Reducipe: Southwestern Falafels with Guacamole

Posted on March 13, 2008 by Melissa 
Filed Under Reducipes | 4 Comments

Southwestern FalafelsWith rising food costs, I think everyone could use a few reducipes that use beans as the main protein instead of meat. Beans are not only a cheap substitute, they are really tasty and versatile. And they are good for you, too!

This isn’t your average falafel. It has southwestern style ingredients (like pinto beans and mexican spices) to make a truly unique version. These flavors are very “me”.

This recipe is yet another staple of mine and was even featured at my last catering event in bite size form. Hmmm, maybe I should stop giving away all my secrets. Just kidding!

I haven’t tried this dish out on kids (I don’t have children yet) but I bet they would like it. It’s like a hamburger in a different form. The crunch and hands-on “eatability” is fun. If guacamole freaks them out try a little ranch dressing instead.

Southwestern Falafels are one of our all time favorite dinners and I’m tickled pink that it happens to be so economical, too.

I just had to share this one with you all. I hope you like it!

Southwestern Falafels with Guacamole

1 (15oz) can of pinto beans, rinsed and drained
1/2 cup Monterrey Jack cheese, shredded
2 teaspoons mayonnaise
1/4 cup tortilla chips, finely crushed
2 tablespoons green onions, finely chopped
2 tablespoons cilantro, finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
Cayenne, to taste
Kosher salt, to taste
1 egg, slightly beaten
1 cup panko crumbs
Canola oil
Guacamole, recipe follows
Pita bread

To prepare patties, place pinto beans in medium bowl and partially mash them with a fork. Add the cheese, mayo, tortilla chips, green onions, cilantro, spices, and egg and mix well. Form into 4 patties, about 1/2″ thick, and dredge in the panko crumbs. Set aside.

Heat about 1-2 tablespoons canola oil in a large non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the patties and pan fry them until they are golden brown and crispy on both sides.

Serve with guacamole and fresh pita. Serves 4 (or 6 if you make smaller patties).

1 avocado, peeled, cubed, and lightly mashed
1/4 cup pico de gallo
Garlic salt, to taste
1/2 lime, juiced

Mix the avocado, pico de gallo, garlic salt, and a drizzle of lime juice together in a small bowl. Pour the remaining lime juice over the surface (to help delay browning). Refrigerate, with a layer of plastic wrap pressed directly against the surface of the guacamole to help keep it fresh and green.

Look for panko crumbs in the Asian Foods section of your market. If you can’t find it you can just omit it; they are very tasty even without that added crunch. I don’t think regular bread crumbs would do it justice, though.

If you can’t make or buy fresh pita bread, you can substitute flour tortillas. Tortillas aren’t as good as pita because the dish loses some of its chewy-ness but they aren’t bad. Just make sure to warm up the tortillas over a flame to get them nice and soft. Toasting them a bit will also make store-bought tortillas taste better.

Ingredients for Southwestern Falafels

If you want to make the patties ahead of time, don’t roll them in the panko. Wait to dredge the patties in the panko until right before cooking so the crumbs stay nice and crisp.

On a diet? No problem! Use low-fat mayo, baked tortilla chips, omit the panko coating, and cook them in very little oil. You can easily make this meal lighter by following those steps.

Let’s see the damage!

Ingredient Cost Ingredient Cost
Pinto Beans $0.50 Egg $0.16
Cheese $0.54 Panko Crumbs $0.25
Mayo $0.02 Canola Oil $0.15
Tortilla Chips $0.05 Avocado $1.79
Green Onions $0.09 Pico De Gallo $0.29
Cilantro $0.05 Limes $0.08
Spices N/A Total $3.97 or $0.99 a serving

Do you see that total? Wow. That’s really cheap!

I didn’t add in the cost of the pita bread I made but if I did it would only raise the cost by $0.04 a serving (2 pita rounds). I told Eric about how much our meal cost last night and he was astounded. Quite frankly, I am too. These falafels taste too good to be so inexpensive!

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I Buy It 1/2 Off Or You Toss It!

Posted on March 12, 2008 by Melissa 
Filed Under Frugality, Groceries | 13 Comments

Now THAT’s a good chunk of Manchego!I just had to write a quick post about my grocery trip today!

I wanted to get some Manchego cheese for a Mexican bean soup I’m making this week, but specialty cheeses can be very pricey and I didn’t have room in the budget.

I chose to substitute Monterrey Jack instead, even though the spanish cheese would have been ideal for the soup. I love cheese and zesty Manchego has a wonderful nutty flavor. I enjoy snacking on shavings like I would a fine parmesan. But I digress…

When I was at the store this morning I decided to look at the Manchego anyway, to see if by chance it was reasonably priced. I was out of luck. An 8 oz chunk was over $8.50. Sigh.

I examined all of the blocks, trying to find a smaller (and cheaper) size and came across one pushed under a display. It was still 8 oz and $8.50, though. Then I noticed it said “sell by 3-14” on the label. I wanted to use it for dinner tomorrow so it would still be just fine for me.

I took note of the expiration dates on the other packages and they were all set for June. Bingo!

I called over the deli attendant and asked if they would discount the cheese for me. She looked confused, looked at the cheese, then said she would get her manager. When he came over I simply said that I’d like to buy the cheese for half off because the expiration date was in 2 days. He said that they don’t usually do that.

I said, “what are the chances that someone is going to come in here to buy this piece of Manchego in 2 days? Either I buy it half off now or you will have to throw it away.”

He looked at me, smiled, and discounted the cheese by half with a marker.

It was like a rush for me. I’ve never done that for cheese before! I got the specialty cheese I wanted for only $4.25 and they made a sale on something that would have been wasted. It’s a win-win situation for everyone involved.

Next time you are wanting something pricey and perishable, check out all the available items and see if any packages are within days of expiring. If you find one, put on your sweetest smile and ask for a discount! If the item is a speciality item that doesn’t move quickly you have an even better chance to negotiate a lower price!

Have you been able to score a deal on something expensive because it was close to expiring?

Last Chance To Use Your Flexible Savings Account!

Posted on March 11, 2008 by Melissa 
Filed Under Medical | 2 Comments

If you have a Flexible Savings Account, or FSA, you know how complicated tracking all your medical expenses can be. If you haven’t been keeping up with the receipts it can be a real chore to get organized, especially now that there is a looming deadline.

From our employer’s website:

You have until April 30th of the current year to file claims for expenses incurred January 1st of the previous year through March 15th of the current year.

In other words, it’s now or never to spend your FSA funds and submit the expenses.

Please be aware that not all companies elected to have the same deadlines. Check with your specific employer to see when your FSA deadlines are.

It’s pretty late in the game but if you are still searching for ways to spend your remaining 2007 FSA funds, consider:

While going through my receipts, I noticed that some stores actually note which items may be eligible for FSA reimbursement. Until I saw the “H” next to the antacids and contact solution I didn’t realize I could submit them! Check your receipts and see if you missed anything. How convenient!

2008 is my first year to fund and actually use a FSA. In an effort to keep up with my paperwork I just submitted all my receipts for the past two months. Less than 3 months into the year and I’m already half way through my funds. I’ll probably run short by December and will need to increase my figure for next year.

After narrowly missing some eligible expenses I decided to spend some time looking up what is and is not eligible for reimbursement.

Here is a detailed list of eligible expenses by a human resources company I found online. I found it very helpful. The alphabetical list starts on page 3.

FSA updates for 2008:
The following expenses no longer require a physician’s note for reimbursement:

  • Orthotics, insoles, and arch supports
  • Sunscreen and sun block (awesome!)
  • Tints and coatings for prescription eyeglasses
  • Ear-wax removal products

Familiarizing myself with the list really helped me understand what expenses qualify for reimbursement. I had no idea that you could count mileage to medical appointments. I don’t plan on submitting my mileage but I suppose if your doctors were far away this could come in handy.

I also didn’t realize that vitamins wouldn’t qualify unless your doctor writes a note saying they are used to alleviate a medical condition. Taking them for health and well being isn’t enough.

Interesting expenses allowed:

Interesting expenses NOT allowed:

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6 Easy Ways To Battle Rising Food Costs

Posted on March 10, 2008 by Melissa 
Filed Under Economy, Food | 30 Comments

I hear you, buddy!Have you looked at your grocery bills lately? If so, you are probably seeing what I’m seeing.

Food prices are going up – especially for fresh food and staples. It looks like they will keep rising, too. Check out this article from the Boston Globe.

Why is this happening, you ask? Robert Gavin of The Boston Globe explains:

Several factors contribute to higher food prices, analysts say, but none more than record prices for oil, which last week closed above $105 a barrel. Oil is not only driving up production and transportation costs, but also adding to demand for corn and soybeans, used to make alternative fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel.

As a result, corn prices have more than doubled in commodity markets over two years, and soybeans nearly tripled, according to DTN, a commodities analysis firm in Omaha. Meanwhile, with poor harvests in major wheat-producing regions, wheat prices have more than tripled.

These crops have a profound impact on food prices because they form foundations for many products, including oils, sweeteners, and flour. Corn, for example, is a key ingredient in livestock feed. When the price of corn rises, so does the price of feed, and ultimately, so do the prices of meat, poultry, and eggs.

He goes on to mention that the weakening US dollar and a stronger global demand for commodities aren’t helping the situation much either.

I’ve noticed that I’ve had considerable trouble staying under my $75 a week limit lately, even when I cook fewer meals and buy less meat.

Seeing the price hikes every time I shop is getting a little depressing. It makes a recession feel much more certain. Sure, gas prices are upsetting, too, but at least I fill up less frequently than I shop for food. The increased exposure to rising costs seems to be affecting my confidence. In the past I could shrug off the pessimism, but now it’s hit home in a new way and I’m a little nervous.

With more money being demanded for the same items my budget is stretching thinner than I’d like. Unfortunately, it looks like my discretionary spending is on the chopping block. I think I’ll suspend the $50 monthly donation to our “fun money” savings account. Sigh.

Pet food costs are rising, too. Two weeks ago I paid $0.33 for a can of cat food and this weekend the same brand was selling for $0.44. Both were the sale prices at the same store. Sigh.

The good news is that I’m being much more selective in what I buy. I’m asking myself if I really need an extra pound of tomatoes, or brand-name popsicles, or instant rice before I buy it.

Saving money on food isn’t all about what you spend; sometimes it’s about how you use it.

6 easy ways to keep food costs down

Eat more vegetarian based meals. Typically, meat is pricey, especially when compared to beans and frozen veggies. We are experimenting with making more meals meat-free and are having a blast. Last week, we enjoyed Pasta with Butternut Squash and Ricotta, Pad Thai with Tofu, and Vegetable Curry. Personally, I’m using it as an excuse to explore ethnic cooking. I estimate that we can save over $30 a month by skipping the meat at most meals.

Start a “Soup and Sandwich” night. Planning a “soup and sandwich” night once a week helps me save money. That night is all about simple comfort food, nothing fancy. I like to pair a classic grilled cheese with canned tomato or potato soup. How about a tuna or turkey melt with veggie soup? Substitute a baked potato every so often to mix it up. Just make it cheap and with the stuff you have at home.

Bring your breakfast AND lunch from home. Just do it. Eric keeps oatmeal, trail mix, and breakfast bars in his desk for quick breakfasts and snacks. For lunch he takes the leftovers from the previous night or I pack him a sandwich, salad, yogurt, and snack. You’ll be shocked at how much you can save by brown bagging it 5 days a week.

Minimize waste. Waste is the enemy of economy. At these prices you simply can’t afford to allow the food go bad before you can use it. I always cook fresh meat dishes in the first few days after shopping, with fish and shellfish being cooked within 1 day of purchase. Pad the end of your week with cheaper and less perishable meals like sandwiches, pasta, frozen meals, and soups. If we have meat or veggies at the end of the week it is almost always from my freezer. Eating the fresh food first really helps cut down on spoiled or unused food and that equals savings.

Plan (and hope) for leftovers. When planning your week make sure to make note of possible leftovers. I find that if I don’t plan for leftovers I’ll end up making too many dinners that week and something goes bad (either the fresh food or the leftovers). Serve the leftovers for lunch or have them again for dinner a few days later with an interesting side dish or topping. Push back meals that don’t have perishable ingredients to make room for those leftovers. Utilizing leftovers is key when stretching the budget.

Tap your pantry once a week. I usually have one or two nights a week where I don’t plan a dinner. That “free space” allows me to push back meals to take advantage of leftovers or other cravings and it “forces” me to use what I have. Many of us have stocked pantries but don’t use the food in them. When I moved I found canned corn and jello that was 5 years old! Match up the fresh food that needs to be used with several pantry items to create something interesting. Your pantry and your pocketbook will thank you.

Are you feeling the crunch at the supermarket? How do you plan to save money on weekly meals?

Image Source: altemark

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Could It Be More Than A Hobby?

Posted on March 7, 2008 by Melissa 
Filed Under Food, Work | 7 Comments

Setting up the table…Last Saturday, I had my first paid catering gig. I spent weeks getting ready and even did two full days of prep leading up to it. It was so much fun and I learned so much from the experience.

We had about 20% more people show up than expected and that made keeping the plates full a bit tricky, especially with the variety we offered.

We served 12 savory hors d’Oeuvres and 3 desserts. It was all sized to be single bites so no utensils were needed. Hors d’Oeuvres parties are my favorite kind of parties to cook for.

I had a friend join me as my assistant for the event and she turned out to be indispensable. She was more of a partner than an assistant, really. She ran the front of house (replenishing the dishes and drinks, final garnishes and serving) while I ran the back of house (cooking and preparing the food). With her catering management experience and my cooking ability we made a fantastic team.

During the party we got several requests for our business cards and were offered 3 more possible gigs. People kept telling us we should go into business together. It was exciting to have such a wonderful response and to see all of our little bites being gobbled up by the guests so quickly. I love seeing people hover around the buffet – it’s a sign the food is a hit.

To my surprise, the next morning I woke up feeling depressed. The party was over and I no longer had an event to organize. I expected to feel relieved afterwards, not sad.

Antipasto SkewersEric thinks that I should consider turning this hobby into a small business. After all, nothing gets me more excited than cooking and I already have some word of mouth advertising going on. The alternative income would be nice, too.

After a strong dose of encouragement from family and friends, I’ve decided to do some research into home-grown catering to see if it’s a possibility for me. I love the idea of it, but I also don’t want to potentially ruin my love affair with cooking. Sometimes hobbies are best left at that.

Unfortunately, my friend wouldn’t want to be a partner in a possible endeavor. She agreed to help with this past event mainly as favor. She will still help me out sometimes but she doesn’t want to find herself working another “job”. I completely understand where she is coming from and although I’m bummed because we worked so well together, it’s okay.

Earlier this week the client called to express her gratitude and surprise over the final bill. I decided to charge just a small fee for our labor on top of the reimbursement for costs. It was an incredible bargain for her; the service we provided was easily triple what she paid for it. The best part was that she recognized it and said she would have had no problem paying “thousands” for it.

I know I could have charged a lot more but I’m honored that she took a risk on a newcomer. While I’m learning it’s not so much about the money as it is for the experience. She shouldn’t pay “pro” prices for someone who doesn’t even know if she has what it takes to be a “pro” yet.

Have you turned a hobby you love into a business? Did it end up being your dream job or a nightmare?

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