Sunday, August 20, 2017

Price check: How our new Costco membership paid for itself

Over the past few years, I've had a sort of off-and-on flirtation with Costco. It started in 2012, when I went on a trip there with my in-laws and noticed several things we buy regularly, like organic sugar and Fair Trade coffee, on their shelves at prices much lower than we usually pay. I was intrigued, but not really convinced that we'd save enough just on those few items to offset the $55 annual cost (at the time) of a membership. And when I later discovered that I didn't really like the Costco coffee anyway, and that I could get an even cheaper sustainable brew at IKEA, that seemed to settle the question.

However, one lesson I've learned in my ecofrugal life is that value, like everything else, changes over time; what's a good deal this year may not be a good deal next year, and vice versa. (A case in point: when I first compared the long-term costs of LED light bulbs to older CFLs, I found there wasn't enough savings there to make it worth switching. However, in the years since, the price of LEDs dropped sharply, changing the equation and convincing me to spring for my first LED bulb last year.) So, in a similar vein, I've revisited the idea of joining Costco from time to time to see if there were any new developments that would make it a good deal for us after all.

Up until this year, the answer was always no. A 2014 article on "9 Items that Will Single-Handedly Pay for Your Costco Membership" piqued my interest, but a quick analysis of the list convinced me that none of these items really applied to us. Either the we could find better deals on the item in question elsewhere, or it wasn't something we were likely to buy in the first place. And while the comments section below that article outlined several other Costco deals that we thought we might have a use for some day, such as the car-buying and car-insurance programs, none of them were immediate needs, so there was no way they could justify the membership cost for us.

All that changed last month, when Brian went to the eye doctor and was told he had passed through the Great Gate of Middle Age: it was time to switch to progressive lenses. Although this doctor's office also makes and sells glasses, we knew from past experience that filling the prescription there was likely to be very expensive; the last pair he bought from an independent optician came to nearly $400, and that was for single-vision lenses. So we started looking into other options, and this report from Consumer Reports (summarized here at tipped us off that Costco was the best overall, with good service and prices less than half what the independent shops typically charge. (Online retailers, like Zenni Optical, were still cheaper, but their service was poor—and Brian was reluctant to entrust a complicated prescription to an online seller, where he couldn't try the glasses on and deal with any potential problems right away.) If we bought his glasses at Costco, the savings on this one purchase would more than pay for the $60 cost of membership, and anything we managed to save on groceries over the course of the year would be pure gravy.

Being cautious, we made a point of slipping into the Costco optical department first (which you're allowed to visit without being a member) to check the cost of the glasses. Once we'd confirmed that they would be about $180—less than half what we could expect to pay at the doctor's office—we went round to the membership desk, where we were offered two choices. We could get the basic membership for $60 a year, or we could also sign up for a Costco credit card, which would cost an extra $60 a year but would give us an array of perks:
  • 2% cash back on all purchases at Costco;
  • 3% for restaurants and travel purchases;
  • 4% on gas—not just at Costco, where the lines are usually so ridiculous that we aren't even tempted by the low prices, but everywhere; and
  • 1% cash back everywhere else.
This was certainly a tempting set of rewards—better than we get with any of our current rewards cards—but I had my doubts about whether it would be enough to pay for the extra $60. But before I could refuse, the clerk told me the kicker: the rewards would be paid out in the form of a yearly check, for which the minimum amount would be the $60 we'd paid. In other words, if we didn't earn enough in rewards to offset the $60 annual fee, Costco would refund it. This meant the worst we could possibly do was break even—which pretty much made the deal a no-brainer.

So, having signed our pledge of loyalty to Costco, at least for one year, we set out to explore the store and see what kind of deals it had to offer. And the answer proved to be: some great, some pretty good, and some disappointing. For a lot of items on which Costco is reputed to offer great deals, like toilet paper, we found it couldn't touch the prices we're used to getting at Trader Joe's. Its prices on organic chicken legs were just a tiny bit less per pound, but they required buying four or five pounds at once. However, we also discovered a few bargains that actually looked like they could be worth the trip, such as:
  • Organic sugar. We've long been in the habit of buying organic sugar at Trader Joe's for $1.75 per pound. Just in the past couple of months, we were surprised and pleased to find it at Aldi for $1.45 per pound. But Costco blew that price out of the water, offering 10-pound bags for $7.99—80 cents a pound.
  • Organic raisins. Costco undercut Trader Joe's on organic raisins as well, offering a 4-pound box for $9.49, or $2.37 per pound. That beats the $2.99 we pay per pound at TJ's, and with less packaging waste as well.
  • Olive oil. A 5-liter bottle of Filippo Berrio olive oil (not extra-virgin, just the cheap stuff) was $24.99 at Costco, or $5 per liter. The best we can do elsewhere is $6 per liter at Trader Joe's.
  • Cereal. We've set ourselves a somewhat arbitrary limit of 10 cents per ounce, or $1.60 per pound, for cold cereal. Normally, this limits us to only one type: Aldi's raisin bran at $1.51 per pound. Costco couldn't actually beat this price, but it came close, at $1.53 per pound for a big box of Kellogg's Raisin Brain. 
  • Oats. Rolled oats, which are also part of Brian's complete breakfast, cost us $2.29 for a 42-ounce can (5.45 cents per ounce) at Aldi. Amazingly enough, Costco was able to narrowly beat this price, offering a 10-pound box of Quaker Oats for $7.99 (5 cents per ounce). We wouldn't make a special trip just for that, but since we were low on oats anyway, we snagged a box and were quite chuffed with ourselves over the bargain.
  • Walnuts. Typically, the best price we can find for these is around $6 a pound at Trader Joe's. Occasionally, we'll find them on sale for closer to $5 a pound—but the 3-pound bag at Costco for $11.99, or $4 a pound, was a steal. (We also found pine nuts for around $18 a pound, which is cheaper than any other store, but decided it was still more than we were prepared to pay.)
  • Milk. We usually get the best prices on nonfat milk at the Shop Rite: between $2.50 and $3 a gallon, depending on the week. But at Costco, it was only $2.21 per gallon—a price we haven't seen in years. This isn't a huge enough savings to make it worth a trip to Costco every time we need milk, but we'll certainly make a point of picking some up whenever we're there.
So all in all, there are enough good deals at Costco to make it worth visiting regularly and squeezing all the value we can out of our membership. We'll see at the end of the year how much we've really used it—but in any case, it will probably be worth keeping it at least one year more, since I'm probably not more than a year out from progressive-lens territory myself.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Recipe of the Month: Melon-Basil Smoothie

August's Recipe of the Month is a first for me. I've had recipes featuring veggies and recipes featuring fruit, savory recipes and sweet ones, salads and soups and main dishes and desserts—but this is the first time I've done a beverage.

First, a little background. This spring, one of Brian's coworkers, who's a much larger-scale gardener than we are, gave him a surplus cinnamon basil plant out of his garden. I'd never heard of cinnamon basil before, but as its name suggests, it's a variety of basil that has a vaguely cinnamon-like flavor and aroma. (According to Mother Earth Living, it's also good for repelling pests such as mosquitoes, but it can't be all that potent, since this is the first year we've grown it and the mosquitoes in our garden are thicker on the ground than ever.) Anyway, we had plenty of space to spare in our garden after finally giving up our attempts to grow Brussels sprouts, and cinnamon basil was reputed to be a beneficial companion for tomatoes, so we willingly set aside a square for it. The plant grew and thrived, and eventually we had to face the question: what do we do with this stuff?

First, we tried some of it in our favorite basil-based recipe, Pasta à la Caprese, but it didn't really work. The cinnamon-like flavor of the basil struck a vaguely discordant note with the tomatoes and garlic, resulting in a dish that was edible, but not fantastic like the original. And based on this experiment, we suspected that simply substituting cinnamon basil for regular basil in other recipes would probably have the same result. The problem, we figured, was that with few exceptions, we use basil in savory dishes and cinnamon in sweet ones, so we didn't have any recipes in our repertoire where the combined flavor of the two would be appropriate.

However, Brian recalled that at the time his coworker gave him the plant, he mentioned that it could be used in an ice cream recipe that was quite unusual and refreshing. So Brian went back to him and got this recipe (which was basically a more detailed version of this one from and prepared a half batch of it. He modified it just slightly, substituting a cup of skim milk (which is what we usually have at home) for a cup and a quarter of whole or 2 percent, and upping the heavy cream from 3/4 cup to a full cup to compensate.

The ice cream itself was, as promised, definitely different from anything we'd ever had before; we just weren't really sure whether it was different in a good way. We kept tasting a little spoonful at a time, pensively, trying to decide whether we liked it or not, and we never came to a firm conclusion. We definitely didn't hate it, but we never really fell in love with it either, and the two pint containers we'd filled just sat in the freezer, as we were never quite inspired to dig into them. Eventually, Brian brought one of them in to work and gave it to his coworker who'd given him the plant, by way of a thank-you, but the other nearly-full container just continued to sit.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, one of the booths at our local farmers' market ran a sale on melons: just a dollar each, which is a great deal around here. I picked up a variety I'd never tried before called golden melon, which looks and tastes rather like a honeydew, but with a bright yellow rind. And after trying a piece, it occurred to me that here was a flavor that might actually go rather well with the cinnamon basil ice cream.

It took me a little while to get around to trying the combination, but last weekend, as the last of the melon was at risk of going bad, I mentioned it to Brian, and he whipped out our little Magic Bullet blender (a Freecycle find from seven years back) and mixed some up on the spot. He initially tried it with half a cup of melon chunks to two tablespoons of the ice cream, but after I tasted it, I thought it could use just a touch more ice cream, so he added one more tablespoon and decanted it.

The resulting mixture was, like the ice cream itself, different—but I found myself a little more prepared to come down on the side of calling it different in a good way. The light, sweet honeydew flavor softened the sort of oddly pungent taste of the cinnamon basil, and the combination was curiously refreshing. It isn't something I'd want to make all the time, but it seems like a pleasant chiller for a hot summer day—and, if nothing else, a reasonable way to use up the rest of the ice cream.

It occurred to me that maybe you could even make this into a cocktail if you happened to have a compatible sort of liquor to throw in. Nothing in our liquor cabinet—cheap gin, golden rum, amaretto, creme de menthe—seemed quite appropriate, but I thought if you had something like Midori or other melon liqueur, you could throw a bit of that in, garnish it with a sprig of mint, and call it something like a "Melon-choly Baby." (I actually considered buying a bottle of melon liqueur for this purpose to experiment, but by that time I'd used up all the golden melon, and the farmers' market this weekend didn't have any more. The only melon on offer was cantaloupe, and when I tried a bit of that with the cinnamon basil ice cream, they didn't complement each other well at all.)

At this point, I'm not sure whether I'll be making this again; I guess it depends on whether any more golden melons or honeydews show up at the farmers' market, or at the supermarket for a reasonable price. But my success with it has encouraged me to continue seeking out new uses for the cinnamon basil. For instance, since it went so nicely with fruit in this drink, it occurred to me that perhaps it would work well in the basil vinaigrette for this cucumber-nectarine salad we tried last year—so if we can find a good deal on any nectarines or peaches in the near future, we'll give that a try. And if anyone else happens to know of any other good uses for this unusual herb, please shout them out in the comments below.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Price Check: Beach wedding wear for (a lot) less

Last week, while researching something completely unrelated, I happened across this article from Elle: "13 Beach Wedding Dresses You Can Buy Off the Rack." Now, I'm not planning a wedding (beach or otherwise) any time in the foreseeable future, but curiosity—mostly about what's considered the proper attire for a beach wedding—led me to click through. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but the author's idea of "beach" wedding wear was frankly baffling to me. I mean, why would you wear a full-length dress with a train on a beach? You'd end up with a skirt full of sand. And the selections with elaborate lacework or beading looked calculated to attract debris.

What seemed even more ridiculous, however, was that the dresses that actually did look "beachy"—the ones that were basically nice sundresses—still cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Scrolling through them, I found myself getting huffy, much the same way I did looking at the outdoor furniture "bargains" in the article I wrote about last month. It was playing on the same "anchoring bias" as the other article: if you think it's normal to pay upwards of $1,500 for a wedding dress—as the average bride does, according to The Knot—then calling a $700 sundress a wedding dress makes it look downright reasonable. But that doesn't change the fact that if you don't slap that "wedding" label on them, you can find perfectly nice, beach-appropriate white dresses for a lot less.

So I decided to go through the entire list Elle had provided—both the dresses that struck me as suitable beachwear and the ones that didn't—and show how it's possible to find an attractive dress in a similar style on a much more reasonable budget. Here's how their picks stack up against mine:

Elle Pick #1: First, we have this off-the-shoulder maxi dress from Self-Portrait, which, with its long train, isn't at all what I'd choose for a beach wedding. Actually, I wouldn't be inclined to choose it for any wedding, as its shapeless tent style doesn't strike me as flattering for any figure type—but even if I did, I certainly wouldn't pay £500.00 for it.
My alternative: This off-the shoulder dress from Bebe has the same full length and lacy detailing around the neckline, but in a much more shapely style, for only $89. Or, if you're on a really tight budget, you could pick this one from Xhilaration, which has the lace cutout section in the skirt rather than up top, for only $21 (marked down from $30) in the Target juniors' department.

Elle Pick #2: This tea-length, halter-neck sundress from Athena Procopiou, in a silk/cotton blend with a faint floral design, actually looks quite suitable for a casual setting like the beach—but its $680 price tag, not so much.
My alternative: Instead, how about this beachy halter dress, with some nice cutouts around the hem, for $27 (marked down from $38) at TB Dress? Or this similarly bare style, with crocheted detailing on the bodice, for only $25 (marked down from $30) at Make Me Chic?

Elle Pick #3: This strapless white column gown from Derek Lam looks, to my eyes, like nothing so much as like a bedsheet that a woman has hastily wrapped around her body upon finding herself caught in the nude. I realize it probably stays up better, but I certainly can't see what makes it worth $1,116 (marked down from $2,790).
My alternative: This doesn't really strike me as a practical style for a beach wedding, but if you like it, why not get this Natalie Deayala strapless column dress for $288 at Nordstrom? (Actually, $288 still seems pretty high to me for a dress that will be worn once—but apparently this deceptively simple style is quite tricky to sew, because I couldn't find a similar one for less. But if you don't mind something with a little more shape, there's always this strapless sheath dress from J.J.'s House for $100.)

Elle Pick #4: Next up is this Grecian-style Elizabeth and James maxi dress, with a plunging neckline in a sort of champagne color. At $425, it looks almost reasonable compared to the dresses Elle has been featuring so far.
My alternative: But it starts to look a lot less reasonable next to this Grecian-inspired dress from Asos, in a "silver shimmer" shade, for $45 (marked down from $89). Since that one's only available in size small, I also searched out this Asos dress, also in a Grecian style, for $48 (marked down from $80, available in medium and large.)

Elle Pick #5: Here's yet another highly inappropriate choice for a beach wedding: an off-the-shoulder mermaid dress from Reformation, with a full lace overlay, for $488.
My alternative: If you're determined to wear this style on the beach, you have lots of less expensive options. You can pay $247 (marked down from $560) for this very similar dress, complete with the lace overlay, from J.J.'s House; you can opt, instead, for a prom dress in the same shape with beading as well as lace, available in white, for $101 (marked down from $140) at Asvogue; or you can choose this less elaborate prom dress, with peek-a-boo lace at the shoulders and hemline, for $32 (marked down from $35) at OASAP.

Elle Pick #6: I'm honestly not even sure how to describe this silk crepe contraption from Juan Carlos Obando. It's like a basic, full-length slip dress, but with a sort of pair of ruffled baldrics that drape over the front and hold the bride's wrists loosely to her sides. It's a unique look, no doubt, but not one I'd consider worth $1,038 (marked down from $2,595).
My alternative: I'll admit, I wasn't able to find anything quite like this on any other site. However, a long slip dress is easy enough to find, like this $84 one from Lulus. Then, for that added draped layer, you can simply add a long white scarf, like this $19 one from Bebe. Or, if you really want that draped-over-the-shoulder look, you could go for this shorter dress from Asos for only $29.

Elle Pick #7: Now here's one that actually does look rather beachy: a sort of boho maxi sundress with lacy cutouts from LOVESHACKFANCY (I swear, that's how the retailer spells it). Only does it really have to be $445?
My alternative: Well, I couldn't find an identical style, but I found a couple of other white dresses with that boho vibe, including the cutouts. This longer-sleeved style is $70 at Showpo, and this daring spaghetti-strap style is a mere $20 at CiChic.

Elle Pick #8: This one, I'll admit, is rather fetching: a long, flared, strapless dress from Marchesa Notte with butterflies embroidered on the bodice and around the hem. By hand, probably, considering the $717 price tag.
My alternative: Once again, I couldn't find anything just like this, but if it's the butterfly motif you're in love with, you could go with this ballgown with blue satin butterflies on the overskirt, available for $158 from the SarahDress booth on Bonanza. (She also offers the same style with red, black, or purple butterflies.) Or there's this little $59 number from Milanoo, though it's much shorter and not strapless.

Elle Pick #9: Aaaand we're back to styles completely inappropriate for the beach, with this Michael Lo Sordo gown featuring an ultra-deep plunging neckline and a train. Despite the simple lines, spaghetti straps, and bare back, it's hardly beachwear, especially at $1,610.
My alternative: The $84 slipdress from Lulus that I mentioned above has a fairly similar style—clean lines, spaghetti straps, bare back, and deep (though not quite so outrageously deep) neckline. Or, you could go for this even more daring dress that pairs the plunging neckline and bare back with a translucent skirt, for $27 at Shein.

Elle Pick #10: Of all the dresses in the Elle article, this one seems the most bizarre choice for a casual beach wedding. Sure, this Monique Lhuillier dress has a simple column shape, but it combines that with huge, poofy, incredibly elaborate sleeves, made of sheer fabric covered in thousands of pearl beads (with more of the same on the neckline). At least you can see why this dress costs a whopping $8,995, but still, that's more than three times what we spent on our whole wedding.
My alternative: Okay, I'll admit it: this dress is unique. I could not find anything, anywhere, that was quite like it. However, I could find quite a number of dresses that had the same general kind of Italian Renaissance look and feel. For instance, this seller on Etsy offers a dress she calls the "Juliette style" (the same name as the pricey one), actually custom made by hand to your measurements, for only $195. And if you don't like that one, there are numerous other Renaissance-style gowns available from other Etsy sellers, some more costly than others.

Elle Pick #11: This frilly little two-piece ensemble by Rodarte is rather daring even for a beach wedding: a tulle bustier top and matching skirt that leave the midriff bare. More alarming still, it was priced (when it was still available) at a jaw-dropping $8,970.
My alternative: I didn't find an ensemble quite like this, but it's simple enough to find similar pieces as separates. This cropped lace camisole top is only $14 at Shein, and this lacy skirt from Asos is a good match for it at $40.

Elle Pick #12: This long, lacy prairie dress from Temperley London is in a simple, rustic style that looks appropriate enough for the beach—all except for the $1,195 price tag.
My alternative: A quick search turned up a lot of dresses in a similar style to this one, but with one catch: all of them are secondhand. This rustic style was very popular in the 70s, so if you're willing to scour eBay and Etsy, you should be able to turn up something like it at a bargain price—such as this vintage ruffled number for $88, or this classic Gunne Sax piece for $40.

Elle Pick #13: Lastly, we have this kimono-sleeve wrap dress from Reformation. At $268, it actually looks very reasonable compared to the others in the Elle article, but it still seems rather pricey for such a simple style.
My alternative: And indeed, you can get this look for quite a bit less. This $110 Topshop dress has basically the same style with a shorter, asymmetrical skirt, while this longer-sleeved version is only $50 (marked down from $80) at GCGme.

So there you have it: 13 off-the-rack looks for a beach wedding, with prices ranging from $21 to $288 rather than $268 to nearly nine grand. And if none of these particular styles happens to be to your taste, there are plenty of others to choose from, at equally reasonable prices, on the sites where they're sold.

The main difference between Elle's selections and mine is that most of mine aren't being sold as "wedding" dresses (though some are sold on wedding sites as bridesmaids' dresses). This is yet another example of how attaching the word "wedding" to anything can at least double the price. So the moral of the story is, if you're trying to wed on a budget, try to do as much as possible of your shopping without bringing the word "wedding" into the equation at all. Look for dresses, not wedding dresses; cakes, not wedding cakes; caterers, not wedding caterers. If leaving out that one word can save you a thousand or more on the dress alone, just imagine how much it could cut the cost of an entire wedding.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Gardeners' Holidays 2017: Squashmas

For the past couple of years, the August Gardeners' Holiday that began its life as Squashmas has focused more on other crops. In 2015 the squash harvest, though plentiful, was eclipsed by the bounty of our first harvest of bush cherries (which, sadly, has never been repeated since). And last year, our tomatoes were the stars of the garden show.

But this year, Squashmas returns to its roots. Although our attempt to fend off squash vine borers by burying the stems of the plants in dirt was only a partial success, both plants are still producing for now, and today we enjoyed our first zucchini-based meal of the season. The dish, Linguini Aglio Olio with Zucchini, is one we found in Nava Atlas's Vegetariana and enjoy regularly during zucchini season. Basically, it's just zucchini sauteed in olive oil with lots of garlic (the recipe calls for eight cloves to three medium zukes), with a little fresh parsley thrown in until it's just wilted, all tossed with linguini and seasoned with salt, pepper, and oregano. It's a quick and simple meal that always comes out well.

This time, however, the dish had a special feature. Aside from the linguine and the olive oil, everything in it came from our garden. The zucchini, of course, but also the parsley, the oregano (gathered from our herb bed in the front yard), and even the garlic.

This is the first year we've successfully grown our own garlic, though not the first time we've tried. I'd read somewhere that if you simply pull apart a head of garlic and plant the individual cloves, each one will mature into a complete head of garlic, which you can harvest as soon as the green tops turn brown and dry. However, the first time I tried this, not much actually came up. So I did a little more research and found that the easiest varieties to grow in cold-winter areas are "hardneck" garlics, which are distinguished by a stiff stem surrounded by a single ring of large cloves. What we'd planted was "softneck" garlic, which has a softer stem and several layers of cloves, because that was what we'd been able to find at the grocery store. (Most garlic sold in supermarkets is the softneck type, because it stores better.)

So last year, we hit the farmers' market, where we found hardneck garlic for sale for what we would normally consider a ridiculous price—something like a dollar a head. However, we figured if we could manage to turn that one head into a dozen or so, we'd end up paying less than 10 cents a head, which would be a pretty good deal, even if we had to wait close to a year for it.

Now, when you grow garlic, you have to plant it in the fall, leave it in the ground all winter, and harvest it in the summer. So rather than put it into the main garden, where we'd have to work around it during our spring planting, we tucked the cloves into the dirt around the edges of our asparagus bed. I've since read that this actually isn't a good companion planting; asparagus is one of the few crops that doesn't do well next to garlic, which can transmit diseases to it and maybe disrupt its root system when harvested—which might explain why the asparagus in that bed hasn't been doing so well. So I guess next year we'll have to find another spot for it. (Perhaps we could plant it in a ring around our rosebush, as that's supposed to be a beneficial pairing.)

But if the asparagus was at all harmed by the presence of the garlic, the reverse clearly wasn't true. We got some delicious green garlic scapes this spring, and about two weeks ago, Brian went out and came in with a fistful of smallish, but perfectly firm and intact heads of garlic. Unfortunately, he had already trimmed off the stems by the time it occurred to me to check on how best to store it, and according to The Spruce, it's actually better to leave them on until they're fully dried out. But we followed the rest of the article's instructions—brushing off the dirt but not washing the heads with water, and leaving them in a cool, dry room to "cure"—so we should be able to keep it in good condition for two to four months. That is, if we don't eat it all before then.

So this year's Squashmas is really a dual celebration: our usual zucchini crop, and our first-ever crop of garlic. Here's to many more!

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Case of the Disappearing Plums

We've been having kind of a roller-coaster ride with our plum trees this year. Last May, it was looking like we might actually get a decent crop of plums for the first time. The three trees weren't all producing equally; the Opal tree, although it bloomed in the spring, never seemed to set any fruit at all. But both the Mount Royal and the Golden Gage were loaded down with clusters of tiny green balls, and we were beginning to speculate about what we might do with them if we actually had too many to eat come August.

Then, around mid-June, we started to notice that several of the plums, particularly the Mount Royals, were dropping off the trees before they'd even ripened. As we'd experienced this same problem last year, I quickly recognized it as brown rot, a fungal disease that I'd hoped we might be able to avoid this year. Pretty much all you can do about it is remove the diseased fruit—making sure to clear all the fallen fruits off the ground, as well, so they don't pass on the infection next year—and hope it doesn't spread. So that's what I did, but since I'd done the same thing last year and it wasn't enough to save any of the plums, I wasn't optimistic. I figured we'd simply have to write off this year's crop, and take more steps early next year to prevent the problem from recurring—pruning the trees in February or March, before they bloom, and dosing them with a copper fungicide during the growing season.

However, as July progressed, it looked like the remaining plums might pull through after all. A few of them continued to shrivel and drop, or to display the telltale brown spots and oozing sap of brown rot, but I carefully removed those as soon as I spotted them, and the rest of the fruit actually seemed to be ripening normally. By last week, the boughs of the Mount Royal were heavy with deep-blue plums, and one of the branches on the Golden Gage was so heavily laden that it was actually drooping under its own weight.

If you're wondering why I don't have a photo of that heavy-hanging branch, well, it's not there anymore. Or rather, the branch is, but the fruit isn't.

Earlier this week, we noticed that nearly all the Golden Gage plums on that one branch had completely disappeared. I don't mean that they'd fallen off, like the ones struck by brown rot; we searched all around the tree, and there was no trace of them. They'd simply vanished, leaving only empty stubs to mark where they'd been. And by this weekend, the last solitary fruit left on that branch had vanished as well. In fact, pretty much all the low-hanging branches on that tree had been stripped bare.

We pretty quickly ruled out birds as a culprit, because they probably wouldn't be able to seize and remove an entire plum; they'd just peck at the fruit, and whatever was left would drop to the ground. Likewise, we didn't think squirrels would be able to remove a whole plum and scurry away with it—and if they were to blame, there would be no reason for them to leave the upper branches unmolested. They were at the right height for a deer to have taken them, but deer almost never come into our neighborhood, and we didn't find any hoofprints. So all the evidence seems to point to a human culprit—one who's not tall enough to reach the upper branches.

But even this theory raises more questions than answers. For one thing, who would want to steal plums that weren't even ripe yet? And why would a thief who was willing to eat nearly-ripe plums take only the green plums off the Golden Gage tree, and completely ignore all the purple plums on the Mount Royal, which were larger, more abundant, and, in appearance at least, much closer to edible ripeness? And, if the thief didn't intend to eat the plums, then what on earth did they want with them? And most of all, what kind of person would do such a thing—just walk up and calmly help themselves to fruit in someone else's yard, without even asking?

For some reason, the idea of losing our plums to a human thief bothers us a great deal more than losing them to hungry animals. It doesn't really make sense, because the end result is the same either way: fewer plums for us to eat. But animals going after your crops is something you more or less expect as a gardener; you plan for it, do your best to minimize it, but accept some amount of loss as the price of doing business. But another human being simply taking the fruit off these trees that we went to so much trouble to plant and tend—as if they had just as much right to the fruit as we did after all our work—feels like an outright violation.

But in either case, there's pretty much nothing we can do about it now. It's unlikely we'll ever be able to catch the plum thief in the act, and there's probably no other way to establish just who—or what—is to blame. And since all the low-hanging branches on the Golden Gage are now stripped clean, and the thief doesn't appear to be interested in the Mount Royals, I guess there's nothing in particular we need to do to protect the remaining fruit.

However, as Brian has now tasted one of the Mount Royal plums and determined that they're ripe enough to be edible (if not quite at full sweetness yet), he's planning to start picking them immediately and packing them with his lunch. That way, we can be sure we get to enjoy at least some of the fruits of our labors—even if they're not as enjoyable as they would be when fully ripe. As for the remaining Golden Gages, we'll just have to keep a sharp eye on them, and go out there with a ladder to harvest them the minute they look ripe enough. Chances are, whoever is responsible for the pilfering wouldn't be bold enough to haul a ladder into our garden in broad daylight and start openly picking fruit off our trees, but with a thief this brazen, you can't be sure.

POSTSCRIPT: No sooner had I posted this than we got proof positive squirrels were to blame after all. We went out to take another look at the trees, and Brian spotted one of the furry little buggers sitting in our neighbor's driveway, cheeky as you please, with a purple plum in its mouth.

So the good news is, we now have an adversary we can feel free to strike back at; the bad news is, it's a wily one, and we can't be sure what will work. Suggestions I've read so far include:
  • Trapping them. I'm skeptical about this, as there are so many squirrels around here that we can't possibly trap all of them.
  • Putting up a baffle—a slick tube or cone of aluminum or plastic that the squirrels can't climb up. The problem here is that it has to go around the main trunk at least four to five feet off the ground, or else squirrels can jump right past it, and our trees aren't tall enough for that.
  • Deterring them with predator urine or human hair. We have plenty of the latter, so we've scattered as much as we could muster around the base of the trees, but it remains to be seen how it will work. We also have two predators (feline) sharing our house, so perhaps some of their used litter would work as a deterrent. A few sources also mention mothballs as a deterrent, but not everyone is enthusiastic about the results.
  • Scaring them with bells or shiny CDs hung from the tree branches. This only works temporarily, as they get used to the noise and light after a while, but it might be enough to get us through to the harvest.
  • Scaring them with fake predators, like owls or snakes. Many people say the little rodents catch on to this within a day or two, but Brian went ahead anyway and put out his rubber snake in the garden, where he found one of our new Pineapple tomatoes had been molested. It couldn't hurt.
  • Spraying the fruit with hot pepper spray. We could probably make some, but we'd have to reapply it after every rainfall—and of course wash it off carefully before eating the fruit ourselves.
  • Smearing the trunk with something sticky. We saw some recommendations for a product called Tanglefoot, which is intended to trap insects, but some people say the squirrels don't like it on their paws. Here, again, we'd have to apply it far enough up the trunk and branches that the squirrels couldn't jump right over it.
We haven't decided which measures to take yet, but at least we know what we're up against.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Money Crashers: 5 Bad Habits That Are Costing You Money and How to Break Them

Just a quick update here to let you know about my latest Money Crashers article, which is all about bad habits and how much they cost you—and what you can do, short of quitting, to keep that cost down.

For instance, my biggest vice is sweets, and while I know I'd be healthier if I kicked the habit completely, I also know it ain't gonna happen. So what I generally do instead is try to indulge in homemade goodies, which are cheaper (and at least somewhat healthier) than pastries from the fancy bakery. I've even learned how to make my own cafe mocha and Frappuccino—though they're really not quite the same as the real thing. This way, I can indulge at less cost.

This article covers ways to do the same with five common habits that are bad for you to varying degrees: smoking, drinking, gambling, caffeine, and fast food. I do cover ways to quit if you need to, but also ways to enjoy less harmful vices without busting your budget.

5 Bad Habits That Are Costing You Money and How to Break Them

Monday, July 24, 2017

Recipe of the Month: Leek and Mushroom Bread Pudding

As the end of July approached, we realized that once again, the clock was ticking for us to come up with a new Recipe of the Month. I had several recipes that I'd marked in cookbooks or pulled out of magazines, but all of them would require ingredients we didn't have, so Brian decided he'd just go searching online for a dish that could be made with what we had on hand. That would allow him to make it, and me to blog about it, this weekend, rather than pushing that deadline right down to the last minute.

We had some leeks and mushrooms in the fridge, so Brian decided to search for for leek and mushroom dishes. Many of these were soups, which we deemed too hot for the weather, or pasta dishes, which we thought were a little too simple to really count as a new recipe. But eventually he landed on this Leek and Mushroom Bread Pudding recipe, which looked perfect. We already had all the ingredients (with a few minor substitutions), and it looked, at a cursory glance, like it could be made in about an hour and a half. So if we started early enough, we'd be able to fix it in time for a 5pm dinner on Saturday and still make it to a baseball game in Trenton at 7pm.

Unfortunately, when Brian started work on the recipe on Saturday afternoon, he noticed a few steps in the recipe he'd overlooked before. The pudding didn't just have to bake for 70 to 80 minutes; it required another 20 minutes after that to brown, and another 15 to 20 minutes after that to cool. All told, it would take more time to prepare than we had before we needed to leave for the game. So he set aside that recipe for Sunday and fixed a tried-and-true dish that took only 20 minutes to prepare.

On Sunday, he made sure to get started on the bread pudding by mid-afternoon, knowing that we'd have to eat around 5pm yet again to make it to an early role-playing game session. Yet even as he was working on it, he realized that there were still more steps in the recipe he'd overlooked; for instance, the ingredients were supposed to sit out for a good half-hour to let the bread soak up the milk before the pudding went into the oven. By this time, he'd already done enough prep work to commit himself to the dish, but if he stuck to the recipe, by the time it was done we wouldn't have any time to eat it. So he ended up making some alterations to the recipe on the fly to get it done on time.

Since I've never tasted the dish in its original form, I can't say for sure that it tastes just as good after these adjustments, but I can say that it still tastes plenty good. Even though he baked it at a higher temperature and left out the extra soaking time, it was plenty moist, and his substitution of whole wheat bread (which was what we had) for "hearty white bread" gave it plenty of body. And the substitution of Monterey Jack cheese for the "Gruyère, Baby Swiss, or Emmenthaler" the recipe recommended was probably an improvement, as the milder cheese allowed the savory flavors of the mushrooms and leeks to take center stage.

All in all, this is a dish I'd certainly be willing to have again, though I must admit that even in its revised form, it's still rather time-consuming. In future, I might like to experiment with making it in the Crock Pot, so it could cook unattended over the course of the day...though I'm not sure how we could do that without forgoing the final browning step, and it would be a pity to lose that nice golden crust. But even if we have to keep the recipe in its current form, it's worth hanging on to for those lazy winter weekends (when we don't have a ballgame or a role-playing game to rush out to).

Here's Brian's revised version of the recipe:
Leek and Mushroom Bread Pudding 
4 cups whole wheat bread, cut into 1/2” cubes
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 large leek, diced
½ lb. white button mushrooms, sliced
1½ cups milk (nonfat)
2 Tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
3 large eggs
½ tsp salt
2-3 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted
4-6 oz. grated Monterey Jack cheese 
Prepare a greased 8” x 8” casserole dish. 
Preheat oven to 300 degrees F.  Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper (or a silicone baking mat) and spread bread cubes out on it.  Bake for 10-12 minutes until cubes are slightly browned. 
Remove from oven and increase oven temperature to 325 degrees F. 
Saute the leeks in 1 Tbsp. olive oil until the leeks are soft and slightly browned.  Remove from skillet, add another 1 Tbsp. olive oil, and saute the mushrooms until browned. 
In a bowl, beat eggs and add milk, parsley, salt, and cheese. 
In another bowl, toss toasted bread cubes with melted butter.  Add leeks, mushrooms, and egg mixture and mix carefully.  Pour into greased casserole dish.  Cover with aluminum foil and allow to sit for five minutes. 
Place in oven and bake for 45 minutes at 325 degrees F and 15 minutes at 350 degrees F. 
Remove foil and allow to bake for an additional 15 minutes at 350 degrees F. Remove from oven when the top is browned and the pudding is baked through.