Category Archives: food

Frugal Fun: Dinner Party

duck pie
A silly homemade pie I served with soup and biscuits.

In our society, it’s become harder to make genuine connections with people.  While social media is well and good for keeping in touch, it’s not the same as spending time with people in person.  Unfortunately for a tight budget, “catching up” has become synonymous with going out for an overpriced coffee and an undersized muffin at some chain coffee shop.

However, you can be proactive and host people at your house for a dinner party that won’t ruin your budget or your waistline.

Don’t be afraid to make “poor food.

Soups, beans, stews and pastas are all delicious and budget friendly.  Most people do enjoy that kind of home cooking. For guests, I have made a ham and bean soup with fried hoe cakes and homemade peach jam. I would recommend finding out if they have an intense hatred of beans, first though. Otherwise, your first dinner party might be your last.  Any soup can be made elegant with the addition of a rustic bread or decadent dessert.

Be creative with meals.

Fried eggs, scrapple (if you’re from around the Delmarva Peninsula… if not, bacon is good, too), and biscuits make a lovely breakfast for dinner. Bake pizza crusts ahead of time and have the guests help with assembling them. Better yet, make each person a small crust of their own with a wide range of toppings to choose from. It’s also a great conversation starter: “you like pickles and peanut butter on your pizza?!?”

Ask the guests to contribute something.

Majority of folks ask if they can bring something.  We’ve been conditioned to instantly say “no, of course not!”  Instead, ask them what they might like to bring that would complement your meal or what their specialty is. When people ask, they do want to bring something, they just need some direction.

Have fun with table decorations. 

I’m not suggesting that you go out and buy something, but it is fun to decorate the table with something as simple as a table cloth or a vase of flowers from the garden.  Decorations can make the dinner feel special, even with more humble foods.

Choose “theme” meals. 

I’ve been known to make Chinese, Indian or Thai themed meals. Now, are they as good as “authentic” meals? Probably not. However, they are tasty all the same! There are about
a gajillion different recipes available online. Try something new and add some fun embellishments.  It’s also a great way to incorporate homeschool activities.

Your slow cooker is your friend.

No, seriously, it is! There is no rule that says you have to make a labor intensive meal to impress the tar out of your friends.  Make the day less stressful on you and use a tasty slow cooker recipe. If you feel funny about serving straight from the cooker, you can put the food in a fancy dish or bowl for the table.

Choose one part of the meal to emphasize.

By making one part of the meal the focal point, the rest of the meal can be fairly simple.  For instance, bake your own bread for the pasta, but don’t worry about making a complicated side dish. The meal will seem elegant and all parts will be able to stand together without competition.

Keep it real! 

 The point of a shared meal is about sharing fellowship with people you care about, not about the food.   Remember is that your friends are just that because they
like you, not because they are after your cooking.  If you’re friends with me, the food’s just an added bonus. 🙂

Does anyone else have some suggestions for dinner parties? Favorite recipes? Tips?

 

Little Bit of Meat into a Big Meal

Squirrel vegetable soup. Yum.
Squirrel vegetable soup. Yum.

Squirrel season opened here on Sept. 15.  Matt went hunting for squirrels the next day.  He took aim at one of the furry critters, switching to an open choke.  Only he didn’t.  He switched to a full choke.  After he heard the resounding “boom,” he realized his mistake.. He cringed, seeing that the squirrel landed 15 ft away behind the tree.  This is going to be bad, he thought.  He was right.

Being the ethical hunter that he is, he brought the decimated remains home to salvage what he could.  It wasn’t much, all things considered.  Basically, the bottom half was the only part he could save.

You ever seen a squirrel?  They’re little things.  A half a squirrel is smaller still.  What in the heck am I going to do with a half a squirrel, I thought to myself.

This afternoon, I put it in a pot of water and let it simmer a long time.  It tenderized the meat, making it easy pickings and created a broth.  If you’ve never had squirrel, I’ll let you in on a secret: it tastes similarly to chicken.  A nutty chicken, if you will.  I know the ubiquitous joke is that every meat tastes like chicken, but squirrels actually do.

At any rate, I was torn between a stir fried rice and soup.  I finally settled on a soup.  After simmering the piece all afternoon, I fished it out, let it cool, and picked off the meat.  I put it back in the pot, adding slices of carrots and celery, along with plenty of garlic.  I simmered until the vegetables were soft, then added corn and egg noodles.  Instead of noodles, I had wanted to have potatoes, but I found my bag of potatoes had been reduced to a moldy saggy sack of yuck.

Once the noodles were al dente, I removed from the stove and served.  I find that if you remove the soup before the noodles are totally cooked, the noodles don’t disintegrate as leftovers.

You wouldn’t believe it, but that little bit of squirrel ended up making a rather large pot of soup.  If I want to stretch it further, I would add a can of peas or some green beans.  Corn bread, biscuits, crackers or even just plain bread with butter make an excellent accompaniment.  That soup will feed our family of four for dinner and lunch, providing I make sandwiches to go with it at lunch time.

Remember, if you’re trying to stretch your budget or the food you already have in the house, soup is a great way to do it.

Real Life: Dinner Fail (Almost)

This ain’t Pinterest.  This is real life.  I try to shoot as straight as possible, since I don’t want people to feel like doing the things we do is impossible.  Part of our method is to be as transparent as possible, even when it doesn’t show us in the best light.

First confession: We don’t eat clean all the time.  Sometimes, I will throw a prepackaged bag of noodles filled with MSG and unpronounceable ingredients  into a pot and call it dinner. I’m trying to get better about this particular issue, we do have a lot of premade food in our extended pantry.  Most of it was given to us, but it beckons from time to time.  Our sons actually think that Ramen noodles are a treat, since they get them so infrequently.  (I pretty them up with vegetables and meat, but still, not really healthy, though I can delude myself enough about it.)

Second confession: Even though I advocate meal planning, I don’t always do it.  Heck, sometimes, like this Sunday, I go through all the effort of meal planning.  Then, totally ignore it. It’s not practicing what I preach but we all fall short.

Pantry (and sis) Saved the Day

Today, I was feeling very unwell.  I’m ashamed to admit it, but I turned the television on at around 1 and let the boys watch Netflix while I laid on the couch, hoping my sinuses didn’t finally explode like they felt they might.  Come dinner time, I couldn’t think of a single thing to make.  Everything sounded too daunting, nothing was thawed.  (Yes, I realize the irony that I could have avoided all this had I actually followed my meal plan and taken the pork chops out last night for a crock pot meal.  Quiet, you.) Leftover icecream cake was looking more and more like a very real option.

Fortunately, I was on the phone with my sister, who uses her Bluetooth to talk during her second shift driving 18 wheel trucks.  She said, “just make spaghetti.”  I thought to myself, okay, Matt isn’t home.  The kids and I could just have spaghetti and sauce.  Sauce is a vegetable and you don’t need meat at every meal, right?  I committed to the pasta.  I went into the extended pantry to get the jar of sauce, and my brain finally kicked on.  Hello, I have cans of meat, both home canned and commercially canned, grab one of those, you dummy.  Not only did I grab the can of chicken, but I also decided to fancy it up with a can of mushrooms.

These all came from my pantry. And, for those of you interested, all bought on rock bottom sales.
These all came from my pantry. And, for those of you interested, all bought on rock bottom sales.

I cooked dinner which took hardly anytime.  After grace, I enjoyed this quick pantry meal.  And then I wanted to smack myself.  I have written two ebooks on frugality, one of which focuses on the kitchen.  I knew that an extended pantry is the way to avoid eating out or take the effort out of meals.  Why hadn’t I just done that without the prompting of my sister?

It tasted just as fantastic as it looked.
It tasted just as fantastic as it looked.

And I came to this conclusion.  I need someone to tell me what to do.  Not all the time mind you, but when I’m sick or sad, I need someone to just tell me to put one foot in front of the other.  This is the premise behind my homemaking journal, since I am not one of those blessed people who are naturally organized.  As I sat there at dinner, I decided to make a list of a few meals that I could keep in my homemaking binder.  These meals would be quick pantry meals that I could make out of our storage.  Not only will it make last minute meals no-brainers, it’s also a way for me to practice cooking from our food storage. I’ll be ready for an emergency, but it also helps to rotate the storage.

Emergency Pantry Meals

  1. Pasta + sauce+ canned meat of choice (chicken, ground beef, ground venison, ground pork)
  2. Jar of soup +bread product (bread, crackers, pita)
  3. Homecanned jar of sweet and sour chicken, bourbon chicken, etc + instant rice
  4. Jar meat (thicken with flour) + jar of carrots served over instant mashed potatoes
  5. Jar of sliced potatoes +ground meat+ pint tomato sauce+ can of peas for burgos (excellent recipe from the More with Less cookbook

Now I have this short list installed in my homemaking journal so that I have someone to tell me what to do. Someone eminently qualified.  Me!

What other pantry meals can you think of?  Share with me so I can add to my list and others can benefit from your unique and fabulous wisdom.

-Mandi

 

 

Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

Rhubarb strawberry pie in all its glory.
Rhubarb strawberry pie in all its glory.

Rhubarb and strawberry pie is one of the first fruit pies that I get to make in the spring from fresh ingredients. My great grandmother used to make this pie, along with rhubarb sauce, every year with the rhubarb and strawberries my great grandfather used to grow in his huge garden. I can still see her arthritic hands trimming the strawberries as she hummed to herself.  When the pie was finished, she would serve it with great aplomb, pleased with the delighted response of all those so lucky to be seated around her kitchen table.

Rhubarb: The Fruit Wannabe

Rhubarb is a leafy vegetable with stems that are crunchy like celery.  Despite being a vegetable, it is usually prepared like a fruit, sugaring it and cooking it down in some fashion.  Not only delicious, it contains 45% of your daily recommended dose allowance of Vitamin K, a vitamin crucial for blood and bone health.

Typically, when you get rhubarb from a grocery store, it comes only as a bunch of stalks.  However, if you get yours from a farmer or your own garden, they may still have the lush green leaves on them.  A word of warning: the leaves are poisonous.  You would have to eat a metric ton of them to actually kill die from it, but they could make you sick.  Not really fun times, so just trim them off, okay?

Then, rinse the stalks in water. I like to run my finger down the center of the stalks, just to be sure that all the grit is out, much like cleaning celery.  Then, I cut them into one third of an inch slices.  You can leave them bigger, but I prefer a smaller chunk so I can be sure they cook entirely before I have to take the pie out due to the fact that the crust is about to scorch.

Strawberries

Strawberries are a fantastic pairing with the more tart rhubarb in the strawberry rhubarb pie. Since they will be baked, you can use more squishy specimens that are too far gone for fresh eating.  Or am I the only one who loses stuff in the fridge?

At any rate, rinse your strawberries first.  I like to fill a clean sink with water and then float the berries in the water.  That way the sand and soil sink to the bottom while the strawberries float.  Cap the strawberries by removing the green leafy bit.  Then, cut off any too mushy for consumption parts, if you have any.  Cut the berry into fourths or any other way you like.

Pie crust

I have not included a recipe for pie crust here.  Pie crust is not difficult to make, and I have a killer recipe from my Great Aunt Margaret. But I’ll be honest.  I cheated for this pie by using Immaculate brand pie pre-rolled pie crust.  (Don’t you juuuuudge me. Extra points if you read that in Joy Turner’s voice.)

Immaculate brand uses unbleached, unbromated flour and healthy fats, so I don’t worry about the chemical storm found in other brands.  Regardless of what you choose for your pie crust, you need to put it in the bottom of a pie plate.  I used a deep dish 9” glass one.

Let’s Do This

3 ½ cups of trimmed rhubarb (or so)

3 ½ cups of strawberries (or so, this isn’t rocket science)

1/3 cup light brown sugar

1/3 cup white sugar (I used evaporated cane juice)

¼ starch (I used potato starch, but you could use corn starch)

2 tsp vanilla

¼ tsp salt

1 egg white

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.  Next, mix the first six ingredients together: rhubarb, strawberries, sugar, starch, salt and vanilla. Then, pour the filling into the pie shell.

Pouring the filling in. Note the small pieces of rhubarb
Pouring the filling in. Note the small pieces of rhubarb

Finally, you will cover with the top crust. If you’re using a solid top crust, you’ll want to make slits in the top for the steam to escape. Otherwise, you’ll have a pie explosion.  To make a basket weave top like mine, you’ll need to cut the top crust into strips and weave them on the top of the filling, like those construction paper placemats you used to make in elementary school.  (Or maybe you didn’t grow up in a tiny town with only one stop light.) Crimp all the edges of the pie crust together.  You can flute it with a fork, but I just mush it with my fingers.  I’m classy like that.

You should probably take more care to make sure your strips are even, but I had a toddler who kept grabbing at the dough, so we're just lucky there is any crust on top, 'kay?
You should probably take more care to make sure your strips are even, but I had a toddler who kept grabbing at the dough, so we’re just lucky there is any crust on top, ‘kay?

Beat the egg white with some water to make a glaze for the crust.  Once it’s thin enough to spread, use a pastry brush to brush it onto your  crust.  If your toddler used your pastry brush to paint the dog (don’t ask), you can just use your fingers to spread it on, or dab it on with a clean cloth.  It’s just for a shiny crust, so you could always skip this step all together.

Put that pie into the oven, baking for 20 min at the 400 degrees F.  After 20 min, reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees and bake for another 40 minutes or so.  Remove the pie to a rack to cool completely, if you have the will power.  I typically don’t, so just take my word for it.  The pie filling is approximately the temperature of hot lava when you take it out of the oven.

Seriously, though, wait for it to cool, so that when you cut it, the filling remains in place.  You’ll be glad you did.  This pie is great plain or with a dab of whipped cream.  For breakfast the next day, I enjoyed the remaining piece with cream poured over it.  Nom!

Close-up of the heavenly deliciousness. Believe me, you wish your screen was scratch and sniff.
Close-up of the heavenly deliciousness. Believe me, you wish your screen was scratch and sniff.

If you have leftover strawberries, head over to my post about how to make strawberry jam without pectin.

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