Sunday, October 15, 2017

Recipes of the Month: Wilted Lettuce and Roasted Veggies with Quinoa

This month, Brian and I haven't tried any brand-new vegetable recipes yet, but we have made two new variants on recipes we'd done before. So I figured I'd just share these two variants, and it would add up to the equivalent of one complete Recipe of the Month.

The first one came about because last week we bought a bunch of green leaf lettuce at the farmers' market, and when we tasted it, we found it was unusually tough and somewhat bitter. It wasn't very good as a salad, so Brian came up with the idea of trying it in a different form: wilted lettuce, which he remembered having as a kid. He thought his mom had given him the recipe for it, but when he went through his recipe file, he couldn't find it, so instead he just prepared with the same dressing we use for dandelion greens: chopped, cooked bacon with the drippings, red onion, cider vinegar, and brown sugar. However, instead of just pouring this over the greens the way he does for dandelions, he actually put the torn lettuce leaves into the pan and let them heat until they looked wilted, but not soggy. And the result was...not bad. Maybe not quite as good as the same recipe with dandelion greens, but it certainly made this tough lettuce more palatable. I'd certainly consider using it again if we find ourselves with a head of lettuce, or any other kind of greens, that's too stringy or too bitter to eat raw.

The second recipe was also kind of an accident. At the time we bought the tough head of lettuce, we also picked up a couple of zucchini, intending to grill them. This is a dish we've made several times before; what Brian typically does is to slice the zucchini into narrow spears and toss them with a mixture of olive oil, soy sauce, sesame oil, and garlic powder, then grill them until they're tender. We usually make these alongside free-range turkey franks from the Amish market, since the long and narrow zucchini spears can be tucked into a roll either along with or instead of the hot dog, depending on how you prefer to eat them.

However, a combination of rainy weather and busy schedules conspired to keep Brian from being able to grill throughout the week. And over the course of that week, we also harvested quite a lot of tomatoes. Our new Pineapple tomato is continuing to produce big, plump fruits, and the Black Prince and Mr. Fumarole (which would be a great name for an alternative band) are producing smaller but steady yields. So I'd gone hunting for tomato recipes and discovered one in Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian for Grilled Tomatoes with Basil, which basically is just what it sounds like: cut the tomatoes into thick slices, brush them with olive oil, sprinkle on salt and pepper, grill them until they start to caramelize, and serve them with chopped basil.

So my idea was that, as soon as the weather allowed, we could grill these tomatoes along with the zucchini, and serve it all up "on a bed of quinoa or something." (I chose quinoa more or less at random because it seemed like the kind of thing a chef probably would pair with grilled veggies; rice or pasta would probably work also, but quinoa has more protein, so it makes for a more complete meal.) And by this time, farmers' market Friday had rolled around again and we'd grabbed a couple of eggplant, so Brian decided to slice one of those and throw it on the grill as well. He used a modified version of our usual recipe for the zucchini, omitting the sesame oil, which he thought wouldn't go well with the tomato; the tomato and eggplant he just sliced and grilled plain.

The results of this experiment were a bit mixed. The zucchini spears cooked up to their usual tenderness, and the eggplant came out firm and nicely browned, but the tomatoes—two of our big Pineapples—sort of fell apart. Bittman says five minutes on the grill should get the tomato slices "soft but not mushy," but these tomatoes were fairly soft and juicy to start with, so they ended up without much structural integrity. Brian transferred them to a bowl, and we dished them out as a sort of sauce to accompany the other veggies. We rounded out the meal with quinoa, cooked in our favorite Penzey's veggie stock to boost the flavor, and a bit of pesto out of our freezer that Brian added to the assortment on a whim.

I tried various combinations of these ingredients and found that the zucchini, eggplant, and quinoa all went together very nicely. Adding some soft tomato to the mix was okay too, but didn't really do anything to enhance it. As for the pesto, I didn't think it worked that well with the other veggies, but Brian quite liked it with the quinoa. Since we didn't finish it all, he decided to re-freeze the rest of it and plan to make quinoa alla pesto at some later point, so perhaps I'll cover that in a future Recipe of the Month post.

While this "recipe" wasn't a complete success, the parts of it that worked—the zucchini, eggplant, and quinoa—made a very good dish by themselves, and I would recommend the combination to anyone who feels like throwing some veggies on the grill. We'll probably be making some version of this dish again, but I think we'll skip the tomatoes. There are plenty of other good things to do with fresh tomatoes and plenty of other good things to cook on the grill, so there's really no need to put the two things together.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The perils of refilling printer cartridges

In the past, I've indulged in a little bragging about how much money we saved by refilling the ink cartridges on our printer, rather than buying new ones. A great big bottle of black ink, I pointed out, cost less than a single black ink cartridge, and we were able to get so many refills out of it that it actually outlasted the printer. And it kept all those plastic cartridges out of the landfill, as well, making it an ecofrugal no-brainer.

Well, pride apparently goeth before a fall. Because as it turns out, this thrifty habit that we plumed ourselves on has actually backfired on us with our new printer—possibly costing us more money in the long run than we would have spent just buying new cartridges in the first place.

The problems first started last spring, when the printer suddenly started rejecting our refilled cartridges. We were puzzled, since we'd had it for over two years and had no problems refilling it until then, so we did some research and determined that apparently, this printer has an age limit on the cartridges it will accept. Since the original equipment cartridge was over two years old, the printer considered it unusable. So we decided to invest $14 in this chip resetter, which can basically trick the printer into thinking it has a brand-new cartridge. We tried this on the black ink cartridge and it worked, so we figured that was $14 well spent; it was still less than the cost of one new cartridge, and it should allow us to go on refilling our cartridges ad infinitum.

Thus, when the colored ink showed signs of running dry last month, we didn't hesitate to refill that too. This printer, as I mentioned back when we bought it, has three separate reservoirs for colored ink, so you can refill them individually as needed—but in this case, all three were low, so Brian did them all at once. The cyan and magenta inks posed no problem, but when he tried to refill the yellow ink, he saw through the little window in the ink reservoir that the refill ink he was using (from a set we'd bought years ago, back when we had the old HP printer) was reacting with the dregs of the Brother ink that was left in the cartridge, leaving behind a flaky precipitate. So he hastily emptied out the whole cartridge and rinsed it to remove all the precipitate before topping it back up again with the refill ink.

Well, okay, we figured, that was a bit of a nuisance, but at least we'd cleaned all the old ink out of the cartridge, so from here on out, we should have no further problems with the refills. Alas, what we completely forgot about was the ink already in the lines. This week, when I printed out a document in color for the first time since the refill, we found that we weren't getting any yellow ink. Brian tried running the cleaning cycle several times to no avail, so I did a quick search and found this video on cleaning the nozzles—and it was at that point that Brian realized all that precipitate he'd so carefully cleaned out of the cartridge itself had probably formed in the lines as well as soon as we started putting the yellow refill ink through them. In hindsight, he realized, he probably would have been better off just pulling out the yellow tank the minute he discovered the problem and buying a yellow refill from Brother.

But of course, it was too late to undo what we'd already done, so the best we could do was try to get those lines cleaned out. So we spent another $9 on this cleaning kit, complete with cleaning solution, a rubber tube to feed it into the nozzle, and a syringe to inject it. And today, Brian hauled the printer down to his workshop and got to work with the kit, trying to clear the lines. Since we'd been having a little trouble with the black ink as well, he tried it on that first, and it worked just as shown in the video, running right through the lines and pulling out the dried residue. However, on the clogged yellow line, it didn't go so smoothly. He had to apply more pressure to force the fluid into the lines, and when he tried to draw it back out, he wasn't able to clear them fully. So as of now, only the black ink is working. He plans to work on the yellow some more in the next few days, but he doesn't know whether he'll succeed in clearing it or not. If he can't, our only options will be to replace the printer or ditch the colored cartridges and use it only in black and white.

The moral of this story? If you plan to refill your printer cartridges, make sure you're using an ink that's compatible with your particular printer. If we'd sprung for a $26 Brother-specific refill kit at the time we bought the chip resetter, that would still have been cheaper than a new set of color cartridges, and a lot cheaper than having to replace the whole $100 printer.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

An ecofrugal homemade cocoa mix

Since I work from home, it's easy for me to fix myself an afternoon snack every day (usually a bowl of popcorn). For Brian, however, noshing on the job poses more of a problem. Most days he's fine between lunch and dinner, but occasionally his blood sugar takes a dive and he needs a little something to get him through the afternoon. Unfortunately, he's found that he can't keep candy or any other kind of goodies in his desk drawer, because he can't resist munching on them, and then they're not there when he really needs them. So for a while, he had to rely on vending-machine snacks at around 60 cents a pop.

But a couple of years ago, we hit on a solution. I'd been given a gift of some fancy hot chocolate mix for Christmas, and while I liked it, I found I wasn't going through it very fast. It wasn't that much better than my regular homemade cocoa, and it wasn't any easier to make, so I kept saving it for a special occasion that never came. So I offered the mix to Brian to take to work as an emergency blood-sugar booster. This turned out to be just the ticket: it was easy enough to brew up a cup if he needed one, but that extra bit of work was enough to keep him from dipping into it at other times.

So, for the past couple of years, whenever he ran out his supply of cocoa mix, I'd pick up another container for him. We tried the chocolate-mint hot cocoa from Trader Joe's (okay, but not his favorite) and, more recently, the organic hot cocoa mix from Equal Exchange, which was sold at our local Ten Thousand Villages store. It was a bit pricey, but since he didn't go through it very fast, it seemed like a reasonable splurge.

Recently, however, our Ten Thousand Villages store closed down (waaah), leaving us looking around for a new brand to try. Unfortunately, the offerings at the local supermarket were pretty limited. Basically, we could choose either a fancy hot chocolate mix that came only in individual packets, which we deemed both too pricey and too wasteful, or Swiss Miss in a canister, which would probably serve the purpose, but didn't seem like much of a treat.

At this point, Brian decided to take matters into his own hands and try mixing up a hot cocoa mix from scratch. He checked out a variety of cocoa mix recipes on the Web, and they all seemed to have the same basic ingredients—dry milk, sugar, cocoa powder, and sometimes corn starch as a stabilizer. But most of them were missing one key ingredient: vanilla. The only ones he could find that included it called for "vanilla powder," which is an ingredient we've never seen in stores and weren't about to send away for just for this purpose.

Fortunately, my husband is a trained chemist. He was able to come up with a protocol (that's what scientists call a recipe, apparently) for turning our homemade vanilla extract into a form that could be used in a dry mix. He's still tinkering with the proportions, but here's his current protocol:
2 tsp vanilla extract
3/4 c sugar
3/4 c powdered milk
3/8 c cocoa powder
1 Tbsp corn starch
Put the sugar in a bowl and sprinkle the vanilla onto it. Allow to dry for about 2 hours. Place the vanilla sugar and the rest of the ingredients in a food processor (NOTE: Brian used our Freecycled Magic Bullet) and grind to a fine powder.
You can then store this and use it just like a commercial hot cocoa mix, tweaking the proportions to suit your taste. Brian prefers to make it into what he calls "the cocoa equivalent of espresso," adding two heaping teaspoons to around half a mugful of hot water, but the same amount for a full mug would probably give you a standard-strength mixture.

I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations and found that the ingredients for a batch of this come to about $2.25, using organic cocoa (purchased in bulk from Dean's Beans), organic sugar (from Costco), and our homemade vanilla extract. That works out to about 10 cents per serving. By contrast, the Starbucks hot cocoa mix from Costco would cost around 32 cents per serving, and the snacks from the office vending machine around 60 cents. Combine this bargain price with the organic ingredients and the reusable packaging, and you've got an ecofrugal afternoon snack that any cubicle dweller—well, at least one who isn't a vegan or lactose-intolerant—can love.

Money Crashers: Repair Cafés & Fix-It Groups

As regular readers of this blog will know, whenever anything breaks around our house, our first instinct is always to look for a way to fix it. Over the years, we've repaired a book that lost its cover, patched ripped jeans, created a new stand for a broken desk fan, restrung our old Roman shades, and done numerous repairs to Brian's bike. In most cases, this is an ecofrugal no-brainer, since a DIY repair is both much cheaper than buying a replacement and much greener than throwing an old item into the landfill and buying a whole new one when only one part is broken.

However, sometimes we find we can't fix things on our own, and that's when the repair or replace dilemma rears its ugly head. Is it worth paying someone to fix it, or would it be a better value in the long run to just replace it?

For some people, it turns out, there's a third option. In my latest Money Crashers post, I discuss the new and growing trend of Repair Cafes: regular gatherings where neighbors come together to pool their fix-it skills. So, for instance, this month you could bring in your bicycle and get help from a local fixer to repair the brakes, and next month you could show up to help another neighbor clean the clogged print heads on their printer. Just like Freecycle, these exchanges don't have to be tit-for-tat; everyone helps out where they can or gets help as needed, and no one keeps score. And also like Freeycle, everything is free of charge (though most Repair Cafes will accept small donations to help keep them running).

In the article, I explain how Repair Cafes work, what kinds of things you can get fixed there, how to find one in your area, and how to start one of your own if you can't find one. Read it all here: How Repair Cafés & Fix-It Groups Can Save You Money and Avoid Waste

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Gardeners' Holidays 2017: Harvest Home

According to the calendar—and this cute Google Doodle—yesterday marked the start of fall. But just like last year, the weather remains stubbornly summery. According to the weather report, we can expect highs in the 80s and 90s at least through Wednesday; tomorrow, the heat index is expected to peak close to 100. Celebrating the autumn harvest in shorts and sandals, with a ceiling fan turning overhead, feels a bit inappopriate.

But our garden, at least, is not waiting for cooler weather to start delivering up its fall bounty. Here you see what we've gathered just in the past few days:
  • Five big Pineapple tomatoes. This is a new variety we tried this year, and I'd say it's a keeper. It takes a little while to start producing, but once the tomatoes show up, they just keep coming—hefty, orange-red globes with a firm texture and a pleasant, distinctly fruity flavor. We've tried them in salsa and various pasta dishes, and they seem to work well with everything.
  • One Black Prince and two Mr. Fumarole tomatoes. These varieties have been far less impressive. The Mr. Fumarole is a paste variety we tried this year to replace the disappointing Amish Paste variety, but it hasn't really been any more productive. Last year, in total, we harvested about a dozen good-sized Amish Pastes; this year to date, we've gathered only six smallish Mr. Fumaroles. The Black Princes have done a little better, yielding about ten fruits so far, with a smoky and complex flavor—but since the Pineapples also taste great and are both larger and more prolific, I'd just as soon plant more of those. (By the way, if it looks like these tomatoes aren't ripe yet, you're sort of right; in the past year or two, we've taken to picking our tomatoes at "first blush"—the very first hint of reddening on the end of the tomato—rather than letting them ripen fully on the vine. They ripen just fine indoors, and we don't lose nearly as many to splitting after a heavy rain.)
  • About a cup and a half of our old standby, the Sun Gold cherry tomatoes, which have given us several pounds to date and show no sign of stopping. So far, this is the only early tomato we've been able to grow with any success; other cold-tolerant varieties we've tried, such as Glacier and Moskvich, have given us next to nothing. The small size of the Sun Golds makes them a little hard to work with, but their sweet, mild flavor and incredible productivity mean they'll always have a place in our garden.
  • Two Waltham butternut squash, picked today off a vine that appears to be already dead, or at least dying. All the squash vines are gradually starting to wither, so at some point we'll just have to pick all the squash and store them for the winter, but for now we just grabbed the two that seemed most time-sensitive.
One additional crop that you can't see in the photo is our raspberries, which have been producing at such a rate that we have to go out and gather them nearly every day—braving clouds of mosquitoes, which for some reason tend to congregate in our side yard—just to keep up. Even picking them every other day, we tend to find that a fair number of them have gone from "not ripe enough to pick" to "too squishy to eat." It doesn't help that, even with the new raspberry trellis, the canes are thick and tangled enough that harvesting the berries is really a two-person job, requiring one person to extract each cane and hold it up while the other person gathers the berries thus exposed. Since Brian and I can't do it together every day, I often end up going out by myself, and a lot of berries inevitably get missed—only to be rediscovered later when they're half-fermented and sloughing off the vine. But even with all the ones that we have to discard, we're bringing in a good cup or so of berries every day, and there are still plenty of unripe ones out there on the canes. At this rate, we'll most likely go on harvesting them right up until the first hard frost.

So even if the weather remains unseasonably hot, we have plenty of fall produce to celebrate. We have a butternut squash lasagna in the oven right now, and perhaps we'll indulge in an apple-raspberry crisp for dessert to welcome in the autumn properly—even if a little prematurely.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Money Crashers: Top 13 Tuition-Free Colleges

As the old joke goes, the best way to succeed in life is to choose your parents wisely. Brian and I are a case in point. We were both lucky enough to have parents who could afford to put us through college, so we didn't emerge into the real world carrying a huge load of student debt like so many of our generation. And since we don't have kids of our own, the ever-higher cost of college tuition isn't a problem we've had to worry about since then.

However, I know that many others aren't as fortunate. There are plenty of folks in my age group who are now facing the daunting prospect of dealing with sky-high college costs for the second time with their kids—sometimes while they're still working on paying off their own student loans. So for them, I've written a Money Crashers article that explores an unusual and intriguing solution to the problem of college costs: tuition-free colleges.

Schools like this are rare, and they're not easy to get into. Some of them take only top-level students; others are limited to low-income students from specific areas of the country. Some of them focus specifically on training students for a particular career, such as music, the ministry, or naval architecture. And most of them require students to work in exchange for their free tuition, either while they're at school or by committing to some form of service (for instance, in the military) after they graduate.

However, if you or your offspring are lucky enough to meet the strict requirements for one of these schools, you have a chance of hitting the jackpot: a college education at no cost. (Okay, most of these schools aren't 100 percent free; while there's no tuition cost, they do charge a fee for room and board. But in many cases, you can pay for that with a scholarship or some form of work-study, as well.)

In this article, I describe 13 colleges across the U.S. where you can—with a bit of luck—earn your degree for free. For each one, I outline the requirements to get in, areas of study, and features of campus life. I also discuss the free tuition movement in a growing number of states, which aims to offer at least two years at a community college at no charge to in-state students.

Read about it here: Top 13 Tuition-Free Colleges: How to Get a Degree for Free

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Yard-Sale Index

It's the weekend of the annual town-wide yard sale in Highland Park, and Brian and I spent most of yesterday out hunting for interesting finds. Here's a quick summary of the results in list form, à la Harper's Index.
Hours spent shopping: 6

Number of sales visited: Over 50

Miles walked: About 6

Total amount spent: $18.50

Number of items acquired: 13

Number of those that will be holiday gifts: 3 or 4

Biggest-ticket item: A tie between a $5 Roku box and a $5 set of classic Alec Guinness films on DVD. (The set, which includes "The Lavender Hill Mob," "The Captain's Paradise," "The Man in the White Suit," "The Ladykillers," and "Kind Hears and Coronets," costs $35 new at Best Buy.)

Cheapest item: A tie among three items we acquired for the low, low price of completely free, including two road maps (which we actually do use regularly, since we're late adopters who have yet to take the plunge on a smartphone), four pens (even though I now have a couple of refillable roller-ball pens for everyday use, it's handy to have extras for such uses as logging gas mileage in the car and jotting notes during role-playing games), and a spare computer keyboard

Most useful purchase: A new neck (the part that attaches the handlebars to the frame) for Brian's bike, which currently has a stripped-out neck that makes it impossible to adjust the handlebars, for $1

Most disappointing purchase: The Roku. We bought this as an experiment because our old Media Spud, which has served us faithfully for over seven years, has started having trouble keeping up with the demands of streaming our favorite show, Critical Role, via Twitch—even at the lowest resolution. We'd been considering a Roku to replace it, so when we spotted this one, we figured it was worth risking $5 to see whether it could work for us. Unfortunately, the player turned out upon testing to be so old that it's not capable of streaming either Twitch or YouTube—the two sites that we rely on for most of our shows. However, Brian says he learned a fair amount about how the system works from tinkering with it, such as the fact that the bottom-of-the-line Roku Express should be able to meet our needs for only $25.

Item we were most disappointed not to find: A telephone to replace the one in our kitchen, which wasn't really designed to hang on the wall and has a tendency to drop its receiver off the cradle if it's not put back carefully—once breaking the cats' food dish in the process

Most unexpected acquisition: A flier from a Green Party candidate for Assembly, Sean Stratton, who was using the sales as an opportunity to canvas voters.

Most interesting item we saw for sale: a 1953 MG TD, fair to good condition, black, for $15,000. (We initially saw it parked on the seller's lawn with all the rest of the items for sale, but I caught a picture of it later after it had been moved to a parking spot on a nearby street—possibly by the buyer.)

Our level of satisfaction with the results: Too soon to say, as we still have the opportunity to glean more goodies from the piles of unsold merchandise that sure to be left out with tomorrow's trash.