Monday, September 22, 2014

Simple Freeze-Ahead Pesto

Invariably, my basil plants will grow faster than I pull leaves for pizza and salads, so eventually its time to make a big batch of pesto.  I always start with the Pesto recipe from the Betty Crockers New Cookbook (8th Edition) and then make a few mods.  Here's my modified version

Simple Pesto
  • 2 Cups washed and dried basil leaves (packed down)
  • 3 tsp minced garlic
  • 1/4 Cup pine nuts
  • 1/2 fresh Parmesan or similar cheese
  • ~3/4 cup olive oil

  (I've switched to using the Grana Padano cheese sold a Costco for this in place of Parmesan.  I think it has a similar taste, and with either the basil is the strongest taste here, the cheese is a second stringer and therefore the savings in cost is worth the substitution)

To make the Pesto, simply put all of the ingredients in a food processor and pulse until everything is well mixed together and minced to tiny bits.  Then add half of the oil and start blending.  Add additional oil until you like the consistency.  I like to leave mine a bit on the lumpier side if I'm going to freeze it for future use.  I can add oil later, but removing oil is harder.

Speaking of freezing, I got these Ball Silicon Ice Cube Trays and they work great.  A cube of pesto is good for about two people's worth of pasta.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Investing with Loyal3

EDIT 2018: Loyal3 shut down operations and merged with another brokerage and unfortunately stopped offering the services listed below.  THis is unfortunate as I thought the combination of monthly schedule investments and partial shares was a godsent for simple investing. Alas.


As I'm getting smarter about investing (with a focus on long term), I keep circling back to how much I like Loyal3. Its dirt simple, allows for automated investing, and fee free.

For those who are looking to start putting away money, and are thinking about getting in "the market" (whatever that means to most people), there is usually a barrier.  For most investing is confusing. They don't know what to buy, what to sell, the fee structure can seem confusing ("what's an option?"), and of course there's the money. If you're like me, the concept of "invest over $100,000" is so foreign, they might as well be asking for a million.

With a regular stock brokerage you pay a commission when you buy or sell stocks.  For most online brokerages, this is a flat fee (ranging from $4 to $12).  Doesn't seem like much, but it can really eat into your investments.  As an example, if you want to buy just $300 of a stock, that $12 commission is a 4% hit.  You're stock will need to go up 4% just to break even.  Then when you sell you'll owe another $12.  So you started out with $300 in your pocket, bought $288 worth of stock, it rose 8.3% (good return it would seem), you sold and wound up with $300.  Well damn. You picked the right horse, put your money on it, and still made no money.

If you're going to buy and hold this may not matter as much, except that most buy and hold investments are looking at a 4-6% return every year.  So that $300 example, you lost a year's worth of growth just to get in the game.

If you have a few thousand dollars, this matters much less. a $12 fee on $1,000 is much easier to make up, and on $5,000 its in the noise of daily movement. But I don't usually have that kind of money lying around.  Further I don't want to wait until I have it to make some returns.

Loyal3 lets you buy stocks without paying a fee.  Further you can buy as little as $10 worth of stock and charge it to a credit card.  They let you automate this so you're card gets hit every month for that $10 and just buys stock for you.  They do this by bunching up all the orders and making one buy every day and then dividing up the stock shares to the users.  The fees they do pay are covered by the companies who are interested in bringing in more investors (the theory is that if you own Walmart stock, your more likely to shop at Walmart.  I can't argue this logic)

So lets break this down into Pros  and Cons

  • You can buy fractions of shares. You don't need to have the full purchase price of a stock, which in some cases can be hundreds of dollars
  • There is no fee to buy or sell, so gains on your stock are yours from day one.
  • You can put small amounts (up to $50) on your credit card.  If you have a cash back card that means you make money (or points, airline miles, etc) on the purchase. (See edit)
  • You can automate this for every month.  Automation is one of the keys to building wealth because you stick to a plan, set aside cash, and it grow without your involvement.
  • They allow you to buy stock in many companies you've heard of, who have been around for a long time, who pay dividends, and who will conceivably be around for a while. Think about Coca-Cola, Mcdonald's, Walmart, Kraft, Target; companies you know of and use on a daily or weekly basis.
  • Loyal3 is not a full service brokerage, and you can only invest in companies they have made deals with to cover their expenses.
  • They only make one transaction per stock, per day. Usually around 2 PM. So you may not always buy at the best price of the day, nor sell at the highest.  For most long term investors this doesn't matter, but you CAN NOT day trade here. That's not the point of the program.
  • Loyal3 takes some time to transfer money to.  They only buy when they have the money in hand.  So it you want to make a purchase using your checking account, it will take 3+ days.
  • If you use a credit card you are not paying off each month, you're a fool.  You are borrowing money at very high rates in the hopes of modest returns.  Don't do that! I use a credit card that I pay off every month like clockwork. I get my cash back and pay it off.
I've been using this for about two months.  My transactions were smooth (if a bit slow, certainly compared to Tradeking), but I've bought my stocks on down days. and have since made a few bucks.  I have not sold anything yet, but will update when I do.

So in short, if you are new to investing, have only a little extra cash, and want to buy some stocks for medium and long term growth, I think Loyal3 is an excellent option.


10 November Edit: I received this email from Loyal3:

"Through the success, we've also learned a lot about how people use LOYAL3. Credit cards have become a common method for people "gaming" LOYAL3 to gain credit card points and not for the purpose of investing. This increases our costs and subtracts from our mission of making it easy, affordable and fee-free for people to invest in the brands they love.

In order to put an end to the "gaming" of LOYAL3, and to maintain fee-free investing, on Tuesday, 11/18/2014, we will be removing credit and debit cards from the LOYAL3 platform. Automatic Monthly Plans (monthly recurring investments) using credit and debit cards will continue to be active until Thursday, 12/11/2014, to allow time to switch over to ACH (checking account transfers).               
So it seems the Credit card thing was to god to be true.  Sadly some bad apples have used it to game the system and therefore ruined what I thought was an excellent option for new investors.  I still think this is a valuable company to trade through, and I value the free trading more than the credit card use.

(Disclosure: While I have an account at Loyal3, I have not been paid for this review, nor do they have an affiliate program, so I gain nothing from this review.  I just wanted to share.)

Monday, September 15, 2014

How-To: Cook with Dried Beans

Dried beans are awesome. You need to use dried beans instead of canned.  Here's why:
  1. Dried beans are much cheaper. Switching from canned to dried beans will reduce your costs by 75% on average. You can buy in bulk and store for years.
  2. Dried beans take up less space.  Because 1 cup of dried beans turns into 3 cups of cooked beans, those with limited shelf space should stock up on dried beans in those convenient 1 lb bags rather than bulky cans.
  3. Dried beans have better texture and flavor.  The canning process just destroys beans, making them rather mushy, and they can take on the flavor of the can if you buy discount brand beans.  You're also limited to the types of beans you can buy, with the varieties usually chosen for high yield and cost instead of flavor.
  4. Dried beans are easily scaled with recipes. When you cook with canned beans, you're usually cook in 14.5 oz intervals.  When you use dried beans you can scale up or down.  You can also blend types of beans to add better color or complexity to your dishes.
  5. Properly cooked dried beans avoid gassy aftermath. Beans have natural toxins to protect themselves from animals and incests.  Properly cooking the beans can deactivate and destroy these toxins.  The canning process in general leaves from of these toxins in place, which is why people complain about being gassy after eating beans. I've written up how to properly soak beans to avoid this problem below.
Conversions to know:
  • 1 lb bag of dried beans is equal to
    • 4 standard 14.5 oz cans of beans
    • 2 cups of dried beans
    • 6 cups of cooked beans
  • 1 can of beans can be replaced with 1/2 cup of dried beans
How to properly cook dried beans:

Most dried beans need to be re-hydrated first (the exception here is lentils).  The two most recommended methods are
    1. Soak overnight (12 hours before you need to cook them), drain, rinse, drain, cook
    2. Bring to a boil, boil for two minutes, remove from heat, cover and let sit for an hour.  Drain, rinse, drain, cook.
Once beans have been soaked, they can be cooked according to recipe.  One note though is that beans should be brought to a boil at some point for at least five minutes.  Standard crock pot can do this on the High setting.

For red kidney beans, where there are higher levels of toxins present, I play it safe
    1. Bring kidney beans to a boil
    2. Let boil for ten minutes
    3. Pour out water and replace with cold water
    4. Soak overnight
    5. Drain, rinse, drain, cook
Once I've done this I can say I've deactivated the toxins, and drained the water to clear them. 

Final notes:

Always check your dried beans before cooking and serving them.  Because of automation, you will still occasionally find "foreign matter" in your bag of beans.  What I'm saying here is that rocks tend to show up on occasion because the machines have trouble distinguishing.  the minute you take combing through your beans is much better than an emergency trip to the dentist for a cracked tooth.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Apple Slaw

One of the downsides of picking fresh apples is that you always over pick.  You can't help it.  Once you start a bag you want to stuff it.  So even after making 8 Qts of apple pie filling, 8 Qts. of apple sauce, 9 Qts of apple butter, we still had apples left.  What to do?

Luckily a neighbor of mine backs great BBQ pork and invited us to dinner.  So we decided to whip up some cole slaw, but with a twist.  This recipe was SUPER easy and very tasty.  I may not make regular cole slaw again.

Apple Slaw
  • 1 bag of shredded cabbage
  • 1 tart apple (Jonagold, Granny Smith, etc)
  • 1 sweet apple (Gala, Red delicious, etc)
  • 1 carrot
  • 1/2 bell pepper
  • 1/3 Cup mayonaise
  • 1/3 Cup greek yogurt
  • 1/4 Cup brown sugar (loose pack)
  • 3 Tbsp cider vinegar
Using your grater, shred the apples and carrots.  Dice up the bell pepper.  Combine all cabbage, apples, carrot, and bell pepper ina  large bowl and toss together. In a seperate bowl mix all of the wet ingrediants to make the dressing.  Pour dressing over dry slaw, and mix well.

Best if you let sit in the fridge for a few hours.

The Results
I thought this was way better than regular cole slaw.  And it complimented the dry rub pulled pork very well. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

DIY Magic Bullet

Last year my wife and I started making smoothies a bit more often.  And I considered getting one of those Magic Bullet systems but they're rather expensive, even for the base model.  We've actually had one, and the blades started to wear, and the 250W motor just wasn't always up to the task of grinding through lots of frozen fruits.

I had read online somewhere that you could use a blender base and rig up something, so I did some research.  Here's the results.

Take any reasonably priced Oster Blender. You're looking for the models that have the narrow base with the screw off blade assembly.  Here's one I picked up at Walmart for under $20

Lets try the blender cap on a Ball Mason Jar.

Like a Glove!

Before we go any further, please note that we are not following the recommended usage of this device.

"Use of this appliance for its intended use as described in this manual. The use of attachments not made by the manufacturer, including canning or orginary jar and processing assembly parts, is not recommended by Sunbeam Products, INC. and may cause injury."
If you chose to proceed you do so at your own risk.  I have no had any problems after a year of use, but some people have.  I think most from usuing old, weak, cracked jars, or those not meant for canning foods. Further I only do cold foods to avoid any pressure build up.

So lets try and make a smoothies

All thats left is cleanup

Oh and those Mason jars can go in the dish washer when you're done.

The best news here is that mason jars are sold by the dozen. A pint is perfect for a breakfast smoothie, and you can pre-load them in the freezer for the week. In the morning just come downstairs, take out a mason jar with frozen fruits and veggies, add some water, screw on the blade and you're off to the races.

Basic Canning

When Beth and I were still living in a small townhouse, and I was cooking more, I saw rather quickly that freezer space was at a premium.  I didn’t have room for a second freezer (although there was space in the bedroom, beth said that was not going to happen), but I enjoyed making larger batches of recipes and saving some of the results in the freezer.  Look ing over other solutions, the ability to can (to preserve food in jars, properly treated to stop bacterial growth) seemed the best option.
I strongly recommend you visit this site to learn more about canning methods: Selecting a Canning Method
There are two kinds of canning.  This guide focuses on the most basic kind, and kind used by most canners, a Boiling Water Bath. The process is dead simple if you follow directions and dont’ stray from the path until you know what you’re doing
First and foremost, you will need some basic supplies.  I keep things simple and avoid any fancy tools. I’ve provided links to some items on Amazon, just because I think these are some of the best prices around and I take full and complete advantage of my Amazon Prime membership.
  1. Ball Blue Book - The Blue Blue is the critical item to own if you are going to can.  It is not only full of recipes, but explains the process for canning and provides a deeper understanding thn anything i can give you.  It is owned by every person i know who cans.  I had two at one time just in case i couldn't find mine.
  2. Norpro 6 Piece Canning Set - There are some tools you simply won't own unless you can. This is the easiest way to get them. Most critical are the funnel, the magnetic lid grabber, and the jar lifter. you can buy tehse all seperate, but its cheaper just to buy a kit.
  3. A Large Pot - I use a Pressure Canner without the lid for water bath canning, but you can use any large pot.  Make sure it is tall enough to fit your jars, with plenty of head space, so nothing boils over.
  4. Canning jars and lids - You'll need different sizes depending on what you're doing.  And there are two mouth sizes, regular and wide.  For most of my canning a pint size with regular mouth is perfect.  For pickles I like large wide mouth jars.  For jams and jellies, I like smaller jars.  I recommend you buy your jars at Walmart of the like, or ask people if they have old canning (mason) jars around.  Many people do.  Lids are one time use, so those you can buy on-line in bulk.  the rings for jars can be used over and over and usually come with the jars when you buy new.
Some Option items:
  1. Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving - I've switched to using this book.  Its like the Blue Book, but with way more recipes, and also includes stuff on dehydration and freezing.  You could pobably just get this and skip the Blue Book, but I wouldn't.
  2. Canning labels - These are nice to use, but usually I just sharpie on the lid. lids are one time use anyway and permanenet marker saves you from mystery meat.
Basic Process
So lets discuss the basic canning process.
  1. First all of your jars, and tools need to be clean and sterile. The whole point of this exercise is to make food last a long time, and dirty jars and dirty tools make that impossible.  I usually run everything through the dishwasher, then boil my jars for at least ten minutes.  The good thing about this is that I leave them in the hot water until ready to fil them so they are squeaky clean and if I'm putting hot food in them, I'm less concerned about thermal shock.
  2. Warm your lids in hot (but not boiling water) The lids have a soft rubber seal that becomes pliable when hot.  This will help make that air tight seal we're going for.
  3. Follow your recipe.  For this type of canning you'll be focusing on higher acidity items.  So tomatoe sauces and soups, fruit based jellies, pickles, etc.  Most (but not all) items you simply make ahead of time and then can when you're happy with the product.
  4. Get organized.  Make sure all your tools are on hands and ready to go.
  5. Lift, drain, fill, stir, wipe, top, seal.
  • When you're ready, use your jar lifter and pull a jar from the hot water, pour out the boiling water (most of this can either go into the pot or down the drain, just make sure the jars will be covered by at least an inche of water when everything is place back in.
  • Fill the jar with your product using the canning funnel.  The funnel sticks down into the jar one ich, so do not fill above the bottom of the funnel.  You need to leave room for a vacuum to form.  This is also important to reduce the risk of foam breaking through the lid during the canning process
  • Run a thin rubber spatula or similar item around the product to make sure that there are no air bubbles along the walls of the jar.
  • Wipe the top of the jar with a damp clothe (or paper towel)
  • Use your magnet tipped rod to pull a lid from the hot water and place it on your jar.
  • Put on the sealing ring and hand tighten.  Don't go full force here, because we want some small amount of air to escape during the canning process
  • Put the jar back into the canner.  Wash rinse repeat.
That's all there is to it.  Let the jars come back ot a boil and cook for the proper amount of time.  In most cases you can't really over boil them and I always err on the side of caution.  Pull the jars as soon as water cools below a simmer na dplace on a wooden cutting board or towel to cool overnight.
You should hear a popping noice a the jars cool.  This means a vacuum has been drawn and the jar is sealed.  If the lid doesn't get sucked down, you messed something up and need to do it over again.

Bought McDonald's

Just a quick post about my investments.  I bought McDonald's stock (MCD) yesterday through Loyal3 at what I consider a bargain price of $91.74.  They pay a 3.4% dividend in general, and since it is down 2% for the last few days I saw this as a good value.

Move To Blogger

I spent a lot of time trying to get my Raspberry Pi to be a web server.  And I was able to do it.  But it brought with it some headaches that I didn't need.  I'll still use it to host some galleries that I don't want on the cloud, but I'm looking to move my primary posts off to something a bit more stable.

The biggest problem I had was that most Content Management Systems use a SQL database.  I wanted to avoid that becuase that inclreases the read/writes on the SD card.  I corrupted two rather quickly trying to get wordpress to run.  So I switched to GetSimple CMS, which is fine but not very blog friendly.  As this is evolving more into a blog than a static website I envisioned, I needed to find a new home.

Oh and spell check will be a nice feature.  I was not enjoying the typewritter feel of GetSimple. 

We'll see how it goes.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Dill Pickles #1

By request, I'm putting up my current dill pickle recipe. I'll be upfront and say this recipe probably still needs some tweeks. Last time I made them they got a "pretty good" rating. To be fair, they were matched against my spicy B &B pickles, which are my favorite. Generally if I'm making dill pickles I like the fresh variety and use my Half-Sours with some dill added in, but those aren't the dill pickles people think of when they buy a jar at the mega mart. Further the higher vinegar ratio of this recipe allows it to stay preserved longer.
So here's what we have so far.

Dill Pickles #1
  • ~10 pickling cucumbers, sliced into spears or chips
  • 4 Cups white vinegar
  • 4 Cups water
  • 3/4 Cups sugar
  • 1/2 Cup pickling salt
  • 1 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 3 tsp pickling spices
  • bay leaves
  • garlic cloves
  • dills
  • mustard seed
  • Pickle Crisp
The Process
  1. Bring boiling water canner to a boil and sterilize 5-6 pint jars.
  2. In a separate pot, bring vinegar, water, sugar, salt, pepper flakes, and pickling spice to a boil. Simmer for 15 minutes to dissolve sugar and salt and pull flavor from the pepper and spices
  3. One at a time, remove the jars, dump water and carefully cold pack the cucumbers in the jar along with 1 garlic clove, one bay leaf, 1/2 tsp mustard seed, 1/4 tsp of Pickle Crisp, and two sprigs of dill.
  4. Pour in Brine leaving one inch of head room. Wipe, seal, and return to boiling water.
  5. Process these jars for 15 minutes following standard water bath canning methods.
Pickles are ready to eat after two weeks, but achieve full flavor after a month. Home canned goods like this are good for about two years.

The Results

Like I said above, these were good. I don't know how I'm going to change them yet. The red pepper was too weak to really taste over the vinegar and salt, so I may increase that in the future, or else drop it entirely. I also think for ease you can switch the garlic cloves for 1/2 tsp of minced, I bet it would do just as well.

Dollar Shave Club Review

About a year ago I decided to try out the Dollar Shave Club to try and save some money. Having used this for a year I'll tell you the good and the bad. I generaly used the Gillette brand razors before hand, and I liked the four bladed variety, but the sheer cost was pretty damn high. I would use a razor for about three weeks, then grab a fresh one. I shave every other day unless there's an event, so I got twelve shaves per razor.

Dollar Shave Club is simple and cheap. The concept is that they will send you a new four-pack of razors every month. Costs are as low as $3/month, although that is misleading, since with the cheapest razors you need to pay shipping. I use the four-bladed razors, which come ina four-pack for $6/month, but have free shipping.

The Bad
  • The razors do not last as long. They start out as sharp as any new blade, but whether through thinner material, lower quality metal, quality control. They are only good for about 6-7 shaves before I start wanting a new one.
  • They constantly want you to add some of their other products (shaving butter, aftershave, "One Wipe Charlies" aka baby wipes for men). They email you every month to see if you want these included in your purchase.
The Good
  • At this price, I always have a sharp razor to use and I don't mind changing it out. While the razors don't last as long, One four pack and last me a month and a half. By month three I had a small surplus built up, which leads to the next good thig
  • You can switch to every other month delivery. I did this when I grew my beard out for a few months, or when my surplus got a bit big. Its easy to do, one click in settings and its done.
  • Free handle just for signing up, based on past experience, thats worth trying it for a month for a razor handle you can travel with.
So in conclusion, I like the Dollar Shave Club, it saves me money, and a sharp razor means less shaving rash. It's worth $6 to give it a try.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Refridgerator Half-Sour Pickles

One of the easiest ways to preserve food is to Pickle it.  Through this process we push off bacteria by making the food unattractive to the food beasties. Conveniently, because we are omnivores, sometimes what the little bugs don't like, we find delicious.  This is where my Fridge Pickles come in.

  • 3-4 Pickling Cucumbers, sliced lengthwise and trimmed to be no taller than than jar openning (usually about 5 inches)
  • Quarter of a large onion, cut into onion slivers
  • 2 tsp minced garlic
  • 4 tsp salt
  • 1/2 Cup white vinegar
  • 1 1/2 Cups water
The Process
  1. Clean and sterilize (you can use the dish washer for that) a quart sized, swing top jar. [You can also use a regular canning jar, but I like the swing top for this, as we aren't really canning this and I don't want to give the impression of shelf stable food.]
  2. Pack the cucumbers and onion slices into the jar.  A tight pack will help keep the cucumbers from floating to the top. Add the minced garlic on top.
  3. In a small sauce pan, heat the water, vinegar and salt until salt is disolved and the liquid just comes to a simmer.
  4. Pour hot brine into jar, filling to the top as much as possible.
  5. Close jar, and seal.  let this cool on the counter until room temperature and then move to the refridgerator. 
  6. Enjoy pickles anytime from one week to four weeks.

This is the recipe I use now.  You can alo add dill if you so chose, or use a flavored vinegar.  I like it simple and straight forward.  I've also added Koolaid to this later on, but that a different post.