Friday, August 8, 2008

Finally...Cooking Challenge Update

Goodness, it's been over 2 months since we started this challenge, and we're just getting around to finishing it off! It's been crazy. Unfortunately, we had a few hiccups along the way. Plus, July is's "sabbatical" month, when we just kick back and take it easy. However, we're back on track, and ready to close out the current challenge.

We didn't have a lot of participants this time around, and one of the issues some of the families had was that the challenge was cooking for 4. Particularly for large families, I think some of us moms have forgotten how to cook for less than a half-dozen people! Either way, we did have a few players and it was fun.

Below are the participants. Also, there is my additional entry which is listed below this post.

Annie Jones at Real Life Living
Kim at Growlies for the Gang
Anne at Cooking with Anne
Mirz at Large Family Network

And the winner is...KIM at Growlies for the Gang. Her dishes looked good, and from her description they tasted good too. She managed to make quite a few selections with the $15, too! Good job, Kim! She'll be receiving a winners badge to display on her blog or website.

Our next challenge is going to be something different. Be sure to check back September 1st when we announce our newest challenge.

June Cooking Challenge - Round Two!

I did this challenge last month, and when it got extended another month, I decided to give it another go, trying to come up with a totally different meal. So, with this in mind, I hit a different Dollar Store. Though, I should note it was a different location, but part of the same chain. What I noticed first and foremost was since I had shopped there last, their prices on most items had increased. Most items were .10 more than last time, and some as much as .25 more. That was really a significant thing, since on average the cost of the meal was 15% more than last time. That actually impacted me, as I had to make alterations to my plan based on the increased prices.

1 can of garbanzo beans - $.89
1 jar of minced onion - $1.10 <--up .10
1 bottle of olive oil $2.50 <-- the price on the shelf said $2.25, but clerk said that was old price, it's now $2.50
1 box melba toast $1.10
1 can chunk chicken $2.25 <--up .25
1 can of peas $.60
1 bottle of teriyaki $1.10
1 jar chunky peanut butter $1.10
1 box of spaghetti $1.10
1 4-pk of HandiSnak pudding cups $1.00
2 cans of strawberries in light syrup $2.00


I wasn't sure what I wanted to do for an appetizer. When I saw garbanzo beans, I immediately thought to do my simple hummus. But I didn't want to cheat and use oil as a pantry item. As I was deciding on something else, I was excited to see that the dollar store carried a very small bottle of olive oil. At $2.50, it was my most expensive item. But I wanted to do the hummus, and I figured I could use the oil for the main dish, so I went with it. I then purchased a bottle of minced garlic. I expected to serve it on regular crackers, but was pleasantly surprised to see this dollar store carried melba toast, so I opted for that. The hummus was made by running the garbanzo beans (a/k/a chick peas) through the food processor, adding a generous amount of minced garlic, a tablespoon of olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste from the pantry. I should note, I didn't drain the beans well, and thus the consistency was thinner than normal. But, that was my bad, since I know better. It tasted fine though.

I was really lost on a main dish. I figured since there were so many pasta options, I would go that route. But I didn't want to do a typical Italian dish. I wanted something different. Then I remembered this recipe from Steph's Kitchen. It is a peanut-vegetable lo mein. Now, I had stumbled upon the dish months ago and bookmarked it, but had never actually made it. So, I had to go on memory, and modify it to fit into this challenge. Now, I had really wanted to use a different meat this time, and figured I could do a beef lo mein, but this is where the price jump affected me. The quarter difference was huge ($2.50 for a can of beef as opposed to $2.25 for the chicken). I didn't have the extra money to buy the beef, so I used chicken instead. Aside from the chicken, I bought 1 box of spaghetti, 1 jar of chunky peanut butter, and 1 bottle of teriyaki sauce. I bought a can of peas, planning to serve it on the side, but eventually decided to throw it into the stir-fry.

First I made the spaghetti according to box direction. For the sauce, I drained the chicken, reserving the liquid. In a deep frying pan (I don't have a wok, but you could use one if you have it), I fried up the chicken and 1 tablespoon of the minced garlic. Once heated through, I removed from the pan. I then added the reserved liquid, 1/4 cup of the teriyaki sauce, 1/2 jar of peanut butter, and 1 cup of water. Inspired by Steph's recipe, I also added a dash of cayenne pepper from my pantry. I didn't use any additional salt or other seasonings, as the teriyaki covered that. I cooked the sauce until the peanut butter was smooth, then simmered for about 5 minutes until thick. Then I added the chicken and the peas to the sauce, mixing well. Then I took about 3/4 of the spaghetti and put it into the frying pan, tossing until coated. 3/4 of the box turned out to be more than enough for the 4 adults that ate.

I have to admit, we were surprised how good this was. I mean, it was a really easy and good peanut sauce. I do think the dish would have been a lot better with wider variety of fresh or frozen veggies, but for a quick meal, this was really tasty and substantial. The one complaint I had wasn't about the dish, but about the brand of peanut butter. It said it was chunky, but there were very few peanut pieces. I think the dish was good as-is, but if I would make it again, I would use a different chunkier brand of peanut butter. I might even throw in some regular chopped peanuts. Also, I upped the amount of teriyaki used in Steph's recipe, but still thought it could have used a bit more than that. In fact, when I reheated leftovers, I did add additional teriyaki and it was much better. So, in the future, I would 1/2 cup of teriyaki. That said, overall, this was a hit for the adults. My kids don't like Chinese, so I didn't even try to get them to taste it!

I was totally torn on dessert. Basically my store had cake and brownie mixes (which mostly use refrigerator items which were not allowed), or pre-packaged Little Debbie type cakes. There was a lot of canned fruits. Then I came upon the best deal of the day. A 4-pack of pudding cups. For $1, this was a great deal. I had used canned strawberries for the last challenge and really didn't want to repeat, but "chocolate covered strawberries" is one of our favorite desserts, so I went ahead and got 2 cans. Dessert was simply 4-5 strawberries surrounded by chocolate pudding. This was a super big hit. Not nearly as good as the version with fresh strawberries, but a hit nonetheless. I do want to note, had prices not gone up so much, I estimate I would have had about $1.10 extra. If that was the case, I would have picked up a box of vanilla wafers to serve with the dessert.

I would definitely serve these dishes again. Though, this challenge did make me more appreciative of Aldi and other discount stores. I am still able to save a lot of money on groceries, but have a much better selection, and makes putting dinner on the table a lot easier.