September 2009 Archives

Capillary action to the rescue!

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Back in high school AP Biology class, we dunked stalks of celery in water colored with red dye and left them overnight. The next day, the capillary networks of the celery were outlined clearly in red dye, as it displaced the water that had previously been present.

So don't throw out flaccid celery stalks! Just chop off the ends and dunk them in a glass of water. By the next day, they'll be revived and crunchy once again. They were just thirsty.

Works great on fresh basil and cilantro, too.

Health Savings Accounts

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You may have the opportunity to participate in a health saving account with your employer. If you do, it could save you a bundle of money.

Around this time every year, when employees are given the opportunity to change their health insurance providers, they can also elect to set aside a number of dollars from their paychecks for the year in a health savings account. The benefit of such an election is that the money is removed before taxes have been taken out (they are pre-tax) and consequently worth more than after-tax dollars. It is similar to the situation of 401(k) dollars, which are squirreled away before the feds have taken their share.

The HSA money can then be spent on most anything to do with health care: doctor appointment co-pays, prescription co-pays, dentist visits, new glasses at the optometrist, and even certain over-the-counter medicines.

The one thing to be mindful of is that the dollars must be spent in the specific calendar year in which they were set aside. That is, 2009 dollars must be spent by December 31, 2009. Any dollars that remain in the account at the end of the year are simply gone and apparently spent by the HSA administrator (a separate entity from your employer) on a lavish party with an endless buffet.

So there must be a good attempt at anticipating health care needs in the coming year. Last year, knowing that expensive dental work was upcoming, we aimed a little high. This year, we'll aim a little lower.

If we must, we'll stock up on antihistamines and contact lens solution to make up the difference.

$10 Dinner for Four!

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I've been hearing and reading about the vaunted $10 Dinner for Four! the last few months, and I just don't get it. Apparently it's extremely difficult to stalk this mysterious beast, so various media outlets are rushing to provide protocols to conquer this prey. There's a new show on the Food Network about this, as well as various recipes aimed at recessionista home cooks.

I suppose it has a nice ring to it, but if you take a second and do a calculation, a family of four will be spending upwards of $300 a month on dinners alone. And that implies everyone drinks tap water as a beverage. That sounds high to me.

A home-baked baguette costs roughly 34 cents each, or alternatively a 20-lb bag of rice can be had for $13, which will last a long time. Even a 4-pack of chichi sausages cost $6, and the cost of fresh greens to round out this hypothetical dinner would only cap it at $7, tops.

It seems the $2.50 meal per person is only a deal compared to eating out, which admittedly is hardly a comparison at all, when a typical entree at a family restaurant is around $8.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not knocking anyone who wants to try save money by cooking their own meals. I just think the advertisers that the media is beholden to have created this $10 fantasy simply so they can push more sodium-packed, artificial-flavored and -colored pap.

Needs

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Like a lot of kids of my generation, I read A Day No Pigs Would Die in school. It's set in rural Vermont in the 1930's. The protagonist, a teenage boy, wants a store-bought coat, not wanting to look poor in front of his schoolmates. When his father explains they can't afford it, he insists he needs it. His father says:

Need is a weak word. Has nothing to do with what people get. Ain't what you need that matters. It's what you do.

That bit has stuck with me ever since. To say we need something is just to assert the unacceptability of the consequence of doing without it. Some things we really do need for personal or family survival. Some things really are essential to our most vital goals.

But much of the time, "need" is tossed around where "want" would serve better.

What do you really need? What consquences are truly unacceptable? What do you merely want?

Is pursuing your wants interfering with satisfying your needs?

Lemon Sorbet

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Thanks to the Mediterranean climate we enjoy, our lemon tree gives us two harvests per calendar year. I just read in Harold McGee's thorough and I-always-learn-something-fascinating On Food and Cooking (just revised!) that Sicilian lemon growers purposely withold water from their lemon trees through the arid summers, then water them in late September, thus ensuring a second harvest.

We harvested yesterday, and the haul (2.5 quarts of juice) bested our April bounty, with still more fruit waiting to ripen on the branches. What made juicing all those lemons a snap was a food processor with a juicer attachment. And that's what also makes the lemon sorbet recipe easy, too (but a hand mixer or even old-fashioned elbow grease will also work.)

Lemon Sorbet

For one quart of sorbet:
2 cups water
1.5 cups sugar
1 egg white
¾ cup lemon juice

  1. Dissolve sugar in water over low heat in a pan on the stove.
  2. After sugar is in solution, boil gently for one minute, then remove from heat.
  3. Set aside sugar solution and allow to cool, while beating the egg white in a food processor until foamy (this will only take a few pulses).
  4. Slowly drizzle in sugar solution while running food processor and whip egg-sugar mix into a meringue.
  5. Fold in lemon juice, and cool mixture in refrigerator or ice bath (faster option).
  6. Pour into your ice cream maker and churn per your maker's protocol.

Usually we freeze the end-product after churning, for a more-solid texture. Last night I couldn't wait any longer, so we ate it immediately after churning. It was more like an italian ice, which was just fine by me.

Free reading

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There's endless free reading available online, much of it public domain, some of it with a creative commons license, some of it just made available by the rights holder.

Google Books and Project Gutenberg are two of the best sources; science fiction and fantasy readers will also be interested in Free SF Online.

The quality of scanned books vary a lot -- in many cases, you have a choice between a PDF of the raw scanned images of pages, or buggy text automatically generated by optical character recognition. If you'd like to help improve Gutenberg texts, you can be a distributed proofreader and fix problems yourself.

You might learn something

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Librarian Chick provides links to hundreds of free reference resources on the web, including university courses online, like MIT's OpenCourseWare.

If you have an Internet connection and free time, there are a lot of ways to put them to use.

Fill 'er up

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Now that Labor Day has passed, I'll let you in on a pattern I'd noticed during the summer driving season. Fill up on fuel for whatever weekend road trip you'll be taking on Thursday, not Friday.

All through the summer, I noticed the slight uptick of gasoline prices every Friday, in anticipation of weekend getaways, or vacations that begin over the weekend. Back down they would go on Monday mornings.

And before Memorial Day or Labor Day weekends? Fuhggedaboutit! Remember back in 2008 when gasoline was reaching historic highs and gasoline prices would increase multiple times a day?

Few things in life are random, especially when it comes to consumer pricing: observe long enough, and a pattern will reveal itself.

Furloughed

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My employer has implemented furloughs. I'll be working 18 fewer days in the next 12 months1, with roughly commensurate salary loss.

We're definitely going to feel this. But we'll get through, because we weren't living near the edge. We had a margin. We'll postpone some things, and save less, but it's not going to change our quality of life.

There are a lot of people who don't have a choice about living at the edge (and I don't doubt that inane frugality articles recommending "don't spend so darn much!" taste like ashes for them.) But there are also a bunch of people who choose the financial edge, who could have chosen to leave a buffer. Or who are getting closer to the edge than they need to be by spending on things that aren't really adding value to their lives.

Things change. Emergencies happen. Losses of income happen. When you can, leave a buffer. Savings will get you through times of no surprise expenses better than surprise expenses will get you through times of no savings.

1 My inverse velocity over the next 12 months will be 1.29 in fortnights/furlough.

Last year's model

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In an old Bloom County, the young hacker Oliver Wendell Jones saw an ad for a new, updated version of his computer, the Banana Jr. 6000, "now with tint control!"

He promptly dumps his Banana Jr. 6000 in the trash, explaining "As a rule, hackers do not deal well with obsolescence."1

Last year's model is a website promoting a straightforward idea: continue to use things you already have that serve their purpose instead of replacing them with something a little smaller, a little shinier, with a few more bells and whistles.

Jen and I are still using a digital camera that's about 5 years old whose best resolution is under 2 MP, ridulously underpowered by modern standards. But it's fine for our uses. Our home theatre PC is a modded original Xbox, and our TV is a CRT we bought used. We'll probably eventually go HD, but every year we put it off, we're saving money, and prices go down. Our cellphones are basic, things we could get free or cheap with the plan.

I'm as technophilic as the next geek, and routinely need to make saving throws against getting an ebook reader, or a netbook, or whatever the latest shiny thing is. But frugality, along with an awareness of how much I can do with my current stuff, is good for about a +19.

When new things are worth it, we'll get them. We'll probably get a GPS soon, because that provides real utility we don't currently have, and old models have gotten fairly cheap. The point is, we're not suffering for our choices here. What we're doing is saving. And this gives us more options in the long run.

1 (This is from memory; please excuse me if I've gotten some words wrong.)

Labor Day Smoothies with little labor

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The key component of a refreshing smoothie is temperature, though texture runs a close second. The usual ingredient that supplies the former is ice, while bananas usually do the latter. What I do is throw out the ice entirely, and use a frozen banana instead, which amps up the flavor and smooth texture and dispenses with the grittiness of ice crystals

Also, it's a frugal way to rescue a banana that's become too soft to eat atop oatmeal, and you don't want to make banana bread again. Just peel the banana, wrap in wax paper, and place in a plastic bag in your freezer. I've used bananas that were in the deep freeze for more than six months without any loss of flavor.

Smoothies
1 frozen banana
any other fruit of your choice: berries, pineapple, mango...
any milk of your choice: soy milk, whole, 2%...

  1. Combine in a blender, whip it up to the highest speed you blender has (for extra air)
  2. Enjoy!

No More Shampoo!

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Inspired by articles that promised fuller, healthier, and less shampoos per week, I embarked on a three month "no shampoo" experiment earlier this year. I still cleaned my hair, just not with commercially manufactured shampoo. I used a solution of one tablespoon of baking soda dissolved in 250ml (1 cup) of water that I mixed up in an old Camelbak water bottle (old school with the bisphenols in it, so I put it out to non-food & drink pastures), and rinsed with lemon juice and conditioner to detangle.

Though the no shampoo movement is most beneficial to the curly- or wavy-haired, (apparently curly hair, once it gets a rest from shampoos, turns soft, manageable and non-frizzy.) I was pleased enough with the results that I don't plan on buying shampoo ever again.

What really convinced me was an article that mentioned that due to the presence of (low priced) harsh industrial detergents in shampoos, the natural oils found on the hair are stripped which causes the hair follicles to overproduce oil. I know from experience that I cannot use harsh, mass-produced detergent-based soaps (as opposed to old-fashioned soap that is oil or fat-based) like Irish Spring. They leave my skin beyond dry, no matter how much I try to moisturize afterward, much like trying to condition hair after cleaning with a harsh shampoo.

Then this article on the harmful environmental footprint of shampoos reminded me of the other reason I wanted to break the shampoo habit. The chemicals used in the manufature of shampoo is neither good for me nor Mother Nature. Frustratingly, the author makes the case for the many reasons not to use shampoo, but only offers dishwashing liquid as an alternative, which is not much different in my book. So I'm here to proclaim my no shampoo status to the world.

I was also secretly hoping, due to the hair follicles no longer overproducing oil, for the tantalizing possibility of only washing my hair once a week. Alas, that's more frequently a benefit of the curly-haired, unlike my very straight locks. Before the experiment, I washed my hair every other day. During the experiment, I needed to wash my hair every other day due to oil buildup. One reason for the three-month trial experiment was to give my scalp and hair plenty of time to readjust to the gentler baking soda treatment. Alas, I still need to wash every 48 hours.

Finally, of course, this is a way to save money on shampoo, as baking soda is practically a give-away item, especially when purchased in bulk amounts like the four pound box I bought for not much more than the familiar baking aisle-sized one pounder. I added lemon juice as part of my process only because I have a lemon tree in my backyard. Lemon juice's acidic nature enhances the glossiness of hair; an alternative to lemon juice is vinegar.

I have shampooed a handful of times since my experiment officially ended, mostly because I was traveling by plane and didn't want to be detained by the TSA for having a Ziploc baggie of white powder and trying to explain that it really is baking soda. And I definitely noticed the overproduction of oil in my hair right away. Hours after shampooing, my hair had a greasy texture I hadn't experienced in months, even after long periods of exercise.

So there you have it: frugal, environmentally-friendly, and better hair. Though I shouldn't anymore, I'm always amazed that the frugal way of doing things so often is healthier/better-for-you/tastier/superior in a way that is preferred, and also for the planet.

Whole Wheat Pizza

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I've rolled a lot of pizza dough this summer, experimenting with different types of flour and whatnot. This recipe has emerged as the winner for best taste, ease of rolling and transferring to a pizza stone. It's secret ingredient is one tablespoon of a high gluten flour. Gluten is the protein in flour that is kneaded to give bread structure, so it's easy to understand why high gluten flours are used in bread baking to ensure puffy loaves of bread. It makes rolling out the dough easier for a thin crust, which makes for a crisp snap when eating.

Whole Wheat Pizza Dough
Makes two 11-inch pizzas

  • 2 tsp yeast
  • ½ tsp sugar
  • 1 cup warm water (100 - 110 degrees F)
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 and ¾ cups whole wheat flour
  • 1 tablespoon Bob's Red Mill Vital Wheat gluten flour
  • 1 and ¼ tsp salt
  1. Dissolve yeast and sugar in water in a small bowl and set aside.
  2. In a large bowl (mine is a vintage 4.5 quart Pyrex I got for my birthday --- thanks honey!) combine flours and salt.
  3. By now, the yeast should be foaming. (If not, the yeast is probably dead, so start over. This is why you do this separately, to ensure the yeast is alive & well. They are the workhorses of this recipe. If they're not alive, you don't have a pizza dough.)
  4. Add olive oil to the proofed yeast mixture.
  5. Pour it into the flour mixture and mix with a strong wooden spoon until it comes together.
  6. Roll up your sleeves and start kneading! With my giant Pyrex bowl, its smooth sides rival any marble countertops, so I'm able to do the kneading right in the bowl. Knead until the dough is smooth & elastic.
  7. Lightly oil the dough and bowl, cover tightly with plastic, and place in the sun until the imprint of two fingers poked into the dough remain (approx 1 hour). If you're going to bake your pizza right away, then start preheating your pizza stone at 450 degrees (it requires about one hour to preheat.)
  8. Lightly knead the dough again to in redistribute the yeast, and divide into two balls. The dough can be frozen at this point in plastic bags. On the day of baking, thaw in the refrigerator before rolling out.
  9. Roll out dough into thickness desired.
  10. After the pizza stone is preheated through, carefully sprinkle cornmeal onto it to prevent the pizza from sticking (the stone is very, very hot.) Move crust to the stone by folding half of it over a rolling pin and laying it out on the stone (trust me, it'll take a few times before you master the technique.)
  11. Add your toppings --- I love any kind of mushrooms, minced garlic, and a quattro formaggio mix of cheeses.
  12. Bake for 13 minutes. Serve immediately.