$25/Week Grocery Challenge: Week 5

I am now five weeks into my $25/week grocery challenge. I have been photographing what I buy each week.

Week 5:
Week 5

Note: You can click on the photo to enlarge it.
Pictured: 2 bunches cilantro, egg noodles, scallions, 4 lbs onions, yellow pepper, 3.5 lbs boneless pork butt, ground beef, Italian hot sausage, 2 limes, milk, English muffins, whipped butter
Not pictured: coconut milk, 8-oz can of cashews, 8-oz can of pistachio/cashew/almond mix, bag of Doritos

What I spent: $27.71. A little over but I’m hoping next week will be under since I bought pork for next week in this week’s budget.

This week’s cheat: I had a coupon for $2.50 off a $10 purchase of nuts, chips or candy at CVS. I also had $8 in “Extra Bucks” (part of their loyalty program, money you can spend on anything). With sales and these two coupons, I paid $1 for the 2 cans of nuts and bag of Doritos. Every house needs a little junk food. PROTIP: This cheat was *especially* effective because the $2.50 coupon was expired. Stores often coordinate sales to *not* line up with coupons for the exact reason you’d suspect. However, CVS almost always honors expired coupons (the ones they print on their receipt, not manufacturers’ ones) so by waiting until the coupon expired to use it, I ran into a sale on … guess what … wait for it … nuts, chips and candy. The $10.50 in coupons went a bit further than it would have if I had used the $2.50 coupon before it expired.

See a trend? My mom bought us a toaster for Christmas. I haven’t had a regular non-toaster-oven toaster in YEARS. I’m really enjoying the hell out of English muffins with whipped butter. This is why they make it in just about every week.

What I made: potato kale chorizo soup, moqueca, Cuban black beans and rice, turkey soup with noodles and rice

This week’s cost-saving tip: Starting here in the fifth week of this project, I’m going to start sharing one cost-saving tip per week that I hope you’ll find helpful. This week’s tip is: good spices. Good quality spices can make a dish come alive – they can mean the difference between good and great. They can also make inexpensive otherwise boring dishes (e.g. beans and rice, soups) more interesting and enjoyable. In short, a modest upfront investment here can go a long way toward saving money later.

My favorite source for spices is Penzeys. It’s a small-ish chain of herb/spice specialty shops; we have one locally. The store is neat, organized and cozy. The staff is helpful and friendly. It’s easy to impulse-buy more than I intended and thus blow out my budget. However, their web site is incredibly boring. Normally, that’d be a bummer but in this case, it is totally great. The site is easy to navigate and boring means I don’t get distracted/tempted to buy stuff I don’t need. Shipping is free at $35, they frequently have coupons available for a free item and I almost always get a surprise free sample or two.

Until Penzeys, I didn’t know bay leaves actually had a smell. I didn’t know there was more than one kind of paprika. Or cinnamon. Their quality is beyond above and beyond grocery store brands. You’d think a boutique/specialty shop would not the place to get a good value but their prices are usually less expensive than grocery store brands. Especially if you choose to buy the larger packages (in bags rather than jars). I keep the bags in a plastic shoebox in alphabetical order and replenish the jars from the bags. One notable exception: Indian spices. Those are cheaper at an Indian grocery and just as delicious.

Where to start? Well, I have a huge selection of herbs/spices, all neatly alphabetized but if I had to make a shopping list of the most essential ones (in this case, “most essential” means ones I use on a weekly basis and where having a good quality version makes a big difference), it would look like this:
bay leaves, cayenne pepper, ground celery seed (Not celery salt, celery seed is more versatile. Ditto for garlic and onion powder), cinnamon, Mural of Flavor (a proprietary no-salt blend I put on everything), garlic (minced and powder), onion powder, Italian herb blend, ground ginger, Hungarian paprika, Turkish oregano, ground yellow mustard seed, thyme, sage, rosemary (whole is most versatile but they sell a powder version which comes in quite handy), ground black pepper (I enjoy the convenience of ground pepper but if you are less lazy or a pepper snob, you can stick to stocking only whole peppercorns), whole black peppercorns, red pepper flakes, ground cumin.

Look, I even made a suggested order/shopping cart:

Yeah, $88 is not an insignificant amount of money. This stuff will last you a long time and add a lot to your food. You won’t have to factor in spices into your weekly grocery budget. If you have this stuff it makes sense to use up what you have but as you run out, I recommend replenishing with the good (and good value) stuff.

A few non-essentials that I personally always want to have around: cardamom (pods and ground), coriander (whole and ground), lemon peel (minced and ground), chili 3000 (my favorite chili powder – I use it for more than just chili), ginger (freeze-dried and crystallized), spicy salt (delicious shaken on eggs or popcorn or everything). There’s probably stuff in this category for you that’s not on my list.

Essentials I get somewhere else: hot curry powder, yellow curry powder, garam masala – I get these at a local Indian grocery. Usually $2-3 per 8-ounce package.

And then there’s this: sometimes a recipe calls for a teaspoon of something you’re pretty sure you’ll never use again. In that case, your local Whole Foods or health store or anyplace that sells spices in bulk by the pound is the perfect solution. You can buy exactly what you need without paying $5+ for a jar of something you’ll never use again.

Bonus Bargain: since I’ve gotten hip to good herbs/spices, I make all my own salad dressing, as-needed. I don’t spend money on bottles of salad dressing and I never throw away old salad dressing. It’s not that much work; I get a lot of flexibility and a lot of compliments. Penzeys sells blends meant to be used to make dressing (and they’re pretty good) but this is my go-to, uber-flexible salad dressing recipe (reduce/increase amounts based on size of your salad):
1/2 cup oil of your choice
2-3 T vinegar of your choice
1 T citrus juice (or fruit juice) of your choice
1 tsp Dijon mustard (use more if you like a mustard-y flavor but don’t skip it – this emulsifies the salad dressing and it doesn’t overpower the flavor of the dressing)
1/4-1/2 tsp onion powder
1/4 tsp black pepper
1/4-1/2 tsp minced garlic
1-2 tsp Mural of Flavor
tiny, tiny squirt of Sriacha (this really makes it richer without making it spicy, I am not scientifically-inclined enough to say why/how)
1 tsp Braggs Aminos (or Tamari, or Worcestershire, or soy sauce – something brown and salty)
salt, to taste (hard to say exactly because some vinegars make the dressing more salty than others)

Put everything in a plastic container that has a good seal. Let it sit ~5 minutes (to allow herbs and garlic soften). Shake vigorously. That’s it! If you want a sweeter dressing, use a sweeter vinegar (white balsamic) or add a squirt of honey. Use more mustard to make a mustard-vinaigrette. Add a little mashed fruit/jam to make a strawberry or raspberry dressing. Lemon juice AND lemon powder/peel if you want something lemon-y. A finely-minced chipotle pepper (from a can) will give you a super smoky dressing (great on a tomato-corn-quinoa salad). You can add a little yogurt or sour cream to make a creamy dressing. If you have fresh herbs hanging around you can add some in and you’ll get something herb-y, bright and fresh. Salad dressing is one of my favorite culinary experiments! I’ve had a few real winners and never made anything inedible.

You may have noticed: my list doesn’t include much in the way of baking essentials (vanilla, nutmeg, allspice, cloves, anise, etc.) and this is because I don’t bake much. I own all these items but I actually use them most often in Indian food rather than baked goods. So, I’m not a baking expert. If you’re a baker, I’ll leave it to you to be the expert on the best bang for the buck when it comes to baking stuff.

This week’s recipe I’m sharing: Moqueca
Serves: 4 big appetites, 5-6 smaller ones
Prep and cook time: 45-60 minutes
A tip of the skillet to Toni Amato, a talented writer, a gifted editor/coach, a connector, a prolific and adventurous home cook who is relentlessly in service to our local queer literary and artistic communities. He mentioned moqueca in casual conversation and then elaborated on how excited he was to have discovered it; the misty faraway look in his eye told me I needed to not dilly-dally on trying it out for myself.

Moqueca is Brazil’s answer to zuppa di mare, bouillabaisse or paella; it’s a multi-fish stew with its own unique mélange of flavors. The traditional recipe calls for a few hard-to-find ingredients and dish-specific cookware that would make it 100% authentic but don’t worry, readily-available ingredients and a common Dutch oven will produce a totally delicious, slightly-less-authentic version. One thing I like about it is, that for a fish stew, it’s easy to keep most of the ingredients on hand (frozen cod filets!) or stock up when those items go on sale. Usually, I only have to pick up cilantro and scallions on the day I want to make it. It’s also a relatively inexpensive way to incorporate fish into your weekly roster.
A note about fish: The original recipes I consulted call for 2 lbs of cod but I prefer to use a mix of cod and shellfish. I also add spicy sausage. It lowers the cost and increases the variety. For me, shellfish means mussels or clams (because I’m allergic to crustaceans) but shrimp would be a delicious addition. The only fish we have tried and didn’t like was salmon. We like salmon but the flavor didn’t mix well with the other ingredients.
½ lb spicy sausage (Italian hot sausage, chorizo, linguica, etc.) – cut into thin slices, squeezed out of the casing or you can buy a block of ground sausage not in casing
1 lb cod (or other firm, white fish – haddock, flounder, halibut)
1 lb shellfish (if you don’t want to include shellfish, use more fish and sausage)
5 cloves garlic, minced
4T freshly squeezed lime juice (1-2 limes based on juiciness)
2T canola oil
1 large yellow onion, small dice (about 1 ¼ cups)
4 medium/large carrots, small dice
2 celery ribs, small dice
1 red (or colored) pepper, small dice
1 28-ounce can of diced tomatoes
1 14-ounce can of coconut milk (don’t get the light version; I strongly prefer Goya)
1T Hungarian-style (sweet) paprika
1 pinch red pepper flakes (optional – sometimes spicy sausage makes it spicy enough but add more if you like a more spicy stew)
salt and pepper, to taste
Rice: Moqueca is served over rice so you’ll need some cooked rice. My preference is Thai broken rice. I make about 1 cooked cup per person. You can make any variety you like best; make as much/little based on your eaters. Some recipes call for onions, garlic and herbs in the rice which is pretty tasty if you have time/interest but easy-to-make plain rice works pretty great.
1. Cut the fish (fish only, not the shellfish) into 1-2” pieces and put in a large dish (where all the fish can touch the bottom, an 8×8 glass cooking dish works great). Add minced garlic, lime juice and a hefty dose of salt and pepper. Stir to coat the fish. Set aside and let it marinate while you do the rest of the work.
2. Start cooking your rice now. It’s a pretty quick recipe so if you start now, the rice will be done when you are.
3. Slice the sausage. Clean/prep shellfish. Chop all the veggies.
4. Heat oil in a 6-8-quart Dutch oven over medium heat until shimmering, until the oil is hot. Add all the veggies; season with salt and pepper. Sauté until veggies are soft and onions are almost translucent. If you like your sausage browner, start it earlier than the veggies.
5. Once the veggies and sausage have been cooked, add paprika and red pepper flakes.
6. Add the can of tomatoes, including the juice (don’t drain). Add the fish you set aside earlier including all the lime juice and garlic. Add the shellfish. Bring to a light rolling boil. Cover, reduce heat to maintain a gently bubbling simmer and simmer covered for 15 minutes.
7. While the stew is simmering, now is a good time to chop/shred the cilantro and chop the scallions – you’ll need these to garnish.
8. Check the fish for done-ness. Taste the stew and adjust seasonings to taste (add more salt, pepper, lime juice, red pepper flakes per your preference).
9. Turn heat off or down to lowest setting (at this point you just need to keep the stew warm) and add coconut milk. If you haven’t used coconut milk before, a good tip is to give the can a hearty shake before you open it. Shaking well will make it easier to pour out. Stir gently and let it sit to allow the coconut milk to warm up.
10. Grab a bowl and fill the bottom with a layer of rice. Ladle stew over rice making sure to get a little bit of everything. Garnish with cilantro and scallions (don’t mix these into the stew). Repeat for each eater. Enjoy!


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