Custom Search

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Thai Shrimp Coconut Curry: Ultimate Frugal Food

The Divine Miss Em is only home for another day and she requested Thai curry as her last dinner. This in spite of the fact that we all had it a few days ago. But I do like to indulge my wonderful daughter, so I said yes. What follows is not a recipe, but a method.

Thai coconut curry is the ultimate frugal food. It is easy, cheap, quick, and impressive to family and guests alike. If you aren’t much of a cook or if you think of Asian food as mysterious and complex, then you are probably skeptical. Trust me and read on.

Or not a method, but two ingredients: a can of coconut milk and a jar of Thai curry paste (red, yellow, or green. This sometimes comes in tins). That’s it. For an added fillip, you can sprinkle in a bit of Thai fish sauce or soy sauce, but even that is extra.

With these ingredients, you can turn anything into Thai coconut curry : shrimp, beef, or chicken. Or tofu.

For a one-pot meal—my favorite kind—you can make a stir-fry of whatever you have in the way of vegetables, add the protein at the appropriate time, and that’s it.

After your stir-fry or meat is about done, add the can of coconut milk and the curry paste to taste. That’s all there is to it.

Truly, this tastes like what you get in Thai restaurants. That’s because it is what you get in Thai restaurants. A friend revealed this secret to me almost 20 years ago and I admit I didn’t believe him. After a quick trip to the Asian grocery and a taste, I was a convert.

Emulating my son with his obsessive cost analysis of meals, I present tonight’s dinner:
1. Stir fry of scallions (from garden), carrots ($0.29 for reduced organic!), bok choy (garden).
2. Add curry paste (1/3 of a jar=$0.80) and coconut milk ($1.00).
3. Add shrimp at end to avoid overcooking. We had some frozen, which cost about $5.00 for a pound.

So a little over $7.00 plus some rice. This will feed the three of us tonight and provide a big leftover lunch tomorrow.

Most essays on frugal cooking exhort you to eat beans. Doesn’t that Dave Ramsay fellow say “beans and rice” till you are out of debt? To me, beans and rice aren’t a punishment, though they are to many. Still, I think everyone regards Thai coconut curry as an incredible treat. So even though we’re in the midst of hard times, we can feast on shrimp curry.

Need I say, bon appetit?


What do you cook that is both extremely frugal and extremely indulgent? Please share, dear readers.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Thrifty Thursday in New Orleans: Fashion, Food, Fun, Family

Well, my little blog was asked (or perhaps I was asked) to link to a Thrifty Thursday group. I replied that I try to do something thrifty every day. Meanwhile, the day is almost done and I haven’t written anything, mostly because I’ve had a few days with both children home and I’ve been enjoying the delightful lazing around side of family life. Sadly, Frugal Son went back to school yesterday. Today, we went with Frugal Daughter to New Orleans, for her dreaded bi-annual appointment with the ear specialist. I just realized that Thrifty Thursday pertains to cooking, so our thrifty dinner is near the end.

Poor Miss Em! Terrible ear problems and surgeries! But lucky Miss Em because her doctor is, as he tells us, the best. He is enamored of his handiwork on her ear and marvels at it. Miss Em says that she dreads the visits, but feels like the doctor is her “ear’s father.”

So, to make lemonade out of lemons, we all trooped in to New Orleans on a beautiful and warm day. To fit with the thrifty theme, we had a few plans for after the doctor visit (blessedly short, with no painful episodes).

Buffalo Exchange—We visited one of these stores in San Francisco last summer, which sells vintage and used clothing. So we decided, in the interests of blog research, to see if we could sell or trade some of our cast-offs. We read on-line that BE was very picky, so we put together our boxes prepared for rejection. We were a bit intimidated on arrival because the store was nice and everything looked great. The hip looking employees were very nice. Well, it turns out that Frugal Scholar is still pretty good (having been a “picker” for a vintage clothing shop in grad school days); the Divine Miss Em is extremely stylish. About 2/3 did not make the cut, but we received a choice between $38.00 in cash or $63.00 in credit! Miss Em bought only a much-reduced skirt in interesting fabric, which she already turned into a shorter skirt. We left with only one box, plus $36.00.

Bloomingdeals Thrift Store—Pre-Katrina this was Frugal Scholar’s favorite thrift store. It is run by the Junior League, an excellent organization. This was where the all-cotton baby clothes came from (not so easy to find 20 years ago and very expensive); the European wooden toys, and much more. Sadly, it was not the same. The prices have gone up, making it less worthwhile to slog through racks of Limited and Gap sweaters. They are having a “bag sale” next week, so if I were in the neighborhood, I might go. With a heavy heart, I have to admit I probably will not return.

Whole Foods—We bought about 15 pounds of oat groats, so breakfast is taken care of for a while. We also bought the Divine Miss Em a piece of expensive chocolate cake, a deserved treat. The famed samples at Whole Foods were not in evidence, but we had some bites of cheese and some cookies.

Audubon Park—A beautiful day so we went for a walk. We saw a tree full of white birds, which on closer inspection turned out to be egrets. An amazing sight!

Garden District and Uptown—New Orleans is such a beautiful city, so we fed our spirits with a drive and walk through these neighborhoods.

Home for dinner—We ate some of the ratatouille we froze last summer. With rice and feta it is a frugal feast. We always make sure we have something at the ready when we come home after a long day. The biggest savings comes from NOT ordering a pizza or whatever when you’re faint with hunger. Similarly, we always take a thermos of coffee in the car, to avoid the time and expense of coffee stops.

Oh thrifty day, calloo callay.
All in all, a good day because, in addition to the dreaded and necessary doctor visit, we cleaned out closets a bit, made a bit of money (now residing in the wallet of Miss Em), tasted some good cheese, and saw a tree full of egrets. Then we ate ratatouille with feta.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Vindication! Less Pasta Water Promotes Savings and Saves the Environment

By Mr. DFS

Those of you who have read my posts about mowing my own lawn and cutting my own hair know that I save literally thousands of dollars a year this way. Of course a certain degree of creative accounting is involved, but surprisingly little—mostly a matter of estimating very marginally on the high side.

The rather tongue-in-cheek title of my post on lawn mowing was “How to Pay for Your Entire Life by Mowing Your Lawn.” My point, however, was serious: that small savings add up. Now I am pleased to see that Harold McGee, writing in today’s New York Times, certainly the premier daily venue in the United States—makes a similar point, but in the more important context of our recessionary economy and diminishing energy resources. And his topic must rank even lower on the scale of significant concerns than lawns: boiling pasta.

But first let me go back a few months. There is Frugal Son on one of his rare visits home berating Dr. Frugal Scholar for using so much water to boil pasta. Ever the obsessive conservationist (he saves paper for us to take to the recycling bins at work), he argues that pasta cooks just as well in a little bit of water, thus saving BTUs and energy.

Of course everyone knows this is not true; you have to use huge quantities of water to boil pasta properly. After all, all the cookbooks tell us this.

Not so, writes McGee. Frugal Son is vindicated!

The part I found interesting was McGee’s creative calculations. He points out that we cook about a billion (!) pounds of pasta a year, and therefore that using less water would save several trillion BTUs. This means a savings of a quarter to a half million (!) barrels of oil a year, or $10 million to $20 million a year at current oil prices! (Sorry about all the exclamation points.)

This may not be the solution to the more serious economic problems, but it does show how little savings add up. Forgoing those jack-rabbit starts, for example, may not save you, as an individual, more than a few bucks a month in gas, but multiplied by several million the savings can pay for a few dozen nice new schools every year.

From now on my pasta is going to have to forego its luxurious hot tub. But I wonder—how many other little things could we do to save ourselves a little, and the country a lot?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Frugal Cooking : Five Days of Suppers with Father Capon

Traversing the blogosphere these days is like attending the greatest potluck dinner party. Without the actual food, unfortunately. There are the usual suspects, displaying creations plain and fancy. And then there is the frugality subset. We all have to eat, after all, and food is a pleasure. Cooking at home is a pleasure too and one that can be part of a creative and enjoyable frugality campaign.

My cooking—frugal style—has evolved over the years and I hardly think about it. Yes, I have long stockpiled the various bargains that came my way. Yes, I love searching out new ways to cook beans. But I never realized how inexpensively we ate until the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when I learned that emergency food stamps (available to me—as to everyone in the area—though I did not avail myself) provided a family of 4 with $500.00/month. I had long spent only about $200.00/month!

So I will try to bring some of my methods to consciousness and record what I do now and again. I am determined to clear out my stockpile. We have been eating well, especially since we have garden greens, and have only spent about $40.00 total over the last three weeks. Still, I have not made much of a dent. Luckily, Frugal Son arrived home from the Mardi Gras parades last night (it was his birthday) and brings us his large appetite.

My first example of easy and frugal eating will be our week of country-style pork spareribs. We had to stop at the store for milk and I couldn’t resist the pork ribs on special for $0.99/pound. So I bought 5 pounds.

Day 1: Pork ribs in slow cooker with dribs and drabs of condiments, a little barbeque sauce, a little ketchup, a little sugar, a little Asian stuff. I don’t use as much as most recipes recommend, since I like to have a gravy that I can use in soup.
Ate with mashed potatoes and greens.
Cost: $5.00 for meat plus a 5 pound bag of potatoes for $2.00. Condiments, butter, etc maybe $1.00. Greens=free! Total: $8.00.

Day 2: We don’t mind repetition, so we ate the same thing.
Cost: 0, since all covered by Day 1.

Day 3: I love mashed potatoes, so I was going to eat the same thing again. Then we had a bite of Mexican-style beef soup made by a colleague and this set off my Mexican food desires.

Mexican-style pork soup: I sautéed an onion, added a big can of Rotel tomatoes, added about 3 cans of black beans (rinse the beans!), 1 can of refried beans. Took some meat off the bones and threw that in too, along with some of the broth. Added some frozen corn. Added some water.
Cost: onion about $0.50, beans from Big Lots $1.70, corn about $1.00, Rotels from Big Lots $1.30. Total: $4.50.

Day 4: Left-over soup. It is so delightful to have a yummy meal all set when you get home from work tired and crabby. Cost: 0.

Day 5: Made an equally yummy pork and potato hash from Jacques Pepin’s Cuisine Economique.
Cost: maybe $1.00 for onions and condiments.

Note: We made enough for leftovers (I was planning a frittata), but Frugal Daughter came home and we all LOVE potatoes, so we ate the whole thing.

Day 6: We still had some soup that we had stashed in the freezer, so we had that for lunch.

Total: $13.50 for 5 dinners, plus lunch. And, even a cursory read should indicate that not a lot of work is involved. “I don’t like so much repetition,” you say? Then stagger the food by freezing the pork and broth and stringing the meals out over a few weeks. And where are our veggies? We had greens, because of an overabundance in the garden.

This is just an example. If you want to go beyond the pragmatic and the prosaic, you can read a whole book on this kind of cooking: The Supper of the Lamb, by Robert Farrar Capon (yes, that is his real name), who is an Episcopalian priest. This is a classic of great food writing, recently reissued in the Modern Library Food Series.

Capon’s purpose ostensibly is to tell us how to make “Lamb for Eight Persons Four Times.” He says this is “not simply a recipe. It is a way of life. It does indeed produce thirty-two servings from a single leg of lamb, but at the same time, it opens the door to a school of cooking that has produced some of the greatest dishes in the world. The fundamental approach of this school involves the wholesale and deliberate manufacture of leftovers. . . .”

As one might expect given the author’s vocation and the title of the book, Supper also has a spiritual, indeed an explicitly Christian, dimension. Just a beautiful book, and you don’t need to share the author’s beliefs to love it.

Long-time frugal people like me have probably developed similar cooking styles. Since I have my emergency fund in place and have paid off my house,I don’t really need to be frugal anymore, in the sense of watching all the little things every day. Nevertheless, I continue because this kind of cooking and eating is healthy and honors valuable resources (time and money). People new to frugality and frugal by necessity have to put some thought into this style; it has to be conscious before it is unconscious. But it’s so worth it.

I own a copy of Capon’s book thanks to a book swap site. You could get a library copy. Or you could buy the book and lend it to some of your friends, reducing the cost per read and helping authors and booksellers. And, since this week of meals is easy on time and labor as well as on your wallet, you can savor Capon’s beautiful thoughts and prose, while waiting for your supper.

A few readers have asked to see Mr. DFS's haircut. Well, when one has such a tiny bit of hair, it's not that difficult to cut. Plus, he's very shy. but I persuaded him to pose with Capon's book.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Why I Cut My Own Hair

By Mr. Dr. Frugal Scholar

I hate getting hair cuts. I hate to wait, I hate to have people impinge upon my personal space, I hate paying. I hate it all.

But for many years I put up with it because I had no choice. Ms. Dr. Frugal Scholar is an amazingly accomplished person, but in this sphere she was not much help, except regularly to note that I was beginning to look like Bozo the Clown again. (This is one consequence of your classic male-pattern balding.)

Finally an empathetic stylist, who must have picked up on my discomfort, pointed out that I could cut my own hair if I were willing to go really, really short. I was more than willing, and this was the beginning of a whole new era. I bought a good pair of scissors and medium-priced electric clippers and I was in business. All I need to do is snap the little plastic guide onto the clippers, lean over the sink, and shear away.

So now I am saving huge amounts of money. First, I’m saving on the haircut itself: let’s say $20 twice a month, times 12, equals $480 (even once a month is $240). Second, I’m saving travel: say four miles at $.50 a mile, or $48 a year. Then there’s the time I save—about two hours every month. But I use these hours saved to cut the grass, for a savings (as I demonstrated in a previous post) of $40 a pop. So that’s $960 a year.

So, using my creative accounting techniques, my savings add up to $1,480 a year. Just for cutting my own hair.

And it doesn’t end there. For years I also cut our son’s hair, until the Divine Miss Emm took over. She now also cuts Ms. Dr. Frugal’s hair, which results, as you can imagine, in absolutely astronomical savings.

Perhaps I exaggerate. The point, however, is that small economies add up. For me, however, the savings in personal discomfort would have been worth it even if it cost more to cut my hair myself. Not everything can be reduced to a dollar value.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Chloe Dress Update: OMG! It fits!

Readers of Frugal Scholar and Mr. Dr. Frugal Scholar may be wondering, “Where are they?” We have been on a road trip with the Divine Miss Em. We are back home now.

Readers of Frugal Scholar may be wondering, “What about that Chloe dress?”

Well, the first thing the DME asked when we got home was, “Where’s that dress?”

When she saw it, she was dubious: it looks so tiny.

In the morning, she tried it on. In disbelief, she called us to come see. And now you can see why she is called the Divine Miss Em.

Note the compost backdrop in the first picture.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Frugal Gardening: World’s Cheapest Greenhouse

Even in Louisiana it gets cold in the winter, and it’s useful to have some sort of greenhouse or cold frame to keep those tender plants going through cold spells, or to start seedlings in the very early spring.

I’m not sure if I invented this, but I have no doubt it’s the least expensive and most versatile greenhouse you can make in under fifteen minutes. It doesn’t win lots of points for beauty, but for just a few bucks what do you expect?

Materials and construction are incredibly simple. Buy some ten foot lengths of white pvc pipe (you will need a minimum of three, and the smaller the diameters are more flexible) and some fairly heavy-duty plastic (6 mil in a 10 foot width). Shove the pvc pipes into the ground where you want to situate the greenhouse and bend them into an arc. All you need to do now is drape the plastic over this structure. Voila! Total cost: about $12 max.

To keep the plastic from blowing off, you can weight the ends down with bricks, stones, or dirt. This is by far the simplest method, but I prefer to staple some scrap wood to the end of the plastic. This allows me to roll up unused portions of the sheet (like a toilet paper roll), and it’s just a bit neater.

One of the great advantages of this greenhouse is that it is infinitely adaptable and portable. Just shove the pvc pipes wherever they are needed, when they are needed, and move as required from one spot to another. And it’s easy to store in the summer.

In a fit of ambition, I once made a frame out of two-by-fours, with holes into which I insert the pipes, because I wanted something that seemed more permanent and symmetrical. But I wouldn’t bother: it isn’t necessary and limits you to the size of the frame.

The plastic will last for a couple of seasons, but eventually will have to be replaced. Not a big deal. The plastic alone won’t keep your tender plants safe if it gets really cold, but when that happens I put some movers’ blankets over the plastic, and run an extension cord out to power a 100 watt bulb that I hang inside the structure. Since most of an incandescent bulb’s power goes to producing heat, a 100 watt bulb will keep this small greenhouse quite toasty at night for just a few pennies, and actually looks very cool! Think of it as a night light for your garden.

I’ve also made cold frames out of discarded shower doors. About ten or fifteen years ago tempered glass shower doors apparently became passé, and I picked up a half-dozen from various the neighbors’ garbage. This also works fairly well, especially for starting seeds and for small plants, but there isn’t as much head room as there is with the pvc-greenhouse, which, depending on how you place the pipe, can offer quite a bit of space--plenty to allow you to crawl around inside if you are so inclined.

Here’s the basic structure, shown to illustrate its absurd simplicity. Note again that it doesn’t win any beauty contests, but is perfect for the lazy gardener like me.

Oh, so you don’t think I need a greenhouse in Louisiana? Check this out: a very, very rare snowstorm on December 11, 2008. The last one I can remember was about 16 years ago. The then-two-year-old Miss Divine Em was so upset by that strange meteorological phenomenon that she started to cry. (Note I didn't check the weather, so the plastic isn't even in place!)

But I guarantee that you will shed no tears over the cost of this greenhouse.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Frugal Cooking: Diana Kennedy's Syrian Yogurt Sauce

As is probably evident from this blog, our family has its eccentricities. I suppose most families do--or, at least, I hope most families do. As a further exhibit of whatever it is that characterizes our family, here is an email exchange between Frugal Son and Frugal Scholar.

Frugal Son: I had a dream last night that made me think of a dish you once cooked and now I want to know the recipe. In my dream I was at the Union at the pasta bar and I was asking them to put yogurt on my pasta along with some chicken. When I woke up, I remembered that you actually once made something like that and I remember how well the tartness of the yogurt complimented the chicken. Any help here?

Frugal Scholar: This is from Diana Kennedy's Nothing Fancy: Recipes and Recollections of Soul-Satisfying Food. It's called Syrian Yogurt Sauce with Cooked Meat. Kennedy notes that it's especially good with cooked lamb or chicken. Hence it would be great for a rotisserie chicken, a fairly cheap boon for college students and harried working people.

Cook 1 onion in 2 TBS butter--caramelize it.

Put 1 beaten egg in 2 cups plain yogurt. Cook over lowish heat, stirring till it bubbles and thickens.

Add 1/4 cup (optional) broth to yogurt mix.

Add 2 cups cubed, cooked meat, salt and pepper. Stir till heated through. Sprinkle with dried mint.

Kennedy forgets to mention the onion again, but either stir it into the melange or use as a topping.

Serve with bulgur or brown rice...or white rice...or couscous. All would be better than pasta.

This book, which is out of print, and being offered for a ridiculous price at Amazon and a much lower price at Powell's Books, is in one of my favorite genres: the personal cookbook, with a heavy dose of eccentricity, and wonderful stories. Kennedy is mainly known for her Mexican cookbooks, which are classics in the cookbook field.

But I love this one the most, for its stories as much as for its recipes.

Kennedy, who is British, was an adventurous young woman, much like Julia Child. Kennedy married a journalist, traveled and cooked, and, widowed, built an ecological house in Mexico, where, I hope, she still lives. I once met someone who had interviewed Kennedy and said she was a classic dotty Englishwoman, utterly charming and opinionated. And eccentric. No wonder I love her cookbook. The recipe is delicious too.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The best store for the frugal and fabulous is in my town

When I posted my musings on the joy of thrift stores, I got an envy-inducing comment from Duchesse, of the blog Passage des Perles. She wrote, ” I buy at a shop where the owner gets boxes of high end clothes (used and not) from Europe, Japan and the film industry. Not thrift but amazing quality and prices.” If I ever go to Toronto, you can bet I’ll beg for the address of this treasure trove.

Perhaps Canada has a plethora of amazing places. My mother-in-law lived in Montreal for a year in a job exchange, and on one of their jaunts outside the city, she and my father-in-law discovered the little shop where all the expensive leftover shoes of a Montreal department store were sent to sell at incredible bargain prices.

But then it occurred to me that I have an amazing place in my town. So I will proclaim its virtues (or is it vices?) here, just in case any of my readers happen to wend their way to my neck of the woods. And people, if you haven’t been to New Orleans, you should really come visit!

The best store in the whole world is in my town. How did I get so lucky? It has the unprepossessing name: United Apparel Liquidators. Even I, who grew up scrounging through Loehmann’s (in the good old days) and scruffy venues with my talented parents, would never have set foot into a place with that name. What a mistake!

This is a store so good that no one told me about it. My colleagues shopped there, but when I asked them where they purchased something, they said “I can’t remember.” Then the proprietor of a gift shop, where I was browsing with my mother-in-law, mentioned it, and off we went. It was like entering the Garden of Eden. Then, racks of clothing from Bergdorf Goodman, 80% off. Racks of clothing from upscale boutiques hither and yon, 80% off. Then also the overstocks from classic and fashion-forward labels.

I don’t like to shop for its own sake, but, when my children were little, I used to go to the New Orleans store on the way home from our weekly trips to the wonderful Audubon Zoo, Aqaurium of the Americas, or Children’s Museum. There was a Baskin-Robbins next door. For my children this became a treat: I could shop while they got ice cream. We would all say: “Let’s go liquidate!”

Hurricane Katrina hit and destroyed at least one of the stores. But I hadn’t been for a while anyway. Once the children were older and we weren’t making our weekly visits to New Orleans, Mr. DFS and I tended to stay home on weekends and putter about.

Shortly after Katrina, I saw a notice in the paper: the Liquidator was opening in Covington! So I took my now old-enough daughter to visit this place. All she could remember about it was the ice cream cones that marked our visits. There was Melody, the owner, with her flaming red hair and extreme fashion. She even remembered me.

My daughter and I go now and then. Sometimes we buy a little, sometimes a medium amount. The items in my store range from $4.99 tee shirts to $500.00 and up Dolce numbers. The Divine Miss Em and I bought ballet flats for $15.00. These were displayed under a sign that said, “retail $120.00” Then we bought tee shirts for $4.99 with tags that said “retail $60.00.” Oh sure, we scoffed, in the car. Then we looked up the items on the ever-helpful internet, and there were the shoes recommended by Oprah and there was Nicole Richie wearing one of the tee shirts!

Here is the email I got the other day:

We're loving everything that we're getting in,
but a few things are catching our eye!

The tops and dresses by Graydn and A Common Thread are always
a favorite, and our new shipment is no exception!

The laid back, breezy cotton pants from Sanctuary are a must-have
for those in-between winter and spring days.
The look is perfect for weekend comfy-chic.

Want a perfect weekend with the girls?
We love to do "the UAL Hop"!
Each and every UAL is filled with deals, but each store is
a totally different experience. We love finding
beauty deals in Hattiesburg, hot designer jeans and dresses
in Covington, and beautiful runway pieces in Nashville and New Orleans!

We're loving Kendra Scott's unique, nature-inspired pieces.
Bright golds and natural stones are just what we need to
finish our early spring looks. And at $4.99 and up,
the price tag doesn't look so bad either!

Visit any of our four locations!
2033 North Highway 190 in Covington
1829 Hardy Street in Hattiesburg
2918 West End Avenue in Nashville
518 Chartres Street in New Orleans

Amazingly, after I wrote this piece I was reading some articles on New Orleans in The New York Times. And there was a mention of my beloved shop: “United Apparel Liquidators (518 Chartres Street; 504-310-4437) is a fashion mecca among the tacky souvenir shops and beer-soaked bars in the French Quarter. If you have the patience to sift through the crowded racks all arranged by color, you’ll find overstock from Lanvin, Balenciaga and Chloe (mostly from a few seasons back) marked down by at least 50 percent.”

Honestly, this is not a good description of the interior. My store, in any case, is arranged like a fancy boutique, and the sales staff is helpful and enthusiastic.

And I know I have a few males in my audience: guys, they have a small men’s section.
And parents: they often have a rack of kidswear from Melrose Avenue boutiques frequented by people featured in People.

Come visit!

Also of note: this is not a mall store! UAL is local; it’s the product of an entrepreneurial vision. The owners bid against OTHER liquidators at auction. Sometimes they buy things (like a brand of clothing often featured in the Garnet Hill catalog) by the pound. I can’t imagine this is a glamorous business; it’s gritty and competitive.

Do you have a best store where you live? Please share. That way we can visit, even if only in our imaginations.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Frugal Grocery Shopping: Peppers Net $360.00 per hour!

STOP THE PRESSES! I had a couple of topics in mind for today's post, but when I got this email from Frugal Son, I just had to post it. Frugal Son has never read Your Money or Your Life or The Tightwad Gazette. Yet he somehow figured out the concept of the true hourly wage offered by frugal choices, perhaps by osmosis. In my return email, I further pointed out that the hourly wage he "earns" is even higher than what he states, since, as Andrew Tobias mentioned long ago, you don't pay taxes on money you save.

Here is his email:

One day when Daniel and I were food shopping at Wal-Mart, we came across a frugal conundrum. Was it cheaper to buy bell peppers (a red, yellow, and green) separately or as part of a three-pack? Daniel said it wasn’t worth his time to figure out whether it was a better deal to buy a 3-pack of multicolored bell peppers for $3.50 or to buy them individually for $0.82, $1.87, and $1.87 (which adds up to $4.56).

Being no math-whiz myself, I took 10 seconds to do the math in my head and figured out that the difference was nearly $1.10. I then asked him whether it “was worth his time” to do 10 seconds worth of simple math to earn $1. That is equivalent to earning $360 per hour, a wage that no one would turn down! After all, money you don’t spend on groceries is money that one can spend on something much more fun like a plane ticket.

I think that the reason so few people bargain shop is because they have an image of someone obsessively clipping coupons out of the newspaper to save a few cents while in reality bargain shopping can be as simple as stopping for a few seconds to compare the prices of similar items. Of course, not all bargains are as immediately apparent and the prices aren’t always as disparate as was the case in my bell pepper dilemma but the principle remains true.

Sometimes, of course, the bargains show themselves without any work at all. Moments after grabbing the bell peppers I grabbed a one pound bag of carrots for $0.99. Only a few steps later, another bag of carrots caught my eye and after a quick glance I saw that it was a one pound bag of organic carrots for $0.88. Ten seconds and 11 cents? At just $39.60 per hour it is quite a come down from my bell pepper “wage” but I’ll take it.

So Dear Readers, do you figure out your savings per hour? If so, what was your best hourly wage?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Thrift Stores: Frugal Friend, Frugal Faux

My Saturday morning relaxation often involves a leisurely stroll though my local thrift stores. In my little town, three are within a one-mile radius of my house, which also includes grocery and drug stores. So first I went to CVS to do a prescription transfer, which netted me a $25.00 gift card for my $6.00 prescription (This is a good thing to know about, incidentally).

Feeling flush, I then went to Goodwill, where I saw a Raleigh men’s twelve speed bicycle for $18.00. It was for a tall man, just like Mr. Dr. Frugal Scholar. Reader, I bought it.

Then, an employee rolled out a new rack. Everyone ran over to see. At the end of the rack was the object of my interest: a dress. Unfortunately, a woman interested in some nice drapes stepped in front of me, and I stopped dead. The dress was picked up by Elizabeth, owner of a local vintage store. I wandered over to look at the dress. She said “I don’t know what this is.” The label said “Chloe.” Since I believe the truth will set you free, I only hesitated for a second, and told her it was a real designer dress, perhaps worth several hundred dollars originally. She said, “You can have it.” Reader, I bought it.

It is a lovely dress. The label says T2, which may stand for Taille 2, or size 2. That means it would fit no one in my family. But of course I had to buy it. It was “only” $4.00.

Mr. DFS is ecstatic about the bicycle. He wants to use it when his brother comes to visit, so they can ride on the Tammany Trace, one of the rails-to-trails bike paths.

All this makes me wonder: is thrift shopping a frugal friend or a frugal foe?
Is buying that Chloe dress true frugality or faux?
Would you have bought the dress?
And, finally, what do I do with the dress?

Share your thrift stories, true and faux.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Musical soiree with Don Vappie, David Doucet, Greg, Liz, Peg, Mark and others

Laissez les bons temps rouler: encore une fois.

Danger below! Sadly, the links aren't working and we had to remove a goofy videoclip.

Once again we were lucky enough to be invited to an evening of music and food, courtesy of our friends Mark and Peggy. Because we couldn’t go in November and December, we are now on the alternate list; we’re hoping there will be a spot for us next month.

This series was the brainchild of Mark and Peggy, who missed the music at the Café Mandalay, which closed after Katrina. They had the idea of inviting musicians to play at people’s homes, with the guests splitting the cost and bringing a potluck dish.

I wrote about the one we attended in October, but this time we took pictures. We asked everyone if it was OK if we posted here and all said yes. Not everyone is as shy as Dr. Frugal Scholar and Mr. Dr. Frugal Scholar.

Peg is an artist, designer, and master gardener. You can see her work here.

The soiree was at the home of Liz and Greg Arceneaux. Liz is a midwife, who also works with her husband. Greg is a cabinetmaker who makes beautiful pieces, including some from cypress. He works in the Creole and Acadian tradition of furniture making. To accommodate all the people who showed up, Liz and Greg brought home all the chairs from the showroom. They are beautiful and comfortable. You can see some pieces here.

The music was amazing! Playing together were Don Vappie and David Doucet. Don plays Creole jazz while David Doucet is perhaps best known for his work as a guitarist with BeauSoleil.

And the food! Since this is Louisiana, there was an abundance of shrimp dishes, including shrimp with eggplant, a favorite of Dr. FS. The desserts were also fabulous. In addition to New Orleans style king cake (this is carnival season), we had French king cake and flan.

The last two were provided by Beatrice and Scott, who used to live down the street from us. Beatrice is a bona fide French person. They are partners with our friend Brigitte (also a bona fide French person) in the business SpeakEasy Café, which offers language lessons and yummy food.

We knew a few of the people there, like Greg C., who is a naval architect (do you need a boat designed?). Most, including the hosts, were new acquaintances.

Even though frugality was not the point of the evening, all this was $13.00 per attendee (there were 23 people there) to pay the musicians, plus a dish for the potluck. Dr. FS will reveal her potluck contribution at a later date.

Here are some pics of the festivities, including a video clip of the music. The video clip is of a goofy sing-along moment: Eh la-bas! For those who have never heard beautiful French Cajun or other Louisiana music, a wonderful discovery awaits you.

Greg, Don Vappie, and Mark

Greg Arceneaux, David Doucet, Don Vappie, Beatrice after the fete.

Don Vappie and David Doucet figuring things out before playing.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Paying Yourself Forward: Spend or Save?

There was an interesting essay in the New York Times the other day. It had a bit of tongue-in-cheek to it, as well as some serious suggestions. There was a fair amount of outrage in the Comments section. Finance is a sensitive subject these days.

Anyway, the article talked about how we can be “patriotic”: do we spend or do we save? For years, Americans were chided for spending and not saving; now we are being chided for saving and not spending. The problem with saving has to do with the “paradox of thrift,” whereby spending can help the economy as our money spirals away from us, while saving is basically like putting a stopper in your drain.

The author went on to suggest a kind of spending that would be good for the economy and for us. He said we should spend for our future selves. Hence, instead of patronizing a rent-to-own furniture store (shoddy stuff at usury-level interest) we should save up for a better and less expensive sofa. He said that a Costco membership would help a family with babies save on diapers. Getting a programmable thermostat and investing in other energy-saving items would save your future self money on utility bills. And so on.

Well, aside from the fact that I am a strong advocate of cloth diapers for the bottoms of our precious little ones, I think all the ideas are good ones. Read the essay for other pay yourself forward ideas.

Then I thought it would be instructive to look back and see what I have now that involved paying myself forward. What was a nice gift from my past self to my present one? My big All-Clad sauté pan, my Calphalon cookwear, a few cookbooks, my good quality sheets, the expensive alpaca blanket that my son “borrowed,” the big cupboard in my kitchen, and, of course, my too-expensive cottage with its slate roof. All these items were bought expensively but right the first time and will provide many years of good service.

Wow! That’s a short list. Of course, I could mention my cloth diapers, but I gave them away long ago. Not one item of clothing or jewelry makes my list.

Then there are the intangibles that bring us the greatest happiness, according to reports. For this I would include our many vacations to visit family and to travel abroad. Funding our children’s trips to Japan and elsewhere. Sending our kids to a wonderful pre-school. Sending our kids to a wonderful summer camp. These pay forward memories, but are not the kinds of things the author was talking about.

Of course, all these lists are very personal. I was struck by how long it took me to compile my short list. And I am going to start thinking about how to pay forward my future self.

And so, dear readers, how did your past self pay forward your present self? And how will you pay your future self forward?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Men! Get thee to a Thrift Store; OR, the Agony and the Ecstasy

Everyone who knows me—perhaps including the readers of my little corner of the blogosphere—knows that I love thrift stores. Although many cities have thrifts filled with bedraggled clothing, cracked plastic furniture, and yellowing romance novels circa 1976—all at ridiculously high prices, I have been lucky to live mostly in places that have excellent and reasonably priced thrifts.

Of course, every silver lining has a cloud. Because of my outstanding abilities at thrift shopping, I find too much. Everyone who knows me also knows I have a clutter problem. These fabulous bargains are too hard to resist, which is why I have a Geoffrey Beene jacket, a Karl Lagerfeld blazer, John Fluevog shoes (new, but a bit too small), just to name a few. I know I will never wear these. So I have to impose rules on myself.

Here are my rules:
Sweaters: cashmere only, no holes, or nice ones from Banana Republic or the like only if from the last two years (Banana, Gap, and Old Navy clothes are dated under the tags!).

Blazers: very expensive brands only; MUST FIT ME!

Shoes: FLATS only, must be new or close to it, must FIT. I have smallish feet and so find a lot of great shoes, including my best find of all time, new Chanel loafers.

As for the rest, pants (too lazy to try on, plus I wear only jeans now), don’t wear skirts or dresses, shirts/tanks cost the same as sweaters, so are too expensive in my thrift universe.

What about men’s stuff? I’m only allowed to buy cashmere sweaters, Hermes ties (not that anyone wears them in my house), and that’s about it.

Really, I should stay away from thrift stores. But today I needed milk and salt, and it just so happens that a thrift store is RIGHT NEXT to the grocery. So I ventured in, for a quick spin. Honestly, I get out fast and look in the most desultory fashion. I hope NOT to find things, truly.

Women’s Department: Lots of nice things, but only two cashmere sweaters jumped into my hands. One was a new with tags George brand, from Walmart. That disqualified it. I did buy a Prive brand ivory cashmere cardigan. Prive can be found at Dillards, and a similar sweater is available on sale for about $35.00, marked down from $115.00. The Ecstasy!

Men’s Department: This about killed me. I saw several Zegna shirts (newly drycleaned), a Robert Talbott shirt (ditto), and other pricy brands. All in Dr. Mr. FS’s very size. Then I checked out the ties, which are all 99 cents: a Ferragamo, a Zegna, several high-level Polo numbers, several Robert Talbotts, other Italian silk ties from makers I didn’t recognize. I had to tear myself away. These were new looking ties, sufficiently au courant. But Mr. DFS has enough and will be very sharp with me if I buy these. The Agony!

Total purchases: sweater plus 5 books, including Austerlitz , which I’ve been meaning to read. Total spent $4.00 minus my 15% senior discount.

All I have to say is:
Men, get thee to a thrift store! Not too many men go to thrift shops, so the field will be yours!

And, to remind myself that I need not buy everything nice that I see, here is a picture of a Hermes tie that I found a while ago.

Dear Readers, do tell. Are thrift stores agony or ecstasy? And, of course, share your best finds.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Creativity and Frugality: Personal and Poetic Ties

The third post featuring the creations of the late mother-in-law of Frugal Scholar. Below is a coat made of ties. Clothing made of ties is nothing new: I remember reading an interview with Jane Gallop, an academic provocatrice (is that a word?), where she spoke of wearing a skirt of ties reputed to have been gathered from her sexual conquests. She refused, if I remember correctly, to confirm or deny those rumors.

These ties belonged to the late Henri Coulette, the closest friend of my father-in-law, who recently celebrated his 90th birthday. Henri died at age 61 in 1988. He was divorced and had no children. As I recall, a battle over his estate ensued; fighting it out were his ex-wife and a nephew, whom he had never met. Presumably, a Bleak House scenario followed. My father-in-law loved Henri and gathered these ties that no one wanted. Henri was known as a spiffy dresser. My mother-in-law made this coat from some of them.

Mr. DFS and I knew Henri was a poet. We looked him up on-line and learned that he suffered the tragic and accidental destruction of his second book. Here is a bit of what we learned:

Henri Coulette has the odd distinction of enjoying a cult, or underground reputation as an exemplar of what is often considered the most conservative mainstream of American poetry, the form-conscious, ironic academic poets of the 1950s, strongly influenced by the New Critics. Coulette's career foundered after the bizarre and accidental destruction of nearly every copy of his second book, but because of support from important admirers, and the resurgence of formalism in the 1980s and 1990s, he has come to be regarded as a poet's poet.

For more, see


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Entrepreneurs, Bubbles, “I Know what I’m Doing,” Frugal Dad

“The time is out of joint”: so says Hamlet, lamenting, "O cursèd spite,/That ever I was born to set it right!" (1.5). Luckily, unlike Hamlet, I don’t have the responsibility to set anything right, outside of my own very limited sphere of influence.

But, in honor of our out-of-joint time, I present a disjointed series of thoughts economic, entrepreneurial, and other, ending, as Hamlet begins, with the ghost of a father.

Shabby Chic: while noodling around the blogosphere, I came across a notice of a fabulous sale at Shabby Chic, the super expensive furniture and accessories store. Why the sale? Because the business is in chapter 11. Founder Rachel Ashwell’s blog entry on the financial troubles of her company is heartrending, truly poignant: she refers to herself as a “flea market girl” with a dream caught up in a complex business in difficult times. I read some of her books (library copies!) back in the day: I was impressed by the coherence of her vision. Then I read some comments on the blog Apartment Therapy. There were a few acerbic ones, noting that for a flea market aesthetic, her stuff was awfully expensive (true dat!). Also noted was the fact that her business, born in affluent Santa Monica 20 years ago, perhaps rode the housing market, expanded out of control, and then burst, like the rest of the bubble.

My Dinner with Andre: Andre is someone I knew slightly. Our chat dates to the late 1990s, as will be obvious. Andre’s husband was the scion of a New Orleans family known for a chain of furniture stores, then recently defunct. I’m not sure if he had a job or lived on the proceeds of the business. Andre said, “I know I should get a job, but I make more money playing the stock market than in any job.” I, envious, since the mutual funds in my retirement accounts never achieved spectacular returns, said, “Ooh, could you tell me what you do?”

She said, “I just know what I’m doing.”

Bubble, anyone?

The House Down the Street: A nice but shabby house down the street sold a few years ago to serial flippers. They fixed it up and decorated it in shabby chic style, as it happens. My son worked on the house for a while, in the company of two high school friends who had been hired by the flippers. One of the boys explained that the couple bought houses and sold them for huge profits, which they used to live on and to buy the next house.

He said, “They really know what they’re doing.”

The house was put up for sale at a huge price, now reduced by a third. Need I say it remains unsold?

EBay: My experience with EBay is strictly anecdotal. About seven years ago, I had a pair of Birkenstocks that hurt my feet. A student said, “I’ll sell them for you on Ebay!” At that time, listing was difficult, you had to have a digital camera, you had to find a hosting site for your pictures, and you had to take checks. So, selling was very challenging. The shoes sold for $70.00! I spite of the difficulties, I sold a few other items, and was always amazed that my several year old clothes generally sold for what I had paid for them. Cool. I really felt that I knew what I was doing.

Now the selling is easy: EBay hosts pictures, everyone owns a digital camera, EBay owns Paypal, etc, etc. A few years later, I found at a thrift store the same Birkenstocks I had previously sold—same style, size, everything. With visions of $70.00 dancing in my head, I put them up for auction. I got $7.00. The buyer left me a positive rating and said, “Thanks for the great deal.”

Interestingly, my anecdote is quite in line with the business fortunes of EBay and its sellers as recounted in the financial news. Sellers are angered by the huge fees EBay levies and by the low prices that most items command. From my perspective, I’d say the problem is that listing is easy now, hence an oversupply of goods. For buyers, why bother paying a lot, since hundreds of identical items will be listed later. Did the sellers know what they were doing? A bubble, once more.

My frugal Dad: It’s fitting that I began with Hamlet, which is concerned with that “common theme" of "nature,” the death of one’s father(1.2). My frugal Dad died suddenly in November. Perhaps one reason that I have always been skeptical of people who say they “know what they’re doing,” is because he was always skeptical. He was a very intelligent man, one of whose greatest points of pride is that he attended the famous magnet school in New York, Peter Stuyvesant. But he was always very modest about his own intelligence, always pointing admiringly to the intelligence of others. This is, as most of us know, an unusual attribute.

My father was an entrepreneur for a while. First he owned a business with a partner. Later, after working for a company in Philadelphia for a year, he started his own business (market research) in around 1965. He had an office in New York. The employees consisted of my father and a secretary, plus, after a bit, my mother. Occasionally he had temporary workers. He paid very well, and I and many of my high school friends reaped the benefits of a $4.50 hourly wage.

After about 12 years, my father decided to close his business. He had had some very bad years. A few of the people who had passed work on to him had opened competing businesses. There was a recession. I asked why they were closing, and my mother said, “We don’t want to lose our savings.” What savings?

Little did I know that they had had a few very good years. The reason I didn’t know that was because our visible standard of living did not change. They saved.

I’ve been thinking about this because of all the stories about people in their 20s and 30s who have gone from making high salaries to hard times. Many of these sad stories feature mortgage brokers and people otherwise in the real estate or banking business. (“I worked hard! I knew what I was doing!”) This does not even include the upscale tales of the now-unemployed MBAs who worked in investment banking, and, supposedly knew what they were doing. (Which is why there is a shriek of pain at Obama’s proposed pay caps for executives: “But we’re worth it. We know what we’re doing!”)

My father, I now see, had the gift of modesty; he never thought he knew what he was doing. He saved during the good times. Thanks for the fine example.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Frugal College Cooking: Beef Stew Part Two

Part Two of the beef stew adventures of Frugal Son.

With beef in hand, I went to Daniel's apartment and began to defrost the meat in a bath of lukewarm water. The recipe I used is actually a combination of two recipes I found on (a great website, by the way); neither recipe was exactly what I wanted so I took the desirable elements from each to create a recipe perfectly suited to my taste and, more importantly, the ingredients I had on hand. Once the meat was defrosted, I put it all in a bowl and added about three tablespoons of flour, salt, pepper, and a pinch of rosemary. I added a mix of olive oil and canola oil to a large pot and then browned the meat in the pot for a few minutes while stirring occasionally. I had some free time while the meat browned to chop the leftover vegetables—carrots, onion, scallions, and bell pepper—and two cloves of garlic. The flour began to brown in the oil, forming a flavor-intensifying roux of sorts and some of the flour and fats from the meat began to burn and stick to the bottom of the pot. While burning and sticking usually spell disaster and a ruined meal, in this case it is actually desirable because the burnt sticky bits, the fond, can be deglazed and incorporated into the stew to enhance and enrich the broth.

Once the meat was evenly browned on all sides I removed it from the pot and put it back into the bowl. Into the same pot that I cooked the meat in, I added a little more oil and then all of the vegetables. I stirred them occasionally but otherwise just let them cook and soften as they absorbed the intense flavors lingering in the crusty bits of flour and fat at the bottom of the pot. Once the onions had become translucent and the bell peppers were soft but not mushy, I added a single tablespoon of tomato paste (although I now know from my Frugal Mom that ketchup would have done the job) and stirred that into the vegetable mixture.

After letting the tomato paste cook for a bit, I added three cups of beef broth plus ¾ cups of water to the pot. I would have loved to have had a beef stock made from scratch, but both time and money were in short supply so I settled for beef bouillon cubes. Once the broth was in the pot, I added the beef, put on a top, and let the mixture simmer.

Apparently the classic method is to braise the stew by putting the whole pot into the oven for at least two and a half hours, but I misread the directions so I just let it simmer on the stovetop. While the stew gently bubbled and gurgled on the stove, I peeled, quartered, and washed a little over two pounds of potatoes. I put these into a pot with water and a bit of salt, covered it with a lid and set it on the stove to cook. With both items I finally had some time to sit back and relax, although the incredible scent coming from the stew pot was hard to ignore. I sampled the stew after about an hour and the meat was incredibly flavorful. Maybe the beef was actually no more flavorful than normal corn-fed, hormone injected, industrial beef and it was simply my mind wanting this local, free-range beef to taste better but to me, but it tasted so much more intense than any other beef I have had. I am normally relatively unenthusiastic about meat in anything other than a supporting role, but this beef really made me excited.

As soon as the potatoes were finished, I drained them and began to plate everything (on warmed plates of course). The only thing "wrong" with my stew was that the beef did not really soften up; perhaps this is a result of me not braising it in the oven, not cooking it long enough, the particular cut of meat, or maybe this is just the price one pays for a more natural beef. The texture, however, did not bother me and I don't think it bothered any of the other eaters. It definitely did not bother anyone enough to keep them from getting seconds and then thirds, until all that was left in the pot was a few tablespoons of rich broth. The vegetables added a fresh, clean taste to the broth and they also added a nice splash of color to the muddy brown stew. The stew broth, which had thickened considerably after an hour of simmering and because of the flour roux, was great when slathered on top of the boiled potatoes.

When I cook this again I will definitely let the meat simmer longer and maybe I'll even try braising it in the oven. Another change I might make when I cook this again is to use a bit less meat. Two pounds for four people was a lot of meat and I don't think the flavor of the stew would suffer at all if I used a half-pound less meat. A cheap and easy way to extend this meal to feed at least six people is to add more potatoes. My Frugal Mom says that this stew tastes even better the next day but I can't attest to that since it disappeared so fast! I can easily say it was the best beef stew I've ever had, and it tasted even better knowing that all I had to buy for it was the meat and local meat at that!

The Breakdown: Serves 4 college aged boys or 5 (maybe 6) normal mortals

2 pounds of stew meat @ $2.20 / pound: $4.40
1 leftover bell pepper: $1
4 leftover carrots: $0.50
2 cloves of garlic: $0.25
1 leftover onion: $1
2 ½ pounds of potatoes: $2.50
1 tbsp ketchup or tomato paste: $0.25
3 tbsp flour: $0.25
Olive and / or Canola oil: $0.50
3 cups beef broth from bouillon cubes: $0.75

Total: $11.40 or $2.85 / person assuming 4 people

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Get Rich Slowly, Michael Phelps, Christopher Marlowe

A strange line-up: a fabulously successful blog (25,000 daily readers, over 75,000 subscribers), an Olympic medal winner in trouble over a bong, and a 16th century playwright, who was killed at age 29 after getting stabbed in the eye in a tavern brawl. What do these unlikely colleagues have in common? Each reveals something about goal setting.

Get Rich Slowly was, by the account of its blogger, J.D. Roth, an accidental success. He began the blog a few years ago to chart his progress out of credit card debt, fueled by careless spending and an addiction to comic book compilations. En route to his goal, he attracted scads of devotees, got out of debt, and was able to quit his job in a family-owned box factory to pursue his dream of full-time writing.

I’ve been busy and so haven’t kept up with his blog. I enjoyed the energy of it as he worked to achieve his goal. By chance, I read his blog yesterday. He lamented that though he was out of debt, had made a lot of money in 2008, and was a full-time writer, he wasn’t happy.

Roth reached his goal.

Then, I read a bit on Michael Phelps, whose success and recent troubles are too well-known to need repeating. But even before the tell-all photo and suspension and loss of endorsement, I was struck by how aimless Phelps looked in photos.

Phelps reached his goal.

And here is Doctor Faustus, of the play by Christopher Marlowe. He is in his study (an enclosed space, very important, given the themes of frustration and desire in the play) and surveys his accomplishments. First, he thinks about philosophy and then medicine:

Is, to dispute well, logic's chiefest end?
Affords this art no greater miracle?
Then read no more, thou hast attained the end;

The end of physic is our body's health.
Why Faustus, hast thou not attained that end?
Is not thy common talk found aphorisms?

He then goes on to survey law and divinity and realizes that he has reached the limits of those pursuits.

Faustus reached his goal, or “end.”

And so…he sells his soul to the devil, with very bad results. The repeated word here is “end.” Once you reach your goal…well, all the energy disappears. You need a new goal. I remember my teacher said of Doctor Faustus that, like many plays of the 1580s, its underlying message was “I can’t get no satisfaction.” That got a big laugh in the 1970s, but only gets a little laugh now.

By this definition, I suppose I should be pleased with the decimation of my retirement accounts, since I now have to work harder to achieve my goal. (Just kidding folks!). Children provide a goal. My children have not reached the age of independence yet. When they do, it will be time for more goal-setting on my part and it is an anxiety-provoking prospect.

To chart Roth’s progress with his goals old and new, check out his blog, if you’re not already among his many readers:

For Phelps, well, I think we should leave him alone for a while.

For Doctor Faustus, drag out that old Norton Anthology of English Literature or read on-line here:

And so, dear readers, did reaching a goal cause both happiness and panic? What’s your goal now? Do you have a next goal lined up? Do share.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Frugal College Cooking: Locavores and Leftovers

Here is another post by Frugal Son. He aspires to live "la vida local," but this desire is hampered by the fact that he lives on a college campus and eats--mostly--in an excellent cafeteria.

His board card provides cafeteria meals plus $300.00 in Tiger Bucks, which most students use at the coffee shop or Taco Bell or other on-campus fast food joints. Frugal Son, whose curiosity about food is well-known on this blog, discovered the campus Dairy Store, which sells meat products from the Ag School. He also discovered that he could use his Tiger Bucks there!

Here is his post on beef stew. Like his salmon tale, this will be in two parts. Bon appetit.

In my last post, I tried to show how frugal, simple and satisfying a home-cooked meal can be. The real magic of frugal cooking, however, comes from using leftovers. Leftovers may not have the best reputation, but try not to think of them as something cold and slimy in the back of the fridge and instead think of them as building blocks. A wilted stalk of celery can come back to life when used to enhance a soup or—in one of my favorite uses of leftovers—the excess turkey from Thanksgiving becomes the backbone of a delicious gumbo. What I love about leftovers is the idea that you are sort of making something from nothing; what were once a useless scraps become, with the addition of a few more ingredients and a little time, something more than the sum of its parts.

Cooking with leftovers is not a technique that I have mastered, although Frugal Mom is a real leftover maven. It takes real creativity and even artistry to look at a bunch of seemingly unrelated raw ingredients and see a meal, and leftover cooking is made especially difficult in college where pantry and refrigerator space are extremely limited. I don't have the luxury of buying five pounds of chicken breasts when they go on sale and saving them for when I need to use them. Recently, however, I had a sort of leftover epiphany in what was probably my first real, unaided foray into cooking with leftovers.

After the initial success of my salmon and fried rice meal (see post here), I was stuck with some vegetables that would go bad if I didn't use them soon, and there are few things I hate more than finding a shriveled and mold-covered vegetable wedged into some forgotten corner of the fridge. I had several bunches of scallions, most of an onion, a bell pepper, and half a pound of carrots left over from the feast a few days ago. Using these vegetables as a foundation, I decided to make a beef stew using meat from the LSU Dairy Store.

LSU has a fairly large agricultural science program that raises cows, pigs, goats, and sheep near campus. The main product of the agricultural science program is ice cream made from the cows’ milk. In addition, students of the meat science department butcher the animals and the meat is sold to the public, at very reasonable prices, through the Dairy Store. Ever since I found out that the on-campus Dairy Store sold meat, I have been longing to try out some of their products. The meat is very appealing to me because all of the animals are local: they live and die within three miles of campus and I never have to drive to the grocery store to buy meat because I can simply walk to the Dairy Store from my dorm. The animals are allowed to roam free and graze during their life, and because it is a small-scale farming operation, the animals are probably treated more humanely during slaughter. Another plus is that I can buy the meat with my meal plan (which is free courtesy of my scholarship) so I have $300 per semester to spend on Dairy Store products.

When I went to buy the meat for my beef stew, the Dairy Store had a fairly good selection of meats, including some cuts that don't normally appear on the shelf at grocery stores—lamb necks for $1.30 / lbs and goat meat for $2.50 / lbs—and normally expensive cuts for very reasonable prices—leg of lamb for $4 / lbs and oxtails for $1.30 / lbs. I grew up in a household that consumed very little meat, and as a result I know next to nothing about the different cuts of meat. The choice of beef was overwhelming and I had no idea what was a good stew meat. Did I want gravy steak, cube steak, chuck roast, or sirloin? Fortunately, there was also meat labeled simply "stew meat" for $2.20 per pound, so I bought a little over two pounds of meat. I will admit I was a bit embarrassed when I brought the meat to the counter since most Dairy Store customers only get the ice cream, but the cashier didn't even bat an eye.

To be continued . . .

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Finance in the News for February 5, 2009

So while I was worrying about the ethics of my free lunch courtesy of textbook publishers, the New York Times was getting ready to post its story on the new paradigm shift in executive perks.
Read the article here.
Here is the juicy first paragraph:
Country club dues, gym memberships and personal assistants. Home security systems, chauffeur service and parking. And, of course, all those private jets to ensure the comfort and safety of the boss.

ERGGGG. I need a personal assistant. And I don’t even use the gym at the school where I work, because faculty and staff must pay a hefty fee, almost equal to the cost of local gyms.

And another juicy tidbit here.

[Note: when I click on the links they don't work; so you may have to copy/paste. Help!
Edit: Links should be working now.]

There may well be a slippage in the appeal of Wall Street careers as the pay differential with other professions declines. Over the years, for example, there was a big increase in the percentage of graduates of Harvard who went into finance. Two Harvard economists, Lawrence F. Katz and Claudia Goldin, studied the career choices of undergraduates since the 1960s, finding that the share entering banking and finance rose from less than 4 percent to 23 percent or so in recent years.

Surveying graduates from the 1960s through the 1990s, they found that Harvard graduates who chose careers in finance made three times the pay of their peers, adjusting for grade-point averages and test scores.

“We see a huge shift into finance over the years, and Harvard students clearly respond to economic incentives,” Mr. Katz said. “I certainly don’t think it was a pure love of finance that drove people into the field.”

When I reported the gist of this to Mr. Dr. Frugal Scholar, who was sitting in a comfy chair reading Thoreau for a course, he said, “Oh, I guess maybe people go to Harvard out of career ambition rather than out of intellectual interests.”

Do you agree with that?

And what do you think, dear readers, about all the finance in the news? Should we just tune out? Or go “Ergghhh.”

And, really, we're so lucky to be able to sit in comfy chairs and read wonderful books as part of our job.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Teenagers and Money, Frugal This, Frugal That

Many of the bloggers I read have a sense of impending doom, as they wait to hear about the future of their employment. Given the economic situation, I sometimes feel that my frugal thoughts are awfully trivial. Here are a few of them.

Teenagers and Money: This is a topic that recurs. How does one teach teenagers about money? In truth, we teach them by our actions.

Example: my daughter's friend Sadie, whose parents lost their house two summers ago. They had been living in a small house in the country for 15 years. According to them, they got a notice saying they had to be out at the end of the month. So they left, and moved into a trailer on the farm of their employer. Only a few months later did I realize that these were probably the first people I knew (albeit tangentially) who had lost their house because of a sub-prime loan.

Sadie is a senior in high school. She works in a salon doing shampoos a few days a week. She takes home around $150 a week! Bossy me (an occupational hazard), I asked if she had a savings account. No. I asked if she saved any money. No. She explained that she had "expenses," which turned out to be pet food, meals out, and clothing (she has no car and lives with her parents). I launched into a lecture (an occupational hazard) about the importance of saving.

Next time I saw her, I repeated my questions (an occupational hazard). She said that while she still did not have a savings account, she keeps $80.00 in her room at all times for an emergency. This teen runs through $7000.00 plus a year! She's been working for two years and has $80.00.

Then I realized that her parents probably had out-earned Mr. DFS and me. We were in school till we were 30. We became teachers, not the most lucrative profession. These people did not go to college and began working at 18, buying a house then and starting a family.

Am I being too judgmental? Should I continue to ask questions and make suggestions?

Frugal This, Frugal That: Today, Mr. DFS and I, along with the rest of our department, had a free food opportunity, a catered lunch provided by a textbook publisher. We have 2 or 3 of these every couple of years. I'm not sure of the ethics here, but the food was delicious! We had seafood chowder and a waldorf salad (chicken, apples, and pecans), followed by king cake. If you're not from Louisiana, you probably don't know about this cake. It is cake topped in Mardi Gras colors--purple, green, and gold--and contains a tiny plastic baby. If you get the baby in your piece, you have to buy the next cake.

While I was eating, I was musing on the ethics of all this. Then I read about the perks gotten by various political figures recently. I suppose that they would scoff at my little lunch. Any thoughts, dear readers?

Frugal Dilemma: Our Frugal Daughter, though she does not supply posts as our Frugal Son does, is never far from our thoughts. She is up for two college scholarships. The competitions are on THE SAME WEEKEND and cannot be re-scheduled.
Choice 1: A big school in another state offers the chance to be one of 40 fellows, who are mentored and groomed by faculty. $1000 over whatever other scholarships you get. 50 students are invited to compete.
Choice 2: A private college offers FREE TUITION, ROOM and BOARD to 3 or 4 students. About 80 students are invited to compete. Frugal Daughter has already been given a scholarship almost equal to tuition.

School 1 offers an almost sure chance of a lesser benefit; school 2 offers an enormous benefit, but almost no chance.

At first she was drawn to the smaller school, mostly because of the wonderful recruiter. But now a good friend who goes there is saying the school is TOOOOO small and she wants to transfer. So Frugal Daughter is conflicted.

Aren't we lucky to have these trivial problems in these difficult times? Even so, dear readers, we welcome your counsel. Any thoughts on any of these?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Frugal College Cooking: Practice

(Continuation of yesterday's post by Frugal Son)

I began by arranging all of the ingredients and cookware around me (my mise en place) and I soon ran into my first snag. None of the pots was large enough to contain the quantity (three cups) of rice I needed to cook and there was no saucepan or skillet large enough to fry the rice and vegetables together. Undeterred, I split the rice-making duties between two smaller pots. Interestingly, even cooking the rice was enough to elicit fascinated stares from my friends who had never cooked rice from scratch! With the rice cooking away, I cut up the vegetables (two bell peppers, four carrots, four bunches of scallions, half an onion, a tiny bit of fresh ginger, and paper thin slices of lemon for the fish) on a minuscule cutting board using my three-inch pocketknife, the only knife available.

There is something really beautiful about a pile of freshly chopped vegetables: the red of the bell peppers, the creamy yellow onions, the burst of orange from the carrots, and the subdued green scallions all neatly delineated in their tidy piles. Even the smell of fresh vegetables—sharp onion scent, earthy ginger and faintly sweet carrot scent blend in the kitchen air—is satisfying and transforms the dingy kitchen, garishly lit by fluorescent lights, into a sort of alchemist’s laboratory where the most mundane ingredients come together to form something wonderful.
As the rice cooked, I threw the vegetables onto a skillet with some canola oil to stir-fry them. By the time the rice was done, the onions were translucent and lightly browned and even the carrots had softened up. I transferred the vegetables to a large mixing bowl so I could begin to fry up the rice (remember, there was no cookware big enough for rice and vegetables at the same time). I added a bit more canola oil to the skillet before scooping in half of the rice. I stirred it around occasionally to make sure the rice fried evenly and after about four minutes, I cracked two eggs into the rice and stirred it around until little wisps of cooked egg white and yolk were evenly distributed throughout the rice. Once this batch of rice was done I transferred it to the large mixing bowl with the vegetables and started on the second batch. The second batch followed the same plan, although this time I only added one egg.

With the fried rice finished (all I needed to do was mix up all the veggies and serve it), I turned my attention to the salmon, which was sitting patiently on the counter fully defrosted in its vacuum-sealed package. Daniel, my former roommate, wanted to bake the salmon, which is not a fish cooking technique I have experience with—so we preheated the oven to 350 and cleaned off a baking pan. We rubbed each piece of salmon with a bit of olive oil and under each filet we put a few of the thin slices of lemon. Before putting the pan in the oven I sprinkled a tiny bit of salt over each piece. With the fish cooking and out of the way, I turned my attention to the last piece of the meal, the sauce.

The sauce is actually incredibly simple, consisting of only four ingredients: butter, canola oil, lemon, and capers. I first melted about three tablespoons of butter (although in hindsight I realize I only needed about one and a half tablespoons) with a little canola oil to raise the smoking point. Once the butter had foamed and subsided, I turned off the heat, added the capers, and squeezed a bit of lemon juice into the pan. A very spiffy and professional looking sauce done in less than five minutes! The sauce was finished a minute or two before the fish was done so I took the extra time to put all of the plates in the oven to warm them, a sort of homage to my grandfather, who always likes to serve meals on warmed plates.
The salmon was perfectly cooked after just five minutes (the filets had been thoroughly defrosted in a bowl of lukewarm water) so I removed it from the oven and began to plate everything. I stirred up the rice with the vegetables and spooned a generous heaping portion of rice onto one side of the plate while a tender pink salmon fillet graced the other side. The heated plates were fantastic and kept everyone’s food at the right temperature until all the plates were on the table and we began to eat. Before everyone began to eat, I went around to each plate and spooned some of the sauce on top of their fish.

It was a truly magnificent meal and, given the state of the kitchen and my limited equipment, I was ecstatic that everything had turned out so well. The fish was moist and flavorful and the sauce, a combination of the sharp tastes of lemon and capers with the rich subtleties of butter, was the perfect complement. The surprise hit of the night, however, was the fried rice. I am convinced that people in general, and college students particularly, are deprived of the simple pleasures of fresh vegetables that aren’t smothered by other powerful flavors. The simplicity of the rice and vegetables, accentuated with a dash of soy sauce, was irresistible and the four of us managed to finish almost all of the rice. So, dear readers, you have now seen that even a college student using an underpowered electric stove, minimal ingredients, and cheap cookware can make a meal fit for a true gourmet. Go cook! What have you cooked recently?

The breakdown:
1lbs Salmon, vacuum sealed, frozen: $4.88
3c Rice: $1
½ pound carrots: $0.50
2 Bell Peppers: 1.64
½ Onion: $1
3 tbs. Butter: $0.50
Lemon: From garden ($1 in store)
Scallions: $1
Capers (used about 1/16 of jar that cost $3.88) $1
Soy Sauce (can be reused): 0.50
Canola Oil (can be reused) $0.25
3 Eggs: $0.50
Total: $15.14 including tax or $3.79 / person

At restaurant: 17.95 + 10% tax + 15% tip = $22.44 / person or $89.76!
Save $74.62!

Monday, February 2, 2009

Frugal College Cooking: Theory

This post is courtesy of my dear Frugal Son.

Few people are nostalgic for their college eating experiences. College is a time of tight budgeting, and neither money nor time is available to spend on cooking. For most people, college food memories probably conjure up images of a mystery meat concoction from the cafeteria, greasy fast food, ramen, microwaveable entrees, or other unsavory morsels. Nothing very appetizing or nourishing to be certain. Except for the lucky few who are in the know, the vast majority of college students—and people in general—are under the impression that to eat well requires a lot of money and / or a lot of time or that “restaurant quality” food is out of reach of the average cook. While in some cases cooking is a time-consuming process—there is just no way to speed up the process of making a demi-glace—practical cooking can be cheaper, easier, and more satisfying than buying pre-packaged convenience food or going to a restaurant.

My most recent cooking experience is a good example of the kind of cooking that can be done in an EXTREMELY limited kitchen by a person with limited skills on a limited budget, but without skimping on taste or perceived fanciness. My meal for the night—salmon baked on thin slices of lemon garnished with a butter and caper sauce and a stir-fried rice with vegetables on the side—would seem to be more at home on the menu of a fancy eatery than in a simple apartment kitchen. How much do you think this meal cost me to make? At P.F. Chang’s, where I ate recently for a friend’s birthday, a similar menu option (Salmon Steamed with Ginger and served with a side of White Rice) came to $17.95 before tax and tip; for four people to eat this dish at a restaurant would easily cost $70 and take up at least a two-hour chunk of the evening. While a $15 or even $20 per person meal might be nice every now and then, it is definitely not something that is sustainable on a college budget or really any budget; eating a $15 meal three times a week for a year comes to $2,340, which is money I would much rather spend on a plane ticket to Korea or some other foreign locale!

In addition to the gustatory, nutritional, and financial benefits of cooking for yourself, a little known side-effect is a markedly improved social life. Casually mention that you love to cook but need a kitchen and suddenly you will have three times as many friends as you thought you had. Also, if you cook seemingly complex or fancy foods, you will soon gain a reputation as some sort of cooking genius. I must admit that part of the reason I love to cook for friends is the ego-stoking I get from them and I was beaming at the praise I received for this meal.

As Dr. Frugal Scholar says, frugality is not about depriving oneself of things but rather it is about getting more from less, and home cooking is one of the most rewarding frugal tasks I know of. For the cost of a single person’s meal at a restaurant I can cook the aforementioned meal for myself and three other people and I can do it in about the same amount of time that it would take to go to a restaurant. I can see the skeptical looks on your faces, dear readers, but fear not; in my next post I’ll show you how to cook a meal that leaves your belly (and your friends’ bellies) satisfied and your wallet intact.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Frugal Cooking: Deborah Madison's Lentil Minestrone

My mention of Marcella Hazan’s cabbage soup caused a minor sensation. Like many people, I always think everyone knows what I know. So I assume that everyone knows about Marcella Hazan’s wonderful cookbooks and that everyone has read them cover to cover as I have.

Another wonderful cookbook author is Deborah Madison. Like Marcella, she puts out cookbooks in which everything is tested. Sadly, this is not always the case. There is nothing more annoying to the frugal heart than wasting precious time, money, and ingredients on something that doesn’t work. If I were to buy one Marcella book, it would be Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. If I were to buy one by Deborah Madison, it would be the famous Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. This is a pricy tome, but worth it, whether you get a deal on it or buy it full-price from your local bookshop. I received my copy from my dear in-laws in 1998.

The only problem with Madison’s book is that, perhaps because it is huge (over 700 pages), and because many of her categories overlap, it is difficult to use. The index is terrible (perhaps this was fixed in the new edition that came out recently). I have made a couple of things that I could not find again. Now I write the page numbers of things I want to find again on the title page of the book.

On Sundays, my thoughts turn to dinner for the next week. Breakfast is easy, since we discovered steel-cut oat groats. Lunch is easy because we have peanut butter sandwiches at work most days. I dislike frantic cooking when I get home from work, so I like to make soups. Since I work from home on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I generally cook on those days plus Sunday. Luckily, we love leftovers.

I have a stuffed pantry and freezer, so one of my goals is to “eat from the pantry” for a while. Today, out of love for Mr. DFS, I will be making Madison’s lentil minestrone, which is a favorite soup both of the cookbook author and of Mr. DFS.

Ingredients (with some variations, based on my habits; I am leaving out the aromatics)
2 TBS olive oil
2 cups finely chopped onion
2 TBS tomato paste (I use canned tomato or even a bit of ketchup!)
4 garlic cloves, chopped
3 carrots, chopped
1 cup chopped celery

Saute all these.

Then add 1 cup washed lentils (I use brown), 9 cups water. Cover and simmer till lentils are done (30-45 minutes).

Then add: mushroom soy sauce to taste (I use regular), 1 bunch greens, 2 cups cooked pasta. Salt and pepper to taste.

Top with parmesan.

Frugal people! Don’t run to the store! If you don’t have tomato paste, use regular canned tomato. If you don’t have lentils, use another bean (but lentils and split peas cook in 1/3 the time). If you don’t have pasta, use rice or even croutons or pieces of toast. If you don’t have greens (I have a garden), use a box of frozen spinach. If you don’t have parmesan, use any old cheese.

YumYum. Frugal, easy, and flexible.