July 27, 2009

Challenge: Dinner for Four

I'm going to be skipping around in my updates from "The Week No Technology Survived," so please just try to hang with me and maybe we can get a Keynote presentation with some flow charts soon. Actually, I wish someone would create some flow charts or a Keynote presentation for me and have it ready each morning so that I could know what the heck is going on most times. I can't blame my disorganization solely on the coupon project, but it certainly doesn't help that I have added fifty trillion extra pieces of mostly tiny paper to my already frazzled, swiss cheesed, mommy brained life. But that's a different post! On with the dinner show!

So one of the challenges I've accepted from a dear reader was to create dinner for four, and she specified that I had to use a meat in that dinner as well as having an appetizer and dessert. Well, I was going to just do the dinner here and invite a couple over to dine with us, but since dear husband is always out of town and I couldn't find any available takers, I kept having to put off completing the challenge. This was distressful to me for two reasons - 1) I wanted to complete the challenge within the 30 days and 2) I wanted to be able to use the ground beef I bought with my coupon from week one! (It's in the freezer, btw. I am not totally nuts :D) Anyway, when I finally realized that waiting on my husband to be home AND find company that was available to dine with us on our schedule would mean that our daughter might possibly be in Kindergarten before I could complete the challenge, I decided to just attempt to do the challenge on my family when I went home to visit last week. The challenge was dinner for four, and with my mom, dad, brother and me as willing and hungry participants, we fit the bill.

The only problem was that I didn't want to schlep frozen ground beef across two states.

So I didn't.

I thought that SURELY when I got there and opened the Sunday paper, I would find some great coupon for SOMETHING meaty so that I could complete the challenge, but of course, there were no coupons to be had. My mom, ever helpful, suggested several of her frozen meat options to me, but I declined, explaining again how one of the things that actually makes this a "challenge" and not just an inconvenience is FINDING a coupon for the meat. So she finally backed off to leave me to do whatever it was I was going to do and didn't make (m)any more suggestions. Finally, I had to head to the internet on my parents' PC - which I am convinced has a hamster running on a wheel to make it work - to try and find something that I could work with.

The first place I turned was SmartSource.com. Even though you get the circular in your Sunday papers, there are often times different coupons posted online, coupons for slightly higher end items. I had it set for my current zip code and didn't find anything good for meat, but when I plugged in my parents' zip code, I was rewarded by the coupon gods for my persistence with a $1.00 off Butterball ground turkey coupon! What I had experiences was one of the interesting phenomena of online coupons - regionality. What you get offered in your zip code may not be offered elsewhere and vice versa. That's why I always sort of try a few big city zip codes when I'm searching, just to see if I can find anything good. Of course, my parents' town is hardly a big city, but they were clearly targeted by Butterball for some reason. And since you can print two of each coupon without it constituting fraud, you'd better believe I got my two turkey coupons so I could reap the benefits of some delicious ground turkey for some chili or burgers at my house later on!

When I found the turkey coupon, that became the cornerstone for building my menu. I did a quick google search for "Ground Turkey Recipes" and finally landed on one that sounded tasty: Mediterranean Turkey Burgers from my recipes.com. I made note of all the ingredients, figured out what would be considered staples for the experiment's sake (aka things in my mom's pantry that were fair game) and then began to search out coupons for the other things. Then I needed to decide on a side dish. I searched "mediterranean side dishes" and noticed that many of them were rice dishes. Perfect, since rice seemed like a simple enough item to find a coupon for! I finally landed on Mediterranean Rice Pilaf from cooks.com. Once again I decided what I could use and what I needed and added it to my list. I also needed an appetizer and a dessert. The appetizer was easy, because I already knew I had a coupon: Hummous! But I had to find something to dip it with! And if I thought that the dinner hard to plan, the dessert was even harder when I searched within the "mediterranean theme," but I quickly gave up on having it match the rest of the dinner and settled on some yummy Snickers Brownies that I found at thatsmyhome.com.

I searched for all of my coupons through SmartSource, RedPlum, and Google. It took me approximately 2 hours to find the coupons, plus I used coupons I had brought with me that were set to expire by the 27th of July.

So I left for the store with my list which looked like this:

* Butterball ground turkey
* Stacy's Pita Chips
* Treasure Cave Feta
* Betty Crocker Brownies
* Uncle Ben's Rice
* Muir Glen Chicken Broth
* Snickers Bar

I quickly learned while shopping that you must rely on a little improvisation when cooking under challenging conditions. For example: The rice pilaf recipe calls for regular long grain rice, chicken stock and golden raisins among the ingredients. I couldn't find a coupon for raisins or any other kind of dried fruit, so I considered regular rasins that my mom had in the pantry as stock and went with those. When I got to the store, they didn't carry the brand of chicken broth I had hoped to use a coupon for. I had NO idea how I was going to sub anything for chicken broth, and then I found that Uncle Ben's rice had a "Chicken and Herb" flavored slow simmering pilaf dish, so I grabbed it! I had no idea if the "Herbs" would go with the other flavors I was incorporating, but I didn't see any other options at this point and was just ready to try anything.

I also was able to use the coupons as an excuse to make less work for me! The brownie recipe includes a recipe for a frosting they wanted you to use on top. I am not a big fan of frosting, really, so I didn't want to waste my energy making something that I didn't really want in the first place. Instead, I purchased the brownie mix that came with frosting in a packet, so those who wanted frosting could add it onto their own brownies!

I left the store after spending $17.78 (or $19.56 incl. tax) pre coupon and $14.28 after coupons ($16.06 incl. tax). This made my meal - if you don't count in the price of the "staple" items - $4.02 per person.

That isn't exactly super, especially if you consider the staples AND the fact that time = money. For just $2.00 more per person, I could have picked up value meals at any fast food restaurant and saved myself at LEAST 5 hours of prep and real time cooking work. I don't know about most of you out there, but I think I'd gladly spend $8.00 on something that would save me five hours.

But the challenge was to make the dinner, not to complain about the time and costs, so I set off, and the improvisation game continued!

I forgot to get a photo of the turkey package before I opened it and threw it away, but I must say I really like Butterball's new packaging designs. It looks really clean and fresh and is definitely a lot more enticing a package than their former packaging!

Improv #1: Turkey burger recipe called for panko, red onion, and commercial pesto. I had NONE of these. So instead of the panko, I simply used my mom's food processor to demolish some pita chips to sub and then did not add the extra salt called for in the recipe. I thought this was quite brilliant, really, and made more sense than Japanese panko in a mediterranean meat dish! Sadly, subbing out the onion and pesto were bigger problems. I simply had no choice but to use onion powder in place of the red onion, which I know affected the end flavor (not detrimentally, but obviously). For the pesto, since I couldn't buy a jar or make my own, I decided to break it down into the sum of its parts and try to add as many as I could find. The plan was to use dried basil and add some olive oil to the mix, but I found that my mother has the most poorly stocked spice cabinet in the WORLD and had NO basil. Who doesn't keep basil?!?! So I did the only thing I could think of and just put in some oregano. *sigh* Again, I knew this was not going to make the mixture taste horrible, but it's not exactly "mediterranean" anymore!

Then I decided that instead of burgers, which requires buns (or pita in this case) I was going to make meatballs. I guess I could have served Turkery Burger "steaks," but I like a meatball, and I was positive I could get it thrououghly cooked in this incarnation much more than if I had a giant chunk of meat to cook.

The finished product. Don't they look yummy?

I felt like they could use a little sauce, but I wasn't able to find a container of plain yogurt (with a coupon) that was smaller than 32oz. The plan was to make a little yogurt dill sauce to drizzle over the meatballs to help them regain their mediterranean-ness. But once again, my mom failed me in the spice department (seriously? no dill? COME ON!) So with no yogurt and no dill, I just made something up on the spot and created this feta buttermilk curry sauce to accompany the meatballs. Sounds gross, but it was actually quite tasty! The curry gave just a little sweetness to the sauce and gave the meatballs an extra layer of flavor that they were surely lacking due to my lack of proper ingredients.

And no meal is complete without dessert, right?

This recipe actually called for you to bake the brownies in a 9x13 pan after including 3 chopped up Snickers bars in the mix. Well, I had ONE Snickers bar, thanks to "Free Chocolate Fridays," and I decided instead of making them in a pan, I'd make individual brownie cups with a piece of snickers bar in each one. Classy!

This, of course, is the final meal. We had pita chips with hummous as the appetizer, meatballs (garnished with tomatoes from my own garden!) and rice pilaf and Snickers kissed brownies for dessert. And by the end of the meal not a single meatball was left and the next morning my brother took the remaining brownies to work to share.

Despite my difficulties in following the recipes to the letter, I'd have to call this a success!

I think the thing I learned most is that - if you are willing to experiment a little and make some changes - that having a coupon can be a good thing when you are planning a meal. It can force you to try new things or to reinvent old things. I know I often get into a cooking rut where I feel like I only cook 2 or three things, but I now have a new recipe to toss into the mix. I also know that I don't necessarily have to run to the store for specific items called for in a recipe if I'm willing to play around with it and make some substitutions.

But I don't get to declare my success...I leave that up to you, gentle readers! So, what do you think?

1 comment:

RosieLayne said...

I say that success is yours!!!