Monthly Archives: February 2011

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

That’s the dance I feel like we’re doing these days with our efforts to pay off our debt. We’re making progress, we’re moving forward, but every time I find a little extra in the budget to apply toward our debt it either feels like it’s not enough, or it needs to be applied to something else. I learned the water filter in our refrigerator needs to be changed at the end of the month, and there goes $50. We’ve also got to squeeze in an additional $140 a month into the budget for WenYu’s braces. Our house payment goes up next month just as the withholding increases again in Mr. Losing It’s navy retirement check. For the first time his retirement pay will no longer cover the house payment so we’ve got to send some additional funds to that account every month. We’ve also got to fit some shopping money into the next couple of months’ budgets, for gifts to take over to Japan for our grandson and his mom and dad. Two steps forward, one step back.

I’ve learned though that effective debt repayment isn’t always about paying off the lowest balance first, or applying extra to the account with the lowest balance. This morning, as I worked on our budget for the next six months (yes, we budget that far ahead) I discovered that if I make an extra payment each month to our adoption loan balance we can have that debt repaid by the end of June versus just making the regular monthly payment and finishing it in October. I had originally thought we should pay off  a smaller credit card balance first, but discovered if we got rid of the adoption loan first we could actually pay off the credit card by September, a full month ahead of schedule!

A couple of weeks ago I posted our debt balances on front page of the blog. They’re there for me to have to look at, so I can see how far we still have to go, but also as a reminder of how much progress we’ve made and are continuing to make. When I’m feeling discouraged, it helps to see that we’ve paid off two car loans, and one overdraft account (the second will be paid off this month when our tax refund arrives). We have an ambitious goal for this year, to pay off four more accounts: the second overdraft, the adoption loan, credit card #3, and Mr. Losing It’s student loan. It’s going to take a great deal of hard work and focus, but we also have something else motivating us these days: Mr. Losing It’s retirement. Plans for that, for where we want to be and what we want to do, are falling into place and are providing real motivation to stay on task with debt repayment. That and we’re just sick to death of debt.

The two-step continues, but I’m enjoying the music more these days.

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Filed under Budgets, Debt Elimination

Food Waste Friday: The Salsa Didn’t Make It

No one (me included) wanted this last little bit of salsa, so it got tossed out a couple of days ago. It was probably OK but just didn’t look appealing any more, if you know what I mean.

Otherwise, another week with no food waste! Yeah! I’m a little surprised as this past week’s schedule has been crazier than usual and we’ve seemed to end each day with several containers of leftovers. However, Meiling and YaYu have been perpetually hungry all week (another growth spurt?) so the leftovers disappeared fairly quickly.

How did you do with food waste this week?

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Frugal Recipe of the Week: Asian Pulled Pork Sandwiches

Since we love pulled pork here, and also love Asian flavors, this recipe was a no brainer for our family. It comes from the Better Homes & Gardens Biggest Book of Slow Cooker Recipes, a book I’ve had for years. I somehow missed this recipe, though I’m not sure why as it’s everything I like in a recipe: easy, low cost, and delicious (Note: In the book it’s called “Oriental Pork Sandwiches.” With three Asians living in our home, the only way the word oriental gets used around here is as an adjective for a rug.)

Since it’s made in a slow cooker it’s incredibly easy to put together. I buy pork from our local Asian supermarket, and paid less than $5.00 for the roast used in this recipe. It also uses hoisin sauce, a thick sweet sauce used in Chinese cooking, and five-spice powder for the seasoning. Both can be found in the Asian foods section of the supermarket. Hoisin sauce will keep for a very long time in the fridge after being opened, and there are lots of recipes out there that call for it so you can use it up. Five-spice powder can be purchased ready-made, or you can make your own (the recipe is below). The pork filling for these sandwiches turns out very juicy and delicious, and the Asian flavors are not overpowering. In fact, next time I plan to add a bit more of the five-spice powder to add just a bit more flavor, which we prefer.

I served the sandwiches with Sweet-Sour Coleslaw. Some of us ate the coleslaw on the side, but one of the girls and I put it right on the sandwich with the shredded pork. It would also be delicious made with broccoli slaw versus cabbage, and plain shredded cabbage would work as well.  Two of the girls also topped their pork with sriracha sauce, but they like everything spicy.

ASIAN PULLED PORK SANDWICHES

1 2 1/2 – 3 pound boneless pork shoulder roast

1 cup apple juice or apple cider

2 TBSP soy sauce

2 TBSP hoisin sauce

1 1/2 teaspoons five-spice powder

6 – 8 kaiser rolls

1 1/2 – 2 cups shredded Chinese cabbage, coleslaw mix, or broccoli slaw

Trim the fat from the pork roast. Place pork in slow cooker. In a small bowl combine apple juice or cider, soy sauce hoisin sauce and five-spice powder. Pour over the roast. Cover and cook on low setting for 10-12 hours, or on high setting for 5 1/2 – 6 hours.

Remove meat from cooker, reserving juices. Using two forks, shred the meat, then put back in the cooker and mix with the reserved juices. Place shredded meat on the roll and top with shredded cabbage or coleslaw.

You can also skim the fat from the juices left in the slow cooker and serve it on the side for dipping the sandwiches.

FIVE-SPICE POWDER

Grind together into a fine powder:

3 TBSP ground cinnamon

6 star anise

1 1/2 tsp fennel seeds

1 1/2 tsp whole Szechwan peppercorns OR black peppercorns

1/4 tsp ground cloves

Store in a tightly covered container. Makes 1/2 cup.

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Ticket Madness

I’m currently going through the insanity of having to check five or six travel websites three and four times a day to try and find a good deal on flights to Japan. It seems that flights and their prices change hourly if not more rapidly, and I’m having trouble finding something that fits both our price limits and scheduling needs. If I find a good price, it seems I can count on the flight making three stops, taking over 27 hours total and arriving in Narita at night (where we still have to clear customs and take at least a 60-minute train ride into the city). If I find something that costs a little more, but with a great schedule, it turns out the airline is currently in bankruptcy, which means the schedule could change before we leave, or the route eliminated altogether. Or, if I find a flight that seems to have it all: a price that’s a little high but one we can live with and a schedule that’s doable, half an hour later when I get ready to book the flight, the price has gone up to something we can’t live with. Aaarrrgghhhh! I have read every frugal travel tip I can lay my hands on, and all the ways for finding the best price on airline tickets, but this is absolute madness.

I really shouldn’t be complaining at all though because a couple of weeks ago it looked like Mr. Losing It would be traveling to Japan on his own to meet our grandson. Ticket prices have soared since last fall, and with all of last year’s emergencies we just haven’t been able to save as much as we hoped. One ticket is all we can afford without adding to our debt, so after a long discussion and some tears we decided that Mr. Losing It should go now and I would go on my own later in the fall after saving some more. However, when we told our son and daughter-in-law our plan, they were disappointed with our decision and have stepped in to buy the second plane ticket so that both of us can come in May.

Taking money from our child is not easy, even though his and our daughter-in-law’s incomes are considerably larger than ours, and it took us over a week to decide whether or not to accept their generous offer. Mr. Losing It admitted though that he was dreading traveling alone, especially since I can still read and speak a little Japanese and he can’t. Our son and daughter-in-law also let us know again that they preferred us to come together and in the spring while our son is on paternity leave, rather than waiting until the fall. So we finally said yes, and here I am looking for fares.

This is one of those hidden costs of debt, something you don’t think about as the bills pile up. No, most people don’t usually have to fly to Tokyo to meet their first grandchild, but without our debt we would have easily been able to afford the tickets. It’s very humbling, but also has me more determined than ever to rid ourselves of this burden forever because I know this isn’t the only trip to Japan we’re going to make. And next time, besides paying my own way, I’d like to be able to take the girls along as well.

(Photo credit: http://thecomingcrowd.blogspot.com/)

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Filed under Debt, Frugal Travel

Menu Plan Monday: Valentine’s Day

We may be the only family not doing something special for Valentine’s Day this year, or at least it feels that way. I did get a card for my husband, and am making some red velvet cupcakes for our dessert and for a treat for my after-school kids, but that’s it. I sort of feel like a Valentine’s Grinch, but money is tight right now, and no one needs any candy. Our youngest (age 11) isn’t even taking Valentine cards to school this year because “that’s for the little kids.” Big sigh.

We’ll be trying out three new recipes this week along with several old favorites. I’ve wanted to make the Guadalajaran Swiss chard quesadillas since I first found the recipe link over at My Year Without Spending, and they are finally making an appearance on our menu. Two delicious-sounding recipes from Real Simple magazine will also get a try: Chicken Adobo with Bok Choy and Cheesy Baked Pasta with Spinach and Artichokes. I was also asked if I would again make Pumpkin Chipotle Chili, a fantastic recipe that I found over at The Saved Quarter and that we all love.

Other than the soba and greens being served for our Valentine’s dinner tonight, no days are assigned to keep things flexible. And as always, be sure to check out Menu Plan Monday at I’m An Organizing Junkie!

  • Soba with greens; teriyaki barbecued chicken
  • Sloppy Joes, corn chips, traditional coleslaw
  • Chicken adobo with bok choy; steamed rice
  • Cheesy baked pasta with spinach and artichokes; bread; green salad
  • Guadalajaran Swiss chard quesadillas; Mexican rice; refried beans
  • Mediterranean plates: (feta cheese, hummus, falafel, pita bread, grape tomatoes; spanakopita, tzatziki)
  • Pumpkin chipotle chili; cornbread; green salad

School lunches this week will be soup and crackers x2, cup noodles, chili with corn chips, and cheese sandwiches. Breakfasts will be potstickers, ramen with greens, fried rice, pizza, and tater tots.

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Sunday Mornings: Congee

This morning we enjoyed the ultimate Chinese comfort food: Congee, or Chinese rice porridge (also known as jook). It’s been called the smoothest comfort food around, and if you’re not feeling so well, or need something that’s going to stick with you for a while, then congee fits the bill perfectly. It’s also a great way to use up leftover meat or other bits of leftover vegetables. Chinese eat it as a cure for hangovers, or when their stomachs don’t feel so hot, or as a power food before school or a big exam. Congee is usually an acquired taste for American palates, and can initially seem underwhelming, probably because we are used to and like big flavors in our foods. Congee’s flavors are more subtle and have to be teased out. It’s open to lots of adaptations though, and at any dim sum restaurant the congee cart will offer several items you can choose from to add flavor and to customize your bowl.

Although congee is traditionally made on the stovetop (restaurants usually start theirs at the crack of dawn), we make ours in the crockpot so that it’s ready when we get up in the morning. I usually add some chopped leftover meat to the pot when I put it together, but that can either be left out or placed in the bottom of the bowl and the congee ladled over it when it’s served. Either way, it’s incredibly easy to make. The only necessary ingredients are rice, ginger (ginger is what soothes the upset stomach) and water.

When we met each of our daughters in China, we asked their caregivers what they ate and were told for all three of them: congee! We dutifully ordered congee for each of them in the hotel restaurants where we stayed, but each girl turned up her nose and refused to touch it. Hmmmm. It turned out they were way more interested in all the other new foods they could try from the buffet table rather than the same stuff they had eaten every morning in their orphanages. Mr. Losing It and I also couldn’t figure out the appeal of this bland (to us) porridge, and yet almost every Chinese diner had a bowl of it so we knew there was something good going on with it.

These days though the girls ask when I’m going to make it again, and I frankly don’t know why I don’t make it more often – it’s so easy, and we all love it. I always make our congee with some chicken broth, just because we like the richer flavor, but that’s optional as is the soy sauce I add. Also, we’ve found it’s best not to grate the ginger; the larger pieces seem to impart more flavor, and cook down enough to where they can be eaten as part of the porridge.

Don’t forget to link your breakfast or brunch recipe at the bottom of the page!

I’M LOSING IT HERE CONGEE

  • 1 cup rice (we prefer short-grained as it’s starchier)
  • 4 cups water
  • 4 cups chicken broth
  • 1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped into large pieces
  • 1 to 2 cups diced leftover chicken, turkey, ham or other meat (optional, and any seafood should be added after it’s cooked)
  • 2 TBSP soy sauce
  • Dark sesame oil; chopped green onions; chopped peanuts (optional)

In a large crockpot, mix together the rice, water, broth, ginger pieces and soy sauce. Meat can either be cooked with the congee or added later. Cover and cook overnight on low, for at least 9 hours.

To serve, ladle porridge into a bowl and top with a TBSP of sesame oil, and some chopped green onions and chopped peanuts, if desired. If you are adding meat later, place it in the bowl and then place the hot porridge over the meat. Add salt to taste.

Here’s where you can add a link to a favorite breakfast or brunch recipe that you’re posted. (Your link won’t show up right away, thanks to the basic incompatibility between linking tools and WordPress.com, but I’ll make sure it shows).

  1. Greek Village Omelette (Lizzie’s Home World)
  2. Pumpkin Spice Egg Puffs (Premeditated Leftovers)
  3. Sugar Snap Porridge (Laura aka The Scoffing Cow)

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Filed under Recipes, Sunday Mornings

Food Waste Friday: Happy Happy, Joy Joy!

We’re jumping for joy here because it’s been another great week here at Chez Losing it with no food waste!

There’s some pico de gallo hanging out in the fridge though that won’t be safe for human consumption if it’s not eaten in the next couple of days or I’ll have to toss it, but otherwise everything got eaten or used up. Even the dogs got into the act and ate a last few (sort of) rubbery baby carrots for their treats this week.

I’m so happy to have another waste-free week!

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Join Me for Breakfast On Sunday Mornings!

Come and share your breakfast or brunch recipes at I’m Losing It Here on Sunday Mornings!  It’s very easy: Just use the Linky tool at the bottom of my Sunday morning recipe to link up one of your own great dishes. Your link needs to be to your own site, not a general recipe site, and it must be for a breakfast- or brunch-appropriate recipe, but those are the only rules.

Hope to see your link this Sunday!

(Note: Mr. Linky and WordPress.com are not very compatible – none of the linking tools are, really – and after you link you won’t see it immediately on the page. But it will appear!)

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Filed under Recipes, Sunday Mornings

Frugal Recipe of the Week: Spinach & Feta Quiche

When thinking of spinach and feta together in a recipe, spanakopita probably comes to mind, where the combination comes wrapped in crispy, flaky filo dough pockets. In this recipe spinach and feta meet instead in a whole wheat pie crust for a fantastic quiche that can be enjoyed either hot or cold. The recipe comes from Sunset magazine’s Vegetarian Recipes, a cookbook I’ve owned since the early 1980s. I don’t think I started making the quiche until the 1990s though (my introduction to feta did not go so well).

I’ve learned through trial and error that the filling really needs to be made in either a blender or food processor. I’ve tried making it with a mixer (even a stand mixer), but it just doesn’t get creamy enough to work as a quiche filling. I currently only have a mini-Cuisinart, but make the filling in batches and it works out well. Using a mixer nothing ever seems to get fully blended. The recipe calls for a whole wheat crust, but it’s also fine to use a regular crust, or even a speciality crust, like one made from oats or other grains. I also typically use non-fat versions of the cheeses and milk, and egg substitute to keep the calories down and it comes out fine and tastes great.

We usually have this as a main dish along with some salad and bread, but have also enjoyed it for breakfast. It would be great served with a classic Greek salad (more feta!) or even a fruit salad.

SPINACH & FETA QUICHE

  • Single whole wheat or regular 9″ pie crust
  • 1 10-oz. pkg. frozen chopped spinach, defrosted
  • 6 oz. crumbled feta cheese
  • 1/2 cup cottage cheese
  • 6 green onions, including tops, sliced
  • 1 TBSP olive oil
  • 1 tsp dry basil
  • 1/2 tsp pepper
  • 1/4 tsp crushed garlic
  • 4 eggs
  • 1/2 cup milk

Bake the pie crust in a preheated 400° oven for 10 minutes. Let cool.

Squeeze out as much liquid as possible from the defrosted spinach (I usually wrap it in a dish towel and twist like crazy); set spinach aside. In a blender or food processor, blend together the feta cheese, cottage cheese, onions, oil, basil, pepper and garlic until smooth. Add the eggs and milk and mix in well. Finally, add in the spinach and whirl briefly to mix, or longer if you prefer a creamier mixture. Pour into the pie crust.

Bake at 400° for 20 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 350° and bake for another 20 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Let stand for at least 10 minutes before cutting into wedges to serve. If made earlier and chilled, bring to room temperature before serving.

 

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Fundraising + Frugality, Part Deux

I wrote last year about my frustrations with the annual fundraising model for the yearly 8th grade trip to China. Last fall I proposed a different way of doing things that would cut back on expenses and hopefully draw in more families (attendance at the big auction format had been dropping every year); a donation would be included in the price of the ticket. It was voted on by the volunteers and adopted for this year. Yeah! The only person who didn’t like it was that certain someone (from the original post). He wanted to retain the old format, and was quite upset that no one else was willing to go along and let him manage the whole thing.

So you’d think things would be going along swimmingly at this point, but no. Our certain someone and the other co-chair went out on a spending spree and are now finding themselves in a bit of a bind as far as expenses. Instead of the low-cost, simple hors d’oeuvres format that was proposed, they ordered a three-entree buffet, the most expensive meal available! Two bartenders! With other expenses popping up (that we knew were coming), instead of having a nice cushion from ticket sales, now every dime from that revenue stream has been committed, and if less than 300 attend the event starts to lose money. They also forgot that a buffet takes up a huge chunk of time, and it’s now messed up the rest of the evening’s schedule. Anyway, the two co-chairs had a lot of fun spending money that wasn’t there, and now sit at meetings with panicked looks on their faces and ask the rest of the volunteers why we haven’t come up with more big money sponsors (and we turn around and ask them who have they asked? No one, it turns out). What makes it even worse, for me anyway, is that our certain someone has done absolutely nothing other than come to meetings and “facilitate” and then make the final decision (and tell us all how to do our jobs). If something is not his idea, or if heaven forbid, you want him to do something, forget about it. Any of the actual work involved in putting on the event is just for underlings (This is a person, by the way, who has never attended previous events, donated or bought anything at the auctions, and yet he knows best! Can you spell control freak?).

Mr. Losing It and I will not attend the event this year because it’s less than a month before our trip to Japan and we just don’t have room for it in the budget, much as we would love to go and hear the band and spend an evening with friends (we can do without the giant buffet or the casino or the auction). We are donating quite a bit to the auction though: two Chinese wool rugs, a coffee gift basket, a soup and bread gift basket, a porcelain temple dog and a glider flight over the Willamette Valley. No, we are not out spending like crazy, more like decluttering for a good cause. The rugs are in mint condition, but we don’t have room for them in this house and they have been sitting out in the garage for the past several years. The coffee gift basket is filled with items I got using Swagbucks or picked up at Goodwill for next to nothing. The only thing I still have to buy is the coffee. I used coupons for the soup and bread mixes so it cost less than $10 to put together (and the two actual baskets were bought at a yard sale last year for $1.00 each). The temple dog was bought ages ago when we lived in Japan. It’s been taking up space and we figured someone else would probably love it in their home. The glider flight is something I won at the auction a couple of years ago for Mr. Losing It that he doesn’t intend to use after all, so we’re donating it back. Even if our donations only bring in half of their fair market value, they will still raise quite a bit for the program.

But this is absolutely the last time I get involved with our school fundraising. I’ve really had it this time, especially because of that certain someone. I think he intends to be running things or involved for years to come and I just don’t need the stress. We’ll write a check from here on.

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Filed under Decluttering, Fundraising