Friday, July 11, 2014

Grocery Budgeting

No recipes today, but another topic about  which I feel strongly: grocery budgeting.

Sticking to a small grocery budget can be difficult, even for someone who doesn't have food allergies. My grocery budget is around $100 per week for our family of 5 with allergies to egg, wheat and shellfish. This includes toiletries and food for our two dogs and one cat. Here's how I am able to do that: 

Planning, planning, planning!
Once a week I sit down and plan out the menu for the following week. My weekly planner also includes a spot for activities going on during the week, because that can have an effect on what I plan for a particular day. For example, if I work late, I might plan something that's quick or something that can go in the crockpot. If I don't work, I might plan something that takes longer to fix, like a roast chicken. 

Sale Ads
I build our menu around what we have in the fridge and pantry and what is on sale. I have definite thresholds for what I will buy. For meat, it is generally $1.99/pound. For fruit, it's generally $.99/pound. I do buy pre-made cereal, and my threshold for that is $1.99, with coupons.

Naturally Allergy-Friendly Meals
As I'm planning meals, I look first at meals that are naturally free of our allergens. Allergy-friendly substitutes can be found, but they are generally very expensive. To avoid wheat, I look for dishes that are rice-based or naturally grain-free.


Some people criticize coupons for only being for highly processed stuff that doesn't work for people with food allergies, and I admit that I used to think like that too. Then I was in on a webinar with a couponing expert whose son had food allergies. She put it this way: anything that she could save with coupons was more that she could put toward allergy-friendly food for her son. That clicked for me. She also pointed out that many allergy-friendly foods often have coupons. For example, I can regularly find coupons for Schar Gluten-Free, So Delicious Dairy-Free and Van's. Enjoy Life has coupons that you can print monthly. Subscribe to your favorite allergy-friendly brands' emails and like them on Facebook for more coupons.

I also try to stack coupons with sale ads to maximize savings. For example, cereal that is normally $3+ still doesn't fall under my threshold with a $.50 coupon. However, cereal that is on sale for $1.49, with a $.50 coupon makes for a more affordable treat.

Some people go hog wild with coupons and sale ads, buying as many as they can get at that price. If you have unlimited storage space and grocery budget, this is one way to fill in the gaps between sales. However, for those of us living on a strict budget, spending $25 on salad dressing because we can get it cheap is not necessarily a good option. As with most things in life, moderation is probably the best thing here. 

Whole Foods (not the store)
I tend to buy whole foods - that is foods that aren't very processed. Most weeks, the bulk of my shopping list is produce, much of which is on sale. 

Gleaning and Canning
During the growing season, I'm not bashful about letting people know that I will take any extra produce they may have. I use surplus tomatoes to make salsa, zucchinis to make relish, and fruit to make jam. I have yet to find the fruit or vegetable that leaves me stumped as to what to do with it.

Non-Food Items
I have absolutely no brand loyalty whatsoever. I will buy whatever is cheapest with sales and coupons. This extends to non-food items as well. With sales and coupons I am frequently able to get shampoo, toothpaste, and deodorant cheap or free.

Splurge Sometimes!
With my kids' restricted diets, I do allow splurges from time to time, usually something that's on sale and for which I have coupons. One thing that I do periodically is have the kids draw a recipe. I keep track of all the recipes in my collection and once a week, the kids can each draw a recipe from the recipe bag. It's fun for them and can sometimes break us out of a menu rut.

What are your best grocery budgeting tips?

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Crostini with Kale Pesto & Mango-Dill Salsa Fresca (Chopped Challenge)

Work had a Chopped-inspired challenge this week. The theme was Healthy Appetizers. We got our "baskets" Friday, and as I looked through the contents, I knew roughly what I was going to make. Kale + pecan halves + smoked Gruyère cheese + dill weed + a mango = kale pesto + mango salsa.

I started with toasting the pecans.

While they were cooling, I removed the kale from the tough stems.

This yielded me a nice bowlful. Next I boiled, then blanched them.

Look at that beautiful green! Once they were done, I dried them in a clean towel. While the kale was drying, I chopped the pecans, then popped them and the kale into the blender. I grated the Gruyère directly into the blender. Why dirty up another bowl?

I then blended it all, adding the olive oil to make it a nice consistency. Trust me, it takes more olive oil than you think initially. You'll know you're getting a good consistency when puréed kale starts flying around the blender. Kale carnage is good.

With the pesto done, I made the salsa, using the mango, a couple of heirloom tomatoes, some spring onions and the dill weed. Unfortunately at this point, I got involved in the process and forgot to take photos. I really should have taken a picture of the mango hedgehog!

This sat in the fridge overnight. The kids sampled the pesto and declared it yummy.

The next morning, I sliced up the gluten-free French bread I'd baked yesterday afternoon and broiled it until it was crispy. Note: Be sure to watch it carefully! It can go from perfectly toasted to black around the edges in no time flat! And don't be tempted to set the broiler on high.

When the competition time came, I topped some of the toast slices with the pesto and some with the salsa, grated more Gruyère over it all and sprinkled it with dill weed. I was very pleased with how it turned out. I didn't win - I lost out to Caribbean Chicken Sliders - but I had fun and I didn't have any pesto left by the end of the evening! Thomas, my budding foodie, put some of it on half of a matzo, then topped it with shredded Gruyère.

Crostini with Kale Pesto & Mango-Dill Salsa Fresca

1 loaf gluten-free French bread (I used the recipe from The Allergy-Free Cook Bakes Bread by Laurie Sadowski. Udi's makes a frozen French bread loaf, but it uses eggs. Or if you're not concerned with gluten/wheat, you could use a regular French bread loaf.)
Kale Pesto:
1 bunch kale, tough stems removed
1 to 2 cloves garlic, sliced
2 ounces pecan halves, toasted (1/2 cup)
2 ounces shredded Gruyère cheese
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, or to desired consistency
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
Mango-Dill Salsa Fresca:
1 mango, diced
2 heirloom tomatoes, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon dill weed
2 spring onions or 1/2 yellow onion, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground coriander

Preheat broiler. Slice French bread into 1/2-inch-thick slices and arrange in a single layer on a baking sheet. Broil for 1 to 2 minutes per side, or until toasted.

Toast pecans in a dry skillet over medium-low, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 2 to 4 minutes. Cool, then roughly chop.

For Kale Pesto: Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Blanch kale for about a minute, then plunge into an ice bath. Drain the kale, and pat dry with a clean towel. Add kale, garlic, pecans and shredded Gruyère to a food processor or blender and process. While blender or food processor is running, add lemon juice and olive oil in a steady stream until desired consistency is reached. Salt and pepper to taste.

For Mango-Dill Salsa: Combine all ingredients.

Assembly: Top half of the toasted bread slices with Kale Pesto and half with Mango-Dill Salsa. If desired, sprinkle with additional finely shredded Gruyère and broil for a minute to melt cheese.


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Greek Potato Salad

This winter has been long. Very long. It finally turned nice this week, and the kids wanted a cookout. Among the traditional cookout sides, potato salad has always been an issue with food allergies (see Red Skin Potato Salad), but I thought I had found a recipe that sounded good, and that was Daniel-friendly.  I also thought I remembered all the ingredients when we spontaneously decided to get cookout food.

I should know better than to trust my memory.  The recipe called for store-bought tzatziki sauce, which, aside from the fact that it cannot be found in town, I did not remember.  I did remember the cucumber.

So, potato salad with cucumbers. Okay, I can do that. Hm, sounds Greek to me!

For Red Skin Potato Salad, I used sour cream, but since then, I've discovered Greek yogurt. Toss is the kalamata olives in the fridge, some oregano, some olive oil, some white balsamic vinegar, and it becomes yummy.

Credit does have to go to Thomas, my taste-tester, for suggesting the addition of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. For this, I prefer the white balsamic vinegar for it's lighter taste and color.

Greek Potato Salad

3 to 4 red-skinned potatoes, cubed
1/2 large cucumber, diced
1/2 cup pitted and quartered kalamata olives
1 carton (6 ounces) plain Greek yogurt
1 teaspoon oregano
Sea salt and pepper
Olive oil (a good drizzle)
White balsamic vinegar (a good splash - maybe a couple of tablespoons)

Cook potatoes in water until tender, about 10 minutes.  Allow to cool while chopping the cucumber and olives. Mix cucumber, olives and potatoes in a large bowl. Add yogurt and gently fold to coat vegetables. Add oregano, salt and pepper to taste, olive oil and vinegar. Gently combine, but make sure it's mixed well.  Chill, if desired.  Makes 6 to 8 servings.

This would be good with feta cheese, too, but I didn't happen to have any.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Spaghetti Squash Casserole

When the lunch lady asks you for a recipe, you know you might have a winner.

Because of his food allergies, Daniel takes his lunch every day.  Often it is leftovers from the night before, especially if it was something that he ate well.  The lunch lady heats it up for him, and he eats with his classmates.  No big deal, he just has a different meal.  The cook is gone when I pick Daniel up, so she sometimes comments on the previous day's meal the next day.

The day after Daniel brought this dish, she said it looked and smelled really good.  She was tempted to try a bite, but that wouldn't be right.  We still had some leftover, and Daniel really liked it, so I sent it again the next day, and I sent a little bit for her to sample.  The next day, she asked me for the recipe.

Like most of my recipes, it's really pretty simple.  As I have reminded my budding chefs, often the simplest things are the best.  Or, as culinary grand dame Julia Child put it, "You don't have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces - just good food from fresh ingredients."

This recipe came from a gift of cooked spaghetti squash.  A gallon bag of it. That's a lot of spaghetti squash.

The first two meals of the week were tomato-based, and they were, sadly, flops. It happens.  We move on.  I was ready for something less tomatoey.  No marinara on spaghetti squash.  It would have taken a lot of marinara anyway.

I picked up a package of Italian sausage on the way home, and I just happened to have a carton of ricotta cheese in the fridge.  As you can see, this was largely improvisational, which is why I don't have more pictures.  I wasn't sure how it would turn out.

But it did.  And everyone, even the cook at school, pronounced it a keeper.

Spaghetti Squash Casserole with Sausage

1 to 2 spaghetti squash, cooked and flesh shredded (I actually not entirely sure how much spaghetti squash I had.  It was a gallon bag almost full, and the chef told me he had fixed two spaghetti squash.)
1 package (16 ounces) Italian sausage
1 carton (16 ounces) part-skim ricotta cheese
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese (the kind in the can is fine, although the real stuff will pack a better flavor punch)
1/8 cup dried basil (or fresh if you have it)
1/2 cup shredded Italian blend cheese

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Remove sausage from casings and brown.  If you like, you can add garlic to it as well.  Come to think of it, I'm not sure why I didn't.  Break up the sausage into small pieces, more like cooked ground beef.

Combine spaghetti squash, cooked sausage, ricotta, Parmesan and basil in a very large bowl.  Mix well.

Pour the whole thing into a greased casserole dish. (I used a 9-inch square dish, but an 11x7-inch pan would probably have worked a little better; it was full to the top.)  Sprinkle with the Italian blend cheese.  Bake at 350°F for about 30 minutes, or until heated through.  Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Hotel Fried Bananas

We've been traveling for the holidays.  I like to stay in hotels that have some cooking facilities, at least a microwave, because it's easier (and cheaper) than restaurants when traveling with food allergies.  The hotel we happen to be staying in at the moment has a very small kitchenette with two small burners.  It did come with pans and utensils, which made things a bit easier. 

The kids were clambering for dessert, but what can you do with no oven and allergies to wheat and eggs?  And I didn't want to buy a lot of ingredients, most of which I wouldn't use before we had to leave.

I did have two bananas left from the small bunch that I got when getting groceries for the stay.  Hm, skillet, bananas...  Ding, ding ding!  Inspiration.  Fried bananas.

I took a little help from breakfast, with a couple of pats of butter, a bit of brown sugar and a few walnuts.

This really is pretty simple. First melt the butter.

Then slice the bananas into the pan.  The great thing about bananas is that they are soft enough to cut with a butter knife.

Cook the bananas until they're softened and warmed, then add the brown sugar and walnuts and stir until the brown sugar is melted and the bananas are glazed. 

Note:  If you happen to be cooking this in a hotel and use brown sugar from breakfast, don't keep it in the fridge; it loses moisture and clumps.  Ask me how I know.

Finally, plate them and top with whipped cream.

Don't leave the whipped cream out where kids can help themselves. Otherwise you might end up with a plate of fried bananas like this:

Would you like a little fried banana with your whipped cream?

Hotel Fried Bananas

2 large bananas
2 tablespoons butter (or 2 pats)
2 tablespoons brown sugar (more or less)
A few chopped walnuts
Whipped cream

Melt butter in a small saucepan.  Slice bananas into saucepan.  Sauté until the bananas start to soften and caramelize.  Add brown sugar and walnuts.  Gently fold until bananas are glazed with brown sugar.  Divide among four small dessert plates, and top with whipped cream.

This would also be good with coconut oil and toasted coconut (which would also make it vegan).  It would also be good over ice cream or non-dairy frozen dessert.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Chicken Thighs with Creamy Dill Pan Sauce

Boneless, skinless chicken thighs are a flavorful alternative to chicken breasts.  They don't need much to make them taste delicious, and this simple, low-fat pan sauce adds a touch of elegance. Because it's so simple, fresh herbs are absolutely necessary.  Dried herbs just won't have the same flavor punch.

Chicken Thighs with Creamy Dill Pan Sauce

Servings:  4 to 6

6 to 8  boneless skinless chicken thighs
Salt and pepper to taste
2 to 3 tablespoons fresh dill, finely chopped
1/4 cup fat-free half-and-half
1 tablespoon fat-free sour cream

 Spray a nonstick skillet with cooking spray (I use an oil mister from Pampered Chef).  Add chicken thighs and season with salt and freshly ground pepper.  You could also use a salt-free seasoning blend.  Cook chicken on both sides until almost done.  The last one or two minutes, add the fresh dill and turn chicken over.  Remove chicken to serving plates.  Add half-and-half to pan and stir to scrape up the browned bits from the bottom.  Add the sour cream and stir until melted.  Let pan sauce simmer until thickened slightly.  Spoon over chicken and serve.

I served this with a basic risotto with dill as well.  Both were a hit with my kids.  Even my picky almost-4-year-old cleaned his plate (he calls it a happy plate).

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Chocolate Banana Shake

Several weeks ago, I was faced with bananas that were really ripe.  I was going to be out of town for the weekend, and they would have gone bad before I could make banana bread.  To preserve my precious organic bananas, I mashed them up and froze them in ice cube trays, with some vague idea that I might use them to make banana bread in the future.

Fast forward a few weeks.  It has been hot here, and, being on the river, it has been humid.  Talk about uncomfortable!  All things ice cream and frozen have sounded really good.  On a whim, I decied to use the banana cubes.  One of my favorite shake flavors is chocolate-banana, so I decided to make a chocolate shake.
Does this not look delicious?

Oh, my goodness!  It turned out to be one of the best shakes I've ever had, and ridiculously easy to make.  I haven't introduced it to the kids yet, because I know if I do, I'll be making shakes nonstop.  Making it with frozen puréed banana means you don't end up with the unblended ice chunks that bother the oldest boy so much.

As usual, some notes on ingredients.  This can be made free of most allergens.  Use your favorite non-dairy milk.  Silk makes a dark chocolate almond milk that would be heavenly in this.  In that case, omit the chocolate syrup.  It could also be made using cocoa powder, but you might need to add sweetener of some sort.

Chocolate Banana Shake

Servings: 1
Three simple ingredients...

6 frozen banana cubes
1 cup milk or non-dairy milk of choice
2 tablespoons chocolate syrup

Combine all ingredients in a blender.  I used my Magic Bullet, using the handled cup container. 

Blend until banana cubes are mostly broken up.  Unlike ice cubes, banana cubes are soft, so if a few chunks are left, it's okay.  Enjoy immediately.