November 2009 Archives

For Gourmet fans...

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In case you hadn't heard, Gourmet magazine's last issue was this November's [collective sigh of sadness].

However, their recipes live on --- for free! --- at epicurious.com, which is my go-to site for recipes. It's also the home of Bon Appetit's archives, too.

The recipes are tested in their kitchens, so they are reliable, and you can search easily to get multiple variations of butternut squash soup or spaghetti carbonara.

In the meantime, Gourmet's website still exists, which had a treasure trove of multiple menus for a vegetarian Thanksgiving feast.

I like a t-shirt with something funny on it as much as the next geek, but I hardly ever buy them anymore. They're too often on the cheapest possible t-shirt that'll fade after three washes or get wrecked the first time my cat sinks her claws in.

My t-shirt wearing life has been better since I tried the 10-pack of American Apparel t-shirts available for $70 on EBay. Their weave is so tight that when my cat withdraws her claws, the holes close up -- she has yet to wreck one. And they pretty much look like new after dozens of washings. For $7 a piece, they were a great deal (and have spoiled me for other t-shirts.)

If you're a frequent t-shirt wearer, try them.

Pillowy Dinner Rolls

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As I've mentioned, yeast breads took up the bulk of my baking time this year, so it's no surprise that I'm making homemade rolls for Thanksgiving. I was never much of a fan of breads until I started baking my own: not much rivals the smell of bread wafting from an oven, not to mention a piping-hot roll plumped full of steam.

And this recipe in particular may appeal to some people who don't like to mess with yeast breads: it's no knead! No kidding, I only mixed it with a wooden spoon.

I made this dough as a test run on Monday, and the results were superb. The milk in the recipe provides tenderness and flavor that make the rolls practically like brioche.

Dinner Rolls

2 cups milk
½ cup sugar
½ cup vegetable oil
2¼ tsp yeast (or 1 packet)
4½ cups flour
1 tablespoon salt

  1. Heat milk, sugar, and oil slowly on the stovetop until approximately 100 degrees F.
  2. Remove from heat and stir in yeast and flour. The dough will be soft and easy to mix.
  3. Cover with plastic wrap/tea towel and put in warm place to rise for about an hour, or until doubled in bulk.
  4. Punch down the dough to resdistribute the yeast.
    (For make-ahead: you could put it in a plastic bag and refrigerate at this step. Just remove from refrigerator approx 1 hour before baking to wake the yeast up).
  5. Grease a cupcake/muffin pan with cooking spray.
  6. Pinch off a walnut-sized piece of dough and roll into a ball. Combine with two other similarly-sized balls to fill each cupcake cup.
  7. Bake at 400 degrees for about 15minutes, or until golden brown.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving, from my kitchen to yours.

Cranberry Sauce

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This is my favorite week of the year. It's a short week because of Thanksgiving (and in college I'd leave for home on Tuesday to beat the traffic, truncating it even further) and the dishes I prepare are Thanksgiving-only exclusives that I eat only once yearly.

For sheer deliciousness-to-effort ratio, homemade cranberry sauce can't be beat. This is a side dish that I used to buy pre-made from a can, but one year I decided to cook an all-from-scratch Thanksgiving, so I had to give up my Ocean Spray cranberry sauce. Ocean Spray is dead to me now, and I've never looked back.

Though I can enjoy the challenge of a multi-step, multi-container, specialized-tool recipe, when it comes to the Thanksgiving feast with its panoply of dishes, I favor simple and suitable to make ahead. This recipe is the Platonic ideal of simple and suitable to make ahead.

You can use fresh or frozen cranberries, and days in advance of Turkey Day (I'm making mine today). Enjoy!

Cranberry Sauce
12 oz whole cranberries, fresh or frozen (if using frozen, thaw and drain)
1 cup water
1 cup sugar

  1. Combine ingredients in a medium pot on the stovetop, mixing to dissolve the sugar.
  2. Heat on medium until it boils, for one minute. The cranberries will be bursting and possibly spilling over the sides of the pot.
  3. Transfer to a heat-proof container and allow to cool completely. Then cover and refrigerate until ready for serving.

The sauce will thicken while cooling. Depending on your preference, may be served cold or brought up to room temperature.

How to get the most out of Black Friday

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Stay home.

Every year around this time, my faith in humanity hits its nadir when someone gets trampled to death at a department store entrance because Xboxes were $50 off. In many cases, there really are better deals to be had than you'll see even after Christmas, but only for a handful of items in stock for the people who stood in lines for hour and survived the rush when the doors opened.

Do you really need whatever-it-is that badly?

I'll look at the on-line sales, and if something I really wanted anyway goes on sale, then maybe I'll get it. But I'll be sleeping in next Friday.

Rental Cars

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I was out of town recently, and required the use of a rental car. There are many aspects of the car rental experience I detest, mostly probably because it's about upselling on a variety of options including additional car insurance, GPS devices, and re-fueling options.

My credit cards have always assured me that one of the many benefits of carrying their card was not having to fork over extra insurance when renting a car. With some amount of anxiety, I'd initial all those spaces on the rental form acknowledging that I was refusing their extra insurance and hope that Chase (or whichever issuing bank was) meant it.

So one time the rental car agency accused me of scratching their car (which I'm rather sure I did not do, considering the extent of the damage). But we picked up the car in the dark of night and thus did not do the pre-departure check. That was our negligence, and you can be sure that I have never done that again.

So I turned to my trusty credit card company and called in their rental-car-damage chit, and it worked out exactly as advertised. I may have filled out a form or two, but the bulk of the interactions were between my credit card company and the rental company to pay for the damage. I didn't pay a cent.

So if you're wondering if your credit card company will really pay for your rental car damages, I can say that Chase Bank worked out for me. And, always, always:

Check the physical condition of the car before leaving the lot.

I usually refuse the GPS device, simply because maps.google.com does such a great job already, but I guess that's just personal preference. Also, I hear that GPS devices are much more effective in cities, but quite ineffective when it comes to small towns with their irregularities and one-way roads.

As for the refueling options, the rental companies really do price gouge on the refueling price, but sometimes it is worth the hassle of finding a nearby gas station. Also factor in that gas stations near airports price gouge, too (though not nearly as much as the rental agencies).

For me, it depends on the specifics of the flight and size of the city. On my recent trip to a tiny city I'd never been to, we'd be driving into the airport from an hour away to catch a 6:45am flight, and I didn't want to risk having to find a gas station that was open at such an early hour. So I took the price hit.

Just remember that rental car companies are in the business of separating you from your money. If you have a credit card that will cover you for rental car damages, it's a nice benefit. GPS devices may be helpful in some cases. Ditto regarding the refueling options.

You don't need a new computer, part II

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As promised, I'm going to discuss some of the advances in PCs that really do make a difference (for ordinary home use -- if you're a power user with specialized needs, then you know better than I when the following doesn't apply.)

About all USB devices and PC ports of recent years use USB 2.0; some of the newest use the new USB 3.0 standard; the oldest use USB 1.1 or 1.0. Each successive standard is substantially faster than the previous (but the functional speed will be determined by the slowest component involved.) You'll notice the difference only if you're transferring a lot of data, e.g., uploading a lot of pictures from your camera, or using a USB external drive.

Since Intel came out with the Core Duo, most desktop PCs were at least dual-core (AMD had already been making dual core chips for a while.) Now quad-core is becoming popular. Dual-core really is very nice, as a single process won't drag your whole computer to a halt. You'd think quad-core would be even nicer, but it's harder for it to have a noticeable effect in ordinary usage. Most programs can't directly take advantage of multiple cores. Unless you're using one that can, or routinely simultaneously run things that heavily use the CPU, you may not notice.

Modern motherboards offer an interface called SATA for hard drives and optical drives that's substantially faster than the old IDE. Unless you're moving large files around, it matters less than you might think. But if you're replacing a drive and your motherboard offers SATA, there's no reason not to get it. (There was a brief time when motherboards were already offering SATA but the computers built around them were often still shipping with IDE drives.)

Your motherboard may also offer external SATA (eSATA) and even if it doesn't, an adapter can turn an internal SATA port to an external one. This lets you use an external drive at the same speeds as in internal one, a lot more pleasant. (And anything that makes backups easier makes them more likely to happen.)

Your own uses will determine how much hard-drive space you need. You can get a 1TB drive for under $80 these days; unless you're storing a lot of video or a lot of audio, that'd be somewhat hard to fill. You may want to look into a spare for backup purposes, one of those things most people recognize as a good idea, but too many ignore until it's too late.

Memory (RAM) continues to get faster and new standards support "synchronous access." But the killer feature of recent years' memory is cheapness. If you have an old computer, odds are you can max out its memory fairly cheaply, and that's probably the best bang for your buck in upgrading an old machine.

New machines ofter boast ridiculously powerful power supplies. This is mostly for marketing purposes so they can show a bigger number than last year's model. Unless you have a ridiculously overpowered CPU and video card or a big array of inefficient old hard drives, you'd be extremely hard pressed to need more than 350W. I'm currently running my desktop with its modern dual-core CPU, DDR2 memory, and a dual-head video card with a 200W power supply stripped from a 9-year old machine.

Many, maybe most modern motherboards have video chips and VGA or DVI ports built-in, obviating the need for a separate video card. Some older ones may be challenged by HD video playback, but other than that, unless you want to play new videogames, it's probably all you need.

Likewise, sound cards are a thing of the past, except for specialized needs. Your motherboard's native sound support is probably good enough.

A component that remains expensive but is one of the biggest advances of recent years is the solid-state hard drive (SSD.) Hard drives have moving parts. Moving parts mean vibration and noise (and will likely be the first parts to fail.) SSDs are very fast, and completely silent. There are several different technologies in use; the very cheapest won't be faster than a good hard drive, and I don't recommend them. These remain too expensive for me to get one, but I look forward to killing off one more noise source.

This brings me to my final point. Now that the insane drive for faster CPU speed (to boast a bigger number than last year's model) has abated, the chipmakers have been actually pursuing greater efficiency. That means less waste heat, which means you can cool them with fewer and quieter fans. It's finally possible to build an acceptable modern machine that's passively cooled, with no fans, and thus completely silent. Some day soon, we'll be able to look back on the whines, and whirs, and clicks we've put up with for decades as a bad dream.

And, to repeat myself, here are things you don't need: quad-cores, the fastest memory, the fastest video card (especially since it'll have a loud high-speed fan, when a weaker one would be passively cooled), a sound card, the biggest power supply, the biggest hard-drives (price/unit storage steadily drops until you get to the biggest, newest drives, when it rises again.)

And if you're considering upgrading, consider also that acceptable new machines can be as cheap as $200. It becomes hard to recommend upgrades other than maxing out memory or replacing a hard drive. It pains the environmentalist in me to say it, but as a frugalista, I feel obliged. On the bright side, any new machine is likely to be more efficient than the old one, but it's far from clear that the power savings during its lifetime would compensate for the environmental cost of the new machine's production. Those things are hard to compute.

Just be sure not to throw the machine out. If it's still usable and useful, look for a school that could use it. If it's not, find out where to recycle it. Here in the East Bay we drop our old stuff at the Alameda County Computer Resource Center; your community may have an equivalent.

Clothes

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This is a subject that isn't particularly important to me, but a reader (shoutout to Sumana!) suggested it: how am I frugal with my clothing choices?

The short answer is that it's a reflection of how I spend money in general, which is that I don't buy the newest most fashionable item at full price so that I'm part of the fashion vanguard, but here a few thoughts.

I rarely buy clothes that are dry-clean only As with most things on life, it's not the cost of an iem that'll get you, but the maintenance over its lifetime. A cashmere sweater that cost $90 can set you back repeatedly for $10 to clean each time you wear it. Again, I'm not suggesting that cashmere is completely verboten (I own some), but it is important to consider the dry-clean only toll (not to mention the environmental impact of the non-aqueous cleaning solutions dry-clean only implies).

I like to purchase high-quality items that will last me a long time. This happens to work out for me, because I prefer classic clothing that doesn't look dated over several years, which is usually how long my clothes last. This only works if wearing the latest seasonal "it" item is not important.

Shop at thrift/vintage stores I don't actually do this, because I dread clothes shopping, and spending hours looking through racks & racks of clothing does not appeal to me. However, I know that this is an excellent way to re-purpose clothes at outrageously low prices. Furthermore, know that the twenty-year fashion cycle is always on your side, because the exact same sweater dresses I thought were so cool & fashionable in 1985 are on the store racks this very moment. Unchanged in any way.

And I believe Nordstrom's Women's Half-Yearly Sale is going on right now...

Playing hard to get for fun and profit

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A while ago, Jen stressed the importance of putting effort into saving on your big ticket items because that can be where you get the best return for your time invested.

Always get a couple of quotes on big ticket items. And it can be worth your while to make sure the salespeople know you're doing that.

The transmission on our car has been having problems, so we took it to the dealer, who quoted us a $5000 price to replace it. We checked with a local transmission shop and got a lower quote. I called the dealer back and told the rep I'd be picking up the car, checking on when I could do so.

Almost immediately, he called back offering $1000 off the original quote.

Essentially, we just saved $1000 today by making a few phone calls and expressing our willingness to walk away.

OK, the assertion that you don't need a new computer needs a bunch of qualifiers. But for years and years, the biggest selling point of new machines has been faster CPUs, or, more recently, more cores. Unless you have specialized needs, your PC's responsiveness during any given task is unlikely to be perceptibly improved by a faster CPU.

If you have ordinary needs -- web browsing, email, word processing -- then about any PC sold in the past 6 years (at least) remains overpowered for your usage.

As a frugalista, environmentalist, and technologist, it breaks my heart to hear of people replacing their computers because they've become intolerably slow over the years. That's not the hardware. That's just what happens to old Windows installations (you won't hear this about this phenomenon from Mac or Linux users.)

If you were to reinstall Windows XP from scratch, your PC would be fast again. To guarantee you don't lose your existing data, my preferred method is to buy a new hard drive, and an external enclosure that works with your existing drive (these are net very expensive.) Remove the existing drive, and install the new one. Install the OS, and update it immediately -- whatever's on your CD is outdated. Finally, put your original drive in the enclosure and plug it in, so you can transfer your old settings and files.

This is a somewhat painful process -- XP's installer wasn't really designed for end-users.

I'm talking about XP and not Vista or Windows 7 for two reasons -- I've never used them, and their stated requirements call for more recent hardware (though the stated minimums would still be exceeded by anything sold in about 6 years, though you might need more memory.)

Next up, I'll describe some of the hardware changes that actually do make a difference.

Specialty Grocery Stores

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We have an embarrassment of excellent cuisine choices here in little ol' Berkeley, and if you want to re-create one of those meals at home, just shop at the specialty grocery stores for that hard-to-find spice, where the prices are hard-to-beat.

There's an International District where grocery stores sit side-by-side like a peaceful foodie United Nations: there's the Indian grocery store next to a Middle Eastern market, and there are two competing Mexican markets on the next block flanked by yet another Middle Eastern store. Sprinkled among the stores are restaurants of various nations ranging from Pakistan to El Salvador to Jamaica.

I buy my lentils at the first, high-end olive oil in hefty 3-liter cans at the second, and dried beans & tortillas at the third. Despite their independent Mom-and-Pop shop status, the prices are lower than anywhere else by a long shot, probably because of all the local competition.

The spices that launced the Crusades are all represented: cardamom pods, nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon sticks, white pepper, cumin seed, mustard seed. And each market has its own produce section that rival farmers' markets for freshness along with very reasonable prices.

What I particularly enjoy are seeing the imported products for instant kheer (Indian rice pudding) or a British brand of "biscuits" that are de rigeur in these immigrants' home countries. It's world travel right around the block.

Depending on where you live, there might be a large Arab population (shout out to Detroit), or Ethiopian (shout out to D.C.), so look around and see what's in your neck of the woods. Wander through one of these stores sometime and enter a new world. Your wallet will like it, along with your taste buds.

Dish

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When we were looking to replace our dishes, we looked to Corelle, with its reputation for quality (and warranty.) These days, most Corelle only has a 3-year warranty; Corelle Ultra has a 5-year warranty.

So we got the Ultra, and the one time we broke a plate, we found out that the warranty is functionally useless: they cover damage that occurs only during "normal usage" and not, say, dropping. But if a plate fell apart during washing, by golly, then we'd have them.

They're high-quality plates, and I fully expect we'll be using them for years and years to come. But we've concluded it was a mistake to pay a premium for the unhelpful warranty.

Cast Iron Pan

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I love my cast iron pan. It's extremely versatile, because I can fry something in it, and then finish it off in the oven without transferring to another pan.

I love my cast iron pan. I can bake and serve my cornbread right in it, for a rustic look.

I love my cast iron pan. Thanks to its black finish, I get superior browning and a crisp, crackly crust on whatever I fry. This past weekend, it was my version of Potatoes O'Brien (recipe to come soon). I had two pans side-by-side caramelizing onions, one was a traditional nonstick and the other was my beloved skillet. The cast iron retained heat more than non-cast iron and evenly maintains it (no hot or cold spots) so that the onions cooked in it were superior in every way: cooked faster, more evenly caramelized for better flavor, and with a crisper texture. So it's a frugalista choice!

I love my cast iron pan. Once it's properly seasoned, it's non-stick. Seasoning is simply artificially aging it over a short period of time; it's what happens over several months' use. Or, oil it and literally bake it in the oven to seal on the layer of oil.

I love my cast iron pan. Full disclosure: the downside is that it's extremely heavy, so mine essentially lives on the stovetop, and it does take time to heat it up due to its thermal inertia.

I love my cast iron pan. If you want the best pancakes of your life, unrivaled crisped potatoes of any stripe, or a perfect sear on a steak, a cast iron pan will make it happen.