Friday, February 19, 2010

Composting for Cheapskates

Over the last two summers I've discovered something about growing one's own food: It's compost heavy. The most common food plants people grow (nightshade family - tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, eggplant), are the biggest nutrient hogs in the produce garden. Legumes aren't as thirsty, and Cabbages aren't as hungry, but those tomatoes (which are pretty much all some Minnesotans grow in the summer) really love their nitrogen. As such, I've been buying fertilizers every spring to re-energize my garden. I know, get on board, right? I just haven't gotten around to building a compost bin... until last fall! And I did it for free, and it'll cut at least thirty dollars out of my outlay every spring! Read on...
My garden is conveniently located against the fence on the alley end of my property. See figure I to the right: It's just on the other side of this fence (Mr. Miagi style, I keep a pristine pastoral yard behind a fence that keeps out horrifying urban blight). On the outside of said fence, I dug two post holes for 2X4's (fig II):

Then, I took a bunch of old siding slats that were up in the rafters of my garage when I moved in, and screwed them to the posts and painted them to match the house color. I had some leftover stucco mesh from making a sifter that I stapled to the slats in figure III. My only problem was what to do about the fence. The fourth wall of this bin was treated for outdoor use, yes, but wasn't exactly designed to have a hundred or so pounds of rotting organic matter resting on it. I painted a couple wide panels with the same outdoor latex paint, and screwed them into the fence as a buffer between compost and fence (fig. IV).

I didn't get a chance to put a top on the bin before the snow flew this winter, but come spring I'll put hinges in a sheet of lattice and toss a padlock on the front (I don't need neighbor kids tossing god knows what in here), and I'll have unlimited compost for the vegetable garden, for zero dollars.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Eat your leftovers (with your previous savings).

I am a person who can not throw anything away. I blame my father, the packrat extraordinaire, for this habit. This comes in handy in the workshop, where notches I cut out of stair stringers years ago become finally useful for some new carpentry project. In the fridge though, where I just couldn't bring myself to toss that half-cup of couscous I knew I'd never eat, it can turn into a smelly mess. I've never been a big fan of leftovers. I save them with the best of intentions, but they end up languishing above the crisper drawer until unrecognizable.
Last week, Lisa and I instituted a rule: No buying new groceries. We roast a ham on Monday. For the rest of the week we integrate the leftover ham and whatever we have in the house into a new dinner meal. Here's how it turned out...
Day 1, Monday, Roasted ham with Cheesy Potatoes and Cabbage/Candied Pecan Salad:

Ham was about $12 - we got it when hams were on special for $1.69/lb and tossed it in the freezer. Potatoes we got a 5 lb bag of for $0.48, and the Cheddar was $2.49 for a large brick. Cabbage cost around a dollar, with free pecans from my parents (they live next to an orchard), and the dressing we just threw together from staples we had in the cupboard. Total cost, $16.

Good enough for ham day. But we had just roasted a seven pound ham! What to do with the rest? Tuesday, day two, was a bit of an improvisation, as we didn't have much for bread. We had asparagus though - it was on sale for $1.50 a couple days before. We ended up sautéing the asparagus and using a $1.00 tube of Pop'n'Fresh dough and more of the cheddar brick, along with about $2.00 worth of scallions and eggs to come up with mini quiches. They were delicious, and there were two left over for my breakfast the next day. Total Cost, $4.50.

Day three, Wednesday, was easy. We had bowtie pasta and frozen peas that were both a dollar a piece, and a cup tub of Parmesan we'd picked up for about $2.50, each of which we only used half of to make a ham pasta served with a side of Greek salad. The Romaine lettuce was $1.50, the Feta was $2.50, the Tomatoes were $2.00, and the Kalamata olives were $2.00. We used half of each. Total cost: $6.25.

Day four (Thursday, pictured below) we splurged on, but it sounded too good to pass up. You be the judge: Cauliflower we bought for $.89, and used half. The double-corn polenta we used a dollar frozen corn bag for, along with corn meal from the cupboard, the remaining Parmesan, herbs from the spice rack, and cream from the fridge. Ham loaf was made with ham, onions ($2.00/3 lb - we used one onion), $.25 worth of egg, and a $.75 half-pound of ground pork. The glaze was a couple tablespoons of brown sugar from the cupboard mixed with pan juices and $.50 worth of ginger. Total cost: $4.00.

This is Friday, day five: Tuscan bean and ham soup. The beans we got for $.50. The chicken stock we made ourselves months ago. The bread I made from cupboard staples, and I'll allow $.50 for the yeast, since most people don't have it readily available. Artisanal honey we got at the farmers' market last fall for $.50. Total cost: $1.50. By far the most delicious meal of the week.

Saturday, day six, was something of a surprise. I wasn't sure what we'd come up with, but we had picked up a bell pepper for $.50, so we did ham, $.25 of egg, and soy fried rice (both staples in the cupboard). Pork fried rice... Total cost: $.75. Cheapest meal of the week.
Day seven happened to be Superbowl Sunday. We had friends over (long story), but one of the sides we made by putting the pork in a food processor, and adding $.25 of cream cheese, $.25 of horseradish, pepper and tarragon, both from the spice rack. Total price was fifty cents, but it wasn't a main dish so I didn't count it as cheapest meal.
Overall though, two of us ate for a full week with one ham and what we had in the house for a grand total of $33.50. Ham week success, and we've still got a bone and some meat in the freezer to make soup out of with the bag of split peas in our cupboard (see my earlier post). With the Easter season coming up, I wish you well in your ham endeavors.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Dismemberment Plan

I write a blog about how to live on the cheap. I try to impart wisdom (for the like, one person who reads this - thanks mom!) on how to cut costs and maximize one's capital and minimize the overhead of living today. I have somehow overlooked the simplest rule: Don't pay someone else (or some company) to do for you what you can do for yourself.
Lisa and I bought a whole chicken the other day. Not because we had any grandiose dinner plans or anything. No giant family gathering to roast it for. It was just 88cents/pound. We bought a whole chicken for $4. For those of you averse to math and the grotesque, I suggest you stop reading now.
At a national discount grocery chain, you will pay $6.99/lb for chicken breast. You would pay $2.66/lb for drumsticks, $2.66/lb for chicken thighs, and $3.47/lb for wings. What we got from the chicken we bought was the following:
2 enormous chx breasts for grilling, frying, or reuse in pasta salad,
2 wings to fry and have with some red beans and rice,
2 thighs we've yet to use, but will probably grill and serve with homemade buffalo sauce,
2 good sized drumsticks that we marinaded in lemon and oregano (from the garden) and slow grilled, and
All the great gizzards and neck (as well as additional bone parts) for future incarnation in chicken stock.
Now comes the unpleasant part (see fig I)... but once you get over your queasiness, it's really quite simple, and well worth the ten bucks (at least) that you'll save. Reach in the bottom. Trust me - this is by far the worst part of the process, and it's best to just get it out of the way. Remove the neck and giblets that have been thoughtfully stowed there by the Gold 'n' Plump people (or more ideally some local co-op). Set aside - you can boil these later to make chicken stock. Take your chicken by the wing with one hand, and a sharp, sturdy knife with the other. Sever the wings at the shoulder (see fig. II).
If you want you can separate the wing, but I personally don't mind it whole (it's easier to grill that way, too).
Now it's time for legs. Grab one and pull it out and away from the body (see fig III). First cut through the skin to expose the joint. Then, keeping the blade as close as possible to the body and preserving as much of the leg as possible, cut through the joint and ligaments from front to back. Separating the drumstick from the thigh is simple, but will require some hand work. Flex the leg until you hear the ball joint crack (see fig. IV). Then you can go right through with your knife, leaving you with a clean drumstick and a thigh to either grill or stew. Once the extremities are off, flip the carcass over and use a very sharp knife or kitchen shears to cut the back ribs from the spine (see fig. V). Keep the spine with the innards for stock preparation. Flip the bird over and flatten by pressing down in the middle of the breast with the heel of your hand (see fig. VI). You'll hear it crack as it flattens. Flip again so it is skin-side down, and pull the breast bone out by hand (there's no easy way to carve it out with the knife) (see fig. VII). Cut the breast in half where the breast bone was (see fig. VIII). Set aside whatever parts you're using for the current meal, and freeze the rest (see fig. IX).Congratulations. You've just bought yourself at least four meals for four dollars. Here's what we did with the breasts (fig. X):

Consult the Joy of Cooking for the fried chicken recipe. It was crispy and delicious. For anyone wanting to be thrifty and self-sufficient though, cutting up a whole chicken is a really handy skill to have.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Free Food, Sun and Wind at the Back Door

I know this is going to be an obvious one, but a conversation with a good friend who was virtually clueless about construction and horticulture led me to believe that maybe more people than I assume are just not in the know about backyard money saving. I have done two very different things this summer in my own backyard that have not only cut my bills, but have dramatically increased my quality of life as well.
The first, of course, is the garden. Lisa has tried to get me to plant a few ornamental things, and I have complied in a couple areas, but largely I try to only plant things that will have a utilitarian purpose. As a result, I have fresh strawberries, cherries, and raspberries for breakfast each morning, and I haven't had to buy herbs for cooking since the frost. Last night we grilled (too hot to cook in the kitchen) some really tasty chicken thighs we got at Cub for $1/lb, and everything else we needed to make a Buffalo sauce and salad we either had in our cupboards already or picked out of the back forty:

The salad is arugula from the garden, the dressing was a vinaigrette with feta, the Buffalo sauce was hot sauce with some spices out of the herb beds and a little lemon juice (I had no idea it was so easy to make from scratch), the biscuits were an impulse buy, but they were forty cents per tube, and the Concord Grape Jelly we made last fall and it's been in our basement ever since.
The second thing I've done is this:

For twenty dollars invested in a metal clothesline anchor, I don't have to run my dryer until sometime in October when it finally starts freezing again. I can't tell you how downright pleasant it was to fall asleep that first night in sun-dried sheets. The Bounce Company would like you to believe they can recreate the smell of freshness, but they don't even come close. My freedom of choice has been somewhat diminished (I have to wait for a sunny day to do laundry), but I'm willing to make that sacrifice to don a shirt that smells like a Midwestern summer afternoon.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Set it, Forget it.

For my first post back from my sabbatical, I've chosen to highlight my new favorite money-saving kitchen item, the slow cooker. This thing is magical. You toss in some meat or veg with a little liquid and a chopped onion, and eight hours later it's delicious!
My impetus for devoting a post to it is that Lisa was in a national grocery chain the other day and discovered they were selling (on special!) one pound of pulled pork for sandwiches or tacos for 15, count 'em, fifteen dollars. We thought this odd, since we'd recently hosted a multitude of friends for pulled pork tacos over Memorial Day. What we payed was $7 for five pounds of pork butt. Granted I had to get up early before going to work to toss it in the Crock Pot with a quart of salsa, some chili powder and cocoa powder, but after that I could set it, speed off to work, and by the time I got home, we were ready to go with barbecue pulled pork - five pounds of it, I reiterate - with only the shells and fixings left to set out. Here's how it turned out:

Over the last few months we have discovered some excellent, cheap, and above all easy recipes that involve a minimal amount of cash and effort but yield a ludicrous amount of food. Most feed us for several days on a single afternoon of hands-off preparation.
Some of our favorites from around the web are the KC Stuffed Green Peppers, which you can find here. It's ground beef centric, but could easily be altered to use ground turkey or even some sort of mock-something for those of the vegetarian persuasion. We also really enjoyed the Autumn Vegetable Beef Stew, which can be found here.
The basic principle is this: you don't want expensive cuts of meat, because when you cook it for so long you want all that fat and connective tissue to intensify the flavor and make it so tender it'll just fall right off the bone. This is what makes it really conducive to budget cooking. One of my favorites is for barbecue beef sandwiches. You buy three pounds of chuck roast, one of the more collagen-heavy, cheaper beef cuts, and rub it with flour. Toss it in the slow cooker with a can of tomato sauce, a chopped onion and a clove of minced garlic, a handful of brown sugar, maybe a pinch of mustard powder, chili powder, whatever you like, and a couple cubes of beef bouillon. Eight hours later you have the most delicious barbecue beef that falls apart as you put it on a toasted bun, and all your friends will thank you for it. Or you can keep it for yourself and it'll feed you for damn near a week's worth of bag lunches.
Slow cooker, I sing praises to thee.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Hardware Stripping with an Arm and a Hammer

I hate buying stuff I shouldn't have to, but I live in a 96 year old house. Nothing in this home is standard. So when I was thinking I'd like to restore the woodwork and hardware, I wanted a way to do it without spending $5 per piece on new latches, handles, and hinges.
I talked to a friend about this, and he had a simple suggestion: Baking Soda.
One quart of water + 1/4 cup of baking soda + 8 window latches and handles = brand spankin' new hardware!
I have to buy new screws for 82 cents, because many of the old ones were rusted beyond recognition, but the actual hardware came out of the bath looking like they were coated in industrial stripper. After a quick once-over with a copper sponge and a pass with Brasso polish ($4.29/bottle), it looks not new, but at least restored:

The top piece is strait out of the bath, the bottom left is after a pass with the copper, and bottom right is the finished product after some polish. All told, it was a full evening's work, but it cost me all of $7 for the pot (with lead paint you don't want to use anything you'll be cooking in later - and do it with an open window), 50 cents for the Baking Soda, and 82 cents for new screws. This is versus $5 a piece for eight new window latches and eight new handles. Also, I can continue this process with door hinges, porch fixtures, etc. All for a minor outlay of cash and an evening of elbow grease!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Fried Rice Is So Easy!

I keep a few staples in the cupboard: a couple oils, a few vinegars, some basic condiment sauces. So when I find myself with leftover steamed rice from Chinese delivery, or with extra meat from the grill the night before, here's something that's easier than falling down the stairs.
Take a decent wok. I'm a packrat, and have a couple. What you need is one that heats up quickly and evenly. Get it good and hot, and toss some oil (or bacon fat) in and follow it with some chopped onion, and a little crushed garlic. Cook them until soft, and add a crushed dried chili pepper (buy them at the farmers' market in September at a bargain and string them up to dry) with whatever veggies you care for (choose two or more of the following: bell peppers, celery, bean sprouts, snow peas, julienne carrots, water chestnuts, bok choy), along with whatever leftover meat you have (chopped into 1/2 inch squares or so) and one egg.
Meanwhile, in a rice cooker (or sauce pan, or refrigerated take-out container) prepare about a cup of white rice. When all the veggies and meats are tender, add the rice and splash it with some soy, fish sauce, a little rice vinegar, and if you like it spicy, some Sambal Oelek. Man, that stuff is good. If you are of the vegetarian/vegan persuasion leave out the meat and fish sauce/egg, or subsitute tofu. However, if you leave out the fish sauce you may want to supplement the mix with more salt before it's done cooking. Stir until tasty, and serve with a cold beer for taste bud preservation. I personally added more soy and a little more Sambal afterwards, and was not at all disappointed.