Sunday, June 26, 2016

Bonus recipe: Mega-Fiber Health Bread

It's been over three years now since our old bread machine bit the dust, and rather than replacing it, Brian opted to start making all our bread by hand. So now, whenever we start coming toward the end of our current batch of bread, he routinely asks me what type I'd like to have next. Sometimes I request a specific kind we have a recipe for (like honey oatmeal or rye); other times, I just describe the sort of bread I'd like and he invents a recipe from scratch. This is how he ended up developing his Granola Bread, one of his tastiest creations.

Last time he put this question to me, I said I'd like a bread with plenty of fiber, because I thought it would do me good to get more of that on a regular basis. Brian apparently took this as a challenge and decided to see just how much fiber he could cram into a single loaf of bread. And the answer, apparently, is "loads."

He started with a basic whole-wheat bread and then threw in every high-fiber ingredient he could think of: whole oats, wheat bran, and even some finely ground flaxseeds. The result was a very heavy and dark, yet not unpalatable loaf, with a hearty wheat flavor and a dense, chewy texture. And it sure will keep your digestive tract humming along.

So I'm calling this recipe
  1. In a large mixing bowl, mix together 1 3/4 c. warm water, 2 Tbsp. yeast, 2 tsp. salt, 1/4 c. brown sugar, and 1/4 c. canola oil.
  2. Stir in 1 c. wheat bran, 1 c. quick-cooking oats, 1/4 c. (or so) brown flaxseed ground to a powder, 2 1/2 c. whole-wheat flour, and 2 Tbsp. gluten flour (absolutely crucial if you want this bread to rise).
  3. Knead this for a long time—at least 10 minutes. At first it will seem like there's no way it will ever cohere, but just keep at it, and eventually it will start to form a recognizable dough.
  4. Divide it and put it into two loaf pans. Allow it to rise anywhere from 1 to 4 hours—this dense dough takes a long time to double in size. Punch down the dough (or, as Brian prefers, take it out and fold it in half to make something more loaf-shaped), return it to the pans, and let it rise again.
  5. Bake at 375°F for 30 minutes.
This recipe makes two loaves, and each loaf is good for about 15 slices. So according to the SparkPeople recipe calculator, one slice of this bread has about 80 calories and 2.7 grams of fiber.

For purposes of comparison, I looked up regular whole-wheat bread, "prepared from recipe," on the same site, and it claims that one slice of that has 2.8 grams of fiber—actually a little bit more than Brian's bread. I found that a bit hard to believe, since this is one very hefty bread; I didn't see how any standard whole-wheat bread recipe could possibly trump it for fiber content. But then I checked the calorie content and found that it reckoned a regular slice of whole-wheat bread at 127 calories, so I concluded that it must be talking about a bigger slice. The pieces we cut are probably closer in size to a "thin slice," with 91 calories and 2 grams of fiber. Which means Brian's bread is both "lighter" (if you can apply that term to anything so heavy) and more fiber-rich.

So for anyone who's looking for an easy way to add more fiber to your diet, two slices of this every morning will start off your day with 5.5 grams—well on your way to the 30 grams a day that experts say can take off pounds, lower your blood pressure, and do all kinds of other marvelous stuff like magic. And even if your weight and blood pressure are fine, this is a good recipe for anyone who just likes a bread you can really get your teeth into.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Money Crashers: How to Simplify Your Life

First of all, just to be clear: I don't really consider myself a minimalist.

I'll admit that the ideal of minimalism, or voluntary simplicity, appeals to me in some ways. I like the idea of clearing away all the stuff in my life that doesn't improve it—not just belongings, but schedule commitments as well. My biggest problem with it is that most minimalists seem to have the idea that less is always better. The fewer possessions you have, the fewer things you have on your to-do list, the more bare you can strip your life, the happier you'll be. That's the viewpoint I rejected in this post back in 2010.

But to be fair, this isn't really a problem with the movement itself. The authors of the website "The Minimalists," which is more or less the definitive source, say minimalism is simply a way "to rid yourself of life's excess in favor of focusing on what's important." Thus, by definition, anything that is really important to you—anything that makes your life easier or more satisfying—isn't "excess," and there's no need to get rid of it. Indeed, the whole point is to give yourself more time and space for the things you care about by clearing away all the junk.

So my latest Money Crashers piece is all about this idea of voluntary simplicity: where it came from, what it means, and most importantly, what it doesn't mean. I talk about the financial, environmental, and health benefits of living with less, as well as the challenges of choosing a life that's so different from most mainstream Americans', and I conclude with a few ideas about how to move toward a simpler life if that's what you want.

How to Simplify Your Life With Voluntary Simplicity – Benefits & Challenges

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Gardeners' Holidays 2016: Cornucopia

We've had an odd sort of spring this year. In February and March, it was so unseasonably mild it felt like spring had come way ahead of schedule. Then in April and early May, it suddenly got so chilly again it felt like we'd plunged back into winter, and in late May and early June it switched gears and turned to summer all at once. These odd temperature shifts have apparently agreed with some of our garden crops and disagreed with others. Our plum trees and cherry bushes, sadly, have produced virtually nothing; the few tiny plums I found on the trees were brown and withered, apparently victims of brown rot. (I cleared away all the mummified fruit I could find to keep it from spreading, and we'll just have to keep our fingers crossed that we'll have normal weather and a normal crop next year.) And our basil crop is looking a bit seared, although we're hoping we can perk it up by giving it plenty of water.

Our lettuce, on the other hand, is producing like never before. We currently have four different varieties out in the garden:
  1. Winter Marvel, a winter variety we planted last year, which gave us nothing at the time and then popped up unexpectedly in April.
  2. Bronze Mignonette, a butterhead variety we planted for the first time this April. I used our "carpet sowing" method and got great results, but unfortunately I planted the seeds so thickly that I ran out, so there wasn't enough to fill the three squares we'd set aside for it.
  3. Tom Thumb, another butterhead type that we'd grown in the past. We had some seeds left in the packet, so I planted them to fill in the rest of the space allotted for the Bronze Mignonette.
  4. Summer mix, a mixture of heat-tolerant varieties that we started in May so we'd still have some lettuce after the cool-season ones had all bolted. But so far, despite the hot weather, that hasn't happened.
So basically, we are just rolling in lettuce, and we've been eating green salads with just about every meal. I'm sure that's very good for us, but I have to admit we're getting a little tired of it. So I'm keeping an eager eye on our other veggies to see when we might be able to start harvesting them for a little varieties. The bean and pepper plants have blossoms on them, but no fruits yet; a couple of the tomato plants have little green globes, but they probably won't ripen for a few weeks. But the zucchini plants already have their first tiny squash, which could well be big enough to harvest within a week or so, and our sugar snap peas have already started producing. So far we've had only a few pods at a time, but that's enough to throw into a stir fry or Pad Thai, as well as adding a bit of crunch to our endless stream of salads.

A couple of crops are already played out for the year. The asparagus has now gone completely to fern, without ever having yielded enough at once for a single good recipe, and the arugula, after providing us with a couple of batches of pasta, has gone to flower. Every year, I plan to catch it right before it bolts and turn it all into a big batch of pesto, and every year it gets the jump on me. So the best I can do with it at this point is get some use out of the flowers, displaying them in our new cat-safe vase alongside some purple sage blossoms.

So tonight, we're celebrating the summer cornucopia with (what else) green salads, with a few pea pods thrown in for crunch and flavor. These will accompany a main dish of free-range turkey franks cooked on the grill, since the weather is plenty warm for it. And for dessert, we'll have a rhubarb crisp, because our rhubarb is one crop we can always count on to keep producing from the first thaw right through to the first freeze.

Summer is icumen in; lettuce eat!

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Money Crashers: 9 Passive Income Stream Ideas

In one of my earlier Money Crashers posts, I talked about how to reach Financial Independence by saving up enough money to live on your investments alone. The basic idea here is that the interest you earn from your investments provides "passive income," which you get without having to life a finger, and if you have enough of it, you no longer need earned income, the kind you get by showing up to work every day.

However, one point I didn't really discuss in the article is that investments aren't the only way to earn passive income. You can also receive ongoing payments for work you've already done, or for rent you charge on something you own. So in my latest Money Crashers article, I talk about the various other ways there are to earn passive income, including rental properties, residual sales income, sales of creative works, various ways to monetize a website (through ads, affiliate marketing, or subscriptions), car advertising, and earning cash back when you shop.

As I note in the article, you probably won't get rich doing any of these things, at least not without putting in a lot of work up front - but having one or more of these passive income streams to add to your investment income can get you to FI faster. And in the meantime, it gives you a nice cash cushion for emergencies.

9 Passive Income Stream Ideas & Opportunities to Make Money

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Recipe of the Month: Couscous Salad

Last month, our local library had its annual book sale, and one of the volumes we picked up was Dean Ornish's Eat More, Weigh Less. I wasn't really interested in it for the health advice, since I was already familiar with the benefits and the drawbacks of Dr. Ornish's ultra-low-fat vegetarian diet; what attracted me was that about half the book was recipes contributed by professional chefs (including such luminaries as Wolfgang Puck). I flipped through it at the sale and spotted several right away that looked intriguing—Eggplant Caponata, Tandoori Potato and Onion Casserole, Tofu with Black Bean Sauce—and I thought it was worth spending a buck on purely as a cookbook. One advantage of it was that I knew everything in it would be vegetarian, so I wouldn't have to pick through it looking for the recipes I could use; everything in it was sure to be edible, if not necessarily delicious.

So I figured, having this new book on hand, I might as well dip into it to select my Recipe of the Month for June. I selected two likely-looking candidates, Couscous Salad and Japanese Noodle Soup (both contributed by Jean-Mark Fullsack), and we ended up settling on the former mostly because it seemed appropriate for the hot weather.

Now, as it happens, Brian and I already have a couscous salad recipe that we make fairly often in the summertime. It's from our go-to vegetarian cookbook, The Clueless Vegetarian, and it's both very simple and very tasty. All you have to do is cook up the couscous, chop the veggies, shake up a batch of lemon vinaigrette with a touch of cumin, and mix everything together. It calls for canned beans, cucumbers, bell peppers, scallions, and fresh parsley, but it says you can also add "really, whatever else you like"; we often throw in halved Sun Gold tomatoes when they're in season.

Fullsack's recipe was similar in many ways: it also called for chopped tomato and cucumber, fresh parsley and lemon juice, cumin, and a bit of onion in place of the scallions. But it's much leaner than the Clueless Vegetarian version, with no beans and no oil at all in the dressing. It also says to cook the couscous in broth to give it more flavor and adds several more seasonings: garlic, which I like a lot; coriander, which I like somewhat; and a whopping 3/4 cup of chopped mint, which I like, but not that much. My usual practice when making a dish for the first time is to follow the recipe absolutely straight, and then adapt it if necessary, but Brian and I jointly decided that 3/4 cup of mint on top of 1/2 cup of parsley was just way too much greenery, and we cut it down to 1/2 cup.

As it turned out, that was still way too much. As you can see from the picture, the green stuff makes up a fair percentage of what's in the bowl, making this salad similar in flavor and texture to tabouli, which I don't care for all that much. I felt bad having such an incredibly healthy meal in front of me and not eating my fill, but it was already a struggle just to make it through the half-full bowl I'd dished out for myself. I ended up going to the fridge for some string cheese and bread to eke out the meal, which seems to kind of defeat the purpose of having something so ultra-lean as a main course.

Brian, seeing that I wasn't that enthusiastic about the salad, generously offered to take care of the leftovers for me, and he took them to work over the next two days. But by the third day, he had to admit it was starting to pall on him too. As he put it, there's a fine line between a dish you can eat all you want of and not gain weight, and one you can eat all you can stand of and still be hungry—and this dish was definitely treading that line.

Given that we already have a couscous salad recipe we like, I can't see any good reason to make this one again. But perhaps we could pick up a couple of ideas from this recipe to modify our old one, such as cooking the couscous in broth (which did indeed boost its flavor) and maybe cutting down, but not cutting out, the olive oil in the dressing. But I definitely don't think we should cut out the beans, which make the Clueless Vegetarian salad much heartier and more satisfying than Fullsack's—and I can see no good reason to add all that mint, or indeed, any mint at all.

So all in all, this first recipe selection from our new book was a bust. I'll try and be a little more choosy in picking my next one. Perhaps Pasta with Red Peppers, Greens, White Beans, Garlic, and Lemon Zest might work for July.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Money Crashers: Ultimate Foraging Guide

About five years ago, I mentioned on this site that we like to pick and eat dandelion greens from our yard. This is an example of foraging: picking and eating wild food, where "wild" means anything that hasn't been planted on purpose. Brian and I aren't exactly habitual foragers; our scavenging is generally limited to weeds from our own yard, plus the occasional berry that we can pick while out walking. When it comes to supplying our own food, we rely much more on plants that we've actually planted and watered and weeded.

Nonetheless, I think foraging is an interesting and definitely ecofrugal idea. It's not merely getting food for free; it's getting food that was grown locally (in your own neighborhood) and organically (with no fertilizers or chemicals of any kind), without even using any water beyond what it gets from the sky. The carbon footprint of those dandelion greens we put in our salad wasn't just small, it was probably negative, since they actually absorbed carbon while they were growing.

But foraging also, quite clearly, has its risks. The most obvious one is eating something that could kill you, or at least strongly disagree with you. But it also has legal risks, since you can get arrested for picking someone else's plants without permission, and moral hazards, since you could inadvertently damage the environment by picking too much of a plant that's crucial to the ecosystem. And even if you don't harm the environment, there's still the question of how much you can reasonably take and how much you're morally obligated to leave behind for others.

In my latest Money Crashers article, I explore all these different aspects of foraging. I discuss the benefits of gathering your own food, along with the risks; I provide details about some common foods that grow in the wild; I discuss some basic rules for foraging safely and ethically; and then, since I can't possibly tell you everything you need to know in one article, I conclude by providing links to other sites and resources where you can learn more. But I hope that my article serves, as least, as a good, broad introduction to the subject, one that will whet your appetite for more information about the delicious and cheap bounty of nature.

Ultimate Foraging Guide – Edible Wild Plants & Food, Benefits & Dangers

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Long Live the Fridge

Longtime readers of this blog will know that I've been wanting for several years to replace our old refrigerator. Ever since we first bought it along with the house, it has annoyed me in a whole bunch of little ways: its clunky produce drawer, its awkwardly placed light, its tiny freezer with no internal organization. It was way back in 2009 that my in-laws gave us a check toward the purchase of a new fridge as a Christmas present (in a rather amusing package), and we've been shopping for a new fridge off and on ever since—but years went by and we never found one that we were really happy with. There were certain basic requirements it had to meet:
  • It had to be a top-freezer model, which is not only the cheapest type, but also the most space- and energy-efficient and the least repair-prone.
  • It had to be Energy Star qualified, meaning at least 9 percent more efficient than the current federal standards. (We knew a new fridge was never going to pay for itself just in reduced energy bills, since our old fridge didn't use that much electricity, but at least we wanted to make sure the new one didn't use more.)
  • It had to get good ratings for performance in professional tests, and good marks for reliability from users.
  • It had to be at least as large as the old one, and preferably larger.
  • It had to be available in white, to go with our other appliances. None of this modern stainless finish (which costs extra and shows every fingerprint) for us, thank you.
  • There were a few basic features it absolutely had to have: adjustable shelves, two crisper drawers, a deli drawer, and a shelf in the freezer. These were the things whose absence bugged me most about the old fridge. Another requirement was separate temperature controls for the fresh food and freezer compartments, because I kept seeing complaints about fridges that lacked this feature saying it was impossible to keep the frozen foods frozen without also freezing some of the fresh ones. There were a few other features we thought would be nice, including glass shelves (rather than wire), adjustable door storage, humidity-controlled crispers, and a light in the freezer, but they weren't absolute requirements.
  • There was one feature we absolutely did not want: an ice maker. As far as I'm concerned, these stupid things are a complete waste of precious freezer space. They have to be hooked up to a separate plumbing line, which is an expensive process if your kitchen doesn't already have one, and they're one of the likeliest parts to break on any refrigerator. Plus, they make a lot of noise, and they take up a lot more room than a simple, low-tech set of ice cube trays, which honestly aren't that hard to use. So we were looking for a fridge that didn't come with a factory-installed ice maker—or, at minimum, one that came with one that was easy to remove.
To me, this didn't seem like all that much to ask—but the more we shopped, the more it seemed that it was actually too much to get. Year after year, I'd check the latest ConsumerSearch report on refrigerators, only to find that the top-rated top-freezers were all too small, too inefficient, not reliable enough, or missing one or more of our must-haves. And since our old refrigerator, though annoying, was still functional, there was no point in spending hundreds of dollars to replace it with something we still wouldn't be really happy with.

But this year, that finally changed. One of the top-freezer fridges listed in ConsumerSearch, the Kenmore 70623, was an almost perfect match for our requirements. It wasn't covered in Consumer Reports, but it got good ratings at and acceptable ratings from users at Sears; it was Energy Star certified; it was nearly 2 cubic feet bigger than our old one; it was available in white; and it had all the features we were looking for. The only downside was that it came with an ice maker, but a quick search revealed that the Kenmore 60622 was the identical fridge without the ice maker. Perfect!

When we went to Sears to have a look at it, however, there turned out to be one more snag. The description on the website indicated that this fridge's height, 68.25 inches on the rear side, was just short enough to fit into the space cut for it in our kitchen. However, when we took a look at it in person, we noticed—or rather, Brian noticed, because he's a foot taller than I am—that the top of this refrigerator isn't completely flat; it bows upward slightly in the middle. And that was a problem, because the space we had to squeeze the fridge into was a bare 68.5 inches from the floor. Brian convinced the sales clerk to bring us a straightedge, so he could lay that across the top of the fridge and measure from the floor to that, and it came out to exactly 68.5 inches. So the new fridge might fit into the space, or it might be a hair too tall.

After discussing the point, we decided that this was the first refrigerator we'd found in over six years of searching that met our needs in every other way, so it was worth taking the plunge. If we found that it couldn't quite squeeze into the space we had, Brian was prepared to shave a millimeter or two off the bottom of the upper cabinet to make it fit. So we ordered the new fridge with instructions to the delivery team not to force it into place if it didn't quite fit. And this turned out to be a wise precaution, as the new fridge was in fact just a smidgen too tall for the space. So the night after it was delivered, Brian pushed it out from the wall, slipped in under it, and started shaving off the bottom of the cabinet with his plane. After several rounds of trimming and testing, leaving a good-sized pile of shavings behind each time, he was finally able to squeeze the new fridge into place. So the bottom edge of the cabinet is now a little uneven, but with the fridge wedged right up against it, you can't tell.

When Sears set up the delivery of the new refrigerator, they offered to haul away our old one for an extra $25, but we declined. We already knew we could get a better deal from the state of New Jersey through its Flip Your Fridge program. If we turned in our old, still working refrigerator for recycling, not only could we get it picked up for free, but the state would also pay us $50 for it. (We could also have gotten an additional $50 to $75 rebate on a new Energy Star fridge if we'd picked one of the qualifying models, but ours isn't on the list.)

So we just asked the delivery team to move the old fridge to a spot next to the window, where we could keep it plugged in until the new one was cold enough to receive its contents, and once that was done I contacted the state to arrange to have the old one picked up. Or at least, I tried to. When I tried to set up an appointment on the web, it said, "There are no appointments currently available for your area," so I called the toll-free number instead and a rep told me she would have to "put in a request" for a pick-up, and I should receive a call about it within a week. So for the time being, we have two refrigerators crammed into our modestly sized kitchen while we wait to hear back from the state.

The new fridge, however, is already in service, and I can say without doubt that it's much better than the old one. We have plenty of storage in the door now for all our condiment bottles, tall and short; the deli drawer holds all our cheese and extra boxes of butter and spread, and it even has room left over for other short and flat items, like tortillas. The water pitcher, milk jugs, and other tall containers all fit on the top shelf, with no bulky light fixture to squeeze them to one side or the other. We're still figuring out the optimal way to organize the space, but even in its haphazard interim state, it's much easier to use than the old one ever was.

And the freezer has so much room! Meats, veggies, loaves of bread, ice cube trays, ice cream, stock bag, extra pound of butter, last summer's rhubarb—it all fits with plenty of room to spare. So if we actually get a bumper crop in the garden this year—and I must say, it's off to a promising start—we'll have no shortage of space to store our surplus.

Our new refrigerator isn't perfect, of course. But so far, we've only uncovered three problems, all of them fairly minor:
  1. This larger fridge is not only taller than our old one, it's also a good deal deeper. So to make full use of the space inside it, we'll need to store some things behind other things, where it's no longer possible to see them at a glance when the door is opened. That means we'll have to be more vigilant about keeping track of the contents so that good food doesn't end up being buried in the back until it goes bad. (Fortunately, the shelves on this new refrigerator can slide forward a few inches, making it somewhat easier to see and reach all the contents.)
  2. In the photos above, you can see that the fridge is standing wide open without anyone holding the door. This wouldn't have been possible with our old fridge, which was balanced so that the door would close on its own if it was left open. In theory, it should be possible to adjust this one to do the same thing, but unfortunately, it's so tightly squeezed into the enclosure that there's no way to raise its front up any more than it is already. So we'll just have to be careful about making sure we close the doors completely, instead of just nudging them.
  3. The one problem with the fridge that really bugs me is that the finish on the doors scratches really easily. I discovered this the first day we had it, just an hour or so after we'd removed the shrink-wrapping it came in. We hadn't transferred the food to it yet, because we wanted to give it a full 24 hours to come down to temperature and make sure it was working properly, but I figured I could at least go ahead and put back the magnets we'd had on the old fridge holding our shopping list and so on. So I started transferring these to the fridge door, and when I tried to move one of them, it slid across the surface and left a three-inch scratch right on the front of our brand-new fridge. We'd had it less than one day, we didn't even have food in it yet, and it was already damaged. This wouldn't have bothered me so much if there had been any warning whatsoever in the manual about putting magnets on the door, because then I would have known not to do it—or, if I'd chosen to do it anyway, I would have had only myself to blame. But all I'd done is use the fridge in a perfectly normal way, the same way I'd always used my old one, and that was enough to cause visible damage.
I was annoyed enough about this last problem to try and contact Sears about it, but they sure don't make it easy. When I clicked on "Contact Us," it didn't provide an actual phone number or e-mail address for the store, but instead sent me to a searchable FAQ and then asked, "Did we answer your question?" When I clicked on "Give us Feedback," it sent me to a web-based survey about my shopping "experience"; I complained about the problem there, but I was pretty sure no one would ever read it. And when I searched the manual for a customer service number, there was none to be found. It gives information about the warranty, but none at all about what you should do if you ever want to actually use the warranty.

Finally I went back to the "Contact Us" page, typed in, "How do I get repair under warranty?", and got directed to the repair page. There I was able to initiate a chat session with a rep who listened to my problem and sounded at first like he was happy to help with it—but it turned out that he was under the impression the fridge had been damaged when it was delivered. When I explained that it actually became damaged the first time I tried to use it, he warned that if the damage was due to "mishandling the appliance, physical damage or incorrect installation," I would have to pay for the repair myself. I argued that if using the fridge in the normal way was enough to cause damage, it was defective and should be replaced. He said that he could send a technician out to my place to evaluate the damage, and if it was found to be covered under warranty, the service would be free—but if not, I would have to pay for the repair out of pocket. Moreover, even if I declined the repair, I would still be on the hook for the $95 service call. Given that he'd already implied Sears was inclined to look on any sort of damage sustained at any time after delivery as being the fault of the customer, I decided it wasn't worth risking $95 on a problem that we could fix reasonably well ourselves with a $5 can of appliance paint. It wouldn't be as good as new—which I still think I have a right to, given that it is new and hasn't been misused in any way—but it would be presentable.

So I told him thanks, but no thanks, and said I would "take the matter up with corporate." And I mean to follow through on that threat; I tracked down an address and phone number on this website, and I'm planning to send them a polite but chilly letter about what I think their warranty is worth. But it's more for my own satisfaction than because I actually expect any results. In the mean time, we've simply covered up the scratch with a different type of magnet—a flexible one that can't damage the surface—which is a small-scale reproduction of a modern painting. So until we get it touched up, it doesn't look too obviously damaged.

On the whole, though, I'm happy with our purchase. Considering how long we spent looking for a fridge that met our criteria, I think this one was worth snapping up when we found it, even with its minor problems. It only set us back a total of $750, including the tax (we got free delivery on it because I signed up for a Sears credit card, which I figured was worth the minor hassle for the sake of the $70 savings), and if I'd passed it up, we could easily have spent another six years looking for something acceptable. So if I had it all to do over again, I'd still buy this fridge; I just wouldn't put any magnets on it.