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!

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!

 

Good post at MoneySavingMom

I check in at MoneySavingMom every day. Crystal offers daily advice and wisdom to those seeking to live simpler, intentional lives on a budget.

Her post today is another gem.

 

In point 3 she says The easiest way to dig out of this hole you find yourself in is to give yourself a bigger income to help shovel yourself out more quickly. This will benefit you not only in the short-term, but also in the long-term as it may allow you to completely change your financial situation within the next five years.”

This reminded me of something David Bach said in his book Start Late Finish Rich (concerning long term and retirement savings strategies):

“Most people overestimate what they can achieve in a year or two but underestimate what they can achieve in a decade.”

This really caught our attention and prompted us to start saving even when we thought we had nothing to save. We started with a few hundred rands each month (perhaps the equivalent of $20-$50) but it grew from there and we have saved more in the past 3 years than we really ever thought we could.

Are you one of the many who thinks you have nothing to save? I challenge you to think differently! Even if you start with R100 ($10) in a savings (interest earning) account, start somewhere!

There are many ways to find a bit extra to save. I’ll share them sometime. For now, look around MoneySavingMom‘s site and google for more sites on frugal living. But start today. It is not only important; it’s empowering!

Check out these links too:

MoneySavingMom: Is it possible to save money when we’re barely keeping our head above water?

MoneySavingMom: Less is More: Lessons from our little basement apartment

MoneySavingMom: Is it possible to live on $460 a week?  (The comments section has loads of suggestions for living on a strict budget. Some are only really applicable in the USA but many are universal.

The Prudent Homemaker (Brandy does a weekly blog post entitled “This Weeks Frugal Accomplishments”. Always inspiring and good food for thought can be found in the comments section too. Her site is an ongoing lesson in ‘making do’ with what one has while cultivating contentment. Her Facebook page is worth “liking”.)

A new week

We had a wonderful time at our annual Church Family Retreat this past weekend. It was a nice opportunity to get to know others in our Church family a bit better, to meet new people and to serve. Amie, Andrew and I were on the music team and there were many willing hands to hold Cadence.

Over the past few weeks we’ve been feeling pretty wiped out most days. With two babies and a sick dog we’re just not getting enough quality sleep. Poor Andrew has had a demanding few weeks with work and has had assignments due as well (he is in 2nd year of his distance-study Bachelor of Theology degree).

It’s easy to feel out-of-control and frazzled. So even though I am well and truly exhausted I am taking some time out today to formulate a plan for the week, to set some goals (like Crystal at MoneySavingMom does every week). Without some direction and a plan, another week will disappear in a blur, and time is too precious to waste.

I know that not having to cook again this week will help so a bulk cooking session will be my first priority. After a weekend away and wet weather over the past week, I have a mountain of laundry to get through. The girls both have music exams coming up so good daily practices are important and Amie leaves on Friday for a week long camping trip in the mountains, so we need to make sure she is prepared for that. Knowing the meals are taken care of for the week will be a blessing.

Starting this morning, while Jess and Amie do their music practice (flute, violin and piano), I’m going to bake a batch of Buttermilk Rusks and a few loaves of bread. I have also taken out two packs of frozen chicken thighs and legs and some stewing meat and am going to cook a triple recipe of Chutney Chicken (a family favourite although very simple) and a big beef and veggie stew.

Counting the cost

As I’ve mentioned before, I am working to reduce our grocery spending. Both of these are budget meals using ingredients that are routinely low cost (or free, like veggies from the garden). I use a pressure cooker for the stew so I can use cheaper cuts of meat. I also add beans and LOTS of vegetables which lowers the cost while upping the nutrition. Two individual servings of each will be packed and frozen for Andrew’s mom (for lunches at school), a family sized portion of chicken and two of the stew will go into the freezer and we’ll eat the rest this week. We’ll also eat a cottage pie from the freezer this week.

The temperatures have dropped and hauling out the heaters and electric blankets isn’t far off, which means a rise in the electricity bill isn’t far off either. I like to remember the cost saving measures bulk cooking offers, like

– heating the oven once but making three things (bread, rusks and casserole);

– cooking the stew in my pressure cooker takes only 20 minutes so saves electricity;

– cooking triple of each recipe uses the same amount of power as cooking just one, effectively cutting the electrical cost of the meals by 2 thirds.

I’m a firm believer in the saying that “every bit counts”, so even though these savings might seem insignificant to some, they matter to me. Added to all the other little things we do to save money, it makes a difference.

What else?

I also hope to finish the jersey (sweater) I’m knitting for Cael this week and will find time to meet with each of the older girls individually to talk through a few things that we think need attention. Parenting can be tiring and often repetitive, but without consistent and intentional effort we have little hope of raising our children up to be the kind of people we desire them to be.

Finishing strong

Finally, I will try to remember to trust in the Lord and look to Him for strength when I feel like I have none. He knows how tired I am, and knows exactly what I need, even better than I. I know He will supply those needs as He has promised  in His word to do so.