Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Zucchini Fudge Cake

This recipe compliments of my Aunt Gerri.   I've made this before but remembered it this week as I was trying to use up a few things...frozen zucchini and organic shortening from a friend and cocoa from another friend.  Please note this yields 2 cakes.

Zucchini Fudge Cake

4 eggs

2 1/4 Cups sugar
  - I use a bit less
2 t. vanilla

¾ c. margarine, softened
- I usually use butter but substituted some Spectrum shortening this week
3 c. flour

½ c. unsweetened cocoa

2 t. baking powder

1 t. baking soda

1 cup buttermilk
- I used a cup of regular milk with 1-2 T. vinegar added
3 c. shredded unpeeled zucchini
- I used 4 C. this week with good results


1 c. margarine softened
- I used butter
2 pounds confectioners’ sugar

½ c. unsweetened cocoa

1 T. vanilla

½ c. milk

In a large bowl, beat eggs until fluffy. Add sugar gradually; beating until mixture is thick and lemon colored. Beat in vanilla and margarine. Combine flour, cocoa, baking powder, and soda. Stir ½ of dry ingredients into egg mixture. Add buttermilk; mix. Add remaining flour mixture, beat until smooth. Fold in zucchini. Divide batter into 2, 9x13 greased and floured pans. Bake at 350˚ for 20-25 minutes or until top springs back when gently pressed. Cool completely. Mix frosting by combining all ingredients in a large bowl beat until creamy. Frost cakes.


Friday, August 10, 2012

One Step Toward Eating Better: Bountiful Baskets

Back in June I started contributing to a co-op called Bountiful Baskets.  They deliver every other week in our area and it has been such a blessing to us to be really getting our fill of fresh fruits and vegetables.  We have been very pleased with the way it works and with everything we have gotten so far.   One conventional basket is just $15 and provides enough produce to almost fill a good sized laundry basket.  After a time or two I increased our order to 3 baskets (the maximum) to push myself to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into our diet and to greatly decrease what I am buying from a store.

3 Conventional Baskets + 1 cute helper
This past week's delivery  (ordering 3 baskets) included:
3 heads romaine lettuce
3 green cabbage
3 melons - Galia? - new to me, but they tasted like honeydew
3 6oz. packages blueberries
3 avocados
28 red potatoes
20 bananas
3 bags cherries
19 tomatoes - organic
12 peaches
15 mangoes

3 baskets @ $15 + $1.50 processing/order fee = $46.50 for everything above.

What I love about Bountiful Baskets:
- Good quantity, quality, variety and freshness make it seem like a good value for our family
- When I buy more fruits and vegetables, we eat more fruits and vegetables.  Imagine that!
- We are getting more variety than I used to buy at the store because I was always just buying the basic things that are always cheap and whatever was on a great sale that week, but passing on lots of other stuff.
- The kids get excited to see what I come home with each time. And they have been more willing to eat their veggies.
- We've been able to greatly increase our produce consumption without increasing our grocery budget.
- The add-ons we have tried have been good, too.  We've gotten about an 18 lb. box of Rainier cherries for $25 and packs of 5 loaves of sourdough bread for $10.  Every ordering cycle they have different extras to choose from if you want, though I understand that the extra items are often sold out fast. Some of the extras I've seen are 9-grain bread, whole wheat bread, granola, Asian veggie pack, Mexican veggie pack, box of plums, box of mangoes, box of strawberries, box of pineapple and box of blueberries. The extra produce offers will vary based on what is in season.
- There is no commitment.  If I want to skip a pick-up week or stop ordering altogether at any time, I can without penalty.
- You never know what you are going to get.  This keeps cooking a little bit more interesting and challenges me to use what we have in new ways. So far, so good.

Challenges & Considerations:
- You never know what you are going to get.  This makes it more of a challenge with menu planning and shopping for my other groceries.  Now I just need to pick up Bountiful Baskets first and then do my other shopping so it all works out.  Each time it is a different combination of types of produce so you can't count on getting your favorites or avoiding your dislikes.  So far we've been able to use it all up.
- All that fresh produce takes a lot of room (because I buy 3 baskets) and we don't have a big fridge.  So now I really work to have the fridge cleaned out and orderly before I go for pick-up.
- The pick-up time is early on a Saturday morning.  Truthfully, I'd rather sleep in.  But who I am kidding?!  Days of sleeping in are already so few and far between.  And being in the car in the quiet of the morning alone is pretty rare, too, so that's a bonus.
- Volunteering at your site is even earlier.  Since this is a co-op, volunteering at your site is part of the deal and is expected at least every 6 times you pick up.  But you do get to pick an extra piece of produce from what is left once baskets are filled when you volunteer.
- You've got to be on the ball.   They only allow 20 minutes after your pick-up time to get there to get your order and then your order is forfeited.  They'll be donated and you won't get your money back.  Also, ordering is only open between noon on Monday and midnight on Tuesday.  I have always ordered close to noon on Monday, but friends have tried to order in the late afternoon on Monday and haven't been able to order for their preferred site or for the extras they wanted. 
- I've noticed a greater weekend workload in the kitchen on Bountiful Basket pick-up weeks because of the washing, cutting, etc.
- You've got to be strategic in using things as they are freshest.  We haven't had anything go to waste, but I have been careful to use the things with the shortest shelf life first and save the hardier stuff for the second week (potatoes, carrots, cabbage, onions, apples, etc.).  So we use the berries and cucumbers and ripe fruit first and go from there.  You could also prep and freeze what you can't use in a timely manner, but so far we haven't needed to do that.
- They also offer an organic box for $25 instead of $15, but for where we're at right now, I'm putting quantity and price above making sure everything is organic.
- Most of the produce is not going to be local, but probably as local as what you're going to find at your mainstream grocery.  If you have more leeway with finances, joining a CSA may be a better way to go.
- Consider how you'll get all the produce home.  When I order 3 baskets, I need the stroller to haul it all back to my car.  If you do the conventional basket, you need to bring your own basket or bags to transfer the produce into to get it home. 
- If you order extras, you need to inspect them before you sign for them and pick them up.  If they aren't up to your standard, you can get a credit, but only if you refuse them at the site, not if you get them home and later realize the quality wasn't as good as you had hoped.

The information on the website is extensive, so if you are interested, be sure to read all of it.

What are your best sources for fresh produce?

$10 Dresser Alternative

With three boys sharing one modestly sized bedroom, space is certainly at a premium.  A couple months ago our youngest son moved out of a crib and into a twin bed, leaving even less floor space.  His dresser/changing table was also a bit tall and I was concerned about the risk of him trying to climb on it and tip it onto himself, so we sold it.  My stop-gap solution is a few bins set on top of his brothers' dresser.  This won't win any decorating awards, but it suits our needs and it didn't cost a dime since I was able to find the supplies around our home.  1 bin for tops, 1 bin for bottoms, 1 bin for socks & pajamas.  I simply connected the crates with one bungee cord on the front and one bungee cord on the back.

3 file crates + 2 bungee cords = good enough for us

If you don't have these things around your house, I've seen file crates for $3 each at this time of year and the bungees were $1 for 2 at the Target dollar spot.

What have you repurposed lately?

Friday, August 3, 2012

A Month of Doing More with Less - Week 4

Week 4
Day 1/July 26 - no purchases

Day 2/July 27 - We splurged at the end of the week with a take-out pizza special, homemade caramel corn and a late bedtime thanks to the opening ceremony for the Olympics.  A fun family night was had by all.
Dominos - 5 medium pizzas (providing plenty of leftovers for another easy meal this weekend)

Day 3/July 28
Costco - 4 gallons milk, 3 lbs. bananas
World Market - 3 lunch containers for packed school lunches, 2 bottled fancy sodas for an at-home date night, 1.5 lbs. coffee beans, 2 pkgs. candy  - None of these things were urgent needs, or even true needs at all, but I had a $10 coupon expiring the next day.

Day 4/July 29 - no purchases

Day 5/July 30
Bountiful Baskets order - 3 baskets

Day 6/July 31 - no purchases

Day 7/August 1
I was so weary and discouraged today.  I even cried.  I had committed to getting together with girlfriends, but had not realized just how expensive it was to eat at the restaurant which had been selected. I looked at the menu online and saw the prices a couple hours before and considered not going.  I ended up going after eating beans and rice at home, then ordered a lemonade and dessert.  And the total with tip still came to $14. Ugh!  When I consider that I can feed our whole family, diaper our little ones and keep the household running on $14 a day or less, I see that it is such a waste to eat out.  But I didn't feel like there was any way to bow out at the last minute.  And the fellowship was good.  But I learned my lesson and declined a similar situation set for next week and a home sales party set for later this week.  I think it is better just to not go, than to go and feel stressed or awkward.  I try to decline graciously and don't mention the reason.  We simply can't afford it.
Tucanos Brazillian Grill - strawberry lemonade & brownie sundae
Whole Foods -  2 - 32 oz. bottles of concentrated castile soap for some of our kids with sensitive skin (about 1/2 the normal price & the lowest price I've ever seen on this product)

Week 1 purchases - $172.44
Week 2 purchases - $165.87
Week 3 purchases -  $35.48
Week 4 purchases - $132.60
Total for the month = $506.39

Observations from the month:
- I found that once we had already missed the goal I had set for the month, it was much easier just to let more purchases slide through, which emphasizes the benefit of using cash.  When it is gone, it's gone.  But I didn't make getting to the bank at the beginning of the month a priority and used our debit card from the get-go.
- Sometimes I feel I can justify going ahead and spending beyond the budget because timing is everything.  If I wouldn't have ordered from Bountiful Baskets this week, we wouldn't had been able to have our load of produce this weekend.  Yes, I could go to various stores and find decent deals on produce, but that doesn't seem worth the time, energy and gasoline to me.
- In talking with my husband, we came to the conclusion that this month was not that much different than any other month for us.  Most of the time we are trying to spend as little as possible. I've read that when you budget there is freedom to spend. Either we are not faithful enough to the budget we set, or the budget we have just doesn't cover that much, because I'm not feeling that freedom right now.
-  $500/month for food, personal care and household items is probably a reasonable amount for us (family of 7) with careful shopping.  That amount is higher than I want it to be, but going much lower would be pretty difficult.  {Sigh.}
- I'm going to shoot for $375 for August again because we still have a good amount of pantry and freezer goods stocked and we need to build some cushion for the bulk beef purchase that will happen later in August or early September.
- We are committed to living within our means, but struggling to find the balance with enjoying life now, making good experiences and memories with our kids, and not letting our finances put limitations on every decision. 

What works for you for living well on less?

Thursday, August 2, 2012

August Menu

Monthly menu planning has been working well for me in this season, so I'll keep on with that. For August I'll be once again using what is in the freezer and pantry.  Thanks to the generosity of friends, I really didn't make a dent in the pantry or freezer stock in July at all and we'll need room in the freezer for the 1/4 of beef which should be ready this month.  I like to make a list of meals for the month without designating days so we can adapt to changing schedules, energy levels and stock and use produce from our Bountiful Baskets contributions while it's still at its freshest.

Dinner - served with vegetables and/or salad
1. BLTs
2. Black beans & brown rice w/sour cream & cheese
3. Pepperoni pizza
4. Chili & cornbread
5. Italian sausage w/angel hair pasta & sauce sourdough bread
6. Breakfast for dinner - chicken sausage, scrambled eggs, blueberry muffins
7. Gourmet macaroni & cheese w/bacon
8. Ham & pineapple pizza
9. Chicken stir fry, rice
10. Rotisserie chicken (made by Costco), mashed potatoes & gravy
11. Chicken soup (homemade noodles), cheese rolls
12. Garlic pork loin roast, roasted potatoes
13. Green beans w/bacon, brown rice
14. Omelets, raspberry scones
15. Barbacoa burritos
16. Beef pot roast, mashed potatoes & gravy, green beans
17. Taco salad
18. Hamburgers, chips, baked beans
19. Creamy chicken wild rice soup, biscuits
20. Hot dogs, macaroni salad
21. Chicken pot pie
22. Vegetable beef soup
23. Sweet & sour meatballs, brown rice, stir fry vegetables
24. BBQ pork sandwiches, potatoes, corn
25. Potluck - bring tea & a side dish or sandwich rolls
26. Date night - hooray for free babysitting!
27. Sloppy joes
28. Spaghetti & meat sauce
29. Pork stir fry, brown rice
30. Clean out the fridge, eat out or take-in

Lunch - served with fruit and vegetables
Lentil soup, bread
Pasta with tomato basil soup & cheese
Chicken salad sandwiches
Ham sandwiches
Egg salad sandwiches
Snack lunch (cheese, meat, fruit & veg, crackers, etc.)

Breakfast - served with fruit and/or homemade yogurt
English muffin bread w/jam
Pancakes w/cherry syrup
Homemade granola
Yogurt/granola/fruit parfaits
Egg sandwiches on English muffin bread
Soaked oatmeal w/fruit

Baking, Sweets & Treats
Whole wheat bread - 1 batch/week
Oat fudge bars
Berry or apple pie
Strawberry rhubarb crisp
Chips w/homemade salsa
Key lime bars
Oatmeal raisin cookies
Pudding & graham cracker trifle

1. Keep our grocery/household goods/diapers expenses to $375 or less (not including bulk beef purchase).
2. Make room for beef in the chest freezer.
3. Eat well.