Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Cheap Eats: Puffed Rice!

The Topic: Finding new uses for favorite foods with Managing Editor Elizabeth Castoria

The Dish: Growing up, our household did not have "sugar cereals." Anything sweeter than Raisin Bran was totally verboten, and my sister and I could just go ahead and forget anything that involved a cartoon character on the box. My mother referred to sugar affectionately as the "white death," which of course made me desperate to try every possible type of fiberless, over-sugared, candy-colored morning abomination possible. (I was definitely most enticed by Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs, despite the fact that they're fictional.) So, in what could probably best be described as a non-stop bender of sugary breakfast bingeing that occurred once I had a driver's license, I ate a lot of cereal. This was not a particularly proud, nor nutritionally balanced, time in my life, but it did teach me the value of cereal. 

Is it just for breakfast? Please. Eating cereal for breakfast is like riding a bike with training wheels. As my palate has matured somewhat past the CFSB point, the simple magic of puffed rice has me totally enchanted. Plus, you can find it just about everywhere, including gas stations, and it's cheap. Does it offer a ton of nutrition? No. Are there cartoon characters on the box? Yes. Can you find more-nutritious, less-cheap organic brands? Yes. But for the purposes of this post, all that really matters is the fantastic snap, crackle, and, oh yes, the pop that puffed rice provides. Here are my three favorite non-breakfast uses for this crunchtastic cereal.
  1. Sushi! This definitely falls under the it's-so-crazy-it-just-might-work category, but go with me. This culinary genius credit goes to Joelle of Vegan Bachelor Soup fame, who a) is fun to make sushi with and b) puts crazy things in her rolls! Like puffed rice! And they are light and crunchy and surprising and wonderful and should be required at all sushi restaurants. One note of caution: eat your awesome sushi promptly, because if the cereal sits next to the avocado or spicy tofuna for too long, it gets soggy, not snappy.
  2. Breading. Someone cleverer than I has likely thought of this already, but it bears repeating. You want something breading in the finest of crunchy coatings? Then here's what you're going to do: smash up some cereal, and bread away. It's a finer coat than panko, crispier than breadcrumbs, and works particularly well with recipes that involve baking the coated item.
  3. Sandwiches. I know! Cereal in sandwiches? What's next, dogs marrying cats? Don't forget, friends, fortune favors the bold. The next time you're making a signature PB&J, put a layer of rice in between the PB and the J. Again, this isn't like adding superfood powder to your smoothie in terms of nutrition, but the sublime texture of something crunchy in the middle of an already-delectable sandwich totally can't be beat. 
The Final Word: Whether or not your foray into the world of cereal experiementation is prompted by years of careful parenting, or simply because you happen to have access to puffed rice and want to do something slightly more interesting than pour coconut milk on it, thinking of your favorite staple foods in new ways can yield fantastic, inexpensive results. Snap!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

How to Live (Well) Within Your Means

The Topic: Living Simply (but Well) with VegNews Associate Publisher Colleen Holland

The Dish: I've often said that the recent economic recession has a silver lining. Of course, I feel for those who can't find work, who have lost their health insurance, or are struggling in any way. It's a sad situation. But, America, we live way beyond our means, and maybe we need a kick in the pants to stop buying stuff that we don't need and we can't pay for. In many other countries, the idea of credit cards is completely foreign. Why would you buy something if you don't have the money right now to pay for it? Here in the US, we're a credit culture. We want to feel like we can buy anything we want, and since we can borrow money at a moment's notice, why not drop $15 on lunch, down a soy latte every morning, or sport a wardrobe that we really can't afford.

Years ago, right after college, I backpacked through Asia. I started my journey with a 25-pound backpack and thought I needed absolutely everything in that pack. But week after week, I realized how little I really needed. I shed articles of clothing (I could wash what I had every few days and be fine), my CD player (I gifted it to a guy in China who would enjoy it far more than me), and my collection of books (I could swap reads with other travelers and just carry one book at a time). After liberating myself from all of my stuff, I was able to travel the world with a four-pound backpack. It was amazing, and although living this simply certainly doesn't translate to real life, that feeling of freedom has stayed with me for the last 18 years.

So here's five ways I try to simplify my life so that I live within my means, joyfully.

Love Your Bottle
It makes me crazy to see people still buying plastic water bottles. This is 2011! Not only is plastic detrimental to the environment, in many places, tap water is just fine (thank you, Hetch Hetchy). If it's not, invest in a water filter/distiller/purifier so you can make your own pristine water. And buy an adorable (BPA-free) bottle that never leaves your side!

Love Your Leftovers
There was a time in my life that I shunned restaurant leftovers. Ugh, the hassle, and I felt it made me look desperate or something. But as an adult, I have embraced leftovers and never miss an opportunity to take home a doggy bag. Leftovers make a delicious brown-bag lunch the next day, and it cuts your meal cost in half (paid $10 for a Mexican platter? Get two meals out of it, and you've just cut your cost to $5).

Lose the Lattes
I have never been a coffee drinker, so maybe this is something I can't understand. But I don't understand! Have you done the math on these babies? It's crazy how much a latte habit adds up to. And the more we drink coffee/caffeine, the more we need it. Starbucks has made us a country of addicts, and they're making a killing. Full disclosure: I love a good soy chai latte, but I look at it as a treat and only indulge once a month or so. 

Brown Bag It
This is a great way to save moola so you can splurge on something meaningful (but still within your means). A few months back, I penned an entire post on brown-bag lunch ideas, including my favorites: kale salad with baked tofu, baked potatoes with toppings, bagel sandwiches, homemade soup, and, yes, leftovers. With a little planning, you can enjoy healthful, delicious meals at the fraction of a cost of take-out. And is that really how you want to spend your money?

Know When to Splurge
So all of this being said, I am the first to admit that I love a good splurge (that I can afford, of course). A leisurely Friday night dinner with friends over good food, wine, and dessert at a great restaurant? I relish that. A weekend away at my favorite inn? When do we leave? That vintage 1920s table I have been eyeing at a local antique store (and I'll have forever)? Sold. But when you cut out all the extras that really don't enhance life that much, yet keep you perpetually in poverty, we miss the opportunities to do something meaningful that matters.

The Final Word: I know people who make $150k a year and cry poverty and those who make $25k and live like rockstars. Hopefully, the current economic crisis is providing a valuable lesson on cutting out some of the fat and learning to live rich with any income. It can be done.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Decorating on a Dime: Ribbon Wall Art

The Topic: Sprucing up your pad for a pittance with VegNews Assistant Editor Anna Peraino

The Dish: Having a love of design and close to no money might seem like an issue (who can afford a $300 pendant lamp? Really?), but it’s really a blessing. An apartment consisting of blank walls and a mattress on the floor (been there) can turn into a unique and fabulous pad, as long as you put in the effort. Whether you’re a renter or the idea of painting your home sounds about as fun as visiting a butcher shop, livening up a big white wall can seem really daunting. I hear you. My roommates and I have been there. We can’t afford fancy art prints, but we feel like our days of hanging Led Zeppelin posters are behind us.

I came across this idea for a wall decoration while perusing weddinggawker (I can feel you judging me for spending time looking at pictures of random strangers’ weddings, and I’m totally fine with it.), and the roommates and I decided to replicate it for the big wall that our couch sits against. After one quick trip to our nearby Michael’s (Mecca for crafters and scrapbookers alike), we had everything we needed to recreate this cute ribbon wall decoration for the low, low price of $12. Here’s how to make your own!

A ball of twine
Craft glue
Ribbon (we went with four colors found in our living room rug to really tie the room together)
Push pins

1. Cut ribbon into eight-inch pieces. If you want to get really fancy, you can cut out a triangle at the bottom of the pieces for some added snazziness.
2. Measure and cut a piece of twine to desired length.
3. Place a small amount of craft glue on the non-triangle end of the piece of ribbon. Wrap it around the twine and secure back onto the ribbon. Hold for about 15 seconds to set.
4. Repeat step 3 with other pieces of ribbon, alternating colors and making sure to equally space each piece of ribbon*. Additionally, be sure to face the ribbons forward so that the glued-up sides will sit against the wall.
5. Allow your ribbon-ed up twine to dry for at least an hour.
6. When glue is dried, install to wall by putting two push pins into your wall in desired location and stringing your ribbons between them.
7. Repeat as many times as you want.
8. Take a picture of your super awesome new wall art and post it on VegNews’ Facebook page so we can see!

*Or don’t! Do five blue piece all close together and then add a yellow polka dot one three feet away! This is America. It's a free country!

This decoration would also work with scraps of cloth from the fabric store, newspaper, tissue paper, different colors of twine or yarn … whatever you imagine, it can happen. Plus, despite the company's logo, all of Elmer's glue is vegan. 

The Final Word: Making your home look freaking awesome can cost either a ton or next to nothing. All you really need is a little creativity, a couple of hours, and a craft store. Need more ideas? VN Associate Editor Jennifer Chen’s fabulous compendium of tips, websites, and stores to help you decorate your home for less tells you everything you need to know to up the fancy ante in your home. Good luck!