Archive for category staples

Frying up McDonald’s French Fries in your Kitchen

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Serious Eats had a great article the other day on making McDonald’s french fries at home. Other than being very bad for your health (really? are they?) it is a very thorough treatment on something that I have always wondered about.

Now, what I would like to do is calculate how much cheaper it is to make them at home. I am sure the answer would be ‘much.’ But it seems like it would be more responsible to cook them at home. Maybe I’ll crank the numbers when I have time.

For the full article, check here.

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The Art of the Frugal Spice Rack

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Photos: Prakhar

I sense a flux of cooking articles coming on. I have been hammered with questions, and lately, they are all centering around cooking, and how to get started. Today, I thought I might cover what needs to be done when shopping for spices.

Some Background

In just about every kitchen I have ever visited, on the wall, is the venerable spice rack. There are usually several tiny bottles of more spices than would ever be needed in any cooking situation. The spices in these starter sets are usually the same batch that have been siting in there since the first round.

People usually then ask me what to do with all these spices.

My first recommendation is shocking: take them all, and throw them out.

There are a few rules you should use when evaluating your spice rack:

  1. If you have had a spice for more than a year, and been puzzled by it, it’s probably time to pitch it.
  2. If you can’t remember the last time you used any individual spice, pitch it.
  3. If you can’t name three recipes that would use it, you should probably pitch it.

After all this pitching, your options will be much smaller, but much fresher.

Herbs and spices have a limited shelf life, and once you get the hang of it, you can tell how long they have been sitting there by looking and smelling them. For now, just trust me on this one.

Determining your Needs


Now that you are devoid of stale spices, you have to figure out what you need. This can be really tough at first, and will vary widely by tastes and ethnicity. If you have a stable of recipes you normally cook, and are looking for something new to try, this is where it might get tricky.

When I start to get bored with my current menu offerings, I do the following:

  1. Think of something you love from a restaurant. Then, start searching around for recipes. You will probably have to experiment to figure out how you want to dial it in, but that’s the fun part.
  2. Think of a dish from your past. Something your mom or grandma made, then resolve to learn it.
  3. Watch the food network for about five minutes. That will give you all sorts of silly ideas to play with.

Armed with those recipes, make a shopping list of spices.

Avoid the Grocery Store

Now that you are ready to set out to start or replenish your supply, avoid the grocery store if you possibly can. The grocery store is the most expensive place EVER for spices.

I have started picking up spices at my local bulk food store, and found it now impossible to fork over such serious money at the grocery store. for example:

SpiceGrocery StoreBulk Food Store
Cumin$5.34$0.76
Cinnamon$4.31$0.80
Rosemary(Whole)$5.12$0.71

These prices are for 2 oz containers.

If you are not sure about bulk food stores, make sure to stop by my article on them, and try to find one in your area.

At the bulk food store, there really is no discount for buying larger quantities, so I would definitely recommend buying smaller quantities and replenishing often.

While you are there, don’t buy anything not on your list unless you have immediate plans to use it. You are trying to make sure you have fresh spices on hand. Don’t goof it up.

In the Future

So, you now have a manageable spice rack with only the things you need in it. What to do now? Keep up with more of the above. Experimenting, buying spices on the cheap, and exploring new ways of cooking.

Once you get into a groove, you will definitely keep your spices rotating and fresh.

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Movie Theater Popcorn on the Cheap

What does this have to do with frugality?

I love going to the movies. I love horror movies. I love the whole experience of it (minus waiting in the line to pee after the film). These days, I need to save my dollars, and going to the movies with my family (which can easily be a one hundred dollar affair, including dinner) is not an option. When I really thought about what I loved about the movies, it has always been the popcorn.

Although I always cringed at the idea of spending six bucks on a bucket of popcorn (sometimes twelve bucks, if I had to buy two!), I never thought there was a way around it.

For several years, I have tried to figure out what it was about movie popcorn that made it so good. I slaved in my kitchen with pots and pans, air poppers, and the like. The results were “sorta kinda but not really” at best. Never did I even come close to something that would make watching a movie at home become a reasonable experience. Then, finally, the perfect storm.

How to actually do it


It turns out that there is nothing to it. Best of fall, it’s CHEAP! One year, my buddy Douggie bought me a Whirley-Pop Popcorn Popper. This was the first piece that was actually missing from my arsenal. The trick with the whirley pop is that it continuously (well, you do, actually) stirs the popcorn while it cooks. This keeps the popcorn from scorching, and keeps it evenly heated.

The other trick is that it has ventilators on top. This is very important as the reason why your popcorn is getting mushy is most likely that your popper is retaining moisture. The reason corn pops is that the kernels are full of water. When this water explodes, the popcorn pops. That explosion of steam needs to go somewhere. The whirley popper throws the steam into the air.

The next part of the trick is the oil. I have used several types of oil, and found that the best oil to use is coconut oil. Yeah, it sounds exotic, but you can probably find it in your grocery store near the popcorn supplies. It will set you back about two and a half bucks, but it will last forever. I have found it in my local bulk food store but if you MUST order it online, you can try here but the pricing and the shipping could be prohibitive. Your best bet would be to ask around, or keep your eyes open on your local shopping expeditions.

The last, and more important thing, is the flavoring. After having found a ton of different flavorings claiming to taste like movie popcorn, I stumbled across one that actually made sense. It was sold at a store that sells these sorts of things to movie theaters. The stuff is called Flavacol. While you can order it online, I found it at my local GFS for less than two dollars. I have had this carton for months, and I have not really made a dent in it. While you can find it online, try to search your local stores for it, and you’ll save a wad on shipping.

So, that leaves the last part of the equation. The popcorn. I have tried all the gourmet popcorns, the pricey Orville Redenbacher popcorn, and while popping corn in a big pot or in an air popper showed a difference in these brands, the whirley pop does such a good job, the the differences are imperceptible. This means that you can buy a 99 cent bag of jolly time or a 99 sack of popcorn that the bulk food store and end up with great movie popcorn.

Advanced Methods

Once you have gotten your groove on, there is one more thing you can do to make your movie theater popcorn experience that much better. When you put your oil in your whirley pop, put in about 3/4 of a teaspoon of flavacol with with the oil. The popcorn will be PERFECT, but the cleanup will be a little worse.

You can also use the whirley pop to make fun stuff like caramel corn and kettle corn. The popper comes with a booklet of various ways to make your popper a sticky mess, but have alot of fun at the same time.

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The Art of the Frugal Grocery List

Brief History

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When I first started living out on my own, one of the things I enjoyed (and still do) doing was cooking my own meals. If you are taking on the frugal lifestyle as a newbie, this might be a whole skillset for you to learn. Cooking your own meals is not only fun and relaxing, you will soon find that the food you cook in your own kitchen can be much better than most anything you can find at most restaurants. If there is interest, I will start writing more articles about cooking and grocery shopping in general, but I thought this might be a good starting point.

I knew there was a problem with my methods when I started having to clean out my refrigerator every week or two when I went grocery shopping. I would throw out lots of extras that I bought, lots of extras I bought without a game plan, and lots I bought without any sort of thinking whatsoever.

I found that my major flaw was that I was shopping sometimes without a proper grocery list, and many times, I was shopping without a list at all.

So, a few years ago, I decided to fix this, and come up with a proper plan for grocery shopping. Hopefully, you can adapt this to your needs, and do the same thing.

Do NOT Shop without a List

This is probably the most important thing you can do. Countless times, I have decided to just go grocery shopping on the way home from work. I was a good cook, and could plan a menu in my head, so why should I bother making a list?

There were some very good reasons to do so, I found out.

When you make your list, you do this at home, when you can look into your pantry and refrigerator, and check for duplicates. There are several things that every kitchen should always have in stock. I will write more about this later in the week, but obviously, these are things that you probably don’t need to buy.

I found that without my list, I would buy these essentials over and over to the point where I had many duplicates of them in my kitchen. Sure, it’s okay to have them in stock, but i probably didn’t buy them at a sale price, so I had lost hard earned money to stock my shelves. I found that I had TONS of:

  • Crushed tomatoes
  • Potatoes
  • Carrots
  • Rice
  • Chicken Broth

All things that I could have saved money on by planning before I shopped.

I also found that if I wasn’t diligent in my planning, I would buy stupid things that didn’t make any sense while I was shopping. Cookies, ice cream, candy, and a whole list of things that I don’t even like to eat, but sound good when you are aimlessly strolling around in the grocery store.

So, rule 1. Make a list. But how do you make a list that makes sense?

Properly Planning a Grocery List

So, you realize your system is flawed. You start making a list, but you still have extras of everything at the end of the week that get thrown out. What you have to do is plan your menus that make sense.

Before I went with the high tech method, I was doing everything in my field notes . Here’s how I would break it down.

  1. On the left page, I would list the days of the week. Under each day of the week, I would list the menu items for the day. You should be specific, too. An entry like: Spaghetti with meat sauce, Garlic bread, Red Wine. This will give you a good starting point to plan that day’s meal.
  2. On the right page, start making a list of the things you need to make those dishes. This is where the art of the grocery list comes in. We will talk about this in a minute.
  3. On the right hand side, start making headings based on the departments in the grocery store. Things like: Dairy, Meat, Produce, Condiments, etc. You will have to do this a few times before it starts making sense. Although there is some grunt work here, this is a sure way to save time on your trips. You might even find that there are several specialty stores you need to visit. Put these items under an appropriate header.

Now, when you go to the grocery store, you can fly through the aisles, confidently buying all the things you need. That confidence in your planning skills will also go a long way in making sure you don’t buy extra bags of chips or cookies that sound like such a great idea.

Where is the art you promised?

Okay, grasshopper. Once you have gotten to this point, you will be saving a great deal of money on your food bill. This is where you might find that there is still one snag. On each grocery shopping adventure, you still have things to throw away: half a bag of carrots, half a head of lettuce, two tomatoes, and five nasty old potatoes. While you can compost this stuff, it would be better to be end up with none left at all.

Now, what you need to do is plan your meals strategically, so that there is as much overlap as you can muster in your list without having to buy extra that will spoil. Since there are no real rules to how to do this, and each family is different, I will demonstrate my line of thinking for a week. This week, in fact.

This week’s meal plan!

  • Sunday – We are having guests for a late lunch, so I decided to make barbecued chicken sandwiches. This means I will have grilled chicken leftover, and a few nice buns. I will also need to buy carrots for the sandwiches (let me know if you want the recipe and why I am adding carrots), cilantro, and jalapenos. The rest of the stuff, I have in my well stocked kitchen.
  • Monday – Since I have leftover chicken, and some nice buns, let’s do chicken salad for lunch. Oh! And I have some turmeric in my well stocked kitchen, it will be an interesting salad. For dinner, I will be in a rush, so I am gonna make spaghetti. I will need a green pepper. I have some cans of sauce, and cheese, so I need hamburger and italian sausage. I will buy extra hamburger to grill on wednesday, and since I will be buying sausage, let’s make pizzas on thursday!
  • Tuesday – That spaghetti was good. I have leftover sauce, so let’s have rigatoni with that leftover sauce for lunch. For dinner, let’s go crazy and make chile verde, a pot of beans, and a pot of rice. So I need pork steaks, ortegas, and crushed tomatoes (but I already have these). I can make tortillas from scratch with the flour I have, so I only need to buy two things. Wow! Cheap!
  • Wednesday – Wow. I made a pot of chile verde last night. less than ten bucks later, and I have enough to feed an army. Let’s make a burrito for lunch. The rest of the chile verde is going into the freezer. I can eat that for several sunday breakfasts. I bought hamburger earlier in the week, so I will grill those. I need to buy buns, a head of lettuce, and I got some tomatoes from the neighbor. I have cheese in my well stocked kitchen, so, I just need buns.
  • Thursday – I have a head of lettuce, so let’s make a salad. I might as well make a big one, and have it for dinner tonight, and maybe tomorrow’s lunch. Tonight, we will make pizzas. I only need a few things for pizza: provolone, mozarella, pepperoni, and olives. I have parmesan, sauce, flour and yeast for the dough already. I will serve salad with dinner.
  • Friday – You guessed it. Leftover pizza for lunch. For dinner, let’s go nuts and make a pot roast. I already have the carrots, onions, and potatoes. All I need is a roast, and a can of beef broth (I used my last one last week.) That salad is still good, so let’s have that. I also made bread on wednesday for 62 cents a loaf , so let’s warm some up, butter it, and serve that too! Man, we eat so good around here!
  • Saturday – I have some potatoes left, and a small pot of mashed potatoes is so easy to make. I will mash those, and make open faced pot roast sandwiches for lunch. Hmm.. while I have potatoes boiling, I will reserve some to make a potato salad, since I have everything i need already. For dinner, I am gonna gamble. I will go to the butcher shop, and see what cuts of meat are on sale, and whatever looks good, I will buy it, and cook it up. Whoa! Pork spare ribs for $1.19 a pound. yes! I have beans left over from that pot of beans the other day, so let’s make bbq beans. So, we’re eating bbq spareribs, potato salad, bbq beans, and fresh bread. Less than ten bucks to feed my family a killer dinner. This would cost me more than sixty bucks if we went out.

Okay, I realize that this line of thinking is very much geared towards my situation and my family, but with just a little bit of goofing around, you can easily own this line of thinking and your family can eat like kings, on the cheap, and end up throwing away a very minimal amount of stuff at the end of the week. And, you should be composting anyway, so you can just put it on the pile.

The High Tech Method


So, I grocery shopped this way for years. I used my handy field notes book (which goes everywhere with me) for such a purpose. At some point, I started pursuing developing software for the iPod Touch. The reason I picked up the device was to practice writing an app to automate my grocery shopping style. It turns out that someone else had tackled that problem with an app called Grocery Zen. I purchased this app for $1.99, and it was everything I hoped it would be, so I ended up cutting my development teeth on another project.

Conclusions already!

So, yes, over the years, I transformed my grocery shopping into yet another adventure in planning, frugality, and creativity. I realize that some of these ideas might be a little daunting to newcomers to frugality, and that many of you might not have the cooking skills to hit the ground running, but please stick with me.

In the next few weeks, I will be posting a few hours that will make your leftovers much more interesting, and the smells wafting from your kitchen making your neighbors’ stomachs rumble.

Until then, let me know if you have any questions on cooking in general. Thanks!

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