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Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Recent Email from France

So, we are going to stay in the home of Frugal Son's teacher in Nantes. Frugal Son gets all starry-eyed when he talks about her. Now I see why.

Je voulais vous dire aussi que si vous le souhaitez, vous pouvez aller passer quelques jours chez des amis qui habitent en Bretagne (près de Combourg, entre Rennes et St Malo) Ils ont une très grande maison en pleine campagne et seraient ravis de vous accueillir, la région est très jolie, la côte n’est pas loin, cela vaut vraiment la peine. On peut aller au Mont Saint Michel dans la journée.

In a nutshell: we can visit some friends of hers who live near Mont Saint Michel. Talk about frugal travel!

Note to self: Must work on being better person.

Speaking of Mont Saint Michel, I wrote a paper on this classic in college.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Another Etiquette Question: France

I had big plans: posts about my frugal vacation. And they may happen, but my feet hurt and I hate this tiny keyboard. (Also, I fell flat on my face my first day in Paris!) Many thanks for your continued reading and comments. I will reply!

Meanwhile, I have another etiquette question. Our hosts are very counter-cultural. All they care about--besides travel--is books. They are not huge drinkers--one drinks almost not at all. Sooooo, we may have to relinquish the idea of leaving some pricey bottle as thanks.

Are gift certificates totally tacky in France? We were thinking of a card to fnac or the local bookstore. And if a gift card is OK, what should the amount be?

merci beaucoup!

Gazpacho with Canned Tomatoes: Clean Out Fridge, Avert Tragedy

The tragedy is two-fold. First is that our tomato crop utterly failed this year. No wait: we got 6 cherry tomatoes. Second is that I inadvertantly opened three cans of tomatoes, which could get moldy, especially because we're going away soon and don't know if Frugal Son will think to use them.

Ah ha! Pam Anderson, a clever cookbook writer, discovered that you could make gazpacho with canned tomatoes.


* 2 (14.5 ounce) cans diced tomatoes (I use Hunt's Petite Diced)
* 1/2 cup water
* 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
* 1 seedless cucumber, cut into 1/4-inch dice
* 1 small yellow bell pepper, seeded and cut into 1/4-inch dice
* 1 small onion, cut into 1/4-inch dice
* 2 medium garlic cloves, minced
* 1 small jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced (optional)
* 2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
* 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley, basil or cilantro
* Salt and freshly ground black pepper


1. Process 1/2 cup of tomatoes, along with the water and oil, in a blender or food processor until pureed. Transfer to a medium bowl, along with remaining ingredients. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Refrigerate until ready to serve. (Can be made several hours before serving.)

Needless to say, I didn't follow this exactly. I remember well my first gazpacho: I made it, along with my first quiche, for a fellow I liked who was off to grad school at Yale (1974). I had no idea what became of him till I read a book called French Lessons, picked up at Habitat for Humanity, and discovered him in the acknowledgment section. Then I discovered him in the book itself, under a pseudonym. Talk about weird!

My first gazpacho--and many recipes I've seen since--call for V8 or canned tomato juice. It's taken me a long time to wise up, but I now realize that Spanish peasants and others did not run to the grocery for canned juice when they wanted to make gazpacho. I also read that gazpacho may be of the class of recipes that were developed to use up stale bread. Food of the poor, once more. My first gazpacho was thickened with raw egg (!!), which makes it a retro recipe indeed. It was also topped with croutons (I fried them in garlic and oil--a labor of love). The croutons are, no doubt, an upscale version of the fried bread of earlier days.

So...if you can't get decent fresh tomatoes, try canned. What liberation. Thanks Pam Anderson.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

French Cuisine: The Dark Side and a Glimpse of happiness

I've been practicing my French by reading the Monoprix site. Mr FS, with his already excellent French, is looking via googlemap at the streets of Nantes.

And what does he spy? Dominos Pizza. UGH. I won't eat that in the USA. Even worse is Pizza Hut, which turns out also to have an outpost in Nantes.

Onto Monoprix. Turns out you can purchase nuggets au poulet.

Of course, I can also get this, in quality far exceeding anything in my hometown groceries. And, I must admit that we are always happy to see McDo in Paris because you can run in and get a quick cup of very decent coffee.

I am such an English major! I recently re-read A Moveable Feast and numerous works by MFK Fisher.

Still lots of la belle France in France.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Gourmet Toaster Oven and A Sauce for Eggplant

How's that for a utilitarian and un-snazzy title? First stop: Gourmet Toaster Oven . This is a book I checked out of the library. i like the concept: use your toaster oven when you don't want to heat up your oven, either because it's wasteful of energy or because it will heat up your already hot house.

This book didn't turn out to be as useful FOR ME as the Amazon reviews led me to believe. Many of her recipes call for using a dough mix (that she has a recipe for) so you can make individual pizzas and samosas and things like that. Not being a baker (would that I were), I found these of little use.

She does tell you how to make huevos rancheros in the toaster oven--stack all the usual suspects (tortilla, beans, egg) and bake for 12-15 minutes.

Here's the recipe I tried: Eggplant with Tomato and Cream Sauces.

For this, you need to slice an eggplant crosswise, place in an oiled baking dish and top with marinara sauce. Bake for 30 minutes at 350.

Top with mix of 1/2 cup sour cream, minced garlic,1 beaten egg, grated cheese of your choice and bake for another 15 minutes.

I tried this because I had everything around. I wanted to see if simply baking the eggplant would sub for the laborious and messy pan-fried eggplant of my youth. It was not as good, but I never do eggplant the old-fashioned way anymore.

As for the sauce, I had to augment sour cream with yogurt. It was fine. The sauce will be a good topping for garden eggplant.

Obviously, the main weakness of the book is that it doesn't really tell you how to use the toaster oven in amazing ways: it is the tiny oven cookbook. Still, I'm glad to have seen that sauce recipe, since we always have plain yogurt and eggs around. I want to try it with feta.

Remember my toaster oven search and how I bought the Black and Decker which I HATE?

The toaster oven that evokes sighs and cries of joy costs $250. I wish I could find it cheaper.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

What is Middle-Class Anyway? Bathroom Edition

If you have not already, head over to Passage des Perles and read the post and comments on this vexed issue. I have been thinking about all this since we got to Europe. Here we are in a town near Nantes, thanks to the generosity of one of Frugal Son's teachers. She and her husband are spending 5 weeks in Sri Lanka. They spent 5 weeks in China last year. Middle-class? Higher?

I have, as readers may know, been whining about my tiny, tiny bathrooms. Here we are, in a small house with four bedrooms. Upstairs, through one of the bedrooms, is a tiny bathroom. It contains a tiny shower and a tiny sink. No toilet.

Where is the toilet? Downstairs, in a tiny cubicle with no sink. That's the bathroom situation.

Mr FS and I have been amusing ourselves, imagining the responses of our middle-class parents to the bathroom situation. They--and most other middle-class Americans--would find the bathroom components ludicrous, unacceptable.

All I know is that I am re-thinking my renovation plans. A definite downsizing of what I thought of as frugal plans!

The Egg and I: Frugal Cooking

What could be more frugal than an egg? Even with the much-discussed rise in food prices, the egg--even the Eggland ones I buy--remain a bargain.

I've had a conflicted relationship with eggs, since, as a child and still today sometimes, I get queasy from egg whites. Once I caught my mother making me a milk shake with raw eggs. Can you imagine a mom doing that now in the Age of Salmonella? I've been thinking about eggs for two reasons. The first is that I'm trying to use up what is in my fridge. The second is that I read a wonderful post by First Gen American about her immigrant mom, who cannot pay big bucks for farm eggs, no matter how virtuous their origin.

I have a cookbook called Country Egg, City Egg.

The writers are now a San Francisco foodie power couple, as I learned on the internet. I guess it's too late for Mr. FS and me to be a power couple. The Pirie/Clark duo used to work at Zuni Cafe, famous for its $50 roast chicken (for 2). You can find the recipe in the Zuni Cafe Cookbook.

My favorite egg recipe from the Country Egg, City Egg tome is about the cheapest imaginable: make some mashed potatoes, put in a bowl, make an indentation, break an egg in, bake for 12-15 minutes. I don't think you need a recipe. This recipe is cheap enough for the most frugal immigrant. Or for non-power couples.

My title is an allusion, of course, to a wonderful book.

Etiquette question: France

We are established in our little home for the next few weeks. After wonderful few days with our hosts (heretofore unknown to us), we have acquired two invitations.

The first is to an overnight in a house in the countryside owned by a friend of our hostess.

The second is to dinner with some friends of our hosts.

Had we asked our hosts what we should bring, they would have said Nothing. And, indeed, this may be the right answer.

Question: Should we bring something anyway, even though nothing is expected? And, if so, WHAT?

Thanks in advance for any advice.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Things I Completed, Some Involving Money Back

Before I left for Nantes--how I love deadlines--I completed three things that have given me back some cash.

--returned unsatisfactory items to LL Bean. Love their guarantee. Miss Em wanted a pricey backpack from the Signature line and found it uncomfortable (as did others in comments).

--returned unsatisfactory items to Lands End. This took several phone calls, but I finally worked things out. The CS reps must take nice lessons, because I was always smiling after the calls. I really should take nice lessons.

--Filed my taxes, which will result in a refund. Part 2: I owe state taxes as a result of the refund. Oh well.

While the tax refund is the big ticket item, the returns total around $200. Nothing to sneeze at.

Do you return unsatisfactory items or do you let them languish (as I did)?

Friday, June 24, 2011

Little Guy Fights Back!

Did you miss this uplifting story? A small investor fought back against the big hedge fund managers and may make a difference. If you link to the story, you can also link to a recording of his argument before the court. Believe it or not, I listened to it.

The whole 2008-09 financial debacle only reinforced my feelings that all is rigged in favor of a small group of rich, powerful, and connected. I am a good saver and all, and I engage in frugal practices, but ....trying so hard not to whine.

So hats off (my hat, anyway) to Mr. Thoma. He did a lot of work poring through company records.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Yet Another Organizing Tip: Sock Solution

I keep reading Susan Pinsky (both books) and her organizing tips really clear my head. I have many of the classic ADD characteristics. Luckily, ADD was unknown back in my early days or I would have been medicated right out of any creativity I had. An earlier lifesaver for me was Sidetracked Home Executives (the classic whose writers allowed the mega successful Flylady to use their method and terms)

I am so proud of the SOCK SOLUTION. That is because I did this myself BEFORE I read Pinsky. Not for me: I don't wear socks very often, but for Frugal Son. Even the most organized people lose socks: the SOLUTION is to buy zillions of identical socks in one or two colors.

I thought of this! Frugal Son has been in sock misery for years. For his birthday, I bought him 40 or so pairs of socks in his chosen color. These are junky socks from Big Lots, but that's OK: he's happy. After a year or so, I will get him a new batch.

It's not often that someone like me comes up with a solution worthy of a professional organizer. I am beaming with pride.

Do you have any little tips like that?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Perfect Gift for Me: Potato Glove

My family knows that the way to my heart is to offer to peel potatoes for me. It is a hated task that I undertake only because I LOVE potatoes. Truly, I was born with a frugal palate.

Every now and again I read metscan, a blog by a Finnish aesthete who has a beautiful home and an exquisite wardrobe. Recently she featured something I might actually buy. It is a potato glove--rough textured for peeling potatoes. I like that it says POTATO on it, in tasteful black and white. No, I do not want the orange carrot glove.

I thought I might have to go to Finland to buy it (oh, that would be wonderful!), but you can buy it on Amazon.

Family??? Are you reading this? Honestly, I just want one to hang on the wall.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

What Was the Last Thing You Didn't Buy?

I always say that thrift stores are endorphin-inducing experiences. Still, my recent decluttering (still-ongoing) has made me think twice about bringing things into the house. After we brought half the stuff back into the newly-painted living room, I realized that I didn't want to bring everything back in. A friend told me her house looked better after her (bad) husband left and took half the furniture with him.

Although I have been emphasizing space issues, money issues are--obviously--pertinent too. Even $3.00 thrift store purchases add up.

Here's a partial list, all from JUST THE PAST WEEK:
--really nice flannel sheets at Goodwill
--good coffee on clearance at Walgreens
--a beautiful English shetland sweater for Mr FS at GW
--some Brooks Brothers wool pants for Mr FS also at GW
--several Banana Republic shirts for Frugal Son, GW
--a red crinkled scarf for me at GW
--a J Crew barn coat for Frugal Son at GW

Hmmmm. I notice that I use my family as an excuse. The items total about $25. These are. I repeat, things I've seen in the last week. $25 times 50 weeks--over $1000, not an insignificant sum. And quantity: 9 items times 50 weeks equals 450 things that would need to be processed. Talk about bad feng shui!

What have you resisted lately? Was it an issue of space or money?

P.S. Check out Deja Pseu's thoughtful musings on the issue of NOT acquiring. What a wonderful multi-faceted title: Near Misses,

Monday, June 20, 2011

Help Miss Em choose her Dinner

We got a desperate email from Miss Em: HELP! PARADOX OF CHOICE! She was looking at the menu of a restaurant where she will be dining next week. In a comment, Duchesse said Miss Em should be sure to have some good meals: this suggests we need not worry on that score. (Formatting may be a problem: just click on the link above.)

Il menu

Spring 2011

Gli Antipasti

poached yolk, foie gras sauce, balsamic infused pear.

roasted sea scallops, belgian endive, raspberry dust.

burrata foam, Sicilian red shrimp “crudo”, beer jelly.

preparations and presantions of cod fish, lime, marjoram cream.

Primi Piatti

seaweed “ribollita”, when the “cavolo nero” season is over.

Wild asparagus risotto, “Viareggio” clams, herbed mascarpone.

ricotta and pecorino “nudo” ,pork jus reduction, herbs, orange zest.

potato gnocchi, tomato confit, smoked pork cheek, basil oil.

I Secondi Piatti

duo of veal cheeks, unique textures and flavors.

sardinian’s Tuna “Carloforte”, watermelon, pine nut oil “di San Rossore”, salad leaves.

Filet of Seabass, “acquapazza”, mortadella from Prato.

pigeon cooked three ways, tomato and ginger “mostarda”.

soft and crispy suckling pig, mushroom tartar “cotto”, garlic and lavander cream.

plus dessert

I hope Miss Em's fellow-diners are of the sort that likes to share a bit. You never know.

What would you choose?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Advanced Degrees Worth the Debt

Something useful from Kiplingers: 5 Advanced Degrees Worth the Debt.

There are no big surprises in the list. What is especially useful is that you get information on average indebtedness, average salaries, and--most useful--AVERAGE MONTHLY REPAYMENTS.

You also see what a relative bargain in-state medical and law degrees prove to be.

College students should take a look also. Then they should look at this.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Frugality and Aesthetics: Japanese Boro Textiles

The curse of the internet--that you go from one thing to another, often losing your original destination--is also its gift. I was looking on-line for something (what it was, I do not remember) when I came upon this gift: Japanese boro fabric from Sri textiles.

Even though I don't sew or knit or anything, I love textiles. And the side of me that loves frugality, making do, and making something from nothing loves these boro textiles: patched textiles.

Like American patchwork quilts, these involve the transformation of necessity into beauty.

Check it out. Many people I know would be horrified by these, I'm sure. Do you like them?

This is my favorite: love the title intricate mendings. Of course, there is a bit of a paradox here: it costs almost $300.00.

I'm going to hunt down this book, if possible.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Packing List

For a 3-week trip to Nantes, followed by a week in Massachusetts, a sort of poorgirl version of what the stylish Deja Pseu took to Europe.

Toppers: 1 grey large shrug sweater (wool-blend), light grey gauzy topper (Eileen-Fisher-esque, I hope), Babette bronze long top

Tops: charcoal boxy long tee, 2 black tops, 1 beige linen big shirt

Tanks:long black microfiber, regular microfiber (purple?)

Pants: black ponte leggings, dark denim capri leggings, black "tech" pants, black yoga pants (double as pjs)

2 scarves, dusty rose and eggplant

Some ugly, but comfortable* shoes (my problem area): leather tevas, black sport mary janes, croc(!) ballet flats, SAS (!) sandals

*I have to bring a lot of shoes because everything hurts eventually. These are comfortable for the longest time. Rejected shoes included such well-known comfort brands as Mephisto and Wolky, which are not comfortable for me.

As I scan this list, I see that pretty much everything is thrifted** EXCEPT for leggings and tanks from Chico's. I HATE Chico's. However, if you get plain things--ponte pants, microfiber tanks--and use these tempting $25 off $50 coupons they send now and again, you can look ok and spend very little.

**Yes, even shoes. You would NOT believe how many unworn shoes I find. That includes the Mephisto and the Wolky. And the SAS. And--thank heavens-the crocs, which are ok in the rain.

Not too much???? Do you see anything that can be eliminated?

Mr FS and I are negotiating our reading material. So far, we have agreed on Thoreau's Walden and Emerson's Essays.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Washing dishes: Too Much Detergent or Too Little Phosphate?

Funny About Money is a constant source of inspiration. She was complaining about the poor job her low-phosphate dishwasher detergent did. It left a yukky film.

I rolled my eyes. Easy for me, since Mr. FS does the dishes. I recalled reading a New York Times article about how a lot of the gray in washed clothes comes not from dirt, but from detergent residue. Could dishes be the same? NYT to the rescue! Some think we DO use too much detergent.

But then, using the killer research skills honed in graduate school (not really--no computer searches in those days), I discovered an article wherein many complained about the low-phosphate (and greener) dish detergent.

Who knows? As usual with me, I am able to remain GREEN AND FRUGAL by virtue of my low housekeeping standards. Oh yeah, also because Mr FS does the dishes.

I've written about my dishwashing fantasy before. When I stayed in a humble abode in Italy, I adored the dishwashing system. A cabinet over the sink with a dish drainer built in. You washed the dishes in the sink, then put them in the rack, which served both to dry and to store.

Compare to the convenient dishwasher. First, most people rinse. Then they start filling the dishwasher. Then they wait till it is full (Mr. FS), which takes a long time. OR they run the dishwasher when it has a mere handful of dishes (mother of FS). Then you have to put the stuff away. More steps than in the Italian system.

In search of a picture, I discovered that the Italian system is also the Finnish system.

Interestingly, my brother-in-law--like Mr FS--does the dishes. When he and my sil redid their kitchen, they took out the dishwasher. He is a scientist and decided that dishwashers were space hogs and not terribly efficient anyway.

Several years ago, I read the autobiography of Isabella Rosselini. It turns out that she, like her mother Ingrid Bergman, is an obsessive neat freak. She had a long section on her housekeeping habits, including a section on la vaiselle, dishwashing.

Amazingly enough, I just found this excerpt for you!

City Kitchen: A New NYT Column

It doesn't take much to make me happy. The latest happiness-inducer was a glance at City Kitchen, a column in the New York Times.

This is written for people with city kitchens: no space, no equipment, the usual limitations. In other words, real kitchens. Well, you see why I would like this: it sounds like the College Cooking close to my heart: no space, no equipment, and so on.

In fact, the plight of the College Cook is more difficult, since the City Cook at least has a few burners. I'm hoping to get some more ideas for my dear college Cooking daughter--and for my neglected blog: College Cooking Crash Course.

I guess the San Francisco Foodie establishment will miss the columnist: here is what they have to say about his first column.

It certainly walks the line between aspirational and instructional with steps like: "First, make thin ribbons of raw asparagus, fennel and radish. Then make a lemony, anchovy-inflected vinaigrette." Which prompts the question, are the bustling cities of the world ready to break out the "anchovy-inflected vinaigrette" en masse? Only time will tell.

INFLECTED. That word is--or was--overused in literary criticism for a while; I see it has migrated to food writing. Aside from the pompous word, I am so thrilled! The first column is on the humble bean.

Do you like the column, dear readers?

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Paint Colors and the Quest for Frugal Beauty

What with root canals, taxes (oops), and packing, my head is spinning. Mr. FS is doing some interior painting also.

Here are the colors we're using. The 2 front rooms of our house were painted a beautiful terracotta when we moved in. We would have been too chicken to stray from white, but we learned that terracotta goes with everything. Frugal Son is having a minor crisis over any change; Mr FS is apprehensive, and I am too--a little--but I think we need to step out of the terracotta comfort zone.

The entry way and study will remain terracotta. The entry will turn to a deeper tone: Sherwin Williams REDDISH.

That's not the bold move. Susan-the-color-expert suggested blue for the living room. She picked out the tiniest bit of blue from my grandmother's little Oriental rug and this is what we have: Benjamin Moore JAMESTOWN BLUE.

Oh, I feel like J. Alfred Prufrock: Do I dare/Disturb the universe? But J Alfred (I just re-read that poem after 20 or so years) is a big baby. I'll be like Britomart instead. Over the doorways (how appropriate!) in the House of Busirane (a very bad place, Faerie Queene Book 3) are the words Be bold, be bold. Of course, Britomart also sees the words Be not too bold.

I don't think I need to worry about that. My quest for beauty is not in the same league as Britomart's quest in Book 3, which culminates in the rescue of Amoret from the magician Busirane.

What's been your boldest move in the quest for beauty?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Procrastination, Decluttering, Frugality

Hmmmmm. The story of my life, kind of like Liberté, égalité, fraternité, only not as uplifting.

Another good tip from Susan Pinsky's book. For paperwork, if you CAN'T JUST DISCARD, have a Paper Box next to your trashcan. Under your desk. Just throw in all those papers you may need. If you do need one, they will be filed by date!

For the truly disorganized (me?), you can do that all year with things you will need--or probably won't need--for taxes. Then, at tax time, you have all your credit card statements and so forth. In chronological order!

Why is this on my mind? Because (so embarrassing), dear readers, I filed a tax extension. I have no excuse. My taxes are easy: I don't itemize. I do have to keep track of educational expenses for my children. And we have a teeny bit (and I do mean teeny) of self-employment income for when the public library asks us to lead a book discussion or the like.

Even though I LOVE doing grade school arithmetic, I always make dumb mistakes. Like last year: I took the Standard Deduction of $11,000 or so and instead of subtracting $11,000, I subtracted $1100! The IRS caught that one and sent me back the correct amount. I'm sure my return goes into a special section for humor.

So, I will finish today after my root canal. My refund should pay for the procedure. Even though I should have done this a few months ago, my refund will be a nice surprise.

Once I get the return off, I can throw everything in a box and put it away. That's the decluttering I like.

Another plug for Susan Pinsky!

And I have this other book on hold at the library.

Do you engage in any embarrassing forms of procrastination?

Monday, June 13, 2011

Another Organizing Tip: Don't Shred?

Even though I am not too optimistic about completing my declutter/re-organize project (having failed many times in the past), I have made more progress this time than ever before. Perhaps it is because we have no kids at home at the moment and we are working against a deadline--our trip to Nantes. Boundaries--temporal or spatial--are, of course, the key to organizing, and that goes for finances too.

Every time I get dispirited with my project, I turn to a LIBRARY book for some adrenaline: yes, that Susan Pinsky book once more. SP is anti-stockpiling, however. I don't let that area of disagreement keep me from getting what is good from her book.

Here, though, is a somewhat controversial recommendation: DON'T BOTHER SHREDDING. SP says that most identity theft occurs electronically. And a lot is perpetrated by someone you know. SP notes that shredding takes time, electricity, and so on. It also creates a "SHRED" pile next to the shredder.

OK. SP says: If you are worried, tear your bank statements and the like through the name and account number. Put each half in different places: one in a waste basket and one in another garbage can.

She also says the only thing you must be careful with is your social security number, which appears on very few documents, mostly tax-related. She recommends a black permanent marker for that.

Our problems with stolen credit card numbers have all (only two instances,actually, and easily resolved) been electronic: at a gas station and a restaurant.

So what do you think? Do we dare give up shredding?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

How Much Is Too Much?

Oh, that question! Once you get beyond subsistence living, life is full of choices. The most recent query comes from Miss Em, blissing out in Florence.

I have a monetary question. Frugal goddess, please answer my queries.

How much is too much?

At first glance, it seems like the answer to that question here in
Italy is: EVERYTHING. Everything is too much. Coffee is too much.
Gelato is too much. Everything is expensive.But then again, one can't think like that. I spent a lot of money toget the plane ticket over here; what's the use of scrimping and saving and wasting energy thinking about how much things cost? That would only waste my valuable time here.

Summary follows of what other kids are doing: lots of bar-hopping, pub crawls (yuk?!!), side trips to Pompeii and even Switzerland, lots of souvenir shopping. Miss Em was horrified by the girl buying a daily 4-6 euro coca-cola!

Miss Em is nosing around Florence, exploring museums and neighborhoods. It should be noted that she will be traveling around Europe with her friend Maggie for SIX WEEKS after her program ends.

Ughhhh I guess that what I'm trying to say is, I see pretty things I
want, and some pretty things I've already bought! My purchases are WONDERFUL (will give account of them later) but they seem like such anexpense. How much should I budget for these material things for myself?

But the question remains: how much is too much? Or, how much should I budget for this month for food, so I can take the difference and buy myself something?

We did not give her a budget at all, relying on her good sense to know when to say yes and when to say no. It's easier to have a flat amount, of course: you can't spend more than xxx euros. OR, which may be true for some students, no budget because we have tons of money.

How we crave boundaries. Any ideas of a basic budget for students in Florence? Her lodging, a few meals, and several side trips are all v=covered. So far, even one gelato was covered!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Inspiration: Frugality and Aesthetics

As I pore through books and magazines thinking about my various house projects, I realize how seldom one sees a middle-class house done with a middle-class budget.

My dream bathroom would be an original from the 1930s or 40s rescued from a house about to undergo renovation. I have two friends with original bathrooms and I am so jealous. The funny thing is that they are indifferent and I think at least one would renovate extensively if money were no object.

One source of inspiration for me is Mary Cooper, a New Orleans chair caner who now is a color consultant. Check out her beautiful house. Anyone can paint a room turquoise.

Her dining room is even featured in a fancy coffee table book. There it sits, a humble space amid many rooms decorated by the eminent for the rich and famous.

My mother-in-law had a small, beautiful, and eccentric garden in Pasadena. It was so beautiful that it was featured in a book. Like Mary Cooper's dining room, Virginia's garden is humble in origin: it is the only one created and maintained by a homeowner. All others were designed--or at least maintained--by a squadron of gardeners. Some, of course, are public gardens.

Do you have any humble spots of beauty?

Friday, June 10, 2011

Reframing and Frugality: Root Canal

Ergh. I DO need a root canal. Of course I need it before July 1, when my medical savings account gets replenished.

A long while ago, Shelley wrote a post on reframing and happiness: the gist was that you need to reframe bad, challenging events as opportunities, or something along those lines. Her specific example had to do with taxes. I totally agree: when I was a starving student, I couldn't wait to pay income tax.

Let's try reframing the root canal: I am so lucky that I have enough in my emergency fund to pay for this thing without compromising my trip to Nantes.

I glanced up from my screen and saw this book: Frame Analysis.

Aren't I lucky that I already have this book because it's kind of expensive?

Not sure if this is working. Have you reframed anything lately?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

How Do You Know Which Cookbooks are Good?

No surprise that I think learning to cook is the key (or at least A key) to frugality. But if you didn't learn in your youth (I did not, but my children did), you need to learn through cookbooks. And the sad thing is that many cookbooks are bad,with untested recipes. Even famous ones. There is nothing more dispiriting than spending time and money on mediocre-or worse-food.

I still remember trying to make macaroni and cheese from the recipe in an older Joy of Cooking. YUK! Nowhere near as good as Stouffers.

I know exactly how I began my cookbook collection. I was reading--purely by happenstance--an article on good cookbooks. It was written by Anne Mendelson, who has written books on food history and lore. Surprisingly, the article was in New York Magazine, which I was reading in the public library in Bloomington, Indiana. (I probably should have been in the big academic library.)

What a thrill the article was. Even though I haven't seen it in more than 30 years, I remember well some of the cookbooks I bought, one by one, based on the recommendatons. In those days, the huge cookbook industry was just gearing up and I had to buy the books at full price. The used bookstores in town had pathetic cookbook sections. And I have to say, Anne Mendelson knew whereof she spoke: these are keepers.

Here are a few I bought and still use. Everything comes out well. You can trust the directions.

The Roden is in a new edition, much altered, but I love my old one and even upgraded to hardcover. The Kuo is heavy on the Cantonese of my childhood and enabled me to evoke the flavors I craved.

And let's put in a plug for Anne Mendelson!

I would love to read that article again.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Things I Will Never Need to Buy Again

Mr. FS and I are in the midst of reorganizing. This is a problem area for us both, so we are doing a mediocre job. Still, we are doing the best job we have ever done and anything is an improvement.

What is my problem area? Down comforters and pillows. Even though my newest organizing guidebook urges donation of excess, there is no way I'm getting rid of high quality down comforters brought from Europe by my fleeing forebears. Sorry Ms. Pinsky.

However, many can be stored in pillowcases (another problem area) in the attic.

As we've been doing this, I have made some discoveries: things I will never need to buy again or at least not for a long time.

10 years or more (?): down comforters, pillows, sheets, towels.

1 year or thereabouts: canned tomatoes, shampoo, toothpaste, soap.

6 months: coffee, powdered milk, peanut butter, sunscreen.

Even though Susan Pinsky is against stockpiling--heaping scorn upon it--I love knowing that I can make a meal, take a walk in the sun, and have a cup of coffee. And brush my teeth, of course.

As I look over the list above, I see that this is saving me tons of money. And I remember that after Katrina, a few people stopped by my house every day for cold water coffee.

Except for the stockpiling, I LOVE Pinsky's book. It is really keeping me motivated.

Do you have any problem areas that cause clutter? How do you cope?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

How to Cook Without A Book

Besides dumpster diving and mooching off your friends, the ultimate frugal cuisine is--yes--COOKING. Especially if you use what you have. I have been using my leg of lamb for many meals, too many. And today, Funny About Money posted about a luscious-sounding soup she made with odds and ends.

Of course, the reason that Funny can do that is because she knows how to cook. I know how to cook too. That's why I can do it. I did not learn to cook till I was an adult. Like many, I slavishly followed recipes. Now I can put together many things sans recipe because I have some basic templates in my head.

I've written about this book before, but it is worth mentioning again. Pam Anderson put together a book of templates.

Another book I have--though I seldom use it--directly addresses the Mother Hubbard syndrome: what to cook when you have nothing to cook.

Hey! You can get that tome for a mere penny plus shipping. That's pretty frugal. This is a skill that's even more critical these days when we are all short of time AND money. Plus, of course, the gas to get to the store grows ever more expensive.

What do you cook when you have nothing to cook?

Monday, June 6, 2011

Frugal Bathroom Remodel: Aesthetics vs Frugality

Still in the thinking stage. We had our kitchen contractor out for a look-see. He liked my idea: to add on to the larger of our two inadequate bathrooms by bumping out another small space. This would lead to a two-part room, with a sink in the entry space and the bath and toilet in the new space. Plus we could put in a little storage space. The current space does not have room for a towel rack.

The bid wasn't too bad. We could do it. And maybe we will. But then I realized how we could bump out the other bathroom and put in a tub. The current shower--which probably cost under $100, I kid you not--is tiny and the cheapest plastique. Mr. FS won't even use it and he's on the thin side. Anyway, that shower could be removed and turned into a closet! Mr. FS estimates that the cost would be around 40% of the other plan.

As usual, I start out by trying to do the conventional thing, but then my frugality comes up against the norm. That is why I don't have a backsplash in my kitchen (I don't like them and they are expensive). In spite of dire predictions, the wall looks fine.

The contractor said that we would need a tub surround and that decent quality surrounds cost about $1000 for material plus labor. Tiling--the beautiful solution--is much more expensive. Oh no! I don't want that ugly surround! I also don't want expensive tilework.

I know! Let's put in a tub with no shower--or a little hand shower.

So the combination of my aesthetics and my frugality is going to lead--once more--to a choice that will mystify others. I love my kitchen, which satisfied both aesthetics and frugality, but my sister-in-law, extremely conventional, said, when I showed her pictures, "OK, so where are the AFTER PICTURES?"

Here's what I'm reading.

Any words of wisdom?

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Frugal French Lessons from Monoprix

Frugal Son learned a good bit of French at the market in Nantes. Being frugal--we're not sure if it's by nature or nurture--he also paid attention to prices. He noted that, while in the USA, some meat is very cheap (chicken, pork), some is medium-priced (beef), and some is very expensive (lamb and veal), in France, all meat is about the same price: expensive. He advised us to buy the meat that's expensive or unavailable here. Good point for our own sojourn in Nantes.

Now that I've discovered the Monoprix site, I can peruse it to practice my French. I was looking at a tank top and learned a new verb. That's not so unusual for me, whose French was forged in an American high school (excellent teachers, btw), but it was new for Mr FS also and his French is or was at the level of fluency.

On craque pour ce beau débardeur à cotes en coton. Indispensable pour l'été, on le porte dans toutes les couleurs et on l'associe avec toutes nos tenues estivales. Une jupe, un pantalon, un cardigan ou une petite veste : il va avec tout !

Craquer pour: Google translates as "We love," but it seems stronger than that in context. Also of interest: the price. This cotton tank is under 5 euros. Similarly, a cute striped tee shirt (very French, a mariniere) is under 10 euros. Remember that in France, all tax is included. These are far less than similar items would be in the USA, even on sale.

Other items on the site are much more expensive, at or-usually above--prices here.

Not that we bring much back. We are one-bag travelers. We usually bring back sea salt (in a neat box), sugar cubes (ditto), and almond-scented soap (Frugal Son likes this).

By the way, two elegant bloggers have recently given their imprimatur to Monoprix: see A FEMME and UNE FEMME. In fact, they went to Monoprix together: how I wish I could have tagged along.

Here is the French sugar. See why we bring it back from France?

So...any other bargains to be found in France for the frugal traveler?

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Supper of the Lamb Part 2

Yes, we still have lamb. Frugal Son--and his big appetite--left for his summer job at the ADVANCE Program at his beloved high school. He will be eating cafeteria food. We will be eating lamb, forever, it seems. We took a few days off from the lamb.

Third Meal: Syrian Lamb with Caramelized Onions in Yogurt Sauce. This is from Diana Kennedy and I usually make it with chicken. Far, far better with lamb.

Fourth Meal: Lamb risotto with eggplant and onions, from the internet somewhere.

Fifth Meal: I'm going a little crazy! It's 100 degrees and lamb seems so heavy. AH HA! How about a lamb panini? Various restaurants serve with feta and eggplant concoctions.

Here's the Diana Kennedy recipe, from my previous post.

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.

When it's 100 degrees out, I like to read Elizabeth David. Which book? Summer Cooking, of course.

We will have a few more lamb suppers. Any ideas?

Friday, June 3, 2011

Frugal Florence with Faith Willinger

I've only been to Italy once, but I am in love with the ethos of Italian cooking. It seems to me that there is an inherent frugality in Italian recipes. Miss Em is exploring the markets and shops of Florence and she's lucky enough to be residing in an apartment with a kitchen.

I just sent her a link to the website of the wonderful Faith Willinger, an American who is married to an Italian and has lived in Florence for many years. Here is her recipe for Aqua Cotta--or cooked water. Check out her website. Just some water, chard, eggs, bread...and a few other things.

I have this cookbook, which is a trove of the simplest recipes imaginable.

What would you cook in a kitchen in Florence?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

How to Save Money on Food in Italy

I'm still decluttering books! Ridiculous, I know. I ran into Jerry, owner of a short-lived used bookstore. So sad. He had the bad luck of opening right before Katrina, compounded by a business sense so poor that even I could see things he was doing wrong. Perhaps running into Jerry after several years was a sign, of what, I do not know.

Until I make more progress, I will be unable to respond to your comments. Sorry, readers! Meanwhile, here is a post taken from Miss Em's email. She is exploring Florence and discovering that if you want to see Italian life you need to get away from the tourist attractions (after seeing the attractions, of course). Getting into areas frequented by regular people has the bonus of offering food just as good at about 1/3 the price.

Miss Em also offers the travel tip of prophylactic food: eating so you WON'T have to interrupt your adventures to eat something that is probably not very good.

My other roommate hadn't eaten yet today, and so said she wanted to grab something along the way. Ugh. Bad travel ethics.

Even eating some bread and cheese before you go is a better idea.

She bought a 15euro sandwich or whatever. They had better-looking ones in our neighborhood for 3. I know it's someone else's money and decision (or lack thereof) and shouldn't bother me, but it does, it does, it does.

(It's been interesting to price-gauge around here. In the most
touristy part of my neighborhood, a coffee is 2.5 euro. A little
farther out, down the street Borgo Pinti, they are 1 euro. By the
Duomo, they are around 4 or 5 euro.

Also, I did a market-to-supermarket fruit comparison, and the fresh
stuff in the stalls is actually CHEAPER than in the grocery! Now
that's what I'm talking about!)

The last sentence of the email: I am in Paradise.

For those of us stuck at home, there's always literature. How about this one?

And if you want the view, watch the movie!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Decluttering: Good Tip from a Good Book

Decluttering continues apace. After a bit of decluttering that brings a bit of cash in, we continue with plain vanilla decluttering: stuff out.

Some of the recipients of my weekend decluttering were closed for Memorial Day. The library will be receiving about 150 books, which they will sell for a paltry amount, making them a teeny bit of money and some readers happy. For the FREE BOX, Miss Em will be providing around 50 style magazines. That will make some people very happy also.

We will get the WHOOSH that comes from emptying out the clogged arteries of your space.

Because I am naturally a messy accumulator, I read decluttering books for motivation and the occasional tip. NORMAL people do these things naturally. For me, a heretofore unthought-of tip is as momentous as the discovery of the Pacific Ocean by Cortez (really Balboa) in the sonnet by John Keats.

OK. Here's the tip. When you are decluttering use WHITE garbage bags for donations and BLACK garbage bags for garbage. That way, you never need to look inside the bag! Here's the brilliant tome where I discovered that tip by Susan Pinsky.

And for the work of another genius, check out this sonnet by John Keats.

On first looking into Chapman's Homer

MUCH have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told 5
That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne:
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken; 10
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific—and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.