Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sweet success

So, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, we recently found a bottle of maple flavoring at the Amish market down the road, after having searched in vain for it at all the other stores in our area (and out of our area) for more than a year. (Actually, the stuff I really wanted was "pure maple extract," which seems to be impossible to get anywhere; the stuff we found contains "natural and artificial flavor," but it smells and tastes reasonably maple-y, and I'm not inclined to be picky at this point.) The reason I particularly wanted it was so that I could try whipping up a batch of homemade pancake syrup, using the recipe from The Complete Tightwad Gazette. We are kind of syrup snobs, and we've always eschewed the store-brand pancake syrup in favor of pure maple syrup—generally stocking up on it at BJ's whenever we get a free day pass, as that's where it's cheapest. But even there, it now costs more than $14 a quart, so we figured it was worth investing four bucks in a bottle of maple extract to give the homemade stuff a try.

So, last weekend I made a small test batch, and I can report that while it's not absolutely indistinguishable from Grade-A maple syrup, it's so close that we probably wouldn't notice the difference if we didn't know it was fake. It's a bit thinner, and it doesn't have quite as rich a maple flavor to it, but the difference is so subtle that I could only detect it when I tasted them side by side. It's definitely closer to real maple syrup than the store-bought stuff.

The recipe I used was submitted by a Tightwad Gazette reader, who presumably won't mind if I reprint it. It's very easy: In a pot, combine 3 cups granulated sugar, 1 1/2 cups water, 3 Tbsp. molasses, 1 tsp. each vanilla and maple extract, and 2 tsp. butter flavoring (we left this out; if I want my pancakes to taste like butter, I'll put butter on them). Bring it to a "good rolling boil," stirring until sugar dissolves; turn off heat and leave pot on burner until bubbling stops.

Here's my cost breakdown for the ingredients:

Organic sugar, 3 cups: $2.10
Water: essentially free
Organic blackstrap molasses, from bulk bin, 3 Tbsp.: 6 cents
Homemade vanilla extract (made from organic vanilla beans and cheap vodka), 1 tsp.: 10 cents
Maple flavoring, 1 tsp.: 33 cents

Total: $2.59 for about 30 fluid ounces, which works out to about $2.77 a quart—less than one-fifth the cost of real maple syrup, even made with organic ingredients. Maybe not quite as cheap as the store-brand stuff, but soooo much better. :-9

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Seasonal decorations

'Tis the season for Halloween displays. Yesterday, on our way to a party at my friend Tim's house, we saw that his next-door neighbor had set up an elaborate graveyard scene in his yard, complete with an actual carriage driven by what appeared to be some sort of ghoul. We applauded this scene as being much more tastefully ghoulish than most of the ones in our neighborhood, which tend to feature strings of orange lights and/or large, illuminated, inflatable pumpkins and ghosts.

Me, I tend to go for simplicity. The first Friday in October, I head down to the farmers' market and pick up three miniature pumpkins, the kind they call "Jack-Be-Littles," for $2. I set out one pumpkin on each step of our front stoop, and there they stay, remaining seasonally appropriate until Thanksgiving. At that point, they go into the compost bin (I believe they're technically edible, but I don't care to eat them after the squirrels have nibbled at them) and we deck out the porch railings with white lights, red ribbons and a dollar's worth of trimmings from the local Christmas tree vendor. Simple, but seasonal and festive.

The thing is, I always find myself at a bit of a loss after the Yuletide decorations come down in January. I don't want to be one of those people who leaves them up until spring (actually, I find that really annoying, as if the folks are refusing to admit that Christmas is over). But at the same time, in those bleak months of January and February, when nothing is growing outside, the house does get to looking a bit bare. It seems like during those cold, dreary months in particular, it would be nice to have something to dress the place up and make it look more cheerful. But I want it to be something that's actually fitting to the season. It doesn't seem right to leave the holiday greenery up past its season, and it certainly doesn't seem right to dress the place up in spring pastels while the ground is frozen solid. Nor do I want to make a big deal out of Valentine's Day and drape everything with red and pink. That just seems like lending unnecessary dignity to a Hallmark holiday that basically exists purely for commercial purposes.

So what could I display that's both cheerful and seasonally appropriate? If only I had a holly tree in my yard, it would keep its red berries all winter and shed them in the spring all on its own. But for those who aren't blessed with one, and don't have the space to plant one, is there anything else to display that brightens up the landscape in a way suitable to the season, without either clinging to the ghost of Christmas past or trying to rush ahead to spring?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


OK, this is a bit off-topic for the blog, but I really wanted to send Randall Munroe a comment on today's XKCD comic, and I couldn't find a way to do that.

So I'm going to have to do the next best thing, and post it here for the world to see (or that minuscule fraction of the world that reads this blog):

How do you know they're not? It's not like they would be keen to make that fact public so all their competitors could start doing the same...

Sunday, October 17, 2010

To market, to market

My in-laws are visiting this weekend, so yesterday we planned a little excursion to a place that we thought they'd like: the Pennsylvania Dutch Farmers' Market in Kingston. We've only been there once ourselves, as it's only open on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, and it's not really close to anyplace else we'd normally go on a Saturday. It is on our normal route to Princeton that we take every Thursday—but it's always closed by the time we go past. We did stop by there one time when we were on our way to someplace else, just to see what they had (the answer is "pretty much everything"), but we couldn't take full advantage of it because we hadn't brought a cooler to keep our purchases chilled during our day out. This time, we came prepared.

First we stopped by King's Salads and Jellies, where we tried some samples of different pickles and jellies that they had available for tasting. I didn't buy anything from them, but Brian's folks picked up a half-pint of pickled red peppers and one of cherry jam. Then we visited the woodworker's stall, where we oohed and aahed over the beautiful handmade furniture and gasped in awe at the prices. Brian's dad eventually hustled us out of there, saying "We have to leave before I start to get ideas" (not about buying anything, but about trying to duplicate the pieces with his own woodworking equipment at home). We also looked at the handmade quilts and pillows, and Brian's mom was highly amused by an embroidered one that read, "I smile...because you are my daughter. I laugh...because there is nothing you can do about it."

At the poultry stall, we bought two pounds of "country turkey sausage" for $3.89 a pound—less than the $6 a pound we used to pay for free-range chicken sausage at Trader Joe's, back when they carried it, and far less than the $8 a pound they currently charge at Whole Foods, the only other place we've ever found it. Then we popped into the baker's booth, where we found two things that absolutely delighted us. The first was a two-ounce bottle of maple extract, which is a key ingredient in a recipe I have for homemade pancake syrup. We've looked absolutely everywhere for this stuff and never found it. The Whole Earth Center only had "maple flavoring," which had nothing in the ingredients list to suggest that any part of it had ever come from a tree, and noplace else--from Whole Foods to Penzey's Spices in Indianapolis, which is supposed to have absolutely everything--had anything remotely close. A friend of ours even looked for it on a recent trip to Vermont and came up empty. We could have bought it online, but we'd have had to pay $6 to $10 in shipping for a $4 bottle. And there it was all along at the Amish market, not half an hour away from us. The other discovery was a container of "pink pig sprinkles," which are exactly what they sound like: sugar sprinkles, the kind you scatter over cupcakes, in the shape of little pink pigs. We didn't buy any, but we were tickled to know that such a thing exists.

We browsed around the other stalls, trying more samples, and at one point my mother-in-law emerged in great triumph from a bakery declaring, "I found pecan rolls!" This is apparently a delicacy that she hasn't seen anywhere since their local bakery stopped carrying them. (We had some for breakfast this morning, and they're quite tasty.) Then we had a bite to eat at the pretzel stall and headed outside, where we spent an additional fifteen minutes sticking our heads into all the sheds that the woodworker had for sale out in the parking lot. Some of these looked so much like little houses that we were musing about what it would take to actually live in one (a bit of insulation, a pellet stove, a composting toilet...). There were also a couple of garages, a horse barn and a truly magnificent hen house.

All in all, I would heartily recommend this type of market—for anyone who lives within striking distance of one—as a highly entertaining place to visit, and possibly a good place to dig up some tasty and hard-to-find treats at a good price.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Ecofrugal dilemma

So, it turns out we need a new boiler. This is hardly a surprise; the one we have now is, as best we can tell, the original heating system in our 40-year-old house, so it's actually a bit remarkable that it's still running at all. But when I had the guy in last week to do a tune-up, he advised me that our boiler lacks not only some basic energy-saving features (like electronic ignition and vent dampers) but also a couple of basic safety features (a low-water cutoff and a backflow preventer) that would cost about $1500 to add. Not really worth it for a 40-year-old boiler, so it was time to start shopping for a new one.

So far we've only received one quote, and it seems a bit on the high side, so I doubt we'll be going with that company. However, they did tell me one thing that has me a bit perplexed. The "comfort specialist" who came to our house said that while we could get a new boiler that was 90 percent efficient, it would cost about $3000 more (including installation) than an 84 percent efficient model. True, we could get half of that back through the federal tax credit for energy efficient home improvements, but that would still amount to an extra $1500—and given how modest our home's energy use is now, it's essentially impossible that we'd ever make up that extra cost in energy savings over the 15-to-20 year life of the new boiler.

Now, this estimate may just be completely off. It's possible another company will come back with a quote that shows only a $1000 difference between the more and less efficient models. But assuming that there really is a $3000 difference, what's the right choice here? Is it worth paying an extra $1500, knowing we'll never recover more than a fraction of it, just to know we're really doing all we can to reduce our carbon footprint? Or would we be better off going with the reasonably efficient, but not super-efficient, equipment and offsetting the extra emissions? Right now, we pay less than $100 a year to to offset all our carbon emissions for the house and the car combined, so it seems like the difference between an 84 percent efficient boiler and a 90 percent efficient one couldn't account for more than an extra dollar per year. That's a heck of a lot less than $1500, so unless we expect to own this boiler for more than 100 years, offsetting is clearly the better choice financially. But is it the better choice morally, or is it just a greenwashing cop-out?

Or is it really too little a detail to worry about, and am I just a bit too obsessed about maintaining my green cred?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

More progress

News on the bathroom front: this week we got two more projects completed, one small and one large. First, we bought and installed a new light fixture to go over the vanity (the vanity itself isn't in place yet, but you can see where it will go). We spent about $50 altogether: $25 for the fixture itself (on sale at Lowe's); $16 for the shades, which were sold separately; and $8 for a couple of 40-watt-equivalent CFL bulbs that are fully enclosed. (We tried putting in a couple of standard-size 60-watt-equivalent CFLs, and they stuck out from under the bottom of the shades and looked weird. So we figured the extra eight bucks was a reasonable investment. Of course, we could have just put in incandescent bulbs, but that would be against my ecofrugal principles. Even at 4 bucks apiece, the CFLs will save us money in the long run, and they'll use a lot less electricity from the get-go.)

The big project, as you can see in the picture, was tiling the bathroom floor, which took up a good chunk of this weekend. In addition to the tile we'd already bought from the Habitat ReStore, we had to pick up thinset mortar, grout, spacers and the appropriate tools: a notched trowel, a "float" for the grout, a sponge, and a a tile cutter (the $3 one we bought from a yard sale this summer was unfortunately too small to handle these 14-inch tiles). We did make one ecofrugal choice: we got our thinset and grout in powder form, to be mixed with water, rather than the ready-mixed stuff that was about twice as expensive. Brian spent several hours yesterday cutting and laying tile, while I read aloud to him and occasionally fetched things, and the grout went in this afternoon. And I'm pretty pleased with the end result: it has that sort of rustic look that I was going for.

Tomorrow or Tuesday, we should be able to reinstall the toilet, and then we will once again have a functioning—if not fully finished—second bathroom. Still a lot of work to do, including building the new vanity (though we'll most likely put the old sink and vanity back in place temporarily when my in-laws come to visit in a couple of weeks), covers for the radiators, and shelving. But the groundwork is laid. Onward and upward!