» Archive for the 'Frugality' Category

Gut instinct and gambling on new recipes

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011 by kara

The Pumpkin and I have been working toward cooking all of our own food, for frugality and health. I say that we are ‘working toward it’ because let’s face it, there is a place in our world for Wanchai Ferry dinner kits and Jet’s Pizza. But we are trying.

We’ve collected tried-and-true recipes that we enjoy and that make it into the weekly menu rotation on a regular basis, but lately we’ve been branching out and trying something different. So when we see a recipe that looks appealing, we clip it from the newspaper/scribble a new recipe card and magnet it to the fridge.

Like my mother did, I enjoy reading new recipes, and then collecting them, but  hadn’t actually made any real effort to try them out. And until you actually try the recipe, you don’t know if it will turn out well. Sometimes a recipe that looks good in print just doesn’t make it in real life/the pan/slow cooker.

We have been spanked by recipes that seemed like a good idea at the time, and having been burned, we’re a little shy about trying new stuff. A recipe that fails is a waste of time and food, and wasting money on food is especially heinous. Then on top of that, one must scramble to put something on the table in lieu of the experiment.

Back when Rick and I first got together, I was determined to be a good little homemaker, and to that end I bought a set of recipe cards (plus handy filing box, only $29.95 plus shipping!) that were named something similar to “Lite and Fit American Favorites!” The idea behind the collection was to substitute lower-fat seasonings and ingredients for those pesky-but-tasty staples that make us corpulent. (The lesson here is unrelated but simple, something similar to ‘don’t buy recipe cards that are oddly shaped and require their own special recipe box, because the author’s conscious effort to be different with the cards and recipes themselves will result in cooking sorrow.’)

One of the recipes was for a version of tuna noodle casserole that should have been a hit. After all, who DOESN’T like tuna noodle casserole? That’s pretty impossible to mess up, right?

Yeah, no. In my determination to be the good little homemaker, I indulged my OCD urge to follow the recipe to the letter, and in doing so, I ignored my gut instinct to leave out the tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce that was hanging on to the tail end of the ingredient list, like some cut-and-paste mistake or afterthought.

WHY would one want Worcestershire sauce in tuna noodle casserole? It just didn’t make sense, and my cooking instincts were screaming “Don’t do it! It’ll just be a mess!” But no, I had to follow the recipe to its bitter end, and as I dumped the tablespoon of savory liquid into the casserole, it showed me immediately how wrong it was by turning the entire casserole battleship grey.

Okay, so it wasn’t a pretty casserole any longer, but it might taste good (or maybe just okay), right? That was a lot of food to throw out just because it wasn’t visually appealing, so I gritted my teeth and put the casserole on a cutting board in the middle of the table.

But nothing can bring a dish back from battleship grey, not even garnishing it with buttered breadcrumbs and baking it for the proper length of time.

Rick stared at the casserole for a minute, peeking between the appealing breadcrumbs to the unappealing noodles and cream sauce underneath.

“What IS it?” he asked me, finally.

“Tuna noodle casserole, silly!” I was trying to brazen it out, reaching for the spoon and plopping a healthy portion onto my own plate. The Worcestershire even muted the spring-green of the peas to a colour closer to death than springtime.

“What’s wrong with it?” Rick asked, still measuring the risk with his eyeballs.

“Nothing is ‘wrong’ with it. I followed the recipe to the letter!” I explained, as though complete compliance could protect us from untasty food.

He hesitantly followed my lead, cursing his plate with a spoonful of the greyish glop. We both forked up a bite at the same time…and shuddered, pushing our plates away. Just as it might be difficult to explain what Worcestershire sauce tastes like, it was difficult to explain exactly how it polluted the casserole. Maybe ‘metallic’ is the right word to describe the taste…eh, let’s just say that it put both of us off tuna noodle casserole and Worcestershire sauce for a while.

To this day, he is scarred by the Worcestershire sauce in that casserole, and delights in reminding me.

Another recipe ‘fail’ came from our local newspaper a few months back. This potato-and-zucchini soup recipe read like a champ, containing cheap seasonal ingredients and spices that I thought we’d like.  Rick saw it first, and clipped the recipe, so it got added to our weekly menu rotation. Again, I followed the recipe as closely as I could, my only substitution being Mrs. Dash seasoning in place of the rosemary–but Mrs. Dash has rosemary IN it, so that should have worked, right?

Meh. Even with the EXTRA seasoning from adding more Mrs. Dash than the recipe called for, the resulting glop was tasteless and hunched ponderously in the stomach, like a wad of plaster threatening to set permanently in the shape of one’s gullet.

Yet another fail comes from a menu/shopping planner service called E-mealz. The good folks at E-mealz produce a weekly menu and shopping list for subscribers, helping busy people manage their food budget and saving them time, while putting healthy meals on the table. This is a useful, frugal idea, and I highly recommend it. I enjoy being able to turn over menu planning to E-mealz. Most of the time, that is.

One E-mealz sandwich recipe called for pastrami and ciabatta rolls, along with a can of SHOEPEG CORN. That was one recipe that just screamed “wrong” to me, but we’re game, so we tried it in hopes of experiencing something really different and good.

The sandwich would have been enjoyable had it NOT been for the shoepeg corn, which added a weird aftertaste to the sandwich ingredients. Though I was hungry (seriously hungry!) I was unable to finish my sandwich, even after scraping off the corn.

But another recipe from E-mealz, called Greek Style Skillet Supper, was an unconditional win. It incorporated several ingredients that I’d never put together on a whim, but combined into a savory, interesting dish that’s one of my current favorites. This cheap and easy dish combines ground beef, onion, oregano, cinnamon (yes, cinnamon!), garlic, beef broth, tomato paste, penne pasta, spinach and feta cheese into a meal which is very easy to overeat.

Sometimes you can look at a recipe and have an idea how it will taste when it’s all put together, like the recipe for Thai Peanut Noodles that came recently from E-mealz: Angel hair pasta, peanut butter, lime juice, soy sauce, red pepper flakes, chicken broth, chopped/cooked chicken breast, and chopped almonds combine to create an appealing, protein-rich main dish that satisfies sweet and savory cravings alike.

Or consider this recipe for Sausage and Lentil Stew from Stephanie O’Dea’s blog, A Year of Slow Cooking. I can skim through this ingredient list and actually taste how this stew will turn out, and know that we will enjoy it.

Sometimes a recipe is a gamble, nothing more and nothing less, and we just have to cast the dice and see what happens.

I guess the best practise is to try to know each ingredient individually, so that we can accurately imagine it in partnership with other ingredients in the recipe. And, of course, to listen to our gut instincts even when a recipe reads well, but sets our teeth on edge. But even with losses of time and groceries from dinnertime fails, it still pays to take chances now and then–our food world would be awfully small otherwise.

Burning the split-pea-with-ham soup

Sunday, October 2nd, 2011 by admin

I like to make food from scratch, partially to prove to myself that I can, but mostly to save some money. Today I put a pot of split pea soup on the stove, with garlic and onions and carrots and a wonderful, meaty hambone that I’d saved from our Christmas ham last year. Mmmm.

This should have resulted in enough satisfying food to last us for at least two meals. And because the ham bone was essentially ‘free’, the split peas were purchased on clearance for 50 cents a pound, and carrots, garlic and onions are not terrifically expensive, this really should have been a mondo-affordable meal.

I had everything set up and simmering, and because I wanted it to reduce a little bit, I turned the burner up to medium instead of medium low; I then proceeded to the Batcave, where I became engrossed in Facebook. Bad idea. The peas were already cooked by then, and everything was starting to thicken more than I thought, so without me there to stir it every several minutes a layer of ham chunks and peas scorched themselves to the bottom of the stockpot.

Several minutes later I was pulled out of my computer stupor by the barest whiff of burning; I hurried out to the kitchen, and (gasp) saw wisps of smoke (not steam) spiraling up from the surface of the soup. I hurriedly ladled off the bulk of the soup, and hoped I was in time–there was only a seven-inch scorched spot in the middle of the pot–but it was too late. Even though it looked wonderful, the soup was permeated with burnt-ness. Sigh.

Like the kids on Hell’s Kitchen, I tried to brazen it out; I hoped it wasn’t really that badly burnt. Unable to tell if the burning smell was from my nose or from my tongue, I tried it out on the Pumpkin, but after a few spoonfuls I had to admit that it tasted primarily of scorch.

“It’s got a smoky flavor,” The Pumpkin said thoughtfully, after rolling a spoonful around on his tongue. He’s such a good guy.

I replied, “Yeah, it’s smoky, but it’s smoky in a bad way, like ‘Who’s burning leftover construction material scraps in their leaf pile?’, not a good smoky-ham taste.” So I devoted a half-hour to flushing this big batch of soup down the toilet. It takes quite a while to flush three quarts of soup, ya know.

It’s probably not as big a deal as I make it out to be. After all, what was I out, maybe two or three bucks for the electricity for the range, and the veggies, and the 50-cent-bag of split peas? My time is another matter, but I’m incapable of calculating the cost of that, so I won’t include it.

I think the greatest disappointment is not having two wonderful meals of soup, from that beautiful, meaty ham bone, and the loss of having two meals which cost us next-to-nothing. When you’ve been working really hard to be frugal and save money, one of the things that can make you feel cosseted and indulged is a tasty meal, and if you make a lot of food from scratch, it’s possible to have wonderfully satisfying, nutritious sustenance for very little. So the more food I can make for the least money, the greater ‘kick’ I get.

Except this time, I gave myself a kick right in the seat of my pants. Dangit.

Knife sharpening kit saves money, makes cutting safer

Friday, April 8th, 2011 by kara

My trusty old Olfa Touch-Knife, plus brand new edge, courtesy of the Spyderco Triangle Sharpmaker 204.

So I came down with some type of lung crud and can’t muster up a lot of energy to do anything today, but I did manage to get my hair-cutting shears sharpened in preparation for our fuzzies’ weekly grooming session. Everyone will get the hairs between their toes trimmed THIS SUNDAY, whether they like it or whether they don’t, so I got out my Spyderco Triangle Sharpmaker 204 Kit and went to town.

And as long as I had the kit out, I decided I might as well sharpen EVERYDARNTHING in the drawer. Now our chef’s knives, Grandpa Plagens’ meat carving knife, all the paring knives, and even the fershlugginer vegetable peelers are all sharp and fresh! Joy!

Everybody who uses a cutting implement of any type will tell you that a sharp knife is easier and safer to use, because you don’t have to apply as much force to cut successfully, so there’s less risk of fumbling the cutting implement and losing control–along with a limb or eye or something else equally useful. Sharpening is something that should be done on a regular basis.

In the beginning I didn’t sharpen my knives regularly, though. Sharpening knives used to be very intimidating for me, because I didn’t want to do it wrong and ruin the edge.  Yes, I knew that if I screwed it up, I could always take it to a professional and have a little snack of crow while they fix my mistake. But you gotta remember that I don’t like to screw up in the first place. Hence, I never tried.

Plus, I hate to pay someone to do something for me that I should be able to do myself. Having the kit at home means that I can (and should) sharpen my knives myself on a regular basis. Along with saving money on medical care for accidental knife wounds, this saves money by letting me keep the very good quality knives I’ve selected and not purchasing new ones to replace them merely because they’re dull.

I’ve really got no excuse for avoiding this task. I’ve got that amazing sharpening kit, sitting right at the back of the knife drawer, of which I can’t speak highly enough. The Spyderco Triangle Sharpmaker base holds two brass safety rods and the triangular ceramic sharpening rods at exactly the correct angle (35 or 40 or 12 degrees, depending on what you’re sharpening) and it comes with a comprehensive manual and even a DVD for Pete’s sake. One would truly have to have a glass eye and wooden banana (in the words of my sainted mother, Norma) to screw it up with the 204.

And you can use the kit to sharpen just about anything that has an edge or functional sharp point. Have a wood plane that needs some refining?  You can use the 204 to sharpen that blade–just be careful, because the brass safety rods don’t deploy for the configuration to sharpen a plane blade. Does your ice pick, awl, or upholstery needle need a new point? It’ll do that as well, along with thinning and pinking shears, and my little Olfa Touch-Knife craft cutter. Honestly, I think I bought that darn thing when I was in high school, and I still have it–I just use the 204 to put the edge back on it every once in a while, and it’s ready to help me clip coupons every Sunday.

Plus, it is such a joy to use a sharp implement. Makes me want to go back out to the kitchen and cut cauliflower and broccoli and cucumbers for broccoli salad, and maybe find some fish to fillet, maybe a roast to trim. Eh, maybe after my nap.

Toaster oven useful for small households

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010 by kara

I love my toaster oven. I’d even go as far as to say that it’s an essential piece of kitchen gear.

It’s not often that I endorse a specific piece of kitchen equipment. Many tasks have been accomplished over the years using nothing more than a good knife, a sufficiently-large cutting board and basic cookery equipment. I’ve never owned a food processor, nor have I wanted one.

Yes, using a food processor can save you a lot of prep time. You could process all the potatoes for a batch of potato soup in a matter of SECONDS. But then the time it takes to break down and clean the food processor offsets that time saved. It’s so much quicker to keep a sink full of hot, soapy water and wash the knife and cutting board as you go.

We DID have a juicer, once. Once. But it was such a complicated travesty of parts and disks and doohickeys that to use and dissemble it to clean it was a multiple-hour task. We weren’t dedicated enough to the idea of juicing to continue to use it.

We do have a breadmaker that I’ve begun to use again, just for the joy of freshly-baked bread. If you’ve read any of my past blog postings, you may recall my battle to make bread from scratch–I really do feel this is something I should be able to do by myself, without the help of a machine…but I’m lazy. I’ll work on the bread skills later.

I don’t want to mislead you–we do have kitchen equipment with very specialized uses. Of course we have a coffee maker, which just makes coffee, and we have several slow-cookers, which only cook food very slowly. We also have a blender, which is used very seldom, and a Fry-Daddy, which is used more often than I care to admit.

But our toaster oven is the most-used piece of kitchen equipment we have. It warms left-over pizza much more appealingly than the microwave, and if we’re having pasta it heats up to crisp frozen garlic bread in seconds rather than preheating the entire full-sized oven, using much less electricity in the process.

Hot appetizers and baked sandwiches can happen in the toaster oven with much less fuss than the full-sized oven, and I can prepare a hot Westminster dip before dinner even though the oven temperature is different than what’s needed for the entrée.

And anytime we feel like a fresh biscuit, we can take some frozen biscuit dough from the freezer and bake one (or eight) up in a snap. I’ve heard that one can do that same thing with cookie dough, but I’ve always just baked the whole batch of cookies rather than putting some aside to freeze.

All in all, a toaster oven with temperature control is a fast, efficient way to bake small batches of baked goods and not use lots of electricity heating the big oven and then cooling the house. I would strongly recommend a quality toaster oven for every small household.

Frugal, if not environmentally-friendly, solution!

Monday, February 22nd, 2010 by kara

I obsess about pet peeves that could be called achingly trivial. Then I obsess about finding a solution to those peeves. And I have  lot of peeves. All that energy wasted on stupid stuff that doesn’t really matter…oi vey.

But it finally worked!  I came up with a solution to something that’s bothered me for such a long time, and it’s a good solution!

In a bottle of lotion (or shampoo, or shower gel, or what-have-you) that comes equipped with a pump, there’s a lot of product left at the bottom when the pump begins to fail. Because the bottle has a PUMP it’s almost impossible to set the bottle upside down to let gravity help. And then you have to unscrew the pump to get at whatever’s left over, and you end up dumping the rest all over your hand and wasting it anyway.

My temporary solution was to vow to buy only flip-top snappy-type containers, which could be inverted and used efficiently without wrestling with a stupid pump. Hooray! Problem solved!

But when you’re standing in front of the lotions with a calculator in your hand, and you realize that the larger pump bottle is less-expensive per ounce, it’s difficult to stick to that vow.

“Oh, for Pete’s sake, Kara!” you’re thinking to yourself right now. “Just throw the whole mess away and get yourself another bottle of store brand lotion and MOVE ON. It’s only an ounce or so!”

Ah, Gentle Reader, there’s the rub (pun definitely intended). If I waste an ounce of lotion, that nullifies the savings I earned when buying the larger bottle, which cost less per ounce. And at that point, this whole soul-rending struggle becomes “a matter of principle.”

I’ve tried propping one bottle upside-down over the mouth of another bottle, and that inevitably ends in heartache with lotion spattered all over the mirror and faucet when the top bottle falls. Because it will fall–it always does. Stupid bottle.

Yes, I have seen those little plastic doohickeys that allow you to connect two bottles of different sizes mouth-to-mouth, so that you can allow gravity to transfer the remainder of one bottle into another. I just don’t want to pay someone $10 for their idea. (Yes, I’m petty and jealous that I did not think of it, patent the idea, get a prototype and market such a useful little plastic thingy for myself.) Plus, those little thingamajigs don’t fit every bottle well–I have an image of a couple of unsuccessfully-coupled fallen ketchup bottles, and a kitchen splattered with ketchup.

Anyway. I’ve been noodling on this particular peeve for many moons, and finally came up with a workable and elegant solution. Remove the pump top from the bottle, and place a plastic bag over the mouth of the bottle. Upend this, propping it in the corner of your vanity or wherever it will not be knocked over, and when gravity has done its job, squeeze the rest of the product into the bag.

Squeeze the air out of the bag, and fasten the top closed. Get your receiving bottle ready, and snip a small hole in the bottom corner of the bag. Aim, then squeeze, and you should be able to strip all the leftover product neatly into the new bottle. Et voila!

Think “piping frosting,” except you’re not piping something edible and it’ll be much easier because you’re just trying to squeeze the contents neatly into a bottle, not spell out “Happy Birthday, Pumpkin” in legible icing script on top of a too-hot cake before all the party attendees arrive in four minutes.

Greener members of the audience may say “But Kara, that wastes a plastic bag! You’re using all the product, but you’re needlessly using a piece of plastic–it becomes a wash!” Save it, brothers and sisters. If this matters to you, you can rinse the plastic bag and use it again for a similar operation–just don’t empty the next bottle into the snipped corner of the bag. Also, bonus points if you’re using an already-repurposed plastic bag, because then you can throw it away and not feel bad!

I should patent and trademark this blog entry, shouldn’t I?

Cheesed off

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010 by kara

I’m becoming quite a fan of measuring by weight rather than by volume.  It seems so much more accurate to say “8 ounces of shortening” as opposed to cramming an amount of shortening that you HOPE is sufficient and lacking any sizable air bubbles into a one-cup measuring cup.

And now that I’m buying butter in one-pound bricks from Sam’s Club instead of quartered, paper-wrapped pounds from the grocery store, I’ve had to get good at doing the math in my head to convert volume measurements to weight.  Instead of just slicing off “one tablespoon” from the quarter-pound stick, it’s necessary to run through all the math and weight equivalents in order to calculate that one tablespoon of butter weighs a half-ounce.  And one half-ounce of butter will always be exactly that, doesn’t matter what form it’s in, a half-ounce of butter will always weigh a half ounce. But if I’m slicing a tablespoon off the stick, and the quarter-pound stick wasn’t wrapped absolutely straight at the factory, I may end up with more or less butter by depending on those little lines printed on the paper.

But oi vey, the MATH.  It hurts me sometimes.

As a result I’ve gotten pretty good at guesstimating the volume of food to equal the desired weight.  Doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s a solid like butter or shortening, or a grainy powder like sugar or flour, I can get pretty close just by eyeing it up! Cool, no? Or does this count as a “stupid human trick”?

In my younger days I worked as prep cook under an amazing Hungarian woman who could pour an absolutely correct amount of seasoning into her palm straight from the package.  Need a teaspoon of salt? Here it is. A half-teaspoon of cinnamon? There ya go. She might not always wear her teeth to work, but the day she showed me how she could use her palm to measure out tablespoon after accurate tablespoon of parsley, I was her biggest fan. For a long time I worked on being able to do the same, and now after 22 years I might be getting close.

Anyway, I ran to Food City a few days ago to get some beans and cheese for a batch of chili.  Only bought a half-pound of cheese because the price wasn’t that great and I only needed a little bit to grate over the chili.  So I’m studying the cheese, which is labled as an 8-ounce brick.  I’m looking at it, and thinking that it doesn’t look quite like a half-pound of cheese, so I get out my trusty digital scale:

No, it's actually 7 and 8/10 ounces. Not quite a half-pound.

Hmph.  I KNEW it didn’t look like a full half-pound of cheese. Whatever that may look like.

So, what does it matter, you ask?  So I didn’t get a full eight ounces of cheese, even though I paid for it–so WHAT? The problem lies in the fact that if every package of cheese is 1/5 of an ounce short, then the cheese distributor is selling that 1/5 of an ounce twice. We’re being charged for it, but we’re not getting it. The cheese people are shorting the individual consumer so they can make a little more money.

It’s a small bitch, but it’s my bitch, nonetheless. And if everything is inaccurately packed like this cheese, think how much each of us consumers are being cheated.

It’s one thing to watch the size of a candy bar shrink from 3 ounces, to 2.75 ounces, to 2.15 ounces, and remain the same price. It’s a given that food will get more expensive, and either prices must go up or we must get less food for the same price–check out the big tubs of yogurt the next time you’re at the grocery store.  They used to contain 32 ounces of yogurt and now the same-sized tub only holds 24 ounces.  There’s a 3/4 inch gap between the yogurt level and the top of the tub. Mmmm…vanilla yogurt with wheat germ…had to get a bowl as part of my ‘research.’  But I digress.

I didn’t take my digital scale to the grocery store to measure each of the packages of cheese there.  It’s possible that each package of cheese differs slightly, either above or below the listed weight.  Sure, some customers may actually receive 8 1/5 ounces of cheese.  Maybe it was just my day to be on the short end of the stick. But that isn’t ideal, either.  You should get exactly what you pay for, whether it’s eight ounces of cheese or eight ounces of blasting powder, and that package stated that it contained eight ounces of cheese.

Wanna know what 2/10 of an ounce of cheese looks like?  Here ’tis:

Okay, so it's grated. Try to use your imagination and picture it as a chunk.

A bean situation

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009 by kara

Yesterday I decided to make a pot of bean soup.  I learned two things as a result of my shopping trip that day: 1.) That it’s probably impossible to get a ham bone from the meat counter at a grocery store, and 2.) that a four-pound bag of dried Northern beans makes a HECKUVA lot of beans.

Talked with the guy behind the meat counter at Kroger, and he explained that they don’t save bones anymore, except for the really huge cow leg bones that people want as chewies for their dogs.  He did, however, point me in the direction of pre-packaged, smoked pork neck bones, which will work admirably for the meaty, smoky base.  You really do need the bone in order to get a good, appealing soup stock, in my little opinion.

Next came the beans.  Money’s still kind of tight, so I stood there with my calculator, ciphering the per-pound cost of dried Northern beans in the different-sized bags.  The four-pound bag brought the cost of the beans down to about $1 per pound, so that’s the one I went with.

Bear in mind that I’m not a stupid person.  Intellectually, I know that cooking legumes or grains will roughly double their bulk, i.e. cooking one cup of rice with one cup of liquid results in two cups of cooked rice.  But sometimes I have a little problem with spatial rationalization:  I knew that I’d end up with a lot of beans when I finally cooked them, but I didn’t stop to consider that if I soaked them all, I would not have a stock pot big enough to cook them.

And sometimes I’m just an absent-minded ditz.

So I start putting the stuff together for the soup, starting with sorting and soaking the dried beans.  If you’ve never worked with dried beans before, you should know that before you do anything else with them, you need to sort through them and pick out small rocks, bits of twig or grass, suspect-looking beans and any other ‘stuff’ that you don’t want to eat.  Then you rinse them thoroughly, and do either a fast soak or an overnight soak to rehydrate them.

It took me an awful long time to sort through that four-pound bag of beans.  That should have been my first clue to slow down and re-evaluate the situation.  It felt like I was hunched over that colander FOREVER, picking out discoloured and munched-on-looking beans.  But did I stop and think about what I was about to do?  Aw, hell no!

I got out my four-quart stockpot and dumped the beans in, and filled the rest of it nearly to the top with water.  Yeah, that was another moment in which I could have calculated the volume of beans I’d have to cope with, but I didn’t hesitate there, either.  I was thinking of other things, like our rescue’s Angel Trees at AgriFeed here in Knoxville and Smoky Mountain Feed in Maryville, and how best to print pictures of the adoptable fuzzies from Small Breed Rescue of East Tennessee and Cocker Companions Rescue.  It’s safe to say that I was a bit distracted–not enough so to screw up the soup, but sufficiently to miss the significance of the bean poundage.

To do a ‘fast soak’, put the beans in a large pot and pour roughly twice their volume of cool, clean water over them.  Bring the pot of beans to a boil and maintain the boil for two minutes, then cover the pot and remove it from the heat, letting it sit for the next hour.  Voila!  When you return to the pot, you’ll have rehydrated beans which you can then proceed to cook.

When I came back to check out my beans an hour later, the stock pot was FULL of them.  They’d gladly sucked up almost all the water and climbed almost to the lip of the stockpot, and they overflowed my big white colander when I drained and rinsed them.  All in all, that four-pound bag of dried Northern beans made 8.28635 pounds of beans.  Let’s just call it 8 1/4 pounds.  Which is quite a lot.  More than I had anticipated.  Don’t know what I was thinking.

Anyway.  I fixed a big batch of bean soup with half the beans, and then divided the rest into two big Gladware bowls to be covered with water and frozen. I couldn’t just toss the remaining four pounds of beans, because if I did that, I’d be wasting money–even though my original intent was to save money.  If you buy something in a large package because it’s less-expensive that way, but then you don’t USE it all, you’re not saving money in the long run.  You may as well have just bought a smaller package that didn’t scare you so badly to begin with, and avoided wasting the excess food.

Nice part of this little debacle is that the next time I want to make bean soup, I won’t have to go through the tiresome sorting-and-soaking routine again.  Nasty part is that I don’t really know WHEN I’ll feel like making bean soup again.  If ever.  *sigh*

“Hooray, new socks!” or “Getting some enjoyment from ‘the little things’

Wednesday, July 1st, 2009 by kara

Once upon a time, I had the ability to shop whenever I wanted. If I saw a fountain pen I wanted or a pair of sunglasses I ‘needed’ I’d buy them with impunity.

I included shoes, clothes, perfume, and for some odd reason bedding (sheets, pillows, blankets, bedspreads, lap rugs, etc.) in that compulsive shopping list. The clothes and shoes and perfume are self-explanatory. I think we Americans have been indoctrinated by advertising to look at self-adornment–or at least shopping for self-adornment–to be some perverse form of entertainment, right up there with reading, playing guitar or playing bridge.

But with the bedding, I think I might be self-medicating or maybe self-comforting by overpurchasing.  I enjoy making myself a lovely nest into which I can retreat at the end of a long day, with crisp sheets and a soft, fuzzy blankie.  It’s important to me to have a comfortable bed, and pursuant to that one must have materials with which to MAKE the bed.  So that particular shopping fetish kind of makes sense to me.  It’s still not healthy for me to want to buy new bedding all the damned time, because I HAVE plenty of bedding.  But having a lot of bedding is comforting to me, it fills a ‘hole in my middle,’ it meets a need that I haven’t identified yet.

But it doesn’t explain why I overbought all those clothes and jewelry and perfume, all of which I’m STILL ‘using up’ from shopping trips long past.  I’m pretty sure that I didn’t need all the sweaters I ended up with, or all the t-shirts, or shoes.  Many items I bought because I wanted to change my self-image by wearing different (more sophisticated) clothes.  But did I ever wear them?  No.  I usually went back to the sturdy and classic clothes I find at L.L. Bean and Land’s End, so all those forays into new fashions were a waste of money for me.

Back when I was in full shopping mode, I’d get excited just finding a new pair of jeans on sale, or finding a pair of earrings marked down.  I’ll never forget the rush I got one afternoon many moons ago when I bought a pair of earrings on sale for less than 1/4 of their original price.  That huge pair of gold wire hoop earrings was originally $225, and I’d had my eye on them for quite a while.  They got marked down to $52, and I snapped them up joyfully!  Never mind that they were SO large that they hit my SHOULDERS every time I turned my head, twisting my earlobes back and forth until they were aching.  Never mind that I went back and bought the other remaining pair just because they were also on sale (marked down even more a few days later–the word must have gotten out about how painful they were to wear).  I got them on SALE!  And I got quite a rush from getting them on sale, too.

I still have them–haven’t worn them for years, and of course now I’d never even get $52 out of them, even though they’re 14K gold hoops.

I didn’t NEED them, though.  I just got a thrill out of purchasing them.  I WISH I could say that I wore them frequently, and that they were ‘worth it.’  But actually, I bought them for the thrill of acquisition.  How twisted is it to enjoy purchasing new things just for the sake of acquiring them?  Why do I enjoy buying something new that I don’t really need in the first place?  Is it the thrill of the pursuit?  The idea that a “good buy” is a valuable, narrowly-won prize attributable to exceptional shopping skills is rather sad.  I’m not arguing that being a shopper isn’t a skill–I’m just wondering if it’s a valid skill to cultivate if you’re anything but a professional shopper.

Shopping as a hobby is a very self-indulgent activity which highlights our lack of insight and self-awareness.  Our love of acquisition as a hobby is wasteful and self-indulgent and our culture celebrates that, rather than saving money, consuming frugally, mending/repairing/recycling and living within our means.  Sure, it’s more FUN to be able to go out and get new ‘stuff’ whenever we feel like it.  But is it healthy?  Are we feeling more entitlement than we deserve to feel?  And why can’t we figure out what exactly WILL fill that ‘hole in our middle’ instead of Band-Aiding the emptiness with a shopping spree?

I’ve been reading a bit about Keynesian economics, and the gist I get is that the ‘health of the economy is dependent on people spending and buying more goods and services, rather than saving their money.’  In Keynesian terms, ‘excessive saving’ is BAD, and people need to keep buying stuff in order to buoy the economy.  Okay, save your rotting tomatoes, I KNOW I’ve oversimplified that.  But for Pete’s sake, people, this is the principle upon which our country’s economy is based!  Isn’t that alarming to anyone?

I’m guessing that if we never starting ‘spending money to make money’ that our economy might be a lot healthier today–it would be a HELLUVA lot smaller, but it would be healthier.

It strikes me, too, that the current mortgage crisis that blossomed into a full-blown depression kind of echoes that idea.  People were encouraged to borrow money for mortgages, to borrow more than they ever dreamed possible, and people who never believed they would qualify for a mortgage all of a sudden became homeowners.  Mortgage lenders couldn’t write the paperwork fast enough.  This was due to a demand from investors who wanted those huge returns on all those loans–there were so many investors wanting to invest in mortgage sales that the mortgage companies had to find a new “market”–all those previously unqualified applicants now could get approved for a no-money down mortgage with variable interest rates.

And look what happened–many of those people who didn’t previously qualify for a home loan got into trouble and couldn’t make their house payments.  They began to default on the loans.  And we all know what happened from that point on.

All because of greed.  People wanting more than what they have, more than what they can afford–maybe even not knowing what exactly it IS they want.  Why do we need so much, whether that ‘so much’ is measured in clothes, jewelry, a new car, a huge house?  What ’empty place’ in ourselves are we trying to fill?

I’d like to say that I’ve just come upon these thoughts as a result of our recent season of privation, but I’ve known (and UNDERSTOOD) for a while that overspending and conspicuous consumption is unhealthy.  I just never wanted to really cut down on my spending so drastically–that’s no fun, after all.

But since January, we’ve been earning less than 1/4 of what we were accustomed to living on before Rick got laid off, and we’ve had to cut way back.  We weren’t living high on the hog as it was, but we’ve reached new heights of frugality in the months since the layoff.  It’s gratifying to experience that sort of self-control in consumerism.  We’re actively patching and fixing and living reeeeally frugally, and it isn’t as bad as I’d thought it would be.  Sure, it’s kind of sad not having all the primo movie channels on the satellite, and it’s a bummer not being able to buy the hard cider I fell in love with at a friend’s house (Hornsby’s Draft Cider is $8.65 a six-pack at Kroger–if you have the means, I FIRMLY recommend it; it’s as luscious as taking a bite out of an autumn-crisp apple, plus 5.5% alcohol content).  And we haven’t given up our subscriptions to World of Warcraft yet–I don’t know if I’ll ever be THAT hardcore frugal.

And as strapped as we are now, I know that things aren’t as bad as they were during the Great Depression.  My mother used to tell me about life as it was back then, how she and her sister had three blouses, two skirts, and five pairs of underwear that they’d hand-launder in between laundry day.  “And when the elastic wore out on your bloomers, you went and found a safety pin.”

She said that even if you had money to buy things at the store, that very often the stores wouldn’t even have merchandise to sell. I have a difficult time imagining that era.  I wonder if we will see that level of desperation, but I can’t help feeling that this is an example of a timely “correction” that we need to experience in order to grow more in the future.

In the meantime, I am enjoying some new socks I bought about a month ago.  They’re a ‘brand name’ footie sock, with the logo woven into the sole in a pretty blue yarn.  I bought a six-pack for $3, which comes out to 50 cents per pair.  I opened the package a month ago, and am using them one new pair at a time.  I only get a new pair out when I wear out an old pair, so I get the thrill of wearing clean, new, white socks about every other week.  Quite the change from the days when I refused to drive a car that was older than three years, huh?

MinuteRant: Quality of commercial tuna declining?

Thursday, June 25th, 2009 by kara

Is it just me, or is it getting more and more difficult to find a decent can of tuna lately?  It seems that a few years ago, you could open up a can of ordinary tuna and see recognizable FISH flesh, not just mush.  Now, if you buy anything less than albacore tuna, you have a can of what looks like pureed fish mixed with water.  Hard to drain, no recognizable texture, kinda repellent.

So is it just me?  Was commercially processed canned tuna always like this?  Or has the quality fallen off in the past decade?  And if so, why has it fallen off?  Have there been changes in the handling methods that degrade the quality of the tuna, or is it just poorer quality meat that’s making it into the cans?

I admit that lately I’ve been springing for the more-expensive “albacore” tuna simply because it still looks like fish when it comes out of the can.  *sigh*

Book shopping at the dollar store leads to new reading experiences

Monday, June 22nd, 2009 by kara

I love to read and used to spend a LOT of money buying books.  In the past, I belonged to two book clubs and had ‘frequent flyer’ cards for three bookstores. I dropped a lot of cabbage on the latest offerings by my favorite authors.  And that’s pretty much why I bought books–so that I could read the very latest release from the authors I follow faithfully.

Back then I also had quite a lot of books, which took up a lot of room and gathered dust and caused more than one strained muscle during household moves.  I have, however, learned a little bit from moving household several times over my adult lifespan.  The most important lesson is that something is only valuable as long as you’re willing to move it.  Accordingly I’ve pared down my book collection, keeping only those books that are truly irreplaceable to me, i.e. books that have been inscribed by the gift givers, autographed copies, my own ‘first copies’ of a favorite book.

With our recent changes in fortune I’ve also had to change my spending habits related to books.  I go through books like some people go through Kleenex, so it’s not really money-wise for me to constantly buy new books, especially now that we are an under-employed family.

In order to feed my habit, I’ve always shopped at used book stores, and as we’ve become more frugal over the past couple of years I’ve become a consistent patron of my local lending library.  McKay Used Books here in Knoxville is a true mecca for readers and fans of movies, music and video games.  They buy and sell all sorts of media and while it’s nice to be able to trade-in a used book or movie, it’s still a tad expensive to buy my weekly ration of books.  And the library doesn’t always have what I’m trying to read, which leads to a lot of delays in reserving a copy–or disappointment when the book just isn’t in the library’s stacks and isn’t likely to be due to budget constraints.  I’ve had to curb my desire for the latest and greatest and content myself with re-reading some favorites.

Just a little while ago, I started browsing the selection of hard-backed books at my local dollar stores.  These are brand-new books, not always best-sellers, and it’s not likely I’ll find something for which I’ve been searching, but many are interesting and for $1, they’re always a good buy.  Because of that bargain price I can be a little more venturesome in choosing a book by ‘new’ authors (or authors who are ‘new to me’) or in a genre for which I might not pay full price at a bookstore.

For example, my most recent shopping trip yielded “Beau Brummell The Ultimate Man of Style,” a biography on the dandy by Ian Kelly.  I’m not one to gravitate toward biographies unless they’re about someone I admire, but the man who was the origin of the modern-day business suit had a fascinating life, which Kelly manages to illustrate lushly.

I’ve also discovered a new author in Wendy Corsi Staub, whose series starter “Lily Dale:  Awakening” is aimed toward teenage readers, but her writing is quick and entertaining even for a 40-year-old teenager.  She sucks the reader swiftly into Calla’s life and the story for a quick and enjoyable read.

I just finished “The Mercy of Thin Air” by Ronlyn Domingue, a story about a forward-thinking flapper who lost her life in a swimming pool accident but continues to inhabit the living’s plane of existence while trying to discover what became of the love of her life.  And I also lucked out and found “Dancing With Dogs,” by Mary Ray and Andrea McHugh, a book which describes how to train your dog to perform basic obedience moves which you can then choreograph and perform to music.  I bought three of these, one for Karen, Leslie Ann, and myself.  What a treat, to be able to find such a fitting gift at such a reasonable price!  But I’m disappointed because the ones who REALLY need to read this book (my DAWGS, duh!) have not yet read it and are refusing to train themselves.  *sigh*

While new, the books themselves are not always releases from the current year, but that’s not an issue since I’m only after entertainment–I’m not getting tax code information or cutting edge technical tips from them. I’m having fun with this diversity of reading, and even better, the books are cheaper than buying a pre-owned paperback at the used book store.  And when I finish a one, I can turn it in for more credit at the used book store!  Give it a try.  You might find something new to read, as long as you’re flexible and adventurous!