It’s the Monday after Thanksgiving and I’ve Already Bought Christmas Dinner

There’s no turkey shortage this year, but still, reasons.

I hope your Thanksgiving day was warm and cozy and merry however you celebrated, and that might be ‘uh, not at all, Rachael, we live in East Somewhere that doesn’t do the whole Pilgrim-y myth thing, we do what any sane person does in November and that’s stay inside and eat soup‘. This is all good, although I’m going to unequivocally state that turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and whatever sides you prefer is the meal of the year. Which is why we frequently hit the repeat button for Christmas.

This year food prices are absolutely shocking. I mean like the tub of cream cheese that was $3.69 last year at this time is now $7.69. Even though we are doing ok, we have to be thoughtful. I’ve considered making a price book again, just to track the changes.

Last year prices weren’t so bad, but there was shortages of everything. While the supply chain has smoothed out, the increase in prices is reason enough to spread out the costs. So here’s what we did.

  1. November is our big food stockpile month anyway, so this year we have most of the goods from that – squashes galore, sweet potatoes and a 25 lb bag of keeping onions my sister brought from the farm by her that we love. So with the exception of potatoes and cheese and crackers, most of the sides are set. We have 5 pie pumpkins alone, so I see a lot of pumpkin recipes in our future. So most of our sides will come from this bounty.
  2. Stuffing bread and mixes are cheapest around Thanksgiving, and for the most part, they keep. Same with turkey brine mixes if that’s your thing. So those are bought and tucked away in the pantry for a few weeks.
  3. Our meat share offers turkeys at Thanksgiving, but not at Christmas, so we ordered a lovely bird and popped it in the freezer. Same with salami/cured sausage, so we got that too.
  4. We ordered 5 lbs of cranberries – I love cranberries – this fall and used some for Thanksgiving #2, but still have plenty for more Cranberry-raspberry sauce, cranberry bread, and so on.
  5. Flour and sugar for Christmas baking are also the cheapest right around now, so we just buy a lot. We also have a lot of butter from our last (and likely last) Azure Standard order. We make baked goods for gifts, and of course, for ourselves.
  6. Our Winter CSA runs through December and so we’ll choose our greens and some sides from that. We have a pickup every other week, and the list of what’s available is published the Monday of pickup week. So we’ll eat well, but won’t be able to plan that part out.

So what that means is when I start doing Christmas dinner prep sometime on the 23rd – because much prep can be done in advance – I’ll probably only need a few things. December’s grocery budget is much, much lower than November’s, but we’ll still need to shop for our traditional homemade Chinese feast (the last couple years we have supplemented with ordered food, not sure how we’ll do it this year). We’ll take the kids with us to the Asian market to get our supplies the week before Christmas.

January’s budget is lower still, since that’s the month of our pantry challenge. We’ll buy milk, fruit and veggies and that’s all. It’s pleasant to start cleaning out the freezers and cabinets as we head into a new year. It makes meal planning super important, because we can’t just run out to get something, but it also means being creative, which is a fun way to challenge oneself.

And all that’s great. But by doing it in advance I also saved myself time and mental energy, which is a holiday gift in and of itself.

Why Recipes Are Just a Starting Point

I am not a big YouTube watcher – after talking on Zoom all day 8-10 hours a day, the last thing I want is to watch videos. Also, I just generally prefer the printed word, but a recent profile of June Xie on The Guardian got me watching.

This woman is a badass cook, and is much more along the lines of mostly how I grew up, with a bunch of things throw in a pot or pan, and very few measurements. It was creative, and cheap, and while there were definitely a few recipes that were followed to the letter, most of the time it was simple.

This past weekend found us very busy on Friday and into Saturday. Friday afternoon my son had a haircut, I had to run to the farm to get the next installment of our winter CSA, and then we had a much-delayed Azure Standard pickup. All 3 of those things meant our plan for homemade MYO pizza was off the table until Sunday, so I started picking through our very full freezer for options. I pulled out some pulled pork from Walden Local to thaw, and noodled around the interwebs for ideas. And found it – a tamale pie recipe. Which called for things we didn’t have.

I had ordered groceries – mostly based around the idea that we need lots and lots and lots of cheese for Thanksgiving appetizers, so it wasn’t hard to add (gasp!) a box of corn muffin mix to the order. Do I normally buy pre-made mixes? No, not really, but with only a few minutes here and there to cook, and hungry cold kids after school, I figured I had better take a couple of shortcuts.

I didn’t have creamed corn, but I did happen to have one random can of corn in the house, nor did I have sour cream, but I did have plain Greek yogurt. So I added a full cup of that, more than the recipe called for to offset the lack of cream in the corn.

I baked that, then I covered the top with some of the homemade refried beans I’d made and frozen a while back. Then I added the pulled pork but I also sauteed half a red pepper in with the onions and garlic for a little color and extra veggies (our current goal is to eat 30 varieties of plant-based foods a week) put the enchilada sauce on top of that, and then topped it with shredded cheese and baked it.

And that was how I loosely baked Delish’s Tamale Pie, but not really. At the end of the day my oldest pronounced it good, but it really could have used more flavor. Still, it was filling and warm on a cold night.

I’m a huge fan of the food renaissance that has occurred over the last 2 decades, and I love that people who make food are just as big as rock stars, because food is literally life. I adore trying new recipes, mostly on weekends when I have extra time. I take delight in feeding my family wonderful, healthy meals. I love learning about different cultures via their food.

But look – we all have to eat, right? And not every meal we eat needs to impress Gordon Ramsey. And I’m a fan of the idea that most of the time you shouldn’t be trying.

I mean that. What you should try for is: healthy, nourishing, tasty, and with variety. Pretty, too, I like a good looking meal. But you know what you shouldn’t worry about? Whether you used Himalayan Sea Salt or plain old table salt. If you didn’t use the Burrata the recipe called for vs. just some mozzarella. The pressure to follow recipes exactly and use ingredients that may or may not be out of your budget should be jettisoned.

Completely.

It was just as busy Saturday, so I got up early and tossed some stringy cuts of beef from our meat share into the crock pot with red wine, crushed tomatoes, and onions and carrots – the recipe called for celery but we didn’t have any and I never use it fast enough to make it worth buying – sauteed and then coated with a combination of cinnamon, allspice, pepper and cloves. 10 hours later the stringy beef was shreddable and it went well on top of pearl couscous and a cabbage slaw I just made up, with a dressing of the juice of 2 limes, a couple teaspoons of sugar, a generous scoop of plain Greek yogurt and a little bit of olive oil. I topped it with toasted pumpkin seeds.

This pot roast is always a hit in our house.

The slaw turned out great, even for my not-really-cabbage-loving husband, a win for the ‘use what’s in the house and use a recipe as a jumping off point’ method of feeding everyone.

Because it’s Thanksgiving week and our autumn bulk food stock up time, even though we don’t host this holiday, the pantry and freezers and fridge are literally bursting with food. We’re on for starters Thursday and a series of sides and a dessert for the other side of the family’s Saturday feast. On top of that, it’s holiday cookie baking season, and we ordered our Christmas turkey – oh how i love turkey – so that’s taking up a bunch of space in the freezer. Because everything is so full it’s easy to lose track of things, so I’m working extra hard to try and stay on top of what we have.

This week’s meal plan is a little wonkier than most because of the holidays.

Sunday: Homemade pizza with various toppings – finally! Pesto, fresh mozzarella, sauteed onions, sun dried tomatoes, sausage, shredded mozzarella and tomato sauce are all good options, but really any veggie or condiment we have in the house is fair game. Everyone chooses their own toppings for MYO night.

Monday: Leftover night – Parmesan-crusted chicken I made a while back and froze for a future meal, leftover Italian pot roast, with noodles or more pearl couscous, whatever the kids want. Sauteed spinach on the side, simple with garlic, oil and salt.

Tuesday: Eli Cooks..maybe homemade Empanadas

Wednesday: Chicken Gyros with Naan and tzatziki, a house favorite with roasted Brussels sprouts and onions on the side. Probably a cucumber salad too.

Thursday – Thanksgiving: We make some appetizers and plate some cheese and things. Then onto mashed potatoes and stuffing! Oh, and I’m making these (with sprite for the non-alcohol drinkers and littles) and this amazing salad.

Friday: If we get lucky my older sister and her family will be with us at lunch, and that’s likely going to be a pizza order. Eli and I head out to holiday shop and maybe we’ll get some delicious Indian food out as well. Not a frugal day!

Saturday: Thanksgiving #2. We’re on for creamed onions, a dessert, some wine and Cranberry-raspberry sauce.

Sunday: Time to cut down our Christmas tree, and we’ll need warm comfort food after that outing. Bread of some sort, either Foccacia or our traditional Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day. I’ll pair it with One Skillet Greek Meatballs and Lemon Butter Orzo.

And then I’ll prep a dish for Monday, just to get us through. Occasionally our meal plan holds us through the week, but often things change and our plans get upended. Still, we mostly eat at home, even if it’s just some Trader Joe’s Orange Chicken, rice and sliced veggies because no one had time to cook. Or some ground beef and veggies in a simple stir fry over rice.

But we’ll be flexible. And if we don’t have an ingredient, we’ll find something we can use in our house or we’ll move on to another more fitting dish.

Sunday Food

It looks like November outside, but it has remained unseasonably warm, a thing both enjoyable and worrisome. But what it does mean is that this morning I went out and picked a few tomatoes, peppers and the only butternut squash to survive drought, bunnies and groundhogs eating the garden, and rot.

A hard freeze is coming this week, finally, so I want to be prepared. By next weekend it will be time to rip out the last of the garden and prepare it for next year.

We spent a lot of of money on groceries and supplies this month. I don’t know what it is about November that leads me to stock us to the gills, but every year it’s the same.

This weekend I went to Trader Joe’s and Costco, borrowing a friend’s card for the latter, and stocked us up on bulk items I know we’ll use, plus a start of things for the holidays. I’m not even close to done for Christmas but I am picking things up here and there.

We literally have almost everything we need, except twice now I’ve forgotten to get garlic powder.

Next week comes Azure Standard – huge piles of squashes, canned tomatoes (since our garden really didn’t comply this year, largely because of drought), seeds for next year and some other pantry supplies. Also our meat share and the next drop of our CSA.

So at the end of this week we’ll be in eat-down mode again. After 2 back-to-back trips to my office in Michigan to meet with clients, I’m home for a month, with the exception of a weekend away with my oldest, just us.

We have a busy week ahead with lots of appointments, kid activities and things we absolutely have to get done, so this week’s meal plan was made with that, and the target of eating a lot of veggie varieties in mind.

Knowing that Sunday was my best day to cook, I made the meal plan and then headed into the kitchen. First up was using the last of the farm apples and making Spiced Apple Butter. If all goes well we’ll have enough to give away as well as use. My travel lately meant I was a bit behind on using up the apples, so we lost a few to rot. A couple cores went to our bunny, Marshmallow and the rest of them plus the peels to the chickens, who were very happy about it.

Tomorrow’s dinner is meant to use up the Tomatillos that are still coming out of our garden, so right after that I pan-roasted 2 Poblano Peppers, 1 Jalapeno, 6 cloves of garlic and about a pound of tomatillos at 400 degrees F for about 15 minutes. Taking that prep step out will allow me to do the rest of the cooking during small breaks throughout the day. The recipe calls for carrots and onions as well, so we’ll get a large variety of veggies into our diets tomorrow.

And then my son requested chocolate chip cookies again, so I went to my go-to recipe, which makes enough to eat and some to give away.

Tonight Sunday 11/13: Chicken Parm, pasta, garlic bread, broccoli & the last of the Shishito peppers from the garden roasted with olive oil and salt

Chicken Parmesan will make plenty of leftovers for lunches this week, and we still have a couple servings left of Thai Peanut Chicken Ramen for lunches too.

Monday 11/14: Instant pot chili verde, rice, salad. I combined a couple recipes to make ours, which I’ll post soon.

Tuesday 11/15: Eli Cooks, kid friendly, protein TBD.  Our monthly meat CSA comes today, so plenty of choices!

Wednesday 11/16: Simple garlic chicken, roasted Brussels sprouts and onions, pearl couscous

Thursday 11/17: Just Eli and I, possibly Clam Chowder. Great for leftovers too.

Friday 11/18: It’s pickup #2 of 4 of our winter CSA share. It’s going to be a cold one, so MYO pizza (dough is prepped on Wednesday and cold-proofed in the fridge) topped with tomato sauce or pesto, caramelized onions, sliced San Marzano tomatoes, the last few from the garden, fresh mozzerella, spinach and whatever anyone else wants.

Saturday 11/19: Busy day – High school open house in the AM, the Moms church fair PM.  Days like this call for the crockpot! Italian pot roast, noodles, salad.

Sunday 11/21: Home day!  Roast chicken with roasted veggies and maybe Parmesan Tater Tots, a house favorite. I might get motivated to make some meatballs for Couscous Meatball Soup on Monday

Sundays in the kitchen are busy but fun, and at the end of it the house smells wonderful.

Planting Flowers in a Year of Grief

One year ago yesterday, my brother-in-law of nearly 20 years died of a massive heart attack, the kind of which in the aftermath there is no pulse, no chance of revival, no going back with a lifestyle change, a stent, a caution to rest. After a reportedly very good day, it became a very bad night, for my sister, her 3 children, and all of us.

After all that time, if one is lucky enough and puts the effort in, the in-law part drops, and one just has a brother. We weren’t confidants or buddies, but we adored one another, with our texts filled with ‘brother mine’ and ‘sister mine’. As someone who grew up without brothers, save for a brief stint with a stepbrother, having them via my sisters has been especially delightful.

The last thing I gave him was some of our homemade Garlic Scape Pesto, and this year I looked at the pile of scapes and let them rot in the refrigerator. I just couldn’t.

Maybe next year.

I describe it as a bomb going off in our family, leaving a smoking crater where there was once just level ground. Everywhere you look is smoke and blackness. A year later, the blast is tidied and no longer do waves of smoke rise from it, but it is still hard to look at. Eli and I brought yellow flowers to Billy’s grave under a tree, leaving them next to the mums from my parents, and then left a bottle of wine for my sister on her doorstep.

It’s been a busy autumn. The garden didn’t do so well this year, between drought and rabbits and groundhogs. There’s still some tomatillos, tomatos and squashes in there, and I’m hoping we have a week or so before a hard freeze in order to let them fully ripen. Our CSA ends this week but we’ve signed up for a winter share. Our usual trip to my sister’s to get our fall stockpile of veggies is going to have to wait a year. Our son turned 10, and we spent a brief few days in Florida celebrating. He has taken up trombone and the gardening club at school.

Work is busy and Eli continues to launch his work into the world. We have a teenager now, so we see her less, but are delighted at her friends and social life, delayed due to the pandemic.

The children are thriving after a tough couple of years

We prepare Sithean for winter as we always do. Our pantry is stocked, our freezer is full, and it’s time for fires in the wood stove.

But this year it’s also time to plant bulbs. Missing from Sithean’s legacy plantings were tulips and snowdrops, which are the first flower here, often appearing on a crust of snow, and now is the season. Over the next few weekends we will dig our bulbs in to the chilly ground, cover them, and hope that in the spring another area of the yard is covered in a profusion of oranges, pinks and purples, with a little bit of cream and some blue alliums tossed in for good measure.

When I arrived here the soil was dead and dust in most places. Each year, we amend it with compost and plantings and try to make this place better than we found it. With vegetable gardens and fruit trees for sure, but also with things that just exist for beauty and the benefit of the insects.

We’ll bring a few snowdrops to plant by Billy’s grave too, just because.

None of us know our time left, so our job is to fill it with life and joy and love. As for me, I’m going to fill my world with gardens.

When To Blow Your Budget

On a hike this summer

Yesterday I bought my oldest a pair of shoes. Platform Ugg booties to be exact, for $150, full price, at Nordstrom. They had asked to go get some concealer, and so we went off for a very rare trip to the mall. On our way out we spotted them, tried them on, bought them instantly.

It was neither planned nor budgeted. They were far out of the normal price range of anything I would buy for a 13 year-old. I don’t think they have taken them off since, they may have even slept in them. The delight on their face at their height and comfort could have been measured in kilowatts.

For me, it was a bit of a way to exorcise some anger at learning that last year a former friend had bullied them, hard, in an approach called relational aggression, which is the pointing, whisper campaigns, talking about someone loudly in their hearing at the cafeteria lunch table, etc. Hard to track or prove, it had been an undercurrent in an already hard year. When it popped up again last week at a shared extracurricular activity, I finally got the full story.

Of course the other child’s mom went into deep denial (Not her baby! We must have misunderstood!), and as there went 11.5 years of social niceties and casual friendship, so did all of my give-a-s**t about it.

I did what any Mom would, I documented, I notified the school it had happened and asked for future monitoring, and I informed the parent that we would be watching, closely in the event that her commitments that it would stop proved themselves not worth the air they were promised in.

And then I took my oldest child to Sephora, got what they needed plus a little, and then as we saw those shoes on the way back to the car, I figured my husband would forgive me (sorry honey, I should have called) and I bought them. Not as a te absolvo to myself for not realizing that their reluctance for school and stress was something bigger than the loss of the friendship compounded by a fall consumed with the loss of their uncle, but because as a result of that and other things makes them think they don’t warrant their parents spending money on them. So they don’t like asking for things.

So I damn well did spend money and reminded them they are worthy of attention, money, and to feel good about themselves. If that was received as parent-y gibberish or it landed I don’t know, but there was a day wreathed in smiles (also hugs as they reveled in their ability to be taller than me).

We’ve been being extremely careful for months and months now. We filled the year with trips and that plus some fairly major unexpected expenses and all the deposits and architect fees we put into the renovation have made things tighter than usual. Add to that inflation and we’re just being super thoughtful before we spend any money on nonessentials.

And this was a nonessential, but in the end…also kind of essential.

Money really can’t buy happiness after a point. Given how often Elon Musk whines on Twitter I observe that no matter how wealthy you get, you can’t escape yourself. Often I feel as much or more delight hiking or sitting with a book as I do in the bigger experiences. I love to travel, and I used to like shopping a lot, although I really don’t now. But sometimes money buys not just a pair of shoes, but a demonstration of value, an experience of real joy along with the stuff.

And that is worth a broken budget once in a while.

When A Door Closes, A Window Opens

Hibiscus in bloom, Photo by Eli 5 Stone

Our summer of nothing and everything had more twists and turns than a miniseries plot, but somehow we landed in a peaceful Labor Day weekend.

The children are back to school – 4th and 8th grade respectively – and Sithean is off the market. There’s nothing to buy in our town, keeping the house show-ready was an exercise in exhaustion, and we may have the general lines of a solution on how we renovate without having to move out and to get the space we need.

We’ve jettisoned the architects, the builder we were talking to jettisoned us after we declined to go along with an out-of-control cost per square foot quote – lovely people all I’m sure, but not useful to us now, and we are starting the process of drawing and researching for a new builder.

We’ve taken the control back into our hands and it feels so, so much better, not to mention the relief we feel at no longer having people wander through our house on demand.

So what happens now is that we figure out the path forward without the stress of more architect bills, or without feeling like everything has to be a negotiation downward on a non-realistic construction quote. It’s freeing.

I mean, it wasn’t fun to be dumped by our builder, someone the neighbors raved about – but at the end of the day, he was never accessible, and non-responsive, so what he was to them was a different thing than what he was to us. And that’s okay, because in the end we need to focus on what we need. And what we need is reasonable and decent communication, for a start.

I do believe that sometimes the universe throws up walls in your way when you aren’t walking where you are supposed to go, and that happened here, over and over again. So much so that we started to believe the only thing we could do was move. Once we started to let go of some pre-conceived notions about what our options were things started to open up, in our minds and in the world.

For now, we’re staying put and getting estimates on our newly designed-by-us plan to get our needed space not by lifting the roof and flipping the stairs, a move that would require us to move out for 6+ months, but to go back and to the left, creating a bit of an L-shape for the house with a wrapping porch.

But for today, there’s pesto and zucchini fritters to make, and food prep for the week. For today, we can let go and let things play out over time.

And for another day, Sithean is home.

Summer of Nothing and Everything

Photo by Eli 5 Stone

August is already half over. At first, it was dry and hot – too dry. Now it’s cooled, but there’s still no rain. There’s hope of it this week, thankfully. We need a few days of drenching rain to offset the drought. I’m doing everything I can to keep the plants hydrated, but the earth is baking, and so are we.

And yet the world here is still lovely, and my breath catches at every sunset, despite the seemingly endless swelter.

The first few tomatoes have begun to ripen in the garden. And the kids have had a summer much like I had as a child. No camp. No schedule, with occasional exceptions. Just pool (if there’s no wedding next door the kids are allowed to use the estate pool), bike rides, Mario Kart competitions, and relaxing. I’ve let go of the kids missing out on camp or educational experiences, because that’s not what they want. They want unstructured time. Friends. Sleepovers. Late night tag in the yard, flickering with fireflies. They are happy and content and (mostly) well-rested.

And that’s what I want for them. It’s delightful to watch from my chair as I work. Childhood is short, and the ability to just be is a gift. Also, it’s cheaper than camp, although we do go through a lot of ice cream.

Sithean is up for sale. We don’t know exactly precisely how this is all going to work or even if we’re going to move – if the numbers don’t work it’s moot – but we’ve acknowledged that something has to give. We need space, to simplify our stressors and to be truly settled. I’m grieving at the idea of leaving this magical place, but I also know when we are stretched so tight with all the things that must be done that we may snap – and we are – that it’s time to change the paradigm.

We can’t renovate and adopt and re-launch Eli’s career and maintain my own and eat dinner together and garden and and and….

So we’re capitulating. It’s in the universe’s hands right now. We do not have anywhere else to live planned yet, but we know we are staying in our town. My feelings are all over the place because this is home, but at some point the must-do list became too long and the weekends of picking sinks and fixtures got old just as it started. In another life, another me with fewer demands on time could do it.

Just not this me, in the here and now.

Our Farm Share (CSA) and the garden are both producing. I’ve made several batches of pesto already, and I have the zucchini teed up for fritters. A first pile of Tomatillos will become Salsa Verde later in the week. We are full of vegetable and fruit abundance.

So what happens if I no longer have a little house on my little enchanted hill? I don’t know – so much of my identity is wrapped up in this house and this place I’ve somewhat forgotten what it’s like not to be grounded to a piece of earth all the way to my bones. When I came up the driveway the first time and saw this place, with asparagus plants, past their producing time but looking like Charlie Brown Christmas trees, waving in the trench bed, I felt a sense of home. This house wanted us here, it wanted the love and chaos and cherishing. Homes have energy, and this one was ours. So what now? Do I become big-old-rambling-house-down-a-long-driveway person? Big Ol’ House on the Whatever Hill (in Topsfield that you can expect to live on a hill is a safe bet, an almost inevitable likelihood)?

I don’t know. It’s weird, to be honest, like I’m walking down a long hall with no real destination. But here’s what I do know. I know that at some point the to-do list, rather than the enjoyment of our place, took over. I know that we must live for the life we have now rather than the life perhaps I envisioned when I drove up that driveway.

There’s more of us now, and more will arrive. I know that Sithean is okay with it – a sense that we’ll miss each other but we did our job, providing safety and grounding, and an opportunity for love to creep back in. Maybe we don’t need the sanctuary from upheaval that this place enveloped us in quite the same anymore.

So we’ll find new magic, and let this place wrap a new family in it’s warmth. As for us? New magic will find us. That I know.

The Cheap Girl’s Guide to Inflation Eating

Water lilies on the Ipswich River

It’s hot. Really, really hot. As July draws to a close (how did that happen already!?) we are lucky to be at the cooler end of the heat dome that has covered a huge chunk of the US over the last week, but it’s still 98 degrees here today. And we are in extreme drought conditions, so I’m working hard to keep the plants and animals alive. It’s supposed to rain some tomorrow, and I’m grateful just thinking abut it.

Our CSA is in full swing, and we are working to keep up with using the produce. I’ve got my first batch of basil pesto in the freezer, and more to come soon. It’s almost time for me to make zucchini fritters in bulk to freeze, and shred and freeze zucchini for winter meals. I picked the first cherry tomato out of the garden, too, and that will all ripen soon enough. It looks like we may have a banner year for squash again.

Our summer has been busy and the gardens became a weedfest while we were off doing our things, so I’ve been getting up early to try to clean things out and get the last of the compost spread.

Over the last couple months we’ve pared down what we buy at the grocery store and are really trying to use up what we have. Inflation is impacting us for real.

I admit it, I’m not the world’s most frugal person, but I used to be, and I’m leaning in again, not just because of inflation, but because we’re almost 10 months into our 10-year plan to save, pay off debt and be ready for retirement. While we’ll still travel, something I value highly, and our renovation will be with an eye to the long haul, for the most part we’re just not spending on anything other than food and bills. (And this spring I bought pansies. Lots and lots of pansies because they are so pretty) .

Ok, well the kids both needed new shoes and clothes too. But I’d be lying if I said the state of the economy wasn’t on my mind, enough so that we’ve contemplated whether it might be more financially prudent to move than to renovate this house. I know, I know. Leave Sithean? I can’t even. But I also acknowledge that in order to fit us the dining room is now a master bedroom, and there’s no room to move and nowhere to put anything. The decision process is heavy on our minds.

My son raised money at his lemonade stand for games but also for charity, and he and I went over to my hometown outreach organization to bring them the $20 that he had set aside. Their food pantry demand continues to spike, especially with the cost of everything rising, so even a little bit helps. We are fortunate enough to be able to afford to eat healthy and delicious food, but we are being thoughtful and careful with what we spend.

So how are you going to keep eating well through all the economic uncertainty? Because you are. And so are we.

First, as I mentioned, I’m buying less. I try to run out of things before I replace them, and I’m trying to be conscious of what I can substitute. Today I made homemade macaroni salad (this recipe is so delicious) but I didn’t have sweet peppers so instead of what it called for I added celery, onion and chopped up cucumber. Was it as colorful as the picture in the original recipe? Nope, but it was still lick-the-fork good. We might still buy salmon, which somehow became cheaper than beef, but instead of frozen and in bulk we’re buying just enough for a meal.

Second, we’re using up the stuff in the freezer. I’m inventorying what we have before we shop all the time.

Third, we’re meal planning. Even if we sometimes veer off the plan, it’s always with an eye to using things up. As soon as the weather is cool enough to roast a couple of chickens I’m going to use one of Fed and Fit’s weekly meal plans to make several meals for the week, since our Walden Local Meat share has been delivering whole chickens regularly lately.

And we’re eating very well. Last week I marinated chicken in a mixture of shallots, garlic, oregano, paprika, salt, pepper and lemon juice and served that over pesto orzo (last summer’s homemade pesto from the freezer) with sundried tomatoes, fresh basil from the plants on the porch and burrata, which I had bought in a fit of hunger the prior week. I toasted some walnuts and threw them on top of the orzo and it was incredibly good.

For recipes: I am hooked on this blog and I can’t wait to try her lentil sausage skillet recipe – ThriftyFrugalMom
I also can’t recommend enough the recipes in the Good and Cheap cookbook, which is available as a pdf for free! It’s designed for someone who lives on SNAP benefits or $4/day for food.

For grocery shopping: Bulk is almost always a cheaper option if you can squeak it in. I found 4 lbs of steel cut oats for $10.82 on Amazon, and that will last for a lot of meals. I don’t make homemade oatmeal a lot, but it’s cheap, filling and good, so I’m going to start. Bulkfoods.com is a great source for lentils and other bulk grains but definitely shop around.

If you can, try ethnic grocery stores around you. I use a fair amount of Ghee in cooking, and the Indian grocery store is far more frugal. Same for bulk rice and lentils – I buy Basmati and Sushi rice in 10 or 15-lb bags and store them in mason jars. Even fruits and veggies can be much, much cheaper here. Especially if you buy in season.

I’m not going to wade into the meat vs. meatless perspective, but I will say that there are cheaper proteins than beef and chicken. And breakfast for dinner (my favorite pancake recipe is here and it makes quite a few) is almost always cheaper than other options.

Other than oatmeal, here’s a few things i suggest keeping on hand for easy, cheap meals:

Tortillas & Shredded cheese for quesadillas, burritos, etc
Dried beans (really easy, especially in the crock pot or instant pot)
Rice – filling and you can add spices and a few veggies to it for a really good meal
Lentils. These things are the best. Quick cooking, nutritious and tasty, and cheap, cheap, cheap. I guarantee you will find this Dal recipe addictive.
Flour and potatoes: making almost anything from scratch is cheaper, add a little cheese and make pierogies in giant batches – filling and super good.
Onions – I use them in everything, they are vitamin C and flavor powerhouses
Bananas – if you need a quick fill of your stomach these are amongst the cheapest of fruits. Banana bread is also cheap and delicious if they start to get brown.
Melons also go a long way. I can get a cantaloupe for $2.99 and it adds fruits for lunches for days
Pasta can be added to almost anything and even though prices are up, it’s still pretty cheap and a pound goes a long way. I don’t recommend all the carbs all the time but add some chopped onion and a drained can of solid white tuna to sauce (I’m serious) and it’s a great dinner.
Milk
Eggs
Bulk yeast – do not buy the little packets, get a pound at a time and bake! Well, when it’s cooler.

Of course spices are great and these too are way, way cheaper in bulk. If you can save up for a couple bulk spices each month you will fill your pantry.

The last thing I will suggest for saving money on your food is gratitude. Feeling grateful for a plate of food is something I never stop feeling, even if it’s not what I thought I wanted for dinner.

The moon over Moosehead Lake, Maine



Summer Eating

Roses on the garden gate – photo by Eli 5 Stone

Summer mornings, even the weekday ones, are my favorite time. The air is cool enough for a light blanket over my legs. Everyone else is asleep, and I can watch the sunrise through the living room windows while I sip coffee.

Taco the rooster starts crowing far too early, but even that is part of the ambiance here, although I do occasionally consider really how badly we need his company in the here and now, and come up fairly empty on what he’s useful for.

This year is flying by. Everyone I talk to agrees, and no one is exactly sure where the time is going. It’s crawling up on July. The garden is planted, the world is green, but won’t be for much longer – we desperately need for it to rain. School is out and there are two full, lovely months before we have to start gearing up for it again.

And we’ve been busy, with every weekend being filled with commitments. After 2 years of quiet weekends, I’m happy to see everyone and feeling quite overwhelmed, and wishing for time in my garden. Unstructured time is good for all of us.

But on a rainy Sunday last weekend, I was able to slow down. While it was, in fact, Father’s Day, my husband was in Los Angeles, my bestie, who had come to stay for a few days left early that morning and the kids were with their Dad. Other than the dog, who decided to nap through the morning, I was alone and not on a schedule for the first time in ages.

The rest of the country was experiencing a heatwave, but it was downright chilly in Massachusetts. I sat in bed under the blankets and contemplated all the things I could be doing, which included nothing. I sipped my tea and pondered more, occasionally getting up to do a small chore, such as laundry or dishes, then returning to my seat.

Even that time though, was productive, as Sundays are the days to make our meal plan. As we go into summer, time becomes more fungible, and meals more flexible, fresher and based on local ingredients. Our CSA is heading into week 4, and while the garden isn’t producing yet, it will be soon enough. This week I brought home the first zucchinis from the CSA, and cheerfully broke out my spiralizer. I don’t eat zucchini noodles because they are just healthy, I eat them because they are completely delicious, absorbing whatever flavors you add to a saucepan.

We have lettuce and bok choy and turnips galore right now, along with farm-fresh scallions, so my daughter made us homemade Ramen. All you need are noodles, broth, soy sauce and some seasonings, eggs and cut up veggies. It’s cheap, delicious and most of all, accessible, i.e. you don’t have to have a pantry full of fancy ingredients to make it. Slicing up scallions, cucumbers and carrots to go in keep it healthy and they are all affordable veggies.

I do have a pretty diverse pantry, but these days, with grocery prices skyrocketing, I’m focused on how to do it better, cheaper, and full-flavor, with a focus on using up what we have. We love Moroccan and Israeli pearl couscous, and I finally bought a 5-lb bag so that we can have it any time (for comparison,Whole Foods sells 12-ounce boxes for $3.19 each) and 0ver the next week we’ll add Moroccan Chicken and Couscous to our repertoire. The cost of it on Amazon has gone up to $23 but I think we paid $17. Bulk food purchases pay off in the short and long haul if you can store them. I regularly make Dal and my own Lentil Sausage Soup and a 5-lb bag of red lentils still lasts me quite a long time. 18-24 months maybe?

This week I bought some beef (ouch! So not cheap) so that I could marinate some Beef Bulgogi, and pop it in the freezer. Two pounds will feed us for dinner and a couple lunches at some point when no one feels like doing food prep. While it was a bit of a splurge it is very handy to have ready to thaw. And tomorrow we’re going to give Pesto Chicken Saltimbocca a try. I have lots of cherry tomatoes on hand from my last trip to BJs, and I bought some chicken cutlets.

But otherwise, we’ll eat the food we have. The raspberry bushes are starting to produce and we have some other fruits. It’s prime grill time and most of our meals will be focused around that. Hamburgers, grilled veggies, and simple sides, lots of no-recipe recipes. And occasionally just cereal for dinner too. Because it’s summer, and we can.

Simple Spring Meals

Thompson Falls, Gorham NH

And just like that, everything is green and in bloom. How I love spring!

Our return home from the much-needed respite of the mountains coincided with a few things, and not just driving up to see the tulips blooming. I love tulips, and can’t wait to plant more.

We’re less than a year until our renovation starts, so cleaning out and organizing things in earnest has to begin, and so does a cutback in our spending so that we can start to place deposits on our renovation. While we will have to finance some, our goal is to do as much in cash as possible. This is a very big renovation, and we want to be able to add a few splurges, like my new cookstove.

We also all need eye exams and the adults need new glasses, so we need to watch our spending all fronts. We have lots of fun trips planned this year, in the RV, and to bring the kids to NYC for a big surprise, so we’re going to do plenty of enjoying even as we get frugal.

This also means we need to cut back our spending on food and eat down what we have. Despite the rising food prices and temptation to stockpile, it’s time to empty our pantry and freezers. We want to be able to unplug them next summer when the house is under construction. I haven’t emptied a freezer since the pandemic started, and honestly it feels weird and uncomfortable to do it given all the food price uncertainty, but it needs to be done.

Of course, it also won’t hurt us to be buying fewer snacks and packaged food. The pandemic took that to new heights, and now it’s time to get back to more healthy basics. Eat healthy, spend less – what’s not to like?

I came home to some veggies that needed using up – while things that go bad can always go to the chickens or the compost, I don’t like wasting food, so I’m trying to be better about fruit and vegetable management.

Leeks and turnips in particular needed to be used, but the spring weather, and some really heavy vacation eating meant that I needed something lighter, so I stumbled upon, and proceeded to adapt, an old NY Times cooking recipe for soup. Vegetarian, vegan if you omit the parmesan, light but creamy and tasty, and a good use for cheap vegetables. I made mine for lunches this week, but it’s a great meatless Monday option as well. It’s a good winter soup, not that different in concept from a vichyssoise, but it was also wonderful the Saturday night of our return.

Turnip Leek Soup with Lemon & Parmesan

3 leeks, sliced in 1/2″ rings
2 large turnips, chopped into 1/2″ dice
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 quarts chicken or vegetable stock
Juice of 1 lemon
3/4 c grated parmesan
2 tsp salt or to taste
1/2 tsp pepper
2 bay leaves
2 tablespoons white wine or cooking wine
dash of cayenne
1/2 cup arborio or short grain rice
Chives and croutons for garnish

Slice the leeks and soak in cold water to remove grit
Peel and dice the turnip. (If you have chickens, they love the scraps)

In a large soup pot, saute the leeks in olive oil for 3-5 minutes, until they begin to soften. Add the diced turnip, and continue to saute for another 5 minutes. Add the garlic, cook for 1 minute.

Add the bay leaves, stock, wine, rice, bay leaves, pepper and cayenne and simmer for approximately 30 minutes, until the turnip has softened and the rice is cooked through. Remove the bay leaves, and puree with an immersion blender or in batches in a blender or food processor. Return to the pot, add the lemon, parmesan and salt, and stir over heat for another minute.

Ladle into bowls, top with chives and croutons.


Another great and healthy meal prep food is this Lemon Cranberry Quinoa Salad that I had with hardboiled eggs after getting a couple miles in on the treadmill, which I can honestly say is one of the best investments I’ve made ever. It’s healthy, quick and delicious, and a hit in my house, even with my 13 year old daughter. I buy dried cranberries in bulk and put them in anything.

And then there’s one of the cheapest side dishes of all, Polenta, literally cornmeal, salt and water, with some Parmesan cheese and butter. Paired with Chicken Francese – it’s a bit of work but a really good meal – and any of the vegetables you might have around. But really, you could pair it with any protein or skip the protein and just saute some veggies on top.

Our meal plan this week:

Lunches: leftover soup, cranberry quinoa salad and leftover enchiladas

Sunday: Chicken Francese, polenta, roasted asparagus
Monday: Beef bulgogi (pre-prepped and in the freezer), rice, salad, naan
Tuesday: Parmesan crusted chicken, broccoli, popovers
Wednesday: Just Eli and I, cheese and crackers and fruit
Thursday: Eli cooks
Friday: Instant pot chicken gnocchi soup (personal rave for Skinny Spatula, everything she blogs about tastes amazing)
Saturday: MYO Pizza in the Ooni oven
Sunday: Picnic with cousins! Menu TBD

Happy Spring!


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