Sunday, November 30, 2014

Thanksgiving bounty

Every year, Brian and I (well, mostly Brian) supply the pies and cranberry sauce for my family's Thanksgiving dinner. This year, however, we went beyond our usual responsibilities and brought a whole wealth of homemade goodies—some of them home-grown, as well. Our offerings, pictured below, included:

1. Rhubarb pie, made from our own home-grown rhubarb. Brian's recipe for the filling, made up out of his own head, is:
5 cups chopped rhubarb
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 Tbsp. corn starch
If using frozen rhubarb, mix it with the sugar and corn starch while still frozen, and then let the mixture thaw. If using fresh, mix everything together and let it sit until the sugar starts to draw the moisture out of the rhubarb (the mixture will be gooey).
While the mixture is mingling, make the crust: 
2 cups all-purpose flour (not bread flour)
1 tsp. salt
2/3 cup unsalted butter (no shortening here, thank you)
ice-cold water
  1. Combine flour and salt. Cut in the butter, straight out of the fridge, with a pastry cutter, until the the mixture is as fine as you can get it. Add the water, 1 tablespoon at a time, mixing with a fork, until you have a smooth dough, coherent but not sticky.. Usually it takes around 7 or 8 tablespoons. Try to work the dough as little as possible. Divide the dough into two balls and coat each one in flour, then roll it out on a floured surface until it's as thin as you can get it. 
  2. To transfer the bottom crust to the pan, lift it by one edge and gently fold it in half, then lay that across the center of the pan and unfold it. This helps keep it from tearing. Let it settle into the pan and trim it off to about 2 inches all around the edge. Pour the filling on top and dot with butter (a tablespoon or two altogether).
  3. After rolling out the second crust, slice it into narrow strips and weave them into a lattice on top of the filling. Start by putting down one vertical strip, then one horizontal one on top, then two more vertical ones on either side of the first. Then fold back the first vertical one over the top of the horizontal one so that you can lay the next horizontal ones under it, but over the other vertical ones. Continue weaving in this way, folding back more strips each time, until the lattice covers the whole surface. (Yes, this is a lot more work than just laying all the horizontal strips one way and the vertical ones another, but it's much more structurally sound. If you do the lattice the lazy way, it will all break off in one big sheet as soon as the pie is cut.) Trim off the overhanging strips all around the edge.
  4. Roll the overhanging dough up all around the edge to form a nice, thick wall that will keep the pie juices from spilling over. Then, just in case, put a cookie sheet on the lower rack of the oven to catch any stray drips, and put the pie on the upper rack. Bake at 400 for around an hour. Check it after 30 minutes, and every 10 minutes after that, removing it when it looks nicely browned.
  5. Serve with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream, to oohs and ahhs of admiration.
2. Pumpkin pie, made with store-bought pumpkin (since we didn't get a great crop of winter squash this year) according to the ultra-simple recipe on the can. Basically, you just mix the pumpkin with a can of evaporated milk, 2 beaten eggs, 3/4 cup sugar, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, and 1/2 teaspoon each of nutmeg, ginger, and salt, then pour it into the crust and bake: 15 minutes at 425 and another 45 or so at 350. Our one innovation was to use real Ceylon cinnamon from Penzey's Spices, rather than the cheap cinnamon sold in most grocery stores (which is really cassia and not true cinnamon at all). I guess this made a big difference to the flavor, because this pie went even faster than the rhubarb.

3. Apple butter, made in our slow cooker from some apples we picked up at the supermarket for a buck a pound. They weren't great eating apples, but they worked fine for this purpose. Brian consulted a bunch of recipes online, then conflated them all together into this simplified version:
  1. Peel and chop 8 apples. Load them into the slow cooker and cook them for 8 hours on low. (This part of the process is basically just making applesauce. Brian says if he had to do it again, he'd probably make the applesauce in the pressure cooker instead, which is much faster. You could also start with commercial applesauce, which is what most recipes recommend, but what fun is that?)
  2. Add 1/2 cup water, 1 1/2 cups sugar, 1 tsp. cinnamon, 1/4 tsp. nutmeg, 1/4 tsp. allspice, 1/8 tsp. cloves, 1/2 Tbsp. dark molasses, and the zest of half a lemon, and cook for another 8 hours on low.
  3. At this stage in the process, the apple butter will have a soupy consistency. Brian reduced it by transferring it to a pot on the stove and cooking it, uncovered, stirring it steadily, for another half hour or so. However, he thinks it might be possible (and easier) to reduce it right in the crock by just taking the lid off and bumping it up to high, then letting it bubble away, stirring it every so often, until it looks right.
4. Rhubarb jam, made from the last our home-grown rhubarb that we salvaged after the frost had hit. Brian used this very simple recipe that he found on a site called Leite's Culinaria. The only ingredients are rhubarb, sugar, water, and a lemon, but you use every part of the lemon: the juice, the rinds and the seeds, which supply the pectin to make the jam jell. Brian had his doubts about how well this would work, so he kept poking at the seeds in their little cheesecloth pouch to get them to make sure they were doing their job, with the result that the jam actually came out slightly too well jelled, with a consistency more like jellied cranberry sauce. (He thinks if he tries it again, he might put the lemon pips in a tea strainer instead and just leave them be.) He also didn't go through the whole process of canning the jam properly, in sealed, sterilized jars. Instead, he just scooped it into clean jars and stored it in the fridge. With the amount of sugar that's in it, it's hard to imagine that any bacteria could grow in it anyhow.

5. Ice box garlic pickles, made from last summer's extremely bountiful cucumber crop. We made jar after jar of these last summer, eventually switching from dill pickles to garlic pickles because we used up all our dill, and by Thanksgiving day, we still had two jars left. Fortunately, my kith and kin were happy to help us dispose of them. The recipe, as passed down from Brian's mom, is:
  1. Slice up about a dozen 5-inch cucumbers and stuff them in a jar with 4-5 sprigs of dill.
  2. Combine 1 quart water, 3/4 cup vinegar, 1/3 cup kosher salt, and 4 cloves sliced garlic, and pour it over the cucumbers. (The original recipe called for this mixture to be boiled for 5 minutes first and poured on while still hot, but Brian's mom started letting it cool first to keep the pickles crisper. Brian has taken this one step further and no longer cooks the brine at all, which is one reason our pickles lasted until Thanksgiving without going completely limp.)
  3. Store the jars in the fridge. They'll be ready to eat in 2 days, but better after 4, and they'll stay good for...well, as long as four months, as we've now discovered. They will be very salty after sitting in the brine that long, but some people (my sister in particular) seem to like them that way.
So that's how we contributed this year to a homemade, home-grown Thanksgiving feast. (We also ended up putting up several guests in our home after my parents' house developed an unforeseen plumbing problem, but that's another story.) Happy Thanksgiving to all! (And yes, now it's okay to start putting up the Christmas decorations.) 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Bonus Recipe: Pumpkin penne

Earlier this month, I jumped the gun a bit on my Recipe of the Month post. I decided to count a variant on a recipe we'd already made as if it were a new recipe, mostly because I wasn't sure we'd actually get a chance to try a brand-new recipe this month. As it turns out, however, my worries were unfounded. On our last trip to Aldi, we found that in addition to their usual weekly sale fliers, they up a copy of their free holiday recipe booklet, which contained several veggie recipes, including this pumpkin sage cream farfalle. And since we also happened to have half a carton of ultra-pasteurized cream in the fridge from our last visit to Trader Joe's, which we had already discovered was more or less useless for whipping no matter how much we chilled it first, this seemed like a reasonable way to use it up.

Normally, the first time I try a recipe, I like to follow the directions exactly as written, since I know it's been tested that way. Then, after tasting it, I'll make any adjustments I think it needs for the next time I prepare it. In the case of this pasta, however, the recipe as written looked so ludicrously rich that it seemed reasonable to tone it down a bit. First, we scaled the entire recipe down to 3/4 its size, since we happened to have 3/4 cup of leftover pumpkin stored in the freezer that needed using up. Then, rather than using a full cup of cream to this volume of pumpkin, we used the half cup we had and eked it out with an equal volume of skim milk. We also scaled back the amount of cheese in the recipe from 3/4 cup to just 1/3 cup (and substituted Parmesan for Romano, which I don't like). And we substituted a plain yellow onion for the Vidalia the recipe called for, since once cooked, the difference in taste is hardly noticeable.

Even with these adjustments, the sauce was very thick and creamy, giving the dish a consistency rather like macaroni and cheese (an impression further enhanced by the pumpkin color). As for its flavor, it was very mild, with no particular flavor dominating. I think if we were to make it again, I might be inclined to boost the ratio of pumpkin to cream still more, bringing out the pumpkin flavor and further reducing the fat in the dish. I think one can of pumpkin to one can of evaporated milk might be a good ratio, and it would avoid leaving any pesky leftover that would need to be squeezed into some other recipe somehow. But then, given that we already know so many good things to do with pasta, it's unlikely we'll make it again at all. Its only real benefit is that it's a reasonably good way to use up excess pumpkin, and for that purpose, I prefer Brian's pumpkin chiffon pudding.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Free DIY leaf mulch

Last weekend, we took advantage of a brief interlude of nice weather in the middle of an unseasonably cold November to deal with some long-overlooked gardening chores. At the top of my list was tidying up the flowerbed in the front yard, which looked so promising last spring, but turned into a tumbledown mess by midsummer. I never did manage to get the flowers to stand upright again; some of the later fall blooms managed to grow straight up through the mass of flopped-over ones, but that just made the whole arrangement look even more disorganized. So it was almost a relief when the frosts of the past week withered all the remaining blossoms, leaving nothing but a drab, brown mass. At that point, there was no reason to leave them standing (or half-lying) any longer, and I could simply cut them down to the ground and start over in the spring. (The flowers we grew this year were all annuals; next year, the perennials in the wildflower seed mix are supposed to take over.  Those may be a little less subject to floppage, but just in case, I plan to build a support grid of stakes and string, as described in this article. Watch this space next spring for details.)

The other big task we had to attend to was raking leaves. We don't have any big trees in our yard, but our neighbors' send plenty of leaves our way—enough to make a huge pile on the patio. The big problem was not so much raking them as figuring out what to do with them all, as our compost bin was already full to overflowing. We could, of course, have just bagged them up and left them out on the curb for the borough to pick up, but that seemed like a waste of a lot of nice organic material. Since our now-denuded flowerbed was going to need a nice thick layer of mulch anyway, I suggested, why not put all these excess leaves to use for that purpose?

The simplest way to do this would have been to simply rake the leaves directly onto the flowerbed. That would have helped keep the bed tidy throughout the winter and warm the soil in the spring, but it could also have caused problems once the seeds started to sprout. Whole leaves probably wouldn't break down very much over the course of the winter; they'd just clump together in a dense mat, which might be difficult for the seedlings to break through. So if we wanted to turn these leaves into fluffy, nutritious mulch, we'd need to break them up somehow.

Fortunately, we knew of an easy way to do this. I forget where I first read about the idea of mulching leaves with your string trimmer, but it's simple enough. First, you fill a nice, big bucket (we used one of our trash barrels) about half full of leaves.

Then, you stick your string trimmer in the bucket, switch it on, and swirl it around to chop up all the leaves.

When you're done, you'll have reduced the half-barrel of whole leaves to a much smaller volume of coarse crumbs. You don't have to be a perfectionist about it: if a stray leaf here and there survives intact, it won't do too much damage. What you want to avoid is a solid mass of whole leaves that will just clump together under the snow, rather than breaking down.

It took about half an hour to process roughly half of the leaf pile in this way, producing enough mulch to cover the flowerbed a couple of inches deep.

The remainder of the pile can be tended to next weekend, or whenever we have a little free time. Depending on how much mulch we get, we can add that to the flowerbed or use it somewhere else, such as our bramble patch. And if all else fails, we can just dump it into the compost bin; the finer leaf crumbs will filter down through the bulkier items already in there, rather than piling up on top and spilling over.

Turning waste into something useful: what could be more ecofrugal than that?

Monday, November 24, 2014

DIY book tablet case

Last month, Brian decided to take the plunge and get himself a tablet computer. His work laptop had recently "bricked" (i.e., become a brick for all practical purposes), and he'd already disposed of his big old desktop machine, so he just needed something small to use for checking e-mail and other simple tasks at home. Rather than the el cheapo Android tablet from Wal-Mart we were considering back in March, we opted for the Google Nexus 7, which was rated the Best Android Tablet on ConsumerSearch. Since it was last year's model, we were able to pick up a refurbished one for only $75 on Amazon Marketplace, or less than $50 with some store credit we had, so we actually paid less than we would have for the Wal-Mart one. (By the way, yes, I'm still boycotting—but only the retailer itself, not the third-party sellers who do business through its site.)

Brian was pretty happy with his new toy, but he was missing out on one of its greatest advantages: its portability. The refurbished model didn't come with a case, so he hesitated to take it anywhere with him for fear it would be damaged. Of course, we could have just bought it a case for ten bucks or so, but I had a crazy idea that sounded a lot more interesting: why not pick up a cheap secondhand book and turn the book into a tablet case? The cover of a hard-bound book would probably provide perfectly good protection for the tablet, and from the outside, it would look just like a book—which would not only be amusing, but would also make the tablet a less attractive target for thieves, should any happen to spot it. Sure, neither of us had ever tried this before, but with books selling dirt cheap at our local thrift shop, what did we really have to lose?

So on our next trip to the thrift shop, we searched the shelves for something that was the right size to accommodate the tablet. Back in the "miscellaneous" area, we found a volume called The Drug Addict as a Patient that looked ideal for our purposes. It was just slightly larger than the Nexus in every dimension, so it would accommodate the tablet without adding too much bulk, and the title was so boring that no one who happened upon it would ever be tempted to peek inside. It was only 25 cents, and the store (which is apparently eager to get rid of its book inventory) has a standard "buy one, get two free" deal—so we also got a paperback copy of The Anubis Gates and a whimsical little volume called The Good Fairies of New York at no extra charge. Now even if our experiment was a bust, our quarter wouldn't have gone to waste.

Once we got it home, Brian got to work cutting out the pages. He traced around the outline of the tablet on the title page, and then he cut along that line with an X-Acto knife, trimming away the pages a few at a time until he had a hole deep enough for the tablet. This was actually a fairly tedious process, and he says it probably would have been a lot easier to clamp all the pages together and cut around the outline with a jigsaw, but he didn't want to risk it with this book because it was so small that he was afraid he'd cut it apart completely. So making a book-case for your tablet may be easier if you start with a larger volume, but then you'll also end up with a bulkier and heftier case. Depending on how much you plan to carry it around, it may or may not be worth the trade-off.

Once he had all the pages cut out, he needed some way to stick the edges together so the case would have some structural integrity. So he just applied a little white glue to the tablet-shaped outline and smeared it on with a finger. He also glued down the remaining pages that he hadn't removed from the end of the book, so they wouldn't flop around.

Then he clamped the whole thing shut for a couple of days and let the glue set.

Once it was dry, he found that the result wasn't exactly perfect. First, the glue had added a little bit of bulk to the pages, so the outline he'd traced now wasn't quite big enough for the tablet. So he fixed that by shaving away the edges of the pages with the X-Acto blade until he'd carved out a hole the right size. Also, gluing together the pages at the bottom had caused them to bubble up a bit as the glue dried, forming a sort of messy edge. But after a little consideration, Brian decided this was a good thing: it made it look like not just an old, boring book, but an old, boring, damaged book that really wouldn't be worth anyone's trouble.

The final step was figuring out how to hold the case shut. I'd imagined applying some sort of hinge to the outside to hold it in place, perhaps a scrap of leather like this person used or a Velcro closure glued to the front and back covers. But Brian simply cut that particular Gordian knot by slipping a large rubber band around the whole shebang. This completes the case's disguise as an old, disintegrating book: it now looks like it's so decrepit that it needs a rubber band to keep it from falling to pieces.

Then, when you open it up, surprise! It's not just a book—it's the whole Internet!

All  in all, I think this little DIY tablet case was worth the time it took to make it. It took a bit of time, and it may not be as easy to use as a tablet case designed for the purpose—but it was a lot cheaper, and it looks a lot cooler. Plus, it repurposed something unwanted that would otherwise go to waste (let's face it, who's going to want to read The Drug Addict as Patient?) into something useful.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Alternative Advent calendar

I'm starting this off with a disclaimer: normally I object to any material about "the holidays"—meaning Christmas, Hanukkah, Yule, Kwanzaa, and the general December Madness—before Thanksgiving. But I'm going to make an exception for this little tidbit, because it's actually about preparing for the onslaught of the holiday season and coming up with ways to minimize the madness. So, since even I concede that the holiday season can be considered under way as soon as Thanksgiving is over, it follows that in order to plan ahead for it, you need to start planning before Thanksgiving. And ideally, rather than increasing your December-mas stress by starting the season even earlier, it will reduce it so you can enjoy both holidays more.

The folks at the Center for a New American Dream have been urging folks to "simplify the holidays" for several years now. The goal, they stress, is not to do away with the gifts, the decorations, the carols, and all the other things that people love about Christmas; it's to get rid of everything else, the extraneous stuff that just adds stress and detracts from the joy of the holiday rather than adding to it. So, for instance, rather than giving each child half a dozen presents, so that they spend hours opening them all and end up in a state of sensory overload where they can't really focus on anything, perhaps you could increase the joy by giving them each just one or two presents that they will really love and treasure, and letting them spend the rest of the day playing with and enjoying them. Instead of baking a dozen different kinds of Christmas cookies (and then feeling compelled to eat at least one of each and ending the day feeling dyspeptic and guilty), maybe make just the few kinds that everyone in the family loves most. Instead of covering every inch of the house with colored lights, consider having just one tree in one room, where it will really stand out and look special.

The problem, as I've noted before, is that it's one thing to decide you'd like your holiday celebration to be simpler and more meaningful; it's quite another to make it happen. Especially when your holiday celebration isn't just yours, but your whole family's, and a lot of those family members are deeply attached to their current way of celebrating.

Well, this year, the Simplify the Holidays campaign is actually acknowledging that fact. The authors have put together a Simplify the Holidays calendar that's kind of like an Advent calendar for minimalists; each day, there's a different exercise, tip, blog entry, resource, or inspirational thought to help you turn your simplified holiday from a dream into a reality. Last week's entries included:
  • An exercise called The Big Picture, in which you list all the things you do each year to get ready for the holidays, then think about which ones you really enjoy, and think about ways you might be able to eliminate or reduce the ones you don't enjoy.
  • Guidelines for talking to your loved ones about the holidays and which parts are most meaningful to all of you.
  • One reader's story about how she reduced the emphasis on gifts at her family's Christmas celebration and focused more on "spending time with each other."
  • Links to the Simplify the Holidays pledge, a list of actions you can vow to adopt for de-commercializing Christmas, and booklet, which features a wealth of tips on planning a more meaningful and sustainable celebration.
  • An inspirational quotation on the True Meaning of Simplifying. 
As we approach the season of holiday joy and madness, I offer you this alternative Advent calendar in the hope that it will help you focus on what's important to you, increasing the joy and minimizing the madness. Or, if you like your holiday celebration just fine the way it is, thank you, then maybe you can pass it on to someone else who you think could do with a little less stress during December.

We now return you to our regularly scheduled Thanksgiving thoughts.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Guest room makeover, stage 2

After more than a month of working intermittently on the back room that we're in the process of turning into a guest room—pulling out nails, patching the walls where the nails came out, sanding down the patches, and peeling most of the paint off the walls in the process—we finally got the whole room primed last weekend. (Even this step took longer than we expected, as we ran out of primer partway through and had to make a trip to the home center for more, so priming turned out to be a two-day job.) Now, at last, we've reached the point where we can really transform the room with some paint—just as soon as we decide what paint to use.

I'd already decided that I wanted to keep the walls in this room fairly neutral, so they wouldn't clash with the brown-and-magenta quilt we plan to use on the guest bed. I'd managed to narrow my color choices from the assortment shown in this post down to three, opting for the slightly bolder middle shades from each card rather than the off-white shades toward the bottom. However, given what a hassle it was to get this room to the painting stage in the first place, I definitely wanted to be absolutely sure of my final choice before covering a whole wall with it, because I really didn't want to have to do this job more than once. So rather than just relying on the paint chips, I sprang for six dollars' worth of sample-size paint pots to check out how they looked on the actual wall before making the final decision. The three lucky finalists are are, from left to right: Flioli Antique Lace, a light yellowy beige; Sahara Sands, a more peachy tone; and Pacific Shoreline, which shades off toward pink.

If you enlarge the photo of the three swatches, you'll see that they came out rather streaky and uneven. We only had one big paintbrush, and I didn't want to have to wash it and wait for it to dry between uses, so I decided to put up my three test swatches with the cheap little foam brushes we use for staining furniture, which turn out to be less than ideal tools for putting paint on a wall. However, even these somewhat mottled test patches gave us a good enough impression of the colors to eliminate the middle hue right away, since Brian found it too "fleshy." He then used a little mini-roller we'd picked up at the store (technically meant for painting woodwork, according to the label) to reapply the remaining two choices to the wall a little more evenly.

Unfortunately, this just made the waters murkier still. It's not that we couldn't evaluate the colors properly; it's that, once we could see them clearly, we didn't quite see eye to eye on them. (Which isn't surprising, I guess, given that his eye level is about a foot above mine.) Brian was inclined somewhat toward the pinker Pacific Shoreline, while I thought the more neutral Flioli Antique Lace might make a better background for hanging art and suchlike. So in the end, the deciding vote may be in the hands of Their Honors Rock, Paper, and Scissors. But one way or another, we are going to get these darn walls painted before...well, before midwinter, at least.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Recipe of the Month: Mix-and-Match Pasta With Greens

The Recipe of the Month for November is actually a variation on a dish we've made many times before. It's out of the cookbook Easy Vegetarian Dinners, from Better Homes and Gardens, where it's called "Cavatelli with Arugula and Dried Cranberries." However, even this version of the recipe notes that you can substitute rotini for the cavatelli, spinach for the arugula, and raisins for the cranberries. So all Brian really did when he made it last weekend was to substitute pecans for the almonds or pistachios suggested in the original recipe. However, he noted in the process that he had, at that point, replaced just about every ingredient in the dish; only the garlic, olive oil, and veggie broth remained unchanged.

I considered this point and realized that this dish is really, for all practical purposes, a fill-in-the-blank recipe. You can substitute in just about any type of pasta, greens, fruit, or nuts for any other, and it will still taste good. So I'm sharing the mix-and-match version of the recipe, with our latest version as an example.

  1. Cook 1/2 pound of any short pasta (cavatelli, rotini, rotelle, penne, orecchiete, bow ties, etc.) according to package directions. (The version shown here uses rotini.) 
  2. While pasta is cooking, mince 2 cloves garlic and saute in 1 Tbsp. olive oil over medium heat for 1 minute. Add 4 cups of dark leafy greens (arugula, spinach, mustard greens, kale, etc.), torn into smallish pieces, to the pan and cook until just wilted—about 1 or 2 minutes more. (This version uses spinach.)
  3. When the pasta is done, drain and toss with 1/2 cup vegetable broth. Add the greens, along with 1/2 cup of any dried fruit (cranberries, raisins, cherries, sultanas, etc.) and 1/2 cup of toasted chopped nuts (sliced almonds, pistachios, pecans, walnuts, etc.) Toss to combine.
  4. Serve with finely shredded Parmesan cheese, to taste.
It's nothing fancy, but it's easy, quick, and almost infinitely variable. Whatever you've got in the pantry, you can make it work.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A futile gesture of protest

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Christmas Creep is the way it eats into Thanksgiving. It's bad enough that stores put out all their holiday decorations in October and are playing bad Christmas music weeks before Thanksgiving, but now an ever-increasing number of businesses are actually starting their "Black Friday" sales on Thanksgiving Day.

Wal-Mart started it a few years back by moving its Black Friday "doorbusters" up by two hours, from midnight on Friday to 10pm on Thursday, and its opening times have crept ever earlier in the years since. Meanwhile, its competitors, fearful of losing out, have not only followed suit but are now jockeying furiously to be the first to open on what's supposed to be a national holiday. RadioShack is planning to open at 8am, just like any other business day; it was originally planning to stay open all day long, but after a spate of furious criticism, it's now giving its employees a break from noon to 5pm before they have to be back on the job. (Hope they can cook and eat their Thanksgiving dinner in that time.) But even that isn't the prize winner; Sears has announced that its KMart stores will open at 6 am on Thanksgiving Day, literally before dawn in many parts of the country, and will remain open through midnight on Black Friday—42 consecutive hours. Because nothing captures the spirit of Thanksgiving like elbowing your fellow shoppers out of the way to get your hands on cheap tablets and toasters. And one particular mall in upstate New York has announced that not only will it open its doors at 6pm on Thanksgiving, but every store in the mall must also do so or pay a hefty fine.

It's actually gotten to the point that the stores that are remaining closed on Thanksgiving are now trumpeting this decision as a marketing gimmick. Sam's Club, Nordstrom, TJ Maxx, and other retailers that aren't observing "Black Thursday" are loudly proclaiming their commitment to "family," bragging about how they're giving their workers a break by letting them spend Thanksgiving with their families instead of on their feet trying to stem a tide of frenzied bargain hunters. Even the Facebook group "Boycott Shopping on Thanksgiving Day" is declaring the stores on its "nice" list (the ones that won't be open on Thanksgiving) to be "worthy of extra business throughout the year"—as if these stores deserve brownie points just for staying closed on, again, a national holiday.

What's really baffling to me is why so many businesses are pissing off their employees, and at least a small percentage of their customers, by opening on Thanksgiving Day. The explanation that's usually given in news stories is that if one retailer does it, others have no choice but to follow suit; if Wal-Mart is open and Target isn't, then all the folks who want to start their holiday shopping before they've even finished digesting their pumpkin pie will go to Wal-Mart, and Target will lose out on sales. But as this piece in Time magazine points out, being open on Thanksgiving doesn't appear to boost a retailer's overall holiday sales. Rather than taking business away from their competitors, they're just cannibalizing their own Black Friday profits by moving some of them up to Thursday.

Apparently, the fact that Thanksgiving hours don't improve overall sales isn't a strong enough argument to convince companies not to do it. So it looks like the only way this trend will stop is if stores start seeing their Thanksgiving hours actually hurt their overall sales. The "Boycott Shopping on Thanksgiving Day" group claims, "the solution is simple: If we don’t shop on Thanksgiving Day, it won’t be profitable for the retailers and they won’t do it again next year." But frankly, I have my doubts about this. After all, the only people taking part in this protest are the ones who object to the idea of shopping on Thanksgiving, and they presumably wouldn't have been doing it anyway—so simply declaring this stance to be a "boycott" doesn't actually cost the stores anything. To hurt their business at all, we have to refuse to shop there for the rest of the holiday season, as well.

So that's what I'm doing.

For the rest of this holiday season—meaning, until next year—I will not shop at any of the stores on the "naughty" list (the ones that are open on Thanksgiving Day). This means that my local Rite Aid, which I was already planning to boycott until after Thanksgiving because of their premature holiday decorations, is now off-limits for December as well. I also won't be paying any of my occasional visits to Target, Payless, Staples, or Michael's during the next six weeks. (I don't, however, plan on shifting my business to Hobby Lobby, which is on the "nice" list; merely closing on Thanksgiving doesn't make up for refusing to pay for birth control in my book.) And the new pair of sneakers I was planning to buy myself (to replace an aging pair that has lost all the spring from its step) will just have to be put on hold until next year. Even my beloved Dollar Tree, which was so much help with my last Thanksgiving post, is off-limits until next year.

Fortunately, most of the stores I shop at regularly, including Home Depot and Lowe's, PetSmart and Petco, and Aldi and Trader Joe's, will be closed on Thanksgiving, so I won't have to change my shopping habits too much. Barnes & Noble is still fair game for my holiday shopping as well. And I'm not planning to boycott any supermarkets (which, as far as I can remember, have always been open on Thanksgiving morning to accommodate last-minute shoppers) or online-only stores (which are open all the time, and which aren't actually pulling people away from their families).

I realize this gesture is probably futile on my part, since a one-person boycott isn't likely to do much damage (especially to stores I most likely wasn't going to shop at anyway). But if I can draw attention to the issue, and maybe persuade a few other people to follow suit, and they can persuade a few more, we might eventually be able to make a difference.

Alternatively, I could always try to petition my state legislature to pass a blue law like the one they have in Massachusetts, which requires all retail stores (with a few exceptions, like gas stations) to close on Thanksgiving. But I think that's unlikely to get anywhere while we've got a pro-business governor who's eager to become a pro-business presidential candidate.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Setting the Thanksgiving table on a dollar-store budget

I've complained many times about Christmas creep, the phenomenon of jumping ahead to the "holiday season" earlier and earlier each year, leaving Thanksgiving (and now, it appears, even Halloween) in the dust. As Alexandra Petri of the Chicago Tribune points out, this devalues not only Thanksgiving, but Christmas as well; by the time the holiday actually arrives, everyone's already sick of it.  ("I complain about it every year," she laments, "and it still happens. It is almost as though writing about things on the Internet had no impact on them whatsoever.") The solution she proposes is to keep the focus on Thanksgiving as much as possible: "Buy Thanksgiving greeting cards. Insist on turkey garlands. Dress up as a pilgrim. Dress up as a turkey. Clap and shout, "I do believe in Thanksgiving! I do! I do!" Anything you can think of."

So, as my contribution to this movement, I'm going to do a post on Thanksgiving entertaining. I already did one three years ago on how to throw a great holiday party on a reasonable budget; now it's time to give Thanksgiving its fair share of the attention.

The idea behind this post came from an article I saw in the November issue of Good Housekeeping, which, to be fair, is actually all about Thanksgiving (though it was undermined somewhat by the fact that the "fabulous holiday issue," decked out in red and green, arrived at the same time). The article bills itself as "An Easy Lesson in Beautiful Table Settings," showcasing four different styles for decking out the Thanksgiving table. The four place settings, which you can view in a slideshow on the Good Housekeeping website, feature distinctive styles of dishes, glassware, flatware, and napkins or other decorative objects, with accompanying text telling you where to buy them and how much they cost. The cheapest of the four place settings—a "fresh modern" look in stark, minimalist white—cost $55; the most expensive was $117. That's for one place setting, mind you. If you had a dozen people at your holiday table, as my family does, you could spend over a grand just to set the table, before you even put a scrap of food on it.

Even more irksome, to me, were the cutesy place cards accompanying each table setting. For one thing, I've never been at a Thanksgiving meal where we actually needed place cards, and frankly, I'm not sure I'd ever want to spend the holiday with a bunch of people I didn't know well enough to sit down to a meal with unaided by formal seating arrangements. But even supposing, just for the sake of argument, that I decided to make place cards for our Thanksgiving gathering just because I thought they would look cute, why on earth would I need to attach each one to a colored glass bottle (for which the article advises you to "hit up your local flea market"), or a faux pheasant feather, or a spray-painted pear? (That one probably bothered me the most of all, because a pear is food, and spray-painting it so that it's no longer edible is wasting food, which is about as un-frugal as it's possible to be. If you want to stick your guest's name on a pear, then for heaven's sake, why not just use the pear in its natural state? It looks just as nice that way, and after the meal is over, you can remove the little tag and save the pear for breakfast. Spray-paint it, and all you can do with it afterward is throw it out; it probably isn't even safe to put in the compost bin.)

So I decided to put together an elegant place setting to rival those featured in Good Housekeeping on as low a budget as possible. Of course, in real life, I'd simply use the dishes, glassware, flatware, and napkins I already own, and if I wanted to dress up the table a bit, I'd do it by folding the napkins into fancy shapes and making a nice centerpiece of some kind. But assuming I didn't actually own any of that stuff, or didn't own enough pieces to host a large group, how would I build an elegant table setting from scratch on a bare-bones budget? To me, there was just one obvious answer—one that started with "Dollar" and ended with "Tree."

I don't get out to Dollar Tree very often these days, since the one closest to us closed down, but it's actually one of my favorite places to browse aimlessly. They have such a huge variety of stuff there, from food to cleaning supplies to housewares and even clothing. You never know just what you're going to find there, but you know that anything you find can be yours for only one dollar. And I remembered quite distinctly that, on previous visits, I'd seen plates there, and glasses, and maybe even utensils. If I needed to outfit a table for a big party in a hurry and on the cheap, it's certainly the first place I'd look.

So, on Wednesday, while running another errand, we stopped in. I headed for the tableware section and quickly discovered that the problem with this plan wasn't going to be finding something I liked; it was going to be deciding which of the many styles available I liked best. They had a remarkable variety of dishes, plain and patterned, in white and every color of the rainbow (plus a few that the rainbow leaves out).

Glassware, too, was available in a vast array of styles: stemware and tumblers, colored and clear, delicate and hefty.

With all the choices there, I could easily have put together four place settings in different styles, just like the folks at Good Housekeeping. But I decided to show some restraint and limit myself to two. For a simple, elegant look, I chose these white plates with a gold-edged rim:

And to go with them, a set of tumblers with a matching gold rim:

Then, for a more colorful and festive look, I chose these casual dishes in a vivid, country-themed pattern:

And, to play up the color scheme, stemware with a clear bowl and a green stem:

My job was only half done, however. I'd found dishes and glasses, but the Dollar Tree couldn't help me with either napkins or flatware (except the disposable variety, which, aside from being wasteful, don't cut it as elegant in my book). To round out my place settings, I'd have to turn to the Great Marketplace of the Internet.

Fortunately, finding these items cheap online was pretty easy. A quick search turned up a wide selection of napkins at a site that supplies the bridal industry. I figured satin napkins in "champagne," at 62 cents each, would go well with the gold-rimmed plates, while more casual polyester napkins in dark red, for 53 cents each, would complement the multicolored ones. These prices don't include shipping, because I didn't want to put the items in my cart to calculate it, so I just rounded up and assumed the napkins would cost a dollar apiece with shipping.

Flatware was a little trickier. On the restaurant supply sites, it was mostly sold by the piece, and I figured it would be cheaper by the set. So I tried eBay, where I found this 44-piece set—8 place settings—for a "Buy it Now" price of $41.50 with shipping. That's a little over $5 per setting, and the simple "New Century" pattern looked like it would go well with either of my place settings. Add it all up, and the place settings come to about $8.33 apiece—less than one-sixth the price of the cheapest setting in the Good Housekeeping article.

There was just still just one little detail left, though. Since Good Housekeeping included place cards in its photo shoot, I figured to be fair, I should come up with ideas for some as well. But I certainly didn't want these to add to the cost of the place settings, so that ruled out any ideas that would require buying supplies from a craft store or "scouring" flea markets. Instead, I stole an idea from party planner David Moen, whose plan for a $30-a-head holiday party, as outlined in the New York Times, inspired my earlier post on holiday entertaining. His place cards were simple teardrop shapes cut out of card stock, with names written in gold marker. I thought for a Thanksgiving meal, you could go one better and cut the cards out of brown kraft paper, since everyone has a couple of brown paper bags lying around somewhere—and instead of a teardrop shape, pick up a nice fallen leaf from your yard and trace that shape onto the paper. The only cost would be a couple of bucks for the marker, which could be reused after the holiday. I even mocked up a little prototype to show what it would look like (though I had to use green marker, since we didn't have a gold one).

That one, because of the gold color scheme, seemed like a good match for the white-and-gold place setting. For the more colorful one, I figured I could do the names on white paper, in colored marker—maybe even a different color for each person—and simply tuck them inside the wine glasses. Maybe even tuck a colorful leaf in there with them, for an extra touch of fall splendor.

So there you go: a choice of two place settings, one traditional and elegant, one cheerful and casual, for under $10 each, with the place cards thrown in. Let's see the Good Housekeepers beat that.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Fighting the draft

Our house was built, as far as we can tell, in 1970. That means it's not nearly as drafty as a really old house, and much better insulated, but it has had over 40 years for bits of the house to settle and leave gaps that can let the winter in. So after Brian finished dealing with the rain barrel last weekend, he turned his attention to weather-stripping our two main entrances to keep the cold at bay.

Last time we applied weather-stripping, we used foam tape (the cheap stuff), and as it turns out, we probably applied it wrong. The instructions in my trusty home maintenance manual say the place to put it is along the inside edge of the doorstop, so when the door, the foam compresses to form a nice, tight seal. However, as you can see in this picture of the front door, we actually pressed it up against the side of the doorstop. It still helps block out drafts that might come whistling through the gaps, but it doesn't actually fill the gaps.

Now, on the front door, the foam tape had actually held up fairly well, despite our little goof in applying it. But on the side door, where we used a narrower strip, the adhesive backing on the foam had gradually lost its stickiness, letting the foam peel up and away from the door jamb. Largish chunks of the foam were missing altogether, leaving gaps in the doorframe were big enough to let ants into the house all summer long. So rather than just buy another roll of the foam tape, we decided to try something that looked like it might hold up a bit better: a felt strip that attaches with nails or staples.

Well, it turns out that this stuff doesn't go in the same place as the foam tape—not the place where it's supposed to go, nor the place where we put it. Instead, according to the picture on the package, it's supposed to be nailed directly to the inside of the door jamb, where it will press up against the edge of the door when it's closed. Brian did this on the side door, but he couldn't do it on the front, since it would interfere with the door hardware.

However, there was still quite a bit of felt left, so he figured he might as well try to apply some on the inside edge of the doorstop, the place where you're actually supposed to put the foam tape. The felt was too wide for this narrow surface, but he just cut it lengthwise and stapled it in place. One narrow half-strip covered two edges of the doorstop on the side door, and he still had the other half left over to do the front door.

This experiment was a success, more or less. Both doors are now very snug indeed—so snug, in fact, that it takes a good hard slam to get them to close. Before, you could just push the door into place, and it would stay put; now you really have to throw your weight against it to make sure that it catches and stays caught. With the side door, it's usually obvious if I haven't managed to get it closed fully, because the added thickness of the felt against the door jamb pushes the door back open again. The front door, however, occasionally looks like it's fully closed, but isn't actually secure. Once or twice, I've failed to notice it until it starts to get dark and the light of the setting sun shining through the gaps in the doorframe. So I've now gotten into the habit of relying on my ears rather than my eyes; even if the door looks shut, I don't assume it is until I hear the click of the latch in its groove.

These newly tight-fitting doors will take a little adjusting to, but it may get easier over time as the felt compresses. In the meanwhile, it's worth a little extra effort to dodge those drafts. It probably won't make a bit difference on our gas bill, but it'll keep us a bit cozier through the long winter months.

UPDATE (11/18/14): The felt weather-stripping on the front door proved to be unworkable. After I accidentally left the door not-quite-shut for the third time, Brian removed it and instead installed a different kind that we picked up at the same time: a simple plastic strip, folded lengthwise. When you close the door, the fold automatically closes up enough to let the door stay shut, but stays open just enough to fill the gap. This stuff may not provide quite as tight a seal as the felt, but it's definitely better than a partly open door.

He also used the same stuff to jury-rig a fix for the bottom sweep on our storm door, which had partly crumbled away with age. The ideal solution would have been to replace the whole sweep, but we weren't sure we'd be able to find one the right size for our particular storm door (which is likely original to the house and may not even be made anymore). So Brian cut a piece of the V-shaped weather stripping to size and slipped it into the gap, and while it may not provide a perfect seal, it blocks out most of the wind and insects.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Rain barrel economics

With the first frost already past and the first blast of real winter weather already on its way, Brian devoted a good chunk of last weekend to getting our house and yard ready for winter. At the top of his to-do list: packing up the rain barrel. This is the first year we've had it, so we weren't altogether sure what to do with it during the cold months. If we just left it out in the yard, the water inside would freeze and thaw repeatedly, weakening and possibly cracking the plastic barrel. We thought of draining the barrel and then covering it to keep it from refilling with snowmelt from the roof, but it seemed like once we'd gone to the all trouble of emptying it, we might as well just move it out of the weather altogether. It might last a bit longer without being exposed to freezing temperatures, even when empty—and it would actually be a bit easier to reroute the flow of water from the drainpipe with the barrel out of the way.

The barrel took quite a while to drain, even after being regularly tapped throughout the summer and fall for watering the garden. Once it was empty, it turned out there was a fair bit of sludge in the bottom, apparently dirt that was small enough to slip through the mesh on top. Brian gave it a bit of a scrub to clear this stuff out, but the hardest part of the job was rearranging all the clutter in the shed to make room for it—along with our newly refinished patio furniture, which we figured would probably keep its nice finish longer if it weren't exposed to another winter outdoors.

After removing the barrel, Brian reattached the end of the drainpipe, which we'd removed to divert water into it. The pipe now reaches nearly to the ground, but it's still a bit closer to the house than it probably should be, so we need to buy a little elbow piece to stick on the end and divert water off into the yard. (We have a short straight piece already, but we can't just stick that on the end because the concrete pad is a bit too high.) When spring arrives, we can put the barrel back in its place, rearrange the drainpipe to drain into it again, and stash away the extra bit of pipe for winter. I guess reconfiguring the drainpipe is now one of our regular spring and fall chores, like changing the clocks (and can probably be done around the same time).

Now that the rain barrel has made it through its first summer, I can give a preliminary report on how good a job it did of saving us on our water use. We haven't received our water bill yet for August through October, but I went out and checked the water meter, and I found that since the start of August, we've used 840 cubic feet of water, or 6284 gallons. Add that to the total on our last water bill, and we've used 11,370 gallons of water since early May. In 2013, by contrast, we used 12,866 gallons between May 13 and October 30. Now, we probably can't give the rain barrel full credit for this 1,500-gallon drop, since we also installed a new showerhead last spring that probably deserves a bit of the credit, but I think the rain barrel definitely accounts for a good chunk of it. If we use, say, 30 gallons every time we water the garden, and we watered it from the rain barrel twice a week from July through October, then that's over 1,000 gallons right there. Not too shabby.

Unfortunately, the savings in dollar terms are a little less impressive. Our town doesn't bill us by the gallon for the water we use; instead, it puts our household water usage into one of three tiers. If we use less than 800 cubic feet of water in a billing period, we pay the minimum, $48.73. Anything between 800 and 1000 cubic feet puts us in the second tier, for $62.96. If we use over 1,000 cubic feet, no matter how much or how little over, then we pay the maximum bill of $77.70. So our 840 cubic feet of water use, as you can see, puts us just over the limit for the bottom tier. (Of course, this might also have something to do with the fact that it's been 104 days since our last water bill, while last year the billing period was only 86 days. If we'd had the same billing periods this year, we'd have been well below the limit. I sometimes rather cynically suspect that the borough deliberately tweaks the dates each year to try and put as many households over the limit as possible. But realistically, I doubt that they could actually be bothered to do the complicated calculations necessary to maximize their profit. More likely, they just send out the bills whenever they happen to get around to it.)

In any case, using the rain barrel this summer obviously wasn't quite enough to keep our bill down to the minimum. But on the other hand, last year at this time, we were all the way in the top tier, so the barrel has still saved us about 15 bucks in its first summer alone. Maybe next year, with a little more tweaking, we can actually manage to keep it below the minimum all summer long.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Ecofrugal Living podcast #6: A visit from the con men

Here's the latest Ecofrugal Living podcast, based on the blog entry for June 5. (Since I never posted a podcast last week, you get two this week.)

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Thursday, November 6, 2014

Price Check: Organic savings? Not so much

Early this year, the Dollar Stretcher site ran a story called, "Using the Web to Reduce the Cost of Organics." Naturally, this headline grabbed my attention right away, because eating organic, using the Internet, and saving money are a few of my favorite things (cue The Sound of Music score). So I perused the article and then checked out the three sites it recommended for eating organic on a budget. Sadly, though, I didn't find any of them particularly helpful—and at least one looked actually counterproductive.

The first site was called Organic Deals. It's basically a coupon site like or The Krazy Coupon Lady, but it specializes in coupons for major organic brands and retailers. The biggest problem with it is the same one I have with such sites in general: most of the available coupons are for highly processed and packaged foods, such as cereals, baking mixes, and frozen meals and sides. Unfortunately, these are exactly the types of organic food that, at least based on my observations, tend to cost a lot more than their conventional equivalents. A bag of Alexia sweet potato fries may cost only $3.24 with a coupon as opposed to $4.49 without it, but a pound of whole sweet potatoes for $1.16 is still a much better deal. Not to mention that it doesn't leave you with all that packaging waste to dispose of.

(Now, to be fair, Organic Deals also lists a few deals on whole, fresh produce, but these are mostly at a store called Sprouts Farmers' Market, which is based in Phoenix and doesn't extend into the Northeast or most of the Midwest. If you're lucky enough to have a Sprouts store in your area, it's probably worth checking out, as there seem to be some really nice deals there. But in most cases, they're just sale prices, so you don't need Organic Deals to help you find them.)

The second site, Abe's Market, is an online grocery store that deals in natural and organic products. According to the Dollar Stretcher article, the site has a loyalty program that lets you earn points for shopping and cash them in for savings on future purchases. However, when I checked the site, I could find no information about this program. The site did offer a "Best Price Pledge," promising to refund the difference if you could find the same price for less anywhere else—but unfortunately, the types of products sold here are bound to be expensive anywhere. Like the ones advertised on Organic Deals, they're mostly processed foods rather than whole foods: crackers, fruit leathers, baking mixes, chocolate. Also, they appear to be mostly obscure, high-end brands—so while Abe's may guarantee you that its price of $20 for three is the best you'll find for New Tree Pleasure Dark Chocolate Bars, that's still a lot more than the $2 a bar you'll pay for the Organic Truffle Bar at Trader Joe's.

The third site was the most dubious of the lot. Called Find A Spring, it helps you locate sources of fresh spring water in your area. The article said this was a great deal because "many of us pay for drinking water," which is true—but no one in this country actually needs to pay for drinking water. We can get perfectly drinkable water right out of the tap for free, or virtually free. Municipal drinking water, in fact, is subject to far more rigorous safety standards than bottled water. Moreover, blind taste tests of bottled water in New York City, Boston, and Cleveland show that to most people, it also tastes as good or better.

The Dollar Stretcher article claims that spring water is better than tap water because, first of all, it "contains many natural minerals that are mechanically or chemically removed by your city's municipal water supply," and second, it "has high levels of hydrogen, which is the main antioxidant in water." The first claim is clearly inaccurate: according to this page on water quality from Duke University, "few brands of bottled water offer a significant amount of minerals." The second one is trickier, partly because it's confusing. If the author is suggesting that spring water has "high levels of hydrogen" because it contains more than two hydrogen atoms per oxygen atom, that's ridiculous; if it did, it wouldn't be water. More likely, she's talking about hydrogen gas that's dissolved in water. I did a little searching and managed to locate one or two papers (here and here) that suggest hydrogen-infused water may indeed be linked to better health outcomes in mice and rats. It's a big jump from there, however, to saying that drinking it will reverse health problems in humans. Moreover, when I tried to find out whether spring water was a good source of dissolved hydrogen, the only info I could find was about sulfur springs, which contain hydrogen sulfide—which the Water Research Center describes as poisonous and foul-smelling. It's definitely not something you want to drink more of.

What scientists do agree on about water and health is that the most important thing is to drink enough of it. I'd say it stands to reason that you're likelier to do this when you can simply turn on the faucet to get some than when you have to haul it home in jugs from some remote area. Moreover, most of the sources listed on Find a Spring aren't really free; you have to pay for access to the land, in addition to hauling home the water yourself. This doesn't seem like a money-saving strategy to me.

So this article was pretty much 0 for 3 in terms of useful advice. Instead, I'll be sticking with my tried-and-tested strategies for saving money on organics:
  1. Prioritizing my organic purchases. My biggest concerns are animal welfare and the impact of factory farming on the environment, so I make a point of buying all my meats organic, as well as rainforest products like coffee and cocoa. Other products, like grains, I'm more willing to let slide if it'll save me a buck. If your reasons for eating organic have more to do with health than ethics, you might prefer to choose your organic purchases based on the Environmental Working Group's latest report on pesticide residues in produce.
  2. Cooking from scratch as much as possible. With a few exceptions, like breakfast cereal, Brian and I tend to eschew processed foods and buy mostly whole foods that we can turn into meals and snacks in our own kitchen. This saves us money on the foods we buy organic, and it also saves us money on the ones we don't—leaving us more leeway in the grocery budget to splurge on the organic foods we really care about.
  3. Comparison shopping. I keep a price book that shows what all the stores in our area charge for foods we buy regularly, from apples to yeast. I track the price for whichever version of the product we buy most often, organic or conventional. This means that (a) I know which store to go to when we run low on something, and (b) if something goes on sale, I know whether it's a good enough price to make it worth stocking up.
  4. Buying in bulk. The best example I can think of is baking cocoa, which we buy five pounds at a time from Dean's Beans. A five-pound bag costs $45, or nearly $55 with shipping, which is about $11 a pound—but buying Fair Trade, organic cocoa in a store would cost us closer to $18 a pound.
  5. Buying store brands. Lots of stores now have their own lines of organic products, which rival the cost of name-brand conventional versions. Indeed, as I showed back in June, many of the organic goods sold at Aldi can whip the prices of their conventional competitors hollow.
Yeah, organic food does cost more. But if you shop sensibly, it doesn't have to cost a lot more.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Best Budget Decor, part 4

And now it's time for another exciting episode of everybody's favorite blog topic, Best Budget Decor! In my previous budget decor posts (from January, February, and July), I've shared bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen refreshes on budgets ranging from under $100 to around $1,000. This time, I'm changing things up by covering redesigns of some new spaces, including two laundry rooms and a basement.

But first, let's start out with something familiar: a basic bedroom redo. The homeowner, Carrie, was depressed about her blah bedroom with its "pee yellow" walls, so her five closest friends decided to team up and redecorate it as a surprise birthday gift. She conveniently went out of town just before her birthday, giving the "flash mob" of redecorators just one week to knock out the project. They started by perusing Carrie's Pinterest boards to get a sense of her style, then got to work repainting the walls, rearranging the furniture, and jointly sewing a new pintuck duvet cover for the bed. (No, I didn't know there was such a thing either until I saw the pictures, but it looks quite nice, and the blogger has thoughtfully provided a link to a complete DIY tutorial on the project, which cost them about $23 all told. Not too shabby considering that similar bedding goes for over $100 at West Elm.) They kept most of the existing furniture, but brought in a $25 orange armchair from Craigslist to provide a pop of color, along with some new curtains and an assortment of throw pillows. They also "shopped [Carrie's] bookcases" to find some colorful accessories to pull the room together. They spent $247 all told, and Carrie reports on her own blog that she was delighted with the result. (In fact, I think this project needs a tagline, like a movie: "One room. Five friends. Seven days. Two hundred and fifty dollars. One amazing transformation.")

The next three projects are all winners in the "Best Budget Redo Before and Afters 2014" at This Old House. The article doesn't give exact dollar costs for these projects, but it groups them into broad budget categories. First, in the $100-to-$500 category, we have this bathroom remodel, completed on a timeline of "less than a year." The homeowners "gutted" the room, fixtures, flooring, and all, and redid it in a style more fitting for their 90-year-old home. To stay within their small budget, they "shopped at yard sales, thrift stores, antiques shops, free piles, and our favorite store, the ReUse Center," spending only $55 on the clawfoot tub, toilet, sink, wall cabinet, and light fixture. They also did all the work themselves, from tiling the walls and floor to re-plumbing to accommodate their new vintage fixtures. The result: a fresh, crisp, black-and-white room perfectly in keeping with the home's prewar roots.

An even more dramatic bathroom remodel appears in the $500-to-$1,000 category. Unlike the first one, it's only a half bath, which makes it a little bit less impressive in terms of bang for the buck, but it certainly is a remarkable metamorphosis. The homeowners stripped the room down to bare walls and added all-new tile, a feature wall covered in distressed pine, and a fabulous DIY vanity that they made from an antique dresser with a marble top. They topped this "under $200" find with a "hammered copper miner's pan sink" and faucet that they scored for "less than half of retail." Other budget-priced materials included clearance tile and an overstock mirror. The finished space is a real statement room with a dramatic, eclectic vibe, blending the rustic look of the pine-plank wall with the traditional style of the marble-topped vanity.

The third entry from This Old House is a basement remodel. In under a year, and on a budget of under $500, the homeowner converted this dingy and dilapidated basement into a bright, open studio for his budding woodworking business (with a corner set aside for his young daughter to work on her art projects, side by side with Dad). He tore out the old acoustic tile ceiling (installed by the previous homeowner, who used the space as a music room) and exposed the ceiling beams for an open, airy feel. He also patched the cracked concrete foundation, sealed it against leaks, and repaired the crumbling lath-and-plaster walls. A fresh coat of white paint—with one accent wall in a vivid orange—and a colorful rug complete the room's rebirth as a cheery space for creating art.

And while we're on the subject of unusual spaces for a room refresh, let's take a gander at this $157 laundry room refresh, done by Kelly, the blogger who documented the redo of Carrie's bedroom above. The space she started out with was definitely unpromising, complete with yellow vinyl flooring, popcorn ceilings, haphazard shelving, and a wallpaper border of laundry hanging on a line (just "in case we ever got confused" about which room it was, as Kelly put it). Right away, she and her husband stripped away the popcorn and slapped some paint on the walls, leaving the space tidy and functional, but completely neutral in appearance. Well, she has slammed that space from neutral into high gear now.

What's really impressive about this room redo is how much Kelly improved both style and function on a minuscule budget. First, she repainted all the walls a light, creamy shade, and then she added a repeating stenciled pattern across the whole length and breadth of the back wall, creating an eye-grabbing accent feature. She also boldly went where no DIYer had gone before by deciding to paint the dated vinyl floors in wide blue and white stripes. Having added more than a dash of style to this blah space, she then turned her attention to function, replacing the single wire shelf with a wall cabinet, centered on the back wall, and two open shelves to either side. The cabinet was a $20 yard-sale find that was originally a corner cabinet, but her handy husband cut it down to size, replaced the side, and built the shelves, tying everything together with a coat of crisp white paint. They rounded out their new storage with a marked-down wall-mounted drying rack. Then Kelly put the finishing touches on the room, with pictures on the walls, accessories on the shelves, and a phenomenal dodecahedron pendant light that her "brilliant husband" made from scratch for a mere $10, saving more than $400 over the cost of the Ralph Lauren piece that inspired it. (This light was such a hit with Kelly's readers that she started offering copies of it through her site—and sold out almost immediately.)

After seeing how gorgeous and functional Kelly's space turned out, I assumed that her remodel was simply the last word on budget laundry room renovation. However, it turns out that blogger Tasha at Designer Trapped had at least a word or two of her own to add. She achieved a transformation nearly as striking as Kelly's on an even more eye-popping budget: just $71. Admittedly, she didn't have to bring in any new pieces like Kelly's cabinet and drying rack, and she was fortunate enough to have lots of leftover materials (paint, curtains, a mirror, Ardex Feather Finish) that she could use to keep her costs down. Tasha painted just about everything in the room: the walls, the cabinets, and even, like Kelly, the vinyl floor. She also hung curtains, concealed plumbing with a "creatively placed" mirror, and created some original art for the space (a shadow box full of clothespins and a set of papier-mâché letters that spell out "FLUFF AND FOLD").

Her most remarkable feat, however, was covering the laminate countertop in Ardex Feather Finish, creating the look of a concrete counter without all the hassle and heft of pouring a new one. I'd previously seen this technique used by the Young House Love bloggers on their kitchen counters, and the results looked impressive enough that I wondered whether this might be the ideal choice for redoing my own laminate countertops, which have long been a source of conflict in my ecofrugal brain: I hated the ugly surface, but I also hated the idea of scrapping the perfectly usable base just to get rid of the ugly. Now that I've seen how well the Ardex worked out for Tasha (and seen her assurance that it's a "totally doable DIY job"), I feel more confident about the idea than ever. I also like the look of the Ardex finish: it's got that slightly imperfect, artisanal feel, which I think would be a good fit with our strong-grained wood cabinets.

See how much you can learn by reading DIY blogs? It's not wasting time, it's research!

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Monday, November 3, 2014

Gardeners' Holidays 2014: Late Harvest

Here in USDA Zone 7a, the garden hasn't exactly stopped producing by early November, but it's definitely winding down. After our first frost in mid-October, we picked the few little tomatoes that were left on the vine and brought them inside to ripen in a paper bag. There are still some lima beans on the trellises, but we've already picked all our winter squash; the beds harbor a few leeks and some parsley, but we've finished off the last of the lettuce and arugula. Our Brussels sprouts, of which we had such high hopes, are still just feeble clusters of leaves, and it looks unlikely at this point that they'll coalesce into proper heads before winter hits. (Next year we'll start them a lot earlier.) And on Saturday, Brian pulled the last few scrawny scallions out of the bed to use in a sausage and apple omelet.

This recipe comes from Olwen Woodier's Apple Cookbook. We usually make it with Gimme Lean Veggie Breakfast Sausage, which has the right texture for crumbling and frying in a skillet, though unlike real pork sausage, it requires the addition of some olive oil to brown properly. You simply brown about half a tube of Gimme Lean in a pan, then add a couple of sliced scallions and a peeled, chopped apple, cook it until it's softened, prepare the eggs in a separate pan, and spoon the sausage filling into them. Paired with some whole-wheat toast, it's satisfying as either a brunch or a light supper. (I would have liked to celebrate this Gardeners' Holiday with a meal that featured our own garden produce a little more prominently—perhaps something with butternut squash—but we were eating out at a friend's house that evening, so we had to make do with brunch instead of dinner.)

This meager handful of scallions surely isn't actually the last harvest we'll get out of our garden this year. Our rhubarb, for example, is still trooping gamely along, and it should easily yield enough for a Thanksgiving pie, plus more for the freezer. We can also hope to pick a few leeks and limas before winter settles in. But it's certainly one of the last, a bittersweet reminder that autumn's bounty is drawing to its end. Soon enough, it will be time to mulch the beds for their long winter's nap, while we settle ourselves inside to snuggle under blankets, sip hot cocoa, and page through seed catalogues dreaming of next year's garden. So while we still can, we'll savor the treasures of fall that remain—the last of our winter squash, the orchard-ripe apples, the butter beans—while stuffing our pantry and freezer as full as we can to see us through the winter to come.