10 December 2013

Snow day at the homestead

Courtesy of Channel 6
Got the word as I was clambering out of bed this morning that my daughter's school is closed, so we're settling in for a snow day here at the homestead. They probably didn't need to close the schools -- looks as though the city pre-treated most of the arterial streets, so traffic will likely move smoothly all day -- but I imagine reducing traffic volume makes it safer and easier for everyone involved.

Although I didn't make it to the supermarket yesterday, I think we're good to go for a day in. I have about two quarts of soup leftovers sitting in the fridge. I've tossed it all in my smaller slow cooker and we'll have something piping hot for the daughter to tuck into once she's done shoveling the sidewalk. And other than soup, we have the usual complement of lunch fixin's and dinner options we would have had on any ordinary Tuesday, snowstorm or not. I'm reminded that I have some peaches in the freezer; maybe I'll declare the house too cold for civilized living, and bake them into a pie or something this afternoon.

05 December 2013

Care and feeding of canning jars

Recently, Marisa at Food in Jars mentioned that she's moving away from using her canning jars for tasks other than canning -- tasks like storing leftovers, carrying sack lunches, and drinking beverages. And for good reasons! She writes:
[I]n recent years I've learned that it can be hard on canning jars to constantly employ them for everyday use and then turn around and can in them. That's because when you eat out of jars and bang them around, it can weaken them and eventually lead to breakage in the canning pot.
I'm 100% in agreement with Marisa, for my usual home economics types of reasons. Understand, it's not that canning jars are hard to replace when you lose them to breakage. Since so many people are home canning lately, more and more stores have them in stock on a regular basis. It used to be that if I needed a box of jars, I would have to plan a surgical strike at the hardware store at the very beginning of the summer garden harvest season. Now, however, I can find a few different types year 'round at my favorite kitchenwares shop in the 9th Street Market.

Nope, the issue is that canning jars are expensive. I mean, they're not expensive expensive. But they are a specialty item, and it takes time, effort, and cash to replace when they chip or break and can no longer be used for canning. Here's where I'm coming from. Anecdotally, canning jars can last for anywhere from a dozen years to decades. In my experience, two or three dozen of my jars have been used every year for about 15 years. But whether jars last 50 years or 15, you don't want to hasten the likely inevitable day when you hear that ominous thunk in the pressure canner that tells you one of your jars of green beans didn't make it. And one super easy way to hasten that day is to subject your canning jars to unnecessary scratches, bumps, clatters, and thermal shocks.

Which is exactly what you will do if, for example, you pour 7 ounces of hot dinner soup into a pint jar, screw a lid on nice and tight, slide the jar into the fridge, heat up the jar of leftovers in the microwave at lunch the next day, and scrape out every last drop with a metal spoon. Or fill a jar with ice, pour hot coffee into it, and stir in sugar and creamer for an iced coffee treat. (To be clear! I'm not saying Marisa was subjecting her canning jars to such ungentle treatment! I describe completely made-up, worst-case scenarios to emphasize my point.)

Now, I do use some canning jars for leftovers and for dry food storage. But I keep myself to some rules:
1. Keep canning-only jars and food-storage jars separate. After emptying and cleaning a canning-only jar, gracefully and lovingly replace it in the area in the pantry where the jars are stored by size. (I use the cardboard boxes they were sold in. This is not wise if you're in a climate where you get silverfish or other insects that would go after the cardboard, but it works for me.) After emptying and cleaning a food-storage jar, toss it willy-nilly on a shelf for ease of access, and check to see if some item doesn't now need to be added to the grocery list. Store food-storage jars with bands on them, for convenience, but do not do so with canning-only jars, to avoid rust.

2. Second-hand jars go into the food-storage category unless I am very, very sure about the jars' provenance. Were they loose on a thrift-store shelf? Did I spot them in a bin of free stuff on someone's stoop during sidewalk sale season? Or is it an unopened, completely unused box, albeit dating from the 1980s? I'll can with the last type -- in fact, I did, with my rustic honey-cran sauce this year -- but not with the others.

3. Food-storage jars may go in the dishwasher. Canning-only jars do not, because dishwashing machine detergent can adversely affect home-canned foods.

4. Metal scraping utensils are always OK for food-storage jars. They are never, ever OK for canning-only jars.

5. Do not use a new, unused lid for leftover or dry food storage. That would be a waste of money (lids seem to increase in price by about $0.20 per box every year). Use one of the used lids kicking around in the utensil drawer, instead.

6. Do not use any jars for consuming beverages.
That last rule notwithstanding, I used to use jars for drinks -- I had a half dozen Classico pasta sauce not-quite-a-quart jars, which were a satisfying size for a glass of iced tea, and which fit my hands nicely. But though I have pals who have successfully home-canned with the jars, you really shouldn't; and I got a little weary of the hillbilly look on my dining table. I tossed them in the recycling bin as I replaced them, one at a time, with sturdy pint glasses and a lucky find of some French-made, molded-glass stemware.

Though when all was said and done, I did keep two 8-ounce Classico pesto jars, for those chilly winter nights when I want to kick back with a wee dram.

02 December 2013

Holiday home canning: rustic honey-cran sauce

We're a day late and a dollar short at the homestead here, posting this recipe the week after Thanksgiving. (Marisa at Food in Jars was more timely with her enviably tasty spiced cranberry jam a few weeks ago.) But cranberries are still on store shelves, and a lot of people will serve cranberries with Christmas dinner in a few weeks' time, so maybe a couple of readers will find this recipe useful still.

I'd promised to supply the cranberry sauce at my family's Thanksgiving gathering last week. As I set out my canning gear and the sauce ingredients, I found that I was short on sugar. I had some honey kicking around, though, so I improvised a little. Now, usually you want to be wary about varying from a USDA-tested recipe when you decide to home-can and store your final product. But I wasn't worried at all about safety here, because cranberries are so very tart and acidic that you have quite a bit of leeway before you would bring the sauce's pH up to an unsafe level. And they have so much pectin in them that they're pretty foolproof. In short, you can mess around a lot with home-canned cranberry recipes, and the result will almost certainly set up nicely and be safe to eat after keeping forever.

So that I would have enough sauce for Thanksgiving and Christmas, I started with two 12-ounce packages of cranberries. This recipe can be halved, but doing so would make for a very small batch for canning. The yield as presented here is 2 pints, 1 half-pint, and a few ounces left over for immediate use. The end result is a rustically chunky, honey-imbued cranberry sauce that stands up well with turkey and wild game.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 cup honey
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 12-ounce packages of cranberries, rinsed

    Method:

    Combine sugar, honey, and water in a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Boil for 5 minutes. Add the cranberries and bring back to a boil. Cook the cranberries gently for 10 minutes, stirring as necessary. Press berries with a potato masher. Turn off heat and skim foam.

    Fill hot pint and half-pint jars with hot sauce, leaving 1/4 inch headspace, apply lids and bands, and process 10 minutes in a boiling-water bath canner.

    Use immediately, or let sit a few weeks for flavors to blend.

    Note: If you don't skim the foam from top of the sauce, then it will end up in the jars, and you'll have artificially full jars. The foam won't be unpleasant to eat, but the sauce won't be as aesthetically pleasing in the jar or on the table. Your best bet is to let the sauce sit for a moment after you take it off the heat and then run a large spoon over the surface, generously scooping out foam. I like to drop it into a small bowl and use it on toast or an accompaniment to cheese and crackers.
  • 07 October 2013

    CSA home canning: green beans and carrots

    About 5 parts beans to 1 part carrots

    Hauled out the pressure canner again yesterday and put up 5 pints of green beans and carrots. The jars should come in handy for side dishes and soup this winter.

    I had a surplus of produce this week because a friend was out of town and offered me their household's Community-Supported Agriculture vegetable share. Since I follow the Rowhouse Livin' Law of Hand-Me-Downs ("always accept hand-me-downs"), I jumped at the opportunity. I ended up filling my fridge to bursting, but by Sunday it was getting clear to me that it would be impossible to consume everything we had before this week's delivery. I knew what I had to do.

    The haul included about 2 quarts of string beans and a bunch of red-skinned carrots. I carefully washed the beans and chopped them into uniform pieces. Then I peeled the carrots and sliced them. I tossed it all into a large stockpot, covered with water, brought to a boil, and simmered for 5 minutes. I packed them into pint jars and added cooking liquid, leaving 1 inch headspace. Then into the pressure canner they went.

    Timing: Carrots (pints) require 25 minutes, and beans (pints) take 20 minutes. The rule of thumb is to go by the time for the vegetable that takes the longest, so I processed them at 10 pounds pressure for 25 minutes. By which I mean I processed them at 240 degrees F plus a little bit, for 25 minutes and a little bit. That way, I have some wiggle room if the temperature starts to fall and I don't catch it right away.

    I still feel that I haven't done much canning this year. On the other hand, every time I run something through the pressure canner, I end up with meal-type foods, as opposed to condiments, sauces, and jams or fruit butters. So it goes a lot further for stocking my pantry for easy dinners and emergencies. We haven't had much of a hurricane season this year, but it ain't over yet, and we're overdue for a harsh winter. As I mentioned earlier, I'm sad to have missed my usual small-jar products this season, but our shelves really are filling up. Just not with the sweet treats I usually produce too much of.

    01 October 2013

    CSA home canning: two-day habanero hot sauce

    When the CSA delivery gives you habanero peppers, make 20% habanero hot sauce.

    If you are not familiar with home canning, please see the National Center for Home Food Preservation. This recipe does not substitute for a complete set of instructions on safe home canning practices.

    I didn't have an actual recipe for this, so I based my work on a tested recipe for pepper relish. It yielded just under 2 pints.

    One wide-mouth half-pint, three 4-ounce jars; another 4 ounces
    ended up in the fridge for immediate use

    Ingredients:

  • half a medium white onion, finely chopped
  • 4 cups finely chopped sweet peppers
  • 1 cup finely chopped habanero peppers, seeds retained
  • 3 tablespoons canning (non-iodized) salt
  • white vinegar to cover

    Method:

    Combine the onion, peppers, and salt in a large, non-reactive pot. Bring to a boil and simmer 10 minutes. Take off heat, cover, and let sit overnight.

    Heat again to boiling. Taking care with the fumes rising from the pan, crush the peppers with a potato masher (or use an immersion mixer). Heat through. Take off heat, cover, and let sit overnight again; or start the canning process.

    To can, bring the sauce to boiling again. Simmer 10 minutes. Then pack heated sauce into hot jars, leaving half-inch headspace. Carefully release air bubbles from jars and add more sauce, if needed, to bring back to half-inch headspace. Clean rims of jars and apply lids and bands. Process pints, half-pints, and 4-ounce jars 15 minutes in a boiling-water bath canner.

    Let sit at least 6 weeks before opening for use.

    Note: Handle the habanero peppers safely. Some people hold the pepper with a fork while chopping with a chef's knife. Most people advise wearing rubber gloves. I'm a hippie who hates disposables, so I pinched the habaneros by the stem and used a 5-inch kitchen utility knife. I scraped the seeds and chopped pieces into a prep bowl, then dropped the stem end into the trash, without using my bare fingers anywhere on the peppers' flesh. The cutting board went straight into the dishwasher.
  • 25 September 2013

    The summer of not canning

    I have not been canning much this summer at all. I'm a little disappointed, but I think there were some important reasons why my shelves aren't groaning they way they usually are by the end of September.

    A few factors:

  • The clean-out of the estate of my close friend's elderly aunt, who passed away in July. We've been back and forth to South Jersey most of the every-other-Saturdays when I don't have custody of my daughter. So essentially, half of my Saturdays have been claimed with this ongoing task.

  • The other Saturdays, when my daughter is with me, I like to have her spend time with her grandparents, at their home in the outer Philadelphia suburbs. So on most Saturdays this summer, either I've been hanging out in South Jersey, or I've been at my parents' house -- and my canning projects aren't exactly transportable.

  • I thought I would be canning up a storm with our CSA fruit share. But it turns out that our fruit share never measures up to a full canner load of fruit. Don't get me wrong: it's not skimpy, and we aren't being cheated. We get plenty of fruit for the week, and the peaches this year were glorious. But the fruit individually comes in small quantities: six pears plus a half-pint of kiwiberries one week, and five nectarines plus a watermelon the next. This is not cannable. This is lunchbox or picnic material, but it's not canner material, not on its own.

    So four take-aways. One, we're looking into doing a double fruit share next summer. It'll still be very small-batch canning, which I think is more hobbyist than money-saving, but will still scratch my itch for putting jam on my shelves. Two, this is going to be a strange winter. I didn't do rhubarb, strawberry, or blueberry jam (not counting the syrupy mis-step at the end of June) -- I always get at least one of those, my holy trinity, in by the end of July. I didn't do my Rowhouse Livin' gin, either (though I did make a rhubarb pie for myself for Mother's Day). I have maybe a half-dozen jars of jam left over from 2012, but that stock is being rapidly depleted. Late winter and early spring, 2014, are looking bleak!

    Three, seriously, this estate work is taking up a ridiculous amount of time, and I'm not even one of the executors. The elderly aunt was so very generous in her financial planning, but her tangible assets were left in multiple locations and her financial assets were left in numerous accounts across several institutions. One of the greatest gifts we can give our heirs is to leave our affairs organized for them. There are so many vehicles and instruments available. The time you spend with a lawyer now will be a gift of time to your heirs after you're gone.

    And four, apple butter season approaches, and the daughter reminded me just the other day that we haven't gone apple picking for a few years now. I think I'm counting down the days until my next custody Saturday. Maybe early 2014 won't be too bleak, after all.
  • 23 September 2013

    Grab-bag pressure canning: mixed vegetables for soup

    After a weekend getaway to the woods in August, I came home to a fridge full of CSA vegetables that needed to be used up before I hauled home the next CSA delivery. The vegetables were still in excellent shape, so I pulled out the pressure canner and went to town.

    There are two rules of thumb for pressure canning mixed vegetables. One, chop the vegetables into pieces of uniform size, so that they heat and cook evenly. And two, put whatever grab-bag of vegetables you want into the mix, but set your timer for the vegetable that takes the longest time to safely can.

    Examples, all in quarts: If you're canning a mix of potatoes (40 minutes), green beans (25 minutes), and carrots (30 minutes), then bring the canner up to pressure and keep it there for 40 minutes. If you're canning a mix of potatoes, green beans, carrots, onions, zucchini, tomatoes, and whole-kernel corn (maize) -- I told you it was a grab-bag -- then it needs to process for the time it'll take to safely deal with the corn, which is 85 minutes.

    But it's a little more complicated than just that rule of thumb. You also have to take into account that, when you pack chopped, mixed vegetables into a jar, the product is more compact than it would be if it were just one type of vegetable. To illustrate, when you pack asparagus into a jar, you stand the spears upright and slide them in like a packet of pencils; but when you chop them more finely and add other stuff to the mix, you get more mass in the jar. (Think BB's or ball bearings, versus marbles.) And thus it will take more time to heat the jar through. So the National Center for Home Food Preservation adds an extra 5 minutes to its own instructions for mixed vegetables, even though no single ingredient, individually, requires more than 85 minutes to process.

    As I've mentioned before, I don't like to argue with science. So while my instinct said, "85 minutes," my hands said, "90 minutes," and I sure did heat up my kitchen that day. According to Facebook:
    4:12 p.m.: Off to run a significant percentage of CSA veg thru the pressure canner. See you on the flip side.

    4:58 p.m.: OK, 4 quarts of mixed CSA vegetables for soup in the canner, set to process for 90 minutes because I included sweet corn. At least it's not too hot today.

    6:35 p.m.: Stupid corn. It's a million degrees in here now!
    And the result:

    Photo taken with my antiquephone: sweet corn, carrots, green beans,
    zucchini, onion, and tomatoes

    Each quart jar there will make for a very quick soup this winter: add water or broth, heat to boiling, and add cooked pasta or rice. Sprinkle parmesan on top or serve a little cheese on the side, throw some bread or rolls on the table, and that will warm you up in November or February. I'll get three if not four portions of soup out of each of those jars. Looking forward to it already!

    23 August 2013

    Estate clean-out: clothes & textiles, papers (2/2)

    Yesterday, our take-away lesson was that only one-twelfth of the clothes and textiles in your house are useful or interesting to anyone in your family, so you should clean your stuff out early and often. Today, we're talking papers.

    Lesson two: You need to keep almost none of the paper that you're keeping. This means on paper but also electronically. Get rid of it!

    In my lawyering work, I regularly counsel non-profit organizations on corporate governance. A big part of that work involves preparing and implementing policies about retaining and shredding operational documents. Documents range from innocuous everyday correspondence to incorporation paperwork, employee records, property records, leases, applications for grants, and so on. There are generally accepted practices for handling just about every scrap of paper that enters a non-profit's office, and my job is to facilitate proper handling.

    You're not a non-profit organization, and I'm not your lawyer. But here's a general guide for what to do with the paper that comes into your home.

    Your overall strategy should be to touch paper only once. Bring your mail in and sort it immediately. Toss the junk mail. Open bills, toss the inserts, and file the bill and return envelope for paying. If you get paper confirmations of online payments or check deposits, open and file immediately, or consider opting for e-mail confirmations instead. Set magazines wherever it is you'll sit and read them. Put the doctor's appointment reminder postcard next to your computer, phone, or calendar. Designate a spot for merchandise catalogs and clear them out as quickly as they pour in.

    Make a date with yourself quarterly or biannually to get rid of the accumulated magazines and catalogs. You can always find a back copy of a magazine at your library or on the magazine's website, and it's not your job to be the magazine's archivist.

    As for the "document retention and destruction" end of paper management, I was going to type up a huge list of the types of papers you will likely encounter, and a chart telling you how long to keep them before throwing them out. But it turns out that there are plenty of other guides online, including one by the entity that can audit you when your taxes don't look right. This "Managing Household Records" page is very good [1]. I like it because, essentially, the only time you can go to jail for not handling paper correctly is when you mess with the IRS. So a guide from the horse's mouth, so to speak, is going to be reliable and complete for most people's purposes.

    On to the nitty gritty. A huge category of papers we had to handle at the deceased elderly aunt's house last weekend was monthly statements. We saw statements from bank accounts, health insurance, life insurance, homeowners insurance, vehicle insurance, phone bills, utility providers, credit card issuers, and so on. Really, every entity under the sun that would send a monthly or quarterly statement to the elderly aunt, she would keep the paper. For years. For decades. We found canceled checks from 1971, township tax assessments from 1981, long-distance phone bills from 1991, investment statements from 2001, and hospital bills from 2011. She had retained paperwork that she should have discarded as soon as her checking account reconciled with the bill payment -- in other words, she kept paper for 40 years that she could have ditched after 40 days.

    Six copier-paper boxes' worth of it!

    Don't get me wrong. There are things you should keep forever, and things you should keep a few years. The usa.gov page there includes a handy chart. Most usefully, in my opinion, is the entry for your filed income taxes and associated paperwork. Keep them for 7 years after filing -- this has to do with your risks of being audited, and how far back you can file amended returns. But it's just 7 years!

    The oldest tax return we found at elderly aunt's house was filed in 1965. That's some scary math.

    Finally, a note about scanning and going so-called paperless. OK, so you've scanned in the incoming paper and shredded it. Now you have an image or a PDF of the paper and you have to put it somewhere. Disk space is super cheap, and you get a lot of free space on various cloud computing storage services and gmail. But you still need to manage this garbage so that you don't have the electronic equivalent of an overflowing file cabinet. Name the file folders intelligently, and calendar time for yourself, regularly, to go in and delete the outdated files. You don't need 5-year-old paper credit card statements; and you don't need 5-year-old electronic statements, either.

    Get rid of it! Your groaning file cabinets (or filesystems) will thank you for it.


    [1] Ignore the broken PDF link; though I found a good copy here (PDF), I think it's overkill and may be overwhelming for someone initially attacking a clutter problem.

    22 August 2013

    Estate clean-out: clothes & textiles, papers (1/2)

    Last weekend's clean-out at the house of the deceased elderly aunt involved two major categories of items: clothes and textiles, and papers. There was a lot, and there are a couple of take-away lessons here.

    Lesson one is that no one wants your clothes and linens once you're gone. You bought your clothes for you, or at least because you think they're nice. Now you've worn them, so they're not in the most pristine shape. (As a long-time thrift store shopper and volunteer, I can say that men in particular tend to run their clothes into the ground before discarding or donating them.) Or you've had to have them tailored, and now they'll fit no other body but your own. Or if you've never worn them, they're probably not stylish to many other people, especially if you bought them a while ago -- my rule of thumb is 5 years for women's clothes, 10 years for men's. And many, many people simply won't buy used clothes, so it's a flooded market where no ordinary seller gets a good price. In short, you spent money on your clothes, but they're not an "investment" that your estate will be able to recoup.

    As for linens, not only do your towels and sheets get worn out as the years go on, but they also end up with a sort of "ick factor" attached to them. If few people will buy used clothes, even fewer will buy a used washcloth or pillowcase. Some thrift shops won't even take the donation. Or if they do, it's only because they can sell the otherwise unsaleable material as "weight," that is, for a few cents per pound to a recycler that will shred the clothes and remanufacture them into, say, carpet padding.

    But it's not just stained tablecloths that get turned into weight. It's your wedding gown, your baby slippers, your hand-knitted afghan blanket. This is because no one wants your old clothes and textiles, seriously. Of the dozen full-size contractor trash bags of stuff we gathered this weekend, we identified one single bag's worth of things to keep. That was it! A three-piece suit that was classically enough tailored that it's stylish now, which the elderly aunt's husband likely wore only to weddings and funerals; his old Army duffel, a sweet and tangible reminder of his military service; and some linen teatowels and a machine-lace tablecloth, still in its package, likely all dating to their own wedding in the early 1960s.

    See the math there? Only one twelfth of Elderly Aunt's clothes and linens held any meaning or use for the family! Our job would have gone so much more quickly if she had gone through her old clothes regularly and cleaned them out. And linens? Veterinarian offices and pet shelters will often take them, but only if you call first.

    Lesson two . . . tomorrow!

    19 August 2013

    Recipe: One-pot pasta and CSA slicing tomatoes

    Tomatoes are in full swing here in the mid-Atlantic, and our Community-Supported Agriculture subscription has been providing us with two or three pounds of slicing tomatoes every week for the past couple of weeks. Now, they're called slicing tomatoes because supposedly they're no good for pasta sauce, and they should be used only for sandwiches, salads, and the relish tray, from which a person can take single slices and nibble them raw, seasoned with salt and pepper.

    But the other day, my supermarket discounted my favorite pasta brand to my price point ($1.00/pound), so I bought a dozen boxes. And it's summer, so although we've had some cooler, rainier weather recently, I don't want to heat up the house making "gravy." Here's my almost-no-cook solution to use up those delicious slicing tomatoes -- and quantities of pasta at the same time.

    Ingredients:

  • 2 servings dried pasta, any style
  • 1 large slicing tomato
  • 1 clove garlic
  • dried oregano to taste
  • salt and pepper to taste

    Method:

    Start cooking the pasta. While waiting for the water to boil and the pasta to cook, slice the tomato into very small dice. (It is not necessary to peel the tomato nor discard the seeds and membrane.) Mince the garlic very finely.

    Drain the pasta when done and return to the pot. Add the tomato, garlic, oregano, and salt and pepper. Heat through on medium-high heat until some liquid is absorbed or cooked off and the tomato has softened, stirring gently as needed. Serve immediately, topped with cheese, if desired.

    Serves 2. To make larger quantities, try the ratio of 1 large tomato to every 2 servings. However, keep the garlic ratio down to 1 clove to every 2-4 servings, because the garlic stays very raw and sharp in this recipe.
  • 05 August 2013

    Possible ongoing topic: cleaning out a deceased relative's home

    The elderly aunt of a very close friend passed away in July, so I've been back and forth from my home in Philadelphia to her home in South Jersey several times in the past few weeks. The immediate arrangements are finished, so my mid-week trips are over with. But since my friend was named co-executor of the estate, we'll be heading back for many weekends in the coming months to help clean out the house.

    And the RV and van.

    And the garage and crawlspace.

    And the shed out back.

    And the two storage units.

    And the storage locker at the flea market where she sold crafts.

    The family is grateful that the aunt had her will in place and mostly up-to-date; it made starting the probate process very straightforward. But she didn't have all of her other documents in one single location -- and thus, the co-executors aren't sure that they've actually found everything.

    I'm not sure if I'll be blogging about the clean-outs, mostly because I likely won't be available to help with most of it. Luckily, there's no huge rush to finish the house: it's fully paid off and there are no liens against it, it's in fine shape, and no part of it is in a dangerous or unliveable condition. I'm deliberately not calling her a hoarder. Other than dealing with the sheer volume of items in the house, it shouldn't be a physically unpleasant job. Just big.

    My understanding is that the co-executors will be focusing on the storage units first (no, nobody's found the keys yet), in order to terminate the contracts and stop paying rent on them as soon as possible.

    So far, the take-away lesson here is to get your documents and keys together, keep them in one place, and make the location available to whoever has to deal with your estate. What good is a thoughtful life insurance policy payable to your grand-niece or -nephew, if no one can find it or even know it exists?

    Actually, a second take-away: I just discovered Unf**k Your Habitat, a blog about cleaning up a messy home, adopting useful habits, and cursing along the way.

    30 July 2013

    Recipe: CSA grab-bag breakfast muffins

    A quick follow-up to yesterday's recipe for CSA grab-bag ragout. We were graciously invited to a gathering to meet the new baby of an old friend over the weekend. I didn't get a chance to hit the shops for a gift, so I figured I would bring something edible. Taking a gander at what I had on hand from this week's CSA, I saw peaches and carrots, and I noted that the party was scheduled for a brunch-type of hour. So I decided to bring something a little sweet, but not too dessert-y for the crowd.

    Amy Daczyzn includes what she calls a "universal muffin recipe" in The Complete Tightwad Gazette. It's a wildly flexible recipe for using up odds and ends around the pantry and fridge -- or, I should say, using CSA produce efficiently!

    These are not the supersized, cake-like muffins you get at the coffeeshop. They're dense and filling. The carrots and whole-wheat flour give you some fiber, which I remember needing in the early weeks after my daughter was born. And I think they taste great when spread with a little cream cheese or soft butter, served with coffee. Or with mimosas, which were on hand at baby Eddie's party.

    Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 cups white flour
  • 1 cup whole-wheat flour
  • 1/4 cup white sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • ground cinnamon and nutmeg
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 2 small peaches, chopped
  • 2 medium carrots, grated

    Method:

    Heat oven to 400 degrees F. Grease muffin tins with butter.

    Combine the dry ingredients and spices. Add the wet ingredients and stir gently until mixed. Fold in the peaches and carrots.

    Bake 20-25 minutes. Remove and let sit about 15 minutes, then remove muffins from pan. Serve immediately, or let cool completely on a wire rack before storing or transporting. Yields 10-12 muffins.
  • 29 July 2013

    Recipe: CSA grab-bag ragout

    The summer bounty of our community-supported agriculture subscription continues. What I can't finish up by my weekly pick-up date fills the crockpot, leaving room for the new produce to fill the fridge.

    It helps that I found a very new crockpot at my favorite charity shop some weeks ago. It looks as though it was never used -- perhaps a housewarming gift to an apartment dweller, in whose kitchen it languished, untouched, until the renter moved out in June. Their 4.5-quart loss is my CSA stew gain. And it's all black! I call it my Punk Rock Crockpot, and after the end of CSA season, I'll look forward to making stew and chili in it this winter.

    Anyway, my point, and I had one when I started this post, was to discuss the issue that the selection of produce in your weekly CSA box isn't necessarily the selection of produce that you would bring home yourself from the supermarket. Instead of a balanced variety of items you know you like, you get a sack of multi-colored carrots here; two pounds of red potatoes there; and three large zucchini and pound of weird-looking heirloom string beans to top off the box. Plus a pint container of cherry tomatoes.

    Ever cooked cherry tomatoes into a sauce? Well, we did. Since it's light on the tomatoes, I'm calling it a ragout, though it's not a terribly authentic one. But it successfully brings down the number of zucchini in the fridge this week.

    Ingredients:

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 pint cherry tomatoes
  • 1 large zucchini
  • 8 ounces string beans
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • dried oregano and garlic powder to taste
  • 2 servings pasta

    Method:

    Chop the tomatoes in half. Slice the zucchini lengthwise, then turn and slice lengthwise again. Chop into 1/4-inch slices, so that the result is quarter-circle sections of zucchini slices. Snap, de-string, and slice the string beans into 2-inch pieces.

    Start cooking pasta.

    Heat the olive oil in a large skillet. Add tomatoes and season. Saute tomatoes a few minutes, until soft, at medium-high heat. Break tomatoes with a potato masher until a good amount of juice has run into the skillet. Add zucchini, toss, and heat through. Add beans, oregano, and garlic powder, and toss. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer until the pasta is done. Drain pasta, add to skillet, and toss or stir. Serve hot with cheese grated on top.

    Serves 2 to 4.
  • 16 July 2013

    Top 3 tips for keepin' cool inside during an Excessive Heat Warning

    Here at the homestead we're in the middle of an official Excessive Heat Warning, a severe weather condition where there is "heat index of at least 105 F [41 C] for more than 3 hours per day for 2 consecutive days, or heat index more than 115 F [46 C] for any period of time." In the mid-Atlantic we experience a spell of the former situation a few times every summer. Here's how Rowhouse Livin' prepares and bears!

    1. Keep the thermostat up and use fans. We're blessed with a central air conditioning system in our home, but this tip works well with window-mounted room air conditioners, too. We set our thermostat at 78-82 F (25-27 C) (or set your window unit at "low" instead of "high") when the outside temperature begins to be unbearable. By itself, this air conditioner setting isn't the most comfortable, particularly if you're cooking or baking. However, when we use a box fan or two to stir the air around, we find it's totally acceptable.

    It's not cool, or high-rise office building cold, but you know, nobody promised you a meat locker. That is to say, there's no reason to keep your home 35-40 degrees (20 degrees C) below the outside temperature. It's wasteful of your own money; it burdens the power grid; and, anecdotally, it makes you whinier about the heat outside when you contrast it to the bone-chilling cool inside.

    The only risk here is what happens in some tragic cases during city heat waves. Some fatalities are caused by people running fans with their windows closed, while not running air conditioners at all. Without letting the heat escape through a window (or an air conditioner) in some way, fans simply turn the home into a convection oven (PDF, section 4.2.2). So don't try this tip without an air conditioner! It's a strategy for lowering the electric bill by cutting back on air conditioning, not by eliminating it completely.

    2. Keep a jug of water in the fridge. This practice was standard operating procedure when I was a kid. Today, during a heat wave I'll fill a 2-quart pitcher with cold tap water and pop it in the fridge in the morning. I'll top it off with more water if we don't finish it by the end of the day, and I'll clean it a few times per week. It's devilishly refreshing to gulp down a glass or two of water after running errand in the heat, or hauling groceries or a briefcase home on foot.

    Plus, tap water is cheaper than sweet mixes, sodapop, and instant iced tea. And it won't add empty calories to your diet while you're cooling down your core.

    3. Keep your clothing loose and cool. And here's where you learn too much about me. I wear a housedress in the summer. Instead of wearing a t-shirt and jeans, khakis, or even shorts, I put on an old, oversized, sack-like sundress. It's a thin cotton weave, so it allows circulating air to touch my skin and keep me cool. It's old and stained, so I don't care if it gets dirty while I'm doing housework. It's ugly, so it gives my daughter an opportunity to roll her eyes at me and think I'm goofy. But I like it, because it helps me tolerate a higher setting on the thermostat when we get this ridiculous weather.

    Now, if only it had pockets. Maybe I'll haul out the sewing machine and add one or two once the heatwave breaks.

    28 June 2013

    Canning: Apple-blueberry . . . syrup

    Canning season has started not with a bang but a whimper.

    I tried to make an apple-blueberry jam with some CSA fruit, but I wasn't careful with the combination of sugar, acid, and pectin, so it didn't set properly. Now I have 7 half-pints of apple-blueberry syrup instead. And 2 of the jars didn't even seal!

    Don't get me wrong: these 7 half-pints will cover a lot of pancakes. But since it was unintentional, and since it was the first project of the season, I'm disappointed.

    So disappointed, I can bring myself to post a photo
    of only 3 half-pints. Sob

    25 June 2013

    Cheap eats: Croutons for salad or soup

    As I've mentioned, when it looks as though I won't be able to finish a loaf of bread before it starts to go south, I'll slice up what's left into cubes, place it in some tupperware, and pop it into the freezer. Then I'll use the cubes as a topping for a casserole or gratin, or I'll toast them up and make salad croutons.

    Ingredients:

  • 2-3 tablespoons butter
  • 2-4 cups bread cubes (1- or 2-inch dice)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • oregano or marjoram and sage to taste

    Method:

    If the bread cubes are frozen, let them thaw at least partially before beginning. Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the bread cubes and toss. Stirring occasionally, allow the cubes to brown gently.

    Note that these started as 2/3 whole-wheat bread.
    Your croutons may not be this dark as they toast.

    Season to taste. For salad croutons, add oregano. For soup croutons, add marjoram and sage.

    Salad of CSA greens and croutons. In the background,
    Rowhouse Livin' pantry vinaigrette.

    Serve warm or cool, but let cool completely before storing. Store in an airtight container at room temperature and use within 2 days. Quality is best when these croutons are used immediately; but at $0.45 per batch, you may not mind tossing a few out after they've gone stale.
  • 10 June 2013

    Garlic scapes: Lipstick on a pig food

    I'm being taken to task on Facebook for not declaring garlic scapes the manna of the late spring CSA box.

    What's a garlic scape? It's the non-leaf stalk that grows out of a garlic bulb where, at its tip, sit the plant's maturing seeds. Farmers cut or pinch this stalk off so that the garlic plant puts its energy into growing a large bulb rather than propagating itself, which is what it wants to do. If the scape is left intact and allowed to flower and seed, the garlic that the farmer sells at the end of the season will be smaller and command a lower price. The economics are very clear for the farmer to make her garlic produce income two ways. First, harvest the scapes, which would cost money if left on the plant, and sell them; then reap the benefits later when the garlic bulbs come in fat and heavy.

    I don't want to call farmers market and CSA patrons naive, but I think that some people see a touch of the exotic and rare in garlic scapes. In reality, they're merely an agricultural by-product. They can't be given to the dairy animals because they'll give an off-flavor to milk, cheese, and butter. But why toss them to the pigs if they cost nothing at all to produce outside of the labor to "harvest" and ship, and you can sell them at $4.00 per handful to city folk? Or toss them into the CSA share as something equal to a bunch of radishes, a pint of strawberries, or a head of Boston bibb lettuce?

    For my CSA dollar I'd rather see young summer squash -- which I know has come in, because it's been at the farmers market for two weekends now -- than see pig food in the box. Instead, I'm left with stalks that are serviceable as an aromatic in a stir-fry, add a mild garlic flavor as a pizza topping, and are less convenient to handle than chives. I never buy them at the farmers market, but here's what we did with them this week, in the grand tradition of a farmers market producer we knew of in Seattle who would reply regarding any item one asked how to use, "Oh, it works great in a stir-fry":

    CSA Garlic Scape Stir-Fry

    Ingredients:

  • 3 tablespoons high-temperature frying oil
  • 4 or 5 garlic scapes
  • 1 small head broccoli
  • 2 cups snow peas
  • ground black pepper to taste
  • soy sauce to taste
  • brown or white rice, cooked

    Method:

    Prepare all vegetables before heating the skillet or wok. Trim the garlic scapes and cut into 1- to 2-inch lengths. Cut the flowerets off the broccoli and slice into bite-size pieces. Peel the broccoli stalk and chop into 1-inch pieces. Trim the stem and blossom ends off the snow peas; leave them whole.

    In a heavy skillet or wok, heat the oil to shimmering over a medium-high flame. Add the garlic scapes and faire sauter until coated. Cover loosely with a lid and let soften a few minutes. Add the broccoli, sauté again, and let cook a few minutes, loosely covered. Repeat with the snow peas.

    When the vegetables are tender but not mushy, add black pepper and 2 to 3 tablespoons soy sauce. Heat through and serve over rice.

    Options: (1) Add finely chopped fresh ginger with the garlic scapes. (2) Thicken the sauce: combine 1 tbsp cornstarch, 2 tbsp soy sauce, and 1/4 cup water or broth in a cup; add the sauce at the end of cooking and heat until thickened. (3) Add sesame oil and serve cold, tossed with spaghetti or udon noodles.
  • 06 June 2013

    Tragedy at a local thrift store

    The Rowhouse Livin' household is devastated at the terrible news that six people perished at the Salvation Army thrift store at 22nd and Market Streets in Philadelphia yesterday. Our thoughts are with the victims' families and we fervently hope that the responsible individuals will be brought to justice.

    I didn't visit that thrift store very often -- maybe once every few months -- but it was always a little busy when I was there. And there always seemed to be a baby or two there, so I was relieved, at least a very little bit, to hear that there were no very young victims.

    If I'm not mistaken, that was the only thrift store (as opposed to upscale resale or consignment shop offering second-hand goods) in Center City Philadelphia. It was a very useful destination for casual clothing and housewares. The dishes I use for lunch and coffee at my office came from that very store. I'm very sorry to see it destroyed, and it seems unlikely, to me, that Salvation Army will find another Center City location with rent low enough to open a shop to replace it. But of course, this material loss pales in comparison to the unimaginable loss suffered by the friends and families of the deceased.

    What an awful event in Philadelphia.

    03 June 2013

    Cheap eats: Pantry vinaigrette

    This isn't haute cuisine; it's merely cheap cuisine, nothing fancy, made with ordinary items you almost certainly have in your kitchen cabinets at all times.

    The Rowhouse Livin' household finds that most bottled salad dressings are too sweet for our tastes, or they have hippie-scaring preservatives. When a bottle comes our way via a potluck or family get-together, it will often end up sitting in the fridge, unused, for literally a year. And who knows how old that dressing is? When were the ingredients produced, then packed, then sold at the grocery store, and then finally opened? Let's try something fresher -- especially considering that, at my count, we've had about ten heads of salad greens and two dozen radishes already this season with our CSA subscription.

    This vinaigrette works with lettuce-based salads as well as pasta and cold potato salads. You can up the salt content if your greens are a little bitter. You can add dried onion flakes, dried marjoram, mustard seeds, or tarragon if you like. Paprika gives it a little kick. And it holds up well with crumbled bleu cheese over spinach.

    Ingredients:

  • 1 part white vinegar
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano leaves
  • 2 to 3 parts olive oil

    Method:

    Small portion (for one salad, serving 4): Pour 2 tablespoons vinegar into the salad bowl. Add flavorings and stir to moisten. Whisk in 4 to 6 tablespoons olive oil until emulsified. Let stand while salad is prepared, at least 5 minutes. Whisk a few strokes again, add salad ingredients, and toss until salad is coated and a little wilted.

    Large portion (to keep in the fridge): Put 1/2 to 3/4 cup olive oil, 1/4 cup vinegar, and flavorings in a pint jar. (Increase quantity of flavorings to taste.) Close jar tightly and shake until emulsified. Let stand at least 5 minutes. Before using, shake again. Store unused portion in the fridge and use within a few weeks.

    Fresh herbs option (to go with a large portion): This works best with a single herb at a time, not a combination, and is a lovely way to feature whatever bounty is overwhelming the garden or the CSA box that week. Select a cup or so of fresh herbs. Prep them as necessary and chop them coarsely or into chiffonade. Add to the pint jar with the oil, vinegar, and seasoning, and proceed as above.
  • 31 May 2013

    Compare and contrast nutritional data resources: USDA vs. Google

    A friend of mine is on a diet for science (they're taking part in an investigational weight-loss program through a local university), and so they have to count calories very carefully. So far, they've been using a handbook by "the CalorieKing", provided by the program, as well as internet searches of varying reliability.

    When I've wanted to look up nutritional information -- say, after a fitness professional friend suggested that I increase my magnesium consumption -- my go-to resource has been the super-comprehensive but somewhat user-unfriendly USDA National Nutrient Database. Dig it. There are some 8,000 foods in the system, both organized by category and searchable by name. Look at the nutrition packed in that CSA kale we got this week! The only question I'm left with is, what's the percentage of my DRI (formerly known as Recommended Daily Allowance, or RDA) for all those nutrients? I have to cross-reference with another USDA website or a PDF file from the Institute of Medicine, which is too bad.

    Google to the rescue, maybe. They've just announced that they're rolling out a nutrition data aggregator. Soon you'll be able to type "how much magnesium in kale" into Google search, and you'll get an honest-to-goodness Nutrition Facts label right there on your computer or handheld screen.

    Neato burrito, so to speak.

    30 May 2013

    CSA asparagus casserole

    Our CSA (community-supported agriculture) subscription has been generous with asparagus in its first weeks, so here we go: a very simple casserole to use the asparagus and another item in abundance this early in the season, green "baby" garlic. I love a one-pot recipe!

    Ingredients:

  • 1 bunch spring asparagus
  • 2-3 spring onions or baby garlic bulbs, sliced small
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/2 to 1 cup milk
  • 2 ounces shredded hard cheese (Cheddar works well, as does mozzarella)
  • 1 cup seasoned breadcrumbs [1]
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil

    Method:

    Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees F. Remove and discard the tough lower ends of asparagus spears. Chop the spears to about 2-inch lengths. Toss with the onion or garlic and place into casserole dish. Combine the flour, salt and pepper, and milk, and whisk until no lumps remain. Pour over the asparagus and onion. Cover vegetables with shredded cheese.

    Toss breadcrumbs with olive oil and scatter over the casserole. Cover and bake 35-45 minutes, or until bubbly. Serve hot.

    Serves 2 as a main dish, 4 as a side dish.


    [1] I keep no-cost breadcrumbs on hand almost all the time. When it looks as though I won't be able to finish a loaf of bread before it starts to grow mold, I slice it into very small cubes and place it in a plastic container in the freezer. For this recipe, I would measure out a cup of breadcrumbs; add some dried oregano, dried garlic powder, salt, and pepper; and toss with olive oil. If the breadcrumbs were still very cold when the casserole went into the oven, I would add maybe 5 more minutes to the cooking time listed.
  • 28 May 2013

    Five-dollar rhubarb pie

    I'm always excited when rhubarb starts showing up at the supermarket and farmers markets. I have a very fond memory of my grandma going out to her front stoop, hacking some leaves off a weedy-looking plant, going into the kitchen, and re-emerging a couple of hours later with a pie in her hands. I don't know where she got the recipe -- to tell the truth, she got most of her recipes out of the newspaper or Chatelaine -- but it's a highlight of my year to make a Mothers Day rhubarb pie for myself or to bring one to a Memorial Day picnic.

    It's even better when I'm patient. When rhubarb first showed up at our farmers market this year, it was priced at an insulting $6.00/lb. Insulting because rhubarb, once established, grows like crazy, returns every year (and in fact prefers a good, hard freezing every winter), and doesn't require a terribly gentle hand to harvest and ship. Don't get me wrong: I want my farmer to get a fair price for what they take the trouble to bring me every weekend. But I'd also appreciate being charged a fair price for what I want to bring home. So I waited two weeks, and this time it was $4.50/lb. Still not ideal, but enough to make a pie for about $5.00.

    Ingredients:

  • 1 9-inch pie crust (a half recipe of Flaky Pastry Dough from the 1997 Joy of Cooking works well here)
  • 1 1/2 cups white granulated sugar
  • 3 tablespoons flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 2 eggs, separated, yolks beaten and whites set aside
  • 3 cups (about 1 pound) chopped rhubarb

    Method:

    Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Fit the pie crust into a 9-inch pie tin or plate (not a deep-dish pie pan). Sift together the sugar, flour, and salt. Rub in the butter. Mix in the beaten egg yolks. Combine with the chopped rhubarb and fill the pie crust.

    Bake 15 minutes, then reduce temperature to 375 degrees F. Bake 35-40 minutes. Prepare a French meringue with the egg whites and about 2 tablespoons sugar (omitting cream of tartar); top the pie and bake until meringue is browned, about 5 minutes.

    Remove from oven and let cool before serving.
  • 22 May 2013

    The CSA season begins

    Our community-supported agriculture (CSA) subscription started delivering last week, so my projects over the next several months will be to post (1) cheap, simple recipes to use up the produce, and (2) notes about canning. The recipes will be mostly about vegetables, and the canning will be mostly about fruit.

    My past experience with CSA's: every week, we'd get a handful of strawberries here, a small sack of green beans there, and six pounds of kale. But that was in the Pacific Northwest, where there's an endemic blight that makes it hard to grow tomatoes. (Man, did I miss Jersey tomatoes while I was living in Seattle. Now that I'm back in Philadelphia, though, I miss getting apples for under $1.00/lb. This mid-Atlantic cheapskate can't win.) Word on the street from a friend who did this particular CSA last year was that the quantity of tomatoes can approach overwhelming levels, and fall can become Carrot Time. So if the same bounty occurs this year, maybe I'll try pressure-canning carrot slices for use in quick winter soups.

    We've paid $640.00 up-front for a half-share of vegetables plus a full share of fruit. This amount is comparable to what we would pay for produce at the local farmers market from May to October -- but we'll be getting a larger quantity of produce. We'll still hit the market, though, for local cheeses and wines, plus occasional gifts. I'll look at the math again at the end of the season and see how we did. But with careful, complete use of the produce through immediate consumption and home-canning, I'm almost certain we'll be ahead, and into the winter as well.

    Here's a recipe to kick off the season: CSA frittata, using what else? Kale.

    Ingredients:

  • 1 bunch CSA kale
  • 1 bunch (or less) CSA spring onions, chopped
  • 2-3 tablespoons butter
  • 2 ounces shredded Cheddar cheese
  • 6 eggs, well beaten

    Method:

    Wash kale and chop into bite-sized pieces. In a large skillet, sautée onions in butter over medium heat until tender. Add kale in batches and wilt. Season with salt and pepper and cook until tender. (Add a little water if necessary. If you do so, let the water cook off before proceeding.) Spread the kale evenly over the skillet, and place shredded cheese in an even layer over the kale. Pour beaten eggs over kale, reduce heat to low or medium-low, and cook until done, 10-15 minutes.

    Serves 2 as a main dish, 4 as a side dish.
  • 29 April 2013

    There's what in my bagel?

    On Saturday I needed picnic fixin's for a hike, so we headed to the supermarket. We found some bananas, picked out a small tub of hummus, and wandered toward the bakery racks to find rolls. Since we couldn't fit a whole baguette into the cooler we were carrying, and the supermarket's little sandwich rolls were all white flour, we looked at the mass-produced, pre-packaged options in the bread aisle. And a lot of them had cellulose in them.

    I was taken aback. Isn't cellulose wood fiber? As in, the raw material they use to make rayon fabric? Isn't it the main component of cotton, as in cotton balls and Q-Tips, denim jeans and t-shirts? Why would I ever want to consume cellulose? I am not a termite! I am a human being!

    Cellulose is the new thing, I understand, for texturizing ice cream and upping the amount of fiber in processed foods. I guess it's gotten to be cheaper than bran or oat fiber, or the psyllium seed husk they put in Metamucil. You find it in white-flour products that want to boast a high fiber content. We found it in some otherwise suitable-looking bagels, as well as some pre-sliced flatbreads, but not in some whole-wheat rolls.

    Fiber is important, for reasons I'd rather let other people explain. But is it really so hard to add a couple of pieces of fruit to your daily diet that you decide to resort to eating sawdust instead? An adult should get some 25 to 35 grams of fiber every day. An orange gives you 3 grams; an apple gives you about 5. Add a couple of carrots for another 3 grams. Now you've had 11 grams of fiber over 5 pieces of fresh produce, and you're well on your way to those 25 grams as well as gettng your "5 to 9 for better health" or whatever the current guideline is. And all without eating wood.

    Our next idea was to try for crackers. We found a million varieties of American crackers, but they all had funky ingredients, didn't have much whole grain, or seemed more like junk food chips than a grain product. In the end, we gave up and found some imported crispbread to dip into the hummus.

    And a timely link that was going around my circle of friends today, a collection of portraits of households with their weekly grocery haul: "What the world eats." Which photo looks like what's in your grocery cart?

    09 April 2013

    Coffeecake on the cheap

    Brunch-time family visit over the weekend means I made a coffeecake. I don't know why I used to think coffeecakes are complicated. They're basically a butter cake -- the same as any ordinary sheet cake you'd make for a birthday -- but a little more forgiving, since you want it to be dense and homey, not bake-shop perfect. The batter can take a lot of abuse and inexpert preparation. I like to boost the nutrition and fiber a little by using some whole-wheat flour, but I wouldn't go so far as to skip all the white flour.

    I find that they're an opportunity to use up some fruit I've stashed in the freezer. This time, I used blueberries (natch), pulling them out of the freezer a day ahead of time, letting them thaw in the fridge, and tossing with about a tablespoon of sugar before starting to prepare the batter. Rhubarb is an excellent choice as well.

    I'm ballparking that the cake here cost about $2.50, including cooking gas. You can shave about 50 to 75 cents off that cost by using non-organic ingredients.

    Here goes:

    Ingredients:

  • 1 cup white flour
  • 1/2 cup whole-wheat flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 stick (1/4 pound) unsalted butter
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 2/3 cup milk
  • 1 cup chopped fruit
  • Sugar for the fruit (optional)

    Method:

    Pre-heat oven to 375 F, and grease a small cake pan. Sift together the flours, baking powder, and salt. In a large bowl, beat the butter until light. Gradually add the sugar and cream until light. Add the egg and milk and mix well. Add the flour mixture and stir until smooth.

    Scrape the batter into the cake pan and smooth it out. Toss the chopped fruit with sugar, if desired, and spread onto the top of the batter. Bake about 25 minutes. Let rest at least 20 minutes before serving.

    Bon apétit!
  • 08 April 2013

    Surplus jars of jam

    According to the date scrawled on the lid of a jar of last year's strawberry jam, and according to the itchiness in my eyes, it's springtime and we're about six weeks away from starting up the 2013 home canning season.

    And I am nowhere near using up what I canned last year.

    This doesn't necessarily indicate poor pantry planning. In fact, it's lovely to have a well-stocked pantry during the time of year when, traditionally, people would be scrounging for food from half-rotten potatoes and livestock that had grown thin over the winter. And we aren't too many generations removed from the food insecurity that occurred annually in the gap between using up the last of the stored harvest and bringing in the next year's harvest. April, May, and June -- in the northern hemisphere -- used to be very scary months. (There's a phrase for that period of time, but I can't recall it at the moment. Comments welcome.)

    Furthermore, what looks like poor planning can simply be the odd result of windfalls and good deals during canning season. Recall that I went nuts on blueberries last summer, taking advantage of an opportunity to u-pick 12 pounds cheaply, and canned six half-pints of jam. By the end of the summer fruit season, I'd finished three batches of jams, a batch of marmalade, and a batch of apple butter. In retrospect, it was enough for about a year and a half, not a single year.

    Not to beg the question that I should make only enough jam for a single year. Some jams get better with a little more age. Certainly the blueberry jam did: the slightly tart berries mellowed into a rich, intense blueberry flavor. And it's an opportunity to work more protein into my mostly vegetarian diet by adding a tablespoon or so of jam to a teacup of yogurt, yum.

    Anyway, our community-supported agriculture subscription starts up in a few weeks, but I still have a few months' worth of jam left in the pantry. Yikes!

    03 April 2013

    On Drexel Law's two-year J.D. program

    So Drexel University is launching a new two-year J.D. program. Usually, it takes three years to get a law degree in the U.S. Six of the 200-odd American law schools offer a two-year path; Drexel's first two-year grads will start in 2014. It seems like a good deal -- you don't have to get loans for a third year of living expenses, and you can get a job one year more quickly -- but I did the math and found that it's an even better deal for Drexel, where I earned my law degree with the inaugural class in 2009. From e-mail I sent to a fellow alumnus:
    I think the premise is that Drexel's two-year J.D. program addresses the assertion that the third year of a J.D. program isn't necessary. That is, a person should get their two years done (some even say only one year), be awarded a J.D., and then get experience through an internship or apprenticeship, and then sit for the bar. But a two-year J.D. doesn't address that problem, because you still need all the credits of a three-year program. That issue won't be fixed until the A.B.A. and/or state supreme courts allow a two-years-plus-apprenticeship path to attorney licensure.

    Until then, the law schools with two-year J.D.'s reap the rewards of graduating three classes, instead of just two, every six years. Notice that Drexel's two-year J.D. will still cost almost $112,000 in tuition, because it's the same 85 credits as the three-year J.D. (85 credits x $1,315/credit). Yes, the candidates save a year's living expenses and the opportunity cost of being unemployed that third year. But the real answer to cui bono? is the law school. The Class of 2015 (three-year program) is 140 students. If 140 get past the no-refund point in their third year (minus a few for attrition and transfers out, plus a few for transfers in), then that's over $15 million in tuition and fees, or $5 million/year. If one class of a two-year J.D. program is 1/3 the size of a regular three-year program, then a law school gets $5 million every two years, or about $2.5 million every year. But note that that's not 1/3 the amount they get from one year of a three-year program; it's 1/2. Drexel's bottom line is that they gain half a class's worth of tuition every year by adding this program.
    Note: here's where I have to Emily Litella a little bit. Dean Dennis explains that the law school will keep its "current class size of about 130 students, but with a quarter of them enrolled in the new program." However, when I did the math before, I started with the assumption that the two-year students would be in addition to the full classes of three-year students. Rather, they will be a sub-set of the incoming class. To re-do the math, this means that every year once the program is fully implemented, about 33 students will be paying half their $112,000 total tuition, while about 97 students will be paying one third of their $112,000 total. Every year, this means (33 x $112,000 * 1/2) + (97 x $112,000 * 1/3), or ($1.848 million) + ($3.621 million), or $5.469 million/yr. Without a two-year program, all 130 students simply pay one third of their $112,000 total tuition: 130 * $112,000 * 1/3, or $4.853 million/yr. Each year, the school takes in $616,000 more in tuition per class -- it's like growing the class by some 15 students while adding zero bodies to the student body. You can hire at least four law professors with that kind of change.
    To [one colleague's] point, I'm a little concerned about the loss of value in Drexel's J.D. brand. It appears to me that the two-year J.D. is not a trend among top-tier schools (except for Northwestern), even though it's probably inevitable in the very long run. I think the lowered prestige in a Drexel J.D. is a big risk for the school, and not a good deal for the graduates. But Drexel must have done the math and decided that there is a sufficient financial advantage for Drexel to be on the vanguard of this type of program.
    As I concluded to my fellow alumnus, there's a huge reason why I'm certain this is all about the benjamins for Drexel, and not about the students or the profession, which is super-saturated and unable to employ new graduates. Drexel isn't offering a night or part-time program, which would increase enrollment of "students who are a little bit older," as Dean Dennis says. But since a night program takes longer than a three-year program, it doesn't infuse the school with extra cash up front the way an accelerated program does.

    My fellow alumnus wondered if there were any other industry that responds to decreased demand by increasing supply. My answer: one where an invisible hand brings it an extra $616,000 every year.

    15 March 2013

    Welcome, surprise readers; and proposed SEPTA fare hikes

    After a link from Atrios yesterday, I got over 3,500 views of my post unfavorably analyzing an NYTimes opinion piece on downsizing. (TL; DR: The author has a privilege blind spot preventing him from seeing that he's able to "outsource" his living space because of his wealth.) For the record, that's roughly 3,500 page views more than normal. But what fun! Before yesterday, I had never had a post so popular that I could play Blog Comment Bingo. I got quite a few of them: the reasonable interlocutor; the childfree zealot; the mansplainer; and the one-upmanshipper. The only thing missing was a spammer.

    Moving along, and moving to something local to my region, our beloved public transit agency SEPTA has announced a proposed schedule of fare hikes effective in July. Monthly TransPasses, which I get for myself and the household's teenager, will go up by $9.00, or about a day's worth of food. (Cue one-upmanshippers commenting that they feed themselves more cheaply. In response, $9.00 is a ballpark amount. We can and do eat more cheaply, but $9 includes "luxury" items like out-of-season produce, local cheeses, and non-nutritive beverages like coffee and tea. The teenager is a fiend for herbal teas. Cue the childfree zealots telling me they'd never put up with that.) More subtly, the TransPasses will no longer be valid for in-city trips on regional rail, in two ways. One, the North Philadelphia and North Broad stations are shifting to Zone 1; and two, the passes will simply not be good any more for trips to Eastwick and the airport.

    These changes are more significant than they seem. Eastwick is an important destination for city residents with blue-collar jobs, and for airport-area residents with Center City jobs. Come July, TransPass users will have to switch to the 36 trolley (or a long, 2-stage trip using the El to 69th Street and then a bus), since the shorter, direct trip via the Airport Line will cost more. And it used to be one of SEPTA's best-kept open secrets that a TransPass gets you to the airport for free. The airport is a destination for workers, too, of course; but this change is irritating for bourgeois professionals like myself who go on trips for business or pleasure a few times per year, or want to meet an incoming visitor and help them save a few clams by taking the train rather than a taxi into town.

    My point, and I do have one, is for houseguests after July: You're on your own, kids!

    The Zone 1 shift for the North Philadelphia and North Broad stations will work similarly. Residents and workers who need to use those stations will either switch to slower City Division ground transportation, or they'll have to buy Zone 1 passes. And the math you've been waiting for. Currently, a TransPass is $83.00/mo. The proposed TransPass will be $91.00/mo. But people who need to use North Philadelphia, North Broad, Eastwick, or the Airport will have to get a Zone 1 TrailPass, which is now $91.00/mo. but will be $101.00/mo. While I'm whining about a price increase of $9.00/mo., there are others in the city who will have to find $18.00 more in their monthly budgets. And, as a social worker friend of mine put it, these changes will disproportionately affect people who can least afford the changes.

    And did you catch the other change in the proposal? Seniors and the disabled will have to use a state-issued photo ID to get a discounted or free ride. Currently, seniors can get a free ride by showing a Medicare card. The proposal is to require seniors to show a state-issued photo ID for their free rides, and for the disabled to acquire a "Photo ID Smart Media," presumably issued by SEPTA, for their discounted rides. I won't go into the politics here, except to note dispassionately and factually that photo ID for voting was a huge problem here in Pennsylvania last fall. Some seniors had a devil of a time getting their photo IDs when an issuing agency employee would deem that their supporting documentation was insufficient. So cynically I'm waiting for the first news reports of a 90-year-old, 88-pound great-grandmother denied her free bus ride because she has her Medicare card but hasn't gotten a state-issued photo ID.

    In closing, welcome new readers via Eschatonblog. Please poke around my back catalogue of posts and enjoy yourself. And if you find yourself in Philadelphia sometime, I'll be happy to meet you at the airport and show you how to take regional rail into Center City, unless you're visiting after the first of July.

    14 March 2013

    The NYTimes "Living With Less" opinion writer is silly, privileged

    A fluff piece in the New York Times explains that living in a tiny, sparely furnished bachelor pad is better than living in a big house full of stuff.

    Here at Rowhouse Livin', we had a few thoughts. To begin with, it sounds as though the author doesn't have any family members living with him. I don't necessarily mean children -- I'm not "mommyjacking" -- but I'll start there. Clearly, kids need stuff, and in a lot of ways they need more stuff than adults do. You may be fine with a minimalist wardrobe, keeping all your reading material on an electronic device, and working out at the gym. But a kid will need a variety of clothes for multiple seasons and activities; they'll have schoolbooks and homework; and they may choose gear-intensive sports like lacrosse or football over cross-country and swimming. As for other family members, though a number of people do shoehorn families into tiny homes, it's probably not realistic for most families. And what if you're the primary caregiver to an invalid?

    Is adopting the tiny home lifestyle one way to avoid being the family member tasked with caring for elderly parents, or a close family member who needs extraordinary care?

    It also sounds as though the author doesn't keep a lot of emergency supplies, or really much of anything, on hand. I mean, unless he's storing food and sundries on shelves along his ceiling, I can't figure out where he'd put everything he needs in 420 square feet. This choice raises two issues. One, for meals he has to go to the market, get take-out dishes, or eat at restaurants every day. This lifestyle will end up costing him far more than would preparing all his meals at home. The author is a dot-com millionaire and serial entrepreneur, though, so presumably costs are not as pressing a concern for him as they are for me. And two, he's not ready for an emergency where he loses utilities, or where he's too ill or injured to leave the house for a time. Again, if you're not keeping supplies on hand, then you're choosing expensive contingency plans -- stay in a hotel until the problem is fixed; hire a helper until you're feeling better. Outsourcing these kinds of things is expensive. The author has a blind spot: he has ready-cash privilege.

    To look at this personal outsourcing another way, I used to have a neighbor who hated doing dishes and enjoyed a pristine kitchen. He bought a paper cup of coffee from the coffee shop every morning on his way to work. No coffee maker taking up space on the counter, no coffee mug to wash every night. While he supported a local business with his daily custom, every year he generated over 200 dirty paper cups and spent about $500.00 on this coffee. This is "living with less"? Less what?

    Further, the author's wardrobe of "six dress shirts" suggests that he doesn't have a job where he has to worry too much about his clothing. He's not getting filthy doing manual labor. He's not working in an environment where dressing the same every day would be objectionable (a lot of business offices) or weird (teaching). He's not required to wear a uniform. He's not coming home covered in food, chemicals, paint, or axle grease. In short, he's a guy who doesn't have to change his clothes when he gets home from work. A person who has only a half-dozen dress shirts to cover his torso is not a person who has to work outdoors or wait for buses in the winter, either. Does he have a car in his building's garage, or a doorman to call taxis for him? Not to set up a false dichotomy. He likely has both.

    Of course, there's a happy medium between the huge house full of consumer goods and the 420-square-foot studio apartment. But the author's opinion that anything more than the tiny home is "inessential" and "excess" is flat wrong for those of us who don't have a wallet full of platinum cards and a streak of dot-com successes behind us. And I don't buy his assertion without proof, at the end of his piece, that he's "limit[ing his] environmental footprint" merely by living in a small space. Is he purchasing carbon offsets for his take-out and restaurant meals in addition to his airfares?

    The happy medium at the Rowhouse Livin' homestead is two-fold. You can take my wall of books when you pry the shelves out of the studs we screwed the uprights into. And: "If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."

    19 February 2013

    Fool-proof method for keeping horsemeat out of your house

    So in Europe they're dealing with a food supply scandal where an abbatoir in Romania may or may not have sold horsemeat that may or may not have been labeled as such to a French food processor that may or may not have mixed the horsemeat with beef, where it may or may not have been included in steeply discounted single-serve lasagnas, meat pies, and other microwave-ready boxed meals in supermarket freezer aisles.

    Now, horsemeat isn't intrinsically a poor food, unless the horse was treated with a drug not otherwise allowed in horse destined for human consumption, the detection of which was one clue that led to the scandal. But generally, it's my understanding that it tends to be less fatty and richer in iron, magnesium, and phosphorus than the grain-finished beef that Americans usually get. And I'm told it has a grassy flavor somewhere between that of beef and venison, which is at worst unobjectionable and at best mighty tasty. But if you don't want to eat it, you shouldn't have to; and if a package of food doesn't list horsemeat on the label, you should be able to trust that there's no horsemeat in the package. Anything else is fraud, pinching money out of your pocket.

    But evidently you can't trust labels, even from high-profile international brands like Nestlé. This is because the path that ingredients take from the field or stockyards to your table is a circuitous one, crossing state lines (or national frontiers) over and over again. Ingredients pass through multiple hands, literally and metaphorically, as they're processed into the end product. And at every step, a processor needs to take its cut and make a profit on the value they're adding to the foodstuff. How do they do it? By using the cheapest ingredient or method possible before they finish touching the product and moving it to the next actor.

    Then the final vendor does their balancing act with pushing down the retail price as low as possible while still eking out a profit. One of the problematic products in the U.K. was a bolognese sauce that retailed for £1.00/500g, or about $1.75/lb., or about $1.75 for a pint jar of red pasta sauce with meat. Think about it: that's an extraordinarily low price. If you were to make a pint of red sauce with ground beef in it, you'd need a couple of pounds of fresh tomatoes, perhaps a quarter pound of beef, a little bit of onion and other flavorings, a little oil, and some lemon juice and/or sugar, depending on the tomatoes.

    Let me try to price it out if I were to make this sauce today at home. Winter is an awful time to buy fresh tomatoes, but it looks as though I get get a couple of pounds of tomatoes for $5.00; a quarter pound of beef for $1.25; enough onion for $0.25; and let's say another $0.25 for everything else in the ingredient list plus cooking fuel. My version of the sauce costs $6.25. It would likely be cheaper in the summer, when I can get deals on tomatoes. I could save some more by starting with a cheap cut of meat and grinding it myself, or teaming with another household and buying an entire side of beef to share. I think, though, that it would be very difficult to get my pint of meat sauce under about $3.00 while still using quality ingredients.

    How to manufacturers do it, then? By buying their tomatoes in quantities larger than six items at a time, of course, with long-term contracts the scale of which I haven't seen since I studied the UCC in law school. The difference between what Campbell's pays for the tomatoes it puts in its soup and juices and what you pay for the tomatoes in your salad is, shall we say, disheartening. Same with the beef they put in their ravioli versus what you put in your sloppy joes. A single producer, a cooperative of farms, or an agribusiness operation will give Campbell's a better price than you'll see at the grocery or farmers market, because you can't possibly match the soup company's economy of scale.

    That's only part of the story, however, because there are other actors between you and the tomato field when it comes to industrially produced food. Different components in the package's ingredient list may come from different suppliers, and the food may be only partially produced in one location before it's shipped elsewhere to be finished. Everywhere along the line, the actors will seek to maximize their profits. They'll opt for cheaper raw materials, which may not be as high-quality as what you would buy for your household. What kind of quality do you think you'll get when you pay $1.75 for a 16-ounce jar of pasta sauce?

    A butcher in a BBC article explains that it's about "knowing and trusting the people [you] do business with." You can get to know your producer, abbatoir, transporter, and vendor; or you can learn a few languages and travel all over Europe trying to figure out which processor or factory is looking to save a few euro here and there by cutting the ground beef with ground horsemeat:

    How's your French, German, Turkish, Greek, Dutch, and Romanian?
    See the BBC page for a clickable version of the map with more information.

    So, the Rowhouse Livin' fool-proof method for keeping horsemeat out of your house? Don't buy pre-packaged food with a price that's too good to be true. In fact, avoid pre-packaged, processed food whenever you can, because what you gain in price you lose in quality, nutrition, and trust, every single time. If time is a problem, try these: (1) use weekend downtime to make larger batches of food and freeze leftovers in smaller containers for later meals; (2) regularly prepare an extra portion of dinner in the evening, and enjoy it for lunch the next day; and (3) dust off the crockpot and use it at least once per week.

    And with that, I'm off to lunch: a couple of slices of home-made pizza left over from Sunday dinner with friends. Absolutely no horsemeat in this pizza. Bon apétit!

    13 February 2013

    Visualize . . . wasting no food

    The Natural Resources Defense Council has issued a report (PDF) about the amount of food that Americans waste every year. Now, not all of it is wasted in the home; a good deal is wasted all along the line, according to the report, from the field to the factory, the distribution chain, and the end points of restaurants and our dining tables.

    There's not much, if anything, you can do about how much food is lost before you put your groceries away, I don't think. One should probably assume that the invisible hand will prevent farmers, middlemen, restaurateurs, and grocers from wasting too much food in the interest of maximizing their profits. I guess the invisible hand has done the math and figures that there's an acceptable amount of food that it can allow to slip through its fingers to keep its profits up. That is, at some point it must cost more to save or continue handling some amount of food than it costs to lose or dispose of it.

    But here at the homestead, it's essentially 100% unacceptable to waste food, where "to waste food" means to throw it out or let it go bad before I use it. It costs almost zero dollars for me to lose or dispose of food. My trash collection is free, because it's a no-cost-added service from the City of Philadelphia, paid through my taxes. (I don't compost because I don't garden, for architectural reasons.) Now, how much does it cost me to put food down my sink disposal? I blush to confess I've never done that math. I use some amount of water, some amount of heating gas if the water going down is warm, and some amount of electricity. Outside of the cost of the food itself, if I run the disposal for 10 seconds, I will ballpark and say it costs me 2 cents. Some days I run it twice, some days I don't run it; so let's say that I run it once per day, and thus it costs me $7.30 per year to run my disposal. I'm fine with this cost, and here's why. The way I run my disposal is to cram the waste and food trimmings into the drain before I wash the dishes. Then I run the disposal as I drain the sink after doing the dishes. Not only does this get the garbage down without splashing odors into the kitchen, but it also serves to really flush out the disposal and maintain it in a clean condition. In fact, I run the disposal when I drain the sink whether I have garbage down in it or not, for that cleaning effect. And I'm OK with paying $7.30 per year to keep my kitchen smelling a little better than kitchens I've lived in that didn't have sink disposal.

    That figure, though, doesn't include the food I'm throwing into the disposal. The most important thing for me to remember here is that the Rowhouse Livin' invisible hand works differently from that of the farmers, middlemen, restaurateurs, and grocers mentioned above. For me, when I don't use food that I buy, it's squarely a problem of throwing money away.

    What to do? The Unclutterer blog suggests buying a dry-erase marker notetaking solution, but I'd rather do something that doesn't require whipping out my credit card. Instead, I visualize actually throwing money away. Two pounds of potatoes have turned irretrievably green and sprouted in a back corner of the kitchen? That's two crisp dollar bills floating out the door and into the sanitation truck. A can of beans went all bulgey after I missed it during my last emergency food rotation check-in? That dollar makes a loud "thump" when it lands on the bottom of the kitchen garbage can. Kiwi fruit were 3 for $2 but I ate only two of them before the last one shriveled and got moldy? That's two quarters, a dime, a nickel, and two pennies clinking around the disposal blades with the kiwi's core.

    It doesn't seem like much; but if you saw 67 cents in a little stack on the sidewalk, wouldn't you pick it up? After all, you could buy a kiwi fruit with it.