Potato-Leek Soup

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Jacques Pepin is one of my favorite tv chefs. His joie de vivre and quintessential French-ness make him a joy to watch in the kitchen.

In addition, his book The Apprentice is one of my favorite food memoirs. It recounts his education as a classically-trained chef through apprenticeship at a hotel, de rigeur for the time (1940's) in France, and is filled with much love for food, cooking, and recipes.

He waxes on about his love for simple dishes, like potato-leek soup with only five ingredients. Leeks are a very common ingredient in country French cooking, though I had never cooked with them. Last week, we had our last cold & rainy day of the winter, so it was a perfect time for me to debut Pepin's soup.

It is a white pureed soup, so it's not flashy. But the flavor! Something magical happens between the salt, leeks, and potatoes. Something that doesn't seem possible with its humble origins. Only because I made the soup myself did I believe that it didn't contain any cream (as many versions of this soup do) because of its silkiness. This became an instant classic for me. I'm just bummed that hearty-soup weather has just ended, but I know what I'll be spooning up come October.

Potato-Leek Soup

1 tablespoon butter
2 medium leeks, washed, split down the middle, and chopped (whites only)
2 medium russet potatoes, peeled and diced into ½ inch cubes
3 cups water
salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste

  1. Melt butter in a heavy-bottomed soup pot and saute leeks until soft but not browned.
  2. Add potatoes, water, and salt & pepper.
  3. Bring to a boil and simmer for 20 minutes or until potatoes are soft.
  4. Puree in a food processor until smooth.

Irish Soda Bread for St Patrick's Day

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It's beginning to dawn on me that maybe what I really wanted all along was a food blog. It's more convenient to have all my favorite recipes in one place, and that place seems to be frugalculture.org!

Here's a recipe for Irish Soda Bread from my Irish mother-in-law, who's a lovely lassie complete with red hair. Doesn't that sound so old-fashioned? The stereotypical housewife asking her mother-in-law for family recipes to cook for her husband. And boy am I glad I did! It's delicious and practically foolproof.

This is my go-to recipe for Irish Soda Bread, and makes one large loaf that fills a large bundt pan (which said mother-in-law gave me for Christmas one year) or two smaller ones.

Irish Soda Bread

4 cups flour
½ cup sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1.5 cups buttermilk (or 1 tablespoon vinegar with each cup of regular/soy milk)
2 eggs
½ cup butter (or 1 stick)
"fistful" of caraway seeds and raisins (that's exactly how she said it)

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees
  2. Mix together dry ingredients in a large bowl
  3. In another bowl, whisk together buttermilk & eggs
  4. Melt butter and add to buttermilk & egg mixture
  5. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients, along with caraway seeds & raisins. Stir with a light touch, trying to avoid overmixing. The batter will be lumpy, which is exactly how it should be.
  6. Bake in a greased bundt pan for 40 minutes or divide in half and shape into roundish loaves and place on a baking sheet for about 20 minutes.

    P.S. I've heard that it makes a nice base for French toast, too.

Spinach Salad with All the Fixings

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I had to come out of "blog retirement" with a shout-out to my favorite salad of all time. I'm more of a sauteed-greens-with-garlic kinda girl, but when a friend mentioned making spinach salad with feta, a faint but happy memory of this lovely salad came back to me.

It's gorgeous (lotsa colors), delicious, nutritious, and easy to make. And if you're a regular reader of this blog, you know that's my recipe triumvirate, my foodie trinity. There's a lovely interplay between the saltiness of the cheese and sweetness of the orange slices, the snap of the onion and pillow-soft cheese. It's got everything.

Spinach Salad

Baby spinach, washed
Red onion, sliced thinly
Feta or cotija cheese, crumbled
Canned mandarin orange slices in light syrup

Combine & toss all the ingredients. Really, there isn't much more to say. Oh, if you want to eat this as a main course, add slices of hard-boiled eggs. And if you're a carnivore, crumbled bacon on top is almost gilding the lily.

Guess what I'm eating for dinner tonight?

All Things Must Come to an End

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We set out to chronicle some ideas, thoughts, and stories about frugality. Maybe you learned some things, possibly a new way of looking at things.

It's been fun, but right now we're tapped out. The site will remain up for future reference, but there won't be any new posts. We hope you enjoyed reading as much as we had writing.

Until we meet again!

On Monday, Jen wanted to watch "Chariots of Fire." Ordinarily, wanting a DVD would involve a trip to the library, but it was closed for Washington's birthday. So, for the first time in a long time, we went to a video rental store. After discovering that what had once been our usual store had closed, we found one still in business.

Renting two old DVDs was cheaper than renting one new release, so we rented "Chariots" and another Oscar-winning film, "The Paper Chase", for less than it would have cost to rent "All About Steve."

(This strategy has its risks.)

About a year ago, I noted that we created little trash and paid the minimum for trash collection.

It turns out that Berkeleyites have been so successful in reducing their trash, that the city is $4 million short of projected revenue due to people doing the same.

While some of the adjustments will be painful, overall, I'd prefer to see further reduction of waste in the world, and further adjustment to it.

Lunar New Year Cake

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It's the second day of the Year of the Tiger. Last night to serve as dessert to our New Year's Day meal, I dusted off an old recipe from the files, and it tasted exactly how I remembered it. What a joy it is to resurrect old tastes from childhood, which I last had at least twenty years ago.

Loosely translated, it's "Puffy Cake," something akin to sponge cake thanks to its airy texture. What's different about it is that it isn't baked in an oven, but rather steamed in a rice cooker. My mom gave me a vintage one last December, the same model I used to make rice for the nightly meal.

Sadly, the recipe is specially designed for the Tatung Rice Cooker in the 10-cup size, so I have no idea if it will work in any other brand or type, which is an indirect heat cooker.

4 eggs
1.5 cups brown sugar
0.75 cups milk
0.5 tsp baking soda
2 tsp baking powder
1.5 cups flour, sifted
6 tablespoons vegetable oil

  1. Whisk eggs vigorously in a bowl, then add sugar and milk.
  2. Dissolve baking soda & powder in a tablespoon of water, then add to egg-sugar-milk
  3. Whisk in sifted flour until no lumps remain.
  4. Add oil.
  5. Pour into Tatung rice cooker's inner pot, then add 1.5 cups water to the outside and steam for approximately 50 minutes, or until a plunged knife comes out clean.

Roasted Cauliflower

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This is a favorite of my winter veggie recipes, because practically all of our produce is purchased at the farmers' market, we essentially eat all our fruits & veg in season (except for our indulgence in bananas). I always get excited in the dead of winter to pick up a head of cauliflower after weeks of leafy greens and winter squash.

I never understood Mark Twain's assertion about cauliflower being a cabbage with a college education, but it is a standout in an already stellar cast of cruciferous vegetables.

Like root vegetables, cauliflower has a high sugar content that makes it spectacular for oven-roasting. And like most of my favorite recipes, it's embarrassingly easy yet oh-so delicious.

Roasted Cauliflower

  • 1 head cauliflower
  • olive oil
  • salt
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees
  2. Wash cauliflower and chop into florets and slices, ensuring each piece has a flat side (so better to caramelize!).
  3. Pour a few tablespoons of olive oil on a heavy baking sheet
  4. Place cauliflower pieces flat side down onto baking sheet
  5. Roast in oven for 15 minutes, or until cauliflower is crisp and the flat sides are deep brown.
  6. Sprinkle with salt to taste and enjoy. (They lose their crispness quickly after removing from the oven, so eat 'em while their hot!)

And RIP, Berkeley Daily Planet, my source for news Berkeley. You will be missed. :-(

Tuesday Morning Quarterbacking

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There's a national chain store called Tuesday Morning and I can't stand it. Its name is a reminder that the first Tuesday of each month, new and exciting stock but limited amounts of it is unveiled to the public, at unbelieveable low prices.

They even go so far as to display the new items in the front windows of the store a few days before said morning, covered with white bed sheets, before the big reveal on the annointed Tuesday. It's very dramatic. And if you're lucky enough to be on their mailing list, you'll receive a catalog so you'll know what all the featured items are beforehand.

It's a fascinating use of the scarcity principle of selling, whereby a retailer artificially or simply creates the impression that there is a limited amount of time and/or stock to buy an item. To the purchaser, they suddenly feel they must buy now without dawdling, otherwise the fantastic price or item cannot be had.

Let me tell you that their prices aren't that good due to shoddy product quality (but it looks so pretty in the catalog!) and that each store may not even have the coveted item you want. I know this because my sister has been foiled one too many times over the years.

I do have to hand it to them for creating good retail buzz: years ago, I was walking down the street and saw a line of middle-aged, middle-class-looking women halfway down the block patiently waiting for that month's Tuesday morning bounty. The middle-aged, middle-class-looking woman walking in front of me asked the women in line what the excitement was about, and promptly queued up when she heard it was "A fantastic sale!"

Check the generic alternative

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Jen covered this for the prescription medicine case; I wanted to call some attention to its general applicability.

One of my failures of frugality was the time I bought from my eye doctor clip-on sunglasses that were fitted exactly to my glasses. They cost a lot.

Yesterday, I bought generic clip-ons from Costco for $13. They fit my glasses well, and look fine. (They're not flip-up so don't have the flip-ups' bulky hardware over the bridge of your nose.) If you were to look very closely, you'd notice their inexact fit, and the small spring that makes them adjustable, and I'm fine with that.

Whenever you're faced with a pricey purchase, make sure you know what the alternatives are.

Cooks Illustrated magazine

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I just received my latest copy of Cooks Illustrated and I am beyond excited at the prospect of a CI-optimized recipe for chewy brownies with the shiny, crackly top. Though I posted an uber-delicious recipe for brownies but a few weeks ago, the one thing it lacked was the shiny, crackly top. More of a cosmetic concern when compared to taste, but vexed me nonetheless.

This is why I love Cooks Illustrated. It's the food and kitchen gadget version of Consumer Reports magazine.

It accepts no advertising, so their editorial content is beholden-free. Not to mention, it's chock full of high quality content, maximized on each beautifully hand-illustrated page.

There are kitchen appliance reviews that take into account price and performance (its editor-in-chief is a frugal New Englander) and explain why a particular brand was not rated a Winner, with several Best Buys as runners-up, again explaining why (usually has to do with an exorbitant, status symbol price tag --- cough cough Viking cough cough).

And even better, the recipes are optimized. A Cooks Illustrated recipe with its strange quantities are there for a reason. Because someone literally made the recipe over and over again (I've heard mention of eighty times) slowly adding or subtracting an ingredient in tablespoon quantities until hitting the sweet spot.

Last week I searched for banana bread recipes on the internet. They all contained the usual ingredients, but some had both baking soda and baking powder in them. It didn't really make much sense to me. It felt like "Well, that's the recipe my mom used."

Sure enough, I went to Cooks Illustrated and found their recipe that called for a single leavening agent. And if they had both soda and powder in the recipe, they would have explained it in the accompanying article. The recipe explanations satisfy the budding food scientist in me. My questions are laid to rest, knowing that someone has methodically questioned every ingredient in the recipe to ensure reproducibility and best taste.

So imagine my surprise when the accompanying CI article mentioned that it was box-mix brownies that pioneered the shiny, crackly top! Saturated fats (read: fats that are solid at room temp) in addition to unsatured fats (oils at room temperature) were apparently the secret.

Looks like there's going to be brownies in my future...

Finding Dolly Freed

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Finding Dolly Freed:

In 1978, at age eighteen, she wrote Possum Living, a frugal-living book that made her briefly famous amid an infamous economy. Then she went off the grid in the most unexpected of ways--she went mainstream. Now Dolly--and her book--are back.

This is a fascinating story about a father and daughter who came close to opting out of handling money altogether, and how the daughter opted back in, and how she's living now.

Invest in good health

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In this New York Times editorial Michael Pollan makes a point we touch on here: a lot of the health problems in the U.S. are preventable through diet, exercise, and avoidance of recreational drugs.

Pollan further underscores that the U.S. government's food policies facilitate bad nutrition by making junk food cheaper.

As individuals, we can pay more for good food now, or more for health care later. The latter plan is apt to create more suffering.

Seal your windows for winter

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Often, house windows form an imperfect (or downright bad) seal, and leak heat. An inexpensive way of preventing this is to shrink-wrap your windows. It sounds more complicated to do than it is, and it's effective. When winter's over, you can just peel it off.


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You can often get good deals on electronics by buying refurbished. These are products that were returned to the manufacturer (for whatever reason -- they may not have any defects and may have never been used ) and the manufacturer has certified as working. There will generally be a warranty, albeit often not as long a one as with a new product.

For instance, we finally did get a GPS. It was a recent, but not brand new, model, looked new, and has worked fine.

For years, I had scoffed at Ask Metafilter's recommendations of Logitech Harmony remote controls, which approach $100. Who'd pay that for a remote? I thought. Not me. But when I found a refurbished several-models-out-of-date one for sale, I tried it, and understood why people like them. I'm still not someone who'd pay $100 for a remote, but I didn't have to be.

Out of Season

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This is a rule that's opposite of the locavore's ethos: when it comes to making a purchase, buy out of season.

Smuggy case in point: for no particularly interesting reason, we needed to buy a new set of flannel sheets yesterday. It's been a challenging winter so far and having a nest of flannel to sleep in has been a wonderful way to ward off the chill. Sadly, we didn't have a backup set of flannel.

Zed mentioned BB&B, a store that I used to love, but whose luster suffered mightily after we bought a house and I realized how poor their selection was. But it was a start, so we trundled there, perfunctory 20%-off coupon in tow. They literally carried only one brand of flannel sheets. The sheets were not particularly soft nor attractive, and further examination of the set proved that they were sold as sheets only and didn't include pillow cases. I refused. Much as I wanted this task complete, these shabby specimens simply would not do. Set of King-sized fitted & flat sheet = $60. Pillowcases additional.

Macy's was our next stop. I have grown to love the Bed & Bath department of Macy's as my ardor for BB&B has waned (in an inversely proportional way, I might say). Imagine my love blossoming at the sight of Martha Stewart (not a fan, but I know her brand at Macy's is to be trusted) Collection flannel sheets, including pillow cases at an unbelieveable 70% off for $42.

Need I mention that they were a superior grade of cotton flannel and more attractive to boot?

The fire-sale prices were thanks to retail stores' one-season-ahead concept of selling. It may be winter now, but all the accoutrements of winter are all on expiration pricing: boots, sweaters, warm wool coats. When it comes to clothing and footwear, end-of-season sales aren't usually something to get excited about because if you're a common size, it won't warm your heart to see a pair of coveted boots at 60% off....but available only in size 13s. But bed sheets? Oh yeah.

So don't buy your flannel sheets in August. To everything there is a season, including sale prices.

Masoor dal (lentils)

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Both Zed and I love dal and curries, but had always been intimidated by the spices required in Indian cookery, so I finally plunged in with this easy-sounding recipe from salon.com:

It was easy and delicious and I wish I had done it a lot sooner.

½ cup masoor dal, tiny split "red" lentils (the color of orange soda)
5 cups water
1 teaspoon salt (for dal)
5 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
7 cloves garlic, cut slightly smaller than pea-size
½ teaspoon turmeric powder
½ teaspoon salt (for spice mix)

1. Soak the dal in cold water for 45 minutes to an hour, to rid the lentils of excess starch.
2. Drain the dal, give it a quick rinse, and bring it to a boil with the 5 cups water and the 1 teaspoon salt. Skim the foam off the top if you want. Turn it down to a moderate bubble and cover, leaving a crack for evaporation. (The amount of water doesn't actually matter because you can always just uncover it and let it reduce, and if it's too thick, you can just add more water.) Take a peek once in a while to make sure it's not bubbling violently, but pretty much you can just hang out for about 40 minutes, uncovering it for the last 10.
3. Check on the dal, which by now will have lost its Sunkist sparkle and be a mustardy yellow. If most of the lentils have dissolved and you're looking at a loose soup roughly the texture of a thin batter, get ready to make your entire house smell amazing.
4. In a heavy-bottom pan, get the oil hot enough over medium-high heat so that it just barely shimmers and flows as quickly as water. Add the black mustard seeds. When you start hearing them pop, add the cumin. As it sizzles, add the garlic and swirl the pan to coat it in the oil. Cook it until it turns even golden brown.
5. Then add the turmeric and ½ teaspoon salt.
6. Finally, add all of the lentils to the oil-spice mixture and allow the starches in the lentils to emulsify with the oil creating a thickened sauce.

Enjoy with rice, naan, or rice and naan like we did! Rice loves to soak up this flavorful lentil puree.

Do you really need that iPhone?

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As I've noted before, I totally get gadget lust. And the iPhone and similar smartphones with always-on Internet access are neat gadgets. But $100 a month for the voice and data plan? $1200 a year? Changing your mind about getting an iPhone is like giving yourself an $1800 annual raise.

I'd like access to the net anywhere I went, too. But not at those prices.

Chocolate Substitution Conversion

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My gift to all of you on Monday was my Best. Brownies. Ever. recipe, but I neglected one important and frugal detail:

chocolate substitutions

That is, how do you make the best brownie recipe ever if you only have unsweetened cocoa powder in the kitchen cabinets? Or worse yet, say you have a seemingly futile combination of unsweetened cocoa powder, sweetened cocoa powder and 70% cacao chocolate bars when the recipe calls for unsweetened baking chocolate? (This is exactly what happened to us over the weekend). Can this recipe be saved?

I am here to tell you, thanks to the folks from Ghirardelli Chocolate that no matter what combination of chocolate you have, and with enough scratch paper and third-grade math, yes you can!

In case Ghirardelli ever tries to take down their chocolate substitutions page, I have included it below (not to mention that even though I knew the page existed, it was still difficult to find on their website). Sorry for what amounts to an unpaid advertisement from Ghirardelli, but I am extremely grateful for the breakdown.

It's all here: unsweetened baking chocolate, semisweet baking chocolate, cocoa powder. Whatever you have on hand, Ghirardelli walks you through how to tweak your recipe so it all works out. I just hope the Brownie Gods are smiling down upon you so that you have extra butter and sugar on hand if you do need to make up the difference.

  • Ghirardelli Bittersweet and Ghirardelli Semisweet chocolate may be used interchangeably. Ed's note: bittersweet is approximately 60% cacao, and semisweet is considered 50% cacao, if you're using other brands of chocolate
  • Ghirardelli Unsweetened Chocolate and Ghirardelli Semi-Sweet Baking Bars: 4 ounces of semisweet chocolate equals 2 ounces of unsweetened chocolate combined with 2 ounces of sugar.
  • Ghirardelli Unsweetened Cocoa and Ghirardelli Sweet Ground Chocolate and Cocoa: For each 1/2 cup of Unsweetened Premium Cocoa, use 1 cup of Sweet Ground Chocolate and Cocoa and decrease the amount of sugar the recipe calls for by 1/2 cup.
  • Ghirardelli Sweet Ground Chocolate and Cocoa and Ghirardelli Unsweetened Premium Cocoa: For 1 cup of Ghirardelli Sweet Ground Chocolate and Cocoa, use 1/2 cup Unsweetened Premium Cocoa and 1/2 cup sugar. Mix together prior to adding to the recipe.
  • Ghirardelli Unsweetened Chocolate and Unsweetened Premium Cocoa: For every 1 ounce of Unsweetened Chocolate called for in a recipe, use 3 level tablespoons of Unsweetened Premium Cocoa and 1 tablespoon extra of butter than called for in the recipe.
  • Ghirardelli Sweet Ground Chocolate and Cocoa and Ghirardelli Unsweetened Baking Chocolate: For every 1 ounce of Ghirardelli Unsweetened Baking Chocolate, use 6 level tablespoons of Sweet Ground Chocolate and Cocoa; add 1 tablespoon extra of butter than called for in the recipe; and decrease the amount of sugar the recipe calls for by 3 level tablespoons.

Best Brownies Ever

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Easily my favorite daily reading these days is salon.com's Food section, filled with personal reminisces and stories associated with a food or dish, usually followed by a recipe. It's my favorite kind of reading right now.

Touched by this story and guests over the weekend, I decided to try out the brownie recipe. Skimming the recipe quickly, I was drawn to its simplicity. Later, in the process of mixing up the batter, I realized that it contained no leavening agent whatsoever. That's when I knew these would be the brownies of my dreams. And they were.

I made one decadent addition: chocolate chips. Chocolate chips in brownies may seem like gilding the lily, but the added texture and molten chocolate go a very long way.

½ cup salted butter (aka 1 stick)
4 oz unsweetened baking chocolate
¼ cup sugar
2 eggs
½ cup flour
1 tsp vanilla
½ cup chopped walnuts
½ cup chocolate chips

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and spray a 8" square baking pan.
  2. Melt butter & chocolate in a saucepan, whisking until smooth. Remove from heat and set aside.
  3. Whisk sugar and eggs together in a medium bowl.
  4. Stir in vanilla.
  5. Mixing as little as possible (to prevent incorporating air into the batter, so the brownies remain dense) add nuts, chocolate chips, and chocolate-butter mixture.
  6. Pour into prepared baking pan and bake for ten minutes at 350 degrees, then lower temperature to 300 degrees and bake for an additional 25 minutes.
  7. Cool for 5 minutes before turning out onto a cooling rack. Cut off all the edges that touched the baking pan (the best part!) and save them as a treat for yourself.

Swap CDs and DVDs

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A while back, I mentioned Paperbackswap. Recently, I finally joined its related site for CDs, Swap a CD.

I've sent out two already. Mailing CDs is cheaper than mailing books,
under $2. You don't mail the jewel case, but simply fold the wrapper
you print out around the CD and printed matter enclosed in cardboard
-- I cut it out of some old manila folders, which already have a fold
in them. The site rakes $.49 on orders you place, though.

I haven't yet explored Swap a DVD, but it
may end up playing a part in my New Year's de-cluttering, too.

Black-Eyed Peas

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It's a Southern tradition to eat black-eyed peas on New Year's Day to ensure good luck all the year long. Served alongside cornbread, garlic-sauteed greens, and mimosas, it got our 2010 off to a great start.

1 lb black-eyed peas, soaked and drained
1 can (28 oz) diced tomatoes
1 medium onion, diced
6 cloves garlic
4 tablespoons soy sauce
1 can chipotle peppers in adobo sauce
cumin to taste
salt to taste

  1. In a medium saucepot, boil black-eyed peas in unsalted water, then simmer for 20 min or until tender. They will overcook and the texture becomes mushy, so taste! Save the water after cooking.
  2. Add remainder of the ingredients and enough of the saved cooking water to make a stew-like consistency.
  3. Spice to your heart's content.

Happy New Year!

Happy new calendar

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2010 calendars just plummeted in price. But for the best wall calendar value, wait till they're practically giving them away after mid-year. Then print your own personalized calendar with pcal and tape them in.

It's a silly way to save money, but wall calendars are a pretty silly way to spend it.

(Even sillier, but possible: save your calendars. Your 2009 calendar will work again in 2015, and a 2010 calendar in 2021.)