Friday, November 30, 2012

The magic of the clipboard

I'd rather enjoy the time I spend with my wife, than waste it doing errands on the weekend.

At some point I realized that shopping for groceries (or anything else) did not require both Ariel and I to be there. And if I went out and got it done during the week, that left the weekend wide open. I also realized that it would be a lot easier if I batched all of the errands together: Grocery store, warehouse club store (Sam's, Costco, etc), and miscellaneous other errands, and got them all done at once. It's easier and faster for just me to run out and get everything done at once, than for both of us wasting the better part of a weekend day, not really enjoying each other's company, and still failing to get everything done that we wanted. (It's not that we don't enjoy each other, but there are much better, more enjoyable things to do than fight crowds and wait in long lines.)

At some point, I also figured out how to streamline the process of making grocery lists, in a way that ensured that nothing would fall through the cracks. We've been doing this for months now, and every time I explain my system to someone else, they tell me that this is genius. But I hadn't gotten around to writing it up until now.

This is the clipboard that hangs up in the kitchen. The top section of the page spells out the dinner plan for the week. (We generally prepare lunches in bulk on Sunday, and breakfasts are staples, so we only need to write what's for dinner.) This is great for those nights when we're tired and can't remember what the plan was for dinner. It's right there, and we don't have to think or decide anything.

The bottom section is the grocery list section, divided into 3 separate areas. (Grocery store, Costco/BJ's, and miscellaneous.) Whenever we run out, or are running low on some staple item, (milk, eggs, beans, oil) we walk over and add it to the grocery list for that week. If there's anything else we need for the household, it also goes on the list.

Once a week, we sit down to figure out what we want to do for dinner the following week. We take the old list off, and write up the new menu on the clipboard. Once we've figured out the menu, we add everything we're going to need, to the list of things we're out of.  I go shopping on Friday mornings, typically, so the next week's dinner plan runs from Friday through Thursday.

In the picture below, the page on the left is this past week's menu, and the grocery list that was written up over the course of the past week. The page on the right is next week's menu, with space for next week's shopping list underneath. When we generated next week's menu (right page), the groceries required went on this week's shopping list, (left page) added to the list of things we ran out or need more of. This gives us a composite list of everything we need (that we're aware of) to keep things running smoothly at home. This includes random household stuff, too: lightbulbs, candles, batteries, bicycle inner-tubes, or whatever else. There is no more uttering of the phrase "I have to remember to pick up _______ next time I'm at the store. We write it down when the thought occurs to us, so we don't have to remember it later... because we almost never do.

When I go shopping on Fridays, I fold the list in half, top to bottom, (writing out) and then in thirds, from side to side, so that the lists for each store are separate lists, and the whole thing is pocket sized. Everything I need to pick up that day is on that one piece of paper. (This week's list --->)

There have been some predictable benefits to doing things this way: There's usually less rotten crap in the fridge that we've forgotten about, because almost everything in the fridge is in there for a reason. So, the amount of wasted food has gone down, and the amount of wasted money on unused food has gone down. (Take a look at how short this week's list is for the grocery store: I'm only buying the things we need that we don't already have. And there are only 4 items on the list for BJ's.) The pantry makes more sense, too, because it's not filled with random crap we don't/ won't use. (Well, mostly.) This is pretty critical, because our kitchen is so small.

But there are also other, less expected benefits. The amount of impulse shopping has dropped drastically... even when I'm hungry.  And shopping is faster, because I know what I need, and I'm not wandering aimlessly through the store. ("Gee... what do I want? I'm hungry. That looks good. You know, I always think I should make something new, though... I never try anything new...") So the actual shopping process is a lot more efficient. Because I'm planning it all out ahead of time, I'm cooking a much more varied and interesting menu. If I find a new recipe that I want to try, I write it on the clipboard as a reminder, and add it to the menu for next week. And we don't have any more of those "Oh, crap, I forgot to buy..." moments. That goes for everything from food items to batteries, to whatever else... it all goes on the list, and it all gets taken care of.

Those are the upsides. The downside is, this is one of those systems that absolutely requires a regular routine, and it took an effort to make it habitual. We write up the list on Wednesday, and have Thursday as a backup, to make sure that the list is ready on Friday morning. Some nights I come home and I'm exhausted, or we're both exhausted, and it's hard to sit down and get it done... but we know that if we don't do it, there's no plan, and then all bets are off, and the week is just harder. Also, if I go somewhere on vacation, like when I went out to visit my brother recently, it causes problems. I got back, and there wasn't very much to make a meal from, because I hadn't gone shopping. But it was cool, in a way, because it meant the system was working, and we were running a very lean kitchen.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, and in light of the things I heard from New York, I will also add that running a lean kitchen, and being prepared for a storm, are very different things.

The end result has been less wasted money, less wasted food, less wasted space, less wasted time, a much more interesting dinner menu... and a lot more quality time spent with people I want to spend it with.

Not too shabby.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Doing the math: justifying good equipment

I was thinking about this today while I was loading up my iced coffee for the day. (I'm packing my iced coffee in ball jars.)

Once upon a time, I'd go through 2 iced coffees from Dunkin Donuts, per day.

That's about $6 per day.
Or, that's about $30 per week.
Or, about $135 per month.
Or, about $1500 per year.
If you're making $50K per year, that's about 3% of your annual income. Just for coffee. Adjust for your own actual income.


Even though summer's gone, I still cold-brew, using my fancy, $150 (Thank you Melissa!) kitchen aid coffee grinder to do a very fine (espresso) grind before brewing.

A canister of coffee from Trader Joe's runs about $8. One can will last me almost 2 weeks. So, figure 2.5 cans per month.
That's about $20 per month.
Or, about $240 per year.

AND I get better coffee.

AND, it's not loaded down with all the cream and sugar that's required to make Dunkies' coffee palatable. Since I started cold brewing, I've actually lost weight, because I don't feel the need for sugar.

And, the grinder's versatile enough to do everything from espresso grind (which I use for cold brewing) to a really coarse grind that's suitable for French Press.

So, much better coffee, smaller waistline, for a lot less money, and a much lower annual percentage of income spent on all of it.

Suddenly the fancy grinder looks a lot more affordable.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Coffee Log: Follow up to the coffee ice cubes post

After I posted about making coffee ice cubes, a good friend sent me this link to making cold-brewed coffee. And I'm hooked.

In short, you grind your coffee very fine, and put it in a vessel with water, seal the vessel, and leave it at room temp for 12-24 hours. At the end of that time period, filter, add ice, and a little milk, and drink. Medium roast is better than dark roast.

Because it's cold-brewed, the extraction of the more bitter oils is kept to a minimum, and the end result is some incredibly smooth coffee.

BUT... I don't use his recipe. The article calls for a ratio of 1:1 coffee:water by volume, using coffee ground finely for use in a drip coffee maker.

I'm lucky enough to have a really nice coffee grinder that will do an espresso grind. Since the author lists surface contact with the coffee as a factor in brewing, I figured finer grinds than normal would work better. With the grind setting I use, I've only needed to use my standard hot-brewing ratio. (3/4 cup coffee/ 12C of water) I may try playing with the ratios a bit, but this has worked well so far. For those of you without a fancy grinder, look around for a grocery store that offers whole bean coffee, AND has a grinder in the store. You should be able to get a fine enough grind that way.

I also don't bother with using a French press. Because I'm using less coffee, I don't need to extract such a high amount of grounds. And because I'm using such a find grind, the press wouldn't filter much out anyway. So, I use a 6 cup mason jar, and pour it through the top of my regular coffee maker, and filter it that way.

Good stuff...

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Saturday Hash

This has become a weekly staple in our house on Saturday mornings. Since Pancakes are the staple for Sunday mornings, that means I'm going to have to start breaking traditions if I want to do new things, but that's a discussion for another day. Typically, a skillet full of hash browns will last us for most of the weekend. 

The great thing about this recipe is that the process is very forgiving. No worry, no hurry. So, on Saturdays, when I stumble, bleary-eyed into the kitchen, this is how I start the day.

Step One: Cast iron skillet. Put it on the stove to pre-heat. 

Step one and a half. Start making coffee.

Step Two: Bacon. I grab hunks from the TJ's ends and trimmings package, and start cutting. Big chunks of fat go right into the pan to grease it up a little bit for cooking. Dark meaty parts get sliced up into bits to be fried and eaten. The big chunks of fat will get removed before any other ingredients get added to the pan, so the overall fat content is lowered, but it definitely adds flavor and that wonderful fatty bacon smell.

I've also used pre-sliced pepperoni, and I have no doubt that thin sliced kielbasa would be another good substitute for bacon. (And now that I've considered this, it will have to happen soon.)

Step Three: Onion. While the bacon is cooking, chop up an onion or two. Remove  the big chunks of bacon fat from the pan, and dump the onions on top of the bacon. Don't stir just yet, let that bacon stay sizzling on the pan. Crispy bacon is good.

Step three and a half: get some coffee, if you haven't already. Good hash browns take time, and Saturday is supposed to be relaxing.

Step Four: Potatoes. While the onion is sizzling away, chop up a few (3-4) Yukon Gold potatoes (Or baby reds, or whatever.) into 1/4-3/8" cubes.  Size of cube counts... smaller pieces cook more easily, and larger ones end up with a half-cooked texture. Stir the potatoes into the onion/ bacon mix.

Step Five: Seasoning. I've been using a combination of Thyme, Oregano, and a salt-free Chili/ BBQ blend from Penzey's, called Arizona Dreaming. I leave all of this on top of the hash, and sprinkle a little bit of water over everything. The steam seems to help re-hydrate the seasoning, and add more flavor.

Step Six: Black beans. I'm lazy, I buy canned beans. If you're a dry-bean person, I guess you should set them out to soak the night before. I rinse them off in the steamer basket, and stir them into the mix. 

As things continue to cook, sprinkle a little bit of water over everything once in a while. It will help loosen up anything that's sticking to the bottom of the pan. Use a metal spatula (as you should, with cast iron) to scrape up that starchy goodness and stir it back into the hash. Keeping all that gunk from burning on to the pan will make cleanup a lot easier later on. And since most of whatever is sticking is made up of starch, onions, bacon, or spices, you're basically stirring a lot of flavor back into the hash where it belongs. 

Continue to take your time. Have some coffee, get some plates out, pre-heat another pan for some eggs, whatever. Hash takes time, and Saturdays should be relaxing. Have some more coffee while that one sinks in.

Once everything is cooked, put the burner on low, and scramble up some eggs, or fix whatever else is going to be part of breakfast for the morning. 


Monday, July 2, 2012

Coffee Log: Better iced coffee

Well, summer's officially here. Blecch. Hot, humid... Not the best time for a piping hot cup of coffee. So, that means it's iced coffee season. But after 10 years of drinking Dunkin Donuts' iced coffee, I think I'm about ready to admit that it's revolting. Sugar helps. Milk helps. Holding your nose helps. It's a predictable flavor, and knowing what to expect is better than expecting good, and not getting it. But I'm still in the mood for something better.

I'm still searching for a lighter blend than I usually drink at home for summertime drinking, but our regular coffee (50/50 espresso roast/ Decaf Italian roast) is still good enough.

Which brings me to the remaining issue. To make iced coffee, the traditional method is to make super-strong coffee, with the understanding that the ice will water it down. But it basically means that I'll drain most of the cup, while it's still super strong, and not exactly tasty. And later, I'll still get watered down leftovers.

The obvious solution hit me the other day: ice cubes made of frozen coffee. So now I'm drinking regular strength coffee, that's chilled with cubes of regular strength coffee.

The only problem now is that the ice cube tray looks revolting. Good coffee is oily, and those oils don't completely freeze.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

One of my new favorite things

I was hunting around in Trader Joe's for some bacon, not too long ago. I needed it as a soup ingredient, not for breakfast. And what I found was this: Trader Joe's 'Ends and Trimmings.'

Breakfast bacon, to be marketable, needs to be a whole package of strips that are of uniform length and width. Typically, this implies that they were cut from a more or less rectangular block of bacon.

But pigs aren't rectangular. So there are chunks and scraps that get left behind in the process. They're not necessarily the right size or shape to look pretty in the pan. But not everyone needs it to look pretty in the pan. Sometimes it just needs to be tasty in the dish.

So, this is a fist-sized package of bacon chunks, that is cheaper by the pound than breakfast bacon. (breakfast bacon is $4 for 12 oz.: ~5.50 per pound. This is a full pound for $3.) AND it's not cured with nitrates. So it's healthier. (It's still bacon, but at least it's not loaded with carcinogens.)

You never know what you're going to get, but massive chunks like these aren't uncommon. That makes it easier to trim off some of the excess fat.

And, well... They're inch thick hunks of bacon. I still have to cut it up so it cooks all the way through. But it's big chunks of bacon. That just makes me really happy.