Food

August Challenge: Week 4

The final week of the challenge proved to be the hardest. Not only did we have friends over for dinner, we also celebrated our third wedding anniversary! I wanted to do something special for both evenings, without completely ignoring my budgeting goal. My first shopping trip of the week looked like this:

FoodCost
Strawberries (1lb)$1.66
Gold Bell Peppers (2)$3.34
Grape Tomatoes$1.25
Parsley$0.99
Yellow Squash (3)$1.79
Artichoke Quarters$2.99
Cream Cheese (2)$3.38
Milk (Half-Gallon)$2.29
Chicken Breast$6.76
Chicken Thighs$8.28
Sour Cream$2.69
Flour Tortilla$1.47
Paprika$3.49
Basil Leaves$1.49
Mushrooms$1.19
Baby Lemons$1.99
Mangoes (4)$2.76
Dried Basil$1.99
Avocados (4)$2.76
Fresh Mint$1.49
Eggs$2.99
Cayenne Pepper$3.59
Mozzarella$3.44
Shredded Gruyere$4.49
Garbanzo Beans (2 cans)$1.58


Total$70.14

We hosted our friends Grace and Jon for dinner on Sunday evening. I made Crusty Rosemary & Garlic Bread (again) with Spinach & Artichoke Dip as an appetizer. The bread always makes our apartment smell delicious and it is such an elevated experience for a tiny cost (about $1.85/loaf).

For dinner, we went a little healthier with Skillet Lemon Pepper Chicken. The fresh herbs and cayenne added so much good flavor to the yellow bell peppers, zucchini, tomatoes, and chicken breast. The entire meal came in at less than $20 and fed four people (plus leftovers!).

To be honest, part of me feels guilty and insecure for tallying up the cost of hosting. Having friends over for dinner is something we love to do and want to do on a regular basis. But this month-long challenge has made me realize that we can’t simply ignore the financial aspect. Historically, I’ve used hosting as an excuse to buy expensive foods and try to produce “impressive” meals. This is totally on me– no one is expecting Jimi to cook his famous steaks every time they walk in our home. I don’t have to serve elaborate charcuterie boards or buy expensive bottles of wine. We can spend less and have just as great a meal– and just as much fun.

We had a few slices of rosemary bread leftover, so I decided to surprise Jimi with some Gordon Ramsey eggs the next morning. These eggs are pretty life-changing (don’t believe me? The YouTube video tutorial has 42 MILLION views). Due to my budgetary constraints, I had to substitute in sour cream for the called-for crème fraîche, making the eggs slightly less rich, but still incredibly tasty. I popped the bread slices under the broiler to give them a quick toast, then loaded each plate with bread, eggs, mushrooms, tomatoes, and avocado. Nom nom nom.

Anniversary Picnic

Our third wedding anniversary was on August 26th. Instead of going out to dinner, I suggested we have a picnic on the beach where we got married. Jimi agreed and I put together a special picnic meal. While it was a “splurge” in terms of our weekly budget, it was roughly a tenth of the cost of our previous anniversary dinners!

FoodCost
Raisin Rosemary Crisps$3.99
Italian Charcuterie$5.49
Truffle Marcona Almonds$5.99
Italian Truffle Cheese$5.85
Goat Cheese Log$2.99
Chocolate Covered Espresso Beans$0.99
Dark Chocolate Covered Almonds$0.99

Total$26.29

I already had fruit on hand, along with some leftover Spinach & Artichoke dip. I built the picnic around those items, making a homemade walnut cream cheese dip and buying cheese, nuts, and meat to offer some additional sustenance. I put the food into serving dishes for easy transport to the beach.

Jimi surprised me with two dozen gorgeous red roses before we headed out (aww). We drove up the coast to Leo Carrillo in Malibu and set up our picnic precisely where we said our vows. It was both romantic and meaningful. A photographer happened to be taking photos of the sunset close by and we asked him for a quick picture. He took some amazing shots and it really capped a wonderful time (and memorialized Jimi’s wild quarantine hair). Honestly, I wouldn’t have traded it for the most expensive dinner in the world.

We spent the rest of the week eating leftovers in a variety of forms (chicken tacos, salad with goat cheese tomatoes, etc.). But I did find one incredible cocktail recipe. I had picked up four mangoes at the grocery store, because they were on sale for $0.69/each! Jimi loves mangoes, but these were all very ripe and needed to be eaten immediately. I scrolled through Pinterest, looking for a mango dessert or drink that I had all the ingredients for. And I found it: The Mango Margarita. I made a few tweaks to the original recipe, so here’s “my” version:

Mango Margaritas

  • 2 Fresh Mangoes
  • 3oz Tequila
  • 1oz Triple Sec
  • 3tbsp Agave Syrup
  • 1 Lime
  • Handful of Ice
  • 1 tsp chili powder
  • 1/2 tsp sea salt
  • Lime wedges and Mint for garnishing

Blend together mangoes, tequila, triple sec, agave syrup, lime, and ice. Run a lime wedge around the rim of your glasses, then dip them in sea salt and chili powder. Pour in your blended drink and garnish with lime and mint!

Cheers to a fun challenge! I have learned so much this month… I’m still trying to process and synthesize it into a cohesive narrative. I’ll be posting all those thoughts in the next week or two. But for now, thanks for sharing in my journey and I hope you make something amazing today!

Food

August Challenge: Week 2

Goal: Spend only $50/week on groceries for my husband and I.

Week 2 started off quite strong. And by strong I mean, people kept giving us food!! Jimi had to go in to the office on Friday (August 7) and they catered a meal for all the employees. He came home with a giant tray of leftover Greek food for us (he truly understands my love language).

We feasted on spanakopita, beef skewers, and hummus over the weekend. On Sunday morning, I decided to go beyond a quick nuke in the microwave and instead made omelettes with leftover baked potatoes, lamb, and some freshly shredded cheddar cheese. Comfort food at it’s finest.

On Sunday evening, I drove out to Lancaster to do some work on our rental units and pay a visit to the in-laws. After several hours of painting, changing out door knobs, and fixing baseboards, my mother-in-law called me over for dinner. Marlene is one of the most outstanding cooks I have ever encountered. She can turn scraps into feasts and leftovers into Michelin-star meals. That night she had made chimichurri chicken, potato wedges, and a balsamic salad. Her husband, Steve, who has taken up cooking as a quarantine hobby and is a fastidious sous chef, put together a corn casserole dish. It was a hearty and heartening meal after working all evening.

And, of course, Marlene always sends us home with leftovers. Not only did I get the extra chicken and casserole, but she had prepared Milanesa Napolitana just for me to take back to Jimi. If you have never had this mouthwatering dish, think of it as pizza… but with meat instead of pizza dough.

While I can’t tell you Marlene’s precise recipe (she never writes any of her dishes down), this recipe is a fairly good approximation.

We got through the weekend without a grocery run! On Monday, I did stop by the store to pick up a few things: tomato sauce (I’ve got all those frozen meatballs still), peaches (get ready for more whiskey cocktails), and a few things to make carnitas.

I bought some pork shoulder a couple weeks ago and stuck it in my freezer, waiting for a day when I had the time to slow roast it in the oven. Monday afternoon seemed to be that day! I pulled out the pork shoulder to defrost while I did my grocery run. Carnitas are a new one for me– I had never even considered making them until quarantine expanded my horizons. After my first attempt, though, my husband made it clear that I should make them on a regular basis. The pork turns out so tender and juicy, it’s really cheap, and you can use it in a variety of ways: quesadillas, lettuce-wrapped tacos, and (with a little bbq sauce) pulled pork sandwiches!

I’ve experimented with a variety of carnitas recipes this summer. I’ve braised the meat in wine, chicken stock, and citrus juice. I’ve added lots of spices and I’ve just tried salt (with unique toppings added to every individual meal). This carnitas recipe is my personal favorite at the moment, but I am open to alternatives. If you happen to have a delicious recipe, please share– I’d love to give it a try!

Between the leftovers and the carnitas, I didn’t do a lot of cooking this week– but that didn’t mean I stayed out of the kitchen. I baked up a storm… causing my husband some serious consternation.

“I thought we were trying to eat healthy,” he said with a mouthful of meringue.

“I’m trying to perfect my French pastry skills!” I explained, piping another row of meringue onto a baking sheet. “What do you think of it?”

“It’s got a weird flavor. Like it’s good… but it doesn’t taste like what I grew up with.” We later determined that traditional Argentine meringue was exclusively egg whites, water, and sugar. The French recipe that I followed included vanilla. I was pretty impressed with my husband’s taste buds.

Aaaand speaking of vanilla, I ran out of Vanilla Extract this week. On my first shopping trip, I decided to cheap out and buy “Imitation Vanilla Extract” for $1.47. Guys. Don’t do it. It was absolutely awful. Thankfully, since I didn’t have to spend much money on groceries this week, I splurged on a bottle of the real stuff at Costco. My baking supplies are completely restocked for the foreseeable future!

Here’s my spending breakdown from August 8-14:

FoodCost
Butter Lettuce$1.25
Blueberries (2)$2.50
Limes (4)$1.00
Oranges (3)$1.44
Peaches (3)$1.92
Cilantro$0.79
Marinara$2.79
Chicken Broth$1.99
Ginger Root Powder$2.80
Imitation Vanilla Extract$1.47
White Vinegar$1.17
Sausage (1lb)$1.99
Pure Vanilla Extract$24.99
Eggs (2 dozen)$3.79
Total $49.89

And here are all the glorious baked goods I made this week:

Macarons with French Buttercream

Preppy Kitchen has an amazing recipe tutorial for Macarons. Mine turned out… ok? They didn’t really puff up, so there’s a few tweaks I want to try next time. French pastry is all about precision which is so not my style. I played a little fast and loose with this recipe and definitely regretted it. Also, the French Buttercream was basically straight butter. I’ll go with a more traditional frosting in the future.

Meringues

I fell straight down the Preppy Kitchen rabbit hole and tried Meringues next. These were super fun to make– and quite lovely to eat. I definitely want to practice my piping and try out other flavors in the future.

Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookie Bars

This is such a fun alternative to chocolate chip cookies. The bars stay so gooey in the center, but the edges get crispy. There’s a little something for everyone in a crowd! You can add some M&M’s on top for a festive touch (this batch was from July– I forgot to take a picture of this week’s version).

I think Week 3 will be a true test of will. My fridge is completely empty and my pantry is starting to look a bit sparse. Let’s see how it goes!

Food

August Challenge: $50/Week on Groceries

In the early days of the pandemic, I set a lot of “goals”. I was going to read twenty books. I was going to workout every day. I was going to practice Spanish. I was going to take online courses and do as much “upskilling” as possible. While I chipped away at some of these goals (see: Quarantine Reading List), I fell off the wagon on most. It was hard to stay motivated and focused when the world seemed to be falling apart at the seams. Some days, it felt like an accomplishment just to get out and walk my dogs.

I also challenged myself to cook more often and experiment with new foods. I’ve made mad Pad Thai, learned how to cook beets (and beet greens), and fallen in love with fresh ginger. I enjoyed my time in the kitchen, so daily meals turned into another form of “entertainment”. However, I recently took a look at my skyrocketing grocery bills. Steak and shrimp and salmon filets were obvious price-jacking culprits. But there were other, more subtle rascals inflating my bills. There were new spices and sauces that I used for one recipe and then buried in the back of my spice cabinet. There were giant containers of grapes from Costco that we never finished before they turned into raisins. Fancy cheese, real maple syrup, top shelf alcohol, everything that made life feel a little bit more comfortable.

But in an effort to curb my consumerism (and boost my wallet), I am setting myself a new goal: Make three delicious meals a day for my husband and I… and spend only $50/week on groceries.

Now, my pantry is pretty well-stocked at the moment. We’ve got pasta and coffee and spices galore. We also have several frozen dinners from the early-pandemic panic. I’m burning through all the leftovers and milk right now, but I still have quite a few tomatoes, tortillas, eggs, and cheese in the fridge. It feels a bit like cheating, but I know it will get harder each week as I run out of these excess ingredients. Here’s my shopping plan for August 1:

Breakfast FoodCost
Sausage Links$2.50
Coffee Creamer$1.79
Bananas$1.49
Milk (1 gallon)$3.29
Lunch FoodCost
Sandwich Bread (Whole Wheat)$1.49
Sandwich Meat (Ham) – 2 x 9oz packs$7.00
Lettuce (Romaine)$1.69
Dinner FoodCost
Ground Beef (3 lb)$11.97
Chicken (3 lbs)$9.42
Bell Peppers (2)$1.94
Broccoli (1 lb)$1.79
Onions (3)$2.91
Weekly Total$47.28

Meal Plan:

BreakfastEggs and Sausage, Breakfast burritos, Coffee
LunchSandwiches, Salads 
SnacksBananas, Protein Bars, Smoothies
DinnerQuesadillas, Chicken Stir Fry, Lettuce-Wrapped Burgers, Spaghetti and Meatballs, Tacos

WOW. That list feels so short. I am already embarrassed just thinking about the amount of food I typically buy on a normal Costco run. It’s also really evident that the bulk of the $50 will be going towards meat. Maybe an incentive to start adding more vegetarian meals to our diet?

I’ll be checking in every week to let you know how it’s going! I will also share any tips, tricks, and recipes I discover along the way.

Oh– and I’m going to try not to tell my husband what I’m doing. If he finds out, it’s fine. But I want to see if he notices the “limited” groceries every week. Social experiment: commence!