Saturday, September 23, 2017

Gardeners' Holidays 2017: Harvest Home

According to the calendar—and this cute Google Doodle—yesterday marked the start of fall. But just like last year, the weather remains stubbornly summery. According to the weather report, we can expect highs in the 80s and 90s at least through Wednesday; tomorrow, the heat index is expected to peak close to 100. Celebrating the autumn harvest in shorts and sandals, with a ceiling fan turning overhead, feels a bit inappopriate.

But our garden, at least, is not waiting for cooler weather to start delivering up its fall bounty. Here you see what we've gathered just in the past few days:
  • Five big Pineapple tomatoes. This is a new variety we tried this year, and I'd say it's a keeper. It takes a little while to start producing, but once the tomatoes show up, they just keep coming—hefty, orange-red globes with a firm texture and a pleasant, distinctly fruity flavor. We've tried them in salsa and various pasta dishes, and they seem to work well with everything.
  • One Black Prince and two Mr. Fumarole tomatoes. These varieties have been far less impressive. The Mr. Fumarole is a paste variety we tried this year to replace the disappointing Amish Paste variety, but it hasn't really been any more productive. Last year, in total, we harvested about a dozen good-sized Amish Pastes; this year to date, we've gathered only six smallish Mr. Fumaroles. The Black Princes have done a little better, yielding about ten fruits so far, with a smoky and complex flavor—but since the Pineapples also taste great and are both larger and more prolific, I'd just as soon plant more of those. (By the way, if it looks like these tomatoes aren't ripe yet, you're sort of right; in the past year or two, we've taken to picking our tomatoes at "first blush"—the very first hint of reddening on the end of the tomato—rather than letting them ripen fully on the vine. They ripen just fine indoors, and we don't lose nearly as many to splitting after a heavy rain.)
  • About a cup and a half of our old standby, the Sun Gold cherry tomatoes, which have given us several pounds to date and show no sign of stopping. So far, this is the only early tomato we've been able to grow with any success; other cold-tolerant varieties we've tried, such as Glacier and Moskvich, have given us next to nothing. The small size of the Sun Golds makes them a little hard to work with, but their sweet, mild flavor and incredible productivity mean they'll always have a place in our garden.
  • Two Waltham butternut squash, picked today off a vine that appears to be already dead, or at least dying. All the squash vines are gradually starting to wither, so at some point we'll just have to pick all the squash and store them for the winter, but for now we just grabbed the two that seemed most time-sensitive.
One additional crop that you can't see in the photo is our raspberries, which have been producing at such a rate that we have to go out and gather them nearly every day—braving clouds of mosquitoes, which for some reason tend to congregate in our side yard—just to keep up. Even picking them every other day, we tend to find that a fair number of them have gone from "not ripe enough to pick" to "too squishy to eat." It doesn't help that, even with the new raspberry trellis, the canes are thick and tangled enough that harvesting the berries is really a two-person job, requiring one person to extract each cane and hold it up while the other person gathers the berries thus exposed. Since Brian and I can't do it together every day, I often end up going out by myself, and a lot of berries inevitably get missed—only to be rediscovered later when they're half-fermented and sloughing off the vine. But even with all the ones that we have to discard, we're bringing in a good cup or so of berries every day, and there are still plenty of unripe ones out there on the canes. At this rate, we'll most likely go on harvesting them right up until the first hard frost.

So even if the weather remains unseasonably hot, we have plenty of fall produce to celebrate. We have a butternut squash lasagna in the oven right now, and perhaps we'll indulge in an apple-raspberry crisp for dessert to welcome in the autumn properly—even if a little prematurely.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Money Crashers: Top 13 Tuition-Free Colleges

As the old joke goes, the best way to succeed in life is to choose your parents wisely. Brian and I are a case in point. We were both lucky enough to have parents who could afford to put us through college, so we didn't emerge into the real world carrying a huge load of student debt like so many of our generation. And since we don't have kids of our own, the ever-higher cost of college tuition isn't a problem we've had to worry about since then.

However, I know that many others aren't as fortunate. There are plenty of folks in my age group who are now facing the daunting prospect of dealing with sky-high college costs for the second time with their kids—sometimes while they're still working on paying off their own student loans. So for them, I've written a Money Crashers article that explores an unusual and intriguing solution to the problem of college costs: tuition-free colleges.

Schools like this are rare, and they're not easy to get into. Some of them take only top-level students; others are limited to low-income students from specific areas of the country. Some of them focus specifically on training students for a particular career, such as music, the ministry, or naval architecture. And most of them require students to work in exchange for their free tuition, either while they're at school or by committing to some form of service (for instance, in the military) after they graduate.

However, if you or your offspring are lucky enough to meet the strict requirements for one of these schools, you have a chance of hitting the jackpot: a college education at no cost. (Okay, most of these schools aren't 100 percent free; while there's no tuition cost, they do charge a fee for room and board. But in many cases, you can pay for that with a scholarship or some form of work-study, as well.)

In this article, I describe 13 colleges across the U.S. where you can—with a bit of luck—earn your degree for free. For each one, I outline the requirements to get in, areas of study, and features of campus life. I also discuss the free tuition movement in a growing number of states, which aims to offer at least two years at a community college at no charge to in-state students.

Read about it here: Top 13 Tuition-Free Colleges: How to Get a Degree for Free

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Yard-Sale Index

It's the weekend of the annual town-wide yard sale in Highland Park, and Brian and I spent most of yesterday out hunting for interesting finds. Here's a quick summary of the results in list form, à la Harper's Index.
Hours spent shopping: 6

Number of sales visited: Over 50

Miles walked: About 6

Total amount spent: $18.50

Number of items acquired: 13

Number of those that will be holiday gifts: 3 or 4

Biggest-ticket item: A tie between a $5 Roku box and a $5 set of classic Alec Guinness films on DVD. (The set, which includes "The Lavender Hill Mob," "The Captain's Paradise," "The Man in the White Suit," "The Ladykillers," and "Kind Hears and Coronets," costs $35 new at Best Buy.)

Cheapest item: A tie among three items we acquired for the low, low price of completely free, including two road maps (which we actually do use regularly, since we're late adopters who have yet to take the plunge on a smartphone), four pens (even though I now have a couple of refillable roller-ball pens for everyday use, it's handy to have extras for such uses as logging gas mileage in the car and jotting notes during role-playing games), and a spare computer keyboard

Most useful purchase: A new neck (the part that attaches the handlebars to the frame) for Brian's bike, which currently has a stripped-out neck that makes it impossible to adjust the handlebars, for $1

Most disappointing purchase: The Roku. We bought this as an experiment because our old Media Spud, which has served us faithfully for over seven years, has started having trouble keeping up with the demands of streaming our favorite show, Critical Role, via Twitch—even at the lowest resolution. We'd been considering a Roku to replace it, so when we spotted this one, we figured it was worth risking $5 to see whether it could work for us. Unfortunately, the player turned out upon testing to be so old that it's not capable of streaming either Twitch or YouTube—the two sites that we rely on for most of our shows. However, Brian says he learned a fair amount about how the system works from tinkering with it, such as the fact that the bottom-of-the-line Roku Express should be able to meet our needs for only $25.

Item we were most disappointed not to find: A telephone to replace the one in our kitchen, which wasn't really designed to hang on the wall and has a tendency to drop its receiver off the cradle if it's not put back carefully—once breaking the cats' food dish in the process

Most unexpected acquisition: A flier from a Green Party candidate for Assembly, Sean Stratton, who was using the sales as an opportunity to canvas voters.

Most interesting item we saw for sale: a 1953 MG TD, fair to good condition, black, for $15,000. (We initially saw it parked on the seller's lawn with all the rest of the items for sale, but I caught a picture of it later after it had been moved to a parking spot on a nearby street—possibly by the buyer.)

Our level of satisfaction with the results: Too soon to say, as we still have the opportunity to glean more goodies from the piles of unsold merchandise that sure to be left out with tomorrow's trash.

Money Crashers: Best Affordable Tabletop Games

Regular readers of this blog will know that Brian and I are big fans of board games. We have a large collection of games at home, and we regularly give them as gift to each other, family and friends—for anniversariesbirthdays, and holidays. I consider them one of the most ecofrugal forms of entertainment, measured in cost per hour: you can get countless hours of entertainment out of a single game that costs $20 to $60, or much less if you buy it at a yard sale. And with thousands of different games to choose from, there's something to please pretty much everyone.

Yet this cheap, versatile form of entertainment remains pretty much a niche activity. True, interest in board games is on the rise; the increase in sales has attracted enough attention for such disparate publications as VICE and USA Today to label it a "board game renaissance." But the fact remains that when you talk about "gaming," most people assume you mean electronic games. And that's a pity, because board games offer an experience no computer game can match: the chance to share the fun with other people right in the same room.

So my latest Money Crashers piece is a paean to the joys of tabletop gaming. I wax rhapsodic about many different types of games you can enjoy even in the middle of a power outages: board games, card games, role-playing games (RPGs), and party games such as Charades. In each category, I name several popular choices that can provide unlimited hours of fun for $40 or less—less than the cost of a new console game you'll play only once. I also include at least a few choices that cost virtually nothing: free, printable board games from Cheapass Games, card games that require nothing but a deck of playing cards you can pick up at any dollar store, RPGs with sample rule sets available for free, and party games that require nothing but a pencil and paper.

The fun starts here: Best Affordable Tabletop Games – Board Games, RPGs, Cards & Party Games

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Money Crashers: How to Avoid Miracle Health Scams & Fraudulent Health Products

Just a quick update here to let you know about my latest Money Crashers post, in which I discuss miracle health remedies—which is to say, miracle health scams. This particularly despicable type of scam preys on sick people desperate for a treatment that's easier, more effective, or less expensive than what mainstream medicine has to offer. Unfortunately, the only ones that work at all are the weight-loss remedies—and only because they make your wallet lighter.

In this article, I outline the perils of bogus "miracle cures," identify several conditions for which these scams are common, explain what really works for these conditions, and give a quick rundown of how to spot a health scam and what to do if you've been scammed.

Here's the skinny: How to Avoid Miracle Health Scams and Fraudulent Health Products

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Money Crashers: 6 Ways a Pressure Cooker Can Save You Money in the Kitchen

Since we got our little pressure cooker back in 2011, we've discovered all kinds of things we can do with it. It's not great for polenta, but it can make rice, potatoes, barley, and quinoa in record time. It can cook up dried beans much faster than the a regular pot - even getting some types edible in under an hour with no pre-soaking. And it makes homemade applesauce that's much better than the stuff you buy in a jar.

All in all, this little tool has proved to have so many benefits that I thought it deserved an article all to itself on Money Crashers. The site already had several pieces on the benefits of using a slow cooker, so I thought it was only fair to include one on the pressure cooker, which I've found to be at least as useful, if not more so.

This piece is basically "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Pressure Cookers but Were Afraid to Ask." I go into such topics as:
  • How a pressure cooker actually works
  • The various ways it can save you both time and money in the kitchen (including energy savings, making cheaper ingredients easier to use, and speeding up home-cooked meals)
  • Types of pressure cookers, and what to look for when buying one
  • Steps in the pressure-cooking process
  • Tips for using this tool safely (spoiler alert: don't worry, they're much safer than they used to be)
  • Specific dishes that are great to make in the pressure cooker
  • Where to find pressure cooker recipes

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Recipes of the Month: Fun with quinoa

Last weekend, we made our first official Costco run since signing up for membership in July. We stocked up on a bunch of things we'd found Costco to have the best prices on, including cereal, milk, raisins, sugar, olive oil—and a 4.5-pound bag of quinoa for $10. We dabbled a little bit with quinoa last year, when we picked up a container of it on sale after Passover, and we enjoyed it enough to keep an eye out for good deals on it since then in hopes of trying it again. However, until recently, the best price we'd seen was $4 a pound at Trader Joe's, which was more than we were prepared to pay. When we discovered the stuff at Costco for around half that price, we decided it was time to pick some up and try experimenting some more.

So, after bringing home the big bag, Brian went on a hunt for good quinoa recipes. The first one he tried was this Quinoa with Apple and Sage from the Live Well Network, for which we happened to have most of the ingredients on hand; I'd picked up some apples from the farmers' market, and getting a tablespoon of fresh sage off the enormous sage plant in our front yard was child's play. He did tweak the recipe just a bit, substituting some onion for the shallot and plain raisins for the golden raisins, but he figured these changes wouldn't affect the flavor too much.

The dish was quite easy to make, and it was indeed very flavorful—almost too much so, in my opinion. In addition to the faint nuttiness of the quinoa itself, there were the mingled flavors of apple, raisins, onion, sage, cinnamon, cayenne, curry powder, and the savory Penzey's vegetable soup base we used for the broth, all competing for attention. To me, this felt like it was a bit of a sensory overload. I still liked it, but I found the riot of flavors a bit too overpowering. My inclination is to try this dish again soon, but next time, leave out the teaspoon of curry powder and let the simpler flavors in the dish stand up for themselves.

Pleased with this success, he went straight on to the next quinoa recipe on his list: Quinoa with Leeks and Herbs from A Couple Cooks. Unlike the first one, where all the ingredients are cooked together, this recipe starts out with cooked quinoa, so Brian decided to try something else he'd been curious about: cooking quinoa in the pressure cooker. The instructions at Hip Pressure Cooking claim it's possible to do this in just one minute, but like most pressure-cooker recipes, that's a bit misleading; what it really means is that it only spends one minute cooking at full pressure. Counting the entire time it takes for the cooker to come up to pressure and then depressurize afterward, it's more like 15 minutes total—only about 5 minutes less than the time it takes to cook the quinoa for the other recipe on the stovetop. But it does come out nice and tender.

The good news is that, once your quinoa is done, the rest of the dish comes together in minutes. Just sauté the leeks for a few minutes, chop and toast the walnuts, and stir it all together with salt, pepper, and fresh sage and thyme (once again supplied by our herb bed). This wasn't nearly as complex a dish as the first one, but between the leeks and the herbs, it still packed quite a wallop of flavor. In fact, those green, herbal flavors pretty much overpowered the quinoa itself, and as for the walnuts, you could only tell they were there by the occasional crunch. Of course, a bit of texture variety in a dish is nice, but it does seem like a bit of a waste to use an ingredient as pricey as walnuts—and, for that matter, quinoa—if you can't really taste them.

Indeed, Brian's observation was that it seemed the creators of both recipes seemed to be trying to deal with the "odd" flavor of quinoa by basically drowning it out with other, stronger flavors. That seems kind of silly to me, because if you don't like the flavor of quinoa, why would you eat it instead of some cheaper source of starch like rice or buckwheat? Sure, it's healthy stuff with plenty of protein, but it's not exactly the only food that's high in protein, and many of the others (eggs, chicken drumsticks, tofu) are cheaper. It seems to me the best reason to eat quinoa is because you like eating quinoa, so the best quinoa recipe would be one that highlights and complements the unique flavor of this pseudo-grain rather than covering it up.

Fortunately, Brian's still got one more quinoa recipe on his list to try—a sort of quiche-like concoction with spinach, eggs, and Greek yogurt. So we'll probably try that later in the month and see how it does at letting the flavor of this funky ingredient come through.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Money Crashers: 18 Essential Tools for Do It Yourself (DIY) Projects

Here's another new Money Crashers article, this one on the topic of what tools are most important for DIYers. I've already done a Money Crashers article on tool lending libraries, but naturally, not everyone is going to have one of those in the neighborhood—and even if you do, there are a few really essential tools that you probably don't want to have to run out and borrow when you need to do a quick repair. If your toilet is leaking, you want a wrench right there, ready to hand; you don't want to leave the water running while you run out to get one, and hope it's not already checked out.

So which tools truly are important to keep on hand? I consulted several articles on home-repair sites, and I came up with a list of a dozen tools that multiple experts name as essentials. This article runs through the list, with explanations of how each tool is used, how to choose a good one, and how much you should expect to pay. And for more advanced DIYers, I name an additional six tools that you can add to upgrade your home tool kit when you're ready.

Here's the full list, with details: 18 Essential Tools for Do It Yourself (DIY) Projects

Friday, September 8, 2017

Money Crashers: How to Buy Vegan

After a long delay due to staffing problems, Money Crashers has finally started published some of my articles again. And the first of the lot is on a subject I've touched on many times here: the difficulties of ecofrugal shoe shopping.

I first wrote back in 2013 about what an undertaking it is for me to find new shoes whenever an old pair wears out. The trouble, as I explained, is that I have what is apparently a very unusual combination of circumstances: wide feet, a vegetarian lifestyle, and thrifty habits. Finding shoes that fit me well is hard enough; finding a pair that's leather-free shoes, reasonably well-made, and not outrageously expensive is next to impossible.

Over the years, though, I've learned a few things about where to look. I know, for instance, that if I'm going to shop online for shoes, I have to stick to sites like Zappos and ShoeBuy, which offer free shipping and free returns, so that I don't spend lots of money to try on shoes that don't fit. I've also discovered brands that offer leather-free shoes in non-standard sizes, such as Propet, from which I bought my latest pair of winter boots. And at some point it occurred to me that all this knowledge I've amassed might actually be of some use to other people who find themselves with the same problems I have in finding footwear.

So I've now gathered together everything I've learned, along with the fruits of some additional research, in one comprehensive guide. It lists all the stores I know that specialize in leather-free footwear, with some details about what kind of shoes they sell and what their prices are like. I also offer suggestions on where to find specific types of footwear (such as dance shoes, dress shoes, and athletic shoes) and other accessories (purses, wallets, luggage, and sporting gear such as ice skates). It's the shopping guide I wish I'd had when I first became a vegetarian and had to figure all this out on my own. I only hope that there are a few newbie vegetarians out there who now won't have to.

Read about it all here: How to Buy Vegan and Herbivore Shoes, Clothing & Accessories

Monday, September 4, 2017

A look at Brandless shopping

A week or so ago, I came across an interesting article in Advertising Age about how Millennials shop. Apparently, they're far less brand-loyal than previous generations. They care about the quality of the product, certainly, but not about the name on the label; they'll happily switch from one brand to another to get better quality, or the same quality at a better price.

The article went on to cite Brandless, a new online store that started up just last July, as a retailer that targets this new shopping trend. The goal of the site is to sell high-quality products at low prices by eliminating what the owners call "BrandTax": the advertising costs that get wrapped into the price of most national brands. The owners estimate that BrandTax jacks up the price of the average product by 40 percent, and for beauty products, it can be over 350 percent. So the site is approaching retail from the opposite direction: focusing strictly on the quality of the product, not the brand name. And to emphasize just how much this helps them keep costs down, they've priced every single item on the site at a flat $3. This simplifies shopping on the site and encourages people to try new products, since even if you don't like it, you're only out three bucks.

Since I'm a Gen X-er who shops like a Millennial, this site naturally intrigued me. I always look for the best prices on worthy products—nontoxic, organic, Fair Trade, and so on—and one of the best ways I know to find them is by embracing high-quality store brands at Trader Joe's, Aldi, and now Costco. Would Brandless, I wondered, be a worthwhile addition to my list of places to shop cheap but good?

So I browsed the entire selection of products at Brandless, looking for ones that (1) I would actually use and (2) I couldn't get cheaper somewhere else. Unfortunately, after running through every single product on the site, I came to the conclusion that there weren't any that met these two simple criteria. It wasn't that the Brandless products weren't good; it was just that, on the whole, they weren't any better or cheaper than the ones I'm buying now.

Here are a few examples:

  • Organic Peanut Butter. Both creamy and crunchy varieties are available at $3 for 12 ounces, or $4 a pound. However, a one-pound jar at Aldi is only $3.39.
  • Coffee. The organic, Fair Trade medium roast is $3 for 6 ounces, or $8 a pound. Unfortunately, like the new PATAR line at IKEA—which has supplanted my beloved MELLANROST–it doesn't come in a decaffeinated variety, so it's not much use to me. (Millennials, I guess, don't drink decaf.) But even if you want the hard stuff, PATAR is a much better value if you can get it, at under $5.50 a pound.
  • Organic Raisins. They're $3 for 10 ounces, or $4.80 a pound—much more than the $3 a pound we used to pay at Trader Joe's, and more than twice the $2.37 a pound we're now paying at Costco.
  • Organic Sugar. A 24-ounce bag is $3, which is $2.00 a pound. That's not as good as the $1.45 a pound Aldi charges for a 2-pound bag, and nowhere near as good as the 80 cents a pound we just paid for a 10-pound bag at Costco.
  • Toilet Paper. The "tree free" TP at Brandless is made from bamboo and sugarcane bagasse, and costs $3 for 6 rolls, or 50 cents a roll. The 100% recycled TP we buy at Trader Joe's costs $5 per dozen, or 41.7 cents a roll. 
  • Toothpaste. The toothpaste Brandless sells proudly touts itself as "fluoride free," which is baffling to me, given that fluoride is the one ingredient that actually keeps your teeth healthier. (Even all-natural health guru Andrew Weil says you're definitely better off with a fluoride toothpaste.) So I certainly see no reason to pay 75 cents per ounce for this, instead of 33 cents per ounce for SLS-free, cruelty-free toothpaste from Trader Joe's.

Product after product, the pattern was the same. Dish soap, cotton swabs, coconut oil—all cheaper, and just as good, at the stores where we shop now. Even the few products that were marginally cheaper on Brandless than they are at our local stores—such as the organic beans for a dollar a can, or the organic flaxseeds at $2 a pound—would end up costing us more after shipping. And there were many products on the site that were no use to us at all, such as bagged popcorn (we pop our own), paper napkins and tissues (we use cloth napkins and hankies), organic cotton tampons (I've been using the same set of reusable Glad Rags for close to 20 years), and multi-surface cleaner (we use DIY vinegar-and-water solution).

So is there anyone out there who would benefit from shopping at Brandless? Yes, possibly. One thing Brandless carries is a selection of gluten-free products, such as macaroni and cheese ($1.50 per box), baking mixes, corn-based and quinoa-based snacks, and things you wouldn't normally suspect of containing gluten, like pasta sauce and mayonnaise. So if you're a gluten-intolerant person with a need for this kind of product, Brandless could be a good place to get it—although if you live near an Aldi, I'd recommend checking out their extensive LiveGFree line first. Brandless could also be a good place for people who live in an area without any Aldi or Trader Joe's stores to find organic and natural products at a reasonable price—though it's important to factor in the shipping cost and make sure they're really a better deal than your local store.

For most ecofrugal folks, though, I'd say the most useful thing Brandless can provide is ideas. The site offers a variety of "bundles" that look like they might make useful gifts for the person who's hard to buy for, such as the $24 "beauty basics" bundle for eco-conscious fashionistas (cruelty-free and natural versions of eight products, including hand cream, lip balm, toothpaste, and cotton balls), the $30 "dorm essentials" bundle for college students (various dorm-friendly snacks, herbal tea, a mug, lip balm, mouthwash, and all-purpose cleaner), and the $114 "new home starter kit" for a wedding or housewarming gift (a little of everything, including foodstuffs, cleaning supplies, kitchen tools, and tableware). The thing about these bundles is, you could probably put together your own version more cheaply at a local store, such as TJ's, Aldi, or one of the new Lidl stores that have opened this year from Virginia to South Carolina. So you can check out Brandless for an example of what to put in a gift basket, then assemble it on your own and avoid the shipping fees. Brandless products can also provide ideas for inexpensive stocking stuffers, such as fancy lotion, lip balm, and snacks.

Of course, Brandless is just getting started. If the site is a success, it will no doubt expand its product offerings, and eventually it may even have some bargains to rival those at Aldi and Costco (and IKEA, for home products). So it's worth keeping an eye on the site in the future. But for the present, I think it's more interesting as a concept than as a useful shopping destination.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Why we don't vacation

It's occurred to me that one of the keys to living an ecofrugal life is not caring about the Way Things Are Done.

There are certain things that most people do without thinking about why they do them, or even whether they want to do them, because...well, they're just what you do. For instance, I've noticed that most people, when they set the table, automatically put out a fork, knife, and teaspoon, no matter what they're serving. You need a spoon if you're going to have a soup course, but in that case, it should be a soup spoon, not a teaspoon...and if the soup is the main course, you don't need the fork and knife. Why put out extra utensils you're not going to use, and wash them after the meal even though they haven't been touched? Most people, if you asked them this question, would probably just stare at you blankly. They do it that way because that's the Way It's Done. It simply would never occur to them that it's possible to do anything else. (Even the Emily Post Institute describes this as the proper "basic table setting"—while saying on the very same page that you should "only set the table with utensils you will use." What you are supposed to use that teaspoon for, they never explain.)

Part of being ecofrugal is learning to recognize these mindless habits, question them, and ditch them if they're wasteful. That's how we figure out that there's no need to buy paper towels if you wipe up spills with reusable cleaning rags, which are more absorbent, cost essentially nothing, and can be reused hundreds of times with only a negligible cost for laundering. Or that you can get a perfectly good, plastic-free, reusable water bottle by buying a bottle of Snapple for $1.59, drinking the contents, and rinsing it out. Or that you can pop your own popcorn in the microwave in a Pyrex mixing bowl with a plastic colander inverted over the top, rather than using those overpriced little bags or buying something sold specifically as a microwave popper.

This weekend, I thought of yet another example: vacations. Several times over the past few weeks, I've been asked what I was doing this summer, or whether I was going anywhere. The assumption seemed to be that this is what vacation days are for: so you can set aside a two-week block of time, usually in the summer, and spend all that time—along with a sizable chunk of money—to go somewhere far away from home. The thing is, for us, this idea holds little to no appeal. We both hate flying and aren't crazy about long-distance driving; we're willing to do it to see his family at Christmas time, but we hardly see the point of making a long trip like that just to get away from home. We like our home. We've put a lot of time and effort into making it the way we like it, and we don't see the point of traveling a long distance and shelling out a big chunk of money to stay in a hotel instead. Not to mention all the hassles of finding someone to look after our cats while we're away, packing, stressing over airline or train schedules, and eventually coming home exhausted after a day of travel only to have to unpack and slog through two weeks' worth of mail, e-mail, and overdue household chores. And then the next day, we'd have to slog through a similar backlog of mail and unfinished business at work.

Some folks might argue that the ideal solution to this problem is a "staycation": taking those two weeks off from work, but not going anywhere. We could still go on outings and eat in restaurants and all those other fun (and pricey) activities people enjoy on vacation, but save ourselves the cost and hassle of travel. We could sleep in our own bed, clean up under our own shower, and not have to worry about finding cat care. And this does indeed sound more appealing to me than traveling, but it still has some of the same problems as a regular vacation. Because we'd still be spending two weeks away from work, we'd still have to deal with overflowing inboxes as soon as we returned to work. And because we'd be using up a whole two weeks of vacation time in one go, the return to everyday life would look even more bleak, because it would be months before we'd be able to take any time off again.

What works better for us, we've found, is to take our vacation one day at a time. Instead of taking two weeks of vacation all at once, we treat ourselves to three-day weekends on a regular basis—at least one per month. That way, we never have to go too long without a break—and our breaks themselves aren't so long that they start to become exhausting.

We spend these little mini vacations in a variety of ways. Sometimes we take a short trip to visit friends and spend the weekend playing games and hanging out like we did in school; these brief getaways don't involve any flying, and our cats can manage on their own for the couple of days we're away. Other times, we'll make a little excursion closer to home, such as a visit to IKEA (which is a lot less crowded on weekdays). And sometimes, like this past Friday, we don't go much of anywhere. Instead, we spent that day just relaxing: walking into town to visit the farmers' market (which Brian usually has to miss because it takes place during working hours), swinging by Dunkin Donuts to share a frozen hot chocolate and a couple of games of cards, hanging out at home where I read aloud to Brian while he cooked dinner, and winding up the day on the couch with a cup of cocoa and our favorite Web series, Critical Role. It's all the same kinds of things we could do on any other weekend, except we were able to devote a whole day to them and still get through our list of household chores (such as re-caulking the tub, going grocery shopping, doing laundry, and writing this blog). We were able to do it all in one weekend, without feeling rushed or stressed, because the weekend was 50 percent longer.

I realize there are plenty of people out there who genuinely love to travel, and for them, a series of little breaks throughout the year would be no substitute for a yearly vacation to some exciting, exotic locale. That's fine—if travel is what makes them happy, it's what they should save their pennies and their vacation days for. But I also wonder how many people there are out there who don't really love to travel, but who nonetheless set aside two weeks for a vacation every summer because—well, because that's the Way Things Are Done. For those folks, I suspect, small and frequent breaks like we take could actually be more enjoyable than a long, potentially stressful summer vacation. And certainly for the 55 percent of American workers who don't take all their vacation days every year, typically because they're afraid to leave work for a long period, taking those unspent days one at a time (so they won't ever fall too far behind) would surely make more sense than giving them up.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

How our new Costco membership paid for itself

Over the past few years, I've had a sort of off-and-on flirtation with Costco. It started in 2012, when I went on a trip there with my in-laws and noticed several things we buy regularly, like organic sugar and Fair Trade coffee, on their shelves at prices much lower than we usually pay. I was intrigued, but not really convinced that we'd save enough just on those few items to offset the $55 annual cost (at the time) of a membership. And when I later discovered that I didn't really like the Costco coffee anyway, and that I could get an even cheaper sustainable brew at IKEA, that seemed to settle the question.

However, one lesson I've learned in my ecofrugal life is that value, like everything else, changes over time; what's a good deal this year may not be a good deal next year, and vice versa. (A case in point: when I first compared the long-term costs of LED light bulbs to older CFLs, I found there wasn't enough savings there to make it worth switching. However, in the years since, the price of LEDs dropped sharply, changing the equation and convincing me to spring for my first LED bulb last year.) So, in a similar vein, I've revisited the idea of joining Costco from time to time to see if there were any new developments that would make it a good deal for us after all.

Up until this year, the answer was always no. A 2014 article on "9 Items that Will Single-Handedly Pay for Your Costco Membership" piqued my interest, but a quick analysis of the list convinced me that none of these items really applied to us. Either the we could find better deals on the item in question elsewhere, or it wasn't something we were likely to buy in the first place. And while the comments section below that article outlined several other Costco deals that we thought we might have a use for some day, such as the car-buying and car-insurance programs, none of them were immediate needs, so there was no way they could justify the membership cost for us.

All that changed last month, when Brian went to the eye doctor and was told he had passed through the Great Gate of Middle Age: it was time to switch to progressive lenses. Although this doctor's office also makes and sells glasses, we knew from past experience that filling the prescription there was likely to be very expensive; the last pair he bought from an independent optician came to nearly $400, and that was for single-vision lenses. So we started looking into other options, and this report from Consumer Reports (summarized here at tipped us off that Costco was the best overall, with good service and prices less than half what the independent shops typically charge. (Online retailers, like Zenni Optical, were still cheaper, but their service was poor—and Brian was reluctant to entrust a complicated prescription to an online seller, where he couldn't try the glasses on and deal with any potential problems right away.) If we bought his glasses at Costco, the savings on this one purchase would more than pay for the $60 cost of membership, and anything we managed to save on groceries over the course of the year would be pure gravy.

Being cautious, we made a point of slipping into the Costco optical department first (which you're allowed to visit without being a member) to check the cost of the glasses. Once we'd confirmed that they would be about $180—less than half what we could expect to pay at the doctor's office—we went round to the membership desk, where we were offered two choices. We could get the basic membership for $60 a year, or the "executive" membership for $120, which would give us 2% cash back on all purchases at Costco. My instinct was to stick with the regular membership, since I doubted we'd get enough in benefits to pay for the extra $60, until the clerk told me the kicker: the rewards would be paid out in the form of a yearly check, for which the minimum amount would be the $60 we'd paid. In other words, if we didn't earn enough in rewards to offset the $60 annual fee, Costco would refund it. This meant the worst we could possibly do was break even—which pretty much made the deal a no-brainer.

She then offered us the option of also signing up for the Costco credit card, which would double as our membership ID and give us an array of perks:
  • An additional 2% cash back on all purchases at Costco (on top of the 2% from our Executive membership);
  • 3% for restaurants and travel purchases;
  • 4% on gas—not just at Costco, where the lines are usually so ridiculous that we aren't even tempted by the low prices, but everywhere; and
  • 1% cash back everywhere else.
We hadn't really been in the market for a new credit card, but it didn't cost anything extra with our Costco membership, and the benefits—especially that 4% on gas—looked better than any of our current rewards cards. So we figured, once again, we had pretty much nothing to lose.

So, having signed our pledge of loyalty to Costco, at least for one year, we set out to explore the store and see what kind of deals it had to offer. And the answer proved to be: some great, some pretty good, and some disappointing. For a lot of items on which Costco is reputed to offer great deals, like toilet paper, we found it couldn't touch the prices we're used to getting at Trader Joe's. Its prices on organic chicken legs were just a tiny bit less per pound, but they required buying four or five pounds at once. However, we also discovered a few bargains that actually looked like they could be worth the trip, such as:
  • Organic sugar. We've long been in the habit of buying organic sugar at Trader Joe's for $1.75 per pound. Just in the past couple of months, we were surprised and pleased to find it at Aldi for $1.45 per pound. But Costco blew that price out of the water, offering 10-pound bags for $7.99—a mere 80 cents a pound. With regular sugar at about 50 cents a pound, that means sugar no longer needs a special exemption to the rule of 1.6.
  • Organic raisins. Costco undercut Trader Joe's on organic raisins as well, offering a 4-pound box for $9.49, or $2.37 per pound. That beats the $2.99 we pay per pound at TJ's, and with less packaging waste as well.
  • Olive oil. A 5-liter bottle of Filippo Berrio olive oil (not extra-virgin, just the cheap stuff) was $24.99 at Costco, or $5 per liter. The best we can do elsewhere is $6 per liter at Trader Joe's.
  • Cereal. We've set ourselves a somewhat arbitrary limit of 10 cents per ounce, or $1.60 per pound, for cold cereal. Normally, this limits us to only one type: Aldi's raisin bran at $1.51 per pound. Costco couldn't actually beat this price, but it still met our criteria, at $1.53 per pound for a big box of Kellogg's Raisin Brain. 
  • Oats. Rolled oats, which are also part of Brian's complete breakfast, cost us $2.29 for a 42-ounce can (5.45 cents per ounce) at Aldi. Amazingly enough, Costco was able to narrowly beat this price, offering a 10-pound box of Quaker Oats for $7.99 (5 cents per ounce). We wouldn't make a special trip just for that, but since we were low on oats anyway, we snagged a box and were quite chuffed with ourselves over the bargain.
  • Walnuts. Typically, the best price we can find for these is around $6 a pound at Trader Joe's. Occasionally, we'll find them on sale for closer to $5 a pound—but the 3-pound bag at Costco for $11.99, or $4 a pound, was a steal. (We also found pine nuts for around $18 a pound, which is cheaper than any other store, but decided it was still more than we were prepared to pay.)
  • Milk. We usually get the best prices on nonfat milk at the Shop Rite: between $2.50 and $3 a gallon, depending on the week. But at Costco, it was only $2.21 per gallon—a price we haven't seen in years. This isn't a huge enough savings to make it worth a trip to Costco every time we need milk, but we'll certainly make a point of picking some up whenever we're there.
So all in all, there are enough good deals at Costco to make it worth visiting regularly and squeezing all the value we can out of our membership. We'll see at the end of the year how much we've really used it—but in any case, it will probably be worth keeping it at least one year more, since I'm probably not more than a year out from progressive-lens territory myself.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Recipe of the Month: Melon-Basil Smoothie

August's Recipe of the Month is a first for me. I've had recipes featuring veggies and recipes featuring fruit, savory recipes and sweet ones, salads and soups and main dishes and desserts—but this is the first time I've done a beverage.

First, a little background. This spring, one of Brian's coworkers, who's a much larger-scale gardener than we are, gave him a surplus cinnamon basil plant out of his garden. I'd never heard of cinnamon basil before, but as its name suggests, it's a variety of basil that has a vaguely cinnamon-like flavor and aroma. (According to Mother Earth Living, it's also good for repelling pests such as mosquitoes, but it can't be all that potent, since this is the first year we've grown it and the mosquitoes in our garden are thicker on the ground than ever.) Anyway, we had plenty of space to spare in our garden after finally giving up our attempts to grow Brussels sprouts, and cinnamon basil was reputed to be a beneficial companion for tomatoes, so we willingly set aside a square for it. The plant grew and thrived, and eventually we had to face the question: what do we do with this stuff?

First, we tried some of it in our favorite basil-based recipe, Pasta à la Caprese, but it didn't really work. The cinnamon-like flavor of the basil struck a vaguely discordant note with the tomatoes and garlic, resulting in a dish that was edible, but not fantastic like the original. And based on this experiment, we suspected that simply substituting cinnamon basil for regular basil in other recipes would probably have the same result. The problem, we figured, was that with few exceptions, we use basil in savory dishes and cinnamon in sweet ones, so we didn't have any recipes in our repertoire where the combined flavor of the two would be appropriate.

However, Brian recalled that at the time his coworker gave him the plant, he mentioned that it could be used in an ice cream recipe that was quite unusual and refreshing. So Brian went back to him and got this recipe (which was basically a more detailed version of this one from and prepared a half batch of it. He modified it just slightly, substituting a cup of skim milk (which is what we usually have at home) for a cup and a quarter of whole or 2 percent, and upping the heavy cream from 3/4 cup to a full cup to compensate.

The ice cream itself was, as promised, definitely different from anything we'd ever had before; we just weren't really sure whether it was different in a good way. We kept tasting a little spoonful at a time, pensively, trying to decide whether we liked it or not, and we never came to a firm conclusion. We definitely didn't hate it, but we never really fell in love with it either, and the two pint containers we'd filled just sat in the freezer, as we were never quite inspired to dig into them. Eventually, Brian brought one of them in to work and gave it to his coworker who'd given him the plant, by way of a thank-you, but the other nearly-full container just continued to sit.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, one of the booths at our local farmers' market ran a sale on melons: just a dollar each, which is a great deal around here. I picked up a variety I'd never tried before called golden melon, which looks and tastes rather like a honeydew, but with a bright yellow rind. And after trying a piece, it occurred to me that here was a flavor that might actually go rather well with the cinnamon basil ice cream.

It took me a little while to get around to trying the combination, but last weekend, as the last of the melon was at risk of going bad, I mentioned it to Brian, and he whipped out our little Magic Bullet blender (a Freecycle find from seven years back) and mixed some up on the spot. He initially tried it with half a cup of melon chunks to two tablespoons of the ice cream, but after I tasted it, I thought it could use just a touch more ice cream, so he added one more tablespoon and decanted it.

The resulting mixture was, like the ice cream itself, different—but I found myself a little more prepared to come down on the side of calling it different in a good way. The light, sweet honeydew flavor softened the sort of oddly pungent taste of the cinnamon basil, and the combination was curiously refreshing. It isn't something I'd want to make all the time, but it seems like a pleasant chiller for a hot summer day—and, if nothing else, a reasonable way to use up the rest of the ice cream.

It occurred to me that maybe you could even make this into a cocktail if you happened to have a compatible sort of liquor to throw in. Nothing in our liquor cabinet—cheap gin, golden rum, amaretto, creme de menthe—seemed quite appropriate, but I thought if you had something like Midori or other melon liqueur, you could throw a bit of that in, garnish it with a sprig of mint, and call it something like a "Melon-choly Baby." (I actually considered buying a bottle of melon liqueur for this purpose to experiment, but by that time I'd used up all the golden melon, and the farmers' market this weekend didn't have any more. The only melon on offer was cantaloupe, and when I tried a bit of that with the cinnamon basil ice cream, they didn't complement each other well at all.)

At this point, I'm not sure whether I'll be making this again; I guess it depends on whether any more golden melons or honeydews show up at the farmers' market, or at the supermarket for a reasonable price. But my success with it has encouraged me to continue seeking out new uses for the cinnamon basil. For instance, since it went so nicely with fruit in this drink, it occurred to me that perhaps it would work well in the basil vinaigrette for this cucumber-nectarine salad we tried last year—so if we can find a good deal on any nectarines or peaches in the near future, we'll give that a try. And if anyone else happens to know of any other good uses for this unusual herb, please shout them out in the comments below.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Price Check: Beach wedding wear for (a lot) less

Last week, while researching something completely unrelated, I happened across this article from Elle: "13 Beach Wedding Dresses You Can Buy Off the Rack." Now, I'm not planning a wedding (beach or otherwise) any time in the foreseeable future, but curiosity—mostly about what's considered the proper attire for a beach wedding—led me to click through. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but the author's idea of "beach" wedding wear was frankly baffling to me. I mean, why would you wear a full-length dress with a train on a beach? You'd end up with a skirt full of sand. And the selections with elaborate lacework or beading looked calculated to attract debris.

What seemed even more ridiculous, however, was that the dresses that actually did look "beachy"—the ones that were basically nice sundresses—still cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Scrolling through them, I found myself getting huffy, much the same way I did looking at the outdoor furniture "bargains" in the article I wrote about last month. It was playing on the same "anchoring bias" as the other article: if you think it's normal to pay upwards of $1,500 for a wedding dress—as the average bride does, according to The Knot—then calling a $700 sundress a wedding dress makes it look downright reasonable. But that doesn't change the fact that if you don't slap that "wedding" label on them, you can find perfectly nice, beach-appropriate white dresses for a lot less.

So I decided to go through the entire list Elle had provided—both the dresses that struck me as suitable beachwear and the ones that didn't—and show how it's possible to find an attractive dress in a similar style on a much more reasonable budget. Here's how their picks stack up against mine:

Elle Pick #1: First, we have this off-the-shoulder maxi dress from Self-Portrait, which, with its long train, isn't at all what I'd choose for a beach wedding. Actually, I wouldn't be inclined to choose it for any wedding, as its shapeless tent style doesn't strike me as flattering for any figure type—but even if I did, I certainly wouldn't pay £500.00 for it.
My alternative: This off-the shoulder dress from Bebe has the same full length and lacy detailing around the neckline, but in a much more shapely style, for only $89. Or, if you're on a really tight budget, you could pick this one from Xhilaration, which has the lace cutout section in the skirt rather than up top, for only $21 (marked down from $30) in the Target juniors' department.

Elle Pick #2: This tea-length, halter-neck sundress from Athena Procopiou, in a silk/cotton blend with a faint floral design, actually looks quite suitable for a casual setting like the beach—but its $680 price tag, not so much.
My alternative: Instead, how about this beachy halter dress, with some nice cutouts around the hem, for $27 (marked down from $38) at TB Dress? Or this similarly bare style, with crocheted detailing on the bodice, for only $25 (marked down from $30) at Make Me Chic?

Elle Pick #3: This strapless white column gown from Derek Lam looks, to my eyes, like nothing so much as like a bedsheet that a woman has hastily wrapped around her body upon finding herself caught in the nude. I realize it probably stays up better, but I certainly can't see what makes it worth $1,116 (marked down from $2,790).
My alternative: This doesn't really strike me as a practical style for a beach wedding, but if you like it, why not get this Natalie Deayala strapless column dress for $288 at Nordstrom? (Actually, $288 still seems pretty high to me for a dress that will be worn once—but apparently this deceptively simple style is quite tricky to sew, because I couldn't find a similar one for less. But if you don't mind something with a little more shape, there's always this strapless sheath dress from J.J.'s House for $100.)

Elle Pick #4: Next up is this Grecian-style Elizabeth and James maxi dress, with a plunging neckline in a sort of champagne color. At $425, it looks almost reasonable compared to the dresses Elle has been featuring so far.
My alternative: But it starts to look a lot less reasonable next to this Grecian-inspired dress from Asos, in a "silver shimmer" shade, for $45 (marked down from $89). Since that one's only available in size small, I also searched out this Asos dress, also in a Grecian style, for $48 (marked down from $80, available in medium and large.)

Elle Pick #5: Here's yet another highly inappropriate choice for a beach wedding: an off-the-shoulder mermaid dress from Reformation, with a full lace overlay, for $488.
My alternative: If you're determined to wear this style on the beach, you have lots of less expensive options. You can pay $247 (marked down from $560) for this very similar dress, complete with the lace overlay, from J.J.'s House; you can opt, instead, for a prom dress in the same shape with beading as well as lace, available in white, for $101 (marked down from $140) at Asvogue; or you can choose this less elaborate prom dress, with peek-a-boo lace at the shoulders and hemline, for $32 (marked down from $35) at OASAP.

Elle Pick #6: I'm honestly not even sure how to describe this silk crepe contraption from Juan Carlos Obando. It's like a basic, full-length slip dress, but with a sort of pair of ruffled baldrics that drape over the front and hold the bride's wrists loosely to her sides. It's a unique look, no doubt, but not one I'd consider worth $1,038 (marked down from $2,595).
My alternative: I'll admit, I wasn't able to find anything quite like this on any other site. However, a long slip dress is easy enough to find, like this $84 one from Lulus. Then, for that added draped layer, you can simply add a long white scarf, like this $19 one from Bebe. Or, if you really want that draped-over-the-shoulder look, you could go for this shorter dress from Asos for only $29.

Elle Pick #7: Now here's one that actually does look rather beachy: a sort of boho maxi sundress with lacy cutouts from LOVESHACKFANCY (I swear, that's how the retailer spells it). Only does it really have to be $445?
My alternative: Well, I couldn't find an identical style, but I found a couple of other white dresses with that boho vibe, including the cutouts. This longer-sleeved style is $70 at Showpo, and this daring spaghetti-strap style is a mere $20 at CiChic.

Elle Pick #8: This one, I'll admit, is rather fetching: a long, flared, strapless dress from Marchesa Notte with butterflies embroidered on the bodice and around the hem. By hand, probably, considering the $717 price tag.
My alternative: Once again, I couldn't find anything just like this, but if it's the butterfly motif you're in love with, you could go with this ballgown with blue satin butterflies on the overskirt, available for $158 from the SarahDress booth on Bonanza. (She also offers the same style with red, black, or purple butterflies.) Or there's this little $59 number from Milanoo, though it's much shorter and not strapless.

Elle Pick #9: Aaaand we're back to styles completely inappropriate for the beach, with this Michael Lo Sordo gown featuring an ultra-deep plunging neckline and a train. Despite the simple lines, spaghetti straps, and bare back, it's hardly beachwear, especially at $1,610.
My alternative: The $84 slipdress from Lulus that I mentioned above has a fairly similar style—clean lines, spaghetti straps, bare back, and deep (though not quite so outrageously deep) neckline. Or, you could go for this even more daring dress that pairs the plunging neckline and bare back with a translucent skirt, for $27 at Shein.

Elle Pick #10: Of all the dresses in the Elle article, this one seems the most bizarre choice for a casual beach wedding. Sure, this Monique Lhuillier dress has a simple column shape, but it combines that with huge, poofy, incredibly elaborate sleeves, made of sheer fabric covered in thousands of pearl beads (with more of the same on the neckline). At least you can see why this dress costs a whopping $8,995, but still, that's more than three times what we spent on our whole wedding.
My alternative: Okay, I'll admit it: this dress is unique. I could not find anything, anywhere, that was quite like it. However, I could find quite a number of dresses that had the same general kind of Italian Renaissance look and feel. For instance, this seller on Etsy offers a dress she calls the "Juliette style" (the same name as the pricey one), actually custom made by hand to your measurements, for only $195. And if you don't like that one, there are numerous other Renaissance-style gowns available from other Etsy sellers, some more costly than others.

Elle Pick #11: This frilly little two-piece ensemble by Rodarte is rather daring even for a beach wedding: a tulle bustier top and matching skirt that leave the midriff bare. More alarming still, it was priced (when it was still available) at a jaw-dropping $8,970.
My alternative: I didn't find an ensemble quite like this, but it's simple enough to find similar pieces as separates. This cropped lace camisole top is only $14 at Shein, and this lacy skirt from Asos is a good match for it at $40.

Elle Pick #12: This long, lacy prairie dress from Temperley London is in a simple, rustic style that looks appropriate enough for the beach—all except for the $1,195 price tag.
My alternative: A quick search turned up a lot of dresses in a similar style to this one, but with one catch: all of them are secondhand. This rustic style was very popular in the 70s, so if you're willing to scour eBay and Etsy, you should be able to turn up something like it at a bargain price—such as this vintage ruffled number for $88, or this classic Gunne Sax piece for $40.

Elle Pick #13: Lastly, we have this kimono-sleeve wrap dress from Reformation. At $268, it actually looks very reasonable compared to the others in the Elle article, but it still seems rather pricey for such a simple style.
My alternative: And indeed, you can get this look for quite a bit less. This $110 Topshop dress has basically the same style with a shorter, asymmetrical skirt, while this longer-sleeved version is only $50 (marked down from $80) at GCGme.

So there you have it: 13 off-the-rack looks for a beach wedding, with prices ranging from $21 to $288 rather than $268 to nearly nine grand. And if none of these particular styles happens to be to your taste, there are plenty of others to choose from, at equally reasonable prices, on the sites where they're sold.

The main difference between Elle's selections and mine is that most of mine aren't being sold as "wedding" dresses (though some are sold on wedding sites as bridesmaids' dresses). This is yet another example of how attaching the word "wedding" to anything can at least double the price. So the moral of the story is, if you're trying to wed on a budget, try to do as much as possible of your shopping without bringing the word "wedding" into the equation at all. Look for dresses, not wedding dresses; cakes, not wedding cakes; caterers, not wedding caterers. If leaving out that one word can save you a thousand or more on the dress alone, just imagine how much it could cut the cost of an entire wedding.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Gardeners' Holidays 2017: Squashmas

For the past couple of years, the August Gardeners' Holiday that began its life as Squashmas has focused more on other crops. In 2015 the squash harvest, though plentiful, was eclipsed by the bounty of our first harvest of bush cherries (which, sadly, has never been repeated since). And last year, our tomatoes were the stars of the garden show.

But this year, Squashmas returns to its roots. Although our attempt to fend off squash vine borers by burying the stems of the plants in dirt was only a partial success, both plants are still producing for now, and today we enjoyed our first zucchini-based meal of the season. The dish, Linguini Aglio Olio with Zucchini, is one we found in Nava Atlas's Vegetariana and enjoy regularly during zucchini season. Basically, it's just zucchini sauteed in olive oil with lots of garlic (the recipe calls for eight cloves to three medium zukes), with a little fresh parsley thrown in until it's just wilted, all tossed with linguini and seasoned with salt, pepper, and oregano. It's a quick and simple meal that always comes out well.

This time, however, the dish had a special feature. Aside from the linguine and the olive oil, everything in it came from our garden. The zucchini, of course, but also the parsley, the oregano (gathered from our herb bed in the front yard), and even the garlic.

This is the first year we've successfully grown our own garlic, though not the first time we've tried. I'd read somewhere that if you simply pull apart a head of garlic and plant the individual cloves, each one will mature into a complete head of garlic, which you can harvest as soon as the green tops turn brown and dry. However, the first time I tried this, not much actually came up. So I did a little more research and found that the easiest varieties to grow in cold-winter areas are "hardneck" garlics, which are distinguished by a stiff stem surrounded by a single ring of large cloves. What we'd planted was "softneck" garlic, which has a softer stem and several layers of cloves, because that was what we'd been able to find at the grocery store. (Most garlic sold in supermarkets is the softneck type, because it stores better.)

So last year, we hit the farmers' market, where we found hardneck garlic for sale for what we would normally consider a ridiculous price—something like a dollar a head. However, we figured if we could manage to turn that one head into a dozen or so, we'd end up paying less than 10 cents a head, which would be a pretty good deal, even if we had to wait close to a year for it.

Now, when you grow garlic, you have to plant it in the fall, leave it in the ground all winter, and harvest it in the summer. So rather than put it into the main garden, where we'd have to work around it during our spring planting, we tucked the cloves into the dirt around the edges of our asparagus bed. I've since read that this actually isn't a good companion planting; asparagus is one of the few crops that doesn't do well next to garlic, which can transmit diseases to it and maybe disrupt its root system when harvested—which might explain why the asparagus in that bed hasn't been doing so well. So I guess next year we'll have to find another spot for it. (Perhaps we could plant it in a ring around our rosebush, as that's supposed to be a beneficial pairing.)

But if the asparagus was at all harmed by the presence of the garlic, the reverse clearly wasn't true. We got some delicious green garlic scapes this spring, and about two weeks ago, Brian went out and came in with a fistful of smallish, but perfectly firm and intact heads of garlic. Unfortunately, he had already trimmed off the stems by the time it occurred to me to check on how best to store it, and according to The Spruce, it's actually better to leave them on until they're fully dried out. But we followed the rest of the article's instructions—brushing off the dirt but not washing the heads with water, and leaving them in a cool, dry room to "cure"—so we should be able to keep it in good condition for two to four months. That is, if we don't eat it all before then.

So this year's Squashmas is really a dual celebration: our usual zucchini crop, and our first-ever crop of garlic. Here's to many more!

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Case of the Disappearing Plums

We've been having kind of a roller-coaster ride with our plum trees this year. Last May, it was looking like we might actually get a decent crop of plums for the first time. The three trees weren't all producing equally; the Opal tree, although it bloomed in the spring, never seemed to set any fruit at all. But both the Mount Royal and the Golden Gage were loaded down with clusters of tiny green balls, and we were beginning to speculate about what we might do with them if we actually had too many to eat come August.

Then, around mid-June, we started to notice that several of the plums, particularly the Mount Royals, were dropping off the trees before they'd even ripened. As we'd experienced this same problem last year, I quickly recognized it as brown rot, a fungal disease that I'd hoped we might be able to avoid this year. Pretty much all you can do about it is remove the diseased fruit—making sure to clear all the fallen fruits off the ground, as well, so they don't pass on the infection next year—and hope it doesn't spread. So that's what I did, but since I'd done the same thing last year and it wasn't enough to save any of the plums, I wasn't optimistic. I figured we'd simply have to write off this year's crop, and take more steps early next year to prevent the problem from recurring—pruning the trees in February or March, before they bloom, and dosing them with a copper fungicide during the growing season.

However, as July progressed, it looked like the remaining plums might pull through after all. A few of them continued to shrivel and drop, or to display the telltale brown spots and oozing sap of brown rot, but I carefully removed those as soon as I spotted them, and the rest of the fruit actually seemed to be ripening normally. By last week, the boughs of the Mount Royal were heavy with deep-blue plums, and one of the branches on the Golden Gage was so heavily laden that it was actually drooping under its own weight.

If you're wondering why I don't have a photo of that heavy-hanging branch, well, it's not there anymore. Or rather, the branch is, but the fruit isn't.

Earlier this week, we noticed that nearly all the Golden Gage plums on that one branch had completely disappeared. I don't mean that they'd fallen off, like the ones struck by brown rot; we searched all around the tree, and there was no trace of them. They'd simply vanished, leaving only empty stubs to mark where they'd been. And by this weekend, the last solitary fruit left on that branch had vanished as well. In fact, pretty much all the low-hanging branches on that tree had been stripped bare.

We pretty quickly ruled out birds as a culprit, because they probably wouldn't be able to seize and remove an entire plum; they'd just peck at the fruit, and whatever was left would drop to the ground. Likewise, we didn't think squirrels would be able to remove a whole plum and scurry away with it—and if they were to blame, there would be no reason for them to leave the upper branches unmolested. They were at the right height for a deer to have taken them, but deer almost never come into our neighborhood, and we didn't find any hoofprints. So all the evidence seems to point to a human culprit—one who's not tall enough to reach the upper branches.

But even this theory raises more questions than answers. For one thing, who would want to steal plums that weren't even ripe yet? And why would a thief who was willing to eat nearly-ripe plums take only the green plums off the Golden Gage tree, and completely ignore all the purple plums on the Mount Royal, which were larger, more abundant, and, in appearance at least, much closer to edible ripeness? And, if the thief didn't intend to eat the plums, then what on earth did they want with them? And most of all, what kind of person would do such a thing—just walk up and calmly help themselves to fruit in someone else's yard, without even asking?

For some reason, the idea of losing our plums to a human thief bothers us a great deal more than losing them to hungry animals. It doesn't really make sense, because the end result is the same either way: fewer plums for us to eat. But animals going after your crops is something you more or less expect as a gardener; you plan for it, do your best to minimize it, but accept some amount of loss as the price of doing business. But another human being simply taking the fruit off these trees that we went to so much trouble to plant and tend—as if they had just as much right to the fruit as we did after all our work—feels like an outright violation.

But in either case, there's pretty much nothing we can do about it now. It's unlikely we'll ever be able to catch the plum thief in the act, and there's probably no other way to establish just who—or what—is to blame. And since all the low-hanging branches on the Golden Gage are now stripped clean, and the thief doesn't appear to be interested in the Mount Royals, I guess there's nothing in particular we need to do to protect the remaining fruit.

However, as Brian has now tasted one of the Mount Royal plums and determined that they're ripe enough to be edible (if not quite at full sweetness yet), he's planning to start picking them immediately and packing them with his lunch. That way, we can be sure we get to enjoy at least some of the fruits of our labors—even if they're not as enjoyable as they would be when fully ripe. As for the remaining Golden Gages, we'll just have to keep a sharp eye on them, and go out there with a ladder to harvest them the minute they look ripe enough. Chances are, whoever is responsible for the pilfering wouldn't be bold enough to haul a ladder into our garden in broad daylight and start openly picking fruit off our trees, but with a thief this brazen, you can't be sure.

POSTSCRIPT: No sooner had I posted this than we got proof positive squirrels were to blame after all. We went out to take another look at the trees, and Brian spotted one of the furry little buggers sitting in our neighbor's driveway, cheeky as you please, with a purple plum in its mouth.

So the good news is, we now have an adversary we can feel free to strike back at; the bad news is, it's a wily one, and we can't be sure what will work. Suggestions I've read so far include:
  • Trapping them. I'm skeptical about this, as there are so many squirrels around here that we can't possibly trap all of them.
  • Putting up a baffle—a slick tube or cone of aluminum or plastic that the squirrels can't climb up. The problem here is that it has to go around the main trunk at least four to five feet off the ground, or else squirrels can jump right past it, and our trees aren't tall enough for that.
  • Deterring them with predator urine or human hair. We have plenty of the latter, so we've scattered as much as we could muster around the base of the trees, but it remains to be seen how it will work. We also have two predators (feline) sharing our house, so perhaps some of their used litter would work as a deterrent. A few sources also mention mothballs as a deterrent, but not everyone is enthusiastic about the results.
  • Scaring them with bells or shiny CDs hung from the tree branches. This only works temporarily, as they get used to the noise and light after a while, but it might be enough to get us through to the harvest.
  • Scaring them with fake predators, like owls or snakes. Many people say the little rodents catch on to this within a day or two, but Brian went ahead anyway and put out his rubber snake in the garden, where he found one of our new Pineapple tomatoes had been molested. It couldn't hurt.
  • Spraying the fruit with hot pepper spray. We could probably make some, but we'd have to reapply it after every rainfall—and of course wash it off carefully before eating the fruit ourselves.
  • Smearing the trunk with something sticky. We saw some recommendations for a product called Tanglefoot, which is intended to trap insects, but some people say the squirrels don't like it on their paws. Here, again, we'd have to apply it far enough up the trunk and branches that the squirrels couldn't jump right over it.
We haven't decided which measures to take yet, but at least we know what we're up against.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Money Crashers: 5 Bad Habits That Are Costing You Money and How to Break Them

Just a quick update here to let you know about my latest Money Crashers article, which is all about bad habits and how much they cost you—and what you can do, short of quitting, to keep that cost down.

For instance, my biggest vice is sweets, and while I know I'd be healthier if I kicked the habit completely, I also know it ain't gonna happen. So what I generally do instead is try to indulge in homemade goodies, which are cheaper (and at least somewhat healthier) than pastries from the fancy bakery. I've even learned how to make my own cafe mocha and Frappuccino—though they're really not quite the same as the real thing. This way, I can indulge at less cost.

This article covers ways to do the same with five common habits that are bad for you to varying degrees: smoking, drinking, gambling, caffeine, and fast food. I do cover ways to quit if you need to, but also ways to enjoy less harmful vices without busting your budget.

5 Bad Habits That Are Costing You Money and How to Break Them

Monday, July 24, 2017

Recipe of the Month: Leek and Mushroom Bread Pudding

As the end of July approached, we realized that once again, the clock was ticking for us to come up with a new Recipe of the Month. I had several recipes that I'd marked in cookbooks or pulled out of magazines, but all of them would require ingredients we didn't have, so Brian decided he'd just go searching online for a dish that could be made with what we had on hand. That would allow him to make it, and me to blog about it, this weekend, rather than pushing that deadline right down to the last minute.

We had some leeks and mushrooms in the fridge, so Brian decided to search for for leek and mushroom dishes. Many of these were soups, which we deemed too hot for the weather, or pasta dishes, which we thought were a little too simple to really count as a new recipe. But eventually he landed on this Leek and Mushroom Bread Pudding recipe, which looked perfect. We already had all the ingredients (with a few minor substitutions), and it looked, at a cursory glance, like it could be made in about an hour and a half. So if we started early enough, we'd be able to fix it in time for a 5pm dinner on Saturday and still make it to a baseball game in Trenton at 7pm.

Unfortunately, when Brian started work on the recipe on Saturday afternoon, he noticed a few steps in the recipe he'd overlooked before. The pudding didn't just have to bake for 70 to 80 minutes; it required another 20 minutes after that to brown, and another 15 to 20 minutes after that to cool. All told, it would take more time to prepare than we had before we needed to leave for the game. So he set aside that recipe for Sunday and fixed a tried-and-true dish that took only 20 minutes to prepare.

On Sunday, he made sure to get started on the bread pudding by mid-afternoon, knowing that we'd have to eat around 5pm yet again to make it to an early role-playing game session. Yet even as he was working on it, he realized that there were still more steps in the recipe he'd overlooked; for instance, the ingredients were supposed to sit out for a good half-hour to let the bread soak up the milk before the pudding went into the oven. By this time, he'd already done enough prep work to commit himself to the dish, but if he stuck to the recipe, by the time it was done we wouldn't have any time to eat it. So he ended up making some alterations to the recipe on the fly to get it done on time.

Since I've never tasted the dish in its original form, I can't say for sure that it tastes just as good after these adjustments, but I can say that it still tastes plenty good. Even though he baked it at a higher temperature and left out the extra soaking time, it was plenty moist, and his substitution of whole wheat bread (which was what we had) for "hearty white bread" gave it plenty of body. And the substitution of Monterey Jack cheese for the "Gruyère, Baby Swiss, or Emmenthaler" the recipe recommended was probably an improvement, as the milder cheese allowed the savory flavors of the mushrooms and leeks to take center stage.

All in all, this is a dish I'd certainly be willing to have again, though I must admit that even in its revised form, it's still rather time-consuming. In future, I might like to experiment with making it in the Crock Pot, so it could cook unattended over the course of the day...though I'm not sure how we could do that without forgoing the final browning step, and it would be a pity to lose that nice golden crust. But even if we have to keep the recipe in its current form, it's worth hanging on to for those lazy winter weekends (when we don't have a ballgame or a role-playing game to rush out to).

Here's Brian's revised version of the recipe:
Leek and Mushroom Bread Pudding 
4 cups whole wheat bread, cut into 1/2” cubes
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 large leek, diced
½ lb. white button mushrooms, sliced
1½ cups milk (nonfat)
2 Tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
3 large eggs
½ tsp salt
2-3 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted
4-6 oz. grated Monterey Jack cheese 
Prepare a greased 8” x 8” casserole dish. 
Preheat oven to 300 degrees F.  Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper (or a silicone baking mat) and spread bread cubes out on it.  Bake for 10-12 minutes until cubes are slightly browned. 
Remove from oven and increase oven temperature to 325 degrees F. 
Saute the leeks in 1 Tbsp. olive oil until the leeks are soft and slightly browned.  Remove from skillet, add another 1 Tbsp. olive oil, and saute the mushrooms until browned. 
In a bowl, beat eggs and add milk, parsley, salt, and cheese. 
In another bowl, toss toasted bread cubes with melted butter.  Add leeks, mushrooms, and egg mixture and mix carefully.  Pour into greased casserole dish.  Cover with aluminum foil and allow to sit for five minutes. 
Place in oven and bake for 45 minutes at 325 degrees F and 15 minutes at 350 degrees F. 
Remove foil and allow to bake for an additional 15 minutes at 350 degrees F. Remove from oven when the top is browned and the pudding is baked through.