I make it often -- but not often enough to get tired of the meal. By cooking multiple portions of your favorite recipe and freezing them, you can access those meals with only 24-hour notice. There are a few tricks to "freezer cooking."

Choose recipes that:
  • Share similar ingredients and cooking methods. My first freezer-cooking menu is all Italian because they involve diced tomatoes, 1/4-cans of tomato paste, sauteing onions, ground turkey, and fresh herbs.

  • Make use of ingredients you don't typically buy because you never use the entire bunch / package and it's perishable (e.g., fresh herbs and half-cans)

  • Make use of ingredients that are available and cheaper in bulk.

  • Share a complicated or drawn-out preparation or cooking process that usually deters you from making recipes that involve that ingredient/method -- like cooking dried beans (dried beans are cheaper and have less sodium than canned beans)

  • Get familiar with your recipes and what cooking implements they require.

  • Organize according to whatever saves you time and use a method that helps you jump from one recipe to the next, in the order that maximizes efficiency. For those truly obsessively organized, try ...
    • Photocopying the recipes and number the steps directly on the page. Where multiple recipes share a step, I use a letter next to the number so I know that I need to look at other recipes to get the correct measurements. For example, all onion chopping gets a 1a, 1b, 1c, etc., written next to that step in each recipe
    • Typing up the steps into a master document (I think the Once a Month Cooking book has it set up this way)

  • To avoid cleaning your knife and cutting board more than once,

    • Save cutting onions until after all other vegetables that aren't going into a dish with onions
    • Cut meats last (after onions!)

  • Place multiple items in the oven at once if they share the same cooking temperature. Otherwise, try to go from lower to higher cooking temperature, so you don't have to wait as long (and use energy) to preheat the oven or cool it down before using it for the next item.

  • Use pots and pans for similar ingredients and, if there is a particularly hard-to-clean recipe, try to make that last -- so you don't have to put in a lot of elbow grease when getting the pan ready for the next item.
Food Safety:
  • Let hot foods cool before adding them to the fridge or freezer, because if they are hot, they will lower the temperature of the fridge or freezer until the food cools down -- compromising other food in the fridge or freezer.

  • To cool food quickly, to avoid bacteria from forming, stick the container in an ice water bath or freeze a clean bottle of water and insert it directly into the food (if it is a liquid consistency)

  • To conserve space, freeze in plastic bags. Be sure to initially position the bag in a shape that will work well in your freezer -- laying flat is best for our small freezer.

  • To conserve resources, freeze in reusable plastic containers.

  • To avoid confusion, mark the containers or attach a piece of paper to each container that has information on:

    • What is in the container

    • When it was made

    • How to prepare it

  • Consider portion and use sizes. For example, freezing a large-size lasagna doesn't make sense for a two-person family. Assemble half-size lasagnas so you're not stuck with too many leftovers. For chicken stock, divide it by the typical amount you use it in recipes. Consider freezing it initially in ice cube trays, then popping out the frozen chicken stock and storing it in a container or bag so you can grab one cube at a time.

  • If the item goes from freezer to oven (like a lasagna), line the baking container with aluminum foil and assemble and/or freeze the item in that container. When frozen, remove the food and wrap tightly in a freezer bag.

Links to other useful "freezer cooking" or "Once a Month Cooking" resources:

I am always looking for lean, minimally-processed freezer meals -- if you have any recommendations, please share! Right now, I just have one slate of meals for an all-day cooking fest (to be posted later this week). I'm not complaining, they're great meals, but it's always nice to branch out!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Happy Earth Month!

Remember when Earth Day was just a day? Soon, the entire month of April was focused on "going green." These days, when people are tightening their belts and high oil prices scared them into re-thinking the fundamental logistics of their lives, Earth Day can seem like just another day (or month) when people are talking about conservation.

How about making April the month each of us stops talking about that one thing that we want to do to go green and make it happen? With that in mind, I'm kicking off the month by sharing a calendar, from the popular site SparkPeople, which identifies one greener thing you can do each day in April. If you've already done the item listed on a particular day, you may want to take the day off! Or, identify that thing that's been nagging you that you haven't yet done and put that on the calendar in place of something you've already done. Take a peek and download a calendar here.

I took a peek and saw that most of the days include action items that will save you green, including:
  • Recycle! In most states, turning in 20 bottles and cans will get you one piece of green in your pocket. It might not seem like much in the beginning, but it adds up!
  • Use cloth napkins instead of paper. It may involve a bigger outlay in the beginning, but you will recoup the cost in one year of using paper napkins.
  • Use your own bag everywhere -- at the grocery store, at the mall, for lunch. Whether it's reusing a plastic bag, which will cost you nothing, or buying a reusable one, grocery stores routinely credit you 5 cents per bag when you check out using your own.
  • Visit the library and check out books, CDs, and DVDs for free. Saves paper, saves transportation costs, and of course it saves you green!
  • Turn off the water when you're not using it. Don't leave it running when you brush your teeth or get ready to get in the shower.
  • Unplug.
  • Go Vegetarian. OK, this one is definitely not for everyone, but we all know that raising meat takes more food than feeding a person, animal waste contributes to severe environmental problems, and transporting the meat increases carbon emissions. If you think you could never take the plunge, just learn to make one meatless meal you could like and maybe you'll go veggie one day a week. You don't have to make a lifetime commitment, even one meal a week will make an impact!
  • Drive less.
  • Hang-dry your laundry.
  • Use Reusable Bottles.
  • Print Responsibly -- saving ink and trees will save you green
  • Sew, Mend, and Repair clothes and items that are broken but easily fixed
  • Buy Rechargeable Batteries and you'll reduce toxic waste as well as save yourself a trip to the store to buy more the next time your flashlight sputters out.
  • Go secondhand.
  • Lower the temperature on your water heater and I doubt you'll even notice a difference. I like to lower it to the point where I do notice a difference, and then kick it up a notch. Also, wash your laundry in cold water and turn off the heated dry option on your dishwasher -- just open the dishwasher door and let it air dry overnight!

Savvy readers are probably already doing these things. If you are, you've saved a few bucks and might be able to find some room in your budget for the green options that will cost a few more dollars.

For our action item this month, Mr. Green and I decided that we are going to go organic on many of the foods that are widely acknowledged as dangerous -- to our health and our earth -- in their conventionally processed form. It's not quite in line with being a cheapskate, but we noticed that our penny-pinching in our food budget has led to some wiggle room that will allow us to buy the more pricey organic items. I'll let you know soon what those items are.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Turn off and Unplug

Earth Hour is fast approaching. Have you made plans for Saturday, March 28, from 8:30 - 9:30? If you're near New York City, take a look at the skyline. If you're in Vegas, visit the strip! If you're at home, turn off your lights and enjoy a nice candlelit dinner or any other variety of activities you can do to reduce your carbon footprint. Last year, Mr. Green and I unplugged virtually everything and enjoyed the company of friends by candlelight. We plan to do the same this year. Even if you plan to be out and about, turn off and unplug everything before you leave, to do your part!

Click here if the video does not work for you.

More than 1,400 cities and towns in 80 countries are taking action to reduce their carbon footprint. If you are going to vote with your light switch, sign up and be counted!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Crockpot Vegetable Stock

Back to the "waste not" theme from yesterday ... I recently read an article that changed my world pertaining to food waste. It's a simple concept: Dedicate a freezer container to clean vegetable scraps and, when the container is full, turn it into stock.

Changed. My. World.

Now, I probably get that bag out of the freezer twice a day to contribute some scraps and the bag was full in about two weeks. My first attempt at achieving a flavorful vegetable stock was a success, and waaaay too easy! I love to use stock as a low-fat and no-sugar way to flavor grains by substituting stock for water and butter or oil.

For good measure, I sauteed some shallots in olive oil beforehand just in case, added my cheapskate version of a bouquet garni (tossed in dried marjoram, rosemary, thyme, bay leaf without the cheesecloth), 8 peppercorns, and enough water to cover the vegetables.

The first bag contained:
  • Tomato stems and cores
  • Red pepper stems, seeds, and that white stuff on the ribs
  • Butternut squash skins
  • Outer layers of onions, garlic, shallots
  • Avocado pit

After 8 hours, I pulled the solids from the pot, pushed the water out of them using a colander,

and had a delicious stock. Be sure to cool it down quickly before putting it in the fridge or freezer! I use freezer packs and a few ice cubes.

When saving scraps, DO include:
  • Onion peels (will give it a darker color)
  • Garlic ends
  • Stems of leafy greens
  • Carrot tops and greens
  • Apple and pear cores
  • Stems of fresh herbs
  • Turnip and parsnip peelings
When saving scraps, DO NOT include:
  • Bitter or waxy plant parts, such as cucumber peels, stone fruit pits, or citrus peels (oops! I had an avocado pit in there, but it seemed to do no harm)
  • Potatoes (they do not freeze well)
  • Anything moldy
An additional bonus with vegetable stock is that you won't have to fuss over separating the fat from the stock, because there is none!

I have two questions for readers:
  • Have you ever used beet trimmings in your stock? I'm curious about the effect it has on the color of the stock -- does it turn raspberry color?
  • Does a vegetable stock effectively harness nutrients, or does the stewing destroy them?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Crockpot Poultry Stock

During my stint in the Peace Corps, I lived with a family in rural Central Asia and noticed that very little goes to waste. There are no grocery stores that provide you with the choice of paper or plastic for free. If you want to carry your groceries home, you either brought a bag with you or bought once in the bazaar. Similarly, food and household items rarely come in packaging. What packaging made it home was either saved and repurposed, or (what little there was) burned in the oven to bake bread.

Bread was eaten until it was gone, and although I never saw moldy bread, we ate our fair share of hard, almost-stale bread. Food scraps were deposited in a bucket that doubled as the cow's trough. It was difficult to waste food.

Here, it is much easier. Without a cow in the backyard or a wood-burning oven, I attempt to use every food scrap possible, but certainly come up short (I have no qualms about throwing away fat); and I can't directly repurpose every piece of paper that comes in the door, but just hope that my diligent recycling makes some sort of difference. As a novice environmentalist living in a rented house, I haven't yet delved into the world of composting. As with many environmentally responsible undertakings, I feel as though I need to know more about composting and I need some capital to start the project. I haven't yet gotten around to acquiring either, so when the opportunity to make a turkey carcass into another meal presented itself last Thanksgiving, I was excited to give it a try. It is incredibly easy, and no carcass has been wasted in the Green house ever since!

I started by adapting a Joy of Cooking recipe for stock, cooking the following ingredients on low for 10 hours:
  • Turkey carcass / bones
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1-2 carrots, chopped
  • 1 celery rib, chopped
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 bouquet garni (a combination of fresh herbs tied in a cheesecloth)
  • A few peppercorns
  • 6-8 cups of water, or enough to just cover the ingredients
The result was fairly fatty, which I later learned (after reading the "about" section in Joy of Cooking) was because I included the skin in the stock. I was under the mistaken impression that stock was supposed to have some fat in it. Not so! Strip the carcass of any skin and fat that you can. Otherwise, you will have a fatty stock on your hands and it will be a little ... er ... greasy. Yuck!

I have discovered four ways to reduce the fat in your stock:
  1. Trim all the fat and skin from the carcass.
  2. Cool the stock and scrape the fat off of the top.
  3. Use a fat skimmer when the stock is done. You will need to strain the stock anyway, so the fat skimmer can double as a strainer. I, however, couldn't get the hang of this method when I used my simple skimmer, so I bought a fat separator, which I think is the lazier (*ahem* more efficient *ahem*) method.
  4. Use a fat separator that has a strainer. Not only is it ... er ... more efficient, I think it's just cool how it works: With the stopper in the spout, the spout stays dry; with the stopper out, only the water-based liquid rises through the spout. The fat stays at the surface and out of the spout until it's almost empty. In the photo below, I think I did a fairly decent job of keeping the fat out of the ingredients, because the line at the top is pretty thin.
Stopper In

Stopper Out

Since that first time, I have made stock a few times and learned that improvisation is fine. I never include the celery -- just because I never have it on hand -- and use dried herbs (thyme and oregano) instead of putting together a fresh bouquet garni. Beware your main ingredient, however: Last week, Mr. Green smoked a Jamaican jerk-flavored chicken on the grill and that carcass yielded a spicy stock. I added it to reconstitute a ginger butternut squash soup I made and froze earlier in the month and it destroyed the delicate ginger taste of the soup. Don't get me wrong -- it was still a nicely flavored soup -- just not the flavor I was aiming for!

I have now gotten into the habit of getting out my crockpot whenever getting a chicken ready for the oven or grill. Once those giblets come out, they go straight to the crockpot, soon a few carrots and an onion join them, then the chicken; and I cook the stock overnight. In the morning, I divvy up the stock into freezer or fridge containers. I try to cool them quickly so they don't raise the temperature in the freezer or fridge and don't sit too long on the counter at a bacteria-inducing temperature.

This is a great way to turn one meal into two or three distinct meals -- the first being the roasted /grilled chicken -- and the stock and meat can easily be converted into:
  1. Chicken Barley Soup (prep: 40 minutes, due to barley cooking)
  2. Chicken with couscous, onions, and raisins (prep: 15 minutes)
  3. Salad with chicken (prep: as long as it takes you to chop up the salad vegetables!)
Mr. Green smoked another chicken (seasoned with lemon, garlic, and rosemary) the other night ... please share other quick meals for roasted chicken and chicken stock so I can give them a try -- you may see them here!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Crockpot Tips

Volume: Fill the pot between halfway and two-thirds full. Try getting away with no more than 1 cup of liquid and try broths, wine, or vegetable juice instead of water. If the resulting liquid i too watery, you can reduce it on the stovetop.

Location, Location, Location: Because vegetables take longer than meat to cook, place them at the bottom of the pot so they can stew in the liquid. For delicate vegetables or recipes that cook vegetables for 10 hours or more, seal them in a foil pack and place it on the top layer -- it slows their cooking time and keeps their flavor distinct.

Pre-Pot Prep: Left without direction, crockpot ingredients can take on a dull, "crockpotty" taste that you will recognize whether you slow-cooked a pork tenderloin over potatoes and carrots or borscht with onions, beets, and cabbage. Except for simple recipes like rehydrating beans and simmering stock, it's important to guide the flavor of the meal before placing it in the pot. You can do that by browning the meat in the appropriate seasonings or sauteing the seasonings into the onions. With onions, you can even do that the night before you start your meal, and keep it cool in the fridge overnight. (But storing browned meat that's raw in the middle in the fridge overnight isn't recommended)

Vegetarian Flavor Saver:
Browning meat creates a tasty fond that can be replaced by sauteeing onions in seasoning before adding to the pot. If you are adapting a non-slow-cooker recipe, it's generally safe to triple the onions and seasonings when you saute, as it reduces the volume of the onions and locks in the flavor. For a meat stew or braise, add tomato paste - up to 1/4 cup -- and saute with the onions. Soy sauce is another way to deepen and round out the flavor of a stew without adding any distinctive flavor of its own. If you like mushrooms, try porcini mushrooms, they add a nice flavor and color, but not without a distinctive mushroom flavor.

Keeping it Lean: The best meats for crockpot recipes are marbled with fat; they are delicious and tender when stewed for hours. Lean meats are more susceptible to drying out and will have less liquid to release into the pot when it's cooking. If you substitute a fattier cut of meat for a leaner meat in a particular recipe, use the lesser of the cooking times in the recipe and err on the side of including more liquid than listed in the recipe. Alternatively, if you choose to use the fattier meat in the recipe, brown it beforehand and drain the fat from the skillet, use a fat skimmer or fat separator after the meal is cooked, or scrape the fat off of the top after the stew cools in the fridge.

Adapting Non-Crockpot Recipes: 30 minutes on the stove or in the oven is the equivalent of 1 hour in the crockpot on high, or 2 hours on low. Generally, the low setting cooks at just below a boil and high at just above a boil. Lifting the lid of the crockpot and letting steam escape while it is cooking loses 30 minutes of cooking time. So, if you must lift the lid, add another half hour to the cooking time.

Do Not:
  • Cook dried beans with the recipe -- they need to be rehydrated separately.
  • Cook pasta with the recipe -- cook them separately on the stove until tender and add to the crockpot toward the end of cooking.
  • Add frozen vegetables -- thaw them first so they don't lower the temperature of the other ingredients.
  • Add thawed frozen vegetables in the last hour of cooking.
  • Start with chilled meat unless the liquid you add is boiling
Share your some of your slow-cooker tips!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Efficient Impliment: Crockpot

  • Energy efficient: In a 2008 article, Consumer Reports named using a slow cooker as one of 25 Simple Ways to Save, because it is more energy efficient than simmering your food on the stove or firing up an electric oven.
  • Attendance optional: Crockpots are designed to be left unattended so you are free to go to work and return home to a warm meal. Be sure to place it on a sturdy surface, do not put more ingredients in it than it can safely hold if the liquid begins to boil, and be sure that it is a safe distance from items that might be damaged by heat -- including the cord, which should be stretched away from the pot.
  • Harness your inner miser: We all know that dry beans are healthier and cheaper than canned beans, but don't have the time to prepare them? The chef with the crockpot! After a big meal of roasted chicken or turkey, who has the energy to stew the carcass for another meal? The chef with the slow cooker -- s/he can do it in her sleep!
What Type?
Prices for crockpots run the gamut, from as low as $15 to up to $250. The price depends on the size, the number of settings, and whether it has a timer.
  • Timing can be everything: Chefs who dare not leave the house while cooking with a crockpot have no need for a timer. Crockpots with a timer allow the chef a more wiggle-room, in case s/he has a meal bubbling in the crockpot while out and s/he arrives home later than expected, the crockpot will automatically switch to a "warm" setting, which avoids over-cooked or burnt food.
  • Size might be important: The Lil Dipper is the smallest size, weighing in at 16 oz -- good for keeping a dip warm for a party. A meal for the entire family, however, requires at least a 6-quart capacity, and preferably an oval shape if you would like to cook an entire tenderloin or chicken.
  • True one-pot deliciousness: The ultra-efficient model, by All-Clad, has an inner container that can be used on the stovetop, which saves the chef from cleaning a pan otherwise needed to saute onions, etc., before adding them to the crockpot. That model tops the charts in expense, and a kitchen equipment rating organization recently found the browning capability of the insert subpar.
Up next:
Tips and recipes for using your crockpot

Sunday, February 22, 2009


These are the things that make my heart go pitter-patter:

  • Nutritious, low calorie, minimally-processed food

  • Efficiency

  • Environmental responsibility

  • Value

Finding recipes and lifestyle information that address all of these goals has been a chore, so I am archiving what I'm learning here in case there's anyone who shares those goals and would like to follow my learning curve.