31 July 2012

On the TV show "Hoarders"

I'm completely addicted to the TV show Hoarders. I don't even have a television in my house, but I love this show. Maybe it's the inspiration to keep my own home picked up. Maybe it's the tips I can glean from the professional organizers they feature. Maybe it's the crush on Matt Paxton. Maybe it's the interest, as someone with mental illness in my own family, in watching how the families deal with their loved ones' mental illness -- there's some reassurance in seeing that for other people, too, it's impossible to always be patient and understanding and compassionate, every single day, with a sick family member. Or maybe it's just voyeurism.

But joking aside, I think it's because I see a glimpse of where I could go if I'm not careful. I tend to be wound pretty tight, and so it's only been with effort over the years that I've taught myself not to "need" a complete set of this, or a perfectly matched set of that. Or to hold on to duplicate prints of photos just in case, or back issues of magazines because someone should keep them, or antique home-movie projectors to remind me of a previous hobby, and besides they're just such nice kitschy objets on the shelf there. If I haven't given away the second copies of the photos by now, I'm never giving them away. I'm not the publisher's librarian. And the fewer conversation pieces I have on my shelf, the easier it is to dust it.

And I hate spending money, too. So why do I want to add the book by Dr. Zasio from Hoarders to my home library?

30 July 2012

Do the math: On those 12 pounds of blueberries

A few weeks ago, I got 12 pounds of blueberries at $1.50/lb. We spent $8.00 on gas and tolls, for a total of $26.00 for the 12 pounds, or $2.17/lb. Here's a summary of what I did with them and how the cost compared to ready-made prices. All supermarket or online retail prices were from 25 July 2012. I comparison-shopped when possible and used the lowest prices I could find with a reasonable effort. For example, I used a supermarket bakery price for the blueberry pie, not, say, Isgro's Thanksgiving blueberry pie price. Also, if I found an item in more than one area of the store -- say, both the bakery and the freezer case -- I chose the cheaper item. However, I did not do an intensive search for the absolute lowest price available online or in regional stores, because research that intense is outside the scope of this post. (Keeping a price book is a fantastic strategy, and a topic for another day.) Here goes:

1 pound blueberries, eaten fresh: Supermarket price was $3.99/lb; I spent $2.17, for savings of $1.82

1 pound blueberries, frozen: Supermarket price is $5.99/lb.; I spent $2.17, for savings of $3.82

1 dozen blueberry muffins: Supermarket price is $3.99/4, or $11.97/doz.; my recipe used 1/2 pound of berries plus about $1.00 in other ingredients and cooking gas, or $2.09/doz, for savings of $9.88

1 blueberry pie: Supermarket price is $6.49 for a bakery pie. The bakery pie was smaller than my deep-dish pie, so let's say that it would take 1.5 of them to match mine, or $9.73; my deep-dish recipe used 1.5 pounds of berries plus about $0.75 in other ingredients and cooking gas, or $4.01, for savings of $5.72

1 blueberry cobbler: My supermarket didn't have a cobbler in the bakery or freezer, so let's say I made one from canned blueberry pie filling and a 16-oz. tube of refrigerated biscuits. Canned filling is $4.04 for 21 oz., or $0.19/oz., and I would need 32 ounces, or $6.08 worth. One tube of biscuits is $2.15, so the total is $8.23; my recipe used 1.5 pounds of berries plus about $0.75 in other ingredients and cooking gas, or $4.01, for savings of $4.22

6 half-pints (48 ounces) of blueberry jam: Supermarket price is $4.94/lb., or $0.31/oz., so $14.88; I used 3 pounds of berries plus about $1.60 in sugar, lemon juice, pectin, jar lids, and cooking gas, or $8.11, for savings of $6.77

10 ounces blueberry syrup: (Even though I unintentionally made jam, it was same ingredients, same cooking time as syrup.) Supermarket price is $66.6/oz., so $6.66; I used 1/2 pound of blueberries plus about $0.60 in sugar and cooking gas, or $1.69, for savings of $4.97.

2 quarts (64 ounces) brandied blueberries: Priceless? Though you can get whole blueberries in light syrup, or blueberry jam or preserves made with brandy, nobody seems to sell whole blueberries preserved in brandy. The closest analogue -- but not a perfect one, because blueberries are almost always more expensive to begin with -- I could find is the more usual brandied peaches, via an online retailer at $10.90 for 18 oz., or $0.61/oz., so $39.04; I used 3 pounds of blueberries plus about $2.00 in sugar, brandy, jar lids, and cooking gas, or $8.51, for savings of $30.53

Total supermarket prices: $100.49
Total Rowhouse Livin' prices: $32.76
Total savings: $67.73

And now I promise for real that I'm done with the blueberries. New topic tomorrow!

27 July 2012

Blueberries IV: canning

First up, blueberry jam:
Six half-pints waiting for February
We are a jam-eating household. The term foodway is a little pretentious, but one of my parents grew up on a farm in Canada, and breakfast at Grandma's always included toast with a fruit spread or honey on it. I've never lost the habit. My usual weekday breakfast is a poached egg, toast with some kind of sweet spread, and coffee. I go through about half a pint of jam or fruit butter a week, so I try to put up at least a dozen pints (two dozen half-pints) myself and welcome the odd gift or farmers market find.

My recipe for jam is pretty standard: 5 cups of crushed fruit plus some lemon juice if it would add nicely to the flavor, 3 cups of granulated cane sugar, and 2 tablespoons of powdered pectin. In my 15 years of home canning experience, most fruit will jell just fine into preserves or jam with these proportions, and there is tolerance for more movement than you'd think on either side. The main trick is to ignore the Ball Blue Book or Ball brand pectin instructions that tell you to dump the pectin, alone, into the pan where the fruit and sugar are cooking: you'll get a mess of undissolved pectin lumps that way. To my absolute mystification, Ball has been telling people to do it that way for years, but you can easily avoid the lump problem by mixing the pectin and sugar together while dry.

Next up, berries for grown-ups:

Two quarts. Smaller sizes would have been wasteful.
I had never done brandied fruit before, but it had been on my mind since enjoying some brandied pears at a friend's place earlier this year. I didn't know what I'd been missing! What a lovely way to top off a dinner party.

Recipe was simple enough: Gently warm up the berries in just enough water and sugar for a hot pack in very light syrup; pack the jars with about an inch of headspace; add a quarter cup of brandy to each jar; and top off with syrup from the cooking pan. Process as ordinary hot-packed berries.

As you can see from the industrial-sized lid there, I was stuck using my pressure canner, because my boiling-water bath canner is too short to handle quart jars. (Long story.) This was a drag, not in the least because it took forever and heated up the house way too much to bring that pressure canner full of water to a boil. Next time I'll do this in pint jars, or I'll bite the bullet and get a larger boiling-water bath canner.

On to the leftovers. What to do with the last sad cup and a half of berries languishing in the fridge at the end of the week?
This was some pint-like European size, and I didn't run it through my canner,
just snapped it down and tossed it in the fridge for immediate use.
I didn't run it through the canner because, one, I didn't have enough product to properly fill the jar; and two, I don't "do" Parfait jars. I think they're great for dry storage and holding stuff like this that I intend to use right away, but I'm much handier canning American-style with snap lids and metal rings. The mileage of other home canners -- say, that of everyone in France -- of course may vary.

That said, I just spent 10 minutes poking around Le Parfait's website and just fell in love with their thermostatic-controlled automatic timer canners. Oh, lordy. Brother, can you spare a voltage converter?

This was supposed to be blueberry syrup, but it jelled accidentally. This is because I added sugar to the berries and water before letting the product reduce while I ate breakfast, by which process I inadvertently brought it all up to jelly temperature. I should have cooked down the berries in water, added some sugar, and cooked it only long enough to dissolve the sugar. A really amateur hour mistake: all the ingredients are the same, so why does it matter what order I add them to the pot? Let's just say I'm happy I put it into a jar instead of into a bottle. The upside is that it's a lovely jell, with the shininess and "sharp" edges that you don't get from forcing the jell with added pectin. Very old-fashioned.

26 July 2012

Blueberries III: the baking

Continuing with the 12 pounds of blueberries we acquired. What better to do during the height of summer than heat up the house with baking? (Spoiler: Do some canning. Tomorrow's post.)

And yet they're not the absolute gnarliest-looking muffins I've ever made.
One of the best recipes ever published was Amy Dacyczyn's "Universal Muffin Recipe" from The Tightwad Gazette. Any standard American cookbook will give you what you need for a particular type of muffin; Dacyczyn offered a formula for hacking 12 individual quickbreads from whatever flours and fruit you happen to have on hand. My love for The Tightwad Gazette is another post entirely, though. Today we are baking.

Pop quiz: Is this a cobbler or a pandowdy?

Pop quiz: Is this a cobbler or a pandowdy?
In the two-tone Pyrex dish is a blueberry cobbler. Cobbler is a deep-dish fruit stew, with no bottom crust, on top of which you drop sweet biscuit dough. In the Corelle dish is a blueberry pandowdy, like a deep-dish blueberry pie but again with no bottom crust. Strictly speaking, you push the pastry crust topping into the filling to make a glorious mess and let it soak up the oozing filling. I left my crust alone, so that the pandowdy was more like a deep-dish pie with no bottom crust, or a cobbler with a pastry top rather than a biscuit top.

American fruit dessert semantics.

I confess that I salvaged the crust on the pandowdy there from some scraps of pie dough that had been languishing in the freezer for a few months, to save a few pennies.

I would post recipes but they're easy enough to google or find in the Joy of Cooking that you should have on hand. In short: Toss a couple of cups of blueberries with flour; add sugar; top with biscuit or pastry dough; bake at 350 or 375 (depending on what type of vessel you're using, how deep it is, how cold the ingredients are, etc.) for 45 minutes or until done. Eat for dessert and breakfast.

25 July 2012

Blueberries II: to freeze or not to freeze

Next step for the blueberries was to put a small portion in the freezer:
And by "small" I mean something like a bare pint
It's cheap supermarket plasticware, possibly Ziploc brand. I'm not too careful with my freezing technique, since I tend to do it in small quantities and use the items really soon anyway, sometimes within weeks. Here, I picked over and rinsed the berries, tossed them in the container, and chunked 'em into the back of the freezer.

I don't do a lot of freezing as part of my pantry strategy, for a few reasons. One, to begin with, I don't have a "deep freeze" (Grandma's term for "chest freezer"), mostly because I don't have room for one. Two, I'd hate to have carefully bought, prepared, and packaged 15 cubic feet of food only to lose it in a single, multi-day power outage a few months later. I mean, I'm in Center City Philadelphia, so my power never goes out, and when it does it's just a flicker or a few minutes, but still. Power outages are why god created home canning

Probably the biggest reason, though, that I don't keep a deep freeze is that my household doesn't eat much meat. And by "doesn't eat much" I mean "hardly ever eats." I appreciate that most households aren't like mine, and they do have meat with just about every dinner and lunch and often breakfast, too. Not our style, though. While I keep some cans of tunafish on hand, and I'll help prepare and consume the turkey at Thanksgiving, as a general rule I don't bring meat into the house. I've been vegetarian since the mid-1990s and my reasons for it are another post altogether -- the most relevant thing to say here is that, even if I did find a fantastic deal on whole chickens, or another household offered to go halfsies with me on a side of beef, it would do nothing for my pantry strategy. So . . . maybe a deep freeze full of vegetables or fruit? Since my household is so small, I can't get too excited about finding deals on bags of frozen broccoli. Seasonal vegetables are cheap in season, and we eat a lot of potatoes, beans, and acorn squash in the winter.

On the other hand, a deep freeze full of u-pick blueberries picked at $1.50/lb.? If a 15 cu. ft. chest freezer runs about $500.00 and costs (googling . . . googling) some $30.00/year to run, how many pounds of u-pick blueberries do I have to put into it before it pays for itself?

24 July 2012

Blueberries I

About a week and a half ago, we drove over to Jersey to get blueberries at a u-pick farm. Completely unable to control ourselves, we came home with 12 pounds of blueberries at $1.50/lb. At my neighborhood farmers market, at Headhouse (2nd and Lombard) on Sundays, blueberries have been going for about twice that -- $3.00 or even $5.00 per pint, and "a pint is a pound the world around" -- so even adding in gas and tolls we made out like bandits:
So close you can almost see the bugs
But what to do with the blueberries? I'll post what I did with them over the next few days. First and easiest, of course, is simply rinsing them off and eating them fresh:
Bowl is from Lyncharm Pottery, a now closed studio in Nova Scotia --
the best place in the world for wild blueberries
You can't go wrong, really.

23 July 2012

About the Rowhouse Livin' blog

The author is a lawyer and single parent living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. We live near South Street: a neighborhood of rowhouses, low-rise apartments, a bustling business and entertainment area, and small parks, a short walk from the Independence Hall historic area. I grew up in semi-rural Chesterfield County, Virginia, and suburban Wilmington, Delaware, but I've lived in densely populated cities -- Seattle and Philadelphia -- for about 20 years now.

I've lived a lot of those years on a budget, for one reason or another, so this is a blog about urban home economics: low-cost healthy eating, pantry planning, emergency preparedness, and stretching your dollars in the city.

All material on the blog, including but not limited to text and photos, is copyright © Michele Grant, except for (1) the banner image, adapted from Philly Skyline, which is copyright © 2010 Ray Skwire and used by permission; and (2) content generated automatically by Google AdSense (please click away! Clicks help stock my pantry). All rights reserved by their respective owners.

In addition to Google AdSense, the blog participates in an affiliate link program through Amazon.com. Most of the time, we link to things that we would actually buy ourselves, penny-pinchers who we are. When you buy something we link to, you support Rowhouse Livin'. Thanks!

Hello, world

Race-Vine Station on the Broad Street Line, July, 2012.