Monday, January 31, 2011


Fresh, hot pizza, baked on my Emile Henry pizza stone - highly recommended
Last week I shared a recipe for Easy Pizza Dough.  I found this recipe so easy that I make a batch about once every two weeks (even though I could eat pizza every day) and I make several different recipes from the same batch of dough.  I divide the original batch into three parts and it works well for my family of two.  If you have a larger family, just make multiples of any of the recipes that I'm sharing this week.  First up:  Pizza.  I mean, this is pizza dough after all.

Why make your own pizza when you can buy it frozen or order takeout?  For one, it's generally less expensive.  You can make it with exactly the toppings you want without worrying about extra charges or delivery wait times.  Also, it can be healthier, depending on what you put on it.  I still order takeout pizza occasionally, but there's something special about savoring a slice of custom-made pizza with a nice glass of wine.

This is a very loose recipe and it's open to interpretation.  I only caution you to make sure not don't add too many additional toppings because it will weigh down your slices and make your pizza too wet, or even worse, greasy.  Also, I like to roll the dough nice and thin to imitate the slices we get at our favorite restaurants.  If you like a thicker crust, just modify the technique.

Ready for the oven
The biggest pain with making your own pizza is rolling out the dough and deciding how to bake it.  I love my Emile Henry Pizza Stone because it's easy to clean, retains heat well, and just looks nice.  However, you may not be invested enough in pizza to drop $50 on a pizza stone, so any thin baking sheet or pizza pan or stone is good enough to get you started.  If you find you love making pizza, you may want to invest in better equipment.

As far as rolling out the dough, I prefer to roll mine super thin on parchment paper and place the parchment paper directly onto the preheated pizza stone.  Once the pizza crust sets up (about 8 minutes into the baking process), I gently remove the parchment paper and finish cooking the pizza directly on the stone.  This method allows me to make a pizza with a crispy crust without shimmying the raw pizza off a pizza peel or stone and risking dropping it on a hot oven.

When your pie is par-baked, like this one, remove the parchment paper and continue baking.

It only takes about 10 minutes to get the pizza ready for the oven, so this is a great weeknight meal.  Make yourself a batch of Easy Pizza Dough (or cheat and buy dough from the store) and get creative with your own pizza. 

a basic recipe by Keeley, add toppings to suit your taste

1/3 recipe of Easy Pizza Dough
2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup pizza sauce (store-bought or homemade)
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Place pizza stone (if using) in oven and let stone heat for at least 30 minutes prior to baking pizza.

If pizza dough is refrigerated, let dough relax at room temperature for 30 minutes to one hour before baking.

Place dough on a sheet of parchment paper.  Roll dough into a 12-14" round with a rolling pin.  Use fingers to stretch dough, if necessary.  If any holes form, pinch dough to pull it back together.  The dough should be about 1/4" thick.  Use fingers to form a thicker rim to the dough for the crust.  The rim should be about 1/2" thick.

Brush olive oil on dough.  Sprinkle dough with salt.  Top dough with pizza sauce and cheese.

Bake pizza at 400 degrees for 12-18 minutes or until golden brown.  After 8-10 minutes (when pizza crust is set) remove parchment paper and continue baking until done.  Slice and serve immediately.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Easy Pizza Dough

I love pizza.  And pepperoni bread, calzones, stromboli... pretty much anything that comes out of your neighborhood Italian spot is good to me.  We have a favorite neighborhood pizza place (we opt for small spots with New York-style, foldable slices instead of big chains), but I bought a nice pizza stone (more than 50% off) at the Emile Henry sale back in December and I decided to make 2011 the year I master homemade pizza. 

Note:  This is my second pizza stone.  I bought one in 2002 that was porous and difficult to clean.  I almost gave up on pizza stones until I found this one.  I think it's worth the full retail price, but I got mine at a discount.  It can go in the dishwasher (I'm very lazy) and it can even be used on a grill or stove top.  If you don't have a pizza stone, just use a baking sheet and keep it moving.

I've tried several recipes for pizza dough.  I've even spent my hard-earned money on refrigerated or frozen dough (which is acceptable).  Once I found this recipe, though, I realized I could make tons of dough without spending a lot of dough, so it's now our staple recipe.

This recipe requires a Kitchen Aid Stand Mixer.  My Kitchen Aid Artisan is on its last leg and it struggles with this dough.  I'm adding a new mixer to my wishlist for next Christmas.  If you don't have a stand mixer, I'd pass on this particular recipe.  You can always start with store-bought dough and continue from there.

This is one of the first Artisans from when they came out in 2002.  I don't know why I chose this color.
You basically just mix the dough up in the Kitchen Aid, shape it into balls and let it rest for a few hours or a few days.  I take The Pioneer Woman's advice and just mix up a batch for the week.  Not that you need to eat three pizzas a week, but you could.

I divide this recipe into three equal parts because I like to make a thin crust.  If you like a thicker crust (or you're working on a larger recipe) you can divide the batch into two.  I place each ball of dough in a zip-top storage bag and let it sit in the fridge for up to five days.  Or, you can let the dough rise for a few hours and use it the same day.  Some reviewers of the original recipe say that the dough gets better over time.  I'll let you know.  I'm baking with a six day old batch today.

Next week I'll share three different recipes that you can make with this dough.  I've found it to be very versatile and you can use it for much more than just pizza.  If you want to cook along with me, get a batch of this dough going this weekend and make the recipes I post next week!

Easy Pizza Dough
adapted (barely) from The Pioneer Woman's Basic Pizza Crust

1 1/2 cups warm water (100-120 degrees, I use a meat thermometer)
1 teaspoon dry active yeast
4 cups bread flour
2 teaspoons salt
2 Tablespoons honey
1/3 cup olive oil

Sprinkle yeast over 1 1/2 cups warm (not lukewarm) water. Let stand for a few minutes.

In a mixer, combine flour and salt. With the mixer running on low speed (with paddle attachment), drizzle in olive oil and honey until combined with flour. Next, pour in yeast/water mixture and mix until just combined, and the dough comes together in a sticky mass. Switch to the dough hook and knead on low speed for 8-10 minutes.  The dough should cling to the hook in a sticky ball and not stick to the bottom of the bowl.  If the dough is too wet, add small amounts of flour until the dough forms a ball.

Coat a separate mixing bowl with a cooking spray, and form the dough into two or three balls. Toss to coat dough in spray, then cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and set it aside for 1 to 2 hours.  Alternately, store balls of dough in the fridge (place each ball in a zip-top bag first) until you need it.

Note: It’s best to make the dough at least 24 hours in advance, and 3 or 5 days is even better.  You can make this dough healthier by switching out 1/2 of the flour for whole wheat flour.  I prefer the original recipe in this case, but do what you think is best for you.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Cheese Grits

The perfect breakfast on a snowy day.
I absolutely love grits.  When I was younger I remember having grits for breakfast at my grandmom and pop pop's home.  Pop pop would ask if we wanted them "loose" (meaning more watery) or "tight" (thicker so you could stand a fork up in them).  I like them somewhere in-between:  creamy enough to create a pool on your plate, but thick enough to eat with a fork. 

Sharp cheddar makes it better.  I prefer to shred my own.
I'm originally from New Jersey (my grandparents were from North Carolina) and I know a lot of people in this part of the U.S. don't like grits.  When I was in college my classmates turned their noses up at the grits that were offered in the dining hall, but I think that some people just don't know how to hook up grits, so they assume that they are flavorless and mushy.  On their own they can be bland, but once you add salt, pepper, butter, and even cheese, grits are one of my favorite side dishes.

The view from my kitchen table at breakfast time today
I'm so happy that E grew up eating grits, too.  I knew he was my soul mate when he helped himself to a nice hot bowl of grits in the dining hall back in college.  When I saw the snow today I knew that we needed a hearty breakfast before we he went out to shovel snow, so we had some grits.  He was even kind enough to wash the grits pot after breakfast without complaint.  (A word of advice, cleaning up grits is a pain.  Make sure you rinse and soak dishes first.)

A note on grits:  In Delaware (and most "northern" states), I have trouble finding anything other than Quaker Grits.  These grits are great and I usually purchase the quick (NOT instant) variety.  However, if you can get your hands on some stone ground grits or some yellow corn grits (I used those for this recipe), use them. 

Yellow corn grits, imported from the great state of North Carolina
Cheese Grits
a Keeley original
Serves 2-3

2 cups water
1/4 cup grits (do not use instant grits, quick grits are okay)
1 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese
1 Tablespoon butter
salt and pepper, to taste

In a small pot, bring water to a boil.  Add 1/2 teaspoon salt to boiling water.

Whisk grits into boiling water and reduce to a low simmer.  Cook for 3-5 minutes, stirring frequently, until mixture begins to thicken.

Add 1/2 teaspoon pepper, butter,  and whisk in cheese.  Continue to simmer until grits thicken to desired consistency.  Adjust seasonings, if necessary.  Serve hot in a bowl with spoon or on a plate (depending on consistency).

Monday, January 24, 2011

Sesame Noodles with Chicken

I've been taking my cooking seriously for about five years, but one of the last types of food I'm learning to cook is Asian cuisine.  I love to eat Thai, Chinese, Japanese and Indian, but for the most part I still rely on restaurants and take-out to get my fix of these complex international flavors.  In the past two or three years our grocery stores (and even big box discounters like Target) are carrying international ingredients that used to send me on a wild goose chase all over town.  I had to make a $25 investment in seasonings and spices when my culinary adventures took me to Asian cuisines, but I now consider rice vinegar, sriacha, low sodium soy sauce, hoisin sauce, and lo mein noodles to be staples in my kitchen.  As an added bonus, many Asian dishes are loaded with vegetables (well, not this one) and they cook quickly.  If you don't have a wok you can use a wide saute pan, but I bet you'll want to go ahead and spend $20 on a wok once you get into cooking this type of food.

Obviously, I didn't grow up cooking Chinese-style dishes, so I don't know how authentic my methods are.  This recipe was inspired by The Pioneer Woman's Simple Sesame Noodles.  I made it my own by stir frying some chicken, adjusting a few seasonings, and using wide lo-mein noodles.  If you can't find lo-mein noodles (I bought mine at ShopRite in the international aisle), you can use linguine or spaghetti.  If you can't find rice vinegar, substitute white vinegar.

I really like this recipe.  I made it for the first time a week ago and it's already on the list for a repeat this week.  I went through a phase when chicken lo mein was my go-to dish at the local Chinese restaurant.  Since I've mastered this dish I don't think I'll need to call them anymore.  Even E liked it, and he's pretty much a chicken and broccoli guy when it comes to Chinese food.  Enjoy!

Don't be intimidated by the long list of ingredients and instructions.  Get all of your ingredients lined up in advance and you can get this on the table on a weeknight.

Sesame Noodles with Chicken
Inspired by The Pioneer Woman's Simple Sesame Noodles, Improved by Keeley
serves 2

1/4 cup reduced-sodium soy sauce plus 1 Tablespoon, divided
2 Tablespoons sugar
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 Tablespoons rice vinegar
2 Tablespoons pure sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon hot chili oil or sriacha sauce or sambal oelek (check the international aisle of a regular grocery store)
3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
1 1/2 Tablespoons hot water
1 chicken breast, sliced very thin (1/8")
1/2 teaspoon Chinese five spice seasoning
8 ounces wide lo mein noodles, cooked according to package directions (I use Kame brand Wide Lo Mein Noodles)
4 whole green onions, sliced thin, for garnish

In a large bowl, whisk together 1/4 cup soy sauce and the next seven ingredients (everything up to the chicken breasts).

In a separate bowl, toss together chicken, Chinese five spice, and 1 Tablespoon soy sauce. Set aside.

Preheat wok to medium-high heat and pour in 1 Tablespoon vegetable oil.  Stir fry chicken in wok for 2-3 minutes, or until chicken is no longer pink.

Add cooked noodles to the wok and stir fry with chicken for 30 seconds.  Pour sauce into wok and stir fry until heated through, about one minute.  (You may not use all of the sauce.  Pour slowly.  I used 3/4 of the sauce, but you can season to taste.)

Serve immediately.  Garnish with green onion.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

BBQ Chicken Sandwiches

I love barbecue.  I grew up in a barbecue-loving family and Carolina-style pulled pork is one of my favorites.  This isn't pulled pork, though.  I decided to try pulled chicken for a few reasons:

1.  Not everyone eats pork.  (I know, right!)
2.  Chicken is leaner than pork, so it felt healthier.
3.  I had tons of boneless, skinless chicken thighs in the freezer and I'm trying to stop stockpiling food.

I came up with this quick recipe that almost anyone could make.  You don't really even need to know how to cook because the slow cooker does all the work.  This recipe makes at least eight servings, so it's great for potlucks, office lunches, parties, or packing lunch for a few days. 

Spend five minutes in the morning putting this together and your house will smell great and you'll have dinner ready when you get home.

Put the chicken in the slow cooker.  Season the chicken with salt and pepper and top with onions and jalapenos.  (Don't worry, this won't be too spicy.  I have acid reflux and I eat it... then again, I eat a lot of foods I shouldn't.)

Pour a bottle of BBQ sauce over the whole thing.

Set your slow cooker and go do something else.  Normally I just go to work, but maybe you need to clean your house, write a paper, or watch a few movies.  Whatever makes you happy.

When the chicken is done, just break it up with some tongs and put it on a soft roll and enjoy.  E likes to add cheese to his.  Whatever you do, I recommend a soft roll (I love potato hamburger rolls).  You don't want a hard chewy roll with this soft filling.  The chicken will slide everywhere and make a mess.

I still prefer pulled pork, but this is a really great substitute.  I could also see myself using this method (with different seasonings) to make a taco filling or a topping for nachos.  I think you'll be happy with this recipe.

BBQ Chicken Sandwiches
a Keeley original
serves at least 8

3 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts (rinsed and patted dry)
1 small onion, diced
1 whole jalapeno, diced
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon pepper
1 bottle prepared BBQ sauce (approximately 12 ounces, or you can make your own sauce)
8 soft rolls (I use potato hamburger rolls)

Lay the chicken in the bottom of a slow cooker.  Season with salt and pepper, then top with onions and jalapenos.  Pour barbecue sauce over chicken.

Cook in your slow cooker for 4, 6, 8, or 10 hours (I do 10 hours on low because I let mine cook while I'm at work).  Just check the settings of our slow cooker and choose the time that works for you.

Serve BBQ chicken on soft rolls.  If you'd like you can add extra toppings like cheese, lettuce, or red onions.  I like mine plain.

When chicken is done, use tongs to pull it apart into chunks and serve it on a soft roll.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Chocolate Pistachio Cake

I'm always skeptical of any recipe that starts with a boxed cake mix.  I love cooking from scratch and I'd rather leave the pre-mixed ingredients to people who are in a hurry and not as concerned about the ability to create a unique product.  My pantry is stocked with four types of flour, various leavening agents, and all types of flavorings.  Boxed cake mix isn't an everyday purchase for me.

I saw this recipe on Pioneer Woman Cooks a week or two ago and I was intrigued by two things:  the use of Pistachio Jello Pudding (who knew such a thing existed?) and the tunnel of chocolate in the Bundt cake.  I went ahead and and tried it.

You know what?  It worked out!  This doctored-up boxed cake mix gets my seal of approval.  I'd take it to a potluck or serve it at a family dinner.  It looks much more complicated than it really is and it's full of ingredients that most people can pick up at a convenience store, if necessary.  You don't have to be a baker to make this cake.

You layer the batter and then the magic happens during the baking process.
The base is a box of white cake mix doctored up with Jello Pistachio Instant Pudding, orange juice, and extra eggs.  You pour 3/4 of the mix into a prepared Bundt pan (or an Angel Food Pan if you're like me and can't find your Bundt pan) and then mix some chocolate syrup in the remaining 1/4 of the batter before pouring it over the cake and baking the whole thing.  I topped mine with a chocolate ganache (like the one I used in Boston Cream Pie).  My husband came running when he heard me whipping up the ganache and we both enjoyed a slice of the cake while it was still warm.  It's that good.

Check out that tunnel of goodness!

Chocolate Pistachio Cake
From The Pioneer Woman, slightly adapted by Keeley

1 box White Cake Mix
1 package (3.4 Ounce) pistachio instant pudding mix
½ cups orange juice
½ cups Water
½ cups Vegetable Oil
4 whole Eggs
1 drop green food coloring (optional, to bring out green color in cake)
1 teaspoon almond extract (optional)
¾ cups chocolate syrup (I used Hershey's Dark Chocolate)

For the cake

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour bundt pan.

Mix all ingredients but chocolate syrup and beat for two minutes on medium-high. Pour 3/4 of the batter into the bundt pan.

Add chocolate syrup to the remaining batter and mix well. Pour chocolate-laced batter on top of the pistachio batter.

Bake for 1 hour at 350 degrees.

For the ganache

1/2 cup heavy cream
4 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, chopped (I used Bakers Chocolate, you could even use chocolate chips)

In a small saucepan, bring cream to a simmer over medium-high heat.

Remove from heat, whisk in chocolate until shiny and smooth.  Let ganache cool for three minutes, then pour over cooled cake.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Food Budgeting : Menu Planning

Our meal plan (spelling errors and all) for last week

Last week I introduced a series of posts on Food Budgeting.  I started with the basics, "Get Your Money Right", or keeping track of how much you're actually spending on groceries and dining out.  Believe it or not, I love talking about money and I enjoy making budgets and grocery lists.  E and I consider grocery shopping to be a date (I know it's a chore to most people).  On weekdays I spend two hours each day in the car and my favorite programs on satellite radio are the financial advice talk shows.  We're not perfect, but we've learned to keep more of our money in the bank by planning our meals.

So what exactly is a menu plan?  For us, it's a realistic list of meals we'll consume during the work week (Monday-Friday), including breakfasts, lunch, dinner, and snacks.  We pack our lunches 90% of the time because it saves money, encourages us to eat healthier, and we don't waste our lunch hour running around town (searching for parking) and settling for salty, greasy fast food.  I take it an extra step and pack breakfast.  These days I eat one Chobani Greek Yogurt at my desk each morning and I enjoy my coffee (brewed at home and poured into a travel mug) on my commute.  I also like keeping instant oatmeal at my desk for a quick snack or last-minute meal option.

Where do I get my meal ideas?  I read food blogs every single day and I save my favorite recipes in my Google Reader.  I also have a decent collection of cookbooks and I subscribe to several food magazines.  Between reading recipes and having some old family favorites I know that we'll always have something decent to eat.

Some families plan out what will be eaten each night.  I prefer to make a list of what I can cook that week and I take into consideration yield for leftovers (since we pack leftover dinner for lunch the following day) and the amount of time it takes to cook the recipe.  Anything that takes more than 45 minutes to prepare may put me over the edge after I've worked a full day, fought traffic, and walked the dogs.  I save the elaborate menus for weekends.  My favorite tip is to freeze foods that reheat well.  Today I'm simmering a huge pot of spaghetti sauce that will feed the two of us for at least five more meals.  I'll be putting into the freezer and enjoying it on weeknights over the next two months.

I emptied out the produce drawer and took all the ground meat in the fridge to make a huge pot of spaghetti sauce.
Here are a few tips to get you started with menu planning:

1.  Have a well-stocked pantry and plan your grocery shopping so you're not running out at the last minute for ingredients.  Running out of food is an easy excuse to just call for take out.  Also, incorporate what you have on hand into menu planning, if possible.  Using your own supply of food always saves money.
 2.  Know your limitations.  I'm not baking bread from scratch or stuffing a pork loin on a weeknight.  I'm also not going to leave my husband a massive pile of dishes to hand wash after he worked all day.  Keep weeknight menus simple.
3.  Consider leftovers.  I love these Rubbermaid containers so much that we purposely cook bigger meals and immediately place them into storage for lunch the next day.  I don't like traditional lunch foods like cold cuts and my husband stopped eating processed meat once he married me, so we need good hot meals for lunch.
4.  Don't forget breakfast!  If you work outside of the home (especially if you have a commute) it's easy to fall prey to either skipping breakfast or eating a fast food breakfast.  I will admit that I used to stop at Wawa on a regular basis, but I'm officially reformed!  In an effort to fatten up my wallet and slim down my waistline I eat the exact same meal for breakfast five days a week.  For me it's Greek yogurt and coffee.  Find what you like and figure out a way to carry it with you.
5.  Get organized.  E and I have stylish, oversize lunch bags that look more like luggage than lunchboxes.  We routinely clean out our refrigerator and pantry and we store leftovers in an orderly system (with dates on items in the freezer).  We just got tired of throwing out perfectly good food because we forgot we had it or because it had spoiled.  Organization also includes keeping a grocery list and sticking to it, but that's a future post.

In the spirit of keeping it real, I'm also going to share a little secret.  We always build in one night a week of cheating.  This means that we may order pizza (on special for $7.99) if we've had a long commute due to a snowstorm or if one of us worked late and gets home at 8:00 p.m.  Or, we may enjoy a home-cooked meal prepared by my (retired) mom who lives two miles away.  And every now and then we'll just go out to a restaurant (preferably for a deal or with a coupon or gift card) for no reason at all.  We all deserve a little flexibility.  Budgeting is like a diet.  You don't have to be perfect all the time, but you need to do the right thing most of the time to see results.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Tex-Mex Salsa

I just posted my first blog entry to Potluck, the ShopRite blog!  Please stop by the blog and check out my first entry!  I'll be writing posts for Potluck throughout 2011, so if you found me through Potluck, welcome!  Like what you see?  Follow the Potluck blog, "Like" My Life On A Plate on Facebook, or follow this blog. 

Friday, January 7, 2011

Another Blogger Get-Together!

Keeley, Latoya, Nadette, Chavonne, and Maddy
I had the pleasure of hosting an impromptu blogger get-together right after Christmas.  This wasn't a food-blog meeting, but it included six bloggers:  Nadette from Eat, Read, Rant, Latoya from The Quarter Life Chronicles (remember these two from Homecoming Weekend?), Rene from Atlas In Her Hand, Maddy from The Maddy Chronicles, and Chavonne at Like It's Golden.  My friend Nakia also was there (I'm trying to encourage her to start a blog) and of course E was holding it down as the only dude in the house.  (He also did a fabulous job with the cleanup and the dishes.  I love him.)

It was my first time meeting Maddy and Chavonne and I'm so happy they made the trek down the NJ Turnpike (two days after a major snowstorm, in horrible traffic) to join us in The First State for lunch, snacks, and drinks.  I tried to make a nice spread...

I made Restaurant-Style Salsa (still tweaking this recipe to my taste), White Bean and Rosemary Dip (I'll have to share that soon), Chicken Satay (still perfecting this one, too), Chocolate Chip Cookie Bars, and Spiced Applesauce Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting.  Nadette made a very savory, cheesy, and enticing Carmelized Onion Tart.  Maybe she'll share the recipe on her blog.

The Carmelized Onion Tart

We (well, some of us) had some wine.  I like wine...

Nadette made cocktails and mocktails...

It was such a nice afternoon spending time with friends and making new friends... this is why I love blogging (and eating and cooking and sharing food, too)...

Rene and Nakia!

Latoya and Nadette

We ended our afternoon/evening by playing Michael Jackson:  The Experience on Wii.  My brother gave E and I both the Wii and Nintendo DS versions of this game as a Christmas present.  It even came with the sparkly glove.  This game is beyond fun... I highly recommend it.  Just watch out, because it's a real workout!  To sum it up, the Wii version allows up to four players to perform all the moves from your favorite Michael Jackson videos.  Let's just say that all those years of watching Moonwalker on VHS during my childhood are finally paying off.

Remember The Time
I hope everyone who came to our home had as much fun as E and I!  Did anybody else get Michael Jackson: The Experience for Christmas?  Should I be embarrassed to be 30 years old and getting video games as Christmas presents?

Maddy wrote about our get-together on her blog.  Go here to read more!
Nadette also wrote about it here.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Food Budgeting: Get Your Money Right

Last week, I had the pleasure of talking with several friends (some old, some new, some bloggers, some not) and the topic of food budgeting came up.  I thought about it even more after I caught the premiere of Extreme Couponing on TLC (which, by the way is a crazy show... check it out of you have cable).

Menu planning is the key to getting control of your food budget.  But before we even get to menu planning, do you even have a food budget?  I've learned to keep an old-school check ledger where I record every debit, cash, or check transaction (I don't use credit cards).  This gives me a quick view of my spending in all categories.  I have an unusual situation:  we spend more on fuel for our cars than on food.  E and I both have long commutes, so gas and tolls actually cost us more than groceries and dining out.  Every family is different, but here's a rundown of our situation in December, a month notorious for over-indulgence:

Groceries                          $ 225.54
Dining Out                        $ 164.62
Alcohol                             $  82.02
Total                                 $472.18

Groceries = all food items, not including dining out and alcohol purchases (liquor is not sold in grocery stores in Delaware)
Dining Out = everything from convenience store snacks to a four-course sit-down meal, including beverages
Alcohol = beer, wine, and spirits purchased at a liquor store

Every family is different.  You could be single, partnered, married or you could have one infant or five children.  Regardless, you should have a food budget.  Any realistic food budget will also count dining out because there are few people who can make it through the month without a little help from a restaurant.  I included an alcohol category in my budget because I recognize this is a non-essential expense and that many families don't consume any alcohol.  E and I enjoy pairing wine and beer with our meals, but we choose to drink at home where we can have high quality for a reasonable price.

Our December food budget breakdown (above) reflects the fact that we participated in a few office holiday parties (which required us to eat out for dinner) and that we also purchased some alcohol as Christmas gifts.  I feel comfortable with our total food expenditures being under $500 per month for two adults.  We could absolutely spend less, but this amount allows us to enjoy meals we love, complete with wine and beer pairings.

For January, consider tracking your food expenditures.  Will you be surprised by how much you spend?  Are there any opportunities for savings?  Here's how we got our food budget under control:

1.  We pack our lunches (and breakfasts).  We are often gone for 12 hours a day, but we pack meals 80% of the time.  Packing your lunch is a great way to use leftovers.  I use these containers for most of my lunches. 
2.  Whenever possible, we entertain at home instead of going out to a restaurant.  It saves us a huge restaurant tab, allows me to try out indulgent recipes, and provides a more relaxed atmosphere for our friends.
3.  I have a garden in the summer.  At least four months out of the year I'm eating produce grown in containers on my deck.  It tastes better and it's healthy.
4.  I stock up on staples.  We have a chest freezer in the basement and industrial-sized shelving units loaded with items like pasta, canned beans, rice, canned tomatoes, flour, sugar, and salt.  I buy chicken, pork loin, and ground turkey at Costco once every three months.  I load up on frozen vegetables when they are on sale.
5.  I don't buy convenience foods.  With few exceptions, I don't buy ready-made foods (canned soups, frozen entrees, rice mixes).  If I'm going to consume too many calories, I'm going to make my meal from scratch.  I save a lot of money and I know exactly what's in my food.

We're all busy, but I think everyone likes saving money.  Before we went on a budget smackdown, E and I could spend $100 on one restaurant dinner (and occasionally we still do).  We just got to the point where we refused to throw money away on unhealthy take-out meals because we were too lazy to plan and cook.  The next topic in this Food Budgeting series will be menu planning.  What steps are you taking to address your household budget?

Monday, January 3, 2011

Waffles of Insane Greatness

Isn't "Waffles of Insane Greatness" a pretty grandiose title for a waffle?  Well, they must be pretty good because I made them on three of the nine mornings that I was off work for Christmas break.  'Nuff said.

I bought a Belgian waffle iron at Costco in November 2009.  My mom and I both enjoy waffles and we figured we may as well buy a restaurant quality waffle iron (for $50) instead of continuing to spend $10 per waffle at random breakfast spots.  We were supposed to share the waffle iron, but of course it lives happily at my home and mom visits it occasionally.

What makes a waffle great?  Well, traditional Belgian waffle recipes require yeast, an overnight fermentation period, and the separation of eggs.  And yes, the waffles are indeed wonderful:  light texture and crisp and brown on the outside with a silky interior.  However, sometimes I just can't get myself together to plan breakfast the night before.  I'm human.  Waffles of Insane Greatness give me nearly the same texture as a yeast waffle with an overnight rise, but they only take 30 minutes.  This is my new staple waffle recipe.  I promise you can handle this, even if you've never made waffles.  I can get a restaurant-quality breakfast on the table in 45 minutes (from out of bed to sitting at the table) with this recipe, and that includes setting the table, making bacon, and brewing coffee.  If you can measure ingredients, you can make these waffles.  I promise. 

Tip:  If you are investing in a waffle iron (I prefer the deep ridges of a Belgian iron, but you may like the traditional shallow waffles), splurge for stainless steel.  It makes a crisper waffle. 

I've completely abandoned pre-made pancake and waffle mixes after experimenting with recipes for this blog.  Between this recipe and Buttermilk Pancakes, I'll never pick up a box of dry mix in the baking aisle again.  Breakfast from scratch is worth the extra ten minutes, believe me.

These waffles freeze well.  Use any remaining batter to make extra waffles, then place them on a baking sheet in a freezer to get them cold and just stick them in plastic freezer bags.  When you're ready to eat them just preheat the oven (or toaster oven) to 400 degrees and bake them for about 10 minutes or until crisp.  E hates cleaning the waffle iron, so I just figured out I can make two meal's worth at a time.

Waffles of Insane Greatness
found all over the Blogisphere and at on
Makes 2 1/2 Belgian waffles (serves 2 adults, double if necessary)

3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup whole milk 
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 egg
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
Butter and syrup, for serving

In a medium bowl, combine the flour, cornstarch, baking powder, baking soda, and salt; mix well. Add the milks, vegetable oil, egg, sugar and vanilla and mix well. Let the batter sit for 30 minutes.  (I cook bacon, brew coffee, and set the table while the batter sits.)

Preheat a waffle iron. Do not use non-stick spray on the waffle iron; the oil in the batter will allow the waffle to release easily. Follow the directions on your waffle iron to cook the waffles. Serve immediately with butter and syrup.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Reader Question: Menu Planning

Happy New Year!  I didn't make any firm resolutions for 2011 because I'm on a continuous improvement schedule and I'm always trying to live better, whether it's January 1st or April 19th.  I believe people change and improve when they are ready and we should all be looking for ways to make our lives better.  (Plus, I'm a food blogger and enthusiastic home cook, so the typical diet resolutions are pretty tough for me!)  Based on discussions with friends and family I know finances are on everyone's minds and this reader question deals with meal planning, which can have a significant impact on your budget.

Q:  I know that you like to plan out your meals for the week. Would you consider sharing those lists with your readers on a weekly basis? Would help make meal planning a bit easier for me to bite off your list.

A:  Absolutely! Now, I'm not perfect and I stray from our meal plan sometimes. I'll start sharing our meal plan and our food budgeting strategies in a series of short posts and you can take whatever tips work for you. Plus, I'd love to have suggestions from readers about what works for them.

I'm starting a new category of blog posts under the "Life" category.  These posts will be tagged as "food budgeting" and I'd like to share tips on grocery shopping, dining out, meal planning, and any other strategies related to keeping our meal expenses under control.  

Do you have a question for me?  Click here to post it on Formspring and I'll answer it ASAP.
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