dinner list > grocery list
Every week, I write two lists: a grocery list and a dinner list.
I know a dinner list seems a wee bit fussy, particularly from me and my Zero Tolerance For Fuss… BUT I’d say the half-hour I spend writing the dinner list saves me at least a couple hours a week and saves me money besides.
Here’s how I do mine:
Step 1: Assess the state of your pantry and jot down any meal idea based on what you can make with what you have on hand (or with the inclusion of one or two ingredients). For example, at the bottom of my list is an entry for tacos (because I found I had taco shells in one of the cabinets), so tacos went on the dinner list and sour cream and salsa went on the grocery list. I usually try to make this list after I hit the farmers’ market that week, but I’m in a kind of Greenmarket limbo since deciding I need to try shopping at a different one.
Step 2: Pick something new to make. I get bored really easily with the same foods over and over (to the point that I usually don’t even eat leftovers the next day if I don’t have to) so I try to include some new recipe every week. This week’s list is slightly unusual, due to the fact I bought a copy of Donna Klein’s Supermarket Vegan this weekend, and I’m going through a MAKE ALL THE THINGS! phase with it. My parenthetical page numbers on this week’s list are all from that book.
Step 3 (optional): Check out the grocery sales. I don’t always do this, but if I’m really hard-up for dinner ideas, I’ll go to the supermarket’s site and see what’s on sale that week. Otherwise, I just pick up some sale items while at the store and they end up as part of Step 1 in this process.
Step 4, possibly the most important step of all: PUT THE LIST ON THE FRIDGE. I don’t even want to discuss how many times I have made the dinner list and then failed to take it out of the notebook and put it somewhere. Seriously. It’s shameful.
With the dinner list on the fridge, I am saved my usual staring-blankly-into-cabinets-at-5pm-and-sighing time and can just get cooking without having to think about it (last night was the pasta puttanesca and it was crazy good) AND I know that the items that ended up on my grocery list have an actual use that week, which keeps me from buying perishable items on impulse and regretting it later (yeah, I’m looking at you, flaccid carrots).
What’s your shopping strategy? One list or two?
5 Cheap Ingredients to Get You Through a Tight Week
Payday arrives every other week here, and the check that’s closest to the first gets a big chunk taken out for rent. (Too big, frankly, which is part of why we’re moving.) That leaves us with one week or so per month, between having paid the rent and waiting for the next payday, that ends up being a pretty lean week. This week is one of those weeks.
Enter Wally, the handsome man on your right.
He’s 11, which is not ancient for an indoor cat, but it’s not youthful either. Sunday afternoon was spent in the vet’s office trying to diagnose what’s making him have a runny nose and keeping him from eating. [Short answer from the vet: “uh, I ‘unno.”]
After leaving the vet’s office several hundred dollars lighter than when I went in, I immediately started thinking about the week ahead. While my pantry was already pretty well-stocked with my usual staples, I started to think about what else I might need for the week… and I realized I have a handful of go-to ingredients that are cheap and would to brighten up boring food (like beans and rice) without spending a lot.
Greenmarket Grub: Potatoes
I hate to hear people trash-talk potatoes. I once had a friend sniff, “I don’t consider potatoes to even be a vegetable” and I rolled my eyes and flipped her off (which, okay, I could do because I was actually online chatting with her at the time). Potatoes, in my mind, are pretty much an absolute good and I feel rather protective towards them.
Remember a couple of years ago when food prices shot up and then suddenly staple grains were all crazy expensive, and there were protests and riots in parts of Africa and Asia over food prices? Well, that’s what globally-traded food commodities can get you.
Rice, wheat, and maize are the top three sources of carbohydrates in the world and they’re all subject to price fluctuations, but potatoes don’t keep well enough to ship very far, so they’re not globally traded—which is great news if you live in a developing country and you’re now royally screwed because rice/wheat/maize is now too expensive for you. Potatoes can be grown by almost anyone, anywhere, in any country. So long as you have dirt and people to water said dirt, you’ll get potatoes and you’ll get fed.
But here in the rest of the world (I hear you say), we don’t have that problem.
Sorry, people lured in by my meatless recipes.
Although I cook without meat a majority of the time, I am completely powerless when it comes to chicken thighs. Tender, juicy little pieces of meat on not-too-much bone, they’re virtually impossible to screw up — and even better, they’re almost always cheaper than other chicken pieces.
My favorite way to prepare chicken (or turkey) thighs is to make Filipino chicken adobo. There are about as many recipes for adobo as there are cooks, but they all rely on a combination of soy sauce, vinegar, and garlic, at least, and usually a little sugar, bay leaves and black pepper, too. After a fair amount of trial and error, here’s the recipe I use.
Chicken (or turkey or pork) adobo
Combine 1/2 cup mushroom soy sauce, 3/4 cup vinegar, 3 tablespoons honey, 3-5 cloves of minced garlic, 3-ish bay leaves, and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper with 1.5 cups water. Bring to a boil and add 3 pounds chicken thighs. Cover, and reduce to a simmer, adding more water if needed to keep the meat covered. Simmer for about 30-40 minutes. Remove from the sauce and set aside. At this point, you can fish out the bay leaves and bring the liquid to a boil until it reduces by at least half. Set a grill (or frying) pan on medium-high heat and grill each piece, skin-side down, until the skin is crisped. The sugar helps caramelize the skin but it will also help it burn faster, so watch out. Serve (with a little of the reduced sauce) over white rice or shredded cabbage or whatever suits you.
Some notes: this recipe is based on what I usually have on hand. The mushroom soy sauce isn’t exactly traditional, but because it’s so thick and dark, you can use much less and get the same result that you’d get with about a cup of regular soy sauce. I usually use cider or rice vinegar, but I’ve used red wine or even plain white vinegar in a pinch (just don’t use balsamic) and swap in any other sugar for the honey. (You could also use boneless and/or skinless thighs, but… meh.) Oh, and definitely make the whole three pounds of chicken because the leftovers are heavenly.
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Turning Sale into Syrup
I come from a long, proud line of compulsive sale shoppers. Because I live in a 750-square-foot apartment, I simply don’t have the room to indulge my sale fetish as much as I could (unlike, say, my grandfather who would regularly send me home with cases of soda or several boxes of cereal he’d bought on sale and had tucked away) but I did recently buy a pound of strawberries and two pints of blackberries which were going cheap at the supermarket.
It didn’t seem like a lot of fruit at the time… until it started to languish in the fridge. It got to a point where it was not exactly at its peak of freshness, but not really compost scraps yet either. I also had a pile of fresh mint that appeared to be headed down the same road and I knew there had to be a way to combine the two.
I had taken this month’s Martha Stewart Living (whose usual purpose is to remind me anew each month how much domestic shit I will never, ever manage to do) to the park with me one afternoon, and there it was: a recipe for fruit syrup. Using that as a general guide, I came up with this:
Combine 3 cups berries with 1/4 cup water and 1 cup of sugar. Bring to a boil and let simmer for at least 10 minutes (or longer if you want a thicker syrup). As it simmers, crush berries with a wooden spoon or potato masher. Once syrup is the consistency you want, turn off the heat and add 2-3 sprigs of mint, then let cool. Use a mesh strainer to strain out the seeds and pulp. Makes about 2 cups.
Although it’s runnier than honey, it’s about the same level of sweetness, and I’ve been using it in place of honey in a number of things — tea, yogurt, etc. — but my favorite use has to be combining a couple tablespoons of syrup with some ice and seltzer.
Oh yeah. Summer can not get here soon enough.
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Meet the humble ham hock.
Kinda gruesome, isn’t it?
A ham hock is the end of a smoked ham where the foot was attached to the hog’s leg. It is the portion of the leg that is neither part of the ham proper nor the foot or ankle, but rather the extreme shank end of the leg bone and the associated skin, fat, tendons, and muscle. This piece generally consists of too much skin and gristle to be palatable on its own, so it is usually cooked with greens and other vegetables in order to give them additional flavor (generally that of pork fat and smoke), although the meat from particularly meaty hocks may be removed and served.
I’d like to say I bought ham hocks because I’m embracing the Fergus Henderson idea of nose-to-tail eating, but it was mostly out of a morbid curiosity. I got them from FreshDirect and after a couple of days of them freaking me out every time I looked into the fridge, I stuffed them in the freezer and forgot about them.
Then I wanted to make some beans.