How I got Amazon Prime almost for free

Last summer, my appetite for quantifying my finances intersected with my food-procurement habits to yield a math exercise: How much of my Amazon Prime membership was I chipping away with these discounts at Whole Foods?

The Seattle retail leviathan’s 2017 purchase of the Austin-based grocery chain consolidated a large portion of my annual consumer spend at one company. It also gave me a new set of benefits for the Amazon Prime membership my wife and I have had since 2011: an extra 10% off sale items except beer and wine, plus some Prime-only deals.

(Personal-finance FYI: Amazon also touts getting 5% cash back at Whole Foods on its credit card, but the American Express Blue Cash Preferred offers 6% back on all grocery stores. That higher rate combined with Amex Offers for rebates at designated merchants easily erases the card’s $95 annual fee and returns more money than I’d get from Amazon’s card.)

So on my way out of Whole Foods, I created a new Google Docs spreadsheet on my phone and jotted down the Prime savings called out on my receipt. Then I did the same thing after subsequent visits. If Whole Foods and Amazon were going to track my shopping habits (which I assume they could from seeing the same credit card even if I didn’t scan in the QR code in the Amazon app at the checkout), I ought to do likewise.

Aside from $10-and-change savings during last July’s Prime Day promotion and again on roses for Valentine’s Day, most of these 41 transactions yielded $4 or less in Prime discounts. But after a year, they added up to $118.14, just 86 cents less than the $119 Prime annual fee.

To answer the obvious question: No, I did not step up my Whole Foods visits because of this tie-in. That place does happen to be the closest almost-full-spectrum grocery store to my home, but there’s a Trader Joe’s barely further away that trades a smaller selection for cheaper pricing on staples like milk and flour. And thanks to this dorky habit of mine, I can tell that I’ve shifted more of my business from WF to TJ’s the past few months.

Home cooking when you don’t leave home

When I used to say “I love to cook,” I was saying that with the understanding that I’d only be cooking half the dinners in the week. Work events and social outings would have me out of the house most of the rest of the time, so I would never feel stuck in a rut.

Well, I’ve now gone three and a half months in which I’ve had every single dinner at home. And while we have treated ourselves to takeout or delivery once a week or so, I’ve cooked most of the other dinners.

What have I learned, aside from profound respect for my mom who did that work for far longer and for a larger family?

The importance of leftover-friendly recipes–soups, stews, chili, stir-fries, risotto, quesadillas–is even more obvious. But cooking a main course that can become a side (risotto, again) helps a lot, and so does making sides that I can use up later on.

It’s also important to have one extra-easy-but-still-homemade option, which for somebody of Italian ancestry like me means pasta. This time of year, that becomes a canvas for whatever herbs I can grab out of the garden and throw into a garlic and olive oil sauce.

But the one thing I didn’t quite expect was how much I would still want to try something more challenging once a week–in terms of ingredients I haven’t used, a cooking technique that’s new to me, or a particularly challenging set of directions. So I’ve tried my hand at deep-dish pizza, hollandaise sauce, and chicken parmesan, among other recipes from which I’d shied away in the Before Times.

And I still look forward to that challenge, which suggests I’m not burned out on home cooking. That would be good, because a return to my old lifestyle seems farther off than it did three and a half months ago.

After the jump: Some recipes from the Post’s Food section that I’ve found particularly useful since March.

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A new bread-baking hack: tangzhong

I’ve been baking sandwich bread about every week since 2004, and two weeks ago I learned that I’d been missing out on a fairly simple technique to make softer loaves that stay fresh longer.

It’s called tangzhong, and I learned about it from a tweet from science journalist Erin Biba. I read the introduction she shared from King Arthur Flour’s blog, then that blog’s explanation of how to work this into a standard sandwich-bread recipe.

“Tangzhong” is either Chinese for “soup starter” or “flour roux,” depending on where you read, and it’s a way to incorporate more water into bread dough without it evaporating and making the bread stale as fast as usual. You do that by cooking a small amount of flour and water in a pan until they form a slurry–as if you were making roux for homemade mac and cheese–that locks in the moisture, Then you combine this with  the rest of your flour mixture before adding your yeast mixture and proceeding as usual.

The King Arthur directions started simple: 3 tablespoons flour and half a cup of water in a pan over medium heat until the mixture thickens. But then math intruded, in the form of calculations to determine how much water to add to the rest of the recipe to ensure that the water added up to 75 percent of the weight of the flour.

The first try, I spent so much time weighing ingredients–a somewhat irritating step when you’re putting flour and then water on a scale in measuring cups already labeled to tell you how much of something they contain–that I forgot to add the weight of that initial half cup of water back in and instead poured in almost a quarter of a cup more water into my yeast-and-water mix. The result was an unmanageably soupy dough that I couldn’t work with until I’d added maybe another half cup of flour above the 3 1/2 cups in my standard recipe.

That left me with more risen dough than I’d need for one loaf, so I broke off a bit and formed that into hot dog rolls and hamburger buns. All were delicious, if done at least half an hour behind schedule. The bread was notably softer and fluffier–more like the pre-packaged sort I renounced buying 15 years ago when I was just embarking on baking hipsterdom–and kept fresh longer, freeing me from wanting to relegate the last couple of slices to toast or a grilled-cheese sandwich.

The second try, I decided to wing it a little and not add any water beyond the half cup in the tangzhong and the 1 1/4 cup in which I normally pour yeast and honey to start. I also saved myself some complexity by putting all of the flour in the stand mixer’s bowl, then taking out 3 tablespoons for the tangzhong. But once again, I still had dough too damp to work, so I added a little more flour and once again got some bonus rolls.

On the third try, I used only 1 3/4 cup of water to start the yeast, leaving me with 1 1/2 1 1/4 cups of water in the total recipe. As in, close enough to not too far below the proportions the King Arthur recipe had specified, if only I’d paid more attention the first time, but also the same amount of total water as in my usual bread-baking practice.

On this iteration, the dough came away from the sides (if not the bottom) of our stand mixer like usual, and the finished loaf was fantastic like the others. As I write this, I am already looking forward to tomorrow’s sandwich for lunch.

Updated 5/16 to correct totals for the third iteration.

The quesadilla assembly line

I’m in the middle of my longest stretch of home cooking in years, so I’m falling back on one of the recipes I always make before heading out of town for work.

Quesadillas check off several critical requirements in family cuisine: cheap ingredients, simple to prepare, most picky-eating kids will eat them, most grownups like them too, easily reheated, freezer-tolerant.

I won’t call this recipe authentic; I can’t object if you label it cultural appropriation, given my absence of Latino heritage. It is, however, an affordable and low-stress way to put together dinner for multiple nights. So I hope this helps some of you trying to avoid total dependence on takeout and delivery.

  • 1/3 onion
  • 1/2 bell pepper
  • 2 tbsp. cooking oil
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. cumin
  • 1/4 tsp. chili powder
  • 1 15-oz. can black beans
  • 1 ripened avocado
  • 1/2 lb. Monterey jack cheese
  • 10 8-in. flour tortillas

Dice onion and bell pepper. Warm 1 tablespoon oil in a pan over medium heat, then sauté the vegetables until softened while adding the salt, cumin and chili powder.

Slice the avocado in half and remove the pit, drain and rinse the black beans, and divide the cheese into 10 portions. Place a nonstick pan or griddle on the stovetop over no more than medium heat.

Put a drop of vegetable oil on aluminum foil or another clean and washable or disposable surface and swab it with one side of a tortilla. Take one heaping tablespoon of avocado and mash it on half of the other side of the tortilla. Add a dangerously-heaping tablespoon of black beans atop the avocado, then a tenth of the sauteed veggies. Dice one of the one-tenth portions of the cheese and scatter that over the other fillings.

(This is also your opportunity to add any other random ingredients that could suit this context: a tomato diced up, leftover BBQ, chopped spinach or arugula from the garden or remaining from a grocery-store purchase, diced cilantro, etc.)

Fold the quesadilla over into a semicircle, then cook it on the pan or griddle until browned on each side while frequently pressing down on it with a spatula to ensure the ingredients meld. You should be able to do at least two at once, but move them often to avoid them lingering on any cool spots in the pan or griddle.

Serve as is or with salsa or sour cream. Try to save some of the batch for leftovers.

Housework when nobody leaves the house: The dishes are never done

We’re now wrapping up two weeks of staying at home together as a family. It feels more like a month, and I mostly blame the dishwasher for that.

I’m no stranger to housework after almost nine years of working from home full-time. But having everybody else in the family cooped up at home to avoid the coronavirus is a different thing. The biggest surprise, as I suppose many of you have been learning, is how often you run the dishes when everybody eats every meal at home.

For the three of us, that’s at least nine sets of utensils, glasses and plates or bowls each day. Running the dishwasher that we’d idly thought of replacing because of how long it takes has become an every-three-days proposition at best. And now I really hope this appliance that conveyed with the house almost 16 years ago does not pick this season to break on us.

Laundry, meanwhile, has become surprisingly easier. Why? When I rarely leave the house and never do so to meet anybody for professional reasons, I might as well wear the same pair of pants at least twice before washing them. I’m also finding myself okay with getting two days out of a shirt while the temperatures stay below the 70s.

And as long as I don’t work too hard gardening during what are supposed to be brief breaks from work. Fortunately or unfortunately, my seasonal outdoor distraction from my occupation is even stronger this spring. Because removing some plants and moving others around to make our house look better seems like one of the few things I can control in my life right now. 

2019 gardening report card: the persistence of parsley

Winter has yet to bring more than decorative amounts of snow to the D.C. area, but it’s already inflicted enough hard frosts to put a period on my kitchen-gardening efforts. So it’s once again time to evaluate how my attempts to grown my own food have worked out.

(For reference: my 2018, 201720162015201420132012 and 2011 gardening grades.)

Arugula: A

This most reliable vegetable once again came through with spring and fall crops, although the latter didn’t measure up to the former. As I’ve written in earlier posts here: This is what you should try to grow before lettuce or spinach–the most fault-tolerant vegetable outside of parsley.

Parsley harvestHerbs: A-

So about that: Flat-leaf parsley remains my flagship herb, yielding so much in the spring and fall that I was able to make repeated batches of parsley-walnut pesto. Sage came in second, even before getting extra credit for flourishing in a garden bed I basically ignored after half of the wood framing was well into rotting apart.

The other herbs I attempted to cultivate, however, dragged down this category score. Basil did better than last year, in that I got one great batch of pesto sauce out of it, but it would have lasted longer had I put in more effort. Mint was fine and dill grew adequately, but everything else evaporated.

Lettuce: B

Even getting two months’ worth of lettuce from one packet of seeds beats buying the same amount in a grocery store or at a farmers’ market.

Spinach: B-

This was great in the spring, but my attempt at a fall crop petered out before I could pluck any leaves to throw in a sandwich or an omelette.

Tomatoes: F

The plants I bought got as far as flowering but never showed a single tomato. You can imagine my frustration as a native New Jerseyan, especially after last year’s moderately impressive harvest.

Green beans: F

I planted seeds that yielded nothing in the neglected garden bed that I should rebuild in the spring. At least I tried, which I can’t say for cucumbers or bell peppers.

 

Is it even Thanksgiving if you don’t travel?

For the first time more than three decades, I didn’t have to travel anywhere for Thanksgiving–my brother and his family and my mom came to our house this year. So what did I do with all the time I didn’t have to spend traveling up and down the Northeast Corridor?

I worked until about 5 p.m. Wednesday. Of course that was going to happen. And then I got dinner on the table stupidly late because I thought I’d try a new Instant Pot recipe that wound up introducing me to that device’s dreaded “burn” error condition.

Fortunately, the really important dinner came together fine Thursday, with an enormous amount of help from my extended family. With my sister in law taking charge of the turkey, I didn’t have that much more work to do than I would have in an away-from-home Thanksgiving. My two Thanksgiving standbys, almost-no-work bread and pumpkin pie, were outright easier because I didn’t have to think about where to find utensils and ingredients.

In the bargain, we finally got to break out the good china (after washing it to remove years of accumulated dust), and now we have all the leftovers. I am thankful for that.

But the downside of having people come to you for Thanksgiving is that they’re spending their own money, miles or points to travel and may decide to compromise their schedule to reduce that hit. For my brother and his family and my mom, that meant flying here Tuesday and going home today. So after three days of having five extra people bouncing around our house, the place now feels too empty and too quiet.

An easy fix for being overrun by parsley: parsley-walnut pesto

This is the time of the year that makes gardening look easy, which also means I have a serious surplus-parsley problem. The plants that had shriveled down to nothing over winter are now straining against the netting covered the raised bed in which they grow, and if I only use parsley as a garnish I’ll never get through more than a tiny fraction of this edible foliage.

You can attack this scenario by making tabbouleh–I’m partial to the NYT’s recipe for Lebanese tabbouleh–but you’ll spend an inordinate amount of time finely chopping parsley and other veggies. And then the results only last a few days in the fridge.

Instead, my go-to recipe is a simple one for parsley and walnut pesto that a farmers-market vendor handed out years ago, which itself was cribbed from a 2008 issue of Cooking Light magazine.

(Note that I’m only talking Italian flat-leaf parsley here. If you somehow talked yourself into growing that much curly parsley, you’re on your own.)

Parsley and walnut pesto

  • 3 cups fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves (about 2.5 ozs.)
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts, toasted
  • 3 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Combine everything in a food processor, then process until smooth.

You can use the results as you would basil pesto–so not just as a pasta sauce, but as a dressing or condiment for just about anything else. But parsley-walnut pesto has a fridge half-life measured in days instead of the hours of basil pesto. And it freezes exceptionally well, so you can continue enjoying it months later.

And that’s definitely something I’ll be reminding myself of should this year’s basil crop prove as disappointing as last year’s.

We finally got an Amazon Echo

More than four years after I first tried out an Amazon Echo, there’s now one in our house. Even by my late-adopter habits, that’s an exceptionally long time for us to pick up on a tech trend.

But waiting so many years did allow us to get an Echo at a good price: $0.00. Late last year, Verizon added a free Echo to its menu of promotions to new and renewing Fios subscribers, and the company (also the parent firm of my client Yahoo Finance) included us in this offer even though we only pay it for Internet access.

(Even weirder, this free Echo came on top of being offered a lower rate for a faster connection. I guess I should see that as belated compensation for us missing out on other new-customer incentives Verizon’s offered since our fiber-optic connection went live nine years ago today.)

We got the code to redeem for a free second-generation Echo a couple of weeks after our speed upgrade went through, I waited a week to cash it in, and our new voice-controlled gadget arrived Friday. I promptly found a spot for this cybernetic cylinder in our kitchen.

So far, I’ve set up our Echo with only a few skills: it can play Pandora Internet radio, read the news from WAMU and can control our Philips Hue lightbulbs. (The Echo’s role as a smart-home hub is the use case that I utterly ignored in the first-look post I wrote for Yahoo Tech.) I’ve already determined that the Alexa app does not make for a great grocery-list manager, so I’m now going to see if Todoist can better handle that role. And I’ve changed one setting from the default: Because we have an eight-year-old at home, purchasing by voice is off.

There’s a lot to learn, but at least I’m no longer quite so illiterate at such a major tech platform. I just hope I can keep up with our kid, who already talks to Alexa far more than my wife and I combined.

2018 gardening report card: tomatoes! (And rain and rabbits)

After years of complaining that my kitchen-gardening efforts were thwarted by drought, I realized that the opposite scenario can be bad too. D.C.’s rainiest year ever saw much of my attempt at a fall crop go to a watery grave when lettuce, spinach and various herb seedlings couldn’t withstand repeated downpours.

After the weather, the local wildlife was my biggest obstacle this year. The rabbits that scamper throughout our neighborhood may amuse our daughter, but they also found yet another way to get through the netting I’d stretched over a raised bed and devour all the lettuce and green beans in sight. To add to the indignity, one wall of that raised bed then fell apart from rot.

(For reference: my 201720162015, 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011 gardening grades.)

Arugula after rainArugula: A+

If you only try to grow one vegetable, make it this one. Arugula grows prolifically in the spring and fall–the photo at right dates to only last week–it’s great in a salad or on a sandwich, and unlike lettuce you can use it in risotto or an omelette.

Herbs: A

This grade is inflated by how well sage, parsley, and (after a slow start) mint did. Basil, however, was nowhere near as prolific as it was last year, and cilantro underperformed by an even larger margin. Mint, rosemary, dill and oregano did okay, while thyme had no time for me.

Tomatoes in cageTomatoes: B

After years of frustration, I finally got a respectable tomato crop. Lesson learned: There’s no such thing as overengineering your attempts to keep squirrels away from tomato plants. Another lesson learned: There is no tomato more delicious than the one you pluck on a summer afternoon and slice up, still warm from the sun.

Lettuce: B-

A solid spring was not matched by any fall crop, thanks to the aforementioned precipitation.

Spinach: B-

Same problem here. Which is too bad, considering how last year’s spinach survived throughout the winter.

Green beans: D

I thought these were off to a good start, and then those rascally rabbits made short work of them all.

Cucumbers: F

The seeds I planted did not appear to survive contact with dirt. To be fair, I think the seeds were from last year.

Bell peppers: F

These, too, failed to sprout, extending my streak of futility at trying to coax a crop of these out of my garden.