January 2010 Archives

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.

Refurbished

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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 But when I found a refurbished several-models-out-of-date one for sale, I tried it, and understood why people like them.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.)