Saturday, August 27, 2016

Recipe of the Month: Cucumber experiments

Last week, just as I was starting to wonder what we'd do for a Recipe of the Month for August, Brian came in from the garden with a couple of cucumbers he'd somehow missed until they were past their prime. One was starting to turn yellow, and the other was almost completely yellow. Now, according to most gardening sites, you're supposed to pick cucumbers when they're nice and dark green; if they've got a bit of yellow on them, you need to pick them immediately, and if they're completely yellow, they're overripe and no longer fit to eat. But I knew there were ways of using up other overripe produce, like bananas, so I figured it was worth at least a quick Google search to find out if there was a way to salvage these yellow cukes.

So I punched in "Can you eat yellow cucumbers?" and found this thread on Ask MetaFilter, in which various people weighed in on the question of what to do with overripe cukes. Posters suggested several different recipes, not all of them for food (one person's idea was, "you could always make them into cars and race them"), but the simplest one was this: "I would remove the seeds, cube them, pan fry (along with squash and or zucchini) with a little oil and garlic, salt and pepper and toss with some penne. Yum."

I'd never heard of cooking cucumbers before—I'd always assumed it would be impractical with a veggie that has such high water content—but this person had apparently done it before, judging by the "yum." Perhaps the yellow cucumbers had less water in them and were more suitable for frying? In any case, it seemed like it was worth a try. After all, frying with garlic works for just about every other veggie on the planet, so I figured it could hardly go too wrong.

The only thing that gave me pause was that one of the other posts in the thread recommended tasting the cucumber before using it to make sure it wasn't bitter. That seemed like a reasonable precaution, so Brian sliced off the ends (the part gardening sites say are most likely to turn bitter) and tasted them. And they tasted like...cucumber. There was nothing odd or different about them in any way.

So at that point, it seemed pretty clear that there was nothing seriously wrong with this cucumber, and we could just throw it into a jar of pickles with all our other cukes if we wanted to. But on the other hand, we did still need a Recipe of the Month, and cooking with cucumbers would be a new experience, so we decided to go ahead with the penne as planned. Brian also happened to have a couple of hunks of zucchini in the produce drawer that he'd salvaged from a pair of squash that had developed blossom end rot, so he figured he'd go ahead and cut those up and throw them in with the cukes. And to make the whole thing more wholesome, he tossed the resulting mixture with whole-wheat penne instead of plain.

I tasted my first piece of cooked cucumber with a bit of trepidation, but once I got used to the familiar flavor of cucumber in a form that was slightly less crisp, it was actually fine. Not extraordinary or anything, but fine. After all, veggies and pasta and garlic are a pretty foolproof combination, and it turns out cucumbers are no exception. This isn't a dish we'd ever go out of our way to make, and we certainly wouldn't let cucumbers turn overripe on purpose for it, but as a way of using up veggies that might otherwise go to waste, it was perfectly reasonable.

We also did one additional experiment with cucumbers a little later in the week. We'd been to Trader Joe's and picked up, as our one permissible impulse buy, a half-pound of smoked salmon "ends and pieces" that was selling for only five bucks. We planned to have this for supper on Friday, along with a loaf of rye bread from the day-old rack at the grocery store, but we needed a green vegetable to go with it. A cooked vegetable didn't seem quite appropriate, and we didn't have any lettuce left in the garden to make a salad—but we had plenty of cucumbers, so Brian decided to make a simple salad of those instead. So he just sliced a cucumber into thin half-moons, tossed it with some red pepper matchsticks, and served it with our favorite honey-garlic balsamic vinaigrette from How To Cook Everything Vegetarian.

This cucumber salad wasn't at all remarkable—certainly not as good as the delicious cucumber nectarine salad we made last month—but it was perfectly edible. The cool, crisp cucumbers were a good foil for the salty smoked salmon and chewy rye bread, and the dressing was compatible with all the other flavors. It's not a recipe I'd serve to company, at least not without dressing it up a bit more, but as a way to use up our bumper crop of cucumbers, it's quite reasonable.

So that makes four new cucumber recipes in just two months. However, I suspect those will be the last ones we'll try this year, since Brian reports that our cucumber vines, having produced at least 20 pounds' worth of fruit this summer, now appear to be shriveling up and drying out. We don't know whether they've caught a disease or just worn themselves out, but it doesn't look like we'll be getting much more off them this year. So I think this year's massive cucumber crop has finally come to an end. And sadly, our tomato plants, which would normally be producing at their peak in September, appear to be petering out as well. So next month's recipe will more likely be based on one of our fall crops, like winter squash or lima beans.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Money Crashers: Payday Loans – Biggest Dangers & Better Alternatives

I got the idea for my latest Money Crashers piece after reading an article in The Atlantic about payday loans. This piece discussed the dangers of this type of loan, which hits people already in desperate financial straits with crippling interest, but also pointed out that people take out these disastrous loans for a reason: they need the money, and most mainstream banks aren't willing to give it to them on more reasonable terms. Bad as payday loans are, The Atlantic argues, there just aren't any better alternatives.

John Oliver, however, begs to differ. His marvelous segment about the evils of payday loans concludes with a mock public service announcement in which Sarah Silverman urges viewers to consider a "great alternative" called "AnythingElse." Unfortunately, the ideas she goes on to suggest—including selling sperm or blood, walking in front of a car in hopes of a generous settlement, and shoplifting—are generally impractical, unethical, or both.

So in my article, I've attempted to outline some realistic alternatives for people who need cash in a hurry. I take pains to point out that many of the alternatives I suggest—such as pawnshops, credit card cash advances, and hitting up family members for a loan—are terrible ideas under normal circumstances. But when compared to a payday loan at 400% interest, they're decidedly the lesser of two evils.

How Payday Loans Work – Biggest Dangers & 14 Better Alternatives

Monday, August 22, 2016

Battery update

A few years back, I took a survey about our household battery use and was distressed to discover that:
  1. We owned a lot more battery-using devices than I'd ever realized; and
  2. None of those devices was using rechargeable batteries (aside from built-in battery packs).
Even though we owned a set of rechargeable AA batteries and a charger, we were still using alkaline batteries in all our devices that used that battery size. The reason: nearly all our devices were either infrequently used or very low drain. This made them impractical to use with old-school NiMH batteries, which drain away their charge much faster than an alkaline battery, both in storage and during use.

At the time, I vowed to fix this. Noting that some, though not all, of our rechargeable AA batteries were the new low-self-drain (LSD) type, I pledged to start using those in more of our devices. And to this end, I bought a new set of LSD batteries and a new "smart" battery charger at IKEA. With these on hand, I reasoned, we'd never have to buy alkaline batteries again.

So when, a few months ago, we were invited to take that same household battery survey again, I felt fairly confident that our battery usage would look better this time around. And in some respects, it did. For instance, we had ditched some of our old battery-using devices, such as Brian's beard trimmer, which we'd replaced last year with a corded model that we hope will hold up better. And yet, when it came to actual numbers, we were still using just as many battery-powered devices in 2016 as we were in 2013. And the number of our new LSD rechargeable batteries in use Every single one of our shiny new batteries was just sitting in a damned drawer.

Trying to puzzle out what was going on, I looked at the numbers in more detail. According to the survey, we had 14 devices that used AA batteries, containing a total of 30 batteries among them. However, about half of these were used only occasionally—from once a month to almost never. And of the other seven, about five were continuously running devices with very low drain, such as clocks and smoke detectors. So it was clear why we weren't using our new rechargeable batteries in these; they simply hadn't needed new batteries at any time in the past three years. The alkaline batteries in them were still good, and there was no point in pulling them out and tossing them before they were spent.

But still, this left three devices that took AA batteries and were actually used regularly: our wireless mouse, keyboard, and TV remote control. We use all of these three to four times a week for watching TV, since we watch mostly through the Internet with our media spud. So surely these, at least, must have needed new batteries at some point. Why weren't we using the rechargeable ones?

The answer turned out to be that, after three years, we were still working our way through a backlog of partially-discharged alkaline batteries. We hadn't bought any new alkaline batteries, but Brian was trying to squeeze the last few drops of power out of our old ones before discarding them. Well, I could hardly blame him for that. After all, having bought the disposable batteries in the first place, it would surely be a waste to throw them out if they weren't used up. But we'd nearly used up our supply of these old alkaline batteries, so when those ran out, then it would be time to load up our gadgets with the rechargeable ones, right?

Well, it turned out there was a slight sticking point there too. Apparently, after his experiences with the old NiMH batteries, Brian was leery of using rechargeable batteries—even the new LSD ones—in our remotes. He'd found rechargeable batteries so unreliable in the past that he feared if we loaded up our devices with them, they might stop working at any moment, leaving us with no way of watching our shows until we loaded up a freshly charged pair.

So, to set his fears at rest, we charged up a set of our new rechargeable AA's—which shouldn't have needed it, since they come pre-charged, but we were just making sure—and popped them into the keyboard and mouse, keeping the old alkaline batteries they'd been using in reserve. And as it turns out, they did perfectly fine. The keyboard, in fact, is still running off that same set of batteries several months later, and they haven't even needed a recharge. The mouse, it's true, has been a little testy, complaining several times that it was out of juice when the batteries in it were still fresh from the charger. But then, it often did that with the old alkaline batteries too, so it's possible this mouse is just really finicky about the placement of the batteries. In any case, swapping in a fresh rechargeable out of the drawer seems to work fine.

Emboldened by this success, we decided to try the rechargeable AA's in a few other places as well. We put a freshly charged set in one of our smoke detectors, relying on Michael Bluejay's claim that the LSD batteries work okay for this purpose, but it turned out not to be the case for us. Within a matter of days, the smoke detector started chirping, claiming its batteries were low. So we decided to go for the next-best option and replaced the alkaline batteries with longer-lasting lithium batteries. They cost more, but they can probably keep the detector going for years (probably the rest of its life, actually, since these things are only guaranteed to last ten years). So we'll spend less in the long run, throw out fewer batteries, and be spared the inconvenience of changing them.

Brian also discovered that his emergency lantern, which normally runs on D cell batteries, had a set of adapters that would allow it to use AA batteries. It won't run as long on these, of course, but then, it doesn't get used that often anyway. So he slipped three of our rechargeable AA batteries, in the adapters, into this lantern, and when we tested it last night, they were still lighting it up just fine. And if we do have a prolonged power outage and run down these batteries, we still have some D-cell alkalines in a drawer as a backup.

So, as of now, all our rechargeable AA batteries are in use except two (and those two are on standby to get swapped into the wireless mouse when it starts complaining). We don't have alkaline batteries out of our lives completely, at least not yet, but we shouldn't be needing to buy any more of them. As the batteries currently in use start to die, we can replace them with rechargeable ones. When we no longer have enough rechargeables to power everything, we can just spring for another batch. (IKEA now offers a low-power rechargeable for only a buck per battery, which should work fine in our low-drain devices.) We could also pick up a set of AAA cells, which will fit in our current charger, to use in the alarm clock and the few other devices that take this size.

Down the road, we might even be able to start using rechargeable batteries in bigger devices, the ones that take C or D cells. I recently worked on the battery report for ConsumerSearch, and I found that Energizer is now offering a rechargeable that comes in these larger sizes and does pretty well in professional tests. On the other hand, it might not be worth making this switch, since we would need a new charger to accommodate these larger batteries—and most of the devices we have that take them aren't used very often. On the whole, we might be better off just getting some more battery adapters so we can use our rechargeable AA's in them, and keeping D's on hand for backup.

But at least I know that, next time we're asked to fill out this battery survey, I'll be able to say yes, we are using rechargeable batteries, thank you very much.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Joining the LED revolution

Six years ago, I wrote a rather grumpy post complaining about the tendency to treat fancy new LED light bulbs as the only alternative to energy-guzzling incandescent bulbs. I pointed out that, at the time, a single LED bulb with a brightness of 800 lumens (equivalent to a 60-watt incandescent) cost over $40, while the compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) that we'd been using for years cost only a buck apiece. So even with their longer lifespan and lower energy use, the LED bulbs were virtually identical to CFLs in terms of lifetime cost. I concluded that while LED bulbs might be a good alternatives to CFLs for someone looking to upgrade, for anyone who had already made the switch to CFLs, it made more sense to keep them and wait for the price of LEDs to drop.

Well, drop it has. In 2014, when I last revisited the issue, I found that it was possible to get an 800-lumen LED bulb for only $8, while comparable CFL bulbs had jumped to $2 apiece. Thus, over its lifespan, a single LED bulb would save you about $7 over CFL bulbs. Yet I still didn't think, at the time, that this was enough to justify running out and buying some. After all, a savings of $7 over a period of 13 to 14 years wasn't all that impressive, and anyway, there was no point in tossing a bunch of CFLs that were still good.

Recently, however, three things happened, in short order, to change my mind:
  1. Two weeks ago, my Dollar Stretcher newsletter featured a story called, "How Much Do LED Lights Really Save?" The article itself didn't really answer its own question, as it only compared the energy costs of LEDs and CFLs and not their purchase cost, but it brought the topic back to my
  2. At some point last week, I stumbled across a reference to how much LED bulb prices had fallen. It mentioned a well-rated brand of 800-lumen LEDs now selling at Home Depot for $8 for a pack of four. I found that hard to believe, since we'd just recently checked out the light-bulb options at Home Depot and found most brands were selling for about twice that much, but when I looked on the website, sure enough, there they were.
  3. And then yesterday came the clincher: the light bulb in our stairwell fixture burned out. Actually, there were two bulbs in there, so we came to the conclusion that one of them must have burned out some time ago without our noticing, but the result was the same: a darkened staircase, which is a big tripping hazard (particularly with two cats that are hard to see in the dark).
Now, this particular light fixture is a real bear to deal with. It's mounted on the ceiling way above the stairs, which is the best place for keeping them well-lit, but the worst possible place for changing its bulbs. The only way to do it is to get out our giant extension ladder, put one end of it about halfway up the stairs, lean the other end against the wall, climb about halfway up it, then carefully turn yourself around so you can reach the light fixture and unscrew the "nipple" that holds it on. Then, since you've only got two hands, you have to take off the light cover, carry it down the ladder, set it aside, and climb back up the ladder to remove the bulbs. Then you have carry them down and make a third trip up to install the new bulbs, and finally a fourth trip—the trickiest of all—to put the cover back on, balancing on the ladder and holding the cover in place with one hand while you screw the nut on with the other.

The last time Brian went through this process was shortly after we bought the house and had that stairwell light installed. So the two CFL bulbs he put in at that time (or at least one of them) lasted about nine years, which isn't bad. But for a bulb that's this much of a pain to replace, it isn't good enough. Clearly, if there was any fixture in this house that cried out for light bulbs that would last for decades, this was the one.

So today, Brian and I finally bought our first package of 21st-century light bulbs. We ended up going with that same set of Philips bulbs that was on sale at Home Depot, because they had both a great price and excellent reviews from users. (We also checked out the selection of bulbs at IKEA, since we happened to be there earlier today, but we found it unimpressive. They didn't offer any bulbs at all in an 800-lumen brightness, so our only real choices were 400-lumen or 1,000-lumen bulbs. And since the 400-lumen ones cost $4 for a pack of two, the same price per bulb as the Philips ones, there was really no advantage to choosing them. I found it quite disappointing that IKEA, a chain that claims to specialize in environmentally friendly products in general and energy-efficient lighting in particular, couldn't offer a better bulb than our friendly neighborhood big-box store, and I'm hoping this isn't a sign that the whole chain is losing its commitment to eco-friendliness. (To add insult to injury, our favorite UTZ-certified chocolate bars weren't available anywhere in the store. Apparently the whole line has been recalled due to possible nut contamination, prompting Brian to remark, "But they could have just given them all to me!"))

The bulbs are now in place, and the stairwell is looking brighter than it has in quite some time. I can't be sure if these bulbs are actually brighter than the 15-watt CFLs they replaced, but two working bulbs are definitely brighter than the one we had before—and with an estimated lifespan of 10,000 hours, they should stay bright for quite some time. In an e-mail to his dad, Brian described all the hassle he'd just been through changing the bulbs and concluded, "The next time I have to replace them, I'll just use my anti-gravity boots. Or perhaps get the robot to do it."

Friday, August 5, 2016

Gardeners' Holidays 2016: Tomato Festival

Due to schedule oddities, we're celebrating the August 1 gardeners' holiday a little late this year. And instead of celebrating it as Squashmas in honor of our zucchini, this year I'm calling it Tomato Festival. It's not that we don't have any zucchini; the squash vine borers did get to our plants as usual, but they haven't petered out yet, and we already have two good-sized squash in the vegetable drawer. But that's normal for this time of year. The tomato harvest, on the other hand, is really something to write home about.

Normally, as July melts into August, we're getting only a trickle of Sun Gold tomatoes and maybe a couple of other early ones. But apparently the peculiar weather we had this spring, which killed off our entire plum and cherry crop, very much agreed with the tomato plants. The tomatoes started appearing in late June, and since then they've been coming so fast and furious that we haven't really kept track of them all. But Brian estimates we've harvested at least two pounds of Sun Golds already, along with eight or nine Glaciers (an early, cold-resistant variety), about a dozen Black Princes, and a dozen or so Amish Paste.

This last variety is a plum tomato, the ideal kind for our favorite pasta dish, pasta à la Caprese. And since the garden is also producing plenty of basil and a few peppers, the other veggies that go into the same dish, a batch of this seemed like the ideal way to celebrate our tomato bounty. Also, as luck would have it, we had about a half-pound of fresh mozzarella cheese in the fridge, which we happened to find on sale on our last trip to the supermarket. Normally this stuff costs upwards of five bucks a pound, but this time we were able to get a pound of it for only $3—less than what we pay for the cheap shredded mozzarella from Aldi. So for once, we were able to make this dish with the good stuff.

Our recipe for this comes from The Clueless Vegetarian, our favorite vegetarian cookbook. The basic idea behind it is that you take the ingredients of a Caprese salad—fresh basil, tomatoes, mozzarella—and just toss it with hot pasta. The key, however, is that you have to prepare the sauce a good hour or so ahead of time. You mix together chopped tomatoes, chopped bell pepper, basil, garlic (the recipe calls for two cloves, but we use lots more), olive oil, salt, and pepper in a big bowl, and you let it stand at room temperature while the flavors get acquainted. An hour is the bare minimum for this step; you can leave it all day if you like, and the dish will only be the better for it.

Once the sauce is well commingled, you boil the pasta, drain it, and then quickly dump in the sauce and cheese and hastily toss it together. The still-hot pasta melts the cheese, which spreads throughout the dish as you stir. And the result is a-may-zing.

Of course, with no cherry crop this year, we won't be able to do much in the way of a home-grown dessert to go with it. But we do still have a loaf of last year's zucchini bread in the freezer, so maybe a slice of that would make a fitting close to our celebration.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Money Crashers: How to Make the Most of Your Leftover Food

As I observed last year (in response to Bankrate's "eat your leftovers" savings challenge), leftovers have never been a big problem at our house. We just eat them for lunch—or, if there's enough left over, for a second dinner. The only time this ever causes any problems is when we've made a new recipe that neither of us liked very much, such as last month's cucumber salad with yogurt-dill dressing. But even then, Brian can usually manage to dispose of it if he's hungry enough. (Side note: we did try this salad with the lemon-tahini dressing instead, adding some chick peas to give it more substance, and it was better, but still not quite there. Next time, we plan to add more tahini, more garlic, a bit of cumin, and a touch of honey to tone down the brightness of the lemon juice.)

However, I've been given to understand that we're very much in the minority on this point. A 2012 study by the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that the average American household throws away about 25% of all the food it buys, to the tune of $1,365 to $2,275 per year. A 2015 survey by the American Chemistry Council came up with less dramatic, but still significant estimate of $640 worth of food wasted per household per year.

The NRDC notes that food gets wasted for several reasons, including spoilage and misunderstandings about use-by dates, but part of the problem is "over-preparation": cooking a meal that's too big and ending up with "uneaten leftovers." So clearly, finding a way to turn those into eaten leftovers would save most families money, as well as reducing waste.

To that end, I've written a piece for Money Crashers on all the different things you can do with leftovers. Many of these are tricks we use ourselves, such as eating leftovers for lunch, throwing odds and ends into flexible recipes like stir-fry and frittata, and turning bones and vegetable scraps into stock. Others are ideas I've picked up from frugal-living books and websites, including homemade freezer meals, the leftover smorgasbord, and the "perpetual soup container" (throw all your leftover meat and veggies in, and when it gets full, just add water and cross your fingers).

So I can't personally vouch for all the ideas in the article—but I can confirm that they're all ideas that someone out there has tried and found good enough to recommend. With a little luck, you should be able to find at least a few that work for you as well.