Monday, January 26, 2009

January Poverty - I'm gonna make my own laptop sleeve

Like most doctoral students forced to make a living at teaching while doing research, January is a lean month for me. My institution is notorious for paying staff late. I often wait 3 or more pay periods before I am paid. Those weeks between the last of the Fall term paycheques and the first of the Spring term money are tough. I am sitting here with holes in mismatched socks. The thought of another lunch of Wasa crackers is making me nauseous.

Not much to be done but suffer the slings of the crock-pot and arrows of cable providers intent on re-framing the basic cable package to coincide with confusion about the analog to digital migration. I'm broke. The sort of person I am, I refuse to dip into savings or credit cards to get by during this period. I've made a polite phone call to con-ed and my phone provider to explain my current situation and now I sit and wait. what is a fabulous person to do while flat broke and working like a dog? Well, I fantasize about what I might buy when I have money. Currently, I am fantasizing about the laptop sleeve I need. My fantasies led me to - a web site dedicated to the sale of homemade items...laptop sleeves included. There, I found these pretty little things

Then I thought "screw this"....I can totally make my own. Here are two websites with free patterns and instructions for lap top sleeve construction. The first lists instructions for a sleeve with handles.

The second provides instructions for an envelope-style bag.

It helps to have a sewing machine, but I have made similar items in the past by hand stitch. The main difference between the two methods, in the case of these sleeves, is really the amount of time you want to invest. That said - I have time. I am broke and losing tv stations.....I can probably pull this together in a night with the scrap fabric I have lying around from other projects.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Under $10 indulgence #1 - Mighty Leaf Tea

Little gifts to me are a big part of how I brought my spending under control. When I first moved to New York, I was dropping plastic cards down on high end designer shoes and purses. I ate out every night and drank expensive drinks..and cheap drinks...well...I mean, I drank like a graduate student. I drank a lot. Every little bit of it went on a credit card.

My income, however, had dropped to lower than a 1/3 of what it had been the year before when I was viably employed. When you earn less than $15K a year, Chanel shoes and regular drinks and dinner at Pravda should be well out of your reach. They, of course, were well out of my reach. I spend this way because I felt inadequate. Around then of my second year in New York I realized what a mess I had had made and decided to get myself out of it.

I had about $20K in credit card debt, a failing marriage and a bit of no-starter degree. The very first thing I did was set about earning some extra cash. I took a term off of my degree to earn some extra cash and managed to clear 1/2 the debt. I divorced my husband - a man who made me unhappy and who had very, very unhealthy spending habits. When I returned to school 5 months later, I started a savings account and developed a plan to clear the rest of the debt on my lower graduate income. I took up extra teaching positions, a college assistant position and I worked out a debt repayment record and plan for myself. The divorce, the debt repayment all made me feel better about myself. So as to not feel deprived, I changed the meanings of the words "splurge" and "deserve". A "splurge" became an item I could afford within my actually income, but the cost of which would not help me noticeably reduce my debt. "Deserve" came to mean items that would not interfere with my debt reduction or savings.

I worked out that I could afford a $10 item every month or so that would be just for me and would make me feel special. At times this item has been an extra $10 so I could get a fancy shampoo. Other times, it has been a movie I really wanted to see. Most of the time I bank it to buy higher priced items like clothing. This month, it is Mighty Leaf Tea.

I love tea. My firm belief that a warm drink = warm thoughts has recently be substantiated by a study published in Science . Mighty Leaf Tea Company is a Californian company that produces whole leaf teas wrapped in silken tea bags. Now, I'm not sure if "silken" means "silk", but the company assures the buyer that the pouches are biodegradable. Sadly, the cellophane packges that the bags are placed in do not degrade. A supercool feature of the company's site is character, origin and health benefit information for each tea as well as customer ratings and comments. Honestly, I find the customer ratings more helpful than the company's own description of the tea flavour.

My personal fave Mighty Leaf tea is Orange Dulce, which sells in NYC for about $7.50 for 15 bags (currently $6.96 online). It is a blend of black and green tea leaves with jasmine flowers, vanilla and orange flavours. It is smooth tasting - like chamomile, with hints of wood and citrus. The company claims it tastes a bit like port. I drink port on an almost weekly basis and I don't taste port-like flavours in this tea at all. Still, it is an amazing cuppa.

I'm pi$$ poor. Let's crock pot

It has been a really long time since I've updated this blog. As my repertoire of graduate jobs has started to dwindle and I enter the cold and money-poor month of January, I have been forced to squish my New York City life into a shrinking budget.

Luckily for me, Christmas brought the gift of slow cooker. NYC kitchens are tiny. As a result, I'm a bit of a fascist when it comes to determining what appliances will and will not be in my kitchen. For years I lived with a kitchen-aid mixer and an electric nettle. I lived that way very happily. Since moving in with my bf, my kitchen has been hammered with appliance gifts. Everything from food processors to toasters. Someone has even given me a knife sharpener...presumably for my one and only knife.

This Christmas my grandmother gave me a crock pot. At first, I was horrified - where-the-hell-am-I-going-to -put-this horrified. I quickly warmed up to the gift as it would give me two greater presents a) cheap tasty food and b) boyfriend cooking time.

Despite having owned an antique Westinghouse meter tall slow cooker for years, I've never actually cooked anything in a slow cooker. I used the Westinghouse machine for storage until I had to store it in my grandmother's garage pre-NYC move. Turns out, it's like an idiot's kitchen. I can throw anything in there and it, more or less, comes out ok.

Tonight I decided to work the crock pot to save cash on something on which I typically spend lots of cash - eating in Indian restuarants. NYC has a slew of great Indian restaurants. It is really easy to blow my weekly budget on one night of chicken makhani and a couple of Taj I busted out the crock pot and it was cheap and amazing. Here is how I did it.

Most of these ingredients I had at home already - starting from scratch would be a bit of an investment.

Chicken Makhani a la Crock Pot

1/4 Ghee or oil (I'm really lazy about this. I usually throw in 2 Tbs of butter and 3 Tbs of olive oil)
2 lbs of chicken thighs, bones in, skin on (skin and rinse the thighs before cooking)
1/2 cup of onion minced
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp of ground cayenne
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 inch of fresh ginger, minced
2 tsp of curry powder (You can also buy this - old stuff will taste bad. I make my own by roasting until fragrant but not burnt 1/4 cup of coriander seeds, 2 Tbs of cumin seeds, 1 Tbs of black peppercorns, 2 tsp fenugreek, 2 cinnamon sticks, 1 Tbs of ground tumeric, 2 tsp of ground green cardamon or crushed pods, 1 tsp of whole cloves, 1 tsp ground ginger, 1 dried red chili pepper with stem or a 1/4 tsp of cayenne pepper. Fenugreek is really important to this recipe as it gives most Indian food found in U.S. Indian restuarants its characteristic flavour. Check your health food store or an indian food store for it. It is pretty cheap. Grind witha mortar and pestle or a coffee grinder).
2 Tbs Greek yogurt
1 cup of canned tomatos (diced. I used cherry tomatoes, but plum or beef are fine)
2 Tbs of butter (I almost always use salted, but you can sub unsalted)
1/4 cup of water
1 tsp garam masala (you can buy this but I have the stuff to make my own - toast until fragrant 3 Tbs of cumin seeds, 1 Tbs coriander seeds, 1 stick of cinnamon, 1 tsp of green cardamon powder - or 5 crushed cardamon pods, 5 cloves, 1 tsp of ground nutmeg, 1/4 tsp of allspice, 1 tsp of black peppercorns, half a star anise, 2 bay leaves. Grind with a mortar and pestle or with a coffee grinder.)
2 bay leaves
1/2 tsp hot paprika
1 cup heavy whipping cream

Heat oil in a large frying pan. Skin and rinse chicken thighs before placing in pan. Fry the chicken on both sides until cooked and light brown on outside (about 15 minutes). Remove the thighs and place them in the bottom of the crock pot, leaving the oil in the frying pan. Add minced onions, salt and cayenne pepper to the pan and saute until onions brown slightly. Add garlic and ginger and saute until fragant, or about 2 minutes. Add curry powder and saute for 30 seconds. Add greek yogurt and saute until it is well asborbed into mixture (there should not be excess liquid). Add tomatoes and butter and saute until bubbling. Remove from heat. Add garam masala, paprika, and bay leave. Pour onto chicken in crock pot. Pour water into the frying pan to rinse the remaining mixture off of the pan and then pour into crock pot. Add 1 cup of heavy cream to crock pot and mix gently. Cook at high heat (setting 2) for 4 hours.
Serves 6 people.

I served this on whole grain basmati rice and it was soooooo good. We have tonnes for lunch tomorrow.

I had the spices before I made the dish so the total cost was a little lower than it might be for someone else.

2 lbs of chicken thighs - $5.50
1 cup of heavy cream - $1.50
2 Tbs of yogurt - $0.50 (2 cup tub of greek yogurt was $2.49)
ginger - $0.50
1/2 cup of onion - $0.40 (whole onion $0.80)
Butter - $1.00 -(two sticks $3.00)
Diced tomatoes - $1.00 (2 cup can ~$3.00)
2 cup of dry Basmati rice - $2.00 (2 lb bag $5.00)

Total cost - $12.40 for 6 people...not bad. Salt, bay leaves and premixed spices would cost another $10 in total. The amount used in this recipe is about $1's worth.

Most importantly, a Taj Mahal will run about $4. A double Taj Mahal beer will cost about $7 in a grocery store.