Merry Thirftmas

When Petey and I had been married a few years, we got our first credit card.When Christmas rolled around I just about melted that miraculous little piece of plastic.  I bought multiple gifts for family, friends, and pretty much anybody I ever met.  I bought enough decorations for our little trailer to light up Time Square.

I spent enough money in the Lillian Vernon catalog to buy Ms. Vernon and family a fairly spacious villa on the French Riviera.

And then in January, something horrible happened.

The bills arrived.Whoops!  I have no defense except youth and inexperience, but I’d completely forgotten the “pay it all back plus interest” portion of the program.

But I eventually paid the bills, and began a long, slow journey to stay out of the poor house by economizing without it pinching too much.  It’s a work in progress, but over the decades, I’ve learned a few things that have helped during the holidays.

Time is money, money can buy a form of time, and reducing stress is priceless.  So maybe hire someone to get your place cleaned and ready for visitors.  Or hire a babysitter so you can take an hour to get a fancy coffee and a manicure.  x shopPool and share talents.  Maybe you love zipping around town on errands, but hate wrapping presents, and your best bud would rather wrap then go to the bank and dry cleaners.  Then you run, and she can deal with paper and ribbon.

What if you enjoy getting into the kitchen to create treats and baked goods, and your next door neighbor would rather be beaten?  Have your friend buy all the ingredients, and you do the cooking for two.  You both win.Make it a homemade holiday.  Every year a good portion of the gifts I give are made by me.  But I’m not talking about macaroni necklaces or unidentifiable papier mache animals.  The creation should be something that the recipient can’t make, can’t afford to buy, or really, really likes the version that you produce.

For the last few years, The Kid and I have worked together to create baskets tailored to the person that will get them.Dog owners get our special pumpkin peanut butter puppy treats.  The more culinarily adventurous get flavored salts.  Gluten-free folks don’t get our cheese straws but get double the buckeyes.  Everybody gets our special hot cocoa mix with homemade marshmallows that come in Christmas mugs which I buy at a thrift store for less than a dollar each. The packing for these gifts is purchased at the dollar store, which, by the way, is terrific for stocking stuffers and small presents.

If you shop online, make sites like and your friend.  They have links to promotional codes which can save you lots of green.  Another site, Honey, will automatically find and apply discounts when you check out.  So don’t hit enter ‘til you’ve turned over every discount rock you find.There are a couple little-known benefits to shopping online at a merchant who has local brick and mortar locations.  If you can’t score free shipping, lots of companies will ship it to their store for free.  You just have to go pick it up.  If you buy something online, and need to return it, most will let you bring it into their local shop.

Hey, it’s already hectic out there, and soon it’ll ratchet up to an “I’m invisible, and also president of Neptune” level crazy.

So cut yourself a little slack.  And that will make it easier to cut everyone around you some too.Thanks for your time.

The Waste of it All

snake glasses

Here’s some stuff that makes me madder than the near-sighted snake who married a garden hose:

Shoe sales that never have any size 10’s.

Evil incarnate Carmen, who keeps calling about lowering my credit card interest rate.

Those ridiculous choreographed pantomimes that NFL players have started doing after a touchdown.

Waste; opportunities, potential, passion, and worst of all—food.You wanna hear some horrific facts?  40% of the food in the US is never eaten.  It’s thrown away.  That’s around 250 pounds per person per year.  Globally, 4 billion tons of food is wasted each year.  60% of shoppers buy more food than they need.  What’s almost criminal is that fact that they know they’re doing it at the time of purchase.

You may think that the little bit you throw away doesn’t add up to very much.  But the average family of four loses at least $1,500 a year this way.

It’s actually not that hard to reduce the amount of waste each household produces.  It took some time, but wasting food at our house is an infrequent occurrence.

Behold: an anybody else 7438.

The biggest tip I can give you is to stop making more food than you need.  When Petey and were first married, I had no idea how to cook for two.  I was used to cooking for an Italian four, which is an anyone else’s twelve.  I couldn’t understand why that five-pound meatloaf didn’t get eaten up before it got furry.  I had so much refrigerated food that had gone so very bad I’m surprised it didn’t join street gangs and have rumbles in the crisper drawer.If the food doesn’t make good leftovers, you don’t want it hanging around.  If, on the other hand it reheats well, and would make a lunch that you’d actually take to work and eat—go for it.  When you’re cleaning up after that original dinner, portion it out and wrap it for brown bagging.  If you won’t get to it for more than four days, label then freeze it.And your freezer is your best ally in the quest to quell waste.  Don’t throw out old crackers, chips, and bread.  Dump it all into a zip-top bag, throw it in the chill chest, and when you need breadcrumbs, breader or such, take it out, season it according to food and mood, grind it finely in a food processor, then toast it at 300 degrees for 15-20 minutes.  Only make as much as you need, and if it’s touched raw meat, toss it.


Have another bag for leftover veggies.  When you have enough, make soup or use it for stuffing peppers, or pork chops, or any other stuff-able stuff.  Freeze extra pancakes, cooked pasta, rice, or potatoes.  Once you have a nice assortment in suspended animation you could make a meal solely from the Frigidaire.If Thanksigving’s at your place, you’re going to have leftovers tomorrow.  The turkey can be used in place of chicken in any dish.  Make tacos, or pot pie, or white chili.  And don’t forget the mandatory sandwich before bed (well, mandatory for me, anyway).

So, think about how you shop, cook, how your family eats, and figure out workable methods to eliminate food waste.

Then next year, instead of losing sleep getting up before dawn and losing your mind in the Black Friday Thunderdome to score a Barbie dream house for 25% off, you’ve saved enough money to pay for all the Christmas gifts, plus shoes for yourself (you’ve earned them). And instead of retail mayhem, you get to sleep.

Thanks for your time.

Winning Black Friday

So Thanksgiving dinner has been served, eaten, and cleaned up.  Most of the relatives have gone home, and you’re reclining, semi-comatose, on the sofa.  Then Aunt Minnie from Altoona begins talking about Christmas shopping, and she Wants.To.Start.Tonight.

You’ve got a few options.

#1-Get up and toss her, Uncle Jasper, Cousin Viola, their luggage, and their 3 yappy, incontinent dogs outside, lock the door and turn off the lights.

#2-Get up, put on your shoes and jacket, and take them for 4 or 5 hours of bruising, shoulder-to-shoulder turkey night shopping.

#3-Get up, program their GPS for the best local retail Mecca, put some good music on in the kitchen, and while they’re gone get some relaxing, solitary prep done for tomorrow’s breakfast.

If you pick #3, I’ll guide you through the almost Zen-like process.  It’s simple and low-key, kind of a cool-down exercise from the earlier frenzy.

My breakfast menu consists of scrambled eggs, easy homemade hash browns, fall porridge, and awesome, delicious brown sugar pecan scones.

I made up this first recipe just this morning, for my own breakfast.  It was hella good and kept me full for hours.

Start with the hot cereal.  Any type will work, from instant oatmeal to slow-cooked grits (I used Special K Nourish).  What makes it special is this topping.  You can make fruit and cereal tonight, and heat them up in the microwave before service.

Harvest porridge

4 unpeeled pears, cored and cut into ½ inch cubes

¼ teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons maple syrup or brown sugar

¼ teaspoon cinnamon

¼ cup chopped almonds

½ cup golden raisins

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Heat non-stick skillet and melt butter.  Put in everything except raisins and vanilla.  Cook on medium.  When the pears and almonds are browned, add raisins and vanilla, and stir ‘til hot. Spoon onto hot cereal.  Serves four.

     My dad loves them, but I never understood scones.  They’re not quite muffins, not quite biscuits.  They just seemed dry and weird.  That was before I tasted Chef Jason Cunningham’s brown sugar pecan scones at the Washington Duke (3001 Cameron Blvd, Durham).  They’re neither dry nor weird.  Flaky and tasty, these are what scones are supposed to be.  Thanks to Chef Jason for the recipe.

Make these the night before up to the refrigeration stage, and bake them off in the morning.

Brown Sugar Pecan Scones

Yield 18

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup cake flour

2/3 cup light brown sugar

2/3 cup Butter

1 Tbl baking powder

Pinch Salt

1 large egg

½ cup whipping cream

½ cup orange juice

¼ cup chopped pecans

1 Tbl vanilla extract

Combine all-purpose flour and baking powder and mix thoroughly. Reserve.

Cream butter in a stand mixer until soft. Add brown sugar, salt and vanilla and cream until fluffy.  Add eggs and beat until fully incorporated.

Add cake flour and combine and then add the orange juice. Add half of the all-purpose flour mixture and mix until just incorporated.  Add the cream, incorporate and then the remainder of the flour mixture along with the pecans.

Do not over-mix! Once all ingredients are incorporated, wrap dough in plastic and refrigerate.

Once dough is thoroughly chilled, place on a floured work surface and roll to approximately ½ inch thickness. Cut into triangles.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake approximately 12-20 minutes until golden brown.

     These hash browns are so simple you can quickly make them in the morning.  It’s the only way I make them anymore.

Homo habilis hash browns

In a non-stick skillet melt 2-3 tablespoons butter.  Grate 1 unpeeled potato per diner directly onto melting butter.  Grate in about 2 teaspoons yellow onion per potato.  Salt and toss to mix.  With spatula, flatten in pan and cook on medium until golden-amber around edges (8-10 minutes).  Put plate on top of pan and carefully flip onto plate, cooked side up.  Slide back into pan and cook other side, 6-8 minutes.  Slice into wedges, and serve.

     You can go through all this, or do what I do.  Go to someone else’s house for dinner, go home and do most of your holiday shopping online in your pajamas, then sleep in on Friday.

Good luck, and happy Thanksgiving.

Thanks for your time.