Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Taxman Cometh

Well I made it to the end of March relatively well with limited overages. One thing I have to say is that when last Saturday rolled around I official began April budget-wise, and now, one weekend and 2 surprise house guests later I'm already down about $100 in borrowing from April's money. Bad Jen! Bad.

I will never, ever stay within budget if I begin the month in a handicap, so I'm using the lovely tax refund I will receive to beef up my emergency savings and a small amount of it will go to even out April's budget and perhaps buy me some badly needed work shoes, my $20 Payless flats have been rocking some massive holes for a few months now. I think it's time.

I sent my taxes in via Netfile last Friday so I should be getting my return soon. I'm getting about $2400 back this year which is awesome. I had planned to pay off most of my outstanding OSAP loan from University, but since my job future is questionable (whose isn't?), I thought that making some savings should be a priority. So I'm sending $1000 to my super serious savings account and $500 to my semi-serious account since it was recently depleted when I jumped on airfare for two upcoming trips (May and October, what can I say, I'm a planner).

The other $900 will go towards doing something I've meant to do for months. My bank account is a no fee account if I have a balance of over $1000 in my account. Because this has never been consistently the case, I also have overdraft protection. The regular account fee is about $4 and overdraft is $3. If I just keep $1000 in my account and get rid of my overdraft (having created my own cushion) I will save $7 a month or $84 a year, or $840 in 10 years. Small peanuts? I think not.

I would encourage people to see how much you can save with reading the fine print on your bank statements or your banking website. I've given up using my debit card for everyday purchases so I have the lowest cost account possible (which gives me 10 free transactions) and now it will be free. Some companies like PC Financial and different credit unions offer free accounts with no minimum. I'm in the interest of keeping a great relationship with TD Canada Trust for now since I've been there for 14 years, but look at your options.

As far as your tax return, don't delay! You pay something like a 5% penalty if you submit it after April 30st, so get on it.

I make doing my taxes a delight every year by taking extra money off each of my paycheques ($40/pp) so I don't have to pay anything at the end of the year, even if I do a bit of freelance work on the side. It guarantees that for now, while I'm mortgage and investment free, I'll get back at least $1000 a year. It's only so much higher this year because didn't work full time the whole year and I still have some school and tuition credits from last year since I was finishing up my degree. Yay money back! I'm pleased I'm spending it wisely too, it's not getting my OSAP paid off, but I sure have some good piece of mind.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Curried Shrimp and Roasted Green Beans

In a merciful show of the gods' power, dragon boat was cancelled tonight. It's been a hectic week and although I was looking forward to it, I love having the night off. Rather than catching some of the Junos' hullabaloo downtown with some coworkers I headed home to cook, clean, file my taxes, and relax for the evening.

Tonight, in a landmark move, I created my own recipe. I had some green beans looking for a tasty end to their lives and I was looking to pay homage to my beloved spicy green bean dishes in Thai and other Asian cuisines. I know I'm not a spicy-foods girl per se, but I like the flavours and love green beans. Sure, I took inspiration from my favourite lover of sandwiches but once I realized that I wanted use what I have on hand at home and substitute the tofu for shrimp, ginger for more garlic, Thai curry for Indian, and add more veggies, I realized I had to go it alone. My training wheels are off, and here I go!

Curried Shrimp and Green Beans

1/2 lb shrimp ( I used frozen easy peel shrimp, use anything, just be sure it's thawed and uncooked before you add it in)
1lb green beans, ends trimmed (if you like it like that, I do)
1 small red pepper, diced
1 plum tomato, diced - seeds removed
1/2 onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
2-3 Tbsp olive oil
1 heaping Tbsp curry paste (I use Patak's mild)
red pepper/chili flakes to taste (I used about 2 tsp, but I'm a heat-wimp)
1/2 can coconut milk
1 c uncooked brown rice (then cooked to instructions on box/bag/memory)
Put rice on, cook to specifications.

Coat beans in 1-2 tablespoons oil, add 2 cloves of garlic minced, put in 375 oven for 10-20 minutes until wrinkly. (Watch that the garlic on the beans doesn't burn. Anything on the pan did, but the bean garlic was safe. You could also leave the cloves peeled and whole for roasted garlic deliciousness.)
As the beans are finishing up their heat bath, Heat oil in a pan over medium-high heat, add onions, the rest of the garlic and cook for a few minutes. Add curry paste, red chili flakes, and coconut milk, stir until paste is well distributed. Add tomatoes and red pepper, let simmer until veggies get softer. Add green beans and mix well. Let it simmer so the coconut milk can reduce further - about 10 minutes, add shrimp, mix well, and cook until shrimp is pink and heated through. Remove from heat and serve over rice.
Made 3-4 servings, it's a little rice heavy, so keep the rice separate to use any extra for future dinners. This will make a lovely lunch tomorrow, but wouldn't freeze well.

I love Curry Paste. Enjoy!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Cabbage and potatoes

I feel like I've been eating only potatoes and cabbage for the past few weeks. Money's low, winter is upon us and my attempt to focus on locally grown ingredients/in season produce has come up with two regulars: potatoes and cabbage. The former I can enjoy in hundreds of forms, this can be attested to by anyone who's spent two minutes with me around a potato of some form - in short, I have a deep and loving connection with potatoes. Cabbage is harder to stomach (get it?!). In the past 3 months I've has coleslaw, spicy cabbage salad, braised cabbage, cabbage rolls, tacos, and the list goes on, but I'm always looking for something new - enter okonomiyaki.

I saw this recipe on 101 cookbooks and I knew going it it would be a blandish okonomiyaki compared to the dishes I know and love from my fav Japanese restaurants. Without Japanese mayo, okonomi sauce or other accouterments, I knew it couldn't be everything I would want, but sometimes you want to master a simple recipe that you can add to. In restaurants I like it with some udon noodles, gyoza or meat mixed in, but I tried this simple version to take a shot at something new.

Japanese Pizza - Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki (Japanese Pizza) Recipe

2 cups cabbage, finely shredded (2-3mm wide)
1 cup leeks, well washed and chopped
2/3 cup flour

a couple pinches of fine grain sea salt
2 eggs, beaten
1+ tablespoon olive oil

Garnish: toasted slivered almonds, chives/ herbs

Combine the cabbage, leeks, flour, and salt in a bowl. Toss until everything is coated with a dusting of flour. Stir in the eggs and mix until everything is evenly coated.

Heat a large skillet over medium heat and add a generous splash of olive oil. Scoop the cabbage mixture into the pan, and using a metal spatula press it into a round pancake shape, flat as you can get it. Cook for 4-5 minutes, or until the bottom is golden. To flip the okonomiyaki, slide it out of the skillet onto a plate. Place another plate on top and flip both (together) over. If you need a bit more oil in your skillet, add it now, before sliding the okonomiyaki back into the skillet. Again press down a bit with a spatula and cook until golden on this side - another 3 -5 minutes.

When you are finished cooking, sprinkle with toasted almonds and chives, and slide it onto a cutting board to cut into wedges. Enjoy immediately.

Serves 1 - 2.

------- I'm going to admit that while this tasted good, I piled it a little too high and I think some of the egg went uncooked. I didn't add chives or almonds, since I was just testing the cabbage pancake part - it is way more like a potato pancake (made with cabbage) than any type of pizza. I didn't finish eating it, but that shouldn't stop you from trying it, just make sure it's mixes very well, you have it stacked thinly enough. Making it again I would cook it on medium for longer and let it cook through more. You could also make smaller individual "pizzas" which would be easier to handle.
Potatoes were simple and delicious:

1 lb new baby potatoes, halved if needed
3 T olive oil
1 handful of fresh herbs (had had thyme on hand, it was great. Rosemary is ideal.)

Set oven to 400 to 450 degrees. Coat potatoes in oil in a big bowl, add herb. Spill onto baking pan with foil or silpat on it. Roast for 45-60 minutes shaking the pan every 15 minutes to avoid sticky messes. Potatoes are done when they've not only browned, but the skins have wrinkled like your fingers after an hour in the tub.
Everybody loves sandwiches serves up another gem.
Made this last week, was delish. Froze it and re-heated it on the stove.

Curried red lentil stew with chickpeas and rainbow chard

2 T olive oil
1 large onion, diced
5 cloves garlic, minced
2 heaping T of a medium-spiced curry paste (I used mild because I'm a baby)
1/2 t dried red chili flakes (You can use red pepper flakes instead)
5 1/2 c vegetable broth
2 c red lentils
1 large bunch of rainbow chard, tough stalks removed, coarsely chopped
1 can chickpeas, rinsed & drained

In a large pot, heat oil and saute onion and garlic until soft, about 5 minutes. Mix in curry paste and dried chilies and stir until well blended. Add broth and chard and bring to a boil. Add lentils and turn down heat to a simmer, adding the chickpeas to the mix. Cover and stir occasionally until lentils are tender, about 15 minutes. Serve over brown rice and top with yogurt, if desired.

-------------This was so easy to make, I can't emphasize that enough. It also introduced me to using curry paste. I love Indian food the most out of all ethnic foods, but I've never really cooked it myself. I'm aware that some would say only I, an unskilled cook, raised on bland English food, would use this curry paste instead of knowing the inner workings of a full-fledged spice cabinet by heart, but boy did it punch of the flavour of this dish - no regrets here! I am eager to follow up this success with more recipes featuring curry paste.

The potatoes were a good rice stand in (since I forgot to make it amidst all my cabbage drama.) and it was great for lunch too! I love lunch leftovers.

Make it work!

It's nearing the end of the month, and you need to make things work even in the depths of moneylessness. I keep these handy jars on my windowsill as a sort of personal bailout, should I need a few bucks for laundry, or, as is the recent case, a $4 movie this weekend.

I've got 5 more days and I will make it!

I am a cookie monster....

Here you go! What you've been waiting for:


Servings: About 50 cookies (I'd say 30 of the size I made)

1. In bowl, beat butter and shortening; gradually beat in granulated and brown sugars until smooth. Beat in eggs and vanilla. In separate bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda and salt, and stir into butter mixture. Stir in chocolate chips and walnuts. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

2. Drop by rounded tablespoonfuls (15 mL), about 2 inches (5 cm) apart, onto parchment paper–lined or greased rimless baking sheets. With fork, flatten to 1/2 inch (1 cm) thickness. Bake in 375F (190°C) oven for 15 minutes or until edges are golden and centres are still slightly underbaked. Let cool on pans on racks for 5 minutes. Transfer to racks; let cool completely. (Make-ahead: Layer between waxed paper in airtight container and store at room temperature for up to 5 days or freeze for up to 2 weeks.)

--------- Pecans are WAY better in pretty much anything, but all I had were walnuts at the time, so that's what went in.

I made a huge batch of large cookies, so I took them into work. As you can see, the results were appreciated!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Bursting at the $eams

What a gorgeous weekend!
Dave and I enjoyed the best fish and chips I've ever had (in Vancouver) today. After reading the Georgia Straight's Golden Plates I had to seek out and destroy (with my mouth) the #1 vendor of my #1 favourite greasy food. As soon as we left Dave's apartment the cool air and sunny skies made me think of this greasy indulgence and since we were headed to Granville Island anyway, stopping by Go Fish! was the natural choice. I never knew what was hidden in this little blue shack, but it's a delicious chance to fully appreciate the joy of potato and malt vinager - two loves of my life.The batter was crispy and flavourful, the fish was hot and flakey (we had cod, but salmon and halibut are also options) and it was about $15 for two huge pieces, a pound of fries and two drinks. Pretty reasonable especially for Granville Island.

This lovely lunch was the final splurge before the reality of the month set in: the budget is blown for March. I think I purposefully make it quite low because I know it will be hard to manage at any level, in other words, I will always spend more than I should, so if I make the budget low and I go over, it's better than if I'm more generous to myself and go over that.

The budget went downhill Friday night when afterwork drinks (water for me!) turned into afterwork dinner and then a birthday party for a good friend of mine. I dropped 15 on dinner and 30 on wine for myself and the birthday girl. These I consider a part of life. I've previously written about making the right choices to put things off when you have the chance, but this can't always happen. Sometimes you need to get drinking on a Friday night and gift your friend to celebrate their life. If I am good for the rest of the month I would be a modest 55 over budget for the month, which I know from experience is a minor infraction. I will be good. I know it. At least until next weekend.

Live your life! Eat your Chips!

I'm Domestic!

My big Saturday plans involved cooking and baking up a storm. Unfortunately I had no camera power while cooking so I've got some shots of the food in it's flashy Tupperware containers a day later. Dave's basically a one-man science machine this week so I know he'll be wanting for food and saving time and money, so I offered to bake him some cookies, muffins and some easy lunch and dinner options to keep him fed and out of the cafeteria at UBC.

Along with the food I made myself, I cut up a head of cauliflower, broccoli and 5 carrots for raw or easily steamable veggies and Dave bought some yogurt, fruit, rice and pasta, and the mixed nuts featuring smarties he loves so dearly(featured above in the individual sized snack packs I made). It's a relatively balanced meal plan for the week - and will save a buck or two as well!

First Up - Smitten Kitchen's Mushroom Bourguignon:

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter, softened
2 pounds (~900g) crimini mushrooms chopped ( I did 800g creminis and 2 huge whites)
1 carrot, finely diced
1 small yellow onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup full-bodied red wine
2 cups beef broth (I don't eat beef generally, but i had some beef bouillon kicking around..)
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves (1/2 teaspoon dried)
1 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
Sour cream and chopped chives or parsley, for garnish (optional)

Heat the one tablespoon of the olive oil and one tablespoon of butter in a medium Dutch oven or heavy sauce pan over high heat. Sear the mushrooms until they begin to darken, but not yet release any liquid — about three or four minutes. Remove them from pan.

Lower the flame to medium and add the second tablespoon of olive oil. Toss the carrots, onions, thyme, a few good pinches of salt and a several grinds of black pepper into the pan and cook for 10, stirring occasionally, until the onions are lightly browned. Add the garlic and cook for just one more minute.

Add the wine to the pot, scraping any stuck bits off the bottom, then turn the heat all the way up and reduce it by half. Stir in the tomato paste and the broth. Add back the mushrooms with any juices that have collected and once the liquid has boiled, reduce the temperature so it simmers for 20 minutes, or until mushrooms are very tender.

Combine remaining butter and the flour with a fork until combined; stir it into the stew. Lower the heat and simmer for 10 more minutes. If the sauce is too thin, boil it down to reduce to the right consistency. Season to taste.

To serve, spoon the stew over a bowl of egg noodles, dollop with sour cream (optional) and sprinkle with chives or parsley.

---------------This turned out pretty well, it's much more delicious than the photo would have you believe (please check out the photo in the recipe linked above, it does it much more justice) and it has that meaty robust flavour you need to combat the deep red wine sauce. The original recipe calls for the traditional pearl onions, but I couldn't find them so I omitted them.

I chopped the some mushrooms in slices some in quarters or left them whole. I know it's generally great to have consistent sizes of pieces but i like the different textures it gave this meal. It's almost like a stew, but you definitely need to serve it over noodles as a base.

I should note this is definitely not a weeknight dinner. The mushroom cleaning and chopping alone took quite a while and overall it cooks for about an hour. I would reserve this for a Sunday night dinner.


The next was homemade tomato sauce.

I used to be able to do this with no recipe, but since I figured out I can't eat pasta, I've been laying off the Italian foods. I also don't have an ounce of cooking intuition in my body so I checked in with Canadian Living for a simple base. I added many veggies as described below to make it a bit more hearty.

Jen's Tomato Sauce

In heavy saucepan, heat oil over medium heat; cook onion, garlic, Italian herb seasoning and hot pepper flakes, stirring often, for 5 minutes. Add in carrots to zucchini and cook until carrots soften. Stir in tomatoes, tomato paste and bay leaf; bring to boil.

Reduce heat and simmer, stirring often, until no longer watery around edge of spoon drawn through sauce, about 40 minutes. Discard bay leaf.(Oops forgot that part - watch out Dave!)

---------------This sauce would be best served over hot pasta with a nice amount of Parmesan cheese. It freezes great and makes 5-6 cups of sauce. I gave Dave two containers like the one pictured, one went right into the freezer for later in the week, and this one is ready to eat right now. This was able to simmer for about 3 hours while I finished up my other kitchen projects. if you have the time, let it simmer. The veggies become enveloped by the flavour.

I had some of Everybody Likes Sandwiches' red lentil curry left over from last week in the freezer so I donated that to the cause. I also made cookies and muffins (Pumpkin!) but I don't have pictures yet, so I'll fill you in later.

During my cookfest I also managed to get three loads of laundry done whilst cooking, watching season 2 of Mad Men and my weekly phone call with my mother!

I'm domestic!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


I love going out, seeing friends, eating in restaurants, and catching a movie at the theatre, but the budget forces me to make decisions I'd rather not make. A good friend just moved here from Ontario and we've been trying to get together for weeks, but one thing or another got in the way.

I have now, after weeks of trying postponed it for at least 13 days.
I knew when I graduated that I would have a major debt load to contend with. I was never a crazy spender, but I did travel the east coast for 4 months on a student line of credit, so clearly I don't always make the wisest choices - that being said, I don't regret what I've done. My debt was incurred moving across the country, and developing into the person I am today and I couldn't be happier with how things worked out.

The choices I made and the strong urge to cut the 12 year repayment my bank is requesting in a third demands a semi-strict approach to my spending habits. You see, I have a set amount I can spend on different things each month.

The rough break down right now is:
Groceries: $300
Eating out/Entertainment: $100
Clothing/Gifts: $40
Sports/Hobbies: $60 (completely spoken for until May as a result of Dragon Boat)
Other (personal care, medical, household items): $50

Total: $550

This doesn't include my minor bank fees, cheap cell phone or bus tickets not to mention, rent, savings and debt repayment. I worked out these numbers working from Gail Vaz-Oxlade's super awesome budget spreadsheet used to make the money jars made famous on her tv show "'Til Debt Do Us Part" which is on Slice here in Canada. These are variable expenses which change each month and it is at my discretion how I spend the money.

It's March 18th and I'm plum out of money save $22 for groceries next week. I don't use the jars Gail suggests because I tried it and I know I'm not that great at writing things down, but I use two credit cards (one for groceries and one for the rest) which are paid in full each month to pay for things and I have Microsoft Money on my computer which helps me keep track of what I've spent each month and what I have left to spend.
My friend has asked if we can catch the movie we've been yearning for this weekend and I just said, "Not this week, how's April for you?" It's little decisions like that which allow you to stay on track. Some things can't wait and you borrow a little from next month, but when it's avoidable, avoid it! You can't make your budget like a diet, it will strangle you, you will cheat and you will get fat/in debt again. It is a living thing, bound to change, but you must commit to doing your best and taking into account the big picture. The movie will be there in two weeks, as will the eager friend. I consider this a small victory for my monthly budget.


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

To Begin...

After the 100th time I was told "you know, I took what you said and I tried it," with great results I decided it would be great to get some of these ideas out on 21st century paper.

I'm not a money genius, but I have two accountant parents, so the genes are good. I get a lot of my money knowledge from reading helpful (and decidedly unhelpful) material online, in finance books and big books of knowledge. Basically I'm trying to pay off a school loan (which is currently $5, 000 more than I make a year) in about 4 years to free myself from the shackles of debt... you know... before getting a mortgage and paying that off for the rest of my life. I've found little tips and tricks to stick to a TINY budget while still feeling like I'm living the life I want.

As far as food, cooking as always been my nemesis. I Can cook, don't get me wrong, but in the subsistence, not-dying way; not in any sort of independently creative or tasty way. Having lived on my own now for about 6 years, I can confidently survive. I now quest for better food, a fully stocked pantry and a genuine effort to minimize my impact on the environment and maximise the money I'm putting into my local economy and farming community.

Come follow me as I work though my food trials and money tribulations and I will share what I can with you!

Thanks for reading!

OSAP Repayment
Final Goal Date: Sept 2009

Started: May 2008
Finished: JUNE 2009!!

$0 .

TD Line of Credit
Final Goal Date: Sept 2012

Started: May 2009
Finished: ??

Only $33,326 to go! .

$12000 in Emergency Savings
Final Goal Date: ASAP

Started: Jan 2008
Finished: ??

$12000 in savings .