Thursday, October 27, 2011

Want to Eat Cheap? Learn to Cook.

The Topic: Rediscover cooking and eating at home (while saving money!) with VN Associate Publisher Colleen Holland

The Dish: I recently read an astonishing statistic on how nearly half of Americans don't cook. Instead, people grab a bagel and coffee on the way to work, step out of the office for a sandwich or burger at lunch, and order in pizza or Chinese for dinner. And that doesn't include morning doughnuts at the staff meeting, the afternoon sugar fix, post-work drinks, and that bowl of ice cream at 10pm. Given the (sad) state of our health in this country, there's no question that high-fat and huge-portioned restaurant fare is contributing to our demise. I say it's time to take back our health and get cooking.

By preparing your own food at home, you can control the quality of ingredients (organic, local, GMO-free), the amount of salt and oil used (restaurants are notorious for using excessive amounts of salt and oil to flavor food), and the portions you consume (a one-serving plate of food at the local diner could serve an entire family in other countries). Think about how you feel after a home-cooked meal versus a typical restaurant meal. Whenever I go out, I overeat and feel full for hours. The food is always good, but I pay the price. 

Thankfully, delicious (and budget-friendly) meals can be made at home. But if you don't know how to cook, where do you start? Do we all need to spend $50k on cooking school to learn basic cooking techniques that are no longer passed down in our families? Absolutely not. Here are four ways to become a stellar home chef in no time flat. Your culinary education begins now!

Use Recipes
I am the first one to admit that I rarely cook with recipes. I like to make healthy meals fast, and I don't have the patience to plan my meals or follow instructions. But recipes teach you how to cook. Find a cookbook you love (check out VegNews for recommendations), and force yourself to make one or two recipes a week. Then make them again. After a few times, you'll no longer need the recipe and will have an arsenal of balanced meals to make at home. And you'll have learned the #1 trick in cooking: technique. If you know the technique behind a particularly type of food (curries, pesto, stir-fry, soup, etc.), you are 75 percent there.

Watch Cooking Shows
Unfortunately, there aren't many vegan friendly cooking programs to help you master your culinary skills, but if you find yourself drawn to a particular food personality or their cuisine, watch them. Seeing a chef julienne carrots and zucchini for an Asian dish will stay with you longer than reading that same instruction in a cookbook recipe. And, once again, you'll pick up on technique and start to understand the broad strokes of cooking so that you can then customize whatever it is you're making. Check out our cooking videos on VegNews TV for excellent visual instruction!

Take a Cooking Class
This is the most hands-on way to learn how to cook, and vegetarian cooking classes are easier than ever to find. Whether it's a course on Thai cooking or how to prepare a 10-course vegan Thanksgiving feast, nothing beats real-life practice. You'll always go home with recipes, and you'll want to keep making them while they're fresh in your mind. Soon, these new dishes will be part of your at-home repertoire to dazzle everyone you cook for.

Read About Food
Often times, I find myself inspired by food articles and recipes I read and work those ideas into whatever it is I am making. Let's say I am editing the January+February 2012 issue of VegNews and salivate over Gena Hemshaw's raw pad Thai recipe (this may or may not have happened). That night I am craving Southeast Asian flavors and whip up a salad with fresh lime juice, chiles, garlic, and soy sauce. Think of cooking as a college degree, and read everything you can about it. Peruse magazines, books, blogs, or anything that inspires you to cook.

The Final Word: Cooking at home is a joyful, therapeutic experience, and you'll save a lot of money in the process. Whenever I encourage friends to do more cooking, I offer this advice: 1) It's not how you start, it's how you finish. There are no rules in cooking, so as long as you enjoy the flavor at the end, you've succeeded. 2) Cook like crazy. The more you practice, the better cook you'll become. 3) Stock your pantry. You'll be more inspired to cook if you're kitchen is filled with fresh produce, a variety of pastas and grains, and spices you love. Bon appetit!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Cheap Eats: Pumpkin Baked Oatmeal

The Topic: Baking up a fall-tastic breakfast with VN Assistant Editor Anna Peraino

The Dish: OK, let me break it down for you: I love fall. From crisp air that begs for sweaters, to football tailgates filled with screaming fans, to the beautiful colors of the leaves (so that doesn't really happen here in the Bay Area, but I remember the colors of North Carolina), there's really nothing that can beat this time of year. But perhaps moreso than the three things I just mentioned, I love the culinary changes autumn brings. Think the return of thick, belly-coating soups, hot cocoa, and apples everywhere. Oh, and did I mention pumpkins? Perhaps the best part of the season, this ever-delicious, ever-useful squash brings fall flavor to every meal. And I couldn't be happier.

As such, it's important for those of us who are pinching pennies to enjoy autumnal flavors morning, noon, and night without emptying our pocketbooks. Using four inexpensive ingredients (pumpkin included, of course!), you can start the sweater-weather days of October and November with the warming, tasty goodness of baked oatmeal. To save even more cash, buy your oatmeal in bulk, as you can usually get a pound for about a buck, which is roughly one dozen servings. One bite and you'll be hooked—trust me.

Pumpkin Baked Oatmeal

Serves 6 

What You Need:
3 cups old-fashioned oats (you can use the quick-cooking kind, but your oatmeal will be way less tasty)
1/2 cup canned pumpkin
1-1/2 cups nondairy milk (I like to use vanilla soymilk to get a hint of vanilla and sweetness in there)
2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice (or 1/2 tsp each of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and allspice)

What You Do:
     1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl, whisk together all ingredients.
     3. Into an 8 x 8 baking dish, pour mixture and let stand for 30 minutes to overnight.
     4. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until milk has been absorbed and oatmeal looks gooey.

Chef's Tip: I like to add a little more sweetness to my baked oatmeal by topping it with maple syrup. Mixed nuts and dried fruit are also tasty (but unfortunately, pricey!) topping options.

The Final Word: Autumn only comes once a year (unless you time a trip to the southern hemisphere really well), so taking advantage of everything it has to offer in creative, money-saving ways is pretty much my MO. So if you see me spending a morning wearing a thrifted sweater, eating baked oatmeal, jumping into a pile of leaves (leaves are free!) while watching a college football game (cable, not so much), don't be surprised.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Culinary Adventures

The Topic: Refining your vegan culinary skills without breaking the bank with VN Office Manager Lyndsay Orwig

The Dish: This month, I will be celebrating my 10-year anniversary of being vegan. It feels like just yesterday when I made the decision to no longer eat animal products when I was a junior in high school, but when I really reflect on the last 10 years, I realize that my diet has changed since that time. For about the first five years of being vegan, I subsisted for the most part on convenient, pre-packaged food. This was mainly due to my being in school with little time on my hands, but since graduating, my culinary skills have definitely made a major leap in the right direction, and I'm happy to say that nearly 95 percent of the food in my fridge today is whole ingredients, and I cook a meal almost every night of the week. This has really taken a load off of my wallet, and I'm also much more fulfilled with my vegan lifestyle than I was during the first five years.

With my new love of cooking, I have dreamt of going to culinary school in order to perfect my skills in the kitchen, but I honestly don't see that happening—I can't just pull 25 grand from my back pocket, no matter how hard I wish. Luckily, I have figured out some great ways to hone my skills without spending too much. Here are three ways to become a super chef in your own kitchen, on the cheap:

1. Stock Up on Supplies and Staples
OK, this is more about preparation, but if you're not prepared, then there's no way that you will improve on your skills in the kitchen. I know it may seem like a daunting task to build your spice rack and to increase the amount of kitchen appliances that you own—I know, I've been there! To make it less daunting, I have followed the motto, "Steady goes it." I have been working on my spice collection for the past four years, and it is finally well-stocked. I have also done this with my appliances, acquiring some as Christmas and birthday gifts, and sometimes just saving up my money. And even though Williams Sonoma is a pretty sweet store, I would suggest you go somewhere else in order to save some dough. Even better, check out garage and yard sales, flea markets, and thrift stores—these could have some real treasures. And for spices and other staples? Repeat after me, "Buy in bulk."

2.Use Cookbooks as Your Guide
I have learned all my skills from my cookbooks, and just like with my staples and supplies, I have built my cookbook library steadily. OK, confession time, I am a cookbook fanatic, and in all honesty I have way too many. Seriously, they have literally taken over my small studio apartment, and I know my boyfriend is getting seriously annoyed with my cookbook-collecting ways. That being said, I won't give them up, because I have learned so much from them. However, you really just need a few to start with, and I would really suggest to get a more general vegan cookbook, which also contains a basic cooking skills section, such as Veganomicon or a 1,000 Vegan Recipes. If you don't have enough money to buy even a few cookbooks, then try the library.

3. Recipe Testing
This leads me to my next point—becoming a recipe tester! This is my newly discovered way of honing my culinary skills. I have been recipe testing for Robin Robertson for the last couple of months, and I have just started to recipe test for Joni Marie Newman's new cookbook. Excluding the great perks of recipe testing (being acknowledged, getting a free copy, and getting to know an awesome cookbook author), it's also a great way to learn new skills in the kitchen. Since becoming a tester, I have made a bouquet garni, and jam for my very first time. Unfortunately, the jam didn't turn out too well, but I was able to discuss the problem with the author, and received some good suggestions to succeed the next time I make an attempt. To become a recipe tester, check out various cookbook authors' blogs, as well as their Twitter and Facebook accounts.

Final Word: You don't have to go to culinary school in order to perfect your skills in the kitchen. You just need to practice, practice, practice! Participate in local vegan potlucks, and occasionally cook for friends and/or family members. The ones closest to you are usually the toughest critics, and nothing will make you a better cook than constructive criticism. Finally, be sure to cook food the you want to eat. That way everything you cook will be a spectacular treat!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Animal Companionship on the Cheap

The Topic: Inexpensive animal companionship for those with a jet-setting, busy lifestyle with Editorial Assistant Joni Sweet

The Dish: As part of the VegNews staff, you can probably guess that I’m an animal lover. Cats, dogs, birds, even mice, I love them all! Unfortunately, I haven’t had the opportunity to adopt an animal since I was a kid, due to college dorm-life and limited funds. Also, given the opportunity, I love to travel for months on end, which makes me hesitant to commit to animal adoption, as I’d hate to bring stress upon my furry friend to find him or her a new home. Lucky for people like me, organizations across the US are here to help connect people with limited time, money, and ability to commit long-term with animal friends who need us just as much as we need them.

Raise a Service Dog

Teaming up with a service-dog organization, such as Guide Dogs for the Blind or The Guide Dog Foundation For The Blind, is a great way to build a relationship with a puppy while doing good for mankind. Typically, volunteers provide loving homes for puppies when they are between seven and nine weeks old for roughly one year. Puppy-raisers then socialize, educate, and complete basic training for the dogs, which includes lessons in obedience, traveling, manners, and appropriate behavior in a variety of settings. These go-anywhere service dogs are required by law to have access to many places, such as city buses, supermarkets, and other everyday settings, meaning that opportunities to bond with the pup are endless. As an added bonus, the service-dog organizations often cover all or most of the associated expenses, so the dogs only demand your patience, time, and love.

Foster a Sheltered Animal

The ASPCA, as well as most local shelters, depends on volunteers to help prepare special animals for adoption. Generally, fostered animals include very young puppies and kittens, mothers with newborn litters, animals recovering from injury or illness, and those in need of socialization. The ASPCA provides training for volunteers and covers all medical expenses, food, and necessary supplies. Fostering generally lasts anywhere from a few weeks to a couple months, so while that period of time provides ample opportunity to love and care for an animal in need, it also makes it easy for those with a passion for travel to leave town after their foster friend finds a home.

Make a Career Out of It

If you're unable to welcome an animal into your home, head into theirs—and get paid for it —by becoming a pet sitter or dog walker. Animal lovers can apply to work for pet sitting businesses, such as Chicago Pet Sitters or Southern California's The Pet Staff, and spend nights and weekends indulging vacationers' dogs and cats with a few extra treats and lots of playtime. Also, in cities particularly, busy office-workers constantly need reliable dog-walkers to exercise their pups during the long workday. If you can't find an organization in your area that's hiring, consider placing a personal ad on Craigslist or the local paper and working independently. Both of these jobs will allow you to connect with fun, friendly animals and provide you with bonus pocket cash.

The Final Word: Hardly any lifestyle, no matter how restrictive, frugal, or busy, can put you completely off-limits for making a new furry friend if you’re willing to give your heart and time. There are many organizations which rely on help from dedicated animal lovers, and volunteers get to provide the best part—the belly rubs!