Friday, February 25, 2011

Hiatus Explained

It's been a couple weeks since the last post.  While the no-bake cookies are delicious, I don't think they're good enough to hold the top spot on my blog for as long as they have.  In any case, I've been meaning to post, but have been totally wrapped up in a class/project.  It's a mix of nesting, mother-daughter bonding, and unexpected craftiness. 

For my birthday (which I celebrated yesterday, hence the all the cake and frosting in the picture above), my mom signed us up for a beginner's quilting class. At first, I was interested -- I don't know if I would have signed up without my mom's suggestion, but figured it would at least be a fun thing to try. Four classes later, who knew I'd find so much satisfaction in piecing together squares of material in various patterns for a baby quilt? (Only 24 more days left until my due date, not that I'm counting or anything)  There's something so old-fashioned and traditional about quilting that totally appeals to me. And like with most sewing projects, I have to concentrate since it doesn't come to me. So, really, it's a sort of brain workout, too.  Plus, it's just fun. A couple times a week, I head up to my cute little hometown, set up all my sewing stuff in a 100-year-old house with my mom, along with our super-patient instructor and two other women, and we just chat as we sit and sew for a few hours. Maybe it sounds kind of grandma-ish, but I love it. Then there's the satisfaction of seeing the project actually come together - not only my own, but also my mom's. My late grandma, an incredible seamstress, would be so proud of Mom and me.

To think that just over a year ago, I was terrified by my sewing machine...

So that's the reason for the hiatus. When I'm not doing my regular, everyday activities (which seem to take much longer when you're waddling around the house), I'm trying to catch up with my quilting class 'homework'. I'll be sure to show you my finished project (keep your fingers crossed for me -- I'm going to machine quilt it tomorrow and I'm a little freaked out), along with some insights and ideas of how you can give this generations-old art a try.  Then I'll be back to regularly posting my parsimonious ideas. Well, at least until the end of March.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Sweet Surrender: The No-Bake Cookie

What do these pictures have in common?

The latest of my pregnancy cravings: oatmeal anything. I'll take the instant kind, or in the yummy granola I made a week or so ago, or my breakfast standby of steel-cut oats, or the oatmeal cookies that once filled my cookie jar -- as long as there are oats involved, I'm happy. It's a fairly healthy pregnancy craving (much better than my mad craving for Coca-Cola that I fought for months. Oh boy, why did I mention that? Mmmmm....Cherry Coke...), except when it comes to the recipe I made yesterday.

At my bridal shower years ago, my twin cousins gave me a cookbook that their elementary school had compiled for a fundraiser.  Those cousins have since graduated from high school and I'll admit, in all those years, I've only made one recipe out of that cookbook: no-bake cookies.

This recipe isn't healthy by any stretch of the imagination. To be honest, they don't even look that good. But I had to have them last night, so I figured I'd document the process and share the recipe with you. How does it fit on a frugal blog? don't have to bake them. That saves energy, right? 

Okay then, on to the recipe!

No-Bake Cookies

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup peanut butter
1 tsp. vanilla
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup cocoa powder
3 cups oats

Mix sugar, milk, butter, and cocoa in a saucepan over medium heat; boil 1 minute. Remove from heat and quickly add peanut butter, vanilla, and oats.

It may look like glop, but it's tasty glop...

Spoon onto a baking sheet lined with waxed paper or, better yet, a Silpat baking mat (they slide right off it when they're done). Let the cookies cool -- I usually stick them right into the fridge to expedite the process.

Once the cookies are firm, remove from the baking sheet and store in an airtight container. Like I said, they're not much to look at, but they're easy and tasty. A nice cure for a sweet tooth -- or a craving for oatmeal.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Shower of Savings: Is Low-Flow a No-Go?

As you can imagine, I'm always on the lookout for frugal ideas and tips. Shocking, I know. And whenever the subject of saving money on utilities comes up, one inevitable suggestion is to switch to a low-flow showerhead. Of course, I instantly think of that Seinfeld episode, when all the showerheads in Jerry's building are switched to low-flow and Kramer ends up buying a black market showerhead.

It's hilarious until you have to use a low-flow showerhead yourself; only then you can understand Kramer's desperation. My experience with low-flow showerheads has mostly been at hotels. I'm sure you can agree -- it's pretty frustrating to finally figure out how to use the bathtub faucet, only to get a wimpy stream from the showerhead in return. Who would want to bring that experience home by installing a low-flow showerhead?

Not too long ago, I came across the low-flow suggestion again and decided to look into it this time. I figured someone must have come up with a low-flow showerhead that isn't crappy, right? There's a demand just waiting to be supplied. So I Googled just that: "low-flow showerhead not crappy".  Amazing what Google can find for you.

I read through some of links and forums that returned with my search specifications.  I learned that the average showerhead puts out 2.5 gallons per minute; a low-flow showerhead reduces that amount to 1.5 gallons a minute.  Basically, a low-flow showerhead can make your shower 40% more water efficient. If your shower is more water efficient, the less heated water you need. So not only do low-flow showerheads save water, but they also help you save on energy costs.

But are the savings worth buying a low-flow showerhead? Water isn't expensive and it doesn't cost that much to heat shower, right?  In my perusal of various low-flow blog posts, I came across this shower water and energy use calculator. Just fill in the applicable information and it will calculate how many gallons of water you use and how much it costs to heat that water (it adjusts the cost per kilowatt depending on the rates where you live). 

I'll share my calculations and findings with you:  I loooove taking long showers. That's where I do my best thinking. And I like my showers ridiculously hot.  To take a 15-minute hot shower, it costs about .57 cents a shower. The estimate on the calculator is that my showers cost about $208 a year. Now say I install a low-flow showerhead that puts out 1.5 gallons of water per minute, without changing the duration or temperature of my showers, my annual cost goes down to $125 a year, a savings of $83.  I haven't calculated the cost of my husband's showers (which are shorter and much cooler than mine), but I'm sure that will tack on even more savings. According to my research, the average household saves $55 a year per person by using a low-flow showerhead.

I know, I know...I've left the most important part of my research out: is there a low-flow showerhead out there that doesn't leave you feeling like Kramer?
{"I just took a bath, Jerry. A bath!"}

After checking out some suggestions and reviews, one of the more popular low-flow showerheads is made by a company called High Sierra Showerheads.  Almost every review I read was enormously positive, saying that most people couldn't tell a difference between High Sierra's showerheads and their old ones. They said the spray was powerful, but that it didn't sting. I would explain the technology behind the showerhead, but the inventor does a much better job (just check out the short video on the High Sierra homepage).  The design of the showerhead is definitely simple and they're inexpensive (only $26-29). 

So I ordered one -- just the basic, minimalist one. It doesn't look fancy, but it does the job and it's easy to install. The thing is made of metal and, as a result, won't clog like regular and other low-flow showerheads do.

My husband and I have both taken our turns testing out and we've both come to the same conclusion: it definitely doesn't feel like a low-flow showerhead. The stream is powerful, even more so than the one we had. Even though the stream is more intense than our old one, like the reviews said, it doesn't sting. I was able to wash and rinse my long hair thoroughly with this showerhead. In all, it might take a little getting used to but only because it sprays differently, not because it's sub-par.  At $26 (they do free shipping nationwide), the new showerhead will pay for itself.

Lesson learned: give low-flow showerheads a second look. Do some of your own research. You may be pleasantly surprised at how effortless saving water and energy can be.

Update 2/13/2012 : We still love our showerhead! Two years since I wrote this, it works really well and I often forget that it's even low-flow. Highly recommended.

Note: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have disclosed.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Canned Heat: How to Make an Emergency Heater

It seems that just about every part of the U.S. has been slammed with severe winter weather lately. Just the other I day, I was watching the news and saw the lines of stranded cars buried in snow outside of Chicago. The severe weather stretched over 2,000 miles, leaving a lot of people without power.  No power can mean no heat and that can be a scary thing with the temperatures being as low as they are. So what do you do if you're stranded on the highway in the dead of winter or a severe winter storm knocks out your power for an extended period of time?

I attended a class held at my church a couple days ago where we learned about and made emergency heaters.  They don't cost much to assemble and they could make all the difference in case of an emergency. Since I think emergency preparedness goes hand-in-hand with self-reliance and frugality, I thought I would share what I learned. You never know when something like this could be useful, after all.

To make your emergency heater, you'll need:
  • A new, quart-sized paint can with a lid. These can be purchased at paint stores and home improvement stores like Home Depot for around $2-3.
  • A roll of unscented toilet paper (I say, the cheaper the better. I bought a package of the rough, store brand stuff for around a dollar. It wasn't hard to fit into the can -- others at the class had a difficult time because they were using their nice, multiple-ply stuff.)
  • A bottle of unscented, 70% isopropyl alcohol
  • A box of matches (I just learned that you can waterproof matches by dipping the heads in wax. Pretty cool.)
  • A quarter and some tape (I suggest packaging tape)
Making the heater couldn't be easier. Simply remove the cardboard tube from the center of the toilet paper (that's the hardest part) - don't unroll the toilet paper; just bend the cardboard tube, and pull out. Stuff the tube-free roll of toilet paper into the can. Fill with 2 cups of isopropyl alcohol, leaving 1/2 inch headspace (you want it to have room to expand and contract with temperature fluctuations). This may take a little time since you have to wait for the toilet paper to absorb the alcohol. The toilet paper and alcohol should be below the rim of the can. Seal tightly with lid.  Tape the box of matches and the quarter to the side of the can. That's it.  If you prefer, you can store all the components of the heater in a plastic bag and assemble the heater when you need it. Personally, I like having it ready to go.

When you want to use the heater, pop open the lid, using the quarter as leverage. Place the lit match or lighter carefully against the alcohol-soaked toilet paper.  A small flame will develop.  The flame only uses the alcohol as fuel -- the toilet paper shouldn't burn. If it does start to burn, that means you need more alcohol. To do this, replace the lid to extinguish the flame. Once out, add some more alcohol and light again. Once you've used this heater, the only thing that ever needs replacing is the alcohol since the TP doesn't burn. Assembling the heater is a one-time thing, really.

Important: if you're going to use this heater in a car, crack open the windows for ventilation. Even though the alcohol doesn't produce carbon monoxide, you still want fresh air in such an enclosed space.

The teacher of the class said that she burned her heater (to test it out) in her kitchen and it lasted for five hours. According to one site I checked, you can keep a car heated at 60-70 degrees for 24 hours with 4 pints of alcohol.  These heaters can get hot, so be careful how you handle them and be sure to keep them away from anything that could catch (obviously). Another site I read suggested sliding the passenger seat in the car as far back as it can go and placing the heater on the floor.

You can also use this heater in your home in the event of an emergency.  Since the area isn't as small as that of a car, the instructor of the class said that you should be fine without cracking the windows (if you're in a small room, it couldn't hurt to crack it a little). This small heater, of course, won't keep an entire room at 60-70 degrees, but it will keep the chill off enough.  These heaters are great for 72-hour kits.

For under five bucks, you can create a heat source for you and your family in the event of an emergency -- and five dollars is a small price to pay for a little extra peace of mind.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Cookbook Review: Moosewood Restaurant Simple Suppers

There are two saboteurs when it comes to making dinner:  fatigue and boredom.  Sometimes, you can't help the fatigue -- some days are just more exhausting than others and the thought of spending any more time in the kitchen is overwhelming.  Then there's the boredom -- you've made the same recipes over and over again. Sure, they're tried and true, but variety is also the spice of life, right? 

How do you fight against these dinnertime woes?  For me, a new cookbook can go a long way. They pull me out of my cooking rut and get me excited to cook again.

For this reason, I've decided to start a new feature on this blog: every so often, I'm going to introduce to you to some of my favorite cookbooks - to the ones that have broken spines, splatters on the pages, and wavy dust jackets from spills and to the others I've recently added to my collection. While I will heartily suggest adding the cookbooks in these reviews to your collection (cookbooks are a weakness of mine, especially when you can get them cheap on Amazon), you can also find them at the library. I actually cross-checked my favorite cookbooks with the catalog at my local library (which I'll just say is definitely - and frustratingly - limited compared to other libraries) and I found just about all of them there. 

So, without further ado, the first cookbook review...Moosewood Restaurant Simple Suppers.

I actually just rediscovered this cookbook. For reasons unknown, I haven't used it that much lately.  Then the other day I pulled it off the shelf and as I flipped through the pages, I kept thinking, "Oh yeah, I remember...this cookbook is awesome!" 

I bought this cookbook a few years ago, back in our vegetarian days. Even though those days are in the past for us, I still make meat-free meals 2-3 times a week. Going meat-free, even just once a week, is a great way to cut your grocery budget.  And, seriously, the recipes in this book will make you not even miss the meat.

So what do I love most about this cookbook? The title sums it up perfectly -- these are the recipes you want to make on a weeknight, for those times when you want something delicious, but you don't want to spend a lot of time in the kitchen. The recipes in this book are really simple, both in terms of ingredients and preparation.

There are plenty of recipes in here that cover the whole meat-free spectrum - pasta, grains, eggs, soups, curries, salads, beans, tofu, sandwiches, and more. There are also sections devoted to dressings, seasonings, sauces and spreads so you can dress up any kind of dish, whether it's a recipe from this book or one already in your dinnetime repertoire. There's even a seafood section. On almost every page, with almost every recipe, there are also variations (just in case you don't have something on hand or you want to tweak the recipe a little), serving suggestions, and menu ideas. You can open up to a recipe and it will tell you what other recipes in the book work well with it. The book does part of your meal planning for you!

Another thing I love about this cookbook is that the ingredients aren't fancy or hard to find. You'll find everything you need at your local grocery store. The book even has a list at the end of the book to help you keep your pantry adequately stocked so that you can whip up these recipes at any time. No extra trip to the store needed. The book isn't afraid to use wholesome convenience items like canned tomatoes, canned beans, or bagged slaw mix. This cookbook is all about how to make delicous dinners easily and quickly.

Last week, I made one of our favorites from the cookbook - since it's a great example of how simple and uncomplicated recipes in the book are I thought I'd share. I realize that it's not one of the meatless recipes, but it could easily be so. Instead of the shrimp, just add some more vegetables (see the variation noted in the recipe below). 

Shrimp Curry with Snow Peas from Moosewood Restaurant Simple Suppers

1 lb. peeled and deveined large shrimp (I cut back and only used 1/2 lb. since the shrimp I used were huge)
1 large onion, thinly sliced (about two cups)
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 tablespoons curry powder
5 ounces snow peas, cut in half on the diagonal (about 2 cups)
3 tomatoes, chopped (about 2 cups) -- (I've also used a 15 oz. can of diced tomatoes in the past. Worked just fine.)
1 14-oz. can of coconut milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons lemon or lime juice
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro or basil

If your shrimp is still frozen, put it in cold water before you start. It will thaw out and cook completely in the coconut milk later.

In a saucepan over medium-high heat, sauté the onions in the oil for about five minutes or until softened. Add the shrimp and the curry powder. Cook for a couple minutes, stirring constantly so the shrimp doesn't stick.  Add the snow peas and tomatoes and cook for another couple of minutes, turning the shrimp to cook on both sides. When the shrimp are mostly pink, pour in the coconut milk, salt, and lemon/lime juice, and bring to a simmer. Stir in cilantro/basil. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serves 4.

The variation section on the page says that you could add more vegetables, like bell peppers, baby spinach, or mushrooms. The serving suggestion is to serve it on plain rice or on top of Lemongrass Rice or Green Rice (both recipes are in the side dish grains section of the book).  Simple enough. That dinner only takes about 20 minutes, prep and cooking time, and it's really tasty.

You don't have to be a vegetarian to benefit from a vegetarian or even a vegan cookbook. There are tons of great meat-free recipes out there. Honestly, I think you'll be surprised how you really don't need meat at center of your dinners. Best of all, you'll save some money and enjoy some delicious meals in the process.
Related Posts with Thumbnails