Saturday, June 20, 2020

Gardeners' Holidays 2020: Raspberry Fest

Summer is officially under way, and for once the weather is in sync with the calendar. We're looking at temperatures in the eighties this weekend and into the nineties next week, with thunderstorms on and off all week long. (I took a risk today and hung laundry on the line, so now it's a toss-up whether I'll have to take it back down wet and throw it in the dryer, or the rain will hold off and Brian will have to water the garden instead.)

In the garden, we're getting plenty of lettuce and a smattering of snap peas, and the arugula, which we barely got a taste of, has already bolted in the summer heat. But the only thing we're really producing in abundance now is raspberries. We've actually reached the point where we don't need to buy fruit at the market every week, because we're producing enough for each day's lunch right off our own canes.

This abundance of berries inspired me to take one more crack at making a vegan version of raspberry fool. In the past, we've always tried using some version of whipped coconut milk, and no matter how closely we follow the directions — chilling the can overnight, scooping out only the solids — it never works at all. The stuff always comes out far too solid, and it's like trying to whip a blob of vegetable shortening. (Eww.)

So this time, I decided to search specifically for non-coconut alternatives to whipped cream. That led me to this recipe from Nora Cooks, which is based on aquafaba. We'd tried whipping aquafaba before and found it didn't get stiff enough, but this recipe adds a little cream of tartar, which we thought might be just enough to get the frothy consistency we needed. It also adds a whole lot of powdered sugar, but since our fool recipe calls for sweetened fruit and unsweetened whipped cream, Brian decided to leave that out.

So he simply got out our entire stock of frozen aquafaba cubes from the freezer, thawed it, and got about a half-cup of liquid — just enough for the recipe. Then he stirred in an eighth of a teaspoon of cream of tartar, crossed his fingers, and introduced the beaters. And lo and behold, it worked! The aquafaba whipped right up to a nice frothy consistency — a bit more like a meringue than whipped cream, but certainly stiff enough and voluminous enough to mix with the crushed fruit. We knew from experience that it wouldn't keep well in the fridge, so we just mixed the fruit right in and ate it immediately.

This vegan raspberry fool wasn't quite as tasty as the dairy-based original. The whipped aquafaba was much less substantial than real whipped cream, so it didn't have the same creamy, satisfying mouthfeel. But the flavor of the fruit pretty effectively masked the bean-based origins of the aquafaba, and the texture was certainly fluffy and light. And, as a bonus, it's much lower in calories and fat than the original version. Made with aquafaba in place of cream, and with only a few tablespoons of sugar in the whole batch, this vegan raspberry fool could, with a little squinting, be considered a healthy indulgence.

We'll probably continue to experiment with other vegan whipped cream alternatives to see if we can find one that has both the creaminess and the fluffiness of the original. (We had reasonable success with a commercial product called Coco Whip, but our local Shop-Rite no longer seems to carry it.) But if we can't, at least we'll have some way to enjoy a reasonable facsimile of our favorite fool while the raspberries last. And, since our honeyberries are just starting to hit peak ripeness, my dream of a honeyberry fool might even become a reality.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Money Crashers: 10 Best Paycheck Advance Apps to Help You Make It to Payday

A few years back, I wrote about the dangers of payday loans and the less-awful alternatives you can use to get out of a financial jam. One alternative I mentioned was a payroll advance: asking your employer to give you a portion of your next paycheck early. This isn't the same as a loan, since you're just being paid for work you've already done. It's just a way to get access to the money before your official payday. I also noted in that piece that if your employer wouldn't give you a payroll advance, you could use an app called ActiveHours to do the same thing.

Fast-forward four years, and ActiveHours — now known as Earnin — is only one of several apps you can use to get access to your pay sooner. Some of these work like an advance, while others just eliminate the delay between the time your employer submits your paycheck to the bank and the time it shows up up your account. And many also provide other features like online banking and investing, cash-back shopping, and tools for employers to manage their work forces.

Note that this piece suffers from the same problem as my earlier one on browser extensions: the boss asked me to add a section to it, then moved that section to the top without telling me. This time, they actually did think to try and rewrite the text to reflect this, but in a way that doesn't make sense. The original article listed Earnin first, saying that it was "the first payroll advance app" because it predated all the others; they moved it down to third and described it as "the next payroll advance app." Just giving you a heads-up so you won't be confused by this meaningless statement.
10 Best Paycheck Advance Apps to Help You Make It to Payday

Money Crashers: How to Choose the Right Bicycle

Here's another new Money Crashers piece on the topic of shopping for a new bicycle. When I say "new," I really mean "new to you," since secondhand bikes are a perfectly acceptable option (especially if every time you shell out money for a nice new bike, someone steals it, which is what keeps happening to Brian). But whether you're buying new or used, you need to get the right type of bicycle. Bikes come in many different flavors — racing bikes, mountain bikes, cruisers — and each one has its own strong and weak points. So, to choose the bike that’s best for you, your first question should be, "What am I using it for?"

I start out with a loose classification of the major types of bikes, discussing what each variety is good for and what it costs. Then I go into specific features that you might want based on your riding preferences, such as suspension, brake type, and an electric motor. And lastly, I outline the process for choosing a new bike that's right for you: determining your needs and budget, testing different models, and getting the best price.

How to Choose the Right Bicycle – Different Types of Bikes

Monday, June 15, 2020

Money Crashers: 11 Best Browser Extensions to Save Money While Shopping Online

Here's an article on a timely subject: online shopping. Americans were already shopping online at record levels before COVID hit, and during isolation, we've been doing it even more. But at the same time, we're also trying harder to save money in the shadow of the worst recession since the Great Depression.

That makes money-saving browser extensions an absolute win-win. Years ago, I was delighted to discover PriceBlink, a free add-on that could automatically compare prices for a given item across different sites so I didn't have to visit dozens of stores looking for the best price; today, this is only one of dozens of other add-ons that can save you dough in various ways. Some find and apply coupon codes, some compare prices across different sites, some track prices over time on just one site, some give you cash back for shopping — and a few do a little bit of everything.

One warning about this article: The section on Wikibuy was originally added to the article toward the end of the list, so in it I made comparisons to several other extensions that I'd discussed earlier in the piece. However, before publishing the piece, the editor moved this section to the top, presumably because it's a sponsored link and they wanted it to be as prominent as possible. Unfortunately, this means all those references to other extensions — PriceBlink, Honey, The Camelizer, Rakuten CashBack, Ibotta — are now just confusing. So my advice is to skip over this section and come back to it once you've finished reading the rest of the piece. Then it will make sense.

11 Best Browser Extensions to Save Money While Shopping Online

Sunday, June 14, 2020

OK, now I do want to vote by mail

Way back before I created this blog, I used to post on Brian's blog The Modern Troll. My posts there weren't mainly about ecofrugality; I would just toss out thoughts on whatever happened to be on my mind, from the advent of middle age to discovering Jeeves/Wooster slash fiction. And one particular bee that got into my bonnet eleven years back was the extent to which New Jersey's Democratic Party was pestering me to vote by mail. It's not that I objected to the concept; even back then, I was heartily in favor of giving people more options to make it easier for them to vote. But I happened to prefer going to the polls, and it really bugged me that the Democratic Party seemed to want to take away the option of voting not by mail. Or, if not actually take it away, at least try to make me think it was being taken away, and that my only choice was to vote by mail.

Now, even in 2009, voting in person wasn't as much fun for me as it used to be, because New Jersey had switched away from the old-fashioned voting machines with levers — which made a nice satisfying clunk when you pushed them — to newfangled electronic machines, which made only a tinny little beep. But I still felt an emotional connection to the November ritual of going to the polls, standing in line with my neighbors, and going into the booth to participate in the democratic process. It had an emotional and social component that just sticking a ballot in the mailbox seemed to lack. And even when I started hearing that these newer electronic machines weren't as secure as the older ones, I figured the risk of hacking was low enough to be worth running for the sake of that ritual.

But this year, I read an editorial that exposed exactly how insecure those electronic voting machines are. Turns out, the machines I think of as "new" are actually pretty old. The machines themselves date back to around 1990, and they're based on technology from the 1970s. And since the estimated shelf life of the components in these machines is ten years, they're already ten years past their expiration date. Malfunctions are a serious concern — and what makes them more serious is that, if they occur, there's absolutely no way to check, because these machines leave no verifiable paper trail. There's no point demanding a recount with these things, because there's nothing to count.

And glitches aren't the only concern. There's also deliberate hacking. Over ten years ago, a Rutgers professor demonstrated how ludicrously easy it would be to hack one of our antiquated machines in a matter of minutes, with no special tools or programming knowledge. And it's not like it would be hard to gain access to the machines for that long, because between 2004 and 2008, a Princeton professor regularly went into places where voting machines were being stored before elections and photographed himself standing next to the machines, with no security in sight. And it's not like these concerns are farfetched, since we know from a 2019 Senate report that Russian hackers have, in fact, been targeting U.S. "voting infrastructure" at least since 2014.

Now mind you, our state is not unaware of these problems. In fact, it passed a law way back in 2006 requiring all voting machines to produce paper ballots as a backup, and another in 2008 requiring regular audits to compare these paper ballots to the electronic record. And as of the beginning of 2020, the number of New Jersey voting machines in compliance with this law (This year, two NJ counties finally upgraded their machines. But Middlesex County, where I live, wasn't one of them.)

The editorial called on New Jersey to use the $10.2 million it had set aside for election security to upgrade voting machines across the state in time for this month's primary. But after hearing that we had already had a law in place requiring secure voting machines for fourteen years and we still didn't have them, I was not prepared to count on the state to get it done by June. So, for the first time, Brian and I filled out applications to vote by mail for this election. (You can sign up for just one election or for all future elections, but if you do that, you can't change your mind unless you "request otherwise in writing," and it's not clear how to do that. So we decided to sign up for mail-in ballots for just this one primary, and then see how things were looking before deciding whether to do the same in November.)

Now, at the time, we knew that our decision to change our mode of voting just over abstract concerns about security might seem quixotic. But now, it seems prescient. Because just a month after we sent away for our mail-in ballets, the COVID crisis hit. Right now, the beloved ritual of going to the polls — standing in line with a bunch of strangers in a room, and then going into a tiny booth and touching the same buttons all the people behind you have touched — looks like a really bad idea.

At this point, I probably wouldn't blame the state if it did tell people that voting by mail was their only option, at least for the upcoming primary, if not for the general election in November. Provided it made sure every registered voter got a mail-in ballot and knew to use it, I would consider this a sensible precaution.

But even if the state isn't doing that, it seems like a really good idea for New Jerseyans to opt for mail-in voting on their own. Aside from the obvious health risks of going to the polls, we've already seen how several other state primaries in the middle of this pandemic (notably Wisconsin's and Georgia's) have been utter fiascos. Why take a risk on a voting system that's never been stress-tested to handle conditions like these, especially when we know it's not secure in the first place, when getting a mail-in ballot is so easy?

We haven't decided yet whether we want to commit in voting in all future elections by mail. But once we've mailed in our first set of mail-in ballots, we'll definitely send in our requests to receive two more for this November's general election. With so much riding on this election and so much uncertainty about what will be going on in the country come November, why would we want to leave our votes to chance?

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Money Crashers: Moving Back Home With Your Parents After College

When Money Crashers asked me to update an old article on moving back home with your parents after college, it sounded like an ideal job for me. I'd done exactly that myself, twenty-five years ago (oh good heavens, has it really been that long?), and it had worked out just fine. I knew I didn't intend to stay with Mom and Dad forever, but spending a year there while I looked for a job and then for an apartment I could afford on my starting salary seemed perfectly reasonable. I made a point of contributing to the household by paying them a nominal amount for rent and doing my share of household chores, and they never imposed any unreasonable rules on me.

But when I started to research the article, I discovered my experience hadn't exactly been typical. That is, living with parents after college is typical — more than ever, in fact — but feeling comfortable with the arrangement isn't. Parents often resent "freeloading" kids who don't do their share, and the younger generation often resent parents who continue to treat them like children. Studies have found that young adults living with their parents are more likely to have symptoms of depression than their peers who live on their own. And even financially, this arrangement isn't always helpful. Adults who are still living with parents between the ages of 25 and 34 are less likely to become homeowners within 10 years, and over 30% of them still aren't out on their own at that point.

The focus of this piece is how to get the benefits of living with parents while avoiding the downsides. The key, based on my own experience and those of other young adults who've tried it more recently, is for parents and children to learn to interact as adults. Kids have to act like adults – cleaning up after themselves, paying rent, and contributing to the household in other ways — and make it clear they expect to be treated that way. And, most of all, they should have a clear plan to get out so they don't get stuck in their parents' home forever.

Moving Back Home With Your Parents After College – How to Make It Work

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Vegan iced coconut milk

Although this post is about a vegan recipe, it's not going to be my Vegan Recipe of the Month, because it's definitely not a healthy, veggie-centric dish. Instead, it's an indulgent treat — ice cream — converted to a vegan form.

As the weather has grown steadily more summery here in New Jersey, I've begun to have cravings for ice cream. However, since Brian and I have gone off red meat and dairy almost entirely now, buying the real stuff — or even the lower-fat "light" stuff — wasn't an option. And while our local stores do carry a few plant-based ice cream alternatives, they're all pretty pricey. Plus, the only one we've tried that we particularly liked, the chocolate coconut milk ice cream from Trader Joe's, hasn't been available for a while now.

Fortunately, we do have an ice cream maker, and enough room in the freezer to chill the metal canister. So I went hunting online for a vegan ice cream alternative that wouldn't be too complicated to make at home. And since desserts tend to freeze best if they've got more fat in them (which freezes smooth instead of forming ice crystals), I decided to look for a coconut-milk-based recipe for our first attempt.

My new favorite vegan blog, surprisingly, wasn't much help here; the only recipe she had was for a vegan version of black ice cream, which didn't look appetizing to me at all, and which seemed unnecessarily complex to make. But a site called Chocolate Covered Katie turned up a recipe that looked much simpler — or at least, looked like it could be much simpler. The ingredient list called for a cup and a half of canned, full-fat coconut milk, plus "1/2 cup additional coconut milk OR milk of choice"; likewise, it called for a quarter cup of sugar or other sweetener, plus "pinch stevia or 1 additional tbsp sweetener of choice." So, in its simplest form, the recipe could be made with only four ingredients — coconut milk, sugar, salt, and vanilla — and  all you had to do with them was stir them up together, pour it into the ice cream maker, and churn.

Although the recipe specifically called for coconut milk, Brian wavered over whether to use that or coconut cream, which we also had on hand. He thought since it was richer than coconut milk and contained less water, it might freeze better. However, I argued that for our first attempt, we should stick to the recipe as written, so we went with the coconut milk. The can we had was 15 ounces, and the recipe called for 16, so Brian made up the rest of the volume with almond milk.

After about half an hour of churning, the ice cream had reached approximately the consistency of soft-serve. Further churning beyond that point didn't seem to thicken it up any more, so we just dished it out that form. With my first spoonful, I realized why the recipe had suggested cutting the coconut milk with a half cup of other "milk of choice"; this stuff has a very strong coconut flavor. Although I'm quite partial to coconut, I found it a little too overpowering, but Brian liked it. I also found it overly sweet. I ended up sprinkling a little dark chocolate on mine, which toned down the sweetness and the powerful coconut taste somewhat, and found it enjoyable enough to go back for a small second helping.

After eating a little less than half the batch, we put the rest in the freezer. When we went back for it two nights later, we found it had frozen not just to a scoopable consistency, but harder than that — hard enough that it had to be sort of chipped out with the spoon. It had also developed a noticeable volume of ice crystals in the mix. It was still tasty, just not as smooth as before.

Overall, I'd say this vegan iced coconut milk was pretty good for a first attempt, but it wasn't quite the perfect dairy-free substitute for ice cream. If we try it again, I might consider using the coconut cream rather than coconut milk for a smoother consistency, then cutting it with a half-cup of almond milk as the recipe suggests and maybe toning down the sugar.

On the other hand, perhaps we should try moving on to a different recipe and see how that works. The same blogger also has a recipe for oat milk ice cream, which seems like an ideal application for homemade oat milk. We found the stuff wasn't workable as a milk substitute because it more or less turns to glue when heated, but that shouldn't be a problem if it's being chilled instead. And it's considerably cheaper than coconut milk.

The only catch is, it's also much lower in fat, so to give it the right texture, the recipe also calls for half a cup of "nut butter of choice," such as peanut butter or almond butter. And not only does that addition jack up the cost, it's not a flavor I particularly want in my ice cream. She says you can use "a neutral nut butter such as raw cashew or coconut butter" for flavors such as mint chocolate chip, our personal favorite, but we've never found either of those in stores, and making it from scratch would add considerably to the hassle.

So basically, it's not clear yet what we'll be trying next on the nondairy ice cream front. The only thing we can be sure of is that, as summer continues to heat up, we'll definitely be trying something. Keep watching this space for updates.