Thursday, June 30, 2011

If You Can't Stand the Heat...

I’ve said it before, but summer is my least favourite time of year.  It doesn’t help that I have my own internal furnace chugging away furiously, 24-7-365.  So, when the mercury soars, the last thing I want to do is spend time in a tortuously hot kitchen.  If only appetites dwindled along with my desire to cook!  Sadly, they don’t.  I’ve had to devise creative ways to get food on the table, while generating the least amount of indoor heat as possible.

Barbecuing is a great way to avoid heating the house.  Most everything can be cooked on the grill, whether on direct or indirect heat.  All that’s needed are a few good recipes, some heat-resistant cookware, and maybe a little shade.  Metal pans are the best option if cookware is required.  Avoid using pans with Teflon-coatings or with handles made of plastic or wood as most won’t take the high heat or open flame.  Aluminum foil is great for steam-cooking but use it over indirect heat for best results.  To limit our use of aluminum (cookware or foil,) we use parchment pouches on an old cookie sheet to steam vegetables or seafood.  Also glassware, as I discovered when baking our favourite meatloaf on the barbecue, can be dangerous...although, the explosion didn’t actually take place until I removed the loaf pan and placed it on a trivet to cool.  Cast iron and stainless steel are excellent cooking vessels and both clean up well.  Not everyone has access to a barbecue, though.  And, sometimes it’s simply too windy to enable thorough cooking, in a timely manner, on a barbecue.

Our most common way to get meals on the table in summer is to cook certain components in the early morning, when the house is coolest and there are still hours remaining to dissipate the generated heat through open, shaded windows.  Those meal components are foods like carbohydrates and proteins – generally the foods requiring the longest cooking times.

Potatoes, pasta, rice and beans we use most often in cold salads, but they can also be used to create quick, hot meals.  No matter the weather, baked or par-boiled potatoes produce the best oven (and barbecue) fries, in my opinion.  Pasta, cooked "al dente," and refrigerated, keeps for a few days and can be added to (re)heated sauces until warmed through.  Rice is probably our most versatile cook-ahead ingredient.  Aside from the stir-fry option (where pre-cooked rice is optimal,) it can be used as a base for frittatas, cold salad, and a (whole grain) breakfast “pudding.”  One idea I haven’t yet tried is to form a pizza shell by packing cooked rice (1/4-1/2 inch thick) into a pizza pan and then pre-baking it for a few minutes before adding toppings and finishing the cooking process.

Caution is required if you cook enough proteins  to last for two or three days of meals.  They must be cooked thoroughly, stored in air-tight containers, and refrigerated promptly. Instead of making a couple slices of bacon for breakfast, we roast a pan full (in the oven or on the barbecue) and then we have extra to crumble onto salads, baked potatoes, or to add a little protein to a quick veggie wrap.  We cook several chicken breasts or pork chops, or larger cuts like roasts and whole chicken, to use as salad or pizza toppings, or in stir-fries, sandwiches, fajitas and wraps.   Boiled eggs are something we keep on hand, year-round.  One hard-boiled egg, sliced, on toast, is my choice for an easy, high-protein meal before beginning morning exercise.  Those eggs also supplement cold summer salads (like potato, macaroni, and rice,) in tasty ways and, with the addition of a variety of vegetables, make those salads complete meals.

Last but not least, dessert.  The custard or syrups required to make ice cream, sorbet and frozen pops often require some cooking or boiling.  Jellied desserts (and salads) are also cooling, without the excessive calories of most frozen desserts.  With just a few minutes of morning prep, your family can enjoy these chill treats at any time of day.
Sweltering over a hot stove can really add sizzle to summer, and not in a good way.  Cooking certain ingredients in advance, in quantity, at the coolest time of day, dramatically lessens the amount of heat generated in the home.  Not only can you save time and heat-exhaustion, you’ll also save on air-conditioning and energy costs for the stove, oven and/or barbecue.  I like the fact that cooler meals don’t raise the body’s core temperature as much (though, this may be more imperative for women like me who “roast” without cooking anything.)  Best of all, you’ll have healthy food, fast – no need to resort to fast-food when heat overwhelms.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Rewards for Traveling

Are you making plans for a summer holiday?  How’s that going for you?  If you’re like many people I’ve heard discussing the matter, budgets are tight and vacations this year will reflect that.  Whether it’s due to scalping fuel prices, increased air fares, higher accommodation rates, or soaring food costs, many families are feeling the pinch this summer.  There are ways to stretch your travel dollars, though, and one of them is through reward program redemptions.

There are many and varied reward programs you can use – through airlines, department stores, gas stations, and hotel chains – which can help facilitate travel.  My experience with a couple of these has been limited and our points never amounted to enough to apply to our vacations, so the following examples will relate only our experience with Air Miles.
We’ve been collectors since Air Miles inception in 1992 and have used points to cover certain travel expenses on a few occasions.  We don’t make unnecessary purchases just for the rewards, though.  To collect enough points for one 200-point redemption could cost between $3,000 and $4,000 in retail spending.  Special promotional offers (e.g. 20 air miles for the purchase of 2 packages of xyz product) enable us to earn points faster, with less retail cost, however we still don’t buy products unneeded or which we wouldn’t normally use, so those opportunities are limited.  While we don’t spend money just to collect points, we do view the points earned as bonuses on items we were going to buy anyway.  Even with restricted use, we end up collecting enough Air Miles, each year, to help us cover some sundry travel costs.
Our most common use has been to redeem points for fuel certificates:  175 points for $20 worth of fuel.  This year, that could get us eleven fuel certificates (if we choose to redeem most of our points.)  That may not seem like much but it would add $220 to our vacation resources.
Fuel isn’t the only reward we could choose.  Aside from household products and services, points can be redeemed for accommodations, car rentals, air fare, cruises, travel insurance, golfing passes, amusement parks, or any combination of rewards your points-collection affords you.  We know people who fly frequently for business and, by using specific charge cards and certain air lines, they accumulate points 10-20 times faster than we do.  Their redemption options are obviously much greater and more varied.

So, if you’re crunching the numbers, looking for ways to supplement travel funds, don’t forget your own membership and reward programs.  They just might add enough to the coffers to make your summer vacation more affordable.  Check the redemptions carefully, though – we must order our fuel certificates 6-8 weeks prior to travel if they’re to get here in time.  If redeeming points for flights, you’ll find not all destinations are available, and some regions cost more points depending on your place of departure.  With foresight and planning, these rules and restrictions will have little or no effect on your plans.

Yes, travel is rewarding, but you might also find “rewards” for traveling!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Adaptation & Re-Design

It's no secret I have a "thing" about retail packaging. Whenever and wherever possible, we avoid purchasing items swathed in plastic or excess packaging. Unfortunately, many containers are unavoidable, so we plan re-uses and inevitably wind up with numerous and varied boxes, jars and tins. I've mentioned before that we re-use containers but not that I (sometimes) craft durable household items out of them with a few supplies like contact paper, decals and/or paint.

Contact paper has a number of household uses and comes in a wide variety of colours and designs. Its durability has both positive and negative aspects. Most contact paper is made of plastic and will not decompose in landfills. However, this plastic can significantly increase the life of other, less durable containers. Yes, I confess to plasticizing cardboard and tin, but I bought two rolls of contact paper long before the environmental impact of plastics was known so now, a few decades later, whether I decide to apply it or toss it, that paper's ultimate destiny is still the landfill. At least by applying it to something, it serves a practical purpose in the interim. If you prefer not to buy contact paper, similar re-design can be achieved with remnant cloth and glue.

Cardboard boxes are easily redesigned, and contact paper adds rigidity, durability, moisture-proofing and style to them. Fortified boxes can be used a number of ways – I like to organize drawers with them. A decades-old chocolate box (foreground below,) is still used to organize my cosmetic drawer.

Tin cans make excellent storage containers without any reinforcement but, frankly, they're too ugly to display. If its purpose is only to store shoe polish then it really doesn't matter; it'll be stowed out of sight anyway. But, if you want a canister for the kitchen or a garbage can for the sewing room, a little contact paper or paint can go a long way towards coordinating that tin can with home decor. The toilet plunger holder (background) was a coffee can I covered the same day as the "cosmetic organizer." Lined with a small plastic bag (to aid in cleaning and to keep the bottom from rusting,) this old coffee can still functions and looks decent – as much as a toilet plunger holder is able.

Our most re-used containers are glass jars. The majority don't get redesigned, as they're used mainly for temporary food storage and are rarely in view. Some foods, however, require longer storage in opaque containers. While I tried using contact paper on jars, it doesn't adhere well to glass, and peels when washed. Dark paint (left) works better and lasts a great deal longer. To add just a touch of embellishment to the plain thrift shop cookie jar, (right) bought for my very first home, I added a "sample" (read: free) decal which also ended up lasting for decades. It's begun peeling a little but, after thirty-seven years, that's forgivable.

The thing is, at heart, I'm happily frugal, utilitarian through and through, a hesitant consumer. So, as long as containers remain an inescapable part of shopping, it gratifies me to extend their life. The occasional redesign simply makes them last longer and look better, whatever their re-purpose.