April 2011

Eat real food

Posted on April 27, 2011 at 2:28 pm in

As I read more about health and nutrition, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that a lot of what is wrong with people’s health in the “western world” is the food we are eating. Our grandparents mainly ate what would today be considered a semi-vegetarian diet: fresh, local, seasonal fruit and vegetables, cheese, butter, relishes and pickles, and whole grain bread. At the end of the week was the traditional Sunday roast: beef, pork, or chicken.

If you are on a tight budget, eating meat at every meal is financially disastrous. Although we have the privilege of relatively cheap meat, it’s still expensive enough to impact your food budget drastically. The bottom line is that if you eat frugally for six days of the week, you can afford to have a nice roast on Sunday.

While conventionally raised meat may be cheaper than naturally raised, there are other costs involved. The places where the animals are raised are called CAFOs, or Concentrated Animal Feed Operations, also called “factory farms”. The meat that comes out of CAFOs is frequently tainted with e. coli, salmonella, and so on. This contamination is inherent to the factory conditions the animals are raised in. The animals are also treated in abominable ways – cruelty and mistreatment is part of the system as no-one really cares about the animals, which are seen as a commodity rather than as a living being deserving of a basic level of decency in how they are treated.

The alternative is naturally raised, or “grass fed”, animal. The problem is that grass fed is also twice the price of conventionally raised – or more! At the end of the day extra price is worth it. According to the National Institutes of Health, grass fed beef is significantly higher in Omega-3 essential fatty acids. Instead of swallowing a pill every day, why not get the Omega-3s from oily fish or grass fed beef? Salmon is mighty tasty!

I know that for a lot of people the cost of grass fed looks eye-watering. Heck, I feel the same way! But if you eat frugally most of the time – lots of veggies, fruit, and fish – you can afford to eat the natural stuff from time to time, You gain health benefits, financial benefits, and you also feel better about the meat you are eating as it came from an animal that lead a much happier, natural life. What more can you ask for?


Deliciously cheap burgers

Posted on April 15, 2011 at 8:18 am in

So, not that you have some canned beans, what are you going to make with them?

How about bean burgers? Laughably cheap and really easy? Of course!


  • 1 1/2 cups cooked beans (any variety), drained and rinsed
  • 1/2 cup sunflower seeds, pine nuts, or whatever other seed or nut you fancy, chopped to sunflower seed size
  • 1/2 cup minced onion
  • 1/2 cup grated carrot or other vegetable
  • 1/2 cup cooked brown rice or other grain
  • 1/2 cup oatmeal
  • 2 tablespoons whole wheat flour
  • 2 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 1 teaspoon vinegar
  • breadcrumbs or wheat germ for dredging
  • Optional seasonings: 1/4 teaspoon thyme, rosemary; 1 teaspoon chili powder; 1/2 teaspoon cumin; black pepper; hot sauce; garlic salt
  • optional: 1 tablespoon milled flax seed
  • Mash up the beans as best you can with a large spoon against the side of the bowl. Use a food processor if you like, but the beans you canned should be fairly soft and squishy already.

    Mix all other ingredients except the breadcrumbs into the mashed beans. Add any of the seasonings you want – I put in a couple of hefty splashes of Tabasco(R) sauce, a teaspoon of dried mixed herbs, and some garlic salt.

    The mix should be very sticky – if it’s watery add some more oatmeal, if it’s crumbly add some more liquid. Try the mix to see if it needs any more seasoning.

    Shape the mix into patties. I got about 8 large patties out of my mix, but the quantity will vary depending on how you shape the patty. Coat the patties with the bread crumbs or wheat germ and let them sit for a while for the crumbs to adhere properly to the surface of the burger – 5 to 10 minutes or so.

    Heat up your frying pan with a little oil in it – olive or sunflower will add lots of healthy fats to the burgers.

    Fry on both sides till Golden Brown and Delicious – it’ll take 3-4 minutes per side.
    Serve as you would any other burger!

    Health benefits: as well as all the benefits from the beans, the oatmeal and brown rice have lots of fibre as well as trace minerals and nutrients. The seeds and nuts add more of the essential amino acids, minerals and nutrients our bodies need. Flax seeds add omega-3 essential fatty acids.

    Cost estimate: 25c for a pint jar of beans (because you made them yourself, right?); the sunflower seeds, pine nuts, or whatever other seed or nut will vary, but let’s say about 10c. The onion, carrot, or whatever other veggie will come to about 10c. The other seasonings, rice, etc – let’s say about 25c. Throw in another 25c for things I am uncertain how much they cost at the teaspoon-out-of-a-jar-that-cost-a-dollar.

    About 95 cents for 8 large, healthy, low fat burgers that taste amazing (take it from this carnivore, they are DELICIOUS), are packed with dietary fibre, minerals, vitamins, and more protein than you can shake a stick at? What are you waiting for – make some today!

    With thanks to the lovely and talented Hilah for the recipe (warning: some adult language).


    Pressure canning – beans

    Posted on April 14, 2011 at 2:43 pm in

    Beans are a powerful ally in living frugally. They have the best “bang for the buck” in terms of nutritional return for money: insoluble and soluble fiber, high in protein, complex carbohydrates, folate, and iron. Once you get a stockpile of dried and canned beans in your pantry you are opening up new vistas of frugal, healthy, and stupidly cheap food.

    Start with 2lbs of dry beans – any type, any combination. I started with 1lb of dried black beans and 1lb of dried kidney beans. Sort through the dried beans discarding any that are broken or that are stones masquerading as beans. Wash them in lots of cold water and place them in a large pot with enough water to cover them by 1 inch / 2.5cm. Bring to a boil and boil for 2 minutes. Allow the beans to stand for 1 hour in the hot water.

    You now have a choice: discard, or don’t discard, the water. Many recipes recommend discarding the water and starting again with fresh as this reduces the amount of oligosaccharides, which are responsible for the… fragrant!… reputation that beans have. The water also contains trace minerals and nutrients, so I leave it up to you to decide which is more important for you.

    Two pounds of dried beans will yield you between 6 and 10 pint jars of ready-to-use beans, depending on which ones you go for. The black/kidney bean mix I did yielded 8 pint jars, at a cost per jar of 25 cents. Most of the cans in the stores are done by weight rather than volume, but they probably contain about 1.5 cups of cooked beans, usually at around 50 cents to over a dollar in price.

    Put the squeeze on those bad boys for 75 minutes per pint jar, 90 minutes per quart jar. The National Center For Home Food Preservation is an absolutely essential reference for those of you above 1000ft.

    Beans. Full of nutrition. Good for you in multiple different ways. Work well with vegan, vegetarian, and omnivore cuisine. Laughably cheap and stupidly easy to prepare. What more do you need to know?


    Spices and seasonings – taco powder

    Posted on April 7, 2011 at 1:59 pm in

    Tacos appear fairly regularly on the menu at home – once a month or so. Packets of seasoning mix vary in price between “quote reasonable” and “are you kidding me?!!?”. As usual, my answer is to make it myself!

  • 6 teaspoons chili powder
  • 5 teaspoons paprika
  • 4 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons onion powder
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons garlic powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • Add all ingredients to an airtight container and shake to mix.

    Add 7 teaspoons of this mix to what you want to be tacos. This mix makes about 3 portions of taco seasoning (21 teaspoons).

    You’ll notice that this is a salt-free taco seasoning mix: salt can always be added to a dish, but taking it out is complex and usually not worth the effort. Besides, you can always have another beer if it’s too salty 😉


    Spices and seasonings – chili powder

    Posted on April 6, 2011 at 9:38 am in

    Who doesn’t like a good chili? But take a moment to think before you answer – I am talking about a good chili, one that leaves you wanting more, not one that leaves you feeling like something really bad just happened in your mouth or your stomach!

    I tend to prefer foods on the spicier end of the Scoville scale, but plenty of people don’t like, or can’t eat, very spicy foods. This is why I make my own chili powder to be a wonderfully fragrant and tasty, but non-spicy, seasoning – those who like a zing can add hot sauce to the dish, while those who don’t like the burn can still enjoy a tasty meal.

    My favourite base recipe for chili powder is Alton Brown’s, found at the Food Network page linked here. My take on the recipe follows:

  • 1.5 roasted, dehydrated red bell peppers*
  • 2 tablespoons whole cumin seeds
  • 2 tablespoons garlic powder
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • Put the cumin into a small frying pan and heat gently until you just begin smelling the cumin toasting – about 4 to 5 minutes. Take off the heat and allow to cool to room temperature. Place all ingredients into a spice grinder or food processor and blend into a fine powder. Place in an airtight container in a cool dark place. Use within 6 months for optimal flavour and smell.

    * Why do I make this with roasted dried bell peppers? Because they are chili peppers bred to have no heat, they have a wonderful fragrance, and the roasting brings out the sweetness very nicely. Bingo, you now have some gorgeous chili powder – enjoy!


    Spices and seasonings

    Posted on April 5, 2011 at 9:42 am in

    How can you eat the same thing for dinner for 5 consecutive days without getting bored with it? Spices and seasonings. They can transform the mundane to the magical, the dull into a fantastic feast, and make leftovers feel not-leftover-y.

    The advice on spice is simple: buy it whole from an ethnic store. Ethnic stores tend to get the same spices at a far better price than grocery stores, and buying it whole will make sure you get the best possible taste: the essential oils that makes spices taste the way they do evaporate over time, but the whole spices lock them in.

    Seasoning mixes are hugely overpriced and mixes can be blended with anything cheap to bulk them out – flour, for example. A few seconds with Google will reveal a stupendous variety of recipes for making your own spice mixes, and the investment of 10 to 20 minutes once a month will result in a jar of your own spice mix, made fresh, with only ingredients that you recognise.

    I’ll be posting some recipes this week for spice mixes that deserve a place in everyone’s pantry, along with a time estimate for the preparation of said mix – laughably cheap mixes, in pint quantities, that take no more than 20 minutes to prepare? That’s what I am aiming for!


    Pancake syrup

    Posted on April 4, 2011 at 8:21 am in

    This is what I think of as an “almost-recipe”. It is substantially right, but there is one thing it falls down on that makes the recipe fail: if you read the comments, people complain about it recrystallising.

    Recrystallisation comes as no surprise, because there is nothing in the recipe to prevent it. Table sugar is sucrose and fructose bound together with a connecting bond (please note, this is a gross over-simplification – this level of molecular chemistry is outside the remit of this blog!) and this bond is very powerful. If you break the bond by use of heat, it will re-form itself as soon as the heat comes off which will re-form the sugar crystal. If you want to have a syrup at room temperature, you need to interfere with that bond, which you can do by introducing an impurity – glucose.

    OK, so where do you get the glucose from? Honey, Golden Syrup, Golden Eagle syrup, and, if you absolutely have to…. from corn syrup (note: not high fructose corn syrup).

    Now that I have established how to turn this from an almost-recipe into a real recipe, here’s the working version:

  • 2 cups white sugar
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons glucose syrup
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 teaspoon maple flavored extract
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • In a saucepan, combine the white sugar, brown sugar, glucose syrup, and water. Bring to a boil, and cook for about 3 minutes. Stir in the maple extract and vanilla, and remove form the heat. Let cool to room temperature and decant into glass jars or jugs. Serve lavishly over pancakes, waffles, or stirred into some home made yoghurt.


    Basic meat sauce – pressure canning

    Posted on April 2, 2011 at 9:48 am in

    I like having modular components as well as finished items. What I mean by a “modular component” is something which is not complete in and of itself, but that can very quickly become a tasty meal. In the case of this basic meat cause it can become chilli, curry, spaghetti sauce, or even a pizza topping depending on what spices, seasonings, or other supporting ingredients I add to it.

    Basic meat sauce
    Ground meat, approximately 3 to 4 lbs (1.5 to 2kg)
    6 large (28oz/800g) cans crushed tomatoes

    Cook the ground meat (I used beef and venison) with olive or other healthy vegetable/fruit oil until nicely browned. Add the 6 large cans of crushed tomatoes to the meat and heat thoroughly until nice and bubbly.

    Portion into quart (litre) jars, leaving 1inch/2.5cm headroom in the jar (fill jar to the point just below where the shoulders narrow) and process in your pressure canner for 70 minutes. Follow the instructions for your pressure canner for time adjustments if you live 1000ft / 300m or more above sea level.


    Seasonal Eating – April

    Posted on April 2, 2011 at 7:55 am in

    As we head out of the treacherous March weather, more crops are coming into season. This means that your free time is going to vanish at an alarming rate as you try to keep up with what produce starts appearing on the shelves!

    * New this month
    * beets – roots and greens
    Green Cabbage
    * Red Cabbage
    *Chinese Cabbage
    Fingerling carrots
    * Beans
    Arugula / Rocket
    * Cilantro / corriander
    * Apples
    * Mushrooms
    * Flat leaf Parsley

    Going out of season after this month:
    Greens – turnip and mustard
    Bok Choi
    Swiss Chard

    The usual warning applies – produce, being an agricultural crop, a living being, and subject to weather, drought, floods, and plagues of politicians, is subject to a lot of variability, but this post should give you some idea of what produce will be at its best price and best freshness.