My first attempt at Mexican food

In an attempt to save money and eat more healthily, I have started cooking more at home. Up until now this has mostly consisted of making a handful of stock dishes: grilled chicken, burgers, hot dogs, sausage, or fish, with a Knorr packaged noodle side and some sort of steamed vegetable. While this routine isn’t bad in terms of variation, after awhile it can get boring to cook the same way over and over. I’ve also been craving various types of food that I usually go out for, like Chinese or Mexican. Today I decided to plan ahead and make a Mexican-style meal.

I chose the following recipes from AllRecipes.com:

I also decided that instead of purchasing the salsa to be used for baking the chicken, I would make some from scratch. I chose this recipe:

Prep

The first thing I did was get two frozen chicken breasts out and put them into a dish in the refrigerator to thaw. I went ahead and put the spices from the Quick and Easy Mexican Chicken recipe into the dish and on top of the chicken.

My next step was to go to the store and grab some supplies–I needed the cilantro, jalapeno pepper, and lime juice for the salsa, the shredded cheese for the chicken (I chose a 4-cheese Mexican blend instead of cheddar), and the chicken broth for the rice. I already had tomatoes, onions, and cloves of garlic from the Marietta Square Farmers Market, and I keep frozen chicken breasts, brown rice, and various spices on hand.

I went ahead and did my shopping in the morning so I could prepare the salsa in advance, giving it time to sit in the fridge. It took me about half an hour to chop and mix everything. As I also spent time this morning on some freelance work, a personal training appointment, the grocery shopping, and of course my random desire to scrub my bathtub, it wasn’t until after noon that I started making the salsa.

The tomato, onion, garlic, and jalapeno were easy to chop, of course. The cilantro was technically easy too, I suppose, but I’ve always disliked chopping cilantro…it takes forever. Once I had everything mixed, I had to agree with one recipe reviewer that the end result seemed more like pico de gallo than salsa. Still, I figured it would be nice and fresh and good for the cooking. Though I scaled down the salsa recipe to one serving, it resulted in more than the half-cup needed for the chicken recipe. I put the rest of it out as a garnish alongside the sour cream, but neither of us ended up using it.

Cooking

I started to actually make dinner at around 7 o’clock. I began with the rice, since it had the longest cooking time. After the rice had been cooking for about 15 minutes, I got the chicken out of the fridge to brown it in the skillet as per the recipe. Unfortunately, the breasts weren’t quite thawed, so I didn’t follow the recipe exactly. Instead of cooking in the skillet until there was no pink left, I simply browned as much as I could of the chicken, removing it from the heat before the outside could get chewy. I transferred the chicken to the baking dish, topped it off with the homemade salsa and shredded cheese, then put it all in the oven. I ended up having to cook both the chicken and the rice longer than expected, finally getting them both done around 8:30.

Meanwhile, I warmed the refried black beans in a pan on the stove and three wheat tortillas in an aluminum foil pouch in the oven.

Time Analysis

With the shopping, morning prep, and evening cooking time, this meal took about two and a half hours from my day.

Cost Analysis

Here’s what I spent on necessities for the recipes ($6.68 total):

  • Cilantro: $0.50
  • Jalapeno pepper: $0.05
  • Kroger brand canned tomatoes: $0.67
  • Kroger brand chicken broth: $1.99
  • Kroger brand lime juice (bottle): $1.79
  • Kroger brand shredded Mexican-style cheese: $1.68

Here’s what I spent on extras to go with the meal ($4.28 total):

  • Bush’s refried black beans: $1.29
  • Daisy sour cream: $1.00
  • Wheat tortillas (8): $1.99

Together, that’s $10.96, or $5.48 per person.

It’s a little harder to add in the cost of the ingredients I already had. Unfortunately I don’t have the receipt for the frozen chicken breasts, which came from a 5-pound bag of frozen, boneless, skinless breasts from Walmart. I want to say that bag costs around $10, but I’m not sure. I’m also not sure how many breasts were originally in the bag, but I think it was at least 10. If so, that would add just $1 per person. As for the vegetables from the farmers market, I know I got four tomatoes for $3, so the one I used in this recipe adds $0.75 total, or $0.38 per person. I don’t remember how much the onions cost or how many I got. I have a feeling I had a basket of five or six originally, and that wouldn’t have cost more than a few dollars. If we pretend each onion cost as much as a tomato, that would put the total cost per person up to $0.75. The head of garlic is negligible; it contained many cloves.

A rough total including the frozen chicken and farmers market vegetables would therefore be $7.23 per person. This is an overestimate, as the chicken broth, lime, cheese, and tortillas were not all used today.

The Yum Factor

I was fairly happy with this meal. The main weakness, I’d say, was the pico de gallo “salsa”. It was all right, but not really my cup of tea. The rice was delicious, though, and so were the refried beans. The beans were actually Sean’s favorite part of the meal, which is kind of sad considering I had nothing to do with their flavor. Indeed, the part of the meal I spent the most time on was the least memorable, while the part I spent the least time on was the most.

Despite the weakness of the “salsa”, the chicken came out moist and tender, and I wish there had been a bit more of it–the breasts were rather small. I ate a tortilla with my meal, but Sean didn’t have any tortillas at all, so I may as well not have bought them. We did, however, both use sour cream.

Conclusions

Ultimately, I’m not sure I’d say this meal was worth the effort. If I try it again, I’ll probably buy the salsa instead of making it myself. I do think the price was good, though.

I may eschew the oven baking entirely and grill the chicken next time, then add a sauce when it’s done. Grilling is very easy with the George Foreman electric grill my parents got me for my birthday this year, and there’s no thawing required. :)

Women’s clothes sizes

Shopping has always been a pain for me. I’ve tended to only go to a few stores, where I’m reasonably confident I can find things that fit and flatter. I never really thought about why it was so difficult to find clothes; I just assumed it was because I wasn’t proportioned like a fashion model. But it turns out that the stores themselves make things unreasonably complex by each using their own sizing system.

The Guardian’s DataBlog has a new piece: What’s your perfect fitting top, skirt and dress on the highstreet? Author Anna Powell-Smith, frustrated by how difficult it is to shop for women’s clothing, gathered data from all the shops she could and compiled them into an online application that tells you what sizes to look for in each store. It’s called What Size Am I?

What Size Am I website screenshot

What Size Am I? website screenshot

This is going to be very useful to me when I hit my final weight and finally go on that shopping spree I’ve been planning. All you do is pick whether you want UK or US stores, inches or centimeters, and then put in your measurements. Right now the app tells me,

Your closest fits are probably:

  • Top: Express size 16
  • Skirt: New York & Co size 18
  • Dress: Express size 16

Being supremely unfashionable, I wear pants most of the time, so I wish those were included. Maybe the skirt size works for pants too? [Edit: Ms. Powell-Smith let me know on Twitter that skirt and pants sizes were the same at most stores.] Regardless, it will be neat to put my measurements in as I continue to lose weight and see what my sizes change to.

The US stores included in the app are Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle, Ann Taylor, Anthropologie, Banana Republic, Express, Forever 21, Gap, H&M, Hollister, J Crew, New York & Co, Old Navy, The Limited, and Urban Outfitters. I am pretty sure I have never bought anything from any of these places! I think I remember trying on a blouse in Ann Taylor once. And I walked into a Gap one time, but all their sizes looked too small, so I walked right back out. So yeah…when the time comes, this is going to be an adventure.

Augusta’s proposed new Walmart

Despite the fact that it’s been nearly a year since I moved away from Augusta, I still feel deep ties to the city. It was my home for eight years, and in that time I made lifelong friends and developed a strong attachment to the CSRA’s natural beauty and culture. As such, I still keep up with a lot of what’s happening back in my second home.

Today I learned through my friend Kenny that a new Walmart is planned for the Augusta area. The “two-state” (as some hate to call it) currently boasts five Walmarts: off Deans Bridge in “south Augusta”, off Bobby Jones in Martinez, off Washington Road in Evans, off I-20 in Grovetown, and off Knox Avenue in North Augusta, SC. The new proposed location is in the Forest Hills shopping center at Wrightsboro Road and North Leg, roughly between the Deans Bridge and Bobby Jones locations. Here is a beauteous map:

View Augusta-Area Walmarts in a larger map

My first reaction upon hearing the location was that it seemed like a good spot for a Walmart. A lot of people live over that way who would rather drive up to Martinez than go down to the Deans Bridge Walmart. Thinking about it further, that seems like a classist opinion…south Augusta isn’t going to get any nicer if people continue to treat it like the red-headed stepchild. And now that I look at the map, I can feel myself slowly migrating towards Kenny’s reaction, which was:

Cause Augusta needs ANOTHER Walmart… What in the actual hell?

Others have pointed out that traffic at that intersection, which is something like a block or two away from two major shopping centers (Augusta Mall further down Wrightsboro and the Augusta Exchange up on Wheeler), is already insane, and this would make things even worse.

Still, you can’t deny the demand for a place like Walmart, especially with the double whammy of our current economy and a low-income, low-cost-of-living place like Augusta. Many specialty stores have considered coming to town, only to eventually back out. The one that finally made it, Costco, is a bargain-hunting boutique. There are higher-end shopping options in Augusta, especially at the Augusta Mall, which saw extensive renovations in recent years. It remains to be seen whether those will last. Meanwhile, I’m not sure the city can sustain much beyond what it already has, for the simple fact that people in Augusta don’t make enough money.

There are wealthy people in the area, don’t get me wrong. But they are hardly the majority. Augusta sees big spending during one week in April; for that one week, people who do have money come into town and spend a lot of it, and Augusta is made glamorous and even ritzy. For the rest of the year, Augusta is a place where–for example–the arts are in a constant struggle for survival, even when the economy is good, because most people don’t make enough money for art to be a high priority.

We’ve seen that for the common worker, wages and salaries have plateaued for decades. In a city like Augusta, where the cost of living is quite low, that means the opportunity for real growth is small. Ultimately, the economy depends on the people infusing it with money. When the people don’t have any money, no growth is possible. (And a tax cut isn’t going to help someone who doesn’t have anything to begin with. What she needs is a higher wage.)

So you can see why, in this sort of environment, a store like Walmart would thrive. Why people would want and even need the convenience and low prices. Why it actually isn’t strange to plant a sixth Walmart within the same roughly 120 square mile area.

Depressing, yes. But strange? Not at all.

Farmers markets: Earth Fare and downtown Augusta

Yesterday I decided to check out two local farmers markets: the Earth Fare Farmers Market in Columbia County, and the downtown Augusta Market. Since Earth Fare’s market runs from 9 a.m. to noon, and it was 11 o’clock, I went there first; after that I headed up Riverwatch to Augusta’s market, which is open until 2 p.m.

The Earth Fare market is just getting started, which may explain why it seemed small. There were only a handful of stalls; it was intimate enough that I didn’t feel comfortable using my camera, so instead I bought some tomatoes ($2.50/lb) and a watermelon ($2) and left. There were other items for sale, but I only remember the local honey.

The Augusta Market, on the other hand, felt like a mini festival. At least 50% of the stalls had nothing to do with produce. There was pottery, woodworking, clothes, jewelry, and plenty of junk food.

Augusta Market

I purchased two potatoes and two green peppers (total: $2) from a vendor who didn’t strike me as a farmer. Later my friend Kelly told me that most vendors at the Augusta Market are regional distributors trying to get rid of excess inventory.

I then wandered over to Garden City Organics‘ booth and got some green beans ($2) and an eggplant ($4; they gave me both items for $5 total).

Garden City Organics

In all, I’d say the markets were a good experience. I think if I’m looking for local veggies at low cost and I happen to be able to go somewhere on Saturday morning, I’ll hit up the Earth Fare market. Otherwise, I’ll just go to Garden City Organics’ shop on Broad Street.

More pictures here.

Look at my new table OMG

I went shopping for clothes today. So obviously I came home with a table and a fake orchid ;>

It all started at Cato, where I actually did get some clothes. But when I went to Target on the recommendation of Lisa at work, I remembered why I never buy clothes at Target: the women’s section and the maternity section are essentially the same, and I don’t want to buy maternity clothes by mistake :P

But I did enjoy wheeling my cart through the furniture section, and it was there that I found my beautiful table and orchid, along with some mirrors, a shiny red tray, and a little lamp.

Okay, so I’m compulsive. But I love the way that bit of wall looks with that little table on it. So…finished. :)