My newest favourite thing

We all know that we need to reduce our energy consumption to help our planet, right? And we all know that electricity prices are not decreasing, anywhere, any time soon, right? And we all love to support a great cause, right?

Ta-da! The Wonderbag!

The Wonderbag

The Wonderbag

I first learned about the concept of wonderbags through an organisation called Soil For Life. They uplift the poor by teaching them to grow healthy, nutritious food where they are, using what they have, for very little cost. They started teaching women to make insulated bags or boxes to minimise their fuel consumption by starting their meal on a heat source (electricity, gas, paraffin or wood) but then use heat-retention to complete the cooking time and thereby save money.

The concept has now grown into a business that makes and sells Wonderbags to the general public.

A birthday surprise

Andrew read about them on a Yuppie Chef mailer and immediately ordered one for my birthday knowing that this sort of thing is just ‘me’! I have a Sunstove (a box that harnesses the sun’s light and heat energy for cooking) and frequently sing the praises of my pressure cooker which cooks up delicious curries and stews using a fraction of the electricity that conventional cooking does. I love my slow cooker too, and take the energy savings further by covering it in a heavy towel to reduce heat loss while it is in use, reducing the cooking time by effectively cooking as if on the HIGH setting while the dial is actually set to LOW. (For a funny story about my towel wrapped slow cooker, scroll to the end!)

And now, I LOVE my Wonderbag! It is essentially a slow cooker – except that you only use a few minutes of electricity while a traditional slow cooker uses electricity throughout its cooking time.

How it works

Just start your food on the stove top or in the oven, bring it up to full heat and then remove it from the stove, close it up in your Wonderbag and leave it there to keep cooking. The insulated bag retains heat amazingly well (seriously, I was SO surprised at how hot food still is hours after being removed from the stove) and keeps cooking without using any electricity. It works really, really well!

The website has cooking guidelines and recipes. I haven’t used any of their actual recipes yet except as a guideline for how long I should cook one of my own soups, stews or whatever.

So for example, to cook rice I add one cup of rice and two cups of water and a little salt to my usual pot. As soon as it’s boiling, I remove it from the stove top and close it up in my Wonderbag and 1 hour later I have perfectly cooked rice! I cooked a traditional beef stew on the stove for about 20 minutes, closed it up and left it for 4 hours in my Wonderbag and served a delicious and tender meal that was still hot enough to not even require reheating.

So far, everything I have tried has cooked beautifully. I’ve done rice, beans, lentils, soups, stews and even bolognese mince sauce. It cuts electricity usage by about 90% while still cooking food very, very nicely. 90% electricity savings is not insignificant!

The only drawback is that the bag is bulky and so takes up some storage space when not in use (it is about the size of a dog basket for small dogs). And I will admit that it took a bit of a mind shift to cook my food in a bag. But within days I was completely convinced that its not just a good idea, it’s a GREAT one!

To get one for yourself…

If you live in South Africa, order yours from Yuppie Chef (free delivery in SA). Yuppie Chef also offers the amazing option of buying the Wonderbag for an underprivileged person (they handle the donation) for just R150!

If you live in the USA, buy your bag on Amazon. For every bag purchased in the USA, one is donated to a needy family in Africa!

Autumn, my sweet fat hen nestled comfortable on top of my towel-wrapped slow cooker!

Autumn, my sweet fat hen nestled comfortable on top of my towel-wrapped slow cooker!

 My towel-wrapped slow cooker became quite a joke when my sweet hen wandered into the house one evening while I was bathing the children (yes, my chickens visit us inside sometimes). I’m not sure what prompted her to jump up onto the counter but upon discovering the slow cooker wrapped in a towel, decided she had found herself a bed far softer and warmer than her wooden box in the garden! She settled comfortably on top of it and looked wonderfully content!

Sunday Night Traditions

(It has been months since my last post. I purposed from the start to keep my blog a lower priority than my family. They have been a busy bunch this year! Sorry for my silence. Thank you to those who have said they’ve missed my posts.)

A weekly tradition

We’ve started a new Sunday tradition. We enjoy a fellowship meal (of sorts) and I make Apple Pie and Custard for dessert.

I say a fellowship meal of sorts. On Sundays, for us, it means Andrew and I make the meal together and serve it to our family. We so enjoy the time to work together creatively, often talking through things of the weekend, Church and what lies in the week ahead, and even if we have guests we find ourselves preparing and serving the meal together.

Boy rolling pasta with Dad

Boy rolling pasta with Dad

Last week it was homemade pasta and sauce. Andrew made the pasta and I made the sauce. If you’ve never tasted fresh, handmade pasta you are missing out! It is like angel food! It is extra special for us as we use the eggs our hens lay right in our front yard. The yolks are so golden and creamy and unlike even free range eggs from the store! These colour the pasta beautifully.

Tonight we’re having homemade pie. Andrew has made the pastry and I’ve made the filling. The picture is from the previous time we made a pie, which had a pepper steak filling. Tonights is creamy chicken and mushroom. The pastry is too buttery to indulge in often (seriously, so much butter that we half expect the fat police to knock on the door any second!) but it is so amazingly yummy! It is glazed with a beaten egg, again courtesy of our sweet feathered girls out front.

Yummy pie!

Yummy pie!

You asked for it….

The Apple Pie and custard is a throw back to a few years ago. I was terribly ill in the early stages of pregnancy and I asked Andrew what he wanted for supper. He replied “Apple Pie”. Much to the amazement of the children, I actually made Apple Pie for supper! I justified it by saying it was a Sunday night and we used to eat strange things for dinner on Sundays because I didn’t feel much like cooking at the end of the weekend.

Ever since then, Andrew and the children have asked for Apple Pie for supper on Sundays! (But I haven’t made it again for dinner, I promise!)

A few weeks ago, we decided to make Apple Pie a Sunday night tradition. For dessert, not the main course! It is the only apple pie recipe Andrew actually likes. I prefer it with vanilla ice cream, but he likes it with custard.

Sometimes we watch a family movie too. Tonight it will be an Afrikaans comedy to help Amie with developing her vocabulary for an upcoming exam.

All about Family

Traditions hold a special place in the heart and rhythm of our family. I have long believed that traditions help build special family memories and in turn keep families coming together for decades, even through marriages, grandchildren etc. After a few years of working out and starting some traditions of our own, we have all come to value them and look for opportunities and ideas to start new ones.

I look forward to many more years of fellowshipping with my wonderful husband as we prepare meals together on Sunday nights to serve to whomever the Lord brings to us as “family” for that evening, followed of course, by Apple Pie!

Basic Brown Bread

Bread5

Daily Bread

Is there anything to match the aroma of freshly baked bread?  When I was taking fresh loaves from the oven yesterday, Cael clasped his hands under his chin and said “Yay! Mommy bread!”.

Here’s the scoop: it’s tough to beat the nourishment and thrift of fresh, home-baked bread too!

This basic, no-knead recipe is very forgiving – in 13 years it has never flopped, not once! Sometimes the texture is better than other times, but it is always yummy bread.

Baking this bread costs exactly half of what store-bought bread costs us, and we all prefer it. Give it a bash, it is worth it!

Basic Brown Bread (makes 2 loaves).

Ingredients: 

4 cups brown bread flour

1 cup whole-wheat flour

1 small packet instant yeast (about 1 Tablespoon)

1 Tsp sugar

1 Tsp salt

1-2 Tbsp Oil (sunflower, avocado or olive)

2 – 2,5 Cups warm water (baby bath temperature)

Method:

Mix the yeast and sugar into half a cup of warm water (even if the package says not to premix, do it anyway. It vastly improves the texture of the bread). Leave to sit for about 10 minutes, until it is frothy and foamy.

Bread1

 

Mix the salt and flour into a large bowl. Add the foamy mixture, oil and remaining water. Mix/stir well with a wooden spoon for a few minutes. It should be a sloppy, thick dough, difficult to stir but quite wet (see photo).

 

 

Cover the bowl loosely with a lid, plastic or damp cloth and leave it in a warm place (but not hot) for about 40 minutes, until the mixture has doubled in size.

Bread2

 

Stir down well, cover again and leave to rise again for another 30 minutes. At this stage the dough has thickened and is more elastic.

 

 

 

Bread3

 

Stir down again and divide dough between two greased loaf pans.

Leave to rise again, for about 20 minutes (a little more if it is a cold day) and bake at 200 deg celsius/ 400 deg fahrenheit / gas mark 6 for 30 minutes.

 

 

Bread4

 

Leave to cool in pans for 10 – 15 minutes then turn out gently. It is difficult to slice while still warm but if you don’t mind thick, chunky slices of bread, go ahead and enjoy while warm!

 

 

Store in airtight container. Store in the fridge in summer as the lack of preservatives means this breads starts to grow mold quickly.

 

Notes:

You can use any kind of flour (all brown or all wholewheat or another combination, even white flour if you choose)

You can replace some of the warm water with warm milk or buttermilk – this adds protean and a milky taste but does increase the cost of the loaf slightly.

This is a very versatile bread. It makes delicious open sandwiches but is also lovely to eat with soup.

This makes a lovely hostess gift.

This is perfect for “bulking up” or stretching a meal – serve with the meal or after with jelly/jam, marmalade, honey, cheese or fresh, ripe tomatoes.

Served with cheese or salad or boiled eggs, and crisp apples on the side, this is great for a picnic!

It freezes reasonably well.

To soften the crust to make slicing easier while still warm, dab cool water over the crust as soon as you remove the loaf from the oven (use a basting brush or dab with your fingers), while the loaf is still in the baking tin.

Add seeds and/or wheat germ and/or oats for health if your budget allows.

At this time (early 2014), it costs about R10 (excluding electricity) to make two loaves. 

 

Cooking From Scratch to Save $$$

Staple ingredients

 Both Brandy at The Prudent Homemaker and Amy at Money Saving Mom covered cooking from scratch in posts last week. I loved this! It’s one of the things I’ve tried to lower our grocery budget over the past few months and, guess what? It really DOES save $$$!

How?

It’s quite easy – make basic foods from scratch. Pancakes, cookies and other baked goods are the obvious ones. We’ve taken it a bit further and we have made our own pizza bases, bread, pasta, pastry, granola, sauces, marmalade and cordial (lemonade syrup).

Stretch the savings further

Making something from scratch will almost always be cheaper than buying it already made. It is also likely to be far more healthy.

But it is very easy to stretch the savings even further by using staples purchased on sale. Flour, sugar, oil, butter/margarine, oats, milk, and eggs are just a few of the staples I used to make the things I mentioned earlier from scratch and all of them came from my pantry which is stocked with goods bought cheaply, in bulk, when they are at good prices.

The lemons for the marmalade and cordial were free from a friends lemon tree. The pasta sauce ingredients were purchased cheaply at a local fresh food market and the herbs were free from my garden.

The veggies used in our soups, stews and casseroles were purchased in bulk from a fresh foods market very cheaply. I store them carefully and those that doen’t last well I peel and chop and either freeze raw or cooked.

I cook Cadence’s fruit and veggies once a week. I puree them and freeze them in ice cube trays. This is easy, ensures variety and costs pennies.

Does it really make a difference?

YES! I spent half the amount I usually do on groceries for the month of June! I still stocked up on things that were on sale (like 20 blocks of butter, several blocks of cheese and bags of sugar, macaroni and flour, various tinned foods, bottles of cooking oil). So actually, I didn’t expect to see such a difference in how much I spent!

But there was a huge difference! And that was because I made a big effort to only buy things that were selling very inexpensively and to feed my family simple meals using these ingredients and what I already had on hand.

Did they notice?

NO! I asked them “Have you noticed a difference in how we’re eating?”. They haven’t! In fact, they’ve had more “fun food” than usual, like cookies, muffins and pancakes for breakfast.

So what’s the catch?

Time and planning! You need to plan ahead and make the time. But it is worth it! And although everyone seems to be so busy these days, it is clear from various blogs and comments on blogs that many mothers work fulltime outside of the home and still find the time to make foods from scratch because they appreciate the financial savings and health benefits. So it is definitely “do-able”.

So how about you?

Have you thought about cooking from scratch more? Do you? I’d love any advice or ideas you can offer!

 

Meal Preparation for Busy Moms: Building a supply of freezer meals the easy way

After Cadence arrived in December, I knew my hands were going to be doubly full from then on. A new baby, a busy toddler, a tween and a teen (home-schooled), a home and a garden to manage and deep desire for community service and involvement at Church. I know some (super) moms manage even more then this, but I felt exhausted just thinking about it and I knew I needed to establish routines and coping mechanisms to keep my family and home running smoothly.

I’d felt tired and nauseated through most of my 4th pregnancy and had not kept up with what had become an efficient freezer cooking system. So, I did some thinking and more research, determined to get my meal planning and preparation “mojo” back.

Rethinking

I came across a Facebook group called Fearless Freezer Cooking. I was excited to find them, knowing some fresh inspiration and motivation always helps. They posted this one day:

Remember the #1 easy way to fill your freezer in 2013 that I mentioned in my podcast? PUT SOMETHING IN YOUR FREEZER EVERY WEEK. Just one thing. SO, what are you putting in your freezer this week?

What a simple way to think about it! Not long after that post, they posted this question: ‘What one dinner recipe can you double this week in order to put one in the freezer?’

I took it a step further as I thought this: imagine how well I could build a stash of freezer meals if I doubled or tripled a recipe every time I cooked? This is very similar to what I did in 2011 but was much less rigid.

I came up with a master list of meals that would all freeze well and predominantly use this list when menu planning. These meals also use ingredients that are either routinely inexpensive or regularly come up on sale.

I still don’t use any hard, set plan. Some weeks I’ll have a quiet afternoon and will use it to cook 2 or 3 different recipes, doubling, tripling or even quadrupling each. Other weeks I’ll plan to cook every night but will cook double every night and thus get a weeks worth of meals into the freezer. Sometimes I cook once or twice, eating twice from each meal (planned ‘leftovers’ of sorts) and some weeks I don’t cook at all, but simply thaw a lasagne or casserole and reheat it at dinner time.

So the plan is loose but the method is sure: when I am going to cook I choose meals from the master list, double, triple or quadruple each and carefully package and freeze the extra portions.

It’s simple. It works.

For more of my Meal Preparation for Busy Moms series, see the links below

Meal Preparation for Busy Moms

Meal Preparation for Busy Moms: How?

Meal Preparation for Busy Moms: How I do it

Meal Preparation for Busy Moms: Building a supply of freezer meals the easy way