Sunday, June 26, 2022

Gardeners' Holidays 2022: (Half-Full) Cornucopia

Summer is officially here, and the weather certainly got the memo this year. All weekend it's been bright and sunny with highs in the 90s. Combined with New Jersey humidity, that's not exactly pleasant weather for humans, but for the vegetables in the garden it's...well, a mixed bag.

Our asparagus has already stopped producing, not that it ever produced much this year. We got maybe 10 ounces off it all spring, and pretty much all of that was out of the bed on the south side of the house. Brian is considering giving up on the other bed entirely and replacing the asparagus with something else — possibly the garlic, which is also not doing at all well in its current location. About half the plants look like they've been crushed somehow, maybe by groundhogs romping through them. We probably won't even get enough garlic out of the patch to replant next year and will have to buy some more.

The snap peas, which would normally be at their peak now, were also a disappointment. More than half the seeds we planted never even came up, and the ones that did have given us only about six ounces of peas to date. And our new Banana pepper has turned out to be nearly as pathetic as last year's failed Apple pepper. Only one of the seedlings we started got big enough to plant, and once in the ground it stayed tiny and weedy, not really growing and certainly unlikely to produce any peppers.

On the other hand, some crops are doing really well. About half the arugula has already bolted, but the other half is coming in nicely, and we've been getting tons of lettuce — so much that Brian has started planning our meals on the assumption that anything we eat has to go with salad. The basil is also coming up nice and thick, and we're starting to see the first little fingerlings on the zucchini plants and the first little green tomatoes on the vines. And we've already harvested bunches of parsley, enough to make two batches of falafel and one of our favorite quinoa salad (the one that started out as couscous salad and later became kasha salad before taking on its current form). We had leftovers from both dishes for lunch today and discovered that they actually go quite nicely together. (Side note: We learned today on Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me that eating this way defines us as posh, at least to Australians. They supposedly refer to gentrifying neighborhoods as being "behind the quinoa curtain.")

Tonight's dinner, however, does not include much of our actual garden produce. Since it's so hot, Brian decided to grill some eggplant and red pepper to make the roasted veggie sandwiches that were our Recipe of the Month last October. That's one of our favorite dishes, but not a particularly seasonal one, since our peppers are weeks or months away from producing and we can't grow eggplant, full stop. Of course, we'll almost certainly be eating a salad with the sandwiches, but big deal — we're doing that pretty much every day.

So, to celebrate our garden produce in a small way, I used some of our raspberries — which are about midway through their first crop of the year — in a simple mocktail that I made up on the spur of the moment. I put five raspberries in a glass and "muddled" them, crushing them into a pulp with the back of a spoon. Then I topped that with a teaspoon of lime juice and about one and a half teaspoons of the ginger simple syrup that Brian makes for me as a cold remedy. (It may not actually do anything to help the healing process, but a big dollop of it in a cup of hot water or tea, with coconut whipped cream and sometimes a little tot of rum, makes me feel a lot better.) I added ice cubes, topped up the glass with seltzer, and added a dash of Angostura bitters. (Orange bitters would probably be even better, but we didn't have those.)

When it was done, I couldn't really taste the ginger, but it was very refreshing all the same — cold, crisp, fizzy, and fruity, with just a touch of sweetness. I liked it so much that I drank it right down before remembering to take a picture, so of course I had no choice but to immediately mix up another. I'm going to call it a Raspberry Refresher, unless I think of something better. It would probably be nice with a drop of gin, as well, or maybe some of the orangecello that Brian and I sampled at the local liquor store earlier in the afternoon. I abstained from adding any since one drink, or sometimes even half of one, is pretty much my limit, but there's no need for you to feel similarly constrained. Give it a try if you like, and let me know how it came out.

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Money Crashers: 20 Bartering & Swapping Websites — Best Places to Trade Stuff Online

My latest piece for Money Crashers is about bartering and swapping websites. I'm personally a heavy user of Freecycle, which is technically not a swapping site but a sharing one; you can give stuff and receive stuff, but there's no this-for-that exchange. Bartering is a little tougher to pull off, because you have to have something another person wants and also want what that person has. But the Internet makes it easier by gathering together a big group of people all interested in swapping the same kind of thing, such as books or clothes, to improve your chances of finding a match.

This article is a roundup of 20 sites to help you do this. There are sites to exchange all kinds of things, from clothes to music to vacation housing. Some can only arrange direct one-for-one swaps; some can do three-way swaps, where you give A to someone who gives B to someone else who gives you C; and some use a points-based system, where you give an item to earn points you can cash in for someone else's item (so it's really more like an alternative form of money than like barter). There are even a few sharing sites like Freecycle thrown into the mix.

20 Bartering & Swapping Websites — Best Places to Trade Stuff Online

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Recipe of the Month: Eggplant bacon

Brian and I are almost entirely off meat and dairy at this point, and for the most part, it hasn't been a struggle. But one thing we occasionally miss is bacon. There are a few recipes, like split-pea soup, potato-avocado salad, and roasted veggies, that really aren't the same without it. 

So whenever I spot a new vegetarian bacon alternative, I print out the recipe, each time hoping that it will take the place of bacon in our hearts. But so far, nothing has been up to snuff. Even my favorite vegan blogger has let me down on this. Her banana peel bacon, which seemed like a fabulous something-for-nothing trick, was more like some sort of weird jerky than bacon, and her mushroom bacon, while reasonably tasty, had neither the flavor nor the crunch of the real thing. 

The other day, something got me on the hunt for a vegan BLT recipe, and I came across one on Minimalist Baker that called for "my Crispy Eggplant Bacon." This piqued my interest, since I already know that (1) I really like the texture of cooked eggplant, and (2) you can get nearly anything to taste sort of like bacon with the right marinade. Could putting those two things together add up to the perfect veggie bacon substitute I'd been craving?

I clicked through to the recipe, and it didn't look too complicated. And I knew we happened to have an eggplant in the fridge (Brian can't resist it, even though he only knows a few ways to prepare it). So I printed it out and presented it to Brian, and he offered to make a batch for this morning's breakfast.

Our version of this dish was not fully vegan. It calls for vegan Worcestershire sauce, which we didn't have and didn't want to buy just for this, so we used regular Worcestershire, which has a tiny bit of anchovy in it. Thus, a tiny fraction of a percent of the total volume is animal-based. But it would be quite easy to make a fully vegan version with the right ingredients.

Texture-wise, this "Crispy Eggplant Bacon" isn't really that crispy. We don't have a mandoline slicer, but Brian was able to cut very, very thin strips from the eggplant using our vegetable peeler, and they still came out like Kinda Floppy Eggplant Bacon. I don't think you could get it really crisp without burning it.

As for the flavor, these limp little strips did indeed taste somewhat like bacon. But they also tasted distinctly like, well, eggplant. Under the smoky, salty, savory marinade, there was a faint hint of eggplant's slightly bitter, plant-like taste. That's not a flavor I object to at all, but it did seem a bit out of place at the breakfast table. Perhaps this eggplant bacon would fit in more naturally in a savory dish, such as the BLT recipe where I initially came across it.

Even with its faults, the eggplant bacon was tasty enough that Brian and I had no problem polishing off the entire batch (about a quarter of an eggplant's worth) between us. And since it was technically a vegetable, we felt no guilt about gobbling down that much of it, as we undoubtedly would have eating five or six rashers of real bacon at a sitting. But we're not sure it's good enough to be worth making on a regular basis.

When I expressed mild disappointment, Brian said he was pretty satisfied with the plant-based bacon alternative he invented himself: thin strips of tofu, marinated in soy sauce and Liquid Smoke, baked on a cookie sheet until they're nearly burnt. This, to his mind, does a very good job of approximating both the flavor and the texture of overcooked bacon — which he happens to like. 

So far, I've only tasted Brian's tofu bacon in the form of crumbled bits in a soup or salad. It's certainly good enough for that purpose, though it doesn't lend its flavor to the dish the way real bacon would. But I've asked him to prepare some larger slices of it sometime so we can see how it serves in the place of real bacon strips. Then we can see if it works better than the eggplant bacon as a breakfast food, or even whether it makes a good vegan BLT.

Friday, June 17, 2022

Money Crashers: 11 Ways to Save Money on Lawn Care Costs and Expenses

As regular readers of this blog will know, if there's one thing in my yard I don't care about, it's the lawn. In fact, I've been trying for years to find a suitable ground cover to replace the entire thing, at least in the front yard. Mowing is a hassle in the back yard, where the ground slopes steeply, but even more so in the front, since the mower has to be hauled up two sets of stairs to get there.

However, I know that most Americans don't share my viewpoint. To the average suburban homeowner, no landscape is complete without a lush, green lawn. And they're willing to spend tons of money and time (more than 70 hours per year, according to the latest American Time Use Survey) to achieve it, not to mention tons of water, gasoline, and pesticides.

In my latest article, I propose ways to have a beautiful lawn without all that work and expense. With the right grass and the right strategies for watering, mowing, and feeding it, a lush green lawn doesn't have to cost the earth.

 11 Ways to Save Money on Lawn Care Costs and Expenses

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Money Crashers: Two recession articles

With all the headlines abuzz about the chances of an upcoming recession, Money Crashers gave me a rush assignment to prepare and/or update several articles on recession-related topics. The first one is my attempt to answer the question of whether we are, in fact, headed for a recession. I explore eight indicators that can point to a possible recession and what they say (spoiler alert: while they're not favorable, they're not conclusive either).

 Is a Recession Coming in 2022? – 8 Warning Signs of Economic Slowdown 

The second is on how to be ready for the recession if it hits — or, more accurately, when it hits, since there's sure to be another recession at some point. This is a full rewrite of my earlier piece on how to be prepared for a recession, covering most of the same topics (emergency fund, budgeting, passive income, investments, debt, employability, insurance), but with updated stats and new organization.

How to Prepare for a Recession - 9 Ways to Protect Your Money & Finances

Saturday, June 11, 2022

Pest protection

For our first 13 years as vegetable gardeners, we never had any trouble with deer. We lost crops to groundhogs, squirrels, and rats at various points, but deer never so much as ventured into the back yard. We assumed in our naivete that the six-foot chain-link fence surrounding the yard was sufficient to keep them out. But last year, we were disabused of that notion, discovering not one, but two deer in our vegetable garden in the space of a month.

After that initial invasion, we started looking into strategies for deterring other cervine intruders. Unfortunately, most of them — deer-resistant plants, deer-repellent sprays, sprinklers, and big, elaborate fences — were either impractical or expensive. But late last summer, we toured the garden of a local guy who's a much more serious gardener than we are, and he showed us how he had modified his chain-link fence to keep out deer by extending its height with a series of horizontal rows of twine strung between tall poles. Since these didn't provide much of a visual barrier, he'd tied some fluttering streamers to each row. That way, a deer wouldn't leap right through the fence because it failed to notice it.

So, this year, as our garden plants started to get big, Brian decided to implement a similar solution in our garden. Since we already had the clear fishing line we'd used for our DIY deer fence in the front yard (which, incidentally, seems to be working so far), he decided to use that instead of twine, relying on the streamers to make it visible to the deer. (For the front yard fence, having it be invisible was the point, since the deer would walk right up to it without realizing it was there and get spooked. But in the garden, what they'd see is a short garden fence that they could easily leap over. We wanted to create something that looked like a taller barrier to deter them from jumping, even if it wouldn't really be strong enough to keep out a determined doe.)

To extend the height of the existing fence posts, we picked up a set of long plastic "plant stakes" from the Ocean State Job Lot for $2.75 each. Brian figured we'd need six, one for each corner and two to go in the centers of the longer sides of the fence, but he got one extra just for good measure. He attached them either by wiring them to the existing fence or threading them through it. 

Then, with me helping to hold the line taut, he ran fishing line from pole to pole, wrapping it and tying it round each one. By the time he was done, there were three rows of fishing line about two feet apart, extending the height of the existing fence from three feet to nine. (They extend across the top of the garden gate as well, but Brian just ducks his head to get under them, and I'm just short enough that I don't need to.)

The only element that's not quite finished yet is the streamers. The material for these needs to be lightweight so it won't cause the fence to sag, but also waterproof so it won't disintegrate in the rain. We experimented with bits of ribbon from our gift-wrapping bag and some silvery tinsel strands that blew into our yard from who-knows-where, but we didn't have enough of either to do the entire fence. 

I have a notion that maybe we can get the material we need by cutting strips out of the plastic bags our weekly ad circulars come in. They're light enough, and the material won't look any worse than anything else once it's cut up; the question is whether we can find a way to cut it neatly. But it doesn't cost us anything to try, since the bags are free and we don't need them for anything else. So it's certainly an ecofrugal solution.

Of course, we don't know yet how effective this makeshift fence will actually be at keeping out deer. Since the incident last summer, we haven't actually seen any in our back yard, so it may not get put to the test for a while. But if our shiny new deer fence turns out to be unnecessary because there aren't any more deer to deter, that's a win in my book.

Sunday, June 5, 2022

What to Buy Where in 2022 (an Updated Guide to the Best Grocery Prices in New Jersey)

Recently, Money Crashers assigned me to work on an article (which you'll see shortly) about how to cope with rising food prices. In the course of working on it, I learned that grocery prices overall rose by over 10 percent from April 2021 to April 2022. That inspired me to go back and look at our expense records for the past year to see how much our grocery spending had increased over that same period. I found that from April 2020 to April 2021, our average monthly grocery bill came to $267. A year later, in April 2022, that same 12-month average was...$244. In other words, while grocery prices all over the country were rising, our average spending on groceries went down.

Now, if you look at our overall spending on food, including food eaten out, the trend went the other way. Our average monthly spending on food was $274 in April 2021 and $282 in April 2022, mostly because we resumed occasionally eating out after getting vaccinated. But by occasionally, I mean maybe once every month or two. That one restaurant meal doesn't seem like enough to explain the entire $23 drop in our monthly grocery bill.

So why did our grocery spending go down while most people's was going up? Thinking back over the past year, the biggest change I could think of in our grocery shopping habits was the arrival of Lidl. Since we first discovered the store about a year ago, it's become our go-to store for a lot of the staples we used to buy at Shop-Rite, H-Mart, and Trader Joe's. At this point, we're buying more of our groceries there than at any other store in our regular rotation. 

This made me realize that the grocery shopping guide I wrote in 2018, outlining which foods we typically buy at different stores, was now out of date. Both the list of foods we buy and the stores we buy them at have changed significantly. So I thought perhaps it would be useful to post an updated version showing how we shop these days. Based on our grocery figures for the past year, this shopping strategy seems to be saving us money during a period of rising food prices, so perhaps it can do the same for you.

Rather than listing the stores in alphabetical order as I did last time, I'll take them in order based on where we shop most often. All brands are store brands unless otherwise noted. All prices are the price we paid last time we bought the item; some may have gone up since then. I haven't included prices for most produce items, as those tend to fluctuate, but I've included the ones that remain fairly stable.


  • Almond milk: $2.19/half gallon
  • Brussels sprouts: $2.98/pound
  • Canned beans: 50 cents to $1/can, depending on variety
  • Chocolate (Fairtrade): $3.49 for 6.3 ounces ($0.55/ounce). This is for the large bar of the Way to Go! house brand, with cocoa sourced from the Kuapa Kokoo collective in Ghana. Lidl also stocks a cheaper, smaller bar that's also made with Fairtrade chocolate, but it's decidedly inferior in flavor.
  • Chocolate chips (Fairtrade): $1.98 for 12 ounces ($2.64/pound)
  • Cocoa powder (Rainforest Alliance certified): $1.95 for 8.8 ounces ($3.55/pound)
  • Coffee (Rainforest Alliance certified): $3.28 for an 11.3-ounce can ($4.64/pound). Thanks to this bargain, I've started drinking coffee regularly again.
  • Distilled water: $1.08/gallon
  • Eggs (Certified Humane, large): $2.79/dozen
  • Orange juice (not from concentrate): $2.65 for a 52-ounce bottle ($1.63/quart)
  • Peanuts: $1.95/pound
  • Whole wheat flour: $2.49 for 5 pounds ($0.50/pound)

These are all our staple items, but we also tend to shop here for pantry items we buy less frequently, such as vinegar, salt, and corn starch. Lidl is also one of our favorite stores for produce. The selection is pretty good and the quality is much more reliable than Aldi's. The only downside is that most things come in plastic packaging. However, there is a section near the front of the store where you can find marked-down produce for incredible prices (we once bought a box of lemons for less than $0.30 per pound), and it's usually loose.

Trader Joe's

  • Coconut whipped cream: $3.49 for a 6.5-ounce can
  • Dairy-free chocolate chips (for when we want to feed baked goods to our vegan friends): $1.99 for 12 ounces
  • Dijon mustard: $1.69 for a 13-ounce jar
  • Frozen peas (organic): $1.99 a pound
  • Frozen spinach (organic): $1.99 a pound
  • Greeting cards: 99 cents apiece. I don't like the little plastic sleeves they come in, but for that price I'll put up with a little plastic waste.
  • Nutritional yeast: $2.99 for a 4-ounce bag ($11.96/pound)
  • Popcorn (organic): $2.49 for 28 ounces ($1.42/pound)
  • Soap: $1.69 for 2 bars
  • Smoked herring: $2.49 for a 4.4-ounce can ($9.05/pound). More sustainable than smoked salmon, and about half the price.
  • Tawny port: $5.99 for a 750-mL bottle
  • Toilet paper (recycled, 80% post-consumer material): $4.99 for 12 rolls, 250 sheets per roll ($0.17/100 sheets). Not a foodstuff, but very much a necessity of life.
  • Toothpaste (cruelty-free and SLS-free): $2.49 for 0.6 ounces


  • Birdseed: $13.99 for a 40-pound bag
  • Canola oil: $13.99 for 6 quarts ($2.33/quart)
  • Honey: $16.99 for 5 pounds ($3.40/pound)
  • Oats (Quaker): $10.99 for 10 pounds ($1.10/pound)
  • Olive oil: $29.99 for 6 liters ($5/liter). I don't know why olive oil is measured in liters and canola oil is measured in quarts.
  • Peanut butter (natural organic): $9.99 for two 28-ounce jars ($2.85/pound.)
  • Quinoa: $9.59 for 4.5 pounds ($2.13/pound)
  • Raisins (Sun-Maid organic): $11.59 for 4 pounds ($2.90/pound)
  • Raisin bran (Kellogg's): $8.49 for 4 pounds ($2.12/pound). We wouldn't normally buy it at this price, but it was marked on the shelf at $1.80/pound, and we didn't discover the discrepancy until we got it home. If the price remains this high, we might drop the store-bought cereal entirely and rely on homemade granola.
  • Sugar (organic): $10.99 for 10 pounds ($1.10/pound)
  • Walnuts: $11.49 for 3 pounds ($3.83/pound)
  • Yeast (Red Star): $6.49 for 32 ounces ($0.20/ounce)

Ocean State Job Lot

This is a discount retailer that sells everything under the sun, but we go there mainly for food.

  • Blackstrap molasses: $3.99/pint
  • Coconut oil (refined, organic): $4.99 for a 30-ounce jar ($2.66/pint)
  • Coconut oil (unrefined, organic): $2.99 for a 15-ounce jar ($3.19/pint)
  • Sourdough pretzels: $1.39 for 12 ounces ($1.85)
  • Wheat bran: $2.59/pound


  • Blue Bonnet spread: $1.29/pound 
  • Pasta (whole wheat): $0.99/pound
  • White flour (unbleached): $2.50 for 5 pounds ($0.50/pound). Lidl has cheaper flour, but it's bleached.

Stop & Shop

  • Dish soap (Ajax): $2.29 for 28 ounces
  • Dry beans: $1.25/pound


  • Tofu: $1.09/pound

This is the main thing we buy at H-Mart these days, aside from produce such as garlic, scallions, and lemons. 


As you may notice, some stores that used to be in our regular rotation have now dropped off it completely. We now visit Aldi about once a year to stock up on canned pumpkin for our cats (in the fall, since it's a seasonal item) and almost never go there for anything else. We used to visit the PA Dutch Farmers' Market mainly for free-range meats, so we have little reason to go there since cutting meat out of our diet almost entirely. 

As for the Whole Earth Center, it still has the best prices on bulk-bin items such as spices, but it's very difficult for us to get there since it changed its hours. It now closes at 6pm, much too early for us to stop by on our way to Morris dance practice on Thursday, so a visit to the store requires a specially planned trip. We manage it a couple of times a year, but for most of our Whole Earth favorites (such as wheat bran, yeast, and mushrooms) we've found other suppliers.

I realize this list won't be useful for everyone. Food prices can vary widely by location, and so do the grocery stores that are available. So, depending on where you live, there might be another store in your area that offers better prices on some of these foods than the ones I've listed here. And if you regularly eat meat or dairy products, this list won't help you much with finding deals on those. But if you live in the Northeast and eat a mostly plant-based diet, this should provide a pretty good guide to making the most of your grocery-shopping dollars in the current high-priced environment.