frugality, eclipsed

In my efforts to find ways to become more self-sufficient (i.e., stop paying other people for things I can do by myself), it occurred to me that we spend an awful lot of money on cooking.  For people who never go to restaurants, this is frustrating. Although I use a pressure cooker, which doesn’t consume very much electricity, I also use the oven (if you read this blog, you will have noticed a slight inclination on my part to bake bread at intervals of about, oh, 24 hours).   And you know what, like it or not, electricity is freaking ridonkulous in this country.  (Ridonkulous might not be a word, but I am pretty sure you know what I mean.  Which kind of makes it a word, doesn’t it?  I think that’s what my college linguistics professor said.)

You know what’s worse than ridonkulous electricity prices?  When ridonkulous electricity prices are increased by 12% overnight.  And by 12%, I think I mean 12.5%, but this is my blog, and I get to be honest and sincere and all that, and the honest truth is that when they announced the increase, I stuck my fingers in my ears and sang “la la la la!”  Whatever the increase was, it was ridonkulous.

Which means that using electricity is now on the list of things that we’re trying not to do as much.  Let’s talk about the other options.

  • Liquid gas canisters with a burner attached.  We have some of these guys because we use them to make Greek coffee, a very exotic concoction that I’ll post about at some point.  But they are expensive as all get out because… well… Frugal Fail Alert:  S and I are both terrifed of how you have to puncture the regular gas canisters and so we use the fancy “one-click” kind that cost an arm and a leg.  So these are not really a frugal option, not unless we can get over our shared phobia.  And honestly, do I really want to give more money to the fossil fuel companies than I already do?  No.  No, I do not.
  • Wood.  I grew up burning wood for heat, and periodically for cooking, and while it is atmospheric and smells great, it usually requires a fireplace, woodstove, or something of that nature.  We live in a rented apartment that has absolutely no capability for putting in any of that.  Shot down!  (Besides, chopping down trees and cutting them up into pieces makes me sad too.)
  • Charcoal.  A grill is on my list of things that I want to get eventually, but… well, I don’t have one, and I can’t afford one right now.
  • Coal.  Yeah, okay, moving on.
  • Wind Power, Wave Power, Geothermal Power, Water Power.  I’ll get right on those, thanks!
  • Solar Power.  Solar power is an interesting one.  For one thing, it’s completely free.  For another thing, Greece has a lot of sun, and good sun specifically for solar power.  Solar power is completely harmless to the environment.  It has one major drawback.  It’s not very reliable.  Clouds.  Nighttime.  Rain.  Solar eclipses.   But one drawback is not very many, so we plough ahead.

I set up a solar oven today.  Before you get curious and ask “where did that lady find a solar oven in a small Greek city known primarily for snake-shaped gelatinous sweets?” I must reassure you that I made it completely from items found around the home.

My solar oven consists of:

  • a table.  I used a cheap plastic patio table, that I already had, for which I paid 4 euros.
  • a cooling rack from my kitchen, the kind you put cookies on while trying not to eat them.
  • two of those silver sun protectors for car windshields.  They cost 3 euros each, which to me is a great deal, since we use these in the car anyway.
  • a black pot.  You can use any black pot.  You can use any pot, and paint it black.  If you are a black pot, you should not taunt kettles.
  • some large plastic bags.  The black pot has to fit into the bag and it has to close,  I used a twist tie to close mine.  (Ideally you use oven bags, which withstand high temperatures.  I couldn’t find those here, but I’ll track them down somehow, someday.)
  • an oven thermometer.

I put it together and stuck some potatoes in there for the first trial run, earlier today.  I will share with you in detail how I did it, with plenty of embarrassing photos, but not right now, because… well… it didn’t work.  At all.  Not even close.  As it turns out, you also need actual sunlight.  While I was setting this up, I was sweating so much I had stripped down to a tank top and bare feet.  In February.  My solar cooker corner was hottin’ up in a major way.  It took me about 5 minutes to set it up, at which point I went to take a cold shower.  Fifteen minutes later, the sun was gone.  Clouds.  Overcast.  Cold and dreary.  And so it remained, all day long.  The oven thermometer didn’t even register at all.  Nothing happened.  Total and utter failure.

The only positive of this entire thing is that, three hours later when I gave up, while the temperature of objects on the balcony was very cold to the touch, the pot and potatoes were warmish.  Maybe around 80 degrees Fahrenheit.  Nothing would ever cook at that temperature, but at least it was telling me that, in overcast conditions, it was still considerably warmer than the ambient temperature.  So, given bright unrelenting Greek-style sunlight, I might be in business.

In the meantime, I made some food on the stove, ridonkulous style.

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frugal tips for crisis thrivers – part 4

In this post, I’ll talk about energy efficiency when cooking.  Earlier posts in this series dealt with food shopping, food stockpiling, and the effect of a currency change on food storage.   In the next post in the series, I’ll talk about energy efficiency when washing up in the kitchen.

First and foremost when trying to save money on food preparation we have to take into consideration that the kitchen is usually the biggest consumer of energy in your apartment or house. Your fridge/freezer and stove/oven are mostly responsible, but your smaller appliances (dishwasher, toaster, coffee maker, microwave, lights, blender, etc) make a small contribution as well.

Refrigerators and Freezers

Never open the fridge door without knowing what you will get and where it is. To manage this, always keep foods in exactly the same place. When you buy a block of cheese, put it in the cheese spot every time. This way you will not waste time with the refrigerator door open.  If you’ve ever spent much time in Greece, you are probably familiar with the stereotype that Greeks open the refrigerator door and stand there staring.  I have actually seen this happen; I don’t think it’s the norm, but if you recognize yourself:  this is an expensive habit.

If you have a hard time with this one – especially with a freezer that is packed full – how about keeping a fridge and freezer inventory on the door?  Instead of a simple list, you can make it a diagram, so you can see at a glance where things are, and where to put them when you bring them home from the store.  This can also help those in the family who are not so involved in food storage:  I’m the one who puts the shopping and leftovers away, so S doesn’t always know where things are.  Having a diagram can be a big help.  It doesn’t have to be ugly either:  you can be creative and do it however you want; you could use images of the various foods instead of words, use your kitchen decor colors, or whatever you want.

Put a thermometer in your refrigerator.  You can buy these at the supermarket in the area where they sell ladles and pizza cutters and other kitchen gadgets.  They are cheap – about €4 to €5.  Most indicate right on the thermometer what a good refrigerator temperature is – personally I aim for around 4 degrees Celsius.  You may be able to turn your refrigerator down based on what your thermometer is telling you.  Remember that season changes affect the refrigerator!

If your refrigerator has a digital thermometer, you might want to use an analog thermometer anyway.  I have heard of the digital ones failing – in fact, beautiful new refrigerators tend to have a lot of problems with their computers, and you may not really be saving money over the long haul if you have to buy a new €700 refrigerator every 5 years.  Our refrigerator is the older style (freezer on top, not digital), and I believe is around 9 years old.  It does not use an excessive amount of electricity and is very reliable.  (My parents still use their fridge from 1975, but I make no claims as to its energy efficiency!)

Keep both your refrigerator and you freezer full at all times. Cold and frozen foods stay cold and frozen much longer when surrounded by other cold and frozen foods, and together they all hold the temperature down. This means that the appliance doesn’t have to turn on nearly as often.

If you don’t have enough food to fill your fridge and freezer, you can stick your dried fruit and flour in there; if you don’t have anything else, you can use bottles of water (leaving a few centimeters on top for expansion for the freezer).   The water bottles will perform the same function and water is always good to have around, however based purely on my own experience and what I’ve noticed in my own kitchen, the times that I used water to fill the fridge, it switched on much more frequently than it did when filled with food.

If your freezer is the kind to fill itself with ice, defrost it regularly.  I had to do this every few weeks on the island; the freezer was the size of a loaf of bread, and it had issues.  I would take everything out of the freezer and refrigerator, unplug it, and chip away with a spatula while holding a blow dryer to it.  You have to be careful because the combination of a blow dryer + electricity + water can be dangerous.   In winter, you can just let it defrost naturally; of course this will save you the cost of running the hair dryer.  You can put food outside to stay cool.  Don’t put refrigerator items in sub-zero temperatures, because they will freeze, of course!

If you are buying a freezer (chest or upright), the modern ones often come with an “auto-defrost” feature.  This feature cuts down on the energy efficiency significantly.  Better to stay away from those.

We always hear this one, but I suppose I might as well repeat it here:  make sure your fridge/freezer coils (in the back of the appliance) are clean and not pressed against the wall. They need airflow to function. If they are dirty and closed off, the appliance has to work harder.  Likewise if it is vented to the front, make sure the vent is clean.

Don’t put hot food into the fridge or freezer.  Let it cool down first.  If it’s something sensitive like chicken and you’re worried about bacteria, you can put it in the fridge right away – but be aware that it will increase the internal temperature of your refrigerator for all your food, and the fridge will work harder to cool it.  This is especially important if it’s a large quantity of hot food.    If you made a bunch of tomato sauce and want to freeze it, it would be silly to put it in a container and pop it in the freezer hot off the stove.  Leave it on the counter until it’s room temperature, and then freeze it.

Ovens

Use the air (convection) feature on your oven. Living in Europe, we’re lucky that most ovens come with a fan – if you use this, you can turn the heat down a little, and your food will cook faster! The fan itself burns minimal energy.

In cold weather, always remember to leave your oven door wide open after using it, to warm your home.  Some homes actually heat with the kitchen oven, so why not take advantage of the heat you already paid for?

The opposite is true as well:  in the summer, reduce oven use as much as possible, use a microwave if you have one, and never leave the oven door open.  If you do need to cook in the oven in the summer, cook large amounts of food or several dishes at once, to reduce the amount of overall cooking time over the next several days.

The broiler function in your oven burns a lot of energy, so try to avoid using it.

Pots and Pans

If you are cooking on your stovetop, invest in and use a pressure cooker – xytra taxytitas / χύτρα ταχύτητας – because they reduce your cooking time sharply, often by over 90%, which of course costs you much less.  They also use far less water than conventional pots. A pressure cooker is ideal for cooking potatoes, rice, lentils, beans, meats, etc. Anything you would otherwise boil or steam can go in there.

I usually turn mine on only long enough to bring it up to full pressure (usually no more than 5 minutes) and then turn off the stove. Unless it is something that needs a particularly long time to cook, that’s usually enough to cook it perfectly. If it’s something that needs longer, once it reaches pressure, I turn the heat down to medium for another 5 minutes, then turn it off. That’s almost always long enough to cook just about anything, especially if you’ve pre-soaked your dried beans and chickpeas.

I have found parboiled rice on sale (Lidl, €1.79 for 2 kg) for less than regular white rice on sale – so I have a lot of parboiled rice on hand.  That cooks even faster and needs barely any electricity at all to cook.

Check that your pans and saucepans are completely flat on the bottom (poorer quality pans will start to produce a curve after a while – the junky pan I bought on the island is morphing into a wok…) and covers the burner exactly. If the outer portion of the burner is uncovered by your pot, you are wasting all that heat; if the outer portion of the pot is not over the burner, it will take longer to cook your food.  Pans that are not completely flat on the bottom will also be wasting a great deal of heat.  You can experiment with ceramic and other kinds of pans and see what cooks different dishes faster.  I prefer a simple nonstick pan for the combination in affordability and versatility.

Alternative Cooking Methods

If you have access to a massina (a wood-burning stove that has burners on top and an oven for food), use this to provide heat to your home and take advantage of the free food prep heat.

If you have a fireplace, you can cook in it! You can cook meat, fish, vegetables, potatoes all right in your fireplace!

In the summer, see if you can cook outdoors.  Many apartment complexes in Greece have a brick oven for the residents to use.  At least you’re not heating up your apartment further.

Batch Cooking

Cook larger amounts and store the leftovers.  You can also cook just the staples and freeze for use in recipes later.  Filling your fridge with leftovers is a great way to keep your fridge from working too hard.

Appliance Size

If you don’t need a huge refrigerator, don’t use one.  Refrigerators come in all sizes, and Greek apartments for rent often don’t have one when you move in.  You may find that what you really need is a large stand-alone or chest freezer to hold your stockpile of food, and a small refrigerator to hold your everday items like fluid milk, cheese, produce, and opened jars and containers.  Our apartment on the island had a small refrigerator about waist high (including a shoebox freezer) and I found the refrigerator quite adequate.  I wanted a much, much, much larger freezer, of course.  A shoebox doesn’t hold very much.

Likewise, you may not need a full-size oven with a 4-burner stove.  The first year on the island, we had a very small oven with one regular burner and one tiny burner for making Greek coffee (and nothing else!).  The second year, we had the same size oven with a 2-burner stove.  Those experiences taught me that I do want 3 burners, but that I don’t need a full-size oven.  I bake and use my oven frequently.  The fact that I bake bread all the time does not mean that I need a large volume oven.  Bread doesn’t take up very much space and I can promise you that my bread tastes delicious, even out of those very small ovens.  The oven I have now is a standard Greek oven, which is about 1/2 or 2/3 the size of a standard American oven.  I think it’s just right or maybe even a little larger than I’d like.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, keep an open mind to smaller appliances – they usually burn less energy, and as a frequent baker, I appreciate the much faster pre-heat time in a small oven.

If you have the opportunity to have two ovens, two smaller ovens is usually a much better choice than one large one.  And while we’re on the subject of building your own dream kitchen, don’t do what my mother in law did and put her wall oven right next to her refrigerator/freezer!

Smaller Kitchen Appliances

Use an electric tea kettle to boil water, rather than the cooktop. If you have a microwave, use it, as they are much more energy efficient than conventional ovens and stoves. If you have a toaster, use that rather than the oven or broiler function.

Those are just a few simple tips that should be able to save you a few €€€ in the kitchen.  Next time I’ll talk about hot water, water conservation, and electricity conservation when washing up.

Read my other Frugal Tips articles here:
Part 1:  Food Shopping in Greece
Part 2: Building a food stockpile
Part 3: How uncertainty about the Greek currency affects food prices, availability, and storage

DIY ziploc bag organizer

If you’re an American living abroad, you probably miss Ziploc bags, zipped Hefty bags, and the like.  Here in Greece, they do sell zipped plastic bags, but they are godawful quality, the zip doesn’t really work, and they aren’t real freezer bags.  So if you’re like me, you beg your American friends and family to throw ziploc bags into anything they send you in the mail (“they make great packing material!”).  And then you end up with a pile of bags, but no real secure feeling of being able to replace them.  So you reuse them.  Enter the ziploc bag mess.

A scary pile of used ziploc bags gathering on the counter, begging to be washed.  No good way to dry them.  No good way to store them.  A drawer becomes home to a messy mixture of sizes.  When you want one, you have to pull out five before you find the right size.  Sometimes the ones you pull out of the drawer are still wet on the inside.  It’s enough to break your American heart.

After struggling with this mess for over two years, I found the solution:  my own personal  Ziploc Bag System!

First, let’s take a look at how I stored my bags before I finally tackled the problem.  I have a lot of kitchen cabinets (yay!) but am severely lacking in kitchen drawers – so much so that I don’t even put my forks and spoons in a drawer!  The bottom drawer is where I store my plastic wrap, aluminum foil, wax paper, wooden skewers, and plastic ice-cube bags.  And my bags.

Yeah.  That’s not really a long-term solution, is it?  I had been trying to come up with a solution for a long time.  I tried a number of things.  First, I organized them by size and put all the tiny ones into a small one, all the small ones into a medium one, all the medium ones into a large one, and so on.  That meant that to get a tiny one, I had to open about 5 bags and scrounge around trying to find the one I wanted.  It meant that the method was only effective for up to three days.

Then I tried rolling them by size and putting a rubber band around them, and storing each size separately.  Something about pulling the rubber band off, unrolling, taking out a bag, rerolling, rebanding, just didn’t appeal to my innate laziness.

Then I tried rolling them by size and putting them into toilet paper tubes.  1 point for reusing an otherwise recycle-bin item, but -10 points for being only marginally better than the rubber band method.   I briefly entertained the idea of using empty tissue boxes, but they were too bulky and we don’t go through tissues fast enough to generate enough boxes for all my sizes of bags.

The result of all these attempts was the same:

Yup.  Doesn’t look any better the second time.

Unrelated to my ziploc struggle, I also have another kitchen struggle:  that of breaking water glasses.  When we moved here, we didn’t own any glasses (or pretty much anything else, for that matter), so we bought 6.  Then about a month later, we bought another 6.  And so on.  The other day,  when I realized we were down to our last two glasses again, I found our supermarket’s storebrand glasses on sale for only €1 each – a steal, since up til then I’d been paying €2.30 each for the cheapest glasses they sold.  I grabbed a whole box of six – and after bringing home the box, I couldn’t just put it in the recycling bin.  It was too special.  It must have a greater purpose in life.

Well, now you see where I’m going with this.  After sitting on the kitchen counter for about 48 hours, I knew what its greater purpose was.  (Clarification:  the box sat on the kitchen counter for 2 days.  Not I.)

Supplies:

  • 1 repurposed water glass box, 6 sections
  • 1 piece of white contact paper
  • a razor blade
  • a crazy pile of ziploc bags

Total price:  free, baby!

Step 1:  cut your contact paper to the appropriate size.

Step 2:  attach contact paper to the box.  My super high-quality contact paper is very easy to work with, and peels right back up if there are bubbles or wrinkles, so this was a breeze.

Step 3:  admire your finished bag organizer!

I wasn’t quite done yet.  I still had that drawer to tackle.

Step 4: dump all ziploc bags into a pile for sorting.

Step 5: sort your bags by size.  Since I had seven sizes but only six sections in my box, I combined the half-gallon (top right) and the tall skinny (bottom left), since I only had a few of each.

Step 6:  roll each group of bags and put in the dividers, with the largest in the back.

The entire project took about ten minutes, start to finish, and was free, because I had the contact paper on hand.

With such a lovely new home, my bags don’t need to hide in the drawer.  So I found them a more convenient home, which will save me aggravation in the kitchen.

If this picture confuses you, remember:  this is Greece.  There are no laundry rooms.  Washing machines go in the bathroom or, if you’re lucky, the kitchen.  I’m extremely lucky, because my washing machine goes next to my dishwasher.  If you’re wondering about the clothes dryer, forget it.  This is frugal living.  We use the sun.

Before I even tackled the bag organization problem, I had to deal with the washing/drying problem.  In the past, when we lived on a tiny, beautiful Greek island, I would hang them on the clothesline on our veranda, where they would dry gracefully in the breeze.  Now we live in a city, and our balcony overlooks a major street.  They can dry there too, but with an invisible layer of city street grime that I’d prefer not to eat, since I have to wear it anyway.

Do you know how to wash a ziploc bag?  Here’s what I do:  first, rinse out any bits of food.  Then, put a few pumps of dishwashing foam in the bag, and fill it about 1/3 with water.  Close the zip, and massage the bag with your hands, getting the soap into all the corners.  Dump out the water, and rinse.

Then, hang it on the handy ziploc drying line that you’ve got over your kitchen sink!

I usually hang them inside out first, and then turn them right side out and hang again to dry the outside.  Since I keep my clothespins on my washing machine (which is about a foot to the right of the photo), it’s all very convenient.

And when there are no bags to dry, it pretty much fades into the background.  (Please disregard the pizza dough I’m rising on the counter….)

It’s also a handy way to hang pretty much anything that needs to dry quickly and you don’t want to put outside on the line.

To make this, I just used a white cord (€0.50 at Jumbo in the gift-wrapping section) and two no-drill stick-on hooks (€4.95 each at Praktiker) – these hooks are expensive, but they are reusable and we are renting, so can’t drill holes in the tile.  They hold a lot of weight and actually hold up our shower organizer with all the shampoo and soap bottles, so they’re a great thing to have.  In the US, I think they’re called “command hooks.”

That’s all there is to it, and the line can be removed easily if needed.

Let’s take a look at that drawer again:

Much better!

Remember:  if you are trying to save money, washing and reusing bags is a great way to save money.  But make sure you’re not taking any risks with your health.  I don’t store raw meat in these.  For that, I use regular non-zip bags, which I then put inside a ziploc.  I also sometimes put a little bit of bleach in the water if I think it’s necessary.  Use your judgement, and if you think a bag may have lived its food-storage life, repurpose it in your craft room or another area of your home.

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