Saturday Pantry Challenge: Grand Finale Harvest Pumpkin Chili

What's for Breakfast:
Pumpkin Pancakes

Dried Fruit

What's for Lunch:
Leftover Italian Wedding Soup
Spiced Egg Salad Sandwiches
Organic Applesauce

What's for Dinner:
Harvest Pumpkin Chili (Recipe below)
Whole Wheat Toast
Toasted pumpkin seeds

Today was Day 6, our grand finale to this crazy Great Pantry Challenge. We are pretty excited to have made it through this week. The goal was to save money and reflect on what it is like to use what we have (not what we buy or import) like so many others in the world are forced to do on a regular basis. The result was eating pretty creatively and learning some great lessons in the process.

Lessons we Learned this Week:
1. Monday: Cooking extra servings or batches makes an easy meal for another night.
2. Tuesday: The key to good eats is living in community.
3. Wednesday: Be creative with what you have.
4. Thursday: You save more if you stay out of the store.
5. Friday:  Fresh fruits and veggies are a must.
6. Saturday: The more you save, the more you have to give away.

The best part of this challenge was doing it with friends. I know several friends including Brandy, AnnMarie, Jen, Katie, Sandra and Susan were joining us. I gained a lot from walking the journey with them, reading their blogs and hearing their comments and encouragement along the way.

Our family has decided to start a new challenge as a result of what we've learned this week. Our friends inspired us to do this one. We plan to eat rice and beans every Monday night from now until Christmas. In a small way, this will force us to eat simply like many of our friends in Haiti and across the globe. Sure, we will save money in the process. Beyond that, we also hope this meal will serve as a time for meditation and prayer for those who have less than we do.

Today is Halloween, which we don't really celebrate, but we do feel the effects of lots of candy and treats being around. We struck a deal with our daughter Meilani that if she trades in all the candy people give her(the yucky stuff full of high fructose corn syrup and harmful dyes) than she can pick out a toy or other treat. Last year she picked a coloring book and trip to Jamba Juice. When I asked Meilani today what she wanted, she asked if I could buy her this T-shirt. Our friends are adopting two kids from Ethiopia and the proceeds go to the Phillips family adoption and an orphanage in Ethiopia. I did not prompt her to ask for this. She saw me admiring the T-shirts online the other day and remembered. Sure, $15 is a little more than I planned to spend on this trade but how could I pass up such a cause - especially when we just saved a load of money on our Pantry Challenge.

I challenge you to think about ways you and your family can share your abundance with others. Maybe it's inviting a neighbor to a meal. Maybe it's sponsoring a child in an orphanage. Maybe it's having your kids pick out a Christmas gift from the World Vision catalog or Compassion International that they can give to someone across the globe this year. Maybe it's packing sack lunches for the homeless and dropping them off throughout the season when you run into someone hungry on the street. These are just a few ideas of things our family has done in the past. We would love to hear your ideas for other ways to share.

Sometimes this little voice inside me asks, why did I just work so hard to save money on something like a Pantry Challenge when I'm going to give it all away. Seems a little backwards. In reality, it's forwards. Some call it a "Pay It Forward" principle. Others call it "The Treasure Principle." In our family, we have learned that the more generous we are with the food and resources we have, the more blessing we experience in our own home. Pass it on.

Today's meals included Pumpkin Pancakes, a regular on our meal list at this time of year. My hubby loves big breakfasts and we can always use an excuse to throw pumpkin and cinnamon in something. (Ericlee tells me that speaks love to him.) Lunch was a smorgasboard of leftovers - egg salad and Italian Wedding Soup from earlier in the week. Then we assembled our Grand Finale Dinner: Harvest Pumpkin Chili. I keep hearing people talk about "pumpkin chili." I've never had it before. I read a bunch of recipes and took a look at what was left in the pantry. Voila! This new recipe was created. We made it mostly vegetarian because of our lack of meat by the end of the week but next time I might saute up some ground turkey or beef to add to the pot.

A Note from our Nutrition Guy (aka my hubby Ericlee):
Pretty colors on your plate are not only a feast for your eyes but also for your heart.  The pigments that give fruits and vegetables their bright hues are called carotenoids.  The most carotenoid rich foods are the yellow, orange, and red vegetables like pumkins.  These carotenoids are similar to an antioxidant.  They neutralize free radicals (oxygen molecules that cause havoc in the cells) by offering up their own electrons. Thus it helps to prevent your cells from being damaged.  If you want to stay away from cancer, then enjoy this Fall season by eating pumkins in all varieties.  There is actually a higher concentration of carotenoids in canned pumkins than in a raw whole pumkin. 

Harvest Pumpkin Chili

*As is, this is a vegetarian chili because that's what we had in the pantry. I would add 1 lb. grass-fed ground beef or ground turkey for a meat-eater's version.

2 tablespoons butter (or olive oil)
1 onion, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
1 green pepper, seeded and chopped
2 cups butternut squash, 1/2-inch cubes
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 15-oz. can organic tomato sauce
1 6-oz. can organic tomato paste
2 cups pumpkin puree (We halved and cooked a small sugar pumpkin for one hour at 250 degrees & then scooped out the flesh for our puree. You could use canned puree as well.)
2 cups organic chicken broth
1/2 tablespoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon chipotle powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon chives, dried or freshly chopped
2 cups black beans (canned or soaked & cooked until tender)
2 cups frozen or fresh corn
*Garnish: Fry up 3 slices turkey bacon and crumble on top or finely chop a small bunch of green onions and put on top chili with sour cream.

1. Heat butter or olive oil a large stock pot. Add chopped onion, carrots, green pepper and garlic and sweat until soft.
2. Add chili powder, chipotle, cinnamon, salt and chives. Stir in and let simmer 15 minutes so flavors meld.
3. Stir in cooked beans and corn. Cook additional 10 minutes.
4. Ladle into bowls and garnish with chopped cooked turkey bacon or green onions.

Friday Pantry Challenge: Egg Salad Three Different Ways

What's for Breakfast:
Pumpkin Oatmeal
Trader O's

What's for Lunch:
Egg salad sandwiches
Dried fruit

What's for Dinner:
Black Olive, Green Pepper & Basil Pizza
Baked Sweet Potato Fries & Spiced Aioli Sauce

Admittedly, Day 5 has been the hardest because we were used to the challenge but the refrigerator was looking more and more depressing. My eldest daughter also came down with a runny nose. Usually I would work to cure that with a tall smoothie and a bowl of berries or other antioxidants. My choices were slim since we have no more fruit and no freezer stash either. I poured a cup of raw milk, found an Airborne tablet in the cabinet and added that to a glass of water and hoped for the best. In many ways, we could probably go a few more weeks on this challenge but in the fresh fruit department we would be compromising our health if I don't head to the farmer's market this weekend! Lesson learned.
I was still determined to be creative and have a good attitude today about eating what we have. After all, people in the Developing World have maybe one or two - if any - choices a day. My whining would be embarassing.

My creativity today included my own "Pumpkin Oatmeal" by adding 1 tablespoon pumpkin puree along with 1 tablespoon organic raisins to a bowl of oatmeal. I sprinkled the top with cinnamon and the result was a yummy different flavor. (If you want to sweeten it, try a drizzle of a natural sweetener like honey or maple syrup and throw in some nuts for good omega-3s.) My hubby is the type who could eat the same granola for breakfast and the identical sandwich for lunch day after day. Not me. I need variety and so does my daughter.

This afternoon I realized that are usual stash of fruit, veggies and whole grain bars that we use for snacks was seriously depleted so Meilani and I used the last zucchini to make Zookies. This is a recipe we got from a friend and it incorporates healthy plus yummy (chocolate!) all into one great little cookie. Our friend's daughter calls them "Vegetable Cookies" because you can see the shredded zucchini inside but that didn't deter us. They taste like a chocolate-chip macaroon with the extra zest of zucchini flavor.

For lunch, I decided to be creative with Egg Salad. Now I know most people hear "egg salad" and think boring, blah and maybe even barf. But when I'm looking at a nearly-empy refrigerator with more than a dozen eggs left I'm thinking Egg Salad = Extra Special. My first version of Egg Salad earlier this week was a twist on my Curried Chicken Salad, a regular on our lunch menu. My classic version of Egg Salad is an Italian Egg Salad. Must be my roots but I tend to gravitate toward oregano, basil and bay leaves when it comes to the spice department. Our Classic Egg Salad includes those things. The new "snazzy" egg salad we made today used the rest of yesterday's "spiced aioli sauce" from our Baked Sweet Potato Fries. The result was a new salad with incredible nuances of flavor. Meilani and I gobbled ours down. (Recipes below.)

Our dinner tonight was a mainstay for Friday nights - pizza! There's something about Friday that just makes me crave pizza. It's also a great chance to use some of the extras from the week for creative ingredients. Since we've been doing The Great Pantry Challenge this week there wasn't much left in our produce drawers in the fridge. We did find green peppers and basil. We also opened our last can of sliced black olives to top off our Veggie Pizza. And, thank you, God, we had just enough cheese. Tomorrow is our grand finale day - we will see what it holds.

A Note from our Nutrition Guy (aka my Hubby)

A lot of people have misconceptions about the healthiness of eggs. Several years back Americans got all up in arms about eggs causing high cholesterol. The truth of it is that God created eggs as a perfect protein. Usually people who have cholesterol issues do not have it because of their consumption of eggs. Not only have studies shown that eggs do not significantly affect cholesterol levels, but the latest research suggests that eating whole eggs (both whites and yolks) may actually result in improvement in a person's blood lipids (cholesterol) profile.
When we buy eggs, we want the freshest eggs possible. The A Choice would be to buy from a local farm. In Fresno, we get our eggs from Simonian Farms in the Valley. There's also a new egg vendor at the Vineyard Farmer's Market on Shaw & Blackstone. These are fresh eggs laid by cage-free chickens who have been fed organic food. The B Choice would be to buy cage-free organic eggs from a grocery store like Trader Joe's or Costco. The difference is these eggs are from a bigger operation where the stress on the chickens could be more. Stressed out chickens do not lay healthy eggs.

Curried Egg Salad

6  hard-boiled eggs, finely chopped

1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon lemon pepper
1 teaspoon curry powder (I use the Frontier Indian Curry powder from Whole Foods, which is a salt-free, all-natural blend)
1 small zucchini, finely chopped (about 1/2 cup)
1 tablespoon parsley, minced
3 tablespoons dried cranberries or raisins
1/4 cup pecans, coarsely chopped
1 cup mayonnaise

1. Boil eggs. Meanwhile, chop zucchini and combine with salt, pepper, curry, parsley, cranberries and pecans.
2. Chop eggs.
3. Blend eggs with mayonnaise and add spice-vegetable mixture. Serve on your favorite bread.

Italian Egg Salad

6 hard-boiled eggs, finely chopped
1 cup celery, finely chopped

1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon lemon pepper
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon basil (dried or fresh)
1 teaspoon chopped bay leaf
1 tablespoon fresh parsley

1. Boil eggs. Meanwhile, chop celery and combine with salt, pepper, oregano, basil, bay leaf and parsley.

2. Chop eggs.
3. Blend eggs with mayonnaise and add spice-celery mixture. Serve on your favorite bread.

Spiced Egg Salad

6 hard-boiled eggs, finely chopped

1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon lemon pepper
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon coriander
1 tablespoon cilantro or fresh basil, finely chopped
1 cup mayonnaise

1. Boil eggs. Meanwhile, chop celery and combine with salt, pepper, cumin, coriander and cilantro.

2. Chop eggs.
3. Blend eggs with mayonnaise and add spice mixture. Serve on your favorite bread.


Thursday Pantry Challenge: Sweet Potato Fries

What's for Breakfast:
Scrambled eggs with green peppers and feta cheese
Cranberry-walnut bread
Fruit Smoothie

What's for Lunch:
Butternut Squash Soup (from Trader Joe's by Stacie)
Sweet Potato Fries with Spiced Aioli Sauce (recipe below)
Plantain Chips (from Trader Joe's by Cori)
Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies (Made by Mary)

What's for Dinner:
Italian Wedding Soup
Honey-Whole Wheat Bread
Baby Greens Salad with Goat cheese, sunflower seeds and raisins
Sauteed Cinnamon Apples

Is it really Thursday? It's hard to believe how quickly the week is flying by. I'm over the "hump" of the week and the halfway mark of this challenge. I'm already starting to think about next week - and not just because I have permission to go to the grocery store. I've actually been contemplating what lessons I've learned from The Great Pantry Challenge and how I can apply them to my future eating, spending, saving and giving habits.

One of the biggest "money-saving tips" I've learned - or at least been reminded of this week - is that you save more if you stay out of the store. In other words, less time shopping equals less time spending. Seems obvious but more so since I've been practicing. I have not walked into a store - any store - since October 19 when I left Trader Joe's with my normal groceries. At the time, I didn't realize I would be doing this crazy challenge. Somehow this moratorium on grocery shopping has extended beyond the grocery store. I haven't had the desire to shop for anything else. I secretly challenged myself to use the toiletries we have (one roll of toilet paper left and counting!) as well as be content with the clothes I'm wearing, the craft supplies I have in my closet, and even go without other entertainment spending.

The revelation: my life is not boring. Each day has been ripe and full of good food, priceless people and a long list of reasons to be grateful for what I have.

In the process of this challenge, I've found some great resources and blogs that have really inspired me. I started this whole challenge because of a post I read by Money Saving Mom. MoneySavingMom.com is an encouraging blog dedicated to helping you find great deals, stretch your hard-earned dollars, and live on less than you make so you can save more and give more. Another mama blogs about her Menu Planning every Monday and shares tips and recipes, not to mention a host of great ideas on how to organize your home, your pantry and your life. I definitely need that.

My friend Susan turned me on to the blog of another woman who takes a "No Spend Month Challenge" every July. She and her family of three live off $250 for all their groceries, gas, toiletries and extras. Her ideas and reflections were very inspiring. I'd like to figure out how to do that one. One family committed to eat rice and beans for a month not only to save money on their grocery bill but then to "pay it forward" by helping another family with their adoption fund. So humbling.

I'm a big fan of A Place Called Simplicity, a blog that has challenged me to appreciate my family and to think of creative ways I can share our abundance with those in need, especially the world's orphans.

I've also been inspired by some of my personal friends. Brandy explains her Menu Planning philosophy for her family of seven and how she keeps sane by visiting the grocery store every two weeks. Then there's AnnMarie who is bent on "shopping and saving NOT spending" and sharing how she does it. Let me tell ya, she's the coupon queen bee.

What resources have you found? What has inspired you? Leave us a comment.


Today's meals included a little more "on the edge" creativity. For example, we are used to making smoothies every morning for breakfast. We've skipped that several days this week simply because we did not have the fresh fruit available. (In the future, I will be stockpiling on cheap fruit when it's in season and filling up my freezer.) This morning I begged my hubby to make me a smoothie. We used a measured quantity of our juice (Hibiscus-Cranberry from Trader Joe's), raw milk, some applesauce, sweet potato, zucchini, banana and honey. It actually tasted great and we started our day with some good antioxidants for this flu and cold season.

I sent my hubby off to work with a large leftover helping of Fall Flavors Veggie Lasagna and Chicken Cacciatore from early in the week. My girls and I made up a batch of Baked Sweet Potato Fries with Spiced Aoili (recipe below) and headed to Playgroup at our friend Stacie's house. I love sweet potato fries but I've never made them from scratch before. I usually buy the flash frozen fries from Trader Joe's or order them at a favorite restaurant. Sure, it takes some time to wash, peel and cut these babies but I can afford the extra time if it's saving me money.

For Playgroup, the other mamas raided their pantries and we feasted on Butternut Squash Soup, our fries, plantain chips, popcorn and homemade oatmeal chocolate chip cookies with organic ingredients. Yum-o! Not to mention Organic Puffs for the babies...

Dinner tonight was a classic Italian meatball soup called Italian Wedding Soup with a few changes. I swapped out the spinach and swapped in three bunches of chopped bok choy from our garden. (I know, I know. I am really a black thumb but something is actually growing in those planter boxes out back. Amazing.) I also didn't have the beloved cannelini (white) beans so I used some leftover whole wheat pasta from our dinner on Monday to make this meal a little more hearty. This is feel-good food on a budget. Tonight's Italian Wedding Soup was full of mini meatballs. This will be our only beef for the week and it's all about quality, not quantity.

A Note from our Nutrition Guy (aka my hubby Ericlee)

We buy organic, grass-fed beef from Trader Joe's or our local farmer's market. Why spend 5-6 smackers per pound when you could be catching a sale for $2-$3/pound on ground beef? The answer is quality counts. Most American cows are fed corn - not just any corn but genetically-modified corn. What did God design for cows to eat? Grass. When cows eat corn, their tummies become quickly acidic and they die sooner than they should. To combat this, many ranchers pump their cows with hormones and antibiotics. They also keep them confined so they can put on weight faster and then be moved down the line to the butcher. The poopy part for those who eat this beef is that now they are consuming four times as much saturated fat, not to mention hormones, antibiotics and genetically-modified junk that wreaks havoc on the human digestive system.

We've decided to spend the same amount of money on our meat, but to buy a smaller quantity. For example, Italian Wedding Soup serves 6-8 people with one pound of organic, grass-fed ground beef fashioned into mini meatballs. You don't have to become vegetarian to be healthy, just eat quality meat in moderation.

Baked Sweet Potato Fries with Spiced Aoili

-4-5 sweet potatoes
-2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
-2 tablespoons rice flour
-1 teaspoon sea salt

Spiced Aoili Sauce:
-1 cup mayonnaise (Trader Joe's brand)
-1 teaspoon paprika
-1 teaspoon cumin
-1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
-1/2 teaspoon sea salt
-2 tablespoons fresh basil, finely chopped
-1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil

Serves 5

1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Cover a rimmed baking sheet with tin foil.
2. Wash and peel sweet potatoes. Cut into 1 by 5-inch wedges.
3. In a small bowl, drizzle olive oil over fries. Toss with rice flour.
4. Spread fries out on baking sheet and bake 30 minutes until soft. Using tongs, separate and turn.
5. Meanwhil, stir together ingredients for aioli sauce.
6. Turn on broiler. Stay close by and broil fries for 3-4 minutes until crisp on top. Be careful not to burn.
7. Cool and serve with aoili sauce.


Wednesday Pantry Challenge: Dessert = Chocolate-Pumpkin Ravioli

What's for Breakfast:
Cranberry-walnut toast with Butter (Dorina)
Trader O's (Meilani)
Ellie Krieger's Maple Granola (Ericlee)
Banana (Ericlee)
Hibiscus-Cranberry Juice (from Trader Joe's)

What's for Lunch:
Curried Egg Salad sandwiches
Leftover Fall Flavors Vegetarian Lasagna (dinner last night)

What's for Dinner:
Taco Bar with tortillas, ground beef, cabbage, cheese, salsa, tomatoes, sour cream, avocadoes & rice (by Troy & Allison Vasquez)
Green Salad with Almonds and Avocadoes & Ranch Dressing (by Stacie & Forest Benedict)
Dessert: Chocolate-Pumpkin Ravioli (recipe below)

Day Three of The Great Pantry Challenge solidifies more of my theory from yesterday: Living out of our pantry has been no real sacrifice because we live in community. Tonight we enjoyed a fabulous dinner with our Small Group friends. We get together with three other couples and their kids every other week for a shared meal and a chance to support each other in this season of life. We each bring an assigned part of the meal - Salad, Side Dish, Entree or Dessert. We rotate houses so the family hosting doesn't feel the burden of the Entree (and the dishes) too often. For the last five years we have celebrated community through food, conversation around the table, prayer and encouraging our kids to play together.

Tonight it was our turn to bring the dessert. Since it's fall, I had to bust out my favorite fall flavors - pumpkin & chocolate. (Yes, that's what was in the pantry!) At first, I thought about some kind of chocolate tart but I didn't really have time to mix up a crust, chill it and roll it out. After scrounging through the refrigerator and cupboards, I also found some wonton wrappers from the cooking contest I entered at The Big Fresno Fair two weeks ago. I thought about a dessert I saw an Italian chef once make - Chocolate Ravioli. What about Chocolate-Pumpkin Ravioli? That's a Harvest party in your mouth as far as I'm concerned. (Find recipe below.)  The warm chocolate melded with the spiced pumpkin inside a crispy wonton is so flavorful we all wished there were more.

My favorite part of this challenge is that it forces me to be creative with what I have. Who says we can't eat healthy and delicious food? Who says eating out of the pantry has to be boring? Not me. That's why I tackled dessert tonight with the enthusiasm of a die-hard football fan at a home game. This is how new recipes are created. I encourage you to try something new this week. Grab a few ingredients you always have on hand and see what happens when you marry them together. It might just be a family hit!

A Note from our Nutrition Guy (aka my hubby Ericlee):
Chocolate is not only a yummy treat, it also happens to be a great choice for dessert if you do it right. Some chocolate choices are high in sugar, high fructose corn syrup and other harmful chemicals for your body. Chocolate with a higher percentage of cocoa is better for you. Choose chocolates that are labeled "semi-sweet" or "dark chocolate" and avoid milk chocolate or chocolate with other additives.

You've probably heard that chocolate is full of antioxidants. What are antioxidants? They are compounds that protect our cells from damage. Call them the policemen of your body. Policemen keep our city safe and fight off the offenders. Antioxidants do the same. They keep our body healthy and fight off cancer cells.

With Halloween right around the corner, you might choose a chocolate bar over a piece of hard candy filled with poisonous dyes. Trader Joe's as well as other stores are selling small-sized chocolate bars (with no additives) just for the occasion. That is, if you're looking for an alternative to the mainstream Halloween treats. We trade our daughter for non-food items or Jamba Juice cards.

Chocolate-Pumpkin Ravioli

1 cup organic pumpkin puree (canned or from a baked sugar pumpkin)
1 tablespoon maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 oz. semi-sweet chocolate bar, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon cream cheese or mascarpone cheese, softened
1 egg
30 wonton wrappers
olive oil spray or 2 tablespoons olive oil (& pastry brush)
3 tablespoons organic butter

mini chocolate chips
mint leaf
whipped cream

1. Mix together filling ingredients: pumpkin, maple syrup, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, chocolate and cream cheese in a small bowl.
2. Cover two cookie sheets with parchment or waxed paper.
3. Beat egg in small bowl and set at work station with pastry brush.
4. Brush the edges of a wonton wrapper with egg. Add teaspoon of filling to corner of wonton wrapper. Fold wrapper at a diagonal, forming a triangle shape. Press edges together . Lay out on cookie sheet. Continue filling wontons, (I like to do two at a time) until they are all filled.
5. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Spray wontons with olive oil spray or brush with olive oil. Bake for approximately 8-10 minutes or until edges are golden brown.
6. Remove from oven and serve 3-4 at a time on a dessert plate. For garnish, sprinkle with mini chocolate chips, a mint leaf or add a spoonful of whipping cream.

*This is a dessert you will want to do the final steps right before serving so the chocolate is warm and melty.


Tuesday Pantry Challenge: Zucchini Flat Breads

What's for Breakfast:
Trader O's
Cranberry-Walnut Toast with butter/cream cheese
Banana-Pumpkin Muffins

What's for Lunch:
Grapes & Pomegranate Seeds
Zucchini Flat Breads (recipe below)
Leftover Butternut Squash soup
Banana-Pumpkin Muffins

What's for Dinner:
Fall Flavors Vegetarian Lasagna
Whole Wheat Honey Bread (made by Maria Lazo)

Thanks for joining us on our healthy living journey. Today marks Day Two of The Great Pantry Challenge. To be honest, this whole eating out of the pantry thing has not been hard at all so far. I was expecting to be mopey and have major withdrawals for my weekly Trader Joe's run. Sure, it's only day two, but already I'm discovering I have so much more food than I thought I had when I originally made my careful menu plans last Thursday. (It's amazing what joy a small bag of dried black beans discovered in my freezer can bring!)

One of the main reasons we are in plenty instead of want is because we have family and friends who continue to share with us. My mother-in-law had extra grapes and almonds from a Valley farmer who goes to her office. My mom decided to get creative in her baking and then shared a bread made in her bread maker. For lunch, we invited our friends the Freelands over. They are also doing this Pantry Challenge. They shared extra pizza ingredients for a second flatbread. Sure, they have five kids but our food supply wasn't really depleted when we considered what they shared and the great feeling one gets when sharing fellowship around the table. This evening another couple shared with us a bag of organic raisins from the farmer's market because they couldn't make it through their abundance.

Unbelievable. Mind you, I never solicited food from friends or family members; they just happened to have extras to share. Most of them don't even know we are doing this challenge. Imagine what would happen if people decided to share the abundance we have in the city of Fresno with the homeless. What about sharing the abundance we have in the United States with other countries that are experiencing food crises? Could be revolutionary. I have this feeling this week is going to teach me a lot more than just how I can save a few pennies eating out of my pantry.

Ok, on to dinner. One of the items I discovered when menu planning was a box of whole wheat lasagna noodles. I decided to dig out a recipe I created last winter and try it again with what I had on hand. First, I had to consider the sauce. I didn't have any tomatoes (fresh or canned) so I had to use two cans of organic tomato sauce instead. That was easy enough. I also substituted sliced zucchini from lunch for the mushrooms and chopped swiss chard instead of the purple kale. We didn't have ricotta cheese or anything really close so we tried the lasagna without it. The result was a really yummy entree. The most amazing part of the meal is that my parents joined us and my carnivore of a father actually gobbled up two slices of my mom's homemade wheat bread and two servings of lasagna and then said, "I'm full!" He didn't even realize he had just eaten a mean VEGETARIAN lasagna. Mangia! Mangia!

Don't worry meat-eaters: we have no intentions of going totally vegetarian. Over the last two years we have taken "baby steps" to eating more healthy. We have seriously amped up our daily intake of vegetables and fruits and taken our carnivore tendencies down a notch but we still eat meat. We are just attempting a vegetarian meal once or twice a week to save money, clean out our systems and fight the bad guys (sickness and disease). I like to think of it as a part of prevention rather than paying the big bucks in doctor bills and meds later.

A Note from our Nutrition Guy (aka my Hubby):

What a lot of people don't realize is that our bodies need foods that are filled with nutrients, not just calories. For example, a bowl of raspberries and a bowl of Oreo cookies may have the same amount of calories but the amount of nutrients they contain are drastically different. Nutrients provide more than just energy; they also fight the diseases and chemicals we encounter daily in our environment.

Raw leafy greens have the highest nutrient density of any food. Our family tries to incorporate a serving of raw leafy greens in our menu each day. They are kind of like the superheroes of food. Examples include Swiss chard, kale, spinach, collards, parsley, romaine and more. In this day an age, you don't need to do it Popeye-style and force down a can of spinach. Instead think of creative ways you can incorporate leafy greens in your regular meals. We sneak a handful of greens in our morning smoothies, chop and add them to soups and layer them in lasagnas. Then, of course, there's always the classic salad option.

*Today's featured recipe was created in the kitchen using what we had on hand. I've seen lots of chefs do a kind of zucchini appetizer or pizza like this but I wanted to try for a new crust. After reading several recipes, I put together this one which incorporates spelt flour for added nutrition. The dough was surprisingly tender and easy to make. And the whole ordeal is quite cheap but elegant enough for a fancy holiday party.

Zucchini-Garlic Flat Breads
Makes 2 flat breads, 9-inch diameter

-3 cups unbleached flour (Trader Joe's chemical-free brand)
-1/2 cup spelt flour (bought in bulk from Winco)
-1/2 teaspoon quick-rising active dry yeast
-1 teaspoon honey
-2 tablespoons olive oil
-2 teaspoons sea salt
-1 cup warm water

-Zucchini, thinly sliced
-5-6 cloves garlic, minced
-1/2 cup Parmesan cheese

1. Combine all crust ingredients in a heavy duty mixer (like Kitchenaid). Using dough hook, mix together on low speed until dough comes together and away from the sides of the bowl (approximately 2 minutes).
2. Remove hook and cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rest for 20 minutes.
3. Reattach dough hook and beat dough for 5 minutes. Cover bowl with a towel and let rise for 1 hour until dough puffs.
4. Divide dough in half. Refrigerate for later or roll out on a floured pizza pan or stone.
5. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Meanwhile, add toppings to flatbread dough.
6. Bake approximately 10-15 minutes or until dough is golden brown and cheese is melted.
7. Serve plain, cut into wedges or drizzle with a favorite sauce like honey mustard or Goddess dressing.


Pantry Challenge: Breakfast & Lunch Ideas

I promised I would share some ideas for what to eat for breakfasts and lunches during our Great Pantry Challenge this week. The following is based solely on what is available in our pantry. Feel free to share your own creative breakfast and lunch ideas based on your pantry's abundance. Interested in recipes? Let us know.

Breakfast Ideas:
Trader O's cereal
Banana-Pumpkin Muffins
Zucchini Muffins
Banana Bread with a Healthy Twist
Steel Cut Oats
Cinnamon-walnut Oatmeal
Pumpkin Pie Baked Oatmeal
Maple Granola
Cranberry-walnut toast with Cream Cheese
Veggie & Egg Frittata
Pumpkin Pancakes

Lunch Ideas:
Zucchini Flat Bread
Pita Sandwiches
Curried Egg or Chicken Salad Sandwiches
Italian Egg salad with Basil Sandwiches
Grilled cheese on Whole Wheat Sourdough
Butternut squash soup
Alphabet noodle soup

Monday Pantry Challenge: Chicken Cacciatore

What's for Dinner:
Baby greens salad with Fuyu persimmons, Feta Cheese & Almonds (Our garden & Farmer's market) 
with Champagne Pear salad dressing (Trader Joe's)
Mama Maria's Chicken Cacciatore (recipe below)
Rotini Whole Wheat Pasta (Trader Joe's)

Today is the official launch of our Great Pantry Challenge. We skipped our grocery shopping for this week in an effort to save money, live out of our pantry and contemplate the abundance we are blessed with in the United States. If you're just tuning in, find out more details here.

We just returned from a weekend hanging out with my brother and his family in Los Angeles. Since most of our weekend meals were provided by them, we'll say that tonight's dinner is our starting point for reflection. Our meal began with a Baby Greens Salad. The greens are the first we have ever harvested from our own garden. No, we didn't plan for them to be ready today. We have been aspiring to garden for years but never really got around to it. A friend helped us build planter boxes from Sunset magazine in June. Then we had to wait until we returned from a month-long trip to Haiti before we could plant.

Our 3-year-old picked out seeds at the local garden store for bok choy (her fave), a variety of greens (for salads) and a mix of sunflowers. We also plan to do carrots. We finally planted the seeds about six weeks ago and then waited. We've been watering (when we remember) and checking on the plants every few days. Finally on Friday we were able to harvest our first two bunches of bok choy and then today a handful of greens was ready. This was a perfect quantity for a salad. We sliced up a fuyu persimmon and sprinkled feta cheese on top. The "fuyu" persimmon is like an orange, squatty tomato and firm when ripe. These are great in place of apples or pears in your fave dishes. We have a few fuyus left from our last farmer's market trip (October 17). We pretty much always have feta cheese or goat cheese in our fridge so we added that with a handful of whole almonds we had from a local farm.

Our main entree was Chicken Cacciatore, an Italian dish I learned to make from my mom. This comfort food dish melds together the flavors of onions, green peppers, tomatoes and black olives with tender chicken. We only had frozen chicken thighs so I substituted them for the usual chicken breasts. I also had to ditch the mushrooms since we didn't have any and I threw in some fresh zucchini instead. I stock up on canned organic tomatoes (when they're not in season) and sauce from Costco at the start of each month. The great thing about this meal is that I actually made it last Thursday to feed my family (including my parents). We had enough to feed our family (of 3 minus the baby) tonight when we rolled in from L.A. and even more for at least one lunch leftover. I love making meals that I can freeze or refrigerate extra portions for another meal. I try to make at least one of these kinds of meals a week so I can save time on another busy night.

A note from our Nutrition Guy (aka my hubby, Ericlee):

Tonight's pasta was whole wheat "rotini" (curly-Qs) from Trader Joe's. We try to eat whole wheat pastas in place of the typical enriched pastas. Since Bible times wheat has played an important role in our diets. Today, we seldom think about where pastas and bread come from or what is used to make it. The life of a wheat kernel begins once it is broken open through a process called milling. Essential nutrients immediately begin to oxidize when the kernel is milled. Within 72 hours of milling, 90% of more than 30 nutrients have oxidized or disappear.

Looking back in history, the 1920s brought new technology which allowed enterprising millers to separate wheat components. They removed the germ, germ oil, and bran, and the remaining white flour could be stored forever. Now white flour was accessible to the common person and not just to royalty and the wealthy. White flour also became a status symbol; the whiter the flour, the richer the household. But while some people were feeling rich, they were eating white breads and pastas with very few nutrients and thus were getting sick. In the 1940s, the U.S. government made it mandatory that some nutrients be returned to flour so the large mill companies “enriched” the flour by replacing 3 vitamins and 1 mineral.

For more details about grains and personal grain mills, read Grains of Truth by Donna Spann or check out her web site.

Chicken Cacciatore


3 lbs. cut –up chicken pieces

1/2 cup olive oil

1/4 cup whole wheat flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon pepper

1/4 cup parmesan cheese

1 clove garlic, minced

2 cage-free eggs, well beaten

1/4 cup raw milk

1 tablespoon parsley, chopped


1 29 oz. can organic diced tomatoes

1 15 oz. can organic tomato sauce

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon oregano

1 teaspoon basil

1 teaspoon garlic powder or 2 cloves, crushed

1 medium onion, thinly sliced

2 or 3 tablespoons olive oil

1 green pepper cut up in 1 in.x 2 in. slices

3 ounces mushrooms, sliced

1. Wash chicken and pat dry.
2. Heat oil to medium heat in large skillet.
3. Mix flour with salt, pepper, parmesan cheese and garlic in a plastic bag and shake together.
4. Combine eggs, milk, and parsley in a shallow dish. Shake chicken 2 pieces at a time, coating all sides. Roll in egg mixture and place skin side down in skillet. Brown all sides, turning pieces as necessary with tongs (about 20 minutes).
5. Sauce: While chicken is browning, sauté onions in a Dutch oven a few minutes, then add peppers and garlic.
6. Add all other ingredients of sauce and cook on low until chicken is browned. Carefully add pieces of chicken to sauce.
7. Cover tightly and cook on low for 30 to 45 minutes or until thickest part of meat is fork tender. Add a small amount of water if sauce becomes too thick. Chicken Cacciatore may be served plain or over cooked pasta of your choice.


Cheap Eats: The Great Pantry Challenge Menus

Ready, set, go. We're gearing up for The Great Pantry Challenge. You can read more about our plans here. Of course, eating with what you have on hand requires a bit of planning. I usually plan my weekly menus on Fridays and Saturdays so I can get my list at the the local farmer's market on Saturdays and Trader Joe's on Monday. The only difference is this week we aren't making our usual stops.

Ok, let's start planning. I fully understand that what you have in your pantry is probably not what I have in my pantry but I thought I'd share what our Dinner Plans are for this week. I've discovered that I'm going to have to especially be creative with some healthy whole grains like quinoa, amaranth and cracked wheat that I bought way back when.

I'd love to hear your dinner plans if you're taking the challenge or even if you're not and you have some healthy recipes in mind. My friend Brandy is joining me on this challenge and you can peek in on what her family of seven(!) will be eating this week too. She's added a fun rule that you can trade with someone if you need something they might have in their pantry.

Day by day I will also share exactly what we eat for breakfast, lunches and dinners and even for our snacks. For now, here are the lunch and dinner plans (with a few additions or subtractions from the original recipes). My next post will include breakfast ideas. I'm also taking some cues from The Prudent Homemaker.

Lunch: Pumpkin & Goat Cheese Pita Sandwiches
Butternut squash soup
Chicken Cacciatore served over Whole Wheat Rotini pasta

Lunch with friends: Zucchini-Garlic flat breads
Banana-Chocolate Chip Pumpkin Muffins
(Brandy will bring an item from her pantry to share.)
Fall Veggie Lasagna
Baby Green Salad with Persimmons, Feta & Walnuts

Lunch: Curried Egg Salad sandwiches, apple slices
Small Group Dinner: (We will be eating our friend's house & each family will bring a different part of the meal like Main Dish, Side Dish, Salad or Dessert. We were assigned dessert.)
Dessert: Chocolate Ravioli

Playgroup Lunch: (We meet up weekly with two other mamas & kids and we each bring something to share with the group.)
Baked Sweet Potato fries with Spiced Aioli
Italian Wedding Soup
Cracked Wheat Pilaf
Fuyu Persimmon Wedges

Lunch: Italian Basil & Egg Salad Sandwiches
Organic Applesauce with Cinnamon
Black Olive & Turkey Bacon Pizza

Brunch: Whole Grain Cinnamon Waffles &
Dinner: Harvest Pumpkin & Black Bean Soup
Quinoa with Sauteed Onions

The Great Pantry Challenge: Will you join me?

I love a challenge! We have one week left of the month of October and I have decided to take on The Great Pantry Challenge. I was reading about this "Eating From the Pantry" Week on another blog and I thought it would be a great learning and growing experience to try it. Truth be told I usually get creative at the end of the month with what's in our fridge and pantry anyway. This time I intend to document it.

The rules:
My last grocery store stop was last Monday, October 19. I've decided to make do with what we have on hand (in the refrigerator & pantry) until Sunday, November 1. The only exception is that we will buy our half gallon of raw milk at our local farmer's market. We're all out of juice and I think the extra five bucks is worth it to keep my family healthy. We will be gone to Los Angeles this weekend to hang out with my brother and his family so the real challenge starts Monday, October 26 for us. I thought I'd just give you all a heads up since many do their shopping and planning for the week on the weekends. In a nutshell, this challenge is not so much about being stringent but about using what we have and spending less. If you're joining me, you can make up your own rules.

Why I'm doing this:
Let's be transparent here. We crunched the numbers and we don't have any more money in our food budget (or any of our budget categories) until the new month starts. When my husband lost his job last December we had to reduce our living expenses quite a bit. I'm grateful for his new job but it pays significantly less so we're still figuring out how to cut costs but still eat healthy. I'm not trying to get you to feel sorry for me. I'm just sharing because I know I'm not alone in that. Times are tough for everyone. For me, that's an extra challenge to put on my game face and get creative. I'd rather pinch pennies now than at Thanksgiving or Christmas time.

What I hope to learn:
The bottom line is: we are spoiled. We can run to the grocery store or to a local market any day we please. We might say things like "We don't have anything to eat" or "We don't have anything in the house" when really we don't even understand what that truly feels like. I'm reading this book called CRAZY LOVE by Francis Chan. He notes that most of the world lives on $2 a day while we in America think we are poor when we are (on average) raking in $135 daily ($4,000 a month). I, for one, am not going to go around saying "I'm poor" or "I'm broke" anymore. Times may be tough but they could be tougher. I have a full closet and multiple pairs of shoes. I actually do have options in my pantry and a little in my garden. And most of all my husband has a job and I have many small ways I can earn a living while raising my two precious daughters.

What I hope to share:
I'll be blogging what we eat each day and our personal journey as we think through "making do with what we have." Everything is easier with a friend. I know at least one friend who has said she will join me on this challenge. I hope this week will be a chance to share more with my bloggy friends. We can share resources, tips and recipes. Even more I'd like to share encouraging stories and reflections.

Are you in? Leave a comment and let me know your thoughts.


Recipe of the Week: Chocolate-Pumpkin Bread Pudding

Ok, friends. There's probably nothing I like more during this season than the flavors of pumpkin and chocolate melded together in a yummy comfort food dessert. That's exactly why my daughter and I decided it was time to do some experimenting in the kitchen. I shared this recipe at our MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) meeting a few weeks ago. This is a perfect way to put day-old or hardened baguettes to good use. If you're looking for a snazzy dessert for your Harvest Party or even a decadent Fall Brunch idea, check this out!

Chocolate-Pumpkin Bread Pudding

-1-pound loaf whole wheat bread (or consider using leftover bagels, baguette, croissants or other whole grain breads)
-olive oil spray
-6 large eggs
-2 cups raw milk
-1 cup heavy cream
-2 cups pumpkin puree (15-oz. can organic pumpkin)
-1 tablespoon vanilla
-1/2 cup organic brown sugar or 1/3 cup honey
-1 teaspoon cinnamon
-1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
-1/2 teaspoon salt
-1 bag semi-sweet chocolate chips or grain sweetened chocolate chips
-1/4 cup maple syrup

1. Cut the bread into 1-inch chunks.
2. Spray a 2-quart oven-proof dish with olive oil spray. Add bread chunks to  dish.
3. In a separate bowl, mix together eggs, milk, heavy cream, vanilla and pumpkin.
4. Stir in cinnamon, nutmeg and salt. Stir in chocolate chips
5. Pour mixture over the cubes of bread. Let sit 20 minutes to soak into bread.
6. Meanwhile, heat oven to 350 degrees. Bake for 1 hour or until knife inserted in center comes out clean.
7. Drizzle maple syrup on top & serve.


Cooking Club: Fall Flavors with the Friends

This Saturday we had a Fall Flavors Cooking Club with our friends, the Freelands and the Benedicts. Our original intention was to go apple-picking somewhere in the Valley and then bake with our pickings. After several days of searching the internet and making phone calls to local farms, I discovered we missed the boat this year on apple-picking. We'll have to plan a trip for next year to the illustrious Apple Hill. We decided on the Hillcrest Pumpkin Patch in Reedley as an alternative for some fall fun. The pumpkin patch was a winner with corn mazes, a hike up to a train, mounds of pumpkins to choose from and even a giant tree swing. After we frolicked in the fall weather we headed to the kitchen for some good eats.

Our menu included:

Chicken with Spiced Apples

Pumpkin Soup

Apple Cupcakes with Cinnamon-Marshmallow Frosting

The Pumpkin Soup was a recipe created right in the Freelands kitchen with some fresh ingredients we picked up at the Vineyard Farmer's Market, from Stacie's friend's farm and from the pumpkin patch. The result was a fabulous pureed soup with a secret ingredient - coconut milk - that made it memorable.

Bon appetit!

Pumpkin Party Soup

Serves 8-10

-2 tablespoons organic butter
-1 red onion, chopped
-2 cloves garlic, minced
-1 small sugar pumpkin (2 cups, chopped - could substitute canned)
-4-5 sweet potatoes (2 cups, chopped)
-1 medium butternut squash (2 cups, chopped)
-1 quart organic vegetable broth
-1 bunch bok choy or celery (1 1/2 cups, chopped)
-2 teaspoons salt
-1/2 teaspoon black pepper
-2 teaspoons curry powder (We used Cost Plus World Market's mild curry.)
-1 15-oz. can organic coconut milk (We used light from Trader Joe's.)
-1/2 cup green onions, chopped for garnish

1. Chop onions and mince garlic. Add to large soup pot with butter. Cook until onions are translucent.
2. Meanwhile, get to work chopping the other veggies. Peel and quarter pumpkin, sweet potatoes and butternut squash. Clean out any seeds and then coarsely chop hard flesh into 1-inch cubes. Add to soup pot.
3. Add vegetable broth and simmer vegetables approximately 20 minutes until soft.
4. Add chopped bok choy (or celery). Add salt, black pepper, curry powder and cook 20 minutes more.
6. Using and immersion blender or other appropriate appliance, puree with soup in batches. When soup is smooth, add coconut milk.
7. Serve with green onions for garnish.

**We were blessed to have Nathan Freeland and my sweet hubby to help with the veggie chopping and pureeing of the soup, but if you want to save time you might consider squash that is already peeled and diced from places like Trader Joe's and Costco.

Here are some more of our favorite Fall Flavors recipes:

Harvest Apple Salad

Squash & Corn Chowder

Chili Pizazz & Honey Cornbread Muffins

Butternut Squash Soup

Pumpkin Pancakes

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cookies

Harvest Banana-Pumpkin Muffins


Recipe of the Week: Italian Wedding Soup

The cooler temps are here and that means "Soup's on!" at our house. My friend Jen made a Veggie Meatball Soup for us last week for lunch and it reminded me of this classic Italian "meatball" soup that's always a hit around here. This one even includes some healthy greens. Buon Appetito!

(Serves: 8-10)

For Soup:

1 cup onion, diced

1 cup celery, diced

1 cup carrot, diced

1 cup turkey bacon, diced

1 tablespoon garlic, minced

2 tablespoons olive oil

12 cups organic chicken broth

2 teaspoon dried oregano

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (adjust depending on how spicy you want it)

1 tablespoon parsley

1 bay leaf

1 15-ounce can cannellini (white kidney beans) or 2 cups cooked beans

2 cups spinach leaves

1/4 cup parmesan cheese, grated

For Meatballs:

Approx. 30 small meatballs (You may use already prepared meatballs or mix the following ingredients together and roll your own meatballs.)

1 pound ground beef (grass-fed) (or use half ground beef/half ground turkey)

1/2 cup unseasoned whole wheat bread crumbs

1/2 cup parmesan cheese, grated

1/4 cup raw whole milk

1/4 cup chopped parsley

1 cage-free egg, beaten

1 tablespoon dried oregano

1/2 tablespoon garlic powder

1/2 tablespoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon dried basil

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Mix together ingredients for meatballs and roll into bite-sized balls.

3. Place on a greased baking sheet with a rim. Bake meatballs for approximately 10 minutes so the meatballs will hold their shape in the soup.

4. Meanwhile, put a large soup pot or Dutch oven on the stove and heat olive oil at medium heat.

5. Chop onions, carrots, celery and ham and add to pot.

6. Mince garlic and add to pot.

7. Stir ingredients and heat until softened.

8. Add chicken broth, oregano, red pepper flakes, parsley and bay leaf.

9. Simmer 20 minutes over low heat.

10. Drop meatballs into simmering soup.

11. Cook approximately 10 more minutes.

12. Add beans, spinach leaves and parmesan cheese. Keep heat on low and cook 5 more minutes.
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