Sunday, April 13, 2014

The whipped cream dilemma

Our town has a pretty good recycling program. We have curbside pickup for all kind of paper, as well as glass, metal, and plastic; with the exception of styrofoam and plastic bags, anything with a numbered recycling code on it can go right in the bin. Moreover, we can take all kinds of electronic waste, including CFL bulbs and rechargeable batteries, down to the Public Works department for recycling, and there's a bin at the local grocery store for collecting plastic bags. So almost all packaging that comes into our house these days can be recycled.

The one unfortunate exception is whipped cream cans. Whipped cream is one of the few foods we tend to buy in its processed form, rather than preparing it from scratch, and for a simple reason: in a pressurized can, cream will stay good indefinitely. We once left a can behind at my parents' house for several months and found it was no good anymore, but we've kept cans in our fridge for a month or longer with no loss of quality. When you buy a little carton of cream and whip it yourself, by contrast, that whipped cream must be consumed immediately if you don't want it to go flat. Even if you whip only part of it at a time, the remaining cream in the container will go sour within a week if it isn't used.

Unfortunately, our efforts to avoid wasting the cream itself mean more waste where the packaging is concerned. You see, the whipped cream can isn't merely a steel can, which would be fine to recycle; it also has a little plastic nozzle on top, which isn't recyclable, and presumably there's also some kind of gas dispenser inside the can that's made of who knows what. I thought it might be possible to dismantle the can somehow to make it recyclable, but when I did a Google search on "recycle whipped cream can," I found that these cans fall under the category of aerosols, which are recyclable in some areas and not in others. It all depends on your local government, and our local recycling guidelines specifically name aerosols as one of the few types of container that can't go in the mixed recycling bin.

Now, in the process of searching for ways to recycle them, I also came across a couple of suggestions for ways to avoid having to buy whipped cream cans in the first place. One site recommends making all whipped cream from scratch (which doesn't work for us for the reasons named above) or buying Cool Whip in a recyclable tub (ugh). I also found a link to a site that sells reusable whipped cream dispensers, which contain a little nitrous oxide charger that inflates the cream just the way the single-use cans do. But while this sounds like an ideal solution in theory, in practice there are several snags:
  • First of all, our local grocery store only sells cream in cartons made of plastic-lined cardboard. It's not at all clear from the recycling guidelines that these are recyclable, and if they're not, we're stuck with the same problem we had before.
  • Second, while the NO2 dispensers are theoretically recyclable themselves, it's once again unclear whether we could put them out with our curbside recycling.
  • Third, the description of the whipped cream dispenser at Amazon.com says that cream stored in it will last "up to two weeks" in the fridge. It's conceivable that we might go through a cup of cream in that amount of time, but it's certainly not guaranteed, and I don't like the idea of having a deadline to use the stuff up before it goes bad. Especially since we wouldn't actually know it had gone bad until we went to spray some onto our pudding, possibly ruining the pudding in the process.
  • And fourth, there's the cost to consider. The smallest dispenser from CreamRight costs $23 and holds 1 cup of cream, which makes about 2 pints whipped. It takes one charger to produce this amount; the chargers cost $9 for a case of 24, plus $8 shipping, so if you buy two cases at a time, that works out to 54 cents per quart. A cup of cream costs about $1.29 at the store, bringing the cost up to $1.83 per quart. By contrast, a 14-ounce can of whipped cream from the store typically costs us $3.19 and makes 2.3 quarts, which works out to $1.38 per quart. So even with the cost of packaging, the canned stuff is about 25 percent cheaper.
So it seems the best solution would be to keep buying the canned stuff, but find some way of recycling that empties. So far, however, I'm having no luck finding a way to do that. If our curbside program won't take these cans, where can I take them? I consulted the Earth911 site and it said that the best way to recycle aerosol cans in our area is to take them to household hazardous waste disposal—but the NJ Hazardous Waste site specifically cites empty whipped cream cans as an example of "obviously 'safe' trash" that they shouldn't have to waste their time with. Well, okay, if they're not safe to recycle because they're "aerosols," but they're likewise not unsafe enough to go into hazardous waste disposal, then what do you do with them? Is the trash can the only option? And if so, why?

Maybe I'm just being unrealistic, but it really seems like there should be some way to have my whipped cream (without wasting any) and not have to keep throwing perfectly good steel cans into the trash. Does anyone out there in cyberspace know of an option I'm overlooking?

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The local shopping challenge

The thing Brian and I like best about where we live is that it's so walkable. With a good library, a supermarket, a big drugstore, a post office, and a good selection of eateries all right here in town, we can actually run many, if not most, of our errands on foot. Sure, we probably hop in the car at least once a week in order to pick up something at a home center or a supermarket that's running a sale—but if we really had to, we could buy all our groceries in town and our hardware at either the tiny local hardware store or the bigger one about a mile out of town. (Well, I guess we'd need the car to haul home anything particularly bulky, but at least we wouldn't have to haul it far.)

One thing I can't really shop for here in town, or anywhere within a reasonable walk, is clothing. There are three stores here in town that sell clothing, but I haven't had much luck at any of them. Simuel's Closet on Raritan Avenue appears to cater to a younger and hipper clientele; on the rare occasions when I've seen something there in a size and style that I might conceivably wear, it's usually priced higher than I'm willing to pay. Covered Girl Clothing, by contrast, caters to "modest women and girls," which you might expect to be just right for my typical jeans-and-turtleneck style in the cooler months—except that they're using "modest" as a synonym for "ladylike," which apparently doesn't include jeans or trousers of any kind. So it's mostly below-the-knee skirts and three-quarter sleeve tops, which don't suit me at all. As for the third venue, our local thrift shop in the basement of the Reformed Church, I've occasionally found useful items there, but it's very hit-and-miss. The selection is quite limited and seldom changes, and it tends toward the heavily used or even slightly damaged (I guess a lot of folks around here are too frugal to discard "good" clothing). If I do manage to find something I like, I can pick it up for a song, but most of the time I walk away with nothing (or, these days, with a few cheap books instead).

Now, there are a few other stores in town that have a few items of clothing in amongst their other offerings. The Rite Aid, for instance, has a small selection of T-shirts and even a few cheap summer frocks on a rack at this time of year, along with such accessories as hats, sunglasses, scarves, underwear, and sometimes even cheap shoes. The dollar store has been known to sell little items like scarves or tank tops and, in the summer, flip-flop sandals, while the Ten Thousand Villages has much nicer (and much pricier) small items like scarves, bags, and jewelry. And it occurred to me, as I walked along the street yesterday peeping into shop windows, that among all these various stores, it ought to be possible to assemble just one decent outfit somehow.

The idea, in my mind, promptly blossomed into a challenge. Supposing, for some reason, that I absolutely had to have a new outfit, and that I was not able to drive anywhere or place an order online, could I do it? In my mind, I dubbed this the Local Shopping Challenge and started fleshing out a few ground rules:
  1. The outfit must be entirely new—in the sense of "new to me." Buying secondhand items is fine, but mixing in any items already in my wardrobe is not allowed. (The one exception is footwear, since there aren't any stores in town that sell it—aside from a few pairs at the thrift shop, and usually there aren't any in my size.)
  2. It must be an outfit I would actually wear. It can be for any occasion—formal or casual, winter or summer—but it must be something I would be willing to be seen in public in.
  3. All the items must be acquired in Highland Park itself (no fair going to a store in New Brunswick that's still within walking distance and calling that "local"). However, I am allowed to modify the items in any way I wish. For instance, if I find a jacket at the thrift store and I don't like the buttons, I'm allowed to replace them—so long as the replacement buttons also come from within Highland Park, either purchased at the drugstore or snipped off a different garment.
  4. Since price is always a consideration for me when shopping, there will be a price limit of $120 for the entire outfit, that being the maximum I can imagine spending on one under normal circumstances. (Actually, I would normally expect to spend quite a bit less than that, but setting the limit high allows me to pick one or more higher-priced items from local stores if I choose.) This price will include all the materials used to make the outfit, including anything I picked up at the thrift shop just to snip the buttons off and sew them onto something else.
  5. There will be a time limit of three weeks to complete the challenge, meaning that I must have the entire outfit by the end of this month.
So those are the parameters of the challenge, and we'll see how it turns out. If it's a success, maybe Local Shopping Challenges can become a regular feature on this blog, perhaps involving other shopping categories like books or home furnishings.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Tackling the small room

Last week's bulk trash pickup went as scheduled, which means that Brian's old desk is finally gone from our lives for good. And with its removal, we're left with a more or less blank slate in our small back bedroom. This is another of those rooms, like our finished basement, that doesn't really have a name because it doesn't really have a specific function. For the six years that we've lived in this house, the small room has served as a catchall area for:
  • starting seedlings in the spring, since it's the sunniest spot in the house;
  • keeping a few house plants the rest of the year;
  • sorting our recyclables;
  • storing all our cookbooks, since there's no room for them in the kitchen;
  • storing additional books about gardening and home repair, as well as back issues of Mother Earth News;
  • displaying Brian's toy collection;
  • an extra closet in which to stash cat food and litter, assorted cleaning supplies, and our collection of wrapping paper and boxes;
  • and, most recently, storing all the books we've acquired recently that we haven't had a chance to read yet, as well as a big stack of books we're planning to remove from our collection and either swap or donate.
None of these functions, however, really fills up the whole room. The seedlings and recyclables all fit on a table against the outside wall, the cookbooks and other stuff fit on a bookcase along the front wall, and everything else is in the closet. We used to have our nice wooden table in there, surrounded by a few chairs, but we never really used it except to pile books on and to wrap presents before Christmas/Hanukkah. Now that the table is being put to much better use as Brian's desk, we thought perhaps it was time to put the rest of that room to better use as well. But what use would that be? There isn't any activity we do regularly that really needs a space of its own. We already have places in our house for everything we do at home: working, sleeping, cooking and eating, playing games by ourselves or with friends, reading, watching TV, working on DIY projects. For just the two of us, we have more than enough room.

The only time we could occasionally use a bit more space is when we have guests. Granted, this doesn't happen that often, and when it does, it's usually only one or two people. Accommodating a couple is no problem; in fact, we can even offer them a choice of accommodations, either on the futon downstairs (where there's more space and a private bathroom) or the one in the office (where the door can be shut against feline intruders). But in the hypothetical case that we wanted to invite, say, Brian's sister with her husband and four kids, or two couples we know in Virginia who have three kids between them, things could get a bit tight. So turning the small bedroom into a designated guest room is probably the most reasonable use for it.

The trick is going to be turning it into a guest room while still being able to accommodate all the miscellaneous functions that room has now. Given that we don't have guests very often, and that we have a lot of guests still less often, this room is going to get a lot more use as a conservatory/library annex/recycling station than it does as a guest room. We could, of course, just plunk down a guest bed in the corner where the table used to be, but having a bed in the room when it's not in use as a guest room just seems like it would look a bit odd. Some sort of daybed would probably be more practical; it can serve as seating most of the time, but still be made up into a bed to accommodate a single guest—or, if we get the right kind, pull out to turn into a larger bed for two. And with something like this little beauty from IKEA, we can even add drawers underneath to store the extra bed linens.

Before we go rushing off to IKEA to buy it, however, the rest of the room needs a little bit of work. Well, to be honest, all the rooms on the main level of our house need some work, since the last time they were painted, the painters simply slapped a heavy coat of one color over everything, willy-nilly, without bothering with such niceties as repairing sagging corners, taping off edges, removing outlets and switch plates, or even pulling out nails and other odd bits of hardware stuck into the walls. But for the past six-plus years, we've just lived with the flaws, because fixing them would require us to pull apart the room in order to do the job right—and as I've mentioned, we really do use all the spaces in our house on a regular basis. But since this one gets used less than any of the others, it's the ideal place to get started on the major project of redoing the entire upper floor. Since there's not that much stuff in the room right now, we can pull everything out without creating too much clutter elsewhere, and since it's the smallest room in the house, it should be the quickest one to finish. So it's obviously the best room to cut our teeth on before we tackle the living spaces that we actually live in.

We're not quite ready to start pulling all the furniture out of the room yet, however. Since it's spring, this room is currently in full seed-starting mode, and we don't really have another nice, sunny place to keep all those seedlings until they're ready to go into the ground. So we have about another month to plan before the seedlings are all out of the way and we can get down to the serious business of painting and furnishing the room. (For starters, we'll need to figure out what can be removed from the closet so that guests can actually use at least part of it for clothing.) But by May, if not sooner, we should be ready to start stripping this room down to the walls and then putting it back together, piece by piece.

And when we're done, even if we don't end up using our new guest room very much, at least we'll know what to call it.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Compost by the yard, for the yard

Now that spring has officially arrived, it's the time when a gardener's thoughts lightly turn to thoughts of compost. Being organic gardeners, or at least organic as much as possible, we rely on vast quantities of this stuff to enrich the soil in our garden beds, as well as our trees and shrubs. This year, we've also got several new plantings planned that will need compost: some additional asparagus plants in the big exposed bed at the front of the garden, and some hardy kiwi vines along the back fence. (We ended up ordering these from American Meadows, the same site where we bought the wildflower seed mix for the front yard, and we're postponing the purchase of the other landscaping plants until we see what our local nurseries can do for us.)

All these plantings require more compost than our little backyard bin can supply, so in the past, we've relied on bagged compost from stores like Home Depot. Typically, we need about eight to ten 1.5-cubic-foot bags of mixed humus and manure, in addition to the contents of our own bin, to cover all our planting zones. However, more recently, we've run up against the problem of "killer compost," which contains persistent herbicides that can keep killing plants even after they've passed through the four stomachs of a cow and then gone through the high-heat composting process. To get around this problem, we've started buying our compost early and testing each bag (as described here) to make sure it's safe to use. The problem is that (a) it's a big hassle, (b) it requires us to buy our compost a good four to six weeks ahead of planting time, and (c) we have to buy at least 50 percent more compost than we think we'll need to ensure that we have an adequate number of bags that are safe to use. (Last year, we bought a dozen bags and ended up having to discard four.)

All this got me wondering whether there might be someplace around here where we could buy some sort of certified compost that was guaranteed to be free of these persistent herbicides. My guess was that our best bet would be to try the Belle Mead Co-Op in (duh) Belle Mead. These folks gave us invaluable help last year on our patio project, delivering all the materials we needed to lay the base layer and saving us a big chunk of change by suggesting the use of stone dust rather than sand, eliminating the need for two separate deliveries. (We did have to buy some sand separately to fill in between the bricks, but we got good value out of the extra stone dust by using it in our garden paths.) It seemed likely that if anyone would have the kind of compost we needed, they would—and even if they didn't, they'd at least understand the question and be able to give us a straight answer.

I did a little poking around on their website and found that they listed several varieties of bagged compost on their price list, but none that specifically said anything about herbicide content. However, when I checked in the "bulk products" section, I saw that they had a product called "leaf compost," which we figured had to be safe because it's made strictly from leaves, rather than any kind of grass to which an herbicide might have been applies. The only problem was that, being a bulk product, it's sold by the yard—that is to say, by the cubic yard, which is 27 cubic feet. That's quite a bit more than the 12 to 15 cubic feet we generally use, and the $85 delivery fee would make it quite pricey. But, I wondered, what if we could load it ourselves and just pay for the amount that we could carry?

I called up the Co-Op to inquire, and they were quite accommodating. They said if we'd bring our own containers and do the shoveling ourselves, they'd let us take all we could carry and charge us for just half a yard. So the only question then was what to carry it in. We had the two big cardboard boxes that our new filing cabinets had come in, but we knew we couldn't fill those to the brim or they'd be too heavy to carry. So we ended up loading the car with an assortment of additional containers, including some large paper leaf bags provided by the borough (which we never use because we compost all our leaves) and several 40-pound birdseed sacks. The birdseed sacks, interestingly ended up being the easiest to work with. The cardboard boxes were reasonably easy to load but very difficult to lift and maneuver when they were even halfway full; the paper bags were somewhat easier to handle, but we had to be careful about keeping them dry because any significant contact with the wet dirt would weaken them. The birdseed sacks, by contrast, were made of tough plastic and remained fairly easy to lift even when mostly full.

On the way home, I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations to figure out how buying our compost this way worked out price-wise. We estimated that the amount of compost we actually managed to squeeze into our various containers was at least the half a yard they actually charged us for, if not a bit more, and the cost was only $16.25 (before tax). By contrast, the bagged compost we used to buy at Home Depot was on sale, last time we stopped in there, at 3 bags for $10. At 1.5 cubic feet a bag, half a yard would be the equivalent of 9 bags, which would cost $30—so we paid just a little over half as much per cubic foot for the bulk compost. And actually, if you factor in the 50 percent extra we'd normally have to buy of the bagged compost, our savings per cubic foot of usable compost jump to nearly 65 percent. True, we had to do a bit of extra work to shovel it ourselves, but we saved all the work involved in testing the compost, which is a much more complicated and long-drawn-out process.

The leaf compost is lovely stuff, too, dark and fluffy, without any of the pungent aroma of the composted manure we used to get. (It doesn't smell anything like manure in its natural state, but it still has a distinct odor that permeates the car when you're carrying ten bags of it.) In fact, Brian thought carrying this stuff would, if anything, leave the car smelling cleaner than before, as the leaves absorbed any odors that might be lingering inside. When we got it all home, we stowed it in the shed (unloading the contents of the boxes into a couple of big garbage cans, which are easier to carry), where it's now ready to be used on all our veggies and other plantings. We've already spread out the first couple of bags' worth on the new flowerbed and scattered on the seeds, which we hope will take root promptly in the freshly enriched soil.

All in all, I have to say buying compost by the yard is better in just about every way than buying it by the bag. The only drawback is that we have to drive all the way to the Co-Op, half an hour away, to get it—but since our dentist is right in the same town, and since we have to go see him every March anyway, all we have to do is schedule our cleanings at a time when we can pop by the Co-Op either right before or right after. Nothing takes the sting out of learning you need two fillings like knowing that all your garden plants are well provided for.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Gardeners' Holidays: First Sowing

Last year, as you may recall, I had trouble coming up with an appropriate way to celebrate the start of spring as a gardener. Gardeners have lots to celebrate in summer and fall, when the crops are coming in, but at the very start of spring, there isn't just nothing ready to pick; there isn't even anything in the ground. And with the snow barely melted (and more on the way next week), it's a bit early even to start putting things into the ground. Of course, we have our seedlings started, as you can see here: parsley, celery, leeks, tomatoes, and marigolds. But most of those can't go into the ground until the last frost date, which is still at least seven weeks away.

However, there is one crop that can actually be planted at the first sign of spring: snow peas. Actually, the variety we're planting (Oregon Giant) is technically a sugar snap pea rather than a snow pea, the kind that you eat when the pods are big and ripe rather than tiny and flat—but I prefer the sound of the name "snow pea" because it makes these seeds sound like the tough little critters they are. They don't care if there's still snow on the ground and more in the forecast; if the calendar says it's spring, that's good enough for them. (According to Wikipedia, the French refer to both types of peas as "mangetouts," meaning "eat the whole thing." Descriptive, but not quite as poetic.)

Unfortunately, simply getting these seeds into the ground was the easy part. Snap peas are one of the crops that we grow on a trellis, since they're long, vining plants that can't reasonably be grown any other way—and in the bed where the peas are scheduled to go this year, the trellis net is badly damaged. We rotate certain crops each year to keep the bacteria from getting a foothold, so this trellis had tomatoes growing on it last year, and perhaps it was their weight or their aggressive tendrils that
tore up the bottom part of the netting, but whatever the reason, it's pretty well chewed. So we'll need to find some way to patch it before these little green shoots actually start to come up.

Since we actually are having reasonably springlike weather today, mostly sunny with a high of 52, I took advantage of it to take care of a couple of non-veggie-related gardening tasks as well. First, I started my aggressive pre-emptive strike against blackspot, which last year gradually stripped our rosebush of all its leaves well before autumn. I did my best to remove and dispose of the infected leaves the way the experts all say to do, as well as spraying weekly with a fungicide, but to no avail; the infection was just too well established. So I vowed that this year, I'd do my best to stop the fungus in its tracks from showing up in the first place. I mixed up a batch of a baking soda solution that lots of sources, including the one above, recommend: 1 teaspoon of baking soda dissolved in a quart of warm water, with a bit of dish soap added to help it stick to the leaves. I'm planning to spray them with this weekly, even before the leaves are fully formed yet, to try and nip any blackspot infection in the bud (or rather, on the buds). If the spots show up anyway, I'll try this vinegar solution that a lot of gardeners on the GardenWeb forums seem to have had luck with.

The second job is a rougher one: getting my wildflower bed ready for planting. Last fall, we removed the big, overgrown foundation shrubs from the front left side of our house, and my plan was to plant the area with a nice wildflower mix from American Meadows. Before I can do that, however, I need to pull out all the ivy that's currently filling up the bed. In the absence of the shrubs, it's grown still more, even sending tendrils out across the front porch to the other side of the stairs—so I'm going to have to crack down and make sure I've pulled up every bit of it, or it could smother my new flowerbed before it even gets established. (I'm thinking about maybe keeping just one little piece planted in a big pot, where it will, with luck, stay contained and produce just enough greenery to frame our door at Yuletide—but I'll have to keep a pretty sharp eye on it even there and be prepared to root it out ruthlessly if necessary.)

I thought this stuff was supposed to be pretty shallow rooted, so I hoped I could pull it all out with my bare hands. However, some of it appears to have formed a really vine that's securely rooted into the base of the front steps. I'm not sure how I'll get this out; normally we use the King of Spades for digging up tough roots like this, but there isn't enough room for that around the concrete foundation of the steps. So I might have to resort to killing it with vinegar or boiling water. But at least I got all the vines out of the ground itself, so I guess my garden is now ready for spring. And heaven knows, after the winter we've had, so am I.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The lure of The Deal

One of the biggest problems in the frugal life is trying to figure out when a low price is actually a good deal.

A case in point: a month or so ago, I discovered a site called eShakti.com. It sells women's clothing, mostly dresses, that are made to order in India. There are dozens if not hundreds of styles on the site, and not only is every single one of them available in every size from 0 to 36, but for an extra $7.50, you can have the garment custom-tailored to your personal measurements. Not only that, for another $7.50 on top of that, you can take the basic pattern of any dress and alter it in various ways: adding or removing sleeves, lowering or raising the hem, or changing the neckline. And perhaps the most glorious part of all is that every single dress comes with pockets. (You can have them removed at no charge if you don't want them, but who would do that?)

Now, the dresses on this site aren't ridiculously expensive; most are priced between $60 and $90, but that's still more than I'd normally pay. However, the site runs frequent sales; right now, for instance, it's "buy two, get one free." On top of that, when you register on the site and agree to receive e-mails from them, you get a coupon for $25 off. So I figured there was no harm in signing up, getting my credit, and holding on to it in case I saw something I liked. In fact, they were running a special at the time, so I actually got a $30 credit—enough to lower the price of one of their basic dresses to a mere $30, which is much closer to my comfort zone. And if I'd ordered it at the time, during their Spring Sale, I could have gotten an additional discount, so the total price, including customizations and shipping, would have been under $40. There were several styles on the site that I liked, but I knew I didn't really need a new dress, so I decided to wait until I either saw something I really loved or I had a particular occasion to buy for.

So it sounds like I made a sensible decision, right? Only this Friday, I got an e-mail warning me that my $30 credit was about to expire. If I don't use it by tomorrow, I'll lose it, and with it my chance to try out eShakti's service for the first time at half the normal price.

So now I'm completely torn. I hate the idea of letting a $30 credit just go to waste—but I also hate the idea of spending $40 on a dress I don't need, and might not even have an occasion to wear, just to avoid wasting the credit. I must admit, I absolutely love the look of the $70 Havana Dress, but it's more of a cocktail dress than one for day wear, and I could count the number of cocktail parties I've been to in my life on one hand. This $65 knit dress looks more practical for every day, but even with the credit, it would be $35 plus shipping, and is it really a good value at that price? If I saw it in a store at that price, would I pay for it? Hard to say, but at least if I saw it in a store, I'd be able to try it on before deciding and not risk being stuck with something that doesn't suit me at all. (EShakti does have a very liberal return policy, but the process is time-consuming.) And the current sale is no help, since if I don't need one new dress, I certainly don't need three.

Right now, I'm leaning toward not buying either dress. Leaving the $30 credit completely out of the decision and looking strictly at what I'd be getting and what I'd be paying for it, I can't convince myself that it's worth spending $40 for a dress that doesn't even have an occasion. But still, I keep looking wistfully at that totally impractical red dress. I know something I might never wear isn't a great deal even at $40, but it's a lot better than $70...and what if the occasion does come up, and it's too late to get the deal? (Okay, it's not exactly a likely scenario, but wouldn't I just feel stupid?)

Yet another example popped up the same day. Brian and I have been toying lately with the idea of getting a tablet, which seems to offer all the advantages of a smartphone without the need to pay for a monthly plan. But like that red dress, it just seemed like something that wasn't worth the money if we weren't really sure it would be useful. The top-rated tablet at ConsumerSearch, the iPad Air, costs an eye-popping $500, which is a lot of cheddar to drop on something that we don't have a specific need for. And while the report also recommends a couple of budget tablets in the $150 range, even $150 is a lot of money for us to spend without a pretty solid reason.

However, Friday's issue of the Christian Science Monitor's daily newsletter included this headline in its "most viewed" list: "Tablet deals: $60 for a 9" Android tablet, save $114 on Kindle Fire HD." I couldn't resist clicking through, and I found that it is indeed possible to get a bare-bones 9-inch tablet for $60, but it has a few catches: the memory is only 4GB, and the tablet can't use the Google Play store. Since the main point of getting a tablet would be to take advantage of all the apps, it's hardly worth getting one that doesn't give you access to most of them. However, the very next paragraph in the article covered a smaller 7-inch tablet that does have Google Play access, as well as 8GB of memory, for only $10 more. Sadly, it's only available at Walmart.com, but as I've noted before, my commitment to avoiding Big Blue has grown much less firm as the store has taken baby steps toward being less evil, such as making cheap organics widely available. So for a deal like this, it might be worth ending my boycott officially.

However, even at this price, we're still wavering. The tablet obviously has more practical value than the dress; we know that if we buy it, we will certainly use it. But we also know that we've managed to get along just fine all these years without a tablet, and we can almost certainly consider to do so. So clearly, it isn't a necessity, and do we really want to spend $70 on a luxury? Sure, $70 is a lot less than $500, or even $150—and if our goal is to figure out whether a tablet is really a worthwhile investment for us, surely we'll hardly have a better chance to answer the question this cheaply. But that just makes the $70 tablet the equivalent of the practical $35 gray dress: it's useful, and it's reasonably priced compared to other products of its type, but still, is it actually worth that amount to us? If we know we don't really need it, can we justify spending even $70 on it?

Given that the tablet, unlike the dress, has definite practical value, I suspect we'll end up giving in and buying it. I just hope that this deal doesn't vanish, like my $30 eShakti credit, before we finally make up our minds to take the plunge.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Recipe of the month: Roasted Brussels sprouts

It's kind of a cheat to count this as the recipe of the month for March, since we actually tried it for the first time in late February. But we've tried a couple of variants on it in since then, and anyway, it's just too good not to share.

As I've mentioned in previous entries, this year Brian and I are planting Brussels sprouts in our garden for the first time. Neither of us has had much experience with cooking them before, and in fact, both of us grew up thinking we didn't like them—but that was because we'd only ever had the frozen kind, which we've since discovered to be a pitiful substitute for the real thing. On a visit to my sister a year or so back, her husband cooked some pan-roasted Brussels sprouts that were so delicious we both kept coming back for seconds and thirds, and I think that was what first got me interested in growing them. However, knowing that there are delicious ways to cook Brussels sprouts isn't the same thing as being able to cook them ourselves, so when we discovered some bagged Brussels sprouts on sale for $2.99 on our last visit to Trader Joe's, it struck us as a good opportunity to learn. (I think the bag was only 10 ounces, which works out to $4.64 per pound, but compared to the $5.99 a pound they charge at the Whole Earth Center for them at this time of year, it looked like a bargain.)

For our first attempt at this unknown vegetable, we decided to try a simple recipe out of Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Garlic. (In my experience, roasting and adding garlic are two ways to make practically any vegetable taste good, so doing both of them at once seemed like it couldn't miss.) I don't want to tread on Bittman's toes by reproducing his recipe, but the gist of it is simple: heat some olive oil in a pan, then put in the halved Brussels sprouts, along with whole, peeled garlic cloves and some salt and pepper, heat them on the stove until they start to brown, then move the whole pan to a 450° oven and roast them for half an hour. The first time we tried it, we feared we might have overcooked them, because they came out crunchy and nearly blackened—but they were absolutely delicious. Bittman suggests drizzling them with balsamic vinegar, but they didn't need it a bit. We gobbled up the whole batch, garlic and all, and then sat looking mournfully at the empty pan. The rest of the meal (I think it was roasted free-range chicken and baked potatoes) simply paled in comparison.

That first batch was so tasty, we couldn't resist the opportunity to try it again. Over the past few weeks, we've treated ourselves to half a pound of Brussels sprouts on every visit to the Whole Earth Center, thus keeping the overall cost down to $2.99 (though sadly, the batches are even smaller). We've done the roasted sprouts twice more, and we've also tried Bittman's Sauteed Brussels Sprouts with Hazelnuts, which were also very tasty—though not as absolutely addictive as the roasted ones. In addition, Bittman's book notes that most Brussels sprout recipes will also work with shredded cabbage, which has the advantage of being a much cheaper vegetable. He recommended red cabbage cut into wide ribbons for the roasted sprouts recipe, so we tried that, and it was also very good. Maybe not quite as good as the Brussels sprouts, but good enough that we gobbled it right up and left nothing in the pan. So with cabbages on sale extra-cheap this week for St. Patrick's Day, we'll definitely take advantage of the opportunity to make the cheaper version of this dish again, and maybe some of the other Brussels sprout recipes as well. And meanwhile, we're anxiously looking forward to June, when we can plant our first crop of Brussels sprouts and see how they do. No matter how many we're able to grow, we should have absolutely no trouble eating all of them. (Of course, oven-roasting veggies isn't quite as much fun in July, but I have a hunch these might be pretty good cooked over charcoal, as well.)

I'm so enthralled with this recipe that I'm actually starting to wonder whether maybe it could even make frozen Brussels sprouts edible. Bittman's recipes all call for fresh ones, but I did a quick search and found a similar recipe at Food.com that's made with frozen sprouts, so maybe it wouldn't hurt to give it a try. Tip Hero notes that frozen veggies are typically on sale all month for National Frozen Food Month, so if it works, we might actually be able to indulge our newly acquired taste for a lot less than $2.99 a batch. Personally, I'd be happy to roast up a whole pound of these little delights at a time—I'm sure we'd still polish them off at one sitting.