Posts Tagged ‘food’

Gardening…Dare I Dream?

Wednesday, June 24th, 2015

I have a Pinterest board called “Gardening…Dare I Dream?” because even though I have always been abysmal gardener, I can’t shake these vivid, bucolic fantasies that I may one day grow beautiful, healthful produce in my very own back yard. After all, my dad is a great gardener and can bend plants of all types to his will. Pepper plants tremble before him and lettuces quiver at the might of his harvesting shears. On the other side of my family, my Papaw was a tobacco farmer in his youth and a prolific backyard gardener in his later years. Memories of tinkering around in the garden with him fuel these fantasies to the point that a few times I’ve been overcome with hope and actually planted things in the soil. I literally have farmer’s blood – this should be no problem. But there is a problem. There is always is a problem.

The first time I committed “attempted gardening” was when Jacob and I lived in Columbus, Ohio. We weren’t even married yet so it must have been the summer of 2000. I went outside and dug up a 2’x2’ square next to the back porch of our duplex house with a hand trowel. There I planted some random seeds in soil better suited for throwing pottery than growing crops. Precious little grew and I had no desire to crouch among filth and bugs to pluck weeds in the summer heat. At harvest time we gathered a few knobby carrots that were comparable to a shooter marble in size, shape, and density. Oh well, better luck next time, I thought.

Three years later, I discovered container gardening. I deduced that hard soil (and not lack of water, fertilizer or proper sunlight) was the reason my carrots turned out badly. Containers of optimally blended potting soil were going to solve all my gardening woes. I got a transplanted piece of garlic chive from a green-thumbed friend and I bought a tomato plant from the garden center at Walmart. The tomato was wilted dead from thirst before the first blossom could open. Surprisingly, the garlic chives took off like gangbusters in spite of my neglect. It was only then that I realized I didn’t know what to do with a garlic chive apart from sprinkling it on baked potatoes, which my husband hates. On a side note, that townhome had slugs on the porch; they were super gross and creeped me out so I really did prefer to stay indoors.

For the next several summers I tamped down my urges, but when we moved to Phoenix, purchased a home, and I learned that there were two growing seasons per year here, all restraint was lost. Obviously this was the solution to my problem. It wasn’t that I was a bad gardener, I reasoned, it was just that I needed more practice. This was an opportunity. Plus, now we were official first-time homeowners with a fenced yard. Sure, it was a horrid, barren little yard, but it was ours and maybe a lush veggie patch was just the thing to inspire us to really get into landscaping and outdoor living.

I hit the library for a stack of gardening books and the home improvement store for many dollars’ worth of hoes and shovels and such. This time, I decided I was going to do a recessed bed so I could turn the hose on it and soak the space to irrigate the plants. I nearly broke my back trying to turn the soil, which was baked hard as brick by the desert sun. I might have seen this as foreshadowing the garden’s fate, but I was intent on my verdant goal. I considered renting a tiller because this time I was mostly sure it was probably going to totally work. In the end I decided not to because but just in case – on the off chance it didn’t go well – I didn’t want to invest too much cash. A month later when my plants were choked out by weeds and outdoor temps soared well above 110 degrees, I lost all interest. My husband started watering the plants in an effort to save them from my (repeat-offender style) abandonment but when he saw how little I cared he gave up too. The total of our harvest was a fistful of Thai red chiles and two medicinal-tasting cucumbers. Thus ended the gardening ordeal of 2008.

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Henry helps reap the bounty of our doomed garden

You would think that by now I would be done with gardening fantasies. It is pretty clear that I like the idea of gardening much more than the actual doing, that I don’t want to make a significant investment of dollars or hours, and that once it gets hot out I’m likely to cut and run, leaving the little plants to fend for themselves. On top of all of this, my husband vehemently discourages all gardening talk. I don’t blame him and I don’t consider him unsupportive because he speaks truth. Time and again I’ve proven myself untrustworthy with seedlings. That’s why I was a little bit nervous for him to see the heirloom tomato starter I brought home from the farmer’s market last spring.

This time is it, I thought to myself. I think it could be different – I could be different. Yeah, I know I’ve said it all before, but I felt good about this attempt. I built up two 2’x2’x1’ raised beds right near the hose bib and in a place where they get some afternoon shade from the shadow of the house. Next, I filled the beds with good potting soil and nestled in the little starter. I set up a tomato cage and gently tied the limbs up with twine so my plant could grow strong and true. In the next bed I planted basil, rosemary and oregano which are herbs I actually use and know what to do with.

Things went well for a while, but once again it got hot out and once again I had a derelict weed patch where my garden once stood. The heirloom tomato is dead. The herbs are dead. I officially quit. I am never, ever gardening again. In fact, if you ever find yourself in the garden center at The Home Depot and catch me in one of my gardening-fantasy stupors, please stop me. Maybe even warn an employee about my tendencies so they can deny me service.

You can save the Earth one plant at a time…by keeping them safe from me, The Plantslayer.

I Pinned It, I Did It: Microwave Fudge

Monday, April 14th, 2014

My Mom is pretty famous in our family for her fudges. She makes a chocolate fudge with marshmallows and walnuts that is always a hit at parties and people can’t seem to get enough of her peanut butter fudge. At Christmas time she creates an assembly line and sends bricks of homemade fudge in those small Priority Mail flat rate boxes from the post office. The truth is, she doesn’t really enjoy making the fudge. It’s quite a chore for her with all of the cooking and stirring over a hot stove and watching to be sure you don’t scorch the chocolate or overcook the peanut butter to a dry, crumbly mess. In fact, watching her make fudge over the years made me not want to try it for myself because it seemed like way too much hassle. That is, until the day I read about Dark Chocolate Almond Fudge.

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Photo credit: Mary Younkin, barefeetinthekitchen.com

I’ve known food blogger Mary Younkin of Barefeet in the Kitchen for several years and I have always admired her work. Her recipes are delicious and well-tested. She offers a wide variety and includes lots of gluten free options if your family needs them. She also has the perfect recipe for Dark Chocolate Almond Fudge and — get this — it only takes 90 seconds in the microwave!

I figured 90 seconds was within my candy-making skill set and it met my threshold for prep time so I had to try it. It was a hit. Everyone loved it and when I shared how quick and easy the recipe is, my tasters were astonished. This got me thinking about Mom’s peanut butter fudge. What if that could be accomplished in 90 seconds as well? If I used the basic recipe from Barefeet in the Kitchen what other concoctions could I create?

Using Mary’s ratios and method, I created a few more varieties of quick microwave fudge. Check out her blog for the exact recipe and technique.

Dark Chocolate Orange Fudge
This one was a fan favorite among my taste-testers. The consensus was that this reminded them of the chocolate oranges that are popular at Christmas time. The texture was soft and the orange flavor was just right.

You can make this variety by substituting the following ingredients: 1 bag (12 oz) of dark chocolate chips, 1 can of sweetened condensed milk, 1/2 stick of butter, and 1 teaspoon of orange extract

Peanut Butter Fudge
Taste testers really liked this variety, but the consistency was really sticky. I ended up using a chef’s knife to cut this into small squares but I had to run the knife under hot water between each cut. I then loosely wrapped it in parchment and stored it in the fridge. Once cut, the squares dried a bit and became firmer. I think letting this one hang out in the fridge for an extra day exponentially improves the texture.

You can make this variety by substituting the following ingredients: 1 bag (12 oz) of peanut butter chips, 1 can of sweetened condensed milk, 1/2 stick of butter, and 1 teaspoon of Mexican vanilla extract

Mint Chocolate Chip Fudge
This one was a whim and I wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out, but I wanted to re-create the essence of mint chocolate chip ice cream. It worked and everyone loved it. Of all of my experimental batches, this had the firmest texture and cut most easily. While it doesn’t necessarily beat a chocolate craving because mint is the predominant flavor, it is a nice sweet bite after a meal.

You can make this variety by substituting the following ingredients: 1 bag (12 oz) of white chocolate chips, 1 can of sweetened condensed milk, 1/2 stick of butter, 1 teaspoon of peppermint extract, and 3-4 drops of green food coloring. I garnished this with a handful of miniature semi-sweet chips I picked up in the bulk food section to complete the mint chocolate chip ice cream look.

The ease and popularity of these varieties has inspired me to try more. I have plans to try layering flavors to create Dreamsicle and root beer float fudges. Christmastime recipes are dancing in my head and they include dried cranberries and crystallized ginger. The possibilities are endless!

Are you a recipe modifier or do you go by the book? What variations might you try on this tasty recipe? Let us know in the comments below.

 

Organize It: Meal Planning Tips

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

Eating out is bad for your wallet and your waistline, but we succumb to the temptation on a regular basis because we can’t figure out how to incorporate cooking into our busy schedules. In addition to picking out meals and shopping, the prospect of making a meal when we get home from an exhausting day at work usually has us waving the white flag in defeat, and speed-dialing our local pizza place for delivery.

How do you get out of this cycle of fast food and delivery every night? The key is developing a meal plan routine.

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Each Sunday morning, I sit down with a cup of coffee and put together a meal plan for the week. I then plot out my grocery list and hit the store (keep an eye out for a future post with tips on efficiently navigating the grocery store).

Step 1: Recipe Research
The first step is to decide what you are going to cook for the week. This can be an overwhelming task, so I have three sites I would recommend to help you in getting started.

Pinterest: Like most of us, I am on Pinterest daily, so I pin recipes as I see them, and then use my boards as a one-stop shop for planning my week.

Sweet Peas & Pumpkins: This Jamie Oliver Food Revolution award-winning blog is written by self-proclaimed “foodie mom” Sweet Pea Chef. She tasks herself with designing healthy meals that her kids will actually eat. One of my favorite recipes is her Mexican BBQ Chicken. I marinade sliced chicken breast, along with peppers and onions, and use it for tacos. I also love her Sesame Ginger Chicken Burgers.

Skinnytaste: Skinnytaste is another site I visit daily, and most of our meals come from here. Gina creates recipes that are delicious and low-calorie, and she lists all the nutritional information on her site (including Weight Watchers Points!). Our favorites include her Stuffed Buffalo Chicken Breasts, Zucchini Tots and Turkey Chili Taco Soup.

Tips on picking your meals:

* Whenever possible, try to pick at least one meal that you can have for two nights. This makes it so that one night during the week, you just have to reheat your meal instead of starting from scratch.
* If the recipe makes more servings than you need (say it’s six servings and you are a family of two), cut the recipe in half, or use the leftovers for lunches, or freeze them for future meals.
* Share ingredients between recipes. Did you find a recipe that uses a 1/2 pound of chicken, but you are buying a pound? Find another recipe that you can use chicken in so that you reduce food waste.
* Don’t pick complicated meals. I usually do a quick read-through on any recipe before I add it to my meal list to make sure that it’s not something that needs to simmer for 3 hours, or something that has dozens of steps in order to complete. The more complicated it is, the higher your chances are of giving up and getting take out.
* Want to be adventurous? Check out Rachael’s post on how you can source locally grown produce inexpensively. Most of these local vendors will even provide recipes on how you can use your produce. It’s a great way to save money, and be more inventive with your cooking.

Step 2: Schedule Meals
Once you decide what your meals are going to be by day, either take a piece of paper and write them out, or do what I do and compose an e-mail to yourself. In the e-mail, I usually list out each day, what we are having, and below that I put a hyperlink to the recipe, for easy access. I title the e-mail “Recipes for the week of (Date Here)” that way it’s easy to find in my Inbox.

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It is a good idea to take inventory of any produce or perishables you have before you make your schedule for the week, and use items that are close to expiration first. For example, if you have a zucchini on hand that’s starting to get a little soft, you can schedule your Skinnytaste Zucchini Tots for earlier in the week.

Step 3: Make a Grocery List
Finally, you have to make your grocery list. To do this, I go through each recipe, write the ingredients on my grocery list, and then go into the kitchen and cross off any item I already have. When I don’t do this, I usually end up buying something I already have, which is why I have three tubs of white pepper.

The more you practice your routine, the better you will get, and the easier it will be to shop each week. I can tell you from experience that if you have the ingredients at home, you are more likely to stick to your meal plan.

Do you have any tips on creating your own meal plan? What recipe sites are your favorite and why? I would love to hear about it in the comments below.

I <3 PHX: Bodega 420

Friday, March 21st, 2014

A couple weeks before Christmas I wanted to get a few jars of Peanut Butter Americano to give as gifts, but I missed the public market that weekend. Fortunately, the PB Americano website pointed me to Bodega 420 as one of the places I can get a PB fix any day of the week. One visit and I knew this was my kind of place.

Bodega 420 sits at the corner of Fifth Street and Roosevelt, in an old house right in the middle of an active community full of artists, students and young professionals. In 2012, owners Adrian & Mona Fontes and John Sagasta recognized the neighbors needed groceries and other basics but lacked easy access to those everyday essentials. They opened Bodega 420 with a small assortment of products and decided to see how it would go. The sign outside touts hardware, smokes and snacks but this little store offers something better than all of that – connection with the community.

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The shop is eclectic with a wide variety of merchandise in a pretty small space. In the first room, there is the counter where you can buy basic convenience store things like cigarettes, candy, headache or upset stomach medicine, allergy remedies and condoms. Above the old fireplace behind the counter hangs a pegboard full of hardware and art supplies. When I asked Adrian about it he told me, “It’s back there so [customers] need help with it, which makes an interaction happen. It’s not just grab it, pay for it, and leave and keep your head down and don’t talk. You have to actually interact to get to that stuff, and that’s by design.” Customers can also ask for bulk grains, beans and pastas. Local musicians count on Bodgea 420 for a little stash of everyday music essentials like strings and drumsticks and can even special order instruments and supplies.

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¿Wachoo Want?
On day one the owners painted a chalkboard on the front wall and christened it “The ¿Wachoo Want? Board.” Customers add products to this communal wish list and their neighbors come along and add a checkmark if they agree. When an item gets enough checkmarks it is added to the product assortment in the store. This is also how they’ve grown from a few shelves of hardware and household basics to include an expanded selection of grocery items, an impressive variety of fresh produce, music and art supplies, bulk foods and local specialties. Their newest endeavors include a weekly farmer’s market and new cold-pressed juices.

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Fresh Produce in the Food Desert
Before Bodega 420 the neighborhood was a complete food desert which means there was no place to buy fresh, affordable, healthy food for miles in each direction. Now, local produce from Crooked Sky Farm on 16th St & Buckeye shares space with hyper-local fare that is grown on-site.

The garden is in its second year and going strong. Carrots, bok choy, spinach, arugula, lettuce, kale, parsley, fennel, sweet peas, beets, basil, heirloom tomatoes and sunflowers grow in the rich earth that master gardener Tim has coaxed and composted from desert tan to rich brown. The kale plants are so prolific that they look untouched the day after Mona and Adrian harvest them for juicing. Their parsley patch can’t be stopped. I can only hope the heirloom tomato starter I bought will do as well under my care as they’re doing in the bodega garden.

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Local Favorites
One of the many things I love about Bodega 420 is the focus on local. The community needs a reliable source for Spaghetti-Os and ramen noodles and you’ll find those items on the bodega shelves. You’ll also find Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap right next to the Irish Spring because there is a demand for both products. Sometimes people are surprised that a place that carries so many fresh foods and local products would also carry Hunts ketchup or Fancy Feast cat food, but that’s what the community wants and needs so that’s what is on the shelves.

Still, there are many local treasures to be found. All of the ice cream, butter, farmer’s cheese and Greek yogurt they sell is from Udder Delights in Gilbert. The eggs come from Hickman’s Farm. I already mentioned the PB Americano – they carry all the flavors and the new almond butter, too. The peppers, pickles and relish are by Mrs. Klien’s and made over on 43rd avenue. They carry coffee beans from Jobot coffee just across the street. The Olive Leaf Tea Company just opened their first brick and mortar store but Bodega 420 was the first place to give them shelf space to sell their product. If you need seasonings you can find the locally mixed Slavo Salt or the most perfect chile powder and condiments ever from Santa Cruz Chile and Spice Company. When the demand for e-cigarettes increased, they found a local supplier who produces lab-grade product in a safe environment, so they rolled out a line of e-cigs and accessories just in time for First Friday this month.

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Art and All the Rest
As if all of this wasn’t enough, Bodega 420 is a gallery. Adrian says, “Every month we put a new artist up. [This month’s artist is] a photographer and you can see her work all through the store…so that’s how we do our art shows. And it is really a function of sticking with the roots of the place. We’re in an arts community, so we want to have art on the walls.” In addition to the artists they nurture, Bodega 420 is something of a business incubator. There’s a jeweler who sells her work in the shop. The soap guy makes his product just a few blocks away and sells it at the market. Local artists were asking for more types of paint but it wouldn’t work well at the shop so Adrian urged a neighbor to create a paint shop on his property. A small children’s clothing shop called The Squid and The Monkey got its start at Bodega 420.

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Tonight is Third Friday. If you’re in the ‘burbs like me, consider a trip downtown tonight and be sure to stop by the store. Grab yourself an old-fashioned Faygo Root Beer, sit down on the porch and chat with a new friend. Listen to live music. Watch the people go by. Be part of a community and appreciate all that Bodega 420 has to offer. I hope to see you there!

Eat More Veggies: Smart Shopping

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

Earlier this week, I wrote a post highlighting the amount of food – especially produce – that we waste, despite both good intentions and the fact that we are healthier when we eat more plant-based foods. In Monday’s post, Eat More Veggies: Waste Not Want Not, I shared my top tips for reducing waste: First In First Out, Don’t Throw Away Good Stuff and Shop Smart. Today is all about how to put the Shop Smart part into action.

Shopping Smart means looking beyond the traditional grocery store for ways to buy fresh, healthy food. The grocery store is not a bad option and you can score good deals if you shop the sales, but it is important to have some alternatives. More Choices = More Savings. My favorite ways to save on produce are farmer’s markets, food rescue and co-op buying. To learn more about the treasures you might find at the farmer’s market, check out my post, The Downtown Phoenix Farmer’s Market.

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Food Rescue: Market on the Move
There are groups in some communities that rescue surplus produce that would otherwise get wasted and provide that produce at a low cost to families. In Phoenix and Tucson, Market on the Move is a weekly event where surplus produce from farming communities is trucked into the city. Generally there are 8-12 varieties of produce and with a $10 donation participants can take all the food they want. That’s right – there’s no limit. Some families fill reusable shopping bags and others come with wagons or rolling coolers. The idea is that you take what you can use and a little extra to share with friends and neighbors because the food would have otherwise been wasted.

The first time I participated in Market on the Move, I was a little weirded out. I wasn’t sure if the program was more like a food bank than a co-op and I didn’t want to take food that was meant for people with fewer resources than I have. On top of that, I wasn’t sure about “rescued” food. Sounds kind of dubious, right? Was it going to be all rotten or go bad in a day? Was it going to be oddball stuff nobody would want?

I decided to see for myself and I was pleasantly surprised. One Saturday morning I showed up at a church near my home to find a huge line of (really friendly) people. I was pretty far back so I had about 40 minutes to wait and used the time to get to know my “line neighbors.” There were people from all walks of life and they had various reasons for participating. Some of the folks I chatted with were looking to add healthy veggies to their diets, some were participating because it stretched their food budget, and others were excited to participate in a program that prevents waste. My concern that I was taking food from others who might need it more was unfounded because there is more than enough to go around and the process only works if there are enough participants contributing. Another important thing is to note is that Market on the Move is not year-round. The service is suspended during the hottest months of summer so it’s always a good idea to double check the website before you head out.

So, what do you get? Most of the food is conventionally grown, but I have seen a few organics mixed it. The selection varies every week and you never know until you arrive and read the whiteboard, but last time I went there were eggplants, red bell peppers, tomatoes, four varieties of squash, green beans and cucumbers. I took some of everything except eggplant (yuck!). I used some food right away because grilled squash is a big hit at my house. I made a few loaves of zucchini quickbread which were devoured in a flash. Homemade tomato sauce? You can bet your baked ziti I made a batch! Cucumber sandwich with dill and cream cheese? Don’t mind if I do. After the first wave of my cooking frenzy quieted, I sliced and shredded portions for the freezer so I have quick side dishes for future dinners and ingredients ready for more quickbread. My daughter’s day care provider was thrilled to have a bounty of grape tomatoes for the kiddos and my coworkers were not shy about taking the rest. Not a single veg was wasted and many, many mouths were fed with a single $10 bill. Granted, I had to put in some effort and it’s not something I have time for every weekend, but it made a big difference and it was well worth my investment.

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Food Co-Op: Bountiful Baskets
I remember back in 2008 when a colleague at work told me about her friend who got a big laundry basket full of fresh produce from Bountiful Baskets for only fifteen dollars. I remember thinking she was probably messing with me or there had to be some kind of a catch. We gathered around the website reading every detail and trying to figure out how to do it and whether there were strings attached. It sounded too good to be true. In the end we decided to gamble the fifteen bucks and give it a try. Fortunately for us it was NOT a scam and I was so pleasantly surprised that I began participating every other week. For a while, I even volunteered and helped to establish a new pick-up site in a local park. Now, I’m very fortunate to work for a company that participates in Bountiful Baskets Corporate Sites so my veggies and fruits get delivered right to work every other Thursday.

Bountiful Baskets is a food co-op, which means that people from all over the community contribute money online to the bulk-purchase of hundreds of pallets of food direct from the distributor. The organizers work with the produce house to get the best deals possible and arrange for trucks to deliver the produce to local parks, churches or other pre-designated meeting places. From there, neighborhood volunteers work together to distribute the produce into equal shares. Volunteer Site Coordinators then check participants off of the list as they come to pick up their shares of the bulk purchase. Over the years, the process has become much smoother. In the past, food always had to be distributed into baskets onsite but now some sites enjoy pre-packed boxes. The organization has grown significantly, too. There used to only be sites in Maricopa County, AZ but now several states have Bountiful Baskets.

The online contribution form has the choice of conventionally grown produce for $15 or a slightly smaller box of organically grown fruits and vegetables for $25. Participants can add extras like breads, tortillas, granola, cookies or specialty packs of extra veggies for a small additional fee.

My experience with Bountiful Baskets has always been more good than bad. I’ve found mixed reviews online and generally those fall into two groups: people who don’t like not being able to pick out their own veggies and concerns about the quality of the food. I see not being able to choose my own veggies as an adventure and I like that it pushes me to try new stuff or share something I don’t want with others (for example, eggplant lovers) who will use it. Occasionally I’ll get a box that’s kind of boring to me, but I feel like more often than not I get a good variety. For Arizonans, the things you find in your basket usually correspond pretty closely to what’s on the front of the Sprouts sale flyer. As for the quality complaints, sometimes I get a few items that are over or underripe but I just use them in the order they’re going to ripen and I chalk it up to being a natural part of the co-operative buying thing.

What’s your experience with alternative food buying? Have you ever participated in a co-op or food rescue operation? Do you think you might like to try it? Continue the conversation in the comments below. We always love to hear what you think!

Eat More Veggies: Waste Not, Want Not

Monday, March 10th, 2014

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Most people know there are health benefits to be gained from eating more fruits and veggies, but sometimes life gets in the way – we don’t feel like shopping, we’re too tired to cook after work or, for millions of Americans, tight household budgets mean a struggle to afford healthy food. How we feel, how we look, and most importantly, how well our bodies work depends on the kind of fuel we consume. Even though we know we should eat more plant-based food, there are a great many factors that go into the decisions we make about food each day. Sometimes we have noble intentions but lack follow-through. It happens to everyone – you stock up on Sunday for a week of healthy eating but you decide to have leftovers Monday night, the kids beg for pizza Tuesday night, Wednesday you work late and eat Cheerios for dinner, so by Thursday the crisper drawer is still chock-full. Except now there’s nothing “crisp” about the contents. The drawer in your fridge has become the place where produce goes to die.

The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that Americans threw more than 36 million tons of food into landfills in 2011. In fact, food waste has increased dramatically over the last three decades and that disturbing trend isn’t slowing. Meanwhile, food prices continue to rise and we can expect another 2.5% – 3.5% price increase in 2014 according to the US Department of Agriculture.

We have tremendous power to improve the way we eat, reduce the amount of food we waste, and save a significant portion of our grocery budget with a small investment of time and energy. These are my top tips for making the most of the food you buy:

FIFO – First In, First Out
When you bring home groceries, be sure to put them away so that you see the oldest stuff first. This way you rotate your stock and perfectly good food doesn’t language on your pantry shelf or in your crisper drawer. For many families it helps to put ripe or close-dated food at the front and center of the fridge so it’s easy to grab and doesn’t get wasted.

Don’t Throw Away Good Stuff
Sometimes I don’t follow my own FIFO advice and I’ll find a bit of something that’s been hanging around beyond its “Sell By” date. I used to automatically hit the trash can with that food, but now I take a moment and sniff then taste first. Dates on products can mean lots of things: “sell by”, “use by”, “expires”, “freshness guaranteed by”, or even “we have to put a date on this package but it doesn’t mean anything but here’s our best guess”. Much of the food we buy is safe beyond the package date. Of course, I am not advocating eating rotten food, but am saying to use common sense and trust yourself. If the food smells OK, looks OK and you’re comfortable doing so, give it a taste and you may be pleasantly surprised. When in doubt, throw it out.

Shop Smart
There are several smart ways to get more fresh, high-quality food at affordable prices if you search a bit. I started with a Google search “find cheap veggies in Phoenix” and sure enough, most of my favorite spots were listed in the results. You can tailor the search to your community and find similar results. Nationwide there are some good leads on LocalHarvest.org, but they’re not always the most up-to-date so you’ll want to do some additional recon before heading out to a market listed there. Fellow Arizonans, be sure to check out FillYourPlate.org, and ArizonaFarmersMarkets.com for even more options.

Later this week I will share some ways to shop smart to get more high-quality fruits and veggies without blowing your food budget. I look forward to hearing your ideas, too. Do you have any clever tips for reducing food waste? Ideas for what to do with leftover veggies? Delectable veggie recipes or suggestions for meatless meals? Keep the conversation going by commenting below!

I Pinned It, I Did It: Guinness, Whiskey & Irish Cream Cupcakes

Monday, March 3rd, 2014

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At my company, there is a girl named Heidi, who makes the most anticipated food item of our entire year – the sausage roll. Every year, we all await the glorious day in December when we receive an e-mail announcing that the sausage-filled pastry has arrived, then we run as fast as we can to the art table to get a slice of our very own. It’s an incredibly fun tradition, and my mouth is watering just thinking about it.

I decided that I wanted to start a tradition of my own – something that I could bake and bring in each year as a thank you to my amazing co-workers. Two years ago, I found a recipe combining two of our favorite things – cake and booze – and my first ever “I Pinned It, I Did It” began with these Guinness, Whiskey & Irish Cream Cupcakes from the Brown Eyed Baker.

This recipe is based on the drink with the not-so-PC name, the Irish Car Bomb. An Irish Car Bomb is a cocktail where whiskey is floated on top of Irish Cream in a shot glass, and the shot glass is then dropped into a pub glass of Guinness. For the cupcake, you start with a Guinness and chocolate cake, fill it with whiskey and chocolate ganache, and then top the whole boozy concoction with an Irish Cream buttercream.

This recipe is incredibly simple, but just requires a bit of extra time to put all the elements together. And the end result is amazing – the cake is moist and the overall booze content is not overpowering.

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The three spirits you will need to have on hand are Guinness (and note that the only thing I could find in a six-pack was the Extra Stout – any type of Guinness works great in this recipe, so don’t worry if you don’t have the original), Baileys and the Irish whiskey of your choice (I prefer Jameson). Since Baileys and whiskey are good staple items to have in your bar anyway, this recipe becomes a winner yet again, because you don’t have to buy some obscure liquor that you may not ever use again.

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I only have a few tips on this recipe.

If you don’t have a cookie cutter or piping tip to carve out the cupcakes, I find a small spoon works just fine. Same with the ganache. If you don’t feel like dealing with the mess that can come from piping it, just use a teaspoon to drop it into the cupcake divot.

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For the ganache, she calls for cutting up chocolate, but I say why not use chocolate chips? It saves you the hassle of having to chop up a chocolate bar. Both times I have made these, I have used chips, and they work great.

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For the icing, you can either use a knife to smoothly apply it, or you can pipe it. One of the greatest tricks I have learned to make filling the bag easier is to stand up the bag with the tip on the bottom of a glass. This keeps the bag standing, and makes it easier to spoon dollops of icing into it with a spatula. As a side-note, if you don’t have piping bags, a freezer bag with the corner cut off works brilliantly.

I prefer to use St. Patrick’s Day cupcake holders, or plain white cups for this, and I top them with simple green sugar that you can find in the baking aisle of most grocery stores.

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The cupcakes were a huge hit when I took them in two years ago, and I already have co-workers claiming dibs on them this year. Have a happy and safe St. Patrick’s Day, and enjoy!

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I Pinned It, I Did It: Red Velvet Birthday Cake

Thursday, February 13th, 2014

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February is the month that two of my “moms” were born – my actual mom and my mother-in-law. My mom lives in Ohio, so we have to celebrate via a phone call and exchanging cards, but my mother-in-law Anne, lives nearby, so this past weekend we headed over to her house for dinner and cake. A cake I was tasked with making. So, I did what I always do – hopped on Pinterest and started searching for ideas.

Anne had no preference to the type of cake she wanted, so I turned to my first love, red velvet. Red velvet is to my rest of the year the way pumpkin is to my fall — I am obsessed. I didn’t have to go far in my search, as I pinned a Valentine’s red velvet cake about a year ago. I decided to step up and finally make it.

The recipe was easy to follow, and I give major kudos to Heather at Sprinkle Bakes for her detail in the instructions. My bigger fear was that the cakes would stick to the pan.

I tried to make a four-layer chocolate cake for my father-in-law last year, and it was a disaster. The cakes stuck, and I may have had a toddler-strength fit about it. I was bound and determined to master the “butter and flour” technique of greasing the pan this time. I took a stick of butter and very liberally rubbed it over the bottom and sides of each pan. I then looked up the best way to flour the pan, and it was very simple. I put about a tablespoon of flour on the bottom of each pan, and then shook and tapped the bottom of the pan until the flour was covering the entire surface. This technique was a huge success. The cakes came out perfectly when I put them on the cooling rack.

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I only have a few tips for this recipe. First, if you are using gel “icing color” (I got it at Michael’s), you will need to use more than the 1 1/2 Tablespoons she recommends to get the color that you want. Also, the batter will look more pink than red, but when it bakes, it darkens, so don’t worry about getting the batter itself the shade of red you are going for. Finally, the icing recipe makes an ample amount to layer and cover your cake. I was very stingy with the icing between the layers, fearing that I would run out when I had to ice the outside, but I had plenty left, so I could have used a bit more inside.

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The end result was gorgeous. The red was a nice bright shade, and it tasted great. My sister-in-law even commented that it was one of the best cakes she had ever tasted. There is nothing more satisfying than making something from scratch, and having everyone comment on how much they love your creation, and then go back for seconds (and thirds).

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Most of all, I wanted it to be a success because I love my mother-in-law. I am really lucky in that regard. From the start of my relationship with Bryan, she has been kind, supportive and wonderful to me. My favorite times with her are when I get to hang out with her one-on-one and hear stories about her life. She grew up in the Midwest, went to the same college my dad did (majoring in art), and even moonlighted as a go-go dancer at one point. She’s a cool lady, and brilliant artist. We have several of her paintings hanging in our home, and we get lots of compliments on them. I also adore her for raising Bryan to be fantastic husband – artistic, sensitive, and not afraid to pitch in and help around the home.

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Happy Birthday to Anne, and cheers to another successful Pinterest baking adventure!

Family Traditions: Our Olympic Dinner Table

Thursday, February 6th, 2014

My family is not a big sports family. We watched the Super Bowl because everybody watches the Super Bowl and we like the commercials, but it is the only time of the year football is on at our place. We don’t know what the Suns are up to – ever. I only know it isn’t baseball season because it’s too cold to play in the Midwest right now and they call baseball players the “boys of summer.” The only sport we get worked up over is Roller Derby. In fact, my one and only sports tee is supporting the Arizona Derby Dames Bombshells. Then, along come the Olympics and things change. From the torch lighting to the closing ceremonies we watch and love every minute. We enjoy the stories, the feats of strength, the drive of the athletes – it’s better than the movies and happening in (almost) real time.

A few Olympiad back, during the Beijing games we decided to order out Chinese and watch the opening ceremonies while enjoying our egg rolls and a fun tradition was born. For the London games, we dined on Jacob’s amazing bangers & mash and this year we will be enjoying a few Russian dishes to commemorate the games in Sochi.

When Jacob and I started researching Russian recipes we realized that there wasn’t much uncharted territory. My family is Hungarian – my great grandmother was born there – and like many immigrant families, the food is one of our last links to our past, and something we cherish. Pierogies, stuffed cabbages and hearty soups are standard fare for Hungarians, Poles, and Russians, so most of what the Internet had to offer felt kind of like old news. In the end, to our pleasant surprise, our favorite compilation of Russian recipes was from allrecipes.com, a site we use often for “everyday” recipes. Here’s our Olympic menu:

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* Pirozhki – For an appetizer and general snacking we’re going with pirozhki, which looks like a perogi but this is more of a bun and appears to be hand-food instead of fork food.

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* Borscht – Borscht is a hearty beet and vegetable soup which could easily be made hearty enough to be a stand-alone dish. We decided to do it as a soup course because, despite its quirky-sounding name none of us have ever tried it and we are offering smaller servings so we can try more recipes.
* Chicken Kiev – I am so looking forward to this. Chicken Kiev is a thin cutlet of boneless chicken breast wrapped around a piece of savory, flavored butter and fried. Some of you may have seen an item in your grocer’s freezer called Chicken Kiev that comes individually packaged for baking at home. Beware the processed and formed chicken loaf. You are now fairly warned – I’ve fallen for it in the past and it is not proper food.

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* Ukrainian Apple Cake – For desert I am going to try my hand at a particularly tasty-looking apple cake. I think this is going to be a big hit.

Whether your favorite winter sport is biathlon, bobsleigh, curling, ice hockey, luge, skating, skiing or snowboarding, I hope you enjoy this year’s Olympic Games and maybe try something new, too. Go Team USA!

Hard Fireball Razzyade

Monday, February 3rd, 2014

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This month, I am taking the whiskey baton from Christina, who created a fabulous Ginger Whiskey Cocktail last month, and spicing things up a bit by turning to a newly popular whiskey for inspiration — Fireball Whiskey.

Fireball Whiskey is a strong cinnamon-flavored whiskey; it’s delicious and perfect for people (like my husband Bryan) who are not whiskey fans. Although most people I know drink it as a shot, there are a lot of great cocktail recipes that feature this fiery whiskey.

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I was hoping to find a recipe that provided some surprise factor. I love it when I try something, or have someone try something, and you get to play the “Guess what’s in it?” game. Wait. Let me clarify that. I love playing that game when the answer isn’t something I wouldn’t want to be eating – like Rocky Mountain Oysters.

When I first read the recipe below, I was highly skeptical that cinnamon and lemonade would pair well, but this recipe definitely delivered. In fact, after taking one sip, Bryan informed me that he was taking mine and that I could make another one for myself.

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Hard Fireball Razzyade (Recipe by This Girl Walks Into a Bar)
* 2 ounces Fireball Whiskey
* 3-4 ounces raspberry lemonade (you can add more or less depending on your taste)
* lemon wedge, squeezed
* lemon slice and/or raspberries for garnish

Fill a glass with ice (I recommend using a lowball glass), then pour the whiskey and lemonade in the glass and squeeze the lemon wedge over the drink. Stir lightly with a spoon and garnish with a lemon wedge or a few raspberries on a toothpick.

To up the ante on the red, and keep the drink from diluting, you could also use frozen raspberries in lieu of ice.

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Go get some Fireball Whiskey and brew up this love potion for your own Valentine!