Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Trim The Fat Tuesday: The Health Insurance

One of the other perks of Kirk's new job is that it forced us to go back to the drawing board and re-research our health insurance options. Not gonna lie, that's a ginormous pain in the ass. Despite how irritating it is to try to compare plans and change insurers, we were able to

Comparison shop our employer-sponsored health insurance plans for the best deal.

This all seems like a no-brainer, but the (admittedly extreme) hassle factor meant that, whenever possible, we ignored open enrollment and stuck with our current insurance plan, without really checking out the competition. It also didn't help that open enrollment at my job is in May, while Kirk's is in November or December--that made it hard to remember to do an apples-to-apple comparison of all our options.

And, I know, we are very lucky to have so many choices.

We were prompted to shop around when we found out that the health insurance at Kirk's new job was nearly twice as expensive as his old plan. And you know what we discovered? That the plan from my employer is cheaper than all of them.


Of course, my plans are extra complicated, as they are overseen by the Group Insurance Commission for Massachusetts public employees. You have to cross-reference where you live with the doctors and hospitals you want, then check their ratings to figure out your copay, and blah blah blah. Yeah, it takes some serious Google commitment time to sort out, but was totally worth it.

So, I'm feeling like a dope for not switching it sooner. Still, now we know that it pays off to make a scan of all of our options during open enrollment, just to double-check that we are getting the best deal.

The numbers are as follows. Our old insurance cost $260 a month for health and dental, and our new insurance is just $186 per month. That's a big difference!

Pro tip: our best deal came by using my health coverage but using Kirk's dental. Don't forget that you can mix and match with your spouse!

Savings per month: $74

Total Savings for September: $1571.50 (this month's savings plus the savings already in place from previous months!)

Total Savings in 2014: $6123.50

Monday, September 29, 2014

Homemade Ketchup

I know I won't feel this way in February, but I have to admit: a teensy part of me is looking forward to frost.

You know, the part of me that is tired of picking tomatoes. The part of me that doesn't really need more than 36 quarts of tomato sauce put up for winter. The part of me that just can not chop any more salsa ingredients. 

The part of me that is sick to death of fruit flies hovering around all those tomatoes.

I know, I know. I'll miss them when they're gone (the tomatoes, not the fruit flies--they can go to hell). It's a long winter without fresh tomatoes, and by May I'll deeply regret having maligned their abundance in this post. 

But for now, what to do? There are just SO MANY. 

Enter ketchup.

We've been looking for something else to make, now that we are fully stocked with salsa, pasta sauce, ratatouille, jam, and soup. We first thought of giving ketchup a try last year, but it only occurred to us after frost killed the tomatoes for the season. We've had a while to think about it, and decided to go with The River Cottage recipe for ketchup. And I have to say, it's a good one. Definitely check it out for specifics on the ingredients.

Making ketchup is almost just like making tomato sauce, but you do the steps out of order. You start by rough chopping tomatoes, onions, and red bell pepper and cooking them all together in a big pot: 


I think cooking them together helps bring out the flavors differently than if we just started with tomato puree and added the rest of the ingredients. Like Indian food, the long, slow cook is important.

Once it's cooked and it's all very soft, run it through the food mill to remove seeds and skins and solid bits: 


You could always press it through a sieve, but life is so much easier with a real food mill, I promise.

Back on the stove with the ketchup puree. We also poured back in some of the flavorful water we lost during the milling process. At this point you add cider vinegar and brown sugar:


You also use a bit of cheesecloth to make a spice bag, which is filled with cinnamon, mustard seed, cloves, allspice, mace, celery seed, black pepper, garlic, and bay:


We cut back on the cloves and sugar but and added a teensy extra bit of mace, and were quite happy with the end result. Add the spice bag to the pot, give it a stir, and simmer it until it boils down to a nice, thick, ketchup-y consistency:
 

It's never going to be as preternaturally smooth as Heinz, but the flavor is excellent. It's not quite as sweet, but is more complex, and it has a clearer tomato flavor. Once you like the consistency, ditch the spice bag and add paprika and salt to taste. We used a hefty double shot of paprika and a healthy pinch of salt. For a spicy ketchup, you could replace the paprika with cayenne.

Follow regular canning procedures and process in a hot water bath for 10 minutes:


We ended up with about a pint, but used tiny jars to store them, since it's a condiment. 

Of course we opened one right away and used it on our burgers last night. It's really good (id approved as well!), and it's one less thing we have to buy. Double score!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

A Seasonal Sunday Supper

September is the most beautiful month here in New England, and we had a stunning day today. In addition to puttering around the garden and taking care of some basic chores, we took time to climb up to the top of the Plum Island lighthouse. It's not always open to visitors, so we were happy to take advantage of this once-in-a-while view of the Merrimac making its way to the ocean:


Not only does September offer the best weather of the year, but it is also the month during which our garden is at its absolute peak of production. We still have all the fruits of high summer (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant), but we also have available just about anything we want from the fall garden as well (sweet potatoes, pumpkins, cabbage, kale). From now until frost (usually mid-October for us), we can have our pick of almost everything we grow. 

For example, tonight's supper is a combination of summer and fall produce on one plate:


We had very summery charcoal-grilled burgers with Rose tomato slices and brined pickles. The burger is also topped with some fall kale. On the side are sweet potato fries and a fall salad of spinach, apples, fennel, and radish slices. 

Also on the burger: homemade ketchup. More on that tomorrow, I promise.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Trim The Fat Tuesday: The Gas Budget

We are always looking for ways to use less gasoline in the cars. As far as I can tell, there are only two ways to accomplish that. You can drive more slowly, or you can drive less often. We've dabbled in each of those areas during the Trim the Fat Tuesday project, but now we're going all in on the driving-less-often concept. Starting this month, Kirk is going to

Walk to work instead of driving.

This has been made possible by his new job in town, which is just a five-minute walk around the corner. The hospital is just behind our back fence:


It turns out that you can now see our garden from space, so if you're looking carefully, you can see just how close we are to the hospital. So close, in fact, that it's not even worth taking the bike out of the garage to get there.

His old commute, on the other hand, was 22 miles each way, five days a week. In dollars and cents, that added up to about $160 per month in gas. Occasionally he would ride his bike as part of a triathlon training regimen, but it was never practical to try on a regular basis.

Now, though, we can bank all that extra gas money that we no longer need. And that's a big boost to our bottom line as well as to Kirk's quality of life quotient--commuting sucks!

Savings per month: $160