Monday, June 30, 2014

The Reverse SNAP Challenge

It's been a few years now since I first heard about the SNAP Challenge (formerly known as the Food Stamp Challenge), in which people attempt for one week to eat on a budget of $4.50 a day, the average benefit per person from the SNAP program. The problem with this, as I noted at the time, is that the way the challenge is designed makes it a lot harder to stick to this budget than it is over the long term. If we followed the rules of the challenge to the letter, we'd have to set aside all the food we currently have in our pantry and start over completely from scratch, buying an entire week's worth of food for $63. We wouldn't be able to buy in bulk, or wait for sales, or eat the fresh produce from our garden—some of the most important strategies we use to keep our food budget as low as it is. Thus, I concluded, even if we did manage to stay within the $63 budget for the week, we'd have to spend more on food for that week than we do in a normal week. And without access to all the goodies in our pantry and garden, we certainly wouldn't eat nearly as well during that one week as we normally do.

Because of these problems, I decided that it wasn't worth taking the SNAP Challenge. It wouldn't really prove anything, and it would be a waste of money. Just recently, however, as I reread that old post, it occurred to me that there's a simple way to get around these problems: we should just do the SNAP Challenge in reverse. Instead of buying all our groceries for the week out of a $63 budget and eating nothing else, we should just eat as we normally do, but keep track of every bite of food we eat and exactly what went into it. Then, at the end of the week, I should add up all these ingredients and figure out exactly how much we spent on them. Basically, it'll be like the way we did our rationing challenge last year, keeping track of our points as we went.

To help me with this challenge, I've rescued the past month's grocery-store receipts from the recycling bin, where I normally dump them after checking the charges against my credit card bill. (Okay, yes, I'm anal. So sue me.) Unfortunately, the receipts from Aldi, which only takes cash, aren't among them, and the receipt from our last trip has already been hauled away with last week's recycling. Some of the foods we bought on that trip are priced here, but many of our staple items, like raisin bran, rolled oats, and chocolate chips, are missing. So to supply those numbers, we'll have to stop into an Aldi store some time next week when we're in the vicinity and update our price book.

Another snag with this Reverse SNAP Challenge is dealing with free food. The terms of the original SNAP Challenge say to "Avoid accepting free food from friends, family, or while at work"—which seems like the exact opposite of what you would do if you really were on food aid. But I see the reason for it; free food isn't something you get every week, so it isn't really fair to count it as part of the week's eating. Thus, we'll have to postpone the start of this challenge at least until Thursday, since Brian is getting a free lunch at work on Wednesday. We've also been invited to a party on Friday, but it's a potluck, so I figure that's not really getting food for free; it's trading the food we bring for the food that others bring. So we'll just write down the ingredients used in whatever dish we make—most likely a rhubarb pie—and count that as our dinner for Friday evening.

That rhubarb raises another question. Is it fair to consume our own home-grown produce during this challenge? On one hand, a garden is a resource that most SNAP recipients probably don't have; but on the other hand, anyone who was on SNAP and did have a garden would certainly use it as much as possible. A version of the challenge run by a bona fide SNAP beneficiary says, "If you have a garden or farm animals, you absolutely can use them"—so this person, who certainly understands what it's really like to deal with food insecurity, thinks including garden produce in a food stamp budget is perfectly fair. I could, of course, try to calculate the actual cost of growing the produce that we eat during the challenge, but the math would be absurdly complicated; we know how much we've spent this year on seeds, plants, and compost, but how can you possibly figure out what percentage of that cost is represented by, say, a single zucchini? It would basically amount to sheer guesswork.

So I think the only fair thing to do is to calculate two separate totals for the week's spending: one for the amount of food that we actually bought, and one for the estimated value of the garden produce we used. I'll just check the price of each item in the store and multiply it by the amount we used, the way I did when trying to calculate the monetary value of last year's garden. Adding the two numbers together will give the total that we would have spent to eat exactly the same menu if we hadn't had a garden to draw on. (This will also let us see exactly how much our garden saves us over the course of a typical week.)

So, if all goes according to plan, we'll start our Reverse SNAP Challenge this Thursday morning. I'll post updates every day or two, just as I did with the rationing challenge. Watch this space for details.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Rain barrel update

The rain barrel we installed last week has just had its official inauguration. Brian went out and watered the entire garden using only the rainwater in the barrel. Here's what we've learned about our new rain barrel and how to use it:
  1. It holds a lot. Brian watered all the vegetables in the garden, the old and new asparagus beds, the rhubarb plants, the cherry bushes, and, using a watering can, the raspberry canes and the wildflowers in the front yard, without emptying the reservoir. He isn't sure how much water is left in the barrel, but he was able to tilt it, so it's probably less than a quarter full. (If our estimates are correct, the barrel holds about 55 gallons, so when full, it weighs over 400 pounds, and it ain't budging.)
  2. It fills quickly. All the water that Brian used today was the product of just one rainfall last week, and not a particularly heavy one at that. In addition, that single rainfall sent so much water out the overflow hose that it dug a small hole in the asparagus bed. (We've now repositioned the hose so that it points off to one side of the bed, where the water can run off a bit more freely.) So unless we have an unexpected drought later this summer, I don't think we'll have any problems keeping it full all summer long.
  3. It does not, however, empty quickly. Brian found that, particularly when using the hose, the flow rate was very slow. That stands to reason, because a 55-gallon barrel of water on only slightly higher ground than the garden itself simply doesn't produce as much pressure as the entire municipal reservoir. When watering the larger plants, such as the cherry bushes, he found that the easiest way to do it was to remove the nozzle and place the hose directly at the base of the plant, then just let it sit there for a minute or two while he pulled a few weeds. This doesn't work, however, with the vegetables in the garden. It may actually be less work to water those by hand, using a watering can that we fill from the barrel, than to do it with the hose. The two beds on the far side of the garden have to be done that way anyway, since our hose isn't long enough to reach them from the barrel.
  4. The spigot, as we suspected, is a weak point. Brian had to turn it on and off repeatedly to fill the watering can, and each time he did, he could feel that it would be easy to tighten it beyond the point needed to stop the flow—which would most likely break it, since the whole mechanism is made of plastic. So that's something we'll need to be extra careful with when using it. Fortunately, if it does break, we can replace the part fairly cheaply.
So, in conclusion, it looks like, with a normal amount of rainfall, we should be able to do nearly all our watering this summer from the rain barrel. We won't be able to do all of it, since we can't fill our tree watering buckets without a hose, and it won't be quite as quick or convenient, but if we're willing to spend a little extra time, we can cut the amount of city water we use on our garden to a tiny fraction of what we use now. And, Brian notes, in the event that another water main breaks and our water supply is cut off for a prolonged period of time, we can use the water in the barrel to flush our toilets.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Price Check: The Aldi Organic Face-Off

Aldi sells organics now, doo-dah, doo-dah...

Early this year, Aldi rolled out its Simply Nature brand, which includes both natural and organic products. The term "natural," according to the FDA, has no legal meaning, but "organic" foods have to meet to meet specific standards laid out by the USDA, and eco-conscious consumers like me are often willing to pay a premium for them. In my case, as I've noted before, that premium is set somewhat arbitrarily at 60 percent—though we'll go higher than that for certain foods that are particularly destructive to grow conventionally. In general, that means we focus our organic purchases on fresh produce, which usually falls within the "rule of 1.6," and pass over the organic pasta, milk, and breakfast cereal, which typically cost two to three times as much as their conventional counterparts. Or at least, they used to.

Yesterday, however, on a trip to Aldi to pick up a few staples, I happened to notice that their Simply Nature Organic Toasted Oats (an equivalent to Cheerios, available in both regular and Honey Toasted versions) were priced at $1.99 for a 9-ounce box, or $3.54 a pound. Sitting right next to them on the shelf was a much larger box of Honey Nut Cheerios, one of the rare products Aldi carries that isn't its own house brand, priced at $3.67 a pound. On sale. The sale price of the conventional breakfast cereal was more than the regular price of the store-brand organic cereal.

Well, needless to say, that set my little mental cogs a-turning. I wondered: if the cereal is cheaper, how do the prices of other Simply Nature products compare to conventional versions of the same products? Could it be that buying organic at Aldi actually costs less than buying conventional name brands?

This wasn't a question I could answer right there in the store, since Aldi carries so few non-self-branded products. So instead, I went to the webpage for the Simply Nature line and jotted down the prices of about a dozen products (including only those labeled as organic rather than merely "natural"). Then I went to the local Stop & Shop and jotted down the lowest price I could find for a similar name-brand product that wasn't organic. For the sake of comparison, I wrote down the prices of the Stop & Shop store brand as well, if there was one.

So without further ado, here are the results. Each product is listed separately, and the one with the lowest price is in boldface. However, if the Simply Nature product falls within the "rule of 1.6"—that is, it's less than 1.6 times the price of the cheapest competitor—it's in italics.

Toasted oat breakfast cereal
Simply Nature toasted oats: $1.99 for 9 ounces / $3.54 per pound
Cheerios: $3.99 for 12 ounces (largest box they had) / $5.32 per pound
Stop & Shop Oats & O's: $2.99 for 14 ounces / $3.41 per pound
Price premium for organic: 13 cents per pound (4 percent)

Pasta (spaghetti or linguine, same price)
Simply Nature pasta: $1.19 for 1 pound
Barilla pasta: $1.39 for 1 pound
Stop & Shop pasta: $0.99 for 1 pound
Price premium for organic: 20 cents per pound (20 percent)

Pasta sauce (marinara)
Simply Nature: $1.99 for 25 ounces / $2.55 per quart
Francesco Rinaldi: $1.69 for 24 ounces / $2.25 per quart
Stop & Shop: $1.49 for 24 ounces / $1.99 per quart 
Price premium for organic: 56 cents per quart (28 percent)

Salad dressing (ranch or vinaigrette, same price)
Simply Nature: $1.69 for 8 ounces / $6.76 per quart
Wish Bone: $3.39 for 16 ounces / $6.78 per quart
Stop & Shop: $2.39 for 16 ounces / $4.78 per quart
Price premium for organic: $1.98 per quart (41 percent)

Chicken broth
Simply Nature: $1.79 for 1 quart
College Inn: $2.79 for 1 quart
Stop & Shop: $1.99 for 1 quart
Price premium for organic: none

Soup (lentil or chicken noodle, same price)
Simply Nature: $1.99 for 17 ounces / $1.87 per pint
Progresso: $2.49 for 19 ounces / $2.09 per pint
Stop & Shop: $1.29 for 19 ounces / $1.08 per pint
Price premium for organic: 79 cents per pint (73 percent)

Milk (reduced fat)
Simply Nature: $3.39 for 32 ounces / $6.78 per gallon
No name brands of conventional milk were available
Stop & Shop: $3.89 for 1 gallon
Price premium for organic: $2.89 per gallon (74 percent)

Soy Milk
Simply Nature: $2.49 for 1/2 gallon
8th Continent: $3.69 for 1/2 gallon
No store brand of conventional soy milk was available
Price premium for organic: none

Bagged greens (baby spinach or spring mix, same price)
Simply Nature: $2.49 for 5 ounces / $7.97 per pound
Dole: $3.69 for 8 ounces / $7.38 per pound
Stop & Shop: $3.69 for 5 ounces / $11.81 per pound
Price premium for organic: 59 cents per pound (8 percent)

Frozen strawberries
Simply Nature: $2.69 for 12 ounces / $3.59 per pound
Welch's: $4.79 for 1 pound
Stop & Shop: $3.99 for 18 ounces / $3.54 per pound
Price premium for organic: 5 cents per pound (1 percent)

Frozen blueberries
Simply Nature: $2.69 for 10 ounces / $4.30 per pound
Wyman's: $10.49 for 3 pounds / $3.49 per pound
No store brand of conventional frozen blueberries was available
Price premium for organic: 83 cents per pound (24 percent)

As you can see, the Stop & Shop store brand usually—though not always—came out on top. However, in every case except two (bagged greens and frozen blueberries), Simply Nature beat its name-brand competitor—and in both those cases, the competing product was sold in a bigger package, so its lower price may simply be the result of buying in bulk. Moreover, in every case except two (soup and milk), Simply Nature was within the rule of 1.6 compared to its conventionally grown competitors, sometimes costing only pennies more. And in two cases (soy milk and chicken broth), Simply Nature was the cheapest of all, beating even the Stop & Shop brand.

The category in which the Simply Nature brand was most thoroughly trounced was milk. The contest may not have been a completely fair one, since the Stop & Shop didn't have any name brands of milk to compare with it, but the store-brand, conventional milk in a gallon jug had Simply Nature beat by about 75 percent on price. However, this too may be the result of a different package size: conventional milk sold by the half-gallon cost $2.69, bringing the $3.39 half-gallon of Simply Nature well within the rule of 1.6. Still, since most consumers will probably buy by the gallon if given the option, it's fair to say that milk is still much more expensive to buy organic than other products. You may also note that no other animal products appear on my list; the Simply Nature line doesn't include eggs, and the only meats it includes are "natural" rather than organic. So animal products remain an expensive choice for organic eaters (a disappointing discovery for us conscientious omnivores). For all other products, though, it looks like Aldi is bringing the cost premium for buying organic lower than it's ever been before.

So what's the takeaway? Well, if your goal is simply to keep your grocery bill as low as possible, then generally speaking, you're still best off sticking with conventional store brands (though Aldi is probably still the cheapest place to find them). But if you'd like to buy more organic foods and have been put off by the price, you may be able to add more organic edibles to your cart and barely ding your budget at all (particularly if you've previously been buying name brands). And if you're already buying organic as much as possible, but you're cursing the prices every time you load up the cart, then looking for an Aldi store in your area could lighten up your grocery bill significantly.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

My own private Starbucks, summer edition

Last winter, as you may recall, my sister's birthday gift to me was a moka pot—a little miniature percolator that does the job of an espresso machine and takes up a lot less room. I tried it out at the time and found that, with the help of some microwave-steamed milk, it could make lattes and mochas as good as anything Starbucks had to offer. I had to wait for summer, however, to test it out on the frozen-coffee treat that really keeps me coming back to the mermaid: the Frappuccino. Well, summer is here, and I am pleased to report that, after one or two false starts, I've managed to produce a homemade frappe that is, if not quite identical to a Frappuccino, at least a reasonably tasty substitute.

My first attempt at a homemade Frappuccino wasn't a rousing success. I started with this recipe from Squawkfox.com, but I couldn't find the xanthan gum that the blogger said was the "secret ingredient" that keeps the blended brew from separating. Fortunately, the recipe said that a teaspoon of pectin would also do the job, and I was able to find that at the grocery store with canning supplies. However, when I tried it in my moka-Frapp, I found that it imparted a strange, sour taste. Granted, this may have been my fault for disregarding the First Rule of Recipes: the first time you try a new one, follow it exactly. I figured that this recipe was basic enough, and similar enough to things I'd made before, that I could get away with winging it a bit: substituting sweetener for sugar, throwing in a spoonful of chocolate syrup, and just tossing in a generous dash of pectin rather than measuring out an exact teaspoon. So perhaps if I'd been more precise in my measurements, it would have come out fine. Nonetheless, I decided it wasn't worth risking a second attempt, especially since as far as I could tell, the pectin did nothing to keep the drink from separating. (The recipe makes enough for two large glasses, and while the half I drank right away stayed well-blended, the remainder left over in the blender had completely lost its cohesion by the time I came back to it.)

So the next time around, I decided to halve the recipe, so there wouldn't be any leftovers to deal with. This meant that I only needed half a pot of espresso, since my moka pot makes two shots' worth, so I just measured out the contents (which came to about 6 ounces), poured half into the blender, and saved the other half in a jar for future use. Then I added my other ingredients: half a cup of skim milk, two packets of aspartame sweetener, a tablespoon of dark chocolate syrup, and a cup of ice cubes. I blended that on low speed until I couldn't hear the ice cubes rattling around anymore, then kicked it up to the "smoothie" setting to get everything good and frothy.

Here's my homemade moka-Frapp in my new reusable tumbler, picked up on sale so I can take my new frosty treats with me on the go. As you can see, it fills the tumbler nearly to the top, and a rough measurement shows that this means the volume of the drink is roughly a pint—the same size as a Starbucks Grande. However, a Grande-size mocha Frappuccino costs about four dollars and has 400 calories (including 15 grams of fat, and 60 grams of sugar.) My homemade moka-Frapp, by contrast, costs a mere 42 cents: 20 cents for the coffee, 10 for the milk, 8 for the chocolate syrup, and 4 for the sweetener. It weighs in at a dainty 90 calories (40 for the milk and 50 for the chocolate syrup), with no fat and only 15 grams of sugar. Even if I go nuts and pile a couple of tablespoons of whipped cream on top, that only adds 5 cents to the price tag and 20 calories to the calorie count. Oh, and mine is made with Utz-certified Fair Trade coffee, thank you very much.

So does this mean I'll be kicking the coffeehouse habit entirely? Well, probably not. For one thing, the urge for a coffee treat sometimes strikes without warning while I'm away from home, and for another, there's something to be said for the coffeehouse atmosphere. There's just something very relaxing about those simple yet tasteful furnishings, the heady aroma of coffee and exotic syrups, the sound of some trendy new album playing on the stereo, and all those Yuppies and students staring intently at their cell phone screens. But when what I really want is the Frapp and nothing but the Frapp, it's nice to know that I can just whip up my own, take it to the nearest park, pull out a home-printed crossword puzzle, and take less of a toll on both my wallet and my waistline.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Roll out the barrel

A week or so ago, we had dinner with some friends. We ate out in the back yard, enjoying the early summer weather, and one of them was showing Brian their new rain barrel. After Brian admired it, our host said, "We have two more in the garage; you want one?" At first Brian took this as a joke, but it turns out he was serious. Mercer County was apparently offering some kind of special deal to homeowners, selling them the rain barrels at cost, and so his wife went a little overboard and bought three of them. He'd installed one and was now trying to avoid hooking up the other two, so he was happy to let us have one of them. He wouldn't even take any money for it; he just wanted it out of the garage.

So last weekend, we finally got around to installing it. The first step, as per the instructions, was to to make a flat and level area for it to sit on—something our yard doesn't have a lot of. The friends we got it from had built a little landing pad for theirs out of cinder blocks, so we figured we'd do the same, but an engineer friend recommended we go one better and make a little bed of gravel for the cinder blocks to sit on to help stabilize them. There were just two problems with this idea: first, while we had some usable cinder blocks just sitting out in the shed, we didn't have any gravel; and second, remembering all the hassle we went through with this stage of our Patio Project made us less than thrilled at the prospect of doing it again.

Fortunately, we were able to work around both problems. The digging wasn't that big a deal, because the hole we needed was much smaller—about 30 inches square—and not nearly as deep. And although we didn't have any actual gravel, we had plenty of concrete chunks left over from the demolition stage of the Patio Project, along with some small chunks of shale that we'd dug out during the later excavation stage. And as it turned out, sitting underneath a big pile of concrete chunks for a year had reduced some of those small chunks of shale to still smaller chunks. So by loading up a wheelbarrow with the smallest bits of concrete and shale we could reach, we managed to get enough material to load up the smallish hole. We even threw in the last dregs of the bag of sand we had left over from filling the patio.


As it turns out, the cinder blocks we had weren't quite the right size to make a 30-by-30-inch square. However, Brian dealt with that by turning the square into a trapezoid, with the smaller end toward the back, and adding a couple of cap pieces on to the sides in front. It's still large enough to support the barrel, and with it in place, the asymmetry doesn't really show.

The next part of the job was to cut down the downspout so it could be directed into the top of the barrel. We already had a long extension piece (shown here) that we'd added earlier to divert water away from the house, so we didn't need to buy any new pieces. However, we had to make both the extension and the spout itself shorter so everything would line up once the rain barrel was in place. At first glance, it looked like it would be easiest to just cut the bottom end off the downspout and then reattach the extension. Unfortunately, upon closer inspection, it turned out that this wouldn't work because the bottom end of the downspout was crimped, allowing it to slide into another piece the same size. This meant we had to cut the pipe from the top rather than the bottom. So Brian detached the bottom section of pipe, cut off the top two to three feet, and reattached it, drilling new holes for the screws to secure it in place. We ended up losing one screw in the grass, but fortunately we had extras. In fact, Brian decided to add a couple of screws to secure the extension in place, as well, thinking it might need to be able to handle extra pressure if it was no longer resting on the ground.

Once all that was done, all that remained was to assemble the barrel itself. This was a fairly fancy rain barrel, with a spigot on the bottom to which a hose can be attached, so our first step was to attach the tap. This involved laying the barrel down on its side, pushing the tap through from the front, and then crawling part way inside the barrel to screw on the nut that would hold the faucet in place. Fortunately, Brian's long arms made this job fairly easy. The only tricky bit was manipulating a plumber's wrench inside the barrel, but he only had to do that for the last half-turn. (Sadly, I didn't get a picture of Brian halfway inside the rain barrel, but I'll leave it to your imagination.)

The next job was to attach the lid. Other rain barrels I've used just had a removable top, so you could dip in a watering can or whatever container you planned to carry the water in. The problem with these, however, is that mosquitoes tend to get in and breed in the water. To prevent this problem, this rain barrel came with a cleverly designed lid with a screen built into the top to let in rainwater but not mosquitoes. Between this and the spigot on the front, the top doesn't ever need to be removed, so you just twist it into place and seal it up with a couple of screws.

The final step was to open up the overflow valve. The barrel came with two sort of nozzles at the top, one on each side, to drain off any excess water. However, since you don't want it draining out both sides and pooling around the bottom of the barrel, the two nozzles started out sealed; we had to decide which side to attach the drainage hose on and then remove the plastic seal by chiseling it out with a screwdriver. This job didn't go very neatly, and Brian says if he had it to do over again, he'd choose a different tool, but it didn't seem to do any actual structural damage to the barrel. Once we had it opened up, we attached the final piece of the kit, a flexible plastic tube, over the end of the nozzle, securing it in place with a clamp. Tightening the clamp was actually the most fiddly part of the whole process, but eventually we managed to get it snug. Then we poked the other end of the overflow hose through the fence behind, so the excess water will be diverted into our asparagus bed.

To test the new rain barrel and make sure all was working properly, Brian pulled out the reservoir from our dehumidifier, which had been running all weekend and was holding about a gallon of water. He poured this in through the lid, then opened up the spigot to make sure it ran out smoothly. Turns out a gallon of water doesn't fill the barrel enough to reach the spout, so we ended up having to tilt it, but we confirmed that the whole system works. Brian's only caveat was to be careful when turning the tap, as it's made of plastic and seems liable to break off if it's handled roughly.

With a little luck, our new rain barrel will supply enough of our garden's water needs during the summer to help us keep our water bill in that bottom tier, where it belongs. True, we're only talking about a savings of $14 or so, but every little bit helps—and even if it doesn't save us a penny, it means there's more water to go around for everyone else in town. Plus, as Brian pointed out, it gives him something useful to do with all the water in the dehumidifier from now on.


Sunday, June 22, 2014

Gardeners' Holidays 2014: Summer Cornucopia

Last year, we celebrated the summer solstice as Salad Days, with fresh lettuce from our garden. This year, however, our lettuce crop has been a bit of a disappointment. Our first planting of Tom Thumb Baby Bibb lettuce didn't come up at all, and the later plantings haven't yet produced any heads large enough to eat. The Summer Lettuce Mix we got from Fedco has been a bit more productive, but we didn't plant as much of it, so we haven't got very much in the garden that's ready to eat. The snow peas are producing, but like last year's, they're coming in just a few at a time—not enough to eat all by themselves. And the asparagus has petered out almost completely.

Fortunately, our Gardeners' Holiday wasn't a complete bust, thanks to a coworker of Brian's who went on vacation and offered us her CSA share for the week. We picked up the box this morning and found a cornucopia of fresh produce: a pint of blueberries, a large head of lettuce, a bunch of beets complete with greens, some fresh green beans, a few garlic stems, and a big bunch of some sort of dark, flat leaves that we couldn't exactly identify. Kale? Chard? Something that we don't grow ourselves, at any rate.

Since they were definitely leafy greens, however, it stood to reason that they'd work in place of other leafy greens in the recipes we knew. So Brian just substituted them for the spinach in Garlic, Chick-pea and Spinach Soup (the same recipe he adapted for this month's Recipe of the Month). These large greens, whatever they were, didn't cook down nearly as much as the spinach generally does, resulting in a soup that was much greener to look at, but its taste was more or less unchanged. By the time you add in all those other flavors—chick peas, cumin, tahini—the spinach doesn't really dominate the recipe. And, since our veggie bin was full to bursting with all this bounty and we had to use some of it up to make room, he went ahead and used the garlic stems in the soup as well, in place of the usual garlic cloves. With a salad on the side, we had three different kinds of seasonal produce in one meal.

So we enjoyed our share (or rather, Brian's coworker's share) of fresh summer produce today, but none of it was actually from our garden. Fortunately, dessert will provide a remedy for that. Brian volunteered to bake a pie for some visitors they're having tomorrow at his workplace, and since we had plenty of rhubarb, he went ahead and made an extra little pie for us to enjoy tonight. The large pie actually doesn't contain any of our own home-grown rhubarb; it's made from the last of the bunch we picked up at the Hopewell yard sales in 2013 and have had stashed in our freezer for the past year. In the smaller pie, however, he supplemented that frozen rhubarb with a little bit of our own, so we get to enjoy at least a little taste of home-grown produce for our solstice feast.

Fortunately, several other plants in our garden, including the green beans and zucchini, are looking very green and healthy, showing promise of good production. So by the time we get to our next Gardeners' Holiday, in August, we should be able to celebrate with our own home-grown produce once again.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Bonus recipe: Chicken and rhubarb

OK, I know we've already had two recipes of the month for June, but the dish Brian made for dinner last night was so delicious that I just couldn't resist sharing the secret with you here. Well, not much of a secret, really, because he found it on the New York Times site: Skillet Chicken With Rhubarb. But for those who didn't happen to see it there, it's really too good to pass up. It's quite rare to see rhubarb in a dish that's savory rather than sweet, but chef Melissa Clark points out that rhubarb is really a vegetable, not a fruit, and says it's time to embrace its "true, pucker-inducing nature."

Brian happened to stumble on this recipe at a time when we had free-range chicken legs in the freezer, following our last run to Trader Joe's, and lots of fresh rhubarb out in the garden. However, it was also a day when the outside temperature had peaked at over 90, and it was still over 80 degrees inside the house by suppertime. Hot weather like that makes a heavy, meat-centered meal seem a lot less appealing, and it isn't the ideal time for slaving over a hot stove anyway. So instead of making it right away, he just did the first few steps that night: picking, trimming, and dicing the rhubarb and setting the chicken to season with salt, pepper, and fresh thyme. (The recipe says to use lemon thyme if you have it, but though we have three different varieties of thyme growing in our front yard right now, that isn't among them. So he just went with the regular garden-variety thyme from our herb bed.) Last night, when it was cooler, he did the rest of the steps: browning the chicken, making the rhubarb sauce, and simmering everything together. He also followed the recipe's suggestion to prepare a batch of polenta to go with it, though he left out the Parmesan cheese that normally goes in our polenta, thinking it might clash with the flavor of the rhubarb.

The result was absolutely exquisite. I think it may have been the most savory piece of chicken I've ever tasted. I honestly can't say what it was about the process that made it so good; was it the long steeping with salt and pepper, the faint hint of thyme, the brief simmering with the rhubarb sauce, or a combination of the three? I don't know, but I'm not about to look a gift chicken in the beak. Suffice it to say, it's delicious. Brian said he felt like he'd "made a restaurant-quality meal in our own kitchen," but considering some of the meals I've eaten at restaurants, I'd say that was damning it with faint praise. I'd describe it, instead, as a meal I wouldn't be embarrassed to serve to a true gourmet, should we ever happen to have one over for dinner.

I took a couple of pictures of the dish as prepared by Brian, but they didn't look nearly as nice as the ones by the expert food photographers at the Times, so I suggest you check them out there if you want to see this dish at its best. But if you want to taste it at its best, you definitely don't need an expert chef in a professional kitchen. If Brian could make it taste fabulous in our modest kitchen, you can definitely do the same.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Suburban stall

Today's Star-Ledger Extra, a little freebie paper that comes with our weekly sales fliers, features an article entitled, "In Jersey, the tide turns toward towns." The article doesn't seem to be available on the Star-Ledger's website, but the gist of it is that, here in New Jersey, younger folks tend to prefer living in older towns. Rather than embracing the once-iconic American dream of a big house with a big yard in some suburban Paradise, the so-called millennials prefer "a shorter commute and broader neighborhood amenities," including "walkable downtowns and easy access to mass transit."

Traditional suburbs, by contrast, are in decline. The article doesn't exactly say that they're losing population, but it says their populations are "graying far more quickly than anywhere else in the state." A chart accompanying the article lists several towns that have seen their median age jump by around 5 years in the past decade.

All this is both good news and bad news. The good news is that more population is being diverted to towns, which I've always considered the most ecofrugal places to live. More walkable communities are more sustainable in almost every way than sprawling suburbs. They're less car-dependent, which in turn means less traffic, less fossil fuel use, and less pollution. Walkability also means more exercise, which in turn means better health. A thriving town center helps foster a closer-knit community, which is good for people's emotional health as well. And finally, steering more population to towns means fewer new housing developments gobbling up our state's remaining open space.

Moreover, on a more personal level, it's gratifying to see that I'm once again ahead of the curve. When Brian and I started house-hunting eight years ago, we refused to look at houses out in the burbs, even though we could have bought a lot more house for less money that way. We wanted a real town, with a decent library, a proper grocery store, a pharmacy, a post office, a train station, and plenty of places to eat within walking distance—plus a short commute for Brian. So naturally I'm pleased to see that younger and hipper folks than us are now doing the same.

The bad news is that the suburbs are now home to an aging population—one they're really not designed to support. The article quotes Tim Evans, a research director at the smart-growth organization New Jersey Future, saying that "[a] lot of the development over the last 30 years has been car-dependent, which doesn't work if you're not driving anymore." This isn't widely seen as a problem yet, but Evans predicts that it will be as suburban seniors continue to age. At that point, we'll have a lot of older folks stuck out in the suburbs, living in houses that younger people don't want to buy, and largely cut off from family, friends, and community.

I'm not really sure what the best way is to mitigate this problem. For the past couple of decades, New Jersey Future has focused a lot on "redevelopment": steering new growth to existing cities and towns, and building them up to create more vibrant, walkable neighborhoods, rather than building new developments on open land. Based on this article, it looks like they've had some measure of success. Perhaps now they should start considering ways to redevelop existing suburbs as well, finding ways to help them add the shopping and transit options they need to make them more sustainable and comfortable places to grow old.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Flower power

I can't help myself—I'm posting another quick update on the status of our new flowerbed, because I'm just so tickled with it. Two weeks ago, I was all disappointed because it looked like this:


Then, last week, I was pleased to report that it had perked up and was now looking like this:


And now, less than a week later, we've got this:


Now that's what I call "show-stopping color." I can't wait to see what the second act looks like.

Costs of car ownership--and lack thereof

Yesterday, I came across an article at The Dollar Stretcher called, "Could You Give Up Your Car?", which maintains that doing so can bring "substantial" savings. Naturally, you would expect the article to back this up by calculating both the costs of car ownership and the costs of getting around without a car, and then comparing the two. However, it actually does only half of this, and it doesn't do that half very thoroughly. It cites a Consumer Reports article saying that "the median car costs more than $9,100 per year to own," but it doesn't mention any of the assumptions underlying that figure or explain how it breaks down by purchase price, insurance, gas, and so on. As for the costs of not owning a car, they aren't even mentioned. The article merely says, "If you live in an urban area with an established transit system of buses or light rail, for goodness sake, use it!"—as if bus and train tickets were completely free, and it were just throwing away money not to use them.

As it happens, I had just recently seen evidence of how inaccurate that idea was. Last weekend, I visited New York City for the first time in years, and I was astonished at how much subway fare costs now—$2.50 for a one-way fare. That means just getting to and from work each day would cost $5. Of course, if you take the subway regularly, you can lower that rate by buying an unlimited pass: a 30-day pass costs just $112, which comes to $1,344 per year. However, this kind of pass can only be used by one person at a time. Two people riding the subway together would pay $2,688 per year; three people would pay $4,032. A car, by contrast, can carry four or five people at a time for roughly the same amount of money. (The added weight will reduce gas mileage slightly, but adding one or two passengers certainly won't double or triple your fuel use.)

The cost of getting around within the city, however, positively pales in comparison to the cost of getting into the city from out in the sticks. Last Saturday, we rode into New York from Hamilton station, and the fare was $15 per person, each way. Probably very few people actually commute to New York from Hamilton, but people certainly do it from our home station, Edison, and the round-trip fare from there is still $24.50. Once again, you can cut that payment down with a monthly pass, which costs just $349. But that's still $4,188 a year—on top of the $1,344 a year for the subway pass, since you still need to get from the train station to your workplace. Add in the cost of renting a car from the nearby Avis rental for the occasional longer trip—say, one week twice a year—and that tacks on another $500, plus maybe $250 more for the gas and tolls. Altogether, you're looking at more than $6,200 a year for not owning a car—and that's with only one person commuting by train. Two people living in Edison, both commuting to New York, would pay over $11,800 per year to get along without a car—about $2,700 more than what the Dollar Stretcher article cites as the "median" cost of owning a car.

That median cost itself, moreover, bears some scrutinizing. First of all, if you go to the Consumer Reports article that it's based on, you'll see that the editors identify a "median" car as "a midsized SUV such as the Nissan Murano or an upscale sedan such as the Lexus ES." A Honda Fit like ours, by contrast, is described as one of the best auto values on the market, costing "just over $5,300 a year to own for five years." That's less than 60 percent of the cost of their theoretical "median" car.

You may also notice that the editors have calculated the cost of ownership based on the assumption that you will keep the car for only five years and then trade it in. The problem is, when you do this, nearly half the cost of ownership is depreciation: the difference between what you paid for the car and what you can get by trading it in. However, the longer you keep a car, the less depreciation costs you each year. The article notes that "Most people keep their new vehicles for five or eight years," and choosing the latter figure will lower the per-year cost by about 15 percent. The editors don't say how much you can save by keeping the car even longer than that, but they do note that "In the end, it is almost always less expensive to hang on to your current car than to buy a new one," since the cost of repairs on an old car almost never outweighs the cost of depreciation on a new one. So presumably, the cheapest way of all to own a car is to do what we do: just keep driving it until it can drive no more.

The graphs accompanying the article also show that for the average car owner, about 11 percent of the cost of ownership is interest. This is another reason it's cheaper to keep a car longer, the editors say: you can continue to use it "for a few years after the loan has been paid off." However, if you don't finance your car, but instead pay with cash on the barrelhead (or get one of those zero-interest loans and pay it all off before it comes due), you can avoid this cost of car ownership completely.

So what do you get if you combine all three of these strategies: buying a cheaper car, paying cash for it, and keeping it until the wheels fall off? The folks at Consumer Reports don't say, but I've done a little number crunching on my own. Assuming that our current car will last us at least 15 years (which seems a safe assumption, when you consider my family's track record with cars), then the cost of buying it works out to just over $1,000 per year. Add in what we currently pay each year for gas, maintenance, insurance and registration, parking, and tolls, and our total cost of ownership is just under $3,500 a year.

Of course, if we were really commuting into the city like the hypothetical couple I described above, owning a car would cost us a lot more than that. We'd be putting more miles on it, for one thing, and we'd pay a lot more for parking and tolls. And if we lived in the city, it probably would actually be cheaper to skip the car and pay $2,688 a year for a pair of subway passes, plus another $750 to rent a car when we needed one. I'm certainly not trying to argue that owning a car is always cheaper than not owning one; that obviously isn't the case. My point is merely that in some cases, owning a car is cheaper than going without one—and the only way to know which is cheaper for you is to actually do the math, instead of assuming that dumping your car will save you "a ton of money" just because some article on a financial site says so.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Actual Savings: Soda Machines (Or, Getting my Fizz Fix)

I'm a big consumer of seltzer, especially during the summer months. My usual afternoon snack is a bowl of my microwave-popped popcorn accompanied by an egg cream (that's milk, chocolate syrup, and seltzer, for those of you from the Midwest and other foreign parts). I also enjoy ice cream sodas for a summertime dessert; they use a lot less ice cream than eating it straight, so I can satisfy my sweet tooth with fewer calories and also stretch a half-gallon of sale-priced Blue Bunny further.

As an indulgence, seltzer isn't that expensive; I can usually find it on sale for 50 cents a liter or less. (The two-liter bottles are cheaper still, but when I buy them the seltzer invariably goes flat before I use it all up.) However, I do feel a tiny bit guilty about all the packaging waste my seltzer habit produces. I've never bought any other kind of bottled water, and I've written repeatedly about what a silly waste of money and resources it is, but here I am, still tossing a plastic bottle into the recycling bin every few days (or an aluminum can every day). But unlike plain water, the fizzy stuff isn't available on tap, so what's the alternative?

It might seem like the obvious ecofrugal choice would be to buy one of those newfangled home-carbonation machines, like the SodaStream. Unfortunately, my research indicates that these devices, while they may reduce waste, don't necessarily save money. The most basic SodaStream machine, the Fountain Jet, costs $80 and comes with one 60-liter carbonator. Replacement carbonators cost $15 each. Assuming I now pay 40 cents a liter for seltzer on average, I'd have to consume 420 liters of the stuff to reach the point at which my homemade fizz was as cheap as the store-bought variety. If I go through 3 liters of soda per week, or 78 liters over the course of a summer, it would take over 5 years for my soda machine to pay for itself—assuming it didn't break before then.

The main reason the SodaStream is not particularly cost-effective isn't the initial cost of the machine; it's the high cost of the CO2 refills. There are lots of places to have CO2 tanks refilled: one reviewer of the Fountain Jet on Amazon.com notes that "most paintball shops and some grocery stores" provide this service, and so do many sporting goods stores. The problem is that SodaStream's machines use a proprietary cartridge that won't work with the refilling equipment. A SodaStream competitor called the Primo Flavorstation could take a standard-sized CO2 canister, but it's no longer on the market. There are a few other soda makers on the market, but they all appear to use proprietary CO2 cartridges as well. Cuisinart machines use tiny 3-ounce cartridges that cost $20 a pop and carbonate only 16 liters of water; the Hamilton Beach Fizzini takes single-use CO2 chargers that cost 70 cents each and are good for only one liter. It can also take the standard-sized chargers used in an old-fashioned seltzer bottle, which can be bought in bulk, but even these come to 43 cents each with shipping. In every case, the cost per liter is actually higher than that of the store-bought seltzer, which means there's no way the machine will ever pay for itself.

I'm not the first person to notice this problem, of course, and various companies sell products designed to circumvent it. A company called CO2 Doctor sells a $35 adapter ($40 with shipping) that will let you fit a standard 12-ounce paintball tank into your SodaStream; another company sells a similar adapter called the SodaMod for $60. A 12-ounce CO2 canister can be refilled for about $3 and, extrapolating from the size of the SodaStream canister, should be able to carbonate about 50 liters of water. However, once you factor in the cost of the adapter, plus the cost of the machine itself, you'll still have to drink 360 liters of seltzer before it becomes cheaper than buying it from the store.

So it looks like there's no good way to make a home soda machine truly cost-effective. However, there are other ways to carbonate water at home with less equipment. The My Pop Soda Shoppe system, for instance, skips the CO2 canister altogether and produces its own fizz the old-fashioned way, through fermentation. You just put a cup of sugar and two teaspoons of yeast into one bottle, and as it ferments, it will produce 10 liters of CO2 that are stored in a separate reservoir. From there, you transfer it as needed into a bottle of cold water. Unlike other home soda machines, this one can also carbonate other types of liquid, such as fruit juice or wine. The system costs $75, and the seller claims that the materials needed cost only 2.4 cents per liter. However, if you use organic sugar, as we do, the cost for materials shoots up to 95 cents per batch, or 9.5 cents per liter. That's still a much lower cost per liter than the SodaStream; it would take only about 250 liters, or a little over 3 years, for this system to pay for itself. But during that whole time, we'd go through sugar awfully fast, which would mean making more frequent trips to Trader Joe's. Moreover, this system requires quite a bit more work than most home soda makers (filling, cleaning, and so on).

Another alternative is to put together your own "home carbonation system," as outlined in this Instructables article. The author provides a condensed explanation of how it works right at the start of the article:
Take a 20lb CO2 Tank and regulator, attach a tube, and stick a 99 cent locking ball air chuck (tire inflator) on the end of the tube. Pop a cheap snap-in tire valve (schrader valve) into a plastic soda bottle cap and you're ready to carbonate any liquid in about 30 seconds. Colder liquids absorb more CO2 carbonation.
He estimates that you can get all the parts you need for "around $100, plus the deposit on a CO2 tank," which is another $100 or so. By his reckoning, a 20-pound CO2 tank can carbonate over 1,000 liters of water, which he says works out to less than 2 cents per liter (which presumably means that it costs around $20 to refill the tank). Unfortunately, because of the high initial cost of all the parts, the system wouldn't break even until it was halfway through its first tank of gas. At the rate I drink seltzer, that would take over 6 years—longer than the SodaStream. (This site has testimonials from several users who were able to put together home systems for less, but the cheapest system was $95 total, which means it would still take just over 3 years to pay for itself.)

What I'd really like is a machine like the old FlavorStation, which could work with a standard 20-ounce paintball tank. That way I'd be able to get the tanks refilled at any local sporting goods store, and the whole thing would take up less room (and be less work) than a big 20-pound tank. And the thing is, it's still possible to buy the original FlavorStation from various vendors for around $32.50. If the 20-ounce tank it comes with is good for 85 liters (once again extrapolating from the size of the SodaStream cartridge), then this machine would actually pay for itself on its first tank of gas, or just into its second year of use. And even if my local sporting goods stores refused to refill the Primo CO2 canisters (a problem mentioned by some users on amazon), I could just buy a paintball tank for an extra $20 and still be ahead of the game.

The only reason I hesitate is because, with the product being discontinued, I know I can't expect to get service or parts for it if it breaks. So is it worth a $32.50 gamble on a product that, if it lasts, could only save me around $100 in its first five years of use—as well as keeping around 400 plastic bottles out of the recycling stream? Or does it make more sense to just assuage my guilt by buying my seltzer in aluminum cans, which are more cost-effective to recycle?

Monday, June 16, 2014

Actual savings: Solar power

Just a little while ago, I was filling out a survey on how likely I would be to consider solar power for my home. In order to give an informed answer to the question, I did a quick search on "solar payback time," and I found this article from a site called Clean Technica, which claims to be "the #1 cleantech-focused website in the world." It leads off with the claim that "there are people who apparently know nothing about it but decide it’s their duty to tell people the energy payback of solar panels is a decade or more (which it is not!)." It then goes on to display a bunch of charts showing that the payback period for rooftop solar systems is "between 1/2 a year and 1 1/2 years in Southern Europe and under 3 years in the rest of Europe (which has approximately the solar irradiance levels of Alaska)."

Now, that sounded a bit odd to me, because I definitely remembered talking to a solar installer a few years back about whether a solar system would be a good deal for us, and they concluded that, based on our site and our relatively low energy use, solar panels on our house would not be able to pay for themselves. I don't mean that they would have a long payback time—I mean they would not produce enough power over their entire lifetime to pay for the cost of installing them. Yet here were these folks at Clean Technica insisting that the payback period was no longer than three years. Was this big discrepancy simply due to the much heavier subsidies for home solar systems in Europe? Or did it mean that the cost of solar power had dropped so much in the past few years that a solar system, formerly a bad deal for us, was now a good one?

Finding the answer to this question turned out to be more work than I expected. Searches on "calculate home solar power potential," "is solar a good investment for me," and "how much solar power can my house produce" all led to dead ends. Some of the links were sites that wanted my contact information in order to give me a quote on a solar system; others provided general information about how to figure out what size your solar system should be; but none could actually give me concrete information on how much a solar system would cost me and how much it would save me. Finally, I managed to find this "solar estimator" from a company called Brightergy, which finds your actual house on a map and lets you outline the exact spot where you want to put solar panels. It took a bit of fiddling to get the tool to work, but eventually I managed to sketch out a roughly appropriate area for a 2-kW system. The site crunched the numbers and told me this would cost about $7,300 to install, of which we would get back 30 percent in tax credits, giving us a net cost of about $5,110. The energy it produced would reduce our power bills by 84 percent, or $463 per year. Thus, the system would pay for itself in...11 years, which last time I checked was in fact "a decade or more."

To double-check my figures, I used this "system sizing estimator" on the site of a different solar power company, Affordable Solar. It has one very handy feature that the other site lacks: a map showing how many "sun hours" different parts of the country get in an average day. The northernmost parts of the country get around 3 hours of sunlight; the Southwestern desert gets 6 hours or more. Here in New Jersey, we get around 3.5 hours, which means that to meet 100 percent of our home electricity needs, we'd have to install a 2.55-kW system. Affordable Solar claims that such a system would add more than $10,000 to the value of our home, but they don't say how much it would actually cost to install. However, Michael Bluejay's solar energy calculator indicates that a typical cost is around $4 per watt, making the total cost $10,200, or $7,140 after the tax credit. Divide that by an annual power bill of $540, and the payback time is just over 13 years. (According to Bluejay, this figure isn't quite right, because I need to adjust my electric bill for inflation over time. He recommends multiplying it by 1.5 to compensate. If his calculations are correct, then my payback time is actually just under 9 years. However, in reality, energy prices don't just rise at a steady rate with inflation; they're extremely volatile and hard to predict. So all we can really say is that my payback time is somewhere between 9 and 13 years—probably.)

Bluejay notes that for most people, "The calculator probably won't show a huge savings from solar." However, he maintains that it's still a good investment, since "for about the same amount of money or a bit less, you can get your energy from a clean source." Which is a perfectly valid point. So really, there's no need for the folks at Clean Technica to get so huffy about people claiming that solar panels will take a decade to pay for themselves; even if it's true (and for me, at least, it is), that doesn't mean it's not worth doing.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Doin' the shoe shuffle

In the past two weeks, I have spent nearly twenty dollars on shipping for shoes I no longer have.

This is, of course, due to the shoe conundrum that I first outlined over a year ago. The problem, in a nutshell, is that I can almost never find shoes in stores that fit both my odd-sized feet and my ecofrugal principles. I can try to keep my old ones going with Shoe Goo and new insoles, but sooner or later, they wear out beyond repair, and I spend weeks hunting all over for new ones. (Since I don't care in the least about fashion, I'd be perfectly happy to replace the old pair with an identical new pair from the same manufacturer—but invariably, whatever shoes I bought last are no longer available by the time I need to replace them.)

Now, these days, if I can't find something in a store, the most obvious solution is usually to look on the Internet. (If it exists anywhere in the world, you can find it online if you look hard enough.) And indeed, there is no shortage at all of vendors selling shoes online. Many of them, such as Zappos and ShoeBuy.com, even make it possible to search for shoes by material, as well as size and width—so I can quickly narrow down the thousands of available choices to the few that meet my fairly strict criteria. There's just one snag: when you shop online, you can't try things on before you order them. With clothing, this may not be crucial; as long as the site provides a size chart, you can usually get a pretty good idea of which size will fit you. But with shoes, two pairs that are theoretically the same size can feel completely different on your feet, and the only way to know for sure is to put them on.

With the first pair of shoes I ordered, I thought I'd found a way around this problem; I had bought the same kind of shoes before from the same seller, so I thought it was safe to assume that another pair in the same size would still fit. Turns out, I only thought it was the same kind of shoes; they'd actually been redesigned, and part of the redesign apparently involved changing the fit so that it no longer worked with my feet. And while I'd paid nothing for the shipping from the seller, shipping them back to the seller ate up $6.50 of my refund.

Sadly, I don't have a similar excuse for ordering the other two pairs. I was just getting a little desperate at that point, because I can practically feel the sidewalk through last year's shoes, and I was ready to try anything that looked like it might meet my criteria. To give myself credit, I did at least try to find the shoes in a store; Brian and I drove all the way out to Iselin, about half an hour away, to the nearest shoe store we could find that carries Grasshoppers (a fairly popular brand with a lot of leather-free styles). I figured that even if they didn't have the style I wanted in stock, they should at least have something that I could try on and verify my size. Unfortunately, while they did indeed have several styles of Grasshoppers in stock, they didn't have anything in a 6 wide. So I just took a gamble and ordered it anyway—and it was too small. And the 6 1/2 wide was too big. Two more $6.50 return shipping fees down the drain, and still no shoes that fit.

At this point, I was getting sick of paying $6.50 a pop just for the privilege of trying on shoes that turned out not to fit. So I did what I probably should have done in the first place: I headed over to ShoeBuy.com, which offers free shipping in both directions. That eliminated the risk of being socked with return shipping cost if the shoes I liked didn't fit, but there was still the potential problem of lag time: having to wait for each pair to arrive before I could try it on, and then, if it didn't fit, having to order another pair and wait for that one. So this time I decided to order not one pair, but three pairs of Skechers (which also has a large selection of vegan styles), each in a different size. That way, I figure, at least one of them is bound to fit, and I can return the ones that don't at no charge. Yes, it means spending $120 all at once, but I expect to get about two-thirds of it back, and anyway, there are some women who think nothing of dropping that much on just one pair of shoes.

Of course, there is one potential complication here: the three pairs of Skechers I ordered are all different styles, so there is a remote possibility that all three of them will fit and I won't be able to decide which ones to keep and which to return. But frankly, if that happens, I think I might just be better off keeping all three—since with two extra pairs stashed away, I might not have to worry about this whole Cinderella business again for another three years.

Quickie office redo

NOTE: Whoops! I just came across this old post that I'd scheduled to be published on March 9, and for some reason, it never showed up on the blog. So here it is three months after the fact. Next time I'll remember to check and make sure my scheduled posts to make sure they actually post.

***

I was going to make today's post all about the delicious ways we've learned lately to cook Brussels sprouts, but I'm going to put that off, because I'm much more excited about the changes we've made this weekend in our office.

Our office, up until this weekend, had a couple of problems, both aesthetic and functional. One that fit into both categories was Brian's desk, a massive old hand-me-down from my folks. It was in their house all throughout my childhood and came with me when I moved into my first apartment 18 years ago, and it's followed me from home to home ever since. It's bowed in the middle from all the weight it's held over the years, and this year it actually began to disintegrate—to the point that Brian put a piece of clear tape over the top edge so he wouldn't get splinters from it. It was at that point we decided that it was really time to send this old trooper to a well-deserved retirement.

The other problem was with our filing cabinets—two of them. The first was a nice wooden one, shown at the center of the photo, which we got as a gift from my mom. It looked really nice, but sadly, its function didn't match its form. For one thing, it was so lightweight that with both the drawers fully loaded, it tended to tip over when you pulled out the top drawer. There was a little plate on the bottom edge of the drawer that was supposed to prevent this problem by automatically pulling out the bottom drawer whenever you opened the top one, but it kept coming loose. We'd re-tighten it and it would work for a week or two and then come loose again—and it was starting to wear off the wood veneer from the top edge of the bottom drawer from scraping against it all the time. Also, the bottom drawer didn't stay closed very well. Maybe the floor in our office just isn't quite level, but for whatever reason, the bottom drawer had a tendency to pop out and sit half-open. We put a couple of pieces of Velcro on the edges of the drawer to hold it in place once it was shut, and they worked most of the time, but it was still annoying us.

The other filing cabinet was your basic, two-drawer metal filing cabinet, as seen in cubicles everywhere. We picked it up at a yard sale at some point, and it's the opposite of the wooden one: sturdy and functional, but not too attractive. Since it didn't match the wooden one (different size, as well as different finish), we separated the two and stuck the less attractive metal one in a back corner, just barely visible in the photo above. This made it really awkward to get to, because whenever Brian was sitting at his desk, his chair blocked my route to the file cabinet. I kept having to ask him to get up and let me in so I could stick the auto insurance bill or whatever in there. The layout just wasn't working for us at all.

When we started thinking about replacing Brian's desk, we thought we might have just the thing to replace it: a square wooden table that we got as a wedding gift from my in-laws. They got it from a local artisan who makes them in his shop, so it's a really nice piece, made of solid cherry with beautifully turned legs. In our old apartment, we used it as a sort of L extension on my desk, which used to extend along the full length of one wall—but in our new house, the two pieces of the desk have been turned into an L, which didn't really leave a good place for the table. For the past six years, it's been just tucked away in our little spare bedroom, being used only on an ad hoc basis to wrap presents or, even more rarely, support our tabletop ironing board. Lately, it's become a catch-all spot for books that haven't been shelved yet or have recently been culled from the shelves. It certainly wasn't being displayed or used to its full advantage.

Replacing the desk with the table would mean sacrificing a bit of surface area, but that wasn't really a problem, because Brian recently got rid of his big old desktop computer and now uses only a petite laptop. Having less space around the computer would just mean he wouldn't be able to pile as much junk there. But we'd also be losing all the storage space in the desk drawers, which were all crammed to the max. We could clean them out a bit, but we'd definitely need to add some sort of additional drawer storage to go with the table. So we thought perhaps we could kill two birds with one stone and also replace the wooden filing cabinet with something small enough to fit under my desk, so we could keep all our files together in one central spot.

Unfortunately, IKEA, our usual go-to site for furnishings of any kind, let us down on this one. We couldn't find any kind of office storage in their catalogue or on their website that looked suitable for our needs. So we checked Staples and spotted these little beauties. Each one had two 18-inch-deep file drawers, so two of them would hold all the contents of our existing 18-inch wooden file cabinet, plus our partially full metal one. In addition, they had two smaller drawers on top that could hold a good chunk of the contents of the desk drawers. At 27 and 1/8 inch high, they could just squeeze in under my desk. And while most of the filing cabinets at Staples were startlingly expensive—$150 or more for a basic two-drawer unit—these were just $90 each, currently on sale for $80. Plus, according to the site, they were made from 30 percent post-consumer recycled materials.

So off we hustled to the nearest Staples and, after a quick examination to make sure the cabinets were of an acceptable quality, we brought home two of them. The weight of the boxes gave us a hint to why they were so cheap: they were so light that even I could lift one without assistance. In the store, they were marked as suitable for "home and home office use" only, rather than full-scale office use. But they won't see terribly heavy use in our office, and their lightness made them easier to haul home. We ran into a bit of a snag when we opened the first box and discovered that only one of the three drawer handles was inside, so we had to schlep that one back to the store and exchange it. But within a couple of hours, we had the two new filing cabinets assembled and tucked in place under my desk, at which point we ran up against the second snag: the height that I'd measured at 27 1/2 inches wasn't quite that much, or at least not uniformly (as I said, the floor may not be quite level). So the left edge of the desk extension ended up being slightly raised from its previous position and no longer exactly level with the other half of the desk. Eh, nothing a little shim wouldn't fix.

At that point, it was time to start filling up the drawers. All the files from both filing cabinets got transferred to the two new filing cabinets, so they're now all together in a nice, central spot that we can both reach. (I can actually open one of the drawers without even getting up from my desk.) One of the top drawers got filled with an assortment of stationery and mailing supplies from the desk: notecards, envelopes, mailing labels and so on. The other, after a bit of shuffling, took in all the office supplies from the old desk's middle drawer.

That left the contents of the two other drawers to deal with. We still had the old metal filing cabinet, which we planned to keep for a while since, if nothing else, it makes a nice stand for the fax machine. But those two deep drawers were a lot bigger than the old desk drawers, so they wouldn't work well without some additional organization. Fortunately, I happened to remember that we had a bunch of wooden clementine boxes downstairs, which we'd been holding onto because they have so many possible uses that we figured they were bound to come in handy some day. And now...that day had come. A little experimentation showed that the drawers of the filing cabinet were exactly deep enough to hold two stacked clementine boxes. One, as you see here, holds all our art supplies (colored pencils, crayons, stamps and ink, etc.); the other holds various small gadgets that we like to have accessible, like our camera, a pair of binoculars, and our Kill A Watt meter. The boxes underneath hold our assortment of batteries and binder clips, which we don't need to access as often. The bottom drawer of the cabinet currently has some scrap paper in the back, and the rest of the space is free for additional stuff of Brian's. He's thinking about moving his drawing supplies in there to make them more accessible, which would free up some space in our currently overstuffed office closet.

With the old filing cabinet out of the back room and the smaller, leggier table in place of the big, heavy desk, the room looked much brighter and more open. We tidied it up still more by moving the futon, which we'd had to shove over a bit to one side of the room, to a spot where it's centered under the window, and by wrangling all of Brian's computer cords into one coherent bundle with some pipe insulation, like he did with mine four years ago. Then, since there was a bit of extra space in the back corner behind the new table/desk, we brought up a pharmacy lamp we had downstairs that we'd inherited from Brian's grandfather and never really used. Angled up against the back wall, it can shed extra light in that corner as needed.

So here's the finished result: a room makeover in under a day and under $200. With minimal changes to the actual layout, and with nothing new purchased except the two filing cabinets and a $1.64 length of pipe insulation, we've made the room more attractive and more functional at the same time. The old wooden filing cabinet is currently listed on Freecycle, along with a couple of items we pulled out of the desk drawers (a film camera and an old Walkman clone).

I can still think of a couple more changes I might consider making to the new space. Right now, for instance, the near end of my desk is being supported by a little end table we picked up at a yard sale for something like $3. We're far too proud of this bargain to ever get rid of it, and it's also very functional for holding all our printing supplies (paper, envelopes, and labels on the open shelves and refill ink in the top drawer). However, it's in a raw, light-toned wood that isn't quite the same as the desktop, so perhaps somewhere down the line we'll take it out and stain and finish it to match. (We can temporarily move one of the new filing cabinets to hold up that end of the desk in the meantime.) This should improve its looks, and perhaps we could also add some sort of open-backed bins (like these letter trays) to keep the assorted paper and supplies on the shelves more organized. (We could also turn the bins around to face the other way, adding a knob on the front to pull them out, which would give the shelves a more cohesive look from the front.)

The other thing I might still want to add is a vertical file organizer for the folders I have piled on my desk now. You can get pretty cheap ones at Staples, like this, but I'm thinking perhaps we could make something nicer looking out of scrap wood. This page shows a really nice one DIYed out of architectural wood korbels, but since those cost $12 each and you can buy an entire organizer ready-made for less than that, it's clearly not a money-saver. I'm sure we can come up with something creative that will look nice for a lot less. Maybe those clementine boxes can be modified once again...

EDIT: We've come up with a temporary fix for organizing the contents of the end table that supports my desk. I happened to have a couple of office paper boxes stashed away in our gift-wrapping collection, so I pulled them out to hold our collection of printer paper: one box for the one-side used paper, and one for the clean paper. They wouldn't both fit on the shelves at their full size, so Brian helped me cut one box and lid down to the right size to hold a ream of paper, and I left the other one open. Here's the reorganized desk: not exactly elegant, but definitely tidier than it was. I think we'll still want to refinish it eventually and maybe find (or make) some nicer boxes for the paper, but for now, this will help keep everything neatly stacked.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The flowers that bloom in the spring, tra la

Apparently, all my worrying last week about our new wildflower bed was premature. In fact, it almost seemed like the minute I posted my concerns about it, the flowers went, "Hey, give us a chance!" and started producing more numerous and varied blooms each day. First we got more of the bright yellow California poppies; then the tall ones in the back turned out to be dark-blue bachelor's buttons; then came some pink candytuft; and now there are a few red poppies and
some large pink and white ones that I can't even identify from the list on the American Meadows site.

There's still quite a lot of the baby's breath, mostly clumped together near the front of the bed. That wouldn't be a problem, as it makes a nice sort of background for the multicolored blooms, except that every time it rains—which it's been doing quite a lot this week—the narrow little stems flop over, turning the baby's breath into baby's spit-up. Fortunately, the baby's breath, like the other flowers we have right now, is an annual, so it won't be around to dominate the bed next year. 

So, on the whole, I'm now fairly pleased with the the first-year results for this wildflower mix. It took a few months to get going, but it's now producing a nice variety of flowers for our table, and it should continue doing so until the frost comes. However, it still remains to be seen how the bed will look when the plants die back over the winter, as well as how pleased we'll be with the mix of perennial plants next year. We might still end up deciding that we need something evergreen in back of this bed to provide a bit of winter interest, or that the perennials American Meadows chose don't work well in our soil and need to be supplemented.

Even if we end up replacing some part of the perennial bed, however, I'd say we still got good value for our money just from the annuals. We seeded the whole area with a quarter-pound of seed, which cost $15.90 including shipping. Filling in the whole area with individual plants—say, some easy-to-grow petunias—would have cost at least as much, taken a lot more work, and not provided us with nearly as much variety in height and color. And we'd still have to plant the whole area again next year.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Recipes of the Month: Strawberry-Spinach Salad and White Bean-Arugula Soup

Our local farmers' market opened last Friday, though with a smaller selection of vendors than it enjoys at the height of the growing season. In fact, only two stands were there selling produce: the rest were auxiliary foodstuffs like baked goods, pickles, grass-fed meats, "artisanal" cheeses, and fancy baking mixes. (Which, I guess, makes it less of a farmers' market than just, basically, a market.)

I knew that all these more processed goods were out of my usual price range, so instead I just checked out the two booths from actual farmers, where I found that the selection this early in the season was pretty limited. The only fruit I found was conventionally grown strawberries, which were priced at $6 a pound, even though California strawberries were selling at the supermarket for only $2 a pound. (How they can be grown in California and then shipped all the way across the country for one-third the cost of growing them locally in our nice rich New Jersey soil, I can't explain.) Most of the veggies they had were of the green leafy variety, such as kale (which I don't care for) and arugula (which we already have plenty of in our own garden). But it seemed a shame to let the opening day of the market go by without buying anything, so I settled on a bunch of spinach for $2.50.

So, when Brian came home from work that day, the first thing he saw was a bunch of spinach leaves soaking in a bowl of water. (Note: this is a good thing to do with any kind of greens to help them last longer. Soak them in cold water to rinse off any remaining dirt and plump up the leaves if they've wilted a bit. Then shake off all the excess water, wrap them in a clean towel or paper towels, and store them in a bag. They'll keep much better this way than if you shove them straight in a bag.) He asked if I had any particular plans for them, and I suggested making a salad for dinner, along with some of the cheap, non-local, evil strawberries I'd picked up at the supermarket. This wasn't exactly an original idea on my part, as I'd often seen this combination in salads before, but it was the first time we'd ever tried it. To add a bit of extra crunch, Brian threw in some chopped walnuts, and we topped it with the honey-balsamic vinaigrette from our food bible, Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. (Basically, it's just a simple vinaigrette made with balsamic vinegar, plus a tablespoon of honey and a crushed clove of fresh garlic.) And voila, a light, early-summer salad that's both tasty and healthful (at least if you're not worried about the calories in those walnuts).

I figured this salad, though quite simple, was good enough to qualify as my Recipe of the Month for June. However, before I got around to writing it up, Brian surprised me Sunday night with a new soup he concocted from scratch. I guess his starting point for the recipe was probably all that arugula we had out in the garden, some of which had to be used up pretty quickly because it was on the point of bolting. Thinking of ways to use it, he must have hit on the idea of modifying his favorite Garlic, Chick-pea and Spinach Soup out of Vegetarian: The Best Ever Recipe Collection. However, necessity being the mother of invention, he made a series of substitutions: white beans (which we had already cooked in the freezer) for the chick peas, arugula for the spinach, skim milk for the cream, and some sauteed free-range bacon ends for flavor, rather than the mixture of cumin, coriander, pepper, and tahini that the original recipe calls for. Probably the only ingredients that survived intact from the original recipe were the diced potatoes and onions.

The result, not surprisingly, was quite different from the original soup. The thick, hearty texture was similar, but it didn't have the same curious alchemy of flavors that made the original soup so compelling. We both agreed that his new invention was perfectly eatable, but not exactly enthralling. So we probably won't be making this particular soup again in this exact form. However, if the garden continues to supply us with masses of arugula, we might tinker with the recipe some more in hopes of turning it into something worthy of a place in our permanent cookery collection. If we succeed, I'll share the revised recipe here.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The three types of yard sales

Yard sale season is officially under way. Last weekend we went to five sales, all within a mile of our house, and we passed several more in the car that we didn't have time to stop for. Our haul was fairly modest (a new backpack for Brian and a couple of gifts for our nieces), but the experience was nonetheless educational. Specifically, it helped confirm our long-held belief that there are two main types of yard sales: the Clearout Sale and the Revenue Sale.

The Clearout Sale is probably closer to most people's idea of a traditional yard sale. Basically, it's held by someone with a house full of junk they want to get rid of. They may hope to raise a bit of extra cash, but their main purpose is to clear out unwanted stuff. At our next-door neighbor's sale last Saturday, for instance, there were at least half a dozen propane camp lanterns that she said they'd bought during Superstorm Sandy and then, apparently, never had occasion to use again. Likewise, there were piles of everything from baseballs to backpacks belonging to her teenage son, who was now off to college and unable to take everything with him.

Most of the stuff you find at a Clearout Sale will be priced to sell, which means that this type of sale is the best place to find really big bargains. (Ay our neighbor's sale, we found a Wenger SwissGear laptop backpack, similar to models that are priced around $90 new, with the tags still on it, for $5.) However, the selection at Clearout Sales is very hit-and-miss. Some of them are perfect examples of the saying, "One man's trash is another man's treasure," but more often, one man's trash really is just trash. For every Clearout Sale we go to that has interesting items in good condition, we find three or four with nothing but plastic toys, semi-functional appliances, and tattered clothes. In Virgil's phrase, searching this type of sale is a bit like plucking pearls from a dunghill: the few pearls you find are likely to be dirt cheap, but you have to sift through an awful lot of crap to find them.

The other major type of yard sale, the Revenue Sale, is a serious attempt to raise money. This type of sale is where you're most likely to find truly high-quality goods like antique furniture, rare books, or musical instruments. However, you're not that likely to get great deals on any of them. Because the objective is to maximize profits, most sellers would rather not sell an item at all than sell it for less than they think it's worth. So while you might be able to buy, say, an antique table at one of these sales for less than you'd pay in an antique shop, you won't pay any less for it than an antique dealer who was buying it to resell. In fact, it's quite likely that you'll pay more, since the seller's whole reason for holding a yard sale rather than just selling to an antique dealer is probably to get a better price. Sellers at Revenue Sales have typically checked the prices of items like theirs in stores or on eBay, and they will often make a point of telling you that the same chair they're selling for $150 goes for $200 elsewhere. But if you're just looking for something sturdy and comfortable to sit on, and you were hoping to pay around $15 for it, the Revenue Sale is not the place to look.

In general, then, the Clearout Sale offers better prices, while the Revenue Sale offers better quality. However, there is one particular subset of the Revenue Sale that actually tends to have more junk, and at worse prices, than the typical Clearout Sale. The best name I've managed to think up for this type of sale is a Reliquidation Sale: the seller has apparently bought up or otherwise acquired a pile of items liquidated by someone else who couldn't manage to sell them and is now attempting to sell them for a profit. Thus, this type of sale combines the worst aspects of the Clearout Sale and the Revenue Sale: there's nothing there but junk, and it's all overpriced.

Fortunately, Reliquidation Sales are usually easy to identify at a glance. Instead of the usual motley assortment of goods you'll find at a Clearout or Revenue sale, they have piles and piles of identical items, all of low value. You might find cosmetics, toiletries, flimsy plastic toys, coloring books—all small, cheap items, all priced just barely below what you'd pay for them in a store (assuming you'd be willing to pay for them in a store at all). So when you're out cruising the sales and you spot a table laden with a hundred identical pairs of cheap sunglasses, you know instantly that there's no point in slowing down to check it out.

Unfortunately, by the time you actually see the merchandise, you may have already walked a mile or more, or driven several blocks out of your way, to get to the yard sale you saw advertised on a sign. However, it's sometimes possible to avoid this kind of disappointment by remembering another common feature of Reliquidation Sales: like weeds, they tend to keep popping up week after week. Because the seller doesn't really have anything worth buying, they'll often end up with a lot of unsold merchandise at the end of the day—but because they're hoping to make money, they're not willing to just throw it out. So they pack it all up, bring it inside, and set it out again the next weekend, and the weekend after that, and sometimes every weekend after that until the weather gets cold. At this point, it's no longer so much a yard sale as a dollar store with a very limited selection set up on folding tables in someone's back yard.

So when you see a sign advertising a sale at the same address where you're pretty sure you went to one just last week, or the week before that, it's a good bet that there's no point in making the trip again. Because yard-saling is just like scuba diving; you can't afford to waste your oxygen swimming around some dumb submerged car.