Wednesday, 5 January 2011

New Year, More Money!

I know some people don't like New Year's resolutions, but I don't think there's anything wrong with a little self-improvement.  I also know that today is 5 days after New Year's, but I think you get the whole of January to make them.  Especially if you only keep them a week, deciding on them later in the month will make people think that you actually kept them longer.  Frankly, there are enough resolutions running around about losing weight and eating better, so instead I thought I would propose a few penny-saving resolutions instead.  January, being cold and dark, is a crappy time to try to lose a bunch of weight, but most of you probably spent to much money over the holidays, making January an excellent, and possibly compulsory time to save some money.  So here are some ideas for running a cost-efficient home kitchen.

Resolve to:

1.  Replace more expensive protein-rich foods with beans and legumes.  Beans and lentils are not only nutritional powerhouses, they are the cheapest sources of protein you will find.  If you don't eat them very often, resolve to keep some cans in your cupboard and eat them at least couple of times a week.  Eat the beans, I mean, not the cans.  Cans of beans are very cheap, but if you really want to spend next to nothing, buy dried beans and soak and cook them yourself.  I like to cook beans myself, not only for the financial benefits, but also because something about the practise makes me feel pleasantly medieval.

2.  Start throwing dinner parties instead of going out to eat.  You might think that you will spend more hosting dinner for other people than going out, but I find that as long as you keep costs in mind (and your guests bring the drinks), you can entertain very cheaply in your own home, without sacrificing deliciousness or fun.  Consider starting a dinner party ritual with your friends, alternating the host.  If you decide on potluck dinners your bank account won't even notice that you're having fun.  And while playing tipsy charades (an essential part of any dinner party) is frowned upon in restaurants, no one but your loved ones will judge you in the privacy of your own home.  And even if you live in squalor, you will be amazed at what a thorough cleaning and some tealights can do. 

3.  Replace sugary cereals with porridge.  Porridge is the cheapest breakfast imaginable, while most processed cereals are simply charging you stupid amounts of money to give you diabetes.  Sure, you might not want a bowl of steaming hot porridge in the middle of July, but for most of the year, porridge is the healthiest, and most economical breakfast around.  Endless ways to prepare porridge abound, from dried fruits and nuts, to fresh berries, apples and cinnamon, jam, and natural syrups.

4. Start packing your lunch 4 days a week.  Granted, this piece of advice might not be terribly original.  But no one's doing it.  Having been in plenty of different offices in the last couple of years, I can confirm that the only time most people bring their lunch is when buying their lunch would involve walking long distances.  If you struggle to remember to prepare lunches, you have two alternatives.  Either make extra dinner and bring the leftovers the next day for lunch, or make large batches of substantial dishes on Sundays, and store them in individual portions.  Brain surgery, right?  But no one's doing it.

5.  Learn a few soup bases.  Learning the basics of how to make soup is oh-so-important.  You will save money and eat less by adding lots of soup to your diet.  And the possibilities are capital E Endless.  Anything!  You can put anything in soup!  Dig through some cookbooks or the internet for recipes for blended vegetable soups, chunky vegetable soups, minestrone, miso soups (my recipe is for one is at the bottom of this post), lentil soups, bean soups, and whatever-else-you-can-imagine soups.  Once you understand the basic formats of a few different soups you can play around with them and add whatever you have on hand that will compliment the recipe.   Such flexibility and improvisation allows you to avoid that huge drain on your wallet known as wasted produce.

6.  Save and use everything.  Preposterous amounts of food get wasted by the foolish everyday.  Join the ranks of the elite group of people who know how to recognise when a vegetable is about to go off (without the use of meaningless supermarket best before dates), and can put the middle-aged veggie to use.  If you have some produce that is going off and you can't find an immediate use for it, throw the produce in a resealable bag and chuck the bag in the freezer.  Prioritise your weekly produce: use up things that expire quickly, like leafy greens, at the beginning of the week, and save more robust things, like squash, for the end of your shopping week.  Always save leftovers for later; even small bits of dishes can be put away for an easy snack later on.  Even the skins and ends of your veggies can be saved for compost if you have your own garden, or for soup stock.  Read Stone Soup (UK), (CAN), for inspiration!  Hey, that book works for Resolution 5, too.

7.  Keep some homemade frozen dinners in your freezer.  Note the word homemade.  I do not condone or encourage you to buy or eat factory-produced frozen dinners!  Keeping some delicious, healthy dinners in your freezer at all times will help you out on those evenings when you are too tired to cook, and the take-out menu drawer looms dangerously near.  I'm not suggesting that you never get take-out or go out for dinner, but any such indulgences should be planned into your week and budget.  Make sure that the dinners are something you will actually want to eat as well, and your hunger will stop ruling your debit card on lazy, tired evenings. 

May you enjoy pain-free frugality this year.  And quit smoking.  Blech.


Rainbow Red Lentil Soup

This wholesome, homey soup is based on another recipe in Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home, (UK), (CAN), that I've modified only a little, to make it rainbow-y. And better. Having unintentionally made the soup multi-coloured once, I fell in love with the pretty pastels of the purple "red" onion, yellow bell pepper, and orange carrots and lentils.  You also get red from the tomatoes, and green from the spinach.  Feel free to play around with the recipe, and add different vegetables or spices.  This soup is works for this post on different levels, because lentils are traditionally served at New Years, as their coin-like shape is seen as representative of good luck, abundance, and wealth.  See, that's what you get when you take recipe suggestions from an English grad.  Double-metaphor soup.

1.5 cups red lentils
6 cups vegetable stock (or 6 cups water and 1-2 stock cubes)
3 bay leaves
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 slices fresh ginger root, each about the size of a quarter

2 medium carrots, chopped
1 cup canned tomatoes
1 yellow bell pepper

1 large red onion
1 tbs olive oil
1.5 tsp ground cumin
1.5 tsp ground coriander
pinch of cayenne
2 tbs fresh lemon juice
1-2 cups baby spinach
salt and pepper to taste

Chuck the lentils, stock, bay leaves, garlic, and ginger in a pot, cover and heat on high.  Add the carrots, tomatoes, and bell peppers.  Bring to a boil, stir, and reduce heat to a simmer.  Simmer for 15-20 minutes, covered, until the lentils are tender.  Add the spinach a few minutes before the lentils are done cooking.

In the meantime, saute the onions in the olive oil until soft, for 5 to 10 minutes.  Add the cumin, coriander, and cayenne, and cook for another minute, stirring constantly.  Remove from the heat.

Remove the ginger and bay leaves from the lentils.  Supposedly, people have choked on bay leaves before, so make sure you get all three.  Stir in the onions and lemon juice, and season to taste.

Some crusty whole grain bread and a fresh salad will make this soup a complete, wholesome lunch.

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