Monday, December 10, 2007

Homemade yogurt: batting .500

Yesterday we succesfully made homemade yogurt. We used a simple recipe based on the one in The Tightwad Gazette, by Amy Dacyczyn:
  1. Mix a quart of milk with 1/2 cup dry milk powder.
  2. Heat to 180 degrees F.
  3. Cool to 115 degrees F.
  4. Whisk in 2 tbsp store-bought yogurt with live cultures.
  5. Incubate at 110 degrees F for 4-8 hours.
A few days ago we made a valiant first try that utterly failed. Following Dacyczyn's advice, we used a heating pad on "low" to keep the yogurt warm during the incubation step. However when it was finished Amanda noticed that the yogurt was at room temperature -- not 110 degrees. And, I completely forgot to add the milk powder. The result was a batch of milk with a slight sour taste. Ooops.

Yesterday we tried again, but this time I remembered to add the powder, and we set the heat pad on "high." This batch turned out to be actual yogurt! It was a little runnier than store-bought, but in retrospect I had doubled the amount of milk but forgot to double the amount of dried milk. I plan on using the prescribed proportion of milk powder next time, which I think will yield a thicker consistency.

At our grocery store, organic milk costs $3.50/half gallon (5.7 cents/oz), and generic plain yogurt costs $2.79/32 oz (8.7 cents/oz). We typically use about 40 oz/week, so making our own yogurt saves about $1.20/week and gives us an "upgrade" to organic. Not a huge sum, but a buck's a buck. There's also a convenience factor, since the store containers never last the whole week, but we can make a homemade batch in whatever size we want.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Boglehead investing

I am a "Boglehead."

Generally, a "Boglehead" is one who invests in accordance with Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT), using predominantly Vanguard index mutual funds, as espoused by John Bogle. In some contexts, though, a "Boglehead" is a participant in the Vanguard Diehards (aka "Bogleheads") forum.

That's a lot of mumbo-jumbo, but the gist of Boglehead-style investing is to:
  • live below your means and set aside money every month to invest
  • commit to a risk/reward level based upon your need for growth and ability to withstand market volatility
  • translate your desired risk/reward level into an asset allocation, which is a breakdown of what kinds of assets you should hold. For example, "30% US stocks, 30% non-US stocks, 10% real estate, and 30% bonds."
  • hold a small number (usualy 3-7) of low cost index funds, in proportions consistent with your asset allocation
  • "stay the course:" stick to your plan regardless of what the markets are doing
  • occasionally (e.g. once a year) rebalance the mutual funds so they don't move too far away from your intended allocation
I like this method because:
  • Academic research says it works well; I'm an academic researcher, so I take this to heart.
  • It requires very little ongoing time or effort. After the initial effort of deciding on an allocation and opening the accounts, all your decisions and legwork are finished. You can set up future investments as automated transfers, at which point the only work is an hour or so every year to rebalance the funds.
  • There are few decisions to make, so I don't wind up second guessing myself and regretting "mistakes," as I would with a more active approach.
  • I can do 100% of this over the internet.
I could go on and on about this stuff, but I think it's been covered thoroughly in blog-space. The aptly named Boglehead's Guide to Investing is an excellent primer on all things Boglehead. If you don't mind wading through forum posts, you can get a lot of the same information in raw form by reading the forum's Reference Library area. Vanguard's Plain Talk series also covers the same ground.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Crockpots are great

Man, crockpots are great.

Crockpots are a rare "quadruple crown:" simultaneously cheap, healthy, time-efficient, and environmentally sound.

Every crockpot recipe we've tried so far follows the same pattern:
  1. Throw a bunch of vegetables, spices, and maybe some meat, into the crockpot
  2. Stir it
  3. Set it to cook for 8 hours on low, or 4 hours on high
Aside from a couple simple rules, like leaving it closed the whole cooking time, and not under- or over-filling it, you can pretty much experiment with whatever ingredients you want.

It's cheap because recipes tend to be mostly inexpensive vegetables, and the slow cooking process makes inexpensive meats more tender and flavorful than other forms of cooking. It's possible to make an entire recipe out of stuff from the produce section (plus spices), and you can "get away" with using a lot of cheap ingredients like potatoes or canned tomatoes. We tend to get about 10 servings per recipe, so the cost per serving is pretty low. Leftovers are great, which helps us avoid eating out for lunch. And crockpots themselves are cheap; about $20 new, and perennially available at thrift stores and garage sales.

It's healthy because it's a low-impact way of cooking from scratch and incorporating lots of vegetables. I'll readily admit that home-cooking a healthy meal every day of the week is impractical for a lot of people, myself included. A typical crockpot recipe takes 20-30 minutes to prepare and makes enough food for several meals. Also it's easy to mix and match ingredients, so we've been substituting low-fat and "superfood" ingredients when possible.

It's time-efficient because you get so much food for so little effort. What's more, the cooking can happen unsupervised, so you can start a recipe before you go to sleep or before you leave for work, and wake up/come home to a hot, cooked meal.

It's environmentally sound because, again, you can use a minimal amount of meat. When you cook from scratch it's easy to use all organic food, and you waste very little packaging. Finally the crockpot throws off much less waste heat than an oven or range.

So far we've found a few recipes we really like, and only one that was truly bad. Our favorites include Chicken Tikka Masala, Chicken, Chickpea and Apricot Tagine, and Chicken and Dumplings. Next time I want to try a Manhattan-style salmon chowder filled to the brim with "superfoods," and I'm embarking on a quest to fine-tune an authentic New England clam chowder to soothe my Yankee homesickness. We'll see how that goes.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The requisite introductory post.

We thought we'd start off our blog with a post describing what it'll be about and who we are.

As you may've noticed our subtitle is "frugal bon vivant lifestyle." The "frugal" part means simple living in all its forms: choosing to reduce or eliminate expenditures of money and time that aren't fulfilling, and leaving room for expenditures that are. The "bon vivant lifestyle" part indicates that we try to live up the finer things: good food, spirits, time with friends, and travel.

We, the authors, are a young couple living in Orange County, California. Living in Orange County presents some challenges to living a frugal bon vivant lifestyle: it's a sprawling suburb with a very high cost of living. The general culture here is pretty image-focused and materialistic, and the area doesn't have many of the funky-college-town mainstays that would help us out. We're trying to make the best of it; to find the hidden gems and to work the system. We hope that our findings will be useful to other locals, and more broadly appeal to anyone who finds themselves in a place that's too expensive and too boring.