Friday, May 18, 2007

An Unlikely Frugal Kitchen Tool

One of the least obvious frugal tools in my kitchen is the humble plastic ice cube tray. I keep several of these around to use whenever I have a surplus of several different kinds of food. By freezing stocks, sauces, fresh herbs and even some soups, I save up what I can't use immediately in a stable form and a convenient size. This lets me buy some items in quantities much, much larger than my two-person household would otherwise be able to use.

For instance, there's a particular tomato sauce that I like to use on our homemade pizzas. I first came across it in an expensive antipasto bar at our local upscale grocery store. I soon identified the brand of sauce that they were selling and sourced it from an Italian deli/grocery store. The cans were large, but the price was great. So I opened the can and used just what we needed for our dinner. Then I filled three ice cube trays full of tomato sauce for three days running. I ended up with frozen cubes of tomato sauce, which lets us thaw just a tiny bit of sauce at a time, just enough to lightly sauce our pizza pies. I store these in a ziploc bag in the freezer.

I've done the same with coconut milk. Cans of coconut milk inevitably seem to contain more than my recipes call for. Rather than trying to come up with an additional use for the remaining milk, I just freeze what's left over. Same goes for chicken and beef broth or any leftover cooking liquid. The size of the frozen cubes makes it easy to garnish with small quantities. I've also used frozen cubes of broth to rapidly cool down soups that need to be refrigerated. I try to prepare the soup with a little less liquid than called for when I want to do this. So when the cubes melt, I don't have soup that's too thin. When storing broths this way, or anything that looks less distinctive than tomato sauce, I label the bag so I can easily distinguish between beef broth and chicken broth. It saves rummaging around in the freezer and letting out too much cold air.

One of the less intuitive uses for the ice cube tray as a stocking up tool is preserving fresh herbs. When basil is in season, I grow a lot of it, clean it, chiffonade the leaves and pack them tightly into the compartments of a tray. Then I cover them with olive oil and freeze. The cubes of oil and herbs make a great accompaniment to meats, some soups, pasta dishes and of course, pizzas. Naturally, frozen "fresh" herbs aren't quite as good as the real thing. But it's better than letting anything go to waste, paying through the nose when it's out of season, or worst of all, going completely without the taste of basil in the winter. I try to match the oils with the herbs. Olive oil goes with parsley, basil and sage. Canola oil goes with Thai basil, mint and cilantro.

Hope you found this tip useful!

Friday, May 11, 2007

Home Cooking & the Importance of the Pantry

Frugality is easy for me to practice in the kitchen because I am an experienced cook. With professional training as a chef, this isn't much of a boast. But I got to thinking about how frugality works in a kitchen the other day.

I'd picked up some ends of smoked ham at the butcher, planning to make either ham salad or deviled ham. I'd never made either of these before and didn't have any specific recipe in mind. When I got home, I surfed for a few recipes, got a rough idea of what the standard ingredients were and then headed into my kitchen. Dried spices came out of the freezer, condiment jars and half a red onion out of the fridge, and a few other things out of my pantry.

As I mixed the chopped ham with a variety of ingredients, I once again felt that familiar pleasure of creation in cooking intuitively. I marveled at what I was able to create, just from what I had on hand in my home, plus one ingredient that I picked up very cheaply on impulse. What struck me is that my pantry allowed me this creative freedom, and that my pantry is a reflection of my approach to cooking. I suspect that the home pantry, as much as the inclination and the skill of the cook, is what allows delicious meals to be prepared in any given home. Ingredients are as essential as skill when it comes to cooking. Even a skilled chef can only work with what is on hand.

So I wanted to take this opportunity to once again sing the praises of a well stocked pantry. Having fresh herbs on hand, as well as a large selection of shelf-stable items will allow you to be frugal with your food expenses. When the allure of your own home cooked meals outshines the convenience of a mediocre meal at a restaurant, it's very easy to economize. So practice good pantry management. If there's an ingredient that you really enjoy using, make sure you always have it on hand. You will find myriad uses for your favorite ingredients if they stare you in the face whenever you open the fridge.

My favorites include Italian parsley, heavy cream, and fresh ginger. Stored properly, these items will keep for weeks. And though they might not all go together, any one of them would make an excellent addition to soups, noodle dishes, meats, sauces, even baked items. Plus, they all have the ability to jazz up leftovers. There's never any risk of these items going to waste in my home.

When considering buying a perishable item, ask yourself if there you can think of a handful of ways of using it up. What's your contingency plan if it starts to spoil? Spoilage is less of an issue with shelf-stable items, but ask yourself how you're going to use something before you buy it anyway. If it's something so specific that you only know of one way to use it, consider carefully. Will you really use this item up? If not, think of something else to make for dinner.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Frugal Philosophy - When You Feel Punished

Frugality gets a bad rap from many people today. Too often it is seen as stinginess, or indicative of poverty. Those who are forced to abruptly change their spending habits by financial difficulties are especially apt to feel that frugality is synonymous with deprivation and unhappiness. Yet those who embrace frugality as a voluntary lifestyle don't see the practice in this light at all. Those voluntary frugalites have attitudes that might mystify those who come to frugality through necessity. So for those new to frugality who are feeling deprived in an unfamiliar lifestyle, I offer these ideas.

Try to look at frugality not as a punishment or as a penalty for lack of savings in the past. Instead, look at it as a challenge, a game and a choice you have made for yourself. Because even when money is scarce, it still is a choice, isn't it? You're choosing to live responsibly: within the means you now have, rather than racking up credit card debt you can't repay in order to live your former life.

Look for little ways to economize. Pat yourself on the back when you find each way to stretch a dollar a little further, to get by with a little less. Everyone is different and will find different ways of conserving their hard-earned money. Many aspects of a frugal lifestyle truly do allow you to live well on less. Comparing prices and buying in bulk saves you money without requiring you to go without. Learn some new recipes built around cheap ingredients. There are plenty of frugal meals that have no taint of deprivation about them.

Remember that a lot of people who live the way you used to have very little money in the bank. They look like they're rich and they behave as if they are, but in reality they're not rich (and never will be) if they're not saving. Only a tiny number of people, the multi-millionaires, can act rich and be rich at the same time. A lot more people can choose between looking rich and eventually being rich. And then there are those who can't choose at all and will never be rich. You may yet end up in the middle with a lot of the rest of us.

Look at your new lifestyle as an opportunity to teach your kids to do better than you did. Model frugality to them, talk to them about it frankly, so that they might avoid the patterns you followed earlier. Parental behavior is an enormous influence on children. You might not think your children listen to you, especially when they reach the teenage years. But they are assuredly watching you and learning from what you do. The most powerful lessons your children will learn are when your actions match your words. Challenging them to rely on their creativity and industry, rather than on expensive conveniences, will provide them with invaluable skills for their early adult years when their incomes will be modest.

A good way of thinking about expenditures is to ask yourself whether a brand new gadget is really worth 10 times as much as the same gadget bought used at a yard sale or thrift shop. Sometimes, we really need new things. No one will tell you that a used toothbrush is a good buy. But clothing, toys, furniture and tools can often be had for a fraction of the price of the new item. And often in excellent condition. Well made furniture will last more than a lifetime if well taken care of. The same can be said for most metal tools. It takes an investment of time to collect what is needed from yard sales and consignment shops. So try to see the time spent as a bonus: free entertainment and recreation.

Most importantly, when money is tight, try to retain a positive outlook. Don't beat yourself up over the past and don't despair for the future. You may have made less than wise choices with your money in the past. But every little step you take today to work your way out of debt, and to spend your money carefully means a better future for yourself and your family. Each little effort adds up. It really does!