Saturday, March 30, 2013

mac and cheese from scratch.

my littlest sister marley just turned 11, and her birthday brunch was today. my mom asked me to bring a double batch of truffle mac and cheese, since mac and cheese is kind of my thing. even though i make this all the time for us at home (almost weekly, we actually almost never even have store bought mac and cheese), id never made it for other people, and i was REALLY self conscious and afraid everyone would hate it. 

to my surprise, the entire pan was scraped clean and i got a lot of compliments on it, so i thought it might be a good idea to share the recipe, since its much less processed and somewhat healthier than boxed or frozen mac, and MUCH better tasting. (probably cheaper too depending on the ingredients you use or if youre on the pregnant/nursing wic package and drowning in milk and cheese). also, its pretty easy to do, if maybe a little time consuming.

ive basically spent my entire adult life perfecting this recipe, and like i said before, its a pretty important staple in the meyers household. 

mac and cheese
1/2 pound of noodles in the shape of your choice (an entire 12 oz box works too, if thats what you have on hand, it just wont be as saucy)
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup milk
approx. 2 cups shredded cheese, cheddar or jack work best (this is totally a guess, i never measure how much cheese i use and its really up to your preference)
salt, pepper, and garlic powder to taste
seasoned breadcrumbs
truffle oil (entirely optional)

start by preparing your noodles according to the package directions, drain and put in a large casserole dish. 
melt the butter in a small pot over medium/high heat. 
once its melted add the flour and stir until a smooth paste is formed, this takes a minute or two. 
slowly whisk in the milk, and stir in some salt, black pepper, and garlic powder to your preference (i like a pinch of salt, and kind of a lot of pepper and garlic, but thats just me). 
keep stirring the sauce until it thickens and starts to boil (this takes maybe five minutes), then remove from heat and stir in your shredded cheese until it stops melting and what you have looks like nacho cheese (actually, if you take this sauce and add some salsa it makes a GREAT healthy nacho dip). 
now that your sauce is done, pour it over the noodles and mix until everythings evenly coated. 
(if youre really hungry or impatient i suppose you could just stop here and eat but i really think this last part makes all the difference)
lightly sprinkle the breadcrumbs over the saucy noodles in the casserole dish, and top the breadcrumbs with a thin layer of shredded cheese, and add a drizzle of truffle oil if youre feeling fancy. 
bake at 350 until the cheese on top browns. 

this recipe is really a basic skeleton, its really fun to experiment with different cheeses and toppings and such. alice recently became a REALLY picky eater, and this is one of the few foods shell eat without complaint, so i often make it with the "hidden vegetable" type pasta and toss in some peas, and it still tastes fantastic. 

p.s. look at this super awesome cake my mom made!

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

my first recipe post: flatbread and hummus

one of the biggest challenges of homemaking, regardless of how big your family is or much money you have, is finding the balance between feeding your family what you know theyre supposed to eat, and feeding them food that they will actually eat. throw a tight budget, a vegetarian, and a picky toddler into the mix and the results can get really repetitive and discouraging. 

one meal that all three of us particularly enjoy is hummus with some kind of flatbread and veggies. its a delicious, filling, healthy meal. you could buy hummus and flatbread from trader joes for around $3-4 each ($5-6 each at a "regular" grocery store) and its a pretty cheap dinner, but by investing in a couple key ingredients, its much cheaper to make it at home. 

(note: ive never done much recipe sharing and dont exactly cook with precise measurements, so please bear with me and dont hesitate to let me know if my directions are unclear of my methods dont work for you. also, my kitchen is tiny and hideous so please excuse the lack of step-by-step process pictures)

usually i make the dough first, and make the hummus, prep the veggies, and wash the dishes while its rising, so ill start with the bread. im not exactly sure where this recipe originally came from, but i do vividly remember having it at a friends house as a small child and having my mom get the recipe so we could have it at home too. here it is:

(serves 3-4 as a meal, more for a snack. i'm pretty sure i actually doubled the original recipes but im not 100% sure) 

1 tablespoon active dry yeast (dont buy the little packets! you can get pretty much a lifetime supply in the baking aisle of your warehouse store of choice for about $6)
1 cup warm water
1/4 cup olive oil, plus a bit more for rising and frying
1 teaspoon salt, plus more if you want it as a topping
3 cups flour, give or take, plus some extra for rolling

start by dissolving the yeast in the warm water, and let it sit until the yeast begins to foam (this takes about five minutes, longer if its cold or you live on top of a mountain). 
when the yeast water is foamy, add the olive oil and salt, and GRADUALLY begin to mix in the flour (1/2 cup at a time works pretty well for me, this is where i highly recommend investing in a kitchenaid stand mixer). 
once all the flour in mixed in and your dough looks like dough, youll need to knead it until its smooth and stretchy, this takes 7 or 8 minutes (if youre using a kitchenaid, switch to your dough hook, if not, im sorry).
now your dough needs to rise in a covered, oiled bowl until double, about 45 minutes. 
when its done rising, roll small handfuls of dough flat and fry in a little olive oil, until each side is toasted and the middle isnt doughy anymore. 
if you sprinkle it with a little more salt while its frying it kind of tastes like a pretzel, but thats entirely optional. 
serve warm. 

now for the hummus, i didnt start making hummus until after i was married and lived in the middle of nowhere arizona, where there was no trader joes and the only hummus for miles was $5 mediocre grocery store hummus. this recipe came out of trial and error, and is entirely customizable to suit your tastes, i highly recommend playing around with it until you find what kind of hummus you like best. (you could even add other ingredients for flavor, like artichoke hearts or chipotle peppers, but in that case you might want to use a little less garlic)

(makes somewhere around 2-3 cups of hummus, about the amount in a regularly sized store bought hummus package)

4-5 cloves of garlic 
1/4 cup olive oil
1 15oz can of garbanzo beans 
1-2 tablespoons tahini paste (this is the expensive part, its $6-7 dollars and hidden in the jewish section of the grocery store, but it lasts a long time)
3 tablespoons lemon juice
salt and black pepper to taste
1/4 cup water

start by finely chopping the garlic and soaking it in the olive oil for about 5-10 minutes (yes, this step is necessary)
once thats done, add it and all the other ingredients (except the water) into a food processor (you could also use a blender if you dont have a food processor, we didnt have one for a really long time) 
add the water one tablespoon at a time until youve reached your desired consistency. 
if you have any additional ingredients to add, you can do it here. 

you can serve this by itself as a snack, but i usually make a dinner out of it by adding some carrot sticks and sliced cucumbers. (cucumbers havent been on sale in a while so this week we had to do without, though). 

this is also a really cheap dinner, since most of the ingredients are basic pantry staples (at least for us), and the beans and veggies usually go on sale really cheap. the only expensive thing is the tahini, but since you only use a tiny bit, one can makes many, MANY batches of hummus. 

this is one of very few dinners that alice eats without complaint, it might even be her favorite. at lease, i usually cant get her to take a happy picture during dinner time. 

Sunday, March 24, 2013

$20 family fun day, san pedro edition.

yesterday i had a rare saturday off, so we spent the day in san pedro, going to a couple of my favorite places. first we went to crafted at the port of los angeles for lunch and shopping, then headed over to the cabrillo aquarium. not only was this a really great, relaxing day having fun together as a family, but it was mostly free!

crafted is basically a permanent craft fair thats open every weekend, and i really love it for three reasons: 
1. its got free admission AND free parking (which in the la area is nearly impossible to find) 2. there are all kinds of crafters and artisans, and since its permanent, everyone makes a cute little miniature store rather than a craft booth and you never know what kind of neat things youll find.
3. but most importantly, they have a different gourmet food truck every day. 

that last one is actually why we went, because the grilled cheese truck was there! on my only saturday off for the whole month! how perfect was that? and let me tell you, that was one fantastic lunch. i got the cheesy mac melt (sharp cheddar and mac and cheese on french bread), james got the french onion soup melt (gruyere with caramelized onions on french bread with au jus for dipping), and we shared a half order of tots with roasted garlic aioli. 

and goodness gracious this was one of the most delicious meals ive ever had! everything from the cheese to the bread to the sauces was perfect, after we finished it was tempting to get back in line for another sandwich, not because we were still hungry (because we certainly werent), but because the food was SOOOOO GOOOD. the entire meal cost $15.50, which wasnt exactly expensive, just not really something we can do all the time (though i intentionally keep our grocery budget strictly at $50 a week so we have room for this kind of indulgence at least once a week). 

after crafted we went down the street to the cabrillo aquarium to learn about the fishies. as a kid we went to this aquarium a lot so it was really nice to get to share it with james and alice. cause as you can see alice REALLY loves fish. 

cabrillo is one of my favorite field trips cause not only is it really fun with lots to look at (and a tidepool touch tank!), while still being small enough for a toddler to enjoy, but admission is free (with suggested donation), and parking is only $1 an hour.  basically its a poor persons aquarium of the pacific

since alice is only one we only lasted about an hour and a half at the aquarium before we needed to get home, but all in all it was a wonderful day out as a family, AND set us back less than $20. 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Disneyland, part two.

as promised, heres the second part of the disneyland post, where i talk about how to make disneyland even cheaper by hardly spending any money on food. since we got our passes, weve gone somewhere around eight times, and only bought actual food twice. heres how we do it.

firstly, and most importantly, the disneyland resort allows guests to bring in outside food and drink. i repeat DISNEYLAND ALLOWS OUTSIDE FOOD. and im not talking about a sandwich cleverly hidden in the bottom of your backpack, we regularly bring a large separate bag obviously filled with food and our big gulps of soda. no questions asked. so if you plan ahead and make a pit stop for sodas, you can get away with not spending ANY money in the park at all.

but since we rarely plan our disney days very far in advance, i dont usually have all the supplies on hand to pack us a full day of rations. so most days ill pack us a bag of whatever snacks/fruit we happen to have in the house, a couple water bottles, and some type of sandwich filling (turkey and cheese, tuna or egg salad), then on the way over we stop at 711 for sodas (we re-fill our cups so that only runs $2. maybe $5 if we also get a large bag of chips).

once we get to the park, we head over to pacific wharf cafe in california adventure for a loaf of bread. this is delicious, fresh baked sourdough, and a sliced loaf is only $5 (passholders get 10% off most foods so it comes out to $4.50), and we make our own sandwiches, using the restaurants condiment bar. so for $4.50, all three of us get awesome freshly made sandwiches, exactly how we like them (and half a loaf of leftover bread for later).

some days thats all we buy, but when we feel that we deserve a treat (which, to be honest, is most of the time), we usually get ice cream either at the gibson girl ice cream parlor on main street, or the ghirardelli soda fountain in california adventure. both are pretty inexpensive, two (large) scoops at gibson girl is $4.85, and, the waffle cone in the picture was from ghirardelli, and was only $5 ($4.50 with passholder discount, i prefer ghirardelli because they give you a free square of chocolate when you walk in the door). yeah its not exactly the cheapest ice cream you can get, but its really not much more than youd spend at baskin robbins or coldstone.

since we have a toddler, and its still pretty cold at night, we dont usually stay for dinner, so most days we only spend $10-15 dollars out of pocket.

thats what we normally do, but even if that doesnt work for you, heres a few miscellaneous tricks ive picked up:
1. most "inside" restaurants will give you a free small ice water, even if you dont buy food
2. if you want a soda, the large soda at a restaurant only cose a little more than the bottles sold at stands outside, is much bigger, AND theyll give you a passholder discount, so its a better deal.
3. in case you missed it earlier FREE CHOCOLATE at the ghirardelli soda fountain! even if you dont buy anything.
4. the boudin bakery tour at california adventure gives you free slices of bread
5. most of the portion sizes are surprisingly large, and in most cases, an entree and side can be comfortable split between two adults.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Disneyland. Yes, Disneyland. part one.

i know what youre thinking, "i thought you said you were poor, and last time i checked disneyland is super ridiculously expensive and only super rich people ever get to go more than once in their entire life, and poor people arent even allowed inside"

and i would like to take a few minutes to tell you exactly how wrong you are. 

disneyland CAN be done very inexpensively, with an annual pass. in fact, ( at least for us) getting disneyland passes, and getting to go to freaking DISNEYLAND a couple times a month (sometimes more) is significantly cheaper than say, going to dinner and a movie or a cheap concert or something of that nature ONCE a month, but realistically less than that. 

ive actually had to spend a lot of time explaining that to a lot of people, because most reasonable humans cant even fathom how this can be true. so i crunched some numbers, since its pretty dang hard to argue with math. 

so lets hypothetically say that james and i want to spend some time doing something fun outside of the house and decide on dinner and a movie. lets pretend we go to some kind of casual sit-down type restaurant for reasonable entrees and a glass of house wine. no appetizers, no desserts, no steak, no top-shelf cocktails, just dinner. thats a minimum of $40. slightly more if we bring alice and have to leave an extra large tip. next we go over to the local movie theatre, and the closest one to us is $12.50 for adults. (its a really, really nice theatre and honestly the extra couple dollars is worth the much more pleasant moviegoing experience). so that makes $25 for the movie, and thats with no popcorn or snacks (and no alice, seeing as shes one and not exactly old enough to enjoy going to the movies). and that brings us to our last expense, the babysitter. obviously if james and i are going out in the evening we cant exactly have alice hang out with my mom or sister and go along with whatever theyre doing, cause shell need to go to bed. in her bed. at our house. so lets pretend we get one of our teenage friends who likes alice and is willing to do as a favor to watch her for the night, thats a minimum of $20. 

this brings us to a total of $85. 

now if you havent noticed, this is a pretty, um, bare bones date night. adding dessert, movie popcorn, paying for parking, and maybe a sitter who demands fair compensation, adds an additional $40, minimum, making a full blown date night somewhere in the ballpark of $125 dollars. 

but lets pretend we do the more responsible version a meager once a month. thats $1020 a year. on boring, minimal, totally worried about spending too much money outings. and alice never gets to participate in this, she has to stay home and hope we find something else to do for fun. 

i dont know about you, but if i had to choose between that, or the much more enjoyable option of getting to go to disneyland (and california adventure) whenever i want (except blackout days), as much as i want (work and responsibilities permitting), i would probably pick disneyland. if you add in the fact that disneyland is significantly cheaper, then i sure as heck am going to pick disneyland. 

see, two socal annual passports and one parking upgrade costs a total of $787, making the monthly cost of $65.58. for reference dinner and a movie is $85. thats $1020 a year. so even if we only go once a month thats $233 less than the responsible dinner and a movie. but heres where it gets really great: we can go AS MUCH AS WE WANT. which for us is at least twice a month. plus, alice gets to go and have fun with us, meaning the $240 of babysitting money isnt being spent, so really a year of disneyland passes is $473 cheaper than a year of one cheap date a month. 

of course, we dont just HAVE $787 dollars just lying around, but disneyland offers california residents the option to pay for their passes monthly with an $87 down payment, which makes the cost of the passes much more manageable. especially when we got them right after my birthday and put ALL of my birthday gifts into the down payments. 

so long story short, whether you look at it on a monthly basis or on a yearly scale, disneyland is actually a very affordable recreational expense. 

stay tuned for part two when i tell you all my favorite cheap (and free!) things to eat while at disneyland!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

a very educational trip to target...

so, ive started a new blog. the main purpose of which is to chronicle the trials and errors and occasional triumphs that come with trying to live comfortably, and hopefully enjoyably, on an extremely tight budget. in los angeles. ill get more into that later, but i thought id start with sharing a few things i learned at target this morning, since the trip was a pretty perfect example of the type of thing id like to share.

 i started using coupons a few months ago and had gotten fairly good at it, but only just recently found a source for multiple sunday paper inserts so this was my first shopping trip with A LOT of coupons, and it worked out really well. when i got home i checked my receipts and it turns out i used $67.99 in coupons, this was especially exciting since my nearly full cart (which was actually mostly regularly-priced, non-negitiable household items like paper towels, shampoo, and a new bathing suit for alice) came out to just under $74. and while it wasnt the most exciting haul ever, it was by far the most educational trip ive had since i started couponing. 

 first of all, and i fell like maybe this should go without saying, but the more coupons you have the more organized your trip has to be, especially when you have a toddler in tow. normally i feel like ive done a good enough job at it, but today i wish i had more carefully organized my list AISLE BY AISLE, since we ended up backtracking through the store a few times to find some of the items i had coupons for, and at one point we split up to find the soap we needed (which i did, and then had to carefully carry twelve individual bars of it, while looking for james). so for next time, i definitely need to have my list more organized, which is NOT my speciality. 

 second, target will only accept four identical coupons per transaction, and i had six coupons for the soap, so i had to split up my order. it took a few extra seconds, but next time i know to split everything up before i check out. 

 third, since target lets you use one store coupon AND one manufacturers coupon per item, if an item is free as part of a store promotion (today was buy two large garnier shampoo, get a free styling product), you can use a manufacturer coupon on the free item! since i had both a store and manufacturer coupon for each bottle of shampoo, i got all three products for $5. 

 fourth, buy one, get one free coupons are quite possibly the very best kind of coupon! the coupon i had for today was for gillette disposable razors, buy one pack, get one free (value up to 11.99). now, (at least at target) that means that if i buy two packs, theyll take 11.99 off my total. this was especially awesome, since the razors in question were on sale for about $5.50. meaning i got 11.99 off my order for 11.00 of razors, essentially making me a profit. so i got six packs. for free. well i technically had to pay sales tax on them, but still. 

 and this leads me to the last thing i learned, which was the biggest mistake of the day, but im glad i made it because i learned something VERY important about targets coupon policy: if the value of the coupon is greater than the price of the item, they will take the whole face value of the coupon off your total (resulting in getting a discount on your non-coupon items), BUT ONLY IF THERE ARE OTHER ITEMS TO USE THAT OVERAGE, they WILL NOT give you cash back. so my second transaction, which was just razors and soaps, which both had coupons that gave an overage, didnt redeem the entire the whole dollar amount of the coupons, they just brought the total down to $0. if i had known that in advance, i would have grouped my groceries differently and gotten a few extra dollars off, but i didnt, and frankly a large shopping trip with a husband and cranky toddler in itself had used up all my (and the person in line behind me) patience, so there was an extra $4 that i lost out on. (though i didnt even know it was there so i guess i didnt really lose it anyways). 

 but anyways, it was a remarkably successful trip, and, unless theres some kind of target emergency (which is unfortunately quite common with a toddler in the house), i shouldnt have to go back for at least two weeks! 

 so, thats what i did today. ill see you next time.