Sunday, November 11, 2018

Recipe of the Month: Brown Butter Butternut Squash Rigatoni

Around the end of October, I finally got around to picking up and going through that month's edition of Savory, the free magazine from Stop & Shop. The last few issues haven't held anything of interest, so my hopes weren't high, but this time I found two recipes that looked worth trying: a mushroom soup and a butternut squash pasta. And since we just happened to have about half a squash in the fridge left over from the pizza we made to celebrate Late Harvest, Brian decided a half recipe of the pasta would be the perfect way to use it up.

Although it sounds fancy, Brown Butter Butternut Squash Rigatoni isn't really hard to make. (Actually, we used penne instead of rigatoni, because that's what we had, but it didn't seem to suffer any from the substitution.) The recipe calls for pre-cut chunks of butternut squash, but using whole, fresh butternut squash isn't that much more work, especially since you have to cut the big chunks into smaller chunks anyway. Nearly much any other kind of winter squash would be a big hassle to peel, but butternut is actually pretty easy, and in this particular case, our squash was already peeled and sliced from the earlier recipe. So it was just a matter of cutting it into cubes and sautéing it in a pan with olive oil and garlic. The most intimidating-sounding part of the recipe, making the brown butter, turned out to be quite simple: just add the butter to the pan with the squash for the last several minutes of cooking. Once everything is tender, pull it off the heat, toss it with the pasta, and top it with salt, pepper and Parmesan.

But although the dish wasn't at all complicated, it definitely wasn't lacking in the flavor department. I'd had all the ingredients in this dish before—pasta, butternut squash, garlic, butter, fresh sage—but putting them all together in this way gave it some kind of indefinable extra flavor that didn't seem to come from any of them. I'd never had anything made with brown butter before, and I'm not sure whether that was what made the taste so subtle and complex, but it definitely seemed to be much more than the sum of the parts.

The other really nice thing about this recipe is that it doesn't call for any ingredients we don't normally have on hand. Pasta, olive oil, garlic, butter, and grated Parmesan are all staples in our house, and fresh sage grows right outside the door year-round (as long as it's not buried under a foot of snow). So this will make a nice, hassle-free addition to our regular repertoire of butternut squash recipes (butternut squash lasagna, pizza, and soufflé). And since it's easy to scale the recipe, we can rely on it any time we need to use up some extra butternut left over from any of those other dishes. It's definitely a keeper.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Money Crashers: How Much Does Your Job Really Pay?

My latest Money Crashers article was inspired largely by two pieces out of Amy Dacyczyn's Complete Tightwad Gazette (all hail the Frugal Zealot!). In the first piece, called "The Time and Money Chart," she talks about how to figure out which money-saving tasks are most worth the effort, based on how much money they save you (and how much satisfaction they provide in other ways) for each hour you spend on them. For instance, she calculates that making two homemade pizzas takes 20 minutes and costs about $2, while having two similar pizzas delivered would cost about $18 (remember, this was nearly 30 years ago). That's a savings of $16 for 20 minutes of work, or $48 per hour, making this a task that's definitely worth the time. Canning pears, by contrast, is a labor-intensive task that saves only $1 per hour of work compared to buying canned pears at the store.

One of the most interesting items in this chart appears at the bottom, where she claims that going back to work as a graphic designer would yield only $3.33 per hour. She reaches this figure by calculating that, while she could nominally earn $15 per hour, after taxes and expenses for child care, wardrobe, and transportation, her pay would be "whittled down to $5 per hour." Moreover, her nominal 40-hour week would really require 60 hours of effort counting "additional dressing and grooming time, dropping kids at a sitter's, the lost lunch hour, commuting and after-work-crash-from-exhaustion time," bringing the actual hourly wage to a mere $3.33, far below many of the other frugal tasks she does every day.

She makes the same point again in the second article, "Trend Reversal," talking about the "nationwide trend" of women dropping out of the work force to stay home with their kids. She cites a study saying that the "percentage of women under age 30 in the workforce peaked in 1989 at 75 percent" and had fallen by 3 to 4 percent by the early nineties, and speculates that this is partly because many mothers don't find it worth their while financially to work. She points to a Labor Department study showing that "about 80 percent of working mothers' incomes is absorbed by job-related expenses such as child care, clothing, transportation, and meals away from home." She also makes a point of noting that this same strategy could work for stay-at-home dads as well, but she couldn't find any data on whether their numbers were increasing.

Putting these two ideas together, I wrote a piece for Money Crashers called "How Much Does Your Job Really Pay? – Calculating Your Hourly Wage," which replaced an older article called "Quit Your Job to Save Money" (which I thought was a bit of an overstatement). The main point of the new article is that, if you're staying at a job you don't like much because you need the money, it's worth calculating how much you actually make for each hour you devote to the job, and how much you could potentially make doing something else you might like more—whether that's a different job, freelance work, or staying home with kids. For anyone who's ever wished they could afford to quit their job, it's worth a read.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Gardeners' Holidays: Late Harvest

Well, production in the garden is slowing down. The tomatoes have tapered off, although we're still getting an occasional pepper (particularly off our new Carmen plant, which has proved to be tremendously productive). We've harvested four butternut squash so far (three Waltham and one Ponca Baby), and there are four more out there left to pick. We still have lima beans to harvest, though not an impressive amount of them. And since there's been no frost yet, all the herbs in our herb bed are still in good shape. In fact, the plants are so big that I've taken to harvesting them for flower arrangements.

The big surprise, for this time of year, is that we're still getting green beans. Normally, the harvest has completely dried up by this time of year—and indeed, the green bean variety we actually bought (Provider) has stopped producing. But somehow, in amongst the Provider beans in the packet, there must have been one rogue bean of another variety. While the Provider is a bush bean that produces compact, clumpy plants, this mystery bean sent out a long tendril that snaked its way right up the trellis where the snow peas used to be, and spread until it covered half the trellis.

Brian didn't know what to make of it, but he let it be, and about a month later—right as the Provider beans were ending—it suddenly started to produce beans. These looked nothing like the beans we'd been getting off the Provider plant, which were long and round in shape; these were much shorter and flatter, and they cooked up nice and tender. And they just kept coming, all throughout the fall: over two pounds of them so far, from just one plant. The last few Brian picked were a little tougher than the rest, so it looks like these mystery beans may be coming to an end, but that's still a pretty impressive harvest for something we never actually intended to plant.

This bean's production and flavor were so impressive, and having fresh green beans all autumn long was such a treat, that we'd like to plant some more of them next year (on purpose this time). The only difficulty is that, since this bean just kind of showed up in our garden, we're not sure what variety it is. We know it's a pole bean, and it produces purplish blossoms and flat, tender, string-free beans that keep coming well into autumn. Based on an article in The Spruce, we guessed it might be a "Climbing French" bean, and the picture on the Seed Savers site looks right, so our best bet would be to buy a packet of these, plant some along with the Provider beans, and hope for the best. Unfortunately, Fedco doesn't carry them, so we'll have to try to pick them up somewhere else, or else move our entire seed order for the year to another company.

For now, we enjoyed what may be the last of these beans for this year on Halloween night, along with a butternut squash pizza with sage and some apple crisp for dessert. The pizza recipe only uses a little bit of squash, so we've got some left over to try a recipe out of the October edition of Savory, which you'll probably be seeing soon as our Recipe of the Month for November.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

The ultimate low-water dishwashing method

Due to a bizarre string of circumstances which, in the words of Michael Flanders, I'll tell you all about some other time, we currently have no water at our house. For the past 46 hours or so, we have been unable to bathe, do laundry, or do anything else that requires a large amount of water, and we'll probably be in the same position for at least 24 hours more.

In the absence of running water, we've had to get a bit creative. My enterprising husband has taken to hauling up buckets of water from our rain barrel to flush the toilet with, and for brushing our teeth, washing our hands, and cleaning dishes, we've been relying on our emergency stores of water from the basement. I brought up two 2-liter bottles yesterday as soon as it became apparent we were going to be without water for a while, and I used up part of one right away for washing my hands. I assumed I'd have to go down and get at least one more after dinner, so Brian would have enough to wash the dishes with.

Instead, to my astonishment, I looked up from my book to discover that he'd already done them all—and not only was the second bottle of water still full, there was still some left in the first. He'd actually washed the entire dinner's worth in less than a liter of water. And all this without even having a dishpan to soak them in.

I was so impressed by this that I insisted on watching him clean the breakfast dishes this morning so I could observe and document his low-water technique. As you can see here, he started out with a good sinkful of dishes: one big plate, one cereal bowl, the two cat dishes from the previous night, a cocoa cup, a juice glass, the filter cone I use for coffee, and a baking pan we'd used to bake a cake for the Minstrel concert the night before.

And here's the amount of water he poured out for himself to start with: about ten ounces. That's it! He ended up needing just a little bit more to finish rinsing that last pan, but as you'll see, it wasn't very much.

As he worked, he explained to me the basic premises of his low-water washing technique. The most important rule, he said, is to make every bit of water you use do as many jobs as possible. So, when you rinse off a dish, don't just let the rinse water run down the drain; make sure it runs off into another dish, where it can start the process of soaking. It's kind of like the way the family in Little House on the Prairie used to bathe on Saturday nights, letting the children bathe first, then Ma, and finally Pa (the largest member of the family, and thus presumably the one with the most dirt on him), all in the same tub of water, because hauling and heating up a fresh tubful for each of them would have been five times as much work. The point is to avoid wasting any amount of water that could still be useful, no matter how small.

He demonstrated this by taking the little bit of water he'd left in the cats' dishes overnight to soak them and using that to moisten the plates. Then he gave each of them a quick once-over with the dish scrubber wand, using the little bit of water he'd just added to work up a lather. If they had any residue clinging to them that the dish wand couldn't easily remove, he used the green scouring pad for a slightly rougher treatment. Up to this point, he'd actually used no additional water beyond the tiny bit that was in the cat dishes.

Once he had everything soaped up, he began using the water in the measuring cup to rinse the dishes. He started with the smallest dishes and worked his way up to the biggest ones, and as he worked, he let the rinse water from each dish run off into a larger one. Here, for instance, he's rinsing one of the cat dishes and emptying the rinse water into his cereal bowl.

And here's a three-fer: he's emptying the water from the juice glass, pouring it out over my cocoa spoon to rinse that, and letting it empty into the baking pan.

When he got to the biggest dish of the lot, the baking pan, he found he didn't have quite enough water left to rinse it. So he poured out just a little bit more from the bottle into the measuring cup—not more than two ounces—to finish the job.

Counting this and the little bit of water that was left over in the cat dishes, he didn't use more than a pint altogether to clean the whole sinkful of dishes.

As Brian pointed out, doing dishes this way does involve a trade-off: while it uses a lot less water, it also takes more time. So it's not necessarily something he would want to do when water is plentiful. But after demonstrating the technique for me, he started to think that maybe, with a bit of practice, he could work some of these water-saving strategies into his normal daily dish-washing without taking too much extra time. So even when our household water is flowing again, we might be able to use less of it. If that helps us stay in the bottom tier of usage on our quarterly water bill, saving us $18 a pop, then I'm all for it.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Money Crashers: How to Prevent Child Identity Theft

While doing research for my article on freezing your credit, I discovered that it's also possible to set up a credit freeze for a child younger than 17. On the face of it, this seems like a puzzling thing to do, since kids that young can't legally borrow money and shouldn't have a credit report in the first place. And it's true, they can't open credit accounts for themselves—but that doesn't stop other people from creating accounts using their information. In fact, the very fact that kids can't create their own credit reports makes them particularly appealing targets for identity thieves, because they can create a fake credit profile with a young child's data and use it for years without getting caught.

This seemed like a big enough deal to deserve an article of its own. So my latest Money Crashers article is all about the problem of identity theft. It covers:

  • How child identity theft happens, and how it differs from adult identity theft
  • Who commits this crime and why
  • Which children are most at risk
  • What it can cost the victims and their families
  • Warning signs of child identity theft
  • Ways to prevent it, including checking and/or freezing your kids' credit reports, protecting their personal information, being aware of risky situations, and talking to your kids about it
  • What to do if your child is a victim
This information is vital for anyone who has kids, and useful for anyone who knows anyone who has kids. I'm thinking of passing the article along to my sister and my sibs-in-law, just to give them a heads-up so none of our niblings (did I mention that this is the official gender-neutral plural for nieces and nephews?) ever have to deal with this problem.

How to Prevent & Avoid Child Identity Theft – Protection For Your Kids

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Money Crashers: Should You Buy a Starter Home?

When Brian and I bought this house, we knew we were in it for the long haul. We planned to take our time fixing up this house, and the yard, to turn it into the home of our dreams. This was where we would grow our own veggies, plant fruit trees, build a compost bin, set up a rain barrel, bake fresh bread, have friends over for games, and generally build our ecofrugal life together. If it wasn't going to be our "forever home," it was at least going to be home for the foreseeable future.

The ironic thing about that is, I realize that many people, looking at our modest little three-bedroom minimal-traditional, would consider it a "starter home." For them, this would clearly be a transitional house - not your dream house, but the place you buy to live in until you can afford your dream house.

So whose approach makes more sense? Buying a starter home just to get your foot in the door and eventually trade up, or waiting to buy until you're ready to buy a home for keeps?

Well, there's something to be said for both sides. In my latest Money Crashers article, I explore the implications of buying a starter home: what you have to gain, what you're giving up, and what factors to consider before you decide. I hope this will be helpful for anyone who's considering buying a first home, and possibly even for those who have already bought one and are now wondering how long to stay in it.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Plant-based milk experiments, phase 3: Aldi's almond milk

The biggest news on the environmental front this month, pretty obviously, was the October 8 IPCC report on climate change. Among other bombshells, it revealed that we're going to have to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, rather than the 2°C many nations have been aiming for, if we want to avoid major ecological disasters around the globe. (The Guardian offers a pretty good summary of what a difference this half-degree could make, including "extreme heat, drought, floods and poverty.") Furthermore, we have only 12 years to hit this target, and it will take "rapid and far-reaching" changes in just about everything: land use, energy, industry, buildings, transportation.

Unfortunately, there's not that much any single person can do to make that happen. A recent Lifehacker story suggests several ways to put pressure on your elected officials and "take action yourself," but the steps it promotes—drive less, vote more, compost—are all things I've already been doing for decades. However, the Guardian's advice on the subject actually pointed toward one clear, concrete step that I could take to do my bit for the atmosphere: cutting down on dairy. In fact, it said cutting back on meat and dairy was "the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet," and pointed to yet another study, this one published in Science last June, to prove it.

After reading the Guardian's coverage of that study, along with a few other articles I found on the topic, I decided it was time to start getting serious about getting off the moo juice. Over the past few months, I'd tried tinkering around with various plant-based milk alternatives, but I just hadn't found one that seemed to tick all the ecofrugal boxes: eco-friendly, not too expensive, and reasonably good for all the uses we currently put milk to. But after seeing the new research on just how big an impact dairy actually has, I decided just about any alternative had to be better than cow's milk; it was just a matter of finding one that could work for me.

So I decided to start with the least expensive non-dairy milk I'd seen so far: Aldi almond milk, at $1.89 per half-gallon. On our last trip to Aldi, I picked up a half-gallon of it, planning to test it in all the applications we normally use cow's milk for: my morning cocoa and afternoon egg cream, Brian's breakfast cereal, and the occasional glass drunk straight. If it performed satisfactorily in all these tests, I figured we could take the plunge and switch over completely. It wouldn't end up costing us too much than dairy milk, and with three different Aldi stores within a few miles of our house, it wouldn't require too big a change in our shopping habits.

Now, in an ideal world, this story would conclude with the news that Aldi's almond milk passed all its tests with flying colors, and we were now one step farther along the path to achieving vegan superpowers. But unfortunately, it didn't go down that way.

The almond milk did fine on some of my tests. In fact, for drinking straight, I'd say I actually liked it a bit better than cow's milk. Brian was also quite satisfied with the way it worked on his breakfast cereal. However, when I used it in my morning cocoa, something about it tasted just a It was hard to put my finger on, but there was a faint off-taste that clashed ever so slightly with the chocolate. This odd flavor was even more noticeable when I tried it in an egg cream, and on top of that, the fizz seemed to go flat much quicker than it does with regular milk.

So after four unsatisfying days on almond milk, I felt like I was back at the old drawing board once more, searching yet again for that perfect milk alternative that I knew must be out there somewhere.
Seeking inspiration, I tuned in this morning to a Science Versus podcast on plant-based milks, in which pun-loving host Wendy Zukerman posed the question, "Are they udder bull?" (along with as many other puns as she could manage to "milk" the subject for). She spoke to Joseph Poore, one of the authors of the Science study, about these plant-based milks (or as she called them, "schmilks"), and he revealed that, unfortunately, they all come with their share of environmental problems. Almond milk, of course, has its heavy water use; rice milk turns out to be much more carbon-heavy than other nondairy milks, due to the methane produced by rice paddies; and soy and oat milk both use rather a lot of land to produce.

But here's the thing: even with these problems, all these "schmilks" are much, much better than dairy milk. Switching to any of them, Dr. Poore argued, would result in much lower land use, water use, and carbon emissions. The bottom line is, it doesn't really matter which one you pick: they're all so much better than cow's milk that you pretty much can't go wrong. Just figure out which one you like enough to drink it regularly, and go with that.

So instead of obsessing over which is "the best" ecofrugal milk alternative, I'm just going to settle for finding one I can live with. Since I've already rejected the cheapest variety I could find, I'm moving on to the second-cheapest: Shop-Rite store brand coconut milk, which costs $3 per half gallon. That's about twice as much as we currently pay for cow's milk, but looked at in perspective, we're only talking about an extra $6 a week here; that's not going to break us. And besides, with only 12 years to save the planet from climate apocalypse, we don't have time to pussyfoot around.