Tag Archives: $56 in Feburary

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 Amazon.com, 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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January + February = Jabruary

First off, a quick update from my new endocrinologist. Both my calcium and parathyroid hormone levels are just on the line between normal and high. This is good, but strange, so my doctor and I are trying a few things in order to figure out exactly what is going on with me.

The reason the update didn’t come earlier (she called me on Friday), is because I’ve spent most of the weekend recovering from the awful cold I had earlier in the week (I missed TWO days of work), reading, playing video games with my husband, and cooking. Mainly cooking.

In the span of this long weekend I’ve baked an excellent loaf of bread ($0.29), made chickpea cauliflower stew for our lunches this week ($0.48 per serving), baked 4 dozen snickerdoodles ($0.03 each), and made the 40 chicken pies that will be our dinner every week night for the next 4 weeks ($0.33 each). Why? Because it’s Jabruary!
Continue reading

Halfway through February

We’re heading downhill on our $56 in February, and I just wanted to check in and give a report. As of right now, we’ve eaten $27 worth of food (exactly!) versus a budget of $30, to be under budget by $3. A typical weekday meal starts with oatmeal, followed by a chicken stew of some sort for lunch. Dinner is an empanada and we finish off the day with a cookie (snickerdoodle!).

I think that this third year is definitely the easiest, for three reasons. One is all of the lessons learned from previous years. I’m much better prepared and equipped to plan and make nutritionally dense foods that will keep us going the entire day. The second is that it had been a while since Chad and I last ate until we were too full, and this has helped us from feeling as hungry as we did that first year – our stomachs are just smaller than they have been in the past. The third and most delicious reason is empanadas. At the end of January I spent way too many hours making 41 empanadas with 3 different fillings (black bean, spicy chickpea, and chicken). However, that investment of time made this month’s dinners a breeze. All we have to do is bake them in the toaster oven for 30 minutes and we end up with a tasty, nutritious, satisfying meal. One of these days I’ll remember to take a picture.

There isn’t much of a point to this post besides checking in with the world and musing a bit about just how much time goes into making an activity like this work. And since this is my blog, I think I’ll just keep going.

My apartment smells very strongly of chicken. This afternoon I roasted the second of the two roasted chicken I bought at Costco last month, and now the bones are simmering in the stock pot with the leftover aromatics from the ‘ends’ freezer bag. That freezer bag is/was full of onion ends, carrot peels, mushroom stems and the leftovers of herbs and things. In a couple of hours, I’ll have the stock necessary to make the kale, potato and chicken soup we’ll be eating for lunch next week. The chicken for the stew comes from half of the roasted chicken, the other half got mixed with some parsley for this weeks roast chicken, pita and hummus sandwiches lunch. Total cost for 10 days of weekday lunches for the two of us: $10.88.

Total time is another matter. Yesterday I made the pita and hummus, I suppose the total time for that was about an hour active cooking time. The roast chicken was probably 45 minutes active time – mainly because it takes a while to completely carve and cube a roast chicken. I’m guessing that the soup will take about 30 more minutes active time, mainly for chopping onions and kale, then also for watching it to make sure it doesn’t over cook. Finally, I’ll probably make at least two loaves of bread this week to go with the soup, which will be about another 15 minutes active time. Total active time for 10 meals: 2.5 hours active time.

AH, but it’s the INACTIVE time that adds up. Chickpeas for the hummus had to soak overnight. I use the No Knead Bread method recently popularized by Mark Bittman, which take a full day and a half to rise and rest before baking. Chicken roasts, then rests, for a total of 2 hours and stock simmers for 3 to 4 hours. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not watching that pot boil, I’m writing this blog post from the comfort of my couch. It’s the inactive time is what makes the month possible (and delicious).

For example, a 1 pound bag of chickpeas is $1.69, whereas a 16 ounce can is say…$0.99 (give or take). A pound of dry chickpeas, once cooked, can fill at least four of those cans, at a savings of $2.27. It’s not a whole lot of money any other month, but that’s over a days worth of food for Chad and myself. Pennies add up quickly when you’re counting every one of them. Also, personally, I think that food that that takes a long time to cook often ends up tasting better – but that could just be me.

So! To finish up this meandering post, $11+2.5 hours active cooking+a couple of days inactive cooking=10 days of delicious lunches for me and Chad.

Looking to February

February starts on Monday, and so does another $56 in February. As of right now, we’re going to try for year three.

So what am I talking about? For those of you who come here for Foreign Service related information, the next month might be a bit of a departure from the norm. As the URL, pictures, and other blog posts suggest, this website is about the VonHinkens, that means me, my husband Chad, and whatever might be going on in our lives that we like to write about. In February, that means we talk about extremely frugal eating. This will be the third year Chad and I embark on an experience/experiment that involves us spending $56 on food for the month of February. If you want, you can read about $56 in February 2009.

Whenever we bring up this tradition (does three times make it a tradition?), people say at least one of the following three things: ‘that’s not possible,’ ‘how?,’ and ‘why?’ Let me give you the short responses:

“That’s not possible!” To this I say HA! Back in 2007, when we did this the first time, I wanted to do it primarily to find out if I could. I can, and I can even come in under budget. So yeah, there is a little bit of pride, and a little testing to see if I can still pull it off.

“How?” It takes a lot of planning. A LOT. Coming in on (or under) budget is an extreme logistical project for me. Chad is very supportive, but he’s not the one cooking everything from scratch. And I mean it when I say from scratch. Beans come from dry, I make my own stock (if I’m going to use it), sometimes I’ll make yogurt, cottage cheese, and breads (including pita – it really is very easy). This takes a lot of time and frankly, I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to do it this year. This year I’m working for a company that keeps me pretty busy, and there’s the faint possibility of travel for work during the month, but we’re going to try anyway. We’ll see what happens.

“Why?” This is most complicated and least tangible answer. There are a lot of reasons that might not make sense to anyone outside of our little family of two. At first it was to see if we could. Then the money saving aspect, especially when we were trying to pay off our credit cards, was really attractive. However, our reasons have grown more philosophical as we continue – it has become an exercise in mindfulness.

During February, we are much more aware of what we eat, what goes into our food, and what we put in our bodies than we are in any other month. We are also more cognizant of how much we consume, and this is not limited to food. While Chad and I are already pretty light eaters, February reminds us of what it’s like to be hungry. The annual reminder makes us hate waste of all kinds, and since we don’t want to hoard anything, we don’t acquire more than we need.

I won’t be blogging quite so often about this year’s $56 in February, I’m not going to have the time. Also, it’ll probably be a big repeat of last year, and that can get boring. But I’ll post now and then about how we’re doing. Here’s a quick spoiler: we’ll be eating a LOT of empanda-pasty-samosa-pie type of food. Cheap and delicious!

Final Thoughts on $56 in February

February is long gone, and I’m just now getting around to posting my final thoughts on such a busy month. On top of meeting my indispensable FSOA study group twice a week I spent so much time cooking that I didn’t really get a chance to blog. I can’t say I’m surprised since this happened last time we did this project.

Excuses aside, I’ve finally posted the full and final grocery/ingredient list. There’s another permanent link over at the $56 in February Page, which I think I’ll keep up there.

This year’s February was much easier than when we did this in 2007. I think it’s a combination of an improvement in my cooking skills and much better planning. MUCH better planning – there is an excel sheet with many pages. All told, Chad and I both lost about 10 pounds that we could definitely stand to loose. Our stomachs shrank a bit, which I don’t mind at all – it goes along with one of the reasons we do this: mindfulness.

I’ve seen several websites or articles of other people doing the same (or similar) project for various reasons. They may want to call attention to world hunger issues, save money, loose weight, see if it’s possible to do, etc. While we may have a few of the same motives, Chad and I are not looking for any publicity or attention out of this project, we do this for us.

This is primarily an exercise in mindfulness. Each of the worlds major religions have fasting or restrictive periods and it’s often a time of thought and reflection. Here are a few things that are reinforced for us during February:

  • Most of our social life revolves around food.
  • It’s okay to be a little hungry at 4pm if you ate lunch at noon and dinner is at 5pm.
  • No knead bread is awesome.
  • We don’t have to be completely full of food in order to feel satisfied with a meal.
  • Living on a strict budget is difficult, but possible.
  • We are very lucky to have our health, and no food allergies or dietary restrictions.
  • We are very lucky that this is an exercise of choice.
  • This is an annual event.

    Now that we don’t have any restrictions on what we can spend on food, I’m going to go have lunch with a friend. But first, I need to go spend the grocery money we saved this month on a goat and some bees.