Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Raising the flower stakes

Last year, as you may recall, we had mixed results with our mixed wildflower bed. After getting off to a slow start in May, the wildflower seed mix produced a riot of colorful blooms by mid-June—but by mid-July, those tall, top-heavy stalks had all flopped over, turning our bounty of blossoms into a scraggly, untidy mess. This year, I was determined to find some way around this problem if at all possible. I knew that the flowers in this year's bed wouldn't be the same as last year's, since the first year's blooms were all annuals—cornflowers, cosmos, poppies—and this year the perennials would take over. But some of the perennials in the mix, such as coreopsis and Shasta daisies, get as high as 4 feet tall at full growth, making them even taller than the cornflowers that collapsed so dramatically last year, and I didn't want to risk a repeat of last year's fainting fit.

I did some hunting around online and found several proposed methods of propping up tall flowers, but most of them seemed impractical for a mixed bed like this one. This article on About Gardening, for instance, recommended staking each flower individually, tying the stem to a bamboo stake with twine looped all the way up to the bloom. This clearly wouldn't be feasible with so many flowers in one bed; I'd end up trampling the shorter blooms every time I stepped in to stake the tall ones. Fine Gardening suggested that the flower-flopping problem by choosing the right spot for your flowerbed and making sure to feed and water the plants properly, but that didn't help me; I wanted a fix for the flowers I had already planted, not a recommendation to start over completely with new plants that would be much more expensive to buy and difficult to care for. And commercial products, like these cages and trellises from Gardener's Supply Company, wouldn't work in a mixed bed with tall and short blooms all commingled together indiscriminately—and would be prohibitively expensive even if they did.

Eventually, I decided my best bet was a variant of the "cat's cradle" technique described in the Fine Gardening article. Instead of making a small grid of stakes and twine to support just one plant, I'd build a loose grid around the entire bed. If the tallest flowers in the bed were 4 feet high, I figured, I'd put a row of stakes in and run twine across at a height of 3 feet.  That way, if they started to fall forward, they'd descend one foot, hit the twine barrier, and (ideally) stop. But then a snag occurred to me: what about the other flowers in the bed that were 3 feet or shorter? They might still be tall enough to flop over, but they wouldn't be tall enough to be stopped by a barrier at 3 feet. Should I run several rows of twine across the stakes at different heights, to catch the different types of flowers?

After a little consideration, I decided on three rows of twine at staggered heights. The back row would be at 3 feet, to catch the tallest blooms. The middle row would be at 2 feet, and the front row at 1 foot. This setup wouldn't completely stop the plants from falling over, but it would catch them before they hit the ground—so instead of just falling down and lying flat, they'd drape over the rows of twine in a cascade. The tallest blooms that stood furthest back would be caught at the 3-foot level; ones further forward, or short enough to slip under the 3-foot string, would be caught at 2 feet; and the shortest and frontmost blooms would be caught at 1 foot. Instead of a vertical flower arrangement, the whole display would be tilted forward on a diagonal.

Naturally, I had no way of knowing how well this would work in practice, since no one else seemed ever to have tried it before. But it was a lot better than doing nothing, and a quick trip to Home Depot confirmed that it wouldn't be that much more expensive: just $6 for a packet of 25 bamboo stakes (dyed green to make them blend in with the foliage, although personally I think their natural color would look better) and another $3 or so for a ball of twine. For 9 bucks, we figured it was at least worth a shot, especially since neither of us had any better ideas.

We were actually planning to construct the grid the weekend before last, but our spring snowstorm but the kibosh on that plan, so we did it yesterday—after the snow had melted away, but before any of the flowers in the bed had actually popped up. I could have tried to do it by myself during the week, but I'm glad I didn't, because it turned out to be a job that's a lot easier with two people. Brian did the brute-force part of the work, driving the stakes in by hand to a depth of about 1 foot, while I stood outside the bed and sighted along the rows of stakes to make sure each one was lining up with the others. We put the back row a couple of feet away from the house, aligned the front row with the front of the planting bed, and positioned the middle one roughly halfway in between.

Once we had all the stakes in place, we ran into a bit of difficulty attaching the twine: the bamboo stakes were so smooth that the twine slid easily up and down them and wouldn't stay put in one spot. So Brian decided, rather than attaching the twine at the exact height we wanted for each row, to tie it in place just above the nearest natural segment break in the bamboo. That created enough of a bump in the surface to keep the strings from slipping. After that, we just wrapped the string twice around the middle stake in each row and tied it in place at the end. The result of all this was that the three rows of twine weren't exactly level, since they had to shift around a bit to take advantage of the knots in the bamboo, but at least they were reasonably secure. Attaching the strings was another part of the process where having two people proved handy, as Brian could hold the twine at the right height with both hands, keeping it taut, while I snipped it off the ball with scissors.

Once the horizontal rows were done, Brian completed the grid by running three more rows of twine across the rows of stakes, from back to front. These crossways rows slope downward, from the 3-foot height of the top row at the back to the 1-foot level in the front—so the finished grid now sits at an angle tilted up toward the sky, much like a solar panel. Now all we need to do is wait for the flowers to grow on up through it, and we'll see whether my cockamamie idea actually worked.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Soup of the Month: Hearty Bluefish Chowder

As we entered the last week of March, I started wondering how I was going to handle the Recipe of the Month post. True, I'd already tried one new vegetable-based recipe in March, but it wasn't a soup or a salad, which was what I'd pledged in January to try every month this year. I was toying with the idea of going ahead and counting it anyway, but before I was reduced to that, Brian came to the rescue. Last night, he conjured up a brand-new soup out of his own imagination and an assortment of odds and ends pulled out of the freezer, fridge, and pantry.

Although this soup is heavy on the veggies, it isn't vegetarian. We happened to have some bluefish filets in our freezer, so Brian decided to build the soup around that. As an aside, this fish has an ecofrugal story attached to it. We originally received it as a gift from my folks, who had more of it than they could eat. The reason they had so much is that they had, in turn, received several pounds of it as a gift from a friend who'd gone on a fishing trip and caught nothing but bluefish—which he, unfortunately didn't like. So rather than let it go to waste, he gave it away to them, and they shared the bounty with us. Waste not, want not—a fitting starting point for this out-of-thin-air soup.

His original plan was to supplement the fish with some white beans we also had in the freezer, for an extra boost of protein. But upon consideration, he realized that the white beans might come in handy for Pasta e Fagiole, which is another favorite soup of ours, so he substituted a can of chick peas instead. Then he started chucking in whatever vegetables he had to hand: carrots, celery, onion, potato. To season it, he thought something along the lines of Old Bay Seasoning would be appropriate, so he looked up the ingredients and did his best to reproduce the flavor with what we had in the spice cabinet. As a result, his recipe has quite a long list of ingredients, many of which are only added in tiny amounts:
1 - 2 Tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 large celery stalks, diced
2 carrots, diced
1 large potato, diced
1/2 - 1 lb bluefish, cut into small chunks
1 can (15 oz, about 2 cups) cooked chickpeas, drained and rinsed
2 bay leaves
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp dry mustard
1/4 tsp paprika
1/8 tsp ground ginger
pinch black pepper
pinch nutmeg
pinch cardamom
pinch allspice
water to (just) cover 
Saute veggies briefly in oil. Add remaining ingredients and heat to a boil. Lower heat and simmer, mostly covered, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes are soft (about 45 minutes).
That's a lot of different ingredients, but I must say, the overall effect was very satisfying. Between the fish, chick peas, and chunks of potato, the soup was very thick and hearty, and the seeming hodge-podge of seasonings actually blended together into a very harmonious whole. The resulting soup was not only rich and flavorful, it was so substantial that I actually couldn't finish my bowl. (Admittedly, I'd also had one and a half whole-wheat biscuits, but since I typically eat a full bowl of soup and two biscuits, this soup is definitely extra filling.)

If you want to make this soup yourself and don't want to mess around adding a pinch of this and a dash of that, you could probably just add a couple of teaspoons of Old Bay—or one of the many homemade versions of it you can find online—and get much the same effect. Prepared that way, it should be pretty easy to make, and definitely worth the effort. Especially if you have several pounds of bluefish you need to use somehow, and grilling season is still a couple of months away.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Savings challenge, week 4: Kitty cuisine

This week's topic in the Bankrate 52-Week Savings Challenge is about how to save on dog food by making it yourself. Since we don't have a dog, this challenge isn't really relevant for us; dogs and cats have different nutritional needs, and the recipes they recommend for dogs wouldn't necessarily be healthful for cats. But I figured I might as well use the topic as an opportunity to talk about what we feed our cats, and how much it costs us.

When we got our first cat, Amélie, about eleven years ago, we initially tried feeding her a combination of canned food and dry food, since that's what they'd been giving her at the shelter. However, we quickly discovered that she wasn't all that interested in the canned food; she'd eat a couple of bites of it, then walk away and leave the rest. This seemed awfully wasteful, so we asked our vet about it, and he said there should be no problem with feeding her just dry food. (It's worth noting that not all vets agree with this view. When I researched cat food on ConsumerSearch, I found that some of the experts cited in the report say cats have a low "thirst drive" because they've evolved to get most of the moisture they need from their food. Thus, on a diet of dry food, they won't get enough water and will be prey to kidney and bladder problems. However, the report adds that "most vets" see no problem with dry food, and I was more inclined to take the advice of our vet, who had actually seen and examined Amélie, than one who had never met her.)

The dry food we gave Amélie was the Authority brand from PetSmart, since it's what she was used to. An 18-pound bag of the stuff cost $27 and lasted us about four months, so altogether it cost us about $81 a year to feed her. Now, admittedly, this is not a grain-free "premium" brand, which is what many vets consider ideal for cats. However, once again, vets are divided on this issue; the cat food FAQ at PetMD.com, for instance, says that grain-free foods are "not necessarily" preferable to formulas with some grain. The main point on which all sources seem to agree is that the chief ingredient in any cat food should be meat, since cats are true carnivores and can't get all the nutrients they need from plants. The Authority food met this standard, and once again, our vet said it was fine, and we knew she'd eat it happily, so we decided not to mess with success.

Of course, I can't honestly claim that Amélie never ailed a day in her life on this diet, since she developed hyperthyroidism at age 11 and eventually died at 13 from a rare brain disorder, but neither of these problems is likely to have had anything to do with her diet. (Vet Lisa Pierson at CatInfo.org notes that there may be some link between thyroid problems and a diet high in fish or soy, but Authority doesn't contain either of these.) We can say for a fact that she never developed urinary tract infections, diabetes, or any of the other problems that Pierson insists will result from feeding your cat dry food.

You might think that if this worked fine for Amélie, we'd just stick with the same regimen for our new kittens. But we decided, since so many vets seem to recommend canned food over dry, to try them on a mixture of the two and see how they liked it. We found that they would eat canned food readily enough, as long as they weren't given too much at once—maybe a third of a small can or a sixth of a large one. (We also found, to our amusement, that when we give each one her own dish of food, she will eat part of it and then switch bowls with her sister, as if she's wondering whether the other bowl has something better than what she ordered.) So we give them a dollop of canned food every evening, and for the rest of the day, we leave out a big dish full of the dry stuff for them to nosh on at will. Our medium-sized tart pan, which we've never actually used for baking, turns out to be just the right size for the two of them to share with minimal spillage.

We've been getting our canned cat food from Trader Joe's. A 5.5-ounce can of their food costs only 79 cents, making it actually cheaper than most of the brands sold in little cans at the supermarket—and the quality, according to ConsumerSearch, is far better. It's not grain-free, but neither are many "premium" cat foods, and our cats eat it up quite happily. So, if we figure they go through a can of this stuff every 6 days, that works out to around $48 per year. That's on top of the dry food, which, if they were going through it at the same rate as Amélie, would be another $162 per year. However, it's a bit early to say whether they're actually eating the same amount she did; they might go through it faster because they're younger and more active, or slower because they're getting canned food as well. We should have a better idea in a couple of weeks, but this estimate is good enough for now.

There's one additional component in our new cats' diet that we didn't give to Amélie. When we took them to the vet for their first check-up, he said they were both suffering from upper respiratory infections, and he said it was likely they would always be prone to them after spending most of their first year in a shelter. He said a lysine supplement might help, so we looked for the stuff at several pet stores. However, all we could find was one bag of extremely expensive cat treats at our local pet boutique; the big stores didn't have even that. Our cats love the treats, but at $6 a bag, they would add about $150 a year to the cost of feeding them, so I went online looking for other alternatives. After a bit of research to compare prices and reviews, I ordered a small jar of powdered lysine from PetFoodDirect.com. (It would have cost less per ounce to buy a bigger jar of a different brand, but I wanted to make sure they would eat it first.)

It's too early to tell at this point whether the lysine is actually doing them any good, but I figure it's worth keeping them on it if it's not too expensive. The little jar cost $18 with shipping and should last about 50 days. That's only a bit cheaper than the treats—about $130 per year. However, now that I know they'll eat lysine in powdered form, I can try them on the pure stuff, with no added flavor, which is a lot cheaper. Pet owners on this forum say they give their cats 500 mg per day of the pure lysine, so at 500 mg per cat per day, a 250-gram jar should last 250 days. At $17 for the jar (including shipping), that comes out to 6.8 cents per day, or about $25 per year. That's a lot better than either the treats or the flavored stuff. Of course, that's assuming they'll eat it at all, which remains to be seen. But for a possible savings of over $100 a year, it's certainly worth risking $17 to find out.

So, assuming this lysine maneuver works out, then the total cost of feeding our new cats works out to about $235 per year—64 cents per day. Compared to the $5 per day the Bankrate reporter says he spends on his three dogs, that ain't bad at all.

Monday, March 23, 2015

DIY cat tree

As I mentioned last week, Brian and I have recently adopted two adolescent kittens into our home (our previous cat, our beloved Amélie, having died in February). We are still adjusting to the difference between one sedate, mature cat, who even in her youth was never much inclined to romp around or jump on anything above couch height, to two very active, energetic kitties under a year old. For instance, while Amélie would occasionally prowl around the legs of my chair and meow when she thought I was paying too much attention to my work and too little to my cat (who was clearly much more important), our new kitties, Gwen and Winnie, will simply hop up on my desk and place themselves between me and the computer screen. Of course, that's not necessarily a sign that they want attention, just that they want to investigate the contents of my desk and don't mind if I happen to be using it at the time.

One change we're not prepared to adjust to, however, is that while Amélie was pretty content with her homemade scratching post, Gwen and Winnie appear to consider the doormat and the back of my desk chair more suitable scratching surfaces. Before turning to behavioral therapy (such as the ol' squirt gun) to cure them of this habit, we thought perhaps we'd try offering them a new post that might be more to their liking. They're both a little bit bigger than Amélie, as well as more limber, so we figured they might need something a little taller that they could really stretch up against. And as long as we were getting a new post, we thought it might be a good idea for it to have some sort of shelf or perch on it where they could sit to look out the office window and watch the birds. (Amélie used to like being picked up and held up to the window, but the new cats don't seem to care for it.)

We checked out some of the cat "furniture" at PetSmart and Petco and found quite an extensive collection of taller pieces, but the prices were high as well—starting around $80 and ranging up into the high three figures. And aside from the cost, none of these pricey cat trees was exactly the right size and shape to fit into the space we had in mind. So the obvious solution was to take up tools once again and DIY ourselves a new cat tree, one specifically designed to fit both our space and the tastes of our new kitties.

After measuring the space, Brian took stock of his supply of scrap wood. The old post was made of two-by-fours, but Brian quickly determined that he didn't have any pieces long enough for the main "trunk" of the cat tree. He also didn't have a single piece of plywood large enough to make a base for it, since this new, taller post would require a much broader base to be stable. However, after hunting through the pile, he came up with a sawn-off branch that we'd scavenged from a friend who had recently taken down a tree, and he thought this would make a perfectly good trunk for the cat tree. Since it was irregularly shaped, we'd have to wrap it in rope or twine rather than using carpet samples as we had for the old scratching post, but that was okay; since our cats had already shown a taste for scratching our front entry rug, which was made of sisal, it seemed likely that rope would be more to their taste than carpet anyway, and it would probably hold up better as well.

As for the base, his original ideal was to take a wide, heavy plank, saw it in half, and join the two pieces together to form a rough square that would be sturdy enough to support the trunk. But after he fiddled around with the two chunks of wood for a while and couldn't figure out a good way to attach them, he abandoned that idea in favor of a three-piece stand, with two parallel supports joined by a crosspiece. He cut these pieces out of a plank of pressure-treated wood he'd bought at some point for an outdoor project and ended up not using. I was initially concerned about whether the chemicals in the pressure-treated wood might be bad for the cats, but he assured me that he was planning to seal the wood with a coat of polyurethane anyway, which should keep any nasty toxins at bay. (And, as it turns out, pressure treated wood these days is far less toxic than the old stuff anyway.)

Once he had the base assembled, he drilled five small holes in the center to attach it to the trunk. In the center, he put one of the extra-long screws we'd received as part of the hardware kit for our ill-fated yard-sale futon. Then he used regular wood screws in the other five holes to make it extra secure. He repeated this process on the top to attach the platform, made from a scrap slab of painted wood that was about the right size to accommodate one cat. Since we'd be covering this top surface with carpet anyway, looks weren't all that important.

The next step was to cover the post in rope. We'd bought two 50-foot rolls of sisal rope—the only component we actually had to buy new—for about $12 at Home Depot. However, after some rough calculations involving the diameter of the rope, the circumference of the branch, and the amount likely to be wasted in overlap at each end, he still wasn't sure that would be quite enough. Thus, he decided to start wrapping the post from the top end, near the platform, and work his way downward. That way, if there was any exposed wood left, it would be right at the bottom, where the cats weren't likely to scratch it anyway. So he smeared the post with glue along about a foot of its length, then began wrapping the rope around and around it (tucking one end under right at the top to keep it in place).

Once he'd covered the entire glued area with rope, he added a clamp to hold it in place while he smeared glue over the next section and continued working his way down. When he ran out of rope at the end of one roll, he started on the next roll, tucking the tail end of the first one in underneath. Eventually, he had the entire post covered except for a section about two inches long at the very bottom, which he decided to wrap in ordinary household twine rather than leave the wood exposed.

The next step in the process was to cover the top platform with carpet. A couple of years earlier, we'd stumbled on a stash of carpet samples at C. H. Martin, a discount store in New Brunswick, for a couple of bucks apiece. We'd bought several of them, figuring we could use them as needed to re-cover the old cat scratching post when its surface wore out, and we still had one left. Brian wrapped it roughly around the platform, trimming away the excess to make it fit as snugly as possible. At first he tried securing it with carpet tacks, but eventually he switched to the staple gun, which was faster and seemed to hold the carpet in place more securely.

After that, all that remained was to apply a coat of dark stain and a coat of quick-drying, water-based polyurethane to the base. By the next morning, the entire creation was installed in our office, right next to the futon and neatly lined up with the bottom of the window. The cats were quick to investigate it as they do with any new object, circling it and sniffing at it curiously, but they didn't seem to get the idea what to do with it. So, throughout the day, I gave them a couple of hints. When Winnie climbed up onto my desk and disrupted my work, instead of picking her up and dumping her onto the futon, I deposited her on the platform of the cat tree, which she explored curiously for a few minutes before successfully making her way back down via the back and seat of the futon. Later on, I gave both her and Gwen a quick demonstration of how to scratch the surface of the rope. Winnie gave it a brief try and walked away, but Gwen took to it more eagerly, quickly figuring out that with all her claws out, she could actually climb up the tree instead of just standing on the floor and scratching. By the end of the day, she had managed, with some difficulty, to climb all the way up onto the platform. Winnie seemed to be having some thoughts about jumping up from the top of the futon to join her, but instead she settled for sitting below the platform and taking swipes at her sister's tail.

It remains to be seen just how much use they will actually make of the platform, but as long as they're both willing to use the center post for scratching—in preference to the rest of the furniture in the office—we'll consider our DIY cat tree a success.

UPDATE (3/26/14): After the cats had used it for a few days, we concluded that the post was actually a bit too tall for them. They had a bit of trouble getting onto the platform from the futon, and the long post would rock back and forth a bit when they did. So Brian took the base off and cut the post down a little, removing that last two unmatched inches at the bottom. Now the reassembled post reaches just to the bottom of the windowsill, so the cats can still see out, but they have less trouble hopping up. He also added some felt furniture pads to the base to help stabilize it.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Gardeners' Holidays 2015: First Sowing (Even If It's Snowing)

Once again, the weather is not cooperating with the calendar.

Today, March 20, is the vernal equinox, the official start of spring. Google is celebrating the occasion with a Google Doodle of flowers blooming and a little honeybee buzzing among them. However, when I click away from Google to my local weather report, I get a Winter Weather Advisory warning of snow throughout the day, with total accumulations of 3 to 5 inches. As of now, around 10am, the first flakes have only just begun to fall, but if the weather report is to be believed, there's plenty more where that came from.

Reading this put me in a bit of a quandary, because the spring equinox is also the next Gardeners' Holiday in my calendar. Last year, I celebrated it as First Sowing by planting my snow peas, the first crop of the year to be seeded directly into the garden. This year, I was planning to do the same with new Cascadia snap peas, which we selected back in December to take the place of our old Oregon Giant snow peas. The seed packet says to plant these "as soon as ground can be worked" in the spring, but was it really reasonable to try and work ground that could shortly be under three to five inches of snow?

After mulling it over, I decided there was only one way to find out.

My first order of business was to open up the garden and check the soil. If it was still frozen solid, then obviously no planting would be happening today. But no, it was nice and loose and loamy, yielding easily to my experimental prodding with the trowel. So I figured I had nothing to lose by going ahead and putting my peas in. After all, they are snow peas (well, okay, snap peas, but they're in the same family as snow peas), so having a little snow cover shouldn't hurt them. It might even help them stay nice and sheltered while they germinate. All I had to do was get them into the ground before the snow started to pile up.

So, following the instructions on the packet, I made a channel in the dirt with my trowel about 3/4 inch deep, and I dropped the peas in every 2 inches all along the channel. Then I just scooped the dirt back in over them. I didn't even bother watering them: if the forecast is correct, snow mixed with rain throughout the day will take care of that part of the job.

If this works, in a couple of weeks we should start to see the first sprouts of the first plants of the 2015 gardening season. (Assuming, that is, that there aren't still 3 to 5 inches of snow in the way.) And if it doesn't, oh well, I can just replant them; there are plenty more seeds in the packet.

Even though the snow at this point is barely noticeable, I still feel very hardy and intrepid for having braved it to carry out my spring planting as planned. If it's time to plant peas in my garden, then by gum, those peas are getting planted, snow or no snow! Take that, winter!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Savings Challenge, Weeks 2-3: Eating and drinking

I seem to have fallen a little behind schedule with the 52-Week Savings Challenge I announced last week. At the time, only one challenge was available, but since then, two new ones have been posted. So this week's Savings Challenge entry will cover two challenges—both of them related to food and drink.

Week 2: Create a weekly meal plan

This is a very common piece of money-saving advice that we've heard many times before. The rationale for it, according to the Bankrate article, is that when you don't have your meals planned out ahead of time, you end up having some version of this conversation every night:
"What should we have for dinner?"
"Well, let's see what we've got in the fridge..."
"Oh, let's just order a pizza."
The article quotes blogger Tracie Fobes, founder of PennyPinchinMom.com, as saying this used to happen at her house all the time before she started planning her meals on a weekly basis. "Without a plan," Fobes maintains, "you end up wasting some of the groceries you bought and spend more dining out."

The thing is, Brian and I don't usually find ourselves in this situation. Yes, most nights we have the first part of the conversation, but what comes after "Let's see what we've got in the fridge" is usually something along the lines of, "Well, we've got all these mushrooms, how about a mushroom popover?" or "Oh, there's half a cabbage left, and we have plenty of potatoes; we could make Rumbledethumps." And even when we don't find anything in particular in the fridge that needs to be used up, we have a whole pile of standard recipes that we can make with the staples in our fridge and pantry, from soup to pasta to polenta-crust pizza.

Indeed, I've argued before on this blog that for us, making up our meals on the fly is actually cheaper than planning out—and shopping for—a week's worth of dinners in advance. Instead of planning out a week's worth of meals and then buying exactly what we need to prepare them, we generally check the sale fliers, stock up on whatever's cheap and/or in season, and then decide how we want to use it. Sometimes we do both at the same time: for instance, if we're cruising the produce aisles at the H-Mart, I might spot some snow peas on sale for $1.99 a pound and say, "How about a stir fry?"—which, in turn, might prompt us to pick up some broccoli or tofu to add to it. But with a staple item like potatoes, if we find a 5-pound bag on sale for $1.50, we don't bother to plan out how we're going to use them all; we know that we have lots of recipes in our repertoire that use potatoes, so we just grab the bag and figure it out later.

My frugal role model, Amy Dacyczyn of The Tightwad Gazette (all hail the Frugal Zealot!), also thought pre-planning your weekly menu was overrated. She admitted it was preferable to the "Oh, let's just order a pizza" approach, but she much preferred the "pantry principle": always have your fridge, freezer, and pantry stocked with food that you've bought at rock-bottom sale prices, and shop only to replenish it. This allows you the freedom to plan each day's dinner the night before, considering such factors as the weather, your schedule, what's in the garden that needs to be picked, what's in the fridge that needs to be used up, and just what you happen to be in the mood for. Many of these factors, she argued, "cannot possibly be known 30 days in advance," or even a week before. Planning 24 hours in advance gives you enough time for prep stages like thawing frozen meat, soaking and cooking dried beans, etc., without locking you into a rigid plan that may or may not work once real life comes into the picture.

Still, I thought perhaps that in the spirit of the challenge, I should at least try making one week's worth of dinner menus and seeing whether it did actually lower either our grocery bill or our stress level. But when I suggested it to Brian, he reminded me that back when we were first married, over ten years ago now, we actually did our grocery shopping this way, and we eventually stopped doing it because we found it more stressful. Having to come up with a whole week's worth of meals all at once, instead of just thinking of one each day, was too much pressure; even though we knew plenty of recipes (though not as many as we know now), we always seemed to find ourselves drawing a blank.

He also pointed out that under our current system, we still do meal planning of a sort; it's just much less rigorous. For instance, a couple of days ago, Brian poked through the fridge and noted that we had half a large can of tomatoes to use up. Thinking about ways to use it in a meal, he checked the freezer as well and noted that we had frozen cooked beans and spinach, as well as some grated Monterey Jack cheese, and we'd picked up a packet of tortillas on our most recent trip to Aldi. So, putting that all together, he concluded that if one of us just popped into the local grocery store and picked up a red onion, we'd have everything we needed to make quesadillas and salsa. And there you have it: meal planning the Dacyczyn way. Yes, it involved making an additional trip to the store, but since I go right past it during my daily walk anyway, it wasn't really any extra work. And all we spent was 86 cents for the onion—everything else came right out of the supplies we had on hand. No waste, and no last-minute fast-food runs.

So in one sense, I guess, I never actually carried out the challenge for Week Two. But I prefer to look at it a different way: Brian and I evaluated the challenge and came up with an alternative method that works even better. After all, the real purpose of the challenge is to cook a week's worth of meals at home without resorting to takeout or convenience foods, and that's just what we're doing. We can't tell you ahead of time exactly what each of them will be, but we know what we've got to work with in making them, and we know that none of them will involve a delivery van.

Week 3: Stop ordering alcohol

The purpose of this challenge is to avoid paying the "huge markup" most restaurants charge for any sort of booze: wine, beer, and especially cocktails. The author of the article, Chris Kahn, offers three suggestions for getting around this cost:
  1. Have a drink before you go out to eat, instead of at the restaurant (assuming you're not driving).
  2. Find a happy hour, where you can enjoy drinks at a less ridiculous price.
  3. Bring your own bottle; you may still pay a "corkage fee," but it's a tiny fraction of what you'd pay for the same wine ordered by the glass.
Kahn says he tried Tip #1 and found the result disappointing. Mixing Manhattans at home was kind of fun, but eating Italian food without a glass of wine to accompany it still felt like "eating French fries without ketchup." So he promptly decided that it's actually okay to pay for an overpriced drink "every now and then," to make an occasion feel more special. (Why he didn't decide to switch to strategy #3 instead, which would allow them to enjoy wine with their meal without the high price tag, I'm not sure.)

The thing is, Kahn's list doesn't actually include our favorite strategy, which is to enjoy the meal without the booze. We go out to dinner so seldom that the meal itself is already a special occasion; we don't need a glass of wine with it to reinforce the specialness. We're not really in the habit of drinking any sort of alcohol with our dinner anyway; at most, Brian might enjoy a sip or two of port while cooking the meal, or I might add a little tot of peppermint schnapps to my after-dinner cocoa. I tried hard to remember whether I'd ever actually ordered a drink in a restaurant, and the only time I could remember doing it was on a trip to Legal Seafood in Boston over ten years ago (a wedding gift from my sister). I ordered a gin and tonic, drank only half of it, and had heartburn at the theater afterward. So for us, passing up a drink with dinner is an easy call.

When is a challenge not a challenge? When it's something you were already doing anyway.

Monday, March 16, 2015

10 signs that spring has sprung

Okay, maybe spring hasn't sprung completely yet, but at least it's in the process of springing. Here's how I can tell:

1. The snow is almost gone from our yard. The 4-foot mounds of snow on either side of our driveway—to which new snow was being added just 12 days ago—have diminished to just a half-inch coating of icy slush on one side. We can walk from the back door to the shed without sinking in past our ankles. The garden beds are completely clear of snow, and there's a clear, if rather mushy, path to them from the house. Granted, there's still one little patch of snow by the cherry bushes and another behind the garden, where our new hardy kiwis are...but hey, they're hardy; they can handle it.

2. It's currently a balmy 41 degrees out, heading for a high of 58. Yeah, that's not what you might normally think of as a warm and pleasant day, but given that less than two weeks ago we were snowed in, venturing outside only to beat back the accumulation with our shovels, this feels positively tropical. We're not ready to ditch our coats yet, but at least we can occasionally venture out in our lighter-weight spring coats instead of our heavy winter ones.

3. It's First Washday! The fleece sheets we stripped off the bed last week are now fluttering merrily on the line. They may still need a quick touch-up in the dryer tonight to get them completely dry, but at least they can spend most of the day basking in the sun instead of an hour tumbling in a metal box.

4. Brian rode his bike to work today, for the first time since fall. There were actually several days last week that probably would have been warm enough for him to ride, and with Daylight Savings Time now starting before spring has officially begun, the light level wouldn't have been a problem either—but he wanted to wait for the snow to melt at least mostly away before braving the roads. Getting up and down some of those hills was hazardous enough in the car; he wasn't prepared to cycle down roads still heavily obstructed by mounds of snow.

5. All the seeds for this year's garden are now started. The tiny parsley, leek, and broccoli sprouts whose progress I noted here three weeks ago are now large, healthy seedlings, and they've been joined by newly started marigolds, brussels sprouts, and three varieties of tomatoes. (The fourth type we're planning to grow this year is Early Girl, which we're planning to buy as nursery plants from the Rutgers garden sale this spring.)

6. My gardening gloves are out of the shed and resting on the windowsill of the downstairs room. (Side note: Brian thinks that this room, which we had so much trouble coming up with a name for, should now be called the playroom, because that's what our two new kittens seem to think it is. And we use it mostly for playing games, so it works for us too.) I pulled them out yesterday to spray our rosebush, which has been suffering for the several years from blackspot that ends up cutting short the blooming season and denuding the plant of all its leaves by midsummer. Last year I tried spraying it every week, starting in March, with a widely recommended baking soda solution, but the black spots showed up anyway. Eventually I tried a commercial fungicide, but that didn't work either—perhaps because by the time I started it the fungus was too well established. So this year, in a last-ditch attempt to keep the dreaded black spots at bay, I'm starting with the big guns. I'm planning to spray with the fungicide every week, starting now, when the first leaf-buds are just beginning to be visible. And if that still doesn't take care of it, then I think it's time to put this rosebush out of my misery.

7. Our rhubarb plants are just starting to poke their little rosy heads up out of the ground. Just in time, too, as we just finished the last of last year's rhubarb that we had stored in the freezer. Brian offered to make me a rhubarb pie with it to celebrate Pi Day on Saturday, but as he'd already made a pizza pie for dinner, I thought we could compromise and do a rhubarb crisp instead, which is a lot less work. And since rhubarb is informally known as "pie plant," last year's crop could hardly have had a more fitting end than to grace our Pi-Day table. And now there's plenty of room in the freezer for a whole new crop.

8. We've already acquired our supply of matzo for Passover, which is now just a few weeks away. Although we generally go through only about 3 boxes' worth during the week, we find it cheaper to buy a 5-pack, since they go on sale in March and April for far below their regular price. (One of our supermarket sales fliers also included a $4-off coupon for a 5-pack of Streit's Matzo, which our local Stop & Shop was advertising at $5 a pack, so in theory, we should have been able to get five boxes of the stuff for one measly dollar. But as it turned out, although the Stop & Shop was selling 5-packs of other brands for $5 each, the multi-packs of Streit's at the Stop & Shop were only 3 boxes, so the coupon wouldn't work with them. So we ended up getting our matzos from the Shop Rite instead and paying $4, which is still a dollar less than we'd have spent on another brand at Stop & Shop—and waaaaay less than the $15 we'd have paid buying individual boxes at the regular price.)

9. In addition to the matzo and other Passover paraphernalia, local supermarkets are offering sales on such springtime treats as fresh asparagus and cut daffodils. Admittedly, they're probably flown in from warmer climates, since they're definitely not producing yet in New Jersey—but at least it's a sign that things are blooming somewhere in the Northern Hemisphere. (Stores are also prominently displaying Easter candy and other Easter-related goodies, but that hardly counts as a sign of spring, since they always put up those displays the minute Valentine's Day is over.)

10. The flowerbed in our front yard has its first blooms: two tiny purple crocuses. Of course, crocuses usually bloom in February, but this year, under all that snow, we wouldn't have been able to see them if they had. So these two little blossoms, emerging in the wake of the snow, are officially the first flowers of spring. No sign yet of the perennials from the wildflower mix we planted last year, but that's okay; it'll give us a chance to get some stakes into the bed first and, with luck, prevent a repeat of last year's flower flop.

For lo, the winter is almost past, and if the rain isn't over and gone, at least it isn't more bloody snow.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Dance, dance, the changing of the sheets

As you know, I like to mark the changing of the seasons with all sorts of rituals—some traditional, some of my own invention. I celebrate Christmas/Hanukkah/Yule in the winter and Easter/Passover/Ostara in the spring, but I also mark my calendar for made-up events like First Washday, First Picking, and my whole series of Gardeners' Holidays. Just recently, however, I realized that I have another seasonal ritual that I've never actually bothered to commemorate: the changing of the sheets.

One of our favorite affordable luxuries, during the winter months, is a set of cozy fleece sheets, so warm and thick they feel more like blankets. They're a little pricier than flannel sheets, but they're well worth it on a cold winter night. Flannel will do a reasonably good job of holding in your body heat, but when you first slide between the sheets, their smooth surface still feels cold to the touch, and it takes several shivery minutes for it to feel really warm. Fleece sheets, by contrast, have a soft, plush surface that feels warm the minute you nestle into it. So these sheets grace our bed pretty much full-time from late December through early March, with only an occasional break of a few hours for a quick spin through the washer and dryer.

A week ago, with the thermometer at 20 degrees and a foot of fresh snow on the ground, these sheets were most welcome. But now, that snow has mostly melted away, and the daytime highs are creeping past fifty and even edging up toward sixty. In the space of a few days, winter has given way to early spring, and the fleece sheets now feel sweaty rather than cozy. So it's time to toss them in the wash and downgrade to flannel, which will still keep out the chill but won't overheat us. Admittedly, it's a bit ironic for the bed to be sporting sheets with a snowflake design when the snowy season has just ended, but since we can't actually see the pattern when we're asleep, it's not nearly as important as having sheets that are a comfy, mid-grade weight.

Around the start of May, when the chill has faded from the air and not only snow but frost has vanished from the ground, these flannel sheets will, in their turn, give way to our regular, summer-weight percale sheets. We've got several sets of those, so we'll actually be able to change them throughout the summer, which is a lot more convenient than rushing to strip the bed first thing in the morning and get the sheets washed and hung so they'll be dry by bedtime. But once summer fades into fall, the flannel sheets will reappear once again, to grace the bed with their snowflake pattern until the actual snow flies and it's time for the fleece to return.

So there it is: the whole cycle of the seasons, outlined in shifting swaths of fabric. It may not be as poetic an image as the great Wheel of the Year or the transformation of a tree from bare branches to blossoms to green leaves to colored leaves and back to bare again, but it's the same story, told through a more homely medium. Winter to summer to winter, a cycle with no beginning and no end, but with stages along the way for us to mark and murmur, "How time flies."

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Taking the 52-Week Challenge

This week's Dollar Stretcher newsletter brought news of a new "52-Week Savings Challenge" at Bankrate.com. Every Tuesday for the next 52 weeks, the site will announce a new money-saving challenge for its readers. The main challenge page lays out thumbnail photos for each week, and clicking on any photo will take you to a detailed description of that week's challenge. To put their money where their mouths are, reporters from the Bankrate site will be attempting these challenges themselves and posting about their experiences. So naturally I figured, how could I do any less? (Especially when it means that I get one easy blog post per week out of it for a whole year.)

The first week's challenge, rather confusingly, is "The 52-Week Money Challenge." This sounds so similar to "The 52-Week Savings Challenge" that at first I thought they were the same thing, but eventually I worked out that the money challenge is actually the first weekly challenge in the yearlong savings challenge. It's easy to see why they started off with this one, since it's a challenge that's designed to last all year long. It's designed to help people get in the habit of saving by starting off slowly, with a goal that's easy to meet, and increasing their savings target each week. Thus, in the first week, you aim to save just one dollar; in the second week, two dollars; and so on, increasing the goal by a dollar each week, until by the last week you're socking away 52 bucks at once.

That's the theory, anyway. Unfortunately, the Bankrate reporter who attempted the challenge never made it beyond Week 7. She blames her failure on the fact that she uses her debit card "religiously," so she ran out of "folding bills" to stash in her new hot-pink, leopard-spotted piggy bank. (This sells for $9.48 at Walmart, so deducting that startup cost brings the reporter's total savings from $28 down to a paltry $18.52.) This sounds like a pretty flimsy excuse, since the article goes on to point out that the challenge doesn't require savings to be stashed away in cash; you could just as easily use your online banking to transfer the required amount each week to a special savings account. (The financial expert quoted in the article recommends making it an "inconvenient" account, since you're less likely to dip into your stash if it's someplace where you can't easily get at it.)

The problem with this challenge, for me, is that it's a bit like the budget rules I complained about in last Wednesday's post: it starts from the premise that the only way to save money is to trick yourself into it. Of course, the way the challenge is structured makes it clear that it's really aimed at beginning savers, who need to ease into the habit gradually, but for more experienced savers like me, it's a little bit silly. Stashing a dollar or two away each week in its own account isn't actually going to boost my overall savings for the year; it'll just make balancing my checkbook more of a hassle. Fortunately, the article suggests a way around this problem: instead of saving a little more each week, you could just tot up the total amount for the year—$1,378—and split it up into regular monthly or weekly chunks. So for me, the easiest way to fulfill this challenge was simply to take the entire $1,378 as one lump sum and transfer it to my online savings account. I was planning to make a transfer soon anyway, since the balance in my regular account was getting a little high, so I just set up a transfer of $1378 to start with, and I'll make a second transfer later if I need to. There, all done—and 51 weeks ahead of schedule, too.

My experience with this first weekly challenge, I have to say, isn't leading me to expect much from the rest of the challenges for the year. The problem isn't just that this particular weekly challenge wasn't a very useful one for me; it's also that, considering they were kicking off the whole yearlong challenge with it, the editors at Bankrate don't seem to have taken much care with their presentation of it. I noticed four problems with it right off the bat:
  1. The similarity between the names of the whole, year-long series of challenges (52-Week Savings Challenge) and the first challenge in the series (52-Week Money Challenge) is unnecessarily confusing. Surely they could have called the series something else, like "A Year of Savings Challenges," to make it clear which was which.
  2. The name "52-Week Savings Challenge" seems to be a misnomer anyway, because if you look at the main page, there are clearly thumbnails for 53 separate challenges, not 52.
  3. This isn't the only example of an elementary error in math. The article outlining the first challenge quotes an expert as saying there are many ways to save the required $1,378 over the course of a year: "You can save $115 a month; you can save $30 or $40 a week; you can arrange it in any way that you want." But $1,378 divided by 52 weeks is $26.50 per week, which does not fall between $30 and $40. (At least this isn't as dramatic an error as the one made by a reader in the comment section, who recommended a variant of the challenge in which you put a penny in a jar on day 1, increase it to two pennies on day 2, and keep doubling the amount every day for a month, so "By the end of the month, there would be a good chunk of change in the jar." That's a pretty serious understatement, since as another commenter was quick to point out, by the end of the month the daily contribution would be $5,368,709.12. I guess you'd need a really big jar.)
  4. The reporter who took the challenge quit after just seven weeks. That isn't exactly encouraging for readers. True, some of them may see this as a chance to beat the "expert," but since they only have to make it to Week 8 to do so, it's not much of an incentive to see the challenge through for the full year. And some of them will probably think that if even a professional couldn't make it for a full two months, it's hardly worthwhile for them to attempt it at all.
I still plan to keep following these challenges throughout the year, but I don't necessarily expect to learn much from them. Perhaps I should make it my personal challenge, instead, to see how many of them I can do a better job with than the Bankrate staff.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Breaking all the rules, part 2

Well, once again, a financial expert has helpfully stepped up to explain to me just why I'm doing everything wrong. Only this time, it's not just the way I shop for groceries that's completely misguided; it's the whole way I manage my finances.

Apparently, my whole adult life, while I've been under the impression that I was living frugally, building up my nest egg, and setting myself on a sound financial footing, I've actually been doing a terrible job of saving, and award-winning journalist Liz Weston has the numbers to prove it. Well, actually, they're not so much numbers as just bald, unsubstantiated claims, but hey, she's the expert, right? And according to her expert opinion in "5 poor ways to save (and how to do better)," I'm making at least four crucial mistakes:
  1. Paying my bills first. Ever since I got my first paycheck at the age of 16, my practice has been to deposit the money in my bank account and then draw money out of that same account, as needed, to pay for bills and other expenses. Whatever was left over was my savings. This, I've just been informed, is all wrong. "If you wait until your bills are paid to figure out what you can afford to save," Weston explains, "you've already lost the savings game." So apparently, Brian and I, while consistently saving one-third to one-half of our income, have actually been losing the "savings game." Just imagine how much we could have saved if we'd been winning! What we should be doing, according to Weston, is setting aside a certain amount each month for savings and then feeling free to spend all the rest—whether there's anything we actually need to spend it on or not. How this is supposed to result in saving more, I'm not sure, but the expert assures me it will, and who am I to say otherwise?
  2. Keeping all my savings in one account. Actually, these days I have two accounts: one at our local bank, where it's easy to access whenever we need it, and one in an online savings account, where we earn a bit more interest (though not a very big bit lately) and can easily transfer it into investments. But for many years, before I opened my online account (and, indeed, before there was any such thing), I had just one savings account for, well, savings. Any money I earned went into my account, and any money I spent, whether it was on gas, groceries, or a trip to California, came out of it. Once again, according to Weston, I've been screwing up big time. "Mingling your emergency fund with your future down payment, your vacation fund and next month's insurance premiums is a recipe for confusion, if not disaster," she chides. What I should be doing is keeping "multiple subaccounts" in my online bank, each one earmarked for a specific savings goal, to help me "track my progress" and make sure I don't raid the new-furnace account for a trip to Disneyland. Of course, I don't actually have any specific savings goals right now except saving for my eventual retirement, and the money for that goes into a separate, tax-advantaged account. Anything else I'm likely to need or want, I can afford to pay for, outright, from my one nice big lump of savings.
    Maybe the problem is that I'm not ambitious enough. I probably should be trying to save up for a whole bunch of things I can't currently afford, and that would give me something worth setting up a bunch of individual accounts for. Unfortunately, I can't seem to think of any. Our house is paid off, we don't expect to need a new car for over ten years, and even if we had a sudden and completely unprecedented urge to go on a weeklong Caribbean cruise, we could still pay for it in cash—though I suspect seeing the price tag would be enough to shock us back to our senses. I'm sure there must be something out of our current financial reach that we ought to be working toward, but I just can't think what.
  3. Having my savings account linked to my checking account. This is a handy feature that I set up when we first got our mortgage, nearly seven years ago, and our mortgage payments were scheduled to come automatically out of our checking account. Linking the checking account to savings ensured that that, on the off chance that I forgot to transfer money to checking in time to cover the withdrawal, it would come out of savings automatically, and we'd pay only a token $5 fee rather than a $35 overdraft fee. Sounds like a smart idea to me, but Weston knows better. "While you want your savings to be reasonably accessible," she explains, "you don't want instant access," because that would make it too easy to "raid the money on a whim." So apparently, it's better to risk a $30 overdraft than to keep your money where you can actually use it. Of course, if a genuine emergency were to crop up—say, a major medical crisis—your money would be safely shut away in an account where you couldn't reach it for several days, but no doubt she thinks it's better to risk being unable to pay your medical bills than to risk suddenly being seized with an irresistible impulse to spend all your savings right now.
  4. Not using automatic transfers. Since my online account earns more interest than the one at my local bank, I transfer money out of the local account whenever the balance gets too high and move it into the online account. Wrong again, says Weston: what I should be doing is setting up an automatic transfer to pull a certain amount out of my local bank each month and into the online account, where I can't get at it. The reason: "If you have to make a decision every paycheck whether to save and how much, you'll wear out your willpower." Oh, that's right, I forgot—I don't have any willpower. If I have access to my money, of course it will burn a hole in my pocket. Not that it ever has before, but Weston is the expert, so no doubt she can predict my behavior better than I can.
Now, here's the thing: I've been breaking these rules for pretty much my entire adult life. And during that time, I've always not only lived within my income but saved a sizable chunk of it (especially since my marriage). I've regularly funded my retirement accounts, if not always to the max, at least up to 10 percent of my income. Brian and I paid for our own wedding, paid cash for our last car, and paid off our mortgage—the only debt we'd ever had—in six years. And even with the major drop in my freelance income over the past year, we're on track to retire before age 60. Yet according to award-winning journalist Liz Weston, we're doing everything wrong and sabotaging any hope of ever achieving financial independence. Clearly, there's something amiss here.

I think the basic problem with this article is that it starts from the premise that the reader is hopeless with money. If you have it, Weston assumes, you'll spend it, so the only way to save any is to trick yourself. Set aside a fixed amount out of every paycheck and have it magically whisked away to another account, where you can't easily reach it. And then, to make sure you don't break the piggy bank, sort all the money out into little individual sub-accounts, each clearly labeled to remind you what it's for and stop you from trying to use it for anything else. All this is probably sound advice for people who really do have trouble managing their money, and if Weston made it clear at the outset that this was her target audience, I'd have no quibble with her article. I'd just read the first paragraph, see that it wasn't addressed to me, and move on.

But Weston doesn't do this. Instead, she leads off with, "Too many of us don't know how to save." Notice that us there? She's trying to make her advice sound universal. Instead of saying, "This is a problem for some people, and if you're one of them, here's what to do," she's insinuating, "Hey, look, this happens to everyone—to all of us—and it's okay, I know how to fix it." But the truth is, people aren't all alike. Their personalities are different, and so are their financial situations. And when it comes to financial advice, one size is never going to fit all.

I'm not asking Weston, or any other financial writer, to stop giving advice that doesn't happen to be relevant to me. I'm just asking them to stop claiming it is relevant to me. They don't know anything about me or my situation, and it's arrogant and obnoxious to pretend they know how I'll behave in a given situation—even to the point of insisting that if I think otherwise, I'm just deceiving myself. If these writers want to tell me what some people, or even most people, do with their money and why it's a problem, fine. Just stop assuming I'm one of them.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Pocket Patch: a simple fix for ripped jeans

Last week, while working at my computer, I heard a muffled thud from the direction of the stairs, followed by a not-at-all muffled oath. I ran to see if Brian had hurt himself, but it turned out he was fine; the oath was because he'd just torn the knee of his favorite pair of jeans. These were a thrift-store bargain (only 50 cents) and the first pair of size 32 jeans he'd ever owned. Brian was rather proud of them on both counts, so he was particularly disgruntled to have damaged them.

Fortunately, I'd dealt with rips like this before, and I knew of a way to salvage the jeans. My sewing skills, I should note, are fairly rudimentary, and I'd tried a bunch of other methods for patching ripped jeans in the past with limited success. Iron-on patches were pretty much useless; besides looking glaringly dark and unnatural against the original fabric, they invariably started to peel off after just one or two washings. I tried ironing them on and then adding a row of stitches around the edge to hold them in place, but the fabric of the patch would just fray around the stitches and work itself loose anyway. I then tried cutting my own patches out of old jeans that had been consigned to the rag bag, but they always seemed to come out lumpy and asymmetrical. It was also very time-consuming, since every patch had to be sewed twice—first hemmed all the way around the edge to stop it from fraying, and then sewed in place on the jeans. (It probably would have been quick enough with a sewing machine, but I'm even more hopeless with a machine than I am at sewing by hand.)

Eventually, after a long series of trials and errors, it dawned on me that every pair of blue jeans has a couple of nice, neat patches ready-made: the two back pockets. All you have to do is remove the pocket from the old jeans with a seam ripper...

...and then, if you've torn the original stitching on the pocket loose in the process, quickly tack the edges back down with a row of loose stitches.

Then, position the pocket over the tear in the knee...

...and whip-stitch it into place, as shown in this tutorial.

I recommend heeding the author's advice about tacking the patch down with a few "preliminary stitches" first. I neglected to do this, instead trusting to my own efforts to smooth and stretch the fabric as I went, and the fabric still came out severely puckered around the corner where I started and ended the stitch, as you can see here. I ended up having to pluck out and redo the stitching along the whole top edge to even it out.

But eventually, I got the patch seated properly, and the jeans are now...well, not exactly as good as new, but good enough to serve for another year or so. They just have a new, nonfunctional pocket stuck over the right knee—which, in this postmodern age, might just be taken as some sort of ironic statement.

Actually, it doesn't even have to be ironic. A crafting blogger who says she uses this same technique on her daughter's jeans notes that she likes to leave the tops of the pockets open—so they really are functional pockets. Admittedly, they're in a bit of an awkward place, since anything you put in them will poke you in the knee when you sit down, but for small items like keys or change, they might actually be easier to reach into than the back or side pockets.

Unfortunately, this technique won't work on my jeans (or other pants), which invariably wear out on the insides of the thighs—a much trickier spot to patch. I've seen a thread (ha ha) on a crafting message board that proposes a method for fixing these, but it involves cutting out and sewing in a very odd-shaped patch, and I fear it might be beyond my abilities. Maybe the method proposed on this general-interest blog would work better. Not exactly tidy, but probably a good deal more secure.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Bonus recipe: Eggplant and String Beans in Garlic Sauce

This isn't going to be my official Recipe of the Month post, since it doesn't really qualify as either a soup or a salad. But it is, nonetheless, a dish that's (a) made almost entirely of vegetables, and (b) so delicious that I couldn't pass up the chance to share it here.

A little background: the H-Mart near our house often has good deals on Japanese eggplants (the long, thin variety). At first, we used these exclusively for making pasta a la melanzane, a very tasty pasta dish with eggplant, tomatoes, and mozzarella cheese. At some point, however, we decided that if we were going to keep buying eggplant on every trip to the H-Mart, we should try to expand our repertoire a bit. So we consulted our culinary bible, Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, and found a very simple method of cooking eggplant: cut it into slices, salt it if you like, brush the slices with a mixture of olive oil and minced garlic, and then grill or broil them until they're nice and brown. You have to pull out the tray once or twice to turn the slices, but they'll still cook through in ten minutes or less. And they are, we discovered, remarkably good this way—melt-in-your mouth tender, and rich with the absorbed flavor of garlic and salt. You don't have to do a thing more to them; they're delicious all by themselves, or served over a bowl of polenta for a a quick, simple meal.

We've been doing them this way for a month or so now, but on our last trip to the H-Mart, we happened to pick up some string beans as well as the eggplants, and I found myself recalling vaguely that somewhere, sometime, I'd seen a recipe for eggplant and string beans cooked together, in garlic sauce. Maybe that would make a nice change of pace. But we consulted all our cookbooks and couldn't find any such recipe. Perhaps, I guessed it was just something I'd seen on a Chinese menu somewhere.

At that point, I was ready to give up on the idea, but Brian's imagination had been caught by it. He said he was sure he could easily concoct something along these lines, if we could only find a recipe for the garlic sauce. So I turned to Bittman again and discovered a surprisingly simple recipe for garlic-scallion sauce. You simply chop up the scallions and garlic, combine them in a heatproof bowl with a bit of salt, then heat the oil until it starts to smoke and pour it over top of the mixture. The hot oil, it appears, mellows the flavor of the garlic, drawing out most of its sting, without any risk of browning or burning it. And the oil picks up the flavors of the garlic and scallion, which it then distributes lavishly over everything else it touches.

Armed with these two techniques out of Bittman, Brian went to work. He roasted the eggplant in the usual way, and he would have roasted the string beans as well, but the pan wasn't big enough, so he contented himself with sautéing them to tender-crispness in a large skillet. Then he prepared the garlic sauce, denuding our indoor scallion plants of most of their greenery to make up the required volume of green onion. Finally, he added the grilled eggplant to the skillet with the beans, drizzled the garlic sauce over everything, stirred it all together, and served it over some plain white rice.

The result: an amazingly simple, light meal that lacked nothing in flavor and texture. It might have been even tastier if he'd been able to roast the beans as he originally intended; as it was, the beans were rather crunchier than the eggplant, and the contrasting textures were a little bit distracting. But it was still good enough for me to gobble down a whole bowlful and go back for seconds, feeling no guilt about doing so because it was practically all vegetables. Admittedly, there was also quite a bit of oil in the garlic sauce: the recipe called for half a cup of oil to half a cup of scallions, a quarter cup of garlic, and a teaspoon of salt. But distributing the oil over such a large volume of veggies seemed to take the curse off it, somehow. We bought about a pound and a half of eggplant and half a pound of string beans at the H-Mart, and we used all of it—making enough to feed the two of us amply, with one generous portion left over for lunch. And the veggies lost nothing of their flavor in the leaving over; I gobbled them down today with just as much eagerness as I had last night.

This is a meal that practically no one, I think, could have any objections to. It's completely vegan, gluten-free, packed with healthful veggies, and yet simply bursting with flavor. The only possible sticking point might be the amount of oil in the sauce, but Brian thinks he could probably cut that back next time (and there certainly will be a next time) and it would come out just as well. And maybe when we try it again, we'll manage to rustle up a bigger roasting tray, so we can cook the string beans and eggplant all together—saving a step in the cooking process, as well as possibly enhancing their flavor even more. I suppose we could just use a smaller volume of veggies, but then we'd have no leftovers, and that would be a pity, wouldn't it?