Wednesday, September 30, 2015

REAL Soup of the Month: Mushroom-Leek Potage

Okay, remember my post last weekend about slipping in a hot vegetable dish as my sort-of Salad of the Month? And all my accompanying musings about what, exactly, makes a salad a salad?

Well, forget all that. Because tonight, as the last few hours of September ticked away, Brian prepared a new soup that is unquestionably a soup, and therefore qualifies to be my Soup of the Month. And it's not only new, it's good.

This recipe happened, as so many of our meals seem to, kind of out of nowhere. We had some mushrooms in the fridge, and since we'd done rather a lot of pasta-type dishes lately, Brian decided to make them into a soup. And since we had some leeks out in the garden that were ready to pick, he thought he'd throw those in as well. And while we were out in the garden, I happened to notice that we not only had a second crop of arugula (which we hadn't actually planted) springing up in the garden beds, but we also had some growing up through the garden paths. Rather than let it get trampled, I carefully stooped and plucked up all the tiny, tender leaves, and Brian tossed those in the soup as well. And since we had about a quarter of a cup of coconut cream left in a jar in the fridge that was on the verge of going off, he decided to throw that in as well.

And somehow, out of this makeshift mismatch, came a hearty, flavorful soup, with savory mushrooms basking in a rich brown broth. Some of the credit for the soup's flavor is no doubt due to our favorite vegetable soup base from Penzey's Spices, which kicks the taste knob on any vegetarian soup up at least a notch or two. But some of it is certainly also due to Brian's recent discovery that mushroom soup in general tastes much better if you don't sauté the mushrooms first, as many recipes suggest you do. Throw them in the pot in their natural state, and all their juices will end up in the soup itself, rather than trickling round the edges of the saucepan.

So here is the recipe in full. It's a Recipe of the Month that I can wholeheartedly endorse on every level—not just because it technically meets my criteria, but because it's actually good enough to recommend to any fan of fungus.
BRIAN'S IMPROVISED MUSHROOM-LEEK POTAGE
  1. Clean, dice, and sauté 2 small leeks in 2 Tbsp. olive oil until soft, about 10 minutes.  
  2. Add 3 cups vegetable broth (in this case, 1 1/2 tsp. Penzey's Vegetable Soup Base in 3 cups water). Bring to a boil. 
  3. Add 1 lb. sliced mushrooms, a small handful chopped arugula, 2 squashed garlic cloves, and 1/2 tsp. dried thyme. Simmer on low heat about 20 minutes.
  4. Add 1/4 cup coconut cream, 1 1/2 Tbsp. corn starch suspended in 1/2 cup water, and 1/2 tsp. salt. Heat until thickened slightly and serve (preferably with biscuits made from half white, half whole-wheat flour).
Bon appétit, and happy September!

Monday, September 28, 2015

Sort-of Salad of the Month: Sesame-Braised Cabbage with Leeks

Somehow, September kind of slipped away from me. I knew four weeks ago that I needed to come up with a new Soup or Salad of the Month recipe, but nothing that looked appealing came across my path, and before I knew it, the month was nearly over and I still hadn't found a new recipe.

So when I finally tried a new vegetable dish last weekend, I decided to go ahead and call it my Salad of the Month, even though it's not really what most people would consider a salad. It is a mixture of veggies, but it's served hot or warm, not cold. So it's definitely not a salad by my dictionary's definition, which is "a cold dish of various mixtures of raw or cooked vegetables, usually seasoned with oil, vinegar, or other dressing." But on the other hand, there are dishes that are served warm but are definitely considered salads, like the Warm Chick Pea Salad with Arugula we had back in May. So where exactly do you draw the line? There's a fairly earnest discussion of the subject on the Serious Eats forum, in which people point out that dishes composed primarily of Jell-o with fruit or veggies added are considered salads in the Midwest, and cooked ingredients like eggs and shrimp appear in so-called salads all the time.

So I think I'm just going to say that, while this dish may not fit most people's idea of a salad, it does fit in with my initial goal of eating a healthier, more veggie-centric diet, which was what prompted me to focus on soups and salads for my Recipes of the Month this year. And given the choice between including a questionable recipe and having no recipe at all for September, I think it's better to go ahead and count it. You can argue with me in the comments if you like.

So what is this sort-of salad dish? It's a very simple recipe from Mollie Katzen's Vegetable Dishes I Can't Live Without (Tante Malka, 2007), combining cabbage and leeks in a sesame dressing. You saute the sliced leeks in a bit of melted butter until they're "very tender," then add an equal volume of cabbage and a bit of water and let it cook over low heat until the cabbage is "tender" as well. (This is the step that makes it questionable to classify this dish as a salad. If the cabbage was cooked only until "tender-crisp," then I think I could call it a salad without feeling like I was cheating.) Then you dress the whole business with dark sesame oil, toasted sesame seeds, and salt and pepper to taste.

We served this up as a side dish, with some pan-broiled sausages (free-range from the Amish market, of course) and leftover polenta. Unfortunately, the flavors of these three dishes didn't really complement each other all that well, so I didn't feel like the dish was being shown to its best advantage. But even if it had been, I honestly don't think I'd have been all that crazy about it. Cabbage, to my thinking, is at its best when it's a bit crisp, not cooked into mush. If we'd cooked the cabbage to tender-crispness rather than sogginess, as I suggested above, it probably would have been more to my liking. As it is, I don't think we'll be making it again.

So as an addition to our vegetable repertoire, I don't think this sesame-braised cabbage can be considered a success. But as a way to get me through the month of September without having to scrap my New Year's Resolution, it's at least a partial success.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Money Crashers: Edible Landscaping

Over the past few years, I've been documenting our efforts to convert more of our yard from useless grass and "decorative" shrubbery that doesn't actually look that great to useful plants—particularly edible ones. From our initial consultation with a landscaper in 2012, through the planting of our first fruiting plants (three plum trees, five cherry bushes, and a dozen raspberry canes) the following spring, to our first harvest of raspberries that September, the addition of two hardy kiwi vines this spring, and our first major harvest of cherries and our first tiny harvest of plums this summer, you have shared it all.

So after all that, I figured it was time to share it with the rest of the world. My latest article for Money Crashers is all about the process of edible landscaping—and why it's worth the effort. Check out the full article here: Edible Landscaping Ideas – Fruit & Vegetable Plants for Your Yard.

I also have one other new article up on the Money Crashers site, but's not quite as relevant to the subject of ecofrugal living. The topic is lemon laws: those laws at both the federal and state level that protect buyers of new cars (and, in some states, used ones) from being stuck with a dud that's just impossible to fix. And the federal lemon law, at least, protects buyers of other "consumer products" as well, which is defined to mean pretty much anything you can buy for personal or household use. So if you're having any problems with any product you've bought recently, the article may be worth a look: What Is the Lemon Law – Implied Warranty for Defective Cars & Products.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Gardeners' Holidays 2015: Harvest Home

As you can see from today's Google Doodle, this is the official first day of fall, marking the end of a very long, hot, dry summer. Sadly, all this heat hasn't agreed very well with our garden. In previous years, we've had lots of tomatoes by the time fall rolled around, but this year, we have only a scant few handfuls. These are varieties that have produced well in the past, so I'm guessing the weather is to blame. We've watered the garden diligently all summer, but perhaps we just didn't give it enough extra water to make up for the lack of rainfall.

We do have plenty of basil, and the pepper plants we bought at the Rutgers plant sales this spring are producing better than any of the ones we've tried starting from seed (though the peppers are still green, for the most part). But there's only one crop in the garden that's truly producing an impressive yield...and it's one we didn't actually intend to plant.

A bit of background here: about five years ago, a volunteer butternut squash vine popped up next to our compost bin. It grew vigorously, sprawling out until it more or less took over the whole side yard, so you had to sort of tiptoe around it to move from front yard to back, which was a major hassle...but it also produced vigorously, giving us about a dozen good-sized, flavorful squash. However, the volunteer plants we've had in the side yard since then have been far less productive and every bit as cumbersome, so I finally declared a moratorium: no more volunteer plants. They just weren't worth the trouble.

However, when a volunteer popped up this spring next to the bin that looked just like another butternut squash plant, Brian just couldn't bring himself to pull it out. Memories of that big butternut squash vine persuaded him that this interloper could earn its keep, and I reluctantly gave in.

Unfortunately, the vine in question turned out not to be a butternut squash at all. Instead, the squash on it were Jack-be-Littles, those little gourds that look like miniature pumpkins but apparently are more closely related to acorn squash. I habitually buy a few of these each fall as decorations, leaving them up from the start of October through Thanksgiving Day. By that time, they're not looking a bit squirrel-gnawed and not really fit to eat, so they just go into the compost bin. And apparently, some of the seeds from last year's gourds survived and turned into this whopping vine, laden with tiny pumpkinettes.

Nor is this the only volunteer Jack-be-Little plant in our yard. We have one in the garden as well, which we also mistook for a butternut squash and decided not to uproot. By the time we'd realized our mistake, it had already made itself at home, nestling in alongside the adjacent pepper plant so that it was almost impossible to remove without damaging its neighbor.

So we now have absolutely loads of these little gourdlings, and we have to figure out what to do with them. I've done a bit of research and found that, although they're used mostly for decoration, they are actually quite edible. Martha Stewart has a recipe on her site for Candied Jack-be-Little Pumpkins, which looks tasty, but also extremely elaborate. (Any recipe that contains "Make the pots de creme" as a separate step is just too complicated for me.) But this recipe from Pumpkin Nook is a lot simpler: just scoop them out, bake them, and stuff them with the filling of your choice. Our little Easy Vegetarian Dishes cookbook has a recipe for Peppers Stuffed with Cinnamon Bulgur, and I think that savory-sweet mixture would work pretty well stuffed into a Jack-be-Little as well.

So, given that we have so many of these little suckers, I'm sure we'll be trying that recipe at one point, and possibly a bunch of variants as well. But in the meantime, I'm celebrating Harvest Home by using the Jack-be-Littles in my usual way: as fall decorations. I harvested the four biggest, plumpest gourds I could reach, putting one on each step of the front stoop (instead of being limited to the top three steps as I usually am, since the gourds are three for $2 at the farmers' market, and I don't want to buy six of them). It's a little earlier than I usually put them out, but I think it makes an appropriate welcome for autumn, whether the weather is cooperating or not.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Money Crashers: Should We Get Rid of the Penny?

My latest post on Money Crashes is one I had a lot of fun working on. It's all about the debate over whether to eliminate the tiniest, most worthless coin in our nation's currency, the penny.

Personally, I don't like pennies. Ecofrugality, as you all know, is all about avoiding waste, and pennies are wasteful in several ways:
  1. They waste time, because we have to count them out every time we buy anything with cash (or else the clerk has to count them out to give us our change), and it just holds up the line at the cash register.
  2. They waste natural resources, because we have to mine tons of zinc (and a little bit of copper) to produce more of them every year. (We keep making new ones because most of the ones we already have don't circulate, because they're worth so little.)
  3. They waste the government's money, because a penny actually costs more to mint than it's worth. (Nickels do too, but at least they're somewhat useful.)
However, apparently I'm in the minority in this opinion (as I am in so many other things). Most Americans like pennies and think we should keep making them. So I set out to find out what, exactly, people think is so great about the penny, and whether it's really great enough to outweigh the arguments for ditching them.

I found out, first of all, that the biggest group lobbying to keep the penny is Americans for Common Cents, which is funded by, of all things, the zinc industry. (What a coincidence.) They have come up with a variety of arguments for keeping the penny, such as:
  1. Without pennies, there will be rampant inflation.
  2. Without pennies, stores will have to round their prices to the nickel, and this will inevitably lead to furtive price gouging.
  3. Without pennies, charities will be unable to hold "penny drives" and raise millions of dollars a penny at a time. (Of course, a million dollars in pennies weighs over 550,000 pounds, so doing away with this form of fundraising would be a lot easier on the volunteers.)
In my article, I explore all these arguments in favor of keeping the penny, along with the arguments for dumping it. Although I'm firmly on the anti-penny side of this issue, I did my best to present the arguments for both sides as fully and fairly as possible.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

How we ended up without cable

Our years as cable TV customers—all two of them—have come to an end. As of last month, we have officially joined the growing ranks of cord cutters who rely on other sources for our video goodies.

What's a bit ironic about this is that we never actually wanted to hook up that cord in the first place. As I wrote back in 2013, the only reason we ended up subscribed to a cable service is that we needed to drop our no-longer-reliable landline phone from Verizon, and we discovered that Cablevision would give us a better deal for a package that included TV, phone, and Internet service than it would for phone and Internet only. In fact, after a few tweaks to the original package deal, we ended up spending less for all three services than we used to pay for our Cablevision internet and Verizon landline separately.

Our original plan was to keep this "triple play" plan for one year until the promotion expired, and then drop the TV service. However, when the time came, Cablevision offered to roll us over into a different promotion that would cost $95 a month—still marginally less than it would cost to pay for phone and Internet service separately. It was more than we'd have paid by going back to Verizon—about $44 a month more, in fact—but we decided it was worth it for reliable service.

So, based on this experience, we assumed that when our second triple play promotion expired, Cablevision would come back to us with yet another deal to convince us to keep it. Well, as it turns out, not so much. Last July we received a letter informing us that our rate for all three services was about to jump to $130: $50 for the TV, $45 for Internet, and $35 for phone.

So, I contacted Cablevision via chat and asked to cancel the TV service, thereby triggering a series of Evasive Maneuvers:
  1. First they told me the TV service had already been canceled. When I pointed out that we'd just gotten a letter saying we were going to be billed $50 for it, they said, "Oh, sorry, wrong account."
  2. Then they told me that since the account was in Brian's name, he has to call them himself to cancel it. It's true that his name is on the bills, but they're sent to my e-mail address, and we are both registered users of the account...but no matter. If the account's in his name, he has to cancel it himself.
  3. So Brian called them up and asked to cancel the TV service. The rep countered by offering to throw in Showtime for free, "a $20 value." How this was supposed to make it a good deal for us to keep paying $50 a month for something we didn't want, I'm not sure...but Brian made the mistake of pausing to consider it, and then when he said, "No thanks, please cancel the service," she refused to let it go. She wanted to know why he wasn't taking such an obviously great deal. What was he saying? Didn't we want free Showtime? Why not? What kind of idiots would pass up an offer like that?
  4. After several attempts to deflect her questions with, "We're just not interested" and "We'd really rather cancel," Brian finally lost his cool and snapped, "Would you PLEASE just let me cancel the service?!?" at which point the rep said, "Well, there's no need to yell"—but she did what he asked. Which seems to imply that there actually was a need to yell, since it's the only thing that got her to cooperate.
  5. When Brian went to return the cable box to Cablevision, he asked the clerk there a question he forgot to ask over the phone: was there some way to have the account transferred to be in my name, so that in future, I could make any necessary changes to it? The clerk responded that the account was already in both of our names and there should be no reason I couldn't make changes to it...thereby confirming that Evasive Manuever #2 was an outright lie.
So at this point, we have succeeded in dropping the TV service. That means we should be paying just $80 a month: $45 for internet and $35 for phone, right? No, hardly. By dropping the TV service, we've still lost our bundling discount, so the price for Internet has jumped from $45 a month to $60. So with taxes, our total bill for the two services is $99.14. That's less than the $125 we'd have paid if we'd kept the TV service, but it's more than we were paying last year for all three services—and more than the $80 a month Verizon is now offering for its cheapest triple play deal.

This isn't the end of the story, however. Not long after this, a Verizon rep showed up at our door, explaining how they've just wired our whole neighborhood for FiOS. She even went so far as to point to the new wire that carries the signal ("that black one right there") to prove that they really, really do have high-speed service in our area now—unlike the last time we tried to sign up for it, when they strung us along for a month promising that our new DSL connection would be hooked up "in a couple of days" and then abruptly announced that no, they actually didn't have service in our area and cut off the dial-up connection they'd been letting us use up until that point, leaving us with no service at all. This experience led Brian to remark, "I'll listen to Verizon the day I see them stringing new cable on our street"—and now here was the rep actually pointing to the new cable.

I explained to the rep why we were reluctant to trust Verizon's promises, having been burned twice before, once on the DSL and once on the landline. She assured me that Verizon had been "working to upgrade its customer service" as well, but said she understood if the company just "left a bad taste in your mouth"—thereby implying that our anti-Verizon stance wasn't rational, but hey, that's okay, sometimes people just make decisions for irrational reasons. So she went away peacefully, but the encounter stuck in my mind...especially when I discovered, in the following weeks, that our Cablevision connection seemed to be growing less and less reliable. Both our telephone and our Internet connection started cutting out at unpredictable times, usually for just a few minutes, but sometimes for more like a few hours. This got me wondering: what's the point in paying more for a reliable connection if it's not, in fact, reliable? Could Verizon actually be, at this point, the lesser of two evils?

While I was still mentally debating this point, a news story broke on Friday announcing that Cablevision had just been sold to a Dutch company called Altice. The CEO, Patrick Drahi (a name that doesn't sound at all Dutch, and isn't), announces that he's hoping to cut management salaries and outsource parts of the business to contractors, such as the "truck rolls," the folks who actually come out to your house and hook up your cable or fix it when it breaks. In the long run, he says, he hopes to start selling Internet, TV, and phone service a la carte, rather than as the bundles Cablevision currently offers.

To my mind, this can only be good news. It's not as if Cablevision's service could be much worse than it is now, and given that Europeans in general get much better and cheaper Internet service than we do, having a European company in charge is probably a step in the right direction. If nothing else, it means that next time we call Cablevision trying to drop a service (perhaps the landline, if we decide to switch to Ooma), we won't have to spend half an hour arguing with a rep desperate to keep us hooked up to a bundled service.

Unfortunately, this deal won't take effect until 2016, so we have no real hope of getting better or cheaper service from Cablevision until then. Which leaves the main question still unsolved: would we, in fact, be better off switching back to Verizon? Yes, they have screwed us over repeatedly in the past. But does that mean that Cablevision, as the only available alternative, automatically gets a free pass for screwing us over in the present?

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Bonus recipe: Granola Bread

I haven't actually posted the official Recipe of the Month for September yet, but I wanted to share Brian's latest creation, Granola Bread, while it was still fresh. The recipe, I mean, not the bread...although we have some of that fresh too, because Brian baked two more loaves of it today after we gobbled up the first one. So that tells you right there that this recipe was a definite hit.

Brian has gotten into the habit of baking bread on the weekends, and with our last loaf of whole-wheat bread about to run out, he asked me what kind I'd like next. I waffled a bit, because I felt as if I really ought to request a whole-grain bread in light of the studies showing a high-fiber diet is a real magic bullet for weight loss, heart health, and pretty much everything else...but what I really felt more in the mood for was challah, a golden egg bread made with white flour that's not a bit healthy, but delicious. So when I explained my dilemma to Brian, he decided to get creative and invent a bread recipe that would be loaded with both fiber and flavor. He had recently baked a batch of granola for himself (using the recipe I posted back in February) and he toyed with the idea of putting some of this high-fiber cereal into a bread, but instead he decided to take the ingredients from the granola and incorporate them into the bread dough. Here's what he ended up with:
GRANOLA BREAD 
3/4 c. warm water
1 1/2 tsp. yeast
1/4 c. brown sugar
1 tsp. salt
2 Tbsp. coconut oil
1/2 c. rolled oats
1/2 c. wheat bran
1 Tbsp. wheat gluten
1 3/4 c. all-purpose flour
2 Tbsp. finely chopped walnuts 
Dissolve yeast in water, then mix in the next eight ingredients to make a dough. Knead for about 10 minutes, adding more flour if it's too sticky and more water if it's too dry. Toward the end of the kneading process, add: 
1/2 c. raisins 
Cover the bowl of dough and let it rise in a dark, warm, moist place for about an hour. (Brian puts ours in the oven, switched off, with a pan of water.) Take out the dough and transfer it to a pair of loaf pans. (Brian uses regular glass pans, oiling and flouring them first so the bread doesn't stick, but you may not need to do this if your pans are nonstick.) Put the pans back in the oven and let the bread rise for another hour or so, then bake at 375°F for 30 minutes.
Now, according to the SparkPeople recipe calculator, this bread is not actually all that high in fiber. It's got maybe 1.4 grams per slice, and a slice of whole wheat bread has 2.8 (though it has more calories, as well). But oh, it is just soooo much yummier. It's sweet and chewy and hearty, and it makes great toast. Probably not the ideal bread for most kinds of sandwiches, but hey, who needs toppings when this stuff is so good plain?

A final note: Although we now bake our bread the old-fashioned way, having decided not to replace our bread machine when it croaked in 2013, I see no reason you couldn't bake this bread in a machine if you have one.  Just make sure to use the "add in" setting, or whatever your machine calls it, so it will beep to let you know when it's time to add the raisins.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Money Crashers: What Is Your Carbon Footprint

My latest post for Money Crashers is a complete guide to your carbon footprint: what it is, why it matters, how to measure it, and how to shrink it. I realized while working on another Money Crashers piece that we were throwing the term "carbon footprint" around casually in our articles without ever having published one that actually explains, in detail, just what that means. So this is my attempt to rectify that oversight.

Regular readers of this blog are no doubt well acquainted with this topic already, but you might still be interested in some of the details I cover in this piece. For instance, I provide links to five different carbon calculators, explaining what information each one gathers and why that makes some of them more reliable than others. I found it quite interesting to see how widely the estimates from different calculators varied; when I put in the numbers for our household, I got figures for our carbon footprint ranging from 6 to 17 tons (which prompted my editor to ask whether these numbers were so varied as to be completely useless).  If you're curious to see how your footprint measures up, check out the full article: What Is Your Carbon Footprint – How to Calculate & Reduce It

Monday, September 7, 2015

DIY shorts hack

In last week's post about our difficulties finding me shorts that fit properly, I noted that we managed to find one pair at the Goodwill store in East Brunswick that, while not a perfect fit, looked like they might be okay with a little alteration. At retail prices, I'd have passed on these, but for only $4.29, I figured they were worth taking a chance on.

The problem with these shorts was similar to the problem I'd had with the first pair I found at Sears: they fit in the hips and thighs, more or less (though they're still a bit lower and snugger than I really like), but the waistband left a huge gap behind my butt. What can I say...baby got back.


I've successfully altered pants with this problem before using the technique shown in this post on the Colorful Canary blog, but after examining these shorts carefully, I concluded that it wouldn't really work in this case. Between the wide waistband and the light color, the repair would be too visible—and it couldn't simply be concealed under the belt loops, because they're too far from the side seams. What I really needed, I thought, was some sort of internal drawstring that I could use to cinch the waistband tighter, but that would be hidden from view once the shorts were zipped. And fortunately, I knew a technique for inserting a drawstring into a waistband from my stint making costumes for As You Like It in high school.

Since the gap in the waistband was right at the back, I decided to design my drawstring to tighten at the center rear of the waistband. And since it couldn't go all the way around the waist without interfering with the zipper and buttons, I decided to make it a pair of strings that could be tied together. So I got a pair of old shoelaces...


...made a discreet hole in the inside of the waistband, right behind the belt loop...


...inserted one end of the shoelace into the hole...


...and, grasping hold of the aglet, worked it through the length of the fabric to the middle by repeatedly scrunching and releasing the fabric.


Eventually, I made it to the middle, where I slipped it through a second discreet hole I'd cut in the waistband right under the tag.


I tied knots in both ends of the string to keep then from slipping back into the holes and out of reach.


Then I repeated the process on the other side.


The pair of drawcords could then be pulled snug and tied together on the inside. This eliminated the gap at the waist, but it didn't exactly look good. Not only was the waistband a bit lumpy, but the shoelaces were so long they trailed right down to the floor.


Clearly, these laces were the wrong tool for the job. What I needed was some sort of elastic to gather the waist so that it would fit snugly. Fortunately, I found some at the local dollar store, in assorted colors.


So I went back and repeated the whole process using the white elastic from the package. I also decided to remove the label from the back of the shorts, since it was just getting in the way. When I was done, I had two elastics feeding in from the side belt loop to the middle, where I tied them together in a small bow.


And this time, when I put them on, they fit—not perfectly, maybe, but at least passably. So for $5.36 total—$4.29 for the shorts and $1.07 for the elastic—I now have one new pair of shorts to add to my rotation. So that, plus the new pair I found at Sears, ought to keep me decently dressed until the heat wave breaks. (Labor Day may be the first day of fall as far as Miss Manners is concerned, but Accuweather begs to differ.)


So there you have it: a quick DIY hack for fixing pants and shorts that gap in the waist. Between this trick and the Colorful Canary method, I hope to be able in future, if not to actually find pants that fit me, at least to make pants that fit me.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Savings Challenge, Week 27: Joining a Meat CSA

Once again, I've allowed myself to fall behind on the Bankrate Weekly Savings Challenges. In fact, after making it through about half of the one-year series, I was thinking of packing it in completely, for three reasons:
  1. I'm now working more or less full-time, which gives me less time to update the blog. If I'm only going to post once or twice a week, I'd like to spend those posts talking about my own ecofrugal discoveries rather than responding to Bankrate's challenges, which are often irrelevant to my life.
  2. For several weeks, the main challenge page on Bankrate was not working properly in either Google Chrome or Firefox. You could view the list of weekly challenges, but there was no way to click on them and pull up the page for each individual challenge. However, after several complaints in the comment section and a note to Bankrate tech support, that seems to be fixed now.
  3. Most problematically, the last couple of challenges have provided me with no new material to write about. Week 25 was about saving money on razors and shaving supplies, a topic I already covered pretty thoroughly back in Week 7; Week 26 was about saving money by doing your own pool maintenance, a subject that never has had, and I'm pretty sure never will have, any relevance to my life whatsoever. 
However, this week's challenge actually sounded new and potentially useful. It's about joining a "meat CSA"—that is, buying your meat directly from the farmer through a yearly subscription plan. And since I only buy free-range meats, which are a lot pricier than the factory-farmed kind, this seems like an idea that might actually offer some real savings for me. So now, instead of dropping the Savings Challenge posts completely, my plan is to keep writing about the challenges that are actually relevant for me and skip over the rest.

And this challenge certainly does sound relevant. Bankrate reporter Laura Dunn, who says she'd never actually heard of a CSA before she began working on this story, says they're a good idea if you "value knowing the original source of your meat" or "like supporting local agriculture and small farms"—both descriptions that definitely apply to me, and to some extent to Brian as well.

The farmer she interviews in the article, Jessica Jens of Windswept Farmstead in Cedar Grove, Wisconsin, says it's "quite honestly, impossible for small farms to ever compete with the 99-cents-a-pound Thanksgiving turkey" available at major supermarkets. (Actually, based on my research on the price of a Thanksgiving dinner four years ago, most stores offer sale prices even lower than that.) However, by selling directly to consumers through a CSA, they can offer a better price than than the supermarkets charge for meat that's humanely raised.

But how much better is it, exactly? Well, Bankrate employee Maria Mancini says she and her husband spent $410 a month, or about $95 a week, for an "omnivore CSA" that provides them with meat, produce, seafood, and eggs. Compared to the $100 a week they used to spend on groceries, they're saving around $5 a week (though Dunn says this is only a savings of $60 a year, suggesting that the CSA only runs for a period of 12 weeks every year). This is a small savings for the Mancinis, but it would be no savings at all for us, as we currently spend only $264 per month on groceries (and that's for everything, not just the fresh produce).

Another problem: with a CSA, you don't get to choose what food you receive every week. A blogger quoted in the article says that her Iowa CSA provides meat at $1 to $2 less per pound than meat that's "hormone-free and grass fed" at the grocery store, but she also says that throughout the year, they get an assortment of cuts of beef, pork, chicken, and lamb. Now, I've never much cared for beef, and I positively dislike lamb—so $1 to $2 less per pound is no bargain for something I wouldn't really want to buy in the first place. Prices for this kind of meat in the store, at least in our area, start at around $7 a pound—so with the CSA, I'd be paying $5 to $6 per pound for meat I wouldn't actually enjoy eating.

A final problem is that CSAs that provide meat aren't exactly easy to find. Dunn says she was unable to locate one in her area, though she did find a "buying club" with meat shares that can be purchased at lower-than-retail prices (though actually, the prices looked pretty comparable to what you pay in stores around here, and you have to buy anywhere from 8 to 40 pounds at a time to get them). When I checked the Jersey Fresh website for CSAs in my area, I found none that include meats or eggs in either Middlesex County or adjacent Mercer and Monmouth Counties. I found one farm in Somerset County, Dogwood Farms, that offers meat shares; it charges $250 for a "regular share" of 5-7 pounds of meat each month from November through March, which can include chicken, pork, beef, and lamb. But for us, this would be impractical for several reasons:
  1. The whole share includes roughly 30 pounds of meat, which means the price works out to roughly $8.33 per pound. That's more than we currently spend on any of the meats we currently buy. 
  2. Some of the 30 pounds would be beef and lamb, which, as I've said, I don't like and wouldn't usually buy.
  3. If we had to pick up a whole month's supply of meat at a time, most of it would have to go in the freezer. Right now, we have only a small fridge freezer that's pretty well stuffed; to take advantage of the CSA, we'd have to buy a chest freezer. That would add an additional $200 or so to the cost of our first share, not counting the cost of electricity to power it—and we'd also have to find a place to keep it, which is easier said than done in our house.
  4. Five to seven pounds is significantly more meat than we'd normally eat in a month—and eating it more often probably wouldn't be a good idea, since eating meat more than one or two days in a row tends to disagree with me. Of course, if we bought a freezer, we could spread that five months' supply over as long as a year, maybe, but since it costs more per pound than we'd normally pay, it still wouldn't be a good value. 
  5. Last but not least, we'd have to drive out once a month to Hillsborough to pick up our share. That's about an hour round-trip, and it's in a direction we don't normally go, so we wouldn't be able to combine it with any other errands.
So all in all, it looks like a meat CSA just wouldn't be a good value for us—which is pretty much the same conclusion we've already reached about regular produce CSAs. We're better off sticking to places we shop now for for good deals on free-range meats: Trader Joe's for chicken legs ($2 a pound) and the Amish market for smoked meats, such as bacon, hot dogs, and kielbasa sausage, ranging from $5 to $6 a pound. And we can continue to keep an eye out at our local supermarkets to see if any new free-range offerings show up there at a good price.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Money Crashers: How to Find a Tailor for Clothing Alterations

In my last post, about the difficulty of finding shorts that suit me, I noted that I'd picked up one pair at Goodwill but was having trouble altering it to fit me. What I didn't mention, but might have if I'd had a bit more space, is the possibility of calling in a tailor to do the alterations for me.

I've had trouble in the past finding anyone capable of handling alterations beyond the most basic hemming, but that changed recently, after Brian's old "good suit"—the one he's had since he completed grad school—became unwearable. Not only has he lost about 30 pounds since he bought it, but it's also starting to show its age, and so we decided to look around for a new one—and almost immediately found one at a Princeton consignment shop that we visited for our anniversary. (Yes, we spent our anniversary thrift shopping. I told you last year, we're weird.)

The new suit jacket fit perfectly, but the pants were too big in both length and girth, so we knew we'd need a competent tailor to make them wearable. After my previous experiences, I wasn't willing to trust them to anyone here in town, so I searched online and read the reviews on Google for all the tailors in our immediate area, and I found one who came pretty well recommended at a place called Albert Gerald. (The tailor is neither Albert nor Gerald; her name is Hilda, and she named her shop after her two sons.) She took in the trousers and hemmed them for a mere $35, bringing the total cost of the suit up to a little under $100—which turns out to be a pretty good deal, since I discovered upon checking the label that suits from this particular line sell for around $650 retail.

This experience inspired me to write an article about the benefits of tailoring and alterations. I discuss the many advantages of being able to have stuff altered, give some general information about what alterations typically cost, and explore the question of when it is and isn't worth paying to have a garment altered to fit. For more details, check out the full article: How to Find a Tailor for Clothing Alterations – Cost & Benefits