Friday, December 14, 2012

Thoughts About The Hobbit

I woke up today absolutely elated because the very first thing we did this morning was watch The Hobbit, and it was totally something I was looking forward to.  It lived up to my expectations.  Then I came home and heard about the shooting in Connecticut, and that kind of killed my awesomely good mood.  I couldn't deal with much of anything after hearing about that.

But after going into hiding for much of the day, I'm trying to piece back together some sense of normalcy.  I'm going to go ahead and talk about The Hobbit, not to be insensitive to the families in Connecticut...but because it hurts too much, and too many have already spoken about it, and I know I for one need a respite on the Internet away from that conversation.

So, um, The Hobbit!  I'm not going to write a real review -- my brain is too frazzled! -- so I'm just going to spew thoughts out into the ether.  There will be some spoilers.  Tread at your own risk, and feel free to comment!

  • The Hobbit is kind of a filmmaker's nightmare.  The book is not structured properly for film at ALL, and the tone is so light and tongue-in-cheek (but at the same time so dark).  Jackson was reluctant to make it at all, and I totally understand that, but oh man am I glad they did it.  Personally I think three movies isn't quite the right way to approach the story -- I think a six-episode miniseries would've been just about right -- but I think it's better than trying to cram everything into one big movie.  
  • I LOVE that it's so lore-heavy.  Love, love, love.  The LOTR geek in me is delighted to see all of these little bits and nods and fan service.  I think the primary audience of The Hobbit is "People who loved LOTR," so that seems appropriate.  I doubt that a lot of people are going to the movie who have never heard of/enjoyed the films before.  I mean, it'd be awesome if a whole generation of kids fell in love with The Hobbit from these movies the way I did the old animated one, but I don't think that's necessarily going to happen.  
  • I need this soundtrack, post-haste.  I have all three LOTR film scores, and they taught me so much about music.  Weird, but true.  Also, it filled me with an inexpressible amount of joy that the "That's What Bilbo Baggins Hates" song makes an appearance.  
  • Dwarves have never been so sexy.  Like, seriously, omg.  Not only do I have an enormous crush on Thorin (who is DELICIOUS, oh my god, those smoldering eyes!), but Fili and Kili are also super attractive.  My "inability to be attracted to men without facial hair" is reaching new heights.  (And did I mention Thorin's smoldering eyes?) 
  • Radagast the Brown!  One of my favorite characters from the books, I was glad they found a place for him in the movie.  He's weird and off-kilter and adorable and I wanted to cuddle him.  Even if the CGI animals looked kind of dumb, but I think that might have had more to do with the heightened framerate than anything else. 
  • Is there anyone on this earth who is more of a hobbit than Martin Freeman?  Absolutely perfect.  
  • All the monsters are so lovingly crafted.  The trolls are hilarious and personable.  The Goblin King is AWESOME.  I didn't like the wargs so much, and it seems that the eagles have probably lost their sentience, but I guess that fits in with the world that was already built.  
The thing I've always loved most about Tolkien -- the thing that makes him stand out and makes his books truly classic -- is his ability to capture scope.  Here was a writer that understood that huge changes take a long time to happen, but they are powerful and inevitable and little people get swept up in things that are so much bigger than them.  I don't know if any writer before or after has ever been able to truly capture the essence of "Small, normal people getting pulled into a world so much bigger than themselves" as well as Tolkien.  There's a lot of that happening in The Hobbit movie.  The Hobbit as a book is largely told from Bilbo's perspective -- a narrow, small, hobbit-sized perspective.  The film has a larger scope because it's showing us the details of the bigger world...a world that soon will be the source of an epic quest and battle against the apocalypse.  But I think it works.  

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Problem Solving Strategies from my Mom

Here's the first installment of what I hope to make a regular feature of the blog:  Critical Thinking Thursdays.

I was very fortunate to receive an excellent education.  I was home-schooled, and the curriculum came from Calvert, a top-notch private school in Baltimore.  When I went to college, I realized that I was better-prepared than most of my peers.  In large part, this is because Calvert's curriculum was focused largely on teaching critical thinking and problem-solving skills.  Instead of teaching us what to think, Calvert taught us how to think for ourselves.  And that's a skill that I noticed was sorely lacking in public school for the few years I did attend (three years of high school -- I graduated early).

Anyway.  Lack of critical thinking skills doesn't mean you're stupid.  It just means that you haven't been taught how to do it.  So I'm going to share some of the wisdom I have on the topic every week, hopefully, and maybe it'll make a difference in somebody's life.

Problem Solving Skills (As Taught By My Mother)

One of the very first things my mom taught me was how to approach problems logically and calmly.  I don't remember when we first learned this particular skill, but I was quite young -- so young that I hadn't yet learned the scientific method, which made it particularly delightful when I later discovered that the two processes were very similar. 

  1. Step One:  Whose Problem is it?  This is a crucial first step.  Before you get worked up over something, ask yourself, "Is this my problem?  Is this something I can affect?"  If it's not -- if the problem is something that only someone else can solve or that doesn't actually affect you, don't even waste your time worrying about it.  For example: Your friend is having an argument with her boyfriend.  It's not your job to solve that problem.  You may want to offer a supportive ear, a couch to sleep on, or some advice -- but solving the problem is not actually your responsibility, and you shouldn't waste time trying to do so because you will only get frustrated.  Let it go.  
  2. Step Two:  What, exactly, IS the problem?  Think through this carefully.  Write it down if you have to.  Figure out exactly what the issue is and why it's bothering you.  Dig beneath the surface.  Your emotional response to something may not be logical, but a logical event may be underlying it.  For example: Your husband fails to take out the trash in time for trash collection, and you get angry.  Are you angry because you now have smelly trash in your garage for another week?  Or are you angry because you asked him to do it and he didn't, so you feel disrespected?  Is it both?  
  3. Step Three:  Brainstorm possible solutions to the problem.  Think up as many solutions as you can.  Some of them will be ridiculous, but that's fine.  It helps to write them all down.  If you're upset because the trash is in the garage, there are some solutions:  Take the trash to the dump yourself; put the trash somewhere you can't smell it; buy an odor-locking trash can; clandestinely dump the trash in someone else's dumpster.  If you're feeling hurt because your husband disrespected you:  Talk to your husband about your feelings; ignore him until you stop being angry; punish him in some way.  
  4. Step Four:  Choose the appropriate solution.  After you've brainstormed all of your solutions, figure out which one is the best.  Maybe you just don't go into the garage this week, or maybe you send dear hubby out to the dump to get rid of the offending trash.  Whatever seems like the most reasonable, simple solution -- go with that one.  
  5. Step Five:  Assemble any necessary materials to implement the solution.  Sometimes solving a problem seems insurmountable because you don't have the tools necessary to handle it.  Taking the trash to the dump can seem impossible if you don't have a car -- but do you have a friend who could take you?  Could you bribe them with beer and cookies?  Talking to your husband can seem impossible if you don't know what to say -- but would it be easier if you wrote it out first? Maybe you could email him all of the points you want to make so he'll have a primer before you start talking.  
  6. Step Six:  Implement your solution.  Now that you have the materials you need and a plan for solving your problem, solve the problem.  Dispose of the trash.  Talk to your husband.  
  7. Step Seven:  Did that solve the problem?  Look at the situation and see if you are satisfied with the solution.  If you only threw away the trash but didn't confront your husband, do you still feel angry?  Maybe the problem has multiple aspects that all need to be dealt with.  Repeat steps 1-6 as many times as necessary until your problem has been solved.  
  8. Step Eight:  Plan for the future.  After you've solved the problem, brainstorm some ways to prevent it from happening again.  Put sticky notes on your husband's computer, or make him buy a whiteboard so he can keep track of his chores.  Store your trash in a way that won't be disastrous if it doesn't get picked up.  Start taking the trash out yourself.  Hire a neighbor kid to take your trash out for you.  Dump your husband and marry a trash collector.  Whatever -- it doesn't matter.  The important thing is that you take an active role in preventing the problem from happening again.  
And there you are, kids.  An eight-step problem-solving strategy.  As you gain more experience, you will be able to implement these steps without having to think too much about them -- they'll become second nature.  The important part is to remove your emotional response from the logical aspect.  Recognize that, yes, you're upset, and that's OK.  But being upset won't solve the problem.  Let yourself feel it, then let it go -- and work on fixing your problems.  

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Updates From the Land of Scrap and Nonconsumption

The Great Scrap Metal Experiment is going well, although it did experience a brief hiccup after David decided to sell most of his bulkier items to another professional here in our neighborhood.  He felt bad hoarding the big items because the other guy is doing this for a living/sole support of his family.  I grumbled at him about it, but honestly he's probably right to be sticking to electronics instead.  They're easier to store, for one.  

Anyway, he has several jars of various types of metals sitting on his work table.  At the moment, he's dissecting a pair of blown-out computer speakers.  I'd always wondered what the inside of a speaker looked like (the answer: a big magnet and a whole crap-ton of copper).  He also picked up a bunch of brass fixtures from the thrift store that are either being scrapped as-is or repurposed into...something.  I've been trying to explain to him that "found object" and "upcycled" jewelry and sculpture and whatnot really is a thing.  He didn't believe me, so I had to drag him over to Etsy and Pinterest and show him.  That was fairly mind-blowing.  

I got him a few jewelry-making materials (clasps, cord) so he can practice and see if he likes doing it.  I'm pretty excited to see what he comes up with. 

Anyway, the other benefit of scrapping is that we get all kinds of very cool free and totally functional stuff.  We've also lucked out with some really awesome Goodwill and Craigslist finds recently.  Here's some of the stuff we've gotten:  

  • A free CRT big-screen TV that was abandoned when its old owner moved away.  The screen flickers a bit when you turn it on, so the cathode ray tube is on its last legs, but for a huge free TV, it's pretty awesome.  
  • Two laser-jet printers with cartridges.  We actually had about six printers at one point but downsized to these.  These were also free, and once we manage to get them plugged in (they're a bit bulky and thus won't fit on the computer desk, so we need a longer cord to connect them or find a way to do it wirelessly) they'll be awesome because we'll be able to print coupons/specials.  
  • A couple of free lamps -- one for the floor, one for the bedside.  I especially LOVE the bedside lamp because it means I can curl up in bed and read without having to get back up to turn off the light.  It's also really pretty -- the lampshade is stained glass and it casts gorgeous colors all across the ceiling and walls.  
  • An extremely cool-looking brass lantern that David found in the trash.  It needs to be cleaned up a bit,  but it's not broken or anything.  There's some talk about sprucing it up into an art piece.  His plans for it are very cute, so I'll hold off until he does it so I can show some pictures ;) 
  • Several free computers.  They weren't very good computers, and mostly we've gutted them to sell for parts.  The last of them is in the living room waiting to either be re-sold as-is or gutted.  
  • A nice gaming computer picked up off Craigslist for $250.  This thing came with a wireless keyboard & mouse and the graphics card alone is worth about $100.  The computer itself would be worth at least $500 if you bought it from a store.  
  • A lovely pair of speakers for $5 at the Goodwill.  These things are worth about $25 retail and they work great.  It's nice to be able to actually hear things on my computer for the first time in months.  
  • I got $10 in gift cards to Amazon from Swagbucks, which I used to fund the purchase of a few new e-books to read on my salvaged Android :) 
I'm probably missing some stuff, but those were the highlights I've been most pleased with.  It's so cool seeing what you can get for nothing or next-to-nothing when you're willing to wait instead of running out to buy something right away.  

Friday, November 23, 2012

Black Friday and a Time to Give Thanks

I hope everybody had an excellent Thanksgiving and is enjoying the start of an awesome long weekend!  David and I had a great, quiet holiday.  We went and spent the day with his cousin and her husband, who just recently got released from the hospital after a devastating car accident; it was so nice to just hang out and swap stories and have a relaxing holiday with a few very cool people. 

When we got home, we somehow ended up being invited over to our neighbor's Thanksgiving party.  This would be strange enough on its own, but it's also important to understand that my neighborhood is 95% Latino and my neighbors speak only a little bit of English.  I speak a little bit of Spanish, but I haven't had the occasion to use it in about six years and my vocabulary is pretty limited.  Still, I made a valiant attempt, and they all seemed to find that incredibly endearing, so they invited us to a birthday party on Saturday.  I suspect I may be part of the tamale assembly line by Christmas. 

Anyway.  That was fun and magical and reminded me of one of the things I really, really love about living in "the ghetto" here in Austin: the sense of community and friendliness.

So now that Thanksgiving has come and gone, today of course is America's favorite consumerist holiday: Black Friday.  Needless to say, we're not participating.  We never did, even when we were still buying things, and I don't foresee that changing much in the future.  Tomorrow, however, is Small Business Saturday, and if I were buying things, I might be more tempted to partake in that. 

On that topic, I found this interesting blog post about the moral dilemma of "buying local" vs "buying American" and how the two often do not intersect.  Being a conscious consumer is harder than it might look at first glance. 

So -- how 'bout you guys?  Any fun Thanksgiving anecdotes to share?  Did you try any Black Friday adventures or stay cozy at home? 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Are You Missing Hostess Yet?

I'll save the in-depth discussion of Hostess Company's long-awaited demise for people who are better-equipped to provide that opinion, but I will say this:  Every time I hear the phrase "union greed," my eye starts to twitch. 

I admit to being both passionate and biased on the topic.  I'm fourth-generation in a union family.  My great-grandfather, grandfather, father and brother were/are all union workers, and my grandfather was even named for Eugene Debs

Anyway, I can't say I'm exactly sad about the end of Hostess.  They are certainly an iconic American brand, but that's  not necessarily something to be proud of -- not something to strive for, if you follow me. 

Besides, how can the Nonconsumerist support a food with so many ridiculous ingredients that it takes an entire book to deconstruct the recipe?

Nevertheless, if you're really aching for a little taste of Americana, I've got your back.  Here are some recipes for homemade Hostess products.  These are made with real food (or at least approximations of real food) and are available any time you like, and I guarantee they're way better than the over-processed efforts of underpaid factory workers. 

Homemade Hostess Recipes Listing 

  • Homemade Twinkies recipe from Instructables.  Twinkies are essentially pound cake with a cream filling.  This recipe uses hydrogenated vegetable oil for the filling, just like the Hostess brand; the result will be very authentic but not necessarily healthy.  If you'd like a more real-foods approach, substitute it with sweetened whipped cream.  
  • Homemade Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream Cookies.  These were my personal favorite Hostess product.  These use marshmallow cream and shortening in the filling.  I'm willing to bet you could sub out nearly anything in the filling; the real trick is making a soft, chewy oatmeal cookie. 
  • Homemade Hostess Cupcake.  This is David's personal favorite Hostess product.  As an extra bonus, this recipe looks positively delicious and does not use Crisco, which I count as two major benefits.  
  • Homemade Hostess Snowballs.  These give me fond memories of eating out of the vending machine at work on days I forgot to pack a lunch.  Chocolate cake filled with fluffy cream and rolled in coconut -- is there anything better?  (or, y'know, more packed with calories)
  • Homemade Moon Pies. These were never as popular as the others, but they're a popular Southern treat (and this recipe looks positively amazing). 

Did I miss one of your favorites?  Let me know and I'll track down the recipe.  Better yet, when I get some free time, I'll hit the kitchen and experiment with some real-foods recipes evoking the heart and soul of these snack foods without partially hydrogenated anything.  Until then, happy snacking. 

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Undeserving Poor

The "Welfare Queen", courtesy of MemeGenerator

Allow me a moment on my soapbox, here. 

So, I've been eagerly following Strike Debt's Rolling Jubilee movement.  In just a few days, they've already abolished $5 million in debt and counting.  That's huge.  And I can only imagine what might happen once the people whose debts have been relieved learn what happened and begin paying it forward. 

The unfortunate thing, though, is as I eagerly read more updates and follow the news, I see a whole lot of nastiness spewed all over the Internet.  It ranges from the polite, "I think this is good for some people, but what about the ones who were irresponsible and just bought a lot of unnecessary junk on their credit cards?" to the rather nasty, "If people are too stupid to know how to pay their debts, they don't deserve help." 

This notion of the "undeserving poor" really upsets me.  It's the same as the (equally upsetting) complaints about the "welfare queens" or those people who have shiny new cars and iPhones but buy food with food stamps.  It's ridiculous.  Yes, some people are probably gaming the system.  I won't deny that: Some people are jerks.  But the vast majority of people aren't, and if you took a moment to get to know them you would understand that.

"If You're Poor, Why Are You Wasting Money?"

But here's something in particular I wanted to touch on.  One comment I read recently really struck a chord.  It was from someone who use to work in a check cashing place in a convenience store, and he was saying how he used to see the same poor people coming in every week to cash their paychecks, then waste that money on lottery tickets, cigarettes and beer.

I've seen a lot of people point out that same thing -- people who are broke spending their money on frivolous things -- and use that as a defense for why those people don't need anything.  So let me just take a moment to explain why that happens, and why the "If they're so stupid, fuck 'em" attitude just doesn't work.

"I Need to Use This Money While I Still Have It." 

When you're broke, saving money is next to impossible.  Payday is the only time of the week when you know for sure that you'll have money.  For a few, ephemeral moments, you have purchasing power.  Soon, that will all go away because the money will be eaten up not just by bills, but by debts -- sometimes debts that have already gone sour, have already destroyed your credit and you've been carrying like a rotten albatross for years.  Worse, that money may get eaten up by overdraft charges.  

When I used to work for Petsmart and made a pretty stunning $150 a week  (if I wasn't getting my hours cut), I would sometimes lose whole paychecks to overdraft fees.  Thanks to the way Bank of America would process its transactions, you could end up earning $35 fees on several transactions all back to back even if you'd only really gone over your balance by a couple dollars on one single purchase.  They've since been sued for that, by the way.  Anyway, I finally ended up canceling my bank account and lived on a prepaid debit card for a while -- but the feeling of "If I don't spend this on something right away, it will be taken from me" is hard to get rid of. 

That's the first thing people who have never been poor need to understand, because it may not be intuitive.  If you give someone $5 and say, "Either you can spend that $5 now or hold onto it for a year and I'll give you $100 if you still have it," the obvious responsible choice is to hold onto that $5.  But when you're poor, the answer is often like, "If you still have that $5 in a year, I'll give you $100, but I might also punch you in the gut and take your $5 away at any time randomly throughout the year and there is nothing you can do to stop me." 

"I Deserve to be Happy Sometimes, Right?"

Here's what it comes down to, the single greatest difference between people who live paycheck to paycheck and people with low incomes who never get into financial trouble:  Hope. 

Well, hope, and also education.  If you don't know how to get out of debt, no amount of hope will help you.  But even if you know all the steps, even if you know exactly how to get out of the situation you're in, that knowledge isn't going to help you if you don't genuinely feel, in your heart, that things are going to get better. 

For a poor person, the odds of winning the lottery might seem pretty similar to the odds of paying off debts and achieving financial security: In other words, not fucking likely.  If that's the case, why not just buy the lottery ticket? 

For a poor person, the choice between "Have something right now that will make me feel better about my life instead of taking a chance that I will lose everything to some stupid charge later" doesn't seem too hard.  Instant gratification is, well, gratifying.  Especially when you combine instant gratification with addictive substances -- nicotine, alcohol, cocaine, fast food. 

A Gift of Hope

But if these people are given hope -- real, genuine hope for the future -- maybe it will help to undo some of that self-destructive skepticism.  If they can start to believe, "If I set this money aside, nothing bad will happen to it.  In a year, I really will have $100," then they can finally start making some changes in their lives. 

One of my goals here at the Nonconsumerist is to provide education and real, usable tips that can help people achieve some financial freedom -- or at least financial breathing room.  But all of that education in the world won't do a damn thing if the people who need it most don't believe that life can get better.  And it's especially hard to tell people that life can get better if you're simultaneously telling people, "You're lazy and stupid and worthless." 

When people are already without hope, is it really fair to take away their dignity? 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Rolling Jubilee: Real Answers for Real Problems

A friend linked me to Rolling Jubilee, a social movement that essentially crowd-funds debt relief for people who need it.  Not only does it have a rather cheerful-sounding moniker, this extension of the Occupy movement is actually taking steps to help real people, which automatically makes it pretty awesome in my book.

So, first off:  What exactly is it doing, and how does it work? 

When you have unsecured debt (like a credit card) that goes unpaid, the original lending agency will try to collect that money from you.  Meanwhile, they'll be reporting you to the credit bureaus.  After a few failed attempts to collect the debt, they'll sell your account to an outside debt collection agency (aka, "Collections"), who will badger the hell out of you until you pay them some money.  

Now, here's a few important things to know about collection agencies: 
  • They bought your debt for a few cents on the dollar along with multiple other debts.  They can then buy and sell those same debts to other collection agencies. 
  • The reason why the debts are bought and sold for a low price is because they assume that they won't get much, if any, of the money back.  
  • The longer the collection agency tries to get the money from you, the more it will continue to affect your credit.  This ends when the owner of your debt reports the account either paid or forgiven.  
  • Because collection agencies make their sole profits by convincing you to pay them money, they can get really nasty.  Really, really nasty.  They'll call you at odd hours.  They'll threaten you.  They'll demoralize you.  They'll be, in short, really really nasty. 
  • If the debt is high enough, they'll take you to court.  For amounts under $1,500 or so, they usually won't bother -- but for large sums, you can bet you'll be served with papers some day.  
So, how does this Rolling Jubilee thing work?  

Pretty simple:  The group buys up debts -- in bulk, just like a collection agency would -- and then makes them go away.  The debts stop being reported to the credit bureaus, you stop getting harassing phone calls, you stop needing to pay for things.  Of course, your credit is still going to be damaged from the time it did spend in default, but at least you won't be continuing to pay off defaulted bad debt for a bazillion years.  

Why this is Really, Really Cool

In an ideal world, of course, people would pay off their own debts -- or never go into debt in the first place -- and these bail-outs would be unnecessary.  In the real world, though, sometimes life sucks, and sometimes it's not your fault.  Let me give you a real-life example from my own finances:  
I used to have a part-time job with insurance, which was a blessing considering how rarely that happens. I made about $600 a month and was living with a couple of roommates. I got very, very sick -- a sinus infection with a 105 fever that caused hallucinations, among other things -- and went to the urgent care. I gave them my insurance card and paid the co-pay on the back of the card. The doctor them prescribed me some drugs which I couldn't afford (no prescription coverage), so I took the only prescription I could afford (antibiotics) and crawled home. So imagine my surprise when, several weeks later, I get a letter from the insurance company informing me that the urgent care visit wasn't actually covered and I owed them $300. Remember, at the time, that was half a month's wages for me. That was my entire share of rent. And, no, they wouldn't take payments. (The worst part of this? If I'd been uninsured, the visit would've cost me just $25 thanks to the policies of the urgent care facility.)
 So what do I do at that point?  Do I borrow money from someone to cover for it?  What if nobody can pay for it?  Do I take out more debt to pay for it?  Do I skip out on rent?  Stop paying my utilities?

The truth of the matter is that for many people, living paycheck to paycheck is a reality, and emergencies -- even emergencies that cost as little as $300 -- can be completely devastating.  When people think of debt, they often think of some irresponsible kid running out and buying a bunch of pricey electronics on a credit card, but the truth is a lot more nuanced than that.

Here's the other reason helping people out of debt is a good idea.  People who are struggling to pay off debts can't buy other things.  That means they can't, say, use that money to buy from a local small business.  They can't invest use it to buy a better car to commute to work.  They can't use it to buy materials or capital for a new business.  In other words, they can't use their money to help stimulate the economy.  They're still paying off purchases (or education, or unexpected medical expenses, or whatever) from years ago -- and that hurts every single other person in the economy who doesn't get to benefit from the money they could otherwise be spending.

Where Are They Getting the Money for This?

They accept donations from private consumers who want to hand over their cash for the cause.  They don't make a profit on this, they don't take a cut from the top, and they're all volunteers.  They're just crowd-funding debt relief for anonymous people.  This means that if you dislike the idea or are against it...well, you don't have to give them any money.  Yay!  Think of it sort of like every time a project you think is really dumb goes up on Kickstarter: Other people might fund it, but you can happily ignore its very existence and get on with your life.  

As an added bonus of this Rolling Jubilee, you may even find your defaulted debts paid off for you even if you're not involved -- because the debts are bought in bulk off the open market.  Happy holidays.  

Friday, November 9, 2012

Ways to Minimize Food Wastage

Food wastage is a major problem in America.  As a nation, we throw away about half of all the food we produce.  We spend $1 billion per year to get rid of the food we throw away on top of the $165 billion in wasted food we toss every year.

Not to go too political on you, but just for the record, that $166 billion in food wastage and disposal?  That could be used to feed a whole hell of a lot of people in developing nations -- or right here at home.  Even if you don't care about feeding starving children (and you should), consider this:  Right now, Social Security is adding about $165 billion to the deficit.  Hmm, I wonder where we could possibly get that much money to counter that cost.....

General Tips for Minimizing Food Wastage

  • Make a meal plan and buy only the groceries you need to make the food on your menu.  If you do buy in bulk, only do it on foods that won't go bad, or make a plan for preserving your foods to make them last longer.  
  • If you don't eat a lot of produce, consider buying your vegetables frozen instead of fresh.  The nutrition loss is minimal and you don't have to worry about them going bad quickly.  Focus your fresh vegetable purchases on a handful of things that you know you'll eat right away. 
  • Take steps to extend the lifespan of foods in your fridge.  Keep the refrigerator at the right temperature.  Store things in the appropriate containers.  Rinse berries and other vegetables in vinegar to kill off mold spores.  
  • Don't cook more than you will eat.  If you have leftovers, package them in a freezer-friendly way and be sure you'll actually eat them.  It makes more sense to cook a small portion of something and eat all of it than cook a huge amount of leftovers that you won't eat.  If you're still hungry, eat a snack later.  
  • Keep your fridge clean and relatively well-organized so you can see what you have.  Keep a list somewhere of the food you have in the house and cross items off as you run out of them.  It will save you money on groceries and reduce food wastage.  
  • Stop sour cream and cottage cheese from molding by storing them upside down.  This makes it harder for contaminants to get inside the lid and ruin your food.  

Ways to Extend the Life of Foods Past their Prime

Even if you're careful, you may sometimes end up with food a bit past its prime.  No problem! Plenty of foods can be eaten past their "peak of freshness."  There's a long distance between "super fresh" and "so rotten it will make you sick," and foods in the in-between category can still be used.  
  • Eggs.  Check the freshness of eggs by dropping them in a bowl of water.  Fresh eggs will sink immediately to the bottom.  Not-so-fresh eggs will stand upright on their pointed ends.  Rotten eggs will float.  Fresh eggs stick together better for fried eggs and quiches; use the not-so-fresh ones in baked goods where their texture won't matter so much, or hard-boil them.  
  • Milk.  Milk usually lasts about two weeks past the "sell-by" date on the carton.  If it goes past that point or starts to sour, use it in place of buttermilk in pancakes, biscuits and other recipes.  Sour milk is also a fine starter for homemade cheese, yogurt, etc.  Just do something with it before it curdles on its own and you're all set.  
  • Cheese.  If a firm cheese like cheddar or swiss goes moldy in your fridge, just cut off the moldy portion.  For best results, shave off about 1" of the cheese that was touching the mold, too.  Don't try this with liquid dairy products like sour cream or cottage cheese, though.  
  • Firm vegetables.  Things like carrots, bell peppers etc. can be salvaged if they're slightly moldy.  Just chop off the moldy part.  As long as the rest of the vegetable still feels firm, you should be safe.  Don't try this with soft vegetables or fruits where the mold will penetrate deeper into the flesh.  
  • Produces that has begun to go soft.  If your produce has wilted or softened but isn't yet moldy, hurry and use it in something that will last.  Make a sauce or jelly out of your berries and fruit.  Toss the vegetables into your stock pot.  Yes, you're supposed to make these things with foods at the peak of freshness, but I promise that slightly-sagging celery will work just as well in your mire poix.  
  • Stale baked goods.  You need to throw out moldy bread, but the stale stuff works just great for homemade croutons and bread crumbs.  Stale chips can be rendered back down into masa or used as coating for things.  
These are just a few ideas.  The real hurdle is to be realistic with yourself about whether a food is actually unsafe to eat or if you're just freaking yourself out.  We have it pounded into our heads all the time that food has to be completely and utterly fresh and crisp and bright or we'll die, and the truth is a bit more nuanced than that.  

The best strategy though, as always, is simply not to buy things that you won't use.  Put some thought into it, be careful about what you buy and avoid creating unnecessary waste by using what you get.  Period.  

How 'bout you guys?  Any fun recipes or ideas for less-than-fresh foods? 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Need Some Dinner Ideas?

I discovered a lovely new website today: Supercook.

The premise of the site is pretty simple:  You plug in the ingredients you have on hand, then the site trawls through recipes online and finds things that can be made with the food in your pantry.  Of course, you can do this yourself by plugging in ingredients to a site like Epicurious or Allrecipes, but Supercook is nice because it excludes recipes that you don't have the ingredients for.

You can write in all of your ingredients, but it's probably easier to choose a recipe type and click the ingredients you have from there instead since the way you input an ingredient will make a difference in how it will show up.  For example, "potatoes" will bring up different results than "potato."  Once you get over those simple glitches, though, this is a pretty awesome and powerful tool.

Of course, you can't count on Supercook to tell you every possible recipe that you can make, and you might get several versions of a single recipe.  Nevertheless, this should be a good source of inspiration for you the next time your kitchen goes bare.  Another useful feature:  After you input the ingredients in your kitchen, it will generate a basic grocery list of items that will help you make the maximum number of meals.  Definitely helpful.

Anyway, here's my projected meal plan for the week (with extra options for variety):

French toast
Breakfast tacos
Cheese omelet
Cornmeal mush
Baked oatmeal
*English muffins
Grilled cheese & scrambled egg sandwich
Potatoes & eggs on tortilla
*Homemade granola

Grilled cheese sandwich
Mac & Cheese
Cornbread dogs
Pasta salad
Bean dip & chips
Parmesean pasta
Edamame and mushrooms

Peking Style Chicken
*Asian dumpling soup
-- Fried rice
-- Korean squash
*Cheese potato casserole
*Potato cheese soup
-- Bread bowl
Pasta la vista
-- Maple carrots
-- Stuffed zuchinni
-- Maple glazed green beans
*Lentil soup (shorbat addas)

(If you're wondering, the astericks designate meals that will take a little bit of extra time to prepare because they're predominately homemade or have several ingredients.)

How 'bout you guys -- what are y'all cooking this week?

Monday, October 1, 2012

Adventures in the Asian Market

One of the best parts about living in the "ghetto" of North Austin is the proximity to really excellent authentic ethnic cuisine.  Within a few miles of my apartment in any direction, you can find several amazing taco stands, Vietnamese sandwich shops, Chinese barbecues, noodle houses, Indian buffets and more.  One shopping center in particular is jam-packed with Asian shops, including a positively massive market, so we decided to head over for a shopping adventure today.

I really love Asian food.  It's David's favorite cuisine, and his deep love of anime and all things Japanese make it much easier to convince him to eat outside of his comfort zone.  While he can be kind of finicky about some foods, he gets a lot more adventurous when the food in question is Asian.  I, on the other hand, am pretty much an equal-opportunity foodie, but I have a deep appreciation for the economical style of Asian cooking.  Using meat as a condiment, making a lot of soup, eating a wide array of grains, vegetables and legumes...if ever there were a cuisine that's hand-picked for my style of eating, it's this one.

Anyway.  We headed over to the grocery store today and were immediately greeted by a koi pond, where a few young Vietnamese children were feeding some exceptionally friendly fish.  That should give you a pretty good idea of what awesomeness was in store once we went inside.

The market is massive.  I've been in a few Asian markets before, but they've usually been fairly small.  This place, on the other hand, was about the same size as the local HEB.  It had an entire section just for rice, with more varieties than I've ever seen.  It had an entire wall of tofu.  One aisle was devoted entirely to preserved foods, pickles, jerky.  It had duck eggs, goose eggs and quail eggs.  The seafood section had tanks of live catfish, lobsters and crabs, and you could buy fresh raw squid, cuttlefish, dozens of different fish and even sting ray.  Basically, this place was like Disney Land for food nerds.

One thing I especially enjoy about shopping at ethnic markets is the ability to buy fresh produce that you don't normally see at the regular supermarket.  I love eating fresh foods, but it can get really boring when your options are all the same.

I tried not to go too crazy, but we did still go slightly over budget.  Nevertheless, here's the fun break-down of the shopping trip:

  • Celery - 1.99
  • Pork shoulder (2lb) - 4.03
  • Shitake mushrooms - 2.66
  • Tomatoes - 1.17 
  • Mint - .79
  • Soy sauce (1 liter) - 1.89 (this was such a great find)
  • Dill - 1.19
  • Lo mein noodle (2 packs) 2.49/each
  • Pork & veggie pot stickers - 7.49 (an enormous bag)
  • Eggplant (2.4 pounds) - 3.39
  • Ramen noodles (no seasoning, just the noodles, huge pack) - 3.79
  • Napa cabbage (3lb) - 2.80
  • Soft tofu - .99
  • Firm tofu - .99
  • Gekkeikan sake - 12.99 (enormous bottle)
  • Siracha - 2.29 (also an enormous bottle)
  • Red potatoes (5lb) - 2.79
  • Broccoli (2 heads) - 1.26
  • Dragon fruit - 4.07
  • Sugar plum (2lb) - 3.40
  • Vegetable oil - 3.99 (you guessed it - big bottle)
  • Rice (5lb) - 5.99
  • Sesame oil - 2.59
  • Bubble gum - 1.39 (snuck in at the register by a certain boyfriend who shall not be mentioned)
  • Eggs (18 count) - 2.69 (these eggs are enormous)
  • Ramune (Japanese soda) - 8.94
Obviously, I didn't buy too many really adventurous things, but I did pick up a few staples that I really wanted, and a few fun things to try.  The dragon fruit, for example, is something I've never eaten but am really eager to try out.  Tonight, dinner was pretty straightforward: pot stickers served with some cabbage-and-mushroom lo mein.  Totally delicious.

Anyway, a few of my projects I hope to make (and blog about!) soon:

  • Cha siu bau with the pork shoulder.  I've made pork-filled meat buns in the past, and they've always been delicious, but I've never nailed the cha siu.  So I'm going to try that this time around.  
  • A small batch of plum sauce.  It's one of those condiments you always end up running to the store for at the last minute (er, if you eat a lot of Asian food), and it'd be so much nicer to have some on-hand. 
  • A batch of homemade rice vinegar with the sake.  I've been itching to make some vinegar, and considering the amount of Asian cooking I do, rice vinegar seemed like the way to go.  
  • Hot and sour soup.  It's David's all-time favorite comfort food and I think he'd be positively delighted if I could make some up on demand any time he asked for it.  
Anyway, that's just a few projects that are knocking around in my brain right now.  Anybody have any other suggestions or requests for things I can try to use up some of those excellent ingredients up there?  Leave them in the comments!  

Monday, September 24, 2012

What Do You Use Vanilla Sugar For?

So you know I'm having fun experimenting with vanilla beans, yeah? 

One of the ways I've been maximizing my usage is by tossing my "spent" vanilla bean husks into a jar of plain white sugar.  I give this a shake every day to help spread the flavor, and it smells positively amazing.  If you have some spent vanilla, you should totally do this so you don't waste any extra flavor tidbits.  But the question, of course, is what do you do with vanilla sugar? 

You probably don't want to use it in baking.  The flavor's a bit too delicate for that.  Here's a few things I've found to do with it that are great, though: 

-- Sprinkle it over cookies, like peanut butter or shortbread, before baking
-- Stir it into your tea or coffee for a deeper, sweeter flavor
-- Dust it onto homemade marshmallows or other candies
-- Sprinkle it over your cereal
-- Sprinkle some over fresh fruit
-- Use it the next time you make cinnamon toast

Basically, anything that tastes good with a spoon full of granulated sugar tastes extra good with a spoonful of vanilla sugar.  Obviously, don't go out and buy vanilla just to make this stuff...but if you have any husks lying around that'll go to waste, absolutely toss them into your sugar jar.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Concerning MSG

Monosodium glutamate, ie, MSG, is a flavoring agent that creeps its way into a lot of different foods.  Although it's most commonly associated with Chinese food, you can also find it in packaged snack foods like chips or added to frozen dinners.  MSG has a pretty nasty reputation among some people, and it's not too hard to find signs and packages proudly announcing their products to be "MSG free" -- but the question is, what is the stuff, and do you really need to avoid it?

What Is MSG?  

Glutamate, or glutamic acid, is an amino acid.  Amino acids are the basic building block of proteins, which are in turn the building blocks of living things in the form of muscle and tissue.  Monosodium glutamate is a salt of that acid -- basically, sodium combines at an atomic level with glutamate to form the salt.   This is the same as how table salt is a combination, at the atomic level, of sodium and chlorine.  So far so good? 

Glutamate occurs naturally in your body, where it helps keep your neurotransmitters firing efficiently.  If you end up with extra glutamate in your system, though -- or any other amino acid -- it becomes processed by your liver so that it can be stored for other things.  If your liver and immune system work properly, this process shouldn't cause any problems.  There can be some complications, though, if everything doesn't work the way it should.  One of the most common is an allergic reaction.

Although glutamate occurs naturally in the body, monosodium glutamate has to be manufactured.  There's two basic ways to accomplish this.  The first is hydrolizing vegetable protein.  The second is fermenting certain starches.  Most MSG you find in food is manufactured, but it does occur as a natural by-product in some fermented foods like soy sauce.  

What Does MSG Do In Food?

MSG was most likely identified in the foods where it's naturally produced -- ie, fermented foods like soy sauce or worcestershire.  There it creates that hard-to-pin-down flavor profile, umami.  You're familiar with salty, sour, sweet and bitter, right?  Umami is that delicious "savory" taste that helps complement other flavors and make food taste better. You know, the flavor you get when you eat something protein-filled like a well-cooked piece of meat? Glutamate is pretty much solely responsible for creating that flavor.

If you know anything about processed food, it really shouldn't shock you that "flavor that makes food taste better" is something that food manufacturers are eager to pump into their products.  

This is why you find MSG in so many processed foods.  It's way cheaper to put a little MSG in something than it is to put actual protein in there.  So, for example, canned soup or Ramen Noodle packets can taste meaty and delicious even if there isn't actually any meat in them.  Cheetos can taste cheesy despite there not actually being any cheese.  

Is It Harmful?  

Your taste buds work pretty hard to make sure that the things you put in your mouth are nutritious.  Different foods have different tastes, and giving you a preference for certain flavors helps make sure you eat what you're supposed to.  In the case of glutamate, your body recognizes the umami flavor and says, "hey, this is full of delicious protein!  eat up!"

Except, of course, if the glutamate is added to the food and there's not actually any protein in it.

So you're happily shoveling away food that your body thinks is nutritious and delicious when, in fact, you could be eating the nutritional equivalent of cardboard sprinkled with MSG.  This is no different than the way processed foods trick you with added salt, sugar, and fat.  The added flavors make fake food taste like yummy real food instead of tasteless fake food infused with artificial ingredients.  

MSG has a few other issues.  A small portion of the population is allergic to it, and you can develop a sensitivity to it if you eat a lot of it.  There's also a bunch of genetic problems that can increase your glutamate sensitivity.  For people with a genuine MSG sensitivity, excess glutamate can cause some serious medical problems, including neurological damage -- but this is a tiny portion of people.  To so-called "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" isn't nearly as widespread as people think it is. 

Why Should You Avoid MSG?

It's true:  A small percentage of people in the world have an MSG intolerance that leads to headaches, nausea, fatigue and other nasty problems.  That doesn't mean that MSG itself is necessarily bad any more than peanut allergies mean that peanuts are unhealthy.  If you have a diagnosed MSG intolerance, then you absolutely should avoid glutamate.  If you don't, though, glutamate isn't going to hurt you any more than, say, wheat gluten hurts people who don't have a gluten allergy.  So all of the fear-mongering about MSG is, to put it lightly, inflated.  It's not going to cause cancer or give you birth defects or make your eyeballs explode or anything.  Relax, eat some soy sauce.

The real reason to avoid MSG is because its presence in your food is probably a really good sign that the food isn't something you should be eating.  Remember, glutamate occurs naturally in foods.  But it doesn't show up in the ingredients label that way.  It only shows up in the ingredients if someone actually put the MSG in there.  Which means that the food is obviously highly processed, and thus probably not something you really want to put in your mouth. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Homemade Chocolate Pudding

My first use of the vanilla beans was quite conservative: Chocolate pudding.

(I was going to take a picture of it, but then I ate it all instead....oops)

The wonderful thing about vanilla is that it lifts up and enhances other flavors that come close to it, and vanilla makes chocolate taste positively divine.  That said, if you'd rather have straight-up vanilla pudding, you can use this same recipe and just omit the cocoa powder.

Recipe adapted from Alton Brown:

- 1 vanilla bean, split and with seeds scraped out
- 5 cups milk and 1 cup cream (you can use all milk, if you want)
- 1 cup powdered sugar
- 3/4 cup cocoa powder
- 1/2 cup corn starch
- pinch of salt
- 2 tbsp butter

Pour five of your six cups of liquid into a pot and add the vanilla bean.  You can toss in the whole pod if you want, or you can just put in the scraped-out seeds.  Let this simmer until it starts to steam, then mix in your sugar and cocoa powder.  Mix your remaining cup of milk with your 1/2 cup of corn starch until the starch is completely dissolved, then pour that into the mixture on the stove.  Add your salt.

Let this cook over medium heat for about 20 minutes, stirring frequently.  It might start to get lumpy; that's OK, just whisk the lumps until they break up.  You'll know it's done when the pudding coats the back of a spoon.  Take it off the heat and mix in your butter until thoroughly melted.  If you're using vanilla extract instead of whole vanilla, add it at this point.  Strain the pudding off into a bowl or individual serving cups -- whatever you want -- and chill for a couple of hours to let it set up.  If you don't mind pudding skin, you can chill uncovered; otherwise, you'll want to cover it with plastic wrap touching the top of the pudding.  This makes about 6 cups of pudding.


There's a lot of things you can do with this pudding if you want.  You can make it low-fat by using 2% or skim milk, but it won't be quite as thick and rich-tasting.  You can play around with the flavor profile and add various other extracts, like mint or coffee or rum.  You can use flour instead of corn starch to thicken it, but the texture will be a bit more grainy. 

The finished product can be eaten as-is or incorporated into cake.  You could make eclairs and stuff them with the pudding.  You can freeze it to make some really excellent fudge pops.  You can tweak the type of milk you use to make it richer or more low-cal.  I suspect you could add more starch or some gelatin to make a pie.  You could probably make vegan pudding by using rice, almond or coconut milk, but I've never tried it.  You can also mix up all of the dry ingredients and keep it in a jar in the cabinet to make single-size servings of pudding whenever you want.

Anyway -- chocolate pudding = amazing. 

I put my scraped-out vanilla bean stalk into a jar of sugar in the pantry.  It should infuse it with flavor and make some really yummy vanilla sugar that can then be used to sweeten tea, sprinkle over cereal or baked goods, whatever.  I'll buy some liquor this week so I can make some vanilla extract, too. 

Friday, September 14, 2012

Vanilla Beans: Incoming!

A good friend of mine and fellow urban homesteading nerd ordered bulk vanilla beans to make homemade Christmas presents.  After discovering that she'd ordered entirely more than she knew what to do with, she sent some to me as a blog project.  They arrived in the mail today, and let me tell you-- they smell amazing

Knowing that I have quite a bit of vanilla to work with, I decided it would be a good idea to research it a bit.  I admit that, for most of my life, "vanilla" has been a sweet smelling but often flavorless brown liquid you pour into things because the recipe told you to.  I definitely grew up on imitation vanilla, and as an adult I often leave it out of recipes because I can't be bothered to buy more. 

The fresh stuff, on the other hand, is a whole different animal (er, plant). 

What is Vanilla?

You're probably familiar with vanilla from its smell, which is very distinctive and sweet.  What you might not know is that it's a relative of the orchid.  In fact, it's the only fruit-bearing orchid in the world, and the "vanilla bean" is really its fruit.  It grows native in Central and South America, but it quickly migrated its way throughout Europe thanks to being brought home by the Conquistadors.  The French were especially fond of its flavor, and vanilla has worked its way into a side variety of dishes. 

Vanilla can be a bit tricky to grow.  The plants don't mature until they're about three years old, and they only bloom for one or two days.  In its native home, it's pollinated by a specific species of bee.  Elsewhere in the world, where that bee doesn't live, the plant must be pollinated by hand.  Furthermore, the beans must be picked while green and cured before they become edible.  This curing process takes months and is quite laborious. 

All of this is why you're often hard-pressed to find real vanilla in the store, and why real vanilla beans are so expensive.  But the question is: Are they worth it?

What's in "Imitation Vanilla"? 

Vanilla is an easy flavor to imitate, which is why it goes into so many foods (and, consequently, why it's become synonymous with "plain"), but the imitation doesn't come close to the subtlety and sweetness of the real thing.  You'll notice this very fast if you taste a little pure imitation vanilla.  It actually tastes very bitter and definitely smells more appealing than it tastes.  What's in it, anyway? 

As it turns out...a lot of things you probably don't want to eat. Basically, scientists identified the specific chemical that causes its flavor, vanillin, and found ways to get it out of non-vanilla sources, like wood pulp.  While I appreciate the spirit of recycling wood pulp from paper plants back into my diet, I think I'll pass. 

Oh, and here's a fun fact for you:  Many of the items made with "real vanilla" are still flavored predominately by imitation vanilla or vanilla extracts (which contain a lot of chemicals that are synthetically produced or, uh, not vanilla).  The characteristic brown flecks often actually come from beans that have already been used to make extracts.  In other words, all the flavor has been leached out, leaving behind a very impressive-looking but ultimately flavorless trail.  

So What's In Store for The Vanilla Beans? an excellent question!  I'm certainly going to make some real vanilla extract to have on hand, but other recipes are open to suggestions.  I have several beans, so I can go in a few different directions with them.  Anybody have any ideas they want me to try out?  Leave your vote in the comments below!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

What to Do With an Old Cell Phone

If you're like most people, you probably have a few old cell phones lying around gathering dust.  Every time your cell phone contract renews, you end up with a shiny new phone to replace your old phone, and the old phone ends up in a drawer somewhere -- or, worse, the trash.  In fact, thanks to the relentless forward march of technology, about 130 million cell phones or 65,000 tons, are thrown away every year in the U.S.  Not only does this take up a lot of space, it poses an environmental risk because electronics like phones and computers have a number of dangerous chemicals in them including arsenic, cadmium and lead.  These inevitably end in the water supply, where they can kill wildlife and cause birth defects. 

So instead of throwing away your old cell phone, here's a few ideas for things you can do with it: 

  1. Use it (and avoid paying a phone contract ever again). Here's a win-win for you.  You can save money and avoid being tied down to a contract by using your old phone.  There's a few options for this.  The easiest is to use a prepaid provider and load up the phone with minutes or a data plan.  You can also connect to WiFi from most smart phones and use Google Voice or Skype to make the phone totally usable from anywhere with an Internet connection. 
  2. Re-use it as something else.  Even if you don't use the phone to make calls, you can still use all of its other nifty features.  Use it instead of a Kindle to read e-books.  Play games on it; you can download an emulator and play various other console games on your phone very easily.  Ir you don't want it, give it to a kid in your life.  A used smart phone pre-loaded with apps is a fantastic way to satisfy their hankering for a smart phone without needing to actually give them a fully-functional phone.  If your phone doesn't work at all, you can give it to a younger child to use as a toy; just be sure there's nothing that can be swallowed or anything before you hand it over.  
  3. Recycle it. When you think of recycling, the image that pops into your head is probably plastic bottles.  But in truth, electronics are some of the most important items to recycle and dispose of properly.  You can drop off your phone at a recycling point at most phone and electronics stores, or you can even mail it in.  Depending on the model of your phone, you could even be paid for recycling it.  
  4. Donate it.  Some recycling bins for phones have a separate compartment for cell phones that are still in working order so you can donate them.  Some charities even accept donations of non-working phones.  Check with your favorite charity to see if they need phones.  For example, some women's shelters use old cell phones to give women a way to call for help.  A charity my friend works for, Water for the People, uses modified old cell phones as GPS trackers to help them navigate developing countries.  There are a ton of cell phone donation programs; just type in "cell phone donations in (your area)" in Google to find one you'd like.  
  5. Scrap it.  You might be surprised at how much a cell phone is worth once you break it up into all of its valuable parts.  Electronics all have a small amount of precious metals like gold and platinum, and these can be re-sold for cash money.  You can also pull out an undamaged SD card and use it in a digital camera or other device.  Be sure to pull out the battery and either re-use it, sell it, donate it or recycle it as many of the worst environmental hazards are in the battery.  
If you want to make a little extra money and help make a difference in the environment at the same time, you can make a side business of collecting and scrapping cell phones.  Advertise your services and go around neighborhoods to collect old phones and other unwanted electronics.  Scrap them for all of the usable pieces and sell the profitable parts, then recycle the rest.  You can also pick up cheap unwanted phones at thrift stores, yard sales, eBay and Craigslist; people will part with them for just a few dollars and you can easily make back your investment. 

Ever since David gave me my new-used Android, he's been learning all about things you can do with old cell phones.  As I learn more, I might post more tips for you.  I'll also see if I can get a guest post or v-log out of him showing you exactly how to set up your phone online, scrap it for gold etc.  

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

White Wheat: A Quick Tip

I have a really great post planned about the dairy industry, but I don't have the time to get into it just yet -- the day job is keeping me very busy this week as I try to catch up from a slow long weekend.  In the meanwhile, I do have a great baking tip for people who want to start cooking with whole grains. 

Whole wheat flour has a very familiar taste and texture.  It's toothy and heavy and a little nutty, and it's delicious but also a bit too hardcore for many types of foods.  If you're making cookies or cake or something, whole wheat flour is just too heavy. 

Here's the solution:  White wheat. 

No, that's not the same as bleached white flour.  It's a whole wheat flour that's made out of a particular strain of albino wheat.  The wheat is lighter in color and softer in texture.  Dough you make with it has this lovely golden-cream coloration, and you can hardly tell the difference when you make cookies or other things. 

The brand I bought is Prairie Gold, which isn't certified organic but is certified chemical-free and non-GMO.  It was about $4 for a 5lb bag and I am extremely pleased with it.  You can also get white wheat flour from King Arthur, Gold and various other flour-makers. 

If you do a lot of baking, you might also want to spring for the slightly more expensive wheat pastry flour.  This is whole wheat flour that's ground more finely than normal flour, so you can use it in making various pastries, pie crusts, etc. 

Monday, September 3, 2012

What You Pay For When You Buy Organic

Growing up, I always straddled an uncomfortable line.  On the one hand, we were very earth-conscious, frugal and generally healthy eaters.  On the other hand, we were also decidedly working class, and there was always a little discomfort about the "new-agey, Birkenstock-wearing crunchy granola-heads" and the "cosmopolitan, latte-sipping yuppies."  Those people didn't have to work hard, unglamorous and often life-threatening jobs in order to provide for their families.  Those people could afford to shop at Whole Foods and make fruity dishes from scratch every night -- or have their maids do it.  And those people bought organic because they thought they were better than everybody else. 

As I got older -- and my dad retired from his blue collar job -- we started to shift a little bit me toward the "crunchy granola" side of the spectrum, but some of those underlying biases still follow me.  It still bothers me for rich, entitled white people to tell poor minorities how they should eat, and it really bothers me to see rich, well-fed people talk about "suffering" economically as if selling a few stocks to pay the mortgage on your half-million dollar house means a damn thing. 

But that's neither here nor there.  Right now, we're talking about organic food -- and, more importantly, whether buying organic actually matters or if it's just a way for the hipsters to be more superior than the rest of us. 

What is "Organic," Anyway? 

If you want to be scientific about it, the word "organic" simply means carbon-based, ie, alive.  If something was once alive at any point, it's carbon-based, making it by definition organic.  But that's not what "organic" means in the grocery store (unfortunately -- that would make shopping much simpler).  Instead, "organic foods" are those produced without synthetic pesticides, radiation treatments, artificial fertilizers or genetic modification. 

In terms of meat and dairy, organic means that the animal was fed organic feed and was not confined 100% of the time.  It's important to realize that this is not the same as grass-fed or pastured meat.  A cow could be fed a diet of corn and kept on a feed lot and it would still be organic as long as it was organic corn and a big feed-lot.  In order to get good dairy, eggs and meat, you'll want to look for labels that say "pastured" or "grass-fed," and that might be hard to find in a regular supermarket. 

Now, if you spend any time at all in a store like Whole Foods, you'll discover that lots of things are labeled as "organic," including cereal, crackers, yogurt, ice cream, etc.  What's up with that?  That just means that the item was made from organic ingredients.  There are different labeling rules:
  • 100% organic means it's made with (you guessed it) 100% organic ingredients
  • Organic means it's made with 95% or more organic ingredients
  • Made with organic ingredients means that 70% of the ingredients are organic and the other 30% have to fall within certain parameters, like being non-GMO
  • If the product is made with less than 70% organic ingredients, it can't say "organic" on the label, but it can specify which ingredients are organic in the ingredient list
You can read all about organic labeling practices and other information here.  

Is Organic Food Really Better For You? 

It's no surprise that organic food costs more than regular commercially produced food.  The fruits and vegetables themselves also tend to be smaller, which makes it seem like you're getting a terrible value.  And, to be fair, eating any vegetables at all is still better than eating none, so if you absolutely cannot afford organic fresh produce (and I totally understand), buy the commercial stuff and be happy. 

But here's a few reasons why you should really try to eat organically whenever possible: 
  • You won't consume as many pesticides.  In the quantities you'll eat them at, adults usually won't have any problems with pesticides, but they can cause problems for developing fetuses and young children.  If you're really concerned about eating pesticides, you can start buying organic foods by using the "dirty dozen" rule. 
  • You're keeping the water supply cleaner.  Rain water and other types of run-off take things from plants and soil.  All of this ends up finding its way back into your water supply, and usually in much more concentrated amounts. 
  • You're avoiding GMO foods.  I'm actually not opposed to the idea of bio-engineered foods at all, but unfortunately the technology has been put to terrible use.  I'll talk about GMO some other time, but for now just know that it's generally a good idea to avoid them thanks to corporate interests. 
  • The foods will generally have more nutrients.  Natural soil has more stuff in it, and plants that build up their own immune systems usually have more vitamins in them.  So even though the plant is smaller, it will usually taste richer and contain more nutrients.  
So, to sum up:  Buying organic produce is generally a good idea, and you should do it whenever you have the chance.  Organic meat, eggs and dairy aren't necessarily the best choice, though, and that whole debacle will be tackled in an upcoming post.  Organic foods can still be processed, so you still have to read ingredients and decide if it's worth buying the packaged food or if you'd rather make it yourself.  Organic foods are expensive, but they're also more nutrient-dense so that helps mitigate the cost.

Oh, and one final parting word:  Being "certified organic" is expensive and requires some effort that small farms aren't always able to do.  If you're shopping at a farmer's market, you can just ask the farmer about his or her practices.  They might not be able to claim organic practices, but they can tell you whether they use pesticides or artificial fertilizers.  Don't assume, however, that all local farmers are organic.  It's always better to ask.  

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Falling Off the Wagon

I'm an ex-smoker, and one of the first things I learned about quitting is that whenever you fail (and you will fail), just go right back to quitting as if nothing happened.  It's a valuable lesson to learn no matter what you're doing.  If you're trying to live a healthier lifestyle, it's inevitable that you'll splurge from time to time, and that's OK.  Just don't let yourself think, "Oh, well, I messed this all up, so it's over."  Just go back to eating healthy the next day.

Same story with slipping up and buying things you shouldn't.  Don't make an excuse for yourself -- "Oh, I really needed X, so it's find, but for something else I won't do it!" -- and don't try to justify it or hide it or anything.  Just agree that it happened, it's over, and move on.

Needless to say, we did some splurging this weekend.  It was our anniversary, but I stupidly didn't make any plans in advance.  I sort of did that "psychic girl" thing where I made no plans in hope that my boyfriend would magically pick up the slack and manage to pull off something wonderful and romantic with zero budget and no advance planning, without me telling him that I wanted him to do anything.  Naturally, this did not happen, which led to me being exceedingly cranky all weekend.

We went out to a Mongolian barbecue grill, which would have been perfect if we'd just stopped there.  But then we decided to pick up some stuff to eat while watching movies at home.  I ended up spending entirely too much on baking supplies, but at least I stuck to my guns there -- 100% real cocoa, chocolate chips with no artificial ingredients and whole wheat "white wheat" flour, and all-natural ice cream (that took some searching).

Unfortunately, something in this started a chain reaction of badness, and somehow in the last two days I've eaten Taco Bell, A&W and Cici's pizza.  I am completely ashamed of myself.  All of it was disgusting and unsatisfying, and we spent about $100 this weekend that would have been better spent on....well, just about anything else.

Still.  It's a fresh week, and I refuse to beat myself up over this.  Now, every time I start to get a craving for the crap, I just have to remember how utterly gross and unsatisfying it is.

Soup is a Super Food

The dog days of summer are, slowly but surely giving way to the autumn, and I am so glad.  I've always hated summer -- but fall is one of the best times of the year.  There's bountiful harvests of in-season produce, the weather starts to cool down, my favorite holiday happens...and you can start eating soup without anyone thinking you're nuts.

Soup is one of my favorite foods.  It's cheap, and you can feed a crowd of people with a tiny amount of food.  It's also the first thing I ever learned how to cook and one of the easiest things for people who want to get their feet wet cooking but aren't sure where to start.  I have a lot of friends who don't do much cooking -- so here's a few tips for soup-making. 

Start by making your own stock.  

It's super easy.  By definition, stock requires bones; if you're making a "veggie stock," you're technically making a broth.  Either way, the great thing about stock is that it uses up all of the bits and pieces from other things you cook.  Save all of your vegetable ends, your bones from meat, your shrimp tails, etc. and make stock with them.  Keep it to one type of animal per meat stock -- pork stock, chicken stock, beef stock -- but you can get by with putting several types of fish into a seafood stock.

The way I make my stock is pretty simple.  Take a big pot and chop up some onions, carrots, garlic and celery.  If you have other vegetable "bits" floating around, put those in too! Toss that in the pot and start heating it.  Add your bones -- if they have a bit of meat on them, all the better -- and then cover it with lots of water.  Add some salt and herbs.  Cook this at a bare simmer for a few hours.  Even better, put the whole concoction into a crockpot and forget about it overnight.  Then just strain off the stock and put it in the fridge.

The fat will rise up to the top.  You can peel this off to use in cooking if that's your thing, or just toss it.  The rest of it can be frozen.  Freeze in an ice cube tray and them dump the cubes of stock out into a big plastic baggy.  That way you always have just the right amount of stock on hand. 

Tips for Making Soup

Once you have a nice, homemade stock to work with, you can make just about anything taste good.  You don't need stock in order to make soup, of course, but the stock does add some richness and depth of flavor.  Here are a few really simple soups to start off:
  • Make chicken noodle by combining chicken stock with chunks of fresh chicken, fresh vegetables, and noodles.  You can make homemade noodles if you want, or substitute noodles for rice, barley or some other grain.  Carrots are essential.  For flavorings, I like to use salt, pepper, marjoram, thyme and rosemary.  Seasoning salt is good too.  
  • Make a wholesome vegetarian minestrone by combining a big can of stewed tomatoes with veggie stock, beans (I like white beans like cannelinis, or chickpeas) and vegetables (I like corn and green beans in this a lot) and either some pasta (shells or macaroni is my favorite).  Finish it at the end with a splash of red wine vinegar to kick it up a notch.  
  • Make a super simple chili by combining a can of crushed tomatoes, two small cans of tomato sauce, a cup or two of beans and chili powder, cumin, salt, pepper and garlic.  You can add the meat of your choice if you want.  Use the leftovers over pasta or rice. 
  • Want a stupidly simple, shockingly delicious soup?  Boil some potatoes (the little white or red ones are best, but any will work) in fish or veggie stock.  Poach some fish (something fairly sturdy - I like perch for this) in the same stock after the potatoes are softened.  Add some salt to the broth if necessary.  Finish it off with an ample squeeze of lemon.  Trust me when I tell you that this is amazing and has saved my hide on nights when there was essentially nothing in my pantry that I could eat. 
  • One of my favorite soups is to combine stock or water with crushed tomatoes and tomato sauce, fresh onions, bell peppers and jalapenos, chili powder, cumin, garlic, salt and pepper, corn and any other miscellaneous veggies I have on hand. Finish it off with a fresh squeeze of lime.  
  • Make a super easy chowder by combining potatoes with stock and slow-simmer until the potatoes are softened and mashable.  Even better, upcycle leftover mashed potatoes.  Add broccoli or corn and cheese if you wish.  Finish off with some milk or cream at the end of the cooking process.  Season simply with salt and pepper, or put in just a smidge of mustard to bring out cheese.  You can boost the nutrition and lower calories by replacing some of the potatoes with cauliflower.  
  • Around Halloween, I like to do a hearty pumpkin soup.  Sweat out some leeks in the pan, then combine pumpkin and stock.  Add salt, pepper and a bit of nutmeg.  Blend all of this, then add some currants or raisins at the end and garnish with toasted pumpkin seeds.  
I could go on and on.  Just suffice to say, it's pretty hard to screw up soup.  You can even toss everything into a slowcooker and neglect it for several hours and it'll still turn out delicious.  Here's a few tips for rescuing a soup that's suffering:
  • Add some salt.  Do it in small quantities, so you don't get overwhelmed, but you'd be amazed at how much it fixes flavor.  You know you have the perfect amount of salt when the food tastes suddenly better without tasting salty.  
  • Add a splash of vinegar or lemon/lime to brighten up flavor
  • Add tomato to basically any brothy soup to make it taste good
  • Add cheese to basically any creamy soup to make it taste good
  • If you add too much salt, just dump in more of everything else and make a double or triple batch.  Freeze the excess.  
  • You can cook pretty much any grain in soup.  Don't try to cook beans in soup, though, because they won't absorb liquid properly if there's any salt in the liquid.  
So there you go.  I hope you're inspired to make some soup once the weather starts cooling down.  

      Friday, August 31, 2012

      Stop the Demand, End the Supply

      I've noticed an interesting thing as I've started my quest toward a nonconsumerist lifestyle: Most of the other people interested in this same thing tend to be animal welfare activists.  Not just the vegans and vegetarians I know, but the omnivores as well.  I think this interest in animal welfare goes deeper than the question of whether or not to eat flesh.  I think it strikes at the very core of non-consumerism. 

      Let me pause to give you a bit of back story.  I started rescuing rats in 2008.  Since then, I've taken in over a dozen unwanted rodents myself, and I've helped rehome about 50 to forever-homes.  I have friends who are fellow rat-rescuers, dog rehabilitators, cat TNR workers, you name it.  But it's all a similar goal: Find homes for as many unwanted animals as possible.  

      When you work in rescue, you become pretty fanatical about spaying and neutering.  That's because the more animals that are born every year, the more end up being unwanted.  Worse, new puppies displace older dogs in shelters.  Every puppy or kitten that's born is a death sentence for some other animal.  And it's insanely difficult to get that into people's heads sometimes.  Try as we might, animal rescuers are time and again confronted with the backyard breeders who bred puppies "because they were cute" or some other asinine reason and now want us to clean up their mess. 

      Anyway, a friend of mind in the rat rescue business has this very simple quote in her signature for all online dealings:  Stop the demand, end the supply.  

      And I thought -- wow, that's powerful.  Not just for animals, but for everything else we consume. 

      The Power of the Consumer

      It's easy to think that consumers have no power.  We feel buffeted around in a world that's bigger and scarier than us.  "What difference can I possibly make?"  We say.  "Why does it matter what I do, when the rest of the world is still doing other things?"

      What we don't realize is that we are the rest of the world.  The decisions we make do make a difference, and in a very real way.  When you stand up and demand something, people will listen.  They have to, because you're the consumer.  You're the person funding their payroll. 

      If you stop the demand for certain things, they'll stop getting made.  It won't be instantaneous, but it'll happen.  If people couldn't make money by breeding cute puppies, fewer backyard breeders would churn them out.  If food companies couldn't make money by selling you prepackaged convenience foods, they wouldn't make them. 

      Instead of bemoaning the state of the world and feeling helpless about it, make your stand!  If you don't like something, don't buy it.  Don't support industries you disagree with just because "it's the way the world works" and you're too intimidated to change.  Vote.  With every purchase and decision you make, vote.  One person at a time, one issue at a time, the world will start to change. 

      Stop the demand.  End the supply. 

      And with that, I'm off for the weekend.  I have a stack of library books to read and lots of new food to try out!

      Wednesday, August 29, 2012

      Homemade Chips and Guacamole Dip

      What you're looking at is lunch from today:  turkey, havarti and avocado sandwich with homemade guacamole and homemade oven-fried chips. The bread is Earth Grains 12-grain, which is probably the best commercial sandwich bread I've found so far. 

      I've always been quite proud of my guacamole, so I decided to be adventurous and try making some tortilla chips to go with it.  The tortillas are made by hand in the bakery of the HEB.  They still have a few more ingredients than I'd like, so I'll keep searching for good local tortillas (considering the neighborhood I live in, that shouldn't be too hard), but they're still better than the commercial ones. 

       Chips are so stupidly easy to make that I don't understand why anyone would ever feel it necessary to buy them.  These are crispy and fresh and you only have to eat a handful of them to feel satisfied -- it's not like regular chips where you pound through a bag in one sitting.

      All you have to do is dip/brush/spray the chips with oil, sprinkle with salt and bake them at 375 for about five minutes.  If they still seem a bit soggy or under-done, pop them back in the oven.  It's as simple as that. You can use the same technique to make taco shells, rolled tacos, etc.  You could also deep-fry them if you wanted, but this is much less messy.

      Your method of oil preparation will determine how much fat the chips have in them.  You can also spray them with cooking spray, or just put the oil in a regular spray nozzle bottle.  This allows you complete freedom over what type of oil you use, how much salt goes onto the chips, etc.  You definitely don't have that same flexibility when dealing with commercial chips!

      And here's my famous Guacamole. I could eat this plain with a spoon, it's that good.  People get intimidated by guacamole -- I've even seen grocery store guacamole mix, which seems ridiculous -- but it's actually insanely simple.

      Here's what you need:
      • 1 large avocado 
      • 1 tomato
      • A bit of diced onion - I use about two tablespoons of finely diced onion
      • A clove of garlic
      • A tablespoon or so of freshly-chopped cilantro
      • Fresh lime
      • Salt & pepper to taste
      Just combine all of the ingredients together in a bowl.  Mash up the avocados as you fold in the other ingredients to be sure your flavor gets distributed evenly.  Everything goes in by taste, so adjust it to the way you like it.  This makes just enough to serve two people comfortably.  You can scale up or down accordingly.

      Other than eating with chips, guacamole is a great replacement for mayonnaise on sandwiches.  If you happen to have leftovers (blasphemous, I know) just cover it up with plastic wrap. Be sure the plastic wrap is touching the surface of the guacamole or else it oxidizes and turns brown.  It doesn't hurt it, but it does look pretty gross.  I've also heard you can freeze guacamole, but I haven't tried it myself so I can't make any guarantees there.

      Anyway -- I hope this inspired you to experiment a little. 

      The Benefits of a Whole Foods Diet

      I hate sales pitches.  This probably shouldn't surprise you, considering I'm running a blog all about non-consumerism, but I'm serious:  I really hate sales pitches.  My biggest complaint with them is that they try to masquerade as information, but all they are is hype and rhetoric.  You think you're reading something valuable, but no -- you're just being sold something.

      What I really do like, though, are well-researched arguments, essays, research papers, etc.  Things with independent research that I can fact-check and review and draw my own conclusions from.  

      So I'm not going to try to sell you on whole foods just because I say they're great.  I'm going to explain to you -- like a persuasive essay -- why I choose to eat whole foods.  I'll even cite my sources.  And at the end of it, you can make your own choice, and I won't think any less of you no matter what you decide.

      Benefits of a Whole Foods Diet

      First, let me define my terms.  For benefits of this discussion, a whole foods diet refers to foods that contain one ingredient -- whatever they are.  So fruits, vegetables, eggs, dairy, meat, grains, legumes.

      Here's why eating a diet made up entirely of those foods is good:
      • It's cheaper.  Intuitively, this makes sense, but people disbelieve it.  Probably because whole foods have to be eaten and consumed as part of recipes, which requires cooking, which is scary to some people.  And because buying every ingredient of a recipe is probably more expensive than buying a single pre-packaged product, but only if you're not looking at serving sizes.  Per unit, the whole foods will always win out.  Here's a very simple example you can research for yourself: Look at the price of a tub of oatmeal vs a box of single-serving instant oatmeal packets. 
      • It's healthier.  Here's a dirty little secret of the food industry.  Fresh foods usually taste pretty good all on their own, as a benefit of being fresh.  When you're making something with an eye toward profit margins, you can't use the freshest ingredients.  Instead, you make your food out of crappy ingredients, then pump it full of salt, sugar, and fat (the three things that always taste delicious) in order to make it taste better.  Fast food is especially terrible about this.  Which is why when I deep-fry potatoes at home, the resulting fries have 220 calories, but a similar number of McDonald's fries have 380 calories. And it's not just about calories.  Fresh foods have more nutrients intact thanks to being, well, fresh.  And if you're cooking your own food, you control exactly what goes into it.  
      • It's not tied up in quite a many commercial interests. Of course, whole foods have their political ties but you have more flexibility by buying local or growing your own or whatever.  Incidentally, commercial interests and political power is one reason that high fructose corn syrup is in basically everything that comes in a package. 
      • It generates less waste.  For example, a box of cereal includes a cardboard box and a plastic bag for freshness.  If you buy cereal in a bag, you reduce the waste a little, but cause a whole new set of problems with your non-recyclable bag.  And that's not including the amount of energy expended by the factor that makes both the packaging and the cereal itself, and the fossil fuels used up by the truck hauling it to the store.  If you buy bulk grains in a re-usable container, you minimize this waste.  
      So there you go.  It's cheaper, healthier, non-commercial and eco-friendly.  There's no bad here.  Have I convinced you yet? 

        Tuesday, August 28, 2012

        A Reaction Post to Food, Inc

        If you've never heard of it, Food, Inc. is a really great 2008 documentary about the things food producers don't want consumers knowing about, like the way meat is produced and packaged and the government subsidies that run the food industry.  I absolutely recommend that everyone watch it.  If you have Netflix, it's available on the instant queue, and I'm sure there's places to find it online as well if you do some searching.

        Anyway, I was happy to note that my boyfriend watched it with me from beginning to end.  He sometimes has a hard time getting really fired up about social issues the way I do because they're often so distant and nebulous.  He cares about real people and concrete things much more than ideas.  So I think it was extremely helpful for him to get to see the individual stories and really understand how these things affect real people.

        I already knew a lot of the information covered by the documentary, but some parts of it were really shocking.  The worst part might be the human rights violations on behalf of the big businesses.  It was also heartbreaking to see the low-income family struggling with feeding themselves on their low budget and turning to fast food as a solution.  I know exactly how that feels.  I've been there.  And that really underscored, for me, the importance of what I'm trying to do here.

        I can't solve everyone's problems.  On my own, I can only do so much.  But if something I say can in any way inspire a few people to make some changes that affect their life, then it's worth it.  If I can help people figure out how to eat responsibly and sustainably on a miniscule budget, then maybe fewer people will be faced with the fast food dilemma.

        The other thing that really fascinated (and repulsed) me from the documentary was the sheer amount of political power that the big corporations have.  It's something that always makes me uncomfortable, and it strengthens my resolve even more to make my stand against consumerism.  Yes, we have to live as a part of this world, and it may be impossible to bring down the whole capitalist system at once -- but we do our small part every day, and those things really do add up.  It might not seem like we have much power as consumers, but in fact we are the power.  Without consumers, the entire system collapses.  It's our job to find the better way and forge that path.

        Anyway.  As you can tell, I'm all hyped up and ready to change the world, which is always a great place (emotionally) to be.  If you've seen Food, Inc., drop me a line and tell me what you thought!  If you haven't seen it yet, I really recommend it.  It's well worth the couple hours of time.