I Would Never Call This a Hardship Post But…

I’m a big fan of the Foreign Service blog, Hardship Homemaking. I mean, what would I have given to be able to read a blog like this when we were posted to Zambia many years ago? Probably my left arm. What an absolutely brilliant idea.

It’s looking like my hardship post days are over, but even Vienna is not without its challenges. Most of them are pretty minor: I get by with minimal German, for example. It’s not like I had to learn Chinese or something to survive here. And the weather is kind of disgusting for several months every year. OK, you expect that in Europe.

But, this place is expensive. I mean, like “WOW, I can’t believe I just paid that!” expensive. I can easily wind up paying almost $300 for one basket full of groceries and household items at the supermarket. Yes, we do get a COLA but still! We have never served at any post where the cost of living was more than in the States. Benefits of third world living and a strong dollar. So, we had some things to learn upon our arrival in Vienna.

A friend told me when I first arrived that her rule of thumb for shopping in Vienna was that anything that is not liquid or perishable is cheaper to order online. That is absolutely true, and I would add another category: does not need to be experienced in person. We live right downtown, surrounded by restaurants, cafes and bars. We definitely want to experience those in person, and we do, dining out about twice a week and not worrying about the bill when we do. But we do try to save money on everything else!

Obviously, we order most clothing online or wait until we get back to the States to shop. We also order other household stuff such as office supplies, non-liquid cleaning supplies, prescriptions and non-prescription items such as vitamins, and any toiletries that are allowed through the DPO. (Mostly from Drugstore.com and VitaCost.com.)

When we do buy (or dine) locally, we save all receipts that qualify (over 73 Euros for some arbitrary reason) and apply for a VAT refund every quarter. This takes about an hour to do, and nets us several hundred Euros every time.

Groceries are a little trickier, though. Every two or three weeks, we go to a big supermarket in the suburbs to stock up with lower prices than in the tiny downtown stores that we use on an everyday basis. We can also spend enough that way to get the VAT refund.

I try to order most items that we use frequently (and that aren’t very heavy) from Amazon. Right now, I have Subscribe and Save orders in for cat food, breakfast granola, coffee, tuna fish, laundry detergent pouches and dishwasher detergent pouches. Other items I order from Amazon, but not quite as frequently, include dried beans, raisins, and blueberries, peanut butter, snack foods and some baking supplies.

Dried beans are a big money saver even in the States, and much more so here, where a small can of beans can run $2 or more. I work at home, so I can easily cook them on the stove top or in a crockpot. I just freeze what I don’t use immediately. I like the bean-based soup mixes, too.

Secret weapons.
Secret weapons.

I also love Texas Star Nuts for 5 pound bags of chopped pecans and walnuts for (frequent) baking. I make banana-oatmeal breakfast muffins for my teenage son that are quite often the only healthy food he gets all day (sigh). The chopped nuts and dried blueberries are also good for sprinkling on otherwise boring local breakfast cereals.

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Squirrel food.
Power breakfast.
Power breakfast.

For local groceries, one of our major expenses is produce. We eat a lot of fruits and vegetables, and as much as we try to go for the less expensive in-season items, a person can only eat so many potatoes and carrots. I definitely have a southern palate, and am especially fond of greens. I even grit my teeth and pay $5 for a small bunch of chard or kale on occasion. And sweet potatoes, another southern staple in part because they are cheap back home. Yeah, those will run you $4 or $5 a pound here.

I did grow some chard, turnip greens, and green beans on my terrace this summer, but as you can see, we are a ways from growing season at the moment.

Don't even think about planting anything.
Don’t even think about planting anything here.

So, year-long, I look for items on sale, and try to waste no part of them. I’m trying to find ways to cook the less-expensive winter vegetables that I am not that crazy about. I just mastered red cabbage, for example. I’ve also gotten in the habit of putting everything out on the counter when I get home from the grocery store, turning on a podcast, and prepping all the vegetables for cooking right then and there. I’m kinda lazy when it comes to cooking dinner, you see, and I love having most of the work done in advance.

3-IMG_1105
From yesterday’s shopping trip: carrot sticks, sliced peppers, and sweet potatoes chopped and ready to go.  Last trip: broccoli and Brussels sprouts.

I have discovered that chard, kale, and even broccoli stems can be diced, frozen and added to soup later instead of (expensive) celery. In fact, I’ve gotten in the habit of making a big pot of bean and vegetable stew about once a week, usually with some good local sausage or meat tossed in. Add yummy local bread, or homemade corn bread, and you have yourself a good meal.

By the way, I loves my cast-iron Dutch oven. We have this weird glass-topped stove that pulses on and off, for some reason. Cast iron holds heat and cooks things evenly. I can just leave a soup to simmer for an hour or so and not worry about it boiling over or going cold.

Here’s one of my favorite recipes:

Lentil, Sausage and Vegetable Soup

Yield: about 6 servings.
Freezes well.

INGREDIENTS

1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
1 large onion, sliced thin
2 tablespoons olive oil
6 cups chicken stock OR 6 cups water and 6 teaspoons chicken bouillon
2/3 cup dry lentils
1/3 cup tomato paste
1 tablespoon light brown sugar
2 bay leaves
1 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes or to taste
1 1/2 cups diced celery OR chard stems OR broccoli stems OR fennel OR any combination of these.
1/2 cup diced carrots
About half a pound of good-quality sausage links (bratwurst works well)
About 2 cups washed and sliced greens (spinach, chard, kale, whatever you have on hand)
Freshly ground pepper
Salt to taste

DIRECTIONS

1. Heat the olive oil in a 4 quart pan.
2. When hot add the garlic and onions and cook over medium heat until soft.
3. Add stock, lentils, tomato paste, sugar, bay leaves and thyme.
4. Cover the pot and cook about 35 minutes until the lentils are tender.
5. Add the celery (or other options), sliced sausage, and greens to the pot and cook for 30 more minutes.
6. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

I also make fritattas and quiches to use up odds and ends. They make great lunches both at home, and at work. Here’s one I made this morning, with eggs, garlic, onion, one zucchini, half a package of mushrooms, leftover pasta, leftover pizza cheese, parsley, rosemary, and pepper. Basically, you saute the vegetables, chop up the pasta and stir it in, mix up 5-6 eggs and some cheese, pour that over the other ingredients, cover it, and let it cook slowly in the pan for a few minutes. I also like to turn it over and brown the other side, but you don’t actually have to do that. Slice it like a pie, store in Tupperware, and you have one-dish lunches for the rest of the week

Power lunch.
Power lunch.

So, that’s what I’m thinking (and blogging) about, on a snowed-in day in Vienna. Not so much “hardship” but the lessons we learn at every post. Keeps us on our toes, doesn’t it?

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13 comments

  1. I never owned a crock pot. I guess I didn’t see the need for it while I was home with the kids. But I got one a couple years ago, and I have found that it has simplified my life. I mention this because of your Dutch Oven. I used to do all my soups on the stove, but with the crock pot, I find they are even easier. I can ignore them and be safe. Just saying.

    Chicken Tortilla Soup

    2 lb chicken, cut into bite-site pieces (I prefer thighs)
    2 cans broth or equivalent
    1 medium onion, chopped (optional, saute in some oil til tender) can substitute dried chopped onion
    1 can diced green chilies
    1 can petite diced tomatoes
    1 tsp salt
    1/4 tsp pepper
    1 TBS cumin
    1 1/2 tsp oregano
    3 cloves garlic minced, or equivalent
    (You can substitute a package of taco seasoning for all these spices)
    If you like your taco stuff a little spicier, chop and add a hot pepper

    Put this all in a crockpot on Low or High (depending on how your crockpot performs) for a few hours.

    2 14 oz cans of beans or equivalent, drained and washed. (I like to use two colors)

    Once the chicken is cooked, add these and cook another hour.

    A couple handfuls of crushed taco chips (can be old and stale)…. Add for last half hour to thicken.

    Serve with chopped fresh cilantro on top, and a side of tortilla or cornbread.

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  2. I love my cast iron dutch oven. It can cook anything no matter how messed up my stove/stovetop are and it can take a beating in moves. This is an awesome post with some great tips! The pre prep veggie thing is one of my favorite things too. Saves me loads of time and mess.

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  3. I just started cooking and baking these past few years in Egypt. We’re lucky because we have a commissary so we can get most ‘regular’ items affordably. We’re rather unlucky because none of us have really learned to like Egyptian cuisine. So cooking and baking – that’s now what I do. And I think it’s really going well – I would have NEVER guessed I liked doing either so much! I can thank the “hardship” of Egyptian cuisine for that. 🙂

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  4. Heather, I couldn’t cook anything until we got overseas and I had to learn! It was a lot more difficult before the Internet, too. But now both me and my husband are pretty good cooks. I make a killer pizza if I do say so myself 🙂

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  5. In Mozambique I got into the habit of prepping all veggies right after coming back from the market. Was able to blanche spinach greens among other veggies to chop to freeze for recipes later, but for the weekly things we consumed it was nice to have my own “Subway buffet supply” – I just pull out the prepared items and combine with little mess/cleanup after cooking – which is the best part!

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  6. love this – i was frequently always baffled by my vienna grocery bills but oh well, the cost of living! i thought our expensive days were done though but hello, copenhagen! wow – when we did our scouting trip in november i popped by a grocery store and a hamburger patty, a single one was about $12 and i won’t even get into the cost of champagne ;)!

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  7. My brother and sister-in-law lived in Korea for 3 years and I remember when they moved back that they bought every flavor of coffee creamer that the store carried just because they could! The variety we have here in the States and the prices were something they missed 🙂

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  8. What a great website! Thanks for that tip. Living in Singapore is far from a hardship except for the cost of living! Yikes. $26 for mozzarella balls, $9 for Greek Yoghurt. It hurts to shop. But I suck it up and just buy what I love anyway.

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  9. I just met someone who was in Austria and they said that, while it was not a “hardship” tour they didn’t love living there. They are in Hong Kong now though and loving it so perhaps its just not fair that we (ok, me) all assume Europe to be “easy.”

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    • Austria is, without question, the easiest post we have ever had. So, basically, you are correct! It’s just that even in the easiest post in the world, there will always be something.

      Like

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