Last day, last day, tra la la!

This happens every year. I start February by writing lots of posts (this time there were even pictures) and two weeks later it’s like I forget I even have this website. Then the last day comes around and I have to write a longish post to make up for the last two weeks. Okay, I don’t HAVE to, but sometimes it just works out that way.

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Potluck on a Budget: Snickerdoodles

Five years ago, when we first started this project, our friends asked if they could have us over a lot and feed us. They were really worried that we wouldn’t get enough to eat. We told them no, because that goes against the idea of the project. This basically meant that we really didn’t see our friends that month, which also didn’t seem right. So the following year we decided that we could see friends, but we could only eat with them if we brought something to share. Enter the snickerdoodle. Cheap, easy, delicious, and always popular, at last year’s rules (‘paying’ for everything but spices) snickerdoodles cost $0.03 per two inch cookie, or $1.24 for a batch of three dozen. They’re great cookies, and we generally have two each after dinner every night – which helps to make the whole month a bit easier.

My first batch of snickerdoodles did not turn out well. I used the recipe in the Joy of Cooking, which had never steered me wrong. Since it’s never failed me since, I think that there was an error with their snickerdoodle recipe, because I had to make a lot of changes.


Ingredients (makes about 36 2 inch cookies):
2 3/4 cups flower
2 tsp cream of tartar
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup softened butter*
1 1/2 cup sugar
2 large eggs

1 tbl sugar
1 tsp cinnamon

Preheat your oven to 375F

1. Mix your dry ingredients in a bowl.
2. In a large mixing bowl, beat the butter and sugar together until creamed. Add the eggs and beat until well combined.
3. Stir in the flour mixture. If dough is very crumbly – which happens in winter when it’s so dry, melt a tiny pat of butter (like 1/4 tbl) and pour over the dough, then mix together. This should help bring the dough together.
4. Combine the sugar and cinnamon. Shape the dough into balls (an inch will get you a two inch cookie), then roll in the cinnamon sugar.
5. Arrange the cookies at least two inches apart on the cookie sheet. I leave mine in balls and they stay a little puffed up. You’re free to flatten if you like.
6. Bake one sheet at time for 8-10 minutes – until the cookies are golden brown at the edges. A shorter cooking time tends to lead to a softer cookie. Let stand on the cookie sheet for about a minute, then move to a rack for cooling. Enjoy!

* Butter is essential – cream of tartar is flavorful, but the butter is part of the flavor as well. If you don’t have time to soften the butter, put it in the microwave on the defrost setting for 10 seconds – flipping over after 5 seconds.

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Meal of the Week: Lentil Soup

Even though the week ends tomorrow, this still counts! Right? So this week’s meal of the week definitely fits the criteria of using up food that I might not have gotten to. This is an adaptation on Arabic Shorobat Adas, a red lentil soup, and it’s very simple to make. The original version doesn’t call for chicken or peas, but I had them both, so in they went! The only purchased ingredients were the onions and the rice, so the total cost was $3.29 for five quarts. Without using leftovers, the price would have been $5.44 for 5 quarts.

For lunch every day we get one cup of soup a small home made pita to eat with it. If you’re not watching the budget, it’s really best with some strained yogurt.

Lentils and Rice

.5 lb small dice onions
3 cloves minced garlic
olive oil
1 tbl ground cumin
1.5 cups whole dried red lentils, rinsed.
.75 cups rice
3 quarts water or stock (approximate…keep and eye on the soup)
.75 lb chicken breast*
6 oz peas*
1 tsp ground coriander
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
salt to taste

1. Saute the onion in olive oil until tender. Add the garlic and saute until fragrant. Add the cumin. Add half of the water.

2. Add the lentils, rice and chicken. Cover with water and bring to a low simmer (don’t boil chicken unless you like tough chicken). Simmer on low until the lentils are just starting to get tender, mushy and yellow. At this point the chicken should be fully cooked.

3. Remove the chicken breast and shred with a fork, add back to the soup. Add the peas, coriander, and cayenne. Salt to taste. Serve with bread and a little bit of lemon juice (or yogurt if you have it!)

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Freezer clean out

As you might imagine, we don’t really go out during February – which is why I’m blogging at ten on a Saturday night. After, of course, watching a Chinese movie that was really way too long. They could have cut much of the opening and still had a good movie. I am, however,

Anyway, I’m not sure how long the pierogis that we ate tonight had been living in our freezer. Frankly, I’d rather not think about it. BUT, with some caramelized onions, peas, and parmigiana, they weren’t too bad. A little tough, but not too bad. I’m glad we’re counting food we already have as free, otherwise, I probably would have just thrown them out in July, and I really do hate to waste food like that. Instead, when you count the onions I caramelized (frozen peas and grated parmigiana we already had), it came to a decent $0.50 meal.

Speaking of July and cleaning out, every once and a while I remember that we’re moving to China in July and that I really should get rid of a few things. So today I tackled one of the book shelves in the bedroom. It is now almost completely devoid of books. Some of the books Chad listed for sale on, some will be sent to people via Paperback Swap, and the rest will go either to friends or be donated to the library.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll brave the closet…

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$0.25 a Loaf

I can’t believe I’ve never devoted a post to bread. Cheap, easy, tasty (but not fast), bread is more or less responsible for Western civilization. It’s a staple in our household and I bake a loaf around once a week (though more this month).

The method I use mainly comes from Jim Lahey at NYC’s Sullivan Street Bakery, and was first publicized by Mark Bittman in the NY Times back in 2006 (The Original No-Knead Bread recipe). I’ve made changes to make things a little bit easier on myself, but the technique is basically the same for most breads of this type. The basic recipe only uses four ingredients: flour, water, salt and yeast. It’s known as “no knead bread” because by upping the water ratio and allowing for a MUCH longer rise, the looser dough lets the yeast and gluten work together to do the kneading for you.

Here’s what you need:
mixing bowl
parchment paper (part of that “making things easier on myself” bit)
baking container (dutch ovens work well for round loaves, but I like an oblong loaf so I use a Clay Baker (which is awesome)

3 c flour*
1 tsp salt
.25 tsp yeast
~1.5 c water (1-1.5c really, but you have to eyeball it and add a bit more if necessary to incorporate all of the flour)
whatever you want to add to the bread**

* For whole wheat bread, I use a 2:1 white:wheat ratio. A little extra water is also necessary.
** In the pictures, you may notice I’ve added flax seeds and sunflower seeds – I have soooo much of both!

Flour and yeast together comes to $0.30 a loaf, but since it feels like I’ll never finish this jar of yeast, I’m not counting it this month. That’s why we have bread at $0.25 a loaf!

My method in pictures. Click on the thumbnails for instructions!

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Meal of the Week: Cauliflower and Kale Chowder

One of the ways that we keep our food bill low throughout the year, and especially this month, is the Meal of the Week. All year long I make the Meal of the Week on Sunday evenings, then we have it for lunch during the rest of the week. In colder months, the Meal of the Week is usually a stew of some sort that we eat with some sort of carb. When it’s hot outside, I usually make some sort of whole grain based salad.

This week, we’re eating a Cauliflower and Kale Chowder very closely based on the one recently published at Serious Eats by my favorite food blogger, Kenji Lopez-Alt of the Food Lab. Kenji is on week three of a four week vegan break from animal products and posted this recipe last week. I thought it looked good and decided to make it the the first weeks meal of the week for the following reasons:

1. It’s meatless. Last week we had a very beef centered meal of the week, so it’s good to start with something lower on the protein scale and higher on the vegetable scale to balance out between both last week and next week.
2. Next week we’re having chicken, lentil, and rice stew, and I’m not sure how I’m going to get a vegetable in there yet.
3. It will probably be one of the more expensive meals because most of the ingredients needed to be bought. I thought it would be good to start out a little pricey and veggie heavy since the rest of the month will use sooo much of what we already have.

Cauliflower and Kale Chowder

Recipe and prices after the jump! Continue reading

Year 5 of $56 in February

Well, $56 in February started yesterday – or should I call it $56 in Februarch, since the four weeks will run through March 3? Nah, I’ll just keep it to $56 in February – it’s easier that way. For any new (ha!) readers who don’t know what $56 in February is, here’s a quick rundown.

Who: Me and Chad
What: Spend $56 on food for four weeks
Where: At home, going out to eat would decimate our budget
When: Beginning yesterday, February 5 through Saturday, March 3 (four weeks)
Why: Ahh – the juicy question. This is an exercise in mindfulness. We do this to remind ourselves that many people around the world live on much less. We do this remind ourselves not to waste our resources and our good fortune. We do this to remind ourselves of the difference between want and need.

This year the rules are much different. This year, everything we had in the house as of Friday, February 3 is free. In the past, I would have considered this cheating, but then again, this is the first year we’re planning on moving to China in five (oh my!) months. A few months ago I did a decent job of cleaning out the kitchen of food that was so old as to be inedible, but there was still some good stuff left. Like half a large bag of red lentils, one single frozen chicken breast hanging out in the freezer for six months. Add some rice to that and we’ve got a great meal of the week. I’ve deemed these items as free because I want to make sure I use them up before we leave, and I don’t want to add to the pile by buying in bulk to save a little money during February (which is what usually happens). We also don’t want to waste anything (almost finished turkey lunch meat, quarter bottle of milk) just because it wouldn’t fit in our budget. Preventing wastefulness is a key tenet for $56 in February, so it works.

Because of this pantry cleaning rule, we’re going to come in under $56 for these four weeks. I’m personally shooting for $45, but we’ll just have to wait and see. Who knows, maybe I’ll even be good about blogging this year. :-)

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新年好 – 祝大家恭喜发财! Happy Chinese New Year and good fortune to you all!

So on Monday the FSI Chinese department had the New Year Party and food extravaganza. And when I say food extravaganza…

The line starts HERE!
They were very well organized

There were TWO tables like this one, and a small drinks and dessert table. Our teachers put a lot of time and effort in getting the party ready for us – they’re really amazing.

The food was just the first part though, there were also performances by the students and teachers. One class opened with the dragon dance, which was really cool. The class that began last month sang this song, which was pretty amusing to the students, especially the confused looks of the random Chinese people in the video.

The band is called Transition or 前進樂團 and seems to be some British guys based in Taiwan.

There were some other dances that involved fans or scarves or rubber ducks. There were also pretty songs about the moon and raps about learning Chinese. Then there was my class. We had a jeopardy-ish game where we asked two teams of teachers questions about American movies, literature, geography, Presidents, etc. At the end of the day, our coordinator worried that our part was too different for the program. We told her that NEXT year she could make students sing and dance, but that WE were grateful that we didn’t have the extra lunchtime practice that the other groups did… :-)

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Chapter 12: Dining Out

So we did Chapter 12: Dining Out, waaaay back in November. For reference, we start Chapter 18 tomorrow. However, Chapter 12 was definitely my favorite. We learned about different Chinese foods and got some first hand restaurant and grocery store experience. At the grocery store, we bought ingredients to make a dish to bring to a class potluck. Chad made (without any help from me) 干煸四季豆/gānbiān sìjì dòu/dry fried green beans with chili. I made 麻婆豆腐/mápó dòufu/Mapo’s tofu. They both turned out pretty well – see:

Our first attempt at Chinese Cooking!
Our teachers even liked it! 麻麻的,辣辣的,很好吃!

Anyway, the reason I’m bringing it up now is that I meant to waaaaay back in November, but then never got around to it. BUT, I made Mapo Tofu again tonight as part of the meal of the week, and it was super tasty. So I’ve decided to share the recipe here. I just want to point out really quickly that there’s a whole lot of chili oil in this, so the mouth numbing Sichuan peppercorn is oooh so very necessary. This recipe is straight from with NO alterations, and originates from a Sichuanese chef. I highly recommend reading the story first: How The Best Mapo Dofu is Made

The Original Recipe for Real Deal Mapo Dofu
2 tablespoons Sichuan peppercorns, divided
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon cornstarch
2 teaspoons cold water
1 1/2 pounds medium to firm silken tofu, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1/4 pound ground beef (pork is also commonly used, they both taste great)
3 garlic cloves grated on a microplane grater
1 tablespoon fresh ginger grated on a microplane grater
2 tablespoons fermented chili bean paste
2 tablespoons Xiaoxing wine
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
1/4 cup low-sodium chicken stock
1/4 cup roasted chili oil
1/4 cup finely sliced scallion greens

1. Heat half of sichuan peppercorns in a large wok over high heat until lightly smoking. Transfer to a mortar and pestle. Pound until finely ground and set aside.

2. Add remaining sichuan peppercorns and vegetable oil to wok. Heat over medium high heat until lightly sizzling, about 1 1/2 minutes. Pick up peppercorns with a wire mesh skimmer and discard, leaving oil in pan.

3. Combine corn starch and cold water in a small bowl and mix with a fork until homogenous. Bring a medium saucepan of water to a boil over high heat and add tofu. Cook for 1 minute. Drain in a colander, being careful not to break up the tofu.

4. Heat oil in wok over high heat until smoking. Add beef and cook, stirring constantly for 1 minute. Add garlic and ginger and cook until fragrant, about 15 seconds. Add chili-bean paste, wine, soy sauce, and chicken stock and bring to a boil. Pour in corn starch mixture and cook for 30 seconds until thickened. Add tofu and carefully fold in, being careful not to break it up too much. Stir in chili oil and half of scallions and simmer for 30 seconds longer. Transfer immediately to a serving bowl and sprinkle with remaining scallions and toasted ground Sichuan pepper. Serve immediately with white rice.

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Tut tut Tuttle

We had such ambitions…

When Mandarin Express ended, Chad and I didn’t want to loose any of the progress we’d made over those four months. Since Mandarin Express focused primarily on speaking, and the specter of learning a few thousand Chinese characters loomed before us we decided to do a little study ahead. Looking around a different character books (and reading Amazon reviews) lead us to Tuttle Learning Chinese Characters, Vol. 1: A Revolutionary New Way to Learn and Remember the 800 Most Basic Chinese Characters

We could TOTALLY learn 800 characters in four months! That’s 200 characters a month, a mere 50 characters a week, or just 10 characters a day! Only a lazy bum wouldn’t be able to do 10 characters a day! 2/2 in Mandarin in 36 weeks here I come!

Yeah, so we’re lazy bums. We got through the first 80 characters before ignoring the book completely. But that’s no fault of the book. It has amusing stories to help you remember the meaning and pronunciation of each character, and was excellent at teaching stroke order for writing. Oh yes, we wrote. We even bought awesome college ruled with graph paper notebooks to practice writing in. See!

Chinese writing practice...doomed from the start
You can print your own doane pages for free too!

Ah well, it wasn’t all for naught. We started at FSI with more than 50 characters under our belt, which gave us time to work on other things, like our tones, which, as our teachers tell us, we have to focus on/concentrate/pay attention to all. of. the. time.

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