Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Arrangements for the New Year


On this last day of 2009, I hope everyone has been enjoying a cheery holiday season. I wish you all happiness and prosperity in the New Year, too! This beautiful floral surprise greeted us this morning. It seemed such a positive portent I wanted to share it.

As usual, for me, at this time of year, I feel the urge to do some redecorating. This year that means reorganizing furniture that was hastily placed when we moved. The dysfunction of those placements has quickly become apparent.

Usually, this blog is about saving money and, in some aspects, the environment. Today's blog is about saving time and energy – human energy, that is. After all, when it comes to rearranging furniture, there can be plenty of both spent. I've found a way to save these less tangible but nevertheless valuable resources. Adapting the idea from some home design shows, I created scale-sized cut-outs of our furniture on (thin) cardboard, and room layouts on graph paper to the same scale. These pieces are saved in an envelope until each redecorating bug hits me. Then, I use these pieces to arrange – and rearrange – furniture, in various orders and groupings, all without straining hubby's muscles...and patience.

To make your own cut-outs and floor plan, you'll need:

  1. Graph paper – I use 1/4-inch (approximately 6mm) [Download PDF file: Graph paper]
  2. Scrap cardboard, thin, non-corrugated – I use old file folders or worn out gift boxes
  3. Tape measure (25')
  4. Pencil
  5. Ruler
  6. Scissors
  7. Paste or glue (optional)

First, you'll need to decide on "scale." On 1/4-inch graph paper, I use the length of three squares to represent one linear foot. (Sorry for the imperial measures but the graph paper is older than my adult children.) Once you have decided on scale you'll need to measure and record the dimensions of all your furniture, appliances, and other items which take up floor-space. You'll only need to measure length and width, as height is irrelevant for most rooms. An exception would be rooms with bulk-heads or built-in cabinetry. You can take height measurements when the situation requires it.

Now, draw scale outlines of each piece of furniture on the graph paper. Trace that outline onto the cardboard, pressing hard to create a visible indentation. Cut out the cardboard pieces and label them (e.g. Sofa, desk, Grandma's side-board, etc.) If you wish, you can paste the graph paper pieces onto the cardboard, and then cut them out.

You'll make each room layout by first measuring and recording their proportions, and then draw those dimensions onto graph paper. If the room is large enough to necessitate it, you might have to tape two pages of graph paper together.

Initially, this project will be time-consuming as you measure, draw, and cut all your furniture pieces and room layouts. However, once they're created, a lot of time and energy can be saved. The only time you'll need to do any part of the scale-modeling process again is when you purchase new furnishings or move.

Finally, using the relevant furniture pieces and room layout, organize any room, moving things around and around until you achieve a pleasing and/or functional configuration. Then, you're ready to move furniture – once only! And, each time you feel the urge to redecorate those scale models are ready. Your helper(s) will thank you for sparing their backs...and tolerance!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Atmospheric Disturbances

Winter stinks. Literally. Cooking aromas, body odours, and laundry pong have nowhere to go so they just hang around. Often times the weather is just too foul to open windows and doors to get fresh air introduced and moving through the home. In colder climes, houseplants would be risked!

There are numerous brands of air fresheners on the market but, for me, their cloying scent is overwhelming. If the intense and artificial fragrance weren't choking enough, most leave an airborne slick of chemicals that, if you have the misfortune to inhale, leaves a bitter taste that lasts hours. Most are worse, even, than the winter reek they're meant to cover up. So, how to keep the home smelling fresh in those closed-home months? There are a few common household products that not only work well, they're thrifty to use, too.

First on my list are houseplants. Depending on the type of plant and its size, they scrub the home's air through the process of photosynthesis (Wikipedia: Photosynthesis.) Plants consume water and carbon dioxide (CO2) and produce oxygen as waste. Their waste is our gain. Not only is the home cleaned of excessive carbon dioxide – which results from merely breathing – they convert that gas into clean air. The more plants you have, the more square footage of household atmosphere they'll clean. Dispersing plants around the home ensures odours have no hiding places.

Lingering food aromas can be the worst offenders. Rather than mask cabbage or fish smells with spray bursts of chemical lavender or citrus, consider using vinegar. Simmering a few ounces of vinegar on the stovetop for 20-30 minutes will clear the air. If you have a piece of cookware (stainless steel or brushed aluminum) which is blue-stained from cooking alkaline foods, you can serve two purposes by using it to simmer the vinegar. The pot will sparkle, and so will the air quality! After a party, a few small bowls of vinegar, strategically placed, will neutralize any funky remains.

Carpets and rugs tend to absorb odours and, when people tread on them, they're released back into the air. An easy solution is to sprinkle carpets and rugs, liberally, with baking soda and let stand for a half hour before vacuuming thoroughly.

Soda is also great for cleaning and refreshing the refrigerator. A tablespoon or two of this common kitchen ingredient in the wash water and fridge odours disappear. Then, leave the remainder of the box open in the fridge to collect odours until the next cleaning. If objectionable smells happen between cleaning, try adding a teaspoon of vanilla extract to couple tablespoons of water, in a small bowl, and put that in the fridge overnight.

For many years, my mother used charcoal to keep her refrigerator smelling sweet. In my opinion, it worked even better than soda. That type of charcoal (small chunk) is hard to find. Some Garden centers or Nurseries may sell it. If you are lucky enough to find this charcoal – I, so far, haven't been – you'll need about a cup of it in a mason jar with a perforated lid. When it no longer cleans the fridge air (usually about twice a year,) spread the charcoal on a baking sheet and heat it in a low oven (approximately 200 F degrees,) for about half an hour or until odours were purged. Then, cool the charcoal, replaced in its jar and back into the fridge. Used, heated, and re-used, time and again, this fridge freshener lasts years.

There are a number of ways to sweeten the air in closets and drawers, as well. I like to store fragrant guest soaps in with clothing to lend them a fresh scent. Cedar chips, balls, and bars, can be used in closets, and won't add intrusive odours to the garments. Homemade sachets, using common herbs and spices, are another easy way to freshen closed spaces. I buy these spices in bulk for much less cost that pre-packaged brands.

If you wish to create ambiance with scent, try simmering your favourite whole spice (most herbs will not work as well in this application,) combined with a cup of water, in a small pot on the stovetop, and simmer off and on throughout the day, adding water as needed. My favourite combination is cinnamon bark and whole clove, which lends a very nice holiday fragrance to the home. At other times, I use fennel seed, whole cardamom, bay leaves, or star anise. Use your imagination. The aromas you'll create will smell – and taste – so much sweeter than any chemical spray. It's a bonus they're thrifty as well!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Don’t Take A Bath On Dry-cleaning

Many of the clothes worn at this time of year are dry-cleanable. For this reason, laundering costs can be far higher in the winter months. Most heavily-structured or "couture" items of clothing – blazers, jackets, gowns – are not able to be washed at home. Their seaming, lining, and/or particular fabric could, and probably would, buckle or bunch. Keep those dry-clean only items out of the laundry! However, some clothing labels merely recommend dry-cleaning while also allowing laundering at home, given a little caution and extra care.

Woollens are one example. Many can be washed at home, but certain cautions must be taken or you'll end up with doll clothes. First, cold water must be used. Even warm water could cause shrinkage. Most delicate fabrics have tags recommending no scrubbing or wringing action should be used when hand-washing. That's why I have a clean toilet plunger I use on laundry only. The plunger gently forces water through the fabric with a gentle cupping action. I'm careful not to plunge completely, though, as the greater pressure can distort fabrics.

Another thing to remember when hand-washing is to rinse thoroughly. Cold water makes it more difficult to get rid of suds, so a couple or few rinses may be required. This is important. If soapy residue remains, fabrics will stiffen and be uncomfortable or irritating on the skin. To help the rinsing process, add a generous amount of white vinegar to the final rinse water. It'll not only help dissolve any remaining soap, it'll soften the clothing, prevent lint from clinging, and neutralize mildew and/or other odours. If you have any sensitivity to wool, you can also add a capful of creme hair rinse to the final rinse water and they will be softer to the touch. Glycerin can be used in place of creme hair rinse, but more will be needed to achieve the same result.

Before washing, test the fabric along the inside seam to ensure the colours won't bleed. If you choose to hand-wash non-colourfast items, make sure to wash them individually to prevent cross-colouring. It's possible to stabilize the colours and prevent fading by adding Epsom salts (1 teaspoon per gallon) to the final rinse.

Drying hand-washed clothes can be challenging, particularly as most cannot be wrung out. Again, I use my handy laundry-plunger to squeeze as much water from the fabric as possible. For clothes that could stretch, you'll want to lay them flat to dry. A blanket or towel works well to absorb the moisture, but the drying item should be kept in a well-ventilated area so the fabric dries as quickly as possible. A fan helps speed the process. A suspended drying rack will greatly improve the drying time by allowing the free flow of air around the garment. For clothes with resilience (non-stretching) hanging them will achieve faster drying but, again, hang in a well-ventilated area and make sure you have a drip catcher in place.

One drawback of hand-washing is the need for ironing. Woollens, of course, won't require ironing, but most other hand-washed garments will. Iron delicate fabrics on a low setting to smooth out any wrinkles. If the material is synthetic, use a piece of brown paper (cut from a grocery bag) between the iron and fabric to prevent shine developing. Ironing with brown paper will also enable a slightly higher temperature if a crease is desired (e.g. dress slacks.)

Although there is money to be saved by hand-washing, the main reason I duck the dry-cleaning is smell: I just can't stand the chemical odours that accost the senses upon entering the shop, and waft off the garments I bring home. So, for me, the greatest bonus of washing clothes by hand is the air-freshening attribute: damp clothes, smelling of mild soap, actually deodorize the room they're hung in. They smell great when worn, too!

Ultimately, the cost of dry-cleaning influences how I shop for clothes. I consider the garment's price to be not only what's printed on the sticker, but its lifetime cost of cleaning, too. Many items of clothing, unable to withstand that cost-analysis, never make it into my closet.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

10 Warming Winter Ways

The snowline is creeping down the mountainside and our new home is getting cooler and draftier. As a woman who's been producing her own heat-waves for a few years, this drop in household temperature is welcome change. However, for hubby, who prefers things warm, it's not a good feature.

So, there's been a minor battle waged over the thermostat. It goes against my frugal nature to turn the furnace up over 20 Celsius. There are other ways to stay warm, I argue. Here's my top-ten list of warming ways for winter living:

  1. Use weather-stripping and caulking to ensure all doors and windows are sealed against drafts.
  2. Sew/buy curtains of heavier-weight fabrics, or add a backing/liner onto existing curtains.
  3. Dress in layers and add or subtract pieces as needed for fluctuations in household temperatures.
  4. Wear slippers, warm socks, and/or indoor footwear – keep the feet warm and the rest is easier to warm.
  5. Close heat registers in and the doors of rooms that are infrequently used.
  6. Use ceiling or stand-alone fans to keep air moving rather than lying in hot and cold pockets around the house.
  7. Use throw blankets in cooler seating areas.
  8. Maintain moderate humidity levels with humidifiers or de-humidifiers, as needed.
  9. On chillier days, consider roasting or baking. An oven heated to moderate temperature is a great source of household heat that, through the use of those aforementioned fans, can disperse throughout a wide area, eliminating the need to bump up the thermostat, and all the while making something delicious.
  10. Another way of staying warm through food is to enjoy soups, stews, and warm drinks. The body's temperature rises during the digestive process anyway, but when that food is braised or boiled, the warmth spreads when you raise a steaming spoonful or mug, and swallow its hot contents.

There are other – ahem – more "adult" ways to stay warm, but those are outside the scope of this blog.

One adult favourite of a tamer variety, is the hot toddy. Like most hot drinks, the warmth begins as soon as hands grip the mug. When the toddy is consumed the magical heat begins, firing belly and body. If you'd like to try this "medicinal approach" just email me with "Hot Drink" in the subject line, and I'll gladly share my recipe for a simple and deliciously sweet mix for hot buttered-rum. It can be served with or without the alcoholic content.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Getting Crafty

This is my busiest period. With sixteen birthdays and three anniversaries occurring between September and January, and Christmas – with all its baking, cooking, decorating and gift-giving – squeezed in there, too, this season is downright frenzied. So, how do I cope?

Mainly, I don't do all the shopping during these months. That would overtax both our budget and schedule. Instead, shopping for gifts, cards and dry foods begins months ahead. In the case of Christmas-gift crafting, immediately after the holidays when seasonal fabrics, notions and decorations go on sale, is when I shop for next year's supplies. Their availability passes with the season and I like to putter at crafts throughout the year.

Birthday cards can be bought ahead, too. Years ago, I found a handy sorting calendar that enables me to take advantage of card sales, and keep them ready for delivery, or mailing, well ahead of their due dates. This lead-time also allows for creation of cards, when I'm inspired to do so. For this purpose, I keep my eyes open, throughout the year, for sales of remnant lace and ribbons, glitter, and decorative stickers.

When it comes to gift-giving, I use a similar tactic but for different reasons. As often happens when birthdays fall in summer or winter, many available items (like clothing, sporting goods, etc.) are very seasonal. By shopping for those gifts at other times of the year, selections are more varied. Also, when shopping ahead for gifts and cards, it's much easier to stick with a budget. Each month we set aside funds for gift-giving and, whether or not an occasion is current, we have money available for those "perfect gifts" when we find them on sale.

By far, though, Christmas poses the greatest gift-giving challenge. It strains the budget, the seasonal mood, and creativity – the latter, in particular, when every store seems to offer the same (mostly useless and cheaply made) merchandise. This is why I like crafting gifts months in advance: it eases the budget; it calms that holiday frenzy; and there's real opportunity to give unique and keepsake-quality gifts.

So, if you like to knit, sew, or scrapbook, and if you want to make Yuletide-themed gifts, this is the time to buy those yarns, fabrics, stencils, baubles, or stickers. You needn't hurry to create with them, either. These supplies will last the year, giving you plenty of opportunity to complete your projects before next winter brings forth a whole new crop of materials to purchase for the following year's holidays.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

It’s No Grind to Grind

In preparation for the recent move, our freezer needed its load lightened. Hubby took some food with him to the new location, leaving me three weeks to consume what I could of the remainder. Fortunately, we'd been reducing our frozen foods over the last few months in anticipation of defrosting and painting the freezer, so little food remained. Certainly, the move came at a fortuitous time.

The situation was paradoxical, though. I wanted the freezer emptied, but the emptier it got, the more stressed I became. There's something very comforting in a freezer filled with meats, fish, bread, stock, and vegetables. It's like a big piggy bank of food in which my mind's eye sees a calendar of meals. The more barren our freezer became, the more my accountant's brain chalked up a growing grocery bill. Having lived through some hard times, a sense of panic gripped me whenever I saw our freezer's diminishing contents.

Now, with the move behind us, one of the first things on our agenda was to start restocking. Our ability to replace all the usual content in one shopping trip was logistically and financially impossible, but we began by buying a few basics. One of which is ground beef. However, we don't buy store-ground meats, for a few reasons.

  1. I was once an accountant for a mall complex including one of its stores, a large grocery market. It was during this employment that I learned what cuts of meat are generally used in ground beef. That knowledge was enough to prompt us to begin grinding our own.
  2. Following close on the heels of that revelation were outbreaks of BSE, e-coli, and salmonella which affirmed our choice to grind meats at home. By grinding a whole hunk of meat, we know it comes from one animal, and we avoid the cross-contamination that is one cause of bacteria and disease spreading. Keeping our equipment clean and sterile assures the ground meats won't be contaminated during processing.
  3. Large, whole pieces of beef (about 25-30 pounds,) usually purchased from a butcher, require a substantial outlay of cash, yet cost per processed pound is ultimately less expensive than store-ground. By choosing a tougher cut of meat (brisket, chuck, etc.,) cost remains low and tougher cuts are perfect for grinding or stewing.
  4. Depending on the butcher, extra aging can sometimes be requested. A well-aged cut will be more expensive, but flavours are intensified and, for dishes in which ground meat is featured, such as grilled hamburgers, the heightened beef flavour may be desired and worth the added cost per pound.

I'm happy to say we found a great butcher shop in the city (Kamloops) and bought a whole beef brisket. It was just over 29 pounds but, by the time we'd trimmed the connective tissue and extraneous fat and ground the meat twice, we ended up with 23 pounds of ground beef and 2-plus pounds of stewing meat. We ended up paying a little less than $3.20 per pound for lean ground beef we feel is safer and tastier. Currently, the cost of lean ground beef at our usual grocery and butcher's markets is $3.99 per pound. The grocer's price for regular grind is $3.69 per pound, and the butcher charges $3.49 per pound. Stewing meat is even more costly. Any way you look at it, we've saved money by expending a little time and energy to grind our own meat.

We're still in the process of moving into our new home, so the connective tissue and fat were grudgingly wasted. Normally, I would've boiled those remnants to render out the suet, which can be then be used as "glue" for seed-balls to feed winter birds. Next time...

Now it's time to restock our stocks. I noticed our new butcher sells marrow bones and stewing hens that look fantastic.

Friday, October 9, 2009

It’s the Little Things

The move is behind us. All that remains now is a maze of boxes to unpack once the cleaning is complete. In the meantime, we make do with a few essentials that were last packed and first unpacked. Among the many things we're currently doing without – they were used for packing material – are cloth napkins. Sure, it's a little thing, but one which makes life comfortable, makes mealtime homier.

For expedience, we're currently using paper napkins and, until this move, I had forgotten just how nice cloth napkins are. Not only do they save on paper use, they're so much softer and face-friendly. Now, some may say laundering napkins has its own environmental impact, and food stains can be hard to remove. Neither argument deters me. First of all, the few napkins we use each week are not enough to over-burden regular laundry loads. In fact, in our two-person household, it's often difficult to make a full load, so the napkins added to smaller loads actually make laundering more efficient. Besides, we don't change napkins for every meal – more on that later. As for stains, I use dark-coloured napkins for meals which might stain the napkins – such as those which include gravies or tomato sauces – and save the light-coloured napkins for meals which aren't likely to stain.

For everyday meals we use simple napkins. In fact, some everyday napkins can be made from salvageable portions of old tea towels or from remnant cloth purchased at fabric stores (usually for much-reduced prices). For entertaining or special occasions, I bring out the nice linens. Inevitably those special linens begin showing signs of wear and discolouration. That's when they become everyday napkins and new linens replace them.

Depending on the type of usage (read: messiness factor,) we don't usually replace the napkins for each meal. Sometimes, napkins will be used for a few days. Napkins rings which are easily differentiated help keep each napkin with its original user. For instance, on our everyday set of napkin rings, I've affixed a sticker to the bottom of one to distinguish the two wooden holders from each other. Guests, of course, get fresh linens and the "good" napkin rings (without stickers).

Now, all I have to do is get the china unpacked so I can free up our napkins. At least I won't have to wash newsprint ink from those dishes!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Relocation Discombobulation

I'm currently in the process of moving – AGAIN – and have made an important discovery during the process: there's a fine line between saving items for re-purposing and hoarding. I confess I've crossed that line.

So, while I sort the stockpiles, this instalment of 'Thriving on Thrift' must be shelved. The next blog will return to its usual bi-weekly time-slot on October 8th.

Now, to decide which jars – in an awesome assortment of sizes! – must be sent to recycling...


Thursday, September 10, 2009

Sizing Up ‘SodaStream’

Recently, a thread of conversation on Twitter caught my attention. The buzz was about a kitchen appliance that enables home-cooks to make their own sodas and seltzer water. The appliance is called SodaStream and is currently manufactured by SodaClub. Little did I know this system was invented back in 1903! For more of its history, check out this Wikipedia Sodastream article. I figured, if this was news to me it might also be news to some TOT readers, so I decided to feature the product in this week's blog.

Actually, I don't drink soda...well, except for the occasional chug from hubby's bottle. It seems soda of any kind makes me swell up like a blowfish, so I usually avoid it. Hubby, on the other hand, can't get through a day without, at least, one "sugar fix" – his words, not mine! That equates to at least one 710ml bottle of cola per day. That's why I found this product so appealing. Though we haven't yet bought one, we plan to, and for a couple reasons. First, there are potential savings to be had with making our own soda. And, second, we can control the amounts of sugar and soda, and the type of sugar used.

To learn more about the product, I asked Twitter-user, FoodieFinds, a few questions. Jodi generously agreed to be interviewed and here is what she had to tell us:

First of all, Jodi is using the 'Fountain Jet' model of SodaStream and – lucky gal – she received it as a gift. The cost for the 'Fountain Jet' is $99.95 US$, and includes the Soda maker, 110-litre carbonator and two carbonating bottles. The web-site offers varying models in starter kits, as well as soda mixes, gas refills, extra bottles, and other accessories. All prices Jodi quotes in the interview are in US$.


Now, to the interview...


QUESTION: Can you tell readers how the machine operates, and whether it is user-friendly?

ANSWER: I find the SodaStream machine to be extremely user-friendly. It sets up in about 5 minutes. Well-designed and easy to use. Takes about 30 seconds to create carbonated, flavoured water or soda from plain water. I was a bit trepidatious
about the pressurized CO2, but it seems quite safe and stable. Once initial set-up is complete, creating plain or flavoured seltzer, or sodas, is as simple as:

1) Fill the provided 1-litre bottles with tap or filtered water & chill.

2) Take chilled 1-litre bottle, push tilt lever, screw bottle onto machine & release tilt lever.

3) Pump the carbonation button 3 times, releasing after each "buzz." (Note: You can carbonate more or less, according to your taste.)

4) Remove 1-litre bottle from machine. Add any desired flavouring, cap bottle, and rock gently to mix.

5) Enjoy your homemade soda!


QUESTION: What are your opinions of the quality and variety of syrups they offer?

ANSWER: The quality of the syrups is higher than your standard soda brands in that they are not made with high fructose corn syrup. SodaStream seems to offer a wide variety of syrups, everything from diet root beer to "faux-Fresca" – even a "Red Bull"-style energy syrup.


QUESTION: I know you've created a few of your own syrups. How did you do this, and what were the results?

ANSWER: Loved the results I have achieved creating my own syrups. I'm what you would call a "frugal foodie." I love pushing the envelope with my flavour combinations, but I still like to minimize the costs by buying whatever fruits, herbs, etc. are on sale and/or in season. Syrups I have created thus far: cantaloupe, rhubarb, sriracha-lime, honeydew, strawberry-basil, lychee-ginger, and orange-coriander. Creating syrups could not be easier. Just use a basic simple syrup recipe (1:1 ratio of water to sugar.) Put water and sugar in a saucepan, heat until all sugar is dissolved. Reduce heat to low, add fruit, herbs, etc. Let simmer for 10-15 minutes, remove from heat & let cool. Pour through a strainer into a bowl. Make sure to squeeze all of the liquid out of the fruit. Put the liquid into a squeeze bottle or Tupperware container and refrigerate for up to a week or so. To be extra frugal, I take the reserved pulp/fruit and use it over Greek yogurt as a quick & healthy take-to-work breakfast. You could also use the reserved pulp/fruit as a starter to make chutney.


QUESTION: What is your average cost per bottle using the bought syrup?

ANSWER: I have not depleted my first CO2 canister yet, but according to the documentation, you are supposed to get 110 litres of carbonation out of each canister. The replacement canisters are listed on the SodaStream website at $21.99 each, so I figure that the carbonation portion costs about $0.20 per 1-litre. The purchased soda syrups are listed on the SodaStream website at $4.99 and are supposed to make 12 litres, so the purchased flavour cost is approximately $.41 per bottle. This brings the total for a carbonated, purchased-flavour 1-litre bottle of soda to approximately $.61 per bottle. The unsweetened seltzer flavour bottles come in packs of 3 for $9.99, and each bottle makes 20 litres. Therefore, the purchased cost for seltzer is $.17 per bottle. This brings the total for a carbonated, purchased flavour 1-litre bottle of seltzer to approximately $.37 per bottle.


Now before you start saying – wait a minute – I can buy store brand 2L bottles of soda on sale for that much, remember that the SodaStream flavours have no high fructose corn syrups. If you make your own syrups, you also have no artificial ingredients or flavourings, and you get some vitamins/minerals from your choice of fruit. Another big selling point for the SodaStream is that you no longer have to lug heavy bottles home from the grocery store, and you are also being more "green" by minimizing your plastic use.


QUESTION: What is your average cost per bottle using the home-made syrups?

ANSWER: Again, the carbonation portion costs about $.20 per 1-litre. The homemade syrup cost varies widely depending on the cost of the ingredients. I use approximately 2 cups of water and two cups of sugar for each syrup mixture, at an average cost of $.15. However, tart fruits require more sugar (rhubarb, lemon, etc.), and sweeter fruits require less (strawberries, cantaloupe, etc.) The cost of the ingredients could be anywhere from $.99 for a cantaloupe on sale, to $4-$5 for out-of-season or exotic fruits, herbs, etc. I keep my costs down by buying in season and on sale. I also have an Aero-Garden, so I grow year-round most of the fresh herbs that I use (mint, lemon-basil, basil, cilantro, etc.) If you are lucky enough to have a fruit tree or berry bush on your property, then your fruit cost would be zero.


Depending on the amount of syrup produced, the concentration of the syrup, and your personal sweetness preference, you can get anywhere from 4-10 1-litre bottles from each batch of syrup. Therefore, you can potentially make your own flavoured sodas for as little as $.35 with the SodaStream machine. However, I would say that the average price would be about $.50 per 1-litre bottle. An even simpler way to do it (albeit not as fresh), is to get canned fruit in heavy syrup. Then you simply put the can & syrup into a pan, heat it up, simmer, and follow the rest of the instructions above. If you get canned fruit on sale and/or with coupons, you might be able to get your total 1-litre cost down to $.30 or so.


QUESTION: How would you compare the SodaStream syrup flavour with commercial sodas?

ANSWER: So far, I have tried only a few of the SodaSteam syrup flavours. I initially thought both the Diet Cola and Diet Pete (their version of Diet Dr. Pepper) syrups were too sweet, but I experimented with different ratios of syrup and carbonation. What I found is that the perfect "formula" for my personal tastes is:

  • For all sodas: 2/3 as much SodaStream syrup as recommended, 4 pumps of carbonation (instead of the standard 3.) This works out to about $.58 per 1-litre
  • For flavoured seltzers: recommended amount of flavouring and 3 pumps of carbonation
  • I suggest your readers start with the recommended ratios, but then experiment with more or less syrup/flavoring and more or less carbonation to find their perfect "formula."
  • The SodaStream syrups/flavorings I have enjoyed the most are:
    • the diet pink grapefruit is by far my favorite (supposed to be like Fresca.)
    • the diet cranberry-raspberry is also very good
    • the diet root beer & root beer are good
    • the "cola" based drinks (diet cola, diet Pete's Choice, Pete's Choice, etc.) are OK but don't compare favorably with my favorite commercial brand so I use the cola syrups as "back-up" only, then I don't need to run to the store when I run out.
    • the seltzer unsweetened flavorings are no different than those I purchase at the store. I liked all of these: berry, orange, & lemon-lime.


QUESTION: Do you have any other comments about the SodaStream for readers?

ANSWER: If you want to feel like a kid again, cut out high fructose corn syrups, be more "green", and serve healthier drinks to your family, you can't go wrong with the SodaStream. Also, at this point in the week (2 days before recycling goes out), my recycling bins are usually overflowing with soda & seltzer bottles. Instead, I now have exactly 6 bottles in my recycling bin - a visual reminder of how the SodaSteam helps us be more "green."


Thank you, Jodi, for this wealth of information! I'll be watching for further updates from you on Twitter (FoodieFinds). Now, I can hardly wait to get our own SodaStream and begin experimenting with our own flavours!


Upon researching this product for Canadian customers, I found the following caveat: Shipping gas canisters to Canada has been a problem, but should resume September –October 2009. For details on this, go to: Chiron Canada website

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Storage & Preservation of Produce & Cheese

Last week, a reader asked about veggie and cheese storage, expressing the concern that these perishables often spoil before they can be used. That concern is shared by many. Annually, in Canada and the U.S., several million tons of food is thrown away. At a cost of several hundred dollars, on average, per household, these statistics are alarming. Two rules of thumb can alleviate much of this waste.

  1. When it comes to shopping for perishables (particularly produce,) buy only what is needed and can be consumed in a few days. This may mean more frequent visits to the grocery store, but you'll enjoy fresher produce and avoid spoilage of a stockpile. Most produce requires a cool atmosphere and a fridge not filled to capacity actually works more efficiently, allowing internal air to circulate better and preventing pockets of cooler or warmer air from forming. Those over-chilled or -warm conditions can be very detrimental to the longevity of both produce and cheese.


  2. When storing perishables, avoid washing them until they are to be used. Many vegetables and fruits have natural oils or have been sprayed with protective (and neutral) waxy coatings which help preserve them. Washing removes those oils and/or coatings, making the produce much more vulnerable to spoilage. If the product has excessive dirt on it, simply brush the soil from it with a soft cloth and then store. When ready to use, the produce can be washed. Check out this very informative article Fruit & Veggie Washes by "The Grocery Bags," Anna Wallner and Kristina Matisic. Their findings support my own experience.


Though these two rules will help avoid most produce spoilage, there is another concern when storing fruit and vegetables and that is whether the product needs to be stored in the fridge, at room temperature, with ventilation or without, or in darkness. While researching this, I came across an excellent article on SparkPeople which included this comprehensive and easy to read chart: Fruit & Veggie Storage Chart .

When it comes to cheese, the situation is not as clear. Some argue cheese needs an airy environment, while others argue ventilation is death for cheese. It turns out, both are true. It depends on the cheese, which is a living food, much like yogurt. During research, I found an article – directed towards food service professionals (recommendations by The Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board and Wisconsin Cheese Makers,) – which answers this question, in all its complexity: Cheese Storage Tips.

I've heard other tips on preserving foods, but none of them have proved successful for me. One such recommendation says: to preserve bananas' freshness, they should be separated from the bunch. I ran three experiments on this suggestion, using three different bunches of bananas in varying weather conditions. In each experiment, I separated a few of the bananas from the bunch, and left the remaining bananas attached. Each time, all bananas, whether separate or attached, appeared to mature at the same rate, and their taste confirmed this. We do live in a very arid climate, so I'm not sure if this skewed the results or not. You might wish to perform your own experiments.

One handy hint I learned from my mother is to freeze produce that is deteriorating, but not yet spoiled, and use those veggies in a stock. The flavours may not be as high as fresh vegetables would produce, but those wilted products won't be thrown into a landfill where they'd be completely wasted. A compost pile is another good place for (most) produce that has passed its prime.

If you have ideas or suggestions you wish to share on this subject, please leave a comment.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Burnt Offerings

You're cooking dinner when your child falls, the phone rings, or someone knocks at the door. Distractions happen and meals get scorched. It's frustrating but, most times, unavoidable.

What really rankles, though, is when nothing diverts our attention and still supper becomes burned. For someone as thrifty-minded as me, it's intolerable. Throwing food out is entirely contrary to my notions of economy.

So what's a frugal person to do?

I suggest giving a critical look at the quality of your pots and pans. Cheaper is not always better, nor more economic. For instance, I once bought the cheapest can opener thinking I was saving money. After two years, however, I had bought three of those cheap openers, and about to buy the fourth. Irksome, to say the least. The next opener I bought was about five times the cost of the inexpensive opener and I worried I was spending too much on it. That "expensive" can opener has lasted (dare I say it!) about thirty years. If I'd continued buying the cheaper openers, at the rate they were wearing out and/or breaking, I would have bought approximately twenty of them during that time, and spent four times the money! So, value is often found in the pricier make, and cost can be greater with the cheaper model.

Pots and pans are a good case, in point. When I first moved out on my own, all I could afford was the cheapest aluminum and stainless steel. With those pots and pans, I managed to scorch and burn countless meals. Food stuck. Cleaning was a nightmare of cleansers and scrubber pads. Sometimes, they even required special treatment. (How to Treat Burned Pots and Pans)

Then, about fifteen years ago, my hubby and I received some higher quality pots as a gift. Lo and behold, our meals stopped charring. Could it be I wasn't an abominable cook after all?

Over the next few years, we slowly replaced all our cookware with high quality (mostly 18-10 stainless steel,) pots and pans and, now, the only meal disasters happen when those aforementioned distractions occur. The new pans clean up easily, too; usually with a cloth only.

Now, given my proclivity for avoiding waste, many of those early meals, though scorched, were trimmed and eaten. So, not all the food was wasted. But they weren't enjoyed, either. I also discovered, years too late, that burnt food can be bad for you. (Why Is Burnt (burned) Food Bad For You?)

Now, our meals cook beautifully and are delicious. Best of all, the trash no longer devours burnt offerings. We've saved a good deal of groceries simply by upgrading our cookware. In fact, I would hazard to say the savings are nearing the price we paid for the good quality pots and pans.

So, if your meals are singeing and you're tired of scouring burnt rice from the bottom of the pot, consider buying better quality cookware. Your grocery budget, your health and, most likely, your family will thank you for it.

,

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Whole Goodness

Whole foods are generally considered to be foods which have not been chemically or genetically treated, foods that are natural and in the raw state, and have not been pared, polished, or otherwise processed. While organic foods are becoming increasingly popular, I have not included that criterion in the following article simply due to their greater cost. Some may argue (as I have with a certain cheese) that organic foods have value and thereby bridge the cost-to-savings ratio.

Perhaps one of the best ways to save money on the grocery budget is to buy foods whole. Savings are only part of that equation, though. Whole foods, in many cases, offer better flavours and, in some instances, higher nutritive values and/or improved quality over their processed alternatives.

Here are some examples:

  • Spices: Nutmeg, peppercorns, coriander, mustard and allspice are a few examples of spices that can be bought in their whole form. The seed is nature's way of sealing in essential oils and flavonoids. By grinding or grating them, as needed, fragrance and flavours are significantly enhanced, and that does wonders for any dish they're seasoning. Some roots (e.g. licorice) and barks (e.g. cinnamon) also retain more of their goodness but can be hard to process without an electric grinder. A mortar and pestle work well for most seeds, nuts, and leaves, though, and allow you to control the grinding process for the perfect texture and/or consistency.
  • Ground Meats: With all the recalls and salmonella scares over the last few years, we've begun buying whole cuts of grass-fed, free-ranged beef (and fresh turkey) and grinding at home. Our savings aren't significant, but we have greater peace of mind knowing the ground beef comes from one animal and does not include questionable-meat "trimmings." ('Grassfed' beef article & recipes) To save on the purchase of suet, we buy whole chuck, which has a good amount of fat. Any excess can be trimmed, but we seldom find that necessary. Another benefit of buying whole meats and processing them at home is that it allows you to apportion package sizes to suit your family's needs.
  • Cheese: Pasta and pizza just wouldn't be the same without Parmesan. The popular processed varieties are easy to use, but their flavour, smell, and texture can be off-putting. We purchase blocks of Parmigiano-Reggiano – the "King" of cheeses – and grind or slice it as needed. Much like spice, this fresh-grated cheese has better flavour and fragrance. There is little, if any, saving when buying this brand over the processed but the culinary value, for us, is significant. That and fresh Parmesan actually melts on a pizza!
  • Fruits and Vegetables: Probably one of the best ways to economize a grocery budget is to buy produce whole. Pared fruits and vegetables cost much more, suffer vitamin degradation, and many are chemically treated to enable longer shelf-life as most processed produce will spoil faster. (Ontario government: Minimally-processed fruit & veg, risk assessment) Processed fruits and vegetables are more susceptible to pre-purchase contamination, also. Whole produce may require a little more preparation time (re: paring and/or peeling,) but their trimmings have value in a stock pot or compost pile. Both "free" veggie stock and rich loamy soil have real worth, too.
  • Coffee: Budget may be the last thing on your mind when reaching for that morning cup o' Joe, but this is another way to stretch your grocery dollars. Pound for pound, coffee beans are (generally) less expensive than most ground varieties. As with spices, the coffee bean is a tidy little flavour packet that, when ground fresh, offers significantly enhanced flavours...not to mention, caffeine punch.

Aside from budgetary issues, we buy whole foods because we prefer the taste and aroma. Purchasing fruits, vegetables and meats whole has also spared us from many of the Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria outbreaks in recent years.

If you're concerned about your food's goodness, consider purchasing whole foods. The economic gain will be a cherry on top!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Containment

One bane of shopping, for me, is packaging. Whether for food or household, need or want, nearly everything comes bagged, bottled, canned, clipped, encased, or otherwise contained. Usually in plastic and often excessively.

It's the plethora of plastic packaging that has me worried. Recent studies on the endocrine-disrupting chemical bisphenol-A (BPA) – used in plastics and for coating the inside of many cans (Toxic Nation article) – heightened consumer caution about certain plastics. Yet, even with this new restraint, bloated landfills still suffer daily infusions of plastic. Their durability is daunting, but the propensity for them to leach toxic chemicals is downright alarming, particularly when those plastics lay in landfills where they're sure to get plenty of sun and hostile weather. I wonder how much BPA already infuses water-tables.

In an effort to contain the problem, to apply thrift to this (largely unavoidable) consumerism, our household has adopted new purchasing habits, one of which is to scrutinize packaging. The less of it, the better. Un-packaged products get priority consideration but, sadly, that opportunity seldom occurs. Quantity and type of packaging material are then taken into account. Paper, glass and metal are preferred to plastic for both re-usability and recyclability.

Paper has many reuse options. Tissue paper is ideal for wrapping delicate items. Brown-paper, grocery-store bags are not only excellent insulators for frozen and refrigerated foods in transit, later they become "biodegradable" trash bags. Boxes can be used for storage or shipping. Cardboard is great material for certain crafts and easily recyclable. Over-sized department store bags, cut open, make good wrap for parcel shipping. I've even created a few sewing patterns with this sturdy paper product. Small bags work well for food ripening and storage. Contaminated paper, such as used butcher's wrap, is thrown away like its cellophane counterpart but, unlike plastic wrap, will eventually decompose. Computer paper and flyers, used on one side, is saved, cut into strips, and becomes "scratch pads."

When I was young, paper bags were commonly used in kitchen waste-baskets, with "sloppy" things flushed, or stowed in tin cans (which weren't recycled then) or empty dairy containers. Store-bought, waxed-paper bags were my mother's first choice, but brown-paper bags came in a close second. When I have them available I use the latter, but the former are no longer sold. Yes, our week's refuse would still go to the curb in a one large plastic bag – civic regulations insist they be used, even in curb-side garbage cans – and, yes, the kitchen waste-basket needs cleaning more frequently, but these factors don't diminish the possibility that, once a week, 6-10 plastic bags (the usual liner for household waste-baskets,) aren't exiled, evermore, to a refuse site. Unfortunately, paper bags are not used by many stores today, so it's difficult to keep enough on hand for regular use.

Jars are exceptional packaging with good re-use and recycling potential. Glass makes the perfect food storage container because, being inert material, it won't impart synthetic, "acquired," or metallic flavours like plastic or tin often do. They also make great vessels for reheating food: in a conventional oven on moderate settings; on stovetop in a saucepan of simmering water; and, in the microwave without the metal lid. Occasionally, "re-sealable" jar lids retain odours from their original contents and won't be viable for food storage...unless you like pickle-infused rice. I don't, so those jars are used for miscellany purposes: storing screws, string, socket safety-plugs, collections of unidentified keys, copious rubber bands and twist-ties, or just something to clean paint-brushes in.

Tin cans are especially useful for hot or cold items. If you save bacon or other meat drippings for cooking or bird-feeding purposes, and store it in the refrigerator, food-grade cans handle the dramatic fluctuations of temperature the best, and hot fats won't shatter or melt tin as it might do with glass or plastic. Just make sure the can's interior isn't plastic-coated.

When re-use isn't possible, most paper, glass, and tin are recyclable. There are a few municipalities which offer recycling for some plastics but, where we live, no plastics are recycled so we avoid them as much as possible. Sometimes, they're inescapable, though. That's when we look for re-purposing applications. The travel-sized shampoo and conditioner bought years ago were consumed long ago, but those bottles have been refilled, time and again, from our home supply. Dairy containers keep craft supplies sorted and dry. Remember, when reusing plastic containers, it's advisable they do not store edibles. Though it may seem impossible, our household has gone without plastic wrap for two decades. Paper, cloth, or glass has been used instead.

Bulk shopping is another way to reduce plastics. For example, buying meat in economy packs rather than two-portion packs saves more than money. Six (or more) Styrofoam plates and their wrapping are reduced to one platter and its wrap which are composed of significantly less plastic. Re-packaging at home will, of course, require other packaging material, but we use freezer wrap (a heavy brown paper, wax-coated on one side) which will decompose when discarded. We don't purchase any "individual-use" packets, preferring instead to buy full- or bulk-sized packages and apportion servings ourselves, thus eliminating the extraneous wrapping.

Ultimately, there are some products we won't buy due to excessive packaging. It's obscene to see a couple square-feet of plastic encasing a finger-sized thingamajig. Security and shelving efficiency are two reasons offered for this packaging trend. Whatever the reasons, our household boycotts these superfluously-encased items. If those doodads are too fragile, perilous, or costly, then I suggest putting them back into showcases. And, please Mr/s. Manufacturer, spare us the farce: don't boast about environmentally-friendly production plants and procedures while continuing to package merchandise in ominously enduring plastic.

And that's a wrap on my packaging rant!

What are your views on retail packaging? Do you have unique reuse ideas? Have you any empowering observations to share with fellow consumers?

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Summer Cooking

Okay, call me crazy, but summer isn't my favourite season. I don't suffer scorching days and humid nights easily, and get especially frazzled when they stretch, one upon the next, for weeks on end. It's because of this, cooking – which I normally love doing – becomes a dreaded chore. Standing over the stove, adding even more heat to an already over-warm house, ratchets up my level of exhaustion. Hours later, that heat still lingers, too. I'd fast if summer didn't last so long.

For this reason, most of our summer cooking is done outdoors, on the barbeque. It's surprising just how much of the day's meals can be prepared on an outdoor grill. Ours is a propane model, which is not a favourite amongst many grilling aficionados but it works fastest and easiest as stove-top replacement. Even without using the side-burner, the grill top can function well as a cooking surface. Cast iron pans, grills, and griddles, as well as heavy-gauge metal pots and pans (with heat resistant handles) work well on the grill top, which happens to also be one of the best places to cook pizzas, in my opinion.

An added bonus of cooking this way is the economy of it. I stumbled upon this saving when comparing our household energy costs for the same months in other years when the stovetop was still being used. Energy costs had changed, obviously, so I evaluated the savings by kilowatt hours. The difference was significant. Then, I calculated the dollar savings and compared that with the total cost of propane refills over the same season, and found using the barbeque cost us about half of what our energy supplier would have charged us had we cooked indoors on the stove. The difference was so stark I actually did the calculations twice, just to be sure.

Not everything needs cooking, either. One of my favourite summer drinks, homemade iced tea, would normally require making fresh, hot tea, but can also be made using the sun's heat. Here's my version of "Sun Tea":

  • In a 2-quart glass jar, use two (or more) teabags, depending on desired strength, immersed in a gallon of tap water (or filtered water, if necessary.)
  • Add to this, half a lemon, sliced thinly.
  • After sealing the jar, place on a doorstep, porch, or sunny window ledge, to "steep" under a hot sun for about five hours, minimum.
  • When the tea has reached its desired strength, remove the lemon and teabags and add sugar, to taste, while the fluid is still hot.
  • Stir until sugar is dissolved and then chill the tea thoroughly before serving.

Cheers to staying cool!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Road Trip Anyone?


With summer solstice just around the corner, vacations come to mind. Times being what they are, road trips may just be the thriftiest option for a summer getaway, too. They're wonderful adventures with many opportunities to stretch your travel dollars.

For us, savings begin before leaving home. About a week before any trip, we begin emptying the refrigerator of all fresh foods and leftovers – a sparsely packed fridge uses much less energy and we don't come home to UFO's (unidentifiable fungal organisms.) When leaving the house, we also close drapes and blinds on south facing windows; the house remains cool enough to allow the air conditioner to be shut off during our absence. In seasons when heating is necessary, the thermostat is turned down to the usual overnight minimum (approximately 15 Celsius.)

Once we're ready to hit the road, hubby checks the vehicle's fluid levels (engine oil, windshield washer, brake and transmission fluids,) and ensures the tires are at their correct pressure. The latter is particularly important for achieving good fuel economy. Running the vehicle's air conditioner will affect mileage so, when the heat isn't too intense, we roll down windows – lowered a few centimetres this cools the vehicle effectively with slightly better fuel efficiency than when using the air conditioner.

Aside from lodging, meals are often one of the most costly aspects of the road trip. With a little planning, this can not only be easier on the pocketbook, but offer great flavours and good nutritional value. Picnic lunches are fairly easy to scrape together: veggie and cheese sticks, simple salads, nuts and seeds, fruits and juices, all are easy to pack and prepare on the road. Bring a cooler to help keep food fresh and beverages cold. Ice can be bought at most gas stations. I bring along a small cutting board, a paring knife and a plastic bowl so I can wash and cut finger foods for each day's journey.

Another handy item is a water filtration jug, a spare filter and a sealable water jar. Keep the sealable jar filled with the filtered water and snuggled up against the ice pack so you'll always have cold water on hand. Insulated cups will keep beverages cold or hot once they're out of the cooler or thermos. Morning coffee, for us, is a must, so we pack a full thermos from home, which can then be refilled at most restaurants and some gas bar convenience stores, with more volume for less cost than two large cups. I also bring a small container of sugar and cutlery from home, so we have coffee for a few hours without having to stop.

Packing a picnic lunch really adds to the whole road trip experience, too. Those gorgeous highway "lookout" views can now be enjoyed with a nice meal. No waiting for restaurant service or food prep. A stunning setting and a good lunch quicker than any fast-food outlet can produce. And, if destination is more important than journey for you then, by packing a lunch, you don't have to stop at all to eat. The driver may snivel while others partake but, after a brief stop to rotate drivers, everyone gets to eat while safe-driving is maintained.

The only drawback with packing food is the possibility of spoilage. When travelling in a hot vehicle, even with the best cooler and ice, it's good to avoid certain foods which can easily spoil and cause serious illness or death. Salads with a mayonnaise-based dressing should top the avoid list. Salads with oil and vinegar base dressings travel much better. Eggs and meats can also cause dire sickness unless freshly cooked, specially packaged, dried, cured, or pickled. Though, you certainly won't catch me bringing pickled eggs on any road trip!

Once you've finished lunch you'll want to clean up. I bring a damp facecloth, one per person, and each in their own sealed bag. Some rest stops have water taps but, if none are available, the filtered water can be used to re-moisten the cloths as needed. I also pack a bar of laundry soap so the cloths can be cleaned each night. These cloths also come in handy when it gets too hot. Simply dampen and drape it around your neck to stay noticeably cooler.

If a limited budget is driving your road trip, remember that frequent stops gobble more fuel. Fluctuating speed, slowing for municipal speed-zones or simply leaving your vehicle idling while stopped, consumes more fuel. So, if you're looking for the best fuel economy, try keeping "pit-stops" to a minimum, and maintain a steady highway driving speed whenever possible.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Rags to Niches

The debate still continues over the use of rags versus paper towels. In our home, it's not a case of either/or. Both are used; rags far more often than paper towels, but the latter is on hand for specific purposes.

Sometimes, it's more cost-effective to dispose of towelling. For instance, I use paper to soak up oil from fried foods, or "mop" fats from stock – as we seldom fry foods and only occasionally make stock only a few towels per week are required. To use rags would mean washing them separately to avoid oily stains on other clothing – not very economical, nor environmentally friendly. At other times, is just safer using paper to clean up raw meat juices or spilled egg. Rags could easily contaminate other surfaces prior to their laundering, possibly causing dire illness. Disposing of an occasional towel lessens the risk so I'll continue using paper for this purpose.

Rags, however, are my first choice for most other household applications. Some people feel the "environmental cost" (EC) of laundering rags negates any advantage they might have over paper towels. In our home, rags are never washed separately, but with other "like" items (per their colour and/or soiling,) thus making those loads closer to capacity and thereby saving EC in the long run. It should also be noted that saving cloth from ending up in a landfill before it's been fully "consumed" must also have some merit.

All rags are not created equal, though. I once cut up an old sweatshirt to use for rags. The material – a poly-cotton blend – only pushed fluids around but wouldn't soak up anything...except oils. A-ha! I thought. Now, polyester blends are kept in a separate pile and used anytime there's a greasy mess to clean. Old towels and washcloths are perfect for polishing glass and plastic surfaces – after all, kitchen linens were made for this purpose. Old bath towels make the best soakers, for those larger spills like the dreaded toilet or bathtub overflows. Cotton-blend socks are fantastic additions to the rag bag. Worn on the hand(s), they work well for dusting or polishing small items. They're ideal shoe buffers and, when too soiled, instead of washing and perhaps ruining other laundry items, can be used as campfire "starters." Just make sure to store them in a closed tin, in a cool place, until needed. Just don't cook over that campfire until all trace of the "starter" has been burned away.

Second-hand cloth can be used for more than merely rags. I take old jeans apart and use the salvageable cloth to sew tote bags. Old pillowcases are used as storage bags and are particularly good for foods which require ventilation (e.g. onions.) "Retired" sheets could produce a dozen rags, but are used for another purpose. I cut them, across their width, into one-foot strips and then sew those strips onto the foot end of new sheets to extend their length – most sheets are just way too short for my liking! Nobody sees the mismatching foot end, and we end up with sheets long enough to fold over the top blanket.

As someone who sews, I also have a collection of remnant cloth. This doesn't go to waste either. Quilting is a possibility, but I've yet to learn that craft. So, to use those fabrics I recently made cosmetic pads with some leftover fleece sandwiched between two layers of poplin. Using a zigzag stitch, I sewed rows and columns, approximately 1-1/2 inches wide, separated by about 1/8 inch to allow cutting between them. These cosmetic pads have lasted several months now and launder well (though I put them in a "small-garment bag" to ensure the washer won't eat them.),

Ultimately, even rags become too threadbare for practical use. Don't throw them out yet, though. Laundered, they make excellent packing material.

Over time, this has become like a game: How else can second-hand cloth be of use? Do you play the Rag-time game too? Please leave a comment and share your cloth-recycling ideas.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Confessions of a Stocker

I admit it. I'm a stocker. It all started innocently enough with a simple home-made chicken soup, but quickly escalated to stocking rice pilaffs, wine reductions and seafood chowders. It's become an obsession. I can't shop for certain groceries without envisioning their stocking potential.

Ham – joint-in of course – makes a delicious stock for split-pea soup. A turkey is mentally stripped of its roasted meat, its carcass tossed in a stock pot with Mirepoix (onions, celery and carrots.) A whole fish or in-the-shell shellfish and I fantasize about Bouillabaisse.

But this is more than just another foodie obsession. Stocking is frugal activity. No, really! If you want healthy, flavourful meals on a budget, then stocking is the way to achieve it. Good stock not only enhances the flavour of meals, the natural gelatine has wonderful health benefits. Perhaps the most frugal aspect of stocking is that nothing goes to waste. Any leftover bones with a little meat on them can provide a few cups of stock that could later enhance some ramen noodles with veg. When vegetables age faster than they're eaten, they can be tossed into a stock pot together with some onion, celery and carrot, and brewed into a completely vegetarian stock – a light and flavourful addition to brown rice pilaf.

For beef stock, alone, I buy bone. However, the cost of good soup bones varies radically, so I make my purchase when the quality is highest – good amount of meat on or marrow in the bones – and when prices are lowest. Meaty beef bones need browning in a hot oven before being added to Mirepoix and water, and produce high amounts of gelatine. On the rare occasion I find a bone-in beef roast, the leftovers are sure to hit the stock pot, though usually produce less gelatine than soup bones.

Brown stocks are made from cooked-meat and bones and clear stocks are made with raw-meat and bones, the latter producing greater amounts of gelatine. A whole stewing fowl – excellent flavour for much less cost (and fat skimming) than a fryer – can make several cups of clear stock and be price-competitive with popular store brands. Turkey legs can be a cost-effective choice for making clear turkey stock. Recently, we found whole, fresh turkeys and were able to butcher them at home. The breasts became roasts, the best leg, wing and back meat was run through the grinder to become lean and hearty turkey burger, and the remaining carcass went into a stock pot. That bird yielded two roasts (which, bought separately, would've cost the equivalent price of the whole turkey,) six pounds of burger, and sixteen cups of wiggly-giggly gold: clear turkey stock.

I won't stock in summer, though – that season is steamy enough! But, once stocking becomes obsession, even summer can't stop the yearning. And, not just any stock will do. Nothing – and I mean nothing! – compares to home-made stock. Store brands may do, in a pinch, but their flavours and textures are bland. If you want superior taste and texture, then home-made stocks produce the rich gelatine most store brands lack. Gelatine not only carries flavour molecules on a silky, savoury base, it's rich in valuable nutrients. Without the gelatine, flavours are elusive and the texture watery.

Water, however, is the base of every stock and quality must be considered. If your tap water tastes funky, the stock will too. Filtering water can solve this problem, so plan ahead and have 12-20 cups ready. About a half-hour into the simmer, impurities in the meat and bone will rise to the surface in the form of foam. Gently skim this from the surface. This process can take a long while but, once impurities no longer rise, seasoning can be added according to the base protein or featured vegetable. Bouquet Garni, a collection of complimentary herbs tied together with string, provide aromatic notes and subtler flavours than most spices. Flavours intensify as the stock reduces during its cooking time and, while certain seasonings are important additions, they should be used sparingly or whole. For instance, whole peppercorns add a subtler flavour and less heat than ground pepper will. Salt is essential in drawing out flavours but, as stocks are primarily ingredients in other dishes, limiting salt when making them better enables adjusting that common seasoning in those future dishes.

Stock freezes well, too. Up to three to four months. Remember to label and date the containers and cycle your stock for maximum freshness.

Those containers of gelatinous goodness will come in handy on cooler summer days – that's when my craving for risotto hits hardest. I'm stocking up now, before summer's swelter sets in. I figure several containers each of turkey, chicken, and beef stock, should get me through the season's comfort-food crises.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Bulking Up

No, this post has nothing to do with Hans and Franz from Saturday Night Live. No weight pumping is involved, though that may depend on how literally you apply the following information.

In today's tough economic times, finding bargains is crucial to reduced home-budgets. But, bargain hunting is more than just coupon cutting and daily specials. Next time you're looking for great deals, check out the bulk-sized options at wholesale retailers. Buying in bulk can be one of the most resourceful ways to stay on-budget.

For examples of this, I chose five brand name (popular) items I buy regularly at a wholesale retailer to compare pricing. Here are those price comparisons (in Canadian dollars):

Product

@ Regular Store pricing

@ Bulk pricing

Toilet Bowl cleaner

1/2 cent per ml.

1/4 cent per ml.

OTC* Pain medication

11 cents per caplet

7 cents per caplet

Dishwasher detergent

$3.60 per litre

$2.30 per litre

Aluminum Foil

$1.81 per metre

21 cents per metre

Bar soap (sensitive skin)

$1.75 per bar

$1.38 per bar

*OTC = Over-the-counter

Similar comparisons also apply to food and other household products such as small appliances, stationery, and clothing. Some savings are not as great as others. The aluminum foil, for instance, offers far greater savings than the bar soap. The key to saving through bulk-buying is to buy only the products you use frequently and in significant amounts.

Some people won't buy in bulk for various reasons: 1) the initial cost at the check-out seems too high; 2) the space needed to store bulk purchases can be an issue for some; and 3) worry about spoilage. All these are legitimate concerns.

Speaking to the first issue, I'll just say that price comparison is the key. Not all bulk purchases are created equal. You'll need to do your homework to discover whether or not your bulk choices are truly a bargain. Generally, though, you'll obtain more products for less cost in the long term. Thus, a certain amount of fore-sight is required. However, you won't have to shop for those products as often – a real "plus" for our budget, as we must travel far to do our shopping and include fuel costs as part of the overall equation.

The storage-space problem is one I can easily relate to. I'm often tempted by spectacular savings to over-stock our home to the point of its groaning "Enough!" Impulse control is essential!

It's also just as important the watch "best before" dates, rotating home-stocked items accordingly. And, though it can be hard to resist certain bargains, I've learned to buy only what can readily be stored and used up in good time. That said, you'd be surprised how many nooks and crannies can be found to store things...

If spoilage is a concern, then that particular product may not offer good economy for your family. We have access to flour by the bushel, at well under half the cost of the 20# grocery store bags, but couldn't possibly use it all before it turned rancid. Nor could we hope to store that quantity. If most of the product spoils, little or no saving is actually gained.

So, when buying in bulk, remember these tips:

  1. Check your stored items to ensure you won't buy too much (re: storage & spoilage)
  2. Ensure you will be able use all of the product before its expiry date.
  3. Use caution when buying items that spoil easily like fresh produce, dairy and other refrigerated foods (food spoils faster in an over-full refrigerator.)
  4. Household cleaners and personal hygiene products have incredible shelf-life and, if you have the space to store them, can be excellent budget savers.

Now, I want to know, have I "pumped you up" to buying in bulk?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Breathe Easy

Spring is finally springing with sunnier days, crocuses popping up from the bleak prairie, songbirds greeting the morn, and grass sprouting up faster than the thermometer. Can there be a more optimistic time of year? It would all be perfect but for one thing: allergy season is here, too.

Only a couple years ago, I would have begun a daily regimen of over-the-counter allergy medication. Aside from the $80+ cost per month, I was concerned about their long-term effects on my health. So, when a friend told me about the Neti-pot, I knew I had to give it a try. After one use, and the immediate relief that provided, I became a passionate devotee to the practice.

The Neti-pot has been used in India for centuries as a treatment for sinusitis. Neti is taken from the Sanskrit words, Neti Kriya, which means nasal cleansing. Neti-pots, once hard to find in North America, have become increasingly popular and can now be found in many health and drug stores. They look much like little teapots, but don't try to be thrifty – as I did, when I couldn't find one in our local stores – and try to substitute. Neti-pots have a nicely rounded spout that won't hurt the nostrils like a teapot will. Take it from someone who learned that the hard way!

Neti-pots are inexpensive, running between $10 for plastic and up to $40 for the ceramic models. Well worth the price, considering I no longer use allergy medications. That's right. Use of the Neti-pot completely alleviates all my allergy symptoms. This may not work for people with extreme allergies, but if your allergies are mild, I strongly urge you to give this a try. To read more about this, check out the New York Times Health-section article on nasal irrigation: http://tinyurl.com/dfa6av

A lukewarm saline solution, called jala neti in Sanskrit, is poured through one nostril, then the other. You can purchase special salt from the same stores where Neti-pots are sold, or you can use salt from your kitchen. Do NOT use "iodized" salts though, as the minerals in it will sting the delicate nasal membranes. I use pulverized kosher salt, 1/4 teaspoon mixed with 1 cup of hot (filtered) water, and stirred well until completely dissolved. If I'm in a hurry, due to sinus pain or irritation, I dissolve the salt in a couple tablespoons of boiling water, and then add room temperature water. I prefer to use filtered water as it contains no bleach, fluoride, or other impurities that may sting the nasal passages. To check the temperature, pour a drop onto your wrist much like testing a baby bottle.

When the solution is ready:

  1. Bend over the sink (or a bowl) and tilt your head to one side.
  2. Press the Neti-pot spout up against the upper nostril and begin pouring slowly. If you have a sinus blockage, you may feel slight pressure as the water builds up behind it. The blockage should quickly release, though, and the solution will wind its way through the nasal passages and out the lower nostril. Breathe through your mouth during the process.
  3. Once you've poured half of the solution through one nostril, repeat steps 1 & 2 and pour the remaining solution through the other nostril.
  4. After both sides have been irrigated, GENTLY blow your nose from both nostrils at once. Do not blow too energetically.

Though this procedure may sound alarming, it is not as invasive as you might think. There is no discomfort if done properly, and the relief gained is well worth the ick-factor. Just make sure to keep your head low during the process, so the solution won't trickle down the post-nasal passage.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Easter Egg Blues...and Reds...and Yellows

Without looking at a calendar, it's hard to believe this weekend is Easter. Few signs of spring are showing, and the prairie is still looking drab in its dun winter wear.

In an attempt to find something colourful, I researched natural dyes for colouring Easter Eggs. Some are unsafe for use on food products, but I've found a few that will produce food-safe, primary colours (blue, red and yellow.) With a little double-dipping, a variety of colours can be achieved. And, for the artists among you, get out your kids' otherwise-useless white (wax) crayons! They can be used to draw on the eggs, and are especially effective when using the double- and triple-dip methods of egg-colouring.

First you'll need to prepare the eggs (see previous blog post, 'Egg-cellent Food', for the "perfect" hard-boiled egg.)

Then, prepare each dye:

  1. For a light blue colour, you'll need sliced red cabbage. In a pot, cover it with water and bring to a boil. Let cook for about 30 minutes. Allow this dye to cool completely as cabbage-dyes won't "take" when hot. Once cool, strain the vegetable matter. The liquid will appear purplish, but it will colour the eggs a nice, pastel blue.
  2. For a reddish colour, you'll need a few cups of onion skins. (French onion soup anyone?) These, too, will need to be cooked, covered with water, and boiled for about 30 minutes. This dye can be used while still warm and, depending on the length of time the eggs are immersed in it, will produce colours in the range of orange, through red and brown.
  3. For yellow, you'll need a few small apple tree branches. Scrape the bark into a pot and cover with water; one quart of water to a ½ cup of bark. Boil for 30 minutes and then add about ½ teaspoon of alum. A solution of turmeric can also be used for yellow dye; however this can also flavour the eggs slightly.

As an important note, you'll want to use glass, ceramic, enamel, or Teflon-coated pots for making the dyes. Some metal pans (tin, aluminum and iron) can alter the colours.

To add a glossy finish to the eggs, rub a little vegetable oil on their dried surface.

Have a happy and colourful Easter everyone!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Egg-cellent Food

Once restricted from the daily diet for its high cholesterol levels, recent studies have restored the egg's nutritional reputation. Not only are eggs a healthy source of protein, they are also high in Vitamins and Minerals: A, B-12, D, E, Calcium, Folate, Iron, Pantothenic Acid, and Riboflavin.

Many people see the dietary cholesterol value and gasp. However, recent studies indicate this high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol is good for us – actually carrying away the "bad" low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, and has less impact on cholesterol levels than saturated fats. The Canadian Heart and Stroke foundation now recommends eggs as a good source of polyunsaturated fats , which help lower the risk of blood clots, stroke, and heart disease. And, another recent study links the high B-12 concentrations to better brain health . In fact, various studies have proven many health benefits .

Given the rising costs of meats (see table below) the egg has become, by far, one of the most economical choices. Economy is lost, however, if cooking methods produce a poor result. So, here's a fool-proof recipe for hard-boiled eggs, without a blackened yolk:

  1. Place eggs in pot and completely immerse in COLD tap water.
  2. Set (uncovered) pot on stove and bring to a boil.
  3. Once at a RAPID boil, remove pot from heat and cover tightly.
  4. Set timer for 20 minutes. (This is based on sea-level cooking; I time my eggs for 17 minutes because we are a few thousand feet above sea-level.)
  5. Rinse under cold running water for 1 minute. Then, fill pot with cold water and allow eggs to cool completely (about 5-10 minutes.)
  6. Store unused eggs in refrigerator for no more than a week.

Note: I've also experimented with the "perfect" soft-boiled egg and have found that I need only change the timing to 5 minutes to achieve that result. Also, no cold water rinse is then necessary as the eggs are consumed immediately.

Nutrional & Cost comparisons -- Protein

Units of Measure

Egg (Approx. = 2 large)

Chicken (Breast, boneless, skinless)

Pork (Tenderloin/lean cut)

Beef (Tenderloin/lean cut)

Fish (Cod Loin fillet)

Calories

k

149.0

110.0

173.0

249.0

105.0

Total Fat:

grams

10.0

1.2

6.1

18.5

0.9

Saturated Fat

grams

3.1

0.3

2.1

7.5

0.2

Polyunsaturated Fat

grams

1.4

0.3

0.5

0.7

0.3

Monounsaturated Fat

grams

3.8

0.3

2.5

7.9

0.1

Trans Fat

grams

0.0

0.0

0.0

0.0

0.0

Cholesterol (mg)

mg

425.0

58.0

79.0

68.0

55.0

Sodium (mg)

mg

126.0

65.0

55.0

50.0

78.0

Potassium (mg)

mg

121.0

255.0

433.0

300.0

244.0

Total Carbohydrates: (grams)

grams

1.2

0.0

0.0

0.0

0.0

Dietary Fiber (grams)

grams

0.0

0.0

0.0

0.0

0.0

Sugars (grams)

grams

0.0

0.0

0.0

0.0

0.0

Protein

grams

12.5

23.1

27.8

19.4

22.8

Vitamin A

*percentage

12.7%

0.4%

0.1%

0.0%

0.9%

Vitamin B-12

*percentage

16.7%

6.3%

9.2%

15.3%

17.5%

Vitamin B-6

*percentage

7.0%

27.5%

20.7%

26.8%

14.2%

Vitamin C

*percentage

0.0%

2.0%

0.7%

0.0%

1.7%

Vitamin D

*percentage

13.0%

0.0%

0.0%

0.0%

0.0%

Vitamin E

*percentage

5.2%

0.7%

1.3%

0.9%

1.5%

Calcium

*percentage

4.9%

1.1%

0.6%

2.2%

1.4%

Copper

*percentage

0.7%

2.1%

2.4%

3.4%

1.8%

Folate

*percentage

11.8%

1.0%

1.5%

2.5%

2.0%

Iron

*percentage

8.0%

4.0%

8.1%

7.9%

2.7%

Magnesium

*percentage

2.5%

7.0%

6.8%

5.0%

10.5%

Manganese

*percentage

1.2%

0.9%

1.9%

0.5%

1.0%

Niacin

*percentage

0.4%

56.0%

23.3%

25.9%

12.6%

Pantothenic Acid

*percentage

12.6%

8.2%

6.8%

5.5%

1.8%

Phosphorus

*percentage

17.8%

19.6%

25.7%

18.2%

13.8%

Riboflavin

*percentage

29.9%

5.4%

22.6%

6.2%

4.6%

Selenium

*percentage

44.0%

25.4%

67.7%

32.3%

53.7%

Thiamin

*percentage

4.1%

4.7%

61.8%

4.6%

5.9%

Zinc

*percentage

7.3%

5.3%

17.3%

22.1%

3.9%

Average Cost (@ Feb/09)

Canadian $

$ 0.44

$ 0.63

$ 0.96

$ 1.57

$ 1.47

*Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet.