Kitchen Sink Fried Rice

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2015 has not been my year – new job, a painful breakup, sick family members, and just an overall blah feeling. To add to it, I crunched some numbers and financially I am not as well off as I was a year ago. 

So I’m dusting off the pantry project and seeing how I can save on my food budget, particularly bringing food to work and cooking at home as much as possible.

I love fried rice, and typically I make mine with jasmine rice, eggs, onions, mixed vegetables (the frozen ones with carrots, corn, peas, etc), chicken, sesame oil, ginger, soy sauce and once in awhile I’ll add scallions or water chestnuts.

I decided to make a batch as I had some eggs that were soon going to expire, I was super low on sesame oil, and I always have frozen veggies on hand. Or so I thought…

I raided the freezer and found some rice I had made awhile back and didn’t get around to eating it all. It was brown basmati with some saffron. Oh well, this wasn’t about to be an exact science. I hunted around for mixed veggies but alas, I had none. I did have some cauliflower.

  
So I went to work and came up with a hodgepodge of ingredients. In the end, the rice had red onion, chicken breast, diced baby carrots, scallions, eggs, ginger (that I had frozen in ice cube trays), cauliflower, liquid aminos all stir fried in toasted sesame oil. And it tasted no different than any other batch I have made haha.

  

Accidental Pantry Project = Huge Savings!

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I wish I kept better track on what I spent at the grocery store last year when it came to cash purchases. I know when I worked at Whole Foods Market I would buy lunch every time I worked a shift, which averaged out to about $10 a day. Now that I am working again, that kind of spending probably won’t disappear, especially as I now work in a mall with countless food options.

In any case, just tracking grocery purchases for my home, last year during January and February, according to my credit card, I spent $240 at the grocery store. This year, being more diligent about my purchases, using what I had on hand as opposed to going for convenience, I spent $125 during the same period – almost half my money! To top it off, since I was not going to work for five weeks, I ate many more meals at home – so those savings not only saved me money, they stretched to twice the meals.

I know not everyone has the pantry I had (I should say have – it is still valued at $759, currently (that is down from the $1140 that I started with)), but it is still important to know when you are sitting on money and meals at home. For five weeks, that is $381 I kept in my pocket, and not only did I eat like a queen, I fed others as well.

Cashew Butter

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As I am reading up on what else to make with my abundance of Vega One Nutritional Shake, I noticed a lot of the recipes I am finding include cashew butter. A few months back I bought a Vitamix and have made walnut and almond butters before. Similar to hummus, making these nut butters from scratch allow you to play around with the ingredients, texture, etc., while allowing you to know exactly what you are putting in your body.

Nuts and nut butters can be expensive, so making your own can be quite money saving.

This recipe yields about 1 1/2 cups Creamy Cashew Butter.

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CREAMY CASHEW BUTTER
2 cups Cashews
2 tablespoons Coconut Oil, melted
Pinch of Sea Salt
1/3 cup Water, optional

Using a rubber spatula, remove from blender and put in desired jar or container. For optimal freshness, store in refrigerator. BONUS – some of the butter will be stuck under the blade. Follow the recipe for Fudgy Chocolate Breakfast Smoothie to utilize the last of the butter. Smoothie will be creamier and more indulgent!

COST FACTOR (per my inventory):
$3.65 per 1.5 cups, or $.31 per ounce
Cashews – $3.50
Oil and Salt – $.15
Leading brands such as Jif or Artisana sell for $.58 – $.94 per ounce, more than twice the cost!

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$45 at the Grocery Store – Like Taking a Bullet

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Yesterday I had my first “major” trip to the grocery store since beginning The Accidental Pantry Project. I use the term major loosely because I did not need a lot of items, but I needed perishable things, as well as items for a Super Bowl party I am attending tonight, hence staying within the exceptions of the project (items that are requested by others).

This week I splurged a bit, since I have been trying to keep my food bills down – I went out to dinner twice with friends, went to a friend’s house for dinner, and I treated myself to a Chipotle lunch. I am really trying to limit going out to eat, both financially and that it’s usually not so good for you, but it’s also winter in New Jersey, so there really isn’t much else to do if you want to be social. My splurge probably added up to around $110. Being that I don’t have money coming in at the moment, I feel a little guilty. I promised myself about $100 a week for frivolous spending – eating out, coffee out, a movie, etc. – so I’m already over (for those who do not know me, I am notorious for beating myself up over little things).

Back to shopping, I hit up my local Stop&Shop. Since I am no longer with Whole Foods Market and do not have my employee discount to rely on (I really need to marry someone from there and get it back), I am opening my eyes back up to other grocers (you are still a guilty lowbrow pleasure, Aldi’s). Though few major grocery retailers out there have the atmosphere and aesthetics of a Whole Foods, in my opinion, the experience is not always as pleasant. At the same time, I can usually manage not to walk out with $300 worth of stuff (that pantry did not build itself) when I only needed milk and lettuce. What I like about Stop&Shop is that while you may need to dig a little, they have a huge organic presence in their stores, something I have grown used to the past few years as I am more mindful of what I put in my body.

Where does the $45 come in? Well, about half of that was stuff I needed, a quarter was splurge, and the final quarter was for my Super Bowl dish. I needed milk, Greek yogurt, produce (fruit and salad fixings), and coffee, so I figured it would be about $25. Then comes the Super Bowl dish. This recipe I am actually looking forward to. They are Bacon, Cheddar, and Jalapeno Pinwheels that I found on through another food blogger on Pinterest. The recipe sang to my project because I had everything I needed at home – bacon, cream cheese, cheddar – except fresh jalapeno and crescent roll dough. The dough is what did me in, and I may have to look for a copycat recipe to do it myself sometime. It was not on sale and $3.19 a can. I bought three as I am looking to double or triple the recipe (my friend is expecting 30+ guests for the party). So okay, I am really on track, spending a little over my estimated budget.

Then was my moment of weakness, the items that put me over the edge and I am confessing like an addict that just fell off the wagon – Cadbury Creme Eggs and Hershey’s Chocolate Spread. Two junk laden items that I cannot replicate because I am not a chemist, but are so sugary and chocolatey and delicious nonetheless. I do eventually want to test creating a similar spread to the Hershey’s stuff, but all the recipes I am finding online are more Nutella copycat than straight up chocolate. If you love lowbrow chocolate and need a fix, I highly recommend these spreads. They are relatively new and my newest junk food addiction. Unfortunately both of these treats were on sale, so it made it harder to resist, but also hard when the cashier rang me up for $45.36.

What can I say? The project is a journey…

Inventory, Part 4 – Freezer and Fridge Condiments

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Finally! I have counted all this “inventory” in my home. The last phase of counting and calculation took place this evening. I wanted to work on it earlier in the week, but since the Snowmaggeden bust kept me out of my home the day that I was best suited to do it, I got around to it tonight.

So, using the same loose formula I used for my dry goods (gifts have zero value, stuff from Whole Foods bought under retail with my discount, etc.), I calculated the freezer contents and my refrigerated condiments (i.e., perishable but long shelf life in fridge) came to about $240, so the grand total cost of all my food is $1140.

Since starting this project a little over a week ago, I have not gone grocery shopping for myself. The only exception is I stopped and bought a dessert as a hostess gift for a friend who was having me for dinner. I have gone out with friends to eat a couple of times, but otherwise, I have just been depleting my pantry. I will have to make a trip soon for some fresh produce and dairy, but I know I’m saving a lot of money being resourceful. Next phase, of course, is to figure out what I would spend on average in the past and how I am helping my current cause.

Here is what I have to work with from my freezer and refrigerator… Continue reading

Friday Night Hummus

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Every time I make hummus I am reminded how foolish it is to buy it. The ROI on store-bought hummus simply is not there. There are plenty of things I can make that I can buy because of time constraints, or that my version is not as good, but hummus just does not fit into that category.

In about five minutes, less time that it takes to go to the store, you can have hummus. And of course, what I love, is I know exactly what I am putting in my body and I have control over smoothness, sodium, preservatives, etc.

For this version, I used tahini, lemon, parsley, and garlic, but you can experiment with all sorts of ingredients and mix-ins, but I recommend at least chickpeas and olive oil.

This is MORE than what you need for a simple hummus.

This is MORE than what you need for a simple hummus. From left to right – parsley, tahini, garlic, chickpeas, lemon, olive oil, salt, pepper.

HUMMUS
1 can (14.5 ounces) Chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1/4 cup Tahini
2 tablespoons Olive Oil
3 cloves Garlic
Juice of 1 Lemon
1 tablespoon Lemon Zest
2 tablespoons fresh Parsley
1/4 – 1/2 cup water

For a quick meal, serve with salad and pita bread or naan. For this dinner, I combined arugula and tuna with Curry Dressing.

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COSTS:
$2.80 for 1 1/2 cups (12 oz.)
Chickpeas – $1
Tahini – $.75
Lemon – $.80
Olive Oil and Seasonings – $.25

Inventory, Part 3

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Today I figured out the value of the inventory of my pantry dry goods. I putzed around google and amazon for costs, and where applicable I used about a 20% discount on things I know I got at Whole Foods with my employee discount. Hence, the rough estimate really will not be all that rough.

The area that I really averaged an estimate, however, was spices. In terms of spice inventory, I am going to say the average spice in my cabinet cost $2.50. Most of those standard sized McCormick bottles out there go for about that price, but my spices range from free stuff I scored through work, trade shows, mom’s pantry and gift baskets, to some high quality stuff I splurged on (hello, saffron and vanilla). With 51+ spices, that’s $127.50, and I think that is a very fair estimate.

Looking ahead, I plan to omit spices from the exact cost factor in my recipes, similarly to how restaurants and food service establishments do when they cost out recipes. Instead, when I cost out recipes I will use a blanket seasoning cost estimate, which will probably be pennies per recipe, maybe $.03 – $.10. Think about it, let’s say I spent $3 on a 1.25 ounce bottle of Italian seasoning. The bottle probably has about 30 teaspoons of seasoning in it, so about $.10 per teaspoon. Some recipes will use a dash, some will use tablespoons. I’m going to drive myself crazy thinking about what I spent on that, and again, the financial aspect of this project is more of an exercise on money I am saving moving forward, not what I have already spent. Plus, and I know I’m beating a dead horse here, it’s more about creativity and making use of what is on hand.

So you want to know the full value of my dry goods inventory, what is has probably cost me? $904. The average cost of each individual item (218 in total) is about $4.16. This ranges from about 15 non-spice items that were definitely free, to pricey supplements that cost about $50 (hello, Green Vibrance). $904. I think that’s fascinating. I don’t even know how many meals and dishes and snacks I will create from all this, but knowing that I usually drop $40 – $100 when I go out to a nice dinner with friends, it is beyond foolish not to cook at home when you want to save money. Plus what I have to work with will not mean meals of ramen, plain spaghetti, and PB&J.

Next up in the project – freezer and fridge inventory, figuring out my average grocery costs before now, and figuring out on average how much I have been spending on food. Oh, and of course, what I have cooked so far. Stay tuned!

Late Night Snack – Pretzels and Cheese Sauce

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While I work on my on-hand food inventory and cost, I’m also doing the fun part of this project, which is getting creative with what I have to make some yummy food!

The latest experiment was making Auntie Anne’s Pretzels from a kit I bought at Bed, Bath, and Beyond. For years, an Auntie Anne’s pretzel has been my favorite mall fare – a quick snack to refuel on shopping excursions. Plus with cheese being my favorite food, I would also get a packet of cheese sauce to go with the pretzel. Granted, that cheese sauce was more of a chemically processed cheese food that could survive nuclear holocaust and will probably be sitting in my system years after I am dead, but it really was a satisfying snack.

On my own, I make a good cheese sauce because I love Bechamel, cheese, mac and cheese, etc. Depending on my needs I am not as diligent in the classic mother sauce preparation as I was in my youth. I still love the whole pomp and circumstance of an onion cloute and straining the milk mixture before blending it with the roux. But tonight was about snack time and pantry depletion, so shortcuts happened and the results (in my opinion) were still quite scrumptious.

I followed the instructions that came with the baking mix. It was pretty easy to follow, but the process was definitely time consuming, as is any sort of bread baking. From when I started to when I was snacking was probably about an hour and a half to two hours, and it yields a hefty number of pretzels. Much of that time is active time, too. Other than the half hour you allow the dough to rest so the yeast can do its thing, you are working a lot and quickly. I made the mistake of wanting to make my cheese sauce while the pretzels were baking, but the baking time was short and active, and I do not have the counter space to work around that.

Overall lesson learned – making the pretzels at home was fun and cost saving, but DEFINITELY not convenient and time saving.

Here’s my adventure, followed by the cheese sauce recipe

CHEESE SAUCE

3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
1 1/2 cups nonfat milk (can use any milk, nonfat is what I had on hand), ideally warmed to room temperature
3 cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
dash each of nutmeg, white pepper, onion powder, Worchestershire sauce
1 teaspoon maple sugar (any natural sweetener works, again, what I had on hand and I love maple)
1 cup shredded cheese (I used Clothbound Cheddar and Landaff that were going to go bad if I didn’t use them)

  1. Over low heat, whisk the flour and butter together, cooking about 5 minutes until roux is blonde in color – do not overcook
  2. Slowly whisk in milk, continue to cook over low flame, whisking constantly. Mixture will thicken within a couple of minutes
  3. Add seasonings, cook about three more minutes to incorporate flavor. The sugar is used to balance out the saltiness of the cheeses
  4. Whisk in cheese and continue to stir until fully melted and incorporated. Sauce should be smooth and creamy, not stringy
  5. Serve immediately, but be sure to pick out the cloves so not to choke or get an intense hit of spice. Sauce can be cooled and reheated, but best to reheat over slow heat and mix in extra milk to prevent curdling
  6. Recipe yields about 2 cups of sauce, about 4 servings

RECIPE COST (for me based off my pantry items):
$9.85 for 10 pretzel servings and 4 sauce servings
$8, pretzel mix
$.40, butter
$.75, seasonings, sugar, flour
$.70, milk
$0, cheese (was from a gift basket)

Inventory, Part 2

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Oh man…still have to figure out cost factor, but I have put together what I have one hand. Quantities are listed in a system I understand, I do not have exact weights and measurements, so it not going to necessarily be foolproof for someone who may look at my list and cross reference it to what I have on hand.

I have copied and pasted this from an excel sheet, so it can be searched and filtered in a bunch of different ways. This is just my dry goods. I still have to go through my fridge condiments (i.e., items with a long shelf life) and my freezer. Continue reading

Thai Chicken and Pineapple Fried Rice

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As I get the Accidental Pantry Project underway, I made my first dish tonight with stuff in my pantry and fridge. Recently I went  a Thai restaurant with some girlfriends and fell in love with the Pineapple Fried Rice. I tried to recreate the same at home. Overall I am pleased with the dish, but the rice turned out stickier than I would have liked. Next time I am going to cook the rice itself (meaning single ingredient, not whole dish) with a bit more oil and let it cool before mixing it into the stir fry.

My project is still in its early phases, and I have not taken full inventory of the food I have here at home, but I will add the food cost/savings at a later date.

THAI CHICKEN AND PINEAPPLE FRIED RICE

1 cup Thai-style Jasmine rice
1 pound chicken, cut into strips or cubes
2 cups frozen pineapple chunks, thawed and chopped into smaller chunks
1/2 onion, diced
3 scallions, chopped – white divided from green
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1/2 cup unsalted cashews
1 tablespoon red curry paste
2 tablespoons ginger paste
1/4 cup sesame oil, divided
1/4 cup liquid aminos or soy sauce
2 eggs, raw

  1. Prepare rice according to package directions, set aside to cool
  2. In a wok or large skillet, heat about 1 tablespoon of sesame oil, add chicken and stir fry until browned and about 75% cooked (do not overcook because it will get cooked again later). Remove from skillet and set aside
  3. In same wok, heat about another tablespoon of sesame oil. Add onions, white scallions, and garlic. Cook until lightly browned
  4. Add cashews, ginger paste, and curry paste. Cook about another minute
  5. Add rice, rest of oil, liquid aminos, and chicken. Stir fry mixture about 3-4 minutes until rice starts to take on a golden brown color. Adjust seasonings to your preference
  6. Crack eggs above mixture and stir into the rice, cooking about one more minute
  7. Garnish with green scallions. Dish serves 4