Sunday, July 15, 2018

Recipe of the Month: Thai Stir-Fry

Our "Provider" green beans, which were such a disappointment last year, are really living up to their name this time around. We've already harvested over three pounds of them from our eight square feet of plants, with more coming every day. So after a few rounds of green beans amandine and our favorite eggplant and string beans in garlic sauce, he decided it was time to branch out and look for some new green bean recipes. And since we've also planted Thai basil for the first time this year, he thought a Thai recipe would be a good choice.

He started out looking for recipes for pad prik king, a dish we've had in Thai restaurants before that contains both string beans and Thai basil. But all the recipes he found for that seemed rather complicated, so he tried just searching on these two ingredients, and he came across this Thai pork, basil, and green bean stir-fry. Naturally, he had to make some modifications to this; he replaced the pork with pan-fried tofu cubes (prepared using his usual method for stir-fry) and toned down the spice by substituting one red jalapeno pepper for the two Thai bird chilis. He also left out the salt, thinking the soy sauce and fish sauce would make it quite salty enough, and added half a tablespoon of corn starch to thicken up the sauce. And he scaled up the green beans to 10 or 11 ounces rather than the 9 the recipe calls for, figuring a few extra veggies couldn't hurt.

The first thing we noticed when we tried the dish was that it was very salty—to the point that we both ended up taking more rice to dilute it a bit. It's hard to imagine how powerful the original recipe would have been with even more salt spread over a smaller volume of beans. Brian's best guess as to what happened is that adding the corn starch to the sauce made it stick to the veggies more, rather than running off into the bottom of the pan, so we ended up getting more of the salt even though he used less of it.

However, once we'd cut the veggies with more rice, the saltiness receded and the other flavors of the sauce came out a bit more. The Thai basil—which has a pungent, vaguely anise-like flavor almost nothing like regular basil—lent its distinctive savor, and the hot pepper and sugar gave it a background of spice and sweetness. Even the heavy salt didn't deter either of us from going back for seconds.

We both think with some further modifications to cut down the saltiness, this recipe should be a keeper. Next time he makes it, Brian plans to cut the soy sauce by at least half, making up the volume with either water or sherry. And if the Provider beans keep providing at their current rate, we shouldn't have to wait too long to try it.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

The Plastic Free July challenge

A couple of days ago, I discovered the "Plastic Free July" challenge. The idea is that, for the month of July, or some portion thereof, you pledge to do one of the following:
  1. Avoid plastic packaging;
  2. Eschew single-use plastic takeaway containers (bags, bottles, cups, and straws); or
  3. Go all out and attempt to remove all single-use plastic from your life. 
This challenge really sounds custom-made for me, doesn't it? I mean, I'm all about living sustainably and reducing waste, and I also love lifestyle challenges of all kinds. I've already taken the SNAP Challenge, the Live the Wage Challenge, the Rationing Challenge, the Macklemore Thrift Shop Challenge, and several others of my own invention, such as the IKEA Challenge, the One Harvest Challenge, and the Local Shopping Challenge. And I certainly support the stated goals of "raising awareness of our growing plastic waste problem" and "building a global movement that dramatically reduces plastic use and improves recycling." Yet after examining some of the materials about the challenge, I'm not sure it's something I'm prepared to take on.

The first problem with it is covered in this Guardian article, which is where I learned about the challenge in the first place: plastic is so ubiquitous that for most people, giving it up simply isn't practical. The only people who can really aspire to go completely plastic-free are the "lucky few" for whom money is more or less no object, who can afford to do all their shopping from the bulk bins at Whole Foods and send away for biodegradable dental floss made from natural silk that costs $10 a jar. Spending that kind of money to avoid throwing away a few grams of plastic floss is not what I consider a wise use of resources.

Furthermore, no matter how much money you're willing to throw at the problem, sometimes going plastic-free simply isn't feasible. When I contemplated taking on the challenge, I quickly realized that two of the items I was planning to buy that very day were packaged in plastic:
  1. A prescription for clindamycin lotion, which I need to use daily for my rosacea. This is simply the way the drug is packaged; there's literally no way to get it without the plastic. So to avoid one tiny plastic bottle that weighs less than an ounce—most of which is recyclable—I'd have to go against my doctor's orders.
  2. A bottle of conditioner. This isn't a medical necessity, per se, but it's something I absolutely need if I don't want to look like the Bride of Frankenstein (which, you could argue, makes it a necessity for my emotional and social health). I have finally managed, after extensive searching, to find a brand of conditioner that works reasonably well on my hair, is cruelty-free, and isn't terribly expensive, and I'd hate to give it up—but even if I were willing to switch brands for the sake of avoiding plastic packaging, I've never seen any conditioner that was packaged in anything but a plastic bottle. (I checked the "Personal Care" section on the challenge website, and it offered some plastic-free alternatives to shampoo, but none for conditioner.)
But the most fundamental problem for me is that in some cases, fixating on plastic can drive you toward alternatives that create environmental problems of their own. (The author of the Guardian article touches on this problem too, saying "choosing plastic-free can often mean sacrificing other values – such as not buying things that contain unsustainably sourced palm oil or choosing the locally made option.")

For instance, the site suggests that instead of using plastic "bin liners" for trash, you should "Line your bin with several layers of newspaper." Now, I guess if you already get a newspaper, this isn't such a bad idea; it is a bit of a waste sending your paper to the landfill rather than recycling it, but that's offset by the waste you don't generate buying and dumping plastic trash bags. But what if you prefer the greener alternative of reading your news online to save paper (which requires not only tree pulp, but also lots of water and energy, to produce)? Should you start subscribing to a paper, with all the extra waste it creates, just so you'll have sheets to line your bin with? Is it worth it just to avoid dumping one plastic trash bag per month (which could be made from recycled plastic, at that)?

Likewise, the site's "action picker" suggests replacing plastic milk jugs with "waxed card" cartons. Except here in the USA, those cartons aren't coated with wax, they're coated with plastic—which means you can't compost or recycle them. The plastic jugs contain more plastic, but they can be recycled, while the cartons have to go straight to the landfill.

In other cases, it's not the health of the planet you're putting at risk by ditching plastics; it's your own health. For example, the site suggests avoiding sunscreen by "covering up" or "making your own." Covering up in July may be a reasonable option in Australia, where it's the middle of winter, but if you try that in the kind of weather we had here in New Jersey last week, you're putting yourself at risk for heat stroke. And a homemade sunscreen is not a reliable way to protect yourself from sunburn and skin cancer, any more than a homemade toothpaste (which the site also recommends) is a reliable way to prevent cavities.

Now, obviously, there are some plastics it makes sense to ditch—if you can do so without too much cost and effort. There's no real downside, for instance, to carrying a reusable shopping bag, or making your own seltzer instead of buying it in bottles. And while making my own deodorant didn't actually work for me, it was a worthwhile experiment, and it wouldn't hurt me to try getting creative with some of the other plastic-packaged products I buy now.

So I've decided that my personal version of the Plastic Free July challenge is going to focus, not on  plastic per se, but on "stupid plastic"—the plastic items I know I'd be better off without, if I could only figure out a reasonable way to do without them. Watch this space throughout the month for news on which plastics I attempt to cut out or cut down on, and to what extent I succeed.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Bonus recipe: Raspberry Fool

Last month we tried a great dessert that would have been ideal for my Recipe of the Month. Unfortunately, the first time we made it, I forgot to get a picture, so I went with my Eggs with Squash Blossoms instead. But it was just too good a recipe not to share, so you're getting it now as a bonus recipe.

Last month, our raspberry canes were producing at an amazing, even ridiculous rate. We harvested so many, so quickly, that our usual methods of eating them up—raw by the handful or sprinkled on salads—weren't nearly enough to dispose of them. The obvious thing to do was to put some of them into a dessert, such as a berry crisp—but the weather was so hot that baking didn't seem very appealing.

So I went rummaging through our recipe file in search of a no-bake dessert you could make with fresh fruit, and I came across this little gem from Mark Bittman: Strawberry Fool. A fool is an amazingly simple fruit dessert that you make by folding together sweetened, crushed fruit and whipped cream. Bittman fancies it up a little by pureeing half the fruit and leaving the other half in small chunks, which he says helps it keep its texture better if you need to store it for several hours in the fridge. However, since our plan was to whip it up and gobble it down right away, we decided to skip all that and make our Raspberry Fool the easy way.

Brian halved the recipe and made a slight additional modification to it, using powdered sugar in the whipped cream because it dissolves better. So here's his final version:
RASPBERRY FOOL
Dump 1 cup fresh raspberries in a small bowl with 3 Tbsp. sugar. Mix together, chopping  up the berries with the side of a spoon until they're sort of half-mashed. Put the bowl in the fridge to chill for about half an hour.
In another bowl, combine 1/2 cup whipping cream, 1 Tbsp. powdered sugar, and 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract. Whip this mixture, either by hand or with an electric mixer, until stiff peaks form.
Fold in the chilled raspberry mixture, dish out into two small cups or bowls, and serve.
This came out a pretty pink shade that was a bit hard to capture in a photograph, but still more impressive was the taste and texture: sweet yet tart, creamy and fruity, and light as a cloud. It was heavenly. If this isn't what angels eat, it must be because they can't grow fresh raspberries up there.

As for whether we'd make it again, that's an easy one: We already have, several times. Amusingly, when we first bought the cream for this, we were a little disgruntled to discover that our local supermarket didn't sell it in cups, only in pints. Since we were only planning on making a half recipe,  we figured we'd need to figure out some way of using up an extra cup and a half of cream. But as it turned out, that was no problem at all; we simply made the same dessert three more times over the next two weeks.

Unfortunately, the flood of raspberries we were getting last month has slowed to a trickle, at least for now. So we'll have to put this recipe away for a while, though we'll probably break it out again when our fall crop of raspberries comes in. But even if we decide at that point to go with a warm dessert more suitable for chilly weather, we'll certainly be making this again next summer, and every summer so long as our raspberries keep producing.

Plus, now that we've learned the ways of foolery, we'll probably be trying this dessert with other types of fruit as well. Bittman says it works with any type of soft fruit, so we could try it with other kinds of berries, peaches, or even plums, if we manage to get any off our trees. (So far, our attempts at pruning and spraying haven't been too successful at warding off the brown rot, so it's not looking promising.) I even found a couple of recipes for rhubarb fool on the BBC Recipes site, and we've certainly got no shortage of that. In fact, since our rhubarb starts producing so early, it might prove just the thing for a grain-free dessert next Passover.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Money Crashers: How to Save Money With Your High-Speed Internet Service Provider

Regular readers of this blog will know that over the years, Brian and I have had a fair amount of trouble with our Internet service.

There are two and only two broadband providers available in our area: Optimum (formerly Cablevision) and Verizon. At our old apartment, we had Verizon DSL, so when we bought this house, we initially tried to set up the same service here. For nearly a month, Verizon gave us the runaround, telling me every time I called that our service would be activated "in a day or two." In the meantime, I had to limp along with an antiquated dial-up connection, supplemented by piggybacking on our neighbors' connections when I could. Then, at the end of the month, Verizon sent a message to say, "Sorry, we don't have DSL" in your area and summarily cut off even the dial-up access I'd had up to that point. So I had to hastily set up an account with Optimum, which we've had ever since. In 2013, we transferred our phone service to them as well after our Verizon landline became unreliable (and the company, after putting us off for a week, failed to show up for its appointment to do the repair, without even attempting to notify us).

However, in the ten years we've been with Optimum, I've often had my doubts about whether we're really getting our money's worth. I was already questioning our decision in 2014, just one year after we'd switched, when our introductory rate ran out and I realized that we could save over $500 a year by switching both phone and Internet back to Verizon. I questioned it still more in 2015, when Optimum raised our rates yet again right around the same time Verizon showed up at our door to announce that its Fios service (faster and more reliable than our cable connection) was now available in our area. I was actually on the point of switching earlier this year, but changed my mind after reading about how Verizon was one of the ISPs behind a big push to end net neutrality protections—and Optimum was one of the few ISPs that wasn't. (The company has since implied that it will continue to refrain from blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization of content, but it's made no explicit promises.)

But just recently, Optimum raised our rates yet again, from $105 to $115 a month. Verizon, meanwhile, is willing and even eager to offer us a gigabit connection, plus TV and phone service, all for $87 a month. Or, we could get the cheaper 100Mbps connection - still much faster than what we have right now - plus voice service for $70 a month (if we purchase the router instead of renting it). And given that Verizon actually gets higher marks for customer service than Optimum, and given that Optimum hasn't really promised to maintain open Internet protections on its service, is it worth an extra $540 a year?

I haven't decided yet what's best for us, and I know from past experience that trying to negotiate with Optimum is unlikely to get me a better deal. But what hasn't worked for me could still work for you.

So in my latest Money Crashers article, I offer some advice on how to get a lower rate on Internet service. I discuss such strategies as looking for subsidies (which only works if your income is below a certain level), comparison shopping, negotiating with your provider, cutting your Internet speed, and dropping unnecessary extras.

How to Save Money With Your High-Speed Internet Service Provider

I even learned, while researching this article, about one other option that I might try: hiring a company that will negotiate with your ISP for you. If they succeed in getting you a lower rate, they take half your savings for the first year as their payment; if they don't, it costs you nothing. Given that I wasn't able to get anything out of Optimum when I tried negotiating by myself, it seems I have nothing to lost by letting one of these companies give it a try. If they succeed where I failed, I'll save money, and if not, I won't have wasted either time or money in the attempt.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Recipe of the Month: Eggs with Squash Blossoms

My Recipe of the Month for June is a little unusual. Normally, I feature two types of dishes: recipes that I found somewhere and Brian prepared, and recipes that Brian made up all by himself. But this month's recipe was my own work from start to finish. I came up with the idea, found the recipe, harvested the ingredients, prepared it, and cooked it. Though not exactly in that order.

See, Brian is off to Chicago this weekend for a seminar, leaving me on my own for dinner. I had no particularly good ideas, so early this evening, I found myself wandering through the garden, looking for some veggies I could cook. However, aside from lettuce—which I deemed not enough to make a meal of—the pickings were kind of slim. The arugula, as predicted, had bolted; the snap peas were recently picked clean; the peppers weren't ripe yet; and the few squash on the zucchini plants were too small to do much with. However, I did notice that there were several large, yellow blossoms on the plants that looked ripe for the picking; in fact, two had already fallen off, and another came off in my hand when I went to examine it. I remembered reading before that squash blossoms are edible—indeed, they're considered a bit of a delicacy—so I figured maybe I could do something with those and get a Recipe of the Month out of it at the same time.

So I carefully gathered up the blossoms, carried them inside, and went hunting for some ideas for what to do with them. How to Cook Everything, failing to live up to its name, had nothing to say on the subject, so I turned to the Internet. The first few ideas I came across there—fried squash blossoms, squash blossom pesto, pasta with zucchini blossom sauce—all called for a much larger volume of squash blossoms than the three I had, and looked far too complicated for a simple meal for one. But eventually I tracked down a page that suggested serving them in an omelet or, simpler still, in a dish of scrambled eggs with some fresh herbs. I was pretty sure I could handle that.

So I headed back outside and started gathering a few more ingredients. Following the suggestion of this recipe, I picked a couple of sprigs of fresh parsley and some sage leaves to stir into the eggs. I also gathered some lettuce for a side salad.

Then I started cooking. Since I had little to no idea what I was doing, this was more or less in full freestyle mode. I prepared the salad first (using a variation of my Rosy Summer Salad recipe) so I'd have everything ready when the eggs were done and could eat them while they were hot. Then I chopped up the herbs, tore the squash blossoms in half, minced a good-sized clove of garlic, and heated some oil in the big cast-iron pan. I sautéed the garlic in that for just a minute or so, then threw in the squash blossoms and let them cook until they were wilted. Then in went the eggs, with the herbs sprinkled on top, and I just stirred everything together and let it cook until it looked reasonably solid. I threw it on a plate with some leftover oven-browned potatoes, set the salad on the side, and called it dinner.

The finished product wasn't exactly pretty to look at, but it was perfectly edible. To be honest, I can't  say that the flavor of the squash blossoms seemed to add that much to it; perhaps it was overwhelmed by the stronger flavors of the herbs and garlic. But the combination of eggs, herbs, and garlic tasted just fine, and there was a certain relish in the idea that I was cooking with fancy ingredients even if they didn't taste like much. And as always, it was satisfying to know that all the produce (barring the potatoes) had all come out of our own little garden.

So would I make this dish again? Well, maybe if I were on my own for dinner under similar circumstances, I might. But if what I really wanted to do was make something that featured squash blossoms, I think I'd look for a different recipe that could highlight their delicate flavor a little better than this one. Still, given that I'm so used to having Brian do all the cooking, just being able to prepare a decent meal on my own was enough to give me a sense of accomplishment.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Gardener's Holidays 2018: Cornucopia

Well, it's officially summertime (not that the summer weather waited for the calendar), and our garden is looking a lot better than it was last year. Our sugar snap peas have been producing—not by the bucketload, but enough to provide handfuls of peas for stir-fries and salads—and we're harvesting so much lettuce that I'm actually getting a little tired of salad. There's still a bit of arugula left, as well (though it's likely to bolt pretty soon), and we're already seeing the first little squashlings on the zucchini plants. (Brian has been diligently covering their stems with dirt to deter the squash vine borers, and so far they look healthy.)

But the real star of our summer garden show is our raspberry canes. For reasons that aren't entirely clear to me, we have been getting a real bumper crop of berries this summer—so many that we actually haven't been able to eat them all. Last weekend, we went away to Boston for a Morris dance event, and we made a point of picking all the ripe raspberries we could find on Friday—about a pint's worth—and taking them with us as a gift for our host, because we knew they wouldn't last until we returned. So the bushes were picked clean right before our departure, and yet the day after we returned, Brian went out and gathered all these.

That's a two-quart bowl, so I estimate it contains at least five cups of berries—and that's what we picked after an absence of only two days. We happened to be at Trader Joe's last week, and we noticed that they were selling a tiny one-cup container of organic raspberries there for $4—so this bowl alone contains about $20 worth of fruit. And since then, the canes have only continued to produce at the same rate. We're filling up a pint container of berries pretty much every day.

Well, with a crop like this, we had to make some adjustments to our berry-eating habits. In the past, we've been fairly sparing with them—tossing a handful at a time into a salad, occasionally enjoying a half-cup or so fresh with lunch, and maybe saving some up to make into a dessert now and then. But this week, we've been doing all those things at once, plus filling up a quart container to take to my dad for a belated Father's Day gift, and still we can't keep up.

So, for the first time in our gardening lives, we have actually preserved a portion of our fruit harvest. Brian has now put two batches of berries, totaling about a quart and a half, into the freezer, simply spreading them out in a single layer on a cookie sheet. They freeze up quickly and maintain their shape, and he then transfers them to a large plastic bag for future use.

This, of course, means that we'll have to start digging up some recipes that actually call for frozen raspberries, which we've never had before, but that's hardly a tragedy. I've already found this one for Raspberry, Oat and Almond Bake in the Guardian, and we can always put them in smoothies.

Meanwhile, there are still more fresh raspberries out there to be harvested. If this keeps up, maybe we should just forget about buying fruit at all until fall.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Money Crashers: Men, Women & Money

In our household, I've always been the one to handle money matters. When we go shopping together, I whip out my card and pay the bill while Brian bags up the purchases. I always pay the monthly bills; even when Brian uses his own credit card that he had before we were married, he passes the bill on to me. And naturally, I'm the one to manage our budget sheet and handle all our investments.

The reason for this is simple: Brian just doesn't like dealing with money. He's happy to do all the cooking and scoop the litter box if it means he never has to worry about paying a bill. And I'm happy to handle all the financial matters if I don't have to cook, so that works out well.

Yet apparently, few men feel this way. Studies usually show that men are more interested in managing their money than women, and they're also more confident about their financial skills. Yet that confidence is often misplaced; men tend to invest more aggressively than women and, as a result, suffer bigger losses in the market. So overall, the less confident women actually earn marginally better returns than the men.

This is just one of the many ways men and women differ in their approach to money. In my latest Money Crashers article, I explore the differences between men and women on money matters of all kinds: spending, saving, investing, borrowing, and attitudes toward money. This article doesn't provide a once-and-for-all answer to the question of which sex handles money better—but it does show what they have to learn from each other.

Men, Women & Money – How the Sexes Differ With Their Finances