Thursday, March 31, 2011

Mission Accomplished. Maybe.

One evening last week, my husband came to me with the request that I use my treasure-hunting skills to find a dresser for the bedroom at our cabin.

Nothing too big, as the room is pretty small.  Nothing expensive, because... well, its a cabin.

I was on that assignment like white on rice.  Seriously, the man actually asked me to go shopping... and for furniture!   It was as if the heavens opened up and the angels burst into song.

A few days later, I stopped by one of my favorite thrift store haunts and found this neat little antique pine chest of drawers.  It sat amongst the grungy sofas and laminate bookshelves so typical of such an establishment, just waiting to be rediscovered.  My guess is the chest is pretty old; its made of solid wood, and the drawers lock with a skeleton key.  It is not fancy or elaborate, but I took one look and fell in love with its spare simplicity.

There is one problem, however... it fits in my kitchen just perfectly, and sits there now, longing to be filled with vintage linens.

I may have to go shopping again.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Frugal Food & Gratitude

In the past, frugality was something I considered somewhat of a burden... though, at times, a necessity.  I never really thought of it as a chosen lifestyle to be undertaken for any reason other than to keep the wolf from the door.  Recently, however, my attitude has been shifting; partly in response to the heartbreaking tragedies taking place around the world (most recently Japan), and partly in response to what I see at my local grocery store.

So often (and much to my dismay) when I reach the checkout line with my staples and produce, there will be a family ahead of me with a cart (or two) piled with convenience food.  Frozen pizzas, snack chips in crinkly bags, cases of single-serving bottles of fruit punch, boxes of sugared cereal adorned with neon colors found nowhere in nature. Hot dogs.  Snack cakes. Processed cheese "food".  And it seems, more often than not, the nutritional black hole before me is paid for with an EBT card or WIC coupon.  It makes my heart sick.

So, I decided to undertake an experiment to see what it would take to feed my family of four well, but with frugality.  Not because I have to, or in judgment of others, but as a challenge to myself to live what I believe... that I should be a good steward of all that I've been given... less wasteful, more mindful, and to live with more gratitude.

We are so blessed to have a freezer full of meat (beef we raised ourselves, venison harvested by my husband and daughter, pork purchased on the hoof from an Amish family, along with a few fish from area lakes), but for the purposes of my experiment thought it best to start from scratch.  So, I went to the store and bought a ten-pound bag of chicken leg quarters for $5.49.  As I always have carrots, onions, and celery on hand, didn't need to purchase those items but the cost of those ingredients would be less than $10 (and that's in Minnesota in the winter).

Yesterday I pulled out my big soup pot, put all ten pounds of chicken in it and covered the chicken with water.  Setting it on the stove, I turned up the heat and simmered it until the chicken was cooked thoroughly, then removed all the quarters from the pot and placed on wire racks to cool, leaving the pot still simmering.  Once the chicken was cool enough to handle, I removed the skin, separated the meat from the bones and threw the bones back in the pot along with a two sliced carrots, two stalks of celery, a couple quartered onions, some peppercorns and two bay leaves.  While the whole works simmered, I diced up all the meat, divided it into two-cup portions and froze the portions in zip-top freezer bags.

After simmering the stock for a couple hours (the house smelled heavenly) it was time to strain and package it.  Putting a cheesecloth in a colander, I strained all the broth into a large bowl, then divided it into four-cup portions for the freezer, reserving two quarts for supper.

I was thrilled to discover my little bit of effort yielded over TWENTY cups of wholesome chicken stock, and eight cups of diced chicken.... enough for at least four big pots of soup (each of which generally feeds my family 2 main course meals and sometimes more, depending on what I add to the soup).

For last night's supper, I put the reserved stock in a clean soup kettle, added more vegetables (two carrots, two stalks of celery and a diced onion) and 2 cups of the reserved chicken and simmered it until the vegetables were tender.  Meanwhile, I mixed up some flour, salt, baking soda, egg, water and milk into a dough, and dropped bits of it into the soup for spaetzle (dumplings).  When my family burst through the door at suppertime, they asked (as always) what was cookin'... and were overjoyed with the answer.  They sat down to eat and gobbled up that humble chicken soup like it was the best food ever created and my culinary talent rivaled that of Rachel Ray.

But here's my point... for less than twenty dollars, one can create a healthy, wholesome, tasty basis from which to create over a week's worth of evening meals.  Depending on what is on sale or in season, the variations are endless.  The past couple weeks (with stock I made previously) I've made basic chicken soup with spaetzle, chicken tortilla soup, a creamy wild rice soup with chicken, broccoli cheese.... knoephla soup... spanish rice... and plenty more I can't even remember, but all were fantastically tasty and nutritious and drew rave reviews from my family.  They have not once lamented,  "Awww, soup AGAIN?"  But they have said, "Yay, AWESOME! I love your soup!"

Cooking this way does take a bit more time (though not much), and a bit more planning (though I'm not really known for that either).  But this way I can take a container of stock and some of the pre-cooked chicken from the freezer, cut some veggies and add whatever other ingredients suit me and have an awesome, homemade meal ready for my family in less than an hour (and usually only 30 minutes). The aroma welcomes them through the door with open arms after a long winter's day, the meal nourishes them and the time gathered around the table sustains and lifts us all up.

And so, I've decided to be a bit more frugal in my ways on a permanent basis, more mindful of how I manage my household. Not out of necessity anymore, but by choice... out of a desire to be more responsible with and grateful for all we've been given.

As for the money saved, I will take a lot of satisfaction in using it for good.  To bless others, to improve our farm and make investments which further the vision we have for it, to save for our daughters' educations.  But also to enjoy life and live in the moment a bit more.  There is little joy to be found in buying (or consuming) "fast food"...pre-packaged, chemical-laden fare of so-called "convenience".

On the other hand, a whole lot of joy and satisfaction (and savings) can be found in the simple things such  as mindfully preparing, sharing, and dining on "slow-food".  Now that I've made a game of it, seeing what awesome fare I can conjure up is a challenge I embrace.

Today's project: beef stock made from the roasting pan of soup bones and spare ribs currently thawing in my fridge.  Can't wait to get to it... or to hear my daughter exclaim, "Mom, this is AWESOME! YOU ROCK!" :)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Winter Reflection

This is the time of year when, despite all I love about winter and its slower pace, it seems to be lasting forever.  I tell myself, "C'mon, Amy... it's just another season on the calendar, no longer than any other. Enjoy it while it lasts because when spring hits you'll be busier than Lindsay Lohan's lawyer...."

It's hard to wait patiently for spring, though, and the flowers and sunshine and new foals it will bring.  The cold grey days eventually wear on my creativity and enthusiasm.  So, this morning I went through some photos from the past few months, reflected with gratitude on the joys and accomplishments and laughter.  Here are a few....

My big brother met his first grandchild at Christmastime this year... 
yes, that makes me a great-aunt and I don't mind that title one bit!  
Little Trevor John is beautiful and such a good baby, a real blessing to our family.

My husband's family spent Christmas Eve at our house; what a busy, happy time that was!

Christmas Day, we went over the river and through the woods to my parents house, 
and welcomed our soldier home. 
Best Christmas present ever.  
My older daughter reminds me of him every day, they are alike in so many ways... and he's her hero. :)

My Dad makes the most mouth-watering prime rib on the planet, and so we stuffed ourselves silly.  

After awakening from our holiday food coma, it was time to get back to work... 
and it's really hard work supporting  kids and pets.  Like, literally.

Well, okay, SOME of us worked... my oldest daughter worked very hard and in February, 
accomplished her long-time goal of earning her Junior Black Belt in Tae Kwon Do. Yay!

She then celebrated by attending her first formal dance... 
and ignoring her mother's tearful plea to quit growing up so fast...

My baby is growing up fast too... she's reading now(!)... 
but at least she's not yet too cool to snuggle with Mom. 
I've learned to enjoy those chocolate-rimmed smiles, and not wash those crumbs off so quick.

Because it won't be long, and she'll be looking like this... not a crumb in sight.

Looking at these photos this morning, it reinforced one of my core beliefs. 

Enjoy. Every. Single. Day.  

Even, and maybe especially, the cold grey ones.