Finally went to the Coop and got more food for the week, leaving us with $1.23 for the week.
In response to a comment left by Janie, how do you fit “everything in your days and weekends and aren’t completely consumed by food and the kitchen?”
Phil actually wrote a bit about this a long time ago, but to reiterate, making food takes time. It doesn’t have to take over your life though.
In terms of things like granola – making granola requires oats to sit in a warm oven for a period of time. Just do other things while the oats get toasty. Make two pans worth and you’ll have granola to last you for the week (and beyond, depending on how you eat it).
Beans – same thing. Beans require a good soaking (put in water before going to bed or when leaving for work in the morning) and then cooking for a long time. OR, get a pressure cooker. They’re not too expensive, are loads better than you remember them and can cook unsoaked black beans in about an hour. Make BIG BATCHES and freeze a bunch. We got one as a wedding present and I love it because I can cook a pound of dried beans while watching Mad Men.
Rice and other whole grains – make a batch and use throughout the week. Mondays brown rice became Tuesday’s lunch (lentils and rice), dinner (rice salad w/chopped veggies, tahini, mint, cilantro, lentils and navy beans) and lunch (leftovers from dinner). If you’re adverse to taking leftovers for lunch, just add something extra to make it a different meal – smoked tofu, some cheese, yogurt and/or canned tuna, salmon or strips of chicken – for the carnivorous among us.
You don’t need to be in the kitchen every second to make frugal meals – many things (granola, beans, bread, rice, whole grains) require a bit of prep and then a whole lot of sitting around.
While in Boston, we stopped in at a Middle Eastern food market and pita bakery in
Jamaica Plain Roslindale to pick up some ingredients for dinner. It’s not a coop or a fancy health food market, so if you’re a stickler for local and organic, you’ll have trouble here, but if fresh food for cheap (and supporting independent buisnesses) is what you’re looking for, this is the place. Anyway, we got plenty of good deals on fresh pita, olives, dried fava beans and lentils, falafel spices, and Syrian cheese.
There are lots of little places like this in New York, too; the lady in Chinatown that sells massive containers of fresh tofu for a dollar, the Damascus bakery in Brooklyn, where you can get big bags of fresh pita for 75 cents – you’ve just got to look for them.
One of the big ticket items that pushed us over budget this week was a five dollar bag of vital wheat gluten, which we use to make seitan (a.k.a. wheat meat, but that sounds kind of gross). Despite the series of decidedly sketchy pictures on seitan’s Wikipedia page, it is a delicious and versitile vegetarian protein source. At our coop, you can buy a pint container of pre-made seitan (about 3 servings) for about two bucks. Not terribly expensive. But it’s the extra step of making the stuff at home that makes seitan a frugal kitchen fundamental for us.
There are two basic methods for making seitan: from scratch (i.e. from whole wheat flour) or from vital wheat gluten (this is the recipe we use). A little background info on wheat itself will highlight the difference between the two. SCIENCE!
If you click on that thumbnail, you’ll see a big diagram of a wheat grain, including parts like the germ and the bran that you often read about on cereal boxes or muffin labels or whatever. You’ll also notice that while we may think of wheat as a common source of starch carbohydrates, all the major parts of the grain also have protein. The process of separating out the starch so that you are just left with gluten (the protein part) is what you skip if you buy vital wheat gluten in the store. If you start with flour, the process of making seitan involves several rounds of kneading and washing a ball of wheat dough until the starch dissolves, leaving your with a ball of gluten.
Now, it’s true that we advocate for from-scratch processes as a rule, but in this case I’m not sure that the economics of flour vs. gluten show either option to be substantially cheaper (you pay for the gluten and the starch when you buy flour, and then you wash all the starch down the drain when you make the seitan, yielding a relatively small amount of seitan) and starting with gluten saves you a considerable amount of labor and water. It’s worth noting, however, that there are probably some industrial processes involved in the production of store-bought wheat gluten that you avoid by starting with flour, so the latter may in fact be the most environmentally sustainable option.
Making seitan from vital wheat gluten still takes some time, but relatively little labor. Basically, you’re making a dough from the gluten and then boiling that dough in broth for a while. The type of broth that you use is going to determine the base flavor of the seitan, which will of course have to coexist with whatever recipes you eventually make. This recipe from Epicurious provides a good starting point, but we encourage tinkering to determine your own version.
We usually find that two cups of vital gluten will yield approximately one basketball (or two human brains) of seitan. Ultimately you’ll use half of a $5 bag of gluten, plus maybe $1 worth of broth-related ingredients, and you’ll wind up with upwards of fifteen servings of delicious mock meat. We use it in place of beef or chicken in stir fries, or just fry some up in a skillet to have as a steak with brussel sprouts or potatos. Or, for bonus points, we have seitan steak and eggs for weekend brunch. Put the extra in tupperware filled with broth and freeze it. Easy, efficient, tasty.
Along with our grocery budget, we’ve been trying over the past year to make our diet more sustainable and economical by growing some of our own food. If you’re an urbanite looking for tips on how to start a garden despite your lack of arable land, I suggest The Urban Homestead, written by the folks who run the Homegrown Evolution blog (actually, they were kind enough to link to our site recently, motivating me to finally finish up this post).
Last spring we laid out some cash for soil, pots, and seedlings from the Brooklyn Botanical Garden in hopes of reaping a harvest of tomatos, squash, strawberries, snap peas, and herbs; all from the five by five foot balcony off the back of our apartment. Ultimately, we managed to collect one tomato and one very small strawberry. The rest was devoured, or just wantonly torn apart, by packs of vicious, sadistic, nihilist squirrels (Sciuridae horribilis). I can’t understand how they didn’t get an explicit mention in the ten plagues of Egypt.
From the wreckage, however, we were able to salvage our herb plants, which we have since transplanted into smaller pots and brought inside. And here we get to the point: an indoor herb garden is attractive, fairly easy to maintain, and will save you a load of money when compared to buying fresh herbs from the store every time you need them.
First, a couple household articles of faith concerning herbs:
1. Dried herbs in plastic canisters, while they will do in a pinch, can never stand up to flavorful fresh herbs. Yes, there are tips and tricks you can use to get the most flavor out of your dried herbs (e.g. don’t store them above your stove), but all in all it’s a losing battle.
2. Packs of herbs that you buy at the store are expensive, and almost always give you more than you need for a given recipe (unless you’re buying basil to make pesto, for instance), leaving you with the choice of either finding a bunch of recipes to use the rest up before they go bad or maybe drying them yourself for later use. For the latter, refer to article 1.
With a relatively small cash outlay, an indoor herb garden can provide you with a perpetual supply of your favorite herbs and you don’t have to worry about using them up before they spoil. Aside from watering and occassional pinching, you don’t have to put much work in.
At the moment, our garden provides us with basil, rosemary, sage, thyme, mint, marjoram, and lemon verbena. We use one or the other of them several times a week, often to delicious result. And in case you’re having trouble thinking of something other than tomato sauce that benefits from the application of fresh herbs, here are a couple great ways to showcase your herb garden:
As promised, here is the first installment of our series of basic tips on how to make your meals cheaper without sacrificing the quality of food you’re eating. Like many of the skills (well, maybe more like practices – not too much real skill involved here) we employ, this post focuses on spending your time instead of your money to put together good, healthy meals. The idea here is to share ideas, and not just our ideas, so if anybody out there has some input or a response to these suggestions, let fly.
The idea, as you can glean from the title, is buying foods in bulk whenever possible. I’m not talking about a five gallon bucket of mayo from Sam’s Club…though I guess that’s a pretty economical purchace if your household has substantial mayonaisse “needs”. Anyway, what I’m talking about is buying unpackaged staples, such as salt, sugar, grains, tea, honey, nuts, beans, etc. by weight.
Why is this cheaper? Without doing any substantial research on the question, my sense is that buying in bulk means that you are paying only for the food itself and some markup for transport, etc., but probably not for packaging, advertising, or branding. For example, at our coop you can get a pound of rolled oats for $1.09. At Walgreens (online at least) an 18-ounce canistar goes for $2.50, which comes to about $2.22/lb.
If you’re a tea drinker, the savings can be even more dramatic. We got a bag of spearamint leaves (which is all you need for mint herbal tea) for $.28. The bag is .03 pounds, which is about the size of half a baseball – easily enough to make at least 20 cups of tea. I looked online at prices for Celestial Seasonings Magic Mint Tea and found prices of $1.50 to $3.49 for boxes of 20 teabags. So, that’s 7 to 17 cents a cup, as opposed to 1.4 cents a cup for the bulk. Taking into account an initial investment of two bucks for a cheap-o tea strainer, you’ll saving money in no time.
Aside from the economic benefits of shopping in bulk for staples, there is also the environmental impact inherrent in buying unpackaged food. All you have to do is take some reuseable bags to the store* and you do away with all the cardboard/paper/plasic trash that comes with needlessly packaged food.
The biggest challenge for buying bulk is probably trying to find a place that sells bulk food. Bulk sales are more and more common in your more helth-food-type grocery stores. Maybe they even sell bulk in Whole Foods, but since stores like that aren’t the most economic places to shop, your savings might not be all that substantial (of course, if you’re shopping at Whole Foods all the time anyway, buying bulk there is probably a good alternative). If you simply can’t find a store that sells bulk, you could probably implement a Bulk Food Lite ™ regimen – buy large sizes of basic dry goods like rice, dried beans, flour, and so on. You’ll probably pay less by weight and have less packaging. This will be a small step toward frugality and sustainability, but it’s really not as good as real bulk groceries.
*For the most part, I have no desire to endorse particular brands or products on this site, and I have an inherrent distrust for anything with an “As Seen on TV!” label. However. I have to say that Debbie Meyer’s Green Bags are a truly worthwhile investment. They’re totally reusable and I swear they do keep produce fresh longer. When you’re on a budget, losing three bucks in spoiled broccoli can be a real bummer. Needless to say they’re good for bulk dry goods too.