Sunday, January 27, 2013

Why My Dad Is Cooler Than Your Dad

He uses tootsie rolls as packing peanuts. I think we're about to become the most popular nursery leaders in the history of the Atlanta Stake.
I made more bagels, this time using high-gluten flour and not only did they taste amazing but they actually looked half decent this time!

And here is Natalie "helping" me organize the pantry to prepare for a big week in grocery sales.


Friday, January 25, 2013

Why I'm Well Suited To Couponing

I've been getting a ton of super sweet deals lately and I wish I'd taken more pictures along the way! Tons of free baby food pouches and juice. Last week I snagged 30 pounds of red grapefruit and took most of it to give away at the releif society meeting on Thursday, where we were discussing goal-setting and health and wellness, so I thought it would fit in.

One fun little experience: I scored a ton of Healthy Life 100% whole wheat bread, thinking that I could offer some to friends at church. I forgot that it was stake conferance weekend, so I needed to figure out what to do with the bread before its expiration date. I froze a few loaves, then started scouring craigslist. I didn't want to post an ad for free anything, since I know that just yields a million responses from people who never really pick up. So I checked out the barter section and quickly found someone who lives close by who was offering their cleaning/organizing services in exchange for things like clothes, furniture, and "even food". I emailed her to ask if she could use some bread. She responded withh the most grateful email that she really appreciated my offer, though she was out of town and won't be able to pick up until next Monday. She told me that they had been struggling financially and when you're scraping by, you really miss good, healthy foods- since the super processed fillers are so much cheaper. She recommended a shelter for me to donate items to in the future and was just overall really kind and thankful. It made me feel grateful to recognize that, despite living on what some might consider to be "low income", we haven't really had to scape by too badly. We spend between $200 and $300 a month on all of our groceries- food, as well as household items, diapers, etc. Someone without much consumer sense could easily spend that much on diapers alone! Even without couponing, paying attention and having an interest in getting good deals can really stretch your money and help you eat better.

A lot of other women from church are in the same shoes that we are- husbands getting advanced degrees, young kids, trying to live well on a limited budget. They are very good at it and are able to eat very healthfully. They get produce from the DeKalb Farmer's Market and make their own bread and really do great without breaking the bank. A lot of them talk to me about how they want to get into couponing, then once I explain what it entails, they don't think they could do it. Or else they tried it for a while and it wasn't worth it. Then I had an experience Thursday morning that made me realize that I have a few attributes that really lend themselves well to couponing.

That morning, I went to Publix before taking Natalie to a playdate. I wanted to shop the first morning of the new sales cycle so that they would still have granola bars in stock, since my high-value coupon for them expired in just a few days. So, I bought the following items:
4x South Beach Diet Granola Bars
6x Barilla Veggie Noodles
6x Seasoned Green Giant Frozen Vegetables
1x Breyer's Ice Cream (to go with my birthday cake!)
1/3 lb Deli Turkey (gonna make bagels again. Yummmm)

Shelf Price Total:$45.94 (i.e., price you would pay if you walked in any time to buy these products)
Sales Pirce Total: $29.94 (Not so bad, though it might be cheaper to just buy everything generic)
Price After Coupons: $.51 (Less then the tax. Subtotal was negative)

I'm familiar with most of the afternoon cashiers and know which ones are good at putting in coupons, but since I usually don't go in the morning I didn't know which cashier to go to! I went with the younger cashier, since they tend to be quicker with details. So at the end of checkout, my total was $2.57, and I was a little bit surprised. I had counted up all my expected post-coupon prices against my expected post-coupon overages, and I should have been negative. He was very nice,  complimented my savings, so I thanked him and left. I had the bags all packed up and Natalie in the car seat with my key in the ignition, when I pulled out the receipt and quickly counted up my total prices against my coupon total, looking for my mistake. I spotted the error- there was a store coupon for $1 off a deli item and the cashier had accidentally entered it as a $1 miscellaneous deli item. So, I ran back in and got my $2.06 refund from customer service.
As I was driving away, I was thinking about how, if Micah had been there (my pure speculation), he probably wouldn't have worried about it. He would have told me to just be grateful that I only spent $2.57 and not to bother going back into the store. But to me, $2.06 is a big deal. That's 1% of our monthly budget! That could pay for 14 boxes of instant potatoes (on sale @ Kroger, w/ a $.50  coupon that doubles!), or 7 bags of frozen veggies, or another carton of ice cream! $2.06 could help us pay off our mortgage 5 hours faster! $2.06 could buy an international stamp to send a letter to Blake on his mission in Brasil! In short, $2.06 is an absolute matter of life or death because I am a detail-obsessed control freak!
Usually this is a bad thing. For example, it's less than helpful in marriage. If I were a superhero, I would be Super Nagging Woman. But when it comes to couponing, my neurotic attention to detail and my need to be in control work out to my benefit. I'm driven to look for ways to save every last penny that I can. And I derive a great deal of satisfaction when, by following sales cycles, I get to decide how much I am willing to pay for a lot of things, rather than just paying the shelf price that the stores set because I need an item right now. It doesn't bother me to spend a little time gathering more coupons each week, sorting out expired coupons and lining up my coupons with weekly sales because it all of these things feed me tons of little bits of information that I can hang on to and remember and obsess over at 3AM when I can't fall asleep.
So, I'm pretty lucky. Couponing is not worth it for everyone. But for me, it totally is.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Naughty Natalie

A few updates on my kitchen adventures:

I found a great bread recipe that makes a light, fluffy bread with a nice crusty outside. Got the recipe here, but cooked it in the dutch oven 25 mins with the lid on, then 13 mins with it off. It can also be made with a simple cookies sheet and a bowl to go over it. They key is to keep in some steam; that's how the crust forms. It's really fool-proof, no kneading and very forgiving.

 I used this one night to eat with soup (and the leftovers made AMAZING PBJs the next afternoon) and another night to make open faced pulled pork sandwiches. They were amazing. Cooked a Boston butt in the crockpot overnight, shredded it, then put it back in with some white vinegar, apple juice, brown sugar, red pepper flakes, parsley- trying to combine a couple of recipes for east NC BBQ sauce. I made this pudding to go along. Unfortunately, I didn't cook the pudding long enough, so it never set thick. Most recipes said it took 15 mins, I cooked it 20, so it must have needed more! It was still super delicious as watery pudding. And a graham cracker crust instead of nilla wafers was great because it kept its crunch. And it's just so darn pretty with that meringue!

 In other news, I've become more interested in preparedness in the last couple of weeks. I've been storing tons more food- which hasn't been too tough, since there have been a lot of good couponing deals lately. I just started rinsing our empty milk and juice containers and using them to hold water. Storage space- or rather, lack thereof- is my biggest problem. Soon enough, we'll be one of those oddball families with bits of food storage tucked away in all kinds of weird places- under the beds, behind the couch, covered in a doily to form an end table. This weekend, we checked off a big item on our preparedness list and got a gun. It's a shotgun that we got from Marty, who took us out and taught us (mostly me) how it works. I had never shot a gun before, so it was a little scary. But I feel a lot safer knowing that we are so much more capable of preparing ourselves. Until a few weeks ago, I was never really interested in owning a gun, but as I started thinking of the real possibility of major disasters and other emergencies, I realized that in such scenarios society will break down pretty quickly and if you are prepared when others aren't, you become a target. So I am now a gun owner. Weird.

At the shooting range, Micah had pretty good aim. As for me.... I was glad to hit the paper a few times :) The kickback wasn't as bad as I was expecting, but my dread made me tense up and psyche myself out. So, I was very rigid and not that good.

After shooting, we hung out at Micah's parents' and watched Batman Begins, since we watched the Dark Knight Rises together last week and I was really confused, being fuzzy remembering a lot of the details of the first movie. Amazingly, Natalie stayed awake the whole movie, until 10:00, and slept the whole night until 7am! Woohooo! Though she has made up for it by waking up every few hours both nights since. Errr. That little punk.

Natalie is getting very toddler-like. She gets into everything she can- the dishwasher, anything sitting on the edge of the table or counter, the garbage, the dirty clothes. And she has totally figured out the tantrum thing. When we stop her from doing something that she wants, she dissolves into total crying hysteria. Sometimes, we can't keep from bursting out laughing because it's just so overly dramatic. In church, if we try to hold her on our laps, she shrieks and writhes until she gets down. When you pick her up to take her away from something, she goes limp and tries to slide our of your hands. Taking anything away from her warrants screaming tears. And boy, oh boy, can she turn on those tears! And she's more determined than ever before. I'm trying to teach her that she doesn't need to be held all the time. One morning, she followed me around for an hour screaming and hanging on my legs, before she gave up and found something else to do. She wants to try climbing onto everything and has fallen a couple of times. A few mornings ago, she called 911 on Micah's cell phone and if she can get Micah's laptop open, she likes to open it flat and sit on it. As I type, she is whacking the long, skinny vacuum attachment against the wall.

In other news, we have a new foster. His name is Maddox and he is an 11 year old shih tzu mix. As a senior dog, he may not be adopted for a long time. But shih tzus are in high demand, so we'll see. He's very chill and relaxed and just generally easy. He was just surrendered by his family (they were losing their house and couldn't keep him) 2 weeks ago, so he is houstrained and has good manners- WAY easier than our last foster.

Side note- Natalie has recently decided that books are awesome for looking at and she doesn't try to chew apart the spines quite as much. Yay! Now back to Maddox:

Natalie thinks he's awesome and is always loving on him. I am constantly telling her "soft" because she pats him a little too hard, and  I'm pretty sure she tries to say "soft" now when she is petting him and I am watching her. He doesn't seem to mind it though. He's so easy-going. He just lets Natalie do whatever, without growling or running away. She loves to give him hugs. It's so sweet.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Going Homemade

A friend from church lent me an entertaining and eye-opening cookbook/memoir called Make the Bread, Buy the Butter by Jennifer Reese.  The author shared a bunch of different recipes and gave the real scoop on which things are cheaper and/or worth the hassle to make yourself instead of pre-made from the store. some of the book is available here on google book, so check it out! A super good read if you enjoy cooking/baking at all. I had to copy so many of the recipes before returning the book! It got me super jazzed about cooking! I had fun over Christmas trying out a few of the recipes on my family and now that I am back home, I've enjoyed continuing to research and try out more recipes. It's been pretty exciting.

In the past month, I have learned to make from scratch: braised meats, frittata, yougurt, bagels, to-die-for hashbrowns and tortillas.

I was surprised by my success with the tortillas- for some reason, I expected it to be harder than this. I just mixed together 5 tablespoons canola oil, 3 cups flour and a dash of salt; added 3/4 cup water, kneaded it a bit, rolled into 12 balls; covered with damp cloth on counter for 20 mins; rolled thin and slapped on the skillet for a minute per side. These rolled out nice and thin and crisped up to make perfect quesadillas. Here we have quesadillas made with homemade tortilla (L) and store-bought (R). We did an official taste comparison, and they were virtually indistinguishable. However, I agree with Reese that after tasting homemade, store-bought tortillas taste "suspiciously slicklike flour spiked with monoglycerides, amylase, and calcium propionate". The recipe said that they don't keep well and should be served fresh, but the next day we had leftover, microwave-warmed quesadillas, and the homemade tortillas were much better. The store-bought tortillas went super squishy. There was a cost breakdown in the book, but I wanted to do my own and arrived at the final cost of homemade tortillas being much lower: using ALDI flour and oil, a batch of 10-12 tortillas cost a little under $.40. Even with coupons, it's uncommon to get a better deal on a package of tortillas.

Micah got me a dutch oven for Christmas and I have since decided that braising meat is the greatest thing ever. It's incredibly easy and amazingly delicious. You take a super fatty piece of meat; rub some spices on it; sear the outside, throw in some onion, carrots and celery; pour a little wine/juice/broth/water over it; cover that bad boy and leave it in the oven for a few hours. I made short ribs at my Dad's and pork butt since we got back home and both were delicious beyond words. I mean... wow. Imagine the fally-aparty texture of a roast that has been stuck in a crockpot overnight along with a smooth, butter-like chew. A major plus- meats that are good for braising tend to be pretty cheap, so this can be an elegant dinner that doesn't break the bank. But don't indulge too often or you will probably have a heart attack.

Homemade hashbrowns are not hard at all. Shredding the potatoes is a hassle, especially if you have to do it by hand with a grater. But if you have a food processor, it's nothing. Shred up those potatoes, put them in a hot pan with butter. And wait. And wait. And wait. And resist that strong urge to stir, mix, flip or otherwise agitate those potatoes. The key to amazing hashbrowns is to let the get plenty brown and crispy. Once they have reached that point, flip over (they will break up, that's okay), pour some cream on them and let the other side brown. A frittata is essentially a light, fluffy, crustless quiche. You start out as if making scrambled eggs, then once your eggs are about halfway cooked, you stick it in the oven to cook the rest of the way. Check out this recipe, if you're interested. I added a little too much cheese, so it deflated, but if done correctly it poofs up beautifully and feel a million times more elegant than scrambled eggs.

Yogurt is amazingly easy and I feel scammed for ever paying even $.50 for a 6-oz cup. I followed the easy instructions here to make about a quart and a half of yogurt out of a half gallon of whole milk and 1/2 cup plain yogurt- a starter, now I can use the last 1/2 c of future batches to create more. I strained mine in a colander lined with cloth to thicken it, then sweetened it with honey. Plus, the drip-off is whey, which can be used instead of water in bread recipes to add a yummy tang. Natalie is discovering that yogurt is awesome, so I will probably be using this recipe a lot in the future. 

Bagels were fun and delicious but not something that I would make all the time. Used the recipe from the first chapter of Make the Bread and they are a little bit of a production to put together. The dough is super sticky, so it's impossible to make neat little rings. Then, you have to drop them in boiling water for a couple of minutes before baking. They turned out nice and thick and chewy, but the outside wasn't smooth and shiny like it was supposed to be. Oh well, they were still super delicious! Nice and thick and chewy.

So I'm eager and excited to continue trying new recipes. In the near future, I want to try out making beef jerky and bread (hoping to get some loaf pans for my birthday!). Yay for learning to make new things!

Monday, January 14, 2013

WonderWorks and Natalie's B-Day

 On the Friday after Christmas, a few of us got to go down to Myrtle Beach to check out WonderWorks, a cool new kids museum type place. The building is meant to look like a house that has been blown into the air and landed upside down. Inside are tons of cool exhibits, from your basic bubbles and 15-foot floor piano, to crazier display, like a bed of nails to lay on, a bike on a pendulum that allows you to swing 360 degrees if you pedal hard enough. Tons of fun displays. We didn't even get to all of them before we had to leave out of hunger and exhaustion!

Outside the entrance was a dispenser for fish food. These fish were gross and crazy and all on top of each other. They created such a thick layer when gathering for food, that the ducks would come and climb on top of them and get all the food.

While everyone is amazed by the crazy concentration of fish, they do not notice they overly-bold ducks gathering behind them, ready to attack.

Classic blue screen video game

Micah laying on a bed of nails and posing in front of a display of Tesla, his main man.

Natalie posed inside of a model astronaut suit! 

Here is LeAnn lying in a recliner covered with a pile of linens fresh from the dryer. I'm glad to not be the only one in the family who appreciates the beauty of snuggling up with freshly dried laundry!

 Gabby returned from her Dad's, so we all went to the airport and cheered when she came through the gate, waving a sign, and pretended that she was coming back from a long trip at an exotic local.

Natalie celebrated her birthday on the 31st. Unfortunately, she was being kind of grumpy that evening, but she still enjoyed opening presents and eating cake!


When we were singing happy birthday, we held the cake up to her and she reached out and grabbed the candle and burned her fingers. It was so sad but funny. Yeah, we're pretty awful parents.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Christmas in Wilmington

I am finally going to try to summarize our fun trip to Wilmington! It was jam packed with fun, so it will be hard, I'm just gonna touch on some of the highlights. 
Gabby got to open and give presents early since she spent Christmas with her Dad out in Utah.

That means that she was not in town for Christmas brunch. Here are my niece and nephew, waiting for us to check out at Sam's club.

Warming up at a Port City Java after freezing to death trying to take the beach photos that I posted earlier. This was on our way to the caroling carriage ride with Santa through downtown Wilmington.

Erik photobombs precious family picture on carriage.

Trying to decide who is chubbier, when Aaron goes for the camera.

I swear, Natalie did not cause this. But it's a funny picture nonetheless.

Much to our astonishment, Santa dropped by before Christmas. He came ringing his bell at the front door. He wanted to make sure that he got everyone's last minute Christmas wishes. He also needed to check that Brooklynn was there and that this would be the right spot to drop off her presents on Christmas morning. Brooklynn got to help Santa measure the fireplace to make sure that it was big enough for the presents to fit through! Poor Dad missed the whole thing because he was out "emptying the garbage" ;)

Sammy was especially interested in Santa for some reason. Maybe he knew he was on the naughty list and figured it was his last chance to try and suck up to the man in red?

We were pretty disappointed. Natalie had been developing a lot of confidence with new people. Santa was just a little too much.

Aaron held up a little bit better before he started to cry.

Grandma and Grandpa's house had letter magnets that really entertained the babies. We were glad later when she received some as a gift, so now she has some at home!

Me looking enthusiastic. Them looking unsure.

From the outside of the front screen door. Trying to escape!

Bottle buddies

Aaron plays with his sweet table on Christmas morning

Natalie goes after the stocking first, then got to open a toy to entertain her through brunch.

Then, brunch was on. I had seconds of sausage and then we ran out of it to serve the guests. How embarrassing! Blake skyped us in the middle of it all. He is serving as a missionary in Brasil and has just been out in the field for a little while, so it was nice to see him. He seemed to be in good spirits, which we were all glad to see.

Everybody left, and the opening of gifts commenced:

Peruvian wear for the Agles

Matching  "Though she be but little, she is fierce!" shirts (A midsummer Night's Dream)

I dunno- is that enough to make the new minivan cool?

Gorgeous dress that Darlene made for me. Where did she find the time?!

Phwew! The hats fit! I was struggling to plan the sizes, but they turned out pretty cute!

Brooklynn recieves a new "Brian" (a certain white stuffed cat that she has now had to be replaced twice)

And, by the way- Brian is a girl. Ha!

Micah got me a dutch oven. Sweet! He didn't even know at the time that he was setting himself up for a lifetime of braised meats!

Backwards clocks 


Natalie, surrounded by piles of new toys and brightly patterned wrapping paper, decides to play with.... a cardboard box. Awesome.

 Micah shows off the vest that Darlene made him. I can not believe how good she has gotten at sewing. The boys' vests were corduroy, with a lining made of the dress fabric. So cool! The shirt he is wearing underneath was my gift to him. Top says, "And God Said", then there's Maxwell's Equation, "And Then There Was Light". I was sad when he determined that there was an error in the equation. Hopefully it will be cool enough to wear anyway. I think his cohorts at Tech would get a kick out of it.

Paco plays his new Peruvian flute

Working off the Christmas calories!

It was nice to have so many family members around to babysit. We got to go to the movies twice! Which is awesome, because up until our trip, we had only gone to the movies 3 times this year. We saw the hobbit, which was very much like the Lord of The Rings, but with a bit more whimsy. I thought that the action got a little monotonous towards the end, but I certainly enjoyed it. Les Miserables I LOVED. I was surprised and pleased by how well most of the actors did. Russell Crowe was a disappointment, but at least he wasn't as bad as Pierce Brosnon. He was just very stagnant and so the character was sort of lost. We also saw Spamalot at Thalian Hall. Micah deemed it "pornographic and blasphemous". I would add that it was also hilarious. I thought the cast did a great job. 

We got to experience a tornado warning. It was kind of surprising. It was mildly stormy out, my Dad was at the Gym and LeAnn was at work, when Micah got a text. It was an alert from AT&T that there was a tornado warning in the area. We weren't sure if that meant UT (it's an 801 number), so we turned on the weather channel, and there it was- Wilmington NC and the surrounding counties. Woah! It passed, but we are still unsure why he got that magic text and how come the other 4 of us who had AT&T phones did not recieve any notification!

Well, Natalie's crying, so I will continue later with our exciting events post-Christmas!