Monday, August 04, 2008

Frugal Food – Keeping a Clean Kitchen

I have a secret ingredient for keeping the grocery bill down, and it’s cheap and available at any store. White vinegar! White vinegar isn’t just used to make salad dressing or sweet and sour dishes. It’s handy for cleaning, as well. Used full strength, white vinegar is great for cleaning soap scum off of bathroom tubs and tiles. Diluted in a spray bottle, it makes an excellent nontoxic all-purpose cleaner that is safe for all surfaces, including hardwood floors.

White vinegar mixed with baking soda is a formidable weapon when cleaning crusty pots and baking pans—or anything with caked on dirt. You can keep sink and tub drains clear by pouring baking soda, then vinegar, then boiling water down the drain. It’s cheaper and safer than any product designed to unclog drains. I found this wonderful idea in Amy Dacyczyn’s The Tightwad Gazette, an excellent reference for frugal housekeeping.

The only drawback to cleaning with white vinegar is the smell. Diluting it helps, and I like to add 20 to 30 drops of citrus essential oil to one quart of homemade cleaner. Essential oils are expensive, but they are used so sparingly that they last a long time. It’s can be helpful to shake the spray bottle before using a cleaner that’s been scented with essential oils.

Another frugal cleaning trick I use does not involve white vinegar, but those lovely foam soap dispensers. Foaming soap is such a luxury for me, and I found out how to make it save money on hand soap. The soap bottles come with instructions not to refill with your own hand soap, and with good reason. Full strength or improperly mixed diluted liquid soap will clog the pump. I mix one tablespoon of concentrated liquid soap—whatever inexpensive dish soap I happen to have on hand—with one cup of water. I mix this in a glass if I’m refilling one bottle or my quart measuring cup if I’m refilling a few bottles at a time (four tablespoons of liquid soap to a quart of water). I mix it thoroughly with a fork, and then refill the bottles with the foam dispensers. It stretches the liquid soap amazingly and provides a lovely foam with which to wash your hands.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Frugal Food – Free Meals in the Freezer

If you’re organized, you know exactly what’s in your freezer, it’s clearly labeled, neatly stacked, and you may even have a page protector taped to the door with a list written in dry erase ink of what in there. If you’re like me, you have a jumble of freezer bags and disposable containers at which you peer squint-eyed trying to figure out if it’s spaghetti sauce or chicken cacciatore, or perhaps half a dozen little unfinished bags of frozen vegetables. If all you can find in the depths of your freezer are four half-eaten pint tubs of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and a bag of expensive coffee, you may not be able to magic up some meals without shopping, but even a bag of fish sticks can be paired with a bag of tater tots to create a free meal from freezer.

I wanted to save money on food, so I dug around in our freezer and found: 1) two containers of Christmas lasagna, 2) two packages of frozen pie crust (emergency back up from an attempt at scratch pie crust), 3) one large container of red beans, 4) one large container of gumbo, 5) a pound of ground beef, and finally 6) half a dozen little unfinished bags of frozen vegetables. The meals were a windfall—I didn’t have to cook! What was I going to do with piecrust, ground beef, and vegetables?

The ability to create meals out of random ingredients—good meals that won’t make my children cry at the sight of their plates—is a skill that eludes me. Expert cooks have this gift, but I don’t. Leftover meat and vegetables can be put together with a can of cream of mushroom soup and cooked rice to make a casserole, but there my imagination stops. Still I was inspired by the piecrust to make a hamburger pot pie.

I used the Chicken Pot Pie recipe out of The Joy of Cooking as my guide. (I absolutely adore The Joy of Cooking.) The prep time for me was 50 minutes, but I’m slow. Much of the prep work can be done in advance, such as browning the ground beef and even making the white sauce to mix with it. Joy recommends sautéing the vegetables apart from cooking the meat to retain their texture and flavor and brushing an egg yolk on the bottom of the crust. (Joy’s Chicken Pot Pie recipe calls for only a top crust, but I prefer a crust on the bottom as well.) Thawing the frozen veggies probably helped, too. Because I didn’t add many seasonings, the result was not exciting, but that can easily be corrected the next time I make a pot pie. My children didn’t complain (for once!), and I got two full meals for my efforts.

Lesson learned: when putting together a meal out of random freezer or pantry ingredients, it’s helpful to use a recipe as a guide.