Ben’s best friend came for a visit this weekend. He claimed he had two goals: to hang out with us and to get some seafood. Seafood is plentiful around here, obviously, but can get expensive. It’s a lot cheaper to buy it raw and then cook it at home. It’s also a lot easier to cook at home than to take a 4 year old and a 2 year old to a restaurant. So get seafood turned into sit and wait around for the seafood to be cooked and then help yourself. And I got to do it in yoga pants, so that was fine by me.

We live in Creole territory. Mobile and New Orleans were actually founded by a pair of French brothers, so Mobile’s history is as deeply infused with Creole and French influences as New Orleans. Mobile, in fact, actually is the site of the first Mardi Gras celebrations in the US, having done up their first party something like seventeen years before New Orleans began theirs. Our festivities tend to the tamer side of things, however, and we are much less known for our wild night life. But I digress. Back to the Creole influence.

Ben works at this old, historic church. Many of its current members are direct descendants of its founding members. Their Creole blood runs deep. Every year, the members of their Episcopal Church Women’s Group do a fundraiser where its members make and serve gumbo. This is one of the most exciting aspects of being married to a priest at that church, because the priests are each given two quarts of frozen gumbo to take home with them. I think ours last an average of about two weeks in the freezer. Cooking the gumbo is a several day process for them, and it shows. I had assumed this recipe was some top-secret, closely guarded family heirloom type…until right before Christmas. A friend, who goes to another church in town, invited us over for gumbo at her house. Gumbo that she’d purchased for one of her church’s guild’s fundraisers. Lo and behold, it was the exact same, or at least close enough that I, with my non-Creole blood and limited exposure to gumbo, couldn’t tell the difference.

That gave me some real hope. If two churches in town were cooking the same exact recipe for gumbo, that recipe had to be written down somewhere. And I would find it. I enlisted my husband to search the kitchen for the recipe. He came up empty-handed. But then he brought home an old cookbook the church put out back in the fifties. That had a gumbo recipe in it. That, it turns out, was the exact same recipe that was in the new cookbook they just put out last year. That has been sitting in my kitchen since the books came back from the publisher. Detective (and logical first place to look) fail. But my loss in dignity is a gain for the world of blogs, because I’m sharing it here, in all its gloriousness. Now no one shall have to go without gumbo for want of a recipe.

Makes as many servings as you can possibly squeeze out of it (bread helps)

  • 5 TB fat*
  • 2 TB flour
  • 1.5 pounds okra, cut in small crosswise slices*
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 can chopped tomatoes
  • 1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/4 tsp dried thyme
  • 2.5 quarts (that’s 10 cups) water
  • 6 crabs*
  • 1 lb shrimp, peeled and deveined*
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp pepper

Brown the flour in the fat in a heavy iron skillet. The original recipe says “bacon fat is good.” Take it from me: bacon fat is a bitch to obtain. You can’t just cook bacon and then use that (unless you were cooking a whole lot of bacon, but even then you’d still have issues) because it’s best to strain the fat before the bacon pieces in the fat go rancid. Which means that unless you’re making enough bacon to yield 5 tablespoons of fat, you’re going to have to do the double straining through cheesecloth method a lot to get what you need. I’ve used half bacon fat and half oil and now whole oil and honestly couldn’t tell the difference. Any neutral oil works. When it says “brown flour,” it means brown. You want it to be the color of Hershey’s syrup. This takes a lot of time stirring and watching, but it’s worth it and it’s where the bulk of the work in making gumbo comes in.

Almost there

While the flour is browning in the fat, pour 10 cups of water into a stock pot. Bring it to a boil and add crabs. This is where I most deviated from the recipe. It calls for 6 whole crabs with the claws separated from the bodies. My understanding of gumbo is that it came about as a way to use up leftover seafood, which meant everything was, I suppose, freshly caught. Which means intact crabs. I am sure there is a place where I could buy whole crabs and complete the necessary surgery to separate bodies and claws. But I’m not there yet. Bruno’s, a local grocery store, seems to empathize with people like me and they sell random remnants of snow crabs in very reasonably priced packages. I got mine for like $6. I just threw them in the boiling water for a few minutes and then pulled them out.

While the crabs/crab pieces are in the water, add the okra and the onion to the roux. I used frozen okra, so it was already cut up and I just thawed it under cold water for a few minutes before adding it. Stir frequently until the onion softens. If you have access to crab bodies and are using them, add them now. If not, add the tomatoes and cook on low for another 15 minutes. Use this time to get the meat out of the crab pieces that were boiling earlier. Keep the water at a low simmer.

After 15 minutes, transfer the okra, onion, tomatoes, and crab meat to the simmering water the claws were cooked in. Stir in the bay leaf, thyme, garlic, salt, and pepper. I also add in dark meat leftovers from roast chicken because it blends in well with the crab meat and it gets rid of the meat so I don’t feel wasteful. Maintain a constant, low simmer. Cook for at least an hour and a half, uncovered.

 

Now for the shrimp. The church’s gumbo has these tiny, tiny shrimp that almost look like they should be food for bigger fish. A friend of mine–native to this area–says she doesn’t think they’re Gulf Coast natives. I have no idea if she’s right, but it doesn’t matter because I couldn’t find them anyway. I ended up buying a 2 lb bag of individually frozen shrimp from a local grocery store (that had been locally caught). I thawed them under cold water for a minute or two, and then cut them in half. I’d recommend buying the smallest shrimp possible, but make sure they’re not farmed in China and remember they can always be cut. Buying them this way saved me the disgusting trouble of deveining them–if you’ve ever deveined, you know not having to devein is totally worth a little added expense. Saute the shrimp in about a tablespoon of butter until they’re done. Shrimp cooks fast and can be overcooked easily, so they need to be closely watched.

Add the shrimp to the gumbo and cook for half an hour more. During this final cooking, make some rice. I use a red quinoa, wheat, brown rice, and wild rice blend I got at Target, but any kind of rice works. Once the rice is done, take a scoop and throw it in a bowl. Ladle some gumbo on top and proceed with caution—it will be really, really hot. Oh, and be sure to remove the bay leaf. I would also recommend having some bread on hand for sopping up whatever your spoon or fork misses.

This, as I alluded to above, freezes very well. I scooped out two ladle fulls and put them into a plastic container for us to have within the next few days, and then cooled down the remaining portion in the pot by putting it into a large bowl filled with ice water. Then I poured it into a freezer bag, drew all the air out of it that I could, flattened it out, and put it on a cookie tray in the freezer. It’ll freeze flat like that, which makes it easier to store since it takes up a lot less room than a quart container would.

There you have it: the not so secret recipe that has haunted me for 3 years now. This is kind of an expensive one to make unless you’re catching your own shrimp and crab, but it’s still a lot cheaper than getting it out. And you can keep your yoga pants on.

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Uh, yeah…

Two posts and then nothing for a month. So, yeah, about par for the course.

Well, for us, February has officially begun, at least fiscally speaking. I was pleasantly surprised with how responsible January seemed to be, right up until that last week. We went for two and a half weeks without eating out, which meant that even when no one felt like cooking and the pantry seemed bare, we still managed to find something to eat. Then Ben spent the day with his youth kids and we met them for dinner at a Mexican restaurant. The church covered that meal, but our proverbial cherry had been popped and you know what happens then: total indulgence. I am not usually a fan of Mexican restaurants (I prefer making my own Mexican-like food), but this one was really good. In an act of irresponsibility, I proposed that we re-visit it a few days later for a kid free lunch. But before that, we’d hung around to see him at the church after he preached and strong-armed him into going to Five Guys. Then we accompanied him on a short day trip and had to get lunch while out. Five Guys again. Then for being such good sports on our trip, everybody got (not even Happy Hour priced!) milkshakes at Steak ‘n Shake. It is a slippery slope from being responsible to all out gluttony, I tell ya. Here’s to hoping we can resist the temptation more strongly in February.

On the debt front, our lowest balance card was paid off. It was done by using the system I talked about earlier, where we paid it in installments rather than all at once. I really liked the built-in safety net that afforded us. I’ve already set up to pay another card off using the same system. This may sound silly, but the card paid off in January was a Home Depot card with a 0% balance. For some reason, paying it off doesn’t seem that grand. This current card, though, is a true “credit card” with an actual (not unreasonable, but still present) interest rate. I’ll be happy to see it go, but I know the real work is ahead of us, because we have a $5000+ balance and an almost $5000 balance to attack next. I’d still love to find a way to wring $1000 each month from our budget to throw at one of those each month.

I found the one real problem with the cash only grocery system: if we need something and it’s on Ben’s way home, he’ll stop at the store and get it. He uses a debit card, so each week I’ve had to add up transactions from our bank’s website to the cash I’ve taken out to see how much has been spent/how much to deduct from next week’s grocery total. That’s kind of a pain, so I’m thinking I’ll give him $50 or so at the beginning of the month and subtract that from the $500 total.

One of the ways I’ve been able to stay pretty much on budget for grocery shopping is by making a lot of soup. It helps that it’s January, but frankly, this January has been so bizarre in terms of weather (lots of days where the high reaches above 70, which is rare even for the Gulf Coast) that it being January is just an excuse. I’d make the soups even if it was June, because they’re cheap. One of our family favorites is taco soup. I think I’ve made it four or five times this month. I follow the linked recipe, but make some cheaper substitutions. I use dried beans, no meat, and frozen corn instead of canned. I also make my own taco and ranch seasoning, courtesy of Pinterest. We top the soup with tortilla chips (Target’s White Corn are the BEST!), cheese, and, for some of us, sour cream. I’ll usually set aside enough to have for lunch the next day and then freeze the rest. By making a whole bag of beans (I use dried pinto and red kidney beans), I have enough to split the cooked beans into three batches, which I freeze and just throw in when I make a new thing of soup. I try to undercook the beans a bit because they’ll cook more in the crock pot. And just because I am somewhat OCD and this has become a habit of mine lately (trust me, my roasted chicken breakdown is a study in anal retentive-ness), let’s do the math on this soup, shall we?

  • 1 can Hunt’s petite diced tomatoes: $1.00
  • 1 can Rotel tomatoes and chiles: $1.29
  • 1 1 lb bag dried kidney beans for 1.29/4 (because I made enough for 4 batches): $0.32
  • 1 2 lb bag dried pinto beans (I only cooked half the bag) for 2.29/2=1.14/4: $0.29
  • 1 bag frozen corn for 3.50, divided by 3 (because I only use a third): $1.17
  • 1 bag tortilla chips: $2.99
  • 1 cup cheese: $1.00

Grand total: $8.06/10 servings=$0.81 per serving

That’s half of what a regular order of fries at Five Guys costs.

So, anyway, that’s January. I have some (hopefully) cheap home improvement fixes planned that I (hopefully) will get around to writing about soon, too.

 

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The cold, hard number

My mother refers to the practice of avoiding uncomfortable introspection or confrontations as the “Ostrich Syndrome.” As in, bury your head in the sand and hope that either the situation changes without introspection or confrontation, or bury your head in the sand and pretend there was never a problem to begin with. I feel fairly confident in saying that our approach to our debt was the former and not the latter, which is a start? Maybe? We knew we had debt, we talked about it all the time. I made transferring balances into a high art form. We made plans all the time. Yet, nothing happened. I haven’t done the math, but I’d be willing to bet we’re at the same sum of accumulated debt that we were at four years ago. More, even, since we just bought a new car for many thousands of dollars more than the one we bought four years ago. And that’s kind of an issue when our household income is more than double what it was four years ago.

One of the consistent pieces of advice I’ve read on debt reduction is to start small. Get rid of the lowest debt first, regardless of interest rate, and work through them all like that. Along those lines, I also chose to start small in evaluating our debt. Which means that when I added it up I only included consumer debt on credit cards. The number is still staggering to me, but it’s a little more palatable than what it’d be if I added in twenty something thousand for the car, several thousand each for college loans, and several thousand for the idiotic loan we took out while my husband (heretofore referred to as “the Rev”) was in seminary.

I added it up yesterday. And I’m posting it here because it’ll keep me honest. The magic number is $11,833. All on credit cards. The breakdown: $5,401.97 on one, $4,884.85 on another, $876.67 on a third, and $671.00 on the last one. Two of them, the highest and the lowest, actually, are at 0% interest right now. The second highest is at 1.9% for over a year.

I wish I could even say definitively how it all got there. We have no trips to exotic, semi-exotic, or even remotely exciting destinations here. Our TVs are both 10 years old. Our laptops are fairly new, but both were paid for in cash (from the credit card pay-off section of the budget, naturally). Basically, this debt was accumulated by really doing a few things, the lessons from which I’ve taken and created our rules for paying it off.

  • Pay ourselves first. As a clergy family, we pay taxes quarterly (the IRS considers ministers self-employed). Thankfully, we got smart last year and decided to start actually setting money aside to pay quarterly taxes, rather than taking it quarterly from the money we allotted to debt repayment (more on that later). We even got a little smarter than THAT and decided to take out even more so we’d have money saved for Christmas presents or what have you. On top of that, we had a savings account attached to our bank account that deposited a dollar every time we used our debit cards. That was our first line of defense saving and the other account was the second. Except when it came to those things we were saving for, we always seemed to balk at withdrawing from savings. For some reason, it seemed better to put a $45 oil change at the end of the month (the Rev is paid once a month) on a credit card than to withdraw from our savings account. I don’t know where this logic came from, but it is not logical or smart. So, while we’ve already technically been doing Rule Number One, we’re going to actually have to start *using* that money. The plan is to save the same amount we did last year for taxes, and, since we switched banks a few months ago and now don’t have the benefit of automatic deposit into savings, to deposit at least $75 from each paycheck (roughly what was going into the savings account from the old bank) into the savings account connected to our checking account.
  • Budget. The ol’ “if you want to win the game, you’re going to need to score more touchdowns.” In other words, the obvious one. And one I’ve tried before. Many times. Along with the software. Nothing has worked. So this time I’m approaching it differently. The huge problem with budgeting when we wanted to pay down debt is that we often didn’t take into account other expenses we could incur, such as car maintenance, pest control, etc, and therefore when they arose, we’d just take the money from the line item reserved for debt. And then if we’d spent all that already, we would either put it on the credit card (likely) or cross our fingers we’d still have enough money to make it to the end of the month (less likely without transferring from savings). In the immortal words of Robin Morgan, “goodbye to all that.” Now I’m  making a line item even for things that don’t go out every month and putting it in the savings account. I know it’ll cost $78 every three months for pest control. So each month $25 is going into the savings account and will be withdrawn every three months (I figure we can cover the extra $3). The Rev drives an old car that’s oil only needs changing maybe twice a year because of the limited number of miles he drives it, but is also more inclined to need work every time it’s looked at. So $20 a month is going into the savings account for that. I know the budget won’t be perfect, but if the past is any indication of where our problems lie, hopefully being very, very specific will alleviate some of them.
  • The Envelope System. I’ve tried this before and it worked out ok. One of the drawbacks to it was that I’d withdraw all of what I’d budgeted at the beginning of the month. That made the Rev uncomfortable because he didn’t like me having large sums of cash on my person. So I started leaving some at home. But then it became kind of our go-to cash pile, and it was a lot easier to lose (I swear, I still wonder if I accidentally tossed $200 months ago). So now, my solution is to withdraw only what I’ve allotted each week for groceries and miscellaneous expenditures. If I end up needing more I’ll withdraw that, too, but must make a note of it so I adjust for that in subsequent weeks.
  • Leaving the debit card at home or in the car. This is one I’ve never tried before. I came up with it because it’s a hell of a lot easier to be less careful about shopping when I’m paying with a debit card rather than a set stack of cash. I might have to go Robin Morgan on the dollar section at Target, but I think I can live with that.
  • Paying off debt throughout the month. This is also a new-to-me strategy. I read about it here and really wanted to try it. As I’ve already said, one of our biggest mistakes/habits is to pull from the debt payoff pile or to have to resort to credit cards because we’ve overestimated the debt payoff pile or have unbudgeted expenses or just went over our budget entirely. Paying off a debt throughout the month–paying the same we would when the payment is due, just over the course of a month instead–is a way to address that. I followed the formula above to address the card with the lowest amount on it this month, and to hopefully pay it off entirely. That means making the minimum on the due date and then setting up extra payments that add up to the snowball amount. As I don’t have the expectation that we’ll be getting any extra income in January, I just subtracted the minimum payment from the total and then divided that by four to create an equal number of installments. I did this all through our bank’s online bill pay. This way, if we’ve budgeted wrong or sold ourselves short, I can cancel a payment if I need to. I like that flexibility.

So those are my rules for getting this taken care of. By my calculations, it should take a little over a year. I’d be so excited if we could get it done by Christmas 2012, though. Then maybe we’ll tackle that idiotic loan from seminary

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The Life

Two parents, two kids, one dog. A decent salary and a ton of debt. Specific ideas about parenting, feminism, and a lot of other things. Hear about it all here!

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