Wednesday, 12 November 2014

ReVision: The Christmas Card Project

We make charitable donations throughout the year but at Christmas-time we like to do a little extra.  Some years, when paycheques are regular, that something extra is as easy as writing a cheque to the Food Bank.  Other years, it's more challenging.

This year falls under the heading of challenging.  

Don't get me wrong:  We have enough.  There's food in the pantry and the essential bills are paid.  It's just that, because of a change in our circumstances, we've had to give up many of life's little extras.

Charitable giving doesn't fall under the heading of extras for us, so we're thinking creatively about how to help out this year. We've been looking to the resources we have on hand, and finding ways to use them for our donations.

In my craft room, there's a big box of Christmas cards, saved from previous years.  I love to save them because I can use them for so many things, and my family and friends save cards for me too. I got to thinking about those Christmas cards and they gave me an idea:

Many of us are now falling out of the habit of sending Christmas cards but our elders, who value getting handwritten letters and other gifts in the mail, still enjoy them. For them, Christmas cards are a way to touch base with distant friends and family and to let those nearer at hand know that they're in their thoughts during the holiday season. 

Sadly, with the costs of everyday necessities rising rapidly and the cost of Canadian postage having more than doubled in the past year, many seniors can no longer afford to send holiday greetings.  I thought it might be nice to use some of the old cards in my stash to make new cards I could give them. 

Here's what I used to make the cards:
  • Salvaged greeting cards
  • Craft foam sheets
  • Coloured card stock (65 lb. weight) (I buy bulk packs when they go on sale at Michael's.)
  • White card stock (120 lb. weight).  I buy it in a bulk pack from a local office supply store.  It's a staple in my craft room because it's much less expensive than individual sheets purchased at a scrapbooking store.
  • A self-healing cutting mat (If you don't have a mat, a thick piece of cardboard would work too.  You just want something that will protect your work surface from cuts and scratches.)
  • An X-acto knife
  • A small pair of scissors
  • A cork backed ruler
  • A sharp pencil 
  • A glue stick
  • A metal knitting needle or bone folder, for scoring fold lines
  • Ribbon scraps
  • My computer and printer

I began by trimming useable pieces from my stock of cards.  I cut off card fronts, salvaged printed greetings where I could, and also saved little postage-sized-versions of the cover illustrations from the backs of some of the cards.

Once I'd finished salvaging what I could, I went through the images to decide which would be best for the format I'd chosen.  

Because I wanted to craft many cards in a short time, I chose to make each finished card the same size: 4-1/4 by 5-1/2 inches. It's a frugal use of materials because each 8-1/2 by 11 sheet of card stock will make two cards. 

I made simple greetings for the insides of the cards; one for cards with the fold on the side, and one for cards with folds at the top.  

I printed the greetings on plain white card stock.

Once the new white cards were printed with their captions, I began to assemble cards by making card fronts from the salvaged pieces I'd cut.  

The simplest cards I made were those where I just trimmed a larger image down to size and then pasted it in place.

On some cards, I used a single, slightly smaller image, adding dimension by mounting it on a piece of craft foam before gluing it to the front of the card.  I backed those raised images with a mat made from a piece of coloured card stock.

I fancied some of the cards up by adding a small ribbon bow.

I was able to cut several of my salvaged card fronts in half, to make two different cards.

I saved the trimmings from some of my re-used card fronts and used them as accents on other card designs.

When the images I was using were considerably smaller than the new card fronts, I mounted a piece of coloured card stock and then added one or more small components to make a new design. 

In short order, I'd assembled two dozen cards, using only materials I had on hand.  I bought nothing new at all to make them.  It gave me a wonderful feeling of accomplishment.  :)

Once the glue on my cards had dried, I packaged them individually in cellophane bags. I tucked a stamp inside each card - a little surprise for the sender - and packaged each card with an envelope. (Choosing a commonly used card size enabled me to use ready-made envelopes.) 

I sealed the card packages with Christmas stickers. Soon I'll deliver them to our local seniors' drop in centre.  They're a small gift, but I'm hoping they'll spread a little seasonal cheer.

Want to start a card project of your own?  Click here for suggestions on salvaged materials you can use.

If your cards aren't sized to fit envelopes from the store, you can easily make your own.  Click here for an envelope-making tutorial.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Last Minute Chicken Soup

You know how sometimes the day just flies by you and all of a sudden it's suppertime and you don't have a thing planned and you don't want to go to the grocery store and the budget doesn't allow for take-out?

Yeah, those days.

I had one of those recently and this is what I made: A fast, flavourful chicken soup.  It comes together quickly but is oh-so-much-more-tasty than stuff from a tin.

Here's the recipe:

  • 2 boneless skinless chicken breasts (I took mine straight from the freezer)
  • 1/2 cup finely diced onion
  • 1/4 cup sliced celery
  • 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger (I actually used frozen ginger.  I peel it, wrap it in plastic wrap and then put it in a freezer bag.  It grates so finely that it's like snow so the flavour spreads readily through whatever you're seasoning, and tastes wonderful.)
  • 1 clove of garlic, peeled
  • pepper flakes to taste
  • 1 - 900 ml/1 quart box of chicken stock
  • 1/2 cup carrots, cut into matchsticks
  • 1/4 cup frozen peas
  • 1 cup of thin rice noodles 

Put the chicken breasts, onion, celery, ginger, garlic, pepper flakes, and stock in a large saucepan.  Bring it to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and cover the pot.  

Simmer until the chicken is cooked through.  This takes surprisingly little time.  Mine cooked in about 15 minutes from the time the pot came to a boil.

When the chicken is cooked through, use a slotted spoon to lift the chicken breasts from the pot, onto a cutting board.  Remove the garlic clove too.

Cut one of the chicken breasts up 1/2-inch cubes.

Set the other chicken breast aside for another dish.  (I used mine for chicken salad the next day.)

Add the carrots to the pot and turn up the heat enough to return the stock to a low boil.  

Continue cooking until the carrots begin to get tender, but aren't cooked through.

When the carrots are starting to become tender, lower the heat to simmer again.

Return the chicken to the pot and add in the noodles and peas.  

Cover the pot and let it simmer for about 5 minutes.

Serve the soup immediately, while it's still piping hot.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Hedgerow Berry Pancakes

When I was a little girl pancakes made an appearance on our supper table at least once or twice each month.  I know now that they were one way for my mom to stretch the food budget but, at the time, I looked forward to pancake night every bit as much as kids today anticipate pizza night.  It was a big treat.

Often our pancakes were dressed with Roger's golden syrup, spooned from a gallon tin the looked just like a paint can. Sometimes, they were served with jam.  Sometimes they were topped with a sprinkle of sugar and lemon juice squeezed from a small plastic lemon.  That was my favourite.  

I've since learned that the sugar and lemon juice was a make-do measure too.  Having no syrup or jam in the house one day, my mom offered us what was on hand.  It was such a hit with us that we continued to enjoy it for all of our growing up years.

Pancake suppers are still a treat to me, and I still like best to serve them with melty butter, a sprinkle of sugar, and a squeeze of lemon juice.  Berries pair beautifully with lemon so, at this time of year when wild berries are plentiful, I add them to my pancakes too.

Here's the recipe:

  • 1-2/3 cups flour
  • 1 Tablespoon baking powder
  • 2 Tablespoons sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 egg
  • about 1-3/4 cups milk
  • 3 Tablespoons oil, plus more oil for cooking (I use sunflower oil)
  • about 2 cups of fresh berries, gently rinsed (I used thimbleberries and a few early blackberries this time but any berry you choose to use will work.)
  • butter for spreading on your pancakes
  • sugar for sprinkling over the melted butter
  • lemon wedges for squeezing over it all

Begin by whisking together the flour, baking powder, sugar, and salt.  

When they're well combined, make a well in the center.

Break the egg into a two-cup measure and beat it well.  

Add in enough milk to make two cups.

Pour the egg and milk into the well in the dry ingredients and add the oil.  

Mix everything together to make a thick batter.  Try not to overmix it.  The dry ingredients should be moistened but there should still be some lumps in the batter.

Heat a non-stick or cast iron pan over medium heat and add a little oil to coat the bottom of the pan. 

Ladle in enough batter to make a pancake about 6 inches in diameter.  You may want to use the back of the ladle to spread the batter out a bit.

Sprinkle some berries over the batter in the pan.

Cook the pancake until the batter begins to set up around the edges and small bubbles appear on the uncooked surface.

Flip the pancake and cook the other side.  The bottom of the pancake will look like this:

Keep the cooked pancakes warm in a 200F oven until the entire batch is cooked.  Serve them berry-side-up, with the butter, sugar, and lemon on the table so each person can dress them up the way they want to.

This recipe makes about 6 pancakes.  I usually eat two, and my fella does the same.  I often make a double batch though, because any leftover pancakes can be frozen for another day.  

Thursday, 10 July 2014

How To Provide Variety In Your Menus While On A Tight Budget

A Facebook friend wrote to me recently, asking how I provide variety in our menus while sticking to a tight budget.  It's the kind of question I love to answer.  I thought you might like to read the reply I sent her (with a little added information) so here it is:

I work hard to add variety to our diet but it's taken a long time both to establish the stockpile of home canned and frozen foods that allow me to do so, and to find a way to do it affordably. With food prices going up the way they are, it's a ever-greater challenge too! 

Here are a few things that work for me: 

We shop for produce seasonally, buying what's available when it's at its best price. This applies to fresh vegetables and fruit for our table and to produce for my home canning.  

I participate in the Good Food Box program, a co-ooperative bulk buying program.  The price of the box ($10.00 here) is paid in advance each month and the money collected is pooled to purchase produce either directy from local growers or - if that's not possible - direct from a wholesaler.  The bulk purchases are then divided, packed and distributed by volunteers.  Because there is no retail mark up and there are no labour costs involved, the money spent goes a lot further than it would in a grocery store.  The photo above displays the contents of one box, purchased in December.

If I do splurge on pricey produce, I buy a small quantity and use it to accent the flavour to a dish rather than using it as the main feature in a meal.

I put away at least $75 each month into a designated account I use specifically for purchasing extra produce when it's in season. I put that food by for the long months between October and July when local produce is not so readily available and vegetables and fruit are more costly.  When our budget is tight it can be a real stretch for us to come up with the extra money needed for the preserving account, but it's important enough to us that we're willing do without other things in order to do so.

We have at least three, and more often four or five days each week, when we don't eat meat. It's a big ticket item in our grocery stores. Even when they're pricey, vegetables and fruit are almost always a less expensive alternative than meat. Our meatless meals do still contain proteins: either plant based (beans, nuts, seeds, and pulses), or eggs and - in moderate amounts - cheese.

I try to buy the meat we do eat on sale, and to discount the purchase further by using coupons. Meat coupons are almost never available here but I buy the gas needed for my commute to work at the gas bar of a local grocery store. They issue $0.05 in coupons for every litre of gas purchased.  I use those coupons towards my meat purchases.

I forage for wild food regularly, even during the winter months. This area has an abundance of edible plants and I gather clams, oysters, mussels, and limpets from the shore. Depending upon the time of year and where I'm foraging, I can also gather kelp and other edible sea plants. 

It often costs less to cook in larger quanitites so, even though there are only two of us in our household, I usually cook more than I need for a single meal.  I freeze or can the leftovers for future meals, or use them as ingredients in new dishes over the following days.

My gardening options are limited because I live in an apartment, but I do grow herbs, salad greens, carrots, radishes, beans, and tomatoes on my balcony and windowsills. During the winter months I also grow sprouts to use in place of expensive out-of-season salad greens.

I prepare almost all of our baked goods at home and, 
to help keep the costs down, I buy my flour, sugar, and yeast in large quantities at Costco or from a bakery wholesaler.

We are blessed to have family and friends who hunt and fish. Sometimes I trade home baking for a portion of their catch.

Perhaps most important to keeping our budget in line, I'm an absolute bear about waste. 
In order to reduce the possibility of spoilage, I buy produce for our table in small quantities as we need it. I label and date everything that goes in the freezer and pantry, and I keep an inventory so that what we have on hand is used in a timely fashion. Leftovers are treated as an opportunity to make new dishes. Our lunches are planned around leftovers and many of our main dishes too. We work very hard to use up every bit of food we have. If you're discarding food, you might just as well thow your money directly into the bin and save yourself the effort of shopping. 

I hope this is of some help to you. Many smart, frugal cooks participate in the "what's for supper" string on my Facebook page too. They share lots of helpful ideas.  Do stop by for some inspiration, and to share ideas of your own.  We love it when new voices join the conversation.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Oatmeal Raisin Cookies

We all have foods that say "comfort" to us.  For some it's tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. For others it's pasta.  A friend of mine makes soft boiled eggs and toast soldiers when she's feeling sad.  

When he's looking for comfort food, my fella wants oatmeal raisin cookies. They speak to him of his mother's kitchen, of after school snacks, and of a warm seat by the wood stove on a rainy day.

Oatmeal raisin cookies do have a lot going for them:  a nice soft texture, given a little chew from the oatmeal, iron rich raisins, B-vitamins and protein from the oats, and the delicious aroma of old fashioned baking spices.  

I use the soft oatmeal cookie recipe from "The Fanny Farmer Baking Book" by Marion Cunningham, but without the nuts or the milk.  It's a simple cookie to make, and inexpensive too.  My guy loves 'em.

Here's the recipe.  You'll need:

  • 1 cup raisins
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup water reserved from soaking the raisins
  • 1-1/2 cups flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon allspice
  • 1-1/2 cups oatmeal (not instant)

Begin by soaking the raisins.  Put them in a heat proof cup or bowl and cover them with boiling water.  Soak them until the water cools to room temperature, then drain them, reserving 1/4 cup of the soaking water.

When the raisins are ready to go, make the cookie batter.

Cream the butter and sugar together.

Crack one egg into a cup or small bowl and beat it, then mix it into the butter and sugar mixture.  Do the same with the second egg, then mix in the vanilla and the water you reserved from soaking the raisins.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and allspice.  

Add the oats and stir them through the flour mixture with a fork.

Add the flour and oat mixture to the butter, sugar, and egg mixture. Stir until the ingredients are well combined.

Add in the raisins and stir them through the dough.

Drop spoonfuls of cookie dough onto parchment lined baking sheets, spacing the cookies about 2 inches apart.

Bake the cookies on the middle rack of a 350F oven for about 12 minutes, or until they're set and lightly browned on the bottom.

Transfer the cookies to a sheet of brown paper to cool.

I buy rolls of brown paper at the office supply store for just this purpose.  (You can find them in the mailing section.)  The paper absorbs any excess oil that may be on the bottom of the cookies, resulting in a nicer texture once they are cooled, and it's compostable.

Store the cooled cookies in an airtight container.  They freeze well but do pack them with wax paper between each layer to prevent them from sticking together when they thaw.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Fifteen Things To Gather Now For Giving Later

I gather wild food from all around our area, all year 'round.  It's a rare thing for me to go for a walk without a bag or a basket in hand for gathering as I go. At this time of year, food is especially abundant but there are other things to forage for during the summer months too. You can gather all sorts of natural materials to use for gift giving later in the year.

While at the beach, look for
shells and shell fragments to make into jewelry and wind chimes,

pebbles to make into jewelry,

beach glass to make into jewelry, sun catchers, and wind chimes,

and seaweed to press for use on greeting cards.

While hiking, look for
berries to make into jams and jellies, 

chicory, so you can dry the roots and 
grind them together with your favourite beans 
for your own New-Orleans-style coffee blend,

fireweed flowers to dry and use for herbal teas and jelly,

Queen Anne's lace and other wildflowers and foliage to press and use on greeting cards,

pearly everlasting for using on wreaths and in dried flower arrangements,

fallen branches to use for basket handles, coasters, and buttons,

and cones for making wreaths, Christmas decorations, and fire starters. (Conifers drop their cones at this time of year, as do alder trees. They can be gathered well into fall but are at their cleanest and driest right now.)

While you're enjoying your garden or walking around the neighbourhood, you can gather 
(always with permission, of course)
lavender to mix with Earl Grey tea, to use in herbs de Provence, to make sachets, and to make scented water for spraying on linens and clothing while ironing,

hydrangea heads for dried flower arrangements,

flowers and foliage to press and use on greeting cards,

and seeds you can package in homemade envelopes.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Steak and Egg Frittata

Steak is a pretty big deal at our house.  We don't often see it on the table unless it's a special occasion or there's a good sale price, or both, but my fella's been craving it lately and I, wanting to oblige him, went looking for a way to provide it.  

One of our local grocers had bone-in rib steaks on sale this week so I went to take a look, but the steaks were quite thin and, if we're going to splurge on steak, we prefer a thick cut.  Since I had some other shopping to do at a nearby grocer who gives coupons in return for purchases at their gas bar, I explored my steak options there too.

With the Canada Day long weekend in sight, the chances of a mark-down did not look good.  The rib steaks at the second store were a better cut, but a higher price.  A little further down the meat aisle though, I found 3 small prime rib roasts - about 2 pounds each - all marked down by 30% because their "best by" date fell the following day.  If I applied the coupons I'd saved up, I could get one of those roasts for just over $6.00.  

I selected the roast that would be easiest to butcher, brought it home and cut it into two steaks, each about an inch thick and each weighing just over a pound. 

We grilled one steak and put the other in the freezer for another day.  The grilled steak provided steak dinner for the two of us, two steak sandwiches the following day, a main dish salad, and even after all that there was still about half a cup of thinly sliced steak left over.  I used it to make a frittata.

Here's the recipe:

  • 2 Tablespoons of pork fat (I rendered ours from the trimmings of a smoked pork picnic I'd recently cooked, but bacon fat would provide the same smokey goodness.  If you're not a pork fat fan, substitute in butter or whatever cooking oil you prefer.)
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 1/2 cup diced, cooked red skinned potatoes (I used half of a leftover boiled potato I had in the fridge)
  • seasoned salt to taste
  • 1/2 cup steamed green beans, cut in 1/2 inch pieces
  • 1/2 cup thinly sliced, cooked rib steak, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • pepper to taste
  • 3/4 cup each shredded mozzarella and edam cheese, tossed together.
I began by melting the fat in a frying pan over medium-high heat.  

When the fat was melted through and the pan hot, I added in the onion and potatoes.  

Because I reckoned it would go well with the smokiness from the pork fat, I seasoned the onions and potatoes with a little seasoned salt.

I cooked the onions and potatoes, stirring occasionally, until the onions were soft and the vegetables had taken on a little colour. 

then I added in the green beans and steak pieces and cooked them until they were heated through.

While the beans and steak were heating through, I cracked my eggs into a small bowl and beat them until they were well combined.

I reduced the burner heat to medium, and poured the eggs over the contents of the frying pan, then seasoned it all with freshly cracked black pepper.

When the bottom and sides of the frittata were cooked, but the center still liquid, 

I transferred the pan to a 350 oven and continued cooking my frittata until the eggs were set.

When the eggs were set, I sprinkled the cheese over top and put the pan under the broiler until the cheese was melted.

We each had one quarter of the frittata for supper, with tomatoes and roasted carrots on the side.  

I saved the other half of the frittata in the fridge, and used it to make sandwiches the next day.

And that's how you make a one-pound steak into five meals! Feeling pretty proud of myself just now.  :)