Sunday, September 17, 2017

Sunday Reading: Build a Better Cheese Platter

Have I mentioned how much I love cheese? No gathering in our family is complete sans fromage.

Saveur has an excellent feature piece on cheese monger Lillith Spencer. If you love cheese and you love to entertain this is well worth your time.  The photos alone are magnificent. True works of (edible) art.

Enjoy!

Thursday, September 14, 2017

DIY Gifts: Personal journals


The Christmas DIY has begun. I like to plan Christmas gifts for the adults on my list by theme. Last year's theme was Baskets of Plenty - I made gift baskets full of homemade and some store bought goodies. This year's theme is Read, Write, Relax. Of course nobody knows the theme except for me. I don't send out a message, "prepare yourselves for your Basket of Plenty." No. The theme is just a way for me to organize my thoughts and my spending. My first DIY share this season is for the Write part of Read, Write, Relax. 

I wanted to make personal journals. The thing I love most about this craft is that it requires so few materials. 

Necessary materials:
-journal
-permanent marker
-scrap paper
-pencil

Optional materials:
-stencil
-ruler, math set

The journals I used are from Dollorama and cost $3.50 each. They are textured on the surface.  I used silver and gold metallic Sharpies from Michael's which cost $7.99. The butterfly stencil I used cost $1.25 at Dollorama.  They do sell Sharpies at Dollorama but not the metallics.

What to do???
Even though letters are obviously involved, I do not consider this lettering. At all. Lettering is an art that takes loads of time and study. Nonetheless, you do need to prep for this. I sketched many ideas out on scrap paper before moving ahead with the "good copy" in permanent marker. 

Because of the textured surface, the marker does run a bit. Keep this in mind because you do not want to be doing any fine print or intricate designs with a big Sharpie on this surface. In addition, you may need to trace around the edges after any stenciling in order to hide the bleeding (see butterfly below). 

Once you have come up with and rehearsed your design you can move ahead to the final copy. DO NOT RUSH. Permanent marker is not forgiving. 

This is an uncomplicated project - but you may be surprised by how long you spend formulating and practicing your design.   Examples are posted below. 

Enjoy!!










Monday, September 11, 2017

Recipe Share: A Tale of Two Squash

Is there a more seasonal fall vegetable than squash?  Squash is one of my favourite vegetables, and it is one of the reasons I look forward to fall every year.  This weekend I had two butternut squash to use up, so I tried several new recipes and also revived some old favourites.  If you are looking for some ideas on how to use up your squash.....look no further.

Squash and Lentil Curry
This Squash and Lentil Curry from Ricardo checks all the boxes.  I had all the ingredients on hand in my pantry (except the squash, of course).  This is so easy to make - just dump all the ingredients in the slow cooker, give it a stir and walk away for 6 hours.  That's it!!  It is quick to assemble, economical, and healthy - what more could you ask for in a meal?

The spices in this dish are very mild - you could easily add more for stronger flavouring.  I used Perez Curry Spices (one of my favourite blends) and added a bit more than what the recipe called for and it was still quite mild.  If you are not sure about Indian food - this is an excellent "gateway" dish.  Serve it with naan bread or Basmati rice and enjoy!!


Curried Peanut and Butternut Soup
The recipe can be found here, just replace the Pumpkin with Butternut Squash.  This recipe is from Bonnie Stern's Friday Night Dinners, the South African menu.



Squash Coffee Cake
This recipe is another gem from Ricardo.  I made two of these and send one to work with my husband.  This is a wonderful coffee cake recipe - I am sure the Butternut Squash could also be replaced with pumpkin and taste equally delicious.  But there is something fun about telling people it is a Squash Coffee Cake.


Finally, if you have the cookbook Friday Night Dinners, I highly recommend the Roasted Carrot and Butternut Spread from the Thanksgiving Menu.  Unfortunately, I do not have a link for the recipe and I do not repost recipes without permission/copyright.


Happy cooking!!


Blurry Curry, my 3 year old wanted to test his photography skills


This Squash Coffee Cake freezes well

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Sunday Morning Read: Rabbi Sacks on Faith, Family and Community

The title of the text is actually "Cultural Climate Change", but this is a extremely thoughtful and well laid out thesis and arguments on the importance of faith, family, and community in society - and how they are all interrelated.  This text is lengthy, but it is worth taking the time to read every word - and you do not need to be Jewish to appreciate the thoughts and arguments laid out here.

Rabbi Sacks was the Chief Rabbi when we lived in the UK.  I never had the opportunity to meet him, but I have read a great deal of his work and he is very wise.

Click here to read the entire text.

Here are a few teasers from this text:

Now I simply want to ask: how does this affect us in the contemporary world? The answer lies in three dimensions. First, family. Second, community. Third, society. What happens to family, community, and society when the West loses its faith, its religious faith?

....

Having children or raising them involves enormous sacrifice of time, money, effort and energy. Religious people understand the concept of sacrifice. We live by it. It’s part of our lives. But people in a secular, consumerist, individualist culture find it much harder to live by sacrifice. Nothing in the culture says sacrifice, and throughout history that is the reason why when a culture begins to lose its faith, its birth rate starts to decline. This is not just happening now. It has happened throughout history.

...

It is that ability to come together as communities to help one another that is our apprenticeship in liberty. Today, this kind of community exists mainly in religion. Let me give you a dramatic example of this. In 2011, a British medical charity did a survey in Britain. It discovered that the average Brit between 18 and 30 has 237 Facebook friends. When asked how many of those you could rely on in an emergency, the average answer was “two”. A quarter replied one, and an eighth replied none.

....

 But America, which received wave after wave of immigrants, had to work for this identity, this shared bond of society. You had a word for it and that word is a very interesting one. It’s a key word in American politics. That word is covenant. 

Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Great Grocery Project - One Year Recap

Shazam!  Just like that.  One year is over.  I started this project a year ago, knowing that we were heading into a period where my income would be reduced by 60% (also called Maternity Leave).  Many unexpected things happened during this time - I became very ill and was largely incapacitated for about 8 weeks pre-birth of son #2, we had to do a massive unplanned renovation on our house, etc.  But all is well.  The kids are good.  I've always used a rough budget amount - but this is the first time I have tracked exactly what the money is being spent on as opposed to just saying food in general.  This has been very useful.

So let's get to it - between September 1 2016 and August 31 2017 we spent:
$5006.76 on groceries.  This works out to about $417.23 per month.

What does this mean?
Well Stats Canada has lots of data that can put this amount in perspective.  According to them, in 2015 the average family in Ontario spent $8475 on food (this includes eating out, which we rarely do).  In addition, analysts were predicting that in 2017 the average family in Canada would be spending an additional $420 on groceries - bringing the average family spend to $8895.00.  A more recent article in the National Post suggests that Canadians spend $200 per person per month on food, even increasing to $240 per person per month depending where in the country you live.  Given this data, I would say that we are coming in well below average.

A few notes: Our children are very young and don't eat much food, I know that when kids (especially boys) hit puberty and the teenage years they tend to eat quite a bit more.  As an anecdote, a friend of mine has three sons.  A few years ago they were all between 16-20 years old, living at home for the summer and working very physically demanding jobs in landscaping.  She told me she was spending $1500 a month on groceries.  Now, I think this probably could have been cut back, but I can see how someone could easily spend this much on groceries every month with three very hungry, physically active teenagers.

The other thing to remember is that I have been off work for essentially this entire year.  I find it easier to have something small and quick for lunch when I am at home.  When I am making lunches for work it requires more planning and strategy and food savvy.

Regarding the food categories - I include milk (which we drink) in Dairy not under beverages.

OK.  Let's get to the good stuff.

What did we spend this money on????

Produce - $1296.64.  This was hands down our biggest category.  We eat a lot of fruits and vegetables.  I also have a stand-up freezer that is FULL of strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, and grapes for the year ahead that I use in smoothies, baking, for snacks, etc.  The cost of the "freezer fruit" for the year ahead is included in this total.  The most expensive fruit I buy are grapes.  If I were to cut out the grapes it would cut this amount back.  We planted a blueberry patch at our house two summers ago, but at the moment we are working on growing the bushes as opposed to yielding fruit for them.  My dream would be to grow more of our own fruit by adding a small orchard to our property - but dream is the key word here.  It is something we are considering for the future.

Dairy - $1089.08  This amount is high, but not much higher than the Ontario average of $783.00.  We are milk drinkers.  We are also cheese eaters.  It is a cultural thing for us (both of us are from French/European backgrounds).  And you might be surprised to hear that I very much restricted the cheese we bought this year.  Very much so.  There were no such restrictions on milk in our house.  If you are wanting some perspective on dairy prices in Canada - it is $4.27 to buy 4L of milk - and that is a good price.  One 444g block of plain old cheddar cheese can be purchased for $4.44 or sometimes $3.97 on sale.  Butter, on sale, is $3.50-$4.00 a pound.  Canadians pay a lot for dairy compared to our American counterparts.  If I had to significantly reduce our grocery spend, I would have to cut way back on milk and cheese.  But I love milk.  I really love milk.  I also really love cheese and I have really missed lots of cheese this year.  I digress...

Pantry - $770.27  This includes all pasta, baking supplies, peanut butter, etc.  We make everything from scratch (almost) so I am not surprised at this amount.

Meat - $387.25  This is far below the average household spend of $1079.00.  I knew that I could reduce our meat spend significantly by making a few changes.  I always stock up on frozen turkeys when they are on sale and use them for many recipes.  I bought almost no red meat this year, aside from ground beef on sale.  I did not buy any fresh fish - instead I bought frozen fish from Costco.  I only bought chicken two or three times.  I bought large pork roasts on sale or from Costco which last us for many meals.  We are more eggs than we normally would (egg salad, poached eggs, fried eggs, omelettes, lots of quiche).  We did not purchase any lamb at all (normally we might have it a few times a year).  I bought lots of meat Reduced for Quick Sale and immediately put it in the freezer to use up as needed.  We ate more beans (which I included in the pantry budget).  I only purchase meat when it is on sale (except for frozen fish).  On a final note - although I love fresh fish - I really like the frozen trout from Costco because the fillets are individually wrapped inside the package.  This stops them from getting freezer burn when you are opening and closing the bag.  It is a really nice feature and I was more than impressed with this product.  The frozen scallops at Costco are also great, but I did not purchase any this year.

Bread - $297.09  I thought I was spending more than most in this category, but it turns out I am about average (the average is $315).  The bread issue I go back and forth on.  My son loves toast.  He also loves really healthy sourdough grain breads.  I can get these at Costco in a 3 pack for $6.99.  They immediately go in the freezer and are used for toast.  The factory for Stonemill Bread is not far from where we live - I went there one day and even in their "outlet" the prices are not as good as at Costco.  I am not willing to cut the bread budget when this is something healthy my son likes to eat for breakfast (but I would obviously if we had to).  It is definitely cheaper to make your own bread if it is an All Purpose Flour using recipe, however the price of grains here are such that when you get into some other specialty type breads it is not much cheaper (if at all) to make your own.  I do love making Challah.  This coming year I want to try making my own Naan bread and Tortillas.

Prepared Food - $257.28.  This amount is much more than I think we would typically spend on "prepared foods" at the grocery store.  The big spend in this area was largely due to health issues at the end of my pregnancy.

Beverages - $234.89  When I look at my data, about 80% of this was spend between September and December, when I was ill and was on Doctor's orders to be drinking certain things like cranberry juice and tonic water (disgusting by the way).  However I am not afraid to admit that I do really love the occasional Pure Leaf Iced Tea.  I really love it and get it when it is on sale for $3.00/bottle.

Frozen Food - $199.50.  This category for us typically consists of frozen vegetables, pie crusts (my vice), and emergency frozen pizzas.  If you are wondering about the pie crusts - here are my thoughts: I love making my own pastry but it makes a big mess that I don't always have time to clean up (when I'm working, not so much right now...).  I buy these when they are on sale for $3.00 or sometimes $2.49 for 2 crusts.  Now, flour can be purchased pretty cheaply - butter not so much.  I have done the calculations and most double pie crust recipes call for about $2.00 worth of butter alone.  So it literally only costs about twenty to thirty cents more to buy the premade frozen crusts.  Why do I buy these?  Because when I am in a rush, or in a jam, or feeling lazy, or just life, I know that I can pull these out of the freezer and in 10 minutes of thawing they are ready to go which allows me to quickly whip up things like quiche, fruit pies, Chocolate Cream Pies, meat pies, etc.  And - I do not have to make a huge mess on the counter.  I like making messes when I cook - but I also like having time to do other things - especially when I am working.  So there are my thoughts on the frozen pie crusts and that is why I buy them when they are on sale.  Tenderflake can thank me for the spike in sales by sending free pie crusts.  Do you hear me Tenderlfake?   Hello???

Minor notes -  I also spent $30.84 on dips and sauces (mostly hummous) and $8.37 on baby specific foods.  There you have it.


That is it.  
That is what I spent on groceries last year.  Every penny.  The only distinction I did not make in this data is that I did not spend all of this in cash.  Some of it was in points redemptions but that was just getting too complicated given all the other tracking I was doing (I also tracked what I spent by store, and what I spent in each store by category but I will not bore you with all that data).

So where do we go from here?
I am finishing this year with a freezer FULL of food and a well stocked pantry.  The next few months will be very tight as I am finishing my mat leave and starting a one month infant care leave (which will mean zero income).  Following that, I will be back at work in December and paying for preschool as well as childcare.  I am extremely fortunate to have a wonderful job that also pays well, so yes, if you are wondering, even with the cost of childcare it is still worth me going to work - although that changes with every child we add to the tribe.

I am planning to run this particular series for one more year - because I know things will look a bit different when I go back to work.  After that, I will not be tracking everything so precisely and will go back to my more general food budget.

Thank you so much for following along with us over the past year - I look forward to sharing more and learning from all of you in the year ahead.  If you are looking for additional ideas or ways to save money on your food spending I highly recommend that you follow The Prudent Homemaker, here you will find a great community with loads of ideas on how to reduce your grocery spending.

Finally, I will leave you with a little recipe share, because I love recipe sharing.  Earlier this week I purchased a 500g tub of Krema Lemon Balkan Style Yogurt, Reduced For Quick Sale for $0.99.  These tubs are normally $5.99.  I was going to use the yogurt for smoothies, but then I found this delicious recipes for Lemon Scones.  I made two batches and gave half a dozen to my son's preschool provider.  They are delicious - and you know what - I bet you could make these using plain greek yogurt as well because you would still get the lemon flavouring from the rind.

Here is the recipe.  Smother them in strawberry or raspberry jam.  You will not be disappointed.

Enjoy!

Monday, August 28, 2017

How have we saved money this month?

I usually lump these in with The Great Grocery Project, but since my next post in that series will be a year-long recap, and the past few weeks have been crazy busy, I am giving the money savers their own post.

1. Not renting a car!! This will be our biggest save, although it is also paired with a big spend. My car is 6 years old and starting to get many small rust spots on the bottom due to stone chips and our climate/road conditions. We want to drive this vehicle for (we hope) another 5-6 years. Rust spreads like wildfire, so in order to maintain the body we sent it in for some body work.   Not cheap but necessary. This left us without a vehicle, which we need for various reasons. It was going to cost between $500-800 to rent a car that would fit our car seats for a week and we just cannot spend that right now. After talking it over, my husband arranged to work from home for 3 days this week and I will drive him the other two days. His work is 70km away and involves driving across the city, so it is a huge inconvenience to do this with a baby and preschool runs for the preschooler, but I think it is definitely worth the savings.

2. Hotel Points - last weekend we traveled North to Ontario's Cottage Country for a family event. We could have done the trip in one day, but it would have meant a late, miserable drive home. We were able to redeem Mastercard points and stay at a hotel. This made the trip much more relaxing and "saved" us $400.00 (although we would not have spent that without the points).

3. Benefits Investigation - I recently changed to a new benefits plan through work. When I phoned to clarify some of the plan details I found out my old history had been wiped, and I was essentially starting as if I had no claims. Obviously this wasn't being advertised in order to avoid a flood of claims before the official start date. I immediately booked Optometrist appointments for myself and my husband and we were both able to get new glasses without paying anything out of pocket (aside from our benefit payments of course). Fantastic !!

4. Daytimer Refills - Daytimer has been my go to organizer for 20 years. I cannot give up the paper calendar!! I must write things to stay organized. Last week I reviewed all the available refill packages and changed my usual order in order to save $20.00. This change will have zero impact on my organization.

5. Stretching the Grocery Dollar - While trying to use up some items on hand and avoid a trip to the grocery store, I made a Crock-Pot full of The Pioneer Woman's Refried Beans. I substitute 4 cups of the water with chicken broth. I used this to make bean soup, refried beans as a side, refried beans and cheese dip, and beans with corn muffins.

6. Duck Dynasty Cookbook - Have I mentioned that I love Dollorama ?   Have I mentioned that cookbooks are my vice? While picking up some hangers at Dollorama, I checked the book section (obligatory because they get ends from publishers and I have had many great finds here). There, waiting for me, was a copy of a Duck Dynasty cookbook for $3.00. I suspected it would be full of simple, uncomplicated, delicious, Southern recipes. It has not disappointed. I made cornmeal muffins and served them with bean soup, refried beans, with eggs, with homemade jam, and on their own as a snack. I love recipes and I need a hard copy because I like to make notes in my cookbooks.

I will stop here for now...but speaking of Crock Pots....if you are interested in the history of the Crock Pot, I highly recommend this article from Tablet Magazine. 



Friday, August 25, 2017

Martha Stewart Gets It Done

I always love these types of articles about how busy, successful businesswomen (and men) plan their day.  This one is no exception.  Although I was thinking while reading it, yes, that is the secret - I could get so much more accomplished in a day if I had three personal assistants and a driver.  Ha!  I do enjoy Martha Stewart though.