You keep using that word.

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
— Inigo Montoya

Let’s talk about word usage for a minute. Specifically, let’s discuss the word “hack.”

Historically, it was appropriate and accurate to use the word “hack” if you were referring to …

1. … someone’s wood-chopping technique.
2. … the sound of a cough.
3. … a data breach.
4. … Judy Blume.

A fifth context arose a few years ago, when people started using the word “hack” to refer to the practice of disassembling something, making major modifications to it, and then reassembling it. The first time I saw it used in this context was sometime around 2007, on a website selling Holga camera modifications.

I’m not sure whether the term is meant to evoke chopping (“hacking up” an object to alter it) or cybercrime (“hacking into” something to improve it, as you might do with a smartphone’s operating system), but either way, it makes sense when you’re talking about making major alterations to something.

It does not make sense when you’re talking about using an item straight out of the box, with no modifications (e.g., hanging a spice rack in the bathroom to hold small items), using an item exactly as it was designed to be used (e.g., pushing in the little tabs at the ends of a box of waxed paper so the roll doesn’t fall out), or doing something sensible that anybody with any common sense could figure out (e.g., all of the tips listed in the “Five Hacks for Winter Running” article I saw the other day, which included such dazzlingly clever innovations as wearing several layers of clothing, putting Yaktrax on your shoes when it’s icy, and doing a few warmup exercises indoors before heading out to run).

“Hack” was a clever term about 10 years ago, but at this point, if you’re not using it to refer to a person who writes clickbait headlines for a living, I think it’s probably advisable to drop it from your vocabulary.

Emily

Tiny Tuesday: Repurpose a dishrack

I swiped an idea from my mom while I was helping her with the Thanksgiving dishes Thursday.

Mom and Dad redid their kitchen not too long ago, and their old dishrack wouldn’t fit well on the new counter, so they bought a new one.

Rather than throw out the old one, Mom stuck it in the bottom of one of the new cabinets, where it keeps the pan lids organized and easy to find.

Repurpose an old dishrack as a neat storage center for lids.
Repurpose an old dishrack as a neat storage center for lids.

Given the weight of some of those lids, I’m not sure how well this would work with a flimsy plastic dishrack, but the one Mom used is made of heavy wire coated with plastic, and I am fairly certain it’s been around longer than I have, so it’s obviously pretty sturdy.

The rack takes up more room than the lids would if they were just tossed onto the bottom of the cabinet willy-nilly, but for me, part of the appeal with the tiny-house movement is its emphasis on organizing your things instead of just cramming them in wherever they’ll fit and forgetting where you put them. I love the idea of having all my possessions in close proximity to each other so I can access them quickly and easily, but if my cabinets aren’t organized well, I’m going to lose that advantage.

If I were using a dishrack for storage in my own kitchen, I’d probably use that space to the right of the lids to keep my big wok out of sight but within easy reach.

Take a look around your kitchen and see what items you could repurpose to organize your cabinets. I’ve found a streamlined space makes food prep faster, easier, and much more pleasant.

Emily

Make-It Monday: Grape slicer

Here’s another trick that’s been making the rounds on all the Pinterest-clickbait sites. I hadn’t really had occasion to use it until the other day, when I was making another batch of cranberry sauce, but it works well, with a few caveats.

Cutting through a zillion individual grapes takes FOREVER.
Cutting through a zillion individual grapes takes FOREVER.

I add grapes to my cranberry sauce, because they taste good and give it a more assertive texture. The down side is that they have to be cut in half. Standing around cutting individual grapes in half is a pain, but I remembered a trick I’d seen for slicing cherry tomatoes and decided it probably would work just as well with grapes: Lay a handful of whatever small food you’re slicing on a cutting board, put a plastic lid on top of it, and press down gently while you run a knife just under the lip of the lid to slice through all of the grapes/tomatoes/whatever in one fell swoop.

Hold down the lid to keep the fruit from squirming out from under it while you slice.
Hold down the lid to keep the fruit from squirming out from under it while you slice.

In one of the pictures, you can see the edge of a big bread knife, which I’d thought might work well — most of the clickbait pictures I’d seen showed someone using a serrated blade considerably longer than the width of the lid — but in reality, big knives are unwieldy, and I’m klutzy, so I ended up sawing through the lid and making a mess of the grapes. I swapped the bread knife for a plain old steak knife, which was easier to handle and made a much neater cut without damaging the lid.

If you’re just slicing a handful of tomatoes for a salad, I wouldn’t bother getting out the lid, but if you have a large number of small fruits or vegetables to cut, it’s definitely worth rummaging around in the recycler for a plastic lid to speed up the process.

Emily

Sunday Self-Care: Seed catalogs

It’s the third-most wonderful time of the year.

The most wonderful time of the year is the first Saturday after Tax Day, when we put the garden in the ground.

The second-most wonderful time of the year is the day Cubs pitchers and catchers report to spring training.

But the third-most wonderful time of the year is now, when the companies that sell seeds for the garden and beekeeping equipment for the apiary start sending out catalogs, which means I can start dreaming about spring in specific detail and figuring out how many times we’re going to have to eat enchiladas or sauerkraut to save up enough cans for all the seeds I intend to start. (Tin cans with the bottoms cut out make the world’s greatest seed-starting pots/squirrel deterrents. Unfortunately, about the only products that still come in cans with identical tops and bottoms are Ro-Tel tomatoes; certain brands of sauerkraut; and most enchilada sauce. This means for about two months every winter, my grocery list revolves around my gardening needs.)

Gardening and beekeeping catalogs are my saving grace every winter. Gray skies and short days don’t do anything positive for my mental health, and after a while, I start to wonder whether I’ll ever get to put my hands in the dirt and bask in the sunshine again. When that first seed catalog lands in the mailbox, I see the first glimmer of hope.

We got catalogs this weekend from Seed Savers Exchange and Betterbee, so I’ll spend the next few months dogearing pages and circling varieties that sound promising and drawing scale diagrams of the garden while I dream of spring.

Emily

Eco-Saturday: Eat in season

We’re reaching that drizzly, chilly, depressing time of year when all the tomato vines are dead, most of the herbs are fading, and the farmers’ markets are winding down.

When the weather sucks, it’s tempting to buy the out-of-season produce that finds its way into the grocery store every winter.

Try to resist the temptation.

Out-of-season produce is almost always shipped in from some other country where the growing seasons are longer. To survive the trip without spoiling, it has to be picked early — before it’s ripe — and the varieties capable of traveling long distances are bred for durability, not flavor, so you’re going to end up paying extra for an inferior product that’s wasted a ton of fuel getting here.

Rather than subject yourself, your bank account, and the environment to that, look at what you can do with frozen and canned vegetables and whatever happens to be in season.

The Mother Earth News Almanac, which I reviewed on here last week, has a couple of good winter recipes, including an utterly divine potato-cheese soup I’ve made too many times to count.

Root vegetables (carrots, onions, turnips, radishes, potatoes, and sweet potatoes) are good this time of year and likely didn’t have to travel very far. Winter squash is also in season now, and mushrooms are grown year-’round.

If you like meat, try putting a roast or a few chicken breasts in the Crock-Pot with a can of beer and several cloves of garlic and cooking it overnight. If you don’t eat meat, dried beans are a good option — just soak overnight, simmer in the Crock-Pot all day, and serve over couscous for an easy, high-protein meal.

Cruciferous vegetables (kale, collards, turnips, cabbage) are in season. Slow-cook the kale, collards, or turnips, or shred the cabbage, fry it with bacon and onions, and spice it up with a little sriracha.

Apples and cranberries are also in season at the moment; grab some of each to make cranberry sauce. Many other fruits are available frozen or canned and work well in cobblers.

If you just can’t give up salads, use spinach or sprouts (easily grown on the countertop) as a base and add mushrooms, a handful of nuts, some bleu cheese, and maybe a diced Granny Smith apple or some thinly sliced radishes. Raw turnips also make a good addition to salads if you julienne them first.

And, of course, you can always find canned and frozen ingredients to get your family through the winter. Our favorites include chili; posole; gumbo; minestrone; green-chile stew; smoked sausage with canned sauerkraut; and Philly sandwiches made with frozen tricolor pepper strips.

Food doesn’t have to suck just because the weather does. Pay attention to what’s in season, and don’t be afraid to buy weird-looking roots you see at the grocery store. Between Google and Pinterest, you should be able to figure out what they are and how to use them.

Emily

Vegetarian Friday: Tomato-pepper soup

I found this recipe from Budget Bytes by way of Pinterest.

I riffed on it only slightly, so rather than plagiarize someone else’s recipe, I’ll just tell you the bits I changed, and you can click on over to the link above to get the full recipe, including tips for making it vegan without losing much flavor.

Here are my modifications/notes on the recipe:

1. Saute the onion until it’s translucent BEFORE you add the garlic, or you’ll scorch it. Garlic should never be sauteed longer than about 30 seconds — as soon as it starts to smell good, take it off the burner.

2. Diced tomatoes are fine if you can’t find crushed or don’t have any on hand.

3. If the 16-oz. jar of red peppers is cheaper than the 12-oz. jar, it’s fine to use all of it.

4. Remember that vegetable stock we made a while back? Two of your frozen cubes and a cup and a half of water will work well here.

5. I’m lazy and like my flavors assertive, so I used a tablespoon of my Italian seasoning blend in place of the basil and thyme. If you prefer less spice, start with the original recipe and go from there.

6. Skim milk is fine in place of whole if you’re counting calories (or just don’t have any skim milk on hand).

I love tomato soup. Ron usually doesn’t, but he really liked this recipe, which I served with pesto, some leftover crostini I’d bought for another project, and a generous helping of Parmesan cheese, so we’ll be having it again in the near future.

Emily