Eating Healthy on a Budget

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A friend of mine emailed me yesterday and asked for some advice on eating healthy on a budget. Since this is an area of passion for me, my email back to her basically came out in the form of an essay, which I’ll share with you!

Geoff and I have a budget of £45/week (about $65) for groceries.

Here’s how we make it work:

-Cut down on meat and dairy and opt for veggie meals at least a couple times a week. I know it might make you feel like you’re wasting away, but that’s mostly psychological. You will not die because you’re only eating half as much meat. You will, however, have a lower impact on the environment, save a good chunk of change, and enjoy meat more when you do have it!

-Learn about substitutions: chicken thighs are way cheaper than chicken breasts; ground turkey can be cheaper and healthier than ground beef; and you can almost always cut down the amount of meat in something and add more veggies or vegan protein like lentils, chickpeas, or beans.

-Cook meat as an ingredient rather than a main course. We don’t generally have chicken breasts or steaks or whole fish fillets for dinner at this point except for on special occasions. Instead, we’ll usually have pasta with a little chicken cut up in it, or stew that has a little beef and lots of carrots and potatoes.

-Buy meat in bulk or on sale and freeze it. Most stores have shelves with just the food that expires today or tomorrow, at really reduced prices. I always go here first and grab whatever they have, and then I just throw it in the freezer as soon as I get home if I’m not going to cook it that day. I end up saving at least 1/3 on meat this way. Score! Same goes for buying more meat than you need. Wrap whatever you don’t use in foil, label it clearly, and freeze it

-Opt for whole foods rather than pre-packaged! They are so much cheaper, and you also get to avoid all of the terrifying-sounding mystery additives in processed food. Cooking whole foods does take longer, and this will be an adjustment for most people, but below are a couple of tips for making it work for you.

-Set aside a block of time once or twice a week for prep work. If you’re already chopping veggies, it doesn’t take that much longer to chop a few more. Most things can be prepped a few days before you cook them. Then, when you go to cook a meal, you’re like the guys on the cooking channel with all their bowls of pre-chopped veggies and it takes you 20 minutes to cook a meal.

-Cook in bulk. If I’m making chili, I make about 4 times what I need for a meal. Then I freeze half of it, leave a quarter of it in a tupperware in the fridge, and eat a quarter of it. 4 meals, one cooking time. Bonus: Most foods are less expensive per pound when you buy more of them.

-Eliminate waste! I am hyper-vigilant about waste. If I buy something, I’m going to eat it. This means I’m always watching expiration dates, ignoring them where acceptable (veggies), freezing food before it expires (meat and dairy), and cutting out bad spots rather than throwing a whole food item away. I decide what I’m eating on any given day based on what is going to go bad soonest. Yes, sometimes this means I don’t get to eat a frozen pizza (guilty pleasure) because my leftover vegetable soup is one day away from destruction.  But I’m saving money and learning something about appreciating the resources I have. The Western mindset about waste is one I don’t want anything to do with.

-Remember that a luxury is a luxury. Steak is a luxury. Alcohol is a luxury. Really good chocolate is a luxury. We do buy those things, but only when we have extra money left over within our budget. We’ve had to do some redefining about luxury versus necessity in our lives, but I find myself appreciating the luxuries that much more as a result. They’re special again.

Does it take some adjustment? Yes. Do we always end up safely within our £45? No. Do we make exceptions for special occasions and celebrations? Absolutely.

Give it a try!

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Hello, 2016! (And bramble gin liqueur, continued…)

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Remember these guys? Waaaaaay back in September, at the very end of bramble season here in Scotland (blackberries, for the other 99% of the world), I fought off the urge to try to do everything and just did one thing: I jammed a few handfuls of fresh berries into a half-empty bottle of gin with some sugar, gave it a shake, and hid it in a dark cupboard.

You guys. It was worth it. Somewhere in the midst of all the craziness that has been the past two months (leaving my job, traveling to Copenhagen, having visitors, celebrating Christmas, our anniversary, and the new year, losing my grandpa, starting a business…) I remembered to welcome this bottle of berries back into the light, strain it twice for good measure, and re-bottle it.

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Geoff’s eyes popped wide open when I gave him a taste. “This tastes like home! This is blackberry pie!”

So we’ve been sipping away, enjoying a little taste of summer in the Pacific Northwest while we wait for these Scottish winter days to get a little longer and brighter.

And here I am again, faced with a million directions this day could go, just doing one thing. It’s good to be back.

Insanely Simple Roasted Tomato & Red Pepper Soup

I woke up this morning to a to-do list a mile long, the kind of fog outside that means you can’t see your neighbour’s house, and a significant amount of anxiety about some health-related things going on in my life at the moment. The antidote? A simple, multitask-able, nutrient-packed, warming, comforting bowl of soup.Rye Humour -- Insanely Simple Roasted Tomato and Red Pepper Soup

Hands-on time for this recipe is maybe 15 minutes. And the ingredient list consists of three things (six, if you count olive oil, salt, and pepper). Want one more reason to make it? I spent a whopping total of £2.50 on the ingredients.Rye Humour -- Insanely Simple Roasted Tomato and Red Pepper Soup

The first step is to roast everything. You’ll stick some halved, oil-brushed, salted-and-peppered tomatoes in a hot oven…Rye Humour -- Insanely Simple Roasted Tomato and Red Pepper Soup

And roast until bubbling and caramelised.Rye Humour -- Insanely Simple Roasted Tomato and Red Pepper Soup

The peppers (I used sweet pointed peppers, but ordinary red bell peppers will do just fine) get the same treatment: you’ll chop them into flat-ish pieces, oil and season them, and roast until gorgeous.

Rye Humour -- Insanely Simple Roasted Tomato and Red Pepper SoupThen they’ll all get chucked into the bowl of a food processor, along with a good handful of fresh basil leaves, and pureed until smooth.

Season to taste, and that’s it.Rye Humour -- Insanely Simple Roasted Tomato and Red Pepper Soup

Roasted Tomato and Bell Pepper Soup
Serves 2 as a meal, 4 as a starter

10-12 medium tomatoes
6 sweet pointed (or red bell) peppers
Olive oil
Salt & pepper
Handful fresh basil leaves

  1. Preheat oven to 200°C (400°F).
  2. Slice tomatoes in half. Quarter peppers and de-seed. Arrange tomatoes and peppers on separate baking sheets (line with baking paper for easier clean-up). Brush or drizzle lightly with olive oil and season generously with salt and pepper.
  3. Roast until tomatoes are bubbling and beginning to caramelise (20-25 minutes) and peppers are soft, with just a few black edges (about 20 minutes).
  4. Blend tomatoes, peppers, and basil in a food processor until smooth. Season to taste and serve.

Mango Oat Bars

In my first post on this blog, I referred to a day a while back when I found myself with four overripe mangos and a hungry crowd needing dessert. These mango oat bars emerged out of that scenario and have become a favourite around here! I used this date bar recipe from Taste of Home as a base, replacing the dates in the middle with a bright, tropical-tasting mango filling. I could see it working with most fruits you might have around– I may try raspberry sometime soon?

Rye Humour -- Mango Oat Bars

You take two mangos just on the edge of acceptability…

Rye Humour -- Mango Oat Bars

Peel and dice them into small chunks…

Rye Humour -- Mango Oat Bars

Toss them into a pan with lime juice and sugar…

Rye Humour -- Mango Oat Bars

And simmer them gently until reduced and beginning to thicken. You’ll then mash or blend the mixture (depending on how smooth you want your filling), add a little cornflour and a dash of cool water, heat it to a simmer again for a few more minutes until you’ve got a good jammy texture, and place in the fridge to cool completely.

Did you know that cornflour clumps terribly in hot liquids, but dissolves smoothly into cool ones? I always mix my cornflour with a little cool water before adding to sauces.

While the mango filling cools, you’ll make the oat layers:

Rye Humour -- Mango Oat Bars

Tossing some oats, brown sugar, flour, salt, and baking soda together…

Rye Humour -- Mango Oat Bars

Cutting in a bit of unsalted butter to achieve a coarse crumb…

Rye Humour -- Mango Oat Bars

And adding just enough cool water to bring the mixture together.

Rye Humour -- Mango Oat Bars

Then all that’s left is assembly (and baking, of course)! Using a spatula or a bit of baking parchment, you’ll press half the oat mixture into the bottom of a greased 8×8-inch pan and smooth the mango filling over it…

Rye Humour -- Mango Oat BarsCrumble the remaining oat mixture evenly over the top…Rye Humour -- Mango Oat Bars

And bake until it’s set in the middle and golden-brown on top!

Rye Humour -- Mango Oat Bars

Mango Oat Bars
Based on Taste of Home’s Best Date Bars
Makes 16 bars

For the mango filling:
2 ripe mangos, peeled and diced
1 generous squeeze lime juice (about 3 tablespoons)
1/4 cup (55g) sugar
1 tsp cornflour + 1 tsp cool water

For the oat layers:
1/2 cup + 2 tbsp (80g) plain flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp baking soda
3/4 cup (70g) rolled oats
1/2 cup (100g) brown sugar
1/4 cup (60g) unsalted butter (use a dairy-free butter to keep this vegan!)
1/2 to 1 tbsp cool water, as needed

  1. Make the mango filling: stir mangos, lime juice, and sugar together in a saucepan and simmer over medium heat until reduced and beginning to thicken; about 30 minutes. Dissolve cornflour in cool water and stir into mango mixture. Simmer an additional 3-4 minutes until thickened; cool completely.
  2. Make the oat layers: toss dry ingredients together in a medium bowl. Cut in butter, using two knives or your fingertips, until no butter pieces are bigger than pea-sized. Sprinkle water over this mixture and toss together with a fork until it holds its shape when pressed.
  3. To assemble: grease an 8×8-inch pan. Press half of oat mixture into bottom of pan. (If it sticks to your spatula, you can use a layer of parchment paper to press it down). Spread mango filling over oat mixture. Crumble remaining oat mixture evenly over top.
  4. Bake in a preheated 175°C (350°F) oven for 30-35 minutes, until mango filling is set and oat topping is golden brown. Allow to cool completely before serving.

Creamy Roasted Butternut & Fennel Soup

We’re officially turning the heat on in our flat today. But in the meantime, we’re heating ourselves from the inside out with this rich, creamy, vegan, autumnal, filling soup and some fresh soda bread.

Rye Humour -- Creamy Roasted Butternut Squash and Fennel Soup

I love the fennel in this– it offers a little respite from the pumpkin-spice mania bombarding our senses and blogrolls this time of year. Roasting all the veg for this soup does incredible things to the depth of flavour, and the red lentils disappear into the creaminess while leaving you full and happy for hours.

Rye Humour -- Creamy Roasted Butternut Squash and Fennel Soup

I cannot even begin to describe the aromas filling my kitchen at this stage.

Rye Humour -- Creamy Roasted Butternut Squash and Fennel Soup

Let’s walk through it, shall we? You chop the veg (just a little!) and brush them down with some olive oil… (Photo credit: the lovely Mary McCorkle. I don’t have an incredibly long left arm or a selfie stick.)

Rye Humour -- Creamy Roasted Butternut Squash and Fennel Soup

Give them all a liberal sprinkling of salt and pepper…

Rye Humour -- Creamy Roasted Butternut Squash and Fennel Soup

And roast in a hot oven until they’re just blackening around the edges and the butternut is soft enough to be pierced easily with a fork. You’ll roast a handful of garlic cloves, as well, but just for 15 minutes sometime in the process. I pop them on the tray at the beginning, still in their little papery covers, and then pull them out a third of the way through the roasting process.

Rye Humour -- Creamy Roasted Butternut Squash and Fennel Soup

While all that roasting madness is happening, you’ll put a cup of red lentils on to boil in some vegetable stock (or chicken, if you’re not trying to keep it vegan) so that they can simmer for 20-30 minutes and be ready to blend with the vegetables when they come out of the oven.

Let me take a minute to talk about red lentils. These little guys are the unsung heroes of creamy vegan soups. Packed with protein, iron, fibre, and a whole host of other key nutrients, they fall apart when cooked and have a mild flavour that disappears easily into the background. What I’m saying is that they boost the filling-factor, the creamy nuttiness, and the nutritional content of pureed vegetable soups while not interfering with the flavour combos you’re trying to fine-tune. I toss a cup or two of red lentils into most of my blended veg soups these days.

Rye Humour -- Creamy Roasted Butternut Squash and Fennel Soup

Where were we? Right. So once your vegetables have roasted up nicely, you toss them into the pot (take the garlic cloves out of their little papers at this point!) with the red lentils and stock and let them simmer for about 10 minutes, just to soften them up that little bit more and let your flavours all meld together. Note: you’ll need to remove the squash from its skin once it has cooked. This can be a bit fiddly, but I promise it’s less work than chopping the squash ahead of time with a less-than-ninja-sharp knife. I use a fork and a spoon to scoop/scrape/coax it out. Butternut squash skin is also edible, so don’t freak out if a few little bits end up in your finished soup!

Rye Humour -- Creamy Roasted Butternut Squash and Fennel Soup

Then all that’s left is to blend everything together…

Rye Humour -- Creamy Roasted Butternut Squash and Fennel Soup

Stir in the coconut milk and a good squeeze of lime juice, add salt and pepper to taste, and serve!

Rye Humour-- Creamy Roasted Butternut Squash and Fennel Soup
Creamy Roasted Butternut Squash and Fennel Soup
Serves 4-6

2 small or 1 large butternut squash, halved, seeds removed
1 small onion, quartered
5 whole cloves garlic, still in their peels
1 bulb fennel, trimmed and quartered
Olive oil
Salt & pepper

1 cup (200g) red lentils
4 cups (950ml) vegetable stock
1 tin (400ml) coconut milk
Lime juice

  1. Preheat oven to 200°C/400°F/gas mark 6. Arrange squash, onion, garlic, and fennel on a lined baking sheet, brush with olive oil, and sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper. Roast for 40-50 minutes, or until butternut squash can easily be pierced with a fork. Remove garlic cloves after first 15 minutes.
  2. While vegetables are roasting, bring lentils and vegetable stock to a boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat and simmer for 20-30 minutes, or until lentils are soft.
  3. Add roasted vegetables into lentil liquid, carefully removing butternut squash flesh from the skins (skin is edible, but the squash will still be very hot). Simmer together for 10 minutes.
  4. Blend mixture using an immersion blender or standard blender. Stir in coconut milk and a good squeeze of lime juice, and season to taste with salt and pepper.

This Week in Borrowing: Soda Bread and Fig Preserves

While I love the innovation and fine-tuning aspects of cooking and baking, so much of what I’ve learned in my life has come from just gleaning from someone else’s hours of trial and error. My approach to new culinary territory is usually to find someone who is familiar with that territory, duplicate what they’ve done until I understand all the ins and outs of it, and then use that new understanding as a foundation for my own creativity. It’s the whole Isaac Newton thing, isn’t it? “If I’ve seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

This week I took on a new bread family and an entirely new (to me) fruit.

Rye Humour -- Paul Hollywood's Soda Bread

For soda bread, I looked to Paul Hollywood, who is my go-to man for all things risen and glutenous. Soda bread. Who knew? The Irish knew. All the delectable crustiness of ordinary bread, with zero kneading or waiting. I do miss the traditional yeasty flavour of the breads I’m more familiar with, but soda bread is something I can and will learn to love in its own right. From start to table in an hour? I’m sold. You can find the recipe I was following here: Paul Hollywood’s Soda Bread. I veganised it for work, using soya milk + lemon juice in place of buttermilk, which worked just fine. Crunchy, thick crust. Robust, chewy insides. So stinking easy. Do it now. You could be eating fresh bread in an hour.

Rye Humour -- Figs

And figs! Figs just always felt sort of out of my league. I did try one, once, but I felt like I didn’t quite get it, and the person making me eat it was judging me for not getting it, and also figs are always hanging out with other pretentious foods like duck and arugula…

Anyway, Geoff and I were at Aldi this week and lo and behold: figs! Looking so purple and ripe and accessible, so I brought them home and did my research and decided on a nice, simple jam. I looked at about a million different recipes and ended up doing my own thing (involving sugar and lemon juice and water in unknown quantities), but my initial jumping-off-point was here: Cooking With A Wallflower: Fresh Fig Jam. I was in testing-the-waters mode, so I didn’t keep track of measurements, but I don’t think you can go wrong with a squeeze or two of lemon juice, a good scoop of sugar, and enough water to keep the figs from sticking to the bottom of the pot. The only advice I would give is to chop your figs into smaller pieces than mine were initially– I had to pull the skins out and chop them up in the end because the dang things would not break down naturally. And trust the process. It took longer than I anticipated for them to really jammify (trademark pending), but a consistent low heat and occasional stirring did the trick.

Rye Humour -- Fresh Fig Jam

Starting out: quartered figs in about an inch of lemon-sugar-water.

Rye Humour -- Fresh Fig Jam

Maybe 20 minutes in: we’re melting, melllllllting!

Rye Humour -- Fresh Fig Jam

And after an hour: jammy goodness! I’ll be honest: I’m not going to forswear all other fruits forever in favour of figs, but I think I can learn to love the subtleties and definitely the striking red alien-ness of these new friends. You’ll see more from me and figs.

So there you have it. I may not learn something new every day, but if I learned two new things every week for the rest of my life, I think I would feel pretty good about all the things I knew!

Just do one thing (and Bramble Gin Liqueur)

Rye Humour -- Bramble Gin Liqueur

This may come as a bit of a shocker for those of you who know me, but I sometimes display a hint of a tendency to get carried away. It starts with good intentions: “Oh, the brambles are ripening, I should pick some and bake that cake that I liked!” (Brambles, by the way, being the Scottish name for blackberries.)

And then it grows: “…and I should make jam and I should make a pie and I should freeze some for smoothies and I should make liqueurs for all my Christmas presents and also I should write down all those recipes and take pictures and blog them and…”

Until the few berries I did pick on my way home (before the high school let out and I was surrounded by high schoolers– why am I still so intimidated by high schoolers?) have grown a fuzzy little coat of mould because I was so paralyzed by the vast scope of all my million ideas that I didn’t act on any of them.

This year, with moving into our flat and preparing to transition jobs and dealing with feeling unwell so much of the time, I’ve found myself overwhelmed both by my overambitious good intentions and by the reality of all the little things that do need to get done in a day. My mindfulness project lately has been to catch myself in that first moment of good intention and then to get up and do one thing.

Like pulling that half-bottle of gin that we never drink out of the freezer, popping a few handfuls of berries and a bit of sugar in through its tiny neck, giving it a good shake, and then hiding it in a dark cupboard to work its magic until just before Christmastime.Rye Humour -- Bramble Gin Liqueur

I even made an event in my calendar. December 8: Bramble Gin Liqueur is ready!

Rye Humour -- Bramble Gin Liqueur

Bramble Gin Liqueur
Makes about 400ml of liqueur

8-9 oz (250g) brambles (blackberries)
2/3 cup (125g) sugar
1 1/2 cups (350ml) gin

Note: A wide-mouth jar would work best for this, but don’t let that be what stops you! You’ll just have to pop the berries into the neck of a narrower bottle one at a time, but it is actually an oddly satisfying task.

Wash berries gently but thoroughly. Add sugar into gin, then add berries and shake together. Leave out on a counter where you’ll see it for about three days, giving it a good shake daily until the sugar is thoroughly dissolved.

Once sugar has dissolved, place your liqueur in a dark cabinet somewhere and forget about it for about 3 months. After three months, strain out the berries and enjoy! More sugar can be added at this point if needed.