Saturday, August 28, 2010

Courtyard at the Village of Arts and Humanities, Philadelphia

Courtyard at the Village of Arts and Humanities, Philadelphia

[Even if I had a picture of bedbug I’m not sure if I’d put it up. I’m putting up a completely unrelated picture of a cool courtyard in Philadelphia, created by participants in the Village of Arts and Humanities programs, that I took a picture of when I was up there earlier in the month. I don’t know if you can tell from the picture, but those are rocks inlaid in concrete. It was amazing!]

Okay so like a month ago when I was writing about the other projects I was following I wrote up this little section in my post about bedbugs (in response to the $365/yr person who had recently experienced a bedbug crisis) but I took it out because it seemed extraneous. (And while extraneous information doesn’t usually bother me — anyone who’s ever heard me tell a story can certainly attest to that — I’m generally better when blogging than I am in real life and occasionally manage to edit myself.)

So I edited that out, but since then bedbugs have been in the news on a seemingly daily basis so as a public service, I’m restoring it here as its own post.

For anyone who cares, here is some information about bedbugs…

I have a fabulous book called Common-Sense Pest Control: Least-Toxic Solutions for Your Home, Garden, Pets, and Community and I remember having looked at the bedbug section previously when there was a big hoo-hah in the media about bedbugs, and there are a couple of things to note. The first is that

In the laboratory, the bedbug has been shown to have the capacity to harbor and transmit many human pathogens. But in actual field settings, transmission of pathogens has not been confirmed; consequently, the bedbug is not now regarded as a vector of human disease.

So they’re gross, but they’re probably not going to kill you. Mosquitos, those more familiar bloodsucking friends of ours, might actually be more dangerous. And everyone has just adjusted to getting bitten by them on a regular basis, generally no one freaks out about it.

The second is that bedbugs can’t fly or jump, they can only walk, so moving a bed away from the wall and coating the legs with vaseline, or putting the legs in “containers such as cat-food tins” filled with soapy water will prevent bedbugs that are not yet in the bed from getting there. (If they’re already there, obviously this strategy will simply serve to keep them from leaving. Probably not what you want. So be sure to first vacuum or clean the bed of any bugs by hand before setting up the barriers.)

Alternatively, the legs of the bed can be set into clean glass jars or polished metal cans. The bedbugs’ feet, or tarsi, have claws that are useful in climbing vertical surfaces like paper, plaster or wood, but cannot cling to clean glass or polished metal.

The authors also note that

Infested mattresses and beds should be replaced, steam-cleaned or taken outdoors for treatment with insecticides. Launder or dry-clean sheets and blankets. When transporting infested materials, enclose them in plastic bags to prevent inadvertent introduction of bugs into other areas.

And this I think is the most useful piece of information:

Because bedbugs are very sensitive to heat at all stages of their development, artificially raising the temperature for several days within the room may be helpful as part of an overall strategy to eliminate the pest. The thermal death point for the common bedbug is 111°F to 113°F; temperatures of 97°F to 99°F kill large numbers of the bug. Raising room temperature to these levels by using a high thermostat setting and supplemental heaters for an hour or so would probably eliminate an infestation.

Bedbugs are also killed by prolonged exposure to low temperatures (32°F to 48°F). Eggs die at these temperatures within 30 to 60 days, although adults and nymphs die within hours. Thus closing off an infested bedroom and leaving it unheated in cold weather might also eradicate a bedbug infestation.

So there you have it.

And for anyone who is interested in taking control of their local pest management instead of relying on commercial products or exterminators, this book is a must-have. It covers everything, from weeds to ants and roaches to fleas and ticks and other problems with pets, to community-wide problems like yellow jackets and rats. It’s a really great book.

The Forty Dollar Burrito

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A few weeks ago I started thinking about fajitas, and how I hadn’t made them in a long time, and how even though you can get pretty good fajitas in all kinds of restaurants, I really like mine more than anyone else’s and I should try to make them again. The problem with fajitas is that they have a lot of ingredients, so unless you make them for a whole bunch of people, you end up with way too much food and you also spend an arm and a leg getting everything.

Eventually I stopped thinking about fajitas, but then recently I started thinking about hot fudge sundaes. I’m not really sure where this came from. I almost went to the store on Friday at midnight when I finished working to get ice cream sundae supplies, but I was able to talk myself out of it. (The all-night Kroger has those automated checkout machines, so they’ve managed to eliminate the deterrent effect of the idea of facing a cashier at midnight buying ice cream, hot fudge, and a spray can of Reddi-Whip. Some people might consider that a benefit of technology but personally I think it’s probably not a good thing. Shame has its uses. )

So I hadn’t had fajitas and I hadn’t gotten a hot fudge sundae, and then I started thinking about some other kind of steak-related meal and I decided it was probably just time to make something that I don’t normally eat and see if I could get all of this out of my head.

A few years ago my father sent me a burrito recipe from the New York Times, and I ran across it recently and decided I should make it some time. After my bouts of thinking about fajitas and sour cream and hot fudge sundaes, now seemed like as good a time as any.

The recipe was created by a high school friend of the author’s son, and it called for some very specific ingredients. I debated whether to follow it to the letter, but decided that if I was going to make the recipe, I was going to make the recipe, and would get exactly what the recipe called for. Even if it involved buying a box of rice pilaf. Which turned out to have 570mg of sodium per serving.

(I may have said this before, but generally the first time I make a recipe I try to make it exactly as given, so if it doesn’t turn out, I know it was because of the recipe, not because of some weird thing I did to it.)

So I wrote down the list of ingredients and headed out to see what I could find.

I figured I would need a standard grocery store to get the name brands called for (e.g., Old El Paso taco sauce, Kraft cheese) but I thought I might get a better deal on skirt steak at the carniceria than at Kroger or Whole Foods.

I ended up doing a little tour of the local groceries, going to four stores, and bought something at the carniceria that may or may not have been skirt steak. I probably should have looked up what skirt steak is in espanol before heading out. Or maybe if I had ever bought skirt steak before it would have been easier.

I didn’t see anything that looked even close to skirt steak or hanger steak at King’s or Kroger, but they did have skirt steak at Whole Foods. So I got a pound of it there to go with the mystery beef from the carniceria.

Ultimately I did get everything called for in the list, and it set me back $38.48, plus another $6.77 for limes, avocado, tomatoes, sour cream, and tortilla chips (I decided I wanted to eat chips with guacamole and salsa while cooking), for a total of $45.25. Which makes for a pretty expensive burrito. And which is why you will hear people — especially single people — say that it’s cheaper to eat out than to cook at home.

The problem is that I had to get every single ingredient, I didn’t use anything I had — mostly because I don’t really have anything right now — and all of it (except for the bulk garlic powder, which I apparently bought so little of it didn’t register; it’s not on my receipt), were in large-size packages. So I was experiencing the fajita problem where you spend an arm and a leg and end up with vast quantities of food.

Which means that I’m going to get at least four meals out of this, plus leftovers in the freezer, and I’ll probably be able to make it three or four more times using the same ingredients I just bought.

And this is why cooking at home is cheaper than eating out. Even though it might not feel like it when you just spent $40+ to make a burrito.

(For the record, the burrito was really, really good. I’m on day two and looking forward to day three.)

In the midst of all the shopping and cooking, I decided that it might be a useful public service for me to do frugality makeover of the burrito recipe. Below is my chart of what the recipe called for, what I bought, how much I spent, whether or not it was necessary, and how much I will need to spend on it the next time I make this recipe.

chart of burrito costs

In terms of the next-time costs, the only big cash outlay will be the meat and the beer. I actually bought a single beer for $1.99 (not Dos Equis, but whatever seemed closest, not sure if it was actually close at all). Obviously the per-unit cost would have been cheaper if I bought a six-pack or twelve-pack, but the cash outlay would have been more. So how much that sets you back depends on whether or not you drink beer and would be spending money on that anyway. If you don’t drink beer at all and don’t want to go out and get any, I would try to substitute some other liquid — suggestions I saw online for beer substitutions were beef broth or malt vinegar. Or you could add more water, or use some of the taco sauce marinade that was left in the roasting pan after step one of the recipe.

Everything else is either relatively cheap (peppers, jalapenos) or something you probably already have in your pantry (onions, garlic, vegetable oil) or completely optional (cilantro, cheese). So it’s not really a crazy expensive recipe, it just seemed like it because I didn’t have anything here and because I wanted to follow it exactly as given.

In terms of the recipe itself, the first thing I have to say is that this recipe is GIANT. It says six to eight servings, and maybe if you’re feeding boys between the ages of 15 and 25 it is, but for people who are not boys between the ages of 15 and 25, I think you could cut the recipe in half and still get almost six to eight servings out of it.

In terms of ingredients, the first thing to get rid of is the Near East Spanish rice pilaf. (I really almost didn’t buy that but held firm to the I Will Make This Recipe to the Letter pledge. And then it turned out I bought Original not Spanish so that defeated the whole purpose of that. Oh well…)

The second is the Wick Fowler’s 2-Alarm Chili Kit.

Both of those are convenience products with crazy high sodium levels. You can do the same thing for a fraction of the cost with basic ingredients — a five pound bag of Uncle Ben’s Converted Rice (which is the same kind of rice as in the Near East package) is about $6, and you’ll be eating rice for the rest of the year. Skip the Near East.

The Wick Fowler chili kit is nothing more than pre-measured spices, which would possibly be useful if you had no spices and/or this was the only thing you ever made (and were ever going to make) and you didn’t have access to bulk spices. Otherwise just buy some cumin, paprika, red pepper, and ground chillies and figure it out yourself. I already have all of that on my shelf so the $2.69 I spent on that was totally unnecessary.

I think the skirt steak will be cheaper at the carniceria, so next time I’ll write “arrachera de res” on my shopping list and not rely on my nonexistent Spanish skills to try to communicate what I want to the nice man behind the counter. Most of the meat at the carniceria was $3 to $5 per pound; it was $7.99 per pound at Whole Foods which doesn’t seem unreasonable — usually every time I’m thinking about buying meat I get sticker shock and change my mind when I actually add up how much it’s going to cost. But for this one, by the time I got to the meat, I’d spent so much on everything else it didn’t really seem to matter.

So I don’t know if this exercise is useful but basically I just wanted to say that following recipes as they’re written can be expensive, but there are usually things you can do to drastically bring down the cost, and if you freeze leftovers and work from the freezer, the costs will come down even more, even for a relatively expensive recipe.

I am planning on making this again — as I said, it was really good — and I’ll put up the revised recipe, with costs, after I do that.

And now we’ll take a short break…

Thursday, August 5, 2010

When I was doing my little food project in 2009 and found myself in the midst of my very surreal Fifteen Minutes of Fame, people said things like, wow, this is amazing…

You could have a website.
You could write a cookbook.
You could be a motivational speaker.
You could be on Oprah.

Sadly, Oprah never called. (Though I did get a call from the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. I think that was the most surprising call I got. It took me a few days to get back to them and apparently they’d moved on by then, I never heard anything back.)

At the time, I wasn’t nearly as excited about the prospect of doing something completely different with my life as other people seemed to be. I had already done something completely different with my life — in 2000 I decided to work on a Filemaker project at the publishing house I worked for, and in 2002, I quit my publishing job so I could finish the Filemaker project without having to do another full-time job on top of it. When that was done, a few months I figured, I would figure out what I was going to do next.

As it turned out, the project went on for years, and I kept finding people who needed help with Filemaker, so I haven’t had to figure anything else out yet. (To use a term I first read in Fred Brooks’s classic The Mythical Man-Month, I accidentally discovered a career as a metaprogrammer.)

And it’s funny, I get strange looks when I say this, but I really love Filemaker. It’s great to have found something that is useful and helps people, and where my perfectionism and obsessiveness are actually a benefit, both to me and to others, rather than a big pain in the ass rear, which is what they usually are. In the past — and in most other things — it just makes my life miserable. But with design and database work, things really do have to be exactly right. So instead of making me spend way more time than I need to on things that don’t really matter, it actually allows me to do things much better than the average person.

At the time I did my food project, things were a little bit weird with my Filemaker work because the client I’d been doing the most work for had told me they wouldn’t have anything for me until their new fiscal year started in July. They told me this in January. That’s a while. And they had a new system being built, so I wasn’t sure what was going to happen in July either.

So when everyone was telling me I could use this project as a launching pad to a new career, I was like okay that’s great, but I already started a new career, and I really like it. I don’t really want to run a website or be a motivational speaker, I would just like to do Filemaker and have people with money hire me to do things for them.

And this is where “be careful what you wish for” comes in, because right now I’m working on three projects, with one pro bono project waiting in the wings (poor thing, it’s been there since I started my food project and everything in my life got derailed) and feeling a little bit overwhelmed.

So … I have a bunch of wrap-up posts on food and health — I feel like I’m done with this issue, just need to write everything up and get it posted — and also some other things I’m writing that I think will be worth reading. But I’m probably not going to get any of that up until September.

I do have a few things that are nearly ready that I’ll try to get up soon. But aside from those, probably not much will be going on here for a little while.

So I hope everyone enjoys the rest of the summer, and I wish everyone (including but not limited to me) a productive few weeks.

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