Eco-Saturday: Incense energy audit

Want to find all the spots in your house that are making your furnace work overtime? Grab a stick of incense and a lighter and spend a few minutes performing a sort of informal energy audit. Here’s how:

1. Shut off the furnace and any fans you might have running.
2. Raise all the blinds and pull back the curtains.
3. Light a stick of incense. Holding it very steady, pass it around the edges of all your windows, doors leading to unheated spaces, and electrical outlets and switches on exterior walls. Use a slow, steady motion, and pull the stick away from the burning end rather than pushing toward it. As you move, watch the smoke. It should rise smoothly from the burning end of the stick. If it shimmies, pulses, or otherwise appears to be disturbed, you have an air leak that needs to be sealed. (You’ll also want to pay attention to the burning end, taking care to keep it from touching curtains or other flammable materials, and be sure to have something handy to use as an ashtray as you work.)
4. Make a note of all the places you found leaks, and find an appropriate method to seal them.

If you find leaks around windows, the easiest solution is to seal them with plastic film; if you’re feeling ambitious, you can also insulate the panes themselves with bubble wrap or make Roman shades out of blankets to put an extra layer of warmth between the great outdoors and your living space. You can plug leaks under doors with an inexpensive DIY draft stopper made from rice and fabric remnants. You can buy insulating shields for electrical outlets and light switches, but I prefer to make my own for free out of the polystyrene trays that come with meat and some produce at the grocery store.

You won’t find every single source of wasted energy with a stick of incense, but in the absence of a professional energy audit — which can get pricey if your utility company doesn’t offer them for free — it’s a good, inexpensive jumping-off point to help you identify some of the most easily mitigated culprits. A stick of incense and an a little elbow grease can go a long way toward reining in high heating bills.

Emily

Vegetarian Friday: Cheddar soup

I’ve seen various versions of this recipe floating around online. Most of them are obscenely high-calorie, unduly complicated, make way bigger batches than anybody really wants to eat, or can’t be accessed without scrolling through somebody’s elaborately monetized blog that takes forever to load, so as usual, I glanced at ingredient lists and photos on Pinterest and then riffed on the general idea. Ron liked the results, and he never likes cream-type soups.

Ingredients
12 baby carrots
1 small potato
2 leeks
3 ribs celery
2 tbsp. olive oil
2 tbsp. flour
1 bottle Newcastle or similar ale
1/2 tsp. salt
2-3 bay leaves
2 c. skim milk
2/3 c. veggie broth
4 oz. cream cheese
1 1/2 c. shredded cheddar

Chop up carrots and steam in the microwave until soft. (The easiest way to do this: Throw the carrots in a bowl with about a tablespoon of water, cover with a saucer, and nuke for 5-6 minutes.)

Chop the leeks and celery (note: Just use the white and light-green parts of the leeks — not the leaves) and saute in olive oil until soft. Add 2 tbsp. flour and cook over low heat until flour starts to brown, stirring constantly. Deglaze the pan with part of the beer, then add the rest slowly, stirring as you add it. Add salt and bay leaves.

Bring beer-leek mixture to a boil over medium heat. While beer is cooking, dice the potato and cook it in the microwave until soft. (I just poked a hole in mine, stuck it in there on the baked-potato setting, and then diced it, using a clean cloth to handle it so I didn’t burn my fingers. The peel came right off that way, and it was easier to cut.)

The carrots give the soup a yellowish tinge even before you add the cheddar.
The carrots give the soup a yellowish tinge even before you add the cheddar.

Add milk and veggie broth to the pan and simmer over low heat until the bay leaf starts to release its flavor. (You’ll know this is happening because it will suddenly start to smell awesome.) Add cream cheese and let it melt, stirring occasionally.

Remove bay leaves, stir in diced potato and cheddar cheese, and serve. Makes about 4 big servings.

Hot, thick soup and a heavy-bodied beer make a nice dinner on a cold day.
Hot, thick soup and a heavy-bodied beer make a nice dinner on a cold day.

This soup is especially nice on a cold day, accompanied by a good English or Irish beer.

Emily

Folk Thursday: Harry Belafonte

The quality of the recording is a bit dodgy, but this is magnificent. The YouTube poster says it was recorded in December 1969. Some of those wounds were still pretty fresh in December 1969 — and when Harry Belafonte sings about “my old friend Martin,” he’s not just reciting lyrics; he’s remembering a beloved friend, taken much too soon.

Emily

Tiny Tuesday: Storage cubes

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, our bedroom isn’t quite big enough to accommodate a queen-sized bed and a standard dresser or chest of drawers without feeling extremely cramped. For a while, I settled for plastic storage drawers, which are stackable, take up relatively little floor space, and came in handy when we moved, but they’re awfully ugly, and it didn’t take long for me to get tired of looking at them.

I found an inexpensive, attractive solution in the form of cheap storage cubes.

When I repainted the bedroom last year, I bought a six-cube unit and a set of faux-seagrass baskets to go in it and started using it as a dresser. It worked so well, I outfitted a nine-cube unit with little doors and cheap fabric bins for Ron a few months later.

My storage-cube dresser. Excuse the wonkiness. I had to shoot this from an odd angle, and the bedroom is small.
My storage-cube dresser. Excuse the wonkiness. I had to shoot this from an odd angle, and the bedroom is small.

Each cube holds less than a standard dresser drawer would, of course, but we store our bulkiest clothes in the closet (slacks and jeans on hangers and sweatshirts on hanging shelves), so we don’t need huge drawers. The cubes provide adequate storage for T-shirts, socks, underwear, and a few broomstick skirts, and their smaller footprints make them easy to tuck into spaces that would be too small for a dresser.

Ron's storage-cube dresser.
Ron’s storage-cube dresser.

I’ve seen storage cubes used in all sorts of configurations in tiny houses, where their low profile allows them to function as an inexpensive alternative to custom built-ins. A quick Pinterest search will turn up all sorts of bed frames, benches and desks fashioned from the ubiquitous shelves, and I personally have used them as nightstands, a faux-mid-century credenza, and even a stylish dog bed (which Lillian promptly snubbed in favor of curling up on our bed instead — and yes, that’s her fun-fur blankie in the top picture).

Emily

Make-It Monday: Bullet Journal

I kept seeing people on Pinterest talking about something called a “bullet journal.” At first glance, it looked like a good way to spend altogether too much time turning a planner into a craft project, but a couple of people I really respect kept pinning stuff related to bullet journals, so I clicked through to see what the fuss was about.

If I understood what I read correctly, bullet journals are a sort of hybrid of a planner, a to-do list, and a journal. Given my dependence on to-do lists and my longtime fondness for planners — particularly the customizable sort — I decided it was probably worth investing a couple of hours and $20 for a Moleskine notebook to set one up and see how it went. I’ve certainly owned more expensive planners over the years, so I figured I might as well give it a try.

I set this up wrong because I couldn't see the entire image on this part of the Bullet Journal website -- you're supposed to put the month on the left and use the facing page for tasks -- but given my New Year's resolution, I think giving myself less space for a task list is probably a good idea.
I set this up wrong because I couldn’t see the entire image on this part of the Bullet Journal website — you’re supposed to put the month on the left and use the facing page for tasks — but given my New Year’s resolution, I think giving myself less space for a task list is probably a good idea.
April 12: Good times never seemed so good.
April 12: Good times never seemed so good.

As far as I can tell, the big difference between a bullet journal and a regular planner lies in the index. You number the pages and slug them as you would notecards for a research paper, then use that information to make an index as you go.

I’m still not 100 percent convinced this isn’t just an unduly complicated means of customizing a Dayrunner, but it fits in my purse better, and it looks a little neater than the pile of Post-Its, napkins, and scraps of paper that usually end up scattered across my desk, waiting for me to do something about them. I doubt I’ll really use it as a journal (anything personal enough to go on paper instead of online is probably too personal for me to be comfortable carrying around with me), but after setting it up and using it for a couple of days, I think it might work well as a planner. If nothing else, it’s a chance to experiment with various features and figure out what I want to include the next time I’m in the mood to make my own Dayrunner refills. I’ll let you know how it goes.

If you want to make your own, the guy who came up with the concept has a whole website dedicated to it.

Emily

Sunday Self-Care: Countdown to spring

“The one constant through all the years … has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past … . It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again.”

— Terence Mann, Field of Dreams

The 2016 World Series champion Chicago Cubs* have announced their spring-training reporting dates. Pitchers and catchers are due to arrive in Mesa on Feb. 14.

In other words: It’s 37 days to spring.

We are SO having Chicago-style hot dogs for lunch on Valentine’s Day. And probably either gooey butter cake or Ted Drewes’ Frozen Custard for dessert, because Ron’s Cardinals report the same day.

Spring is coming. I am at peace.

Emily

* I promise I won’t be insufferable about this, but I really never expected to utter that phrase. Let me have my moment. If history is any indicator, it may never happen again in my lifetime.

Sustainability on a shoestring