Thursday, September 30, 2010

Cheap Eats: Fried Rice!

The Topic: Leftover Love

The Dish: At my house, brown rice can be a healthy, inexpensive meal on its own (buy in bulk!)—a little Braggs Liquid Aminos and gomashio sprinkled on top and I'm a happy girl. Another benefit to whipping up a batch in the trusty rice cooker is guaranteed leftovers, which is really just code for "fried rice." It's hard to say no to a dish that combines salty and spicy flavors with whole grains and vegetables. Follow a recipe one time, and for the rest of your fried rice-eating days you can improvise, turning the most random veggie combinations into takeout-worthy dinners. While the restaurant version often gets its kicks by throwing in a ton of oil and a very un-vegan dose of egg, this at-home version is animal-friendly and makes the most of whatever you have on hand. And since you're running the show, you can give or take the oil to your liking.

Get started with this easy recipe, courtesy of VegWeb. This version calls for a bag of frozen veggies, which is super simple if you have one in the freezer, just waiting to be used. If not, may I recommend seeing what frozen wonders are on sale at your local supermarket? A peas-and-carrots medley works great here, or go with a classic cauliflower-broccoli combo. If you have odds-and-ends veggies hiding in your crisper, be resourceful and chop them all. Everything tastes great in fried rice. As for the hot sauce, I'd probably go with Sriracha, but I put that stuff on everything.

Serves 2

What You Need:
2 tablespoons oil
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 medium onion, sliced thinly
1 14-ounce bag frozen vegetables, thawed slightly
2 cups cooked rice
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon hot sauce
Salt to taste

What You Do:
  1. In a medium skillet over medium heat, heat oil. Add garlic and onion, and stir for one minute. Add vegetables and continue to stir for two minutes. Add soy sauce and hot sauce, and continue to stir, cooking continuously for 5 minutes.
  2. Make a hole in the middle of vegetables, and drop in cooked rice. Stir and cook for 1 to 2 minutes until heated, and add salt to taste. Serve immediately.

The Final Word: Oh, and speaking of VegWeb, you're signed up for the newsletter, right? It's a free way to stay updated on what's happening on the largest veg recipe website, as well as get awesome seasonal meal ideas from everyone's favorite webmistress, Laura Hooper Beck. It doesn't hurt that her commentary is hilarious and will brighten up any day.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Free Friday

The Topic: Fancy Free

The Dish: After managing a Saturday in the Mission District for less than $25, I felt pretty good about my budgeting skills—if I could remember to actually budget once I was out. Sometimes it's easy to get carried away, and before I know it $25 looks more like $50, and the instant gratification of spending is replaced with regret. This past Friday, I decided to see if I could go the entire day on an even stricter budget: $0 from my pocket. Not to spoil the ending, but it was completely possible. Sure, I had a few lucky breaks, but those might not be luck as much as seeing new opportunities. I fall victim to a few money sucks, including vanity, food, and caffeine—here's how I satisfied all my needs for nothing.

Forget the Gym.
I'm constantly tempted to join a gym in the city. There's a huge range to choose from, price- and ammenities-wise, but when it comes down to it, they all cost money. Well, after I've checked them out with a free trial, that is. If a gym membership is at the top of your list of must-haves, then by all means, enjoy! For this girl, I have other uses for that $40 per month. Instead, I take the old-fashioned route of hitting the streets for a run. If you already have a pair of running shoes (and I do), then it costs nothing to just get moving. I don't need to pay someone to let me sweat.

In addition to getting a run in, there are all of the free yoga opportunities I've mentioned in the past. Since then, I've discovered two more free weekly community classes, meaning I could practice alongside fellow San Franciscans four days a week if I wanted.

On the House.
When you don't have cash to spend, barter is the next best (or even better) thing. A few exchanges on Twitter with my neighborhood deli, Morty's, lead to a promise of a free sandwich in return for a song on the ukulele (one of my hobbies). I popped in Friday to introduce myself, and was given an advance on my payment in the form of some seriously delicious farmers' market-fresh vegan gumbo. While the deli isn't entirely vegan, they're big on vegan options and are always open to requests. And they gave me free gumbo! Consider me in the songwriting process, as well as a loyal customer.

Another money suck for me is caffeine. After realizing I was completely out of coffee at home, I thought I'd settle for some Earl Grey tea and tough it out. Post-lunch gumbo, I was hit with a serious case of the naps and had to retaliate. My beacon of hope? The mail. Sure, it's a lucky break, but my amazing Nona sends me a letter every week, and sometimes there's a $5 bill tucked inside. Friday was letter day! Do you know how many awesome things you can buy for $5, including an incredibly strong espresso drink?

Stay In.
Okay so maybe nightlife doesn't fall into the "food" category, but it might be the worst of making my money disappear like magic. This Friday, I decided to take it easy with—you guessed it—Netflix and my dog Boo. I only spend $10 a month on Netflix, so I'm counting it as free for this night. For a break, I called and caught up with friends and family, who often get pushed to the back burner on busy days. Hey, everyone—call your family!

The Final Word: It takes a little maneuvering, but if you really need to tighten the pursestrings, you can do it. Steer clear of places too tempting to resist. For me, that includes bookstores and anything involving food. Find more creative ways to satisfy your needs, and you'll be amazed at what you can accomplish. Now, I have a song to write and a free sandwich to collect!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Walgreens Wonders

Topic: Mainstream Snacking

The Dish: I've written about my favorite veg-friendly grocery stores before—Trader Joe's, Aldi, hidden-gem discount shops—and I'm still happily surprised at all of the new great products and deals they offer. But sometimes, I'm not within walking distance of one of these veg havens when hunger strikes, be it when I'm out in the city, in Missouri visiting family, or driving through a random town on a road trip. In those cases, I find a Walgreens.

In San Francisco, there's a Walgreens on pretty much every corner. I'm certain its numbers compete with Starbucks. At first glance, all of the edibles seem frustratingly not vegan, especially when I'm in dire need of a pick-me-up and bags after bags of "cheese"-flavored chips are staring me in the face. After careful perusal of the shelves, I've come up with my favorite snacks under $5. Are these healthy? Um, no. But they're for special occasions! Like, you know, when I'm hungry.

  1. Deerfield Farms Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies. ($3.49) Holy crap. This delightful off-brand replicates the chewy version of Chips Ahoy!, but leaves out the milk products. The result is a package of accidentally vegan cookies that must be hidden in a cabinet to prevent total annihilation upon opening. If you're not into chewy, the regular, crunchy variety is vegan, too.
  2. Walgreens Peanut Butter Bars. ($0.99) These old-fashioned candies are little wrapped bites of happiness. They sort of remind me of the inside of a Butterfinger, but far less gross because they're just peanut butter and sugar. At less than a dollar a package, it's the perfect sweet purchase when you know friends are going to be mooching off of you.
  3. Blue Diamond Wasabi and Soy Sauce Almonds. ($1.49) A single-serving of these roasted almonds will completely cure any savory craving you have, thanks to a generous dusting of wasabi powder and a little soy sauce flavoring. And of course almonds are good for you with all of their protein and good fats, et cetera et cetera. More importantly, they're delicious.
  4. Original Chex Mix. ($2.49) I'm sorry, didn't Chex Mix used to have whey in it?! I recently discovered that the original party snack either removed the animal products, or I have been mistaken all along. Whatever happened, it's made it possible for me to revel in this childhood favorite.
  5. Lindt Excellence 85 percent Cocoa Dark Chocolate. ($2.99) It's dark chocolate. What else can I say? Lindt makes a decent bar, and it's more affordable than a lot of frou-frou brands who ruin a perfectly good chocolate bar with some funky non-vegan filling. It's perfect for my daily 3pm, "Where is the chocolate?" moment.

The Final Word: If junk food isn't your forte, the big W also stocks some healthier veg standbys, such as Odwalla juices, Probars (I'll take a dozen), vegan Clif-brand bars, and fresh, nearly free fruit. Of course besides the snacking, it also has the necessities in life, including BioBag's biodegradable doggie bags, L'Oreal EverPure vegan hair care, and tons of products from the cruelty-free Yes to Carrots line. Keep an eye out for sales, do the vegan label-check, and you'll be good to go.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Mint & Money Management

The Topic: Spending and Saving

The Dish: I like to think that all of the little things I do, whether it's making coffee at home, thrifting, or dining out less, have a positive impact on my bank account. A lot of my daily choices are more affordable than they could be, but is it really helping me save? Or am I just spending the extra dollars on frivolous purchases? A few weeks ago, I couldn't tell you for sure (although I have a sneaking suspicion that I was). Now, I'm singing the praises of Mint and changing my ways.

To prevent myself from overindulging, I signed up for the free, web-based, money-management software Mint. It's been all over my radar lately, from friends becoming dedicated users to blogs and newsletters featuring rave reviews. "Why not?" I thought. Once I felt comfortable with its security precautions (I mean, entering all of my bank information did feel a little risky), I gave it a try. First revelation: Over the course of eight months, taking out money for San Francisco's notorious cash-only restaurants and bars has cost me $50 in fees. FIFTY DOLLARS? Just because I'm too lazy to plan a trip to my bank ATM ahead of time? Ouch. I mean, vegan Thai fried rice is good, but not that good.

In addition to pointing out nasty hidden fees and late charges, Mint provides a helpful breakdown of my spending, tracking transactions into categories. I can also set goals—pay off that debt, take a veg vacation—and come up with a real strategy for reaching them. Mint also sends weekly email updates to warn me of upcoming bills, low account balances, and all sorts of other sobering grown-up information that I may not want, but certainly need to know.

The Final Word: There are tons of features to help control spending, build up savings, and stay financially afloat. It may not be for everyone, but when it comes to balancing my penchant for on-the-fly spending and weak justifications ("Well, I didn't buy Starbucks this morning so I'll get a happy-hour special"), it's just what I need.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Fun Fundraising

The Topic: Make a Little Money

The Dish: When money is tight, exercising your inner do-gooder can be difficult. Sure, you'd love to donate to the local animal shelter or sanctuary, but sometimes cutting your budget isn't an option. Of course, money isn't the only thing that non-profits need—volunteering is a huge help. But if there's a particular cause in need of funding, there is hope. The solution? Get creative.

Of course, there's the tried-and-true bake sale. Who doesn't love cookies and cupcakes? VN columnist Laura Beck helps organize San Francisco's insanely successful vegan bake sale series (raising and donating more than $18,000 to date), and she's shared plenty of sage wisdom on how to parlay your skills into a successful sugar-filled fundraiser. If baking isn't your forte, don't fret.

Recently, Laura's rescued pit bull, Hazel, had to undergo major surgery. The bill reached into the thousands, and worst of all, a second surgery may be necessary. Being her genius self, she decided to take action. This past Sunday, seven shameless friends (myself and Laura included), most lacking actual musical talent, got on stage at a local bar and played a benefit concert for Hazel. Our band, Dino Bike, practiced a mere three times before performing. We publicized the event like crazy and put on a ridiculous spectacle only to be cheered because it was a benefit. I mean ridiculous—ribbon dancing, Lady Gaga covers, and a Top Gun medley. There were even vegan cupcakes for sale, which of course sold out. The result? Dino Bike raised more than $500 for Hazel, simply by sacrificing a little dignity and having a great time doing it.

The Final Word: Whether you decide to bake cupcakes, start a band, host a yard sale, or sell lemonade, there are so many ways you can help animals. Gathering as many friends and volunteers as possible helps lessen the load, and the end result is guaranteed to make your efforts totally worth it.