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.