Wednesday, March 27, 2013

adventures in bread making

Portugese Broa Bread  -  a rustic bread made with cornmeal. The hubster's favorite!
Remember back when I made some frugalish resolutions a few months ago? Well, I'm human and my sewing machine might still be forgotten and forlorn, but my pizza/bread stone is well-loved! I've used a lot of flour and yeast these past few months, but I've also saved quite a bit by cutting out store-bought bread.

My favorite bread recipes thus far come from the Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day book. I had a copy out from the library for nine weeks (don't worry I renewed it twice!), then I decided I raid mom's cookbook library and borrow hers. She's worried I'll keep it forever. Don't worry mom - just until I can put it on my birthday list!
what you might not be able to see is that this bread is slightly lopsided, but it still tasted almost! perfect sourdough flavor!
The five minute method is multi-stepped, but relatively simple. Once you get the hang of the basic process, bread making is super easy!

Here's the basics:
1. Mix all the ingredients together.
2. Allowing it to rise for about 2 hours at room temperature
3. Put it in the refrigerator for baking another day in a covered, but not air-tight container
4. Bring the dough out the fridge and dust the surface with some flour
5. Pull out a one pound ball (grapefruit size). Shape it quickly then let it rest on the counter (the amount of time varies based upon the type of flour used in the recipe)
6. Pop that little dough baby in the oven with a pan of hot water steaming on another shelf and let it bake until it's nice and golden. Don't open the oven door until it's pretty much done - usually after about a half hour of baking.
7. Let it cool on a rack before cutting
8. Use for a paninis, dip in soup, or slather that baby with butter and enjoy!
buttermilk bread: perfect for paninis and french toast (smothered in a maple peach sauce and whipped cream, of course! I'm sorry that the picture is missing...I inhaled instead of taking the time to drool over it through the camera lense...whoops)
the way dinner is meant to be!
Why do I love this method? It's easy, requires little effort, but yields the most delicious bread with crisp crusts, tender crumbs, and perfect flavor. I can mix the ingredients together, go run some errands, come home, and pop the bowl in the fridge for baking for another day. Then when I'm ready to bake, I pull the amount of dough out that I need, form it into a ball, let it rest, and then stick it in the oven. I especially love that one recipe yields enough dough for three to four loaves. If I get really ambitious and have a free afternoon, I'll make a few loaves and then freeze them. Then when I want fresh bread for dinner, I just pull it out in the morning and it's ready to be warmed for dinner that night. Homemade bread does require some planning, but it's totally worth saving $2-$5 a loaf. Plus there aren't many things as satisfying as dipping a chunk of homemade artisan bread into bowl of warm and comforting tomato soup on a rainy day.

And because I recently had a request for step-by-step photos I'll be back next week with a photo breakdown of the bread-making process in my kitchen. Until then check out the blog of the two creators of these wonderful recipes. Hats off to them for creating a homemade bread process that's accessible to busy home cooks!

Friday, March 22, 2013

news from the book nook: spring favorites

Even though the weather doesn't agree with the calendar, it's spring!! And so we must celebrate! How? With children's books, of course!

As I had originally announced in this post, here's the first edition of news from the book nook! I hope you find some old favorites on this list and maybe even some new ones to check out the next time you stop by the library or book store.

In no specific order a few of my spring faves...

Muncha! Muncha! Muncha! by Candice Fleming
This book held the attention of one hundred squirming and excited kids before an egg hunt in the library last spring. No small feat for any book! Mr. McGreedy plants a garden, but finds that naughty bunnies are eating his veggies each night. He saws, cuts, and hammers his way through the book trying to protect his precious garden. One of my personal storytime favorites for preschoolers and kindergarteners! P.S. The bunnies are back in Tippy-Tippy-Tippy, Hide!

An Egg Is Quiet by Dianna Hutts Aston
Beautiful watercolor illustrations compliment nonfiction writing at its finest. The perfect book for a morning spent observing the inhabitants of the nest in your backyard. It's geared towards the early grades, but any bird-lover or animal aficionado will be enchanted by this book. In fact, I'd love to have some of the watercolors hanging on my walls! It would go lovely with our tree theme...but that's a topic for another day...

Frog and Toad Are Friends by Arnold Lobel
A classic! If you didn't befriend Frog and Toad as a child, please consider doing so right now! Early chapter books wouldn't be the same without this series of books about their quirky, fun friendship.

This particular book has a lovely little chapter about spring. Wake up, Frog! Wake up! It's Spring! This quote still pops into my head somewhere around February or March when the birds start singing, the bulbs begin to bloom, and the air smells of mud and flowers. Proof of the power of the written word and that what is read to a child stays with them for the rest of their life.

Feathers for Lunch by Lois Ehlert
The classic cat and mouse bird story with a twist. Another great option for introducing scientific terms to preschoolers and kindergartners through an accessible, bright, and fun book. If your child like this one, try these other great reads also by the same author: Planting a Rainbow (perfect for talking about flowers and their names) and Waiting for Wings (caterpillar into butterfly story).

Rabbit Inn by Patience Brewster
Sadly, out of print, but a personal childhood favorite. We found a copy a couple of years ago while on vacation and bought it on the spot. It's a sweet little story about a rabbit inkeepers getting ready for their babies to arrive with the help of the inn guests. My mom must have read this to me hundreds of times when I was little!

Bugs by the Numbers by Sharon Werner
Perfect for any boy (or girl) who love creepy crawlers, numbers, and facts! An inviting format that provides interesting bug information. I often suggested this one for those kids that tear through nonfiction animal books or the world record books.

Green by Laura Vaccaro Seeger
Gorgeous Caldecott-winning illustrations and simple text. Green is the color of spring and this book is a wonderful way to talk about the concept of color and all the shades that exist within one color.

Not a Stick by Antoinette Portis
A book that brings out the imagination in a child. It's the sequel to another one of my favorites: Not a Box (a perfect rainy or snowy day book and activity). Our little friend in the book has a stick, but it's not a stick! It's a sword. A fishing pole. A horse. Read this one with your preschooler and then head outside to find out just what a stick isn't!

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
What spring reading list would be complete without the perennial favorite! I especially love reading the story with props (holla to all you felt board lovers!) and giving each child a chance to have a part in the story. It's wonderful for teaching the concepts of a story, numbers, vocabulary, and the butterfly life cycle. No child is ever too young to be introduced to that very hungry caterpillar who eventually turns into a beautiful butterfly!

Stay tuned for the next edition of news from the book nook featuring things that jump and croak!

Monday, March 18, 2013

the incredible, edible egg: sweet potato ham frittata

We are quite fortunate to have access to a continuous supply of eggs.  Eggs from chickens like Wilma and Thelma who roam my parent's farm eating bugs, scratching sawdust, and chewing on grass. They live one of the happiest chicken lives possible. As a result, their eggs are fresh, flavorful, and filled with deliciousness!

Eggs are a staple food in our abode. When dinner just isn't going to happen or when the fridge is looking a little bare, we resort to some sort of scrambled eggs or omelettes. Omelettes are the hubster's specialty. He's always concocting tasty combos like pesto and mozzarella, marinara and pepperoni, ham and cheddar, spinach and leftover chicken. When omelettes are on the menu, I simply help prep the ingredients then step back and watch the omelette master at work. A cheap, delicious meal that doesn't require me slaving over a hot stove...sounds good to me!

We've recently discovered the beauty of frittatas. The perfect dinner that combines protein, veggies, and carbs in a delicious, easy, eggy package. Our favorite combination thus far is a sweet potato, ham, spinach frittata. It's flavorful, filling, healthy, and a quick weeknight dinner.

Sweet Potato and Ham Frittata 
(inspired by Whole Foods' The Whole Deal circular and this Spinach and Potato Frittata)

1/2 c. cooked ham, chopped
1 c. sweet potato, chopped
1/2 c. cooked spinach leaves (about 1 c. fresh)
2 tbsp. olive oil
1/2 c. shredded cheese
6 eggs
2 tbsp. fresh chives, chopped
2 tsp. dijon mustard (optional)
salt and pepper

Note: I suggest stocking your freezer with ham steaks when they go on sale. The best deal I've found lately is 3 for $5...less than two dollars each!! Sale price ham really helps to bring down the total cost of this meal. This frittata costs us around $2 for the ingredients, but it might be as much as $4 (I realize not all of you are blessed with free eggs). Still a frugalish dinner in this age of expensiveness!

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
2. Heat 1 tbsp. of oil in a 10 inch nonstick oven-safe saute pan over medium heat
3. Add 1 c. sweet potatoes. Cover and cook for 2-4 minutes until golden brown on bottom. Then flip and cook the other side. Remove sweet potatoes when they're fork tender. Allow to cool slightly before adding to eggs.
4. Then add 1 c. fresh spinach to the pan and saute for 1-3 minutes until wilted. Remove from pan.
5. In large bowl, beat six eggs then add all the other ingredients. Mix well.
6. Using same saute pan, heat 1 tbsp of oil on medium and turn pan so the oil coats the whole pan. Then add egg mixture. Smooth the mixture out with a spatula.
7. Cook on medium in pan for 7-10 minutes until the bottom is a light brown.
8. Then insert pan into oven and cook 13-15 minutes until the bottom is a golden brown. Be careful you don't overcook the frittata - nobody wants dry eggs.
9. Take out of the oven (watch the handle of the pan - it's HOT!) Slide the frittata onto a plate or invert it. Inverting never ends well for me, so I choose the slide method...
10. Serve warm or at room temperature. We like our frittata out of the oven nice and warm.

Be frugal and use this recipe as a frittata base. Try different filling combinations with what you already have in your fridge/pantry. Whatever you substitute for the ham, sweet potato, and spinach should add up to about two cups. Happy cooking, friends!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

granola bar round-up

I've made dozens of batches of granola bars in the last year and half. Why? Because they are one of the easiest ways to keep our lunch boxes frugal, but still tasty. Have you checked the prices of granola bars lately? No need to run to the store, I'll tell you...they are ridiculous! I simply am not willing to spend $2.50 (a sale price) for six tiny bars when I can make homemade bars for a fraction of the cost. Oh and added bonus I can control the fat and preservatives!

So, we've been on a mission to find our favorite granola bar recipe. Here's the results of our completely non-scientific granola bar study:

First prize winner: Eating Well's Energy Bars. The hubster loves that the bars taste and look healthy, but in a yummy, completely satisfying kind-of way. I love that this recipe serves as a great base for different nut and dried fruit add-ins. I always add craisins, dates, or raisins instead of dried blueberries. Why? Dried blueberries are a bit too pricey for our frugalish budget. Maybe someday we'll get a freeze drier and then we will dry our own fruit during it's peak season. Then I will make these bars with dried blueberries and let you know the results.

These bars actually hold their shape! Many other recipes we tried would not consistently stay together. These haven't failed me once! Note: I typically use 3 tbsp of corn syrup and 2 tbsp of honey instead of 5 tbsp of corn syrup called for in the recipe. I'd prefer to use only honey, but the corn syrup is important in the staying-together-and-not-crumbling-into-regular-granola process. I tell myself that at least I'm making an effort to eat semi-naturally... 
Tip: sometimes crumbs escape while the bars are being cut. These tasty, toasted morsels are wonderful on top of yogurt. Proof: my homemade yogurt is adorned with some leftover energy bar crumbs in these photos.

Runner-up: Microwave Chocolate Peanut butter & Oat Snack Bars. Easy, easy, easy! New to the granola bar scene? Start with these and throw in your favorite granola add-ins. Love chocolate and peanut butter mixed? Make these! 

Other options you might like to try:
1) No-Bake Brown Butter Quinoa Bars: yummy, but a bit too much work for me to make often
2) Playgroup Granola Bars: reminiscent of Nature Valley granola bars

Hope our study inspires you to get in the kitchen and whip up some wholesome snacks!

Monday, March 11, 2013

DIY sneak peek

A little teaser of the furniture makeover that's been captivating our weekends lately...
If you're wondering about the shadows and grass...we took advantage of the gorgeous weather and had a painting party outside. Yay spring!
Only a few more finishing touches left! Before and after shots coming soon!

Friday, March 8, 2013

introducing: news from the book nook

This post has absolutely nothing to do with food, crafts, or couponing. It's about another love in my semi-frugal life...books. Specifically, children's books.

I'm a children's lit nut. It's the truth. You might as well know now. I can spend hours in a bookstore devouring the newest children's books. I've been known to suggest personal favorites to complete strangers who look bewildered at the volume of books to choose from in the children's section. My heart is full when walking by a impromptu storytime featuring Pigeon and Duckling. Many of my best childhood memories include books...reading The Little House series aloud, devoting a whole tote bag to all the reading material needed while on vacation because I really would fly through ten of them, weekly trips to the library with my mom, bedtime fairy tales, reading/memorizing my first book - Green Eggs and Ham and reciting it to all who would life would not be my life without a stack of books somewhere nearby.
the library books that currently occupy our coffee table
And now begins my rant...
I believe the books you read your child should be chosen with the same care and attention as those that you read for yourself. Big words and colorful pages do not make a book worthy of bedtime. Nor does the fact that it cost you $3 dollars instead of $12 (let's put my frugalish self aside for today). Or that it has a lovely little pop up at the end of the book. Am I done ranting, yet? No, but I promise there is a point...

My heart hurts when I come across families that have turned reading into a chore. I grow teary (quite literally) and mournful about the problems parents are sometimes unknowingly causing by pushing reading into a mundane task. Never mind the implications of setting your child up for failure in school. It takes the magic, surprise, and enjoyment out of reading. I could write a whole book on the appalling acts I've witnessed against reading from the mouths and hands of parents and caregivers. I could, but I won't because it would a depressing and angry memoir. Thankfully, I could also write volumes about parents who understand the value of reading. Parents who believe in bedtime stories, read alouds, and daily storytimes. Parents who search for books with lyrical language, rich vocabulary, and relate-able books for their children. Parents who know that it is not simply about enabling your child to succeed in life, but providing an avenue for them to dream, imagine, play, learn and grow.

It is in this reading spirit that I present this little series entitled: news from the book nook. Old beloved classics, nonfiction newbies, and hilarious picture books recommendations rolled into informative and fun blog posts. Why? 1) You are never to old to laugh at a Mo Willems book 2) Even the best parents might need some new recommendations 3)  I miss recommending my faves and helping children find that one book that will forevermore be their favorite 4) Because you probably have a baby shower coming up where board books are requested...or maybe that's just my life :)

What does this have to do with being frugalish? Everything! Reading cost nothing and yet it provides so much! The library provides the perfect place to "shop" without sacrificing a penny (just make sure you return or renew on time!).

Stay tuned for the first installment!

Thursday, March 7, 2013

cherry chocolate almond oatmeal

Spring is just around the corner, but no one told the weather. It's a cloudy, chilly, windy day. The kind of day that sends drafts through our abode and causes me to spend the day wrapped in three blankets while constantly sipping a cup of hot tea. Nothing satisfies my tummy on cold days like a warm, comforting bowl of steaming oatmeal.

Today, I got doubly creative by trying a new flavor combo and using steel cut oats...I know such a rebel! I recently discovered Trader Joe's Quick Cook Steel Cut Oats on a shopping expedition. We call it an expedition because the nearest store requires hopping the state line and driving a bit...nothing that isn't worth shopping at one of my favorite places! Anyway, TJ's oats cost $2.94 (cheaper than most other steel cut brands) and are a delicious change of pace and texture from the old fashioned oats I typically use. TJ's has also managed to drastically reduce the cooking time. Bundle all those reasons together and you'll understand why the little can found its way into our cart.
On the menu today: cherry chocolate almond oatmeal. Inspired by the flavors of this tart: mini chocolate chips, almonds, and frozen cherries from the summer's bounty mingled together in a bowl of hot goodness. If there are no cherries in your freezer, try raspberries, strawberries, or blueberries instead. A touch of summer flavors with the warmth needed for a windy lion-like March day. Oh and did I mention it's a healthier, but still decadent option for all of us chocoholics!

Cherry Chocolate Almond Oatmeal
1 serving of oatmeal (old fashioned or steel choose!)
1/4 roughly chopped thawed cherries (fresh works too!)
1 tbsp. almonds (by all means toast these if you'd like - I was simply too impatient)
1 tbsp. mini chocolate chips (regular size work too, but the minis melt and stir evenly into the oatmeal)
the smallest pinch of salt
drizzle of maple syrup (because everything is better with it!)
dash of cinnamon and ginger, to taste

Cook oatmeal according to package directions. Then mix in the other yummy ingredients and eat while still steaming! Enjoy and rejoice that spring is indeed coming...maybe even this weekend!

If you like experimenting with oatmeal flavors, here's are a few other fun flavor combos I found floating around the web: creamy pumpkin pie oatmealhoney crisp apple cinnamon oatmeal, and four steel cut oatmeal recipes (I promise I came up with the cherry and chocolate idea before I even saw the recipe on this site!).

Saturday, March 2, 2013

when the 'mallow's flaming...

Ten homemade marshmallow points for anybody who can name that movie...

Once you've had a real marshmallow, it's so hard to go back. I have nothing against Jet Puff. I was raised in a home where a proper cup of hot chocolate always had a mound of tiny marshmallows on top. And summer childhood dinners on the deck ended with a large flaming marshmallow roasted over the grill. Store marshmallows have their place, but if you have a stand mixer - make your own! The difference in texture and taste have turned me into a marshmallow snob (who still has store-bought marshmallows in her pantry for back up...).

The process to homemade marshmallow perfection is a tad bit messy. You have to work quickly to get the marshmallow fluff out of the mixer while it's still warm. Otherwise, be prepared for a giant hard-lava-like marshmallow mass in your bowl. This is the time to set aside the compulsion to get every last drop out of the bowl and into the pan. You won't do it. Don't attempt it. If you ignore my advice, you will be one hot sugary mess...I may know from experience...

If the process isn't simple, then why make your own? Three reasons you should give it a whirl:

1) The texture is radically different then store bought. When stirred into a cup of steamy hot cocoa a homemade marshmallow s l o w l y melts. Store bought will lose their shape and melt into the abyss in five minutes.

2) The flavor of traditional homemade marshmallows is deliciously vanillay. If you'd like you could use other extracts instead. Perhaps peppermint or raspberry - both great combined with a cup of hot chocolate.

3) The satisfaction that making candy-like things is not only for chocolate shops and kitchen divas. There is indeed beauty in the homemade. For the record: homemade marshmallows are not cost-efficient. It's cheaper to buy the store marshmallows when they go on sale for a dollar, but there's no adventure in store-bought. (unless you count navigating a cart through the narrow aisles of the supermarket on a Sunday an adventure...)

I use Bon Appetit's recipe and my marshmallows turn out perfect each time, but there are tons of similar recipes on the web. The only substitution I make is cornstarch for potato starch because I'm cheap and have never bought potato starch in my life.

Snuggle in with some homemade marshmallows floating in a dreamy swirl of hot cocoa and enjoy the last few remaining weeks of winter properly - hot cocoa in one hand, book in the other, and a blanket in your lap.

Friday, March 1, 2013

frugal find: ibotta app

For all my tech-savvy, deal-loving friends - do you know about the Ibotta app? You could be getting paid to shop! Well, sort of... Download the free app then anytime you purchase one of the items listed on the app take a snapshot of your receipt and redeem it for $$$ in your PayPal account. The catch: you might have to take a quick survey (super quick!) or write a one sentence testimonial on why you like the product.

Oh, did I mention you can still use regular newspaper coupons on the Ibotta item! Not sold yet? The teacher in me will now provide an example to prove the awesomeness of this app:
Soy sauce is on sale for $1.25 and you have a $1 off coupon. You pay $.25 for it in the store, BUT if it's also featured on Ibotta with the potential of redeeming for $.50 then you make $.25! 

I know you're thinking, "that's only a quarter, Caitlin." You could probably just as easily find that amount under your couch cushions, but think about if you redeemed 8 products similarly. $2 in your pocket and with free grocery items in your pantry for the month....I'd say that's living in semi-frugal style!

There are other similar apps available, but Ibotta is my favorite thus far. Easy-to-use, painless, and it has a fun name! One final word to the wise: make sure your grocery store is found on the list of stores working in conjunction with Ibotta. They keep adding new ones so check back often! 

Happy saving!