Why Wednesdays? – Why I Eat . . . Food From My Own Kitchen – #4

A Note About This Feature:  Why Wednesdays is a Move Eat Create weekly feature determined to turn the mid-week doldrums upside down and celebrate things I love to do and blog about.  Currently, the focus is on food, cooking, and eating.

 

I’ve read often how so very many Americans are overfed and undernourished.  I can absolutely understand this.

I used to eat out a lot.  A LOT.  Well, actually, let me clarify that, I used to eat food that didn’t come from my own kitchen a lot.  I ate in restaurants, in my car, and sometimes at home, of course, but the meals didn’t originate there.  It generally arrived via the delivery person or was transported home after being picked up at a drive-thru.  Various factors contributed to this habit.  I was busy, sure.  I was tired, too.  I suffered from a severe lack of confidence in the kitchen.  I barely knew how to boil pasta, let alone cook a complete meal.  Nutrition rarely crossed my mind in these days and my flavor palette had been co-opted by Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and Sonic’s dessert menu.

Cookbooks

Eating out had its benefits, of course.  It was fast and convenient.  It could sometimes be cheap (if you don’t know how far $5 can go at Taco Bell, you’ve missed an important lesson in life).  Alternately, it could be indulgent when I wanted it to be (a nice table, waiters bringing me whatever I order, and never having to get up to re-fill my own glass is a pretty good time, after all).  It was familiar and comforting, harkening me back to trips to Burger King with my grandma.  Plus, I couldn’t fail at it.  I mean if the French fries were burnt, that disaster landed squarely on the shoulders of the good folks at Wendy’s.

But, as I’m sure you know, all of this convenience and food delivery bliss had costs, too.  While it could be cheap, it often wasn’t.  There are only so many .99 cent cheeseburgers a girl can eat before she wants a fancy bowl of pasta.  The money flying out of my budget on food costs really knocked me for a loop.  Before being the diligent budget tracker that I am now, I was turning a blind eye to the hundreds upon hundreds of dollars being handed over to those who prepared my meals each night.

Another cost of this fly-by-night, eat on the run lifestyle included developing a really unhealthy love/hate relationship with food.  I was in LOVE with that box of donuts as I they pretended to be my perfect dinner all the way home, but I HATED them about 10 minutes afterwards, when my stomach felt sick from a combination of sugar, refined carbohydrates, and overindulgent-food guilt.  I didn’t have self-control, so I ate ALL the donuts or nothing at all.  I ate the ENTIRE super-sized quarter-pounder meal or nothing at all.  Not one single aspect of this cycle was wise or cost-effective.  It was damaging and had high costs.

I also paid for these food choices with a disconnect to what I was eating.  Rarely did I really enjoy a meal.  I seldom actually tasted exciting flavors and enjoyed sharing a meal with others.  I was too busy.  Too gluttonous.  Too quick to do more than eat and run.  I was pretty numb to the process.  I was full of food – too full of food most of the time – and incredibly undernourished (both literally and figuratively).

Recipe Cards

When I started eating meals at home, this began to change.  Slowly at first, with meals that were hardly REALLY homemade (rice-a-roni, anyone?), but small food changes were beginning to shake things up.  Even sitting down to a bowl of pasta with a jar of Ragu tossed on top began to change my relationship to food.  Pretty soon, I tinkered with the Ragu.  I added extra peppers or sautéed some garlic into the sauce.  Before I knew it, I would just make the darn sauce myself!  My cooking skills were growing, and with them, came a deeper understanding of flavors and techniques.  I watched cooking shows.  I read food blogs.  I began to figure stuff out for myself and my culinary savvy was starting to flow.

I’m still not the type to whip up a meal completely on my own, with no other guidance.  I usually find a recipe, make changes to my liking and go from there.  But, it’s a big change.  In my home, I eat homemade meals for dinner pretty much every single night of the week.  I take the leftovers to work for lunch.  Even breakfast, though simple, is something taken to work from my own kitchen.  Healthy grainy bread, natural almond butter, maybe a homemade muffin I baked over the weekend.

Meals out now are generally saved for two occasions: special events or celebrations and Sunday morning brunch.  The latter is just a fairly new tradition that I quite enjoy – a time to honor the luxury of eating out, rather than take it for granted.  Otherwise, I’m eating food I know.  Food I purchased with consideration and prepared with care.  I enjoy it more, I can tell you that.  I get to dedicate time to it and share it with others whose company I enjoy.  I taste it more deeply, now that my flavor palate has been freed from the restrictions it had for many years.  My budget doesn’t terrify me in quite the same way it once did.  My runner’s body finds it nourishing, and my health is tremendously thankful for it.  Plus, I’m probably a much safer driver now, too.  You know, now that I’m not distracted by searching for every last French fry in my bag as I navigate the streets!  So, there’s always that.

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Previous Entries in This Series:

#3 – Why I Eat . . . Plants!

#2 – Why I Eat . . . With Reverence

#1 –   Why I Eat  . . . Thoughtfully

Why Wednesdays? – Why Creativity Counts #4: It’s Handy When You’re Cheap and Broke. Oh wait – Frugal! I meant Frugal!

A Note about This Feature:  Why Wednesdays is a Move Eat Create weekly feature determined to turn the mid-week doldrums upside down and celebrate things I love to do and blog about.  Currently, the focus is on creating and creativity.

Last week I talked about how creativity supports self-sufficiency.  Today I’d like to take that a step further.  I don’t know about all of you readers out there, but I will admit that I am a bit . . . thrifty these days.  I wasn’t always.  I used to spend money like mad.  I didn’t have that money, exactly, but I had little pieces of plastic and it’s remarkable how many retailers you can trick into thinking that plastic = money.

Fast forward a few years and things are a bit . . . different.  Without lamenting about all of my financial drama, let’s just say that I have learned some lessons.  I am now a much more frugal individual.  I buy what I need and sometimes what I want, but I spend thoughtfully and save wherever I can.

photo credit: Gerard Van der Leun via photopin cc

Connecting to my creative mind is such an ally to the new more prudent me.  Let’s face it, life is costly.  Eating well, enjoying various forms of entertainment, gift giving to those you care about, clothing one’s self appropriately, and paying for transportation to get through your days are just some of the ways in which just living can empty our pocketbooks.  Throw in a recessed economy, the need to think about future financial security and inflation and you can get a pretty grim, dull picture if you’re not careful.

Now my picture has, too, been grim and dull at times, but creativity has been able to liven things up a bit.  I’ve talked plenty on this blog about my love for running, knitting, and cooking – all endeavors that provide inexpensive entertainment – but it goes way beyond that.  My creative brain is saving money on holiday gifting this year by churning out some handmade items.  It frequently saves me money on transportation, by strategically planning shipping trips and errands in the most cost-effective way (Yes – successful strategic planning DOES take massive amounts of creative thinking); and it cuts my grocery bills by thinking about cost-effective ingredients in new, interesting ways.  You get the idea.

Thinking imaginatively can open up a whole world of ways to make your life a bit more affordable.  Mr. Move Eat Create and I were finally able to take a bit of a mini-break a few weeks to go visit his family in Michigan – something that seemed very out of reach financially.  However, by creatively planning and playing with travel dates, accommodation options, and entertainment ideas, et cetera, we were able to make it happen.

As I’ve mentioned before, I work in social services.  I can say, without hesitation, that some of the most creative people I have ever met are many of my clients – those living with little or no income.  There is something about survival that necessitates creativity, but many of them have taken it even beyond just surviving.  I have been amazingly impressed by the tactics, talents, and skills that many of my clients have drawn upon to put together gifts for their kids, for their friends, even for me.  (Don’t worry – I’m not accepting gifts from my clients unethically!  But, I’m also not rejecting a beautifully crafted handmade thank you card given to me with earnest appreciation and respect, either).

A wish that I have is that more of us would find and tap into our creative streaks in times beyond necessity.  Do it when you’re struggling and need to be inventive to survive, but do it again later, too.  Do it when you are beyond just surviving and when you’re your ready to manifest your ideas, try something different, plan out a helpful strategy, and save a few bucks!

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Previous Entries in This Series:

Why Creativity Counts #3:  Self-Sufficiency

Why Creativity Counts #2:  It Makes You Smarter

Why Creativity Counts #1:  Because It’s So Much More Than You May Think

How To Make Homemade Vegetable Stock (and A Few Thoughts On Sustainability)

It’s difficult to put into words what it is exactly about making vegetable stock that makes me feel so satisfied.  But of all the things I have cooked, baked, assembled, or concocted, the process and product of homemade vegetable stock illicit in me a feeling of contentment that is uniquely its own.

Go veggies, go!

I think ultimately it comes down to frugality and sustainability.  I am always looking for ways to save money where I can, especially in the kitchen.  Saving money in one aspect of food costs allows me to splurge occasionally on indulgent, but amazing ingredients at other times (vanilla beans come to mind, for instance).  So making my own vegetable stock is a very budget friendly endeavor.

But even more than financial savings, making my own vegetable stock feels like such a simple way to practice sustainability – a concept which is very important to me.  We use a lot of vegetables in my home and instead of tossing out stems and stumps, all of the veggie odds and ends get tossed into a Ziplock freezer bag.  Every few weeks, I pull out that bag and put those forlorn vegetable scraps to good use.  It is an immensely satisfying process to take something otherwise destined to be unused and discarded and rather to make something wonderful out of it.  And, homemade vegetable stock is a wonderful thing!  It has so many uses.  You can use it in the obvious places – soups, stews, and sauces.  But you can also use it in place of water as the cooking liquid for rice, quinoa, beans, and other grains and legumes.  It adds a nice subtle flavor and richness to these items.  You can even use it as a substitute for some of the oil in dips and spreads, such as hummus (don’t replace all the oil, but about half can be substituted with great results).

So, if you’re a tosser-outer of vegetable scraps, consider brewing up your own stock from time to time.  Your budget, your ‘green’ nature, and your meals will love it!

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Homemade Vegetable Stock Tips & Method

Common Ingredients:

You can use just about any vegetable – just know that their natural flavor profiles will subtly flavor the stock.  So, if you want a sweeter stock use items such as bell peppers, carrots, and other root vegetables.  If you want a spicier stock, think of items like radishes.  I generally go for a balanced flavor profile and my most commonly used vegetable scraps include carrot tops and leaves, bell pepper caps, broccoli stems, onion wedges and celery bits.

Fresh versus Frozen:

As I mentioned, I freeze my vegetable bits so that they don’t rot before use.   You can also use fresh vegetables, too, and I do this when I have them to spare.  When I make a batch, I often go through my vegetables on hand.  If I know that there is a lone carrot or a random stump of cauliflower that isn’t going to get used before it turns bad, I’ll surely throw it in the pot with my frozen pieces.  Just remember to never use vegetables that have turned bad or spoiled – they will harm the flavor or your stock.

To Season or Not to Season?

There are differing opinions about whether to salt and season a stock or not.  My general modus operandi is to salt the stock sparingly, just to help bring out some of the flavors of the vegetables, but not so much that it will later overwhelm whatever dish I use it in.  I have in the past added sprigs of parsley and thyme to my stock and that has been a very nice addition as well.  Ultimately, you get to be creative with your flavor development here.  Make the stock’s flavor as subtle or as bold as you wish!

Cooking Time/Method

It’s very simple.  Begin by tossing your vegetables into a large stockpot.   I usually add quite a bit, covering the bottom of my pot in a layer or two of vegetables.  Then fill pot with water to about an inch or two below the top.  If you are adding salt or other seasonings, do so now. Bring water to a boil over high heat and then reduce to a low simmer, covered.  Let simmer for 1 – 1 ½ hours.  Don’t cook longer than this, as the vegetables can leach out all their flavor and may turn bitter if overcooked.

Straining & Storage

When the stock is done cooking, scoop out the large chunks of vegetables and discard.  Then, pour stock through a strainer and cheese cloth to get out all small bits that may have broken down into the liquid.  I think a cheese cloth in addition to a strainer is essential to this process – it will really catch all the small particles floating around in there.  Finally, scoop your desired amount of stock into storage containers and freeze or refrigerate.  I use inexpensive food storage containers (i.e. Gladware) and store my stock in 1 cup servings.  They stack nicely in the back of my freezer.  When ready to use, simply defrost as many cups as you need.  Of course there is no need to freeze if you use the stock within 2-3 days of making – just refrigerate it.  The frozen stock can be stored for several months before using, though it is unlikely it will last that long if you cook regularly!