16 January 2013

The canning jar windfall story (Or: Always accept hand-me-downs)

This week I was offered about two dozen canning jars, mostly old-timey ones dating from the early 20th century. Dealing with second-hand or older canning jars can be tricky, and I try to keep a few things in mind when I come across a previously used canning jar. One, I almost never can my own food with hand-me-down jars, because I don't know if the jars have been badly cared for. I don't want to risk losing time, money, and food when a jar fails in the canner. For a second concern, I knew this batch of jars would include several of the type with glass lids and wire bails. I cannot use these at all for canning, though unchipped, uncracked jars with non-rusty bails can be useful for dry food storage. And finally, I don't have either the time or the expertise to inspect, sort, and price jars for sale. I'm sure I could make a few dollars off the surplus jars I won't be able to use, but I am not interested in going into the second-hand goods business.

So then why did I take the lot, sight unseen? Because of the Rowhouse Livin' "Law of Hand-me-downs," which is, simply, Always accept hand-me-downs. Here are three reasons why:

  • Friends and family will be more likely to give things to you in the future if you haven't turned them down in the past.

  • It's good discipline for keeping the house neat and organized. Anything I can't use, I'll donate to my neighborhood charity thrift store. When I'm newly flush with hand-me-downs I can't use, it's an opportunity to take along items of my own that I don't need any more at the homestead: unwanted clothes and housewares, unfortunate gifts, and a few books.

  • There's still a possibility you could make a buck or two. For instance, while I have no use for the nearly complete set of mid-20th century china that a relative handed down to me, I will likely be able to sell it for a month's grocery money. The trick here is to minimize your time and effort while maximizing the cash you can get from "flipping" hand-me-downs. If you want to go into the second-hand goods business, then by all means, do so. But to make a living at it, you'll have to make it your full-time job: pursuing items, cleaning and valuating them, operating a real or internet shop, and taking care of the administrative overhead.

    Back to the windfall . . .
  • 14 January 2013

    Follow up: Is bar soap dirty?

    In August 2012, I asked:
    Why does everyone use liquid soap? [...] Is liquid soap more sanitary? I found one secondary source that says "[g]erms can grow on bar soap." But wouldn't viruses, molds, and bacteria just wash off your hands with the mechanical action of washing and rinsing, and the chemical action of soap micelles forming around them? And what bacteria can grow on bar soap, anyway? I thought one of the basic (ha-ha) things about soap was that it lyses bacteria when the business end of a hydrophobic-hydophilic soap molecule disrupts a bacterium's lipid membrane. There must be more types of bacteria in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in my philosophy.
    (Internal links omitted. Pretentious reference to Shakespeare retained.)

    Well! Following some bouncing links the other day, I found an answer. Some of the links in the article no longer work, but here we go:
    According to a series of tests conducted in the early 1980s, bars of soap are often covered with bacteria and carry a higher load than you'd find inside a liquid dispenser. But no one knows for sure whether this dirty soap will actually transfer its germs to your hands during a wash.

    In fact, what little clinical evidence there is suggests that dirty soap isn't so bad. A study from 1965 and another from 1988 used similar methodologies: Researchers coated bars of soap in the lab with E. coli and other nasty bacteria, and then gave them to test subjects for a vigorous hand-wash. Both teams found no transfer of contamination from the dirty soap. However, both studies were tainted by potential conflicts of interest: The first was conducted by Procter & Gamble, and the second came from the Dial Corp.

    Still, there's no good evidence to contradict these studies, and it's likely that the bacteria on a dirty bar would just wash off when you rinsed your hands. In other words, you'd be cleaning the soap as you cleaned your hands.
    I always understood that it doesn't matter what texture of soap you use, because any soap works in two ways, due to its chemical makeup. First, the soap molecule disrupts a bacterium's cell membrane. Two, the friction of rubbing your hands together, plus the slipperiness of the basic (as opposed to acidic) soap solution you create by lathering up, plus the rinsing action of water, all work together to mechanically remove dirt, bacteria, and viruses from your skin. The Mayo Clinic agrees, telling us essentially, just wash yer dang hands, and it doesn't matter if you use liquid, bar or powder soap.

    Does anybody else remember using powdered soap? An elementary school of mine, built in 1929 with bathrooms likely dating to the post-Second World War era when I attended, featured powdered soap dispensers. I didn't figure anybody really used it any more, but Google text and image searches show current vendors and new dispensers.

    But my take-away from all this is that I'm going to stick with my bar soap. And, now that the continental U.S. is enduring an extreme flu season this year, I'm going to wash my hands super frequently. The math lies squarely in favor of bar soap versus liquid soap. And I don't see a reason to install dispensers ($35.00 each) for powdered soap ($11.25 per 5-lb. box) in my home.

    11 January 2013

    Cheap eats: soup from the pantry

    As promised, a cheap wintertime recipe.

    The household's teenager is wrapped up in daily rehearsals for the school play, so we don't roll home until 6:00 p.m. or even later on weeknights. She usually has homework to finish, and I often have laundry to move or bread to bake. But we want to end our household activities early enough to start the whole routine over again the next morning. And like everyone else whose kids are busy with after-school activities, we want dinner on the table as soon as possible after we get home. It helps, too, if dinner is nutritious, cheap, and different from whatever it is we scrounged up the night before.

    That said, I won't do take-out. Although we have a half-dozen options for food to go within just one block of the Rowhouse Livin' homestead, I avoid them. Why? Take-out is expensive, for one. I might spend $25.00 on a take-out dinner for two; and though it may give me leftovers for lunch the next day, $25.00 is several times the amount I may spend on a dinner (plus lunch leftovers) made from scratch. If I get take-out just once per week, that's $100.00 per month added to my grocery bill. Shudder!

    For another, take-out meals aren't terribly healthy. They're very calorie-dense but nutrient-poor, even if you choose an option heavy on the vegetables. A veggie lover's pizza is still pizza. Asian-style tofu and broccoli is still stir-fried and high in sodium. A burger or steak sandwich with fries . . .  sounds really good right now, but I digress. The following recipe is scientifically proven to be healthier for everyone in the world than a take-out cheesesteak and fries:


  • One quart jar of cubed winter squash, or 1 to 1 1/2 pounds pre-cooked winter squash
  • Broth, or water plus 1 bouillon cube or other soup concentrate to taste, to cover
  • 1/2 cup to 1 cup (up to 1/4 pound) very small pasta (e.g., conchigliette, ditalini, orzo, elbow macaroni)


    Empty the jar of squash into a medium saucepan. Add broth or fresh water plus bouillon to cover. Bring to a boil. Add pasta, reduce to simmer, and cook until pasta is done.

    Cost And Time:

    I don't remember exactly how much I spent on the winter squash that I canned, which I'd bought at the farmers market when it was in season. I think it was $2.50/pound, and I fit a little under 2 pounds in each jar; that makes for a total of $5.00, to include the costs related to home canning. The bouillon cubes I used cost about $0.50 apiece. And I added about $0.25 worth of pasta. Let's add another $0.10 for water and cooking gas. This batch of soup cost $5.85.

    Not the end of the story, though! Winter squash is very filling, and adding starchy pasta also helped the soup stick to our ribs. We ate only half of the pot of soup one night; we finished it the next night. So really it was $2.93 per night, or just $1.46 per meal, per person. (We are a household of two.)

    As for time, I had this soup on the table within 20 minutes of our walking in the front door. If we had brought home take-out food, we would have eaten right away, of course. But I'll argue that we ate faster by cooking: we did not have to wait at a restaurant while our food was prepared, or wait for delivery after phoning in an order.

    And that's how I avoided getting take-out dinners for two weeknights this week. How about you?
  • 07 January 2013

    The Twelve Days of Christmas Cheese -- wrap-up

    Epiphany -- 6 January, or the day after Twelfth Night, which was the last day of Christmas -- has come and gone. And so has the last of the Christmas cheeses. Here are a few of my favorite solutions for using up the odds and ends of cheese:

  • Homemade pizza with spinach and robiola -- Heating up the robiola in a 500-degree oven brought out a creaminess and goaty tang that didn't come through when we nibbled it cold on crusty bread or crackers. Win!

  • Grilled Livarot cheese sandwiches -- Not as successful. "A" for effort, but it's just not a cheese that seemed to enjoy being served heated. Livarot worked much better simply served at room temperature and paired with a few varieties of apples.

  • Blue cheese crumbled onto spinach salad -- This was a no-brainer. To let the flavorful cheese shine, I dressed the salad with a very light vinaigrette (olive oil, white vinegar, salt, pepper, garlic powder, dried oregano) instead of a heavy cream-based dressing. Yum!

  • Pecorino freshly grated onto pasta with red sauce -- Another no-brainer, and a zippy change from the usual.

    And of course it was just delightful to have a selection of interesting cheeses kicking around for the Twelve Days of Christmas. I hope your holidays were delightful, too.

    Next topics at Rowhouse Livin': Cheap wintertime dinner recipes; a check-in with some of the items I pressure-canned in 2012; and a discussion about home-made pizza, which I like to make for friends when I host a semi-potluck dinner about every other week.