Eco-Saturday: Change your furnace filter

The old filter, left, and new one, right.
The old filter, left, and new one, right. Photo by Ron, who was kind enough to snap a quick iPhone picture last time he swapped out our filter.

Changing your furnace filter isn’t the most glamorous or visually stimulating Eco-Saturday tip you’ll ever get, but it’s an important bit of home maintenance that really shouldn’t be neglected.

A filter clogged with dirt, pet hair and other debris limits the amount of air moving through your furnace, forcing the blower to work harder, dragging down the energy efficiency and potentially shortening the life of your system.

If you’ve never changed the filter, go look at your furnace. Locate the existing filter (you’re looking for something that resembles the end of a long, flat cardboard box) and pull it out. Printed somewhere along one edge will be the dimensions — a series of three numbers telling you the length, width and thickness of the filter. Write down the numbers.

Put the filter back and go to the hardware store. Most hardware stores carry approximately forty-eleven billion different types of filters. If you have allergies, look for one designed to filter out allergens. If you don’t have allergies, buy whatever’s cheap; the differences in quality aren’t significant enough to make the expensive kind worth the extra money unless you have serious issues with indoor air quality. The important thing is to get the right dimensions, which is why you wrote down the numbers on your old filter. If those numbers don’t match, the filter isn’t going to fit right or function properly in your system.

Take your new filter home, pull out the old one, and put the new one in its place.

If you need a visual, here’s a pretty good YouTube video on the subject:

That’s all there is to it. The whole job takes about two minutes (20 if you count the time you spend going to the hardware store) and will save you a lot of money on energy costs. We change ours every season — the same time we test our smoke detector batteries and change the water filter on our kitchen faucet, which helps us remember to do it.

Emily

Vegetarian Friday: Lasagna

If you’re trying to go vegetarian, and some concern troll in your immediate circle of friends or family starts fretting that you’ve doomed yourself to a life of culinary asceticism, a plate of lasagna is really the most gracious way to shut him up.

Where I come from, a pan of lasagna is also widely considered the most gracious way to extend condolences after someone dies, celebrate the birth of a child or help a family in the wake of an emergency.

My version involves plenty of mushrooms, onions and mozzarella and is both grownup and teenager-approved. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Red Fork Hippie recipe if it didn’t lend itself well to improvisation, and this one certainly does.

The basic ingredients:
1 box lasagna (do NOT get the no-boil kind)
2-3 cups of your favorite marinara sauce*
1 lb. mushrooms, sliced
2 small onions, chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
Olive oil
2 big bags shredded mozzarella
Grated Parmesan

Things you can add if you want:
Any kind of white cheese you like (ricotta, Asiago and Romano are traditional, but if you’re feeling decadent, swap the ricotta for manouri or grate a little myzithra over the finished product)
Fresh or sun-dried tomatoes
Sliced zucchini
Spinach

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Boil noodles according to package instructions. While the pasta cooks, saute the mushrooms and onions in olive oil until the onions are clear. Add garlic, saute for 30 seconds, and remove from heat.

Layer ingredients in the pan as follows: pasta on the bottom, then vegetables, then sauce, then cheese. Repeat until you reach the top of the pan.

Cover baking dish with foil and bake at 375 degrees for 25 minutes (double that if you’re using no-boil noodles). Remove foil and bake another five minutes to brown the edges if you like. Serve with an I-told-you-so smirk and plenty of grated Parmesan.

Emily

*I usually cheat and use the store brand from Viviano’s Grocery in St. Louis, because it’s as good as anything I’m likely to make, but there are plenty of good marinara recipes online. Just don’t trust anything too complicated. Marinara sauce should be a simple affair, with no more than a handful of ingredients: tomatoes, garlic, basil, oregano and a little red wine and olive oil. (Too much time in New Mexico has taught me the merits of red chile wine, which is an excellent base for arrabbiata sauce if you like a bit more kick.)

I can’t stop watching this.

I know it’s old, but this video makes me laugh harder every time I watch it.

I’m still trying to figure out where she found a cat that isn’t terrified of the vacuum cleaner. Walter hides under the bed every time we get ours out. He doesn’t even like for me to use the Dustbuster. And God help you if you try to put some kind of clothing on him.

Anyway. Cat in a shark costume, riding a Roomba. Get into it.

Emily

Reminiscing

I had occasion to call a former employer today and chat with one of my favorite editors ever. Long story, but a homicide investigation involving a victim from my area resulted in a couple of arrests in my old paper’s coverage area. I was having trouble sorting out some conflicting reports and putting my hands on a document I needed, so I called my old newsroom to see what I could rustle up.

Some things never change — like the fact that you absolutely cannot trust a St. Louis television station to get even the most basic information correct in a story about anything that happens on the east side of the Mississippi River. The fact that the public information officers in Illinois State Police District 11 are more helpful than the PIOs pretty much anywhere else in the state. And most of all, the fact that the editor who taught me to cover crime stories back in 1999 is still my favorite person to hear on the other end of the line when I’m chasing down details and trying to wrangle information out of reluctant sources.

I don’t miss that town’s ridiculous city ordinances. I don’t miss the corruption of its local government. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the incredibly talented people who populate the newsroom of its daily paper. That newsroom isn’t big, but the amount of talent it harbors is truly spectacular, and I’m awfully glad I got to spend my first few years as a full-time journalist there.

Emily

Totally unproductive day.

I basically accomplished nothing today, unless you count taking the station wagon to the shop (reverse gear has ceased to work, so I suspect we’re going to be replacing a transmission), having a snack and a couple of craft beers at the local microbrewery, and sleeping more than a grownup really should.

Oh, well. We had a nice evening. I might cap it off with an episode of Doctor Who and a bag of popcorn with olive oil and green chile powder. Unless I fall asleep first.

On a completely unrelated note, this will never not be funny:

Hope your day was good.

Emily

Dogs, dinosaurs and Doctor Who geocaching

My nephews came to visit us today. We took them to the Show-Me Center for Jurassic Quest, a traveling exhibit that includes life-sized, animatronic dinosaurs, including a few kids can ride for pictures, and all manner of other dinosaur-themed activities. Here are a few photos of their adventures:

Digging for fossils with their dad. Ollie, who is very proud of the crystals we dug out of a kit Ron and I got him for Christmas, was especially pleased with this part of the show.
Digging for fossils with their dad. Ollie, who is very proud of the crystals we dug out of a kit Ron and I got him for Christmas, was especially pleased with this part of the show.
Something about this dinosaur's fingers reminds me of a Skexis from "The Dark Crystal."
Something about this dinosaur’s fingers reminds me of a Skexis from “The Dark Crystal.”
Jamie told his mommy riding the dinosaur freaked him out a little bit.
Jamie told his mommy riding the dinosaur freaked him out a little bit.
Ollie, who tends to be a bit more gonzo than his brother, seemed to enjoy himself.
Ollie, who tends to be a bit more gonzo than his brother, seemed to enjoy himself.
Jamie took off his glasses and turned his hat backwards in preparation for the bungee run in the bounce house.
Jamie took off his glasses and turned his hat backwards in preparation for the bungee run in the bounce house.

After the dinosaur show, my brother-in-law took us all out to lunch at Beef O’Brady’s, a sort of Applebee’s-type place in Jackson, where I let Ollie decide what I should eat for lunch. He picked out a big appetizer plate with chicken strips and onion rings and quesadillas and mozzarella planks and four kinds of dipping sauce. He pointed to the picture on the menu and explained that we were going to split this meal: He would eat “this part” (gesturing to the row of actual food), and I could eat “all this” (gesturing to the little cups of sauce). Pretty slick, that one. He also saw Jamie playing the piano in my dining room and suggested they go sit in the ball chair, which is pretty much their favorite piece of furniture ever. They dashed into the living room, and half a minute later — with his brother suitably distracted — Ollie returned to the piano alone.

They also had fun finding the Doctor Who-themed geocache in my front yard, inspecting the quail and the frozen pond in the back, peering into the worm bin in the basement, befriending the dogs, trying unsuccessfully to coax the cat out from under the bed, and munching on cookies and ice-cream bars.

No, I didn't give them booze. DINK Aunt Emily doesn't have any age-appropriate glassware, so they just drank pineapple-infused water from stemware. We're all kinds of fancy around here.
No, I didn’t give them booze. DINK Aunt Emily doesn’t have any age-appropriate glassware, so they just drank pineapple-infused water from stemware. We’re all kinds of fancy around here.
Ollie's approach to stemware is not markedly different from his Uncle Ron's.
Ollie’s approach to stemware is not markedly different from his Uncle Ron’s.
Riggy has a new best friend. He loved Ollie -- probably because Ollie is the only person he knows who is close enough to the ground for Riggy to lick his face.
Riggy has a new best friend. He loved Ollie — probably because Ollie is the only person he knows who is close enough to the ground for Riggy to lick his face.

Jamie, who has been doing a lot of cooking lately, got to take home a dozen quail eggs to experiment with. Can’t wait to see what kind of tiny egg dishes he’ll come up with.

Oh, and lest you think we neglected Hazel: She was attending a birthday party today and missed the dinosaur show, so the boys took a dinosaur souvenir home for her. Next time she sees them, she’ll have her very own velociraptor to assemble and three fossils to dig out of a brick of plaster, including a Mosasaur tooth and some fossilized dinosaur poop.

Hope you had a dinosaurs-and-ice-cream-bars sort of weekend, wherever you are.

Emily

Eco-Saturday: Cheap all-purpose cleaner

citrusweb

I use vinegar to clean almost everything. I don’t mind the smell, but then again, I’ve been known to order Pickle Pops by the case. Some people balk at using vinegar as a household cleaner, because the smell can get a little intense.

Enter this excellent idea I found somewhere online (Pinterest, probably) for recycling citrus peels into all-purpose cleaner.

You will need:
A good-sized jar with a lid
Distilled vinegar
Citrus peels

Cut up the peels into manageable chunks. Roll up each piece of peel as tightly as you can, shiny side out, and put it in the jar. (Rolling causes the pores of the outer skin to release citrus oil, which is the key ingredient in those pricey biodegradable cleaners you get at the health-food store.)

Cover the peels with distilled vinegar, close the lid tightly, and let it sit on the counter. Add peels as you get them. Every time you add some peels, add enough vinegar to cover them. Any kind of citrus peel will work — orange, lemon, lime, grapefruit, etc. I bought a juicer recently and caught a sale on grapefruit, so I had a lot of grapefruit peels handy. I also had some Clementine oranges and a lime, all of which went in the jar.

Let the jar sit for at least a week after the last addition of vinegar. The longer it sits, the more it will smell like citrus instead of vinegar.

Strain the vinegar into a spray bottle and use it as you would Windex, Formula 409 or similar multipurpose cleaners. The peels can go in the compost pile. (Unless you’re vermicomposting, of course. Citrus and vinegar are both too acidic for worms.)

Emily

Vegetarian Friday: Deviled eggs

Everybody has a deviled-egg recipe, but let’s be honest: Most of them suck. That’s unfortunate, because deviled eggs are a good, cheap protein source that can be made ahead of time and paired with salad for a quick, low-carb meal.

If a deviled-egg recipe calls for mayonnaise or Miracle Whip, throw it out. Seriously. That is a horrible thing to do to perfectly good eggs.

Here’s a very basic deviled-egg recipe that lends itself well to experimentation.

Ingredients:
Six boiled eggs
1/2 stick butter, softened
1/2 c. mustard
Paprika
Fresh chives (optional)

Peel the boiled eggs*, slice them in half lengthwise, and dump all the yolks into a bowl. Add the butter and mustard to the bowl and mash everything up together with a fork. At this point, you can add a few snipped, fresh chives, a dash of hot sauce, or whatever else floats your boat. My parents are fond of adding a few dashes of Worcestershire sauce to a batch of deviled-egg filling, but Worcestershire sauce contains anchovies, which obviously aren’t vegetarian. I’ve seen people put weird stuff like capers or olives or pimentos in their deviled eggs, but I can’t vouch for any of those additions.

If an egg doesn’t peel right, or the white breaks apart instead of making a neat little bowl to hold the filling, don’t panic; there is no shame in using the yolk and feeding the white to your dog. You’ll just end up with a higher proportion of filling to white in the finished eggs, which can only improve them.

Spoon the filling into the whites (or pipe it in with a pastry bag and a big star tip if you’re fancy), garnish with a sprinkling of paprika and maybe a few snipped chives or some fresh parsley, and serve.

Emily

*Protip: Fresh eggs are hard to peel, as are overcooked eggs. For boiling, use eggs that have been sitting around in the refrigerator for several days, and don’t overcook them. The trick is to shut off the burner and cover the pan as soon as the water comes to a full boil, then take it off the heat and let it sit for 12 minutes. After 12 minutes, drain off the hot water, run cold water over the eggs to stop the cooking, and let them cool to room temperature before you try to peel them.