Monday, March 02, 2009

Money Monday: 03/02/2009

Every single month (it seems, at least), I find myself slammed with one or more large hits. This month, the big one was childcare.

On the one hand, the after school program for the girls is relatively inexpensive – it sets us back $170 per month, per child, which is a far sight better than the $125 per week per child the average daycare charges.

On the other hand, you have to jump in the instant months become available and snap up your spots. All of the months. So when April and May opened up, I had to jump on in and pay my $900 all in one go. Ouch.

This month, I have two big ticket items coming at me like a pair of freight trains that left Denver at 4:15 and Chicago at 12:45, traveling at…oh. Wait. Sorry. Math homework confusion. Ahem.

The first train is property taxes. Again with the two hand thing – compared to a lot of our neighbors, our taxes are very low. On the other hand, it’s still $1,600.

The second train is the car insurance. Ordinarily I pay the whole thing in one swell foop, because otherwise they charge me 12% interest on the balance and I am against that. However, this year…sigh. I think I’m going to have to take them up on the financing offer because meh, the income-outgo ratio sucks lately.

Speaking of which, one of the things I want to do this month is put some extra effort into cash conservation.

It may come as a complete surprise that stockpiling cash often comes as a result of not spending it.

I know! Revolutionary! Quick, somebody call the committee, ‘cause this kid deserves the Nobel prize in Economics!

Ahem. OK, so, possibly, there have been greater discoveries made this year.

Or possibly, the whole thing is rigged.

ANYWAY. It can really be surprising how much money you spend on this and that. Each individual thing is small. Five dollars here. Twenty dollars there. Just forty dollars for this sheet set, what a deal…twenty dollars for a pair of jeans, practically stealing.

They all add up, each ‘negligible’ little thing piling on top of the last one. Even my thrift store purchases add up. Less than I’d pay at the mall, but more than I’d pay if I just didn’t buy them.

This month, I’m invoking a partial spending fast. No thrift stores, no stockpiling, no loading up the freezer or picking up twelve boxes of Ritz crackers, even if they are at fire-sale prices. The idea on groceries will be to cook and serve what we already have, filling in only what we actually need – mostly milk and fresh produce until the CSA deliveries start.

Tonight, I used the last whole chicken from the freezer to make one of those comfort-food dinners. I quartered an onion for stuffing, melted some butter, added some garlic salt and brushed the outside of the bird with it, then put it into the oven and roasted it. Mashed potatoes and canned corn rounded it out.

Which brings me to another subject. Another mom last week was complaining about how expensive mashed potatoes were. And I was all, Errrrrgh? because hello, cheapest food on the planet.

Well, she was talkin’ potato buds, the instant-potato-substance. Cheaper than KFC, sure, but when you’re keeping a family with a teenager or two fed? It still gets pricy.

It was her impression that ‘real’ mashed potatoes were a lot of huff, bother, mess and that you needed some kind of mystic powers to make mashed potatoes.

Now, I’ll admit that there is some amount of practice involved that makes mashed potatoes something I consider fast and easy. But really…they’re not hard.

The basic system around here is this.

Set out a pot large enough for the potatoes to simmer submerged in water. Fill it with water, then set it on the stove to heat while you select and prepare your victims.

The basic recipes, which feeds six smallish appetites or four more average ones, takes six medium potatoes. Wash and peel them, then give them three decisive cuts: One down the middle lengthwise, and then into thirds. Plop! Into the heating water they go.

Bring the water to a boil, then reduce the heat to a brisk simmer. Give them about fifteen minutes then poke at them with a fork. If they give way fairly easily, you’re ready. You don’t want them to explode at the slightest pressure – that’s going to make grainy mashed potatoes. You don’t want them too firm, either – if they fight the fork and have a chance of winning, they’ll be lumpy.

They should break apart with slight pressure. When that happens, take them off the heat and drain them. Toss a quarter cup of butter or margarine into the pan, put in the potatoes, and start with a quarter cup of milk.

Set the hand mixer on stun and start whipping the spuds. This is where your human eyeball comes in: If they seem grainy and ‘too thick,’ add a tablespoon of milk. Just a tablespoon – the point of creamy goodness comes fast, and you can’t take the excess milk out very easily.

If you like them a little rustic (with lumps), leave the speed low and stop sooner. If you prefer them to be really smooth and creamy, set that mixer on kill and whip them.

And then you’re done. It generally takes me just over twenty minutes start to. Set the pan to soak while you’re eating and cleanup is no big deal, either.

Don’t be afraid of your kitchen, folks. I know, I know, a lot of you aren’t. But I also know more than a few you are, and you find those home-cooked goodies intimidating because when they don’t turn out right…well. It’s so obvious, and you feel like a failure because gee whiz…every other cook in America can do this in his or her sleep, what’s wrong with me?!

Ya know what? The first several runs I made at mashed potatoes sucked. Mightily. My most common mistake was over-boiling the potatoes, which made them gummy and blech. I also over-salted them, under-cooked them, over-whipped them, and once absent-mindedly dumped almost a cup of milk into them. (Potato soup, that’s what that was.) (Not bad, exactly…just, you know, not mashed potatoes.)

Don’t worry about it. If anybody gives you crap about your mashed potatoes, invite them to make their own damned dinner and see how they feel about it then. Laugh about it. Enjoy it. Love yourself for trying…love yourself for getting better…love yourself for succeeding.

And don’t worry too much about wasting some potatoes or even burning some steak along the way. Kitchen accidents happen to everybody, even famous celebrity chefs. These are valuable lessons, investments in future good things.

Give them a try. You will save money in the long run, eat healthier foods (OK, mashed potatoes are not exactly the Gold Standard for health food, just stay with me here…) and if the apocalypse actually happens and there is no more take-out?

You will be worth your weight in gold.

You have to plan ahead, people. Those who can cook from scratch, post-apocalypse? They’ll be nearly as valuable as people who can make socks using two sticks and some string…just sayin’….

(Seriously. Imagine if you couldn’t pop over to WalMart for a pair of socks? Who loves their resident knitter now, huh?!)


Mizzle said...

I must be old-fashioned...

I still use a potato masher.

Unknown said...

I not only use a potato masher, but also a pressure cooker.

Anonymous said...

I loves me some mashed potatoes! We boil them whole, which takes longer but keeps them from getting water-logged. Also, for a bit of flair, we sometimes throw a few peeled, whole garlic cloves into the water with the potatoes; they get beaten in with the butter and milk (or cream, if it's been a bad day) - very yummy. I also make extra to eat for lunch the next day with whatever leftover veggies and shredded cheddar on top. Darn, now I'm hungry!

ellipsisknits said...

If you quarter or slice the potatoes, they cook faster, which is good if they are large.

However, husband recently sliced the potatoes *thin* and then over cooked them - resulting in the potatoes literally dissolving into the water, never to be seen again.

LNS said...

Ugh, I don't want to get stuck making socks for the whole family! That's a lot of feet and I'm the only knitter in sight. Let's hope this apocalypse passes quitely with sock purveyors intact.

Anonymous said...

LOL, I just decided that I'm sick of those socks from Wal-Mart that get holes after only 2 weeks. I've been getting sock yarn on sale and am knitting pair after pair for my 3 boys. Since the boys are growing like weeds, I make sure to leave an extra 1/2 inch in the toes. My twins are also still wearing socks that I made for my older son 3! years! ago! And I'm passing on outgrown twin socks to a friend who has even younger boys.

Knitted socks last for years, even on rough & tough boys. Beat that, Wal-Mart. :-)

Another Joan said...

Chef Son says peeled garlic, UNpeeled potatoes, salt, don't completely cover the spuds, olive oil instead of butter (or half and half but you will need less olive oil than butter if you use only oil) and thump about with a masher or a fork. "Pommes des terres rustique" Yummmmmm!

Stephanie said...

Just watch out on the real mashed potatoes thing. My mom made them once when we were kids and ever after we refused to eat the instant kind. (Instant has gotten better over the years but they were horrible in the 80's.)

You can also use sour cream in mashing instead of milk. Or in addition to.

Louiz said...

I'm not the world's greatest cook (who am I kidding - I once managed to explode a jacket potato in the oven), but it completely blows me away when I have conversations with people who think food comes from the shops. Ready packaged, put in the microwave, and eat a few minutes later. The idea that buying a whole chicken and jointing it yourself gives you a cheaper but better quality alternative to 6 pre-packaged chicken breasts.

I'd just like to say that Himself cooks. Brilliantly, and shops for the food too... oh and my contribution? I've just ordered our new freezer, to replace ours which stopped working in July. Now try managing without a freezer for over 6 months, it's a whole load harder:(

Senora Fuerte said...

I was just lamenting this morning how a little planning ahead would keep us eating dinner at home more often... I must make it happen!

I've never tried making mashed potatoes before. It doesn't sound that scary, though... Perhaps I should add potatoes to today's shopping list...

JanTink said...

You don't need to totally submerge the potatoes; I put in water so that it comes up halfway up the sides of the pot after the potatoes are in it. The potatoes that don't boil outright end up steaming and it all works.

The cooking water can be used to make your gravy, so don't throw it away! It adds flavor and the starch from the potatoes helps thicken the gravy.

I also add 2 oz. of cream cheese to my mashed potatoes. Adds a lot to the flavor and texture. I throw it in before mashing.

I'm with you on those big ticket items coming all at once. Our car insurance allows you to pay over 3 months, then have 3 months without payments. It was really hard to budget that way and we always ended up doing the payments instead of paying all at once. So after the last time I payed over 3 months, I divided the payment into sixths, then started setting aside that amount of money every month. When it came time to make the insurance payment, I had the whole thing. 'Bout broke my arm patting myself on the back...who knew that someone who had been so stupid about money for so long could get so smart? LOL!