March 29, 2008

Saturday Night in Maine Means Beans!

And a Recipe for Bert's Beans

Ahhh, yes, Saturdays in Maine do mean baked beans! Not just at the bean suppers that happen in town and church halls al over the state on Saturday nights, but at home too. While the traditional public supper offerings include three kinds of beans, cole slaw, biscuits, and homemade pies for dessert, at home you can tailor this inexpensive yet nutritious meal to meet your family's tastes.

Bert, who bakes beans for our church suppers several times a year, also cooks a potful at home every few weeks, and he's come up with a delicious combination of beans. He uses at least two kinds cooked together, usually meaty Jacob's cattle, pinto or kidney beans with maybe some pea beans other smaller beans. With the molasses, mustard, onions, and salt pork, this makes a fragrant and tasty meal.

We usually have corn bread, sometimes with whole kernel corn and some red pepper flakes mixed in or once in a while with chopped green pepper and onion (much like making hush puppies). We may have cole slaw or a salad, but I have to put homemade chunky applesauce on the table too.

Old New Englanders used to have the leftover beans (and pies if any were still hanging around) for breakfast on Sunday mornings. We're more likely to have beans over split and toasted pieces of leftover cornbread for lunch. And if Bert's made a big batch of beans, I use the extra to make the Baked Bean Soup in The Frugal Family Kitchen Book.

I'm including Bert's Baked Bean Recipe here, but remember, like most good cooks, it's hard for him to list exact measurements.

Bert's Baked Beans

#2 lbs. dry beans - all one kind or use a mix
1 c molasses
1 c white sugar
1 1/2 tsp dry mustard
1/4 tsp pepper
2 medium onions
1 chunk of salt pork, scored on the top - When we raised pigs, Bert liked to use the ham hocks.

Soak beans overnight, covering them with plain water. In the morning, simmer the beans in that liquid for about 40 minutes, then add the molasses, sugar, dry mustard, pepper, onions, and salt pork. Put into beanpot. Yes, you'll have leftover liquid which you should save to baste the beans during their cooking time. The beans cook at 275 about 5-6 hours, and you should check once in a while, adding some of the reserved liquid if needed. Sometimes Bert adds a little extra molasses or dry mustard to the basting liquid. You want the beans to be cooked yet still firm. To test, take out a spoonful and gently blow on them.- the skins should split - then taste them to be sure they're as you like them.

Even if you aren't lucky enough to spend your Saturday nights in Maine, you can join in this wonderful, inexpensive, nutritious and delicious tradition!


March 28, 2008

When you Buy Something,

What Are You REALLY Buying?

Well, if you're talking with an insurance salesman, you may be urged to buy "peace of mind" and "financial security for your family." Are you buying "youth in a bottle" as some cosmetic products claim to reduce the appearance of facial lines and blemishes? And of course, we've all seen the ads where buying a certain brand of beer will give you a moment of life that "doesn't get any better than this."

We've talked about it before...what you spend your money on is the way you make your values visible. Of course you have to buy food, clothing and shelter, but how you approach those purchases, how you choose to meet each of those needs is critical to financial well-being. Doesn't this current sub-prime mortgage mess tell us that very clearly?

Both Bert and I are residential real estate appraisers and what we've seen in the frenzied market of the past few years has been astonishing. Many people were buying homes far beyond their needs for housing and far beyond their means for re-paying. What were they REALLY buying?

For the moment, let's leave those big purchases and head to the grocery store. What you should be spending your food dollar on is good health and fuel to meet your body's daily demands. But we're offered so much else... products that offer "convenience," a "fine food experience," a scent of the exotic, food and drink for cozy yet sophisticated entertaining, ingredients for creativity, and the grocery store even offers you an easy way to make your family happy as they excitedly gather around the dinner table just waiting to sample that "home-cooking" you picked up pre-packaged at the supermarket.

Just do one thing at the grocery store this week: Look at what you're putting in your cart and ask yourself, "What am I REALLY buying?" And make sure that you can, and really want to, spend money on that!



March 25, 2008

Frugal, Thrifty, Careful...

or Just Plain Cheap?

Yesterday we looked a little at how the current economic downturn is making frugal fashionable again, and today we're going to look at some words around saving money. You may think this is silly, but honestly, mindset matters!

When someone says "frugal," or "thrifty" or even "economical," what kind of images come to mind? Posotive? If someone says "cheap," "stingy," "tight-fisted," or even "penny-pinching," what kind of images come to mind? Negative? Well "cheap chic" is back and we can all now wear the positive money-watching labels with pride. That has not been the case in the past few years, when it seemed everyone was approaching the frenzied consumer world with open hands and deep pockets.

So, what does this mean to you? Are you trying to keep up with galloping grocery prices and traffic-stopping energy hikes? First, you really need to look positively at any ways to save, feel that you are re-taking control, not that you are being deprived. Second, everyone and anyone in your household, who has even a finger in your money jar, must be part of any discussion about money, any cut-backs, and of course, must be part of the solution. If some in the household are really working to reduce expenses and some aren't being as careful or even indifferent to the gravity of the family finances, it'll be a mess. A mess of resentments, control issues, subtle sabotages. Everyone's got to be onboard, even if in different ways.

You know very well exactly how much difference words, mere words, can make in your view and acceptance of something. Get ready to have the first family financial conference by choosing your words carefully, being ready to listen to eveyone's suggestions, and by being sure that everyone understands that nothing is cast in stone and that there will be follow-up conversations for adjusting, for flexibility.

You can do this!


March 24, 2008

Frugal is Becoming Fashionable...


Just as most things do, the idea of being frugal is once again becoming fashionable. In the mid-nineties, it seemed that people started forgetting - no, not forgetting, but considering passe - the thrifty old adage: Use it up, Wear it out, Make it do, Or do without." The new consumer banner, waving more and more freely as we moved through the early 2000's, certainly seemed to become: I want it all, and I want it now! But now it's time to rein in that debt-fueled abandon.

And therein lie serious problems: Some folks don't know or have forgotten how to say "no" to themselves, they don't know either the large or little ways to live economically, and all the traditional back-ups for dealing with both personal and more global downturns in the economy have been pushed to the limit already. What to do, what to do...

We'll all be inundated with thrifty tips in the coming months, most nothing new, many just common sense, and some requiring real effort, self-denial, a re-thinking of what it means to live within your means.

In the coming days, we're gong to look at the broader issues of the current family financial challenges, and tomorrow we'll start with some words, just words, and what they mean to you, what images they conjure. Saving money has to start with mind-set. So, that's what we'll explore first.


March 14, 2008

A Big Roast for Sunday Dinner, But Which Cut to Buy?

If you want to save money on groceries, not only should you consider serving smaller portions, but you may want to try some different cuts, perhaps cooked in ways new to you. If I say "oven roast," which cut comes to your mind first? Round tip? Maybe ribeye? If I say "pot roast," what cuts do you think of? Bottom round? Boneless huck?

Have you ever tried flank steak? Brisket? Shank cuts? Bone-in chuck? The cuts of beef that will save money are most often those you braise, or otherwise slow-cook with moisture, such as stew beef. And the same applies when it comes to meats other than beef. Chicken legs and thighs are cheaper but really need to be slow-cooked, as does a daisy ham or smoked shoulder. Today's meats have been bred to be more tender, and some of the less expensive cuts can be marinated and then dry-cooked, BUT when you slow cook, you also get a rich, delicious broth.

And then there are other alternatives to the meat counter, things such as canned salmon, tuna, clams, even some of the canned corned beef is a good buy for making a hearty hash...tasty recipe in The Frugal Family Kitchen Book!

There's no doubt that if meat has been taking a big chunk out of your grocery dollar, you'll have to do some real re-thinking about how to best buy protein and iron, how much meat you serve, what kinds of meat you buy, and what alternatives would still give your family the good nutrition they need.

Of course, you can't just make huge changes in your meals all at once or all by yourself, or you'll probably have a family rebellion at the supper table. Talk with the people you feed...they need to be part of what needs to change, and they may have some great suggestions!

And then, again, maybe I'm just a crazy optimist!

See you next time,


March 5, 2008

Rising Grocery Costs - The Meat of the Matter

Probably no single category takes a bigger chunk of your grocery dollar than meat. As I wrote in The Frugal Family Kitchen Book, "To save money, you MUST reduce serving portions, learn to use cheaper cuts, buy the specials, use substitutes, and comepare the costs of various cuts." That's still good advice.

First servings, both how many times a week (and day) you serve meat (and "meat" includes poultry and fish) and also the size of individual portions served. Do you feel that each meal, or even two meals a day, needs to have a meat base? Rethink! How many times a day/week you serve meat is crucial to saving money. Aside from the farm-table-tradition of meat-and-potatoes, why is meat on the menu? Protein and iron, right? Both are easily and less expensively available from other sources, foods that may also be healthier. One simple example? Thai hot peanut sauce served with whole wheat pasta (recipe follows). If you're not already having at least some meatless meals each week, start now with just one. Beans, brown bread and cole slaw. A spicy and filling African stew, thick with chick peas, squash and richly tempting with fragrant seasongings. The possibilities are endless and delicious!

Thai Hot Peanut Sauce

1/2 c water
1/2 crunchy peanut butter sauce
1 TPSP soy sauce
1 TBSP vinegar
1/2 tsp (or more!) hot red pepper flakes or a dab of Thai chili garlic paste is excellent
1/3 - 1/2 c scallions or chives, finely cut
2-3 cloves garlic, finely minced (bottled garlic is fine)
whole wheat pasta

While the pasta cooks, make the sauce. Setting aside a few scallions or chives for garnish, combine all other ingredients in a small saucespan and heat slowly, stirring to blend. This is a delicious, kid-doing-easy, and inexpensive recipe that truly can be made last-minute.

Next, look at portions of the meats you do serve. The old serving standard of a piece of meat the size of a deck of cards for an adult is still valid. Remind yourself of that by setting a deck of cards in the middle of your supper table for a while. Maybe that will help keep family members from reaching for that second hamburg patty or slice of chicken. If you're the family dinner server, consider limiting what you put on the table. One piece of meatloaf per person instead of the meatloaf itself, too readily available for second servings.

One word of caution here: It's very easy to get in the habit of using cheese, in all its wonderful and tasty forms, as a meat substitute. While many cheeses do offer quality protein, etc. many are also high in saturated fats and should be limitied. As a vegetarian, I can certainly attest to how very tempting cheeses can be! To be honest, after having had a serious sweet tooth all my life, I now find it easier to resist a brownie than a chunk of blue cheese!

In our next visit, let's look at the various cuts of meat and how they might offer savings.


March 3, 2008

The Rising Cost of Groceries

It's nothing new, foods costs going up and up, but even for those of us who've been through recessionary cycles before, somehow the good times tend to help us forget how to pinch pennies, especially at the grocery store. Today, I just want you to do something pretty simple to start saving at the store: I want you to get out your last grocerty store register tape. If you don't have the one from your latest shopping trip, then be sure you save the next one.

For now, please just check three things on that register tape: 1.) how much of the total spent was non-food items; 2.) how much did you spend on meat; and, 3.) what one item on that list could you definitely have done without this week? Under the non-food items, were there magazines, laundry products, kitchen gadgets, pet supplies, health and beauty products such as vitamins, shampoo, toothpaste?

While I certainly recognize the convenience of one-stop shopping especially for working folks, the grocery stores also recognize that convenience factor. And in many cases, you pay more for whatever time and energy you save. That may - or may not - be worth it. Using five non-food items from your list, take the time to check the prices at your nearest big-box store, probably a Wal-Mart.

For toiletries, laundry products, pet supplies and even magazines, the grocery store may very well not be your best bet. IF, IF you can do a one-trip, non-food stocking up, buying just and only what you need, you will save. A simple example? I buy spray sizing at Wal-Mart for $.93 a can, while it's $1.38 and $1.29 ( yes, same brand) at the two grocery stores where I usually shop. (By the way, I'm no big fan of Wal-Mart, just a realist!)

This simple exercise, of looking over your grocery register tape, is a start, and on Wednesday, we'll look at the part two, the meat portion of your food dollar.