The Budget-Friendly Recipe Book: French Onion Soup

I love cooking and baking at home, and I also love it when I can do them at home in a budget-friendly manner.  Eating at home is always cheaper than eating out to begin with, but there is a certain rush that I get when I can get something on the table that tastes amazing, was pretty low-effort, and only cost pocket change to make.

A few posts ago I talked about how we’re trimming down financial waste in the kitchen, and I figured why not share some recipes once in a while that fit in nicely with that theme?  So here’s a new series for you all — The Budget-Friendly Recipe Book.

And we’ll start with one of our favourites around here:  French onion soup.

 

The Owls’ Nest French Onion Soup

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If you’ve ever bought a giant bag of onions because it was so cheap but then have no idea what to do with them, look no farther than French onion soup.  Also, the method below calls for a fresh loaf of bread that you toast up in the oven, but if you happen to have some bread going stale in your kitchen, this recipe is a perfect way to use it so that you don’t waste it and don’t break your teeth trying to eat it.

It deviates a little from the traditional preparation of French onion soup, but trust me — it doesn’t stray too far from what you’d normally expect and it’s totally worth it.  It’s honestly my favourite soup because it’s simple to make, friendly on the household budget, and so delicious any time of year (but especially yummy on a rainy day).

Have a bowl of it on its own for a meal that’s light but terrifically satisfying, or for something more filling, fry up a Toulouse sausage and make a simple mesclun salad tossed lightly with lemon juice and olive oil.  The recipe below makes enough for 4  or 5 generous meal-sized servings but you can dish up smaller bowls if you’re having it as one part of a larger meal.

Ingredients:

  • 12-14 white onions (small to medium in size, depending on what’s in your giant bag of onions)
  • Olive oil
  • 250g diced pancetta or sliced bacon
  • Bay leaves
  • Herbes de provence
  • Cayenne pepper
  • 6 to 8 cups of stock (beef or vegetable)
  • Bread (such as a baguette)
  • Butter
  • Minced garlic (a few cloves of fresh garlic or 1 to 2 tbsp of pre-minced garlic from a jar)
  • Cheese (Gruyère is traditional, but you can try any cheese that melts down nicely such as Swiss, Jarlsberg, or sharp white cheddar)

Method:

  1.  Preheat oven to 375F/190C.
  2.  Peel, trim, and slice 12-14 white onions into thick wedges. Put onions in an oven-proof pot (such as an enamelled Lodge cast-iron dutch oven), toss them with a drizzle of olive oil to separate them and coat them evenly, and put in the oven.
  3. Check on onions every 15-20 minutes or so and stir.  They will caramelize and soften over the course of 1 to 2 hours.  The speed of this process depends largely on your oven (since every oven is slightly different) but the depth of browning is up to you.  Just remember, you’re going for rich caramel brown onions, not blackened ones!
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    If you’re wondering why on earth I’m telling you to bother with doing the onions this way instead of on the stovetop, there are a three main reasons why. First, onions can get really smoky in a pan on the stove, especially when trying to cook a large amount of them at once. Second, to make sure they don’t burn in the pan you have to keep stirring them around, meaning you’re standing over a smoky pan of onions trying not to ruin them. Third, when you have so many onions in one container it can actually be a little hard to make sure they’re all sufficiently cooked and caramelized — meaning you might end up biting into an undercooked onion which is just not what you want to be tasting in a soup like this. By cooking them in the oven in a big pot or dutch oven, you’re cooking them low and slow to allow for optimal caramelization, and doing so in a vessel that is incredibly good at getting everything inside it cooked.  You can also leave it in the oven on its own while you’re working on other parts of the dish or if you just want to go sit down for a while. With this method, the only way you’re going to end up with burned onions is if you literally forget you’ve got them in the oven.  You can also do this step ahead of time if you know you won’t have two hours on the day you want to have the soup; just keep them in the pot until you’re ready to make the rest of it.

     

  4. While onions are cooking, brown 250g of diced pancetta or sliced bacon in a nonstick pan until crisp.  Drain off fat and set aside.
  5. Spread butter and minced garlic on to several slices of bread. Toast them until they are crisp and set them aside to cool.  (Whatever type of bread you’ve chosen, you’ll need at least enough to be able to cover at the top of your soup in the bowls you have available.)
  6. Once onions are caramelized, remove them from the oven and add to the pot 1 or 2 bay leaves, 2 tsp of herbes de provence, a pinch of cayenne pepper, the cooked pancetta/bacon, and 6 to 8 cups of beef or vegetable stock. 
    IMG_7578

    If you’re looking closely you might notice that there are little purple specks in my herbes de provence.  The blend I use is from The Silk Road Spice Merchant and contains lavender — another slight twist on traditional ingredients that adds a little something special to this soup.  Don’t worry if your herbes de provence doesn’t have anything extra in it, though, because your soup will still taste amazing! In regards to the pinch of cayenne pepper, how big or small that pinch is you put in is entirely up to you.  If you don’t want any cayenne pepper in your soup then don’t add any — as it usually goes with home cooked food, it’s all up to your own personal taste!

     
  7.  Simmer the entire pot over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, for about 10-15 minutes.  If there are any browned bits (fond) stuck to the sides of your pot, scrape them down as you stir, because the fond adds a nice dimension of flavour to the finished soup.  This soup won’t reduce very much in 10 to 15 minutes, but you can definitely let it simmer for much longer if you want a thicker consistency and a more concentrated flavour.
  8. Taste your soup and see if it needs any salt and/or pepper.  Depending on your pancetta/bacon and your soup stock you might not need any extra salt, so be sure to taste your soup before you season it!  Also, when you taste it don’t forget to try and get a little bit of everything — a piece or two of pancetta or bacon, a few of those soft caramelized onions, and a good spoonful of broth — so that you’re getting as full a flavour profile as possible from your tasting spoon.
  9.  To serve, remove the bay leaves from the soup and ladle the soup into your bowls.  Place your garlic butter toast on the surface of the soup and top it off with sliced cheese.
  10. Put your bowls on a baking sheet/cookie tray and broil for 5 minutes in the oven until the cheese is melted and golden-brown.  Keep an eye on it and do not leave the kitchen — unattended food under the broiler has a knack for charring to a blackened mess very quickly!
  11. Enjoy!

 

Less is so much more

My husband and I are not minimalists by any means. Personally, my version of hell is a white room that has a white rug, three pieces of white or clear furniture, a lamp, and one or two succulents in it, but nothing else.   I’m not bashing anyone who loves this particular style and who can live happily in it – all I’m saying is that I don’t and I can’t. I can appreciate how clean and bright it looks but what I can’t wrap my head around is living in a space that brings to mind that white room in The Matrix.

Together, my husband and I didn’t exactly do the entire KonMari method, but we did keep things that we love and that make us feel cosy and happy in our home. And while we aren’t minimalists by any means, we are happy that paring down our possessions has allowed us to style our home in a way that truly reflects who we are. In the great purge we discovered old treasures that had been hidden away for years and made rom for them out in the open so that we can enjoy them every day and share them with our guests.

But getting to this point has been pretty much as long as our entire marriage.

By the time my husband and I were married and living together, we had been living on our own or with college roommates for about ten years each. Our households collided in the most spectacular domestic train wreck imaginable. When we were finally able to start sorting through everything after all my belongings were moved in, we discovered that we had way too much mismatched flatware, four hair dryers (two of which my husband didn’t even realize he still had), two toasters, two fondue sets (still in the box), six incomplete or mismatched sets of measuring cups and spoons, and more chairs than the maximum number of people we could ever have over at one time.

Fast forward about a year later to us sitting together in our tiny bathroom – me on the toilet, him on the edge of the tub, our cat on his lap and our dog at my feet – as we stared at a positive pregnancy test and realized: there’s no way we can have a baby here. Not only was our third-floor row house walk-up not really the greatest in terms of construction and size, we just had too many things and hadn’t had enough time or space since I’d moved in to really get rid of what really had to go.

A few months later, we were packing up again to move to a new apartment that was a little bit bigger and a lot better for our changing needs – and doing the biggest purge either of us have ever done of our belongings so that we could fit into a new apartment. Even an upgrade up to 900 square feet of indoor space with bigger balconies and more storage space (fun fact: we had only two cramped closets in the old place) we knew we had to be merciless in getting rid of belongings. In July 2018 we moved everything that made it past the first cut into our new place, and promptly realized we still had a lot to get rid of before we would be able to actually feel like we had a proper home.

When I went on maternity leave in October 2018, we were able to fully repaint and furnish the baby’s room, get rid of a few more boxes, and do two or three more trips to the donation center. Then our son arrived, and we were swept up into the sleep-deprived whirlwind of being first-time parents.

The last leg of our tidying up journey lasted from March of this year to just a few weeks ago. I still had boxes and bins staring at me from our shared home office, as well as one last huge box of clothes. I set myself a deadline: celebrating my husband’s 30th birthday (also my son’s 5th month milestone) in April. I strung up a motivational carrot: having my mother, sister, and brother-in-law over for coffee and cake. I motivated myself: watching some organization and cleaning routine videos on YouTube, and pep talking myself into a good headspace for getting work done.

Then I stared down my foes, and like Teddy Roosevelt I charged up the hill.

Sitting now in my clean, fresh home three weeks after that last push towards domestic tidiness, I am quite happy with the progress we’ve made and what we’ve accomplished in our home. I’m also particularly proud of myself for getting rid of so many things, including things that I’ve been lugging around since 2008 (or longer!) that I really didn’t need anymore – including journals that only seemed to have anger and sadness recorded in hem, textbooks that I barely used after I had finished the courses for which I’d bought them, and clothes that had never fit me at any stage of physical fitness.

Saying goodbye to things that were souvenirs of who I was during chameleonic and moody phases has actually helped me appreciate the experiences that formed me into the woman I am now, and realize that I didn’t need to hold on to every last artifact of my existence to feel whole anymore.  I just need the ones that continue to teach me, help me grow, and be happy where I am now.

Introducing TWO New Demipinte Series

As of today, I’ve been on maternity leave since October 2018. Our son was born in November 2018 and my husband wrapped up his paternity leave in January 2019. We’re now in April, which means I have been flying solo as a full-time homemaker for five months.

Not only do I spend my days raising our son, I also spend them doing chores. Anyone who knows me and/or who has lived with me will know that there are some chores that I really can’t stand doing. Ever since moving out of my parents’ house at 18 I’ve been something of an undomestic goddess: I am very good at making messes in the name of DIY projects and culinary adventures, but not so good at cleaning up right away.

But now that we have a human baby and two furbabies, those days of letting any of my chores pile up are long behind me. In the name of sanitary and sane living for our entire family, my mornings and evenings are ruled by a chore rotation that allows me to keep things orderly in the small spaces of time I have that aren’t devoted to the baby.

And on top of keeping a baby alive while keeping our home clean, I’ve also been put in charge of our finances. Up until now my husband has been our CFO, but we both decided that it was finally time for me to take the reins and learn how to properly manage a true grown-up budget. It’s not like I’ve never managed money – I managed my own when I was single and scraped by – but now as a married adult with a child managing money is an entirely different challenge. In addition to keeping our living expenses reasonable, we are working on paying off the last of our debt as well as finally starting to set aside proper savings.

As both the new family CFO and head of household maintenance, I’m constantly trying to keep our finances well in the black without us losing a comfortable and decent standard of living. In the last few months I’ve learned a lot and I know as we progress through my maternity leave and eventually back into me being a working mother I’ll keep learning.

But right now I feel like I’m ready to start sharing what I’ve learned so far with you!  In light of this, I’ll be breaking down my experiences into separate blog posts in two new Demipinte Series called Snazzy Shoestrings, which is all about how we’re living happily while cutting costs and reducing our expenses, and  Spending Smart for the Home On… for my personal insights on very specific items that we own versus more popular versions of the same thing.

Today I’ll be doing the two of them together, but going forward I might split them into separate posts especially if they don’t relate to one another.  However, this week the Snazzy Shoestrings subject works really well with the one for Spending Smart, so it just seemed right to launch them together in one post.

Now, before we begin I will say that some of these are things we’ve been doing ever since we first started dating and others are things we started when we became parents, but they’ve all saved us a fairly decent amount of money to date.  Also, I’m not sponsored by any brands or companies and I’m not earning any money off this blog at this point in time.

Alright.  Here we go!

 

Snazzy Shoestrings
Reducing Household Waste:  The Food Budget

We’re not a zero-waste family and at this point in time, becoming one is not a goal we have in mind. But what we are striving for is a reduction in our physical household waste so that we reduce financial waste, especially in our food budget.  We found a lot of waste in our groceries (overbuying food or forgetting about what we bought were our biggest pitfalls) and in eating out (we ordered take-out more in our son’s first year of life than we did in all of 2018 prior to his birth). We approached this challenge from a couple of different angles.

We keep a master list of core items and food staples for the rest of our regular meals at home and we only buy what we need of perishables. We revise this master list every few months and we shop for these at various markets and grocery stores so that we can take advantage of what fresh local produce is in season as well as any weekly sales or flyer deals, and depending on where we shop any given week we also have opportunities to use store rewards programs such as PC Optimum to trade in points we’ve collected on previous purchases for a monetary amount off a larger grocery bill.

We do have a Costco membership as well, since shopping at Costco can give you a really good bang for your buck if you do it right. Some of the few prepackaged foods we eat as well as many of our bulk food items and non-edible household essentials are priced better at Costco than other stores we have access to where we live, so we get them there while store-hopping around each week for everything else.

One thing we decided to invest in was a GoodFood subscription. Having the GoodFood subscription gives us new recipes to try without us overbuying items we normally don’t buy, and gives us a break from our usual menu without the price tag of eating out or having food delivered. Our plan is the basic box of three meals (two servings per meal) each week, which costs us $65 CAD. It’s still not as cheap as cooking entirely from scratch for those three meals, but it’s not as expensive as eating out whenever we’re tired of our staple, more basic home-cooked meals. What we really like about the GoodFood box is that we get exactly what we need for each meal, we’re sticking to our policy of eating produce that’s in season, we’re supporting local farmers, and all of the packaging can be recycled or reused.

By the way, we still do leave room in our budget for restaurant food, but by setting a hard limit on what we can spend on restaurant food every month we’ve managed to drastically reduce our expenditure on restaurants. What’s nice about our restaurant budget is that whatever we don’t spend on restaurants in one month gets carried over into the next month, so once in a while we can afford to go out somewhere really nice for a special occasion like a birthday or anniversary. In fact, the prospect of being able to have a special date somewhere really nice is such a motivator that sometimes we actually don’t eat out at all one month so that for the next month we have double our restaurant budget.  And we’re not above using Groupon vouchers from time to time, either.

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Working to reduce not only what we spend on food but also on actual food waste means overall we’re saving a fair amount every month in this budget category. Food you throw out, no matter how cheap it was, is still wasted money.

Are you also trying reduce your spending on your food budget without resorting to the eating habits of a broke college student?  How are you getting the most bang for your buck out of your groceries?  Let us know in the comments below!

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And now for…

Spending Smart for the Home On…
…Carbonated Water

We stopped buying carbonated beverages a long time ago, including carbonated water , but we actually drink sparkling water pretty much every day.  And we drink a lot of it.

Instead of buying Perrier or San Pellegrino, we use a carbon dioxide (CO2) cylinder to get our fix of fizz. We actually opted for a rented CO2 tank over a SodaStream machine, which is widely recommended when you’re trying to consume less sugary soda but  also keeping up at home with your cravings for bubbles in order to reduce the cost of doing so.  For example, The Financial Diet channel on YouTube cites the SodaStream in a few of their videos as an appliance worth investing in to save you money in the long run.

Before we go any further and start talking about how much things cost, I’m going to point out now that nothing below factors in sales tax, which where we live (Quebec) works out to about 15%.  However, because here in Canada the listed price doesn’t include the tax when you’re shopping, I’m going to follow that model and give all the figures as pre-tax amounts.

Here’s a basic rundown of SodaStream prices, using figures in Canadian dollars from their Canadian website as well as prices from Canadian Tire:

  • Starter pack: Anywhere from $89.99 for the cheapest model at Canadian Tire to $199.00 for the most expensive one on the SodaStream site; starter pack includes machine and one cylinder of CO2
  • Accessories: As shown on the SodaStream site, accessories range from bottle caps at $3.79 for 2 to bottles from $9.99 for one 1L bottle to $19.99 for a 3-pack of 1L bottles; and fancier 1L glass carafes for $15.99
  • Flavour packs: Individual packs at $5.49 for Drops, $6.99 for Classic, $7.99 for Waters, and $9.99 for Organics, or a variety pack of 3 Fruit Drops flavours for $11.99
  • Spare/extra CO2 cylinder measuring 14.5oz (just under 1lb) of CO2 to create 60L of fizzy water: $35.99 at Canadian Tire or $39.99 from SodaStream’s website, then extra for the gas refill

Using our own realistic purchasing habits and reasonings as a guide for a SodaStream purchase, let’s say my husband and I made an initial purchase of the following SodaStream products:

  • cheapest starter pack:  $89.99
    (comes with a tank and a machine as do all the starter kits but it’s $30 cheaper than the next model up)
  • one glass carafe: $15.99
    (this is me being extra — it’s for when we’re having a nice meal with people and the table setting needs to look pretty and Instagram-worthy)
  • one two-pack of extra caps:  $3.79
    (since caps tend to get misplaced around here)
  • one spare cylinder:  $35.99
    (so we don’t have to rush immediately to the store for a refill every time a cylinder runs low, we can pop the next one in and wait to/forget to replace the first one for  a week)
  • one flavour pack:  $6.99
    (we actually don’t flavour our fizzy water, but I’ll be honest and say that if we were to buy a SodaStream we’d want to try at least one Classic flavour)

Even going for the cheapest starter pack possible, our hypothetical SodaStream system would cost us $152.75 for the initial purchase, pre-tax.

With a rented CO2 cylinder we’re still able to carbonate our own water at home. Our CO2 cylinder rental from a company here in Montreal called Air Liquide and it’s huge:  it’s 50lbs of CO2. We store it in the kitchen next to our water cooler.

If you’re wondering why we would bother with a gigantic, unwieldy thing full of carbon dioxide that takes up floor space instead of purchasing a machine that can sit elegantly on our counter and doesn’t look so scary, we’ll have to do some math.  Actually, a fair bit of it.  Here we go:

  • cylinder rental (50lbs cylinder for 1 year): $75.00
  • gas lock line & carbonator cap:  $30.99 
  • regulator:  $56.99
  • 3 reusable glass jugs that originally held 64L of beer each: Free
    (an old roommate of mine bought them for the beer, I kept them to reuse as serving jugs)
  • 1 each of empty 500mL, 1L, and 2L plastic soda bottles:  Free
    (we get these as we need them from our friends and family whenever they have empty ones — they have to be bottles that contained soda or other carbonated beverages in order to properly introduce the CO2 to the H2O)

Pre-tax total initial investment:  $162.98. That’s $10.23 more up front than the SodaStream system, but hang on a sec.  We’ve got some more math in terms of the cost for consuming fizzy water using both methods, but for the sake of simplicity I will not factor in SodaStream flavourings (and realistically for my husband and myself we’d either not finish the flavouring within a year because it’d get lost at the back of the fridge, or we’d just not bother buying more once it’s gone.) From here on out we’re talking just bubbly H2O.

With a SodaStream, one cylinder is 14.5oz — which is a little under one pound, but for the sake of easier math let’s call it 1lb.  The 1lb SodaStream cylinder produces 60L of fizzy water, so if we drink 1L of carbonated water per day, it should take us 60 days, or roughly two months, before we need a new cylinder.  At Canadian Tire, we can exchange an old cylinder a new one is $19.99 ($16 off the original price of $35.99 for a brand-new one).  Even with two canisters we’d only be replacing one at a time, so instead of replacing one canister six times we’d be replacing two canisters three times each. In a year the refills for just the CO2 every two months or so would cost us $119.94, bringing the first year of owning a SodaStream to $272.69 before taxes.  

Now, for the CO2 cylinder system.  Going by the same math as SodaStream (1lb of C02 producing 60L of carbonated water), the 50lb tank gives 3000L of carbonated water.  We’d have to drink 3000L of carbonated water in a year to empty the tank so as to require a refill in the first year, which is ridiculous — but even though we don’t require a refill, it still costs us $75 a year as a rental.  Still, though, $75 a year is still $44.94 cheaper per annum than SodaStream refills.

To deplete the 50lbs tank entirely, we’d need to drink 1L of fizzy water every day for 8 years.  Without inflation (again, for the sake of simpler math) the rental cost per year would be $600. Under the same parameters our SodaStream refills, on the other hand, would total up to $959.42.  So, over 8 years in our home, a rented CO2 cylinder would be $359.42 less than a purchased SodaStream.

Here’s an extra little kicker:  the cost of $119.94 per annum for SodaStream refills assumes a steady, unchanging consumption of 1L of carbonated water every day for a year.  A household than consumes more than 1L of carbonated water per day will require more frequent cylinder replacements, driving the cost higher to own and use a SodaStream every year.  However, because a CO2 cylinder rental is a flat rate per year regardless of how much CO2 has been used in that year, consuming more carbonated water each day with a CO2 cylinder doesn’t end up costing more per year.  It might need to be refilled in 5 or 6 years instead of 8, but it still only costs $75 a year regardless of how much you consume that year.

And let’s say you’re a normal person who can drink flat water every day and only occasionally consumes carbonated water, but is thinking of investing in a SodaStream to enjoy homemade fizzy water a couple of times a week.  Here in Canada, 12L of Perrier at Costco (24 bottles of 500mL each) is $24.99.   Now let’s say your version of occasionally consuming carbonated water is 1L per week.  At that rate it’ll take you 12 weeks to get through that one case of Perrier.  Expand this to 1L per week for 52 weeks to go for an entire year this way, which means you’re consuming 4.5 cases of Perrier in a year.  Round that up to 5 cases for the sake of simple math, and that’s $124.95 for a year’s worth of bubbling water for you.

If you were to buy the SodaStream system as represented in my household’s simulation above at a cost of $152.75 to fulfill fizzy water consumption of 1L a week, you do not break dead even with your initial investment within one year and you would not even start on your extra cylinder.  A more realistic investment for somebody only consuming 1L of carbonated water a week would be just the starter kit, but if you go for the extra cylinder on the mere possibility that you might consume more carbonated water if you can make it yourself, that would cost you $125.98. 

While it’s a difference of only $1.03 it still means your Perrier habit costs less than the most basic SodaStream setup with an extra canister that you may or may not use.  If you cut out the extra cylinder for the dead-basic initial investment of $89.99, then you save $34.96 a year on carbonated water on 1L a week, and that is the only scenario in which a SodaStream works out to be cheaper than just buying Perrier at a consumption rate of 1L per week.

Still here?  Okay.  Let’s say you’re one of those people who’s looking at a basic SodaStream to replace consuming Perrier Slim cans once or twice a week.  Here in Canada a 10-pack of 250mL Perrier Slims is $4.95.  If you consume one can each week, it’ll take you 10 weeks and you’ll need 6 packs for an entire year, spending a whopping $29.70.  Consuming two cans a week will have you spending $59.40, which is $30.59 cheaper than the cheapest SodaStream without any extras.

BONUS ROUND:  Remember how I said above that none of my figures here account for Quebec’s 15% tax rate?  If you still feel like getting whacked across the face with figures, multiply all the totals I provided by 1.15 and you’ll get an even better idea of the cost of consuming bubbly water at home is around here!