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 3

This week was all about chicken. I found some killer deals on thighs and drumsticks at our local grocery store, but I didn’t want dinner to feel like a constant repeat. With poultry in hand (err… cart), I started flipping through Pinterest and AllRecipes.com on my phone, looking for particularly unique chicken recipes.

I’ll share my poultry preparations down below, but here’s what I ended up purchasing:

FoodCost
Broccoli $2.70
Grape Tomatoes$3.00
Lemons (4)$2.00
Bananas (1 Bunch)$1.46
Red Bell Peppers (2)$1.96
Red Seedless Grapes$1.89
White Peaches (2)$1.15
Yellow Onions (3)$1.98
Yellow Peaches (3)$1.18
Mozzarella Pearls$3.99
Chicken Thighs $6.60
Greek Yogurt $5.89
Butter (4lb)$7.99
Popsicles $3.50
Half & Half$1.79
Pears (2)$1.07
Romaine Hearts$3.99
Dill$1.49
Rosemary$1.49
Chicken Drumsticks$3.87


Total$58.99
Soooo close to my target. Excuses below…

The Costco Dilemma

Y’all… I love me some Costco. Even with COVID preventing me from eating my weight in samples, I still enjoy the experience of walking the aisles and stocking up. The prices are so good! The meat is such great quality! The cheese! The charcuterie!

I’ve always found ways to justify my Costco shopping… until my husband and I started to keep an itemized budget. The polo shirts I bought for Jimi (and the yoga pants I purchased for myself) were no longer conveniently hidden in the grocery bill. The four-pound carton of grapes that cost $10– and half of the which turned into wine before we could consume them. The five dozen eggs to satisfy my rapidly increasing baking needs. The reality checks were coming in hard and fast.

So I decided to come up with new “Costco rules” for myself:

  1. A Costco grocery run is for food only. If you need socks, a plant, batteries, or a new couch, that needs to be decided in advance. No purchasing non-food on a whim.
  2. Only purchase food that you can (and will) eat before it expires. For our home, this eliminates most of the fruit and vegetable options.
  3. Don’t take a cart. (What!!) Yeah, this one is a little dangerous. But I’ve been doing this all month and it’s working. Even with a detailed grocery list in hand, a cart is just begging to be filled. If I know I’ll have to carry everything throughout the whole store, I’ll overcome the urge to buy the handle of tequila on sale or get an extra block of cheese.

Costco items, while typically cheap for the quantity offered, still hit my $50 hard. This week, I needed butter and Greek yogurt– food I typically purchase in bulk because I cook and bake with them often. I knew buying them at Costco would bust my budget, but I made that concession because buying them in smaller portions would end up costing more and appearing on my budget more regularly. I need to plan my “Costco buys” more strategically, but I think it will be doable long-term.

One of the greatest benefits I’ve discovered over the last three weeks is the joy of variety. Instead of buying one giant bag of asparagus at Costco and cooking it all week long, I can buy a couple bell peppers, some broccoli, a few onions, and a pint of tomatoes at Sprouts. I never realized that Costco was actually limiting me until I stopped and took stock of my habits.

I will never get tired of going to Costco. I’m just going to be a more considerate customer in the future.

CHICKEN!

We did some serious feasting this week.

Night #1: Tandoori Chicken and Homemade Naan – My goodness. Indian food is way outside my comfort zone, but this recipe looked simple and absolutely delicious. After coating the chicken with the yogurt and spices, I set it aside to marinate. I knew my husband was a fan of naan, so I wanted to make some to complement the chicken. Unfortunately, traditional naan requires yogurt… and I had just used the last of it on the chicken. Not wanting to make a last-minute grocery run, I opened my fridge to look for alternative dairy options. I had some milk and I knew adding vinegar to it would make buttermilk– could that work? I decided to go ahead and give it a try. I popped the chicken in the oven and got my cast iron skillet sizzling. I mixed garlic and dill into the naan batter, then rolled a piece out on the counter. The bread fluffed up nicely over the heat and the inside was soft and flavorful. The chicken made the house smell amazing and Jimi soon came to hover by the kitchen. He stole a piece of naan and his eyes lit up. When I got the chicken and naan on the table, we tore in with our bare hands.

Jimi said, “This tastes better than it smells!”

I laughed at the odd compliment and added, “I want to try a different naan recipe– this one is a little too thick and doughy.”

Jimi shrugged, “I definitely won’t stop you from experimenting with naan. I could eat this for days.”

Lunch #2: Roasted Chickpea Gyros – While cooking the night before, I casually wondered what was the difference between naan and pita bread. Turns out? They’re fairly similar, but naan is made with yogurt, milk, eggs, or butter to make it the softer and fluffier cousin of traditional pita. I decided to do a little cuisine mashup and make gyros out of the leftover naan from dinner! I poured a can of chickpeas into a tray, spiced them up, and popped them in the oven. I heated up the naan and layered some Romaine, grape tomatoes, red onion, feta, and cilantro. When the chickpeas were ready, I tossed them on top!

Jimi: “There’s no MEAT?”

Me: “Well, the roasted chickpeas have a lot of flavor and add a lot of substance to this dish.”

Jimi: “…. but where’s the MEAT?”

I added some leftover carnitas his second wrap.

Jimi: “This just went from a 7 to a 9. This is phenomenal.”

Dinner #3: Creamy Cajun Chicken Lazone and Buttermilk Naan — This meal was straight. up. dreamy. We were on a naan kick, so I kept it rolling. This time, though, I found a recipe that specifically required buttermilk (avoiding another haphazard substitution situation). I needed to do another chicken dish, but I wanted to switch up the cuisine. Scrolling through Half Baked Harvest’s blog site, I spotted a Cajun dish that looked interesting. I pulled out some canned corn from the pantry and got to work! While the yeast was activating for the naan, I started heating up two skillets and then began dredging the chicken. I continued to dance between the bread batter and the floured chicken, eventually getting both to the skillets at around the same time. While the chicken hissed and popped, I rolled out thin ovals of naan batter. As soon as it hit the cast iron, huge air bubbles started to rise— it made me so happy. I simmered the chicken with the corn and the spices until the smells drew Jimi into the kitchen.

“What’s this?” he asked.

“It’s a Cajun Chicken recipe… and naan.”

“Can I try it?” he asked, ripping off a freshly buttered piece.

“What do you think?” I asked as I started plating.

“It’s pretty perfect.”

Dinner #4: Skillet Lemon Pepper Chicken — I still had a lot of veggies in the fridge, so I looked for a summery recipe to incorporate them with the remaining chicken. This Skillet Lemon Pepper Chicken dish is a little hard to define. It’s hearty, it has some Mediterranean vibes, but there’s a bit of a spicy kick from the Cayenne. For being a “healthy” dish, though, it is absolutely packed with flavor. I loved the addition of feta to balance the earthy notes; Jimi preferred it without. Either way, it is definitely a new household staple.

Baking: I continued to work on my Macarons this week. I made three separate batches, experimenting with color, flavor, and bake time. The chocolate espresso macarons were particularly satisfying… but really ugly! They didn’t make the group photo:

Vanilla and Peppermint Macarons

Another week in the books! Final challenge week ahead. Looking forward to finishing strong. And cooking up a storm….

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!

Food

Recipe Roundup

I don’t know about you, but I have spent a lot of time in the kitchen these past few months. Here are some of the best recipes, blogs, and secret ingredients I’ve discovered during this pandemic:

1. Half-Baked Harvest:

AKA The Queen of Quarantine Cooks everywhere. If you haven’t heard of Thiegan’s blog, I am grateful that I get to be the one to introduce you to her because she will change your life. Her photos make you want to dive into a bowl of pad thai and swim around in the deliciousness. Some of my favorite recipes include her super easy Tomato-Herb Pizza and her Lemon Butter Zucchini Orzo (the ultimate comfort food). Feeling exotic? Check out her Thai recipes and get spicy with it!

2. Crusty Roasted Garlic and Rosemary Bread:

Yes, I joined the bread bandwagon. But this bread is truly exceptional. The recipe also introduced me to the concept of roasting heads of fresh garlic. Not only is it delicious, but it makes your house smell divine (and keeps away the vampires). I highly recommend making this to take your cheese board to the next level.

3. Peach and Prosciutto Pizza:

I bought some ripe peaches that needed to be eaten immediately. I scoured Pinterest for some ideas and came across the inspiration for a Peach and Prosciutto Pizza. However, I was a little short on Prosciutto and Naan. So while I’m sure the original recipe is great, here’s the adjustments I made:

Ingredients

  • 2 naan crusts 1/2 lb of fresh pizza dough (enough to make a flatbread)
  • 3 tbsp olive oil divided
  • 4 oz burrata cheese divided An excessive amount of fresh mozzarella, shredded
  • 2 large peaches sliced
  • 4 thin slices of prosciutto torn 8 Slices of Soppressata
  • 1 tbsp chopped basil
  • 2 tbsp honey 1 tbsp brown sugar
  • 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
  • Kosher salt to season throughout

The mozzarella melted against the pizza dough, creating this chewy, stringy cheese bread. Baking the peaches lowered their sweetness level, balancing them perfectly with the salty soppressata.

I paired the pizza with a peachy drink:

  • 1/2 peach, smashed
  • 1 tbsp rosemary syrup
  • 2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • Shaken with ice, poured into a glass over ice, and then topped with tonic water

4. Cowboy Breakfast Skillet:

I would like to thank my friend, Erin, for introducing me to the breakfast of my dreams. Sweet potatoes, avocado, and sausage? Who would have thought breakfast could be so satisfying. This recipe is great for a group and only uses one pan!

This recipe is also extremely versatile. While baking the eggs is definitely easiest, you can also try poaching them (my favorite version) or frying them (my husband’s favorite version). Adding some sriracha on top really takes this to the next level, too!

5. Mediterranean Chicken:

I’ve made a lot of Greek chicken in my day, but this recipe calls for sun-dried tomatoes, artichokes, and capers. The salty, briny flavors are delightful and much more intense than my normal lemon/oregano/olive oil marinades.