I’m usually pretty good about menu planning, which means that we almost always have something yummy on the docket for dinner throughout the week. And usually, before we run really low on groceries, I make another menu and head out to the store. But every now and again, life gets in the way (for all of us, right?), and I don’t end up getting to the store before our menu is “out”. And that’s when I hit up some of my favorite pantry recipes. And this soup is one of those staples—even if our fridge is almost empty and the pantry is looking sad, we almost always can scrape together enough stuff to make a big pot of this vegetarian soup.
I love this soup because it’s kinda impossible to mess up. I have a basic combo of spices and veggies down in the recipe, but really, you can experiment, add and change this recipe without worry of messing it up. And that’s what makes it such a good recipe for when the groceries are dwindling. Add more peppers, put in beans, add some spinach, throw in a handful of rice, add some sliced mushrooms, toss in a bag of mixed veggies—it’s pretty much always going to turn out. Which makes this not only a great dish for when your kitchen isn’t full-stocked, but also for cleaning out a fridge that is stocked with some not-so-perfect produce. In fact, I save our sad little baby celery stalks (you know, the ones from the middle of the bunch that are mostly leaves) just for using in soups like these.
If you haven’t done a lot of cooking with lentils, I highly recommend stocking them in your pantry. They are a cheap and healthy source of protein that work really well in soups like this because they have such a mild-flavor. Depending on the type of lentils you buy and how long you cook them, they can either completely dissolve into a creamy, mashed consistency, or, like these brown lentils I use here, keep their shape a little bit. They have a really nice “chew” that I think us carnivores can appreciate in vegetarian dishes. You can leave this soup in tact, or do what I did, and blend up a few cups of it to make the base creamy and thick.
Yum! Enjoy. I promise I’m going to the grocery store today.
This hearty, flavorful vegetarian soup is a great option for when there are slim pickins in the pantry. Serve it with a big hunk of whole grain bread and you've got a dinner that is full of a complete vegetarian protein (and darn delicious)!
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- Pinch of red pepper flakes
- 1 large onion, diced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 3 large stalks celery, diced
- 3 large carrots, diced
- 1 red bell pepper, diced
- 4 cups vegetable broth
- 1-14 ounce can diced tomatoes
- 1-7 ounce can mild diced chiles
- 1 cup brown lentils
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 2 bay leaves
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- In a stock pot or Dutch oven, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add in the red pepper flakes, onion and garlic, and cook until tender and fragrant, about 3 minutes.
- Add in the celery, carrots, and bell pepper. Continue cooking until vegetables begin to soften slightly, about 10 minutes.
- Add in the vegetable broth, diced tomatoes, diced chiles, lentils, cumin, oregano, bay leaves, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until lentils are tender and the veggies are tender, about 30 minutes. Remove from heat, discard the bay leaves, and serve.
- Feel free to adjust and change the recipe to fit with whatever veggies you have kicking around. It’s really hard to mess this one up!
- I almost always try to keep canned diced tomatoes and canned diced green chiles in my pantry. They’re a great addition to soups and casseroles to add flavor.
- We always have big zip-top freezer bags full of diced bell peppers in the freezer from our garden. But even if you don’t have a garden, freezing peppers in the summer (when they are cheap at the store or farmer’s market) is a great way to save some cash on winter and early spring produce—and it means you always have something to put into a veggie soup when your pantry is empty.
- If you want a thicker, creamier soup, remove two cups of the soup after cooking, puree until smooth and the stir back into the soup.
What are your go to recipes when the pickins are slim?
For years, I’ve been trying to squeeze dollars and cents out of our grocery budget. I’ve seen all the super saver blogs out there where dedicated couponers feed their families of six for $200 a month (and a lot of them even do it with relatively healthy foods). For the longest time, I beat myself up about not being able to hit a lower total at the end of the month. I tried different challenges and tricks and coupons to hit a lower monthly grocery bill. And while it would work for short term, we always bounced back eventually to our big, hefty grocery budget once our pantry was bare and our palates were bored.
Honesty time, for our family of two, we consistently spend around $800 a month on groceries alone, and we live in a very low cost-of-living area of the country. And, often, we spend a bit more than that. In fact, in 2013, we spent exactly $10,951.32 on groceries—just over $912 per month. We might eventually be able to lower that budget once our hobby farm is a bit more robust (we’re planning on adding animals next year—bees, goats and chickens!), but for now, we’re hovering around $800 per month—and if we didn’t garden and preserve food, it would be a heck of a lot higher.
For years, I’ve been ashamed of our total. I know some folks would absolutely have a heart attack if they spent that much money on groceries in a month (although, admittedly, in some areas of the world, it’s a reasonable—or even small—total). It always felt a little dirty to know that we had that big, cushy line in our monthly budget. But over the past year, I’ve come to accept our grocery budget is what is it is. And be okay with it.
From the outside, it can seem like that high of a total is the frivolous spending of two people who are financially blessed (which we are). Or the uneducated spending of two people who don’t menu-plan, buy tons of convenience foods or don’t shop sales (none which are true—we are still definitely aware of which stores are, uh, pricier than others—I’m looking at you Whole Foods). But what that total actually is, is a reflection of the lifestyle of two people who freaking love food.
My grandfather had a lot of good-to-remember catchphrases when he was around, and the one that is the most fitting here is this: If you want to know what’s important to someone, just look at where they spend their money. And the truth is, food is vitally important to Craig and me. Not just from a nourishment standpoint, but as a hobby, a career, a type of health insurance, and a bonding-experience. Sure, we could probably feed our tiny family for a couple hundred bucks a month, and satisfy the basic nourishment category, and we have during tight times in the past, but in doing that, we lose all the other wonderful things that we love about shopping, cooking and eating food. Yes, I could sufficiently feed us healthfully by making beans and rice every day. But it certainly wouldn’t be fun for us. And right now, we are fortunate enough to have the room in our budget to account for fun. And our fun is our food.
It’s taken me years to accept that it’s okay to put money into something that is important to us, even if it means taking money out of areas that aren’t as important to us—and maybe are important to others. Our monthly entertainment budget is a whopping $20 a month (no going out to eat or going to see movies for us). We don’t have cable anymore. We don’t have a gym membership. It takes us years and years to save up to go on vacations. But what we do have? A really healthy, comfortable grocery budget that brings us joy each week. A budget that is cushy enough that we feel like we can buy all the organic, local and healthy food we want. A budget that makes it’s so much fun to go grocery shopping each week (seriously, it’s such a fun outing for us).
This isn’t me saying that food should be that important to you. Maybe it isn’t. And that’s totally cool. Maybe you don’t get giddy when you walk into the local health food store (Craig and I do). Maybe you don’t get excited to plan your menu every week (I do). Maybe going to the farmer’s market isn’t a social event for you (it is for us). Maybe your family celebrations don’t revolve around good food at the dinner table (ours do). Maybe you haven’t watched every single food-related documentary on Netflix (I have). For you, what is important might be a different category in your budget—eating out, traveling, shopping, seeing movies or plays.
But what I am saying is that I’m coming out of hiding. I’m stopping shaming myself for spending so luxuriously on food. Because it’s what’s important to us, and that makes it okay.
In related programming news, I’ve often wanted to (and have a few times) share what I bought when I went grocery shopping. But the few times I did it, I got push-back because of our large budget. And while I hate the idea of making people feel guilty for not having that ability (I never want you to feel like you have to live your life like mine—what works for me may or may not work for you), I always thought it was a fun little look into our everyday lives. And it was something I always loved seeing on other blogs. It’s the foodie equivalent of beauty or fashion haul videos! Would you guys be interested in me bringing that back? I was also thinking about wrapping it into the same post where we share our menu for that week. So you see what we’re going to eat—and the foods we bought to make that happen. You won’t hurt my feelings if you tell me no—it’s entirely possible I’m the only one who is a weird grocery cart voyeur.
And now I’m off to go make a grocery list.
How important is food to you? Do you care to share what your grocery budget is each month? Are there other budget categories (entertainment, shopping, travel, etc.) that are more important to you than food?
There is something about warmer weather that makes me want to drink all the flavored beverages ever. Somehow, it seems like plain ole water just doesn’t do the trick when it’s 75 degrees like it did when it was blizzarding back in January. If I’m being totally honest, what I really want is a really cold gin and tonic, heavy on the lime, that I sip on while swinging on our front porch swing as the sun goes down, but I’ll have to wait for that kind of beverage until June.
For now, I’m getting my fill of fun, flavorful drinks by consuming a ton of naturally-flavored waters. I know, I know. You can buy flavored waters (both regular and sparkling) at the grocery store for almost nothing, and it’s so much easier than making your own. You’re right, it is so much more convenient to just snag a bottle or two off the shelf, but I love being able to customize my own combinations. I love knowing exactly what I’m drinking. And I love seeing this beautiful jar of deliciousness sitting in the fridge. It’s like a work of art!
Even though I was a water-drinking expert pre-pregnancy, I’ve struggled a lot with staying hydrated throughout my pregnancy because the taste of water (even filtered water) really didn’t agree with my pregnancy tastebuds. Flavored waters have been a lifesaver over the past eight months.
Water is important all the time. And it’s important throughout an entire pregnancy. But it’s especially important in the third trimester, when dehydration has been shown to trigger preterm labor. If I can keep Baby J growing inside for a bit longer just by getting my fill of water each day, I’m going to do it! Plus, staying property hydrated during the third trimester helps keep me from retaining water—no swollen feet or ankles for me (yet).
What I’ve been doing is filling up a half-gallon Mason jar (we inherited ours, but I’ve seen these at craft stores—check Michael’s and Hobby Lobby) with my water flavorings, ice and water in the morning, with a goal of getting through it twice in a day. That’s roughly 120 ounces of water, or 15 glasses, a day. The flavoring fruits, veggies and herbs will easily get me through two jar fill-ups and still keep their flavor. And in fact, I usually use them for two or more days. Basically, when they lose their flavor, I toss them in the compost and start over with a new combo. But until then, I just keep on filling it up!
In this jar, I used cucumbers, lime, strawberries and fresh mint. The cucumber, mint and lime make the water taste so refreshing and bright! And the strawberries just add a tiny touch of natural sweetness. If you wanted even stronger flavor, you could also muddle the mix-ins (mush them up) before pouring in your water. If you do that, I recommend straining the water before drinking—unless you like to chew chunks of cucumber and pick out lime seeds from your water.
This combination is one of my favorites, not only because it tastes yummy, but also because it just looks so darn pretty! I’m (obviously) a visual person, and I really think there is something in my noggin that says, “Hey, that’s pretty, I want to drink that!” and makes it more appealing to me than just regular ole water.
- 1 cup sliced strawberries
- 1 cup sliced cucumbers
- 2 limes, sliced
- 1/4 cup fresh mint leaves
- Ice cubes
- In a half-gallon jar, or a 2 quart pitcher, layer the strawberries, cucumbers, lime slices, and mint leaves with the ice cubes. Fill jar or pitcher with water. Let chill for 10 minutes, and then enjoy!
- I can get 2-4 fill-ups out of one batch of flavorings, but you might want to change out your flavorings sooner for stronger flavor.
- Feel free to use sparkling water instead of still water.
- Obviously, the longer the water sits, the stronger the flavor. It’s mild at first, but after a few hours (or overnight) it’s quite strong.
Do you drink enough water? What’s your favorite way to make sure you stay hydrated?
Creativity is an interesting thing. It can be easy to assume that there is a limited amount of creativity that each person has (that’s why you hear lots of folks saying, “I’m not a creative person!”), but as someone who works everyday in multiple creative fields, I can tell you that isn’t true at all. Creativity isn’t goo in a bucket, and when you’ve used up that goo, your bucket is empty. Creativity is more like a muscle. The more you work it and use it, the stronger it gets. Sure, you can get burnt out—just like you can overtrain a muscle—but for the most part, the more creative work you do, the easier creative ideas come.
And the proof is in the practice. I absolutely get my most creative ideas when I’m working on other highly-creative and highly-intensive projects. Like now, I’m working on recipe development for my second cookbook. You’d think with cooking, writing and photographing 4-5 recipes a day, I’d be totally burnt out. But the opposite is true. The whole process has my creative juices flowing so much, that I actually struggle to keep up with the stream of ideas. In fact, I have a separate notebook I keep just to jot down ideas I come up with to explore later.
So what does that have to do with this amaranth salad? Well, it’s a perfect example of this creative windfall that comes from working on my cookbook. There is a Mexican-inspired amaranth salad recipe in my new cookbook. And it’s amazing (really, crazy amazing). It has spicy peppers, fresh tomatoes, creamy avocado, a ton of cilantro and a really amazing lime dressing. Craig and I both absolutely flipped for it when we tried it the first time.
Such success with one amaranth salad got me thinking about other grain-based salads I could make, and as I was tossing those ideas around in my noggin, Craig said something that set the creativity on fire. He said, “You know what? This doesn’t have the taste of one, but it almost has the texture of a California Roll.” And he was totally right. I’m not a big sushi fan (another story for another time), but I’ve been able to get behind a California Roll or two, and this amaranth salad did have the same feeling as a California Roll. The amaranth was sticky and tender. The avocado creamy and smooth. And the spicy peppers gave that touch of heat you get from wasabi. I knew I had to make a new version of the amaranth salad, and this time really embrace the California Roll theme. So I headed back to the kitchen, whipped up another batch of amaranth and mixed in crab meat, avocado chunks, cucumber, sesame seeds, and really flavorful sesame-lemon dressing. And the result was amazing! Even I, Ms. Sushi Hater loved this salad. And if you’re a big sushi fan, you can easily up the sushi-ness of it by adding soy sauce, pickled ginger, or even some wasabi paste and nori strips.
Enjoy! And go workout that creative muscle, k?
Skip rolling your sushi, and instead have the same tastes and textures in this easy-to-make (and easy-to-eat) salad!
- 2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
- 1 cup amaranth
- 1 large avocado, diced
- Juice and zest of one lemon
- 1/4 cup toasted sesame seeds
- 1 medium cucumber, diced
- 1 jalapeño, seeded and minced finely
- 1 cup lump crabmeat
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- 1 tablespoon honey
- 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
- 1 tablespoon tahini
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- In a medium saucepan, bring the broth to a boil over medium-high heat. Whisk in the amaranth, return to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 10-15 minutes, or until the amaranth has absorbed all the liquid. Transfer the amaranth to a large mixing bowl.
- In a small bowl, toss together the avocado, lemon juice and lemon zest until all avocado chunks are well-coated. Add mixture to the amaranth. Also add in the sesame seeds, cucumber, jalapeño, and crabmeat. Toss to combine, and set aside.
- In a small bowl, whisk together the sesame oil, honey, apple cider vinegar, tahini, salt and pepper. Pour over the amaranth mixture and toss to combine. Refrigerate for at least an hour to allow flavors to meld before serving.
- Amaranth is an awesome gluten-free, inexpensive, whole grain that you can often find in the bulk bins at your local health food store. If you can’t track any down, feel free to sub in the same amount of quinoa for a similar texture and flavor.
- Lump crab meat can be expensive (and hard to track down for those of us who are landlocked), feel free to sub in imitation crab meat—which is usually actually made from whitefish. Just make sure to check the ingredients first, many of the imitation brands are packed with artificial colors, artificial flavors and preservatives.
- To make this feel even more “sushi-like” you can add in pickled ginger, wasabi paste, soy sauce and even small strips of nori.
Do you consider yourself a creative person?
First things first, a few housekeeping items. You might notice things look a bit different ’round here—these design changes are part of what I was talking about in this post—and there will be more to come! I still have some tweaking to make (like, uh, it’s totally broken on mobile devices, I’m hoping to get to that today), but it’s getting there. Thanks for bearing with me!
Second piece of housekeeping, you may notice this teeny, tiny button at the bottom of my posts now:
I’m partnering with a very cool start-up that helps raise money for charity called CentUp. Basically, if you guys are feeling particularly lovey dovey over one of my posts (or just feeling generous on a particular day), you click that CentUp button and are directed to a page where you can donate a few cents to charity. Quite literally, just a few cents—the default donation amount is only $0.05 (although, you do have to load at least $10 into your account—but you can use that $10 a little at a time on any of the sites that are participating in CentUp).
The idea of the company is the half of what you donate goes to the author and half goes to charity, but I’ve decided that I want 100% of what is donated to go straight to charity. And right now, any and all money that gets generated from the CentUp buttons on BTHR goes to the Lynn Sage Foundation to help fund breast cancer research, which you all know is a cause near and dear to my heart. We’ve done some awesome work for breast cancer research together in the past few years (like when you guys helped me and my sisters raise almost $6000 for research!), and I think this is a new fun way to keep that charge going. I hope you’ll be able to throw a nickle or two toward a good cause.
Okay, enough housekeeping—onto popsicles!
Can you believe we’re still working on the peaches we have stashed in the freezer from last summer? Actually, you probably can, considering we brought home about 100 pounds of peaches after a morning of picking at a local orchard.
It took about a week full of peach processing to get through all of those back in July. I froze ‘em. I made peach salsa. I made peach BBQ sauce. I canned peach halves. I made peach cobbler. I made peach jam. I ate enough fresh peaches that I started to turn orange. And eventually, toward the end of the last box of peaches, I was totally tapped out and just froze some peaches whole. I had no idea what I was going to do with them, but I figured I’d eventually figure out something to do with them.
As it turns out, peaches freeze really well whole! Sure, they don’t come out like fresh peaches after thawing, but the peel of the peach helps to retain a lot of the color and flavor of the flesh. And, they’re really easy to work with. I just pull out how many peaches I want, and run them under warm water for a few minutes or just sit them on the counter for a few hours and, boom, thawed peaches!
And it’s hard to beat how easy it is to freeze peaches whole. I just washed them, and then threw them into a gallon zip-top bag. So much easier than the blanching, peeling, slicing and pitting that comes with freezing peach slices.
One of the things I’ve been using our whole frozen peaches for lately is popsicles! I absolutely love making our own popsicles. It’s a nice little after-dinner treat that we can 100% control what’s in it. In fact, I usually just either leave them sugar-less (because the fruit I use is so sweet), or just use a touch of honey, which makes these popsicles dessert-friendly and snack-friendly! I love a good snack that feels like dessert.
When I first started losing weight years ago, in order to cut through the sugar cravings, Craig and I would treat ourselves with a popsicle after dinner every night. Mostly they were sugar-free popsicles that were packed with artificial colors, sweeteners and flavors, and while I’ve moved past eating those kinds of foods, I still have a big fondness for a post-dinner popsicle. While, the actual product I was using might not have been the healthiest of choices, the behavior I was practicing was really healthy. Denying yourself is never fun! And by gifting myself the simple joy of a popsicle at the end of the day, I was setting myself up for success in my weight loss journey. It’s a philosophy I still follow in my life now, even though I’ve moved way past cheap popsicles and calorie counting.
The simplicity of these popsicles is one of the things that makes me so fond of them. Feel free to tweak and adjust them to get your perfect post-dinner popsicle formula.
These all-natural popsicles are a great way to treat yourself to dessert without sending yourself into a sugar coma. Don't have a popsicle mold? Try freezing these in ice cube trays or paper cups.
- 1 large ripe banana
- 3 peaches, pitted (I like leaving the peel on)
- 1 cup plain Greek yogurt
- 1/2 cup milk
- 3 tablespoons honey
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Combine all the ingredients in the carafe of a blender. Blend on high until very smooth. Pour into popsicle molds and freeze. Once the popsicles are somewhat solid, stick in popsicle sticks, and then continue freezing until solid.
What’s your favorite kind of popsicle?
I’ve still been trying to fill up our freezer with goodies before Baby J makes her arrival this summer. Over the past few weeks, we’ve been lucky enough to have nicer weather, and we’ve been cooking some warmer weather foods! And I’ve taken the opportunity to double to triple to recipes to stash some extras in the fridge. Here’s what I filled up the freezer with this week:
Tilapia Caper Packets
Before I was pregnant, we ate fish a few times a week, but fish has been on the no-go list since my first trimester—but I’m hoping all my food aversions disappear once Baby J is here. So I pulled together a few of these fish packets. I based them off of this recipe but used lemon slices instead of lemon juice. These are great because we can just toss them onto the grill for a few minutes, or even out on the fire pit if we happen to be outside around the fire.
I just used frozen fish fillets from Costco, and they came together in about five minutes. I like quick and easy freezer projects!
I thought I had both more fish fillets and more cherry tomatoes, but I only had enough of each to make three packets—womp, womp. Although, the great things about these is that they’re so easy to make, I can just easily add a few packets at a time as I stumble onto sales on fish or have an extra container of cherry tomatoes in the fridge.
I put up two different kinds of turkey burgers this week. Making extra burgers is so easy if you’re already doing it for dinner anyway! I just defrost two pounds of ground turkey instead of one, double the add-ins and take five extra minutes to form the extra patties. I freeze them flat on aluminum foil until solid, and then transfer them to labeled freezer bags for long-term storage.
Then, just I like I would when cooking burgers from scratch, I pull out how many patties I need for dinner in the morning. By dinnertime, they’re defrosted and ready to go on the grill for a few minutes. I’m also hoping to get around to making a bunch of whole wheat hamburger buns to stash in the freezer, too, but we’ll see.
I made six extra Greek Turkey Burgers—yum! And I also stashed six extra turkey burgers of another flavor. It’s a recipe I was testing for a freelance project, and they were total winners, but I can’t share the recipe yet (it’ll be out for public consumption in June).
The big freezer cooking project I had for this week was making breakfast burritos! Breakfast burritos are kinda time consuming (I like to generally follow this recipe), because there are so many different elements to make. I’m not sure I’d ever make breakfast burritos just for a regular breakfast, but making them in bulk makes the time worth it.
So many of my freezer cooking options for breakfast are sweet (waffles, muffins, etc.), that it’s nice to fill up the freezer with some savory breakfast options. I ended up making two different kinds of burritos—one for me and one for Craig. In mine, I have sausage, potatoes, peppers, onions, monterey jack, eggs and salsa. Craig’s have chicken, sweet potatoes, peppers, onions, eggs, goat cheese and salsa.
I ended up stashing away 20 burritos! Yay! I’ve got a feeling one-handed breakfasts like these are going to come in handy once I have a baby attached at my hip.
I can already tell with all this freezer fill-up work, we’re definitely going to need to tackle spring cleaning the deep freezer sooner rather than later. It’s getting packed!
Check out all the posts in the Freezer Fill-up series: