Friday, May 27, 2011

My Herb Garden Staple; or, Why You Should Grow Chives

If I could only grow one herb in my herb garden (which would be sad, I have to say), I would choose chives. I think I may have inherited my enthusiam for them from my mom. Here are a few reasons why I love them and why you should have them in your herb garden, too.

1.  Chives are really, really easy to grow.  
Whether you plant chives by seed or transplant, you won't have much difficulty. Chives sprout easily from seed. Like most plants, chives prefer to grow in rich, moist but well-drained soil, but they're tolerant to other conditions. I can attest to this. My chives have grown, even flourished in my garden boxes when other crops haven't. They've gotten buried in late-spring snowstorms and baked in the summer heat and still produced wonderfully.

2. They are perennial.
Unlike many herbs, chives come back year after year. They're very resilient. My chives usually start coming back to life in March. I've walked to my garden, over my soggy, snow-spotted lawn in early spring to snip chives from my otherwise frozen garden. 

3. They're easy to harvest and use.
Just snip as many as you need out of your garden, rinse, and cut them into tiny pieces before adding them to food. It's recommended to harvest them before they flower, but I've used them after they've flowered. One other great thing about harvesting chives -- they grow back quickly. 

4.  They are versatile.
I use chives in recipes all the time. They give food a nice, mild onion and garlic flavor. I love using them in a variety of foods -- eggs, salads, dressings, salsa, any potato dish, pasta dishes, and lots of other things. If I have a recipe that calls for green onions/scallions, I'll use chives instead if I have them on hand.

4. They preserve really well.
Last fall, I wrote a post about preserving herbs and I mentioned that you can freeze chives. Simply cut up the chives into little pieces, spread them in a single layer on a plate, and freeze. Once frozen, store them in an airtight container or zipper bag. No need to thaw them when you want to use them. When I wrote the post, I hadn't used frozen chives before. I harvested all of my chives in the late fall and froze them. We used them all winter long and they tasted great and worked as well as fresh ones. My mom was so excited to learn this tip and she plans on freezing some of her chives all summer to build a stockpile for the colder months.

5. They're pretty.
They add a nice splash of color to my garden. Plus, they attract bees and I'm all for helping those little bees out.

6. They're good for you.
Since they're part of the allium family of plants, they have certain anticancer, antibacterial, antiviral, and anticlotting properties. However, since they are milder and contain less sulfur compounds, they're not quite as beneficial as their cousins, garlic and onion. Still, chives have high levels of Vitamin C and A, plus essential minerals such as potassium, calcium, and folic acid. They're also said to be mildly antibiotic and can aid digestion when they're sprinkled on food.

7. They're a great herb for the frugal garden.
The plant is inexpensive and will pay for itself since it comes back year after year. The savings is even better if you grow them from seed. I like replacing green onions with chives not only because it saves me the $1-2 dollars for a bundle of green onions, but because I waste less using them. I'll usually only use part of the package of green onions before they wilt and get kind of slimy. With chives in my garden, I get as many as I need as I need them.

8. Grow them anywhere.
In your garden, in a pot on your patio, or in a small container in your kitchen. Anyone can grow these and enjoy all the benefits. Who would have thought a little plant could do so much?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Very Pinteresting Edition of Lovely Links

I have a new addiction. Okay, two new addictions. Make that three.

The first addiction is Pinterest. It is awesome.  If you're like me, you find all sorts of great ideas, recipes, tutorials, patterns, photos, books to read, and bits of wisdom when you're on the Internet. How do you keep track of it all?  Bookmark it? Print it off? File it away in your brain and hope to remember when the need/time arises? Not anymore. Now you can "pin" it.

When you have a Pinterest account, you can collect all the neat things you find whilst surfing the web and keep track of them. It's like a virtual corkboard. What's addicting about Pinterest is that you can see other people's boards and pins. It's amazing what other people find! I'll scroll through the popular pins on my iPod Touch while I'm feeding the baby and find the coolest/funniest/most random things. I love it!

It's kind of hard to get how useful it really is until you see and experience it yourself. You can check out my boards by clicking on the Pinterest widget in the sidebar (or you can click here). If you want to set up an account, go to and request an invite. It didn't take long to get my invite after I requested it.

Why mention this on a blog about frugality?  I think it's a great way to keep track of the myriad of ways you can save money through things like cooking at home, cultivating a garden, and sewing, among many, many others. I know having a Pinterest account has helped me in this way already!

To get you started on your pinning adventures (or if you're already pinning), here are a few things I've found on Pinterest that I've either tried already or am going to try in the near future.

Lemon Sugar Cookies -- Une Gamine dans la Cuisine
These are addiction #2.  So, so good. Perfect for May, in my opinion. Try them, but consider yourself warned. It's hard to only eat one or two.

Slow Cooker Coconut Chicken Curry -- Tasty Kitchen
I made this for dinner last week. Really easy and really delicious.  Definitely part of my recipe repertoire now.

Monster Knee -- By MiekK blog
Torn knees in jeans are inevitable -- especially with boys. Usually, I'll just cut my four-year-old's jeans off above the hole and hem them into shorts, but I've been kind of stumped about repairing one pair that's lined with fleece.  Then I found this solution on Pinterest. It's so fun, I'm almost kind of glad he has a hole in his jeans. Almost. Another reason I love this post -- the blog is in a different language (German? Dutch?) and the monster says, "Klaar!"

Easy Knit Produce Bag -- delia creates
Back in the early days of this blog, I did a post about turning old t-shirts into reusable grocery bags. I love those bags -- they hold a lot, are easy to store, and are crazy-easy to make (hardly any sewing at all -- I made them back when I had my sewing machine phobia).  Anyway, I came across this post on Pinterest about making produce bags out of old t-shirts.  I was so excited to see this because I've been pretty good about using reusable grocery bags, but I was still using tons of those plastic produce bags.  Just like with the bags I made, these ones require only a tiny bit of sewing.  It's a great reuse and I'm making a bunch of them soon!

Check out Pinterest. I'll bet you'll love it. And if you're on already in on it, let me know so I can follow you!

Oh yeah, addiction #3:  It's completely unrelated to Pinterest. My baby is smiling now. Real smiles -- not just the gas-induced kind. I just can't get enough of his little, dimpled (yay!) smile.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Easiest {and Best} Roast Chicken Recipe

I have to share this recipe for roast chicken. It's ridiculously easy to make and the results are so delicious. Plus, roast chicken is a fabulous frugal dinner. On the first night, you enjoy the chicken hot from oven. After that, you can get all that's left (well, if there's any left) and use the leftovers in any recipe that calls for shredded chicken (I'll be using my leftovers for this recipe). To top it off, you can use the bones to make chicken stock.  Just the savings of making your own stock pretty much covers the cost of the chicken. What's not to love?

Anyway, here's the recipe for the easiest (and, in my opinion, the best) roast chicken ever...

Roast Chicken with Lemons

Serves 4

A 3- to 4-pound chicken
Freshly ground pepper
2 rather small lemons

Preheat the oven to 350.

Rinse the chicken thoroughly in cold water, both inside and out. After you've rinsed it, let the chicken sit for about 10 minutes on a slightly tilted plate so the water can drain from it. After the 10 minutes, pat it dry with cloth or paper towels. Wash the lemons in cold water and dry with a towel.

Sprinkle a generous amount of salt and pepper on the chicken, rubbing it in with your fingers over all its body and into its cavity.

Soften each lemon by rolling it back and forth with your palm on the countertop, applying a good amount of pressure as you do so.

Poke the lemon with a sturdy toothpick, skewer, trussing needle, fork, or something of the like. Poke at least 20 holes in each lemon. Put both lemons inside of the bird's cavity.

Close up the opening with toothpicks or skewers (see picture below to see how I did it) or, if you're feeling fancy, with a trussing needle and string. The recipe says to close it well, but not so that it's completely airtight because it could make the chicken burst. I don't know about you, but whenever I come to that part in the recipe, I can't help but laugh. It's just a funny mental picture for me. Okay, moving on...

With kitchen string, tie the legs together by running the string from one leg to the other, tying it at both knuckle ends. Leave the legs in their natural position without pulling too tight. If the skin is unbroken, according to the recipe, the chicken will puff up as it cooks. Don't let this stress you out though -- even if you do break the skin, the flavor will not be affected. It's mostly just for the presentation of the thing.

Put the chicken in a roasting pan (I use my cast-iron skillet when I make this and it works great), breast facing down. Here's the thing I love about this recipe: you don't have to add any cooking fat because the chicken bastes itself. It doesn't stick to the pan and it stays moist without any effort on your part. Place pan (or skillet) into the upper third of the preheated oven.

After 30 minutes, turn the chicken over so the breast is facing up. Again, try to not break or puncture the skin -- but if you do, don't worry too much about it. Cook the chicken for another 30-35 minutes.

After the 30-35 minutes is up, turn the oven up to 400 degrees and cook for 20 minutes more. You don't need to turn the chicken again. The total cooking time for this recipe is between 20-25 minutes per pound.

After the 20 minutes are up, take the chicken out and enjoy. You can either carve it into nice slices or make like a carnivore and pick at it like we usually do. Be sure to spoon the juices at the bottom of the pan all over the chicken before you eat it, too -- completely delicious. Serve it with a nice side salad and you've got a frugal meal that doesn't taste frugal.  Trust me, you'll be surprised what some salt, pepper, and a couple lemons can do.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Down the Drain with the Turbo Snake

I have long hair. I've had long hair all my life, with the exception of that bad early 90s haircut + perm that left my hair looking like a frizzy pyramid on top of my shoulders. Oh yeah, and that one time my former sister-in-law got scissor-happy. Anyway, with the long hair comes an inevitable problem: clogged bathtub drains.

The clogged drains aren't entirely my fault. Between my long hair and my husband's post-haircut showers (since he cuts his own hair), it doesn't take too long before we notice the water draining slowly, which is followed by standing in a couple inches of tepid water. Ick. Never fun. To deal with the slow drains and back-up, we would routinely buy a jug of Drano every other month or so.  At anywhere from $5-8 a bottle, it adds up.

I've never liked using Drano. Take a whiff of liquid drain cleaner and you know it's toxic. I became extra sensitive to this once we had our first son. I didn't want bottles of chemicals like that anywhere near him, nor did I want the fumes of it hanging in the air. It's scary stuff. But I figured I had to use it if I wanted a clear drain. Using a plunger for the bathtub drain worked pretty well, but sometimes that didn't even do the trick.  We tried boiling water, baking soda, and vinegar and it still didn't completely fix the slow drain. 

Then we learned about the Turbo Snake.

I'd heard about something like this from a comment in a previous post and finally bought one at Bed, Bath & Beyond not too long ago. Then one day, I walked into the bathroom and nearly screamed -- for a second, I honestly thought there was rodent on the lid of the toilet. Nope. It was a huge, digusting clump of hair and other miscellaneous gunk. My husband, who was bending over the drain in the bathtub with the drain snake in hand, laughed at me and then said, "This thing is awesome!" 

The drain snake is really easy to use. It's basically just a kind of coated wire with Velcro-like thing on the end. You feed it down the drain and the Velcro end latches onto the clog. Don't be afraid to use a little force to get it really down in there. Pull it and out comes all the gunk slowing down your drain.

The package we bought came with two snakes, plus a little hook for them that you can hang on the inside of your cabinet. It cost around $10, if I remember correctly. That's about the cost of a bottle of liquid drain cleaner, so it pays for itself after a use or two.

We're never buying a bottle of Drano ever again.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Cookbook Review: How to Cook Without a Book

{The Cookbook Review:  Let me introduce to you to some of my favorite cookbooks - to the ones that have broken spines, splatters on the pages, and wavy dust jackets from spills. We all know cooking at home is a huge money-saver and there are few things that get me more excited to cook at home than a new cookbook!}

As I've said before, cookbooks are a weakness of mine, especially when I can get them at a great price on Amazon. My latest acquisition has quickly become a staple of my cookbook shelf (pictured above). I'd been mildly interested in this cookbook for a while, but when I read it was one of the Pioneer Woman's favorite cookbooks, I had to get my hands on it. It's How to Cook Without a Book by Pam Anderson.

If I were going to sum this review up in a single sentence, I'd simply say:  this cookbook is a game-changer for me.

A good friend and neighbor of mine totally has a knack for creating her own recipes. Like her pasta version of hot artichoke dip. Ridiculously good. The idea just popped into her head and she whipped it up one night for her family. I was awestruck. How do people do that successfully?  I consider myself a pretty competent cook, but I always have depended heavily on others' recipes. 

However, my way isn't the most economical way to cook -- you have to buy specific lists of ingredients that tack on extra money to your grocery bill. Plus, cooking this way doesn't offer a whole lot of flexibility -- instead of adjusting my meal plan to what we have on hand or the amount energy I have on a particular night, I have to stick to that specific recipe I bought and planned for. I've made it work for us and our budget, but it's not perfect.

But that's all changing now because of this cookbook. Ms. Anderson is gently coaxing me away from the security of someone else's recipes and is teaching me how to create my own meals with a few techniques, combinations, and methods.  In the last few weeks, I've been using the techniques outlined in this book almost exclusively for my family's dinners.

Each chapter of the cookbook features cooking techniques and formulas to help you create your own recipes, using the things you have on hand already. Just buy on her master list of ingredients -- just the basics, really, nothing fancy or outlandish -- and you can make anything in the book. As outlined in the introduction of the book, each chapter consists of five components:
  • A mnemonic rhyme
  • A step-by-step narrative of how the technique works
  • A recipe, presenting the technique in its simplest form
  • Simple variations, exemplifying how the technique works
  • The key points of each technique at-a-glance
I'll give you an example of how it works -- one of the chapters is about making frittatas, something I'd always thought about making but never had. I thought they were fussy and difficult to make. Nope.  Anyway, the mnemonic is simply: "Cook eggs without stirring till set around the edges. Bake until puffy, then cut into wedges." The first time I made a frittata, I followed her master recipe, using her suggestions for fillings. However, the next time I made a frittata, I improvised and added my own mix of vegetables, meat, and cheese. It was so easy! 

The other chapters in the book teach how to make pan sauces, soups, pasta sauces, stir-fry, sauteed meats and vegetables, ravioli, lasagna, salads, and more. I love how adaptable this method of cooking is -- I can adjust the recipes according to what leftovers we have, produce we need to use up, if I want to make a meal meatless, and so on.

Last week, I followed Ms. Anderson's basic outline for simple tomato sauce: "Heat fat and garlic, then cook it for two. Add canned tomatoes and simmer for a few." I added some cream and basil and ended up with this --

A light, clean-tasting dinner -- better than the sauce from a jar and almost as easy. Almost.

I mention this, though, because I want to share the technique we've been using a bunch these last few weeks -- how to make a simple lo mein dish.

I love this recipe/technique for so many reasons: One of reasons is that one of the main ingredients is leftover cooked spaghetti.  How great is that? So often leftover spaghetti has languished in my fridge, only to become slimy and/or rubbery. Another reason is that I can improvise with whatever I want. When I made this last night, I used the last of the asparagus that was starting to look tired, some celery, carrots, and leftover meat from the shredded pork I made over the weekend. I also love making this lo mein because it's super-easy, takes hardly any time at all to make (maybe 10-15, including prep time), and my husband and four-year-old son love it.

Here's how you make simple lo mein:

"Lo mein ratios are different -- 1/2 pound of vegetables and 1/4 of meat. Add 1/2 pound of cooked spaghetti and don't forget the heat."

Simple Lo Mein --  from How to Cook Without a Book

1 medium-large onion, halved from pole to pole, each half cut into eight wedges
4-6 oz. beef, pork, poultry, seafood, or tofu, cooked or raw, cut into bite-size pieces
8 oz. vegetables, cut into bite-size pieces
1 1/2 teaspoons minced garlic
1 1/2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
1 recipe of Lo Mein Flavoring Sauce {see below}
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 heaping cups of leftover cooked spaghetti

Flavoring sauce:
1/4 cup chicken broth (she calls for low-sodium broth, but I used my homemade stock)
1/4 cup soy sauce
2 teaspoons rice wine vinegar
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes (I use a little less to keep it kid-friendly)

Heat a large heavy-bottomed skillet over low heat while prepping onion, meat, vegetables, garlic, and ginger, and the flavoring sauce. Marinate meat in 1 tablespoon of soy sauce. A few minutes before stir-frying, turn on the exhaust fan (do it -- it gets kind of smoky) and increase the heat to high.

Put 1 tablespoon of oil in the pan and cook the onion for about a minute. Add raw meat and stir-fry until lightly brown, about 1 minute. Add first vegetable, stir-fry until tender-crisp, about 1 minute. Add second vegetable; stir-fry about 1 minute longer. Add garlic and ginger. Transfer mixture to a plate and set aside. {If you're using cooked meat, add it between the two vegetables.}

Put the other tablespoon of vegetable oil in the skillet and heat until shimmering. Add the spaghetti; stir-fry until heated through, about 2 minutes. Return meat and veggie mixture to skillet; add flavoring sauce. Stir-fry to combine and heat through.

Yum. So easy to make and so good. This is the third time I've made some variation of lo mein for the family in the last month. It's such a great way to use up leftovers and produce in a delicious way. And I've gotten to the point where I just whip it up on my own, using whatever I want, making it (dare I say?) without the aid of a cookbook.

I still love cookbooks. They'll always be a weakness of mine. I'll still collect recipes and try new things. That said, I'm really enjoying the freedom I've found in cooking without a book. Try it. I think you will, too.
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