Saturday, January 5, 2013

Affording French Onion Soup

Ready for a long post?

I haven't even begun and I know this is going to be a doozy.

But someone asked for both my French onion soup recipe and tips on grocery budgeting. The former will be posted at the end as usual.


Well, this is going to be a good talk.

*The below information pertains to winter grocery shopping. In the summer, hit up every farmer's market you can find for cheap, cheap produce. Summer is the BEST time to just eat tons of vegetables every evening for very little!

You see, I don't really have a budget because that word scares me. Or not a strict one anyway. But after three years of marriage, I've learned what works on busy weeks and make creative adjustments when I can without using the scary B word. Although I don't hold myself to a fine line, I hope to spend no more than $100 on groceries for the two of us per week and that amount has to last for breakfasts, lunches, and 3 main dinners (with  leftovers for each of those) in hopes that we will only eat out once. The funny thing is that from the very get go, G and I decided that we cared most about eating well and enjoying food together over other material things. So, most of the time, our marriage revolves around eating good food together and perhaps that is why I don't feel held to a budget even though a number is lurking in my mind on runs to the store every week!

Here's a typical breakdown of our weekly grocery list with minimally processed foods :

$6- organic baby spinach (enough for salads, smoothies and sauteed spinach when it begins to wilt)
$2- carrots for our favorite oatmeal, to prepare for dinner, and for dipping in hummus
$3- cherry tomatoes when on sale for hummus, salads
$5- apples/bananas/whatever fruit is on sale, berries if you're lucky for smoothies and snacks
$3- one red onion for salads, two yellow onions for cooking with chicken
$3- red potatoes to accompany chicken for two nights
$2- head of cauliflower as a side
$2- sunflower seeds for salads and on top of cauliflower
$3- hummus for snacking
$5- raw sharp cheddar or other tasty cheese
$4- cage-free, organic eggs for breakfasts and baking
$4- almond milk or organic milk
$2- half and half
$5- organic coffee
$2- oats for granola/oatmeal
$4- Ezekiel bread for sandwiches (lasts at least two weeks)
$2- my favorite waffles in the world (nature's path quinoa/amaranth GF waffles SO GOOD!)
$2- organic frozen broccoli for roasting with a protein
$2- green beans as a side
$7- 6lb natural roasting chicken for two dinners and hopefully a few sandwiches
$12- salmon or other fish for two nights
$7- shrimp/other protein that may be on sale for two nights

For example, the above trip cost about $87, I believe! Is that right? I'm not very good at math....

If I make meals out of all of the above things, considering some overlap from week to week, I have some wiggle room when it comes to replacing key ingredients or perhaps a chance to splurge on something expensive like making French onion soup for a meal.

For a week like the one above, I take the chance to go ahead and pick up the following when I see they are on sale : salted butter, cream cheese, gluten free all purpose flour, maple syrup, honey, other condiments that may be running low, chicken or beef stock if I don't see myself having time to make my own soon, cheeses that are otherwise normally expensive, frozen fruit for smoothies, etc.

In this manner, I have a chance to tuck things away like Gruyere, pick up a little cooking brandy or white wine, etc., so that when I want to make something that requires special ingredients, I hopefully already have them on hand from collecting random things over the course of a few weeks.

Now, here's the other thing. I usually shop at four or five different stores. I run around the corner to our co-op (Glut, stop by if you're ever here in Mt. Rainier- not something you want to miss, quite an experience) for the coffee and half and half, Giant for most items since it also gives us gas points and typically has the best deals although it definitely isn't my favorite store - and you must find a local standard store with a decent produce section, Whole Foods or Mom's Organic Market for a few items that I want to be super high quality, and Target for the occasional sale item (you never know!)

Once you get kind of a set shopping list and start frequenting the main local store that seems to have the best deals, you'll start to notice what goes on sale when and can start crafting meals around those sales.

On average, it takes about an hour to meal plan (because I can't focus) and about two hours to shop around.

Another tip : if you're single, you could still stick to a list like this as long as you watch dates. I highly recommend freezing meals so you don't have to eat a whole chicken four nights in a row, for instance!

I think that's about the extent of my knowledge, and sadly, for those of you curious as to how I accomplish making tasty things on a budget, I guess my strategy is probably rather disappointing.

I just buy pretty regular stuff, pick up extras of things when they go on sale, eat pretty basic meals, and when the creative streak hits, I'll omit something normal and replace it with something a little more exotic, keeping my grocery "budget" in mind.

Now forget all of that and go make this soup! There's nothing better on a wintry day! I paired mine with a delicious sandwich option : sprouted grain English muffins that our friends brought over, peppered deli turkey, spring greens, apple cider vinegar mustard, fig spread and melty brie! Highly recommend this for your next soup and sandwich night!

French Onion Soup
serves 6-8, allow 2.5 hours total (recipe adapted from Julia Child!)

5 medium sized onions, thinly sliced
5 tbs butter
1 tbs olive oil
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp sugar
3 tbs flour
2 quarts beef broth
1/2 c white cooking wine
2 tbs cooking brandy
2 cups grated Gruyere

- In a dutch oven or heavy bottomed large pan, slowly cook the butter and oil with the onions over medium low heat for 15-20 minutes, covered. Stir/check on every few minutes.
- Uncover, raise heat to medium and stir in the salt and sugar. Cook for 30-40 (I say 40) minutes, stirring frequently to avoid burning, until a deep golden brown color is achieved with the onions.
- Sprinkle flour over the onions and stir for three more minutes.
- Add the 1/2 c of cooking wine to deglaze, scraping up the brown bits from the pan and allowing the alcohol to cook off for a minute or two. Poor in the beef broth, bring to a boil, stir, reduce to a simmer, season to taste with salt and pepper, simmer for 30-40 minutes, adjust seasoning, and set aside until ready to serve or serve immediately. (Right before serving, stir in the brandy!) Put a sprinkle of cheese in the bottom of each bowl, add soup, and top with cheese again for good measure. If you have soup tureens, you can also do the whole round of french bread thing, and broil those with cheese on them as well, of course!