Thursday, February 28, 2013

Junk mail and other marketing follies

Picture from
Corporate World, Inc. cracks me up.  They can't keep track of who their customers are, who their prospects are, and what works.

I joined a service a couple of months ago, and cancelled it on the same day.  It's a long story, but suffice it to say that it turned out it didn't cover the area I was intending to eventually move to unless I increased my membership.  I asked for help, and the man I spoke to tried very hard to help me, but being based in a completely different part of the country, he kept putting me in the service area of another state that had a town of the same name (no matter how often I tried to tell him that no, it was actually FamousTown Massachusetts not SameTownName, Rhode Island.).  So I called to quit  the service.  The person I spoke with was very polite when I asked her to cancel my service (which I had signed up for that day) and issue a credit to my credit card.  She went through her computer, I heard her key in some codes, and she said, "So, I've taken you off automatic renewal.  Is there anything else I can do for you today?"

"I would like my account--which I signed up for today--cancelled and a full refund issued," I said, trying very hard to not lose my temper.  Perhaps she had misunderstood me the first time.  Perhaps the higher-ups tell them to misunderstand things this way in the hopes they can still hang on to some money for a little while.

"Oh! Sure, I can do that," she said and she cancelled the account and credited my card.

Now. I would have forgotten all about this, but guess which company is bombarding me with emails and junk mail? We're so happy to have you! Here are some special deals (for a service area you were not interested in).  Can you take this survey? Hey, we haven't heard back from you! Hey! HEY. HEY. HERE IS SOME PAPER JUNK MAIL BECAUSE WE DON'T THINK YOU'RE PAYING ENOUGH ATTENTION.

Now, I hit delete on the emails (and have marked them as spam).  The junk mail--I just toss it into the recycling bin at the post office.  But I have to laugh.  Right hand, please meet left hand.  Keep each other apprised of what you are doing.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

My first free range chicken

Well, not my very first--a friend gave me some frozen chicken breasts from his CSA (along with other meat) over a year ago, and I invited him and mutual friends over for a big feast featuring these goods.  However, this was my first roast that I bought that was locally raised.

There's a winter's farmer's market here, and many area farmers offer locally raised chicken, rabbit, beef, pork, and lamb.  Now, I love rabbit, but I don't know of too many people who eat it besides me and I figured that the chicken would be a good bet. So I thought, okay, I will pay the much higher price for this (it was a lot more than grocery store chicken) and try it. It's not like I've been spending money like an heiress during the Gilded Age, so what the heck.  I had the extra money.  My parents came over on Sunday and I made it for them.

I didn't notice it tasting extremely different, though I thought the house filled with the smell of the roasting chicken more quickly (and more fully).  Maybe it's because I haven't been eating a lot of meat so I don't have any recent taste to compare it to.  It was good, quite tender, and it was flavorful.  I also liked the idea that the money I paid basically went into the farmer's pocket (whom I met when I bought the roast).  If I buy one in the grocery store, the money goes to a bunch of executives who are happy to squeeze the people who raise the livestock and slaughter the livestock.

One thing I do when I roast a chicken--no matter where I got it from--is I stuff it with a piece of fruit (usually an old apple, orange, or lemon), maybe an onion, and a bunch of herbs (rosemary, sage, thyme, usually).  That helps keep it moist.  I sprinkle a little salt over it, some pepper, and I might squeeze a little of the juice of the fruit (if it's citrus) over it, and I roast it in an oven that started at 450 degrees brought down to 350 degrees when I put the chicken in.  I estimate about 25 minutes per pound.  I had a five pound chicken.

However--I know that this is not something most people can easily do. I mean, I'm not joking when I said it was expensive.  though if anyone shops at Whole Foods (I don't, but I've been there and I've seen the prices), you'll find the prices to be similar.  If anyone reading this shops at Whole Foods, I'd suggest sourcing your meat and produce locally if you can; if you can afford to pay those prices and you want good food, you can get it for the same price from local producers. Just pay the farmer directly, they will get your money and you won't be paying more.  If I was not a single woman who was making enough money, if I had kids and a lower salary, this would not have been feasible.  And that's sad.  I'd rather that the farmer Tad get my hard earned money, frankly.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Something (I hope) we can all agree on

I'm veering away from my usual topics today because I just read about this and I am so angry I cannot even see straight. The Onion thought it would be funny to call Quvenzhane Wallis, who was a nominee for Best Actress for her role in Beasts of the Southern Wild, the c-word.  As a joke.

People who know me in real life know that I have a somewhat brutal and sarcastic sense of humor.  But I do have lines I don't cross, and there are things that other people think are funny that I don't.  C'est la vie.

However. I think we can all agree that calling a nine-year-old girl the c-word is actually not funny. (God, please tell me that we all agree on this.)  Quvenzhane Wallis is a child. She may be a public figure but she's still a kid, a little girl, and I cannot imagine how awful it would be to have grown adults who bloody well know better use that kind of language about you when you're a kid.  It really troubles me that someone thought it was appropriate to go there.  If that makes me a humorless harpy, I really don't care.  Sometimes people don't laugh at your stupid jokes not because they're humorless or because they're PC, but because your joke actually isn't funny.  In this case, it was out-and-out bullying.

She is a child.

She is an actress.  She's by all accounts a very talented one.  She is also a child.

The Onion owes her a huge apology.  And my god, I just want to give that kid a hug.

Update: The Onion issued an apology on its Facebook page.  There are people who are still bleating about satire and acting like it's the second coming of Stalin for adults to get static when they call a nine-year-old girl the c-word.  I cannot even with some people. If you think targeting a kid is okay, I think you're a terrible person.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Around the internet--the upcycling edition


Ingrid Vaca Diez does the ultimate in upcycling--she builds homes for the poor from recycled plastic bottles and other gleaned materials.  You can see a short video about it above; the link has a story and a longer video (about 25 minutes).  I am so not worthy.

Are you handy? Then you can make outdoor dining furniture from old pallets.

Here are 17 other ways you can re-purpose wood pallets

Check out 10 Easy Upcycled Craft Projects over at Country Living.

30 Ways to Re-purpose and Reuse Old Stuff.  Some of this is a little out there for me (and I do not have an old piano), but it's interesting to see how people can and do reuse things.

If you are all thumbs like me, fear not! You can still re-purpose things like soup cans, egg cartons, and other everyday household items in no time.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Jedi mind tricks I used to cut down on my spending

Spending too much I think you are, Pamela.
I'm not a believer in stringent discipline.  I tried to go that route in saving money, staying fit, eating well, etc. and I would always fall off the wagon and feel terrible about myself.  Something had to change.

What I found was that once my thinking changed, my life changed with it.  Now granted, this isn't going to be applicable if you have no money coming in or are living in serious poverty (or are in a tight period and are even just taking the usual financial precautions).  There's a huge difference between choosing to cut back and being forced by circumstance to do so.  One feels empowering, the other feels discouraging.

Here are some mind tricks I use to avoid spending:
  • How many hours of work would it take me to have enough money for it?  How many of my work hours--based on the real hourly wage--would it take?  What about the costs associated with maintaining it?  How much time would I spend maintaining it? 
  • I would think, "Oh look! I'll be seeing these at every yard sale in a few years."
  • It's going to take longer to order out/go out to eat than it will for me to make something quick at home.  
  • I can make that better at home.
  • I know it's only $20, but that's $20 more in my savings if I don't spend it.  
  • How many resources went into making this? (I'm one of those tree-huggers, so this will often stop me cold.  Not always, mind you, I'm just as human as everyone else, but often it does.)
  • If it's an item of clothing: Is it dry clean only? Ugh, that's a pain. Is it hand wash only in the tears of heaven's angels? Also a pain. Forget it.
  • Use my credit card? So the CEO of the credit card company can take another million dollar bonus courtesy of people like me? I don't think so.  (I do pay the thing off but I don't use it very much.)

Things I do (or don't do) that help me avoid spending money unnecessarily:
  • I don't window shop.  I have found that window shopping leads to actual shopping.
  • I try to avoid places that have things that are or will become my weakness.  This is easier now that I don't take the train to work anymore--the station had a bookstore and an ice cream place.  I would invariably have about a half hour to wait for my train, and to kill time I'd brows the bookstore.  Then I'd find titles that sounded interesting.  Then I'd think, I should write this down and go to the library.  Then I'd think, But I'll be on the train for 45 minutes, why not just get the book and read it? Also, it's very new and I don't think the library has it.  And there you go, I'd own yet another book.  And sometimes, I'd have a craving for cookie dough ice cream, and the ice cream place was RIGHT THERE and I would think NO YOU CANNOT HAVE COOKIE DOUGH ICE CREAM YOU HAVEN'T HAD DINNER YET and my stomach would be all MUWAHAHAHAHAHAHA YOU ARE GETTING THE ICE CREAM CHICKIE and yes, I'd lose that battle.
  • I took myself off of mailing lists so I don't get catalogs anymore.  If I do get one, I toss it into recycling.
  • I don't read certain magazines anymore.  I used to have a subscription to Gourmet before it went defunct because it was great escapism.  The problem was, they'd feature recipes requiring some rare or expensive ingredient, or they'd rhapsodize about certain wine glasses, or they'd have ads glamorizing certain things and I'd feel as gross as a mud puddle for not having them.  No more.
  • I try to see what I have that would do instead.  Especially if it's something I am not sure I'm going to use/wear very much, I don't see the point in getting it and taking up more space.
  • I've developed an aversion to shopping.  I find it very irritating.  Stores are crowded and noisy, I hate waiting in line, and sales pitches irritate me.  Your mileage may vary with this--some people thrive in noisy, crowded places.  I'm not one of them.  In fact, it got worse after I joined a CSA.  Once the season was over and I had to do some serious shopping in a regular grocery store, I almost lost my head.  Oh lord was it irritating.
Don't get me wrong--I still buy things I like and want, and I'm not above the odd impulse buy.  And I certainly like going out for Chinese food--that's not something I will willingly give up.  (My life sans gyoza and ma po tofu and egg drop soup would not be a life worth living.  Okay, I'm exaggerating, but seriously, it's delicious.)  I'm not living like a monk.  But I've managed to scale it back a lot.

What do you do to help stop yourself from spending money unnecessarily?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Red lentil and carrot soup

Yes, this is what my work lunch looks like.
I have not been around for a while--mainly because I've been in a snit over the weather (which has  not helped me in my quest to find a new home to buy).  This past weekend we had another snowstorm--and we may have yet another this weekend.  That will be three in a row if you include the blizzard we had two weeks ago.  This is getting very, very old.   I'm not above self-pity and sulking, folks. I was grumbling about how I NEVER HAD TO DEAL WITH THIS SNOW CRAP IN JAPAN and AT LEAST IT DIDN'T NORMALLY GET BELOW FREEZING WHERE I LIVED and I had to remind myself that I also had to deal with roaches so large that you could throw a leash on them and take them for a walk (living in a mega city plus generally warm weather equals lots of uninvited housemates).  Er, maybe I'll just deal with the winter.

However! One thing I do a lot of when it's cold and miserable outside is cook.  And last weekend was no different.  I threw together a hearty and delicious red lentil and carrot soup.

You will need:

1 cup red lentils
2 carrots, thinly sliced
1/2 onion, chopped (or about 1/2 cup chopped frozen onion)
4 cups of stock (chicken, turkey, or vegetable)
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1/2 tsp of turmeric
1 tsp curry powder
1/2-1 tsp cayenne pepper (or to taste)
1 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp ground coriander seed
 1 tbsp olive oil
Bay leaf

Heat the oil in a stockpot.  Add the garlic and onion, cook over medium heat until translucent.  Turn heat down to medium low, add the carrots and cover, allowing to cook for about 10 minutes (stirring occasionally.  Add the lentils and coat with the oil.  Add the stock, spices, and bay leaves.  Bring to a boil for about five minutes.  Turn heat down and allow to simmer, covered, for about twenty minutes or until the lentils and carrots are soft.  Transfer soup to a food processor or blender (or use an immersion blender) and puree. 

That's pretty much it.  It's a nice accompaniment to a crisp, green salad and/or some crusty bread.  It's a very thick, stick to your ribs soup that is filling and nutritious.  It's something I looked forward to eating once I was done shoveling out my driveway. It also keeps well and makes for a filling lunch at work.

I tried this during the blizzard a couple of weeks ago with split pigeon peas.  It had a very smoky flavor that seemed to come from the peas.  I don't really go for smoky flavors in my soup, so I wasn't jazzed about the pigeon peas, but if you like that give them a whirl.  Pretty much any lentil (especially a split and skinned one) will work well.

The other thing I like about this is that it's inexpensive to make.  And relatively quick--you don't have to let this simmer for hours, and the leftovers taste wonderful as the spices meld a little more overnight.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Friday blogaround: the snowpocalypse edition

Nothing has fallen out of the sky yet and we had no power this morning.  It came back on in an hour (and I called the electric company to let them know about the outage). Remember this post? Well, one thing that's occurred to me is that our homes are built for the modern age.  It's not like I have a wood stove.  I have flashlights, etc. but a long term power outage would just be awful. 

Which brings me to my next point: It is neither a sign of weakness nor hysteria to listen to the weather forecast and take things seriously.  I spent part of my childhood in upstate New York, a place where several feet of snow was normal.  That doesn't mean that you shrug this stuff off.  If you actually live in an area where this is common, do not sneer at other people who are concerned and taking steps.  You actually might want to take a page out of their book.  Because even if you're used to lots of snow? If your power goes out for a long period of time, that could mess with you.  Let's not be arrogant.

CTMOM is prepared.

Savvy Shopper is also prepared.

LifeHacker has preps for all kinds of emergencies/disasters.  I knew what I should do during an earthquake, but I'll admit: they freaked me right out when I lived in Japan. I knew it was time for me to head home when the words, "Go back to sleep, it's just an earthquake" came out of my mouth.  As in, I sat up and thought, "OH MY GOD IT'S AN EARTHQUAKE. It was a small one BUT IT WAS AN EARTHQUAKE I AM FROM A PLACE THAT DOESN'T HAVE THEM.  THE EARTH IS NOT SUPPOSED TO DO THIS THIS IS WRONG WRONG WRONG I SHOULD NOT BE USED TO THIS."

(Small earthquakes are actually quite common in Japan.  I was not there for any big ones.)

Some tips on how to live without electricity.  

Once the blizzard is over, have some fun in the snow.  But wait until the storm is over, please.  Whiteout conditions are no joke, and dying because you wanted to play in a blizzard would make you eligible for a Darwin Award.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

North African Beef Stew

My coworker Annamarie spent time in Gambia in the Peace Corps.  She always has some good stories to tell about living there, and it made me want to visit Africa. 

Annamarie also likes cooking and sharing new recipes she's tried.  She brought in some of this delicious stew for me and wow, it was fantastic.  I asked her for the recipe and if I could share it, and she graciously said yes.  She made whole wheat couscous to go with it, which I think really made the dish.

North African Beef Stew

You'll need:
3 tbsp olive oil
3 lbs beef chuck roast, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic, sliced
4 medium carrots, coarsely chopped
2 tsp sweet paprika
1 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
3 cups beef broth
1 15-oz can garbanzo beans (chickpeas), drained and rinsed
1 cup dried apricots, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1/2 cup golden raisins
2 tbsp cornstarch mixed with 1/4 cup water (not needed, according to Annamarie)

Heat oil in a large skillet over high heat.  Sprinkle the meat with salt and pepper.  Add meat to the skillet a few pieces at a time and brown on all sides.  Transfer the browned meat to the insert of a 5- to 7-quart slow cooker

Add the onion and garlic to the same skillet and saute until the onion begins to soften, about 3 minutes.  Add carrots, paprika, cumin and cinnamon and saute until the spices are fragrant, about 2 minutes.

Deglaze the skillet with 1 cup of the broth and scrape up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan.  Transfer to the contents of the skillet to the slow cooker insert.  Add the remaining 2 cups broth, the beans, apricots, and raisins.

Cover the slow cooker and cook on low for 8-10 hours, until the meat is tender.

Skim off any fat from the top of the stew. 

If you're using the cornstarch mixture (Annamarie didn't and it was delicious anyway): Add the cornstarch mixture and stir to combine.  Over the slow cooker and cook for an additional 20-30 minutes, until the sauce is thickened. 

Serves 8.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Carrot Cake Jam

Canning season is never quite over for me.  I can stocks because they're easier to use out of a jar than waiting to defrost.  And sometimes I still make things like jams and jellies because I have guests over or I want to have something in hand to give my hosts when I go to someone's house.

The thing is, you don't need fresh fruit to make jam.  You can make this delicious jam, which is tasty, uses carrots, and is very different from the usual fare of blueberries, blackberries, strawberries or raspberries (not that there's anything wrong with those!). 

I got the recipe from this book, and I highly recommend it.  There are all kinds of new and interesting recipes in there.  This recipe makes about 7 half pints.  It's quite good on toast or a cracker with cream cheese, and it's also tasty on plain scones or bagels.

You will need:

2 cups of finely shredded carrots (about 4 medium)
1 cup finely chopped, peeled pear (1 medium)
1 15-ounce can of crushed pineapple (juice pack), undrained
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 1.75 ounce package regular powdered fruit pectin
4 cups granulated sugar
2 cups packed brown sugar
1/4 cup flaked coconut or raisins (optional--I didn't use either and it turned out fine)
1 teaspoon vanilla

In a 4- to -6quart heavy pot, combine carrots, pear, pineapple with juice, lemon juice, cinnamon and nutmeg.  Bring to boiling, stirring constantly, remove from heat.  Sprinkle mixture with pectin and stir until it dissolves.

Bring to boiling again, stirring constantly.  Add granulated and brown sugar.  Return to a full rolling boil; boil for one minute, and keep stirring (you don't want this to scorch or burn).  Remove from heat.  Skim off foam with a metal spoon.  Stir in vanilla and if using, coconut or raisins. 

Ladle jam into hot, sterilized half-pint canning jars, leaving a 1/4 inch headspace.  Wipe jar rims; adjust lids.  Process jars in a boiling water canner for 10 minutes (start timing when the water returns to a full boil).  Remove jars from canner and cool on wire racks.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Friday blogaround--the challenge edition

So, in keeping with my cat theme, to the left is a maneke-neko.  This is Japanese--it's basically a charm that invites good luck and money.  (The Japanese sign for beckoning you over is hand up, palm down, fingers bending, like the cat's paw in the picture.)  My old Japanese teacher gave me one years ago (though I've got no idea where it is these days). So here's hoping a picture of one can transfer good luck over the internet.

Let's get started.

 Bryallen is trying to eat on £1 a day this week. She's trying out a great recipe for lentil burgers (which I may try.)  She got them from Frugal in Derbyshire. There have been a lot of dollar-a-day challenges here stateside, and I've gotta tell you, I don't think I could do it.  I'm too much of a princess.  I am trying to eat down my pantry, though.

Since we're on these challenges, please check out Fusion on the Fly.  Chef Karl Wilder tried to live on a typical food stamp allotment for a couple of months in 2011 as part of a project with the San Francisco Food Bank.  He's now trying to live on a typical allotment and eat and prepare foods that are diabetic friendly.

In a similar vein, Billy Vasquez makes meals with ingredients that cost 99 cents or less.  Check out his blog the 99 Cent Chef.

Belinda's been eating down her pantry and freezer.

The Dinner Diva has a guest post over at Food Stamps Cooking Club about growing greens indoors.

There's an old but good post over at Simple Mom's place--12 Tips for Thrift Store Shopping.  I don't do a lot of this for reasons I outlined here, but you can find very good prices for clothes and housewares in good shape.  I have two designer sweaters I got from a thrift shop.  The two of them cost me something like $5. 

Nicoleandmaggie would like to know what your gazingus pins are.

Carol is decluttering.