Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Cooking on a budget

     Right now I have two goals for the food we eat: it needs to be tasty, and it needs to not cost very much. (Truthfully, the food needs to be fairly healthy, but I pretty much always achieve that with our food.)
     We've been buying a lot of food at Aldi in the last year. They have crazy cheap prices, and we can't go to warehouse stores to take advantage of Costco-style pricing. (Where would I put all those staples in my tiny apartment?) There's a hidden advantage to Aldi shopping, too: there's not a lot of choice. I didn't realize how much I would like not having choice, but it simplifies my life in so many ways.  I can grocery shop in about 20 minutes, because the store so small I can walk through the entire thing in about five minutes. If I'm buying non-processed foods (cheese, vegetables, beans, etc.) I know that anything I buy at Aldi is going to keep me under the budget. And I don't have to think a lot. You want dried beans? You can have white beans or pinto. That's it. Cheese? There are 8 types, but only one size and only one brand of each.
     The only real negative for me is the handful of items that we really can't live without, but that Aldi doesn't sell: spices, red wine vinegar, and brown rice. We can usually stock up on those items once a month or so, so it doesn't result in too many trips to different stores.
     I'm feeling confessional tonight, so I'm going to account for my successes and failures in my effort to feed two people cheaply and tastily:

SUCCESS- I have learned how to make two "fake meats". I make fake bacon with this recipe and I can now make lunch meat or sausages by making my own seitan using this recipe. This is a double win: I save loads of money, and I know each and every ingredient that goes into each imitation meat, and that's not necessarily true for the supermarket stuff.

FAILURE- I bought a 50-lunch meal plan at work last year. I hoped this would encourage me to go to the faculty club (i.e. the campus restaurant where only faculty can sup) and socialize with the rest of my department. But their vegetarian selection is abysmal. Since I was also allowed to "spend" my meals at the student cafeteria, I went there sometimes. But eventually I remembered that I hate cafeteria food and I decided I'd rather waste all the meals than eat them. Andrew came to my rescue, in the end. He can't use my meal card (with its picture ID on it) but every day for the last two months I went to the cafeteria, loaded up a to-go tray, and delivered it to him. (Andrew is less pick than me.) This was a huge waste of money for bad food and I'm so glad we've almost used them up.

SUCCESS- I love premium (i.e. expensive) ice cream. My parents-in-law bought me an ice cream maker, and now I'm eating good ice cream and frozen yogurt cheaply. I did the calculations, and if you are happy eating store brand, it's better to just buy the ice cream. But if you're buying Haagen Dazs or Ben and Jerry's, the cost of ingredients is much less than the finished product. (And that's even after accounting for the cost of the extra gadget.)

SUCCESS OR FAILURE - STILL UNKNOWN- We've been drinking awful Aldi coffee for a year, and I'd like to do better. We're going to buy the materials to roast our own beans (i.e. a grinder and a popcorn maker). Unroasted green beans are less than $6 a pound, which puts them on par with very cheap supermarket coffee (which is sneakily sold in 12-oz, not 1-pound bags here). If this works, we could be drinking artisanal coffee every morning. Or it may fail spectacularly and we will have 20 pounds of unroasted beans on our hands. Time will tell.

Monday, February 25, 2013


Blech. Today, while walking the dog, Andrew ended up escorting home a girl who had just been mugged at gunpoint. (He doesn't carry a phone when he walks, so he couldn't call the police directly for her.) This is one of the extremely negative points about my neighborhood - the crime. In some ways, we live in an awesome neighborhood. We can walk to the grocery store and interesting restaurants, and we have actual sidewalks to walk on. (I'm pointing at you, suburbia, with your sidewalk-free roads.) We have terrific neighbors all around us, so that when I walk the dog I almost always see someone I know. We have the best landlord I've ever had and we are good friends with the tenant upstairs. (It is so cool to have dinner with a friend and then walk back to your place afterwards, down one flight of stairs.)

But there's also a lot of crime in a "transitioning" neighborhood. Houses are burgled, cars are broken into, bikes are stolen. For a while I comforted myself that it was "just" property crime, and it is true that property crime feels different than violent crime. Even then, we lost enough property that I considered making the expense part of our budget. And this is the second mugging in recent times (the other one that sticks in my mind happened outside our house, although I don't know details). I'm not ready to move to a gated community, but at times I can understand why people would see that as more comfortable.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013


It's strawberry season in Florida! The local strawberries are extraordinary, not those giant, tasteless strawberries bred for shipping ease instead of flavor. However, the strawberry farm is quite a long drive from our house, so when we go, we buy a big flat. They don't stay fresh for very long, so it was all strawberries, all weekend.

This cake was way more work that it should have been. The first time I baked the cake layer, I forgot the sugar, so that went into the trash. The rest of the layers were straightforward, but it also took me two tries to get the glaze on top correct. Luckily, I know someone who has trained as a baker in Germany, so I have an expert to help me figure out what I did wrong.
Chocolate covered strawberries:
 Strawberry basil collins:

Friday, February 08, 2013

Don't cancel

"A dinner invitation, once accepted, is a sacred obligation. If you die before the dinner takes place, your executor must attend..."
                   -Ward McAllister, 19th century arbiter of New York society, as quoted in The Spice Necklace

I am just tickled by this quote. I agree wholeheartedly with its sentiment. In all my many years of giving dinner parties, I have only had two friends who did not attend a dinner party after they accepted. The first, still a good friend, forgot about the dinner. Afterwards, he apologized profusely and had us over for dinner as soon as possible. We invited him back many times after that. The second acted somewhat surprised that he had been missed (maybe he thought it was a, "Hey we're having some beers and pizza, drop by if you want" kind of invitation?) and has never been invited again.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

The dog paddle

Our dog loves to swim, and we conveniently live about a mile and a half from Biscayne Bay, which is the bay the separates Miami from Miami Beach. Last week we walked to the park on the Bay and let her have some swim time.

On the left, she's doing the dog paddle near the shore.
 In the picture below, Ada's looking across to Miami Beach and pondering whether she can swim that far.
This sequence demonstrates how to make a dog look at the camera when she's not particularly interested in the portrait session. The trick: doggie bacon hidden in your hand. 

Monday, February 04, 2013

Productivity, part 2: Email

Today's life-hacking topic: email. It can take over your life until unread email overtakes your inbox like the invasive and toxic air potato. (That's just a little reference to show that I live in Miami.)
I've never had a problem keeping track of my email. This made me realize that while I don't have an official email system, I do have unofficial rules. A friend recently asked me if I had email tips, and while I think he was hoping for a wonderful, free app like SelfControl, rules are all I have. Here they are:

(1) I've turned off all my email notifications. I don't have a job where I need to respond to email more than once an hour, and every email notification popping up on the phone or laptop disrupts my work. (This is hard -  I know it's addictive to check email)
(2) I filter. Emails from listservs, administrators, and other non-essential sources go to separate folders that I check a few times a month.
(3) I unsubscribe from every junk mail I can. I get very little mail that's not directly for me.
(4) Most importantly: I aim for a clean, empty inbox. In reality, I achieve this only a few times a week. But when I check email, I try to do it at a time when I have five minutes to spare. That means I can reply to easy emails immediately and delete/archive what doesn't need a reply. Emails that require more than a few minutes for a reply generally get added to my to-do list. Making the reply a real "task" explicitly acknowledges the time that it will take to answer.

If you want a more official "system" here are some other options for dealing with email:
The three folder system
Inbox Zero

Here's wishing you an empty inbox. (Or your chosen state of productivity bliss.)

Friday, February 01, 2013

Old time radio

Since the semester started in early January, the work days are rather long. Andrew is working two jobs: helping faculty learn how to use high performance computers and teaching second-semester physics. Since he's doing so much work, I'm trying to do as much of the housework as possible, along with some extra projects I've taken on (although I'll have to save those for another post).

We leave home at 8am and get home at 8pm, which leaves just enough time to eat dinner, walk the dog, and go to bed. I find this schedule a bit stressful and that's probably one reason why I'm having trouble falling asleep. As a result, I requested no-screen weekday evenings. I've read that computer light may affect ability to sleep (although the research is far from definitive), so we've been listening to more old-time radio in the evenings before bed.

I've been listening to old-time radio for several years now, and have built up an unofficial ontology of radio shows in my head. There are family comedies, and variety show comedies. There are historical shows and dramas. There are three types of shows are about people fight crime: police shows (police follow the laws), detective shows (detectives don't follow the laws) and superhero shows (they don't even follow the  laws of physics). There are thriller shows about the supernatural, and about people who commit crime. And criminals always, always get caught (or die). I assumed that there was some sort of morality regulation about criminals always "getting what's coming to them", as there was in motion pictures, but I can't find any mention of it.

And although I initially worried about the finite supply of old radio - after all, dramatic radio only existed from the '30s to the '60s - I've realized that the production rate was very high, and there's enough to last me for a lifetime. Or until I tire of it.