Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Sweet Potato Lentil Stoup

Borrowing a Rachel Ray term, this is more like a "stoup" (soup/stew). Soup is difficult for my two year old to eat and since this cooks up nice and thick, I like to serve it over rice. In our house it's called "orange rice" - and, for whatever reason, the kid loves it! So do the adults.

Sweet Potato Lentil Stoup


1/4 cup butter or olive oil

2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped

3 large carrots, peeled and chopped

1 apple, peeled, cored and chopped

1 onion, chopped

2 cloves of garlic, pressed

3/4 cup red lentils or yellow split peas

1/2 teaspoon minced fresh ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon red curry paste or 1 teaspoon curry powder

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon chili powder

1 tablespoon tomato paste

4 cups chicken or vegetable broth

plain yogurt for garnish


1. Melt the butter in a large, heavy bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Place the chopped sweet potatoes, carrots, apple, and onion in the pot. Sprinkle with salt and stir to cook the apples and vegetables until the onions are translucent, about 10 minutes. Add garlic and cook for a minute.

2. Stir the lentils, ginger, ground black pepper, salt, cumin, chili powder, tomato paste, curry paste, and vegetable broth into the pot with the apple and vegetable mixture. Bring the soup to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer until the lentils and vegetables are soft, about 30 minutes (or longer if you are using split peas). Adjust seasoning as necessary.

3. Working in batches, pour the soup into a blender, filling the pitcher no more than halfway full. Puree in batches until smooth and pour into a clean pot. Alternately, you can use a stick blender and puree the soup right in the cooking pot, or just leave as is.

4. Return the pureed soup to the cooking pot. Bring back to a simmer over medium-high heat, about 10 minutes. Add water as needed to thin the soup to your preferred consistency. Serve with yogurt for garnish.

*Note: if it gets thick and the lentils are still "al dente", add boiling water a half cup at a time and cook until tender. You may need to adjust the seasoning.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Meat and Vegetable Lasagna

A few things about me and lasagna:

  1. I like to hide vegetables. Take your pick, but I like to use mushrooms, eggplant and spinach in this dish.
  2. I don't like to spend a lot of time and energy making lasagna, so I cheat with a pre-made, jarred spaghetti sauce. Don't be a hater.
  3. I sometimes use a cup of cooked quinoa in place of the lasagna noodles as a gluten-free, super nutritious alternative. Very yummy.
  4. I like to prepare two of these and freeze one for a night when I don't feel like cooking - it bakes twice as long when it's frozen but it's very budget-friendly
  5. If you like your lasagna a bit saucier like my husband, try adding a can of tomato sauce and Italian seasoning to your meat sauce.
Meat and Vegetable Lasagna

1 lb ground beef or turkey
1 jar favorite spaghetti sauce
8 oz mushrooms, small diced
1 eggplant, peeled and diced
1 T olive oil
1 clove garlic, pressed
8 oz frozen spinach
2 cups ricotta
1/4 Parmesan cheese
1/2 t Italian seasoning
1 cup mozzarella
1 egg, lightly beaten
9 no-cook lasagna noodles

  1. Grease a 9x13 inch casserole dish and preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Combine four cups of water, frozen spinach and pinch of salt in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook for 4-6 minutes. Drain water.
  3. While spinach is cooking, heat olive oil in a heavy dutch oven . Add mushrooms, eggplant and garlic - season with kosher salt and cook until soft, about 8-10 minutes. Add ground beef and cook until browned. Drain fat if necessary. Once beef is browned, add spaghetti sauce and heat through.
  4. Combine cooked spinach, ricotta, Parmesan, Italian seasoning and egg in a bowl.
  5. Spread about 1/4 of the meat sauce on the bottom of the pan. Layer 3 noodles on top. Layer with 1/3 cheese mixture, 1/3 meat sauce and 3 noodles and repeat, ending with sauce on top. Top with mozzarella and sprinkle with Parmesan, if desired.
  6. Bake for 35-40 minutes.

Mission Impossible Week One: Recipes

Week One is over but two of the recipes I made will be here forever:

  • Rich and hearty Beef Porter Stew, made with root vegetables, stew meat and Porter (or other dark beer) - great when paired with a spinach salad and toasty bread.
  • Not just meaty, it's veggie, too: Meat and Vegetable Lasagna is a well-rounded meal that the whole family will like. How can anything be bad when it's topped with cheese?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Mission Impossible Week One: Grocery Shopping on a Budget

One week down in my mission to eat good food on a budget and I’m already discouraged. The grand total spent on groceries this week: $161.19. If I continue to spend this much I’ll be on track to spend $645 this month, well over my goal of $500/month.

Here’s my menu before going grocery shopping for the week:

Here’s my menu after:

So what changed? Well the week started with a quick trip out of town on Sunday so we had “catch as catch can”, or whatever we could scrounge up for dinner that night. I had planned to do my shopping for the week on Monday but my son got sick and threw up on me as we walked into the grocery store - we again searched the freezer for frozen food and ended up with mini taco appetizers from Trader Joe’s for dinner. So much for my grand plans to stick to a plan.

That evening I finally made it to the store and learned lesson #1: never go grocery shopping on Monday.

This is not a news flash for most people - I actually knew this already - but I became acutely aware of how important it is NOT to shop on Monday’s when several of the items I purchased went bad or had a sell-by date within a day or two of purchasing them (e.g. milk, turkey sausage, french bread, eggs) because nothing had been restocked after the weekend. Shelves were bare and produce was sad looking.

Despite the lack of food on the shelves, I was afforded some flexibility because of lesson #2: be flexible and think long-term.

Fortunately, I brought along the menus for the entire month so I was able to look ahead and do some shopping for next weeks menu items and change my plans. For instance, when I saw that chicken breasts were $5.29/lb at Giant, I decided not to have chicken this week, knowing that I can buy chicken for $2.99/lb at Costco. I decided to make an egg/cheese/sausage strata instead - although that plan was eventually thwarted by moldy bread and expiring sausage. Had I seen chicken breasts on sale, I may have stocked up for a future meal.

The real key to shopping on a budget is lesson #3: make a list, remember your list... and stick to it!

Another no-brainer but I’m notorious for making a list and leaving at home. And since becoming a mother I’ve found that more often than not I walk into a store and can’t remember why I’m there if I don’t have a list in front of me. It is so important when it comes to sticking to a budget. With that said, it’s important to stick to your list, unless you see some good deals (see lesson #2). In addition to planning menus for the month, I have planned grocery lists for each week, too, which I also bring along with me to the store. One more thing about making a list: be realistic. Like a dummy, I didn't anticipate spending $20 on beer this week - but still haven't been (and will probably never be) able to convince my husband to give that up for the sake of our budget!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Need a quick fix for that Halloween potluck? Try this Jack-o-lantern Veggie Pizza

Over the weekend we had our first of a few Halloween parties to attend - a potluck at a local park. I wanted to steer clear of sweets since I figured there would be plenty of desserts there, but I also needed a dish that would "age well" sitting out on a picnic table without a chafing dish AND be kid-friendly. Oh, and I wanted it to be fun, in keeping with the Halloween theme.

After hours of scouring recipes for something other than "mummies"(a.k.a. pigs-in-a-blanket) or chicken fingers that look like human fingers, I decided to create my own. The cold vegetable pizza was one of my mom's go-to appetizer recipes that I remember her making. There aren't too many variations of this but in my jack-o-lantern version here, I decided to hide the broccoli in the cream cheese spread and limited the toppings to those that are orange. You could also add some food coloring or pureed carrots to the cheese spread to give it a deeper orange color. Have fun!

Halloween Vegetable Pizza Appetizer

2 cans crescent rolls
1 8 oz block cream cheese
1 packet ranch dressing mix
1 cup mayonnaise
1 broccoli crown
1 orange bell pepper
4 carrots
1 can chopped black olives

Arrange crescent rolls to cover round sheet pan in the shape of a pumpkin, including stem - trim edges as necessary. Bake according to package directions.

While the crescent crust is baking, finely chop pepper and carrots using food processor. Do this at the same time so pieces are uniform and well blended. Scrape vegetables into bowl. Fine chop broccoli in food processor. Reserve 1/4 cup of the broccoli - it will be used on the pumpkin stem. Add cream cheese, mayonnaise and dressing mix to food processor. Blend well.

Once crust is cool, spread cheese mixture on top. Spread reserved broccoli on stem and cover the rest of the crust with the pepper/carrot mix. Add black olives for eyes, nose and mouth of jack-o-lantern.

Refrigerate for at least one hour before serving.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Food taxes take a bite out of family budgets

Just as many families are struggling, many municipalities across the country are also facing economic uncertainty. To alleviate financial woes, many of these cities and states have already, or are considering, increased or exise food taxes disguised as "health initiatives" to reduce obesity. Most of these proposed taxes target sugar-sweetened beverages and "junk food." But while politicians argue that these taxes support efforts to promote healthier lifestyles by limiting unhealthy choices, the bottom line is that it's a government money grab – and they're stealing from the mouths of babes.

Currently 31 states exempt food for at-home consumption from the state sales tax, though many of those pay local food taxes instead. Eleven states tax groceries at a lower rate, and five tax at the full rate but offer rebates. Two states provide no off-set for food and tax at the full rate. According to the Center on Budget and Policy priorities,

For a family of four that spends the lowest amount considered necessary for a nutritious diet and lives in a typical state that taxes food, sales taxes on food cost some $350 a year. That amount is more than a week's income for a family at the poverty line.

That was in 1998. One can only imagine what food taxes cost families now that we've seen record taxes increases at every level. Additional taxes, like the soda tax, only serve to make already tight budgets even tighter.

One might argue that if the unhealthy foods are more expensive, people will buy less of them and more healthful foods. But the truth, according to a recent study, is that the cost of fruits and vegetables has increased by 200% since 1983, 3 times greater than the increase seen in sugars and sweets, and roughly 6 times the increase seen in carbonated beverages. Like it or not the reality is that if the cost of unhealthy foods goes up, people will just be spending more money buying less of any food – not ideal in these economic times.

Yes, sometimes I'm stunned and saddened when I see families at the grocery store with a cart full of "junk" food. There's nary a person out there who doesn't know that soda is full of sugar, that chips and Oreos are laden with fat, and that fruits and vegetables are good for you. So, I ask myself, why are they feeding themselves and their children junk and avoiding fruits and vegetables? And then I remember that those five seconds I spent looking at those people with that cart are just a snapshot of their lives –I have no idea what's going on at home or what food lands on the dinner table - and I'm in no position to judge.

The bottom line is that year after year, studies have shown that when it comes to what drives consumers to purchase certain foods, taste usually wins out (albeit just slightly) over price – and one could argue that chips are tastier and cheaper than spinach. But cost is still a huge factor. So why don't we cut the taxes and let people have more money to choose healthy foods?

Monday, October 11, 2010

Mission Impossible: Eating good food on a budget

Is it me or does it seem like the cost of food has gone up - way up - lately? It seems that I'm getting fewer items with a higher price tag every time I walk into the supermarket. Granted, I've been making more frequent shopping trips and planning less than I used to, but I still can't fathom how two bags of groceries can cost $60.

Though I've looked at our food costs per month in the past, it's been a while. Like everyone else, I noticed money's been tighter these days though between the economy, a recent job change, and a move, I accepted it and moved on. But you can only ignore the facts so long - and the fact is our spending seems to have gotten out of control.

So I decided to look at our food purchases over the last 8 months. Fortunately, I purchase everything on my Costco American Express card* which a) results in a nice, fat cash rebate at the end of the year and b) automatically itemizes your spending into categories, like "groceries" and "restaurants" and puts into a nice graph and spreadsheet in their on-line account management site. (*Note: this is only smart if you pay your credit card off in full each month.) While the numbers aren't totally accurate - I had to add a percentage of "wholesale" purchases into my "groceries" amount since we buy a lot of bulk food at Costco - it gave me a rough idea of how much money we're spending per month and saved me a ton of time.

I was shocked when I realized that we have more than doubled our spending on food since spring to nearly $1000 per month for a family of three (one of whom eats more pretend food than real food). I am not proud of this number but I know I am not alone.

Amongst my friends, some report spending upwards of $1200/month on food on a family of 3 or 4! My budget-conscious friends have told me they are able to keep grocery bills to around $400/month, which is where we were just 8 months ago. So I set out to create a 4 week menu on a monthly budget of $500/month.

The challenge here is eating good, wholesome, nutritious food on a budget. In truth, I feel like I can keep this under $500/month but I don’t want to be so unrealistic that I fail miserably - and at this point any reduction in spending is good. I’ve allowed some room for increased food costs (both wheat and soy costs are expected to continue rising, among others) and I’m not prepared to compromise too much on quality. There are some more expensive items that just taste better and it’s important to me to provide a variety foods my family likes because, well, we live to eat.

So here’s the plan: each week I’ll post my menu, selected recipes, grocery receipts and notes on sticking to a budget. I’ll test the waters first and you can jump in when you’re ready!