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Apparently You Can Microwave Oatmeal

Oatmeal: It is ridiculously cheap, nutritious, and the kids love it. (I can take it or leave it myself, but they will eat it for any meal of the day.) It keeps forever, so I can have a virtually limitless supply in my pantry. So far, an ideal food.

The problem was that it is a pain to cook rolled oats. Takes several minutes on the stove, and who wants to heat their house up like that during the summer?

Now, there are directions on the box for making oatmeal in the microwave. I tried this years ago and it exploded all over my microwave. I filed microwave oatmeal under “fail” and moved on mentally. I made it on the stovetop or not at all.

When we visited Grandma FP this summer, I returned from vacation (thanks, Mom!) and was surprised to find that she had been feeding Big Brother boatloads of oatmeal. My mom’s house is usually more the kind of establishment where one finds packets of instant oatmeal and those pre-shaped cookies that you just separate and bake. While I have known Grandma FP (who is, incidentally, four feet ten inches tall) to rent a drum sander and refinish wood floors, I can’t picture her standing at the stove stirring oatmeal.

Evidently the oatmeal had entered the house for a cookie-making project and she wanted to use it up by feeding it to my tots. So she first tried the microwave and had the same experience I did. Oatmeal city.

But she was not as easily deterred as me and pressed on, experimenting with trial and error until she had it down pat. Evidently the secret is to use a container that holds about 4 times as much water as you are using. So a single serving of oatmeal (half a cup of oats to one cup water) can be comfortably prepared in a one-quart Pyrex measuring cup, should you have such a thing.

Turns out the directions SAY to use a one-quart dish. I don't think that was on the box I used when I painted my microwave with oatmeal.

Turns out the directions SAY to use a one-quart dish. I don’t think that was on the box I used when I painted my microwave with oatmeal.

I do not, so at my house I just use a large stoneware or Pyrex serving bowl. (I have found that I can make up to three servings this way–I’m not kidding, the dudes dig oatmeal.) After it’s cooked, I add a dab of maple syrup and plenty of cinnamon, or perhaps peanut butter and honey, and if it is thick enough, I add a little milk to help it cool off.

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For some reason, I have three of these fancy serving bowls. I use them for… microwaving things.

 

Friends, what a revelation! No more standing at the stove stirring! Electricity savings! More importantly, oatmeal has entered our very short list of “emergency child meals” alongside frozen chicken nuggets and cold cheese sandwiches. Fewer chicken nuggets down their gullets = win for health. It’s easy enough that a babysitter can prepare it, fast enough to whip up for lunch even when I pick up Little Brother at 11 and have to be at work at 1:15. When I get a thermos for Big Brother, I’ll be able to pack it in his school lunch. 

I know lots of food snobs look down on their microwave. For me, it is an essential part of my efforts to eat almost exclusively home-prepared food. 

Do you get much use out of your microwave? What are your fallback meals?

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Lifestyle Inflation and Coffee Beans

Mr. FP found this Contigo mug abandoned in his classroom and now it goes everywhere with me. Work, the grocery store, library story time, etc.

Mr. FP found this Contigo mug abandoned in his classroom and now it goes everywhere with me. Work, the grocery store, library story time, etc.

I love coffee a lot, as perhaps I have mentioned. Never drank it at all until I was over 30. When Big Brother was a baby, I was doing an online graduate degree and the only time I had to do my homework was when he was napping–so right after lunch. Ever tried to concentrate on homework right after lunch? Enter the most wonderful bean.

Despite my affection for the stuff, I don’t grind my own coffee beans. I buy ground coffee (Seattle’s Best, #4) at the grocery store. I was joking about the “horror” of this with  the awesome Mrs. Frugalwoods, who is in the midst of an experiment to determine whether Costco beans, at five-something a pound, are a sufficient replacement for their fancypants ten-something a pound beans, which I can only assume are roasted by unicorns. She joked back, “I’ll buy you a coffee grinder.”

Chickpeas thawing for hummus-making, a common sight in my kitchen.

Chickpeas thawing for hummus-making, a common sight in my kitchen.

The exchange got me thinking about why I don’t grind my own beans, and it’s only partly about buying a grinder. It’s more about taking on another chore. See, on one recent morning, I was straining cold-brew coffee a little at a time, boiling water to make pasta for pasta salad, heating milk in the microwave to make yogurt, pre-rinsing the bodily-fluids laundry, and feeding the children breakfast, all simultaneously. And I had to be at work by 11. Do I really want to add “grind beans” to my to-do list?

“Lifestyle inflation” is a term usually used for things that cost money, like buying a nicer car when you get a raise or moving to a bigger house when your second child is born. But I find I also need to be conscious of revenue-neutral or even money-saving kinds of “lifestyle inflation”–chores that benefit the environment or have taste, health, or other intangible benefits but take up my finite time.

I want to do, well, everything. But every new chore I take on means just a smidge less time for everything else.

Grandma FP gave me her spare slow cooker several years back and it is still my workhorse. I often run it several days in a row.

Grandma FP gave me her spare slow cooker several years back and it is still my workhorse. I often run it several days in a row.

Freshly ground coffee beans probably are better, and after the initial cost of the grinder, I would not be spending more money on an ongoing basis. But I would be committing to a new chore, when my life is already pretty full. A person can do anything, but not everything. There are plenty of things, besides bean grinding, that I think would be good to do that I just don’t:

  • Using cloth trainers at night for Little Brother. I got tired of the smell and the laundry and the rinsing-in-the-toilet (PLEASE let this be over soon) and now he sleeps in (gasp!) disposable pull-on training pants
  • Making bread. I can buy it for $1 a loaf at the bakery outlet
  • Line-drying the family clothes
  • Taking the bus to work instead of owning a car
  • Gardening
  • Shopping for local produce/meat/dairy instead of just buying what’s on sale at Sprouts
  • Changing our oil/doing basic car maintenance
  • Making chocolate syrup for Mr. FP
  • Making more snacks from scratch instead of serving Goldfish crackers from Costco
  • Making seltzer

Etc.

What tasks I take on is based on a constantly shifting assessment of my time, our family’s needs, and my personal priorities and preferences. (I don’t particularly like trying to grow plants, but I do like sewing, for instance.) Over the next few list, things from the top list might get dropped and things from the bottom will probably be added. But the coffee tastes good to me, so for now, I’m filing it under “Ain’t broke. Don’t fix.”

Do you hold the line on chore inflation? How do you decide where to focus your energies? Do you have a list like mine of things you kind of wish you did, but don’t have the time and energy for?

Look, I’m Growing Something!

Our new house came with no flower beds or garden of any kind. We have four different surfaces:

  1. Rocks
  2. Concrete
  3. Questionable grass
  4. Rubber mulch
  5. More rocks

And did I mention the rocks? So many rocks.Trying to keep the rocks out the rubber mulch and the mulch out of the rocks and both of them out of the grass is my new part-time job.

An experienced gardener would probably not have been deterred by this obstacle, but I am anything but an experienced gardener. The only thing I have ever planted in the ground is knockout roses. And if you live in the Deep South, as I did, knockout roses are pretty much the easiest thing you can possibly plant. They look nice and live forever.

So, no time this spring to create a garden. The whole backyard needs some kind of master plan involving a garden, a garage and many fewer rocks.

But I still wanted to try growing something, so I took over some of the containers that were already set up by the side of our house. The swamp cooler is already set up to drain into them, so less watering!

I have a rosemary plant that I bought at Sprouts, two basil plants (same) and several green onions (also, actually, from Sprouts). I cut off the green tips for use in a recipe, replanted the white bulbs, and they really did come back up!

On the left, you can see the little hose that runs from the swamp cooler up through the bottom of the container.

On the left, you can see the little hose that runs from the swamp cooler up through the bottom of the container.

And for decoration, the coneflowers I received for Mother’s Day. These are not super-healthy looking, but they are technically alive, so I’m calling it a win.

I'm such a newbie that I thought the plant was dead the first time the blossoms died. Then they returned.

I’m such a newbie that I thought the plant was dead the first time the blossoms died. Then they returned.

Maybe it will all die off. Maybe not. I am enjoying seeing things grow, but I’m honestly not prepared to get emotionally invested right now. I’m a person who likes to operate by baby steps, so the goal for this year was really just to get my hands dirty and enjoy some summer color and flavors.

Do you garden? Did it come naturally to you? How did you get started?

7-minute Microwave Granola Bars

Mr. FP and I are both devoted brown-baggers. I can count on one hand the number of times I went out to lunch from work, and the last time I tried, back when I was briefly a university office manager, I became spectacularly ill in front of my student assistant. (I was in the family way.)

Bringing your lunch is a huge savings even if you pack convenience foods, but you can, of course, save even more with a little work. So if we want to bring yogurt, we buy quarts and scoop some into a little dish, for instance. One expense that caught my eye was Mr. FP’s granola bars. He favors Nature Valley dark chocolate (because they are delicious), but those suckers are expensive.

I don’t believe in torturing loved ones by taking away their favorite treats willy-nilly. So the big question was, could I make granola bars that would be equally yummy? Something he would want to eat? Happily, the answer was a resounding yes. These are very different from the crunchy Nature Valley types, but they are desert-quality delicious, hearty, and full of healthy fats.

I started with this Red and Honey recipe because it required only a few ingredients, all of which I already owned. The main change I made was adapting it to be made in the microwave. Stovetop is the least efficient way to cook, energy-wise, plus I find it tedious. (I already blogged about how I make yogurt with the microwave.) The Red and Honey has a lot of different options, but here’s my variation:

2/3 c. peanut butter

2/3 c. coconut oil

2/3 c. honey

2 c. rolled oats, raw

1 3/4 c. coconut flakes (I toast them in the oven first, but this is optional. Unsweetened are ideal, but they are bizarrely expensive. So I usually compromise by using about half unsweetened and half of the much cheaper sweetened kind.)

1/4 c. chocolate chips

Combine peanut butter, coconut oil, and honey in a microwave-safe bowl. Nuke on high, starting with thirty-second increments and decreasing as you go along, stirring in between, until the coconut oil and peanut butter are melted and it’s all nice and smooth.

Stir in the oats. It looks about like this at this stage:

Glass bowl of melted oil, honey, and peanut butter with rolled oats poured on top.

Once the oats are coated, stir in the coconut flakes, then add the chocolate chips. Now, I like my chips to melt all through, so I stir them in while it’s still hot, and stir until the chips melt and mix in, like this:

Glass bowl full of oats coated with melted oil, chocolate, etc., with a child's foot visible.

Baby foot not included.

Press the mixture into an ungreased 9×13 pan. Stick in your fridge for a few hours, until it sets. Then cut into bars (a flat metal spatula is an ideal tool). You can wrap them individually for use in lunches, or store in an airtight container with wax paper (or cut-up cereal bags) between the layers. Since a lot of these wind up getting eaten at home by our preschoolers, this is how I keep mine:

Plastic container of homemade granola bars.

Store in the fridge and enjoy!

What are your favorite granola bar variations?

 

Homemade Yogurt: All the Other Bloggers Were Doing It

My kids eat a lot of yogurt. I mean, a lot. My mother used to buy them YoBaby when we would visit, for a treat, but she had to give that up when they wanted two and three cartons—each. They easily go through an entire quart-size carton of plain in one long weekend visits.*

As you can imagine, even plain yogurt by the quart adds up when you are buying up to two quarts a week. As I struggle to get my grocery bill down, it seemed like a good time to reconsider my position that homemade yogurt was not worthwhile. After all, all the other bloggers were doing it. Not just the Prudent Homemaker, with her nine mouths to feed on a shoestring budget, but even Mrs. PoP at Planting Our Pennies, who works full time and could clearly afford to buy yogurt. Maybe they’re onto something.

The potential savings were significant, if not huge. I usually buy yogurt for $2.78 per quart, although I sometimes find it on sale for $2.50 or even, once, $2.25 (I had to buy five quarts for that price). The milk we buy, on the other hand, is anywhere from $2.08 to $2.49 per half gallon, depending on where we happen to be shopping. That would make my per-quart cost more like $1.04 to $1.25, plus a spoonful of old yogurt (about nine cents).

My first few efforts were, as I suspected, a tremendous pain in the ass. I heated the milk in a pot on the stove up to 180 degrees, which was time-consuming, then had to wait for it to cool down to exactly 110 degrees, which takes a surprisingly long time and requires constant monitoring. Then I kept obsessively checking it during the day to make sure I was keeping it warm but not too warm.

Something had to change. Two key realizations pulled it together for me:

  1. Ultra-pasteurized milk does not have to be heated to 180. You can heat to just 110 and go straight to the next step.
  2. You can heat the milk in a glass jar in the microwave. Fewer dishes to clean (no pot) and much easier. Plus, it won’t burn the hell out of your pan if you forget about it.
This is regularly pasteurized milk, so I propped up a meat thermometer for easier monitoring as it cooled off.

This is regularly pasteurized milk, so I propped up a meat thermometer for easier monitoring as it cooled off.

So here’s my method so far:

  1. Fill a glass jar nearly full of milk. I’ve been using an old forty-ounce jar that used to contain Costco strawberry spread.**
  2. Heat the jar in the microwave until the milk is 110 degrees, if it’s ultra-pasteurized. If I happen to have milk that is just regularly pasteurized, then I do 180. I do longer increments at first, say a minute, and then shorten the intervals as it gets warmer. Each time the microwave bings, I stir the milk (to prevent hot spots as well as skin formation) and check the temperature. A candy thermometer would be good, and maybe I’ll get one, but I’ve been using an instant-read analog meat thermometer.
  3. If necessary, wait till it cools down to 110. Then I pour a little milk into the old yogurt carton (if I am starting from commercial yogurt) and mix it with the last dregs of the old yogurt, generally a couple of tablespoons’ worth. Pour the milk/yogurt mixture back into the jar (don’t stir!) and cap it.
  4. Put the jar someplace warm. I sometimes put my oven on “warm” for a few minutes, then turn it off and put the jar in. Or I often put the jar in a sunbeam, since I tend to mix this up in the morning.
  5. Wait a long time, at least eight hours. Last time I forgot about it and it went more like fourteen with no ill effects.
  6. Pour off any visible whey and put in the fridge.

Now, here’s something you need to know about homemade yogurt: It is very thin. I have just been using it that way. The kids don’t mind, and anyway I usually use it for making their overnight oatmeal. I just omit the milk and use extra yogurt. I tried straining it once, but I (a) made a giant mess and (b) let it sit too long, winding up with a teeny tiny portion of extremely sticky yogurt and a whole lot of whey for which I had no use. I’ll probably try straining again in the future. I like Greek yogurt for myself. Since I buy this for either three-fifty or four dollars a quart, I can lose some volume and still save money.

Do you make your own yogurt? What’s your favorite method?

*They are happy to eat plain yogurt with Cheerios or fruit in it, and I have found, too, that plain yogurt is much less sticky in the clean-up phase than commercial sweetened yogurt.

**Coincidentally, this is an excellent thing to spoon into your yogurt. Like fruit on the bottom yogurt, but much cheaper!

Beans: I’ve Been Doing Them Wrong

This post contains affiliate links and independent opinions.

We eat a lot of beans at the FP household, partly because beans are cheap and partly because neither of us likes to shop for, handle, or cook raw meat. I like to cook a pound or two at a time in my slow cooker and store the beans in two-cup portions in a freezer bag. (A can of beans is about a cup and three quarters; most recipes measure the beans they call for in cans, and we usually like to use more than the recipe calls for.) My general practice was to rinse and soak the beans, then put them in the slow cooker, cover with cold water, add a bay leaf if I thought of it, and turn it on. (I’ve never gone wrong with 8 hours on low.)*

The results were, I thought, totally acceptable, and both slightly cheaper and slightly tastier than canned beans. Then I read Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace. Now, I often found this book a bit much for me; her target audience seems to be people who cook way better than I do. But I thought I would try the things within my reach, starting with salting my pasta water. That resulted in tastier pasta, so next up was trying her advice on cooking beans.

She recommends putting in all sorts of odds and ends: scraps of carrot, onion, and celery, plus a garlic clove, parsley stems, thyme, and fennel. I think fennel is foul and did not have parsley stems or thyme, but I obediently put in the rest, plus, as she recommends, some kosher salt and “an immoderate, Tuscan amount of olive oil.”

I cooked overnight and noticed the difference as soon as I woke up. Instead of smelling like, well, beans, my kitchen smelled like soup. It smelled good. The cooking water—not mere bean water but broth—tasted good. I fished out the veggie bits with a slotted spoon. (I might use cheesecloth in the future, as the celery leaves broke up into a million little pieces and were hard to remove.)

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Pinto beans ready to cook with lots of celery and olive oil and other odds and ends.

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And this is what it looked like in the morning. Mmmmm.

For some reason, I always thought it would be too hard or too much trouble to try to save the broth from cooking beans. It really isn’t. Put the colander inside a big bowl and proceed. The beans themselves, which were plumper and tastier than any other navy beans I’ve encountered, were destined for chicken chili made with chicken broth, so I saved some of the leftover bean broth and used it to make bread soup, as Alder recommends. (Actually I didn’t follow her recipe; I just threw some stuff together and it was quite tasty.) I also tried substituting bean broth for chicken broth to save a buck, and that worked, too, at least in a highly flavored chili. That batch was made with pinto beans, and while the broth still tasted fine, I think I preferred the clearer white bean broth.

Separating beans from delicious broth.

Separating beans from delicious broth.

I’m so impressed that I might actually buy the book after I have to return it to the library and take my time working through the chapters. It’s not really a cookbook per se and has only a few recipes; it’s more a book about cooking happily and with confidence.

What new things are you trying in the kitchen lately? Where did you get the idea?

*Red kidney beans may possess a toxin that cannot be adequately eliminated through slow cooking. We don’t care for them, so it’s not a problem for us.

Lazy Mom’s Overnight Oatmeal

Perhaps you’ve wondered, “Why doesn’t the Frugal Paragon post recipes like other mommy/frugal living bloggers?” The answer is that while I have many talents, I am not a particularly good cook.

And the recipe I’m about to share with you isn’t even something I eat personally. It seems like of slimy to me. But it is super-easy and cheap and my toddlers love it.

The basic premise of overnight oatmeal is that you soak it instead of cooking it. So in the evening, I mix together a cup of yogurt, a little jam, three ounces of milk, and three-quarters cup of rolled oats. It looks like this:

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Isn’t your mouth watering already? I put it in the fridge overnight and by morning, it looks like this:

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Other recipes often call for Greek yogurt, but frankly I find that too expensive to feed the boys. They also usually call for less yogurt and less oatmeal, say a six-ounce yogurt container and half a cup of oatmeal, to make two servings. But my kids are big eaters of anything in the yogurt and oatmeal families, so I had to up the quantities. This will feed two very hungry preschoolers, or three who eat like birds. I usually serve with a banana on the side and, if I’m feeling particularly ambitious, some chopped walnuts or pecans.

Frugal Paragon Overnight Oatmeal

Serves 2-3

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup plain yogurt
  • spoonful of jam, honey, or other sweetener, to taste
  • 3/4 cup rolled oats
  • 3 ounces milk (1/4 cup plus two tablespoons). Double the milk if using Greek yogurt.
  • Nuts or other mix-ins (optional)

Combine the first four ingredients and mix well. Refrigerate overnight. Spoon into bowls and serve. Top with nuts, chocolate chips, etc. if desired.