Eco-Saturday: Curb your car’s appetite

We get killer mileage on our road trips.
We get killer mileage on our road trips, including this one — to Bedford, Pa., to see the World’s Largest Coffee Pot — a few years ago.

We love road trips. Mother Road, Loneliest Road, Pacific Coast Highway, Devil’s Highway, Lincoln Highway, Blues Highway, Great River Road — you name it, we’ve probably driven part of it. We don’t fly to our destinations. We drive, because the journey is half the fun. More than half, actually, and you miss a lot of kitsch when you fly over it.

We couldn’t afford to drive all over creation if we didn’t choose our vehicles wisely and care for them properly.

Here are some quick tips to boost your gas mileage:

1. If you’re considering a new car, look for the most fuel-efficient vehicle that meets your needs, and don’t let Madison Avenue talk you into buying something bigger or fancier just to keep up with the Joneses.

2. Keep an eye on your gas mileage. It’s easy to do: Just reset your trip odometer the next time you fill your tank. Then, each time you refill the tank, divide the number of miles on the odometer by the number of gallons it took to refill the tank, then reset the odometer again. Do this every time you fill up, and you’ll be able to tell right away if your mileage drops or rises suddenly. In addition to giving you an idea of how various conditions affect your gas mileage, this will give you a heads-up about mechanical problems. A sudden drop in gas mileage can be a signal that something is wrong under the hood, and it probably warrants a trip to the dealership to see what’s going on. A lot of problems are cheaper and less hassle to fix if you catch them early.

3. Check your tire pressure. Underinflated tires will drag down your gas mileage.

4. Replace your air filter regularly. A dirty air filter can compromise your mileage.

5. Change your spark plugs. Old spark plugs can reduce your mpgs.

6. Ditch the flag. There’s nothing patriotic about sending more money to foreign oil producers, but that’s exactly what you’re doing when you attach flags to your car. A flag mounted to a car’s window or antenna acts as a sail, adding drag and increasing the amount of energy it takes to propel the vehicle forward. If you want to show your patriotism or your team spirit, do it with a bumper sticker or a custom paint job — not a piece of fabric that’s knocking down your gas mileage.

These aren’t the only ways to boost your car’s fuel efficiency (I’ll get into “hypermiling” — mileage-boosting driving techniques — in a future post), but they’re quick, easy and can make a significant impact with minimal effort.


Vegan Friday: French silk pie

This pie neither looks nor tastes vegan.

French silk pie is one of the greatest things ever invented. It’s also a ginormous hassle to make and involves raw egg, which isn’t the safest ingredient out there. This three-ingredient variation is faster, safer and completely vegan. W00t!

I’m including two variations here. The first is light, fluffy and virtually indistinguishable from its egg-based inspiration. The second is much richer and heavier and has a texture more like fudge. Both are worthy additions to a Fourth of July picnic or an office potluck.

Version 1 (traditional)
1 pie shell (I used frozen piecrust, but a graham-cracker or Oreo crust will work just as well, or you can make a crust from scratch)
1 bag vegan chocolate chips
Two 10-oz. cartons extra-firm silken tofu
1 tsp. vanilla

Pierce piecrust before baking.
Pierce piecrust all over with a fork before baking.

If using a regular piecrust, pierce it all over with a fork and bake it before you start. You can skip this step for a graham-cracker crust, obviously.

I nuked my chocolate chips in a quart canning jar, which will fit on the blender.
I nuked my chocolate chips in a quart canning jar, which will fit on the blender.

Melt chocolate chips. I did mine in a quart Mason jar, nuking for 30 seconds at a time and stirring in between.

Blend chocolate, tofu, peanut butter and vanilla.
Blend chocolate, tofu, peanut butter and vanilla.

Put chocolate chips, tofu and vanilla in a food processor or blender and process until smooth and completely blended. Pour into pie shell and refrigerate for several hours.

Walter was mad because I wouldn't share the pie.
Walter was mad because I wouldn’t share the pie.

Version 2 (peanut butter variant, pictured)
1 pie shell
1 bag vegan chocolate chips
One 10-oz. carton extra-firm silken tofu
1 c. smooth peanut butter
1 tsp. vanilla

Prep pie shell as needed. Melt chocolate chips as above. Blend chocolate chips, tofu, peanut butter and vanilla, pour into shell and refrigerate until firm.

Eco-Saturday: Economies of scale — the fridge

Make your fridge pull double-duty as a dry-erase board.
Make your fridge pull double-duty as a dry-erase board.

If you’re considering buying a new refrigerator, do something for the planet first: Walk into your kitchen, open your current fridge, and throw away everything you do not honestly intend to eat. If you’re anything like us, by the time you finish tossing all the jars with one pickle slice floating in them, condiments you’ve tried but didn’t like, and Tupperware containers full of freezer-burned leftovers that have been there since the Carter administration, you’ll probably be left with, like, half a jar of mayonnaise and a six-pack of beer.

With your inventory of inedible crap gone, go to the grocery store, buy a week’s worth of groceries, and look at the space it takes up. That’s the amount of space you actually need. Don’t buy more than that. You’ll just end up paying to cool empty space.

Generally, the smaller the refrigerator, the less energy it uses. There is a point of diminishing returns (a dorm fridge will suck almost as much power as a 12-cubic-foot model), but in general, smaller is better for the planet and your pocketbook.

If you have a big family, and you really need a big refrigerator, insist on an Energystar model — preferably one with the freezer on the bottom. This is not only handy, but it’s also more energy-efficient: Cold air sinks, so it makes sense to put the coldest part of the appliance on the bottom.

If you’re not ready to buy a new refrigerator, but you’ve got a lot of empty space in your current one, fill a few plastic jugs with water, freeze them, and use them to cool things down so the compressor doesn’t have to run as often.

Instant shopping list.
Paperless list.

One more thing: You may have noticed in the picture above that our fridge has scribbles on the front. That’s because I use it as a dry-erase board/instant grocery list. I just keep a magnetic dry-erase marker on the side and use it to jot things down as we run out.

When I’m ready to go to the story, instead of transcribing the list (which wastes paper, ink and time), I just take a picture of it with my iPhone and set it as my lock-screen wallpaper. Ta-da! Instant shopping list, and I save a tree. Or at least a couple of twigs.



Vegan Friday: Couscous tabouli

Light, pretty and completely vegan, tabouli is an excellent choice for summer potlucks and picnics.

Tabouli is a Lebanese salad made from parsley and bulgur wheat. It’s lovely stuff, but bulgur can be hard to find in a lot of areas, and it takes forever to prep, because you have to boil water, pour it over the dried wheat and then soak it for at least 20 minutes. You know the level of effort I like to put into dinner, and that is way beyond my upper limit.

Solution: Whole-wheat couscous. Quick-cooking, high in protein and readily available at most grocery stores, couscous will stand in nicely for bulgur in a tabouli recipe. This version is good for potlucks, picnics and as an accompaniment to barbecue (vegan or otherwise). It also makes good filling for wraps or pitas.

1 c. whole-wheat couscous
1 1/2 c. boiling water
2-3 cloves garlic (optional)
1 bunch green onions
1 bunch parsley (use Italian flat-leaf if you can get it)
A few sprigs of fresh mint (optional)
Olive oil (about 1/4 c.)
Lemon juice (about 1/4 c.)
1 cucumber, diced
Handful of cherry tomatoes, halved

Whole-wheat couscous stands in nicely for bulgur in tabouli.

Pour boiling water over couscous and cover for 10 minutes.

Place garlic in food processor and mince. Cut white parts off onions and save them for another recipe. Throw the green parts of the onions, the entire bunch of parsley and the mint in the food processor and pulse until finely chopped.

Parsley and green onions. Glorious.
Parsley and green onions. Glorious.

Add olive oil and lemon juice and pulse a couple more times to mix.

Stir parsley mixture into couscous until thoroughly blended. Gently stir in cucumber and cherry tomatoes. Chill and serve. Makes about eight reasonable servings as a side dish. (Or one good midnight snack, if you’re me.)

Eco-Saturday: Protecting pollinators


Here’s a quick, super-easy project for anyone who owns a pond, pool or other water source.

Pollinators will see backyard ponds and pools as ideal spots to stop for a drink, especially as the weather warms up. Unfortunately, if you don’t have a safe spot for them to land, they’ll drown.

If you have a backyard pond, your best bet is to toss a water lily or maybe some water lettuce or water hyacinth in there. (Be careful with water hyacinth and water lettuce, as they are invasive species that can wreak havoc if they get into waterways in some areas. They’re OK for small, ornamental ponds that aren’t connected to any streams, creeks or rivers, but I wouldn’t use them in low-lying areas where floodwaters could carry them into local waterways. They do have the advantage of being relatively cheap and spreading quickly, however, which makes them a good choice for shading ornamental ponds to prevent algae bloom.)

If your plants haven’t started growing well yet — or if your water source is a pool rather than a pond — you can recycle wine corks, plastic lids or polystyrene cups into landing pads for pollinators. I cut the bottoms out of polystyrene coffee cups and tossed them into the pond this spring before my plants took hold. They weren’t pretty, but they did the job and kept my bees safe until I got a good assortment of plants.

If you don’t have a pond or pool but would like to provide a safe place for bees, wasps and butterflies to grab a sip of water, cover the bottom of a shallow dish with pebbles and pour just enough water in it to reach the tops of the pebbles so critters can get a drink without drowning.


Vegan Friday: Salisbury steak potato


When I was little, my mom used to buy us Salisbury steak TV dinners. I mostly just liked them because they came with mashed potatoes, but the gravy wasn’t bad, either. Think of this as a grown-up, vegan version with a lot better nutritional content.


Two baking potatoes
Two vegan hamburger patties
1/2 lb. sliced mushrooms
Small onion, chopped
Olive oil
Flour (about 2 tbsp.)

Bake potatoes. I like to start them in the microwave for about three to four minutes, then brush them with olive oil, wrap them in foil and finish them in the oven. That way, they don’t take forever to cook, but they still taste like a baked potato ought to taste. If you’re in a hurry, you can either bake yours ahead of time or just nuke them, though.


Saute mushrooms and onions in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil until onions are clear. Add about two tablespoons each of margarine and flour and cook, stirring constantly, until flour is browned. Add water, a little at a time, whisking constantly to make a smooth gravy. (As smooth as it can be with mushrooms and onions in it, anyway.)


Warm up vegan hamburger patties in the microwave. Cut patties in half. Split potatoes, insert a patty in each and top with gravy. Serve immediately.