Reviewing our grocery shopping habits

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Food comprises an important slice of every household budget – a slice that is likely to grow, as food prices are rising. Food is one of the variables of household consumption, together with electricity, water, clothing, entertainment, and miscellaneous purchases. It’s an area where we can exercise a lot of creativity (as opposed to, for example, rent).

We still have a lot of room for improvement, but a fair examination of our pantry, refrigerator and freezer showed that we have actually improved a lot, in points such as:

Shopping less often. We have managed to go down to one shopping trip per week, and sometimes we even pull off a bi-weekly shopping and errands run. This is partially due to more successful list-writing. When composing the shopping list, I began to write down not just things that we almost ran out of, but also things that ran just a little low. Also, if we forget to buy something, now we most often just do without it for a few days, until the next shopping trip.

Diapers and wipes. For seven or eight months now, since Israel got the hang of using the toilet, we have enjoyed the freedom of not having to buy diapers, which has really been a blessing – because we didn’t just cut the cost of diapers, but the need to rush to the store for an emergency pack. Plus, our trash bags last longer because they are filled less often with no diaper-users in the house. Of course, this break is temporary and due to come to an end in less than a month, when new Baby Girl joins our family.

Less pre-packaged foods. In particular cookies, cakes, sweet rolls, etc. There was a time when I decided that we’ll consume less sugar if I bake less. I tried that, and the result was only that my husband started buying cookies, cinnamon rolls, etc, which of course contained much more sugar than what I would have put into my homemade treats. So back to baking it is. Of course if it depended on me I’d bake less and serve platters of fresh and dried fruit, nuts and such like, but one has to be realistic. If the choice is between my homemade cookies and cakes and store-bought ones, it’s obvious that mine are the healthier and cheaper variety.

We also buy less spice mixes, which are mostly a waste – it’s much cheaper to use basic spices and make your own mixes.

Less store-bought bread. We do buy bread for sandwiches in the middle of the week, but I make our Shabbat challah. This saves a last-minute dash to the store on Friday (during which other things, some of them unneeded, are all to often picked up along with the challah).
Better-stocked shelves. I now have a larger variety of beans, grains, lentils, rice, pasta and such like inexpensive versatile basic foods which I can make into frugal meals.

Speaking of frugal meals, most of the meat I cook these days is made in the form of a stew with a lot of rich sauce that can be spooned onto rice or pasta or soaked up with bread. For example, if I make beef stew, one evening we might eat couscous with some of the liquid part of the stew. Then on the next two days we eat the beef. Lastly I take what is left of the stew – mostly liquid and little chunks of meat that fell apart – and serve it with rice or quinoa. This makes an excellent lunch, and a total of four days’ worth of meals – not too bad.

What about you? How are you working on improving your shopping habits?
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Spring means nesting boxes

hen in box with chicks

Around here, spring is marked, among other things, by the renewal of nesting boxes, which are replaced or cleaned, and padded with fresh dry grass or leaves. My hens, excited by the end of their winter egg-laying break and the beginning of the new and fruitful season, are eagerly checking them out.

Read more about comfy nesting boxes in my latest Mother Earth News post:

“With some basic carpentry skills, you can easily build your own nesting boxes out of wood scraps, but even if you don’t know which way to hold a hammer, there are plenty of simple and cheap DIY solutions. Among them are 5-gallon buckets (resting on their side, obviously), old cat litter boxes, large plastic containers with the top cut off, and old re-purposed drawers and crates. The nesting boxes should be stable, so that they aren’t prone to falling even if the hens tend to shove each other, sheltered, and with a rim to prevent the eggs from falling.” 

The table of Abraham

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In the Jewish Grace after meals, Birkat ha-Mazon, there are lines specifically intended for the guest to say: and this table shall be as the table of Abraham; all those who hunger shall eat from it, and all those who thirst shall drink from it, and it shall never lack bounty, always and forever. I find in these lines a very beautiful image of hospitality.

Our first dinner guest was sprung up on us quite unexpectedly. The memory stands out vivid in my mind; we were a newlywed couple, married perhaps for a month or so, and it was one of the first Shabbats we spent in our home. We were just returning from the evening service when a stranger came up to us and asked if he may have a dinner with us. We exchanged startled looks, but somehow (if not very eloquently) we must have given our consent, because half an hour later this man was seated by our table. It turned out that he is our neighbour, a middle-aged bachelor with no family living nearby. For as long as we continued to be neighbours, he was often our guest. He used to bake the most wonderful pita bread, and it was initially through trying to emulate him that our passion for bread-baking grew and flourished.

I am a scrupulous kind of person when it comes to receiving guests; I have good intentions of being hospitable and welcoming, and having my doors open to others, but when the rubber hits the road I often get these fretful nervous attacks, thinking that nothing is up to scratch – that the food I prepared isn’t fancy or plentiful enough, my home is not clean or orderly enough, my children not disciplined enough to allow space for adult company to talk.

But all this passes in my mind before the dinner or lunch takes place; once we are in the thick of action, I feel very glad for having done it, as there is nothing like the exchange, fellowship, enrichment of discussion, and generally just the knitting of hearts and communities together, that takes place ’round a dinner table. Leisure time is plentiful, the children play together, and there is that ease and laughter that accompany a good meal in good company.

I am beginning to relax. Around here, an impromptu invitation usually assumes that the guests are bringing some food with them, which turns every shared meal to a spontaneous pot-luck party. I’m telling myself not to fret about the additional side dish I did not have time to make, and think instead that washing dishes after everyone is already bountiful enough. :o)

It never ceases to impress me just how much our society lost by, when people stopped regularly congregating around the dinner table. Food, family, fellowship – the magical trio. Immediate family first of all, of course, but then the circle is expanded; others are included, made to feel welcome. Jokes are shared, discussions spring up, ideas are born. Once people dispersed for time-efficient gobbling up of substandard food from plastic TV-trays, a crucial element of togetherness was abandoned. As a clinical nutritionist I feel qualified to say that at least half of all our modern obesity and other nutrition-related maladies would be solved by the return of the family table. I truly believe there is no better way to make someone feel welcome and accepted, than invite that person to share a meal.

So my advice, to myself and to others, would be – take the plunge. Invite someone over; it doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Perhaps you didn’t prepare dessert; perhaps your home has a lived-in look (a couple of kids will give that perpetual air to a house); but your hospitality will be warmly appreciated as you toss on an apron and continue smiling and chatting with your guests while you soap up the dishes in the sink.

How to juice a pomegranate

The pomegranate is a delicious fruit with many health benefits, but it can get really messy. When I want to treat my family to fresh, antioxidant-rich pomegranate juice, I seed and juice my pomegranates in the following easy, low-tech way:

1. Cut the pomegranates in half (as shown in the picture, bottom right).

2. Hold the pomegranate halves above a large bowl and seed. I do that by knocking on the outer peel with the handle of a heavy knife – a technique taught by my father-in-law. You can also just remove the seeds with your hands.

3. Once you have the bowl of pomegranate seeds (see picture, top right), mash them with something flat and heavy. I use a beer stein for this purpose – put it on top of the seeds in the bowl, bottom down, and press. The juice will flow.

4. Strain the juice by placing a strainer over a second bowl and pouring the contents of the first. Often, you will have residual juice after the first straining, so press some more.

The fresh pomegranate juice should be consumed as soon as possible so that its unique properties aren’t lost. It gives an antioxidant boost and is also an astringent, great for upset stomach and diarrhea.

The peels go on the compost pile and the remaining seed pulp to the chickens, who love it, so nothing is wasted!

Spring delights

I thought I’d post a couple of photos of the nice things we’ve been enjoying lately – plenty of sunshine, green grass for our birds to browse on, and flowers.

As you can see, our baby peafowl have grown quite a bit, but as peafowl generally don’t breed until two years of age (to the best of my knowledge), we don’t expect any egg-laying or breeding this season, though the male is becoming more colorful with each day.

The plant in the bottom right corner is actually a wild herb that sprang up in my garden quite unexpectedly. It smells wonderful, but I have no idea what it is. A guess, anyone?

In the upper right you can see a gorgeous desert view from a day trip we took. It lacks the lush greenery that can be seen in other parts of the country at this season, but I still find it majestically beautiful.

The Last Outpost: new environmental sci-fi novel

THe last outpost

If you are fans of environmental science fiction, I hope you check out my new novel, The Last Outpost, now available both on Kindle and in print. It is set in Antarctica, with its theme being the precarious balance between man and nature. Also features a mysterious indigenous tribe, an outrageous government conspiracy, and ancient monsters sleeping under the ice.

From the blurb:

“Scott “Buck” Buckley, an environmental scientist, accepts the position of general overseer at the McMurdo Antarctic research station. After signing a secrecy declaration, Scott becomes privy to the existence of Geyser Valley, an area with a unique warm microclimate, which is home to the mysterious indigenous Anai people. In an outrageous conspiracy, the world governments are keeping the existence of these people a secret, to avoid limitations on the division of land for natural resources.

Scott is fascinated by the unique culture of the Anai, visiting them and learning from them as much as he can. In the meantime, the world becomes more and more unstable as global war is about to break out. Just before darkness sets over Antarctica, warfare tears the world apart, and the research station finds itself completely isolated for the long and sunless winter.

In the loneliness of the winter, Scott remains facing difficult questions all alone: who are the Anai, and how did they come to Antarctica? How much truth is there in their legends about giant ancient reptiles frozen in ice, waiting to come back to life? How is McMurdo going to hold on until the communications and supply lines are restored? And where are the limits one is not allowed to cross, not even in the name of survival?”

I’m also looking to hand out 5 review copies (in digital format), so if you are interested, please get in touch with me through the contact form. Thank you!

The perfect pastry

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Strudel is one of my favorite kinds of pastry because it’s so versatile – basically, anything can go inside – and because, though it is made with white flour, the dough is plain and unsweetened, and the emphasis is on the filling, which can be as little sweetened as you choose. Here is my favorite recipe:

Dough:

2 cups plain white flour

An egg

A pinch of salt

2 tbsp coconut oil or butter – I’m a huge fan of coconut oil, because I usually want to make all my desserts parve rather than dairy, but butter would work just as well.

Just enough water to make the dough into a pliable, elastic ball that can be easily rolled out.

The rolling out, very thin, is the secret of a good strudel – the dough gets all the delicious flavors of the filling.

Filling: there are literally a myriad of variations, but here is my favorite. In a bowl, combine 5-6 thinly sliced apples with raisins, chopped nuts, some ground coconut, and cinnamon. Sweeten as desired. I usually put in a spoonful or two of honey. You could also spread a thin layer of jam over the dough once it’s rolled out.

Roll out the dough, spread the filling evenly, and roll in. Be careful not to tear.

Carefully, transfer the rolled-up strudel to a tray lined with baking paper and brush with beaten egg. Sprinkle poppy seeds on top (optional). Put into oven on medium heat. Bake until the top is golden, which should take around 30-40 minutes.

Serve warm and enjoy with a nice cup of tea or coffee.