Category Archives: Frugality

(Belated) Eco-Saturday: Dehydrating herbs

Basil is one of the easiest herbs to grow.
Basil is one of the easiest herbs to grow.

If you have a yard, a balcony or even a sunny window big enough for a flowerpot or two, you can grow your own culinary herbs.

Herbs are among the easiest plants to grow. My favorites are basil, dill and cilantro — all vigorous self-seeding annuals that will produce plenty of volunteer plants year after year — and peppermint, spearmint, oregano, rosemary, sage and chives, which are all reliable, productive perennials.

If you grow herbs, you’ll inevitably end up with far more than you can use in a season, so you’ll have plenty left to dry for winter use.

The fastest way to dry herbs is in a dehydrator. If you have more than a couple of plants, a cheap electric dehydrator is probably worth the investment. You can find a good one for $50 or less. I got mine in the hunting aisle at the feed store.

Dehydrating is easy. I’m using basil as an example here, but the same method works with pretty much any herb you can think of.

This is part of one plant.
This is part of one plant.

Start by harvesting as much as you plan to put up. A good pair of shears will speed the harvest along.

Ready to rinse.
Ready to rinse.

If using a dehydrator, snip the leaves from the stems. Put the leaves in a colander and rinse them off. (If you don’t have a dehydrator, just rinse the stems and leaves, tie them in bundles with string or rubber bands, and hang them upside-down to dry, checking them frequently to make sure they’re still bound tightly.)

The thinner the layer, the faster they'll dry.
The thinner the layer, the faster they’ll dry.

Arrange the leaves on your dehydrator trays. Try to keep them to a single layer per tray to allow them to dry quickly and evenly.

After dehydrating.
After dehydrating.

The leaves will shrink as they dry. Check them every half-hour or so until they are completely dry.

The finished product, ready to add to spaghetti sauce.
The finished product, ready to add to spaghetti sauce.

Put the dried herbs in a ziplock bag to keep them fresh, crush them and use a Sharpie to label the bag with the product and the date. Half-pint Mason jars are also excellent for storing dried herbs, or you can recycle old containers from storebought spices.






Eco-Saturday: Bottle your own water

Bottled water is stupidly expensive and generates an unconscionable amount of completely unnecessary plastic.

If you’re me, it’s also just about the only way to ensure you stay adequately hydrated, because I haaaaaate tap water and seldom drink any water at all unless it’s convenient.

Fortunately, for less than the price of two months’ worth of cheap bottled water, you can buy a good filter and several reusable bottles and DIY. (Don’t reuse a standard water bottle. They’re hard to clean and bad about harboring bacteria. Toss them and buy whatever bottles you can find on sale in the camping aisle.)


I can’t find my step-by-step pictures of the filter installation process, so you’ll just have to trust me when I say it’s ridiculously easy. I’ve owned at least three or four faucet-mounted water filters over the years, and none of them cost more than $30 or took more than 10 or 15 minutes to install.

If for some reason you don’t have the option of installing a filter on your kitchen faucet, you can get filtration pitchers in varying shapes and sizes. Most of them cost $15 to $30. One caveat: Some models are prone to mildew, so if you get one, take it apart and run it through the dishwasher once in a while to prevent this.

If you really want to encourage yourself to drink more water, get yourself a good infusion pitcher to flavor that water after you filter it. An infusion pitcher looks like this:


I got mine for $15 at Target. The clear tube in the middle holds chunks of fruit, cucumber, etc. I fill the tube with a handful of whatever frozen fruit happens to be on sale, and I replace it as needed — usually every couple of days. Even if you buy organic berries, you’re not likely to use more than a quarter’s worth per day, which makes this an inexpensive luxury. (Come summer, I’ll switch to cucumbers and peppermint, which the garden will provide for free.)


Winterizing windows

We have pretty energy-efficient windows here at our new house. Not quite as nice as the ones at our old house, but similar, and pretty tight.

I was reading a Mother Earth News article the other day on ways to save energy. Most of it was stuff I already knew and had already done or one-upped, but I found a tip on reducing heat loss through windows that was just too good to pass up — especially in light of the fact that it involved one of my favorite substances on earth.

Bubble wrap.

Sheets of bubble wrap, cut to size and stuck to the windows, will insulate the glass itself while allowing light to pass through, thus preserving solar gain while reducing heat loss.

I bought a couple of rolls of bubble wrap tonight at Staples and gave it a whirl.


After I cut the sheets to size — by far the most time-consuming part of the project, largely because I was too lazy to go find a tape measure so I could do the job efficiently —  I spritzed the glass with plain tap water and slapped the plastic up there like Colorforms.


This is what it looks like from the inside. A little strange, but we usually have the blinds down anyway. I didn’t bother taking a picture outside, because the screen obscures the bubble texture so much you can’t even see it.

We’ll see how well it works. I can already tell a difference: The panes were cold to the touch when I put up the bubbles, but now they’re room temperature.

Not bad for $6.49 per 25 square feet.


Back to basics (and feeling awesome)

We closed on the House of the Lifted Lorax on Monday (congratulations to new owner Josh, who is way amped about the solar panels and the woodstove, and whose young niece is way amped about the Lorax mural on the side of the garage), which means we have just enough money in the bank to pay off our moving expenses and put a privacy fence around the backyard.

You can’t fully appreciate the value of a good fence until you’ve spent six months putting out a pair of hyperactive dogs on short cables umpteen times a day. Yeesh.

In addition to affording us the convenience of opening the back door and letting Song and Riggy take themselves out, this fence will free us up to establish a new beehive, adopt some chooks, install a pond, start a compost pile, and — if I’m feeling really ambitious — maybe set up a small warren of rabbits without interference from curious neighbors of either the two- or four-footed variety.

I put in an experimental, totally halfassed garden this spring and learned enough about my new yard to feel pretty confident taking my usual “Darwin Garden” approach: Coddle the tomatoes and leave everything else to natural selection. So far, I’ve determined that California poppies won’t do a damn thing; cucumbers, strawberries, arugula and most herbs will thrive with absolutely no attention; green beans should do well with minimal attention; and tomatoes should perform fairly well if we choose a variety that’s tolerant of partial shade and try to protect it from the local wildlife.

After meeting the new owner of the old house Monday and giving him some pointers on living the eco-hippie life to its fullest, I’m in full-on DIY mode, so this afternoon, I mixed up a batch of homemade laundry detergent and am currently trolling for dishwasher detergent recipes, since I’ve got plenty of washing soda and borax left over.

Also on the to-do list for this afternoon: Get a new set of shelves for the basement, join a gym, stock up on soup and chili ingredients, find the source of the smell coming from the kitchen drain, and work on the coupon books I’m making the kids for Christmas.

Life is good.


This old kitchen

A Facebook conversation prompted me to go looking for photos of my old kitchen in Belleville, Ill. That kitchen had many, many problems. Issues with the drywall beneath the old wallpaper turned a simple painting project into a frantic rag-painting extravaganza, executed at approximately 10 o’clock one evening with bits of leftover paint found in the basement. Meanwhile, the cabinets — much like the ones in my current kitchen — were too dinged-up to repaint in solid colors without a LOT of prep work and too cheaply made to be worth refinishing. I solved the problem by painting scenes from Route 66 on them to distract the eye from the myriad flaws.

At left: the Gemini Giant in Wilmington, Ill.; at right, Scout enjoys a cup of Ted Drewes’ Frozen Custard, which was just about her favorite thing in the world.

Scout, in a rare moment of calm, seized the opportunity to bask in a sunny spot while I took the picture. This is one of my favorite pictures of her. I love the light and the fact that she looks so content. God, I miss her.

Left to right: Kansas sunflowers; the Round Barn in Arcadia; the 66 Courts sign, formerly in Groom, Texas; and the Blue Spruce Lodge in Gallup, N.M.

In the cabinets above the fridge: the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, Ariz., and Roy’s Motel and Cafe in Amboy, Calif. Note the ugly faux-country wallpaper. This was early in the process, before I got around to painting the walls.

The Jackrabbit Trading Post’s famous billboard in Joseph City, Ariz., and the Blue Whale in Catoosa. Somehow, I kept thinking the whale’s hat had red trim, even though it’s actually green.

I painted the fronts of the drawers to look like Burma-Shave signs, with toy convertibles attached with bolts and wingnuts for drawer pulls.

The complete rhyme said:


Two of my favorite scenes from Route 66: John’s Modern Cabins in Newburg, Mo., and the Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, N.M.

I’d forgotten about that fake brick behind the stove until just now. I found a good buy on the Route 66 wallpaper border (which has since gotten obscenely expensive — I once looked into putting some in my current kitchen and promptly decided it wasn’t worth the cost), and the material I used for the valance was leftover from another project. This picture gives you a pretty good view of the rag-painting treatment I did on the walls to create a faux texture that would cover up the problems I discovered under the wallpaper.

Hopefully my current cabinets will turn out at least this well.


Free stuff

Last summer, my little sister — cheapskate, foodie, and world-class smartass — started a smartass cheapskate foodie blog called The Red Kitchen Project.

The Red Kitchen serves a steady diet of recipes built entirely around ingredients you can buy at ALDI or similar discount grocery stores. All Red Kitchen recipes are garnished with smartass comments and served on Pfaltzgraff china in Grace’s favorite pattern, “Pistoulet,” which was designed by her favorite author/artist, Jana Kolpen, who wrote and illustrated the cookbook/grownup fairytale The Secrets of Pistoulet.

Through her blog, Grace befriended Kolpen, who was so delighted with the concept that she recently offered her the chance to expand her readership through a Pioneer Woman-style giveaway: Pistoulet service for eight.

If you don’t have any “good” china, or if an unfortunate combination of clumsy husband and tile floor is slowly but surely reducing your beloved vintage Madeira collection to shards (not that this has happened to anyone I know, of course), or if for some other reason you feel you could benefit from a new set of dishes, click on over to Grace’s blog and read this post for instructions on how to enter the great Pfaltzgraff giveaway.

If you win — hey, free dishes. If you don’t win, Grace’s recipes will probably save you enough money to cover the cost of replacements for those bowls your husband keeps dropping in the floor.


Mexican gumbo

When I worked at the paper, our vegetarian-in-residence would go out and pick up Qdoba for lunch about once a week. I got totally hooked on their “Mexican gumbo,” which is really just a bowl of white rice topped with black beans, tortilla soup, salsa, cheese, and sour cream.

Qdoba is great, but $6 is a lot of money for what basically amounts to a bowl of rice and beans … so I decided to take their basic concept and improvise on it in my own kitchen. This is what I came up with:

1. Make a batch of white rice and add some cilantro to it. If you don’t have one, do yourself a favor and buy a Black and Decker rice cooker. We got one last night, and it is AWESOME. You just put in your rice and water, turn it on, and ignore it. It automatically shuts itself off when it’s done cooking. It’s like a Crock-Pot, only smarter.

2. Make some black beans (I do mine overnight in the Crock-Pot, but you can just nuke some canned beans if you’re in a hurry).

3. Make a pan of tortilla soup. Here’s my recipe:

1 cube Knorr vegetable bouillon
About a pint of water
1 can of diced tomatoes
1 can of chopped green chiles
2 tsp. minced garlic
Chili powder to taste
Cumin to taste

Combine all ingredients and bring to a boil. If this were truly tortilla soup, I would cut corn tortillas into strips and fry them at this point, but since I’m just using this as a base for gumbo, I didn’t bother.

4. Put a big scoop of rice, a big scoop of beans, and a big scoop of tortilla soup in a bowl. Top with salsa, finely shredded Mexican cheese, and sour cream. If you want, add hot sauce and maybe a spritz of lime juice.

Great stuff, and very easy. I’ll probably make this next time I have a party. Vegans can skip the cheese and sour cream and still have a pretty good meal.