Becoming Jill: Adventures in Adulthood


Chapter 7: In Which I Fall Off the Map. People Harass Me.
April 6, 2010, 8:21 pm
Filed under: Food | Tags: ,

So, apparently people actually kind of read this blog! I know this, because I have received several mildly harassing emails in the last week, wanting to know why I haven’t been updating. It makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside!

Basically, I haven’t been writing because I haven’t had much to say! I am kind of stalled out on further financial progress until Karen and I meet again to discuss how much money I can put towards my credit card payment. Hopefully we are going to do that this weekend!

Ooh, also this weekend: for you Twin Cities readers, my St. Paul VISTA group will be volunteering on Saturday morning for the St. Paul Parks and Rec Department’s Annual Spring Clean-Up Day! We’ll be helping clean all the winter debris out of the parks and such… if you would care to help, just give me a holler, and I’ll give you the details. You wouldn’t even BELIEVE all the crap on the ground now that the winter snow has melted. Socks. Scarves. Mittens. Beer cans. Condoms. (Really?!? You REALLY want to do that outside when it’s below freezing?!?) Shoes. Purses. Small children. It’s insane out there, people.

***

In my last post, I wrote about my newly acquired baking habit, and people have been asking for pics and recipes, so here you go!

Cherry Chocolate-Chip Scones

Here’s the link to the recipe I used, with some variations. Basically, I doubled the amount of cherries and chocolate chips. I like my scones chunky! If I repeat this recipe, I’ll probably add even more. Also, I left off the last step where you dust the finished scones with powdered sugar and stick them under the broiler. I figured there was enough sugar already. I didn’t miss it.

Unfortunately, I ended up leaving them in the oven about 4 minutes too long… so they are a little crispier than I would have liked!

They were really yummy, and despite the fact that I had to improvise just a tiny bit, really easy! My hands nearly fell off during the part where you cut the butter into the flour. Since I didn’t have a pastry blender, I used two forks, and it took about 20 minutes! Also, I don’t have a pastry brush, so  I just used a paper towel, which seemed to work fine.

***

Blueberry Buttermilk Scones

Here’s the link to the recipe. Again, I doubled the amount of blueberries, which I highly recommend! I also attempted to add lemon zest, but since I was mostly zesting my knuckles, I quickly abandoned that process… For those of you with proper micrograters, I am sure it would be a yummy addition!

This time, I underbaked the scones by about 4 minutes… Much like Goldilocks, I can’t seem to ever get it just right! They were yummy anyway. Also, I ignored the part where it said to cut out the dough in biscuit-sized circles, and I really wish I had! The dough expanded a ton, and all my pretty triangles ran together. Alas.

My second attempt at scone making was less taxing than the first, due to spending 3 bucks at WalMart to buy a pastry blender (sorry, Karen! I am pretty sure I had enough in my household budget to cover it, tho…). Let me tell you, that pastry blender is my new best friend (again, sorry Karen!). It only took me about 5 minutes for the whole flour/butter cutting business, and my hands didn’t want to shrivel up and die! Neat.  My favorite part of this recipe was stirring the blueberries into the dry ingredients to get them all coated. Apparently this keeps them from sinking to the bottom, and keeps them from bleeding into the surrounding batter! I love learning new things!

My helpers aren't a lot of help, actually

***

Fresh Lemonade


Here’s the link to the best lemonade recipe ever!

I made this to go along with the blueberry scones, and the lovely Karen came over for a Sunday afternoon snack! It was pretty much delicious. Since I have a freezer the size of a loaf of bread, I never have ice cubes, and I was worried about the lemonade being cold enough. I ended up pre-meauring the 4 cups of water and sticking them into the fridge for a couple of hours to get nice and cold, and then made the lemonade immediately before drinking. It worked pretty well, but I am sure ice cubes would be even better!

Of course, I didn’t bring any pitchers with me, due to the limited kitchen storage. I decided to make it in a large pyrex salad bowl and ladle it out into our glasses! Since I don’t have a juicing device, I just squeezed the hell out of the fruit with my hands, which led to a lot of seeds and pulp in the bowl, but I solved that problem by plunking a mesh strainer on top of the glasses and just ladled into that. I think Karen and I were both pretty pleased with the results! The addition of the orange gave it a really subtle, yet interesting twist. I think I would cut back on the sugar a little bit next time…

***

Thanks for coming along on this exciting journey into my baking habits! Hope you’ve all enjoyed the ride.



Chapter 6: In Which I Enjoy Domesticating Myself. Surprise Ensues
March 26, 2010, 5:28 pm
Filed under: Food, frugality | Tags: , ,

So, I have spent the last week working on a post about all my different financial goals, but you know what? That post is pretty much boring me to death! Of course, it’s important for me to get that one finished, as it’s a key component of this whole financial reformation of mine, but on this pretty Friday, I find that what I really want to write about is baking.

WHAT, you may say? That’s right, baking.

I’ve never been much of a baker… it’s always required too much attention to detail for me. When cooking, I can pretty much choose to ignore or improvise large parts of recipes, and I pretty much measure by saying, “hey, that looks like a cup!” If you have any acquaintance with baking, you realize that it’s actually a SCIENCE, which probably has a lot to do with why I have never liked it.

Baking and I have never gotten along very well. I think it all stems from the traumatic summer when I decided to master… BOXED BROWNIES. I probably wasn’t even 10 yet, and this seemed like a REALLY BIG DEAL. I specifically remember at least 2 flops in a row– one time, I forgot the eggs, another I forgot the oil. Being greeted by pan after pan of completely flat, burned brownie pancake can really do a number on a young baker’s psyche!

In middle school, I decided I didn’t hate making cookies quite so much if I listened to Green Day on my Walkman at the same time! This led to the disastrous incident in which I used 2 TABLESPOONS of salt instead of 2 TEASPOONS. Details, details. Let me tell you, there is no recovering from that kind of error!

In high school, there was the infamous time I decided to double a batch of chocolate chip cookies, but forgot to double the FLOUR. Those were some really rich cookies!

As you can see, my relationship with baking has been rather fraught, and since my family is filled with excellent cooks and bakers, there’s never really been a need to overcome this slight imperfection in my make-up. However, my financial situation since I started AmeriCorps hasn’t really left me with a lot of money to spend on yummy things! I eventually came to the conclusion that making my own would be cheaper, and healthier too, since I could control what goes in them. I have a lot of free time on my hands, since I can’t really afford to be out spending money all over the place, so I eventually found myself… BAKING. Weird, right?

And here’s the thing– I actually LIKE it! I have discovered a lot about myself in the past year or so, but this has been one of the more unexpected things. Baking (and to a lesser degree, cooking) has always stressed me out, irritated me, and made me feel inadequate. I have decided that this is because I a) set impossibly high standards for myself in all things, and b) treat baking (and to a lesser degree, cooking) like I am competing for the prize in a Top Chef Quickfire Challenge. Why have I always approached baking and cooking like someone is timing me with a stopwatch? I have no idea!

Living in a studio the size of a shoebox with a kitchen the size of a postage stamp has effectively forced me to stop behaving like a Tasmanian devil in the kitchen, and as a result, I enjoy the whole process a lot more! My kitchen is set up in such a way that there are no counters at all (I repeat, NONE) and really limited space to move, store things, or what have you. I do all my food prep on top of the stove (precarious!) or on the small walnut table that previously belonged to my step-grandma. If you’ve looked at any of the pictures of food I’ve posted, you’ve seen this table. It’s pretty much the most useful thing in my apartment! Since my prep space is so limited, I am forced to only do one thing at a time, and then clean it up before proceeding to the next step. This makes the whole process take a LOT longer than I was used to, but I eventually started to relax and realize I am enjoying myself!

Here’s a list of some of the things I have baked FROM SCRATCH(!) in my tiny kitchen:

  • Chocolate chip cookies
  • Brownies
  • Ginger-Molasses cookies
  • Gingerbread
  • No-Knead Bread
  • Banana Bread
  • Cherry-Chocolate Chip Scones
  • No-Bake Chocolate-Oatmeal Cookies
  • Cornbread

There are lots of things I still want to try!

  • Pumpkin Bread
  • Pumpkin Scones
  • Zucchini Bread
  • Flat bread
  • Sourdough bread
  • Buttermilk biscuits
  • Truffles
  • Double-Chocolate Candy Cane Cookies
  • Shortbread
  • Pound cake (for Trifle!)
  • Pizza dough
  • Whole wheat No-Knead Bread

One problem I haven’t been able to overcome is the lack of equipment. I only have 2 small cabinets to store things in, so when I was packing to move, I had to be really careful about what I brought with me. Really useful things like the blender and muffin tins didn’t make the cut. I had to send home my pizza pan and cookie sheets because they didn’t fit in my tiny oven! I definitely don’t have the room (or money!) for wonderful things like a food processor or a stand mixer. I do have a hand mixer, but due to space limitations, it’s kind of a pain to get to. I have to rule out some recipes I would like to try if they involve equipment I don’t have, but I can figure out how to work around it a lot of the time. I just wish I could make pesto and hummus! Alas.

I am proud of one thing, though! I knew I wasn’t going to have any room for pantry goods once I stored all my dishes, so I came up with quite an ingenious solution, I think! Since I am such an insane reader, I have tons of bookshelves, and since my studio is so small, many of the books and shelves would be staying behind. I decided to bring one of those cheap 5-shelf Target affairs and turn it into a pantry! Larry was able to wedge it in next to the stove, and Mom and I used a small suspension rod and the curtains she made for my very first apartment to disguise the contents. It works wonderfully, and I don’t know what I would do without it!

To keep the chaos under control in such a small space, I have to keep everything pretty organized, but I guess that’s good for me anyway. For me, being really poor has had a lot of unexpected upsides! I get lots of free exercise on the way to the bus, I’ve discovered I am much more resourceful than I ever knew, and I’ve found new, useful, and yummy ways to spend my time! I think this year is really going to influence how I live the rest of my life. While I am looking forward to a less-precarious financial situation, I have discovered that it takes a lot less to make me happy than I ever believed.



Chapter 3: In Which I Get Over Being A Snob and Shop at Aldi’s. It’s Amazing!
March 13, 2010, 9:30 am
Filed under: Food, frugality | Tags: ,

Due to the cancellation of my food support, I hadn’t purchased groceries since mid-January, and other than the occasional bottle of milk, I was getting by with increasingly odd meals from my pantry. Last week, the pantry began to fail me, and I was seriously wondering how I was going to feed myself until my food support is (hopefully) re-established.

Luckily, my wonderful grandma swooped in and saved the day! She sent me fifty dollars to buy food, which is amazing beyond all belief. Now that I had the cash, I had to figure out how to get the most bang for my buck. Since I don’t know if or when I am getting foodstamps again, it was key to get as much nutritious food as possible, and to get things that I could use in lots of different ways.

I recalled the advice of my excellent friend of Candace, an inveterate Aldi’s shopper. She’s been trying to get me to shop at Aldi’s for years, but I had severe middle-class hang-ups about it. I was lucky enough to grow up in a family that had never needed to shop somewhere like that, and in my snobbish opinion, I wasn’t the kind of person who shopped at Aldi’s.

Luckily, in the past year or so, I have been forced to confront all kinds of my middle-class hypocrisies, and it hasn’t hurt me a bit! Is riding an inner-city bus a thrilling experience? No. It’s been a wonderful growing experience, however. Yes, some of the stereotypes are true—some of the people are clearly homeless and just looking for a warm place to spend the day; it’s very crowded, and often uncomfortable for me, as I tend to be a bit claustrophobic; sometimes there’s a crazy person holding forth at top volume about the impending demise of the human race. On the plus side, if I take the 50 cent bus and walk, it’s crazy-cheap; the people-watching is unbelievable; my carbon footprint is smaller; I get to learn all kinds of interesting things. For example, I learned from the above crazy person that a gigantic “tuhsumi” is going to wipe out half the population! Good thing I live in the middle of the continent.

Anyway, back to the point at hand. As it turns out, I am the kind of person who shops at Aldi’s! One trip was all it took to make me an enthusiastic Aldi’s shopper. I was afraid that the lack of choices would be depressing, but I actually found it quite soothing! No need to try to figure out which of 8 brands of canned corn I wanted to buy—there’s only 1 or 2! I often find grocery shopping to be overwhelming, but this was the easiest, most stress-free shopping experience I have had in years!

Despite arriving at 4:45m, the store was not a complete zoo. Of course, there were other people there, but nothing like the chaos that you would find at the SuperTarget a few blocks down the street. The store was clean, and although all the items are arranged in their shipping boxes on the shelves, everything was neat and well-organized. I was initially disoriented by the lack of signage I am used to, but since the store itself is so small, it was pretty easy to find everything I wanted.

I went into the store with the idea that I would look around for the items I wanted, and if (as I assumed) they didn’t meet my standards, I would just go on to Target. I was especially apprehensive about the produce and dairy stuff, as I am the first to admit to being a huge food snob.

To my amazement, the produce was the freshest and cheapest I had seen outside of the Hmong farmer’s market! I got 2 lbs of carrots for 49 cents! 2 crowns of broccoli for $1.50! 4 lbs of oranges for 2 bucks! I could go on, but really you should just hop on over to your nearest Aldi’s and see for yourself! All the fresh stuff I bought is high-quality, and tastes delicious.

Look at this haul!

At the end of the trip, I had spent nearly 43 dollars, and got a huge amount of food, almost all of it healthy! I was disappointed that I couldn’t find steel-cut oats, but decided to stop at the fancy co-op on the way home to see if they sold them in their bulk bins. To my amazement, in the store where oranges cost a buck each, I can get steel-cut oats for 99 cents a pound! I bought 3.5 pounds, which will last me quite a long time.

Even if my foodstamps get approved, I am going to keep shopping at Aldi’s. In a lot of ways, I feel like my experiences in poverty are making me a better, less-judgmental person, and that can never be a bad thing!



Chapter Two: In Which I Become a Cheapskate and a Trendy Environmentalist at the SAME TIME!
March 12, 2010, 9:42 am
Filed under: Food, frugality | Tags: , , ,

I didn’t get into this position by spending money with wild abandon. Mostly, it’s a combination lifestyle choices (eternal grad school), unemployment (what happens when you quit grad school during a recession), vet bills (when diabetes strikes!), an extremely low income (join AmeriCorps, receive foodstamps!), and poor money management (you mean you really need to PAY your bills? What’s that all about?).

I’ve been living on a fairly low income for years, but when I made the decision to join AmeriCorps, I knew I was going to have to make some changes to get by. Clearly, not enough changes were made, which is why you are reading this blog, but I think I have hit upon some fairly decent ideas in the past year or so.

On the plus-side, I have also found that being broke is really eco-friendly! So not only am I poor, but I am also “green,” which immediately makes me cool. I’ve never been cool before— it’s kinda weird.

  • Instead of wasting money on paper towels and paper napkins, I started using the great collection of cloth napkins I have, but had only used on special occasions. I had always been a big user of dishtowels in the kitchen, but now I use them for even more things, like using a terry-cloth towel to clean the floors (more on that later). I do keep some paper towels on hand for cleaning up things like cat barf that I want to throw away instead of throw in the washing machine (gross! ). Instead of disposable Swiffers, I dust with re-usable microfiber cloths. I kill fewer trees and save money, hooray!
  • Buying regular fruit and veggies and chopping them myself. No baby carrots in my fridge, but carrot sticks. Takes time, yes, but saves cash. Also, during the warmer months, there is an amazing Hmong farmer’s market near my apartment, which is incredibly cheap and delicious. I come away with huge bags of amazing local produce for less than 10 dollars! I just wish they took foodstamps! Yummy, trendy, eco-friendly. Go me!
  • Along the same principle, grating my own cheese. Not only is it cheaper, but it tastes better, too! I have grated my knuckles a few times, but that’s mostly because I am a klutz.
  • I clean pretty much everything in my apartment with white vinegar, baking soda, and lemon juice. It’s pretty much the best thing ever! Good for the wallet, the lungs, and the environment. My studio apartment is really tiny (about 250 sq ft) and has wooden floors.  I mix some vinegar and warm water in a re-usable spray bottle, and just kneel on the floor and clean with a terry cloth towel. Works great!
  • I work in downtown St. Paul, where the parking rates are exorbitant. For example, in the parking ramp across the street from my office, the daily rate is something like 17 bucks. No thanks! Taking the city bus system is a better option, but at up to $2.25 per one-way trip, not exactly  cheap. Luckily, I live very close to downtown, so instead of getting on at the closest bus stop, I walk half a mile to the edge of the bus system’s designated “Downtown Zone.” If you get on and off within the downtone zone, the trip only costs 50 cents! So I get to work and back for a dollar a day, and I get to walk a mile, too! Again, better for my wallet, my health, and the environment.
  • OK, this one isn’t a win for anyone but me, but I’ll include it anyway. The lovely and amazing Karen and her wonderful husband Jeremy generously let me do my laundry at their house for free! This isn’t without its hassles, since they live about 20 minutes away, but the savings far outstrip the annoyance of lugging around huge bags of laundry. I try not to abuse their generosity, and still do some laundry in my building’s coin machines, but it is a HUGE budget saver.
  • I have started cooking lots of things from scratch, which saves a ton of money, and generally tastes better. I do use my Crock Pot once in a while, but mostly I just do things on the weekend. Here’s a list of things I have learned to make all by myself:
    • The world’s best tomato sauce- very flexible, very cheap
    • No Knead Bread! It’s really easy and yummy.

    • Corn bread- it’s almost as easy as mixing a box of Jiffy, but tastes way better!

    • Dried beans- I was scared of dried beans for a long time, but it is so simple, cheap, and fairly yummy. My advice: add a little bacon, serve with sour cream and cornbread.

    • Banana bread- I am super-picky about my bananas, and won’t eat them once they get a single brown spot. I used to throw them away, but now I just make banana bread!
    • Soup- you really can throw a bunch of random things in a pot and make a pretty tasty meal. Triumphs have included potato soup made of things from the Hmong farmer’s market, and what I called “VISTA Foodstamp Surprise,” made out of random canned goods from the pantry.
    • Steel-cut oats are amazing! I have always hated rolled and instant oats, but I recently decided to give the steel-cut variety a try, and they knocked my socks off! Great texture and taste, and a batch only takes 30 minutes to make. I make a batch every weekend and eat it for breakfast every day with some milk and jam stirred in. Yum!
  • Instead of plastic baggies, I store most things in reusable containers. I already had some pretty high quality Rubbermaid things, but I also repurpose things like empty glass pickle jars.  Again, cheap and green. I am so cool, I can hardly stand myself.

That’s all I can think of now, but since I am increasingly interested in frugality, I am sure to write about it again. Please pass along your own tips!