Monday, December 13, 2010

Christmas Coins

The first financial lesson I learned from my father was to save my pennies. Literally.

I don’t know how or why Dad started saving his coins. I know when he was a boy in the late 50s and early 60s he’d do small jobs for his older brothers in exchange for “silver” ie, nickels and dimes. They were worth more then.

In any case, at the end of every day Dad would put all his change in a jar under his desk. When I was small Kraft peanut butter came in clear glass jar in the shape of a teddy bear. We had about a half dozen of these, washed out and ready for coins.

It usually took about two months to fill a jar, then it would be placed on the shelf leading down to the basement. By November, the shelf would be full of coin jars, crammed with coins.

A few weeks before Christmas, Dad would empty all the jars onto the dining room table. It looked like piles of pirate treasure. He would roll while mom made dinner. I can remember sorting the coins based on the pictures when I was too small to count them (maple leaf, beaver, bluenose, moose and loon, if you’re not Canadian. Later there were polar bears). When I got a bit older I counted the ones my brother sorted.

A few hours every night for about a week (depending on how many coins there were) we’d all sit around the dining room table together, rolling coins. I really liked doing it as a kid, making piles of coin like Scrooge McDuck, and I still do, honestly. Plus, it was the first sign that Christmas was coming to our house.

The coins were our Christmas money. Some people have Christmas Club accounts or some other way to budget for the holidays. Dad put in a small amount every day, an amount that he wouldn’t miss, and over the course of the year it would slowly add up to hundreds of dollars. After the advent of the toonie ($2 coin, which was a total game-changer for this technique) we top a thousand, easy.

I’ve done this since I’ve moved out, but I’m not as disciplined as Dad was. Even so, I rolled over $200 last weekend, which is enough to pay for the simple Christmas Boyfriend and I have planned. It also helps me avoid waste. I’ve noticed that if I have change in my wallet it almost always winds up at Tim Horton’s or in the vending machine. Overpriced junk that I don’t need. Without change in my wallet that temptation is gone.

Which plays into my new, focused spending plan. Christmas means a lot to me. Certainly more than 200 coffees. I have trouble resisting my sugar cravings when there’s so much temptation around. But I’m a lot less likely to break up a bill than I am to scrounge quarters for a fix. Better that those coins be safe in a jar on my vanity, waiting for Christmas.

So save the penny, and bring on the foonie!! (Occasionally a five dollar coin is proposed. I don’t think it’ll ever actually happen, but I can dream)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Post Script

I want to post an addendum to my last entry. Within a few days of posting my thoughts on gratitude, I saw the headline “Gratitude is Nice, But Don’t Let it Keep You from Action” on one of my favourite websites, The Gloss. See link below.

On the surface, Jen Dzuria’s article seems to be the exact opposite of mine. She talks about how being thankful for the little things can cause a person to stop striving for the bigger things. She discussed her own experience with this, describing a time in her life when she focused on the positive things in her life and ignored the major problems she should have been working on.

I want to be very clear that this is not what I am advocating. I can be thankful for what I have now and still work hard for more in the future. Gratitude is no excuse for complacency. Contentment in the now is no reason to ignore the future.

Right now, I am working at being content with what I have. I am proud of what I have. I’ve accomplished a lot so far, and I have quite a bit to show for it. But I’m still looking ahead. I’m working hard and keeping my eye open for better opportunities at work. I’m saving my money so one day I can afford a car and a house. When I talk about being content, I’m thinking more about squelching the jealousy I feel when others talk about shopping sprees and fantastic trips. Some of these things I’ll never need, others I may have to wait for. I don’t want that to make me miserable, so I focus on the positive.

For perhaps the millionth time I’m reminded of the Serenity Prayer. I think, whatever your religious feelings you can see the wisdom of striving for:

the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.”

The answer to any debate is almost always the middle of the road. Life is rarely an all-or-nothing proposition. Be content with what you have, but keep your shoulder to the wheel and your eyes on the horizon.

And read Jen Dzuria’s articles, because she’s a smartie.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thinking About Thinking

I’ve been thinking about frugality lately. I started for practical reasons, I need to make better use of my money. This was originally a short-term goal, but the more I think about it, the more I think that it should be a lifetime goal, a value.

Being frugal is not the same as being cheap, or even being thrifty. Those focus on spending as little as possible. Frugality is about the mindful use of resources. That phrase “mindful use of resources” came from my dictionary and I just love it. I’ve been rolling it around on my tongue all day. It doesn't have to be all about money, there are all kinds of resources I should be more mindful of. I can hardly claim to be the Queen of Green, but I do my best. I try to save energy, recycle, reduce and reuse whenever I can.

Mindful is, I think, the key word. Whenever I rinse out a can or resist turning up the thermostat, I am reminded about why I do those things. The simple actions of living green remind me to do so, and reinforce my commitment to do so. Furthermore, I’m reminded of how lucky I am to have the option. There are people who can’t afford to heat their homes, people who can’t afford thick sweaters and hot chocolate to stave off the cold, people who don’t have homes at all. My sweaters and hot chocolate don’t seem like luxuries compared to some, but there are others who would think so.

I think gratitude is inherent to contentment. It’s all too easy to look at those who have more and feel bitter. It’s harder to be thankful for what you have, especially when that doesn’t seem like very much. But when I can manage it, I can be happy, and it makes the road easier.

There’s a transit strike in my city right now, so last weekend I walked to the mall to meet friends. It’s a 45 minute walk and it was dark, windy and snowing. It would have been easy to call a cab, or to spend the whole time wishing I had a car, but I really focused on this walk. I thought about co-worker who has a physical disability. She lives far from the office and relies on transit. She said, “Thank goodness I have friends I can get a ride from”. If she can be thankful for that, I can certainly be thankful for my strong legs. I also made myself think about my good boots and coat, my warm mittens, my mp3 player (which certainly isn’t fancy but sure made the walk more fun) and all the wonderful people I was walking to see. Honestly, by the time I got to the theatre I was in a pretty good mood. Plus, I’d saved $15 and a couple litres of gas and gotten some exercise to boot.

It’s really hard, it takes a lot of discipline, to be mindful all the time. But even after such a short time I’m already seeing the benefit. I’m finished with the diet/binge pattern of spending that I’ve been on, I’m tired of feast and famine. I want my spending to reflect what I value, and not convenience or impulse. I want to be mindful of how I use all my resources, and how lucky I am to have those resources in the first place.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

An Unsponsored Recommendation

Robin Hood Nutri-Blend flour is awesome. I don't normally recommend products, because I genuinely believe that, for the most part, one brand is as good as any other. And that may be true in this case as well, but Robin Hood is the only one offering this in Newfoundland right now.

I'm sorry, I'm so excited I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me back up.

I am fairly committed to healthy eating 80% of the time. Besides the obvious health benefits, I like the wholesome feeling I get from eating healthy foods. My brother's godfather always credited his health to a simple credo: "avoid the three deadly white powders; white sugar, salt, and white flour." This has always been held up to us as an example of disciplined healthy eating. I don't follow it. I do try to keep it in mind, and reduce those ingredients. Can I use honey instead of sugar? Can I half the salt? Will whole wheat flour work? Sometimes yes, but sometimes no. And those times when it's no I go ahead with the white powder, because I do need my treats sometimes.

So, I eat whole wheat bread, muffins and pasta, because those taste really good, but never whole wheat cakes, cookies, or pizza crusts, because they don't. Or do they???????

I first heard about "white whole wheat flour" from Orangette. She wrote about a flour that had all the wonderful properties of white flour (the lightness, the flavour, the texture) while still having all the fibre and nutrition of whole wheat flour. Apparently the difference is in how the flour is processed. It seemed incredible, but I could not find the brand she mentioned in St. John's and I certainly was not about to start ordering my flour online. It remained a far-away dream.

Until a month or so ago. There, in my grocery store, was Robin Hood Nutri-Blend Flour, making the exact same claim. I quickly bought a bag, even though it was more than I'd usually spend. (It was about $3.50 for a 2kg bag. I usually buy the 10kg bag for $7. Once in a rare while I get it on sale for $5).

I tried it out on the recipe that Orangette had used it for, "Everyday Cake" (see link below). The first thing that I noticed was that the swapping of flour did not make for a particularly healthy dessert. The cake still calls for a fair bit of butter and sugar. But it was an improvement over white flour. Also, it was delicious. Boyfriend and I agreed that it was a phenomenal cake, and were quite sure that we wouldn't be able to tell the difference with white flour.

So I put it to a harder test: pizza dough. I seriously hate whole wheat pizza crusts. They never taste right. The biggest problem is that pizza dough is such a basic recipe, the flavour of the flour is front and centre. You don't think about it that way, but there is nothing else to taste in pizza dough. Whole wheat flour gives it a lot of that whole-wheaty taste. That's great to have in bread or muffins, but not in my pizza.

I was a little worried about it when I saw it. The dough was definitely off-colour, much darker than my usual crust, but I needn't have worried. It tasted perfect. The product had lived up to the hype.

I still use regular whole wheat flour for everything I always used to. And I use white flour for those desserts which are so decadent as to be unsalvageable, such as frosted cakes or butter cookies. But for my more in-between desserts, everyday cakes and cookies, I use the new flour. A bit more nutrtious, without having to compromise a thing.

* Robin Hood has given me exactly nothing to endorse this product. But if they'd like to.....

Sunday, September 19, 2010

How I Buy Books

First, an experiment:

Does a picture of my kitten, Stringer Bell appear there? If so, I'll post more pictures in the future.

Now, on to books. I buy them a lot. I got this from my father, who always talked about collecting beautiful and rare books, and having a supply of unread ones against a rainy day. Or a sunny day, both are good for reading. In the days before my budget, it was not at all unusual for me to buy 2-3 books a week, every week. Even since the budget, I still buy 3 or 4 a month. Some months more, like last April when I bought over 30.

Obviously used books make up the bulk of these purchases. Unlike my father I like paperbacks and am less concerned with the look of a book. Although I certainly do appreciate beautiful hardcovers, I don't generally buy them because he has so many and is generous about lending them to me, as long as I am very, very careful with them. I buy books to carry in my purse and read in the lunch room or on the bus.

Used bookstores are where I stock up on writers like Margaret Atwood, Timothy Findley, Robertson Davies, Graham Greene and other old reliables. Writers that I know I'll enjoy whatever they have to have to offer me. I don't need to read the back cover or check out a review. I'll get something out of it, anyway.

My number one favourite books to read can now only be found in used book stores. These are the Penguin paperbacks that were published in the 1970s. This has less to do with the content and more to do with the construction, although there are so many authors published this way. Lots of Hemmingways, Waughs, Conrads and others, as well as shorter classics. By shorter I here mean less than four hundred pages. Unlike modern paperback binders, the Penguins of this era were not so foolish as to try to construct a 1000 page novel that will not fall apart upon second reading. These paperbacks have the most wonderful paper. It's not stark white, but a very light cream and the feel of the paper is incredibly soft and just a bit thick, the print leaving a visible indent. I believe it is impossible to get a papercut from one of these. These may be a result of aging, but the effects remain the same. They have a simple illustration on the front cover, a blurb and a couple of reviews on the back (both covers are cream-coloured as well). The spine is orange with white type, not unlike the blogger template, now that I think about it. These become illegible after multiple readings, but the binding always holds together. Probably why there are so many of them still around after 40 years.

For larger classics I look for hardcovers from the 40s, 50s and 60s. These are often very small, just about 4 or 5 inches tall, so they fit perfectly in my hand. They usually have tiny print, which is a downside but a reasonable compromise to have a book of reasonable size. More than once I've had to limit my reading of a book that was too heavy to hold in one hand. My hands are small and peculiarly weak. This is something I'm working on. These are especially good for writers like George Elliot and Charles Dickens, and other behemoths of their type.

As for new books, there are no shortage of these either. Boyfriend and I usually go to Chapters at least a couple of times a month just for something to do. We get fancy coffees and wander the stacks, making mental lists. It's hard to resist the bargain section, which has been a good source for reference books like "Grandma's Household hints" and an illustrated book of Saints. You can sometimes find leftover hardcovers of books that have just come out as paperbacks. I got Lisa Moore's "Alligator" for $5 this way.

Which reminds me of a rant I'd like to have. This concerns paperbacks priced $17-$25. This is unreasonable. I understand that they generally higher quality, but the purpose of a paperback is to provide a cheaper option for a book. Hardcovers coming in at $40 in unreasonable too, but that's a bit less crazy. I will not pay that much.

So for recent books I look to other sources. Primarily and, to a lesser extent, Costco. Yes, you heard that right, I buy books at costco. The selection is small, and generally only current or recent bestsellers, but they're generally about 40% off the cover price.

Mostly, though, I use I also get my cds and dvds there. You can generally count on 20%-30% off, and shipping is free with a $35 purchase. I've also started using for further discounts on amazon. (swagbucks is kind of hard to explain, but if you do start using it, tell them thestuckduck sent you). This is where I go for Nick Hornby, Tom Robbins, Muriel Bradbery, Allan Bradley, cookbooks and other more recent books. Most of the same editions that go for $25 at Chapters can be had at $14, which is much better. I also do nearly all my Christmas shopping here, because I can do it in 15 minutes from my couch. It helps to already know what you're getting everyone.

So that's it, that's all my advice and bookbuying. I am also a big proponent of book-lending and book sharing, and any other means of bringing a book into your life.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Home Made Ice Cream: The Agony and the Ecstasy

The plan to make my own ice cream started a while ago. I’m not sure exactly when, a year at least. I planned and plotted this out for a while.

I don’t know why I always want to try to make everything myself. It’s a compulsion that started in childhood, when I would carefully sew pillows for my dolls and trim them with my stringy, awkwardly crocheted lace (Usually blackened by my dirty fingers by the time it was ready to be attached.

I guess it comes from the feeling of connection I have with things I’ve made, I talked about this a bit in my post about hand-made gifts. Also, the sense of pride I get from having produced something tangible. Either way, as ice cream and making things are my two favourite things, it was inevitable that I’d try my hand at ice cream making.

I ordered David Liebowitz’s book, “The Perfect Scoop” from Amazon a few months ago. The fuss the food blog community made over this book was more than recommendation enough. It seemed that even looking at another ice-cream recipe was tantamount to heresy. Over the following weeks I’d pick up the good book, casually flip through the pages, admire the bright photos, marvel at the exotic recipe names.

Then came The Big Move. Obviously all thoughts of making anything were pushed aside (although I did eat a shocking amount of store bought ice cream in this time). On one expedition to Wal-Mart for house things, I did find a Hamilton Beach ice cream maker on sale for $35. Not the fanciest model, by any means, but the price was right. It was actually one of the first things moved into the new house, as I laid it on a shelf when I walked in and there it sat for over a month.

After the move was the trip, and then there were guests. And then I didn’t want to do much of anything for a while. Finally Boyfriend returned and settled in. Last week was Labour Day, and the time was finally right.

Saturday over dinner we decided that we were really going to do it this time. Knowing that the canister needed to freeze for 24 hours, I popped it into the freezer, and we were on our way! Sunday, we bought the ingredients for chocolate ice cream (of course we were starting with chocolate, do you even know us?). This meant going to the grocery store and buying a 2L of 2% milk (we needed that anyway) 1L of whole milk, and a half litre of cream. Fortunately I’m immune to strange looks from my cashier at the grocery store.

Back home, I set about the recipe, with Boyfriend near by for amusement and support. It was an awfully fussy recipe. Heat this, chill that, strain, use every bowl in the house, etc. I got a bit frustrated here and there, but my frequent tastings assured me that I was making something delicious. Finally ready, we double checked the instructions and saw that the batter also had to chill for 24 hours. Darn. Into the fridge it went, and we waited another day.

Holy cow, I forgot to mention that we got a baby kitten during this time! His name is Stringer Bell and he’s 8 weeks old. He’s the cutest thing in the history of cute things, but isn’t allowed to have ice cream and so is unrelated to this blog post.

Monday night finally came. Our long weekend over, back to work and school the following day, it was at last time to make ice cream. I put together the machine, poured in the mixture (spilling a lot of it down the stove and onto the floor in the process) and waited. And waited. And waited. Our mixture did not become ice cream. It did not look like it would become ice cream. This was pretty disappointing.

We decided to save the mixture and try again tomorrow. As we poured it from the machine into a container we realized, we had way too much of it. The instructions for the machine had cautioned against using more than a litre, but as the recipe claimed to produce a litre we hadn’t thought much of it. As it happened, if you include what had spilled, we had nearly 2. We put the batter back in the fridge, washed the canister and put it back in the freezer, and waited another day.

After work on Tuesday, we made one last try. This time we only put in a half litre and, with fingers crossed, tried again. It took a little longer than the instructions said, and had a consistency more like melty soft serve, but it was ice cream! And it was the most delicious ice cream I have ever tasted. I’m not exaggerating, and I have eaten an awful lot of ice cream. It was so rich, but just shy of too rich, so creamy, so …. Perfect! It was unreal. It was worth it.

We made the rest of the batch the next day, with the same results. We wound up with about 1.5L all together (not including that which was spilled) and after a night in the freezer it had the consistency of regular ice cream.

I figure that this ice cream cost $4-$5 for ingredients. I can get ice cream for that much or maybe cheaper if I watch for sales. But not the brands I like. Premium ice cream costs more, Breyer's runs $6.99-$8.49 for 1.5L, Moo Moo's (local) is $15 per 1.5L, and Hagan-Daaz is a staggering $21. I think the taste of my ice cream ranks up with the higher end, maybe better.

There's obviously a bigger time commitment, but that sort of thing doesn't bother me too much. I like concocting. It's worth it for me. Besides, in time I may be able to streamline the process, I foresee quite a lot of home made ice cream in my future!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Introspection and Cabbage

"Know thyself" said the Greeks. Maybe Socrates, maybe someone else. Thoreau left society to live alone in the woods in order to accomplish this, among other reasons.

Why the philosophy? I don't know. Maybe because I'm considering my life and where it's going. I've been spending more time alone than usual, which as Thoreau discovered causes those sorts of thoughts to spring forth.

I've been spending time alone because I've been living alone, for the first time in my life. I've had roommates since moving away from home. Technically this place is not mine alone, Boyfriend will be moving in with me. But he's spent the summer on the Northern Peninsula and I've been on my own in this house for nearly two months.

There have been times when the solitude has been a relief, even a joy. After a heavy day at work, or a week that's found me busy every night. It's wonderful to have a space over which I had complete control, a place where there was no need to consider anyone else at all. Music if I wanted it, silence if I didn't. No mess if I didn't make one, and no one else judging my mess if I did.

There have been other times, when the solitude has become emptiness. Where my house, instead of seeming large, became tight, closed and oppressive. One Saturday morning I dashed out to the grocery store, just to be around people. I'd only been on my own since the previous afternoon, but at that moment it was more than I could handle.

What have I learned in this time? I think I do well enough on my own, but I do need other people. I need someone to share my life with. I can make a house feel like home all by myself, but I want to share my home. Not with just anyone, but with someone I love who loves me, to share not just my home, but my life. Boyfriend will return from his Northern adventure next week, and he'll move in then. And I'm ready for that.

The other issue about living alone is the cooking. I discussed this in an earlier post, but I find very little pleasure in cooking just for myself. It doesn't seem worth the time or the dishes. I eat tuna sandwiches, cheesy eggs, and veggies from the market. Almost all my meals are forgettable.

Except this one:

In a fit of loneliness the other evening, I decided to make the ultimate comfort food. It had to be warm and mushy, to start. It had to have cabbage (because the cabbage couldn't wait any longer to be cooked) and it needed to have chicken-soup levels of comfort.

I started with a recipe from I Know How to Cook By Ginette Mathiot but I changed it a lot. That's something new for me. Maybe when I'm feeding myself I'm more likely to take risks? Who knows. Anyway, I came up with the following, which was everything I needed it to be:

Comfort Cabbage

Half a large cabbage, sliced to ribbons
An onion, chopped
1-2 Tbs olive oil
1 slice prosciutto, ripped to bits
1 cup chicken broth

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat, then stir in the onions. Add a pinch of sugar to help them brown. When they start to brown a little, add the cabbage and stir to coat. Pour the broth over and reduce heat to a low simmer. Simmer for about an hour, stirring occasionally. Done!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Air Freshener Rant

I hate air fresheners, room scents, and anything created by the Glade company. Strong words, but carefully considered.

I should mention I do not have a problem with scents, even artificial scents in general. I am an avid collector of perfumes, and I wear one almost every day (but never at the office, because I'm a stickler for rules). The difference is that for perfume we're talking about a half drop selected by myself that no one else can smell. I frequently do checks on this with either Boyfriend or other friends, "Can you smell me now? How about now? No? Good!" A scent can be a very personal thing. Room scents, on the other hand, fill the air, and everyone has to smell them. Moreover, I find most of them unpleasant. Scented oils are heavy, incense is smokey, and those awful aerosols and plug-in things just smell like a chemical swamp. I was excited by the claims of febreeze when it first came out, as it was advertised as a product that would eliminate smells without covering them up. I imagined a sort of spray baking soda. It's not. It smells like febreeze, which smells awful. I recently read about a woman who, when she was too busy to clean would squirt windex into the air to trick guests into thinking she had. It always worked and I bet smelled better than febreeze.

I don't see what's wrong with having your house smell like it does naturally. I open the windows as often as I can and I clean regularly. My house smells fine. I use baking soda in the fridge, the garbage and anywhere else that a bad smell might have a chance to grow and that takes care of that. I have the added advantage that I bake frequently, so my house often smells like baking. That's all the perfume it needs.

There are times, however, when the house gets a bit stale. I experienced this a few weeks ago when we had some pretty warm weather. There was no breeze coming in through the windows and, even though the house was clean, the air was heavy and sticky. I had guests staying with me and I knew they would be tired when they arrived. I wanted my house to be fresh and refreshing, I wanted it to smell like lemons. There's an easy and cheap way to do this without using lemon scented air wick. (I can only assume that whoever created this product has never actually encountered a lemon)

The only room-scenting technique I have ever employed comes from an old "Hints from Heloise" column. One of the few that doesn't involve re-using old containers. Basically, boil some cinnamon. It makes your house smell like cinnamon. Duh. So simple, and so perfect. Now, the cinnamon part has never quite worked for me, as the smell makes me crave it so badly that I usually wind up dropping whatever I was busy with to make a coffee cake. But this technique works with almost anything. The evening my guests were to arrive I put a few drops of lemon juice in bowls which I placed around the house. I then boiled the kettle and poured the water into the bowls. The cold bowls increased the steam, which quickly dispersed through the air. Each room was immediately freshened, and had just a slight hint of real lemon. Less than five minutes, barely costing a penny and no huffing mystery chemicals. Ta da!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

July has been kind of a crazy month. For one thing, I moved with 8 days notice. When I was starting the process I thought how I did it might make for an interesting blog post, but I did everything wrong, so I really can’t give anyone advice on this particular topic. I'’m not far enough removed from the various disasters for them to be funny yet, so I won’t be talking much about them either.
In the midst of this chaos, I hopped on a plane to St. Anthony to visit Boyfriend. Boyfriend is working as a Viking this summer, as part of the Norstead Theatre Festival. Norstead is the recreation of a Viking trading community circa 1000 AD built near the archaeological site at L'’Anse aux Meadows, where the Vikings actually did settle 1000 years ago. It’s something I always wanted to see, and with Boyfriend there (for three months!) I had the perfect excuse.
It was a wonderful vacation, although the weather was bad. On a foggy day I climbed to the lookout point on top of a cliff, where I could see the waves crash on shore and the mist swirl around the sod longhouses. On a rainy windy day I retreated into one of those longhouses, with strawberry plants growing on the roof, and sat around the fire with ladies in full Viking dress. One of these, called Olga on the site but Violet outside, taught me naalbinding. Naalbinding is the technique Norse women used to knit hats, mittens and socks. It uses only one needle, about 3 inches long, flat and made of Caribou bone. The needle is threaded and worked through loops on the opposite thumb. As much as I love crochet I’'ve never mastered knitting, which can be frustrating as it’s much better for practical items. Perhaps two needles are just too many for me. Naalbinding might be the answer. Boyfriend has promised to bring a needle home with him when he comes.
When off site, I stayed with Boyfriend and two of his co-workers, P&N in a modern 2 bedroom apartment. Since they were hosting me and saving me the cost of accommodation, I wanted to do something nice for them. If you know me, you already know this means I did some cooking. There were a couple of challenges to this. First, they are only there for the summer, so they only brought the necessities in terms of equipment. Second, I didn’'t want to buy a lot of ingredients that wouldn'’t get used up. Finally, P is a vegetarian, something I’m not used to considering.
The first day I made Marcella Hazan’'s fabulous tomato and onion sauce, because it was easy and they had all the ingredients on hand (Put ¼ cup butter, one onion, one large can of tomatoes in a pot. Season with salt and pepper, simmer for 45 minutes) I served it over rigatoni, because that’s what was there. The second day we went to the grocery store where I bought ingredients for quiche, pizza, and chili.
I used a pot for a mixing bowl, a beer bottle for a rolling pin (I know a wine bottle is classier, but hey, we were Vikings, after all) and when the chili wouldn't fit in the pot I split it into two pots.
Like most vacations it was over way too fast and I was plunged back into the chaos that is my house. But more on that later, when I'm ready

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

On Handmade Presents

Even though I crochet almost constantly, I don't often give handmade gifts. Generally, I give people books. Almost exclusively, actually. Handmade gifts are an awful lot of work and (somewhat selfishly, I admit) I have trouble parting with something I've worked very hard on. This is clearly evidenced by the four afghans that are currently draped over my living room furniture. Also, handmade gifts are often just as expensive as store bought ones. I use synthetic yarn and it still costs anywhere between $50-$100 to get enough for a blanket or even a small throw.

So when I make a handmade gift, it's usually a very special occasion, and for someone I love very much. I'm currently working on two, which is very unusual. It's got me thinking about what it means to make something for someone else. The most special gift I've made so far was for the first of my friends to get married, M&H. It was a pretty hefty financial investment, as well as an enormous time investment. I made them a white bedspread, and it took me six months. They say the most important part of a gift is the thought that goes into it. When you're making a gift, it's not just one thought, it's many thoughts. While I was making that bedspread I thought about them the entire time. I don't mean that I was 100% focused on just them, but somewhere in my mind every single stitch (and they were countless) was for them. Every stitch was a little hope, a little prayer, and a thank you for all the love they've given me.

Monday, June 7, 2010

On Victory and Independence

Last night my mother made a roast chicken for Sunday dinner. After dinner I collected the bones and scraps and took them home with me. I put it in the stockpot with vegetable odds and ends, herbs and water and let it simmer for 3 hours. While that was happening I planted my Victory garden.

Since many have asked, my Victory Garden is basically a simple kitchen garden. During WWII in England people were encouraged to replace their flower gardens with vegetable gardens so they could use fewer food rations and support the army. Now, my vegetable garden won't help any soldiers anywhere, but I like to call it that anyway.

I've heard people complain that growing vegetables is even more expensive than buying them, but these people are probably falling into the trap of buying things they don't need. My garden cost less than $10 this year. I had a trowel and a watering can that I'd purchased several years ago for about $5 each. They're still perfectly good. I borrowed a shovel from my parents and I bought 6 packets of seeds for $3, 3 bags of black earth for $3 and a bag of sheep manure for $2. I also let a couple of potatoes and onions sprout. This is plenty for my garden. It's a little longer than a meter and a little wider than a half meter. It's small, but I plant more densely than the packets say and last year I got more vegetables than I could eat. Many wound up being given away or getting made into soups and frozen. It doesn't always work, last year I didn't get any carrots, but this year I only planted about half of each package, so I'll have more to plant after the first harvest. Also, I only planted vegetables that I know will grow in my climate, so I won't have any disappointments like I had last year. (Dreams of broccoli dead in the dirt)
So I planted peas, beans, lettuce, radishes, cabbages, carrots, onions and potatoes. The only one I haven't grown myself before are the cabbages. But it's Newfoundland, surely cabbages will grow fine? Anyway, if this summer is anything like last summer, I may be able to get enough veggies for several months.

This morning a warm rain fell on my garden and I made a vegetable soup out of my stock. I browned some onions in oil and then added four cups of vegetables (I had potatoes, carrots, parsnip, turnips and celery on hand) then 5 cups of stock (I have a litre and a half left) and a large can of diced tomatoes with their juice. After a half hour of simmer I got more than 3 litres of soup with less than $5 worth of ingredients, and when I make that soup this summer I'll use fresh vegetables from my own garden.

It gives me a wonderful sense of independence to provide healthy food for myself, growing it is even better. My own little victories.

Monday, May 31, 2010

No Spend Month Day 31: The Wrap Up

I've learned a lot of things this Month, but one thing struck me most of all. I have wonderful family and friends. They have been so overwhelmingly supportive and generous that a couple of times I felt like I was cheating. They've been there for me with constant encouragement and have treated me to lunches and even a movie. Above all I have to take a moment to thank my wonderful Boyfriend, without whom I surely would have cracked. It was very hard to leave a job I loved, even though I believe I'll be back, and he got me through that. That day I thought I just couldn't make it, he took me out for pizza and beer. He brought bottles of wine and a tub of decadent ice cream. These were just the physical tokens of his emotional support, which was constant and unfailing.

Anyways, that's enough mushy stuff, time to get to brass tacks: What did I spend?

I spent $99.32. Considering I spent more than that on each of my trips to Sephora last month, I'm pretty impressed with that.

I bought:
Milk, butter, eggs, honey, peanut butter sugar, green peppers, red peppers, corn on the cob, bananas, a candy bar and bag of chips, cheese, beans, peas, lettuce, rubber gloves, 4 cups of coffee (2 for Boyfriend, as small tokens of gratitude) 6 packets of vegetable seeds, and my last loonie went to an adorable little girl selling Kool-Aid to benefit the Janeway Children's Hospital.

The thing about this budget, is that it's unsustainable. I didn't buy any personal hygiene products, no clothing, no books, no gifts, less than $10 on entertainment. Also, I had a freezer stocked with chicken, salmon, ground beef and lamb stew. I had a pantry full of flours, pasta, lentils, rice, almond milk, chocolate chips, canned tomatoes, yeast, oils, vinegars and seasonings. I had large bags of apples, potatoes, carrots, onions and big head of celery. I even had a half bottle of wine for cooking.

This post is getting long enough, so I'll talk a bit more about lessons learned sometime this week. What I'm immediately taking away is this:

I set myself a goal and I achieved it. I lived on a very restricted budget for 1 month. I did it with help. I used what I had, I accepted the generosity of others, and I did without. I definitely think I'll do this again next year, and in the meantime I'll resolve to take my new habits forward. Here's to waste-less summer!

Friday, May 21, 2010

Make this Soup

This is exactly the kind of recipe I love, the kind that I could eat everyday for the rest of my life. It's healthy and simple and delicious. No surprise, it's a soup.

Although I talk about food a lot, I don't really post many recipes on this blog because I don't come up with my own. I take recipes mostly from friends, foodblogs and cookbooks. This one came from Marcella Hazan's "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking". I use this book often, even though I've run into a couple of duds, because it works wonderfully well as a general instructional manual. She's convinced me to put celery into almost everything, even though I don't like celery, she's explained why you brown the onions first, then add the garlic. "The alchemy of cooking" as Nigella Lawson once said. One of her big ideas about food, and this makes her different from Julia Child, is that you should really let the flavours of the food speak for themselves. There isn't a lot of seasoning or altering of the food.

First, defrost a small package of frozen peas (I used 300g) chop potatoes into small dice (3cups) and thinly slice 3 cups of onions. A note on quantities: I thought there were just a few too many onions. My lunch date, K thought there were a few too many peas. These can be altered to suit your preferences. Thinly slice 2 cloves of garlic.

Brown the onions in olive oil with a pinch of salt and a pinch of sugar. Add the garlic and cook a until just starting to brown. Add the potatoes and stir for 2-3 minutes. Add enough water to cover by a couple inches (in my pot this was 5 cups) and a beef bouillon cube. Reduce heat to minimum, cover, and let simmer for half an hour. Add peas and simmer another 5-10 minutes. Done!

It doesn't sound like a lot, but the garlic and onion make for a lovely savoury broth and the peas add just a bit of sweetness. It's yummy and healthy and it feels good to eat it, especially the way K and I did, sitting by a sunny window with big mugs of tea and oatmeal cookies for dessert.

I have no idea how much this cost to make, but I had everything in my kitchen already except for the peas, which cost $2.09. I got 7 servings so I'm considering it to be a very budget lunch.

Monday, May 17, 2010

No Spend Month Day 17: A bit of Math

I don't think I'd be able to even consider this No Spend Month thing if I had not already seriously considered my food budget. I've done this several times since I've been on my own, the last year in particular. Food is something I refuse to scrimp on, but that doesn't mean there aren't ways to save.

Bread is my favourite example. I eat a lot of bread. I eat bread like and 18th century French Peasant. (If, you know, they could get bread). I never really thought about bread as expensive. For years I used to eat Dempster's whole wheat, which cost $3.19 a loaf. That's not a lot of money, right? Plus, I have to have bread.

When I started shopping with Mom at Costco, I realized that I could buy two loaves for $6 and freeze one until I was ready to eat it. I was pleased with this savings, so I wanted to calculate how much I saved per year by making this change. Figuring that I eat about 1.5 loaves a week, my savings added up to $14.82 a year. Not too shabby.

A few months later I was out of bread and had no ride to costco. Rather than buying the Dempster's at full price, I picked up a loaf that was made in the grocery store bakery for $1.99. I actually really liked it. I was fresher than Dempster's, and had fewer mystery ingredients. I switched, and calculated my yearly savings again. This time it was a whopping $78.78 over what I was spending at Costco and $93.60 over what I had been spending before. I felt like a very savvy shopper and bragged to everyone.

Late last fall I started making my own bread from a recipe I got from Orangette. (See below). I fell in love with this recipe, and started making my own bread nearly all the time. For one thing, the only ingredients are yeast, water, honey, oil and whole wheat flour, so there is no salt or sugar or any preservatives or mystery ingredients of any kind. For another, it's delicious. Crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside, absolutely perfect for toast or soaking up soup. Finally, I discovered that I find it incredibly soothing to make bread. This recipe only takes 2 hours from start to finish (and most of that it's rising or baking) so it doesn't take too much time, and I get all my frustrations out pounding that dough. Not to mention how wonderful the house smells when I make it. My breadmaking day began to be my favourite day of the week. I didn't know how much the bread cost, but I didn't care. I won't compromise on the quality of my food.

But one especially dull afternoon, I decided to find out. I figured out how much I paid for the individual ingredients and how much of each I used and added it all up. I came up with about $0.90 a loaf. This is a lot cheaper than I had originally thought, and a heck of a lot cheaper than the store bread. How much am I saving a year? That's a yearly savings of $85.02 over the store brand and $179.40 over the original dempsters bread.

To emphasize: In 2010 I will save $179.40 on bread alone over what I paid in 2008. That's a lot of money.

Now, obviously not everyone is into bread baking, but my point here is that the best way to save money is to look at the things you buy the most often and try to think about a way to do it cheaper. Those savings might be small, but they add up faster. Can you buy in bulk? Is a cheaper brand just as good? (or better? As it was in this case) can you do it yourself? Just keep in mind that, when it comes to nutrition, a better price is not necessarily a better buy. Read all the ingredients and nutritional information carefully. Keep your body and your wallet healthy

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

No Spend Month Day 11: Love with Little Money

The biggest challenge while on a budget is gifts. I like to think of myself as a generous person, I sincerely enjoy buying things for other people. I like thinking about what they might like, searching for just the right thing, carefully wrapping it up and imagining how they’ll react, how they’ll use it, etc. This is even a bigger deal when it comes to a member of my family. My father, mother, brother and I are a real set of 4, and I’m very grateful for each one of them and all that they do.

So you can imagine how Mother’s Day falling in “No Spend Month” caused me some consternation. I thought about blowing half my budget on a present, because surely a Mother’s Day present is a necessity? But I don’t think my mother would like that. Mom has always been a paragon of thrift and minimalism. She taught us to save, to be careful and thoughtful with our money. She has been very enthusiastic and supportive of the no spending, and I think she would have been very disappointed if I broke it to buy her a present.

I had to do something else to show my appreciation of everything she’s done for me. The thing my mother appreciates most is time together. That’s why for the last few years my brother and I have generally given her experiences rather than things for gifts. I’ll take her for a mother-daughter manicure and he’ll take her to dinner and a movie. I knew without question that I would be spending all of Sunday with Mom, but doing what?

The answer was what it usually is: cook something. I know it sounds trite, but there’s something about sharing food that I strongly associate with sharing love. When I cook something for someone, it’s because I love them. When I make whole wheat bread or a nourishing soup for myself, it’s because I love myself and I want to be healthy and strong. When I make cookies for guests, it’s because I love them and I want to welcome them into my home. Even when I mix a box of Kraft Dinner for my brother, it’s because I love him and I enjoy spending Saturday afternoons the way we did when we were kids.

Saturday afternoon I made a lemon blueberry cake. Mom doesn’t like cakes that are too sweet or too rich, so I picked one that had no icing. Sunday I went grocery shopping with my Dad shortly after breakfast. He helped with the ingredients for the day and I made French onion soup for lunch, then a Julia Child steak recipe (Oh, so good) for dinner with mashed potatoes and peas. All her favourites. While pots simmered we chatted and played crib, and after dinner we retired with our glasses of wine to watch “Brothers and Sisters”. It was a really wonderful day. One of the most fun I’ve had for a very long time. I’m pretty sure Mom really liked it too, which is of course the point.

The idea of love with little money was reinforced for my last night. I had gotten a call from my friend J who wanted to lend her support for the no-spend project. She invited me over to her place for dinner and a movie. Fun and free. She looked up a fancy salmon recipe she’d had once (oh, so good) and picked out a movie I really should have seen a long time ago. (Can you believe I’ve never seen Dirty Dancing before?). It was a great time, but what touched me the most was how she’d gone out of her way to show her support by choosing an activity that would allow me to continue.

And it’s soon time for me to show her the same support, mere hours after I left dear J got engaged!!

Friday, May 7, 2010

No Spend Month: Day 7

I am a little bit proud and a little bit ashamed to admit that I have spent exactly nothing all week. I’m proud because it seems to me to be quite an achievement to spend nothing for that long. I’m embarrassed that I had more than enough food accumulated to make this possible.

So what did I eat? On the weekend I baked two loaves of whole wheat bread and made a big pot of barley soup. I had peanut butter toast and tea for breakfast every day and soup for lunch every day. I’m lucky in that I don’t mind repetition with meals, especially if they’re healthy and yummy. I get fatigued of processed foods after a few days, my body can really feel the difference, and if I don’t like something I’m simply not going to eat it. But I’ve had peanut butter toast and tea for breakfast nearly every morning for several years, and it’s still one of my favourite parts of the day.

Dinners I thought would be trickier, but apparently I thought wrong. I had braised chicken and veggies, spaghetti with home made sauce, even lamb stew! I buy meat in bulk and freeze it, so I may not need to buy meat at all during this entire month.

These meals were supplemented with apples from a five pound bag, popcorn from the pantry and chocolate from the stash. Yes, I keep a stash of chocolate in my closet, doesn’t everyone?

So I clearly haven’t been deprived, but I sure have been tempted. I went into Auntie Crae’s, a local bakery and specialty grocery store, to inquire about a certain ingredient and I nearly threw in the towel right then. Chocolates and nuts and fancy, fancy cheeses. After I spoke with the clerk I practically flung myself out onto the street to avoid the truffle oil. Side note: did you hear that scientists are working on cloning truffles so the masses can eat them? I’m not sure how I feel about that.

Worst was yesterday. I had a job interview. I’m pretty good at interviews, to quote Angela from “The Office” : “I believe I stand up very well under scrutiny”. But it’s still stressful. I usually cope by having a fancy coffee before and a chocolate treat after. Yesterday I held off! I had a standard cup of black tea from the box of tea bags I keep in my desk and waited until I get home to attack my stash. I still wanted to buy myself dinner, though. Boyfriend wasn’t over and I simply could not will myself to get down in the kitchen. I thought about Ziggy’s, the chip truck that parks down the street. Poutine for $6, would it really be so bad? It was looking bad.

When things look bad the answer is always the same: call mom. Within an hour I was at the table with my parents, tucking into chicken, rice and broccoli with homemade rolls and wine.

Overall I think this week was a very good start to my challenge. I will need to go to the grocery store tomorrow, so some spending will happen. I need more fresh veggies and I need a couple of ingredients to properly celebrate a truly fantastic mom this weekend. But more on that later.

PS: Basia Bulat’s new album “Heart of My Own” totally rocks. Get it.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

No Spend Month

For the month of May, I have decided to take on a "No Spend Month" challenge.

The goal is to buy nothing that is not a necessity for 31 days. I've heard of variations of this challenge before. I read a book about a woman in England with massive consumer debt who stopped shopping for a year. I read about a blogger from who stocked up his pantry and survived with his kitchen garden for a month. But these examples had slipped my mind until recently.

A couple weeks ago I went to visit my brother and a few friends in Toronto. While there I spent quite a lot of money. Because of brother's generous hospitality I didn't need a hotel, but we ate out every meal, I bought expensive cosmetics and bath stuff that isn't available in Newoundland, and I picked up 23 used books. (Funny story, just after I got home there was a massive used book store at the library where I was able to pick up 15 books for $6.50, then found a cookbook I wanted at Chapters for 75% off, bringing the total number of books purchased in April to 39!)

I got home slightly reeling from my credit card total, especially considering the looming layoff from work. I knew my job was up in July, and although there are several other opportunities there, nothing is certain. I needed to save.

When I got home I did the usual things, I bought groceries, did the laundry. But there was no room in the freezer or pantry for the new items, they were already stocked. I put the clothes away and discovered that if all the clothes are washed, there's no room for them. The closet and bureau were stuffed to overflowing, I wound up piling my jeans on the floor to make room. I have too much stuff.

That day, idly surfing the internet, I came upon It's a simple living blog, and the blogger does a yearly No Spend Month, in which the family attempts to curb all spending. It seemed like the perfect solution.

You pay your bills, obviously, and set aside a very tight budget for groceries, then spend nothing else. For example, you can buy fruit and milk, but not that oh-so-tempting wheel of camembert. The idea is to force yourself to really think about whether something is a need or a want.

Having never done this before, I'm not really sure how much my necessities will cost. I usually spend a lot on groceries, but that's because I like to cook and I'm always buying fancy ingredients. That's why the cupboards and freezer are in the state they are. I've decided to go with $100, because it's a nice round figure. I don't have a car, so I won't need gas. I have no dependents, but the budget will include the food I feed to Boyfriend and any guests. (Since there's no money for going out, I imagine I'll be having people in more often) That's necessary because the point is not to punish you by forcing you to end all social contact or subsist on Mr. Noodle. It's to make you think about what you really need to be spending.

I was pretty pleased with my plan. I didn't stock up, per se (I didn't really need to) but I did pick up a gift I knew I'd need. Then I had a meeting with my boss and received my two weeks notice. It turns out he can't make the changes to my position while I'm still in it. He hopes to find another place for me soon but, or course, no guarantees. So now, with credit card debt and unemployment bearing down on me with shocking speed, my little personal challenge has become much, much more important.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Well, I'm back!

Hello! Anyone still checking this? Hope so!

I decided to take a little break from blogging, I was taking a break from a few things. I'm not out of my winter hibernation yet, but I am ready to re-enter the blogosphere.

I recently read Michael Pollan's "In Defense of Food: An Eaters Manifesto" which was absolutely fantastic. His thesis is that it's fine to eat traditional whole foods, even those which modern scientists have warned about, as long as you avoid overindulging. He presents the theory is that the dangers of the "Western" diet come from overprocessing and additives, like trans fats and high fructose corn syrup.

With this is mind, I made a very nutritious and delicious lunch for the week. An Italian lentil and rice soup followed with banana muffins that are actually healthy.

I should explain that, as a picky child muffins were on the "do not eat" list. I was suspicious of muffins, something that seemed so like cake, but didn't have icing and worse, may contain fruit. When I discovered that most muffins contained as much sugar and fat as cupcakes, I was morally outraged and continued my boycott.

Recently, however, I encountered a woman who put an end to all that. The lovely Nicole of . She has a slew of muffin recipes that are made with whole wheat flour and oat bran and sweetened with honey. Yummy, satisfying and containing no refined sugar, flour or preservatives. Michael Pollan would approve.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

My Top Albums - 2009

Kim Barlow and Matthias Kom – Spring Break Up

Holy cow, I love this album. When I first got it I enjoyed it too much to listen to at work. (Co-workers noticed my blissed-out expression as I swayed happily in front of my microfilm reader, completely ignoring it). Kom and Barlow combine beautifully to create an album of bittersweet chips. Neither of them have voices that would get them on “American Idol” but they both have a quality of honesty and emotional expressiveness that makes you feel like they aren’t just singing lyrics, they’re telling you about it. These are nine break up songs (and one love song) that are full of beauty and tinged with humour. Like that chuckle through the tears when you think for a moment, “What was I thinking?”

Great Lake Swimmers – Lost Channels

Nothing can compare to listening to the Great Lake Swimmers live, but this album comes close (and without an obnoxious and apparently lost barrista in the crowd loudly explaining that cappuccino and lattes were basically the same thing). This is an album for quiet times. Built on a solid foundation of delicate harmonies and strong talent, Great Lake Swimmers succeed in establishing a cohesive, peaceful and completely enjoyable album

Franz Ferdinand – Tonight

You’ll notice that this album is a bit different from the others on my list. No banjos here. This is a pop album that rocks and rolls and is more effective at busting me out of my 3pm slump than anything else I’ve tried. I think I’ll forever associate this album with my fastest typing, as the driving beats send my fingers skittering across the keys.
The songs themselves couldn’t be further from 3pm in an office. It’s an album about being out at night: clubs or parties or walking down the street, seeing people, meeting people, and the feverish dreams that follow.

The Burning Hell – Baby

I’m not going to lie to you, the first time I heard The Burning Hell, I fell asleep. The worst thing about this story is that I was actually hearing them live. That’s right, I fell asleep at the Ship Pub. In my defense, I’d just returned from law school and I didn’t do much but sleep that whole week. Also, the Burning Hell had started their set with a series of slow songs, which had a sort of dirge-like quality. Throw in the soothingly deep voice of Matthias Kom (Hey! It’s that guy again!) and I was out like a light. I left before the show got going. The second time I saw the Burning Hell was several months later. I was a happy dropout/waitress and I got swept into the energy that their live shows grow into to, like a power-saving bulb which slowly lightens the room from dimness to a dizzying blinding bright. I’ve heard that their previous albums have failed to capture this energy, but I don’t know anything about that because I don’t have those albums, I have “Baby”
And “Baby” is awesome. I bought this early in the year and I think I can reasonably estimate that I listened to it 200 times (allowing 4 times a week, 50 weeks out of the year). This album makes me want to dance Matthias Kom (the “Pope of Pop” as M has dubbed him) weaves his lyrical magic through bouncing, sometimes racing tracks. Although he notes “Every good album needs a slow song or two” these are mostly songs you can dance to, or clean your house to, or cook dinner to. Whereas the Great Lake Swimmers you listen to in your rocking chair with a cup of tea, when listening to The Burning Hell you have an icy glass of water which you bounce over to when you need to cool down. They’ve managed to affect this change while staying true to their traditional themes of grave situations, historical political conferences, and (of course) the things that people make.

...and two albums I wish I hadn’t bought:

Lily Allen – It’s not me it’s you

Oh Lily, please don’t take this personally. I think you’re lovely and your first album got me through some rough times. But on this one your pathos has become petulance, your raw honesty a crassness it simply isn’t as good. Maybe you should take a little time to make peace with the people who tormented you in highschool, deal with your daddy issues, and construct a healthy relationship. It’s not that you’re not talented, “The Fear” may have been one of the best single tracks of the year, but it’s time to grow up a little.

Joel Plaskett – Three

Apparently, I missed the something. That’s how it feels, anyway. I wasn’t very familiar with Plaskett’s earlier works, but what I had heard I’d liked just fine. And then this album came out the Canadian music industry collectively crapped themselves, so I had pretty high hopes. I also really liked the 3 albums for the price of 1 part. But it wasn’t that good. I don’t mean a very good album that just didn’t meet the impossible hype, there just wasn’t much there. A few really good songs, a bunch of “meh” songs, and a few cringe-worthy ones. And then it gets shortlisted for the Polaris! Seriously? This is considered great art, worthy of being up there with the Great Lake Swimmers? I don’t think so. I wound up leaving this one at the cardshop, and I never bothered to go pick it up.