Saturday, September 23, 2017

Gardeners' Holidays 2017: Harvest Home

According to the calendar—and this cute Google Doodle—yesterday marked the start of fall. But just like last year, the weather remains stubbornly summery. According to the weather report, we can expect highs in the 80s and 90s at least through Wednesday; tomorrow, the heat index is expected to peak close to 100. Celebrating the autumn harvest in shorts and sandals, with a ceiling fan turning overhead, feels a bit inappopriate.

But our garden, at least, is not waiting for cooler weather to start delivering up its fall bounty. Here you see what we've gathered just in the past few days:
  • Five big Pineapple tomatoes. This is a new variety we tried this year, and I'd say it's a keeper. It takes a little while to start producing, but once the tomatoes show up, they just keep coming—hefty, orange-red globes with a firm texture and a pleasant, distinctly fruity flavor. We've tried them in salsa and various pasta dishes, and they seem to work well with everything.
  • One Black Prince and two Mr. Fumarole tomatoes. These varieties have been far less impressive. The Mr. Fumarole is a paste variety we tried this year to replace the disappointing Amish Paste variety, but it hasn't really been any more productive. Last year, in total, we harvested about a dozen good-sized Amish Pastes; this year to date, we've gathered only six smallish Mr. Fumaroles. The Black Princes have done a little better, yielding about ten fruits so far, with a smoky and complex flavor—but since the Pineapples also taste great and are both larger and more prolific, I'd just as soon plant more of those. (By the way, if it looks like these tomatoes aren't ripe yet, you're sort of right; in the past year or two, we've taken to picking our tomatoes at "first blush"—the very first hint of reddening on the end of the tomato—rather than letting them ripen fully on the vine. They ripen just fine indoors, and we don't lose nearly as many to splitting after a heavy rain.)
  • About a cup and a half of our old standby, the Sun Gold cherry tomatoes, which have given us several pounds to date and show no sign of stopping. So far, this is the only early tomato we've been able to grow with any success; other cold-tolerant varieties we've tried, such as Glacier and Moskvich, have given us next to nothing. The small size of the Sun Golds makes them a little hard to work with, but their sweet, mild flavor and incredible productivity mean they'll always have a place in our garden.
  • Two Waltham butternut squash, picked today off a vine that appears to be already dead, or at least dying. All the squash vines are gradually starting to wither, so at some point we'll just have to pick all the squash and store them for the winter, but for now we just grabbed the two that seemed most time-sensitive.
One additional crop that you can't see in the photo is our raspberries, which have been producing at such a rate that we have to go out and gather them nearly every day—braving clouds of mosquitoes, which for some reason tend to congregate in our side yard—just to keep up. Even picking them every other day, we tend to find that a fair number of them have gone from "not ripe enough to pick" to "too squishy to eat." It doesn't help that, even with the new raspberry trellis, the canes are thick and tangled enough that harvesting the berries is really a two-person job, requiring one person to extract each cane and hold it up while the other person gathers the berries thus exposed. Since Brian and I can't do it together every day, I often end up going out by myself, and a lot of berries inevitably get missed—only to be rediscovered later when they're half-fermented and sloughing off the vine. But even with all the ones that we have to discard, we're bringing in a good cup or so of berries every day, and there are still plenty of unripe ones out there on the canes. At this rate, we'll most likely go on harvesting them right up until the first hard frost.

So even if the weather remains unseasonably hot, we have plenty of fall produce to celebrate. We have a butternut squash lasagna in the oven right now, and perhaps we'll indulge in an apple-raspberry crisp for dessert to welcome in the autumn properly—even if a little prematurely.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Money Crashers: Top 13 Tuition-Free Colleges

As the old joke goes, the best way to succeed in life is to choose your parents wisely. Brian and I are a case in point. We were both lucky enough to have parents who could afford to put us through college, so we didn't emerge into the real world carrying a huge load of student debt like so many of our generation. And since we don't have kids of our own, the ever-higher cost of college tuition isn't a problem we've had to worry about since then.

However, I know that many others aren't as fortunate. There are plenty of folks in my age group who are now facing the daunting prospect of dealing with sky-high college costs for the second time with their kids—sometimes while they're still working on paying off their own student loans. So for them, I've written a Money Crashers article that explores an unusual and intriguing solution to the problem of college costs: tuition-free colleges.

Schools like this are rare, and they're not easy to get into. Some of them take only top-level students; others are limited to low-income students from specific areas of the country. Some of them focus specifically on training students for a particular career, such as music, the ministry, or naval architecture. And most of them require students to work in exchange for their free tuition, either while they're at school or by committing to some form of service (for instance, in the military) after they graduate.

However, if you or your offspring are lucky enough to meet the strict requirements for one of these schools, you have a chance of hitting the jackpot: a college education at no cost. (Okay, most of these schools aren't 100 percent free; while there's no tuition cost, they do charge a fee for room and board. But in many cases, you can pay for that with a scholarship or some form of work-study, as well.)

In this article, I describe 13 colleges across the U.S. where you can—with a bit of luck—earn your degree for free. For each one, I outline the requirements to get in, areas of study, and features of campus life. I also discuss the free tuition movement in a growing number of states, which aims to offer at least two years at a community college at no charge to in-state students.

Read about it here: Top 13 Tuition-Free Colleges: How to Get a Degree for Free

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Yard-Sale Index

It's the weekend of the annual town-wide yard sale in Highland Park, and Brian and I spent most of yesterday out hunting for interesting finds. Here's a quick summary of the results in list form, à la Harper's Index.
Hours spent shopping: 6

Number of sales visited: Over 50

Miles walked: About 6

Total amount spent: $18.50

Number of items acquired: 13

Number of those that will be holiday gifts: 3 or 4

Biggest-ticket item: A tie between a $5 Roku box and a $5 set of classic Alec Guinness films on DVD. (The set, which includes "The Lavender Hill Mob," "The Captain's Paradise," "The Man in the White Suit," "The Ladykillers," and "Kind Hears and Coronets," costs $35 new at Best Buy.)

Cheapest item: A tie among three items we acquired for the low, low price of completely free, including two road maps (which we actually do use regularly, since we're late adopters who have yet to take the plunge on a smartphone), four pens (even though I now have a couple of refillable roller-ball pens for everyday use, it's handy to have extras for such uses as logging gas mileage in the car and jotting notes during role-playing games), and a spare computer keyboard

Most useful purchase: A new neck (the part that attaches the handlebars to the frame) for Brian's bike, which currently has a stripped-out neck that makes it impossible to adjust the handlebars, for $1

Most disappointing purchase: The Roku. We bought this as an experiment because our old Media Spud, which has served us faithfully for over seven years, has started having trouble keeping up with the demands of streaming our favorite show, Critical Role, via Twitch—even at the lowest resolution. We'd been considering a Roku to replace it, so when we spotted this one, we figured it was worth risking $5 to see whether it could work for us. Unfortunately, the player turned out upon testing to be so old that it's not capable of streaming either Twitch or YouTube—the two sites that we rely on for most of our shows. However, Brian says he learned a fair amount about how the system works from tinkering with it, such as the fact that the bottom-of-the-line Roku Express should be able to meet our needs for only $25.

Item we were most disappointed not to find: A telephone to replace the one in our kitchen, which wasn't really designed to hang on the wall and has a tendency to drop its receiver off the cradle if it's not put back carefully—once breaking the cats' food dish in the process

Most unexpected acquisition: A flier from a Green Party candidate for Assembly, Sean Stratton, who was using the sales as an opportunity to canvas voters.

Most interesting item we saw for sale: a 1953 MG TD, fair to good condition, black, for $15,000. (We initially saw it parked on the seller's lawn with all the rest of the items for sale, but I caught a picture of it later after it had been moved to a parking spot on a nearby street—possibly by the buyer.)

Our level of satisfaction with the results: Too soon to say, as we still have the opportunity to glean more goodies from the piles of unsold merchandise that sure to be left out with tomorrow's trash.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Money Crashers: How to Avoid Miracle Health Scams & Fraudulent Health Products

Just a quick update here to let you know about my latest Money Crashers post, in which I discuss miracle health remedies—which is to say, miracle health scams. This particularly despicable type of scam preys on sick people desperate for a treatment that's easier, more effective, or less expensive than what mainstream medicine has to offer. Unfortunately, the only ones that work at all are the weight-loss remedies—and only because they make your wallet lighter.

In this article, I outline the perils of bogus "miracle cures," identify several conditions for which these scams are common, explain what really works for these conditions, and give a quick rundown of how to spot a health scam and what to do if you've been scammed.

Here's the skinny: How to Avoid Miracle Health Scams and Fraudulent Health Products

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Money Crashers: 6 Ways a Pressure Cooker Can Save You Money in the Kitchen

Since we got our little pressure cooker back in 2011, we've discovered all kinds of things we can do with it. It's not great for polenta, but it can make rice, potatoes, barley, and quinoa in record time. It can cook up dried beans much faster than the a regular pot - even getting some types edible in under an hour with no pre-soaking. And it makes homemade applesauce that's much better than the stuff you buy in a jar.

All in all, this little tool has proved to have so many benefits that I thought it deserved an article all to itself on Money Crashers. The site already had several pieces on the benefits of using a slow cooker, so I thought it was only fair to include one on the pressure cooker, which I've found to be at least as useful, if not more so.

This piece is basically "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Pressure Cookers but Were Afraid to Ask." I go into such topics as:
  • How a pressure cooker actually works
  • The various ways it can save you both time and money in the kitchen (including energy savings, making cheaper ingredients easier to use, and speeding up home-cooked meals)
  • Types of pressure cookers, and what to look for when buying one
  • Steps in the pressure-cooking process
  • Tips for using this tool safely (spoiler alert: don't worry, they're much safer than they used to be)
  • Specific dishes that are great to make in the pressure cooker
  • Where to find pressure cooker recipes

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Recipes of the Month: Fun with quinoa

Last weekend, we made our first official Costco run since signing up for membership in July. We stocked up on a bunch of things we'd found Costco to have the best prices on, including cereal, milk, raisins, sugar, olive oil—and a 4.5-pound bag of quinoa for $10. We dabbled a little bit with quinoa last year, when we picked up a container of it on sale after Passover, and we enjoyed it enough to keep an eye out for good deals on it since then in hopes of trying it again. However, until recently, the best price we'd seen was $4 a pound at Trader Joe's, which was more than we were prepared to pay. When we discovered the stuff at Costco for around half that price, we decided it was time to pick some up and try experimenting some more.

So, after bringing home the big bag, Brian went on a hunt for good quinoa recipes. The first one he tried was this Quinoa with Apple and Sage from the Live Well Network, for which we happened to have most of the ingredients on hand; I'd picked up some apples from the farmers' market, and getting a tablespoon of fresh sage off the enormous sage plant in our front yard was child's play. He did tweak the recipe just a bit, substituting some onion for the shallot and plain raisins for the golden raisins, but he figured these changes wouldn't affect the flavor too much.

The dish was quite easy to make, and it was indeed very flavorful—almost too much so, in my opinion. In addition to the faint nuttiness of the quinoa itself, there were the mingled flavors of apple, raisins, onion, sage, cinnamon, cayenne, curry powder, and the savory Penzey's vegetable soup base we used for the broth, all competing for attention. To me, this felt like it was a bit of a sensory overload. I still liked it, but I found the riot of flavors a bit too overpowering. My inclination is to try this dish again soon, but next time, leave out the teaspoon of curry powder and let the simpler flavors in the dish stand up for themselves.

Pleased with this success, he went straight on to the next quinoa recipe on his list: Quinoa with Leeks and Herbs from A Couple Cooks. Unlike the first one, where all the ingredients are cooked together, this recipe starts out with cooked quinoa, so Brian decided to try something else he'd been curious about: cooking quinoa in the pressure cooker. The instructions at Hip Pressure Cooking claim it's possible to do this in just one minute, but like most pressure-cooker recipes, that's a bit misleading; what it really means is that it only spends one minute cooking at full pressure. Counting the entire time it takes for the cooker to come up to pressure and then depressurize afterward, it's more like 15 minutes total—only about 5 minutes less than the time it takes to cook the quinoa for the other recipe on the stovetop. But it does come out nice and tender.

The good news is that, once your quinoa is done, the rest of the dish comes together in minutes. Just saut√© the leeks for a few minutes, chop and toast the walnuts, and stir it all together with salt, pepper, and fresh sage and thyme (once again supplied by our herb bed). This wasn't nearly as complex a dish as the first one, but between the leeks and the herbs, it still packed quite a wallop of flavor. In fact, those green, herbal flavors pretty much overpowered the quinoa itself, and as for the walnuts, you could only tell they were there by the occasional crunch. Of course, a bit of texture variety in a dish is nice, but it does seem like a bit of a waste to use an ingredient as pricey as walnuts—and, for that matter, quinoa—if you can't really taste them.

Indeed, Brian's observation was that it seemed the creators of both recipes seemed to be trying to deal with the "odd" flavor of quinoa by basically drowning it out with other, stronger flavors. That seems kind of silly to me, because if you don't like the flavor of quinoa, why would you eat it instead of some cheaper source of starch like rice or buckwheat? Sure, it's healthy stuff with plenty of protein, but it's not exactly the only food that's high in protein, and many of the others (eggs, chicken drumsticks, tofu) are cheaper. It seems to me the best reason to eat quinoa is because you like eating quinoa, so the best quinoa recipe would be one that highlights and complements the unique flavor of this pseudo-grain rather than covering it up.

Fortunately, Brian's still got one more quinoa recipe on his list to try—a sort of quiche-like concoction with spinach, eggs, and Greek yogurt. So we'll probably try that later in the month and see how it does at letting the flavor of this funky ingredient come through.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Money Crashers: 18 Essential Tools for Do It Yourself (DIY) Projects

Here's another new Money Crashers article, this one on the topic of what tools are most important for DIYers. I've already done a Money Crashers article on tool lending libraries, but naturally, not everyone is going to have one of those in the neighborhood—and even if you do, there are a few really essential tools that you probably don't want to have to run out and borrow when you need to do a quick repair. If your toilet is leaking, you want a wrench right there, ready to hand; you don't want to leave the water running while you run out to get one, and hope it's not already checked out.

So which tools truly are important to keep on hand? I consulted several articles on home-repair sites, and I came up with a list of a dozen tools that multiple experts name as essentials. This article runs through the list, with explanations of how each tool is used, how to choose a good one, and how much you should expect to pay. And for more advanced DIYers, I name an additional six tools that you can add to upgrade your home tool kit when you're ready.

Here's the full list, with details: 18 Essential Tools for Do It Yourself (DIY) Projects