Friday, July 25, 2014

Frugalversary

Today, Brian and I are celebrating our tenth anniversary. According to this list on Wikipedia, the traditional gift for the tenth anniversary is tin, a material that isn't used that much these days; many things that would once have been made of tin are now made of plastic, which isn't traditional for anything. Still, I thought it would be nice to come up with an anniversary present for Brian that featured some sort of twist on the tin theme.

After toying with the idea of tin for a while (tin soldiers? tintinnabulation? a tin of sardines?) it occurred to me that, as we're both fans of board games, perhaps I could find some game that had "tin" in the title. I already knew there was a game called Brass, so this didn't seem like too much of a stretch. So I did a search for "tin" on BoardGameGeek.com, and at the top of the list was Dungeon in a Tin, described as "a solo or cooperative dungeon-hack." The gimmick is that all the pieces for the game—dungeon tiles, monster dice, treasure, tokens, and so on—can fit into an Altoids tin. Moreover, since the game was designed for a "One Full-Sheet Label" competition, all the printable parts of the game fit onto a single sheet of label paper. How elegant!

The print-and-play version of the game wasn't available on the Board Game Geek site, but a quick Google search led me to the correct page on the game designer's site. He had copies of the rules and the label printouts in both color and black-and-white, sized for both A4 (British) and 8.5-by-11 paper. The only other pieces required to make the game were a single sheet of cardboard (which I could easily get by salvaging a cereal box from the recycling bin), eight dice, assorted tokens, and a tin to keep it in. A quick calculation showed that I could probably put the whole thing together for under $5. True, the game only earned a middling rating from the Board Game Geeks who tried it—about 6.5 stars out of 10—but at that price, what did I have to lose? I knew Brian would be tickled with the idea of it, whether the game itself turned out to be loads of fun or not.

Assembling the game proved to be a little bit trickier than I expected. The rule sheet suggested using 19-mm indented blank dice, which aren't something you can just walk into a store and buy. They had some on Amazon.com, but the shipping would have cost more than the dice themselves. So in the end, I just bought a 10-pack of standard 6-sided dice at the game store. By printing the label sheet out slightly reduced, I ended up with square stickers that would just fit onto the sides of these slightly smaller dice. The actual printing was another unexpected snag; although I had some full-sheet labels handy, our colored ink cartridge chose this time to be uncooperative. First it was completely out of blue ink; then, after Brian refilled the blue, the yellow and magenta wouldn't come out properly. We eventually ended up giving in and buying a whole new colored ink cartridge (though we still saved a bit of money by choosing the Office Depot brand for $17, rather than the official HP cartridge for $21). And then, once the colored ink was working, the black ink ran out and needed to be refilled as well for everything to print properly. So I kept having to ask Brian to refill or otherwise fiddle with the ink cartridges without giving away what I was trying to print, sidestepping his offers to just forward it to him so he could print it out at work. But in the end, I was able to produce a readable sheet of labels and attach them to the cardboard or to the dice, as appropriate.

As for the other components, I used bread tabs (which we had a good-sized collection of) for the experience point and level tokens, soda can tabs (which I thought vaguely resembled padlocks) for the "locked door" tokens, and a small bead I had from who knows where for the "Heart token" that keeps track of your hit points. And I found a suitable tin to hold everything for only 15 cents at a yard sale, thus saving myself the trouble of buying and consuming a whole tin of mints in one month. And presto: a whimsical and appropriate anniversary gift for a total cost of $1.22 (not counting the cost of the new ink cartridge, which we would have had to buy sooner or later anyway).

Brian's gift to me was equally ecofrugal. He, too, played around with the idea of tin and hit on the idea of making me a flower out of sheet tin as a romantic gesture. He originally planned to use some little tin sheets like this that he found at Lowe's, but they turned out to be too hard to work with, and he ended up cutting himself pretty badly on the sharp edge. (Alas, a sacrifice for love!) So he switched to the medium of tin foil (which is actually made of aluminum, but Wikipedia says that's traditional too, at least in America), which he was able to fold, twist, and curl into a very reasonable flower-like shape without risk of bloodshed. Isn't it purty? As for the cost, you can calculate it as either (1) nothing, since we already had the aluminum foil on hand; (2) a few cents, since a 75-square-foot roll of aluminum foil costs about two bucks, and he didn't use more than a foot or two; or (3) $2.73 for the one sheet of tin he used (and therefore can't return) before he figured out that this material wasn't going to work. But no matter how you calculate it, we spent less than $4 total on two gifts that were charming, whimsical, and exactly right for each other.

Of course, we then went out and spent nearly $150 at IKEA on our anniversary celebration binge. But that's okay; even though it's far more money than we'd normally spend in one place at one time, you can make a case that every single item we bought there was an ecofrugal choice as well. But that's a subject for another post.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Bag Problem

One of the staples of an ecofrugal lifestyle is the reusable shopping bag. A single reusable bag, costing as little as 99 cents, can replace literally hundreds of disposable plastic bags, and at many stores, you even save a few cents each time you use it. The only problem with them is that you often have to be quick about using them; sometimes, the checkers will have your purchases scanned and bagged before you can get out the words, "I have my own bag." I find I'm running into this problem less often as reusable bags become more common, but I still get caught out once in a while and end up having to tuck a disposable bag of new items into my reusable bag, which makes me feel like an idiot.

The one place I've never run across this problem before is Aldi. Unlike most stores, Aldi actually charges a direct fee for each disposable bag you use, so reusable bags there are the standard. I've seen people shopping with all kinds of containers, from the standard fabric grocery bag to a cardboard shipping box, and the checkers aren't fazed by them. Since we usually buy a lot of bulky items at Aldi, we generally shop with a collapsible plastic crate that we got from my sister-in-law. Instead of taking a cart, we just go through the aisles filling up the crate with items that we then unload onto the checkout conveyer. When we get to the front of the line, Brian props the crate against the end of the checkout counter, and the checker scans our purchases and dumps them directly into the crate. Sometimes Brian has to rearrange them a little as they come down the line to make everything fit nicely, but by the time the checker gives the total, everything is already "bagged" and ready to go. No fuss, no muss.

Or at least, that's how it's always worked until now.

Last Saturday, we went to Aldi and bought a fairly large amount of stuff (though not too much to fit in our crate). However, when Brian propped up the crate as usual and prepared to receive the groceries, the checker said, "I'll put these at the other end, it'll be faster." We then stared dumbfounded as she proceeded to scan each item and dump it, not into the crate we had ready, but at the back of the pile, just behind the divider that separated our stuff from that of the person behind us. Brian tried to explain, "No, really, I have a crate right here, you can just put them right in," but she kept insisting that it was "faster" to put all our items at the end of the line, where we would have to bag them all after she was finished scanning them, rather than straight into our container. She seemed oblivious to the fact that she was not only adding an extra, unnecessary step to the process, but also creating a risk that some of our items would end up being scanned twice—or that they would end up mixed in with the groceries of the person behind us and would never make it into our crate at all.

Brian and I did our best to adapt to this awkward situation on the fly. Since he was at the end of the line and I was next to the conveyer, I started grabbing the items as the checker threw them at me and tossing them back to Brian so that he could put them into the crate. Then he said, "Here, let's just switch places," and I squeezed past him to the end of the line while he took the crate to the back and started hastily loading in the items that were piling up there. It was a lot slower than usual, but he managed to get everything loaded in by the time I'd finished paying for everything. As we took the receipt and our change, he noted to the checker, "By the way, that really wasn't faster than what we usually do," and she said, "No, trust me, I've been working here five years and this is the best way to do it. See, you can tell it was faster because I was done scanning everything before you were finished bagging." Well, of course she was done scanning before she was done bagging; that's because she turned bagging into an extra step! If she'd just done what every other checker we've ever had at Aldi has done, the scanning and bagging would all have been done at once, and we wouldn't have wasted extra time transferring the groceries to the end of the line and back again!

What really bugs me is that not did she insist on doing things in this idiotic, inefficient way, but she actually insisted that it was store policy. She said something like, "There's actually supposed to be a cart here, so you can just take your groceries over there and bag them and not hold up the line. So you see, it doesn't save any time." Now, I can see how a policy like this sort of makes sense; if you have people who need to sort their cartful of groceries into individual bags, then it makes more sense to scan all their purchases and dump them back into the cart, then have the customers get out of the way while they bag them. But what she couldn't realize was that, in our case, the crate actually was serving as our cart and our bag at the same time. I guess her training didn't cover that situation, so she concluded that the crate was a "bag" and therefore the proper place to fill it was at the bagging station, separate from the checkout, and it would be inefficient to fill it at the checkout. And once she had that idea in her head, nothing—not even the evidence of her own eyes—could convince her that it wasn't so. Look, store policy says that groceries get bagged at the bagging station, not at the checkout! So you have to do it that way, whether you're actually using bags or not!

At this point, I'm just hoping that this checker we encountered was simply a single, isolated idiot, and all we have to do in future is avoid her checkout. What worries me is that maybe Aldi really is training its checkers to follow this dumb, inefficient practice, and we might start encountering it every time we shop there. If that happens, we'll be forced to start taking a cart into the store so the checkers will have their expected receptacle to put the groceries into—and then taking extra time afterward to transfer everything from the cart to the crate in the name of "saving time" at the checkout.

Monday, July 21, 2014

A fortuitous find

Remember my post last year about how I thought I must have some kind of thrift-store mojo that allows me to find items secondhand after I've tried shopping for them online? Well, apparently it also works for yard sales.

As I noted last April, Brian and I have decided to redo our small back bedroom as a guest room. Since the room is so tiny, our plan was to get a daybed that could be tucked in the corner and serve as a couch most of the time. We had our eye on this one from IKEA, which can be either a single or a double bed and even has drawers underneath for storage. The snag is that it's $300 for just the frame, plus another $180 to $300 for the mattresses, which seemed like a bit much to spend on a piece that's only going to be used on those rare occasions when we have multiple guests in the house. Still, we figured it was worth at least taking a look, since we're planning to celebrate our tenth anniversary this Friday with a trip to IKEA (because yes, that really is our idea of a romantic celebration). I even added the daybed and mattresses to the shopping list I made for the trip on the IKEA website—but then I reconsidered and removed them, since we weren't sure yet about getting them.

Then, yesterday afternoon, we decided to go out for a walk. We didn't have any particular destination or plan, other than enjoying the pleasant summer weather. We wended our way through town and found ourselves up on the north side, where we spotted a sign advertising a yard sale several blocks away. It said the sale was going until 2pm, and it was already 1:45, so we weren't sure it would be worth trying, but since we had no place else in particular to go, we thought it couldn't hurt to check it out and see whether there was anything left going for cheap.

We found the sale easily enough and found that, in addition to a few books and oddments, there were a couple of large items that hadn't sold yet—including a nice  "lounger" type futon and frame, which can be set up as a love seat and expands into a double bed with the addition of a separate cushion. All the pieces were there and in reasonably good condition; the larger mattress cover was a bit worn, but it could be replaced for $50 or so. I said casually to Brian, "What do you think about that for the small bedroom?" The seller, scenting a sale, told us that the futon was from White Lotus, a local shop that sells very nice and sturdy pieces (we know, because we already have two of them). He also indicated that he was very eager to sell: "I just don't want it to go into a landfill and I don't want it to go back into my storage unit." After a careful examination and a bit of deliberation amongst ourselves, we countered his asking price of $100 with an offer of $50, and we ended up settling on $70. I ran down to the bank to withdraw the cash while Brian went home to fetch the car, and we got everything loaded up with ease. The seller even threw in the two bungee cords that were binding up the larger futon cushion.

So simply by following a yard sale sign on a whim, we managed to get a bed for our new guest room for only $70—at least $310 less than we'd have spent at IKEA. Actually, we're toying with the idea of moving this new futon down to our current guest room, which doubles as a seating area in the big downstairs room, and moving the one we have there now upstairs. Both pieces are double-width loungers, but the new one has arms, so it will probably be a little wider when set up, which means it probably makes more sense to put it in the larger room and put the narrower one upstairs. (Besides, the covers the futon currently has would coordinate well with the color scheme downstairs, which means we might be able to go on using them a bit longer rather than replacing them right away.) But either way, we're off to a great start at redoing this room on a shoestring budget.

Maybe I should go browse at HomeDepot.com for paint and hardware, add some likely-looking supplies to my online shopping cart, and then delete them. Then if I end up coming across the very same items at the next yard sale we encounter, I'll know I definitely have some kind of superpower. (Have no fear, Bargain Hunter is here!)

Friday, July 18, 2014

The expandable house

When I was growing up, we didn't have guests over very often. Occasionally we might have one or two people to dinner, but the only time we really had a houseful of guests was at Thanksgiving, when my dad's whole side of the family (his mom, his two brothers, and later, their spouses and my cousin) would come for the whole weekend. At those times, my mom would often say that she wished her house were expandable. Our modest 3-bedroom, 1.5-bath house was plenty of room for just the four of us, but it wasn't enough to hold the whole family comfortably. And nowadays, the problem is even more extreme; the house is more than big enough for the two of them since my sister and I moved out, but the Thanksgiving guest list has now grown to four couples plus two kids. Mom definitely doesn't need or want a bigger house on an everyday basis; having more rooms would just invite more stuff to fill them up. But it would sure come in handy to have a few extra rooms that could be folded up and stored most of the time, where they wouldn't have to be cleaned or heated and cooled, and then set up just for that one weekend.

What struck me about this the last time she mentioned it is that, in essence, an expandable house is exactly what Brian and I have now. We have the rooms we use every day––the living room, the office, the bedroom, the kitchen––and then we have the whole downstairs as, essentially, that extra expansion that we can set up when we have guests. Moreover, it doesn't have just one function; it has been, at various times, a guest bedroom (with its own bath), a board-game parlor, and a music room. (No wonder we had so much trouble coming up with a name for it.) And since it's not in use most of the time, at other times it doesn't need to be cleaned (beyond a quick sweeping or wipe with a rag) or heated in the winter. The very fact that it's not used every day, but only as needed, makes it actually one of the most useful rooms in the whole house.

Thinking about our extra room in these terms makes me feel better about our decision to turn our small room into an additional guest room. I settled on that use for it because I couldn't think a better one, but part of me still felt like I really ought to try to turn the room into some kind of space we would use every day, rather than a guest room that will almost never be used at all. But when I think of our house as expandable, containing the rooms we live in plus the extra rooms we use for guests, then it becomes obvious that by making this room a guest room, we're simply adding it to the expandable part of the house rather than the everyday part. And since we already have all the space we need for our everyday activities, adding this extra room to the expandable section is clearly the best use for it.

Moreover, even after it becomes part of the expansion, this room can still do double duty for all the everyday functions it has now: starting seedlings in the spring, storing cookbooks and pet supplies, sorting our recycling, and wrapping gifts before the holidays. It won't just be changing from one type of room to another; it'll actually be several rooms in one. In fact, maybe we can refer to it by different names––the guest room, the conservatory, the lumber room, or even the recycling room––depending on what we're doing in it at the time.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

DIY deodorant testing

In the latest issue of The Dollar Stretcher, an author who goes by "Olivia W" shares her top three tips for reducing her food bill. One of them is to make as many as possible of her personal hygiene products, such as shampoo and toothpaste. She says her "biggest, simplest change" in this area was switching to plain baking soda, applied with a powder puff, as a deodorant. She considers this a "much healthier alternative to the chemicals found in commercial deodorants," as well as a money saver, and says it "works like a charm."

I found this interesting, because as it happens, I'd tried baking soda as a deodorant myself about six years ago. My primary goal at the time was not to save money, though I hoped that might be a bonus; it was to find a cruelty-free deodorant that actually worked. As I posted to the Dollar Stretcher forum at the time, "Most of the big brands use animal testing, and the few that don't (like Tom's of Maine) tend to be both expensive and not very effective. So I was wondering whether making my own deodorant at home would be a practical possibility."

Knowing that both baking soda and vinegar could be used to deodorize spaces in the home (like the fridge or the garbage pail), I wondered whether they would also work on my armpits. So I did a bit of searching online and found several suggestions for ways to use one or the other:
  • plain baking soda, applied with a damp washcloth
  • a mixture of baking soda and alcohol in a spray bottle
  • a solution of vinegar or lavender oil in a spray bottle
  • a mixture of baking soda, corn starch, olive oil, and a nice-smelling essential oil, rubbed into the skin with the fingers
In addition to these, my cohorts on the Dollar Stretcher forum came up with several suggestions:
  • cornstarch scented with essential oil, which one user found effective on her very light perspiration
  • oil of oregano, diluted with olive oil
  • strong sage tea
  • tea tree extract
  • antibacterial cream, which one user said "works very well, but it's neither frugal nor natural"
  • frequent washing
  • milk of magnesia (one user said she "had some generic...and decided to try it," and she found it "works wonderful")
  • change of diet (various users suggested giving up onions, broccoli, beef, fish, and dairy)
  • a mix of alcohol and water, with a few drops of vegetable glycerine and a drop of fragrance oil
  • hydrogen peroxide
I started working my way through these suggestions, beginning with the simplest and cheapest. Baking soda, applied with a damp washcloth, didn't work noticeably. Apple cider vinegar, applied with a cotton ball, worked better than the baking soda (and better than the $3 deodorant from Trader Joe's that I'd been using as a stopgap measure), but it couldn't eliminate all odor. I then moved on to full-strength alcohol, applied with a cotton ball; 3% hydrogen peroxide, applied the same way; and alcohol mixed with baking soda in a spray bottle. None of these had any appreciable effect. 

At this point, I'd tried all the ingredients I had ready to hand. Changing my diet seemed like a pretty complicated and uncertain way to deal with the problem, especially if it involved giving up my morning cup of cocoa. I eliminated oil of oregano from the list because a website I consulted warned against it, saying it was too irritating to the skin, even when diluted. That left two untested ingredients that were both available at my local drugstore: tea tree oil, which was $10 for one ounce, and milk of magnesia, which was $4 for a 12-ounce bottle. Not knowing whether either of these would be effective, I decided to go with the smaller investment. It seemed completely bizarre, but it was only about the same price as one tube of deodorant, and if it didn't work, we could still try it out for stomachaches.

Well, to my great surprise, it did work. A little dab of milk of magnesia, applied to the underarms with a cotton ball, actually kept odor at bay as well as most commercial deodorants. Unfortunately, it also had a side effect. When taken orally, milk of magnesia is a laxative as well as an antibiotic--and I was disconcerted to discover that it seemed to have the same effect when applied topically. I can't explain how this was possible, because I wouldn't expect the stuff to be absorbed through the skin, but after a few days, it became quite clear that the effect was real and not coincidental. So I hastily stopped using it and switched back to my stick deodorant.

At that point, I decided to call a halt to the experiment. Everything I'd already tried had been unsatisfactory in one way or another, and I'd also managed to find a brand of commercial deodorant (Almay) that, while not labeled as cruelty-free, was at least not listed as a brand to avoid on the Caring Consumer site. (Note: Almay has now been taken over by Revlon, which, alas, does engage in animal testing.)

However, this story turned out to have a postscript. A couple of years ago, a friend offered me a bottle of alcohol-based hand sanitizer that she couldn't use because the fragrance bothered her. I'm not a regular user of hand sanitizer (I prefer plain old soap and water when available), but I accepted it thinking it might come in handy for something. And spotting it one day on my dresser, I decided on a whim to try dabbing some under my arms to see how it did as a deodorant. Since the active ingredient in this stuff is alcohol, which hadn't worked for me, I wasn't expecting it to work--but to my surprise, it did. Maybe having it in the form of a gel made it stay put better on my skin, or maybe it was the form of the alcohol that was different, but for whatever reason, it actually kept the odor at bay. So, given that it was both much cheaper than stick deodorant and much lighter on packaging, I decided to keep using it.

I've since found that, as a deodorant, alcohol sanitizer has its limits. For one, it's a deodorant only, not an antiperspirant--which isn't really a drawback for me, but it might be for some people. Also, it's not as strong as the Almay deodorant. It will keep me odor-free during light activity in moderate temperatures, but not during a vigorous workout or on a very hot day. So now I use sanitizer all through the winter, spring, and fall, and switch to commercial deodorant on the hottest days of summer and on days when I have dance practice. Eked out by hand sanitizer, which you can get at most stores for around $1 a bottle, a single tube of deodorant now lasts me six months or longer. And there's that much less non-recyclable packaging waste ending up in our trash bin. I've taken to carrying a small bottle of the sanitizer around in my purse, where I can grab it to kill odor quickly in a pinch--or even, if the need arises, to clean my hands.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A peek at Pirc

This week's Dollar Stretcher features a review of a website called Pirc.com that's billed as "a one-stop solution for all things savings and circulars." Based on the description, it sounded much like CouponMom, a site I use often to help me match up coupons with sales at my local stores. However, this site promised a few features CouponMom doesn't have. The biggest problem with CouponMom is that when you pull up a list of sales—whether at one particular store or "extreme deals" across all stores—it includes all the sales listed in the store fliers, most of which are usually on items that you don't need. You can search for specific items, but it adds an extra step. Pirc, by contrast, lets you select specific product types or brands that are of interest to you and display deals on those items only. It will even save your preferences and send you a customized "Pircular" each week in your inbox, showing deals on your chosen products across all your local stores. And, like CouponMom, it will show which coupons (both printed and electronic) stack up with a given sale.

Based on the description, it seemed like Pirc might have enough advantages over CouponMom to make it worth a try—especially in light of CouponMom's occasionally unreliable performance. So I checked out the site and found, first of all, that you aren't allowed to view the deals on the site unless you create an account. Since I never sign up for anything without reading the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy first (you know, to make sure they don't have a legal right to my firstborn or anything), I read through those and discovered a second drawback: e-mails from the site and its "marketing partners" are opt-out rather than opt-in. That means that when you sign up for the site, you also sign up for a barrage of e-mails about "products, services, and offers, both from ourselves and from third parties, that we believe you may find of interest." In theory, you can opt out of receiving these e-mails, but the site warns that it may take up to 10 days for your request to be processed, during which time you'll continue to be bombarded with spam. And of course, that's assuming the site actually (a) honors your request and (b) works as it should.

Rather than risk having my e-mail account spam-bombed, I decided to sign up for the service using an old AOL address I used when I lived with my parents. (I've kept it active precisely for situations like this, to let me use sites that require an e-mail address without compromising the ones I actually use.) After logging into my old AOL account (which had over 1,800 messages in the inbox, all from commercial sites) to verify my registration, I was finally able to view my "Pircular," and that was when I discovered the third and biggest drawback of this site: it only searches the circulars of five stores. It checks the three major drugstore chains in my area (CVS, Rite Aid, and Walgreens), as well as two big boxes that have their own pharmacy departments (Wal-Mart and Target). For the categories I'd chosen—groceries, excluding meat and soft drinks, and cat supplies—it found only 40 sale items in total, and not one that looked like a real bargain.

Given that all the stores covered by Pirc are covered by CouponMom as well, I see no particular advantage in adding it to my shopping routine. I'll be sticking with CouponMom; it may suffer from occasional glitches, but at least it's thorough. And so far as I can tell, it hasn't been spamming me, even on my AOL account.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Recipes of the month: two cucumber salads

Cucumber season is in full swing. We picked our first two cucumbers last week and enjoyed them in a couscous salad that I considered using as my Recipe of the Month for July, but since it was only a minor modification of a recipe we'd made before, I decided to wait for something that was truly new. So last night, when Brian brought in two big fat cucumbers fresh off the vine and asked what I'd like to do with them, I suggested serving them up in some sort of salad.

A search on "cucumber salad" turned up a wide assortment of choices at AllRecipes.com, but most of them called for other ingredients we didn't have on hand, like tomatoes (which aren't quite in season yet in our garden) or avocados (which we don't usually buy unless we need one for something specific). So we settled on a very basic one called "Mom's Cucumbers": thinly sliced cukes, salted until they wilt, tossed with onion and a simple dressing of water, sugar, vinegar, and celery seed. (Unfortunately, I forgot to take a picture of this one before we ate it all up.)

The result was pretty good; Brian thought it tasted a bit like a sweet pickle. But somewhere in the back of my head, I had this idea that at some point we'd made a cucumber salad that was even better—something with sesame oil. Where was that recipe? I had the notion that maybe it was in Vegetariana, so I checked there first. No dice. Then I went through the rest of our vegetarian cookbooks, from Mark Bittman to Molly Katzen. Nothing. So finally I concluded I'd just have to make it up myself.

We still had half a cucumber in the fridge, so I started by halving it and slicing it as thin as I could manage. I thought maybe cucumber by itself would be a little dull, so I sliced up part of a green pepper we had in the fridge into little matchsticks and tossed that in with the cukes. Then I started tossing together a dressing. The first cucumber salad we'd made used 1/4 cup of vinegar for 3 large cucumbers, so for the half cucumber I had left, I used just one tablespoon. Next I stirred in a teaspoon of sesame oil, which seemed like it would be enough to taste without adding too much fat. Finally, recalling that Mark Bittman's recipe for "Vastly Improved Ramen Noodles" uses a tablespoon of soy sauce to a teaspoon of sesame oil, I stirred that in as well, whisked it all together, and poured it over the cucumbers.

The result was close to what I'd had in mind, but the proportions seemed a little off. There was too much dressing for the amount of veggies, and the sesame flavor wasn't quite pronounced enough. Also, it seemed like the half-moon cucumber slices were a little too big to take the dressing well. And I thought red bell pepper would probably taste better than green, adding a hint of sweetness as well as a splash of color. So here's the way I intend to make it next time:

CUCUMBER SESAME SALAD
1 large cucumber, quartered lengthwise, then thinly sliced
1/2 red bell pepper, cut into matchsticks (cut in half crosswise, then in thin strips lengthwise)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar or rice vinegar
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon sesame seeds, toasted
Whisk together the soy sauce, vinegar, and sesame oil. Toss this dressing with the veggies, then sprinkle sesame seeds on top.

Of course, I haven't actually had a chance to try it this way yet, so it's still just a beta version. Brian thinks, for instance, that it could do with a touch of sugar or honey. But I expect that with only minor tweaking, it will become a good alternative to yet another jar of pickles for dealing with an abundant cucumber crop.