Sunday, May 29, 2016

Recipes of the Month: Mixed Salad, Creamed Cauliflower and Baby Bella Mushroom Soup

A week or so ago, I noticed that we were coming up on the end of May and we still hadn't prepared a new fruit or vegetable Recipe of the Month. It was kind of a pity, because we'd actually tried several new recipes in April that would have fit the bill. Savory magazine, a freebie we get at the Stop & Shop, had several good ones in its Passover issue, including a delicious rhubarb and strawberry compote we brought as a dessert to my parents' Seder and a roasted cauliflower kugel that we tried as a lighter alternative to potato kugel (though it wasn't as good as Brian's Skillet Kugel by a long shot). But I reluctantly concluded it would be cheating to count either of these as the Recipe of the Month for May when we'd actually made them in April, so I went rummaging through our recipe files looking for something new to try.

Eventually, I selected two recipes we'd pulled out of Cooking Light, back when we used to have a subscription to it, and never got around to making. The first was just a simple mixed greens salad with honey-orange dressing, and while that is certainly a vegetable dish, it seemed kind of like cheating to call it a new vegetable "recipe." All we really did to prepare the salad itself was just pull some fresh greens out of the garden and throw them in a bowl, which we've done many times before. (Speaking of the garden, by the way, our lettuce is doing incredibly well this year. Partly, I guess, the varieties we selected were just good growers, but I think a lot of the credit is due to our "carpet seeding" technique, which packs the little lettuces so tightly together in the bed that there's absolutely no room for weeds. True, the heads are so crowded together that they don't have much room to grow, but that's okay—we just keep thinning the patch throughout the season, pulling out a few of the plants, letting the remaining ones get a little bigger, and then pulling some more. So we can expect to have lettuce all spring and into the summer, until it starts to bolt—which, in the heat we're having now, might not take long.)

But I digress. I was going to say that the only thing that was really new about the salad was the dressing, a fat-free blend of orange juice, white wine vinegar, honey, Dijon mustard, salt and pepper, and minced shallots. (The recipe called for 2 teaspoons of minced fresh shallots, but we substituted a smaller volume of dried shallots from Penzey's, which we'd picked up some time ago and needed to use up anyway.) We tossed this with a mixture of this year's bibb-type lettuce, arugula, and some winter lettuce that showed up unexpectedly from last year's planting. Then, since there was a bit of the dressing left, I finished it the next day over a salad of mixed lettuce topped with diced avocado. And it was pretty good, but not extraordinary—certainly not as good as our go-to dressing, Mark Bittman's honey-garlic balsamic vinaigrette from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. I might consider trying it again, but I think I'd definitely want to cut down on the mustard, which got a little overpowering toward the bottom of the bowl.

The second recipe I pulled from the file was a creamed cauliflower with herbed crumb topping. This called for fresh bread crumbs made from sourdough bread, which we didn't have on hand, so Brian substituted panko, which we'd picked up a can of on sale last month. We also substituted skim milk for 2 percent, making up for it by using a little more butter to cook the cauliflower, and grated Parmesan from a can for the fancier Parmegiano-Reggiano cheese that the recipe called for. So maybe these substitutions were partly to blame, but I found the result underwhelming. It certainly looked impressive, and it didn't taste bad by any means; it just wasn't really delicious enough to justify the amount of work that went into it. With nothing in it but veggies, white sauce, and crumbs on top, it's really not substantial enough to make a meal of all by itself, and it seems like an unreasonable amount of trouble to take for a mere side dish. If we're going to go to the trouble of cooking a cauliflower and mashing it to put in a casserole, I'd rather use it in our baked macaroni and cheese recipe, found on Parent Hacks, which is substantial enough to serve as a main dish. Or perhaps we could combine the two, dressing up the mac-and-cheese recipe a little by throwing in the leek, parsley, and thyme found in the creamed cauliflower dish, and have something that was both savory and substantial.

Now, as it turned out, I needn't actually have gone to the trouble of scrounging up a recipe for May, because Brian ended up inventing a new one a few days ago. On our last trip to Aldi, we'd picked up a whole bunch of "baby bella" mushrooms (otherwise known as cremini) on sale for a mere $2 a pound, and we still had some of them that needed to be used up soon, so Brian just sliced them up and started experimenting. The result is a vegan soup that's surprisingly hearty, which I'm calling
BRIAN'S BABY BELLA SOUP
Saute 1 chopped leek in 1 Tbsp. olive oil until it starts to brown.
Add 3 cloves minced garlic and saute another minute.
Add 12 ounces sliced cremini mushrooms and saute until they begin to release their moisture.
Add 1/2 Tbsp. of vegetable soup base (we like Penzey's version) dissolved in 4 c. water, and bring to a boil. Simmer 10-15 minutes.
Add about 4 oz. chopped arugula, 1/2 tsp. salt, and 1/2 tsp. dried thyme.
Simmer another 5-10 minutes, then add 1/2 c. coconut cream.
Slowly stir in 2 Tbsp. cornstarch dissolved in 2 Tbsp. water, stirring constantly, and cook until thickened slightly.
Turn off heat and let the soup cool for 5-10 minutes.
I added that last instruction about letting the soup cool because it was tongue-burningly hot when we dished it up, but once it was cool enough to eat safely it was quite good. Brian was actually a bit disappointed with it, thinking that there was something in the mix of flavors that struck a discordant note, but I found it very rich and flavorful. I admit, I'd probably enjoy it more on a cold winter night than a sultry evening in May, but I would be quite happy to eat it again once the cold weather sets in. (That's assuming, of course, that we could find another good deal on baby bella mushrooms, since they're normally quite expensive).

So, of the three new veggie recipes we tried this month, none was an unqualified hit with both of us, but all three were edible. Brian thinks the soup may be worth trying again with a bit of tinkering, perhaps substituting spinach for the arugula or cream for the coconut cream. Without quite so many other flavors competing for attention, perhaps the taste of the mushrooms can come out more and play a starring role.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Money Crashers: How to Shop for Cruelty-Free Products

A topic I've occasionally touched on here, but never discussed in depth, is animal welfare. I don't put myself in the animal-rights camp, which holds that animals have exactly the same rights as humans, but I do believe it's wrong for humans to cause needless suffering to other creatures. The rub, of course, is that word "needless." Some people, for instance, argue that any use of animals for food or research is valid if it benefits humans, because human needs trump those of "lower" animals. Others go to the opposite extreme and argue that using any animal product for food, cleaning, or any other purpose is wrong if there's any alternative whatsoever.

But there's one use of animals that I think just about everyone can agree is both unnecessary and inhumane: animal testing for cosmetics and other personal care products. It's clearly unnecessary because, first of all, cosmetics aren't life-saving medical treatments; second, it's possible to make cosmetics without using any new chemicals that need to be tested; and third, even if you do need to test new chemicals, it's possible to test them without using animals, using new methods that are often more accurate, faster, and cheaper than the old-fashioned animal tests. And anyone who claims the tests aren't inhumane clearly doesn't know the facts about how much harm these tests do, and for how little benefit.

That's why, for about 25 years now, I've been a "cruelty-free" shopper. I won't buy any personal care products that I know have been tested on animals, and I prefer whenever possible to buy from brands that I know don't use any animal testing at all. This can be challenging, though, because it isn't always easy to find cruelty-free brands in stores, or to identify them when I'm shopping online.

So in my latest Money Crashers article, I talk about the whys and hows of cruelty-free shopping. I lead off with some facts about animal testing: how it works, how effective it is (or, more often, isn't), what alternatives exist, and what the laws are about it. But if you're already opposed to animal testing and don't need convincing, you can skip all that and go straight to the last two sections, which identify companies that do and don't test on animals and offer some pointers for finding cruelty-free products in stores and online.

How to Shop for Cruelty-Free Products – Companies That Test on Animals

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Money Crashers: 7 Safest, Low-Risk Investments for Your Money

One standard piece of advice you see all the time on financial sites is to have an emergency fund. The idea is, you set aside enough money to cover all your living expenses for three to six months, and that way if you lose your job or have some other sort of crisis, you don't have to go into debt to stay afloat.

Well, I follow that advice, sort of. We currently have enough money in savings to cover our present living expenses for...let's see here...about 4.7 years.

Partly, this is because our living expenses aren't that high. We only spend about half of our after-tax income, so what's an overstuffed fund for us would be more reasonable for a family living up to its income, as most American families do. But partly, I admit, it's because I'm financially... er... conservative. Well, okay, paranoid. I just don't feel secure unless I have a huge sum set aside for a rainy day, because what if it turns out to be a hurricane?

The problem is, according to the experts, I'm actually costing myself money by keeping this much in the bank. That's because interest rates, right now, are so pitiful that the money you keep in savings doesn't even earn enough to keep up with inflation—so over time, your nest egg actually loses value. Ten years ago or so, I could just stick my money in my online savings account and earn a nice, steady 4 percent interest on it, but now the interest on that account has dropped to less than 1 percent. So on the one hand, I need this big pile of cash to feel financially secure, but on the other hand, keeping that much in cash is actually making me less secure, because inflation is eating away at my savings.

What I really need is somewhere to stash all this money where it's reasonably safe, but can still earn enough interest to keep up with inflation. So, for my latest Money Crashers article, I did a little research to see if any such investment exists. And what I found is that there are quite a lot of different accounts and investments that can keep your emergency fund secure—but right now, most of them only pay a pittance.

However, I found that municipal bond funds actually show some promise. Unlike a bank account, these investments aren't guaranteed; you can actually lose your principal, because it's possible for a town or city to go bankrupt and default on its loans. But that's pretty rare, and the risk is minimized by choosing a fund with lots of different bonds, since it's unlikely they'll all go under at once. And according to my research, municipal bond funds have returned an average of 4.87 percent over the past ten years—even in the present low-interest environment. And, as a bonus, municipal bonds are exempt from federal taxes, and some are free of state and local tax as well. So in theory, I could not only earn 4.87 percent but actually get to keep all of it.

So I'll definitely be looking into stashing at least a portion of my extra-large emergency fund in some sort of municipal bond fund. Not all of it, because as I said, I'm paranoid, and I'll want to make sure at least some of my savings is not merely safe but guaranteed, in an account where I can get at it instantly when I need it. But I can probably pare down the amount I have in the bank to the more normal three to six months' worth of expenses that experts say you should have, and invest the rest where it can actually earn its keep.

If you'd like some more details about this kind of investment, as well as about the other options for stashing your emergency fund, you can read the full article here: 7 Safest, Low-Risk Investments for Your Money. It compares the risks and benefits of seven types of accounts—savings, reward checking, money market accounts, CDs, Treasury securities, money market funds, and bond funds—so you can find the one that fits your needs.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Money Crashers: 7 Important Financial Tips From the Bible

This new Money Crashers post is a little bit gimmicky, but it was fun to write. It's about useful financial tips you can glean from an unexpected source: the Bible. Even though it was written many centuries ago, this ancient book has some financial tips that are surprisingly relevant in the modern world.

For example, take the story of Pharaoh's dream from Genesis, chapter 41. In his dream, Pharaoh sees seven fat cattle grazing by the Nile, and seven skinny cattle come up and swallow them whole. He turns to Joseph, who has a reputation for interpreting dream omens, and gets the explanation that the seven fat cattle represent seven years of plenty, and the seven skinny ones are seven years of famine that will swallow up all the gains of the seven good years as if they'd never been. To avert this disaster, Joseph recommends setting aside a portion of the harvest during each good year to see the country through the years of famine.

Now, whether you think Joseph was divinely inspired or not, his advice definitely makes sense. It's always a good idea to save up in good years so you'll have something to get you through the lean years—because even if you haven't had a handy dream to tell you exactly when hard times will hit, it's pretty certain they will at some point. In fact, this piece of financial advice is so standard that modern financial planners have a name for it: they call it keeping an emergency fund. But modern as it sounds, it's essentially the same idea attributed to Joseph thousands of years ago.

That's just one example of how the Bible offers sound advice on money matters. For six more, check out the article: 7 Important Financial Tips From the Bible – Verses About Money

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Mulch ado

It was two years ago that we discovered the benefits of buying compost for our yard in bulk from our friends at the Belle Mead Co-Op, the same place that supplied all the gravel and stone dust for our patio project. Since then, we've managed to supply all our compost needs out of our one little bin (which will probably need to be replaced this year, so keep your eyes peeled for that project in a future post).

One thing we haven't been able to supply for ourselves, however, is mulch. Our homemade leaf mulch is adequate for mulching small areas, but this spring we had vast swathes of our yard in need of additional mulch cover, including:
  • the three plum trees in the front yard;
  • the cherry bushes along the south fence;
  • the asparagus patch on the south side of the house;
  • our makeshift herb bed in front of the house; and
  • my new rosebush, which has settled into its new home and is just starting to bloom.
Even at the height of fall leaf season, we wouldn't have enough leaves to mulch all that area, and even if we did, it would take way too long to process it all. So, since we'd had so much success buying compost in bulk from the Co-Op, we decided to try our luck with their mulch.

Since we'd been through the process once before, we were able to plan ahead a little better this time. We took along two big garbage cans, which we figured could hold a good quantity of mulch but not too much to lift, plus several of our five-gallon buckets and a wide assortment of plastic bags—some 40-pound birdseed sacks, some smaller ones that had held cat litter, and some of middling size that had previously held bagged mulch from the store. Ironically, the bags that were actually designed to hold mulch proved the hardest to work with, as they were much thinner and harder to hold open than the others. But having a variety of sizes and shapes to work with enabled us to pack the car pretty efficiently, filling up most of the space in the trunk and rear seat. So we got at least the half-yard of mulch we paid for, and certainly more than we could have bought in bags for the $11 we shelled out.

By the time we got it all home, it was too late in the day to start distributing it right away, and it was starting to rain anyhow. So for the time being, we just got all the various containers stashed in our little temporary greenhouse, which is still up in the back yard, providing our vegetable seedlings with a place to "harden off" before going into the garden. (The only ones left to go are the peppers and eggplants, which get transplanted at the beginning of June, and at that point we'll probably stow the greenhouse away until next spring.)

This afternoon, we got to work spreading all the mulch were it belongs. Our top priority was the cherry bushes, so we pulled out all the visible weeds we could see and started dumping mulch containers into the space, spreading out the contents with our hands and a small rake until we had a good couple of inches distributed over the whole bed. Next we brought some of the smaller bags into the front and reinforced the mulch "doughnuts" around the trees, and we spread some over the asparagus bed, doing our best not to disturb the ferns that were already there. (Next time it would probably be easier to do this part of the job in the fall, after cutting down all the previous year's growth, so we'd have a flat area to work with.)

Then we went to work on the herb bed. This area, which sits to the right of the front door has been a work in progress for some years. When we first started it, we had three big oversized bushes growing in the space, so we merely squeezed a few herb plants into the spaces between them. Then, a year or so ago, we took out two of the bushes, since they were getting in our way every time we had to shovel snow. This gave with more space to work with, but all the plants already in the bed were crammed toward the front in the spots where we'd squeezed them earlier. We managed to transplant our giant sage bush to a more central spot, leaving one little chunk behind that has since grown into a smaller secondary plant, and the mint we put in toward the steps has spread out and filled the whole corner nicely. (The way mint grows, we figure it will eventually take over all the empty space in the bed, which is fine by us.) The big thyme plant we had, which was spilling over the edge of the bed onto the sidewalk, took care of itself by dying over the winter, so we just bought a smaller English thyme plant this spring and planted it farther back in the bed, where it will have plenty of room to spread. That just leaves one large oregano plant snuggled in next to the one remaining large bush, spreading out of its shade and onto the sidewalk. Brian is hoping that when we get around to removing that last bush, the oregano will respond to the increased sunlight by redirecting its growth toward the middle of the bed—but if not, we'll have a go at transplanting it.

So right now, what we've got in this area is one big sage plant, one tiny thyme plant, one vast spreading mass of oregano that's awkwardly positioned along one edge, a big patch of mint, and a lot of empty space. We have plans to fill in some of that with rosemary (for which we have seedlings started), chives, and marshmallow, which is supposed to be useful as a cough remedy and also looks nice. In the meantime, covering this empty space with mulch should keep it from getting overgrown with weeds too quickly, while also making the bed as a whole look more pulled-together.

After this was all done, Brian applied a coating of mulch over the new rosebush. Before mulching, however, he took the opportunity to pull apart its brick enclosure, which had come out a bit uneven when he first laid it and had only grown more uneven as it settled over the past two weeks. So he removed the first couple of layers of bricks and re-laid them, taking more care to get them properly aligned. This, plus a nice layer of mulch, makes the whole area look a lot neater and more attractive.

Even all these chores didn't quite use up the entire half-yard of mulch, so we still have a little bit left for future jobs. It may end up going on the secondary asparagus bed in the back yard, or the new kiwi vines, or perhaps the raspberry canes—or we'll just keep it on hand to top up the existing mulched areas whenever they get low. No matter what becomes of the extra, I'd say we've certainly gotten our money's worth out of it already.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Money Crashers: 9 Types of Costly Bank Fees & How to Avoid Them

Just a quick update to tell you about my latest Money Crashers post, which is about those pesky fees that banks charge you every time you turn around. Fees for overdrawing your account, fees for not overdrawing it and bouncing a check instead, fees for making too many transactions, fees for making no transactions at all - it seems like it's impossible to avoid them. But in most cases, you can - as long as you understand how these fees work and keep a close eye on your account.

In this article, I discuss 9 common types of fees - including overdraft fees, ATM fees, and maintenance fees - and how to get out of paying them. You can read it here: 9 Types of Costly Bank Fees & How to Avoid Them

Sunday, May 8, 2016

DIY cat-safe vase 2.0

For the past year, we've been keeping flowers on our kitchen table in a makeshift cat-safe vase: a small glass under a hurricane lantern shade that we picked up at the local thrift shop. It wasn't exactly elegant, and it severely limited the number of flowers we could display at once, but it did a reasonably good job of allowing the flowers and the cats to coexist.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, the hurricane lampshade broke. It didn't get knocked off the table or anything; it just tapped against something when we picked it up to empty the vase, and a whole big chunk of the glass broke right off. Since we didn't have a spare, and there wasn't a similar shade available at the thrift shop where we found the first one, we had to remove the flowers from the table altogether until we could come up with some other arrangement for them.

Fortunately, Brian had already come up with an idea for a more sophisticated cat-safe vase. His two-pronged plan was:
  • pick up a simple, clear glass vase that could be inverted over top of the small glass that holds the flowers; and
  • construct a stand out for both pieces to sit on, which would allow air to circulate while making the whole contraption more stable and harder for the cats to tip over.
We carried out the first stage of this plan two weeks ago. We already knew that Michael's had a good selection of plain glass vases, so we perused the selections and narrowed it down to two: a tall, narrow cylinder that would allow for tall blooms, or a wider, bowl-like vase that would accommodate wider bunches. Both were priced at $4, so it mainly came down to a question of looks, and Brian decided he preferred the narrower vase because it was easier to see through.

Then came the harder part: designing the stand to hold the two pieces. He wasn't able to tackle this last weekend because the whole weekend was taken up with Rutgers Day and May Day festivities, but on Monday he did a little tinkering in the shop with some scrap wood and came up with a stand design that, while not finished, would serve as a "proof of concept." As you can see here, it's basically a wide, square piece of wood with a hole cut in it for the inverted vase, plus four smaller pieces screwed to the top to serve as buttresses, further stabilizing the glass and making it harder for the cats to tip.

To provide air circulation, there are four large holes drilled in the bottom piece, around the edges of the circle. This creates four small gaps under the rim of the vase, big enough to allow air movement, while the four buttress pieces keep the vase secured within its circle.

We're not sure yet whether this initial design will end up being the final version or not. As you can see, there's an awful lot of empty space at the top of the vase, so I think ideally we'd either like to have the inverted glass be shorter (and possibly wider, so the blooms aren't so confined) or else make the one inside taller, bringing the blossoms closer to eye level. We're currently soaking the label off a coconut-oil jar that's a little larger than this juice glass to see whether that looks better. But if we end up having to replace the vase, shelling out another $4 isn't that big a deal.

Once we've settled on a final design for the vase, then Brian will construct a new version that looks a bit better than this one—possibly using nicer pieces of wood, and certainly giving more attention to sanding, staining, and finishing them. But for now, this initial version shows that it is at least possible to construct a vase that makes flowers and cats compatible.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Money Crashers: How to Check Your Credit Score for Free

If you're a financially savvy kind of individual (and you must be if you're here, right?), you no doubt already know the importance of checking your credit report every year. Getting a credit report from each of the three credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) allows you to spot and correct errors that could affect your credit rating or, more dangerously still, be a sign of identity theft. So the sooner you can find these and nip them in the bud, the better. That's why the federal government now requires the credit bureaus to provide you with a copy of your credit report once a year at no charge. The easiest way to get them is through the site AnnualCredit.Report.com. (Accept no substitutes; sites with similar URLs, like FreeCreditReport.com, are fakes that either phish for your personal information or try to get you on the hook for a paid service.)

However, while the credit bureaus now have to give you free access to your credit report, they're still allowed to charge you to view your actual credit score. I've always found that rather annoying, since it's your credit score that really affects your life the most. It determines the interest you pay on your credit cards, your chances of qualifying for a mortgage, your auto insurance rates, and even, in some cases, your ability to get a job. It seems like something you should be able to check on without having to shell out twenty bucks for it.

So in my latest piece for Money Crashers, I've compiled a list of tricks for getting a look at your credit score—or at least an estimate of it—without having to pay. Actually, I say it's my latest piece, but it's only the latest one to be published; it's actually the very first article I wrote when I started working for Money Crashers about a year ago. I'm not sure why they chose to sit on it for a year, or  why the final version ended up with a bunch of editing changes that I never saw when they originally reviewed it—but the information is all there, and I guess that's what matters.

How to Check Your Credit Score – Subscription Services & Free Monitoring