Sunday, March 30, 2014

Taxes and Tomato Soup

Springtime in the Pacific Northwest isn't for the faint of heart. We can go days and weeks with no sunshine. It just rains and rains and rains some more. Now the upside to all this moisture is that when the sun finally does shine, we are surrounded by a lushly growing landscape. It's God's country, as we like to say around here. But in the meantime, we must somehow get through the soggy spring.

Yesterday was that kind of day: it poured the entire day, and the wind was fierce. As if that wasn't hard enough, I spent the day getting together my tax information. I abhor tax time with a vengeance. But I stuck to it and I'm glad to be done for another year (except for the actual paying-the-taxes part, which I'll do on April 15th and not a day sooner!). One thing about tax time is that I always feel the distinct need to live frugally. And while I resent that it's the taxes that cause my Spartan life, the fact is that I plain enjoy living off my little piece of land.

You might be wondering, what does this have to do with tomato soup?

Back to yesterday and the taxes. I didn't want to get sidetracked making a meal, and yet I needed to eat. And I certainly didn't feel as if I could afford to take the easy way out and run down to a local food joint and buy something ready made. So I poked around in my pantry and pulled out a jar of home canned diced tomatoes. Hmm...What to do?

Well, this is what I did:

Tomato Soup

1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons very finely diced onion, more or less
1 tablespoon vey finely diced celery, more or less
1 can diced tomatoes (I used a pint jar of home-canned tomatoes instead)
2 cups beef, chicken, or vegetable broth
half a can of tomato paste, more or less (use some tomato sauce if you don't have paste)
herbs (I used basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, and a bay leaf)
salt and pepper to taste
milk (optional)
sour cream (optional)

First off, I sautéed the onion and celery in the butter in the pot I planned to use for the soup. (Less to clean up afterward.)

Next, I added the tomatoes, tomato paste, broth, herbs, and salt and pepper. I sort of smashed/cut the tomatoes so they were in small bits. (If you have an immersion blender you could try whirring it and making the soup smoother, but I liked the bits of tomato, onion, and celery.)

I let it cook down awhile, stirring occasionally. When I was ready to eat, I removed the bay leaf and then tasted the soup and adjusted the seasonings.

Next, I added a spritz of milk to my bowl and then ladled the soup into the bowl and stirred to mix. About three bites in, I realized that a goodly glop of sour cream would make it taste even better, so--even though the picture above doesn't show that--I added a dollop of sour cream. It was heavenly! Some shredded Cheddar cheese would have been good also but I was too busy to go to the trouble.

All in all, this was a quick and tasty meal. And it fit nicely with my sense of frugality. And even though it did nothing to make me like tax time any better, I loved the sense of self-reliance it gave me to make do with what I have on hand. It's a great feeling!

Here's to sunny weather! May it come soon.


Sunday, March 23, 2014

Easy Stove-Top Enchilada Casserole

Here is my latest offering for easy, inexpensive, and tasty meal ideas. Today I'll give you a recipe for an easy and quick stove-top enchilada casserole. My sons loved this growing up, and I still make it often. But because it uses several canned items, if you are planning on feeding just one or two people, there's no real way to cut down on the recipe and make just a little. So plan on serving it to a group or you'll be eating the same thing 'til kingdom come!

Enchilada Casserole


1 pound (more or less) ground beef
1/2 cup (more or less to taste) chopped onion
1 can cream of chicken or cream of mushroom soup
1 can diced tomatoes with green chilies (Rotel is a great choice if you like a bit of spice)
1 can enchilada sauce (you can use tomato sauce if you don't have enchilada sauce, and you may want to add a bit of chili powder or red pepper flakes for heat)
1 package (at least 20 count) corn tortillas
shredded Cheddar cheese (optional)
sour cream (optional)
olives (optional)


In a large pot brown the ground beef and chopped onion. Drain off the grease and place the meat mixture back in the pot and return to the stove. Add the cream of chicken soup, the diced tomatoes, and enchilada sauce. Stir together and heat to bubbling. Tear the tortillas into large bite-sized pieces, a few at a time, and push them into the meat sauce. Keep tearing and pushing the pieces into the meat sauce until you can't get any more in. You'll probably use somewhere around 20-25 tortillas.

Let the enchilada casserole continue to cook for several minutes at least.

You can serve it as is, topped with cheese, sour cream, and olives if using (which I highly recommend!), or you can spread the casserole into a baking dish, sprinkle on the shredded cheese, and bake at 350 degrees for about 15-20 minutes or until bubbly throughout and the cheese is melted.

You could also make it ahead of time, spread the casserole into a baking dish and refrigerate, covered, until ready to eat. Place the refrigerated enchilada casserole into the oven and bake for about 30-35 minutes at 350 degrees or until it's completely heated through and bubbly. You may want to cover it for part of the baking time so it doesn't get too dried out, but it's not necessary.

Serve this with a tossed green salad and you've got a great meal in a hurry. Especially if you choose to forego oven baking the casserole, you can get a homemade delicious dinner on the table quickly--even on a busy weeknight.



Saturday, March 22, 2014

Asian Dipping Sauce

It all started at Costco. In my wanderings I came across this:

For some reason, this jar of seasoning called to me so I bought it. I thought it would be good to try on vegetables and salads., but then I passed this:

(Costco is a dangerous place!)
Suddenly it all became clear to me: I would buy the seasoning and the wontons and go home and eat.But when I got home I realized I needed dipping sauce because the seasoning alone wouldn't cut it for me. So here is what I concocted:

Oh my goodness, it was great! Following is the recipe for the dipping sauce. But before I list the ingredients, let me also say that it would make an excellent marinade for chicken or shrimp, and would probably also be great as a salad dressing for a tossed green salad with an Asian flair. You could mix together salad greens, a can of (drained) mandarin oranges, chopped green onions, almonds, and maybe some crunchy Chinese noodles (or smash a package of ramen noodles and add those).

Oriental Dipping Sauce

1/2 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup water
1/8 cup vinegar (use regular white or rice wine vinegar)
1/4 - 1/2 cup sugar, to suit your taste (I like mine on the sweet side)
1 tablespoon sesame oil (use regular vegetable oil to substitute if you don't have sesame oil)
1 teaspoon Simply Asia Sweet Ginger Garlic Seasoning

If you don't have the Simply Asia seasoning, mix up the other ingredients and throw in a bit of ground ginger, garlic, and sesame seeds for a reasonable facsimile.

This sauce/marinade is so easy to whip together. You're sure to like it!

Well, the spring sunshine is calling to me so I'll wrap this up. Gotta get outside and enjoy the weather!

May God richly bless you. And if life is difficult for you right now, remember that--just like the promise of our spring weather--better days are ahead.

In the meanwhile, do your best to "walk cheerfully over all the world, answering that of God in every one" (George Foxe).


Saturday, March 1, 2014

Emergency Preparedness on the Cheap

Winter has been thrashing many of us here in the United States in the form of very cold temperatures, snow, and ice storms. Here in the Pacific Northwest we have had two major storms, but the last one dumped a foot of snow and then an inch of ice. Needless to say, many of us (most of us in our area) lost our power as trees and electric wires failed. I was out for two days and I considered myself lucky as there were other family members who were out for an entire week. And when there's snow and ice on the ground it gets cold quick.

Because of this, I thought I'd write a post about how to survive when your power is out. There were many folks around me who were not prepared for such an outage and they suffered greatly, but it really doesn't take much in the way of money to have a stash of emergency gear and food to get a person by. Now, for those of you who have big budgets, good for you. But you aren't who I'm writing this post for. The ideas I'm setting down here are for the many folks who are on tight budgets.

There is hope! So the next time disaster hits, you too can weather the storm (pun intended!) in relative comfort. And it won't cost and arm and a leg, either.

First up is food and cooking: This isn't much of a problem because we usually have food already in our pantries such as canned soup, stews, veggies, fruits, and the like. But it never hurts to think about how much easy-to-heat food you have available at all times. If you can keep at least a week's worth of easy-to-use food in case of emergency you'll be fine. And if you can stash a bit more you can be generous with those around you who are less prepared or perhaps are disabled or elderly. A box of dry milk is good to have on hand as well. If you don't particularly enjoy the taste of the reconstituted milk try this instead: Mix together 6 parts cocoa powder, 1 part dry milk powder, 1 part granulated sugar, and 1 part powdered sugar. Mix together for your hot chocolate base. To use, place 3 tablespoons hot chocolate mix into a mug and add about 1 cup of boiling water. Stir and enjoy.

The stuff in the fridge and freezer can obviously be a problem. But if you are caught without power during cold weather you can simply set your food outside if the temperature is in the mid-30s or lower. Try to keep your fridge and freezer shut during the outage because the food will last longer that way. If your outside temperature is too warm for this plan, you can try to buy bags of ice, but ice gets bought out in a hurry. Or think about cooking and eating as much as you can so as little goes to waste as possible. (As an aside, this is why I home can so much of my food including meats, soups, stews, chili, and such because the jars of food are shelf stable and already cooked; they just need heating. Then I don't have to worry about losing my frozen foods because there isn't much in there to begin with.)

You can always use your barbeque to grill your food but think about investing in a sterno stove. I bought a two-pack of sterno fuel cans (get the regular size, not the small ones) and a folding sterno stove for about $10 total. It's a pretty cool setup and is safe to use indoors. Here are two pictures I took of my setup:

The circle on the sterno can starts out blue to let you know the can is cold and can be touched. As it heats (quickly, I might add) it turns white to let you know it's too hot to touch the can. I love that safety feature! It took me about three minutes to heat water to the boiling point. Each can has about 4 1/2 hours cooking time so several cans will go a long way. A down side to sterno is that it's alcohol based and will evaporate over time, even in a tightly closed can. So it's a good idea to buy fresh cans at least once a year.

Hopefully you can see that I set the stove on an overturned jelly roll pan placed on my kitchen counter so it would be slightly above my countertop and hopefully the dead air under the pan would keep the counter cool. It worked like a charm and I recommend it.

Several food safety notes: If in doubt (about the food's safety) throw it out. Better to be safe than sorry. And for frozen food, you can refreeze it when the power comes back on if there are any ice crystals still in the food even if part of it has thawed.

Next, let's talk about water: If you live on city water, you most likely won't lose your water during a power outage. This means you'll have water to drink, cook and clean with, and flush toilets. But if you live on a well or your city water has become contaminated, you'll need another source. Water can be somewhat problematic because it takes up a lot of room and it weighs about 8 pounds per gallon. Experts say you should plan on using a gallon each day per person, so if you have five people living in your residence, that's 40 pounds of water (5 gallons' worth) to store somewhere per day. And if you have animals, you'll need to store even more. One set of my kids owns 5 horses, 3 goats, 4 dogs, 2 cats, and numerous chickens and water gathering in five-gallon jugs was incredibly laborious and took up much of their time. My son melted snow and those of us who could get through the ice and snow (it was harrowing) and had city water helped also. It wasn't easy. So think long and hard before disaster strikes about your animal situation and be prepared.

Many folks fill their bathtubs and largest cooking pots when a storm is brewing that looks like trouble, and this is a great idea. But if you can prepare further in advance of any emergency--and stay prepared--you'll be better off in the end. My advice? Fill your tubs and pots as a last-ditch effort, but buy and/or store as much water as you can comfortably accommodate, making part of that emergency water, cases of drinking water you can buy cheap that come in 16- to 24-ounce plastic bottles.

Heat is next: Why does it always seem that we lose our power when it's snowing and freezing outside? Houses can get cold fast when there is no wood stove or fireplace to keep off the chill. Generators are out of reach financially for many of us and we have to know how to correctly use them as well. But I found some relatively inexpensive emergency indoor propane heaters that work and are safe as long as your home isn't so airtight that there is no air exchange to the outside (not too likely). These little heaters won't keep your entire house toasty, but they will heat a room or two well enough that with a few extra layers you'll be fine. And they are comparatively cheap:

This is the Portable Buddy. At my store recently, in the dead of winter and right after a major outage (read: the highest price you'll likely see), the price was $67.95. It heats up to 200 square feet for 3-6 hours on a one-pound propane tank (I'll have a photo of those tanks later), or 48-110 hours when using a 20-pound propane tank, and is odorless:

For heating up to 100 square feet of space at 5 1/2 hours continuous heat using a one-pound propane tank, the Little Buddy costs $59.95. But wait until out of season and I'm confident you could pick it up for less. The Little Buddy is also odorless and has a one-button start.

And now for those one-pound propane tanks. They currently cost $2.75 at my local store:

Toilets: Nobody ever wants to discuss this, but it's good to think about what you'll do in an emergency situation before it strikes. As I said earlier, if you are on city water and sewer, you are probably in luck and your toilet will flush just fine. Yay! But if you're on a well, that bathtub you filled up before the power went out is going to come in really handy right about now. You can flush your toilet by pouring a bucket of water into the tank and flushing. Or you can always use the old timers' solution and place an extra-strength plastic bag in a 5-gallon bucket, making sure it's secured very well. Now very comfortable, but it will do in a pinch! Or go to the camping gear section of a local store and see what they offer in the way of "facilities." You may be glad you did.

Well! I hope this information gives you a quick, easy, inexpensive start to staying comfortable in an emergency. Obviously there are so many other ways you can go, and many other products to use. But my intent here is to give an alternative that won't break the banks.

I hope you are staying warm and dry during what seems to me an especially harsh winter. And do consider our brothers and sisters who aren't so fortunate. A donation of a warm pair of gloves, a hat, wool socks, or a cozy blanket might be a blessing far beyond what you can imagine for someone who desperately needs it.

May God bless you and yours!