Sunday, May 24, 2009

Backyard Garden - Week 4

The last week has been quite warm and the garden has responded favorably. The tomatoes are growing at a furious pace! I saw a flower on one of the plants today, which means that the beginnings of fruit is not long now. The spinch is growing and looks happy. Even the onions have really perked up and are a great green color.

In the herb garden, the sage put up beautiful purple flowers that can't help but draw your attention.

Columbus Asian Festival

Continuing our tradition of hitting up all the local festivals, we went to the Asian Festival on Saturday. We attended in the capacity of Red Cross volunteers, manning the first aid tent. I am happy to report that there were no major incidents while we were there, mostly lots of band-aids for people with poor footwear and a couple bandages for scrapes and bruises as a result of falls.

The Asian Festival features the foods, handicrafts, and art of the many countries lumped together as Asia. It is a well attended festival, with a very diverse crowd. The park it is located in is not in a great area of town, but the many police in attendance seemed to keep things under control. The two features of the festival are the performances and the food. There are three stages featuring a wide variety of acts from martial arts to interpretive dance. There are a lot of talented people here in Columbus.

The food was spectacular. I was worried that the festival would mostly have overpriced fast food, like many festivals. Instead, it was a showcase of much of the best ethnic food in Columbus. There were even many vegetarian options. I ate well and too much!

One interesting event was a sport somewhat like volleyball. The main difference is that you can only use feet and head to hit the ball, no hands. This forced a variety of acrobatic moves to spike the ball with flying feet. Interesting and physically impressive.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

My New Apron

Thanks to Elly for a fancy new apron. Custom made to my specifications. Now I can train for Top Chef in style!

The High Cost of Staying in Touch

I am someone who scrutinizes every cent that goes out the door. I work hard for my money and I know that the only chance I have at retiring some day is to save money now. I believe my generation will be the first generation in a hundred years that can not retire due to a lack of social security and retirement savings. There will be exceptions – those who have good pensions and those who managed to save. I hope to be one of those exceptions.

I am actively working on trying to figure out how I can reduce my cell phone bill. I am paying $65 a month (almost $800 a year!) for two phones with nearly unlimited minutes. This seems like a decent deal, but we make very few calls. Most of our calls tend to be to family or end of day “Are you going to work all night again?” calls. I have a cell phone from work, so I do not need my personal cell phone for work purposes. We gave up a home phone years ago, electing to go entirely cell based.

There are not many options for reducing the cost. Most of the standard cell phone companies charge around $35 a month per line for a minimal account, so there would be no advantage in downgrading to a lesser plan. There are pre-paid cell phones, which may be a good option. I do not know much about how they work out from a cost perspective. I have also been thinking about getting a home based landline again and dumping the cell phone entirely. Last time I had a home based phone it was around $25 a month for the line plus any long distance charges. This is contrary to current trends, but I am kind of a contrary sort of person.

Backyard Garden - Week 3

Week three in the garden saw a lot of action. We got flowers to make the front of the house look nice and a bunch of herbs for our kitchen herb garden. The herb garden is now planted with chives, rosemary, dill, oregano, basil, and sage. These are the herbs I work with the most in the kitchen and it is nice to have them on hand. They taste so much better than the dried variety. I am hoping to learn how to dry them so I can have a year round supply of herbs from the garden.
The vegetables survived a cool week that saw temperatures go all the way down to 37 degrees. The tomatoes continue to grow, the onion is starting to look really healthy, and the spinch has sprouted. It is shaping up to be a good year in the garden.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Backyard Garden - Week 2

Over the last week not much has changed with my garden. The weather is still somewhat cool, so the garden is growing slowly. I am happy to report that so far all the plants are healthy. The tomatoes have grown about an inch and my spinach has just begun to sprout. Over the next week I hope to get my herb garden cleaned up and planted with some basil and parsley.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Chinese Restaurants

I just finished up a book by Chinese-American author Jennifer Lee entitled "The Fortune Cookie Chronicles". In the book she attempted to find the roots of the success of Chinese cooking in the United States. There are more Chinese restaurants than McDonalds, and you can find one in nearly every town. It is always a joy to me to pull off the highway in the middle of nowhere and to see the familiar neon lights of the local Chinese restaurant.

I am passionate about Chinese food. It is my favorite food, especially since I started eating vegan a year and a half ago. Dairy is very uncommon in Chinese cuisine and tofu is a popular meat substitute. The disappointing things is that most Chinese restaurants have strikingly similar menus and mediocre food. I gave up Chinese buffets a couple years ago and I hesitate to go in most of the little shops along the highway. I wondered how is it that the food in these places is so different from the noodles and delicious meals I had in New York’s, Philadelphia’s, and San Francisco’s Chinatown. The short answer is because the local Chinese restaurants sell American Chinese food based on a common menu that has evolved towards what Americans like. This means lots of meat, fat, salt, sugar, and oil.

General Tso’s chicken is a great example of this. Jennifer Lee traveled to China to see if she could find General Tso’s chicken there, perhaps find the root dish. She was unsuccessful. The Chinese apparently are much more vegetable focused and do not favor thick sugar syrups on their meat. Besides the fact that meat is expensive and tends to be used as a spice, not the main ingredient.

There is a chapter on fortune cookies that highlights just how non-Chinese our “Chinese” food is. Fortune cookies are based on a cookie invented by a Japanese immigrant living in San Francisco. There is nothing even remotely Chinese about them. When they are sold in Asia, they are referred to as American Fortune Cookies.

Most American Chinese restaurants are owned by individual families. The father manages the kitchen while the mother keeps the front of the house in order. The kids fill in where they are needed. All work seven days a week and do not take vacations. There is a thriving market for Chinese restaurants in the recent immigrant community. Working a few years in a place like New York City provides the capital to purchase a restaurant in Georgia, Texas, or Ohio. The purchasers generally do not care where the restaurant is located as their view of the United States is limited to either New York or not New York. The goal of all this hard work is to give the kids a good education and perhaps a much better life, one not spent working sixteen hour days in front of a hot wok.

(pictures in this post come from the internet, not original)

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Backyard Garden - Week 1

One of the highlights of each year is eating fresh tomatoes straight from my backyard garden. I have been growing tomatoes for around eight years now and I have yet to have a bad harvest. I decided this year it might be fun to track the growth of my garden as well as what I am able to eat out of it.

In addition to tomatoes, this year I am growing garlic, onions, and spinach. I have had mixed results with onions and spinach in the past but I have high hopes this year. Every year I have a great garlic harvest which supplies about 2/3 of my usage. This is quite a bit considering I cook a lot at home and most of my food has at least some garlic.

I am feeling constrained by the small amount of garden space I have, though I have enough space for my "essentials". This summer I will likely work to expand the garden so I can accommodate peppers, beets, beans, squash, and perhaps even some pumpkin.

Total cost for the garden this year is as follows:
Spinach seed- Free, left over from last year
Onion sets- $1.50
Tomato plants- $2.00
Manure- $13.70
Garlic- Free, stored from last year
Organic Fertilizer - Free, pulled out of storage

Total Cost to Date: $17.20
Total Harvest to Date: 0

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Caesar Creek Flea Market

As you hear the doom and gloom economic news of these days, one persistent story is that Americans are changing their purchasing habits. There are stories about clipping coupons, growing food in backyard “victory” gardens, and a return to cooking at home. While there is no doubt that Americans are cutting back on large expenditures like cars and houses, I am dubious that this is the first step in a permanent move towards thriftiness. Many of the hallmarks of thriftiness I believe would be too great a jump for the average employed middle-class American.

I look at a couple (unscientific) trends to support my skepticism. When I drive past restaurant parking lots, they are still full every night of the week. The savings rate is still very low; going from 0 to 4% is not much of an improvement as far as I am concerned. I do not see a surge in carpooling, renting out rooms in homes, closing of expensive private schools, or reuse.

This weekend I took the eighty mile journey south to visit one of the premier Ohio flea markets – Caesar Creek Flea Market in Wilmington, Ohio. There are hundreds of vendors spread out over a sprawling facility that extends indoors and outdoors. The products being offered run from books to tools to jewelry. One stall offered tarot card readings and another advertised a great variety of Dale Earnhardt merchandise. They even had an adult store out back in a little red barn!

While nearly everything was a good deal, I noticed that most of the stuff was new. I think Americans have gotten so into the throw-away culture that even the poor are no longer willing to buy someone else’s old stuff. It all heads straight to the landfill. The flea market was very well attended, though I did not see any sign of the wealthier people who are cutting back I hear about in the news.

I found one vendor who was selling tomato plants at a great price - $2 for six plants. In comparison, last night I saw slightly bigger plants at Wal-Mart at $3 each! I scooped up a six pack of Yellow Jelly Beans, which are a small, yellow tomato that is sweet and goes well on salads. Combined with the Big Boys plants I already have, it is looking to be a good tomato year in the Kaizar household.

Elly managed to find a food stall which offered a “healthy” vegetarian food option – fried green beans! These were string beans which were breaded and deep fried. The end product looked like breaded worms. They tasted pretty good though and made for a unique experience you can only find at the flea market.