Cookie Dough Protein Balls from PaleOMG (Or OMG, Balls for Breakfast!)

Guys, guess what? It’s Ash Wednesday! (Or the day everyone in LA tells me I have stuff on my face.)

See?

Excuse my hair situation. I woke up at 5:30 to get stuff on my face.

Stuff on my face.

It might seem strange that I get excited to let something go for Lent, but I love this time of year. I really do. There’s something about celebrating a season of new beginnings on Easter after 40 days of sacrifice and contemplation that just feels super cleansing. But maybe that’s just me. (More on that here.)

If you’re wondering why I’m wearing a purple Tinkerbell apron it’s because it matches my sweater (true story), and also because the photo was taken moments before I got into some Paleo-approved magic in my kitchen.

My friend Mike sent me this recipe for PaleOMG’s Protein Cookie Dough Balls*, and given that cookie dough is kinda like my kryptonite I figured they were worth a shot.

I’ll spare you the suspense… they were.

They can't stop.

Even my dinos were way into them.

I think these just might be my new breakfast obsession. I’m running the numbers, and I think they win the affordability battle over Luna Bars.

Besides, they’re balls. out. delicious.

*Full disclosure:

I didn’t use the protein powder in the recipe (which is why they’re dark). I opted for Trader Joe’s vanilla flavored hemp protein because everything’s cheaper at Trader Joe’s, and I refuse to go traipsing all over LA to find a protein powder that probably costs 9X as much somewhere else. Hemp is gluten free, so I’m not sure why the protein powder isn’t labeled as such, but I’m not losing any sleep over it.

I also used Kroger mini-chocolate chips because I already had them in the house. (Most semi-sweet chocolate is gluten free anyway.)

Finally, I used 1 1/2 T of coconut oil instead of 2T of coconut butter because I had the former and could not rationalize investing in the latter for just one recipe. 

All of THAT boils down to THIS: my frugality didn’t wreck the recipe. They’re delicious.

Menu Planning for the Free Spirited Chef (Or I Satisfy My Inner Perfectionist and My Inner Flake)

Yesterday I wrote about the power of freezing leftovers to keep yourself on a budget. Another key to the equation is organized menu planning. Now, I’m not going to pretend I have THIS totally figured out, but I have made some serious headway.

Here’s what you need to know about me first, though: I’m equal parts driven-type-A-perfectionist and swayed-by-passion-can’t-stand-feeling-controlled-free-spirit. It’s quite a vexing situation, frankly. I mean, my head and my heart are fighting with each other all day long, and it’s super confusing.

So, when I’m coming up with a budget — or a menu plan for the week — I have to satisfy both sides of my personality. This means working some flexibility into my menu and my budget without causing my financial ruin.

I usually start my menu planning process by identifying one or two recipes I want to try in the next few days. These recipes will either be inspired by something I find in Bon Appetit, a craving I’m experiencing, or even by the ingredients I have in my refrigerator that need to be used.

For me, a week doesn’t necessarily need to go from one Sunday to the next because I find that too confining. I might just do it for a three day period and then assess my food (and my money) situation from there. This leaves flexibility to account for new cravings, and I find it makes it easier to stay on budget. Plus, grocery shopping sort of satisfies my need to shop in general, so this way I get to shop a few times a week without buying shoes from Tory that I don’t really need.

Today, I’m craving clam chowder, so I started there. Before making my grocery list, I looked to see if I already had any of the ingredients I will need.

It turns out, I have celery so that was a good start.

Digging around on Pinterest and various blogs today, I also found a copycat recipe for Panera’s cheddar and broccoli soup and decided I wanted to make that as well. The upside here is that both recipes use half and half and bay leaves. I’ve found one of the keys to cutting costs is to make recipes that have overlapping ingredients.

So, step one is identifying the recipes I want to make, preferably recipes with overlapping ingredients.

Step two is to make my grocery list in preparation for hitting the store(s).

Yes, I know there are Christmas lights on my grocery list. My Snoopy Christmas notepad knows no season.

I also like to include the approximate prices for each item to make sure I’m not making too many dishes with expensive ingredients in one week. This is another key to staying on budget in the food department. Let’s call this step three.

You might have noticed I have written a “T” or an “F” next to each price on my list. This notates which store — Trader Joe’s or Food 4 Less — offers better value for the item. I also frequent a high end grocery store in my neighborhood for my deli and fresh fish purchases, but I didn’t need to make any of those this week. I never buy my staples at that store, though, because they are outrageously priced. Paying attention to the prices at various stores is another powerful budgeting tool that can make your money go further for your menu planning. Let’s call this step four.

From here, I kinda sorta let my free spirited side take over. I know I will have items left over from both recipes, and I can get creative. I could use some of the extra potatoes to make baked potatoes with broccoli and cheese because I will have all three of these items left over from making the broccoli and cheese soup as well as the clam chowder. Plus, I also have chili in my freezer in case I want to add that to the potato to make the meal heartier. This is a good option if I need to reign in my spending on food because I don’t need to buy anything new to make this meal.

If I want to splurge a bit and have enough money left in the budget to do so, I could pick up pork chops to make a sour cream and pork chop meal with rice and a side of broccoli. I always keep brown rice in my pantry, I have sour cream left over from a cheesecake I made last week, and I know I’ll have extra broccoli. (The recipe also calls for chicken broth and thyme — both of which I have on hand.)

Another factor to consider in my mid-week menu planning (or any stage in the process for that matter) are the expiration dates on various items in my refrigerator.

No rush on eating this right away. It won’t expire for a while.

Even though I don’t have to use the sour cream right away, I might want to. If the pork chop with sour cream doesn’t sound good to me in a few days, I could pick up some refried beans, grab a slab of cheese, and make bean burritos slathered with sour cream because I already have tortillas and cheese at home. So much cheese…

I usually keep at least four kinds of cheese in my refrigerator because I would die without cheese. For those of you who think cheese will kill me faster than not eating it, you are just wrong. Oh, and yes, that is cheap beer behind the cheese. It’s my football beer.

One of the last keys to my menu planning budget success is to purchase large quantities of items that do not spoil quickly, like canned tomatoes and garlic. I use garlic and tomatoes constantly, so it’s nice to know they’re always handy. They’re also cheaper in bulk.

I’m fending off vampires — and first dates — with this garlic stash.

If you’re more regimented than I am and this amount of flexibility in a menu seems way out of control for you, there are ways to apply the principles of overlapping ingredients, lists, price monitoring, and buying in bulk to help you stay on budget.

If you have other ideas I haven’t though of, let me know!!!

Of Medical School and Macaroni (Or I Like My Mac and Cheese with a Side of Broccoli)

When my friend was in medical school, he basically lived on macaroni and cheese from a box, but he found ways to make it more interesting. I used to come back from California to visit him at Christmas and we’d hit the college town bars. Afterwards, he’d make me his late night mac and cheese specialty. It involved powdered cheese, steamed (frozen) broccoli, and chicken breasts on the George Foreman. He’d mix it all up and serve it to me. Now, this wasn’t exactly gourmet but it did go nicely with all of the cheap beer and dollar long islands we consumed. Plus the combination was sort of inspired.

Now that I’m a slightly more civilized adult, I often make my own macaroni and cheese from scratch. It’s a great way to use up cheese, and it’s the sort of thing you can freeze pretty easily. I usually throw together some combination of sharp cheddar, aged Gouda, and Jarlsberg to make it more interesting.

I made a batch recently and decided it needed a bit of the med school special treatment. I steamed fresh broccoli and grilled some Italian chicken sausage to go with it.

Here’s the recipe in case you want to make your own mac and cheese. I recommend adding the broccoli and chicken sausage. It adds a lot of flavor.

Macaroni and Cheese
Modified from this recipe.

½ C unsalted butter
6 T flour
5 C whole milk
6-7 C of cheese (I like to use a combination of cheddar, aged Gouda, and Jarlsberg because I usually have them in the house. Gruyere is also good.)
½ C fresh grated parmesan
2 tsp salt
½ tsp fresh cracked pepper, optional
1 pound of elbow macaroni

Preheat oven to 400.

Bring water to a boil. Add macaroni and cook until al dente, about 8 minutes. Drain and set aside, reserving one cup of the water.

Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan over low heat and stir in flour. Cook roux, stirring constantly, about 3-4 minutes. Whisk in milk and bring the sauce to a boil, whisking constantly. Reduce the heat and allow the sauce to simmer, stirring occasionally. Add the cheeses, salt, and pepper. Mix to combine.

Add noodles and the reserved water to the cheese mixture. Place into a buttered baking dish and bake for 20-25 minutes.

I often bake my macaroni in batches using chafing dishes.

You can top the macaroni with a buttered breadcrumb and cheese topping, but I usually skip this step.

Here’s the mac and broccoli before I added the sliced sausage, mixed it all up, and devoured the mess.

I Tell You What I Ate (Or Foodie Pen Pal Reveal Day)

So, here I am all wide awake at 6 am on a Saturday. This is what happens when you have a big Boxer puppy sleeping in a box next to your bed: he whimpers all sweet and plaintive-like until you take him outside in your bathrobe and Uggs so he can pee on your trees. Now before you judge me for venturing out in such a hideous ensemble, I must tell you that there is an old Asian lady in my neighborhood who walks around with a parrot on her shoulder looking like some sort of lost pirate. Also, I walk him before my latte, and I’m not really required to be presentable — or coherent — pre-espresso.

So anyway, it’s probably a good thing he gets me up early because I’m not naturally a morning person. At all. Plus I have a big day ahead of me prepping for tomorrow’s dinner party, but first things first…

It’s Foodie Pen Pal Reveal Day!

Katie from Talk Less-Say More sent me a thoughtful package and a nice note. There were a variety of items in the box, including her homemade banana trail mix cookies, complete with the recipe and all. (Very thoughtful!)

The highlights for me were Justin’s chocolate hazelnut butter (sort of like eating a melted Ferrero Rocher treat on your toast), and the Archer Farms Fruit Strips. Many of the items in the box were expensive, healthy bits like Sweet Potato Pop Chips, Luna Bars, and whatnot. Frankly, it was quite a revelation to discover that the moist, flavorful fruit leather was available at Target!

Here’s the chocolate hazelnut butter on my homemade bread. I’ll post the bread recipe later, K? I promise.

Now I may have to add Target to my grocery store rotation, which already includes Trader Joe’s, Ralph’s, and Costco. (See, I have this thing were I must pay the lowest possible price for say, Jarlsberg Swiss, even if it means wasting gas and driving all over the eastside of LA to do so. It’s just the principal of the matter.)

If you want to learn more about Foodie Pen Pals, check out Lindsay’s blog, The Lean Green Bean, here.

Now it’s time to crank up the Kaskade and do something about my place before 10 television writers invade tomorrow expecting to be fed.

Kisses!

The Lean Green Bean