Wednesday, February 24, 2010

It Runs in the Family

So how did I become a Frugalista? Well, I think one is genetically predisposed to frugality and I'm certain I inherited the cheap gene from my Grampa Americo. For example, he used to re-upholster lawn chairs with leftover plaid or paisley fabric from his tailoring shop. He re-used tin foil. He would wrap frozen meats and veggies in cut up pieces of brown paper shopping bags and tie them up with string (I don't think they had Ziplocs back then.) When my North Carolinian cousin Tommy was showering in Grampa's bathroom, we heard, "Grampaww, where's the shamp-ooooo?" To which Grampa replied, "Use the soap!" He cut bath towels in half because he thought they were too big. Actually, he was right as he and Nana were vertically challenged so who needed the whole towel for those little bodies? This same rule applied to paper napkins. When he came to our house for supper, he'd cut the napkins in half, too. Grampa was the king of ingenuity and while he may have appeared cheap, I think he was one of the craftiest and most unique people. While scrimping and saving and patching up his signature baby blue button down sweater, he managed to have bank accounts for all his grandchildren. He was the most generous man and gave very little to himself. He was a master gardener and gave most of his veggies away to family and neighbors. He was a Jack of all Trades. He could pickle things, make wine, cook up a storm, reconstruct and sew the most intricate garments. RIP Grampa! You were truly one of a kind!

My husband and I moved into the apartment upstairs from Grampa when we first got married. We called it the "Compartment". I'll never forget our wedding night and not for the reasons you might think. Grampa was yelling through the floor to the newlyweds upstairs, "Whoooo left the hall light on?!" We just looked at each other and thought we were in the Bates motel for eternity. I knew I had found true love when my new husband did not hightail it out that night to spend our Bermuda honeymoon by himself!

I think the cheap gene skipped a generation and was passed on to me. I don't remember my parents being super-frugal and worrying about money. Oh wait... now I do remember my dad roaming the halls at 2 am like Columbo and his flashlight to ensure the thermostats were no higher than 67 degrees. And he'd always be turning lights off, every time we turned them on. Dad also invented the "Squeegee Method". This is performed after you have turned off the shower water. Before you pick up your towel to dry off, you take both hands and squeegee off the water down your soaking wet, freezing body and SQUEEZE the excess water down into the tub. I don't really know how this was supposed to save money. Perhaps the towel didn't get as wet and this was good why?

In case you are wondering, I still use the Squeegee Method and don't know any other way to dry off after a shower or a swim.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Next Day...

One day you're getting your locks colored and highlighted at that fancy salon, dropping $140. The next, your mother is coloring your hair using a drugstore box of Garnier Nutrisse Brown Sugar #63 in the middle of your kitchen with an avocado green towel draped around your shoulders.

One day you are shopping at Nordstrom's for a new pair of shoes. The next, you are in a consignment store, haggling with the owner because $5 is too much for those hot pink clogs.

One day you are eating a fancy lunch out with the girls overlooking the water. The next, you find yourself brown bagging PB&J and a thermos of coffee, overlooking your desk name plate.

One night you go out on "date night" with your spouse because that's what all the Parenting magazines say you should do. The next, you're watching a library DVD on a picnic blanket on the living room floor with a flashlight as you munch on generic Cheese Doodles.

One day you are on a cruise ship sipping margaritas and eating shrimp. The next, you are stuffed inside an inflatable pool with 2 kids in your backyard sipping a Capri sun. Umbrella optional.

One day you are on top of the world and have no worries about money. The next? Can you hear the sound of Large Marge sitting on a whoopee cushion? That's the sound of the Recession my friends.

It's possible that some of you reading this have no concept of the above "Next day" examples and cannot identify with money troubles. If that is the case, I am very happy for you and I encourage you to continue stimulating the economy (someone has to, right?).

In recent blogs, I have made references to certain "Elephants in the Room". Well, this one is no exception. The big gray animal in question is not the Recession itself, but it is the Shame, Discomfort, and Fear we all feel about not having enough money to do certain things in life.

There, I said it and now I feel so...much...better!

The truth is, so many people are suffering financial and emotional losses and are so afraid to admit it for fear that people will look down on them. I always feel that honesty is the best policy in life, unless you are asking a question to which you really don't want the honest answer. Like, honey, does my butt look fat in these lycra tights?

So, for now, I'm just throwing this concept out there for you to think about and digest. Money doesn't define you as a person, a wife, mother, father, sister, brother, son, daughter or friend. Having more of it and more material possessions does not make you superior to anyone and conversely, having less of it doesn't make you inferior. Money might give you a lot of peace of mind, but it sure does not buy true, inner peace and happiness.

Good Gravy!! Finally, A Recipe!

What do you call that red stuff on top of your pasta? We always called it "gravy" in my family but we also call the stuff you put on mashed potatoes, gravy. Sure, it makes no sense whatsoever but that's part of the Italian heritage. We do a lot of bizarre things, like eat the linings of a cow's stomach and call it a "delicacy".

Now, you must know, I am a SAUCE JUNKIE! I could just eat the sauce all by itself, it's that good. And did you know that cooked tomatoes are so nutritious? Check out the many benefits here:

I used to wake up every Saturday morning to the sounds and smells of "the gravy". First, there was the whirl of the can opener, the digging of the gorgeous crushed tomato puree, and then the signature clanging of the spoons against the pots. Next was the spinning and grinding of the food mill my mom used to get the seeds out. This all happened after I heard and smelled the sauteing of the meat and garlic in the olive oil.

Some kids woke up to Frosted Flakes or Eggos. Me, it was bracciole and sausage smells and I loved it! The gravy would slowly simmer all day and it was fabulous!

My mom still makes a mean gravy and there's quite a debate in my family over who makes the best gravy. You can ask 20 different people how they make their gravy and you will get 20 different answers; it's that diverse.

One thing is certain in the Grande family:
We do not use jarred sauce. Ever.

When you go to the market you will find as many choices for jarred sauces as there are cheeses. Sure, it's convenient to open a jar and pour it into a pan. But did you know that making your own sauce only takes 15 minutes? You get more bang for your buck with homemade and you can control the sodium and fat. If you are a sauce/gravy virgin, I bet you will never buy jarred sauce again!

You just need a few staples on hand to make a great homemade sauce everyone will love. There really is no need to let it simmer all day long. I think the addition of tomato paste helps it to stick to the pasta better too. But it's your call if you want to use it.

Here is a quick weeknight marinara. I'm calling it:

Quick Sauce for Dummies

1 28 oz can crushed tomatoes in puree (I am very partial to Pastene Kitchen Ready but my mom likes Tuttorossa)
1 6 oz can tomato paste (optional)
2-3 cloves of garlic crushed or finely chopped
sliced pepperoni (optional)
olive oil
salt & pepper
Marsala wine (optional)
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp dried basil
1 tsp sugar (optional)

In a medium saucepan coat the bottom with olive oil. On medium/low heat, add the crushed or finely chopped garlic and a few slices of pepperoni. Do not let the garlic get brown or it will ruin the sauce. Watch it carefully and don't overcook it, just let it get a bit translucent. Add a splash of Marsala wine if you have it and let it simmer for about a minute or so.

Add the canned tomatoes, tomato paste (if you like your sauce thicker), salt, pepper, oregano, basil, and a tsp of sugar if you want to cut the acidity of the tomatoes. Give it a good stir, breaking up the tomato paste. If the sauce is too thick, add some water. Raise the heat to medium to bring to a simmer, then lower the heat to medium low covered for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally and making sure the bottom doesn't burn. While this is simmering, you can have your macaroni boiling away.

Now, do you see how I have so many optional ingredients? You can play around with this basic recipe and use it as a foundation for your own signature sauce.

If you have more time, here is a way to embellish the sauce even more:
Before sauteing the garlic: Finely chop 1/2 onion and 1/2 carrot and add to the olive oil. Saute until tender. Then follow the rest of the recipe above. I find the carrot adds a mild sweetness and helps to cut the acidity of the tomatoes. You can also use chopped bell peppers and/or mushrooms.

If you want to take it a step further and make a real "Sunday Gravy", brown some sausage, pork tenderloin pieces and/or beef in the oil to start. Once all browned up, you can follow the basic recipe above and let it simmer all day on the stove or in the Crock Pot.

Mangia and Enjoy!

Monday, February 15, 2010

A Great MEal Begins with ME

The beauty of this blog is that I can express my opinions freely without anyone yelling back in disagreement. Thank God I finally have a soapbox from which to vent my frustrations because quite frankly, I'm tired of writing imaginary letters to the editor! I'm going to say some things here that others will disagree with and many will think I am crazy or strange. Well, it's funny you think that because most of the time, I do feel like an alien dropped down upon this Earth.

I usually get this feeling when I go to the supermarket.

It doesn't matter which market I go to, the scene is usually the same. I start out in the produce section and feel somewhat normal and connected to the food. However, once I hit the middle of the store, I get this strange feeling like I am in another land. All the packaged food looks, well, strange. Boxed, wrapped, hermetically sealed, They say you should shop the perimeter of the store for the healthiest, most natural food. I agree with this, however, I cannot snub my healthy pastas, canned artichokes, cereals, dried beans, and the like which are packed somewhere in the middle of the store. I think the markets would be 1/3 of their actual size if they eliminated all the junk, processed, and pretend food.

I think if our grandmothers were to roam the aisles today, they too would feel like aliens. I am picturing Grandma Giovannina perusing the aisles only to find something called "Lunchables". "Ayyyeeee, what the hell is this?" I can hear her saying in Italian. Our nonnas made "peasant" food, which by the way, is now becoming the "chic" thing to do. It really cracks me up how there are so many news and cooking shows talking about "Depression" cooking, "Back to Basics", "How to Make Your Own" these are all revolutionary ideas for the 2000s. I know some pretty face is making a lot of money right now broadcasting a recipe segment on Pasta Fagiole or as I call it, Pasta Fazool.

Sad but true, there are many people who just don't cook and have fallen victim to the food industry's over development of preservative-filled, convenience "food". I think the re-introduction of the "Back to Basics" concept is fantastic, as there are many who think it's normal to feed their kids and themselves Hot Pockets, Hamburger Helper, and yes, Lunchables on a daily basis. I think Michelle Obama's "Lets Move" mission to get our kids on a healthier track is long overdue. However, it's the parents who do the shopping so I'm wondering who is going to address that elephant in the room. How do we simultaneously fix a severely broken food industry selling us the most unhealthy bill of goods while weaning this generation off of its fare? I can see the uprising now...."Bring back my Cheese Whiz, Hungry Man, Pop Tarts, and Tuna Helper now!!"

I grew up with a mother who always cooked and had a healthy, homemade meal on the table every night. Don't get me wrong, we did our share of gagging over brussel sprouts and broccoli rabe like most kids would. This is not to say that we didn't enjoy the occasional KFC or Burger Chef meal, but those were exceptions. (And how fun it was eating in the car and feeding fries to the pigeons!). Since eating home-cooked food was normal for me as a kid, it turned out that I too, would become the same type of mom who cooked. (Side note: If I did not have children, I would still be cooking!)

One day we were talking about fast food at work. I mentioned that my kids had never eaten fast food. At the time of this discussion, my oldest was 5 and my baby was 18 months old. Well, one of my coworkers (who I happen to love and you know who you are!) looked at me like I had just sold my baby down the river. I told her that I never eat fast food (with the exception of the traveling emergency or french fries cravings) so I don't feel the need to feed it to my kids. Plus, I just think there isn't much by the way of nutrition in a Happy Meal. Try as you may McDonald's, you haven't fooled this mother! Now, before you think that I am Mommy Dearest and don't let my kids eat treats, let me tell you where the "dessert bucket" lives in our house....

It was on that day, when I elicited this shocking reaction that I was convinced of my alienship. I am just waiting for the mother ship to take me back to my real home where it is normal to cook and be concerned about what your little people are eating.

Maybe I am not so much an alien as I am a throwback to the 1950s. I love homemade food and it takes a lot to make me happy in a restaurant. I just think homemade is better tasting and better for you and obviously cheaper than going out (unless you are a 99 cent menu muncher).

When I hear people say they don't have time to cook, I cringe. I am told that because I am home during the day, I have time to cook. This is true. I am home during the day and work my hours in the evening. However, I know many women who work full time and make excellent use of their Crock Pots. I know another who is a college professor of 2 small boys who makes a month's worth of food and freezes the meals so she won't have to cook every night. The point is that these ladies find a way to make it work. You do have to plan ahead to a degree and you have to make this a priority. Something does have to give somewhere in a household but for me, healthy eating is another one of those "non-negotiables" in life (exercise is the other one).

And did I mention that your significant other can also share in the cooking? You could take turns cooking each night. Do whatever works, as long as it gets done. It is for the general health and well-being for everyone in the house so why not get ANYONE who eats involved in the process? Put the kids and the dog to work!

So, now you know where I am coming from. I am almost ready to start sharing some great home cooked recipes with you. I always say to those who say they cannot cook, "If you can READ you can COOK." It really is that simple.

We have so many available resources to teach us; the internet, cookbooks, The Food Network, and now... Becky's Big Bytes!

Friday, February 5, 2010

Sucking in My Stomach While Stepping on the Scale and Other Dirty Secrets

So, by now you must all be hanging by a thread, wondering what happened after my BGU Epiphany. It's not every day my synapses fire properly so I needed to act quickly. My dear friend Mark was having his own revelations about his weight so we decided to join Weight Watchers together. He felt he needed to lose anywhere from 30-40 lbs and me, well, I just wanted to say bye bye to the BGUs once and for all. We knew Weight Watchers was a safe and effective way to lose weight so we took advantage of the free registration.
The First Meeting and the Dreaded Weigh-In
Piece of advice: Join in the summertime when you can wear as little clothing as possible; not because you want everyone to see your rolls, but because you will weigh less. However, keep in mind that once winter comes, you are going to have to layer big time and disrobe in front of everyone. (Actually, no one seems to care, you gotta do what you gotta do.) When you approach the counter at WW, there is a little scale in front of you that really just looks like a "stepper", remember that phase? Well, I stepped on it and the WW lady behind the counter says to me, rather harshly, "You don't need to look down, you know". Well, where else am I supposed to look? My scale at home makes me look down. And little does SHE know that I also suck in my stomach when I weigh myself...yes, I even did it when I was pregnant, don't ask how this is even possible when you are ready to pop. I guess it's a reflex. Somehow, sucking in the gut offers me some hope.

Other Useful Tricks of the Weigh-In
Going #1 and/or #2 just before, drinking lemon water, not wearing any jewelry, makeup, or eyeglasses; shaving your legs, and getting a haircut also help (unless you are Sinead O'Connor). I also like to take a very, very, very deep cleansing breath out and I don't breathe in until the weigh-in is complete.

So, it turned out that I needed to lose about 15 lbs according to the charts. I had never embarked on a weight loss program before so this was going to be interesting for someone who considers chocolate a food group (what, it's not?).

The Meeting
Then we sat down at our first meeting. The room was...full. Our leader entered with a screaming rubber chicken and a clapper. Ok, is this some type of cult? Are the chickens being sacrificed in the back when members aren't meeting their goals? Mark and I were getting giddy, to say the least. Thank God he was with me that day, and every Saturday thereafter. I think that having a "buddy" on your weight loss journey is so vital!

Our dear leader was in her early 70s and told us that she had joined WW over 20 times before she finally "got it". Huh? She was on a constant roller coaster (a good thing for Mark to hear since he loves amusement parks). Anyway, her point was that 99% of the battle is well, mental. I totally clicked with her and agree with this thought process. You have to look at yourself square in the eye, be honest, and stop feeding your pain with food. Stop kidding yourself. Once I became self-aware, the rest was truly a piece of cake (and yes, I still enjoyed my cake.) We heard some different perspectives at this meeting. Who didn't have time to exercise or cook, who wasn't counting their points, who didn't think that taking a jelly donut to a meeting would look a little strange...

Then there were the really inspiring stories...the ones who were now Lifetime members and had achieved their goals: Some losing in excess of 100 lbs and still going to weekly meetings to keep their motivation high and their consumption in check.

Did it Work?
As hard as I thought losing weight would be, it was the opposite. You see, I don't smoke, I don't drink alcohol, I don't gamble, or even have a shopping addiction. My thing was (and to some degree, continues to be) food. It has always provided me comfort, especially as a kid. My mother LOVED to feed us. You just don't ever say "no" to an Italian mother!! But...and that big butt is always getting in the way, at some point you have to ask yourself, "Do I want to wear a housecoat from Woolworth's for the rest of my life to cover up all the calzones and canolis?" Uh, no!

So, given 21 points per day, I took it day by day. In Weight Watchers they say, "If you bite it, you write it, if you nibble it, you scribble it." I wrote down every single thing I ate every single day. I also exercised, mostly every day. My form of exercise was simply, walking. I walked with Mark, I walked without Mark. I did it when I felt like it and when I didn't feel like it.

If you are looking for the magic formula to how I lost the 16 lbs, you have already read it folks. The math is simple. Less calories and better food choices combined with exercise. I kept telling myself that EXERCISE IS NON-NEGOTIABLE if I wanted this to work. I lost weight every week, even if it was a 1/2 lb here or there, overall, it took me about 16 weeks.

One more thing and it's super important. I think it is the silver bullet to anyone trying to accomplish anything in life. You know how you tell yourself bad things? Like...I can't do it, I'm not strong enough, I'm too tired, I'm fat, etc. Well, sooner or later you have convinced yourself that you are some fat, lazy, tired person. I decided to tell myself the OPPOSITE (the wisdom of George Costanza's Law of Opposite Actions). I kept telling myself, I am strong, I am energetic, I am getting healthier every day. Yes, it's all very "Stuart Smalley", but you know, the subconscious is a powerful tool. It will believe what you tell it. For me, that was the biggest obstacle. I convinced myself I could do it and you know, the weight disappeared.

I am proud to say that I have been a Weight Watchers Lifetime member for 5 months now!

Monday, February 1, 2010


Just came across this website after reading Sunday's business section. Wanted to share the wonderful deals on this site!!