Budget Epicurean

Budget Epicurean: January 2014

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Valentine's Day: History, love and misery

As I'm sure you're aware from the deluge of pink and red and hearts, that happy love-struck day known as Valentine's Day is near. For some this means a romantic getaway for two, for some this is just another dinner and a movie with nicer clothes, for some this means getting a sitter for the kids for the first time all year, for some this means a night of eating ice cream and crying, and for some this means absolutely nothing other than the fact that it's a Friday. None of these reactions are right or wrong, and don't let anybody tell you differently. So why is it called "Valentine's Day" and not something simple like "Love Day"?

Saint Valentine


Saint Valentine is the man for whom this sappy holiday has been named, but ironically he both did and did not lead a very romantic life. He lived in a time when society was very lax on relationship rules, polygamy was kind of the norm, but of course the Catholic church didn't like that one bit. They were pretty convinced that to have any 'relations' it should be within the bounds of a marriage, and a marriage was between one man and one woman, period. Unfortunately there was this emperor guy, Claudius, who persecuted the Church at the time, and did not allow people to marry within the church. Well, mister Valentine was like a secret cupid, and for those couples who wanted to be married within the rules of Catholicism, he would marry them. 
As these things often go, Valentine was caught and throw in prison, where he was tortured for contradicting the Emperor. But being such a nice guy, he kept helping people even in prison. There are stories of him praying for a man's blind daughter and healing her, the father was so astonished he converted to Catholicism. Then, in 269 AD, Valentine was sentenced to a three part execution: a beating, stoning, and finally beheading. All because he wanted to unite young couples in love. Under the doctrine of the currently not-in-fashion church beliefs. However, he left his legacy by reportedly writing a letter to that man's no longer blind daughter before his death, and signed it "from your Valentine" (Source: CBN). It should be noted that some sources argue whether this legend of St. Valentine is based on one or two separate people (Source: Catholic.org). His official feast day is of course, February 14.

For more on the history of Valentine's Day, see this Huffington Post article, and History.com.


How to survive VDay financially


Now, this year, Valentine's Day happens to fall on a Friday. It also just happens to be President's Day weekend, meaning the following Monday is a holiday. This is a total jackpot if you want to plan a long weekend with your sweetie. However, it also means that there will be more people traveling, and places which cater to Hallmark holidays such as this are jacking up prices like mad. Hotels, gas stations, restaurants, you name it. Not to mention cards and candy for your kids' classroom, flowers for the wife, dinner, wine, chocolates, and lingerie, and so much pressure. All this spending just as taxes are around the corner and starting to weigh on your mind. How do you survive this without burning a hole in your wallet?

1. Celebrate on your own terms


Just because some Catholic guy got beheaded in Rome a long time ago doesn't mean you need to recognize his sainthood with an over-priced steak. Besides, calendars have undergone a few make-overs since then, so our February 14th isn't even the same. The Wall Street Journal has an article by Brett Arands wherein he calls for a VDay revolution. He makes the splendid point that even by a simple comparison of hotels one week later versus on the big weekend, you can save 25% or more if you simply choose a different day to celebrate. Pick any day you want and shower your sweetie with love. It will probably be even more special, because then you will be the only couple with excessive PDA instead of everyone in the building.


2. Have an at-home date night


Much like a stay-cation, home date nights are a fantastic way to still break your routine and spend quality time together without breaking the bank. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination. Get cooking or baking, have a movie/Netflix marathon, or play some games together. You could have a nice dinner ready when your special someone gets home from work, like my Male & Female Style Pizza or make my homemade pizza dough from my Vegetarian Pepper Pizza (and top as you wish). Bonus points for making it into a heart shape.

Here are the Top 10 Stay-Home Date Ideas from AskMen, and the Top 50 Date-Night Ideas from Redbook.


3. Get away for cheap

If you are really feeling the cabin fever and want to get out of the house, or take advantage of the extra time off, try getting away but not to your typical hotel. Camping is always a great budget option, and you could look into traveling further south for warmer climates if you've been stuck inside during recent snowstorms. House sitting/swapping is also an option if you're feeling adventurous. Here's a good article on 10 things you need to know about home swapping from USA Today.


Now that you have tons of ideas, get to planning, or even better plan nothing at all. This totally applies if you're single too. Take yourself on a date, go see a movie, make something fancy for dinner, have your own personal wine tasting. If you don't have a "partner" or "significant other", spend the time to shower yourself with love. After all, if you don't love yourself then you can't rightfully love someone else. In fact even if you DO have a partner you should show yourself a little love. No matter what you decide to do, enjoy yourself and anyone else you're with, make happy memories, and be safe.



What's your favorite romantic date idea?

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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Perfect refried beans - low-fat, high protein!

Refried beans, known as frijoles refritos, are a staple in Mexican and Mex-inspired cuisine. It translates into "well-fried beans", which is an accurate description. Most often pinto beans are used, though sometimes pink or red kidney beans can be used as well. The beans are fully cooked, and any water or broth is drained from them. Then they are mashed well, and put into a frying pan to be cooked again over low heat. Refried beans tend to be made with bacon grease and/or lard and/or bacon added, which sure boosts the flavor, but also may boost your hip size. It's super simple to make your own at home with only three ingredients and no added fat.

Ingredients:
1 can pinto beans, drained (use no added sodium kinds if you can find it)
2-3 bay leaves
1 tbsp cumin

Step 1: Drain the beans. Rinse them as well if not low-sodium to remove some excess sodium. (You can also use dried beans. Soak them overnight in the fridge and boil until soft, then drain.)
*Side note: bean cooking water is apparently awesome for watering gardens
or house plants. So if you cook beans from raw, keep that in mind!
Step 2: Pour the beans into a frying pan. Add about 1/4 cup water, and cook on low until the water bubbles and beans are heated through. Mash with a fork or potato mashed until mostly soft and creamy. 

Step 3: Add bay leaves and cumin. You can also add salt and pepper if you like. Mix well, continue to cook on low heat for 10 minutes to an hour. Add more water periodically if they seem to dry out too much. Enjoy as a side dish, on tacos or burritos, or with eggs at breakfast.


Think Geek has more in-depth info on how they are prepared and when to eat them, Food Timeline has a neat comparison of various historical accounts of what refried beans are and when they originated, and Wikipedia covers why the mistranslation into "refried" is wrong on two counts.

What is your favorite way to cook beans?

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Sunday, January 26, 2014

How to make & stick to a budget

How to make a budget


Part of any healthy financial plan, a budget is a critical tool to help you find out and control where your money is coming from and more importantly where it is going. Many people cringe as soon as they hear the word "budget" because they think that means never having fun ever again, which is simply untrue. The beauty of a budget is that YOU are in charge of it. You call all the shots, from what categories there are to the amounts allocated to each. And they can be amended as your life situation changes to allow for schooling, a raise, a job loss, a move, a marriage, a baby, a divorce, etc. 

So how does one go about creating a budget? 

Your first step should be sitting down with a pen and piece of paper, or a Word or Excel document, and writing down every single thing on which you spend money on a daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly basis. Include housing (rent/mortgage/taxes), transportation (bus pass/gas/parking), food (groceries/dining out/coffee shops), and entertainment (movies/books/games/hobbies/vacations), as well as any other special categories you might need (children's activities/debt repayment/investments). 

Your next step is to either: a. keep track for a month to see what level of spending is in each category, b. use an online tracker such as Mint.com to track spending, or c. estimate the amount spent each month. This is your total spending. Now estimate or calculate your income each month. This can include paychecks, investment dividends, interest on savings, gifts from relatives, inheritance, side jobs, etc. This is your total income.

Your goal: Make the difference between your income and your spending as large & positive as possible

This is the "spending gap", as covered in several great articles (Minding The Gap & The Gap Matters More Than Anything) by Trent from The Simple Dollar. You can increase your gap by either spending less or earning more, or ideally doing both. The larger your gap, the more room you have to pay down debt, invest, and sock away savings, and the less stressed you will be. 

Let's look at an example:
In the scenario on the left, the person in question makes about $54,000 a year (take-home of $4,500 a month) plus some extra from interest (assuming there are investments). The smart thing to do would be to re-invest that interest each month, thus adding to the principal amount invested and increasing the amount of interest. 

Anywho, that adds up to $4,750 coming in each month. This person also appears to have a rather nice home and car, as well as a lively social life, causing spending to total $2,450 per month. Even at this spending level, this person's "gap" is a healthy $2,300 per month. They could use this to pay off debt like cards or loans, save for retirement, pad an emergency fund, or take a nice vacation.

On the other hand, the person on the right makes about $26,400 per year, and has no income other than their paycheck, which is $2,200 per month. While they have a lower housing payment, they have the same social and entertainment level as the person with a higher income, leading to a tiny "gap" of only $50 per month. 

The best way to approach this, with the intention of increasing the gap, is to consciously choose a number smaller than the current spending level. If you then hold yourself to those smaller numbers, you will naturally see your spending gap widen in your favor. 
If, for example, the person on the right were to move to a smaller housing situation or obtain a roommate, drive a smaller or older car, save money on groceries and eating out, decrease shopping and eliminate unnecessary spending like going out to the movies, the gap can widen to as much as $1,150 per month! That can become a nice savings account to eventually full-out buy a nicer car, a house of their own, make a job transition, or whatever dreams are yet to be fulfilled.


How to stick to a budget


Once you decide on the amount you want to spend per month on a certain category, now all you have to do is hold yourself to it. Easy right? Not so much when you're new to budgeting. Or really at any point in your life. You see, we all have a tendency to get used to whatever lifestyle we currently lead. Our "wants" will always greatly outnumber our "needs", and that leads to lifestyle inflation. That means when your income increases, you can fulfill more wants, so you expect a nicer lifestyle. Investopedia explains how this keeps us in the "rat race", working just to pay the bills. 

This more expensive lifestyle then becomes the new normal. Inexpensive or free activities aren't as appealing because it seems "beneath" you since you have such a nice way of living. Unfortunately things happen which may decrease your income, but will not decrease your expectations. It is also more difficult to save and get ahead financially. The Simple Dollar also has a great article about Avoiding Lifestyle Inflation.


There are several ways you can avoid the temptation of lifestyle inflation. 

  1. If you get a raise, pretend like you didn't by putting that money straight into a savings or retirement account. If you don't know it's there, you can't spend it.
  2. Do NOT take on unnecessary debt. Just because you make more doesn't justify a huge loan for the newest car out there or a bigger house or more credit cards or whatever.
  3. Forget about the Joneses. What other people have doesn't matter, there will always be people with more money and things than you. Focus on your life, your relationships, and the things that bring you joy.
  4. Continue finding free and inexpensive activities that fulfill you. Teach, tutor, volunteer, read, or go for walks. Enjoy the simple things in life.
For more ideas see YahooFinance, GetRichSlowly, or FabandFru

The single best tip I can give you on sticking to a budget is to automate as much as possible. If 10% of your paycheck goes straight to a savings account minutes after it is deposited, you don't have a chance to spend it at the mall. If you have accounts set up for grocery spending or entertainment and put only the amount you want to spend, then you can only spend as much as is in the account. This takes a lot of the work out of budgeting, and makes you accountable. Just be sure to keep an eye on amounts and balances every month.


How to save money


Another problem people have with budgeting is not being able to "find" any extra money to cover the bills, savings, investments, as well as social fun. A lot of people view being frugal as the same thing as being cheap or miserly. This is not necessarily the case. You can still have a vibrant social life and enjoy leisure activities without spending large amounts of money every month. And many easy tips that save you money over the long haul don't even make a noticeable impact on your daily life. 

You don't have to go to the extremes of making your own laundry soap, living with a 55 degree home in the winter and 85 in the summer, or eating wild flowers to supplement your diet if you don't want to. There are boatloads of frugal money-saving tips, and of course each one will not work for every person. You need to evaluate each tip according to your needs and lifestyle, try a few out, and keep only the ones that work for you. 

My favorite way to save money is on food of course. I combine many different techniques to keep my grocery bill as low as possible. For starters, I very rarely eat out. Nearly every breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack is made by me in my home. This saves me a TON of money yearly. Say I got lunch at work each day, for an average of $8 per day. $8 x 5 days per week x 48 weeks per year = $1,920! Nearly $2,000. That's 2 1/2 months of rent for me, or 7 1/2 months of car payment, or 10 months groceries. By making my own meals, I save that amount and put it towards savings, retirement, and other goals. 

I shop what's on sale at the store, I stock on up frequently used items if there's a good deal, I buy in bulk when I can, I pay attention to "per unit" prices, etc. I also take the bus to work in warmer months (I'm a student and we get a free bus pass, saving me $36/month), I insulated my apartment windows so the heating bill is lower, I buy clothes at Goodwill and consignment stores, and so on. 

For more great tips on daily money saving strategies:

America Saves - 54 Ways to Save Money
Daily Finance - 5 Tips for Frugal Living That Won't Leave You Feeling Miserable
How Stuff Works - 5 No-Brainer Money-Saving Tips Everyone Forgets
Learnvest - 9 Frugal-Living Tips from the Great Depression
Little House Living - Frugal Tips
Living Frugal Tips website and Savings category
The Simple Dollar - Little Steps: 100 Great Tips for Saving Money for Those Just Getting Started
US News - 8 Painless Ways to Save Money
zenhabits - The Cheapskate Guide: 50 Tips for Frugal Living


What's your favorite frugal tip?

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Thursday, January 23, 2014

What's in a name?

So we are already 3/4 of the way through January. As we all tackle the new year with our various resolutions to lose half our body weight, workout 20 hours a day, sleep twice as much while being four times as productive, cut out everything but lettuce and carrots from our diet, or never drive a car, throw out a recyclable thing, buy from a chain, or fart ever again, I've decided not to decide. Never a huge proponent of 'resolutions', mostly for the fact that they rarely stick, I will simply continue with my year-round practice of setting goals and working towards them. Daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, and long-term. If you're interested, you can see some fun figures on resolutions at Statistic Brain and get some suggestions to make goals you really will stick to at Psychology Today.
Photo from Mahfooz' Exposition blog on Wordpress
Since the name & style change for this blog only happened two months ago, I've already reached some personal goals, and have several more set for this year. I have increased readership by about 10-fold, my blog joined a cool network of amazing world-wide food bloggers called The Daily Meal (which you should totally check out!), formatted and outlined an e-cookbook, created and begun contributing to a Twitter & Facebook presence (@BudgetEpicurean -Tweet or follow me!- and the Facebook group Culinary Content), and automated and increased postings to three times per week (which may change depending on my course load this semester...). That's pretty exciting for two month's time. In the upcoming year, I have several personal and blog-related goals:
  1. Continue to keep up with 3x weekly postings with varied and high quality information and recipes
  2. Experiment with different types of food, ethnic foods, recipe substitutions, 'health-ifying' things, etc.
  3. Finish writing the bulk of the recipes for the e-cookbook as well as finishing the index by the end of March
On a personal note:
  1. Go to the gym a minimum of 3x per week, whether to run, yoga, or strength train. Failing that, yoga or weights at home
  2. Try to fit at least one more serving of veggies in per day than usual
  3. Drink a minimum of 1 32 oz bottle of water per day (I'm terrible at remembering to drink water. Some days I get home at 7 and realize the only liquid I've had all day is a cup of coffee and the milk in my cereal that morning. It doesn't help that I work in a lab where food/drinks aren't allowed)
  4. Sock away 5% to savings and 5% to an investment account each month no matter what
  5. Get involved with a charity & volunteer at least one hour once a month
  6. Make time for at least 1 hour a week for myself, and 1 hour per day of distraction-less couple time
You'll notice that most of those goals involve something specific. Rather than "workout more" I tell myself I must work out three times per week. If I make three days in a row, great for me. If I go Monday and then forget until Friday, guess what I'm doing over the weekend? Also "drink more water" is hard to follow through on. Filling one 32 oz bottle in the morning and making sure it's empty by the time I go to bed is manageable. 

As the name of this post implies, I've been thinking that the name for this blog is the Budget Epicurean. As such I shall be occasionally posting about things other than food, mainly frugality and budgeting. Stay tuned for my next post, which will be all about how to create and stick to a budget!

What's your #1 resolution this year? (Week, month, decade...)

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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Grapefruit juice: Miracle or killer?

History of the Grapefruit


A grapefruit is indeed a fruit, but is definitely not like a grape. Nor is it purple. So how did it get its name? People who dedicate their lives to studying fruits are a subset of botanists called "pomologists". According to the Library of Congress website, most pomologists agree that the grapefruit is a hybrid between a sweet orange and a pummelo. The largest citrus fruit, the pummelo is native to Southeast Asia and it has white, pink, or red flesh and a thick pith. Learn more here. The original orange was likely crossed with a pummelo having pink flesh, as most grapefruit varieties are pink inside, though there are white and red varieties as well. All citrus fruit are what is called "Hesperidum", a large, modified berry with a thick outer skin called a rind. The rind is what you 'zest' on lemons and limes. 
Grapefruit. From the National Center for Chronic Disease
Prevention and Health Promotion Web site.
Grapefruit trees usually grow 16-20 feet tall, though they can reach up to 50 feet. The fruits tend to grow in clusters, which has been suggested look like a bunch of grapes, leading to the name grape-fruit. The rind is yellowy-orange and the fruit is largely a sphere, with segmented flesh. The redder varieties are typically sweeter, but all varieties have that acidic tartness for which the fruit is known. 

In the USA, Texas is the state most known for producing commercial grapefruit. TexaSweet Citrus Marketing, Inc. has a page dedicated to the history of the grapefruit industry in Texas. In it they state that the first reported planting of a grove (large group of similar, fruit-bearing trees) in Texas was 1893. Those first trees were of the white varieties, followed soon after by the pink varieties. A developer from Omaha, Nebraska felt that these crops were the future of the state, and thus John H. Shary began combining his knowledge of the latest irrigation techniques with a determination to produce citrus commercially. Now known as the "Father of the Citrus Industry", he shipped his first commercial crop in 1920. 

Right around the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929 the first red grapefruit was accidentally discovered. In 1929 the first grapefruit patent was issued for the "US Ruby Red" of the Redblush variety. Many new mutations were found producing varying degrees of redness and sweetness, causing confusion in the market. Further laboratory breeding and experimentation lead to even more varieties. Finally Texas decided that to differentiate its red, sweeter fruit from others on the market, they would market crops under only two trademarked names, the Ruby-Sweet and the Rio Star. 

My favorite way to eat grapefruit is just slice it in half, and sprinkle some sugar or sweetener over the halves. Cut along the white part to separate each chunk of flesh. Then dig each piece out with a spoon and enjoy! It's an interactive healthy breakfast. You can use the peels to make Grapefruitcello, a super easy infused alcohol, too!


Benefits and dangers of grapefruit

Benefits

As grapefruit became more popular, pop culture obsession with dieting created many grapefruit juice cleanses, grapefruit concentrate pills, and of course diets in which your main food is the grapefruit. WedMD has a breakdown of the classic grapefruit diet and considerations if you're thinking of trying it. The benefits of grapefruit include:
  • Vitamin C - grapefruit, like all citrus fruits, is rich in Vitamin C. This vitamin, also known as ascorbic acid, is required for growth and repair, is an anti-oxidant, meaning it helps get rid of damaging free radicals in your body, and is reputed to help fight off or prevent the common cold. (Source: MedLine Plus)
  • Lycopene - a bright red carotenoid phytopigment, this is a product of photosynthesis. Found only in the pink and red grapefruits, it is suggested to have anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor growth, and age-related eye protective properties. Other foods rich in lycopene include tomatoes, apricots, pink grapefruit, watermelon, papaya, and guava. (Source: Mayo Clinic)
  • Flavonoids - liminoids, glucarates, and naringenin are other chemicals found in grapefruits which may have health benefits. Limonoids promotes formation of glutathione-S-transferase, a detoxifying enzyme which benefits the liver. Glucarates are found in citrus fruits and may help prevent breast cancer. And naringenin has been shown to help repair DNA in a human prostate cancer cell line by inducing formation of two DNA-repair enzymes. Grapefruit juice has been purported to help men lower their risk of prostate cancer. (Source: World's Healthiest Foods)

Dangers

While grapefruit may be a nutritional powerhouse, it can also cause health problems. Certain types of drugs become more potent when combined with grapefruit juice. Depending on the type of interaction, the drugs can become more or less bioavailable, accumulate in the blood or organs, or fail to metabolize. Certain compounds in grapefruit juice slow the body's normal detoxification and metabolism processes in the liver and intestine. Grapefruit may inhibit cytochrome P450 enzyme, an important metabolizing enzyme, or P-glycoprotein, a drug transporter which shuttles chemicals into and out of the intestines. 

Interactions may include:
  • statins
  • immunosuppressants
  • calcium channel blockers
  • antivirals
  • hormones

Currently at least 85 drugs are known to interact with grapefruit compounds. Statins in particular can build up to toxic levels, which may result in the serious statin-associated disease rhabdomyolysis. This disease affects muscle tissue, and can cause temporary weakness or paralysis. These interactions may also be more severe in elderly patients. Doctors should be aware of these interactions and education patients about their particular risk, as each individual patients' situation is variable. Check with a healthcare provider before starting a diet which regularly incorporates large amounts of grapefruit and/or juice.


Additional Resources


For many other facts about grapefruit, including history, ways to use it in cooking, drug interactions, and nutritional facts, check out Vegetarians in Paradise, the Kitchn blog, 3 fat chicks on a diet, Wikipedia, ABCNews, or Health.com.

For a PDF of the Review article
Medicinal importance of grapefruit juice and its interaction with various drugs by Jawad Kiani and Sardar Imam.

Click if you'd like to read this article: The grapefruit: an old wine in a new glass? Metabolic and cardiovascular perspectives by Peter Owira and John Ojewole. 



What's your favorite way to eat grapefruit?

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Sunday, January 19, 2014

Homemade Cinnamon Raisin Soft Pretzels

I've had a love affair with everything you can make homemade for quite some time now. From homemade oven-baked bread (that didn't work very well... I need to try that again), to perfect pancakes, applesauce muffins, and even infused liquor, I love when I can take a few simple ingredients and make a whole lot of something I otherwise would have to buy at the store. Someday soon I will foray into making my own yogurt, bagels, kombucha, and sauerkraut too. 

One thing I've had in the back of my mind to try was soft pretzels. They seemed like an easy enough task, though I wasn't sure. History claims that a very long time ago, AD 610 according to TLC Cooking, a monk was frustrated with his class and had some leftover bread dough. He rolled the dough out into rolls and made the iconic pretzel shape to resemble hands crossed in prayer. Originally called "pretiola", Latin for "little reward", they were quickly re-named "brachiola" which means "little arms". They reached Germany, where they became a huge hit and were known as bretzels. This translated in America to pretzels, and so the famous street/fair/and sports event food took its place in our history.

So when I found on Sally's Baking Addiction a 30 Minute Pretzel recipe, I knew I had to try it. However, my favorite soft pretzel is the Auntie Anne's cinnamon raisin with glaze, so rather than a plain salt that's what I was after. With a few tweaks, I was sure I could re-create that $6 treat for far less. This recipe ended up making 8 medium-sized pretzels. I'm sure you could cut it in half for one, or make smaller ones for young-uns. You can also omit the cinnamon and use less sugar and just roll in sea salt for regular soft pretzels and dip in mustard or cheese. In fact, I think I'll need to make another batch of plain this weekend...

Ingredients:
1.5 cups water
1 packet yeast
1 cup sugar or brown sugar
2 tsp salt
2 tbsp cinnamon
1/4 cup raisins
4 cups flour plus extra
2 eggs, beaten


Step 1: Pour the yeast into 1 1/2 cups warm-ish water and stir. You don't have to wait for anything to rise, just mix it well.
Step 2: Mix all dry ingredients in a large bowl. (Flour, sugar, salt, cinnamon, and raisins). Add in the yeasty water and mix with your hands. Add more flour if needed. Once you have a fairly rubbery dough, break off a fist-sized chunk and place on a floured surface.
Step 3: Roll the dough out into a long strand, then cross it over into the pretzel shape. I'm actually going to try making letters and other shapes next time.


The next step is optional. Rumor has it boiling in baking soda water gives pretzels that chewy texture and browned color. Boil 1 cup baking soda in 9-10 cups water. Dunk the pretzels, and let boil for 5 minutes, then dry on a rack before baking. **Oh wait... it said 30 seconds. That could explain a lot. Only leave them in the boiling soda water for 30 seconds if you do this step**
A little hint: putting a wooden spoon across the top of a pot keeps it from boiling over. At least up to a certain point.
My post-baking conclusion was that while the boiling did cause a different color and taste, I like the pretzels without the baking soda step better, so I won't be doing that in the future. However feel free to experiment yourself, maybe the altitude has something to do with it... #ColoradoBakingProblems
Step 4: Beat the eggs in a flat bowl/plate and coat the pretzels fully.
Step 5: Brush on some butter and cinnamon/sugar if you want extra sweetness. Bake the pretzels at 425 for 10-15 minutes, until nicely browned. Make sure to watch for burning.
Step 6: To make the glaze, take 1 cup powdered sugar and mix in 2 tbsp melted butter, 1 tsp vanilla flavoring, and 1-3 tbsp milk (depending on the consistency you want).
Drizzle the glaze over your pretzels and enjoy!
Warm and chewy right out of the oven, these pretzels were fantastic! Just as good, if not better, than anything I've had from a mall or baseball field. Will definitely be making these regularly, they are so easy and take less than a half hour total time.



National Pretzel Day is April 26, so you have plenty of time to practice and perfect your favorite recipe!

80% of all pretzels in the United States are made in Pennsylvania, where the hard pretzel originated. Unfortunately the Pretzel Museum in Philadelphia has closed, but they leave behind some fun facts:

bullet Pretzels without salt are called baldies.

bullet An 1859 parade in New Orleans featured a float carrying a pretzel-baking machine.
bullet An average pretzel has 3.5 grams of fat and 260 calories.
bullet German kids wear pretzels around their neck for good luck on New Year's. 

bullet Pretzels top some Christmas trees in Austria.
bullet A page in the prayer book used by Catharine of Cleves depicts St. Bartholomew surrounded by pretzels which were thought to bring good luck, prosperity and spiritual wholeness.

For lots more fun facts on pretzels check out the TLC website.


What's your favorite type of pretzel or topping?


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Thursday, January 16, 2014

Vegetarian Pepper Pizza with Acorn Squash Sauce

Pizza is popular in nearly every country and among all age groups. Who can resist a chewy doughy crust, tangy or creamy sauce, and toppings to make your mouth water? With infinite variations, pizza can range the gamut from a whole-grain & veggie-packed near-health-food to an unapologetic grease-laden diet disaster. Everyone has their own favorite topping and style.

Of course most people know that pizza is native to Italy. The History Channel website wrote up a nice article about the history of pizza you should check out for more information. The city of Naples, founded in 600 B.C., was home in the 18th & 19th centuries to a large working-class poor population. As such, they needed food which was cheap and easy to eat quickly. Flat bread baked with various toppings such as tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, and cheese, met this need. However, pizza did not catch on worldwide until the late 1940s.

Italian immigrants to America brought these recipes with them when they immigrated in search of jobs. Quickly, the smells and tastes of these flat breads began to grow in popularity, and local custom varieties began springing up. Toppings branched out from the typical tomato, basil, cheese, or anchovies and grew to include things like pineapple, BBQ chicken, bacon, and even dessert pizzas. Chicago became known for its "deep-dish" pizza with inches-thick crust, while New York City style meant thin crust pies with a slice bigger than your face. Chains spring up and now popular American-founded brands are represented in over 60 countries worldwide. 

This pizza I came up with was made with a bare minimum of ingredients, the dough does not need time to rise, and I packed in the veggies. The acorn squash hidden in the sauce makes it a bit sweeter than I'm used to, which I didn't mind. But if it's too much, try adding tomato paste and olive oil rather than diced tomatoes. And as always, don't be afraid to experiment! Have some asparagus left in the fridge? Ran out of mozzarella but have some blue cheese? Want to spice it up with jalapenos? Go for it!

Ingredients:
DOUGH
2 1/2 cups flour
1/2 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp salt
1 1/2 cup warm water
SAUCE
1 can diced tomatoes
1 acorn squash
Dash Italian seasonings
Dash garlic salt
TOPPINGS
1/2 cup spinach
1/2 jar roasted red peppers
Handful banana pepper rings
~2/3 cup mozzarella cheese

Step 1: Cut the squash in half and microwave 5 minutes, cut side up, with water in it. Flip and microwave another 5 minutes. Repeat until the squash is fork-tender and peels easily.

Step 2: In a blender, combine the can of tomatoes (with juice) and squash. Blend until it makes a smooth puree. Add spices here.
Step 3: In a large bowl, mix the dough ingredients. If too stiff, add more water or olive oil. If too wet or sticky, add extra flour. Sprinkle some flour on a flat surface and roll the dough out. Use your hands to shape it into a circle.
Step 4: Spread the sauce over the dough, leaving about 1 inch around the edges for crust. Layer on the toppings.
Step 5: Cover it all in cheese. You can substitute vegan cheese or just leave it off for a vegan pie.
Step 6: Bake on a pizza pan or cookie sheet at 350 for about 40 minutes, or until golden brown and bubbly.
Let it cool on a rack if you can wait that long!
Thanks Italy! 

What's your favorite kind of pizza?


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Tuesday, January 14, 2014

How to: Make a "door snake" or "draft stopper"

Want to know a great way to help your budget in the colder months? Winter-proofing your house or apartment. If you live somewhere that experiences temperatures below 60 degrees (which is much of the world) your skin and wallet will thank you for taking some simple steps. Winter-proofing is beneficial because it can help your heater work less hard (due to plugging up drafts and beefing up insulation), keep your living areas warmer, decrease your energy needs, and decrease your energy bills. All good things. Some tips will not apply to you depending on what type of structure you live in and how much space you have to heat. A quick Google search brings up Yahoo's list of 12 Ways to Winter-Proof Your Home, Women's Day's Guide to Winter-Proofing Your House,  and UK Money's How to Winter-Proof Your Home and Beat the Big Freeze

A common thing among all winter-proofing lists is insulation. Regardless of whether you have a 5-bedroom home in the suburbs or a one-bedroom apartment in the city, insulating your doors and windows will keep drafts at bay and heating bills manageable. One way to insulate windows is to use plastic window cling or bubble wrap. I mashed several layers of bubble wrap over the bedroom window and duct taped it in place. There is definitely a noticeable difference in how much cold gets through the window now! This guide is to show you another simple way to avoid under-door drafts: by making a door snake! It may seem intimidating, but my friend B and I made two gorgeous draft stoppers in under 20 minutes.

You will need:
1 sewing machine (or needle, thread, time, and patience)
Material approximately 1 yard by 1 foot (use thicker cloths to stand up to more wear)
Approximately 6-10 cups filler (rice, beans, sand, salt, kitty litter, etc)

Step 1: Lay your fabric pattern-side up, and flip it over onto itself so the 'inside' faces out. Pin along a straight line.
Step 2: Use a basic stitch to sew along the pins from end to end. You can measure the length of your doorway, leave an extra 2 inches per end. This doesn't have to be super exact.
Sew all the way along the length. This will create a tube with open ends on both sides.
Step 3: Sew up one end of the tube. Make sure the two sets of stitches overlap to fully close that end.
Step 4: Now flip the tube inside-out so that the stitches are on the inside and the pattern is on the outside.

This is one of B's 2 cats, she was very interested in what we were doing. Mostly the parts involving string.
Step 5: Measure against your door frame to make sure you fill the tube to the right length. Cut off the extra, leaving a few inches on the un-sewn end.
Step 6: Take the filler material, and hold open one end. Fill the tube up until the length of your door frame.
B proudly holding our first filled door snake. =) This is before cutting off the extra end material and sewing up the open end. Also of note, kitty litter is cheap but very dusty. Maybe try rice in yours.


Step 7: Fold the ends in by about 1/4 inch so that you have 4 layers of material. This puts the frayed, cut ends on the inside and creates a cleaner look & hemline.



Step 8: Sew along the double fold at the end. Make sure it is nice and tight, and goes all the way to both sides of material. You don't want filler bits leaking out on your floor.
Step 9: Make sure your door snake is the right size for your door frame, and admire your hard work.


There you have it. A simple solution to cold wintry drafts that saves you from needing to double-sock and saves you some cash. You can re-use these for years, depending on the type of material and your level of sewing prowess. I've even heard of people sewing extra washable covers for these so they can wash the cover when it gets dusty/muddy/gross.



What's your favorite money-saving craft idea?


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Sunday, January 12, 2014

Vegetarian Breakfast Strata

I've said many times, and I'll say it again, breakfast is the most important meal of the day. I've also said many times that I love easy, make-ahead meals. This breakfast strata could be put together or baked the day before and stored in the fridge if needed. It is super simple and could incorporate any type of veggie or bean you prefer. You can make it completely vegan by using egg substitute and no cheese too.

Ingredients:
3 slices bread
1 can beans, slightly mashed
1/2-1 cup vegetable (spinach here)
8-10 eggs, beaten
sprinkle of cheese

Step 1: Lay the bread in an oven-safe pan sprayed with oil. Layer on the mashed beans, cheese and spinach.
Step 2: Add the egg mixture.
Step 3: I sprinkled more cheese on top. Bake at 350 for 45-50 minutes, until eggs are fully cooked.
Mmmmmmm! Hot, healthy, and protein packed breakfast. Actually this doesn't necessarily have to be for breakfast, you could have this any time of the day.


What are your favorite strata ingredients?

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Thursday, January 9, 2014

Bacon & Egg Breakfast Biscuits

We all have heard how breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Yet busy mornings, waking up late, or a lack of energy in the a.m. can stymie any attempts to be culinarily courageous before noon. This recipe is an easy weekend project which can make a few dozen little bacon-wrapped breakfast packages you can store and re-heat for a quick breakfast on the go all week long. If you can keep yourself from eating them all at once.

Ingredients:
1 pound bacon 
1 1/2 dozen eggs
2 packages biscuits
Shredded cheese (optional)

Step 1: Line some muffin tins with a strip of bacon.
Curl it around so the bacon makes a little cup.
Step 2: Crack an egg into each bacon cup. Cover with the biscuits. Add cheese if you want.
Step 3: Bake at 350 for ~40 minutes, until egg is cooked fully and biscuit is crispy and golden brown.








These little biscuits are absolutely perfect. The biscuits are buttery and crispy, the bacon is of course bacon, and it all comes together for a handheld protein powerhouse. The bacon does make it a little greasy so beware of that.

 How do you get breakfast on busy mornings?
 

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