Thursday, June 18, 2009

Use Your Noodle

One of my favorite inexpensive meals is pasta. It is so versatile! You can serve it hot or cold. Winter or Summer. There are endless variations of sauces. Most people like it, including kids.

I like to buy mine from the bulk bin at Winco. If you have bulk bins at a supermarket near you, check the price. I bet you'll find it's cheaper to buy it that way than in the box. Then you can store it in a tall canister or other container (I store mine in a heavy cardboard tube that once held whiskey). You don't waste so much packaging that way.Try the new whole grain pasta. I thought it would taste like cardboard, but it's actually really good, and has tons more fiber per serving.

An energy-saving tip I once read said to bring the water to a boil, add the pasta, stir, cover, and turn the burner off. The pasta will cook in the hot water after 15 or 20 minutes (check after 10 or 12 minutes). Before I read this, I used to leave the burner on simmer the whole time the noodles were cooking! Try it. It works perfectly every time.

Being a lazy person, I usually just buy some store-bought sauce (whatever's on sale, that I also have a coupon for) and doctor it up. I look for marked down bags of produce at the grocery store such as mushrooms, summer squash or red bell peppers that have a few dings and bruises. I chop the veggies, saute (or not) and add to the sauce and simmer for a while. I may throw in a little red wine if I have a bottle open. I buy Parmesan cheese in bulk and store it in the freezer. It keeps longer that way, and can be grated over the pasta while still frozen (just break a hunk off).

My second go-to sauce is pesto. I grow my own basil, which I give to my sister. She then makes pesto in the food processor with lots of basil, nuts (we prefer almonds, but walnuts work, and pine nuts are traditional), enough olive oil to moisten it, and a little garlic. The proportion should be roughly two parts basil, one part nuts. She jars it, and divvies it up between us. I store it in the freezer until I'm ready to use it. Then you just defrost it, toss it with the hot cooked pasta, and grate cheese over the top.

Occasionally I make a sorta like Arrabiata Sauce by chopping some eggplant and adding it to the store-bought sauce, along with a couple packets of the red peppers that come with takeout pizza.

Another nice sauce, which lets me take advantage of my mom's very prolific lemon tree, is made something like this. Whisk together about 2/3 cup olive oil with about 2/3 cup Parmesan cheese, the juice of 2 lemons, and a little salt and pepper. Add cooked, hot pasta to the lemon mixture. Toss with 1/3 cup chopped fresh basil and 1 T grated lemon zest. If it's a little dry, toss with some of the cooking water from the pasta.

Sometimes we are in a mac n' cheese mood, and I usually use this recipe:

I like to add a little cooked broccoli or cauliflower so I can pretend I'm eating something somewhat nutritious.

Pasta Carbonara is not the healthiest either, but it's good for an occasional treat. The ingredients are very inexpensive. I use this recipe:

Serve with a salad to get your vegetable quota.

On warm summer days, I make one of two pastas. The first is made by chopping my own garden tomatoes, fresh basil and a little garlic, salt and pepper, and simmering for a short time in a saute pan coated with a little olive oil. Then toss with cooked pasta. The second is made by sauteing fresh summer squash, mushrooms, and zucchini, then tossing with cooked pasta and Parmesan cheese. Both are served at room temperature.

On hot as *&$#@! summer days, I like to make a cold pasta salad by tossing cooked corkscrew noodles with store-bought Italian Salad Dressing, sauteed veggies, canned black olives, and cubes of meat and cheese, if desired. Chill until dinner time.

Any of the pastas above can be accompanied by a good loaf of bread. If you are eating pasta, chances are you are not carb-phobic, so you might as well have some bread too. As you can see from the links above, I like the site There are tons of other great pasta recipes there, and you can also search by ingredient, if you have a specific ingredient you'd like to use up. Another tip: leftover pasta sauce makes a good soup base (another inexpensive meal)!

I hope you get a chance to try some of my pasta recipes. Let me know how you like them. Please share your own favorite pasta recipes, especially the quick and easy ones!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Money Maximization: A Game of Skill

What is the best way to make the most of your money? Learn some new skills. The more things you can learn to do yourself, rather than pay someone to do them, the more money you will save. This frees up cash for other needs.

One important skill you can learn is cooking. If you are not a very experienced cook, there are many ways to improve. You can watch cooking shows on TV, rent videos from the library, ask an experienced pal to give you some lessons, or take a class at a community center or junior college. Much can be learned from library books. My library has an excellent selection of recipe and cooking basics books. The Internet also contains a wealth of information on the subject. If you improve your cooking, you will not have to buy as many expensive prepared meals in the store, or visit restaurants as often. You also have a new source of inexpensive gifts! Besides, cooking can be a lot of fun as a shared activity with family or friends.

Another valuable accomplishment is learning to sew. Although in this age of cheap mass-produced clothing sewing your own duds from scratch is not always cheaper, it can certainly provide you with a more unique wardrobe. Acquiring the ability to make basic repairs and alterations, however, can save you some serious money. Tailors do not work cheaply. Cloth napkins, place mats, potholders, etc. to coordinate with the recipient's decorating scheme are also welcome gifts that don't break the bank. Sewing machine shops often provide free classes if you buy a machine there. You can also go the budget route, buying a serviceable machine at a yard sale or thrift store, and asking a snip-n-stitch-savvy friend to impart his or her basic wisdom. Community centers offer instruction in some locales.

Home improvement is another area where the hands-on approach is much easier on the budget. Home Depot offers special workshops to improve your competence in all sorts of areas, including painting, flooring installation, window-screen repair, ceiling fan installation, etc. New workshops are added all the time. Should you be tempted to use your gender as an excuse not to do-it-yourself, they even offer special workshops for women! Simple projects may even be handled with a quick perusal of a library book or web tutorial. I find encyclopedia-type books regarding basic construction techniques and household repairs in the thrift stores all the time. One caveat: please leave any complex jobs requiring the altering of your home's footprint, or those involving any possibly load-bearing walls or electrical work to the professionals!

A facility for basic auto repairs can likewise come in handy. I wouldn't attempt anything beyond changing the oil and wiper blades myself, but those of you with a willing tutor, good, clear set of instructional manuals, or especially informative website may wish to delve a little deeper. The financial savings can be huge!

An aptitude for investing your money is another arrow in the quiver of cash-management. Check out some personal investment books from the library, join an investment club, read Smart Money, Money or Kiplinger's magazine, pick the brain of a friend or relative who has grown their money successfully, or look for a community center or junior college course. Learn all you can, and make sure you understand the risks of any investment you are making. Also, be aware of any commissions or fees that will be charged when you invest, and how these will impact your returns.

Gardening is something that can be attempted with some limited success by even the (pardon the pun) greenest novice. Some additional know-how will greatly improve your chances of success, however. Shadow that green-thumbed neighbor, read the gardening section of your local paper, click on horticultural websites and borrow gardening magazines from the library. Nurseries offer excellent workshops as well. Home-grown fruits and veggies are cheaper, tastier, and more nutritious than their store-bought cousins. Grow your own flowers, too! A decorative pot of herbs, flowers or a cute succulent makes an attractive and reasonably-priced gift!

These are just a few examples of how gaining some expertise can improve your cash flow. Please share some of your own ideas.