Friday, May 30, 2014

Actual savings: biking to work

The latest print edition of my Dollar Stretcher newsletter contains an article called "Reduce the Cost of Your Commute." (It isn't up yet on their website as I write this, but it might be by the time you read this.) It poses the question, "with the cost of gas hovering near $4 per can you reduce the cost of commuting or make the time spent more profitable?" The article then lists a number of suggestions, such as changing your work schedule, carpooling, working from home, and the one that Brian favors, biking to work. Naturally I was pleased, not to say smug, to see part of our lifestyle endorsed in this way. But I couldn't help asking myself: does it really save all that much money? Over a year ago, I crunched the numbers on line-drying laundry—another money-saving measure that's widely touted in publications like The Dollar Stretcher—and found that the savings were actually pretty trivial. Last summer, I did a similar calculation for homemade laundry detergent and found that depending on how cheaply you can buy detergent, making your own may not in fact save you any money at all. Might biking to work be the same kind of thing—a feel-good activity that doesn't have much of a financial payoff?

Calculating the answer is pretty simple. I know that the distance Brian commutes to work is about four miles each way, and I know that our little Honda Fit gets about 40 miles to the gallon in typical mixed driving. (The EPA claims this car only gets 29 mpg in mixed driving, but I don't know what kind of idiot they've got driving it, because our mileage has never been anywhere near that low.) However, short trips, like Brian's daily commute, get lower gas mileage than most of the driving we do, so to be fair, let's assume that Brian only gets a measly 32 mpg out of the car while driving to work. That means that for every 8-mile round trip he makes, he uses a quarter of a gallon of gas. The receipt from our last gas fill-up shows that we paid $3.40 per gallon, which means that every day Brian rides his bike to work instead of driving, he saves 85 cents. So if he commutes by bike an average of three times a week, April through November (35 weeks), his pedal power saves us $89.25 per year. That's a lot better than the $14 or so I save hanging laundry, but it's not exactly a slam dunk.

Now, how do those savings work out on an hourly basis? Well, Brian's relatively short commute takes him about 25 minutes on the bike, while driving in rush hour traffic takes roughly 15 minutes. (On the bike, he can go by way of the park and skip a lot of the traffic.) So, for a round trip to and from work, he spends an extra 20 minutes to save that 85 cents, for an hourly rate of $2.55. That's only 30 percent of New Jersey's minimum wage, which doesn't look that impressive.

However, biking to work has additional benefits beyond saving money. The Dollar Stretcher article points out two of them: "you'll save dollars and get a workout at the same time," and "Peddling [sic] past cars stuck in rush hour traffic will make the ride so much more pleasant!" Both of these have definitely been the case for Brian. Since he started biking to work on a regular basis, he's dropped a size in pants, and his blood pressure is much improved. And while on a typical day, biking to work takes longer than driving, there are also the occasional atypical days—usually days when a football game at Rutgers has brought traffic to a near-standstill—that he's able to get home on his bike much, much faster than he could have in the car.

Then there are the environmental benefits. If Brian bikes to work 105 times each year, then over the course of the year, he saves 26.25 gallons of gas. According to this formula from the EPA, the carbon output of that amount of gas is 0.23 metric tons, or about 2.5 percent of our total carbon footprint. Not a huge environmental benefit, perhaps, but certainly a measurable one. (Actually, when you do the math over the course of a whole year, even my line-drying efforts start to add up; drying 60 loads of laundry every year saves us about 0.3 metric tons of CO2, which isn't bad at all.)

Now, your mileage, as they say, may vary—and so may the length of your commute and the amount you pay for gas. If your car is a lot more efficient than ours, or your commute is a lot shorter, than biking to work may save you less than it does us; on the other hand, if your car is a lot less efficient, or the price of gas in your state is much higher, then you might save a lot more than we do. It's pretty easy to crunch the numbers for yourself and figure it out: just take the number of miles in your daily commute, divide by your car's mpg, and multiply by the cost of a gallon of gas. But even if the number you get as a result seems low, that doesn't necessarily mean that biking to work isn't worth your while. Like hanging laundry, it may turn out to be worth it for the exercise and fresh air alone.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

An Amazon dilemma

Over the past few years, I've come to rely more and more on as my first stop when shopping for just about anything—or at least, anything I'm not likely to find in my own local stores. I've always found going to the mall a big hassle; every place I've ever lived, getting to the mall has involved at least a half hour of driving through nasty traffic, then circling the parking lot in search of a space, then struggling through the crowds of the mall itself, and all too often leaving empty-handed because after all that, I couldn't find what I wanted in any of the shops. So it was a tremendous relief to discover that what had once been just a discount bookseller had grown into, for all practical purposes, the world's biggest virtual shopping mall, with a vast selection of goods that I could browse through at my leisure from the comfort of my own home. I can nearly always find what I want after just a few minutes of browsing, and if I'm not sure what I want, I can consult the extensive collection of reviews from users to help me decide.

Aside from its convenience, I always figured Amazon shopping was a much more ecofrugal choice than mall shopping. Frugal, because its prices are typically a lot lower than those at local stores; eco, because it saves me all that driving and parking, and because having such a huge selection at my fingertips eliminates the need to drive from store to store looking for the particular product I want. True, the things I order still have to be delivered to me, but it seemed that having a single truck come from the nearest Amazon warehouse and make the rounds of my town delivering everything my neighbors and I have ordered must be more efficient than having us all drive to and from the mall individually. And as big corporations go, it didn't even seem to be all that evil. Its profile on Green America's Responsible Shopper site mentions a couple of labor disputes involving suppression of unions and a lawsuit over its privacy practices, but that's still not nearly as many complaints as you'd expect to see for a company of its size. The site also notes that Amazon gets a score of 80 out of 100 for gay-friendliness on the Human Rights Campaign's Corporate Equality Index, which is certainly above average, if not outstanding. So I always felt like shopping at Amazon was a pretty good choice all around.

Imagine my shock and dismay, then, when a visiting friend mentioned to me that he'd stopped shopping on Amazon because its labor practices were so evil. The way he explained it was that Amazon does to its warehouse workers pretty much the same thing that Wal-Mart does to its suppliers; it keeps giving them higher and higher quotas to meet, and as soon as they fail to meet them, they get fired. Now, this struck me as less evil than just plain stupid, because it seems to ensure that they'll always be firing the most efficient and experienced workers and replacing them with new, less efficient ones—but when I did some searching online, I found that the claims appear to be completely legitimate. This article on quotes from a book by Simon Head of Oxford University, who says his research has led him to conclude that Amazon is a strong contender for the title of "most egregiously ruthless corporation in America." While Mr. Head focuses mostly on the way managers at Amazon's warehouses time their workers' activities down to the second and require them to meet ever-increasing quotas, what I found most appalling was the account of how workers in one warehouse were kept on their feet (until they collapsed) as temperatures in the warehouse climbed to 110 degrees—and refused to open the doors for ventilation out of fear that employees would steal. Shades of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory there.

Since making this discovery, I've found myself in a bit of quandary. Naturally, I don't want any more of my money to go to a company that treats its workers this way, but what are the alternatives? Does this mean I have to go back to doing all my shopping the old-fashioned way? After a bit of consideration, I've decided that there's nothing wrong with using to help me shop, so long as I don't actually make the final purchase there. I can still visit the site to search products and compare reviews, but once I know what I want, I should copy the name of the product and paste it into Google Shopping to find another site that carries it. I can even continue to use my Amazon Wishlists to keep track of products I'd like to buy for myself or as gifts for others; that way I can still enjoy the convenience of having all my ideas stored in a single place without actually putting any money in Amazon's pockets.

It's also okay, I think, to keep buying things from the Amazon Marketplace. In that case, I'm actually dealing with a third-party seller; Amazon is merely providing the a venue for the transaction. True, I guess they do get a cut of the sales, but at least the products aren't being stored in Amazon's 110-degree warehouses where some poor schmo making minimum wage is going to keel over from heat stroke fetching them for me.

The real dilemma is going to be dealing with things that I literally can't find anywhere else—either in stores or online. may be evil, but it still has the best selection of goods, and sooner or later, I'm bound to run across something that I just can't find elsewhere. But I've checked on everything that I've bought from Amazon in the past six months, and in every case, a quick Google search was enough to turn up another supplier somewhere. In some cases, to be sure, Amazon's price was by far the cheapest—but then, in others, it actually would have cost less to buy somewhere else. So perhaps breaking out of the habit of just buying everything from Amazon will save me money in the long run.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Bonus Recipe of the Month: Potato-Leek Gratin

Yesterday, Brian came home from work and greeted me with the question, "What do you want for dinner?" I gave my usual reply, which is, "Ummmmm....", since he's the one who does most of the cooking and I have very little idea at any given time what we have in the fridge to work with. So after a little discussion, we concluded that we'd probably have to make a quick trip to the store to pick something up.

We headed out to the local H-Mart, which has the best selection and prices for produce in our area. Brian scouted around the veggie bins and ended up selecting three leeks, which were on sale for $2 a pound. When I asked what he planned to do with them, he said, "It's an experiment." Since I knew from experience that (1) Brian's culinary experiments, while varying in quality, are invariably at least edible, and (2) anyone who complains about the food is just asking to be stuck with the cooking, I decided to trust his judgment and not probe the matter further.

Well, Brian's experiment turned out to be not merely edible but quite satisfying indeed. The basis of it was a recipe for frizzled leeks from Molly Katzen's Vegetable Heaven, which we've made many times before and either tossed with pasta or eaten straight. It's simple enough to make, if a little time-consuming: after washing the leeks, you cut them into "paper-thin" slices, sauté then in olive oil for five minutes to soften them up, and then arrange them on a foil-lined cookie sheet and bake them for 15 minutes, giving them a quick stir every 5 minutes or so to keep them from burning. Then you take them out, sprinkle them with salt, and let them cool for 15 more minutes. (She says to transfer them first to a plate lined with paper towels, but we don't keep paper towels in our house, so we don't bother with that step. If they get a little crispy sitting in the hot pan, so much the better.)

Now, these by themselves are very tasty—sort of like potato chips, but much healthier—and I could quite happily eat them straight from the pan. But for what Brian had in mind, it turned out, frizzling the leeks was just the first step. He then tossed them into a baking dish with a bunch of stuff that he pulled out of the pantry, fridge, and freezer—a few potatoes, a pint container of shredded mozzarella that we had in the freezer, half a can of mushrooms that we happened to have left over from an omelet I cooked for myself while he was away—and baked the whole into a hearty, solid mass that was somehow far greater than the sum of its parts. Sure, it would be hard to go too far wrong combining potatoes, leeks, and mozzarella in any fashion, but this particular combination had some sort of alchemy that made it taste like far more than the improvised hodge-podge it was.

I've dubbed the result Brian's Potato-Leek Gratin. Here's the recipe, with some suitable modifications (such as allowing for the use of fresh cheese, in case you don't happen to have any sitting around in the freezer):
Brian's Potato-Leek Gratin  
5 medium potatoes
3 smallish leeks
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
3 oz. canned mushrooms (about half a small can)
2 medium eggs, beaten
3 Tbsp. mayonnaise
1/2 tsp. salt
olive oil 
1. Frizzle the leeks, as described above.
2. At the same time (if you're organized enough to manage it), cook the potatoes in their skins in a pressure cooker.
3. Dice the mushrooms and the potatoes.
3. Mix together all ingredients except 1/2 cup of the cheese, or a little more. Dump mixture in a casserole lightly greased with olive oil and top with the rest of the cheese.
4. Bake at 400 for 20 minutes.
The only problem with this recipe is that it involves several stages. Frizzling the leeks takes about 20 minutes, and then you have to assemble the rest of the casserole before baking it. So probably the ideal way to make this would be to do a really big batch of frizzled leeks one night, use half of them in some pasta or what have you, and store the rest to make this casserole the next night. But if you don't mind waiting an hour for dinner, then you can do it just as described. Or, if you don't mind waiting an hour and a half, you can dash out to the H-Mart for the leeks before you start.

For those who care about such things, this recipe is vegetarian (though not vegan, obviously) and gluten-free. Though it naturally can't make any claims to being either low-fat or low-carb. Oh, and although it will be nearly a year before anyone has to worry about this, it's suitable for Passover as well.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Recipe of the Month: Black Bean and Asparagus Quesadillas

Our little asparagus patch (the existing plants, not the new one we've put in next to our rhubarb) continues to produce at a respectable rate. Last Sunday, we harvested three good-sized spears (including one very odd one that had sort of grown into a dogleg shape, shooting out horizontally and then vertically again. Unfortunately, I forgot to snap a picture.) This wasn't enough to make a full batch of any of our usual asparagus-based recipes, so Brian had the idea to cut the asparagus into little pieces and add them to some black bean quesadillas.

The process was pretty straightforward. He started with his usual step of sautéing some onions and garlic, then he threw in the asparagus pieces for a minute, and then he added the pureed black beans, along with some leftover rice to help soak up excess moisture. This mixture got spread onto the tortillas and topped with cheese, and then the complete structure was pan-grilled on both sides until it was nice and brown. We topped it with the Fresh Tomato Salsa from The Clueless Vegetarian, only made with canned tomatoes since that was what we had available.

The result was tasty enough, but I didn't really feel like it showed the asparagus to its best advantage. It sort of blended in with all the other flavors, especially with the salsa on top. Of course, there's nothing wrong with having veggies play a supporting role in the meal, but asparagus is such a precious commodity—so short in its growing season, and so expensive out of it—that it seems like a waste to put it in any dish where it isn't the star performer, or at least a key player in an ensemble cast.

So on the whole, I doubt we'll be making this particular dish again—unless we happen to be left with three odd asparagus spears at the end of the growing season and nothing else to do with them. Still, it's nice to know that our quesadilla recipe stands up to this kind of off-the-cuff alteration.

Thyme marches on

A year ago, as part of our ongoing quest to find a suitable ground cover for our front yard that might actually manage to hold its own against the dandelions and mugwort, we bought a tiny creeping thyme plant at the annual Rutgers plant sale. We don't know the exact variety, but it was described as a low-growing, mat-forming perennial, and I'd seen a few articles here and there about its advantages as a landscape plant. I was a little uncertain about it because most sources (including our gardening Bible, The Weekend Garden Guide by Susan Roth) say it prefers well-drained soil, which our heavy clay definitely is not, but I figured, at $2.50 a plant, it couldn't hurt to buy just one and give it a try.

The plant we bought was in a tiny pot like the one shown at the left side of this photo. We planted it in an open part of the front yard and weeded a little space around it for the creeping thyme to creep into. And creep it did, spreading its tendrils wider and wider, so that Brian kept having to go out and clear a little more space as the thyme took over the area we'd already cleared and pushed its way clear up to the grass line. Over the winter, its color went a little dull (when it was visible rather than entirely smothered by snow), but apparently it made it through undamaged, because as soon as spring came it perked right up and even showed signs of spreading a little more. And in short, that tiny little plant has now spread out to become the dense, lush mass of green you see here.

Given the startling success we had with this first plant, we figured it was certainly worth investing in at least one more. Unfortunately, this year we weren't able to make it to the plant sale until its last day, so we weren't able to find any plants specifically labeled as "creeping thyme." However, we did find some "mother of thyme," (Thymus serpyllum), which seems to be either the same variety or a close relative. The description on the tag wasn't terribly encouraging, as it said this thyme only spreads to a maximum size of 12 inches, less than half the diameter of the patch we've got now—but even a one-foot circle of nice dense foliage is...let's see...about 0.8 square feet where mugwort can't grow, which is still a reasonable investment at $2.50.

If this plant does as well as its predecessor, though, I think we should stop pussyfooting about and just buy up all the creeping thyme at next year's plant sale, and fill the entire front yard.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

An unconventional approach

Brian says he made a conscious decision, about three or four years back, to stop worrying about dandelions. It simply isn't possible, he concluded, to eliminate them entirely without resorting to noxious chemicals that will kill practically everything else in sight as well. Thus, our best option is to coexist with them, taking steps to beat them back only when they get too ugly.

What that means in practice is that most of the time, we simply ignore any dandelions that pop up in our yard (except for occasionally picking and eating them). About once a year, however, right around the beginning of May, the dandelions start to get a little too big for their britches. They spread all over the entire yard, both front and back, turning it into a sea first of innocent-looking yellow blooms and then, if we don't get out there and whack them immediately, of white puffballs—which quickly blow away, leaving behind the even worse-looking naked stalks.

This annual Peak Dandelion event, then is the point at which we intervene—not to actually remove the dandelions, which would be impossible, but just to clear them away so they don't make the yard look too much of a mess. And this year, Brian decided to take a rather unconventional approach to dealing with them. Since they'd already gone to seed, and going after them with the string trimmer would serve only to spread the seeds around, he decided to try tackling them first with a different electric tool: the stick vacuum.

As it turns out, this worked surprisingly well. He just plugged the vacuum into a big long extension cord and took it around the yard, snorking the little seeds right off the heads of the dandelions. Then, once he'd denuded them all, he replaced the stick vacuum with the string trimmer and whacked off the stems. The only problem, he says, is that the dirt cup on our vacuum can now be considered a WMD: a Weapon of Mass Dandelion. He'll probably have to put the entire thing inside a big garbage bag before opening it, lest the seeds all burst out of the cup the minute he removes it and go stampeding around the room in a frenzy, looking for a place to take root.

So if you, too, have decided to manage your dandelion problem rather than trying to cure it, and you happen to have a lightweight vacuum cleaner, I suggest you give this unconventional approach a try. Even if it doesn't work for you, it can't make the problem any worse, since let's face it, dandelions in May are as bad as it gets.

Monday, May 5, 2014

How to recycle whipped cream cans

As you may recall, a few weeks ago I was lamenting about how whipped cream, which is a staple in our house, comes in an aerosol can—one of the few types of containers our town won't accept in mixed recycling. I had considered a variety of ways to either eliminate or recycle the packaging, but I hadn't found one that would work without just creating more waste.

Fortunately, my husband has a much more straightforward approach to problems than I do: he just took the can apart. With a few minutes and a pair of channel lock pliers, he converted a non-recyclable aerosol can (shown on the left) to an innocuous empty steel canister (shown on the right), which can go right in our mixed recycling bin. Well, gee, why didn't I think of that?

For anyone who would like to try this at home, it just takes a few simple steps:

1. Grab the little plastic nozzle with the channel locks, yank it off, and throw it away. (It can't go in recycling because it doesn't have a number code on it, but it's small enough not to worry about.)

2. Grab the edge of the metal ring underneath with the channel locks and pry it up. Work your way around the ring, gradually prying it loose, until the whole thing can be removed. There will be some additional plastic parts underneath (a sort of valve with a couple of little washers), which can also be tossed. This is the only part of the process that's at all tricky, but it only takes a minute or two.

3. Rinse out the can. Lament the fact that there's still at least a tablespoon of good cream sticking to the inside, despite your valiant efforts to drain every last drop of it from the can (directly into your mouth if necessary).

4. Just to make sure the empty can is no longer identifiable as a whipped cream canister, peel off and discard the plastic label, and then crush the steel can underfoot with a nice satisfying stomp.

And voilà—your can is now recyclable.

With this one simple discovery, we've eliminated what I imagine to be a fairly significant percentage, at least by weight, of all the trash we throw away. Now, instead of having to toss a whole big hunk of steel into the trash every month, all we need to throw out is a handful of little plastic bits. That's an amount of waste I'm willing to live with—especially for the sake of not letting any actual cream go to waste.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Gardeners' Holidays 2014: The Age of Asparagus

May Day is one of the few holidays on the Wheel of the Year that I actually celebrate in a traditional manner, by dancing all day with my Morris dance team. So this year's Age of Asparagus celebration had to be postponed until the weekend. Fortunately, unlike last year, this year we actually have a nice healthy-looking asparagus patch to celebrate. As you can see, as of this morning there were several narrow spears that had already ferned out, but there were also several nice, thick spears suitable for harvesting. And that doesn't even count the handful of spears we'd already picked last week that went into a nice omelet for a quick dinner.

The recipe we had our eye on for this year's asparagus-fest was a simple pasta dish from a little cookbook called Easy Vegetarian Dinners, published by Better Homes and Gardens. It calls for two cups of asparagus cut into 2-inch pieces, and as luck would have it, when we picked all the stout spears from the asparagus bed, we had exactly the right amount and didn't need to scale the recipe at all. They got sauteed in a pan with a chopped yellow summer squash and a couple of cloves of garlic, then tossed with rotini and lemon cream sauce. (The recipe calls for an optional sprinkling of nutmeg on top, but we did not take the option.) Elegant and deceptively simple.

Since the recipe also called for half a cup of whipping cream, and since you can't buy less than a cup of it at a time, we really had no choice but to whip the rest of the cream and serve it on top of a rhubarb crisp, thus adding yet another spring vegetable to the celebration. Strictly speaking, the rhubarb in the crisp was from last year's crop and not this year's; we've had a couple of bags full of it sitting in the freezer all winter long. However, the rhubarb in the garden is already big enough to start picking, so you could make the case that using up the remains of last year's rhubarb was just a way to make room for this year's crop, and was therefore also an appropriate way to celebrate the arrival of a full-blown spring. After the winter we just made it through, I'm prepared to seize on any excuse I can get.

So, after waking up the earth with our bells and pipes on May Day, we enjoyed her fruits over the weekend. And the festivities don't stop there: I've just learned that tomorrow is an unofficial holiday as well, known as Star Wars Day. Want to know why?

Are you sure you want to know why?

OK, but don't say I didn't warn you: it's because it's May the Fourth. As in, May the Fourth be with you.

Not to mention the athparaguth.