Sunday, 13 March 2016

Eat In, Eat Real, On Budget & Chicken Stock

Sweet Potato Oatmeal Muffins, perfect to make ahead and freeze. Recipe on the blog!

When I went from working part time to full time. I started doing a lot of the planning things so that I could maintain my sanity. I knew that eating real food was non-negotiable. There was no way that I was going to buy made for me meals in the grocery store or do take out. Sadly, I also found that working everyday really cut into my cooking hobby. In order that I continue to love cooking, I needed to get super organized. Over time, I worked out my meal planning and shopping system. I became diligent at keeping track of what is in my freezer, fridge and pantry and I started to do a great deal of meal prep work one day of the weekend. It's so nice not having to think about "what's for dinner" while driving home... I already know! It's nice to know that I have everything I need in my house to get meals together for the family and that we will be eating real food and on budget. So yes, I actually do the things I talk about in my blog! A little time spent organizing and planning is time well spent when it reduces stress and makes coming home after work a breeze! For those of you who find cooking to be a chore, trying these strategies may result in you finding out that cooking can be a little more enjoyable and definitely less stressful.
Last June, my full time contract ended and I was, again, unemployed. We were back to a single income household. As I told you before, I am the queen of saving and frugal, perhaps, to a fault. I am happy to say, that my great-grandmother would be proud of me. You see, she raised a family of 3 children, on her own, and through the Great Depression in a drought on the Canadian Prairies. She told me stories of how thrifty she had to be, just to get by. My dad told me that my grandfather use to say "it's not what you make, it's what you spend". Apparently, penny pinching is in my genes, so with job hunting not going so well, it was time to see just how much pinching I could do with my pennies (I guess that's nickels since we don't have pennies in Canada any more)! Don't get me wrong, my family and I are not in dire straights or anything, but it seems to me that with all the price increases and uncertainty of our economy, that it wouldn't hurt to figure out how to save money and stretch that dollar as far as possible. With that said, I think that no matter what your income or socio-economic background, you owe it to yourself, to the Earth, and to future generations to be budget conscious and not wasteful in all that you do... and not just the kitchen.

Food Management Strategies
On my last post I talked about preparing a meal plan for the week based on your sale items in the flyer and what you already have on hand. When doing up your meal plan and shopping list, it's easy to take a quick peek to see what you already have in the pantry and fridge. The chest freezer may be another story all together. If you are like me, you may lose track of what food you have in the freezer because older foods get buried at the bottom and then forgotten. To overcome long, lost food, I organized my freezer into food category zones like lunch snacks (banana bread, muffins, cookies, and the like), meat, veggies, fruit, bread, etcetera. I also started to keep an inventory list of all items in the freezer. When I use something, I cross it off the list; when I put something into the freezer, I add it to the list. I like to make my freezer inventory list and date it. To help make this system work, it is key to make sure my additions and deductions from the list are accurate, otherwise, I will have to root around in the freezer regularly which is such a time waster!  Also, I make sure to date the freezer items so that I use the older items first. If one stays on top of what is in the fridge, pantry, and freezer, it will be so much easier to plan the meals and do the weekly shopping. With proper tracking, you won't end up with unnecessary extras because you buy something "just in case"; freezer items won't get forgotten and freezer burned; and all the fresh produce in the fridge will get used before turning into biological experiments. Ultimately, you won't over spend on needless extras; you will save money because you are buying exactly what you need, when you need it and you won't be wasting food because it got forgotten and spoiled.
Although my freezer inventory list isn't completely fool proof, it does help a lot! I usually do a complete inventory every 6 months or when I have to defrost my freezer since I have to empty it anyway. This helps keep the inventory list accurate to compensate for items I occasionally forget to add or subtract.

How you track your freezer inventory, or write your menu plan, or write your shopping list is up to you. Using a good old fashioned pen and paper list works well, or even a check list app on your smart phone. Ultimately, you need to find what works best for you. Perhaps it's 100% pen and paper; perhaps it's 100% digital or something in between. Whatever you decide upon, remember you need 3 things accomplished: 1) A menu plan for the week, 2) A shopping list for only the ingredients you NEED, and 3) To use up the ingredients you have tucked away in your fridge, freezers, and pantry. Bottom line, the idea is to make a menu plan that uses up what you have in the house before it spoils and to take advantage of sale items in the weekly grocery flyer. This way, you save money because you don't waste food AND because you take advantage of sales.
Just a quick comment about your fridge and pantry. I highly recommend that you take some time and go through your fridge and panty and do a serious edit and purge. Toss out any expired items or items you know you will not use. De-cluttering is therapeutic and it allows you to see what you have on hand more efficiently. Anything to make meal planning and shopping easier is a WIN for you!

Cook Once, Eat Twice
Take advantage of "cook once, eat twice or even thrice"! This strategy saves both time and money. It doesn't cost a whole lot more in utilities or time to cook a double batch of something. YAY to saving money on the household bills too! It can be a great time saver and money saver to plan a Sunday meal that is large like a roast of pork or a couple of chickens or a double batch of marinara, or two lentil/walnut loaves or two chicken stews. Plan to serve your super sized meal again later in the week as is, or "ditto" as we call it in my house. You can make it new again with some new side dishes or re-invent it as another dish all together. For example, a roast of pork can be served as a Sunday dinner with a mix of roasted veggies like potatoes, beets, carrots, and butternut squash, a side of steamed broccoli, apple sauce and gravy. Later in the week, you can serve this meal again by reheating the main components in the microwave or carefully in the oven and warming the gravy on the stove top OR you can make a veggie stir fry and toss in the leftover roast pork, cubed to reheat at the end. Perhaps one of your planned weeknight meals is pasta with marinara sauce and sautéed veggies.

Make a triple batch and split amongst containers. You will have one for the meal this week, one to freeze for another night next week or when you are especially rushed and then divide the remainder in 1 cup servings to be used for homemade pizza. I usually simmer this marinara further till it thickens enough to "mound" on a spoon. You can make your own pizza dough or use store bought whole grain pitas. I recommend Pita Break pitas made by Ozery Bakery because they don't use preservatives or miscellaneous chemicals. If you have made a second lentil/walnut Loaf, you can crumble the second one up for Taco Tuesday or stir some into your marinara for a vegan spaghetti meat sauce. You can add a few more mixed frozen veggies to the chicken stew, thin it with a little more chicken stock and serve it up as soup. Oh, the possibilities by planning ahead!
Meatless or Reduced Meat Meals
There are so many reasons to consider more meatless meals. Some of these include that we are not getting enough veggies and far too much animal protein in our diets, or our quest for an abundance of meat has resulted in unethical factory farming practices or excessive greenhouse gas production, just to name a few. However, more relevant to the theme of this blog post, plant based protein is SO economical, especially in comparison to even the most economical meat in the grocery store. A bag of beans or lentils can provide a lot of really affordable protein, a lot of bang for the buck I would say! Even if you aren't ready to dive into 100% plant based meals, stretching your animal protein with some plant based will also help stretch your grocery dollar. When I make my traditional Québécois Tourtière, I <shudder and gasp!> sneak in a little green lentil; when I make a spaghetti meat sauce, I sneak in a little quinoa or red lentil with a whole lot of diced veggies; when we have burritos, I make sure that there are some re-fried beans to accompany the half batch of seasoned ground meat. In addition to mixing plant based protein with meat, we also eat completely meatless meals. Introducing meat free meals to an omnivorous family can be a challenge, but I have found a handful of completely plant based meals that please the palates of my omnivorous family. Even a vegetarian based meal like a veggie frittata (Italian egg omelette), easy on the cheese, is a welcome and budget friendly option. If you are looking for cool ways to incorporate more plant based protein into your recipes, check out Canadian Lentils. They have a wonderful website that shows you how to add these little Canadian grown gems into your diet. You can never go wrong by saving some money AND getting some extra fibre into your family!
Your Freezer Is Your Friend
One of the easiest ways to help stay on budget is to not waste food. Embrace your freezer and take advantage of preserving raw and already cooked foods. It's a good thing we just talked about keeping a freezer inventory list!  Freezers are great to stock up on really well priced sale items, assuming your weekly budget allows for it. Just remember to date and keep a good inventory. Meat, cheese, certain fruits, herbs and breads all freeze well, just be mindful to use the oldest items first. As we talked about, cooking larger amounts and freezing part of it for another day is a great way to save time and money, but don't underestimate the value of your freezer for preserving leftovers.
Don't throw out those smaller portions of gravy or the single servings of meat or spaghetti sauce! Save these small portions in your freezer. Sometimes I have a little gravy left over after making a Sunday roast. Ok, for those of you who have witnessed me making gravy, I ALWAYS have leftover gravy, and lots of it. Instead of tossing it out, I freeze it in my silicon muffin cups and then put my gravy pucks into a freezer bag or sealed storage container. This allows me to have add gravy to a simple weeknight meal or to a casserole. I also do this for apple sauce, pesto, marinara, and even cheese sauce. Place the silicone cups into a muffin tin. Spoon in what you would like to freeze, smooth out the tops and freeze. Pop the pucks out of the silicone cups and place them into a plastic container or a freezer bag. When I need a condiment for a weeknight meal, I just have to grab however many "pucks" out of the freezer. SO convenient, made at home and without the chemicals too.


If I have single servings of never frozen before chilli, spaghetti or marinara sauce, I freeze and label it accordingly. This way, for occasions when a quick single serving is required, I have one on hand.  Even shepherd's/cottage pie can be put into a container upside-down for a single serving in the near future.

When I have a little extra chicken or turkey leftover, I chop it up, spread it out and freeze it on a Silpat or parchment lined cookie sheet. Once the meat is frozen, I can package it in a freezer bag. The meat cubes are loose and individually frozen so I can grab as much or as little out of the freezer to make chicken salad, or wraps, or whatever my heart desires. This also works with some kinds of fruit, including pineapple, berries, and bananas. I've even frozen apple slices, after a quick dip into a vinegar/water solution to prevent browning.

Another of my favourite freezer tricks is to use my scoops to freeze tomato paste and hummus. For the tomato paste balls, I use approximately a 1 tablespoon size which works out well since many recipes call for 1-2 tablespoons of it!

I usually use larger scoops for my hummus so each scoop is about 1 small serving. How convenient!

At Christmas time, I use a lot of egg yolks in recipes for our Christmas Eve Feast. Instead of throwing out those egg whites, I put them into a 500 or 750 mL jar for storage. I leave at least 1.5 inches of headspace and store them in a freezer. I label the jar to indicate how many egg whites are in it.

Sometimes I have a jar that only has two egg whites. As time passes, I occasionally prepare another recipe requiring only egg yolks, so I continue to add egg whites to the jar (adding fresh egg whites on top of the already frozen). At some point, perhaps 10-12 months later, I usually get a hankering for angel food cake, which takes 11 egg whites. Now I have the egg whites that I need to make the cake. I thaw these egg whites in the fridge overnight. When they have thawed, I leave them on the counter to get to room temperature for optimal whipping. No fuss... no muss!
Last, but not least, I love to make chicken stock. I used to make a large stove top stock pot full so I would have to save up my chicken carcasses. Where you might ask? Why, the freezer of course! Now I prefer to make it in my slow cooker.  I can fit 2 small carcasses plus veggies in my 3.5 L slow cooker. I end up with about two 750 mL jars and two 500 mL jars, with sufficient headspace, to freeze.

As of late, I have discovered that I can save up my scrubbed carrot peels, tops and ends of my celery and onions. I keep these bits in a bag in the freezer and use them in my stock. This way, only have to add a small amount of fresh veggies to the stock. Ultimately, I am minimizing the waste and using as much of my food as I can... even the scraps!

Not the prettiest of posts, but certainly it will be tasty in 12-24 hours or so!
I could go on with what and how I freeze things, but I think you get the idea. Take a look at what kinds of food you prepare. You may find several items that will freeze well, either as a make ahead meal or the leftovers. If you would like a tip or suggestion on freezing something specific, leave me a comment below or click the Ask Michelle button on the homepage of my blog. For now, I leave with you my Slow Cooker Chicken Stock.

I have a 3.5 L Cuisinart programmable slow cooker. If yours is smaller, you may only be able to use one chicken carcass and less water, but don't chintz out on the veggie scraps. There is a lot of flavour in them!

Slow Cooker Chicken Stock

2 chicken carcasses
3-4 cups of saved up veggie scraps (onion ends, celery ends, carrot ends & thoroughly scrubbed carrot peels, garlic bits)*
1/2 fresh carrot, cut in thirds
1/2 fresh onion (depending on how many onion ends in the scrap bag)
1/2 stalk of celery, cut in thirds
2-3 peppercorns
6 sprigs fresh parsley **
2 fresh thyme sprigs **
2 bay leaf
2 tbsp raw and unfiltered apple cider vinegar***
8-10 cups of water, or enough to completely cover the ingredients just to the ledge the lid sits on.

*    I use whatever "fits" in my slow cooker with the chicken carcasses, and the fresh veggies. Press everything down before adding the water.

**  In a pinch, when I don't have fresh herbs, I have used 1 tsp dried thyme leaves and 1 tbsp dried parsley. The dried herbs get caught in the sieve.

*** The raw and unfiltered apple cider vinegar I like to use.

Place chicken bones and apple cider vinegar in the slow cooker. Add thawed veggie scraps, fresh onions, celery, carrot, parsley, thyme, bay leaves and peppercorns. Press down firmly. Pour in 8-10 cups water. Cover and cook on low for 12 hours. Sometimes, I even slow cook my stock for 24 hours.
Discard chicken bones, to the green bin if your community has this service. Strain stock through cheesecloth-lined sieve into large bowl, pressing vegetables to extract liquid. Ladle the stock into mason jars, leaving at least 1.5" of head space. We don't want any cracked jars. I like to use 750 mL jars, but if you would rather fill several 500 mL jars, that works too. Put the lids on and refrigerate until fat congeals on surface, about 8 hours or overnight if you wish.
Skim off the fat and discard. This can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 1 month or so. If you don't use cheese cloth, make sure you are using a really fine meshed sieve to strain your stock.

You can use this stock in your favourite soups, stews, or stir fries. Just freeze the stock in the quantities you use most. Pictured below is a Shepherds Pie Soup from Canadian Living. I used my chicken stock instead of the beef broth called for in the recipe and snuck in some hidden healthy lentils too. Super tasty either way!


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