Monday, September 15, 2014

Spaghetti Sauce: A Follow Up

In a comment on my last post, Making the Most of Tomato Sauce, Becca wrote:
I don't understand how that can be enough sauce for two meals plus the 2 Tbsp. 6 oz tomato paste + 2 cups water = less than 3 cups of sauce, right? My family eats almost 1 cup of sauce per person, per meal. I like the idea of using the sauce jar rinse water to steam vegetables! I'll have to try that. You might enjoy my index of spaghetti sauce recipes. I make it a little differently every time, depending on what vegetables we have
Becca's curiosity strikes at something I've known for a while but have been unsure how to articulate.  Frugality isn't just a matter of what you buy and how you prepare it, it is also a matter of consumption.  Let's use this as an example.

I'm not saying that I'm frugal and Becca isn't.  On the contrary, I've learned a lot from Becca's blog, The Earthling's Handbook.  Rather, it's a difference in priorities and viewpoints.  Judging from her comment, Becca and I think differently about the role of tomato sauce at the dinner table. These are not earth shattering matters of principle or priorities of any great importance, but they are differences that result in differing levels of consumption of a given item.  Those differences translate into differing meal planning, shopping, and cooking habits and differences in spending.

First, Becca is right that two cups of water and six ounces of tomato paste would make less than three cups of sauce.  However, I end up with around four cups of sauce because I rely on the bulk added by the onion.  If I also use a bell pepper, the yield is even greater.

Second, how much sauce do we consume in a meal?  Becca estimates about one cup per person, while I probably use about half that for an adult.  Here is a difference in perspective.  Spaghetti night at my house is a light meal night.   Either we each have a bowl with toast on the side, or I serve it on half a salad plate and salad, broccoli, or peas on the other half.  For many, spaghetti is a comfort food served in large quantities.  For my family, it is a good option for a light meal midweek.

Another possibility is that Becca serves twice as much sauce for the same amount of pasta.  It is tempting to put a lot of sauce on the pasta, especially if you want to maximize the vegetable content of a high carbohydrate meal.  Perhaps Becca makes chunkier sauce than I do, but I don't like it when a bunch of sauce winds up in the sink because it fell through the spaghetti.  For me, about half a cup of sauce per adult serving is fairly easy to eat with one person's worth of pasta, and about a quarter to a third of a cup per child's serving.  If we are eating small servings and a side dish, then it's closer to a third cup per person.

For the sake of generalization, we'll say that a spaghetti dinner for my family of five uses a little less than two cups of sauce.  It is worth noting that my sons are 5, 3, and 1.5, and that they each eat about the same amount.

The amount of sauce that I consider a serving is also based on making sauce from scratch.  When starting with tomatoes, I find that one Roma tomato per person is a fairly reasonable assumption.  It certainly would be if you were serving sliced tomatoes as a side dish.  If you add to that one tomato part of an onion and perhaps part of a pepper, you have a pretty reasonable vegetable side.  And if you cook those three things into a chunky sauce, the result will be around half a cup at most, and the lost volume is water and air.

Again, none of this is to say that Becca is wrong. She does what makes sense and works for her family, just as I do for mine.  Streamlining expenses involves figuring out what will work best right now and going with it.  A lot of waste results directly from doing things that don't work well for you or don't work well right now.  As we evaluate ideas, it can be important to bear in mind the things that already work.  When what is already successful conflicts with ideas being suggested, the suggestions may well not work for you.

This post has been linked to WFMW, Hip Homeschool Hop, Busy Monday and MYHSM.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Making the Most of Spaghetti Sauce

Whenever I make spaghetti sauce from tomato paste, I use one little 6 ounce can and make enough sauce for two spaghetti dinners or one spaghetti dinner and one homemade pizza.  When the sauce is made, and before I divide it for its two meals, I spoon out two table spoons to freeze and add to my next batch of chicken soup.

When I empty a container of spaghetti sauce, I don't let any of the residue remaining in the jar to go to waste either.  I scrape out as much as I can with a rubber spatula, and then I pour about a quarter cup of water in the jar, screw the lid back on, and shake it until the water dissolves all the sauce remaining in the jar and on the underside of the lid.  To that water I add a generous helping of basil and ground pepper and a little salt.  I then pour that liquid over chopped vegetables to use as the steaming liquid when I steam in the microwave, such as zucchini or broccoli.  The flavored tomato liquid seasons the vegetables very nicely, and I serve them topped with a pat of butter.  It's been an effective way to get my boys to eat zucchini.

The used steaming liquid is then added to my stock pot for making chicken or vegetable broth or used in cooking rice or pasta.

I first tried this after reading the cookbook Ruhlman's Twenty (thanks, Mom!), in which the author discusses the uses of different materials and techniques in the kitchen.  One idea he explores in his chapter on the use of salt is the importance of seasoning the water used for boiling pasta.  Indeed, pasta boiled in broth is delicious, and the broth, now thickened with starch from the pasta, is perfect for using in soups.  But if seasoning the water for pasta flavors the water, then seasoning the water for boiling or steaming vegetables might flavor the vegetables, right?

It does.  And it's a good way to flavor vegetables that are relatively bland, such as summer squashes.  That it helps me use every last drop of tomato sauce is a lovely bonus.

Here's how I make spaghetti sauce.  It's the basis for many frugal meals, and having spaghetti once a week really helps keep the grocery budget down.

Basic Tomato Sauce

1 onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp salt
1-2 T butter or oil
1 6-oz can tomato paste
1.5-2 c water
Ground black pepper

1 T sherry
A squirt of prepared mustard
Pepper flakes
2tsp catsup

  • In a pan, heat the oil or melt the butter. 
  • Add the onion and saute until translucent.  
  • Stir in the minced garlic and salt, and allow to cook a few minutes more.  
  • Add the tomato paste and dissolve it in the water.  Once the paste is fully incorporated, add the pepper and any of the optional ingredients desired (add to taste).  
  • Bring to a simmer and reduce to desired consistency.
  • Spoon out and freeze 2 Tablespoons to add to soup.
  • Divide in half for two separate family dinners, and freeze any that will not be used quickly.
This post has been linked to WFMW, Hip Homeschool Hop, Busy Monday, and MYHSM.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Frugal Pancakes and Social Commentary

I love antique and vintage cookbooks.  Not only are the recipes unfamiliar to the modern palate, but the preparations are generally simpler and use fewer ingredients.  Cooks of previous generations kept an eye on expense and efficiency in a way rarely promoted by modern cookbooks.  They were less able to prevent leftovers from spoiling, too, so the abilities to use small amounts of food or reinvent leftovers were important.

While we might think of pancakes as a special or luxurious breakfast food today, they were historically an invaluable tool in the homecook’s repertoire for producing nutritious, filling foods out of leftovers that would otherwise have gone to waste and an effective way to use soured milk.  Here are two such recipes:

Rice Griddle Cakes
Adapted from
The Royal Guide to Meal Planning (1929)

1 c boiled rice (white or brown)
1 c milk, sweet or sour
1 T butter or shortening
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 egg, beaten
1 c flour

if using sour milk, you will also need

1/3 tsp baking soda
1 T sugar

Combine all ingredients in a bowl.  Drop by ladle-fulls onto a hot, greased skillet, and allow to cook like regular pancakes.
Makes 12 small pancakes.

Crumb Griddle Cakes
Adapted from
Good Things to Eat, as Suggested by Rufus (1911)

1 pint breadcrumbs
1 pint sour milk
1 tsp baking soda
1 c sweet milk
1 egg, beaten
½ tsp salt
1 T sugar

Combine the breadcrumbs and the sour milk.  Allow to sit for one hour.  At the end of the hour, dissolve the baking soda in the sweet milk.  Pour the sweet milk mixture into the crumb mixture, and add in the remaining measured ingredients.  Add in flour a little at a time to achieve the normal thickness for pancake batter.  Cook by ladle-fulls on a moderate skillet.

Makes about 2 dozen pancakes.

  • If you are out of sweet milk, you may use another cup of sour milk instead along with an additional ¼ teaspoon of baking soda.
  • When adding in the flour, you have control over the finished product.  Adding in 2/3 c of flour will result in pancakes that are similar to crepes.  More flour will yield pancakes that are more similar to traditional pancakes.
  • If the stove is too hot, the exterior of the cakes will cook before the interior. 

Both recipes would be delicious with homemade jelly or pumpkin syrup, both very frugal options.

The latter recipe is especially noteworthy for its origin.  Rufus was a Pullman car chef (and ex-slave), and at the urging of his friends and clients, he published the recipes he used.  Over his years in the railroad, his clients included two American presidents, celebrities, and European royalty.  His book is filled with creative and efficient uses for canned goods and leftover foods, to say nothing of organ meats.   

Rufus' crumb griddle cakes feature two main ingredients that would normally be considered garbage in the modern kitchen—sour milk and bread crumbs—yet this was the kind of fare he presented to some of the most pampered palates in the world just a century ago.  Not only did he feed these foods to them, but Rufus’ clients enjoyed them so much that Rufus became famous and was encouraged to publish a book of his recipes.  That we would throw the ingredients of such foods away is a testament to the luxurious nature of modern life.  Do not think of these kinds of recipes as “poor people food.”  At the turn of the last century, they were the components of food "fit for kings," and we would be wise not to forget it.

This post has been linked to The Mommy ClubWFMW, Hip Homeschooling Hop, Real Food Wednesday, Busy Monday and MYHSM.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Mystery Jelly (Using Fruit Scraps, Part 3)

In theory, the use of fruit scraps to make juice is a wonderful one.  The product is mildly sweet, fruity, and cloudy like unfiltered apple juice.  The problem with the theory, though, is that the juice is not subjected to the same processes as commercial juice and spoils quickly.

If you and your family done consume the juice quickly, it will turn into vinegar.  Now that is certainly a process that can be harnessed and put to good use, but I only rarely use vinegar.  I need other things to do with the juice I make to keep it from going to waste.

This week, I made a pint and a half of mystery jelly.  The vast majority of the fruits we eat are apples.  In this case, my bag of parings contained apple cores (probably a quart or so of them) and the parings from one honeydew melon.  After I made juice, I strained it through a kitchen towel, put it back in the pot, and reduced it a little ways.  I measured the result, and followed a recipe for apple jelly.  I needed to use a little extra pectin, since my juice was made from cores and did not include skins, but it turned out fine.  And since my juice was less concentrated than it could have been, I also added some ground cloves for a nicer flavor.

Since the acidity of mystery jelly can't be guaranteed, I assume that my product is not as shelf stable as other jellies and am storing my jars in the fridge.  We go through fruit spreads pretty quickly in our home.  I don't expect it to be a problem.  If I had a larger batch or knew I wouldn't use it quickly, I would have used a recipe for freezer jelly.

With my next batch of juice, I'm going to make syrup.  We have pancakes, French toast, and bread pudding frequently, so getting syrup for the cost of the sugar involved would be nice.  And apple syrup will be a nice change until I'm able to make my next round of pumpkin syrup.

This post has been linked to Thrifty ThursdayThe Mommy Club, WFMW, Hip Homeschool Hop, Busy Monday and MYHSM.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Banana Drop Cookies

As I’ve discussed before, I do baking on Fridays, and that includes some kind of baked good for us to eat for breakfast on Saturdays.  This last Friday, I had some overripe bananas to use, but had misplaced my banana bread recipe.  Instead, I tried a recipe for banana drop cookies.  The recipe is an inadvertent variation on one I found in a magazine several years ago.  These cookies taste like banana bread, but have a very cake-like texture.  We all enjoyed them, especially the Bat. 

We ate them with apple slices and milk for the boys and tea for me the next morning.  If I were to make them as a dessert, they would go very nicely with cream cheese frosting as whoopee pies.  As a more nutritious option (perhaps as part of a child’s special lunch), they would work very nicely as the bread part of peanut butter sandwiches.

Banana Drop Cookies

Yields about 3 dozen

1c sugar (or a little less)
2/3 c oil or shortening
1 tsp vanilla
1 c mashed bananas (about 3-4 bananas)
2 eggs, beaten
2 ¼ c flour
2T baking powder
½ tsp salt
1 c chopped nuts (optional)
¼ c sugar (optional)
½ tsp cinnamon (optional)

  • Combine all the wet ingredients.   
  • In a separate bowl, combine the dry ingredients, except for the three optional ones.   
  • Stir the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients, and then add in the chopped nuts, if using.   
  • Drop batter by spoonfuls, 2 inches apart onto greased cookie sheets, and bake at 400 until the cookies start to turn golden on top—about 8-10 minutes.
  • Once the cookies are out of the oven, allow them to cool entirely before removing them from the sheets.  The cookies are very soft and will break easily otherwise. 
  • If desired, combine the sugar and cinnamon in a bowl, and dust the cookies with them after they have been removed from the cookie sheets.

To keep them whole, I stored the cookies vertically in small loaf pans and bagged the pans.  The loaf pans also made an attractive presentation on our breakfast table.

This post has been linked to Thrifty Thursday, WFMW, Hip Homeschool HopMYHSM and Busy Monday.

The Train

My boys love trains, even the 18-month-old Elephant.  And with three children, I face the difficulty of having more children than hands.  In parking lots, on sidewalks, and in stores, my solution has been to form a “train.”  I am the engine, and the boys, lining up youngest to oldest, are my train cars.  I call "all aboard," and hold the Elephant’s hand, he holds the Eel’s, and the Eel holds the Bat’s.  If dh is with me, then on of us is the engine, and the other is the caboose.  As we start our walk, once we’ve all formed up, the engine makes honking noises, and the boys often chug as they walk.

I’ve seen other families have siblings hold hands, but they usually place the youngest on the outside, and that makes me nervous.  It also usually involves one child on one side of the parent and the other children on the other side.  I prefer having all three children on one side and selling it to them as a “train,” because it encourages them to walk single file.

Making a train works beautifully for keeping us all safe outside and for keeping little hands off of merchandise in stores.  Better yet, pretending to be a train gives them something to think about other than wanting whatever is colorful at their eye level.

This post has been linked to WFMW, Hip Homeschool Hop, Busy Monday and MYHSM.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Alphabetical Language Arts

It's been a while since I've written about our homeschooling adventure.  We homeschool year round, with the school year beginning in the spring (after Passover).  I'm also using a homemade curriculum, in part because my husband and I own books that cover almost all the topics we want or need our boys to learn from K through 12.  The topics we can't cover with our existing collection we can easily cover for free online or at the public library, and I keep a running wish list on Amazon.

My other reason for designing my own curriculum (and for having school year round) is that the Bat is very energetic.  If he were in a classroom environment, he would be in the special education system for ADHD, if not other learning challenges. He benefits from flexibility, routine, plenty of time for play, and short lessons.  He needs lessons that stay on topic and does not enjoy art projects. I need short lessons that teach him the material in a very direct manner and tie the information in with things that are relevant to him.  I do not want a lot of busy work.  I also need lessons that I can use to promote self-direction, do not take me away from the other tasks in my day, and are easy to catch up on if we fall behind. And that's exactly what we have.

On Tuesdays and Wednesdays the Bat works on reading and writing.  I read aloud a couple of Aesop's Fables (an antique translation that was one of my great-aunt's school books) and the Bat works on writing letters--capitals on Tuesdays and lowercase on Wednesdays.  We're adding a new letter every week, and he will start doing copy work in the middle of the year, once we've gone through the whole alphabet.

Once he finishes his writing for the day on Tuesdays, we talk about the sounds made by the letter of the week, and I read aloud a short article about something starting with that letter, while the boys eat lunch.  On Wednesdays, the Bat works on his reading skills after he finishes writing.

Most of my read-aloud topics come from The Golden Books of Knowledge, six volumes of a set published in 1961 and previously owned by my father.  While some of the information, especially about countries, is out of date, much of it is still perfectly serviceable.  The article on irrigation, for example, is fine, especially when augmented with conversation on modern techniques, such as drip irrigation.  We will go through the alphabet in this way twice in the course of the year, and I've laid out what we will read about each week.  Some topics are historical (Pythagoras), others technological (steam locomotives), and others scientific (the heart).

Reading from these articles has been a huge hit, often leading to conversations on the topic long after the article has been read.  The article on clouds comes up frequently, as the boys try to identify the type of each cloud they see.  Reading the article on bridges led to days of play dedicated to building various kinds of bridges.  We also read "unassigned" articles as the Bat and Eel show an interest.  Particularly popular have been the articles on lightning (read whenever there is a thunder storm), cats, spiders, and crocodiles.  I especially enjoyed the article on aerial railways.  For Independence Day, we read the article on the early history of the United States (which led to extracurricular study for me about Kosciuszko, who was mentioned in the article but is oddly absent from more modern texts).

In future years, I plan to continue having regular, alphabetical topics.  Ultimately, I hope this habit will lead us to having 26 research topics throughout the year, with each topic provided one week for researching and writing a report and one for preparing and delivering an oral presentation, and the report and any materials from the presentation posted on each child's private blog.  Obviously, all of that is a long way off, but in the mean time, our current routine serves us very well and makes excellent use of our time.

Halfway through the "semester", here are the subjects we've covered:

  • Asia
  • Bridges (types)
  • Clouds
  • Dogs
  • Evergreen Trees
  • Forests
  • Gold
  • The Heart
  • Irrigation (types, purpose, and history)
  • Jungles
  • The Kidneys
  • Early History of Steam Locomotives
  • Muscles

In the coming weeks, we will cover:

  • Inland Navigation
  • Owls
  • Permanent Snow
  • Quince*
  • Plant Roots
  • Steamships
  • Tropical Fruits
  • The United States (the 50 states)
  • The First Vaccinations
  • Whales
  • X-rays
  • Yams*
  • Zebras*
*I'll need to find other sources for these subjects.

At this point, I'm very pleased with the system I've put in place, both because it has encouraged the Bat in his learning and eased the process for him and because it has enriched our family, providing us with a wide range of conversation topics that have been educational and enjoyable for all of us.

This post has been linked to WFMWThe Mommy Club, Hip Homeschool Hop, Busy Monday and MYHSM.