How a CSA Serves Us

 

radishes

Simpaug Farms radishes – June 17, 2018

Over the past few weeks, I’ve written about how we’ve evolved in our cooking and shopping habits since combining our kitchens, and how we save money at the supermarket in order to have more to spend on delicious little splurges. But there’s one other major way that we both save money on food and splurge for the very best: our membership in a CSA.

CSA is short for Community Supported Agriculture, and it’s a brilliant business model for small farms to support the communities that exist in the areas surrounding the farmland. There’s been risk involved with farming since the first farmer planted the first seed, but CSA removes some of the risks from farming by allowing the people who eat the food to purchase it before it’s grown. (I did say it was brilliant!)

Our local farm is Simpaug Farms in Suffield, Connecticut. Nestled on 250 acres – that’s a bit less than half of a square mile – the folks who run the farm use sustainable practices that preserve the land the generations to come, they produce fruits and vegetables free from synthetic pesticides, and they raise animals without hormones or antibiotics. They plant a broad array of fruits and vegetables that come into peak ripeness throughout the season, ensuring both variety and abundance for members.

We joined the Simpaug Farms CSA back in April, by filling out a form online and making a payment of $800. In return, starting on June 19 and running for the next 20 weeks, we will collect a crate of 10 to 14 different fruits and vegetables, and a carton of a dozen eggs. That works to roughly $35 per week for produce and $5 per week for eggs – all of it local, natural, hormone- and antibiotic-free, and chosen just for us at the peak of fresh deliciousness. (For comparison, at the grocery store yesterday we spent $26 for half that volume of fruits and vegetables from at least several hundred miles away, and $5.99 for a dozen similarly raised eggs.)

This is clearly a wonderful partnership for me and Clay, but it’s just as wonderful for the farm. I met Megan and Max, who run the business-side of Simpaug Farms, at the Fairfield Farmer’s Market this morning. Max’s answer to my question “So how does having the CSA help the farm?“ is excerpted below.

The biggest form of help from the CSA is being able to plan better. Today, which is just a day at the Farmer’s Market, started at 5am. We drove from the office in Ridgefield to the farm in Suffield, collected all of the produce from yesterday’s harvest, drove to Fairfield and set up the market, are working here to sell everything we can (and hoping we guessed right on what to bring), and later we’ll drive back to the farm to drop off anything we don’t sell so it can be put to use.

With the CSA, we know in advance how many people will collect their shares from each location, so know just how much to pack and deliver. But when CSA members purchase shares early in the season, we can plan just how much of a crop to plant because we can adjust for our market. Since the biggest costs in farming come early in the season with seeds and equipment, it’s really helpful to have the capital for that up front, too.

There are still shares available for the Simpaug Farms CSA, and the first pickups for the season start on June 19. Join us in supporting a fabulous small farm, and in eating well all season!

P.S. If you want to get to know a little more about the farm and the CSA, their pinterest boards are full of recipes and tips for preparing fresh summer vegetables, and their YouTube channel has some good videos, too.

How We Shop for (and Save Money on) Groceries

Back in January, he referenced the various rebate and shopping list apps I use to save us money on groceries in a post about cheesecake, with a request that I write up the list. Five months later, here we are.

First of all, a note on how we cook and shop. We don’t “meal plan” in the way that most budget- and time-conscious publications suggest. Instead, we keep our kitchen/larder/pantry well-stocked with dry goods that have naturally lengthy shelf lives and use them along with fresh produce, meats, and dairy to compile meals. When consuming the food we’ve brought into the house, we use the ripest (and likeliest to spoil) ingredients first, much like farmers harvesting their most delicate crops.

Since most of our dry goods have a long shelf-life, and since we aren’t so picky that failing to have a beloved treat on hand is a catastrophe, we rarely “run out” of an item we like to have on hand without warning. As a result, we have the luxury of buying groceries when we want to – meaning when we can get the best value for our money. My process is designed around that premise.

First, make note of what we need.

Running low on olive oil? Looking to try a recipe requiring a new ingredient? Add it to the list.

We share a login for the Buy Me A Pie shopping list app, so that we can both see the list of what we need at home when we’re on the go. It syncs in real time, which is a huge plus.

Second, review what’s available on sale.

We receive grocery stores circulars for our favorite shops in the mail on Thursday, so page through them to look for sale prices for anything on our “need” list, and also to look for what’s fresh and available this week. Is the best fish counter offering wild-caught salmon filets? Add them to the list for Saturday’s supper. Is his favorite pastrami on special at the deli? We could use a pound for sandwiches during the work week. We add items we like from the circulars into the grocery list app.

Third, review what’s available for rebate.

We use four different apps that offer rebates for purchasing specific items from specific stores. Just like with the circulars, I flip through the offers in each app to find…

  1. Is something on our need/wish list available for rebate? If so, claim the rebate in-app.
  2. Is something we would ordinarily buy and have room to stock available for a rebate? If so, claim the rebate in-app and add the item to the grocery list.
  3. If we are in need of rounding out fresh food supplies for the week (produce, meat, dairy) are there items in those departments that are appealing? If so, claim the rebates in-app and add the items to the grocery list.

Fourth, shop.

We head to the market(s), collecting the items on the list as we go, using apps to verify product selections as necessary. We check out as per usual, but take extra care to ensure receipts are legible and tucking them safely away.

Fifth, claim rebates and rewards.

After unloading groceries the from the car, it’s time to claim the rebates.

Each app works a little differently, but in general I open each app and use it to take a photo of the receipt, and then scan barcodes on the items I’m claiming to verify the products purchased.

In each case, unless otherwise explicitly stated, a rebate available in multiple apps can be claimed in each app and rebates apply even when paired with an in-store sale or manufacturer’s coupon – provided that the receipt shows some amount paid for the item in question.

List of Rebate Apps

These are the apps that I use.

  • iBotta (that’s my referral link; if you use it to sign up and collect your first rebate within 7 days of doing so, we both earn bonus rewards). Ibotta has the broadest selection of items at the broadest selection of stores, and not just for groceries. The company pays all rebates in a cash transfer via PayPal or Venmo. 
  • Checkout 51. The rebates available are for items and brands found in most large supermarkets. There is a small selection of rebates available, but it changes every week on Thursday. The company pays all rebates by check mailed to the address on file with your account. 
  • SavingStar – Like Checkout51, SavingStar offers a small selection of rebates on items found in most supermarkets, but from a wide selection of stores. If a store offers a loyalty program, you link the app to your loyalty account, activate rebates within the app, and then swipe your loyalty card as normal at the check-out – rebates are then automatically applied to your Saving Star account. The company pays all rebates in a cash transfer via PayPal. 
  • Fetch (My referral code is D5BPU , and using it gives us both a 2,000 point bonus after you submit your first receipt.) Unlike the other apps, Fetch only accepts receipts from supermarkets and grocery stores, but there is a “scanning bonus” – you earn 25 points for every receipt you scan from a major chain retailer even if there are no rebates earned. While the other apps are product specific in their rebates, Fetch is brand specific – you earn a percentage of the purchase price for every item tied to a participating brand. Fetch rewards are accrued in points rather than cash, and are paid out in electronic gift cards. 

So, how do you save money on groceries? I’d love to know your methods – and please let me know if you try any of mine!

P.S. Apart from apps that offer specific rebates for specific items, there are also apps that pay you for snapping photos of your receipts. ReceiptHog pays out in cash via PayPal, and ReceiptPal pays out via electronic gift card.

The Triangle Dilemma

1P_WC_MainBG_Transition_Moment_07_00011There’s an adage in business that goes something like “You can have it fast, you can have it cheap, or you can have it good–but you can’t have all three.”

The drive-through window is usually cheap and fast, but seldom really good.
A sit-down restaurant might be good and (relatively fast), but it’s usually not fast.
Cooking at home is almost always good, and more often than not cheaper than a restaurant, but hardly ever fast.

This triangle—cheap, fast, and good, in varying combinations—has been the dilemma of our spring. Really, it wasn’t a triangle; perhaps it was a pyramid. Really, it was a Pyramid.

This Pyramid.

I’ve loved this game since I was a kid, and, after many years, lots of conversations, the faith of friends, and quite a few prayers, I was invited to join the staff of The $100,000 Pyramid for the season that’s about to start airing. It was the most fun I’ve ever had working, and I was grateful for every moment.

This isn’t a story in which I geek out about working on the best word game ever to air on TV, though; it’s a story about what happens when the opportunity of a lifetime comes along when I’d already cobbled together lots of freelance jobs that equalled a full-time job: lots of church things, lots of theatre things, lots of teaching things, and enough juggling to make a circus act say “Whew!” (But that’s another game show.)

For most of the last 12 weeks the routine of our days was: get up before 6AM, feed the cat, pack breakfasts and lunches, drive to the train station, commute two hours one way, work a pretty-full day, leave one job and commute an hour to one or another of the cobbled-together gigs (and then sometime commute to another one), and meet for a train home arriving sometime between 9 and 10PM. Weekends, too. On a good day, we’d put something in a slow-cooker. On a less good day, we had some more-or-less convenient food in the freezer that could be augmented with relatively healthy side dishes that we’d batch-cooked or that took very little time to prepare. But since, to be perfectly honest, sometimes the 20 minutes it takes to steam a pot of rice and bake some chicken was just more than we had the emotional fortitude to endure.

There was a lot of take-out. There were many sandwiches. It wasn’t a total disaster. It wasn’t bacon-double-cheeseburgers and super-sized fries from morning ’til night. There were salads. There were vegetables. There were bowls of really good oatmeal.  The choices just weren’t as healthy as we might have hoped.

And at work there were meals from the bountiful tables of Craft Services—catering companies who support the crew and staff during the long days in the TV studio with generous portions, plentiful desserts, and meals tasty enough that you don’t mind seeing no sunlight for 12 hours at a time.

I’m not complaining. I’m saying I have three hopes.

  1. That you’ll tune in every Sunday night starting June 10—and tell your friends and family to do the same—so that we become a big fat hit and ABC has no reason not to renew us.
  2. That I’m offered a chance to return to the staff on that still-hypothetical next season, and perhaps on another show between now and then.
  3. That the pick-up order and the re-staffing happen before I start the cobbling-together for the fall and winter, such that I don’t have to juggle quite so much and have a little time to breathe and cook such that any new trousers I order between now and then purchased because I want them, not because the old ones don’t fit.

But this time, I hope not to have to choose only two. 1P_WC_MainBG_Transition_Moment_07_00011

How We Share a Kitchen

We first started this blog almost four years ago, when we combined kitchens into a single household and began our life together. Since we both loved to cook and eat, with pretty divergent styles, our thought was to document* our culinary adventures and see how we changed and grew. In the intervening years, we’ve fallen into a steady rhythm of habit and circumstance for how we stock our pantry, how we shop for ingredients, and how we cook – and it isn’t at all what we imagined when we began!

Once upon a time, I was a rigidly predictable home cook. Meals were planned in accordance with recipes from cookbooks and blogs, based on a relatively consistent and small list of staple ingredients and fresh produce. Shopping was done on the same day each week with a visit to the farmer’s market and the nearby grocery store, holding to a modest budget with enough room for the occasional splurge like a beautiful cut of steak. Wasting food was a cardinal sin, so cooking well was a duty as well as a pleasure.

By contrast, he was an “anything goes” sort of cook. Whatever ingredients were on hand were turned into meals, and if that occasionally meant cold cereal with sliced fruit for dinner, then so be it. Shopping was a haphazard thing, with trips to the market made whenever an item was needed, to purchase whatever looked appetizing – particularly if it was on sale. He’s more playful and adventurous than I, firmly believing that “if it’s awful, we’ll just order a pizza.”

As you can imagine, marrying those styles took some concerted effort, so we let circumstance give us a little push toward what seemed easy. Given that I have a longer commute and more rigid schedule during the week, he does most of the cooking – which means it’s generally improvisational in nature. I take responsibility for keeping the kitchen well stocked and generally tidy, which means the freezer is full and the larder is overflowing.

Since he has driven me to be more adventurous while retaining cost consciousness, we make a lot of our food from scratch – it’s less expensive to buy incredible ingredients and turn them into sauces and garnishes than it is to buy tiny jars of dreamy extravagance, so this allows us to eat better quality food than we could otherwise afford to. For us, cooking “from scratch” includes:

  • Making our own specialty dairy items like yogurt, sour cream, clotted cream, and ice cream from milk, cream, and butter sourced locally
  • Baking our own yeast breads using whey, a by-product of making yogurt, to give our loaves added flavor
  • Baking quick breads, muffins, cakes, and pies at home
  • Keeping whole spices on hand and grating or grinding them to create our own blends
  • Allotting freezer space for gallon-sized bags of shrimp shells, poultry carcasses, beef/lamb/pork bones, and vegetable peelings – to make broth from whole ingredients rather than bouillon
  • Creating sauces as part of meal prep from those spices and stocks and a whole new set of must-have pantry staples
  • Saving overripe fruit by pureeing it for yogurt stir-ins, smoothies, sauces, or home-made ice cream/sorbet

…and a whole lot of other things I’m likely forgetting.

I’m not the only one who’s changed, though. While still an improvisational cook, he will share ideas for specific meals a day or two in advance, so I have time to think them through and suggest additions or alterations. While he prefers not to eat the same meal several days running like I will, we save leftovers in the fridge as “pre-cooked ingredients for the next meal”, such that rice, chicken, vegetables, and peanut sauce from last night’s stir-fry might be used in rice pudding, chicken pot pie, pasta primavera, and hummus (respectively) – and he focuses on using leftovers first, so as not to waste things.

Speaking of waste, we also subscribe to a local composting service; they collect our kitchen scraps and leave us a fresh locking pail each week, and we can purchase finished compost from them when needed.

Although we’ve ordered plenty of pizzas—especially since discovering a favorite place has opened a new location between our train station and home—it’s never been because of a disaster in the kitchen.

 

*We had to document something. Since our first meeting was over livejournal in 2003, and since we fell in love so gradually over email and iMessage that we didn’t even notice it, a failure to continue our epistolary adventures might be the undoing of us!

To Win the Game, First Boil Water

“What about Carbonara?” she asked, as we rode the train home last Monday evening.

“Carbonara,” I said, thinking that was beyond my reach; it would be 10 pm before we got home.

“We have bacon and eggs and cheese and pasta.”

Challenge accepted. It would certainly keep us from going to the drive-through window, or eating a bowl of ice cream for dinner. Neither of those is necessarily terrible, but we could do better.

I’m sure the idea arose because we’d watched an episode of a cooking game show the night before. Just for fun, the host challenged one of the judges to join the competition. The meal he prepared didn’t affect the outcome of the game, but he started halfway into the cooking period and prepared a meal of spaghetti carbonara in less than 15 minutes. (Because it was also a “budget” challenge, the judge used bacon rather than the traditional pancetta.)

“How did he do that so fast?” she asked. “Did they stop the clock to let him boil the water?”

I’m pretty sure, I said, that they let all the contestants have a pot of boiling water all the time. In fact, although I can’t remember where, I’d read that every cook should set a pot of water to boil as soon as walking in the door, even if you don’t know what you’re planning to cook. It could be used for to cook pasta, potatoes, or rice; or turn into the basis for a simple soup; or a steamer basket could go over it for vegetables. I don’t always do this, but it does seem like a good idea.

“Okay,” I said, “but you can’t hold me to 15 minutes since I don’t already have boiling water.”

That seemed fair to her.

Carbonara Against the Clock.

First things first. Come in the door. Put down your bag and go straight to the stove. Put on a pot of water to boil. Feed the cat.

Now take off your coat. Hey, every second counts.

Set a skillet on medium heat.

Pull a package of bacon from the freezer; and, from the fridge, a wedge of parmesan and a carton of eggs.

Green peas are not to be included, the judge pointedly said. Heck with him. Get peas if you want them. We didn’t have any peas. I grabbed some asparagus.

Turn on the oven to low, add a couple of bowls. No cold plates for hot food.

Dice a few strips of bacon and set them in the skillet to render, stirring occasionally so nothing burns. (If the bacon is frozen, so much the better: it dices neatly and cooks slower.)

Trim the asparagus (if using) and cut it into half-inch long pieces.

Grate the cheese until you have about half a cup.

When the water is boiling, in goes a half-box of spaghetti. Stir occasionally to make sure it doesn’t clump.

When the bacon is cooked, remove it with a slotted spoon to one of the warming bowls. If Pour off the bacon fat, reserving it for another day! Leave a little fat in the skillet and sauté the if-using asparagus in it.

Cracked four eggs into a big bowl and whisk them. Stirred in most of the grated cheese and a generous amount of pepper.

When the spaghetti is al dente, drain it, add it to the eggs-and-cheese bowl, and stir vigorously. This way, the hot pasta cooks the eggs gently—rather than pouring the eggs into the pasta pot, where they’d seize up instantly. Add the bacon and completely-non-traditional asparagus, stirred a little more to combine. Divide into the warmed bowls, and sprinkle the remaining cheese on top.

Serves two, who most decidedly did not have to go to the drive-through; if there are no leftovers, I will certainly not judge.

35 minutes from walking in the door to sitting down to eat.

Cooking game shows are fun to watch, though they don’t really have the play-along factor of Jeopardy! or Wheel of Fortune—or, one that is very close to my heart, The $100,000 Pyramid. There’s no way to “get the answer” before the contestants do, and, of course, there’s no way for the home audience to “judge” the food the contestants prepare, other than by saying, “That looks good,” or “I wouldn’t eat that.”

Or—and this is particularly important for an improvisational cook like me—as a reminder of how to cook within limitations.

Whatever the challenge, first, boil some water.

Post-Graduate Work

Ramen Watercolor

It was Saturday morning, and we were making a slow start of it. She was playing a video game on her phone, the cat was snuggled at her feet, and I was reading Twitter.

I was scrolling past the seemingly-endless political stuff, passing the tech news, dodging the ads, when a friend’s retweet caught my eye.

Tweet

I laughed out loud at the thought of it, and showed her, and she laughed, too. “Yours,” she said, would be, ‘I’m going to eat all the Brussels Sprouts.'” And I laughed, because I was thinking exactly the same thing, and made that comment in a reply to the original poster.  The replies got more absurd and delightful. “I’m going to build a water slide in the basement,” one said.

And then women were getting involved, making it clear that it wasn’t only the men who eat less than prudently when they’re alone. One poster suggested she would make Blue-box Mac and Cheese and eat it out of the pan with the spoon she used to stir it. “This is your spiritual sister,” I said. “Nope. This is me!” she replied. By this point it was pretty clear I was going to read the entire thread, even if it meant I got nothing else done.  (She, for her part, had gotten up, dressed, and headed off to an eye exam and a trip to the market.) I kept going, through very specific “eat something stupid” replies, many focusing on chips, pizza, and Ramen noodles.

I haven’t thought about Ramen noodles in ages, but all of a sudden I wanted them for lunch. Sure, it was quick and easy and—most importantly for college students—cheap, not what anybody would call great cuisine, but maybe a little comforting. Sort of like blue-box macaroni and cheese.

I switched over to the shopping-list app and added Ramen noodles and scallions, and dressed to go out for a run.

She hadn’t found the five-packages-for-a-dollar variety. The Ramen she brought home was the real stuff—no MSG-filled flavor packet to be found, which was just fine with me. I hadn’t planned to use it anyway; I was thinking of one of the folks who posted about mixing in “a soft boiled egg, if you want to be fancy.” I didn’t know about fancy, but I did want it to be good.

Post-Graduate Ramen

Serves 1, because you know what she really wants for lunch isn’t Ramen.

1 tsp dried shrimp
3 or 4 cremini mushrooms, sliced
1 carrot, diced
1/2 bell pepper, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1-inch nob ginger, minced
2 scallions, sliced
1 tsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp fish sauce
1/2 tsp sriracha sauce
1/4 tsp sesame oil
1 cup stock
1 package Ramen noodles

In a small bowl, pour a quarter-cup of boiling water over the dried shrimp.

Pour a little olive oil in a skillet and put it over medium-high heat.

When the oil is hot, add and sauté the mushrooms, carrot, and pepper. When the mushrooms are nicely browned and the others have softened a bit, lower the heat a little and add the garlic and ginger; toss, and continue to sauté until the aromatics are, well, aromatic.

Add the soy sauce and fish sauce, toss to combine.

Add the shrimp and their liquid, and the stock. Increase heat until the liquid is at a brisk simmer, then add the noodles and put a lid on the skillet. Cook 2-3 minutes (or per package directions).

Remove and serve, garnished with a few drops each of sesame oil and sriracha, and the chopped scallions.

Ramen

While you are doing all of this, of course, prepare one package blue-box mac and cheese. Offer her the pot, and the stirring spoon to use as a utensil.

Measure Twice, Bake Once

I looked at the shopping list app again. There was indeed a 2 in the listing for cream cheese. That’s more cream cheese than I’ve ever bought at one time, but I was sure she had a reason. I added another package to my cart and headed, at last, for the cashier.

It had been one of those complicated shopping trips, where you have to look carefully to make sure you have the specific brand and size and number—and that you get each item from the proper store. (If your spouse doesn’t load up the shared shopping-list app with such specific details because various things qualify for various rebates and compounded bonus rebates and triple money-back whatnots, you may not understand. But mine has turned shopping into a video game, practically, and by doing so has brought the equivalent of a monthly mortgage payment over the past year, so I’m not complaining.)

Okay, sometimes all I want to do is run into the nearest store and get a carton of milk, and then I complain a little, but only a little.

I arrived home and gave her the goods and receipts—so that everything could be properly app-catalogued—and then asked why we’d needed all that cream cheese.

“Cheesecake,” she said. “I found a recipe for the Instant Pot.”

Well, that did sound like fun. (Also, it explained the graham crackers I’d just bought.)

She went back to project she’d been working on, and I went back to mine, and when I finished mine first I decided this hypothetical cheesecake wasn’t going to bake itself. I found the recipe she mentioned, gathered the rest of the ingredients, and assembled the hardware.

Her parents gave us the Instant Pot last Christmas, and, as accessories for our birthdays this year a set of cute little nesting steamer baskets that fit inside its stainless steel cooking pot. This seemed like a good use for one of the baskets; otherwise, how would I get the cheesecake out of the big Instant Pot…pot?

But how would I get it out of the little steamer basket, with its solid bottom? Cheesecakes are usually baked in springform pans. I found one of those that fit neatly inside the Instant Pot, and I was on my way. Graham crackers crumbled and buttered to form a crust in the springform pan. Cream cheese softened, whipped, sweetened, vanilla-ed, egged and slightly thickened with a tiny bit of flour. The whole mixture poured into the crust. Time to put the pan in the liner and get it cooking.

You see what I did there, don’t you? Or, rather, what I didn’t do?

I had checked that the springform pan would fit inside the Instant Pot, not inside the stainless steel liner. It was a half-inch too big. I was glad that I hadn’t made a New Year’s resolution to give up cussing, or that one would have been over before it started.

I calmed down and baked the cheesecake in a nice little water bath in our conventional oven. It looked perfect when it came out, and just as good when it cooled—no cracks! I smoothed a thin layer of sweetened yogurt on top and set it in the fridge to chill overnight.

EPILOGUE

Before we sat down to dinner on New Year’s Day, I covered the rest of the main course (thanks again, Instant Pot!) so the always-hungry cat wouldn’t do something naughty, and I took the cheesecake out of the fridge so it wouldn’t be frosty at dessert time.

“Aschie, NO!” she shouted.

I hadn’t covered the cheesecake. Aschenputtel had served herself a little dessert —just a few licks of the yogurt layer, but we’d never be serving this cheesecake to company.

Fortunately, we weren’t having company.

The cat got her face squirted for being bold. I scraped rest of the yogurt layer off the cheesecake, sliced some strawberries, and plated dessert for us.

Was it the best cheesecake I’ve ever baked? Well, it was the first cheesecake I’ve ever baked, so it wins by default. I’m not sure if it would have come out differently if I’d pressure-baked it as planned; I’ll try that one day, after I find an appropriately sized springform.  I will, in fact, measure twice to make sure that pan fits. And I’ll make sure that dessert is out of the cat’s reach.

img_7555

Scene of the crime.

img_7556

Well, it’s not like she skipped dinner and still wanted dessert.

SIDE NOTE

I’ll ask her to write a post about the shopping list app, and the rebate apps; they might be of more use than a cautionary tale of bad measurement and questionable cat parenting.