Sunday, October 4, 2015

Visiting the eLibrary

Lately, Brian and I have become fans, or at least casual admirers, of the Southern Vampire series by Charlaine Harris. (This is the series that HBO's "True Blood" is rather loosely based on. Think Twilight for grownups...with a sense of humor, which I've been given to understand is conspicuously absent from Stephanie Meyer's work.) We came across the first one on some freebie table somewhere, and then picked up the second from our local library...but at that point we got stuck, because while the library had several other volumes in the series, it didn't have the third one, and we like to read a series in order whenever possible. And while we enjoy these books, we don't really love them enough to shell out $10 per book for them.

Fortunately, we found a way around this problem. As it turns out, our local library participates in a program called eLibraryNJ, which is like interlibrary loan for e-books. It works like this:
  1. You sign up for an account, using your library card number and a PIN you can get from the library reference desk.
  2. You search the catalogue for the book you want and check it out. If someone else currently has it checked out, you can put a hold on it, and you'll be notified by e-mail when the book becomes available.
  3. You can read the book online or download a copy onto your e-reader or other device. The books are available in various formats; we've been reading them with the Kindle app on our tablet, but we've also seen books in PDF form, a format called OverDrive that you can read in your browser, and an open-source format called ePub that works with most e-readers.
  4. When you're done with the book, you can check it back in to make room for a new one. However, if you forget to do this, the book checks itself back in automatically when it expires at the end of three weeks. If you're not done with the book after three weeks, you can renew it, as long as no one else has it on hold.
This program is an elegant way to make e-books lendable without getting snarled up in copyright issues. With its help, we've been able to make our way through the first five Southern Vampire books, and we've just started on the sixth (though we had to wait a few weeks for that one). And since eLibraryNJ appears to have every book in the series in "stock," we should have no trouble making it all the way through.

And when that runs out, there are heaps of other series we can try, all just a click away. The site even offers suggestions for us based on our previous choices, just like Amazon does. Plus, it has a collection of classic works in the public domain that you can check out for as long as you like; they never expire, and they don't count toward your checkout limit. So if we ever want to read something by Wilkie Collins besides The Moonstone and The Woman in White, the only two novels available at our local library, we're in luck.

All in all, this site is a great resource for all book lovers who live in New Jersey and own any kind of electronic device. Most public libraries seem to belong to the site, and even a few non-public ones, like the Carl C. Brigham Library at Educational Testing Service. And if you don't happen to live in New Jersey, try Googling "e-library" plus the name of your state, and there's a good chance you'll find one you can use.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

REAL Soup of the Month: Mushroom-Leek Potage

Okay, remember my post last weekend about slipping in a hot vegetable dish as my sort-of Salad of the Month? And all my accompanying musings about what, exactly, makes a salad a salad?

Well, forget all that. Because tonight, as the last few hours of September ticked away, Brian prepared a new soup that is unquestionably a soup, and therefore qualifies to be my Soup of the Month. And it's not only new, it's good.

This recipe happened, as so many of our meals seem to, kind of out of nowhere. We had some mushrooms in the fridge, and since we'd done rather a lot of pasta-type dishes lately, Brian decided to make them into a soup. And since we had some leeks out in the garden that were ready to pick, he thought he'd throw those in as well. And while we were out in the garden, I happened to notice that we not only had a second crop of arugula (which we hadn't actually planted) springing up in the garden beds, but we also had some growing up through the garden paths. Rather than let it get trampled, I carefully stopped and plucked up all the tiny, tender leaves, and Brian tossed those in the soup as well. And since we had about a quarter of a cup of coconut cream left in a jar in the fridge that was on the verge of going off, he decided to throw that in as well.

And somehow, out of this makeshift mismatch, came a hearty, flavorful soup, with savory mushrooms basking in a rich brown broth. Some of the credit for the soup's flavor is no doubt due to our favorite vegetable soup base from Penzey's Spices, which kicks the taste knob on any vegetarian soup up at least a notch or two. But some of it is certainly also due to Brian's recent discovery that mushroom soup in general tastes much better if you don't sauté the mushrooms first, as many recipes suggest you do. Throw them in the pot in their natural state, and all their juices will end up in the soup itself, rather than trickling round the edges of the saucepan.

So here is the recipe in full. It's a Recipe of the Month that I can wholeheartedly endorse on every level—not just because it technically meets my criteria, but because it's actually good enough to recommend to any fan of fungus.
  1. Clean, dice, and sauté 2 small leeks in 2 Tbsp. olive oil until soft, about 10 minutes.  
  2. Add 3 cups vegetable broth (in this case, 1 1/2 tsp. Penzey's Vegetable Soup Base in 3 cups water). Bring to a boil. 
  3. Add 1 lb. sliced mushrooms, a small handful chopped arugula, 2 squashed garlic cloves, and 1/2 tsp. dried thyme. Simmer on low heat about 20 minutes.
  4. Add 1/4 cup coconut cream, 1 1/2 Tbsp. corn starch suspended in 1/2 cup water, and 1/2 tsp. salt. Heat until thickened slightly and serve (preferably with biscuits made from half white, half whole-wheat flour).
Bon appétit, and happy September!

Monday, September 28, 2015

Sort-of Salad of the Month: Sesame-Braised Cabbage with Leeks

Somehow, September kind of slipped away from me. I knew four weeks ago that I needed to come up with a new Soup or Salad of the Month recipe, but nothing that looked appealing came across my path, and before I knew it, the month was nearly over and I still hadn't found a new recipe.

So when I finally tried a new vegetable dish last weekend, I decided to go ahead and call it my Salad of the Month, even though it's not really what most people would consider a salad. It is a mixture of veggies, but it's served hot or warm, not cold. So it's definitely not a salad by my dictionary's definition, which is "a cold dish of various mixtures of raw or cooked vegetables, usually seasoned with oil, vinegar, or other dressing." But on the other hand, there are dishes that are served warm but are definitely considered salads, like the Warm Chick Pea Salad with Arugula we had back in May. So where exactly do you draw the line? There's a fairly earnest discussion of the subject on the Serious Eats forum, in which people point out that dishes composed primarily of Jell-o with fruit or veggies added are considered salads in the Midwest, and cooked ingredients like eggs and shrimp appear in so-called salads all the time.

So I think I'm just going to say that, while this dish may not fit most people's idea of a salad, it does fit in with my initial goal of eating a healthier, more veggie-centric diet, which was what prompted me to focus on soups and salads for my Recipes of the Month this year. And given the choice between including a questionable recipe and having no recipe at all for September, I think it's better to go ahead and count it. You can argue with me in the comments if you like.

So what is this sort-of salad dish? It's a very simple recipe from Mollie Katzen's Vegetable Dishes I Can't Live Without (Tante Malka, 2007), combining cabbage and leeks in a sesame dressing. You saute the sliced leeks in a bit of melted butter until they're "very tender," then add an equal volume of cabbage and a bit of water and let it cook over low heat until the cabbage is "tender" as well. (This is the step that makes it questionable to classify this dish as a salad. If the cabbage was cooked only until "tender-crisp," then I think I could call it a salad without feeling like I was cheating.) Then you dress the whole business with dark sesame oil, toasted sesame seeds, and salt and pepper to taste.

We served this up as a side dish, with some pan-broiled sausages (free-range from the Amish market, of course) and leftover polenta. Unfortunately, the flavors of these three dishes didn't really complement each other all that well, so I didn't feel like the dish was being shown to its best advantage. But even if it had been, I honestly don't think I'd have been all that crazy about it. Cabbage, to my thinking, is at its best when it's a bit crisp, not cooked into mush. If we'd cooked the cabbage to tender-crispness rather than sogginess, as I suggested above, it probably would have been more to my liking. As it is, I don't think we'll be making it again.

So as an addition to our vegetable repertoire, I don't think this sesame-braised cabbage can be considered a success. But as a way to get me through the month of September without having to scrap my New Year's Resolution, it's at least a partial success.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Money Crashers: Edible Landscaping

Over the past few years, I've been documenting our efforts to convert more of our yard from useless grass and "decorative" shrubbery that doesn't actually look that great to useful plants—particularly edible ones. From our initial consultation with a landscaper in 2012, through the planting of our first fruiting plants (three plum trees, five cherry bushes, and a dozen raspberry canes) the following spring, to our first harvest of raspberries that September, the addition of two hardy kiwi vines this spring, and our first major harvest of cherries and our first tiny harvest of plums this summer, you have shared it all.

So after all that, I figured it was time to share it with the rest of the world. My latest article for Money Crashers is all about the process of edible landscaping—and why it's worth the effort. Check out the full article here: Edible Landscaping Ideas – Fruit & Vegetable Plants for Your Yard.

I also have one other new article up on the Money Crashers site, but's not quite as relevant to the subject of ecofrugal living. The topic is lemon laws: those laws at both the federal and state level that protect buyers of new cars (and, in some states, used ones) from being stuck with a dud that's just impossible to fix. And the federal lemon law, at least, protects buyers of other "consumer products" as well, which is defined to mean pretty much anything you can buy for personal or household use. So if you're having any problems with any product you've bought recently, the article may be worth a look: What Is the Lemon Law – Implied Warranty for Defective Cars & Products.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Gardeners' Holidays 2015: Harvest Home

As you can see from today's Google Doodle, this is the official first day of fall, marking the end of a very long, hot, dry summer. Sadly, all this heat hasn't agreed very well with our garden. In previous years, we've had lots of tomatoes by the time fall rolled around, but this year, we have only a scant few handfuls. These are varieties that have produced well in the past, so I'm guessing the weather is to blame. We've watered the garden diligently all summer, but perhaps we just didn't give it enough extra water to make up for the lack of rainfall.

We do have plenty of basil, and the pepper plants we bought at the Rutgers plant sales this spring are producing better than any of the ones we've tried starting from seed (though the peppers are still green, for the most part). But there's only one crop in the garden that's truly producing an impressive yield...and it's one we didn't actually intend to plant.

A bit of background here: about five years ago, a volunteer butternut squash vine popped up next to our compost bin. It grew vigorously, sprawling out until it more or less took over the whole side yard, so you had to sort of tiptoe around it to move from front yard to back, which was a major hassle...but it also produced vigorously, giving us about a dozen good-sized, flavorful squash. However, the volunteer plants we've had in the side yard since then have been far less productive and every bit as cumbersome, so I finally declared a moratorium: no more volunteer plants. They just weren't worth the trouble.

However, when a volunteer popped up this spring next to the bin that looked just like another butternut squash plant, Brian just couldn't bring himself to pull it out. Memories of that big butternut squash vine persuaded him that this interloper could earn its keep, and I reluctantly gave in.

Unfortunately, the vine in question turned out not to be a butternut squash at all. Instead, the squash on it were Jack-be-Littles, those little gourds that look like miniature pumpkins but apparently are more closely related to acorn squash. I habitually buy a few of these each fall as decorations, leaving them up from the start of October through Thanksgiving Day. By that time, they're not looking a bit squirrel-gnawed and not really fit to eat, so they just go into the compost bin. And apparently, some of the seeds from last year's gourds survived and turned into this whopping vine, laden with tiny pumpkinettes.

Nor is this the only volunteer Jack-be-Little plant in our yard. We have one in the garden as well, which we also mistook for a butternut squash and decided not to uproot. By the time we'd realized our mistake, it had already made itself at home, nestling in alongside the adjacent pepper plant so that it was almost impossible to remove without damaging its neighbor.

So we now have absolutely loads of these little gourdlings, and we have to figure out what to do with them. I've done a bit of research and found that, although they're used mostly for decoration, they are actually quite edible. Martha Stewart has a recipe on her site for Candied Jack-be-Little Pumpkins, which looks tasty, but also extremely elaborate. (Any recipe that contains "Make the pots de creme" as a separate step is just too complicated for me.) But this recipe from Pumpkin Nook is a lot simpler: just scoop them out, bake them, and stuff them with the filling of your choice. Our little Easy Vegetarian Dishes cookbook has a recipe for Peppers Stuffed with Cinnamon Bulgur, and I think that savory-sweet mixture would work pretty well stuffed into a Jack-be-Little as well.

So, given that we have so many of these little suckers, I'm sure we'll be trying that recipe at one point, and possibly a bunch of variants as well. But in the meantime, I'm celebrating Harvest Home by using the Jack-be-Littles in my usual way: as fall decorations. I harvested the four biggest, plumpest gourds I could reach, putting one on each step of the front stoop (instead of being limited to the top three steps as I usually am, since the gourds are three for $2 at the farmers' market, and I don't want to buy six of them). It's a little earlier than I usually put them out, but I think it makes an appropriate welcome for autumn, whether the weather is cooperating or not.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Money Crashers: Should We Get Rid of the Penny?

My latest post on Money Crashes is one I had a lot of fun working on. It's all about the debate over whether to eliminate the tiniest, most worthless coin in our nation's currency, the penny.

Personally, I don't like pennies. Ecofrugality, as you all know, is all about avoiding waste, and pennies are wasteful in several ways:
  1. They waste time, because we have to count them out every time we buy anything with cash (or else the clerk has to count them out to give us our change), and it just holds up the line at the cash register.
  2. They waste natural resources, because we have to mine tons of zinc (and a little bit of copper) to produce more of them every year. (We keep making new ones because most of the ones we already have don't circulate, because they're worth so little.)
  3. They waste the government's money, because a penny actually costs more to mint than it's worth. (Nickels do too, but at least they're somewhat useful.)
However, apparently I'm in the minority in this opinion (as I am in so many other things). Most Americans like pennies and think we should keep making them. So I set out to find out what, exactly, people think is so great about the penny, and whether it's really great enough to outweigh the arguments for ditching them.

I found out, first of all, that the biggest group lobbying to keep the penny is Americans for Common Cents, which is funded by, of all things, the zinc industry. (What a coincidence.) They have come up with a variety of arguments for keeping the penny, such as:
  1. Without pennies, there will be rampant inflation.
  2. Without pennies, stores will have to round their prices to the nickel, and this will inevitably lead to furtive price gouging.
  3. Without pennies, charities will be unable to hold "penny drives" and raise millions of dollars a penny at a time. (Of course, a million dollars in pennies weighs over 550,000 pounds, so doing away with this form of fundraising would be a lot easier on the volunteers.)
In my article, I explore all these arguments in favor of keeping the penny, along with the arguments for dumping it. Although I'm firmly on the anti-penny side of this issue, I did my best to present the arguments for both sides as fully and fairly as possible.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

How we ended up without cable

Our years as cable TV customers—all two of them—have come to an end. As of last month, we have officially joined the growing ranks of cord cutters who rely on other sources for our video goodies.

What's a bit ironic about this is that we never actually wanted to hook up that cord in the first place. As I wrote back in 2013, the only reason we ended up subscribed to a cable service is that we needed to drop our no-longer-reliable landline phone from Verizon, and we discovered that Cablevision would give us a better deal for a package that included TV, phone, and Internet service than it would for phone and Internet only. In fact, after a few tweaks to the original package deal, we ended up spending less for all three services than we used to pay for our Cablevision internet and Verizon landline separately.

Our original plan was to keep this "triple play" plan for one year until the promotion expired, and then drop the TV service. However, when the time came, Cablevision offered to roll us over into a different promotion that would cost $95 a month—still marginally less than it would cost to pay for phone and Internet service separately. It was more than we'd have paid by going back to Verizon—about $44 a month more, in fact—but we decided it was worth it for reliable service.

So, based on this experience, we assumed that when our second triple play promotion expired, Cablevision would come back to us with yet another deal to convince us to keep it. Well, as it turns out, not so much. Last July we received a letter informing us that our rate for all three services was about to jump to $130: $50 for the TV, $45 for Internet, and $35 for phone.

So, I contacted Cablevision via chat and asked to cancel the TV service, thereby triggering a series of Evasive Maneuvers:
  1. First they told me the TV service had already been canceled. When I pointed out that we'd just gotten a letter saying we were going to be billed $50 for it, they said, "Oh, sorry, wrong account."
  2. Then they told me that since the account was in Brian's name, he has to call them himself to cancel it. It's true that his name is on the bills, but they're sent to my e-mail address, and we are both registered users of the account...but no matter. If the account's in his name, he has to cancel it himself.
  3. So Brian called them up and asked to cancel the TV service. The rep countered by offering to throw in Showtime for free, "a $20 value." How this was supposed to make it a good deal for us to keep paying $50 a month for something we didn't want, I'm not sure...but Brian made the mistake of pausing to consider it, and then when he said, "No thanks, please cancel the service," she refused to let it go. She wanted to know why he wasn't taking such an obviously great deal. What was he saying? Didn't we want free Showtime? Why not? What kind of idiots would pass up an offer like that?
  4. After several attempts to deflect her questions with, "We're just not interested" and "We'd really rather cancel," Brian finally lost his cool and snapped, "Would you PLEASE just let me cancel the service?!?" at which point the rep said, "Well, there's no need to yell"—but she did what he asked. Which seems to imply that there actually was a need to yell, since it's the only thing that got her to cooperate.
  5. When Brian went to return the cable box to Cablevision, he asked the clerk there a question he forgot to ask over the phone: was there some way to have the account transferred to be in my name, so that in future, I could make any necessary changes to it? The clerk responded that the account was already in both of our names and there should be no reason I couldn't make changes to it...thereby confirming that Evasive Manuever #2 was an outright lie.
So at this point, we have succeeded in dropping the TV service. That means we should be paying just $80 a month: $45 for internet and $35 for phone, right? No, hardly. By dropping the TV service, we've still lost our bundling discount, so the price for Internet has jumped from $45 a month to $60. So with taxes, our total bill for the two services is $99.14. That's less than the $125 we'd have paid if we'd kept the TV service, but it's more than we were paying last year for all three services—and more than the $80 a month Verizon is now offering for its cheapest triple play deal.

This isn't the end of the story, however. Not long after this, a Verizon rep showed up at our door, explaining how they've just wired our whole neighborhood for FiOS. She even went so far as to point to the new wire that carries the signal ("that black one right there") to prove that they really, really do have high-speed service in our area now—unlike the last time we tried to sign up for it, when they strung us along for a month promising that our new DSL connection would be hooked up "in a couple of days" and then abruptly announced that no, they actually didn't have service in our area and cut off the dial-up connection they'd been letting us use up until that point, leaving us with no service at all. This experience led Brian to remark, "I'll listen to Verizon the day I see them stringing new cable on our street"—and now here was the rep actually pointing to the new cable.

I explained to the rep why we were reluctant to trust Verizon's promises, having been burned twice before, once on the DSL and once on the landline. She assured me that Verizon had been "working to upgrade its customer service" as well, but said she understood if the company just "left a bad taste in your mouth"—thereby implying that our anti-Verizon stance wasn't rational, but hey, that's okay, sometimes people just make decisions for irrational reasons. So she went away peacefully, but the encounter stuck in my mind...especially when I discovered, in the following weeks, that our Cablevision connection seemed to be growing less and less reliable. Both our telephone and our Internet connection started cutting out at unpredictable times, usually for just a few minutes, but sometimes for more like a few hours. This got me wondering: what's the point in paying more for a reliable connection if it's not, in fact, reliable? Could Verizon actually be, at this point, the lesser of two evils?

While I was still mentally debating this point, a news story broke on Friday announcing that Cablevision had just been sold to a Dutch company called Altice. The CEO, Patrick Drahi (a name that doesn't sound at all Dutch, and isn't), announces that he's hoping to cut management salaries and outsource parts of the business to contractors, such as the "truck rolls," the folks who actually come out to your house and hook up your cable or fix it when it breaks. In the long run, he says, he hopes to start selling Internet, TV, and phone service a la carte, rather than as the bundles Cablevision currently offers.

To my mind, this can only be good news. It's not as if Cablevision's service could be much worse than it is now, and given that Europeans in general get much better and cheaper Internet service than we do, having a European company in charge is probably a step in the right direction. If nothing else, it means that next time we call Cablevision trying to drop a service (perhaps the landline, if we decide to switch to Ooma), we won't have to spend half an hour arguing with a rep desperate to keep us hooked up to a bundled service.

Unfortunately, this deal won't take effect until 2016, so we have no real hope of getting better or cheaper service from Cablevision until then. Which leaves the main question still unsolved: would we, in fact, be better off switching back to Verizon? Yes, they have screwed us over repeatedly in the past. But does that mean that Cablevision, as the only available alternative, automatically gets a free pass for screwing us over in the present?