Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Why I hate sales and coupons:

Yep, you have read correctly - the resident vegetarian on the cheap is anti sales and anti coupons! Now let me tell you why:
I have written before about the importance of an eating plan for the whole week before you go out shopping. There is simply no way to make intelligent shopping decisions when you don’t really know what you will have to cook the rest of the week. The more you plan, the better your shopping experience will be. Events such as soccer practice, attending a dinner potluck, having to work late one night - all have to be factored in since they have a huge impact on what you will be able to cook or eat that week. If you also consider other influences such as, what is in season or how fast some produce will spoil - you realize why it is a good idea to sit down at home and devote 10 minutes to actually write down what everybody in your family will have for breakfast, lunch and dinner that week.
And here it often comes - “But how will I know what is on sale at any given week - if I am supposed to plan my week at home?”
Well, quite honestly the more you make your own buying decisions, the better off you are. Sales are nothing more than gimmicks. Supermarkets are not our friends - quite often you almost feel like they are the enemy. A sale is not a friendly offer to pass along the discount the big chain supermarket was negotiating on our behalf - you wish!
A sale or a coupon is a marketing tool. Nothing more. It is supposed to get you to come to the store and separate you from your money.
I know there are people out there who are the coupon queens and kings but what they don’t realize is that they are still being told what to buy, when, where and how much.
I never use coupons and furthermore most of the foods I buy are never on sale or featured in coupons. You will rarely find a sale in the bulk bins, and store brands not only rarely are featured in coupons, but are almost never more expensive than the brand name item, coupon and all. The coupon madness has finally also arrived in the health food stores, since many of the smaller mom-and-pop manufacturers have been gobbled up by the multinational mega corporations that also own the big chain supermarkets: Stonyfield Farms is owned by Danone, Kashi by Kellogs, Boca Burgers by Kraft Foods.
So, where does that leave us when we are trying to feed our families as intelligently and efficiently as possible?
My rule is this: if something that I had on my shopping list is on sale hurrah! If one item is an easy substitute - cheddar over mozarella or cauliflower over broccoli - fine, but if a sale would prompt me to buy something that I would not usually buy, or have never bought before, I simply pass.
 This way I am still making my own buying decisions and take comfort in the fact that I don’t fall prey to the mass manipulation that is the coupon game. Any thoughts?

Monday, January 26, 2009

Forever Lemon!

I am very careful when I endorse any product. First of all because most items that would be worthy of endorsement come without marketing or hype - broccoli, onions, quinoa etc. But once in a while I find something that makes a difference especially in my budget and then it’s time to share.
I am big fan of citrus - if you missed my enthusiastic endorsement - read it here. To keep lemons and limes fresh is not as easy as one would think. First of all, I find that regular lemons at 3 for two dollars - this week at the local supermarket - are really a rip off and second these lemons rarely make it past two weeks in the refrigerator - so really not a good deal. On the other hand a squirt of lemon makes so many things more tasty. For instance if you are trying to cut back on your salt intake, nothing works better than a squirt of lemon in your stir-fry or salad dressing to wake up the flavors. And here is the other problem - whereas uncut lemons last at least a couple of weeks - a cut lemon is do or die. If you don’t use all the juice - the lemon will not last more than a day or two in the fridge.

When I came across the little yellow and green bottles in my health food store’s produce section I actually was a bit turned off by the fact that they managed to come up with yet another plastic product - but since actually having had a chance to use them I have to admit that I am hooked. These little marvels are extremely convenient - the juice is from organic lemons - usually way out of my budget range - and they last forever. On the container the advertised expiration date is 6 months - and I am pretty sure they could go even longer. There are no preservatives other than citric acid and you do have to keep them in the refrigerator - always a good sign - if something has the ability to spoil it means it is not quite dead.
For about 2$ you buy yourself two months worth of lemons - even if you use as much as I do. Like I said: I am hooked!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Free soup!

One of the challenges I have set for myself for 2009 is to never again buy pre-fab stock for my soups. The buying of big containers full of flavored water for up to $3.50 per 32 oz has always irked me, but I never really took the plunge to make an effort to end this travesty.
If we look at the ingredients of the stock pictured above, the first one listed is “water” - and of course water accounts for about 98% of what is in that $3 container, all the rest of the ingredients onions, carrots, celery, tomatoes, salt, spices, oil and garlic are represented as mere trace elements floating in water.
To get to make your own stock for free I followed the advice of a dear friend and restaurant owner, who makes the best soups far and wide. His secret lies in the compost bin - or rather the things he will not throw in, in order to make soup. Kitchen scrap soup - I am pretty sure that was also my grandmother’s secret for her fantastic vegetable soup. Basically as you chop veggies for stir fries, curries or any other vegetable dish, have a separate container ready to collect all the bits and pieces that even though they are not good enough - or sometimes merely not attractive enough - for your stir fry - they are perfect for cooking over a slow simmer and giving you that flavor that we are looking for in a good broth. The obvious candidates are: the tough core of a cabbage, the woody ends of broccoli, the butts of carrots, the outer layer - not the skin - of onions, the stem of kale etc. All these should go into your soup stock container and keep in the refrigerator for two or three days - after that - if you are eating enough veggies - as you should - you will have a full container of cookable scraps. Put up a large pot with water, salt and spices and simmer - after about an hour you have wonderful and free stock! Enjoy!
It freezes great and lasts almost indefinitely!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Mind your plate!

Are we tired of New Year’s resolutions yet? Did we already abandon the new diet - they never work, do they? Well here is another approach - one that actually makes sense.
 Something I have been doing since last December.

There is a new book out there - presented with the impressive amount of new diet books released for the New Year, that examines something I have been commenting on for years. About 10 or 15 years ago the size of dinner plates went up - drastically. I still remember where in New York City I bought my first set of these 12 inch diameter monsters, my mother would have used as serving platers. But that really was the beginning of the incredibly expanding dinner plate - whereas the standard diameter had been around 8½ to 9 inches (and still is in Europe) - you will have a really hard time finding a dinner plate that is that small today. All of the dinner plates I found at the mall recently were 11½ to 12½ inches. And of course that is not the only thing that has been expanding! With all these added inches in the plate department, the inches that we like to obsess about are not far behind. 
The aforementioned book - “The 9 inch Diet” estimates you will be able to reduce your calorie intake by a whopping 35% switching to smaller plates!

Why does this come in handy for Vegetarians on the Cheap? Because these 35% do not only apply to your calories, but also to your budget. Less food eaten, means less food you have to buy.

Trying this at home myself I kept cooking the same amounts, but simply could not fit all the food on the smaller salad plates I was using, and while I thought that the family would notice and complain and jump up to run for seconds, that never happened! Not once did anyone in my family state that they were left hungry - even though they consumed way less food than they would have otherwise.
 It is a known psychological fact that people tend to eat just as much food as you put in front of them - the old "finish your plate syndrome". I would take it a step further and assume that one of the biggest cues our brain processes when eating, is a visual one. Namely, "when the plate is clean - I am done and not hungry anymore". This really works!

Should you run out and buy either the book or new plates? 
 Not really - salad plates do an excellent job - just make your salad plate your new dinner plate and you should be in business. The book is visually entertaining, but since it gives you only some inspiration and no recipes, it is a fine thumb through - but not a must buy.