Monthly Archive: March 2010

Food Stretching With Pea Soup

It’s the season for ham to be on sale. While I didn’t go completely frugal, opting for a spiral cut ham at $1.39/lb rather than an uncut shank or butt ham for less, I do try to make the most of it.

There are all the ways ham can be served. With a meal as the meat centerpiece. With eggs. In a sandwich. But my favorite, using the bone and more of the meat than some people traditionally would, is to use the remnants of the ham as the basis of a pea soup.

I always loved my grandmother’s pea soup, and my mother has taken over doing a good job of it. What surprised me is the first time I ever made one, some 4 – 5 years ago, it was better than any pea soup I’d ever had, matriarchal or otherwise.

That was having no clue how to make one, and as usual taking my cues from recipes online. I’ve varied it, but basically it’s the same deal. I boil the bone and attached meat at some length and ultimately get it off the bone, then cook dry peas in the resulting broth with meat, maybe adding additional meat. There can be onion if I have any. There can be shredded carrot for variety, if I have any and feel like it. Seasoning is mostly the smoky meat and the flavor inherent in the peas, but besides some onion it’s most likely to involve bay leaf, maybe some garlic. I believe I’ve put in some red pepper flakes before, as I would for certain beef dishes.

I like split peas for cooking speed, and don’t mind the mushier texture. Turns out my grandmother prefers whole peas. The time I tried them, it seemed like they took forever to get done. She actually starts with them and adds the meat, where I automatically started by cooking down the meat, as I would with a chicken or turkey carcass to make broth/soup. I like lentils so much, I’ve been tempted to make a lentil soup with ham, but have yet to try it.

Ham is easier to deal with than poultry, in terms of separating out the bone/joint pieces later. My chicken soup almost always has a piece of bone lurking somewhere. Have yet to figure out a foolproof method. For that matter, have yet to settle on a method I prefer for separating the bones after cooking a chicken carcass into submission. Perhaps the closest I’ve come to foolproof was to use a pasta insert that came with my big stock pot, allowing me to pull the solids entirely out of the broth easily, then pick through and throw in what belonged in the transformation to soup. But I digress.

One of my projects for the day is to make pea soup. Thought I’d make a note of it here, since it fits the theme.

Do you make soups like pea soup, chicken, turkey, or otherwise to stretch more food out of what might be marginal leftovers or discards? Any other stretching ideas?

Shopping Stereotype

An appropriate Blogthings quiz for this place!

 

Your Shopping Stereotype is Economical

Cheap. Thrifty. Frugal. These are all word that you can (and likely do) use to describe your shopping style.
Why pay top dollar when you can get a bargain? You love to save money, and you’re really quite good at it too.

You’re most likely to be found shopping in discount stores, but you also know how to rock the clearance rack at top end places.
People are always complementing you on your finds, and they can’t believe how cheaply you get everything.

Eggless Tempura-Style Chicken

My brother recently mentioned having made tempura-style orange chicken, which led me to look online to find out what exactly tempura was, since I’d not to my knowledge had it before.

I learned that tempura is Portuguese-inspired Japanese, foods fried in a very thin batter coating. I recently tried a batter coating for strips of chicken and ended up replicating, except for having seasoned the batter, Chinese restaurant chicken fingers. The kids loved it, and I figured the batter was a way to stretch the limited amount of chicken.

Usually tempura is made with eggs, flour and cold water. The cold matters to the chemistry, much the way hot presumably mattered in my recent test of a faster flour tortilla recipe. The egg apparently doesn’t, because I found it is possible to make tempura without it.

I’ve learned that the best way to arrive at recipes or adaptable inspirations for dishes that contain no dairy and no eggs is to include “vegan” in the search. It seemed kind of odd to search for vegan tempura, but in addition to its most common use in seafood, tempura is also used for vegetables, which I look forward to trying. I’ve had that kind of thing in a restaurant, if not by that name, with cauliflower, squash and broccoli.

Here is what I did…

2 Cups flour (Too much, for 3 chicken breasts, could halve it or use more chicken, or whatever you’re using this on.)

2 Cups cold water (I put ice cubes in it ahead of time.)

2 Heaping teaspoons baking powder

1 Teaspoon or so of salt

A little oil – maybe a tablespoon or so.

Season as desired or not at all. I used a bit of red pepper, a dash or so of garlic powder, and a bit of black pepper.

I deiviated from strictly tempura by crumbling some Ritz crackers fairly fine and dipping one side of most of the pieces of chicken in it. I also considered using oatmeal similarly.

No deep fryer here. Enough oil in a frying pan, nice and hot, to be able to cook one side then turn it over.

I cut the chicken into very small strips and chunks, the better to cook fast and go with the lightness of the batter.

I put the dry ingredients in a bowl and mixed them together with a whisk. Then I poured in the water and oil. Started with half the water and mixed, then the rest. You might watch how it seems and back off or add to the amount of water. Stirred it thoroughly. It bubbled a little and looked a lot like pancake batter. I ended up just drowning all the pieces of chicken in the batter, pulling each one out and putting them in the pan one at a time in two batches. I ended up frying a small patty of batter and crumbs from the batter that was left on the crumb plate. That was yummy and suggests possibilities.

This is very much a keeper. We inhaled it. On one of the recipes I saw for vegetable tempura, it said serve and eat immediately lest the batter get soggy. With the chicken I’d also say eat it sooner than later, because it isn’t as good in texture after it sits a while. Tastes good though. The vegetable tempura recipe also said dredge in flour before dipping in batter. I can see that being useful for veggies. Chicken worked without. Would it have worked better with? Not sure.

Since I have never had tempura in a restaurant, and in fact the only Japanese restaurant food I’ve had is noodles, I can’t compare. Even if it’s not “real tempura,” it’s so good I can’t wait ti try it again.

A Real SNAP

Over the past few years we’ve been, shall we say, financially challenged. We were never really flush. In the couple years before I married, I was barely able to support myself, but had room for more frugality and had coasted business-wise. Marriage would have helped, but circumstances meant I had to squeeze out more money without substantial career change, in order to support more of us. It would have been a bear to apply because I was self-employed via a partnership, but my income seldom strayed far above the numbers that would just qualify for assistance. Food Stamps, now called SNAP. Just never would have thought to do it, even if I’d made less – or not juggled things to appear to make more than cash flow justified, as the case may be. I spent the first few years of marriage and kids worrying beyond worry about money and what could eventually happen, but trying not to worry my spouse. Beyond what implicit awareness there was of the smoke and mirrors juggling involved. There’s a frugality move for you: Breast feeding to save the insane cost of formula.

I digress somewhat.

Eventually, well after I should have, I applied for what is now SNAP. We qualified at the time not merely handily, but for emergency alacrity. That was suddenly almost $500 a month for groceries! Out of what they computed was at least $600 a month for a family of our size.

I was amazed that the official amount was so high! I mean, I’m old enough to think of $600 a month as practically an entire income. Which would also explain why I think a grand a month in rent is the far side of insane.

We went from, well, I think I was spending on the order of $20 a week and getting random handouts of food from relatives, to all that money. (I could be misremembering, because a lot of people online donated us a lot of cash and that is where some of it went, but I was still being beyond frugal, because there were other things it had to cover.) That opened the door to losing some of the biggest and most time consuming frugality measures. Which is another post; the sheer time and energy cost of being poor/frugal. That opened the door to convenience foods being in the house more routinely. Which is another other post, how much extra it costs if you want to be able to let the kids graze conveniently.

Eventually circumstances changed enough that we’d have qualified for considerably less in SNAP, but the agency basically jerked us around to the point where I gave up on obtaining the maybe $200 a month it would have entailed. We could manage. Of course, our income has ebbed since then, overall, and it’s been tough at times.

What’s made it tougher is having gotten used to what was more money than I might have spent on groceries when I “had money” back when, it’s harder to go back. I mean, besides the kids having become locusts. Now I can see the $470 or whatever being too little, or barely enough. I reliably would end each month with at least a month’s balance left on the card. That sure made weaning off of it easier.

I still tried to be as frugal as possible, obviously, but really felt like I was cheating. When I really miss it is when I am forced to buy things like soy milk and soy butter, and when it might help in branching into some of the other allergy options like non-dairy cheese.

I expect to be on it again at some point, with only four of us in the house and my income plus whatever child support figures in being the factors. It will help tremendously, much as I’d like to remain off or move back off of it as soon as possible. [I was a little confused, reading this after all this time, but this must have been the point when Deb was going to move out, but didn’t.]

Did I have a point here? I mean, besides that for me the SNAP benefits felt like we were rich grocery-wise and that changed habits in a way that can be hard to change back? Don’t think so. Outside factors and what is customary for you can change your perception of what is or isn’t frugal, and your adaptability. I know many people would look at that $600 figure for a family of five and be surprised anyone can do it on only that much. I suspect there are people on SNAP who wouldn’t begin to know how to save massively, which was part of the formative inspiration for a blog of this focus. Other are in the trap of too little income, but also too little time. Which is why I’d want to convey as much as I can ways around both circumstances.

Enough rambling. Speaking of being too busy. If I weren’t treating writing here as a job, trying to build something, it might not be getting done. That and the kids have become easier to work around.

Update as of September 6, 2015

What actually happened with SNAP back then, near as I can tell, was that I angered the people at the local office and they blacklisted me. I tried again over the course of as much as two years, culminating with the final time I applied, turning in needed documentation on time, in person, in the presence of the person handling my case, with the stuff I turned in stamped as to when they were received. I got turned down with a notice that was probably all ready to go by that time, and was sent out to me before they would even have had time to review what I’d provided. I gave up and we did nothing else with SNAP until Deb applied in her name while waiting for long-term disability to be approved, with no income because short-term disability had expired. They fell all over themselves to give us about $500 a month. This helped hugely. They actually bumped the amount up a tiny bit when she started getting disability. Ultimately I was spending that plus maybe $300, and that left bills all being paid comfortably, and the hope of things like dentistry.

Then at renewal time in February, they checked my pay for one of the weeks after the four they ask for stubs from. It was an anomalous $150 higher than normal, due to a two week burst of volume that happens twice each year and factors into my average pay. Rather, their newly automated system checked. It bizarrely cut us to zero but left us an active account. This kind of thing had become rampant starting in 2014, with Massachusetts using an automated system of data mining to do checks on people. Someone disabled and far more reliant than we are on SNAP would work one day as a poll worker, for instance. The system would extrapolate that to a full year’s income and shut them off. The latest thing I saw indicated that Massachusetts has a participation rate of around 1% for SNAP, down from over 6% a couple years ago, without an employment change to match. Nationally the participation is in the ballpark of what Massachusetts had been. That’s clearly not right. At the same time, they have eliminated case workers from have assigned cases, so you don’t get a person who is already familiar with your situation. The poor workers are harried and can’t be happy with the changes. They were buried in work in the first place, given the economy. They never did review our case. It had to wait for the six month renewal. We clearly qualified for something, even if the prior amount had been overkill. We’ve been spending the tax refund on groceries for months! Apart from fixing cars, that’s where most of it went, and it was down to what we needed for a car emergency and ensuring a normal Christmas. So it was time to have the help again. Of course, I am philosophically opposed to programs like it, in an ideal world, but this is the world we have. I’d be happier to have a pumped economy with a free market and adequate opportunity.

So here we are, about $1200 a month below the income cutoff for SNAP, and we again get a “benefit” of $0. But they still have us on their roles, considered eligible for benefits, so anything else that uses the same metric, like free school lunch, remains available. Say what? We’re confused. This time it is supposed to be based on information provided by Equifax. Yes, a notoriously inaccurate credit reporting agency also is in the business of qualifying you, or not, for SNAP benefits. First thought was they clearly had something wrong. Or first thought after “why did we give you all that data if something else tells you what to do?” I have started to wonder if it is the savings I maintained and gradually doled out for food and car repairs and such that triggered it. They don’t seem to ask about savings when you apply, though I could swear I remember it back when I originally did. The internet says they take it into account, though, and that you have two months to spend your tax refund (made large through EIC) before it can get you shut off. That seems counterproductive, even as I can see some logic to it. If you are responsible and don’t blow it on a vacation to Disney, but use it gradually, you are penalized. At the same time, if you were that poor, you’d probably spend it fast. Some people can spend a lump sum like that breathtakingly fast. I try to put the brakes on it, because I never again want to be unable to pay a heating and electric bill, fix a car, or cope with a moderate emergency.

So as I revive this blog, it seems we face going particularly frugal again. Most of my business income for the year, as it stands, falls during a six month or so period that’s drawing to a close. We’re in a slow time of year at work, until late November, except for a couple weeks around the first half of October. It’ll be tight. But hey, that’s part of the impetus for renewing the blogging, organizing it better, and making that a big part of each day. It’s a resource that already exists and has income potential if I put some effort into it.

Flour Tortillas Without the Wait? (Updated)

I’m thinking about making flour tortillas and went back to look at the recipe with a critical eye, thinking there was a wait time involved. Sure enough, it was 3:00 when I started looking it up, and from kneaded it calls for at least 3 hours on the counter before forming into balls, rolling and cooking. I thought I might do it anyway, being at a loss for what to make if not burritos, but decided to look up other recipes to see if the wait is a universal.

It’s not.

I found this great video, which if nothing else shows good rolling technique:

For a moment I thought she was going to say put the little balls in the fridge, or let them sit out, but nope… immediate gratification.

What is fascinating about this video and at least one written recipe I saw is that they call for baking powder. Our recipe does not. I have to wonder if that makes the difference.

Maybe, but what it definitely does is make the tortillas in the video puff up like balloons, shades of what a pita recipe is supposed to do in a high temperature oven and with a thicker form of flatbread. (Flatbread variants fascinate me, and it’s logical that they were invented in various overlapping forms in various cultures and regions.)

At any rate, great, fast video, different technique than you’ve seen here in our traditional recipe and method. My burriot plans would appear to be saved. It’s at least worth a try, to see how they come out. Perhaps I’ll update later with results.

Update:

They were easy to make and it worked basically as advertised.  It was convenient, doing them so quickly.  It made about 16 smallish tortillas and only 2 remain.  However…. They don’t taste nearly as good as the recipe that leaves out the baking powder but has a 3 hour rest time.  I’d love to come up with a happy medium, where they are faster and easy to work with – these seemed to roll out better, though weather conditions favored it – while also being as tasty.

Culinary in the Desert

I’d like to make note of a favorite food blog of mine, albeit not one focused on frugality. It is Culinary in the Desert and there’s always something droolfully amazing there.

I haven’t fixed this place to have a blogroll yet, but they will be on it. What’s odd is I never developed much of a food blog or related sites blogroll/link list over there. I’d like to do better in this place.

As such, I am open to suggestions…

Accidental Chinese-Style Chicken Fingers

Last night I had some newly bought boneless chicken breasts from a $1.99/lb sale at Hannaford, wanted to use them, make it fast, be different and please the kids, and wanted to stretch them as far as possible. I sometimes make fried chicken with a dry coating based on flour and/or oatmeal, but for some reason – perhaps recent talk of making allergy-free pancakes sometime (after I get syrup for them) – I thought of making fried chicken strips in a batter coating. Hadn’t done that before.

I searched and found this recipe for eggless Chinese shrimp batter, which seemed like just the thing to adapt for chicken.

It looked like too little, so I doubled it. I also used soy milk instead of water, initially, then mainly water to thin it. It was way too thick. We’re talking a lot of extra liquid, perhaps almost a cup on a recipe that when doubled called for half a cup. I cut up two boneless breasts into thin strips, picturing relatively short chicken fingers. Dipped them in the batter and fried them in oil deep enough to cook one side, flip them and the other side. Deep fryer would presumably be better.

They came out nearly perfect, except I seasoned the batter and it came out a bit odd. To me. The kids loved them. It may have come out odd because I grabbed the poultry seasoning and poured some in, then found the poultry seasoning toward the back of the cabinet and realized I’d used the nearly identical container of ginger. At that point I’d have been better off leaving it the ginger, salt, pepper, garlic powder and pinch of red pepper, not adding poutry seasoning and rosemary. Oh well.

The other problem? No dipping sauce! I love dipping my Chinese chicken fingers, which they looked identical to, in duck/plum sauce. Kids didn’t care, but I decided to try whipping up something fast. Used a little red plum jam, less grape (would have used more plum and no grape but that is a closeout item and a favorite of the kids we may not find again any time soon), some water, lemon juice, soy sauce, brown sugar and ginger, heated briefly in the microwave and stirred into a thinner liquid than I might have preferred. It worked, except for being too strong on the grape flavor. If I plan these ahead sometime, I’ll make or buy something better.

The batter made me think I could do something similar to make fritters. I could also see adding oatmeal for a crunchy fried chicken batter, taking it away from the Chinese style.

Stay tuned for further experiments, and perhaps pictures, which are still on the camera.

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It’s Not Frugal If You Don’t Use It

Being frugal isn’t an absolute, but is conditional. For instance, if you use a coupon to save 25 cents on a name brand item that costs 50 cents less every day in the store brand, is it really frugal to do that rather than simply buy the store brand?

That depends.

On the face of it, I’d say no.

But what if the store brand of that particular item is just awful, as is sometimes the case, so what if nobody in the house will eat or use it? You save 50 cents, or 25 with the red herring coupon, then you throw the product away, or throw part of it away, or you suck it up and don’t throw it away, but nobody’s happy choking it down.

That’s no good.

I learned when I was still a kid, probably more like a teen, that there were things you Just Didn’t Buy. I witnessed my mother buy things we wouldn’t use, but boy it was cheap. It struck me as a horrible, wasteful thing, anti-thrifty.

The same applies to stocking up, buying in bulk, preserving, then not using all of it for whatever reason. Perhaps not getting it all eaten, frozen or preserved in time. Perhaps poor resource management, so the old food isn’t rotated so older is used sooner and newer is used later. Which also touches on the idea that being frugal can involve time and work, and time can mean opportunity cost, but that’s another post.

If you can buy the large container that’s three times the size of the small container but only twice the cost, but it spoils in the time it takes you to use a third of it, you’ve used a small container worth at twice the cost. That’s not frugal. And that may not be obvious at first, and may be something you have to learn.

Same thing with brand preferences. You can’t know that a store brand is worth it, or not, or which brand is better for the price, or which brand you’re willing to settle on for the sheer savings, without having tried them.

There are things I have strong brand preferences for, like Heinz ketchup. Sure, I can eat other brands, but for me it’s the difference between eating ketchup and eating… something that isn’t really ketchup. This doesn’t always apply to name brands. I prefer Hannaford’s private label refried beans, but none of the brands are horrible, at least until you get into the variants that try to eliminate the fat content. That becomes a calculus of preference, cost, and convenience. The convenience factor is, again, another post.

I’ve sometimes fallen into the wholesale club trap. That is, it’s a good price… in a specific brand and a large size. I’ve thrown out a lot of warehouse club food that didn’t get used before it spoiled or became boring. I’ve seen it be less per unit, if you were actually paying attention, for a smaller quantity elsewhere of another or maybe even the same brand. Before I became too broke for a club membership and that kind of bulk shopping, I became very careful what I bought there versus Walmart versus a supermarket. And there’s another other post… discussion of what venues I am dealing with as I write, for comparison with yours and the fact that your mileage may vary.